Think it through, boy. Think about all the moves, the avenues of attack, the consequences. What are your options? What tools do you have?
“Oh…oh my. You’re actually considering it.” Fairchild chortled. ” I can see it in your eyes. Just as was foretold – but I must admit I’m actually shocked. That it could be so simple to sway you.”
No, Jonas. No! You’re not thinking far enough ahead – don’t just think about this move, think about the fifth move from now. Take your damn hand off that piece, boy — and think!
“Thousands of corpses litter the city around us, but one mewling child has worth to you? Amazing.” the creature said.
Is that really the move you want to make, squire? Are you certain? Bone-certain?
“Every life has worth.” Jonas said. ” And dead, I’m no good to anyone.”
The squire gave up trying to push his sword tip towards his enemy. Instead, he pulled the sword back to his side. Fairchild seemed to allow this movement, his face that was not rapt with curiosity. Jonas set the point of the blade in front of him, and closed his hands around the hilt and crossguard. He leaned on the sword for a moment, feeling the good steel beneath his fingertips.
“For the child’s life, I will give you my sword. ”
Are you certain? Bone-certain?
“Well, about that…” Fairchild smirked. “One day she must die, ever leaf and stem of the tree must be cut. Every drop of blood spilled on the dry sand.”
“Then promise me — only I can do it. When I’ve hunted down every single one of the others, she will die by my hand. By my hand, or by none. And then I’ll be the last blood of Gilead, and you can do what you wish with me.” the squire said.
The words came out of his mouth steadily, with no emotion. Jonas heard the words, but couldn’t remember thinking them. It was quick thinking, logical and clean — not the way his mind usually worked.
“Your blood won’t be an issue, my friend. Entering my service is going to change you a great deal.” Fairchild laid the child down on the empty throne, and came slowly down the steps. “For the better, of course. A marked improvement upon your current state. I accept your terms. Are we agreed.?”
Fairchild kneeled, the illusion dropping away. Green and gaunt, he spread his hands on either side of the squire’s blade — fingers splayed wide, palms up.
Is that really the move you want to make, squire?
Jonas took his hand off the piece, and the sword tumbled forward into Fairchild’s waiting hands.
“This child is the last. The last beating heart in all of Gilead. Except for yours, of course.” Fairchild smiled.
The bundle hung, inches from the squire’s nose. Jonas stared.
The baby appeared healthy, a patch of yellow fuzz on its head, dried tears and mucus covering the face. Jonas felt a sudden desire to reach into his pocket and find a clean hanky. The sudden image of standing in this room of green fire , piled high with corpses in a city of death — wiping the snot off of a baby’s face; the image slid through his battered mind, and he found himself grinning. A quiet huh left his lips as he almost-chuckled.
The tip of his sword moved two inches along the floor. He was still held by the power of the creature Fairchild, but he felt looser. Like a frog in a child’s palm, he couldn’t escape but had room to wriggle.
“Do you know this child? I found her in the back of a baker’s shop, just popped her in my pocket like a day-old muffin, and brought her here.” Fairchild pulled the child close into the crook of his left arm, and waved towards Jonas with his right.
The squire found he could speak. ” No. I don’t know who she is. ”
“No matter. Princess or pauper, whoreson or maid. You. Her. It doesn’t really matter. It’s the blood. The blood, you see?” Fairchild sat down again on the mound of corpses, cradling the child to his breast.
“..understand? That doesn’t matter, either.” the man who was not waggled a long finger. “You came here to find out what had happened to your people, to learn the truth — to save them? Quite a grand quest, I applaud you — or would. I don’t want to drop the baby!”
Shattersteel-laughter rang in the throne room. Jonas glimpsed again Fairchild’s true form — gaunt flesh stretched on a tall frame – naked, green and merry.
“I came here to purge this world of Gilead’s blood, and I’ve succeeded. Almost.” the creature rose. “There is still you, and this child — and a few wandering remnants scattered across the world.”
Jonas felt a sudden heat in his heart. This creature was right, there were others out there – the Legion, travellers, families that had settled elsewhere. Gilead could live on, an army could gather and make justice for the fallen.
“Ah, hope. A foolish thing, there flickering in your eyes.” Fairchild idly ran his thumb across the baby’s cheek.
The child screamed as if his touch was acid.
“My time is limited, so let us speak plain. I need an..agent. Someone to hunt down your remaining kinsmen. It is going to be you. But, I need you to consent. So, enter my service or….” Fairchild held out the crying child. “…or I kill this child. Right here. Right now. And then you.”
The squire’s sword moved, swinging in a high arc towards the man’s face.
Fairchild tucked the book under his arm, and casually caught the blade in his left hand.
A burst of light. Jonas saw a bone-thin hand with too-long fingers holding his blade. The skin was green and smooth — or did it only appear so in the emerald corpse illumination?
The flash was gone. The man pushed the squire’s blade aside.
“Now, now.” the man smiled. “No need to be so forward. There will be plenty of time later for that sort of thing. Now, have a seat, young
Jonas felt his knees buckle, and his knuckles hit the marble floor. He still clutched the hilt of his good steel, but it felt heavier than a millstone.
Fairchild sat calmly on the pile of corpses, and pulled the book into his lap. He drummed his fingers on it for a moment.
“I knew someone would come, but I didn’t know who. A hero? A prince? Who are you, son of Gilead?”
Jonas said nothing. He tried to move, but his arms and legs refused.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter.”, the smiling man mused. “You are the one who was promised. You will be my hunter.”
I will be nothing for you, the squire thought. I will find a way to make you pay.
“Oho! Your mortal eyes blaze so fiercely. It must be hard.” Fairchild said sympathetically. “To crawl on your belly through the ruin of your home — to find all that you knew destroyed. Everyone you ever knew. Dead. How you must thirst for vengeance….”
The tip of his sword blade moved a quiet inch. Jonas focused on the feel of the hilt in his hands, and tried to make the sword move again. He kept his eyes on the smiling man, on his green throne.
Fairchild clapped his hands.
“Enough of that. It is time to speak, you and I. I must pull you from thoughts of the past, so let us speak simply. Yes, it was I that did all that you have seen. Every living creature in the land of Gilead is dead. Dead and worse, by my hands.”
Jonas saw the man’s hands change — fingers too long, and green, green, green. The squire choked with horror and grief.
” Well, not quite.” Fairchild leaned forward. “There is one survivor. Would you like to see her?”
The squire nodded, and fought back tears. And managed to move the sword tip another quiet inch.
The man who was not turned slightly, and pushed the arm of a corpse aside. Nestled within was a small, cloth bundle. It moved slightly as Fairchild pulled it free, and then it began to cry.
A baby, held in a prison of green spider-hands.
Fairchild held it forth, and smiled.
“Now, let us talk about the terms of our covenant.”
Each door that the squire passed was flung open, green corpse light gleaming.
A group of dead children and their governess, chests and lips covered with yellow vomit. They were laid out in a perfect circle, feet to the center. A basket of apples placed at the center.
Three men dressed as nobles slumped around a silver table. One man’s arm had been cruelly spiked to the table, the flesh and bone laid bare. Golden forks and knives were still clutched in all three’s hands – gibbets of meat hung from all three’s lips.
The green doorways opened their arms, as Jonas began to move faster.
A fat man that brained himself against a stone ledge.
A room stacked high with furniture, dressers and bureaus pulled in close. A thick stench rose from the center of the barricade.
Two skeletons huddled in the ashes of a massive marble fireplace, hands still clasped.
Jonas found broad stairs, and climbed.
He kept his eyes on the steps ahead, and forced his wounded leg to move faster.
The final step caught him unawares, and he stumbled forward. His shoulder screamed as he crashed into a stone pillar. He leaned against it for a moment and caught his breath.
He heard laughter, and jerked his head up.
The wide doors were twenty feet high and enameled with steel and silver. They were slightly open, and the sound of brittle glass-laughter came from within. The green light was brighter here, forcing him to squint as he stared at the crack between the doors.
Jonas took a step towards the door, then stopped. He passed his sword from hand to hand for a moment, wiping the sweat of his palms on his sodden trousers.
Glass-laughter, knife-laughter – the laughter of breaking. It sounded again, and the squire found himself backing up slowly from the door.
He leaned his head forward, shaggy hair fallling forward. He gripped the hilt of his sword , each knuckle a sickly yellow-white.
Too far. Too far to turn back now. I must know what happened here, I must.
Jonas closed the door behind him, the sound of rain hushed.
The grand entryway was covered with mushrooms. Sickly, purple and pulsing slightly – as if each bulb was taking a slow breath.
The green light bloomed from a pair of corpses sprawled on the marble stair. A pair of guards. The squire moved towards them, but then stopped. He didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to find the faces of old friends rotting on the steps. The light seemed to pour out of the vicious wounds on their neck and back, like an echo of blood, burning green and merry.
Jonas kicked the mushrooms aside in disgust and made his way up the steps.
At the top of the stair, a hand print had been charred into the wooden door. The squire placed his own hand next to it, to compare. The other hand was thinner, long fingers splayed.
Is this the devil? Luthen’s devil?
The squire wiped the water out of his face, and entered the hall.