Mongrel Nation VI: Delicate in Every Way but One

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

“You had nothing to do but to be yourself: this blood-letting badass kicker of all other asses. All you had to do was give them what they got hyped up for and let them die honorably. Nearly screwed up the easy part of the plan,” Van Ry said, his lips twisting into a sneer. “What the hell? Where did you grow a sense of mercy?”

So many thoughts. Kat didn’t know where to start. A plan? What plan? And he had no idea what to say to the stuff about the blood-letting and the mercy. In the middle of wondering what Van Ry meant by it all, Kat felt a strong impulse to retort. Anything that he might say jostled around his tongue, almost like a mouthful of warm ice. He couldn’t think where to start a retort either. He could have said something about Van Ry having stupid ways of executing plans, or he could have said something about mistaken perceptions. The two subjects collided in his head into a treatise about governing principles of sentient motivation.

Oppressed under the agitation of whirling words confusing anything he might have said, Kat leaned back into the seat. Heat grew under his collar from the agitation. “Painu helvettiin,” Kat muttered.

“Didn’t catch that,” Van Ry said.

Kat, almost lazily, raised his hand and extended his middle finger at Van Ry without looking.

Van Ry fell silent. Kat glanced at him. Van Ry’s sneer had a cheerful twist to it now, like he had started enjoying the moment. Nothing about the man made much sense to Kat.

For a few silent minutes Van Ry powered the vehicle across the dusty desert. He occasionally checked his mirrors to make sure they had no pursuers. They never did.

“Hummer,” Kat said.

“Hmm?” Van Ry said.

“I remembered what this thing is,” Kat said, pointing at the seat of the vehicle.

“Ah,” Van Ry said. “You really come from very far away, don’t you?”

Kat did come from far away. Thoughts of home warbled in a haze at the back of his head. The ashen, fiery heat, so like and unlike the dusty sunshine of the dessert—the sharp, dark grey stones, cracked in orange-glowing veins—the sky filled with dragons and dragon-herding spirits of fire and smoke and wind—the castles, the keeps, mostly subterranean, but with their tall towers scraping to the sky from craggy mountains.

Yes. Quite far away. He had no interest in talking about that place. So he said nothing. He stared at the wobbly division between the red-brown horizon and the empty blue sky.

“Can I ask you something?” Van Ry asked.

“If I could stop you I would,” Kat said.

“I respect that,” Van Ry said, then asked his question anyway, which is what Kat expected to happen. “What went wrong?”

You walked into my life, Kat wanted to say, but decided that answered too broadly. He guessed—in spite of no evidence—that Van Ry had a more specific thing in mind. “When?”

“Back there,” Van Ry said, gesturing vaguely behind himself. “Back in the sheriff’s office. Why did you have so much trouble with them? You’re the world’s first-in-line badass.”

“I don’t understand,” Kat said.

“You haven’t heard your odious reputation?” Van Ry asked. Kat’s eyebrows lowered. He had not. Van Ry saw it in his face. “You’re responsible for numerous destructive acts. You destroyed at least Cauldron Outpost—blew it up with its own ordnance cache.”

“I didn’t do that,” Kat said. “I was there. A dragon did that.”

“Oh,” Van Ry said. He sniffed. “Free advice for you.”

“I did not ask for your advice.”

“Keep that to yourself,” Van Ry said anyway. “It could be convenient to maintain a reputation as a man capable of destruction on a huge scale.”

Except, Kat thought, for times when people like Van Ry make misguided assumptions because of said false reputation and corner him into impossible situations.

“Still,” Van Ry said. “You were little lover of all the underground fighting rings. I know you’re good in a fight.”

“Good is relative,” Kat said, his ire rising and his tone growing clipped. “Fighting is only one tool. I am not a brawler.”

“Then what are you?”

“I am a tactician,” Kat said. “I would have avoided that fight.”

“Hmm,” Van Ry said again. He thought about it for a few seconds, then he nodded. “I understand.”

Kat took a long breath, letting it out slowly. He felt tired, and let his eyes close part way.

“You seem to have heard a lot about me,” Kat said.

“I hear a lot about everything,” Van Ry said.

“You acted like you had never heard my name,” Kat said.

“I still haven’t,” Van Ry pointed out.

“Katriel Këkale,” Kat said.

“Tiff Van Ry,” Van Ry said, tapping the front brim of his hat and smiling crooked. “’Sides, none of the rumors about you have your name attached.”

Kat took another long breath, this one nearly a growl. “So you guessed who I am,” Kat said.

“Yes I did. It was the glowing eyes gave you away, mostly.”

“Your plan, such as it was, required that I was a person who you only knew by rumor,” Kat said, only kind of asking.

“Kind of gives the whole situation a tingly sort of excitement, doesn’t it?”

“Why?” Kat said. “Why would that be a good idea?”

“Gambling, Kat,” Van Ry said. “It wasn’t a good idea. It was a gamble. Besides, if I couldn’t get to you, I was still home free.”

“Reasonable,” Kat said, sighing. It was reasonable, though hardly comforting.

A few more minutes passed in silence. Van Ry drove the Hummer off road and toward a hill, along a route familiar to him. Kat tried to make note of the way, in case he found himself in need of escape. He found it difficult to navigate in the area, though, and settled for memorizing as many landmarks as he could.

“Judgment,” Van Ry said, in a tone that said that Kat ought to understand. Kat did not, so Kat shrugged. “That’s the name attached to your odious reputation, in case you were curious.”

“It’s not very flattering,” Kat said in a flat voice.

“Oh, I don’t know. It’s somewhat of a compliment, in the right light,” Van Ry said. Kat shrugged again. “It’s the scariest thing they can think of around here.”

Kat thought about that for a few minutes, frowning. Eventually, he said, “I’m not I like that.”

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Mongrel Nation Sideways Tales: Fairy Dust I: Fairy Dust

Fantasy, Mongrel Nation, Rime-on-Heartsease, Shatter Zone

Humans would call it a fairy ring. The fairies there called it Landing Zone Four. The thirty meter diameter dwarfed any casual fairy ring that usually appeared on Earth. Aside from having a somewhat nodular shape like a mushroom, the glowing transport nodes that made its circle bore only limited resemblance to the toadstools that made most fairy rings. The nodes glowed white-blue and shined some distance into the sky. Pale wisps whipped up from the nodes periodically, looking like they ought to sweep through the air with a swishing sound, when in fact no part of the fairy ring made any sound at all. It glowed, a bright ring of cold light, making the grey dusk outside of the ring look dark as night. Soon, supplies to outfit a reasonably sized military tower would emerge in the fairy ring, available for the use of the maneuver’s commander, the Base Auspex, whose name was Rime-on-Heartsease. Before that could happen, they had the fairy dust test to complete. The local the fairies had captured lay on a stone table in the middle of the fairy ring, silver chains tethering his slim body down. A fairy carried a syringe toward the prisoner. The new fairy dust formula had been mixed into a saline compound; the hypnotechs had discovered a liquid injection made the fairy dust compound mainline in the subject faster. Aside from the natural dejection expected from getting overpowered and chained to a stone table, the prisoner expressed no fear about the slightly glittering syringe moving toward his arm.

“Poor misguided soul,” Rime said. He put a hand on the prisoner’s shoulder. He meant the gesture as a comfort. When it came to it, though, he couldn’t think of anything comforting to say. Gripping briefly, Rime nodded.

The other fairy pushed the needle of the glittering syringe into the prisoner’s arm. All of the contents slid into the prisoner’s bloodstream.

It took swift effect. Rime had never seen it happen so fast, the drain of color so the subject looked frozen—the softening of muscles as if the subject slept. The thing that made it most uneasy to Rime was the quiet. It seemed like the wrong way to respond.

“Did he have a name?” Rime asked the other fairy. “Or, I mean, did you know his name?”

“Jericho,” the other fairy said.

Rime nodded. “Jericho,” Rime said. Jericho turned his low-lidded eyes toward Rime. “Jericho, can you hear me?”

Jericho swallowed. “Yes,” he said without much breath.

“Jericho, I need you to do something. Would you do something for me?” Jericho nodded again. “Hold your breath, Jericho.”

Jericho swallowed again. He closed his lips. His chest stopped its slow movement up and down. Rime waited for a second, just to make sure he was holding his breath. Then, taking a sharp and finalized breath, Rime said to the other fairy, “Tell me when he’s dead. We’ll start his outfitting as soon as possible.”

Rime left the stone table to send word back to Fairyland. He composed his report in his head. It began: Preliminary tests prove promising. Send more fairy dust…

Mongrel Nation V: For You to Bathe in Glory You Must Be Doomed to Fail

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

It made Kat nervous that he felt like he could trust nothing about Van Ry except their common purpose: avoid captivity. Kat had not decided whether to list Van Ry under “assets” or “liabilities.”

“Just don’t do anything stupid,” Kat said to Van Ry. “For as long as we maintain control of the situation, we—no, what the hell are you doing?” Kat interrupted himself, swiping to grab at the flipping end of Van Ry’s coat. Van Ry, getting to his feet, went straight for the door out of the sheriff’s office. Van Ry smirked at Kat. Then, his expression turning into a good impression of panic, Van Ry hurled himself wildly at the door. The door burst open under his weight. Sunshine flowed into the dim sheriff’s office. Van Ry sprawled out the door.

Kat jumped to his feet, his heart rattling under his ribs. A hundred impotent curses and inquiries jumbled for place behind his teeth, succeeding in only gagging him. From outside the door, Kat heard Van Ry.

“Shit!” Van Ry mewled. It was a tone much like the yelp of a bully who discovered a bigger and badder bully. “He’s gone crazy! Get him away from me!”

Kat almost looked out the door after Van Ry, then remembered that would be stupid. Instead, Kat fell with his back against the wall between the door and the boarded-up window. He didn’t know quite what would happen next, but he couldn’t think what to do about it except assume a defensive position.

Above the pumping blood in his ears, Kat heard snippets of speech from outside. “—alone in there,” Kat heard from Van Ry, then a question. Van Ry said something that sounded like, “unarmed.”

Kat had a second to feel betrayed—to suffer a tightness across the throat. He tried to tell himself not to be surprised, at least. It shouldn’t have surprised him. The next thing to happen ought not to have either. It was what he would have done, if the situations had been reversed. It still surprised him.

The boards over the window exploded. Kat flinched. Splinters clattered into the room. The light increased. The sharp contrast between the large patches of sunshine and darkness made it hard to distinguish details in either. The boards on the window on the other side of the door exploded too.

Kat took a moment to do two things. First, he assessed for a breath. On his left, two big guys with shotguns—on his right, three with machetes. The rubble sloughed from their broad backs, pattering to the ground. The chunks of concrete that broke the windows in for them had broken up the furniture in the room and left most of the floor cleared. None of them had looked at Kat yet. The moment felt tranquil.

The second thing Kat did was to resign himself to how fucked he was. Which he found quite relaxing, for the moment.

Trying not to immediately invite the attacks of the twelve armed people still outside the sheriff’s office, Kat lunged to his feet. The people with shotguns and machetes had not got used to the confusing light yet. Kat pressed that advantage. He moved quickly between light and shadows. His fists and feet wildly struck around at ribs, knees, necks. Kat managed to drop two of them in the first few seconds—one clutching his groin, and the other unconscious on the ground with his head turned almost too far. Because of the close quarters, none of Kat’s attackers shot at him. That didn’t give Kat an advantage; he kept having trouble tracking on the people he fought. They kept getting behind him. It was only through flexibility and brute strength that he had avoided their grasping arms so far. The rest of the guys outside filed in, taking their time as if waiting in line at a carnival game. With every passing heartbeat, Kat felt himself losing any meager control he had over the fight.

In a day already head-aching with twists, Kat felt numb to the next one.

A stuttering roar loomed close from outside. Then a shattering crash interrupted his fight. Preceded by two, round, unnatural yellow lights, a big metal object crashed through the front of the building. Rubble clattered everywhere. Plaster dust burst into the air. The people who weren’t crushed aside dove out of the way. The object slid to a halt—its wheels grinding in the dust. Grit sluiced over Kat.

The door in the vehicle’s side clunked open. Van Ry sat inside at the steering wheel. He made eye contact with Kat. Kat needed no further signal. He darted the two steps to the vehicle and jumped inside.

Van Ry clunked the shifter next to the steering wheel. The engine in the vehicle roared, and it grumbled swiftly backward out of the front of the sheriff’s office. From there, Van Ry executed a tight turn that, in the dust outside, got the vehicle skidding. Kat almost fell out of his open door, the vehicle spun so hard. When the nose came all the way around, Van Ry chunked it into a different gear. He slammed his foot down on the accelerator. The vehicle thudded forward, knocking Kat against the seat. His legs still hung outside the vehicle and the door thudded against his knees. It was about the worst pain he’d felt that day. He didn’t pay much attention to what Van Ry was doing for a second, concentrating instead on pulling himself all the way into the cab. By the time he had a more solid seat and the door slammed shut after himself, Van Ry had wended or broken a path through Ramshackle. Ahead, the way was clear except for the heavy front gates, which were being drawn closed by two big guys.

“This truck won’t get through those gates if they get them latched,” Van Ry said. “They’ll get them latched before we get there unless something happens.”

With a snarl of annoyance, but no further thought, Kat unlatched the door again. In a few snaky movements he climbed on top of the vehicle. It had a luggage rack. He braced his feet in the luggage rack. One from each hand, he flicked two knives from hidden places under his coat. The knives glittered through the air. Then the two big guys at the gate stumbled, each with a knife in the back of their knee. No longer capable of pulling the heavy gates closed, the two big guys now bleeding in the dirt had no greater interest than pulling themselves out of the way before the big vehicle zoomed through the partly closed gate and out into the scorching desert.

Kat took a calm breath. He turned to watch Ramshackle’s bent and broken silhouette widen then begin receding. No one set out to pursue them. Not yet, anyway. Somewhat comforted, Kat slipped back into the cab of the vehicle.

He slammed the door behind himself and sunk into the seat. Relieved to have an opportunity to breathe easy, Kat took a long breath.

“Well,” Van Ry said before Kat finished exhaling. “You almost bollixed that up, didn’t you?”

Mongrel Nation IV: I Got a Wooden Medal and a Fine Harangue; if You Want to Be a Hero Follow Me

Fantasy, Katriel, Mongrel Nation, Shatter Zone, Tiff Van Ry

Kat faded into a head-achy, dehydrated haze. Heat itched at him. After a second he remembered why his head hurt and why the heat-wavering blue sky stretched down infinitely below his feet from an emptiness of brown, crusty desert over his head. I am upside down, he reminded himself, from a rope around my ankle.

A face pushed toward him. Every feature of the hairless face was sharp, including the teeth in its thin-lipped grin. The person pushed his aviator sunglasses down off his eyes to look more closely at Kat.

Kat swallowed, trying to wet his dry throat so he could talk. He didn’t manage the swallowing very well, but he breathed out a few dusty words anyway.

“You Coon?” Kat asked.

“Yeah,” Coon said. “Going to do something with the information?”

Kat nodded, realizing it probably looked odd since his chin was going up. “I am here to collect on your bounty, sir. Prepare to be arrested.”

Coon’s smile twisting, he pulled his bowie knife from his thigh sheath and held its tip against Kat’s throat.

“How’s that again?”

Kat tried again to swallow—gave up. “Trust me,” Kat said.

Coon just kept smiling.

*

Kat calculated. He looked at the face of Van Ry, smiling under the pressure of the pistol in Kat’s hand, and aligned variables with constants, and Kat from there extrapolated possibilities.

In light of a conclusion, Kat let go of Van Ry. Van Ry slumped to his feet, struggling to keep upright against the wall behind himself. When Van Ry righted himself, he found the pistol shoved into his face again, but this time Kat held out the handle.

“Awfully trusting, aren’t we?” Van Ry said, looking up at Kat. Kat’s lips pressed together in a harsh frown.

“I am not happy about this,” he said. “I don’t trust you.”

“That makes one of us,” Van Ry said, taking the pistol.

Kat considered asking which of his statements Van Ry applied that to, but he let it go. Turning on his heel, Kat strode toward the door out of the cells.

“What do you expect me to do now?” Van Ry asked. He pointed the pistol at Kat’s back, sighting along the barrel.

“Survive,” Kat said, expressing not the slightest worry. “Now you are my accomplice.” With those words, Kat pointed at Sir Ramsey’s valet. The big man still hung by the handcuffs attaching his wrist to the pipe hanging from the ceiling. The valet stared from under thick eyebrows out small eyes at Van Ry.

“Like repays like,” Kat concluded. He pushed through the door to get out of the cells.

“That bitch,” Van Ry muttered. He swallowed, scratching his cheek with the barrel of the gun in his hand. “Any way we can talk this one out?” he asked the valet. The valet shook his head. Van Ry nodded. “That’s fair, I guess.”

In the front room of the sheriff’s building, Kat raided a locker. The dusty shafts of hot sunshine dropping through the slatted windows made Kat’s outline fuzzy. His nightmare-black coat distorted light oddly. His movements looked dreamlike in the uneven, crooked light.

Kat glanced over his shoulder when he heard Van Ry. “These are yours, I think,” Kat said, pulling a bundle of items out of the locker. He dropped the bundle on a solid table in the middle of the room. The table was otherwise covered in maps and papers. The stuff scattered under Van Ry’s bundle of items. Before Van Ry picked it up, Kat moved toward the front door of the building, sliding the last of his knives into a sheath on the back of his forearm. He had several knives on his person now—recovered from the locker where Chamfer put them after confiscating them. Four of Kat’s knives were visible—two on his forearms and two on the outsides of his boots. All the others were hidden under his ankle-length, nightmare-black coat.

In several steps that shushed like dead leaves in wind across the cement floor, Kat moved to crouch with his back against the wall and look out the window. Scoping. That was clearly his intention: scoping the situation.

Van Ry raised his thin black eyebrow in his effeminate pale face. He started tugging the bundle of his things apart.

“You try too hard,” he said. “Do you think anyone out there is as careful as you?” Van Ry pulled on his own long coat, putting his wide-brimmed black hat on. “You have no reason to be so disciplined.”

Kat looked back at Van Ry, his face blank. He considered retorting with something trite—something about how Kat had the world against him and a weird compulsion to save that same world. The words wouldn’t take shape in his mind. They kept rearranging themselves behind his eyes, and he couldn’t think of a striking way of saying “I need to save everyone who’s hunting me.” It felt annoying. He kept quiet, glancing out the window again.

“Sir Ramsey got away—he’s out there,” Kat said. Van Ry squatted near the window, watching Kat assess the view out the window. “He has seventeen men with him. Four shotguns. Three rifles. Five crossbows. Twelve pistols—only four drawn. Many knives, and a lot of improvised clubs… Is that a horse’s thighbone? Paska.”

“What are they doing?” Van Ry asked.

“Waiting,” Kat calculated outcomes. He assessed visible angles and known resources. None looked promising. Idly, not really thinking about the question, he asked, “In your version of events, what did you plan to do at this point?”

“Plan is the wrong word,” Van Ry said. “If I’m consigned to it, then the ‘plan’ didn’t include oversights like the ‘bad-ass’ letting the weakest of his opponents get away. The ‘plan’ didn’t include people out there realizing anything amiss till I got further away.”

“And I was assuming you weren’t an optimist,” Kat said.

“What?” Van Ry said, surprised into feeling convinced he’d misheard Kat.

“Nothing. Have you revised your plan yet?”

“See, that’s where our communication here seems to fall apart,” Van Ry said. “To say I ‘plan’ would be unfair to people who make a living out of defining things.”

“Provide a better label,” Kat suggested.

“I react,” Van Ry said.

“That sounds suicidal,” Kat said.

“I have not yet died,” Van Ry said.

Kat made a few choices about the things he saw outside the window. He looked around in the room, rough-lit as it was by slatted sunshine, and he reminded himself of the things he could use here too.

“Did you shoot him?” Kat asked, nodding toward the door to the cells where Sir Ramsey’s valet still hung by his wrist.

“No,” Van Ry said, his tone surprised.

“I expected you to shoot him,” Kat said. “It would have been more to your advantage.”

“I seem like that kind of guy to you?” Van Ry asked. The thought brought back his crooked smile.

“You seem like a pragmatist to me,” Kat replied. “Take in your surroundings. These are your circumstances. How will you react?”

His gaze turning inward, Van Ry stroked the side of his chin—a thoughtful gesture. “I know what I’ll do next,” he said quietly, through a thoughtful smile. “Want to know a better question? I know a question that’ll have way more to do with our survival than what I’ll do.”

“Is the question, ‘What will Kat do about what Van Ry does’?” Kat asked.

Looking Kat full in the face, Van Ry’s smile turned again, and again unexpectedly, genuine. “Shnikies, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he ain’t dumb,” Van Ry said.