It was fairly obvious that he was new to Culara. That fact showed itself in his total ignorance of his surroundings and he was likely to get himself killed.
House Holt’s trading posts were the one bastion of civilization on an otherwise uncivilized planet but that didn’t mean all that much, especially to the man watching him fumble his way through the muddy streets.
“Frakking tourist." the other man grumbled to no one in particular as he stepped in to help the newcomer.
“Are you trying to die?” He slid in behind the newcomer and hissed the question in his ear.
“Don’t react. There’s three men behind you with knives-probably looking to take everything you’ve got.”
Anyone who recognized him knew his reputation, the newcomer didn't but the harsh whisper was the sort of thing a wise man didn't argue with.
This man was Ventrezi he had seen nightmares beyond their imaginations and he had no problem whatsoever with killing. He was just shy of forty but there were a few strands of gray in the sandy blonde hair that hung out from under his wide brimmed hat. All three of these men knew he kept a laspistol in his Grox hide jacket and they didn’t dare make eye contact.
He didn't draw the gun but pulled his knife instead,almost daring them to make their move.
“Thought so.” He growled at them as they scattered instead.
The man who he had just stepped in to save spoke up “Thank you so much. I came here with nothing but dreams of a better life away from the mines on Stentzholt You just helped me keep that dream alive.” He held out his right hand and introduced himself.
The other man had no interest in shaking his hand or anything else about him but did note the pronunciation- Yah-Kob.
“Isadore Stanz. I don't make a habit it helping strangers so next time you're on your own." He stalked off but stopped a few moments later to watch him walk by. It was the soldier in him-the need to know his environment and look for any edge.
He guessed that Altheim had everything he owned, including a pick and a shovel in the pack across his shoulders. Though short he was solid muscle barely held in place by a dirty white shirt and short gray woolen jacket. His dark hair and dark eyes didn’t really stand out amidst the crowd but his nervous, twitchy demeanor did.
“Guy’s a walking target but that's not my problem.” Stanz grumbled and walked away, his heavy boots leaving deep prints in the mud.
House Holt struggled to bring civilization to Culara but so far Culara seemed to be winning, the mountains and forests surrounding The Flatstone Trading Post were as imposing and untamable as ever.
Stanz made a fairly good living as a trapper and hunter but there were many others who tried and failed or tried and died, often never to be seen again. He had seen it happen often enough, it was a tragedy when it happened to someone experienced but otherwise it was their bad luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Almost twenty years in the Imperial Guard had taught him a lot about life and a lot more about death. The strongest lesson was that it came when it came, there wasn't anything anyone could do about it. He had come to Culara as a sort of therapy, to forget all the death he had seen and hadn't been able to change. It was far away from Exile’s battlefields, far away from the cramped cities of the Sector’s planets and nothing but the isolation of untamed wilderness.
He trudged through the streets as a heavy fog settled in around the town,nothing unusual there.He just pulled his jacket a little tighter and kept his head down.
He did quicken his pace though,he didn't want to get caught in one of the frequent rain showers Culara seemed to be cursed with. He also had no desire to be caught out here after dark, not because he was afraid but he did enjoy sleeping inside when he got the chance.
He had the place to do so for the time being, a rented room in a midrange boarding house along Flatstone's main street.
It was the sort of place that catered to men like him, A no frills menu with a respectable array of liquors, and stable for whatever beasts of burden the hunters and prospectors used. It was the simple things though, a roof over his head and a warm bed that drew him there.
He entered through the stable, stopping for a moment to check on his horse and he passed a pair of Homo Ima Vipera trackers on his way up to his room.
He fell asleep almost instantly as the rain started hammering down…
Jakob Altheim knew nothing about Culara or Flatstone. He didn’t know to keep moving and not to let his guard down. He set his pack down for a moment, stopping to get his bearings and in the next it was simply gone. With nothing more to do he hissed out a curse and kept walking,hoping for two things.
The first was to get away from the sudden storm that reminded him of the home he had risked everything to leave.
The second was to get his things back-everything he owned, except for a little bit of money he kept inside his jacket, was in that pack. He sloshed through ankle deep mud toward the only semblance of civilization and order in this disordered, uncivilized town- a solid rockcrete building bearing an Aquila and the crest of House Holt.
The uniforms told him that he was in the right place. The blue uniforms and frock coats, held closed with shiny brass buttons stood out amidst the drab browns surrounding them. “Arbites?”
“Technically PDF but close enough.” The door guard answered.
Altheim didn’t wait for any further prompting “I need to report a robbery. Someone stole all of my things.”
“You’re new here aren’t you?” The condescension dripped from the guard’s voice. “Go on in.”
He did as he was told crossing onto a rockcrete floor. The interior looked like any office building- gray, drab walls and floors, people at desks working on stacks of paperwork. But as the door guard had said they were the closest thing to Arbites that Flatstone had and so he took note of the fact that everyone was armed. He walked up to the man who seemed to be in charge and repeated himself.
"I need to report a robbery. Someone stole all of my things."
The man at the desk looked up and called one of his subordinates over. "Take his statement. We'll do what we can for you Sir but I can't make any promises. Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?" The lead officer's voice was polite but Jakob could hear the stress in it.
He just shook his head, trying to be polite in return. "No. I only arrived today."
"Then you can stay here. We've got an empty cell we can loan you. It's not much but we'll try to help."
"Thank you." He followed the junior officer back to his desk and recounted just what had happened.
Jakob Altheim was exhausted after the day he'd had- weeks of space travel and travel through an unfamiliar and unforgiving city left him barely awake. He trudged over to the cell and collapsed onto the cot,sleeping soundly until the next sunrise woke him.
He checked his pockets to ensure his money was where he had last seen it and left, intending to hit the streets finding work and/or somewhere to spend the night.
Images of rough looking men and women hanging up at eye level caught his attention on his way out the door. He had an idea of what they were since he’d seen similar wanted posters back home. It was another unpleasant reminder of what he'd left behind.
“There’s not enough of us to protect the whole planet. There’s plenty of people here willing to do almost anything for some extra money. Governor Holt is willing to pay for their capture so why not?”
The PDF trooper's voice was matter of fact but tinged with annoyance,likely at the lack of manpower and funding.
“Which one’s worth the most?” Altheim asked with an idea already forming in his mind.
“That one. Cedrick Gambell. Real bad guy. Kills for fun. Nine people in one day a couple of years back brought his total tally to twenty three we know about, probably more. We caught him just after he robbed a bank six weeks ago. The Holts are big on law and order so we kept him waiting for a proper trial when we should have just killed him. Broke out of here last week and Killed a friend of mine on his way out. Been waiting for someone to track him down.”
“I’ll take the bounty.” The newcomer to Culara replied with almost suicidal confidence.
“You are a brave man-Emperor help you. May he have mercy on your soul- and ours if we let you do this…”
The anger in the trooper's voice vanished and was replaced by sadness and regret. "You have nothing but your life Jakob... you can start over but this man will kill you without a second thought... Assuming you can even get to him. You're new here, unprepared people die out there all the time."
Jakob Altheim was a proud man,a stubborn man who would not give up his dream.
"We all die. Not many can say where or when. The whole trip here was a risk,what's one more gamble?" As he saw it nothing to lose meant everything to gain He left with the poster in hand.
He didn't know where to go exactly but he found it soon enough, one of Flatstone's many gambling houses. He slapped all of his remaining money down,risking it all one spin of roulette wheel and he whispered a prayer when he saw it start to move.
"Emperor protect me, look upon the humble state of your servant and let me be lifted up."
The roulette wheel slowly spun to a stop,drawing everyone's eyes to the results. He had doubled his investment,enough to buy him some much needed equipment and food.
"Winner! Culara Lucky!" The croupier's voice rang out over the background noise.
"Please explain." Altheim kept his voice down not wanting to attract any more unwanted attention to himself.
"Culara lucky- once in a lifetime, just a whisper short of divine intervention kind of luck and you sir, just found it." There was something like awe in the croupier's voice.
Altheim quickly cashed in his winnings. He had things to buy and it was best he do it quickly before anyone could rob him again.
Isadore Stanz spent this morning like any other, the routine he had developed as a soldier was a hard habit to break. He woke early rolling out of his comfortable bed and into hundreds of push ups, cleaning his guns,his tools, and knives before heading down to breakfast.
Culara was a less than ideal place to live but he did appreciate a few things.The food was much better, there was money to be made but it was the little things that drew him, a warm bed and a roof over his head.
Conveniently enough his boarding house served a fantastic breakfast. Real eggs, real bacon,and biscuits with sausage gravy were all blessings he would find it hard to go without when he headed back into the wilderness so he made sure to enjoy it now while he still could.
He read the morning newspaper,actual paper since Culara's dense forests made paper milling and printing cheap and easy,taking note of one story in particular about how the notorious outlaw Cedrick Gambell was still evading capture. He ignored the last couple of lines about a reward. No one would be foolish enough to try to claim it since Gambell had a bad reputation too.
He wasn't going to concern himself with it too much he simply finished his meal and pondered what to do with the rest of his day. This was the most time off he'd had in a long time and he had no real idea of what to do with it all beyond a new pastime. He had taken to the paperbacks found in Flatstone and he headed up to the balcony with his most recent one. They were cheap, poorly written and overly romanticized but they had their charm.
He still had dreams, he had never owned his own home or more than a few changes of clothes. He had spent his entire life as nameless and faceless he wanted tailored suits, to be a man of some standing. he had earned some of that- paid the price for it in his own blood and pain...hadn't he?
But Life never was fair was it?
At least he had his books.
Jakob Altheim had a similar problem. He had spent his entire life as a nobody, he wanted a new life and so far events had kept that from him. While he had new clothes and gear the purchases had cost him everything he had. He needed a partner to catch up to Gambell and he needed that other person soon. While he looked like a Culara native wearing a canvas jacket and wide brimmed hat, he didn't act like one and his ignorance came through in everything he did.
It took him the majority of the day to do his shopping and when he was finished He walked into a crowded saloon. He took a table near a window to keep an eye on his most expensive purpose, a mule.
I am not going back to Stentzholt... He reminded himself and thought about his choices. Should he approach the other men and risk his mule? He couldn't afford that, nor did he have any money to stable him.
While he was new here there was something about this place that felt like home and for a moment that thought dorve all others aside. The food and drinks were different, not that he could afford to try them, the stuffed animal heads on the walls were different but the warmth of the fire and the background buzz of conversation felt exactly the same to him.
He kept his distance and his isolation caught the attention of the men and women around him.
"I hate to see a man drinking alone, especially a newcomer. A man needs friends if he wants to thrive in Flatstone. Silas Dotson, Flatstone born and raised."
The other man approached and gave his name, it would be rude not to give his own in return and rudeness would get him nowhere.
"Jakob Altheim- formerly of Stentzholt." He offered a handshake and they took a second to study each other. Dotson was short with intense dark eyes, graying shoulder length hair and a chest length beard, also going gray.
He carried a knife like every man around him but his was almost a dagger, a long thin blade with a faded engraving on the pommel.
"And what, Jakob Altheim, brings you here?"
"I need a partner. I'm looking for a man who's worth a lot of money last seen near the old Feranti Copper Mine. We can split it as many ways as we need to but I can't do this alone." He keep his voice level and free from the desperation he was starting to feel.
"How much money are we talking here?" Dotson asked him with sudden avarice in his tone.
Jakob didn't quite trust him and so he didn't give him a straight answer. "Depends on how many men we bring along."
"Gimme a name and I can give you a number." Dotson replied.
Though spoken in a low tone those two words caught everyone's attention. Someone to overhear their conversation shouted out the number they had just read in the newspaper. That stopped all conversation dead for a couple seconds before new ones started,people quietly seeking out their own partnerships or sneaking off to go it alone.
It was quiet enough in the room to hear everything go wrong for the newcomer once again. What started as a compliment spiraled out of control. One of the waitresses walked by carrying a tray of something that smelled very strong and very sweet. He couldn't help but notice the flower in her long blonde hair and her low cut white blouse.
The Stentzholter leaned forward and made a comment in a low voice, trying to change the subject.
"Looks like she has a nice strong back. Attractive too."
It was the worst thing he could have said.
She heard and turned to glare at him. "This ain't that kinda place- best get that through your head right now. We're here to serve drinks, not for lonely guys like you."
Dotson favored him with the same look, sudden anger flaring behind his eyes.
"I didn't mean that... just that you look strong- that you know how to take care of yourself. " He almost stuttered out the answer.
"Don't know what you mean by that... dunno what Stentzholt girls are like but Culara women are strong,been taking care of ourselves since day one. We were right alongside the men carving a life out of these rocks." She almost snarled her reply.
"I didn't mean anything bad by it..." He stuttered, desperately trying to apologize.
One of the others pulled out a knife and closed the gap.
Altheim could see the family resemblance even before he said. "That's my sister you're ogling mister..." in a low,threatening tone.
Things had escalated quickly enough that he was suddenly out of options. He took off running, untying and saddling his mule and a crowd followed him out...
Stanz could appreciate Flatstone. despite it being a city of 40,000 it still felt like a small town not unlike the one he grew up in and it felt like a second home despite its obvious flaws. There were several major differences however, Ventrez didn't have Lynch mobs like the one he could hear from down the street.
Street justice was hardly justice at all. While he didn't make it a habit to help strangers, he would change his mind if properly motivated and this was one of those times.
He ran toward the sound and hoped he wasn't already too late.
"Tourist..." He commented in a frustrated growl at seeing him again.
"Get out of here. you want me to call the Blue Coats?" his voice was low and cold, the tone said that he was willing to kill if he had to. The threat was enough and he'd never had to follow through on it.
"This is between me and the newcomer- stay out of it." The mob's de facto leader faced him down.
"I'm making this my problem Dotson... or should I say...?"
He left his question open ended- implying a threat in it.
"Leave him alone..."
The former guardsman repeated and The harsh growl in those last three words were enough to defuse the situation. Everyone knew what this man was capable of and none wanted to see it firsthand so they just scattered once again.
"This had better be good Jakob." The trapper growled, frustrated and irritated and having to pull him out of trouble again.
"I found a way to get all of my money back. I'm going after Cedrick Gambell."
"You're going to die out there..." The reply came without any sort of anger or emotion it was just a simple statement of fact.
"That's why I need your help. There's 30,000 in it for us." Altheim kept his nervousness out of his voice but his hands shook.
"Total?" Stanz mentally reflected that his half was roughly six months pay, that was worth some risk.
It took a lot to surprise Isadore Stanz but that did. That was a year's pay, enough to help him fulfill a few dreams.
I can build a house... buy a tailored suit..
"The Holts want him bad..." He mused aloud for a moment before he noted "We'd better get started. Everyone's gonna want in on this."
"Any time you want Isadore. I'm packed and ready. Won some money, got myself a ride and a little bit of food."
He gently patted the mule before scratching behind its ears.
"You got Culara Lucky and... bought... a mule..." Stanz said with disbelief in his voice.
"We have these back home. They're stubborn and strong." The Stentzholter responded with some pride "Like Stentzholters. We're kindred spirits."
The former guardsman sealed their partnership with his next words " If you say so.Best get moving then since Feranti is three days from here. Let's see if we can beat the rush. I need a few minutes."
Stanz took off on a dead run- vanishing and reappearing less than fifteen minutes later on the back of a solidly built workhorse, making Altheim catch up to him. He was right and inside of a couple of hours parties of rough men and women left Flatstone to chase down a man who didn't want to be found.
Dotson put himself in charge of one of those groups he and nine others who were willing to split the money ten ways- a couple months of pay each was enough for them but none of them quite trusted the others. The tension was obvious as they left Flatstone but they could live with it, knowing that they needed each other.
A few hours ahead of them Isadore Stanz was once again annoyed with his partner. The Stentzholter had a single day of food for himself, reasoning that whoever he partnered up with would know how to hunt. He was right about that fact but it was still annoying since he would have to take care of them both House... Suits... reputation... He reminded himself.
There was a sound behind him heavy footsteps.
"I thought I'd be safer with you. The animals can take care of themselves? Your horse has been out here dozens of times right?"
“I told you to stay at camp, I know Celandine didn’t run. Don’t know about your mule.Stay close and stay quiet." Stanz swallowed his anger and forced himself to stay calm.
"Celandine?" Jakob asked as quietly as he could.
"My horse. Stay quiet. There's some really nasty critters out here."
His words were almost prophetic.
Another sound echoed through the trees, three pairs of heavy footfalls that crunched through the undergrowth. Stanz froze when the giant shape emerged from cover. It was more than twice his height, almost forty feet long and it was held aloft on three pairs of multi jointed legs. it stared at them through two pairs of multi-faceted eyes and clicked its mandibles at them.
“Throne! What is that!?” Jakob quickly forgot his partner's advice.
“Bugbear. Run.” Stanz kept his voice calm and level while he reached for the lasgun on his shoulder.
It let out a piercing warble that they could both feel in their chests before it charged, shaking the fur covering its long, segmented body. Jakob didn’t need to be told twice and he charged through the trees as fast as he could,screaming the whole way. Stanz was a half-step behind him and he shouted instructions at him.
“Shut up and keep running. One advantage here is we’re smaller-navigate through trees better." He took a dozen or so further steps then wheeled around, taking aim with the lasgun in his hands. A single shot cracked out and shattered a log in the bugbear’s path.
He turned away again, taking off on a dead run again just like his partner, catching on tangled branches and stumbling on rough ground but every few dozen steps he turned and fired. Despite no longer being a member of The Imperial Guard he wasn’t likely to forget the hard lessons he had learned as a soldier. He wasn’t going to go easy, wouldn’t die without a fight. The other man was still panicking and letting his fear driving him forward. Stanz pulled the laspistol from a shoulder holster under his jacket and tossed it over to the Stentzholter.
“You know how to use one of those?” He demanded while aiming his rifle again.
“No.” The reply was almost panicked.
“Frakking! Tourist!” He took a couple of running steps over to him and flipped the safety off.
“Point and squeeze the trigger,don’t pull. Legs or eyes.” The bugbear came crashing through the trees again and the both squeezed off a couple shots before running again. Altheim’s hit a patch of hair setting it alight and the smell wafted over to them but it bought them a few seconds. The bugbear paused and both men squeezed, not pulled, the triggers.
There wasn’t all that much they could do to it besides annoy it, if that. The bugbear warbled in pain again before thundering toward them faster than before.
Stanz went visibly white and something akin to blind terror entered his voice. "JAKOB! RUN INTO THE TREES!"
Both men took a sharp left turn into another stand of trees, unaware of what lay just beyond it. Stanz didn't hesitate to take another step, dragging his partner with him. They slid down twenty feet of loose rock and into a gully as the Bugbear thundered past them and vanished into the distance.
"What is a Bugbear anyway?" Jakob broke the awkward silence.
"The adult form of a Fosterpillar."
Stanz started at him for a second and snatched his laspistol out of Altheim's hand. They began the slow trudge up the hill and back to camp, miraculously untouched by man or beast. Both pack animals were were their masters had left them and that was a small miracle on its own. Only then, when the adrenaline had faded did both men notice the Stentzholter was bleeding from a series of shallow cuts on his back.
Stanz just sighed "Alright then- let's get you cleaned up..."
A couple of hours, a bottle of antiseptic ointment and stitches to both cloth and flesh later Altheim pulled his repaired shirt and jacket back on.
"Those are the last scars of a painful life but nothing next to a new one and a year's wages." He tried to stay optimistic but all he managed to do was irritate his partner.
"You think you've suffered?" Isadore's eyes narrowed with barely restrained anger.
He yanked off his own shirt to show his back, crisscrossed with old scars.
“Private Isadore Stanz,201st Ventrezi Volunteer Guard. I have a story for every one of those. I’ve seen things you couldn’t possibly imagine. I lived through Kephis.” He turned around showing equally gruesome scars on his chest and arms.
“There’s a reason I left the Guard.” His voice turned almost sad with that last statement.
The image of a grizzled Imperial Guard veteran standing with his back to a roaring fire was one of the scariest things the Stentzholter had ever seen. Scary enough that he had a hard time sleeping and he knew not to press further for the sake of his own safety. He had gotten only a couple of hours of rest before his partner woke up and they made their way out into the predawn mists...
Stanz vanished after uttering a simple order.
"Going hunting. Keep moving."
Altheim did as he was told, keeping the laspistol close at hand. His feeling of insecurity was intense but mercifully short lived. Stanz reappeard less than an hour later carrying a half dozen cleaned and gutted small animals and some wild plants. "That's for tonight- before they go bad." Stanz told him before he could ask.
Their head start proved to be enough, they stopped for another night which passed without incident. But still the image of the previous night stuck in Jakob's memory.
He tried to strike up a conversation. "Is life in the Guard really as bad as the stories say?"
Stanz kept his back to him, looking out into the forest. "Some good, some bad. You know what burning Tyranid smells like? I do... You ever see a planet turned into a dead rock? I did."
Both let the matter rest...
They never saw him coming. Altheim fell from the saddle and hit the ground hard, laid out by a blow to the back of the head.
Stanz slid out of his saddle with his rifle in hand and whipped around at the noise only to be struck as well. He was Guard, or used to be, people or things trying to kill him had been an everyday thing. His mind instantly switched to combat mode,kill or be killed. He faced his enemy, a Vipera who stared him down with murder in his yellow, slit pupil-ed eyes and a knife in both hands. A wide smile revealed a mouth full of fangs.
The Abhuman charged him, swinging both blades in opposite directions and Stanz barely got his rifle up in time to block both. He was no match for his enemy's natural grace and so he barely dodged the next attack. Altheim recovered and staggered over to stand back to back with his ally. Even together they weren't enough against the single Vipera who ducked and dodged away from their clumsy attacks.
"Why? Why are you trying to kill us? Just end it then!" Stanz recognized that his partner was trying to be brave but the shake in his voice betrayed his fear.
"Simply business. You are between me and two years of pay. You would do the same. Stanz was Guard and you are simply stronger than most, you deserve a fight. I have simply killed lesser men."
Neither really expected the Abhuman to respond and didn't find the honest reply told them how slim their chances were.
Isadore Stanz repeated a series of simple phrases to himself. "This is not how I die. I survived twenty years in the Guard. I survived Kephis and I can do this."
He adjusted his grip on his rifle, pulling it into his shoulder as the Vipera streaked toward them again. Time almost moved in slow motion as his finger tightened around the trigger...
And missed, blasting a sapling off the Abhuman's left shoulder into splinters and scorched leaves. It didn't stop him but there was a visible reaction as the noise overwhelmed his sensitive ears. Both lowered their guns, spraying fire at the Vipera's feet, kicking up shattered stone and burning leaves. One of the shots burned through the Abhuman's boot and dropped him to the ground.
Stanz kept an eye on his downed enemy "Jakob get back on your mule and move. I'm right behind you." "What about this guy?" He protested.
"Jakob- MOVE. NOW." Stanz's voice went cold enough that his partner was afraid of him once again. He did as he was told almost jumping back into the saddle. True to his word Stanz was less than a minute behind his partner.
They left the wounded Vipera where he was and that poor decision would come back to haunt them. The lasgun shot had almost severed his foot leaving him unable to walk and so he hid as best as he could, making himself almost invisible to the group that arrived a couple of hours later.
He knew the leader, one Silas Dotson. The tracker appeared out of nowhere stopping ten men on back dead in their tracks. "I can help you. You're looking for Stanz and Altheim yes?"
Dotson kept his gun trained on him as he spoke. "You saw 'em?"
"I did. No more than a couple hours ago. They're going to the old Feranti mine and If we hurry I can pick up their trail."
The heavy revolver never moved. "Who said I'd bring you along? You're hurt bad Snakeboy and more than that, you're competition." Dotson didn't shoot but the injured tracker still likely faced a death sentence out here in the wild two days away from the nearest town. Dotson didn't see that as his problem.
"Best keep moving boys! couple months of pay waiting at the end of this!"
Dotson rallied them forward and knocked the Abhuman down on his way past just because he could...
The others had standards despite being rough sorts willing to do almost anything for money. "Silas- if you send somebody Throneward you gotta do it clean even if he is a Snakeboy... what you did don't sit right with us."
"If I want your opinion I'll ask for it. " Dotson didn't even turn around but kept moving forward. They had to stop for the night several hours later, ten men traveled slowly.
Two traveled much faster though they kept their pace measured for fear of attracting attention to themselves. Their encounter with the Vipera had been too close a call...
Day 4- late afternoon
They brought their pack animals with them this time. There was no need to make a camp just yet and the piles of waste rock were far away enough that they couldn't be seen. The former guardsman had good eyes, made better by the binoculars he had thought to bring along and he recognized the man pacing a couple hundred meters ahead of them.
"That's him. Frakking Moron found a place to hide and never moved." Altheim had no choice but to trust his partner's judgement since he owed him his life twice.
"So then... how do we get close enough to bring him in?"
"Don't need to. I've got a better idea." Stanz pulled his rifle into his shoulder, aimed at the man's back and squeezed the trigger. Both saw Gambell collapse with a smoking hole blasted between his shoulders.
The crack echoed like thunder in the narrow valley."
"Isadore! That was murder!" Altheim protested loudly, almost in shock about what he had just seen.
"The Holts would've done the same to him, just slower." Stanz didn't feel the need to explain but did it anyway.
He started thinking like a soldier again and reeled off the situation to his partner.
"That shot was loud enough for everyone following us to come calling. They were willing to kill him for the money then they're willing to kill us for the same reason. We both know Dotson put together a crew that's been following us from the beginning. Our one edge is that they know nothing about the area...'
"He said he was born and raised here..." Altheim reported. He realized his own foolishness- he'd been thinking about the prize and not the others who wanted it too.
Stanz quickly set him straight.
"He lied. He's a Dahakan peasant whose real name is Hennel Feuer. He ran away from some noble's estate and came here the same time I did. Got a job in Flatstone where I took to the wilderness. Made him soft and greedy but kept me hard. He and I knew each other's stories and had an understanding, guess money got in the way of that. Get the animals, you and I have some work to do."
They brought their animals up, trying to keep them out of the way of any of the shooting they knew was coming. The mine was closed off, so that was no help to them and so they tried to move the larger rocks,giving them some kind of cover.
They used Celandine to tow a heavy log over and they struck on an idea. A woodcutting axe and a lasgun worked in tandem to drop a full sized tree which they dragged over adding to their brush pile. They were so engrossed in their work they hardly noticed the arrival of a third man.
"Where's Gambell?" The newcomer asked, leveling his rifle at them.
"I shot him. You feel like digging him up go ahead but we got first claim on the bounty." Stanz's eyes never left the new arrival's but his hand closed around his knife.
"We'll cut you in on it if you help us. There's ten men headed this way, they're willing to kill us from what my partner tells me." Jakob cut in.
"How much are we talking? He owed me money I can't collect now... gotta get it somehow. Set him up with a house in Steeple Rock andtold him to stay here till it was ready." He quickly amended his statement. "I know who he is. I'm the one who called in the Blue Coats and told them he was last seen here. Nothing wrong with making a living and cheating a criminal is poetic justice ain't it?"
Stanz gave him the figure, even the reduced amount would help him get his house.
The new man agreed to the terms as Stanz had.
"If we're gonna be partners best to introduce ourselves. Kalvin Burress."
The other two quickly introduced themselves and all three just waited...
They didn't have to wait long.
The angry crack of lasguns filled the air all around them as the various competing teams out for the reward all closed in. It was all bluster since No one but Dotson/Feuer and his crew wanted to start anything. There was nothing subtle about their approach, they made no attempt to use their terrain but just came right down the narrow valley spraying fire. All three defenders went white and Isadore Stanz could not help but remember some of his worst days...
He squeezed off a shot, desperately trying not to kill...
His throat went dry, his heart began to beat like a sledgehammer when he heard Celandine scream...
The memories of his battles had blurred over the past two years but this brought them all back into razor sharp focus. He forced himself to continue on despite the needle sharp burst of pain in his leg...
Burress took a hit that shattered his ribcage. Altheim scrambled for the fallen man's rifle as Stanz spat a powerful curse and kept shooting. He crawled back to his place behind the barricade and squeezed off a burst of panic fire. The return fire dropped off and a voice called out of the silence.
"Is this worth your life Isadore? Think of your friend there. This already got a man killed. Neither of you needs to join him Throneward. Let us take Gambell and we'll let you go. Otherwise you're both gonna be dead and buried..."
"He's not my friend but I could ask you the same, Hennel Feuer. You need to think for a minute. How many battles did I survive outnumbered five to one, ten to one, a hundred to one? I'm an Imperial FRAKKING GUARDSMAN, PEASANT! You know what I lived through, you kill me and you're all coming with me. "
Those words were enough for Feuer's crew to hesitate. One spoke up after a few eternal seconds of silence "Your name is really Hennel Feuer? what else have you lied to us about? You gonna betray us? Kill us all and keep the money for yourself?"
They all joined in, their own paranoia fueling their argument.
"Almost as bad as Orks..." Isadore Stanz almost chuckled.
One final comment rang through the trees. "C'mon boys. We aren't working with a liar and a cheat anymore..." Ten voices faded away into silence.
"Is there anything we can do for Kalvin?" The Stentzholter spoke after what felt like forever.
"Besides a proper burial, no. If it happens in the trading posts its a Blue Coat problem but out here you take your life into your own hands."
Silence fell again and Isadore Stanz went white and started to shake.
Jakob had seen this before. There had been a man pulled out of a cave in. Now like then, the man's body was reacting to stress now that his mind wasn't focused on keeping himself alive.
He did what he had seen done then. He poured a shot of rotgut down his partner's throat, soaked an old rag in water and tied it up around his forehead.
"Breathe Isadore, just breathe, you're alright." He sat with him for twenty minutes until he calmed down enough to speak.
"Alright then. you and I just earned a year's pay. Problem is I got hit back there. You're gonna have to return the favor..."
Altheim just nodded solemnly and took care of his partner's wound. He almost threw up when Stanz took their target's hands off his wrists and dropped both into a saddle bag full of rotgut as proof they'd succeeded. He buried two dead men and spent his night watching,trading places with his partner every few hours.
He helped Stanz back onto Celandine the next morning and they set off for Flatstone, stopping for only a few hours each night.
They straggled back into town in the early morning several days later. Their first destination was the PDF office. They both limped in and dropped the bag on a desk next to a bundle of the dead man's clothes.
"We got Gambell- there's your proof." Stanz spoke for them both
The officer looked in the bag and gagged.
He handed the bag off to a subordinate "Bury that- somewhere far away."
He turned back to them "I suppose you want your money?"
Stanz's only comment was "It would be nice..."
Several minutes and a retina scan later and both had a large stack of paper money.
The next stop was a bank and both men were almost giddy. They had spent their lives living from hand to mouth and the thought of having money stored, just waiting for them, was almost too much to hope for.
There was always something to ruin a good day and in this case it was Silas Dotson, now well known by his true name.
He strode out of a shadow with his dagger drawn.
"I'll get you Stanz. You cost me a lot of money and now no one is willing to work with me anymore..."
He made no move to attack him but just juggled the blade from hand to hand.
"That's all you got Feuer? 'I'll get you'? You already tried and I'll remember that. You came here to start over and you can do that again. Get out of town and I just might forget what you tried to do. Your choice."
They left him behind,they ignored him but both kept their guns close in case he decided to try something.
He didn't, fear would motivate him to leave for Steeple Rock later that day.
"I'm going to the Tailor, need some new clothes... after that going to buy more books and see a man about a house- gonna be out of play for a while with this leg... How about you?" Stanz wasn't much good at small talk but as he'd be spending a lot more time around people he needed to learn.
"I don't know but I have some time to think." Altheim replied. "I'm interested in the newspaper business. Had one back home, not much more than a Stine propaganda machine. I think I can do better."
"Then I think you've got your first story. Mine are my own- let's get that straight right now."
There was no threat in his voice, nor anger. The words were simply a statement of fact.
"I think you need to tell someone, Like a doctor? You came here for a new life, don't let your old one hold you back."
He thought about it for a moment. "You're probably right. Where'd a tunnel rat like you get wisdom like that?"
The newly enriched "tunnel rat" just smiled.
"By the grace of Terra's Throne mostly, but I've always been lucky too."
Isadore Stanz got his house and his suits he told his stories in print, selling hundreds of thousands of copies across Culara and the Western Marches. He became a man of wealth and standing with influence enough that the Holt House Guard, the "Blue Coat Boys" went to him for training and guidance. A Ventrezi woman, inspired by these stories and fleeing her own terrible memories came to Culara, and they would later marry.
Jakob Altheim came to Culara in 858 M41. He returned to the Feranti Copper Mine, discovered new veins in the nearby mountains and invested his own money into reopening the old shafts. He and his descendants would become one of the three richest families in Flatstone becoming rich enough that his great granddaughter Victoria caught the eye of soon to be Governor Cornelius Holt.
The two men never met again.