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"Chap, would you be so kind as to tell me who I am?"
— Shadrach the 1st 18 seconds after creation
Shade kept his eyes closed while his fingers danced over the guitar strings. Sweat drenched his beard. For at least the moment, he was in heaven; music was one of the only things remaining in his life that brought him peace, that quieted his pain and regret. It didn't matter that most of the tavern's patrons weren't paying attention to the beauty he and his fellow knights created. As long as the music stemmed from him, he was sane. As long as he could concentrate on an endless succession of chords, his mind didn't linger on her.
A rasping tenor rose above the organized chaos of the song. Shade opened his eyes. The tavern was dim, lit by six sputtering torches affixed to the earthen walls. He glanced at his two brothers in arms, on stools beside him. Meesh slapped his palms against the skins of his bongos, his long brown hair whipping about each time he flung his head to the side. Abe had his own guitar in hand, and he expertly strummed out a rhythm with his head thrown back, beads of sweat breaking out on the creased black skin of his brow as he crooned the lyrics to a song they'd belted out a thousand times. The tune reached the chorus, and Meesh joined in with his warbling baritone. His brothers' harmony was perfect, as usual. Shade grinned.
Shouts sounded over the music, and Shade pivoted on his stool. There were less than twenty people in the tavern, and of them only three sat at the tables before the low stage to watch the performance. The rest gathered around the bar and grumbled among themselves while tossing back mugs of home-brewed liquor. This wasn't surprising. Even by Wasteland standards, Barrendale was a tiny settlement: barely four hundred people lived here, which meant Shade was more than grateful that even three of them had grown to appreciate the music. The first night they'd played here, none had paid them any mind.
Currently, a disagreement had broken out. Two large men with ratty beards shouted. One shoved the other, which brought both of them to blows. One pulled a rusty knife from his belt.
The barkeep lifted an iron rod and brought it down on the bar with a crash. The knife-wielder sheathed his blade and the two men stopped their fighting and sat back down. The barkeep offered them each another cup, and they drank. In a matter of moments, the two were clapping each other on the back, laughing.
Shade chuckled to himself as they brought their song to its final chord. He and his mates moved onto the next one without pause.
They had been at it for nearly an hour now, and even though Shade's fingers were sore, he didn't want to stop. The barkeep, a thick man with a large gut named Burrell, offered him a nod. Shade appreciated the gesture. It wasn't all that common for proprietors in the outlying backwaters to allow them to perform, especially if they knew just who they were harboring.
Even though their presence was appreciated in dire times, not everyone was hospitable to representatives of the Pentus, especially the Knights Eternal, and many nights it was difficult just to find lodging. Barrendale was in the far south of the Wasteland of Yussai, however, bordering stiff prairie grasses, beyond which lay the incessant storms of the Unknown Lands. Even brigands and demons tended to avoid such inhospitable places. In fact, the populace was so cut off from what went on in the rest of the Wasteland that they had welcomed the Knights Eternal with open arms. Shade wondered if he and his brothers had interpreted the Oracle's instructions correctly.
Abe thrummed an intentionally dissonant chord. As if on cue, five new men entered the tavern.
Shade stared at them across the span of empty tables. Each of the five newcomers stood in front of the swinging tavern door, unnoticed by the rest of the patrons. They wore rags covered with coppery dust. Their skin was rutted and peeling, posture hunched, beady eyes rimmed with red, streaks wending down their cheeks like cracks in glass. Each held a staff, the long, curved blades at the end carved from bone. One of them looked Shade's way for a scant moment. His tongue licked blackened, cracked lips. Shade had only seen men like this twice before in his life, but there was no doubt who — and what — they were.
Scourgers. After two weeks, they had finally shown their faces, and with no warning.
Shit, thought Shade.
Abe and Meesh had stopped singing though their instruments still hummed. Shade glanced to the side to see that both his brothers in duty were looking his way. Abe appeared disappointed; Meesh, excited. Meesh's blue-gray eyes widened as he jutted his chin toward the corner of the short stage, where their instrument cases were propped against the wall. Both Shade and Abe shook their heads. The confines of the tavern were too restricting to use ranged weapons. Shade shifted on his stool just in case, locked his elbow in preparation to reach for the hilt affixed to his belt.
Just as he did so, the five Scourgers rushed toward the drunken, oblivious patrons with weapons held high, while behind them another six barged through the swinging doors. Their mouths opened wide; high-pitched shrieks escaped their throats. Shade, Meesh, and Abe dropped their instruments and surged to their feet. Burrell the barkeep turned with a start, his flesh gone white as he reached for his iron rod. The other patrons turned as well. Some men, including the two who'd almost brawled, pulled out their meager knives and prepared to fight, others knocked over stools and each other in their attempts to flee. One of the Scourgers leapt over the bar and tackled the proprietor. The three men who'd been watching Shade and his brothers perform slipped out of their chairs and rushed to his aid.
It seemed men had each other's backs here in Barrendale. A rare trait for a backwater.
The knights exchanged a look and jumped from the stage to join the fray. Shade gripped the handle of his sword and plucked it from his belt. Vibrations coursed through him as man and Eldersword connected. The Rush took hold. He lashed his arm forward, the segmented blade extending outward from the hilt, three feet long and glimmering silver. The grooves along the flat of the Eldersword glowed, reflecting the mental state of the bearer. Had he been panicked, it would have shone gold; were he angry, it would flare a deep crimson. His blade gleamed a brilliant blue, the color of certainty.
The Scourgers moved quickly, their curved staffs leaving three tavern patrons on the floor in their wake. Four of the Scourgers pivoted at the sound of the knights' approach and hunkered down. Shade knocked aside a table and ran straight ahead, sword held by his ear. He could hear it humming, the Rush bringing vigor to his muscles. The soreness in his fingers evaporated; muscles cramped from bending over his guitar burned with renewed energy. To his left and right came Meesh and Abe. Their swords glowed just as brilliantly as his.
Shade fell on the first of the Scourgers, his Eldersword buzzing as it cut through the air.
His target ducked beneath the blow, hissed as he swung his staff in a looping arc toward Shade's feet. Shade leapt over the staff, which scraped against the dirt floor, and then slashed his blade and clipped the Scourger in the throat. Thick, dark blood poured from the wound, drenching the disfigured man's dirty frock. His reddened eyes grew wide as Shade rammed a foot against his staff and snapped it in half, its bone blade shattering on the ground. Shade lopped off the Scourger's head with a single blow.
The Eldersword's hum grew louder in his head as he quickly took in the scene. Five of the Scourgers had somehow been felled; six remained standing. Abe took on two of them to the left of the bar, deftly parrying and dodging continued attacks from the Scourgers' bladed staffs.
The one Meesh battled wielded not only his staff, but the fallen barkeep's iron rod, and Meesh's sword clanged each time the two weapons met. The remaining three were locked in deadly combat with tavern patrons.
Shade cursed the cramped confines of the tavern, chancing a longing glance over his shoulder at his guitar case. He wanted Rosetta in his grip, preferring the thundermaker to the sword. A couple of blasts from Rosetta's muzzle and the fight would be over.
He rushed to the aid of the patrons. One of the Scourgers spun around at the last moment, lashing out with his staff. Shade hopped to the side, the bone blade only just missing his arm. His heel connected with an overturned chair and Shade stumbled. The Scourger took the offensive, lurching into him, knocking him backward. Shade fell to the dirt floor; the Scourger landed atop him, knocking the air from his lungs and pinning his sword arm. Shade gasped as his opponent made a lunging attempt to bite his neck. His forearm found the man's throat and halted his momentum; jagged teeth clacked just centimeters in front of Shade's face. Then the Scourger pressed in, trying to bite again, and his pelvis lifted ever so slightly. Shade rammed his knee into the Scourger's backside. The deformed man lurched forward and let out a surprised yelp. Shade slid out from under him and, with his arm now free, jammed his Eldersword through the back of the Scourger's head. The tip exited his left eye socket with a sickening pop.
And still Shade's blade sang.
The Scourger pitched forward, the sword slid out of his skull, and Shade flicked his wrist to rid the blade of the blood. A growl left his throat as he spun around. His sword glowed in bright swirls of blue and red, thirsting for more.
But there was no more to be had, for the chaos ended when Abe decapitated the last Scourger. Shade cast his eyes to the side, saw the tavern's surviving patrons panting as they hovered over the corpses of five attackers. The eleven Scourgers had killed four of Barrendale's citizens; five more lay on the ground, moaning and bleeding. Burrell was back on his feet, though he favored his right side, and a wicked gash marred the underside of his jaw. The man looked up from his dead patrons to Shade, grimaced, and shook his head. Shade nodded in reply before moving toward the center of the room with Abe and Meesh. The three Knights Eternal stared at the door and waited for more Scourgers to enter. None did.
Only after they had decided it was safe did the knights retract their swords; the blades collapsed in on themselves until nothing but the hilts remained. When Shade placed the hilt back on its clip, the vibrations that gave his muscles strength disappeared, and his bloodlust faded. He spread a dusty blanket in front of the stage. Abe and Meesh began gathering up the Scourger corpses so they could be disposed of in the desert, while Shade tended to the five wounded. One man held the gaping maw of his abdomen, crying as he stared up at the ceiling. Shade yanked his skinning knife from his belt and slipped the tip between the man's ribs, piercing his heart and ending his pain.
One of the surviving patrons behind him moaned. Shade glanced up to see a young man kneeling there, hands clasped in front of his face.
"Don't just sit there," said Shade. "Do something."
"Go find Barbara," stated Burrell in a deep voice. "Tell her Paddy's dead. And check on those who'd been assigned watch tonight. Find out why they didn't send out a warning. They'd better be dead."
Tears flowed from the young man's eyes as he shuffled to his feet and dashed out the tavern door.
"Thanks," Shade said.
Burrell limped to the bar and removed a jug. He lumbered toward another of the injured men and poured whiskey into his mouth.
Not five minutes later, the tavern again teemed with life as the now-frightened residents of Barrendale entered. Three of the wounded were taken to the village apothecary; the fourth died from his many wounds before they could carry him out. People approached the knights and ranted to Shade, Abe, and Meesh that the stories they'd told the knights had been accurate — the Scourgers were growing bold, venturing down from the mountain homes.
"I know," Shade repeated over and over. Inside, he was just thankful that the people didn't blame them for what had happened, an experience he knew quite well.
When the chaos finally eased, Shade approached his fellow warriors in faith.
"I'm too old for this," said Abe. He traced the five-pointed star of the Pentus on his chest.
"Bullshit," Meesh said as he tied back his long, wavy hair with a piece of twine. "I think we ended it too quickly."
Abe rolled his eyes. "Too quick? What's wrong with you?"
"Hey, don't judge me, brah. You can't tell me that wasn't a thrill. And besides, look at Shade. He feels it too."
Shade said nothing.
Meesh nudged him. "C'mon, man. I know how you get when these things end."
"Brother," said Abe, "leave the man alone."
"Why? He can take it. He's a big boy."
Shade let out a deep breath. Meesh was right — lately he had come to feel horrible in the aftermath of these conflicts. Without music or fighting, there was nothing to keep his thoughts from straying to what he'd lost. This meant he had to look forward to a morning of unwanted memories and reflection. But he would never admit it. He could never admit to the men he trusted most that he'd come so very close to breaking his vows.
"Shut it, Meesh," Shade muttered. "We need to get rid of these corpses before they stink up the place."
Abe stood with his brothers at the front of the two hundred Barrendale natives who watched the fire consume their dead. Crackling flames licked the sky, beckoning dawn. Burrell stood at the head of the assembly alongside Quint Nolan, who called himself the shantytown's mayor.
"Let us pray," Quint said. Abe and his brothers clasped their hands. The townspeople did not.
All remained silent as Quint rambled on with his prayer to the five prophets that comprised the Pentus. Though the words of the prayer were wrong, Abe felt grateful they were praying at all. Missionaries from Sal Yaddo had obviously been here in the past — they'd been pretty much everywhere in the Wasteland — but it wasn't often they succeeded in conversion.
The wind shifted, and Abe wrinkled his nose as the reek of roasting flesh invaded his nostrils. With both his hands occupied, he ducked his nose beneath the collar of his shirt and gritted his teeth. Smoke swelled around the congregation. The people standing in front of him began coughing.
"We ask the Ferrymaster to watch over their souls as they drift along the River of the Dead," Quint coughed out, hastening the end of his prayer. "Praise the Five-In-One."
"Praise be," the crowd answered halfheartedly.
With the service over, the people quickly shuffled from the pyre to get away from the billowing smoke. Families gathered in small clusters, clinging tight to their mates, while others seemed worried or annoyed. "They're lucky," said a woman whose face was gnarled by time and the elements. "'Least they don't gotta smell themselves no longer."
Abe stifled a chuckle while Meesh outright guffawed. Shade remained with his hands in the pockets of his duster, head down, the brim of his hat pulled low. Abe frowned. His brother was a broken man now, angry most of the time. He wasn't anything like the awestruck and eager soul who had materialized in the center of the Hallowed Stones six years ago. Abe had no idea what had caused the change.
He'll tell me when he's ready, he thought.
In truth, he wasn't so sure.
"Brah, I'm gonna go get a pint," said Meesh as he tugged on Abe's sleeve. "C'mon, join me. Burrell's swill might be nasty, but at least it gets ya loaded."
Abe glanced at the sky, the shade of light purple that came right before daybreak. "At this hour? We can't afford to."
Meesh shrugged. "Bah! I like to greet the day in a drunken haze. Seems appropriate."
"I think not," Abe said.
"Fine. Suit yourself." Meesh turned to Shade. "How 'bout you, grumpy? You game?"
Shade's eyes darted to the side. There was so much fury in them, so much angst. He ran his fingers through his thick black beard and left without a word.
"Guess I'm on my own then," Meesh said, backing away with a salute. "Party poopers."
Abe watched his brothers depart. Shade ambled toward the stone shanty they had called home for two weeks, while Meesh quickstepped in the direction of Burrell's tavern. Like every edifice in Barrendale, the two structures had been carved into the large rock formations common in the lower Wasteland. Abe considered his brothers, let his collar drop now that the wind had shifted again and the smoke and stench of burning flesh weren't so overwhelming. Both Shade and Meesh were damaged in their own ways. Hell, even Abe was. They'd all been burned by their duties more than once. They'd all seen horrors that would have caused lesser men to wither away.
Excerpted from "Soultaker"
Copyright © 2017 Robert J. Duperre.
Excerpted by permission of Ragnarok Publications.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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