For the third time in the past two hours, Ben was stabbed in the gut and crumpled to the ground, dying. It was just as painful as the last three times, and it took forever. All in all, not Ben’s favorite way to die. In fact, if he had to choose a favorite, it would probably be the time that he fell off that cliff into the river and hit his head. Drowning while unconscious wasn’t particularly agonizing, and the knock to the head was certainly endurable for the brief second he was aware of it, and besides, the falling sensation was exhilarating.
With that thought, he finally died. There were a few seconds of black nothingness where there was no sensation, no breathing or heart beating. Then he was there, sitting under the maple tree. It wasn’t like waking up, because he didn’t open his eyes, and it wasn’t like coming up from underwater because he didn’t gasp for air or anything so dramatic. He just suddenly existed again under a plain old maple tree with red leaves and a knot that looked like a cranky old lady.
Ben groaned and leaned back against the tree. What a lousy afternoon. Sometimes he could get away with only dying once a day. Three times, though, that was just a sign that the whole day was going badly. Zekar was going to be so pissed today. He always had the worst day of any of them. At least it was almost sundown. Not that it made a difference about dying, since murderous adventurers did not keep to a normal day/night schedule, but at sunset Ben traded off with someone else and could get some sleep. Walking around in circles for twelve hours was exhausting.
He’d been sitting for fifteen minutes now. Time to get back on his circuit.
He was down by the river ravine, considering calling it quits early when he heard the voices reverberating through the trees. And it couldn’t be one of his bandit comrades, because they never talked when they were on the job, and the only time there was more than two of them in the same place was when Zekar was on an attack kick.
“Crap!” And a whole lot of other words that actually probably weren’t curses, but Ben didn’t know for sure and chose to use them in a vehement manner. Ben looked around frantically for some place to hide. The woman leading this particular troop of vicious killers just hacked and swiped her knives ineffectively, and Ben had knocked her out and everything. The elf man, though, he knew what he was doing with that shield of his, and the Paqwa mage was vicious. There wasn’t any sign of the elf woman who had stabbed Ben, which was giving him a heart attack just thinking about it. Sneaky vicious killers were just the worst.
He ducked behind the tree just before they would be in range to spot him. Adventurers had very poor eyesight sometimes, and if you were quick enough you could take advantage of that by hiding under a bush or something. It didn’t always do much, since they seemed to have bandit radar, but if he pretended not to see them sometimes they pretended not to see him and life was a lot less painful.
One arrow struck him in the back with enough force that the point came through the other side of his chest. Ow. That was new. Ben collapsed to the ground, but did it as slowly as he could manage so that as many arrows as possible could hit him before he went out of sight. Anything to end this faster.
And again, waking up under the maple tree. Vaguely furious, Ben got up and kicked the tree before stalking in the direction of the fort. His shift was definitely over. He always felt vaguely cheated after dying. He got the impression that what he was doing wasn’t actually dying, which wasn’t fair because it sure hurt just as much as normal dying.
Conroy Forest was at least a beautiful place to live. The trees remained in perpetual reds and oranges and yellows, which gave the light around them a golden cast. The trees were always healthy, and the moss underfoot was soft enough to sleep on by itself when necessary. The murderous interlopers never seemed to appreciate that. They just came in, killed and robbed, and then left again, occasionally taking the time to whack at a few trees or maybe just kill some rabbits. Why wouldn’t they stop and smell the crisp air? To breathe in the soft golden smell, and hear the soft rustling leaves?
The fort wasn’t too far away, but walking there took longer than normal because Ben really didn’t want to run into yet another death dealer before reaching relative safety. Not that the fort was a guarantee of security, but it was better than lurking around outside all night. It wasn’t a great place to bunk down in. Made of logs stuck in the ground and tied together with ropes, one good spark could probably destroy the whole thing. A small lodge was in the middle, with a few tents scattered around the tiny compound. Mostly they all just congregated around the central fire until they got tired. Ben wondered sometimes how the fort was still standing. None of them ever repaired it or took care of it. It just sort of stayed there, wood slowly rotting away in the sunlight.
Not exactly homely, but Ben called the fort “home” because he didn’t really have a better word for it.
Eder caught up with him as he reached the main path. “Hey, Tommy.” Eder was the kind of guy who liked to aggravate everyone around him, which included using the wrong name for Ben. He was a short, stocky man, which made him stand out among the group of them because they all were the same height except for Eder, who was too short, and Zekar, who was a lot taller than the rest. “Hey, Joan.”
Ben looked over guiltily at where the woman was walking wearily up the path. “Hey, Joan. Didn’t see you.” They crossed paths half a dozen times a day where their routes collided. Half the time Ben wasn’t paying attention and she had to whack him on the arm with her ax to get him to so much as say hi.
Which meant that Joan knew him pretty well, actually. She smiled at him. “You never do.” She shivered in the cool evening air. “Mind if I borrow your jacket?”
Ben shrugged it off and handed it over. Joan pulled it around her shoulders quickly, with a deep sigh of satisfaction. Like the other women who called the fort home, Joan was slender and wore a sort of corset thing for a shirt that left a lot of skin exposed. Her pants at least covered all of her legs, but there was a decent stretch right around her midriff that never got covered up. Most of the women didn’t care for it. They claimed the lack of protection made them die twice as fast, but Ben had fought besides Joan and she was a dervish with her ax so he didn’t really believe it. It seemed like she could get hit with twice as many arrows as he could before going down. Physically speaking, the argument made sense, but like most of the rest of their lives sensible arguments didn’t really have much of a place. There were about three men for every woman bandit, which struck Ben as vaguely disproportionate, although he couldn’t say why he thought so because he didn’t really have anything else to go by.
At least it worked out well for sharing jackets, though, since otherwise there really wouldn’t have been enough to go around. He pulled his vest tighter and wished that his shirt wasn’t quite so ragged. It wasn’t as if patching made a difference for longer than a day on a good day, but he still tried it sometimes.
The bonfire in the middle of camp was already going, and a deer was cooking. They never lacked for food, at least. During the day there were plentiful berries and roots to forage, and at night someone always dragged home the corpse of an animal killed by the adventurers. Usually a deer, although some days it there were scores of rabbits to go through. None of them ever had to go hunting for their evening meal.
Ben and Eder and Joan were some of the first ones back to camp, which meant that Ben could go to his favorite spot over the gateway and watch everyone come in. Just about everyone looked exhausted, which was a clear sign that Ben’s area wasn’t the only one ravaged by the vicious adventurers. It wasn’t even a good story kind of day, like the time one very strange man ran through in his underwear killing everything in sight, from them to the rabbits to one very unlucky tree creature that seemed sentient but tended to stick to itself. The strange man then gathered up every oak leaf in sight, braided them all into a suit of armor, blazed up in a flash of light and disappeared. They all secretly hoped he died, but it seemed unlikely. When things disappeared it usually just meant that now they were somewhere else. And that was one of the more sensible tales. Adventurers got away with all kinds of stupid things.
The last stragglers came through the gate and Ben hopped down from his perch to join them. Now the stars were out it was actually cold, and he wanted the body warmth around the fire. It was a loose press around the flames, most people just getting their food and settling down for the night in one of the tents. He sighed, and he tried not to which made it worse and more noticeable, but fortunately he was sitting next to Eder and Joan and they knew him well enough not to care. He liked his companions, he did, but none of them ever seemed to think about the things Ben did.
“So, you’re in a mood today,” Eder began.
“How many times did you die today, Joan?” Ben cut in.
Joan shrugged. “Seven, maybe. I played dead a couple times, just let them loot me.” A feral light came into her eyes. “One of them tried to take my clothes, but I lopped his head off.”
“His sister did something funny with a spell and I turned to an ice block and shattered. Not so bad, really, pain-wise. Kind of a dumb way to die, though.” Joan took a bite of food. “How about you, Eder?”
“Got one in the head with a branch today. Don’t think they expected that.” Eder snorted. “Like I have to use my sword all the time. Set me on fire after that, though. Not sure it was worth it.” Eder shuddered, and Ben clapped him on the back. Fire deaths were about the worst way to go. “Anyway, I died a few more times after that, then I went to visit the Shrub. They left him alone today, so I had it easy.”
Eder and Joan both turned to Ben expectantly. His turn. “Nine times today, four in the last hour before sunset. Nothing interesting. I mostly got stabbed and shot with arrows.”
Others around the fire echoed those numbers. It made Ben a little sick to think about, and he got to his feet. He needed to do something. “Why are they going after us so much?” he fumed. “We haven’t attacked them or anything in a month now. Too busy dying to get anything done.” Ben kicked a meager pile of firewood irritably. “Why kill us so much?”
“I heard they were looking for some token for some old lady,” Joan mumbled through her food. She tended to get the best food because they all felt sorry for her. She took longer than any of them to die for some reason, which meant she spent longer in pain. It also meant that she was usually hanging around to half-hear what the people who killed her said. The vicious killers liked going through pockets for loose change and things. Of all the things the cruel adventurers did, that was the thing Ben minded the least. When they woke up again, everything was back to normal. No stains on clothes, weapons sharp and clean, meager coin still in their pockets.
“What was the token?” someone asked.
Joan paused. “Don’t know for sure, but I’d guess it was an amulet, or maybe a signet ring. Heirloom quality.”
They all started going through their pockets. Things mostly went back to normal, that was true, but sometimes things just popped up out of nowhere like amulets and rings and even fancy weapons, and it was always best to just hand it over to the travelers before too many people got killed.
“I’ve got it.”
Ben couldn’t remember the guy’s name, but he wished he could because he sounded so horribly glum as he held up the gleaming sapphire signet ring. To be fair, they all sounded like that when the item in question showed up in their possession, whatever it happened to be that time, but they all knew the rules. The guy got shoved out the gate with a lot of commiseration and hopes that he died quickly. He wouldn’t be allowed back again until he died and the adventurers got their loot and left them all alone. It sucked, but it was better than having the whole group of idiots running around killing everyone all night. Better to just get it over with and let one very unlucky man die for the group.
It wasn’t long before they were all back to gathering around the fire, secretly rejoicing that they weren’t the one who had to go back out into the cold to die for the umpteenth time. A good half of the group had already gone to sleep when Zekar finally emerged from the lodge and addressed them.
Zekar came out into the light reluctantly, as though it pained him. “We’d best prepare for a major assault soon. I’ve got the amulet again. Those of you not fort fighters had best eat and make your beds in the forest tonight. A bloody moon’s out tonight.”
Ben and those with him groaned, but they still did what he asked. Whenever the amulet showed up, an elaborate piece with a yellow gemstone the size of Ben’s fist, it meant that some visitors would be coming to claim it shortly. Sometimes they negotiated for it, sometimes they stole it, but more often than not they just attacked and killed everyone and then took it. Even if they tried the other methods first, the odds were pretty high that they’d misspeak, or misstep, and just generally wound up in the middle of the camp looking stupid.
Adventurers hated looking stupid. It usually resulted in a spectacular and gory rampage.
Unusually, Zekar joined them around the fire. He did sometimes when it was a particularly hard day. Zekar Neira, their illustrious leader. Ben didn’t know what “illustrious” meant, but one of the people who came through and killed them had said it while sneering once, so it was probably a sarcastic not-compliment. Zekar wasn’t a great leader, or a good fighter even, but the people who came through always knew his name and could identify him. It didn’t matter if someone else was the leader, they’d probably only ever deal with Zekar.
He was a man of compulsions, which meant that most of the time he was quite content to play cards in the fort with whoever was there, and then sometimes he just up and decided to put together a massive attack on the Kaderian border. They never really got past the planning stage before a group of random strangers came through and killed them all. Zekar always got really blurry when he died, like a part of his brain got taken out and had to be put back in, so they usually had a few easy days of it after one of those attacks.
They all got kind of foggy after they died, actually. Zekar was the worst, of course, because he had a name that the attackers always seemed to know unlike the rest of them. The more of an identity you had, the more you seemed to lose when you died. Ben got a little hazy as to his name. Zekar had whole speeches worth of identity. It took him whole days to get out of the fog that came over him when he died. One time he died three times in one day and they had to spoon feed him for a week, he was in such a stupor.
It wasn’t that the silence wasn’t companionable or comfortable, it was that Ben didn’t always know when to keep his mouth shut. “Why do we put up with this? It’s ridiculous. Why don’t we go and find whoever keeps sending these people out to kill us? We could ask them to stop.”
Ben winced as soon as he said the words, but it was too late. Eder was on the ground he was laughing so hard, Joan was laughing just as loud, and even Zekar was chuckling. He reddened and tried to pretend that he hadn’t just said what he said. The others, once they stopped laughing at the ridiculous idea that these murderous interlopers would stop if he simply asked, took pity on him and ignored his plight, moving on to new topics of conversation.
It wasn’t until they were settling down in cots and hammocks that Eder brought it up again. “Tommy, you’ve seriously got to let this go.”
Ben scowled. Technically, of course, his name was supposed to be Thomas Mayne. It wasn’t like anyone knew it except the other bandits in the forest, though. No one ever shouted his name in rage as they attacked. “I told you, my name’s Ben.”
“Your name is Thomas Mayne. It’s the name you were given, and it’s the name you’ve got. I’m not calling you something that you made up yourself. Besides, Ben? It’s a stupid name.” Eder tore off a chunk of meat and stuffed it in his mouth. He mumbled around it, “I don’t know why you’re complaining. At least you’ve got a first and a last name. I’ve only got the one.”
“Do you have to eat in bed? It makes a mess.” Petty, but Ben really didn’t like sleeping in puddles of grease, which always happened when Eder took food to bed, and they all rotated through the different cots so Ben would eventually wind up in that nasty puddle. The darkness was starting to surround them more as the fire died low. Eder still snickered.
In the quiet, it was hard to find a reason to stop talking, in the hope that getting some of his swirling thoughts out of his head might help Ben get a full night’s sleep. “Why don’t we all just leave? The invaders can’t kill us if we’re not here.”
“Because we don’t know what’s out there.” Same argument as everyone else always gave, and it wasn’t enough for Ben but Eder seemed to consider the matter settled because he rolled over and promptly fell asleep.
It was a question that was starting to fill Ben’s mind more and more: what if he did leave?