Ugo, sprawled in the gutter, flinched. A rent in his purple lip oozed. He moaned, gritted the red-cored stumps of freshly-broken teeth. He covered his face, curled deeper into the bed of dead leaves and musky horse dung.
"Ugo," said the voice again, strong, insistent. A hand shook his shoulder. "Vamos. Come now."
"No. I do not think it true you want to stay here." The speaker, a well-cut man in a grey, collarless suit and wide hat. He knelt on the brick, lamplit street, perched on shined boots. He spoke to Ugo softly in accented but fluent Alagóran. "A shitty gutter is no place for you. Come." He beckoned another figure, a broad woman in leather, forward. Together, they hoisted Ugo by the burst armpits of his shirtsleeves, righted his bare feet on the red bricks.
Ugo coughed, snorted pink phlegm. "Who are you people?" he said, stickily, hands shaking, close to his chest.
"Your new friends, Ugo. I am Paget, and this is Sevansa." He gestured over Ugo's shoulder, to the woman who supported him under one arm.
"What do you want? I have no money. They took it." He pointed forward, over a low, stone wall covered in ivy, towards a yellow-lit cantina bustling with leather-clad cutters laughing and bristling with steel. Cheering voices, rude song, and the clinking of glasses carried well out into the street.
"Yes, I know," consoled Paget. "We saw them throw you out. They mocked you and they robbed you for sport, didn't they? Beat you?"
"How do you know me? I do not know you," said Ugo, blinking his one eye that wasn't swollen shut. He tried to pry himself from Sevansa, wobbled, failed. The large cutter gripped him tighter.
"Ah, I asked the proprietor," smiled Paget. "He told me. He said you were once a soldier." He frowned, looked Ugo up and down. "This is no way to have treated a soldier. If only we were here to stop them." He shook his head in woe.
"Why are you my new friends, then?" accused Ugo.
Paget smiled a smile that did not touch his silver eyes. "Because we would like to offer you an alternative to venturing. Something equally befitting a soldier's skills."
At that, Ugo's eye fixed on him, steady. Paget continued, voice energetic. "That's what you got beat for, yes? For asking to join them?"
Ugo hesitated. "Yes," he growled.
Paget licked his lips, continued. "What if I offered you an alternative. One that made you richer than any cutter…" He trailed, studying Ugo's dispassionate broken face. "And allowed you to take revenge on those assholes who beat you?"
At that, Ugo's straightened. His nostrils flared. "What is this alternative?"
Paget's eyes lit up. He lay a hand on Ugo's shoulder. "Have you ever heard tell…" he said, leaning close to the man's ear. "Of the Sate of Bandelier?"
Someone pulled the blindfold off.
Ugo blinked in startlement at a lavish smoking parlor. His one good eye shot about nervously, watering in the thick, charry atmosphere. It observed a hand, Sevansa's, gripping his elbow. It flitted to low sofas, billiards tables, and mounted heads of spiral-horn oxen on the walls. Fat, red lamps lent those trophy's dead eyes a fiery glow. Shadows of rising smoke and flitting doxbells wavered over the windowless walls, papered in crimson scrollwork.
Nearby one lamp sat Paget, a cigar hooked in his clean left hand. He nodded, smiled his flat-eyed smile at Ugo, gestured to what lay before him. There, supported on the carpet by two half-meter wooden stops, lay an ornate, pole-borne palanquin of medium proportion. Smoke curled, throat-achingly sour, through the silk screen veiling its windows. Not the sweet smoke of pepperelle, but the char of brimstone and the stink of gore dripped on hot coals.
"Saludos, Ugo," said a voice within the box.
Hair rose on Ugo's arms, on the nape of his neck. He recoiled, tried to step back, but Sevansa's grip locked him in place. Paget smiled at him.
"I am pleased to be in like company," continued the voice. Dry, deep. A Southern nobleman's accent. Well-intoned, but lacking certain fricatives, as if hissed through bared teeth. "For you know, Ugo, we share a lamentable similarity."
Ugo shivered again, gulped. "What similarity is that?"
"We have both been wronged, you and I," it hissed.
"I think you know how. I, long ago; and you just this night. Maimed and discarded in idle cruelty by members of a violent caste."
"Cutters," growled Ugo. He used the Firlish word, spat it through his broken teeth.
"Yes," it snarled. Smoke puffed through the mesh. "Cutters. You wanted to become one, didn't you Ugo? Offered them your skills as a fighting man in good faith?"
"And how did they respond?
"Laughed at me."
"And?" asked the voice.
Ugo looked down to the carpet, sneered. He winced in pain as his lip re-split. A fist balled at his side. He seethed, but gave no reply. "They beat you, robbed you for a game, didn't they?" hissed the smoky voice. Silent, Ugo raised his eyes, nodded.
"Cutters did the same to me, decades ago. Brutalized me in my home and left me a cripple. They do it," said the hissing voice, spitting and energetic. "Because, in the risking of their own, they have come to place no value in anyone's life at all, save the pleasure gained at its expense. They are members of a thuggish institution created by greedy men, and they are a tax upon the life of the world." It paused. "I and all my associates have seen the evil of the cutter. We have lived it and forsaken it, have been wronged by its ways. We are united by it." On the sofa, Paget nodded.
Ugo scowled. "I have no joy in playing the victim, Señor de Bandelier. Do not ask me to join in being one."
"You mistake me, Soldier." A strange smile could be heard in the dry tone. "We do not play at victimhood…" In the palanquin, visible behind the screen, there flared two dots of cherry red, like coals stoked by breath. "But at vengeance."
At that, Sevansa left the soldier's side. Ugo did not watch her, for he stared at the palanquin. "Tell me more."
"My own little institution plays the cutters' game, but instead of hunting buried gold, we hunt them."
"I am…" said Ugo, smirking. "No stranger to hunting men. I am also no stranger to entrapment. This isn't some position I can't escape, is it?"
"Not at all. You don't even need to sign."
"Then how do I start? When?"
"Here and now. Sevansa?"
A shadow appeared beside Ugo. Ugo looked, found Sevansa had reappeared. She proffered the grip of a pistol loaded with a heavy coil and oversized mag. Ugo grinned. His bloody face reflected in the black oxide finish.
Inside the palanquin, something hissed, satisfied. "I have a feeling you know where to begin."
Decades ago, in the hot, red-earth hills of far, Southern Bandelier, there lived a young serpent.
A mild worm that dwelt in a dry well and never once ate up the local shepherd's goats and happy children. It hurt not a soul at all, save the long-legged deer of Bandelier's sparse groves.
The children knew it. They feared it not at all when it flew at sunset, like a great, scaly streamer trailing behind bat's wings. They pointed at it, called it pretty. They sang hymns and lays into its well; sang so much they lit some small fire of cognition in that serpent's nourished brain. By and by, they taught it, by all their singing, of the tongue and folklore of their little town. It cherished this knowledge, and greedily consumed all their tales and stories. These, it loved, even the tales of Aveth and of her holy serpent-slayers. It never once associated itself with the monsters of those tales. For, to the children, it was never "serpent," but "friend." In this way, the serpent fattened its mind, and became a clever and intelligent sate.
But years hence, cutters came to the well. Young, cunning cutters, eager to test their mettle on an open bounty for mature serpents' heads. They set a net over the well's lip, and waited for the sate to return at night. When it did, they sprung.
The sate fell easily. Relatively undeveloped from a diet lacking in human flesh, and totally unaccustomed to anything but affection from humankind, it succumbed to the cutters with little resistance. They tangled it, roped it down with ease, for its fire was insubstantial, and broke its delicate wings. They left it that way, still alive, for its head, still smooth and small like a juvenile, satisfied not their bounty's requirement.
That clever sate survived, though not unchanged. It lives on today.
Amid the rough and gossipful spheres of cutters, there circle rumors of fell consequence.
Tales of a force of hunters. Once-cutters, who punish with brutal discretion members of the venturesome caste.
Tales tell of foolish cutters, mysteriously beset by assassins at a seemingly secret Tomb's mouth, set in ambush. Of others, jumped in alleyways by mercenaries proclaiming justice, hired for some willful, careless slight in the past. Of countless cutters made to pay for their wayward and bloody-minded ways.
A name surrounds these mercenaries, these hunters: The Sate of Bandelier. A serpent of contempt, they say, who wields its hate for cutter-kind as a twisted, vengeful business venture. A worm with broken wings who curls in smoking darkness, orchestrating wide-ranging revenge by the behest of all harmed by careless venturing kind, and in perverse service to its own bloody hurt.
Many a cutter, otherwise cavalier in his wanton and greedy action, has stilled his meddlesome, thieving, violent hand in hesitation; in fear that one day the Sate may apply to his actions sharp consequence long overdue.
This came about, inspired by the Dark Brotherhood assassins which strike in a certain videogame if the protagonist murderhobos too hard.
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Gotta say, I am enjoying the pace of articles released lately