Black-Heart: Douglas’ Bluff

The trip to Douglas’ Bluff from, to the southern mountains, took longer than Aaron had expected.  As the days drew on, the pistol’s call slowly started to work it’s way into his mind, it’s suffocating presence blurring his focus.  With it came the dreams and images of those he had killed, their whispers haunting him at night.  The time would come, he knew, when it would consume him as it had done when he was still in his old line of work.

For the moment it was only pushing lightly at his willpower.  There was no reason out in the open sky for it to consume him, instead he could feel it sending out tendrils of despair, depression, dredging up memories he’d tried to seal away, in an attempt to weaken his resolve and then call to him with it’s promise of power.

Each day it got worse and each day, Aaron dipped more and more into his stash of spirits.  He had even taken to placing the weapon in the cupboard where he hid his stash, yet it still called to him.  He’d considered tossing the weapon overboard, but the thoughts of someone else finding it and becoming consumed by the curse stayed his hand.

During the trip, Mai was his saving grace, keeping him occupied as she tried to strike up conversation or goad him into letting his guard down.  He responded with little more than a grunt or glare, but it helped him focus on something.

Their relationship returned to what it had been when they had both been Protectors.  The curse had consumed his mind completely back then, and though he was little more than a shell of a man.  Mai had been a constant presence as she was now.  They’d met in training and had she had stuck to him ever since then.  It was as if she saw something in him no one else did.  He didn’t know what it was, but somehow she’d know that he hadn’t died that day at Ksalvis.

By the time they reached the skies around Douglas’ Bluff though, his stash had dwindled to one bottle that he was saving should he desperately need it.  I just hope that it doesn’t come to that, he thought.   His face was a stone mask as he steered ship through the skies around Douglas’ Bluff.  They were close now and it wouldn’t be long until the city would be in view.

Situated high atop a snowy mountain peak, the settlement had been carved out of the very rock of the mountain itself and was shrouded in clouds for the majority of the year.  It attracted many refugees and vagabonds due to the easy work to be found in the mines snaking their way into the depths of the large mountain.

The city proper itself was laid out across the top of a wide shelf on the mountainside that fell off into a shear cliff.  Landing pads and various docks jutted out from the edge of the cliff to allow spaceships and airships to dock.  The only other entrance to the town was the long road that looped around and down the backside of the mountain, so the traffic that the settlement got came mostly from the air in the form of cargo ships looking to buy raw ores.

As the cold mists parted and city came into view, Aaron scanned the stonework of the buildings set into the mountainside.  It was an impressive feat that the people who had founded the town had accomplished with a few chisels and mining tools.

Selecting an unoccupied dock far from the bustle of the main thoroughfare, he brought the airship alongside, steering it one handed, while he reigned in the lines holding the sails with the other.  The side of the ship bumped up against the dock with a loud thunk of wood on metal.

Mai jumped across with a mooring rope in hand, eager to help.  She looped it around one of the large pins on the dock.

The sails went slack as Aaron pulled on the lines, releasing the wheel so he could tie them up.  Lashing the lines in place, he looked to where Mai was leaning on the rail, still standing on the dock, a smug look on her face.

“So I can be of help?” she said sarcastically.

Stalking over to her, Aaron stepped onto the dock and promptly undid the line she’d looped around the pin, lashing it properly.

“No, you can’t,” he said.  “You’re here for work.  Get too it.”

Making a pouty face, she then smiled back at him.  “Fine.”  She turned her head and called out to Katha, lounging in the middle of the deck.  “Come, Katha!”

The large fire-cat looked up and, getting to it’s feet and padding after her as she turned and started into the port.

“You’ll be here when I get back?  Yes?” asked Mai glancing back at him.

Aaron’s stony expression didn’t change.  “We’ll see,” he grunted.

He watch her headed into the crowd.  She would find what she was looking for, he knew.  She was nothing if resourceful… she’d found him.  And she wouldn’t stop until she’d convinced him to come back with her.  That was something he would never do though.

Aaron reached up and pressed a hand to his head.  He could feel the presence trying to assert itself.  Now that we’re here, it’s going to take over…  I can’t let that happen, he thought, pressing the ball of his hand against his temple.  The effects of the last bottle of brew he’d downed were starting to wear off.  He was down to one left in his stash.

Looks like I’ll be heading into town, then.  He lowered his hand from his forehead and glanced at the hole in the side of the ship.  Alcohol and repairs.  The two things I’m going to need to keep flying.

Heaving a sigh, he turn and headed back onto the ship, going below deck briefly to retrieve the pistol and his jacket.  The crisp air had been good for keeping him refreshed, and focused, but he’d want the jacket in town.  If for nothing else, than someplace to keep the pistol safely at his side.

Glancing back at the ship one last time to make sure it was moored properly he headed along the dock for the main thoroughfare.  The town was small, but it was still a busy place in the late afternoon.  Stalls lined the edges of the docks and the streets with vendors calling out to people. Work crews moved cargo and ore through the bustle.  Normally Aaron found the energy of the docks refreshing after a long voyage alone in the sky, but today he felt nothing but the thirst of the pistol in his coat pocket.

“Demon…” came the whisper over the din of conversation.

Aaron tried to focus his mind.  He was in the heart of the settlement now, surrounded by people.  Smells of oil, grease, mingled with fresh bread, and the smell of food from restaurants.  The shouts of stall keepers assaulted his ears over the din of conversation.  He could feel the cold wind starting to raise goose-bumps on his arms, even through his jacket.  The blue-grey stone of the buildings and the mountain around him and the colors of the people blurred around him.

Over it all came the whisper again, “Demon… kill!”

Shut up! thought Aaron to himself.  Just shut up!

He clenched his teeth, and hunched his shoulders as he tired to focus enough to find a liquor shop.

“Hey, buddy!”  A hand gripped his shoulder out of no-where and spun him around.  As Aaron’s gaze drifted around to focus on who it was behind him, he noticed suddenly that he’d run into the type of trouble he generally tried to avoid.

There were three of them, all large and well muscled men, one of them sporting multiple cybernetic implants.  The man who’d touched him was the one who spoke.  He looked like he worked in one of the mines with the way his shirt was stained and covered in a fine layer of dust.

“We know that’s you’re ship docked out there and you have to pay the ‘docking fee’. If you understand my meaning,” the man said.

Aaron didn’t say anything.  He knew something like this was going to happen sooner or later when he’d come into port.   Douglas’ Bluff, as a refugee town, attracted the people who took advantage of those less well off.

“Pay up.”

“Kill them!  Demon!”

Aaron twitched his head to the side, at the whisper.  “Shut up!” he snapped through clenched teeth.

“That’s not the proper response,” said the man, frowning.  He turned slightly bringing the long pistol at his hip into Aaron’s line of sight.  “You’re going to have to pay the fee, or you day might just get a lot worse.”

Aaron felt his muscles tense at that instant.  His vision blurred and he knew he’d lost the battle.  The curse consumed his consciousness.

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