The heavy fisted thug drew back his plasteel-plated knuckles and sent them throttling into the poor man’s mouth another time. The gloves were already wet and dripping with blood. The guy in the stained and torn brown business suit looked much worse. He fell to the street, panting as he bled in gobs from his broken nose, busted lip, and a mouth savaged and full of fractured and missing teeth.
Despite his condition, the man firmly held a briefcase.
“C’mon, sket-face,” the hulking thug said. “We both know I can take this case any time I want. So tell me the code to open it and save your sorry little life.”
“You can’t have it,” the brown suited punching bag gasped. “You can’t have it.”
The thug cocked his arm to deliver another punch when his partner called to him from his place of lookout down the alley. “Hey, Vhim! I think I heard someone coming. I’ll be right back.”
“No problem,” Vhim said, watching the skeletal man in the filthy white and brown track suit jog down the passage leading out to the street. Then he turned back to his victim, still holding the man by the collar of his dirt-encrusted white shirt. “Now where were we? Gimme the access code.”
“No,” the brown suited man said. He raised his chin proudly. He was helpless, but no coward.
A low, guttural growl sounded behind them from where the thug’s partner had left to investigate. The thug slowly turned to see a mahogany dog with a black face and a giant white stripe, like a bib, running down its chest. Finger bone–length fangs poked through parted lips as the growl turned to a snarl, a warning that the creature wasn’t to be messed with.
Vhim missed the warning. “Oh look, another thing that thinks it can live in my city without my permission. Just like you.” He flicked the man’s pain-racked nose for effect.
“Not your city,” came a new voice from somewhere behind the thug.
Vhim looked around in confusion. There was no alley there. Just a wall.
“What is this? A joke? Do you know who I am?” the thug barked. “You’re really startin’ to piss me off. Come out if you want some of the same.”
He kicked the businessman in the ribs, sending him gasping for air on his sides.
A blaster bolt was the only reply Vhim heard, and then only in the fraction of a second his brain had left to process anything before the bolt burned its way through his face.
Tyrus Rechs lowered himself from the second floor balcony he’d quietly climbed down after sending Baldur to lure apart the team of muggers for easier dealing. He walked to the brown-suited man, who had bled all over himself and was also now splashed with his attacker’s gore.
“What’s in the case?” Rechs asked.
The guy quivered in fear and moaned, but kept his resolve. He’d gone from one criminal to another, and all either of them cared about was the contents of his case. No matter. The man’s resolve was unchanged. “You can’t have it.”
“I didn’t ask for it. What’s inside?”
The man paused to inspect Rechs through blood-smeared eyes. The dog, which should have been poised to attack, instead sat happily, its tale wagging. It seemed to radiate comfort. The businessman hadn’t felt this at peace since… well, since a long time.
“You don’t want it? You won’t take it? You’re sure?”
Rechs gave one shake of his head. “Just wanna see this kelhorn died for.”
The businessman gave a quick nod and punched in the security code with trembling fingers. He popped open the case and then turned it to face Tyrus Rechs.
Inside was a simple solid-state holo image of the man in better times, his suit cream instead of brown. Beside him was a woman holding a newborn child. The image overlooked a beach with a repulsor yacht off in the distance, its proud nose signaling the rest of the ship waited for them just out of frame.
Rechs squatted down in front of the man, causing him to flinch involuntarily. The bounty hunter thumbed the safety of his blaster and flipped the pistol to hold the handle outward. “This is a Colson One-Ninety-Eleven Bravo blaster pistol. It has seen service for the Republic in over forty major conflicts. This was an officer’s weapon, made to look good on stern men and fight hard on behalf of that which they protected. If anyone tries to take that picture from you, shoot them in the face and immediately shoot the person next to them.”
The brown suited man looked at the weapon in horror. “I… could never do something like that.”
Rechs studied the man for a long moment. He was everything good about the Republic government that probably sent him out here. He was strong but not a bully, capable of surviving if the need arose. He was not afraid to stand up for what he believed in but not so quick to take a life. People like this were the reason Rechs had fought so hard against the Savages. So they wouldn’t have to.
They weren’t going to survive on Red Eye.
“Suit yourself,” Rechs said. He whistled for the dog, and the pair traced their way back out of the alley.
“Take me with you,” he shouted after the pair.
“This way leads to shooting more people in the face,” Rechs replied, and then left the man in the alley.
The star port on Red Eye was coming apart. Fires burned everywhere and roaming, hungry packs of the damned roamed searched for anything they could use to get to the next thing. The next meal, the next sleep, next hit, the next day. Everything left on the planet was up for grabs if you could take it and had the strength to hold it.
Rechs didn’t hide the pistol. He held it openly in his hand. The other gripped a long knife in an ice pick grip. More than once, people approached him or the dog, saw the weapons under his stern glare, and thought better of it.
Following Baldur through the streets toward their prey, Rechs watched as people tore into their neighbors for things they thought they needed more than their victims did. Beatings, shootings, stabbings, all occurred every few minutes. Attack and revenge on repeat until it ended in death.
“Heyo! My bro-ha!” came a call from Rechs’s flank.
The bounty hunter stopped and then turned, only because doing both at once was too painful on the muscles above and below his injured knee.
“Yo, bro-ha. I know you. You’re that Marauder guy, aintcha?” The questioner was a Ridoran. A horned humanoid from the mid core. Strong and virile, they looked the part of devils from humanity’s past.
Rechs started off again.
The Ridoran called after him. “Listen man, I’s a huge fan of you. All I gotzza to know is, is you fighting the big guy, bro-ha?”
Rechs stopped and looked over his shoulder. He nodded.
“He witchu?” the Ridoran asked, taking the answer as an invitation to a conversation. He pointed to the dog.
“Ah-Yazza-yo!” the Ridoran cheered. “We gotzza you, Marauder. We gotzza you. I puttz the wordz out. No one gonzza touch you. Specially if you got something going you willing to spreadzzaround.”
“Might be. After I’m gone.” Rechs turned to make sure the kid saw everything he was carrying. Just the guns alone paled the Ridoran’s reddish skin. “I wanna walk alone. Make it happen.”
Eyes narrowed in fear went wide in excitement as Rechs wagged the stylish Colson blaster, offering it as future payment for services rendered. “That’s me, Marauder. That’s me, that’s mine.”
Rechs didn’t watch the kid take off. He limped to the next alley, following the dog down a service road leading into a warehouse loading dock. The narrow stone courtyard was hemmed in on three sides by the building, leading to stairs and a dock ramp for loading and unloading cargo.
Baldur hopped onto the dock, huffing at the bounty hunter to follow.
“You sure this is the place?”
Rechs went around the side of the elevated dock and slowly climbed up the stairs. A knee full of foam supported by a crudely made leg brave to keep it all from falling apart didn’t lend itself to taking big, running leaps like the dog had just performed.
The door to the warehouse wasn’t powered; Rechs had to lean into it to get it open. From the looks of things inside, a lot of someones had come through here. The freshest of the duty prints Rechs could see went in, but hadn’t left. Or at least hadn’t left this way.
The smell of urine and dank, wet duracrete hit the bounty hunter as he moved further into the warehouse. He produced a shemagh from his pack and wrapped it about his neck, raising part of it like a mask to keep out the stink. He set his HUD specs to perform an active scan and swapped his pistole for a Delfur carbine, a perfect rifle for negotiating decent firepower in a tight space.
The winnings he’d made betting on himself had allowed for a decent shopping spree on Red Eye’s night markets. He’d overpaid for the Delfur by orders of magnitude, but as the HUD specs identified and then through limited night vision outlined dozens of people sleeping on the floor, Rechs suddenly didn’t mind the high price tag as much.
He crept closer and looked among the sleeping bodies for weapons. Behind each person’s ear were the Lizzaar sensory slabs. Factory machinery had been pushed to the outer walls to provide plenty of space for the sleepers, who rested without blankets on the puddly, stone floor. Moss and vines crept in overhead, occasionally trafficking water droplets from the roof outside. Where the drops splashed the sleepers, none stirred, as though they were drugged well beyond caring.
A scratching noise drew him toward the back of the warehouse to an office not unlike the one he’d had before moving permanently to Roodemoi’s. Stumbling forward on his pain-soaked leg, Rechs did his best to keep his weapon level. A few of the sleepers twitched as he passed, just like the dog when he chased the fiendish rodents in his dreams.
Baldur reached the office first, and was furiously digging at a section of floor, when Rechs arrived, stopping now and again to try to get his teeth into something.
The bounty hunter leaned over at the waist, not wanting to risk kneeling just in case he couldn’t get back up. He took hold of a metal ring and pulled up on a trap door that opened to reveal a ladder going straight down beneath the floor.
Here we go, Rechs told himself, and then went over the edge to travel downward, one rung at a time. Baldur he carried across his shoulders and assault pack. He had swapped the carbine for the pistol and kept it aimed along the small field of night vision provided by his HUD specs.
The ground at bottom was hard and wet. Rechs figured the place was another spillway. Quietly, the dog and his human trotted or limped down the tunnel, toward the sound of people softly talking somewhere nearby.
Rechs went as far as he dared and then hid at the lip of the spillway; he watched as three humans in black jackets with an upside-down arrow symbol on their backs attended to a dockworker they maneuvered toward the cistern.
The tunnels where Rechs had first stashed his armor had been utilitarian, but this space had been enhanced with bas-relief carvings, support pillars, and a larger pool acting as a central feeder to the chamber. More upside-down arrowhead symbols dominated the walls, intertwined with snakes and creatures from various mythologies to etch a mural of chaotic promises.
Rechs wondered what kind of deranged people sought such things.
You know what kind, said that voice inside his head.
In a scene eerily familiar to Rechs’s own sacrificing of the H8 addict, the three men watched the dockworker as he shambled toward the cistern below them. There, standing on the far side of the chamber as if in a trance, was Send.
The fighter rested against the wall with his eyes closed. His hands were at his sides, palms out, as he swayed to some rhythm only he could hear.
Rechs leaned toward the dog and whispered, “You sure we need him alive?”
A flash of insight raced across his mind. Unlike the rational view afforded to him by the HUD specs, the wave of insight from the dog was anything but rational. The three men in the black jackets seemed to be connected by a ghostly tendril of disease that directed them like puppets on strings. Standing at the far chamber, Send’s body appeared necrotic, as though he’d long been exposed to the tendrils while his spirit withered from the prolonged contact. And in the pool, a swirling mouth of chaos hungered for the things this world could offer it. The vision provided only questions, and in the center of it all, Rechs could sense the Sinasian enforcer held the answers the dog wanted.
The sensation from the pool reminded Rechs of the thing he’d escaped in the undercity after Medusa was killed. The otherworldly, tentacled creature he’d fought while wrapping up a bounty on a particularly nasty bit of work related to the Lizzaar. There was nothing redeeming about whatever was in the cistern. It was just teeth and ravenous hunger.
Baldur’s wave passed, returning Rechs’s vision back to reality in time to see the only female member of the black jackets thumb an activator switch on the dockworker’s slab.
The dockworker quivered, as if waking from an inescapable nightmare only to find something much worse. He absently touched the slabs on each ear, a mounting fear in his face.
The woman pushed the worker from the walkway into the cistern, where he flailed a moment before finding his feet in the chest-deep water. He gasped in shock and then was abruptly dragged under a violent splash of white water and bubbles. A tremendous three-headed snake rose out of the pool, wrapping its considerable mass round the dockworker’s torso and squeezing the life out of him. Savage bites preceded tearing as the man was ripped apart and swallowed by the giant monstrosity.
In a flash of movement, and with the dockworker’s wagging limbs sticking out of its mouth, the snake spun to face the corner of the tunnel where Baldur and Rechs watched the scene play out.
Send’s eyes snapped open and his swaying stopped. Pulling a pistol from his waistband and pointed directly at the bounty hunter. “Kill them!”
Blaster fire erupted from the walkway as bolts sizzled into the water at Rechs’s feet and bounced off the duracrete walls.
Baldur charged into the weapons fire, bounding from walkway to walkway before muzzle-thumping the lady death cultist into the pool with the snake. Not one to turn down a meal, the abomination tore her apart the same as its offering.
Rechs brought the Delfur C3 to his shoulder and sent a burst into the first man. Three bolts coughed out on top of each other, ripping up the man’s chest and dropping him to the stone.
The bounty hunter was forced to retreat into the spillway when Send’s blaster nearly turned the side of the tunnel into slag, a sure sign that he’d emptied an entire charge pack with one trigger pull. But that sort of kill shot came with a drawback, the overheated weapon hadn’t been modified to handle such a load—its warped barrel glowed red.
Rechs half limped, half charged from the spillway, setting the Delfur to stun. He fired multiple shots into Turney’s double-crossing enforcer, yielding no effect, even after successive hits.
The enforcer tossed his useless, smoking weapon into the pool with a hiss just and took on a fighting stance, beckoning Rechs to come in close with a quick inward wave of his fingers.
Going to have to do this the hard way, Rechs thought.
He passed Baldur in the midst of taking down the last cultist, with the man holding onto the lip of the pool to keep himself from being dragged away by the canine. His plan succeeded against the dog, but failed against the snake as one of the heads buried its fangs into the man’s shoulder, where its caustic venom turned the man’s blood to acid. Liquified from the inside out, he was an easy collect-and-chew for the three-headed serpent, snapping up their triumphant meal from the dog.
Send rushed just as Rechs limped forward, coming at the bounty hunter with long bladed, ring handled daggers. The Sinasian fighter bounded off the walls and lunged at Rechs with speed faster than most men would have been able to deflect. Rechs himself barely managed. The blades bit deep into the forearm of the Delfur carbine, carving huge chunks out of the hand guard with every chop.
The bounty hunter had just drawn his own knife to fend off the whirling the blades in front of him when a wave of shimmering force blasted into him. The wave held the Rechs in place, his own body shimmering as if he were being forced to live through the same few seconds in a loop.
Turning to the dog, Send stomped his foot to send forth another wave, holding the dog in mid leap. “I have but a fragment of my master’s essence with me now, but it is more than enough for the likes of you!”
Rechs could feel the darkness inside the man. It was the same presence he’d felt long, long before—the Dark Wanderer.
Send began to swagger toward the frozen bounty hunter, eager to collect on an easy kill.
A sense of despair fell over Rechs—it quickly turned to anger. He’d lost Reina. He’d lost Casper. He’d lost Medusa. He had lost so many of his brothers, sisters, and sons to war, hatred, and malice. If this thing wanted something from him, it was going to have to kill him to get it.
With words unable to express the loathing Rechs felt for the darkness, he could only roar his defiance.
And then… another presence. The dog poured all his hope into the gruff bounty hunter through its primitive abilities.
The bounty hunter broke through the wave of power holding him still, shattering Send’s supernatural hold. Rechs lunged forward, deflecting the enforcer’s blows as he landed multiple hits of his own across the man’s forearms with his knife. He worked a second volley of strikes, lashing out at the other wrist to cut the remaining weapon from Send’s hand.
Send counterattacked by kicking Rechs in his braced leg, throwing the bounty hunter off his feet with a howl of pain and knocking him dangerously close to the pool’s edge. Rechs rolled away as Send adjusted his stance and readied for another assault.
The former legionnaire shucked his ruined blaster rifle and pulled his hold-out blaster, scoring a rapid-fire hit into the man’s shoulder that knocked Send from his feet. When the enforcer spun to his knees and attempted to jump up, he came face-to-face with the dog.
Send found himself standing in an emptiness devoid of form or reality. Although he felt as if he were on solid ground, he seemed to be the only thing that existed.
Until the dog.
He whirled on the creature, facing it as it sat in a perfect pose, glaring at him. Eyes half hooded beneath its demon ears aimed their hatred for the dark at him, boring into what should have been the ironclad fortress of his will.
“You can’t have me. My mind is closed to you,” Send said.
A gleaming line of light traced down the center of the man’s body. A thunderclap bark from the dog tore Send’s spirit away from his body and left him alone, a man again and no longer an avatar for evil.
Baldur dug into the enforcer’s mind, entering his dream space.
The folds of Send’s mind were opened to reveal a warehouse where he sipped kaff with an old Lizzaar.
“This is an ambitious plan, Send,” Kessen said. He tapped the table. “Do you have the resources to pull it off?”
Send sipped his tea. The steam rolling off the cup turned into faces screaming at him not to say anything. “It was improper how the Lizzaar in Zauro’s camp cut you out. I’m not the only one who thinks so. I have a man who’s agreed to build a device that can make you believe anything. Experience anything. Imagine we sell a tiny device to the masses, and then we pipe in the effects of whatever drug we decide to sell them. It’s sensation by subscription.”
“Such a thing would bring you limitless wealth,” Kessen said. “Why offer it to me?”
Send drained his cup and set it upside down on the saucer. “Distribution. You have the network to get it past the Republic regulations labeling such things as illegal tech. We could own the galaxy.”
Baldur raced deeper into the memory, sprinting through a spectral cloud of smoke and coming out into the chamber he now stood, but not in the present. Send knelt before the darkness Baldur hunted.
“Did the Lizzaar take the offer? Will he distribute our will to the galaxy?” the Dark Wanderer asked.
Send nodded. “Yes. And the fat technician believes he’s enhanced the design. We are on track to…”
The vision evaporated as the three-headed snake slammed into Send, hurling him against the wall. He fell beneath a shower of duracrete from the hit. The sudden whipsawing of the devilish creature’s long body sent Rechs and Baldur leaping away from one another. They rolled across the walkway as the snake grabbed the enforcers and disappeared back into the depths of the pool.
Rechs had seen the dock worker stand, and imagined there must be some tunnel or shaft filled with the waters of the deep that led straight down to the beast’s underwater lair. He was in no condition to go swimming after it.
Bubbles rippled up at the center of the pond, churning red and white from the blood and then fell still. A few moments passed and then Send himself floated to the top. Or part of him. He was missing his body below the torso, blood and entrails floating freely. Then one of the snake’s heads surfaced again, barely disrupting the surface of the water. It extended its fangs and bit into Send’s neck. Another head emerged to pierce his torso, it’s reptile breath inflating the dead man’s chest.
The third of the snake’s heads glared at Rechs and Baldur as they recovered themselves and their wits on the walkway.
The dog barked once, half growl, all menace.
Rechs stepped in front of the dog, aiming his pistol at the snake’s central head. Memories of demons on a Savage hulk flashed through the bounty hunter’s mind.
“I know you. We killed you centuries ago.”
The cistern walls rumbled as though carrying a deep, sinister laughter from the void. The snake slithered beneath the surface, taking Send’s corpse with it.
Rechs realized he’d been holding his breath. He looked down at Baldur.
The darkness was gone.