Judge, Jury, and Executioner
Sand swirled and hinges squeaked as the lonely tavern’s doors swung in, admitting a new patron into the otherwise empty establishment. Behind the counter at the rear of the room, the old Rhatian bartender faced away from the arrival, his attentions squarely focused on cleaning the taps of one of the barrels of drink.
“You’re late,” he grumbled over his shoulder, “they started almost an hour ago. They’re down in the cellar.”
Heavy footfalls gave way to an even heavier thump as Ignatius Walowik dropped into a seat at the bar and deposited the corpse of a hefty, scar-covered Kiarren man into the seat to his right.
“Are they, now?” the demon sheriff asked, his perpetual grin widening as he watched the barman’s movements freeze at the sound of his voice. “Well, that should save me the effort of tearing this place apart looking for them.”
An awkward silence hung in the air for a few seconds before the bartender dared to break it.
“I’m not dead. Take it you need something from me, then?”
“A beer’d be lovely after the day I’ve been having,” Iggie responded cheerfully.
The rahtian snorted. “Would it, now?”
Reaching over to his ‘friend’, Iggie quietly prised a hooked blade out of the poor fellow’s back, the dried blood making a sickening sucking sound. “Yes,” he said quietly, wiping the red stains from his weapon on the dead man’s jacket. “Yes, I think it would.”
A few more moments of silence ensued before the barman let out a resigned sigh, grabbing a glass and filling it without a word. He stopped a few inches short of the top of the glass and turned to face his customer for the first time. No sooner did the beer touch down on the counter than it was slid violently to the side, just outside of Iggie’s arm’s reach.
“What say we cut the act and you either ask me what needs asking or jump ahead to the part where that axe of yours ends up in my skull.”
Iggie rolled his eyes, flicking his fingers and reaching through the smoke-tinged ring in the air the motion created. His hand emerged from its twin at the far side of the counter, easily plucking the glass from the barman’s clutches.
“You’ve got me all wrong, friend!” Iggie said with a smile. “I’m on duty. Here to kill the guilty and the guilty alone… Unless someone’s brainless enough to stand between them and me.” In a single motion, he poured the drink down his serpentine gullet and slammed the empty glass back onto the counter. He swallowed. “Then… then things might get messy.”
The Rahtian understood the implication well enough. Iggie was creature of many attributes. Subtle was not one of them. He licked his tusks anxiously, and his eyes flicked between the sheriff and the corpse leaning against his bar.
“So… I suppose the place is closing early tonight?”
Iggie nodded. “For the best, eh? That infestation in the cellar needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible. Of course…” he muttered, eyeing the bartender, “it’s not your fault that these pests shacked up in there, right? These sorts of things happen to the best of us.” He squinted. “Right?”
The Rahtian nodded as well - albeit much more quickly - and began to edge his way out from behind the counter. He never once broke eye contact with the sheriff. The till was forgotten and beer still dripped from where he’d not quite managed to shut the tap all the way off, but he dared not stop moving. He’d been granted a stay of execution, and he wasn’t about to pause now and give the headsman a chance to change his mind.
There was no warning before he arrived. One moment, the men and women of the Dunereavers were playing cards, throwing back drinks, and poring over maps of the next settlement they planned to raid, and in the next, the self-titled Sheriff of Sharast was standing in the middle of the dimly lit cellar. Wisps of purple smoke trailed off from the portal that was already sealing itself in his wake, and the bandits could do little more than stare in stunned silence at their worst nightmare made manifest. Smiling wide, he quietly dusted off the tails of his wrappings and cleared his throat.
“For the charges of twelve counts of murder…”
There was an almost tangible shattering in the stillness of the room as the demon began. A man on the far end of the room reached for his gun. A hooked blade hurtled through the air - still stained with remnants of the blood of the last Dunereaver to try a move like this - and embedded itself in the unfortunate soul’s chest.
“...three counts of heinous theft…”
The blade’s twin lashed out, gears grinding as it spun on its hilt, and tore through a nearby human’s neck before nearly bisecting the Jalarren beside him.
“...and several dozen counts of minor theft…”
Someone finally succeeded in fully bringing their weapon to bear. A ramshackle shotgun fired, Iggie’s free hand made a tearing motion, and another pair of portals ripped through the open air of the combined space, sending the buckshot into the back of a Kiarren who had been scrambling up the stairs towards the exit.
“...I find the lot of you guilty!” Iggie cackled as he opened another small portal behind him and reached through it to pull his second blade free of its fleshy, impromptu scabbard. Whirling it back into a reverse grip - and spraying blood across the room in the process - he looked around at the half-dozen bandits left standing. “Anyone care to guess what the sentence is?”
“Nul take you, dubwana,” the largest of them spat, drawing two blades of her own. Given the quality of her weapons and the lavish jewelry adorning her clothes, she was likely the leader of this particular outfit.
Iggie clicked his tongue in mock disappointment. “Not the answer I was looking for, I’m afraid. And after all of those hints I gave you, too!” he chuckled darkly, motioning towards the motionless bodies and growing pools of blood.
Calling a charge, the woman lunged forward. Iggie took a step back, nudging loose the pins on his blades’ hilts and whirling them from side to side to get them spinning. Sparks flew as their weapons met. The sheriff’s custom weapons didn’t actually block the bandit’s first swing so much as rebound violently off of it, reversing the direction of their swing and hurtling back to catch the woman off guard with a pair of unexpected uppercuts of her own creation.
“Grah!” she screamed, “fight honorably, you coward!”
“The folks you slaughtered in Sudesh fought honorably, and just look how that turned out for them!” Iggie laughed.
Bleeding from superficial gashes on her forearms but otherwise unharmed, the bandit charged in again. She was prepared for the demon’s trick weapons this time, batting them aside, ducking her head, and slamming into Iggie with her shoulder. He stood almost a foot taller than her, but his scrawny frame was no match for her bulk. The pair hit the wall hard enough to jog boards loose from the ceiling, and in the immediate aftermath of the impact, the woman managed to recover quickly enough to bring her sword up and take one of the sheriff’s arms off at the elbow.
Everything stopped as all eyes were glued to the squirting stump.
For the first time - ever, as far as the stories went - the dreaded Ignatius Walowik had suffered an actual injury.
Confidence flooded into the three flunkies who had been cowering behind their boss. Now, as one, they raised their weapons and charged forward. They closed in behind their boss, swords and guns prepared to strike… and then their prey dropped through the floor and out of harm’s way.
He fell through the other end of his portal and landed lightly on the far side of the room, barely reacting to the fact that the majority of his arm was lying on the ground several feet away beyond staring at the vacant spot where it should have been.
“Heh…” he chuckled quietly, slowly raising his eyes from the wound to lock them with the bandit leader’s. “It’s about time I found someone around here who fights worth a damn. Competence, at last!”
“More than competence!” the woman responded, standing straighter and licking the orange blood from her sword. “You’ve found the one who is finally going to put you down, mnyama!”
Iggie shook his head sadly. “No, no, I don’t think you understand,” he said. “You’re not my equal. Not by a long shot.” More portals began to pop in and out as the tendrils at his back came into play for the first time, collecting weapons from the fallen and whipping them around experimentally. “No, I’m afraid you aren’t going to put me down, “ he grinned, “you just get to be the first person in decades who’s given me a reason to actually put in a little effort!”
There was barely time for the fear to register in the bandits’ eyes before he was in motion. A dervish of leather and steel, he would dash through walls and drop through ceilings, hooking his spinning axe up through the floor to catch feet and disarm from impossible angles. One of the bandits was down almost instantly, raked across the back as he’d attempted to cower behind a large cask. The other two had managed to avoid panicking entirely, but it wasn’t long before one was missing a leg and the other her head.
Left alone to stand against the demon sheriff, their leader screamed in defiance, hacking and slashing at anything and everything that moved in her vicinity. Sometimes this was an incoming strike, but other times it was bits and pieces of those who had fallen around her. He had already fought unfairly, in her mind. Now he was taunting her. And yet… there was nothing she could do. If she backed into a corner, she would suddenly find herself backing into the center of the room once more. If she stood her ground, it had a habit of dropping away from under her. Slowly but surely she was whittled down. Nicks and cuts and blood loss slowed her down until at last she could barely hold her swords well enough to deflect blows. It was only as her swords clattered from her hands onto the blood-soaked floor that Iggie finally stopped his assault.
Kneeling beside her as she lay on the ground, gasping for air, he leaned in close, his outer jaw only inches from her face.
“Before you meet your god, tell me… What is your name? I like to remember the people that take effort to kill.”
With what little energy she had left, the woman spat in his face. “I’ll not… be remembered… by filth like you.”
“You’re a cutthroat in a desert full of them,” he replied, collecting his fallen arm and standing again. “If not for me, what chance do you have of being remembered at all?”
For once, the demon’s smile fell as he watched the woman die. The reaction to his question - the looks of indignation, consideration, concern, and finally fear - were sobering even to his dark sense of humor.-------
The only surviving bandit regained consciousness to find the killer of his crew carefully bandaging his leg. Or rather, the stump where his leg used to be. Death surrounded the two of them, and yet the sheriff seemed to be unscathed. His wrappings were covered in cuts and blood, but the demon himself was in one piece once more.
“Only ten of you… Eleven if you count the courier. The Dunereavers are bigger than that.”
“Wha-?” the bandit began, but his words gave way to a scream of pain as Iggie pulled the bandage tighter.
“Where are the others?”
“What others?” he said weakly.
“Don’t play dumb with me, friend,” Iggie growled. “I’ve been in this desert longer than your little gang has. Longer than the one before it, too. I know you’ve got a den of your own out there. A rat-hole to scurry away to when things go sideways.” His eyes narrowed. “So. Where is it?”
The bandit’s voice wavered, but he tried to sound strong. “What makes you think I’ll tell you anything?”
“Because this patch job here is my offer to you,” the sheriff answered, kicking the leg stump and ignoring the man’s screams. “You tell me where the rest of the clan hides out when they’re not squatting in a tavern’s cellar, and I let you hobble free. Keep quiet, and I see how many more limbs you can live without.”
“So I get to choose from death or death?” the man cried in a panic. “If I tell you where they’re hiding, someone is going to trace it back to me!”
Iggie’s eyebrow quirked upward and he glanced around the room meaningfully. “How in the world would they do that?”
“I’m the only survivor, here! Someone from the den will-”
“Oh!” Iggie interrupted. “You think someone’s coming out of the place alive once I’m done with it?” He laughed. Then he laughed harder. The bandit tried to respond, but it took almost a full minute for the demon to get it under control. “Aaaaah, no. No, this is a one-time deal for the Dunereavers. Either you hop out of this cellar on one leg and live to tell their tale, or no one does.”
“And if they kill you?”
The two of them surveyed the room a second time.
"Er... Right, right," the bandit swallowed hard against the pain in his leg. "You know the abandoned slaughterhouse in Msafiri?
The sheriff nodded. "It's been full of brigands on and off for decades. You're saying you folks are the latest tenants?"
The man nodded eagerly. "There's tunnels underneath, now. It's the first place everyone looks, but they don't look very hard."
"Clever!" Iggie said with a smile. "Naturally only a fool would use a place like that, so of course it doesn't warrant much investigation."
"Exactly!" the bandit tried to smile in return, though it was a weak effort. "So... is that it? I can go?"
The demon stepped away and held his arm towards the stairs. "Of course! You've been of great help. Be sure to tell your tale - my tale - to as many people as you can! Always helps to keep you people terrified."
Iggie hadn't even finished talking before the man was scrambling through the blood-soaked mess on the floor towards the exit. He wasted no more words on thanks or amazement at the mercy he'd been shown. In no time at all, he'd pulled himself up and out of the cellar and out into the desert sun.
Silence reigned once more as Iggie slowly walked up after the man, reaching the door to the tavern just in time to see his skiff take off into the distance, sand kicking up wildly in its wake. He stood there for a time, watching the vessel disappear into the horizon. A glint of sunlight reached his eye, reflecting off of a small metal object clinging to the top of the mast.
Iggie smiled, then turned back to the bar. The fight had made him thirsty, and right now, he deserved a drink.-------
Hours later, miles away, the majority of the remaining members of the Dunereavers were scrambling madly within their secretive hideout, sequestered among the stone pillars of the old demon settlements. Their man had stormed into the place with news of what had transpired at the tavern earlier in the day, and while the Dread Sheriff had been fed false information, he surely wouldn't be far behind.
Suddenly, there was motion across the ceiling, and the sound of metal clinking against wood as something crawled along the beams. It was dark and hectic enough that no one really noticed at first, but when the odd metal diamond dropped down from above and landed on the floor with a rattling thud, that was a bit harder to miss. Everyone stopped, mystified by this unknown object.
Then the diamond split open. The red eye at its core spun wildly, taking in its surroundings as an array of spindly, blade-tipped legs splayed out from its body and steadily lifted it upright. Before long, it made eye contact with one of the Dunereavers who had been brave enough to approach it. A man who just happened to be missing a leg.
He died first.
The rest would follow soon enough.