“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.
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.
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.
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.