And so begins a new installment of TALES OF A BLOOD EARTH, a serial fiction series chronicling stories set in the world of BLOOD SKIES. Our latest tale, “The Gamble”, is set for 13 installments. Enjoy!
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An hour before dusk, in a run-down cantina called The Winter Wolf, in the Dregs district of the gritty and grimy independent city-state of Kalakkaii, a game was being played.
The air lay heavy with smoke and ale. The scratch of a mystic grammaphone filled the patron’s ears with tinny music that sounded of mystic chants dropped over seductive tribal drums. Dark wood walls had been decorated with antlers, tusks, old rifles, and the stuffed heads of snow bears. The oaken floor was jammed tight with tables and men: gray-faced, gray-clad laborers from the iron mines east of the city.
Working in the mines and manning the watercraft that ran the length of the Rimefang River were two of the only honest professions left in Kalakkaii, or so Argus had been led to believe. But it was Kalakkaii’s dishonest professions that had brought him there from the south: smuggling, drug trafficking, working as muscle guarding less than legal shipments of goods.
Dishonest work for a once honest man, he thought.
Argus’ nostrils filled with the hard odor of grain alcohol and the smell of roasted winter boar, which tasted only slightly worse than it smelled. The long and heavy wooden bar was manned by a bearded monstrosity of a man named Geist. A pair of extremely pretty barmaids carried drinks with expert grace through the crowd of working men and off-duty town guard; the women were impervious, it seemed, to the groping hands, cat-calls and leers they received. He wondered if the maids offered more than drinks…it had been a while since he’d shared the company of a woman, and there was no question that he missed it.
The game in question was a pit-fight, an informal but extremely bloody series of bouts between gruff and shirtless men with iron-hard knuckles and stony jaws. The fighters came straight from the population of patrons in the tavern, so at first Argus thought that the laborers in Kalakkaii simply made a habit moonlighting as hand-to-hand gladiators, but as he stood there at the edge of the crowd, quietly minding his own business and doing his best to maintain a low profile, standing in the sweat and smoke and haze that surrounded the space at the center of the room where tables were pushed aside to make space for the fights to happen, Argus began to recognize some interesting patrons — small clusters of notoriety hiding in plain sight in the utterly chaotic mess of drinkers and spectators.
There was a cluster of men in the corner of the room dressed in dark cloaks. Each had a simple iron ring that he wore on his left pinky finger. They bore long knives and archaic rifles, and their faces had been made dark with painted runes.
Slave traders of the Shard.
A group of Gol hooted and hollered from one of the few tables on the upper balcony. Their gray skin and frayed clothes marked them as the underground cousins to the more common surface Gol. The fact that they made no effort to conceal their machine-pistols and handaxes just confirmed their identity.
A trio of women sat against the north end of the room, in a quiet corner surrounded by black-clad bodyguards. The women wore dark veils that matched their black and red cloaks, and a number of unsubtle apocalypse runes were cast as patterns or tattoos on their clothing and skin. Even in the smoky darkness, Argus saw their blazing crimson eyes.
Blood Witches from the Razortooth Mountains.
Representatives from three rival crime factions, all gathered in a city that had historically been something of a warzone of crime. That they sat in the same establishment and weren’t killing each other meant that something big was happening, and that almost undoubtedly meant trouble.
Argus nervously watched the groups while the next fight got underway, this time between a dark-skinned Southerner and a blonde giant of a local man. The warriors pounded into each other’s rock-hard faces to a ring of cheers and a round of betting from the crowd. Argus’ eyes stung from smoke, sweat, liqour and tobacco.
They were waiting for something, he was sure of it. Likely whatever it was would carry out quietly, but Argus had a dreadful feeling in his gut, and it wasn’t from the boar meat or the beer.
Go, he told himself. Get the hell out of here.
He picked up his coat. It was impossible to move in the tavern without bumping into dirt and ash-covered workers as they hollered and jeered and laughed and drank with reckless abandon.
I don’t need any more trouble, he thought. I have enough on my hands as it is.
Guarding contraband shipments and occasionally battling natives or wilderness marauders was more than enough for him, Argus decided. He didn’t need to get mixed up in some major conflict between the cartels.
Argus hastily pulled on his armored coat, checked that his guns were in place, and made his way towards he exit.
He was nearly there when the doors flew open, and a rotting, insect-ridden corpse shambled into the room.
This just isn’t my night…
to be continued…
Copyright © 2011 Steven Montano