Beer hit the ground with a wet slap just before knuckles met jaw with a quick thud. The man on the receiving end kept turning, right on through the exit. The doors slammed against their hinges, and more beer splashed onto the floor. Cool air flooded into the bar, and a shrinking trapezoid of light dumped onto the stone street as the doors swung shut.
A few more men stood up, with frosty beers in hand. “Aye, Vander!” said one of the spectators. Another man gave an approving belch. Vander took a gulp, and motioned for his buddies to follow. The four threw open the doors once more and entered the night. The man no longer lay on the ground, and footsteps sounded to their left.
“There he goes!”
Knowing pursuit must follow, each finished the beer in their mugs and cast them aside. Glass splintered and clattered against stone. They jogged after in an unhurried chase.
“We’re coming, Sarsost.”
Bayrin said, “We know these streets better than him.” His thick boots echoed off the surrounding houses, along with his deep voice.
“Aye,” said Vander, “and Arloft’s ears will help us to track him.”
Arloft coughed and spat phlegm on the ground. “Well, what are you thinking of doing to him?” The edge in his voice was rounded off by the beers.
They turned into an alley on their right, toward the burning lamps on the next street.
“I let Courmar take the talking route,” Vander said, “and we see how that panned out.”
“So now I’ve no reservations for taking other approaches. And if you give me your damn sickness, Arloft, I’ll beat you senseless.” Courmar’s flowing, coastal accent hung in the humid air.
They entered the main road and paused. Arloft coughed again, breaking the silence. Vander asked, “Which way?” as he adjusted the collar which now dug into his neck.
“Left” replied Arloft.
“Look,” Baryrin began, “we’ve got two years wages on the line here.” He swatted at a mosquito flying around his beard. “Are any of you willing to give that up?”
Each of the others gave a gruff “No.” Their minds turned as they caught their breath in the middle of the otherwise-empty street.
“Sarsost’s the sticking point because the Port Authority needs the docks on his property,” continued Bayrin.
“So we force his hand,” added Courmar, whose own hand fanned his ragged hat across his face.
Just then, a pack of dogs erupted into howl somewhere nearby.
“Ahh,” Vander smiled. “That idiot ran right past my place.”
The group took another road which lead off diagonally. At its end, just before the wide cul-de-sac, dogs raced excitedly around a small yard and leapt against the fence in the direction of a noisy fountain.
When the animals spotted their owner, they quieted and rushed over to the fence’s gate.
“If we injure him, then his wife will surely cave,” said Bayrin, sweat gleaming on his brow and matting his long, dark hair.
Courmar added, “Yeah. They’ll need the money for him to recover and feed the kids.”
A large bell tolled through the darkness, six slow times.
Vander reached over his fence and grabbed a leather leash. He straightened it out, grabbed the clasp, and then unlatched the gate. He opened it just enough to reach his arm through and grab one of the collars. The dog shook the others away and Vander quickly pulled him through the gate, before shutting and latching it again.
But it ignored the command and bared teeth at Courmar. Vander brought his fist down on the dog’s snout.
“I said, ‘Sit,’ hound.” It obeyed, but fidgeted on its haunches.
“Your dogs are beasts, Vander,” Arloft sqeaked.
“But no one else will fuck with them, or my place.”
“He’s right there, boys,” said Bayrin. “Those shits’ll scare anyone.”
“Let’s go find him.”
Vander clasped the leash to the collar, and the dog bound forward until out of slack. Nose to the ground, and claws scraping on the street, the hound pulled them all forward.
“No one spits in my face without answering for it,” Vander told the group. He again wiped his sleeve at his red face.
“So we’ll break a couple ribs and bloody his face, don’t you think?”
They’d come ‘round the water fountain, and now stopped to look at Arloft.
Courmar said, “You don’t think he deserves more than that?” He sank down to the street and fingered through the gravel.
“Just for being a pain in our asses?” asked Bayrin.
“He knows the Port Authority can’t gather the funds until we’ve all signed the deeds to our lots.”
“And he’s holding out just to spite us.”
“Using that bullshit cover of ‘sentimental value’,” Vander said. “I know he hated his father.”
The hound jumped forward, barking into the distance. The men saw their quarry, smiled, and headed toward a dirt path. Courmar turned back and flung a rock in to the fountain with a plunk.
“Well, I’m still not-“
Vander cut Arloft off, “Then you can stay the hell back and watch. Or not. Just shut your trap.”
They made their way between a bank on the left and a church on the right. The flower beds along the path gave off sweet scents. And coughs and sniffles were the only thing out of Arloft now.
The hound jerked Vander forward, eager to find the smell of that man again.
“If he took the bridge there, then he’s a sitting duck.”
Bayrin and Courmar laughed in agreement as they now made out the high walls of Tower Isle. They saw a glint of light toward a statue on the far side of the small island, and had their answer.
Vander yanked back on the leash; the dog just coughed and continued pawing onward. Their footsteps thudded across the wooden beams of a bridge. Under it swiftly flowed a branch of river which joined the main after its quick diversion around the island.
The Tower loomed to their right, and at its very height sat birds calling in the pre-dawn air. The church’s bells rang out again and those tolls and trills bounced around the tall walls like an insomniac symphony. A dim light fell across the path ahead.
The group neared the statue and the hound caught scent of Sarsost again. It lunged toward the crouched figure, jerked Vander a bit forward, and strained against the leash. The four men stopped.
“You chose a bad spot to run to,” called out Bayrin.
“Though it makes it easier for us,” said Courmar.
“Sit.” And this time the hound immediately obeyed. The dim light faded.
Sarsost’s fingers grasped at the base of the statue as his eyes darted around anxiously, looking for help. They found none.
Vander unhooked the leash, and the dog stayed in place - tail wagging furiously.
The dog bolted forward and up the slight hill on which the statue sat. The light brightened the area again, and reflected in Sarsost’s eyes. He finally got hold of a stone and pried it free. Then he swung it at the dog, but missed.
The beast’s teeth sank into his arm, and he let out a cry. The dog jerked its head back and forth, taking the arm with it. Holes in Sarsost’s arm widened and blood rushed out, down the hound’s muzzle, and dripped from fur onto the dewy grass.
Fangs left the arm and found a new hold on the throat, while claws raked the face. The animal’s snarls and crushing bite drowned the screams. It again shook its head and a small yell escaped just before Sarsost’s wind pipe broke. His head hit the ground and a gurgle left his mouth, “The star. The star.”
Vander walked up the hill to where the dog stood panting. “Good boy.” He patted the hound on the back, where blood hadn’t sprayed.
“Heel,” and the dog returned to his side. Vander clipped the leash once more. The other three men did not come closer. Arloft stared off toward the church.
The first few rays of daylight crept through the clouds and fell upon Sarsost’s face, but the blood and wounds told that no light burned within those eyes.
“Do you see that on the church bell tower?” asked Arloft.
“Not now, man.”
“I can’t tell if it’s a gargoyle or a man.”
Courmar laughed, “Arloft can’t even look a dead man in the eyes.”
“Come,” said Vander, as much to his hound as to the men.
“I’d expect the Port Authority to have the last property deed by dusk.”
The cloud cover shifted and Arloft lost what he’d been starting at.
“We can wash the hound in the fountain and then have a few more beers at my house,” said Vander.
A star twinkled behind the bell tower, and Arloft felt a pit grow in his stomach.
This is a sister piece to The Dread Star.