A Warrior’s Relief
Heart’s pounding. I roll and hit the ground. Hard. A mountain of putrid bone and gristle is two beats behind me. There’s no time to think so I don’t. The Fireball springs from my hindbrain and I loose it on pure reflex. If I miss I’m dead. Wouldn’t be the first time, and not even the first tonight. But more lives than mine are riding on this and failure is unacceptable.
The spell slams home but it’s not enough. I have time to smile at the smell of scorched fur and the unearthly yowl as the avalanche of undead flesh crushes me into the mud. Does this thing feel pain? I hope it does. I hope that hurt. It’s all I’ve got. I’ll never know you but I’m sorry I let you down.
The creature meows and … wait. Meows?
I struggle up, but nothing’s crushing me. For a moment the smells, the sounds, are all wrong. Then I hear Kaelie moving in the dark; I know where I am. I’m laying on a rug. It’s my rug. This is my house. I tell myself that until I believe it, and try to stop shaking.
A candle flares and she peers over my side of the bed. She looks concerned, and I love her so much in that moment. She doesn’t ask what’s wrong, just holds me while I pull myself together. There’s nothing wrong with me, anyway. Nothing anyone can find. Nothing anyone can fix. It just takes time. That’s what older men than me have told me, but they were all drinking when they said it. After a few minutes I’m as good as I’m going to be and I pull away, kissing her to take the hurt out. I tell her I need some air. She tells me to wash up before I come home. This isn’t the first time for either of us.
I open my collar against the thick late summer heat and prowl out into the night. Sooty clouds hide the moons, hinting rain but only delivering shadows. That’s fine. What I need tonight is sweeter in the dark. I walk by the river, heading for the Longbow bridge and the other side of town. My feet know where to go so I let them lead while my mind goes elsewhere, and I remember…
She was all of twelve, and she wouldn’t stop crying. Cute little thing. I didn’t blame her, but she had to shut up. The zombies hadn’t noticed us yet. If we could keep it that way ’til we hit the Longbow bridge, we could sprint for the Temple and have a chance. If not … I could protect myself, but not all of us together. People were going to die. So she had to shut up.
The dozen or so I had with me were all that was left of a tenement of maybe a hundred on Kertigen’s Way after the towering bone monstrosity and my elemental magic were done with it. I blamed the landlord. Invasions were as common a hazard as fire. Maybe if the back door hadn’t been chained (seamstresses in the basement were taking too many breaks) .. maybe everyone would have made it out. Maybe. If he’d somehow survived this he wasn’t going to survive me. They were mostly in shock, following my orders because nothing else made sense. That was good. A few glared at me. They’d seen the battle – or not. Didn’t matter – they could hate me the rest of their lives and probably would if this went badly. So as long as they could be quiet and fast we were golden.
We were across from the Shipyard, almost to the bridge, when the girl started bawling. Nothing carries like a child´s cry. Even the fires seemed to pause as she wailed; right behind that came the stirring moan of the the dead. Everyone looked at her, looked at me. Same fear on every face. Same plea. Do something…
I took her into the Shipyard, came out alone. She wasn’t crying anymore. We all made it to the Temple.
I come back to myself. I’m at the Viper’s Nest. Time to get dolled up and have some fun. When I started I could have walked in and had my way, but I’m not fresh anymore and I’ve played this game too many times. I have to be coy. Amfitro gives me a look but he knows why I’m here and knows better than to throw me out. I take a table at the back and get seriously drunk while I wait for my partner. It takes longer every night.
By the time I catch him watching me across the bar I don’t have to fake a sway standing up. The whore I’ve been chatting up looks disappointed, but I buy her coffee with a gold piece and she brightens. I’m not a trick but I can be neighborly. Nice to put a smile on somebody’s face. I don’t have to look to know my man is following as I shuffle out the door.
I stagger into the alley. My vision swims. Maybe I took too long this time. Maybe my number’s up. Wouldn’t that be something. Then he arrives and he’s brought some friends and I don’t have to think anymore.
“Ok …” He says. “We can make this easy …” I stop paying attention. He’s not much to look at, none of them are. Big men but shabby. Too fat to be desperate. Stupid, or they wouldn’t be out here. A couple are Guilded and they should really know better. I realize it’s been quiet for awhile, and come around to see he looks nonplussed. His friends are snickering.
“I said, am I boring you?”
So I hit him in the mouth.
I’m drunk and unarmed and it’s nothing like a fair fight. Poor bastards.
It’s not always like this. I’ve been hurt bad, had to run … but not tonight. I slip into the magic like my old comfy shirt and the alley gets loud, bright and messy.
I take a different route back to spare the guards any awkwardness, and stop by the bath house to sweat out the Viper Venom. It’s almost dawn when I get home. Kaelie’s asleep. She looks like an angel. I’m too tired to feel guilty as I slip into bed. All I’ve got is relief. For the night, that’s enough.