A pack of riders dismounted white horses. They stepped over corpses and past the caravan. In three lines, they walked down into the valley, weapons sheathed into buck skin pelts. They stopped between the fire and fishing shack. Forgotten possum meat had roasted black on the metal spit. The Captain raised a fist above his Mohawk and made his way up the plank.
A boy hung above the porch, casting a crooked shadow down the front steps. The Captain reached up and squeezed the body’s cold ankle in his hand, digging rivets into the flesh with yellow fingernails. There was no response. The Captain looked bloodshot eyes up and down the body, then turned to his men with open arms.
“Wesley Chambers is dead,” he announced.
They all groaned.
“So we aren’t getting paid?” one of the men yelled. The hunters spent the next hour moping around the fire—unbuckling belts and shrugging arms out of bark armor. A few of the men guided horses down the ridge and fastened them to wagons. An eye-patched man plucked a stray bottle of liquor from the grass and popped the cork with a dagger. The Captain returned to the sickly light of the hanging braziers and double checked the boy’s foot: no pulse.
Wesley opened one of his eyes.
The Captain sat on the top step below him, pinching black mulch into his bottom lip. Wesley slipped his wrists out of the rope behind his back and reached to the transom above, fumbling for the handles of the two farmer scythes. He extended the twin blades coolly out to his sides to still himself. The Captain packed more mulch into his lip, noticing that the shadow on the stairs beside him appeared to have outstretched arms. Wesley cut the rope. Coils of chain unraveled from the transom as he dropped. He landed knees down into the broad shoulders of the Captain and nicked the man’s ear with the purpled blade. The stiff body rolled forward off the front steps and splashed into the swamp.
Wesley ran down plank and into the grass, dragging one scythe up the back of a man’s leg. Another hunter scrambled to his feet but caught Wesley’s passing blade off an outstretched palm. Both men dropped to the dirt, seizing. Wesley jumped onto the fire stack and steadied himself on a wet stump that had not yet caught fire, holding the rotisserie possum for balance. The three hunters that had been in his path were already strewn on the grass, fingers curled and cramped at the ends of their hands. Down around him, the others pulled their weapons from the grass. Maces, halberds, and battle-axes charged from all directions.
Wesley sheathed both scythes into the suspenders on his back and sunk to a knee. He plunged both fists into the embers of the fire and hurled coals side-armed in all directions. A whirlwind of glittering red ash scattered in the air around him and cooled to purple as it fell. Hunters fell back holding their faces.
Two horses galloped away from the ash, stampeding through the crowd with their wagon. He kicked off the side of the passing carriage and thrashed the scythes. Streaks of lavender blurred the air with his windmill crescents, kissing thighs and collarbones with the curved metal edges.
A bearish man raised his copper broadsword for a murderous swing. Wesley met it directly with a counterblow—his steel scythe cleaved through the cheap blade with a sparking clash, sending the severed copper wheeling through the air like a maple seedling. He clipped the man’s knee and ducked out from beneath the falling body.
The horses spliced to either side of a Maple tree, bursting the carriage into large splinters of wood. Wesley undercut the swing of a halberd and stayed in the dirt as debris soared overhead. The man ditched the halberd and chased him up the plank. Wesley turned and thrust the brunt of his forehead into the man’s nose. The man fell backwards, tearing Wesley’s shirt from his back. A harness of chains cut into Wesley’s bare torso.
He stilled to let an arrow fly past his chest, then dashed low to the ground between seizing bodies in the grass. Another arrow flew over his shoulder. He sprung off the dry stump and pushed into the air. The chain swung him upwards like a pendulum, creaking where it was fastened to the porch transom. Two men with crossbows set themselves at the base of the stairs and took aim. Wesley arched his back as the first arrow whizzed behind him. The second buried into the back of his right arm by the elbow. Momentum seized in mid-air, then swung him back down. He skipped across the ground, feet barely grazing the dirt, and notched their arms as he rushed by and leapt into the air beneath the shack. The chain lurched taut at the end of its slack, punching the wind from Wesley’s chest. He kicked in the air as he fell with a hard splat into blue algae at the edge of the swamp—his entire body imprinted in the mud. He just sort of laid there for a moment, watching the firelight dance on the bottom of the shack’s floorboards. With an effort, he sat up out of the mud’s suction and got to his feet, watching the blue algae fill an empty blue imprint of a man.
The two bowmen staggered about. The first bowmen collapsed. The second bowman made lazy swings with Wesley’s scythes—he splashed face down in the glowing blue froth. Wesley picked his chain up out of the water and ran up the plank with it.
A slender, eye-patched man stood at the base of the plank. Wesley threw a tomahawk, terribly wide; it stuck handle-first into the dirt twenty-paces back.
“You must, must be Wesley Chambers,” the eye-patched man said in a giddy voice, flaunting two needle-like blades with a connoisseur’s grace. The man tiptoed up the plank with the grace of a dancer. The man pinched a firefly out of midair between the razor tips of his swords and released it, unharmed. He bowed to Wesley with the etiquette of a soirée host. “Kermit Blades Boyd, at your service.”
Wesley scanned the porch for weapons. He backed into the house but the chains grabbed him.
“Did you give yourself that nickname, Kermit?” Wesley asked. Boyd laughed a dinner-party laugh, rubbing his thin blades together with metallic grinds.
“You, of all people, want to talk about names?”
The back of Wesley’s head bonked against something—a hanging brass lantern just inside the door. He gripped its chain links and tore it straight from the rotten wall. It swung from his grip like an incensed thurible altar boys carry between pews. Wesley blitzed forward, swinging the metal in small circles above his head.
Boyd sprung backwards on his hands, landing like a squirrel on the railing. Wesley swung the chain again, but the force carried it well further than intended. Boyd somersaulted along the porch and sliced the back of the Wesley’s hamstring in an upwards slash.
The lantern continued its skid across the ground, peppering the entire porch in little orange sparks. Wesley dropped to a knee and ducked behind a support beam. Grabbing his own chain, Wesley yanked it around the post. It snapped up taut from the ground, snaring into Boyd’s shins and sending the man tripping through the burnt rocking chair.
Wesley choked up on the lantern’s chain and swiveled it in horizontal figure eights. Boyd staggered to his feet. The boy swept the lantern up from the ground with a full swing, upper cutting Boyd’s jaw with the metal. Glass panes exploded outwards. Boyd fell and rolled, slowly, down the plank.
The bog-striders had made their way to shore—Wesley hadn’t seen them standing there. There were three of them in the shallow water. He craned his neck to look up their wooden stilts. Their shadows bent into the water—they were kneeling. The valley hushed to its natural frog music.
Wesley set down the chain. He put his hands in the front pocket of his pants, but, noticing his forearms were on fire, patted them off. Whistling the tune of I’ve Been Cuckolded By the Banshee,” Wesley stepped over the bodies in the grass. He fetched one of the sabers from the ground and kicked the other out of Boyd’s grip. Small beads of blue flame burned in the side of Boyd’s cheek where it was coated in lantern oil. He knelt over the man to pet the flames out.
“I don’t get to die today so you don’t either,” Wesley whispered, plucking shards of glass from the man’s jaw.
An orange coal sizzled in the wet grass beside them. Wesley lifted it, bare handed, and held it to Boyd’s wounds. The swordsman’s eye bulged open as if to scream.
“Shhh,” Wesley crooned, running the back of his hand down the man’s forehead. He pinched the final wound between his fingers and held the coal against the man’s flesh until the bleeding stopped.
Boyd’s mouth quivered, speaking in a raspy hush.
“How can you hold fire in your hand?”
The boy regarded the coal sizzling in his palm. He stood, chains splashing round his torso. Dirt caked the back of his elbows where an arrow protruded from his flesh unacknowledged. Wesley extended a blood harlequined arm, holding the coal out in an upturned hand. The glowing coal steamed against his palm; he just watched, as if it was a ladybug crawling on his hand. Light dulled from the coal until it was the same lusterless shade as the dead possum in the grass. Wesley smiled, ear to ear, but his voice was low and cheerless.
“I can’t die,” the boy answered—his dimpled smile was ear to ear but his voice was monotonous. He spoke as if he were recalling something. “I think that I’ve been dead for a very long time.”