He’d been running across the desert for days, now. There was terror in his eyes, spiced with a glimmer of waning hope. His tongue was a pink, gummy thing in his dry mouth and his insides were knotted up by fear. His breath was shallow and rugged, like a dying dog’s.
Tripping on a stone, he fell to the ground. His lips touched the salted dirt. Licking them reflexively, he felt his tongue shrivel and go numb, like a dying snail. Spitting out bile, he staggered to his feet. His legs and jacket were covered in white patches, and creaked as he moved.
Despite himself, he shot a glance behind him. He was there, at the outmost edge of his field of vision. A patch of black, framed by the midday sun. Seemed like a thing out of myth, the way his horse and his body seemed joined at the waist, standing perfectly still, staring at him with seemingly unblinking eyes. He let out a hoarse scream and tried to run, but his knees buckled and his legs failed him. Half-crawling, he reached a shady spot by a rock and lay there, gasping for breath.
This sick little game of his had been going on for days now. The man on the black horse never gave him a chance to catch his breath, to put his thoughts in order. He hadn’t even uttered a single word, since it all started. Every time he caught up with him, every time he’d find him (and he always did), the man would give him a reason to keep going at it.
He’d told him, when the game started:
“I was told to make you suffer.”
Those words clawed into his soul. There was something in that stranger’s eyes, those pitch-black, soulless beads that looked down on him from horseback. Something that stared right back at him, every time he’d catch up to him, that made him feel as if he were a little kid again, hunted down by wolves with all too human vices.
His right hand sent a steady pulse of pain right up his arm, a pain that nested in his skull. The stranger had broken it at the wrist. The skin was blue-black now, like a drowned-man’s tongue. Not thinking clearly, he touched it and felt the bone crawl under his skin. The shock almost made him retch, made faceless black insects crawl up behind his eyelids.
The horse’s figure blocked the sun, a few years later, by his reckoning. For a moment there, he could swear he felt relieved by it. But it was then that the terrified little monkey inside his head tugged at his thoughts, digging out the terror that had been muffled by the pain. He looked at the stranger, his eyes full of fear.
“What do you want from me? In God’s name, what did I ever do to you?”
The man with the face that looked like chiseled granite looked at him the way one would look at a stomped roach, stuck under one’s boot. His pitch-black eyes stared at him, pinned him back against the rock.
“Please…kill me or let me go…no more….I’m begging you…”
The stranger stuck his hand inside a pouch on his duster coat. For a second there, the hunted man hoped he’d pull out his black revolver and shoot him. A bullet in the head, or one in the heart. A quick death, that’d be something to wish for, right then.
The water flask was dropped between his legs. He could hear the water slosh around, inside the full canteen. His insides grumbled, both by joy and fear.
“Water? Water? Oh dear God, thank you!”
With trembling hands, he snatched the flask and uncorked it. He was about to take his first sip, when the stranger kicked him in the face. His head bumped against the rock and some of the precious water spilled on his jacket, washing the salt away.
“Run” the stranger grumbled. He leaped to his feet then and did just that. His legs pumped at the dry, dead ground beneath him, as this fresh terror whipped him on. The cantine in his hands, he’d bring it to his lips and take a sip every now and then. Some of it spilled out, but he felt like he was showered by molten gold.
3 days ago:
“Who the Devil you think you are? Think ‘cause you took out three of my men, you’re gonna walk away with that? Know what the rest are gonna do to you when they get you, you? You ain’t getting away, you sonuvabtich, y’hear? They’re gon-AAAAAGGGHH!”
“Guess you didn’t hear right. I said run.”
“You broke my wrist, you fucker! I’ll kill you, y’hear? I’m gonna break your legs and-“
“You wouldn’t dare. You ain’t getting’ shit if you kill me, I can tell that much! You ain’t gonna pull that trigger, you bastard, I know it! You wouldn’t dare!”
At night, he stopped by some cactus trees and made a stone for his pillow. The water on his jacket had dried of hours ago and his flask was almost empty. He sighed in relief, as he heard the precious last gulps of water slosh inside.
The hunt would always cease at night. The stranger would always stop at the edge of his field of vision, blanketed by the night. He’d stand perfectly still and look at him as he slept. The hunted man wondered whether he slept at all in the first place. He remembered how he’d tried to slip away on the first night, how he thought that the stranger had surely fallen asleep on his post. He also recalled how the stranger caught up with him, grabbed him by the back of the neck as if he were a kitten and beat the shit out of him.
His tongue teased the gum where the stranger had busted one of his teeth. His mind wandered back to the bets he’d make with his brothers, trying to spit as deftly as they could through their missing teeth. He’d always win those bets. He’d always win every bet.
He was a gambler alright He’d always bet on the winner. For example, when he switched sides, leaving the Old Guard and fighting for the Government instead. He’d sold his information for a steep price and had given his new friends some quick and decisive victories.
All in all, he’d had a good life. Till now, that is. Filled with easy money and loose women. And when some of his Government friends got mad at his misconduct, he still got off scot-free. Got himself some guns and some goons, then crawled off to a lazy little border town, Vane Flats and made it his own.
Those were the days.
He slept peacefully, that night.
4 days ago.
“What the hell is this?”
“It’s all I have, sir. Everything I have on me.”
“Then why don’t you pay me in kind? You got stuff right here.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“And why’s that?”
“I give off my merchandize, there’ll be nothing here for me to sell! Caravans don’t come by here anymore and then I’ll have to go to Sarat myself to get more! I can’t risk that, not the way things are, right now!”
“Well, what do you know!”
“So, you see, I’m begging you, take the money. I’ll pay you back after I’ve-“
“How about this: lend us your daughters, instead.”
“Or just the pretty one. Your pick.”
“Hahaha, good one, boss!”
“I…I can’t let you do that…”
“Who asked you, maggot?”
“No, please, don’t-“
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the last, worst thing you’ll see before you die.”
His teeth chattered so hard they hurt. He was shivering from the cold. The nights in the Salted Desert were so much worse than the days. In the daytime, the sun beat down on you, mercilessly, staring you right in the eye with a big, shit-eating grin, as he made you suffer.
At nights, though, the heat subsided and the cold would coil round you joints and your innards, crawl up your nostrils and behind your eyelids, make a nest in your lungs. It killed you slowly, taking its sweet time. He curled his body up into a ball and slipped the palms of his hands under his forearms, trying to preserve what little warmth he had left.
Stealing a look back, he could see the shape of the stranger. Even on a starless night, he could make out his figure. He looked like a vast, black hole, filled with evil, primeval eyes that stared back at him their claws dragging themselves silently across his soul.
He lay down again, trying to lull himself back to sleep, trying to ignore this big old hole in the world, as it watched him sleep.
2 days ago:
“Just name your price. You want money? I got enough money to buy you another horse, like this one! No? Not money? You want women? Is that what you want? Man oh man, I can get you so much tail, you’ll get sick to your stomach of it! I got everything you want! I got Government people working for me, just ask and I’ll make it happen! C’mon, what do you say?”
“I want you to get running.”
“What? Are you insane? I’m giving you the chance of a lifetime, you bastard and you’re still going on with that shit? I’ll give you double, no, triple what they offered you! Come on, just scoot over on your horse and take me back to Vane Flats, y’hear? Come, now-UFF!”
“What the hell did you do that for? No..nonono!”
Whump. Wham. Wham. Crack.
“AAAAAHHHH! Stop! For God’s sake, stop! Don’t-AAIIEE!”
Daylight.Oh, dear God, daylight. He saw the sun rise up, dispelling the night’s feezing cold and terror creeped up his spine and crawled back in his head. The stranger spurred his horse and it slowly trotted toward him. The hunt started, once again.
He didn’t bother getting up, this time. In his heart, he knew he couldn’t get away. Even if he ran, till he exhausted every ounce of his strength, the stranger would still catch up with him and torment him some more. He didn’t have to run, then, he thought. He didn’t have to keep up this sick game of his, like an animal. He could just lay down and wait for the sweet release of death, right then and there, on the dead dirt.
His troubles would be over and done, then and there. Just like that.
But the stranger would still reach him, not letting him get off that easy. He’d beat him up some more and if he tried to put up a fight, then he’d bust his leg, or worse, he’d cut the inside of his thigh and let the blood flow, so every vulture for miles would follow him and wait for him to collapse from exhaustion, so they could pick the flesh from his bones at their leisure.
No. He wouldn’t let that happen. He’d die on his own damn terms. He’d tire himself out first, though. He’d give the son of a bitch a run for his money, then take his own life, deprive him of his little source of amusement. He’d fight the way the Old Guard had taught him to.
Let no wound, no bars, no chains, detract me from my solemn duty…
He laughed out loud, as the oath crossed his mind. The sound that came out sounded more like a hoarse bark than any sound a human being would make. His mind wandered back, to the way things were. How he’d fought, in the saddle or on foot, with sabre and gun in hand, with good men at his side. How they’d stuggled to save the world, to uphold the ideals that they though made them great, to keep their doomed Empire from falling apart.
They won their battles, their small, insignificant victories, but the war had already turned sour. Each day, more and more of their number died in vain, trying to stem the catastrophe that is now their everyday reality.
There was a lake here once. He reckoned that the place he lay right now was once covered by water. He’d fought at the banks of this lake, against the Vas’Iiri, leading the charge. He’d fought like a rabid dog, that day. He’d given those bastards a run for their money. They’d pushed them back, toward the border, well away out of the Empire.
Then the Vas’Iiri detonated their withering bombs. He saw his men and their men die in unison, as the bombs evaporated the water from their bodies. They all withered and died, their bodies turning into little bundles, wrapped in cloth and ceramic armor. He saw them creak, crack and turn into dust, like they were made out of old, dead paper.
Fell apart like they were made of twigs. He’d thought that day. Dead wood that walked like a man for a while, before it keeled over.
The Vas’Iiri had struck them a fatal blow, despite their huge losses. They’d deprived them of their greatest source of potable water, leaving behind just a dead old crater. Any sane man would think that to be punishment enough, but then the Vas’Iiri made the skies rain salt for seven days straight, all across the province, so that nothing would grow there again. This was the place that had gotten it worse.
He got up and walked in silence for a while. He stumbled and fell, but didn’t bother to get up this time. See, he was ready now. He’d sold out his brothers in arms, the very same people that he’d led to victory once. He’d seen the Empire he’d served crash and burn all around him. He’d been been hunted like an animal for a bastard’s amusement. Enough was enough. He’d let the sick son of a bitch come close to him and then he’d bite off his own tongue, looking at him straight in the eye all the while.
He’d die on his own damn terms.
The stranger spurred his horse on, galloping toward him, as soon as he fell on the ground.
1 day ago:
“I just got…ptui! One…question…why are you doing this to me? Who…who put you up to this? What sick, heartless, twisted son of a bitch paid you to do this? I mean, I can see you’re batshit insane, there’s no other way you’d take this kind of work, right? Come on, tell me, who put you up to it?”
“Your name is Eldon Torm”
“C’mon, quit monkeying around and-“
“You served in the Third Brigade, Second Cavalry Company of the Old Guard during the Vas’Iiri war. You were the youngest man to be promoted to the rank of Leiutenant Colonel due to exemplary conduct in the field of battle.”
“Who…who told you this?”
“You were also the reason behind its destruction. You defected to enemy lines during the coup d’etat that took place two years after the end of the Vas’Iiri war. You gave sensitive information out to the enemy. You caused the death of a hundred good men, which used to be your friends.”
“How can you know all this? Who the Devil are you?”
“As a token of their appreciation, the Government let you keep their old rank in their newly- formed militia. Charged you with training and organizing them into a tactical force.”
“Those bastards weren’t warriors! They were farmers and convicts! I couldn’t make soldiers out of them, for God’s sake!”
“And that’s why you let them roam freely in the countryside, take what they wanted from the populace, take over any small town that caught their eye and rob the people blind, with the pretext of restoring order and keeping the peace. No one could stop them, after all. They were armed with the very same weapons you showed them how to make and use against their own kind.”
“They were worse than dogs, all of them! Out of order, civilian and militia alike! They deserved every bit of suffering they got!”
“And so, before they sent me after you, they told me this: Eldon is not going to repent. He will not plead forgiveness or admit his guilt. He’ll repeatedly attempt to buy you off your mission. Know that he deserves to be given no quarter, no mercy.”
“That voice… dear God, no! He couldn’t have sent you!”
“I was told to make you suffer.”
He looked at the stranger straight in those pitch black eyes of his and let out a hoarse laugh. The stranger kept his silence.
“There was no point in keeping this up. We’d fought too hard, too long and the world got worse, each passing day.”
He drank down his last gulp of water. Let it pool round his dried tongue and swallowed it slowly. It was the best drink he’d ever had.
“I lost all of my friends when the withering bombs went off. Saw them die in a way I wouldn’t even wish upon your sorry hide. And when that nightmare was over with, there was the coup. Then we fought all over again. Then they dropped the Bomb.”
He drew a long, deep breath. Mustered the courage he needed to end this.
“Saw too much pointless, mindless killing in my lifetime. Saw everything I’d fought for blown away, just like that. And every time, it would sweep away someone else I cared about along with it. I’m not sorry for what I did. I regret nothing. And I’m gonna die on my own damn terms.”
Placing his tongue between his teeth, he was about to bite down, when the stranger pulled out his gun and shot him in the underbelly. Torm let out a scream, as the bullet tunneled its way through his innards, the pain washing his determination away.
“You lost that privilege a long time ago, Eldon Torm.”
The man with the hole in his gut screamed in both pain and horror, knowing what was next. He’d seen others die like this. He knew that his own filth would seep out into his blood, poisoning his body. He’d die a slow, agonizing death for many hours, never once losing consciousness. He tried biting his own tongue off again, but he couldn’t find the strength to do it. Rolling around on the salted dirt, he left behind him a trail of foul blood.
For seven hours straight he suffered, before he finally died.
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