The Mortal Shackles

by

Christopher A. Jos

Quillen crouched at the cliff’s edge, the barrel of his rifle protruding over the remnants of a jagged stone slab. His elbow rested upon the flesh above one knee, stock pressed into the crook of his opposite shoulder.

It was almost time.

Three horse-drawn wagons rushed along the dirt road across an endless expanse of parched and dusty plain. Despite looking nearly identical to other such drab vehicles found across the Wilds, these covered transports hid something far more valuable within. Gold and silver coins of various denominations. Firearms, ammunition, precious stones, even raw emptherra ore.

But armed men would be hiding inside as well. The gang’s sources had confirmed it.

“What’s taking so long, marksman?”

Quillen glanced sideways at Fleur Augustine from under his wide-brimmed hat. The woman’s left eye peered through an extended metal spyglass at the scene below, her right concealed beneath a faded gray bandage.

“About time these merchants got wise to our presence,” Augustine’s words betrayed the hint of a Lamarian accent. A subtle inflection―the lengthening of every vowelled syllable. “Not that hiring those Coltons will do them much good. Bunch of glorified bounty hunters.”

Her other arm was wrapped around the shoulders of a mousy looking girl pressed against her chest. The child looked about ten or so, posture stiff, matted brown hair obscuring her downcast eyes and freckled face.

Quillen repositioned the rifle barrel, but didn’t take aim yet. The men in the wagons would be armed with the same lever-action Wexlers as him, a weapon that still felt extremely foreign. If only he’d had his Vicrosse rifle instead with its -longer reach and far more familiar weight. But it had been too great a risk to carry about, especially if someone out here recognized it.

“Well? What’re you waiting for?” Augustine collapsed the spyglass and glared at him. Breaking daylight reflected off the hilts of two combat knives and a holstered revolver at her waist. Dark red tattoos in a freefall blood splatter pattern adorned the joints of her elbows.

“Patience, Miss Augustine,” Quillen said.

Augustine grabbed the girl’s chin and raised it toward the passing wagons. “Dear One, you mustn’t look away now. The show’s about to start.”

But the girl’s eyes remained fixed to the ground. Augustine had forced her to watch every one of these waylays ever since Quillen first joined them all those months ago.

“No more slip-ups, marksman.” Augustine stroked the girl’s hair and hummed a soft tune, a series of long notes ascending and descending in a simple yet wistful melody.

Quillen ignored the crooning and aligned the rifle’s sight. The wagon drivers were almost in range―a trio of men in dust-caked traveler’s clothes.

He took a deep breath. Held, exhaled, paused. Three counts.

An empty shell casing flew free of the ejection chamber with each successive shot, a fresh round taking its place.

Blood sprayed. The two drivers in the lead wagons tumbled from the benches onto the rocky ground. The third driver clutched his upper arm, but didn’t fall.

A miss.

Quillen tugged at the thin steel collar wrapped around his neck. Oblivion take him―he should’ve made that shot. A misjudgment of the distance? Competing crosswinds? Augustine’s cursed singing? He readied to fire again.

But there was no need. The first two wagons veered off the narrow dirt road, the third driver releasing the reins before slumping forward. Several of the Coltons poked their heads out from the transports’ coverings and scrambled into the empty front benches.

Quillen lowered his rifle.

“Wonderful!” Augustine’s lips parted in a wide grin. “Splendid work!”

She placed two fingers into her mouth and whistled. Sixteen long-coated riders appeared at the base of the cliff, their exposed elbows revealing the same blood splatter tattoos as she had. They charged ahead with rifles raised.

The Coltons pointed and shouted, a tangle of legs and turquoise armbands scrambling for their own weapons. Augustine’s riders surrounded the wagons in a circle formation, one Quillen had seen them use many times before.

The shootout was over in minutes―and the plains returned to silence.

Though Quillen was well over a hundred marks out from the slaughter, the scents of blood and explosive powder drifted toward him upon the breeze. Four of Augustine’s men lay motionless in the dust, the three wagon drivers scattered among nine other Colton corpses.

Which was nothing out of the usual. Augustine had never been one for taking captives.

“Did you enjoy the show, Dear One?” Augustine squeezed the girl’s shoulder, but the child recoiled from her touch. “Someday, you’ll appreciate my work as much as I do. There’s no greater pleasure in this world than the art of a well-executed waylay.”

The girl kept her eyes lowered, same as always. Quillen shook his head.

Two of the wagons were still intact. The third lolled off to one side, its spoked wheels crooked beyond saving. A dozen of Augustine’s men searched the bodies for coins and keepsakes, the rest grappling with the reins atop the now vacant drivers’ benches.

A man’s phlegm-filled cough and subsequent spit caused Quillen to glance behind him. A pair of clean-shaved ruffians in dark coats lounged among the rocks, a line of four charcoal Slatedancer horses stationed beside them. Calloused hands gripped the gun belts at their hips, eyes darting between Quillen and the scene below.

“What’re you still doing here, marksman?” Augustine wrapped her arms tighter around the girl. “Go and join the others.”

Quillen rose to his feet. He slung his rifle over one shoulder and crossed toward a restless Slatedancer at the edge of the line, Augustine’s gaze following him the entire way. He mounted up and angled the beast down the steep slope leading into the rocky plain.

The mousy girl flashed him a shy smile on the way past and Quillen returned a nod. Fleur Augustine had no idea just how valuable that ‘Dear One’ of hers truly was.

#

Quillen stood on picket duty near the perimeter of a shallow rock formation. The stolen wagons lay parked near the center of the gang’s makeshift camp, encircling the embers of a dying bonfire and the bedrolls of Augustine’s snoring men.

Though he tried to keep vigil upon the surrounding open plains, Quillen’s gaze continued to wander toward the faint inkling of stars shimmering in a darkened sky. Auralia and Argentius were in their waxing phases tonight, wide crescents of gold and silver gleaming in solemn prominence.

Quillen adjusted the shoulder strap on his rifle. Four hours in and there’d been nothing of note save for a lone string cricket resting atop the lowest branch of a spindled nettle tree. The transparent creature perched in full view of the moonlight, back legs rubbing together, antennae extended in a mournful courting call. A dozen other crickets responded in kind, hidden among the jagged rocks and stocky thornshrubs. Their symphony had long since been his favorite part of these forays into the Wilds, the only place in the known world he’d ever heard such a song.

Boots scraped upon the slated stone. The insects went silent. Several familiar figures approached the distant camp perimeter. Quillen made an instinctual reach for the revolver at his side.

Three men and one woman, though his eyes were drawn only to the last. Emilia Warrick, Imperial Court Magistrate of the Delmiran Empire, proceeded forward alone. She was just shy of middle age, dressed in a tight woven collared shirt and a vermilion cloak.

Quillen gave her a stiff bow.

“So, gunner,” Warrick said. “Did the incident this afternoon go as planned?”

Quillen nodded. Never mind he failed to kill a target with what should’ve been a simple shot.

“I trust you’re not drawing too much attention to yourself,” Warrick said.

His fingers brushed against the Wexler rifle barrel slung over his shoulder. “Most of the gang doesn’t like what I do.”

“Nor should they. What of this Fleur?”

“She’s happy to make use of me.” And in more ways than one―especially in recent weeks.

“Approach.”

The paired moons cast Warrick’s impassive expression in a clash of discordant light, though he could barely sense the magistrate’s heartbeat despite how close she was. Their shared link should’ve made her presence impossible to ignore.

Warrick reached for the steel collar about his throat, but Quillen’s gaze settled instead upon the Imperial Signet ring wrapped around the fourth finger of her left hand. The gold band bore the official seal of the Delmiran Empire―an alabaster swan in flight. Warrick’s most dangerous weapon.

A long line of silver emptherra bracelets fastened about her wrists emitted a harsh ashen light, as did the collar about Quillen’s own neck. The metal felt warm against his skin.

“Are you enjoying the mortal experience so far, gunner?” she asked. “You probably don’t remember much of what it was like.”

Quillen remained mute. There was no reason to answer her, not unless she Compelled him to. His eyes lingered upon both Warrick’s ring and her bracelets. An Imperial Court magistrate with her own unique talents.

But Warrick seemed unconcerned with his silence. She ran her nails across the collar’s surface―a remnant artifact of a civilization long since gone.

“That added charge should be enough to keep it functional,” she said, “but the device will need another replenishing soon.”

She withdrew her hands, and Quillen prodded at the steel clasp. He’d glimpsed his own strange reflection in the windows of countless settlements Augustine and her Blood Splatter Gang had passed through. Ashen hair turned blond, mismatching irises of crimson and violet now a uniform brown. An intended side effect of the collar. Without it, his features would be far too recognizable, even out here.

“How much longer am I to remain in these outlaws’ company?” he asked.

“Until I say so,” Warrick smirked at him. “Stay close to the girl, keep her safe. Continue doing whatever’s necessary to endear yourself to her and to Fleur’s gang. Our work here’s almost finished.”

Quillen shook his head. All this trouble for just one child. “There must be a hundred others like her in this region of the Desolate Plains alone and thousands more across the Wilds.”

Warrick removed a small hourglass from her coat pocket, a thick metallic frame surrounding the artifact’s bulbous glass tubes. Coarse emptherra shavings bubbled up from its lower chamber into the one above.

“The Horologe shows the girl to be an ideal candidate to brave the Cairns.” Warrick held the strange hourglass up to the moonlight. Another of the ancient Zir’s wondrous artifacts. “As do my instincts.”

An Horologe never made a mistake in its selection, and in all the years Quillen had known the magistrate, Warrick’s purported instincts had seldom been wrong, either. The girl couldn’t possibly know what fate awaited her now.

“I’ll have more instructions for you soon,” Warrick said. “In the meantime―stay here with Fleur and the girl.”

She returned the hourglass to her cloak and strode back toward the three awaiting figures. Lawmen from the nearby fortified town of Aurora Gulch, if their dust-laden coats were any indication. Quillen recognized the tall, bald one in the middle as Constable Jerome Hendry. Seemed like Magistra Warrick had been making some powerful friends out here. No doubt the lawmen had their own reasons for wanting Augustine and her Blood Splatter Gang caught or killed.

Hopefully his time among them would be over soon enough.

#

The stolen wagons trundled on through the main street of the Pebblemouth settlement. A dozen of Augustine’s men rode ahead to secure the area, rifles and revolvers brandished on full display. Quillen angled his hat against the shifting daylight. This was the third such community they’d visited in as many weeks.

Only a single constable and his two deputies were on watch, all too easy to herd into the local lawman’s office and keep under guard. They offered little protest, especially when outnumbered ten to one.

As for the rest of the settlers―they knew what to do.

Doors were shut tight, window curtains pulled. A Wexler muzzle and a few rough shoves helped along a pair of elderly women who moved slower than they should’ve. With the streets clear, several of Augustine’s men shared a cackle before heading for the nearby saloon.

Augustine surveyed the settlement from the driver’s bench of the lead wagon, one hand on the reins, the other about the girl. Quillen brought his Slatedancer to a halt beside her, though the beast seemed eager to continue on. The two dark-coated ruffians waited on her other side.

“Go and join the others,” she said.

Quillen clucked to his mount and the horse edged forward.

“Not you.” Augustine pointed to the darkcoats. “Them.”

“Fleur.” The first one spoke with a heavy settler’s drawl. “Then who’s gonna watch you?”

“Him.” Augustine jabbed a finger at Quillen.

“What?” the second darkcoat said. “But he’s―”

“I told you to join the others,” Augustine said. “Why’re you still here?”

The darkcoats exchanged a long look before urging their mounts down the street. The first gave Quillen a passing glare; the second spat at his feet.

Quillen maintained his impassive facade. If things continued on like this, a darkcoat’s knife in the night might be coming for him soon.

“Yesterday’s waylay went well, marksman.” Augustine hopped off the driver’s bench and lifted the girl down with her. “Guarding me and my Dear One will be your reward today.” The glint in her eye was all too familiar. The rest of his ‘reward’ would come later, under the light of the moons.

Quillen left his Slatedancer beside the wagon and followed Augustine and the girl into the settlement on foot. Pebblemouth wasn’t much to look at. Little more than a single street with a line of box-shaped mincewood buildings. Quick to build, quick to burn, and at the mercy of the Desolate Plains’s occasional but violent dust storms.

“Today’s a very special day.” Augustine wrapped her arm tighter around the girl, her head tilted skyward. “It’s been exactly a year since my beloved Dear One and I found each other, and the first of what’ll be many more spent together.”

They passed the brightly painted signs noting the land office, the blacksmith, and the stables. A dozen of Augustine’s men lingered about the main street on patrol, every shop door closed and window curtain drawn.

Though Quillen trailed behind, the girl’s fingers made an occasional reach for his hand. Accidental? Deliberate? He tucked his arms behind his back, his patchy leather coat creaking with each step. Either way―best not to let Augustine see it.

Their final stop was the general store near the settlement’s center. A tiny copper bell tied to the framed glass door chimed upon their entry. The drab shelves on Quillen’s right were lined with a sparse offering of clay plates, wooden dolls, and ceramic teapots. Sachets of dried herbs, murky liquor, and colorful jars of candy cluttered the remaining shelves on his left.

The shopkeeper―a bald man with a graying beard and a black bow tie―dusted the countertop with a soiled rag, though the surface didn’t look as if it needed any more polish.

“Dear One,” Augustine said, “to celebrate this wonderful day, you’re free to pick out whatever you want.” She pointed to the candy-laden shelves, a wide smile on her lips.

The girl hesitated a moment before straying toward the sweets―an item the store seemed to have in odd abundance. Chocolate flakes, bright sugar ribbons, cubed toffee, even chewing gum. But she didn’t stay there for long.

Quillen watched her wander to the store’s opposite side. The girl ran her fingers over a matching set of porcelain dishes before settling upon a small wooden rack of labeled spice jars. She unscrewed the lids and inhaled their scents, one after the other.

Augustine’s smile faded. The girl returned to her with two of the glass containers. Quillen recognized the pale green needles and coarse amber grains―shimmering ivy and dry safflower.

“Why in Oblivion’s name would you want those, Dear One?” Augustine made a puckered face. “Girls are supposed to like dolls and sweet things.”

But the girl didn’t move. She continued to hold out the spices for Augustine.

“No,” Augustine said. “Put them back.”

The girl clutched the jars to her chest. Augustine took a step forward, and the girl retreated.

“Dear One.” A smile creased Augustine’s lips again, but the sides of her mouth twitched. “Don’t make me angry.”

She took another step forward and the girl recoiled further. Augustine glared at the shopkeeper, who continued to polish his immaculate countertop.

“You did mention she could pick out whatever she wanted, Miss Augustine,” Quillen said.

Augustine rounded on him, fingers flexing, jaw clenched tight. Quillen stood his ground, but fought the urge to make his own retreat. Perhaps siding with the girl had been a mistake.

Augustine’s piercing gaze lingered on him a moment longer before she crossed toward the counter. “I’ll be taking those.” She made a jabbing motion at the spice jars in the girl’s arms.

The shopkeeper ignored her, continuing to wipe the soiled rag back and forth across the glossy surface. He must’ve known who Augustine was. No doubt the entire region did by now.

“Did you hear me?” Augustine said again.

Still no response.

A flick of her wrist. Augustine jammed a knife blade into the counter―right between the cleaning rag and the shopkeeper’s outstretched fingers.

Now the man looked up.

“It’s very impolite to ignore a lady―especially when she’s a paying customer.” Augustine drew a second knife, peering at her distorted reflection in the flat of the blade. “Got any news to share?”

The shopkeeper pointed to his mouth and ears, then shook his head.

“How curious.” Augustine leaned forward, the tops of her breasts peeking through the open neck of her collared shirt. “Can you read lips, then? I’ve heard lots of you deaf-mutes do that.”

The shopkeeper nodded.

“I hope you know your letters too, or you won’t be of much use to me.” She raised her knife and ran the blade’s edge along the man’s bald scalp. He flinched at its touch. “And I like useful things.”

Quillen turned away from the shopkeeper’s widening eyes. No reason to interfere unless the girl was in danger, and she definitely wasn’t anymore with Augustine’s attention now elsewhere. The child stood off to one side and continued to inhale from those jars. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Crying, over a bunch of spices? Not that there was much he could do for her with Augustine so close.

The shopkeeper swallowed, beckoning for Augustine to come closer. He reached for a nearby pocketbook and fountain pen.

“Wait for me out front, marksman,” Augustine said. “And take my Dear One with you. This shopkeeper and I need to talk.”

Quillen’s fingers closed about the door latch. He was about to call for the girl, but she was already at his side. She gripped a fistful of his coat in one hand, her jars of spices tucked into the crook of her other elbow.

The shop bell chimed but once on their way out.

#

Quillen and Augustine’s men arrived at the refuge the following evening.

Despite the sun rising above a cloudless sky, the area remained in perpetual shade. Nestled between the conjoined shadows of two enormous rock plateaus, a line of partially buried steel glowlanterns illuminated a worn path along the uneven ground. During Quillen’s time with them, Augustine kept the gang on constant rotation throughout several such hideouts, and they never remained in one for long.

Riders dismounted and hitched their horses; others unloaded the backs of the wagons. Crates full of canned beans, dried meat, and stale biscuits. Spare bundles of bedrolls, sets of traveler’s clothes, and boots from Pebblemouth’s general store. Items not always easy to acquire in a waylay.

Quillen sat on the driver’s bench next to Augustine and the girl. It made for a cramped fit, but Augustine had insisted on it after leaving the settlement two days past. His continued reward had been her exact words.

The girl yawned, rubbing a hand over her eyes. She seemed barely able to keep them open.

“Let’s get you to bed, Dear One,” Augustine said, “before you pass out and accidentally hurt your―”

Augustine’s two darkcoats approached the wagon.

“Fleur,” the first man said. “We need a word.”

Augustine’s face twitched before squeezing the girl’s shoulder. “I’ll just be a moment, Dear One. This won’t take long.”

She stepped down from the driver’s bench and left Quillen to mind the girl. The darkcoats led Augustine off several dozen paces, pausing only once they were out of earshot.

Quillen’s facade cracked in  slight grin. His hearing might be blunted, but it was still sharper than any mortal’s should be. He leaned forward.

“Fleur,” the first darkcoat said. “You’re spoiling that there marksman.”

“He’s only been with us a few months,” the second darkcoat said, “and he’s already done got you wrapped up around his tiny…finger.”

Quillen tilted his head. The voices were muffled but audible. It took a moment to piece together their speech, as if they were conversing on the other side of a wall.

“We’ve pulled off more successful waylays these past few months than we ever have before, all because of him.” A smile formed on Augustine’s lips. “It’s wonderful.”

A passing group of Augustine’s gang paused to watch, though none dared venture too close.

“Yeah, but ain’t it strange?” the first darkcoat said.

“I’ve never met a marksman as good as him in these parts.” Augustine extended her arms and did a full twirl. “I’ve finally found someone who understands the art of a well-executed waylay. The planning, the preparation, the elegance. He and my Dear One are like my own little family…”

“Fleur,” the second darkcoat said. “You ain’t listening. That damn marksman might be a bit too good, you know what I mean? And what’s with that collar of his―”

“Here’s what I think.” Augustine lowered her arms. The smile vanished. “He’s better with a rifle than either of you will ever be, and that frightens the shit out of you.” She spat a wad of phlegm at their feet. “It’s pathetic, really. Even my Dear One isn’t scared of him.”

“But―”

“We’re done,” Augustine said. “Don’t bring this up again. Not until you’ve proved yourselves useful for more than whining.”

The darkcoats exchanged another look. Augustine started back toward the wagon.

The first darkcoat grabbed her arm. “Fleur―”

Augustine bared her teeth. She twisted her wrist and rammed a blade into his throat.

The darkcoat’s eyes widened. She withdrew the knife, bright blood spurting from the wound, but Augustine didn’t let him fall. Instead, she brought him in closer, red droplets staining her hair and clothes. Quillen caught another smile on her lips.

“I said we’re done.” The blood slowed to a trickle, and only then did she release him. The darkcoat collapsed to the ground face down in a darkening puddle. “Must I repeat myself a third time?”

The second darkcoat grimaced, one hand jerking toward the revolver at his hip. He stopped just short of touching it.

Quillen nodded. A wise choice.

Instead, the second darkcoat lowered his eyes and retreated. The gathering crowd dispersed at the sight of Augustine straddling the corpse. She wiped the knife blade on the dead man’s shirt, the only part of her not covered in blood.

The girl’s fingers dug deep into Quillen’s sleeve. Her teeth chattered.

“It’s all right.” He gave her a stiff pat on the hand. Probably not the most appropriate thing he’d ever said. His work for the Imperial Court rarely involved caring for children.

Augustine returned to wagon’s side, her one good eye settling upon the girl―and her grip on Quillen’s leather coat. A passing shadow marred her features.

“Come along, Dear One.” The look was gone, as if it had never been there at all. Augustine didn’t bother wiping the blood from her hands or her face. “I’ll need your help to change.”

The girl released Quillen’s arm. Augustine slipped a reddened sleeve around her neck, the hum of that wistful melody already on her lips. She led the girl past the darkcoat’s body, deeper into the waiting refuge.

Quillen crooked his hat, waited for them to disappear before squatting next to the paling corpse. The unfortunate darkcoat hadn’t been the first of the Blood Splatter Gang to feel the wrong end of Augustine’s blades, and wouldn’t be the last.

He needed to get the girl out of here―and soon.

#

Quillen blinked away the last remnants of sleep and squinted at the overhanging canopy of stars. The moons mirrored each other in their slow skim across a clear night sky.

The refuge was silent. No one else seemed to be on vigil at the moment, and that probably meant it was his turn. None of Augustine’s men ever bothered to wake him for it anyway. Such petty fools. If something happened during his watch, there’d be far bigger problems than him neglecting his duties.

He lurched out of the bedroll containing Augustine’s dozing form, threw on his clothes and gun belt. A throbbing pain pounded at his temples, and he quashed the urge to double over and retch. These spells were happening more and more often upon waking. Best to get some air. Take up his post.

The familiar string crickets’ calls were an irritant rather than a pleasure this time and did nothing but intensify his headache. He ambled on as though in a daze, movements slow and uncoordinated.

His body still couldn’t grow used to that state of consciousness called slumber. He must’ve done it often as a child before passing through the gnarled stones of the Vicrosse Cairns, but the recollection was murky. Some of those old memories were so vivid, like the endless days of his youth spent laboring in the shafts of that underground emptherra mine. Most were nothing but a scatter of frayed threads.

And he’d been considered a lucky one.

The first time he’d collapsed from exhaustion had been months ago. Shortly after Warrick had fastened the collar around his neck and not long before being sent off to work himself into Augustine’s gang. His world had gone black, a descent into Oblivion until his eyes had opened many hours later to the glare of daylight. The complete shutdown of his senses had been an unsettling experience. Danger could come from anywhere and he’d never even know it.

After all―Vicrosse Gunners were never meant to sleep.

His solitary patrol took him far from the camp and away from the looming plateaus of the plains. The chorus of string crickets rose in pitch, the notes overlapping one another in a longing crescendo. Both Auralia and Argentius were near full, and the ground was easy enough to navigate without the need of a glowlantern. A welcome relief, given his current condition.

Boots crunched upon the stone, and Quillen reached for his revolver. A rifle would’ve served him far better, but he’d left the damn Wexler back at camp. If it was one of Augustine’s men intent on causing him harm―

“At ease.” Magistra Warrick stepped forward, dressed in her usual well-cut vermilion cloak.

Oblivion take him for a fool―Quillen hadn’t sensed Warrick at all this time. He pulled at the steel collar. A man of his experience should’ve been far more careful than this. The girl’s safety depended on it.

“You look tired, gunner.” Warrick’s polished teeth glinted under the moonlight. “Been getting enough rest?”

Quillen returned a glare.

“I have news you’ll want to hear.” She gestured over her shoulder at the trio of riders beyond the camp’s perimeter. “Constable Hendry planted some information in that settlement you and those criminals visited the other day. There’s a four-wagon shipment of raw emptherra ore bound for Aurora Gulch from one of the nearby mines. Or at least that’s what Fleur’s gang was led to believe.”

Quillen crossed his arms. A prize like that would be difficult to ignore. Finding a buyer would be no trouble, stolen or no. Fuel to power the ancient Zir’s remnant artifacts was an invaluable commodity.

“The crates will contain a surface layer of emptherra ore to legitimize the deception,” Warrick said, “but the rest is nothing but gravel dust. By the time the Blood Splatter Gang realizes what’s happened, Constable Hendry and his deputies will be waiting in ambush, along with two dozen Colton mercenaries.”

Quillen shook his head. More likely all fodder for Augustine’s men.

Warrick spread a map of the Desolate Plains across a flattened boulder and motioned for Quillen to join her. “The emptherra wagons will spend the next few days passing through a nearby ridge. The large rocks and narrow path are the perfect spot to lay a trap.” She pointed to a marked line in one section. “I assume Fleur usually keeps you with her up in a sniping perch?”

Quillen nodded.

“Then while the battle’s taking place, that’ll be your opportunity to seize the girl. If everything goes as planned, there won’t be enough of those outlaws left breathing to stop you.”

“And what about Fleur?”

Warrick shrugged. “Leave her alive, if possible. Constable Hendry would like to see her properly hanged for her crimes, but it’s of secondary importance to us.” She refolded the map. “Anything you wish to add?”

“There’ll be some casualties, as usual.” Quillen’s gaze flicked toward the waiting lawmen. “I assume that won’t be a problem?”

“You have permission to do whatever’s necessary to get the girl…”

The corners of his mouth formed the beginnings of a grin. Under such orders, he could always chance taking her now, while the rest of the camp was still asleep―

“…and bring her safely to me.” Warrick leveled a finger in his direction. “Don’t get any strange ideas, gunner. The girl’s far too valuable a candidate to risk losing in some foolish abduction attempt.”

Quillen’s grin disappeared. Of course. Why should it be any different this time? Whatever his current master required to complete yet another task, all in the name of the illustrious Delmiran Empire.

Warrick and her escorts vanished once more into the moonlit plains. Quillen tugged at the collar. He’d been forced to wear this thing for far too long, but soon he’d be free of―

Lingering footsteps echoed in the darkness.

Quillen drew his revolver and strode toward the sound. The groan of leather soles grinding against stone hadn’t belonged to either Warrick or the departing lawmen.

He held his breath, gaze sweeping the shadows. The surrounding rocks resumed their silence.

But someone had been listening.

#

Augustine set a grueling pace for Quillen and the others to reach the ridge line. Upon first glance, the open plains yielded nothing, but a massive rock formation soon tore itself free of the surrounding dust. A great maw of jagged teeth stretched from one end of the horizon to the other, so vast it devoured the sun’s rays within its depths.

Augustine signaled a halt in the formation’s looming shadow. She was on horseback this time, arms wrapped in usual protective fashion around the girl sharing her Slatedancer’s saddle. Quillen halted his mount behind her alongside two dozen more of her armed riders.

“You all heard the rumors in Pebblemouth,” she said. “Four wagons hauling a shipment of raw emptherra ore are about to pass this way. They won’t be as well guarded as our usual targets, given the route’s remote location.” Her eyes settled on Quillen. “It’s also the perfect place for an ambush, so be ready for anything.”

Two more of Augustine’s men appeared on horseback from the distant ridge line. She beckoned them forward, all three speaking in whispers.

Quillen tilted his head, trying to catch pieces of the conversation, but only silence greeted him this time. His hearing had been fine, even a couple of days ago, but now…

The pair of riders veered back the way they came, and Augustine turned toward the remaining men. “The wagons will be here soon. Snare formation. You all know what to do.”

Quillen pursed his lips. He’d never heard her use that term before―at least not in his company.

But the rest of her men seemed unperturbed. Several nodded, others muttered. They kicked their mounts into a canter.

Quillen adjusted his position in the saddle amid a rising cloud of dirt and dust. Augustine kept back, along with her remaining darkcoat bodyguard. She cut her horse in front of Quillen’s, the girl giving him a shy but familiar smile.

Augustine wasn’t smiling though. Far from it.

“Marksman,” she said. “You’ll be joining the attack this time.”

Quillen tightened his grip on the reins. “Is there a reason for that, Miss Augustine?”

She didn’t reply, only glowered at him.

“My skills would be far better used elsewhere,” he said. “It’s worked out well these past few months―”

“We’re using a different tactic today. Your services aren’t needed. Just stay close to the others, they’ll know what to do.”

Augustine veered her Slatedancer about. The girl craned her head in his direction, a frown replacing her earlier smile.

“Hurry up, marksman,” Augustine said. “Don’t fall behind.”

Quillen urged his own horse forward. Augustine knew. The Aurora Gulch lawmen had to be told, but he had no way of alerting them or Magistra Warrick. Not without separating himself from the gang.

And not without arousing even further suspicion.

#

A gray fog settled over the rough contours of the ridge line. Quillen maintained a tight grip on his Slatedancer’s reins, but its hooves continued their relentless shuffle across the exposed stone. The rest of Augustine’s mounted men fanned out in a loose formation beside and behind, rifles at the ready.

He hadn’t been forced to ride on the front lines with the Blood Splatter Gang in many months, but this would be far different from those earlier skirmishes with hapless merchants and their hired guards.

This time―he was riding into a trap.

Quillen straightened himself in the saddle. At least his senses were still acute enough to feel the eyes of Augustine’s men burrowing into his back. One rider brought his horse next to Quillen’s. The sneer creasing the bearded man’s face was one of the widest he’d ever seen.

“Don’t you worry, marksman,” the rider said. “Fleur goes through her favorites like she goes through her bloody rags. You’re not the first.”

Snickers and jeers erupted among the others. Someone slapped Quillen’s arm. A second rider sauntered up alongside him.

“Careful out in them mists.” The rider revealed a gap-toothed grin. “Easy to mix up who’s who out there.”

More hoots, more laughter.

They waited. One minute became ten, then twenty. Quillen clenched the stock of his rifle. What were the wagons doing? And what was taking Augustine so long?

A piercing whistle cut through the haze. Finally. The men took off at a gallop. Quillen rode at the edge of the crude arrowhead formation, his Slatedancer near the vanguard. A little longer. Breaking too soon might get him shot―from either ahead or behind.

The fog and dust thickened. Quillen counted backward from thirty before veering his mount hard to the right, far off the road’s narrow course and into the jagged rocks. No signs of pursuit. Yet. He squinted toward the high cliffs. Augustine would be up there somewhere with the girl, but it was difficult to pinpoint the whistle’s origin with the ridge echo. If not for this haze and his collar―

Voices up ahead. A bullet grazed his coat sleeve.

Quillen raised his Wexler and squeezed the trigger. A man with a revolver collapsed to the ground at his feet and Quillen rode right over top of him. One of Augustine’s men? He caught a glimpse of a turquoise armband. A Colton.

More voices. The wagons were close. Two more bullets whipped past his head. The second scratched the tip of his ear, blood dribbling down the side of his neck.

Quillen angled his Slatedancer in a zigzagging motion about the stones. It would be all too easy for the beast to break a leg, and he was far too exposed on horseback, even in this haze. Better to find cover, collect his bearings and―

A stinging pain erupted in his left shoulder. The Slatedancer reared up and tossed him from the saddle. Quillen rolled among the pebbles, breath knocked free of his lungs. The horse crashed down beside him and shuddered.

No time to check it. Quillen retrieved his fallen hat and rifle before scrambling into the rocks. Gunfire erupted from everywhere. Men shouted, horses shrieked. He peered up again at the surrounding cliffs. Augustine would never position herself far from the battle. She’d require a proper sight line to see everything unfold, especially under such a heavy fog.

He continued weaving forward. Corpses piled around him, one with a silver star on its coat, another with a blood splatter tattoo on its elbow. He must be getting close…

A metal spyglass glimmered under the muted daylight, high above the rocks on the other side of the road.

Right where the gunfire was loudest.

Quillen inhaled a deep breath. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d run into the middle of a pitched battle, not since his days serving as a sharpshooter in the trenches of the Orbin Rebellion. But never like this.

The collar pressed itself tighter about his neck. There wasn’t much choice but to chance it. He had his orders.

He slung the Wexler rifle over his uninjured shoulder and dashed across the uneven stones. Bullets ripped past in all directions. He leaped over the bodies of fallen horses and dead men. Bloodstained hands with broken fingers tried latching onto the fringes of his coat, but he shook himself free of their grip.

The first wagon appeared. Two well-dressed men blocked his path, a pair of rifles leveled at his head. But Quillen’s revolver was already in hand. He fanned the hammer, one shot into each of their chests. The men crumpled in a heap against the wagon’s side, dark stains soaking the paneled wood. Aurora Gulch lawmen, based on the glint of the silver stars pinned to their coats. A shame that―

Something sharp bit into Quillen’s lower back, and his revolver skittered to the ground. He staggered forward, blood trickling down his shirt, the world slipping into a momentary blur. Oblivion take him―he’d just be another ordinary mortal soon. The power of the Vicrosse Cairns continued to slip away.

But there was no time to get into a shootout down here. He had to keep moving.

A sharp cliff face came into view. Quillen adjusted the strap of his rifle and searched the rocks for any usable footholds.

The first dozen lengths of ascent were easy, but it didn’t take long for his muscles to begin trembling from the strain, palms coated with sweat. His injuries rebelled against him in rolling waves of agony. First one outstretched hand lost its grip on the stone, then the other. But never both at once. Hopefully it would stay that way.

He chanced a look back down, but there wasn’t much to see aside from the wafting tendrils of smoke and fog. Quillen gritted his teeth and resumed the climb. Bursts of gunfire and screams of dying men continued to drift upward from the murky haze.

His fingers grappled for the ledge. He pulled himself over the threshold onto firm ground, collapsed and stared up into a dull gray sky. Thousands of phantom needles lanced up his arms and legs, but if he stopped now―he might not ever get up.

Quillen dragged himself to his feet, shoulder and back burning from the exertion. More blood soaked into his shirt and the lining of his coat. He drew a knife from his belt and hobbled between the protruding stones.

Augustine’s remaining darkcoat appeared at the fog’s edge, one palm resting on his revolver handle. The man’s attention was on the battle below rather than the ledge. Perhaps enjoying the spectacle a little too much. A foolish mistake.

The echo of screams and gunfire was more than enough to mask Quillen’s faltering footsteps, despite his condition. He pushed the darkcoat’s head forward and ran the knife across the man’s exposed throat, waiting until the gurgle of blood ceased before lowering the body into the dirt.

A familiar hum mingled with the cries of dying men and their guns. Augustine stood near the cliff’s edge, the extended spyglass in one hand, the girl held in a protective cocoon with the other. She rocked the child back and forth while singing that same wistful melody.

Quillen raised his knife. Every step forward was one closer to completing this task and having the Oblivion-cursed collar removed. But Warrick and Constable Hendry were mistaken if they thought Augustine could be taken alive. The only way she’d ever give up the girl was in death.

A pebble ground beneath his boot. The singing stopped, and Quillen dove behind a nearby rock. Two bullets knocked his hat loose. Another buried itself into the dirt at his feet, the remaining three ricocheting off the coarse slab.

“I know it’s you, marksman.” The metallic clink of empty shells struck the stone. “I figured you’d be dead by now, but I should’ve known better.” A pause. “You’re here for my Dear One, aren’t you?”

Quillen adjusted the grip on the knife hilt, his other hand reaching for the rifle. Not that it would do much good in his current state. He couldn’t risk hitting the girl.

“I’ve seen the way you look at her,” Augustine said, “and the way she looks at you. You want her for yourself, you and whoever you’ve been conspiring with.”

Pain radiated up Quillen’s left side, his breath coming in shallow gasps. He had to stall for time. Perhaps he could catch Augustine off guard, and if not―better to die on his feet than cowering like a worm beneath a rock.

“I won’t let you take her,” Augustine said. “She’s family, like you were supposed to be.” The cock of a hammer. “Now come out.”

Quillen sheathed his knife and limped forward. Augustine smiled. Her revolver was aimed at his chest.

“Your rifle.” She pressed the girl tighter against her. “Drop it.”

Quillen unslung the weapon from his shoulder.

“Now kick it here.”

The Wexler halted at Augustine’s feet. She eyed his bloody clothes a moment before shaking her head―then tossed her own revolver to the ground.

“Shooting you now would be too easy, marksman.” Augustine brushed the girl aside and reached for the combat knives at her belt. “You were never worthy of my Dear One’s affections.”

Quillen drew his own blade. He extended his left arm for balance, but the limb tingled, forearm already dripping with blood. It wouldn’t be of much use to him here.

Augustine lunged forward. Quillen reversed with a spin, but her knife sliced into his injured arm before his body could obey. Twist and swing, feint and cut. Augustine caught him again on the upper right thigh. He countered with a backhanded slash, but she danced out of his reach. Quillen took another nick across the shoulder, too slow to dodge or block in time.

“I thought you were different from the rest of these fools. That you truly understood my art, appreciated a waylay’s beauty.” Augustine’s lips curled back in a snarl. “I don’t like being wrong.”

Quillen spat a wad of blood at his feet. He wouldn’t last much longer like this, though what happened to him now didn’t really matter. The girl’s fate had already been decided. Warrick would make sure of that, whether it was through him or others like him. Unless the child could somehow get away from here, far enough beyond the Empire’s reach…

Perhaps he could give her that sliver of a chance.

They continued circling. Quillen’s muscles tensed. The wounds he’d take would be fatal, but that was of little concern. If he charged Augustine from this height―a fall guaranteed both of their deaths. It would be a welcome release from it all. From Warrick’s servitude, the Imperial Court’s demands, his endless tasks and labors…

Augustine smirked at him. “You might be divine with a rifle, marksman, but your knife skills are pathetic.”

The blade slipped from Quillen’s fingers, rivulets of sweat and blood dripping down along with it. He lunged at Augustine and propelled her forward. Something sharp plunged into his side, the tip of a second knife edge cutting into the skin of his right cheek.

A loud crack rang out across the empty cliffs.

Quillen skidded to a halt. Blood dribbled down his chest. The sulfuric smell of explosive powder filled the air.

He stepped back from Augustine. She wavered a moment before dropping her knives, one hand going to the bullet wound between her breasts. Her wide eye fell upon the girl standing behind her―the little mousy girl holding Augustine’s revolver in a double grip. The hammer was down, a thin wisp of gun smoke rising from the barrel.

“D…Dear One…?”

Augustine reached toward the girl with a trembling hand, but the child recoiled from her outstretched fingers. Augustine crumpled to the stone.

Blood soaked the sides of Quillen’s face and what was left of his clothes. He slumped to his knees alongside Augustine. The girl stared at him and lowered the revolver.

“Run,” Quillen said. “Get away from this place. If you stay…”

The world tumbled about in a spinning blur. The last thing he saw before the darkness took him were the girl’s boots shuffling past.

#

Quillen’s eyes snapped open.

He lay on a pile of blankets in the back of a moving wagon, its wheels grinding upon the dirt and stone of an uneven road. Something pressed against his cheek. A piece of rough fabric. A bandage? It wasn’t the only place. More were wrapped around his arms, legs, and chest. He tried to sit up, but a vicious pain in his side forced him down.

Oblivion take him. He was still alive.

“Easy, gunner.” Warrick peered at him from the driver’s bench. “I bound your injuries as best I could, but I’m no surgeon. We have a ways to go until the Aurora Gulch physician can have a look at you.”

A tear in the top of the wagon’s cover yielded streaks of sunlight peeking through a layer of white clouds. Quillen inhaled a sharp gasp. Warrick wasn’t alone. The mousy girl sat next to her.

“The Blood Splatter Gang is no more,” Warrick said. “Constable Hendry and his deputies will round up the stragglers soon enough, though there were more losses than expected. It’s fortunate I secured that contract with the Coltons, or else the day might’ve ended far different. Fleur’s men seemed to know we were coming.” Her tone went flat. “You didn’t let it slip to anyone what we were planning, did you?”

Quillen shook his head. No doubt they’d had an eavesdropper on their earlier conversation. The second darkcoat would’ve been eager to earn his way back into Augustine’s favor, or perhaps it had been Augustine herself. Irrelevant details, now.

He leaned down and blinked. Something had changed. His vision was sharper, his hearing crisper. There was a pounding in his head that had nothing to do with the rush of his own blood.

The magistrate’s heartbeat.

Upon habit, Quillen placed a stiff hand to the collar at his throat―and instead found only bare skin.

“I had to remove the artifact,” Warrick said. “You would’ve died from your injuries otherwise. Besides, with our task complete―there’s no more need for you to wear it.”

It was as if a lingering illness these past few long months had finally begun to lift. And his appearance…

The girl craned her neck toward him and pointed at his face. “I like you better this way.” Her voice was soft, barely above a whisper. “It looks…right.”

Quillen stared. Those were the first words he’d ever heard her speak.

With the steel collar gone, the colors had probably returned to his eyes and retreated from his hair. Mismatched irises of crimson and violet. A scalp full of ashen strands.

He peered closer at the girl. She still held the two spice jars in her hands, the ones bought from the general store in Pebblemouth.

“A memory of home.” The girl tapped the lids of shimmering ivy and dry safflower. She gave him a weak smile. “My real one, anyway. Before Fleur came, and…”

Her lower lip trembled. Augustine had never told him how the girl ended up with her gang. Captured during a farm raid, or so Quillen had heard. Augustine had claimed the child for herself and killed the rest.

“I’m Cerys,” the girl said. “Cerys Talvere. If not for you and Miss Warrick―”

“Cerys has much to look forward to once we arrive in Mirren.” Warrick placed an arm around the child’s shoulders. The girl tensed, but she didn’t shy away from the magistrate’s touch. “I’ve told her what to expect at the Imperial Court, and she’s eager to join the Vicrosse Gunners’ ranks. She wants to be just like you.”

The girl smiled at him, but Quillen couldn’t bring himself to meet her gaze. Had Warrick explained to her how unlikely she was to cross through the Cairns? Not even an Horologe could know that fate for certain. And if the girl somehow survived, she might not remember much of this―or any of her current life. She might not remember much of anything at all.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the words refused to form. All that came forth was a dry rasp.

Warrick flashed a grin and raised her left hand. The Imperial Signet ring glowed a dull ashen.

Quillen’s jaw tightened. Of course. Warrick had already gone to a lot of trouble of retrieving the girl, had even Compelled him to do so. She wouldn’t want him spoiling it all by revealing the truth now.

He settled back into the pile of blankets. The girl would’ve been better off with Fleur Augustine. All that was left for her now was a quick death among the Cairns―or a slow one in servitude to the Imperial Court and the Empire’s endless labors.

Like him. And all the other Vicrosse Gunners.

____

Copyright 2019 Christopher A. Jos

Christopher A. Jos is a teacher currently living in Alberta, Canada, and is a self-professed fantasy and science-fiction junkie. His speculative fiction has appeared in publications such as The Arcanist, Theme of Absence, and The Colored Lens.

Visit him at https://christopherajos.com/ or find him on Twitter @ChristopheAJos.