Pounding startled Aerimon awake. He was suddenly tense and ready to kill.
The noise was coming from his front door. As he rolled from his cot and began moving down the ladder, grabbing a short blade before doing so, he noticed the broad shafts of light that speared through his home from an open window high up the back wall. It was past morning. He had slept quite late.
“Aerimon!” came a muffled voice from beyond the door. “Open up! It’s Kalen Darklen, Captain of the Guard!”
The intensity of the man’s voice and the use of his proper title did not allow Aerimon’s rigidity to melt from him. He’d normally be put at ease knowing Kalen was around. This time, things felt different. He couldn’t let his guard down and knew that whatever was going to transpire was going to be bad.
Aerimon placed the tip of his blade down, leaning it against the wall, then slowly began working the locks. Once the final lock was thrown, he pulled the door open and beheld Kalen, Ilona, Cepero and two other officers.
Kalen stared hard at him, then said, “You’ve slept past morning, Aerimon.”
“I’m aware. I had trouble sleeping.”
That hard look never left Kalen’s eyes. “We’re coming in.”
Without waiting for a reply, Kalen stomped past Aerimon, his entourage following suit.
“Aerimon, I need to see your blades. All of them. Give them to Cepero. Then we’re going to sit down and talk.”
Aerimon knew he’d have to lie to Kalen’s face today. He suddenly saw this situation as a sparring match. His opponent was tense so he must be relaxed and allow Kalen to make the first move. Aerimon could not just deny Kalen’s invasion of his home; he was the Captain of the Guard.
“Of course, but is everything okay?”
“Just do what I ask and I’ll explain it all in a moment. Agreed?”
Aerimon spent several menes collecting the blades he had, most of which were stashed away on the loft. He handed the bundle of sheathed blades to Cepero, who began routinely inspecting each. He was looking for blood, Aerimon knew. Cepero wouldn’t find any though. Aerimon nearly smiled.
Kalen’s voice came at Aerimon’s back as he watched Cepero, “Aerimon, take a seat.”
Aerimon turned to see Kalen sitting at his table. Ilona was at his side and the other two guards were near the chair that had been pulled out for him.
Without speaking, Aerimon glided over to his seat and took it, smiling at Kalen as he did so.
“Where were you last night?”
“Here. After all that’s happened I’ve been vigilant in keeping watch over my home.”
“Really? Then why is it you were up so late? You said you just couldn’t sleep, right?”
“Every little creak and gust of wind wakes me up. I don’t sleep more than a bell at a time.”
“Alright. And you’ve given Cepero every blade you have here?”
“Absolutely. Even the ones for show.”
“Cepero, have you found anything?”
Without taking his eyes from one of the blades he was closely scrutinizing, Cepero said, “Not yet, Captain.”
Aerimon noted that he had yet to check the blade he had used last night. His teeth clenched as he tried to stifle the anxiety that suddenly overcame him.
“Aerimon, last night four men were found dead in a residence. After inspecting the place, we determined that they were gang members. You don’t have any knowledge of this?”
“None at all.” Aerimon was suddenly exhilarated and surprised all at once. He had just told a lie to a friend and didn’t feel a shred of regret. The lie came so easily. He could tell a thousand more and not feel any remorse. “Who were they?”
“I don’t know who they were exactly. But … Come on, Aerimon, don’t make me have to ask this.”
“I didn’t kill them. Be at ease, friend.”
Aerimon almost believed that what he had just said was true; his words had sounded so sincere.
Some of the stress obviously plaguing Kalen seemed to melt away as he allowed himself to peel his arms from the table and lean against the back of his chair. That hard look wouldn’t abate, however, and Kalen said, “Let’s sit tight and wait for Cepero to finish with your blades.”
“Almost done, Captain,” Cepero mumbled, his breath coating the blade he held.
Aerimon needed to seem distressed and the gods knew he didn’t feel as such. “Kalen, I understand why you might think it’d be me to have done this but I’m telling you it wasn’t. I’m the victim here, remember?”
“I got that, Aerimon. But still …”
“Do what you have to. I understand; it’s your job. But while I have you here, would you mind telling me what progress you’ve made?”
Kalen sighed then said, “There’s been little but I know that several people I thought it might be aren’t who we’re looking for. But who knows? Maybe your problem is fixed after last night, huh?”
“Maybe. I wouldn’t know.” Aerimon had to keep the grin from creeping across his face. He found it funny but Kalen certainly did not.
After a brief moment of silence Cepero said, “I couldn’t find anything. They’re all clean.” Of course they were; Aerimon had used his victim’s clothes to thoroughly clean his blade before leaving the abandoned home. He had also tossed what he had worn last night.
Once more, Kalen seemed to relax a bit, his jaw ceasing its frequent clenching. He said, “Aerimon, I don’t think you did this but you just fit, you know? I’m being straight with you and I expect the same. You’re denying having anything to do with this; that’s fine. But it doesn’t mean you’re clear. You’ll be a suspect because of the circumstances. But hear me out; do not ever take the law into your own hands. I’m your friend but I won’t tolerate it. Do we have an understanding?”
“Yes, Kalen, we do.”
“Good. Now, I likely won’t be in to train this sennight; I plan on spending extra time on your case. I will be stopping in to check on things. Just be careful, Aerimon.”
With that, the group left Aerimon’s home, Cepero bundling up the blades and handing them to Aerimon first. He barely registered the opening and closing of his door as Kalen and the others left. Once he was alone, he couldn’t help but smile.
Aerimon knew that killing was wrong, that it put a stain on one’s soul. But he also realized he enjoyed it. Whether because the men he had killed truly deserved it or if Aerimon was truly a killer, he did not know. Aerimon believed that a killer was a person of evil who murdered without a justification. He told himself that the men he had killed all deserved their fate, but a shred of doubt wormed its way beneath that claim.
Was there a difference between killing when forced to do so and seeking out those who meant to do Aerimon harm and striking preemptively? Should he feel sorrow, at all, for their deaths? Would a stain really pollute his soul, take away the value of life he saw when he looked at a fellow human? He wondered if he had been just, if he maybe should have told Kalen and allowed him to judge his actions.
Although he understood that deceiving Kalen, a friend, was wrong, he couldn’t help but feel accomplished for doing so. Kalen was right to question Aerimon and for believing that killing the criminals was wrong. It was his job to feel this way. Aerimon just saw Kalen as being of a different mind than himself. Had he thought the captain would have condoned him taking the lives of those men, he’d have happily told Kalen.
Restlessness greeted Aerimon’s legs and he was forced to begin pacing. He wasn’t afraid of the consequences that might befall him if Kalen discovered what he’d done. No. It was something else. Something deeper and … more vicious that set his feet to moving.
The urge to kill rooted deep within Aerimon. It was not an urge to kill indiscriminately, but to find those who deserved it and end their corruption of Dargon … of the world. They had sown the seeds of their fate through evil deeds. Aerimon was sowing his own seeds and those men had tried to uproot them, to kill them. He would never let that happen. His seeds would be nurtured and would sprout and create a bright future for him.
His seeds were not those of evil intent, he told himself. Killing was only evil if one did so without just cause. Aerimon did what he had done last night to make Dargon a better place and ensure his survival. But he knew, now that he had taken life for the first time and had been justified in doing so, that he didn’t want to stop. In the quiet recesses of his mind, a place he rarely visited, a place that held the dark desires of man, Aerimon hoped that his enemies still existed, and that he’d be the one to kill them.
His heart beat with an audible intensity, the pounding filling his head. A grin split his face as he wrapped his hand around the hilt of a sword and pulled it free of its sheath. The steel was beautiful as it flashed through the air, cleaving the phantasmal enemies his mind created. With glee, he knew he’d be here, destroying the enemies in his mind for bells.
The only breaks Aerimon had taken were those needed to swap his weapons: several different blades, a staff, an axe, even brass knuckles. Brass wrapped his fingers even now as a knock sounded at his door.
The noise caused all else to dissipate, the ghostly enemies, the anger, and even the will to stave off morning meal.
Aerimon mopped the sweat from his brow with a rag, placed his knuckles on a table, donned a loose shirt, then opened his door.
Swiveling his head in the direction of the little voice, Aerimon beheld Gerald. The shadow boy had at first been sent to retrieve the payment from Aerimon before he had beheaded the gang. Now, he worked for Aerimon several times each sennight making honest money.
“Hello, Gerald. Oh, I see you’ve gotten yourself a nice shirt. Much better than the rags you used to wear.”
“Ya think? The other boys make fun of me for it. They say it’ll get dirty in a few days just like everything else we own gets dirty. Just as we all get dirty. I think I can keep it clean though.”
“Did you buy it using the Bits you’ve earned from me?”
“Straight. Now I’m saving up for some boots that don’t have holes in them.”
“That’s very mature of you. Here, how about you bring that shirt by whenever it does get dirty and I’ll get it cleaned for you.”
Gerald brightened up, something the kid didn’t do often. Aerimon had discovered that the boy was very straightforward about most things. Aerimon had only seen the boy smile a few times and he dealt with matters as if each was a business transaction. It was something that Aerimon did not enjoy about Gerald but only because it made him feel sorry for the boy.
“What do you need done today?” Gerald asked.
“Oh I completely forgot you were coming today. Um, well inside is pretty well kept. Why don’t you pull the weeds around my home today?”
“Straight. I’ll come in when I finish.”
Gerald moved towards the first tuft of green he saw growing from the dirt before Aerimon’s home. He grabbed it by the base and pulled it free.
Aerimon wondered if Gerald thought of the weeds as little enemies that the boy was capturing as he himself had done when he was a child. The big weed would always be the last one he would pull, but not before having a conversation with it about how its entire army had been destroyed. He would tell the King Weed to beg for mercy before pouncing on it and tearing it from the ground then throwing it down and standing on it triumphantly, surveying his newly annexed land.
But Gerald went about his duty with little care. He ambled this way and that, pulling a weed then throwing it in a central pile and continuing on.
Aerimon ducked back inside his home and placed his back against a wall. He slowly slid down until he was seated. His mind drifted. Like so many times before, Aerimon slipped into meditation. He followed the method that had been taught to him by his instructor, Arrick.
Soon, he was looking forward without seeing. A fantasy began to play in his head.
His world coalesced around him and he was standing amidst darkness. It was night and the streets were cold and empty. One alley belched awkward noises and Aerimon looked down its cobalt throat to find four people near the mouth of the alley.
“What are you doing?” he would ask. The man with the knife would stop cutting up his victims, a man and woman, and leave the terror-stricken boy to stare at his parents’ mangled forms.
“I’m evil. I’m a killer. This is what we do,” the killer would say. The killer had the face of one of the men who had entered Aerimon”s home and tried to coerce him into paying for protection.
Aerimon beheld the boy and discovered that it was Gerald. “Ah, so that’s what happened to your parents. That’s why you are no longer a boy, but the shell of one.”
Gerald would nod his head.
Then a great feeling of satisfaction would engulf Aerimon. It started in his hands, which held the hilt of his blade that skewered the killer, then fled up his arms and into his body.
The pictures melted away and Aerimon saw the inside of his home once more. He was back in reality.
The fantasy he had just lived through longed to become real. To Aerimon, there were people who had hurt Gerald, who had made him into the lonely boy who was forced to grow up too soon. These people deserved his blade.
Aerimon knew that men had to kill others sometime. But did they, like him, enjoy the act or just the end result? Did they stab an evil man through the heart with grim necessity or with pleasure?
Aerimon wondered if he had slipped at some point. Was he justifying murder that shouldn’t be justified? A knock sounded at his door and derailed his thoughts. Gerald was at his door when he opened it.
“I’m done,” he said and held out his open palm.
“Thank you, Gerald. Here.” Aerimon dropped a few Bits into Gerald’s hand and the boy turned to leave. “Gerald!”
Gerald turned. “Yeah?”
“Would you like to double that?” Aerimon nodded towards the pocket Gerald had stashed the coins in.
“Of course!” That bit of boyishness showed through the street-dweller that was Gerald.
“Good. Come on, let’s go pull the weeds of my neighbors’ yards together. Only this isn’t normal. Those weeds, they aren’t normal. This is going to be a mission. You’ll need to be alert and quick and cunning if you want to defeat this army! Come we need to go scout the army first!”
Gerald looked at Aerimon as if he was insane.
Several days passed until Kalen came to one of Aerimon’s class again. Aerimon attributed his absence to the demands of being Captain of the Guard. He hoped that Kalen hadn’t stayed away for some other reason.
Throughout class, Kalen seemed as though he wasn’t working on a case where Aerimon could be involved. He acted as though nothing had ever happened. Aerimon was unsure as to how he should take this, but decided not to worry about it while teaching his class.
Kalen stayed at Aerimon’s as the other students slowly departed of their own accord. He became quiet well before the others had left and Aerimon shot him a worried glance every so often. Kalen seemed to be preparing his words and had become withdrawn from the conversations happening around him.
Aerimon politely asked the last few students to leave, saying he had business to attend to with Kalen.
“So, Kalen, what are you brooding about?”
“That obvious, huh?”
“I was contemplating checking your pulse a few times. You were as rigid as stone, your eyes too.”
Kalen softly chuckled. “I was just thinking about your whole situation. You’re my friend. I wanted to tell you that we didn’t find anything to link you to the deaths of those men.”
“So I’m no longer under suspicion?”
“You have to be, Aerimon. That’s the way of the law. I just wanted to tell you that we don’t think you’re responsible for those deaths. You haven’t been attacked or contacted yet?”
“No. Nothing yet.”
“Straight. Just whatever you do, if you are contacted again or not, just leave this all to the Guard. We have this under control and are looking into more leads.”
“I’d never interfere, Kalen. I just want to be safe.”
Gerald arrived soon after Kalen departed. He was scrubbing Aerimon’s floor with water and a brush when Aerimon asked, “Gerald, do you know if I still have any enemies?”
Without leaving off from his duties, Gerald said, “What do you mean?”
“Is there anyone who still wants me dead, or for me to pay them?”
“Yeah. There always will be. Dargon’s got it bad these times.”
Aerimon’s heart jumped at the idea of violence. His enemies still existed. They were likely recovering from the damage he’d done them last sennight. He wouldn’t allow that. This snake had many heads and he’d severed one. The body was floundering and each head was vying for dominance of the others. Not a single one would win out. It was time to destroy the entire organism.
“Can you take me to them?”
At that, Gerald did cease cleaning. It was as if a bolt of lightning struck him immobile. He looked up and said, “For the right price.” Gerald smiled, and Aerimon smiled back.
Purple, pink, and orange clashed in one edge of the sky while the other was darkening by the mene, pushing the vibrant colors of the dying sun down beneath the horizon. The grey streets and brown homes were cast in an orange glow as the final rays of sun leapt over the edge of the world and painted Dargon. Aerimon and Gerald walked the streets through this war of color.
The alleys and byways were alien to Aerimon, parts of Dargon that didn’t exist ’til right now, but he followed Gerald with confidence.
They came upon a wooden door with two iron bands across it and Gerald hastily rapped on it. A gruff voice came from the other side, “Who are you?”
“A boy in shadow.”
Suddenly the voice changed, “My brother!”
Metal grinded as locks were thrown then the door opened inward to reveal a boy no older than Gerald.
“Sid! They got you working door duty? Thought you were better than that.”
“Lost a bet to Jimmy! Bastard’s a cheating whoreson if you ask me.”
“Most of us are. Losing a bet to a pup? Tsk tsk. I’ll buy you a drink later.”
“Who’s your friend?”
Sid was suddenly very serious. His childish eyes became slits and his mouth, a hard line.
“A businessman. Don’t mind him. Hopefully we won’t have to come in even.”
Aerimon looked around the boys to peer inside the dimly lit establishment. Boys too young to be men drank ale and whiskey, threw things at one another and cursed better than the most seasoned sailors.
Sid curtly stepped forward and closed the door. Aerimon looked at the boy and saw disdain there.
Gerald continued, “Sid, you know what’s up with Jack’s gang?”
“Ain’t his anymore. Poor fool’s dead. They were all uppity and whatnot for a few days. Settling down now though. Looks like Garrity got top position.”
“You know where they’re at?”
“No. But I know a kid who does. What’s this all about?”
“Nothing for us to worry about. My friend here needs to know.”
Sid sized up Aerimon, almost as if he was deciding whether he could take the grown man in a fight. “Well I don’t owe your friend any favors. What’s this worth to you?”
Aerimon didn’t miss a beat as he said, “Well I’ll be paying your friend too. How much do you think you can get out of me?”
“Straight.” The coins were in the boy’s hand.
“Truthfully, I thought I’d get three from you. Good deal. I’ll go get the guy.”
A silent mene later, Sid reappeared with a slightly drunk teenager dragging behind him. Sid held the boy’s collar and roughly shoved him forward. “I’m telling you it’s worth it, you farking imbecile. Shut your hole and listen to the guy.”
The boy quit protesting and rudely asked, “What!?” Spittle leapt from his lips to pepper Aerimon’s face.
He slowly wiped it away, Gerald giggling as he did so, and said, “I need some information that you apparently possess.”
A grin claimed his face at that, wiping away his apparent anger. “What’s it worth to ya?”
Aerimon smiled at the kid.
Eleven Bits and a few menes later, Aerimon and Gerald came upon the area designated by the shadow boy.
Gerald was needed to show Aerimon to the place; he wasn’t familiar with the district. The boy had told Aerimon that they were going to pass Tanner’s Street but offered no further verbal directions after that. A warehouse stood amidst a throng of other structures, bathing in twilight and eeriness.
“Gerald, is that it? That’s where they’re at?”
“Yeah. Aerimon, you think you can do this? Alone?”
“You better not be thinking about trying to help, kid.”
“To farking hell with that! I’m just wondering if I should find a new employer.”
“At least give me until tomorrow to make that decision.”
“How are you going to get in?”
“Don’t worry, Gerald. Here, a month’s pay in advance. You’ll owe me the work though. That coin isn’t free.” Aerimon smiled as he threw a coin purse at the boy’s chest.
Gerald beamed at the bulging purse and smiled a big, toothy grin when Aerimon rustled his hair.
“See you soon, Aerimon. Good luck!”
With a smile and a nod, Aerimon spun and began moving towards the warehouse. The presence of the two blades slapping against his thighs with each step and the larger one across his back set his mind to a state. It was one brimming with deadly desires.
“Aerimon!” The distressed voice belonged to Gerald. It was a tone that sent a shiver through his body as he spun around.
Aerimon turned just in time to see Gerald rocked by a punch that sent him sprawling to the ground. The man who had hit him turned to smirk at Aerimon.
Wind whistled near Aerimon’s left ear then became a bolt of lightning that slammed into his head. There wasn’t time for pain, only blurred visions of a spinning world and ascending ground. It all went black before he hit the dirt.
A return to consciousness brought pain, almost enough to send him into the black again. Aerimon groaned and only one eye fluttered open.
“Garrity, guy’s up. Wigglin’ around back there.”
As Aerimon sought the owners of the voices, he discovered that a tarp covered him and he was lying atop a bouncing, moving cart.
“Aerimon!?” That was Gerald’s voice and it wasn’t muffled. It was near. Aerimon tried to roll over but found that ropes confined him. Although it was difficult, he twisted and craned his neck and finally managed to lock eyes with the boy. Similar ties bound Gerald. “Your eye! Gods!”
Even before the kid had said anything Aerimon knew it was bad. They would pay for this. He’d take their fingers, their eyes, their manhoods, and then their lives.
“It’s okay, Gerald. Just be calm.” Aerimon tried to wink but it must have looked like a blink. His left eye was swollen to a thin slit. He could see through it, but not well.
“Shut up, you two! It’ll be another bash with the pipe for each farking word.”
Aerimon knew full well that those words were a promise that would be happily kept. He looked at Gerald and brought his hands up then pressed one finger against his lips.
Several long menes passed until a hard prod accosted Aerimon’s back. “Keys.”
They had come to Aerimon’s home. A glimmer of hope presented itself, especially when he discovered the blade tucked into his boot was still there. It was short, nearly a handspan, but it would suffice if he could get to it.
After a long moment of struggling, Aerimon managed to fish a hand into a pocket in his pants. He pulled a key out and said, “Here.”
The tarp flashed away long enough for Aerimon to see a man in a blue coat snatch it from his hand. Then the tarp returned the darkness.
The bumping began again but only lasted a few moments. Aerimon heard as the key was inserted into the lock and turned. Then, he was moving again.
“Get him off there. Hand the kid to Seth.”
The darkness didn’t change much but shapes became apparent. Men moved here and there, invading the sanctity of Aerimon’s home. Seth violently pulled Gerald from the cart and to his feet. Aerimon reacted by awkwardly springing to his feet, a task made very difficult by his bonds. Seth had a knife at Gerald’s throat and Aerimon stopped, swaying slightly as the wound on his head caused a wave of nausea to wash over him.
The man with the blue coat said, “Aerimon, don’t be an idiot. You do anything, you get another step closer to that boy, and he’s dead. You got me?”
Aerimon didn’t speak; he only flicked his gaze over to the man who had spoken, promised evil intentions with his gaze, then turned that look back on Seth.
Light was born as candles flared to life, lit by the other men in Aerimon’s house. He looked around to see two crossbows aimed in his direction and other men rifling through his drawers and cabinets. They took what they thought could be of value.
Aerimon took the man in the blue coat to be the leader of the gang, Garrity. He was sneering at Aerimon; he thought he had won, that he’d done what the others couldn’t. It wasn’t so easy though.
Aerimon asked, “What do you want? I’d rather if we didn’t give each other googly eyes all night.”
“Straight. First thing. You’re a business. I know you have money and I want all of it. Where do you keep it at?”
“Thanks for not dragging that out.” Garrity then addressed his men, “Two of you, get up there and bring down that coin.”
In his peripheral vision, Aerimon saw two men ascending the ladder to the loft. He kept his eyes locked with Garrity’s throughout.
A voice came from the loft, “Garrity, there’s a whole hell of a lot of blades up here. Why not send another guy up here to help us carry ‘em?”
Another man moved up the ladder.
“Is that everything, Aerimon? You wouldn’t want us to find something you didn’t tell us about.”
Seth clamped down on Gerald’s arm with a vice-like grip and he cried out. Aerimon gritted his teeth together.
“There’s more. Outside. It’s hidden well. Cut the rope on my feet and I can get it for you.”
“Just don’t be an idiot and the kid won’t die.”
Garrity stepped forward and cut the rope binding Aerimon’s ankles together. “Go out there on your own. Be quick.”
Aerimon got to work. He was outside, grabbing a shovel before leaving out a back door. Garrity watched from the door, left partially open, as Aerimon broke the earth with the shovel then quickly flung dirt away. The ties binding his wrists did not hinder him much.
Less than a mene later, Aerimon reached down to grab a small box from the hole. It jingled with coins.
Garrity’s wicked smile greeted Aerimon as he walked back to his home. He handed over the box then brushed past the thief.
Aerimon continued walking until Garrity was behind him with a hand on his shoulder. “Just wait here.”
Garrity continued moving then spun around to face Aerimon. One large bound and a sword thrust separated the two and Aerimon wanted desperately to clear it and ram a blade through his chest. His men circled around him, several of them holding plump bags that contained most of Aerimon’s belongings.
Ten men stood before Aerimon, two of them holding crossbows. The others had swords either out or hanging at their hip and one man held a torch that flared to life when he put it to a candle.
Aerimon knew that fighting all of them would not be a good idea, especially considering Gerald’s predicament. They’d kill the kid in a moment. He attempted a different tack as he said, “So you’re the new leader, huh? All these men are your lackeys?”
Garrity responded, “Smart move but it won’t work. They all have a place in the organization. Now shut up for a moment. I’d like to talk.”
Aerimon shifted on his feet, feeling the sheathed dagger running along the side of his calf. He desperately wanted to use it.
“You’ve been quite the thorn in my and my friends’ sides. More than a thorn for a few of us. Our old leader was a friend of mine. He was the one who came up with the brilliant idea to operate in a place that was nearly untouched by others. Right next to the Old Guard House. Like the old piece of shit building would somehow catch anyone who tried. Well it’s worked out good. Damn good in fact. Until you.
“You are single-handedly undermining our whole operation. Poisoning you was good, sent a good message. Until you went and picked up the guy that did it. Burning your place was a good message, until you killed us for doing it. Now here we are. You’ve got the whole gang here. Only this time, you’re already going to be dead when we burn your home to the ground. You’ll be dead as we turn your life to ash and shit.”
Aerimon had been listening to the thug, but he wasn’t hearing much. He was preparing himself to revel in the death he was soon to sow. He would most likely die tonight but he’d kill many of them. He wasn’t dying alone tonight.
Fantasies of what kinds of evil these men had wrought before came to his mind and he made them into a reality. They were rapists, murderers, drug-dealers, coercers, liars, scum. He almost felt happy that they were before him, regardless of his disadvantage.
Garrity resumed speaking, “That’s it then. Kill him.”
The two bows discharged at almost the same moment. Aerimon flung himself sideways and twisted. One bolt grazed his head, tearing a gash in his cheek. The other slammed into his left shoulder and sank deep, causing him to scream and stumble backwards.
Other than Aerimon’s attempt to remain standing, the room had gone still.
Garrity said, “I’ll give you that one. Do something like that again and the kid gets a second grin, from ear to ear.”
Ragged breath spewed from Aerimon’s mouth and he sucked it back in with fierceness. This was it. He was going to die, and without anything to show for it. All he had ever attempted to do was to be an honest man, someone who made life better for the people he could touch. These men had no right to take anything from him. They had forced him to kill them when they tried to take his life. They had turned him into a killer. Anger claimed him, so extreme that he felt it seeping from his pores.
“Will, put some steel in his skull.”
One of the thugs stepped from the throng of others with confidence tucked into the smile that rode his face. A blade was in his hand. Aerimon watched the man approach as if he were moving through sludge. Time had slowed and his thoughts were a whirlwind. At this moment, Will was the person least deserving to take his life.
Steel flashed before Aerimon’s face as Will brought his blade over his head. It flashed once more as it descended for Aerimon’s skull at a point right between his eyes.
Death would be kept busy with the lives Aerimon would take this night. If his life was to be included in Death’s harvest tonight, it’d be well after he had satisfied his lust for blood.
The will to survive was too strong and his skills too honed to stand idle and allow a man of evil to destroy him.
Aerimon was clear of the descending blade but his hands were not. The blade sliced the rope that bound his hands. His lame arm didn’t respond well due to the bolt in his shoulder, a spasm of pain causing his arm to move, and the blade cut through the pinkie of Aerimon’s left hand. The loss of the finger did not bring pain; Aerimon only realized it as fact.
Not even a sound escaped from his mouth during the ordeal and immediately he was bent low. The blade at his ankle was free of its sheath and the hilt of it sticking out of Will’s neck like lightning. Aerimon snatched Will’s blade from his hand before he collapsed to the floor.
Slack-jawed expressions greeted Aerimon.
Garrity opened his mouth to speak but before he could make even the slightest utterance of a noise, Aerimon’s door creaked as it swung inward.
Within the door stood Kalen and Ilona, the latter inching her way into the building but both of them with blades bare.
Aerimon’s eyes flicked back to Garrity when the man turned his head to Seth and said, “Kill the kid.”
Cold blossomed in Aerimon’s stomach as he looked over to see Gerald’s eyes widen in terror.
“Aerimon!” said Gerald for the final time. A hole opened upon his throat where Seth dragged his knife across. Blood poured from the wound, dirtying the boy’s clean shirt, and tears fell from eyes that began slowly losing their light.
Emotional pain, so severe and alien that it felt like a real physical wound, gripped Aerimon. For a moment, he forgot how to breathe and his wounds ceased throbbing.
Tears immediately formed in Aerimon’s eyes and his entire body was sapped of its strength … but only for a moment. He looked away from Gerald as Seth let the boy fall to the floor and found Garrity’s eyes. There was no remorse there, only satisfaction.
Anger, so pure and just, filled Aerimon’s body with righteous energy. He sucked in a deep breath, two tears leaping from his eyes, and screamed with a voice possessed by a demon, “You’re all dead!”
The room exploded into action.
Aerimon saw Kalen turn and stab his own blade through the skull of the nearest man. Ilona had begun defending herself against two men at once.
Garrity called out over the din, “Light it!”
Then Aerimon was forced to focus on his own adversaries. One of the men had reloaded his crossbow and it was leveled at Aerimon’s chest.
Crouching, twisting, then rolling over one shoulder in a fluid and lightning motion, Aerimon cleared the distance between him and the man with the crossbow. Pain greeted him, both from his shoulder and hand, but it wasn’t enough to slow or stop him. Aerimon had fought through pain many times and now his anger forced him to act without slowing. The finger he had lost had belonged to his left hand and the blade he held was in his right. He heard the twang of the weapon as it discharged its bolt into the ground near him.
As Aerimon came up, he brought his blade along with him and caught the crossbow-toting thug in the groin. He screamed, a bloodcurdling noise, and his body clenched at the terrible damage it had just endured.
Instead of coming all the way to a standing position from where he was, Aerimon yanked his blade free then rolled again but to his right this time. Searing pain erupted across his forehead and when he stood, blood drained into his eyes. He hadn’t been quick enough to avoid the blade streaking towards his forehead completely.
Keeping his blade out before him with one hand and wiping at his eyes with the other, Aerimon quickly backed up. An odd sensation came to him when he only dragged three fingers across his eyes and it also hurt like hell. He managed to clear his eyes enough to see the man who had cut him slowly advancing but keeping his distance from Aerimon’s blade.
Aerimon allowed himself a moment to enjoy the suffering of the man who wallowed on the floor clutching at his ruined groin. Then he focused upon his next victim, several other men behind and coming around him. He wouldn’t have it any other way, he decided, as his victims seemed to spread out before him to be slaughtered. Aerimon took the position of the thugs and quickly thought of how he’d fight them while keeping them from swarming him at once.
Pain and exhaustion threatened to stop him and let him collapse to the floor. Gerald’s sad eyes flashed in his mind and the ill effects of his wounds fled from his body. Aerimon’s work was not finished; more death was needed by his blade.
Smoke seemed to cloud his vision and the smell of burning wood accosted him. Behind the men, Aerimon glimpsed the burning wall of his home. The acrid atmosphere, the blood, sweat and tears that stained his face, the grief, and anger all added to his vicious onslaught.
A step, a parry, and a slash were all it took for the nearest man to stumble backwards, clutching his throat as a torrent of blood spilled over his knuckles.
Now, Aerimon was defending against a flurry from another attacker. The man seemed to be trying to overwhelm Aerimon with the number of brash strikes as he inevitably left himself open. Ducking below a strike aimed at his neck, Aerimon saw an opportunity and seized it. With deft speed he slashed at the man twice, opening large wounds on the insides of his knees. He collapsed, screaming, and two others moved around their fellow to get to Aerimon. They both rushed forward and Aerimon skipped back to keep some distance from them.
Both men tried burying their blades into Aerimon’s skull at once. He sidestepped one strike completely but the other would have sunk into his shoulder. Aerimon lifted his blade above his head parallel to the ground and used his ruined hand to reinforce his grip. His opponent’s blade slammed into his own and sent a shockwave of pain through his left hand and shoulder. Aerimon nearly lost his grip on the weapon but still defended the strike.
Another man was busy attending to the one who writhed on the floor. Aerimon knew he needed to entangle the two men who were even now turning on him. The man whose blade he had blocked was at his side already so Aerimon ran his shoulder into the man’s ribs and drove him away. The man was knocked sideways into his companion and they frantically danced to avoid each other’s blades.
Dismissing those two, Aerimon turned to kill the man tending his fallen comrade. He saw Aerimon coming and got to his feet, shuffling backwards quickly. Aerimon saw an opening and tore his blade across the face of the downed man.
Suddenly, the remaining three thugs before Aerimon rushed in at him all at once.
“This is it,” he thought. “The moment where I die.”
He abandoned his thoughts as he began weaving away from and defending against the blades leaping for his body and head. Reprieve from the onslaught would not come and Aerimon felt his arm going numb with each jarring strike he blocked. His grip was soon to falter, he realized.
Then, something miraculous happened; he saw two of his enemies drop. They hit the floor and the one remaining thug was dumbfounded for a moment as well. It was Garrity. It was perfect.
Aerimon saw Kalen and Ilona subduing the two men they had just hamstrung and flew into a frenzy. He snarled as he lunged towards the man standing before him.
Batting away Garrity’s feeble strike, Aerimon stepped in close to the man and drove the top of his skull into Garrity’s chin. Teeth smashed together and a terrible grinding noise could be heard.
Garrity dropped his blade and grabbed for his shattered mouth but Aerimon was still upon him. Aerimon let his blade fall to the floor. A quick death by the sword was not what Garrity deserved; he warranted the slow, personal pain of a death by Aerimon’s bare hands. Aerimon craved the feeling of Garrity’s bones breaking under his assault. He battled his own exhaustion while he wrapped Garrity in a bear hug and lifted his arms up high. He felt burning pain shooting through his shoulder and hand, but it only fueled his anger.
With deadly force, Aerimon drove his knee into Garrity’s gut three times in quick succession, relishing the snapping that came from breaking ribs. Then he stepped to Garrity’s side while maintaining his grip and drove his knee into the side of the man’s thigh several times.
Aerimon relinquished his grip and Garrity crumbled, a broken heap on the ground. Enraged, Aerimon let out a ferocious cry, lifted his leg high, then brought it down in the middle of Garrity’s chest. The thud of Aerimon’s heel striking the man was drowned out by the snap that came from Garrity’s chest. Breath escaped the man in a great torrent. Destroying Garrity brought such satisfaction that Aerimon was forced to repeat the process again and again, screaming anew each time until his voice was ragged and the dent in Garrity’s chest was cavernous.
A voice carried over Aerimon’s, sounding even more distressed than his own, “Aerimon! We have to go!”
Kalen was looking up at Aerimon in terror and this was what shocked Aerimon back to a calm state. Ilona had turned her head when Aerimon had cracked the man’s chest plate. The fire was out of control now. Aerimon’s home was lost.
Aerimon’s rage drained from him, but he couldn’t diminish the feeling of satisfaction that had rooted deep inside him.
Time passed in an excruciatingly slow manner. Aerimon felt as though the fight had happened days ago. The pain afflicting Aerimon’s body failed to disentangle his mind from the web of rumination. He would only snap from his reverie when the medic tending to him would raise his voice or jostle him to get his attention.
A poke and throbbing pain emanated from Aerimon’s toe. He hissed at the pain and the medic quickly apologized then said, “Yeah that’s broken. The other ones are fine though.”
“Felt it give when I rolled; thought it might have just been a twist.” Aerimon’s voice trailed off and so did his mind. He was back in his realm of thought, dissecting to try to understand who he was, what he was.
“Kalen must know now,” he thought. “He must believe that I’m not the instructor he thought I was. I’m not the upstanding man everyone thought I was. I am a killer. And not because I killed, but because I took so much pleasure in doing so.”
Then he thought of Gerald. Poor Gerald whom he’d never forget.
“… think it’ll come out. But it won’t be pretty.”
“What?” Aerimon asked the mumbling medic.
The short, blond-haired woman replied, “I was just saying that I think we can pull the bolt out. But, it could be barbed. I’d suggest we cut it out.”
“What will happen if we pull it and it is barbed?”
“It’ll do a lot more damage than it did going in. Your shoulder muscle will be severely damaged and might not ever heal.”
“Let’s cut it out then.”
“Straight. I’m going to apply an herb that will dull the pain but you’ll still feel the majority of it.”
Aerimon wasn’t listening again. He had caught Kalen’s gaze. His side was being stitched up as he stared blankly at Aerimon. Perhaps Kalen had looked at Aerimon and delved into deep thought himself. Perhaps he wasn’t seeing much of anything. But perhaps he was communicating a message with his silent stare: “What hand did you have in all this? How much of this is your fault?”
After Aerimon had emerged from his rage, Ilona, and Kalen had quietly bound the two men who had survived the ordeal as he scooped up Gerald’s corpse and limped to the Old Guard House. They had come across a large group of guards who had seen the flames from Aerimon’s home reaching up to Nochturon and had informed them of the dead men at Aerimon’s home. The group went to cordon off the scene from citizens and keep the fire from spreading to other buildings.
Now, the three sat in the reception hall of the Old Guard House, being tended to by medics and others who knew at least a small amount about dealing with injuries. Kalen had only suffered a gash along his side while Ilona was virtually unharmed.
A tingling sensation across Aerimon’s arm caused him to look away from Kalen and down at his shoulder. A thick paste was coating the area around his wound.
“It’s getting there. I’m going to get my tools cleaned. I’ll be back in a mene.”
And a mene later he was back. Aerimon could not feel his shoulder unless he moved it, which he did to test out the numbing ability of the paste. Dull pain won out against the paste but Aerimon knew it’d be much worse without the herb.
“Lie on your side.”
Aerimon did as he was told and the medic wiped the paste off his arm then said, “Here we go.”
The surgeon’s knife that cut across his flesh left an odd sensation where it split open his shoulder but nothing more. Then the medic dug in with the blade, splitting the muscle to expose the bolt and its barbed tip on one side. Lightning bolts ripped across his arm and dulled his mind by overloading it with pain. Blackness crept in on Aerimon but was quickly dispelled as the cutting suddenly stopped.
He realized he was clenching his face and arms and had to exercise a large amount of his will to relax.
“One more cut,” came the medic’s voice, although it sounded far away.
Aerimon nodded curtly.
Another bout of agony tore into his arm but the blackness didn’t come this time. He knew what to expect.
“It’s free but pulling it out is going to hurt a lot. Here help me with this.”
Aerimon opened his eyes to see two other men standing over him as well. He didn’t remember them being there. One was holding a red-stained rag and dabbing at his shoulder. The other man grabbed a tool that looked like a set of tongs. Aerimon saw it descending then anguish gripped him as the tool vanished within his arm and spread the flesh apart.
“Here we go.” To Aerimon, it sounded as though the man spoke through a mouthful of cotton.
A surge of pain, then nothing.
“We look like a couple of old farts,” said Kalen with a grin.
“Hah! I know. I feel like one,” Aerimon replied.
The pair limped along the cobbled street hissing in pain at an off step or odd twist. Kalen kept his hand on his side. Aerimon walked on the heel of the foot with the broken toe while being careful not to move his eyebrows too much to ensure that the stitches in his forehead didn’t split. He kept his right arm tight to his body and winced each time a pulled muscle spasmed. The left side of his head was purple from eye to ear and a continuous throbbing headache plagued him. He had yet to become accustomed to his missing finger; he had trouble gripping some things and suffered pain each time he mistakenly put any weight on the wrapped stump.
“Damn, if this is what it means to get old, then count me out. Just use me in a demonstration for class one day but use a real sword before I get too old.”
“Oh come on, there’s always reason to live, even if you’re too old and broken to move.”
Kalen opened the door to Spirit’s Haven and allowed Aerimon to enter first.
“Nice place,” Aerimon commented as he entered and took in the clean bar table and bar stools. The people of higher class enjoyed conversation with each other and only got rowdy every so often. The place was not too busy and several tables were left open.
“Yeah it is, nice gal running it too. Come on, let’s grab a table in the back.”
Aerimon didn’t like that they were getting close to settling things but he knew it was inevitable.
A serving girl approached them as soon as their backsides hit the chairs. “Gentlemen, how are we today?”
“Good. May we have half a loaf of bread and some cheese? An ale for me as well and …”
Aerimon took his cue from Kalen’s pointed finger then said, “Ale as well.”
“You two might be the easiest group I’ve had all sennight. Back in a mene.”
Once she left Kalen looked at Aerimon askance and said, “Didn’t take you as one who drank, Aerimon.”
“I do. Not often but I’m not averse to it. Something tells me I’ll need it. Kalen, how’d you know to come to my home? Without you and Ilona, I wouldn’t be here.”
Kalen shrugged. “It just felt like I should. I wanted to really sit down with you and just talk. One friend to another. Instead, I end up saving your ass.” Kalen smiled.
Aerimon returned the smile. “Well you have a strong intuition. Thank you.”
Kalen only nodded at that. Then he said, “So what are you doing about your home?”
“It’s not really mine anymore. The owner is taking care of it. I’m planning on staying at an inn for a while until I can find a way to get back on my feet. I don’t have much money left. Once I’m able to, or once I have to, I plan on teaching again of course. Restarting. Going to the homes of nobles who’ll pay me then going from there.”
“You could maybe even get one of them to hire you.”
“Yeah. Hey, do you think I did the right thing? By not giving into what the gangsters wanted?”
“I think that having them off the streets is a good thing. That you showed some real balls by standing up to them. But there’re a lot of people dead now. What do you think?”
“That I did the right thing. I held firm in my beliefs. I did what you say most of the citizens here can’t.”
“Okay.” Kalen looked over Aerimon’s shoulder and smiled. The serving girl was at Aerimon’s side, placing their drinks and food down on the table before them. “Thanks.”
“Of course. Just holler at me if you need anything.”
She briskly walked away and Kalen took a deep pull on his ale. Aerimon followed suit a little after and nearly sprayed a mouthful of ale when Kalen asked, “What did you lie to me about? What did you do that I don’t know about?”
Once he swallowed the frothy liquid, Aerimon said, “Nothing, Kalen. You know it all. I defended myself when I had to. I only killed those people who were in my home that night.”
Kalen nodded and took a long swig of his ale. He then put it down and said, “I believe you, Aerimon. I hope you aren’t offended by my asking again. One more question: did you like killing those men?”
Aerimon was silent for a long moment, oscillating between sipping his ale and tapping his fingers on the table. Finally he looked up at Kalen and said, “Yeah. I did, Kalen. I can’t explain it but when I do that to people I know are bad, evil men, I feel … satisfied. It feels good.”
Kalen absorbed that in silence. He nodded his head then asked, “You don’t think you’ll go out looking for them will you?”
“No. I don’t think so. I don’t care that I took the lives of all those men. What does that make me, Kalen?”
“Well I don’t think it makes you into anything different unless you let it. All that matters is that you’re okay with yourself. That you can live with the things you’ve done and who you are. You defended yourself and nothing more, you even said it yourself.”
Aerimon silently stared at the table and thought. He had spent all of yesterday inert, thinking of Garret and his decisions. He did the same for most of this morning until he went to meet Kalen at the Old Guard House.
“I can. I’ve felt fine the past few nights. They deserved what they got. They sowed the seeds of their fate, Kalen. However, there is something that I can’t really stomach. Gerald. He was a good kid, Kalen. He died because I lived.”
“What do you mean?”
“Had I let Garrity’s men kill me, he’d be alive. But then you and Ilona would have walked in and you’d probably have been killed. Still, he was innocent of everything. He didn’t deserve to die.” Aerimon felt his lips quiver and he was looking through pools of water.
“A lot of people who die don’t deserve it. You’ll be alright, Aerimon. It’s tough though, I know.”
Aerimon nodded and a tear fell from his eyes. “Thanks, Kalen. If you say so.”
“Straight. Well, I have an offer for you then. I want you to join the Town Guard but as an instructor. You’ll be responsible for training the recruits and keeping up with the veterans every so often. You’ll have a lot of work for quite a while.”
“Wow. Thanks, Kalen. Of course I’ll accept it. I still haven’t talked to all my students yet. Let me get that straightened out then I’ll be ready once I’m healed.”
“And you’re fine with what I’ve done? With the men I’ve killed?”
“You didn’t do anything illegal. Nothing you’ve told me or I’ve seen you do is in conflict with the law. You defended yourself as you rightfully should have. Remember that what you’ve done doesn’t change who you are. You’re still a friend of mine and a damn good instructor. I’ve learned a lot from you and so have many others. Don’t let those things be taken from you because of this.”
“Your words are a great help. I’ve been a bit out of sorts over all this. Especially after Gerald.”
“Yeah, well … So you start once you’re feeling better. I’m out for at least a sennight or so. Then they’ll have me stuck inside for a few more after that. This wound couldn’t have come at a worst time. Ilona and I are trying for a baby. I can’t do much of anything though.”
Aerimon chuckled and felt relieved that the conversation had changed tone.
“Maybe she’s already pregnant.”