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What Rough Beast

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Well, they’d beaten Accusers. That always felt good, Lendel could always use a good old fashioned ass-whooping, but then the stars told them they had to go all the way out to some island in the middle of fucking NOWHERE. Who knew what the Scribes were on with that one.

Still, Pfumta and Lady River were game. Ignarius was down but not out yet, and the stars said it’d be the Nightwings and there was no arguing with that. So, sure as rain, the Tempers dragged their sorry asses out to the coast of Solis. The storms were nastier than usual, forcing them down for the evening, but Pfumta’s conjurings and Lady River’s scouting suggested there’d be a break in the morning. So long as they took flight by dawn, they’d reach their goddamn island, and their Nightwings, and maybe Curly-Horns would agree to give Ignarius a good sock in the jaw before they got down to business. That last part was unlikely, but a man could dream.

“Dawn it is, then,” said Ignarius. “Any place around here where a man can get a drink?”

Pfumta, who had stayed here for some time before joining up, did note there was a small enclave of fisherman in one of the nearby coves. The lights she’d seen from the air suggested it had survived in recent years.

“Hell yeah,” said Ignarius. “Well, I’m pre-gaming. Anyone else in?”

“We shall not be drinking,” said Pfumta, primly, “but our essence of rattleroot grows low…”

Lady River wavered.

“This lady isn’t so sure that would be wise…”

“So the lady can stay here,” said Ignarius. “Won’t hold it against you, but don’t you need a new sleep sock?”

The lady did, so she joined them, after all, along with Pfumta and together they set out. The wind blew like hell, and Ignarius had to carry Lady River in the crook of his arm, but the enclave wasn’t far, and no one messed with them on the road, so soon enough they found the little cluster of shacks and makeshift docks that made up what for the Downside constituted a mid-sized town. They found something like a bazaar close to the docks. They found something like an alchemist’s center close to the marsh. They found something that was most definitely a pub in the center of town, and Ignarius threw open the doors and strutted in like a king. The place was lit by the barest of lamps, and the fisherman huddled in corners: tired, drunk, and frustrated by the cruel surf outside.

“Ho there,” he called into this miserable den, “hell of a night! You can’t all want to spend it cold and alone.”

A few did, but Ignarius paid for drinks, and sure enough he had all manner of friends gathered around the barrels that counted as tables in this place playing dice games, trading war stories, and singing illegal songs about the Archjustices’ unmentionables. Ignarius was quite happy to settle in for an hour or so of joyous blasphemy, but a man in the corner caught his eye.

He hadn’t been there when Ignarius had arrived. Scribes knew how he got in with no one noticing. He was a demon. A large one, too, only half hidden by his traveler’s robes, and making quiet conversation with an imp perched on his arm.

“Ho, there,” he said, more quietly this time. He turned to his nearest tablemate, who’d just won a round at cards. “Who’s that guy over there?”

No one could quite say. Most of the sailors were a few rounds in, and the enclave had been getting more oddballs of late. Some had assumed he’d come with Ignarius, demon and all.

“Eh, that’s prejudiced. Wouldn’t mind if he left with me though,” admitted Ignarius, eyeing the stranger up and down. He cracked his neck and stood up. “Eh, Pfumta, your ladyship, you two can go on ahead if you want. I’ll be a little later.”

His teammates glanced at each other. They knew what this meant.

“Thou must be back by dawn,” warned Pfumta.

“Ain’t turning into a pumpkin, am I?” asked Ignarius. The bog crone stared blankly. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be back. Don’t worry. Just want to brighten a few people’s day, all right?”

Lady River slithered up into Pfumta’s hood. The two of them left without too much complaint. It wasn’t the first time Ignarius had messed around before a Rite and it wouldn’t be the last.

Ignarius approached the stranger’s table.

“Nice rack,” said Ignarius. He wasn’t just saying that. The stranger had one of the most impressive set of horns he’d seen in years -- barring Curly Horns of course -- forward sweeping, and well curved at the end, with a second set coming in over his forehead.  “Think you’ve got me beat. Can I get you something?”

The stranger glanced up, the hood hid much of his face, but not his eyes, which burned like hot red coals. That was fucking classic.

“I was about to ask the same,” said the other demon. He gestured to the barkeep, then he turned to the imp. “Iq’sa.”

The imp squeaked in something like concern. The stranger’s face softened, just slightly. Ignarius could make out the deep slash of a scar across his mouth -- which, well, hot.

“Needless concern,” the stranger promised. “My time was years ago, not now.”

The imp chittered rather chidingly, but took wing.

“Seems all our chaperones are a little antsy tonight,” said Ignarius, trying not to look too exultant as he slid into the seat across from the now lone stranger. “Cute gal, though. Hate to put her out. She gonna be ok in those winds?”

The stranger glanced at him. “She hails from Alodiel,” he said, finally. “The winds there are stronger.”

“Speaking from experience?” said Ignarius. “Shit you’re hardcore. I like it. Hell were you doing there? Pilgrim? Tourist?” He’d never seen this demon in a Rite. He sure would have noticed that .

“A fool’s errand from some time ago.”

“I know what that’s like,” laughed Ignarius, slapping the man’s shoulder. He let him. Ignarius took that as permission to let his hand linger on his forearm, which was delightfully taut. Good. He bet if the man wanted to he could throw him across the room. Even better. “Sure don’t know why I still bother. You the religious type?”

“Not anymore,” said the man. Their drinks came. They were steaming hot. Good for the body, terrible for the mind. Ignarius let his hand slide from the man’s shoulder to gather his mug.

“Can’t blame you that, either,” said Ignarius. “Still, look like you’ve survived a fight or two. How long you been in for?”

“Eighteen years.”

“Damn! I’m fourteen. Got a thing or two to teach me?”

The ember-red eyes flicked up and down. The edge of the man’s scarred lips quirked into something like a smile.

“I might,” he agreed, and Ignarius knew he hadn’t misjudged his company at all.

“Guess I ought to ask you your name."

“You might,” said the man, who didn’t volunteer it.

“Coy type, huh?” Ignarius laughed and took a gulp of his drink. The stranger, for his part, took a dainty sip of his own. He made a face, but took another. “So they put you in for something big, eh? I don’t mind. I’m Ignarius. Fuck the Commonwealth anyway. What good they ever do any of us?”

“What good indeed,” said the stranger, “I will drink to that.”

“Fuck the capital, fuck the justices, and fuck me too, while we’re at it,” said Ignarius, cheerfully, but rather than take from his own mug, the stranger grabbed Ignarius wrist and drank from his instead. His hands were fully transformed, dark black and covered in knobby scales. He held Ignarius wrist in a grip like cold iron. Ignarius stared. The stranger didn’t break eye contact. He sat back.

“Hoooo,” murmured Ignarius.

The stranger offered his own mug.

“I like your style,” said Ignarius, and clasped the stranger’s wrist in turn. He guzzled it down. It burned and popped in his chest. His vision blurred. The stranger didn’t let him lean back, he leaned forward, the movement caused his hair to rustle -- long white hair, which bristled Ignarius’ cheek as the stranger moved close to him and said:

“If you have no hope left in you, you may as well follow me.”

Then he dropped some sol and stood up, moving with shocking silence across the room. Somewhat must’ve done something to the lamps. The pub had a...redder quality than it had before, and had the ceiling always been fuzzy? Ah, well. The important thing was the line of the stranger’s back, making quick progress for the door.

“With a line like that ,” said Ignarius, “Sure.”

He stumbled after him. He caught him round the corner outside, swinging an arm around him. The stranger didn’t even sway under his weight. He wasn’t quite as big as Ignarius after all, but that was all right. Ignarius said so.  He said so again, when he wasn’t sure he’d gotten the words out right.

“Maybe we ought to set sail tonight,” he mumbled, “Cause I’d like to get wrecked.”

“I can provide,” said the stranger, he fell back against the nearest shack, red eyes bright and unblinking.  Ignarius stumbled with him. Eager, and ready, and tired tired so very tired and what was that buzzing.

Then his face collided with the wall and he ate dirt.

He dimly remembered the stranger’s foot on his side. He dimly remembered the stranger rolling him over and peering into his face.

“What time has made of both of us,” said the man, before he grabbed Ignarius' heels and dragged him out across the cove. “But you never would have known my face.”

“You motherfucker,” said Ignarius, before he swung at him. Or at least, that was what Ignarius wanted to do.. What he actually did was go “You mofoffrag” and flung his arm kind of vaguely at the sky as the world went black. Next he knew he was hanging from a tree in the nearby marsh, with Pfumta and Lady River cutting him down.  It was late afternoon, they’d miss the Rite entirely, no one could tell him who that asshole had been or where he had gone, but Ignarius had most of his money and all his clothes, and somehow that was the biggest insult of them all.