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Crouched in the trees, Jorani stared down the empty road from his hilltop vantage point. Keeping watch, the shittiest job there was, hugging a damned tree for hours while everyone else was dicing, drinking, and fucking. Sitting beside him, Ral kept him company, a daft fucker if he ever laid eyes on one. The hefty halfwit had a full name, some long, southern gibberish, but damned if Jorani could pronounce it. Dumb as a bag of bricks, the giant blockhead attached himself to Jorani for years despite all efforts to drive him away. Humming quietly, Ral rocked side to side, swinging wider with each pass. Blowing out a sigh, Jorani shoved Ral away. “Keep your shit-stinking self away from me ye dumb knuckle dragging oaf.”
Smiling like an idiot, Ral clung to the branch, switching over to swinging his legs. “Sorry Jor, forgot to bath meself again.”
The dam on his anger breaking, Jorani smacked Ral on the arm repeatedly, the meaty bastard smiling through it all. “When do ye ever ‘bath’? It’s bathe you moron! And I only ever seen ye pour a bucket of water over yer daft head, if ye ever waded into a proper pond, ye’d taint the drinking water fer years. I wouldn’t be surprised if yer balls had mould growin’ on em, ye dirty fucking bastard. A little soap ain’t gonna kill ye.”
“Sorry Jor. I bathe when we go home.”
“Bah… What we doin’ up here anyways Ral?”
“Boss said to watch. Wagons coming east.”
“Hmph, we been here for hours and the day’s almost done, ain’t no wagons coming east. Nothin’ to do cept watch wagons goin’ west, that’s where they all headed. Can you believe that last convoy? A hundred and fifty fucking guards for three tiny wagons, a fucking waste. Ain’t worth the risk for three lousy wagons. How’s a man to make a decent living like this Ral?”
“Lotta guards Jor.”
“That it is, and you know what I hear? Some Society bitch is on her way to Sanshu with a few thousand soldiers. Soldiers! Why don’t those bastards go fight the damn Defiled? Harassment is what it is, harassment of common, decent folk. All we want is a tiny taste, enough to drink and eat, keep our bodies warm and bellies full. Inhumane bastards, treadin’ on us poor workers.”
“I like drinkin, Jor. Don’t like bein’ up here though, too many bug bities.”
“Well that’s one good thing about havin’ ye here Ral, the bugs leave me well alone.” Glaring angrily at the empty road, his fingers dug into the tree trunk as he continued to vent. “We Freebooters are getting squeezed out here in the fucking sticks, last winter was a tight one, I tell you that. Now the convoys are gettin’ too risky to roll over. Ye know where we should go?”
“Dunno Jor, where?”
“East, to hit those farms and villages, that’s where. Hardly any guards, we could ride right up to their houses, robbin’ and pillagin’ as we please, living like kings. Them other gangs all know it, which is why they divvied it up nicely. Those Butcher Bay bastards, Crossbone cocksuckers, and Azure asslickers, what gives them the right to tell us where to rob? Bunch o’ former soldiers, fucking cowards are what they are, can’t stand against no Defiled so they gotta take jobs from common working folk. I bet those farm girls all spread their legs at the sight of em, all ‘O please Mr. Bandit, don’t hurt my family, I’ll suck your cock real good’ all while enjoying gettin’ fucked nice and proper. Those milksops, sucking at the teat of abundance while we out here sufferin’ in the wilds.”
“I like teats Jor. Chey lets me touch hers sometime if I ask real nice. They’re soft and fluffy”
Jealousy flared through him. “That tramp’d let anyone touch her giant teats for little more than the price of a drink. Ye might be the only Freebooter who ain’t fucked her Ral. Scrub the mould from your balls and she might even give em a good lickin’.” It wasn’t true, she’d sooner cut a man’s balls off than touch them, but it’d make for a good laugh watching Ral ask. A tough bird she was, cold and murderous.
“Really Jor, you think so?” Ral’s face screwed up in thought. “I dun like the deep water though.”
“Then draw a bath, ye fucking rock-headed, sheep shagging, mouldy dicked – hang on hang on, quiet down now.” Peering westward, he caught sight of a pair of large wagons making their way east, just like the boss said it would. After counting the guards and making sure there were no other wagons following, he shimmied down the tree and ran back to camp.
Stepping past the games of dice, he stopped outside the boss’s tent, listening to the wet slapping and loud moans. Staying outside, he spoke loudly. “Boss, we spotted the wagons heading east like you said, less than forty mounted guards, ripe for the picking. Ral’s keeping an eye on em.”
“Good.” Boss’s voice boomed from inside the tent, but the moaning continued as Jorani waited awkwardly, unwilling to leave. You never wanted the boss looking for you, not with his explosive temper and love of torture. Long as you do your job, you were safe, that’s the way of the Freebooters. Woe to those who defied them, something Jorani hoped to never see again. After a handful of minutes, the boss stepped out with a smile on his face, clapping Jorani on the shoulder, the sour stench of sweat and sex all over him. “Gather round and mount up Freebooter’s, there’s work to be done. The wagons are loaded and my source tells me the guards are carrying a Heart! Easy money for the Valiant Freebooters!”
Splitting into two groups, they circled around and hit the wagon from both sides, screaming fiercely as they rode towards them. Without even putting up a token resistance, the guards abandoned the wagon and put heel to their horses, charging through the Freebooters towards Sanshu with only a few injuries. Jeers and laughs rang out from the Freebooter’s, laughing at the cowards while helping up the injured, while others checked on their bounty, several dozen large jars of wine and boxes of valuable spices. The heart was likely in the hands of the guards, hoping that the wagons would dissuade any pursuers. With practiced efficiency, they emptied the wagons and divided the spoils among their horses, riding south with all haste, only slowing to circle through the many streams and fords.
Once he was certain they were safe from being tracked, the boss led the way to their mountain hideout, through a hidden tunnel and up to a sheltered plateau, their base of operations for years. Gathering together, they laughed and cheered as the boss filled jug after jug with wine, distributing it all for a much-needed day of celebration after weeks of hardship. The spices would net them plenty of coin and food in trade, but the wine would keep the men happy until it arrived, All for the low cost of three deaths. With a jar of wine and a haunch of venison in hand, Jorani ambled off to find a woman to share with.
Hours later, drunk and disoriented, he woke from his stupor, mouth dry and sweating feverishly. His belly cramping something awful, he stumbled out into night, sending waves of pain through him with each step. Making his way to the jakes, he came across the other Freebooter’s gathered around, all groaning in similar agony. The fetid stench made Jorani gag as his companions shit in every crook and crevice, unable to hold it in. Upending a water jug, he sat down and groaned, veins in his neck throbbing from exertion as sweat flowed down his back and liquid fire streamed out his anus.
Minutes of excruciating pain passed as he emptied his bowels, gagging the entire time as his stomach continued to rebel, focused on a single word: poison. Completely drained, he groaned as he tried to stand only to collapse into the cold dirt, his face scrapping across the ground. With his ass pointed skyward, he tried to breathe through the pain and seek Balance, desperate to purge the poison before it was too late.
“Jor, you hurting?” Flipping him over, Ral peered down at him in concern, but Jorani couldn’t speak, his throat strained from silent screaming. “Everyone hurting. I take you to Chey, she’ll know what to do. You need to put on pants Jor, or people get mad.” Pulling his pants up, Ral cradled him like a child and carried him through the village, grinning more idiotically than usual. “You were right Jor, I asked Chey and she helped me bathe with soaps and stuffs, it was real nice. I likes bathes, warm water and suds, it’s lots of fun Jor.”
Even through the pain, Jorani gasped in disbelief, wide-eyed and speechless. That frigid bitch helped Ral bathe? Did she fuck him too? Why? Curse this pain, he needed to know!
They soon arrived at Ral’s shack and Jorani groaned in the darkness as Ral placed him on the bedroll, curling into a ball. A husky, tired voice sounded out next to him as he was shoved him away. “Ral, I know you two do a lot together, but you ain’t gonna do me. You were good big guy, but not that good.”
Chey. By the Mother’s Cunt, Ral really fucked her. How?
“Jor is sick Chey, everyone sick. Can you help Jor?”
“Everyone is sick? …Shit!” Jumping to her feet, she hurriedly dressed and Jorani cursed the dim lighting, her voluptuous frame only a moving shadow. “We have to leave now, it had to be the wine Ral. Good thing we were too busy to drink, but it’s time to go big guy. Guards are probably on their way here as we speak, watching the hideout. The Freebooters are done for, we gotta leave while we still can.”
Jorani buried his face in his knees, keening softly as despair surged through him. His situation was hopeless, he couldn’t even stand much less run. His eyes welled at the thought of being taken by the guards, a life of hard labour ahead of him. Or worse, maybe no one was coming. The poison wasn’t fatal, but he drank several jars of the wine. He might lay here for days, too weak to move and dying slowly of dehydration in a puddle of his own shit and tears. Whoever set this up was a black-hearted devil, merciless and honourless. That was probably the plan too, to kill everyone in the slowest way possible, a remorseless, sadistic inhuman bastard. The only chance of survival was to find Balance through the pain and purge his body of the poison before he was too weak.
Just as he closed his eyes to focus, he felt himself lifted up into Ral’s arms once again. Choking on his surprise, he gasped out a single word, tears leaking from his eyes. “Idiot!” Why was Ral trying to save him?
“Leave him behind, he’ll only slow us down.” Chey hissed quietly, echoing Jorani’s thoughts.
“No, Jor is my friend, I can’t leave him.” Resolutely walking out the shack, Ral face steeled in determination and Jorani regretted not treating him well these past few years. A brother, that’s what Ral was, simple-minded but a paragon of virtue. As Ral carried him away with stalwart steps, Jorani felt hope, daring to dream of survival and planning which gang they could join once they made their escape.
Suddenly stopping, Ral turned and asked, “Which way I supposed to be goin’ Chey?”
…Fuck it all, maybe it was hopeless.
As if the Mother herself were stepping in to confirm his thoughts, he watched as a shadow crept behind Chey, eyes widening in surprise as Ral bellowed a warning, gently placing him on the ground before rushing off to fight. A short-lived scuffle, Chey and Ral were both beaten soundly by a half-dozen soldiers, clubbing Ral viciously as he struggled to resist, until he finally collapsed to the ground, bloody but still breathing. For now.
Closing his eyes, Jorani waited for the cold knife to cut across his neck.
It never came.
Rough hands picked him up and dragged to the central square along with Ral and Chey, the Freebooters gathered with little resistance. The boss was there, clutching his belly and rocking back and forth, eyes darting about to study their captors. Hurriedly averting his eyes, Jorani clung to the thread of hope that the boss was faking his pain. A skilled warrior, the boss might have purged the poison by now, biding his time for a chance to strike.
“Well, well, well. Look at all the bandits, all gathered in a group.” Grinning evilly, a young man strolled forward, studying the Freebooter’s as his soldiers ringed them. Average height and slim build, he was striking in his layered leather armor, glossy black and beautifully crafted. A shortsword on his hip and a punching shield slung across his back, he peered out from beneath his open-faced helmet, enjoying the pain and misery on display before him. This was the man who poisoned them, it had to be, only the wealthy nobles knew how to be so cruel and callous, playing with human lives like a cat toys with a mouse. “And you all said my plan wouldn’t work.”
“I never said that, I said you shouldn’t go through with it.” A maiden appeared at the cruel noble’s side, her helmet framing her beautifully freckled face and luxurious locks of fiery red hair. “Poison is a weapon without honour. We could have subdued these bandits without it, and you wasted all that money on wine.” At the maiden’s side stood a fierce warrior woman in shimmering armour, glaring at him for daring to look upon the goddess, and he quickly averted his eyes. Damn, why were these rich young heroes out hunting bandits? Even worse for them to be using underhanded, despicable means when they were so well equipped, it was cruel and unjust.
“It’s fine, we haven’t even made it to Sanshu and we’ve captured like a hundred bandits with no casualties. I’m sure some of them have bounties for us to collect. Hey what’s your little gangs name?” The young noble stepped forward, taking him too close to the boss while still unarmed.
“Foolish child, the Freebooter’s will be your death!” Roaring in defiance, the boss stood tall and stretched his hand out, close to a dozen Freebooters standing with him, improvised weapons in hand. Guided by his chi, the boss’s spear jumped into his hands in the blink of an eye. He thrusted forward at the noble brat, aiming to take his life. The spear tip flashed in the firelight as it arced towards the noble’s throat. A loud clang rang out, and the spear gouged a furrow in the ground. Falling to his knees, the boss stared at the noble in confusion, his mouth moving wordlessly as blood spilled from his throat, spraying Jorani with a warm, red mist before falling face first into the dirt.
Absently wiping his sword, the noble’s eyes narrowed in thought as arrows and bolts bombarded the few who dared to stand, all resistance quelled in mere seconds. When did he draw the weapon? How did he move so quickly? “Were there any Freebooters on the list?”
“Yes.” The armored warrior woman answered in cold monotone. “Kosal the Impaler, five gold bounty.”
“Five gold? With a name like ‘the Impaler’, you’d think he’d be worth more. Alright, so where is he? Someone point him out, don’t make me ask again.”
The noble’s glare swept across the Freebooters, promising torture and worse with a single glance. Several fingers pointed at the boss’s corpse, and the noble’s face twisted in disappointment before asking about loot. Shivering uncontrollably, all the fear Jorani previously felt for the boss transferred over to this demonic young noble who killed as easily as flipping his hand. Eyes widening as he spotted the token on the noble’s waist, the pieces came together in his mind. A young Warrant Officer with eyes of gold and orange, it could only be one person. Falling Rain, the undying murderous savage, a lunatic who killed any who displeased him. Hailing from a tribe of reclusive mountain warriors who were almost half-defiled themselves, the Bekhai were the Emperor’s secret weapon unleashed against the Enemy in these trying times. Daring to take on the Society, Rain was a torturer and madman, capable of wielding dark magics, controlling monstrous beasts and bathing in the blood of the fallen to gain unholy strength, unmatched by any his age.
There was no hope to be had now that they were in the clutches of a psychopath. Tearing his eyes away, he looked down at Ral who laid bleeding and unconscious. Meet me the next life brother, I’ll look out for you properly next time, treat you right.
Map of Eastern Section of the province, for reference. Keeping with tradition, it’s pretty crappy, but you get the idea.
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