A sprawling desert camp sweltered under a sun of molten gold. The settlement’s crude and rambling architecture was fashioned from the bones and husks of great sea beasts blessedly rendered extinct by some untold ancient catastrophe that impossibly evaporated an entire sea and left its primordial life to wither and cook for incalculable aeons upon the cracked and naked floor. The tents had spines of fishbone and doorways framed with yawning toothy jaws and their chimneys leaked with the smoky issue of things burnt alive not for the sake of food but for the burning itself. Tentcloth of dark silk milked and spun from the guts of ash spiders flapped in the wind as did the sooty robes worn by these humorless and bone-studded nomads whose black hearts beat with the blackest blood.
They were hobgoblins, a lean and leathery people of wind-wrought faces and mouths crowded with jagged teeth, their bodies storied with scarifications from the very day they first knew the world. No cradles or toys or dolls for their young but only pain holy and pure. Their ancestors chose the desert as their home for there the suffering was greatest and to suffer was to be close to god.
They were gathered at the camp’s center where their bare feet shuffled on hot sand and they gnawed at the arms of one another and vacantly dug into their mutilated flesh with cruel hooks. A contrite hobgoblin knelt and disrobed. His criss-cross scars glistened under the holy sun as another flagellant stood across the clearing with a whip clutched in fingers that were so cracked and broken they resembled the legs of crabs.
He uncoiled the whip’s many barbed tongues and sent them lashing at the kneeler. The instrument barked and its tines cut through skin and fat and black blood flecked the dust. The kneeler muttered through phlegm and salted tears as he thanked god for the pain and prayed that the creator gloriously shit truth down the throats of the apostates.
The lasher dragged the strands back to him leaving snake-trails in the dust and dealt another practiced crack upon the kneeler’s wracked frame. Then another and another as the whip’s reports echoed across the camp until no part of the kneeler’s skin was left spared.
Mercifully the lashings came to an end. The kneeler rose on shaky legs and spit out more of the black stuff. He crossed the expanse and the lasher went to him and they met in the middle where they touched shoulders as the flail passed between their hands.
They took each other’s place in the dirt. The lasher knelt and the kneeler lashed. Crack. Crack. Crack.
— • —
“I don’t think the target’s here.”
Two men watched through a spyglass from the cover of a cresting dune among the pocked hills of fossilized coral. They were camouflaged in the colors of the desert with black knives on their hips and compact crossbows on their backs and hobgoblin blood smeared under their eyes to combat the glare of the sun. Tall white mountains loomed beyond them and on the other side of those eternal titans was home.
Scratch was meanfaced and bearded and a Reaper to the bone. For him there was no other life to be had. He passed the spyglass to the other man whose name was Tusk. “Or he’s holed up in that big tent. Knows the second he pokes out his ugly head–” Scratch charaded the firing of a crossbow. “–thwack. Grave city.”
Thickly-moustached Tusk lowered the spyglass and dug into a pouch on his belt. A small chatter bird was quietly perched on his shoulder. “I’m sending word: no sightings of Orchid.” He fed the bird a pellet and whispered to it in rapid chirps after which it took flight and soared into the sky.
Scratch watched it go. “Any chance you can train that thing to drop a load on ol’ Rooster’s head?”
Tusk snickered and collapsed the spyglass. “We should get back to camp.”
Scratch scowled. “Not until I see what’s in that tent. Come nightfall I’m gettin’ a closer look.”
“Not a good idea.”
“There’ll be no moons shining tonight. Total darkness. And, look – they barely got no fortifications. Place’ll be easier to penetrate than your mother’s sorry cunt.”
“Exactly,” said Tusk. “No defenses, which probably means he’s not even there.”
Scratch scoffed. “Our charge is to confirm for a fact whether or not Orchid is here. I will not go back without doing what I came here to do.”
He snatched the spyglass back from Tusk. Telescoped it open and peered through at the ongoing sadistic ritual. “Go back to camp. You ain’t trained for this and would just get in my way.”
Tusk knew this was truth and another truth he knew was that no persuasion would alter Scratch’s mind on the matter. So he packed up his gear and wished his comrade luck and made for the foothills.
— • —
“There will be nights that feel colder and lonelier than the spaces between the very goddamn stars and days on end lying motionless in stinking muck itchin’ and itchin’ yourself till you itch your skin right off. You’ll experience the sting of a ghost wasp and it’ll burn so bad you’ll curse your own mother for bringing you into a world that knows such a hurt. You’ll come face to face with species that never sleep and think only to murder. A sudden knife at the throat, death square in the face every day. This is what a Reaper must train for.”
Instructor Barda’s words lingered in the marching yard. He stood stern and solemn before a batch of fresh recruits. A flag bearing the Nation’s colors whipped in the wind. Emblazoned on its deep blue backdrop were seven stars that represented the seven city-states. Nevermind that only one such city still stood.
“You have been hand-picked by your superiors as candidates for the most respected and lethal force at the Nation’s disposal. Well, I must say the officers that sent you here ought to be hanged from Beggar Bridge for trotting out such a sorry bunch as what I see standing before me today but I suppose time will tell. The coming weeks will be the hardest, most grueling experience in your pathetic lives. Most of you will go home crying like a baby fit for a cradle and some of you will go home a corpse fit for a grave. And do not believe those who say to die in service to the Nation is an honor for you are of no use to your country dead. Those of you who are not man enough to continue with this program are free to tuck tail and run at any time. But there is a price.”
Barda took a curved knife from his belt. “That price is your blood. Any time this is all too much for you, you are welcome to come take this knife from me and draw blood from your palm and smear it on your own face in shame. Then and only then will I allow you to go home and cry into your mother’s tit. If you ask me, you’re better off slitting your wrists with this blade than facing such a dishonor but that too takes pumpkins you likely do not possess!”
Barda returned the blade to its sheath and stepped up to a recruit with long flowing hair. The soldier was thin as a riding crop with narrow, angular features and eyes that cupped a sorrow beyond their years. Barda yelled into his ear: “What is your name, worm chowder?!”
“That is incorrect! Not one of you is deserving of a proper and respectable name until you prove otherwise. Until such time your name means shit and your life means less than shit because at least shit can serve as fertilizer but we got to send your worthless bodies home! Some day, if any of you make the cut – which I highly fucking doubt – you will be honored by your Reaper brothers with a name that you may carry proudly. Until then your name, recruit, is Worm Chowder! Do you understand me?!”
“So Worm Chowder, riddle me this: are you a fairy hog-sucking ylf?!”
“Then why do you have the hairstyle of a fairy hog-sucking ylf?!”
“The ladies like it?”
“The ladies like it, what!?”
“The ladies like it, sir!”
“Son, the only ladies to be found where you’re headed are the kind I guarantee you do not want to poke with that worthless shriveled piece of minnow bait you call a pecker! Now get to the barber and cut that goddamn rag off before I scalp it off myself!”
Blacwin double-timed it toward a complex of wooden buildings. Beyond the small fort’s walls and watchtowers was a vast thorny wilderness and beyond that were the mountains cold and slumbering and beyond that was the desert where hobgoblins and woebeasts dwelled and beyond that we dare not let our musings venture lest our nightmares be shaken from their sleep.
— • —
Scissors snipped as Blacwin’s long black locks fell to the floor. He ran his hands over his freshly shorn head and discovered he liked the feel.
— • —
He unpacked in the long bunk-cabin that would be his home for the following weeks. His possessions were few: a rucksack, a knife, a cup, a razor. The bare essentials. He looked around at his fellow recruits as they set mementos and keepsakes and heirlooms around their meager spaces. A locket lovingly draped on a bedpost. A treasured family blade hung proudly on a wall. A sheep’s hoof, painted and gifted by some heartsick lover back home, on the nightstand.
“Did it hurt?”
Blacwin turned to see a young man he recognized from formation.
“The haircut, I mean,” The stranger was fidgety with bloodshot eyes and reminded Blacwin of the nervous energy he saw too often in the fledgling junkies of Camshire as they were just beginning their descent into addiction. But maybe it was just first-day nerves. “Hope it wasn’t too painful to see it go.”
Blacwin ran his hands over his head again. “I had it that way for a long, long time. But I don’t think I’ll miss it, especially come summer.”
“Well I think the new look suits you. The ladies should like it just fine.” The newcomer offered a hand. “Forthrup of Chargrave.”
Blacwin shook it. “Blacwin, Gashburn.”
“Gashburn.” Forthrup unshouldered his rucksack. “Can’t say I’ve heard of it.”
“Not much to hear. Sad little mining town in the far north.”
“Ooh, ylf country. You ever see one?”
“No. But I know guys who have.”
“Lunar. Any of them take a shot?”
“They weren’t armed.”
“Mind if I take the top?”
“Be my guest.”
Forthrup climbed up and bounced onto his freshly claimed mattress. Blacwin settled into the lower bunk and closed his eyes.
Of course it was a lie. Not only had Blacwin seen ylfs but their wild blood ran through his very veins. He was half an ylf and half a man and thus half a person in the eyes of either society. The ylfs could smell the human in him like a rot and given the chance they would gladly send his soul to the stars. Nor would the humans suffer Blacwin another breath if they ever learned of his secret. The Nation’s decline and crumbling borders had sent it into a state of pitched and dangerous xenophobia. Their word for half-ylf was “taint” as if to suggest tainted blood or a taint on humanity or the space between a man’s balls and ass. But Blacwin’s appearance, though slight and angular, leaned human and therefore he could live among mankind undetected. And so there he was.
His earliest memories were of years spent in the lecherous custody of a cutthroat exile who robbed farmhouses along the countryside and coldly murdered the families therein. The drifter Grendyll took an abandoned and vulnerable Blacwin beneath his wing and assumed the role of father and raised the boy under his own twisted moral code. Blacwin proved to be a natural prowler thanks to his ylfish attributes. He was light of step and could see in the dark and had the senses of a wolf – all the better to steal and murder with. After a euphoric spree of bloody crimes at the side of his mentor a stroke of conscience sparked in Blacwin’s young heart and then bloomed and he fled one fog-choked night while Grendyll slept in a dead man’s bed. Blacwin considered taking a knife to his adoptive father’s throat before he left but fear clutched his heart like a witch and so he regrettably let the monster live.
He stowed away in the backs of merchant wagons that smelled of spice and animal musk and slept in leaky barns as he made his way to the Nation’s last great metropolis of Camshire. There he lived on the streets among the hordes of pickpockets and whores and beggars and conmen and at various times plied each of those same trades himself but swore that never again would he murder. It was the final remaining line he would not cross, the one thing he swore off no matter how hungry or desperate he might become. But too many arrests and judges and jail cells and Blacwin was given a last chance: kill for the Nation or die by its hand. It seemed murder was to be his calling no matter his heart’s desire.
He was dispatched to a great river delta and thanks to his ylfish gifts and Grendyll’s dark tutelage he was found to be what his commanders called a natural born killer. Blacwin came to embrace the grim work, scouting deep into enemy territory alone and more at home in the wild than in civilized lands. He had no family, no ties. Blacwin would make a perfect Reaper, they decided. And so there he was.
These thoughts coalesced in his brain as he lie there listening to the snoring of the other trainees. He could hear the distinct breaths of every man, pick out each one’s scent. Unlike a pureblood ylf, Blacwin was still cursed with the human need for sleep though he did not require as much as an average man so he just lay there in the dark and prepared himself mentally for the trials to come. A soft rain began to patter on the roof. He tried to listen for a song in the raindrops as the ylfish children do but there was none.
— • —
Night fell on the thirsty desert. The hobgoblins wept as their sun god abandoned them and vanished beneath the crooked horizon. They lit fires in pits and atop posts and mourned the golden orb’s hiatus but it was something they knew their deity must do in order to combat the evils below and hold the clockwork darkness at bay before returning the next morning to bless his children with his righteous and cancerous light. When his acolytes finally bled the world of its suffering like a poison well drawn dry there would be only day and no night and the world would be ushered into an eternal paradise free of misery and shadow. This they believed and their belief was all consuming.
Scratch was closer now to the hobgoblin camp with his belly to the earth. Most of the place’s occupants had by that hour withdrawn into their tents. He could hear a dim chant emerging from the structures and a chattering like the hum of insects. Hobgoblins grew uneasy at night without their divine sun to protect them and this unease made them only that much more dangerous.
A hobgoblin patrol two strong walked along the camp’s perimeter. They wore patchwork armor and carried spears cut from bone and leather. From time to time one would strike the other in the arm or the back of the thigh with his torch or speartip to carry on the endless cycle of divine suffering. Scratch patiently waited them out and watched their firelight succumb to the darkness.
He descended toward the camp with an obsidian knife in his grip. The settlement’s boundary was a porous labyrinth of krakenbone posts and black sheets of fabric that flapped in the wind like the thousand sails of a rakshasa fleet.
He crept into the rambling maze and kept on the lookout for his quarry. During the briefing their commander Rooster had described the target as a very tall cleric with a winged eye etched into the center of his brow. The lunatic had also gouged out his own eyes in his devotion to suffering. He was a powerful figure among his people and one of the architects behind their push into human lands to spread their sadistic dogma and thus more quickly usher in the promised end times. For this operation the target was given the codename “Orchid” in reference to the exceedingly rare and possibly mythical blood-red flowers of that type that were said to grow in this desert. Legend held that eating its petals unlocked dark secrets in the mind. Orchid was to be captured if possible and killed if not. Scratch just wanted to get a look at him. If he could verify his presence in this place he could alert the others and they could coordinate a plan of attack.
A sudden wind kicked up and a sheet of the strange fabric kissed Scratch’s elbow. He pulled away to find it clinging to him like a needy whore and saw that the material was coated with some fine glue. He cursed and cut at the fabric with his knife. The sharp blade sliced through and he moved on.
He passed a couple of the smaller tents as he made his way toward the largest in the camp’s center. Through their doors he caught glimpses of hobgoblins in meditation over the fumes of burning dung. Hissing voices carried across the camp. Scratch kept low, using the sheets as cover.
He stopped again. Something now tugged at his foot. Another sheet had taken hold.
More unexpected gusts of fickle desert wind came and then the tenacious stuff was on Scratch’s knife-arm, his thigh, his head. He futilely worked the knife but it was no use. His struggling only made matters worse. He was caught in a spiderweb articulated by hobgoblin spinners.
Shadows flitted among the sheets. Torchlight framed the gaunt silhouettes of approaching hobgoblins. Alarms sounded in a cacophony of chimes and whistles as more of the creatures emerged from their tents. With their hooks and spears they carefully pried and worked the fabric, drawing closer to Scratch as they drew him nearer to themselves. They groped for him with crustacean hands hungry for his skin and dreamt of the ways they might bless it with pain.
Scratch firmly gripped his knife and sent a prayer to every star above.
— • —
The sun’s rise the next morning was heralded by a glorious banner of red and yellow smears tinged with the ochre dust of the wasteland. Tusk watched the display unfold from the foothills but his thoughts were not on the sky’s beauty. Instead much more sinister visions paraded through his mind as scenarios of Scratch’s torture played out, musings not unlike those conjured by the very hobgoblins that took him.
At this elevation there was moisture and thus life. A fresh and delicate morning dew clung to the gnarled trees and scrub. Wind-carved boulders dotted the incline. A falcon landed on a nearby branch and screeched.
“No sign of him?”
Tusk turned. Approaching was Halo, the field leader and his direct superior. Tusk held much respect for this man who came from a life of wealth and privilege. Halo could have stayed back in Camshire to enjoy the blessed life of a fortunate son but his sense of duty drove him to follow in the footsteps of his father who after a successful career as a military officer retired to trade the theater of war for the more treacherous one of politics. Father passed to son all his knowledge on survival and combat – essential skills for the Reaper’s trade.
“No. And he assured me he’d signal by sunrise,” Tusk said. “We should go back for him. I can lead the way.”
Halo looked out and saw no hint of life save a far-off herd of migrating woebeasts. “Maybe he decided that if he sent a signal the enemy would take notice.”
“My birds have also spotted nothing.”
Halo considered. “I’ll send a few bodies to check things out.”
“When you do,” said Tusk, “I want to be with them.”
“Then you better get some shuteye. We’ll want to head out soon. Go on back to camp and send Mouth to keep lookout here for a while. I’ll wait for him.”
“Yessir.” Tusk headed toward camp.
“If Scratch is anything,” said Halo, “he’s a survivor.”
Tusk nodded and walked off. He appreciated his leader’s optimistic words but Scratch’s chances of survival were not what truly worried him. The hobgoblins only killed their victims if forced to do so – for ending a life prevented all opportunity to extract from it any further suffering. It was what they might do to Scratch just short of killing him that so vexed Tusk’s imagination.
He came upon a small campsite and was greeted with the aromatic delight of Shroomer’s cooking. The medic stood over a steaming pot on the fire and stirred. It was a breakfast stew of thretch bones and mushrooms and yellow cactus and other things plucked from the wild perhaps best left unknown. Shroomer tossed a few more blades of tickgrass into the concoction and greeted Tusk as he passed.
Tusk joined his Reaper brothers at the fire. There was Jinx of wild hair and wild eyes who yawned and scratched himself and rolled a cigarette. As their “rune man” he was responsible for eliminating any sorcerous threats they might encounter, but forbidden by the Nation’s laws to practice the dark arts himself – as all men were, under penalty of death drawn slow.
The company sniper Nail sipped at a coffee, blinking away a nightmare. He was the oldest among them, and a Reaper for the longest save Scratch. A weathered trunk at his side contained his one true love, “Contessa” – a precision, high-powered crossbow fashioned from rare orewood and lightweight fafnir alloys. It was strung with an exotic animal gut that gave it incredible tension and range and was fitted with a scope designed by the Nation’s best craftsmen.
Thirteen and Mouth chatted by the fire. Thirteen was new and bragged of killing his first ylf at the age of thirteen and made that his lucky number and the Reapers made it his name. Tusk was suspicious of his motives and wondered if he might be an assassin first and Reaper second. He took too much joy in killing, even if it were only hobgoblins and ylfs he was putting down.
Mouth was their linguist and claimed his tongue knew a hundred languages and a thousand ways more to please a woman. He seemed to be a good man and loyal Reaper.
“Mouth,” Tusk said, rubbing his tired eyes. “Halo wants you to relieve me.”
“Well, whip out your cock and he’ll get right to it!” said Jinx.
Shroomer chuckled and filled small iron bowls with the simmering stew. He passed one to Nail who passed it along to Jinx and down the line it went until everyone had a bowl and only then did any of them eat.
Mouth gulped his portion down. Wiped his chin and set the bowl aside. He stood and fastened his belt and picked up his crossbow and then said goodbye with a ripe morning fart before walking off in search of Halo.
Tusk sipped at his bowl and felt the stew’s warmth spread across his ribs. But the comfort was cut short when he noticed Nail glaring at him.
“Think I’m pretty, do you?” Tusk asked.
Nail chewed on a tough piece of tickgrass. “I see you didn’t you stay behind with Scratch.”
“He insisted he go in alone. I’m no scout.”
“That’s a truth. Nor am I. But I don’t leave men behind.”
“Scratch is crazy. Man has a death wish.”
“An’ maybe now he got it.”
Tusk slurped his broth. “He should have come back with me, not the other way around.”
“That was the mission, was it?”
“Halo seemed to see it my way.” Tusk put down his bowl. “Anyway, you have a problem?”
Nail frowned. “I’d say Scratch is likely the one with the problem at this point.”
Jinx attempted to rescue the mood: “Nail’s just all sore and cranky ‘cause I wouldn’t let him suckle my prick last night.”
Some laughed and welcomed the break in tension but there was not a hint of a smile on Nail’s face. He spit and grimly looked off.
Tusk unwound his bedroll and lay down and covered his eyes but feared there would be no sleep under this unforgiving sun and the sniper’s unforgiving glare.
— • —
“Have any of you cockgoblins had the pleasure of tasting unicorn?!” asked Instructor Barda.
The Reaper trainees were gathered around a livestock pen. It was still morning but they were already exhausted. They had been roused from sleep before dawn and made to run laps around the marching field while carrying the heavy trunks of trees over their heads. One man had already crumbled. He walked away from his group, leaving the others with more weight to bear, took Barda’s knife to the palm and smeared his face with the blood. He was now in the barracks enjoying sleep under the spell of a bellyful of warm stew as he waited for the wagon that would take him home.
The animals corralled inside the pen could be mistaken for a hairy form of swine but for the solitary horn protruding from each animal’s head. The tips had been filed down into harmless nubs to prevent them from goring one another or their human handlers. There was a coarse fur on their warty backs and they smelled of sun-crusted shit and hormones.
Barda went on: “These wretched beasts are found everywhere in the wild and while their flesh is about as tough as a fafnir’s foot and by no means savory, they’re chock full of nutrition. Plus, stupid beasts that they are, they’re relatively easy to catch. During your time here you will not eat anything that has not been caught, killed, dressed, butchered, cleaned and cooked by your own hands. Today you will be released into the nearby rough with only a rope and a knife and with those simple tools you will be required to find your own food. If you are unable to even capture and kill such a pathetic beast as this I encourage you to dig into the understory where you will find plenty of insects and grubs to keep your worthless bellies full. Mmmmmmmmm.”
The men were ordered to form a single line and were handed the promised items: a rope and a knife, nothing more. They had each by then been given a new pet name by Barda – ‘Swamp Breath,’ ‘Rat Dick,’ ‘Crybaby,’ ‘Crotch Rot,’ ‘Pig Vomit,’ ‘Sissy Cheeks,’ and so on.
Most of the men had tracked and killed game before and many had been hunting their entire lives but never without a bow or crossbow. Except Blacwin, of course, who had more experience with ropes and knives than he cared for and for whom spending a day quiet and still in the wilderness was nothing new. But he felt sympathy for the other men. Many of them acted hard and strong but he could smell the fear in their sweat and detect a fragile timbre in their voices.
Instructor Barda gave the trainees more guidance as his handmen passed out the gear. “You are not to eat anything you gather or kill out there! You will instead bring it back here for further instruction! Now go find breakfast!”
The men headed for the treeline and disappeared into the wiry woods. As they passed, a handsman muttered: “Lord of the hunt be with you.”
— • —
Sleep did come for Tusk but it was feverish and busy with ghosts and he woke from it even more exhausted than when he had closed his eyes. The sun was high in the sky and Halo was shaking him awake telling him it was time to prepare Scratch’s rescue party.
Tusk shook the ache from his bones and joined the others by the campfire where he drew a diagram of the hobgoblin settlement in the dirt and explained everything he knew including that he thought it had maybe half a dozen armed warriors and the rest would probably not pose much of a threat. They decided they would set out right away and come the witching hour they would raid the camp under the cover of night. As the only Reaper besides Tusk who could decode the chatter bird’s chirps, Mouth was to stay back at camp in case the party had to send word. Thirteen would stay to help guard the camp. He had already painted his face with hobgoblin blood in the manner of a skull and balked at missing the chance to kill hobgoblins but he was the low man on the pole and an order was an order.
“Looks like you got your face all done up for nothin’,” said Mouth.
The others set out for the trek across the harsh desert.
— • —
Scratch found consciousness inside a hobgoblin tent. The heat was smothering and the smell rancid. He was strapped to a chair, every part of his body stripped of clothing and constrained. The backs of his calves were raw and thrummed with pain. He felt a gentle raking upon the wounds and craned his neck to see it was a hobgoblin child there behind him, using some instrument cobbled together with animal claws and twine to scratch at his irritated skin. So the hobgoblin kids did have toys after all. Scratch hissed at the runt. It hissed back.
Black curtains parted and a tall robed hobgoblin entered. Scratch had seen this one officiating during the earlier rituals. He thought it was a female but could never be sure. The hobgoblin had a bundle under its arm which it laid out on the ground and rolled open, revealing a small arsenal of torture implements constructed from seabone and razorvine and petrified flora.
The hobgoblin took Scratch’s bare foot in its gaunt hands and kissed it. Then it removed a tool from the ominous collection and set to work on his flesh.
— • —
Blacwin was up in the boughs of a tree. He had found an animal trail deep in the rough and stationed himself above it, waiting for some hapless creature to pass through. He tied the rope into a knot and waited. He listened to the birds and the distant warbling howls of some hungry predator. Clouds blocked the sun and he enjoyed the cool breeze and solitude from his perch.
A noise from the bushes. Something was coming. Before long, leaves parted and a young deer in search of love made its way along, sniffing out the scent of a potential mate that had previously walked this path. Blacwin waited for it to wander beneath him and then quietly dropped from the tree. The deer sensed him and tried to break into a run but it was too late – Blacwin had the noose around its neck and the deer shuddered and weakly kicked as the knife slid between its ribs and found its heart. Blacwin soothed the deer and stroked its fur as the life bled from its breast. The animal’s futile squirming settled and ceased under his tender weight.
He headed back for the base with the fresh kill slung over his shoulder. There, the spoils from all the other mens’ excursions were laid out. Berries, mushrooms, grubs, a few pieces of underripe fruit. Blacwin was the only one among them who had caught a flesh-and-blood animal. There were cheers when he dropped the carcass on the table but also some looks of resentment.
Barda examined the spread. “Now here’s the deal. Everything caught today will be churned into a slop and thrown into this unicorn trough. From there you all will eat.”
Groans and complaints from the men. Barda shut them down. “Quit your goddamn moanin’! This is a life of luxury next to what you faeries will have to stomach as real Reapers! If you can’t handle this do us all a favor and get the fuck out now and go home cryin’ to your mama so the real men here can go on with their training unhindered by your miserable dead weight!”
Blacwin took out his knife and quietly started butchering the deer. The other men stepped up, pulling berries from stems, crushing grubs, smearing shrooms. After the deer meat was boiled and the other ingredients were churned into an unrecognizable mash it was all dumped into the trough and the men began to dine. They were forced to fight off the hungry unicorns as they chowed, thankful those sharp horns had been filed away.
“And do not let me catch you pigs using your hands!” Barda shouted.
— • —
Halo and Tusk and Nail and Shroomer and Jinx made their way across the sunbaked waste. Their skin glistened with a musky salve Shroomer had formulated from cactus juice and woebeast sweat that helped protect them from the worst of the sun’s deadly rays.
They navigated forests of petrified kelp and corridors of dead coral. They passed under the prison-bar shadows of some great leviathan’s half-buried ribcage and over mummified stingray wings stretched across the desert floor. A kraken’s massive beak jutted from a dune. From there they could finally see the hobgoblin camp. They took up position. Out came the spyglass through which Halo looked out at the hobgoblins’ doings but saw no sign of his man.
Nail took Contessa from her trunk and lovingly assembled her piece-by-piece until the finished thing was nearly as long as he was. He ran his fingers across the graceful curves of her powerful bow-arms and his core thrummed with the anticipation of pulling her trigger.
Tusk watched the lovemaking unfold. In past days Nail had bragged that Contessa had been blessed by the monks of Toloy and caressed by the whores of Weeper’s Alley and kissed by the Wandering Shepherd himself. “She’s traveled,” Nail claimed, “across an ocean in the belly of a rakshasa’s ship and on a dry day, with my nose against her nape for hours, I can still smell the spices she bathed in while locked in that cargo hold. Like a woman’s perfume.”
Nail spoke less these days and if he still harbored such poetic notions they were locked deep in his heart. He readied several obsidian bolts in silence. These he called his “coffin nails” – a practice that earned him his Reaper name, which seemed especially fitting for the man himself was hard as a nail.
They coated their blades with a toxin that Tusk had personally milked from the stingers of bearded scorpions and they waited for night. When the time came to strike they would have to do so with speed and precision. Scratch would be murdered on the spot by those sunsick freaks at the first sign of trouble, and that was no way to die.
— • —
The trainees were roused from sleep in the dead of night to the sound of a shrill whistle and were ushered into big wagons. Lumbering oxen pulled them rocking and bouncing across the dark countryside where they listened to the wheels squeak as Barda’s handmen informed them that they were not to say a word to one another. Only one of the twin moons was visible that night and of that only a sliver. They were dropped on the edge of a muddy field and told to march to a jagged hill far in the murky distance. The wagon moved on down the road and the recruits began their march toward the low cragged dome.
They sloshed through a marshland that was dotted with twisted trees and fallen logs. The gray mire sucked at their boots as if hungry for their bones and each step was a battle. As they drew closer Blacwin could see the hill was in fact a wet and crumbling ruin choked with moss and vines and much larger than he had first believed. Ancient stone walls jutted from the earth in broken sections and evoked in Blacwin’s imagination the tombstones of giants. The place was strangled with creeping plant life and drowned in mudwater. There were statues carved with ominous faces that stared with empty sockets for thieves had plucked their jeweled eyes long ago.
After some time the trainees arrived exhausted and caked in mud at the edge of the ruin complex. There they found Instructor Barda waiting with his handmen. Parked behind them were more ox-drawn wagons.
Barda looked the men over. “I’m glad you pussy lice had a chance to get warmed up for tonight’s activities. Now the real fun begins. Fall in line, cockgoblins!”
— • —
The trainees were made to run an obstacle course through that treacherous and stinking ruin as Barda’s handmen rained arrows down on the grounds. The men were ordered to climb over walls of stone coated in slick yellow slime and leap over fallen statues and logs and rappel down fraying vines as Barda and his handmen screamed and blew horns into their faces. This was the infamous “Hell Night” that all Reapers-to-be dreaded in which, rumor had it, half of the recruits would drop out and one or two might even perish, so grueling was the gauntlet.
One of Barda’s handsmen, a “rune man” learned in the arts of stealth and sorcery named Risper, warned the trainees to beware of traps. “These ancient builders were known to arm them in places such as this to protect their treasures. Thieves have likely sprung most of them but not once have we visited this place without at least one man stepping on the wrong stone and getting a face full of spikes or flame. So watch your step. If you see something that looks like a trap, alert me and I will attempt to disarm it.”
Hours upon hours of it. Wet to the bone and fatigued beyond belief, some men fell there in the mud, finished. Those poor souls were sent or hauled back to the wagons and took Barda’s knife to their palms, putting to an end their childhood dreams of being a Reaper. To fail on only the second night of training had been unthinkable to these men and they hung their blood-smeared faces in shame as they considered the ridicule they would see from their brothers and sisters back home – and, far worse, the unspoken shame of their fathers.
It went on all night. Blacwin found himself also on the verge of collapse after hours of running the course. His ylfish blood gave him many gifts, that was true, but it also cursed him with a body that could never be as hardy as a man’s.
“Please... if you cannot bear this agony, I beg you – for your sake, my own sake, and for the sake of all Reaperdom – drop out now!” Barda screamed. “If you cannot hack this little girl’s playground you are most assuredly not Reaper material! I do not need the embarrassment you will bring down on me and this program if you go on pretending you have what it takes to be a true Reaper! Better you break here than when lives are on the line!”
Barda brandished his knife as he watched his men ingloriously squirm over the obstacles in the mud. “Right here is the key to an escape from all this misery! There is a hot meal and a warm, dry bunk waiting for you back at the fort right now! Getting homesick?! Deciding life on the farm isn’t so bad, after all? Go be a longshoreman like your grandaddy! Or a blacksmith! Or a baker! Why choose the hard life of a Reaper?! What do you got against yourselves, anyway?! Hate your daddy?! Fuck him! Wanna prove your manhood to some dumb village wench?! Fuck her too!”
Blacwin’s arms trembled weakly as he began to scale the final and tallest wall. This unforgiving slab took some of the men hours to conquer. Blacwin had barely made it halfway, his fingers numb and muscles trembling, when his foot slipped out from under him and he was suddenly in the air falling for what felt too long a time. He landed hard on his back and the stones slammed the air from his lungs. It took almost all he had to keep his head above the foul swamp water and breathe. He had already outlasted many of the human trainees that night but there was nothing left in him any more. He could hardly move a muscle. He was done.
“Blacwin, take my hand!” Forthrup was standing over him with his arm outstretched. “This is the last hurdle, man! You can make it!”
Blacwin looked over at the blood-smeared faces of the dropouts. At least most of them had homes to go back to with their tails between their legs and nothing lost but honor. If Blacwin failed, that was a different matter. At best he would spend the rest of his life as a fugitive for the crimes that had been commuted by the Nation under the condition that he complete this training and serve honorably. At worst he would be executed, or perhaps thrown in a prison cell until he either mustered the will to take his own life or suffered a wet hollow death to dungeon lung or the rot. No, he had to go on. He took Forthrup’s hand and was surprised to find something in it: a small glass vial with a milky liquid inside.
Barda was watching now. “Rat Dick!” he yelled, using the name he’d given Forthrup. “In real action you will never let a fallen man stay down but today is not about that! Today is about proving individual mettle and grit! Get back on that wall and leave Worm Chowder to his own patheticness! He will carry on if and only if he has the Reaper spirit to do so!”
Forthrup gave Blacwin a last unsure look and moved on to the wall. It took Forthrup much effort to get over the barrier, but he seemed to be burning with some unholy restless fire. Blacwin of course now knew the secret source of that energy – he was holding it in his hand.
To drink the stuff would make him a cheater. But he was at a disadvantage with his ylfish musculature. And what if the others were cheating, too? Should he allow himself to fall behind for the sake of some thankless code that in the end would probably ruin him? His world was always one of grays and lesser evils. He was reminded of the fateful night he fled his master long ago under that crisis of conscience – when a solitary choice would affect the rest of his days forever, for good or ill.
He removed the cork from the vial and buried his head in his arm. His face hidden from view, he drank the stuff.
The potion was foul of taste but that was quickly forgotten. Its effects hit Blacwin immediately. He rose to his feet and staggered back to that imposing wall. Barda was still watching as were many others now, some of whom had already finished the course. A fire burned inside Blacwin and he forgot the cold and the weakness. Time slowed. He had to be careful not to just leap up the wall in quick bounds and thus risk suspicion. He carefully scaled the obstacle brick by brick and crested the wall as his fellows chanted “Worm Chowder! Worm Chowder!” He fell into the mud on the opposite side among the other exhausted men. They rubbed mud on each others’ heads and laughed madly. They had done it. They made it through.
Barda stood over them with his hands on his hips and in no celebratory mood. “Don’t start licking each other’s cunts just yet! This night is far from over!”
— • —
“It’s time.” Halo’s words sent a spike of adrenaline through Tusk’s heart. The last light of the sun had long been drained from the sky leaving a single hangnail moon in the void. The hobgoblins had retreated to their tents for whatever nightly perversions their ancient creed demanded of them.
The Reapers descended on the hobgoblin village with Halo at the lead. Tusk and Shroomer and Jinx followed closely behind.
Nail stayed back with Contessa and was to provide cover. Through his scope he watched his fellow Reapers make their way toward the camp. Up ahead there was a pair of hobgoblins on patrol carrying torches and wicked spears.
Quiet as shadows and quick as vipers, Halo and Tusk took out the patrollers with their knives and dragged their twitching bodies into a ditch where they finished them off and inspected the corpses. They found a sounding horn on one’s hip which Halo took and strapped to his belt.
They came to the webbed network of fabric that had previously done Scratch in. Jinx found a stretch of the stuff adhered to his hip and quickly found himself tangled in the trap. The others cut him free and carefully coordinated a path through using sticks taken from the desert floor to keep the material at bay. It was slow work. They came to the spot where Scratch had been sliced from the web by the hobgoblins. The torn opening had not yet been repaired and they slipped through.
— • —
Instructor Barda ordered the handful of trainees who passed the trials to gather in the ancient compound’s center. The sloping plaza was at the mossy hill’s zenith, safely out of the reach of the foul water. At its center was a deep black well.
Insects buzzed around them as Barda explained what was next in store: “Beneath these ruins is said to be a colony of swamp rats the size of canines and twice as mean as any dog ever was. You are to descend into the tunnels below and slay these despicable beasts. I expect one dead vermin for each man that returns. If you do not make a kill do not bother resurfacing because I will personally roast your ass on a goddamn spit and feed you to my unicorns!”
The handmen gave the trainees short swords and torches and taught them how to braid the vines to make them stronger. They went down the awful hole. Immediately the stink hit them and with Blacwin’s curse of sharp senses it struck him the worst. Water was circulating below, however, and so it was at least not stagnant. Blacwin choked down his puke and descended further along his vine. The recruit Barda had endearingly named Crotch Rot was not so lucky and began to wretch and vomit uncontrollably.
As they descended into the pungent darkness Barda went on: “These despicable rodents are sure to be festering with diseases so do not under any circumstances allow them to bite you! If you do you will be placed in quarantine and will be given a special brand of training in herbal detoxification in which you get to be the practice dummy! And a dummy is exactly what you are if you let one of these filthy things sink its filthy teeth into your useless ass!”
Blacwin’s torchlight revealed hieroglyphs on the well’s walls depicting masked men feeding other people to terrible reptiles, suggesting perhaps this well was used by these ancient people to drop sacrifices to their hungry swamp gods below.
The potion’s effects were already fading and slowly being replaced by nausea in Blacwin’s gut and a weakness in his limbs. Forthrup did not appear so badly afflicted and Blacwin guessed it might have been a combination of the man’s larger size and a tolerance he had accumulated for the stuff over time.
Blacwin and the others reached the sewer floor and landed in waist-deep water. They found themselves at an intersection of four aqueducts. The trainees split into smaller parties, three or four heading in each direction. Blacwin paired up with Forthrup and two other men joined them in the rear. Instructor Barda had dubbed one of these poor fellows “Sissy Cheeks” which the other men had mercifully shortened to just “Cheeks.” He was a huge specimen and simple of mind. He had been able to power himself through the gauntlet through sheer strength, too stupid to fail, but down here his inner child came out and Barda was made a prophet – Sissy Cheeks whimpered and whined about the dark and dampness and fearfully thrusted his torchlight into the recesses.
The other man was a baker’s son named Dimwell whom Barda had taken to calling “Dimwit” despite the fact that he was among the most promising recruits in this current crop. Dimwell was athletic, pure of heart, and picked up anything he was taught with an enviable ease. He often paired up with Cheeks to help him struggle through the various challenges, as he did now.
Blacwin peered into the murk beyond the torchlight. Through the glare his ylfish eyes were able to pick some detail out of the gloom and saw that the tunnels split up ahead. He could hear movement in the distant water. But he pretended to sense nothing so as not to arouse suspicion about his gifts.
“Quiet, now.” Blacwin said. “Or you will draw them to us.”
“I’m turning back,” said Cheeks.
Annoyed, Forthrup whispered: “Did it never occur to you that Reaper training might be something like this?”
“Easy,” said Dimwell.
Blacwin tried to listen for what was up ahead. “Something’s coming.”
Reverberating down the dark tunnels came the sounds of hoarse snorting and splashing water. The snorty clamor echoed down the halls and played tricks on their minds.
Whatever approached, there were more than one and they were big. Forthrup chided Cheeks: “You see, Sissy? Now the rats are coming.”
“Let them,” said Dimwell as he stepped ahead of Blacwin with his sword gripped tight, eager to lead the fight.
Dimwell took another step forward and a low groan of sliding stone issued from beneath him. He had stepped on something. A whirlpool rapidly formed around him as the water was displaced below and then a range of metal spikes shot up through the floor and straight through his body. Cheeks screamed as his friend and protector was lanced through the torso, the arm, the head, suspended there in the spikes like a statue of flesh or some grisly taxidermic prize. Dimwell’s body twitched and an eye rolled absurdly in his head as his body slowly slid down the poles and into the water.
Beyond that, down the tunnel – the creatures had heard. And they were coming.
— • —
Halo and his Reaper party made their way from tent to tent in the hobgoblin camp, peeking through flaps in the cloth in their search for Scratch. Most of the hobgoblins were asleep as expected, healing from the day’s torture and dreaming of the next day’s sacrifices. The Reapers saw other hobgoblins deep in meditation with their bloodied knees upon quilled animal skins. One tent teemed with ash spiders as hobgoblin spinners worked their silk. But no sign of Scratch. They moved on.
The next tent they came to was crowded with a brood of hobgoblin babies and children who pinched and bit one another. A grown female sat at their center with a babe gnawing at each of her raw pink tits. One of the children spotted the Reapers peering through the slit and shrieked. The rest looked up. Immediately the young attacked. The Reapers tried to push them off but there were too many. Some of the broodlings fled the tent to alert the others.
Alarm bells rang and horns sounded outside. “Fall back!” Halo yelled. “Ready yourselves!”
Armed hobgoblins appeared, brandishing spears and jagged tridents. One’s skull instantly burst open with a spray of black blood and the creature collapsed dead before it hit the ground – a victim of a “coffin nail” fired from the sniper’s crossbow.
Halo knew it would take some time before Nail could get another bolt loaded, aimed and fired. He removed his own crossbow from his back and started shooting. He got one of the warriors in the chest. Tusk followed suit and unloaded his crossbow on the attackers. It was then that Halo saw Jinx was down and screaming in the dirt, stabbed in the groin by a hobgoblin child. Shroomer went to him and set down his medical bag. Tusk fell in to protect them.
The children and now the women were upon them. There were too many, the Reapers were overwhelmed. Halo had no choice – he fired into one of the women, catching her in the sternum. Then another. His three loaded bolts spent, he slung the crossbow on his back and drew his two black swords from their sheaths and readied them for the throng of jeering hobgoblins.
Most of the monsters’ wounds from the day’s rituals were still raw. Their self-inflicted suffering had weakened their bodies but they made up for this with a fanatical zeal. The guards were closer now. Another one fell to Nail’s bolt but the sniper would not be able to get them all.
Halo grit his teeth and cut down his first child. Then another and another as he carved a wretched path toward Jinx and Shroomer. He put his back to Tusk’s and they became a two-headed killing machine. Halo was disgusted by the ease with which he could dispatch these lesser creatures. Some of the savages almost threw themselves onto his sword, so fervent were they to martyr themselves.
— • —
Blacwin and Forthrup and Cheeks prepared for the coming of the beasts in the deep dark sewers. Lumpy shapes plied through the black waters toward them. They were covered in warts and coarse fur and their shadowed snouts chortled. The monsters swam around the array of spikes and Dimwell’s pinned body and toward the three men still standing.
The trainees wildly swung and stabbed with their swords and in a splash of water and blood they took a massacre to the things. Blacwin slipped and fell in the muck and suddenly one of the animals was on him, its steamy breath poisoning the air with a deathly odor. He thrust his blade into its bristly throat and hot juices splashed his face. Blacwin rolled the beast’s dying body off of him and noticed a peculiar thing – it had a small nub on the top of its grotesque head.
“They’re unicorns!” he exclaimed. Forthrup lifted the head of an animal he’d slain and saw this was true.
Laughter erupted from further down the tunnel. Blacwin and his comrades ventured ahead, past more confused unicorns which he now realized posed them no true harm. At the end of the tunnel they found a drain that let out the side of the hill. Standing at the opening was Barda and his men living it up at the expense of the terrified recruits. Barda slapped his thighs and guffawed. “Haul them unicorns out here, boys! Let’s feast!”
They roasted the beasts on spits over fires in the plaza and talked and laughed and bonded with one another. Unicorn may not have been known for its savory taste but that night to those beleaguered men it was the food of the gods. Many recruits had been lost to failure but those that made it to this point would now be friends for life, no matter who would later take Barda’s blade to the palm or graduate to full Reaper status.
Blacwin ate little. His stomach still turned under the lingering effects of Forthrup’s elixir and the ordeal down below. He asked if there was anything he could do to alleviate the nausea. Forthrup suggested he jam a finger down his throat. “But if those sewers or this unicorn meat won’t force it back up, I guess nothing will. You’ll just have to ride it out.”
Cheeks was off sitting alone and crying, mourning his friend and protector Dimwell. Blacwin went to him and put a hand on the giant’s shoulder.
— • —
Jinx lay in the dirt prostrate with pain. His entire groin was wet and he could feel nothing between his legs. He prayed to the stars that his cock be spared. Take the balls, he silently pleaded, just leave the cock. All the whores he’d never get to fuck flashed before his eyes.
— • —
Shroomer did all he could to stem the flow. He found the wound and jammed his thumb in. Felt around for the artery and discovered it to be unscathed. Jinx would probably live. If any of them did, that was.
— • —
Tusk felt outside of his own body as he felled hobgoblin man, woman and child with his hand axe. He tried to think of them only as animals and he killed animals nearly every day. Men, hobgoblins, ylfs, woebeasts – they all had the same working parts, the same general makeup, the same composition of organs. Even a basilisk had a heart. Even a rakshasa could bleed. As part of his training Tusk had dissected all manner of mammals and birds and reptiles and bugs and things unclassifiable and found there to always be a clever design behind their composition that was not unlike the intricate clockworks of a pocket watch or the efficient cold logic of a crossbow.
Hobgoblins resembled humans – they stood on two legs, had ten fingers, ten toes, and two eyes – but there were many differences between the races. The count of teeth varied from jaw to jaw among the hobgoblins. Some had ivories that numbered in the hundreds, even thousands if the reports were true – lining even their throats and lips and tongues. He imagined what it must be like to have a mouth busy with a couple hundred teeth a-clacking. Horrible.
He caught himself thinking these strange thoughts as he unmade the hobgoblin bodies before him in a blur of surreal violence. He could identify and name the bones and arteries and organs severed and exposed by his blade. The act of killing came so naturally to him and without remorse now that he worried there was no goodness left in him. Perhaps he would grieve later when the high of combat subsided. Or perhaps hobgoblins were simply not to be grieved.
It occurred to Tusk that the hobgoblin practice of inflicting upon themselves the worst evils and sicknesses seemed to be having the effect of splitting their people into two distinct subraces. On one end there was the “common” type like those he now fought – a weak and fragile class whose bodies had succumbed to the relentless self-abuse and misery. They were half the weight of a man of the same height and their limbs could be snapped like twigs. On the other end there was a more fierce brand of hobgoblin that seemed to only get stronger and meaner with the pain. Two brutes of the latter kind closed on him now. He readied his axe and they snarled.
A hobgoblin shrieked from behind the crowd. The others turned and parted. Standing there was Scratch nude and trembling and soaked in blood. He had a spiked collar fitted around his neck with the points facing inward at his throat. The collar was tied to a leash held by his tall robed tormentor. She barked at the Reapers. Threatened to pull the cord and tighten the collar which would quickly end Scratch’s life.
Shroomer still had his loaded crossbow. He aimed it at the tormentor.
“No!” yelled Halo. “If she falls, Scratch dies.” He called for calm in the hobgoblin tongue but his vocabulary was meager. He was cut short by a brief whistle he knew too well and watched in horror as a bolt struck the tormentor’s cheek, disintegrating her jaw. It hadn’t come from Shroomer’s crossbow but rather the hill above – it was a coffin nail.
The tormentor fell and her leash tightened the collar, thrusting the many spikes deep into Scratch’s neck. Blood gushed in all directions and coated his naked body. He collapsed into the dust.
The Reapers roared in anguish at their brother’s death. The hobgoblins shrieked in rapture at their enemies’ holy suffering.
Halo lost himself in bloodlust, cutting down foe after foe. Tusk grabbed a torch from the ground and touched it from tent to tent. The fire spread quickly through the camp and the smoke provided cover for the Reapers. They hacked their way through the haze. The camp was in chaos.
— • —
From the hilltop Nail watched the battle unfold as he mechanically fired and reloaded his crossbow again and again. The smoke obscured his teammates but he could continue picking off hobgoblins elsewhere throughout the camp.
As he did so, a tear ran down his cheek and struck Contessa’s wood. Nail had not seen the spikes on Scratch’s collar when he fired that bolt. He did not know he would kill his friend. He did not know, but it would now forever haunt him.
— • —
One by one the Reapers cut the rest of the hobgoblins down. What began as a battle ended as a butchering. They picked through the smoking camp and inspected the bodies with the hopes that at least they would find their target. Maybe then Scratch’s death would mean something. But none of the hobgoblins bore the features Rooster had drilled into their heads – the religious scarring, the blinded eyes. Orchid was not there.
They retrieved Scratch’s body and let the camp burn to the ground.
— • —
The next morning Blacwin was ordered to gather firewood beyond the walls of the fort. Dark clouds had moved in from the west and as he picked through the fallen boughs a light rain began to fall. He closed his eyes and enjoyed the feel of the first drops hitting his face.
He would have to head back soon, but in that moment he felt a strong urge to run and put this entire ordeal behind him. How effective could this training program be if a top performer like Dimwell could be lost during its course? But the wild was even more deadly and that knowledge was what drove him to Camshire so many years ago – even with its cutthroats and politicians and disease and poverty, civilization was still as inviting as a stein of beer at a warm hearth when compared to the unspeakable horrors the big bad wilderness held.
He caught a subtle melody in the patter of drops upon the foliage and realized at that moment why he’d never been able to find the ylfish rainsong while inside those barracks and tents and wagons and stables and slums and jail cells: The leaves were what made the rain sing.