From birth to death, the living struggled. Such was the essence of life.
Conflict, competition, violence; disease, poison, despair. So many ways to die. Life was always at war with itself, to prove itself worthy of surviving. By its virtue of being limited by time, life became bright and vivid. When you knew of the end ahead, you appreciated each present moment.
That was why no true hunter could tolerate the undead. Loathsome, eternal things, they could not appreciate life to the fullest. They could no longer appreciate the struggle, no longer felt grateful for their extended time. They carried on, dull and cold.
Many of them he had hunted on principle, even without earning any points.
Lugh looked at his trophy wall, the heads of the best prey he had collected over the years. A row of seven dwarfs’ heads, an elite legion that had destroyed civilizations. The stuffed corpse of the last queen of the elves, whom he gave a painless, honorable death after defeating her champion in single combat. Feathers taken from a phoenix he had chased for a whole year around a distant solar system.
A black dragon skull, killed on the moons of Sakar, overshadowed the rest. His first raid on the Concordian territories, and far from the last. He had yet to hunt another dragon, although he intended to once his duty to Grandfather done.
His time as ambassador had made him restless.
Lugh walked away from his wall and sat in an armchair of minotaur hide, in front of a stone chimney. His hound, Failinis, waited near the fire, resting. Waiting. He too shared his master’s discontentment and dreamed of warm, fresh blood.
Mammon had gifted him this “hunting lodge,” a manor of wood and stone that made the hunter feel constrained. Lugh had graciously accepted, although he considered his accommodations unsuited for his kind. Reavers lived on their spaceships, roaming the stars to loot and plunder, never settling. Even Grandfather spent little time on their homeworld of Arcadia, instead reaving in unexplored regions of space in search for worthy game.
Other species would have considered this mansion the summit of richness and luxury. Lugh found it dull and lifeless. He missed the verdant forests of Arcadia or even the lush alien jungles he had gamed in during his youth. This planet stunk of death and decadence.
The Midnight Market had its good points, though. Leisures, lupanars, food and drink, and interesting games. He had made good friends and grown extraordinarily fond of the smart and talented Ace.
Even then, mindless revelry and sex had grown stale.
Reavers had to take the riches they surrounded themselves with, not have them gifted to them. Lugh’s appetite might be bigger than life, he yearned for a challenge.
Grandfather had tasked him with preparing his arrival for the Epoch, and Lugh had obeyed. He had even considered entering the tournament himself with his best raiders, upon hearing of the games’ prize.
Mammon’s new choice of game vizier had attracted his interest as well. In more ways than one. “Morrigan, come to me.”
The corners of the room bent with a violet flash, as a feathered crone manifested near his armchair; an ancient and bent hag with skin purple, black wings, and sharp talons. An unkind death made flesh.
No Reaver looked the same, each taking a shape reflecting their inner self. Cowards took the wings of vultures, tricksters the fur of foxes, strongmen the hide of rhinos, wisemen the feathers of ravens. And royal victors like Lugh, the manes of lions.
Such was their nature, as the apex of the animal kingdom, to take the traits of the spirit they most identified with. Only Lord Revel himself, as the alpha and omega of their kind, transcended the limits of a single animal.
“Prince Lugh. What do you desire?”
Reavers looked down on sorcery as a cowardly tool. With the exception of Lord Revel himself, only women were allowed to wield it, and never for combat. Only physical strength and skill could determine a Reaver’s worth, not an inborn, fickle advantage like magic. Letting sorcery win your battles for you was considered the ultimate sin against tradition. Although he could never prove it, Lugh and many Reavers suspected Morrigan ignored the rules when no one looked. This made her disliked, even in her role of overseer of the hunt.
However, she was too precious an advisor to reprimand. “Have you done the research I asked of you?”
“I have. I have their names, and their identity, and the place where they live.”
“How much are they worth?” Lugh asked, petting Failinis with one hand.
“Homo sapiens are worth ten points. Imps, twenty.”
Low. Very low. Barely worth hunting.
Reavers hunted for points, and the more points the greater the honor at the season’s end. With thirty-five thousand, ninety-three points, Lugh landed roughly fourth in the rankings. He hoped to rank first before Grandfather reset the points.
Lugh only had a few weeks before Lord Revel arrived at the Market to witness the Crimson Epoch, ending the current hunting season and declaring a truce until the tournament’s end. Reavers could not win points and had to behave until their patriarch said otherwise.
Lugh knew his respected grandfather didn’t attend the Epoch only because he loved blood sports. Lord Revel intended to designate a new target for the century’s Grand Hunt, a species the Reavers would hunt to extinction, as they had exterminated the dwarves, the elves, the spriggan, the perytons, the centaurs, and the manticores. The Epoch would let the conqueror see which race would present the greatest challenge to his progeny.
Lugh hoped Grandfather would choose the dragons. Now that would be a hunt worthy of his time. “How are they worth?” Lugh asked again. “The boy smells of dragon blood, and one wears the armor of one of ours. They all wield the spark of sorcery.”
“The elder human did not kill his armor’s previous owner in lawful combat. The dragon could not cast spells and as such was worth twice as less.” Morrigan reexamined her calculations. “The leader is worth one-hundred eighty, the imp one hundred twenty, the others one hundred. Total six hundred.”
A low yield, but enough to make Lugh snatch the third place.
Lugh’s eyes set on his silver spear, waiting above the chimney. His finely crafted weapon, which his Grandfather had gifted him after he earned his first trophy, and followed him on every hunt ever since.
Who was he deceiving? Even if they had been worth nothing, he would still have hunted them out of boredom.
“Morrigan, fetch me a copy of that game, Orpheon.” It had pleased Lugh, and playing it would help him understand his prey. “Lugh will hunt soon.”
“Yes, it happened. I, Mammon, your beloved champion, has been defeated!”
Lyber the werewolf looked at the holo-tv with slight disinterest, spiking his cocktail with Dreamshade powder drug to relax. While his unique biology, mechanical enhancements, and addiction to performance drugs protected him from the nastier side-effects, he needed a big shot to improve his mood.
The lycan basked in the scents of drugs, sex, and meat pervading the bar. A trio of ghoul musicians played a maddening flute concerto with a tentacled protoplasmic singer at the center of the room. Clients tossed fresh meat at them as tips. The bony walls moaned, the skulls of bad customers whispering together.
The Xenosphere was busier tonight, full of new faces, new smells. Contestants for the Crimson Epoch and adventurers looking for a job. As expected from an Underside bar, the clients were the lowest of the low, the horrors banned from the Overside.
Liches and degenerate vampires dry fucking in a corner, twisted tentacled abominations playing dice, beautiful, soulless winter fairies, fleshcrafters bargaining for an alchemically-enhanced arm. The bony bar of Xenosphere welcomed the worst of the living and the dead.
The black werewolf glanced lazily at the fleshcrafters’ wares; he had replaced his left hand with metal and considered enhancing the other. He would have soon enough money to invest in new organs, and a third heart. He had found that the faster the heartbeats, the greater the highs.
The Xenosphere catered almost exclusively to the Market’s hired guns and their contractors. Bounty hunters, assassins, mercenaries, and enhancers gathered there to have a good time, exchange tips, or form ad hoc alliances.
The patron, an old cranky mummy called Dustkin, had built the bar from the corpses of the customers that didn’t pay him, incorporating their flesh and bones into the structure. The structure always gained a new room with every economic hiccup.
His partner, the vampire Storck, sat next to him with both feet on the table, his lidless black eyes set on the tv. Covered in blood-soaked, red bandages, Storck had removed his lips to chew meat faster. Sharp bones and iron spikes protruded from its body, one for each of his bounties.
Unlike Lyber, Storck didn’t partake in drugs. Only pain, mostly his own, gave him a high. “Mur has found a new team,” the vampire said, pointing his bony, bleeding finger at the imp’s birdcage. “And lost his body.”
Lyber chuckled. That was the cost of indulging in low-grade, cheap enhancements. The imp had never tasted true success. “Is he worth killing now?”
“Oh yes, Lyber Lyber. He and his gang are worth more than our last five bounties combined. And we get an official pardon from Concordia for any crimes we committed beforehand in their territories.”
“Ours could fill a book,” Lyber said. “And we get to hunt again in Concordian territories without risking arrest.”
“That’s right, Lyber, that’s very right.”
Not that it ever stopped them. The duo had slaughtered so many ‘collateral victims’ authorities often wondered who they had been hired to kill in the first place.
“What do you say, Lyber?” Storck asked. “Up for it?”
“The leader is in Mammon’s pocket. Pissing off our main contractor could be bad for business.” While Lyber didn’t care about politics, Mammon could easily blacklist him among his dealers. “I heard Dustkin say they were guests of the Shadow Queen, and thus Celia’s.”
Storck bristled at the mention of the undead queen, but he loved money more than he feared her. “We also aren’t the only ones on the case,” the vampire said. “Concordia sent an operative. I caught sight of it in the Underside. A Queen operative.”
Lyber spit out his cocktail, drawing some gazes. A Queen? Those were the Concordian elite, with top grade gear that gave them enough firepower to defeat almost anyone in their way.
“Lyber Lyber, that only raises my interest more!” Storck said cheerfully. “It means Concordia really wants those five dead and buried. The leader killed Blackcinders’ son.”
“And he’s still alive?” Lyber let out a dark chuckle. Getting a Minister in their pocket would make up for angering Mammon. “I say game on.”
His partner let out a bellowing laugh, already imagining a plan. Lyber could almost read it in his mind.
Storck had found Lyber while he was busy mauling a bullman elder on a distant border planet for sport; the werewolf had mistaken Storck as a vigilante sent after him before the vampire joined in the fun. A crimelord the elder banished from Mazeworld had hired the vampire with the exact same goal in mind.
As it turned out, plenty of people were willing to pay Lyber for something he did for free.
They hit it off instantly and formed a partnership ever since. Of course, in a field as competitive as paid murder and bounty hunting, you had to carve out a niche to stay employed; you became the best at hunting Arcadians Reavers, or you specialized in bringing a target back alive.
Not Storck and Lyber.
Nobody made their targets suffer as much as they did. As long as there was more than one person in the universe, someone would want someone horribly dismembered and gruesomely murdered.
Of course, they had professional standards. No reneging on the contract, the customer is king, no killing employers. Lyber was many things, but a lawless savage he wasn’t. “We don’t have to bring them back alive, right?”
“Nah, the bounty says dead,” Storck replied. “We have to bring back the corpses for identification though.”
“So no filetting?”
Maybe he could chew a leg or two? They wouldn’t get in the way of verifying the body.
The fainting holo-screen showed an aerial view of an ill house’s crowd.
This house’s previous occupant had been watching that channel when she heard him eat her generator. He had felt cold, so cold, he had to eat something, anything. She found him gorging on her Flux reserves, and then he consumed her too. He could not stop himself when he was hungry.
Her cold husk laid in the basement, where he could not see it. Where her face could not condemn him, torment him.
Her life had dulled the pain for twelve minutes. Shorter. Shorter than before.
Electricity, warmth, heat, those barely sated his hunger. Only Flux and souls could give him respite. The more he took, the less it worked.
He hated it, the pain, the hunger, the oil leaking from his body, the rot and the degradation. In his more lucid moments he wished for the sweet mercy of oblivion, the honorable demise the Ryu denied him. To commit seppuku and join his ancestors, to make the pain go away, to end his agonizing loneliness.
But he always stopped himself.
He had seen beyond the Black Tower and come back. He had visited the city of the Black, which extinguished even the brightest light. He had seen the single eye watching him from the darkness, the end that claimed us all. The thing the Ryu wanted to keep at bay.
He had seen the Black.
And he would drag everyone down there first.
He caught sight of her on the holo-channel, congratulating a glass man for his victory.
The one light in his empty, tormented existence.
The black horror crawled toward the channel, his mere presence causing the light to flicker. Everywhere he went, he drained light and life, leaving nothing behind.
He had followed her, from Nippon to the Yankee’s dirty town, hiding in the shadows. When she fled Earth, he tracked her down again. He could sense her heartbeat, her brilliant, vivid soul calling to him.
Blood called to blood.
She had seen him, felt him. Feared him. Hid from him. He had tried to keep himself away, to spare her the same terrible fate she failed to save him from.
He couldn’t take it anymore.
Only she could soothe the pain, forever. He needed her, to extinguish her light and drown her in darkness. Only then would he stop suffering alone.
“Kari… this is me… this is me…”
The screen faded to black.
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A/N: as always, an Accel-boosted spell of thank you to my beloved guild of sponsors on Patreon, Dex, BlissForgotten, Johnathan, Marc Claude Louis Durand, Rhodri Thornber, Drekin, Bald Guy Dennis, Floodtalon, Dax, Karolus, Daniel Zogbi, for helping me slay day to day dragons.