Chapter One

When the rain started, Sullys, Mal, and Ricken were playing cards. Jakin and Way should have been there, but Jakin was ill and Way's wife insisted he spend at least one night at home that week. It made the cards significantly less fun. An hour in, the game had been set aside for drinks and Sullys' homegrown Blackroot. They sat in Sully's den, discussing the city's latest news over smoldering pipes.

“They should kill the whole lot,” Sullys was saying. “It's the best way. Keeps us safe and them from suffering.”

“Generally, most people wouldn't consider dying freedom from suffering,” said Ricken. He rolled a pouch of Blackroot in his fingers. “I'd say it was the opposite, in fact.”

“Ah, but most people aren't them. I'd want to die, if I was.”

Ricken opened the pouch. He plucked a fingerfull of Blackroot and placed it into his pipe. Flames jumped up as the root caught on the dying sparks at the bottom of the bowl. “I would too. But we aren't them. And as far as we can tell, they're perfectly happy living.”

“'As far as we can tell'. Of course.” Sullys settled back in his chair. “That's their trick. Making everything seem like it's all fine and dandy, when they're just waiting for the chance to cut your throat. Acting like they're almost normal, and not goddamn shells.”

“I never said that. They're about as far from normal as anything else I could imagine. But that doesn't mean it's our job to end a suffering that we don't even know exists.”

“Look, I'll admit there's the chance they're not suffering. But even if they're not, killing them ain't gonna hurt anybody but them, and letting 'em live'll do nothing but hurt us, so it seems obvious to me.”

“What's obvious is that you both need to shut the hell up,” said Mal. He had been sitting in his chair sulking as the other two argued. “I thought Jakin being gone might mean I'd be able to get some quiet, not more racket. At least talk about something someone cares about.”

“I think it's a deal more strange that you don't care about their arrival, when it's been the main point of discussion for most of the city,” said Ricken.

“You know what your problem is Mal?” said Sullys. “You have no goddamn sense of importance. Right here we've got a revolutionary turn of events, and all you want to do is drink, smoke, and talk about girls.”

“I think about what's important,” said Mal. He tapped his mug against the side of the table. The empty glass tinged against the wood. “Like this.” He stood and left the room.

“Why do we invite him, again?” said Sullys.

“Because he's still a better man than most anyone else in the city,” said Ricken.

Sullys grumbled and finished the rest of his rum. “Any other city and I might be impressed. Here, he's just another gob.”

“A gob who happens to be our friend.” Ricken stood. “I'm going outside. Care to come?”

“If you insist.” Sullys rose. “Some day I-” Something slammed into the roof, rocking the house. “What in the gods' names was that?”

There was the sound of something rolling down the roof, followed by a crunch as something fell from the top of the building onto the pavement. “Should we…” said Sullys, but Ricken was already rushing tp the door.

Outside lay a man, naked except for a loincloth, and hairless. He had landed on a vase, and ceramic shards were strewn about around him; however, they couldn't see any injuries. Other than his unconsciousness, he seemed unharmed from falling three stories into a bed of sharp objects. But, odder than that, his skin was dark blue. Odder still, his head wasn't human. It looked as if someone had carved a falcon's head out of smooth, red stone, and fused it to the neck. Six black markings started at the top of the head and flowered downwards, running to his feet.
They started as straight lines, but quickly evolved into elaborate patterns that danced down his skin, though no lines ever touched.

Sullys glanced at Ricken. “That… was not what I expected.”

Ricken nodded. “Do you see where he might have fallen from?”

“Not unless there was a balloon going by,” said Sullys. He looked up. “I don't see any, though.” He paused. “You don't think they could've done it, do ya?”

“I think you're becoming entirely too paranoid. They would have no reason to target you.” Ricken knelt to feel the man's wrist. “He has no pulse. Though I doubt that's significant, given the rest of him.”

“Aye,” said Sullys. He drew in for a closer look at the man's neck, where the red stone turned into blue flesh. Running a finger along the divide, he frowned. “His head's cold, but the skin's warm.”

They looked up at another noise, a few blocks away. Without a word, they rushed to the source, and found a young couple, staring at a man laying in the street. Like the other, he was motionless, but uninjured, hairless, and wore only a loincloth. His skin was dark. Thick vines burst from it, wrapping around his limbs and reaching to the road. Blue flowers sprouted from them. As the four of them watched, they grew. They crept down the gravel street, towards the gaslamps.

“Did ya see him fall?” Sullys asked the couple.

The woman shook her head. “We- we were just walking, and we heard him fall. I don't know where he came from.”

Sullys looked up. The sky was overcast, hiding the stars and moon. There was nowhere the man could have fallen from. There was something else, though. Something hurtling down towards the ground. “This isn't good.”

The woman crashed through the roof of the building next to them. A man screamed inside. Down the road, another man slammed into the street. A woman smashed into the pavement a few meters from them and bounced into the road.

“Back to the house!” yelled Sullys. They took off running. The couple sprinted after. People continued to fall around them, into houses, into the roads, into carts. Ricken jumped back just before a man with horns and black scales flattened him. A woman no skin landed inches away from the couple.

They reached the house and slammed into the door. Ricken stumbled to a couch and dropped down, breathing hard. Sullys bent over, panting. The sound of bodies crashing into the roof continued.

Mal stood in the center of the room, holding a bottle of rum. “What the fuck is going on out there?”

“If I knew, I'd say,” said Sullys. He snatched the bottle. Between gulps, he added. “Just pray it passes.”

“And who are they?”

“An unfortunate couple who needed assistance,” said Ricken. He looked at them. “Though, you never gave your names.”

The man swallowed. “Peter.”

“Orin,” said the woman.

Ricken nodded. “You can call me Ricken. The one with me is Sullys,” he pointed, “and that would be Mal. Pleased to make your acquaintance, though I wish the circumstances could have been less dramatic.”

Orin nodded. “The same to you.” She looked at the ceiling. “What could it be?”

Sullys dropped the empty bottle. It rolled across the carpet. “Your guess is as good as mine. I'd bet my entire pocket the Eyes are behind it, though.”

“They don't exactly have a history of it,” said Ricken. “Your paranoia is getting the best of you.”

“Maybe. Maybe you're a fool.”

“There's no maybe about that,” said Rickens. He looked out a window. The bodies were falling less frequently now, one every couple of minutes. They slammed into roofs and streets and carts. A light drizzle had started. Staring out, something stirred in the back of his mind. An emotion he hadn't felt in a long time. Not fear, though there was a nervous edge to it. Excitement. It swept through his body like a storm wind. Finally, something new. Something that could take him from the endless cycle of identical days that had been the past few years. “We both realized it long ago.”

Sullys laughed. “And you're a smarter man than me to admit it.” He joined Rickens at the window.

Peter and Orin watched from the center of the room. Orin cleared her throat. “So, you don't mind if we stay, then?”

“Not at all,” said Sullys. He waved around the room. “Take what ya need. There's plenty.”

“Thank you,” said Orin. She didn't move. Peter collapsed into a blue frilly chair. “Do you all live here?”

Rickens snorted. “Heavens, no. The house is Sullys. I live practically on the other side of town. And Mal lives…” he frowned. “I'm not quite certain, actually. I've never been.”

“Good. You wouldn't like it,” said Mal. He had managed to find himself another bottle of rum while they weren't paying attention, and was nurturing a glass. “Honestly, what the hell is all this? Is it raining men?”

“If they're men, I'm a horse,” said Sullys.

“They're demons,” said Peter. “That's all they could be. It's a sign of the Seven Lords' return. 'And they will come from the sky, accompanied by fire and ash. They will blanket the earth and lay waste to the work of men. They do this in tribute to the Seven, may their names remain forever hidden,'” he quoted.

Ricken held back a snort. “And that would be after winds of ice and songs of the low-men have already crippled us? As it stands, I see no fire or ash in the sky. I sincerely doubt this is your precious apocalypse.”

“Oh? Then what's your better explanation?”

“I don't have one. But even that's better than superstitious ramblings written by men a thousand years dead. Trust me when I say I've studied the work of the Ashenode, and found it lacking.”

“Well, you should open your mind more to-”

“Enough, Peter,” said Orin, “before they decided we're not wanted. I'm sorry, he doesn't know when to stop.”

“No need to apologize,” said Ricken. “One gets used to stubbornness after dealing with Sullys for as long as I have.”

“Of course he says I'm the stubborn one,” said Sullys. “He's never had to listen to himself talk.”

“Maybe we should focus on something more important,” said Mal. He stood by the window, looking out. “Like the people falling from the sky and threatening to break the roof.”

“And what would that accomplish, exactly?” said Ricken. “Can you make the rain stop by thinking about it?”

“No, but it seems at least worth mentioning, rather than listening to more of your damn arguments.”

“Alright then,” said Sullys. “People – if they are people – are falling from the sky. No idea where they're from. No idea what they're doing. Can't do anything to stop it, so we've holed in here to wait it out. Is that enough, or do you want more?”

“That's enough.” Mal grumbled to himself and poured another drink. “And I can't leave, so I guess I'll just have to listen to your damn squabbling.” He sat down on the couch. “Go on then. Pretend I'm not here, and everything is fine outside.”

“Not pretending won't make anything better, you stupid gob. If you want to dwell, that's fine with me, but do it where you won't drag us into it. You're free to leave.”

“Calm down, both of you,” said Ricken. “This is a pointless argument. There's no need to make matters worse.”

“Actually,” said Orin, “I think it's stopped.”

They listened for several minutes. They heard nothing. “Damn,” said Sullys. He stared out the window. “I think you're right. I didn't see anything fall.”

“Is it safe to go out, do you think?” said Orin.

“We won't find out by standing around,” said Sullys. He threw open the door and stepped outside. Rickens and Orin followed. Peter and Mal stayed behind.

Four men and three women lay in front of the house, all unconscious. Ricken approached one and knelt by her. Her skin was pale, and like all the others, hairless. Instead of hands, she had metal, four-pronged claws. Metal studs sprouted across her skin. Most were iron, though others looked liked brass, copper, even a few gold and silver. Ricken felt her wrist. “She has no pulse as well.” He moved to a man with red and gold mottled fur. “Nor does he. I think it's safe to say none of them do.”

“Wonderful,” said Sullys. “That explains it.”

Ricken shot him a look. “And what are you doing to help?”

“Observing,” said Sullys.

“Tell me if you observe anything of note. Until you do, I'll be investigating.” He walked to a man with a hole in his chest. Suspended in it was a rotating sphere. He ran a finger across it. “It's warm. Interesting.” He tugged. It didn't budge. “I don't see anything that could be holding it still.”

Sullys and Orin stared at the man. “He's not breathing,” said Sullys. He looked at the others. “Neither are they. But they don't look dead.”

“The skin is warm. Which means one of two things. Either they died very recently, possibly before they fell, or they're still alive, despite having an absent heart beat and respirations.”

“How could they not be hurt at all?” said Orin.

“What if they never lived? They're constructs, maybe?” said Sullys.

“It's a possibility. Not a very strong one, I suspect,” said Ricken.

The man groaned and sat up. His eyes sprung open. They moved from Sullys, to Ricken, to Orin, and back to Ricken. “Ovi Kra?” he said.

“Well,” said Ricken, “that solves the mystery of whether they're alive or not.”

The man rose to his feet, bracing one hand on the road. He turned to look at his surroundings. Noticing the other men and women, he cocked his head to one side. “Sempra om ni?” He nudged one of the women with his foot. “Potis.”

“The blazes is he doing?” said Sullys.

“Blazes,” said the man. He nudged the woman more forcefully. “Doing blazes. Potis, ran.”

“I don't understand it any more than you,” said Ricken.

The man turned to them. The sphere in the center of his chest was spinning faster now. “Guess. Mine doing. Ilum ronet. Gefack?” He turned back to the woman. “Blazes.”

Orin took a step towards him. Sullys pulled her back. “Not a good a idea,” he said. “Could be dangerous.”

“Potis,” came a voice from behind them. They turned. The metal-studded woman had stood up. She swung her arms as if stretching them. The three of them didn't seem to interest her. She stared straight at the woken man. “Funkin veh om ni potis.”

“Should we move?” said Sullys.

“That is an excellent idea,” said Ricken. They stepped to the side, granting the woman a clear line of site.

She walked forward until she was only a few inches from the man. He placed three fingers on her face – one in the center of her forehead, the other two on her eyes. “Faleh pe rito los vwin. Clear sight,” he said.

She nodded. “Move.”

He stepped back and begin to walk around her. She didn't move as he circled, examining her. “Potis-run,” he said.

She nodded. “Potis-run.”

“We should go back to the house,” said Orin.

“Yeah,” said Sullys. “I don't like this game.”

“No,” said Ricken. “We should observe this. It could be important.”

“We should observe,” said the man. He stopped moving. “It could be important. We should…” his face tightened in concentration. “move. We should move. We should not move, it is…. important.”

“Heavens above,” said Sullys. “I don't like this,”

“This is incredible,” said Ricken.

“It's a damn abomination. Come on, we need to get back to the house, now. I don't trust these things.”

“No, it's best if we stay. This could be the first time anyone has witnessed this, don't you think it's worth the risk?”

“I don't think it's worth our lives. If you don't come now, we'll leave you.”

“Leave me, if you wish. I'll join you shortly.”

Sullys shook his head. “Damn stubborn fool.” He turned to Orin. “Come on.”

Orin didn't move. “I want to stay, too.”

“You what?”

“I want to stay,” she said. “We shouldn't leave Ricken by himself, especially if they're dangerous.”

“Damn it. The whole damn world's gone mad,” said Sullys. He moved to stand near Ricken. “Wouldn't know self-preservation if it cut their throat.”

To the right, something moved. A man with green liquid seeping from his eyes, mouth, and nose stood up. He shook his head, splattering the dirt with green slime. The sphere-man and studded-woman watched on.

“I think we'll like this,” said the sphere-man. “We'll not leave.”

The studded-woman nodded. “This is incredible. You… join… himself?” The two stepped forward to the green-man.

“Potis-run?” said the sphere-man. “Singua lode mi tan?”

The green-man nodded. “Potis-run-run. Lingo mi veh.”

“You want to stay?” said the sphere-man. When the green-man didn't respond he continued, “You with we?”

“With,” said the green-man. The sphere-man nodded. He stepped back, and begin to circle the green-man as he had the studded-woman. The green man turned to follow his movement.

“You incredible,” said the sphere-man. The green-man didn't respond.

Ricken took a step forward.

“What the hell are you doing?” said Sullys.

Ricken stepped next to the studded-woman. “Excuse me,” he said. “I'm-”

The studded-woman spun. A fist crunched against Ricken's jaw, and he stumbled back. “No!” she yelled. “Mos eli portes. Stay, damn abomination!” She snapped her leg against Ricken's stomach. He gave a short hiss and crumpled. The green-man and sphere-man watched with blank expressions.

“Damn. I don't like this,” said the sphere-man. “It's not a valuable doing.”

The woman knelt by Sullys. “You know self-preservation. Not leave.” Ricken moved his jaw noiselessly, making a clicking noise. The woman walked over to the sphere-man. “We will move.”

The sphere-man nodded. “There.” He pointed down the road, and the others nodded. They began to walk, not looking back.

Sullys and Orin rushed to Ricken. “The blazes is wrong with you?” said Sullys. “Have you lost all of your senses?”

Ricken groaned. Blood trickled out of his misshapen jaw.

“Damn. Help me drag him back to the house.” Sullys grasped one arm and began to pull. Orin grabbed the other. Ricken grunted in pain. “Shut up,” said Sullys. “You got yourself into this mess, so don't whine we help you.”

They dragged him back to the house and into the living room. Mal gasped when the opened the door. “What happen? Is he alright?”

“He's going to be fine. Just needs some patchwork.” Sullys rubbed his temple. In the distance, there came the sound of screaming. “Though I suspect we won't all be so lucky.

Chapter Two

Way was asleep when it happened. He had spent most of the noon arguing with his wife and wanted nothing else but to stay in bed for the rest of his life and never be disturbed again. The rain put an end to that plan. A woman crashing through his bedroom roof sent him scrambling out of bed.

“What are you doing up there?” his wife yelled from the kitchen. He ignored her, and crept towards the woman.

She looked more insect than human. Her skin was covered by dark green plating. For eyes, she had six dark blue bulbs than ran down her cheeks. Two antennae dropped over her face, reaching down to her navel. She had four triple-jointed fingers on each hand, ending in crooked claws. And there were wings. Four of them, tucked behind her. Two were bent, crushed by her weight. They glimmered a dozen colors as they caught the lamplight from outside.

She was beautiful. Way reached out and felt her carapace. It was stiff, hard, but he felt a bit of give. It dipped in when he put pressure. She didn't react. He felt her face. The skin was slightly softer, smoother. Warm to the touch. He shivered. Where had this woman come from?

He heard another crashing noise, and Megan scream. Another one? He ran to the stairs. Megan stood beneath. A man with pure white skin and four arms lay on the stairs. “What the hell is it, Way?” she yelled. “What's it doing?”

“How would I know?” he snapped. He stood next to the man. Like the woman, the man didn't move at all. “Do you think I caused it or something?”

“Well get it out of our house! What if the children see it?”

“What's wrong with them seeing him? He doesn't look that bad to me.”

“Do you want our children seeing something like that, in our home? Get rid of it!”

“He's not moving. What if he's hurt? We should try to help him before dumping him on the street.” Another crashing noise came from outside.

“Help him once you get him out of here. You can't just keep a stranger who looks like… who looks like /that/ in here.”

Way paused. Why did he still put up with this woman? When was the last time they had anything resembling a civilized conversation? Three months? Four? Every night was the same. Scream at each other until one stormed off, while the kids were forced to hide in their room and listen. It couldn't go on like this, he knew. It would be so easy to go down to the court house and have papers for a separation drawn up. So why didn't he do it? Why didn't she? “I'll take him up to the attic,” he said. “The kids won't see him there.”

“Dammit Way, I'm not going to let you keep that thing in our house!”

“What'll you do to stop me?” He muttered. He slipped his arms under the man and pulled him up the stairs. Megan yelled something more, but he ignored it. No point in listening, now. He opened the attic stairs, shifted his position, and dragged the man up.

The attic had no lights. He rummaged through the drawer next to the door and lit the two candels he found there. Most of the room was cluttered, filled with crates they had never unpacked and junk they had never needed. There was a small clear patch in the center, where he dragged the man.

A yell from below let him know she had found the insect-woman. He sighed and went downstairs.

“What are you thinking Way? You couldn't even bother to tell me that one of these things was in our bedroom?”

“Our” bedroom. That was a good one. As if they shared it equally. At best ownership was equal, belonging to whoever had managed to make it through the argument with leaving the house. “I'll take her up too.”

“No you won't! Get them out! I want them both out, now!”

He walked forward and grasped the insect-woman. “You're welcome to take them yourself, if you care so much.”

She was silent.

“That's what I thought. So why don't you leave me be and find someone who actually wants to hear your squawking?” He didn't look at her, but knew what he would've seen. Reddening, a look of shock. He'd seen at a dozen times before. Maybe this time, when she stormed off, she would actually stay gone.

He dragged the insect-woman up the stairs. Below, he heard Megan slam the front door and leave. He laid the insect-woman next to the man and stared down at them both. Where had they come from? He'd never heard of people falling from the sky before. Least of all people like this.

The door slammed open again. “What the hell is going on here?” she screamed.

Way walked downstairs. “What do you want?”

“There's more of them outside,” she muttered. “One almost hit me.” She didn't look at Way.

“Too bad it didn't,” he said, and went back to the attic. On his way, he glanced out a window. Indeed, there were more bodies falling. A few people huddled under a cart down the road.

When he got back to the attack, the woman was standing up. She stared at him as he entered, and cocked her head to one side. “Potis-run?” she said. “Edna fo ipa.”

“What?” he said.

“What,” she said. “Ipa les moreka fo it.” She pointed to the white-skinned-man. “Potis-run?”

“Sure. Potis-run.” He took a step towards her.

She took a step back and shook her head. “What? Potis-wis”

“I think he's alive, if that's what you're asking. You were the same and you look fine.”

“I asking if he's alive. Potis-run. Nik to reed.”

“Oh. Okay. That doesn't really help any. Can you understand me at all?”

“I understand.”

“Right. Okay, that's good. Where did you two come from?”

She was still. Then, she raised a finger and pointed up. “From imel.”

“I already knew that though. But you couldn't have just appeared.”

“We appeared. From wup dreads.”

The man moaned and rolled over. Way and the woman stared at him. His eyes opened. “Potis-run,” he said.

Way sighed. “This isn't get anywhere.”

The man sat up. Both of them stared at Way. The insect-woman cocked her head to the side. “What isn't getting anywhere?”

Way frowned. “How are you talking so well? A minute ago it was all gibberish.”

“Ola simp pro negas. Gibberish?” said the man. He stood and began pacing back and forth, his arms crossed behind his back. “Anywhere, this, minute. Talking well?”

“You're picking up the language quick,” said Way. “Scarily quick, actually. I hope it's not a sign of anything.” He sat on the floor and rubbed his temples. “Megan was right, for once. I shouldn't have brought you up here. But you can't just kick a guest out, right? Damn. This is going to be difficult.” He sighed. It was more than just politeness. If he let them go now, it would be conceding defeat. He might as well just move out, if that's how it was going to be. Stupid. The kind of stupid pride that kept him from just getting a separation. But that, as his father had been fond of saying, was how the Seven Nameless made him, so that's the way he would be.

He could hear her downstairs, shuffling about. She was in the bedroom now. Claiming the territory as her own. The night was her victory. He sighed. The kids would still be awake, most likely. If the arguing hadn't kept them up, the things falling from the sky must have. It was just lucky none had crashed into their bedroom.

The woman stood in front of him, staring. He found himself staring back. Her eyes caught the light and glinted, flashing a dozen brilliant shades of blue. Her face was expressionless. What could she be thinking? he thought. Does she think? But she must, to be able to talk like that. Crude as it was, it wasn't the speech of an animal. It was like a child, first putting the blocks of language into place. Still not quite aware of all it could build.

“Does your wing hurt?” He asked. He pointed at the broken appendage.

“Hurt not not,” she said. With one hand, she felt at it.

“Will it grow back?”

She didn't respond.

He stood, taking a key from his pocket. “I have to go now. Just… stay quiet. Don't do anything that'll attract attention.”

He left the attic and locked the door.

He slept against the attic entrance, so that Megan couldn't sneak in. When he woke, it was midday. He wiped the sand from his eyes, stretched, and placed an ear against the attic door. No noise. He slid the key into the lock and twisted.

“They're still in there,” said a voice from behind him. He turned to look at her. Megan stood with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. “You're out of your damn mind.”

He laughed. “And now you're projecting. That's not healthy, you know.”

“I want them out of my house.” she said. “I want them the hell away from our children.”

“Oh yeah? What are you going to do about it?”

She pressed her lips together. “I'll go to the court house.” She almost whispered it.

“Oh?” He tried to suppress the laugh. “You would, huh? So go ahead, why don't you see if I give a shit.” He opened the door.

“Wait!” she said. He felt her hand on his shoulder. “Please. Please, just let it go.”

“Let go of me,” he said, and stepped into the room. He closed the door shut behind him. Muffled sobs came from outside. The insect-woman was standing in the center of the clearing. The man squatted next to her, two arms in the air, two resting on the ground.

“What was that?” said the insect-woman.

“Nothing important.” Way said. He looked around the room. It didn't seem like they had moved anything. “Did you sleep well?”

“We do not sleep,” said the insect-woman. The man nodded.

“Huh. Well, that could be useful, I guess. Do you eat?” She shook her head. “That's even better,” he said. “I was worrying about what I might have to find for you.”

“Nala som pewber,” said the man. “Want to eat.” He drummed four sets of fingers against the floor.

“He doesn't seem to be picking up the language as fast as you,” said Way.

The insect-woman nodded. “He is not as ingwa.”

“Not as smart, you mean?”

She nodded. “Yes.” She spread her arms, and spun in a slow circle. “Mundo qua boris iu gab.”

Way blinked. “What? I'm sorry, I have no idea what you just said.”

She pointed to one side of the attic. Then the opposite. Then a third, and the. “This place. I don't like it.”

“You have to stay here for now.”

“No. Can't stay. They're not in here.”

“What do you mean, they?”

She pointed to herself.

“Oh. Alright.” Way looked at the man. “And you think so too?”

The man nodded. “Can't stay.”

Could he just let them go? Way considered the idea. If he forced them to stay when they didn't want, they could get unruly. Dangerous. He grimaced when he realized that Megan had been right. He was going to have to let them out of the house. Stupid of him to think he'd just be able to keep them here.

“Alright,” he said. He opened the attic door. They stepped out, squinting at the sudden light. Megan wasn't around, and neither were the kids. Good. Less trouble for him, then. He lead them to the front door. “That's it,” he said. “ Go on.”

The woman nodded. He thought he saw something in her face, some sort of emotion, but no. Just the same blank expression as before. They opened the door and stepped into the street. They didn't look back.

Chapter Three

Asha was used to cramped spaces. It had been the hardest thing to get used to, at first, but slowly she had grown accustomed to it. You had to, if you wanted to be an Eye of Five. Though no one really wanted to be one. It was something that was thrust upon you. The cramped spaces were the only kind where they could hide.

This one wasn't dark, at least. Many of them were, and that was something she had never adjusted to. They had candles here, so she watched the others through the firelight. Five of them, including her. Three were here, two out watching. It didn't seem like enough. But it was all they could spare, so they would make do. Her shift would be coming up soon. A chance to get out into the open air, feel the wind and sun again. If it was up to her, she would take every shift she could. But it wasn't, so she spent more hours than not huddled underground, waiting for the next chance to leave.

Across from her, Bar shifted and muttered something in his sleep. She didn't know his real name. As Eyes of Five, they weren't supposed to have names. There was pool of symbols, each representing a role. When they were posted, they were given a role, and that role's symbol became their name until they returned to Five. She was Rope, not Asha, but she couldn't help but thinking of herself by her old name. She wondered how rare this made her. If there was one thing the Eyes of Five didn't do, it was idle conversation. She knew almost nothing about her fellow observers.

Bar opened his eyes. He stared at her watching him. Neither said anything. He stood, keeping his head bent so it wouldn't bump the ceiling, and moved to the bag in the corner. From it, he took a loaf of bread and hunk of cheese. He ate them quickly and washed them down with water from the canteen strapped to his waist. Then he moved back to his cushion and sat. So it went. Their oaths told them they shouldn't speak unless absolutely necessary. The words weaved into their skin ensured it.

It was half an hour before the stone entrance slid open. A tall, blonde woman stepped in. She moved to the back of the cavern and lay down. Asha stood and left, closing the entrance behind her. She smiled as the cold hit her face. It had been cold in the cavern, but not in this way. The air was stale in there. Outside it was fresh, crisp. It wasn't often that she got to enjoy this type of air. Sighing, she began the walk to the bottom of the mountain and the entrance of Noriin.

As she walked, she willed her disguise to appear, so that when she reached the city she appeared a normal young woman. The guards didn't give her two looks when she showed her papers. She smiled internally as she thought what he would do, had he realized what he just let through the gates.

The edges of the city were the least populated. Beggars walked through the back alleys, and a children played in the roads, but other than that there were few people. The buildings here were old and crumbling. Most had been patched up a dozen times, and were more wood and rope than brick. Red paint scrawled on several marked them as condemned, though she could still see signs of people living in them. There were no guards posted here. They'd realized many years ago that it was better to conserve the resources.

The entire outer ring of the city was like this. It was the part that had been forgotten, left behind for the more luxurious center, where the refugees and poor and dregs of society were swept under the rug. The areas around the gates were nice, but venture more than 200 meters and the slight of hand collapsed. She hurried through the area. They had already cataloged it down to the layouts of each house, and by its nature the area didn't change enough to warrant regular check ups. The center would be her focus today.

But something stopped her. It was different today. She couldn't see why, but she could sense it. The city had changed since she had been here last. The edge streets were normally sparse, but she had never seen them completely empty before. She swore in her head. The lack of communication between the Eyes of Five could get frustrating. Wouldn't it be better if they were allowed to share information freely, so they could get more in-depth observations. But no, the rule said notes would not be shared until the scheduled times. As the Fifth demanded it, so it was.

Movement to the left caught her eye. A man stepped out from behind one of the buildings. She turned to look, and her eyes went wide. She had been wrong. Whatever the thing was, it wasn't a man. Its arms were longer than any human's, so that they scrapped the ground as it shuffled toward her. Its eye sockets were sunken and empty. There were no lips, and its mouth was open in a grimace, so she could see its yellow, jagged fangs. They were tinted red. It was naked, but had only smooth skin where its groin should have been, and its skin was jaundice. “Hello,” it said as it moved forward. “Are you lost? I can help you if you're lost.”

She took a step back.

“Don't feel like talking? Come on, I'm really a nice guy,” it said. Its grinned widened. “I'm just trying to help a lady out, y'know?”

She wanted to scream. She had never wished so much that she could scream. But she couldn't. So she took another step back.

“You're running out of room,” said the creature. It was closing in. Soon, it would be able to reach out and touch her. There was nothing she could about it. If she was anyone else, she could run, scream, attack first. But she was an Eye of Five, and could only watch. The creature reached out. A rubbery hand brushed against her face, and she shivered. “See,” it said. “That's no so bad is-”

It froze, then collapsed to the ground. A large piece of wood was sticking out of the side of its yeah. Blood leaked from its mouth. Asha turned. A man was standing by the side of one of the houses, one hand pointing to the creature. He was bald, and wore only a dirty loincloth. “Are you alright?” he asked, stepping forward.

She didn't respond. She couldn't. But she tried to make an appreciative expression. It probably didn't come across, though. Even body language was becoming difficult for her.

“You alright?” he said. He came closer, and any hint of gratitude on her face disappeared.

He was different too. It looked like he was carved out of wood. His face was rough, as if it had been slowly carved out by an artist's knife. Grooves and ridges covered it. His eyes looked like colored glass. Wherever normal joints should have been, two pieces of wood were screwed together into a hinge. He frowned. How could wood frown? “What's wrong? Are you hurt?”

Why couldn't she run? Why did Five care so little for his observers that he couldn't even let them protect themselves? Stupid. She was going to die, and couldn't do anything about it.

The wooden-man took a step back. “Hey, I'm not gonna try anything. Just cause that guy was a creep, don't mean we all are.”

Could he be telling the truth? The irony of the situation flashed through her mind. This must most people must feel when they were around her.

The wooden-man sighed. “Alright,” it said. “I'm going. I'd be careful, if I was you. He ain't the only one like that around here.” He turned to leave.

Thoughts rushed through her head. He was right. If something else tried to attack her, she'd be defenseless. Would he be any safer? No, if he wanted to her hurt her, he'd just ignored the perfect opprotunity. But there was nothing she could to stop him. Couldn't yell after, could run to him. All she could do was observe, and notate.

An idea flashed through her mind. She grabbed a scroll and pen from her pouch and began scribbling furiously. The wooden-man turned at the noise.

“What's that, then?” he said. He walked back over. “Can I have a look?”

She would've said yes, but in its place kept scribbling.

I've never seen anything like these creatures before, she wrote. They appear almost human, but each has key differences. They appear to be both dangerous and benevolent, much like humans. The first I encountered had hostile intent (or at least seemed to), while the second, who killed the first, seems friendly. He offered me his help. I'm a bit wary, but feel it would be safer than traveling on my own. The city seems to have become a very different place in the last seventy-two hours, and a guide would greatly help me on my observations.

The writing was enough like research notes that she was able to make it. Five's arbitrary limitations were maddening most of the time, but for once they were working with her.

The wooden-man frowned. “What're you doing?”

She froze. She hadn't considered the possibility that he couldn't read.

He bent in closer. “Neat. I ain't seen that yet. Is that writing?”

For the hundredth time, she cursed her inability to act. She rolled the scroll up and place it back in the pouch.

“Whatcha putting it away for? It's cool. Do you not like me looking at it?”

That was it then. He wasn't going to be able to help her. She turned to walk away.

“You're one crazy lady,” said the wooden-man. She heard him walking in the other direction. “What kinda person doesn't even say thank you?”

As she walked, she pulled out her paper and began to write. The creatures don't appear to be able to read, which meant I am completely capable of communicating with them. So far, I've observed two- one with elongated arms, who attacked me, and one made out of wood, who helped me. I'm sure there are more about. She paused for a moment and thought. An idea was coming to her. As I have absolutely no knowledge of these creatures, I have decided to follow and observe on. The wooden one will most likely suffice. She shook the extra ink out of the pen and put the paper away. The next 24 hours would be interesting indeed.

She crept along the roofs of the buildings. The wooden-man walked below, and hadn't noticed her yet. Hopefully he wouldn't at all. The rest of the city (at least what she could see from the roof) appeared to be just as deserted as the slums, except for the creatures that strolled through it. All were basically human in appearance, but varied in ways that ranged from subtle to obvious. One she almost mistook for human, until she turned and she saw the third eye on her forehead. Another was three meters tall, with pitch-black skin, glowing red eyes, and six leathery wings. Thankfully that one was far off.

Though a few traveled alone, most were in groups of four or five. As far she could tell, they were just walking around. None she saw were trying to force entry into the buildings, or showed any hostility. Many didn't move at all, just sat on the side of the street. Perhaps they had been more active before she came? Many of the buildings she saw were damaged, and there were cracks and smashed carts in the streets. Several of the roofs she walked across had patched up holes in them. One wasn't fixed, and peering in, she saw that furniture below had been smashed, and a crushed corpse. She shivered. How had these things arrived in Noriin?

The wooden-man didn't show any purpose in his wanderings. Several time he passed other creatures, and greeted them with words she couldn't hear. Other than that, he just walked, not interacting with the environment around him. It was maddening.

She suspected that the creatures were only in the city. The road she had taken to Noriin was a well-traveled one, and she hadn't seen any of them. Thinking back, she hadn't seen anyone traveling from the city. This would explain why.

The wooden-man stopped walking and turned. She froze, instantly dropping and pressing herself against the roof. He was blocked from view by the lip of the roof, but she could hear his shuffling against the gravel street.

“I've been looking for you,” said a voice. Not the wooden-man's. Too deep.

“Same. Thought you mighta not made it through,” said the wooden-man.

“Well, I did. What have you heard from Omis?” The sound of feet crunching against gravel.

“Nah. I saw her go through, though. She must be on the other side of the city or something.”

“I'd expect. And Altin? You've heard nothing from him either?”

“Nope. He mighta not got through at all. Didn't see him at the gate.” There was a pause. “How're you feeling?”

“What do you mean?”

“Y'know. How does this place feel?” The rapping of wood against wood. “Felt pretty shitty at first, being cut off from the reserve, but that's going away. There's bits of power here. Ain't much, but I'm making do.”

“I see. Well, I'm glad at least you're feeling comfortable.” One of them threw a stone against a wall. “I hate this place. I feel weak. Nalkash. It was a mistake to come here.”

“We'll see. But I think you might be overreacting a tad. Can't forget the reason we came here, now.”

The other one sighed. “No. No, we cannot. I'm sorry, it's just frustrating.”

“Hey, don't worry about it,” said the wooden-man. “I bet you ain't the only one feeling like this. Come on, let's keep looking.”

She heard them beginning to walk off, and poked her head over the lip. The new arrival had his back to her, but she could see that he was short, and his skin was white, with drawings etched into it. They walked down the rode silently. She moved to a crouch and followed in the same way.

Chapter Four

Ricken lay on the couch, asleep. Sully had done a decent enough job of stabilizing it for now, but it had been a long time since he'd practiced, and without proper medical equipment there wasn't much more he could. Fortunately, he'd had some painkilling essence of crow around, but it wouldn't last long. They'd need to find a more permanent solution soon. That would be difficult with those things roaming around outside.

Orin, Peter, and Mal sat in the room with him. They were silent. Nobody had talked for the past hour. There wasn't anything to talk about, really. At least it meant that Peter had shut up about the coming apocalypse.

Sully went to take a swig of rum and found the bottle empty. He placed it on the end table next to the other two and stood.

“Don't you think you've had enough?” said Mal. Sully turned to look at him. “We need you at least somewhat functional.”

“Bah. Ya don' need shit,” said Sal. “Underestimatin' me anyway. I ain't no kind o' pansy.” He took a few steps towards the kitchen and almost tripped on the carpet. Instantly, Mal was there to catch him.

“What'll we do if Ricken gets worse and you're to drunk to help?” he said.

“Like ya care 'bout him all o' a sudden? Get offa me, ya gob.” He pushed Mal back. Now unsupported, he collapsed to the floor, the scrambled to his feet, swearing. “I know ya. Ya ain't give two throws o' a stick 'bout him before and ya don't now.”

A darkness grew over Mal's face. “Is that what you think? That I don't care about him?”

“I know it,” said Sully. He stared at Mal with disinterest, as if he were barely there. “If ya did, you'd be there when he needed it.” He turned and started walking back to the kitchen.

To Orin and Peter, it looked as if Mal took only a single step. But it couldn't have been, because that single step took him two meters and suddenly he was standing next to Sully. “Say that one more time?”

“Ya heard me. You'd be there when-” Mal slammed his fist into Sully's gut. The bigger man crumpled to the floor, gasping for air.

“You complete fucking shit!” yelled Mal. “You were there once! I had his back the entire time, went into the jungle with him while you stayed behind, and you say I'm the one who doesn't care? You're just a goddamn surgeon! What the hell do you know?” He stepped back and drove a kick into Sully's kidney. Sully doubled on the ground, his mouth moving silently as he tried to scream. Mal stormed off.

Orin and Peter rushed to Sully. “Are you alright?” said Orin. Sully just choked for air. Peter wrapped an arm under his shoulder and lifted him to his feet. They dragged him to a chair.

“What just happened?” said Peter.

After he recovered, Sully muttered. “A misunderstandin'.”

“Seemed a bit more than that to me,” said Peter. “What the hell is going on between you two?”

“Nothin' ta worry yourself 'bout,” said Sully. He tried to stand, but fell back to his chair. “Unresolved bit o' business.” He rubbed his stomach. “Gods, I'd forgotten how much o' a punch that boy kin pack.”

“Maybe we should try to talk to him?” said Orin.

Sully shook his head. “He'll come off o' it on his own. Leave him be.”

“And this has happened before?” asked Peter. Sully nodded. “Unbelievable. And you still let him into your house?

“Because Ricken insists,” said Sully. “He's got more history with him than I got. Never understand it.” He shook his head. “And when Ricken gets insistent, it's best ta listen 'for he ends up doin' something drastic.” He laid his head back in the chair. “I'm goin' ta sleep now. If ya need somethin', get me.” He closed his eyes and was gone.

Orin and Peter looked at each other. “I'm starting to worry about what we might have gotten ourselves into,” said Peter.

Mal returned half an hour later. He didn't say anything, just sat and watched Ricken. Orin and Peter pointedly looked the other way. Mal couldn't sit still. He shifted in his seat for several minutes, before finally leaping up, pushing the chair back. He paced back and forth.

“I shouldn't have done that,” he said. It wasn't clear if he was addressing anyone in particular. “Stupid.” He turned to Orin. “I'm not normally like this. I promise. It's just that…” he shivered. “Sully should know better than that by now.”

Orin swallowed. She could feel sweat running down her face. “Maybe you should apologize?”

Mal shook his head. “No. Hell no. He's the one who shouldn't be saying that shit. But I might have overreacted a little.” He glanced at Ricken. “He thinks he's so goddamn special. Acts like just because he did his job once he's somehow better than me.” His right hand balled into a fist. “He blames me for it, you know. Says that maybe if I'm being around, maybe nothing would have happened to Ricken. Do you know how many times I saved Ricken? How many times he saved me?”

Orin balked at this. Did he expect her to respond? “I… I have no idea.”

“No, of course you wouldn't.” He stopped his pacing and turned to face her. “When Sully stayed behind, I was right beside him. He never once went into the jungle. But he has the audacity to say he's the one who cares. Ricken was like a brother to me.”

Mal was insane. That much was clear. But would he hurt them? Right now his rage was focused solely on Sully. The jungle, could it have been the Forests of Worm? She looked at Ricken. He didn't look like a soldier. Certainly didn't act like one. Sully and Mal, a little bit, but she still found it hard to imagine them fighting in the Blightwar. “Well, that can be hard for some people to understand,” she said.

Mal nodded. “It's impossible for him to understand. Impossible for someone like you, too. But he acts like he knows everything.” He spat. It landed on the passed out Sully's leg. “The worst kind of man.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Peter's hand reaching towards his belt. Where he kept the hidden knife. He had no idea how to use it, and would probably be too scared to, but he liked to keep it in case he needed to look threatening. What the hell was he planning to do?

“I'm sorry to be like this,” said Mal. “I just get a little worked up sometimes. I know I shouldn't but it's hard to stop when he's around.” He took a step towards Orin.

Peter whipped out the knife and pointed it towards Mal. “S-stop,” he said. “Don't you fucking… don't you touch her.”

Mal regarded the knife. Then he laughed. “Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt any of you, and you couldn't stop me if I was.” He sat on a nearby couch , propping his feet up on the coffee table. His gaze fixed on Sully. “He's a different matter, though. We'll see what happens when he wakes up.” A grin spread across his face.

“Right,” said Orin. “Well, I'm rather peckish. Peter, won't you join me in the kitchen?”

“Of course,” said Peter. He practically leaped to her side as she exited the room.

They moved into the kitchen and spoke in whispers. “We need to get out of here,” said Peter. “All three of these men are insane.”

“I don't think that's a good idea,” said Orin. “Whatever those things outside are, they're probably more dangerous than Mal or Sully. For all we know, there are worse ones than what attacked Ricken.”

“I'll take our chances. At least outside we're not trapped with them.”

“Please, let's just stay for a little longer. Those things are dangerous, Peter.”

“Mal is dangerous! Sully is dangerous! Ricken'll probably be dangerous too, once the painkillers wear off. We're leaving.”

“Well I'm not. They may not like each other much, but they don't look like they want to hurt us. They took us in while we were in danger.”

“You're too damn trusting for your own good.” He placed an arm on her shoulder. Look out the windows. You can't even see them right now. They'll be easy to avoid.”

“Please, let's just stay.” The image of the woman standing over Ricken burned into her mind. If they went out, that could be her on the ground. It could be Peter. “You didn't see what those things were like, Peter. Please, we'll be safer here.”

He looked into her eyes. “Fine,” he finally said. “We'll stay. But as soon as they start to look like they might do something, we're leaving.”

“Yes, alright. That's fine.”

They moved back to the living room. Mal was still staring at Sully. The grin had left his face, replaced by an expression of loathing. They gave him a wide berth as they moved to their seats. He didn't look at them, focusing only on Sully.

Eventually, Mal moved upstairs, and they relaxed a little. Sully continued to sleep, snoring loudly. Ricken stirred, but otherwise didn't wake. Peter fell asleep. Orin tried, but couldn't. She stood and when to the window. Peeking out the window, she saw the streets were empty. She kept watching. After a minute or so, a group of four creatures walked into view.

There were two men and two women. They were talking, though she couldn't hear what they were saying. One of the men was fish-like in appearance, with gills, fins, and webbed hands. The other was short and fat. Long strips of his skin were peeling off and dragged behind him as he walked, like bloody ribbons. The first woman was over two meters tall, with dark skin. She was skinny, as if all the fat and muscle had been removed and she was just skin pulled taut over bone. Her fingers ended in long talons, and small spikes ran down the center of her back. The other was of average size and had no face. Instead, a circle had been carved into her skin. It glowed blue.

Orin shuddered. Where had the three from last night gone? Did they remember this place? What if they came back, tried to finish their attack? These four didn't notice the house, or at least didn't care it was there, but others would pass. If some took an interest in it, tried to force their way in, could they do anything to stop them? She remembered the woman slamming her fist against Ricken's jaw, and Mal's speed when he attacked Sully. How would they match? Would Mal be any more of a help than Ricken was?

A groan from behind made her turn. Ricken was trying to sit up. She ran to help him. He draped an arm over her shoulder and looked around.
“Ghalnng” he said, and screamed in pain. He fell back to the couch, holding one hand to his jaw.

“Sh,” said Orin. “You're going to be alright, don't worry. Sully helped with your jaw.”

Ricken glanced over the sleeping man, then the coffee table. He motioned towards something on it. A black leather book. She handed it to him. He looked at her expectantly. After a moment, she realized what he wanted. She looked on the desk, but didn't see it. He point to the left, towards a desk against the wall. Rummaging through the drawers, she found a pen and inkwell. She handed both to him, and he began to write.

How long have I been unconscious?

“I'd say about 15 hours,” she said. He nodded and continued writing.

What have those creatures been doing? Is everyone safe?

“They're just walking around,” she said. “I'm not sure what they're doing, actually. The others… Sully and Mal got in a fight. Mal, he attacked Sully.”

I think I can guess the reason, he wrote. He tried to sit up again. Orin helped him. How are they handling themselves now?

“Mal left. He went upstairs. Sully's is asleep.”

Yes, I had noticed.

She bit her lip. Should she…? Well, the other two wouldn't answer. “When Mal did what he did to Sully, he mentioned a jungle, where you and he would go. What could he have meant by that?”

Ricken's pen was still.

“Was it the Jungle of Worm?” She swallowed. It was too late to stop now. “Were you in the Second's Army?”

He stared into her eyes, and it was like staring into grave. There was nothing there. Just emptiness. She wanted to look away, but something told her she shouldn't. Be strong, said a voice in the back of her head. He wants you to break his gaze. Finally, he scratched something on to the paper.


Her head reeled. This couldn't be happening. She'd heard the stories of the Second's Army and the Blightwar. Hundreds of thousands dead. Men, women, and children burned alive for no reason other than being in the way. The land warped into flesh. The sack of Pahlin. She shuddered.
It isn't wrong for you to feel scared. However, I promise that I'm not the man you must think I am. Neither are Sully and Mal.

She tried to think of something to say to that, but found nothing. Maybe he was telling the truth. But she'd seen the drawings, the articles. They flashed through her mind, taunting her. She thought of this man being a part of that and wanted to vomit. But she held it back. “Peter,” she said. “Wake up.”

Peter jolted awake. “Huh?”

“We have to leave now.”

He leaped up. “What's going on?” Scanning the room, his eyes fell on Ricken. “What did he do?”

“I'll tell you in once you leave. Please, hurry.”

“What's going on, then?” came a voice from the stairs. They turned and saw Mal, leaning against the wall. The color drained from Peter's face.

“We want to leave,” said Orin. She tried to make it sound bold.

Mal glanced at Ricken. He smiled. “You're awake!” Ricken nodded. “Well that's fantastic.” He turned back to Orin. “What's this about leaving?”

“It's time we go back home. There's people waiting for us.”

“Hm.” He stepped off the stairs. “It's going to start getting dark soon. Didn't you say your house was on the other side of town?”

“Oh, that's no trouble,” she said. She shrugged, as if it was the most irrelevant thing in the world. “We'll be fine on our own.”

“Is that right?” He smiled. “Come on, what's the trouble? Did I scare you that bad? I told you, I'm not going to hurt you.”

A banging on the table made Orin jumped. The three of them looked at Ricken. He was holding a piece of paper in the air. Mal strode over and snatched it. “Orin, I would like to explain this to you. Please stay, and I promise no harm will come to you.” He stared down at Ricken.

“Explain? What's there to explain?” He looked at the paper, then back at Ricken, then at Orin. “Dammit!” He crumpled the paper and hurled it to the ground. “You told her, didn't you? What where you thinking?”

She guessed, Ricken wrote.

“You didn't have to tell her she guessed right. Damn, what if she tells someone else?”

She won't. Let me talk to her.

Mal gritted his teeth. “Fine. Fine. Talk, if that's what you want to do.” He stormed to the stairs, then spun around and walked back to the living room. He sat in a chair and glared at Orin. “You're lucky, you know.”

She did. But could she trust Ricken to keep his promise? He seemed like the type. But he hadn't seemed like the type to join the Second's Army, either.

Ricken sat up. His eyes moved from Mal, to Orin, to Peter. Then he looked back down and began to write.

Chapter Five

Megan, it turned out, turned out, was at the neighbor's house. He saw her through the window, sitting in the living room, talking with them. The kids were with her. His stomach twisted when he saw that. Her leaving he couldn't care less about. But taking his kids from him was something else entirely. He considered going over there, but knew they wouldn't even open the door. So he spent most of the morning fuming over a bottle of gin.

After that he went back up to the attic and began unpacking. The boxes were years old, back from when they had first moved in and had been to busy to take everything out. Most of the stuff was hers, and he threw it in a pile in the center. He would get rid of it later. Maybe burn it. That would come later. The stuff that was his, he took down to the bedroom and laid out on the floor. The clothes he put one side, the books and art on the other. The armor and weapons he laid in the center.

He picked up the sword and held it in his hands. The sheath, once spotless and beautiful, flecked with filth. The blue paint had been replaced with rust. Even the elaborate embossing had been scratched and worn away. He drew the blade and held it in front of him. It, too, was crumbling. Several parts of the metal were chipped. The blade was dull. The tassels that hung from the handle were frayed. He placed the sword aside and picked up the bow.

The string was broken. Not unexpected. He had, after all, thrown it in the bottom of a box with almost a hundred pounds of clothes and silverware on top. It still bothered a small part of him to think about. He tossed it back to the floor. He'd spent a long time trying to get rid of that part of himself and wasn't about to let it slip back now. Examining the various daggers, he found them in a similar state as the sword.

The armor, at least, was in workable condition, though it was looked like something you might find at a discount shop's clearance sale. It had once been beautiful. The finest armor a soldier could afford. It was a shame to see it like this.

He shook the thought away. It was just metal. Metal that had saved his life many times, but metal all the same. It had no value to him anymore. Why had he even gotten all of this out? To dreg up more bad memories? He scowled at the collection. He hated it. Hated looking at it. Hated thinking about what it meant. But some part of him still clung to it. Stupid. He should just dump it out the window.

He considered the thought. It wasn't a bad one, actually. Toss it out onto the street and let it become somebody else's problem. Maybe one of those creatures would come by and pick it up. He laughed at the thought of the insect-woman parading around in the cracked armor, waving a dull sword.

Gathering the items, he opened one of the windows and shoved them out. They landed with a crash two stories down. Something yelled.

Poking his head out, he saw a man standing below the window. The gear had landed just inches from him. The man had no hair, and two horns sprouted from his head. He was clutching a bleeding shoulder. “Fuck,” said Way.

The man looked up. His face was contorted with rage.

“Fuck,” said Way again. He suddenly wished he had a weapon.

The man jumped. He caught the sill of the window with his uninjured hand and scrambled into the room. “Fuck!” said Way. The man charged, swinging a fist. Way ducked, and it slammed into the wall. Way maneuvered so the bed was between them.

The man turned to face him “Gonna kill you!” he roared, and charged again. He leaped over the bed and snatched for Way. Way ducked and drove his shoulder forward. It connected with the man, sending him sprawling back to the bed. When he did, Way lunged towards his nightdesk.

He was too slow. The man recovered and grabbed his arm. Still propelled forward by his own momentum, Way fell to the floor. Pain jolted through his arm. Glancing up, he saw a fist swinging down. Instinctively he raised an arm to catch it.

He screamed has he felt bones shatter. His hand snapped back, hanging limply. He could feel his ulna crack. The man grinned when it saw this. He raised another first and slammed it down. Way scrambled out of the way, shifting just right enough that the blow missed his head.

The creature was straddling him. Way pushed back, sliding up the floor, then swung a leg up as hard as he could. It struck between the creature's legs, and Way smiled as he felt something give. The man howled with pain, doubling over. Way pushed himself completely clear of him, then pushed himself up with his good arm. He sprinted to the nightdesk and threw the drawer open. Inside lay a large, blue-sheathed knife. Way grabbed it, moved back to the man, and pressed it against his throat.

The man glared at him with red, hateful eyes. He growled. Pink saliva dripped from his lips. It whirled, swinging a fist, but Way stepped out of the way easily. He kicked the creature, and it fell to the floor. Then he slit its throat.

White blood poured from the wound. Way ignored it. He dropped the knife and clutched his broken arm, holding it in place as he moved downstairs. They kept a small first aid kit in the kitchen. There was an arm brace inside, designed for self-application. He slid his arm in and buckled the straps, wincing.

When that was done, he sat at the table. The bottle of gin was still there, so he finished it and got another. About halfway through it he stopped shaking. Memories came to him as he drank. He remembered walking through miles through thick jungle, finding bodies strung up in trees, warped and mutated. Dogs that were not dogs, ripping at the rotten flesh of his dead comrades.

He had seen creatures like this once before, in the jungle. Not quite the same, but similar enough. They had been in the decaying temples. Those ones had been more docile. They'd hardly noticed when the soldiers entered and began to slaughter them.

The idea of sleeping with a decaying body didn't appeal to him, so wouldn't do to leave the corpse just laying in the bedroom. Which meant he'd have to travel out of the home to get rid of it. He could dump it out the window, or put it by the front door, but he had no idea how these creatures would react to seeing the dead body of one of their. Not well, probably. He would have to take it farther, at least a few blocks, hidden. There was a dumpster a few streets down that would do. It wasn't an appealing thought, even if he had had two working arms and all of his weapons. Though, if he did, he wouldn't be in this situation. He snorted. The perfect summary of his life.

He could retrieve the weapons, he supposed, but a sword and bow wouldn't be much use to a one-armed man. The armor wouldn't even be wearable. The knives would be usable, but they were so dull that there was no point. The one in his bedroom was more than serviceable. He moved back upstairs to examine the body.

It didn't weigh any more than a human of its size, thankfully, but that didn't make it much better. He'd have been able to pick it up easily with both arms, but limited as he was, that wasn't an option. Dragging it was a possibility, but it would slow down his movement too much.

He'd have to cut it into pieces, then take them to the alley in manageable amounts. The knife wasn't built for sawing through bodies, but he had to make do with what he had. At least the corpse wouldn't bleed to much, if it acted anything like a human's. He braced the corpse's hand with his knee and began cutting.

A jet of warm, white blood sprayed the front of his shirt. Cursing, he pressed his knee harder against the arm. The jet weakened, then stopped. He began cutting again, keeping firm pressure this time. Blood trickled out, but only a little.

It took him several minutes to severe the hand. By the time he was finished, a small pool of blood had formed on the floor, and his arms were slick with it. He wiped his brow. It had been a long time since he'd had to do this.

He'd have to do something better to manage the bleeding, unless he wanted the rest of his floor covered in dried demon-blood. He tore a strip of his shirt and wrapped it around the top of the arm he was cutting, pulling it as tight as he could with just one arm. Slowly, he let pressure off. A bit of blood ran from the stump, but not enough to be hugely problematic. Satisfied, he resumed cutting the arm.

He continued this process for the rest of the body, wrapping the arms and legs before cutting them. When he was done, the floor was still covered in blood, but not enough as it would have been. Only the head remained to be separated from the torso.

This would be a bit trickier. There wasn't much room to maneuver in tying the tourniquet, and it would be difficult to hold down with just a knee. He would have put much more work into this. Sighing, he began tying.

The man's eyes snapped open. He opened his mouth, as if to scream, but only a gurgle came out as blood bubbled from the hole in his neck. His eyes went wide, staring at the limbs laying on the floor.

Instinctively, Way rammed the knife through his throat. The man's eyes went dead again. He stopped writhing. No longer caring about the blood, Way sliced through the rest of the man's neck. Once finished, he dumped it and the torso into a large sack. It was heavy, but not overly so. He would be able to dispose of the body in just two trips. Only two opportunities to be attacked and killed.

Bringing it downstairs, he poked his head out of the open door. There were no creatures. He shouldered the bag and stepped outside, continuing to scan the street. Before any more of the creatures could appear, he darted into a nearby alley.

It was a tight fit- less of an alley and more of a crack between buildings. Still, it offered concealment, and he could move decently easily. A dozen meters past the entrance, it split off into two routes. He took the left one. Though he hadn't been through the alley before, he knew the streets well and had a good idea of where it would lead. The dumpster should be just a few hundred meters up.

The alley met a road and stopped. The street was empty. The dumpster was there, halfway down the block. Taking a deep breath, he leaped out of the alley and dashed towards it. His feet through up dust that swirled around him, into his throat and eyes. The bag bumped against his back, bruising his spine. His leather shoes rubbed against his soles, burning the skin. He ignored it, and skidded to a halt in front of them dumpster, swinging the bag off his shoulder and dunking it into the bin. Then he turned, and began sprinting back to the alley.

He made it half way before it hit him. It knocked into him from behind, sending him sliding across the dirt. As soon as he regained his footing he jumped up, hand going for the knife, bringing it up into a combat stance. He had been hit in the upper back, and struggled to keep his arms up. They shook as he held the knife out.

The thing in front of him wasn't much larger than a child. It had yellow, bulbous eyes that looked like drops of amber on its dark brown skin. It wore no clothing, but had no genitals that Way could see. Its left arm was several times larger than the right, and covered in rock-like plating. The creature lowered its head and sniff. Its larger arm braced against the ground. It looked almost as if it was going to charge.

It didn't quite. Crouching down, it sprung up, using its strong arm as a vault. It soared through the air and landed just in front of Way, in a crouch, then twisted its whole body, swinging the arm at Way's jaw. He ducked back, and it barely missed. The wind from it blew past his face.

He grabbed the creature's smaller arm and jammed the knife into it, then ripped the knife downwards, slicing the flesh to the hand. Gold blood poured out of the wound, but the creature barely seemed to notice. It spun, and this time connected. The blow caught the side of Way's chest and sent him flying. He felt ribs crack. When he hit the ground, he rolled, smacking his head against the side of a building. Stars flashed across his vision. Everything was a smear. He saw a brown blob enter into his sight, and tried to lash out at it with the knife. Instead, his arm moved up limply and fell back down to the earth. The brown smear knelt down. Then the world disappeared.

When he opened his eyes again, he was in darkness. Total darkness. He looked around for any pinprick of light, but found nothing. Wherever he was, it was cold. Almost freezing. He still had his clothes, but they didn't offer much. He'd gone outside dressed for the summer heat. The floor felt liked packed dirt. Something was constricting his leg. Reaching down, he felt a metal cuff and chain. When he followed the chain, he came to a brick wall.

He traced the wall as far as the chain would allow, maybe five meters, though it extended past that. Moving out from it, he still didn't hit the opposite one. Wherever he was, it seemed too large for just one person.

“Hello?” he called. “Is there anyone else?”

No response came. There was very little echo. The room wasn't extraordinarily large, then. And with nobody else, there wasn't much to do besides wait for something to happen. While he did, he explored the space he was given inch by inch. The ground was smooth, though he could feel dirt, and rubbing at it with his nail broke off parts of it. It was slightly warm. He pressed his body against it, trying to absorb some of the heat. It worked, slightly. His teeth still chattered though.

Once he finished exploring the ground, he examined his injuries. Or, where his injuries should have been. Where he had felt ribs crack, there was only mild tenderness. The rest of his injuries had been similarly healed. He felt in his pockets, and found nothing but lint.

He wasn't going to find any more answers by sitting around, so he waited. For how long, he didn't know. Eventually, he fell back to sleep.

When he woke again, there was light, and something standing over him. It looked human, but given recent events, he doubted it was. It was illuminated from the back, though, and he couldn't make out any of its features. From behind it, out of sight, he heard a voice.

“Is he awake?” It was jagged, like cracked stone.

“Yup,” said the man standing over him. “You want to get him out of here?”

“Please,” said the jagged voice. “The others are waiting.”

The man knelt down, and Way got a look at his face. He looked completely human. Scars covered most of his left cheek, and the eye on that side was a dully gray. The other side was more handsome looking, with strong cheekbones and a large blue eye that looked like it could see through the Earth itself. Way felt the manacle around his leg fall away. The man stepped back. “So, you'll come with us, if you're smart. If you're not we can just beat the shit out of you and drag you.”

Way took the hint. He stood and looked around. The other man was standing by the doorway. He was short, and old, but that's all Way could see in the dimness. The light coming from the door wasn't much. The older man stepped out of the door and out of sight.

The scarred man elbowed him in the back. “Walk.” Way walked. The older man was already gone by the time he made it out the room. They were at the end of a hallway, stretching back about twenty meters. Several doors lined it.

“Third on the left,” said the man. Dutifully, Way moved to the door and reached for the handle. “No,” said the man. He swatted at Way's arm. “Don't do anything unless I tell you.” Way nodded. “Now open the door.”

So this is how they wanted to play it. Way opened the door. It led to another room, well-lit, with four rows of tables and chairs. Most of them were unoccupied, though six people sat in the room. The short, old man was there standing in the front. In the chairs were a young woman, and older (but not quite old), woman, a different old man, and two young men, one blonde, the other brunette. They sat in silence, and looked at Way as he opened the door. He stepped into the room. They continued staring.

“Thank you, Desmond,” said the old man. “That will be all.” The man who had escorted Way bowed and left. The old man locked eyes with Way. “I'm pleased to see you here,” he said. “Let's begin.”

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