Medievia Mudslinger

September 11, 2003

The Last Time by Zelgaddis



If you asked me then, I probably could have told you how long we were waiting there, but now, everything before just seems like a flash. A brief instant of time. Gone. Wasted. If you asked me then, I probably could have even told you why we were waiting there. I might have even believed the story myself. All I can tell you is what I do remember.

But reasons aside, we were there. Hidden in the darkness behind a locked door in the keep of the Fire Giants. And we knew what we were about to do was right.

*****

"You know what you're doing, right?" Gulacon telepathed me. "You're not going to get us killed, right?"

I stood there, still. My gods, I didn't move a muscle. I doubt I even breathed. Sure, I was a thief, a rogue, a bandit, whatever your preferred term may be; but I had never hidden this well before. Even when my entire body threatened to quake with the abject terror of staring death, poverty, and humiliation in the face, I didn't move.

And I didn't respond.

Because I didn't know what I was doing.

The plan was simple enough. Some poor sod comes through here, looking to train himself against some of Medievia's fiercer beasts. We kill him, and we take all that we can before his body returns to the earth. Two simple steps. The two most complicated, simple steps we would ever face.

Don't let anyone fool you, it's not easy to remain perfectly still when your heart is beating out of your chest. When the bottoms of your feet tingle with anticipation, and your stomach threatens to give a round-trip ticket to the waybread and fish you'd just eaten, it's near impossible.

"I said-"

"Yes, Gulacon, I heard you! Now shut up, you're wrecking my concen-"

CLICK.

I jumped. Fortunately, I didn't fall right onto the floor. I looked at the door. It wasn't opening. Whoever was on the other side probably got to thinking that maybe, just maybe he shouldn't go in. Maybe he was scared. Maybe he should have been. Maybe he'd never been about to die before.

I looked at Gulacon, too. And he looked back at me. I know he wanted to say something, just then. The look in his eyes told me that whatever it was he was about to say was, at the time, the most important thing in his whole life.

The door started to open. Slowly, at first. He was testing it. Trying to peep through and check to see if it was safe. He must have stood there for a minute, just staring me right in the eyes. Gods, he was so close. I could have reached out and stabbed him right through the eye socket with my Devastator.

In retrospect, maybe I should have. One quick thrust and he would have been too shocked to move. A quick twist to scramble his brains, and he would have dropped like a rock.

No. That's what I would have done, back then. A million years ago, I would have done that. Now, all I feel is pity. My only regret is not that I wasn't efficient enough, but that I couldn't see then, what I do now.

Satisfied, he kicked the door open and stealthily crept through the door. In an instant, we were on him.

*****

I'd never seen a person bleed so much. It was everywhere. All over my armor, my hands, my mouth and face. Gulacon, too. Blood never smelled, never tasted as sweet as it did right then. I was thirsty.

Gulacon and I looked at each other. We didn't even know what to do. We were both surprised at how easy it was. Just then, I felt a presence. Someone else was there. I don't remember now if he was in the same clan, or just another person intent on honing his skills, or if he perhaps wanted to try his luck against us. All I felt was freedom. No more fear of death. We had power over it.

I was lost in the moment when suddenly Gulacon shoved me a bit. I drew my Devastator and waved it in his eye, before finally realizing who it was.

"Hey!" Gulacon slapped my hand away and suddenly dropped his voice to a whisper, leaning into me, "Hey! Get what you can carry and let's get out of here!"

"Why?"

"Someone's coming! Here, take this!" He handed me a portable hole with one free hand as he crouched down and pulled a brimstone ring free from a lifeless hand. "What're you doing?"

It wasn't about the profit. Anyone can loot a corpse. Few can make one.

*****

We'd become feared. Hated. It almost seems ridiculous now, because no one ever knew who exactly it was that they hated. We were hated for all the wrong reasons, if you want to know the truth. We were hated not because we took their lives, but because we took their things. It wasn't anything personal. Just two young men, fascinated with the art of death.

I know I shouldn't feel that way. It was wrong, one way or another. Yet, it's so hard not to justify going and taking some more. Because I can. Because I want to. Because it makes me feel alive, when someone else is dead. One simple prayer and blood will spill again.

It's been so long now, I can't tell you how long the blood did spill. Years. I know that much. It was hard to even justifying the taking anymore.

*****

We sat in Gulacon's home, admiring our latest take. The furnishings were as nice as money could buy. Possibly nicer. Nicer, because it wasn't his money.

There was a long silence before either of us said anything. "Did you see the look on that guy's face when we hit him?"

I pondered. I actually sat and thought about the answer before finally giving one. "No, I guess I didn't."

Gulacon laughed. Not in a mean or evil way. The way you'd laugh if someone had just told a joke. "It was kind of like this."

He got up and bugged his eyes out, giving a farcical, terrified expression. After holding it for a few seconds, he looked at me, saw I wasn't smiling, and laughed. "Are you okay? I mean, no kidding, that's how he looked!"

"I wouldn't know."

"Come on, I wasn't trying to be mean or anything. I just thought it was funny."

"Fine."

He admired the way a fire-diamond ring glistened in the light. "You don't have to be such a jerk about it."

"I'm not," I said as I finished wiping the blood from my Neumenaga Blade. The steel had actually developed a crimson tint to it, to which I obsessively attended. "I'm just thinking." In the several hours of cleaning which followed our most recent kill, the stain wouldn't come clean.

The blade, though, was sharp as ever.

Gulacon sighed. "Let's hear it."

"You don't really want to."

"Come on, I'm your friend. Let's hear it."

I diverted my attention away from the blade. "It's just that..." I paused, wondering how he would take what I was about to say, "I don't remember ever seeing the faces of the people we've hit. I couldn't even tell you if our last hit was a man or a woman."

"It was a man."

"Fine," I said, placing my stained blade on the table next to me. "But don't you ever think that all the people we kill are more than just life and death?"

"At one time." Gulacon gouged his hand into his portable hole, feeling around for something else. Unsatisfied, he turned the hole upside-down and shook it. A gem of souls fell unceremoniously into his lap. He remained silent in a way that implied he would go on any second now, if you just let him finish what he was doing. He didn't.

"And?" I scooted forward in my chair.

Gulacon sighed. He thought he was out of this discussion. He dropped the gem of souls and uttered a quick prayer. Then he spoke as gem vanished into the earth, "And, I really don't pity them. It is their choice to go to a place, another world entirely, where the rules and jurisdiction of Medievia don't reach. It's not like we do anything to make the gods angry. We make our corpses in accordance with all their rules.

"It's simply a matter of taking responsibility," Gulacon said. "Risk and consequences."

"And we have to be there to enforce those consequences?"

"Would you really say, after all this time, that being an enforcer is anything but your nature? You love it! You live for it! You think I haven't seen the look in your eye when you bring that damn blade of yours down just below the second vertebrae? I see it, you sick bastard! You like it even more than I do. It's what makes you human."

"But..." Gulacon said something that hit me, "after all I've done, am I human?"

Gulacon's motion was a blur, as suddenly something hit grazed my neck, sending a warm feeling running down to my shoulder and chest. "Wha-"

"You're bleeding, aren't you?" Gulacon stood up. "It hurt, didn't it? And now you're mad at me, aren't you?"

"Yes I'm mad at you!"

"Last I checked, that's something only people did. Now get yourself cleaned up. I wanna go hit someone else."

*****

And that was all the convincing it took. Sure, I was human. I think that even now. I constructed my own meaning, my own humanity by indulging in the deaths of others, yes, but no one's perfect. I allowed myself this sin, because it let me live the life I wanted to. Everyone else was a loser, is a loser, because look at you all! You're pathetic! You make me sick! You play by society's rules because it's comfortable. It gets you through the day. It lets you wake up and force that fake smile on your face, day after day after day.

I've been dead longer than any of you have been alive. Sunrise, sunset, sunrise, sunset... minutes into hours, hours give way to days, and for you, I sit. I contain the beast of my humanity. I let go of my life, that I wanted... that I want, so you, everyone could live yours. And you don't. Not one of you gets your hands dirty the way I did.

I'm not telling you to kill each other. I could not possibly care less if you make a life of crime, of murder, of potion collecting. Not one iota less. What really burns me is that none of you even tries to find meaning, create meaning. So enjoy your perfect little meaningless lives. I'm glad I took them away when I had the chance.

...I'm sorry. Sometimes I get a little cagy in this prison I've fashioned for myself. But, please, find some meaning other than what's been fed to you since your infancy. There is more, so much more, than to be the greatest killer, the bravest adventurer, the richest, or the wisest. No one cares any more how magically adept you are, as long as they're better. If they're not, they hate you. You need to realize, you're more than just warriors, than just killers, than your bank account.

*****

There we stood, years after our first kill, behind that same locked door. Sure, we could have killed anywhere that day, but this was our favorite place. The nervous feeling in my stomach died long ago. Years ago. At this point, there was hardly any effort in hiding anymore. Our plan was perfect. If there was more than we'd bargained for, we had a dozen menthol potions of teleportation readily accessible. A vial up each sleeve, in our pants pockets, tied loosely to each ankle, on the inside of our cloaks. A scroll of teleportation, in case things got so bad that one of us needed to save the other, was also nearby.

We knew this keep by heart, now. It was a second home, one we didn't have to pay for with our victims' money. Their blood and anguished cries would suffice.

I only felt one presence. Our next victim. Certainly, it was not to be expected that he was the only one. Many had tried to capture us, kill us. Many sacrificed their lives simply to find out who we were. Who had been causing all this bloodshed. Who had their things. None ever succeeded.

The click of key against door almost came like clockwork, and the door slowly creaked open. Suddenly, I realized I was salivating. A realization that nearly distracted me from my objective. I say nearly.

The man who swiftly and silently bolted through the door was a practitioner of the magical arts. A powerful one. I could derive that much from the quality of his equipment. His speed, though, led me to believe he had once trained himself in the way of the dagger.

I snapped outward from the darkness, silent as the shadow from which I came. My first strike flashed brilliant emerald as his magical aura deflected the attack. It would not stop me. I made a second slash at his back, shattering the translucent barrier into pieces. The crackling shards fell at his feet, fading before they hit the ground. The third slash hit the sweet spot. Just between the vertebrae. The blade slid in effortlessly and his body was all give. The crack of bone as I twisted the blade sent my darker half... no... me into an ecstasy. Gulacon slid out from the darkness, slide tackling the poor mage to the ground, forcing my blade out of his back the hard way.

We plunged our daggers deep into him for several seconds, penetrating the back of his neck, his shoulders... anywhere we could. It was right after I slid my stained blade in just under his floating rib that he came alive again, recovering from the shock. The mage rolled onto his back long enough to thrice fire scorching blue shockwaves that struck Gulacon in the chest and abdomen and get to his hands and knees to tear out of there. Long enough for me to see his face.

It was mutilated and bloody, with several scratch marks from our blades glancing off his skull and sliding across it. His nose was broken and gushing crimson life, and he had a nasty gash on his forehead, likely caused by the fall. He had lost some of one ear, and several teeth were chipped. I'd never seen a person in worse shape in my life. A living one, anyway. I'd never thought human hands could cause such destruction. Never mind the rest of him. Then his eyes, bloodstained, met mine.

What had I done?

"Kill him!" Gulacon shouted. "Don't let him get away!"

I cupped my hands and prepared a shockwave. I felt the mana course into my palms. I couldn't do it.

"Damn it!" Gulacon rushed the poor mage, who stammered out the last of a teleportation spell.

He didn't stammer fast enough.

Gulacon's Rutul made its brutal way across the mage's throat, spraying blood across Gulacon's face and the walls of the keep. I stared blankly at that beautiful blood ornamenting the wall, as it slowly meandered its way down to the floor. Gulacon pivoted on one foot, cupping his hands, and let fly with a shockwave of his own. I don't know if Gulacon knew that the mage was already dead.

The shockwave caused the mage's right shoulder to explode, freeing the arm from the pained torso. The force spun the mage like a top, dropping him onto his back. Blood tickled my neck and chin as it rolled down off my face, none of it mine, but I couldn't be bothered with wiping it away.

"What are you doing?" Gulacon shouted at me as he made his way toward me. "He nearly got away!"

"He didn't, did he?" I pushed my way past Gulacon and made my way to the mage's corpse. I felt more alive than ever, now. This was death's true face. I was looking right at it, and I knew it was looking back at me. It was watching me. The soul of this man could see me staring right at its husk. I didn't care about it seeing me. I knew that when this man finally made his way to an altar, he would forget everything his soul had experienced without him.

Gulacon stood behind me. It was then that I realized I was crouched only inches away from the corpse, staring at it, entranced with the beauty of this latest masterpiece. As exciting as this experience was, I was ashamed. "Don't tell me you've gone soft, killer."

I removed the corpse's thorny crown, held it tightly in my fist. Felt the sensation of pain, hoping to somehow taste the way this man must have felt right before the end. I let the blood trickle down onto the corpse.

"Beautiful ceremony," Gulacon mumbled, "but you'd better hurry it up. There's more on the way." With that, he kicked the door shut and pried the fire-diamond ring and diamond bracelet from the severed arm.

I stood there as the corpse melted into nothingness. Gulacon slapped me in the back of the head. "Wake up! It's time to go!" He made a move for a menthol potion, tucked away in his pants pocket, brought it to his lips. I simply stared at where the corpse once was; toeing the floor where it had been absorbed.

The door flew open and in poured a seemingly endless flow of people. Angry. Intent on revenge. Gulacon whipped out a scroll of teleportation and chanted the runes. I vanished, now in the wilderness. Nowhere close to home. Where was home, I wondered. Where do I belong? I can't go back to that place, that slaughterhouse.

And Gulacon was butchered.

*****

I hear they painted the walls with his blood. I hear they quartered him and then quartered him again. I hear they literally danced on his corpse long after it had faded away. I hear they sold his head for nearly a quarter of a billion gold coins. I believe it.

*****

We sat, staring at each other in his house for hours. Neither of us knew quite what to say to the other. Gulacon had a better guess, though. "What went wrong?"

I didn't respond.

"What went wrong?"

Again, I sat silent.

Gulacon got up and approached me, stood over me, reeled his fist back to hit me. And dropped it at his side. "We're a team! We're supposed to be looking after each other! You're more than just my partner! You're my friend! I saved your life, remember?"

"When did I ask you to do that?"

"Oh, get over yourself! Nobody wants to die. No man honestly feels he deserve to die! Look at me! I've been a party to hundreds of deaths in places all over this land, and I don't feel I deserved it!"

"You did deserve it, though."

"Look at you! Passing judgment as if you're better than me. You think doing some hokey ritual over your hit makes you honorable? Please. You're a liar if you didn't say you enjoyed this kill as much as any other time."

"More."

"See?" Gulacon rested against my chair and slapped me on the back, "there's nothing wrong with getting a kick out of something you're good at."

"But what we did was wrong."

"Right, wrong. There really isn't that much of a difference when you get down to it. You could say that mage was wrong to walk through that Keep knowing it's our home, and he deserved to die just as much as I did."

"The people who killed you don't make a life out of it."

"If they could, they would. Look, I'm not mad at you for today. I'm confused, but don't ever think I'm mad. Not at you, not at my best friend."

I looked up at him. He was lying. I knew it then.

"Seriously!" He said with a smile. "If you didn't feel guilty, then I'd worry about you. It's healthy."

I faked a smile.

He went to one of the many portable holes hanging on his wall and pulled out a set of equipment identical to the one he had just had taken from him. "Besides, we'll go and get all that stuff back and more tomorrow!"

I dropped the phony smile. "Tomorrow?"

"Yeah, sure. We can even go today, if you'd like. I've been scoping Latyrnna out, and I think there's a pretty nice place we can set up and wait."

"But..."

"Come on!"

"... I don't really want to do this anymore."

Never in a million years, did Gulacon expect to hear this. Not from me. Not from the one who got him into the game. Not from his best friend.

"What? Why not? Give me one good reason! Because they got one of us today?"

"Because it's wrong!"

Gulacon reached down and grabbed me by the collar, hauling me up. His voice grew low and anger saturated each word. "Listen to me, loser! I saved you today. Remember that. You owe me. What do you think you're doing? Protecting the 'Great Medievian Society?' Theirs is a society that embraces 'things.' They love their possessions as their own families, but are too weak to protect them." He shook me once, to make sure he had my undivided attention. "They're weak and we're strong. Got that? They need us. We thin the herd. We relocate the resources from where they're wanted to where they're needed. Okay? We're killers. I don't try to glamorize it. I like who I am. I'm proud of it! I'm not only a killer; I'm the best one Medievia's got. My life is other's death. And I don't try to change who I am, because *my* actions don't fit into their paradigm of what constitutes right and wrong. Much as they hate to admit it, they need me. And they need you, too. Did you see what happened in Medievia today, when they got me? It was a sensation! We've been raised to the level of gods! We are gods! We hold the power of life and death, plenty and poverty in our hands! Don't you see that?"

Fine, enough listening. It was my turn now, and I pushed him away. He fell into his chair as I approached. "Just because we have the power doesn't mean we should use it without responsibility. Yes, we are better than all those people out there. Do you really like it, or do you like it because we are what everyone else has been conditioned to believe that's what they should be? We've go more blood on our hands than we can ever hope to wash off. We've got more fire-diamond rings than we have fingers to wear them on! Want a Neumanaga Blade? Take your pick! A portable hole? I have three dozen! Redistributing from want to need... you do glamorize it. You say you're a killer, fine, but you're a killer who isn't satisfied until everyone, everywhere is dead!"

"So are you! At least I do what I want. I have more money than I could ever hope to spend in a lifetime. I'm this rich because I wanted it. I was sick of being like everyone else, so I raised myself up. Anyone could do it if they wanted to. If they loved it enough. If they had the passion. If they were good at it! Look at you! You're just like them! You love the killing. Why deny what makes you human? You're exactly like everyone else out there! They've all lost sight of what it means to live!"

"To kill?"

"To be happy!"

Silence.

"Look. I promise you, this is just a phase. Come with me. Come back home. I'll even give you, what, a week-"

"Two weeks."

"A week to think it over. You owe me, anyway. I did save your life today, worthless as you want to make yourself believe it is."

"Fine, but if I don't like it, I'm done. No more-"

"Fine."

"-for either of us."

I saw that hateful glare. "Fine."

*****

"So you'll help me?" I confirmed with this mercenary, a grim look now etched into my visage.

"Of course. You said it yourself. He's a demon. He's your creation, and you have to stop him."

I looked at this man, Chevtul, and could hardly believe that he, that anyone could actually see things my way. The way things actually were. "And you don't find it the least bit ironic, or hypocritical, that I solve this problem by spilling his blood?"

I saw he was beginning to get fed up. I doubted myself, my rightness of action, more than I doubted this man's faith or abilities. "Look, I'm not here to play counselor. You say kill him, I say sure, name your price. If you have a problem with the way I do business, by all means, go find someone else. I do my job well, I get paid, and I hopefully never see you again. So sorry, I don't really have time, or even care about your quarrel. It's hypocritical, sure, but who isn't? All revenge is. And isn't that really what this is all about?"

He turned and walked away, stopping when he got to the door of my house. "So the hit's tomorrow, huh? Fire Giant's Keep? What time?"

I stood there, dumbfounded. "Pardon?"

"What time?"

"Oh. Sundown I guess."

"Okay. See ya then, killer."

*****

Revenge? Was it that simple? Would one simple hit really stop all of this? It had to. I'm his best friend. At least, I was. Sure, he'd hate me for it. He'd never forgive me. But was my problem ethical, or did I just want to get him back, to hurt him for hating me?

The answer I know now is different from the answer I knew then.

*****

You know what you're doing, right?" Gulacon telepathed me, "You're not going to get us killed, right?"

I stood there, still. My gods, I didn't move a muscle. I doubt I even breathed. Sure, I was a thief, a rogue, a bandit, whatever your preferred term may be. But I had never hidden this well before. Even when my entire body threatened to quake with the abject terror of staring death, poverty, and humiliation in the face, I didn't move.

And I didn't respond.

Because I didn't know what I was doing.

The plan was simple enough. Chevtul would come through the door, and as Gulacon made a lunge for him, I'd slip my Neumanaga Blade into his back. Chevtul would slit his throat. From the looks of things, Chevtul was sick enough to decapitate him on the spot.

In practice, few things are as simple as they seem.

In practice, few things are as they seem.

CLICK.

That was it. It was Chevtul, right on time. Gulacon watched the door intently, adjusting his grip to perfectly hold the hilt of his Rutul. It was instinct for him at this point. The door swung open and in stormed Chevtul. Gulacon slipped out of the shadows and raised his blade high in the air. I could feel the wind part under the ferocity of the blow to come. And then, all I could feel was an unbearable burning deep in my abdomen. Chevtul used my split-second of distraction to pivot around and face me. He lunged and buried his fiery dagger deep inside me. Fire burst forth from my stomach as he twisted and removed the blade. Not one drop trickled from the cauterized wound, and in spite of the burning, my veins ran cold. Chevtul flicked another dagger of fire loose from his belt and came at me, knocking my Neumenaga Blade free from my shaking grasp.

I staggered backward, trying to run. I would run. I would run far and fast and no one would ever see me again. I didn't want to live in a world where loyalties were bought by the highest bidder. Where rightness of action was relative to who had the most power. But I couldn't run. Because the door slammed, shut behind me.

Gulacon slammed the hilt of his Rutul against my trachea, dropping me limply into his half-nelson. He ran the blade across my throat, and the blood began to spill. It was everywhere. My jugular severed, my vision rapidly blackened. I tried to slip a menthol teleportation potion out of my sleeve. The vial bounced in and out of my rubbery grasp, crashing loudly on the floor. "This is something I'd wanted to do since the first time," Gulacon hissed into my ear. "I've always wondered if I was better. If I was smarter. If I was more powerful. Now you see-" Gulacon let me go, dropping me nonchalantly to the floor. My knees dropped, and I slowly pitched forward. Then, everything went dark as Gulacon bounced a roundhouse kick off my bloody temple.

I was powerless. Just another corpse in Medievia.

*****

My soul hovered there over my corpse. I watched in unending sorrow as my best friend began to steal from me. He pocketed my stained Neumenaga Blade, removed both of my rings of brimstone. I watched as a dagger of fire penetrated his spinal column three times. Watched as he fell lifeless next to me. And I mourned.

"The two coldest, most brutal killers in Medievia, huh?" Chevtul scoffed, taking my weapon, and then Gulacon's, and stuffing them into a bag. "What a joke."

With a quick incantation, Chevtul was gone. In all the years that have passed since that day, I haven't seen him once.

The next day, four men fell victim to Gulacon's cruel blade.

*****

So here I sit at this altar. This is where I belong. This is my home. A place where I may remain perpetually between life and death.

My name isn't important. Names are for the living. I have not yet earned the right to have my name back.

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