The Affairs of Terrence Greymourne

 

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Of Predator and Prey

     Bustling throngs of people clamored about. Steam, high-pitched whistles, and countless unknown faces were the everyday fair. Locomotives from every part of the continent arrived and departed. Felstone, Redgrave, Northwind, Helene, and so many more were accounted for in the Bloodgate City Station. Inside, tons of plates and iron piping engulfed the massive structure, a clear leaning to function over form. Under those iron archways, a thousand pair of feet dirtied the stone floors.

    Two men stood still and silent under the enormous entrance, staring into that infinite, moving, sea. The first was a mountain, a muscular frame covered by a thick, black, coat. His pale, corpse-like, face lay hidden by a pair of brass goggles and a wide brimmed top hat concealed a bald cranium. Dwarfed by the former, the second man appeared much less intimidating. Where the big man was pale the second was tan and comely, his black hair framing two blue eyes. Aside from the beautiful silver cane he held, his clothing was nondescript, a wine red coat and black trousers with red lining. The second man sighed, his sight blocked by numerous pedestrians. “Do you see anything? You’re standing a good two or three heads higher than most.”

    The large fellow shook his head with a grimace. “Not in this mess. We should have grabbed him in the square, probably half way to Felstone by now.”

    “You might be right Hawthorne. But something tells me we can still nab him.”

    Hawthorne’s face remained contorted in a scowl. “It would be wise to remember this Terrence. The boy might as well be guilty if Osgood Delling gets to him before us.”

    That notion brought a matching scowl to Terrence Greymourn’s face. A ranking member of the Order, the police army tasked with protecting Bloodgate’s citizens, had been hell bent on finding the same boy they sought. He prayed fate would be on his side, lest fortune would see fit to fill Osgood Delling’s bloodthirsty sense of justice. The crime had truly been horrific, but the boy’s parents had offered Terrence everything they had to get their child a fair chance. Still, all the while something seemed out of place.

    “How do you know the pup didn’t just sneak through the loading docks?” Hawthorne asked, his sight never leaving the crowd.

    Terrence leapt upon one of the many benches to get a better view. Like Hawthorn, his gaze still glued upon the people. “Delling’s boys have gotten the docks wrapped up tight. There’s no chance a green lad like ours will sneak past them. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time, not some prowler or night stalker.”

    “And what makes you think he’ll take the trams? There’s more than one way to leave this ill gotten city.”

    “Our catch is barely eighteen. I doubt he feels brave enough to venture into the wilds on foot. And I don’t believe he’s smart enough to head for the harbors. Airships are too luxurious for the pockets of a baker’s assistant, too secure as well.” Terrence shook head. “No, he’s just a boy, frightened and alone. This is the simplest route to take.”

    Hawthorne grunted, and slowly began moving into the crowd. “The simplest route for the simple minded. I just spotted him heading towards the ticket booths.”

    Amidst the stone and iron rails of the station, Hawthorne pushed aside the people like they were ragdolls. Some would begin to protest, until they saw who it was who shoved them aside. Those brave enough to stare the giant in the eye were the ones who seemed to emit the same strange aura as Hawthorne. They were the dwellers.

    Throughout the world, most of all in Bloodgate City, the dwellers were found. They were men and women with blood possessing an otherworldly property. Through that, these individuals were bestowed the forbidden gifts of the supernatural. Vampires, lycanthropes, undead, and other beyond explanation, were all connected by that taint and title. And it was a dweller that Terrence and Hawthorne were after.

    Though countless dwellers used their unique attributes to pursue ill gotten gains, many attempted to live amongst normal folk. Even some, like Hawthorne, went on to make the city a safer place. The rest lived and were allowed to live as ordinary, everyday citizens. Still, that ember of paranoia lay deep within the hearts of every human. In truth, few could not blame a man for distrusting the creatures that lived within the dark corners of their city. But from that ember, the fire of hatred often rose. Dwellers who tried to peacefully live amongst the people had plenty to be afraid of when hateful men like Osgood Delling went on a campaign against them. No, the boy on the run was not the danger, it was those after him.

    With a curse, Terrence watched the distance between him and the gingered headed boy widen. It had taken the two of them far too long to pass the massive archways of the station to the ticket booths. As predicted, Terrence caught sight of the boy walking passed the admission gates only to lose him amongst the crowd once again.

    Both Terrence and Hawthorne shoved their way to the front of the ticket booth their fugitive had used. A gangly man in a clerk’s uniform began to protest behind the safety of booth’s brass bars. “Sirs if you would step to the back of the line, we have quite a few people waiting.”

    With a quick glance behind, Terrence caught sight of dozens of angry, glaring, eyes. He dismissed them with a wave of his hand. “We haven’t the privilege to wait in line my good man.” Terrence said to the clerk. “Now not just a few moments ago you sold passage to a young man. I need to know where he’s heading.”

    “Well sirs I’m afraid I’ve helped quite a few young gentlemen.” The clerk answered in a sarcastic tone. “Now if you two would be so kind to move back.”

    Terrence’s face grew flush with anger before presenting something from his pockets. The document was small and tattered, but the red seal remained bold and evident. “Do you see this? Do you know what it means?”

    The smirk on the clerk’s ratty face melted. “Why that’s a free passage ticket! How in the world did someone like you come by one?”

    Now was Terrence’s turn to smile. “Friends in high places provide high favors. You know a common traveler wouldn’t carry something like this. Now my good fellow, if you would tell me what train my ginger boy is taking, we can be on our way.”

    “Sirs, I’m terribly sorry. Six other men passed before you two even got here. I paid no mind. There’s no way I can remember.”

    Silently, in front of the angry crowd, Terrence stepped aside. “Very well then.” He said softly. The teller shook his head. Finally he waved the next person in line to approach. Before the woman could say a word, Terrence’s hand shot out to stop her. “Oh, we’re not finished yet. We’re about to see if Hawthorne can’t jog your memory.”

    Before the clerk could protest, the woman yelped and jumped back. The people watched in fright as Hawthorne’s massive, gloved, hands constricted around the brass bars of the teller booth. Effortlessly, Hawthorne curved and bent the only things protecting the terrified little man. The shrill squeals of bending metal harmonized with the shrieks coming from the teller. In futility, the teller backed away from the opening, but not far enough he soon realized. Hawthorne remained emotionless while his hand clamped around the teller’s neck like a giant black spider.

    The teller squirmed and whimpered under the dweller’s unbreakable grip. Slowly, he was brought closer. “Please…” The teller managed to whisper.

    “Please?” Terrence repeated mockingly. “Are you trying to say; “Please let me tell you where the boy was headed”? Or maybe you’re trying to tell me; “Please accept this information as atonement for my impeding your way? I just can’t figure out which one you meant. Maybe if Hawthorne attempted to squeeze your head through that hole he made…”

    “Brightcliff! He’s headed for train 33 to Brightcliff! It, it takes off in 20 minutes! Please!” The ticket clerk sobbed while Hawthorne’s hand loosened around his scrawny neck.

    Terrence shook his head at the fear struck man, and the expanding yellow puddle he sat in. “Better not waste another moment.”

    The vast grey corridors were less crowded than the entrance of the station, leaving Terrence and Hawthorne ample room to maneuver around the train goers. Here was where people would locate the desired train by the number on their newly purchased ticket. In these spacious corridors Terrence prayed he’d reach the boy before the train took off. His pace quickened to a steady jog, with Hawthorne’s form close behind. “We better pick up the pace, only ten minutes until our boy’s off to be greeted by the Order’s Brightcliff division.” Terrence said over his shoulder to the dweller.

    “You’ve gone far enough Greymourne!” A voice from nowhere shouted.

    Terrence stopped so suddenly he felt the heavy mass that was Hawthorne crash into him from behind. From a side hall, used primarily by the rail station’s laborers, five men revealed themselves.

    They ranged from short to tall enough to stare Hawthorne dead in the eye. A couple of them possessed thick bushy beards while a pair of handle barred whiskers covered one man’s upper jaw. Their attire was unremarkable, and though each man was as different as night and day all five wore a similar heavy, long, jacket. Underneath those long coats a heavy leather belt hung on each of man’s hip, along with a saber and pistol and a small silver badge. Terrence had to give Delling credit, he didn’t expect patrolman to be set out in every day garb. No uniforms meant no one would pay them any mind.

    “So I take it Delling was too busy to see me himself?” Terrence asked the Order patrolman at the head of the pack, no doubt the leader by his mannerisms.

    The mustachioed man spat and stared back hatefully. “Old Osgood’s took a special train to meet wit’ the heads of Brightcliff. Told us it was our job to make sure you wouldn’t get in the way of his investigation. Lucky us, we’ve been waiting here all day, about to call it quits as a matter of fact.”

    “An admission of laziness? “ Terrence asked with a chuckle. “Well I suppose that’s the first step to improving things with the Order. But really Hawthorne and I do have a train to catch and haven’t the time to pummel you lot.”

    “That’s it!” A patrolman from the rear cried. With a hiss of steel and leather, a blade was drawn. “I’ve had it with this dandy and that rotten sack of meat that follows him around.”

    “Don’t worry ‘bout that one.” The leader said to Terrence. “Waited in that stuffy hallway too long for you, they did. Waiting too long makes the boys restless.” Just then the dull gleam of steel shined in the hand of each soldier. “That’s why I’m not too concerned if you want to do things the hard way.”

    Strength in numbers had made Delling’s lapdogs foolishly confident. But Terrence knew their advantage was not in greater numbers, but in the authority they commanded. With a flick of his wrist and a flex of Hawthorne’s muscle, Terrence knew all five of those footmen could be eliminated. But drawing his weapons and using deadly force on a man of the law was what Osgood Delling would want. Fighting them would mean getting thrown in behind bars, injuring or even killing one would mean worse. Terrence had to act quickly, and rationally. Without a second’s notice he jumped to Hawthorne’s side and in a shrill, fear struck, tone he screamed at the top of his lungs. “Weapon! That man has a weapon!”

    Passengers and workers alike stopped and stared at the scene, ensuring panic to ensue. Ignoring the unimportant badges on their belts, not a single person took the five men for officers. Terrence smiled at the man with the mustache; both knew what was going to happen next. The other patrolmen were caught dumbstruck, suddenly one of them found himself being dragged down by two burly loaders. “What the devil are you fools doing?” He cried before taking a meaty fist to the face.

    “Stop all of you! Can’t you see that we’re the law here?” The mustachioed leader pleaded to the workers. Three more men emerged to wrestle down another patrolman, punching him and knocking the weapon out his hand. The remaining two dropped their blades, obviously aware of the repercussion of injuring a civilian, and attempted to help their comrades. The mustachioed officer cried out one more time but no words left his lips. Instead he grunted at the impact of Terrence’s fist smashing into the side of his face.

    All five were laid out on the dirty ground, unconscious or held down, awaiting “proper authorities”. Terrence wanted to enjoy the irony of the mess he made, but he knew they had wasted enough time. Like some cacophonous symphony, ear piercing whistles howled from the locomotives.

    Terrence and Hawthorne soared past the mob onwards towards their train. “There it is!” He panted. But they were too late. Slowly, but gaining momentum, the train began to steam away, like some massive, iron, serpent. Indeed the vessel had been gargantuan, like all of Bloodgate’s locomotives. Instinctively, the two of them leapt off the platform and onto the tracks. Terrence’s legs burned, still he chased on. With the observation car just a scant few feet away, he summoned his last bit of strength and jumped.

    Years of disciplined training had gifted Terrence with an acrobat’s balance and the reflexes of a cat burglar. But the sprint had exhausted him and strained his muscles, causing the jump to fall short of the car’s viewing deck.

    “Damn!” Terrence cursed watching his toes barely miss the porch. Though, instead of falling face first onto the metal tracks, a familiar spider–like hand shot out to grab him by the scruff.

    “Getting out of practice?” Hawthorne asked while helping Terrence onto the deck.

    “We’ll have to frog hop onto trains more often then.” Terrence panted on his knees and that silver cane clutched tightly in hand. At last Terrence was up, his breath regained. The two of them turned to their attention to the car door, locked from the inside. “Hawthorne if you would be so kind.” Silent as a statue, the ghoul clasped onto the knob, and with one solid twist, wrenched the door open.

    Passengers screamed in terror inside of the lounge. Oblivious to the commotion, Terrence and Hawthorne strode passed the puddles of spilled tea and crushed pastries towards the other cars. With every cry of protest from an infuriated car attendant, Terrence would flash his free passage seal. “Missed our ride by a hair, we did.” He would say, walking further down the train.

    By the passenger quarters, Terrence stopped. The interior of the car they found themselves in was painted with gold and red decor, well kept and pristine and just a tad gaudy. “This is a little too fancy for a young man on the run.” Terrence muttered to himself while looking about. “He’s too impoverished to afford these kinds of lodgings.”

    “We’ll probably find him up with the penniless travelers and foreigners.” Hawthorne grunted.

    Where the sleeping cars for the wealthy were spacious and clean, Terrence found the other cars cramped. Luggage was crammed to bursting over the seats threatening to spill out at any moment. From corner to corner, people sat crammed against each other, sometimes two or three more than the seating accommodated. Terrence crinkled his nose at the stale stench of overcrowded people, still his eyes failed to find his quarry.

    Hawthorne looked about for moment before taking notice of Terrence’s frustration. “Only one more passenger car left. After that we’ll be scouring the storage cars and the kitchens.”

    Luckily such a chore would not come to pass. From a cornered seat a reddish mop of hair slumped against the train’s window. “It would appear luck has finally shifted into our favor.” Terrence smiled and turned to Hawthorne. “Make sure we have some room next to our young man.”

    Thomas Wilmot twisted and turned uncomfortably in his slumber. No the packed, reeking, accommodations he had hastily purchased were not at fault. The memories of recent events still fresh in mind were what kept the young man from a true moment’s rest.

    The day of Thomas’ eighteenth birthday had been fantastic. His father had given him the day off work at the bakery. His mother had prepared a feast of his favorite foods, and two of the best mates any boy could hope to had secured the best gift to end the night.

    Stanley and Jacob had always been by Thomas’ side since childhood, to share in laughter and punishment alike. The duo was quick to action when they realized their poor mate had never secured a woman’s affections before his eighteenth. They made sure that night would be something Thomas would never forget.

    “We’ve got the night off at the factory, so meet us by Jacob’s after you’ve had cake with your mummy. Then we’ll take you out for the real dessert.” Stanley said to him, that sly grin always on his face. Thomas was confused for a moment, until he noticed a pouch in his friend’s hand. “Don’t worry a lick, my treat and enough here for all three of us.” That grin just kept getting bigger.

    The night with his parents had sped by and was taken for granted. All those things his mother said about him being such a good boy and whatever his father said about being a hard worker, lost in Thomas’ ear. The only thoughts that pervaded his young mind were the antics that would take place later.

    At first Thomas thought to lie about where he was going. Instead, he gave his mother a vague excuse. Father, on the other hand, seemed to catch the underlying motive. “Go out and be safe boy, those two are always more trouble than there worth.” The burly man said, stroking his beard. “Aye, I remember my mates doing something like that for me.” He smiled unconsciously thinking of the past. “Just get home safe, and make sure your ma’s none the wiser.” He chuckled and slapped his son on the back.

    Everything else had been lost in a red haze of confusion. Thomas remembered them taking that walk to the Ruby District, where all the brothels and girls any man could want were found. He recalled Jacob mentioning a short cut and then seeing other faces, strangers. Even in that daze Thomas knew they were unknown to him. Afterwards, the only things remembered were the blood on his hands and the bodies of his best friends around him. Worse still the strangers had been found among the dead, shreds of a yellow scarf around the bodies like snow. Staring into those cold, dead, eyes, mouths locked in a permanent scream. That was what made the nights sleepless.

    If thinking things couldn’t get any worse, Thomas had been foolish. He thought he did the right thing to bring the authorities, to call the Order. But it had been their hands that placed the blame. Thomas had found his clothing in tatters, and a copper tasting substance in his mouth and mentioned seeing a pair of yellow eyes staring back in a pool of blood. That pea brain of his could not remember anymore, which made him the best suspect. It was not until later he saw the tears in his mother’s eyes and that look on the face of father’s he realized they kept something from him.

    Two nights after Thomas caught his parents talking to a strange fellow downstairs. Though from the stairway he didn’t catch a fair look at the bloke, he remembered seeing his mother using the best cups and tea set in the house. Obviously, whoever they were chatting with were of high esteem.

    “It just can’t be.” Thomas heard his mother sob. “There’s got to be something you can do that won’t get him hauled away. We’ve already talked with Osgood Delling.”

    Thomas’ father spoke solemnly. “Say’s we’ve got three days with Thomas before they toss him in one of those bleak cells I’ve heard about. Three days for the boy to say his farewells. That bastard acted like he granted us a mercy.”

    A moment of sipping tea did the stranger finally speak. “Actually three days is pretty generous for old Delling. I’ve seen the man shackle a dweller up and throw him in jail for months before they actually got around to inspecting the case.”

    That revelation only made mother sob louder and harder. “What are we to do!? Our Thomas wouldn’t hurt anyone like that, let alone his best friends.”

    “We’ve precious little time on our hands Mrs. Wilmot. Four men are dead, and by your son’s accounts to the Order, a fifth is missing. Whatever happens needs to be soon, that’s why I need to stay close to your child.”

    Thomas tried to remember what else they had discussed, but the steady rumbling of the locomotive opened his eyes. Across from his seat was not the fat man he chatted with prior, instead he found the mountain chest of a giant. “Strange, most people usually scream when the first thing they wake up to is Hawthorne.” A voice next to Thomas stated. Again a different man sat next to him, tanned, with long raven hair, and a lovely silver cane. It was that familiar walking stick that jogged his memory. “I know you.” Thomas said dryly. “You were there that night with my folks.”

    “You’ve a good memory for someone appearing so haggard.” Terrence smiled. Slowly he produced something from his jacket and handed it to Thomas. It was a flask. “It’s not poison I promise, though most skinchangers have a particular immunity to such things.”

    Thomas took a swig, swished it inside his mouth, and swallowed. “I didn’t know that. There’s a lot I don’t know about all this.” He took another sip. “Ma told that Delling fellow that her grandfather had the affliction, she called it an affliction, figured since it skipped her da’ and herself I’d be fine.”

    Terrence looked at the young man with the frown. “Affliction is a cruel term. A man can live a full life with what you’ve discovered, though you will have to drink a considerable bit more to feel the effects of liquor.”

    “Ha!” Thomas scoffed, his breath smelling of booze. “Can a dweller like me live a full life after ripping apart four people? God’s sake man! I’m lucky whoever the fifth was they made it out alive. And who says he’s alive? Maybe I ate him?”

    “Listen to me.” Leaning closer, Terrence caught the glimmer of fear bright in Thomas’ eyes. “There’s more to this situation than lets on. But I cannot expand on my theory if you plan to run off to the ends of the world.”

    “So, this is what it comes down too? My folks hire you and your goon to bring me back, maybe have those thugs in uniform go a little easier on me?” A crimson streak of anger flashed across Thomas’ face.

    A pain rose from the back of Terrence’s neck and to his skull. Things would not go smoothly as planned, he thought while rubbing his temples. “Thomas, I have a creeping suspicion that missing man might be able to clear things up for you. I just need you to help me identify him.”

    “And how are you to find him? I’m positive I’ve never met him, he was a complete stranger!”

    “You were in Ruby when all this went down boy. I’m sure there’s someone there who can help identify him.”

    The idea seemed to cool Thomas, that crimson flare of anger simmering. He swished the flask for moment then took another, larger, sip. Finally, after a moment of quiet thought Thomas motioned his would be captor closer. Terrence leaned in, waiting for an answer. Caught unawares, Thomas sprayed the brownish liquor square in the eyes of his target.

    Terrence reeled back with a hiss, eyes burning from his gift of friendship. Large as he was, Hawthorne rose with frightening speed. Reacting solely on instinct, Thomas ducked under those tree trunk arms, then back up to yank a briefcase from the overhead compartments. The downward torrent of bags and cases sent the massive ghoul back down onto his seat. Rum in the eyes and a heavy suitcase to the head would pose only a second’s distraction, all Thomas needed to bolt down the car and into the next one.

    “Last time I start off a conversation with a drink.” Terrence said rubbing his bloody red eyes. “Gah! It stings!”

    Hawthorne heaved the last bag off his torso and rose. “I’m glad it only takes you once to learn from your mistakes. Best to move though before he hops off this iron sausage.”

    “Doubt it, our boy is born and bred city folk, no way will he hop off this train.” Terrence staggered onto his feet, cane planted firmly for balance. “Did you see which way he went?”

    “I didn’t take notice after the fifth or sixth bag hit me. If you say he won’t jump then there’s only two ways to go.”

    Terrence sighed and looked at each direction. “Very well then, you head back towards the observation car and I’ll go to the damned luggage cars.”

    Air pumped in and out of Thomas’ chest like a steam engine. He knew only moments remained for him to duck out of sight. Even then, his pursuers would not rest until he was discovered. For a second, after sprinting through a fifth car, Thomas paused and contemplated jumping from the train. Only then to be food for the real wolves, he realized. A light tap on his shoulder sent Thomas spinning in a whirlwind of wide eyed panic.

    “My most gracious apologies sir. But do you have a ticket to be in here?” A young lady in a serving apron asked politely.

    Thomas stared at her mindlessly, taking moments to recollect his scattered thoughts. Tables lined the interior of the dining car, each one filled to top with expensive cuisine. About the car lavishly dressed socialites stared back at him with unease while nibbling on their sweet breads and crème puffs. He did his best to ignore them. “I’m sorry miss just passing through.” Thomas answered, trying to focus.

    The girl frowned with feigned sympathy and placed a hand on Thomas’ trembling arm. He could not remember when or why he started shaking. “No I am sorry.” She began. “But unless you have the proper ticket you must return to your seat. Any further back is the attendant’s quarters and luggage cars. If you’re hungry the boy with refreshments should be around to your car momentarily.”

    Sweat streaked down Thomas’ reddened face and his brain started to drum against the walls of his skull. A faint ringing began to whistle in his ears along with the far away noises of commotion. His pursuers had to be on their way. “Miss, just let me through, please!” Thomas persisted with a heavy breath. Suddenly, the walls slowly started to spin, as if the toll of everything began to weigh on his composure and sanity.

    Still, the attendant persisted. With her hand out, she started to lead him back the other way. “Sir, if you do not cooperate I’ll be forced to have someone escort you back to your seat.”

    “NO!” Thomas roared. A strength not known to him coursed from his chest into his arms. His hands clamped onto the girls arms so tightly she shrieked with pain. Like a child playing with a doll, Thomas sent her flying over one of the dessert tables. His eyes became bloodshot, staring at the crowd of panache, overindulgent, diners. Were they afraid of him? For some reason the young man couldn’t tell.

    “What the hell is all this?!” A big man in an engineer’s uniform bellowed as he emerged from the doors Thomas needed to pass. His eyes scanned about, then fell to Thomas. The big man puffed his chest and marched forward, fists balled and ready.

    Thomas heard a snarl, from where he couldn’t tell, and speared towards the man blocking his path. Things started to become a haze of red fury, still the fear on the fat man’s eyes were plain as day when he hit the floor. For moment, the desire to plunge his teeth into that round neck became too prevalent. But the thoughts of flight were stronger. With a leap, Thomas sprinted towards the storage cars, by some accounts, on all fours.

    A foul pool of vomit greeted Thomas when he came around. How long he had been in such a drunken stupor he couldn’t fathom. Like a lush kicked out of a tavern, Thomas staggered back onto his feet. Whatever vigor that mysteriously emerged before had disappeared. Every muscle in Thomas’ body pulsed in agony, and countless scratches and splinters covered his hands. From what he could tell in such poor lighting, he finally made it to one of the storage cars.

    Boxes and bags too large to bring onto the passenger cars were placed in a meticulous fashion. Many, if not all, had been brought aboard the train’s wealthier travelers. Propping himself against a large crate, Thomas began to catch his breath. If the man and ghoul were still on the hunt for him, no doubt they’d have been here by now.

    Alone in the dim lighting of the lamps a warm trickle began to run from Thomas’ cheek. Soon after another tear followed, then another. Whatever caused Thomas to start sobbing, he didn’t care. Thomas bawled like infant. All that trauma and tragedy that had been kept within for so long finally escaped. With a sniffle and a wheeze he finished, his mind back on remaining hidden. As Thomas began to slide down a sudden slam from the cars’ other door froze him still.

    With the other door torn open light burst forth filling middle of the car, leaving only the shadows cast by the baggage. Fear struck, Thomas held his breath and pressed his body tight against the crate, the only cover left for him. Aside from the steady rumble of the train on the tracks silence washed over that box of wood and steel. Finally, smashing through the uncomfortable silence a gruff, harsh, voice called to him. “You can stop hidin’.” The stranger said. “We can smell your fear sweat from here.”

    Thomas remained silent, confusion addling his brain. But a thick, familiar, musk entered his nostrils. Slowly, he detached himself from the crate and stepped to the center of the car. A normal boy would have attempted to remain silent and still as a corpse, but Thomas knew such action would prove pointless.

    Four men looked at Thomas with disdain and contempt, like four wolves staring down a lone mongrel. He felt naked, and more like a boy than ever in front of such brutish figures. They almost made that ghoul look less fearsome! Either around the waist or across his neck, each stranger wore a bright yellow cloth, drastically contrasting with their torn clothing and other feral garb. Three of the men were rough and weathered their faces pocked marked and hollow. But it was the man at the front that garnered all of Thomas’ attention.

    “I’ve, I’ve seen you somewhere before.” He said quietly.

    The man scratched the course black hair that covered his jaw to right under a hooked nose and laughed. “Might be that you have.” His speech drawled with a light accent from an unknown land. “Thought you forgot about me, but I remembered you. Oh, I remember you.” He slowly moved closer while the others remained by the door.

    Thomas didn’t care if the other two were still after him, he wanted to run back. But no matter how badly he willed it his legs were like stone. No matter how much Thomas wanted to avert his eyes, his sight was locked onto the stranger. Those pale yellow eyes stared at him like he was a wounded rabbit, prey on the verge of having its’ throat torn out. The big man closed in and Thomas closed his eyes and braced himself for the worst. “What’s this? Too scared to face what’s coming like man? Damn pup! Open those eyes!”

    Just then that familiar scent seeped back into Thomas’ nose once more, filling his brain like a fog. “I know you.” He said, opening his eyes. “It’s you, from the alley.”

    The impact from the other man’s fist sent Thomas onto his back, mouth filling with blood. Engulfed in agony and vision doubled. On his knees he took a second look at the bigger, fearsome, man. It was then Thomas remembered him. He remembered the alley and the strangers who emerged from the shadows. The sight of that hooked nose and those yellow eyes before things went red.

    “It…it was you…” Thomas managed.

    “And it was you who tore my two prospects to ribbons.”

    “An act that someone of your station couldn’t afford I’d wager.” A voice from behind Thomas said coolly. “I’d imagine it was almost too easy for you and your brothers to sneak aboard when half of Bloodgate was scouring the city for our poor lad.”

    Head spinning with pain, Thomas managed to twist his neck around to find the man who had taken the seat next to him. Unconcerned by the violent individuals who outnumbered him Terrence smiled and continued. “You see my dear Thomas; our friend here affiliates himself with a certain group of unsavory fellows. Within that loosely formed group of thieves, cut throats, rapists, and murderers, this gentleman is tasked with taking newly christened members out for their first kill. Well, first kill under the gang’s colors. That was where you and your mates had their chance meeting, wrong place at the wrong time. While your friends proved easy pickings they found you harder to bring down. They didn’t expect to scuffle with another dweller.”

    The gangster laughed raucously. “Hear that boys? It would appear that the renowned Terrence Greymourn knows quite bit about the Manglers and our rich history, a prospect who failed to earn his sash perhaps?”

    Smiling silently, Terrence moved closer to the gangster, his cane held in both hands. The mangler continued to guffaw, until catching sight of the silver walking stick. Cursing, he jumped back to his comrades.

    Thomas was dumbfounded by the thugs’ reaction, all that nonsense over nothing. He turned back to Terrence who slowly twisted the handle of his cane, revealing a faint, pale, light. Thomas only glimpsed at that tiny glow for a moment, but it was enough to make his head start spinning again.

    “I’d advise you to take your leave if you’re able to move.” Terrence said to Thomas, never taking his eyes off the cut throats.

    Words only slurred out of Thomas’ mouth in his dazed state. He could only stare at Terrence and the glow that came from his cane. With a swift motion of his arm, Terrence drew forth more of that pale light from the stick. Mustering all his strength, Thomas rose and hobbled behind Terrence back to the passenger car. Taking one last look he realized what had been in Terrence’s hand all that time, concealed within the confines of that cane, near thirty inches of eldritch steel waited for its’ moment to be drawn.

    Widening the distance between him and the swordstick, Thomas felt his faculties steadily return. With his pursuers a safe distance behind, he paused. No doubt whoever wins that tussle would begin their chase all over again. The already miniscule amount of safety the train provided was quickly dwindling. Resuming his escape, Thomas sprinted towards the observation car and to wherever the open world would take him.

    Amongst the passengers once again, Thomas slowed his pace as to not draw any attention. Not enough time had passed after assaulting that serving girl and battering a locomotive worker. The last thing he needed was to have the rest of the train on him. Steadily he passed the sleeping cars, trying to avoid eye contact with any attendants who passed. “Just makin’ my way back to my seat.” He would hastily say to anyone who would eye him with suspicion.

    The wilderness was an unpredictable and dangerous place. Animals, dwellers, and other nameless things prowled the dense woods that covered the landscape. But he knew at least those seeking to bring his head in for a bounty will have been eluded. With that and a small chance at survival he was confident of making it to the countryside.

    “Maybe I could find a nice bit of work out there.” Thomas mused to himself absently. “Maybe snag me a pretty farmer’s daughter.”

    “Don’t see why you’d have to go that far out for work. I know a nice little bakery needing an assistant about your age.” A deep voice rumbled in response. “Besides those farmer’s daughters are nothing but trouble and I’d say you already have plenty of that.”

    From the corner of the car a massive figure detached itself from the shadows. Frozen, Thomas gaped at the gargantuan sight of Hawthorne. How such a being could be so fearsomely large and remain so deathly silent, he couldn’t fathom. The giant stood motionless, between him and the observation car, and freedom.

    Long before Terrence decided to help the folk of his beloved city, the sword cane had been in Greymourn family hands for generations. Nightbane, that had been what his great grandfather called the weapon after noticing its strange ability to weaken dwellers just from gazing at the soft glow the blade emitted. Weaker or newly christened dwellers, like the unfortunate Thomas, were known to have been more susceptible to the effects. But the blade’s gifts did not end there, much to the disdain of those paranormal creatures prone to acts of wrongdoing. No matter what type of being, corporeal or otherwise, Nightbane’s slice could leave the most agonizing of wounds, the type which a dweller could not quickly heal or ignore.

    In that crate packed storage car the light from Nightbane illuminated the looks of worry on the faces of the manglers. Of the four only one seemed human, judging how he managed to resist any of the mystifying effects of Terrence’s blade. Still, the man stared back in a wary manner; a blade was still a blade after all. The other three reeked of sweat and two seemed barely able to stand straight. None of those were of much concern, but the last one, their leader was a different matter.

    “So let me ask you,” Terrence said, pointing Nightbane towards the gang leader. “Why put forth such an effort hunting our poor Thomas down? Wouldn’t things have been more convenient to have the Order pin the murders on him, Mr.?”

    “Call me Harowood.” In the dull glow of the light, a feral, yellow toothed, grin shined from the man’s mouth. “Would a matter of reputation be a bit out of character for the likes of me?”

    “Not as surprising as you’d think. I’m sure what little good you have to your name means quite a bit.”

    Harowood scowled. “Two prospects get torn to shreds by that pup, and before I can sink my teeth into him the crowd comes to see what all the noise is about. “ He voiced with an angry growl. “Who’s the one they blame? Me! I’m the one who can’t show his bloody face until I bring back that whelps head!”

    Veins pulsed and protruded from the dweller’s face and neck. Muscles began to bulge and tear through clothing while bones crunched and snapped giving Harowood an extra foot in height. While coarse black hair began to cover his exposed skin. Drool poured from his now massive jaw, exposing a row of canine fangs. A twisted smiled slowly appeared on Harowood’s lupine face. “Coming back with the boy’s head will redeem me in the eyes of my betters.” He slavered in a deep, inhuman, tone. “But coming back with yours will make me a legend!”

    With a roar from their leader the two other dwellers shifted into their own grotesque counter personas. Instead of hair, a series of bronze scales covered one mangler from his bald head down to his arms, ending in a series of long, thin, talons. The remaining one growled as his face shifted to that of a large hunting cat, hissing as his eyes glowed with emerald menace. Cautiously, the human gangster withdrew, leaving the work to his supernatural comrades.

    All three skinchangers launched forward, claws out, fangs gleaming. Though fearsome and thirsty for blood, the dwellers remained sluggish from Nightbane. Even moving slower than normal, their beastly momentum remained fearsome. At first all that training with his father seemed like a chore to Terrence, now dodging and rolling away from certain death, he was reminded to be grateful.

    Ducking between the legs and sliding behind the dwellers, Nightbane made her first strike. The blade hummed, slicing through the scales and tendons of the reptilian’s legs. A vile shriek burst from the creature’s maw before he folded to the floor.

    Either feeling the urge to avenge his comrade or the believing his opportunity had risen, the human gang member lunged at Terrence. The man’s curved dagger found only air while Terrence’s elbow found his nose. The mangler’s nose cracked sickeningly before Terrence finished him with a hard kick to the groin. In swift whirlwind, Terrence’s blade sliced in an arc, felling the cat man with a slash across the chest.

    Harowood’s fearsome stature did little to mask the trepidation in his own yellow eyes. His comrades fallen and alone, the wolf man fell back defensively. The look on Terrence Greymourn’s face was unreadable, emotionless. But Harowood felt an air of confidence surround his opponent. In truth, who wouldn’t? The human disposed of two dwellers not unfamiliar with the spoils that came from true combat.

    Still, Terrence made no move to attack. The smell of his own fear musk strong in the confines of the luggage car, Harowood did the same. Full of panic, the wolfman let loose a roar loud enough for the whole train to hear. “What are you waiting for!?” He bellowed.

    Terrence flashed a cocky smile at the dweller then gave his answer. “Deciding the best way to cut into that fur without killing you.”

    That was the reason! The human planned on taking him back to Bloodgate, to be the torture toy of Delling no doubt. Snarling with defiance, Harowood leapt passed his opponent and began his mad escape.

    Screams once more sang throughout the cars at the sight of the transformed mangler bursting from the baggage cars and through the rest of the train. An unfortunate servant found himself too slow to avoid the rushing beast. Harowood’s tree trunk arm swung out, sending the poor man headfirst into the side of the dining car.

    Yet again, Terrence’s cockiness had gotten the better of him. To gloat like that before the dweller was subdued proved foolish, giving him an idea of his fate had been stupid, and causing him to escape in such frenzy had been both. At an exhausting pace, he trailed after the mangy creature. With one direction run it did not seem difficult to stay close behind, until Harowood chose to forge his own path. Roaring, snarling and scaring off anyone stupid to stay in their seats, Harowood turned to the side of the car towards the seats and windows. Striking out with a monstrous rage, he dislodged the window, frame and all, from the train.

    Terrence Greymourne cursed as he witnessed Harowood rip through the train’s window. At the other end of the car he knew he couldn’t catch the mangler in time for him to jump. And once Harowood was off the train, so was Thomas Wilmot’s chance at freedom. But before the dweller made his leap a huge black mass burst forth and shot straight towards Harowood.

    Though monstrously large, Harowood was soon pinned down by the larger Hawthorne. “This cur’s all bark and none the bite.” The ghoul announced to Terrence in a monotone voice. Hawthorne began raining a series of punches from his giant fists down onto the mangler. In quick retaliation Harowood’s claws lashed out attempting to flay his assailant, but failing in the process. Still those granite-like hands of Hawthrone delivered blow after blow with the force to kill a normal man, with his otherworldly constitution Harowood only felt the pain.

    Staring down a pair of snapping jaws desperately attempting to rip flesh from bone, and still not a lick of fear was struck within Hawthorne. Even when Harowood wriggled a claw free from Hawthorne’s grasp and swiped his goggles from his face, including the skin from the lower half of his jaw, the ghoul remained apathetic. “That all you can muster?” Hawthorne asked, staring down at the werewolf with pale, milky, eyes before sending a bone crushing headbutt into the skinchanger’s skull. Harowood snarled a curse followed by a howl of pain at the feel of Hawthorne’s grip clamp around his claw and twist viciously.

    The pain must have sent a surge of adrenaline through the fugitive dweller’s body. Harowood’s yellow eyes widened and bulged from his furry head. Howling, he sent Hawthorne flying straight into Terrence.

    “Damn!” Terrence screamed seeing his comrade flying at him. Narrowly he ducked under the seats, avoiding the heavy ghoul. Shooting back up Terrence watched dismally as Harowood rose to his feet and ready to jump off the train.

    “Too scared to settle the score!?” A shrill, fear filled voice challenged from the other car.

    Harowood paused, bestial and feral he may have been, he still recognized when a challenge was made. The wolf man’s ears twitched and his long tongue tasted the air. He turned from the hole he made, Terrence and Hawthorne also forgotten from his mind. “I’ll return with your head still!” The dweller bellowed in an inhuman voice before sprinting into the other car.

    Thomas’ limbs ached as he desperately tried to pry himself out Hawthorne’s unbreakable grip. His attempt at ducking past the large ghoul and out of the observation car resulted in getting grabbed by both arms and slammed into the side of the car.

    “Let go!” The boy screamed in futility.

    The dweller’s face was unreadable, a mask of brass and dead flesh. A second later he grumbled in his deep rocky voice. “Now if I do that you might send another avalanche of luggage down my noggin.”

    Shaking his head, snot and tears sprayed from Thomas’ face. “I’m a dead man if I go back!”

    “Dead men like you and me have ample time to discuss matters.”

    “You can mock me all you want!” Thomas cried. “It’s not your neck that’s at risk of getting stretched out!”

    Hawthorne laughed at the boy dweller, revealing a sight possibly more frightening than the ghoul’s scowl, his smile. “Heh. Dwellers don’t hang, we get a special execution. Delling’s man takes a axe, blade made of blessed iron, and parts us from our head, feet, and hands.” He continued, talking through yellow and black teeth. “After, they sprinkle silver shavings on the minced bits then light us on fire using sanctified oils. Remains are monitored by sentries until the next sunrise to make sure the daylight takes care of us in case they didn’t. No, hangin’s too commonplace for the likes of us.”

    Mouth agape, Thomas was speechless. “So, there won’t be anything for my folks to bury?” He finally asked.

    “Buried? Boy, we don’t get buried. Delling has the ashes separated and then dumped out at different harbors. Makes damned sure our kind stays dead and separated.”

    “That’s what you want for me, is that it? Your man lied then, he said you were was trying to help me!”

    Hawthorne shook his head. “You ran, boy. Innocent men don’t run. Greymourne and I were prepared to help you and your folks. Did you know they offered us everything they had, including that bakery of theirs to see you brought home, alive and one piece?”

    “What?” A confused Thomas stammered. “But why? After all those things I heard them say to those officers. I figured they’d better off without a freak like me.”

    “You certainly are as thick headed as your folks made out. Tainted or no, you’re still their boy, and I’ve yet to see people like that send their kin over to the likes Delling, that’s a real monster.” Gradually and surprisingly Thomas felt the tight grip of Hawthorne’s loosening. “Besides out of everyone, that baker and his woman are the ones with the utmost faith that you’re not to blame in all this.”

    “But what do I, we, do now?” Thomas asked, rubbing the soreness out of his arms.

    “We find Terrence and sit back down on our behinds until we get to Brightcliff. If we’re lucky enough to stop somewhere in between we might try to find another way back to Bloodgate without meeting with the Order.”

    Terrence. Thomas remembered the man staring down those cutthroats dead in the eye without a hint of fear. He remembered he was alone back at that luggage car. “We’ve got to get back!” Thomas screamed.

    “Now you want to head back? Nothing more we can do ‘til this contraption stops.”

    “No! You don’t understand we’ve got to get back to the storage cars!” Before Thomas could mutter another word, a monstrous howl rattled every inch of the locomotive.

    A second howl followed not long after. “Luggage car you say? Guess Terrence found himself some stowaways.” Hawthorne turned. “By the sounds of it he bit off more than he can chew.” The dweller began his walk back towards the other end of the train, but paused. “Remember.” Hawthorne reminded Thomas before heading through the door. “Innocent men don’t run.”

    Thomas Wilmot did run though, first following close behind the ghoul to help the man willing to risk life and limb to prove his innocence. Now he ran once more, close on his heels the monster that devastated his life. The mangler had become the epitome of ferine rage, eyes gleaming with madness, slavering and hungry for blood. There had been enough distance separating the two of them. Thomas hoped it was an ample head start, but the gap was shortening. Even worse, Thomas’ plan began and ended with distracting Harowood and running away.

    “I’ll gnaw on those skinny bones of yours and take your head back if it’s the last thing I do!” Harowood declared, dashing past the remaining passengers and leaving them a frightened mess.

    Turning back, Thomas’ eyes bulged with terror at the sight of Harowood just a scant few feet away. In a brief moment everything seemed to slow down; the tray of spilled food causing Thomas to trip over himself, Harowood leaping onto Thomas with all his might, the boy’s hands rising up trying to stop those massive jaws from snapping between his neck.

    Bursting through the car’s destroyed entrance Terrence and Hawthorne froze at the sight. The boy had been foolish to help him, Terrence knew, and now the price had been paid. Even if they apprehended Harowood all of it would be for nothing with Thomas Wilmot dead. “It’s over.” Terrence muttered watching the mangler begin to sink his fangs in Thomas’ throat. “I failed him, and his parents.”

    “I wouldn’t count our luck out just yet.” Hawthorne pointed. “Get a look at that.”

    Awestruck, Terrence watched young Thomas’ hands. At first they proved useless, but suddenly those small hands found their grip growing stronger until finally able to tear free from Harowood’s lupine jaws. Harowood jumped back, snapping his injured maw in all directions. The dweller had not anticipated such a turn of events.

    Eyes shifting to a bloody red and growling rabidly, Thomas leapt back onto his feet and falling to a slouched pose. Any semblance of human comprehension disappeared from his face. The boy was gone and the beast had arrived.

    Thomas speared forward into Harowood with all his might. The mangler yelped in pain at the impact and was toppled. Now it had been young Thomas’ turn. A newly grown pair of claws emerged from the boy’s hands and begun slashing and scrapping at the Harowoods wolf shaped skull. Flesh and fur began to fly off of the gangster in the madness as a coarse reddish brown hair began to cover young Thomas. Though, not quite as large as Harowood the end result of the transformation left the boy a muscle laden beast in shredded clothes. Taking full advantage of his new form, Thomas applied all of his weight onto the prone mangler.

    One after the other, Thomas’ claws sunk deeper into Harowood’s unholy flesh. Bone and sinew revealed themselves on his face and a socket was missing an eye. The older wolfman struggled against the unbridled rage of the younger. Finally with one muscular arm, Harowood lashed out, clamping one claw against the pup’s throat. Drawing deeper from his reserves, the mangler slammed his assailant down across from him. Wasting no time, Harowood hoisted Thomas up once more, sending him back down and smashing a pair of passenger seats in the process. The battle had been brutal, but brief. The uncontrollable fury Thomas summoned had evaporated his shifted form along with it. Naked and unconscious, he was at the mercy of his victor.

    Harowood licked the rivers of blood streaming from his brutalized face. A smile, if such things could be identified as such, of satisfaction grew on his grotesque face. But that smile shifted and morphed into a look of anguish. Albeit half blinded by his fight, the sight of eldritch steel piercing through his shoulder had been plain and clear.

    “Careful now.” Terrence instructed from behind. “If you struggle too much I’ll be liable to do harm.” He accentuated his words with a twist of the wrist, causing Harowood to writhe in pain.

    Nightbane’s blow had been nonlethal, but the pain left Harowood wishing for death. The dweller sank to his knees and the wolfish visage he had used to cause so much mayhem melted from him like wax off from a candle leaving only the wounded man.

    “Now, I think you can behave yourself until we get to Brightcliff.” Terrence said, watching a naked Harowood slide off of his weapon, leaving a trail of black blood and dropping into a fetal position.

    Behind him, the giant Hawthorne carried Thomas’ incapacitated body, now covered by large sheet. “And to think I wasn’t expecting anything exciting to happen.” The big dweller grumbled

    The painful dim of sunlight slowly crept back into Thomas’ blackened vision. “Ohh..” He moaned painfully as he slowly rose. To his surprise, he discovered his pain stricken body lay nestled in bed, his bed.

    “Careful, you’ve been wrapped in those sheets a while. Overexertion can put a harsh strain on pups like you.” Terrence cautioned from his seated corner. “That mother of yours has been staying in here this whole time, finally told her I’d take her watch today.”

    With his throat hoarse and sore, Thomas barely managed to speak above a whisper. “I’m home? “

    “Did you expect to find yourself inside of Harowood’s belly or at the very least inside of the Order’s prison complex? No it’s been at or around three days since our little train trip.”

    “Then what?” Thomas asked with a groan. “Waiting for me to wake up so I can get hauled off in shackles.”

    “You and those chains, I hazard to wonder what your intentions were when you strolled into Ruby District.” Terrence chuckled. “No, after transporting our other wolf man and his brothers from the Brightcliff back to Bloodgate we were able to clear you of the charges. Harowood was surprisingly cooperative and ready to leave Hawthorne’s rather intensive care.”

    Thomas stared back dumbfounded. “So that’s it then? I’m free to roam about the city like the mongrel I am?”

    “Mongrel?” Terrence repeated. “Why in the world would you label yourself something like that?”

    “Don’t think I’m not grateful for all you and your friend have done. But in the end, what good does it do me?” Thomas said with a choke. “You’ve saved me from Delling’s headsman this time. But now we all know what I am who’s to say I won’t end up like that monster in the future?”

    “You’ve got to be joking.”

    “What? Ow!” Thomas yelped, feeling the hard thud of Terrence’s cane smack against the back of his head.

    “Now you found yourself with the dweller blood and you think you’re going to face the world alone and cold then? I assume I’ll have to tell that mother of yours, who fell to her knees and wept at the sight of you I might add, of your revelation. Your father told me what a dunderhead you were. I actually thought he was over exaggerating! Both of them fought and insisted your innocence, despite it all they were behind you. And they’re not about to have you go anywhere. Despite what you’ve become, whatever your blood may urge, you have their support.” Terrence huffed, now out of breath from his tirade.

    “Is, is that all true? Out of everything that’s happened?”

    “Yes!” Terrence cried while snatching Thomas by the arm and hoisting him up. “Now, let’s get you downstairs. Those folks of yours have been waiting all this time for you to wake up and I’m sure they’d like company other than Hawthorne.” Slowly, Terrence led Thomas down the stairs to his mother and father, and to a brand new day.

 

 

 

 
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The Way To Her Heart

    Hollard hadn’t realized how long he stared at the girl. The moment she entered the butcher’s shop he couldn’t keep his eyes off her, from the way she had displayed herself it was obvious that was her intention. Her auburn hair wrapped tightly behind her head, revealing a supple bosom barely concealed by cotton fabric that hung wantonly over reddened skin where the sun had seared her. Blaming the unnatural heat Bloodgate City was recently cursed with might have been a good enough excuse for anyone else. But it had plain to see she wanted Hollard to look.

    Women like that never gave the butcher the time of day. Instead they looked upon his disfigured leg and large slouched body with quiet disgust. He knew they thought he was a monster. Not like those types who lived in the city with their gifts from some unnatural and forbidden thing forgotten by good men. No, he was a balding, hunched, barrel of a man with a stump leg who was lucky enough to have inherited the family business. Normally a lady would never have given Hollard the time of day. But the new found confidence he had obtained poured through him, and the lassies noticed.

    The customer finally reached her limit with Hollard. People in this heat always seemed to have shorter tempers, women especially. The girl’s tone was singsong sweet, honeyed with a dab of annoyance. “Are you going to just stand there staring at my bits or are you going to get my order?” She asked, arms wrapped over her chest.

    Her words seemed to jolt Hollard back from his daydreaming; the fat man wiped the sweat building on his forehead with a handkerchief. “Terribly sorry lass, this heat can do things to a man’s head.” He told her what she wanted to hear, things always went easier that way. The intolerable weather had seen off any prospective business the butcher might have had that day, save one comely girl. Hollard needed this, and things could have been worse. With a heavy grunt the butcher leaned back to stand on his good foot. “Let me grab that for you sweetling and I’ll be seeing you off on your way, even throw in a bit more for your wait.” The girl flashed a sweet smile and watched the Hollard go to the back.

    Moments later the butcher emerged with the girl’s order, a leg of beef cut to perfection. As a boy, Hollard’s father would lecture him to no end on how to cut the meat. Lessons he followed into manhood. The beef leg was plopped onto the counter and quickly wrapped, Hollards thick fingers working nimbly. “There you are lassie she’s all set.” He looked at the girl, her face more upset than before. She folded her arms across that ample chest and sighed. “And how am I going to make the pudding without any suet?”

    Hollard paused, and then snatched at look at his ledger. By the girl’s scrawled signature he found her order. “Ah! Terribly sorry love you know this heat, does things to old bones like me.” Once again the butcher started to trudge off to the back. But Hollard suddenly found himself staring at the ceiling and his feet leaving the floor. With a thud the fat man was on his back, groaning in pain. “Uhhhh…”

    “Good heavens are you all right?” Hollard found the pretty thing over him, her bosom in wide display. Hollard’s chest rose and descended with great labor, followed by a soft rattling sound, a chuckle. “S’funny strumpets like you don’t give blokes like me the time of day. Unless we get lucky and get you feeling all guilty like.” The girl stared at Hollard in puzzlement, unbeknownst to the cudgel hidden by the counter.

    The cellar would have gotten rank with the unexpected heat, thankfully Hollard kept a proper supply of curing salt. At first the butcher was uncomfortable with the bodies lying around staring back at him, trying to accuse him of some unknown sin he committed. But like when he was a child staring back the slaughtered remains of a beast for the first time he came to the same realization. Both were one and the same, both were just meat, meat to be diced and cut accordingly.

    “Ohhh.” The girl moaned faintly. Her eyes slowly shifted to the dim lighting of the cellar. As she tried to move her limbs were found wanting but unable. Despite that, the girl’s neck was free. Glancing around the candlelit room she stared at the meat hooks dangling from the beams, each one carrying the burden of some alien haunch. Worse still, she found herself naked, her tender skin bare and exposed. Though, she didn’t feel hurt or violated in her bound state. “Don’t try to move too much unless you want to bleed out first. I’d ask you not too since I’d like to work that into some sausage.” A voice said to her.

    The butcher stepped out from a room she could not see. Hollard stood there shirtless, exposing the doughy flesh that lay behind his apron. He took a swig from a bottle in one hand and began to scratch his belly with the other. “Always like a nice drink before I get down to work. Helps keep me hands steady.” Hollard moved closer, his stump leg shuffling against the cellars floor. The girl found the butcher’s fat fingers working across her scalp. “Pretty hair you have.” He admired. “That’s the part I likes to keep. Have to say you’ve the best locks so far. Don’t have much of a collection, about four or so but I can tell yours will probably be me favorite for a while.”

    The girl tried to mouth something, a plea, a desperate plea of some sort but was rebuffed. “Your type is always the same.” Hollard growled with malice. “Come in here, my shop, and before wouldn’t even spit my way. Now that I’m a taken man you all get moist and try to convince me to be unfaithful.”

    Frightened and confused, the girl began to shake her head frantically, tears flying from her face in all directions. “Now now, don’t be starting that. I don’t want to hear none of those lies you got for me. She told me you all would do that. She’s smarter than me. Good women are always smarter than their men, told me what to do with the likes of you.” The girl’s begging shifted to shrill terror when a talon-like hand crept onto Hollard’s hairy shoulder and into sight. “I told her about your order. Meat pudding sounds like a fine choice for tonight.”

    Days had come and gone, and still the sweltering heat refused to release its’ grip from Bloodgate. The city’s folk had felt the sun’s sting and were left bitter and angry, taking any little slight with exceptional annoyance. The otherworldly citizens, dwellers they were called, were no exception, causing a spike in crime rates and nearly doubling the work load of the Order, the organization tasked with protecting the city. At least the heat brought some reprieve for Hollard the butcher. With so much keeping the authorities busy they were out of his thinning hair, leaving Hollard to court the beauty that graced him with her presence all those nights past.

    Time passed and not a single person had come to see Hollard to inquire about the last girl. No doubt they had chalked up the last few disappearances to the vile work of some dweller. Hollard hummed softly to himself contently, his mind thinking of his queen. The butcher’s cleaver worked effortlessly on the meat. Lasses would always joke that the key winning a man’s love was through feeding him. Women were just as ravenous. His was particularly fierce, especially after a night of vigorous lovemaking, the bite marks around his body still stung painfully sweet. Hollard knew he would need fresh batch of meat soon. Though eventually, he would need to find the time to dump the worthless scraps.

    Screams and shouts erupted from all around the fountain where the children played. Their splashing and kicking would sometimes find an unwilling target in any one of the many pedestrians walking across. With the blistering heat, few minded, others even shared in the laughter and merriment for a while, splashing water with the children. Normally, patrollers would stop and shoo away the street rats whenever they so much as ran their hands across the cool water. Now they stayed in the shade as often as possible between making their rounds.

    “The heats’ gotten the boys in grey under control too it seems.” Terrence Greymourne said to his companion before taking a bite of his pasty. “I hear even some dwellers are spending more time trying to keep cool than cause mischief.” Underneath a plain green coat that breathed well in the heat, tanned skin glistened with a slight film of sweat. Bloodgate’s rare occurrence of sunlight seemed to drain the stamina from her people. But framed between his long, raven black hair, Terrence’s blue eyes shined with a sense of vigor that rivaled the sun. “I wish the rest of your brethren would follow suit.”

    Sitting next to Terrence was a giant clad in a thick black coat and brass goggles that dwarfed the former. Some passersby gaped at the behemoth’s choice of clothing. Surely he was cooking underneath all that heavy fabric. The giant shrugged his massive shoulders. “Folk are prone to do odd things in this heat. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can stand weather like this. Except for you, I don’t know how you can stuff something like that down your throat in this weather.” He said with a voice akin to boulders grinding against each other.

    Terrence took another bite and chuckled. “My dear Hawthorne, I thought the heat had no effect on dwellers like you? Only the ones who possessed a heartbeat need feel fear of the sun’s warm caress?” True as it were; only skin changers, certain individuals infected with vampirism, those with just physical abnormalities, and few others were bothered by extreme heat as if they were human. Those without a pulse in their veins or air in their lungs, like Hawthorne, were unbothered.

    “Maybe so, but hot is still hot and a pasty won’t cool a living soul a single bit.”

    “True sir, but a man needs meat in his belly to keep going and I fear I was going without for far too long.”

    “Meat, is that what you call the slop those street peddlers put in those things? You use the word broadly lad, I find truer stuff underneath the heel of my boot.”

    Terrence paid his partner no mind and finished the last bit of his pasty with one last chomp. “Delicious.” He sighed before wiping the grease off his hands and grabbing the silver cane sitting next to him. “Off to our next stop then.”

    The bustle of the streets only served to worsen the day’s heat. With no available coach in sight, Terrence and Hawthorne made due by trekking to their destination. Buggies passed along, rider and horse both suffering under their burden. Rare as it was, once and a while a steam powered carriage would trudge along, filling the air with an acrid fragrance and a thin veil of smog, adding to everyone’s misery. At times the people walking along would be hustled closely to each other, shoulder to shoulder, leaving many in a bristling anger while trying to reach their destinations. Hawthorne would grunt with each person who shoved against him. Even Terrence found himself almost at the end of his rope, despite his normally calm and collected demeanor. But to his misfortune, that was before the woman and her squalling babe.

    White tips glistened in the infant’s mouth; teething left the child in a vicious state. Terrence had hoped, at any moment, she would turn and enter any of the buildings that they were passing. But no, the woman strolled along right next to him with her shrieking hellion, so close that the child had reached out and snagged a lock of his hair. With a harsh pull, the babe yanked Terrence’s head off to the side knocking him into the child’s mother and down onto the hot sidewalk. Hawthorne towered above his fallen companion, his goggles gleaming in the sunlight. “Hrmm…” The ghoul rumbled. “Hrmm…”

    A vicious glare flashed in Terrence’s eyes. But before he could snap at the devil child he paused to look to his undead partner. “Were you chuckling just now?”

    “Don’t look so perplexed.” Hawthorne’s massive arm reached down and scooped Terrence back onto his feet while lifting up the woman and her babe with another tree sized arm. “My marrow may be blackened, but some things can still strike my funny bone.”

    Calmly, Terrence tucked his cane under one arm and looked hard at the mother. She was far from high class but didn’t appear to be a guttersnipe, a pretty sort in her own way. She looked at him with big, hazel eyes and said in a voice barely audible in the crowd. “Apologies, little Royce doesn’t know his own strength.” The babe laughed manically over the mischief he wrought. The damage he had done seemed to alleviate the pain in his developing teeth. Devil child, probably the spawn of some drunken night with a feral, Terrence imagined. After a moment Terrence swallowed whatever insult he had for her. “No, harm done far as I can tell Miss-“

    “It’s Heloise, sir.”

    “Well Heloise, just be sure to keep little Royce’s mean streak in check next time.” Heloise nodded and trotted off with her little monster, blending back in with the throngs of people. Behind him, Terrence’s ears once again picked up Hawthorne’s disturbing, raspy, chuckle. “I dare say the heat has almost gotten to you.”

    The ghoul’s merriment brought none to Terrence. “Let’s just get going.”

    Dusk approached by the time the duo neared the destination, a small building nestled between a pottery shop and a bakery. Above the two, streaks of crimson and orange danced together high in the sky. Terrence tilted his head upwards in a sad fashion. “It’ll be dark soon.” He sighed. “Things always get difficult when it’s dark.”

    “Might be you’ll get lucky tonight.” Hawthorne muttered.

    “I’d considered it lucky if we’d get a reprieve from this heat with the sun’s descent. I actually think it got hotter.”

    “Lad, you’re always asking too much of this world. Besides, I thought this heat didn’t do anything to you?”

    “Normally, you’d be right.” Acid inside Terrence’s stomach began to boil raucously. “But I think that meat pasty didn’t help with matters.”

    “Again, you use that word broadly. Best get on with it then and ask what we need too.”

    “Is this the right address? The place looks empty.” Terrence asked puzzled.

    “Best meat in the West end from what I hear. Owned by the same family for two generations, run by some hunchback now is the word.”

    Sweat poured down Hollard’s disfigured back while his hands chopped away at the meat. The day had brought in nothing and he found a little comfort in prepping some bait for the morrow. Still, the butcher grimaced; his beloved would be cross with him tonight. Hollard had done his best to chase out the unappealing prospects, men, the elderly, the ugly, things his lady wouldn’t dare be caught eating. Hollard knew she only had the best; sweet, supple, young, females were preferred. She had once whispered something about children. But no, he could not.

    By scaring off the regulars Hollard found himself scaring away the people who used to visit him regularly. They were so friendly before, seemingly ignoring the deformities he had. But now, now they just scowled at him sourly before leaving the shop. “Just jealous is all. She’d told me they’d be like that.” Hollard said to himself.

    “Women always seem to have that sense of premonition, almost otherworldly wouldn’t you agree?” A stranger’s voice responded.

    Hollard dropped his cleaver and shot back in surprise. How long had that dandy been there? Had he absentmindedly said anything he shouldn’t? Did the little fool hear anything else? Suddenly, Hollard’s eyes trailed off to something behind the man. A second man was there, if he could be called such. Giant was more appropriate. The brute had to have been well over eight feet tall, and clad in thick black garments and a heavy top hat that surely broiled the flesh within. The butcher wiped the sweat from beneath his chin and stared at them a moment. No, had he said anything to draw more suspicion the two of them would have seized the opportunity by now. The butcher licked his lips. “Apologies, but I’ll be closing up shop here shortly.” Hollard said with a forced smile.

    “By the looks of things it would be appear you’ve been closed up long before we even walked in.” The pretty dandy said walking over to the shut window. “You don’t even have meat up for display.”

    “Sold it all.” Blurting out the first thing that popped into his head must have sounded foolish. “May I be so bold to ask as to who is inquiring about my business habits so close to the end of the day?”

    The dandy tapped his silver cane twice then looked at his monster of a companion. “Terrence Greymourne and this jovial fellow behind me is my assistant Hawthorne. And I do believe you are Hollard Garth?”

    “You’d be right there.” Hollard answered, licking his lips once more.

    Softly and slowly, Terrence moved towards the counter near where the ledger sat, his cane lightly grasped in both hands. There was no intimidation in Terrence’s mannerisms. If anything Hollard found the man too friendly. But it was the young man’s eyes that made the butcher uneasy. Those pale blue eyes seemed to stare right into Hollard, examining every inch of his tainted soul. Those eyes knew everything about him. Once again Terrence Greymourne resumed his questioning. “And you would be the sole proprietor and operator of this fine establishment if I’m not mistaken?”

    “You’d be right again.” Hollard found himself instinctively going for the cudgel underneath the counter. No one seemed aware of it, but the butcher steadied his hand. Bashing the young man’s head in would have been easy, the big man though, that would be the problem. “I’m answering your questions, but you seemed to have only half answered mine.”

    Terrence smiled at Hollard and then at the big man he called Hawthorne. “My associate and I are attempting to track down the whereabouts of a young lady that went missing some time back. Reddish brown hair, pretty face.”

    “Well you just described about half of the South quarter and most of the Ruby District!” Hollard replied with a chuckle. Laugh, laugh and smile, he thought to himself. Smile and laugh until they go away. Once they’re gone you can run into her arms and she’ll make it better.

    Terrence laughed softly, sharing in Hollard’s fake merriment while the giant stood still and silent. “So I have my good man, so I have. Perhaps we might take ourselves over to one of the brothels in Ruby to continue our search. But we decided to begin here, since the woman’s lover had sent her here to purchase some of your goods.”

    Sweat began to pour like a waterfall from Hollard’s face. He was thankful it was still so unpleasantly hot out. “She might have. People say I serve up the best cuts this city has to offer. She might have come here if I could recall. Might she said she’d come here and went someplace cheaper. Tell her man it was a cut of Hollard’s finest and serve him up something from Lewin’s or that other butcher shop from down the harbor.”

    “That is always possible.” Terrence concurred. “But it would be quite a walk, especially in this heat from the closest shop to someplace else. And don’t you think it would be a bit absurd to grab a coach if you’re trying to save on the kind of meat you’re using for pudding?”

    Even with the man’s giant in tow, Hollard had enough, he wasn’t about to be called out, especially inside his own shop. “Just what are you getting at boy?” He asked bitterly. “I ain’t seen your girl. And if she did come here I don’t remember.” Hollard paused a moment, then stared the two of them down. The butcher flashed an ugly smile, the first honest one since Terrence walked in. “Besides I don’t see no insignias or patches on you or your big friend. Do you two even work for the Order?”

    “For them?” Terrence chuckled. “No, no. Work alongside is more like it, two different forces striving towards the same goal. Now if you can’t recall her Hawthorne and I could just take a quick glance at your ledger here.” Terrence placed his hand on the large book, and opened the cover.

    A fat hand shot out and slammed the ledger shut.  This Hollard was quicker than he appeared. If Terrence had been surprised or scared he hid it well. A soft smile crossed Terrence’s tanned face, the hand that was on the ledger once again rested back on top of his cane. From behind, the giant appeared to have remained still, save for one arm reaching for something inside his coat. Hollard spat at Terrence. “I see what’s going on here! You keep your grubby hands off my property. You want a look? Come back in with some patrolmen!” A wild gaze flashed in Hollards’ eyes. “Want it by force? Go on then! I’ll scream so loud half the block will be here. They may not like the looks of me, but no ways they’d let the neighborhood butcher get manhandled by the likes of you!”

    Hollard had played his bluff; on the outside he looked crazed and distraught, brought on by the harassment of two strangers. On the inside, he felt his legs quiver and his heart quicken. If he wanted to see his lady ever again they would have to fall for the ploy. The butcher’s eyes watched Terrence slowly back away and turn to the giant. The young man finally turned to look at Hollard once more. “Expect us on the morrow.” After what seemed like forever, the two disappeared.

    Acid and what felt like liquid fire lurched to the middle of Terrence’s chest, leaving him with a rancid taste in his mouth and a rumble in his belly. The bells chimed midnight but the night air remained humid. From across the street in an abandoned building, they stared down at Hollard’s butcher shop, waiting. Terrence’s threat of returning with proper authorities seemed to have left the butcher concerned but unmotivated to pull any desperate moves. So far the only thing Terrence found was indigestion. “You’d think I wouldn’t feel so rotten by now.” He complained followed by a muffled belch.

    Hawthorne turned from the open window and scowled. “Shouldn’t have pressed your luck and eaten that penny pie.”

    “You know I hate long waits and unlike you I do require some nourishment after a while.”

    “Nourishment, is that what you call what’s happening inside your guts? Besides if you didn’t want to wait we should have just smacked him around and snagged that ledger.”

    Terrence sighed at the notion and shook his head. “Nothing I would have enjoyed more. But with how restless people are getting in this heat I wasn’t about to have us start a riot by beating a suspect within an inch of his life. Despite how shady he seems. At any rate, I caught sight of our girl’s name in that ledger.”

    Quickly scrawled letters and poor penmanship marked the common woman’s signature. True, Terrence only had the proof she had been at the butcher shop and nothing more. But had he simply turned in the information to the Order’s top man, Osgood Delling, the answer would be far less to his liking.

    “Are you addled brained?” Terrence could hear Delling now, his stern cold face scowling in hatred. “Break down a butcher’s door and tear a respected establishment apart? For a lead that’s barely worth the paper its’ written on? The girl most likely in the arms of a new man, the way these dregs and harlots behave in the poor parts of my city.No, Terrence need not hear that from the man. Instead he would hear the creaking of rotting wood.

    Hawthorne rose and made for the stairs. “Speaking of shady dealings, something just moved down there.” Together, Terrence and the ghoul moved like phantoms to Hollard’s shop. Both of them reached the front door in a matter of quiet moments. Without a single sound, Hawthorne slid into the shadows of the alley and crept to the back. Terrence scanned over his shoulder for any possible witnesses and then pulled a small box from his jacket, not unlike a cigarette case. In complete darkness, Terrence’s fingers fell naturally on the tools he needed and within a few moments the butcher’s front door was once again open for business.

    Terrence moved with catlike grace inside, his cane held tightly, until a flash of movement stifled his steps. After a second he recognized the faint, familiar, gleam of Hawthorne’s goggles. Silently, unnaturally silent for someone his size, Hawthorne moved to Terrence and whispered. “It was a flicker of candlelight I saw, first time in hours. Might be he had to use the pot, haven’t noticed anything since.”

    In the darkness Terrence nodded. “I haven’t heard any snoring.” Suddenly they both froze, their ears picking up a faint high pitched sound coming from below. Terrence grimaced at the noise he was not unfamiliar with.

    “Come on now lad, don’t be like that now.” Hollard begged the babe. “Please, don’t make her upset, or else we’ll both be in for a world of hurt.” Still the child shrieked on. “Please…” He begged more. The wailing had amplified the stinging on Hollard’s cheek, causing the three long scratch marks to throb with pain. That was where his lady had shown her disapproval. From behind the dressing curtain he could still see her shadow, sitting by her mirror.

    In the past, when Hollard had brought her all those gifts she had rewarded him with kisses and love nips. But now, she had been the farthest from happy. “Love please,” Hollard remembered whimpering to her when he first brought back the babe.

    That was the first time he ever brought her back an infant. Sneaking off into the night unseen was difficult enough, almost impossible with his catch. At first he thought it would have made her happy, a beginning to their new family. But with the babe’s mother ready for the chopping block, the shrieking wouldn’t cease. A gag worked for the wench but the child, only a monster would do that to a babe.

    Even worse, Hollard’s love thought the child was meant for dessert! The butcher begged and pleaded with her, but she wouldn’t have any of it, the babe’s shrieking not helping matters in the slightest. Words of a feast unlike she had ever had before seemed to have calmed her, for a time. “Now if only you can stop wailing, we both can walk out of this mess.” He pleaded with the crying infant. Then it hit the butcher. “Are you hungry? Nothing’s in that little belly of yours isn’t there?” Hollard deducted, gently cradling the baby boy.

    The butcher hobbled over and placed the baby in makeshift cradle he had found in the alleys. “Can’t be forgetting this now.” With a wide smile Hollard shoved a chicken bone in the baby’s mouth. Drool and suckling noises escaped little, pink, lips. Eagerly, the babe worked on the greasy bone. “Me’ own mum used to tell me how that worked for me, should work for you as well.” Reluctantly, Hollard turned to the shadow of his lady love behind the curtain. “He’s quiet now. You promised me you’d let him be if he was quiet and good. He’ll stay good with something in his belly.” A low hiss from behind the curtain was all that the butcher heard in response. “Don’t worry. You’ll get something in your belly too.”

    Candlelight quickly flickered across the glass of the shop’s window as Hollard’s deformed foot stumbled up the stairs to his quarters. The babe was older than a newborn so it was safe to assume he was off his mother’s milk. But still, what did Hollard have that would suit him? The butcher cursed as his candlelight died out, he would have to make do fumbling in the dark. Finally, Hollard’s fat hands hll upon a hunk of soft cheese, hopefully that would satiate the infant. Before the butcher could move any further, a soft set of noises from below froze him to the floorboards. His beloved’s feast was properly, and tightly, secured to have gotten loose.

    Abruptly, the faint echo of crying followed the fast beats of footsteps descending below. A trickle of sweat skirted down his spine, sending the cheese splattering onto the floor. The butcher was terrified, so terrified he turned to a block of ice, melting away in the humid night air. But Hollard knew if he remained where he was, his lady would be in danger. Any good man worth his salt would protect his woman. It only took a moment of searching before Hollards’ hands touched the handles belonging to a pair of, large, heavy, cleavers.

    “You’re lucky your nose doesn’t work anymore.” The words barely choked out of Terrence’s mouth. The putrid stench seemed to have come out of nowhere, forcing him to press a handkerchief against his nostrils and mouth, to little effect. “Ugh! Where is that smell coming from?”

    “Apparently, old Hollard’s nose stopped working some while ago as well.” The aroma seemed to trouble Hawthorne none at all. Instead the ghoul found himself gazing about the poorly lit cellar. “Some light down here. Might be he was up late down here fiddling about.”

    The basement was smaller than Terrence anticipated and the cause of the sound or stench nowhere in sight. Hawthorne began to walk around, pausing for a second or two to try and pinpoint anything of interest. “Just a workbench and some busted barrels.” Hawthorne’s massive boots lifted high and over the pile of wood and moved closer to the back of the cellar. “Still doesn’t explain where that noise is coming from.”

    “It’s muffled but I know it’s near! My ears still pick up that noise. But where is it coming from?” A frustrated Terrence puzzled aloud before feeling Hawthorne’s massive hand fall onto his shoulder. Dragged more than led, Terrence found himself at furthest wall in the cellar.

    “Seems out of place don’t you agree?” Hawthorne asked after a while. In his past life the ghoul might have been a architect. Despite the poor lighting, the assumption was indeed accurate.

    In a half hazard manner, someone had taken beams and planks and nailed together a wall to block off the rest of the area. Terrence knelt low and ran his hands across the plank in the middle until his fingers found a set of rusting, iron, latches. This was the door, he thought. Slowly, on a whim, Terrence eased in closer until his nose was just an inch away from a hole in the wood, then bolted back in disgust. “Well it looks like the source of that stink is right beyond that wall. Lord, it’s much stronger too! And if I’m not mistaken that noise is getting louder as well.” A pair of oak thick arms stretched out. The ghoul found the same latches as Terrence and sent the wooden door open. An ear piercing wail alongside the wretched aroma of death rushed to fill the other half of the cellar.

    Candlelight glistened off the hooks dangling all over the second room, speared through each one a slab of strange meat. At first Terrence and Hawthorne thought the flesh to be the source of the foul odor, but each and every one was discovered to be salted and cured. A special meat for a special recipe, Terrence thought in disgust. He knew he wasn’t staring at pork or beef.

    The true source of the foul smell had been the buckets, counting near a dozen, every one of them overflowing with rotting remains of what used to be former patrons of the shop. Fleshy skulls floated in viscera, barely recognizable as human. Other buckets contained the hands and feet while some were filled with stinking brownish red ooze. “We are staring at the pieces that wouldn’t make a good cut.” Terrence imagined.

    The discovery of what filled the basement with such a foul stink had made the hairs on Terrence’s neck bristle like a porcupine. Whatever the cause, the mild mannered butcher had shifted into something far, far, worse. Only, it was the source of the noise that would reveal the depths Hollard had sunk.

    “There, past those chains, another room.” Before the ghoul could follow, a stout shadow crept closer from the back. Terrence’s eyes went wide and shock rippled down his person. “Behind you!” He screamed too late.

    Hawthorne had been quick enough to dodge the first slash to his neck, saving the head. But the fearsome dweller had underestimated Hollard’s speed. And it was that mistake that landed a second cleaver down across his shoulder bone, almost all the way down to the armpit. A mighty arm dangled uselessly by a few tatters of shredded flesh. Terrence winced at the sight of his friend in such a state, watching a strange greenish black fluid spray from the ghoul’s crippled person. Hawthorne, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned with the damage that he had suffered.

    The butcher had been a deformed mess, but proved surprisingly nimble and stronger than expected. A man possessed, Hollard pressed the advantage he had over his opponent. “You stump-footed bastard!” Hawthorne roared as he fought back with his remaining arm and losing two fingers in the process. “Terrence, go and see what all the crying is about. I need to have a discussion with our friend on the finer points of treating his customers.”

    “No! Don’t touch her!” The butcher shrieked, noticing Terrence near the door. “You leave her be! “ Hollard desperately stumbled past the foul work he made of Hawthorne. Terrence narrowed his eyes to focus in the poor lighting and placed a hand on the top of his cane, but Hollard’s mad dash came to an abrupt halt. The butcher gasped and gagged for oxygen as Hawthorne’s arm snaked around his fat neck like a python. The ghoul bellowed mightily. “Go!”

    A jolt of force shocked through Terrence’s leg and into the door, smashing it open. The adjacent room had been better lit than the rest of the basement. This was the place where Hollard spent his time. From a table in the middle, a frantic, muffled, wailing mixed with a babe’s shrieking.

    The woman had been stripped and bound across the table, displayed for all to see. This couldn’t be the “her” Hollard was shrieking about, this girl appeared ready to be served for dinner. Spices and garnishes were sprinkled all over the woman from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. Tomatoes were used to cover the tips of her breasts while watercress garnished her groin. Terrence leapt forward to undo the gag in her mouth. When the rancid fabric had been torn from the woman’s mouth it was only then when he realized the captive’s identity.

    “R-r-r-oyce…” Heloise stuttered. Up close, under the spices and marinate, she was a disaster. Bruises had marred her pretty face in a swollen and unrecognizable state. She put up a fight, Terrence thought looking down at her wounds. He and Hawthorne had kept a watchful eye over their quarry. Yet somehow, during the night, Hollard was able to make off with Heloise and her babe. “She has Royce...”

    The rope that held Heloise dropped to the floor. But the scars around her wrists and ankles would always serve to be their reminder. “Who does?” Terrence pleaded before he realized they weren’t alone. Garnishes and tomatoes flew off of Heloise in her scramble from off the table and over to a corner. Her naked body shook frantically, all the while weeping for her son.

    Behind a dressing curtain a lithe figure sat, gently rocking an old cradle. “She d-d-dragged him back there.” Heloise stammered before resuming her sobbing. Whoever had been trying to console the sobbing babe seemed unconcerned with Terrence, Heloise, or even the fighting taking place just outside the room. From the sounds of it, Hawthorne still was capable of holding his own, even minus an arm and some fingers. Slowly, Terrence removed something from the inside of his a jacket and stepped closer to Royce’s captor. Once close enough, Terrence held his breath and rested the tip of his cane against the divider’s edge. In one solid stroke the expensive piece of furniture was sent flying against the basement’s brick wall.

    Throughout the years with his father and brothers, Terrence had encountered a wide variety of Dwellers inside of Bloodgate City’s walls. He had fought against vampires and other beings that lived off the vitae of living mammals. On the rooftops, Terrence had chased lupines and other shape shifters that were more beast than man. He even remembered the times in the sewers, where he, his brothers, uncle, and father flushed out near a hundred forgotten zombies and others led by their own reanimated master. But nothing was more bizarre than the sight here and now.

    This was the lady Hollard had been so desperate to protect. Still, it was hard to classify the thing female. Sagged, rotten breasts swung against a grayish, mottled, skin that covered the body, not unlike the hide of a bat. Atop the thing’s dry head rested the torn bloody scalp of another woman. Reddish brown splattered with flecks of blood. Terrence had found his missing girl, or at least part of her.

    Between long black nails dangled a chicken bone above Royce’s crib. Save for a hungry and scared look, the baby was unharmed. Hollard’s beloved took only a few seconds to realize her divider was missing. Her large yellow eyes turned from the infant to glare monstrously at Terrence. The creature unhinged her jaws revealing three rows of sharp, yellow, teeth. With a guttural, hiss she crouched low on her spindly legs and shot forward.

    In the blink of an eye, Terrence dove off to the side narrowly avoiding the filthy claws of Hollard’s lady. With a grunt the butcher’s lovely crashed into the table, turning it into splinters. The room had been too small for fancy acrobatics, leaving little to work with. Instead, Terrence let fly the item he held in hand. Luck had indeed shifted to his favor as the vial of sanctified water and silver shavings struck the abomination between the eyes. A wailing, high pitched, shriek erupted from the bottom of the cellar, the combination of beast and frightened babe. Had anyone in the neighborhood still been asleep during the ruckus, now would be a different tale.

    Centuries of dweller conflict had left those a series of few key methods on dealing with the supernatural. Iron and water were indeed worthless in a fight if the materials had not been properly cleansed of impurities and blessed by those whose souls shined with holy light. Such items were difficult to come by for normal citizens. Unfortunately for the thing that stole Hollard’s heart, Terrence was far from such.

    Claws flayed wildly in a futile attempt to shear flesh from bone. With his quarry blinded, Terrence readied himself to finish the task. Many a vigilante or patrolman fresh out of academy made the foolish attempt to rush in on a cornered dweller. Blinded and maimed those hands that used to caress Hollard could still shred a man to ribbons. Terrence’s knees bent into a duelist’s stance and his right hand held tightly the handle of his cane. With a turn of his wrist a faint, otherworldly, glow leaked from the walking stick.

    “Don’t touch her!” A voice from behind roared.

    Black, oozing, viscera covered both of the butcher’s cleavers. Hollard’s face had been drenched in sweat, amplifying the rage he wore like a mask.

    “Hawthorne…” Terrence whispered. The dweller was a fierce and fearless combatant, well known for bringing down opponents of much larger frame. The deformed Hollard surely had not bested the ghoul. Though the uncanny attributes he possessed did not go unnoticed.

    Shrieks of pain belonging to Hollard’s love seemed never ending. Her ghastly hands rubbed the skin of her face, only worsening matters by rubbing the substance deeper. With a whimper, the butcher’s “woman” sank to her knees, and crawled into a corner across from Heloise, in almost mocking fashion.

    Hollard’s face wrinkled, and with his cleavers raised high he charged forward. “I’ll save you dearest!” He screeched.

    An ambush without the element of surprise was nothing, and that was all Hollard had the first time. Even with greater speed and strength the butcher seemed sluggish when facing someone like Terrence. The cleavers descended with deadly force, striking nothing but air. Terrence moved with a dancer’s grace around to the fat man’s flank. Unfortunately for the butcher, his would be victim’s weapon struck home followed by a wide arcing spray of blood.

    Crimson trickled down the blade Terrence had hidden within his cane. The slender, faint glowing metal reached thirty inches in length. If such an item had a proper name, it was forgotten. Instead those that feared the sight of the eldritch weapon simply called it, Night’s Bane. Whatever the origin, the true nature of the blade and its’ history remained shrouded. All that had been known was the sword stick had been passed down from Greymourne to Greymourne. The blade’s kiss was so potent; the worst of Bloodgate’s dwellers only spoke of it in hushed corners. “It can still cut down a man all the same.” Terrence said with a bitter scowl. “Even if cutting into someone like you is almost unworthy.”

    Hollard had fallen into a fetal pose, his eyes staring blankly at the bloody stumps where his hands had once been. The butcher’s shock had been so great he ignored the warm, oozing, pool around him.

    Even with her eyes a pair of sightless, charred, orbs, Hollard’s beloved took scent of what was leaking from the butcher. Love and devotion were forgotten, replaced by primal hunger. The creature fell on all fours, her nose leading the way. Like a dog, Hollard’s heart began lapping the life’s blood that poured from his two stumps. Terrence almost retched at the sight of the two lovers. It was if Hollard was receiving some sort of sick pleasure from the gruesome creature’s feeding. Not another moment had passed before Terrence had his fill.

    The monster had fallen into a deep frenzy, her damaged mind set on filling her blackened belly. She had forgotten about everything, she had forgotten Terrence. But Terrence remained keen on his purpose. Night’s Bane rose and fell so quickly the butcher never caught sight of the metal passing through his lover’s throat. It was only until the dweller’s own black fluids began spraying into his face did he resume screaming. A hard slam of Terrence’s heel finally set Hollard quiet.

    Limbs began to flail wildly as the she beast’s head rolled along the basement floor, her scalp wig getting drenched in blood and dirt. Finally amidst the screaming of a scared baby, the body went still. “Neither one of you will cause anymore mischief.” Terrence spat while wiping down his swordstick. With Night’s Bane clean, Terrence placed it once more within his cane and tucked under his arm. “Now let’s have a look at you.” Fright, hunger, and confusion were what Royce wore on his reddened face. Those same feelings shared by the babe’s mother. “Take a look here.” Terrence said to Heloise, taking the babe in his hands and bringing them together. “See there, the two of you will be all right in time. I’d say you both will be worlds better once we get you home.”

    Seeing her frightened boy snapped Heloise out of her terror. She bit her lip hard, tears pouring down her filthy face. “You are alright, aren’t you my precious angel?” Royce responded well to his mother’s touch and reduced his bawling to a series of soft whimpers.

    “Hopefully he’ll be too young to remember any of this.” The sight of Hawthorne sent Heloise reeling once again in fear. The mother pressed her child against her naked flesh.

    “No no, he’s alright. You remember my big friend? The one who helped you? He’s just a lot prettier now.” Terrence reassured, though from looking at the huge ghoul it was hard to imagine so. Those cleavers had done terrible work on Hawthorne.

    A deep black gash rested between Hawthorne’s milky, white eyes, removing the nose and revealing bone. “Sliced off me’ goggles.” He muttered angrily. But that was not the only thing sliced from his person. Hawthorne actually had to lean to against the door frame for support, his left leg chopped off from the knee down. Hawthorne rubbed his chin with the fingerless mass he had left for a hand. His cold stare fell on the unconscious butcher. “What do you suppose we should do with him?”

    Terrence rose. Thoughts of once again drawing Night’s Bane from its’ slumber were intriguing. “No.” He said to himself, the others oblivious to what he meant. Finally Terrence had decided. “Killing outright would just add heat to the situation. Lord knows the city doesn’t need any more of that. Besides I think Osgood Delling and the Order would like to know how a simple butcher came across such a foul abomination.” He looked to Heloise and her boy. “At any rate these two have seen enough to fill their nightmares. Woman, we’ll get you something to cover yourself up. You’re to run and find the closest patrolmen and bring him to us.”

    Hawthorne grunted and shrugged off his massive coat, revealing another deep gash in his mighty chest. On what remained of his hand, the coat hung there like some sort of grotesque hanger. “Take this.” He said trying to hand it to the mother. Timidly, Heloise rose and stepped closer and closer, finally she snagged the heavy garment. It was itchy and stank of blood and violence, but it covered her. With Royce held tightly, Heloise took one last look at Terrence and bolted past Hawthorne.

    “Hopefully she won’t forget us.” Terrence said to Hawthorne. “I’d like to find someone who can patch you up at this hour. I’m still shocked he did that much of a number on you.”

    “I’m shocked you were able to stay away from that thing’s claws with the aches that meat pie was giving you earlier.”

    Terrence paused then looked at the vile mess that had been the butcher’s work of love. His stomach lurched once more and Terrence felt something rise to the back of his throat. Finally, the meat pie sank back down to his stomach. “I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that again for some time"

 
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Through Dark and Lonely Streets

    “Hmm…With all the younger and dare I say, more nubile choices making their rounds tonight I think the rates you two are charging are, a tad, too high.”  The gentleman remarked, all the while twirling his handle bar mustache with a scented, gloved, hand.  He was the usual sort that came into Ruby District looking for their own particular brand of paid entertainment.  A bit old and very unattractive, his bulbous nose protruded from his brown face like an eggplant, along with wrinkles and warts that fought for territory across his face.  But by the clothes on him and his eccentric demeanor it was clear he possessed the money of a nobleman. Money was all you needed to buy love for the night in Ruby. 

    The district bustled with its usual occupants.  Burlesque entertainers danced in front of their buildings in gaudy cages.  Hawkers and peddlers would pass out flyers for the girls that were performing that night.  And all the passersby bustled through the streets.  Groups of drunken young men, barely out of their boyhood years strolled about heckling the girls with their crude humor.  Ugly old men would meekly look for their usual partners and tell them how their day had been before buying the rest of their night.   Then there was Bethany and Abigail, having to put up with someone more interested in haggling than sex. 

    The two prostitutes looked at the fop with tired and scornful eyes.  It had been a bad night for both of them, and a fool like this was not about to make it any better.  Neither was considered ugly by any means, but the more exotic choices, men, women, and then some too androgynous to tell, were parading the streets this night.   “Look you,” Bethany stepped forward, getting in the man’s face.  Her brownish red hair was matted across her freckled face and down to her exposed, ample chest.  “We ain’t eaten a scrap in three days.  So I’m not exactly in the right mood for the likes of you.”

    “Then maybe if you two would just lower your rates a tad, then you’d be able to get something in those bellies then.”  Bethany scoffed at his comment and fought back the bile of anger rising inside her.  “I don’t think I’d ever seen you down here ‘fore so I take it you’re new here.  Maybe you’re from Felstone, Brightcliff?”  The gentleman kindly shook his head with a nervous smile as he kept looking at her.  “Right then, don’t know how they run things in those parts, but we charge what Madam Borla tells us to charge, no less.”  She replied getting spittle on the man’s fine embroidered coat.   The gentleman’s eyes widen in disgust at the saliva on his clothing and stammered off, cursing the two of them in a bit of rage. “You two will be sorry!”  Bethany laughed as their burden disappeared out of view, “If you didn’t want my spit on you why’d you try to hire us!?”  

    Abigail looked at her older companion bright eyed and grinning, though only a few years Bethany's junior the weight of their profession had begun to wrinkle her pale smooth skin. Between the two of them Abigail was more popular since she still possessed some youthful vigor.  Once a farmer's daughter, her blonde hair wrapped still wrapped in pigtail, and her revealing dress displayed her, thin athletic frame.  Though attractive, their night provided scarce profit.   “Least we were the ones who got entertained tonight.”   She laughed, trying to cheer up Bethany.  But it did not work, indeed the night had gotten worse and Bethany couldn’t see it getting any better.  They would be turning in half empty purses to their madam yet again and they would pay for it.

    “Maybe you did but I’ve had it for tonight.”  Abigail gasped in terror at her companion's remaks.  “But we’re still short for the night! Mistress will make you sell your necklace if we don’t make tonight’s mark.” 

    Bethany tugged the tiny silver necklace around her neck.  An inexpensive trinket but that and the tiny  velvet pouch she had given Abigail as a gift were the few things she had held onto from her past life.  Worry tinged her face, but Bethany regained her composure.  “To hell with that fat sow, her brothers can beat me all they want!  They ain’t getting what I don’t have. I just want to get to bed.”    Bethany answered as she wearily began to depart to their apartment.   Abigail stopped her, grasping the second girl’s shoulder tightly.  “But that man’s still out there.”

    “Oh, he can get in line behind Borla.  Now don’t give me that look you little tart, I’ll take a short cut so I won’t risk running into him.” The two friends shared a warmhearted hug.  Abigail would not lay eyes on Bethany again until two lamplighters would discover her shredded body behind one of the brothels, piled atop the refuse.  

 

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    Abigail coughed loudly, the harsh cold air scrapping her throat.  The weather had taken a turn for the worst in Bloodgate City this season.  Winter was coming sooner than expected, and that was going to make a streetwalker’s life all the more difficult.  Eight days had passed since Bethany had been murdered and each day Abigail missed her friend more and more. 

    Bethany had been the one to help her when she had started streetwalking, teaching her the tricks of the trade.   She was not the first or the last to have been killed, Abigail discovered, in actuality Bethany had been the third body to have been found in the back allies and two more had turned up since her death.  The proprietors of Ruby District had warned their employees to steer clear of the darker corners of the city no matter what was being paid. All of them showed at least a little concern for their employees, except for Madam Borla. 

    Life in Ruby District was never easy.  The clients could become harsh with their girls, but always those in charge of the girls and brothels would stop any situation from getting too out of control.  Madams or their male counterparts, the Gentlemen, were their own class in Bloodgate City, cruel and only concerned with lining their coffers.  But they always kept their girls fed and sheltered, and made sure their well beings were intact.  No man would want to bed something that was comparible to corpse.  Except for the one who owned Abigail, Madam Borla and her brothers had the reputation for being the cruelest masters to ever hold an establishment in Ruby District.  Ninety percent of a street walker’s earnings had to be turned in, food was minimal and so was the protection.  Even with the string of murders the harsh woman still made the girls keep long hours late into the night.  Life indeed had taken a downward spiral and not on track to get any better.

    More girls and lads strutted about in Ruby now, a lot more competition for Abigail that meant less money in her purse.  The few services Abigail performed were minimal and of the cheap fair, she was nowhere close to making her goal.  Despite the desperation, she still refused to debase herself further and commit the more debauched acts her competition was so willing to perform.  Abigail still had a semblance of pride, but at a cost.    With a heavy sigh she began her walk back to the apartments.

    Gaudy lights and flare, those were the staple of Ruby and what erupted all around Abigail.  Despite the vibrant glitter, she knew it was all a lie.  Abigail had seen the filthier side of life here, she saw it every time she walked the streets, every time her and another stranger would duck behind an alley for privacy, and every time she walked back home.  It was that same ugliness that left her only friend butchered.   Each and every face that passed her was uncaring and indifferent; to them she was a service that could be bought for a night or more.  To Abigail they were no better, each one was unrecognizable and forgettable, except the one that stood just yards away. The gentleman didn’t notice Abigail across the street, but she knew it was the same man her and Bethany had encountered with that fateful night.  Abigail held her breath staring at him and thinking about the last words he said they to them; “You’ll be sorry!” 

    What was she to do? Confront the man?  Warn the girls he was trying to solicit? For a moment she thought to inform the proper authorities.  Abigail came to her senses; the Order did little inside of Ruby except to make sure the different brothels stay on nonviolent terms with each other.  The man had money and Abigail was positive he would have friends within the organization’s upper ranks. 

    The commander of the Order had made numerous public appearances denouncing Ruby District, calling its inhabitants slatterns and filth mongers.  The only authority the downtrodden here could truly rely on was Terrence Greymourn, the investigator who worked outside the Order and without its rigid and hypcritical philosophies.  But Abigail didn’t know how to get in contact with someone like that.  “Probably’ out rescuing someone important.”  Abigail muttered to herself.   But it was clear she might have to be rescued as the man slowly began to make his way to her through the crowd.  Abigail’s feet felt frozen into the cold streets as she watched him slowly fight the crowd to reach her.  He had to have seen her, his eyes locked onto her as a hawk gazed down a rabbit.  On instinct Abigail dove out of the throng of pedestrians and into the nearby alley, disappearing in the shadows. 

    Rodents and refuse were the only things that greeted Abigail within the alleyways. Through all the cold and wind, nothing was able to hide the stench that choked her nostrils. Abigail coughed loudly, the smell becoming too much. Suddenly she stopped mid stride.  Softly as to make as little noise as possible, Abigail began to move once more.  There! She heard it again, she was sure of it.  Someone was following her.

     The echoes made it difficult to figure out where they were coming from or how close they were, but without a doubt someone was following.   Images of Bethany’s shredded cadaver flashed in Abigail’s head.  No, she was determined not to end up like that.  She had to stay calm, and make it out of the alley.  If her stalker wanted to strike they would have done so by now.  The carnal pleasures that were bought from a streetwalker sometimes could not be enough. At any time, a displeased client would lean to more violent tendencies.  Other times the girls or lads from a rival Madam would try to get a foothold in someone else's territory.  Back then all Abigail had to do was brandish her Willard and Stein pistol, drawing the palm sized weapon from her bodice.  She regretted having to pawn the firearm to make her weekly quota. 

    All Abigail had to do was get out of the alley and to the apartments, or at least an Order way station.  Softly and slowly the streetwalker began her cautious walk to safety.  Around her the shadows loomed larger, seemingly hiding some sinister force within the darkness.  Sounds, both loud and soft seemed unnatural and harsh.  Unable to hold her composure any longer, Abigail burst into a full sprint down the dark path.  The alleyways seemed to stretch endlessly, crisscrossing and twisting any number of times in a confusing maze.  Abigail’s mind became set on escape, soon she began to forget her usual route home.  She grew frantic, missing turns and stumbling into dead ends.  With a sharp cry of frustration Abigail snapped.  She was on the brink of starvation, freezing, and tired.  If fatigue not whittled away at her senses, Abigail more would not have been sent flying up and crashing back onto the putrid ground.   The moonlit night sky spun high above while Abigail lie pain stricken.  “Damn street urchins wadding through the trash and leaving a mess about!” Abigail growled, trying to stand but to no avail.  The fall had done a number on her ankle, leaving it stiff and swollen.  Then like a rabbit aware of a predator’s gaze, Abigail froze. 

    The figure loomed over Abigail silently, never making a sound.  A glint of metal reflecting the moonlight left her with a faint guess of where the stranger’s head was at.  Never before had she met a man that tall in her life.  But was it a man?  Maybe it was one of Bloodgate City’s supernatural denizens, or dwellers as they are called.  The darkness combined with the stranger’s long coat made it impossible to make out his features.  She was positive it had been him following her throughout the alley.  Abigail stared at the hulk a bit longer and finally her lips moved, speaking the first words that came to mind.  “I don’t do dwellers.  It’s not my rule, it be Madam Borla if you’ve got a problem wit’ it.  Thinks you types have some sort of disease that could get on her merchandise.”    Still Abigail’s stalker did nothing, finally mustering all the courage in her slender body, the streetwalker grew sterner and louder.  “Look, you better stop these damn games! You know who owns me? That’s right Madam Borla and unless you wanna have your gizzard dropped down to your knickers I’d suggest you stop this nonsense!”    Still the figure remained motionless.   “Leave me alone damn it!” Abigail cried with one last shriek, before falling silent.  Staring at each other in that near inky darkness, the brute began to inch forward.  With her eyes widened in fear, Abigail’s pain was forgotten and in a blur of speed the streetwalker dashed past her would be assailant and across the alleys.

    Abigail kept up her tiring pace until she finally collapsed onto the cold cobblestone.  She steadied her heavy breathing and looked about, she was alone.  The stranger had not given chase or had not made his presence known.  “Well, I guess that’s that.” Abigail panted followed by a wince of pain.  Her ankle still felt like a mess.  Slowly she rose to her feet and limped onward.  Finally Abigail found herself out of the foreboding alleys.  Abigail looked back into the darkness.  “Good riddance.”  Could that have actually been the beast that ended Bethany’s life?  How easily it would have been to Abigail to have been another number added on to the monster’s terrifying list? 

    Still, it was some ways away from the apartments but Abigail knew where she was, and a few pedestrians still occupied the streets.  Lamplighters earned their coin by keep streetlights aflame, other streetwalkers continued to make their rounds while muck cleaners scraped along at their steady pace. She knew there was an Order way station due south. Though what little good they would do Abigail just couldn't fathom. 

    Light was inadequate for a proper inspection, but still Abigail glanced down to her ankle.  The fact that she added sprinted on it for what felt like a great distance was a miracle in itself.  Purple puffy flesh engorged her foot; at best the ankle was sprained.  At worst, No Abigail didn’t want to think about that.  She could not afford a doctor, and no matter how severe the injury Borla would force her to walk her rounds the very next night.  Abigail groaned with pain as she stood up, a bottle of whatever she had left and some sleep would fix her up, it just had too.  But as Abigail began her trek she made a terrifying discovery, one just as terrifying as the hulking stranger in the alley.  Abigail’s purse, containing all the money to be given to her Madam, was missing. 

    Everything had been too much and the gravity of her situation brought Abigail to her knees, sobbing.  Even though she had escaped death in the alley the meeting with the Madam later on would make Abigail wish the stranger had snuffed out her existence.    She could have wept throughout the night on those filthy streets but it was the voice another that returned her senses.  “Something troubling you miss?”   The man asked as he knelt down next to her.  It had been a patrolman of The Order, the city’s police military.  “Wha-what?”  Abigail stammered.

    “Well something's got to be troubling you to have you in this condition.”  The patroller said with a smile.  Abigail gauged the man looking back at her.  He was well built a thick muscled body beneath his grey and bronze uniform and a brown beard framed a gentle smile.  “Normally strangers don't want to hear the woes of someone else, 'specially strangers wearing the kind of get up.”  The man gave a slight chuckle at her answer.  “That may be true but I wouldn't consider myself the normal lot, name's Clarence.” The warmth of his eyes began to console Abigail and began to melt away at her hostility.  Finally, the streetwalker introduced herself and began to tell her sad story.                                                                                                                                       

***************************************************************************** 

    Torchlight blazed brightly in Clarence's mighty hand. Even illuminated, the alleys seemed no less safe and even filthier.  Together, they looked all over, sifting through the refuse and garbage but to no avail.  Though the purse had eluded her, Abigail had forgotten her worries while conversing with the handsome patrolman.  Clarence was the opposite of what the streetwalker usually encountered on her nights in Ruby District.  He was handsome, and confident, strong but also gentle, suddenly she found herself blushing at the sight of him. Even the pain from her swollen ankle washed away in Clarence's presence. “So, if I may be so bold to ask, but what exactly made you fall into this line of work?”    Abigail pursed her lips and hoped the orange glow of the torch would mask the crimson spreading across her cheeks. 

    “Oh it's been three maybe four years now, the love of my life whisked me off papa’s farm off the edge of the Stonehold Mountains.  Told me I had the most beautiful voice, was going to be a singer or actress.”  There was a tinge of pain in Abigail's voice.  Days of being a farm girl seemed to have happened so long ago, to someone else entirely.  “Things don't always turn out how you want eh?   About six months here in Bloodgate I was working at a scullery to keep bread on the table.  One day after coming home I found me' things on the curb and someone prettier in the bed.”  Clarence didn't know how to respond, in the silence and dim light he continued to listen.  “After that I had just found myself wandering the city not knowing what to do, until I met the Madam.”

    “Those filth peddling rats?”  Clarence said with a spat.  Abigail looked back with a smile and gave a small giggle.  “Do I look like a rat peddled piece of filth now?” 

    “That's not...I...”  He stammered, realizing his error.  Abigail chuckled at her companion’s embarrassment.  “I know what you mean; they are rats, worse than that they're devils.  Old Borla probably sits atop them all as their devil rat queen.  Were it not for Bethany I don't think I'd be alive at this point.” 

    “A friend?”

    “She is or, was, I meant, once again the powers that be continue to take away what little I have left.” 

    “What happened to her? Sold to a different Madam?”

    “No she was one of the girls they've found in the alleys.”  The patrolman stopped in his tracks.  “Aye, it's been a ghastly thing lately.  We turned up a new body recently, looking no better than how we found the first, sliced up terribly.” 

    “Have you any leads yet?”

    “Aside from the big man you described? No.” 

    “Oh! That beast could still be out here!”

    Clarence unhooked something from his hip and handed the torch to Abigail.  In the amber hue of the fire he brought the item closer for Abigail's inspection.  It was a firearm, but not a standard piece found on the streets in the hands of some thug.  These were weapons mass produced by and for the Order with the specific purpose of taking down some of the worst dwellers that inhabited Bloodgate, or any other place under the Order's protection.   It was an intricate firearm, with bronze tubing stretching from the middle of the gun to a strange cylindrical object at the end.  “See that?”  Clarence said as he ran a finger across the weapon.  “Thanks to the Order's high engineers these lovelies rain a hail of metal to whatever I don't want walking anymore.”  Relief washed over Abigail, but unbeknownst to Clarence it was more the man holding the weapon and not the actual object itself that made her feel safe. 

    The patrolman posed for a moment with his armament, hand balled and placed at his hip and his pistol in the other, he gave a confident smile.  Abigail laughed loudly, her voice reverberating in the darkness.  “You're silly. You look like one of those enlistment posters plastered everywhere.”  The two laughed, exchanging wanting looks, it was a feeling Abigail hadn't felt towards a man in the longest time.  Abruptly as their joy started it ended, the blood from Clarence's face drained leaving it pale and cold.  “What's wrong?”  Abigail asked, renewed fright sending chills down her spine.  Clarence said nothing, but in a swift motion he stretched out his mighty arm and wrapped around the streetwalker. With blinding speed Clarence swung Abigail behind him.

    In the dying torchlight Abigail saw the source of Clarence's change in demeanor.  She saw the dim reflection of brass goggles that seemed to hang three or four heads above her.  Abigail knew it was him.  The beast never moved, staying completely motionless.  “Run.”  Clarence whispered.

    “Wha-what?” 

    “I'll distract him and you run like hell across and don't stop til' you get to my way station.”    Abigail shook her head in protest and fighting back tears.   “But what about you?”   Finally Clarence tore his gaze away from the stranger and looked at her, a feral vigor in his eyes. “Do as I say and run!”  With a roar the patrolman sent an ear shattering wave of bullets at the black mass.  At first Abigail stayed behind Clarence as his first volley struck the stranger.  Clarence cursed the black clad stalker who seemed to absorb the bullets. Again more hot bullets tore across the cold night air.  “Run damn you!” Clarence screamed once more moving closer to his target.  With the flitting of its large cloak the stalker began to duck and weave, almost in some terrifying dance as it dodged the barrage.  Without further protest Abigail flew out of the alley and away from the only man who seemed to care about her. 

 

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    Abigail burst through the heavy door of the way station with the force of bull.  She didn't know how far she ran but she didn't stop or think until finally she had bolted the heavy iron locks shut.  When her breathing had steadied, she looked about. The space was small, windowless, space, a desk, some drawers.  In the back were two empty holding cells used to detain minor delinquents until someone came to retrieve them.  Once again, Abigail was alone. 

    Way stations were always occupied by multiple patrolmen at different times, so it was no surprise for the streetwalker to find nothing of Clarence's there.  Abigail desperately hoped he was unharmed. Still she found herself wanting to know more about him.  Sadly aside from the official paraphernalia the place was barren.  She scanned about until something on the wall caught Abigail's eye, news clippings and sketches depicting the most horrific of images.  Women slaughtered in the most grotesque ways possible.  Abigail's mouth gaped at what she saw until she came upon one other picture. 

    “Bethany...”  She whispered.  Indeed it was her dead friend, a photo of the crime scene, next to it and documents detailing various information of the grisly act.  It was the slayings, along with documents and information to track the murderer.  In the quiet desolation of her tiny shelter Abigail huddled in a corner waiting for sleep to take her.  But as if her prayers had been answered a familiar voice called to her from behind the heavy wooden door.  “Abigail, are you in there? Abigail!?”  Clarence's voice was frantic and tired, heavy gasps for breath after each word. 

    Abigail's heart was ready to burst from her chest as she herself burst towards the door and began unbolting the locks.  Indeed it was Clarence barely standing at the entrance, his uniform torn and muddy, and his face now marred with a terrible and bloody gash.  Abigail rushed to his aid helping him into the station and locking back the door.  “Are you alright?”       

    “After you dashed out, he tried to give chase. But, luckily I was able to keep the brute at bay.”  Clarence answered as he slumped into a wooden chair next to the desk.  With a painful grunt he opened one of the drawers and pulled out a bottle, taking a deep swig he continued his story.  “After he realized I wasn't like one of those girls he cornered in the alleys he fled.  I tried following but he lashed out, that’s how I got this new beauty mark. Wouldn't have mattered if I caught up to him anyway, ran out of munitions.”

    “Well I'm positively relieved you didn't make some fool hardy attempt at arresting such a beast on your own without weapons.”  Abigail replied, a large smile crossing her dirt smeared face.   Clarence laughed and stood up to face Abigail, a smile on his own face.  “I am glad you're alright.” Abigail said meekly before letting out a surprised yelp, she found Clarence's mighty arm wrapped around her, soft, slender frame.  “I'm glad too.” The man remarked softly. 

    Abigail closed her eyes and embraced Clarence in return; it was if the terrors she had endured throughout the night had been melted away by his presence.  With girlish trepidation, Abigail ran her hands down the patrolman's muscular back and down to his waist.  Her mouth bubbled with soft giggles as she felt his grip tighten.  But a soft jingle from Clarence's pocket stifled Abigail's laughter and halted her desires.  Without thought her hand slowly entered his pocket and pulled out a small violet pouch.  “My purse!”   Abigail exclaimed with a squeal.  Clarence looked down at her with a smile.  “Well you silly bint you ruined my surprise!”  He laughed. 

    “Where in the world did you find this?” 

    “Oh, I snagged it up once you dropped it taking that fall a ways back.  I thought to keep it since it went so well with this.”  With a gentle tug at his neck Clarence presented a silver chain necklace of moderate value and instant familiarity.  Abigail slowly backed away, confused.  “I don't understand. Why would you have that?” 

    “Well I can't take the pelts from the quarry I have to hunt.  I have to settle for different trophies.”  He responded softly, almost inaudibly.  “Now, we only have an hour before I get relieved of my shift.  Can you humor me and let us end this quickly?”

    Protests and screams were silenced as a pair of two meaty hands wrapped themselves around Abigail's tiny pale throat. The gentle face covered in that reddish brown beard she seen that night had morphed into a hideous and violent visage.  Had this been Clarence's true nature, hidden beneath a veil of kindness?  Had she been able, Abigail would have laughed at the absurdity of it all.  Her life had been stripped and torn of all she had held dear.  Now here she was, lured to her death by the false hopes of something new and good in her life.  Still on instinct, she struggled to survive, with whatever strength she had left Abigail scratched and swiped at Clarence but to no avail.  

    Despite the life slowly draining from her body, Abigail could vaguely hear the faint ranting of the madman.  “All you strumpets and whores are alike, each of you parading yourselves on these streets. My streets!  If Delling was half the man everyone made him out to be he'd be doing this, but it takes a real man to do the dirty work.”  Spittle frothed from Clarence's gashed mouth as he continued his tirade.  “If it wasn't for that big bloke I could have finished hours ago and I'd be on the way to your stable master to pick up my earnings.”  Clarence shrieked with laughter as he saw Abigail’s expression.  “Are you really that surprised that old pig Borla put me up to this?  Her and some of the others thought of a new way to get rid of the old stock and make way for the new!  Really, how do you like knowing you're about to die because you took up too much space and didn't make enough spreadin' your legs?”  The grip around the streetwalker's neck had loosened for a moment as if Clarence was waiting for an answer but tightened again.  “Ah, to hell with what some tart like you think.  But I will let you onto something; even if your Madam didn't pay me I'd still do this!”

    Abigail was defeated and with one last cry she lowered her hands and closed her tear filled, bloodshot eyes.  All night she had fought the inevitable and her outcome remained the same.  There was no use to fight anymore. 

    As she resigned herself to her fate a banging from the stations entrance froze her would be murderer.  For a moment the banging stopped, but then continued.  In a fit of rage the maddened patrolman screamed at the top of his lungs.  “Damn it to hell, go away! We're changing shifts!”

    “I'm so terribly sorry to disturb you but I'm in quite a bit of distress.”  A soft voice answered.

    Cursing, Clarence rose from the prone woman and violently grabbed a handful of her golden hair.  Abigail yelped in pain as her assailant dragged her to the empty holding cell.  Clarence scowled as he slammed open the filthy steel door.  “Bloody things I have to put up with tonight.”  And with a loud thud, Abigail was hurled into the disgusting cage.  “This should hold you until I get done with this hobb.” 

    Pain rocked through Abigail's body as she slowly rose to peer at what delayed her demise. Her hair was matted with filth and sweat, and had been plastered all over her bruised face, wiping it away she tried to see what was happening. Though her vision blurred she could make out the stocky bulk that was Clarence arguing with a smaller individual.  “The hell do you want?!”  She heard Clarence scream. "Good Lord you're as ugly as they come!" The third party's voice was soft but was obviously that of another man and was almost familiar to her.  “Oh! Insults and thievery are abound!  Such a terrible night this has been!”  He lamented.  “I'm missing someone!  Or maybe she could be missing me. I'm just awful with details.” 

    “What? What the blazes are you going on about you twit?” 

    “One of the girls I had...procured for certain services.  She ran off on me!” 

    “Serves you right you sod! Shouldn't pay them up front to begin with!”  Clarence remarked as he tried to push the other man out of the way station. 

    Finally Abigail's vision had cleared enough for her to see who Clarence had been arguing with this whole time.  Such a hideous tiny man compared to the patrolman, his tan skin contrasted with his bright unmatched clothing, and his eggplant nose was wrinkled in disgust. The streetwalker gasped seeing the funny looking gentleman she and Bethany argued with and whom she had tried to escape from in the alleys.  She watched as the two bickered and argue, finally Clarence could not contain his rage.

    Clarence's face flared red and he towered over the tiny man.  His mighty hands wrapped around the gentleman's green coat and brought him close to his face.  “Listen you, Night's been garbage for everyone so why don't you bugger off and try to fill out a report tommo-”

    “That's her!”  The ugly fellow interrupted, looking past the near insane patrolman.  To Clarence's amazement, the hideous gentleman wriggled free from his grasp like a snake and towards the cells.  “My goodness that is her! Thank you so much for finding my lady of the evening!”

    “Listen you, I don't know what you're jabbering on about.  That little whore has been here most of the day.  Knifed another girl on her turf.”  

    “No, no, no, no, no.  You must have hit the bottle early in your shift today.  This is definitely her.”  The stranger contended moving closer to the holding cell.  The man knelt by the dumbfounded girl.  “Though I must say she wasn't in this sort of condition when she ran off.  I swear you Order boys need to handle other people's merchandise more delicately!”  

    Pain throbbed inside Abigail's skull. Still she shook her head in disbelief.  What the hell was this fool going on about?  He must have had a death wish, and with the looming shadow behind him the noble was going to get it.  The streetwalker coughed up whatever blood and phlegm that had built up in her throat, and in a hoarse tone she whispered.  “I-I don't know what you’re thinking, but if you want to see tomorrow you’ll leave.”  The hideous man reeled back in a shock, his mouth agape as if he had been wronged by Abigail's words.  “Without the services I'd been charged for!? You should be arrested for embezzlement with rates you set!  Young lady I refuse to leave until without your company!”

    “Walk out of here now or you're going to leave the same way she is; pieces.”  A deep unsettled voice answered.  It was clear Clarence had enough and the gun he had shown off earlier was now drawn and pointed at the ugly noble.  “Those are the choices you have.  Now I've got me a scant amount of time and that means you have even less.”  The rage in Clarence's eyes magnified as he moved closer to the two of them.  The ugly little man ignored him.  “My good man,” He went on, hands running across the bars of the cell.  “Running a bit late?  Probably the reason you left the cell door unlocked.”

    Abigail winced at the cell door swinging open with a deafening clang.  She knew the only thing stopping Clarence from ending the idiot’s life was the difficulty of covering up an upperclassman's murder.  A prostitute in Ruby was something no one would bother to look twice at, but an actual citizen was another matter.  But that was no longer a concern for Clarence, two bodies to dispose of was better than a living witness.  A scream, more bestial than human, erupted from the big man's chest as his finger pulled the trigger of his pistol. 

    The firearm clicked impotently as it cycled through the empty barrel.  Clarence snarled and flipped over the weapon in an attempt to beat his victim with the butt of his pistol.  The patrolman had arms thicker than any man Abigail had seen in Ruby, surely a swing like would have caved in the smaller man's skull.  But with uncanny reflexes the noble weaved out of Clarence's mighty blow.  A myriad of curses erupted from Clarence's thick throat as he missed.  Though his body was thick and heavy with muscle, Clarence possessed formidable, almost frightening, speed.  A slower opponent would have been caught off guard as Clarence spun around to face the stranger, but again the other man effortlessly dodged the flurry of jabs and swings that were sent his direction. 

    Sweat poured like a river down Clarence's beet red face.  The big man panted hard as if he had been sparring for hours.  The stranger remained untouched.  Time was running out for him, and everything that had been set up and established would be destroyed.  With nothing left to lose Clarence dove forward at the smaller man, hoping to use sheer mass to pin down the other man.  At first Clarence thought himself the victor when the two of them crashed down onto the hard concrete floor.  The patrolman laughed as he saw the chunk the other man's face torn off.  “Hah!  And I thought you couldn't get any uglier!”  Clarence shrieked with laughter as he saw that eggplant shaped nose tear from the other man's face.  But a second glance ceased Clarence's insanity.        

    Chunks of tan flesh had been torn from the foolish gentleman's face and true as it was that bulbous nose had been removed.  But not a drop of blood had been spilled.  Underneath the skin was a powdery residue over another layer of skin.  Clarence's face shifted between fury and confusion.  “What is this mess? Putty?” 

    “Theater makeup actually.”  The pinned man responded with a smile, the weight of his words taking hold along with a bone shattering head butt square into Clarence's nose.  In an instant the bigger man was sent reeling, gasping for air violently, as twin streams of blood gushed down his face. 

    Double vision staggered Clarence while trying to stand on his shaking legs.  “To hell with this.”  He slurred.  Though still shaken by the impact, Clarence bolted through the station and into the streets.  Abigail did not know what to expect from the stranger next.  “A bit roughed up but I'd say you'll make it.”  He muttered jokingly as he inspected her face. After a moment he pulled back his own false skin. 

    The man beneath the makeup possessed a face years younger.  His skin was the same tan hue, but unmarred by blemishes and wrinkles, and matched the shoulder length black hair that rest beneath his gray wig.  Abigail stared at the face she had seen many a time in the press but her damaged condition left her forgetting his name.  Slowly, he brought Abigail to her feet and carefully escorted her towards the exit.  As the two of then set foot on the streets the morning sun slowly began to appear across the dim sky.  Abigail looked at the stranger, still perplexed by his actions.  “But what about Clarence?”

    Abigail would have given anything to have never known someone like that could have existed.  Before the stranger could answer, a blood curdling shriek ripped through the alley, sending Abigail behind the young man in terror. 

    From the alleyway crawled a bloody and beaten mass of a man covered in a tattered Order uniform.  Clarence's face was covered in blood while a second gash wept mercilessly and his eyes were wide with fear. Worse yet the big man's beefy left arm dangled in a ghastly position like it had been ripped from the socket.  As he crawled back onto the sidewalk amongst the few morning onlookers, a towering black clad figure emerged from behind.  A black top hat and overcoat covered most of being's features save for a pair of large brass goggles.  “Well after Hawthorne has finished with him I don't think you'll have much to worry about.”  Terrence Greymourne said chuckled with a smile. Slowly he escorted a reluctant Abigail towards an arriving Order coach.                                                                

******************************************************************************

    The Order had dissected every inch of the tiny structure, taking files, pictures and other objects in as evidence against their rogue patrolman.  By a carriage against the morning sun three individuals conversed amongst themselves.  One young man with rankings of a lower officer scratched his bushy blonde head and puffed on a clove cigarette. Though he possessed the rank, his face had none of the worry lines that came with years on the job.  Willis had recently been promoted and was now tasked with such duties deemed too tedious for other higher ranking members.  Overseeing this crime was task gladly passed down to him.  “I just don't get it. All the boys who knew 'im said he acted perfectly normal.” 

    “I doubt anyone would classify this as normal.  But still...”  Terrence answered, long abandoning his intricate ruse for his everyday garb.  “After the first girl's death went unnoticed by your superiors I had passed these streets many a night in disguise trying to catch wind of our culprit.  It had been our poor luck and lack of observation that let him go wild as long as he did.”  The biggest of the three, a hulking ghoul in a drab black coat and goggles looked at the young officer with a sneer.  “I guess no one in your little boy's club paid enough attention to notice a rabid dog like that wore your colors every day and was left to his own devices.”  Hawthorne remarked in his deep monotone voice, not hiding his disdain for the Order.  Willis chuckled, Hawthorne was an imposing sight and he had left Clarence's arm a battered mess, but the insult was too deep for to be ignored.  He pointed to his sigil. “You listen here. I know you got a thing against this symbol and me boss.  But don’t, don't, get pissy with me over this.” 

    “Willis is right.”  Terrence interjected looking at his partner.  “Besides you're probably just still upset old Clarence got away from you the first time.”   The ghoul grunted.  “If I hadn't been pumped with all that steel he wouldn't have run off.  Besides I'd like to see either one of you do that and still stand.”

    “That reminds me,” Terrence continued. “Any word on how your boss is taking the news?”

    Willis shuddered at the thought of the high officer, Osgood Delling, the man could strike terror in even the most blood thirsty of dwellers.  “I'm sure Clarence will try to do himself in before he gets in the interrogating room with Delling.  Murdering people like that while wearing the uniform, Delling isn't happy about it.” 

    “I just hope it shows him that dwellers aren't the only ones who can riddle the city with problems.”  Hawthorne replied.  “But it'll just probably give him an opportunity to lock down on the Ruby District more than ever.” 

    “Doubt it, the Council of Madams would petition against it. Beside with all those angry patrons there'd be rioting in the streets!”  Willis chortled between puffs from his cigarette.

    “Ah yes! That reminds me Hawthorne we really need to be going.” Terrence Greymourne said as he begun to walk away from the crime scene.  “We have a few stops to make before heading home, a few of those madams need to be aware their lapdog has been caught and won't be butchering young ladies for them anymore.”

    “Whom do you have in mind first?” 

    “It is quite a ways from our route home, but I think old Borla needs to know Abigail won’t be in her employment any longer.”

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With Glass Eyes

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The Maddening Trail

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Despoiled Purtiy

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Trysts, Tunnels, and Traps

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