The Rotten Core
When they stopped on the street outside of The Rotten Core, the boy clinging to the back of Stranger’s tattered traveling cloak, Stranger was disgruntled, if not truly surprised, to see that the bar was still open for business, in defiance of the descending storm. He had suspected as much, because although the sand hung too thick in the air to allow him to see his way to his destination, Stranger had heard the music from three blocks away. The distinct odor of Warlike’s Catharsian cooking was thick in the air, making Stranger’s eyes water even from out on the street.
When Stranger walked through the swinging doors, which Warlike had copied from one of her human grandmother’s old black and white picture books, nobody turned to look. Wanderers came through here every day and though not all were as tall or as obviously travel worn as Stranger, nor was he out of the ordinary at only a fleeting glance.
But somebody happened to look beneath the hood that kept most of his face in shadow, happened to meet Stranger’s eyes, which led to a closer examination of his rough-hewn features, his blunt canines and his broad shoulders beneath the billowing fabric of his cloak. Within a handful of seconds, every eye in the room was following him closely, and Stranger had to restrain himself to keep his hands from closing into threatening, angry fists. It made sense. His true-bred heritage, supposedly a thing to be proud of, had never brought him anything but grief.
“Human…” Someone whispered and the whisper gained life and strength as it spread throughout the large, rowdy crowd until finally, everyone was staring openly at Stranger, closing in on him in a slowly shrinking, hostile circle of softly glowing eyes and fangs about to be bared.
“This is the wrong part of town, invader scum”, someone yelled and calls of:
“Leave before we hurt you.”
poked at Stranger’s old sense of estrangement.
Half-forgotten memories of growing up surrounded by the children of his father’s servants tried to rise to the surface. They were memories of being excluded, talked about and spat at by playmates whose fear and disgust of the human conquerors was stronger than the need to outwardly show them deference. But Stranger had been born with an optimistic spirit, albeit one that had been fated to be beaten out of him at an early age. He had been determined to show the other children they were wrong about him, and had tried every trick he could think of, in his childish way, to befriend them.
First, he had tried to be generous, kind and sharing, which seemed only to prove his weakness, and make him more of a target than ever. Then, he had tried to amuse, to come up with the best games in the hope that he might win popularity that way. But those efforts, too, came to nothing, and the punishments grew ever harsher, and at last, Stranger found no recourse but to make himself as small and as quiet as possible, hoping that if he could not win friendship, then perhaps he could at least win the right to be left alone. Even so, the bullying grew steadily worse and, at the end of his wits, Stranger could think of no other way to defend himself, but to prove himself every bit as violent and brutish as his tormentors had always imagined him to be..
His retribution, when it came, had been bloody and violent and cruel, but it had served its purpose. Stranger had been left with the scar on his face, and with a brand of ruthlessness deep in his soul, that would serve him well in the years and decades to come.
But this situation hadn’t yet come to the point where there was nothing else to be done but to meet violence with violence. Stranger wouldn’t back down – it wasn’t in him to yield to anyone, not anymore – but nor did he make any outwardly threatening gestures. If he was attacked, he would fight, but he sincerely hoped Warlike or her sister would intervene before it could come to that. Stranger had been trained since an early age in the arts of war, and his advantage might be great enough to enable him to fight his way out without having to kill anyone. It wasn’t, however, a theory he was eager to put to the test.
As it turned out, he wouldn’t have to, because when the first move came, it came from an unexpected quarter. There was a flash of movement in the corner of Stranger’s eye and before he could stop it, the boy who’d been hidden away in the folds at the back of his cloak jumped in front of Stranger, snarling at the angry crowd.
“Back off”, the boy growled, and the crimson hair that grew in a line down his spine stood on end, making his shirt stick up in a way that might have been amusing under less awkward circumstances. His claws were fully extended, curved and wickedly sharp, and in front of him, some of the angry bar goers took a couple of uncertain steps back.
Then someone at the back of the crowd called out:
“What’s this? Using a hybrid cub to do your fighting for you? Isn’t that just like a human?”
Murmurs of agreement, and a woman at the front of the crowd locked eyes with the boy, baring fangs.
“Get out of the way, kid.”
The boy squared his shoulders and growled another warning, making no move to stand down. The woman snarled back at him.
“Why? Does your master treat you so well that you want to die for him? Is it his cock you like, or are you just too stupid, toy, to see that if we kill him, you’ll be free?”
Stranger saw the boy’s legs flex, saw the center of his balance shift in preparation for a lunge that would get him quickly, if heroically, killed. Not wanting to see where that course of events would take them, Stranger grabbed his tiny defender by the scruff of the neck, holding the kicking, snarling boy close to his side with only a minimal amount of effort. He held the boy still until he had stopped fighting and deflated, once more silent and still by his side.
Then Stranger met the lead female’s gaze, and gave her a long, dead-eyed stare. He loosened his grip on the boy, and slowly shrugged out of his cloak, allowing it to fall to the floor, where it gathered in a heap at his feet. The leader of the mob had been returning his challenging stare, which was why Stranger saw it the moment the fight went out of her eyes, to be replaced with dull, reluctantly dawning dread. Even over the music, the collective gasp as the crowd took in the markings on his arms, spilling over onto his well-defined shoulders, was clearly audible, and Stranger knew it wasn’t because of his unsubtly built physique.
The dark blue tattoos, intricate and somewhat faded with age, identified him as a scion of one of the warrior clans, and because he was here, in the Lawless Lands, that mark was enough to tie him firmly, in the minds of these people, to his own, overblown legend.
The moment the Mixers saw the tattoos, whispers of his name spread through the room and for once, Stranger was grateful for it. As a deterrent, his legend was more useful in a fight than the sword strapped to his back, or even the guns riding low on each of his narrow hips. The tattoos told his opponents they were defeated, and they did so without forcing Stranger to spill so much as a drop of the Sixers’ blood.
“Whoa”, the boy whispered and Stranger glanced down to see his charge grinning hugely, his eyes open wide and shining with sudden interest. The boy wheeled on the crowd, which had shrunk back considerably, and said, his voice holding a smug edge:
“You guys are so dead.”
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