Chapter 2 - Arbyr execution
When the next arrow lodges itself inside my foot, it’s all I can do to keep from laughing. This one had the good grace to sail almost clear through.
There’s something surreal about listening to folks talk about how they plan to kill you. Those fucknuts aren’t standing more than 15 meters above us, but they’re conducting the how-do-we-off-these-guys conversation like they’re planning next month’s holiday banquet.
Hey, I’m all for some careful strategizing. But tossing around murder tactics while the victims are within earshot just seems so… rude. I mean, they don’t even have the decency to whisper. I keep wantin to shout out, “Hey, you know we’re right below you, yeah? Like, we can totally hear everything you’re saying.” But as Chey is fond of reciting: I don’t think that would be conducive to the best possible outcome.
There’s two of’em up there. The first was pretty obvious from the start. It’s Pang. I don’t need to see his sniveling little mouth to know that whiny voice when I hear it. Every word outta his rancid lips hits my ears like a shart.
The second one… well, that took me a few minutes. When Kamini noticed the torches coming down the dropway, I originally feared they’d brought a goddamn army. Then I realized that I was probably giving ourselves too much credit.
These Reaper degenerates aren’t gonna rustle up an entire posse just to dispatch four Scarlet kids that’ve gone off the chain. Especially when those kids are already locked up in cages, and just waiting to meet their fate. Instead, Pang arrived with only one other colleague.
I first assumed that the other one was just some low-level alley runner under Pang’s employ. But then I heard him talking about other stuff – big stuff. Stuff in far off places like Ucarania. And Prielia. And even, the Emerald Coast. That’s when I knew that this is no foot soldier. This is Rychov.
Namni’s losing his shite. He’s been fidgeting so much that I was originally pretty pissed at him. I desperately wanted him to just calm the fuck down. But I dare not say anything to him, or speak any kinda words. I don’t wanna rouse more attention from the capos above.
But every time Namni get’s his basket to swingin, the sweat breaks out on my forehead and I start motioning to him to sit still. Not that he’s looking at me at all. He just keeps staring upward. And shaking like he’s got the fever. At this point, I just kinda assume that he’s already soiled himself.
As I sit back in my cage, it occurs to me that bro’s probably never truly feared for his life before. We’ve done some crazy-stupid-dangerous shite in the last couple’ah years. The kinda mayhem that makes those respectable types shake their head and write us off. But Namni’s so much younger.
He’s as cocky as any other kid I’ve met. But he’s not in the habit of listening to folks plot his demise. If we get outta this mess, he’ll get used to this. Or maybe… I shouldn’t be as used to it as I am.
He keeps staring up at the branch above us. The one on which Rychov and Pang are perched. The one from which our cages are hung.
I gave up trying to peer up there a while ago. The branch has gotta be nearly four meters wide. So wide that I can’t even see what – or who - is on top of it. Besides, the more I stare upward, the more frequently that those fuckin marchons drop right in my goddamn eyeball. But Namni’s not thinking of any of that. He’s just trying to see some kinda sign that they’re about to finish us off.
I fear that Montal might’ve already stolen their thunder. When we still had a patch of daylight, I spied a few heaves of his chest as he subconsciously labored for breath. But it’s gotten so damn inky up here that I can barely even make out his prone form lying completely still on the floor of his cage.
And if I’m being really honest, I’m kinda relieved that I can’t see much of him right now. With one brother already cracking up, I can’t afford to concentrate on the idea that the other one may already be dead. If I ruminate on that for too long, I’m definitely gonna get all sunk in my feelings. And that ain’t gonna help any of us right now.
Kamini’s just as still, but I know that’s got nothing to do with his physical condition. That rogue’s got an inner calmness that borders on insane. I’ve watched him nearly nod off while arrows are whizzing all around us. Even when he’s running, he somehow does it… calmly. Serenely. If he weren’t one of us it would scare the shite outta me. I think it’s that composure that makes most people assume he’s the oldest in our crew – when in fact, he’s the youngest, by a few months.
Pang: The brats lied to me! Cheated me! Thought they could sneak that counterfeit rubbish into the crop.
Rychov: I know. We’ve been over that. But who are they?
Pang: How in the hell should I know? Alley rats. Orphans. Low-level street thugs. Every village from here to Kwong's got a small army of them. What’s it matter?
Rychov: It doesn’t matter… unless they’re Scarlets.
Pang: And what if they are? What if they’re nephews of the Queen? What if they’re sent from the heavens? The point is that they tried to scam me. And the only trustworthy scammers are dead scammers.
Rychov: How many Inqoan scammers do you know?
Pang: Well… we can start by countin up every shitestain whot calls himself a Scarlet.
Rychov: That’s exactly my point. The last bit of “justice” you doled out dragged us into a series of skirmishes that I’m still cleaning up.
Pang: So I should just let every scam artist in Islegantuan give me the business if he’s got a scent of Scarlet about him?
Rychov: No. You should steer clear of the Scarlets altogether. You know that. This isn’t new. We can’t take them on man-for-man.
Pang: But what about the big one?
Rychov: The Elladoran? What about him?
Rychov: I dunno… It’s not entirely unheard of.
Pang: In the west? Yeah. They got Scarlet cells in the Stonwold that are nothing but Elladorans. But here? In Inqoan lands?
I don’t need to see Rychov’s face to feel what he’s going through. Pang’s a hothead. But this Rychov character is different. His words are forceful – but measured. He ain’t takin Pang’s bait.
Pang: He also told me that they had a solid shipment of wyndleroot, and we know how that turned out. Then he said they report to some Gorata Bofelo. But I’ve spent the last two days in Despac affrontin any Scarlet I could get my hands on. When they weren’t reachin for their blades, they were outright confused.
Rychov: They never heard of her? Maybe they’re just not from these parts?
Pang: I’m telling you, she don’t exist.
There’s a faint glint flittering above our cages. At first, I thought it was a swarm of bottonflies – but they rarely range this high in the canopy. Eventually, I realize it’s Spinner.
He swoops to-and-fro. That iridescent sheen plays tricks with my eyes in the starlight. I’da thought he’d still be munching on marchons, but either he’s had his fill or Kamini’s up to something.
But the dark blob of Kamini’s cage is silent. And motionless. Maybe the critter’s already starting to think about where he goes when his master’s dead.
Rychov: You’re really getting soft these days.
Pang: What’s that supposed to mean? I’m the one who’s ready to off these snotnoses! And you’re just standing here calculating.
Rychov: How many fakes were in the bunch?
I can’t see any part of Pang on top of that branch, but it’s clear that he’s not comfortable with the question. The pause is measurable.
Rychov: Four?! You dragged me down here for four measly bowton roots??
Pang: Don’t go lecturing me on how to run my business!
Rychov: This isn’t your business. It’s our business.
I ain’t even seen this man yet, but the menace in those words puts me on edge, even while I’m dangling down below. From Pang’s response, I can tell that the tone did not go unnoticed. His reply is decidedly more respectful.
Pang: You know this life. Once word gets out that we’re passing counterfeit goods, it don’t take long before every rootboi on the east coast is taking his business to the Scarlets.
Rychov: I’ve never known rootbois to be discerning shoppers.
Pang: Even if no one questions the product, if we let this grift get over on us, the next thing you know I’ve got every street dealer on the Gotten Road thinking he can pass off all his worthless tubers on me.
There’s a palpable silence permeating the night. The slow thwump of Spinner’s wings intermingles with the pounding of my heart in my throat. Namni’s shaking like a spaz. I can feel Rychov thinking.
Rychov: Fine. We’ll kill’em all.
Pang: Thank. You!
Rychov: Listen to me. We’ll off’em right now. But you’re gonna clean up this shite.
Pang: Yeah. Yeah. I get that.
Rychov: Dammit, Pang. I’m serious. I don’t want them left in these cages to rot.
Pang: Well… ok. What would you have me do with them?
Rychov: When we’re done, I want them burnt.
Pang: Like… barbecued?
Rychov: Like, cremated.
Pang: Awww, that’s such a pain the arse. I can’t burn’em up here. I mean, I’d have to drag them down to the surface. Fires attract predators. And… others.
Rychov: This ain’t up for debate. There can be no trace that they were here. After tonight, no one’s ever to know that we met these rogues.
Pang: Fine. I’ll strip’em down and–
Rychov: No. No scavenging. Take nothing off them. I want their packs, their weapons, their clothes – everything – destroyed.
Rychov: They won’t fit you.
Pang: They’ll fetch a pretty coin down in Chacraju.
Rychov: They’ll also be a beacon to anyone who’s interested in the whereabouts of this crew.
Pang: I’m not sure how I’m supposed to profit from this whole mess.
Rychov: You profit by learning to be more careful about who you do business with.
Pang: You act like I’m the criminal here! I’m just trying to move a little product.
Rychov: And that’s why you’re still slinging roots in the treetops of the Tumpian jungle.
If I weren’t facing imminent death, I’d have to chuckle at that one. Pang’s got no reply. His business sense ain’t no longer than his prick – and he knows it.
A rusty lever creaks from somewhere on the branch above. An ancient gear clack-clacks through its paces, pinging through the dark forest like a beacon. Something above is spinning. The ropes holding our prisons strain under the load. Mere seconds later, our cages begin to slowly rise.
Namni: What’s going on??
There’s no use yelling for him to shut up. Even he understands that the time for compliant silence has passed.
Namni: What are they gonna do??
Kamini: I’m working on it.
Namni: I’m not dying like this!
Me: Just relax for a second. There’s gotta be a way–
Kamini: I said, I’m working on it.
Namni: We can’t go out like–
Rychov: What in the hell are you doing?
The lever and the gears are wary of Rychov’s anger. A final clack echoes through the branches. The commotion stops. Our cages are stationary once more.
Pang: What do you mean?? I’m bringin’em up.
Rychov: Why would you do that??
Pang: But you said–
Rychov: If you bring them up, we’ve gotta take’em out one-by-one. By hand.
Pang: Who cares? It’s a buncha kids. Unarmed kids. In cages.
Rychov: Damnit, Pang. Why must you do everything the hard way?
Pang: You have a better idea?
Rychov: Yes, you idgit.
Pang: Well I don’t know how else–
Rychov: Follow me.
Within seconds I hear them walk away. To… somewhere.
Namni: Where’d they go, Jarin? Where’d they go??
Me: How the hell should I know?
Namni: Are they still above us?
Me: I’m… not sure. I couldn’t see’em up there. I sure as hell can’t see’em now.
The next several moments pass like hours. I don’t know where they went. I don’t know how they intend to finish the job. I’m scanning the canopy, but the air up here is an inky mess. I can’t tell if the fog below has actually climbed this high, or if the clouds have fallen this low. But it’s definitely… murkier.
It’s all I can do to keep a visual tab on the others’ cages. They’re still swaying somewhat from the residual motion of the halted ascent. Every so often I catch a glimpse of Spinner’s silvery wings cutting through the haze, and then… they’re gone again.
Namni: What are we supposed to do?
Kamini: The first thing you need to do is shut the hell up.
I wave one hand furiously, trying to convince Namni to just lay low in his cage. It ain’t really doing much good, but I keep waving. That is, until an arrow sings through my outstretched palm.
Me: OOOWWWWW!!!! Goddamnit!
Namni: He’s hit, Kamini! He’s hit!
Kamini: Toss me the arrow!
The arrow he refers to isn’t just sitting in my lap. It’s lodged directly in my hand. Any qualms I had about murky vision are gone. I’ve never seen anything as clear as I see that long, black arrow, with the wickedly-barbed tip, sitting perfectly impaled through my entire goddamn hand.
I’m pretty sure that I’m screaming. A lot. The grey of evening swirls with the foggy atmosphere, the random spatters of my own blood, and the stream of ichor spewing down my arm.
Kamini: Can you toss me the arrow?!
Me: It’s in my fucking hand!
Kamini: So pull it out!
Me: Are you fucking crazy?!
Kamini: I need a lever!
Me: Then maybe he’ll launch one into your hand!
Namni: We’re sitting targets!
Kamini: We gotta get outta these cages!
The following sound is one of the more gut-wrenching songs I’ve ever heard. The twang of a bowstring that’s been loosed. Afore I can properly process exactly what that means, a fire explodes in my calf.
Me: AWWWWW, FUCK ME!
The first arrow’s cousin has found its mark right in the meat of my lower leg. I instinctively grab the limb, failing to realize that I’m flailing at the second wound with my impaled hand. This becomes excruciatingly clear when the arrow lodged in my hand gets caught on the wall of the cage, twisting itself sideways and launching a renewed stream of blood from the wound.
I assume this was followed by another scream emanating from my mouth. I assume that I’m doing a great deal of screaming by this point.
Namni: How do we stop this?
Pang: You got’em! You got’em!
Pang’s evil voice rises from some set of farther branches. Can’t be more than 15 or 20 meters away.
Rychov: I just wounded him. It’s hard to get a clear shot in this soup.
Pang: But you got’em!
Rychov: We’re not just trying to hurt them. We’re trying to kill them.
I’m slumping in some sort of pretzeled position on the floor of my cage. I can still see the surrounding canopy. I think I might even be able to see them. But everything is peppered with random flashes of searing pain that alternate from my hand, then my calf, then back to my hand again. The bowstring twangs again.
An odd moment slogs through my brain as I try to connect the latest assault with the next presumed injury. My eyes are locked shut while I brace myself for the random assault. But… nothing happens. No additional pain. No new impalement.
Pang: You got him!
Rychov: Got who?
Pang: The bird!
Rychov: The dracon?
Pang: Yeah, whatever.
I can see them now. Crouched on a side branch. Rychov nocks another arrow.
Pang: You… you hit him again.
Rychov: That fucking dracon!
A strange something cuts through the raging pain of my wounds: Curiosity. I don’t quite understand what’s happening, but I’m fairly certain that Rychov’s intent is not to kill Spinner.
The blood dribbling into my eye sets off a new wave of panic. But there are no more wounds. I’ve just spread the ichor across my face while I’ve been railing against the pain.
In some cruel twist of medical trauma, my calf begins to spasms with every ounce of strength that’s left in my leg. The spasms, in turn, wrench the projectile into ever-more-grievous contortions, tearing muscle and flaying skin. That pain, however, subsides through the glorious balm of wonderment.
A pattern emerges, the likes of which I didn’t even believe possible. Rychov seems to have turned his aim toward Kamini’s cage. Every half-minute-or-so, another sickening twang rings through the night. And every time it does, an arrow subsequently ricochets off of Spinner’s outstretched wings.
Rychov ain’t shooting Spinner. Spinner’s deflecting the missiles. With every release of the bow, Spinner, well… he spins. In mid-air. And his thick wings are a whirling buckler redirecting arrows from their targets.
Pang: Shouldn’t that dracon be dead by now?
Rychov: Shut up.
Pang: How long can we keep this up?
Rychov: I’ve got arrows for days.
Despite Rychov’s boast, there gotta be some finite limit to this madness. I’m ashamed to admit that I hope he keeps shooting at Kamini. Because I don’t think Spinner’s allowed Kamini to take a single hit.
Indeed, this onslaught does continue for some time. I can barely see straight, let alone tally the number of missiles that Spinner’s intercepted. But it has to be reaching the limits of Rychov’s quiver.
Namni’s stopped yelling. I keep looking to Montal, hoping that no stray arrows find him. I still have hope that he’s not dead.
Who knows how long this bizarre dance would have continued? No man’s got a limitless supply of arrows. But I’ll never know the true extent of his ammunition. For just when I consider trying to count the subsequent volleys, a loud crack splits the night.
At almost the exact same moment, Kamini’s cage lists violently. It’s only now evident that, during this barrage, he actually managed to catch some of the deflected arrows. And apparently, they maintained enough tactile strength to serve as makeshift levers, which Kamini employed to pry, twist, and eventually snap open the lock on the top of his cage.
A guttural cheer escapes from Namni. I’m far more silent. Not only is my strength draining, but I immediately realize that the opening of Kamini’s cage presents its own set of mortal dangers.
The top of Kamini’s cage – the cage door – was also holding the prison in place by virtue of the fact that it was secured to the rest of the basket. When the lock snaps, everything but the roof of the cage swings downward and sideways with horrific force.
Although I’m certain Kamini would have been anticipating this consequence, he’s clearly caught off guard. His long, powerful arm grasps the top of the cage, which now hangs at a 45 degree angle. The rest of his entire body – his feet, his head, his other arm - flails wildly, desperately searching for purchase against the bloodwood latticework.
Pang: What the hell’s he doing??
Rychov: Shut up and keep shooting!
There are indeed two more arrows that sing in Kamini’s direction while he’s still struggling to maintain a handhold and to avoid plummeting to the muddwood far below. But they can’t get another arrow loosed afore it’s clear that Kamini’s steadied himself… and he’s climbing.
Rychov: Aww, shite. We’ve gotta stop him.
Pang: Keep shooting. I’ll take care of this one.
Pang’s unprepared for Kamini’s speed and agility. He’s a fucking phanx. Not much in a foot race. But set him loose over any kinda sticky terrain and he’ll be camped out in your larder afore you even realize he’s got the jump on you. Still, I gotta admit that even I’m kinda shocked by the grace with which he ascends the rope. That boy’s gotta have some homuhn blood in him.
I think Pang intended to strike him down afore he even reached the branch above. But the first time I regain focus, Kamini’s already above us, presumably on the branch, where I can’t even see him.
The next time my senses take hold, Pang’s still lumbering across the far branch from which they’ve been aiming at us. And Kamini is right there. Charging at him like a complete fucking madman.
When the next arrow lodges itself inside my foot, it’s all I can do to keep from laughing. This one had the good grace to sail almost clear through. I don’t even think it’s bleeding much. All the goop’s been spent on the calf wound higher up. If it weren’t for the hide of my longboot slowing it down, I’m fairly certain it would have torn a hole clean through the top of my foot and right out the bottom.
Me: IS THAT ALL YOU GOT, ROOTBOI?!
My intention is to look wherever Namni’s pointing. But I’m fairly certain there’s some random blackout period afore I open my eyes and see Kamini going boot-to-boot with Pang.
Maybe it’s the blood loss that’s got me giddy. Maybe it’s the serenity that comes from realizing there’s a good chance that I’m dead before morning. Whatever the reason, the whole thing just seems… hilarious at this point. Granted, they don’t know Kamini. They don’t really know any of us. But in a fight atween a hungry voorander and Kamini, well, let’s just say my coin’s on Kamini.
Pang’s swinging some ebny blade that’s far too big for him. He’s heaving it around like he’s trying to butcher a parrican. I can’t entirely say whether he’s wielding the blade, or the blade’s wielding him. Don’t suppose the distinction’s important.
In either case, it can’t be more than a minute-or-so afore Pang’s shrill screams are fading away. He drops into the fog. Into the night. And we’ll never have to lay eyes on that cocksucker again.
Pang’s death carries a greater benefit than simply warming my heart. It also stops the archery assault once and for all. Rychov no longer has the luxury of heaving pot shots at the Scarlet kids hanging in his cages. He’s gotta find a way to deal with Kamini. Which means he’s the next candidate to enroll in the Pang School of Flight.
Maybe I’m embellishing, but I’d swear to Baldergash that, when the two of them meet on that branch, the mists part. The starlight reaches through the treetops just a bit brighter. Everything is just… clearer. And despite my fading consciousness, we couldn’t have a better seat on the proceedings if we were first row in the arena.
The first thing I notice about Rychov is that he’s huge. Good lord he’s fucking huge. I mean, Kamini’s basically full grown. And he easily intimidates most adults. But not Rychov. This is the first time I’ve gotten a proper eyeful of Rychov and, holy shit, that rogue’s a fucking mountain.
The second thing I notice is that he doesn’t draw his blade. I guess I just assumed that he’d be every bit as dumb as Pang. Anyone with proper arbyr sense knows you don’t go boot-to-boot on these limbs with some gawdawful blade yanking you to-and-fro. The canopeia's arms stretch far and wide, and they got the strength to support an entire city if you need’em to. But even these majestic branches are dangerous.
There’s knots. And moss. And vines. And odd angles that’ll trick your balance. The last thing any wily soldier wants to do is trust his life to that footing. Unfortunately, Rychov seems to understand this just as well as Kamini.
My joyous anticipation at watching Kamini kick this guy’s arse slowly transitions into a heightening anxiety. There’s a swing. A leg sweep. A backflip. And Rychov catches Kamini square in the teeth with a blow that makes my jaw hurt. But Kamini has no time to gather his senses.
He charges. Rychov manages some balletic maneuver that leaves him out of Kamini’s path. It’s an act of grace that I would not have thought possible for a man of Rychov’s sheer bulk. Kamini attempts to kick him clear off the arbyr. I’ve seen many men get launched off many arbyrs with that exact same kick. But Rychov simply stops Kamini’s longboot in a single hand, like he’s snatching a bottonfly out of the air.
Before Kamini can even process what has happened, Rychov’s longboot is calf-high in Kamini’s scrotum. Kamini looses one of those sickening coughs that you only hear when something has broken inside of you. Somehow, he maintains just enough composure to escape a half dozen frightening blows raining down from Rychov’s massive gauntlets.
Perhaps Kamini could have kept that up. Perhaps he could have just continued evading the blows. If only he hadn’t been backed clear up against the trunk of the mighty canopeia itself.
When he has nowhere else to run, Rychov launches a half-punch with his right, which Kamini tries to evade by ducking to his own right. And Kamini’s evasive action only adds additional force to the real punch, Rychov’s left, which drives deep into Kamini’s ribcage.
I don’t care if it sounds silly. I swear that I actually heard Kamini’s rib’s snap. The blow squeezes a blood-spittled gasp from his lungs.
The effort to stay conscious becomes exponentially more difficult by the second.
I’m not sure if I answer him, or if I only imagine that I’m answering him.
Namni: What’s happening? What’s Kamini doing?
There is only one more thought that flutters through my waking mind. I leave it to you to decide if it actually escaped my lips.
Me: He’s losing. Kamini’s actually losing. And the timing couldn’t possibly be worse.