Mongrel Nation VII: A Shyness That Is Criminally Vulgar

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

Van Ry drove the hummer till they only had about an hour of sunlight left. After stopping it, he did an inventory of stuff in the back of the hummer. He didn’t find much. While he fiddled with that, Kat wandered around the scrub, gathering sticks to build a fire. He already felt the night’s cold climbing through his coat. Kat didn’t feel good in the cold. He felt strongly motivated to get a fire started.

A rustling in the brambles halted him. The sound came from behind him—to his right—and low to the ground. He recognized the kind of sound in after a few breaths. Making no slow preparatory movements, he nonetheless prepared to make a move.

In a swift spin, he made two moves: he dropped his armload of wood, and he drew and threw a knife from its hiding place under his coat. The wood clattered to the ground. The knife flicked through the air—a tinkle and a pale glint in the gloaming light.

*

Van Ry watched a small battle. Urgent to almost a frenzy, but with the sureness of easy familiarity with the tools and techniques, Kat built a fire. By the set of his jaw, he looked like it was a conflict for his life. Van Ry left him to it, although he laid himself out in the dirt nearby and watched, leaning on his elbow.

Soon, flames flickered among the sticks in front of Kat. In a deliberate movement, like a gesture of supplication, Kat touched his fingers—just blackened by new soot—to his lips. He glanced up at Van Ry as he did. Kat looked mildly surprised and mildly irritated. Possible comments about Van Ry learning some manners efficiently prevented each other from escaping Kat’s mouth. While his mind hopped around, Kat drew a dead rabbit with a shattered head from his side to the dirt in front of himself.

“Good lord!” Van Ry said. “What did you do to that rabbit?”

“Knife to the head,” Kat said. He took out one of his knives and started skinning and cleaning the rabbit.

“You snuck up on a rabbit and stabbed it?” Van Ry said, and after a half second of considering it changed his thought about it. “No, that doesn’t make sense.”

With an arched eyebrow and an ember spark deep in his red-on-black eye, Kat glanced at Van Ry again. Instead of snapping one of the several things on his mind, Kat coughed. Probably for the best. The things he thought he might say all sounded a bit useless. He did say something, in the end. “I won’t eat all of this. You can have some.”

“Um…thanks,” Van Ry said, his tone very nearly inquisitive. For a few minutes he watched Kat’s deft little movements. Kat’s long fingers and sharp knife soon had the rabbit’s skin neatly removed. He got the internal organs out and into a neat pile on a flat rock. With a bit of string from some pocket somewhere on his outfit, Kat tied the rabbit to a longer stick. Leaning the rabbit-on-a-stick against another rock, he started it roasting.

“You do this a lot,” Van Ry said.

“I spent a while out here by myself,” Kat said. “Mostly by myself.”

“Hmm,” Van Ry watched the juices sizzling off the rabbit into the fire for a while. “Is that is?” He asked. Kat looked—glared, really—at Van Ry. “It’ll be a bit bland, is all. Don’t you…I mean, you seem like the type who’d give a shit about flavor.”

Kat coughed again. A few thoughts occurred to him—a few ways to respond. Before he thoroughly thought it through, he said, “Festal luxuries arrive at festal times.”

It made Van Ry laugh. Kat scratched the back of his neck, frowning, feeling the heat rise up his face. Van Ry wouldn’t be able to see it in the fire-flicker and thickening gloam. That was a comfort.

Without saying anything else, though humming a tune Kat didn’t recognize, Van Ry got to his feet. He sniffed around a little bit, then reached down among some of the bristly plants of the desert. After plucking something from the ground, he returned to the fire, rubbing his palms together. At the fireside, he sprinkled the leaves in his hands over the rabbit, rubbing the last flakes in the moist sides of the meat. The few flakes that crinkled into the flames puffed into little tales of smoke that smelled acridly of pepper and distantly of rain.

“Festal wild sage,” Van Ry said through a smirk. He went back to his patch of ground and laid himself out again, watching the stars blink on one after the other.

Kat kept an eye on the cooking of the rabbit. He decided that he would never mention that the peppery, rainy smell quite improved the oily, gamy smell of the rabbit. Rabbit had been growing boring lately.

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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.”

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 III: Thought Myself to Death

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

“We have about two minutes to decide if we’re going to be able to work together,” Van Ry said, lighting another cigarette. Kat’s cell stood open, the keys that Van Ry took off the unconscious guard still in the lock. Kat sat on the floor at the back of the cell, frowning with skepticism in every little wrinkle of his thin-lipped face. “Let me get this out of the way right now: you shouldn’t trust me. And, since we’re being honest with each other, I know why you’re in here.”

One of Kat’s thin eyebrows arched. “It’s not a mystery,” he said.

“So you say,” Van Ry said, his smile pouting and going crooked, like he would break into a sneer if no one stopped him. “Here’s how it’s going to be: either you come with me, or I walk out of here and let them walk into you like this,” Van Ry spread his hands to gesture to the whole, hot and dimly lit corridor of cells.

The keys in Kat’s open cell had come off a guard. The guard lay on the floor of another cell, stunned for now, with the cell door locked behind him. Van Ry had done it.

“They’ll know you did it,” Kat said.

“You really think so?” Van Ry said. “You think you can trust these people?”

If Kat was entirely honest, he wasn’t sure. What he felt for sure is that, on the spectrum of such things, he was a good guy compared to Van Ry. That had always counted for something in the past.

“Suit yourself, then,” Van Ry said. “Before you condemn yourself, then, I’ll warn you of this once, before we get all tangled up together: I like to prove my points.”

With that, Van Ry gave a lazy, kind of salute with the two fingers holding his cigarette. He left the cells.

Not sure what would happen, but entirely certain he didn’t want to face it without doing something, Kat calculated his possible courses of action. As soon as Van Ry got out of sight, Kat curled up to his feet. If the problem was going to be what it looked like in the cells, Kat would change what it looked like. He swept across the dirty floor of his cell, his nightmare-black coat shushing the air around him. At the door he jerked the keys out of the open door. From there, he meant to go and open the cell with the stunned guard. After that he planned to return to his own cell, lock the door, and throw the ring of keys toward the guard. At least if he did that it’d look like Van Ry had escaped by himself.

Parts of the plan felt counter-intuitive, like the part where he locked himself back in his cell and threw the key away. In a saner moment, he supposed he could consider the wisdom of the course of action. In this odd moment, he felt like all he could do was follow his instincts. In the name of his instincts, he tried one key after another to open the cell with the stunned guard. He did what he could to lie to himself about his trembling fingers and chattering heart.

Just as he found the key that slid into the keyhole with a promising ease, a shout interrupted him.

“Now, you jus’ ease yourself around, son,” a gruff voice said. Gruff—such an impotently overused term. Growling in the face of the sentiment, the calming, cigar-smoke-rasped voice of the sheriff fell cozily into the category of sound easily described as gruff. The sheriff of Ramshackle was named Chamfer. Kat liked him. Kat glanced at Chamfer out of his ember-glow red-on-black eyes, pricks of orange light in the shadowy cells.

“Jus’ you ease around,” Chamfer said. The attempt not to frown put uneven wrinkles in Chamfer’s dark brown face. “Consider yourself good and took. We’ll jus’ be taking you over to Sir Ramsey’s dungeons and all. You come quiet, and we’ll see our way around making the situation uncomfortable for you.”

Chamfer did not have his pistol drawn, although he had a large hand resting on the long-iron hanging on his hip. Several other people stood with Chamfer. One of them was Sir Ramsey, in his white suit, leveling a black crossbow at Kat. Sir Ramsey’s valet/bodyguard was there too. The bowler hat and poncho wearing valet had no weapons drawn, but that didn’t mean he had no weapons on him. With the others, Van Ry stood. Van Ry panted, as if he’d been running. He had somehow got a small wound on his forehead that bled a little down his pale face.

Several courses of action occurred to Kat while he stood there. The first thing he considered doing was to point out how odd it was to see Van Ry doing what he was doing. Clearly, Kat considered saying, Van Ry pulled one over on you gentlemen. Do you not see the reason in the situation? I, sirs, am being framed! Kat considered saying that.

Even thinking about it made his tongue feel like it tripped over his teeth.

So he considered his second course of action: going quietly. That smelled troublous; it went even further from being a good idea than his original attempted deception. Sir Ramsey’s dungeon was notoriously impregnable. Until they built a real jail, the lawmen of the area had been using Sir Ramsey’s dungeon for years to hold prisoners about whom they meant business. Kat supposed he could possibly plead his case over time from inside a cell in Sir Ramsey’s dungeon. The prospect felt frighteningly improbable. Besides that, Kat didn’t have time to stew in a dungeon for he could not say how long before an impending threat to Ramshackle fell on it and destroyed the whole town.

Feeling woefully trapped into the only other course of action he could imagine, Kat drew the set of keys from the lock of the cell. He sighed, frowned, and looked at Van Ry.

“Blackmail,” he said.

With a dismissive flicking gesture Van Ry shrugged behind a renewed smile. The other men all looked over at him, momentarily confused. Van Ry suddenly darted to the side to avoid the thing that Kat used their moment of confusion to start doing.

The bunch of keys clinked out of his hand and tinkled through the air. They smacked into Sir Ramsey’s cheek hard enough to cut his skin and leave a bruise. Crying out, Sir Ramsey jerked to the side. His hand convulsed. His trigger finger fired his crossbow bolt wildly. The click and whir of the crossbow caused enough disturbance to make Chamfer cuss and whip around. Chamfer had his pistol half out. Sir Ramsey’s valet drew a knife from somewhere under his poncho. All three men could attend to nothing but their surprise for the length of several calm heartbeats. Kat would have sworn, though, that his heart beat a hundred times in the few steps he ran to get to them.

At the last cell, Kat leapt. He kicked off the bars of the cell. Now able to fall from above and the side, Kat dropped his elbow into the side of Chamfer’s face. The elbow had all Kat’s strength and weight behind it. Chamfer’s head cracked around too fast. His neck turned too far. His body took over, determining that Chamfer didn’t know what he was doing, and it turned off for survival. Knocked unconscious, Chamfer fell to the ground, thumping like a sack of flour.

Of the three men, Sir Ramsey’s valet kept his head the best. His knife glinted like a spark in the shadows. The blade moved toward Kat. To avoid it, Kat turned in the air and fell backwards. Watching the big knife snick through the air, Kat flumped onto his back. He fell onto the body of Chamfer. Kat felt behind himself for something on Chamfer’s belt. The cold metal of the sheriff’s handcuffs slid into Kat’s hand. Tugging the cuffs with him, Kat rolled off Chamfer. He avoided a swipe of the valet’s knife.

Kat loomed to his feet with all the fluttering and shimmering black of a rising murder of crows. The valet thrust his knife at Kat again. With his left hand, Kat slid up the side of the knife’s blade. Then he grabbed the valet’s thick, warm, hairy wrist. Heaving and leaping, Kat pulled his much lighter self up and around the valet. He perched like a monkey on the coarse poncho across the valet’s broad shoulders. The valet began wildly turning, as if he could flail around to face Kat. Kat kept a hold on the neck of the poncho with most of the fingers of his right hand. He held the handcuffs in the curl of his pinky. With his left hand, Kat kept a tight hold on the valet’s knife hand.

The valet spun, trying to get at Kat, and swung his arm, trying to swipe Kat off. At the peak of one of the valet’s swings, Kat made a quick move. He clamped one end of the handcuffs around the valet’s wrist. The other end of the handcuffs he snapped around a heavy steel pipe running a few feet lower than the ceiling. The valet didn’t notice it happen. Almost comically, he tried to complete his knife-thrust down. His wrist jerked against the handcuffs and the pipe. The force of his swing tugged him a few inches off the ground.

Kat braced, then he leapt backwards. Curling, he flipped in the air. He landed in a crouch, his long hair flipped behind him.

In a grimy corner of the room, Van Ry stood, smirking and leaning like a spectator who, having bet on the fight, watched his investment make valuable returns. Van Ry idly shoved with his shoulders off the wall. He looked about ready to say something glib. Kat had no patience for that. Snatching Chamfer’s pistol from the floor, Kat swept across the room. With his right hand, Kat slammed Van Ry against the wall, lifting Van Ry off the floor by his leather vest. Kat pressed the tip of the pistol against Van Ry’s cheek. Under Kat’s thumb, the hammer of the pistol clicked back.

With the cold metal against his cheek, Van Ry’s expression changed. Kat expected that. But rather than a distortion of fear or desperation, nor even some extremity of cockiness, Van Ry smiled still. The smile, though, turned genuine, like seeing a friend.

“Yeah,” Van Ry said. “I think we’ll be able to work together.”

Mongrel Nation II: The Drunk of Ramshackle

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

Kat, a man in a black coat, dragged a swatch of canvas through the brambly desert. The swatch of canvas trailed the booted feet of a dead man. Kat frowned, in part from the effort, but mostly because of the snaggletooth fortress sitting rickety in the desert ahead of him. For the last several miles he could see the walls of Ramshackle, the biggest “town” around. Calling Ramshackle a town was a gracious title for the overbuilt shanty. Its jagged edges prickled up from the desert like the picked-over bones of some ancient carrion. For better or worse—mostly worse—Ramshackle maintained the dubious prestige of being the most stable and largest settlement within easy striking distance. In many senses it had been built out of mulishness and carved from a landscape of opposition. Because of it the people there clung together with a fierce patriotism, maintaining aggressive pride over their loosely united mongrel nationality. And Kat dragged the corpse and an unlikely story to explain it. He did not feel calm about it.

A long-cultivated instinct for survival kept tugging him away from Ramshackle. It caused him almost physical pain to ignore it.

One foot fell in front of the other. The canvas swatch and the dead body shushed through the dust behind him. He trudged forward, and he brooded on a failing of his: poor skills of persuasion.

He felt tempted to turn and run. He didn’t. He kept trudging, kept suppressing his surprise about it.

Eventually he got within shouting distance of the city. The guard on the gate peered out at him. Kat swallowed, trying to dampen his dry throat.

*

Not long after, he skidded across the dusty, piss-smelling floor of a holding cell. At that point it didn’t surprise him at all.

The sturdy door of the cell thunked shut. Kat took his time to creep to the wall and turn around to sit with his back to it. He felt like he should console himself with the thought that he had good intentions. It didn’t work much.

Through half-closed eyes he idly observed the dim holding cells. Light seeped through hundreds of worm holes in the walls, warming the shadows to enough of a mild fever to just make a penetrable dimness of what would have been a hot, black, dusty darkness.

There wasn’t much to see. Anchored in crudely poured cement at the bottom and welded to steel beams at the top, the several cells held only Kat and one other person. The cell walls were made of cobbled-together materials—a few cast-iron gates mangled to the right shape, chunks of cars, broken tools, bed frames—but they were heavily built. For a while Kat traced the lines of the crude-if-sturdy cell, more interested in the chaotic construction than any opportunity for escape.

In this place of half-formed, hurried construction, Kat stood out, and he knew it. He was tall, slim, and walked with the control of many long years of varied, meticulous training. He wore black clothes made—according to the person who had given them to him—of spider silk, shadows, and nightmares. They fit him like a second skin and shimmered like a snake. He looked designed, elegant, and the opposite of crude. The scavenging survivors of the world where he lived found him difficult to accept. He had not figured out a way to ingratiate himself to them. Probably the problem went deeper than the clothes he wore.

In the dimness, his roving red-on-black eyes glowed like two orange embers. He saw better in the dark than most people. After exhausting the admittedly poor entertainment in his cell, Kat looked elsewhere. The one other inhabitant of the holding cells occupied the cell across from Kat. The other person had chalk-pale skin, and black hair that looked damp. He had full lips and otherwise narrow features that he held in an effeminate way. Kat couldn’t tell what it was about the guy, he just looked womanish. To Kat, that sounded unfair, since he didn’t think of women in any particular way except as being…well, women. On women, being womanish looked natural. On this pale inmate, looking womanish seemed like a mask, like a caricature of woman.

The pale man leaned against the bars of his cell, his bare arms leaning lazily out. He looked utterly bored with where he was. With boredom like that, Kat didn’t find it remotely surprising that the man peered attentively at Kat.

Kat flicked two fingers in a vague hello. The pale man’s full lips curled in half a smile. The smile made his eyes look inclined toward mischief.

“You got away with it. I think they were totally fleeced,” the pale man said. Kat raised a questioning eyebrow. The pale man’s half-smile twitched on his face. “Not that you deserve it. Toaster and Bags are a couple of dumb-ass hounds,” the pale man continued; Toaster and Bags were the guards who had thrown Kat in the cell. “Anyone with, like, some small wit would have seen through your little charade.”

Kat sighed. In an idle gesture, he snapped his fingers and slapped his fist with the palm of his other hand. If he had been really committed to the deception for some reason, he might have tried to brush off this pale man, but he didn’t care quite that much. “I thought I did all right,” Kat said. “I put up a bit of a struggle.”

The pale man raised a thin, black eyebrow of his own. “Well, maybe you’re as dumb as they are.” From one of the many pockets in his slim-fitting leather vest, he produced a pack of cigarettes. Putting one between his full lips, he lit it from a match and started puffing.

Kat decided it wasn’t worth the energy to rise to that. So he didn’t.

“So here you are in the gloom,” the pale man said, leaning forward and stretching his back against the bars of his cell. “A brawler with all the obvious indelicacy of a thunderstorm and all the hidden precision of a mother’s slander. To what gain do you sit the low throne of thieves and drunks?”

Kat scratched his cheek then leaned his head on his hand and his elbow on his raised knee. He frowned at the pale man, yielding not the slightest inclination that he cared to engage.

“Oh, come on,” the pale man said, smiling fully and demonstrating clear excitement. He almost shook the bars of his cell, he wanted so much to know. “I’m going nowhere, and I assure you that I am inexorable. You have before you the option to either tell me of yourself or to have a lesson in the depth to the roots of your patience.”

For a few moments, the pale man leaned on the bars of his cell, the half-smile bending his face in the dimness, his cigarette loosening thin smoke from his hand.

Kat felt immediately inclined to argue by explaining the finer points of gargoyle hunting strategies, which could include sometimes weeks of motionless waiting no matter what weather or small creatures came to be bothersome. The second thing he felt inclined to do was to simply demonstrate some of those strategies.

Instead, after staring a few seconds at the pale man’s excited face, Kat decided he grew weary of working too hard to rationalize his actions. He picked the easiest path.

“Easier,” he said.

“Easier to do what, pray?” the pale man said.

“Easier to let them take me.”

“Easier than what?”

Kat sighed again, tiredly raising both his eyebrows at the pale man and reconsidering how easy this was. “Easier than explaining why they shouldn’t.”

The pale man took a drag at his cigarette, nodding and narrowing his eyes as if he felt included on the conspiracy. He took a few steps in his cell, flicking the ash off his cigarette. For a blessed moment, Kat thought he had abandoned the subject. The pale man opened his gob again.

“Do you think it would be easier to explain it here to me? You know, in this controlled and—moderately—safe setting,” the pale man asked. He had one hand in his pocket and stood near the middle of his cell. He didn’t look directly at Kat, seeming instead to have his gaze turned inside.

“No,” Kat said.

The sharpness of Kat’s tone seemed to amuse the pale man. He looked directly at Kat again, smiled—less widely than before. Then he sat on the cot at the back of the cell. He raised one knee and rested his cigarette holding hand there. The deep shadows washed him like a silent waterfall. Kat couldn’t see his face anymore. Mostly he saw the glow of the cigarette in a pale-skinned hand, sticking past the blackest of the shadows.

For a few silent minutes only the pale man moved, and he only moved to occasionally suck on his cigarette and blow out the smoke. He smoked the cigarette to the butt. Flicking the spent cigarette onto the floor in his cell where curls of smoke twisted off of it for minutes yet. He took another from the pack in his vest. In the momentary flash of the match in his face, Kat saw that the pale man had his eyes locked as before on Kat, rapt as one contemplating art.

“Do you want to get out of here?” the pale man asked, flicking the still-lit match to burn out in the dust on the floor. Kat shrugged. “I thought that everyone wanted freedom.”

“Freedom is a state of mind,” Kat said before he could stop himself. He snapped his mouth shut, figuring the pale man would laugh. He didn’t. Kat couldn’t tell if he had any distinct response.

“Well, if you’d like the opportunity to exercise that high ideal in more commodious quartering sometime soon, then your timing is good. My escape plan is coming to fruition as we speak. I’ll let you in on it, on one condition.”

“I finish my story,” Kat said. In a gesture of agreement, the pale man pointed the two fingers holding his cigarette at Kat then raised them like a pistol firing.

For a long moment, Kat just stared at the shadowy shape lounging on the cot. He couldn’t tell what to think about him. He seemed nuts and sincere at the same time. Not, Kat reminded himself, that those had to be mutually exclusive character traits. Either the pale man was a liar or he wasn’t. Mostly because Kat presumed he was a liar, Kat finished explaining.

“I know of a threat,” he said. “A threat to Ramshackle, and to everyone within a hundred miles. I’m kind of new to them. They don’t believe me.”

“Do you think they’d be convinced with evidence?” the pale man asked. In lieu of shrugging, Kat spread his hands apart. He didn’t know. The people of Ramshackle did logic and reason differently than people familiar to Kat. In the shadows, Kat could just see the pale man nodding. “That’s enough for me,” he said, taking a last drag at his cigarette, then stubbing it out on the wall behind his shoulder. “Hark, I do believe I hear my escape plan coming to, as it were, fruition.”

The door into the cell block from the outside opened. Bags the guard returned. He walked toward the pale man’s cell. “You sobered up enough to get the hell out, Van Ry?” Bags asked rhetorically. He went to the cell of the pale man and unlocked it. “This is, what, fifth time this month you been in here? Might be you should move along out of town sometime soon, ’fore you get a reputation as town drunk. We already got our share of those, Van Ry. Don’t need another.”

“What can I say?” the pale man, Van Ry, said. He rose to his feet, spreading his arms in an apologetic fashion. “The local rotgut is just so…enticing.”

“Yeah, well, you’d best get enticed by some other town’s moonshine,” Bags said. “Ain’t doin’ no good around here.”

“I shall bow to my adoring public,” Van Ry said, taking a deep bow.

Rolling his eyes and shaking his head, Bags turned away from Van Ry and the open cell. He glanced at Kat, opening his mouth to say something. Kat opened his mouth too, to warn Bags. Van Ry moved too fast, though. In a rough, deft move, Van Ry hurled Bags against the bars of the cell. Bags fell to the ground, stunned.

Kat was on his feet in a heartbeat. Not that there was anything to do. Van Ry dragged Bags into his cell. Taking the keys from the guard, Van Ry closed and locked the cell behind himself. Coming to lean on the bars of the door into Kat’s cell, Van Ry jangled the keys loosely in his hand.

“Want to know how the story ends?”

Kat swallowed. His throat was still dry, and his frown was still deep.

“I am not sure what just happened,” he said.

Van Ry’s half smile once again made his eyes brim with mischief.