“Seems strange, not having the Brigadier with us,” said Harper gloomily.
They were sitting around the campfire, eating their evening meal in silence. A stew made from a couple of rabbits Cotton had caught, along with some chopped vegetables that Crane had found growing beside the road. There were no globs in their meal, no-one else seemed to have the skill that Malone had had for finding the small, gelatinous creatures, and although they all told each other how much they preferred their meals without them, Harper was surprised to find that he was beginning to actually miss them. Or perhaps it was the batman that he missed, along with the leader of their patrol.
“Still can’t believe he just went off and left us,” said Spencer, stirring his stew with his spoon while staring at it gloomily. It had begun to grow cold and bits of solidified fat were beginning to appear around the edges.
“If you don't want that, I'll have it,” said Crane, whose own bowl sat beside him, already scoured clean with some dried Marestail stalks he'd found growing nearby. The particles of silica they secreted on the surfaces of their leaves, to deter herbivores by wearing down their teeth, made them ideal for cleaning bits of dried food from plates and bowls. When he'd passed on this tip to the others, though, they'd all passed their empty bowls to him for cleaning. Not quite what I had in mind, he thought.
Spencer gave him a sideways look and took a half hearted spoonful of stew from his bowl. He looked at it as if wondering whether fending off starvation would be worth the effort, then lifted it to his mouth. He screwed up his face in distaste. “It's cold!” he complained.
“It wasn't cold when I gave it to you,” said Crane. “half an hour ago.”
“Still can’t believe he just went off and left us,” Spencer repeated, stirring the rest of his stew. “Just went off like that.”
“He didn’t just go off,” said Blane with a warning gleam in his eye. “He had a mission. He had his mission, we’ve got ours.”
“It wasn't a mission! He just decided to go off sightseeing!”
“That's enough, Spencer!” warned the Sergeant. “If he thought it was necessary to visit a Radiant city then it was. He knew we were quite capable of completing the mission without him. We have to trust that he had a good reason.”
“Who cares about the Hetin folk! So they were different from us. So what? Who cares? Leave it to the scholars and the ark...ark...”
“Archaeologists,” said Quill helpfully. He had the saddlebags containing the precious bluecap mushrooms on the ground beside him. Since parting ways with the Brigadier, he hadn't let them out of his sight, and kept them within reach whenever possible. The Brigadier had entrusted him with the keeping of them, and it was a responsibility he took seriously.
“Right. Let them worry about it. What's it got to do with us?”
“Aren't you curious?” asked the wizard. “If the Brigadier’s right and there were no Radiants in the time of the Hetin Folk, that meant that humans were the highest form of life back then. The very top of the ladder. Imagine what that would be like!” He looked out across the surrounding countryside, at the small stream that ran a short distance from the road, at the trees still visible in the distance despite the encroaching gloom, at the mountains on the horizon, their topmost peaks still lit by the setting sun. “Imagine being able to wander anywhere across the face of the world and knowing that you would never encounter a creature more highly evolved than the human being. Imagine knowing that your kind were the Lords of Creation. Can you imagine what that must have been like?”
“What about Those Above?” asked Harper.
“There are no Those Above! It's just a silly superstition!”
“You don't know that! My family have always believed in Those Above! They care for us, look after us...”
“Have you ever seen them? Has anyone?”
“I have faith! I know in my heart that they exist! Who do you think created the world, then? You think it just created itself?”
“If Those Above created the world, who created them?”
“They've always existed! Didn't you ever go to templeschool?”
Quill found himself losing the will to continue the argument. Arguing with a believer, he'd always thought, was like a kickball match between the Marboll Sovereigns and the Bywell Champions. The Sovereigns might score goal after goal, but it was the Champions who decided when the game was over. He looked back over the darkening countryside, and saw three tiny points of light drifting high up in the sky, like three hydrogen balloons lost by careless children. Radiants, on their way somewhere. Perhaps looking for a human to adopt, perhaps on some other errand whose nature was beyond human understanding. They were such a familiar feature of the world in which they lived that it was hard to imagine that there might once have been a time when they hadn't existed. A time when humans might have looked up into the sky and seen nothing but birds and clouds.
One man after another passed their empty bowls to Crane, who sighed in resignation and began scrubbing them with marestails. “Any more in the pot?” asked Harper hopefully. Crane looked in, scraped the inside with the ladle and transferred a few cold dribbles into the other man's bowl. Harper drank them up, then licked his bowl clean before handing it back.
“You still making sure he always gets the same bowl?” asked Spencer, eyeing Harper with disgust.
“Of course I am,” said the tracker. “Look, it’s the one with the dent on the side. You think I want to risk ending up with it myself?” Harper glared at them both, then decided that it was beneath his dignity to rise to the bait. He pulled his sleeping roll out of his backpack and looked for a comfy place to bed down for the night.
One by one the others also prepared their sleeping places. “I'll take first watch,” said Blane, getting up and walking across to stand beside the horses. “Cotton, you wake me in an hour.”
“Will do,” replied the other man. “Should be a quiet night, I reckon. We're still well outside Wilterland. Won't be any outlaws and bandits this far out, and any smugglers will want to avoid us even more than we want to avoid them.”
“Maybe so, but complacency kills more men than swords and pistols. Stay alert.” Cotton nodded and started preparing his own bedroll.
“How come you always take first watch for yourself?” asked Spooner.
“You want it, you can have it,” replied the Sergeant. “I'll take last watch instead.” Spooner glared at him, Blane glared back. They glared at each other for several moments, and it was Spooner who looked away first, standing and taking the Sergeant’s place by the horses. “Don't fall asleep!” chuckled Harper, and Spooner glared at him instead, imagining what it would feel like to plunge his sword deep into his chest.
“Don't get him riled up!” warned Spencer in a low voice. “I’m uncomfortable enough as it is, having him awake, with a gun in his hand, while the rest of us are asleep.”
“Don't be daft!” replied the other man. “He wouldn’t actually do anything!”
“You sure of that? There’s something wrong with him! He scares me, I don't mind admitting it! There's something in his eyes! Something, something not right!”
“He's one of us,” Harper reminded him. “He saved your life in Nassley, remember?”
“I remember the look on his face when he shot that Carrowmen. No-one should enjoy taking a man's life that much! Not even a soldier!”
“Oh?” said Harper, his eyes widening in surprise. “Is this the same man who shouted ‘Die, you Carrow filth!’ when you stabbed that guy in the guts in Pollock?”
“That wasn't the same, and you know it! He likes killing! He gets off on it! And I've seen the way he looks at us! He'd enjoy killing us as much as killing Carrowmen!”
“Now you're just being daft. He's one of us, you remember that. He'd probably give his life for you, just like any of the rest of us would, and if it came down to it, you'd give your life for him too. Right?”
“Right,” the other man grudgingly admitted. It was the unwritten Ranger code, after all. All for everyone. Save the life of the man at your side, and he'll do the same for you. Spooner might be mad, but he was a ranger. A brother. A comrade in arms. “Right,” he repeated. “Let's go to bed.”
An hour later, Cotton got up to take Spooner's place. “All quiet,” said Spooner as he holstered his pistol and moved towards the camp. “Nothing moving out there.”
“Okay,” replied Cotton. “See you in the morning.” Spooner just grunted and Cotton drew his gun, staring out into the darkness. There was no moon and no stars, the only light came from the dying remains of the camp fire. Around the camp was total, impenetrable darkness. There was a light wind blowing through the branches of the trees below which they'd made their camp, and for a few minutes the sound of rustling leaves fought with the sounds of Spooner getting comfortable on his bedroll. Then, there was only the wind, just loud enough to drown out the soft breathing of the rangers.
Cotton settled down to wait. He wanted to make sure that Spooner was as deeply asleep as the others. He spent the time going over in his head the things he was going to do and the order he was going to do them in. He didn't waste any thought for what he would do after. The task he had to undertake would require all his attention, all his concentration. One mistake would lead to disaster, so he would focus his whole mind on not making any mistakes.
When his wristwatch told him that half an hour had passed, he crept slowly back into the camp and carefully stoked the fire, doing it slowly so as not to make any noise. He added a few small branches, thin twigs that would burn quickly, giving off enough light for him to see what he was doing and that were unlikely to pop or crackle, sounds that might wake someone. After a few minutes, the fire was blazing brightly, revealing the shapes of the sleeping rangers. A couple of them were turning in their blankets, brought fractionally back towards wakefulness by the brighter light and greater heat. Cotton watched them carefully for a few moments, but they didn’t wake.
He holstered his gun and drew his knife. Ten inches of razor sharp steel that gleamed murderously in the light of the silent red flames. Cotton crept through the camp towards where Blane was sleeping, the most dangerous member of their little troup. He was lying on his side, his face resting on his arm, snoring gently. Cotton took a firmer grip on his knife, reached his other hand out towards the Sergeant’s shoulder. He paused one moment longer. This would have to be done perfectly. Do it right, what his training instructors had called a quick kill, and the Sergeant would die quickly and silently. One mistake, though... Blane would only have to make one noise to wake the rest of the camp. Even if he died a moment later, Cotton would die soon after, and his mission would have failed.
He had no way of knowing that the political need to harm the Princess had long since passed, and he wouldn’t have cared if he had. He'd been placed in the Brigadier's command to carry out a mission, and unless he received official instructions from his superiors to call it off, he would carry it through. He took one last deep breath, therefore, and grabbed the Sergeants shoulder. He threw him into his back, moved his hand to clamp hard over his mouth, and stabbed down hard with the knife.
His execution was flawless. The Sergeant’s eyes had time to open, but he was dead before they had time to register what he was seeing. Cotton paused, his hand still over the Sergeants mouth, waiting as the corpse shuddered one last time, then lay still. He gently removed his hand, allowing the man's last breath to softly leave his body, then froze, looking around the camp to see if the killing had awoken anyone.
They were still sleeping peacefully. Totally oblivious, patiently awaiting their own deaths. Cotton went to Harper next, the man he judged to be the next most dangerous. He didn’t allow his first success to make him careless. He took just as much time, just as much care, killing Harper as he had with the Sergeant. Five minutes later there were two corpses lying around the camp fire, and five minutes later there were three as Spencer joined his comrades in the next world.
He thought about killing Spooner next. He knew the man was probably mad, but if anything that probably made him less dangerous as it made him careless and impetuous. He lacked the self control to make a really good killer. Save him for last, then. And Crane was a tracker not a fighter. Oh he could fight, he could hold his own in a battle beside his comrades in arms, but killing wasn't where his true talents lay. The wizard next, then. Take him out, and Cotton could easily take the last two even if they were fully awake and alert.
Quill was lying on his back, which would make it easier, but he hesitated before putting his hand over the wizard's mouth. Human wizards, unlike demons, needed skin contact to apply a curse. He knew that. What he didn’t know was how long it would take. A demon’s curse was quick, almost instantaneous. If the wizard was that quick, would he be able to curse Cotton even as the knife penetrated his heart, using the hand over his mouth as the skin contact? He thought back to the blessing Quill had given Smith following the demon’s attack. The wizard had had to take several moments to prepare himself for that, but a curse might be different. The wizard probably wouldn’t care if the curse had unintended side effects on the victim, and It would need to be quick anyway to be of use in a battle. Cotton thought about it for a few moments longer, then wrapped his hand in a polishing rag.
It turned out his worrying had been for nothing. The wizard died just like the others, before he was even aware of what was happening to him. Cotton breathed a sigh of relief. The hardest part was over. Only two to go, and they were the least dangerous of the six. He allowed himself to relax a little in relief.
At that moment, though, a large branch in the fire popped with a shower of sparks. Crane stirred awake and looked up, bleary eyed. ”Whassat?” He mumbled. Cotton froze in alarm, expecting the tracker to jump to his feet and attack him, but Crane just stared around the camp, seeing nothing apparently wrong. The others were still asleep in their bedrolls and there was Cotton, come to wake him for his turn on guard duty. “Just the fire,” he muttered sleepily. Then he came awake more fully. “Why's it so bright?” He asked, sitting up.
“It was cold,” said Cotton, holding the knife out of sight behind him. “Didn't want you catching your deaths so I thought I'd stoke it up a bit.”
“It makes our camp more visible.” He looked around to make sure they weren't surrounded by a gang of outlaws, slowly creeping closer. “Suppose it's safe enough way out here, though.” He got to his feet. “Okay, I'll take over. Go get some sleep.”
“Can you take over quietly?” said Spooner, turning over to face them. “People trying to sleep here.”
“Sorry,” whispered Crane, looking at the others to see of they'd been woken up too. They all seemed to be fast asleep, though. All lying on their backs, which was unusual, and Quill had his mouth open. There was something else about his face, something glittering where his closed eyes should be, and the tracker couldn’t resist the urge to lean over for a better look. Nearby, Cotton crept closer. This was a complication, but not a serious one. He just had to get close enough without arousing his suspicions...
Crane was struck by how still the wizard was lying. He hardly seemed to be breathing at all! It was a little uncanny, he thought. A little bit spooky, the way the others were all lying so perfectly still, as if they'd been murdered in the night. All except Spooner, he thought with an inner chuckle. Of all the people to survive a night time massacre, it would have to be him!
He was close enough to see the wizard's face clearly now. The glittering was just where his eyes would be if they weren't closed. Two wet, smooth surfaces reflecting the dancing flames of the fire... They were his eyes, he suddenly realised. His eyes were open! He must also have been awoken by the noise and had decided to just lie there while he tried to get back to sleep. And he was lying so still, so uncannily still...
He looked up just in time to see Cotton lunging at him with the knife. He threw up his arm, intending to deflect it, and the blade opened a long gash across the palm of his hand as it plunged downwards. Crane threw himself to the side, crying out in alarm, and tripped over Quills body, falling to the ground with a heavy thump. Cotton threw himself upon the other man and stabbed again, and this time the tracker couldn’t stop it from entering his body. It slipped between the ribs on his left side, but he barely felt it. All he knew was that there was suddenly no strength in his body. He could only watch as the ex poacher pulled the knife out again and tensed up for the killing blow.
“What on the name of...” cried Spooner angrily. “What are you doing?” An invader had entered the camp, he suddenly decided. Someone was attacking them! He jumped to his feet and reached for his pistol, but was confused when he saw that it was Cotton and Crane struggling on the ground. Some kind of idiotic horseplay? They'd wake the whole camp! “Cut that out, you idiots! Stop...”
The flames reflected from the knife in Cotton's hand, and Spooner saw blood dripping from it. Cotton glanced across at Spooner, then plunged the knife deep into Crane’s body. The sound it made as it tore through living flesh was unmistakable to any serving soldier, and Spooner was paralysed with shock as he finally realised what was going on. He looked around at the other men, still lying peacefully on their backs despite the ruckus, and now he noticed the smell of blood as well. How could he have missed it? It filled the camp, and it was so strong! Overpoweringly strong, as if every man had been drenched in it!
Cotton saw the shock registering on Spooner's face and took advantage of it, drawing his pistol before the other man had a chance to recover. Spooner snapped out of it just in time and reached for his own gun, rolling to the side as the other man's gun gave a thundering detonation and a bullet tore through the spot he'd just left. He pointed his own gun and fired off a couple of shots, to hold Cotton at bay for a precious couple of moments while he scrambled back to his feet, but instead of taking cover Cotton just ran at him, still shooting and with the knife still in his other hand. It was man against man in a stand up fight now, and even though he was confident of being able to defeat Spooner in any kind of fight, he knew that his best hope of victory was to keep the other man off balance.
More by chance than design, one of Cotton's bullets hit Spooner's gun hand and he dropped the weapon with a cry of pain and a curse. Cotton took a moment to aim the gun properly and pulled the trigger, but he'd forgotten to count his shots and there was only a dry click as the hammer fell on an empty chamber. He dropped the gun and lunged with his knife, but Spooner lashed out with his fist, connecting solidly with Cotton's chin, and the former poacher was sent sprawling to the ground.
Spooner almost dove after him, but even in his flustered state he knew better than to tackle a man armed with a knife while unarmed. His own bedroll was far out of reach behind the former poacher, but Blane’s corpse was right beside him, and right beside it was his backpack and weapons. He reached a hand towards the Sergeant’s pistol, but it was at the bottom of his pile of belongings and Cotton was already picking himself up, raising his knife. The Sergeant's knife was right on top of his backpack, so he pulled it from its sheath and turned to face his traitorous former comrade.
“You murderous shit!” he screamed. “You killed them all! Why?”
“Nothing personal,” replied Crane. “I rather liked them. Even you, after a fashion, but I had a mission and you can't let personal feelings get in the way of the mission.”
“You sold us out! How much did they pay you?”
“I did no such thing!” snapped Cotton angrily. “I am no common traitor, I’m a deep cover agent, placed within your ranger corps years ago. It's an honourable mission...”
“Honourable!” Spooner staggered forward, driven by pure fury. “I'm going to kill you, you little shit! And you have no idea how much I'm going to enjoy it!”
He lurched forward, driven by an almost overwhelming need to kill the other man, his heart pounding in his ears and his knuckles white where they gripped the knife. Somehow, though, the quiet voice of sanity managed to whisper in his ear. Cotton killed four men in their sleep, the voice said. What kind of man could do a thing like that? Even Spencer himself, psychotic though he was, wasn't capable of that kind of cold blooded murder. He was clearly no common soldier, and certainly not a ranger. That man is a trained killer, he thought. An assassin, and if I try to take him on in a knife fight, he’s going to kill me, probably without even needing to exert himself.
He paused, therefore, and with an effort of will he made himself see the other man with clear eyes. He was just standing there, blood dripping from his knife, watching Spooner with eyes that glittered coldly in the light of the camp fire. He's waiting for me to go to him, he realised. Of course he is! In a knife fight the defender has the advantage, if he has the training and the self control to take advantage as the attacker extended himself, and Spooner had no doubt that Cotton had both. He would fend off his attack effortlessly, with a sneer of contempt, and then plunge his blood soaked dagger deep into his side. Spooner would fall, dead, and Cotton would gaze down at his corpse for a moment, contemplating the life he'd taken, before forgetting him as if he'd never existed and going about his business.
Spooner didn’t mind the idea of dying, but the idea of being dispatched so casually horrified him. If he was going to die he wanted it to be in an epic battle that his opponent would remember for the rest of his days. More importantly, though, he wanted to kill Cotton. He needed to kill him! Pure red hatred flared up inside him, a pressure that filled his head like boiling blood. He trembled with the need to attack, but the need to kill was stronger. He paused therefore, and made himself think it through.
He'd used up all the bullets in his gun, as had Cotton, but there were five more loaded guns lying around the camp. The nearest was Harper's, lying just a few feet away. He looked at it out of the corner of his eye, not wanting to turn his head in case it tipped the other man off. The gun was still in its holster, strapped to the dead man's waist, but out of sight beneath his sleeping blanket. Spooner would have to throw himself at the dead ranger, pull the blanket aside, pull the gun from its holster, aim it... Could he do that before Cotton ran across and stabbed him in the back?
No, he realised, but then he froze in excitement as he realised that he wouldn’t have to. Seeing him going for the gun, Cotton would have no choice but to attack him, and then Spooner would be the one defending himself, the one with the advantage. Grinning with savage fury, therefore, he brandished his knife at Cotton, making the other man tense up in preparation to defend himself, and then Spooner threw himself at Harper's corpse.
It took Cotton a moment to realise what Spooner was trying to do, and then he ran forward in sudden fear. All his combat training would be useless if the other man had a gun in his hand. Spooner fell across Harper's body, but then froze, preparing himself, his fingers tight around the hilt of his knife, his breath coming fast with excitement at being so close to killing. Cotton saw the truth at the very last moment, saw that the other man was making no attempt to pull the blanket aside, that he wasn't going for the gun. By then, though, Cotton had too much momentum and couldn’t stop himself as his body fell towards Spooner's waiting knife.
Spooner thrust the knife with insane, murderous strength towards his traitorous former colleague, and there was nothing Cotton could do to avoid it. He felt a sickening wave of despair as the razor sharp blade penetrated his clothing and his flesh, feeling like a splinter of ice, but the former poacher had twisted his body around in a desperate attempt to avoid death and the knife succeeded only in tearing a long gash in his skin. Cotton recovered quickly, and his own knife slashed down, plunging between Spencer's ribs and slicing his lung almost in half.
Spooner cried out in sick horror and frustration. He knew Cotton had killed him, but instead of fear he felt only a wild, insane fury that gave him the strength for one final lunge. He would not be denied the chance to kill! He would not! All his life he'd fantasised about taking a life. Not with a gun, as he'd done many times, but with a knife. To actually feel the life ebbing from his victim. He'd never had the courage to actually do it, but then, unexpectedly, the chance hard come. Not to murder, and be denounced as a criminal, but to take a life in the line of duty and be a hero. It was as if Those Above had heard his prayers and given him this gift. He would not be denied it! He would not! He pulled the knife back, therefore, and stabbed again with the last of his strength.
Cotton caught his wrist with his free hand and forced it back. “Not bad,” he admitted. “You almost had me there. They have a saying, you know, in fencing. Better to fight the best swordsman in the world than the worst, because the worst is unpredictable.” He pressed a hand to the wound in his side. “I'll have a scar here to remind me of that valuable lesson.”
“You... Little... Shit...” Spooner gasped out the words, weeping with frustration. His lungs were filling with blood and he coughed it up in a pink foam. “Kill... You...” Somehow, he managed to tighten his fingers around the knife one last time. Cotton stood, though, and put his boot on the wrist of the other man's knife hand. Spooner struggled to free himself, his eyes mad with rage, blood spurting from his mouth as his body convulsed with coughing, but finally his eyes glazed over and, with a final sigh of escaping breath, he lay still.
Cotton examined the body to make sure it was really dead, then pulled his clothes open to examine the wound. It looked bad, but it was not much more than a tear in the skin and would sew up nicely. He could use that, he decided. His mission had been to prevent the Brigadier from finding a cure for the Princess, back when it had been important that the royal marriage not take place, and it meant nothing to him that the Princess’ condition was now irrelevant to Carrow. It was a matter of personal pride. He'd been given a job, and he was going to do it. The Brigadier was still out there, and could still deliver the cure to the palace, so Cotton had to find him and kill him. His story would be that Spooner had been the Carrow Agent, and the wound would lend weight to his story nicely. No, not Spooner. Everyone had known that he wasn't right in the head, and a deep cover agent would be inconspicuous, blend in. Crane, he decided. He'd say Crane had been the agent.
Around the camp, the sounds of night creatures were beginning to return as Cotton fished out his needle and thread, sat close to the fire so he could see what he was doing and sewed up his wound, surrounded by the corpses of his former travelling companions. He winced every time he pushed the needle in, and the pain meant that it took him almost until dawn to finish the job. Sighing with relief, he tore up a blanket to make bandages to wrap himself in, then got carefully to his feet. Now that the fighting was over and the adrenalin rush was passing, the ache was quite intense and he hunched over to minimise it as much as possible.
The sky was brightening in the east as the sun got ready to rise, and Cotton ate a few strips of dried meat for breakfast. Then he went to saddle his horse. He picked his animal out of the line of tethered beasts and untied it, but then changed his mind and chose Blane’s horse instead, a larger and visibly higher quality creature than his own. He saddled it, and then untied the others, slapping them on the backsides to send them galloping away.
He packed his belongings and got ready to ride out. Just as he was about to leave, though, a thought came to him and he went back to where Quill’s corpse was still lying beside the dying fire. Cotton opened the wizard's saddlebags, found the bluecap mushrooms and threw them on the fire. They smoked and curled up at the edges as they started to burn, and Cotton watched to make sure they were completely consumed. Only when there was nothing left of them but glowing ashes did he return to his horse and climb into the saddle.
He looked back one last time at the camp, now occupied only by the dead, then turned his back on it and headed back the way they’d come, hoping to intercept the Brigadier on his way back to Helberion.