Under a Baleful Sky

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Welcome to

Population: 754

Good living under God's law.

Dhole sat in the crook of a tree in an unknown place, surrounded by a vast field of strange plants, overwhelmed by the calls of unseen animals, and utterly oppressed by the alien sky. Clear, blue, ominous, it hung far too low for her liking. It revealed the terrible face of this place’s sun too honestly and bared everything to the attentive stars beyond.

"Getting fresh air for once is nice, isn’t it?" chirped Egret. Dhole’s partner sat on a different branch, smiling crookedly while bearing an unceasing watch on the long road before them. She toyed with a small black device as she spoke, flicking its plastic lid back with a loud pop, then forcing it back into place with a louder click.

"Assuredly." Dhole turned her masked head away. In truth, only peasants would prefer dirtied winds. The air itself had an unpleasant quality, each breath like fingernails dragging from nostrils to brain.

"Are there places like this where you’re from?"

"The lands are hale and the waters are teeming. Want is an exile." Hard gray earth was all that surrounded the Howling Pillar for a great many leagues. All the succor that could be wrung from the earth was served to the city curled around the great edifice’s base. Dhole sometimes saw the withered forms of beggars wandering the streets outside her family’s bookstore, but they were always swiftly whisked away.

"Sounds nice. I grew up on a farm, you know."

"In truth?"

"Probably. Saying it feels right."

The pair sat in near-silence as they watched a tractor roll slowly down the dirt road, passing over a line of freshly filled holes dug into its center. The steady rhythm of clicks and pops ran together with the chattering of small, furry creatures, and the low whisper of the wind. Dhole adjusted her dog mask, savoring its smooth texture in her hands.

"Yeah, I’m bored too," said Egret, sounding entirely too cheerful for that to possibly be the case. "What about family? Are any of them running around? Do you all wear the same masks?"

"A great catastrophe snatched them up in its jaws." Her relatives teemed in greater numbers than Dhole cared to guess at, all operating the city’s many bookstores. They wore the faces of sheep, as she once did, to show their great skill at wringing money from nothing. To be milked, to be sheared, to be butchered, no creature was better suited to the quest for wealth.

"It’s like that sometimes," she said, as though Egret herself was not a living catastrophe.

A dented blue car spend down the road, bouncing slightly and kicking up a long plume of dust. Its shadow flickered out across the greenery as it passed. Transient, thin, and insubstantial, it was not the kind of shadow that would be cast by their soon-to-be victim. All the same, she could not imagine its owner would live long. Heart failure, perhaps. Of one sort or another.

She looked up at the sky again and regretted it immediately. It was a terrible thing. Cruel, unyielding, and nothing like distant gray clouds she was used to. The exarchs of her homeland would be well suited to this place, as would the slugs engulfing their hearts.

"And your own brood?" asked Dhole, curious in spite of herself.

"My family? Who knows. They’re dead, or ran away, or something like that. There’s a record of it all somewhere. The Overseers have records of everything."

"You permit yourself such ignorance?"

"It’s not a big deal, I just don’t remember them all. I’m sure there was a good reason to forget."

"Is that state not unbearable to you?"

"No. It's not."

"To be without council, or comfort, or–"

"But, hey, what about that one that was with you before? Were they related to you?"

Dhole gritted her teeth under her mask, face twisted a perfect imitation of its snarl. Disgusting. Egret was disgusting, and her master was even worse for binding her into this situation with a contract worded tighter than the proclamations of a god. Trading life for service had seemed reasonable before she learned who she would serve alongside. Dhole might wear the aspect of a dog now, but such was her partner's nature in truth.

"He was nothing. The sheep has been slaughtered, as by nature."

"That’s all?"

"It is as I said! Cease your whimpering. Stuff your maw with rocks if you must."

Egret’s laugh was less cruel than it should have been by any right, more songbird than carrion-feaster. Dhole growled, fought against the urge to say any more, and picked at her bandaged fingers instead. She would not mourn a dear friend in the presence of their killer. She would not expose herself so easily.

Another car drifted down the road, dark green with mirrored windows. Its shadow was thick and oily, crawling across the ground like a living creature, and far heavier than the others she had seen in their weeks at the edge of the world.

"It’s that one," said Dhole quietly. The lid of Egret’s device popped once more. The car sped across the distant spot across from their perch, passing over the mounds of freshly turned dirt. A loud click sounded beside her and the road underneath the car erupted. Billowing plumes of orange and black bore it into the air with a roar, casting the vehicle up into a slow cartwheel that dared gravity to drag it back down.

She winced as the car hit the ground. Whoever was inside could not be safe, not by any sane definition of the word. Their wounds were her doing. Their pain was her fault. Their death would be… She shook her head and struggled to unwind the knot inside her gut. Whatever minor role she played, it was nothing compared to Egret’s. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t enjoy it. She didn’t want any of this. Dhole took a deep breath, shook her head once more, and felt assured that was not yet a monster.

The true monster was already stalking through the ankle-high greenery. It had been a tremendous misstep to ever assume Egret was a knight of any sort, let alone a warrior with a single drop of chivalry in her being. She did not ride forth to do battle with the lone figure struggling out of the smoking wreck, but to swing her cleaver against the butcher’s block.

Dhole’s ears were not so keen as to hear the conversation between Egret and the dark-haired man bleeding from a hundred cuts and a missing foot. Her partner gestured vividly with her free hand, weapon firm in the other. A familiar situation, and one with an obvious conclusion. All the same, she could not manage to look away. Their shared victim said something of his own, a single word that made the air around them tense and tremble. Egret shot him three times.

The bullets ricocheted off a patch of air, sparking and flying in wide arcs. The next three, fired at different places, had the same result. The man said more, though none of his words shook the world in the same way, and Egret tried to punch him. Her fist stopped in the same place. Dhole watched as the woman struck the air again, and again, and again, a red stain slowly spreading across nothing at all. She watched as one last blow was delivered, an open slap that splattered droplets of blood out across an invisible dome.

The two of them retreated the same way they arrived, trekking across the wide fields to an off-white van parked outside a colorful eatery. Egret muttered dark things about sorcerers and their ways, cursing whichever new ones would be arriving to help their wounded comrade. Dhole tried to ignore her, and tried to ignore the sky as well. It had drawn particularly low to watch the entire affair unfold.

Dhole felt naked without her mask. She felt empty without it. She felt dead. Egret had insisted that wearing it would reveal herself to anyone prepared to see things beyond banal normalcy, but it was torture all the same. Brown hat pulled low to shade her orange eyes, brown shirt ruffling in the hot wind, she dutifully carried a cardboard box up to the front gate of a respectfully large house, rung the doorbell twice, and walked away at a measured pace.

Dhole was resentful, yes, but for more than the issue of her mask. She resented being pushed to carry the box, though she had not built the device inside. She despised being pushed to make the delivery, though she would not be the one to put it to use. So much bitterness, all because she knew herself to not be a monster in truth.

Minutes later, an explosion rippled through the suburban neighborhood. No casualties were ever reported, much to Egret's vocal annoyance.

Days later, the two of them began trading shifts surveilling a brick building's entrance. Days became weeks. Weeks stretched out into an apparent eternity. They lurked in a tiny apartment furnished only with a single mattress, staring out the tiny window in a fruitless, unending watch. A tiny radio announced the scores of sporting matches, the changing of the skies, and violent expeditions to foreign places. Dhole hated the small thing, hated Egret, and hated herself. She ate paper cups of steaming noodles and did her best to push everything else away.

A series of muffled cracks woke her from fitful sleep one morning. Egret gnashed her teeth as they fled the place without having achieved their goal yet again. It sounded like nothing so much as knives sharpening against each other.

"He’s here, and the Overseer is impatient," said Egret immediately after ending a phone call. Her chipper tone was intact, but only barely. Dhole could hear the cracks forming in its foundation.

"Such is the houndmaster’s wont." The two of them stood next to a tiny creek, surrounded by old trees and lit by shafts of light from a noonday sun.

"Don’t call her that. She’s busy. She needs this done! We’re failing her."

"To slay a mage is no small thing. Should we not–"

"No. You know what to do. Go."

Dhole could have argued further, as she had for most of the day. She could have screamed louder and wailed on top of that. The pull of her contract would not be denied though, not if she wanted her heart to keep on beating. Obeying its words was the only course left. She walked alongside the creek, down a short hill, and along a path at its bottom. The sky sunk down above her, alter and unblinking. Her coat's pocket felt unnaturally heavy under its gaze.

Her trip felt hours long, though the sun hung in place all the way. The narrow path led to a sheer cliff, a nearby bench, and the man sitting on it. His black hair was thoroughly combed and his thick beard was neatly trimmed. He exuded a sense of calm Dhole had never felt before, not even in the holiest of men. She only paused for a moment before sitting on the bench too.

"Hail, friend," he said, looking down at her mask. "Is a coven nearby? You have our air about you."

She stared up at the man, impossibly aware of how very alive he was. There was vigor in his eyes and passion in his voice. There was a lifetime of experiences crammed into his being. Bile rose in the back of her throat.

"I usually wouldn’t turn away a fellow's company," he continued, "especially not in a place of power, but you should leave. Jailers are on the hunt. Book burners too. I can feel their malice not too far off. It isn’t safe near me.”

Thinking of any response proved impossible. No words came out when Dhole opened her mouth. None came to mind in the first place. Instead, she twisted sideways and pulled the trigger of the stubby gun stuffed into her coat’s pocket. The bullet flew true toward the wizard, piercing through skin, muscle, and stomach. Pain contorted his face, parting lips, flaring nostrils, before a distant shot sounded and his head snapped forward. She stared mutely at the corpse, and kept staring as it slumped down to the ground.

Dejection. Disdain. Disgust. Those emotions metastasized as she looked up at the low sky. Coming to this alien place bearing precious books had been a mistake. Not objecting over her friend's dedication to their dangerous task, a blunder. Most of all, worst of all, groveling for her life like a common mongrel proved to be a terrible transgression. Dhole could have insisted that she was still no monster. She could have repeated that it was the Overseer who bore ultimate blame for the day's tragedy.

Not a single word of it rang true.

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