Under a Baleful Sky

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Welcome to

Population: 750

Good living under God's law.

Dhole sat in the crook of a tree in some 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 with too much honesty and bared everything below to the attentive stars beyond.

"Getting fresh air for once is nice, isn’t it?" chirped Egret. Dhole’s partner was sitting on a different branch, smiling crookedly as short strands of her mud-brown hair drifted in the wind. 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," said Dhole, turning her masked head back to the long straight road stretching out near their perch. In truth, only peasants would prefer dirtied winds. The air had an unpleasant quality to it, even when breathed through her wooden mask. It felt like fingernails dragged from her nostrils to her 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 at the tables of the city curled around the great edifice’s base. Dhole sometimes saw the withered forms of peasants 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, over a long 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? Do you have 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 running their city’s many bookstores. They wore the faces of sheep, as she once did, to show their great skill at making 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," said Egret, as though she was not herself a catastrophe.

A dented blue car spend down the road, bouncing slightly and kicking up a long plume of dust behind it. It’s 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 victim. Even so, Dhole could not imagine its owner would be live long regardless.

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 that surely engulfed 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."

Dhole cocked her head to one side. "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."

She turned her head the other way. "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 worse for binding her into this situation with a contract worded tighter than the proclamations of God. Trading life for service had seemed reasonable, before Dhole realized who she would serve alongside. She 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-eater. Dhole growled, fought against the urge to say any more, and picked at her bandaged hands instead. She would not mourn a dear friend in the presence of a killer. She would not expose herself so easily.

Another car came from the opposite direction as the last, dark green with mirrored windows. Its shadow was thick and oily, sliding across the ground like a living creature. It was heavier than any of the others she had seen in their weeks out at the end 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.

Dhole 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 she had not yet become a monster.

The true monster was already stalking through the ankle-high greenery, pistol in hand. 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 long figure struggling out of the smoking wreck before her, 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. It was a familiar situation, and it was obvious what would happen next. 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 off 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 Egret struck the air again, and again, and again, red stain slowly spreading. 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 left the same way that they arrived, trekking across the wide fields until they reached an off-white van. Egret muttered dark things about magicians and their ways, cursing whatever new ones would be arriving to help their comrade. Dhole tried to ignore her, and tried to ignore the sky as well. It felt as though it had drawn particularly low to watch the 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, and Dhole resented her 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 it. She resented being pushed to make the delivery, though she would not be the one to to put it to use. She resented it all, because she knew she was not a monster.

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

Dhole and Egret traded shifts watching a brick building's entrance for what seemed an eternity. They lurked in a tiny apartment furnished only with a single mattress, and stared out the tiny window in a fruitless, unending watch. A tiny radio announced the scores of sporting matches, the changing of the skies, and the state of 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 a fitful sleep one morning. Egret gnashed her teeth as they left the place. Dhole could not help but hear it as the sharpening of one knife against another.

"He’s here, and the Overseer is impatient," said Egret, jamming her phone back into a pocket. Her chipper tone was intact, but only just. Dhole could hear the cracks forming in it.

"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 noon 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 more 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. Dhole walked through the forest alongside the creek, down a short hill, and along a path at its bottom. The sky sunk down above her, watchful and unblinking. The pocket of her coat felt unnaturally heavy under its gaze.

It felt like she walked the path for hours, though the sun remained in place above her all the way. The narrow trail led her to a sheer cliff, a nearby bench, and a man sitting on it. His black hair was combed, his thick beard 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 next to him.

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

Dhole 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 the company of a fellow truthseeker," he continued, "especially not in a place of power, but you should leave. Jailers and bookburners are on the hunt. I can feel their malice not too far off. It isn’t safe near me.”

It was hard to think of anything to say to that. No words came out when Dhole opened her mouth. She pulled the trigger of the stubby gun stuffed in her coat’s pocket instead. Even at the odd angle, she didn't miss. There was the barest moment to register his expression, lips slightly parted, nose flaring, eyes wide, before a distant shot sounded and his head snapped forward. She stared mutely at the corpse next to her and kept staring as his body slumped to the ground.

Dejection. Disdain. Disgust. Dhole felt all of those as she sat on the bench and looked up at the sky. It would have been better if she had never come to this alien place, seeking alien books. It would have been better if she had listened to her friend and not tried to make sense of them. It would have been best of all if she had not groveled for her life like some common mongrel.

She could have told herself that she was still no monster, could have said that it was the Overseer who pulled the gun’s trigger through Egret, then through Dhole herself. She could have said it again and again, but she wouldn’t have believed it.

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