Old Dead Things – Soldano, at last

Finally finished off the story about Soldano. Since I spent a great deal of time babbling about it on here, figured I’d post the finished product, so to speak. Enjoy!

-=-=-=-=-=-

“Bah! You come here, looking for Soldano? You not find him here, cop.”

The old man chuffed laughter alongside a cloud of pungent tobacco smoke, shaking his head and flapping his hand at me. At the table before him was a checkerboard, a game half-finished, though no other player was in evidence. Red was winning.

I didn’t have much interest in the game. It was none of my business. Dmitri Szgany,and what he might know about Soldano, that certainly was. I rolled my shoulders, letting the door slip shut behind me as I walked towards the splintered table he’d set his game board on. His rheumy brown eyes tracked me with only vague interest, peering through the cloud of smog his pipe was putting out.

“Looks like you’re losing, old man. What makes you think I’m a cop?”

The question wasn’t actually of interest to me, but I hoped it’d get him talking. Besides, he wasn’t entirely wrong. I was a cop. Until three weeks ago, anyway.

He laughed again, gesturing at the fire-sale salvaged chair across from him. “Am I? Strategy, friend, strategy. Hitler thought the motherland was losing, too, until he roll in with his tanks in middle of winter! Hah!” This time, the laugh turned into a wracking cough, prompting Szgany to hawk an unpleasantly crimson wad into a wastebasket to his left. “But you. You look like cop. Smell like cop. Besides, only cops ask questions about Soldano.”

He picked up a black marker and hopped it nimbly over one of the red, seemingly unaware that he had lined up four pieces that could be taken. Smirking to myself, I picked up a piece and made my own move, taking all the exposed chips.

“Fair enough. Doesn’t change the question. Where is he?”

The old man stared down at the board for a moment. He leaned back in his chair, taking another long drag on his pipe. I felt his eyes crawling over me, studying me, assessing me. Maybe he was just taking his time contemplating his next move – not that he really had many options given his previous blunder – but I thought he was actually debating on what to tell.

“You know, Soldano, he is not a man. He is monster. You know the things he has done?”

His voice, previously strong and reasonably friendly – if a bit gruff – quavered a bit. For a moment I saw my mother in him, her shrewish, fearful voice always warning of the things that could happen if Sascha and I weren’t in before dark, or quizzing us on every planned activity, searching for the dangers inherent to it.

Taking a deep breath and pushing the uncomfortable comparison away, I shrugged at him, turning my gaze to the board. “I know some. That’s why I’m looking for him.”

He nodded, making the movement with a slow and exaggerated style. “Hmmph. You not know half of what I know, if you looking for him. Still, must know more than the other cops. They don’t even bother, just laugh and walk away. Maybe he has friends in the high places, you know?”

He shrugged, picking up a piece that I hadn’t considered, in the far corner, and inched it forward a single square. His cryptic smile resurfaced, revealing the few teeth left in his head. The smile wasn’t entirely welcoming; something about it seemed predatory, sharklike. He was up to something, and I didn’t know if it had to do with the game or my questions about Soldano.

I continued studying the board, looking for his angle. There was an easy move that’d net me another two marks, but I suspected it was what he wanted me to do. I was more interested in where he was going with the piece in the corner, seemingly alone and unable to make an effective attack.

“Maybe,” I grunted at him.

“Pah. No maybe. When cops come here, and they hear that name, they put their little books away, they don’t ask any more questions. Sometimes, they look like they feel bad. Sometimes they pat you on the shoulder, look like they want to say something, but they don’t. They leave. Others, they smile like the people on the television, they say ‘Don’t worry, all be okay,’ then they leave too. Very quick. They don’t want to be in Little Odessa anymore than the rest of us. But they get to leave. We, we stay. They only visit, write their little notes, and leave. Soldano is just a boogeyman, nothing real to them. He weed out the garbage, they think.”

Nodding alongside his rant – though, he was right; all too often crimes, especially those they could trace to the mafiya, were ignored in Little Odessa. Easier. Simpler. – I took my move, claiming the pieces he’d left undefended. I couldn’t see any benefit to his previous move, didn’t see a trap coming, and just took it.

“They call Soldano boogeyman. Pah! I say, Stalin, he boogeyman. I call idiot Putin, he boogeyman. That Slender Man they talk about on the news, make those little girls kill, he boogeyman. You know difference, cop? Why Soldano not boogeyman? Boogeyman, he not real. He can’t hurt you. He story you tell children of why you left old country, of why you not go home, of why you be inside when it gets dark out and mama has supper ready. Soldano… he real.”

That queer echo of my mother again. She had said similar things, especially as her time wound down.

“So the cops, they come, and they write their papers, and now they think he gone, and they happy. Not because place is safer, now, but because there is less times we call them for no reason. Less paper to push. More time to drink their coffee and smoke their cigarettes and laugh at old Dmitri for still running this shop when everyone know there are no customers. They say ‘he maybe kill some people.’ Some? Pah!”

He jabbed his index finger into the table repeatedly, dredging up splinters with each syllable.

“Two hundred bodies we say are his. And that before he become real monster.”

He paused, catching his breath before taking another hit off his pipe. He glanced upward, over my shoulder, started to smile and then thought better of it. I heard the bell above the door clang twice, in rapid succession; by the time I’d glanced back to see who had come in, the door was already shut again and a figure was scurrying away. The instincts I’d fostered over my years with the force wanted me to give chase, but somehow I doubted one old lady in a babushka was of real interest. More likely she’d come for cigarettes or sugar, had seen a stranger, and decided against it. When I looked back at him, Dmitri was shaking his head.

“There, you see? You smell like cop. Even old Malvina knows it. You scare her off, no make sale. You owe me ten dollars American now, cop.” He laughed again, this time with actual humor in it, but waved it away when I reached to offer up my wallet.

“Always so serious, you people. I joking. Dmitri will get by, with or without your ten dollars. He always does.”

He settled one spidery hand over another piece, hopping one of my markers. I wasn’t worried. I’d left it there for him to take, setting up another blitz. Before I could make my countermove, he put his hand over mine. The feel of him was unpleasant, too warm, the skin papery and fragile next to mine.

“You not looking for Soldano as cop. You looking because he hurt you. Took something away. This, I understand.”

I jerked my head upward, glaring at him, wondering what sort of game he was playing. Did he know who I was, why I was really here? Through slitted eyes I watched him pull his own wallet from his pocket, struggling to get the fat and battered leather square free of his jeans. Dropping it open, his fingers rummaged for a moment before coming up with a small piece of celluloid that he brought reverently to his lips before crossing himself and turning it over.

“He hurt me once, too, cop. He hurt me because I tell what I know, what I see. He say ‘You ever do this again, Dmitri, I come back, make sure you never talk.’ Dmitri doesn’t care. He look at you, and he see someone who like him when he was young and strong and sure. He sees the fight not out of you yet. ‘Maybe’, I think, ‘he can do what you could not, eh?’”

He gestured to the picture again, begging me to look at it. It was old, creased and beaten from decades of being carried around in that ridiculous wallet, but it still haunted me. A little girl, with thick dark curls and wide eyes of emerald. A bright smile that showed the gleam of metal from fresh braces. One chubby hand extended as though to grab for something beyond the camera’s reach.

“My Irina. Only six. She was my world. Soldono thinks, he takes my world, he stops me. He is wrong; he only delay.”

I laid one finger on the photo, tracing the lines of the face. My eyes clenched, and I swallowed hard, trying to fight the sting of tears. She looked a great deal like Sascha had at that age.

“So I tell you where Soldano is. I tell you what Soldano is. You know why, cop?”

I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.

“Because you look like type who might stop him. You might find him, might kill him, and then no one else come home and find their vnuchka nailed to the wall, eh? Dmitri has been waiting for one like you for a long time. Ever since Irina died. I wasn’t strong enough to do what I should have. Cops not care enough. But you… you care. You strong. You angry, and that make the difference.”

Dmitri wasn’t wrong. I’d given up my wife and son. My career. All that mattered to me was finding the son of a bitch and putting a bullet in his heart. It wouldn’t bring Sascha back, or get rid of the hole in my own heart. But it was right. It needed to be done. I nodded.

“See? Dmitri knows people. Is why shop is still open. So he tell you. If you want Soldano, you want the Virgin’s Grave. You know the place, old Shayden farm?”

Again I nodded. The place was on most of the patrol routes, since there was always somebody poking around, looking for ghosts or buried treasure. According to the stories, the Virgin’s Grave had been erected by the patriarch of the Shayden clan, memorializing his daughter. She’d been murdered by rum runners when dear old dad decided to hide their part of the take and keep it for himself. No one had ever found the money, or reliably seen the girl’s ghost, but it didn’t stop the lookie-loos.

Da. Virgin’s Grave, that’s where he goes. Late at night, with his new friends, ones who make him a real monster.”

I cocked my head, leaning back in the chair.

“You keep saying that. What is that even supposed to mean?”

Dmitri glanced downward at the photo of his daughter or granddaughter, not blinking or breathing for a long period. Sighing, he glanced up at me.

“You think I am crazy. No matter. I tell you. Maybe it help, maybe you laugh, maybe not matter either way. But when you go, if you really want him killed, you bring big weapons. Fire. Maybe chainsaw, even, for after. Because he not human. Two hundred he kill, and that was when he was a man. A hateful, evil, despicable man, but man just the same. But then he make friends, friends who are not men, who come only at night and never breathe or eat or drink, who stink like old borscht no matter how much cologne they wear. Then Soldano, he disappear for a few days. When he come back, he not eating or breathing or drinking or sitting in sunlight, either. And he smell like old dead thing, too.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Superstition had never been my strong point. I already considered Soldano to be a monster – didn’t even have to factor in what he did to my sister to reach that conclusion; his rap sheet was full of atrocities far more severe than his associates in the Mafiya, and he was known to go to extreme lengths to intimidate when a simple baseball bat and the “nice place you got here” speech would suffice – but the idea that he could be a literal monster seemed a little farfetched.

Dmitri nodded, as though he could hear my line of thinking.

“Yes, I can see you think me an old fool. Is fine. Dmitri knows, tales of upir and rusalki are for the children and the hack writers, da? But some things from the old country, they not die out. They not just boogeymen to scare the children, they not just stories the grandmothers tell of when they were girls. You don’t believe, is fine. But I still see you mean to kill him, cop. And I want you to. So, even if it just is humoring this old man, you take fire, you take blades. You make sure.”

He tipped me a wink through the smoke of his pipe, and I could no longer tell if he was kidding or not.

“Besides. I am guessing that you are not wanting your comrades to find a body, da? Is good. Make sure you burn him. Salt the earth. Scatter the ashes. Will do for him whether he man or monster, and keep you safe besides, eh?”

Still not sure how much of his commentary was to be believed – he seemed trustworthy enough with his story of a lost child and the way the force treated his people, and the part of me that wanted Soldano dead sensed a kindred spirit in him, but when he started babbling about ghosts of the old country his credibility took a severe hit – I just nodded. Best play along. Whether or not his information was any good remained to be seen, but it was a place to start.

He smiled at me, then flapped his hand. “Good. Then you go, cop. Get out, before you scare away any more business, eh?” He chuffed another laugh that turned into coughing. By the time the fit had passed, he was red-faced and wheezing. I reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, but he waved me away again.

“Go, go. I will be fine. As fine as I ever get, you know.” He hawked and spat another wad of phlegm and blood into his wastebasket. “Now get.”

I stood up and backed away, still eyeing him with concern. He seemed to have already forgotten me, staring down at the checkerboard and not glancing back up at me even as the small bell rang once more and I slipped out.

* * *

Getting to the Virgin’s Grave was no problem at all. Had to take a few back roads – one of which was so overgrown and disused I was half worried that my Caprice would get bogged down and I’d have to hoof it – to keep out of sight and avoid the alcohol checkpoints, but it wasn’t particularly stressful.

What was bothering me more was what was in the trunk. I didn’t want to think I’d given the old man more credence than he deserved, but in addition to the .38 that was always strapped under my shoulder, I’d brought a Mossberg, a can of gasoline, and the axe that had once hung in my garage, patient and quiet until winter rolled around and Michelle and Pete decided it was time to hunt down the Christmas tree we’d call our own.

There was no trace of good memories left on that old axe, now. As I’d hefted it, testing the weight and the swing – aiming downward rather than sideways as I would have on those long gone December days – it seemed to thrum with deadly purpose. No longer a tool, it had become a weapon. The feeling intensified when I took it to the grindstone, honing the edge until it was sharp enough to split hairs.

I tried not to think about the idea that, if things went the way I wanted, I’d be using it to dismember someone. Or something, if Dmitri was to be believed. Which of course he wasn’t. It was easy to tell myself that while I was in my garage with all the fluorescents turned on, even easier as I got into my car with the warm August sun beaming down on me. But as the night crept in and crawled over me on that drive, as my headlights became a necessity, as they showed less and less of the road in front of me, it started to feel a lot more plausible.

Sascha hadn’t just been killed, after all. She’d been torn apart. No tool marks visible. The marks on her neck had been too wide, too deep, for a man’s hands, even a big one. The coroner claimed it was probably due to decomp, or an overabundance of humidity, which I’d mostly accepted. As much as I could accept anything about her death, anyway. But now, coming up the road to the supposedly haunted farm in the dark of night, headlights off so I didn’t spook Soldano or his friends if they really were here, a trunk loaded with weapons that I was now certain I really meant to use, hell or high water, it was all too easy to believe in the fairy tales and ghost stories that my mother had told us so often. Upir and rusalki and Baba Yaga stalking the night, stealing children.

I guessed that made me the noble woodcutter or the valiant knight, but I sure didn’t feel like it. I felt like a criminal, barely better than Soldano or those he ran with. But I’d accepted that. I’d lost almost everything else when he’d killed her; why not the last scrap of my own self-image and integrity?

I parked roughly a mile away from the site proper. Made sure I was in good tree cover, wedged between a pair of pines that had gotten particularly adventurous and close to the road. I could see the place: the road spilled into a large circle of brightly-colored pebbles and gravel, the trees trimmed back to respect that circle. At the north edge, farthest from the road, there was a ten foot tall, triangular monument. I’d taken pictures there enough times – local tourist attractions had been a quick and easy way to entertain Pete when he still liked me enough to want me to entertain him – to know the front was sculpted to look like the murdered girl kneeling in prayer, and the inscription beneath, worn almost to nothing from grave-rubbings and wondering fingers touching it, read “Aliana Shayden, Beloved Daughter, Devoted Child of God. Taken too soon for the folly of her father.”

To either side of the stone were remembrance torches. Members of the Shayden clan – who now lived upstate, having mostly abandoned the farm and its bad memories a generation ago – paid to make sure the grounds were swept and the torches kept fed, burning all through the night. Their flames cast conflicting patterns of shadow across the color spray of the clearing, but I was glad for them tonight. From their light, I could see figures moving about in front of the stone. Looked like three, but I couldn’t be sure at this distance. Might be nothing at all, for that matter. For a moment I cursed not having brought a set of binoculars – Pete had left them last time he’d been at the house, and even though they were simple little things, designed to amuse a six year old who thought he wanted to be a bird-watcher when he grew up, they would have been enough to get a count, at least – but knew it couldn’t be helped, now.

I turned away from the stone, going to the trunk of the car. I pulled out the Mossberg, cracking it as quietly as I could to make sure. The dull brass of the shell casings gleamed at me under the starlight. Ten gauge buckshot. Man or monster, it was enough to put an almighty big hole in somebody, and the Shayden farm had the advantage of being pretty far away from any neighbors. Even the checkpoints or patrols trying to keep randy teenagers away would probably only think of firecrackers if they heard it at all.

I reassembled the shotgun, and held it under my shoulder while I pulled out the axe. As soon as I gripped it, I felt that sense of deadliness creep over me again, the feeling that I was holding something with one single purpose that was about to be realized. I hadn’t felt that with the gun, not in the dozens of times I’d fired it on the range or the small handful of episodes where I’d drawn it while on duty, and not even tonight as I was coming to a holy place with murder in my heart. But the axe awakened that feeling in me, alongside a feeling of rightness. What I was going to do with it was necessary. It was good. It was what I – and it – had been made to do.

I slid the ash handle of the axe through the loop of my service belt, the one that used to carry my flashlight. The cold steel of the blade’s head rested against my side, sending a harmonic pulse of that sense of right through my body.

I checked to make sure the .38 was seated in my shoulder-rig, and that it was loaded. Hollow points, swiped from the testing range in exchange for a favor from Briggs.

Apparently I had been taking the old man seriously, at least subconsciously.

Nodding to myself, I took a deep breath and started towards the clearing. I kept to the tree cover, circling so as to come up on the west side of the monolith. My boots didn’t make a sound, even when they passed over small bits of discarded twig or the odd dead leaf. Maybe, I thought, only half-serious, the old man was right and there are monsters out there. But maybe there’s something else out there, looking out for you.

There was a perverse sense of comfort in the idea, no matter how crazy or false it might be. That comfort led, naturally enough, to thoughts of my mother and what she always suggested when we were scared – generally of her own stories – or upset or worried.

Prayer was always the answer, to her. Some take solace in rationality. Others – myself included – in law and order. She found it through God.

Thinking of it brought a strange compulsion over me. The idea that I would do such a thing while on such an errand seemed almost blasphemous, an oxymoronic joke. But I wanted to, just the same. I stopped my advance – now only a quarter mile away, and I could see the figures clear enough to tell that there were three of them, and that their attention seemed squarely focused on the stone marker before them – and slid back behind the trees.

Going kneebound and setting the Mossberg down, I clasped my hands together, but somehow it didn’t feel right. They felt empty, somehow unworthy.

I ran one finger over the handle of the axe, and that felt right. I pulled it free from the loop, tightening my grip with both hands and putting the head to the ground. I searched for the old words, things that I had once known by heart but that had lain forgotten for the better part of twenty years, when I first came to believe that God must be dead, that there is only man to right the wrongs. After a time, I found them.

The Lord’s Prayer, first. Then Psalm 23. Then I added “May Perun grant me strength,” though I wasn’t certain why; it was just something that used to be said in my house, probably a holdover from grandma, who had been big on the old religions and less interested in, as she put it, “the puling sheep-god.” But it still felt right.

I rose, socking the axe back into my belt; right or not, I preferred something with range, at least at first. There were three of them and only one of me, and if Soldano was there, I wanted to take my time with him which meant putting his companions out fast.

I slid closer still, and my breath caught in my throat. Of the three, I recognized two of them. One was short, missing a pair of fingers on his left hand. His white shirt was open, and on the flabby flesh beneath I could see what looked like dozens of tattoos. Almost certainly Mafiya, though either not a major player or not local, since I couldn’t place him. The second was of average height, with ragged and greasy black hair that was starting to show streaks of white in his ponytail. One hand was almost completely black, covered in ink. I wasn’t close enough to see it yet, but knew there was a six-pointed star underneath his left eye, and that his lower lip would be deeply scarred. Grigori Valen, formerly one of the middle men in the Liddle Odessa operation. He hadn’t been seen in months; most of us had assumed he’d gone too far with someone else’s girl and had paid the price, but here he was.

Standing between them, looking immaculate in a white suit, his blonde hair slicked into perfect spikes, not a mark visible on him – all his tattoos were in places you couldn’t see without stripping him, he was almost obsessively vain about that – and a head taller than either of his companions was Anatoly Soldano. The monster I’d come to kill.

They were talking, though I couldn’t tell if they were speaking to each other or the stone, the distance and the low pitch of their voice were against me. I could catch enough of the rhythm to know it was in Russian, though. I crept a step closer, and the one I didn’t recognize spun suddenly, facing me directly.

He was looking looking straight at me, even though with my all black clothes, the lack of light beyond the torches – which only served to light the stone and a small bit of the clearing – and the distance, I should have been all but invisible to him. I had a moment to think that perhaps he’d heard something else, or thought he had, that he was looking because he was paranoid and not because there was something to look at.

That illusion was shattered when he lifted his right hand, pointed directly at me, and shrieked. “Politseyskiy!”

Well, there goes the ballgame. Solon and Valen turned as well. I butted the stock of the shotgun to my shoulder, knowing the spread would be too wide for any effective damage at this range, but hoping that a couple of shots would discourage them, when everything I thought I knew fell down.

Their eyes were the first thing I noticed. They blinked and went from normal – cold and reptilian in nature, but still human – to shining red lanterns with cat-like pupils. Their jaws dropped down, all three of them shrieking, and I noticed they opened impossibly wide. All three of them seemed to have their jawbones resting just above their stomachs, filled with too many razor sharp teeth and each with a dangling, serpentine tongue

The sound was inhuman. Nails on a chalkboard doesn’t even begin to describe it. Had there been anything glass nearby, I’m sure it would have shattered.

The one who’d noticed me dropped to all fours and charged. He moved like a wolf, or a wild dog, and far quicker than anyone should have a right to. He’d closed the distance between us in less than three seconds. I ran on instinct, my hands and body remembering their training even though my brain didn’t. The Mossberg tracked him, the hammer fell, and the thing went flipping heav-over-ass backwards, most of the face and upper torso missing.

There was no blood. He didn’t make a sound. He started to get up, slowly but not seeming too impaired. Again working without my higher cognitive functions, my hands worked the action and slid another shell into the chamber, letting him have it in the chest this time. He flew back another five steps and sat down heavily, the ruins of his face twisting into a sneer.

The other two were coming. They didn’t move as fast as the first one, but they were still fast enough; my hands tried to do their trick again, but somehow screwed it up and jammed the shotgun. There wasn’t time to think, wasn’t time to unclasp the revolver. I dropped the shotgun and yanked the axe out and up, getting there just in time; Valen’s gaping maw was inches from me as the axe head lodged against the side of his throat, a solid impact that turned my hands numb. Without thinking, I twisted, using the weight of the blunt end to throw him down.

Soldano leapt towards me, and if I’d been any slower dealing with his friend, he might have got me. As it was, his outstretched hands – which were claws, I saw as they streaked past me – skirted only inches from the side of my head, in precisely the spot I’d been before spinning Valen to the ground.

I kept my momentum, turning and twisting the axe, catching Soldano in the gut and shoving him backward. Valen bounced back up and jumped on my back, latching on with that impossible mouth. I could feel the teeth pushing through my shirt, hitting flesh and boring in. The pain was exquisite, like nothing I’d ever felt in my life. Even the week where I had three root canals was practically paradise compared to this, and that was before the injuries began to burn, like someone had poured acid on them.

“Fucking Christ!”

At my exclamation, something happened. I don’t know what. The axe head – still half-buried in Soldano’s gut – seemed to pulse for a moment, a throb of bluish purple light that left a hazy corona burned into my retinas. Soldano seemed to fly backwards, freeing himself from the weapon and hunkering down, hissing at me. Valen let go, springing back as well. The third, who looked like he was about ready to get back up, thumped on his ass again, his distended face dropping into a mask of terror, eyes wide.

Something came over me then. I wasn’t fighting three monsters for my life or to avenge my sister. I was just doing my job, just cleaning up the trash, just like I’d done hundreds of times when I was still a cop. I jerked the axe up, muscles moving with a fluidity I hadn’t known they possessed, and almost casually flicked it sideways. Valen’s head hit the ground a moment later, still trying to scream.

Soldano backed away a little further, his eyes widening and starting to show the faintest tinges of ice blue at the edges. His jaw retracted a bit. Whether it was fear or caution, whatever he had become was slinking out of him, the human he had been resurfacing.

I started to advance. The pain didn’t matter anymore. The doubt was unimportant. What mattered is that there were two left, and they needed to be put down. Soldano backed up a step for each one that I took forward, and that was fine by me. As we passed his unknown friend, my hands did their own magic, dropping the blade down at an angle and tearing through the thing’s ribcage, splitting that horrid mouth in two, exposing organs that were little more than desiccated specimens that belonged in a lab, not in the chest of a walking, talking person. Or whatever he was.

Soldano hissed again as I split his friend in half, but there didn’t seem to be much bite to add to the bark; he was still backing up, though I could see he was almost out of room. A few more steps and he’d be butted against the monument, with nowhere else to go.

“How’s it feel, you son of a bitch? You like it? Being scared? Is it as much fun, now that you’re the one on the chopping block?”

A part of me was enjoying this too much. The feeling of power, the adrenaline rush, the sheer sadistic glee that I had the bastard exactly where I wanted him.

The inevitable happened; his back hit the monument, and he froze, jerking his head to either side, his nostrils flaring. Nowhere to run to; the sides extended over to the torches, and to get past those, he’d have to go through me. I smiled at him, showing all my teeth. They might not have been as impressive as his, but from the look of him, they were nearly as intimidating.

“Nighty-night, mudak.”

I swung, shearing through his jaw and into the neck behind it. My hands thrummed as the axe bit into the monument and lodged there, popping blisters I hadn’t realized I’d had. His head – the top half of it, anyway, if one took that mouth into consideration – stayed there, resting on the axe. The rest of him slumped to the ground, melting into a noxious gas that – as Dmitri had said – stank like spoiled borscht.

His eyes rolled in the sockets, seeming to fixate on me one last time, marking me. Then his skull started to melt, sliding off the axe to join the rest of him in a viscous puddle before evaporating.

I took a step back, and glanced over my shoulder. The other two were dissipating as well, though the spots they had fallen had turned dead and gray. Whatever else they were, they were toxic as hell. I doubted anything would grow there again.

I reached up to pull the axe out of the stone, wincing at the damage I had done. The blade had landed squarely in the stone woman’s chest, biting deep. I mumbled something like an apology while I tried to work it out of the carving, but the strength and surety that had driven it through the monsters a minute ago was gone. My arms were rubber, and getting a grip with my bloody, pus-covered hands was almost impossible. I finally had to brace myself against the side of the stone, push with my legs and yank with both hands to get it free. Then I vomited.

I might be bloody, bitten, bruised and broken, covered in my own puke, but the job was done. I could take a certain amount of satisfaction in that… but not nearly as much as I thought I would have.

If things like Soldano and his pals were real… what else might be out there?

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

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