Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 5 (Ongoing)

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Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 5 (Ongoing)

Postby Mortar » Tue Aug 05, 2008 2:57 am

http://www.fictionpress.com/s/2692717/1/The_Exiles

The above is a link directly to the chapters. You can also find a brief summary of the story there.

Do you like intense violence? Sci-fi? Character driven stories? Then check it out!

This is the second draft I'm writing so read it and let me know what you think.

* * *

Chapter 1: The Drifters

"There ain't no time like the present."

The words echoed throughout the small town of Farson which was composed of many houses built out of flimsy sheet metal welded together to make them barely habitable. Only a few of the larger buildings such as the tavern and inn were in better condition and built with sturdy foundations. Wind blew dirt everywhere. A layer of grime covered everything from the livestock, to the town, to the very people who lived there.

A man stood in the dirt road that divided the homes into two parallel sides. Unlike the inhabitants of the derelict town, this man wore cleaner looking clothes and was obviously from a much higher standard of living. "Any person who wants something these days simply has to reach out and take it. All you need is a little conviction and it's yours."

To his sides were two equally clean and cut men who carried rifles. Belts of ammo at their waists would allow them to shoot and kill as many people who would dare step onto the street. Between them, and kneeling just behind the person who was in the middle of a grand speech, was yet another man who looked as though he had been beaten soundly for hours. His face had swollen like a balloon and blood spilled from his every orifice.

"Unfortunately for all of you," He addressed the people of the town who looked on from the cracks in their windows and homes. "None of you qualify as people." He then immediately turned around, drew the pistol at his waist, and shot the kneeling man through his left eye. Blood spurt out the back of his victim's skull as he dropped to the dirt. A crimson puddle of blood formed in the earth around the area of the wound. "WAS THAT YOUR BRILLIANT PLAN?" He shouted in a fit of rage. "Every month you pay us taxes and every month you maggots make the same excuses." The man turned and kicked the corpse in the stomach. "And yet somehow, you managed to scrounge together the money to hire this piece of shit. Haven't you all gotten it through your thick skulls yet? Hiring mercenaries? Hiring a mercenary?" He put heavy emphasis on the singular. "No one is going to save you. No one can. Any more defiance, we'll burn your homes to the ground with your children inside. We'll rape and kill your women. We'll slice off your hands. 'Leave you all here to die. This is our town! You're our property! Don't you forget it!"

The armed men left the dead as it was; lying with a wet, gushing hole where its face used to be. It was several minutes after they had gone that the doors to the homes, as flimsy and broken as they were, opened and the townspeople stepped out and moved towards the body. They gathered around it in silence and spoke not a word to each other. They looked down at the man who should have been their only hope and felt the utter despair with which they had been struggling with for so long.

They had skipped days' worth of meals to stockpile and sell. When they were finally able to send it out to Starkhaven, a much larger town not more than a few days away, it was painful to see all their work had bore no more than a single gunman's weekly wage. Even with the money to afford one, hiring one continued to prove difficult. Their town was too far towards the ocean to make the journey worthwhile. And there was also the issue of numbers.

One against fifteen took all the incentive out of it. But, in their desperate search they managed to find what they were looking for. He was a merc who listened closely to their story and took the job, not for the money, which would keep him fed and sheltered for two weeks at most, but for the sympathy he felt towards the people. He was a kind man who had years of experience as a gunfighter, but despite his profession, held a high respect for all life. He had been their hero and their savior when he accepted the job. The people of Farson had placed their hopes and dreams in him. Now, he too was gone.

The men and women who gathered around the gunman's corpse lowered their heads to the ground so low, it was as though they were ashamed to look at him. The futility of what they had tried to accomplish sunk in: Burdening a good man with the responsibility of single-handedly saving their entire town. The one bandit he had managed to kill would prove meaningless while fourteen others were still left to terrorize them. It had taken no more than a few moments for him to be surrounded and captured, then beaten and executed. He had never stood a chance.

"We are cowardly people." The man who spoke was Owen; oldest and, hence, wisest among the people. "We now have to live with the knowledge that we sent a selfless man to his death because of our own selfish desire to survive. We should have come to terms with it long ago. But instead, we involved another in our own troubles and had him pay too high a price."

Owen, like the others of Farson, had no last name. It was pointless to have one in a town with a dwindling population of a hundred people. He had lived long enough to see his two sons die during the initial raid no more than a few months ago. They had been the last of his remaining family and at almost sixty years of age, it was far too late for him to regain any of what he had lost.

"What do we do?" One of the frail men asked him. "There must be something we can do?"

"We give him a proper burial." Owen failed to give the answer the town was expecting. "We owe him that much. We've all been struggling for months in order to survive but, all we've managed to do is cause more deaths. I don't want more blood on my hands… No more."

For some, the hopelessness felt was overpowering. They broke down. It was all over.

* * *

Two of the more youthful townsmen shoveled the rough dirt for what felt like hours before finally getting the ditch deep enough to bury the mercenary. The scorching sun was already setting across the horizon as they lifted the corpse by its hands and feet and tossed it into the hole. At first, they dropped dirt into the grave one shovel-full at a time, but their patience grew thin and they soon began pushing the mound of earth into it with bare hands.

"We should just run," One of the men said as he looked towards the sunset. "While no one's watching."

"Right," The other stopped his daydreaming. "We'd be dead within a day without water or supplies. And even if we did make it, there's nothing out there for us."

"It's just like the old man said..."

With his work finished, the one who had proposed the escape lifted the shovel onto his shoulder and started his way home, but not before glancing one last time at the setting sun.

He stopped dead in his tracks.

Slowly turning his head back towards the horizon, the shovel that rested atop his shoulder slid off and hit the ground. His momentary glance had left him thinking that his eyes were playing tricks on him; that it was some kind of mirage. His grip on the shovel loosened and it dropped from his hand when he realized that what he was seeing was no deception. Two men were heading towards the town.

The sheer sight of them approaching was enough to send a chill down the boy's spine but, upon closer inspection, he realized that there was more to worry about.

The man on the left walked with his hands and head slumped forward, making it difficult to get a good look at his face. Sweat dripped from the jet black hair on his head as he marched with half steps and steady pacing that could be contributed to walking through endless stretches of desert. A red leather vest masked part of his upper body which, although did not ripple with muscles, seemed well-conditioned.

But it was his companion who caught the attention of the boy. Not nearly as tall as the first but even more muscular, this one had a walk that would intimidate most people. There was strength in each step and stiffness in his shoulders. His face was that of a young man's, barely scratched or blistered by the exposure of sand storms one would normally encounter through the desert. He carried several noticeable accessories with him, the least of which were a pair of highly reflective sunglasses that concealed his eyes. His clothing looked military in origin, from the army issue boots to a camouflaged pained combat vest laced with pockets.

The boy's heartbeat raced as he noticed a holster at his right hip which held what looked to be a semi-automatic pistol. Worse yet, on his back was another weapon covered with a brown blanket wrapped around it. Its only visible part was the long barrel that extended a foot above the man's head. It was being carried by a small, ring shaped hinge hooked underneath the barrel which was large enough for the man to put his middle and index fingers through.

The boy watched the two approaching from half a mile away without ever looking away. He froze up when they at last entered the boundaries of the town, but felt he needed to say something; perhaps a word of warning or, at the very least, a simple greeting. He stumbled over his own words and jumbled them as he tried to speak. Just as a single syllable was to leap from his mouth, the men walked past him as if he weren't even there.

"Oh man." The townsman whispered to himself. He looked behind him at his friend who appeared to share the sentiment.

It wasn't that the men looked dangerous or the fact that one of them was carrying weapons that concerned either of them. The real problem was the raiders who would not allow people to leave once they arrived. Farson was kept contained to better control it.

More unwanted blood would be shed.

The outsiders traveled half the distance of the town before stopping in front of the tavern. The man in the red leather vest was the first to step toward the swinging saloon doors and pull one open. The other man entered first and took a seat on one of the stools at the bar; resting his blanketed rifle against the counter. His companion soon joined him.

"C-can I help you?" The barkeep asked hesitantly.

"My friend would like some water please." The older and taller of the two spoke with a curious courtesy not seen in such remote parts of the Continent.

The bartender seemed hesitant when answering the request. "We don't serve water here."

"'The fuck you say?" The smaller man questioned him without such tact.

His eyes, hidden beneath mirrored sunglasses, made it difficult to determine if he was glaring. It could have been considered odd for someone to wear shades in such a dimly lit tavern. Then again, there wasn't much about either man that wasn't odd.

"W-we don't have any water pipes in this town. All… All our water comes from the well." He pointed through one of the windows towards the poorly built structure at the center of town. "Y-you can help yourself to all the water you want."

The man in shades sighed at the thought of having to walk again. "Right…"

After grabbing his rifle, he moved to the swinging doors and pushed them open. It was already nighttime and he could barely see what was in front of him.

"Don't go wandering too far." The other man called out to him from his seat. He received no sign of acknowledgment. He then turned to the skeletal-like barkeep. "You'll have to excuse him, he's not the most social person. Walking for hours without water didn't help either."

The man in military gear stepped out onto the street. The chirping of crickets that lived in the small patches of crabgrass across town were all that could be heard. Quietly, he made his way to the watering hole and hauled a bucket up to have a drink.

There was a mild aftertaste of salt. The ocean wasn't far and it appeared to have an effect on the fresh water the town depended on. It was clean enough to drink but certainly not enough for proper cultivation and it explained the nearly empty crop fields on the outskirts. Still, the dehydrated traveler gulped it down straight from the bucket as though it was from the cleanest spring.

* * *

"Well, let's see now…" The man in the red leather vest rubbed his chin. "I haven't had a good shot of whiskey in a long time."

"You're looking parched friend. Whiskey may not be a wise choice." The drifter smiled and the deprived bartender knew right away that he was wasting his breath. He reached for a bottle. "You boys just came into town did you?"

"Just passing through. 'Headed towards Starkhaven."

"Too bad you came at such a bad time..."

Bartenders were always up to date on current events and the best source of information in a town.

He went on to explain how four months ago, Farson was just another quiet town; albeit, not a very rich or prosperous one. That was, until a man named Cadmus and his gang raided it and started killing anyone who resisted. That day, everything took a turn for the worse. The people's only possessions were taken away and pawned, whatever food they had managed to grow was sold or kept out of reach. The populace was treated in a manner best suited for vermin and their numbers were quickly dwindling. He also told him about the mercenary that had been killed that very afternoon.

"But he managed to kill one right?" The traveler asked.

"Much good that'll do us." The barkeep replied as he poured him his drink. "There are still fourteen of those misfits causing trouble."

"Do they call themselves anything?"

The question caused the owner to look at him as though he hadn't paid attention. "The Misfits."

The wanderer twitched his head, then grabbed his drink and swallowed it in a single gulp. He nearly gagged. "God damn! That is some awful scotch."

"It's bourbon."

Trying to scrape his tongue clean just a few seconds ago, the man looked at his shot glass as if suddenly impressed. "Not bad."

His glass was being filled for a second time when the doors to the tavern swung open. It wasn't the armed companion who had stepped out minutes ago, but two of Cadmus' grunts who were handling guard duty that evening. The smell of alcohol from them was worse than that of the bar itself. One of them carried a lever-action rifle in hand.

"Who the hell are you?" The grunt asked as he lifted the barrel upwards.

When the traveler didn't answer, the second man quickly placed his hand on the pistol holstered at his waist. The question was repeated much louder and in a more threatening tone.

Sweat dripped from the barkeep's face. He swallowed the built up saliva in his mouth as he carefully knelt down and reached for something behind the counter.

The drifter's firm grip on his shoulder stopped him.

"The name is Axel friend." He turned and grinned a friendly grin at the two men who glared back at him. "And you boys must be two of Cadmus'."

"What of it?"

"Is he around? I'd like to meet him." He looked at their expressions and knew he had gained some leeway. "I'm a trader and I make good money for people like you. I'm looking to restock my supplies."

"He's asleep." They let their guard down. "'Not a good idea to wake him up. You just stay here till morning and we'll make sure he sees you."

"What is it you can do for us anyway?" The other raider asked him. "We already sold everything they owned."

The stranger gazed at the man with one eye. "But you didn't sell THEM did you?"

The Misfits were taken back by the statement but quickly turned to laughter as they stepped back outside. The so-called trader watched them leave with a little smile on his face. He turned back towards the barkeep who couldn't believe what he had just heard. The man in the vest then casually slumped onto the counter and reached for the object the owner was trying to grab a few moments ago. It was a pump-action, sawed-off shotgun strapped under the bar.

"Bet it was real hard keeping this from them for so long. 'Would've been a shame to give it away now." He stretched his arm back and placed the weapon in its original spot. "I'll have that second shot now."

Outside, his companion had already withdrawn from the open terrain surrounding the well and chosen, instead, to settle between a pair of shacks. Staying within the confines of the small alley also meant he would be much less visible in the darkness and avoid the risk of being spotted. He spent the better part of the night sound asleep and awoke only to drink from his freshly filled canteen.

At dawn, the sound of approaching footsteps alerted him to danger.

He removed the snap that kept his sidearm in its holster. His grip was firmly on the weapon while he faced the direction of the increasing sound. With each step, the man's thumb moved closer towards the pistol's hammer. Just as he was ready to pull it back, his hand relaxed and released the gun.

"Hello?" It was Owen accompanied by a few town residents. "I'm the Elder of Farson… I was hoping I could speak to you." The younger man ignored him and opted instead to take sips from his canteen. The initial, small-talk ceased when Owen noticed the long rifle the man kept beside him. "Please, I don't know who you are or why you're here, but you need to leave immediately. If they catch you-"

"Do you have any cigarettes?" The stranger gestured with his middle and index fingers as if the townsfolk wouldn't otherwise understand. "…Cigarettes?"

The entire conversation lasted no more than a minute. Owen tried his best to convince the young man to leave Farson in a discreet manner, but all warning seemed to fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately for both men, the decision was not his to make.

Another hour passed until the gunman was greeted by a familiar face. Even so, his mood remained unchanged. His companion spent the better part of the night sleeping on a bar, yet looked relatively refreshed.

"Where the hell did you get those?" His face lit up as though someone had handed him a present. He looked at the cigarettes like they were priceless artifacts.

"The old man had a pack." His armed companion answered. "He gave it to me on the condition that I leave without a fuss."

They talked about the number of bandits and the situation of the town. The man who had spent the evening chatting with the bartender laid out the information he had been given. The other listened without interrupting.

"So…" It came his time to speak. "We're not leaving?"

"If we leave now, they'll come follow us. Best to deal with this here and now"

"Axel," His partner spoke with no emotion. His next words would give deep insight into the way he'd been living his life up to that point. "We don't owe these people anything."

His companion wasn't shocked or surprised by the comment. Quite the opposite, he knew most people in their shoes would feel that way.

"Maybe not," He smirked at his friend the same way he had done countless times. His mind was made up.

Dust picked up by the time he made his way back into the bar. His partner wasted no time taking shelter in one of the poorly built shacks. Not due to the storm, but because of the rapid increase of activity by members of The Misfits who were just waking up. The gunman watched the immoral bandits stepping out from the inn, which they had all occupied since the first day of the raid, and immediately began harassing civilians. They threatened them with weapons, kicked them around as though they were dogs, spit on them. None of it was new or surprising to the man who had seen far worse during his time in the world.

One sight in particular seemed to get his attention, as one of the armed men took notice of a young girl who looked at them through her house window. A raider broke down the door to her home, threatened the parents and grabbed the girl by the arm. She struggled as the man pulled her by the hair and threw her to the ground outside. She wasn't a year over sixteen. Her weak frame from due to malnutrition made it hopeless to fight back. The other bandits claimed her as property while they barked and laughed. She disappeared into the inn and her screams for help soon with it. The man hidden in the shack didn't move from his spot. There was no point. Irrational thinking would be the death of him.

"What exactly are you planning?" The worried bartender asked his customer who took his first shot of alcohol that day.

"Not sure…"

"What? These people are dangerous!"

"Earl," Axel had taken the time to learn the man's name. "Relax. Everything'll be fine."

At long last, the tavern doors swung open as the leader of The Misfits entered. Cadmus had all the physical traits of a natural born leader: tall figure, toned body, perfect cheek bones and most of all, vicious, unforgiving eyes. He moved to the far end of the room where he took a seat and lifted his feet onto a table. At first, it appeared as though he had come alone, but soon others followed him in and sat at the tables surrounding him. One by one they came in, each giving the stranger at the bar crazed looks while he looked back at them in delight.

In truth, he was keeping count. Nine in total entered, five others would still be at the inn.

"I hear you've got a business proposition for me." Cadmus paid little attention to his guest. He leaned his back against the chair and looked up at the ceiling. His shirtless chest was extended as wide as possible as though he had just gotten out of bed and was doing his morning stretches.

From the confines of the small shack in which he was hiding, the other drifter could not see what was taking place inside the bar. He too had kept a careful count of the armed men that had entered it, then placed his blanketed rifle across the poorly made dining table, reached for his sidearm and removed the safety.

The residents of the house sat on the opposing edge of the room and observed his actions without a sound. He ejected the magazine from the bottom of the semi-automatic. Its chamber was pulled back to remove the extra bullet inside. The mechanism was then slid open and closed several times to ensure it would not jam. Finally, the detachable box was reloaded into the weapon and the additional round dropped into the open chamber. A loud click as it shut frightened the family of three.

"You're not listening to what I'm saying. Two hundred a head is just too damn much!" The fake negotiations with The Misfit's leader continued.

Cadmus had become interested enough in the conversation to sit up straight. "I'm not letting you sell anybody for a dollar less…"

"These people aren't worth that much Cad. They're dirty, hungry and ugly. No one's gonna pay top dollar for low grade slaves like this." The stranger stopped and looked at his supposed client and could see that he wasn't convinced. He then hopped over the bar to the server's side and rested his elbows atop the worn counter. "Okay. Here's what we can do: We sell the men for one-fifty and we sell the women for two hundred. You've got more women in this town anyway. We can clean 'em up, make 'em look nice and we just might turn a profit. Girls tend to have more uses than men anyway. How many people in this town are over forty?"

"I don't know…" The leader shrugged. "Thirty?"

"'Can't sell oldies." He started thinking to himself. "That leaves roughly seventy people…" "Sixty-five percent women… multiply… That's about thirteen grand from which I'd be getting a fifteen percent service fee."

"Ten." A counter offer.

"Ten was what I was hoping for." The fraud trader grinned. "Well Mr. Cadmus, I believe this makes us business associates."

A loud cheer erupted from the bar as the bandits ordered copious amounts of alcohol to celebrate the momentous occasion. The man in sunglasses watched and waited from inside the small shack while time rolled by. It wasn't long after that he noticed the old man who had approached him earlier that day was making his way towards the tavern.

"Is it true?" The tyrant was too drunk to comprehend the question Owen asked him. "You're planning to sell us like cattle?" The fact that his question was not answered made him press it further. "Please, don't do this!"

When he was ignored, he tried to approach the leader. One of the members hit him upside the head with a beer bottle and knocked him to the ground. Laughter engulfed to crowd as they watched the old man struggle to stand. The man in the leather vest forced a chuckle and watched from behind the bar.

"Hey boss," The man who had struck Owen in the head pulled out a gun. "Axel said the people over forty are useless right? Does that mean we can kill this guy?"

Cadmus didn't even look at the man. He swirled his beer bottle and watch the liquid flow in circles. "Do want you want."

Axel regretted his previous comment. He hadn't expected someone to take such a stand against Cadmus. The gang leader had instilled fear into the hearts of every person in Farson, but it hadn't broken them.

The enforcer slowly took aim. The hammer on the pistol was pulled back. Owen was still down and trying to recover from the hit he had taken to the head. Laughter from the other men grew louder. They were like a pack of hyenas about to devour their prey.

The sound of a gunshot echoed throughout the town as people carefully stuck their heads out from their homes to try and get a glimpse of what was happening. From their perspective, a gunshot meant that someone in their town had just died. Reasons were trivial or nonexistent.

In this case it was neither.

The raiders were all stunned when their comrade missed his shot at point-blank range. It hadn't been a split second before he fired that a full bottle of liquor had crashed against the side of his face. The head of every Misfit turned to the source of the flying object that looked back at them with a half annoyed glare.

"Well, I hope you're happy." He spoke to the old man who looked back at him slightly confused. "I don't know what's wrong with you, but you just ruined all my hard work."

Cadmus was looking irate. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"I gotta be honest with you Cad," Axel placed the half-smoked cigarette to his mouth. He had been careful to finish it too fast. "I'm not a trader, but if I was, I wouldn't be caught dead dealing with a sick fuck like you."

"Is that so?"

He grinned. "You bet your dumb, inbred ass."

Cadmus looked at the muscular man who was hit across the face with the bottle. "Tommy, break his jaw."

Blood trickled down the enforcer's brow and his clothes were soaked through. His eyes were on fire; both metaphorically and physically due to the alcohol burning his retinas.

He took a moment to breathe, then laughed it off. His attacker looked at him without worry and puffed away at his cigarette.

"I'm gonna rip your head off." The raider spoke through his teeth while taking slow, heavy steps towards the man. "I'm gonna beat you till there's nothing left to beat. I'm gonna break all your fingers and toes. I'm gonna gouge out your eyes. And just before I let you die, I'm gonna make you lick the scotch clean off my-."

"It's bourbon." Axel casually corrected him before flicking his lit cigarette in his direction.

His companion later witnessed the strangest of occurrences. A very big man leaped out the tavern window set ablaze and rolled across the dirt road trying to put out his burning flesh. By the time he was extinguished, he was no longer of use to anyone.

"New deal for you Cadmus:" His betrayer spoke as though what had just happened was of no consequence. "You leave town with your little pussy posse right now and you get to live to see the sun set."

The leader of The Misfits had seen and heard enough. "Somebody kill this guy!"

A piece of the bar's front panel exploded violently sending wooden splinters in all directions. A single, twelve gauge slug punched a massive hole through it before piercing the thigh of one members who was about to fire at the man. The thug dropped to the ground, holding his wound, screaming about being hit in the artery. Before the others had a chance to react, Axel had already pulled the sawed-off out from under the counter and pumped the weapon for another shot.

"Which one of you assholes thinks he's faster than me?"

His original plan had been to gain their trust and later disarm them. When the old man stepped in, the plan had to be changed. Fortunately, while the gang may not have been drunk enough to be helpless, they were inebriated to the point where they wouldn't be able to shoot straight. And they knew this.

Of course, there was still the issue of the five unaccounted members remaining at the inn. They would have heard the gunshot and were very likely coming to their leader's aid.

"How are ya?"

The semi-automatic of the gunman pressed against the neck of one of the bandits who had just stepped out of the inn. He reached out and relieved his captured enemy of his weapon before setting him down next to the other four. For every weapon he took, he armed one of the townsmen who kept the disarmed bandits to the ground. Meanwhile, Axel had managed to get every single drunkard in the bar to set down their guns and kick them in his direction. He smirked as he kept his aim squarely on Cadmus.

"Pick up a gun Earl."

"You help this bastard and you're gonna die like him." The leader shouted.

The bartender didn't even have to think about it. He walked around the bar and picked up a rifle.

Axel's grin grew wider. "Funny thing about treating people like dirt Cadmus… You can't do 'em any worse."

His partner was cautious as he made his way up the stairs of the inn and reached the second floor. The doors to all the rooms were closed and locked which meant he had to use the extra set of keys he had taken from the front desk. He'd open one room at a time, ensure it was clear, then move on to the next one. He unlocked the first room and entered in swift fashion. He verified the corners and ensured no one was hiding.

Down at street level, several more civilians came out of their homes. They took hold of the discarded weapons and increased the number of armed people the Misfits would have to fight in order to regain control of the town.

Back at the inn, the ninth out of the ten rooms was also clear of hostiles which spelled relief for the man who felt no desire to be shot in the back at that particular point in his life. When he finally moved to the tenth and final door, the unease he had been feeling multiplied tenfold. It was then that he remembered the young girl he had seen being dragged away from her parents. The fact that he hadn't seen the girl in any of the other rooms made him certain that he'd find her in the last one. What truly worried him was the condition in which he would end up finding her in. Putting his ear to the door, he couldn't hear a sound; not of cries or moans. The gunman made his decision to hesitate no further. Taking a step back from the door, he delivered a thunderous kick that ripped it off its hinges.

Slowly, he reached up and removed the sunglasses from his eyes before freezing at the sight he was seeing.

Axel could tell right away that something was wrong when he saw his partner step out from the inn. His demeanor was entirely different from earlier that day as he took quick steps towards his direction.

The man with the shotgun shifted his look back and forth from his targets to the approaching man. "Wh-"

Before he could finish his first word, his partner had already entered through the tavern's front door, stepped up behind Cadmus whose back was turned, pulled out the long, sharp combat knife at his waist and slammed it deep into the gang leader's left shoulder. The former tyrant was so stunned by the sudden strike that he was unable to scream and instead gasped as though all the air had escaped him. Keeping a firm grip on the knife, his attacker ignored his surroundings and dragged him out to the center of the dirt road.

He began circling the wounded prey after pulling out the knife and letting the Misfit leader plop to the ground like a captured fish. Without any explanation, he kicked him underneath his chin with enough strength to send him onto his back. Blood burst from Cadmus' nose and mouth.

"What the fuck do you want?" The severely wounded man tried reasoning with his aggressor whose only reply came in the form of another boot to the face. "I'm gonna fucking kill y-"

The kicks became more frequent and soon, his face was a bloody mess. His attitude adjustment came when the man stomped down on his right hand and crushed several of his bones.

Axel tried to keep his attention on the rest of the Misfits who were too wrapped up in watching their leader being brutalized to even try and escape.

"Stop!" Cadmus screamed. He was almost on the verge of crying. "Wait!" He brought up his only working hand. "Please stop!" His words were falling on deaf ears. "Just… Just… Tell me want you want!"

Those last words resounded loudly throughout Farson and caused his torturer to stop dead in his tracks. He appeared to think deeply about those words when he realized that he wanted nothing more from the murderer. Nothing he could do to him would change what he had done.

With that, the stranger cleaned the blood from his blade using his finger tips and placing it back in its sheath. He then casually reached for his sidearm and shot the man through the head. To the townsfolk, it had true significance since Cadmus had executed someone with a gunshot wound nearly identical to the one he had just received. The hearts of the people seemed to be lifted once more.

The gunman lifted his eyes from the corpse and shifted it across the entire town. As his eyes whirled around and saw the faces of the people readying to rejoice, he tried his best to hold back the sick feeling in his stomach.

"WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE?" He let out a shout that caught their attention. "You cower in your homes and watch as your neighbors are pushed around and killed. You don't do a thing when your town is being bled dry and you have to starve. You…" The man was momentarily overwhelmed by emotion. "Let them… Do THAT… To your children."

The people's faces expressed many feelings: denial, anger, sadness, but most of all, there was shame.

Properly venting his rage, the young gunman regained his composure and shielded his eyes with his sunglasses once more. Leaving the corpse to rot, he walked back into the bar and moved past his partner. Axel had managed to stay unfazed by the whole scene. The remaining Misfits all looked at the executioner of their leader in shock and awe. He looked back at them with cold disdain.

"Anyone else get a piece of that action?" He asked while hoisting his gun and taking a seat at the bar.

The thirteen surviving members, though some of them severely injured, were moved to the center of town and surrounded by a dozen civilians armed with their weapons. The noon sun was high in the sky and was burning up the desert beneath their feet. It was after very short deliberation that Axel convinced Owen of how to deal with the captured bandits.

"Kill 'em." He gave the advice to the elder. "Make sure it sends a message to all the other gangs."

There were no arguments against it. Letting them go free was out of the question. Escorting them to proper law enforcement would require resources they didn't have. Their only option to ensure the safety of Farson would be to deliver justice themselves. The men and women had taken the young man's words to heart. No longer would they rely on the strength of others to help them.

They fired into the group. A few of the raiders tried to run only to be shot in the back. Within seconds, the Misfits had been wiped off the face of the Continent.

For the first time in several months, the night yielded a different mood. At the center of the town, a large bonfire burned bright and warmed the hundred-or-so population of Farson that had surrounded it. Some of them sat, others stood. Axel did not take part in the circle which included Earl and the Elder. Instead, he sat next to the man with whom he had traveled to the town. They watched the strange ritual from afar.

A gentle murmur was all that could be heard from some of the men and women whose faces glowed red before the fire. More and more people soon joined until the sounds came from every last one of them. The murmur then transformed and became more akin to a hymn.

The two men listened to what sounded like a hundred prayers and songs being sung by a hundred people simultaneously; impossible to understand. Yet, despite their jumbled voices which were indecipherable, a deep feeling of peace and tranquility spread among the people.

"They buried the raiders." The comment from Axel was of both surprise and amazement. "They treated the bodies like those of their own." He looked at his comrade. A solemn expression was on his face. "Feeling bad about what you said? Don't be. These people are stronger now because of it. We did a good thing today Jim. I hope you realize that."

The man lifted his head and looked ahead at the massive flame which reflected off the lenses of his shades. "Axel, if that's true, why do I feel this way?"

It was later in the night the two figured what it was they had witnessed. It was a farewell ritual for those crossed over: brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, sons and daughters, even the mercenary who had helped them and the cruel raiders killed that day. People were a product of their environment. The people of Farson believed in absolution in death; the forgiveness of all sins once one was free from the harsh world in which they were forced to live. To them, death was the point at which everyone became equal.
Last edited by Mortar on Wed Jul 18, 2012 5:24 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 1 (Ongoing)

Postby Mortar » Wed Aug 25, 2010 11:47 am

Just realized I hadn't updated the thread here, 3 new chapters are out, each longer than the next one. The story is at 30 000 words so far and still in its exposition portion so expect more updates in the near future.

Chapter 2: Vicious Circle

There was the gentle rattling sound of the engine as the jeep cruised through the pitch black desert. Its headlights only illuminated ten feet ahead but there was no cause for concern. There wasn't much chance of coming across anything on the off-road terrain, much less crashing into it.

The two heroes of Farson hadn't stayed long enough to be thanked by its people. After stocking several containers with water from the town well, they had hopped into one of the vehicles formerly owned by the Misfits, filled the gas tank to the brim, and left without so much as a goodbye. They were now coasting the Continent at sixty miles an hour instead of walking at their usual three; a small reward for their good deed. An oil drum full of fuel in the backseat meant they would make it to their destination without interruption.

There was no moon that night leaving the stars as their exclusive source of light. Axel, the smooth talker of the duo, had taken the driver's seat leaving his stubby partner to gaze up while riding shotgun. They hadn't spoken to one another since leaving the derelict town.

Jim couldn't remember the last time he had observed the night sky so peacefully. He took the time to think about everything that had happened back at Farson. Some very painful memories had resurfaced during his time there and he was having trouble forgetting them. If he hadn't been exhausted, he may have been up all night.

It was within the blink of an eye that he awoke to the bright sun of a new morning. His head was leaned back to where he was still looking up at the blue. Judging by the position of the sun, it was only a few hours to noon. A full night's rest and he didn't feel the least bit refreshed.

He rubbed his neck which had been feeling sore for days and turned to his driver.

"It's morning." He was confused about the whole situation. "I thought we were going to switch once it was time to refuel."

Axel looked as though he'd fall asleep at any moment. "You hadn't had a decent sleep for days." He explained. "And I didn't feel too tired when it was time so..."

Jim felt a tad guilty as he watched the man's tired expression, but saying anything at that point would detract from the thoughtful gesture. He reached into one of the pouches on the right side of his military vest, pulled out his aviators and slid them over his eyes.

Ahead of them, no more than a mile away, was the town of Starkhaven. One of the largest one could find on the Continent, its population of over a hundred and eighty thousand people within a ten square mile area was a stark contrast from Farson.

They drove the vehicle deep into the town passing several streets which bustled with activity. The buildings were in far better condition than any that Jim had seen so far. Built mostly from sandstone and lumber, the homes were sturdy enough to withstand the harshest of dust storms.

As they reached the edge of the commercial area, Axel pulled the automobile into a vacant spot before shutting off the overheating engine.

"Wow, Roads…" Jim exclaimed with the slightest bit of fervor as he hopped from the jeep and felt the asphalt beneath his shoes.

"They've also got running water here." Axel spoke from experience. "We could both use a shower."

"Maybe later," His partner shrugged it off. "I'm gonna scope out the area a little bit. Stretch my legs… See if anything is going on."

Reins, sleep deprived, couldn't care less. "Just stay out of trouble. We just got here. 'Don't need anybody kicking us out. I'll be getting a room for us here." He waved his arm towards the nearby inn. "Just let me get a few hours of sleep before you come barging back alright?"

He didn't even bid his partner farewell before heading into the two-story establishment. Jim didn't mind. He was still enthralled by all the commotion around him and was eager to see what he could find. He reached into the back seat of the parked vehicle and removed the only object of value.

Unbeknownst to the two, Jethro, a local pimp and drug dealer, had caught a glimpse of them while going about his usual business on the opposite side of the street. He was known around the district for his abusive nature towards his girls. The belief was that due to his short stature, he had developed a submissive personality during his youth, and though he was servile to any potential customers or associates, he would often lash out in frustration against the prostitutes he was supposed to be employing.

He didn't think much of the two when he first saw them pull into the street. But as he continued observing the pair, he began to feel that there was something important he needed to remember. When it finally clicked in his brain, it confused his regulars who watched him stumble and run off in a panic.

Jim carried his massive rifle through the busy streets of the commercial district hoping to find a place that sold ammunition. He'd been lugging around the weapon for weeks despite Axel's disapproval. It was too heavy, too cumbersome and too flashy for travelers such as themselves. On top of that, the blanket he had wrapped around the weapon wasn't even an actual blanket; it was a large brown rug that added another five pounds to the load he had to carry. But regardless, Jim had decided against abandoning or pawning it off. For him, it carried some sentimental value.

"Do you sell fifty caliber rifle rounds?"

"Heh!" The chubby man behind the counter chuckled at his naiveté. "Not much chance of finding any around here. Government production is strictly for military use so they don't trade it with us outlanders. You'd be better of selling that thing."

Jim had heard that several times already. "I know!" He let his head drop and placed his fingers to his temple.

After passing through a number of stores that didn't sell bullets of any sort, he had been directed to one that specialized in ballistics. The shelves were packed with all kinds of rounds for all kinds of weapons. If he hadn't restocked on 9mms back in Farson, he would have easily been able to purchase them there.

The owner felt a little sorry for the young man who seemed quite desperate to find what he was seeking. He reached for a nearby drawer and placed something on the table.

"Two rounds?" Jim wasn't overly excited. "That's all you have?"

"Well, if you don't want it…"

After a sigh and a quick negotiation of price, he purchased the bullets and left with a shred of satisfaction. He stared down at the rounds for a few moments before stuffing them into one of the many pouches on his vest.

He knew the likelihood of finding additional ammo was slim. He figured it was time to tour the town and pin down the interesting locales.

Starkhaven was an impressive place. Its population was one of the largest found outside of the government controlled cities. Its inhabitants were mostly employed and responsible for its existing economy. People there were actually living their lives, not just surviving to see the next day.

A large portion of the Continent was covered by desert, most of which was found on the eastern coast where Starkhaven was located. Due to the infertile terrain, most towns suffered the greatest difficulty when cultivating. Agriculture was a key component to the survival of a town. For this reason, they had to be established on top of water veins that ran for miles beneath the surface before reaching the ocean. Starkhaven had been established upon a hub; a specific point where they all met to form a single, massive body of fresh water. This gave the town its fertile terrain, eventually turning it into an oasis filled with vegetation and other life.

Women were for sale on every street corner. There appeared to be no anti-prostitution laws since the girls were all making it very clear to Jim that they'd sell their services to him for the right price. His opinion of them varied.

"Anything you want for fifteen." Far too ugly.

"Suck your dick for twenty." Too expensive and ugly.

"Any hole you want!" Very likely diseased.

He hadn't seen an attractive woman yet. But when tempted, he realized how badly he wanted to get laid, even if it was with an overused hooker. He checked his pockets thoroughly for money.

"Can I get anything for three bucks?" He asked the posse of the least repugnant women.

"Oh! Fuck off shorty!" One of the girls snapped at him right before the group turned their backs in unison.

Jim had miscalculated the amount of cash he had been carrying around. The cost of his two bullets would have been enough to cover their asking price. Too little, Too late.

He was now more frustrated than ever. At least a minute ago, the thought of sex was far from his mind. Now, it was all he could think about. He left the hookers feeling as horny and ungratified as a teenager. It would be hours before his body would calm down.

He was also beginning to feel rather hungry. The events back in Farson had done a great deal to ruin his appetite. But a diet of only salty water and crusty bread for two days had kept him teetering on insanity.

Two hours had passed and although Jim wanted to see more of the town, his rumbling stomach would hear nothing of it. Regretfully, Axel was the one with the required cash and it was far too soon to be waking him up. He'd have to endure.

"Nice day for a walk isn't it?"

In his daze, Jim hadn't noticed the rugged man who had stepped in his path. He appeared to have no ill intentions with the greeting but was clearly stopping him for a reason. Although his hand was nowhere near it, the grip of a semi-automatic stuck out from the holster at his right side. He was also wearing thick body armor which was visible under a clean grey shirt.

"You must be new to Starkhaven." He said with a bright smile. "I'm Tanis. Town sheriff."

"Nice to meet you." Jim's reply lacked all sincerity. "What can I do for you officer?"

"I'll need you to surrender those weapons sir. Firearms in Starkhaven are restricted to law enforcement officers. This is hard for all newcomers, but I hope you can understand that it's to ensure that no one causes trouble."

Any other situation and a gun fight would have broken out right then and there. For Jim, relinquishing his weapons to anyone was out of the question. They would have had to kill him first. But Axel had made it very clear that staying out of trouble was very important to their current situation. They wouldn't be able to make it to the next town with the few supplies they had left over.

It bothered Jim that this person was so relaxed and behaved as though there was no danger to him.

"You know, If I was inclined, I could have shot you by now."

Tanis didn't take offense to the comment. He just grinned and pointed out the two deputies that were hanging back behind the boy with rifles in hand. They had been trailing him for quite some time, but had only acted when he moved into the less populated areas. These men clearly knew what they were doing. If need be, they would shoot without much risk of civilians being caught in the crossfire.

"You don't need to surrender them to me though." The sheriff became a tad serious. "The mayor prefers to do the meet and greet herself in these situations."

Jim could care less. "I'd rather just give them to you and be done with it."

The officer smirked at him. "Sorry. I think I made it sound like you had a choice." He turned and began walking. "Don't worry. It's close. And we won't take up much of your time."

The sheriff was well reputed among Starkhaven residents. Tall, handsome and with a full head of short black hair, he was considered a poster boy for the community and was known for his tough but fair treatment when it came to enforcing the law. Not only was Tanis sheriff of the entire town, he was also one of the closest aides to the present mayor with whom he would meet regularly to discuss current affairs.

After two blocks, they reached a building that was far larger than any other in town and built mostly from massive stones and concrete. A pair of heavy wooden doors led into the entrance area where a receptionist would usually assist with whatever people needed. In this case, a slight nod from Tanis was all that was required to get past.

Climbing several flights of stairs, the two made it to the fourth floor. The long corridor they had to walk through was narrow and void of people. Jim figured they had passed twenty closed doors and took three turns without him seeing or hearing anything. Then, from a distance, there was the faded chatter of someone speaking, although it was too weak to overhear and lasted a few seconds before it ceased.

The noise had come from the room at the end of the hall.

"Wait here a sec." Tanis stopped him just a few feet from the open door and walked in by himself. Jim could hear the faint yammer of the man who had dragged him a very long way. "Yeah… Well, he's… Yeah… But you told… I didn't! You said…!"

It sounded like an interesting dispute.

"You can come in now." The voice that invited him to enter was not Tanis'. In fact, it wasn't even a man's.

The traveler walked in feeling rather out of place. He was sweaty, dusty and carried with him the unsavory smell of rotten eggs. The office, on the other hand, was a clean, well organized and well lit chamber that was furnished with expensive looking chairs and a fine cedar desk. Black and white art hung across the white walls of the spacious room. One frame in specific had a certificate of some sort inside and hung behind the head of the mayor.

He took cautious steps towards the woman who was comfortably seated behind the wide desk.

"You can sit if you'd like." She gestured to one of the chairs in front of her.

"I'm fine thanks." Jim rolled his eyes from beneath his shades.

"Now," She scratched her brow. "Could you tell me why you're here?"

Her guest had no hesitation in pointing at Tanis. "He told me I had to come meet you."

"So you never protested to surrendering your firearms?"

"No."

She shifted her gaze to the sheriff who presented a weak shrug in reply.

To Jim, the mayor looked as though she were in her ninties. The short sleeved blouse she wore exposed the saggy skin and creepy blue veins one would normally see on a person who had one foot firmly planted in the grave. She was wrinkled and worn but appeared to lack the sensibility to acknowledge how old she really was.

"Well… It appears we've wasted your time." She was blunt and to the point. "I have to apologize on the part of Tanis. He's sort of… an idiot. My instructions to him had been to bring someone to meet with me strictly in the event that they felt uncomfortable relinquishing their weapons to an officer. Given my age, you'd expect me to be the senile one. But, now that you are here," She sighed. "I suppose the least I can do, is welcome you to Starkhaven. My name is-"

"Rook!" Just then, a shout came from outside the office. "Get out here you heathen bitch! Rook! I said get the hell out here!"

It was obvious from her expression that she recognized the unidentified voice. It was also clear that she was neither disconcerted by it, nor did she plan to do as it commanded.

"It's Bill Strenner." Said Tanis as he looked out the window.

"I'm aware. Could you please go down there and shut him up?" Her request sounded more akin to an order.

"The Republic will never be allowed to poison this town. You won't win!" The bizarre ramblings from outside continued.

Seconds after the sheriff exited the room, Jim's curiosity got the best of him. "Who's that?"

"Not important." She motioned with her hand to forget about it. "Now listen… What's your name?"

"Jim."

There was a brief pause. "No last names where you're from Jim?"

He showed a small reluctance. "Garrick."

"Well listen Garrick, this is a pretty peaceful town and we manage to keep it that way due in no small part to the police being the only ones packing heat. This gives them the unfair advantage over the syndicates in town and we can easily stop them from killing each other… In most cases. But that law doesn't mean anything unless it's enforced for everyone. So, to avoid any unnecessary accidents, I ask that you tolerate this minor inconvenience during your stay here."

It was hard to tell what Jim was thinking with his eyes shielded by the mirrored sunglasses.

He lowered the rifle off his back and leaned it against her desk, then pulled the semi-automatic from his belt holster, removed the magazine and tugged back on the chamber to remove the bullet inside. Everything was set neatly on her desk, including the extra magazines and shells from each and every pocket. He was stopped when removing his knife.

"You can keep that." She explained. "We don't permit firearms but that doesn't mean you have to be defenseless."

It was a carbon steel blade seven inches long and spray-painted black to reduce reflected light. Jim had suitable skill with it, but it was never his first choice during a fight. He mainly used it as a tool to cut rope or open cans.

"Great…" He mumbled as he stuffed it back into its sheath. He was halfway out the office when he received the mayor's final words.

"Tell Tanis when you want all this back. You'll be escorted to the city limits first, of course."

* * *

Jethro, the pimp and drug dealer, had already made his way to a two story building located in the slum part of town. A pair of large men posted at the entrance had given the little man a very difficult time before allowing him to enter.

The outside of the building made it seem like a rundown villa similar to the many others found in the district. Once inside, it looked even worse. Furnished with a few wooden chairs, a beat up couch and dim lights, it was familiar to a crack den. The walls were worn down from mold and the roof leaked water from the rain they had received a day ago.

Jethro kept his eyes to the floor avoiding eye contact with the many intimidating men glaring at him as he walked past. Everyone in town who peddled drugs or women had to have an employer. It was common knowledge. There was a never-ending turf war in Starkhaven and the local crime lords were all struggling to expand their operations; all with meager success.

Working alone was impossible. If you weren't being muscled into giving up your profits by the larger organizations, you were being taken advantage by the local denizens who wouldn't feel nearly as threatened by a lone enforcer.

Jethro, a born coward, would never dare work solo. Instead, he had entered the employ of the person who would give him the largest percentage of profits. Out of the half-dozen crime lords in town, Vargas was at the very bottom of the list.

Another built individual obstructed the path into his office. This was Horace, right hand to Vargas and his main muscle for when he needed it. The peddler knew better than to open his mouth. If the way was blocked, it meant the boss was busy and he would have to wait. A minute later, a voice from the other side let them know that they could enter.

Everyone had to use the honorific title of "Boss" around Vargas which wasn't common among the other leaders who were content with just "Mister". His organization had fallen on harsh times. The old criminal who was once a feared and respectable head had become a laughing stock among other groups. To maintain whatever dignity he had left, Vargas demanded a higher level of respect from all his subordinates. This was the cardinal rule when meeting with him.

Jethro hadn't met face to face with him in six months, but he knew the rules. He would not speak unless spoken to first.

The boss hadn't even looked up from his seat to know who it was. He appeared busy filling out a document with an expensive looking pen. With his head tilted down, one could see he was balding on top but his hair on the sides was black without a hint of grey. The man wore a white dress shirt with blue pin stripes that made him look less overweight than he really was. The sleeves were rolled up and the collar was unbuttoned which meant that he had already been sitting there for a few hours.

After placing his signature on the piece of paper and handing it to an aid, his big, round face with its flabby chin and cheeks finally popped up. Vargas always had the same tired, annoyed expression on his face. It made people wonder if he did it on purpose to throw them off what he was thinking or if he really hated every moment of his life.

"So?" He stared at the lesser man from whom he expected no interesting news.

Jethro had run halfway across town and begged his way into the chief's office to speak to him. Now, standing before him, it seemed like a very bad idea to say anything.

After a second of being stared down, he just blurted it out. "Axel Reins just drove into town."

Their eyes locked instantly. Jethro's were full of fear but Vargas' just lacked any interest whatsoever.

"You bothered me for this?" The crime lord appeared completely unfazed. He pointed to Horace and inched his finger towards the pimp. "Get him out of here."

He was being dragged out with one hand when Jethro built up the courage to speak once more. "I'm telling you Boss, I saw him with my own eyes."

There was an unexpected halt of all movement in the room.

"Saw him?" Vargas frowned as he repeated the words. "Axel Reins is dead. He's been dead for seven months you stupid drug addict." His eyes flared with anger. "You didn't see Axel Reins so stop wasting my time."

The dealer had no further heart to convince his boss. He lowered his eyes down to the ground once more and left the room of his own accord.

"Have a couple of boys tag along with him." Vargas told his right hand man who raised a brow as though confused. "Doesn't hurt to be sure."

* * *

Three hours and Jim found himself marching back towards the inn. His stomach had been growling for awhile but it had become unbearable to wait any longer. He needed food. The weight off his back put a nice spring in his step allowing him to move at a faster pace, but this was offset by the fact that he didn't fully remember where the inn was located. Not only that, he hadn't even checked the name of the place in order to ask for directions.

He'd been trying to memorize key locations in town all day, yet couldn't spot a single familiar sight on the populated street. It took him another fifteen minutes just to find the commercial area. He knew the inn was near the marketplace, which was one of its subsections. Finding one meant finding the other.

As he reached the end of the block, he let out a sigh of relief. West of his position, past the bazaar, was the two-story lodge in plain view. He had been walking towards it the entire time.

From where he was standing, Jim could see straight into one of the rooms on the second floor and he continued to look through the window even while moving through the crowds. What had captured his attention was the faint figure of someone moving inside. He had a feeling it was Axel but it would have been odd of him to be up and about so soon. It would have been even stranger since this person appeared to be engaged in a conversation, although Jim's line of sight made it impossible to be sure.

"My friend got a room here a few hours ago." He told the elderly woman behind the counter. "'Guy in a red vest..."

"Oh yes!" She remembered. "He said to give you the extra key."

Due to her age, a number of minutes went by before she returned. The whole time, Jim had been eyeing the stairs; still curious about what he had seen from outside. He thanked the woman after lifting the key to room two and heading up the narrow stairway.

He approached the door marked with the number having been careful not to make any noise on his way up. Quietly, he placed his ear to it and tried to listen for anything on the other side.

There was nothing.

The whole deal reminded him of what had happened in Farson and he didn't like it one bit. He pulled his head back from the door, readied his key and with one quick motion opened it and moved inside.

Axel was snoring with his face down on the bed. He hadn't even bothered to take his boots off and they dangled off the edge. It was a small room with an even smaller bathroom to one side. Jim walked around trying to see if anything was out of place. He stopped and peered out the window.

It overlooked the market and the spot he had been standing earlier. He thought about it for a full five minutes and realized that he hadn't really seen anything. He was making strange assumptions, drawing insubstantial conclusions and acting overall paranoid.

"Hey!" He nudged Reins who was still snoozing. "Hey! Come on! Wake up!"

With his face muffled by the mattress, Axel let out two words. "Go away."

"I can't. I'm starving."

"Go away."

"How can you sleep on an empty stomach?"

As if to reply, Axel's belly grumbled. There was no exchange of words between the two following it, but it grumbled again. Another ten seconds and it began grumbling non-stop.

He finally propped his head off the bed. "Alright, let's get something to eat."

At the same time, Jethro was escorting four of Vargas' men through his turf. All were dressed in nice suits and wore similar, slicked back hairstyles. They were recognized by the townsfolk who immediately stepped out of their way when seeing them approach.

"What are we suppose to be doing again?" One of the men asked.

"You didn't hear?" Another answered. "Jethro told the boss that he saw Axel Reins come into town. Can you believe that?"

The pimp was overhearing everything from the front of the group but continued his march without speaking or looking back.

"Man! Why does he always waste our time with this shit?"

"Remember the time he saw someone spying on his operation? So we had to stakeout for three days…"

"Yeah, then it turned out to be some homeless perv beating his meat to the hookers."

"That was nasty."

"We were so pissed we beat the crap out of him."

"You weren't around back then right Les?"

Les was one of the younger recruits within the Vargas crew. New help had been hard to find since the other organizations were paying far more than they ever could. This wasn't a problem for Les who was more interested in proving his worth than receiving a big paycheck.

"No," He replied while scratching his neck. "But it wouldn't surprise me if this turned out to be the same kind of shit." He grew annoyed from watching the little man's back. "Hey Jethro! Stop with the junk! It's messing up your brain."

The others cackled while steam vented from the dealer's ears who tried his best to ignore the taunts. Just then, a civilian was stepping out of a store, not watching what was in front of him. when he passed into the group and brushed shoulders with Les.

"Oh Sor-"

Before the man could word the apology, a full body haymaker caught him across the cheek and sent him careening into the floor. The new guy was known for his heavy hand and short temper, but so were all the others. Cocksure, violent, abusive bullies: To be a gangster in Starkhaven meant you could get away with nearly anything but murder. The police had struggled to work out a truce between the organizations and they would overlook minor offenses in order to maintain it. The gangsters made sure to take advantage.

"'Should have watched where you were going." One of the other men chastised the unconscious victim while horrified onlookers, including Jethro, tried their best not to get involved.

Arriving at the inn, they questioned the old lady at the front desk. She told them everything she knew without feeling the least bit threatened.

"Shit!" Jethro screeched. "We just missed 'em!"

Nearby, Jim and Axel were already seated at a table. The Starkhaven Steakhouse was a popular restaurant located only a short distance from where they had parked their jeep. The place was open on all sides, similar to a gazebo, built strictly out of wood and supported three feet off the ground. The kitchen could be found at the center of the structure, while outdoor tables were placed all around it. It was its simplicity that made it an attractive spot for tourists, but the food wasn't bad either.

"Go nuts." Axel told his young partner who seemed reluctant to order.

"Aren't we short on cash?"

"This is a special occasion. Don't worry about it."

Jim faced the waiter who had a pen and pad ready. "Steak; the biggest you've got in the house."

The man wrote it down. "How would you like it?"

He looked at the waiter and gave a deadpan response. "Edible."

The waiter tweaked his head and added the extra note.

After finishing with their orders, the waiter head into the kitchen area leaving the two to talk.

"Well?" Jim was curious about what his friend had mentioned earlier. "What's the special occasion you're talking about?"

"Are you kidding? We're finally here!"

His partner wasn't impressed. "Yeah, well I'm still not sure why."

"Listen, this town has a lot of opportunities for guys like us. We can start putting the gears in motion."

They sat in silence for a minute, reflecting on their long journey to the town and the obstacles that had blocked their path. The mood became serious and almost depressing the more they thought about it. It had not been a pleasant journey.

"What happened to your guns?" At last, Axel realized what had been bothering him since leaving the inn.

The mere mention of it seemed to throw Jim into a fit. "They were confiscated. You never told me they were restricted in town."

"And you just handed them over?"

"I wouldn't have but you told me not to start any trouble." Garrick snapped at him but maintained a low tone.

Remembering what he had said in his sleeplessness, he couldn't help but laugh. "I guess I kind of screwed you huh?"

"Yeah, real funny…"

"Come on! You may not be packing, but neither is anyone else." Axel did his best to raise his spirit. "Besides, this is a town with law enforcement. We'll be fine." He rocked his rickety chair back and forth while looking up at the ceiling. "So… You just had to order the most expensive thing on the menu…"

Jim was still wearing his shades but Reins knew he was glaring at him from underneath. "I'm going to use the bathroom."

Reins was rather satisfied with his timing and execution. He grinned as he watched the man head towards the toilets which were located next to the kitchen; a room that looked like it doubled as the restaurant's main support beam.

Several minutes later, the waiter returned carrying both plates in hand and placed them across the table. Looking at their respective meals, Axel was beginning to feel that a steak may have been the best choice. Still, he was too hungry to complain and decided against waiting for his friend.

Within a few short moments, he devoured his order of potatoes and left very little of the peels. He didn't even care that the inside of his mouth was burned due to them being fresh from the oven. Full and satisfied, he eased into his chair and placed his hands behind his head.

"I don't believe it…"

The sound of footsteps slowly moving towards his direction didn't shake him from his relaxed mood.

"I see it. But I don't believe it." The same voice continued.

"That's him?" Another asked.

"Oh! That's him alright. I can recognize that vest anywhere." Stepping into Axel's view were several well-sized men who looked at him as though he were a ghost. "Axel Reins."

"Can't believe that little fucker was right…" One of the others mumbled.

"We all thought you were dead Reins." The main man spoke directly to him. "Seven whole months."

"I was on vacation." He replied as casually as a person can.

The joke fell flat but the gangster kept his smirk. "Boss Vargas wants to see you."

"I don't know who that is."

"It doesn't fucking matter if you don't know him. He knows you and he wants to see you. So get up and walk or we'll do this the hard way."

Axel brought his hands up. "Look guys, I'd love to go with you but I just ordered this really big steak for my friend and it would be a total waste-"

Les, the young upstart, swiftly grabbed one side of the table and flipped the whole thing across the room. Plates and utensils were flung around the hall covering the floor in a big mess. The place went from deafening noise to silence in an instant as all the other customers and employees watched the events that transpired.

"Okay," Axel sighed before standing up into the now empty space. "But uh… I feel I should warn you guys, I came to town with my new enforcer and uh… he's pretty strong. He could probably beat all four of you up."

Jethro hadn't gone up the three steps that led into the steakhouse. Instead, he watched the thugs do their work from the safety of the street. He always admired the gangsters and dreamed of one day being an enforcer himself; able to muscle people and intimidate them into doing what he wanted. When he saw Les toss the table, he could almost picture himself doing the same thing. His whole body was jumping with excitement. That or he had done taken to many amphetamines that day. As the crew was getting ready to drag Reins out, he noticed another man who had approached from the bathroom but had settled down near the kitchen counter.

Jim looked at the overturned table momentarily then crouched down several feet from the gangsters. He lifted the broken plate off his steak, picked it up and began chewing into it like a wild animal. By that point, he had gained the attention of everyone around him.

"Who the fuck is that?" The lead gangster was asked everyone that watched him.

Axel answered without a shred of embarrassment. "That's my muscle."

There was a guffaw among the thugs as they looked at each other and could instantly see the humor.

The man was even shorter than Jethro.

Letting out his last tear-jerked chuckle, the gangster went back to business. "Okay, let's go." He turned to the newcomer of the crew. "Les, make sure he doesn't follow us."

As he spoke the words, Jim stood up and turned towards them in a calm, casual manner. He still had the well done steak in hand and ripped another piece from it. With two steps forward, he was blocked off by the violent goon.

"Try it!" Les dared him. He was already psyched up and ready to throw down.

The short man in the military vest continued eating his meal. He didn't appear willing to make the first move and instead just stared at the much taller man.

The young thug, who was always eager to pick a fight, figured the man was afraid to strike first. He didn't care to give him a chance to. With all his strength, he swung up with an uppercut at close range. It surprised him that the man had evaded the punch by pulling his head back at the right time. He was ready to follow up with another attack when his body suddenly locked up and he fell to the floor.

There exists an early warning system for being struck in the genitals. Out of instinct, a majority of people will glance down a split second before delivering the kick that will assuredly incapacitate any male opponent. By noticing this small gesture, one can easily avoid the hit. On the other hand, the trick is useless when the attacker is wearing highly reflective sunglasses.

Les was down in the fetal position, cupping his damaged jewels in both hands and moaning in half-gasps. The rest of the gangsters took notice only after the kick but were able to get a decent idea of what had just happened. Two of the more experienced men stepped forward to handle to job. They moved from beyond his range and ended on opposite sides.

Jim finished his steak and sucked his fingers clean while watching them inch their way closer. He shifted his gaze constantly between the two who would be sure to attack simultaneously.

At three feet's distance, he pounced at the thug on his right and delivered a short left that caught him flush and sent him wobbling back. A split second later, the other man grabbed him from behind and placed him in a half nelson hold.

The gangster who was punched in the face was now out for blood. His eyes were flaring as he stepped towards his captured prey and cracked his knuckles. Jim struggled to get free while the larger man behind him had no trouble keeping him in place. He could see the man with the wide grin in front of him wind up a big punch as though he were pitching a ball. When he threw his fist forward, it connected with a sick thud.

Stepping back, the gangster screamed in pain. "He broke my god damn hand!"

His strike had been too obvious. As it was coming in, Jim had braced his neck and thrown his head forward. Keeping his head down, the punch had collided with his much harder forehead and subsequently crushed his knuckles. Garrick had effectively stopped a punch with his face.

He had only an instant to admire the accomplishment.

Bringing his feet back, Jim wrapped one behind the leg of his captor who still had him in the powerful hold. He then thrust his upper body forward, lifting the six foot man entirely off the ground before slamming him head first into the wood floor. The drop released the hold on him and he was set free. He didn't want to touch it, but his head was now pounding and making him feel dizzy. The other thug was still grasping his hand, not paying attention to his surroundings, when Jim spun him around and hit him with a right cross that almost dislocated his jaw. It hurled him halfway across the room before he fell over a table and made another mess.

Standing next to the kitchen counter, Jim then turned to an empty metal tray lying on top of it, grabbed hold and twisted his body in the other direction. The lead member had made an attempt to sneak up behind him but to no avail. The tray dented as it slapped him hard across the face and disoriented him long enough for the smaller man to grab him by the collar. He took a second to aim carefully before striking him in the exact spot necessary to break a person's nose then tossed him over the counter onto a lit stove.

The young man took a few steps towards the kneeling gangster whom he had tossed down a moment ago and kicked him in the face to put him out of commission.

"Hey Axel," He finally said. "Whose fault was it that I had to eat my lunch off the floor?"

By this point, Reins had taken a cigarette out and was puffing away. He pointed to Les who was still recovering from having his testicles smashed.

Jim picked the steak knife off the ground which had been tossed along with his meal, double paced towards the winded thug who was now on his knees and drove it into his shoulder. A quick jerk broke off the wooden handle leaving the blade embedded in his flesh without much chance of being pulled out. Les went back to moaning in pain.

"Thanks for all the help man," He said to Axel in a sarcastic tone while rubbing his forehead. "'Really appreciate it."

"It looked like you needed the stress relief."

"Yeah right..." He was breathing heavily. "What did these assholes want anyway?"

Reins looked as though he were about to remember, but came up with a blank stare. "I have no idea."

Their antics had attracted the unwanted attention of everyone in the vicinity. It amazed them that one person, so small, had single handedly beaten the four larger adversaries who were known criminals. Jethro had also witnessed the whole scene but chose against running in to assist. Instead, he backed away from the scene and, as he always did, ran away.

From the other side of the restaurant, Tanis and three of his men entered in a hurry. They were responding to a call about a disturbance at the Starkhaven Steakhouse. When they stopped at the sight of all the carnage, the sheriff recognized the man at the center of the scene.

Jim mimicked his shrug from earlier in a mocking gesture.

* * *

Chapter 3: Grim Reaping

Jim had settled into a cozy chair for less than fifteen minutes when he noticed the individual leaning against the nearby support beam.

While most parts of town bustled with activity regardless of time or day, nights in the residential district of Starkhaven were always quiet. The people would sleep shortly after the setting of the sun and remain undisturbed until morning.

Garrick had been keeping his eyes low and paying scarce attention to his surroundings. Before he knew it, someone had appeared just a few feet's distance from him. The figure was too deep in darkness to make sure, but something told Jim it was a man. What bothered him most was how he had gotten so close to him without making a sound.

There was a long period of insecurity as he wondered if he had been caught with his pants down. He was half naked, wearing only a pair of torn up jeans, and carrying with him the knife that was left as his only weapon.

It was noon of that day by the time he had been escorted to the mayor's office. He and Axel had been seated on an uncomfortable bench for ten minutes while Tanis talked with Rook no more than a few doors down the hall. When he came back to fetch him, the stubby man was swinging his feet up and down as though he were a restless child. He didn't appear too bothered by the whole ordeal.

Reins was fast asleep with his head resting in his palm. The nudge from his friend failed to wake him. A second later, Jim was explained that the mayor wanted to meet with him alone.

It had taken a while for the sheriff to buy the story the duo were feeding him. The steakhouse was a mess and there were bodies scattered in every direction. What convinced him were the customers who leaped to their defense after having witnessed the whole scene. Though the two wouldn't be arrested, what with them not inciting the fight, given the involvement of a crime syndicate, Tanis figured it would be best to inform his boss.

Jim's foot was barely through the door when he heard the familiar voice.

"Well God damn you're fast…"

Rook was perched over her desk like a hawk; a nasty, vicious glare on her face as she kept her eyes fixed on the small man who entered her office. There was no offer for him to sit down and no kind greeting this time. Her next words were spaced and enunciated. She took her time.

"So you haven't been in my town for more than a few hours, you meet with me, we have a nice talk and then you decide" At that point, her voice exploded. "TO TRASH A FUCKING RESTAURANT!"

"I-"

"I don't care that they started it!" She spoke through her teeth. "I like that place. I eat there three times a week. I don't appreciate a tourist that can't remain civil in my town for more than a day." She pushed herself off the table but maintained her scowl. "I mean, where the hell do you think this is? Dax?"

"No," Jim gave the smallest of smirks. He had already been to the criminal town. "THEY let me keep my guns."

The fire in her eyes would have melted steel. "Is that supposed to be funny?"

His grin vanished. "Uh… No?"

After a brief stare down, she signaled the sheriff who left the room. The young man stood around a couple of seconds without speaking a word. He knew anything he could say or do would make the situation he was in worse than it already was.

But he couldn't stay quiet for long. "What's going to happen to those other guys?"

"They're receiving medical attention right now." Rook explained in a less aggressive tone. "You hurt 'em pretty bad but they'll be fine. After that, we'll send them on their way."

"That's it?"

"You don't like it? That's your problem. I've got enough to deal with without a crime syndicate breathing down my neck."

It took Jim a second to raise a brow from beneath his shades. "Those guys were mobsters?"

Their talk was interrupted when Axel was led into the room. He was just up from his short nap and still trying to keep his eyes open. It took him a few minutes to even realize where he was. The mayor didn't even waste a second inspecting the man.

"Is this your responsibility?" She asked him while pointing to the stubby man he was standing next to.

Axel was so lost, he actually had to look over to his friend and eye him up and down. "I suppose he is."

"Well, starting right now, it's going to be your job to make sure I never have to see his face again. 'He starts shit in Starkhaven one more time and I'll cut his balls off. Y'Hear me?"

Reins didn't seem to comprehend the seriousness of the threat, instead choosing to laugh and tease his comrade. He paused rather abruptly when he noticed the framed document that was hung on the wall behind her desk. His expression turned serious as he looked at Rook.

"Y-You're a citizen!" He said in astonishment.

The Continent had seen better days.

While some towns were large enough to sustain themselves, most were in the same position as the one they had just recently passed through. Increasing number of gangs made civilian life either difficult or impossible in many areas. Ghost towns were everywhere; either due to the population relocating or more common, through their extermination. Moral code was almost non-existent. Those with superior force would take what they please, killing women, children and elderly in the process. Often, they were lined up and shot. Other times, they were subjugated to far worse.

Though there were places in the world considered safe from such threats, the unquestionable havens belonged to the sole remaining nation on the Continent. The Independent Free-Citizens Republic, or IFCR, was formed just over two decades ago after a revolution that replaced the previous government. Their territory and influence in the world was continually expanding and made them the only true superpower. Suffice it to say, finding a citizen outside the safety of government controlled cities or towns was rare indeed.

"I'm impressed." The stone cold Marla Rook actually smiled. "Not a lot of people figure that out by themselves."

"I don't understand." Jim wasn't keeping up with the conversation.

"It's a certificate of citizenship. They used to give them out back in the day." Reins educated his simple-minded friend.

"Now they just give out pass cards with your picture on it. Classless bastards…" Marla cursed beneath her breath. "And believe me; I did everything in my power to repeal that idiocy."

Axel was surprised again. "You were a government official?"

"I was a Praetor for seven years. Almost made Consul."

"Holy shit! So what the hell are you doing all the way out here?"

Rook scratched her head. "Well, my folks used to be big players in the political scene. Naturally, I found myself on the same path. They passed away when I was in my thirties. 'Wasn't until I was in my forties that I realized how little interest I had in following in their footsteps. So I left. Found this place when it was still an overlooked territory. I figured I could do more for the people here than I could ever do with the FCR. Started organizing, developing, eventually found myself in the mayor's seat and they've been re-electing me ever since."

"Wow," The man in the leather vest was genuinely interested. "That's pretty incredible."

Jim was not. "Yeah they oughta sell it on audiotape-Can we get the fuck out of here now?"

The two were getting along so well that his plea fell on deaf ears. What didn't was the shout that came from outside the building a second later.

"Rook!" A drawn out call of her name appeared to vex her greatly. "I know what you're planning you traitor!"

Jim and Axel both approached the window to see the origin of the noise. An old, worn looking man was standing on the street corner, yelling directly at them. His hair was all but gone save for a few white strands and he was holding himself up with a wooden cane. A distinguishing feature among the rest of the populous was that he was wearing a long sleeved, dark green jacket. Marla lacked any desire to see the man and instead signaled to Tanis once more to go put a stop to him.

"Seriously," Jim recognized the man's voice as the same from earlier in the day. "Who is that?"

"It's Bill Strenner." She answered. "He's a nut who thinks I'm conspiring against the town. Don't stare. It only encourages him."

The two backed off from the window as per her request. Not long after, the sheriff was outside to escort the man away from the building.

"What's that guy's deal with you?" Reins asked her.

"Please," Marla stopped them. "I'd like to just finish this up and let you both go. I've got a lot on my plate today." A nod from the man acknowledged her request. "What exactly did Vargas' men want from you?"

Axel rubbed his neck while thinking. "Well… I think they just wanted me to pay for their meal. When I told them I didn't have the cash they got pissed and flipped the table. You know how the rest went."

"So you're saying this confrontation was spontaneous?"

"I sure as hell had no prior association with 'em."

The mayor looked skeptical. In front of her was a report that she had filled out shortly before meeting with the pair. It was a summary of the events that took place as described to her by Tanis. She spent a good minute reading over it, then looking up at Axel's expression again, then back down to read some more. Finally, she added what appeared to be an extra sentence to the document before signing the bottom.

"You can go." She said to the two. "But I want you both to keep a low profile for the remainder of your stay. Those boys aren't in any condition to fight you anytime soon but try to avoid them. They'll be likely holding a grudge."

The travelers made no attempt to stay any longer. They made their way downstairs, exited out the front doors, and kept a steady pace while heading towards the inn at which they were lodged.

"So why lie to her?" Jim asked as he tried to keep his friend's pace.

"If we told her they were after me, she would have forced us to leave town. For now, we should grab whatever supplies we've got left, hide the jeep and find another place to lay low." There was a general look of concern on his face. "This isn't over yet."

They managed to cover their tracks and disappear into the residential area of town. Reins was well aware of the hospitality offered by many of the townsfolk when it came to food and shelter. It wasn't something he wanted to take advantage of, but lacking alternative options meant they had little choice.

The people of Starkhaven led peaceful, uneventful lives and although this was a step up from many of the other parts of the world, boredom was a common issue. A traveler's story, even a gang member's, was a welcome source of entertainment for the residents. Sometimes, all you had to do was ask and their doors would open to you.

Being confined to a small room for several hours, Garrick had been eager to step out and take a stroll around the peaceful neighborhood. He had spotted a welcoming chair on the front porch of a house and figured no one would mind if he sat for a short while. Unfortunately, it appeared that his night would become anything but relaxing.

A few hours earlier, the four men assigned to look for Axel Reins had returned to Vargas' hideout. Horace had not been amused by the sight of them. Each was injured and less inclined than the next to explain what had happened. The worst off of the four looked to be the man who was leading the group. His nose had been badly busted and his arms bandaged due to third degree burns he had sustained when he landed on a hot stove.

When it came to the actual management of the syndicate, it was Horace who did most of the work. Vargas was too emotional or easily distracted to handle difficult problems with a level head. On the other hand, Horace was cool and calculated. Everyone would say how he was better suited to lead the group than their broken down Boss Vargas. Everyone of course, save for Horace.

"You morons!" The muscular lieutenant spoke without much compassion. "You were told to check it out. I don't remember ever telling you to move on him."

"But Boss," The group leader pleaded. "He was sitting all alone. We thought we'd save you the trouble and bring him right away."

Horace wasn't appreciative. "And now he knows we're looking for him… You've made finding him that much more difficult."

The gangsters had no real excuse. For all their tough talk and intimidating behavior, they had failed one of the most simple and easy jobs that could have been asked of them. If the organization could have afforded it, they would have been kicked out. Fortunately, help was very hard to find those days.

"Tell me more about the guy he was with." Horace reached into his pocket and pulled out a small notepad with an attached pen. "You said he was the one who did all the fighting right?"

At that point, Les, the new blood of the crew, stood from the couch he was on. "Yeah but Boss, this guy was a real slimy fuck; 'knew all the dirty tricks to win a fight." His arm had been placed in a sling after the grueling hour it took to remove the broken blade from his shoulder. "If I find that guy… I'm gonna pay him back big time."

"That's great." His boss lowered the pad and stared at him. "But I'd prefer physical features if you don't mind."

"He's short." One of the other men who was lying down took a hint.

"How short?"

"We don't know exactly." The leader of the group spoke again. "How short is Jethro?"

Horace shrugged his arms. "Five-foot-seven… At the most…"

The four answered him in unison. "Shorter than that."

He jotted down every last bit of detail they could give him; hair color, nose, mouth, ears, clothes, build, skin tone. With their memories combined, they managed to put together an accurate picture of him; except for the eyes. When they were done, it was time for him to break the news to his boss and see how he would want to deal with the issue. For Horace, this was, by far, the most difficult part of any day.

Vargas used to be one of the prime bosses in Starkhaven. For a while, he controlled over ninety percent of all drug traffic within town. But it wasn't only about product. His organization's men were the most loyal out of all the syndicates. These were men whose allegiances extended beyond money, beyond power. There was never any question as to who they worked for.

It was for this reason that his sudden fall from glory had such a deep rooted effect on everyone around him. Gone was the genius businessman who even distributed to the major cities. Gone was the progressive thinker who helped create the present day Starkhaven. Gone was the money, honor, respect and with it, his devoted men.

Horace was, in fact, the only remaining member from those days. The rest had either changed sides or died during the rapid shift in power. This was why Vargas had kept him close but also why the two would never see eye to eye. While the Boss was a changed man; his decisions always rash or unreasonable, his underling had tried his best to maintain the old way of doing things.

He knew the news he was bringing to him that day was extremely volatile. Likewise, he was aware that he couldn't keep it hidden from him.

Vargas was leaning back in his chair. His eyes were slow to shift and glare towards his right hand who watched him for a minute before opening his mouth.

"It's him."

His eyes couldn't get any bigger. The boss moved away from his desk and leaned back into his chair with a complete look of shock on his face.

"Baby, get out."

The blonde who had her head in his lap popped her face up. "But I'm not finished yet."

"Take a walk!" He exploded.

As she was ejected from the room, Vargas continued to chuckle at the new development. It bothered Horace. He hadn't seen that kind of expression on him for quite some time. Still, he went ahead and explained what had happened including the obstacle that was in their way.

The mob leader listened but didn't care. "So? Send the boys out to find 'em."

"Sending that many people out to look for him can attract a lot of unwanted attention." Horace tried to reason with his boss. "It would give him a chance to slip away again."

Vargas appeared to agree with him and his face contorted with frustration. Then, he came up with solution. "Get the Grim Reaper to do it."

Horace seemed visibly bothered by the order. "I don't think that would be a wise decision. Besides, we don't even know if Reins is still in town."

"What the hell am I paying him for?" The fat man glared at him. "Tell him he has a job to do. I want Reins!"

The experienced gangster was given his orders and knew there was no point in arguing further. He left the building immediately and headed towards the commercial district. On his way, several of the syndicate's men volunteered to tag along but were talked into staying put. Where he was headed, he didn't need any escorts.

Horace kept a low profile. Few recognized him on the streets and fewer still feared him. He was the ideal criminal whose code of honor and conduct almost made him one of the good guys. At the same time, he was a methodical planner who knew full well the weakened state of their organization.

The firearm restriction in town meant that what few guns they had in their possession couldn't possibly be used in the event of a turf war. If the larger syndicates decided to make a move against them, a close quarter encounter was assured. But all sides were amateurs when it came to that sort of combat. They were all big, muscular thugs without any real fighting experience. This meant one simple thing; the side with the most men would ultimately win.

For this purpose, Horace had prepared a trump card. The Grim Reaper was a mercenary whose skill with a blade was considered top-notch. When he had first arrived in Starkhaven, he had issued a duel to any person who accepted. After killing three men in singles combat, he found himself lacking in challengers.

His reputation among the residents established, he was offered large sums of money to work for the criminal lords and help them seize more power. But Horace had been the only one to figure out the man's real desire. Because of this, the Grim Reaper went into business with Boss Vargas.

The mobster came to a stop in front a light blue, three story building. He took a moment to read the sign hanging above the entrance before heading inside.

The first level was a grocery store that specialized in domestic goods both canned and fresh. The owner, operating the cash counter, noticed the man enter his place of business and gave him an understanding nod before signaling him towards the stairs at the very back of the room. This was one of the few places in town that still paid Vargas for protection and also helped with under the counter drug dealing. The entire building belonged to its owner who rented out the other two floors for profit.

The second floor was rented to one of the only two dentists in town. Although, with all the current problems in the world, it wasn't nearly as successful as one would be led to believe. Horace had no dealings with him and continued up the stairs.

The third floor was a simple hall with two doors on opposing sides. He walked past the first door, which he knew was the owner's home, and approached the second one farther down. When he brought his hand up to knock, he paused for a moment as though considering what he was doing.

He tapped the door with his knuckles hard enough for anyone inside to hear, then waited ten seconds, then twenty with no result. He did it again; this time in greater length and force. Thirty seconds later, he turned the knob to find it was unlocked.

The loft was much bigger than he expected. Without any walls or separations, it made for a very roomy apartment. To further increase the sense of space, there wasn't a single piece of furniture to be found anywhere. The only evidence that there was someone living there was the strong stench of sweat and the food visible in one of the open cabinets.

Horace admired the emptiness of the room a bit longer before turning towards the closet on the far side. With a lack of doorways or tight corridors, it had been the only suitable place to install a pull-up bar. Hanging upside down from it and doing abdominal crunches was the man he came to see.

"You didn't answer your door."

An answer didn't come right away. From the looks of it, the man was straining quite a bit each time he pulled himself up. He wasn't wearing anything besides a pair of tight shorts and his slim body was soaked in perspiration.

Eventually, he began to show the he was reaching the end. He forced with every ounce of energy he had left to lift his upper body skyward but by the halfway point, it simply gave out and dropped back down. He then, rolled backwards off the bar and sat down on the floor with his back turned to his guest.

"You didn't wait long enough." He replied to the earlier question; still breathing heavily.

The two had spoken on several occasions but it was Horace's first visit to his home. He walked to the only window and peeked through the blinds to see a large section of town and the setting sun in the distance.

"I noticed you don't have a bed."

"I can't sleep lying down. I just lean against the counter." The tenant stood up and moved to the kitchen. "You came all the way here to ask about my sleeping arrangements?"

Horace looked at him seriously. "I've got work for you."

"Really?" The man grinned after taking a small drink of water from a plastic bottle. "That's unusual." He continued his conversation while heading towards the bathroom at the very back of the loft. "So who do I kill?"

"No one if all goes well." The syndicate member explained. "Axel Reins is in town. Ever heard of him?"

"Just stories." The sound of the shower running forced both men to raise their voices.

"Well, a while back, he caused us a lot of grievance. Now, Boss Vargas wants him alive."

"This sounds like something you'd want to handle internally. Why come to me?"

"Reins has a new guy with him. 'Managed to take down four of ours single handed."

"Any idea who he is?"

"No. 'Goes by the name Jim. At least, that's what the sheriff was calling him according to our boys." Horace pulled out his notes and began reading aloud. "Short, maybe five-foot-six or seven, brown hair, brown eyes… Muscular build… If he's Axel's new guy you should have no trouble spotting him."

"Uh-huh." The man turned off the water and stepped out of the bathroom. "What about this Axel person, what's he look like?"

"He's got a trademark. 'Wears a red leather vest."

"Right. Anything else?" The mercenary was incredulous. "What if he isn't wearing it?"

"Trust me. He will be."

The man finished drying himself off and walked back towards the closet where he had exhausted himself just a few minutes ago. He reached in and pulled out a black, one-piece skin suit that went down to his feet and cut off at the wrists. It fit firmly around his neck after zipping himself in. He then grabbed a pair of tan colored leather boots which he strapped on and tied with a double knot. What came next were sections of thick and heavy leather: a chest piece, knee and elbow protectors and a thick utility belt which had a codpiece. He even placed a pair of shin guards over his boots for extra protection. Finally, a pair of leather bracers finished the ensemble. Every one of them was strapped in tight and checked to see if it would move from its place.

"We don't know what you could be walking into." The gangster said to him. "It may be more than just the two of them."

The Grim Reaper was supposed to be used as a contingency. Horace knew how the syndicates operated and would have deployed him in delicate cases. This was different. There was no way for him to predict Axel Reins or the new muscle he was traveling with. At the same time, it left their entire organization vulnerable.

"You shouldn't worry so much." The merc grabbed his last article of clothing from the closet; a long leather duster that would conceal most of what he wore underneath. "I'll have him by morning."

At the door, he picked up the weapons he had been carrying when he first entered Starkhaven. One was some sort of collapsible staff which was folded up for easy transport. He placed it inside his coat where there was a specially designed pocket for it. The second was a sword sheathed in black leather and designed with a simple steel crossguard. He connected it to his belt using a small hook.

Horace couldn't help but grin. It was only when he saw the swordsman in full gear that he realized how foolish he had been to worry. Axel and his crew would certainly be unarmed. Whether he had one man with him or five wouldn't make a difference. The person hunting him down was the Angel of Death; a title the man had earned not only in blood, but sweat. This man had been training every day within the open space of the apartment; practicing technique, increasing strength and building speed. In a world filled with self-proclaimed warriors, he was the real deal.

"You might want to talk to Jethro." The gangster advised him. "He might know something."

* * *

The mysterious stranger hadn't spoken a word yet. The porch Jim was sitting on was one of the few that had lights installed for use in the nighttime. In spite of this, it was impossible to see enough of the man that lurked deep within the shadows.

Jim grew irritated by the long silence.

"Can I help you?" His question came as though he had nothing to hide.

"Yeah," The man replied in jest. "You can tell me what rock Axel Reins is hiding under."

Garrick wasn't sure of the man's identity but, given the fact that he had been recognized, guessed it was one of the thugs from the restaurant. The moon was out and allowed for some degree of visibility in the otherwise dark streets. Even this didn't help make out his features.

"You know," Jim moved his hand towards the knife which he had tucked into the back of his pants. "It's rude to make demands, especially without introducing yourself first."

"I see. How about we get straight to the point then?" The stalker slid away from the porch and stepped towards the street. "I want Axel Reins. You'd like to leave." He kept his back turned as he spoke. "To settle things, I propose a duel."

Axel's partner could now tell that this person was someone he had never met before. It meant they had left behind some trace that could possibly lead others to their location. He considered attacking while the man's back was turned but decided against it. The man was nearly a head taller than him and though he looked slimmer, the heavy clothes he wore made him look just as bulky.

"A duel?" Jim had a hard time believing someone could be so old-fashioned. "Are you serious?"

"I heard about your little brawl; 'Thought you might appreciate a challenge." The insult hadn't fazed him. "You can choose to run although I wouldn't recommend it." His adversary's silence was enough to tell him that he agreed to his terms. "I assume that knife stuffed into the back of your pants will be your weapon?"

It surprised Garrick that he knew about it. Instead of worrying, he just grinned as he pulled the blade from its sheath and gripped it firmly. "I assume the sword at your waist will be yours?"

His opponent finally turned to face him. The brown duster concealed whatever weapons he may have been carrying underneath but the hilt of his sword stuck out from his side. With his hand on it the whole time, even striking at him from his rear would have been suicide.

"Afraid not." He said with a faint chuckle.

He reached into his coat and pulled out what appeared to be a three-section staff polished with black lacquer. Durable looking hinges held the parts together that swung back and forth in a single dimension. The man clasped one end of the tool and lifted it back over his shoulder.

It wasn't a three section staff.

He delivered a swift downward jerk but snapped back at the last second. It forced the hinges to lock into place one after the other to form a long, straight pole. At the opposite end, a twelve inch curved blade slid out into place transforming the simple staff into a scythe.

"The name's Ballard." He twirled the weapon with one hand and used it to slice through the air. "People call me the Grim Reaper. Three guesses as to why."

His eyes glowed with a faint blue hue. If Jim wasn't about to have a fight to the death, he'd have asked him about it.

Less than a few blocks away, Axel was sitting in the room which had been prepared for them earlier. After showering and eating, he had gone back to it and was now sitting quietly on one of the beds with an expression on his face far more serious than usual.

A knock at the door brought him back to reality.

When he opened it, a middle-aged woman walked past him and brought in a stack of clothes.

"Sorry Mister Reins," She said as she placed the items on the bed. "We tried our best to remove some of the stains but they wouldn't come off."

Axel smiled. "Don't worry about it. It's more than enough that we'll be wearing washed clothes for a change."

Out of the pile, the woman grabbed Jim's combat vest and lifted it to show her guest. "I sewed up the tear in the pocket and the broken strap but can your friend wear it to see if it'll hold?"

"He stepped out for a little while." Reins explained. "I'll have him try it on when he gets back. I promise we'll let you know if it needs reworking."

The two men hadn't looked far to find a suitable place to stay. A man and his Mrs. were living alone in a house large enough to support an entire family. After their children had moved out to start lives of their own, the guest house, which had been their room, was converted back to its original purpose; open to anyone who needed a place to stay. Their room was, in fact, separated from the rest of the home and allowed them a large degree of privacy.

"Sorry for intruding." Feeling a little ashamed, Axel lowered his head to the woman.

"Don't even start with that." She reassured him. "You're not the first people we've had and you won't be the last."

She closed the door behind her as she left. Axel fell back on his bed and stared up at the white ceiling. He remained still for a long period and enjoyed the absolute silence around him. He listened closely and could swear that there was the faintest of sounds coming from the distance; the distinct echo of clashing metal.

* * *

Another strike pushed Jim towards a wall. Sweat slid down his face as he took a deep breath.

Ballard had been keeping him on the defensive from the very start. With every attempt to attack, a tap from the much longer weapon against his own would force him to retreat. His failed efforts were not only taking a toll on him physically, but also on a mental level.

"I think you should know," The mercenary said to him with a cocky smirk. "You're not blocking my hits. I'm just aiming for your knife."

He followed up the verbal abuse by slapping his scythe across the man's outstretched arm and forcing him to retreat again. Jim knew the fight was one-sided. He'd used his blade in fights before, but never when his opponent had a bigger one. In an ideal case, he'd have just shot the man.

In fact, his one real advantage was that his assailant was toying with him. Being a short, he was used to being underestimated. He preferred it that way. And as long as his opponents weren't taking him seriously, he'd have time to exploit openings.

"What the hell do you guys want Axel for anyway?" He asked the swordsman hoping for time to catch his breath.

"Don't ask me." The Grim Reaper responded with a shrug. "I'm here because I heard you were tough."

Jim wasted no time in pressing forward. If his opponent wasn't going to kill him, he figured he may as well attempt a different approach to see if the results would be any better.

He slashed in a wide arc with his knife and hit nothing but air as Ballard hopped back. When he moved to strike once more, the duelist spun around to his rear and slammed the blunt end of his staff into his back. This sent him reeling to the ground.

"This is pathetic." The mercenary continued to insult him.

A rock thrown by Garrick flew towards his head less than a second after finishing his sentence. The man effortlessly deflected it using the wide blade on the scythe, but that temporary distraction opened a path for Jim. He spared no time leaping into it. For the first time in the fight, Ballard felt pressured.

The butt end of his weapon struck the smaller man in the solar plexus and sent him flying backwards.

The impact hadn't hurt him as much as it could have, but Jim was still winded by the attack. To make matters worse, he had dropped his weapon in the dirt when hit by the stunning attack.

Ballard picked it off the ground. "You dropped your knife."

He held it straight up by the tip of the blade and threw it at the man.

The knife hit Jim in the forearm and embedded itself into his muscles. It had penetrated almost an inch and only stopped when it had reached the bone. When he grabbed the handle and jerked out the blade, blood spurt from the wound sending Jim into a tantrum.

"Motherfucker!" He shouted at the top of his lungs almost forgetting how the air had escaped them just a moment ago.

His attitude changed instantaneously. Jim was no longer biding his time or trying to find an opening. He rushed the man without regard to his own life and slashed at him in rapid succession.

At first, The Grim Reaper humored him by dodging each attack. He was predicting every move made by the less proficient fighter, but as the man pushed consistently deeper into his defenses, a slash cut across his leather chest piece and took him by surprise.

Jim had less than a split-second to react to the counter. Ballard brought down his scythe with maximum force as retaliation for the earlier attack but missed and promptly destroyed a corner of a building. Garrick watched as pieces of wood and siding flew through the air from the relative safety of the ground. He then picked himself up and ran away.

His opponent was now trying to kill him.

Ballard Rinkov hadn't entered Vargas' employ for the pay. He had been offered power and wealth many times by the other syndicates but had declined them on every occasion. There were only two things that interested him, and one was his desire for challengers.

He had spent years looking for the strongest people to fight. In a world filled with thieves and murderers, Ballard had chosen a different path. Some men tried to live peaceful lives and raise families. Others joined the IFCR and fought in its name. The Grim Reaper wanted to be the best fighter alive.

In his life, he had dueled and won countless times, but it hadn't been enough. Being on the outnumbered side of the war promised him a satisfying amount of people to fight. The fact that they would all be criminals meant he wouldn't have to hold back either.

It didn't take much effort to force his opponent into a corner. With a few simple moves, he also managed to knock the knife from his hand.

Jim was tired. He backed into a wall without anywhere to run.

"I guess this was kind of fun." Ballard seemed disappointed. "But I can't spend all night doing this with you."

"Don't worry," Jim grinned despite his current situation. "I'll kill you way before sunrise."

The man's ignorance amused Ballard. "Why don't you tell me where Reins is hiding?"

"Sure." Garrick chuckled. "You know, he would probably do worse against you than I did… Good thing he knows how to sneak around."

The Grim Reaper realized, in that brief moment, that he had been caught.

Axel slammed the mercenary's head with a log he had picked up from one of the nearby houses.

His partner could see his eyes roll back as he fell to one side. At first, he assumed that his friend had arrived just in the nick of time to save his life. He would later learn that Reins had been watching much of the fight and had only moved on the swordsman when the opportunity presented itself.

"Thanks." Jim eyed his friend and immediately went for his knife.

His partner watched him walk towards his opponent, crouch over him and bring the blade to his throat. "Jim. You're not going to kill him."

Garrick's face showed his disbelief. "I'm sorry?"

"That's the Angel of Death. A man like that, you don't cut his throat when he can't even defend himself."

The stubby man was irate. The agonizing hole in his arm continued to bleed. "Yeah? Maybe we'll invite him over for fucking tea then-"

"You're not killing him!" Reins snapped at him. "This is not open for debate!"

Jim glared while holding the weapon up against Ballard's jugular. A few seconds later, He pushed himself off the downed man and stepped towards Axel with knife in hand.

"You deal with him." He pushed the blade into its sheath and marched towards their cottage.

When gone, Axel let out a sigh of both relief and disgruntlement. Despite the ruckus, it looked as though they hadn't gained the attention of any of the locals. He grabbed the scythe and was able to quickly figure out how the weapon folded back into its compact form. After disarming the man completely, he lifted him onto his shoulders with a fireman carry and began his long trek back to the house.

Unbeknownst to everyone on the ground, another pair of eyes had watched the events that had transpired. This person had been following Ballard since the moment he had heard of his assigned task. Upon witnessing his defeat, the shadowy figure switched on an ear piece that was plugged into a short frequency radio.

"It's me." He said as though he would be recognized by his voice alone. "Your boy just got taken down. I thought you might want to hand this job over to a real professional." He listened to the answer before speaking once more. "Of course, given that you went to someone else first, I'm expecting nothing less than double my normal asking price… Uh-huh. I'll have him for you by tomorrow then."
Last edited by Mortar on Mon Aug 30, 2010 12:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby kittu » Fri Aug 27, 2010 10:43 pm

-= I AM A BOT, PLEASE IGNORE ME =-
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby Mortar » Sat Aug 28, 2010 3:02 pm

Wat?
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby Mathias » Sat Aug 28, 2010 4:50 pm

It's a bot. Also, your initial post broke. Can't see all the text.
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby Guardian » Sat Aug 28, 2010 7:55 pm

I don't think BR and Ruff's story have that long of updates. Going to take me a few days to read it, and then a few more to review it at best.
“Salvation comes with a cost. Judge us not by our methods, but by what we seek to accomplish.”

"To punish and enslave..."
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby Mortar » Sun Aug 29, 2010 10:44 am

Mathias wrote:It's a bot. Also, your initial post broke. Can't see all the text.


I skimmed through it and couldn't find anything wrong. Did the issue resolve itself or do you still see it?

Blood Lord wrote:I don't think BR and Ruff's story have that long of updates. Going to take me a few days to read it, and then a few more to review it at best.


Take your time dude. I do a lot of proof reading and editing before I post chapters so it may be a while before 5 comes out.
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby Mathias » Mon Aug 30, 2010 10:16 am

No, the text vanishes after this line: AND I SWEAR TO GOD, if my friend here sees you signaling them with so much as a wink, he'll cut your fucking head off. Got it?"
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby Mortar » Mon Aug 30, 2010 11:56 am

Weird, I can't see it.

Here's the whole thing.

Chapter 4: Ambiguous Volition

The nights traveling the barrens were always the same for the two men.

Neither would talk much about themselves, nor would they ask about the other's past. Instead, they'd warm themselves in front of a camp fire each night, fall asleep and continue on their journey the following day.

Aside from a few dying trees and critters, they'd be alone for miles in all directions.

"It's hard to believe we're sitting on a city." Axel lamented on one particular night. It surprised Jim that his companion had started a dialogue. "There's no way to know just by passing through, but you dig deep enough… You'll find the remains."

"What happened?"

"Nothing new. Civilizations will grow and grow, and when they can't grow anymore they often fall apart. People think it was the Post-Human Project that formed the first cracks but I bet it started long before that. The truth is no one really knows. Times are tough. As tough as they've ever been, but only a cynical person would say that it's the end of the world."

It was the first time someone had spoken to Jim of the land's history; even if it was in sparse detail.

Their conversation lasted a short time. The town of Farson was a half day's trek so they'd need to wake up early to reach it before dusk.

* * *

It was morning. Axel had just finished stitching the hole in Jim's forearm and the two were enjoying breakfast care of their hosts. They had wisely accepted their food at the door instead of allowing it to be brought inside. The elderly couple would have no doubt been horrified if they saw the man who was laying tied and unconscious on one of their beds.

The darkness of the previous night had concealed the warrior's features: the unkempt bleach blonde hair, the pale white skin, the hardened callus on his hands and knuckles.

"What's the point of this?" Garrick asked his friend while studying the man who had almost taken his life a few hours ago. "He's not going to tell us anything we don't already know."

Axel remained silent.

The lack of response put the young warrior on edge but the Grim Reaper's presence made it worse. If he had been able to track them down, it was likely that others would follow. His only relief was that Ballard hadn't found his way to their doorstep. Otherwise, they would have had to move again.

Jim exchanged the borrowed pair of jeans he was wearing for his newly washed pants. His clothes had suffered numerous tears over time but they had all been carefully sewn up and repaired. He then looked over the mercenaries weapons which had been removed and placed on the nearby dresser.

The blade was a simple looking double-edged straight sword. Its grip lacked any type of artistic design or decorations one would normally find on such a weapon. It was iron and leather; crude but dangerous.

The scythe was far more intriguing. It was odd for someone with such skill to wield a farming tool instead of something better suited for combat. The staff was in three sections held together with reinforced hinges that cleverly locked into place when opened all the way. There was also a side handle near the base of the weapon that Jim hadn't noticed during their encounter. He assumed it was there to allow for rapid, wide arc swings.

While he continued to look over the gear, Axel began to notice the subtle signs of their captive regaining consciousness. The man's eyes fluttered and opened as he moaned from the throbbing of his head.

"Try not to move too much." Reins spoke to him in a calm, non-threatening manner. "I'm pretty sure you have a mild concussion. I'd advise you to take it easy for the next twenty-four hours to avoid any unnecessary risks."

"What happened?" Ballard very slowly opened his eyes.

"I knocked you out with a log." The blurred man sitting next to him answered.

"You snuck up behind me?"

"Yeah."

"Nobody's ever managed to sneak up on me before."

"Well, I'm not nobody…"

The dazed swordsman closed his eyes again. He could feel the swelling at the side of his head but no wetness; either he wasn't bleeding or he had been out long enough for the blood to dry. When he brought his right hand up to be sure, he found that his left one had followed it up. Several seconds passed for him to understand that his hands had been bound together and another few to realize that he was a prisoner.

Instantly, he tried to jump from the bed but was thrust back down by the man who stood over him. Although unintentional, his head banged off the headboard on the way down, leaving him with a splitting migraine.

"Sorry." Axel cringed at the accident. "But you should have understood by now that if we wanted to hurt you, we would have done it already."

"Ugh! What do you want?" The mercenary was still trying to sort out his brain. "Why am I still alive?

"Believe it or not, we have no intention of killing you." Axel's words made his partner scoff. "But you did manage to find us in a very short amount of time and it's important I know how."

Jim rolled his eyes. He knew a question of that sort would take hours to beat out of the merc.

After a few seconds, Ballard calmly answered. "A drug dealer… Saw you guys pull into town in a jeep. It wasn't too hard to find where you had stashed it. When I did, I picked up a strong scent like sulfur. I just followed it to this area."

"You tracked us all the way here by smell?" Reins was skeptical at first but smirked when he finally understood. "So you aren't human huh?"

* * *

More than two hundred years ago, the Continent was a single nation devoted to advanced medical, technological and even astronomical science and research. There were daily breakthroughs in the fields. But as time went on, human limitations turned into an insurmountable obstacle. Equations arose too difficult for their minds to solve. Tools were invented too dangerous for their bodies to handle.

Being homo sapiens was no longer enough.

The minds of the Golden Age soon started work on what would later be called the Post-Human Project; a collective attempt at creating the homo posterus. The future man.

Thousands of different research teams were given the chance to create unique concepts of what they considered to be the ideal post-human. In a brief span of time, the altered humans numbered in the hundreds of millions with some groups being entirely different from one another. It was this diversity that caused unforeseen repercussions in future decades, when the various species began to crossbreed.

It shocked many to find that they were often successful in birthing children with traits of both parents. And after two centuries of constant interspecies breeding, some of these groups had semblance to any of their previous ancestors.

In some rare cases, they would even breed with pureblooded humans to produce human and post-human hybrids.

* * *

Ballard scowled at his captor but remained silent.

"Well, I guess we're safe as long as this Vargas guy doesn't keep others like you around. What say we move on to business then?" He gestured to himself with a friendly smile. "I'm Axel Reins."

The Grim Reaper had been aware of it since first laying eyes on the man in the red leather vest.

"You've already met my associate Jim." The two combatants refused to even look at one another. "Now, this Vargas guy seems to want me bad… You wouldn't happen to know why, would you?"

Garrick felt obligated to intervene in the conversation. "Axel, can we talk outside for a second?"

He rushed his partner towards the exit and followed him out.

As they spoke at the entrance, Ballard stuck his head up and observed from the bed. Under ordinary circumstances, he would have tried to escape. Something in the back of his mind was telling him to stay put and listen to what Reins had to say.

It was as he watched them that he took notice of the fist-sized scar on Jim's lower back. A patch of pink flesh that contrasted with the rest of his tanned body, it looked as though someone had shaved off a layer of his skin.

Midway through the conversation, Axel stuck his finger in the stubby man's face. "You know, you have a right to your opinion. But I'll be damned if I'm gonna let it ruin any chance of him joining us."

"Join u- Join!?" Garrick had to do a double-take. "Do you not see the hole in my fucking arm?" He flashed him the wound. "This guy wants to kill us."

Reins was unconvinced. "He tried to kill you. He wanted me alive. Besides, most people we'll be doing business with will want us dead. It's the nature of our profession. So get over it!"

"Axel. You said yourself, he's a mercenary." His friend tried to reason with him. "He'll work for the highest bidder. You can't trust him!"

"You're one to talk about trust…"

Jim wasn't sure where he was going. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Telling me who I can and can't trust?" Axel glared at him. "Go ahead! Tell him where you're from! I bet he'd get a real kick out of that."

The Grim Reaper had overheard the exchange but the last part had made no sense to him. Whatever it was supposed to mean, the expression on Jim's face instantly turned sour. Without speaking another word, he marched back inside and lifted his combat vest from the bed; tossed it on, zipped it up and walked back out, stopping beside Axel for a mere moment without ever looking towards him.

Reins crossed his arms and frowned at his companion. The expression on his face told Jim everything he needed to know: If he wanted to leave, he could leave.

Garrick didn't waste another second waiting around for a reason to stay. He stormed off with an angry look on his face and didn't stop until he was out of sight.

Across the street, a pair of eyes had watched everything from inside a neighboring house. Its residents were kind enough to sit in a corner and make no attempt to contact the authorities.

These were the same eyes from the night before and they were now beaming at the sight of the group being separated.

"This is going to make things easier than expected." The gruff voice of the man explained to the others that had joined him in the stake out.

Seeing Jim disappear into an alley, Axel, unmoved, returned to his business with the mercenary.

"He's right." Ballard had to agree with what Jim was saying.

"No, he's not." Axel said with a twinkle of wisdom in his eyes.

He looked over to the counter to find the mirrored shades his partner would always carry with him. He must have been quite upset if he managed to forget them there.

"How did you know I work for Vargas?"

"I didn't." His captor had a blank expression.

Realizing he'd been suckered, Ballard slapped his forehead.

"You know, you're not very good at being interrogated. I suppose a pro such as yourself doesn't get caught too often."

Neither man said a word for the next few seconds. Their conversation felt awkward enough.

"There's something strange about your friend." Ballard quipped.

Reins couldn't help but laugh. It was something he had heard numerous times in his travels with the man. "Yeah, you could say that Jim isn't from around here."

* * *

Garrick walked at a rapid pace without ever stopping or deviating off course. The day before, he had spotted a bar when seeking a place to lie low and now desperately wanted to find it again.

He stepped into the place which looked like a step up from most of the holes in the ground he'd been to. If he hadn't washed off his stench recently, they may have thrown him out, or at least tried to. He slapped whatever money he had left on the counter before asking the barkeep for any drink it would afford. The bald man in the white shirt poured him half a glass of lager.

Jim spent a long time looking down at the reflective wood finish without ever reaching for his drink. He sulked on his stool and repeatedly went over his exchange of words with Axel. He thought about what he could have said, what he should have said and what he did say; all this did was frustrate him further.

Someone sat down on the stool next to him while he was distracted. He paid no attention until the person spoke to him it.

"You're looking down." The alluring voice of a mature woman made the pun.

Jim tilted his head to the side to see the perfect pair of legs in black high heels. A dark purple dress cut off at her thighs and let him see her flawless lower body. He continued moving his head and took notice of the deep cleavage at her chest and the smooth skin of her milky white arms. Looking up at her face, she looked to be in her late thirties or early forties but was one of those rare beauties that never withered with age. Her voluminous black hair was styled upwards leaving her face uncovered. Light red lipstick and subtle eyeliner enhanced her facial features.

"Nothing a drink won't cure." Jim controlled whatever urges he was feeling. "You always approach random assholes that are sitting alone at the bar?"

"Only the ones that seem interested." She leaned forward with her full-bosomed chest. "You like what you see?"

A sharp stab at his heart awoke him from his twisted thoughts. "I don't have any money." He turned his head away to avoid torturing himself further. "You're, without exaggeration, the best looking hooker I've ever seen. But, as you can see, I can't even afford a full glass of beer…"

Watching the man sulk, the buxom woman smirked devilishly. She signaled the bartender who proceeded to fill the man's drink to the brim.

Garrick looked back at her mystified.

"Who said I was charging?"

Back at the house, Axel was trying to see what he could learn from his guest.

"I'm still trying to understand what you're doing working for a crime syndicate." He asked him. "You're not the type to work for a low-life."

"What would you know about me?" Ballard resented the man's assumptions.

"I hear stories…" He received a skeptical gaze. "Okay. Off the top of my head? Let's see: by your features, I'd say you're at least half to three-quarters human. Your weapon of choice leads me to assume you were born a farmer, but that's no secret since anyone that knows your name would know that you originate from Eagle Heights in the north-east sector. The valley was well known for its interracial relationships between humans and the carrions that lived there. Fourth or fifth generation post-humans, the carrions got their name because of their cadaverous skin and skeletal frames that made them look like walking corpses. Shortly after the War, the valley was purged and the carrion race was exterminated. Their surviving offspring are said to number in the dozens making you an endangered species. Sometime after the massacre, you surfaced in the town of Dax where you killed four men claiming they had participated in the killings. People started calling you 'the Grim Reaper' because of the scythe and 'the Angel of Death' 'cause you're a pretty boy." His rapid dissection of the man's life became more serious. "Stanley Carpenter was said to have led the attacks. You spent ten years looking for him and came up empty." Ballard's expression was telling him he was right on the money. "You think you can use these guys to track him down. That's what they're offering you."

The merc was impressed but tried to hide it. "You have a problem with that?"

"It's not going to work." Axel's answer surprised him. "That man won't be found unless he wants to be."

Stanley Carpenter was a living legend among outlanders. His early years had earned him a reputation as a wild man and mass murderer. One of his famous exploits was a month long campaign in which he consecutively raided one hundred and six towns on the eastern coast. After three decades, he was the longest at large outlaw in the world and still remained one of the prime leaders in gang activity across the Continent.

"So you're suggesting I come with you, right?" Ballard had overheard the earlier discussion between the two men. "You're saying I've got a better chance of finding him with you?" Though there was sarcasm in his voice, the gleam in the man's eye told him just that. "Why?"

"Because I saw Stanley Carpenter just over two years ago."

Meanwhile, Jim had been chatting up the high class dame who had so far bought him his third drink.

"Oh honey… Only the cheap ones work the streets. You need to go to brothels." She answered a question regarding the unattractive girls littering the streets.

She then reached into her matching purse and took out a silver cigarette case. The smokes inside were slim and wrapped around a high grade tobacco. She took one out for herself, paused, then offered one to her companion who took one for himself. The bartender proceeded to light up her cigarette but failed to notice Jim's.

When he was about to call for the man, she sensually grabbed him by the chin and turned his face towards hers. The red ember at the tip of her roll spread to his. The quality flavor soon flooded his mouth.

"Thanks." Jim was in momentary awe.

"So," The hooker puffed a billow of smoke into the air. "What do you say we have one more drink and get out of here?"

The question left him stupefied. "O-kay."

She signaled the man behind the counter once more who, this time, put out two shot glasses and proceeded to fill them with expensive whiskey. As the woman was waiting for the drink, the purse sitting next to her on the stool tipped to the floor.

"Shoot!" She whispered, knowing it would be awkward to stretch down and retrieve.

Fortunately for her, Jim moved for it first. "Don't worry, I got it."

Tipsy from the alcohol, it took him a moment to reach down and grab it. He didn't mind. In a bit, his minute service would be repaid tenfold.

He glanced at the woman and handed her the purse. "Here you go."

Something had caught his attention upon his return to his seat. While the two drinks poured for them appeared identical, there was a sense of dread when he realized that he had just been distracted long enough for something to be slipped in. He remembered the old saying:

If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

With the woman's hands full, Jim wasted no time snatching the drink closest to her and swallowing it down. There was a confident glare in his eyes as he watched her hesitate for a second; except, she didn't. She proceeded to pick up the remaining shot and finished it in a single gulp.

The short man could only shake his head and laugh at his absurdity.

* * *

"You've been going about this thing the wrong way." Axel was still making his point. "Rolling with syndicates and bounty hunters...Hell, weren't you also cooperating with the Republic for a while? You turned to everyone you could think of to lead you to Stan except the people who could actually help."

Rinkov was intrigued by the man's offer. "How long would it take you to find Stan?"

"You're not listening to me." Reins shook his head. "Stanley's off the grid. You can't find him unless he wants you to. He'll ask to see me again at some point; but that could be in six months, could be in six years. There's no way to know."

His answer was vague and dissatisfactory, but at least it was honest.

Ballard appeared to be considering the offer. "There were rumors that you were dead."

"I heard that one myself." He joked but then gave the truth. "'Spent the last seven months at the Arrowhead Mine."

The Arrowhead Mine was the name given to a prison work camp located at the south-east edge of the Continent; within the Coral Coast.

Established just over a year ago, it was suppose to house minor offenders and quickly became among the largest suppliers of sulfur to the IFCR. In reality, the prison was an excuse to use convicts for slave labor under the harshest of living conditions.

"I'm guessing you have your successor to thank for that." Ballard looked to see what kind of reaction his words would have. "His name's been popping up everywhere these days."

A cold expression was on Reins' face. He hadn't thought much about it until that point. "Well-"

Minutes earlier, Jim and his newfound interest had slipped out the back entrance of the tavern. He was feeling cheerful as they walked through the dark alley towards the main street.

"My apartment's not far." The seductress teased while walking ahead of him.

Garrick was wobbly but still in his right mind to follow her. "You know," He laughed to himself as he thought about his earlier doubts. "While we were still in there, I almost thought you had-"

Before he could even finish his sentence, he was downed by a barrage of violent and brutal hits from behind. The strikes continued even after he was knocked out; connecting with his head, kidneys, neck, arms and legs.

The four attackers stood over his unconscious body with their bloodied clubs of steel and hefty wood. It was the same men who were humiliated by the burly fighter a day earlier.

"There," The whore walked back towards the group. "Word for word what you said. Got a few drinks in him… brought him out through the alley…"

"Yeah yeah…" The man who had led the crew thus far took a wad of bills from his pocket and handed her three-hundred dollars in cash. He then flashed another hundred. "Anyone asks; you had nothing to do with this. You turned around, he was gone. Got it?"

As she took the money from him, Les, the youngest and least stable of the bunch, stared down at his victim who was lying in a growing puddle of his own blood. The veins in his head bulged as he gripped the weapon tightly in his off-hand; his good arm still in a sling. Without warning, he began stomping down on the man's face.

His friends had to restrain him.

"Calm down God damn it!" The group leader stuck his finger in the newbie's face. "We didn't do all this just so you can kill him here. We stick to the plan!" He checked both ends of the alley to make sure no one was watching. "Get him in the van."

* * *

It was rare to see anyone but local law-enforcement carrying guns in Starkhaven, so when a double-action revolver was stuck in Axel's face, it did a little more than startle him.

"I hope you boys are about done talking," A grizzly voice greeted the pair. "'Cause I'm about ready to get paid."

The gentleman in the doorway held the weapon near his hip with a daring smirk that warned Reins to avoid any sudden moves. His hands were rough; nails worn down to the nub and skin peeling from each finger. He used his left to tilt back the black cowboy hat on his head. His hair was short enough to hide underneath it but there were shades of grey visible on his sideburns.

A black, double-breasted overcoat worn unbuttoned over his fine clothing concealed, for the most part, the pair of gun belts that crisscrossed over his waist. They let Axel know that even if he were to somehow take away the man's revolver, a spare would be waiting for him.

Although Axel had only a partial guess as to the man's identity, Ballard knew him well.

Spade was another mercenary who worked the area.

Being a gunman in a town that restricted firearms was risky business. Therefore, he resided outside of Starkhaven and would visit solely for the high paying jobs.

The fact that he was in a room with them would mean that either Vargas was through waiting around or that he had planned for the contingency ahead of time.

"Sorry Rinkov," The professional grinned. "Better luck next time."

He tossed his captive a pair of steel handcuffs which he insisted be put on. It would be a long trek back to Vargas' doorstep but Spade knew how to evade the police and get him there in record time.

Axel cuffed himself and fastened the braces until they could no longer be slipped off. Fighting back would have been useless. He could tell that Spade was an expert.

"Hey," He called to Ballard with a smile then signaled to the shades on the counter. "Make sure my friend gets those back okay?"

If not for his conflicted feelings, the Grim Reaper could have been midway through freeing himself from his bonds by the time they had left. On one hand, Reins could very well have been his ticket to finding the infamous Stanley Carpenter. On the other, it was difficult for him to turn his back on an employer; even if they were crooks. He pondered his options thoroughly before spending the next few minutes trying to break free.

* * *

Jim awoke from his unwanted sleep less than an hour later. A trail of blood followed from his nose down over the duct tape which had been wrapped around his mouth. His eyes barely opened as he tried to look around the room which was still spinning around in circles. He felt the coldness in the air; a compressor clicking on hinted that he was in some sort of freezer.

He felt awful, but nothing in his body felt broken. Looking down, he could see his bare feet were hanging at least three feet off the ground and he had been stripped of all but his briefs. His breathing became more erratic when he noticed the table full of cleavers and knives in front of him.

"…He must already be on the way there." He heard people approaching.

"Why's he the only one getting paid? We're the ones doing the hard part."

"You could ask him for a cut kid, but I bet he'd be more inclined to just shoot you. That guy's a fucking killer."

The gangsters came in hauling more equipment in boxes which they set down on the table. Of the four men, all except the youngest with his injured shoulder began to strip off their suits and shirts. From the box, they took out aprons, goggles and gloves which they put on.

"Hey…" Les grinned as he looked up to their hapless victim. "Rise and shine. Just in time for all the fun."

If you were to have asked Jim, he would say that fear and worry were two completely different emotions. At the time, staring at the men, who were in all likelihood going to chop him into little pieces, he was extremely worried.

"Look on the bright side," The group leader tugged up his gloves. "You're going to fill a lot of empty stomachs with all that meat."

Garrick began twisting and jerking in all directions. The idea of becoming dinner for five was none too appealing for the young man.

At the same time, the gangster reached into another box to remove an old, worn-down chainsaw.

"Alright, let's filet this fucker quick. It's been a long two days already."

Despite his struggling, there wasn't a peep from their captive who was forcing his wrists so hard they began to bleed.

A tug of the rope cranked the gas powered engine but failed to start it up. The man was about to make a second attempt when a banging was heard from two rooms down.

The reinforced steel door was a back entrance for any underground activities that took place within the butcher shop. Anyone part of the syndicate would know this, but the four gangsters weren't expecting anyone else to show up. They all looked at one another trying to figure out whether they should answer it or ignore it.

Finally, one of the men decided it best to check it out. He took his time making his way to the door which was continuously drummed on, then pulled open the metal shudder that worked like a peephole.

"W-What are you doing here?" He said is a nervous tone.

"You've got the other one in there right?" Ballard stared into the frightened thug's eyes and already knew the answer. "I want to see him."

"How'd you find us?"

"People saw you." He gave him a disgusted glare. "Did you morons think you were being discreet? Dragging him into the back of a van with this building's address painted on the side? Open the door!"

Shouting at him seemed to work as the low level enforcer removed the locks and invited him in. Members of Vargas' crew were under strict orders to treat the Grim Reaper with the utmost respect and accommodate any of his requests within reason. Rinkov entered the freezer and glanced over to Jim.

His body was covered in black bruises and his face was swollen and bloody. Most men wouldn't have survived the amount of punishment he had endured so far.

Ballard turned to the gangsters who still wondered what his presence there meant. "Well? Go on!"

Their tension lifted. The crew grinned and nodded to one another.

Their leader cranked the chainsaw which made horrible grinding noises as it revved up. He took his time inching towards the hanging meat who still tried desperately to escape. Jim's eyes held a broad spectrum of emotions from panic to anger. As strong as he was, escaping his binds was proving impossible. All the while, Ballard seemed more interested by the table full of blades in front of him than the hanging victim.

In a flash, a butcher knife struck the gangster in the neck. His legs dropped from under him and he fell face first into his own weapon; the spinning chain sprayed blood and wet chunks across the floor.

By the time the other three had turned to face their attacker, the Grim Reaper had already decapitated two of them with his scythe and come to a stop face to face with the youngest. Without saying a word to Les, he knelt down and split his kneecaps in half with the polearm. The rookie dropped flat onto his back and screamed in agony. Ballard ignored him and moved behind Jim to cut away the layers of tape that held him off the ground.

He dropped to all fours; exhausted.

"Can you walk?" His savior asked him.

Garrick gasped for air after ripping the tape from his mouth but spoke not a word. Instead, he pushed off the man who had come to his aid and reached for a meat cleaver that was lying on the nearby table. He wobbled around at first, but recovered and regained his footing within seconds.

Ballard watched the short man waltz over to Les.

"Wait a minute…" He muttered the first time while still skeptical of what he was about to do. "WAIT A MINUTE!"

Jim proceeded to swing down with full force and drive the cold blade into the defenseless man's skull. He repeated the action a dozen times; splashing blood in all directions. When he was finished, it was hard to determine where Les' face ended and where his throat began.

"You… Stupid-" The Angel of Death was visibly disturbed by the display but felt more infuriated. "I kept one alive so he could tell us where they're keeping Axel. How are we supposed to find him now?" He gestured to the corpse with open contempt. "I could have done that…!"

Panting and drenched in blood, Jim realized how he must have looked to anyone watching.

"Sorry," He took a deep breath. "It's just… Almost being turned into hamburger you know?" The swordsman seemed shocked by his sudden change in attitude. "I don't think we should stick around here. Give me… a minute to clean off…"

At the syndicate's hideout, Axel was pushed down into a seat in front of a large desk. Two muscular men hovered over on both sides of him but made no eye contact. Apparently, Vargas' was on his way over from his house on the other side of town and the plan was to keep Reins comfortable until he got there.

Spade, the bounty hunter, was perched atop a counter to one side and spun around his six-shooter like it were a toy. He would stop every few twirls and grip the oak handle tightly. The dark varnish painted over the wood shined under the hot lights. A dark grey finish blanketed the remainder of the gun from trigger to sight. The revolver was no amateur's weapon. The barrel was longer than most and its chamber was thick enough to hold what might have been the powerful .45 cartridges.

Unlike Ballard, Spade was not under the strict employment of Boss Vargas. The other syndicates simply paid too much for him to keep loyal to just one side. He was notorious for his infatuation with money, but there was never any doubt of his expertise.

He stood up when Horace walked in with his pay.

He handed the gunslinger two stacks of bills. "That's two… Four thousand."

A wide grin formed on the man's face as he flipped through the cash. He had a simple notion in life: anything could be bought and nothing was for free. This included his services. "Well, that concludes our business for today. So I'll leave you kids to play."

"Nice meeting you." Axel said to him without a hint sarcasm.

Spade chuckled at his naiveness; to be still expecting a rescue. "Nice knowing you…"

The mercenary left as quickly as he had arrived. Reins stayed in the company of three very serious looking men who showed no interest in telling him anything.

On the other side of town, the prostitute that had deceived Jim earlier in the day had returned to her seat at the bar. It was a spot she frequented often to find rich prospects.

She waved to the bartender who greeted the lady before pouring her a glass of wine. As she reached for it, someone took a seat on the stool next to her.

"'Sup?" The voice was terrifyingly familiar.

She turned to find her former mark staring ahead as if she wasn't even there. The mirrored sunglasses shielded his eyes and made it impossible to tell where he was looking.

There was a look of nervousness on her face when she realized she had walked into a trap.

"I'll have a beer;" Jim ordered. "On her tab, of course."

Neither of them said a word until the drink was poured and he took a sip.

"I had a very interesting day after we parted ways. 'Woke up in a freezer with a bunch of guys, ready to be package and sell me at a grocery store… Imagine that!"

Without asking permission, he reached into her purse and removed the expensive looking cigarette case. The hooker made no attempt to stop him. Taking out a smoke, he tossed the box across the bar.

Its clanking alerted the other patrons to the disturbance.

"Now, I've never had to hit a woman. But bitch, after what you put me through today you better have something worthwhile to tell me."

By raising his voice, the barkeep overheard the threat. "Hey pal, you gotta-"

Jim didn't allow him to finish. Feeling provoked, he smashed the rim of his beer glass into his face and dragged him over the bar by his collar.

The violent assault caused the barflies sitting at the tables behind him to stand in unison.

Ballard made his presence known by slamming the edge of his scythe into one of the fine cedar tables. "Easy boys! He's just asking the lady some questions." He glared menacingly at the fearful locals who all recognized the Grim Reaper.

Never having let go of the bartender, Jim reached into the jacket pocket where he had seen him keep his lighter. After pulling it out, he let him drop back behind the bar. Lighting the cigarette, he tilted his head towards the prostitute from whom he was expecting useful information.

"Look," She tried to act innocent despite her prior involvement in his capture. "I was just paid to talk to you and get your guard down. I don't care about protecting them. You want to talk to someone? Talk to Jethro! He's the one who called me to do that."

Jim had his doubts but Ballard gave him a knowing nod. The two made no further trouble as they marched out the building. The customers remained motionless until there were gone.

"How could you work for these people and not know where to find them?" Jim was aggravated. They were wasting time they didn't have.

"They always came to me." Rinkov explained, then looked over to the young man with a curious gaze. "Was what you did back there really necessary?" He was referring to the savage attack on the bartender.

"I'm not a big guy Mr. Angel of Death. Browbeating from me isn't taken very seriously you can imagine. In order to make my point, somebody has to get hurt. I prefer it being a man."

"Point taken." The swordsman yielded.

There were a number of places across Starkhaven for them to stash Axel. Knocking on doors one at a time was a bad idea. They would need his correct location and they need it fast.

* * *

The sun was starting to come down when a man burst into the room and informed Horace of Vargas' arrival. Reins didn't even appear concerned for his safety anymore.

The door behind him creaked open and he heard the clatter of approaching footsteps.

"Well, back from the dead are we?" Vargas' circled around his chair with an unsettling grimace.

He wiped the sweat from his head which glistened under the bright lights of the room. He inspected Axel as he sat down on top of his desk, then continued with his monologue.

"You know I've been waiting for this for a long… long time. All the shit you put me through, you should have seen this coming. I don't know where the hell you've been all these months but you should've stayed there. The fact that you came back makes me a happy man. I'm going to enjoy watching you die."

As he took a moment to look down at the pathetic man in front of him, something began to trouble Vargas. Reins stared up at him with a strange expression. He looked lost and bewildered. Back and forth, every second they spent facing each other was revealing a truth that neither man wanted to learn.

"Oh shit!" Axel muttered to himself.

Vargas' fat head was about to explode. "You have no idea who I am. Do you?"

The man's expression told him just that.

The boss stormed from the room and his right hand followed his lead. It was no secret he was furious. The time spent searching and brooding, the obsession, the desire for revenge: And this man didn't even remember who he was.

He grabbed Horace by the shoulder. "I want you to make that son of a bitch remember."

His loyal enforcer was at a loss for words. "H-how?"

"I don't care! He needs to remember what he did to me before he dies. And don't you even think of telling him yourself! "

As Vargas walked away, the syndicate lieutenant could no longer deny the change in the man. He had hoped that this would be the first step towards a recovery but it became clear then that this would be the final step towards his self-destruction. Vargas' fixation of Axel Reins had driven him beyond rational thinking.

He returned to the office almost ashamed to tell the other men of the order. "We-uh… need to make him remember."

They looked at one another in awkward silence and puzzlement.

"How are you supposed to do that?"

The answer to Reins' question came in the form of a hard swung haymaker that caught him under this right eye. His head jerked backwards and he had to admit, he probably deserved it.

* * *

Jethro was on his street corner six days a week. He'd work his girls to the bone. When they were too tired, he'd force them to take amphetamines, deduct it from their pay and work them some more.

Even by pimping standards he was considered a bottom feeder. His evenings of PCP induced temper tantrums meant his stock of women was always in shambles. Battered and bruised, he'd be forced to give out discounts.

"Hey man! Whatch'you need man? Whatch'you need?" He'd asked passer-byes in his typical hyperactive speech pattern. "Need a lil-bit-o somethin'?"

The crude sales pitch was ignored. Even his song and dance was shoddy to the point of embarrassment.

"Jethro." The Grim Reaper greeting the man like he were an old friend.

"He-y!" The hustler beamed as he walked across the street. "Whatcha doin' out in tha sun Grim?"

"I was actually hoping to talk to you about a business proposition."

"Is this ma mu-a fuckin' birday? You ain't shittin'?" The half enunciated words barely formed coherent sentences.

"Let's talk in private… Over there." Ballard pointed down the alley behind him where things were less noisy. For anyone else, it would have been suspect.

Jethro didn't need any more convincing.

He ran ahead of him; eager to hear the get-rich-quick scheme. As Ballard approached from ahead, Jim had already closed off any potential means of escape. The scrawny man didn't realize the trap long after it was too late.

"So What is it man? What about that big dough you were yappin about huh? What ab-Oh my God!"

His voice rose to a high pitched yelp as Garrick entered his field of vision, then stammered into a deeper tone as he quickly came off his morning cocaine high.

"You know where Axel is being kept." Jim glowered at the frightened pimp whose twitchy bloodshot eyes were scanning every part of the dank corridor. After a few seconds, his patience wore thin. "No? Okay. High-five!"

He raised his left hand to trade with the junkie's right. Again, Jethro's mind failed to rationalize the action. He obliged.

The seven inch blade of the combat knife ran through his palm and pierced out the other end. Blood spurt out in small intervals and streamed down his arm turning his skin a scarlet red. It wouldn't have hurt so much if he had smoked the phencyclidine he had in his pocket. Sadly, he had decided to save it for the evening.

His screams were suppressed by Ballard who placed a hand over his mouth and squeezed down on his jaw.

"Does this dumbass really know anything?" Garrick asked his companion without releasing the knife.

Rinkov understood that their time was limited. "Jethro, you have to tell us where they're keeping Axel or he's going to hurt you again."

The drug addict said something but it was muffled by the hand over his lips.

He was forced to repeat it. "They took him to the hideout!" He screeched with better articulation than normal. "For the love of God pull it out!"

"You're certain?"

"Yes!"

"Good!" Jim slipped the knife without resistance. "You're coming with us."

The villa was the obvious spot to keep Reins. Vargas didn't seem expectant of anyone knocking on his door.

He had stuck around despite leaving his office in a rage and was passing the time with hard liquor.

"You want another Boss?" One of his men brought the tip of a rum bottle to his glass.

"No… No…" Vargas' sloshed and slunk into his chair.

"A girl maybe? You want us to get you a nice girl?"

"No…" He slowly lifted himself off the chair. "I better check what that slouch is doing."

Downstairs, the three-man crew had given up on brutalizing their prisoner. Inflicting brain-damage wouldn't have helped in their goal. Instead, they resorted to talking to the man in an effort to jolt his memory.

They were growing desperate.

"You don't remember your last visit to Starkhaven?"

"I remember it perfectly! I just never talked to your boss or anyone else that was part of this syndicate."

Horace hadn't the fortune to be around during those infamous days and with all the crew from back then either dead or defected, Vargas had become the sole person with knowledge of the events.

For months, the members of the organization had remained silent about what had transpired. It was as though they were too ashamed to even mention it. Over time, the number of witnesses to the true story dwindled.

Then, their leader gave the order to bring in Reins.

"I would remember something like this. I'm telling you, there's something fucked up going on here." Axel rocked back hard enough to lift two of the chair's feet off the ground, then let them fall back into place.

"Humor me!"

"Maybe you have the wrong guy."

"Axel Reins? Gang leader? Red leather vest?" Horace recounted the details of the man they were told to seek out. "No. We have the right guy."

Axel let his head drop and stomped his feet in frustration. If his hands weren't shackled, they'd be grasping at the swell underneath his eye.

The second-in command let out a sigh and massaged the bridge of his nose. The urge to give-up was mutual.

"Have you ever heard of psychological projection?" The man in cuffs decided to try one more theory. "It's a form of denial. The brain will distort reality or, in extreme cases, create delusions to redirect blame. For the sufferer, the lies become indistinguishable from the truth, even if there's no evidence to back them."

Cold sweat ran down Horace's face. The terrifying prospect streamed through his mind and challenged everything he had been led to believe. Could it have been possible? After all, no one had ever backed up the accusations made by their boss. Those days, everyone was too loyal to ask questions.

"Has your boss been exhibiting any uncharacteristic behavior lately?"

"Nice try." The loyal gangster ignored his question. "Where you do come up with this shit anyway?"

"Read it in a book." Careful observation of the muscle bound enforcer led him to believe he was on to something. "There's no evidence to support what he told you… Is there? For all you guys know, he may have just pulled my name out of a fucking hat!"

While they argued, the rescue team outside monitored the sentries posted at the door. In spite of his blood loss, Jethro had been invaluable not only in supplying the location of the building, but also in giving them a reliable layout of the house and potential numbers inside.

With the clock ticking, the plan they devised was simple.

"Once you're in, your job is to keep him safe. We don't want anyone taking him hostage when shit hits the fan." Jim explained Ballard's role. "These guys may be wimps, but we should take every precaution. You…" He then peeked over to their pale-faced informant who was shivering uncontrollably. "Your job is to get him to Axel. I don't care what you have to say or do to get it done. You make sure that by the time I've kicked that door down, he's standing next to him. AND I SWEAR TO GOD, if my friend here sees you signaling them with so much as a wink, he'll cut your fucking head off. Got it?"

The pimp avoided eye contact but nodded in rapid succession. He wouldn't dare do anything brave when his life hanged in the balance.

The doormen would be their first obstacle.

* * *

"What are you doing?" Standing in the doorway of his office, the drunken head of the family questioned his men with a sullen gaze. His voice lacked all pleasantries.

The top three buttons of his shirt had been opened allowing a bushel of chest hair to pop forth. The smell of his breath had familiar hints of the alcohol they had been storing in a cabinet upstairs.

He stepped forward and slammed the door shut behind him.

"We're doing what you said Boss." Horace rose from his seat. "'Trying to make him remember…"

Vargas mumbled a few unintelligible words as he circled the men. When he flopped down into the chair behind his desk, the rumbling sent a stack of papers to the ground. "Do you think I'm stupid?"

"What?" The flabbergasted gangster could only stare in confusion.

"How hard could it be to do what I asked? Don't act like you're not fucking this up!"

"I… No excuses Boss."

In spite of his doubts and frustrations, Horace had spent the better part of his life following the man. When others saw their leader weaken and waiver, they wasted no time abandoning what they considered a sinking ship. Those who had stayed behind were slowly cut down to nothing in the face of larger and more powerful organizations. Horace had single-handedly kept them afloat through careful negotiations of truce and tribute. Whatever his feelings at the time, he had long ago decided that his loyalty resided with no other man but Vargas; even if he had lost his mind long ago.

"Let's end this Boss." He begged. "We've been a laughing stock for too long. It's time we move on from this."

"No. Not 'we'." There was disdain in the leader's eyes. "You aren't a part of this family anymore! You failed at everything I asked of you and this was your last chance. I won't let you damage this syndicate or my reputation any longer."

His right-hand man could do nothing but listen in disbelief. With those few words, Horace's world collapsed around him. Never in his life could he have imagined that he'd be thrown aside by a man he had served with such distinction for so long.

In his moment of trauma, he still tried to reason with him.

"Vargas-"

Uttering the single word, he found all the air in his lungs had vanished. He tried to speak once more but gasped with muted sound. The room began to wobble and darken. Tilting his head down, he could see the hole in his sternum spitting warm liquid onto the soiled white carpet. He placed two fingers to the wound and couldn't believe it was his own blood; the only thing hurt was his pride.

"It's 'Boss'." Gripping the smoking snub-nosed revolver he had pulled from his drawer, Vargas reminded his former underling of their cardinal rule, then watched him drop face-first into the floor.

The room had been soundproofed years ago for just such occasions. While the shot had nearly deafened everyone inside, those on the other side of the walls could have confused it with the sound of a car back-firing.

"You're nuts. Did you know that?" Unfazed, Axel snapped at the delusional gangster who proceeded to point the gun in his direction. "And I bet you deserved whatever fucked you up this much."

"SHUT UP!" Vargas slapped the nickel plated five-shot across his jaw hard enough to jerk his head to one side. Spots of blood stained his shirt and smeared the barrel of his gun.

* * *

Dealing with the sentries at the door had turned out to be easier than expected. They drew no attention even as the corpses were dragged into a nearby ditch. The junkies in the slum were in no condition to worry about their surroundings, much less call the police.

As the Angel of Death handled the wet work, Jim kept a watchful eye on their snitch. "Hey, Twitchy!" He addressed the street hustler. "You look like you're on your last legs…"

Jethro had lost severe amounts of blood. His busted hand had been bandaged using little more than a piece of cloth recovered from a trash bin.

"I-I'll be ok-k-kay."

With his body sobered up, he had spent the last ten minutes asking himself why he had triggered the events he was now a part of. For him, Axel Reins was nothing more than a name. Telling Vargas about him had gone more or less unrewarded. Now, his life was at serious risk because of it.

He was scared.

"Your plan is to kill everyone inside?" He asked the equally short, if not shorter man who was facing towards the villa. With his shades on, it was impossible to know where he was looking.

"That's right."

"You're not worried?"

After a brief silence, Jim turned towards him. "You got a cigarette?"

The pimp blinked at him before reaching into his pockets one by one with his good hand. He pulled a baggie from one of them and showed it to the man. "Only PCP."

For a moment, Jim seemed to consider a taste. He tilted his head towards the sky, imagining what the end result would be. "You can keep that."

A brief moment later, Ballard motioned with his hand that they were ready to proceed. Jethro shivered again; this time, because of his nerves. His eyes wandered trying to figure some way out but aimed straight forward when a fist pressed itself against his chest.

"Stop being such a pussy. What good is your life if you can't be proud of it?"

Jim's comment would have been insulting if not for the incisive manner in which he said it. It was as though he was giving the man helpful advice instead of trying to put him down. Whatever his intent, something clicked in Jethro's brain. His hands stopped shaking. His back straightened out. His trembling blue lips locked into place.

He marched towards the Grim Reaper whom he had known long enough to be comfortable around.

"I'll do the talking." He said to him before reaching for the door handle.

There was a small lobby between the main floor of the house and the outside. The fact that doors closed off both sides of the entrance hall meant that no one from the exterior could ever see what was going on inside. But this also worked as a double-edged sword.

Jethro knew of the numerous thugs on constant watch ahead. They would hunker up in front of Vargas' office on the first floor and talk for hours. From where they'd be sitting, they would have easily been able to see the guards who were supposed to be at the front door.

After sealing the front door behind them, the pimp grasped the knob to the door ahead of him. In the dark, Ballard could hear him take several rapid breaths followed by a larger one. He would have given him a few words of encouragement, but people might have heard.

Jethro twisted the knob allowed the light to pour through.

"Looky look-"

Those were be the sole words he'd hear from the mob that day. There were no aggressive stares this time either. Bringing the Angel of Death to their doorstep put fear into each and every one of them. Even with his hand in constant pain, the small framed pimp relished in the shift of power. Ballard had bigger concerns.

The plan had been for Jim to act as a distraction for everyone outside the office. Rinkov would use that chance to secure the room and free Axel. Once his safety was assured, he would assist Garrick in dealing with the stragglers.

According to their inside man, there would be four to five of them on shift at one time. There were currently eleven.

These were men just as big as the ones he had killed earlier in the day and though they weren't the most skillful opponents, in a room as confined as the one Jim would be fighting in, the odds of being surrounding were dangerously high. Ballard would have to handle his portion of the job faster than he had anticipated.

The office door was located to their right; ten steps from the lobby door just as Jethro had said. The gangsters made no attempt to stop either of them while they walked towards it, but a single enforcer standing watch in front of it didn't appear willing to move.

"Oh! I know you would say 'no' to me." Jethro didn't allow the man to say anything. "But I'd think twice about saying it to him." He signaled to his companion with a thumb, at the same time showing the gangster his penetrated hand.

The grunt knew what was good for him. He stepped aside without ever bothering to ask for permission. Ballard gave him a knowing nod before stepping into the office. He thought to himself that things were going better than expected.

It wasn't until they were inside and the door had sealed shut behind them that they realized what it was they had walked into.

Vargas stared at them half-annoyed, half-curious. Ballard's eyes immediately moved to the gun in his hand still smoking from the bullet it had fired mere seconds ago. They had heard the popping noise while entering the building but dismissed it because of its low volume.

Neither of them could confirm with absolute confidence that the face down corpse in the middle of the room was Horace, but they were pretty sure. Blood had seeped into the carpet around him turning it a dark red; the hot lights and small room increased its potent smell. Jethro felt he would throw up any second.

The two gangsters in the room that Vargas hadn't killed yet looked equally troubled by the development.

"What do you want?" The boss asked them without showing any regret for his recent actions.

Reins was either dead or out cold. He sat in front of them in a chair without armrests. His head hung down without any sign of coming back up. The Grim Reaper tried his best to avoid paying him any attention but spotted the nasty scratch on the right side of his temple where he had been pistol-whipped.

"We… Uh… Were talking," Jethro forcibly ignored the dead body lying next to him. "And we feel that… Well… You don't pay us as much as you should be." His excuse for being there was something he had rehearsed in his mind numerous times. He hadn't expected to be saying it under such awkward circumstances.

Ballard struggled to keep calm but knew that they had just stepped into the worst possible scenario.

Their entire plan had been devised under the impression that none of the Vargas crew carried with them guns. Firearms were heavily regulated in the town by its sheriff and illegal possession of one carried with it a harsh punishment. This would help the law maintain some level of control in the event of a war breaking out between families.

Now, that plan had gone out the window.

The Grim Reaper knew that, within the next minute, Jim would be kicking down the front door and fulfilling his part of the deal. If that happened, it would spell disaster for all of them.

He considered himself fast, but not enough to dodge bullets. Vargas could have put three rounds in his chest while he was still halfway over the desk.

He contemplated using his sword as an oversized throwing knife, something he had practiced on occasion, but the enforcers on both sides of him would have intervened long before it ever left his hand.

Jethro swallowed a gob of saliva. Vargas was looking at him with the same tired expression he had given him a day earlier. He had no interest in hearing what he had to say.

The clicking sound of the revolver's hammer being cocked back sent a chill down Ballard's spine.

"Oh no…"

* * *

Jim wished he was still packing heat.

In retrospect, handing over his weapons to the mayor had been the main cause for all his troubles in town. He imagined how easy his upcoming task would have been if the semi-automatic was resting at his hip instead in a lockup somewhere.

Fighting outnumbered never scared him, but he wasn't dumb to the risks involved.

His muscles ached from the punishment he had taken during the past twenty four hours. He inspected his shoulders which had spots of dark blue where he had taken the worst of the club hits. The pain from the stab wound in his forearm never relented. He was sore, but it wouldn't slow him down. While Axel was inside, nothing would slow him down.

"Okay." He whispered to himself; knowing it was time to do what he did best.

He prepared his knife while marching to the entrance, opened the door just enough for him to slip in, then locked it shut behind him. One side wasn't going to survive the coming confrontation and he was ready to do anything to ensure that side wasn't his.

He placed one ear to the door and listened to the faint chatter of the men on the other side. One voice sounded closer than the rest. He was fast in his execution.

The door swung ajar and the gangsters had no time to warn their brother of his impending death.

He had just enough time to turn and face the intruder who thrust seven inches of steel into his liver. A gasp leaped from his mouth when he realized he had been stabbed fatally. The attacker wasn't sympathetic to his pain and kicked at his stomach to get the knife out.

Blood poured from the wound like an open faucet as the enforcer flailed backwards and landed on the decrepit couch where his friends had been sitting and talking mere seconds ago. They now watched him in shock. Their brains had yet to make sense of what was happening.

Jim wasted no time and slashed at the nearest man, cutting through a jugular vein which spurt at him with crimson liquid.

"Two down." He thought to himself.

The lacerated gangster wrapped his hands around his own neck as though chocking himself. He tried to speak, but gargled unintelligibly because of the blood in his mouth. He was already dead. On the other hand, the man with the liver injury was not. The pierced organ meant he would bleed out soon enough and that was exactly what Jim had intended.

The wounded, as opposed to the dead, would need protecting and saving. If even one of the remaining nine attempted to get the dying man out of the building and to a doctor, Jim would be there to take advantage of the opening.

It hadn't even occurred to him yet that there were twice as many people in the room than initially predicted.

Inside the sound-proofed office, no one was made aware of what was taking place in the villa. Vargas continued to glare at his unwelcome guests who both stood nervously.

"…But you don't have to give us anything you don't want…" Jethro added to his previous demand. "You're the boss right?"

A sudden thud at the door distracted them all from the tense situation.

One of the guards to Ballard's side received the nod from Vargas to see what it was. Opening a crack in the door, he felt he was somehow looking through to some other plain.

The hall had been plastered red. Bodies littered the floor. Some were screaming. Some were dead. It wasn't more than five minutes ago that everything appeared as it usually did. The guys would be sitting around waiting for something to do while conversing of all things possible.

Those of them still standing looked to be chasing after some unknown assailant who deftly maneuvered around the thugs and swung fists that put down the men twice his size.

The bystander quickly shut the door and turned to his boss.

Vargas wasn't able to see past the door but heard enough to know something was very wrong.

He swiftly lifted the cocked revolver from his side and leveled it at the swordsman's face. "What did you do?" He inched it closer when there was no response. "WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU DO?"

With the barrel of the gun stuck between his eyes, Ballard figured he was out of options. Perhaps if he was fast enough, he'd manage to slip the first shot and have time to draw his straight sword. It would require perfect precision on his part to avoid being hit while consecutively dispatching the three men who surrounded him. His hands were steady.

None of them expected the hand that wrapped around the snub-nose. The lower portion of its pinky finger blocked the path of the hammer which came down a millisecond later and stopped it from firing.

Axel followed by throwing up an elbow as he stood from the chair and landed it on Vargas' chin; tossing him backwards onto his desk. The gun remained in his hands.

He hadn't expected such perfect timing by his rescuers but welcomed any change in his luck. Playing possum could have been a complete waste of time if not for the diversion.

The Grim Reaper was right there to pick up his slack.

The guards who attempted to take Reins from behind found themselves in an ironic twist of fate as the skilled mercenary sliced through the back of their black suits. The first cut would sever the nerves at the spinal column so they'd be unable to mount any resistance. The second would slit open their kidneys, leaving them to bleed out.

Glaring at his former prey, fear was visible in Vargas' eyes. "You-"

He would not have a chance to finish.

At that moment, Jim drove through the door. The squat young man was soaked in blood that wasn't his for the second time in the same day. He flew several feet from the ground before crashing into the syndicate leader; flipping them both over the desk and landing on the opposite end of the room.

Axel looked through the doorway in the hall where three men were moving towards him. Without an ounce of hesitation, he aimed at the one to the left and pulled the trigger. The enforcer's head snapped back as chunks of wet brain came out the back. A second round plugged the man in the middle through the bridge of his nose turning its cartilage inside out.

The remaining one raised his hands in surrender. "Wait!"

The bullet ripped into him without mercy sending up a spray of red mist. The three had hit the ground a half-second apart from one another.

Jim pulled his chin up onto the desk in time to witness his friend's marksmanship. "Jesus…"

The man in his trademark leather vest reached into the dead Horace's pockets and removed the keys to his handcuffs. After unlocking the binds, he tossed them over to his friend who pocketed the useful tools.

"This the asshole 'put us through all this?" His stubby comrade glowered at the disoriented gangster.

"He's mine." Axel looked at Vargas with little emotion. "I need a minute alone guys…"

His saviors chose not to argue. They proceeded to file out the room and shut the door behind them.

The three stood and waited awkwardly in the ruined hall.

"Are you still here?!" Jim stared at Jethro in disbelief.

The junky had stuck around even after his work was done.

Garrick flapped his hand as if to tell him he had overstayed his welcome. The pimp made no eye contact with him and quickly walked towards to exit. When his feet splashed on the wet floor, he finally looked around the room.

The eleven men guarding the hideout laid scattered. Eight were killed by Jim who didn't even appear harmed in any way and simply panted with his hands on his hips.

A smile formed on Jethro's lips.

The violence around him could have been traumatic, but instead it awoke a feeling in his heart that he hadn't felt in years: inspiration.

He was ridiculed because of his size and called weak for so long that he had begun to fully believe it. Abandoning his pride, he became a self-loathing coward and petty criminal.

No more.

This man had shown him that he could be better. He could change: his outlook, his attitude, his life. All he had to do was try.

He ran through the dark streets towards the hospital where he would end up receiving two dozen stitches in his hand.

* * *

Vargas didn't risk rising to his feet being dazed from the hard bump he had taken. He crawled on all fours around his desk until Axel stuck the barrel of his own gun into his face. His shirt was stained with red in several spots.

"This is all wrong." He sulked while looking down at his bloody carpet. "I was supposed to kill you. Make you pay…"

His hands squished onto the wet surface and blood seeped up from between his fingers. The energy had been sucked out of him.

"You couldn't keep control over your own men." Reins sat back down in his chair. "Anyone could see they were losing respect for you. Buying myself time was easy. You know, in the end, I really think they believed you had gone crazy."

Listening to the man he hated most critique his leadership was intolerable. "You bastard…" His hateful eyes gazed into Axel's. "You ruined me. You KNOW what you did to me..."

The only response was the clicking from the revolver as it was cocked.

"YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID!"

"I know what I did."

* * *

The three men had each survived their own ordeal that day, but they were hurt, bloody and tired.

They agreed it would be best to find a new place to spend the night, even though, with most of the syndicate eliminated, it would be unlikely for anyone to come after them; especially after leaving such a strong warning at the villa.

Under the cover of darkness, they had returned to Ballard's apartment to wash off any evidence of their involvement in the massacre that evening.

Axel was the first to shower. Jim was second.

They crouched against a wall in the empty loft, waiting for their new friend to join them. Garrick said nothing; occasionally drinking from the bottle of water he had taken from the fridge.

"Still mad?" Axel winked at him through his swollen eye.

Jim couldn't help but grin. "I said you were the leader since day one. What you say goes. I just need to remember that the next time I feel the need to open my big mouth."

Reins jabbed the man in the arm. "Don't worry about it. I expect you to question me every one in a while. It'll keep me honest." With their earlier disagreement resolved, he signaled towards the bathroom where the Grim Reaper was still trying to get the blood out of his bleached hair. "So… What do you think?"

"Not bad." Garrick slouched into a more relaxed position. "You've got a real eye for talent. What'd you promise him?"

"I said I'd introduce him to an old friend of mine."

"Will you?" Ballard had already redressed and leaned against the doorway of the bathroom.

He had made the difficult choice of betraying his employers. Fortunately, Vargas made the decision easier to bear by killing the one person out of them that he respected.

"You have my word on that." Axel assured him. "But this is a package deal and you have to accept all the terms."

"I'm listening."

"We're putting together a new gang. You'd be its first official member."

"With you as the leader and you as the lieutenant." He referred to Jim for the latter position.

"That's right." Reins answered in all seriousness. "You take orders from both of us, you work as part of the crew, and you never endanger your comrades. We have a code. We don't harm civilians as long as they're not trying to harm us. We may even save a couple on the way..."

The terms could have demanded that he be their slave and Ballard still would have agreed to them. For the first time in years, he felt there was a very real chance of him catching the elusive prey he'd been searching for his entire life. This was not an opportunity he would ignore.

They left the apartment as a three-man crew. Each of them felt better knowing two people they could trust were watching their back.
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Re: Mortar: The Exiles: Rated-R: Fiction: Chapter 4 (Ongoing)

Postby Mortar » Wed Jul 18, 2012 5:24 pm

Chapter 5: Exit Strategy

In the first years since the founding of Starkhaven, numerous people had taken the mayor's seat. At the time, the role was not prominent or vital to the community and was considered more of a formality.

After moving away from the cities, free-citizen Marla Rook saw potential in the growing town. She used her knowledge of politics and economics to single-handedly triple its employment rate causing a surge in its population. She helped form the network of trade routes across the Outland that would deliver supplies between the major towns and even started the first postal service outside of the IFCR controlled areas.

Following her successes, fellow political figures would pressure her to run against the incumbent mayor. She was reluctant, but it was an election she would ultimately win with seventy-three percent of the vote; an unprecedented number at the time. Upon reelection that number would escalate to eighty-seven.

Within a few decades, Starkhaven transformed from a mere resting point for travelers to the unofficial capital of the Outland and Rook became the focal point for all its successes.

The reelections in the years that followed were either uncontested or lopsided in her favor. There was simply no one that could compete with the experience and education of a free-citizen. The seat would remain hers unless she saw fit to step down.

Yet, through it all, she had shown herself as humble and diligent. Having never hired a personal assistant, her workdays were long and exhausting. When over, she would lock the door to her office and walk the half mile distance to her single story home. She would sit with her husband, who himself had been a great influence on the town, and have dinner. They would discuss their days and share whatever interesting little stories they had for one another. Afterwards, she would be forced to sort through whatever work she'd been unable to finish during her day. This would often amount to reading several hundred letters from the townsfolk as well as representatives of other prosperous towns with whom Starkhaven held relations.

On that morning, word had reached her ears of a massacre in the slums. Of the victims, Vargas, a local crime lord, had been identified. More bodies would later surface in a meat locker in the commercial district; the victims all identified as part of the same syndicate.

It wasn't news that would keep Rook awake at night, but she knew that anytime there was death of that toll in her town, a turf war was likely around the corner. Also, it made the paperwork for the day particularly brutal. The fact that she was almost done with time to spare was a testament to her skill.

She had become an expert at sifting through the stacks of mail that piled atop her coffee table. On average, Marla would estimate that only a tenth of them were worth reading.

When she whittled them down to a handful, it looked as though she'd get to enjoy the rest of her evening. That was, until a single pure white envelope caught her eye.

Mixed beneath the pile of brown unbleached paper, the mayor was able to distinguish it instantly. The clean, elegant font on its face had been printed electronically and the paper even smelled different from the rest. She was careful when cutting open the top and removing the document inside.

The word "Urgent" had been slapped in red ink at the top of the document. At its top right corner was the phoenix crest of the Independent Free-Citizen's Republic. Her eyes skimmed through the paragraphs in order to quickly understand its intent.

"Shit." She uttered and froze in place.

Her husband, having overheard, peered his head out the kitchen door. "Bad news?

With the initial shock worn off, Rook's face settled into a frown. "The worst."

Stories of the violent murders spread to every corner of town. Many hypothesized that a rival gang had decided to move on the weakened Vargas family. Those with more experience, such as the sheriff, found that hard to believe.

Eight of the eleven bodies scattered around the living room of the house had been attacked with what appeared to be a six to seven inch blade. A Comparison of the wounds indicated that either one man was doing the killing or several people carrying identical knives. The latter seemed unlikely.

Tanis had seen countless murders during his time as Starkhaven police. Killing a man with a knife wasn't easy. You would often see defense wounds on the hands of the victims. Other times, there would be flesh wounds as they tried to veer the blade away from their vital organs.

Eight men, and every one of them with a single, fatal wound.

Five others, including Vargas had died from single gunshot wounds inflicted by a revolver recovered at the scene. There were no missed shots embedded in any of the walls and considering three of the gangsters were dropped side by side, the sheriff suspected they were killed less than a second apart from one another. The shooter had some talent, although he couldn't be sure if it was the same person who had redecorated the living room.

Another two men had bled out from a weapon that Tanis had yet to identify. The blade was certainly bigger than a knife but didn't have the characteristics of a standard sword; it was more of a curved weapon.

There was a lot of evidence to work with but no suspects with which to link. His best lead was a rumor that Vargas had held someone captive as little as an hour before the massacre took place.

"Allen," He called out to a deputy that was inspecting the blood spatters at the entrance. "Do you remember the name of the guy Vargas had supposedly kidnapped?"

The lawman answered in less than a second. "Axel Reins. Y'heard of him?"

Tanis thought about it for a few minutes. The name sounded familiar, he just couldn't remember why.

Axel had spent the better part of the week trying to assess the level of danger he and his crew were in. Talk of the incident wasn't as widespread as he had expected and whispers of his name were rare. Still, he knew the sooner they were out of Starkhaven, the better.

Jim and Ballard had been able to poke and prod the streets for information. So far, there hadn't been any mention of their involvement in the massacre. It was a clean slate for both of them.

Ballard's advice had been to stay on the rooftops of the commercial district. Few people would look for them there and the numerous buildings would make it easy to hide even if they did.

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

The three of them had been discussing the matter of currency and how their lack of it would make their exit from Starkhaven a difficult one. As their talk progressed, it became obvious that without a decent sum of money, making it to another town would be out of the question. They would have to find a job.

"It means what it means." The new recruit repeated his previous words. "You're not coming with us. We can keep a lower profile without you."

"He's right Ax." Jim took the Grim Reaper's side. "I know you're restless having been up here for days, but you need to hang back and let us do the legwork for now."

The bruises Axel had received during his capture had almost fully healed. Minor swelling beneath his left eye and a slight discomfort whenever he moved his jaw were all that remained from his vicious thrashing.

His lieutenant was recovering from his own injuries. The ambush in the alley had left him with a gash on his head that refused to stop bleeding the first few days. The cut wasn't deep enough to require stitches but putting his head down to sleep would be followed by a sharp sting every time. Worst of all, he'd spent hours trying to wash the blood off his pants and vest using all kinds of soap and detergent. In the end, he only managed to turn the red stains into a less suspicious brown.

Reins laid it out for the two men. "We need enough cash for a full tank of gas and supplies. A little extra just in case wouldn't hurt either. Now I'm sure you both understand that we want to stay as far away from the syndicates as possible. They may not be a problem for now but I'd rather we not gain their attention. You'll need to find a job that can be done in a hurry. I'm talking one or two days. Ballard, you know this town better than either of us. Any leads?"

Rinkov eyed the stubby man sitting next to him on the edge of the roof. "He told me about one earlier. It's worth looking into."

The leader looked at his second in command with skepticism. "Really?"

Garrick spoke two simple words. "The mayor."

It took a moment for Axel to process the suggestion. "How the FUCK is that a lead?" Jim kept quiet and allowed his friend to chew into him. "Of all the people in town, she'd be the first to connect us to Vargas."

"Probably."

"Probably! We were in her office together not fifteen minutes after you beat the shit out of his guys. My name is all over town. I'm pretty sure she'll have put two and two together Jimmy."

"Alright, she knows." His lieutenant admitted without shame. "Maybe she was the one who had the case buried."

The two had done more than loiter during their week. Ballard knew of a few men in town that trafficked information.

The circulating rumor was that the investigation of the murders was shut down the very same day. Starkhaven police never did show interest in the turf wars as long as the victims weren't civilians, but it was unusual for them to close a case before the bodies were even moved to the morgue. At the very least, the police would want a coroner to back their report that a victim of an apparent bludgeoning did, in fact, die from having his skull caved in.

This was important for when the mayor inquired of a particular case and the sheriff would be forced to provide her with evidence that, while the death may have been gruesome, neither the victim nor the perpetrator were worth their attention. The syndicates had been killing one another since before Rook took office and they would continue to do so long after she was gone.

The fact that the investigation was halted before a proper report could even be filed meant that either the sheriff or the mayor had ordered its termination. With Tanis having to answer for such a bold move, all signs pointed to the town's highest authority.

"Somehow, I can't see this ending well for us." Axel sighed and yielded his position despite whatever feelings plagued him.

Jim replied more serious than joking. "When does it ever?"

The following morning, the lieutenant entered town hall with the Grim Reaper at his side. The receptionist was clearly made uncomfortable by their presence. She would shift her eyes up to the dangerous looking men every few seconds before immediately veering them back down to her paperwork.

Regardless of it being a Sunday, a meeting with Rook proved difficult. Dozens of people had arrived ahead of the two to have a moment of her time. After four hours, their turn still hadn't arrived.

"Hey!" Rinkov eventually built up the nerve to nudge his companion. He was surprised when the man leaped an inch off his chair. "Were you asleep?"

"No," Jim answered with an annoyed glare. "Of course not!"

The shades made it impossible to know for sure.

The two had spent most of their past week apart; giving one another their space while keeping speech to a minimum. It was the first time they were sharing a dialog since the Vargas incident.

"So how'd you and Axel meet anyway?"

"I don't see how that's any of your business."

"It isn't." Ballard tilted his head up towards the ceiling. "But seeing as how we'll be working together for the foreseeable future, I thought we should get to know each other."

Jim seemed to consider the notion while staring into the empty hall. "All right, why don't I ask you a question? Axel tells me you're on some quest for revenge, is that right?" The slight nod from Ballard acknowledged it. "Well, I don't know anything about that, but it seems to me like you've got your priorities a little mixed up."

"What do you mean?"

"Our fight the day we met: You had the jump on me, you were faster… more skilled with an edged weapon than I could ever hope to be, and I bet those creepy animal-like eyes of yours help you see better at night huh?" The swordsman's silence was answer enough. "All that and you still couldn't kill me."

"I was toying with you." There was scorn in his voice.

Garrick gave him a moment to reflect on his own words. "You put a moment of amusement ahead of a lifelong goal. You know what they call a person like that?" He tilted his head towards the man just long enough to deliver the punch line. "'A fucking idiot'."

The Grim Reaper winced and turned away from the man. "So I see we won't be getting along..."

Their patience was running out when, rapidly walking towards them from the other end of the hall, Jim spotted Rook throwing on a summer coat. "Prison."

The single word perplexed the normally astute mercenary. "What?"

It had never crossed his mind that Garrick would answer his question.

"We met in prison."

The hall had emptied since their arrival. The others had gone in ahead of them and it now looked as though the mayor was getting ready to leave.

She double-timed past the two without ever stopping. "Walk with me." Making their way onto the busy street, she swayed past the people littering the streets. "Your friend is in a heap of trouble? Are you here to ask for my help after all the bodies you left me to clean up?"

Garrick was taken aback. "Straight to the point huh?"

Marla turned towards the man as though she wanted to say something but reconsidered. "I get one day a week to spend with my grand-kids and I lose half of it talking to a bunch of ignorant assholes. Are you going to waste my time or tell me what it is that you want?"

"Work;" Jim didn't feel the need to play games. "Something short-term that can help us out of your town."

Rook could tell it was the truth. "How much do you need?"

"Enough for two tanks of gas and a week's supply of food."

"I take it this one's going with you?" She signaled to Ballard; recognizing him from when the mercenary first waltzed into town and issued his public challenge. "You'd better look elsewhere. I've got my own problems right now."

Something was bothering her but it didn't appear as though she'd share it with them.

"We want the same thing." The lieutenant stopped walking. "But if you won't help us, we could be stuck here for some time."

The mayor understood the situation better than anyone. The three of them had become major assets in the feud between the syndicates.

At the moment, they were all occupied with expanding into Vargas' newly vacated territory. But it wouldn't take long for them to realize that those responsible for dealing with him could also help them take control of the town.

There was a delicate balance in Starkhaven. If one family were to grow too strong, the remaining sides would join together in an effort to dispatch the threat.

Were the syndicates to set their eyes on Axel and his crew, any decision made by them would prove disastrous. All-out war would be unavoidable and collateral damage would be considerable.

"Wait." She called out to the pair. "I might have something for you." At her front door, she signaled for them to come inside. "I'd rather not talk business in public."

Their meeting wouldn't take long. An hour later and they were reporting the news to Axel.

As he had watched the two approaching him in the dark alley, Reins realized something was very wrong. Jim had come back carrying his confiscated weapons.

"Please tell me you didn't steal those..."

"Better." His lieutenant was grinning from ear to ear.

"The Republic's interest in Starkhaven isn't new." The two recounted what Rook had told them in her home. "They've wanted to setup a forward garrison in town for years. I've refused every offer they've made so far, but for the last few months they've become more persistent. Something definitely has them rattled. Last week, I received a letter informing me that a Praetor Francis Briar would be coming here to personally negotiate a treaty."

"You think he's planning to use force?" Ballard recalled asking her.

"No." She had laughed at the question. "I've met Briar once before. He's spineless. And the IFCR wouldn't condone it. But the town's law enforcement isn't staffed to handle security for this kind of meeting; we're short-handed. It's not dangerous work, but boasting our numbers with people of your… skill set doesn't hurt. What do you say?"

The three men had taken the conversation to the rooftops where they would have more privacy. Axel wasn't convinced yet.

"What about the sheriff?"

"Rook said she'd take care of it." His lieutenant attempted to explain his thought process. "Look, we'll be paid the second the job is done. By tomorrow afternoon we'll have left Starkhaven in the dust."

"If everything goes well…" His boss tried to sound optimistic. "Of course, you realize that if your names are put on the FCR's shit-list, we'll end up with problems all the money in the world can't solve."

Axel understood the risk, but their options were slim. Every moment spent in town brought danger to their group. It was settled.

With the approval he needed, Garrick's attention turned to the post-human. "Would you mind giving us a few minutes alone?"

Ballard didn't question the odd request. He simply nodded and proceeded to climb down the building's emergency escape. This wasn't the first time his captain and lieutenant had wanted to speak privately.

"What's on your mind?" Axel asked his small stature friend as he leaned against one of the walls surrounding the rooftop.

Jim appeared hesitant with his next few words. "I need to know more about the Free-Citizen's Republic."

"What are you-" At first, Reins didn't appear to understand his meaning. Staring at his earnest expression for several seconds appeared to jolt his memory. "Oh! Right… Right..."

It was nightfall but Marla Rook had yet to be freed from her work. She was tireless in her efforts to keep the town running as smoothly as she could. It was, after all, because of her that Starkhaven had become such a beacon within the bleak wastelands.

"Your grand-children were hoping they could spend more time with you. You're overworking." Her husband walked up behind her as she sat in her favorite chair. He leaned in and kissed the crown of her head.

"They'll be having kids themselves by the time my schedule opens up. I think this stupid town wants me to run for another term."

"Poor grandma…" Her husband whispered with a kindly smile.

"Poor grandma…" Rook echoed the sentiment. "Go on to bed, I'll be done soon."

Another hour would pass until her work was finished. She yawned. Her body yearned for sleep although she'd be awake again in as little as four hours. There was much to do before the IFCR representative arrived.

He would surely be accompanied by a security detachment that would need accommodations during its stay. Rook may not have had any intent to negotiate but she understood full well the need for tactful diplomacy.

To top it all off, she had received an earful from Tanis after informing him that the perpetrators of the Vargas massacre would be assisting him with security. He had protested the idea, but in the end submitted to the mayor's will.

Just as she prepared to turn in, a knock at the door ruined her chances.

It wasn't unusual for people to show up at her home after hours. Certain incidents required the mayor's presence. Over the years, she would remind the sheriff to be keep her in the loop regardless of time or day.

This occasion was different. A frown immediately formed on her face when she heard the thumping at her front door.

She cracked it open long enough to speak a sentence. "I'll be out in a minute."

The night air was cold even out in the desert. Rook slipped on a pair of loafers and a coat before treading out onto her patio. She didn't seem too interested in her visitor.

The old man greeted her with a contemptuous glare. Bill Strenner had made a point of driving the mayor insane with his one man protests outside of her office window. He had never been in favor of a free-citizen being mayor and had often headed the opposition during her political career.

In recent years, with his mind deteriorating, Strenner had begun to make baseless accusations against her, claiming that she conspired with the Republic to turn Starkhaven into a free-citizen colony.

Yet, despite being a senile, childless widower, it proved impossible to have him committed to elderly care. Bill had shown he was capable of caring for himself and had no history of violent or dangerous behavior. Protesting, however irritating it may have been, wasn't cause enough to commit him.

She never looked him in the eye during their conversation. "What's on your mind Bill?"

Strenner twitched his fingers nervously. "There are men from the Republic coming tomorrow…"

"Yes Bill, I already know that."

"You're going to make a deal with them and sell out this town to those inhuman loving bastards?"

His babbling vexed the longtime mayor. She had heard it all before. "Bill, you're confused. You have nothing to worry about. Go home." She reentered her cottage.

Bill was now on the verge of tears. His voice trembled. "You can't do this. This town is all I have."

"Go home Bill!" Rook repeated the condescending order before shutting the door in his face.

He stood on the porch for several minutes afterwards, pouting at her front door, somehow expecting it would change the outcome of their conversation.

The mayor put the man out of her mind, but couldn't help worrying about the fast approaching dawn. While requests of treaties and garrisons had come from the Independent Free-Citizen's Republic many times before, there had never been a high ranking politician sent out to personally negotiate.

Marla had met Praetor Francis Briar when he was just an upstart looking for a way into the upper echelons of the government. Even back then, it was obvious to her that he would go places. He was a leech; attaching himself to anyone that could help him climb the ladder and then discarding them as though they were trash. But Rook had also noticed the man's lack of backbone and had predicted that he would never reach a position higher than that of praetor.

Briar's motivations were now clear. If he were to secure Starkhaven in the name of the Republic, the brass would be forced to recognize his accomplishment. A position as Consul would undoubtedly follow. From there, even a seat on the senate wouldn't be beyond his grasp.

"Senator Francis Briar…" The mayor pondered the possibility. "Bullshit!"

Preparations were already underway as the sun began to rise. Portions of the town were to be cordoned off to ensure the safety of the IFCR diplomat. Naturally, the praetor would have a security detachment escorting him at all times, but having them all isolated from the town would further reduce the risk of violence from either end.

"Don't kill anyone." Reins saw the two men off with a simple order.

Jim smirked before tugging back the slide of his semi-automatic and loading a round into the chamber. He then uncocked the weapon and placed it in the leather holster at his right hip. His rifle was too big and clumsy to bring along. It was decided that it would remain in Axel's care.

The lieutenant had spent most of the night disassembling the guns in order to clean and lubricate every moving part. After watching him for almost an hour, Ballard had figured that sharpening his blades wouldn't be such a bad idea. He polished the steel to a mirror shine; something he hadn't done since his arrival in Starkhaven.

The hilt of his sword protruded from beneath his open duster. His scythe had been collapsed and tucked away inside his coat where no one could see. It made him much less conspicuous than his companion.

As they neared the town hall, they could see the gathering of police officer's at the entrance. The sheriff was among them, trying to organize a proper perimeter around the building. When he noticed the pair waltzing down the street, he moved away from the crowd to meet up with them.

"Beautiful morning sheriff." Garrick beamed from beneath his mirrored sunglasses.

A contemptuous glare was the only reply he received from Tanis who then gestured for the two to follow him. They walked the short distance to the entrance of the municipal building before making their way to its second floor. Their travel through the corridors had them take several turns before reaching their destination.

A pair of large oak doors led to the boardroom. The ceiling inside was twice as high further increasing the spacious feel. This was where the meeting would be held.

The black varnish shined across the long table that stretched the length of the room. At its head, Marla Rook had been sitting patiently and awaiting their arrival.

She was looking more professional than usual: wearing makeup, dressed in a black skirt suit with white trim, her lengthy grey hair fashioned into a tight bun and her wedding ring removed.

"Glad you could make it." Her greeting was short. "The building staff has been sent home for the day. It'll just be me, the praetor and our respective security. You'll both be standing next to me along with the sheriff. You're not to say anything or stare at anyone. You don't reach for a weapon unless Tanis does it first… That means never."

Ballard looked surprised. "You mean we're going to be listening in on your discussion? Isn't it supposed to be confidential?"

"Yes." Rook admitted. "But if I assign you somewhere else, you might be tempted to run off at the first sign of trouble. At least here, you'll be useful."

The Republic was never known for running late. The convoy had rolled across the wasteland all through the night just to be punctual. It had been a long trip from the nation's capital.

Detective Lieutenant Max Wulf sat in the passenger seat of the VIP car. He had been appointed head of security for the outing two days ago and hadn't felt whole since.

Security for diplomats was police jurisdiction in the IFCR. And, while a special unit existed for such escorts, its high demand would sometimes require the temporary reassignment of certain officers.

Wulf had worked homicide for five years, another two in burglary prior to that. So when the captain of his unit notified him of his new responsibility, there were more than a few words of protest. It wasn't until he was told that the chief of police personally attached him to the unit that he conceded. If he had known then what escorting Francis Briar would entail, it may not have been enough to change his mind.

The praetor was known for his disreputable treatment of others. Max wasn't looking forward to the firsthand experience.

"It shouldn't be more than another five minutes sir." His voice lacked any and all enthusiasm as he spoke to the man in the back seat.

"About time!" Briar snapped at the detective. "I almost thought you had gotten us lost lieutenant."

This quip could have bothered the officer if it hadn't been a constant during the trip.

"Yes. Fortunately, your company made the trip bearable sir." He maintained the disingenuous politesse. "And we still have the trip back to look forward to."

Wulf wondered at his misfortune; coupled with the one politician in the Republic with a fear of flying. Traveling the hundreds of miles by air would have taken a fraction of the time had the praetor not dashed that dream. The gods must have been laughing at him.

As time progressed, the mayor appeared more and more on edge. Her incessant thrumming against the table bothered the three men but none said a word. They knew better.

"Tanis, if any of your deputies see Bill Strenner they need to escort him away from the building quickly." The out of the blue order bewildered those in the room.

The sheriff could immediately understand her concern, but knew there was more to the story. "Did something happen?

"He came to my house last night. He was distraught." She received a skeptic look. "More then usual! Anyway, the last thing we need is him making a scene in front of the IFCR."

Jim couldn't help overhearing the exchange. The name Bill Strenner had been spoken in front of him once before; it was the old man shouting nonsense outside of Rook's window the day she introduced herself.

"So who is this guy anyway?" He asked.

Rook was feeling generous enough to disclose the information. "Strenner was the mayor before me. We practically disagreed on every issue." She cracked her knuckles. "He's a purist; 'Thinks post-humans are an aversion to mankind. Being a free-citizen, I happen to disagree."

The IFCR had always held firm to the belief of co-existence between the two genera. It was a stance that had equal parts helped and hindered their growth as a nation.

"We didn't get along but we had mutual respect."

"What happened?"

"The years caught up to him. Now he's just a sad, senile old man. He's convinced himself that he's protecting the town from my free-citizen propaganda. But don't worry, he's harmless."

He watched the municipal building from his second story apartment window.

Bill Strenner was already wearing his long jacket which he had buttoned all the way up to the collar. His wrinkled hands trembled uncontrollably as they rubbed over one-another. His rapid mumblings interchanged with spouts of weeping were signs of a mind long gone.

His one room rental had paint chipping off the walls, a stale refrigerator, a rusted oven, a soiled mattress without sheets or blankets and no family photos. Bill switched off the only lamp in the room before setting out.

As he exited the building, the sun was almost directly above him. He squinted at the sky for a few seconds before waddling into the narrow alley. At its halfway point was the manhole cover he was looking for. The old man pulled a miniature crowbar from his pocked and proceeded to hook it onto one of the lid's openings. The heavy metal moved an inch at a time as he pulled with all the strength a ninety-six year old could muster. Eventually, Strenner opened the path to the sewer system.

He wheezed for air while climbing down the dark shaft; the unintelligible rambling continuing during his descent.

The convoy of military vehicles rolled through Starkhaven's streets as town deputies waved them past road blocks. The mayor had been made aware of their arrival via radio and had come down to the lobby to greet the citizens.

The cars were layered with steel and bulletproof glass. Built to handle to harsher areas of the world, the powerful engines and four-wheel drive made the bulky machines intimidating to those living in the less advanced parts of the Outland.

The truck carrying the VIP stopped directly in front of the main entrance.

"I'll be right back." Max, the detective in charge, opened the door and was about to step out when words from the back seat stopped him.

"Wait- Why do you get out first?"

The officer glanced at his driver in utter disbelief. His answer was swift. "As head of security, it's my job to make sure the perimeter is secure sir. For all we know someone could be pointing a high powered rifle at this car, ready to blow your face off the second you step out."

Seeing the politician's face turn pale had him smiling for the first time in days.

He could see the snipers sitting along the rooftops of the surrounding buildings. The deputies would be able to spot all three-hundred and sixty degrees of the structure and put down anyone trying to gain access. They weren't bad for a bunch of outlanders, he thought.

Wulf figured it was time to head inside.

"Mayor Rook I presume?" He shook the hand of the woman old enough to be his grand-mother. "Lieutenant Max Wulf, I'm in charge of security."

"I haven't had the pleasure." She greeted him with an all too fake grimace.

"Nor shall you," The detective explained. "The colossal prick's been sucking the life out of me all day. I just thought I'd give you a fair warning ma'am."

Rook's smirk was more genuine this time. "Much obliged lieutenant." She was always glad to see a citizen with a pulse.

He and Tanis spoke briefly on how to best spread their men. With most of his deputies handling the exterior, the sheriff had only a few to spare.

"My boys know the layout of this building. They'll show your men the entrances and other points of access. Apart from myself, they'll be two other men handling security inside the boardroom. Fair warning: they're hires."

"Can they be trusted?"

"They'll do their job." Rook vouched for them. "Just act like they don't exist."

Max was satisfied.

He marched back to the motorcade and reentered his vehicle. "Alright, we're getting out in one minute. Tell everyone to check their gear, and remind them that the rules of engagement are in full effect."

"I also want a weapon lieutenant." Briar was still shaken by the thought of an assassination attempt.

"Well that's too bad sir…" The officer removed the safety from his sidearm.

"Damn it Wulf! I said-"

He was cut off by a stern voice. "You're not in charge here praetor! I'm under orders. I don't have to do a damn thing you say. Got it?"

Briar's eyes burned with contempt. "I'll be sure to mention you in my report lieutenant."

"Like you weren't going to already." Max sneered back. "Get out!"

Almost two dozen men flooded from the vehicles. The praetor was one of the last out. Security boxed around him as he moved towards the building. Max trailed with no such entourage.

"Mayor Rook, an honor to meet you again." In spite of his reputation, Briar was a politician first. His smile extended from ear to ear as he shook the hand of the Starkhaven representative.

"Likewise praetor." She returned a similar expression. "How was your trip?"

"Splendid!" He lied through his teeth. "I get such joy from traveling the Outland. There's always somewhere new to explore."

Out of the corner of her eye, Marla could see the detective scoffing at the statement.

"We've prepared a room for you." She tried her best to ignore it. "Why don't we delay our meeting until you're well rested?"

"Nonsense!" Francis outright refused. "If anything, this journey helped invigorate me. We can proceed on schedule I assure you." The thought of spending a night in Starkhaven disgusted him.

The security had already spread out into different sections of the first floor. As both the mayor and praetor moved to the stairs, Tanis shifted his attention to the three of his more experienced deputies.

"Alright, the rest of the guys are watching the outside and I'll be upstairs with Rook, which means you three have to keep an eye on the citizens down here. Make sure they know all the entry points. We can't have them blaming us if something happens."

The flashlight Strenner had brought with him barely illuminated the dark path. He stumbled through pitch-black tunnels only stopping to catch his breath and check the signs that would indicate the street directly above.

Not many people were still alive from when the sewers were first constructed. Bill remembered thinking how such a foundation would help make Starkhaven the strongest in the Wasteland. His dream had slowly come true in the years that followed, but it came with a price.

Starkhaven had become an asset to the rest of the world. Control over it meant a great deal of influence throughout the east. This was something the Free-Citizen's Republic undoubtedly desired, and something Bill Strenner would vehemently reject.

The Republic would make several attempts at a peaceful unification over the years. It was Bill's strong opposition to a treaty and support from much of the town population that would ensure Starkhaven's independence.

But things had changed. His support had vanished and the full assimilation of his beloved town had become more and more probable in recent years.

It killed him.

He stopped in front of a collapsed wall. The beam of his flashlight scoped the mound of rocks piled almost as high as the ceiling of the dank sewer. Bill came closer and stuck his head up high enough to see over the hill. What he saw on the other end was just what he'd been searching. He began quickly pushing away stones to create a larger opening to the other side. When it was big enough, he slid his slender frame through it; covering him in black soot.

The steel door was one of a kind within the underground labyrinth. It looked as if it hadn't been opened in ages.

Strenner rubbed a hand over the cold metal. There was no handle or knob to open the path, only a keyway hidden beneath a layer of dirt.

It was almost as though the boardroom was split down the middle.

Jim had watched the group of people enter and disperse. The man he assumed was the praetor sat with his back towards the entrance.

He was middle-aged and appeared to take good care of himself. The navy blue suit he wore looked to be expensive but was traced with dirt marks from the long trip. He carried himself with an air of superiority and condescendence. It was the clearest indicator of his social status and political rank.

The person who looked to be in charge of his security had signaled for two of his men to stand outside before Tanis shut the oak doors behind them. Two others would be joining Wulf in the room to balance the number of bodyguards on both sides of the table.

The politicians soon started with mindless banter. They discussed the state of affairs in their respectful parts of the world, shifts in policies, the weather.

The praetor changed the mood with a question. "Don't you think in these trying times, Starkhaven needs an ally it can count on?"

A slight grin formed on Marla's face. She'd been waiting for Briar to get to the point. "I assume you mean the Republic?"

"Let's be honest mayor," Anytime a politician would utter those words, it would mean anything but. "Starkhaven is smack-dab in the middle of the desert. Thousands of gangs roam the Outland raiding, pillaging and murdering as they please. Your only saving grace has been their reluctance to attack such a large population, but that won't last forever. Who will you turn to once they've set their eyes on all you've built? Ridley? Westdawn? Either of them would have more to gain from Starkhaven being razed. No, the Independent Free-Citizen's Republic has always been your one true friend. We simply ask a show of good faith."

"What a wonderful way of putting it praetor." Her voice grew passionate. "Perhaps a show of good faith from one party will be met equally by the other?" She stretched out her open palms. "I was hoping you could tell me about the Republic's recent expansion attempts."

Briar was thrown off. "We've always looked to expand our borders mayor. Our ultimate goal of uniting the Continent has never been a secret."

"Of course." Rook's smile grew playful. "But I've been getting odd reports from many of the surrounding towns. It seems the senate is desperately trying to establish as many forward outposts in these areas as possible." Though he tried to hide it as best he could, there was a moment of absolute panic on the praetor's face. "Why is the Republic so interested in the Outland all of a sudden?"

A square slab of the hardwood floor swung up to reveal the hidden room below. Strenner emerged from the trapdoor into a dust ridden utility closet. His sneezing sent up clouds of particles while his wheezing filled his nose and mouth with the filth. As expected, his key to the underground maintenance door still worked. Looking up, he could see a small window that peeked just over the grass outside.

He was in the basement.

Bill moved to the closet door and used the second key he was carrying to unlock it. The building's bottom level was nothing more than a storage room but light was scarce and his pocket torch was almost drained of battery power. He had to once again wander through dim corridors until he could find the stairwell that would lead him up to the first floor. He stumbled several times sending boxes crashing to the ground.

He knew he was saved when his hand grasped the banister for the stairs. Relieved, he climbed towards the light, but stopped after just a few steps. His eyes shifted towards the silhouette that towered over him from the top of the flight. It didn't speak.

Neither did he.

"Outlanders do like to exaggerate when telling stories." The praetor dismissed the question. "We offer them a garrison to assist in policing their towns and they accuse us of military occupation. I assure you, the senate has as much interest in Starkhaven today as it did in the past."

Rook said nothing and instead gazed into the man's eyes to see what she could decipher.

"Now that your confusion's been settled, I'm hoping you'll hear my very generous offer?"

The patronizing remark narrowed Marla's glare. "Just one more question Francis:" Her voice turned uncivil. "On whose behalf are you here?"

Briar wasn't sure he understood the question but attempted to answer it as best he could. "I'm here representing the senate. So tha-"

"That's doubtful." The commanding voice of the mayor silenced him instantly. "If the senate wanted someone to represent them, they would have sent a consul. You, on the other hand, are just a praetor. You don't have the privilege to speak on their behalf. A lone senator's perhaps…"

So far, her listener hadn't made an attempt to stop the speech.

"You were promoted shortly after the war weren't you?" She teased him. "Stuck as a praetor for twenty years… You must have begged for this chance. 'Impress the senate and they'll make you a consul'. I never imagined someone your age could be that naïve."

The praetor fidgeted in his chair. His charade had all but peeled away.

"I can't understand why Senator Henry approved of your coming here. He must have known it would be a waste of time. Then again, the man's always been a massive cunt."

"He thought you would see reason." Briar managed to muster the will to speak. "It won't be long until everyone wants this town. Do you think you can keep your people safe forever?"

Rook was unmoved by the comment. "Enjoy your trip back to the capital praetor. Let the good senator know that his resignation might entice me to reopen negotiations in the future."

The sentries standing outside the large oak doors had overheard the majority of the conversation. It had been their only pastime in the empty corridor.

Out of all the posts, theirs was seen as the most redundant. After all, if anyone were to infiltrate the building, they would be tackled by the dozen officers surveying the first floor. Their objection had been noted by the lieutenant who had refused to explain his reasoning. They were assigned the boardroom doors no matter how boring the task may have seemed.

"Do you hear that?" One of them whispered to avoid interrupting those in the boardroom.

There was an indiscernible patter in the distance. Neither man was sure what to make of it, but it was getting closer. They faced the end of the corridor in silence as the ominous noise approached.

It was too late did they realize it was the sound of footsteps.

Out of the corner, at the end of the hall, a person moved directly into their line of sight.

Bill Strenner wasn't running with remarkable speed, but he was barreling down the hallway, indifferent to the two armed sentries. He was even unfazed when one drew his pistol and readied to fire.

"No!" The other pushed down the barrel. He had to remind the officer. "Rules of engagement…"

It wasn't more than ten seconds earlier that Briar hunched over the table realizing he was beaten. He slowly picked himself up and moved towards the door. "Your days as mayor won't last. I promise you, I'll be there at the end."

The shout from outside halted his leave.

There was no time for anyone to react. The double doors flung open in an uproarious commotion. The two guards were barely hanging onto the Strenner as he pushed and shoved his way forward. Wulf's men immediately moved to subdue him but his thrashing made it difficult without the use of force.

Jim momentarily forgot his place. "This is fucked up…"

"Shut up!" Marla shouted at him then turned to the sheriff. "Get him out of here now!"

As Bill was flailing around, a kick to the praetor's gut sent him toppling to the ground.

No one seemed to care.

"Damn it," Max moaned. "You guys couldn't keep some old geezer from getting past you?"

Despite four officers trying to restrain him, Strenner, at ninety-six years of age, forced his way to the opposite end of the table and grabbed hold of the edge. His wailing and screaming had already alerted security on the first floor. They would be too late.

"Rook! ROOK!" He was now shouting as loud as he could. "YOU'LL LISTEN TO ME NOW!" He tugged his coat hard enough to pop off every button. "I HELPED BUILD THIS TOWN, AND I'M NOT LETTING THEM HAVE IT!"

Traveling for a mile beneath Starkhaven's streets through raw sewage, accessing a hidden entrance few knew even existed, avoiding all the sentries on both floors, making it all the way to the boardroom, and even kicking the praetor: Marla would have had a good laugh were it not for what she saw next.

The two pipes strapped to his stomach had been crudely taped to an old circuit board. Color coded wires were connected to a simple switch located near one of its extremities and extended towards the cylinders.

Trying to pull Strenner out of the room from behind, the officers couldn't see the device. Neither could Tanis who was swinging around the table to assist them. Marla, Jim and Ballard watched helplessly as Bill's index finger hovered over the detonator, not allowing any of them a chance to react.

Francis Briar was picking himself up off the ground when his eyes caught sight of the explosive that wasn't more than an inch from his face.

There wasn't even time to scream.

The blast wave burst every window in the room simultaneously followed by a portion of the wall that buckled under the strain and exploded into a hail of stone and concrete that rained down onto the street below.

The detonation resounded across Starkhaven and alerted its populace to the disturbance. Sheer terror gripped the deputies guarding the perimeter; they'd never seen anything like it.

From the rooftops, Axel watched the billowing black smoke and knew right then:

Starkhaven wasn't through with them yet.
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