“Dost thou wander?”
That long, creaky, and earthy cackle.
“It seems he possesses no home. Has’t thou been walking the lengths of this city for moons?”
Rags hung from her arms loosely, catching the brief wind as she held them suspended in the air. It was as if she was reaching to the heights of the towers, hands revolving in the most calculated of movements. Clutched in a bony hand was a bundle of feathers, seemingly taken from a raven or crow. Perhaps it was a token of goodwill, something the hag had tethered her soul to in a desperate attempt to keep the last dregs of her sanity. Or perhaps she was looking to sell it to an unknown audience. After all, the murky sky was unkind to the avian creatures. Birds were rarities.
“Whither does he belong?”
Even so, there was no way of knowing. Not often did city folk have a real reason for the actions they took. Every mental state was more unstable than the last— and it showed outwardly, as well. The filthy rags draped over her body seemed in better shape than her own skin. It was wrapped tightly over frail bones, the surface left leathery and weathered. Wrinkles tugged at the edges of her face, but what gave away her true age were her eyes. That violet hue had become all too common in the older oddities; the clouded, milky irises holding that clear essence of insanity.
Her squeaky laugh was only interrupted by a cacophony of patchy coughs.
“Prithee, little bird— I am speaking to you, yes?”
It seemed as though it was a legitimate question. Her eyes were still locked to the sky and Hitch doubted if they could see at all. Still, he knew well enough not to answer. It was difficult to converse with folk such as herself.
So he simply strode past, ignoring the way her spindly arms waved in close proximity. The way her eyes gazed absently over his face time and time again, attention breaking and piecing back together slowly. The way he could almost taste the rotting gallimaufry cradling her either side, nausea creeping through his stomach and climbing up to brush his throat. Distinguishing any independent object in the wretched jumble was no easy task— it was clear she had insensibly compiled whatever she could to survive. Although, the city did not have much to offer in the first place.
The name of it had changed so many times over the past few years, Hitch found trouble keeping up with it. It was almost to the point that he didn’t even bother. “Aotz’s Cask”— that had been the title engraved in his mind. In his opinion, that should have been the one to stick, if the bones left sprinkled across the Central Cathedral had any importance. For all he knew, they belonged to Aotz himself. If not, “cask” still fit well. It was quite the dreary place.
Yet, this woman seemed to have no issue with it as her mouth curled into a hideous grin. Her eyes darted around Hitch’s frame as he continued down the barren street, that same cackle echoing around him. After all this time, it still sent shivers down the lengths of his back, as if a thousand splinters simultaneously caught his skin. His footsteps quickened as he neared the city’s entrance, unease fading with the newfound silence and promise of seclusion, only the lengths of barren wasteland spreading before him.
The urbanity of cities was unappealing to people like Hitch. Ever since the older folk had so brutally claimed them, being led by people of even more instability, they had forfeited the title of “civilization.” That word had been regifted to the diminutive villages tucked in the darkest crevices of the world, where those still sane made futile attempts to survive. Personally, Hitch hated them. They were depressing, filled with believers and sorry excuses of optimists, all repeating those two useless words: “one day…”
One day, I’ll be able to see the sky a color other than gold.
It was gross and idiotic, the people latching on to whatever false hope they could. Making excuses for the poor state of the world. For the hell they caused.
One day, this power will be gone.
Scapegoats were found, those in power redirecting blame to the gods. Yes, the celestials played a major part. They were the root of the issue, but that didn’t mean the people couldn’t have cut off the stem before it blossomed.
One day, I can rest without the fear of never waking up.
They turned on one another, as humanity was known to do. Greed and need fueled every fight, every broken promise, every faulty alliance, and every fractured society.
One day, Lasalnir will rise again, and rid us of this sickening world.
Disgusting, to Hitch. These people needed change, but did they go out and seek it? No. They stayed put, living in those filthy conglomerates, leaving it to others to do their work for them.
Even so, he still belonged to one. They were like the rest, everyone hopeful yet powerless, and Hitch could even rope himself into that category. Deep down, he wanted a utopia to find him. Work none and gain all, the desire of the populace that had turned into its true fatal flaw. At least his group seemed better than others, and that was, in part, because he was there. The man that traveled. The man that hunted. The man that didn’t merely sit there, wishing for a better world. The man that came to terms with this nightmare early on, whereas everyone else seemed to bumble around the first stage of grief, caring not to move forward. Denial, denial, denial.
One day, we will live again.
But Hitch was just being a critic. Despite the golden sky, bright sides were hard to find. Maybe false hope was healthy. It kept people going, did it not? Kept them fighting and building and surviving. All desperately waiting for that so-called “one day.” Maybe it was good.
Although, because of the vagueness, morals were difficult to label. When it came to actions, good and bad were all relative. It seemed as though there was a section between, and that’s where many people fell. Almost like a starting line, but you chose what race you ran— even though neither had rewards.
Hitch continued walking, footsteps loud on the dusted ground. All the moisture seemed to be completely sucked from it, leaving the dirt and stone cracking beneath his feet. It would only be a matter of time before it rained again, though, and brought plants up through the ash-rich soil once more. It was but a yearly tradition— for it got so utterly hot on the outskirts of Aotz’s Cask in the summer, the brushes caught flame with a single spark. And, if not from a single spark, Hitch swore the stems just began to bake by themselves, the sun itself alighting the chaparral without any need of assistance.
Although now, riding the cusp of autumn, it would be nearly impossible to tell the difference between the smoke and overcast clouds, if not for the smell. Luckily, Hitch didn’t have to worry— he was traveling downwind of it. For now,, all the fire was due southwest of his destination. He was coming from a small camp just west of Bulk, a city recently overrun with older folk like the woman before. Fortunately, Hitch never had to avoid Aotz’s Cask like he did Bulk. Cask was one of the late cities, one that the older folk had gotten bored of when it stopped providing humans years ago. Only certain cases were still present— such as that woman, Lady Raven. Though her true name was long forgotten, she seemed to have a knack for finding those rare birds. Hitch recalled when she was still just a young woman, skin a pristine ivory, tinted with the sweetest shade of pink. Her hair, a shadow, cascading down to meet the bottom of her shoulder blades. Always a proud posture, although it seemed to curl with each passing year. Eyes a wondrous caramel, sunken among her angular features, with rosy lips in the shape of a flattened heart.
Those days were long gone. Only a few of those pitch strands of hair remained, and no color resided in her complexion. No hint left of her brown eyes, the irises taken over by the violet curse. Her back, stuck in a permanent arch, and her arms seeming like the only limbs that still held mobility.
That said nothing for what had happened to her mind, however, even though both her appearance and mental state were slowly deteriorating. Previously able to converse with her, Hitch now found it insanely difficult. So, he had stopped; simply letting her mutter those profound words to herself, wave those frail arms, and cackle to no one in particular, eyes focusing on some unseen target. Perhaps someday he would reciprocate, but he truly doubted it. She was a madwoman.
In his opinion, it was nice they didn’t have many of the oddities up at Queensgrave. It was the place Hitch had called home for the past lifetime, the people there relatively normal— at least, as normal as people got those days. Which wasn’t much, considering the blatant trauma. Even at a safe-haven like that, he understood why Burns always seemed to have trouble sleeping. Understood why Rig was always on edge, eyes endlessly darting. Understood how Glass always hated silence, and how Brooks always shied from the light. Not was it fear but habit as well, and, while Hitch could comprehend why, he always felt the rest of his group was too sensitive to the horrors morrow brought. Though Hitch was afraid as well, he even thought his fears were irrational.
With a staggering, exhausted step, Hitch’s mind was snagged by reality once more. His body’s ache crept down to caress his bones, nothing less expected by a few weeks of travel. It was necessary, though, remembering the past month’s events as the bag hung loosely over his shoulder. The town west of Bulk had a surplus of supplies, and it was the closest camp in regard to Queensgrave. Unfortunately, Hitch’s group had had a very difficult summer, members working tirelessly while reaping no benefit at all. West of Bulk had been kind enough to … “donate” resources, especially to someone like Hitch. With a ring that curled down the length of his hand, Hitch was seen as a near god.
Working his way up the ravine, he was almost claustrophobic. The way that pure ashen wasteland just halted in an uncanny way, like a pure green wall of trees standing stagnant at the edge of a level grey sea. He had lost the queasiness that had seemed so common in the first few times he returned to Queensgrave, but it was still an uneasy sight. Even so, he was thankful for the shelter the flora brought, and the little spruce of color it gave to the otherwise bleak world.
A hand latched to the branch of a young evergreen, Hitch holding the bag of supplies steady as he hoisted himself atop the ledge. He took no precaution for any sort of stealth, nearly crashing through the forest as his worn shoes kicked up leaves. He was exhausted and Queensgrave was close, so why bother with silence?
As he approached the huts intertwined with the fallen trees, fresh leaves coating the roofs for camouflage, voices drifted to his ears. The one was harsh, sharp around the edges as she spoke. It was affirmative and stern, yet slightly slurred, and Hitch knew exactly who it was by the sarcastic fluctuations. Rig.
“Well, did you look for her?!” she growled, words distinct as Hitch drew closer. He stood just paces away from the door, heavy eyes struggling to stay open.
“N-No, Rig. It’s not like she’s lost. You know Brooks,” another voice replied. It was smaller, seemingly more timid as it shook.
“Of course I know her! I know how ungodly dull-witted she can be, and how— how dastardly irresponsible!” Rig replied, words tinted with that fiery annoyance. “Seems as though you follow suit, hm?”
With a sigh, Hitch nearly fell into the door, pushing it open with the majority of his weight. Without missing a beat, he shoved the bag to the ground, amber eyes blinking up to meet Rig’s.
“Let ‘em be,” he mumbled, words resonating with more of a whisper than the sharpness he intended. “Brooks’ll be back. She always comes back.”
Rig’s rant halted abruptly, seemingly frozen in time as she leaned forward, pressing aggressively into the little boy’s space. As her eyes adjusted to Hitch’s frame, she carefully stood upright once more. Although her “upright” was still relatively unsteady; Hitch would assume it was an effect of the bottle she held in a limp hand.
Glass, the boy’s name was. A coined term referencing the shard of glass that had sliced through his right eye when he was younger. Hitch had never liked the name and thought the boy deserved something better; something holding strength rather than that shattering weakness. But, then again, Hitch wasn’t a fan of his own name either.
“Welcome back, Hitch,” Rig uttered, monotone. “What did Wob offer?”
“Supplies. What we asked for.”
“Don’t test my patience. What did they give?”
Hitch, leaving one hand hidden behind his cloak, picked up the bag with the other, tossing it over. “See for yourself.”
Glass stayed silent, guilelessly, simply sitting at his wooden stool with an emotionless face. Hitch would have been heartbroken if he cared at all, watching the evolution of the poor kid. He used to light with joy every time Hitch arrived, digging through the bag to find any toys or gifts. Since he had grown older, that excitement latched onto his childhood, ceasing to grow with him. Now it was just the occasional shy glance from under matted blond hair, strands untamed as they cascaded around his round, pink ears.
“Where’s Burns?” Hitch asked, although the question held the same air as a blatant command.
“Out,” said Rig mordantly, already cutting the ropes to the sack. “He said he wanted to look at the stars.”
“No. Just ‘stars.’”
“Hitch, you were gone for a week. What do you expect? Him to recite the history of the pantheon?”
The man didn’t reply, simply leaning against the doorframe as his breathing steadied.
“He’d be happy t’ see you,” she said, pausing for a moment to glance up to where Hitch stood. “And maybe, while you’re out, you could look for Brooks. Glass lost ‘er, like the oldie he is.”
“I did n—,” the boy began, but his words were cut prematurely by Hitch clearing his throat.
“Brooks is never lost. Get some rest, Rig. You’ve been working all day.” He spoke with mannered authority, holding himself higher than before as he turned for the door.
“How would you know?”
“The bags beneath your eyes speak volumes. Sleep off that drunkenness, you good-for-nothing hooch-head. Alright?”
“You don’t call me a hooch—.”
“And, Glass? Don’t let her push you around. She shoves, you shove right back. Got it?”
“I … Yes,” the boy replied, head barely bobbing as he averted his eyes.
Without another word, Hitch left, the door still ajar as the night breeze blew in effortlessly. Almost as freely and simultaneously brittle as Hitch’s train of thought. With exhaustion came the rush of overthinking, and a conversation with the extremely hubristic and petulant Rig would only add to that faulty mindset. As a solution, Hitch decided to spend his time elsewhere, with a more… simple, jocular, and placid man.
He ducked below branches and stepped carelessly over bramble, all of which tore so brutally at any and all exposed skin. It would have been infinitely brighter to traverse the lengths of the forest with heavy clothing, but as an avid traveler, Hitch was attuned to light coverings. The rest of the group would declare thoughtlessly that they wouldn’t pride him on his adroitness, and instead on his sheer heartlessness and near hollowness. Pain was naught but a dilatory nuisance fit to be ignored in his eyes. That is what kept him walking. Never would pain be such an adamant hindrance.
The night was noticeably less baleful than the others, the smoke from Aotz’s Cask seeming to drift on, utterly directionless. The gentle breeze was almost mendacious, for in just a few days it would evolve into the brutal storm autumn always offered. It was the first time in a long while where the stars made themselves known, however, and the calm wind was to blame. Hitch would have been surprised that Burns had enough sense in his head to notice the change in weather, if he didn’t suspect the man had simply looked out a window and relayed what he saw, then wandered off for no reason in particular. Although, that hunch was put to rest as he stumbled across the reclined frame of a disgruntled Burns, arms outstretched to the sky as his face twisted into a grimace.
The moon’s light glared, smudged across the grass like an oil painting. It was as if a celestial being held a piece of stained white glass over its bearings, the light hindered from some kind of low-opacity wall. It bounced off of the healthier side of Burns’s body— if that was even the proper word. To put it simply, the man had earned his name. A failed experiment left him with grotesque burn scars up the length of his left side, from the tips of his fingers to the frayed hairs loosely coating his head. His silvery beard was left uneven, the strands poking painfully through churned skin. Milky eyes gazed to the sky, almost perfectly mirroring the constellations, like the piece of a practiced artist who had mastered the craft of replication. They sat sunken beneath angular features, pale skin nearly glowing among the darkness.
Hitch stopped short of the clearing, eyes locked to Burns absently. It was evident that he hadn’t been notified of Hitch’s arrival, so Hitch stood on the outskirts to observe for just a moment longer. At that moment, Burns dropped his arms back down to his sides with palms overturned and eyes blinking frantically as if the sky had given an unexpected answer to one of his long-debated questions.
“Burns,” Hitch finally uttered, voice monotonous. The man replied with largely different enthusiasm, nearly shaking as he flew upright, eyes dancing over Hitch’s body with no clear target. After gandering for quite some time, it was as if he finally came to the conclusion that yes, this was Hitch, and it was okay to celebrate his return.
With bright but clouded eyes, Burns offered an overly excited smile, which could be equally described as nearly spasmodic. It would take extreme effort to push himself to his feet, so he stayed stagnant, sitting there on the ground with blades of damp grass grasped tight in either hand. His left one, however, had much more trouble— he was missing his forefinger, resulting in a grossly large gap between his thumb and the rest of his ragged appendages. It was the root of his faulty, relatively vacuous excuse of a mind. The man no longer held a ring on his body.
There was no audible reply besides a string of irrelevant nonsense; just a pure yap of emotion, fit for gibberish poetry. The fluctuation excitement brought was prevalent, but otherwise, Hitch understood very little.
In what seemed like a futile attempt at bonding, Hitch tried tirelessly to meet Burns’s eyes, to no avail. They just couldn’t seem to focus on any one feature, so after a moment of searching, Hitch gave up altogether and took up a seat beside the man. When he got close enough, Burns frantically grabbed hold of Hitch’s left hand, almost laying across the man in order to reach it. He pulled up the sleeve, propping the hand close to his eyes, as if seeing was a task he couldn’t quite do well.
A strike of guilt tore through Hitch’s empty gut as his eyes caught sight of that forbidden silver. On the forefinger of his left hand, a silver ring stretched down in elaborate patterns, permeating the lengths of his hand until it met his wrist, then twirled to a halt. With the contraption, it was impossible to move his fingers whatsoever— something he couldn’t help but love and hate.
Burns’s face twisted quickly from blank confusion to pure disgust, eyes as lively as bone as he glared toward the silvery gauntlet. He knew well enough that it was larger than the last time he had seen it, even though he could barely remember his own name … let alone say it. But it was true: the ring used to only meet the edge of his palm. Now, it crawled around his wrist, seemingly just one more addition. One more life Hitch took. Just another drop in the stormy, ever-growing, wickedly-churning sea.
It wasn’t anything he regretted, ever. If not the power, the praise was what kept him going. Hitch’s profession earned him plenty of that, even if it was undeserved. You see, he went around killing those known as the “Ringleaders.” Ringleaders— wretched men and women who became power hungry. Who began to organize together to kill others simply for their rings. Who slaughtered innocents in the coldest of blood, for it was the only way for the ring to transfer from one to the next. The Ringleaders’ rings often stretched down the majority of their fingers, for when a ring is added to another person, it curls off in those mesmerizing, elaborate patterns.
When you kill the enemy of humanity, you become the hero. Hitch had always kept that in mind. Sick, addicted to the pride, he was. Indentured to the fame, the beauty of his own smooth tongue earning whatever he wished. Sitting on a throne of fake followers. Wearing a crown of poison vines. Dancing to the sound of broken promises.
He was their “savior.” The man who killed the man who killed the people. The plague of villains. The bane of evil. A true hero and he couldn’t love basking in it more.
Although, there were moments in which his occupation led him just slightly too far.
Burns kept hold of his silver-laced hand, dull eyes reflecting the glare of the moon off the newly-acquired metal.
“Would you like to hear about him?” Hitch asked, his voice just a low whisper. “The life I took?”
Burns did not reply.
Hitch took a moment, squinting at his hand as memories washed back in small pieces of a puzzle, as if he could sit there for hours and click the last week’s events back together. Instead, he spoke as they came back ashore, in one long stream of thought.
“His name was Tomar. Small kid. Scrawny as hell, with skin grubbier than the oldies at Aotz’s. His eyes were … blue. Almost like the sky in winter, but not nearly as appealing. They held that defiance I’ve seen in Glass so many times. They were beady, too. Small and … imprudent. Far from a looker. Gnarled teeth like a dog, with the growl of one, too.”
Hitch paused, watching intently as Burns calmly set down the man’s hand. He was still relatively close, leaning on Hitch’s shoulder with glazed eyes. He seemed to be paying attention, though, enough to register the miniscule, exhausted sigh between a few words.
“Arrogant. Feverishly imperious. Perhaps that is why I slid a bullet ‘twixt his eyes. Otherwise, I’m not entirely sure I would have bothered. His ring was only up to his first knuckle. Nothing I can’t go without.”
Burns narrowed those empty, desultory eyes, offering Hitch the faintest twitch of a brow.
“I was justified,” Hitch defended, words cutting harshly through the ringing air. The breeze, rustling half-dead leaves, was all the accompaniment provided. “He was mentally sick, stalking the outskirts of Wob with those … gross, beady eyes. He was a Ringleader. I committed no sin.”
“B-Bones break,” Burns hacked, a cough ensuing. He wouldn’t meet Hitch’s eyes as he continued, holding up two fingers from the hand that permitted such an action. “Twice.”
“Bones break twice,” repeated Hitch, voice holding the slight quiver of a question. “And what does that mean?”
No reply, just the ringing of the air. The sound of the wind hitting each individual leaf, but still moving the tree as a whole. The sound of a lost cicada, his swarm long gone to follow the weather. The sound of Hitch’s breathing, accompanied only by Burns’s faint, unconscious hum.
The sound of the grass swaying, blade meeting blade. Crickets chirping, and the sound of an old, broken belltower.
No sound of birds.