Nothing else smells like blood. Especially when it’s your own.
Constantia blanched at the wound in her stomach. She could never quite turn her head in this helmet. What bit of skin she saw was tinged an unpleasant blue. Not much time left.
The grating of metal on stone forced her to crane her neck. A tall balding warrior with long sideburns pulled an embossed gorget off a well-to-do condottiero, one among many corpses littering the alleyway. The moldering brick passage was a riot of tangled victims. The creature had ambushed them here.
Around her laid the well-earned proof of its name: the Beast of Ramona. Constantia never even got to see it well. It slumbered now. Dawn was coming.
A lithe dark haired woman with a scar down her face stood guard just past the tall warrior, bearing a deadly looking double crossbow perched over her left leg. Constantia remembered them now; Brodus and Dustine, two adventurers from the eastern frontier.
Per usual, this disaster had started at a tavern. It was named the Pig and Whistle, but everyone called it the Pork and Blow. Last month when the killings started, word had spread across the farms and up the trade roads. Ramona’s priori council had commissioned the local mason’s guild to restore an honored guildhall in time for the coming holiday, but storms delayed the work. When the masons finally returned, something now inhabited their worksite. Three of them never made it out again. That had raised a fat purse from the Commune of Guilds.
Soon the brave and the greedy gathered to await the official word, letting drink set their courage and their tongues to wagging. This crowd of bravos paced as the priori council bickered with their newly appointed foreign syndic. Ramona had just been ceded via treaty by the Free City of Lyvondis to Duke Dasiotes after losing the Marsh War. Ramona was allowed to elect a new council, but the Duke’s man ruled them now, a recently entitled Iryxene baronet named Umberto Anzalone.
Constantia chuckled at that. It was a clever political ploy, since the Anzalone were a Lyvondan house, but also known as duplicitous schemers who played both sides of the fence. There were also rumors of fey blooded shape shifters among them. It was important for a hireling to follow such doings in the corridors of power. It could mean life or death.
This political quagmire had caused the council to hesitate, and while they argued, their imported mercenaries began to gamble and scheme. During these games, Brodus and Dustine had lost their shirts, and to make matters worse, the self-appointed head of this lot, a prideful Gadarene named Mennipos had acquired a town map. Since there were so many of them, announced Mennipos, he would draw lots (and secretly take bribes) for the best routes to the creature’s lair. Again, Dustine’s luck proved false, or so it seemed. She’d drawn a circuitous route, a fact which bruised her pride but spared her and Brodus the ambush.
Constantia chuckled. Dustine must have guessed what would happen and said nothing, the clever bitch. Now the pair’s luck had changed. Constantia noted they acquired the wizard Endereth’s cart…was that him against the wall, a pair of quarrels in his face? No teleportation escapes this time, you smug bastard. The mule nickered nervously as Brodus stacked arms and shields in neat bundles in their new vehicle.
Constantia's voice sounded harsh. Brodus turned to her with an arched brow, perhaps surprised she was still alive. He reached for a wine flask and uncorked it, bending to brace her head to drink. He had gentle hands for one so big. The wine tasted divine, a strong Lygean red. He looked Lygean, maybe a little Parnian blood, which explained his size. She’d never seen a man so serene amongst such gore and carnage. Despite the surroundings and his ghoulish looting, he seemed completely at peace with himself. He also seemed ill matched to the scar-faced woman, Dustine. She was unmistakably Phabian, those dark locks over pale skin and passionate, scheming eyes. Anyone could see she was seven kinds of trouble.
Constantia thanked Brodus, asking, “You wouldn’t by chance have any smoke leaf, would you?”
This cool remark from Dustine. Constantia couldn’t believe her luck. She laughed suddenly at the thought. Her stomach ached at each contraction. Brodus returned her smile, his brow knitted in sympathetic concern.
Dustine pulled out a pouch and rolled up a smoke, lighting it by striking a tinder twig on the brick wall. She stooped to place it in Constantia’s mouth. Despite her stomach wound, she dragged deep. It was fine, rich leaf. These two might look scruffy, but their tastes were impeccable. Constantia supposed that’s what became of two souls whose profession poised them on the edge of death. A tear rolled down Constantia’s cheek as she puffed. She fought back the fear.
“The Gods will thank you both for your tender mercies to me.”
“The Gods will not thank us, Constantia. If they hear us at all it is only because they are amused by our guile and our villainy. I’m a treacherous mercenary, a backstabbing thief, a cardsharp and a scoundrel. But, I’m also an excellent judge of character. Of this rabble, only you are worth saving.”
Dustine turned to Brodus in a silent exchange. She looked Constantia over, touching him on the shoulder.
“I won’t let what little virtue is left in this wretched town die bleeding on the cobbles. Bring her.”
The last thing Constantia remembered was looking up from the cart as it rolled through the town square. Above her towered the imposing statue of San Pietro, patron saint of Ramona. Now there was a story that betrayed this city’s true character.
His birth name was Petrus Ratajczyk, a towering black haired warrior from Sargoviste. A large force of barbaric Parns meant to besiege Ramona to sack its famous chapels and enslave the populace, selling the young and demanding tribute from those that remained. On the day of battle, Petrus, a foreigner with no stake in the city save his piety, led their modest army and beat the pagan invaders against all odds. The citizens of Ramona gathered to debate in secret: how could they reward such a hero? Money and material goods seemed too worldly and insulting to such a hallowed figure. This man was already sworn to his love and soon to be married back home, so no beautiful maids or wedding vows would do. He was humble and did not wish entitlements or position of any kind, and so it seemed there was no honor to compare with the preservation of their city’s liberty. Finally one of them stood with an epiphany, saying, “He is a chaste and pious fighting man whom the Gods favor. Let us kill him and worship him as our patron saint.”
And that’s exactly what they did.