*This story was first published in the anthology “It’s a Living” in 2019. It has not been published anywhere else since.*
The inn was tidy once more.
The landlord wiped his brow and puffed out a tired breath. The damp cloth he held brushed across his face.
He looked around the inn, marvelling at its orderly, clean state. He smiled, and drank in the silence. Was it only a few short hours ago that he had thrown the Colyn lad out?
“Arrin, come to bed, it’ll be dawn soon.”
He turned and faced his wife. She stood in the doorway to the kitchen, dressed in her silver silk nightgown.
“What are you grinning at?” she laughed.
“What I’m grinning at, Lysa,” Arrin said, leaping over the bar and embracing her, “is that after all these years, I’m still madly in love with you!”
She giggled wildly, and hugged him back.
“How are you still so lithe, you old man?” Lysa mocked.
Arrin’s mouth dropped, feigning insult. “With all the running around and throwing out drunks I have to do, you should expect me to be this agile.”
She slapped his chest, suppressing a giggle.
“Come on now, let’s go to bed. You’ll only get a couple hours of sleep before Dennor and his merry band of metal idiots come banging on the door, wanting their second breakfast.”
She pulled him through the door, and Arrin kicked it closed behind him.
Arrin slid another ale across the bar towards the three fishermen, who sat huddled at the end. Gossiping no doubt. They were worse than the women of the town. But they always paid their way, so he let them chatter their nonsense.
He picked up a dirty tankard off the bar and started to wipe it clean, scanning around the room. The inn was quiet today, as he had expected. There were no events in the town–not until the annual Might & Monsters meet up in two weeks time, anyway–no wars except the occasional land feuds between Lords, and no ancient evils rising up to smother the world in eternal darkness.
Captain Dennor sat at his usual round table with two eager boys, barely a chin hair between them, listening intently to, no doubt, his story of how he had blinded One-Eyed Jack. Arrin could recite the tale word for word himself.
A man in a travel stained cloak sat on his own eating a plate of meat & cheese, drinking a cup of ale. Judging by his pale skin, he was Berganzenian. He had rented a room for the night, and was likely leaving in the morning. He had been polite when he asked about the room, and had thanked Lysa multiple times when she brought him the food and drink. He had seemed like a nice fellow.
“One-Eyed Jack!” someone exclaimed from the group of fishermen. Arrin’s eyes snapped straight to Dennor. He mustn’t have heard, as he was still waving his arms.
Picking up another tankard–clean or not he didn’t care–he siddled down the bar towards the fishermen.
“Gods, man,” Smyf, the tallest of the bunch, said “don’t say ‘is name so loudly! You know ‘ow much Dennor hates his guts.”
“Uh, uh, I’m sorry.” Gorn replied, looking down in shame.
The other two fishermen looked up, only now noticing Arrin’s presence.
“I couldn’t help but overhear,” Arrin said, glancing at Gorn, “do you mind if I join you?” He rubbed at the outside of the tankard with his damp cloth.
Smyf gestured as if to say yes. “We were talking about, well, you ‘eard. He and his crew have been spotted in the south reaches of Dartther, raiding the smaller villages in the hold. Duke Elrand sent a force to find and deal with ‘em, but after weeks and nuffin’ back, the Duke sent another load of soldiers after him. All they found were a big pile of burnt bodies and the captain’s head on a spike.
“Now, people are saying that they have seen ‘em coming west, towards the Capital. And we all know what’s between there and the Capital.”
“It’s here.” Tim said, grinning stupidly at Arrin, his buck teeth on full, proud display.
Arrin glared at Tim. “I know.” Tim just blinked.
He turned to back Smyf. “Who did you hear all this from?” He rubbed another spot off the lip of the tankard.
“Well, I ‘eard it from another fisherman, who said he ‘eard it from Byron, the lumberjack. Byron ‘eard it from Metrial, and that bloke knows every-fink.”
Arrin shoved the cloth into his apron and rubbed his eyes. “Smyf, I like you, but you can be completely stupid sometimes, can’t you.”
“It’s true,” Tim shouted.
“If it originally came from that old doddering wizard, then it was a lie to begin with. I know he’s just returned from travelling but…”
“He’s just come back from travelling,” Smyf interrupted excitedly, “and guess where he’s been? Dartther, thats where!”
“The wizard has a bad habit of hearing a small tidbit of information and blowing it up to become an epic tale. I will wait until another traveller passes through before I start to worry. Besides, Jack wouldn’t stop here, not with Dennor so close.” He pulled the cloth back out of his apron and carried on polishing.
Gorn pointed a chubby finger madly towards the other end of the room, where the cloaked man–who had finished his meal–was sat reading a large book. “Uh, what about, uh, him, huh?”
Smyf clicked his fingers and scurried away before Arrin could protest. Arrin watched as Smyf approached the cloaked man. Arrin shined the handle of the tankard in a rhythmic up and down motion.
There was a short exchange he could not hear. He’s probably told Smyf to piss off.
Smyf turned, his face red, and walked back over. He stood silent in front of them.
“Well,” Arrin prompted.
“He told me to piss off.”
Arinn stifled a laugh. The others looked disappointed. Arrin couldn’t help but like the cloaked man a little bit more.
Smyf took a long pull of his ale. “Even if these rumours aren’t true, we know who won’t be happy to ‘ear ‘em.”
“Poor Colyn,” Tim said.
“They say that Jack ‘ad his way wiv his wife, Ella, when she was out pickin’ flowers in the Meadow. They say it was after he lost his eye an’ all.”
“Yeah, then, uh, he slit her throat after he, uh, was done,” Gorn chimed in.
“They say she was all battered too, wiv her face all smashed in and…”
Arrin slammed down the tankard. The fisherman flinched.
“That’s enough,” Arrin said irritably, “his wife died brutally at the hands of a vicious killer. Colyn was too young to be married, let alone have his wife ripped from him in that fashion. He’s not been the same since. I will not have that horrible event turned into barroom gossip.”
Gorn and Tim stared down at the floor.
Smyf held his hands up in apology. “Well, boys, let’s drink up, s’pose it’s gettin’ late and people are gettin’ cranky, is all.” Arrin narrowed his eyes at him.
Gorn and Tim guzzled the remainder of their ales, and reached into their pockets, pulling out a few bronze bits. All three of the fishermen placed their coins in a neat pile on the bar. Arrin nodded, and they turned to leave.
“What was that you said earlier about old One-Eye?”
Smyf yelped, and Gorn and Tim stopped short. Captain Dennor had appeared just behind them as they turned to leave. Even Arrin was surprised. How did this hulking beast of a man still manage to sneak up on people?
“Well, which one of you is going to spill, hm?” Dennor leaned down, coming face to face with Gorn, their noses nearly touching.
“Uh, well, uh, Captain,” Gorn stammered.
“Uh, uh, uh,” Dennor mocked. Gorn froze, and neither Smyf or Tim seemed to want to talk. “Come on lad, spit it out!”
“They were talking about rumours of One-Eyed Jack and his gang moving west towards the Capital,” Arrin said “which would mean they would have to pass through the towns limits to get there. If they took the most direct route anyway.”
“Didn’t ask you now, did I? Well, lads, I can tell you now, for a fact, that Jack will not be coming anywhere near this town or House Tenys Manor, not whilst I draw breath. That rotten bastard fears me above all else. Mark my words, if he comes anywhere near here, I’ll catch him and I’ll make him squeal about who let him out that night.
“But, all information, even just idiot hearsay, is worth something.
“Tefer,” Dennor bellowed, “did you hear what I just said?”
One of the boys, a new recruit to the House Guard, sprang up from his chair. “Absolutely,” he said, nodding frantically.
“Good, get the message to all the surrounding hamlets. They’ll thank me later, that’s if Jack even is coming this way.” The recruit immediately ran out of the inn and into the night. Dennor glowered down at the fishermen, turned on his heel, and stomped back over to his table, collecting his sword he’d left leaning against a leg.
“I’ll pay you for this meal tomorrow, innkeep, when I come for my breakfast,” Dennor said without looking at Arrin, before bashing through the door outside. The door flung back and hit the other boy that was with Dennor. He squeaked in pain, then jogged out after his Captain.
Smyf came out of his terrified reverie. “Fank you Arrin, see you tomorrow.”
As they left, Arrin let out a sigh. Jack can’t be coming this way again, surely not? He picked up another tankard and began polishing.
Didathrall, the name humans had given him centuries ago, closed the book he had been pretending to read. So Metrial was here then? That slippery wizard had managed to hide his trail for years, somehow throwing his scent off every time Didathrall was close. The wizard had also changed bodies over the past 300 years. Apparently he now opted for a squat fat meat suit to inhabit.
But he wouldn’t be able to approach Metrial as he was now, the wizard was far too dangerous. The sight of a Berganzen man this far west would alarm the wizard, and he would flee again. He would need to disguise himself further, take him by surprise. He would have to swap bodies, find another person to invade. Preferably with a local. No doubt the innkeep expected him to be gone by the morning anyway.
Well, the wizard had now finally slipped up.
And he would pay for his crimes.
Colyn was out again.
This was the third time in a row that he was the first out. Why, after so long, could he never get past third place? He had reached second years ago, but everyone agreed that he must have cheated, being so bad at the game he was, so it was stricken from their collective minds. Except Colyn’s, of course.
They only ever played K’la when Metrial was around–he was the only one with the cards after all–but Colyn had read a few books about the game. Yet he still couldn’t get very far.
“Ah ha,” Metrial laughed, “my Queen of Vorten trumps your Dark Knight Astoria, Byron, leaving you with no more Gemhearts to defend you with. You, good sir, are officially out!”
Byron threw his hand of cards onto the table. “Gods,” he thundered, “how did you manage that? The Queen of Vorten can’t just do that?!”
“With a little added power from the Cauldron of Ielia, and the Queens ability to change Dark power into Light, she easily smashes your castle to pieces.” Metrial laughed again.
Byron growled, slamming his ham like fists against the table, rattling the cards.
Colyn smiled. Even though he wasn’t very good at it, and lost a lot of gold to this, he welcomed these card games, even though they weren’t strictly legal. That added a little thrill to the game. It broke up the monotony of fishing life.
And it let him forget about Ella for a time.
“Now it just leaves you and me, newcomer,” Metrial said. “Tell me, before we continue, what caused you to change your stance on, shall I say, our secret games? You were steadfast against them.”
“I’ve just changed me mind ‘aven’t I,” Smyf said, “Colyn told me about it all one night. It seemed a bit interesting once I finked about it.” Colyn raised an eyebrow.
“I finks you were a bit, well, blind drunk mate.” Smyf added.
“Where did you learn to read the cards, anyway?” Colyn asked.
“Well, it’s just…”
“It’s good to have you here though,”Byron interrupted, smacking Smyf on the back and knocking the air out of him.
Metrial cleared his throat. “Shall we proceed?”
Smyf flicked through his hand, looking puzzled. “Um, wait, give me a minute please, boys, um, AH-HA! That’s the one. I use Pot o’ Gold.”
He slapped a card, an overflowing pot of gold painted on the front, down in the centre of the table.
Metrial rubbed his chin. “Interesting move. Fate is out of your carp-stinking hands now though, my good sir. Let the dice decide the next turn of events.”
The wizard withdrew three 20 sided dice from one of his many pockets. Colyn looked over the wizards strange robes. I wonder what else he keeps in there?
The wizards shook the dice in his hands.
Colyn leaned forward.
The dice hit the table with a clunk. They rolled, bounced, flipped.
Finally, they landed.
7. 7. 7.
Smyf leapt up from his chair, whooping with joy. Metrial’s face fell.
Colyn, letting out the breath he hadn’t realised he had been holding, felt his mouth drop. Smyf had won. The stupidest man in the room had just beaten a thousand year old wizard. Metrial rarely lost.
Byron clapped his hands together, laughing heartily. “He showed you, you daft old wizard.” he yelled.
Metrial scowled. “Beginners luck.” He folded his arms, looking to Colyn like a child having a tantrum.
After much hooting, Smyf sat back down. “Wow, that’s amazing, ‘ow often do you boys play this? Another go, eh?!”
The wizard said nothing.
“We had better call it a night, Smyf,” Colyn said, “it’s probably very late. We’ll talk about it on the boats tomorrow, how does that sound?”
Smyf nodded excitedly. “Sure, that’s swell, mate. Goodnight then boys, see ya tomorrow.” He got up and walked to the stairs.
“Smyf,” Byron called,”want your winnings?” He gestured his meaty finger toward the pile of coins on the table.
Smyf’s eyes lit up, and Colyn couldn’t help but smile again.
“A Reinback Boar?! They cannot be serious, Arrin!” Lysa screamed, wide-eyed. She clutched the letter from The Noble Group of Nobles in a white knuckled fist.
Arrin stared out of the kitchen window. He watched Colyn, shoulders slumped, looking pale, making his way down to the lake. The boy’s hungover again.
“Are you even listening?” Lysa continued frantically, “They want a bloody Reinback Boar! Even for them, that’s a lot to ask for.”
“We’ve done it before,” Arrin sighed. “We’ll have to ask the Butcher Brothers again.”
“Oh you damn well know that wasn’t a Reinback that they brought us that time. It’s just lucky that the nobles were all too drunk to realise. Where will we get the money for that?”
“We’ll ask Duke Londor for an advance. He’s always willing to help when it comes to Might & Monsters.”
Lysa threw her arms up in the air. “Oh and how are we meant to get the gold from him in time?! It’s 10 days until that stupid party. It’ll take 8 days to catch a bloody boar! Then we’ve got to cook it. They want it slow cooked too. That’ll be 2 days. We don’t have the time or money for this Arrin, we’re stuck, they’re gonna hate… “
“Enough!” Arrin snapped, his face growing hot, his outburst instantly regretted.
Lysa jumped, dropping the letter. He watched as tears welled up in her eyes. I never shout at my Lysa.
He opened his arms, and she fell in, hugging him tightly around the middle. He ran his fingers through her hair.
“I’m sorry, Arrin. Every year they want it to be more extravagant, more fabulous, more… everything. And every year it’s more stress. For the both of us.”
He hugged her tighter. He hated seeing her like this.
“I know,” he said, “but it’s necessary for us.”
He felt her nod against his chest.
“I’ll speak to the Butcher Brothers. Maybe I can sort something with them. They’ll understand. I’ll push for some of the tabs to be paid off too, Byron owes a few weeks worth of gold anyway.”
He felt her nod again. They stood for a while, locked in their embrace.
The door to the kitchen swung open. Mera, the daytime barmaid, poked her head round the corner.
“Hi, sorry, but there’s a man here looking for a room for the night. I would help, but, I’m not sure on prices. Sorry.” Sweet girl.
Lysa pulled away, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. “Tell him I’ll be with him in a moment.” She turned back to Arrin. “Thank you. I love you.”
“Love you too,” Arrin replied with a small smile. Lysa spun on her heel and walked out into the main hall.
Arrin sighed again. He hated doing this.
He moved to the far corner of the kitchen and crouched down. It was just as he had left it. A small square of loose board, tucked just underneath a cupboard, the wood grain going against all the others. With a cursory glance around, he pulled it up.
Sat beneath the board, a canvas bag overspilling with gold coins, shone dimly in the shadows.
How long had it been? 6 years? 7? Dirty money.
He reached in, pulling out a handful of coins. Just enough to pay for the boar, and a few more just in case.
Replacing the board, he stood, brushed off his knees, and went to find the Butcher Brothers.
Colyn stared in disbelief as Byron flipped the table, cards and coins flying in every direction.
“BY THE LOVE OF THE WINTER PRINCE’S PALE ARSE,” Byron screamed, a vein popping out in his neck, “HOW HAS THIS HAPPENED AGAIN?”
Smyf, oblivious to Byron’s unbridled rage, simply laughed his donkey laugh and scurried around the dark room on all fours collecting his winnings.
Byron began muttering obscenities to no one in particular and everyone all at once. Colyn had heard many swears in his young life, but these were truly special.
Colyn looked over to Metrial, who was still sat in his chair. Metrial was smirking. Unfortunately, Byron noticed this too.
“What are you laughing at, you fat fool of a wizard?” Byron growled.
“Well,” Metrial replied, “how many games have we all played together since Smyf has joined us? 7 times?” He paused as a chuckle escaped him. “He’s won every game. Every. Single. One.”
Metrial burst into roarous laughter, throwing his head back so violently his twisted cap fell off.
Colyn couldn’t help but laugh along too. The feeling made him feel good. A genuine hearty, belly laugh. The situation was ridiculous. Smyf, the stupidest man in all of town, who everyone agreed unanimously had become stupider in recent weeks, had consistently beat them all at K’la. 7 times. In a row.
Colyn flinched as Byron threw a chair, wood exploding as it hit the wall.
“You little cheating rat,” Byron yelled at Smyf.
Smyf replied with his familiar daft laugh, as he continued to shove the coins into his pockets.
The hatch to the basement room flung open, light pouring in. Everyone froze–except Byron, who still shook with anger– and collectively held their breaths. Colyn gripped his chair. No one ever comes in midway through our games.
The figure climbed down the first few steps, their dark boots dull in the dim candlelight of the basement. It was definitely a man, it had to be. A thought played in Colyn’s mind, a mantra of sorts. Please not Dennor, please not Dennor.
Halfway down, the figure stopped and closed the hatch behind them, but not before they retrieved an oil lantern.
The figure turned.
“You guys need to keep it quiet down here,” Arrin said, his face a mask.
Colyn let out a nervous breath, rubbing his clammy hands together.
“We are ever so sorry, Arrin, my fine sir,” Metrial said with a flamboyant flourish of his hands, his cuffs fluttering, “it seems that some of us have gotten a bit carried away.” He glanced at Byron, who drew back slightly.
“Sorry Arr, didn’t mean it.” Byron said without looking at the innkeep. Smyf, still on the floor collecting his winnings, let out a honk of laughter.
Arrin gazed around the room, stopping at Colyn for an extra moment. A chill ran through the fisherman. He saw a darkness behind those eyes, a burden. Is that remorse?
“Well,” Arrin said, straightening up, “I know you pay me for this room for your… special games. But you know the Duke’s stance on gambling. If I’m caught holding card games of any form in secret, it’s my neck on the line. Luckily for you, Dennor isn’t here. He’s ranging the outer fields. Word’s been heard of Jack and his band in the area, they say that…”
Colyn stopped listening. The room faded to black and silence. A pain stabbed through him. He saw his wife. His beautiful Ella. In his memory, she smiled at him. Her brown hair hung in waves down the front of her floral dress.
He blinked, and saw her again. Her eyes stared at nothing. Her skin was grey and cold to touch. The front of her dress, the same one he saw in his happiest memory of her, was stained crimson with her blood. The curved slash across her throat a mockery of her former smile. The things he did to her. To My Ella.
The room slowly came back to him. Metrial, his face uncomfortably close to Colyn’s, had his hand on the fisherman’s shoulder, ready to shake him again.
“Colyn,” the wizard repeated, “are you okay there old buddy?”
Colyn looked up and saw that everyone was looking back. Even Smyf had stopped collecting coins, although he remained on all fours.
Colyn stood up. “I need a drink.” He declared, before rushing up the stairs, pushing open the hatch, and into the blaze of the barrooms light.
A horde of villagers had gathered a few paces outside of the inn.
Arrin peered out of the main door’s little window. The crowd were facing away from the inn, towards the main road leading out of town. Arrin, rubbing his hands together and breathing a sigh of relief, walked out and made his way to the back of the growing rabble.
He could see Jym, the younger of the Butcher Brothers, stood slumped against his cart in the middle of the crowd. He was badly bruised and had a deep slash along his right eyebrow. It wasn’t bleeding, so far as Arrin could tell.
He heard people at the front of crowd hurling questions at the dazed young man.
“Did you see him?!” a fisherman asked.
“Did he give you that cut?” an old woman squaked.
“Did he have a big sword?” a dirty farm boy yelled.
Arrin pushed through the throng of people. “Give the lad some room,” he shouted, grabbing Jym by the arm. The butcher winced, but Arrin didn’t ease his grip. He pulled Jym through the crowd and back to the front door of the inn, shoving him through. Arrin quickly followed. He turned and saw the crowd had turned with them, shuffling their way after them.
“Shit,” Arrin muttered, and barred the door. He grabbed Jym roughly again and dragged him into the kitchen.
Jym shrugged free. “Hey, leave me alone Arrin, can’t you see I’m beat up enough as it is?”
Arrin spun around, nose to nose with the butcher. “Did you get the boar?”
Jym paused, finally throwing his hands up. “No I didn’t. Well, I did, but then One-Eye and his gang found me and took it off of me,” –Arrin’s face dropped at this– “what was I meant to do? Fight them for it?”
Arrin moved away from Jym. Why? Why now? Why is it now that Jack returns?
Arrin cried out, kicking a small crate and sending it hurtling across the room. He spun back to Jym. The lad was trembling.
“Tell me you got something at least?”
“Yes, I… I got a normal hog,” the young man stammered.
Arrin paused, thinking. “Yes, this will do,” he muttered. “Bring it to the cellar door out back, I’ll pay you then.”
Jym turned to go and hobbled out of the kitchen. Arrin thought he heard the young man sniff. Arrin gritted his teeth and ran a hand through his greying hair.
“Wait,” the innkeep called. Jym stopped, leaning against a chair. He didn’t look into Arrin’s eyes.
“I will pay you the same for this hog as I would have the boar,” Arrin said softly. “That was brave of you, to go out in the wilds whilst those bandits roam around. You put your life on the line.”
Jym looked up. He’s really hurting, Arrin thought. He could see the last scraps of a child hidden in those eyes.
“And I’m sorry,” Arrin added, “for losing my temper. Thank you again.”
Jym nodded, turned and made his way back into out to his cart, where the excited crowd still lay in wait.
“How’s the hog looking there Lysa?”
Arrin poked his head through the gap in the kitchen doorway, the heat hitting him full in the face. His wife, sweat dripping down her brow, turned the fat pig on its spit. The pig’s skin had finally started to brown.
Lysa shot him a glance that could have turned a gorgon to stone. He ducked out of the doorway, a smile creeping across his face.
The dinner for the evenings Might & Monsters event was shaping up well. He would have to tell them the truth about the meat though. Well, depending on how drunk they were when they got here.
He looked around the room. He and Lysa had transformed the bar area overnight. Where there used to be lots of single tables with a few chairs around them, there was now one huge table, spanning the length of the room. A massive white linen tablecloth, gifted by the Duke for this very event, covered the makeshift grand table. That won’t be white for much longer, Arrin thought. This only left a few normal tables in a dark corner of the room away from where the main hubbub would be.
Arrin walked out the main door and around to the side of the inn to the stables. Hands on hips, he scanned the space. He had enlisted the help of Smyf to clear it out. Smyf had obliged with a simple nod and had barely said a word whilst doing the work, merely shovelled out the muck with a constant vacant look on his face. He hadn’t even asked for payment afterwards, which was odd now that Arrin thought about it.
Arrin moved slowly to the back of the building, running his hand across each newly varnished stable-door. He came to the back door and pushed it open.
A figure stood on the other side.
Arrin jolted, his hands balling into fists. The figure was facing away from him.
“Sweet Summer Gods man,” Arrin said, his heart racing, “Smyf, what are you doing here?”
Smyf turned, slack jawed and slouching. The man looked dead, a walking corpse moving simply out of habit.
Arrin reached out. “Are you okay? You seem ill.”
Smyf didn’t reply. He just turned and pointed at the cellar door. That’s the way the K’la players went in. Out of sight, out of mind.
“You want to go in?” Arrin asked. He felt himself breathing deeply. The stink of the fisherman set his stomach turning. He even smelled of decay.
Smyf’s head bobbed up and down. I suppose that’s a yes.
“It’s unlocked. You’re early by the way. The others won’t be turning up for another hour yet.”
Again, Smyf said nothing. The vacant man made his way to the cellar door, threw it open and climbed down the steps into darkness. After a few moments, Arrin crept to the open doorway. He looked in, but the basement was still shrouded in shadow.
“Smyf,” Arrin called down, “I’m going to close the door now. It’s best if you light something down there.”
There was no reply, as Arrin had dreaded.
He closed the cellar door and rushed back to the warmth of the kitchen.
The first carriage had arrived.
Arrin stood at the entrance to the inn, his hands clasped behind his back.
A carriage, Arrin thought, where in the 6 circles of Inferno is that going to go? Arrin continued to smile.
The carriage, pulled by two pure white stallions, stopped in front of the inn. A servant, dressed in a pressed shirt, vest and trousers, all of which were black, stepped down from the box seat and rounded on the carriage door.
“Please welcome,” the servant called to everyone and no-one, “Lord Trent, Lord of the Grasslands and Head of the Might & Monsters committee. With him, Lady Trent, daughter of Sir Serros the Blonde.”
The servant pulled the door open and Arrin’s heart dropped into his throat. A man leapt from the carriage, a maroon bandana wrapped around his head covering one eye. He brandished a shining silver straight sword, waving it madly in the air.
“Arrin, my old friend, how be you,” Lord Trent asked, “you looked shocked! You should know I always go all out for these events.” He wiggled the sword in Arrin’s face as if proof of his efforts.
Arrin flinched at the sword. “Yes, my Lord. You do, um, look very much like him, the, uh, One-Eyed Bandit.”
“Come now, he’s not some prophesied Dark Lord. He’s just a man, albeit a very vicious and ruthless killer of a man.”
Arrin laughed nervously, “Of course, my lord. Shall we go?” He motioned towards the inn.
“Yes of course. Priscillda,” Trent called back to the carriage. There was a slight pause. “PRISCILLDA!”
Lady Priscillda Trent stumbled into the doorway of the carriage, a glass of wine sloshing in her hand. She was dressed in a lavish ball-gown, baby pink and purest white–stained with the wine–and frills all over. She donned a half mask in the guise of a wolf.
“Awoooo,” Lady Trent laughed, slipping down the steps. The servant rushed to her and managed to keep her upright. She pushed the man away, and continued onwards.
She reached the two men, leaning on Lord Trent to keep herself upright. Arrin couldn’t keep a snort of laughter from escaping him.
“Arry,” she said, reaching out with a slender gloved hand and fiddling with Arrin’s tie, “you look absolutely lovely, yes you do.” She slurred every word and howled again for good measure.
“Well, thank you, my Lady,” he stammered, “please, shall we go in?” Both the nobles ignored him, instead they sipped from the wine goblet Lady Trent held.
Eventually–with a bit of coaxing from their servant– they moved into the inn.
“Well I say,” Lord Trent exclaimed, a look of genuine shock on his face, “you’ve really decked the place out haven’t you?”
Arrin scanned the room too. It was the exact same as it was last year. “I suppose I have.”
Priscillda leaned into her husband again, whispering into his ear.
“My Lady,” Lord Trent announced, “is feeling thirsty. Your best wine Arrin.” He clapped his hands together twice.
“Of course, my Lord. Before, a quick question. When are the others scheduled to arrive? I have asked, but your letters came back without the answer.”
“Oh Arrin,” Lord Trent waved a hand dismissively, “they’ll turn up when they do. For now, let’s enjoy just us.”
Arrin nodded and scurried away to fetch the wine. It’s going to be a long night.
Metrial and Byron stood either side of Smyf, the dull man staring straight past them at the table with the K’la cards on.
Colyn frowned. Nobody had noticed him descend the stairs into the cellar under the inn.
Metrial eventually turned, and stumbled at the sight of the fisherman. Colyn jerked back too.
“My, my, Colyn, my boy, you frightened me,” the wizard exclaimed. “Why didn’t you say anything?” he added to Byron
The lumberjack just growled.
Colyn walked closer to the table. “What’s the matter with Smyf?”
“We don’t know boy,” Metrial said, “we turned up at the same and found it dark down here. Once we got the lamp lit, we found him like that.”
“What do you mean you found him like that?”
“He was sat in the dark like the crazy daft bastard he is.” Byron answered.
“I would also prefer not to use my magicks on him until I can find out more about why he’s so, well, empty. There was something, centuries ago, I can recall, but it can’t be that. Besides, we’ve tried shaking him but he hasn’t moved.”
At that, Smyf blinked. Byron and Metrial pulled back. “He’s not done that before,” Byron said.
Smyf lifted his hand sluggishly, as if it laboured him to move. He pointed a finger at the deck of cards.
Colyn reached forward. “Do you want to play cards?” he asked slowly, pronouncing every word clearly. Smyf’s head bobbed slightly.
“That’s a yes, yeah?” Colyn looked around at the others.
Metrial shrugged. “I guess so.”
A roar of laughter burst from Byron. Colyn and the wizard jumped again.
“You two cowards are scared of the stupid bugger aren’t you?” He laughed again, snatching the cards from Smyf’s weak grasp.
“Maybe now that all of his wits have gone from his thick skull, we’ll finally be able to beat the bastard.”
Most of the noble men had arrived dressed as Jack. Even Fat Lord Fabian had come costumed as a rotund version of the famous bandit. Two exceptions were Viscount Yeren, who came dressed as a peasant every year and Duke Palamandar, who came dressed as his wife, Duchess Palamandar. “She’s a real dragon, that bitch!” Duke Palamandar shouted regularly.
Arrin sighed, resting his head on his hands. He had barely done anything for the past few hours, except bringing new casks of wine, ale or any alcoholic drinks out for them. They served themselves and they entertained themselves, roleplaying various battles, hunts and famous monster slayings. Arrin had witnessed four Jacks fighting a dragon–who also looked like Jack–using blunted replicas of famous swords.
One of the nobles let out a cry of victory, raising his arms in triumph, others joining in the cheering. On the floor in front of him, another lord, dressed as a goat demon, lay still. Arrin saw the goat demon man had his eyes closed, seemingly oblivious to the noise around him. I think he’s passed out.
From the cheering crowd, Lord Trent broke off, stumbling his way to Arrin. He reached out and almost fell into the bar.
“Arrin, my good man,” Trent said, righting himself, “where is this boar then? Some of us are starting to get hungry, but I know you’re just finalising the surprise.”
Arrin sighed again. “Yes, my Lord, just finalising. I will go and check on the pig…boar, I mean, now.” He froze at his slip of speech.
Lord Trent did not notice, instead he slapped the bartop. “That’s what I like to hear! Jolly good, Arrin!” He smiled, swaying steadily. “Go on then, bring the boar out.”
Arrin nodded nervously, walking quickly to the kitchen. He pushed through the door and the heat hit him again. He raised his hand to shield his face.
The pig was still slowly rotating on the spit, its skin blackened from hours upon hours of slow roasting. Lysa’s face was damp with sweat and bright red, but Arrin couldn’t tell if her colouring was the heat or her fury.
“I heard what that uppity little man said,” Lysa snapped, throwing a damp kerchief at Arrin, “you haven’t told them that they’ve got an ordinary pig. That’s why you’ve had me out here since before dawn, cooking, no, BURNING this hunk of meat! That’s why you’ve let them drink so much, so they won’t be able to tell! You little…” she trailed off, slapping Arrin repeatedly on his chest.
He grabbed her wrists, shaking her. “Hey, no no no. We needed to twist the truth slightly. They don’t like being denied things, you know this as well as I. We need to keep them as happy as possible. We need this, Lysa, we need them. They just need a good time.”
Lysa looked up into her husband’s eyes, and deflated in defeat. You know I’m right, Arrin thought.
Arrin reached out and caressed her soft plump cheek. She sunk into his chest, exhausted from the long, hot hours.
“I love you, Lysa. And thank you, for everything.” Arrin took his wife in an embrace. “Now let’s bring this… boar, out to them.”
“By the love of the Winter Prince’s frosty farts, what is that bastard noise now?!” Byron yelled.
Colyn shrugged. A renewed round of cheering could be heard from upstairs in the inn. Shouts, hoots and other rowdy noises had been heard all evening, most coming from directly above them. Colyn thought he heard a woman scream “PIGGY!”.
“Are you serious that you both don’t know?” Metrial asked, raising an eyebrow. “It’s that special night where Arrin closes the inn and a few local lords come for a good knees-up. That’s why he let us bring our own drinks tonight.” He wiggled his half drunk bottle of wine at them.
“We bring our own drinks every night anyway you pillock.” Byron said.
“Yes, well, you know…” Metrial didn’t finish his sentence, instead taking a swig from his wine bottle. “Anyway, it’s your turn now Colyn.” The wizard motioned towards the card table with a frilly sleeved hand.
Colyn heard the scraping of chairs from above. He looked down at his hand of cards, his heart sinking. Only two Beehive Knights and a Morningstar of Sparks left. 3 pretty terrible cards, but if he used them correctly, he could scrape back a win. Maybe even win back his Wendigo of Wendermill card.
“I use…” Colyn paused, rethinking his strategy. His hands were clammy with nerves. “I use…”
“JUST PICK ALREADY YOU BUFFOON!” Byron roared.
He had to pick quickly. Thinking wasn’t working, so he went with his gut.
“Beehive knight to Smyf’s Travelling Curing Pixie.” He placed the card on the table gently. Byron and Metrial look towards Smyf. Colyn followed their gaze.
Smyf stared straight ahead, as he had all night. Were his eyes clouded over now? After a few seconds of silence–save the cheers from the upstairs pageantry–Smyf finally moved. He lifted his arm, his hand hanging limp at the wrist. In between two fingers was a card facing downwards. Smyf let the card fall from his grasp. It fluttered onto the tabletop
Colyn’s jaw dropped.
A Beer of Unholy Truths lay on the table, facing upwards.
Byron let out a roar of laughter, slapping his trunk like thigh with each booming burst. Metrial clapped his hands together flamboyantly.
“Well, well, well, Colyn, my poor boy,” Metrial giggled, “you really do have the worst luck out of anyone I’ve ever met.”
Colyn had lost again.
As Colyn was losing yet another game of K’la, Arrin was watching the nobles devour the pig–along with the plates of steak pies, roasted potatoes, and fresh steamed vegetables–with angst.
After a few huge mouthfuls, Lord Trent wiped his mouth. “This, Arrin, is something truly wonderful. I don’t know how you’ve done it, but you’ve managed to get this boar to taste a lot like bacon.”
Arrin sighed with relief, the weight lifting from his shoulders. “Well, thank you, my lord. The credit should be given to my wife. She was the one who slaved away in the…”
“Yes, yes, whatever,” Lord Trent interrupted, “say, could you bring us over another cask of that ruby ale that I’ve spotted. You know, the stuff behind the bar.”
Arrin nodded obediently and strode off towards the bar. As he got behind the bar and bent to pick up the cask, he heard the main entrance door open. He looked up.
In the doorway stood another man dressed in a maroon bandana covering one eye, a belt with knives and a large silver sword sheathed to the side around his waist. Another one dressed as the bandit. Flanking him were three men in rough leather jerkins, all of whom carried a sword or axe on their back.
They had ignored the sign on the door saying the inn was closed for a special event, so Arrin could only assume that they were late arrivals. Arrin smiled at them.
The three in the leather broke off from Jack lookalike, none smiled back and all walked into different parts of the barroom. The Jack-alike moved to the bar.
“Hello, my lord, or should I say, the infamous One-Eye.” Arrin said winking at the new arrival.
The man with the bandana smiled back, his one exposed eye looking slightly confused.
“Hi, innkeep. Four mugs of that ale you have behind you.” The man reached into a pocket and pulled out four gold coins, placing them neatly on the bartop. “Please, keep the change.” He winked back at Arrin, or so far as Arrin could tell, what with the man in front of him having one eye.
Arrin raised an eyebrow at the neat tower of coins in front of him. “My Lord, I’m not sure that you have been told properly. This night has already been paid for in full, you owe me nothing.” He pushed the coins back towards the bandana wearing man.
“Well,” the man responded, pushing the coins back “please accept them as a token of my, should we say, goodwill.”
Arrin looked at the man’s hands. They were blackened and dirty, mud and other stains under each nail. He looked up into his face, noticing for the first time the man’s unkempt beard and long, bedraggled hair. A number of small scars criss-crossed his face.
Arrin looked around at the cronies the man had come in with. He locked eyes with one of them, a huge bald man with a large dent in his forehead. The axe he had on his back had well-worn handles. The bald man smiled a grim, toothless smile.
“You will accept this coin won’t you.” The man in front of Arrin said, a statement rather than a question. Arrin’s head snapped back to the one-eyed man and looked into the lone eye. There’s a predator behind that eye.
“Winter Prince’s chilly balls, you look just that mad bandit bastard!” Lord Trent called out, laughing loudly along with a few other nobles from the table. “That’s one authentic costume, my good sir!”
That’s not a costume, Arrin thought, that’s the real deal.
It was One-Eyed Jack, and he had finally come to town.
“Do they cheer every blasted thing that happens up there?” Byron asked to nobody in particular. “Do they cheer whenever someone farts, or if they actually do something for themselves for once?!”
Colyn shrugged again, still suffering from the shock of having been beaten by a barely-there Smyf.
“That’s all you ever bloody do, boy, is shrug.” Byron growled, shoving Colyn’s shoulder. “Think of something else to do with your body instead.”
Colyn rubbed his shoulder, grimacing at the pain. Byron had never known his strength.
“Don’t look so down, Colyn, dear,” Metrial said, reaching over and patting Colyn on the opposite shoulder, “we all know that Smyf is a very talented card player. And a bloody lucky one to boot too! Now, whilst we are on the subject of cards, Smyf, it’s your turn again.”
Colyn looked round to Smyf. The limp man had become even more floppy, now looking almost boneless. His head lulled onto his chest, his arms hanging loose by his sides. His eyes remained wide open and staring. Colyn looked into those deep black pools, and saw nothing behind them.
“Metrial, I think you need to do something,” Colyn pleaded, “He’s been like it for weeks now. What if he’s back on the Elf Dust? He might be overdosing!”
Metrial waved a hand, his cuff somehow flapping wildly. “Calm down, my boy, it’s not Elf Dust. In all honesty, I have no idea why he’s like this.” Metrial got up from his chair and walked around the table to Smyf. He lifted up his multi-coloured patterned robe skirts and knelt down beside the floppy man.
Colyn watched as Metrial poked and prodded Smyf, lifting his head up and looking directly into his eyes.
A series of banging came from upstairs, followed by a chorus of cheers. Colyn heard Byron swear under his breath.
Metrial rose from Smyf’s side, placing a hand on his shoulder. He twirled his pointed moustache in between his fingers, lost in thought.
“I’m afraid, gentlemen,” Metrial said after a silence, “I can’t quite tell what is the matter with him. There is only one thing I’ve seen similar to this, but… there’s no way it can be that… can it?”
The wizard placed the hand he had rested on Smyf’s shoulder to Smyf’s forehead. He flattened his palm and crossed his two middle fingers. A faint light emanated from behind it. Colyn stared, entranced by the warmth of the light. The light seemed to drown out the noise of the nobles upstairs, the world growing dim around him. He felt the light searching, but for what Colyn would never know.
Metrial removed his hand, the light fading quickly. Colyn felt the world brighten back up. The noises of party returned to their rightful places. Colyn looked around to his friends. Byron was rocking slowly, still shaking the effects of the spell. Metrial looked tired, dark circles shadowing his eyes, his usual happiness gone. Smyf remained still.
“I’m sorry, men,” Metrial said, finally breaking the silence of the room. “There’s nothing there.”
Colyn raised an eyebrow in confusion. What does he mean nothing’s there?
“What do you mean nothing’s there, man,” Byron said, a slight tremble in his voice. “Stop speaking in riddles.”
“What I mean is simple. Smyf is gone. Or at least his soul is.”
Colyn gasped, his whole body tensing.
“The Smyf that you know,” the wizard continued, “is dead. This body in front of you is empty.”
Byron punched his thigh in frustration.
Colyn sighed. Smyf can’t be dead. Colyn lowered his head, running his hands through his hair.
“That is where you are wrong, wizard.”
Colyn froze. What was that voice? Had it come from…
“After all these years, these centuries, I have found you.” The voice was low, and thick with hatred.
Smyf’s body slowly rose, the head still hanging limp. Metrial retreated a few steps.
Smyf’s head snapped up, the neck making a grotesque popping sound.
The eyes were a pure, deep crimson. It stared directly at Metrial.
The nobles cheered as One-Eyed Jack began to chug another beer.
They seriously don’t know who he is, Arrin thought.
Jack finished his beer, flourishing the mug around. The nobles let out a shout of delight, hooting loudly and slapping Jack on his back.
“Oh, Jack,” Duke Palamandar flirted, make-up smeared down his face, “you’re so… manly aren’t you?”
Jack laughed. “You’re one strange looking lady.”
Palamander giggled, flicking a slender gloved hand at the bandit, before sauntering off to one of Jack’s cronies.
Arrin saw the crony take the duke by the waist, before spinning him around and starting a dance.
“So, innkeep,” Jack said, turning toward the bar, “what is going on here? It’s a real good party, and I’ve only just got here!”.
Arrin froze. His tongue felt fat in his mouth. “Um, well, it’s a party. For the nobility.” He paused, and Jack ushered him to go on. “It’s a roleplaying evening, Might & Monsters it’s called. They usually dress as monsters and heroes, but everyone has gone for a certain look this year, I suppose you could say.”
“They really have, haven’t they.” Jack replied, looking around the room at all his doppelgangers. The bandit smiled. Smug bastard.
“I think it’s funny too. Most of these lords have set bounties on my head, some so big I’m willing to hand myself in for the prize! Yet, I’m drinking with them, and none of them realise. It’s like they live in their own protected bubble. Nothing bad will happen to them, not with their bloodline.” Jack’s grin faded. He looked almost morose. “We can’t all be like them, can we?” He looked up into Arrin’s face, and Arrin saw a sadness behind that lone eye.
“No, sir, I suppose we can’t.”
Another cheer rose from the table. Arrin and Jack looked around in unison. It seemed that Fat Lord Fabian had caught a pork pie in his mouth, thrown by Lord Trent at the opposite end of the table.
Jack turned back to Arrin and frowned.
“Say,” Jack said after a brief pause, “don’t I know you?”
Arrin rubbed his hands together behind his back.
The door to the inn swung open again. Arrin looked over, glad for the distraction.
Captain Dennor walked in, his plate armour clanking loudly with every step. He was shadowed by his ever loyal two young followers.
The captain was merely a few paces before he stopped dead in his tracks. His mouth was ajar, his eyes wide with shock.
Arrin looked down at Jack, whose expression was much the same.
Slowly, the sounds of party silenced. The lords stopped drinking and moving, eager to see what would happen. Arrin could wait the rest of his life.
“Jack” Dennor said.
“Dennor” One-Eye replied.
The words hung in the air, gripping the room and choking it.
Everything remained still and silent for what felt like years.
That was until Jack and Dennor drew swords.
“Didathrall.” Metrial said, mouth agape in shock.
“Metrial,” the demon replied, it’s crimson eyes aglow.
Colyn could feel his legs starting to give. What in the nine kingdoms was going on? He fell into the chair behind him. Smyf can’t be this demon thing now, can he?
“Oh, how I’ve waited centuries for this moment.” Didathrall snarled. “I must admit, Met, that I didn’t think I would take control of this body in time. Ironic, don’t you think, that the one to set me free would be you?”
“I think you’re a bit of a shite demon, losing control of thick old Smyf’s carcass like that!” Byron shouted, balling up a meaty fist. He lunged at the demon.
Without looking, the demon flicked his hand toward Byron. The lumberjack was lifted off of his feet and flung into the stone wall behind him, hitting it with a sickening crunch. He collapsed to the floor, one arm bent awkwardly behind his back.
Colyn gasped, raising to move to Byron’s side. He saw the demon flick his wrist again and felt a weight fill his feet. He couldn’t move from the spot.
“Don’t you go anywhere.” Didathrall threatened.
Colyn could see panic in Metrial’s face. “Please,” the wizard pleaded, “leave my friends out of this.”
The demon erupted into a chorus of maniacal laughter. “You are not in a position to make demands, wizard, especially after what you did to my kin. They weren’t able to bargain with you before you slaughtered them.”
“Didathrall, your kin and you are demons. Vile creatures of the depths of the earth. You cause nothing but violence and evil on this land. Of course I am going to wipe you clean from this plane.”
The demon bared his teeth. “This is beside the point. Do we, as living creatures, not have the same opportunities as you, just because the way we live is different to yours?”
Now Metrial laughed, clutching his belly and throwing his head back. “Burning entire villages and making the townsfolk hang themselves from trees isn’t a way of life. It is pure chaos!”
As the wizard and the demon argued, Colyn glanced to the side towards Byron. The lumberjack was still led on the floor face down. He looked different, however. Had he moved since he last looked at him?
Colyn pulled against the magic that held him in place. He swung his arms, he shuffled his body, but each movement strained his legs. He couldn’t move anymore without toppling himself. After a while, he stopped, his whole body aching from the power of the spell.
“ENOUGH!” the demon shouted, sending Colyn’s heart racing, “I have heard enough of your lies and petty justifications. You are weak, wizard. You have spent too much time with humans, they have softened you. You will pay for your crimes, as my kin did for theirs.”
Didathrall clasped his hands together, his claw like nails digging into the skin. Colyn saw a flare of light begin to grow between the palms. He turned to Metrial, whose hands were also glowing. The room started to grow heavy, a heat filling the cellar at an alarming rate.
Colyn tried frantically to move, but the spell still held. I’m going to die here, he thought hysterically.
The heat began to burn his skin, his eyebrows singeing. The light flaring from the two magical beings hands became blinding. Colyn shielded his eyes, waiting for the blast of power to come.
A force hit Colyn full on the side. He flew backwards away from the heat, crashing into wooden beer barrels, the pain from his legs shooting up into his head. He felt dizzy, stars flashing in his vision.
In Colyn’s blurred sight, he saw Byron standing where he had just been. The massive man launched himself towards the demon, just as the demon released its blast of magic. Metrial released his a mere moment later. Both blasts of magic hit, a supernova of light exploding out.
In pure blinding whiteness of the magic, Colyn saw and heard nothing. He only wished he could be with his Ella.
Arrin scratched his hands furiously, blood drying under his nails.
Mostly everyone in the bar had drawn a weapon, expect some of the lords and ladies, who sat at their seats enraptured by the scene in front of them. The lords with their weapons drawn clearly thought it was a game, as they all had wide, drunken smiles on their faces.
“You bastard, Jack,” Dennor growled, spittle flying from his clenched teeth, “how dare you show your face in this town again. I will kill you tonight, I hope you know that.”
“You won’t be killing me, Captain,” One-Eyed Jack mocked. “You took my eye the last time we fought, but I’ve only gotten better since then. You, well, you look old and tired even. No wonder you have to have some young blood with you. I bet they make you feel important.” He pointed his sword at the two boys Dennor had brought with him.
“Ahha, yesh, Captain,” Lord Trent slurred, “you like young boys don’t you?!” He giggled and stumbled into a chair. Fat Lord Fabian found this hilarious, as he slapped the table and grunted a few times before becoming too out of breath to carry on.
Arrin scanned the room. Jack’s gang mates each had one of Dennor’s retinue facing off against them, their weapons touching. They each looked at their respective leaders, waiting for them to make the first move before they struck.
Movement to his left caught Arrin’s attention. He spun, finding his wife half through the doorway. She paused and looked around the barroom, her face draining of colour.
He gestured with his hand under the bar, but she wasn’t paying attention. He flicked his eyes back to the standoff, but nobody seemed to have noticed her.
Finally, she turned to her husband. He gestured again, telling her to move, move, move. She took a step backwards.
“Innkeep,” Jack called, Arrin’s heart leaping into his throat, “I may be half blind, but I know when someone has just walked into the room. If you move one more step, madam, I will kill you before the door closes.”
Lysa froze in place, her knuckles whitening as she gripped the door. I think she’s going to faint, Arrin thought. He hoped she wouldn’t.
“Jack, leave the woman out of this.” Dennor said calmly, “I will not let you threaten any more innocent people.”
Jack laughed. “You really are an old fool Dennor. Why don’t you do us all a favour and…”
A massive pillar of white fire burst out from under the Lord’s table, blasting upwards through the ceiling and out into the night sky. The flames engulfed the lords and ladies who sat at the table, their screams prematurely cut short. Fat Lord Fabian was obliterated, chunks of burnt flesh flying everywhere. Arrin saw Lady Priscillda vaporized, there then suddenly not.
The power and heat of the roaring, flaming tower sent a shockwave outwards, debris shooting in all directions. A chair cracked off the head of a lord, blood spraying in an arc. Most were blown backwards, crashing into pillars or other people. Jack and Dennor were knocked into the bar, both collapsing in front of it.
The energy of the explosion felt like a gut punch to Arrin, a punch that lifted him off the floor, sending him careening into the shelves of booze behind him.
He felt his head bounce off of a glass bottle, and the world turned dark and silent.
I’m alive, Colyn heard himself think. He couldn’t hear anything else though, just a ringing. It sounded like a scream.
He pushed himself up, looking around the ruined cellar. Wood and debris filled the room, most of it ablaze with white fire.
A smouldering pair of woodsmen’s boot lay smoking a few feet from Colyn’s own boots. He could see the remains of a foot jutting from one of them. A small mound of black ash lay where Metrial had made his last stand. There was no sign of the monster who had taken over Smyf’s body.
Colyn swallowed back tears. His last friends, his only friends, gone. First his Ella, now them. How much more torment did he deserve? Why me?
A section of ceiling crumbled above him, fiery wooden boards cascading down around him. They crashed down in a shower of embers and sparks. He pushed through the rubble blocking his path, his hands and skin burning, but the air was becoming thinner by the second. The thick smoke choked the room, scolding Colyn’s lungs. The poisonous stench made him retch.
Colyn started to feel dizzy. The cellar spun around him, his steps becoming laboured. He stumbled over a chair leg, and fell forward. He cracked his chin off a step.
A step. He looked up through the blur of his watery eyes and the black smoke. The cellar door was open, the one that led outside. He could smell the fresh air just out of reach. This must be where that demon went.
Painfully, he crawled up the steps, blood flowing down his chin from the newly opened gash. Each movement was agony, his legs screamed, his arms throbbed.
He put his hand out through the open door, touching cold stone. He pushed one last time and rolled out over the stone lip onto the dewey grass. The crisp, coolness of the outside filled him with joy. He was alive.
His skin breathed in the clean air. Colyn led in the grass behind the inn exhausted. He was content to stay there forever.
That was until someone came flying through the window in front of him.
Colyn shot up, his heart pounding again. A sword jutted from the back of the body. He crawled over to the body, turning it over the last of his strength.
The body was that of a man. The man was dressed like a bandit, a maroon bandana around one eye. The other stared blankly into the void. Colyn knew he had saw this outfit somewhere before.
Then he remembered he hadn’t seen this outfit, but he had heard of it. From every traveller’s tale, to the words of respected soldiers, this was a renowned outfit. That of One-Eyed Jack.
Colyn pulled back the banana, his hands shaking. The dead man had two eyes. He dropped the bandana on the ground.
Standing up, he turned towards the window where the man had come from. He moved a few paces forward until he could feel the heat again. Flames ran rampant throughout the barroom. A gaping fiery hole stood in the centre of the room, the cellar barely visible through the smoke that poured from it. A beam had cracked and collapsed, crushing a man wearing a dress under it.
There were others in the room still alive and moving. They all fought each other. Two young men pushed back against a bulky man with a greatsword, who kept them both at bay but was beginning to stumble.
Two men, also dressed as Jack, swung drunkenly at each other. One man tripped and fell through the hole in the floor into the darkness. The other threw his arms up in celebration, before a chandelier came cascading down, splitting his head in two.
Flashes of steel caught his eye. He moved closer to the broken window to get a better look at the scene.
A man in plate armour, one arm dangling broken and useless at his side, parried a furious sword combo from his attacker. The armoured man’s movement was forced, whilst the other man’s movements were quick and precise. Colyn gasped. That’s Dennor. The flames masked the captain’s assailant.
Dennor’s attacker feinted as his swing went wide. The attacker jabbed downwards, catching the Captain of the Guard through the unprotected top of his knee. Colyn saw Dennor cry out in pain and buckle to the ground.
The attacker barely paused a heartbeat. He wrenched the sword out of Dennor’s knee. He spun, swinging his sword in a backhanded slash. Dennor’s throat burst open, blood spraying like a grotesque fountain. Colyn watched as Dennor’s eyes widened, choking on his own blood. He collapsed face first, more blood pooling out around his head.
Dennor’s killer moved around his body and the flames concealed him no more.
Colyn took a step back. He felt dizzy again, his head swimming. He reached out for something, finding nothing and fell on his backside.
Jack. That’s him. I know it is.
The years of pain this man had caused. The years of doubt, regret and self-inflicted agony. The years that were ruined. The years lost. The years without his Ella.
Colyn knew he would feel something when he finally met One-Eyed Jack. He did not expect those feelings to be unbriddle, blood-curdling rage. A vengeance driven purely to see the person who had caused this not only killed, but torn apart, their very existence erased.
Colyn gripped the wet grass and began tearing chunks out. He didn’t even know he was doing it.
A new energy rose up within him. He spun around to the dead man behind him, gripped the hilt of the sword that was stuck through the corpse and pulled it out. The body jerked as the sword slid free.
He stood up, looking through the broken window one last time. He saw Jack look up, and in Colyn’s mind, they locked eyes.
Colyn smiled. I’m coming Ella.
The world came back into focus. It was covered in flames, blood and disturbed by smoke.
Arrin sat slumped against the spirits cabinet behind him. He moved and winced at the pain in the back of his head. He reached back and touched the soreness. It was wet with blood, his blood, the pain piercing his skull.
He glanced towards the kitchen. The doorway had collapsed, blocked any escape. Then he remembered. Lysa. He couldn’t see her, so he just had to hope she had got out. He moved back to his original position.
A shape under the bar caught his eye. He hadn’t looked at it for years, he never had a reason too. The double crossbow lay on its shelf, a thin layer of dust covering it. He reached forward, pulling it towards him. The weight felt alien in his hands. Both barrels were locked and loaded, as they were when he last picked it up.
He stood up, the crossbow raised and ready.
Shock hit him like a galloping horse. The inn was ruined, bodies strewn about the place, some burned, some crushed, some missing limbs.
Before he could take it in any more, a cacophony of shouts and clanging metal-on-metal caught his attention. He reeled around at the group of people fighting.
The two young guards, Dennor’s boys, parried blows from two bandits. One of the bandits, wielding a greatsword, was stumbling, a wound on the back of his leg keeping him from putting weight on it. The other bandit was One-Eyed Jack.
Greatsword Bandit stepped back as the young guard he was fighting pushed forwards. The bandit’s foot went through a weak part of the floorboard and he collapsed, his ankle snapping loudly. He didn’t get to scream, as the guard stabbed his sword through his throat.
Jack, on the other hand, had managed to push the other guard back against a pillar. Deflecting a parry, Jack swiped the guard’s sword from his hand, slashing across the guards belly. His innards spilled out and he fell to the floor.
The last guard had reached Jack, but Jack was ready. He blocked a downwards slash, punching the guard full in the stomach. The guard doubled over. Jack swung his sword down and the young man’s head parted from his body.
One-Eyed Jack stood straight, his breathing heavy. Cuts covering his body, bleeding freely. A chunk of wood was buried in his thigh. None of the wounds seemed to phase him. Is this man immortal?
Jack looked up at Arrin, a grin on his face. “Just to think, innkeep, that this town is where it all began.” He stalked towards the bar, swishing his sword with every step. Arrin aimed at Jack, his hands shaking, but Jack continued.
“This town was where people first heard my name. This is the town where my legend began. A lot can change in 7 years.” Pieces of the ceiling crumbled above him, falling around him, the flames licking his long coat and boots.
Arrin frantically scanned the room for an escape. If he ran through those flames, he could reach the main door. He would be burnt, but he would be alive.
“I recognised you the moment I walked in, innkeep. You look much older, I must say. Has the guilt taken its toll on you?” Jack reached the bar, gripping the edge. Arrin had backed as far as he could go. He still had the crossbow trained on Jack.
A sword blade burst through Jack’s stomach. Jack cried out, snapping his elbow back into the face of the person who had stabbed him. Jack’s attacker stumbled back, but Jack grabbed his shirt, pulling him back. The man struggled, flailing out to try and stop Jack pulling him forward.
“Colyn!” Arrin shouted, surprised by the young man’s sudden appearance.
Jack punched Colyn with his free hand, the young man dazed in Jack’s grip. Jack thrust himself forward, impaling Colyn on the sword he had jutting from his stomach. Colyn shrieked, his legs giving way. One-Eyed Jack pulled Colyn up, coming face to face with him. They gripped each other, neither wanting to fall again.
“Who are you, little man?” Jack growled at Colyn.
“You killed my wife,” Colyn muttered. His hand shot up, grabbing Jack’s face. “YOU KILLED MY ELLA, YOU MONSTER!”
Jack threw back his head, wrenching his face from Colyn’s grip and laughed. “Her? That woman from the field all those years ago? She was nothing to me. She’s not even one of my best kills.”
Colyn roared, trying to claw Jack’s face again, a primal attack. Jack punched Colyn again, nearly knocking him unconscious. The bandit pulled the fisherman up, nose to nose once more.
“I expect you believe this is all my fault, that I’m responsible for the murder of your bitch. Well, I mean, I am, but I couldn’t have done it without help,” Jack turned towards Arrin, his psychotic grin back, “could I now, Innkeep?”
Arrin felt his will leave him, his legs wobbling and his arms shaking.
“No, Jack, no, please.” Arrin pleaded. He felt a lump in his throat.
“Well, little man, this man,” he gestured towards Arrin, “this pillar of community, no doubt. He’s the one who set me free. All those years ago. He set me free, and what for? A bag of gold! Admittedly enough gold to last him most of a lifetime, but he set me free nonetheless. An already notorious thief and murderer. Set free. For gold!”
Jack laughed hysterically, grabbing Colyn’s shoulders and shaking him. The sword spitting them together jigged in their stomachs.
Colyn turned to Arrin, his mouth agape. Arrin looked into the young man’s eyes, full of pain and older beyond their years.
“Is… is that true, Arr?” Colyn stammered through a mouth full of blood.
Arrin looked down, a tear rolling down his cheek. He nodded.
He looked back into Colyn’s eyes and saw something new in them. Hatred.
“See, I told you, you stupid little man!” Jack yelled into Colyn’s face. Colyn was still staring at Arrin. “He’s the one responsible for letting this wild animal out of the cage. He’s the reason I got out. And he’s had to look at you for years!” Jack began to laugh again.
Arrin felt sick at the bandits laugh. He raised the crossbow and pulled the trigger.
The bolt flew straight into Jack’s remaining eye. The bandit’s laughter became a gurgle, as blood flowed into and out of his mouth. He pushed Colyn off the sword still stuck through him. Colyn grabbed the bar before he could fall. One-Eyed Jack stumbled back a few paces, then collapsed into a pile of burning debris.
Arrin and Colyn watched as Jack drew his last few ragged breaths. They listened to parts of the inn collapse around them, the flames scorching everything in their path. They were nearly trapped by fire and fallen debris.
Then Arrin saw out of the corner of his eye. Colyn was staring at him.
“Arrin…” Colyn muttered. “How…?” He was too weak to finish his sentence.
“I’m sorry, Colyn,” Arrin said after a time, “I had no choice. I had to save my family”
Colyn stared at him.
“I’m sorry…” Arrin continued, “but nobody can know.”
Arrin swung the crossbow around, pulling the trigger. The bolt shot out.
It struck Colyn in between the eyes. His head snapped back and he was thrown backwards, falling in front of the bar and out of Arrin’s vision.
Arrin dropped the double crossbow and it clattered on the floor.
He stood for a moment, watching the flames creep over the end of the bar. He turned and ran through the flames, straight for the main door.
He didn’t feel the fire burn his skin like he thought it would. In fact, he didn’t feel anything at all.
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