DargonZine 25, Issue 4

And Two Steps Back

Firil 15, 1019 - Firil 21, 1019


“The recruits look good this batch,” Kalen Darklen mumbled to the man next to him.

The other officer looked from the new additions to the watch and to his superior. “Straight.” He hesitated a moment but then continued, “Captain, you know that you don’t have to be here any longer. You’ve given your speech and the rest is mostly for the families of the recruits. I don’t mean to question the way you do things but, don’t you have a few documents sitting on your desk waiting to be read and signed by the Captain of the Guard?”

Kalen looked over at Cepero and nodded. Then with a smile he said, “I guess you’re right. I’m just not used to paperwork. Gods, I barely have the time to get my feet on the streets nowadays. For the life of me I cannot fathom how Koren did it all.”

Cepero cracked a smile as he said, “He stopped being the second in command and became the captain. Forgive me but perhaps you’re trying to play the role of both positions. Maybe you need to let Ilona have her rightful share of the work, sir.”

“Perhaps you’re right, Cepero. I just can’t shake the old duties: the ones that had me interacting with citizens on a regular basis. Seems like I’ll have to though. I guess that’s why the captain’s position always comes with a second. Thanks, Cepero. I’m off then.”

Kalen bounced off the wall he had been leaning against and began bounding up the steps that led into the Old Guard House. Cepero called a farewell at his back.

A new and welcome feeling infected Kalen. He had taken the rank of his superior, Adrunian Koren, when the man retired two sennights prior. Kalen had become accustomed to dealing with cases that had ranged from bad to horrific. He had always been an important player in the quest to rid Dargon of crime and corruption. Now, he was the spearhead of the force dedicated to making Dargon a safer place, much like Koren had been. Kalen was made aware of the imminent promotion well before it had come into effect. He had been tailored to take this position for years and it had finally happened.

Air escaped his lungs as if they were a bellows as he realized this was the first time he had felt reprieve from all the stress that came with the promotion, and this was only because it was the first occasion in which he had the time to reflect on his new role. He took the moment to absorb his new position, rekindle his vow to protect Dargon, the flames of his intensity towards that promise becoming an inferno. With a light step and a mind of determination, Kalen trotted through the Old Guard House and to his office.

Ilona was sitting inside Kalen’s office when he walked in, her legs crossed and the chair she sat in turned at such an angle so that she was facing him. “Good morning, captain.” Her cheer surprised him, until he discovered it to actually be sarcasm. “I wasn’t aware that the highest ranking officer in the watch was allowed to waste his time with his back planted to a wall. What a nice perk.”

The smiling woman before Kalen was not only second in charge, she was also his wife. Kalen was constantly reminded of her softness when they were not working but this exchange, much like most others they engaged in while here, served to do the exact opposite. He was quickly reminded that while on duty, she wouldn’t allow him any leeway. She was a good wife, but a better partner. Kalen sometimes blurred the lines between wife and co-worker but Ilona did her best to keep their relationship professional while on duty.

“Ilona, I am required to be at these things,” Kalen spoke as he moved around her and plopped down into his chair. He took note of the several pieces of parchment piled atop the wooden surface of the desk before him. “Now, what’s your agenda for the day?”

“Well I did half of your job already, and I’ve come across a few good cases in there.” She tipped her head towards the ink-covered documents.

Kalen was flabbergasted for a moment, entertaining the idea that Ilona somehow knew that he was going to begin delegating some of his work to her.

It would have been so easy for Kalen to entice his wife into a pretend argument, but he knew that she would berate him for it. His captain persona took over as he said, “Then give me a summary of them.”

“Of course, sir.” Ilona adopted her air of professionalism as she used the honorific. She relayed the vital details of each case she had read as if she had spent all night memorizing them. Kalen was quite impressed but made sure not to show it too much, and for a specific reason.

Kalen couldn’t help but feel like he should be the one doing everything. It was an extremely tough feat to pass off important work to anybody, let alone someone with whom he could become so critical. It isn’t that he didn’t trust in her ability to get the tasks done, but that he didn’t ever want to discover a reason to distrust her abilities.

“You and I will take the one on the outskirts of Old City. That’s the one about the suspicious drug activity right? Straight, we’ll handle that. Hand the others out to the officers and make sure to throw Cepero one as well. He’s a good man and sick of being stuck inside so often if he’s anything like me. Have the recruits follow along on some of the cases as well but make sure they aren’t used much, maybe to guard a door or tell citizens to keep moving.”

“Isn’t that what we always do with the recruits?”

Kalen brushed off her sarcastic comment then let loose a quick chuckle and nodded his head as he said, “I remember being a recruit. It seems as though the higher up you get the more boring your life becomes. Well, we might as well get going now.”

“Whoa, sir.” Ilona held up her hand and stopped Kalen as he was halfway between sitting and standing. “You’ve still got a few papers to go through here. I’ll start this one and once you’ve finished everything here I’ll have my initial report for you and you can come on then.”

“I’ve a better idea, and since I am your captain you do have to go along with it.” He winked at her to let her know that he was only jibing her. “We both start this one and come back with a few bells to spare and we’ll split this up.”

Ilona quirked her lips up in a look of distaste and said, “I guess, but isn’t that the difference between our jobs? You get to do more paperwork than me and whatnot?”

“Partly, but also I get to tell you what to do, even if it means going through paperwork.”

 

***

 

The group accompanying Kalen consisted of Ilona, a seasoned watchman by the name of Garay, and two of the recruits. They had to pass by a dock on their way to the suspected location mentioned in the report. Besides stating a vague location, the report stated that a guard on duty had happened across a man who was laughing at the sky although blood was seeping from several spots along the man’s body. Undoubtedly this behavior allotted the man a thorough look-over by the Town Guard. They discovered that he was in possession and had been using twist, an illegal narcotic. The drug-carrying citizen had revealed a vague location near Old City after the guard helplessly tried to plumb more specific information from the inebriated man with minimal success. Now, a small group was needed to find the exact location of the operation.

Ilona ceased scanning the area around them and her eyes became plastered to a post holding the dock up, a troubled look overcoming her. Kalen noticed her sudden reaction to the sight and remembered her scarred past.

Kalen knew why the sight of the dock affected her so; last Vibril they had investigated several murders near the northern tip of Old City and had found some very disturbing things. They had discovered one man with his manhood severed and another who had been slowly drowned by being tied to one of the columns that held up the dock, left to the unforgiving mercy of the rising tide. The latter was a method utilized by the extremely notorious Liriss, a man who had been thought to be dead until recently. These grim discoveries coupled with dark rumors whispered from those who dwelled in the alleys led many to believe that he had never died and in fact had returned. As if the horrific image from last Vibril wasn’t enough to scar Ilona, she had barely escaped this terrible method of execution years ago.

Living in Dargon required Ilona to constantly be around docks and she forced herself to stomach these sights. Anything associated with Liriss, however, would be a fear-inducing event. He was a demon in Ilona’s mind, and the minds of many of Dargon’s citizens, but she would stab a dagger through his skull if she ever got the chance. This served as yet another reason for Kalen to try his hardest to quell the rise of the evil man.

Kalen brushed up against her side and whispered, “You alright?”

Ilona’s eyes blinked quickly as if she had just only realized that her husband was standing next to her. “Yeah, just seems like a lot of bad things happen around docks. Or perhaps it’s just the worst things possible are always associated with them. I’ll be fine,” she put on a bold smile before continuing, “I’m a big girl.”

Her smile lacked authenticity and Kalen took her hand in a reassuring grip for a moment. He felt the urge to kiss her then, but allowed it to pass without acting on it.

They came upon an area with buildings smashed too close together, not stopping to question bystanders but noting as several of them slipped into alleys when they caught sight of the group.

Garay pulled up next to Kalen and whispered, “Sir, you seeing all this?” He dipped his head towards the nearest man who had caught sight of the group and fled the street while wrapping his cloak tightly about himself.

A scowl flashed across Kalen’s face as he said, “Too many people here are tarnishing our city with crime. They won’t be around for long though.” Kalen kept his eyes open but didn’t focus on what he saw as he imagined a Dargon void of criminals and their ilk.

Kalen pulled the group into an alley and said to them in a low voice, “We’ll split up here. All we’re doing is some reconnaissance, then we get out of here quickly. Look through windows, and open doors. We have the general area; we just need to find the actual location. We are just a scouting party today so don’t try to take anybody out unless it’s either your life or theirs. Rookies do not do anything without the permission and supervision of your superiors. Let’s go. Be back here in no more than ten menes.”

They divided into two groups and began prowling around the ramshackle buildings. Most of the windows had shutters while others were open portals to the buildings’ insides.

After several menes without finding any activity, Kalen and Ilona happened across a building that was shut up by closed shutters on all windows. Kalen pried open one of the shutters and found black cloth blocking his vision. He put his ear close to the cloth and listened to the muffled sound of shuffling feet and whispering mouths. He pulled a knife from his waist and cut into the cloth as quietly as he could manage and through the small hole, he saw what he had been looking for.

Men moved around the room carrying plump sacks while others were leaning over tables and cautiously working with something too small to be discerned from where Kalen stood.

Kalen withdrew from the window and he and Ilona quickly made it back to the alley where he had addressed the group at earlier. He pulled a map of the district from his belt and scribbled down the location of the place. Once he was done with that, he and Ilona swiftly collected the others, then they all departed, giving the building a large berth.

As the group swiftly returned to the Old Guard House, one of the recruits pulled up alongside Kalen and asked, “So what did you see?”

Ilona shot the man a look that could crack stone as he spoke to his captain without using any form of the honorific he deserved.

Kalen allowed the slight to pass without recourse and replied, “Not much but enough to surmise that it must be twist, recruit.” Kalen put emphasis on the last word to remind the man that proper terms were meant to be used to delineate rank.

The man nodded then dropped back, his eyes glazing over as if he suddenly plunged into the sea of deep thought.

“Can’t believe that stuff is back. And after all the time and effort we spent ridding Dargon of it last year? We catch a handful of criminals and a year later a dozen spring from the cracks in the streets to replace them.” Ilona’s voice pulled Kalen’s head around, his eyes lingering on the recruit as long as his head would allow until he met his wife’s gaze.

“Straight. I think I remember several reports of people bleeding as if their skin suddenly lost the ability to hold the liquids of their bodies. Terrible. But all the man suffered in this incidence was a bloody nose and a few other bleeding spots. He’s fine, last I heard.”

“Guess he got lucky. Their luck might just run out soon though.”

“Perhaps. Well, let’s ensure that it doesn’t get that far. We’ll assemble a party and lay into the building. In two bells, this threat will be snuffed.”

 

***

 

Midday light landed on Kalen’s face as he looked out at the men assembled before him. The recruits were with them and Kalen was glad to see that most of them did not show an abundance of trepidation, but rather held a calculating and sure look within their steely eyes. It was as if the presence of so many veterans inspired them to feel the same.

Kalen stood before them, just staring for a long moment, testing their discipline and patience. Finally he let his voice boom, “Today, we begin to take back a part of our great city. Today, we eradicate a place of plague surrounding Old City. Crime has abounded far too much in the past months and we all know why; that bastard Liriss has returned. He’ll infect all of Dargon unless we stop him. It starts with you, brave men and women of the watch. May your blades be sharp, and your minds sharper. Move out!”

A loud, “Sir!” came from the congregation then they began to move out with military-like organization.

Once they were within several blocks of the building Kalen stopped the group, standing before them again. He called out to them saying, “Each group must set up where they have been told. I will count to fifty once we leave this spot then I will send out the call and that’s when we go in. Be ready. Time starts now!”

With that, the force began jogging the few blocks to the target building. Once they reached it, groups split off from the main force and surrounded the building at several entry points while the recruits turned their backs to it and watched the streets.

Kalen stood before a sturdy door and counted in his head with a whistle held between his lips. With force, he exhaled and the call was repeated by several officers so that the sound was heard even by those on the opposite side of the building. Kalen slipped his whistle into a pocket and replaced it with his blade. Two guards swung a battering ram into a sturdy wooden door. It splintered then burst off its hinges and clattered onto the floor inside the building.

Several other crashes could be heard and Kalen followed his group into the building, his sword bare. From the other entries, he saw the other groups spill into the building … and that was it.

The building had been abandoned. It was obvious people had been here recently but very little remained. Only one table, a hard lump wrapped in a piece of what seemed to be parchment, and a note remained.

Kalen allowed his shock to dissipate then began barking orders to his men to search the place in parties. He and Ilona approached the table and on the note were the words, “Have a taste, captain.”

“Snarky sons of whores. How’d they know we were coming? Think they saw us earlier?”

Ilona looked to Kalen, “I’m unsure, captain. Guess they must’ve.”

Kalen just stared at the wood of the table for a moment, his brain working at tremendous speed and his eyes not truly seeing much of anything. He snatched up the twist and spun on his heel. Once outside, one of the recruits turned to him and asked, “No one home, sir?”

His tone was odd and Kalen searched the man’s expression for some indication of insincerity. He found none, however, and said, “Here, take this to be held at the Old Guard House.”

The man took the twist from Kalen and smiled. “Of course.”

 

***

 

The pitter patter noise of the heavy rain drowned out the sounds of Kalen’s footsteps. Late-Firil clouds, pregnant with the dark promise of rain, had collected over the Valenfaer Ocean all day then rolled in off the port and began dumping the warm spring water on the inhabitants of Dargon.

Several days had passed without any headway on the case and Kalen desperately wanted to gain some edge.

He moved through the outskirts of Old City and passed by a dock. His eyes stared out from beneath his cowl and at one of the columns that held up the dock. The tide was low enough so that a person could be successfully tied there and left to drown as the water rose in the morning: a foul thought. Kalen reprimanded himself for allowing the terrible idea to enter his mind. Apparently he had been affected by Liriss a bit more than he was previously aware.

Kalen made certain that no one knew of his mission tonight. The Town Guard wouldn’t condone him taking this task on his own and Ilona would have nailed his feet to the floor to keep him from going through with this plan.

Lightning lit up the sky and Kalen noticed a man far down the street to his right. He decided that was definitely a person he didn’t want to bump into if they were out at this time during this weather. But then again, perhaps that person thought the same thing of him.

He dismissed the person and continued his search, peeking through windows and cracks in doors. More often than not, he found nothing in the buildings he looked through, but sometimes, when he checked a building he knew should be abandoned, he saw slight movement as homeless men and women curled up and tried to sleep.

Finally, as his boots were soaked through and causing his feet to prune, he found a place that seemed to want to keep prying eyes from seeing within. Not an inkling of candlelight shone through the windows and the shutters were not only flipped down but he also found them to be nailed shut. With caution, he snooped around the building, trying to appear as if he was only shambling along through the rain. And that is what gave him away.

A door he had been probing, acting as if he had dropped something there, burst open and a man leaned forward, a grin on his face.

“Here on business, mate?”

Kalen dipped his head, trying to hide his face within his cloak as he stammered before saying, “No. No, I was only walking by and dropped something.”

“Ah, don’t be shy, friend. You wouldn’t be ’round here without a purpose and I could tell you were trying to act like we weren’t exactly what you were looking for. You’re clear, now get your arse out of the rain, huh? Hope you brought something to keep the water from your package.”

This was it. This was the place he had been looking for but he hadn’t wanted to find them like this. His true identity would be given away though if he went inside and he’d be dead in a moment. He would have to go in or kill the doorman.

The criminal at the door lost his smile and his hand moved to his waist as he became suspicious of Kalen’s inactivity, and that is when he made his decision.

Steel flashed and then Kalen’s hand was beneath the man’s jaw, the blade of his knife embedded in flesh. Kalen gripped the man’s lapels and dragged him from the threshold of the building and into a corner where the alley met a wall twenty paces away. With unsteady hands, Kalen stripped the corpse’s pockets of the several coins that were in them. Trash littered the alley and Kalen used it to cover the body after prying his blade from the man’s jaw. He then grabbed a beaten and moldy wooden pallet and threw it on top. The job was messy but that’s what he wanted.

Kalen sprinted down the alley and didn’t stop until he felt as though his lungs would burst from between his lips. He knew that killing the man was wrong but tomorrow most of the criminals in the buildings would fight until they died anyway. Also, the dead body, being so easily found and sloppily hidden, would lend credit to the illusion that Kalen really had only been a wayward traveler who killed one of their men for what was in his pockets.

Heavy thoughts weighed on Kalen’s mind while he made his way back home. He’d killed men before, always with the justification of the watch though. Without it, he couldn’t help but feel vile.

 

***

 

Ilona slammed Kalen’s door and stared daggers at him, “You did what!?”

Kalen raised his hands up and said, “Hey, it worked. Right? Now we just got to get the force put together and head out.”

“Captain, what you did was extremely dangerous. You had to kill a man too. What if he would have laid down his arms today and we could have spared him?”

Kalen slammed his fist into the desk, causing Ilona to jump and put her hand on her chest, and growled, “Don’t you think I know that!?”

Ilona recovered enough from her shock to keep her composure although her eyes dropped to the floor.

Remorse gripped Kalen and he sighed, then, “Ilona, I’m sorry. This has been eating at my mind all night. Without this though, we wouldn’t know what we do now.”

Kalen’s eyes harbored his sympathy for Ilona but also his pain. The deep bags under his eyes showed how tired he was. He had tossed all night with the visage of his victim imprinted upon his mind’s eye.

As they had made to leave for home last night, Kalen had told Ilona that he had to finish a few things and that he’d be home late. Apprehension showed in her eyes when he said that but she accepted it. She found him on a cot in the living room of their house in the morning and Kalen told her he hadn’t wanted to wake her when he got in. Kalen could discern that she was suspecting he had been out all night engaged in activity that he didn’t want her knowing. And although this was the truth, she likely suspected it for a different reason other than what he had divulged to her.

Their lying apart wasn’t so much of an oddity lately, however. They hadn’t shown much affection towards each other since Kalen had taken Adrunian’s position.

“I’m sorry to have pressed you, captain. Let’s get everybody ready and we’ll finally make that dent,” a weak smile crossed her face and Kalen returned it.

An odd thought crept into Kalen’s mind as he wondered at how long it had been since he had even kissed his wife. His smile grew weaker as he contemplated the very real notion that he and Ilona were drifting apart from one another.

 

***

 

A high pitched noise emanated from the whistle between Kalen’s lips and the call was repeated by the higher ranking officers surrounding the building. The entries were breached and the men of the watch poured into the building, ready to subdue those within.

A mess greeted them, and only that. The place was empty of people, just like before.

Kalen saw this and cursed out loud, “How in all of unholy hell are they doing this!”

It was obvious that the criminals had cleared out of the place quickly as the tables had been left, a few of them turned over. A couple dozen twists lay scattered throughout the mess here and there.

Ilona walked up next to her captain, “They must have cleared out only a short time ago. Like right after we gave the call to form up for this breach, sir. That’s too coincidental.”

Kalen knew this and the thoughts had been running through his head before Ilona had voiced them. He looked around at his men with a suspicious eye and realized that this problem was much deeper than he thought.

Perhaps these drug runners were responsible for the possible spy or it could be that they were protected by one of the crime bosses and they were responsible for the inside man or that one of Kalen’s men had been paid off for this favor. Kalen harbored a strong suspicion that Liriss was involved in this somehow.

 

***

 

As Kalen awaited the roll call records of the past sennight and confirmation that the illegal substance found in the first building had been delivered and destroyed, a commotion could be heard downstairs. Men hollered at others about grabbing someone else and just as Kalen made to push himself up to his feet, a boy entered into his room: a boy with disheveled hair and a dirt-covered face, his clothing passable as rags. Kalen took the kid to be one of the shadow boys.

Next, several men of the watch burst into the room, their hands grabbing at the lithe and quick kid in anger. Kalen called for everyone to stop and even the boy obeyed.

“What is this all about?” he hollered.

“The vermin sprinted in and kept going when we told him to stop. I’m sorry, sir, let me get rid of him.” One of the watchmen made to grab for the boy again.

Kalen stopped the man then turned to the boy, “What is your purpose here?”

“A message, sir. Here,” The shadow boy handed a folded and sealed note to Kalen then kept his hand held out for a coin.

The man slapped the kid’s hand and Kalen barely quelled the urge to slap the man’s face. He pulled a Bit from his pocket and flipped it to the boy who quickly caught it and hustled out of the office.

The seal on the note was void of any impression and Kalen pointed to his doorway when the man in the room failed to depart of his own accord. Kalen read through the note quickly and immediately had somewhere to be. Knowing the reputation of the man he was soon to see however, he quickly scribbled a note and left it on is desk. He stood then grabbed his sword and strapped it to his waist.

 

***

 

“Hytheworde, didn’t think I’d ever receive an invitation from you. Seems like you’re mostly trying to keep us from coming around here or even looking your way.”

The old man, sharp eyes staring out from beneath white, bushy brows, was a well-known merchant. But beyond that, he was suspected of being a criminal, and one of the best. The guard couldn’t pin him with anything since they lacked evidence but it was thought that he didn’t abide by the law completely. Whispers of what illegal activities he actually engaged in were no more than rumors and wishful thinking.

“Captain Darklen, such a misconception you have my friend. I’d welcome you over anytime.”

The two men sat in a room, likely one that Hytheworde used to run his business from, the elder and balding man behind an oak desk void of anything and Kalen before it in a luxurious chair.

The wicked grin on the man’s face had Kalen believing that his words reflected the exact opposite of how he actually felt. Kalen decided that he didn’t want to spend too much time in this man’s presence exchanging pleasantries that were mostly a charade.

He said, “So what’s this about, Hytheworde? You said that you’ve some information that will benefit me and my current predicament, which I’m quite disturbed that you even know about.” Kalen spoke with confidence as he entertained the idea that Hytheworde was actually responsible for the spies in the watch. His confidence stemmed from the note that sat on his desk that he would retrieve before heading home, but if he was unable to do so for any reason, death included, then the watch would rip through Hytheworde’s place tomorrow only a few bells after sunrise.

A pipe appeared in Hytheworde’s hand and he tamped it then lit it, forcing Kalen to wait for the man to take a deep pull on the foul smelling smoke.

Finally he spoke, “Well, you see, I’ve noticed that you have a problem, which it appears you even know about. Some of your men are not your men. And I know this because they’re my old men. Workers of mine who found employ elsewhere. Seems as though they left my legitimate business to work for that snake Liriss, or so I’ve heard. Apparently that criminal is back. Definitely a bad sign for us law-fearing people.”

Understanding dawned then as Kalen came to realize that Hytheworde wanted to dent Liriss’ force and that this was a perfect way to do so. Kalen wouldn’t be surprised if Hytheworde tried gaining something from him as well. Hytheworde could come out on top on both fronts: both with his competition in the illegal realm and with the guard.

Kalen allowed the criminal to maintain his charade as he asked, “Then I don’t think that you’ll be giving me this information from the goodness of your heart?”

A devious smile split his face and smoke leaked from between his teeth and oozed upwards to mask his features. “Of course I will, captain. Although, I do have a shipment of goods going out soon enough and I’m on an extremely tight schedule, perhaps you could get the vessel through without holding me up for any inspections and what have you.”

Kalen was disgusted as he thought of the prospect of aiding a criminal but without this man’s knowledge he’d be fighting an uphill battle. This was his only edge and he knew it. Ferreting out Liriss’s men from the guard would be an arduous process without this bit of help from Hytheworde. Liriss was the imminent and growing problem now and he needed to do what he could to quell it as quickly as possible.

“What’s the name of the vessel and when does it set out?”

Hytheworde’s smile deepened.

 

***

 

After removing the note from his desk and retrieving the records of attendance for the past sennight, Kalen began his walk home. He compared the list of names to those that Hytheworde had given him and was crestfallen when he didn’t find any matches. He knew that the spies were new to the force and so were likely a part of the new recruits and had most likely changed their names when they applied.

There was no record of any twist being delivered. He surmised that the recruit charged with that task must be one of Liriss’s men. He didn’t know the spy’s name but was certain he could identify the man’s face. There were eight names on the list given to him by Hytheworde but he just could not remember what the new recruits numbered. Also, Hytheworde promised to provide someone to positively identify any men suspected of being the enemy.

He was sure that the number was near eight but wasn’t certain. His pondering, however, was cut short when a man bumped his shoulder and spun him around. Next, searing pain shot up his leg as a blade sliced through the muscle above his knee. The strike was likely aimed to sever Kalen’s hamstring and luckily it had missed high.

Shock caused him to stumble forward anyway and he only barely kept his feet. The two assailants must have thought that he’d spill onto the street however as they calmly spun around instead of rushing in at his back. Kalen used the small reprieve to clear his blade from its sheath and he took up a fighting stance, his blade held high and pointed at his enemies.

Both men seemed angered that Kalen defied their carefully laid plan as they spun to see him still on his feet and not crippled. They began to circle around him but Kalen would not allow himself to be flanked by them. He was a man of justice and right, but he was vicious when he was fighting for his life and beyond that, he was pissed.

Kalen feinted hard at the man to his right, causing him to raise his blade high to protect against an attack that wasn’t coming. Kalen then lunged left and swung his blade up in a wide arc that fell short but struck his unintended victim’s blade. The whole movement had been a ruse to allow what came next to happen so smoothly.

Twisting hard, Kalen turned back to the man now at his back and pulled his blade along with him. His momentum allowed his blade to tear through the man’s belly, opening a horrendous wound that spewed guts on to the street. But he had underestimated the speed of the soon-to-be-corpse. The man’s blade, slowed but still with ample force, slashed open his shoulder, narrowly missing his head.

Acting on instinct, Kalen ducked low then rolled away from the melee, grimacing at the pain that flared in his shoulder and leg. He felt the space where his head had just been disturbed by a whistling blade. Kalen was then on his feet and spun to face the man who had nearly decapitated him. The two men met each other’s gaze and inside Kalen’s, the thug saw something that he didn’t quite enjoy. He turned on his heel and sprinted down the nearest alleyway.

The dying man at Kalen’s feet was in terrible shape and blubbering incoherent words. He’d be dead in a fifty count if Kalen just left him there so instead he stabbed his blade through the man’s chest and instantly ceased his moving, forever. In that moment Kalen surmised that Liriss must have learned of his meeting with Hytheworde and decided that Kalen now possessed some information that would not bode well for him and his business.

Without a second glance at the dead man, Kalen began sprinting to his home, gritting his teeth through the burning pain pulsing from his wounds. It was then that he noticed several shocked bystanders, several of whom were mumbling to others. He caught his name in the whispered exchange and knew that at least one of them would make their way to a watch station and inform the guard that their captain had been attacked. And when Kalen wasn’t found immediately afterwards, half the watch would be out looking for him.

That, however, was an afterthought right now. Kalen could only think of his wife, Ilona. He needed to get to her before he could even begin to care about anything else.

His feet quickened their pace as his trepidation deepened.

 

***

 

Long shadows were cast by the dying sun when the second encounter happened.

Home was a dozen blocks from Kalen when a bolt slammed into a wall to his right, only a hand span from embedding itself in his skull, causing him to skid to a halt. He wrenched around to see a shadow duck behind the roof of a building. Kalen surmised that the killer would be reloading his crossbow to take another shot at him.

Two options presented themselves, the most basic of all instincts in a human, either flight or fight. Kalen decided that the former would end with him leading this thug to his home where others likely waited. Dealing with the immediate threat now was the optimal choice.

Without another moment wasted, Kalen sprinted down the alley he had been traversing, growling this time as the pain in his shoulder and leg flared. He turned right when he came to an intersection, swiftly moving one block until he was on the main street. He turned left onto the cobbled street, running for several blocks away from his pursuer, then turned back down one of the alleys. He ran until he reached a rickety door which he burst through by dropping his shoulder and plowing it off its hinges, barely keeping his feet underneath him as the jarring motion sent a lightning bolt of pain up his shoulder.

Inside was a store of crates and a groggy man leaning on one. He started awake and hollered at Kalen but the captain found the ladder he was seeking and sprinted to it. Once up it, he threw open the hatch and scrambled onto the roof.

With his belly to the roof, Kalen swiftly crawled to the side of the building and poked his head over. Like he suspected, his pursuer was hopping from roof to roof, keeping to the side opposite of Kalen’s position so he could keep an eye on the street as well. The man was only one roof away from where Kalen was now and he knew that if he stood up, he’d give away his position. He also knew that he wouldn’t be able to reach the figure in time if he only crawled. He tried anyway, however, and pulled a dagger from his belt. Moving was such an arduous task now and the throbbing pain from his two wounds begged him to give up his fight and just lie on the roof, unmoving. He wouldn’t allow pain to hamper him now, however.

His would-be killer leapt onto the roof and continued his sprint intending to leap to the next one. Kalen popped up, snarled, and threw the blade in his hand. It caught the figure in the hip and he staggered and plummeted over the side of the roof.

He screamed as he fell until a dull thud abruptly ceased it. Kalen hustled over to the roof’s edge and beheld the man lying in a twisted position that only a dead body would be found in. His cowl had fallen away from his head and Kalen recognized him as being the man who had escaped earlier.

 

***

 

Kalen tossed the man guarding the crates a few Bits to silence his questions. He moved through a back street that would take him around the street which he and Ilona lived on, albeit extremely cautiously and this caution is what saved his life.

He felt certain that at least one thug would be watching his home, waiting for Kalen to get there to make an attempt at his life. So, Kalen decided that he would move through the streets around his home before going to it.

Before he turned down an alley that was cast in deep shadow as the last bits of light had finally been stolen away by the departing sun, he heard two men talking, their volume low but loud enough to be heard.

“…so how will we know if the others get him, eh?”

“We ain’t going to till the morning. Don’t matter any. We’ll get coin nonetheless. Just shut your damn mouth and watch the door.”

Kalen’s heartbeat quickened, pumping liquid hate through his veins. He was angered that the thugs had breached the safety of his home but also exhilarated that he had discovered the enemy before running into them. He’d slaughter them and then go to Ilona, the place being cleared of enemies. Suddenly, he speculated that Liriss’ men may be in his home now, that they had maybe already hurt his wife. Deadly thoughts drifted into his mind. He felt unstoppable.

Liriss must be running low on men by now, Kalen thought as he confidently added these two to his list of dead thugs.

Pulling his cowl around his head and keeping his eyes to the ground, Kalen walked down the alley and spotted the two men on the periphery of his sight. They were on their rumps with their backs posted against the walls, seeming inconspicuous, as if they were just homeless men.

One of them noticed him and called out, “Hey, fella, I suggest you double back. We’ve claimed this part of the… uhm, street here. ‘Home street home’, right?” The man chuckled, the bigger of the two, but still stood up and adopted a threatening manner: his hands clenched as he rolled his shoulders and looked out from beneath his brow. Or perhaps he always had such a manner.

Disregarding the man’s warning, Kalen continued walking, his pace undaunted. The thug stepped in front of Kalen and began saying something as he reached his hand out to stop his advance. His fingers never touched Kalen however as both he and Kalen abruptly stopped.

They both stood there, staring at one another for a moment. The stillness must have disturbed his friend, who called, “Burke?”

Burke failed to reply however as his throat filled with blood due to the steel stuck in his body. Kalen yanked his blade from the dying man and let him crumple. He moved around Burke and to the man who was scrambling to his feet and grabbing for his sword with shaky hands. He never cleared the blade of its sheath however as Kalen’s caught the man in the chin and tore upwards.

Once Kalen was sure that no one was around to witness the event, he made his way to his home.

 

***

“I’ve had to kill four people tonight,” Kalen said as Ilona was inspecting his wounds and redressing them.

Her fingers stopped working when her husband said that. Kalen’s mood and tone was quite somber and he was exhausted. Ilona continued her work and didn’t speak until she was finished.

She stayed knelt before him but lifted her head to meet Kalen’s eyes with her own, “Gods, this is bad.” Her face was stricken with worry. She voiced her most prominent concern, “Are you sure that you should be here? I mean if they know anything about you then they’re likely to have this place on close watch.”

Kalen saw the adrenaline in her body start to work through the franticness that shown in her eyes. He nodded his head and placed a hand on her shoulder, “No, two of the men I killed are in an alley right outside. But I don’t think we’re safe here for the rest of the night. Others will come to check up on them and when they find the corpses, they’ll assume I’m in here.”

Ilona moved a bit under Kalen’s hand but he didn’t remove it, her night gown shifting subtly but enough so that the deep V shaped neck of it dropped low and fell away from her body, partially exposing her breasts. This caused Kalen to drop his eyes then quickly look back up to her.

A slight smile tugged at the corners of Ilona’s lips as she said, “So we have a bell or two until we have to leave here?”

Kalen recognized the tone of her voice and his heart suddenly thumped hard against his chest. He knew that now was not an ideal time to indulge in the actions that his mind and body were telling him to.

Something about all the recent events had him pondering the rate at which he had been living his life. He and Ilona hadn’t indulged in the pleasures of each other’s flesh in sennights. His life hung by a thread of fate. Would he want to die knowing that he hadn’t expressed his love for his wife in such a long time? He then vowed that, permitted he lived through this ordeal, he would rekindle their love and passion. But that was for a different night. Tonight was about survival

He managed to break the silence as he cleared his throat then said, “Uhm, can you grab me a cup of water?” His words sounded idiotic in his head, as did most things that a man said at a moment such as this when action was the only correct way to go about things.

Ilona dropped her head to hide her widening smile, which caused Kalen to think that she wasn’t going to get him any water but instead pounce on him. She hopped to her feet however and was lost behind a wall as she entered the kitchen. Of course Kalen knew these feelings were idiotic and misplaced; this was his wife, he’d had her many times before.

Kalen stood when she came back with a cup and he drained the liquid extremely quickly.

“Thank you,” he said as he handed the cup back to her.

Their hands touched and lingered for a moment and Kalen was sure that he wouldn’t be able to resist these urges any longer. It was then that he realized why he felt such longing for her right now.

Ilona set the cup down and moved forward. Kalen wrapped his arms around her as she said, “You still haven’t even removed your cloak.”

Her hands worked on the clasp and her eyes stuck to her work as if she didn’t want to look anywhere else. Kalen’s arms were still around her back and he immediately felt awkward but he left them there for fear of moving them and her realizing that they were wrapping her. This was not the right time for this and Kalen internally berated himself for allowing his body to act so immature at such a time.

Once Ilona finished her work however, she moved closer to pull the cloak around his back and that is when Kalen’s body overcame his mind as he pressed her close to him. She did look up into his eyes then and Kalen knew exactly what he’d be busy doing over the next half bell.

Unabashed, Kalen leaned down and they locked their lips together in a passionate embrace. They failed to disentangle themselves as they bounced off the walls and moved to their room and lay down on the bed with an intent other than sleep. They both writhed against each other and began removing clothing without keeping their lips apart for too long. To Kalen, it felt as if they were making love for the first time.

A moment of sense washed over Kalen and that was all it took for him to pull back from her kiss and breathlessly say, “Ilona, I don’t know if this is too good an idea.”

Ilona grinded her lower body against his and he almost didn’t allow her to respond but she said, “It’s a damn good idea, Kalen. We haven’t had sex since you became captain. And besides, I really want this right now for some reason.”

Kalen smiled as he said, “That’s because women are crazy and all this danger has you excited.”

A wink from Ilona affirmed his speculation and he was only allowed half a moment to be amazed at being correct. Kalen heaved all hesitation of his mind and body into some abyss, allowing pleasure to control his every move and action.

 

***

 

A commotion was taking place as those at the watch were disturbed by the news they had received concerning their captain. After a citizen had arrived at the Old Guard House and explained that Kalen had defended himself against two thugs then fled, search parties had been sent to scour the city. The latest party had just returned, stating that Kalen’s home was empty but seemed to have been occupied only menes before they had reached it. Candles were still hot as if they had been recently extinguished. What was even more disquieting was the presence of two corpses in an alley near their house. With the absence of Ilona as well, tensions heightened.

The door to the Old Guard House suddenly burst open and Ilona marched in, yelling for any of the new recruits to be brought before her. The nearest guard that she recognized turned his gaze to a baffled man only a stride from her.

Ilona knew what was coming and managed to swiftly side step a dagger that sped for her midsection. She grabbed the man’s wrist and pushed it into his own hip, causing his arm to cross over his body. Then, she sent her fist smashing into the man’s face several times until his nose crunched and blood burst from his nostrils. She then pulled the man’s arm, placed the palm of her other hand behind the man’s knuckles then snapped it forward and down. A loud crack announced the destruction of the bones in the man’s wrist and his knife flew from his hand to clatter on the ground. A vicious overhand right sent the man sprawling to the ground in a broken heap. One of the watchmen scooped the beaten man up and held him with his good hand pinned behind his back.

Another man was brought before her and she then ordered them to be shackled and thrown in a holding cell. When those of the watch hesitated, she screamed at them and they quickly did as she said, the recruit who hadn’t made a run at her life putting on a show of innocence and ignorance.

Ilona then selected trustworthy men and they hustled out of the building into the night, not knowing what their intent was other than following Ilona. Then, they came upon a man dressed up in ragged clothing that covered his face. He looked like nothing more than a homeless man caught leaning against a wall in a littered alley but the watchmen soon discovered that the man beneath the cloth was their captain.

They formed a circle around him and began to hustle him towards the Old Guard House. Kalen kept his head down but luckily, Ilona did not. “Crossbow!” she screamed and thrust a finger at a nearby roof.

Light cast off from Nochturon, the full moon unobstructed by any clouds this night, reflected off a figure atop a nearby building. His cowl was pulled back and blond hair fell from his head to his shoulders. As if cued by Ilona, he fired but missed his intended victim. The bolt sank a few inches into one of the guard’s sides as they swiftly tightened the circle around him. The man hollered from the pain but continued moving, albeit much slower now. The few citizens out at such a late time of night took to fleeing the area with no amount of organization.

The blond man disappeared behind the roof, either to reload his crossbow or flee the group didn’t know nor did they intend on discovering the painful way. Ilona hollered at them to move quicker and in moments they were on the steps to the Old Guard House.

Kalen burst into the watch building and a sigh of relief escaped his lungs. He wasted no time as he found the record keeper and asked his burning questions, “How many men did we recruit two sennights ago?”

The man rifled through some papers and finally said, “Eight, captain.”

A grin split Kalen’s face as his job was made much easier by the convenient number, “Traitors, all of them!”

 

***

 

“I doubt we’ll ever see the other six, sir. At least we removed them from our ranks,” Ilona said as the two sat in his office.

“Straight, recruitment and background checks are being held to much more difficult standards. This shouldn’t happen again. One of our men let them through. He was threatened with the death of his family by a man who claimed to be a part of Liriss’ gang. Liriss’s name is a devastatingly good tool of persuasion. I’m going to hold a day soon where I speak to all our men to ease their nerves over the bastard’s return; hopefully his name won’t carry the same amount of weight after. Perhaps we’ll get some military assistance from the duke in flushing Liriss out of hiding.”

“What are you going to do about the guard that let the spies in?”

Kalen shrugged. “He’s been let go. I’m certain he won’t stick around Dargon long. He should have told us about the threat soon as it happened. Again, it’s that fear of Liriss that got to him. We all take the oath to uphold the safety of Dargon before all else though. He failed that.” He paused as if pondering what he had just said. Suddenly he said, “Oh, and where are we at with the case?”

Kalen had almost forgotten about it but Ilona made sure to come prepared, “It’s lost, sir. All our leads are gone and they’ve slipped away from our watch.”

“Damn! So instead of actually cleaning up any crime from the streets, we’ve spent the last sennight cleaning up our own ranks. We didn’t gain a thing from all this. A step forward and two back type deal but I don’t see the step forward.”

Ilona adopted that playful look as she said, “Well I wouldn’t say that we didn’t gain anything from this. I can see the step forward.”

Kalen looked up to see her smiling and he knew that he’d either have a lot of fun with this situation or a bit of trouble. The trouble stemmed from the thought that had him wondering if his desk was sturdy enough to hold him and his wife and take a considerable amount of moving around as well. Either way, he couldn’t help but smile back.

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And Two Steps Back, 4.5 out of 5 based on 12 ratings
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8 Comments

  • kristi

    Great story! This writer is extremely talented.

  • Kelly

    Great story from a talented author. I see nothing but good coming from him.

  • alexander medler

    this story was great is there any new stories coming out for it

    • Keith English

      Yes Alex, there will be more. Many more involving Kalen, Ilona, and a few new characters. Thank you for reading and enjoying it.

  • Kevin

    Great story! I especially like the use of krav maga knife defense!

  • Jodi

    Enthralling story! I can’t wait to read more work from Keith English

  • Phil

    Hopefully the first of many. Loved it.

  • Andrea

    Fantastic story! Keith English is obviously very talented and has a passion for being a writter! I hope that there are many more literary masterpieces by this author.

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