The Eighth Rune Ch7

So now I’m even killing myself, he thought after he had awoken with a jolt, keenly aware of the emptiness in his hands as the sheet of metal, the one that had gutted him like a fish in the kitchen, and the sharp bit he had broken off some machine to jam into his brain were no longer in his grasp. As he touched his head, feeling the injury-free part of him that only moments before had been the gruesome resting place of a razor-sharp edge, he couldn’t help but feel like he had crossed a new line. Previously, he had been killed. He had suffered every kind of wound imaginable. This time, however, he hadn’t been killed exactly. Perhaps he had been from a certain point of view–Acwel’s carelessness was the cause of his disembowelment, after all–but who had ultimately caused his death was truly a matter of interpretation: The immediate events that lead to Edgard’s choice were out of his hands, but he had been the one to execute the final blow. He had been the one to finish the job and murder himself.

It had left an impact too. It had left him with a sinking feeling in his stomach with every recollection of what he had done. He had skipped breakfast, dressed in the quickest fashion possible and started running to Hilda’s before his brain ever stopped focusing on the sensation of his most recent dance with death. In fact, even as he was standing in front of Hilda’s place, staring at the painting on her wall of the angels clearing the path for the woman in the woods, he could still feel his stomach churning and his mind continually wandering as it failed to follow a single thought for more than a few seconds.

Recovering from his slight torpor, he spent nearly fifteen minutes just standing there, his eyes moving back and forth over the painting without any purpose as he tried to breath deeply in order to settle his stomach. The time didn’t matter. It was okay if he just stood there. He wasn’t in a rush today. He already had all the parts he would need and would have hours to spare if he ignored his work and didn’t get caught up in trying to convince anyone to leave. If he just took a minute or two to talk to Hilda on his way to the church, everything would be fine. Yeah, everything will be perfectly fine. He took a deep breath and let the usual feeling of calm that came from looking at the painting finally wash over him.

“Edgard?” Hilda’s voice broke his thoughts in the same fashion it always did, shattering his zen but bringing its own form of peace as it washed over his ears. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”

“I was planning on breaking up with Mae and asking you out today . . . if you’ll have me, that is,” he blurted out. Wow. Looks like my tongue is moving faster than my brain this time . . . but my brain wouldn’t protest. I want to know what she thinks about me. He smiled at Hilda. He hadn’t even been talking to her for a week straight, and he was already thinking about her more than he wanted. He was already wondering what she thought of him.

“Wait, you’re going to break up with Mae? Does she know this?” Hilda took a half step back.

“Well, yeah. I mean, I can’t date two girls at once, can I?” Edgard shrugged off the question. Why am I so confident about this? half of him wondered, but the other half already knew the answer. It’s because I know this doesn’t matter. I’m just a dead man walking again. He chuckled to himself, likely giving Hilda the impression he was chuckling at the joke about dating two girls at once. She’s going to think I’m the type of person to laugh at my own jokes, isn’t she? He chuckled again. Well, that seals it.

“What if I say no?” Hilda asked, taking another small half step backwards, growing closer to her door as she bit her lower lip.

“Then I’ll be very sad because I like you a lot.” Edgard kept his answers as honest as possible. There wasn’t a point in lying here after all. It would just waste time.

“I mean, would you still break up with Mae?” She asked.

“Yeah.” He didn’t hesitate. Of course I’m going to break up with that cheating harlot, he wanted to spit, but he kept his cool. “The more I learn about her, the more I realize I just don’t care about her at all anymore.”

“Hmm . . .” Hilda’s two front teeth nibbled across her lower lip even more as she pondered his response for a moment, twisting her hair as she inched even closer to the door. “Well . . . I, I, umm . . .”

“You don’t have to go out with me, Hilda. Maybe we could just start with friendly a walk instead?” he offered as he noticed that his forwardness had put her on edge.

“No, I want to,” Hilda said as she shook her head and stamped forward.

“Go for a walk?” He knew what she meant, but, since she had taken her time answering, he thought it would be fine to take his time teasing her too.

“No, I mean, I want to–”

Edgard didn’t let her finish the sentence before interrupting her again. “See your brother about it first? I understand. He’ll probably be furious if he finds out that I’ve had a crush on his little sister for years.” He had to stop himself from chortling.

“You’ve had a crush on me for years?” She changed her tune immediately.

Drats, I need to be careful with what I say around girls. They are far more attentive to language than most of the Brothers I talk to. “Well . . . yeah? Sorry.”

“You should be. If you had told me sooner, we could have saved ourselves a lot of hassle and time!” She hit his arm. It looked like she was putting in a lot of force for the strike, but it ended up just being a light swipe, not enough to hurt a child.

“Hey, easy there. It’s not like you said anything either,” he responded, shifting the blame. Then a thought on how to tease her further came into his head. “I mean, Derian said that you always had a thing for people from the Flame Guild.”

Hilda’s face turned red. “I DO NOT! UGH! I will kill him!” she growled, fuming. “He knows how much I hate people from the–” She stopped mid-sentence and straightened up her face. “He knows how much I don’t like people from that guild. He also knows how much I . . .”

“You what?” Edgard pressed as soon as she went mute.

“How much I liked you too . . .” Her eyes found their way to her own feet.

Wow, she is so cute right now. Edgard was momentarily stunned. “Well, that’s good because I like you too, but I think that walk would still be nice.”

“Oh, okay, just give me a second.” Hilda disappeared behind the door and emerged again after a few moments, her hair and outfit straightened and her face just as flushed as it was during their awkward confessions moments ago. “I’m ready.”

“Great, but, you know . . . at this rate, I’m going to be late for work.” Edgard wasn’t at all worried about that, he just wasn’t sure where to go with the conversation now. What once had been a very natural process, talking to Hilda, now felt more difficult than running had felt a few days before.

“Well, we could race there to make up some time?” she offered, just as he expected. He knew she was better at running than he was, given how sorely he had been crushed in the last few races, but he wanted to anyway. It was fun, and he was getting used to feeling winded.

“You’re on!” Edgard said as he took off. Making sure to start as soon as possible before Hilda had time to realize he consented to the race. At most, it only gave him a second lead, but that second was desperately needed in any race with the light-footed Hilda of the Hunters Guild.

“That’s no fair! You cheater!” Hilda yelled as she struggled behind him momentarily, taking almost fifteen breaths to pull up on his side.

Edgard looked at her as she ran beside him, wanting to say something to the degree of ‘well, your years of having an outdoor job should be counted as cheating,’ but refraining as he knew he wouldn’t have the air to waste on talking. He was already feeling winded from the sprint.

As Hilda’s lithe form pushed in front of him, taking the lead after thirty or forty breaths, Edgard found it hard to be upset at losing. She was as beautiful from the back as she was from the front. Wait, don’t stare there, Edgard. Control your eyes! he internally yelled at himself as he noticed where his gaze had landed. When the shortage of breath finally caught up to him, he stopped and immediately grabbed his knees for support as he bent over and gasped for breath. “Stop!” he yelled, remembering how far ahead she had been the last time he lost, but this time it wasn’t needed. She had halted as soon as he did, only ten or fifteen feet in front of him.

She was breathing raggedly too–granted, not nearly as badly as Edgard, but it was enough for him to hear it over the hubbub of people walking past them on the other side of the street. “When . . . did . . . you . . . learn how . . . to run?” she managed. “I was not . . . expecting that at all.”

“Huh?” He looked up. When did I learn to run? He found himself asking the question too as he looked at how far he had traveled. The first time I raced her, I couldn’t even make it more than a few blocks before I was laid out like a fresh kill, murdered by my own physical ineptitude. This time, she isn’t far ahead of me, and she’s just as winded as I am. What could have– His hand touched his chest. To any onlooker, it may have seemed as if he were being smitten by God like so many old men who pushed their limits running, but it was just his clutching at the rune on his chest. It has to be the rune. He looked at where Hilda was and then around him. In theory, if I were simply repeating the same day over and over again, then wouldn’t I be just as weak as I was when the day first started? If it just sent me back to the time before I died, then I would be occupying the body that existed at that time, wouldn’t I? That same weak body I started with . . . so why am I able to run both faster and for a longer period of time? It doesn’t make sense.

“I wasn’t expecting you to even come close to keeping up with me,” Hilda said, her breathing having steadied out.

“Oh, well, I have to be honest: I wasn’t either,” Edgard was able to say without lying. After all, that unexpected surprise was forcing him to rethink his entire reality.

I wonder if that means I’m aging, too? He looked at his hands. There was no way to tell if his body was a few days older than it should be, but, if escaping his current cycle took years, any accumulated effects of aging would eventually become very self-evident. It would definitely look weird if he had a full head of gray hair before he hit twenty.

“I wasn’t born yesterday, Edgard. There is no way you could keep up with me if you haven’t been training for a while.” Hilda straightened up, her smile belying the accusation of her words. “Especially not if your job has you sitting around all day.”

“Well, maybe I have practiced a bit.” Before I died those times and all, he added in thought, careful not to let his face tell the story he was hiding. “But I definitely thought you’d be faster.”

“Why? It’s not some silly reason like how hunters are all supposed to move like the wind so our prey can’t escape?” She nodded her head in the direction of the church, and they both started walking as she talked.

“No . . . no, it’s more like because of your . . .” He trailed off, his eyes slowly falling to the ground as he realized he was about to say, ‘because of all the times you beat me handily before,’ and confuse everything.

“Edgard, just because I have a nice rear doesn’t guarantee I’m good at running,” Hilda joked, blushing.

Edgard, who hadn’t realized where his eyes had settled until she pointed it out, also blushed and found himself coughing twice as he almost choked on his embarrassment. “I’m sorry!”

“Sorry you looked or sorry you got caught?” Hilda’s wicked grin reappeared.

“You like to trap people with words, don’t you?” Edgard noted.

“It is a hunter’s job. You know we have a lot of domesticated animals, but there are still plenty of wild ones, even mean and ugly ones that can kill people.” She lifted her hands above her head and flashed her teeth like a menacing beast. “Big, scary ones! Ones that go ‘rawr’!”

“Wait, you have to kill animals that might come into the town?”

“Of course we do.” Hilda shook her head. “Did you think the world is all sunshine and rainbows? Out there, there are beasts and demons and God only knows what waiting to kill us. For some reason, they don’t enter past the colorful wall of trees just bordering the town, but they might change their mind and snack on us one day. That’s why we hunters are responsible for tracking and killing them.”

“How do you do it though? I mean, you’re not exactly . . . Wait, are you a good fighter?” Edgard didn’t know one way or the other.

“No, the Growing Guild and Flame Guild might be more adept at actual fighting than us hunters. We have to be patient, lure the target, avoid a fight.”

“So you kill without fighting?” He could already see where this was heading, but he wanted to hear the words anyway.

“Yeah, with this.” She tapped her head. “The first trick, the most important trick, is to identify what you’re up against and what it wants. This can sometimes be easy if you’re fighting a beast with sharp teeth. They almost always want meat. It’s the flat-toothed, violent herbivores you have to be careful about.”

“And then?” Edgard was hanging on her every word. He was about to set a trap, but she was the master. Even though he knew how to build the bomb now, there still wasn’t a guarantee that the killers would fall victim to his makeshift assassination attempt.

“Well, once you know what they want, you get it! Of course! After all, you’ll need it to lure the prey in. But here’s where the tricky second step comes in. Any hunter who is worth her salt knows that you can’t layer an entire area with traps, so you have to lead the victim with the . . . we’ll say meat for now. We’ll pretend like it’s just a common rabid mutt we’re taking out.”

“Victim?” He couldn’t help but latch onto the word. If it’s a violent animal that might one day kill a person, how is it the victim when you take it out?”

“Don’t be so callous! Even if they are killing, they are just completing their function. We must kill them the same way they must kill us. It’s the victim because it lost, of course. Every hunter knows that”–Hilda stopped mid-step–“which is probably why you don’t. Sorry!”

“Heh, actually, it is my bad, I suppose. You’re right, but I’d rather it be the victim than me.” He winced as the memory of one of his recent deaths flooded to the surface of his mind.

“Right, so where were we?” Hilda put a finger to her lip, but, before it even touched, Edgard had already started answering her.

“You’re talking about leading the victim.”

“Indeed! Traps are simple and deadly and very anti-climatic, but they need the victim to follow a certain route. That’s why, when you’re trying to lure a victim to its death, you often use natural terrain to pull it onto the path of your choosing. Make sure it can’t come from one direction because of a river on that side, place it between trees to shorten the width of its steps. It’s hard, but you have to think of every step the prey will take before you can put the trap down because, if you don’t, it’ll escape . . . or worse. It’ll eat you!” Hilda did her rather cute attempt at being a menacing bear again, flashing her white teeth for a moment before her face and body closed up in laughter.

“You’re adorable–” Edgard said before his brain turned back on. But, once it was on, she was the last thing on it. He was putting together in his head everything she said. Of course she knew best how to handle a violent intruder. She’s been doing it for a while. But what do they want? What is it that this group is after?

“Well, thank you. You’re pretty cute yourself.” Her laughter faded, but her smile didn’t, as she brushed her hair away from her face.

Cute? Not handsome, manly, or charming? Cute? Edgard somehow found the word to be more offensive than complimentary, but didn’t want to tell her that. Well, whatever makes you happy and gets me the date, he thought. “Thanks for the advice, but it looks like we’ll have to cut the conversation short. We’re here.”

“Advice?” Hilda cocked an eyebrow. “Are you planning on setting a trap somewhere for something or . . . someone?”

“That all depends on if I have the right bait, hunter.” He gave her a wink and dashed through the door.

When he finally was inside the church, he bee-lined right for the storage facility. Looks like because of the race in the morning, I’m still way ahead on time, he thought as he passed Derian’s sermon room to note that his unwitting crowd was just settling into their pews. By his estimation, he had at least an hour after Derian finished his lecture to set the trap and be done. But you don’t have bait, a voice nagged in his head.

No, I don’t have bait, but do I need it? he retorted. Am I talking to myself now? He laughed a little as he made his way down the flight of stairs into the church’s basement and found the storage room. Alright, so I need a flame cell. He started to grab a handful and realized he wouldn’t be able to carry it. No, I need . . . He looked around the room, trying to figure out what to do. His clothes, the blue, comfort clothes they were, never came with pockets. They generally weren’t needed. If someone was going to go on a picnic or do something that required the transportation of stuff, they often just used the green blankets that were laid out for the beds as makeshift bags. That’s why the unprepared Edgard, who had rushed to Hilda’s place in the morning, found himself at a loss as he looked around. You know what? No. There will be beds upstairs. Let me just first figure out what I’ll need. He pushed the problem to the back of his thoughts, hoping that time would solve it before he had to rush upstairs and steal someone’s bedsheet to carry everything to his destination.

“Look for the parent and find the child,” a voice called out from behind him.

Edgard turned around only to see the cook, standing behind him with a long cleaver in hand. What the . . . Edgard found himself startled more than scared when he eyed the man and the way he was holding the blade, but he was uncomfortable nonetheless. “Umm? What?” Edgard scooted back on the ground, then started to stand up next to the pile of gems and tools he had assembled to make his bomb.

“Your mother was the same way. Always playing with the stuff down here like she owned the place, or taking notes next to the harvesting room.” The cook’s right hand went over his shoulder with the cleaver as he proceeded to use it to scratch his back.

“Harvesting room?” Edgard blinked. What in the heck is he talking about? My mom was down here a lot too?

“You don’t know?” The cook’s mouth swirled back and forth, like he was holding food in it but couldn’t make up his mind which cheek it should be in. “Hmph, go figures. They keep it hush hush. Always hush hush. Everything has to be a secret, I guess.”

“What is it?” Edgard was slowly positioning himself between the bomb materials and the cook as the man talked, ever aware that the cook might look at the items and know what he was doing–not that it would be likely, but there was still the possibility. Since I know what these things do when put together properly, why shouldn’t he? Or worse, he might think I am stealing . . . A Brother stealing from the treasury hadn’t happened before, but it wasn’t an impossibility. After all, while a Brother might lack all motivation to get their hands on gems, irrigators like Mae would definitely have some motivation. If they had enough gems, they could skip out on work for months and no-one would notice, but the Brothers couldn’t do anything with them. After all, very little work was actually required to change water to ink.

“Hmph. Then again, you’re her son. Maybe you’re just playing with me.” The cook harrumphed again and then scratched the edge of his butcher’s blade with his free left hand. “She did like to pretend she was stupid, even as she worked her clever schemes . . . No. No, that’s not her style. She wouldn’t trick me. She wouldn’t notice me. No-one notices me. I’m invisible to their kind, to your kind.”

“That’s, that’s not true.” Edgard wanted to say the words honestly, but the guilt he felt as soon as he said them made sure he knew they were a lie. For all of his problems and issues with the Church and his frequent self-consoling with the usual ‘woe is me’ lines, he had completely failed to notice anyone other than the Brothers and the Father. If there was a cafeteria and a kitchen, then of course there would be at least one cook. One lowly, unnoticed figure preparing the food for ungrateful workers silently and alone. He’d likely have to wash the dishes, clean the kitchen, keep track of food ins and outs all while no-one even so much as learned his name. In truth, maybe others did, but Edgard, at least, hadn’t, and he had been at the church for over a decade.

“Ha!” The cook grinned ear to ear as he held out his cleaver, pointing it directly at Edgard. “That’s right, boy. Look at how your face squirms about in protest! It’s showing you that even your body can’t stomach that much of a lie. Well, I shouldn’t fault you for it.” He retracted his butcher’s blade and sighed. “I mean, at least you have that going for you. The others do it seamlessly, liars. All of them. Nothing but filthy liars.”

“I’m sure they aren’t . . .” Edgard fidgeted, scratching his head as he tried to make excuses for his Brothers–half for them, half for the fact he shared in their guilt.

Before he got a word further in his protest, the cook’s ear-to-ear grin faded, and he slammed his butcher’s blade into a wooden box near him, splitting it in half and spilling out a dozen extra tubes, the exact kind that Edgard had been looking for before he was interrupted. “Stop lying! Your face hates it. Your eyes detest it. Your soul squirms with every word, so stop it! Silence that ignorant tongue before I rip it from your mouth and serve it to the detestable Father as lunch.”

If this had happened yesterday, or at least the day before the loops began, then Edgard would have jumped backwards and been terrified. Now, though, he just eyed the tubes and thought, One less thing to find, and mostly ignoring the threat from the cook. “If everyone is filthy, then why are you telling me?”

“Ha! Ha ha ha! HA HA! That’s because you’re not everyone! You’re no-one. You’re nothing.” His cackles continued as he picked the blade off the floor. “You’re like me. Worthless to them. For now at least. I have worth later. I’m useful in the future. I’m the pig that makes the bacon! You? You’ll never be useful. Maybe they won’t even spare the flame cells on your corpse and just toss it in the ground like fertilizer to be forgotten.”

“Huh? Flame cells on my corpse? Why would they use flame cells on a corpse when everyone is buried out in the graveyar–” Edgard was once more cut off by the cook’s laughter.

“Buried? You mean those cheap wooden boxes they throw in the ground for decoration? Ha! Ha ha! Ha ha ha! You’re too naive boy. Look around. This is for your and my eyes only. What do you see?” The cook pointed to the walls of tools and supplies for maintaining the church.

“Uhh . . . Just the usual stuff? Flame cells, magic gems, some–”

“Quiet! Your stupidity is hard on my ears! Look!” The man closed the distance between them in half a second, swinging the arm that wasn’t holding the blade around Edgard’s shoulder like the two were old friends, and he was about to tell a secret. He used the blade to point at the walls and said, “Think, boy! What don’t you see?”

Edgard stared at the walls for a minute. What am I missing? Everything that one would expect to make books and maintain the church is here? To make . . . “Books.”

“There you go. That’s a good squirt.” The burly, smelly man’s laugh was no longer sharp and manic, but a chuckle. “Now, why is it that a building full of scribes, who make dozens of books a year, every year, with that magic ink that never fades . . . Why is there not a single book down here?”

This . . . this is . . . how did I never see this? Edgard cursed himself. “Then . . . Then where do they go?” He asked, hating that, even with the clues, he couldn’t put it together.

“Ha! Now that’s a question. But there’s a better one, there is. Think, boy! Or are you as useless as they suspect, nothing more than a pawn to do their scribblings for spellbooks.” The chef’s breath invaded Edgard’s space with a certain foulness that let him know the cook had never even considered picking loose bits of food out of the gaps in his teeth.

“If we don’t need them, why are we making them?” Derian’s question came to Edgard’s mind. Why did they toil? What was the point? The two questions had seemed silly to a degree for Edgard, especially considering everyone would need a holy book at one point, but, now that he realized they weren’t even in the church, it shed new light on his drunk friend’s observation. Our lives aren’t meaningless. Our toil isn’t wasted. It’s just not for the purpose we imagined. If it’s not for that . . . then why?

“That’s a start, boy, a start! A beginning!” the cook’s laughter crushed Edgard with more overpowering odor. “But think! If every book just needs ink to paper, why does the ink for this one have to be special? How come anyone can’t just be a scribe? What makes the ink makers special? Why can’t there be fifty scribes for one! Think, boy! Think!”

“I . . . I AM!” Edgard shouted back, the need for knowledge not mixing well with his need for air–fresh air that hadn’t been defiled by reeking breath. What makes the process of the ink unique? It’s just someone using magi– magic. Magic, that’s exactly what it is. “The . . . the ink is infused with magic . . .” He said it outloud as the thought penetrated through his head, which felt very thick for not realizing any of this sooner.

“And they say you well-read and learned kind are supposed to be smart,” the cook said, scoffing, then scratched the back side of his leg with the cleaver while chortling again. “Now, why would you need magic ink? Unless, of course . . .” He stopped talking, then looked around. “Do you know where an extra book is?”

“Huh?” Edgard looked around the room, but there wasn’t a single one. It had been the point of the earlier question, so of course there wouldn’t be a spare lying about. “Oh, yeah, upstairs in the work room. Why?”

“Go bring me one with the hunter’s section intact. Meet me here. I’ll show you something,” the man barked more than said. It wasn’t up for debate. They were orders, not because he was ten years Edgard’s senior, but because he was the teacher. He knew something Edgard didn’t, and, for one reason or another, he was telling him. Only today, never yesterday, never in the previous iterations, just today.

But–Edgard glanced at the pile of tools he needed that was now nearer to the cook than to him–then again, today I’m doing a lot of things I’ve never done. Alright, let’s see what you’ve got to offer, you crazy old loon. He darted up the stairs to the workroom. He was pleasantly surprised to find it empty as he grabbed a book, rounded back and went once more into the basement where the cook was waiting, prodding through the instruments Edgard had planned to build a bomb with.

When the cook saw Edgard, he smiled his gross, toothy grin at him and raised his blade once more. “The tracking rune, rip that page out,” he demanded.

Edgard complied. He wouldn’t have normally–it was so hard to stitch a page into the book that the idea of ripping one out would have been more than just frustrating–but he didn’t care this time. After all, when the dust settled, he still doubted his chances of living throughout the day.

As soon as he handed the page with the tracking rune on it to the cook, one he had labored over painfully like all the others to make as beautiful as possible, the cook yanked it out of his hand and slammed it against the wall. “Here’s where your world ends, boy. Here’s where you find out why you’ll always be nothing to them.” He grabbed Edgard’s arm with his right hand as he still held the page against the wall and closed his eyes. Edgard watched the page to see if anything changed. When nothing did, he looked up to the cook to see what he was doing only to notice hints of red behind him.

“What the–” Edgard’s brain abandoned control of his mouth as shades of people, red silhouettes of men, walked behind the cook, retracing their path a few times. “That . . . that’s me. That’s me . . . and me . . . and me,” he counted off each crimson iteration of himself that he recognized, purposefully ignoring the ones of Mae that were often with him. “Why am I seeing me? Why am I red?”

“Because that’s what a tracking spell does, boy. It shows you where people were, what people did before. Now, watch carefully the wall across from the stairs.” The cook didn’t open his eyes yet. His energy mostly focused on the scroll.

As Edgard turned to see the wall, he noticed that men were walking up to and pushing at a stone, such that their hands sank into the wall and disappeared, and then walking through the wall as if they were ghost. “How did they do that? That would only work if–” Edgard freed himself of the grasp and ran over to the wall, pushing the stone in himself. As soon as he did it, the wall sprang open and revealed another staircase that led down.

Edgard was about to start down it, curious to see what was going on, when the ogre of a chef appeared behind him and grabbed both his arms, pinning him in place as he whispered in his ear, “It’s almost metaphorical, isn’t it?” He paused, giving Edgard a chance to respond, but Edgard was too busy reeling from the revelation. “Mr. Nothing, the worthless boy descending into darkness to find the light? There is something poetically beautiful about it, isn’t there, boy?”

How could I not have known this? How could I not have seen this? What is that smell? That’s . . . That’s the smell of burnt flesh. He recognized it immediately as it assaulted his nose. The foul odor of seared hair and burnt meat invaded his nostrils. He coughed only once. He was used to it by now after having to deal with it day in and death out.

“Just a cough? Boy, I was betting you’d throw up. Puke like the lily sack you are,” the cook said and chortled even more. “That’s where they take them, after all. The dead townsfolk. That’s where they hack up the bodies. That’s where they chop them up and take it.”

“Take . . . Take the arm?” Edgard had a feeling the robbers and the church were likely very connected in this gruesome business.

“So you can think. Yes. That’s where they cut the arms off, rip the stones out and then box them. Some we get; some they sell.”

“Like livestock . . .” Edgard might not have thrown up from the smell, but the thought was certainly making him want to.

“Ha ha! Ha ha ha! Well said, boy, well said. Like livestock. But don’t worry. You’re the farmer’s son, not the pig for slaughter. You’re nothing and of no use for them. You have no brand.”

This time Edgard’s stomach twisted in a knot, and he found himself having a hard time breathing. “No . . . No, it can’t be.” He shook his arms free and dashed down the stairs. His heart pounded faster as he rounded the damp, catacomb-like walls and entered a barely-lit room where he watched as the red silhouette of a man he had followed through the wall dragged something onto a table and began making an obvious hacking motion with his arm.

He was about to lose his nerve again, break down and let the anxiety overtake him when he heard the roaring laughter of the cook from behind him as the man walked down the stairs. “Here’s where the real magic happens!”

“But, why?” Edgard looked to him, half with hatred and irritation as the cook’s cackle constantly grinded across his nerves, half with the eager expectation of further revelation. How had this man, who was nothing more than a chef, put all of this together? Unless . . . He’s not in on it, is he? “Are you one of them?”

“Me? No, I’m a pig like you . . . Not you, them, the other Brothers. I’m just bacon waiting to die so they can cut me up and use me. The more I use this”–he pointed to his brand–”the bigger my stone will grow. Maybe it’ll be big enough to be a real gem and not one of those crystals they gave to the Flame Guild to turn into flame cells.”

“Then what about the books?” Curiosity was the only thing keeping his stomach down as the smell and the thought of everyone who had ended up on a butcher’s table down here had his heart racing and his body sweating.

“Ah, that question. Where do they go? Where . . . Oh, where . . . Oh, where? They sell them, of course. They sell them with the gems. After all, what else does a farmer do with his excess cattle?” The chef’s laughter only grew.

Excess cattle. So that’s what I’m trying to save. I’m not heavenly-ordained with God’s purpose. I’m just . . . I’m just trying to save someone’s farm. Edgard gulped, his hand holding his chest to steady his breathing. “So”–he gulped again, the words sticking to the inside of his throat–“everything . . . ” Another gulp. “Everything is just a farm?”

“Yes, everything. You’re just the one pig that makes no bacon. After all, you have no brand.” The chef touched the flame rune on his arm. “So, with no brand, you have no gem. You’re nothing.”

“Then why are you here?” Edgard spat back, his anger seething through the words.

“Because you’re nothing and because you can make the scrolls. You can help me,” the cook laughed. “I’ve been waiting for you to be alone, away from the others. That tart of yours . . . The town slut was always with you when you came down here, so I had no way to ask you. I need these scrolls. I need these spells. We can be rich with them!” He laughed more. “Boy, with your talent, we can buy anything we want!”

“If you just wanted wealth, why didn’t you steal the gems? Run off by yourself?” Edgard’s words were laced with bile. A rush of emotion threatened to explode his heart and tear up his eyes at the same time. “Why did you have to bring me here? Show me this?!”

“Wanted to die a nobody, a nothing? No, that’s my job. I’m a nobody. You’re a nothing. That’s why we can leave together: because there isn’t anyone who will care. But! Ha ha ha ha ha! I know better than to run! My dad worked a farm before he came for slaughter. My dad butchered the runaway livestock, ha ha!” The cook came closer with every burst of laughter. “No, I know better. I know they’ll hunt us down if I steal their wealth, and, with a tracking gem, they’ll find us in a minute. But, if a nobody takes nothing, then nobody will care. That’s why you’ll come. You’re my meal ticket.”

“And how the heck does that work?!” Edgard was shouting, but he didn’t need to be. The cook was barely a few feet away from him now. “Do you not have everything you could want here already?”

“A room? No woman and three crummy meals a day with barely enough mead to wet my whistle? No, boy, I want it all! I don’t want one room. I want a mansion. I don’t want one wife. I want three! I’m going to have tons of kids and live like a king and eat and drink the finest foods that our merciful God put on this world for us to love. Not just me–both of us! We’ll get you a ton of women, not just one the whole town shares. We’ll get you every book you could ever want to read, boy. We’ll go far, and all I need is for you to steal one tiny, ink-making scroll, maybe a few more for money, not enough for anyone to notice . . . before we leave! Ha ha ha! This will be great!” The man licked his lips in a creepy fashion at every mention of food or women, all the while still laughing, still shouting, like he didn’t care at all if the churchgoers up above on the first floor heard him.

“And scrolls will get them?” Edgard felt hesitant about the possibility that it might be true. There was no way that simple pages from the books he had been writing all his life would achieve that much. If they would, then, by that right, he should be wealthy beyond all means. “Just pages from the holy book are going to get you that?” he asked, his eyes still transfixed on the stone slab where the bodies would get hacked up. His own body still doing its best to avoid retching as his mind continued to race through visions of what must have happened there.

“Enough for both of us, boy. Enough for us to finally get what this town denied us. Here, you’re nothing. But, if we get out of here, if we make a name for ourselves elsewhere . . . then you’ll be something else. Come on, boy. This ain’t a hard offer. Consider the alternatives . . . I mean, what do you have holding you here? Some no-good, trifling wench of a woman who has bedded more men more times than a thousand-year-old mattress?” The cook extended his hand. “Come on, boy. Snap out of it, and let’s get out of here before . . .” He pointed at the slab with his cleaver. “Before you end up like another slaughtered pig.”

Snap out of it? Snap out of it . . . That’s exactly what I need to do. Edgard physically slapped his own face, breaking the onset depression and shock he had temporarily fallen victim to. This isn’t the time for games. He’s right. We can’t stay here, but we also can’t leave. Not yet. “Alright, we can go tomorrow then. Meet down here at the same time?”

“I’m afraid that won’t do, boy.” The cook shook his head. “I took a risk by telling you. If you run your mouth boy, if you run your mouth to a Brother, to your girl, to the barkeep”–he dragged the edge of the blade across his neck, his grin growing wider with the curvature of the feigned cut–“it’s lights out for both of us. It’s time right now, boy. We go.”

“Wait, I won’t say a dang thing.” Edgard took a deep breath and glared at the cook. “I have to finish what I started today. We can leave after.” It won’t hurt to have someone who has apparently been spending a lot of time listening to the merchants of the Travelers Guild, someone who has a plan past just walking out of the village. Well, at least someone who seems to have a plan.

“Then I’m helping because the sooner, the better. That group, the Mother and her minions, they’re not one to cross. Ha ha ha! Those sisters and brothers that come with her are anything but church folk, boy. I’ll tell you now: They don’t know, but I know! I know they carry weapons with them. Why not though? Why not! They carry a kingdom’s riches with every load, boy.” The man suddenly went quiet, and his face melted into one that caused Edgard’s hair to stand on edge. The chef’s dirty teeth were still bared after the grin faded, and the man stared at Edgard. “I’ll help you, so let’s make it quick.” He turned around and started up the stairs, Edgard following. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped again and added ‘boy’ one last time.

When they made it to the top of the stairs, Edgard did his best to explain what he needed to do without explaining why. He figured it would be easier to fill the cook in on the need to kill people after the first bomb went off. In fact, he was somewhat hoping the crazy lunatic would charge in and die in an altercation, saving him the trouble of having to wiggle his way out of any agreements with him later.

By the time they made it to the edge of town, Edgard began burying the bombs and wires in the road, such that the extension was far out of range and behind a rock. A rock that hopefully will hold up a lot better than the previous box did, he thought and laughed to himself as he patted his stomach.

“So what now?” the cook asked, looking at him with a frown. “This gonna take a while? I wanna leave.”

“We’ll leave soon. Just give me a moment.” Edgard was already tired of hearing the cook talk. It was always ‘why haven’t we left?’ or ‘something something, boy’ or ‘you’re nothing, boy.’ Why on earth does he expect me to stay with him after I’m free of this town? Edgard looked at the man with puzzlement. If it weren’t for the fact that I need to test my theory before the next day, I’d probably have already found a way to split from this oaf, he told himself, but he was also worried he should have done it sooner. If I need him gone tomorrow, I can just make sure to bring someone with me when I go get the stuff in the basement. That should solve things nicely.

“What are we waiting for?” the man griped again, still holding onto his cleaver, but also two bags that he insisted were necessary for the trip. They weren’t haphazard ones made of blankets like Edgard had used for the picnic. They were leather ones that the cook had obviously set aside long before this day came. Edgard wasn’t sure what was inside them, but this man had been thinking about leaving for a long while now. Probably a year, if not years.

“We’re waiting for company, company that will stop us before we get out of here.” Edgard pointed at the road. “Company that will pass by that very spot.”

“Company, you say? And those, those gadgets? Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!” The cook’s manic laughter pierced Edgard’s ears. “Did we make presents for the house guests? Ha ha!”

“Quiet down, you oaf!” Edgard finally snapped. “Sit there, and wait. They don’t know we’re here, and I’d rather not ruin the surprise!” He pointed his finger at the giant, almost Cedric-sized man and stared him down until he sat. “Good, now wait there, old man.” He couldn’t help but let that last one slip in. He wanted his own derogatory term for the heathen, his way of marking the man as less than him or at least letting him know he wasn’t going to be pushed around for the rest of things.

The man’s chuckling reply was soft, his grin even bigger. If Edgard had thought he would unsettle him even a moment, he had underestimated the character of his unwanted companion–a fact that further unnerved Edgard instead. “Patience. Patience and planning is all I do, boy. Maps, meals, makeshift this and that–I’m used to patience. I’ll wait, boy.” He dragged the last word out as if it were a challenge.

Edgard didn’t bother responding. It would be fruitless and just drag out a conversation he wanted to end. Instead, he laid down and peered out from behind the rock, waiting for his prey to enter his field of vision. Their arrival took a lot longer than anticipated, and the fact that every now and then the ‘patient’ cook would lick his own blade and then polish it with his shirt then lick it again and repeat the polishing a few times didn’t make a pleasant wait.

“So they’re here,” the man whispered into Edgard’s ear as Edgard peered out. The chef had spotting them just before Edgard had. “There’s a good number of them too. How many is that? Eight? Nine? Ten? Could be over a dozen. You’re popular to be expecting so many.” His whispers snaked into Edgard’s ear like a wet thumb working its way into the brain.

“Shh, they can’t notice us until it’s time.” Edgard’s anger from before, from when he had discovered his whole life was a lie and that he was living on a farm that harvested people, was nothing compared to the rage he felt as he stared at the swords and motley garb of the people walking into his trap. They wore smiles and chatted amongst themselves as if they didn’t have a care in the world as if the lives of everyone they were about to cull weren’t important. Then Edgard wondered what reason they could have to deem the townsfolk important at all. Why should these outsiders consider us any more human or sentient than our own Father and spiritual leader? If he treats us like ‘pigs,’ like trash to be fattened and slaughtered, then why shouldn’t the rest of the world? Edgard saw red, his anger compounding as the outsiders drew closer to the spot where he had planted the bomb.

Last time it took a few seconds, but the wire was shorter. Will it take longer? He looked at the two tubes he was about to connect. Maybe. Maybe I should do it five seconds ahead of time. He started to count the pace at which the group was walking. When they reached what he assumed was five seconds off, he pushed the ends together and began counting. Five, four, three, two, one . . . “ONE!” He had stood up and yelled out the last number, causing the group of intended targets in front of him to slow down. Right now, they were dead on the burial spot of the bomb, but the trap hadn’t gone off yet, and he couldn’t risk them going too far away. “TWO!”

“You gone crazy, boy?” the chef chortled from his seat behind the rock.

Before Edgard could yell ‘three,’ it finally happened. Seven seconds. If I use that much tubing, it’s seven seconds. Edgard made a mental note. The surprised faces of his victims didn’t even have time to turn to horror before the blast propelled the ones in the front forward as it blew most of the rest of them into bits. Edgard was about to celebrate when he noticed that it didn’t kill them all. Was it buried too deep? Should I put more gems in it? I wasn’t even killed by the explosion last time. It was the metal. Should I bury metal with it next time? He watched as four of the ones who had been blown forward started rolling to the side, cursing and screaming.

A bit unsteadily, the survivors started standing up and pulling out their weapons. “Where the heck did that come from!?” the only female left screamed angrily.

As if making sure that she got an answer, the chef’s laughter bellowed out from behind their rock. “Ha ha! Ha ha ha! Now that’s a show! Ha ha! You did great, boy! Look at them squirm! Ha ha ha!” He held up his cleaver and charged them.

The four moving foes, still doing their best to catch their balance as they held their heads and coughed, didn’t have time to react as he reached the first one, the woman, and hacked into her head with the cleaver. His blade split her face open like it was just another slab of ribs to be separated before serving. Still laughing, still cackling and sounding out his deep, disturbingly spaced out ‘ha’s, he turned and quickly hit another one, felling the second before the short man could react. He danced around the survivors. “MEAT! It’s all the same! Are you pigs too? Are you here to join our slaughter? Ha ha! Ha ha ha! Do you like to die too? Is that why you sought out old Kenway the Cook! Ha ha! Come to a cook, come to the kitchen, come to the slaughter, and be part of the fixin’s!” he sang joyously as he sliced up the third one and finished off the last of the survivors with a ball of fire erupting from his hands into the victim’s face. “Fun fun! Should we poke the rest, boy! Should we make sure they’re not faking? They could be playing! Dead is an easy game to play. You just do nothing. Maybe that’s why I like it?” His head tilted as he started hacking at the still bodies, dismembered or otherwise.

Edgard’s jaw fell to the floor. He hated his victims with every ounce of his being, and for that he wanted them dead. He had every reason to wish them every bit of ill will he could muster, but this man didn’t know them at all. He didn’t care who they were. He just chopped them up. He’s  . . . He’s insane. He’s insane, and  . . . And we did it! They’re dead. We’re alive. He’s insane, and we can leave . . . The thoughts flooded his mind all at once. He had been counting on, expecting, assured that this particular run would have to be repeated, but they were most certainly dead. That means . . . That means we can just leave? I can get Hilda and we can just go off into the sunset? As the realization of everything sank in, Edgard felt his feet feeling less burdened, his chest lighter and the air easier to breath. Held breaths turned to deep ones as life reentered his veins.

“We did it. We killed them all,” Edgard said aloud. It was, after all, partly Kenway’s handiwork. “They’re dead! We can finally be free!”

“I don’t know who they were, boy, but you’re a strange one. Didn’t expect for you to be up for this kind of fun! Ha ha!” Kenway said, grinning ear to ear. He let out a breathy guffaw, but Edgard excused Kenway’s strange laugh. Nothing could break his mood. “I’m going to like working with you! Ha ha! That boom! That rush! That feel of flesh on blade! Ha ha! I could get used to this!” He licked the blood off his cleaver, and then his eyes widened, and his grin somehow managed to show off more teeth than before as he looked over at Edgard. “Edgard, we really do taste like pigs! Ha ha ha ha ha! We really are like pigs!”

Edgard shook his head. Whatever. Let it slide. We won. The day is over, and we can finally–

“Ahhhhhh!!!!!” a scream sounded out from behind Edgard. He turned to see two female villagers. One was screaming and the other frozen still in horror as they stared at the carnage in front of them.

Kenway threw his cleaver as soon as the onlooker began wailing, and it spun through the air and nailed the screaming girl directly in the chest. “Grab the other one! We can’t have witnesses, boy! They’ll stop us from leaving!” he yelled, but Edgard was too busy yelling himself. The word ‘no’ echoed through his head a thousand times as he watched a fireball arc through the air and burn the silent one as Kenway closed the distance. “NO!”

Edgard shouted. The word had finally gone from thought to sound as his frustration boiled over. “We were so close! It was over! It was the perfect day, and it was over!” he yelled, walking over to the corpses and grabbing one of the swords off the ground.

“What was so close? Perfect day? What are you talking about, boy?” Kenway asked from atop the silent girl’s freshly dead body. He was busy hacking it to pieces with his cleaver, which he had yanked from the other one’s breast. “Boy? What are you on . . . What are you . . . ? Don’t do that! You’ll–”

It was too late though. Edgard had already taken the sword and stabbed it deep into his chest until it pierced his heart, certain that he could repeat this day without two innocents dying. I still have extra chances, right?


© Charles Dean and deannovels.com. 2015-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Charles Dean at deannovels.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.