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Authors: Matthew Woodring Stover

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Caine Black Knife

BOOK: Caine Black Knife
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Caine Black Knife

Acts of Caine – Book 3

Matthew Woodring Stover

For Robyn, again. And always.

The future outwits all our certitudes. —
ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER
JR.

“This is my battle wound,â€

MAXIMUM BAD

RETREAT FROM THE BOEDECKEN (partial)

You are CAINE (featured Actor: Pfnl. Hari Michaelson)

MASTER: NOT FOR DISTRIBUTION, UNDER PENALTY OF LAW.

© 2187 Adventures Unlimited Inc. All rights reserved.

The dirt-colored
cloud spreads wide, hugging the horizon, draining into hollows of the
distant hills. “That’s them,â€

GIFT

And you know
already it’s not a dream.

You know it by
the smell of scorched pig fat trailing up from the lamp’s
smoking wick. You know it by the dirty yellow light leaking in
through the veiny grease-smeared parchment that covers the shack’s
lone window, by the grey splinters in the weathered plank door on
trestles that passes for a table, by the mildewblackened straw humped
into a pair of beds back by the earth-wall hearth.

But you know
only that this is no dream; you have not yet guessed that this is My
Gift to you.

There is the
feel of alien muscles, too long and hard for human; your arms are now
a double-span longer than your legs. Your pebbled hide slides over
ribs too heavy, not flexible enough, guarding a heart that beats too
hard and too slow. Pale northern sun barely warms your spinal ridge
through the heavy leather of your tunic. Your trifid upper lip parts
around your upcurved tusks and you growl,
Kopav Dust Mirror. They
tell me he dens here.

The smaller of
the two ogrillo studs inside swivels on his stool till his back is to
you. His spinal ridge is bent like a bow: pup rickets, maybe. His
skull crest is bald and bleached with age.
You smell human.

The big one
snorts.
Hrk. Human.

You take a step,
clearing the doorway.
I want to find Kopav Dust Mirror. I can pay.

Bet you can,
citybred.
The small one glances over his twisted shoulder.
Nice
boots.

Yeah. Hrk.
Boots.
The big one snuffles a gust of corruption. Something
rotten’s stuck in his teeth. Maybe it’s just his teeth.
Don’t see boots like that in Hell.

Or Ignik Dust
Mirror. Either one. Ignik ’Tchundiget.

Don’t
know you, citybred.
The little hunchback flips one fighting claw
forward over his fist, examining it ostentatiously.
Name your
clan.

Black Knife.

Both studs go
still. They stare at you so they won’t look at each other.

Finally the
hunchback says,
Ain’t Black Knives. Ain’t since the
Horror.
His shell of overplayed boredom has dissolved into wary
tusk-display.

You shrug.
I
can take that up with Kopav.

Black Knife?
Hrk. Black Knife?
The big one sniggers.
Looks more to me like
No Knife.
He looks at the other.
Good one, hey? No Knife.

Your heart
thumps into a heavier cadence that swells your brow ridges with angry
blood, and you look down at your arms, at the sleeves of your tunic;
sleeves longer than any ogrillo ever wears, sleeves so long they’d
foul your fighting claws. If you had fighting claws.

Your wrists are
empty as a human’s. Blank except for wads of scar tissue.

The stumps of
your shame.

You give your
shame the answer you carry in a sheath sewn inside your tunic: an
SPEF KA-BAR, seven inches of matte-black chrome steel blade so sharp
that just its pressure against the side of the big one’s neck
draws a thin chain of blood-beads gemlike along its edge.

This enough
knife for you?

Hey now.
He
doesn’t move: not as stupid as he looks.
Hey now.

The hunchback
rises, slow, hands up and open, the human gesture of surrender. His
fighting claws fold along his forearms.
No need to hook red, hey?
Easy now. Just say what you want, hey?

I want some
eyeball with Kopav Dust Mirror.

You might
like to tell me what for,
he offers, sidling closer.

You might
like your fuckbitch’s head where it is.
You add a little
pressure to the knife. Blood spoor pumps your salivary glands.
Keep
your teeth off my kill.

Hey—hey,
fuck!
The big one looks puzzled. Offended. Not frightened. Not
hurt.
Hey, I’m cut! He cuts me. Hey—

The hunchback
considers this.
Here’s the call, citybred. Come back two
league-walks after sundown—

Your eyes flick
toward the window, instinctively, to check the light and gauge the
hour, just a flick, less than an eyeblink, but they knew you’d
do it and the big one jerks his head back from your blade and one
fighting claw jams for your groin while his other slashes for the
forearm tendons of your knife hand. You twist sharp enough to knock
the groin stab aside, but you feel the tug below your navel and a
sudden flood scalds your crotch and thickens the air with sweet hot
blood. You flick the KA-BAR in a short arc and the blade sticks in
bone; the big one howls and wrenches his arm away into the table and
it collapses and he goes with it. The little one lunges fast as a pro
but your other hand comes out full of Automag and a single squeeze of
burstfire unlaces his belly and blows him spinning backward to crash
into the shack wall.

The parchment
window rips. Sunlight stabs a curl of gunsmoke.

A continuous
clang sings in your ears.

The big one
cowers, kneeling, tears painting crimson streaks along his snout. The
hunchback sits crumpled against the wall, cursing in a low, steady
monotone while he tries to hold his guts in place with both hands.
Fuckbitch. You got a gun. A fucking gun. You never say you got a
gun, you fuckbitch.

You step over to
him, Automag leveled on the big one.
Kopav Dust Mirror
, you
remind him.

Fuck my
bitch. I never be shot before. Fucking guns. This kills me, hey?

Likely.

You
fuckbitch.

Want to go
easy? I track that.
You squat beside him and show him the
knife.
Want to go hard, I can track that too.

He stares
through you.

You shrug.
Or
lie in your shit and hope a Knight comes. Maybe Khryl grants a
Healing after you tell him how you try to gut me for my boots, hey?

His eyes drift
shut.

What you
want?

It’s
you, hey? You’re Kopav?

Yah.

You’re
Kopav ’Jurginget? Kopav Black Knife once?

His eyes open
again. They’re the same color as yours.
Once,
he says.
In puptime. Before the land hates Black Knives. Long gone now. I’m
Dust Mirror since the Horror. No more Black Knives.

Your upper lip
curls under and your lower peels down, baring your tusks to the
roots.
Except for me.

His gaze fixes
on you, and there’s a hint of a spark there before a spasm of
pain smudges his face blank.
What you want?

You stand, knife
in one hand, Automag in the other.
Submission.

Huh.
His
face goes old now, tired and sad.
Just that?

Yeah.

Fuck my
bitch. Dint have to shoot me.

You cock your
head half an inch.
Dint have to rush me.

So—submission.
His jaw works.
And?

And you go
easy.

He stares at you
for a long time. From outside come grunts and distant shouts and
shuffle and scuffle, drawn by the shots. Inside there is only blood
and bowels and the whimper of the bigger one clutching the spurting
gash in his forearm. You can see pain picking up steam by the waves
of emptiness that roll through the hunchback’s eyes.

Finally he
hisses resignation.
Dint have to shoot me.

You wait.

He rolls himself
forward off the wall, kneeling, and lowers his face until his
forehead rests on your insteps. You thumb the Automag over to single
shot.

He says,
I
give myself to you—

You center the
muzzle on the crown of his spinal ridge.

—
fuckbitch.

The slug
splinters a fist-size hole through the floor planks. A wet one. You
track the hunchback’s brains over to the other.

Ignik? Ignik
Dust Mirror: Tchundiget?

Uh.
He
lifts eyes like bloody eggs.
Kill me too, you gonna?

You twitch the
Automag and point it between your boots.

Down.

Whimpering, he
presses his forehead into his sire’s gore.
I, I, I give—
he’s
snuffling so hard he can barely get the words out—
I give
myself to you.

You drop to one
knee and tuck the Automag back into its holster by your kidney. Ignik
gasps when you grab his wounded arm—bone scrapes together in
there: splintered ulna, maybe. You press the gash your knife left on
his forearm to the shallow rip his fighting claw gouged in your
belly.

This is my
battle wound. This is your battle wound. Our wounds are one. Our
blood is one.

His jaw hangs
open like he’s trying to draw flies to the rot on his teeth.
I
uh I uh I uh—who
are
you?

Use your
fucking feet. Black Knives don’t kneel.

Bu bu bu hrk?
He smears crimson tears off his face with a greasy hand.
Black
Knives?

You palm the
KA-BAR and roughly square his shoulders.
You’re filthy,
little brother. And soft: too long in Hell. Your tusks are grey. Your
neck bends easy.

He slobbers.
And
you—you—and you—I am Black Knife.
You flip the
KA-BAR pommel-first and hand it to him.
Now, so are you.

My Gift has now
been given, and I release you: you open your all-too-human eyes,
stare at the mold-eaten plaster ceiling above your bed, and mutter,
“Son of a
bitch.
â€

PART ONE
BELOW HELL

I leaned on the
deck rail and silently numbered my dead.

The slow
heartbeat of the riverboat’s steam-driven pistons pulsed in my
bones. The waterfall hush from the sidewheel’s rising flukes
shuffled the chatter and bustle of passengers and crew into white
noise. I preferred it that way.

I’ve never
been exactly social.

I had barely
spoken since Thorncleft. I traveled alone. I couldn’t have made
myself bring companions.

Not to the
Boedecken. Not on this river. My river.

Fucking
astonishing: how many people I knew who died up here. I couldn’t
remember all the names. Rababàl, Stalton, that Lipkan
supposed-to-be priest of Dal’kannith . . . Pretornio. Hadn’t
really thought of them, any of them, in maybe twenty years. Lyrrie.
Kess Raman. Jashe the Otter. Others. Dozens of others. Thirty-five?
Thirty-six?

I couldn’t
pin down how many. I wasn’t sure it was important, but somehow
I thought it ought to be.

Back on Earth,
it’d have only taken a minute or two to dig the cube out of my
library and start to live the whole thing again. I didn’t think
I would have.

Didn’t
think I could have.

After I
retired—in the bad days, that seven years when my legs never
quite worked and the background music of my life was a mental track
of the nearest bathroom because I could never tell when I was about
to shit myself—I sometimes cubed my old Adventures. Caine’s
old Adventures. Just on the really bad days. In the bad nights, when
the shitswamp I’d made of my life sucked me down and drowned
me. But I never cubed this one.

Not that I had
to. All I had to do was stop holding it all down.

I still held it
all down. Still hold it all down. I didn’t even know why.
They’re fucking
dead.
Every one of them. Dead in the
Boedecken Waste. Nameless corpses in the badlands’ dust. Left
to the buzzards, the crows and the khoshoi.

Left to the
Black Knives.

And if somebody
let any of them out of Hell long enough to take a new look at this
fucking place, the shock’d probably kill them all over again.

The
gravel-scoured folds of the badlands had softened into rolling fields
of maize and beans, well-ordered woodlots and neat rows of birch and
alder windbreaks. Where the land was too rugged for food crops, the
hills were terraced with vineyards: long trellised racks of twisting
bark-shagged vines hung with purple and red and green clusters that I
could smell even down here on the river. The river was itself new:
shallow with youth and careful engineering, its broad slow curves fed
the vast network of irrigation ditches and ponds and reservoirs that
had brought the Waste to life. And somehow I couldn’t make
myself believe this was a good thing.

BOOK: Caine Black Knife
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