Shattered Core Backer
The rain came down in droplets that felt like lead weight.
Each step was getting easier than the last, but this new, piecemeal body was still alien to Raal. He was not sure how much time had passed, nor what had become of the rest of his troupe, but the head of his quarry dragged behind him, gripped firmly by its matted, muddied hair. He had no idea how long he had been walking, but something in the back of his mind told him that his destination was not far.
Bells were heard long before the blurry image of the village had reached his brain. Shaking his head, Raal rubbed at his eyes with his free hand, and paused when he felt the layout of his face. Things felt different yet oddly familiar. He was aware that something was wrong, but yet he did not seem to care. He had a job to complete and a task to fulfil. His resolve drove him forward, even as the slam of window blinds and the pattering of feet running into homes lay at the outskirts of his hearing.
УHold your stride, Corpse-Cutter.Ф
The local slur for the people who called themselves Rekindled did not go amiss. Raal knew the truth of what he had become, but to be called it gave him pause. He stopped his trudging, unending march and stood straight. Rain and mud dripped form the ruined remains of what was once clothing, and as he finally took stock of himself, he turned his black boned, partially reformed arm over to look at it, then looked up at the small group of armed villagers before him.
Raal opened his mouth to speak, but his body was turned over with wracking coughs. As he fell to one knee, he realized that he had not spoken for some time. Not since he had started his journey back to the village. When he managed to get control over it, he breathed, tested the sounds from his throat and when he realized that his voice was not working, he looked up at the group of concerned famers before him and something in him told him to speak anyway.
A fine welcome. You called me much more complementary names when I set out on your task, Mallan.
The words sounded out, but they did not leave his throat or his lips. The unnerving lack of motion of his mouth and the dark, ricochet of sound seemed to pale the farmers and hunters before him. Perhaps it was a combination of the voice and the familiarity, but the tone had changed to one of confusion and fear.
УIЕ I donТt respond well to tricks, stranger.Ф A man said, his weathered face seeming more run down than normal Ц at least to RaalТs eyes. УHow do you know me?Ф
Mallan was a self-appointed leader, although right now, he seemed less like a leader and more like a confused, old man that did not realize why he had been called forward. He gingerly took two steps towards Raal and seemed to narrow his eyes in confusion. The men around him were armed and some of the people present were not familiar to the pained mind of the outsider. Others were moving in the background, but between the headache and the buzzing sound in the back of his brain, Raal was having a hard time focusing.
You hired me, Mallan. Told me of a marauder who had kidnapped your wife three years prior. You wanted us to hunt him down and bring back his head. The words came out like a rumble of stone scraping against concrete, but it didnТt reach the ears, as much as bypass them directly to the brain. The buzzing was getting louder and the pain behind RaalТs eyes was growing. Reaching up, a black, clawed hand gripped his face and tried to squeeze out the discomfort and focus on his task.
Well we found him, Mallan. Your wife and all, at least... what was left of her. He killed most of my crewЕ killedЕ me. But I came back. Back to collect.
Mallan took a step back along with several other villagers. Gasps filled the air, but the sounds of something else came to the edges of RaalТs perceptions. His brain was muddied, but it was growing clearer. Things were starting to take shape, and voices not entirely spoken were starting to make sense. Had it been that long since he had made contact with another being?
УY-youЕ you were the hunter we hired to find Rosa?Ф Mallan asked, his voice broken and confused. УThen you are responsible for this!Ф he suddenly barked, the fear starting to give way to anger. Raal looked up as he tried to rise from his kneeling position, confusion at the sudden hostility in the manТs voice. Mallan pointed a finger at him accusingly. УDid you come all this way to bathe in the misery you caused us, hunter?Ф
Raal stood slowly, shakily, but anger started to power him. Things were developing quickly. His brain was starting to drift out of the monotone drone of a simple task and was starting to awaken, clearer perhaps than it was in life. Looking about the village with renewed vision, Raal saw the changes. Where once there were open doors and market stalls, there were now metal bars and gallows.
WhatЕ what happened here? Raal asked as he started to realize his surroundings.
УThey came shortly after you left us,Ф Mallan spoke, his voice wavering with a mixture of sadness and fear. У...Told us that their leader had killed the men we had sent for them and now they were going to take what they wanted from us. And they did, hunter. All because you could not finish the job.Ф
УShut that fossil up!Ф The shout came from the side, followed by a blur of movement too fast for Mallan to avoid as the butt of a trigun collided with the side of his head. The act of violence made Raal snap his gaze to the men who had approached from one of the houses in the back, all armed with various weapons. Each of them looked as if they were outsiders; warriors, not farmers. Bandits, most likely.
УSo what are you miserable peasants looking at?Ф the loud, obvious leader of the small troupe spoke. When his eyes turned to look at the shakily standing creature before them, the smile that rose on his face could have split his head from ear to ear. He was a vampire by the looks of it, his pale skin and bloodstained lips gave his nature away.
УWell nowЕ look what the dogs dragged in.Ф he almost purred in amusement. УItТs been a while hunter. I barely recognize you after yourЕ rebirth, but I recognize those eyes. You managed to keep the originals, I see.Ф He seemed to smirk as he took a few steps forward, the rest of his gang pushing villagers aside, some planting kicks into the stomach of the fallen Mallan.
Images flashed in front of Raals mind as memories hit him like punches to the cerebellum. The picture of him standing over the corpse of his quarry, the feeling of getting shot from behind, and then the sensation of his blood draining. His last images, the flashes of sight before death. This man was in them. He was the missing piece. He had tried to fight it, but the battle against his mark Ц a Wretched, bandit leader Ц had left his party dead and his own body riddled with injury. It was a weakness the bandit second-in-command took to usurp the leadership of the gang.
With an easy motion, the Vampire drew out his firearm and aimed it casually at Raal as he stood, gripping his head and trying to make sense of the images. The buzzing was fading the memories were coming back in hard, thunderous claps; hard enough to make his movements sluggish and easily readable by the vampire lording over him at that moment. Raal wheeled his arm back and without even realizing what he was throwing, hurled the head of the former bandit leader at the Vampire weakly.
Without even flinching, the Vampire snagged the head by its mane of cables and hair and held it up to admire the rotten, worn visage of his former superior. Decay had taken its toll. Whatever flesh had remained was scored into the bone and metal implants. Disfigured parts of bone and jutting spikes where teeth should have been gave the vampire a nostalgic feeling as he remembered the face of his former Wretched master.
УYou have dragged this with you for how long now, hunter?Ф the Vampire asked. УSevenЕ eight years, perhaps?Ф
DonТt be a fool, I have only been gone forЕ forЕ
How long had it been? Raal could not remember. There was always the road. The main camp had been miles away. Weeks by caravan to the center of this gangs power. He had not ridden, he had not given transport. No, he had walked the whole wayЕ some of those days crawled there, all the time dragging that head. The dawning realization hit Raal like a heart attack. The only thing that mattered was to return to the village and claim his reward. He had lost all of his friends, he had lost his own life and he wanted his pay.
Was it anger, revenge or greed that motivated him back to the land of the living? Everything suddenly seemed to hollow, and yet so clear. Looking down at his hands, he couldnТt help but make a snort of disgust which then turned into a laugh. Soon that laugh turning into a howl of emotional pain and then back to anger. Shaking, Raal seemed to stand taller, straighter. The dark power that held parts of his body together seemed to glow more intensely.
But my job is not done, is it? You... you are still alive. Raal asked angrily, his unspoken voice thundering around the edges of buildings like a coming earthquake.
The men with the Vampire started to take a step back, readying weapons and looking to their leader for orders. The Vampire looked unfazed however, still holding his firearm like it was an extension of his arm. Finally turning his bloodshot, lifeless eyes away from the head, he seemed only to smirk in answer.
УNor will it ever be, hunter. Not even with your second lease on life.Ф
A loud gunshot was followed swiftly by blackness.