The Return

a story
2014-10-27 16:16:27
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The Return

by Gregory A. Brown

The ceiling and walls were a dirty egg shell white, the dull scenery being all Alexander had to look at for the good part of a year since injuring his arm. The wound had healed but the rehabilitation had taken longer than he would have liked and they wanted to keep him longer to keep an eye on his mental stability. A doctor had tried to take Franklin from him once while they were having an argument, but the doctor gave up due to the persuasive barrel of Rilain's shotgun. Alexander had also asked Rilain to hold on to his revolver after a few night terrors where he almost shot a few nurses. He felt like a caged beast in an icy cage; he could see the city covered in a veil of white powder. Oh how he missed the feel of the scorching sun on his face and the smell of Araz's desert winds. He enjoyed Kuu a lot as it was his birth home, and he had flesh and blood family, but to him even his adopted family was the same.

The usual face just blended into his monotonous day, the only glimpse of something better was the brown-haired beauty, Ms. Mikkael. She always brought something to eat while Rilain always snuck in a flask or two of whiskey to keep Alexander calm. Since they were in port, the Gazelle was getting retrofitted with a new engine and coolant systems, although they stayed away from the weapons and electrical systems. They wouldn’t know what to do; only Phinneus Cromwell  knew how they worked, and with what little he told Alexander, “If messed with, shit will explode.”  He paraphrased it, the man’s speech being a bit long-winded for being rescued from the burning hulk of his old ship.  Alexander tried to flex his arm so the muscles would get stronger, but all he felt was a sharp pain followed by a dull throbbing as he ended the exercise. He hadn't seen Rilain all day and the hospital’s eerie silence was starting to get to him. He picked up his knife, sliding it into its sheath as he decided to go for a walk before the boredom killed him. He could only read so much.

The hallways were poorly lit, sunlight barely filtering in through the windows that weren't covered with snow. The rest of the hallway was lit by candles that were gradually burning down to the bottom of the wick, some of them flickering out of existence like tiny fireflies. Patients walked through the hallways here and there and Alexander wondered where all the staff was to stop him, like all of the other times. They had thought he was crazy and wondered how he was still alive with a body covered in scars, some over major organs.  He entered the mess hall where there were dozens of people eating. He saw the staff stalking around like crows waiting to feast on dead animals and he backed out of the room, starting to look for an exit. His arm was sore but he wanted out of the cage; he wanted to hunt and be free like a wild animal. He looked around every corner with a sneaky hesitation, trying to avoid the staff. He wasn't sure where to go until he saw an old plaque mounted to the old stone wall. The facility was huge, much bigger than he thought for a hospital, but it also included the medical school. He wondered if they were using him as a subject to study. It kind of made him agitated which hastened his pace. At last he came to  the end of a hallway which opened up to a large lobby with a small desk where two people sat, one male and one female. Against the far wall were two giant arched doors made out of a sturdy oak, from the look of them. He decided to try and walk out. With the exit so close, he slowly walked, trying not to look like a patient and more like a visitor.

The male orderly asked, "Where are you going?" 

Alexander acted like he didn't hear him, but both had gotten up, trying to block him from leaving. 

"Sir, where are you going? We can’t let you leave," he said again.

Alexander’s mood was slowly turning sour. He just wanted to leave. "I’m going to leave and get a drink. I can't stand this place anymore, so if you want to stop me, you're welcome to try since you know who I am and how I got here," Alexander added as he spoke to the man.

The man quietly contemplated what to do. He worried that if he let Alexander go, they would fire him. He needed this job to feed his starving family and his youngest child had serious medical problems. and all his money went to his family. 

"I can’t let you leave sir. I need this job to help my family, and I would get fired if I allowed you to leave," he stammered as he raised his fist. The female had snuck off for help in dealing with Alexander. The male orderly tried taking steps towards the patient. He had heard the rumors that Alexander and his companions had killed dozens of cultists in gruesome manners, the cultists having had abducted citizens. The Queen had tried to call him a hero and give him a medal for defense of the country, but he had politely declined. Alexander was nervous and he felt a knot in the pit of his stomach. His instinct was telling him to run but he held his ground.

The man heard a subtle sound of something cocking, something circular being pressed up against his back. His legs buckled from a kick and the circular object was now pressing against the back of his head. He tried to turn to see who his assailant was, but all he could make out was a small figure with pointy ears before something slammed into his head, causing the world to go black.

Rilain stood over the unconscious body of the orderly. "You're late,” she said.

"Why am I late? I was waiting for you," he replied.

"Fine, Franklin wouldn’t shut up, anyway.  He wanted to stay in this spot," she added as she took off her backpack, dropping it on the man on the floor and rummaging through it.

"I figured you would show up here," Franklin squeaked.

Alexander sighed as Rilain handed him his shoulder holster and pistol, followed by his jacket. 

"Franklin, you're an ass. I wouldn't have had to sneak around, and why are you carrying my stuff around in your bag?" he asked.

Rilain looked up at him as she put her backpack on." I never took them out."

"Why?" he replied.

She made an awkward face. "I like the way they smell…"

"Okay, that’s a bit creepy," he said to his companion. 

More orderlies started to file into the room and Rilain raised her shotgun, ready to let loose a storm of small metal shrapnel. Alexander slid his revolver from its resting place and relished the feel of the wooden grip in his hand, having missed his old friend. He raised it before speaking.

 "I'm leaving now and if you try to stop me, this room will run red with your blood before you take me down." He spoke in a clear calm tone. 

Everyone started backing up, deciding they didn't want to risk their lives over one man. Franklin climbed off Rilain, scuttling across the cold stone floor. Alexander reached down to let him climb up his arm to his perch on his shoulder.

"That feels better. But you should get rid of those people," Franklin squeaked into Alexander’s ear.

Alexander turned his head to his companion. "They didn't do anything wrong yet. They can keep their lives, for now. Anyway, let’s get going, we’ve got things to do," he said as he started to walk out the door, holstering his pistol.

"What are we going to do," Rilain asked.

Alexander muttered one word, causing a wicked grin to spread across Rilain’s face. "Hunt," he said as he pushed the door open to the daylight-filled world on the other side.

The sun hung in the clouded sky as the wind whipped the fresh snow off the ground in small dervishes, the smell of winter clinging to the air and freezing the lungs with every breath. People shuffled by with big coats, scarves, and furry hats. They had different degrees of cold weather clothing for the multiple times of the season, even though it was always winter in this part of Kuu.

Alexander  lit a small cigarette outside of the Kuuvian hospital entrance,  smoke filling his lungs as he inhaled, followed by the smoke flowing from his nose as he exhaled and drifting off in the wind. 

Rilain handed him a small metal flask. It was very old and the color of tarnished silver. It was monogrammed with the letters T.N. from his late adopted father, Thomas Nolan. It was one of the keepsakes he always kept with him so he always had a last drink in case of emergency. Although they tried to confiscate it in the hospital, Rilain had commandeered it for the time being. 

Alexander lightly unscrewed the metal lid, pulling it close to his mouth, the aroma of whisky wafting from the container. It was from one of the bottles he kept on the Gazelle, which he had gotten from Conwell, a rare vintage he acquired through some rather bloody  means from a man who tried to cheat him over a card game. He had helped himself to the man’s possessions after disposing of the man. He pushed the opening to his lips, letting the liquor flow into his mouth. He missed the taste; the burn as it traced down his esophagus. It was more bracing than the cold wind that was battering Rilain and him.

He shook his head. "That hits the spot a taste of home."

"Which home are we talking about?" a small voice squeaked in his ear.

He turned his head to his other companion. "You know which one, you ass."

Franklin made a small frown. "I'm not a donkey! I'm a land octopus, you know that, you jack ass."

Alexander sighed as he hung his head. "Sometimes I hate you so damn much."

"You're lying, you love me," Franklin said in a series of small chirpy squeaks as he bounced on Alexander's shoulder. Rilain's head moved back and forth in her own little world as her two partners bickered back and forth. She noticed people in the hospital windows, orderlies and doctors wanting him to return inside so they can monitor his fragile psyche. They feared he was very unstable, from what they had observed, but since he was armed, they weren’t going to waste their lives to detain one man. The cost wasn't worth the risk.

Alexander sighed. "It’s good to be out. Let’s go for a walk. I could go for seeing the town, and I miss the Gazelle," he mentioned as he started to walk away from the hospital. He didn't want to go back. They probably wouldn't want to let him out after this stunt. A faint smile played across his lips at the thought of that. 

The streets were a hustling and bustling, busy for midday. All the shops and stands were open, trying to get customers to buy things to earn a living. He noticed a few people were staring at him as they walked. 

"Stop," Franklin squeaked.

"What is it now?" Alexander asked.

Franklin seemed excited. “Look, look, look, look! Over there, LOOK!" 

Alexander turned on his left heel to see a small shop nestled in between a clothing store and a store that sold specially-made hats for people with antlers protruding from their skulls, because people did that in this country. He didn't even want to begin to understand why people wanted to do that to themselves for fashion, but the store Franklin was making a racket about was a store called Emily Curio's Creature Bazaar, the name of it written across the window in red lettering. It was an older building made from old stone blocks and wood. It looked beaten and weathered by the seasons of winter. In the window hung a few small cages of gold and brass, containing small squeaking short-limbed octopuses, squeaking away as they moved. 

"I wanna go see them. I haven't seen another one of my kind in a really long time," Franklin squeaked.

"Really? You want to go in there?" Alexander asked.

Franklin rocked forward to indicate yes without having to say anything. 

"Fine, we'll take a look, if you would just shut up. And Rilain, do not eat the animals," he said, pointing at her. "I mean it," he insisted again. She had a sad look on her face. The store seemed like an all-you-can-eat buffet to her, but she didn’t want to be scolded again.

The door was a dirty olive green, the paint was chipping here and there and the glass was slightly cracked. He reached for the oxidized brass door knob, the door opening stiffly and causing a bell to echo through the small store. Cages and tanks of various-sized animals were collected and littered around the room. There was a large tank filled with sand next to the door labeled, “Skuttlekovy.” 

"You have to be kidding me. Skuttlekovy?" he spoke aloud.

"That’s a rare creature. It is a great addition to any creature lover’s collection," an old lady said, emerging from the back room. She raised a small pair of spectacles over her small beady eyes. Her long silver hair framed her, a pair of long horns protruding straight from her head like she was some horned animal. Her clothes were surprisingly plain browns and greens. 

"I guess she doesn't want to take away from the stupid horns on her head," Alexander thought to himself. Then he went on to say, "Rare, my ass. The damn things are everywhere in Antiford, and they're really poisonous," he said, looking at the cage. "What idiot would want that damn thing?"

She eyed him warily, trying to place why he looked familiar. She couldn't quite place it. "Well, rich people aren't smart and they have money they want to blow. Who am I to tell them what they can or can't buy?" she countered to his harsh statement.

"I wanna meet them, I wanna meet them," Franklin continued to squeak like a hyperactive child.

Alexander moved his head. "Hey, simmer down. We'll get to that. I’m having a conversation with this lady," he said, trying to calm Franklin down, but it was in vain.

"Alright, miss, can I see those other land octopuses in the cages in the window? My friend would like to have a conversation with them," he casually asked the lady. 

Emily thought the question was odd. The fact that he wanted his pet to have a conversation with other pets seemed a little off, but noticing the gun handle sticking slightly out from under his jacket, she didn't want to get hurt. 

"Why, of course, sir," she answered with a fake smile as she moved across to the window. She reached up her long skeletal-like arm and moved to the brass colored cage. The octopus inside was a light green color with black eyes. Alexander put his arm on the table so Franklin could climb off.

"So why does he have a top hat on?" Emily decided to ask, her curiosity having been piqued.

Alexander’s smile was followed by a couple of chuckles. "Why are you asking me? He's wearing one because he wanted to wear one." 

She looked at him, trying to understand what he had just said: “He’s wearing one because he wanted to wear one.” This man was really off. 

Franklin sat next to the cage, squeaking up a storm. Alexander listened faintly, finding it odd that he could only understand Franklin but not the other land octopus. The other one kept on squeaking. This went on for some time.

Alexander realized he wasn't paying attention to Rilain who was staring intently at some furry animal on the opposite side of the room, trying to be sneaky. 

"Hey, what did I say earlier to you?" Alexander said in a stern voice. She stood bolt upright, knowing she was caught.

Franklin broke off the conversation to return to his companions. "His name is Curtis and he says this place is boring. The lady is nice to him but she treats the other animals meanly. If they don't behave, she feeds them to the Skuttlekovy," he squeaked. "Kill the damn thing for poor Curtis, please."

"You know, I am actually okay with this," Alexander replied, followed by, "Rilain, can you go wait outside, please?" stressing his emphasis on the word “please” subtly. Rilain’s ears perked at his request. He never really said the word “please” much, unless he was gonna do something terrible. She nodded her head, quickly hurrying outside, the bell ringing as the door closed.

"She's an odd one for a wife," Emily decided to say.

"Wife? You must have me wrong. She's not my wife; I have no interest in her. She's my business partner," Alexander replied, walking over to the Skuttlekovy tank. He tapped on the glass until it began to stir from the murky depths of its sand tank.

"Can you please stop that?" she said adamantly in protest as he began to open the top of the tank.

He looked back with a grin creeping across his face. "To tell you the truth, I am from here but I make my living as a bounty hunter in Araz and all over the rest of the world, and Skuttlekovy are not pets." The words trailed off as he reached for his revolver, pulling it free of it confines underneath his jacket. He put the gun in the case, placing it on the shell plate of the young hatchling. 

Outside, Rilain heard a loud gunshot and lots of screaming, followed by obscenities she had never heard of before.

Alexander exited the small building. He yawned, stretching his arms to the sky. "Ah, now I feel better. I could use a good stiff drink, though. I have stuff back on the Gazelle. I miss my ship. I should see how all the repairs are going,” he told Rilain. She nodded in agreement. She was still happy to see him not in the hospital anymore. They started walking again as they went through the city, the Kuu militia running by in a hurry, responding to a call for help. 

"Do you think they are going to that pet store?" Rilain tried to mutter, her words slowly being drowned out by the wind.

"Most likely. I did kill one of their animals, though it’s not like I killed the shop owner," he replied nonchalantly, like there wasn't a problem. They walked past more street vendor towards the dry dock. Although the Gazelle wasn't a water-faring vessel, the dry dock still had all the equipment for major overhauls. They were a huge labyrinth of buildings that housed ships getting repaired or built, some of the biggest carriers in the skies today. One building housed the keel of a ship that looked like it stretched forever; another contained a ship that had been attacked by pirates, holes littering its body like a woodpecker of the more temperate climates had punched holes in a dead, insect-infested tree to harvest the bug larva growing underneath. It must have been some battle or one-sided fight. The mast looked like it was broken by a luckily-placed chain shot. He wondered how the ship even managed to stay afloat with that damage. 

The Gazelle was located in dock twelve. Rilain had told him before she wandered off. She said she had forgotten to buy something.

Dock twelve was a tall and old building the color of rust and tarnished steel, the wood looking worn and weather-stripped. A big metal placard hung upon it with the number, “12” written upon it.

Franklin squeaked, "I believe you found the place.”

"I can read that myself. I just have bad depth perception at times," Alexander answered.

Franklin cynically replied, "Then why are you the one that’s always flying the ship?"

"Well, it's my ship and Rilain needs more practice," he said looking at Franklin. 

A large muscular, balding man with an expansive chest was standing outside the entrance like a stone gargoyle perched on a building. The man could have been part gorilla, for all he knew, but Alexander still approached the doorway. Upon doing so, the gorilla man spoke up in calm, threatening manner, like a storm at sea, brewing on the horizon. 

“The area is off limits to anyone except the crew. Go away now before I have to hurt you, little man."

"You'll only let the crew in, you say," Alexander replied.

The man stared down at him without blinking, trying to impose the words of warning he had just mentioned. "Yes!"

"Oh, I’m sorry, I'll be leaving now," he muttered as he turned away to leave. Then he stopped, raising his left hand and extending his pointer finger up into the air, pointing to the heavens. "One other thing, though," he said, his right hand reaching for his revolver and slowly turning around. "I forgot to mention something." Raising his gun in one swift motion, he squeezed the trigger, letting the gun bark in his hand from the recoil. The bullet sailed into the man’s knee cap, causing him to buckle from the excruciating pain. He fell, lying on the ground. He saw the man who just shot his kneecap slowly walk over to him, each footstep seeming to take ages for him. He was so frightened for his life that he didn’t feel the spreading warmth coming from his pants, having just urinated all over himself. Alexander stood over the guard, staring down at him. 

"I'm this ship’s captain," he said, his voice calm yet those few words dripping with anger. 

The man’s eyes widened in fear, paralyzed as he tried to mouth the words, “I’m sorry.” 

Alexander stepped over the man and the slowly-growing puddle of deep crimson-colored arterial fluid. 

Franklin squeaked, "Are you gonna get that man help?"

Alexander raised an eyebrow. "It's not my job. That would be the job of the dock supervisors." 

As he walked into the old hangar, he noticed that there were ship parts everywhere. The portside fan turbine was on a table, oil and grease dripping down from the empty socket from which it had originated. The sight made Alex wince in pain at seeing his ship in such a low appearance. He spied old engine parts on wooden pallets, waiting to be removed by workers. He heard loud bangs that reverberated through the hull as people inside worked like insects building a new hive.  The air still had the aroma of home desert plants and dirt wafted throughout the ship as he walked across the docking plank. The animal cages looked brand new and reinforced to be stronger and more durable, and manacles hung from the wall rocking back and forth as the ship moved. Alexander walked further into the bowels of the Gazelle to find where Timothy was holed up.

The passage way seemed crowded; tools, parts, and clutter were littered everywhere. He ducked under a low hanging pipe to a hole in the deck where a ladder hung from the hatch. Sounds of work echoed from beneath his feet as he crouched down, placing his hands on the railing as he pushed off, sliding straight down the railing. He landed with a loud thud, a few people lifting their heads then hurrying back to their work, their eyes shining with a burning light and determination as they became absorbed with their current tasks. He cleared his lungs after a deep breath, shouting, "Timothy!" His voice carried through the compartment.

A face popped up covered in grease and dirt with a weird magnifying glass contraption containing multiple lenses attached to his face. He replied, "What?!” before realizing who had yelled his name. A smile crept over his face. "Captain," he exclaimed, hurrying over. "What can I do for you? I didn’t know they let you out."

"Well, about that, I kind of just went for a walk," he said suspiciously with a slight raise of the shoulders. "So, how’s my ship doing?”

"She’s doing good. We've almost completely overhauled the steam system, we replaced most of the pipes that were held together with rags you soaked in tar, and replaced some of the wiring, as well," he explained, "and, per your instructions, we didn't touch any of the weapons you have rigged up."

Alexander smiled at Tim. He was happy to hear his baby would be flying again and better than ever. "That’s very good to hear. We need to get out of here soon. How long till she is shipshape and ready to fly, Mr. Faulk?"

Tim was caught off-guard by his question. He stammered through his words, trying to calculate how long it might take to finish all the work and run tests. "A month…maybe two, to be sure," he finally blurted out. 

Alexander slapped Tim on the shoulder. "Good, get her ready to sail as quick as possible," Alexander said as he climbed back up the ladder without saying a word.

Alexander wandered through the corridors, up the stairs to his small cabin. It hadn’t been disturbed since leaving for the job with Mr. Buford. He stepped to his desk where a fine layer of dust coated the top. 

Franklin climbed on to the table, scuttling across the surface, leaving little tentacle prints across the table. He nudged a small shot glass. "Quit thinking and start drinking," he squeaked. 

"And they call me the alcoholic." Alex smiled as he reached for his glass in the desk drawer, lightly tapping the desk to shake the sediment from the glass. He poured himself a glass of the reddish colored whiskey into the dirty glass, and then he poured a shot glass of water for Franklin. He squeaked as he tried to finagle the shot glass to drink. Alexander downed his own glass in a few gulps and moved to his bed, falling backwards onto the sheets as they moved at his impact. The bed felt like heaven compared to what he slept on in the hospital. He had gotten better sleep on the cots in Conwell. He closed his eyes as sleep slowly reached out to drag him under.


He awoke hours later from a rather peaceful slumber, the sound of work still reverberating throughout the ship. He rubbed his eye as a shadow skirted along the edges of his vision. He sat up to see what was moving, discovering that it was Rilain, standing in the corner holding a bedroll. 

"Are you ready yet?" she insisted with a big grin on her face, ever so slightly bouncing on her toes.

"And you decided to stand in my room, being super creepy again?" Annoyance started building in his voice. "Didn’t I already tell you before to stay out of here?"

"Uh-huh," she said, rapidly nodding. "So when do we leave?" She kept repeating the phrase with her eyes wide.

He ran his hands through his hair. "SON OF A BITCH! Rilain, if you don't get out of this cabin, I will shoot you." 

As anger started to break through his calm tone, she made a frown, hanging her head in sadness as she shuffled out of the room. She turned at the last moment to look back, trying to guilt him into getting ready. Alexander just wiped his tired face and stretched, letting out a yawn as he started to stir. His stomach rumbled. 

"I should get something to eat," he said out loud to himself.

"Yeah, you should," Franklin squeaked from his little perch above his bed.

"I know, maybe Vera would like to get something to eat," Alex said, knowing franklin wouldn’t be able to answer the suggestion.

Franklin just stared straight at Alexander as he put on his heavy jacket, sounds of clanks coming from the Skuttlekovy plates that lined the inside of his jacket. It was a crazy decision to even put them in there, but it offered a good bulletproof protection from the more cheaply made ammunitions. It had saved his life on a few occasions, so he enjoyed the heavy jacket. 

Franklin scuttled over to him so he could take his place on Alex's shoulder. "So, where are we going first?" he squeaked.

He thought about the question. "To Aunt Helen's first. I should take a bath, and there are maps and charts of the area to find a good camping spot," he mentioned as he closed his cabin door. He shouted on his way out that he would be back later and they would set out in the morning. Rilain smiled as she closed her door. From what he could, she had been busy; her room was stocked with new-looking pelts. He was glad she had kept busy and not slacked off. He departed, the guard’s lifeless corpse still lying in the same spot he had left him earlier. Franklin was the first to say it: "Well, I guess no one came to help him after all. These people are heartless.”

All Alexander managed to say was, "Yup," as he stepped around the body, the man’s face pale of all color. He looked like one of the dolls Mr. Buford was making in Falinnbannao. 

Alexander walked through the winding streets of Hiemskôg. Aunt Helen’s manor was on the far side of the town in the district of the more well-known families of the country. He had time to read up on his real family history, it being a good read. His ancestors were famous musicians, actors, doctors, and diplomats, although he still considered himself a Nolan. Those bonds couldn't be broken by blood. They were his real family. The Holt's just felt like the adopted family to him. He reflected quietly to himself about his life.

Having this wound had been a new thing to Alex. He usually just drank till he didn’t have feelings, but this wound had made him re-examine his own mortality. He clenched his fist on his left hand, unconsciously tensing the muscles. Thoughts and memories swirled like a turbulent sea and Alexander let out a sigh as the manor came into view from the other end of the street. Franklin had been talking his ear off, but he paid him no heed and continued to zone out as the door knocker let out a solid thump, one after another, until a butler answered the door.

The bath was relaxingly nice and warm. He felt like a lobster being boiled alive, although it felt good. The conversation with his aunt was less than pleasant, the halls echoing with the sounds of a one-sided screaming match as Helen yelled at Alexander for leaving the hospital without consent from the doctor. He tried to explain that they wouldn't let him leave; that they thought he was unstable, off, crazy, and other colorful words. 

Her rebuttal was, "You talk to a land octopus."

"But Franklin talks back to me," he added. "Honestly, I don’t care, aunty. I’m sorry I made you look bad, but I’m going to live my life the way I want, crazy or not. Now I’m gonna go grab my stuff and go camping." 

Aunt Helen was taken aback by his sudden statement and was then perplexed by his suggestion of camping in the pit of her stomach. She felt like she would lose him if she didn’t apologize and make things right.  She decided to tell him about the mountain house, which was a small cabin nestled in the shadow of one of the giant mountains. It was a safe haven, a retreat for all the family if they wanted to get away from all of the noise of city life. She disappeared seconds later to return with a map and a key, insisting he use the cabin.

A lady sat in her small house, a fire burning brightly in the fireplace, the wood crackling and popping as the moisture was consumed by the roaring flames. She sat in her old chair with a book in hand and a glass of wine as she read by firelight. The sun had just fallen below the skyline as dusk had now risen for the time being. Darkness was slowly approaching, the temperature starting to drop as the icy winds howled like wild animals prowling the streets. A loud knock came from the front door, startling the young lady. The sound came again as the woman placed a long ribbon in her book to mark her page. She picked up a knife, just in case. A cold wind blew, causing her to shiver. A man leaned against the doorway and she smiled as the light played off the man’s face, illuminating every nook and cranny of his face. 

"Well, Mr. Nolan, what brings you around at this time?" she decided to say, trying to contain the smile.

"Well, I was in the area and I figured you could use a drink," he suavely tried to say.

"You think I could use a drink?" was her reply.

A cocky grin was plastered across his face. "Yup. I brought the bottle and I thought you had some glasses we could use."

"Well now, I can’t leave you and Franklin out in the cold…mainly Franklin," she mused.

Alexander looked shocked. "You wound me."

"She likes me better than you ‘cause I’m adorable," Franklin squeaked.

A sigh passed through his lips, followed by, "Damn it, Franklin, no one thinks that," as his head reclined, sighing again.

"Well, come on in. I’ll grab some glasses," Vera said with a smile on her face. 

They sat in her small, cramped living room, the fire warming their backs as it burned brightly, the oxygen helping it to consume the fresh block of wood she had tossed on the fire. Alexander had sunken into the couch, closing his eyes as he reclined his head, Vera taking the spot next to him. 

"So, what’s the real reason you came here, my dear?" she said, leaning back.

"Do I need a reason to share a drink with a pretty lady?" He stared into his glass as the whiskey swirled around, splashing at the sides as he rocked it in his hands ever so slightly.

"Clearly something’s bothering you or you would be trying to hit on me more, like always," she mused, causing a smile to crack on his sullen face. 

"Okay, okay, something was while I was walking here. I saw kids playing in a small park and one of them had an eye patch and a toy pistol, playing the hero bounty hunter who saved Kuu. When I asked one of the adults in the area, they filled me in on what was going on. The Queen had labeled me as a hero to the country," he went on to say.

"Well, you saved a city from those cultists, I heard," she said, trying to cheer him up.

Alexander looked over, his eye holding a look of deep sadness and uncertainty. "I’m no hero. If anything, I would be the villain. My job isn’t glamorous, it’s dirty and violent. I can’t be a hero in this story."  His voice was quiet and shaky. It didn’t sound like the Nolan she knew.

"I don’t think I've ever seen you like this. Alex, you don’t have to be a hero." She reached out her small hand to one of his and slowly squeezed it, trying to comfort the shaken man. 

"Thanks, Vera, but sooner or later, they'll see the real me and I might not be able to go back to what I have." The words felt heavy on his tongue. He tried not to get attached too much.

She looked deep into his eye. "You’ll always be you to me, the one I like." They started to drift closer, like passing ships in the night that collided in one giant wreck, causing the ships sink. 

As Alex kissed Vera,  he poured all of his emotion into this embrace, the floodgates of his soul giving way to everything he was holding in. When the kiss was broken, they were both breathing heavy, panting for air. She tried to stand up but her legs felt like jelly after that kiss. Still holding onto his hand, she gently pulled him up to a standing position and led him to the bedroom. Alexander reached up to grab Franklin, placing him on the table. 

"You know the rules, little buddy," he inferred to his companion, who sat there saying nothing, just trying to burn his gaze into Alexander as Vera led him away.

"You son of a bitch," Franklin squeaked under his breath.

The morning came rather quickly from when they had fallen asleep, sunlight peering in from the patches of snow on the window. It flooded in till it reached the bed, causing Alexander to stir from his slumber. He rubbed his eye for he felt rested, the nightmares and memory filled dreams temporarily being held at bay. His vision began to slowly return as it adjusted to his surroundings. He felt warmth next to him and a smile creased his face as he saw Vera's small, slender frame barely being covered by the heavy blankets. She looked astonishing as he leaned in, gently planting a kiss on her forehead before laying back down. He felt her stir and she moved to press her body closer to him, turning to drape her arm over his scar-riddled chest. 

"Five more minutes," she muttered as she slipped back into her unconscious state. Alexander followed suit moments later as sleep took him once again.


Alexander awoke again, hours later. Franklin sat on his chest, staring at him until he finally squeaked, "You left me out there. I was bored."

After clearing his throat, he spoke with a groggy voice, "You know the rules when I’m with a lady." 

Franklin just stared before he scuttled away. Alexander looked around, but Vera was nowhere to be found. Her room was sparsely clad; there was a brown dresser with a couple of pictures resting on its top and an old mirror that looked like it had a slight crack running through it. The aroma of food hung in the air. He heard footsteps coming from the hallway, small footsteps falling on the hard wood. A figure emerged moments later. Vera looked beautiful in the morning light, an apron covering her small robes and her stomach. He regretted getting this attached since he was going to be leaving for Conwell eventually. 

She quickly moved to the bed. "I made breakfast for myself and thought I would share some with you in the kitchen," she mused with a smile as she leaned in close, kissing Alex on the lips.

"Oh, I see what you did there. Very funny," he said with a condescending smile. He grabbed her, pulling her back onto the bed as she playfully thrashed, trying to free herself from his hold on her. 

"But the food," she pleaded.

"I’ve got all I need here, at the moment," he replied, her face turning a deep scarlet as she blushed. No one had ever said that to her and it made her heart flutter as well as form butterflies in her stomach. She quit struggling, just lying there seeming to be enough for her right now. Loud rumbling sounds were coming from alexander stomach. 

"Well, I might actually be hungry," he admitted finally. 

Breakfast was good, being the best meal he had eaten in a long time. He explained to Vera that he was going out into the wilderness with Rilain to train and get back into the swing of things, since he felt rusty with his skills and didn't want to return to Conwell in that state. She protested adamantly, since she didn't want him to leave. After a heartfelt goodbye and messing up her sheets again, Franklin and Alexander departed to meet Rilain at the Gazelle.

A shadowy figure watched from an alleyway across the street as the captain left the small domicile. He had been following them since they made a racket at the pet store. They had a grudge against Alexander for helping foil part of their plans to make the Queen suffer. He cursed under his breath, fowl words about his dark gods raping Alexander’s soul for all eternity. A smile crossed his face, a devious thought having manifested in his mind on revenge. He slinked back into the shadows.

Rilain sat outside the Gazelle on her bed roll, anxiously waiting for Alexander to walk through the entrance. Moments later, the captain cleared the threshold of the building. Rilain had a frown on her face 

"You're late! You're late!" she kept repeating as a tantrum started to brew inside her. Alexander just walked by her, placing his hand on her small head and rustling her hair underneath his fingers. 

"Hold your horses, my stuff is in my room," he said as he continued to walk on by her. He felt relaxed, the tension having drained away from him. He was feeling like his normal self. 

He descended the docking bay door, a heavy bag hanging from his shoulder. Franklin was wrapped up in furs so he looked like a giant ball of fluff.  Tim followed him out to say goodbye as the two departed for the icy wilderness.

Many hours had passed and they still trudged through the freshly fallen snow. The clouds overhead were ominous shades of dark grey swirling in the sky. Rilain had been bugging him to tell her where they were going, but Alexander just kept walking, the scar on his arm burning. The surroundings looked bleak and barren, the vegetation was sparse, and the trees were encased in ice. Pine and spruce trees were covered in the freshly fallen snow, clumps falling to reveal the dark emerald pine needles sleeping underneath. 

Dusk was starting to set and the map showed that they were only a few hours from the cabin.  They trudged on, sounds changing around them as the sun set. There was rustling coming from the trees and they could feel a tension in the air. 

Franklin squeaked, "There’s something around us, I can feel it." 

Alex unslung the old worn bolt-action rifle hanging from his back. He pulled the bolt pin back and slid a long brass shell into the barrel, pushing the worn metal handle back into its locking place with a loud thud. It was ready to fire. 

Rilain had removed her shot gun from its hiding place and she was scanning the forest, trying to narrow in on what was making such a racket.

A large greyish shadow leapt from a rustling bush and the rifle barked in Nolan's hand, the butt of the gun recoiling back in his hands. The creature dropped to the ground and Alex slammed back the loading bolt as the brass shell ejected, cascading out of the rife to leave an imprint on the snowy ground. He started to load another shell as more creatures lunged out from the shadows.  He cracked one in the face with his rifle butt as the other one lunged for his throat. He barely had time to react as he blocked the animal’s mouth with the stock of the gun, the creature knocking him to the ground. Its jaws clamped down, scoring the wood, its breath rancid as it exhaled in his face with saliva oozing from the starving animal’s jaws. 

"Son of a bitch," he cursed at the beast. His arm strength was starting to give way and a pair of wolves were circling Rilain, waiting for a chance to strike. She had already dropped one with her shotgun before the two had emerged. Abandoning the gun, she pulled out her daggers with a hungry expression crossing her face. The wolves snarled at her, testing the boundaries of her reach.

Alexander's arm was screaming in pain as he held the beast at bay. 

"Like hell I’m going to die like this." 

He spit in the beast’s face as he drove his foot into its balls, causing it to let out a horrible pained yelp. Its iron grip was dislodged, leaving it floundering on the ground. He had enough time to scramble back, reaching for his revolver and letting out a volley of shots into the wolf. It spasmed in pain as it went lifeless on the ground, staining the snow. Alexander hunched forward, trying to catch his breath. He looked over at his companion and noticed that both wolves were lying on the ground. Her face was stained red with blood, as she had feasted on her fresh kill. The sight always seemed so unsettling to him, but he always pushed the feeling deep down. 

"God, I'm rusty," he whispered to himself, looking around for franklin. "Are you done hiding now?" 

The bush started squeaking. "Well, hungry animals usual try to eat me whenever this happens," Franklin complained as he emerged from his hiding spot. 

"Rilain, are you done for now? We need to keep moving," Alex shouted as he stabled himself with the rifle. Rilain came alongside him after collecting all of her gear, carrying one of the wolf's legs and eating it like a giant drumstick of gooey raw flesh. 

They continued on until they reached the old rustic cabin. It still looked like a work of art, but that much was to be expected from the Kuuvian people.


The days had been slipping by like a ship in the Fimbrain ocean. Half a month had passed since they had arrived at the cabin and life had been tough at first: cutting wood to burn in the fire to keep warm, sterilizing water for drinking, and cooking. Animals for food had been sparse at first, but they had found a horned deer lurking in the forest to the north. It had proved much easier to take down after they followed it to its den and killed the whole family, taking the trouble to drag the bodies back to the cabin. The carcasses would last them a while, due to their size and the number they had taken down. Alexander went back to his grueling training schedule he used to do physical training, cardio, and sparing with Rilain over and over again. His bruises had bruises when the half month mark had been hit, but he felt more confident in his abilities.

The wolves had been a problem every now and then and they would probe the boundaries of the cabin, sniffing at the door and howling at night, trying to unsettle the inhabitants. After a few nights of the incessant whining and hunting the animals in the area, Alex and Rilain decided to track the wolves back to their lair in a small canyon. Rilain had been watching from trees while Alex sat on the ridge high above with a broken pair of binoculars; he had split them in half because he only had one eye. He carefully aimed as one of the beasts crossed in front of his iron sight and held his breath to steady his hands as he slowly squeezed the trigger. The gun fired with a loud bang and a bullet hit one of the wolves in the head with a sickening crack, leaving a crater-sized hole in its skull. The other wolves were thrown into a frenzied panic.

Alexander smiled to himself. "Serves you mongrels right," he muttered as he reloaded. 

The air reeked of gunpowder as he fired another shot, another wolf going down. The wolves scattered as the wind blew the smell of humans down into the gulley. As the creatures ran through the forest, Rilain jumped down from her perch, a dagger held in both hands as she managed to land on the last wolf, plunging both daggers into the howling beast and cutting its life short. 

Alexander ran from his perch after hearing howls coming from the forested area below. He wasn’t going to let Rilain have all the fun. Sweat dripped down his face as he ran, twigs and snow being crushed under heavy boot falls. He exhaled rapidly as he pushed himself, the conditioning not having been for nothing. He spied the wolves darting between trees, aiming for the small Vibranni. He tried to slow down, bringing the rifle up as he stopped, but his momentum caused him to keep moving as he slid forward, ducking down and trying to ride it out. He pulled the trigger, firing another shot.

Rilain let go of a dagger, leaving it buried in the wolf’s skull as she grabbed her shotgun and squeezed off a shot from one of the barrels of the sawed-off as the wolves doubled back. The first shot hit one of the beasts point blank, eviscerating its face in a shower of small metal pellets. The other shot fell short, peppering a tree as the wolf ducked behind it. She dropped her shotgun to grab her other dagger to start a bloody dance of death, ducking and weaving as she slashed at the wolves. They attacked, one leaping at her back, but she was just a little too slow as she swung back. She closed her eyes as she waited for the end. All she heard was a loud bang followed but a fluid splashing all over her face. She opened her eyes to see the wolf with a crater in its face. She blinked as she realized what happened and, snapping back to her senses, she returned back to the bloody fray.  Alexander kept lining up shots and Rilain proved to be the best bait for something like this; she was loud and distracting. 

After the last wolf had fallen, Alex approached his exhausted companion, patting her on the top of her head. 

"You did good, kid" he said as he headed for the cave in the canyon. 

He reached into the cargo pockets of his pants and pulled out a small metal object with a pin protruding from the side. He yanked the pin and tossed it into the opening of the cave mouth, a loud blast rumbling out of the opening followed by a shower of bones and animal parts. Rilain looked like she was in heaven. Alex drew his pistol to make sure the cave was clear.

Rilain had slung a wolf over her shoulder as she dragged two of them by the tails. Alexander had found human remains mixed in with the animal carcasses. It looked like merchants and travelers had been assaulted, trying to make it to the other side of Kuu. He found bags full of goods and supplies that they had been trying to sell. Slinging the pack over his shoulder, he set out for the cabin with Rilain right behind him.

The month finally finished and it was time to make the trek back to civilization. His beard had grown in full and thick; he had a grizzled look to him now. They had made cloaks and warmer clothes out of all the wolf and deer pelts they had gathered. Alexander had even fashioned a hat from deer pelt with two stag antlers protruding from the top of his head. He had joked with Rilain that he looked like a true Kuuvian now.  Rilain had a similar look to her except she had used a wolf pelt to cover her head.  They began the long trek back to Hiemskôg.

The voyage back was easy and simple. The weather had still been bad; there have been particularly heavy rainfall earlier in the week making everything slick on the icy and snowy ground. It was dangerous and unstable at times, but they made it back to the city safe and sound. The locals stared at the duo as they entered the city’s archway with curiosity and fear. They were clad head to toe in animal pelts and Alexander finally removed the facial wraps protecting his grizzled face, shown for all to see, as they moved through the streets. 

"To the Gazelle," he said to his companions as they started to head towards the docks.

The Gazelle had left the dry dock since she had been put back together and had moved onto the testing phase. As they approached her, the fan turbines began doing start up cycles as steam coursed through the ship, turning gears and cogs so the fans could engage. They cycled through the motions before disengaging and then the fan housing began to rotate three hundred and sixty degrees. They entered the old girl and she looked in fine running shape. Alexander went to go look for Tim to get a debriefing on how things were going. The gazelle was almost ready to fly soon so she would be able to take to the skies running along the clouds like a wild animal streaking through the open grassy fields.

He changed back into his normal clothes, packing the heavy made winter gear away and tucking it safely away in a crate in the far side of his cabin. He yelled for Rilain to tell her he was leaving to see Vera then head to his aunt’s for food and she was welcome to tag along. She wanted to get out for a bit so she followed Alexander as he departed the ship, walking through the winding streets that led to Vera’s small house. There were no lights on in the domicile as they approached and there were no traces of smoke issuing from the chimney. Alex thought nothing of it as they came to stop at the door. He knocked on the door with a loud, hard thud echoing through the house as he repeated the process, but she didn’t come to the front door. Something didn’t sit well in his stomach. He looked at his watch and noticed it was too early for her to be at his aunt's house. 

"Rilain, go around to look at the back door," he said as she disappeared around the corner of the building. Not mere moments later, she shouted for him to come quick.

As soon as Alex rounded the corner, he saw what she had called him over for. Her back door was slightly ajar and the window was smashed open, big enough for a hand to fit through. He pushed the door open with a gentle touch. It swung open with ease and they both drew their weapons as they slinked in. The insides were a mess and it looked like a hurricane had passed through the area. Glasses were smashed and books were strewn about. There was a plate of half eaten food on the kitchen table. He motioned for Rilain to scout ahead as he headed to the other end of the house. Franklin scuttled along the floor, scouring for clues. A rage was building inside Alexander and his hands were starting to shake as his anger seethed to surface. He steadied himself against Vera’s dresser as his breathing came in short gasps, his vision becoming clouded in red mist. Rilain came back, shaking her head to no avail. Seeing the state of her comrade, she kept a safe distance. 

"Look at this," Franklin squeaked loudly as he tried dragging something into the trashed room.

Rilain picked up what he was clutching onto and she looked it over, feeling the texture and handing it to Alexander. 

"This looks familiar, what do you think?" she asked. 

A deep breath exhaled from Alexander as he took the cloth from his companion's hand. It was a solid black arm band and it did look familiar, the memory of where he had seen it last becoming clearer. 

"Son of a bitch. I'll kill every last one of them if I have to," he said, his voice steadily losing its calm demeanor. "Rilain, go back to the Gazelle and tell Tim to get her ready to fly if we have to escape, and then we hunt those damn Cultists." 

Rilain left in a hurry back to the Gazelle, her tiny legs running at full pace. She knew a storm was coming when he got like this; blood was going to fall. The messages were passed and she stocked up on supplies before heading to Aunt Helen’s manor.

Alexander sat at a desk and wrote a note to the Queen, telling her what had happened and apologizing for what was going to happen. 

"Time to be the villain now," he thought with a grin as he sealed the letter. He handed it to one of the servants and gave him explicit instructions to give it only to the Queen before Rilain arrived with a duffel sack full of gear. "Good job," he said, patting her on the head. He hugged his aunt goodbye, not telling her what was going to happen. 

They left and Alex told Rilain to meet in the city square in an hour and to look for the black arm bands. He also ordered her not to interfere, just find them and report back to him. He made sure she understood before they split up to search.

An hour had passed as Alexander leaned against a wall, smoking a cigarette. The ember burned brightly as he inhaled, the smoke getting carried away by the chilly whipping wind as he exhaled. He checked his watch again noticing that Rilain was late by ten minutes and counting. 

"What do you want to do? I bet she got captured again," Franklin whispered in his ear.

"She'll be here sooner or later. She knows not to mess this one up," he commented back to his partner.

Franklin squeaked in return. "I hope you're right on this one. Finding her in this city would be impossible.” 

A short time passed as the minute hand on the watch ticked by before the small Vibranni rounded the corner on the far north side of the square. She patted over, leaving tiny footprints behind her. 

"So, did you find anything?" he asked, bluntly.

Rilain nodded her head and started walking without saying anything. Alexander followed her for what felt like forever. He was on edge, ready to snap; his anger and rage were barely held in check. He rubbed a tiny tarnished silver ring that dangled from his neck. It was a gift from Ruby a long time ago, but for some reason it always calmed him down. They came to rest at the edge of town, staring at the house Rilain pointed out. 

"So, why do you think he is one of them?" he insisted.

"He was wearing a black arm band and when I looked in the window, I didn’t see any of those deer things," she informed him. 

He placed a hand on her head. "Let’s get to work," he stated, as they walked around the building, trying to be careful not to be seen by prying eyes. Alexander reached into his pocket and pulled out a small pack of tools as he began to work on the door.

"Can I try?” she asked. “I wanna learn." 

"I'll teach you later, after we're done with all of this," he replied as a small click came from the lock. He gently pushed the door open, entering the house.

Jacob sat in his chair, reading by firelight. He had had a stressful day at the dock with the Queen wanting to civilize and update the country; more ships had been coming to Kuu with supplies and people wanted to see the ancient country. He cursed her under his breath, the fire blazing away as it consumed the oxygen. It made it burn brighter and brighter as the dry wood slowly disintegrated to embers and ash. A slight creak came from the floorboards, causing Jacob to turn, seeing a shadowy figure looming behind him before everything went black. 

Alexander clubbed him with the butt of his gun. The man was unconscious as Rilain moved to tie him up, putting a gag in his mouth. As they waited, they went about the house, looking around for clues. Alex’s companion was right; there were no traces of the stag statues or religious paraphernalia on the first floor. She informed him that there was a woman sleeping in one of the rooms upstairs. He told her not to do anything with them yet.

Jacob’s eyes began to flicker as consciousness slowly returned to him, like the tide sweeping back into the bay at high tide. He felt a dull throbbing pain echoing in his skull and his eyes began to focus on a man sitting in the chair in front of him. He knew who he was by his looks and the description he had gotten from his friends. 

"Oh good, you're awake. I thought I might have killed you from that blow," Alexander said. Jacob tried to scream but his cries were muffled by the gag placed in his mouth.

"I wouldn’t do that if I were you, or people might get hurt," Alexander stated, pointing upstairs. Jacob felt defeated as his thrashing came to a stop. "I'll take out that gag if you keep quiet. If you don’t, I’ll kill your wife." Jacob nodded as Rilain moved to his side, slightly causing him to jump in shock, but being anchored to the chair, he couldn't move. The Vibranni removed the gag from Jacob’s mouth, enabling him to speak.

"What are you doing here?" he asked with a slight uneasiness to his voice.

"Well, straight to the point. I like that. Your Geovikkan took someone very important to me some time ago and I would kindly like her back," Alexander said with a smile. He toyed with the ring on his finger, slowly rotating it in circular motion.

Jacob took a deep gulp of air as he tried to spit at Alexander. "I won’t tell you anything, you piece of stag shit."

"Fine, we'll do this the other way. Rilain, get rid of his wife." He slid his hand across his throat in an execution-like motion. Rilain started to head upstairs, removing one of her knives from her leg strap. The man’s eyes widened at Alexander’s gesture. 

"Stop, you can’t do that. The Queen made you a hero," Jacob said, and the tiny Vibranni waited on the stairs for the signal.

"I'll let you in on a secret; my reputation in this country and in Araz is like night and day. I will do whatever I can to save her, and if that means killing you and your family, I will do that in a heartbeat. So tell me where they are, or else." Alexander spoke clearly "I'll show you what a real villain is," he added.

After much deliberation, Jacob finally cracked. “Okay, just promise me you won’t kill my family," he said, defeated.  

"I promise," Alexander replied.

"There are two places: underneath the courthouse and in the basement we meet in, which is in a small old white house on the south end near the city library. It has boarded up windows," Jacob explained. 

"Are those all of the locations?" he asked. Jacob shook his head up and down in agreement with Alexander's statement. “Good, that’s all I need to know." 

Alexander got up and moved in close, placing the gag back in Jacob’s mouth. He then moved to the liquor cabinet and pulled out two bottles of alcohol as Rilain emerged out of nowhere with two rags. Alexander pushed the rags into the bottles and lit up a cigarette. The match still burned brightly as he held it to the rags. They ignited, slowly burning down to the flammable liquid held trapped inside the bottles. He proceeded to throw one at the stairs and as they started to leave, he threw the last one at the chair Jacob was anchored to. He shut the door as they walked to the next location.

"I thought you said that you weren't going to kill them," Rilain said, confused.

Alexander smiled. "What are you talking about? I’m not killing them, the fire is doing that job," he replied as they walked away with the image of the house being consumed in flames, the fire licking and crawling out of the windows. Distant screams were heard before the wind drowned them out.

The city militia arrived late on the scene. The fire had reduced the build to embers and had consumed everything in its path, but being held at bay by the size of the snow drifts heaped around the house. The militia questioned all the neighbors, but no one had paid much attention until the fire had become a roaring inferno. When it had put itself out, the officials sifted through the charred debris and found what looked like two badly charred corpses.

They decided to look for the house on the south side of the town, starting on the outside and heading inward. The court house was closer to the docks, if they have to run in a hurry. They traced the streets, sticking to alleys and side streets. They did everything to stay out of view of the watching eyes of onlookers. The city militia was on edge like an animal sensing danger; they were out in force tonight.

They had located the library, its body old and made of giant blocks of solid stone. It looked beautiful for something so simple. They started scouting out, looking for a house that matched the description they got from the now late Jacob. Rilain was the one to find it first, as she had two working eyes to Alexander's one. All the windows looked boarded up and vines were starting to encroach along the dilapidated white sides of the house. The structure looked out of place to all the neatly trimmed and maintained buildings surrounding it. 

"Shall we go knock?" he asked, unhinging the picket fence. He knocked on the front door. "Delivery, I've got a delivery," he shouted.

Footsteps sounded on the other side of the door and the knob started to turn as the old wooden door creaked open, revealing a young man. "I didn't order anything," he replied.

"I know," Alexander added, raising his pistol and squeezing off a shot at point blank range to the man's chest, causing him to sail backwards. Before the smoke left the barrel, two men emerged from the hallway wielding wickedly curved blades. Alexander pointed his gun at them before they ducked behind a corner. 

"Did you bring any smoke bombs?" he asked Rilain who only nodded as she reached into her backpack. He gestured for her to throw one in and she whipped one inside. As it started to belch smoke, sowing the seeds of confusion inside, Alexander pulled something else out of his pocket. It was a small spherical orb. He yanked the pin and lobbed it inside among the confusion of smoke. No one heard the grenade hit the floor, rolling silently as it came to a stop. It detonated shortly afterwards, showering the small space with shrapnel and fire. All they heard were screams and groans from inside after the smoke started to filter out of the holes the grenade had made in the boarded up windows. 

"So, what happens if Vera was in there?" Rilain asked, folding her arms with a blank look on her face.

After a sudden realization, Alexander replied, "I hadn’t thought of that." Then he stepped into the building and walked into the fray of bodies strewn about. He gestured for Rilain to make sure they stayed down as he checked the other room. 

"Clear," he yelled to his companion as she wiped her knives clean. Now that he could see the walls, the inside of the house appeared to have writing scrawled everywhere with pictures and diagrams covering every inch of the room. It looked like the house of cult meetings. 

He reloaded his gun as they left the domicile, onto the next location. This time, people took notice of their action. An old lady was screaming at them from her house and Rilain just waved as they walked away. 

"You know, they might get mad at us," she said, continuing to wave.

"I kinda figured we might get kicked out of Hiemskôg for all this murder," he replied as they hurried.

"Well, that wouldn't really bother me," she added with a playful smile.

"Let’s just finish this first and go from there," he tried to say, but his mind was filled with “what if” scenarios. Alex took a deep breath, trying to push everything out of his mind as the courthouse appeared in view. 

They slinked around to the back door as Alex pulled out his flask to take a deep swig. He offered it to Rilain who made a disgusted face as the liquid burned her throat on the way down.

"Not a bad last drink, if I do say so myself," he added.

Franklin, who had been awfully quiet, decided to speak at that moment. "You've had, like, forty last drinks. I doubt we’re gonna die today,"  he squeaked.

 Alexander checked his gun to see if it was loaded again. "Ready" he said to Rilain as he planted his boot squarely on the door handle, the force causing the door to buckle at the handle, sending splinters and fragments to shower the hallway. 

They entered with their weapons drawn and they started sweeping from room to room until they entered the first court room. The cultists pushed back and fell upon Rilain with more wickedly curved knives that looked like slithering serpents. She brought a gun to a knife fight as she fired, her double barreled shotgun spraying the would-be attackers with a fatal dose of buck shots. They flew through the air like rag dolls as she emptied the room. 

"Clear," she told Alex as they moved towards the stairs, heading to the lower levels. "What do we do now?" 

Alexander was thinking about the question when Franklin chimed in. "Throw a grenade down there and burn them all?" 

Alexander opened his mouth as he began to voice his reply when he heard a metallic sound bouncing down the stairs, followed by the ping of a small pin hitting the floor. He turned to see that Rilain had thrown the grenade. 

"Why did you do that?" he asked.

"I thought that's what Franklin wanted you to do," she replied with a smile.

Alexander sighed at his companion. "You've been around us too long. But what happens if Vera is in the blast zone?"

She shrugged. "Oops." A loud explosion was heard from down below and a gust of air blew up the stairs, carrying dust and the smell of blood.

They descended the stairs and saw that three men were lying on the ground. Alexander pulled the trigger, putting the men out of their misery. He scanned the room until he found another door at the other end of the room. They approached it with caution.

As the door opened, all he could see was a singular person sitting in a chair tied up. Upon moving closer, he could tell it was Vera. Her fair skin was marred with bruises and dried blood clung to her face. Her head hung down and her clothes were dirty, blood covering most of her body. He couldn’t tell how long she had been down there. He cut the ropes that bound her down.

“She’s alive," Alexander said, a sense of relief washing over him as he checked her pulse.

He carefully picked her up and she rested in her arms as they made their way out. Rilain took the lead as he couldn't fight without dropping her on the cold ground. 

As they exited the building through the front door, voices started shouting, "Hold it right there, you're under arrest," a tall wiry city militia detective said, ready to pounce with his saber drawn. The other members drew their swords. 

Alexander tilted his head towards Rilain. "Did you notice that it seems like no one in this country uses guns?"

She nodded in agreement with the captain. 

"I’m just taking this injured women to the hospital, so get out of my way," Alexander yelled.

"You're under arrest. We'll deal with the lady after you're behind bars," the detective yelled back.

Alex let out a sigh. "Hey Rilain, do you still have any smoke bombs left?" he asked as a plan hatched. 

She put her bag down as she scavenged through it, with an "uh-huh" as she found them.

"Good, now throw some at these assholes," he ordered. 

Without any further prompting, she tossed two smoke bombs across the street. As they skidded to a halt, smoke started to belch from the small metal canister. The detective and the men were thrown into confusion. 

"Pansies," Alex muttered as they made their retreat. They ran with haste, although it was awkward trying to carry Vera and run at the same time. It was putting a ton of unwanted stress on his arm. 

The docks were closing in fast. The Gazelle sat in her dock with the dirigible balloon filled and the turbines were gently turning at an idling pace. Two militiamen were laying on the ground unconscious as Tim sat on a crate, holding an abnormally large wrench. 

"You're late, and I take it this is what you meant by shit’s going to hit the fan," he said jokingly. Then he saw the girl clasped in his arms.

Alexander barked orders to the others to run into action as the docking bay door started to close. Rilain ran towards the wheel and Tim slid down the ladder to the engine room as the engines roared to life. Alexander carefully placed Vera on his bed.  

"Franklin, you stay here in case she wakes up," he told his friend as he turned to run through the ship’s insides to take the wheel from Rilain.  

“Where are we going now?" Rilain asked.

Alex just replied, "We're going home."