TALES OF A BLOOD EARTH: THE GAMBLE is a serial fiction series set in the world of BLOOD SKIES and BLACK SCARS.
For previous installments, check here.
Tortured screams echoed into the night.
Argus was used to them, but every now and again, especially after a particularly long day, they kept him from sleeping. Sometimes he was able to drown out the sounds with whiskey, or by singing to himself. Sometimes, in spite of the sounds of the dying, he was able to rest.
The black landscape was made stark by the hot white flames of the fire pits. The prison site was spread over the hills in the narrow valley hidden there at the center of the mass of spiky peaks known as the Razortooth Mountains. The air was cold and sharp, and even with the blazing flames every breath turned to ice crystal and fell to the dark and soiled earth.
Argus had never seen ground so black. The stones, the soil, even the water was brackish and thick with dark sediment. It was as if the earth there had been burned from deep within.
“Argus!” Crowley called out from their campfire. His long-time watch partner had an open bottle of whiskey and a deck of cards that he’d set on the small table next to the fire. “Are we playing, or what?”
Argus looked into the valley. There were fortified camps on all four ends. The valley walls were broken slate and sharp stones, almost impossible to scale unless one traversed the narrow man-made paths that led straight up to the camps.
The prisoners were down below, illuminated by the roaring flames. Argus couldn’t count their numbers, there were so many, and he’d learned long ago not to even try. Their features were all but impossible to make out from a distance – they were dirt-smeared bodies, soiled by soot earth and blood, and they writhed in the misery of malnutrition and exposure to the elements and untreated wounds. The fires roared up close the camps, too far away from the prisoners to provide them with any heat. They were only barely fed, and every day most of them were marched up to the rock quarry to shatter stones and search for precious minerals that General Trask knew weren’t really there.
“Yeah,” Argus said. “Yeah…what’s the game?”
“I dunno,” Crowley said after a moment. “Maybe blackjack?”
“No fun unless we’re betting,” Argus said.
His eyes roamed the field. There were children among them, but they were hard to differentiate from the adults. They were all bone thin with famine, bald and weak. Only their eyes were easy to see in the dark, luminous compared to their filthy bodies. Argus realized that no matter how long he watched, he never actually saw any of them move their mouths in scream, and yet the cries of pain and anguish never seemed to stop. It was like they issued out of the night.
Or maybe they’re just inside your head, he realized. Maybe that’s the first sign of going insane.
He smelled charcoal and human waste. The cold wind ground against his bones, and his eyes stung from fire smoke.
“I’ve got money,” Crowley said.
“What?” he asked.
“Money, you moron. To gamble.”
“I don’t gamble,” Argus said. “You know that.”
“Yeah,” Crowley laughed. “Yeah, I know. Argus. Mr. Safe.”
“Yeah,” he said with a nod. “That’s me.”
Across the camp was General Trask’s tent. He could see it even from that distant, large and opulent. Armed guards stood outside of the tent with AR15s and spears slung over their backs. He couldn’t see Trask anywhere in sight – likely inside with a prisoner girl, having his way.
“What are you doing over there, anyways?” Crowley asked, and he walked over. He had to be used to Argus being a little distant. Argus realized that he must have been acting particularly strange if he’d managed to pull Crowley away from both the fire and his drink. Crowley looked past Argus, and chuckled. “How many did you do today?”
“I lost count,” Argus said. He suddenly wanted the drink that Crowley had offered to him earlier.
“That’s not smart,” Crowley said with a sad shake of his head. “How are you going to win the betting pool if you keep…”
Argus’ arm shot out and buried a dagger deep in Crowley’s stomach. He turned and placed his other hand over his friend’s mouth to keep him from screaming. Crowley’s eyes went wide with shock.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Sadness gnawed at his heart, but he’d already made his decision. He’d killed Crowley over and over in his mind well before they’d even started their shift that morning, marching prisoners into the forest to be shot, or stabbed, or burned, or to watch their sons and daughters be kicked or beaten to death.
They were from communities that had protected mages, that had smuggled away budding warlocks and witches so as to keep them from being recruited. According to General Trask, that was worse than selling secrets to the Ebon Cities.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he whispered to Crowley as his friend’s blood leaked down the front of his shirt. He quietly brought his dying friend back to the fire and laid him down. Crowley was already dead by the time Argus wiped his blade and covered the other man up with a blanket. “And I can’t let anyone else do this, either.”
The hard part would be getting to Trask, but Argus had already worked a plan out in his mind. With the General dead, he’d worry about getting those people to safety.
That won’t make up for what you’ve done, he reminded himself. That won’t clean the blood off of your hands.
He loaded his weapons. Those cries echoed in his mind.
The sight of one boy, whose skull he’d crushed under his boot some weeks ago, was frozen in his sight. He would never forget that sight, or the sound of the boy dying, the crunch and wails as he screamed for his Mommy. The sound of an eight-year-old screaming for help was the sound that Argus’ dying soul made, he decided, and it would go on making that sound every hour of every day until he set things right.
Argus slid his weapons into their holsters and quietly made towards General Trask’s tent.
to be continued…
Copyright © 2012 Steven Montano