Published Issue 115, July 2023
“Burn it,” said Kroth. “Kill the villagers.”
I frowned. “You mean the soldiers.”
“I mean all of them.”
Cara was watching me closely, trident held loosely. Hunch and Hew, two of the bulbous, malformed ogres Kroth called his Children, were grinning. Hew swung his oversized cleaver around in an easy circle, cleft palate leering.
“There’ll be reprisals,” I warned. “The Steel Willows will go ape. They’ll send— ”
“The Willows will be so desperate for revenge we’ll finally get the battle we’ve been looking for. Exactly.”
Kroth’s ogres and mercenaries (of which I was one) were already rounding people up, loud protests audible within the bamboo buildings, children crying. A man shouted, then screamed. Kroth’s gaze jerked toward the sound, and he nodded to Hew to investigate. “We don’t have to do this,” I protested. “Let me question some of these people. If they know what’s at stake we can find out where they’re hiding.”
When Kroth turned back, he held between thumb and forefinger a small glass vial filled with necroflame, the oily liquid glowing orange in the dusk. Swallowed, it gave superhuman strength and speed; exposed to the air, it burst into potent flame. “We don’t need to find them,” he said. “They’ll find us.” He flicked it casually toward an open doorway.
“No!” I shouted, hand flashing out. Had the ampule cracked, it would have set my arm ablaze, but I’d always had good reflexes, and I caught it whole.
“What are you doing?” Kroth demanded. “Arrest this man!”
In for a penny, in for a pound. I brought the necroflame to my lips, then hesitated. There had been a time when I’d respected Kroth, known him for a crafty fighter and strategist, and he could be funny when he wanted to me. But for weeks now he’d been taking necro whenever we went into battle. Instead, seeing two Children racing toward me with axes raised, I tossed it at their feet. Fireworks followed.
“Traitor,” Kroth growled, and with a flick of his wrists, freed the spring-loaded bayonets hidden in his vambraces. He lunged.
I twisted away, but not before he’d scored a deep cut along my ribs that made me swear in pain. He’d have skewered me with his other blade, had Cara not acted instantly to entangle it in her trident. Bless that warrior woman!
I carried no weapon, for I accompanied the Thirteenth Legion as an interpreter, but Master Wei-feng had taught me to look for tools anywhere. I kicked hard at a tall bamboo post holding up a roof, then wrested it free of the ropes binding it at the top. This took seconds, but Cara had her hands full, and others were quickly joining the fray. I thrust my makeshift staff into the warty face of one Child, swept out the feet from another, did my best to crack Kroth a mighty blow to his neck. But he must have taken the necroflame already, because he was freaky fast, and ducked just enough that the blow glanced off his horned helmet.
I took a hit then myself to the elbow, numbing my left arm. I kicked out behind me, knocked the pointy-headed Child back, and followed up with a backswing of the staff tucked under my right arm. Seeing their commander under attack, an increasing number of Children were abandoning their assault on the village in favor of trying to take me and Cara down.
I was altogether glad, then, to see one giant fall, then another, and a gleaming, shirtless warrior snapping a katana with fierce precision. “Ray! Help Cara!” The three of us — me, Cara and Ray — were tight. We’d joined the Legion together, worked together, fought together. I knew he’d stand by us now. He nodded and danced through the running figures like a deadly ghost.
With the three of us working together, the tide turned. The Children were large, but not brave, and as the bodies piled up many of them simply stood by or hid in the shadows, waiting to see how things would turn out.
But Kroth didn’t slow. Just before I reached him I saw him crack a vial of necroflame and suck it into his mouth. His skin glowed. Between Cara, Ray and myself, we pressed him hard, but rather than tiring, he seemed to grow faster and stronger than ever. Smoke boiled from his nostrils, a sulfurous smell rising from his skin. When we wounded him, flame wept through the cuts. Gasping, I shouted, “Stop, man! It’s killing you! It’s killing you!”
He turned to look at me over his shoulder, and I reeled back. His eyes were empty, and I mean literally: sockets and shadows, black smoking holes. “This is the job,” he said, and with a serpent’s precision, struck Ray through the heart. My friend gave one astonished look, touched his bleeding chest in wonder, and fell lifeless to the dirt.
I yelled and swung with my staff, swung again and again, but there was no need. Kroth was burning. In moments all that was left was ash.
I woke to “Burning Down the House” on the radio, and the start screen for FireWorld, the Atari game I’d been playing when I nodded off, scrolling on the TV. I stared bleakly at the needle, the empty ampule on the table, the two full ones beside it. Captain Roth. I dreamt of Cara all the time (she worked as a nurse over at Lyons VA), once in a while of Ray (taken down by a stray bullet on the Sepon River), but Kevin Roth I hadn’t thought about in years. Dead of leukemia a few years back, I’d heard.
This is the job, he’d said, when I asked him if he thought the stuff was safe. Didn’t even wear gloves. Barrel after barrel, sprayed into the jungle from the side of a fucking boat. We laughed, talked shit, smoked cigarettes. They said it caused birth defects.
I reached for the next hit, but the smoking holes where Roth’s eyes used to be were still looking at me. It ate you from the inside. I forced myself to stand. Didn’t think about how much I wanted it, didn’t think about how much more I would want it tomorrow. Flushed it down the toilet. Felt something fill me up.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of A Bonfire in the Belly of the Beast and INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Moon Patrol is a Northern California-based artist. Taking themes including ’80s cartoons and video games, classic pulp illustrations, and comic book narratives, Moon Patrol remixes these many and varied cues using a collage technique he compares to “Kid Koala’s turntable albums, and in part by William Burroughs’ cut-up technique.” See more of his work on Instagram and snag prints at Outré Gallery.
Check out Joel’s June Birdy install, A Boar Slain, A Bat Exploded, A Fox Forgotten inspired by Moon_Patrol’s piece Pig Lass in case you missed it or head to our Explore section to see more of his work.