There are four of them walking across the ravaged land, spaced out, yet clearly a group.
The first of them is Shade, a human male; an apt name as he is dressed in black and has skin colour of the same. He belongs to the Sect of Shadow and Steel, a society of assassins, or he did before he failed in a mission. Those of the Sect never fail, at least that is their claim, so he was cast out. In fact he was sentenced to death, except he killed his executioner in their deadly duel. Now he must make his own way by his skill and cunning.
He met Grim when under attack by ghouls, the overly large human waylaying into the monsters with aggression and gusto. At first, Shade thought he had come to rescue him, yet it turned out Grim was merely hungry. He fed on monsters. Grim was part human, if not completely. He had been raised by brutes, taken as a baby by a couple who had just lost theirs. Fed on his mother’s milk, he had grown to their size and with their strength, but the others of the tribe saw him as an abomination and eventually killed his parents. Grim had escaped yet swore revenge on all monsters, and since then he not only butchered them, but ate them too, dead or alive.
The third was a deemi, a monster, yet Grim knew better than to start trouble with such as her. Scynthia; deemi liked to take human female names and distort them. Except her kind were not females. They looked like women – beautiful, voluptuous women – yet had skin and hair of abnormal colour and tone, and their true nature was hidden within. Using these forms, they seduced humans and then killed them, devouring their souls too. So had Scynthia, up until meeting a man she had fallen in love with. Her sisters had ordered his death. Eventually she had complied, but had let his soul fly free and so had been expelled.
Shade and Grim had come across the lone deemi and attacked, yet she had eluded them using her kind’s deceitful magic. Later the pair had met more deemi and, amid the luring speech, they had revealed the tale of the outcast. Shade and Grim, escaping their clutches, had gone after her, found her and then persuaded her to join them; they were fighters, she could be the magic-user. Scynthia had agreed.
The trio had become four one morning when a hobgoblin had begun walking with them and wouldn’t leave no matter how many times they chased him away. Short, hunched, quick and tricky, Deg was like all his kind and no one wanted them around because they were always where they shouldn’t be, stole whatever they could and had an almost helpless desire to mess things up. Still, the three had nothing to steal or ruin.
They were four outcasts together. The Accursed, Shade had joked: a biblical term, as in cursed from the land and from people. None of the others understood the meaning but agreed that the name was suitable and, while none said it, they wanted a name for their quartet. It bound them together when nothing else did. They were four loners, which made them strong as a group, only that left a tension; none could take charge for too long and all kept an eye on each other. Especially Deg.
“There we are,” Shade said, stopping on a ridge. Before him was the coast, near the horizon, but within it was an island and it was covered with life. “That’s Trade Island.”
“So that’s where we get jobs,” noted Grim with a grunt.
“And with jobs come food,” Shade assured him with a grin. That was how he had persuaded the abnormal man to come along. As a member of the Sect, he had taken work here and so headed to it instantly, determined to survive on his own. But a creature like Grim had more basic aims, as well as many uses.
“But what jobs will we get here?” wondered Scynthia, stopping alongside them, her voice smooth and eloquent. Her kind strutted around naked, after all, their fabulous forms were their clothing. But since her exile, she had come to hate herself and so, fortunately for the three males, she now wore a long piece of velvet with ends hanging down her front and the middle coiling down her back. “You are an assassin, we are not. What is for us in this place?”
“Plenty,” Shade replied, his look not just on the island but also the settlements about it. He knew there were more nearby; he wasn’t the only one ever attracted here. “There are all manner of beings: monsters, humans, mutants, even a machine nation to the north that trades through the city, if no machines come. No one wants them to. There are business families and gangs. There’s a powerful devil-beast to the south that calls himself the Demon King. With our combined skills, there will be no end of work.”
“He’s right,” chirped a voice and Scynthia looked down in disgust before yanking her drape from Deg’s admiring claws. The hobgoblin hopped away and pointed to the city. “There’s lots of my people there, we work in every place, even run some. I’ll soon tell everyone how great we are.” His speech was as quick and restless as everything else was about him.
“Lots of hobgoblins,” remarked Grim and turned to Shade. “You sure we should go there?”
“Don’t worry, the humans run Trade Island. But don’t trust anyone.”
“Never do,” confirmed Grim.
“Smart,” said Shade with a chuckle. He looked at Scynthia. “You still in?”
“I might as well come, yet your plan seems too vague. You persuaded us to join you and come all this way to this place, and what struck me was your intent. You had a definite plan.” Scynthia’s gaze was locked on the assassin’s.
“Bounty hunters,” Shade revealed. The rest frowned. “When I was here before, I took interest in the law enforcement, as I would, and noticed a big problem. The humans run the island and enforce their laws, in a fashion, but because of the precarious situation, with all the various races packed around it together, none wants to start a fight. So if a criminal gets off the island they’re fine. That is, unless someone hires us to bring them back.”
“There’s a lot of crime here?” ensured Grim.
“Overflowing,” Shade assured.
“That is actually a superb plan,” admitted Scynthia. “But how do we get established as bounty hunters?”
“We go see the mayor,” Deg cut in before Shade could answer and he nodded, glaring at the hobgoblin now beside him. “By the way, I like your plan too, and agree to join you.”
“None of us asked you to come,” snapped Scynthia.
“You don’t need to ask, I’m here to help,” Deg reassured her, hooking thumbs in the straps of his backpack. She scowled.
“Let’s go,” called Shade, heading on, “and Grim, don’t eat anyone.”
“Yeah, be good,” Deg added, now behind Grim, jumping to slap his rear. He snarled and swung for the hobgoblin, but missed, so stomped on to follow Shade. Scynthia followed too, with graceful, light steps. Deg kept pace at a distance.
Trade Island had got its name by being just that. While the rest of the world was tormented by bloodshed and horror, here was where the various sides had learned to work together.
When civilisation had collapsed, a mutant army had come here. Humans had crowded onto this island for refuge, then fought their enemy across the water. Bridges were destroyed, as were buildings, but the mutants couldn’t get across and the humans offered peace. They proposed that if the army ceased they could trade, they had resources to offer, and the mutants saw their logic; monsters had gathered and machines were near. Conflict only weakened them for the rest. In time, though, the other groups joined in the trading, also seeing the advantages. Then more beings came from elsewhere, seeking the area’s growing prosperity as well as its safety.
The island was now covered with buildings, some tall structures, others squat; all kinds of people and creatures lived here and so the settlement varied too. In its midst was a small, simple dome, which was the mayor’s home and office. The mayor of Trade Island was a figure of authority; he organised and oversaw the place’s inhabitants. However his influence was, in truth, very limited; there were others here who had real power. Even so, he was the person the Accursed needed to see.
Mayor Phil looked from his desk at the strangers before him. The man who met his gaze reeked of lethal ability. He had moved like a killer, sure and silent, although he carried no weapons. He certainly dressed like one: his black clothes varying in texture and shading, all strong yet also supple, perfect for both movement and protection. His own form matched it exactly; lean but muscular, and he never twitched or lost focus. That wasn’t his most distinguishing feature though – his all white eyes seemed to blaze from his black face.
Then there was the abnormal man. He was huge! His thick, hairy arms swelled with muscle whenever he moved them; he looked like he could lift the large desk Phil sat at with ease and then devour it. Those teeth! Irregular, sometimes broken or sharp, but they all appeared thick. His black hair flowed across his shoulders and down his back, while his large beard was tangled and gritty. Phil recognised the thick hair of brutes that made up the man’s sleeveless tunic and leggings and his boots looked like the hard leather skin of vandals. His own skin was white, if grubby and scarred, and in one hairy paw he carried a long-handled cleaver.
The deemi really unnerved him, however. Her deep red skin was so smooth it almost gleamed. Her silver hair hung in curls and glittered whenever she moved her head. She was living proof that wet dreams do come true, except her silver eyes barely glanced at Phil and when they did, it was with scant regard, which was a relief. Those silver eyes, matching her lustrous hair, had the black slits of a hunting creature, while those fangs… Many suspected her kind’s existence in the Shadow World to have seeped through to inspire ideas of sirens and vampires, just as brutes reflected trolls and ogres, and hobgoblins gremlins and, well, hobgoblins.
“Get out of there!” Phil yelled, chasing Deg from a drawer in his desk. The grey hobgoblin hid behind the others as the mayor slammed it shut, once certain nothing was stolen. “So, uh, did you say your name was Shade?” The man in black nodded. “A blunt name. I’m black too, but no one calls me Silhouette or Dark.”
“I’ve got the same accent as you, so I think I’m originally from this land, yet I grew up on the other side of the sea, in a cold land of white people with blond hair. I don’t know why; my family all died when I was very young.”
“But you kept the name?” queried Phil.
“It sounds cool,” stated Shade. “Anyway, it suited me when I was in the Sect.”
“The Sect of Shadow and Steel? I thought you had to be one of them with those eyes but then…” Phil gestured to the other three.
“He got kicked out, they all did,” came Deg’s voice.
“Shut up!” snarled Grim.
Phil looked around. “Get off!” he yelled to the hobgoblin, who was perched on his chair’s back. Again Deg avoided his swipe. Phil looked back at Shade. “But you’re alive? No one leaves the Sect alive.” Shade merely shrugged. “I suppose you want to regain your honour?”
Phil frowned. “Isn’t the Sect strong on honour?”
“It is, but I failed at that bit,” revealed Shade, but then gave a slow, white smile. “I’m great at killing though.”
“Me too,” added Grim proudly.
“Which reminds us of why we’re here,” Scynthia said to the mayor. He didn’t look back at her, unsure whether the eyes put him off the most or if the rest of her did – the drape of velvet hardly made her modest. “We are offering ourselves to you as bounty hunters. Shade has explained how useful we could be to you. All we need is for you to make us official so we can arrest people, then spread word of us.”
“Well, yes, but I’m not sure how the police chiefs will take this,” pointed out Phil.
“Your seven chiefs are corrupt, everyone knows that,” countered Shade. “But we won’t be under them. You ask us to hunt a criminal down and we will. They won’t be able to stop us. They can get away with things behind your back, yet in front of everyone is where you can act.”
“Well, that’s true,” admitted Phil, liking the idea of these four answering to him. “I’m not sure about pay though.”
“You offer us a price, if we like it we take it,” Grim stated with a big shrug.
“Well, that sounds fair. Still, there will be some dangerous…”
“Look at us,” snapped Scynthia, which the mayor briefly did. “I am an accomplished deemi, he is a deadly assassin, he is, well, a human brute…”
“And there’s me,” cut in Deg.
“…little is beyond our abilities.”
“What do you want?” Shade demanded to know. Phil flinched. “You’re hedging. You want something. What?”
“You know of the Demon King? His son, Prince Dranrog, is here for a visit and recently he went to a brothel. All went fine with his three girls until he became hungry and ate them. Now that means time in prison. We have laws, and all who come here are meant to abide by them,” the mayor hesitated, “pretty much. Only his father isn’t a good loser. He wouldn’t actually intercede as no one wants to start a war, but he won’t let it pass either. We should arrest the prince, yet if we do … if I do … then trouble comes here.”
“However,” said Scynthia, silver eyes narrowing, “if we brought him in, we get the Demon King’s wrath.”
“Clever,” praised Shade. He was also surprised; this man didn’t seem that devious.
Phil looked sheepish as he shrugged. “None of the police will go near the prince, so if you did, not only would we be free of blame, but your role as bounty hunters will be assured.” This made the trio look at each other (Deg was looking out a window).
“What’s your offer?” Shade asked.
“Uh, one thousand gems.”
“Gems?” queried Scynthia.
“Not real ones,” Shade told her. “They use small, spherical crystals of no worth as currency.”
“Like this,” Deg said, producing one from among his many pockets and holding it up for her to see between his hooked nails.
“You mean gleaner droppings?” Scynthia was revolted, as now were the humans. Deg just nodded. Gleaners were vicious, arachnid-like monsters. There was a nest nearby the island; now Phil knew who the bankers dealt with.
“We use credit notes too, for bigger sums,” he added weakly.
“Is that a good price?” Grim checked with Shade.
“Very,” he replied and looked slyly at the mayor. “I doubt you can afford that much.”
“Others will chip in, to preserve law,” Phil responded, convincing none of them. “So, do you agree?” There was an exchange of looks, then nods.
“We wait until the prince leaves the island, that way we’re outside the mayor’s authority,” Shade announced.
“We should already be gone to pick the best place for the ambush,” Scynthia argued.
“But we don’t know which way he’ll go. This prince is said to be rash, not the sort we can predict for,” countered Shade. The deemi just nodded; she never conceded defeat in an argument.
The two of them and Grim were sat at a table in the corner of a tavern, the Picked Pocket, a place run by hobgoblins, bizarrely. It turned out many such inhospitable habitats were owned by the lowly monsters, but while theft was common, none were better at passing on rumour or getting it. That was why they were here. Prince Dranrog was far from subtle; each move he made came to them within the hour. They now lived here too. Few risked that much, but it was cheap and the owners had swiftly learned not to attempt trouble with their guests.
Grim looked around at the crash to see a hobgoblin struggling to drag his cleaver away before snatching it back. Lessons didn’t seem to stick with their kind.
“This prince,” the abnormal man began, “he must have an escort. He can’t be walking about alone.”
“Yeah, both him and his father never leave their home without guards,” confirmed Shade.
“What do you know of the Demon King?” Scynthia wanted to know.
“He’s a devil-beast, big even for his kind, strong in magic too, and he’s smart. He likes human politics; that’s why he calls himself a king – he even has a royal court. His son, the princely heir, is an arrogant braggart. He’s not nearly as strong as he ought to be.”
“When you don’t have to achieve, you do not try,” commented Scynthia.
“I’ve noticed that about you,” said Shade. “You train a lot, always getting better.”
“I can no longer live as I once did, luring sustenance to me, so now I must earn it. You should train too.”
“I did enough of that with the Sect. Anyway, I’m perfect.” Grim laughed as he munched on roasted meat of some kind; what, he didn’t care. Shade looked at him. “What’s funny, big man?”
“You’re not perfect; you’re not as strong as me.” He punched his chest.
“Who is?” replied Shade with a grin and got one back.
“I heard the Sect recruits from all over the world,” Scynthia commented to the assassin, resuming their interaction. “But why did they choose you?”
“They don’t choose, they take,” Shade said coolly, but then shrugged. “They grab a handful of youths and put them through a nightmare of training. Those who survive are then able to kill anything, anywhere. It’s made my life interesting.”
“I have no doubt, humans are so brief and bland,” said Scynthia with contempt, but it had a bitter edge – one human had been brief but not bland to her. “So, what other major figures reside in or around this island?”
“There are a few, yet the Enchantress, that’s a name to beware.”
“Doesn’t sound scary,” retorted Grim.
“She isn’t, she’s the opposite.” Shade gestured to all around them, the bustling tavern and the city beyond it. “This was begun by humans, and certain families became rich and powerful. Not long ago a daughter was born to one, the only child of a wealthy couple, and she was beautiful. She grew up pampered and adored. What she wanted was done, and as she grew, she became even more beautiful. She was adored even more, she was pampered more, and she became even more beautiful.
“It went on like that until she became so beautiful, so adored, that to hear her voice is to obey her and to glimpse her is to worship her forever.” Food dropped from Grim’s mouth as it hung open. “I’ve even heard that to look too long at her makes you go mad.”
“Since the Shadow World merged with yours, reality has become somewhat… unreal,” affirmed Scynthia.
“So, does she go round taking everyone over?” wondered Grim.
“No, that would only provoke her rivals to destroy her. Like all the powerful beings here, she has to be careful,” Shade explained. “She stays in her building, running her business, which her parents handed over before their timely accident. With her immense funds she hires whatever she needs.”
“So she could hire us?” Grim checked, wary, but keen.
“She could and not just as bounty hunters. We can perform all sorts of tasks once people know what we can do,” Shade said and Scynthia nodded.
“Nor should we be above a little corruption,” she remarked with a smile.
“That’s the only way to make real money,” confirmed Shade.
“We could steal it,” offered Deg.
“Where’d you come from?” Grim growled at the hobgoblin, who was sitting on a stool at their table. “Where’ve you been?”
“Talking, listening, a bit more,” Deg replied, playing with a handful of gems. As much as the others distrusted and disliked him, he was the only one ‘making’ money and establishing links. “I’ve found out more about the prince. He always has two brutes with him as bodyguards, but he arrived on the island with more: a few harbingers and a deemi.” Scynthia scowled. Grim growled.
“Hey, this is professional, not personal,” Shade warned. Neither replied. “What else do you know?” he asked Deg.
“He’s leaving, went across the Third Bridge just now.”
“Why didn’t you…? Nevermind, we can get ahead of them easily.” Shade rose, urgency replacing anger at the hobgoblin.
“We need to plan first,” Scynthia insisted.
“You’re the one who’s been demanding we get going,” countered Shade.
“Because we needed to set an ambush, but now you know his route, yes?”
“Pretty much. It’s nearly all open, uneven terrain out there. Perfect hunting ground for a small and mobile group like us. So yeah, now I know where he is and what direction he’s going in, I know which way we can go to cut across and be ready for them.”
“Then let’s figure out what we will do when we meet them.”
“I’ll mash the brutes,” declared Grim, “and you can take the deemi.” At this, Scynthia nodded quickly. “You, Shade, can match the harbingers for reflexes so…”
“No, no, that’s all wrong,” cut in Deg, only to receive three glares. “We’re a team, we can’t fight them each on our own. We should combine and help each other out.”
“The vile thing has a point,” admitted Scynthia and Deg grinned. “We have magic, strength, speed, skill. If we pit each attribute against its inferior we will win easily.”
“I suppose,” muttered Grim.
“We can’t fail; this is too important,” Scynthia instructed him. He nodded; he realised that. The deemi looked to the hobgoblin sat next to her and stroked his head, surprising the creature – he only ever got swipes! “Well done, uh…”
“Well done, Deg. You’ve impressed us and you deserve to be one of us,” she said smoothly and he squirmed in embarrassment, then yelped as she pinched a small ear. “Just remember that you are one of us. I know your kind; you would turn on us at the right offer. If you wish to stay alive, don’t.”
“I do! I won’t!” yelped Deg before rubbing his released ear. Shade and Grim laughed.
“You should know, deemi are only nice so they can hurt you,” chortled Shade.
“It is a lesson for us all,” Scynthia cut in, and their mirth ended. “We are a new alliance, but this one act binds us. We will create enemies and so will need each other. To split will end each of us for certain.” Everyone nodded. “Good, then let’s plan our victory.”
To Be Continued…..