Driving rain which, two weeks back into civvie life, no longer seemed novel—even after the desert—had sent me scurrying into a filthy little dive before midnight. Cheap drinks and minimal questions had kept me in until closing time.
The limping dwarf behind the bar was a vet, mustered out years ago after some forgotten conflict in a thrice-damned backwater of the Thousand Kingdoms cost his leg. He proved lax about kicking someone like me out of the joint at closing.
Ex-soldiers have the Look. You can spot us a mile away. Hair, bearing, whatever. Time dulls such things, but I’d only recently been treated to having medals heaped upon my chest, then summarily drummed out. I was ramrod straight. Clean-cut.
When I saw the streets of New Dagonia again, the skies above the dingy buildings of the broken down ward weren’t weeping, but light threatened to break through. I flexed a wrist, activating the chrono. 4:35AM hovered over my palm.
I yawned—producing a cloud smelling of alcohol and assorted nuts—and trudged down the empty street. Tipsy feet kicked the refuse scattered across the uneven stones of the sidewalk.
Somewhere around the corner—down half a block—waited my beat-up ride. The well-used Kandry Sparrow had lasted through university and three years of service, but the carriage was showing its two decades. Spending a year idle hadn’t done the crystal drive any favors.
A cat yowled, standing my hair on end. I fumbled for keys before reaching the carry. As wards go, Black Spit isn’t a place to linger. I pressed the key against the runes which pulsed and unlocked.
Cat sounds again; pained—or panicked.
I paused and strained, listening.
Another high cry. Not an animal; a woman’s scream.
My heartbeat spiked; vision narrowed. The alcoholic haze receded as blood coursed. I pulled the door open and reached into the console.
The folding knife I retrieved wasn’t a service-issue bayonet, but four inches of steel was a welcome companion. I opened the weapon and tucked it up my sleeve, inverted; like I’d drilled a hundred times—albeit with a wooden replica.
Training—and instinct—took hold. I flattened myself against the buildings and sidestepped towards an alley fifty feet ahead. A queer, naked sensation welled up as doubt struck me. I was a soldier without a long arm, or even a wand.
The woman’s screams continued. The city-state might’ve been done with my services, but ignoring the officers’ oath I’d sworn proved impossible.
I reached the corner and pressed back against it. Head in, survey; out again, assess.
Sixty feet away were five men, and at least three blades. One woman—probably a prostitute—half naked inside the bed of a lorry, screaming. A rail thin man pressed down on top of her, pants at his knees.
I grabbed an empty bottle off the sidewalk and cradled its neck, then lurched into the alleyway. Softly lending a voice to a dirge from my childhood home, I wobbled towards the group; head down, eyes wary.
“The sweeping blast, the sky o’ercast,
The joyless winter day
Let others fear, to me more dear
Than all the pride of May:”
One of the men looked up. He grabbed the arm of his nearest companion. Both turned and walked towards me.
“The tempest’s howl, it soothes my soul,
My griefs it seems to join;
The leafless trees my fancy please,
Their fate resembles mine!”
Yards separated us. I watched their long knives. “Hey!” said the fatter of the duo. “Turn your ass around and get lost, drunk.” He punctuated the command with a flourish of his blade.
“Huh?” I reeled in mock shock; stumbled to the cobblestones.
The thickset man stepped in as I levered myself upright. “I said beat—”
A knee to his groin brought silence. The off-hand bottle throw went wide, but startled the second thug. I spun in and lashed out with my knife, cutting the back of his hand.
The greasy tough’s eyes bugged out; he screamed and dropped his steel. That caught the attention of the others. The two holding the woman came at me with naked blades. They needed no urging; yet the fat man rolling on the ground managed a weak, “kill that bastard,” before lapsing into mewling cries.
Seconds blurred. Drink slowed me, but I had better training. I parried a blade, dodged a board thrust at my face by the bleeding man, and managed to deliver a nasty slash to one of the newcomers’ legs as he kicked at me.
I stepped inside the next swing of the plank and pinned the filthy punk’s hand to it. The knife wrenched away as he fell, disarming me. I skipped backwards, avoiding the crazed arc of the last man’s attack.
My feet fouled in refuse and I went down; impact rattling teeth. Shaken, I attempted to roll. A kick caught me in the gut, knocking the wind from me.
A hand grabbed my forehead; jerked backwards. Steel at my throat.
A wand barked. Blood spattered against my scalp. The man collapsed, slamming my face into stone.
“… hear me?” asked a gruff voice.
I tried to sit, but a hand restrained me. I opened my eyes. My vision wavered, then cleared, revealing a grizzled, middle-aged man above me.
“Aye,” I said.
“You’re an idiot.”
“What?” I tried moving. Pain shot through my head.
“Idiot. You.” He gripped me under one arm and pulled. “Five armed men. You go in with this?” He handed over my blade, still covered in blood. “If they’d had wands—”
“She needed help.”
He grunted. “You saved a detective, Mr.—”
“Lieuten—” I broke my lost rank off and felt a twinge. “Uh, former-Lieutenant Dire. Ex-NDA.”
“Their loss.” He waved towards the woman being walked away by a cop. “My squadmate.”
“Thank you.” He considered for a moment; cocked his head. “Say, Dire, you ever consider joining the boys in gray?”
The answer which came out surprised me: “Aye. Just now.”
Author of the Dire Crimes series