His sweet little barmaid Bess was in tears for the third time that night, so Mad Dog figured it was time to kick that prick elf’s ass. He wasn’t so young anymore so he grabbed his ex-wife’s leather-covered, lead-weighted sap from under the bar. Pretty boys don’t like it when you leave a mark, and he wasn’t out to lose customers tonight.
About half the bar was locals, half was elves, half was out-of-work human mercs, the locals were leaving, and it was about time for some new chairs anyway.
The elf looked up. And up again. Mad Dog sucked his gums and grinned. He didn’t have his teeth in. His old chainmail shirt jingled and smelled like blood. The elf waved one skinny white long-nailed hand and said, “Bring me your finest wine, old man, so I can empty the bottle and piss in it.”
“You want the one I fucked your mother with? Or the one I used on your pa?”
The elves all stiffened, pale faces with pretty eyes all turning toward Quith Alanas. A couple of the mercs called insults.
“You go on home, Bess,” he said. After a second the front door slammed.
It was all waiting for one last taunt to set the tinder burning.
The front door slammed again.
“What did I tell you, girl—”
Steel rang. Good steel. He knew the song of that knife.
A woman coughed, a long, dirty cough that had death in it. His ex-wife rasped, “The first person who throws a punch gets slit from crotch up.”
She slumped down at the bar and he got out the stuff he bought in Eaglesburg because she used to like it. He wiped the glass on a towel before he poured for her, tawny gold and honey spice up to the rim. She looked like shit. Her hair was growing out gray and she wheezed when she breathed.
He cleaned up while she drank her first and poured herself another. He looked back and she was sliding off the big, solid-backed stool. She grabbed the bar. He caught up to her quick and picked her up. She didn’t weigh hardly anything and went into his arms without a struggle.
Her breath smelled like the booze and pus coming off a dead wound.
“Mikkaelus.” She tried to pull something out of her black leather jerkin. “You.” She coughed again, bad.
He headed up the stairs with her. “Shut it, Raven.”
“Jassa. I want to hear you say it.”
“Jassa. I’m going to put you in bed and send for a healer. Tell me tomorrow.”
She shook her head. “It’s Zapat—” She broke into coughing. “Zapatarasth—” Now there was blood on the leather of her elbow and on the side of her mouth.
“Zippy,” Mad Dog said. She nodded. “He’s dead, Jassa. Been dead for thirty years.”
Now she shook her head.
Watching Jassa die made him feel old. He laid her in his bed. Her body felt loose and supple, and he remembered laying her down this way a hundred times. Her gray hair was short. She couldn’t keep it long and live, but he’d imagined it longer about a thousand times since she’d left him, brushing black over his cheek with her rocking on top of him. Them growing old together.
That sick, sweet smell meant necromancy. He kissed her forehead and it was cold; he kissed her lips and they were pasty and hot and sweet. She didn’t have much time left.
“We got time if you want it,” he said. “Old times’ sake.”
She smiled and her lips cracked. “You just try it, old man.”
“You know you get hot for men with no teeth.”
“That’s you and old women, Mikkaelus.”
She coughed and he turned her head to the side. She hawked and spat onto the blankets and he wiped her face. “You have to stop him.”
All the reasons he could have said no were nothing to him now. “I will.”
Her hand on her chest, feeling around for something. He pushed back the musty old blankets a little and reached slowly into her leather shirt, careful of what he might find.
“Damn it, Jassa.”
Her hand pawed at his. He pulled it out. Zippy’s damn amulet. It was fake gold with the paint worn off, the purple glass in the center scratched all to hell. It had cost him every penny they’d made after their first job; the poor kid had got swindled even after Mad Dog had tried to talk him out of it. But he’d made it into a thing of power, just like his ridiculous name.
Zapatarastan the Evil One.
Zippy the Magical Specialist, Third Class.
It was hard to keep that bright, eager kid in his head alongside the charred and dismembered corpse he’d buried so long ago.
“Where is he?”
She coughed again, and he laid the amulet down. “Ratigan,” she gasped.
She had minutes left. Could be seconds.
“Why the hell’d you do it, Jassa? Whyn’t you come get me first? Zippy’s our mess. We should of all cleaned it up together.” He stroked her face with the backs of his fingers. His hands were sweating now, his throat clutching.
What he meant was that he loved her. But she wasn’t the kind of woman who could hear the words and be easy about it, even now. Especially now.
“Didn’t know…until too late. Thought I’d…pick up…memento.”
He didn’t believe a word of it. Someone’d hired her. “You dug him up, didn’t you?”
“Going to…already had.”
Then her back arched until the back of her head and her knuckles and her feet were all that were touching the bed. The breath wouldn’t come but sucked and popped inside her. Her shirt strained across her chest. She fell back, then arched again.
The black-hearted, greedy, vicious girl he’d hated was gone. And so was the old woman he’d loved, and everything in between.
He waited until it was done, then got the amulet and put it in a bag. He couldn’t stand to look at it. Made him want to spit.
Mad Dog flipped the reins over the half-burnt tree branch, threw his saddlebags down on the loose, puffing ash, and walked to the top of the hill. His boots crushed against hidden charcoal and tried to slip under him. He sneezed and spat against the taste of burnt meat. The ash hadn’t been rained down yet, and lacy fragments of white shattered as he walked through the dead brush and grass. It had burned hot, and in places it almost looked like the grass still lived, it stood so perfect to life.
He stood at the top and looked down at Castle Ratigan. Black as soot and pointed like a finger toward the sky, with a ragged chewed nail of busted crenellations at the top.
He’d told Zippy that whatever killed Ratigan the Evil One could kill him just as easy, and the heirs wanted twice as much as the place was worth. But since when had Zippy given a damn what he said? A couple of weeks later he was dead and the heirs had run off with the rest of his money.
He’d come when they heard, the last time they would all be together. River’d laid tiny, gagging-sweet wildflowers on the grave and said a prayer to the Mother for him. Jassa had spit on the stone and left a dagger buried in the dirt up to the hilt. Mad Dog had sat and drank until everyone else had gone, then pissed on the grave.
If Zippy knew about that he was fucked. He started down the other side, his feet braced sideways and an arm up to protect his eyes from branches as he half-slid down the hill.
Two kids guarded the door. They had halberds, wet cloths against their faces and their hoods pulled up against the ash. The wind on this side of the hill was harder, and their black cloaks snapped around their legs, even on the lee side of the tower.
He clanked when he walked but he didn’t draw anything. He was black up to the thighs and he could barely breathe for the ash in the air. He squinted until he got close.
One stuck out his halberd; the other thought about it a second, then crossed his halberd in front of the other kid’s, fowling them both up.
Mad Dog said “Get outta my fuckin’ way” by way of introduction. His fighting teeth were steel and sharp and left his tongue tasting blood. Even under the gray sky his teeth would shine. He grinned.
“Halt!” the first kid shrieked again.
“Holy shit!” hollered the other one.
The halberds were shaking together so hard they clacked and scraped. Mad Dog growled, rushing the second kid and sweeping up the halberds in his arm to twist and toss them into the ditch. They were kids, though, so when they were still standing there with their swords out he didn’t kill them, just roughed them up a little. That age, you were stupid and broke and took what work you could get.
He dragged them one at a time through the front gate. Time was when he could have carried both. He locked them in the guard room and dropped the portcullis, then shut the gates behind him to stop the dust devil in the courtyard from throwing more dirt in his eyes. Then he went straight up into the tower by means of an open door, because Zippy in death wasn’t any smarter than he’d been in life.
His knees cracked and he panted as he climbed the last few stairs to the next landing. How he would have done this in full armor, he didn’t know.
“I know that, whoever you are, you think you’re about to become a hero, but have some respect for that which the Mother gives all of us and turn back now.”
Her voice had changed. Rough from a long time shouting, and deeper than the little-girl squeaky whisper he remembered, even from when they were in their thirties. “River?”
She didn’t answer for so long that he cleared his throat and spat bitter ash to try again. That sick-sweet smell had crept up on him and was strong enough here to make his eyes water.
“Mad Dog? Mikkaelus? Is that you?”
He shook the rough iron handle of the thick-planked door, but it was locked. The wind was blowing through cracks in the walls and the stones of the stairs were loose in spots, but this had to be solid. “Who else would it be? King’s men?”
River snorted, and chain links slid against each other. “It’s too late, Mad Dog. Zapatarastan has already begun the spell that will drain all living things.”
Mad Dog rammed the door with a shoulder. The landing was small enough that he didn’t want to risk shoving himself backwards off it. The door held. “What for?”
“He claims that he wishes to end death.”
He slammed it again. “Idiot.” The door didn’t budge.
He checked behind him, and turned so if things went south he’d have the best chance of not falling down the open, railless stairwell. Who the fuck builds open stairwells? Idiot mages, that’s who. He glared at the door and kicked it before he could think about it too hard.
The door flew open and a girl whimpered. She was young, hanging by her wrists in chains on the wall with her eyes rolled back in her head and a gag in her mouth.
Beside her stood a curvy woman with curls of silver hair just past the shoulders of her dingy white robe. She held a cup next to the girl’s neck to catch a small rivulet of blood. He didn’t recognize her for a second, but then the corner of her pale mouth curled, and he did.
She raised her other hand; it had one of those damn snake-bladed knives in it. It flashed.
Then everything went dark.
He woke in the dark with his wrists in chains and the dead girl crumpled on the floor beside him. A candle shone from the other side of the room. River scratched away with a quill pen. He remembered her writing poetry. The dead girl’s face flickered orange from the flame. There were a couple-three other girls in a pile under her. It didn’t smell as bad as before, which meant he’d been smelling it so long he couldn’t smell it anymore. He thought of Bess laying on that pile. He thought of Jassa, with booze and death on her lips. The wind had picked up again. He shook but not from the chill.
“You had Zapatarastan’s amulet,” River said, “So Raven must have made it to you.”
The candlelight made her face look innocent and unlined. Young again.
He pulled steady and hard on the chains. They shifted in the wall but she clucked her tongue and waggled a finger. Then pain hit him and he just about passed out.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
“Mmmm,” she said, like they were reminiscing. “In the larger scope of things, from a Goddess’s perspective, you might say, I didn’t so much change as realize that what I believed and what I needed weren’t the same thing. When I heal life—I am drained. My spirit is burned up in the fires of the living. When I heal death, I am replenished.”
“Huh,” he said.
She wiped the pen on a spattered cloth and set it aside, then blew on the page. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you? I believed in life, Mikkaelus. I believed in it so fervently that it killed me. A friend of mine—whom I had hoped to convince of the error of his ways—brought me back.”
“It was for but a moment.” She stood, brushing the folds of her robes smooth and running her hands over her hips. “As you can see, it did me little harm. To make a long story short, he convinced me instead, and then was murdered for it by the King’s men. One thing led to another, and here I am. Here we are.” He couldn’t see her face, only her candlelit hair. But she sounded like she was smiling.
His nose was starting to run from the stink he couldn’t smell anymore. “What do you want?”
“You’re going to die. It’s just a question of how long we let you lie there before we bring you back. It all depends on you.”
“Yeah? So tell me what you want.”
Jassa would have beaten the shit out of him. She’d had an ear for his insults.
“I want you to tell me how to use the amulet.”
Mad Dog snorted. Of all the damn things.
“Raven died for that amulet.”
His throat hurt. “She died too fast to tell me. If she even knew.”
River came closer and he kept himself slack. His fighting teeth were on the desk behind her, with the dull chain over them. Shit. What did he know about that damn amulet? Anything he could lead her along with?
River pulled the knife out of a hidden slit in the robe, held it in front of her face for a quick prayer, and pointed it at the girl on top of the pile. The girl moaned. Her joints cracked and tore.
All of a sudden it came to him. “You wanted him back. Except he was too far gone by the time you knew how to do it. Not Zippy. That friend of yours.”
“Of course, not Zippy.” Her voice changed back. “He was a good man.”
Shit, who was he to say? Maybe he had been.
The girl left a black smear behind her on the pile of girls. That he could smell. He coughed, raw and bloody. She’d used a spell on him, same as Jassa.
“Wine.” It came out rough. “Please.”
The knife was next to his throat now. The dead girl had walked into the wall and was trying to keep going. What that was supposed to prove he didn’t know.
The knife brushed him, and a thin stream ran down his neck. River touched her tongue to the blade as the cup pressed into his throat. “You bastard. I can taste my own spirit.”
“You healed us enough, over the years. I suppose you got every right to want it back.”
She was so close to him that he should have felt the heat of her body. She smelled like too much perfume.
He should have wanted her when her hair brushed across his face. He’d thought about it often enough, over the years. He wasn’t that old.
But he didn’t.
He slammed his head into the bridge of her nose, and she did what they all do. Her head snapped back. It threw her off balance and she stepped away from him. He stepped forward, leaned into it. His arms were coming out of their sockets…almost. His chest felt like it was tearing, like a shirt popping buttons.
The mortar gave and the chains ripped out of the shoddy mortar of the stone wall.
The chains snapped forward. It didn’t take hardly any time at all until River’s head was off, rolling bloodless on the floor till it hit the dead girl’s feet.
He was sore but he took the amulet and his teeth but threw the blade out the window, watching it spin until it hit a rock. It shattered and the pieces echoed dully.
Jassa would have sneered at that blade. And at the woman who carried it. That had to be enough, against all the memories.
He couldn’t find his other weapons but he took the chains and put the dead girl down.
He had to stop about every twenty steps and put down his chains.
Then every ten.
At the top of the stairs the wind blew free and cold and clear. Each breath pushed back the air for a second before being snatched away. The bite of snow in the air was early for the season but they needed whatever moisture they could get. The door was open. The hinges had been ripped out of the mortar. It was a better door than the place deserved. If there had been one good man working on the castle it had been the man who’d made the doors, probably an old man who had to work cheap but couldn’t make his hands do cheap work, not even for an idiot evil mage.
The door had a hollow tin grotesque tacked onto it, a skull in the middle of a swirling burst of magic. It rattled loose on one thin nail.
The walls were open and he could see stars and thin white clouds. The moon must be up. A shadow moved and he saw Zippy against the busted stonework. Mad Dog wanted to shout at him to get away from the edge before it crumbled. A milky orb the size of his circled arms sat in the middle of the roof, floating about an inch off the ground. Black smoke fell off it, onto the stones, and spread over the roof until it found a low spot in the busted crenellations and fell downwards.
Zippy looked like he was wearing curtains. There were too many tassels on him for it to have been a robe. He looked like the corpse of a skinny kid who’d wrecked himself and been put back together with nails and waxed string. Part of his jaw was missing and he was trying to say something.
Mad Dog took the chains by one end. They weren’t that heavy but it felt like all he could do to drag them now. He’d put the amulet on, for all the good it would do him.
Zippy raised his hand. Mad Dog grit his teeth against the pain and bit his tongue.
Nothing. Just a greeting.
“I knew you’d come,” Zippy whispered from beside his ear, like he was a ghost looking at his own corpse.
“You know why I’m here then.”
“To kill me?” When Mad Dog just kept coming, Zippy’s corpse groaned out a cold word.
Sounded like the word was “Good.”
Mad Dog got in close. Zippy’d been in the ground so long the rotted parts of him smelled like good, rich dirt. He dropped one chain, then wrapped the other around Zippy’s unresisting neck. He lifted one foot but it seemed rude to kick him down. He cleared his throat, then crossed the ends of the chain in his hands and made one swift, clean jerk.
After he got his wind back, he looked over the edge of the stonework, careful to keep his weight back from the edge. Black smoke filled the valley and was starting to run out the far end. The bottom of Castle Ratigan was covered in smoke. It billowed up the walls then fell back. He got the feeling it was looking for him. The smoke on the roof was pooling over his boots and he stepped back.
Shouldn’t have killed Zippy so quick.
The amulet didn’t look any better in the moonlight. Part of him wanted to jump over the loose rock and find out what would happen but he was pretty sure it would be a bad idea. What he wanted was a good life and some damn peace and quiet afterwards. Not this.
Part of him wanted to throw the orb off the tower but he was pretty sure it would be a bad idea too. He hefted a good-sized stone off the wall and threw it at the orb. The stone busted up, throwing a chip into his shin. He cursed. The orb bobbed, then steadied again. If he’d had his ax he might have done some good. It was a damn good ax. He’d have gone looking for it if he didn’t know that River had put it somewhere he couldn’t get to. Down some shitter probably.
They were all fucked. He’d killed or lost or thrown away everything that might have done him some good.
He rolled the head back in place with his boot and straightened the kid out, then went through his pockets. No weapons, no magic doodads, nothing of use. But in a wallet around his neck he had the sketch, the one he’d thought burnt at the inn in…Darton. The edges were black but he could still make everybody out.
Four kids who couldn’t stand each other, each one trying to upstage the others. Zippy’d bought the amulet, Mad Dog had drunk most of it then bullied the scribe into doing the sketch with the rest. Jassa bought that knife, the best on the merchant’s tray. She’d replaced it bit by bit but always insisted it was the same knife. River had given every cent to a couple of con men near a temple, and Jassa’d stolen it back and told her she’d got it spreading her legs just to piss her off.
Those four kids. It was all right. They were good memories. He could even forgive River. Knowing she hadn’t really meant anything good by it helped. Getting revenge against the world for taking away someone you loved, that he understood. But he didn’t have that much hate in him, not anymore.
If he died here he’d done everything he’d meant to do, although another whisky would be nice.
“What the hell am I going to do, Zippy?”
The kid’s voice whispered in his ear. Not like before. Not like a ghost.
Just a memory.
He held the amulet out and said the words. His voice came out high and thin and nasal. He couldn’t imagine the words any other way. The wind raised up and bit into his face, and good clean lightning shot from the cheap purple glass.
The orb turned bright as the bolt writhed over it but he kept his eyes on it. It was hard to tell what it would do. Or whether it would be enough.
He could smell the hair burning on the backs of his hands. The amulet was cracking up in his hand, pieces of glass melting and falling off. Now it smelled like meat. He was going to drop it in a second no matter what he did, so he threw it toward the orb as hard as he could.
The amulet bounced off and got lost in white fire. Now he did cover his eyes with his good hand. There was nowhere to hide up here and he didn’t want to die with a lot of stone on top of him, so he stayed put but turned away in case that would help.
His hand hurt like hell.
The treetops shone white. His back felt like it was on fire.
He decided the last thing he wanted to be thinking about was Jassa on top of him, her sweat shining off her in the candlelight, her taste on his lips, so that’s what he thought about.
The orb blew up behind him, and he flew.
He woke up with some sweet little barmaid trying to feed him herb tea, talking to him like he was a wee babe with shit in its pants, so he groaned without opening his eyes and grabbed her tit. She shrieked, tossed a barely-warm bowl of tea at his head, and went running.
The stories got big quick. Mothers were already telling stories about how Zapatarastan the Evil One had killed ten thousand people, and how the glorious hero Mikkaelus had saved them all, riding up in shining armor with big spear and all that. He didn’t care. They weren’t really talking about him.
Or Zippy, either.
He went home. Sweet little Bess had grown a backbone, watching the place without him. He gave it to her, long as she kept him a warm corner by the fire and a bottle of the stuff that Jassa liked under the bar.
Bess was all right. If he and Jassa had had a kid together, it would have been nothing like her. But eventually her kids called him Grandpa anyway.
It was a good life.
Mad Dog Saves the Damn Day
originally published in Child of Words May 2014
DeAnna Knippling loved a lot of cheesy fantasy in her younger years. Now she’s not old, but she’s not exactly young, either, and she wants to know what happened to all those fighters and mages and thieves, especially the ones she hung out with back in the day. If you knew her—her warrior maiden name was Czenka (you know, the lunatic witch with the melee crossbow)— contact her via MageBook at Czenka.Pereska or at Wonderland Press.