Add Insult To Injury, Chapter 2: A Fiend In Need Is A Fiend Indeed

More than one and a half month has gone since I started this blog, and I still have not uploaded anything new! A short explanation is in order. I have been working on a book that I am hoping to get published, and therefore have not had the time to write more on “Add Insult to Injury”. Fear not though, for the story is not over, and I finally got the next chapter ready. We will see if I manage to be quicker with my updates in the future.

“Add Insult To Injury” is a series of short stories about a deeply troubled man. The goal of this particular set of stories is that each chapter will tell its own tale, and while they will all focus on the same main character the reader should be able to jump in and read whatever chapter they want. While some storylines will run through multiple stories they will be fully explained when they are relevant. Furthermore, I have the aim to tell the story from a viewpoint of a character that in no way could be described as a good person. But if you appreciate amoral characters like I do, I hope you can enjoy what comes next! You can read the prologue and Chapter 1 in the “Add Insult To Injury” to the left.

A Fiend In Need Is A Fiend Indeed

I had decided to travel through the mountain pass, which was an often times avoided place as it was both out of the way and more dangerous than the main road. Which was exactly why I had chosen to traverse it. Smugglers and bandits used these trails, and though they too were rare, I felt more at home with those who admitted their evil rather than hid it away.

My donkey and I trekked along one of the higher passes. For as long as I remember, I had preferred to walk the highest paths possible. Maybe it was my training as an arbalist shining through, for it was easier to shoot down than up. Or perhaps it could be attributed to the fact that folk seldom looked up, and so it would be easier to either ambush or avoid according obstacles in accordance to my preferences. In either case, I found the path good, wide enough so the donkey could walk comfortably behind me yet narrow enough so that the smugglers that transported their goods this way would opt to walk the more appropriate track below.

It was my second last day through the pass, and so my hopes were high that I would successfully navigate the pass without meeting a single soul, Wicked or no. But the world punishes those that take their happiness out in advance, and so it did me, for I heard voices below me. I made a face in disgust, mostly at myself, for I knew that my curiosity would drive me to look down over the edge to see if something of interest was taking place.

And so I did, once I felt sure that I was more or less above the noise. Careful not to rattle the gravel, I placed a hand on my hat and leant over the edge. What I saw below was not initially surprising. Given the incomplete and ill-looking armaments that the two men wore they could be little other than bandits, and not of the professional kind. Currently, they imposed themselves upon the path in front of a woman that had taken her horse and wagon along the path. I felt myself losing interest rapidly. After all, what did I care about the fate of some unfortunate soon-to-be victim?

I was just about to lean back, when something about her made me do a double take. My heartbeat had sped up, as it often did around bywicks and the Corrupt, yet no bells rang their warnings inside my skull, and I felt no overwhelming desire to end her life, as I would have had she been one of either. I blinked and narrowed my eyes. I could sense the Wicked in the air around both her and the wagon, yet it acted differently than I had ever seen it before.

Eyeing the woman more closely now, I saw that her olive coloured skin and dark hair marked the caliphate as her place of origin. She stood wrapped in a black and red robe, and in one of her hands she held a bowl with burning incense. She was neither old nor young, and though her face was covered in scars that formed an eldritch pattern she may well have been beautiful beneath them. I suppose that it was fortunate for her that a pretty face would have struggled to win me over, but that the patterns which played upon it instead set the last spark which kindled my interest.

That was that. I had to know what she may be, to set my instincts singing so without any indications as to why. The woman was something new, and the curiosity that beat like fire through my veins had to be satisfied.

Leaning back, I listened to the conversation below as I removed the arbalest from my back and begun to crank it.

“Listen… quite a good offer…” I stood too high above to hear every single word.

“Aye… can pass along… have a good time with us.”

I frowned. Clearly, the bandits were going to rob her, yet they were trying to make it sound like they would do her a kindness and let her pass along unmolested if she let them have their fun. It was despicable, how some would let their groins control their actions. They must not have realised that if she took their offer, she may have managed to get her hands on a weapon and end the life of at least one of the fools. There was something about women which drove some men to take the most idiotic of risks. Had I been in their position, I would have shot the woman from a hiding placed and taken what I wanted from the wagon before pushing both it and the corpse off the edge. End the possible threat as quickly as possible, take what you need, and then discard of the waste to make the life of any possible vultures as hard as possible. Distractions of the flesh, if one were to engage in such idiocy to begin with, could wait until the next brothel. Had these two been part of any band of highwaymen I that I had worked with, I would have ended their lives myself.

I smirked as I loaded a bolt into the weapon. Since I would kill them anyway, I suppose that some things never change.

I crouched down on one knee upon the edge of the path as I braced the arbalest against my shoulder and set my aim, slightly up and to the left of the leftmost bandit’s head, taking the movement of the wind into account. It struck me that the bandit that I did not kill with my shot may well attack the women, though I dismissed the thought since a woman who could not defend herself against one poorly armed assaulter would be of no interested to me anyway.

The sounds bellow seized to matter as I breathed out slowly and allowed myself to be consumed by focus. I closed one eye and…

Thwang. An explosion of gore as my bolt passed through his head and out on the other side. The newly made corpse instantly slumped back and began to roll down the mountainside. The remaining brigand jumped back in shock and began to fumble with his scabbard as he began to look around wildly, attempting to find the origin of the shot which had just killed his friend. His gaze found me soon enough, and I raised a hand in greeting. While he stood busy looking at me the woman dropped the bowl of incense and pulled forth a wavy kris from her belt.

The wisest thing the man could have done would probably have been to dive for cover, in case more bolts came flying. Another move apparently too intelligent for the poor man would have been to keep the woman in his sight, as she may have served as bait for just this kind of situation, or be quick enough on her feet to take advantage of the situation. However, considering how quickly she rushed forward and buried the dagger like weapon under his chin, pushing straight through and into his spine, I doubted that he would have stood much of a chance even had he acted perfectly.

I stood again as the woman pushed the man from her blade and sent him tumbling off the path after his companion. She gazed up at me just as I was sliding the arbalest back unto my back. I had considered reloading, but given that she had no obvious ranged weapons of her own, I thought it may have given her the wrong idea regarding my intentions. I know I only felt good about having a weapon pointed at me if I were pointing one back.

She pulled a handkerchief from inside her robe and began to clean the blood from the dagger while keeping her eyes locked upon me.

“Well met under blessed sky, traveller!” She spoke, invoking the ironic phrase of gallows humour often used between those that traversed the wrong side of righteousness. Her accent was thick, and she seemed to put emphasis upon every single vowel.

“Better met for you than I!” I called back, for I had done her a favour after all, while she had done me none.

She laughed at my words, and even from this distance I could see that she was smiling. I frowned. Had she been an agent of the Wicked, she would not have taken an insult from one similarly touched in stride.

“Do you venture on your lonesome, arbalist?” She asked.

“I do.” I answered.

“What say you we meet up ahead, where the paths align, and we will traverse in pair for a time?”

I considered for a moment, then shrugged. I was still curious, after all.

“I will see you over yonder.” Without waiting for her reply, I turned around and returned to my donkey.

She had been quick with the dagger, but nothing supernaturally so. I expected that she had simply seen an opportunity and seized upon it, whereas a bywick and most Corrupted would have acted with both speed and violence exceeding her. While there was still the possibility that she could be either of those, the simplest explanation would be that she had to be something that I hitherto had not encountered. Somehow, that felt more exciting than the possibility of battle.

The arbalest returned to my back as I grabbed the donkeys reins and begun the walk down the mountain. I had not walked along this particular way myself before, and as such I did not know for how long I would have to venture along it before my path would turn upon hers. But it was she who had wanted to meet up, so I felt confident that she would await my arrival.

The time passed from Sext to None before I spotted the woman again. We had reached a small valley hidden in the mountains, and given the scorched rock circles that I detected on the ground, this made for a popular resting point. And the perfect point for an ambush, though the caliphate woman sat by a small fire so I had to assume that she had already been here for a while and would therefore have sprung any trap had there been one. She smiled when she saw me, which twisted the scars that ran across her face, giving the smile a villainous quality.

“Took you a while.” She stated in a surprisingly kind voice.

I shrugged.

“The donkey is slow and I am not hurried.”

She did not seem to have taken offence. Rather, she gestures to a log which lay across from her. I took the offer and sat down upon it, noticing that she had taken a seat in a traveller’s chair that I presumed she had taken from her wagon.

We watched each other for some heartbeats, not unlike two predators trying to determine if the other is an equal or prey. I felt relaxed, for I held every confidence that I could overpower her if we came to blows. But then again, she seemed as sure of herself as I, though maybe she thought me nobler than I was due to my earlier antics.

“What brings you out this a way?” Her tone was conversational.

“Mortisgaart.” I hated small talk.

“You do not strike me as the city type.” She raised an eyebrow in a questioning manner.

“Looking for someone.” I changed the subject. “What brought you out of the sand?”

“Mortisgaart’s library, so it seems we are headed in the same direction.” She smirked.

I narrowed my eyes under my hat. I thought Mortisgaart’s library had fallen into one of the many crevasses created by the Rendering.

“So it seems.”

“Shall we strike out together? You seem able to handle yourself in a fight, and I would not mind a companion on the trail.” She acted innocent enough, yet something about her had begun to touch me the wrong way.

I watched her for some time before answering her questions.

“And are you but a damsel in distress, or will you add anything useful to our duo?” I was beginning to lose patience with the conversation.

Again she brushed away my insult.

“I suppose that one of the Ghyr Nazifa can extend some forbearance to a warlock?”

I had heard about the warlocks, the infernal conjurers from the south that could bend the Wicked to their will. Some had blamed them for the end of the world, though I had personally always presumed them to be either a myth or else a coven of want-to-be witches and wizards that had read too many ghost stories.

Shooting her wagon a contemplative look, I pondered if killing her had any merit. I had no wish to drag a wagon around all the way to Mortisgaard, but mayhap it would have something of value or use that may ease my journey. However, I already carried what I and my donkey could comfortably drag along, so I dismissed the idea.

I looked back to the woman to find her watching me with an eyebrow raised.

“It would not be worth the trouble, if I may attempt to dissuade you.”

I grunted and pulled a piece of salted meat from one of my coat’s many pockets.

“I am already dissuaded.” I bit of a piece of the meat without offering her any. She did not seem starved, and I would hardly have cared even if she were.

She continued to smile at me. It seemed like she would not hold her suspicions against me. That, at least, spoke for her.

We sat in silence for many heartbeats, watching each other while we both pretended not to. Narrowing my eyes I chewed the meat slowly, tasting salt.

“You never answered my question, warlock.” For rarities sake, I was the one to break the silence.

“My knowledge of the dark arts are not enough to prove my usefulness, Ghyr Nazifa?” There was an amusement in her voice which played at odds with the weariness with which she watched me. More and more I was beginning to detect hints that she was playing up her confidence. Mayhap she possessed some powers over the dark art, but before her sat a Corrupt, or a Ghyr Nazifa in her tongue. Surely my presence would be trying even for her, for was I not a reflection of the very darkness she claimed some domain over?

I licked the salt from my lips.

“It did not seem remotely useful against the highwaymen.” I removed my hat so that the woman would more fully feel my eldritch gaze. “It seems to me like I would be doing you a favour by going on the road with you, with preciously little to gain for it.”

If I made her nervous, she did not show it with anything but a quick glance to the side. But I had spotted that glance.

“I could have handled them.” She could feel herself slipping, losing control of the conversation. “But I suppose some form of repayment may be in order…”

The warlock looked at me searching for a few moments before she continued.

“… As well as some incentive for you to accompany me to Mortisgaart.”

I nodded slowly.

“And what would such an incentive be?”

She continued to look at me as she raised her hands to the sash that held her robes together, yet let them fall again as I shook my head.

“That may have impressed the bandits, warlock, yet I am a different beast entirely.”

My words were met with a frown.

“So I can see…” She considered for a moment before continuing. “I have some trinkets in the wagon. I suppose I might be willing to part with one in return for your aid.”

“Toys with which to trick a nitwit?” I snarled.

Her temper finally sparked up in anger.

“They are no toys!” Her voice was hard. “I invoked the Dark Winds to twist them into being, to turn their mystical energies to my purpose and create according to my design! You may not understand, Ghyr Nazifa, yet I dare you to question the potency of my work again.”

As she spoke it was as if her eyes turned into pools of darkness that spilled out into her scars, twisting her beautiful appearance into something vile. I felt my heartbeat speed up, not unlike when I had faced the bywick some weeks passed. It was a more subtle thing than I, but here sat another of the Wicked’s monsters. A cousin of mine.

I will admit that in that moment the only thing which kept me from leaping upon the woman to strangle her to death was an immense effort of will. Mayhap it would have been better for me had I done just that, but I was still curious. Doubly so, now.

“Fine.” I said instead. “I will indulge you. Show me your trinkets.”

The dark scars seemed to pulse with energy as her gaze shot daggers into mine. I suspected that she was doing her best not to attack, same as I. Yet as quickly as her ire had sparked, it faded, returning her appearance to normal. My heart calmed and my instincts seized to scream into my ear, yet my mind remembered what I had seen. In that moment I accepted that I may have to end her life out of self-preservation.

Except for her rather drastic change in appearance, little else indicated a change in her mood. She still glared, though it was a woman glaring it me, rather than some dark relative of mine. That face stuck with her as she rose and begun to move towards the wagon, under the pretence of gathering my payment.

I now suspected a more nefarious purpose.

While she had her back towards me I carefully slid a bolt from my quiver, using my human hand to palm the tip while the metal shaft lay hidden beneath my arm. It may not have been as effective as as my dagger when it came to close quarters, but it would do to surprise and stun someone who did not expect it.

She returned soon after, carrying a fist sized crystal with a band of iron around its midsection, upon which runes that I could not begin to fathom the meaning of had been inscribed. From the band hung a chain, which the warlock used to carry the talisman. I had to assume that the dark red mist which swirled within the crystal posed some kind of danger, given how gingerly she handled it.

As she sat down opposite of me I continued to eye her carefully. Some may have called me paranoid, yet I had danced this waltz before and I knew the steps. I was in danger, and I would be even more damned if I let her take advantage of the situation. Besides, I cared not for the small smirk quick that had curved her lips.

“What is this then?” I asked, raising one of my eyebrow before adding; “And why would I care for it?”

“Ah, let me demonstrate.”

Now that was something I did not care for. I rose quickly, but before I had the chance to step towards the warlock she spoke again.

Gythaz Ifranue Nauiz!” There was a darkness to her tone, like there was some evil that lived deep inside her throat and twisted her voice to an unrecognisable state. I also noticed how blackness flared up in her scars yet again.

Yet I had little time to contemplate the meaning of such things, for the crystal shone as tentacles exploded from it, wrapping themselves around my limbs. I did not wait to struggle against them, yet there were many of them and only one of me. Even though my condition rendered me stronger than most, these eldritch appendages held some unnatural power which seemed to exist outside of my perceived world. It was as if they grabbed not at my body, but at my soul, keeping me pinned.

I snarled as I struggled against the bondage, spurred into deeper rage by the dark sorceresses laughter.

“Reckon at my good fortune, Ghyr Nazifa, to not only be saved from the trouble of the highwaymen, but to be such by one so touched by the Wicked!” Her grin was maddening.

I did not tell her that I regretted not putting a bolt in her when I had the chance. I would not grant her that satisfaction. Instead I continued my struggle, trying to find a weakness in the grasp that held me.

“Ah, you need not fight so. This is a binding crystal. It ties itself to the energy of the Wicked, which surely must pump through you like the blood in your veins.” I imagined tearing the lips from her confident smile. “I had hoped to encounter a bywick to bind to my will, but to capture one of the elusive Ghyr Nazifa… Not even I could have foreseen such a thing.”

Her words gave me pause, yet I continued to struggle to keep appearances up even as my mind busied itself with her words. Knowing that the crystal had been made to bind itself to the Wicked was useful. Against a bywick that would have been effective, for indeed they were made from little but Wickedness. But a Corrupt such as I… Our moulds differed some. Bywicks had a purpose behind them, made in the image of evil to serve evil. Us Corrupted were accident, freaks among freaks, not even an afterthought. The consequence of evil, rather than evil itself.

I readily admit that I am a bad man. It is who I am. I do not mourn the humanity that I no longer possessed, rather I am glad to have been rid of it. If I did not hate the Wicked so, I would have thanked it for taking such weakness from me.

Yet though I was not a human, neither was I of the Wicked to the same extent as a bywick. I was somewhere in between. I was a fiend beholden to none but myself.

The warlock was still talking to me, yet I had stopped listening to her gloating. She was a but a step and a thrust away from me. I focused my rage at her as I grit my teeth together. I narrowed my eyes and pushed against the bonds. Then, with a howl from the depths of my guts, I took a step forward.

Oh, it felt as if my being had been rendered a second time, for the pain which washed over my was not unlike the agony inflicted upon me when the Wicked had turned me into what I am. But I was stronger now, and though I felt the tentacles trying to crush the life from my soul I slid the bolt out from beneath my fingers and thrust it forward.

Into the arm which held that cursed crystal aloof.

The woman’s cry held both surprise and pain. It was like music to my ears.

She dropped the chain and the crystal fell to the ground as she took a step backwards, grasping around the bolt with her other hand. The moment she dropped the crystal the tentacles vanished. A predatory grin spread across my lips. I had no physical injuries I could feel my spirit bleeding, but this would not be the first time that I fought on the brink of death.

Nothing focuses the mind like impending doom. Besides, I was proud of my injuries. They had not been a waste, for they had evened the battlefield.

“How did… How did you…?” Her eyes were wide as she watched me.

“Ah, do not worry yourself about that.” I began stepping towards her. “Worry about what I am going to do to you.”

Along those words I drew my dagger with my writhed left hand. Aware enough to act in self-defence, she drew her own.

Has anyone ever told you just how bloody a knife-fight is?

I delivered the first stab. The warlock pushed my arm aside with her free one, yet I still put a nasty gash along her wrist. Meanwhile she tried to deliver a stab into my armpit, hoping to end the fight early. I shifted and raised my arm enough so that her dagger stabbed into my biceps instead. My gaze went red with agony and rage, yet I had long since passed the state where such a thing was nothing but another motivator for me.

We exchanged another couple of stabs. My next thrust went for her heart, though I was only rewarded by a pained gasp as my dagger slid along her ribs. She aimed higher, going for my throat, but she must have misjudged for the dagger instead slid over my already scarred cheek.

I rammed my body into her, and although she began to stumble she still managed to bury her dagger in my tight. Unfortunately for her, she lost her grip of the weapon as she fell, and although I began to lose my balance as well, I was in a prime position to fall onto of her.

Somewhere along the fall I must have dropped my dagger, for I found myself without it. However, I had never been afraid of innovation, so while she was still gasping for breath I took her throat within my hands and began to squeeze.

Letting my withered hand touch the warlock’s skin may not have been my wisest decision.

Our souls opened up to each other. What I gazed upon was a twisted thing. Most ordinary souls were bleak mists, shifting between shadow and light, never truly gaining any substance but never fading fully. Her soul was a mockery of those things. It seemed almost a solid thing, yet it had been drawn of all that was good long ago, leaving a husk that spread out like some long limbed shade.

Her physical form attempted to throw me off, yet I held fast. I had no idea what she saw in me, yet her eyes bulged and I could see horror in them, though it was hard to tell if it was from my appearance or from the life that was escaping her.

There was a crushing sound as her throat began to give under my hands, yet even as she stopped her struggling I could see her soul reach out to me, putting its hand upon the twisted skin of my right arm.

It seemed to speak, though I could not do the horror of its language justice. I shan’t even try, but suffice to say it almost made me flinch away before the job was completed. It may have spared me some trouble if I had simply stepped away and let nature run its course with the woman’s already mangled windpipes, yet I must admit to some small joy in feeling the life escape an enemy.

Had that life not then escaped into me, it would have been much better. Just as her eyes glassed over, the shade that was her soul leapt up at me, and I felt something cold rush through me.

I got to my feet with a frown, looking down at the dead woman. As it so happened, the fire was behind me, so I also caught a glimpse of my shadow. It appear not unlike her soul had done.

“This did not turn out at expected.” Her voice sounded in my head.

I breathed out slowly as I bent down and ripped open the belt from her corpse, taking her pouch and her scabbard. Though her dagger had found itself in my leg, it had looked quite fine. As demonstrated, it also held a nice edge.

“You cannot rightly ignore me.” She sounded insulted.

Hobbling over to my donkey, I fetched water, bandages, a bone-needle and some thread. Returning to the fire, I began to lose my clothing before I began tending to my injuries

“There are spells for that, you know. I could teach them to you.”

I grunted, the only acknowledgement I would give her words. I healed easy to begin with, so tending to my injuries was not too much of a bother. I had to fetch my own dagger to burn the wound in my leg, but the scar would not bother me.

“Will you at least fetch my grimoire from the wagon? Unless you wish this state to be permanent, we may struggle getting out of this position without it.”

I took my time dressing again, since I had to sew shut the tear I had made in my trousers before I removed the dagger she had stuck in my leg.

While I had no desire to listen to the woman, I had less desire to have her stuck with me forever. Before I laid down to sleep, I fetched an old, dusty book from her wagon and strapped it within a pack my donkey carried. I also took the liberty to fill my pouch to the brim with her money.

Though her voice complained that I would not care for her body, and that I was going to leave her wagon and her valuables, her whining did not cost me any sleep.

Add Insult To Injury, Chapter 1: Let Byewicks Be Bye-Wicks

“Add Insult To Injury” is a series of short stories about a deeply troubled man. The goal of this particular set of stories is that each chapter will tell its own tale, and while they will all focus on the same main character the reader should be able to jump in and read whatever chapter they want. While some storylines will run through multiple stories they will be fully explained when they are relevant. Furthermore, I have the aim to tell the story from a viewpoint of a character that in no way could be described as a good person. But if you appreciate amoral characters like I do, I hope you can enjoy what comes next! You can read the prologue in the “Add Insult To Injury” to the left.

Let Bywicks Be Bye-Wicks

Since then, somewhere around twenty pulses had passed. A pulse happened approximately once every year, as the gaps in the earth began to rumble and glow bright red, just before they released a new cloud of blackness. As we could no longer see the sky, scholars had begun to measure years after these pulses.

I approached a village at the steady phase that my donkey would allow, my face hidden in the shadow of the wide brimmed cockel hat that I now bore after its previous owner had seized to require it. In all honesty, most of my clothing had come about that way, from the grey arming coat that I wore beneath my black cloak, to the mismatched yet comfortable leather boots on my feet. Somewhere along the road I had stopped to view what I did as grave robbing and now saw it as little other than the recycling of goods. That my trusted arbalest had brought about the end of some of those people was a detail I did not dwell on.

Normally I would have avoided the village which now spread out before me as my kind would undoubtedly receive a harsh welcome, yet circumstance had left me little choice. My supplies were low, and though I could go many days without food I preferred not to. Besides I needed new bolts, for I had only two remaining to my name. I would not reach Mortisgaart for at least another couple of months and I knew that the road would be hard enough even were I to travel it properly equipped. I had played with the idea of taking up banditry for a spell while I gathered the necessary goods, yet highwaymen were tribal in nature and even were they to welcome me into their midst chances were that I would have to kill them upon my departure. As my coin-purse was a commodity that I had yet to deplete, I figured that I would at least attempt the honest way first.

It was daytime, as evident by the red sheen that was the only light able to press through the dark clouds above, yet when I began my walk through the village I noted not a soul. The streets were empty and the doors stood as closed as the shutters on the windows. Had it not been for the relative cleanness of the city, I would have taken it for deserted, yet after the Rendering nature had been quick to reclaim what men abandoned and I saw none of the weeds and desolation so common to ruins.

A few more steps and a shift in the wind carried a wailing sound towards me, and I stopped in my tracks, as did the donkey who’s laziness would take any excuse given to it. I listened to the noise for some time. It sounded human, and female, yet I knew enough not to trust my ears in matters like these. Even if the noise truly came from a woman, I had no guarantee that venturing there would be safe.

I let her shriek to her hearts delight as I took my arbalest from my back and the crank from my belt, after which I set to work pulling the string. I would investigate, thought I would do so on my terms, as right now it gave me the best shot at figuring out just what was going on in the village. And I must admit to a certain curiosity, but more out of a morbid fascination with the unknown rather than any desire to rescue a theoretical damsel in distress.

I loaded the arbalest with a bolt and went in the direction of the noise. The donkey I left where it stood, as I knew that it would not wander off far. Maybe it would try to find something to eat, yet the animal had proven stupid enough not to do so before. Some may have said that it proved how loyal the beast was, yet if loyalty entailed standing around while you slowly wilt away into nothingness I did not put much faith in that attribute.

The village was larger than I had initially thought, and was probably more of a town upon further consideration. The wooden houses were all worn, and I noted more than a handful which had fallen into full out disrepair, which I thought hinted at an unexpected drop in the population. In times past, those houses would probably have been pulled down or used for some other purpose, yet after the Rendering many had stopped caring. We lived in a broken world, after all. What did a few broken homes matter?

The quality of the households steadily increased as I approached the centre of the town, and by the appearance of some I could guess their purpose. The smithy was obvious, what with the forge and all, yet curiously unmanned. I went there first and tried the door. Locked, of course. The wailing added background noise for my thoughts as I considered whether it was worth trying to force the door open or not, as there may have been bolts inside. Finally deciding that it was not worth the effort, I continued down the street. One house I guessed belonged to the baker, given the providence of what I assumed was a brick oven. Another must have been an inn due to its sheer size and the image of a pig’s head hanging before the door. I doubted that they had many customers.

Breaching the crest of a hill, I saw the source of the wailing in the middle of the town square. It was a woman, human and virgin, for now that her smell carried to me I could sense as much. Pretty as well, dressed in a thin white dress which left little for the imagination, with long, brown hair and probably equally beautiful eyes had they not been made red by crying. She was tied to a wooden pole, yet as I saw none there to witness her being such I could only assume that there could only be one reason for her to be displayed in such a manner. I made a grimace, making my already grim face grimmer still. A sacrifice. It reflected weakness upon those who called this place their home, and I had little but contempt for those that could not protect what belonged to them.

I approach her from a direction where she could see me, and she wasted little time in calling on me when she noted my presence.

“Please help me!” Had I not seen her before me, I would have taken her screams as that of a banshee. “Sir, I beg you, save me, it is coming!”

As she continued her whimpering and begging I leaned my head to the side and strained my ears. I could hear… something barging through the outskirts of the town, far enough away to not be an immediate threat, but closing rapidly.

I took a deep breath and spoke, an action which had grown so rare these days that I had to ponder upon how I would perform it for a heartbeat before I did.

“What is ‘it’?” My rasping voice almost stuck in my throat but I pressed on to ensure that it would carry to her. She flinched, for it was not a pleasant sound. A minstrel I had once travelled with had compared it to the sound a shovel makes as it dug a fresh grave. He had been a good companion.

“It comes! It comes! Please, sir, free me!” Hysteria had clearly gripped her.

“What comes?” I growled, and I did not move a muscle to help her.

She slumped in her shackles as she gave up hope of aid. The noise could not be more than a couple of neighbourhoods away.

“T… the… the bywick…” She was barely audible now as she had surrendered her thoughts to what she viewed as an unavoidable fate, yet I had caught the words and now knew what I had already suspected.

“Bywick.” I licked my lips as I tasted the word under my breath. An abbreviation of the term “By the Wicked”, the bywicks were all monstrous, cruel beings which embodied all the sinful qualities that their creators so adored. I liked to view them as cousins to the Corrupt, as we shared a common ancestry. Unlike the Corrupt, however, they had not been created by the Rendering, but rather they had been chosen from a collection of different specimens that had then been infused by the Wicked. We Corrupt may well have been a mistake, created by some freak accident as the world ended, but bywicks had been moulded solely to serve as an instrument of the Wicked upon this broken shell of a world.

I felt glad that it was a bywick. Had the threat been more common, like a band of bandits, they would not have known if I removed her, had I cared enough to do so. However, a bywick would sense her purity just as I could, and so she would be the perfect bait. So at least the townsfolk had done something right. Us children of the Wicked already struggled when it came to sensing each other, so as long as I kept the girl between myself and the bywick, I doubted that it could discover my presence. Granting me the element of surprise.

Smiling grimly, I let my predatory instincts kick in as I set to stalking my prey. Had it been anything but a bywick, I would not have bothered, for indeed I cared little for the town or their predicaments. Yet while all children of the Wicked that I had encountered upon my travels were unique, both bywicks and Corrupted, we all shared one single, dominating trait. We loathed each other. The feeling could be overcome, and I often attempted to do so when it came to other Corrupted, though the feeling that they were competition beat through me as if it was part of my blood. The bywick, however, held none of the sympathy which I extended to my brothers and sisters, and so one of us would have to die. Though I hated the Wicked with all of the rotten lump that I called a heart, sometimes it felt right to let it guide my hands.

After a few more moments of listening to the approaching noise, I positioned myself at the mouth of an alley, between two of the finer looking houses. It gave me a great view of the girl, as well as the great building of stone which stood over to her left, that I only just noted was a church. However, I had picked the alley since it stood opposite of the approaching noise, and it had a barrel which was just the right size so that I could rest my arbalest atop it and aim towards the area surrounding the woman.

It came. The beast must have been two stories high, and though it possessed the shape of a canine, it walked on its hind legs. Even at this distance I could see its yellow, sharp teeth and the black tendril that hung from its gaping maw in some disgusting mockery of a tongue. A great mane sprouted out around its shoulders, yet it seemed made of spikes more than hair. I contemplated escape for some moments, for this bywick was a great beast indeed. I had already half risen from my position when I saw just how mangy the thing looked. Patched of its fur seemed as if it had been burnt, and in places I saw red, irritated flesh where it wounds had not yet healed. And it walked with a limp. It was injured. I had a chance. I crouched down again.

The bywick approached the woman slowly, and when she saw it she began her wailing again. It did not care, just as I had not. I reckoned that it was too busy imagining all the vile things which it would do to her, as every bywick I had ever met would play with its food if given the chance. I breathed out slowly as I took my aim. The woman was in the way for my shot, yet I held my position, waiting for the right moment. The bywick had closed the distance and now looked down upon the woman. Or maybe it was sniffing her, for I saw no eyes in its great skull. It licked across her cheek with that horrible tongue, and I imagined that it tasted her tears. Black dots began to appear in front of my eyes, yet I continued to hold my breath and follow my target with the arbalest. Soon. It shifted its head left and right, and I noticed that the woman had begun to bleed where the bywick had licked her. She did not wail anymore, for she had frozen in fear. The bywick took a steep to the side as it leaned forward, so that its face would be before hers.

There!

Thwang, sang my arbalest, and the music which the string made sent a shiver down my spine.

Chunk, sang the bolt as it buried itself in the bywick’s limping left leg, and my pupils dilated.

The bywick roared as the leg gave out underneath it, and I could see the woman going as white as her dress. While it would have been good if the bywick had killed her in its rage, for it would have bought me some precious moments, she was fortunate in that the monster chose to focus on the bigger threat. That is to say, me. Even as it fell, the hound like being threw itself to the side, in the direction the bolt had come.

Cursing I dropped the arbalest behind the barrel. While I had not thought to incapacitate the beast with the shot, I had not expected it to crawl to my location at quite the speed that it currently was. Turning my back to it, I ran down the alley, only to hear a crash as it came in contact with the alley’s mouth. While it was too big to fit in the alley, its long tongue was not. It twisted around my ankle, and with an expulsion of air I hit the ground. My lungs burned as I gasped for breath, an agony mimicked by my leg as whatever coated that slick tongue began its work on my leg, drawing blood.

Snarling I twisted around so that I lay on my side, so that I better could reach to kick at its nasty grasp with my free leg. It was no use, and I could feel myself sliding across the ground as I got pulled closer and closer to the bywick’s gaping maw.

I brought down curses upon its foetid hide as I twisted around again, getting into a sitting position before I leaned forward to grasp the thing’s tongue with my withered hand.

Oh, how sweetly it howled when I touched its soul. It was an ability I did not often use, for the skeletal hand which the Wicked had gifted me opened my soul up to the one that I touched as surely as theirs stood open before me.

I had been ready. While it made me sick to my stomach, I let the bywick see the twisted thing which was my soul, so much a mirror of what I saw in the creature. We saw each other, vulnerable, gnarled and evil. Yet while I had been unfortunate enough to have had the experience before, the beast had not, and so in surprised panic at something so unexpected, it unwrapped itself from me and pulled its tongue back in desperation.

Having no desire to gaze further at the vicious thing, I let it go and rushed to my feet. While the leg the beast had grasped beat with agony it supported me with little issue, which meant that the wound must have been superficial at best. Good. Reaching inside my cloak with my withered hand I drew the blade which I had hidden there, a wicked looking thing somewhere between a knife and a sword with a barb at the end.

As the thing was still recovering from the shock of having our souls touch, I took my chance. With a howl befitting a wolf more than a man, I leapt at the bywick. It reacted with shock, used to be the aggressor rather than the defender. It tried to pull back as I delivered one, two and three stabs into its face. It growled in agony as it rose to its knees. I was ready as its arm came in, and a swooshing passed over my head as I ducked under it even as the force of it flung the hat from my head. I got another stab in under its arm before I had to pull further to the side and out of reach, for its tongue lashed out towards me. I felt no desire to be grabbed by that thing again.

Blood, more black than red, had begun pumping out from its wounds, yet it did not seem mortally wounded. As if to prove me right, the bywick lashed out at me again, forcing me even further back, with no other reward than a quick jab into its the arm. I bared my teeth in anger. I had to get in close again, for it did not have to get in more than a lucky hit on me whereas I had to strike something vital.

But then my sergeant had always said that victory never came to those that did not dare.

I flipped the dagger down and grabbed it with both hands, holding it in a high guard, just before the beast delivered another wide swing. Instead of jumping back as I had before, I took just a small step backwards. Had my reflexes been but a moment slower, its claws would have penetrated straight through my ribs. As it were, I just felt them pass by with a flinch as the sheer momentum of the blow almost made me trip backwards. Indeed I might have, had I not delivered a strike straight down into the thing’s arm as it rushed past, penetrating into its debased flesh.

My arms were almost pulled from their sockets as I were pulled along with the creature’s arm, and even as I slid across the ground I did my best to wedge my feet against the ground, pulling against the momentum of the bywick. Of course, it possessed more strength than I, but I had counted on that. I felt a wide grin spread across my face as a cascade of blood exploded from where my blade had buried itself in the monster’s arm. Given the sheer amount of the oil like nectar which was already pumping to the ground, my weapon had to have punctured an artery.

Of course, I paid for my brief satisfaction when the beast reversed the momentum of its blow, smacking its lower arm across my chest and sending me flying some handful of steps into the town square. I landed hard, but managed to break some of the impact by falling into a roll. Even so, I felt short of breath, and given the intense agony I felt where the beast had hit me it must have broken at least a couple of ribs. I thanked the awkward angle which it had struck me in for the fact that I were even alive.

The bywick in turn looked worse for wear, as the blow which had knocked me aside had also taken my dagger from the wound, letting its polluted blood run free. I had not been fortunate enough to keep hold of the dagger, however, for I saw that I had gone tip down into the ground some distance to my left. As I forced myself to my feet, gasping for breath, I watched the bywick grasp its arm in an attempt to stop the bleeding, all while it began to crawl my way.

Had this been a heroic tale of bravery, I would have rushed to my weapon and attempted to close the distance with the blighted thing yet again. Alas, this is not such a tale. With only one functioning leg and the need to covers its increasingly weak arm with its good one, the thing could only pull itself forward by pushing towards me with its remaining leg and lashing out with its tongue. So I backed away from it, keeping my distance, always so far away so that its disgusting tendril could not reach me.

With satisfaction I watched the beast rage as I denied it the final blaze of battle which would take its life. Helplessly it howled and growled as it tried to get me, to force me to fight it, yet I continued to lead it on its last chase. I could imagine how it felt. I had long accepted the fact that my death would likely be a violent one, though being left to bleed out, feeling that final breath closing in with no chance of survival? That was still terrifying. Which made it a fitting end for such a putrid thing.

As the thing drew a last, rasping breath and then slumped to the ground in a heap of dead flesh, I smiled a grim smile. The fate which had just befallen it may well be my own one day, yet it had not been so this day. Today I had come out on top. While I had never been a happy man, there was some comfort in living another day.

I watched it for some additional heartbeats, just to ensure that it would not draw another breath. Satisfied, I went to gather my things, plucking the dagger and the hat from the ground and returning both to their proper place before fetching my arbalest.

I turned around in time to see the church’s doors open and people spill out from its insides. Instinctively I tightened my grip around the arbalest. I did not play well with crowds. The noise followed, as it was wont to do. Voices, stating the obvious, shouting, interrupting, disturbing.

“He killed the bywick!”

“She is alive!”

“He saved her!”

The last one was technically not true, or rather, it had not been intended, but I saw no reason to dissuade them. While I received some odd looks, especially once they glimpsed my arm and eyes, they seemed too overwhelmed by gratitude to care. One man in particular seemed to be singing my praise, and given how he held the now freed woman I could only presume him to be her father or betrothed.

People were asking me questions, and I narrowed my eyes. Their excitement annoyed me, and even had I been inclined to speak I would not have been able to get a word in.

They began to shush as another man approached and began telling them off. Given the dark officer like clothing that he bore, I assumed him to be in some kind of leadership function, either a man of the law or, potentially, the mayor himself.

Having forced a relative calm upon the populous, he turned to me.

“You have our thanks for defeating the bywick, good sir.” Even though he spoke kind words, he would not meet my black gaze, nor could he refrain from glancing upon my withered arm. “Is there any way that we could repay you? Lodging mayhap? We do not have much in the ways of wealth, but I am sure we could dig something up. And we will look after your wounds, of course!”

I watched him unblinkingly for long enough so that the people around us began to shuffle, clearly impatient. It made him nervous. Just before he was about to speak again, I spoke, my voice almost guttural compared to his.

“A quiver of bolts and a bag of supplies for the road.”

He seemed taken aback by my words, and I saw him struggle to comprehend what I meant.

“You… You are not staying?” he asked.

“No.”

The emotions played rapidly across his face. Confusion followed by consideration followed by relief. I suspected that he had no wish to host a free-loader in town, no matter what kind of supposed heroics said individual may have committed, and I did not ask for much. But then, I had no desire to dwell amidst such weak minded rabble that a single bywick could intimidate them so. They would have bandits or monsters preying on them soon enough, and while I hated my Wicked fellows, I saw no reason to interject myself between them and their food for any other reason than chance.

“Of course, of course!” The mayor, for I think he must have been, said, forcing a smile to his lips. “Vistadt, get to the store house and fill a sack with our best rations! Faleen, you have the key to the armoury, is it not so? Good man, a quiver filled with bolts, then. It is the least we can do for the good sir!”

The voices crept upon me again as I awaited my gifts. Why would you not stay? Any rum you want will be on me! How did you do it? It all flowed into a single, incoherent string of nonsense, all of which I ignored. Then, suddenly, a woman interjected herself between myself and the mayor.

I knew the type instantly. Her hair was black, her eyes clear blue, yet they possessed something hard. Her dress was cut just on the wrong side of proper, displaying enough to encourage yet little enough as to not distract. Unlike the mayor, the temptress met my gaze.

“Are you sure that you could not stay for a spell?” She smiled at me, as if she thought that a woman had never smiled at me before. “Surely you would not mind a moment respite. I saw how the creature hit you from one of the windows. I could take care of that for you.”

She put a hand on my chest. I considered breaking her wrist for a moment, before I restrained myself to simply brushing her hand away. She did not annoy me enough so that I would squander the opportunity to resupply.

Before she could try my patience further she were pulled to the side, yet not before glaring daggers at me. I ignored her, and forgot about her soon after she left my peripheral vision. There had been a time when I would have fought for the attention of women, yet I had long since discovered that my taste for such things had waned to little more than a faint curiosity.

Soon enough, the objects which now belonged to me were delivered, and I wasted no time fastening the full quiver to my belt. Meanwhile, the people had begun to lose interest in me, instead focusing on the shocked girl in an attempt to make her retell what had been the worst experience in her life. Once again, curiosity surpassed sympathy as the most dominant human trait.

As I plucked the sack of rations from the ground, which was of a satisfactory weight, the mayor cleared his throat.

“I wish you well on your travels, sir.” He tried to smile at me, yet it soon faltered as I stared at him, my face unmoving. “I… uh… well… We thank you.”

I looked for him some more moments before I turned and began to walk back the way I had come. He sputtered some attempt at farewell behind me, though I did not listen. No one followed me, for they were occupied with whatever it was that they did.

As I approached the location where I had left the donkey, I heard it braying from around a corner. Which meant that it was distressed, for otherwise it would not waste the energy. Letting go of the sack, I cranked my arbalest and fit it with a bolt. The donkey continued to complain, so I assumed that the danger was not mortal, yet I preferred to err on the side of caution.

Holding the arbalest out I walked around the corner. There, I discovered the donkey, as well as a young boy. He looked no older than a dozen pulses. And his hands were digging through my bags, which of course the lazy animal did not even attempt to stop in any other way than to be vocal about its displeasure. I frowned.

“Boy.” I growled.

He snapped up from the bags as he saw me and took a step away.

“I-I am sorry, I-” he began, stuttering.

Thwang.

The boy was thrown to the ground as the bolt made a hole in his chest where his heart had been. I walked up to him and, bending forward, plucked a poach from the ground, which he had dropped upon his demise. I heard the coins cling against each other inside. I looked down at the dead lad.

“This is mine.” I put it back in the bag he had taken it from, before I took the donkey’s leash and began to walk away. I stopped only long enough to return my arbalest to its holster and pluck my supplies from the ground, before I followed the road out of the small town, towards Mortisgaart.

Add Insult To Injury: Prologue

“Add Insult To Injury” is a series of short stories about a deeply troubled man. The goal of this particular set of stories is that each chapter will tell its own tale, and while they will all focus on the same main character the reader should be able to jump in and read whatever chapter they want. While some storylines will run through multiple stories they will be fully explained when they are relevant. Furthermore, I have the aim to tell the story from a viewpoint of a character that in no way could be described as a good person. But if you appreciate amoral characters like I do, I hope you can enjoy what comes next!

Prologue

I can always see it in people’s eyes. Somewhere behind all that loathing and fear, there is always that spark of curiosity that continues to burn no matter the odds. The need to ask where and how and why. Sometimes I believe it is what makes us human. As I am one of the Corrupt, I have knowledge written across my ruined face. So very little is known about us, since most of us are dead now, but there is one thing which is guaranteed.

Only the Corrupt saw the End of the World first hand. We witnessed the Rendering as the earth split open and the Wicked spilled forth from the cracks like some storm of pure foulness. It sounds so simple, put like that. Like a game of pronouns made in an attempt to explain something so far beyond our comprehension.

And it was simple.

I have disappointed many with those words, yet lying has always been a vice that I perform poorly. So these days I often let the story remain untold. Less people kick up a fuss when a Corrupt simply refuses to speak with them, as they expect nothing but the worst from us, rather than when we tell them the truth. An acquaintance of mine was accused of lying once when he told just this story. They hanged him. It took him the best part of a month to die. I may have been able to save him, yet we were not good acquaintances.

So how did it all begin?

It was a normal day. The sky was neither clear nor particularly cloudy. I think it rained the night before. I know that the preachers claim that the End follow after days of storm and that people had grown increasingly mean and vile, yet I remember no such thing.

I herded old Savic’s sheep, which was something he would often hire me to do for I came cheaply as no one had a need for an arbalist now that the war was over and done with. Besides, I had always gotten along well with sheep, and Savic would often invite me in to share a bottle of rum after my shift was done. We would trade war stories long into the nights.

As I recall it, things were all out boring that day. The grass was plentiful and no sheep felt the need to wander off. My employer’s hounds, Ville and Ve, rested in the shadow of a great tree as their services were not required and I neglected to join them only because I had found a lamb too energetic for its mother, so I did the old woman a service and played with it.

What can I say? I am not the man anymore.

Anyway, as I were saying, I do not recall anything ominous that day. Everything was fine one moment, and then there was a pulse. On my more poetic days, I like to describe it as the lack of a pulse. Like if it had been the final beat of the world’s heart. But it passed over us as a pulse, and all things seized to move for a moment.

And then nothing was normal anymore.

The ground split open to display a glowing red chasm, deeper than the eye could see, and it swallowed half the herd as well as Savic’s hounds. There was a rumbling and then an explosion.

Those explosions, I learnt after the fact, happened at every such chasm, which as far as I know all sprang into being the same time. They killed almost everyone within an area of some hundred steps except some few, unfortunate souls like myself, who would then go on to become the Corrupt.

Did I see the black clouds pour forth from the cracks and into the sky? Did I witness the Wicked spew up across the land and twist and bend everything it touched? No. I had been rendered blissfully unaware at the climax of the eruption, and I am glad that I was, least I would most assuredly had gone mad. Assuming of course that I am not mad now.

I am not sure how long I lay there, splayed out across the brown, dead grass, yet I know that I awoke to the deepest agony that I had ever felt. I could not see for my eyes had been plucked from their sockets by the explosion, as had most of the skin on the right side of my face, giving me the horrid grimace which I bear today. My right arm and hand had withered into a state more resembling that of a skeleton than a man, yet I felt no loss of strength in the limb. Indeed, my sight soon returned to me, and I would later learn of the yellow, reptilian eyes I had gained, resting upon pools of blacks where my eyes should had been.

While I did not know by what I would be called until later, I suppose it is an apt name, for Corrupt is what I felt. Impure and foul thoughts played across my mind as I viewed the dead animals surrounding me. I think that the worst feeling was that I knew that I would have cared once, yet now my heart did not feel anything but empty, which my stomach also echoed.

I ate the lamb raw before I set out into this dead world, knowing that all had been changed, and all had become worse.