The Laughing Man

 

A bright peal of laughter announced his arrival, a bright herald washing over the dingy tavern.  Perhaps the bouncer at the door had told a joke, or he had seen something across the room that struck him as funny.  Or perhaps nothing had happened at all.  He usually didn’t need a reason to laugh.

He made his way to his usual table, joking with the patrons as he passed.  Fredrick at the bar brought over a single tankard of beer, as he did every night.  The man would drink that and no more.  He wouldn’t ask for another but would make the cup last for his entire stay.  The regulars knew him, and many pressed around his table, eager to speak with him.  He had enough laughter to share, and he did so readily.

He had come in every night for the past three years with the same smile, and yet nobody knew a thing about him.  Not even the regulars had a name to call him by.  He talked willingly, but never about himself.  Once, I had asked him if he lived nearby, and had been answered only by a soft smile and a slow shake of his head.

 

 

Craig sank deeper into his drink as the night wore on, submerged in the dark brown liquid.  Beneath the surface, he didn’t have to listen to the screams.  There was only a muted numbness that sound couldn’t penetrate—dullness overwhelming.

There were brief moments when his cup was empty, and the noise broke through.  He scrambled for coin then, throwing the money across the bar without a word.  Frederick knew what he wanted, and the cup would soon be full again.

But once, in the moment before Frederick spotted the coins, something broke through the haze in his mind: laughter.  It made him recoil.  More hateful because he wasn’t sharing in it, the laughter tore through the numbness that he had submerged himself in.

Standing on his second try, Craig found the source of the laughter.  Though most of the tavern shared in the revelry, a single man was it’s source, and Craig stumbled through the crowd towards him, anger rising in his foggy mind.  A target presented itself, a bright smile unwavering in his swimming vision.  That smile taunted him, flaunting the happiness that Craig couldn’t have.

Craig’s fist, balled and hardened by grief and drink, smashed into that smile.

“Shut up,” he growled.

 

Laughter turned quickly to anger.  The crowd surged forward as Craig stood over the laughing man.  They shoved him back, matching his anger with their own outrage.  He struggled, flailing wildly with heavy fists, but the weight of the crowd pushed him back against the bar and pinned him down.

As shouts rang from the bar, I followed another sound.  It was soft against the raucous yelling across the room, but it was unmistakable—a quiet chuckling.

The laughing man lay on his back staring straight up at the dark ceiling.  His smile was shattered—his front teeth broken—and blood ran from the corner of his mouth and pooled on the floor beneath him.  But still the laughter came, sputtering through the blood that lay so thick in his mouth.

Eager to look away from his mangled maw, I raised my eyes and noticed something I never had before.  His eyes were dead.  The laughter never reached them.  I had always been too distracted by his smile to notice, but there was pain there.  Not pain from Craig’s fist, but a deeper pain that outweighed anything physical.  And still he laughed.

 

Hunting Heathens

“You shouldn’t be here.”  The words came from behind me, and I froze upon hearing them.  How had I, nervous as I was, not heard anyone approach me?  Fear rose in my chest. If Thul’s minions had found me, then he had found the others, and everything was lost.

“This is Bloodblade territory, and you, my friend, are not a member.”  My assailant pressed his knife firmly into my back.  “The way I see it,” he said, “you have two options. You can hand over some gold for temporary membership, or I can gut you here and now.”

Well, that was a relief. He wasn’t one of Thul’s, and that meant that the knife digging into my back was mortal iron.

“I’m not going to take the first option, so if you would like to gut me, by all means, feel free.”  I turned to face him and he panicked, thrusting the knife deep into my side. The blade slipped through layers of skin and muscle.

“What are you?” he asked. I suppose he was right to ask, but the question surprised me at the time; I had forgotten how mortals reacted to my kind.

“What do you think I am?”

His expression changed from one of fear to one of terror as my flesh, quickly knitting itself back together, expelled his knife from my body. It clattered to the cobblestones, and he stumbled back. Without giving an answer, the would-be thief turned tail and ran.

I put a hand to my side and felt around for a wound. My fingers passed over smooth skin. Normally I would never have checked, but nerves were getting the better of me. Keeping my wits about me, I continued on towards the tavern.

The Brass Bear was a squat, ugly building smashed in between a brothel and a butcher’s, yet I hurried towards it like it was the Gate of Heaven. I kept my head in a swivel as I approached the door. The encounter with the thief had rattled me; not because he had posed a real threat, but because he had been able to sneak up on me. I reached the door without incident.

The taproom was quiet. The patrons had finished their drunken shouting and fallen into an inebriated slumber. The only unimpaired eyes were in the far corner, and they were on me as soon as I stepped into the room. Six pairs, all full of fear and worry and anger.

“There you are, Althis,” Caliun said. The goddess gestured impatiently for me to sit. “We were worried something had happened to you.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“So there was something?” Opin asked. He was nervous and twitchy, as he had been since we had been expelled from Heaven. “Thul’s minions? Are they here? Do they know about us?”

I raised a hand to cut him off. “We’re safe here. It was only a thief from one of the local gangs.”

Opin sighed, but didn’t really relax.

“Did he recognize you?” Caliun asked.

I shook my head.

“Then we should be safe.”

“And we can begin to plan our revenge on the being who cast us from Heaven.” The new speaker was Davir, the largest and angriest among us. “Thul must suffer for what he did to us.”

“He will,” Caliun said.  “I have something in mind.”

Whatever she had in mind I never got to hear, because as she leaned in to tell us the tavern door burst open and ten men in black armor stormed in. After a quick scan of the drinker patrons, they approached our table.

“I heard quite the tall tale from a member of a local gang,” said the leader of the group. “He told me that he just met a man who could walk away from a knife in the gut. Have you seen anyone like that?”

Caliun opened her mouth to deny it, but Opin’s reaction was faster. He squeaked and shot a look at me, terrified.

The armored man noted the reaction. “That’s what I thought,” he said, and plunged his sword in Calium’s breast.

I sat there, stunned as Caliun fell to the floor. I was dimly aware of Davir exploding with anger around me, and the other three gods and goddesses leaping into action. All I could focus on was the sword buried to the hilt in Caliun. How was it still there?  Why wasn’t she healing?  Then I noticed the dark metal it had been forged from. Thul had given his men godsteel.

“Get up Althis.”  Davir pulled me to my feet. “Leave Caliun. We have to go.”

The tavern was leveled around us. The floor was littered with dead bodies and the ceiling was nowhere in sight. Eyes locked on Caliun’s body, I allowed Davir to drag me away.

Vacation

I reclined softly in a cushioned deck chair, gazing out at white foam waves lapping at a white sand beach, and all that I could think of was how little I wanted to be there.

“Stop feeling so sorry for yourself.”  Kya pushed a full wine glass into my hand and took her seat next to me.  “You just got sent to the Isle free of charge.  How could even you find a problem with that?”

“You already said why.  I was sent here.”  I drank deeply, but the wine tasted chalky, so I dumped the rest off of the deck.  “Captain Rikards thought that I would get in the way of his investigation, so he sent me away.”

Kya stepped from the wooden planks of the deck and kicked sand over the purple stain of my wine, restoring the beach to its pristine shape.  She moved effortlessly, like the tide.  How irritating.

“You would have gotten in the way, Mott, and you know it.”  She glided back to her chair and lounged on her side, facing me.  “The case was too personal.  They’re investigating your father’s murder, for god’s sake.”

The problem was, I knew she was right—I knew that if I found the man who killed my father I would beat him until his bones were a fine powder.  I knew that I would be nothing but a liability if had stayed in Haven and I hunted down that murderous sorcerer.  But I also knew that every part of me wanted to do just that.  I stared in frustration at the clenched fists in my lap.

Kya reached out with her soft hands and touched my chin, gently raising my gaze from my hands and directing it towards the waves.  “I know you don’t want to be here, but try to enjoy it.  Revenge won’t bring your—”

I leaped to my feet in the middle of her sentence, drawing a yelp of surprise.  There was something on the water, something hurtling across the waves at breakneck speed.  A human, too far away to make out a face, but I could recognize that blood-red cloak anywhere.

I had last seen it disappearing around the corner of the dark alley where my father had died.

I summoned all of my power and focused it on the small figure on the ocean, my mind utterly consumed with the desire to wipe it from existence.  An inhuman yell tore itself from my throat, and with it came a beam of burning light that raced across the beach, carving furrows in the sand as it raced towards my target.

The beam hit the wave that he was riding on and combusted, spewing forth a salty spray and flinging the other sorcerer through the air.  He landed with a sharp crack on the beach.

As I moved forward with murder in my mind, I felt hands clutch at me.  Kya.  I raged against her grasp, fighting towards my enemy.

Another pair of hands joined hers.

Who dared to try to keep me from my revenge?  I didn’t even think about why anyone else would be on this secluded beach, I just surged forward with straining muscle and gnashing teeth.

A hand left my arm and appeared in front of my face.  It was rough and scarred—definitely not Kya’s

“Sleep, Mott.”

An inky darkness blossomed from the palm and consumed my vision.

***

I awoke in a familiar metal chair at a familiar oaken desk.  My vision was swimming, but the ripples soon subsided into a calm pool.

I sat across from the stern, weathered face of Captain Rikard.  The man’s gaze was fiercely unapologetic.

“Bait!” I yelled at him.  “I was Bait?”

He calmly wiped my spittle from his brow.  “And damn good bait, too.”  An infuriating grin spread across his face.  “You complained to nearly everyone in Haven about your little vacation.  He would’ve had trouble not finding you.”

“And where is he now?”

“Locked up, and as far away from your crazy ass as possible.”  Rickard leaned in over my desk, losing his self-satisfied smirk.  “My advice to you: move on.  Revenge won’t fix anything—hell, it won’t even make you feel better.”  He fingered the gold wedding bands on his left hand.  I had never really noticed them before, but they were clearly a pair.  “Take it from someone who knows.”

Guardless


Most cities are dangerous, but Armoede takes the danger to the next level.  The king sits upon his gilded throne in Aumont, but the city was run in dim rooms and back alleys, by men with far more gold than morals.  Those were the men whose gangs caused the city folk to bar their doors throughout the day and nobles to bring a contingent of guards with them every time they left Aumont.

The king ruled nothing more than the palace he hid in, leaving his subjects at the mercy of the gangs.  Only one man—one man in tens of thousands—dared to walk the streets alone.  The gangs called him Guardless.  They said that he was eight feet tall, with bulging muscles and startling red eyes, that he was a demon summoned by the king to restore order.

They were wrong.

In truth, I was just over six feet, with lean muscles and muddy brown eyes.  I wasn’t a demon, and I certainly wasn’t working for the king.  He never would have sent me; he was more than content to sit on his royal ass while his people lived in fear.

No, I worked alone.

My target today was a butcher’s shop in the Market District—a front for Jakov’s gang. It was a small shop, but the amount of gang members I had observed coming and going suggested some rooms underground, like those I had found over in Toven’s Square.

I pushed my way through the front door into a low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, a counter at the far end.  Behind the counter, a heavy, pockmarked butcher was wiping his bloody hands on his apron.

He looked up, obviously surprised to see me alone.  I could see fear flitting behind his eyes.  Could I be Guardless?  But, of course, I wasn’t eight feet tall or breathing fire, so he disregarded me as a threat.

“How can I help you, my good sir,” he said, tapping his cleaver on the counter four times in quick succession.  A signal.  There was likely a group of cutthroats somewhere in the back, now making their way into the front room.

“I would like to speak with Jakov.”  I stepped closer as I spoke, moving up to the counter.

The fear returned to his eyes.  “Why would I know where Jakov is?” he asked.  “I live my life trying to avoid the gangs.  Everyone in the city does.”

The back door burst open, and two men ran in, swords out.  One was thin and wiry, the other tall and bearded.  They both had swords drawn.

“Looks like you haven’t done a very good job,” I said, and punched the butcher hard in the throat.  He dropped to the gory floor, gasping for breath.

The two gang members charged me, and I met them with steel, ducking past the thin man’s blow and slashing my sword across his left hamstring.  As he fell, I drew my second sword and caught the bearded cutthroat’s blade on it.  I then flicked his sword to the side and drove my other blade through his heart.

My blades had been unsheathed for less than a minute, and already one of my enemies was dead and the others were incapacitated.  I flicked my sword across the other cutthroat’s neck and killed the butcher in a similar fashion.

That was how I fought—ruthlessly and efficiently, leaving no survivors.  The longer a fight lasted, the better the chances of one of my opponents landing a lucky blow or escaping.  I never let an opponent escape; my reputation was part of what kept me alive.

I stepped into the back room, a cramped space filled with hanging meat, and found what I was looking for: an open trap-door in the far corner.  I made the drop down the shaft and found myself in a dark hallway.  At the end, a sliver of light shone from under a closed door.

I walked up to the door, not bothering to sneak, and kicked it.  The timbers exploded inward and I came face to face with Jakov.

The gang leader was short, far smaller than I had expected, but had the distinctive scar that I had heard of—a crescent from his eye to his chin.  The crime lord sat calmly at his desk, his hands folded in front of him.  As I leveled my sword at him, he began to chuckle softly.  “Thanks to you,” he said, “it seems we’re both guardless.”

“I would hardly call those men guards,” I said.  “They barely offered me a moment’s distraction.”

“That’s the issue, isn’t it?  It’s so hard to find good help.  Nearly all of my men are base thugs.”  He leaned across his desk.  “Not like you.”

I lowered my sword, incredulous.  “I’ve spent the last two years hunting the gangs of this city, and you are trying to recruit me?”

Jakov shrugged.  “You could still hunt gangs,” he said.  “I would send you against my enemies, the other gangs in the city.  It isn’t any one gang that destroys Armoede, but the competition between us.  You could be the man ends these gang wars.”

“I came to kill you, not to make a deal.”

“When I take control of the city, you will be the second most powerful man in Armoede.”

I lashed out with my sword, opening another cut on his cheek.  “Were you really so confident in your offer that you would put yourself in this kind of danger?”

He smiled.  “My master was relatively sure that you would accept.”

His master…? I growled in frustration and stabbed the man through the chest.  The reason that he had seemed too short to be Jakov was because he was too short to be Jakov.

I pushed his body off the desk and began searching the room.  There had to be something that could help me.

***

Jakov leaped with surprise as I stepped in front of him and pressed the tip of my sword to his jaw.

“All that trouble you went through—hiring a double, leaving a token guard at the butcher shop—and you let your double keep a list of your safe houses on his person.”

Jakov grimaced.  “That bastard was supposed to be more careful.”

“It is hard to find good help.”  Sweeping my sword through the air, I separated his head from his shoulders.  I wiped the bloody blade on his tunic and left him there on his own drawing room floor.

It would add to my reputation.  Guardless, the one man in Armoede with nothing to fear.