A chill more bitter than cold swept low over the sparse, reedy vegetation that grouped in the shelters of the tundra. The surfaces of rocks not blanketed with snow had been otherwise smattered with blooms of lichen. Time, however, marched ever onward. The whiteness that had settled upon evergreen spruce and willowy shrubs had begun its silent, if reluctant, retreat.
It was upon one such bespeckled rock, a coagulation of bedraggled greenery clustered at its base, that a lone figure sat looking into the valley below. The lurid haze of evening light cascaded into a trough amongst the mountainscape as though a pour of sunlight had filled the land and sent long shadows, finger-like in their dimension, reaching outwards to claw the night in. The figure upon the rock remained motionless save for the constant turning of a cylinder, its housing a cruel meshing of metal and something other. The click, click, clicking of the self loader was a muted retort against the backdrop of wind which picked up the fabric of his cloak, the sigil of renown now burned away, a memory scarred into unrecognition.
The figure didn’t respond to the other three who approached, their trek marked by a passing displacement of snow and little more. He’d seen them leave their camp not long ago, no doubt on a patrol to round up whomever they could, and on their second circuit they’d clearly spotted him. So he waited. They surrounded him, their mismatching patchwork equipment equivilated only by their differences in stature. But it was the one with the brawny arms, unshielded to the cold with a thick, dark brown hide of hair over heavily muscled limbs, who spoke first. His dark eyes twinkled beneath a heavy brow when they landed upon the piece within the Stranger’s hand and the clicking stopped.
“Can I see what you got there?” asked Brawny, an arched eyebrow masking a thief’s intent with a false curiosity. Heartbeats passed. Nothing was said and the shorter, rounder of the trio shuffled uncomfortably, putting her weight from one foot to the other. “Yer cannon, can I see it?”
“I know you?” asked the figure, continuing to focus upon the shards of metal that ran the length of the barrel. Brawny smiled, a crag of teeth splitting the pale, windswept bushel of beard.
“Not that I can say,” he said.
“And you wanna hold my piece?” asked the Stranger, finally lifting his gaze up toward Brawny to show the hard lenses that took in the full measure of the man. Brawny crossed his arms over his chest, displaying the relaxed dominance that was usually enough to cow most marks into submission by the suggestion of violence. Usually.
“Just that I never…seen one like it,” said Brawny, the lilt of a leering smile turning the words from a facade of curiosity into the honesty of criminal business.
“No, you haven’t,” replied the Stranger matter-of-factly.
Brawny only allowed a moment of surprise shift across his features before scowling. “Looks dangerous,” he rumbled.
“Seems, maybe, that’s the point,” said the Stranger. Brawny shrugged. This petulant banter would get him nowhere, and with the other two present they would talk to the rest at camp. He had to get it done.
“Where’d you find it?” he asked, deciding to play for time and, perhaps, put on a show for his lads. Yet a response was not forthcoming. Beats passed again and in the void of conversation the wind whispered a chill down the pass. Brawny stepped forward. Perhaps a threat was in order.
“You hearin’ me?” he shot hotly, the edge in his voice a cutting thing that served as a precursor to violence. It was enough to get the other two to do as he expected. Daringly, the shorter of the three stepped in.
“He asked you a question,” she said, the barrel of an autorifle trained upon the Stranger. It would only take a pull of the trigger but she made no move to make any sign of it.
“Didn’t find it. Made it,” said the Stranger. Brawny let out a gunshot laugh.
“Hah, helluva touch you got then. You a ‘smith?” The Stranger tilted his helmet only a fraction, but it was enough to convey the flat expression that he was questioning Brawny’s intelligence.
“I look like a ‘smith?”
“Looks can be deceiving,” said Brawny and the figure let out a cruel chuckle.
“Got that right,” said the Stranger with a nod.
“There a problem?” growled Brawny.
“Doesn’t need to be.”
“Glad we got that cleared up,” Brawny said with a toothy grin. “Now, about that piece.” The figure continued to say nothing before looking back down at his gun.
“Been to Luna?” he asked as he ran his fingers down the barrel, and started to turn the cylinder again. The clicking now resuming in earnest.
“Excuse me?” said Brawny, flat footed by the question.
“The moon. You been?”
“Nobody’s been,” said Brawny, rolling his eyes.
“That a truth?” asked the Stranger, gloved fingers moving with deliberate function to maintain the intervals of clicks as clear, concise seconds.
“That’s a fact,” stated Brawny.
“Funny you’d make that distinction,” replied the Stranger. Brawny frowned, the lines of his face deepening as this mark verbally sparred with him. But this Stranger, this weirdo dressed in dark, disheveled armor that had clearly seen better days, was playing them for a fool and all he could manage was to stand there, arms crossed in the cold whilst He? She? Or was it an It? Twisted the line of conversation into a confusing weave.
“Truth is you must think you’re some kinda something special,” Brawny shot back hotly. “With the attitude. The way you’re just dismissin’ us like we’re nothing. Like we ain’t even here.” He took a second step forward, now only one long stride of his legs between the two. “Fact is,” he brought out a finger and pointed it at the Stranger, the stubby digit attached to a hand from which features of crisscrossing scars lined its flank from fights, both won and lost. “You ain’t near rock solid as you figure. Fact is, special’s only special ‘til it’s not.” He was about to tell Shorty to shoot the Stranger, when the helmet, with its matte lenses, shot back up to look at him and speak.
“The bones say otherwise.”
“Speak straight,” growled Brawny, finger now nestled back into the crook of his arm where it might leech some warmth.
“You say ‘Nobody.’ Bones say otherwise,” replied the figure, his words as honest as a counterpoint to an argument.
“What bones?” sneered Brawny.
“All of them.”
“What’re you gettin’ at?” sighed the big man. This was getting tiresome and he was cold.
“Too many to count…” said the Stranger, his words trailing into a whisper.
“You tryin’ to get a rile outta us? Was only making conversation,” said Brawny, anger beginning to simmer within his chest.
“You really weren’t,” replied the Stranger, a cutting derision in his voice.
“We got a smart one here.” jeered the lankier of the three bandits, a pipe-gun held within his gloved hands. The barrel had been sheared off and marked with scars of kills made by more than one owner. The helmet turned towards him, a cold face of metal bobbing to punctuate his words, the animation more than had been seen before. It appeared unnatural, alien even.
“Experience more than smart. But experience has its advantages.” With the conversation continuing to slide decidedly against him, Brawny pushed onward,s if only to regain the Strangers attention.
“Experience tell you to lip off to Strangers just tryin’ to make talk?” he huffed, shooting a glance at Lanky, the glare causing his partner to flinch. The helmet turned back toward him.
“Keep talking and maybe we will.”
“Talk?” asked Brawny.
“Have words,” said the Stranger.
“Ain’t that what we’re doin’?” The clicking of the cylinder stopped, gloved hands pausing as if frozen.
“My conversations tend to be a bit louder,” said the Stranger. It was not said as bluff but rather state as a fact. Brawny considered for a moment.
“That a threat?” he asked.
“A truth,” the Stranger replied. Brawny’s lips peeled back from his teeth, raw gums lined with a maligned grimace.
“Who the hell you think you are?” Brawny spat.
“According to your facts, ‘nobody.’.Yet here I sit,” said the Stranger, a false congeniality lining his words as he turned the weapon over in his hands, inspecting the barrel, testing the weight, checking the sights. It was almost as if it were any other day.
“Don’t matter how pretty yer cannon is. You keep it up, we’ll see just how loud you like to get.” The Stranger stared at Brawny for a little while before slowly moving the weapon back into its magnetic holster, then slowly got up from his rock, making a show of keeping his hands where the flanking rogues could see them.
“You done talkin’ now?” grinned Brawny, finally satisfied his words had made an effect, and confident his mark had finally given up and was not far off divesting himself of his wares. He knew that a little show and some brutish wordplay would get the job done. There had been a scholarly sort once before; they too had tried the same fanciful conversation tactic and ended up broken in the wilderness. “Guess he knows his place, boys.”
The Stranger cocked his head to the side, inquisitive, like a bird. “Ever have a nightmare?”
Brawny rolled his eyes and huffed aloud, this was getting ridiculous. “You playin’ games? Or just thick?” he asked flatly. But the Stranger continued regardless of his comment, nodding in thoughtfulness. One hand out, palm upwards, to indicate the surrounding area.
“I know you have, this world? Can’t help, but.”
“I don’t have nightmares, I give ‘em,” grinned Brawny, cracking his knuckles and rolling his neck to pop the joints with an audible pop of abused bone. The Stranger let out a stifled laugh and looked away.
“You’re a goddamn cliché. The picture perfect bandit.” It was impossible for him to keep the mocking tone out of his voice. “Hearing your voice – the things you’re saying, the shade of the hard man you pretend to be-”.
“Ain’t no shade.”
The handcannon that had been at the Strangers side seemed to leap from the holster of its own accord and into his hands. With precise savagery he cracked off three shots. The first was a hammerblow to the chest of the shortest bandit. She was knocked off her feet as if someone had violently yanked her from behind. A hole had been punched through her chest cavity where a gout of mulched flesh and bone beribboned the span of snow and bush behind her.
In the same second he turned the gun towards the lankier bandit, and with the buck of another round slamming into his arm a neat round hole appeared in his forehead. Skull fragments and brain bloomed from the back in a grizzly fountain. He fell back, booted heels drumming the ground as his body spasmed, revolting against swallowing death. Flechettes of bone bracketed Brawny’s side before his hand exploded below the wrist. The crimson fluid pumped with adrenal rapacity onto the white snow and immediately pooled beneath him. To his credit though, he didn’t fall nor did he cry out in horrid surprise. Yet the paleness that washed over his features explained enough.
“Sit down,” said the Stranger, looking at the sigils of sickening green that lined the cylinder fading into the gunmetal. Brawny cradled the stump of his arm, the shock still sinking into the cracks of his mind as the pumping lifeblood lessened to a heavy bleeding. Nerve synapses shrieked with agony. Short, shallow breaths stuttered between grimacing lips and panic replaced the heat of anger, dousing the flames with shards of icy reality. A mangled word passed his stricken lips, but it was too strangled by pain to become little more thnan a anguished moan. The Stranger carefully enunciated his next words.
“Sit. Down.” Brawny no less sat than collapsed into the stained snow.
“Your mouth just got your friends dead. This is what happens when you bore me,” stated the Stranger. His attenuated voice was an emotionless statement as he stepped over to the man who clutched his arm to his chest, cradling it like a child. A dark stain had spilled down his front, but it was already had become flecked with white frost. The Stranger crouched, but the lenses of his helmet remained locked to the cowering thug.
“And right now I’m so very bored.” Brawny looked from his stump to the figure. He could see details in the armour now, the lenses stained with shocks of green and they hurt to look at. The rebreather mask had been altered somehow, the rust red blemish of neglect hiding something else beneath, the sliver of an onyx sheen showing under the grime.
“But..but..” Brawny stumbled “you’re a…you’re one of them…a Guardian right? You’re supposed t’be one of the Good ones.” Though Brawny couldn’t see his face, the lazy shrug of shoulders told him all he didn’t want to know.
“‘Supposed to be’? Maybe I am. Maybe this is what ‘good’ looks like. Who can tell?” The Stranger brought the gun up, giving the cylinder a spin from which the same clicks as before rose, but now in the closer confines of cruel intimacy they acquired a new aspect not born of the natural harsh contact of metal upon metal one would expect but a sinister, malevolent cackle. The gun wasn’t empty, it was purring with hunger. It spun, and as it did so the noise it made overcame the chill breeze that had started to freeze him, the drum echoing a noise that clawed at his being.
“You wanted to see my prize?” the stranger asked, his mellifluous voice conversational and yet still holding the note that inspired thoughts of cruelty.
“No…I…” mumbled Brawny apologetically, shuffling his aching legs that he might retreat from the debt of his brash confidence.
“Look at it,” hissed the Stranger, a sibilant acid tone to his words. Brawny flinched, turning his head to keep away from the sigils, to stay from the dark. But it was all too much and his vision swam.
“Whimpering won’t stop what comes next,” said the Stranger, the sneer of derision at the now stripling of a man. Brawny had clearly always put up a front and now that presumptive arrogance he bandied about had brought about the death of his companions, and likely his own.
“Look…” The big man continued to shy away from the gun, the very presence of it a void on the world as a wetness froze into ice on his cheeks.
“Open your eyes.” The Stranger stooped over him, crouching to dominate his view and to hold his weapon in both hands, a gesture that under other circumstance would suggest he was proferring the gun like an artifact, but in this instance it was more to show the dark craftsmanship involved. “Not many get such a clean view,” he pointed at the barbs that lined the gun. “The bone, you see it? Jagged, like thorns. I used to think of it as a rose, focusing upon its bloom,” he turned the weapon over, admiring it. “But the bloom is just a byproduct of its anger.” The stranger shifted again, now to look at Brawny.
“You have nightmares? Ever seen a nightmare? Ever opened your eyes and realized the horror wasn’t a dream? The terror wasn’t gone? I’ve seen nightmares. They live in the shadows. They’ve been watching.” He stood, a wraith wrapped in shadow now that the sun had sunk below the horizon and allowed the half-lit slice of moon to rule the sky. The Stranger chuckled.
“I thought…it’s foolish, I know…but I thought I saw a way. That maybe we could win. Maybe we could survive. But once you step into the shadows it’s so very hard to walk in the light.” He turned the weapon, seating the grip in his hand with a lover’s embrace. “Or…maybe I just wasn’t strong enough.” He nodded, agreeing to himself more than anything before turning his attention to Brawny, the barrel’s eye now gazing down at him. “Maybe…but I feel strong now, I stole the dark, or maybe it stole me.”
Brawny flinched away once the unyielding stare of the gun rested upon him, the baleful glow of runes shifting, licking out to touch the strangers gloved hand.
“Either way, here we are. And I’m hungry. It’s hungry. You have no Light beyond the spark of your pathetic life. But a spark is something.”
The Stranger moved, a predator’s shift, a subtle change in body-language that communicated Brawny’s immediate future. The big man started to sob, cringing away once more. The cold itself seemed to reach into him, ravenously gorging itself upon the warmth of his tenuous life. The Stranger leaned in, leering at his mark, iridescent green now swallowing light itself.
“Open your eyes,” he said, barely above a whisper now, the cloak that shrouded his form eerily still in the wind. Brawny let out a whimper. A final shuffle of his panicked muscles caused the ice beneath him to crackle, and the hammer of Thorn cracked against the firing pin.