"I have something to show you," her words caught him by the ears.
Jostice turned towards Leslie who was guiding him through a torch-lit corridor. He didn't recall when they'd left nor how he'd gotten there. Like he'd been black-drunk, just coming out of his stupor. "How?" He meant to whisper.
"When you looked at my revolvers I knew you'd gone red." Leslie said, somberly. "I've seen that look in your eyes-only once before-the day of the fire."
Jostice gazed upon the torches in their wild dance. More controlled. Not in the rage that swept over the Turnbuckle ranch that night. Devouring everything in hellfire. Flames blue and red and green; a searing heat that still warmed his flesh...or was it just his charred hand, he wondered.
They turned right down another corridor that appeared dark and endless...
"What happened that night?" Her pace was hard to follow. She was taking her time. Walking like she had nowhere to be. "Can you recall?"
This was not the conversation he'd had in mind. Not after it'd been so long. "I'd gone red," Jostice agreed. It wasn't the first time neither. He owed her an explanation, he knew. But the memory felt like waking up after a bad dream; only able to remember bits and pieces. Ash and fire. Blood and screams. Of a woman, likely... What he did recall was carrying chains soon thereafter. "I'd lost my head. For how long, I'm uncertain."
Leslie stopped by a door sunken into the fort wood. Chipped and splintered and old as the fort itself. As she opened it, the door whined from the rusted hinges. She struggled but it finally gave to her weight, collapsing inwards, whining louder.
"Just in here."
Jostice followed her inside half expecting a more cozy welcoming. A table sat in the middle of the room, beaten and worn down as the door while an oiled lamp rested on top. Next to it he found an oddly-shaped box, squared, three feet in girth and height, with a worn, white blanket covering the details inside.
"Have a seat," she said, pointing to a wooden chair that looked to collapse under his weight, slung with cob webs or nest spiders, he wasn't quite certain which. "It'll hold...I tested them both." She winked.
I've sat in dirtier places... He reminded himself. He took a seat and she sat across from him. "I have a present for you."
Jostice crossed his arms, tilting his head, staring through lazy eyebrows. "You know I don't like surprises-" Leslie pulled the sheet down and he caught his tongue.
Candlelight slowly slipped through ebonized wood and wrought iron, creeping up inside the square box, brightening a creature that sat on a swing. A large creature; the size of a human skull. Wrapped in a thicket of feathers, lit like dim gold.
"Beatrice?" He felt his heart wrangle as he leaned forward being pulled by his eyes.
The creature shifted to his harsh voice; the feathers expanding as the body pivoted and stretched; two large wings folded outward, not fully extended, as a beak lifted from the feathers, black as coal while two black orbs stared, unblinking. It ruffled then peered at the Ace.
Jostice examined the creature until shadows darkened his sockets. What kinda sick joke is this? Jostice sat back. "That's not Beatrice," He shook.
Leslie lips peeled like orange peels, working to slip in her explanation-
Jostice slammed his fist down as the bird withdrew back into its feathered shield.
"Where'd you find that thing anyway?" He said. "The beast market?" Leslie raised a finger, the Ace waved a hand. "Yes, it is a golden hawk, I see that...But it's not Beatrice." He prodded a finger sharp as an arrow. "The feathers too dark, the beaks too small, and the eyes too black." He huffed. "And not a white spot on her forehead-"
Leslie couldn't hold herself down; she leapt to her feet. "I never said it was, Ace!" Her tone hit him like cannon fire and he felt his ears buzz. "You need to let me speak..."
He nodded, stunned.
"You weren't the only one who lost something that day, or had you forgotten?" She placed her hands flat on the table, leaning over, her hair sweeping down her shoulders while her eyebrows furrowed. "My farm-my horses-all taken away."
That he remembered...
Jostice dropped his head while the beats of hooves and horrid neahs pounded in his head. He could see them again...the horses running from the multi-colored flames that chewed at their backs. And the wind; how it made the fire spread and grow with each gust. Burning everything and leaving nothing. He shook the thought away.
"I don't want it..."
"It's a her," Leslie said, a bite in her words. "The only one who survived."
Survived? Jostice looked to the ball of feathers with more intrigue in his twisted face. "What do you mean?"
Leslie stood straight, pushing her hair back over her shoulders; she adjusted her scarf and hat, not that it was needed. "Beatrice left her for you-a single egg-while I nursed her like a mother." Leslie left for the door.
Jostice whirled around in his seat, following her strides. "Where you going?"
"Back to work," She said, pulling open the squeaking door. She turned towards him. "And to think, I thought you'd change..."
He didn't speak until she moved to leave. "Wait..."
There was a glimmer of hope in her eyes but he couldn't find the right words; only sorry's and forgive me's...nothing that made sense or told her how much a fool he was. "What's the birds' name?"
Leslie smiled dully, "I nursed her...you name her." She left leaving him with only his thoughts and the bird.
The cage felt heavy in his hand, pulling down his left arm that ached from diving and rolling. He wasn't the young man he used to be. The man who could ride for days without being sore or work the farm for hours as he had. That man had come and gone. All that was left was a broken, worthless man...or at least that's how he felt. Don't start feeling sorry for yourself...
He roamed the corridors aimlessly; a labyrinth of dark passageways that all seemed to lead back into the dulelosseum. After what seemed like hours, and a lucky guess down one of the darkest tunnels, he found his way out, tasting the crisp night air that was kinder on his lungs than the soot filled tunnels.
Josticed turned on his heel, whipping his right hand towards his gun...Nothing. His fingers danced around his belt until he recalled it's removal. Damn...
"Relax. I'm not here to kill you." The man hissed with laughter. He was leaning against the fort wall, his hat shadowing his face, a cigar between his lips, blowing rings that grew and vanished over the perch. In his hand something shined bluish-silver; the steel of two revolvers. "I've got to admit, Ace...You do have good taste." He gave the guns a whirl.
Jostice noticed the ebony black wooden grips. "Must've won what's mine off the Mayor." He grimaced. "Don't you know taking a mans gun is like asking to be shot?"
"That and taken ones hat." He smiled but all Ace saw was a dark gaping slit in his face.
Most snakes retract their teeth...waiting to strike, he thought. "You carry them, If not to shoot, then why, Rodge? To gloat?"
"My tongues known to relish after a win." He puffed his cigar twice. "I'm not here for that."
"I need your help."
Jostice felt his body ease. Help? "Why the blaze would I help a snake like you?" He didn't wait for an answer. "You gave me up...And I'm sure you were nicely rewarded."
"I was," he admitted. "But if I hadn't you'd be dead." Rogaduke pinched the cigar and plucked it from his lips. "You were drawing eyes to my establishment...and eyes are bad for business."
"Is that what I was...business?" Jostice stepped forward and heard a click.
"No sense in dying tonight...Besides, I need to collect my winnings." He heckled.
"You was like Kin."
"We're still like Kin...That's why I haven't shot ya yet, ya fool." He flicked the cigar over the perch edge, out into the satin, twinkling sky. "As I said, I need your help."
Jostice knew what that meant...a task more dangerous than the duelosseum. "I'm listening."
"The details are not all ironed out, but it'll take you and that bird to accomplish the task." Jostice raised an eyebrow, suspiciously. The man carried on, "we are robbing the Mayor blind of Corodyte...And seeing how you hate the mayor, thought you'd want in."
"What's that have to do with my bird?"
"Anybody who's got a thought between their eyes knows that a golden hawk has a taste for Corodyte." He laughed. "That's why their called a Thieves Bird...Likely why Remmiron always kept one-"
"Don't talk about my brother," Jostice warned, "or this night will end with bloodshed."
The man lifted his head revealing black beady eyes, soulless as a serpent. He laughed. "You've grown too serious..." He pulled a stack of gun belts from his shoulder and held them out with the revolvers. "Do we have a deal?"
"Small earnings for a job this big."
"This is not the earnings...you'll be needing these." Rodge hissed.
Jostice walked over and grabbed the gear. He strapped on the belt, gave his pistol a spin, and holstered the gun. Weights still good... Armed, the Ace thought one last time about filling the man full of lead.
"Their empty," Rodge smirked. "Just in case."
I should've known better. Jostice was never able to outsmart a gambling man. He laughed and Rodge joined him. "Who said I'd needed a barrel?"
There came a hush between them...
Jostice moved in a blur; his hand grabbing the revolver; it spun on his finger as he raised his arm up over his head. His hand closed around the barrel as he pulled downward, pivoting at his hips, and swiping from right to left; the butt of the gun connected with flesh and jaw...
The man stumbled back, bouncing off the wall then hit the ground with a grunt.
"Rodge," Jostice smirked, holstering his gun. "You've got yourself a deal."
The man hissed as he choked on his breath. "Good," he said, looking upon the ground, his hat a foot away. "Just one more thing, Ace..." Rodge turned his head; Jostice didn't recognize the face. The man he saw was not the man he once knew, but moonlight had shown him for what he'd become. From his chin to his nose was pale flesh while around his eyes and forehead black, glistening skin, thick and sharp, protruded out of his skull. Jostice blinked twice but his eyes hadn't fooled him.
"I don't go by Rodge no more." The man snickered as blood fell off his lips. "They call me Scaleface..."