Heavy footfalls plunged into the gray waters of the swamp and threatened to claim more than a shoe as the figure continued its half-blind, terrified rush forward. The twisted bogs stretched and sprawled for many miles in all directions and Aki Ziso was hopelessly lost. Hopelessly lost…and hunted. The thick, musky fog limited his sight to just a few yards and every shadowy shape which moved in the marsh beyond, every creature that writhed in the water only to disappear into the darkness…they all could be the man who now hunted him.
Sweat stung poor Aki Ziso’s eyes and the pudgy hand that wiped at his brow did little to dispel the continuous flow nor did it dismiss the cloud of gnats that preyed upon his flesh and breath. He twisted out of his jacket and trudged to his left for what he hoped was a distracting throw before high kneed steps propelled him in the opposite direction. The foul-smelling water clung and clawed at his nostrils, the cloying scent of rot and decay assaulted his nose while the stink of mineral rich mud settled like a weight in the back of his throat. Wild eyes looked behind him and he shuddered. Aki Ziso swore he saw a tall, lithe silhouette coming for him and he turned, fueled by fear, and ran on. He could not be sure if the shadowy, nebulous shape was real or a nightmarish projection…but either way…Aki Ziso could now allow himself to remain rooted in place.
Bleached skeletons of trees stood silent sentinel to the fleeing man’s passing while brown reeds crowded rotting trunks. They whispered in a chilled wind against their taller cousins, the sound a malicious mockery for the doomed man that stumbled past, nearly tripped by unseen tangles of roots, and forced to catch himself with a hand. The gnarled wilderness, with its ruined trees and stumps projecting from the dark water like so many rotten teeth, couldn’t become his grave. It couldn’t!
Aki Ziso’s lungs burned, each breath was another inhaled flame that scorched his insides and fueled the blossoming pain through his ribs. How much further could he go? He chanced a look over his shoulder, this one spared while at full speed forward, and saw only the same emotionless soup of fog and water behind him. He continued to sprint forward, his lead foot unable to slow with attention in reverse, unable to see the stump just submerged beneath the water. The ensuing crash spilled the portly man face first into the muck and sent him scrambling on all fours as he fought to regain his footing.
“Ahh…Aki Ziso…” The deep tenor of the voice richly purred not behind the fleeing man but in front of him. “Did you really think you could do what you did and escape Her wrath?” The voice asked as an impuissant breath of air managed to stir the mist enough to reveal a crouched figure atop a mighty trunk long ago felled by the necrotic energy of the place.
Aki Ziso froze when he heard the voice, the timbre of the man’s words far colder than the water he lay in. He looked up and hissed a squeak of surprise before scurrying back like a frightened little sand crab. How had he gotten in front of him? It was impossible! Black mud stirred in the wake of the man’s retreat, gave him away as it churned and settled within the dark water like a black mirror to the mists above. “I didn’t mean to…” The excuse stammered from Aki Ziso’s lips. “I never would have done it had it not been…”
“Tsst.” The figure silenced the purposeless protestations with a single hissed sound. The figure retained its kneeling position, kept the casual rest of a forearm across bent knee and the canted, curious look of a man that delighted in such mental torture. A stern expression and jaw lined stubble that appeared as if no amount of shaving could ever lighten it, the figure was handsome in dangerous, deadly fashions. “Your words only insult Her. What’s done is done.” He stood with a predatory grace, hopped from his superior perch with preternatural agility to land in the muddy waters below and reveal a height that far exceeded Aki Ziso’s five foot nothing frame. “Meet it with a shred of dignity and perhaps the Fallen Mistress will grant you clemency on the other side.”
“Orion…no…” Aki Ziso pleaded as trembling hands wiped at the mud and sought to set his spectacles back on his nose. “It’s not like that. I didn’t know…but I can help…” He felt a sense of cold dread snake its way round his spine as he stared up into the black and blue eyes of Orion Hendrix dispassionately inspecting the inconsequential insect cowering before him. “I…I can work with you…I can show Her my value…I can help you find the others…”
It began to rain then. A sudden deluge of falling water swept across their shared part of the bog. Fallen trees and ruined stumps stood steadfast against the cascade of water as a sudden wind whipped up to throw clumps of reeds back and forth with its chilly grip. Heavy drops of water exploded off their surroundings and brought the crushing closeness of the marsh down around them. Orion cast his head back and accepted the baptism and its meaning. He allowed the falling drops to shatter like tiny crystals against his skin for several silent moments and then, only when he was certain he understood, did he open his eyes once more.
“And how will you overcome the two problems plaguing that idea, Aki Ziso?” Orion’s question announced the return of his attention from that brief reverie as he reached beneath his jacket and pulled the black pistol from his belt.
“Wh…what problems?” Aki Ziso asked with an eagerness that belied a degree of hope. Hope that he might live out the day. “Whatever they are, I know I can help you…if we work together…”
“One…” Orion answered and the cold, unflinching bruise of mismatched eyes remained locked on Aki Ziso as he quickly lifted the pistol and pointed it down at the doomed man. “I work alone.”
The muffled report of the gunshots did not echo far in the fog shrouded swamp. The brief flash of muted light no more than the hauntings of a wil-o-the-wisp. Not a single bird was forced to flee, nor was any denizen that might call such a putrid place home stirred in response to the assassination.
“And two…” Orion stripped the handgun with quick, ruthless efficiency and casually tossed the weapon’s various pieces in various directions as he closed with the now lifeless body. “The Fallen Mistress has already laid claim to you.”
Orion knelt alongside the ruined face of what had once been Aki Ziso and watched as dark crimson oozed from the corpse to form its own river within the dark bog water. He watched, transfixed, by the serenity of it all and slowly invoked the Fallen Mistress’ power to complete the ritual…and Her will.
“Latêt úñed êful kauz êtez têm mêt êon sêtetnêo múñit…” The words were imbued with power far beyond even his considerable ability and as he spoke them a cerulean glow began to light the darkening space and crawl like heavy smoke across the corpse. It found entry through the bullet wounds where tendrils hooked like claws to pull at what still lay within. “Driftas doma kê plankas sêtetêt…”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Call.” Kestrel’s voice echoed that of the pirate Jevvan Dyrr. The concierge then looked to his left where Orion sat behind a tall stack of chips. “Mr. Dyrr calls.” And gestured with a tattooed hand towards the man to indicate it was his turn to play or fold.
“Fresh from the bogs…you do clean up. Word is everyone was very pleased.” Jevvan’s words meant to lightly sharp stick the surly assassin and play at the multiple meanings behind his words. “Do be a good sport, Orion and fold.” Jevvan Dyrr teased from his opposite position. “The Deacon, I’m sure, “ Jevvan nodded towards the enigmatic hotel owner who occupied the third seat at the table to Jevvan’s right and Orion’s left. “Would greatly enjoy the challenge of a heads-up battle without you…complicating….things.” He gestured towards the colorful stack of chips in front of the assassin.
Orion allowed a sliver of a smirk to surface on the hard features of his face. Where Jevvan, renowned pirate and gambler was easily amused and amusing, Orion was all hard edges and corded muscles. One pilfered and plundered…ports, cities, casinos, and gambling tables…for a living and the other served a higher calling. They were opposites and yet found ways to coexist within the unique setting of the Aurelian and Keynote. “You talk too much, Dyrr.” Orion’s flat retort delivered with a matching stillness to the way he sat and observed the game. No movement was wasted. Ever. “As for my business…your gossip hardly rates and won’t save you here.” Orion observed and needn’t look at his cards or the community ones. “Raise…five thousand.”
“Raise.” Kestrel confirmed and quickly counted the stack of chips Orion pushed into the pot. “Five thousand. The play is yours, Deacon.”
The owner lounged with the lazy posture of a princely potentate and absently observed the betting and cards at the table from behind the iron mask he wore whenever appearing in public. There were reasons for his anonymity…and then there were reasons
. “Of course, I want him, Dyrr.” The owner intoned and pushed an equal amount into the pot without hesitation as Aviana took center stage below their private perch of his exclusive lounge far above the patrons and party goers below. “I asked for him by name as a matter of fact. There is work to be done. Here and abroad.”
Very well. Let no one call Orion a storyteller and be called a liar in turn.” Jevvan smirked though he did perk up and lean forward at the prospect of the Deacon’s tale. “Though I’ll pay to hear this
story…” Jevvan crooned and the golden flecks within the submerged reefs of his eyes sparkled like sunken treasure. “Reraise…Rio’s five…and another five for the details.”
Orion’s attention was momentarily divided between stage and hand as the crowd announced their appreciation and approval for the well-known Aviana. The diminutive nickname drew him back and he remained undecided if he liked the way the pirate took such a liberty. He trended towards dislike as a default. Especially with Jevvan Dyrr. “Buying secrets now, Dyrr?”
“Would you prefer me to steal them?” Jevvan riposted with humor carving out a generous smile of amusement and challenge. He paused to set sail after Orion’s stageward stare and only after several moments of appreciation did he ride the tides back into the conversation at the table. “I heard your little djinn got into some trouble, Deacon. What was it she said, “it was just one
little hotel…what’s the big deal?’” The smirk he wore was one of admiration and amusement. A shame he had missed that explosive outburst. He’d heard, however, the fireworks could be seen for miles. “And you’ve yet to field a replacement here…” Jevvan gestured about to indicate the Keynote.
“She’s right where she belongs, Jevvan.” The owner fended off the leading line before shifting to the broad topic of Keynote leadership. “Complications have…” The owner began to explain and looked to Kestrel with a pointed nod for the concierge to answer.
“Caused us to be more selective this time.” Kestrel answered as if that should explain everything for the pirate and indicated it was still Orion’s bet.
Orion, thus far, had ignored Dyrr’s goading barb. He knew the pirate well enough to know the man was a consummate gambler and pirate…a win at all costs competitor that wasn’t above dirty tricks to take what he wanted. In that regard the two weren’t all that dissimilar. He considered the bet in silence, the previous bets, the card combinations that still existed and allowed the conversation to flow round him like a river does a stone.
“I do miss so much when I am away.” Jevvan sighed with wistful amusement.
“Bet your ship and you can stay.” Orion finally spoke as he called Jevvan’s raise and sent the bet back round to the Deacon.
“Call.” The owner added his chips and pushed the play back round to Jevvan once more.
“And where would the Keynote get, in part, such a fine collection of…” He paused to finish his drink and then gestured towards the private attendant. His whispered words brought forth a smile and then a blush from the attractive woman as he sent her on her way. “Everything.” He finally decided. “I’ve yet to hear why you personally reached out for Orion, Deacon.” Jevvan sighed and checked with a single knock of his knuckle against his stacked cards.
“I paid more for his silence than your raise, Dyrr.” The owner sounded amused though that mask made it impossible to divine his true feelings. A distinct advantage at a card game though Jevvan had wisely left that observation off his tongue. “And you can’t buy what you cannot possess.” He flipped over his cards and turned to watch Aviana from their elevated position.
“The night is still young, Deacon…” Jevvan countered and turned over his cards alongside Orion. Pirate and assassin both leaned to have a look at who had won.