include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for The Last Stop by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

THE

LAST STOP


JEREMIAH

DONALDSON

The Last Stop

Copyright 2012

by Jeremiah Donaldson

www.ephiroll.com


'Mural' cover copyright 2016


Smashwords edition copyright 2018

ISBN: 9780463945483


All right reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without written permission of the author. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is a figment of your imagination caused by over population of the planet.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 1

Drim stomped snow from his boots as he stepped into the smoky tavern called The Crow’s Roost. The night had chilled him through his heavy wool clothing and the warmth made his fingers burn when he removed his gloves. One last empty table sat close to the roaring fire.

A foot appeared in his path, almost tripping him. He grabbed the dagger hilt underneath his cloak and followed the leg up to its owner, a shyster named Wilco Lancaster or ‘The Hand' to those aware of his reputation for lifting treasures off the most perceptive individuals. He’d gone out of his way whenever possible to give Drim some sort of grief since being embarrassed at a game of cards some months before, but stopped short of causing trouble with the law. Drim could send him back to The Rocks with the right words to certain people should he want to.

The Hand turned to a young man at his table. "See that? Wanting to stick us for a simple mistake. Told you to watch out for him."

The other person Drim didn't recognize had recently reached manhood and wouldn't enjoy adulthood if he spent too much time around The Hand. Along with his reputation as a pickpocket, The Hand had a gift for letting the fool riding with him go down in his place.

"What a jumpy squirt." The younger man put a dagger on the table. "I have one too."

Drim relaxed despite the steel being drawn. They knew better than to break the peace that Hans, the owner and barkeep, maintained. Hans required fights to be taken outside and backed his argument with a wrought-iron, spiked club behind the bar. Only one man had ever challenged the custom. In addition to loosing his privilege to enter The Crow's Roost, the cocky ex-soldier's right arm had been so badly mangled that amputation turned out to be the only option. No one dared to suggest fighting inside.

"Jumpy, no, I just know that when a dirty, craven dog is about," Drim nodded toward The Hand, "that trouble could be afoot." He winked at the young man. "Better watch your back or you could find yourself swinging a pick."

The Hand laughed. "Why would you spread such rumors?”

Drim kicked the foot in his path. "My stomach is out of patience."

The Hand pulled his leg back.

Once at the table, Drim realized why no one sat there already. The fire burned too hot so close. Heat radiated from the stone fireplace. He hung his wet cloak on the back of the chair and waited for the barmaid. The left side of his body roosted. Sweat drenched that part of his body. His hair felt as though it would burst into flames.

Marcia arrived. She wore a smile that went nicely with the low cut top she wore. "What can I get you today?"

"The special of the day and beer." Sweat dripped from his nose. "And maybe something more satisfying for later."

"Not tonight. Hans has extra chores for the bargirls tonight."

"I'll wait around."

Marcia frowned. "Maybe when you get a real house rather than that hole in the ground."

"I can make Regis give us some privacy."

“That beer, piss water, right?”

“Yeah, the weak stuff.”

She rolled her eyes and walked away.

He tried to turn so that the flames didn’t blister his left arm and his feet could dry but failed.

Finally, Marcia reappeared with a large wooden platter and a clay flagon. The steaming fowl had just been pulled from the spit. A chunk of bread sat alongside. His stomach growled. For the last several weeks he'd eaten once a day to conserve his meager savings.

“Hey!” A man several tables over waved to Marcia.

She hurried off.

Drim washed the meal down with bad beer and cleaned the grease off his fingers with the bread that had been fresh sometime around lunch. He checked out the other patrons through the smoky room while finishing his, now warm, beer. Light from the fire and lamps created spots of deep shadow. The sound of rolling dice came from a far corner where men stood around a table. A card game took place next to them. Too bad he didn't have enough to gamble. Sweat ran down into his eyes, stinging enough to make him wince. About time to get moving.

He’d stood just as the door swung open into the wall. The freezing draft raced into the building, touching everyone before the bundled figure pushed the door shut. Stray snowflakes swirled in the warm air just long enough to be seen before melting away.

A vaguely familiar guardsman brushed his hood and hair back into place. “This man," he held up a sheet of parchment with a drawing, "is wanted for crimes against the king."

“Did anyone catch his father’s murderer?” Someone yelled from a dark corner, drawing laughter.

Drim suppressed a grin. King Jarkonatak resided in Hectron, a few days inland to the west of Centros, whose father's murder at the beginning of winter had triggered a cleansing that went far beyond looking for conspirators. This was the second time the chase had led to Centros.

The guardsman continued after the laughter stopped. “He’s preferred alive for questioning, but his body will be enough to claim the reward of 500 silver discs from the Magistrate or Captain of the Guard.” He hung the parchment on the wall alongside similar, yet less rewarding, announcements for people whose trail had long gone cold. Another blast of freezing air whirled through the room as the guard made his way back outside.

Drim watched The Hand and his apprentice stand up to leave. They dallied for a moment to look at the poster before making their way out the door. He felt his chance at the payday slipping away. Soon, others would follow.

He dug through his nearly empty money purse until he found enough sliver to pay for his meal, trying to ignore the damp spots on his cloak that’d freeze once back outside. He hurried to the announcement board. The charcoal drawing depicted a man with a thin face, short hair, and a large nose that appeared to be many times broken. A name had been scrawled underneath: Mako.

Time to find help. Regis wouldn’t venture far from a warm fire, ale, and shelter on a night like this. That meant he could be found at The Red Wing Inn two streets over.

Drim eased the door open, fighting against the howling wind that tore his hood back before he could react to the gusts. Snow and ice peppered his face despite his efforts to pull the hood back up. The two street walk along the street lights to the imposing facade of the inn took many times longer than it should have. Four oil lamps marked the front door and steps. A globe of glass protected each flame from the elements. Shutters covered the ground floor windows for the night and only the door beckoned anyone foolish enough to be on the streets.

A blast of dizzying heat took his breath when he stepped through the door, reminding him of the dump he called home. He could never hang onto enough money to pay for such an expensive room. For some reason it slipped through his fingers. Rich food and drink. Bribes. Lost bets. There was never enough discs for everything.

Along the back wall of the bar area were meeting rooms that could be rented to make a special impression on a visiting dignitary. The kitchen, bar, and the small office where the owner, Fron Heckler, conducted the everyday business of running the inn were arranged around the remaining three walls. A staircase provided access to everything above while another led to the basement. In the center of the room, surrounded by twenty feet of table littered floor space in all directions, rose a massive fireplace. The ten foot square of stone continued up through all three stories. Four openings faced each direction here at the base where they fed the immense fire that burned during every winter night. The masonry released heat all along its length to kept the rented rooms above warm no matter how appalling the weather outside.

Regis sat at a small round table halfway between the fireplace and the bar. The only other person in sight happened to be Fron’s pimple faced, dimwitted son, who maintained the fire and freed Fron and his wife for everything that required thought.

A silver disc flashed in the firelight as it spun over the worn, scarred surface of the table, stumbling over some of the deeper marks until reaching one that knocked it over. Regis chuckled as Drim approached and shifted his considerable bulk in the chair. Menacing creaks foretold of a wrecked piece of furniture. “Trust for a saphead like you to roam about on a night like this."

Drim pulled a chair up opposite of him. “Say what you want, but you‘ll like it.”

Regis sighed and smirked.

“There’s a man in the city wanted by the king. One of those spies, or agents, whatever you want to call them." Drim leaned close to Regis, looking over each shoulder before continuing. “Point is, he’s easy prey long as we can find him. The Hand is even searching.”

Regis snorted. "The Hand is a amateur, how he avoided having his neck stretched is beyond me." He held up the coin for Drim to see. “I won ten of these from a drunken messenger that got snowed in for a few days. I already had more then enough to live until spring. There’s no way I’m looking for someone in weather like this. For all you know, and I suspect, the guy’s innocent. Sanity isn’t the new King’s strong point.”

“This is good."

“How much?”

“Five hundred discs.”

Regis licked his lips. “What’s the name?”

“Mako.”

***

“This isn’t one of your best ideas!” Drim’s voice fought through the wind.

“Protest all you want,” Regis said. You normally do anyway. “Lorendo is our best chance tonight.”

“We’ll have to walk all the way back across the district if he doesn’t know anything.” A slight decrease in the wind made the words come out loud.

Regis looked side to side for anyone who may have overheard. Only silent buildings--locked up tight--greeted stood behind the street lamps on either side of the street. “What if everything else turned up dry holes? We’d go see Lorendo. There wouldn't be a reward if Mako hung around in the open.”

“But Lorendo has never turned anyone over,” Drim said. “What makes your favor worth it?”

Regis stopped and looked at him. “I saved his life. Most people consider that of some value.”

Drim pulled his cloak tighter. “When have I ever said I didn’t value your help?”

“When have you ever said you did?”

They didn't speak again on the way to Lorendo's house. Shutters on the single story building had been drawn and inside flaps pulled tight so that not a single dot of light showed. A deep ridge of snow had built up under the edges of the roof where it’d slid off when heavy enough.

Regis rapped on the sturdy wooden door just within reach of the nearest lamp.

A gruff voice called out from inside. “Who‘s there?”

“It’s Regis!”

Lorendo cracked the door so that his blue eye could peer out--the other was brown--then motioned for them to hurry inside as the wind blew sparks from the fireplace all over.

The main room of the house served as everything but bedroom, reached through an empty doorway to the left. Another led to the chamber pot room which held shelves full of supplies; Regis also knew a tiny space had been dug out underneath the chamber pot room to hide Lorendo’s customers. Sweet tobacco smoke from a pipe on the table made the air hazy. An iron pot hung over the fire with beans cooking within. They claimed two of the four chairs.

Lorendo latched the door. “I suspect this isn‘t a causal visit."

Regis shrugged. “You remember that favor?”

Lorendo’s sat and picked up the pipe that he lit with a burning stick from the fire. “I knew it’d be something to do with that incident when I heard the knock.” He exhaled a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. “And you want to know about Mako, right?”

“Yeah.“ Regis hesitated, giving Lorendo time to take another puff from the pipe. “How did you know?”

Lorendo leaned back in the chair, taking another long draw from the pipe. “The Hand stopped in here claiming I had a duty to reveal a threat to our king. Scumbag should of known not to bother me.” He leaned over and tapped ashes into the fire.

Regis glanced at Drim and back at Lorendo. “I take it you know Mako.”

“Why the sudden interest?”

“The king put a price on his head.”

Lorendo nodded. “No wonder he's eager to leave.”

Regis raised an eyebrow. “You’ll help us?”

“It’s bad business, but I owe you. Do you know where the storage warehouses are down at the harbor?”

"I've unloaded more than one cargo ship."

“You may be too late. Mako paid good money for a boat to take him into Pahron. The storm has kept them in dock, but he’s getting desperate. He wants the captain to leave tonight. You can find him in the fourth warehouse from the end of the dock.”

Regis shook Lorendo’s hand. “Thanks. I consider us even no matter if he's there or not.”

“Just don’t mention this to anyone. It'd hurt my trade for word to get around that I’m turning clients over.” Lorendo grinned. “And I’d hate to sell friends into slavery. Especially since Drim wouldn’t last a fortnight and cause more bad business.”

Regis laughed. “Don’t worry. No one knows anything."

Lorendo filled the pipe with fresh tobacco. “Do you know what he’s wanted for?”

Regis shook his head. “Could be anything."

Lorendo took a puff, holding it for a few seconds before releasing. “I rarely discuss such things with my clientele. Good hunting, let me know how it ends.”

***

Regis cursed another wrong turn and retraced their steps two streets back. The storm grew stronger. Snowfall reached whiteout conditions when they were but halfway to the harbor. Any captain willing to push off must be mad, or well paid, as if there existed a difference. He couldn't even see the buildings around them. The dirt lane shortcut didn’t have the luxury of street lamps to get them through the darkness.

They stopped in an alley between the first two warehouses and prepared for what lay came next. Their only weapons were his size and Drim's hidden dagger. Visible weapons at night would buy them an escorted walk home.

The wind pounded Regis when he stepped out of the alley, almost blowing him off his feet. Doing so could be grave. Snow and ice covered the walkway. Any mishap risked sending them into freezing water that'd suck life within the space of a few heartbeats.

A door slammed shut ahead of them. Darkness and snow concealed the source of the sound. Fearing that the ship was about to disembark, Regis ignored common sense and rushed into the gloom. Light from the last lamp lit the end of the dock, illuminating the thick rope he almost barreled into with heaving water beyond. No one. Regis turned to locate the warehouse they'd been told about.

Footsteps he ran past were just filling in snow and stopped at a warehouse door with a crescent of snow swept to one side. This warehouse measured about ten paces wide and thirty deep with a roof as high as three tall men. He’d helped fill it many times. Regis placed one ear against the cold wood and backed off after a few seconds of hearing nothing.

“He’s quiet or there’s too much noise to hear."

Drim's dagger blade scraped on the leather sheath. “Let's go.”

“Use it this time. I’m tired of doing all the dirty work." Regis turned his attention to opening the door.

It refused to open, even when he eased his weight back to pull it open, dreading the squeal that would alert anyone inside. Several gentle tugs failed to budge the door so he yanked on the handle with everything he had. Ice shattered when the door flew open and he landed on his back in the snow. Darkness greeted him from inside the building. He stepped through the doorway. The air was warmer than it should have been, as if heated, and melted the fresh snow around the door frame so that it could refreeze shut.

Regis dropped to one knee and pulled forth a foul smelling candle, flint and steel, and a tinder box from a pouch on his belt.

Drim’s hand grabbed his shoulder. “Look.”

Regis squinted. A feeble glow came from behind a pile of abandoned crates in the back of the building. He returned the stuff to the pouch and stood. Nothing moved. Sweat beaded on his forehead. Not a single floor board cried out when he tiptoed across the floor and jumped around the pile of crates into the circle of light. He almost tripped over a man on the floor with his head turned backwards.

Drim followed close. "I told him running with The Hand would shorten his life."

"What‘d I say about being useful?" Regis pointed to a body at the opposite edge of the light.

Blood spread from The Hand’s head, but he breathed, making him luckier than the other guy. Regis bent to search him just as something swished through where his head had been half a second before. He rolled to the left and came up facing his attacker who’s powerful kick spilled him from his perch in the rafters. Dust rose from the floorboards when the man hit the ground on his back.

Drim pinned the stranger to the ground. “It’s him, I got—” A boot toe caught Drim in the back of the head, sending his face into a wood crate.

Mako jumped to his feet and pulled a throwing axe from beneath his cloak. “Amateurs! Die like the others.”

Regis flung himself sideways to avoid the weapon whirling at his chest. He grabbed a support timber and used the momentum to whip himself around, driving his shoulder into the much smaller man’s chest. They careened into the crates and sent them across the floor. Regis hung onto the front of Mako’s tunic while raining blow after blow onto his unprotected face before pushing him away to get rid of the fingers clawing for his eyes. Maybe keeping him so close hadn’t been such a good idea.

“You're pathetic.” Mako spat at Regis' feet. “I thought Jarkonatak’s henchmen would be better sport.”

Regis clinched his fists, waiting for an opening. “You’re just a payday. Give up. We don’t have to take you back alive.”

“Of course not.” Mako sneered. “Your murdering king can't let the truth be told.”

“That supposed to be new to me?”

Mako charged.

Regis tensed to swing, but the target turned to the exit at the last moment. He sprinted forward and drove Mako through the door and spilled them into the snow.

“Give up.” Regis grappled for a front choke hold.

A half solid knee to the groin answered him.

Regis moaned and slapped a thumb from his eyes. He slammed one forearm into Mako's face, spraying blood into the salty air from a broken nose. Still, he couldn't shake off the smaller man clinging to his clothing and trying to blind him. Then he connected a short elbow with Mako's temple; he went limp for the briefest moment and Regis pushed him away long enough to stand.

Mako wobbled to his feet--the lower part of his face a crimson mask--and pulled a dagger from one boot. "I underestimated you."

Regis' instincts took over, automatically blocking the low stab aimed at his abdomen and striking Mako in the throat with his extended fingers.

Mako collapsed, wheezing and clutching his neck. His lips moved but no voice issued. Fewer sounds as he turned blue. Desperation made him claw at his neck so hard that he dug deep gouges in his skin. He struggled for almost another minute before being still.

Regis, weary of being tricked, checked the body. A purple face and bulging eyes were convincing enough to make him believe the night had ended. He tied Mako’s arms and legs together with leather lashes carried just for that purpose. Normally, his quarry lived, but the lashes made the corpse easier to carry.

With the body bound, Regis paused. Drim would ransack Mako’s pockets, no reason not to first. The search turned up little. Just a handful of various silver coins that he dropped into his own purse. He went inside to find Drim covered in blood and searching Mako‘s backpack.

"Where’s Mako?" Drim didn’t look up.

"I had to put him down."

"Easier for us."

"Depends. He could've had a lot to say. Anything interesting?"

"Just supplies." Drim held out a piece of parchment. "And that."


M. Jarkonatak is becoming a threat to our affairs. Proof of his demise is worth double your normal price. K


Regis folded the paper up. “Sounds like someone is tired of our fraudulent king.”

“Who?”

Regis shrugged. “Who doesn’t want Jarkonatak dead for one reason or another. Rumors say he kidnaps children to molest, murdered his father for the crown, and hunted down members of the former leadership. Not to mention the war with Notom.”

“Maybe the next guy will get him.”

“Let’s get this over with. The thought that we helped that bastard is turning my stomach.”

“Then you can buy us a nice dinner to calm it.” Drim tossed the backpack to the floor. “You can be mad all you want, but who would Jarkonatak put that kind of reward up for?” Without waiting for an answer, he stepped out the door.

Regis looked at his feet for a moment before following. He might get to put it up for me one day.

Chapter 2

Dedrik hurried down the cobbled street. Frigid wind tugged at his fur lined cloak and carried flakes into his face. Snow had been removed from the main streets but some whirled around his boots with each step. He didn’t want to be out on such a day. He should’ve been pulling his shift inside, but when the Magistrate gave the Captain an order, the closest guardsman ended up with extra work. Today, that turned out to be him.

Only the Magistrate, Captain, or one of their seconds got more information than necessary. When the Captain told him to find two men called Drim and Regis for a special job, Dedrik nodded and went to work, even though he wondered why a known rogue and mercenary were being called upon. At first he couldn’t find them. The needed information flowed only after convincing the Crow’s Roost owner that they wouldn't be arrested.

He stopped in front of a bakery and wondered if he'd been fooled. Like most local shops, Yargo Mellun’s Bakery operated off supplies squirreled away before the trading season closed for winter. Black smoke drifted from the stone chimney on the left side of the single story building. Smelling the freshly baked bread caused his stomach to rumble. He'd been a regular customer since Yargo had cut his illicit ties and become a honest business man. Surely, he hadn't turned back to his past.

He pushed the thick door of the bakery open. A blast of heat washed over his face, causing the exposed skin to tingle from the temperature difference. He closed the door and pulled off his leather gloves.

Two men sat at the work table in front of the oven. Mostly empty shelves filled the walls from top to bottom on either side of the bricks.

Yargo stood. “Dedrik, how is my favorite guardsman?” He brushed a loose strand of long salt and pepper hair back from his pudgy, pale face. Dry bits of dough and grain dust decorated the upper part of his apron.

The other man at the table looked familiar. He'd seen that patched cloak numerous times. Drim. The short, skinny man always had a solid alibi or someone to back him up.

“I’m fine but for this trip in the cold." He paused and nodded to Drim. “The Magistrate sent me for you."

Drim crossed his arms. "What would he want me for?"

Dedrik ignored the remark, turning to Yargo. "Seems I’ve found him just by paying you a visit."

"Didn’t know I had such important friends," Yargo said.

"That makes two of us." Dedrik sat in an empty chair.

"What does the King’s lap dog want?" Drim leaned back in the chair.

Dedrik shrugged. "Some sort of special job. My business is to bring you to Targo Varnes so he can deliver the details."

Drim snorted. "What ‘special job’ could there possibly be for me?"

"Weren’t you listening? I don’t know, I’m just the messenger."

"You should just go find out," Yargo said. "Can’t hurt."

"It won’t hurt until I'm in The Rocks."

Dedrik shook his head. "Guess I’ll just tell the Magistrate he needs to find someone else." He stood. "Good business to you, Yargo, I’ll pay you a profitable visit later today." He pulled his gloves on, taking his time and watching Drim. "Someone will get what you passed up."

"Are you telling the truth?"

"I’d have backup if sent to arrest you."

Yargo laughed. "Good point."

Drim glared at them. "Okay, I’ll see what he wants."

Dedrik held up one finger. "Next, we have to find your friend Regis. I'm to return with both of you."

"This gets better and better."

***

Regis didn’t fight the Magistrate’s request. And why not? He had little reason to fear the highest law in the land. The crazy king had decided he should live already and no one would go against his will. Unless his will had changed.

He walked at Drim's left while Dedrik led them down the deserted streets. Snowfall and wind picked up from another storm blowing in from the Sea of Anomalies to the east. A new layer covered the street by the time they arrived at the town hall where four stories of wood planked walls rose into the air with all the window shutters closed. The roof had a thick cap of snow. Icicles hung down several feet and were thick enough to impale a man should someone be underneath when it fell. Nothing had changed since he'd claimed Mako's reward with Drim waiting outside for fear of having some crime, rightly, blamed on him. He followed Dedrik through the door with shoulders held high while Drim sulked behind him.

A guard greeted Dedrik in the foyer. "You found your prey." The guard winked at Drim. "Too bad there's no silver for this one today."

Drim smirked. "Yeah."

The guard spit a purple stream of defo juice onto the floor. "Bet it doesn’t happen twice in a row."

Dedrik waved them forward. "C’mon."

The guard laughed as they walked away.

Rows of oil lamps along the walls revealed wood planked doors. Some stood open to reveal clerk offices. Only two had occupants, neither looked up. At the end of the hall, a larger door led into the council chamber where town officials met once a month. Dedrik held the door open while all eyes in the room turned to watch them enter.

One man dressed in light brown leather and black twill spoke up. His hair hung in a long ponytail and pulled his face back so tightly it appeared to be a mask. Targo Varnes, King Jarkonatak’s magistrate and the real power in Centros. The town council could make suggestions, the malik could approve changes, but everyone answered to the king’s court no matter if they were a beggar or the highest of town officials. Two councilmen were present, along with the captain of the local garrison, the malik with his advisor, and several guards. The councilmen tried to comfort a woman who shook with grief and clung to a charred fur cloak. A dozen wounded men and women in ragged clothing sat at the tables eating or sleeping.

Worry lines ran across Varnes' forehead. "Regis, always a pleasure doing business with one of your abilities. And you." He frowned at Drim. "There’d better not be more 'rumor's about you. But never mind that now. We have need of your services."

Regis shook his head. "I don't need work till spring thanks to Mako's reward last week. I just—"

Varnes' waved a hand as to dismiss any objection. "I insist that you be compensated for your time."

The room fell silent. Even the sobbing woman paused in disbelief.

"Of course." Regis glanced at Drim. You've done it again.

Background chatter returned.

Varnes continued as though nothing had happened. "Refugees have arrived from the town of O'Loot Hole." He pointed to a pale, thin man in tattered clothing drinking broth from a wooden bowl at one of the tables. "This is Old Armess, head of mining production, and the only person who seen what happened."

The man looked up at mention of his name.

Regis had been in the tiny town of O'Loot Hole once and seen the effects of working in the silver mines. He was prepared for the pale, black spotted face that looked up at him with eyes better suited for a dead man, one being white with cataract and the other yellow and bloodshot.

Old Armess held out his hand.

Regis shook it, suppressing a shutter at the hot, damp flesh, and sat across from him. "What happened that's bad enough to scare miners?"

A twisted grin spread over Old Armess' face as he leaned in and whispered. "Fire from the sky, boy." He threw his head back and bayed laughter at the ceiling until he was paused by a coughing fit. "The gods punished the town for digging into the World's heart. What the rock didn't smash was burnt in the fire. I would have died if not in the mine to make sure everyone was out for the night." Another coughing fit paused the story. "But I lived and led the other survivors here."

Regis shrugged. "What are we supposed to do at a burned out town? The Families will fix it soon enough."

"There could be more survivors," Varnes said, "and we need the stockpile brought here. We sent a messenger to the Families, but their response will take time to reach us due to the storms."

Regis nodded. "How do you know the silver is still there?"

Varnes shrugged. "We don't, you're going to find out."

"How much is there?" Drim's eyes sparkled.

"Don't worry about that. You just find it and bring back proof it can be gotten to." He slid a worn piece of parchment across the table that had been written on and scraped clean many times. A crude map was drawn on it with the mine entrances and silver hoard labeled. "The vault is under a small shed; a staircase leads down to the door. The keys were lost, but I hear that's not a problem for you two."

"Up to four days round trip with proper rest stops." Regis sighed. "Why don't you send a larger party to collect the silver on one trip?"

Targo shrugged. "A group is being put together and will await your report."

Regis folded the map and tucked it into a pocket on the inside of his cloak. "We'll need horses." And a lot of luck.

Targo snapped his fingers and pointed. "Outfit them with whatever they need."

Dedrik jumped to attention. "Yes, sir." He turned to Regis. "Ready?"

Their eyes drifted to Old Armess who cackled, pulling a strip of dead skin off his neck.

Regis nodded. "As ever."

***

His horse didn't like the cold any more than he did. Regis prodded it along the covered road leading southwest from Centros, past the farmsteads, and into the Dark Forest where massive black barked Vein Wood conifers blocked sunlight.

He led the way, having been to O'Loot Hole before. Besides, Drim couldn't have kept them on the road. He kept his cloak pulled tight and his eyes sharp for any movement that signaled an attack. Bandits lay low during the cold months, but animal attacks increased as food disappeared. Dread wolves roamed the forest and could run down a horse across the top of snow. Tawny cats ambushed from overhanging branches and sea bears wandered inland when storms hammered them along the coast. Nothing the single bladed axe swinging at his side couldn't handle. Hopefully, that wouldn't be needed since Drim always ran to save his own skin stead of fighting to save everyone’s.

The forest grew darker once the sun slipped past noon and less light made it through the canopy. They stopped and lit lanterns; one on each side of their horses, letting them see the huge tree trunks they zigzagged between. Afternoon passed to evening, then to night with little change in the forest around them. The horses were strong cavalry mounts and only periodic rest stops were needed to keep them going on long marches.

Pushing the horses to exhaustion put them on a hill overlooking O'Loot Hole by next midday, or rather a burnt area scarring the ground where the town used to be. Not a single building stood. Only shattered remains--and not many of them--surrounded an oblong hole in the ground centered in the partially cleared valley. Traces of smoke rose from smoldering debris. The log palisade lay scattered like kindling.

Regis rubbed his eyes. They were in the right place.

Drim shifted on his horse. "What if we invoke a god's wrath by going into a place they wanted destroyed?"

"Don't be stupid. I've seen rocks fall from the sky before, but none so large." Regis started down the hill and looked back after a few steps. "Hurry up."

Snow and wind had cleansed the air of heavy smoke, but the smell of burnt wood and flesh wouldn't be so easily dissipated. The stench upset the horses, making them anxious and hard to control. Frustrated, they tethered the animals to a tree. Regis unfolded the map and tried to match its rough features with the devastated landscape before him.

This is ridiculous. I should already know where it is.

Finally, he spotted the dark mine entrance. He put the map away and pointed at a place just below the mines in the south wall of the valley. "Somewhere around there is the shed Old Armess was talking about."

Drim pointed. "Right there."

"Where?"

"Left and just down from the mine."

At least he's always good for something. Regis shielded his eyes. "Yeah…I see it."

"I'll beat you. " Drim jumped onto the nearest tree trunk and ran down the scorched hunk of wood. He bounded from one burnt trunk to another across the blackened landscape.

"We're not here to steal it!" Regis climbed over the tree in front of him. "You damn rat." He caught up several sweaty minutes latter.

Drim smirked. "I started to think you had lost interest."

"What interest could I lose? You mixed me up with Mako. Now we're going to be doing these idiotic favors every time we turn around."

"Yeah, but we'll be rich."

"I will. You won't with the way you piss coin away."

Drim shrugged. "Rich for a while." He kicked a tree laying over stairs that disappeared into the ground. "But not without your help."

"We're not moving that." Regis leaned against the tree to prove his point. "You slide past and go down yourself."

"No way, you‘re already dirty from crawling over everything to get here."

"How will you pull me up if you have to?"

Drim frowned as he removed his cloak and handed it to Regis. "You're buying me new clothes."

"A cheap price."

"Next time it's your turn."

"Not if you're with me. You need to start being useful on these outings." Regis looked down and couldn't see the bottom of the stairs. "How far?"

"Should be close enough for me to hang down and drop the rest of the way."

"Fine, your neck."

Drim sat down with his legs over the edge and spun to hold himself up with his arms. "Here I go." He lowered himself out of sight before dropping into the darkness. "I'm down."

"Can you find the door?"

"It's here." An iron pull rattled in the darkness below. "Locked."

"Need light?"

"I‘m not that feeble."

Clicking sounds indicated that Drim went to work. A loud clunk came from the darkness below when the bolt let go.

"I'm in."

"Don't pocket anything."

"Who? Me?"

"Get what we came for!"

Drim didn't answer, but returned to the stairs and lifted a brown bag.

The weight surprised Regis, causing him to almost drop the sack onto Drim's face who, with help, emerged from the hole. Soot marred his face and clothing, making the whites of his eyes look bright.

Drim opened the sack and dipped both hands into the rough minted discs ready for the press and sliver perforator. "This is just one. There're hundreds of bags like this down there."

"They're waiting for the thaw to move it all to Hectron."

"Well, let's hurry and get this one back. Maybe it'll be our reward.

Regis sneered. "Doubtful. We need to rest the horses until morning."

"Screw them, they aren't ours. I want to get back."

"We'd be walking within hours. They can‘t take another trip like that. We need rest and so do they. Besides, with a good amount of sleep we can get back to Centros by early morning after next."

Drim's hands shook visibly when he retied the bag of silver coin. "The sooner we get back, the sooner we're paid."

"And you waste it. We rest here." Regis led the way back to the horses. "Give me that so you aren't tempted."

"Tempted to do what?"

"You know what."

"Could be worth making sure some got lost to ’scavengers‘."

Regis shook his head. "Just keep your paws off."

Drim handed over the bag. "Want to find some firewood while I unload?"

Regis held out his axe. "Have fun."

"I said I'd unload."

"Did you? Better hurry so I can get a fire going."

"Damn you." Drim took the axe.

Regis made camp as he listened to the steady thump of the axe biting into a tree. By the time he'd finished unloading the horses, Drim had dragged a good sized tree branch back and cut it into manageable pieces. Regis broke up small branches for kindling and frayed some bark to light with his flint and steel. Flames soon leapt into the sky. His stomach rumbled, but he couldn't eat just yet. He stomped a small circle into the snow big enough for all three animals to get their noses into at once and filled it with corn. Finally, his time came to sit close to the fire, trying to soak up all the heat he could. The temperature fell quickly once the sun left the valley in darkness.

"You've been here before, right?" Drim had wrapped his blanket around him already.

"Once," Regis said. "Three winters ago I escorted some new miners when they needed replacements after an accident."

"Replacements?"

"Whenever someone dies, a replacement is found from the miner's family. Competition is fierce; they're hierarchal and the elder of each family has the final say on who goes. Since the share is so high for the miners and guards alike, the family can live off the work of a few dozen members." Regis leaned forward and poked holes into the base of the ashes with a branch. "Each family does whatever they can short of murder to have the most workers present." He threw the branch into the middle of the flames, causing sparks to swirl into the wind. "Everyone thinks the king controls them, but it's the other way around. They were sacrificing their people for wealth before Centros was founded. No one knows for sure, the families are known to exaggerate, but they've been digging silver out of this valley for at least fifteen generations."

"Yeah, right. Where're the graves?"

"The dead are kept underground to keep from killing the soil with the poison that seeped into their bones from the mines."

"Old Armess looked like he did because of poison?"

"If you stay here too long, sores form on your body. After that you aren't allowed to leave." Regis chuckled. "Varnes thinks he's slick by sending us to check things out so his men aren't exposed to this place so long."

"Why doesn't the king send his own men to mine the silver?"

"Even Jarkonatak isn't crazy enough to mess with the Families."

"You want first watch?" Drim stretched out on the ground before Regis could answer.

"Sure. I'm not tired, anyway."

"Good." Drim curled into a ball and started snoring.

With only the horses as company, Regis grew restless. He built the fire up to scare away any nosy animals. A few green branches filled the nearby area with irritating smoke. He pulled out a worn whetstone and began rubbing the nicks in the blade of his axe, watching the dark forest.

The rhythmic motion made him drift off after being up for a whole day.

***

The size of the fire told Regis that he hadn't slept too long but more then a few minutes. The wind had slackened and more snow danced through the air, but the weather change hadn't awakened him. He rolled his eyes to scan the campsite. Drim was wrapped so completely in his cloak that only his breathing revealed that he lived. The horses leaned against each other to keep warm. Their breath made lazy clouds in the air.

Regis started to sit up, but stopped as a branch snapped. His body tensed. Little roamed the forest at night and nothing so noisy.

"Na ake resonan!"

"Utup!"

The words sounded metallic and squeaky like nothing Regis had heard before. Images of something from deep underground rode a wave through his imagination. He held his breath and let his body relax, hoping to pinpoint the direction of whatever roamed in the darkness.

"Ita pro weap."

Regis heard the words clear enough to place their origin behind the tree he leaned against. Movement appeared in the far right of his peripheral vision. Two figures, clad in silver, skintight clothing walked toward them at the edge of the firelight. Black boots reached almost to their knees and gloves of the same material protected their hands. Helmets like nothing he’d ever seen covered their heads in a clear dome. Pale, bald heads turned from him to Drim as the figures walked closer to the fire, around it, and toward the supplies stacked in front of the horses. Each of them held a black rod with a blinking red light at the end. The left one appeared injured judging from the limp and sparks shooting from a rip in the strange clothing over one thigh. The two strange men stopped close to where the silver sat.

Regis took a deep breath. They‘d never escape blame for silver disappearing. He pushed off the ground in one even motion and heaved his axe toward the Limper. The cutting side of the blade slammed into the clear bubble, not penetrating, but bouncing the hairless skull around in the helmet before spinning into the darkness. Blood spread on the inside of the clear material while the man fell.

"Fo th oveod! Tack! Tack! Tack!" The limper's companion screamed while he turned and raised the metal bar at Regis. The light at the end changed from red to yellow.

That can’t be good.

Regis jumped to the right before a yellow beam shot through the space he'd vacated. He grabbed the first thing he touched, a short stick, and threw it at the man's head before trying to untangle the dagger from his layers of clothing. A second beam struck him in the chest as he pulled the dagger free. His vision wavered, his whole body froze, and he crashed to the ground.

Hitting the ground released Regis from the paralysis. His muscles convulsed and spasms caused him to roll into the fire. He could only stare up at the trees while flames singed his legs and buttocks. Another convulsion sent him from the fire before major damage could occur. After what felt like ages, he twitched less and brought his body under control. The strange men were gone by the time he regained his feet, taking all proof of their existence with them except for footprints.

Regis walked to their equipment on shaky legs. The silver remained, as did their food and everything else. He scratched his head.

Were they just curious? But who?

The horses awakened and shuffled about, staring into the darkness. The men were still out there. Every flicker from the fire caused Regis to tense. A quick search with a burning stick found his axe.

Drim didn't stir when Regis kicked him in the small of the back, so he grabbed the edge of his cloak and spilled him into the snow.

Drim jumped to his feet. "The hopping hell did you do that for!"

"There're men out there. From the mines or the sky, either way we have to leave. I hurt one, but they got away." Regis dragged Drim over to the equipment and shoved a saddle into his hands.

"Right now?"

"Move it or get left behind."

"What happened to your clothes?"

Regis looked down at his still smoking breeches. "They knocked me into the fire."

Minutes later, they prodded their horses back the way they'd come. Nothing else moved in the frigid night.


1953

10.12.4100

Warrior 12, or WA-12 to the other Protectors, rubbed his smooth chin. Nothing had been heard from the scouts since the attempted landing four days earlier, but now a green light flashed in the upper right corner of his hologlasses screen. A message had been received on the channel he had been ordered to monitor.

"Print," he said, and waited for the hard copy already rolling out of wall unit.


Scout Report 1614

Ship time: 1953

Ship date: 10.12.4100

SC-7 reporting.

Initial Assessment: Planet is rich in natural resources and liquid water. Atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, 18% oxygen, 1.5% argon, trace elements and a varying amount of water vapor, requiring little more then being filtered for us to breath. Temperature is low in the region to be investigated but well within the suits' safety margins. Gravity is confirmed at 96% Ship normal.

We completed several flyovers of the target area and tried landing to verify the existence of the radiation signature. A crosswind flipped the ship, causing us to crash. Our fuel tank ruptured and exploded, but the hardened crew compartment prevented us from being killed, although we had to remain inside until the fire subsided. We explored the area and discovered our crash had burned a large area around us. Ruined structures indicated we crashed into some sort of settlement. We explored a nearby mine and discovered it recently worked for the silver and not for the shallow pitchblende veins bisected by hand dug mines. Radiation levels are high, but not life threatening. Suits can protect against long term exposure.

We were interrupted by two humanoids on hairy, four-legged beasts of burden. They set up camp for the night after entering the lower level of a destroyed building. At night, we approached the camp and found them seemingly asleep. While we examined their belongings, one attacked SC-3 and knocked him unconscious before I could subdue our attacker with a shot from my tagger and remove SC-3 to safety.

Main communications were destroyed in the crash. Storms are interfering with the suit radios. This is the eighth attempt to report since crashing.

Nothing more can be learned without landing a larger party.

SC-3 has died of his head wound and his body awaits transport. I have enough supplies for five more days.

End.


He read it twice to make sure of the message.

WA-12 ran down the hallway with the news. They'd arrived at The Last Stop.


Chapter 3

0523

10.13.4100

The far wall stood two hundred meters across a floor sprouting holographic terrain. Men in black and gray skintight, military suits prowled among simulated trees and rocks. Red lights topped the helmets of those on the right and white on the others. Men on either side of the room tried to push across the simulated killing field only to be ‘killed' or ‘crippled’ if the suit's computer decided the wound wasn't fatal. Thuds from the low velocity rail cannon shots hitting the padded walls reminded everyone to look out since they were accelerated enough to sting through a combat suit.

The Director of the Military shook his bald head and watched Warrior-36 trip over his feet while trying to land from a long jump that was supposed to carry him into the middle of his ‘enemy'. Instead, the Warrior fell to the ground while receiving several direct hits across the back. The training program updated individual status on the DM’s heads up display.

"WATCH YOUR FEET!" The DM's voice squealed across the room from the external speaker in his suit. "TRIP ON THE GROUND AND YOU WON‘T COME BACK!" He decreased the speaker volume and turned to the Trainers watching with him.

Their three identically bald heads rotated toward him. TR-3 looked the oldest and--except for crow's-feet around his eyes--like TR-6's twin. TR-1, a young man with a square head and broad shoulders, towered so far over them that he required a specially fitted suit.

The DM glared at the Trainers. "You were supposed to have them ready for the reduced gravity. Instead, they're acting like New Growths on the first day out of the accretion tanks."

TR-3 cleared his throat. "The orders given to the Director of Repairs told to reduce the gravity by two percent instead of four. It's been corrected." He nodded toward one group of Warriors who broke cover and bounded across no-mans-land like people trying to learn how to run. "They're doing better than this morning."

The DM pointed at TR-6. "You were in charge of delivering those orders. What happened?"

TR-6 wilted. His face went blank. "I forgot to let the DR know when to reduce the cagnet field for the second time."

"You would've been removed from your position for such weakness before we arrived here. Instead, you get a warning. Fail me and you fail the Commander and our mission." The DM pulled his tagger. “Take off your helmet.”

TR-6 looked side to side. “Why?”

“Now.”

TR-6 took it off, collapsing instantly when the tagger beam hit him in the face.

The DM turned to the other Trainers. "You two are responsible for the reduced gravity training. I trust nothing else will be forgotten."

TR-1 and TR-3 nodded in unison.

"I want a full report on all Warriors and their progress, as well as the opinions of all Unit Leaders after the end of the current training cycle. Carry on." The DM spun on his heel and hurried away as they whispered among themselves.

Let them, as long as they carried out his orders.


0545

10.13.4100

The torque driver whined as the last bolt holding the control panel tightened. Luck had been on their side. The sterile seals on the cargo doors held for centuries as designed and kept the vehicles in pristine condition. None needed more then a systems check before being powered up, even though every had been exhaustively gone over.

Warrior 92 smiled, knowing he had done his part to make the deadline. There would be celebrations soon. Maybe a bit of alcohol. Approaching footsteps ended his daydream. He stood up and brushed his white coveralls into place.

"You're the last one finished." The DM's face looked stern as ever. His hand always hovered over the tagger plugged into the wide, nylon utility belt around his waste from which multiple tools could be attached. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

WA-92 felt his smile fade without his consent. "IIWe're finished by deadline. I had one of the Scouters added to my list because someone else had some delay."

"Indeed." The DM nodded. "Join everyone in lounge four. You have 12 hours leave. We’ve fallen behind and you have that time for R&R until your training cycle comes up."

The smile returned to WA-92’s face. "Yes, equal!"

"Get going. You get a zap if you're out here when I come back." The DM made a not so playful jab with the end of his tagger, laughed, and walked away.

WA-92 packed his tools. He knew the DM didn't joke.


0900

10.13.4100

The blue and white orb floating in space could have been Earth‘s lost sister. Only the land details distinguished them; landmasses had never looked as such on the Protectors terrestrial home world. A snaky continent ran along the equator with a jut of land turned north away from the main body until it disappeared under ice. The green of forests stood out most prominently alongside barren desert regions. Dark blue water lay to the north and south of the land. Ice caps reached halfway to the equator from both poles. Cloud cover hid half the globe, but radar filled in details missed with visible light.

They'd be landing soon.

Although, not as soon as the DM liked. He zoomed the view screen in on the planet with a few touches of the remote in his hand. Without the brilliance of the planet's sun, Yang Het, in the picture, the double moon system orbiting the planet stood out clearer. He vaguely knew that the star had been named for someone important and considered it a weak name, but kept such things to himself. That line of thinking neared mutiny.

A red dot appeared on the map that he used to block off a small section for magnification. Snow blanketed evergreens along a coastline wandering north could be seen after the screen readjusted. Green longitude and latitude lines appeared on the map along with two yellow circles with some curvy blue lines running from them. One encircled a dark patch labeled A. B indicated a large primitive town north of the burnt area.

"Equals and Overlord." The DM nodded to the four others sitting at the table. The Commander--or Overlord depending on how formal the greeter wanted to be--and the other three directors waited patiently for the update. "We’re looking at a primitive civilization. We suspect beings living at Site B are the same as those encountered by our initial scouting party at site A. The blue lines mark what is thought to be a road between them. Mapping beyond our immediate vicinity will take longer but we already know a much larger settlement lies to the west across a frozen plain a couple days away with the tech level these beings are at." The DM took a sip of water from a squeeze bottle.

"How long before we attempt to establish contact with these beings? We must have one for examination." The Social Director leaned forward on the table with her hands clasped before her.

"We're as interested in that as you," the DM said. "These things managed to kill one of our scouts. The men will be ready to launch at 0800 tomorrow."

The Commander nodded. "Thank you, Director. The floor is yours, Old Man."

The eldest of them, the Director of Repairs, pushed to his feet in a suit that hung on his frail body. "As of 0600, all operational transports were reported loaded. The Repairmen traveling to Alpha Base have been hypno-trained for the last forty-eight hours on how to set the perimeter up followed by Operation buildings. Even though the atmosphere only requires filtering for microbes, radiation at Site A cautions against removing helmets. There will be a shortage of suits once the colony population increases. We'll need to situate the main settlement away from the contaminated soil at Site A. We only await orders." He sat down.

The Commander pointed towards Eyes, the Science Director.

Eyes pushed his glasses up on his nose. The frames were pitted, bare metal from a millennium of use and said to have come from Earth itself. "Small scale uranium extraction can begin within a week of landing, and in a month our power requirements will be exceeded. Spawning can commence after the accretion vats are set up, but that can't happen until we know we're staying." He paused. "We still haven't come to a decision."

"Report to me privately when you have time." The Commander clapped and stood up. "At 0700 we will meet in the launch bay and address any last concerns. Carry on, equals."

The DM couldn’t hide his surprise as the Commander exited the room. Never before had he addressed them as equals, everyone was apt to use it as a form of informal address, but not the Commander.

Just more proof he grew weak. They needed a stronger leader to make sure the colony survived. Especially with the oddities found.


1300

10.13.4100

The Scout’s video from The Last Stop played on the huge screen built into the wall. Eyes watched it, trying to notice something he hadn't seen before. Only a few seconds of the recording showed the attacker, but the few images of the assault perplexed the whole science team assembled in the laboratory meeting hall. All the bald men in the room had been trained in the various sciences. Decades of study, research, and memory implants had made them experts in all fields. But none of them could explain the creature on the vid screen before them. No one could explain why a creature light years from Earth appeared to be human. Everyone argued back and forth about a dozen different theories.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-39 show above.)