Mary had worked the bar for the last day and a half straight, and she didn’t know why. Every time she tried to think about it, her ability to reason evaded her. There was something wrong with her brain, something that prevented her from concentrating on the subject. It was almost like a barrier had been erected that she could not get past. It could be just that she did not sleep last night. But her weariness was far beyond what one might expect from merely skipping a night of sleep. She was tired in the deepest part of her brain. That same barrier, that presence in her mind, wore on her more than anything she had ever experienced. She felt like some kind of animal that was forced to work beyond exhaustion, unable to stop, driven to continue until she could go no longer. Yes, it was like a presence, and she knew that she would obey its unspoken bidding until she fell down dead.
The same was written on every face in the room, save one. They had all been there as long as she had, even throughout the night. She was accustomed to clearing out the last few remaining drunks at midnight before extinguishing the lamps. But the after-work crowd never dwindled last night. Still, she could not deny the impulse to close up at the normal time. So she had gone about the room blowing out the flames until they all sat waiting in the darkness. Nobody complained. Nobody said anything. They just sat patiently until sunrise, not a one of them sleeping.
Mary wiped the counter for the thousandth time, poured out her hundredth drink. The men at the table had been playing cards ceaselessly since they arrived sometime yesterday. Those at the bar repeated the same dirty jokes. Their laughter was no longer sincere, but harsh and mechanical. Everyone went about in a loop of the same, meaningless activities they had been going through so long now. Mary was aware of it, as she was sure everyone else was also. But they could not quite acknowledge it.
Why didn’t they go home? Why hadn’t their wives or sons come to look for them? No! The problem was too great to consider. She didn’t even want to think about it. They were there because they must be, and that was just fine with her. Nothing was unusual at all. Everything was just fine.
Drake pushed back the bat-wing doors as a man with many miles at his back. His only conscious thoughts were of a drink, and a room. He crossed the distance to the counter only vaguely aware of the stares the locals were giving him. It was just another town along the path, and he was an outsider wherever he went. The swords at his hip always attracted attention. It wasn’t unusual for a man to be armed, quite common in fact. But Drake’s weapons were outside of the ordinary category of short sword or bow, so he was used to strange looks.
Drake took stock of the room like a child saying his lessons. It was such a deeply ingrained habit that it was a reflex. But this time, he did it heedlessly. His harrier’s eyes counted how many people were present, marked what groups they had arranged themselves in, and picked out those who were alone. He heard, almost as though it was background noise, the insincere nature of the sounds in the room. His nose picked up the smell of stagnant air, thick with unnatural, almost bestial, hormones. But he didn’t think of it. All this information was filed away. It would be recalled momentarily, but he paid it no attention for the time. He was too weary.
The barmaid waited for him at the counter. He looked into her face and finally registered the alarm his senses were giving him. It was too late. She stood there passively, her expression haggard and slack. But Drake saw with his mind something that his eyes could not. The woman wore two faces. There was another face behind, overlaid, and underneath her own, a face that was all teeth and whites of the eyes, screaming out an unending, senseless howl. All the sights, smells, and sounds that he had unconsciously picked up on rushed into the forefront of his mind. His hand stole across his stomach and gripped a sword hilt. A whisper fell unbidden from his lips.
Carl Medea played cards and smoked until he ran out of rollies. After that, he played cards and rifled his pockets in search of something to roll his tobacco into. A scrap of paper, a letter, anything. If not for this grievance, Carl would have been content in The Tull. Of all the people there, he was the least agitated over their continued presence. If only he could find some devil-cursed papers!
Carl was a man who hardly cared for the question, “why?” Who had time for it? What did it matter why one man hated another? Or why the rain didn’t fall until the crops were dead? Or why he might sit through the dark of night just so he could resume a card game come morning? He liked cards, dammit! Carl did have a curiosity just as every man does, be it ever so small. But that repeated assertion of enjoying cards was all that was required to silence it.
No, the question of the bar’s continued patronage barely touched him. What did were those confounded rollies! He needed to roll a cigarette so bad he thought he might go nut-raving mad! His fingers dipped into his shirt pocket, where they ought to be. No. He thrust his hand down into the front pocket of his jeans. No. And then around to dig into the hip pocket where he never kept a thing. Where in the nine hells are they?
“Play yer card, Carl!” Jonsey snarled. Carl didn’t think about the dark rings under Jonesy’s eyes, or the menace that had built in his friend’s voice over time. He didn’t think of the game. He just tossed down a card and dipped his fingers into his shirt pocket again, the stitches of which were starting to tear away. Never before in his life had he needed to roll a cigarette, he only ever wanted to smoke them. But now the drive to roll was overwhelming. To have that rollie between his fingers, to sprinkle in that piss-poor quality leaf, to fold an end and wrap it over upon itself, to scrape his tongue along the side… Carl could barely contain himself.
It was time, and that’s all there was too it. Until he rolled, he just couldn’t go on to what came after. Don’t press too hard, damn your eyes! Since he had been a child, his grandfather’s voice had bellowed out this reminder in his mind every time he rolled. It was time. It was time to roll a cigarette. Carl was all out of sequence, and that was what really bothered him. He had done everything that led up to rolling, and the compulsion to take the next step was maddening. Roll! Roll! Rolling is what comes next!
And then the bat-wing doors of the bar swung in. Carl, his hand rooting around his pants pocket so earnestly that it threatened a blowout, froze in place. Everyone stopped. Here was something different. A man stepped into the room and slowly, steadily approached the bar. He wasn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t part of The Tull.
The interloper wore a loose, gray tunic with a long cowl hanging down his back. Two odd looking curved swords swung easily on his left hip, one shorter than the other, their scabbards wrapped in black fabric. His black hair was flecked with bright whites and stuck out at rebellious angles. Carl normally didn’t give a dead cat for strangers in town. They came and went and didn’t affect him in the least. Sure, even that other outsider in The Tull didn’t bother him. That one belonged in The Tull. But this new arrival had no part. Carl didn’t understand how the man could even be there.
He saw the stranger pause at the bar, saw him grab the hilt of his sword, heard the half spoken protest. It all made no sense. Nobody could continue the sequence with him there. Suddenly the other outsider stood, the one that Carl had never seen before but who somehow belonged unquestionably. His wide rice hat covered his face as the long sleeves of his coat covered his outstretched hands. He spoke in an urgent tone.
“Gyertek te szellemek! Felebredetek ful, es essetek!”
Carl didn’t know those words, the sounds were foreign to him. But something deep in the back part of his mind responded, something that was more with him that it was of him. All that former compulsion he felt fell away. He no longer cared about staying in sequence. He no longer cared who belonged in The Tull. Nobody belonged there. That unacknowledged sensation that had been with him for as long as he had been in The Tull was suddenly more than a sensation. He felt his own consciousness receding, pushed back as by stronger will. His mind fell into a kind of sleep while his body lurched forward.
Drake was a bare instant from taking off the barmaid’s head with the same stroke that drew out his sword. But he was loath to kill her, especially as the bar stood at least temporarily as a barrier between them. It might be possible that her death could be avoided. It was this mercy that saved him. For instead, he whirled around as he pulled forth his blade. He was just in time to slash a flying stool from the air.
Drake had just another bare instant to pick a path toward the door before they were upon him. Every person in the room, (fifteen, his mind told him), rushed at Drake. Thralls, he knew them to be, and with wild eyed murder on their faces. Two steps, and Drake ducked under a wide tossed fist, dragging his sword across and through the stomach of the man who swung it with a wet sound.
A plan! A plan! He needed a plan if he was going to survive. The only thing he could think of was getting out of the door. It was possible that the spell would be broken beyond the room. Or perhaps the thralls would be unable to follow him outside. Another chair sailed through the air. Drake squatted down and let it pass over his head. He poised his sword and then brought it up with him as he stood, a straight line that ran right into another thrall’s throat.
Behind him, Mary the barmaid climbed onto the counter. She jumped, her body stretched out in an arch, her hair flowing and twisting behind her. She laced her fingers together into a single fist and swung it down like a hammer at Drake’s head. But his ears had heard her steps on the counter and he reacted instinctively. He spun, left foot set like a root down in the earth, right foot reaching up high and thrust out like a branch. His heel arrested her flight in the exact middle of her body and she folded around it. She fell back to the floor, retching and without wind.
The initial trickle of assailants was done, and the bulk of the crowd was now upon him. Almost everyone carried something in their hands to stab and slash or bruise and break. They came from all sides, the demons in their heads distorting their faces into masks of inhuman hatred. They swarmed him, blocking his way to the door, forcing him to kill them in order to save his own life.
He parried a club and swiped the tip of his blade through the windpipe of an old man to his left. The thrall sunk to his knees, gripping his own neck and making a thick clucking sound. Drake’s sword continued it’s arc and passed through another’s arm at the elbow as it drove forward with a knife. Drake kept moving, for to be immobile was to die. This much his training had taught him. Retreating back, dashing to the side, always maneuvering so that his enemies were not at his back.
But his training could take him no further. For Drake was a killer of a specialized sort. He struck from the shadows and left no trace, outnumbered always, but never fighting in open combat. This was his first fight with a group. His only thought was still of the door and escape. But the floor was getting wet from the splashes of gore, and his foes pressed in at every side. As he cut diagonally through a man’s torso, he suffered a blow to the head above the ear. His feet slipped, and Drake fell. The thrall mob closed in.
Santo had taken pains to build up a name for himself as a professional. Of late, the caliber of his assignments had really improved. He was starting to get the recognition that he deserved. Of course, in between his more prominent jobs were dozens of petty kills, the kind that nobody ever heard about. It was unfortunate, but that was the reality of the work. Santo hoped that it would not be necessary to take many more of those types of targets. They really were beneath his abilities, and he did not want the filth of the masses to attach itself to his reputation.
And then he picked up this Drake Hanzo job. Santo thought that it must mark the end of those debasing family and business jobs. The man who killed Drake Hanzo would never need to kill a cheating husband or dishonest partner again. Army generals, crime lords, maybe even a king. These were the assignments that Santo craved. Anything that rang of a power struggle was much more engaging than simple vengeance. He would finally have work that would be worthy of his skill.
He had known immediately that the job would not be easy. He would have to seize upon Hanzo, The Dragon as he was sometimes called, when he was out of his element. He would have to stack the odds in his own favor. His employers, secretive as they were about themselves, gave Santo extremely good intel about Hanzo’s errand. So, Santo chose a village along the route that Hanzo was to take, and occupied the town’s only tavern. It was a place called The Tull. He cast the geist over the crowd and settled in to await his prey. His thralls were nothing but unskilled farmers, an aging barmaid, and a threadbare whore. But the geist would give them passion where they lacked prowess. Such a method was volatile, the demons were apt to break loose against their summoner if one was unskilled. But Santo had perfected the art.
Santo did not have long to wait. Hanzo walked in as the second day was drawing to a close. There was no mistaking the man, but Santo was surprised as how recklessly he entered the room. Santo let the fool walk all the way into the trap before he sprung it. Then he stood and called out for those spirits to come and claim the reward he had promised them. They were as willing as ever.
A few of his thrall minions fell in the initial rush. But now Hanzo had lost his footing and was on the ground. So soon, and the job was almost complete. Santo was disappointed, it had been too easy. It seemed that the reports of Hanzo’s skill were exaggerated. Santo watched as the tavern whore leaped upon Hanzo and grinned at the sardonic humor. But a blood-soaked sword protruded out of her back as she fell. Hanzo rolled her off of him and slid away before another could dive onto him. He drew his sword out of the whore and cut through another thrall’s ankle as it brandished a chair overhead.
Hanzo rolled away and came to a kneel, his sword finding it’s way in between a set of ribs. Santo had no doubt it pierced the thrall’s heart. It was time to involve himself personally. His interest in watching Hanzo fight was waning. It had gone on long enough.
Drake rose from his knee and pulled his sword from the man’s heart. His maneuvering had left him with his back and sides clear. All his enemies except one were clustered in front of him in a rough line. The man in the loose shirt and the rice hat was off to the side and along the wall. He was easily distinguished now as Drake’s true enemy. He was reaching into one wide sleeve, and Drake had an idea why.
There was a half second of reprieve, a pause in the assault when the very room seemed to gather itself for the final clash. Drake was wet with the hot blood he had spilled. His nerves were set, though he was still almost completely uninjured. His brain and body feasted on the adrenaline that flowed through him. The initial fog of battle and the weariness from the road lifted. Drake’s whole being focused, crystallized in the moment.
He saw everything. The thralls leaned in as they moved toward him. Hideous expressions contorted their faces, an effect wrought by the turmoil of demons living in men. There were two short swords among the group, one carried by a man up front, and another toward the back. The only women in The Tull had already been dispatched, one still heaving not far away. Drake would feel remorse over the dead woman later, but he felt little compunction over killing the remaining men. The heat of battle had so settled on his mind that he began to long for it.
The door stood behind his eight surviving opponents, but he no longer wanted it. He did not think of escape. He did not think at all, but the muscles and nerves of a predatory animal took over. All there was to do was kill, and he would do it well. The man at the wall, the eighth, the one who was still pulling something from his sleeve in slow motion, he would be the last to die here. All of this death was his fault. He would answer for it.
Like a brilliant spark, all this flashed in Drake’s consciousness in the time it took him to suck air into his lungs. Then the pause was over. Drake rushed forward into his prey. The time for retreat was over, he was no man’s quarry. Now he would only move forward until his work was finished.
The man in front came in swinging his sword in an overhand strike. Drake blocked the sword with his own held horizontally over his head. He swept it away and down, then grabbed the man’s collar with his left hand. Drake lifted him and turned his back toward the man along the wall. The assassin’s hand fanned out toward them at that very instant. Red plumes blossomed in the thrall’s back, the tails of several poisoned darts. Drake let him drop, foam already forming at the corners of his mouth.
The others did not hesitate, but pushed on to their destruction. Drake brought his left hand back to the hilt of the sword and swung it upward in an arc. Down again. Across his body. Every movement was deadly. Drake moved like liquid, like a wave that crashes upon a boat and engulfs it. The blade sung as it passed through flesh and bone. He met the swing of the second short sword coming in at his left side and chopped down and across the chest of the man who wielded it.
Drake kicked him in the stomach just to throw him back into the last two thralls. He stabbed the tip of his sword into the solar plexus of the one closest to him as he stumbled backwards. The other was able to recover and thrust forward with a knife. Drake parried. The man’s whole arm and body was extended in the attack. Drake ran his sword just above the line of the thrall’s arm. Dashing forward and past him, Drake took off his head. Now it was just Drake and the man who had come to kill him.
Drake drove on to the attack. The rage of murder was upon him. This man had backed him into a corner and forced him kill simple men to save his own life. His hands had rejoiced in their work, for they were skilled. The successful application of skill brings satisfaction no matter how despicable that skill may be. But his heart welled with misgivings and doubt. Would it have been better to sacrifice himself in order to spare those chopped bits of humanity behind him? He drew on the glee and the guilt, balled them together, and directed them against the fiend before him.
The assassin held two long daggers, conjured it seemed from the very air and no doubt coated in some vile toxin. Drake wielded his sword like a blur, warding off both deadly points with the flat of his blade. To receive even a scratch, Drake knew, was to die. His adversary was skilled with his weapons, and he fought desperately. But Drake’s skill was greater, and he was confident that he would win out.
This was not going according to plan! His thralls were being slaughtered! Santo pulled out his twin daggers. They were his contingency plan, but by no means a measure of last resort. He had brought down many warriors with nothing more. Hanzo would be the greatest, no doubt. But he would go down as had all men who ever faced Santo. It would have been better to save his darts until Hanzo was away from all potential shields, yes. But Santo had been tempted into throwing them too soon in a flourish of temerity. He chided himself for it.
Hanzo decapitated the last of Santo’s thralls. In spite of himself, Santo recognized that it was the most beautiful strike he had ever witnessed. The footwork, the placement of Hanzo’s hands on the hilt of the sword, the form, the accuracy that directed the blade through the spine rather than into it, the whole of it was perfection. Santo’s passion whipped up into a fever pitch. Defeat never occurred to one such as him. But a prideful sort of panic seized him. He felt the chill of fear mingle with the heat of fury that boiled up within him. His plans had been disrupted. Never had he spread a net so flawlessly, never had it been so brazenly defied. Nobody crossed Santo, not Hanzo, not anyone.
Santo flew at Hanzo. He spun his daggers left and right, testing Hanzo’s defences and looking for a weakness. The merest nick was all he needed. He saw the bloodlust in Hanzo’s eye and knew he could exploit it. A man enraged was a man who fought without artifice.
Santo pressed his attack. He kept Hanzo busy from every angle, not letting up for even a moment. He gave Hanzo not a chance even to counter-attack. A sharp grin appeared under the wide brim of Santo’s hat. He was wearing his man down. It was only a matter of time before Hanzo made a mistake. And there it was.
Hanzo’s sword dipped lazily, as though his arms were getting tired. His guard was lowered for the briefest second. It was all Santo needed. He stabbed forward with both daggers at Hanzo’s very heart, already gloating over his victory and the glory of mastering this swordsman. He would be the man who pierced the heart of The Dragon.
But it was a ploy, one of the simplest tactics Drake could use. He swept his sword up just as Santo thrust forward.
Santo drew his hands back and held them before his face. No, he had no hands. Santo looked in confusion at the stumps of his arms. Blood weeped and ran down his forearms. This was not possible. He looked beyond his hacked off wrists to his target, his prey. Hanzo was stepping in, his sword rushing forward, determination set in his eyes and lips. Impossible. The blade screamed in the air and passed just below Santo’s face. The room retreated and spun. As it did, darkness encroached on Santo’s eyes. Everything went black, and Santo felt no more.
Mary came to herself with the feeling that she had just thrown up. Her lungs hurt, her stomach hurt, and the pain in her head made her want to throw up again. Where was she? Slowly, carefully, she lifted her head to look around. She was on her hands and knees. In The Tull? What happened here?
A man sunk to his knees without a head. Another stood before him with his sword extended in the cut. All around her was blood and bodies. Men screamed as they held up severed limbs and pressed jagged wounds. Many others simply laid still and silent. The headless body did not fall. It somehow knelt there as though it still lived. The man with the sword did not turn around, but stepped past his last victim and out the door.