Berig was living his worst nightmare.
He sat in an old wooden chair, tapping his fingers on a desk and trying to ignore his churning gut.
The room was bright and clean, a place fit to do business. From the next room came voices, light and friendly—a sound that would change all too soon. Berig’s moneylender, Amar, would be furious once he discovered Berig didn’t have his money.
Berig ran a hand threw his messy brown beard. Could he talk himself out of this?
Not a chance. Amar was not a merciful man.
When had anyone ever shown Berig mercy? Not in his horrible twenty-five years of existence. Life was one misfortune after another, piled on and on. He’d thought he might improve himself and escape the problems of his past, but he couldn’t.
The door opened, and Amar stepped through. He was a short, wiry man, but still intimidating to Berig, who was even shorter and skinnier—a product of growing up on the streets.
Darker-skinned than most residents of Bradenton, Amar had black hair and a matching mustache. Berig fidgeted beneath his stern gaze, and the old chair groaned.
Amar sat down at his desk. “You got my money?”
“Do. You. Have. My. Money?”
“Okay, the thing is—”
“I’m not going to ask again.”
Berig took a breath. “No, I don’t.”
“We have a problem, then.” Amar leaned forward, resting his arms on the desk. “You’re already a month late. I can’t keep extending your deadline. I have a family to support, unlike you.” He shuffled through some papers. “You have till tomorrow.”
“What! That ain’t enough time!”
“It’ll have to be. If not, it’s prison for you. Where you belong.”
“Please, can’t you show some mercy? I’m trying here. I’m really trying.”
“No, you’re not,” Amar said. “You piss away all your money gambling and drinking yourself to death. The rate you’re going, it’s a race between liver failure and a knife in the back. Don’t know which one’ll kill you first. Don’t really care either.”
Berig couldn’t go back to prison. Two years ago, he vowed he’d never return, vowed he’d turn his life around, be a good citizen.
“We’ve gotta come to some kind of arrangement,” he said, wringing his hands. “You’re right. I haven’t been responsible. But that ain’t no reason to send me to prison. I’ll get you that money. It might take a while, but I can do it. I promise. You gotta trust me.”
“Trust is not a virtue in my profession. You have one day.”
“Come on. You gotta listen to me. It’s not fair.” Even as the words came out of his mouth, Berig realized that he sounded like a whiny child. Once, such a display might have worked for him, but now it was pathetic.
“Well, life isn’t fair,” Amar said. “You of all people should know that. Now get out of my house. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Berig’s legs felt weak as he stood. He walked out the door and onto the sundrenched streets of Bradenton, thinking only of the time he’d spend in prison
How long would it be before he saw the sun again?
He trudged through Bradenton’s business district, where the cobblestone streets were clean and well-kept, comparatively speaking. Nothing remained in perfect condition with the monster that attacked the city every night.
In the lower income districts of town, the places Berig had always called home, the city authorities made no effort. That part of town was marked by dirt streets, deep runnels, and buildings on the verge of collapse.
Berig’s steps carried him there without thought.
He passed people dressed in filthy rags, all some shade of brown—the kind of clothes he still wore. Some people greeted him fondly, but most went about their business, their eyes downcast, a mirror of their grim fortunes. But none were as grim as Berig’s.
He felt as though his life were over. It hadn’t been much of a life, he realized, thinking back on everything that had brought him to this point.
He stopped beside the remnants of a house, one the monster had destroyed years before he came to Bradenton. Beside that house was the door to a small cellar, the place Berig had called home his entire childhood. He opened the door and peered inside.
So small. How had he and his brother survived there?
How had they survived at all?
Berig remembered all too well the day he and Marek had escaped their village with nothing but the clothes on their backs. For some reason still unknown to Berig, Imperial Guards had burned the village to the ground, leaving only two survivors. In his mind, he could still see the Imperial Guard who’d hesitated when he saw Berig and Marek.
Why had the man done that?
Only four at the time, Berig hadn’t understood that he’d never see his parents again. Marek told him, but it took a long time for it to sink in.
Staring at the cellar, Berig remembered the night he’d discovered it. He and Marek had arrived at Bradenton as the sun set, unaware that the monster was approaching. When it was about to grab them, Berig spotted the cellar, and they ducked inside.
Now, at one of the lowest points of his miserable life, Berig recalled some of the others. The day his brother had disappeared, probably eaten by the monster. The times he’d spent in prison. The day one Imperial Guard had nearly beaten him to death, a day when he was saved only by the mercy of another Imperial Guard, a man named Gram.
So someone had shown him mercy. Once.
Still, the world was hell. Maybe Berig could join his brother in death, but death scared him. Some people could believe in a higher power. To Berig, though, you faded into nothing when you died, and as much as he hated his life, as useless as he was, he didn’t want to disappear.
Maybe he could go back to thievery, a time when things had been easier. He and his brother had mastered their craft, stealing almost anything they wanted.
After his brother’s disappearance—he still had trouble calling his brother dead—he’d lost his passion for thievery and become careless. He couldn’t go back to that life.
But never had he been as desperate as he was now. Never mind that his debt was far too large for a single day of thievery.
What did it matter anyways? He’d return to what he always did. He never learned from his mistakes. Again and again, he drank and gambled his money away, finding only the occasional odd job to pay his debts.
For a few years, he’d managed to cheat at poker, but eventually the other players caught on and began watching him. There was no hope for him anywhere.
Dispirited, he returned to the business district, where he entered a well-kept and mostly empty inn owned by his friend Liam. Berig had spent so much time drinking in the first-floor tavern that Liam had offered him a room for a small fee, which Liam often waived if Berig agreed to help out around the inn.
Berig seated himself on a stool at the deserted bar.
“You look miserable,” Liam said, wiping down the wooden counter with a wet rag, a nervous habit of his.
“Well, I feel miserable,” Berig said.
“Money trouble again?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
“Twelve gold coins.”
Liam put down the rag. “How’d you manage to get that far in debt? I give you half your drinks for free.”
“Well, things happen, I guess.”
“You’re still gambling, aren’t you?”
“A man’s gotta make money somehow.” Even as he said it, Berig knew it was a weak argument. In truth, he felt as if he could never escape that side of him. Maybe he did belong in prison. Surely he’d never become a productive member of society.
Not after the life he’d endured.
Liam shook his head and started wiping down the counter again. “I hate to say it, Berig, but you brought this on yourself. You’ve gotta be smarter.”
“I know that,” Berig said, resting his head in his hands.
“What’re you gonna do about it?”
“No idea. I figured I’d come here and drink myself into a coma.”
“Not gonna let you do that,” Liam said. “You can have a few drinks, but that’s it. I don’t want to see you like that again. Drinking is just your method of avoiding life, and this isn’t a situation you can avoid.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Berig said. Liam was a good friend, even if Berig wanted to punch him in the face right now. In the end, the innkeeper had Berig’s best interests in mind.
While Berig tried in vain to think of a way out of this situation, Liam brought him a glass of ale, which Berig drank slowly, trying for once not to give in to his nature. He’d spent enough days throwing up in alleys and getting into bar fights. Maybe he had to take bigger steps if he wanted to turn his life around, but he doubted he could do that.
When he was on his second glass, the door opened to his right, and in strode a large man wearing a yellow surcoat.
“Good afternoon, Captain Young,” Berig said.
“Good afternoon, Berig.” Leon Young, captain of the Bradenton town guard, sat down two stools away. “Just got off duty.”
Berig should’ve felt nervous around the guard captain—the man had arrested him four times after all—but Berig considered him a friend.
Some life you’ve got here, Berig thought. Your best friends are an innkeeper, a guard captain, and an Imperial Guard.
The captain sipped the glass of ale Liam had served him. “You all right, Berig? You look troubled.”
Berig took a deep breath, then explained his predicament.
Once Berig finished, Captain Young said, “I don’t think there’s anything I can do. I might not agree with Amar’s interest rates, but there’s nothing illegal about them. You got yourself into debt, Berig, and you’ll have to get yourself out of it.” He took another sip. “And if I catch even a whiff of anything illegal, you’ll go straight to prison.”
“Some friend you are.”
“Guard captain first, friend second. Always.”
Berig had expected that answer. He gulped down the rest of his ale. “What should I do, then? How long am I gonna end up in prison?”
“Well, under the Empire’s laws, for debt of more than ten gold coins, a moneylender can ask for a sentence of up to five years. He’ll turn you in either to us or the Imperial Guards. I promise we’ll treat you fairly. Can’t guarantee the same for the Imperial Guards.”
Liam put down the rag. “Maybe you could leave town, Berig.”
“Wouldn’t work,” Captain Young said. “As long as he stays around here, Amar will make sure the Imperial Guards find him.” He stroked his reddish beard. “Maybe if you could get somewhere north of the Fire Mountains or east of the Forest of Darkness.”
“Yeah, that’s right. I’ll just go and cross places no one ever has.”
“Good point,” the captain said. “The southern part of the Fire Mountains ain’t so bad. My father used to take me there as a kid. But there are parts farther north that are too dangerous.” He sighed. “That’s the best I’ve got.”
Berig looked down at the counter. “Thanks for trying.”
“You’ll figure out something,” Liam said.
Berig slid his glass across the bar, then rose and strode out the front door. Evening had arrived, but a few hours remained before the sun would set and the monster would approach. Liam and the captain had given Berig a lot to think about.
Regardless of how much he feared death, it was his best option
But how would he kill himself? A sword would be painful, and he doubted he’d have the courage. Poison would take too long and leave too much room for error. Maybe he could stay outside once night fell and let the monster get him. Or a quick beheading, the way Imperial Guards executed people. His old friend Gram could do it.
Gram. That was the answer. If Amar died, all Berig’s troubles would disappear. With a newfound bounce in his step, he walked around the business district, where Gram usually patrolled
Then Berig stopped. He’d done a lot of bad things, but he’d never killed anyone, and the thought made him nauseous. It’s him or you, Berig. You’ve gotta do it.
A few minutes later, he found Gram patrolling the open-air market in the middle of town.
“How’s it going,” Gram asked.
“Not so well.” Berig explained his situation, hoping Gram would agree to his plan. Yes, Gram was an Imperial Guard, and he looked rough, but he wasn’t an evil bastard. Still, doubts lingered in Berig’s mind. Amar had a family, and they would suffer without him.
Even if Berig didn’t wield the blade, the blood would be on his hands.
Once Berig finished explaining, Gram said, “I take it you want me to do something.”
“Okay, this is gonna sound crazy.” Berig took a breath, leaning against an empty vendor’s stall, then spoke softly. “I need you to kill him for me. It’s the only way out.”
“They’ll know you had something to do with it.”
“I’m not the only person in trouble with him,” Berig said. It was a weak argument, but he was running out of options. Already, he could see the barred door slamming shut in front of him, feel the soul-crushing humiliation of being caged.
“It’ll still look suspicious,” Gram said. “You did tell the guard captain about your problem after all.”
“Then what should I do?”
Berig prayed that Gram would come up with an answer that didn’t involve murder. Even now, as desperate as Berig was, he felt sick at the thought of killing Amar.
Frowning with concern, Gram scratched at his few days’ growth of brown beard. “Well, there is something, but it’s kind of insane.”
* * * * *
Darien Warrick smiled as he read the Webs of Fate. The strands of Berig’s life had grown clearer, showing him where he needed to be. It had taken a little effort, but nothing beyond Darien’s capabilities. All he’d done was plant the seed of an idea in Gram’s head.
Gram had done the exact thing Darien had expected. Good men were easy to manipulate.
It had been a long time since Darien could call himself a good man. Did the end justify the means? He was looking to make a better future for everyone. How many lives could he destroy on the way? How could he know if he’d even succeed?
Was he torturing innocent people for nothing more than personal gain?
Berig’s life bothered him the most. He had taken only one parent from Nadia, and she had a comfortable life. More comfortable than anything Darien had known at her age. Likewise, he had taken Markus’s parents but left him with an uncle. Yes, Markus had to work hard, but that was nothing unusual in this world. He’d enjoyed stability and comfort.
But Berig was different. Even before Darien had ordered the village burned, ordered that Berig and his brother be spared, he’d known the kind of life Berig would endure.
A life of hardship and cruelty. A life much like Darien’s own.
But it was necessary. The world was full of conflict, overrun with monsters and other dangers, plagued by corruption and prejudice. People liked to believe in God, but He’d done nothing for them. Darien wasn’t even sure He existed. As far as Darien knew, there were three higher beings. Perhaps they could be called gods, but they weren’t so different from sorcerers like Darien.
Whatever they were, they’d already failed once, leading to the Old World’s destruction. Darien couldn’t let that happen again. Every sacrifice he made was necessary.
Oh, how he hated that word.