Hey hey. Got something I’m working on that I’d like to post, a sort-of sequel to The Art of Dying. I say “sort-of” because… well, I guess you’ll find out. No need for me to belabour the point.
Anyways, this story’s in a bit of a rougher state than I’d like it to be (only a draft and a polish), but to tell you the truth, this is where I tend to flounder the most. So any thoughts, comments, questions, rants, raves and/or musings would be greatly appreciated. Seriously. Go ****ing nuts.
Since this story turned out to be quite lengthy, I’ve decided to cut it up into easily-digestible pieces. I’m not savvy on the way this is usually done, so I’m just gonna wing it and post two chapters a day. This can be stepped up (or down) upon request.
And here we go.
The Art of Killing
Part 1: Convergence
Inevitability had come to her. Funny how that happened, sometimes; inevitability like a marker on the horizon, every day getting a bit closer, the marker bigger and bigger until you’re forced to lay your hands on it. Inevitable, she thought. Inexorable. Here I am with my hands on the marker.
It wasn’t a big deal, though. That’s what Seph was always saying. Not a big deal, sis. Keep it steady. Garbage words. Cold comfort. It’s no big deal, yeah.
“Hungry?” Sephony said. Her widebrim hat was tipped down over her eyes. The windowslats were half closed and the amber sunlight painted the cab in thin bars. She could smell leather, polished mahogany.
“No,” Willowyn said. They shifted in the cab. They rode a knot in the rails and Sephony held her hat as they bounced in the seats.
Two years I’ve been putting this off, Willowyn thought. But here I am, on Trans-kingdom Rail. Inexorable.
The train hissed and hollered over the rails. Fingering open a slat, Willowyn looked out at a blurred yellow landscape. The wind sifted her long hair and fluttered the chequered kerchief tied around her neck.
Sephony plugged a cheroot between her lips. She cupped a match in the smooth shell of her hands and sparked it with her thumbnail. The smoke was cobalt blue and rich.
“Ride’s a bit smoother’n I thought it’d be.”
She nudged the brim of her hat and her moth-coloured eyes flashed with humour. “Aye,” she said, enjoying her sister’s discomfort. “Doin’ all right?”
“I’m just fine, thank ya. Why worry on a train?”
“Well… if we happen to jump the rails—”
“You sure? I hear it happens, us going so fast and all. The train jumps and the engine-room goes up, and then it’s a funeral pyre for all us paying passengers. You know how these rails were set. You trust the work of goblins with your life?”
Willowyn grit her teeth. She wouldn’t let her sister bait her fear. “The gobs may be dumb as dung, but they worked. And when they didn’t we took care of em. I got ninety gold takin care of em, you got seventy. That’s a hunnert-sixty coin says these rails were set right.”
That was back in Aranoch, where the railwork was hardest. The sisters were paid to watch over the imps as they slaved under the scorching sun, setting rails and hammering them, trudging iron spikes in wheel-barrels, the wheels always getting sputtered in the sand and the spikes tipping over. The imps sweating and falling to their bony knees and so many of them just keeling over and dying by the rails. Others, though: others ran, that’s where the sisters made their coin. They got two gold a head for deserters and slackers.
“I heard a cow wandered onto the tracks two week ago,” Sephony said. “The train splashed it and its guts got caught in the wheelworks and the train went screeching off the—”
“I’m hungry,” Willowyn blurted out, though she tried to make it sound casual. “Let’s grab lunch.”
The meal-car was long and spacious, filled with tables and the tables filled with men in fine suits and women in gowns, their sleeves of their gowns frilled, ivory canes and coloured parasols leaning against their chairs. The smells of meat and corn and coffee, fresh fruit and milk.
All eyes moved to the sisters as they waited by the podium to be seated.
Unperturbed, Sephony reached into her vest and checked her platinum timepiece. She knew what they were looking at: the Archangel .45 slung low and deadly on her hip, the roundnosed bullets winking in the loops on her belt. Gun-iron always sent a shiver up a plutocrat’s spine, especially when they were locked on a train with nowhere to hide.
Willowyn glared openly at them. Her hand never fell to her matching Archangel, but they could see it in her eyes, how she wanted to slap leather and fan hammer.
The hushed words drifting around them. Bounty killers. Headhunters. Assassin.
A man in a white tux nervously seated them in a booth by the window. This was wise. With the sisters safely out of sight the mood in the cab broke and the passengers began to relax.
“Gods rot all trains,” Willowyn hissed to herself. She ran her long fingers through her hair.
Sephony studied the menu.
“Weeping blood,” swore Willowyn. “How much longer’s this trip?”
“A few hours to the station. Then it’s a day’s coach to Sadness.”
“Coach, good. Now there’s a way to travel. And what’s that dogswallowing smell?”
“I don’t smell a thing.”
“Smell again. I know that… that stench.” Her nostrils oculated. “I know that…” Her eyes widened. “Imp.”
Sephony placed the menu on the table.
“Smell it. Baal’s livid penis, that’s definitely imp!”
They scanned the car.
“There, in the far corner,” Willowyn said. “Look at the little bastard. Gods, he’s a blueskin.” She hawked and spat on the floorboards. “Worst kind, those puny blue rothearts.”
Sephony squinted. “He’s got a menu.”
“What? Well that settles it. Let’s pay him a visit.”
They traversed the car slowly. Willowyn tucked a thumb behind her gunbelt and rested her palm on the bullets, her small finger almost touching the mouth of the roughout holster.
Sephony cupped flame and lit a smoke.
In his booth, the small imp was propped on a pile of books and his thin legs dangled under the table. His wispy brown beard was cut and groomed, his eyes two glittering stones in his sharp face, like pyrite. Incredibly, the imp was wearing a tiny pinstriped suit—badly stitched, homemade, but a suit nonetheless. He had a white piece of cloth tucked and folded at his neckline, a makeshift cravat. An old bowler hat that was much too big for him, even though it was for a child.
They stood over him.
“What a rare day,” Willowyn drawled. “An imp actin’ like a man.”
The imp nodded politely to them. A bead of sweat ran down his neck, but to his credit he did not shiver with fear.
Again the car was silent.
“Mind if we take a seat?”
He gestured to the empty side of the booth. His finger betrayed him and trembled.
“What, can’t talk?” Willowyn asked. “You a mute’r something?”
The imp cleared his throat. “N-no. Please sit.” His voice was thin and jagged, like he was talking with a mouthful of razorblades. Willowyn snorted disgustedly at the sound of it.
They slid into the booth.
“Never saw a goblin with a suit before,” Willowyn said, nailing the slur hard, looking for any show of defiance so she could legally crush him. “Make that suit yourself, blueskin?”
The imp hid partially behind the menu. “My wife,” he said. “My wife sewed it.”
“Your wife, huh? Hear that Sephony? His wife.”
“I heard it.”
Willowyn smiled without mirth. “Was it a nice ceremony?”
“The marriage. Was it nice.”
“We’re not—legally, we’re not…”
“Oh, that’s right. Goblins aren’t allowed to marry. That’d be like marryin dogs or lizards or sisters. Do you think I should be allowed to marry my sister?”
“No. Of, of course not.”
“Ah.” Willowyn turned to her sister. “The beast has standards when it suits him.” Back to the imp. “Tell me, blueboy: how’d you get off the tracks and on the train. I’m curious. Who’d you swindle? Who’d you kill?”
It was a thought on the entire car’s mind. What little conversation remained guttered out as they waited for the imp’s answer.
“No-nobody, I swear it. No swindle. No killing. I—my…”
“Hurry it, goblin.”
“My family. We—on the rails, the railwork, they give us a gold a week. My son died hammering spikes and his pay was left to me. My two daughters died. My wife was shot. All their gold came to me, and—and their belongings, which I traded for more coins. Except for the suit. I kept the suit.”
“Dung,” Willowyn said. “You killed em and took their golds, didn’t you?”
Anger glowered under the imp’s brow but he tucked it away quickly. I’ve come so far, he thought. I can’t die now.
“I killed no-one. I love my family. And now I’m going home. My debt to the rails is paid. My ticket’s paid. I don’t owe anymore.”
Willowyn plucked the cheroot from her sister’s mouth and took a puff. She considered what the imp had said, sucking the smoke deep into her lungs, tapping ash on the table. She streamed the smoke from her nose.
“You owe. Don’t you ever think you don’t. Your people took up arms against mine. You sided with the Great Evils. How much blood is on your little blue hands?”
“None,” the imp snapped, unable to hold his rage any longer. “None! That was generations ago. My hands are clean and my debts paid!”
Willowyn slammed the flat of her fist on the table. The silverware jumped and clattered. “Your debts are never paid, you hear me? Never. You’re an evil, brutal race—hatred of my kind will always run in your abominable veins. That’s why you’re slaves. You can never be trusted. Savages. You’re all savages.”
“Who’s the savage here?” The imp asked, nearly delirious with rage. “Who? The imp that worked honest for two years, or the woman that murdered honest workers?”
It was too much. Willowyn sprung upright and the silverware clattered and her fingers slapped leather, the revolver flashing from its holster and the click of the hammer coming back. The imp held the menu in front of his face like a pathetic shield, whimpering, waiting for the thunder and the darkness to follow it.
The thunder never came.
He peeked over the menu and saw the other ape-human, the quiet one with the cold pale eyes gripping her sister’s wrist, gently—yet firmly—halting her fire. The imp could not believe his eyes. It made no sense to him at all.
I should be dead, he thought. It should be getting black and I should smell the cordite biting my nose, like I’ve smelled it a thousand times before on the rails.
Sephony was shaking her head. “Not yet,” she said. “Let’s not kill for free, lest we’re forced.”
The words calmed Willowyn. She slumbered the gun and straightened her coat.
“This is pathetic,” she said while taking her seat. “I never thought I’d see the day you saved a goblin. If word gets out we’re finished. No one’ll want us stalking the tracks.”
“The railroad’s finished, Will. That work’s gone anyways.”
“Sure. But there’s a thing called honour, you know.” She turned to the imp. “That’s something you’d know precious little about.”
Says the murderer, the imp thought. He couldn’t wait till this trip was finished. By the Shaman’s beard, why’d he take the train?
Because there was no other choice, he told himself. There was bad business back home, he’d heard; the tribe was in danger. It was his duty as patriarch to return and defend his land from all invaders.
Hopefully he wasn’t too late.
It’s a long ride to Sadness, he thought.
The train squealed to a halt at TKR-27, the dilapidated station that sat on the outer edge of Khanduras. Only a few of the passengers dismounted; most would be riding on to Westmarch, where trade was good and the forests cut away and safe.
The sisters hopped from the open car to the platform, slinging their travelling packs over their shoulders and lighting smokes. The imp gave them a wide berth, quietly dragging his beaten pack across the platform and into the station.
“Gods,” Willowyn said. “All that sitting. My rump’s aching like a black tooth.”
Sephony nodded absently. She was watching the train lumber out of the station, coughing and sputtering dark smoke, clutching for speed. It was an ugly beast, this coal-fed contraption… but before long it would find its legs and whipcrack through the countryside, reaching speeds never thought possible before.
She did not fear the train like her sister. But it did fill her with a ghostly foreboding, the progress it implied, the steps taken forward that were perhaps steps taken away from them, far away. The rail stalking done; the money mostly gone. Would there be another job? Would the train speed away and take their livelihood with it?
No, Sephony thought. Train or not, there’ll always be killing work.
But would there? Before, a bounty could only run so far. More often than not they’d find their prey in the outskirts, trekking half-dead and worn-out, all the fight kicked out of him by hard travels. But now a bounty could just jump a train and coast to the far-reaches of the Kingdoms.
It was a problem she would have to ponder.
Willowyn pitched her smoke to the rails below. “Where’s the trotter? I gotta splash some pish.”
As Willowyn wandered off in search of an outhouse, Sephony leaned against a post and languidly finished her smoke. The land around the station was formless and ugly, still too close to the alkali flats to harbour much life: terse whorls of witchweed struggled from the parched earth; a few stunted trees, their bark gnarled and sunbleached, stood like skeletal claws.
I can’t wait to get to the woodlands, Sephony thought.
A legless man loped from the station on his hands. His clothes were filthy, mere rags. A faded insignia on his breast, a chewed army cap on his bald head. His eyes glimmered when he took sight of Sephony; he loped toward her.
“Missus! ‘Scuse me missus! Got a coin for a poor old footless sod?”
“A veteran, are you?”
“Thass correct, missus. Loss my legs in the Big Fight an’ I’ll never dance again. That’s a shame for an old vet innit? Spare a coin?”
She fished a gold from her pocket and flipped it in her palm. The man’s eyes followed the coin as it spun and flashed in the sun.
Sephony asked, “That the Territories War?”
“Yar, the Big Fight in thirty-three.”
“You fight for Khanduras?”
The man sneered and spat. “A-damn-course I did! Most glor’yus Kingdom of the three! I fought an’ loss my bloodthumpin legs an’ if I had another pair I’d give those too!”
Sephony closed her fist around the coin.
“Khanduras was the first to lay down, soldier. You lost your legs but kept your life. Your charity’s already been doled by the Gods.”
The man’s jaw worked spastically and the grimy cords in his neck bunched. “You bloodthumpin harlot! Your greed’ll be the death’a you!”
“The same can be said for yours. Now hobble off before I finish what Entsteig couldn’t.”
He would’ve protested but the harlot had a gun and slaughterhouse eyes. She was a hard one, he knew; he’d seen those eyes before, on the killingfields when the enemy rushed with his rifle belching smoke and the bayonet gleaming. If I had my legs, the man thought while loping away; ooooh if I had em, I’d kick that bloodhungry harlot right in'r scabby gulch an’ watch her whine an’ squeal.
She’ll get her payment, he thought. Ay she will.
Willowyn stepped out of the man’s way and gave him a rough kick in the rear. “Watch where you’re going, you old fool! Gods, let’s get back to proper civilization. I’ve a coach waiting for us out front.”