Shoulder still hurts. Still working on edits. Here is Richard from STEEL’S EDGE.
Richard Mar ran through the woods. The wound in his side wept dark blood, almost black. A bad sign. His liver was likely lacerated. Congratulations, he told himself. You’ve finally managed to get yourself killed and by an amateur, no less. Your family would be so proud if they knew.
In his defense, it hadn’t occurred to him that a man would conceive, conspire, and execute a plan of having his own sister raped by a scumbag just so he could lay a trap. Despite everything Richard had seen, that depth of human depravity had eluded him thus far. He’d thanked Jackal Tuline for correcting that oversight by separating his head from his body. Unfortunately Tuline had six accomplices and while overall they demonstrated a remarkable lack of proper training, one of them had managed to run him through.
Tree trunks flashed by him, the huge Adrianglian pines straight like masts. His breath came in ragged, painful gasps. Hot pain chewed on his side, biting at the wound with every step.
A distant howl rolled through the forest. The slavers had hounds and he was leaving a bloody trail. Quite a predicament, for which he had no cure.
The trees swayed around him, turning fuzzy than coming back into focus. His vision was failing. Richard shook himself and pushed forward. He had to get to the boundary. Beyond the boundary lay the Edge. With the Weird’s woods stretching for many miles in every direction, the Edge was his only chance. Not that the Edgers would help him out of the goodness of their hearts. He was born in the Edge and he knew better than most that in the space between the worlds every man was for himself. But the Edgers, a paranoid and suspicious lot, owned guns and had itchy trigger fingers. They would see a group of armed slavers ride through their land and shoot at them out of principle.
Dizziness grabbed him, tossing him against a tree trunk. Richard gripped the fragrant bark to steady himself, his fingers sticking to the sap, and willed the trees to stop spinning. Come on, get a grip. This was no way to die. At least he could go out in a flash of glory instead of bleeding out under some pine.
The forest melted into a grey, rain-drenched swamp. Richard smelled the pungent aroma of the swamp herbs mixing with the stench of stagnant water. He’d know this scent anywhere – he’d grown up cloaked in it. He ran across the sluice of muddy soil to the clearing buttressed by the cypresses. Wide holes gaped in the ground like dark mouths. He checked the first one and saw the body of a child, a pale thin form, floating face down in two feet of brown water…
Richard shook his head, flinging the memory away. The woods reappeared. He was hallucinating. Splendid. He pushed from the trunk and kept moving.
In the distance another dog howl rolled, more to the west. They must’ve broken into two groups. They were a cowardly lot but they had a lot of practice chasing run-away slaves and they were distressingly good at it.
The brush ended abruptly. He saw the ravine, but too late. The carpet of needles shifted under his feet, the edge of the hill collapsed, and Richard rolled down the slope and crashed into a tree. His ribs crunched and the pain clawed at his side.
The swamp mud squelched under his feet. A man rushed him, weaving between the holes, sword in hand, mouth gaping wide in a scream, his wet hair plastered to his skull by the rain. Richard cut. The body fell apart before him. Another slaver charged from the left. A second slice of Richard’s sword and the slaver’s head rolled off his shoulders and tumbled into the nearest hole. Red blood gushed from the stump of the neck, and splashed onto the sludge…
The reality slammed into Richard in a rush of agony. He grit his teeth and rolled to all fours, clumsy like a baby learning how to walk. He forced himself upright. A familiar dull pressure pushed at his skin. He took a step forward and the wall of magic ground against his senses. The boundary. He couldn’t see it or smell it, but it pushed on him, as if an invisible hand pressed against his insides. He’d reached the Edge. Finally.
A big furry body sailed over the edge of ravine. Richard spun about, unsheathing his sword. The sun caught the long slender blade. The wolfripper dog landed on the slope and sprinted forward, a hundred and seventy pounds of muscle sheathed in short, dense black fur. Richard leaned forward, closing his left hand on the small ultrasonic emitter in the sword’s pommel. A gift from his brother. Kaldar had bought or probably stolen the gadget on one of his excursions to the Broken and it worked in the Weird. The slavers’ dogs hated it and Richard used it often. He was never much for killing dogs.
Three people cleared the top of the ravine. The slaver scouts. Hello there.
The dog was almost to him, running fast on massive paws, rugged, big-boned, bred to kill a pack of wolves and get home in one piece. Fifty feet. Thirty.
Richard squeezed the emitter. The sound, too high for human ears, lanced at the dog’s sensitive eardrums.
The beast halted.
“Get’im!” the taller of the three slavers barked. “Get! Get!”
The wolfripper bared big teeth.
Richard squeezed the emitter again, holding the switch for a few painful seconds.
The dog whined and trotted over to the side, circling behind him.
The slaver on the right of the dog handler swore and pulled a gun from his waistband. Slavers were opportunistic thugs – most of them had barely enough magic to live in the Weird but not enough to succeed at life. They evened the odds with cruelty and Broken contraband weapons, counting on the element of surprise.
The slaver pointed the gun at him. He was young, blond, and the way he held the weapon, sideways, made Richard’s head hurt.
“We need him alive, you moron,” the dog handler said.
“Dude, fuck that.” The black barrel stared in Richard’s face. “I’ll take him out right now.”
“Is he an apprentice?” Richard asked, bracing himself.
“What?” The woman stared at him.
“Is he a scumbag in training?” Richard glanced at the gunman. “At least have the decency to hold the gun properly, you fool. If you don’t know how, pass it to someone who does. I’m not going to suffer being shot at by anything less than a full-fledged lowlife.”
The gunman sputtered. “Screw you.”
The gun barked, the sound booming through the woods.
Richard flashed, panning his magic in a defensive screen. Translucent green magic pulsed, forming a half sphere in front of him for a second, just long enough to knock the bullet aside. Even at full health, he couldn’t maintain the shield for longer than a moment, but with the right timing, it was enough.
The slaver spat another curse and fired, squeezing the trigger in rapid rhythm. Boom, boom, boom.
Richard flashed, matching the cadence of shots a moment before they rang out. The green screen pulsed, deflecting the projectiles.
Boom, boom, boom.
A sharp yelp cut through the shots. The gun clicked. The man was out.
Richard turned. The dog had fallen. The idiot had shot their own dog. That’s what happened when a man’s weapons exceeded his intelligence.
“What the hell did you do that for?” The dog handler stared at the dog panting in the grass. “You’re taking the heat for this one. There’s no way the fine’s coming out of my pocket.”
“Damn it,” The gunman shoved the gun back into his belt.
“Could’ve told you that,” the woman said. She was the tallest of the three and had a raw-boned build of experienced fighter. “Bullets aren’t going to hurt a blueblood.”
He wasn’t a blueblood. Far from it. Richard pondered the three slavers. “So far you shot your own dog and wasted twelve bullets. Any other attempts to dazzle me with your martial prowess?”
“We have to go down there and get him,” the woman said.
The two slavers looked at him. Neither moved.
“No,” the dog-handler said.
“It’s a bad idea,” the thug with the gun added.
“Oh you whiny bitches.” The woman shook her head. “Look at him, he’s fifteen years older than you and barely standing. He’ll probably bleed out before I get down there.”
Richard let himself sway. It wasn’t exactly difficult in his current condition. He needed all three of them within striking distance, because the trees were threatening to melt again.
“I’m going down there,” the woman said. “And just so you know, whatever bonus I get I’m not sharing.”
She started down the slope. The thug with the gun spat to the side and followed her. The dog handler looked at Richard for a long moment and descended after them.
The woman pulled a lean long sword from her sheath. The dog handler brandished an axe with a short handle. The third slaver pulled out a baton.
Richard fought to stay upright. A drop of blood dripped down from the saturated fabric of his doublet and fell onto the pine needles. Another…
The woman struck. She was tall and fast, with sure footing and a good reach. In the split second between reading the intent in her eyes and her body processing it, Richard released his magic. It stretched in a thin lethal line over his blade, coating its edge. He stepped forward, avoiding her lunge, and cut in a savage overhand stroke across her shoulder. The flash-coated blade sliced through human sinew and bone like sharp scissors through tissue paper.
Before she managed to produce a scream, Richard buried his blade in the chest of the dog handler, piercing the heart, freed it with a tug, turned and struck backward, sliding his blade along his side in the third slaver’s groin.
The woman finally screamed. He beheaded her with one sharp stroke spun and finished the baton wielder with a single vicious cut to the throat.
His legs gave out. Richard dropped to one knee, thrusting the sword into the ground and holding on to it like a crutch. What should’ve taken three cuts had required five. “Simply embarrassing,” he whispered. Two red drops splashed onto the green leaves – his blood. The brush around him was stained with it – some of it his, some of it from slavers. His vision swam.
The dog whined next to him. Richard focused and saw two brown eyes looking at him with a silent canine plea.
“I’m sorry, boy. I can’t help you.”
Richard forced himself up and staggered forward, to the boundary.
The magic grabbed, crushing him, squeezing, as if the air itself grew heavy and viscous. His body screamed in protest, feeling a part of its magic being stripped away. The Edge was his limit. He’d tried to enter the Broken once and nearly died. The very magic that made him good with his sword kept him anchored. It felt like he was dying now, but he would survive. He just had to keep going. One foot in front of the other.
The magic licked his skin with serrated tongue and the pressure vanished. He was through.
The forest swayed around him, the trees sliding to the side. Richard stumbled forward. Cold slid along his skin. His leg muscles trembled, struggling to support his weight. Cotton clogged his ears, followed by a deep overpowering nausea. He crashed half-blind through the brush.
The swamp clearing stretched before him. The slavers lay dead, delivered by his blade to the afterlife. He dashed from hole to hole. Dead children looked back at him with opaque eyes.
“Here!” His niece’s voice sounded so weak.
“Where are you?” Holes filled with children slumped in the muddy water. He checked each one, sprinting back and forth in panic. A corpse. Another corpse. She was here, somewhere. He had to find her.
The world turned black. He ripped through the darkness by sheer will and saw the edge of a dirt road running through the woods, little more than two tire tracks with a strip of grass growing between them. He wasn’t sure if it was real or a remnant of some memory.
The blackness smothered him.
Richard clenched his teeth and crawled toward the road. This was not the end. He wouldn’t be dying now. He had things to do.
The rain-drenched clearing with its cypresses swam into his view.
“Help me!” Sophie called.
He stumbled over the bodies of slavers, tracking her voice.
I’m trying, he wanted to tell her. I’m trying, sweetheart. Hold on. Wait for me.
The darkness stomped on the back of his head. The world vanished.