The phase wall shuddered back into life with the grind of electric teeth. Sand and dust burst in miniature flame balls, their death throws driving an eye watering scream into the ears of all around them. Malek leapt at the sound, causing the water drum on his back to tug him violently towards the waiting guard.
“Watch it!” the guard snapped, quizzical eyes glaring down at the hunched water merchant. Malek righted himself, bowing his head profusely at the guard. The guards battered fire pike growled its electric pur, irritating the gums, sending shivers down Malek’s already shivering spine.
After a moment the guard simply grunted. He nodded his head in the direction of the long avenue before him, indicating he cared nothing for the wretched hunchback in front of him. Malek turned from the armoured brute and began the long walk down the dusty avenue, desperately trying to prevent his shaking limbs from breaking into a frightened run.
Do not make him suspect, Makel thought, his mind racing like dust mice from a tabbies shadow. If I run there are questions, if I run they will suspect.
Malek felt the hard press of the hidden package within the folds of his suit. Secreted below the folds of his desert carapace the heavy plastics drove painfully into his sternum, forcing the hunchback to exaggerate his hunched posture. Malek looked up as he stumbled on, his eyes raking the shanty towers above, seeking the multitude of guards, killers and watchmen upon the rusted metal gantries above.
They stared down at the water seller with barely disguised contempt. Each one stood with their own profusion of knives and ballistics, everyone glaring with the desire to use their weapons. Malek stumbled down the dark avenue as he had done a hundred times before, marking the myriad eyes staring down at him. It dawned on the hunchback that he had always avoided looking beyond the dust filled lane he walked in. He had little desire to see the Master’s swarm of killers as they searched for their next victim.
“Ignore, ignore, ignore” the water seller whispered to himself. Malek felt his eyes comb the upper balconies, seeing the proliferation of weapons above him as he had never before. Safety and security became a concept that only applied to the Master himself. Here and now he was nothing but the potential prey of the assembled thugs.
The water seller shuddered at the thought, following the avenue as it curved around a dilapidated tower of scrap iron and weathered wood. He tried not to look at the assembled gibbet cages strung across the structure, avoiding the yellowed eyes and the outstretched desperate hands.
He had reached the rendezvous. His hand fell to the hard plastic bundle beneath his chin, a tenuous shiver of fear passing along the length of his arm. Malek felt his breathing go shallow, his eyes darting between the gathered shadows of the shanty towers. Everywhere he looked, familiar shadows within the avenue stood totally alien and dangerous. Malek stopped in the dust, his legs going numb from fright.
Where was the damned contact?
Malek jumped at the sudden sound, the motion threatening to tip the filthy water barrel from his back. He turned, eyes wide. Something black and heavy dove towards his face.
Pain blossomed across his nose. Malek fell as the snap of broken cartilage etched down the scrap iron avenue. Lukewarm water showered him as he fell, dashin dust from his rags in an oncoming rush of the vital fluid.
Malek shuddered, one hand dragging itself from the dirt to touch his face. He hissed as questing fingers struck the red tip of his nose. The water seller wrenched his hand away, seeing the fingers come away crimson.
Malek fired his eyes up at bark. Two dark shadows stood over him, one massive and broad as a barn door, the other a femanine curve of dark beauty. Both radiated danger and violence.
“Y-yes, watchman?” Malek stammered, recognising the towering figure for what he must be. He tried not to look from the towering figures before him, tried not to stare at the wasted wealth of water dashed across now soaking into the desert dust of the street. He watched as the towering man pulled a heavy club from his belt and his mind immediately forgot about the water.
“You been a very bad little citizen there, hunchback,” the thug hissed through copper teeth. “A very bad little citizen indeed. Do you know what you done here, little citizen?”
Malek stammered, his mind racing to find the answer. The heavy plastic bundle pressed into his chest, scoring the aching fall of sore ribs. The hunchback hissed through aching gums, wide eyes searching the pair for any hint to his crime.
“I-I” Malek stuttered. His eyes roved across the surrounding avenue, desperately seeking answers in the surrounding shade. The familiar shadows continued their silence, giving the water seller nothing of the truth he seemed to have missed.
The thug leaned closer, bringing his copper grin down close to the shivering Malek. “Do you know this lady here, hunchback?”
Malek shook his head. The motion was staggering, causing his aching head to ach yet harder. The corners of his vision greyed as Malek sucked in a dry breath.
The thug's metallic smile grew. “This is the lovely lady Melissa, little citizen. This is the great love of your beloved master.” His face twisted into a comical grin as he came much much closer to the hunchback. “And you just walked into her way.”
Malek shivered as he returned his vision to the towering woman. He shivered as he did so, meeting those cold eyes staring down at him beneath the rise of her gaudy blue hair. Something in the way she looked at him made Malek stop his shivering.
Something in the woman’s gaze seemed wrong. Every water seller whispered about the cruel new courtesan in New Devon. Her burning red eyes, her cruel and cold smile, these were spoken of from the boiling delta to the salt sea. What she had done to gain the Master’s favour, to be with him when his guard was down, those terrible tales were spoken of all the way to the Pict Isles.
But here she stood.
And there was no cruelty in her gaze.
Malek suddenly started. The thug had come closer, so close his copper dentures sat an inch from the hunchback's bloody face. Malek froze as a massive hand reached into the folds of his sackcloth robe.
“Terribly sorry” whispered the bodyguard, his voice suddenly without malice or scorn. “Too many eyes watching in these allies, and they always want a bit of a show.”
Malek stayed utterly still as the broad hand grasped the plastic bundle at his chest. Panic and confusion swallowed his mind but the bodyguard barely looked at the bundle as he hunched over the water seller. Malek watched as the man slid the plastic bundle within his own robes, seeing the odd shape of the plastic time. The copper toothed man gave a small smile as he did so, the small gesture standing out as odd against the large backdrop of his face.
“You have to understand” he said, reaching into his overhauls and taking out a small rag clothed bundle from the inner pocket. “Nobody bothers to search water sellers, and if you where to cross us” the man gave a small shrug “well, nobody believes water sellers these days. Social pariahs and all that.”
Malek felt his eyes go wide as a slight corner of the cloth fell away. What lay exposed within was beautiful, a single nugget of gold held within the old cloth. The man placed it within the folds of Malek’s rags, smiling a small smile all the while.
“A final word, good citizen” the man said as the woman stepped away, feigning a lack of care and interest. Her motion seemed to distract the gathered watchers on their balconies, several dropping the growth of all-too-interested eyes from the whispered interaction. “What we do with your little package you brought us is going to turn this whole region of desert into a mad house. Best you get as far away as possible as soon as those little water-fat legs can manage.”
Malek nodded, dumbfounded. His eyes refused to leave the subtle bulg within the man’s chest, tracing the outline of the plastic structure secreted within.
A firearm, he thought with staggering clarity.
Such things where so rarely seen since the Storm that he had not recognised it until the man had claimed it. Malek shuddered, feeling the ache where his chest had held the hidden package upon his entrance.
The broad man smiled, climbing to his feet as he regained the cruel mask he had worn at his arrival.
“Now don't make me spell this out to you again, water-theif!” he bellowed, shocking Malek from his stunned silence. “Never come back to New-Devon again. Not unless you want your skin wrapped inside one of these here cages!”
Swiftly Malek was tossed aside, the empty water basin on his back shuddering as it struck the flesh of his back. Malek stumbled, staggered, then ran, bolting from the coper toothed thug like a mouse from a closing trap. Behind and above him cruel laughter echoed down the dusty avenue as he ran. The shimmering heat haze of the electro-gate stuttered out of existence as the shabby wretch at the controls giggled besides the controls.
Malek looked back over his shoulder as he made it past the open gate. Behind him, behind the wal of howling laughter he could make out the dark dressed pair. Both watched him leave, never once taking their eyes off of the fleeing staggering hunchback. Malek whimpered at the sight.
Clouds gathered above within the darkening sky above New Devon. Malek whimpered as he ran.
There was another storm coming to the shanty towers this night. And its results would be much more catastrophic than those clouds could ever offer.