A/N:Non chronological, stand alone story that follows a year after the Baby Necromancer, and shortly before the Armageddon Scrolls.
Hidden Story: Kissy Miss
"I'll take well water and a drop of your best rat poison."
Akon, the barkeep, raised an eyebrow.
There had been something about the stranger's manner that made Lia hesitant to approach him. The inn was nearly empty at this time of the day, it being too late for a midday meal and too early to dine. With a brief nod to Akon, the stranger had promptly seated himself in the darkest, most nondescript corner of the bar, and seemed content to silently take root there.
Akon had laughed aside his wife's worries, swaggering casually over to serve the stranger himself. It wouldn't be the first time mysterious strangers turned out to be harmless, ordinary men making their way through life. As a retired soldier turned barkeep, the task fell upon him to be more worldly and inviting than his peers.
"Rat poison? Well, rat poison will cost you sixteen silver," Akon said, without batting an eyelid.
"That's costly. I'll have roach poison instead," the stranger replied, meeting the barkeep's gaze levelly.
The stranger grinned.
The barkeep threw his head back and roared with laughter. "The first drink is on the house. Lia, get this man his roach poison. One for me too."
Lia's pretty eyes widened. Akon was giving out free drinks again. Her husband only did that if he was in a good mood.
"Roach poison?" she repeated uncertainly.
"Regretfully, we don't serve roach poison," said Akon, grinning at the stranger. "You'll drink ale instead. My name is Akon, and that's my sweet wife, Lia. What brings you to these parts, stranger?"
The stranger whispered his thanks. "I'm looking for a friend. She goes by the name of Kissy Miss. Has she passed this way?"
The barkeep shrugged and scratched his head. "We haven't seen any women here," said Akon.
"A friend told me I'd meet her here," said the stranger. "Sometime today, if not tonight. She's a simple lady, but her kisses leave a man breathless. I tasted her once, and now I can't forget her. I've been searching for her for over a year now."
Akon laughed again and looked at the stranger appraisingly. Dressed in loose fitting grey linen, the stranger's clothes were surprisingly fine for a lone traveller. Unusually, his head was shrouded beneath a tall hood. What he could see of the stranger's face was hidden in shadow. "A year is a long time to be looking for a woman. Who knows? Maybe today is your lucky day. A year ago, I was still a soldier."
The stranger nodded his thanks as Lia set down two mugs of foaming ale, a look of mild disapproval on her face. She was a slim young woman with a gentle face and reserved disposition, a contrast to her husband's genial nature. Now and then she would listen in on the conversation, breaking off now and then to tend to her duties as the inn gradually began to fill with customers."
"You may not think it, but I served under Prince Charming himself in the battle at Fool's Errand," boasted Akon.
The stranger saw Lia roll her eyes. Doubtless she'd heard this story many times before.
"I was there too," said the stranger.
The barkeep's eyes brightened. "Yes! Someone who was at Fool's Errand!" asked Akon. "I was part of the contingent from New Koln. What regiment did you belong to?"
"I was no official soldier, just a camp musician. I never held a weapon," the stranger admitted.
"Doesn't matter, in my eyes you're still a veteran. You know what I am talking about!"
"Once I played for Prince Charming."
Akon pounded the table in approval. "Damn, you're lucky. Prince Charming is the greatest general the One Republic has ever known. What did he look like? I've never seen him up close."
The stranger paused, as though searching for the best way to describe Prince Charming. "The prince was not what I expected, to be honest. Even in his fine armour, there was something ragged about him. He was silent as I played. Frankly, I thought someone named Charming would be less dour. But still, he had this aura about him that marked him out for greatness. I felt nothing but respect for him."
Akon nodded impatiently, clearly eager for his own turn to speak. "Not bad, singer, but I can top that. I saw the dread necromancer, Vincent Nightingale, with my own eyes."
The stranger whistled in appreciation.
"Dressed in midnight black, he stalked into our camp as bold as you please. His body was lined with stitches, and even from afar you could see that the left half of his face was dead and rotting. He had this terrible magic that cut through solid plate like it was parchment, and any soldier who faced him got cut to pieces in a shower of flesh and bone. I saw his evil smirk, heard his evil laugh ring through the air. Men were dying to the left and right of me like flies, and then my officer gave us the order to charge."
"And you charged?"
"Of course we did! Or we wouldn't have won! It was the best and worst day of my life. My friends died, and rose again at the Nightingale's command, slaves to his evil power. Only the witch hunters could stand against him. At last, they pinned the necromancer down with silver bolts, riddling him till he gave a great screech of pain and rage."
The stranger grinned. "You tell the story well, war hero."
Akon stood abruptly, lost in his tale. "And then his dragon came, speeding to claim its evil master. Dead and rotting it was, like its master, and so huge that when it spread its wings it seemed as though night itself had descended upon us. Cannonballs whistled overhead as it coated the battlefield with venomous fire. I stabbed it, thus! The creature gave a great shriek and wrenched my spear out of my hands. I would have died then, but my mate threw me to the ground as its claws swept past, raking the air where I stood. Eventually Republican steel proved too much for even such a beast, and it grabbed its master's lifeless body in its claws and fled."
"Lifeless, but is he dead?" asked the stranger.
"The witch hunters claim that Vincent Nightingale perished from his wounds," the big barkeep said, shaking his head to show how much he believed in that idea, "But a necromancer like him won't rest easy. If he's dead, show us his body, I say. Mark my words, he'll be back someday, and when he comes, we'll have to fight him all over again."
Akon sat down again in satisfaction. "I didn't catch your name, singer," the barkeep said, offering his hand.
The stranger grasped it and shook it once.
"I'm sorry, Akon," said the stranger regretfully. "I could give you a name, just not my own. Anyone who knows my true name is lost to me."
Disappointment showed itself plainly on the barkeep's face. "Keep it, then. Everyone is entitled to his own secrets." He left the stranger to nurse his drink alone.
"Secrets my arse, Akon," said one of the inn's regulars suddenly. "He's drinking your ale but he won't give you his name? Either's he's an arrogant bastard, or a crook."
"That's just fucking uncivil," said another, backing up the first.
Across the counter, three men stood, clearly looking for trouble.
Akon frowned. "Markus, Clyde, Dom, there's no need for that. A little privacy never hurt anyone."
"We're just looking out for you, Akon," said Markus, who had been the first to speak. "I know Red Rammstein's been sniffing around, causing trouble. We won't let anyone push you around."
The trio stalked over to the stranger and surrounded him.
"Look at him," Markus sneered. "He ain't from these parts. And that cloak, what's an honest man doing keeping his cowl up? He hasn't even touched a drop of his ale! Trust us, Akon, this one is trouble you don't need. Best if we made him leave."
"Wasn't so long ago I was a stranger here too," remarked Akon placidly. "If you lot had kicked me out back then, who would be standing you free ale, now?" On the counter, three half measures thumped onto the table for emphasis. Lia smiled.
"Leave him be, boys," repeated Akon. "He checks out. He was at the battle of Fool's Errand, same as I was."
The trio turned towards the foamy ale. Dom licked his lips.
"So was Rammstein," protested Markus weakly. "What if he's one of Rammstein's lads, sent to spy on you?" But Dom and Clyde were already moving towards the proferred ale, even Markus had to relent and admit that confrontation made one thirsty.
"Nice folk here," remarked the stranger, as Akon walked over, a frown on his face.
"Them?" the barkeep shrugged dismissively. "They're harmless. But you're a danger to yourself. Everyone is entitled to their secrets, but I won't have you provoking my regulars again. Understood? My bar, my rules."
"Who is Rammstein?" asked the stranger.
Akon laughed out loud. "We were soldiers. He was the one who saved me from the necromancer's dragon. We served under Prince Charming together, and left his service together. I needed some money so I could open this bar, and he lent me all he had. You don't find a friend like that. I promised him I'd never forget my debt. But since then he's been going down a dark road, I fear. He formed a gang from the lowlifes of this town and has started all manner of nasty things. Extortion, banditry, you name it. For the past two months, Rammstein has been trying to get his money back."
"Sounds like trouble," the stranger said. "Why can't you pay him back?"
"It's not so simple," Akon said. "It's true, it's his money and I owe him, but I can't sell this inn. It's my livelihood, and it takes more than a year to earn what we put in. There was a time when I would have done anything for him. Two weeks ago I hid him and his loutish friends from the town watch in my own cellar. But he thanked me by breaking half my stores and spitting in my face."
"Would you still call him a friend?"
"Not anymore," Akon said grimly. "The crimes have changed him, and he's forgotten what he once was. He's a different man now and I can't trust him. He's full of spite, and impossible to reason with. In another month, I'll have his money. Somehow or other. He can take it and leave."
The barkeep forced out a smile. "But enough about that one. Can I get you another drink, singer?"
"I'm not done with this one yet," said the stranger. True to his word, the ale was untouched. Nevertheless, he placed two silver leaves on the table. "How about I pay you to keep this mug filled for the night?"
Akon pocketed the money. "Too generous."
"It must be interesting as a barkeep," the stranger observed. "You are busiest when others are having fun, and you relax while others are hard at work."
The barkeep laughed. "I like that! I'm going to remember it long after you're gone."
The hours passed, and afternoon turned to night. Customers came and went in twos and threes. The stranger sat and brooded and seemed determined to make his single drink last forever. Lia brought out the lamps, and lit a single tallow candle for the stranger. The atmosphere was soon that of a happy, healthy inn at dusk. Ale flowed easily, and so did the conversation, and Akon and Lia began a practiced, elaborate dance, keeping up with every order.
All this changed when the door slammed open and eight cruel looking men stalked into the inn. Their leader, a wiry individual with a shock of red hair, pulled out an ugly looking knife.
"Everybody out," snarled Red Rammstein.
One by one, the inn's regulars left. The bolder ones muttered darkly and downed their drinks before they left, but all obeyed the rogue's vicious command. Markus slunk out, taking Clyde and Dom with him. None of them would meet Akon's gaze. The stranger blew his candle out. No one seemed to notice him, sitting in his dark corner as he drank in the scene with dispassionate eyes.
"Rammstein," said the barkeep, mingled anger and disgust in his voice.
"Akon. You know why I am here."
"Driving my customers out on a busy night like this? It's not helping me pay you any sooner. I thought this behaviour was beneath you. But you've sunk low, my friend."
The barkeep's words seemed to light a fuse. The rogue stalked towards Akon, bristling with anger. "Sunk low, have I? Is that how you see it? You have this bright, respectable bar, and I have nothing but this knife." Red Rammstein thrust it into the bar counter, leaving a deep furrow in the wood.
"A year ago, I lent a friend, a fellow soldier, all I had," said Rammstein, spitting each word in Akon's face. "And now a fat, arrogant barkeep owes me every cent. And this same fat barkeep forgets who he owes this bar to in the first place and dares to look down on a former friend."
Rammstein howled. "I am what I am because you have all my fucking money, friend! Listen now. A year ago, two comrades arrived at this dirty little town, fresh from war. They're closer than close. After all, they've saved each other's lives on the battlefield."
"One of them, the fat one, quickly finds the love of his life, and dreams of opening an inn. The other hands the fat one all the money he has. The fat one builds the inn and promises the other that he will never forget the debt. I'm sure we're all familiar with this story."
"Here's the part you haven't heard. Two weeks after this inn done built my sister gets a letter to me. Her husband's a fucking drunkard gambler, and who can pay that lout's debt save her darling brave brother, fresh from war? And what's this darling brother to do, with no money, no way to get money? Thievery and thuggery, crimes of blood and gold, that's what I turned to."
"Rammstein, you never told me," the barkeep said.
"Shut up!" the rogue hissed. "All this time, did I ever come to you for money? Not once. Because I knew that you couldn't afford it. You had your brand new inn and brand new wife. Because you were my friend, and I thought you'd ruin yourself before you'd let me go wanting. You'd sell the inn, leave your wife, and we'd be poor soldiers all over again. I said to myself, can't let him do that. So I became what I am, while you sat by your bar, making brand new friends, talking and laughing and judging me. Being hated and despised and feared is not so bad, I thought. I'm doing it for my sister, I'm in it for my friend, and at least my friend is doing well."
"One day I wake up and I realise I'm a fucking fool. I never doubted you'd pay it back, till I started asking for it and you gave the wrong answer every time. Sorry, no, you need to feed your family. Sorry, no, you need to buy new shipments of ale. I had this picture of you. You'd do anything for me, and I'd do anything for you. But you aren't the friend I thought you were. All that suffering I went through became meaningless. Maybe I asked you for too much, but I've never asked you for more than I've given. You say I'm a different man now. Angry, cruel. I'm the nasty piece of work, the good soldier gone bad. But you let me down first, Akon. I helped you get everything you wanted, and all I got was fuck all from you!"
"If it's money you want, you can have it," growled Akon. "Take all I owe you. Take more."
Rammstein laughed bitterly. "It's too late now. My sister's dead. Her fucking husband stabbed her to death and hanged himself. I work for the debtors now, and we're moving out to the big city. Bigger crimes, bigger money. I'm here to claim the debt, one way or another, Akon. But this time, I'm taking everything. Carter, Lancelot, hold him."
Two thugs seized Akon and pinned him to the wall. The thin one pulled out a knife, effectively putting an end to the barkeep's resistance. Rammstein stalked to the corner where Akon's wife was hiding and dragged her out, struggling. Lia made not a sound as the rogue pulled his wicked dagger out of the counter and held it to her throat. "Don't take your eyes off her, now, Akon. I want you to watch her die."
All of a sudden the stranger started laughing. Alarmed, the rogues spun as one towards him.
Rammstein narrowed his eyes dangerously. "The fuck is that man doing here?"
The stranger stopped laughing abruptly and his tone became deathly serious. "Rammstein, you're a bitter, sentimental fool," said the stranger. "You thought you found a true friend in Akon. He was somebody you would die for, and somebody who would die for you. Maybe that was once true, on the battlefield. But peace is a lot more complicated than war. Your friend is dead, Rammstein. You should stop grieving for him, and stop grieving for yourself. Killing Lia cannot feed the emptiness in your heart."
"Maybe it can't," snarled Rammstein. "But that bastard will pay nonetheless."
The stranger stood up suddenly, knocking his table over. "Akon, I'm going to help you save your wife."
The wiry rogue with the knife reacted too slowly. The stranger grabbed him by the knife arm and slugged him hard on the jaw.
"One," said the stranger, sucking his knuckles, before throwing himself at Rammstein. Rammstein hissed and twisted to avoid the attack, losing his grip on Lia in the process. The stranger proved a mediocre fighter, however, as one of the thugs occupied him long enough for Rammstein to recover. The red haired rogue floored him with a single savage kick. Moments later, Akon crashed heavily to the ground beside him, knocked down by his own opponents.
"I hoped you were a better fighter than that!" Akon said, struggling to his feet.
"I hoped you were," said the stranger breathlessly.
Red Rammstein screamed something incoherent.
"We have to save my wife," said Akon, his eyes filled with determination.
"Ah, fuck this shiv," said the stranger, as a thug leapt forward, attempting to gut him.
The stranger gestured, and his assailant's chest exploded as though it had been struck by a cannon. The rogue collapsed in a spray of blood and gore.
Rammstein and his cronies froze in shock, unable to process the sudden turn of events.
The stranger sang wordlessly, twisting his hands in elaborate arcs. His clothes rippled loosely about his body, caught by an invisible wind, as a purple nimbus of energy began to glow about his fingertips. Innumerable violet slivers sprang forth from the stranger's body, buzzing like a swarm of angry bees towards the hapless rogues. The deadly shards shredded their way effortlessly through flesh and bone alike.
"That spell," whispered Akon in disbelief.
Some of the rogues screamed and tried to flee, but the stranger's magic caught and killed them where they stood. Even the two standing guard outside were dragged in to die. Within moments, the inn was awash with blood and bodies of the dead. One by one they died, until only Rammstein was left standing, red as his name with the blood of his fallen gang.
The violet slivers buzzed about the former soldier, slicing through the air ominously as they surrounded him.
"Why am I still alive?" asked Rammstein, grasping the courage that is sometimes found beyond fear of death.
"Because I allow it," said the stranger hollowly. "Drop your weapon, and walk away, Rammstein." Or die.
"But I think this dagger is the only thing keeping me alive." Rammstein licked his lips. The rogue thrust his dagger forward in a stabbing motion. Unexpectedly, the stranger grunted and swayed drunkenly. Akon heard a peculiar sucking sound, and the violet shards winked out of existence as if they had never been.
"Yes!" cried Rammstein in incredulous glee. "The dagger disrupts your magic!"
"Bet your life on it?" asked the stranger, recovering abruptly, as a beam of power gathered once again on the palm of his hand.
But Rammstein slashed wildly with the dagger, and the stranger twisted as though struck in the belly. The latter's deadly energies dissipated, leaving him bent double and gasping in pain. The rogue did not wait for his opponent to recover. Rammstein leapt forward, dagger poised to kill. But Akon held a chair, and Akon swung it into Rammstein's face. The rogue went limp and the dagger clattered harmlessly to the floor.
The stranger's fingers closed over the dagger. "That's the friend I've been waiting for," the stranger said, looking intently at the blade as it glimmered and writhed in his hands like a living thing. "Hello, Kissy Miss."
Akon helped the stranger to his feet. "You saved me and my wife, stranger. We just met today, but I owe you a great debt. You risked your life for us, and I can't say how thankful I am."
"Don't be so sure of that," said the stranger, as he peeled off half his face.
The stranger straightened and grinned at the kneeling barkeep. Underneath the fake skin was a nightmarish stitchwork of living and dead flesh. Only one man had the misfortune to possess such a face.
"No," Akon gasped in horror. "It cannot be."
And suddenly the stranger was a stranger no more, but rather Vincent Nightingale, Lord of the Deathly March and necromancer dire.
"You were right, Akon. Reports of my death were… partially exaggerated," Vincent said. "You don't look too surprised. I think you half guessed my identity when you saw my spells. Isn't it strange? You just killed your old friend and saved my life."
The necromancer gazed down at the barkeep. Vincent's cruel left eye, the colour of clouded milk, stared pitilessly at Akon. Beneath the necromancer's dead eye, Akon was less than nothing. Vincent's right eye, and the living pieces of his face, however, bore an expression that could almost have been mistaken for regret.
"Yo, Vincent, a little air?" said a thin voice from the necromancer's shoulder.
The Nightingale tore his cloak off his right shoulder to reveal an ugly fist sized lump of flesh. The lump split open across the middle to reveal matched rows of jagged teeth and a long, whiplike tongue.
"Thank goodness!" the demon familiar exclaimed, his tongue darting in and out of his fleshless lips like lightning. "It was getting pretty personal in there."
"Nice prediction, Will," Vincent said. "We found Kissy Miss exactly where you said she'd be."
"Naturally, I'm a genius," Will slobbered. "And yet you nearly managed to kill yourself obtaining her."
Vincent hissed in frustration. "It's not my fault. How was I supposed to know Rammstein would discover the dagger's secret so quickly?"
"Never mind," Will said. "Now we possess one of the few weapons capable of killing us, or our enemies. Our preparations are nearly complete. Let's clean up and skedaddle. Kill all witnesses, brother."
Vincent met the trembling barkeep's eye. "I told you once when we first met. Anyone who discovers my secret is lost to me. Now you understand what I meant. Will is right. I'd like my resurgence a secret if at all possible. The best I can offer you now is a quick death."
Vincent's palms began to glow a deadly violet.
Akon's mouth worked. His throat had suddenly gone as dry as dust. Make not a sound, Lia, he thought, though he didn't dare to glance her way. If the gods were good, the necromancer might even overlook her.
"Lia will die as well, of course. Even if I were to spare you and your young wife, the witch hunters that tail me will not be so kind."