At The Noise of Battle

Sirat watched as Thennor haggled with the butcher.  “Sixteen fanad for four kilos of meat?”  The butcher nodded.

“What, will dewy-eyed maidens cook it for us?”  Thennor held their moneybeads.

“No, but I will, for a fanad more.”  An Emth merchant with heavy shoulders and back, the butcher wore a leather apron and a kilt. Meat lay on the merchant-wagon’s table in double gobbets. Above the table hung two gareep carcasses, plucked and gutted.

“Elephant-pig, you say?”

That’s too pale to be elephant-pig.  Or was it?  It was too big to be rabbit or woolbeast, and primates weren’t eaten, of course….

Sirat probably looked less than her thirty winters, her arms muscled from weapons practice, her light tunic and jerkin cool in the firstday.  Since Pendleton’s World has a day 140 hours long, folks worked, then slept, and spoke of firstday and secondday, firstnight and secondnight. It was twenty hours to the noon eclipse.  She wore linen breeches and moccasins of woolbeast-hide. Her crossbow was inside with the men, but she wore the saber beside her that was called Whiteflame. Around her neck on a chain was a little monocular, a magic seeing-thing that the wizard had given her.

“Aye, it’s elephant-pig, hauled here in the dawn.  Make you a good stew, she will. Better than when she was alive!”

Thennor’s eyes widened. “Alive?”

“Alive, the beast can’t cook at all!”  The butcher laughed. Sirat did not. She noted the scars on the man’s hands and arms and wondered if he had been a soldier before he took up cutting meat.  “Now, do you want four kilos, or five?”

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The Armor of Ned’Var

Steel sang as Ned’Var’s sword met his opponents. This young fighter’s first strike was the most basic of attacks, a vertical cut perpendicular to the ground. Ned’Var simply smiled and raised his sword above his head to block it.

He may not be a worthy addition, but I can wait no longer, Ned’Var thought as the rogue pushed back. He took a deep breath and relaxed his posture, awaiting his opponent’s next move.

By the young warrior’s drab brown and red colored clothing, grime-covered cheeks, and dulled blade, Ned’Var knew the boy to be a peasant without proper combat training, but with no markings of any sort, he could not tell the village he once hailed from. He had spotted the youth filling his flask by the river’s edge just outside of his camp. Ned’Var watched him carefully, keeping to the shadows of the forest and looking for any companions. Fortune smiled upon him for the boy was alone.

“What’s your name, boy?” he asked, daring not to deliver a fatal wound until learning it.

“My name is of no concern to you. And don’t call me, boy!”

The young warrior’s next move came, a thrust to the center of Ned’Var’s torso, with the boy lunging forward. Before the blade could spill his intestines, Ned’Var retaliated with a tight, downward swing. The sword blocked the attack and slid the boy’s blade past him. Ned’Var angled in and caught him square on the chin with a left hook. The two combatants stumbled to the right, both caught off balance by the blow.

They stumbled and caught themselves before falling over. With their footing recovered, they stood perpendicular to each other with their swords pointed upward.

“Why do you persist?” asked the boy. “I have no qualms with you.”

“Nor I with you. You simply happened upon the wrong man’s path.” Ned’Var swung his sword downward once more, aiming for his opponent’s right leg. “You should have kept to the road.”

The young warrior swung his sword to counter. He parried the sword away from his body, but Ned’Var quickly arced his blade back, cutting him across the abdomen. The finely sharpened steel sliced through the grunge covered linen and underlying flesh with ease. The skin folded outward as tubular intestines rose forth and spilled to the ground. The boy dropped to his knees, driving the tip of his sword into the rich soil on his way down.

Ned’Var shook his head. “Terrible shame.”

“Bastard,” the boy said, blood pooling in his mouth and spilling from his lips.

“Tell me your name.”

“Christoph,” he whispered, “from Woodkade. Now you know you’ve killed the wrong man.” His grip on his sword faltered and he fell face-first to the ground.

“Where you’re from is of no importance, but your name…that is power. Don’t worry, my boy, soon you’ll be an unstoppable warrior,” Ned’Var said.

He waited for a sign of movement, the tip of his sword hovering above the boy’s shoulder, but none came. He had to act quickly.

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95 South

Avery drove down the highway, his arm out the window and bouncing at the mercy of a seventy-five mile an hour wind. He’d survived the onslaught of twelve-hour days and long work-weekends that gathered until April 15th, when they disappeared as darkness does before the dawn. After the deadline, his office turned into a ghost town. Many of the CPAs took vacation, and Avery was no different. Halfway between Richmond and the North Carolina border, all he could think about was the next few days of drinking, eating, and relaxing at his friend Rick’s house. The dashboard clock ticked closer to midnight, and a classic Nineties rock tune strained the speakers.

He ripped his gaze from the hypnotic flash of the white stripes in the center of the road when a single light appeared, as if from a faraway distance, and quickly grew brighter. At first he thought it might be a plane, then a helicopter as it moved closer. And then the light fell from its perch and dropped down into the trees a few miles ahead. The sound of his tires hitting the rumble strips, matching the rushing of his heart, caused him to veer back on the road. Wide-eyed, he looked all around, expecting another car to smash into him, but he was alone.

He turned off the radio and flicked his eyes at the clock again. He decelerated but the ‘happy vacation’ cold six-pack and wine bottle on the passenger seat caught his attention. He hit the gas. Half a mile passed, Avery fidgeting the whole way. He looked at the clock again. “Ah, screw it,” he said.

Avery pulled over at his best guess of where the aircraft fell. He turned his hazards on and pulled out his cell as a truck barreled past. He put the phone down. How come no one else has stopped? he thought to himself. Someone had to have seen it.

He stepped out of his Benz and walked toward the edge of the grass. The full moon lit up a good portion of the periphery of the forest, enough to see thick, hanging branches flush with leaves, but any deeper and all he could see was darkness. No light from a potential fire. Then it dawned on him that he hadn’t heard a sound, either. He imagined the embarrassment of calling nine-one-one and having a cop come out and find nothing. “Been drinking, sir?” Damn it. I must be certain first. I know I saw something.

He returned to his car and pulled out a multi-tool specialty knife and a flashlight from his glove compartment. He had gotten great use out of the knife, one of the best birthday presents he had ever been given. He turned around and aimed for the trees, his car beeping twice as he locked it.

Branches, leaves, and twigs whipped at his lower legs. The crunch beneath his feet reminded him briefly of playing in numerous childhood tree houses. He looked back at his flashing hazards every ten seconds to keep a sense of direction, until the forest swallowed them up. He made a concerted effort not to veer off track, and took mental notes of specific root shapes to use as markers for his return. Just as fear began to spark terrible thoughts of getting lost, a light appeared ahead of him.

There we go! I knew I saw something, he thought.

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St. Sasha’s Locket

“Jewelia, you go in through the back. Krill thinks there may be an escape tunnel, so check that out first. We don’t want her slipping past us. I’ll go in through the front and make my way to the office. If we avoid the Saletins we’ll be out of here in fifteen minutes,” Darrion Artenan said. He looked pointedly at Jewelia. “No killing anyone this time.”

Darrion chambered a round in his weapon and then holstered it. He reminded me of a cowboy from one of the 20th Century American westerns I had seen on my commpad a few years ago. Except, instead of leather, he wore luminescent red Terelian Dragonhide. And, rather than a revolver, the gun he carried was a silver Colt Titanium Lazerline Pistol that gleamed in the light of Belloua 3’s sun.

“I can’t make any promises,” Jewelia said slinging her weapon of choice, a Molovian .223 Hellfire rifle, onto her back. The gun was huge, the end of the mussel hanging a foot from the ground on her six-foot frame. She checked the rest of her arsenal. Two pistols were strapped to the side of her thighs, a small curved dagger hung from her belt and two smaller knives were in each boot. She always came overdressed to every party, but I guess that should be expected of an ex-assassin.

The locket had disappeared three years earlier from the private collection of Sasha’s great-great-great grandniece. To her it was more than just a relic of a Saint, it was an heirloom of her family, of which she was the last survivor. The collection was being turned over to Fr. Konecsni at the Vatican Museum for safe keeping. Fr. K, as everyone called him, had turned to Darrion for help with getting the relic back.

Darrion’s crew was made up of himself and two others: Jewelia, the ex-assassin, and Krill, the cook, the mechanic and everything else. Then there was me, Lillyanne of Troppe Recovery. I have the gift of finding lost and stolen items, mostly lost keys. On occasion, Darrion would let me tag along on a mission to recover the relic I helped locate.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

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Salvation Inc

Father Eduardo Arroyo rose slowly and unsteadily to his feet. The short half hour of kneeling in prayerful adoration before his God severely stiffened the joints of the fifty-seven-year-old cleric. The priest winced at the pains which lanced through his thin legs. Father Arroyo resisted the temptation to lament over how much soft tissue, ligaments and tendons, he had lost to the plague eating away at him from the inside. Instead, the priest recalled Saint Paul’s words to the Colossians and made them his own as he took three faltering steps on numbed feet towards the Eucharist centered in the golden, sunburst-shaped monstrance. “I rejoice in my suffering for your sake, and in my flesh I fill up what is lacking in your afflictions, O Christ.”

With his hands placed on the chapel altar, Father Arroyo genuflected carefully. A fiery stab of pain shot through the bending knee.

“For you, my Lord,” the priest prayed, silently offering up his pains, joining them to the tortures suffered by his loving God.

A minute later, when the pangs subsided, Arroyo pulled the lunette out of the back of the monstrance. The small, silver, crescent held the Blessed Host firmly in a groove carved into its concave edge. The priest transferred it to the tabernacle and closed its’ doors. Arroyo then bowed, pushed the horn-rimmed glasses back up the aquiline nose which dominated his broad face and finally limped of the chapel.

The smell of roasting garlic greeted Arroyo in the hall. A heavier scent, oily and meaty, wafted through the air beneath it. His taste buds stirred to life as he made his way slowly down the long hall. With every step down the long corridor the sharp pains receded to a dull throbbing.

All three members of the parish staff were gathered in the kitchen. Johnny Chang, the priest’s deacon was sitting straight and upright at a round table centered in the room. The tall and lean-limbed young man was slicing up a small loaf of bread. Chang was the native New Yorker of the staff, baptized in the very Chinatown church where they all now served. Behind him were two nuns. Sister Josephina was a middle-aged Haitian, her dark and plump features were wrapped in the white habit of the Dominican Order. She was bent over the stove, fluffing up a pot of rice. To her left, Sister Angelica, a milk-pale and freckled young Iowan, habited in Benedictine black, was cutting up a head of lettuce on a counter beneath a bank of cupboards.

“Smells great in here,” Father Arroyo announced as he entered the kitchen.

“That would be the garlic-roasted pigeons, father,” Sister Josephina said as she slipped oven mitts over her hands. “They should be ready.”

“Good, because I’m famished enough to eat a whole flock of pigeons, sister.”

“That would be a kit of pigeons, father, not a flock of pigeons,” Sister Angelica corrected him.

“Are you certain, sister?”

“Fairly so, father.”

The priest shot his deacon a questioning look.

Johnny Chang shook his close-cropped head. “I wouldn’t challenge Our Lady of Trivial Pursuit if I were you, father. That’s never ended well for any of us.”

“No, it hasn’t,” Father Arroyo said, turning back to Sister Angelica. The Benedictine nun was grinning impishly as she divided the shredded romaine into four glass bowls. “Fine, I’m hungry enough to eat a whole kit of pigeons.”

“And I could eat the whole caboodle,” Sister Josephina added as she pulled the sizzling iron pan out of the oven. “But there were only four birds in this squadron. We’ll have to settle for one a piece, I’m afraid.”

“Bless you Sister Josephina,” Arroyo said. “You have saved me yet again from falling into the sin of gluttony.”

“Remember that next time you’re prescribing penance, father,” Sister Josephina said, placing the pan across two of the oven’s burners.

“It’s a deal, sister. Henceforth I shall insist self-flagellation be administered by nothing harsher than a wet noodle.”

“You’re too kind father.”

“Vocational hazard, my child,” Father Arroyo said taking a seat at the table. “So Johnny, how did your shift go?”

“It was quiet, father,” Johnny said, cutting the last slice. “Mr. Simmons and Mr. Highet have started coughing up blood, however. You might want to pay them a visit later tonight.”

Arroyo nodded somberly. “I’ll see them after dinner.”

The plague that was killing them and everyone on Manhattan was popularly referred to as the Mold because of the fibrous lesions it left in the wake of its passage through the body. The Mold spores initially nested themselves in the lungs before spreading throughout its host. While the steady erosion of tendons and ligaments was a constant and painful drain on the quality of life for the infected, it was the loss of the lungs that usually killed them off.

“And Mrs. Greeley, father,” Sister Angelica said while quartering a pair of tomatoes. “You should add her to tomorrow’s morning visits. That poor woman is suffering terribly. But oh my, she is so brave about it. I don’t think she has but a few days left in her.”

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