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A HEAD FOR A HARLOT
Mountainous crags stretched along the outskirts of the city of Belial; the riverbeds ran nearly dry, and only a few tributary waterfalls remained to conceal the rock shelters hollowed in the base of the cliff. The sharp outcroppings and ballistic trajectories of debris had over many years made the steep slopes almost impassable; so no man or woman ever tried to scale the mountainside to overlook the desolate canyon full of nothing but bloodthirsty thieves, ravenous wolves, and the vultures to feed on the carrion.
However, one man did endure the vertical trek and stood alone at the highest peak of the cliff, dressed in a cotton, low-collar shirt; a smoky, single-breasted waistcoat; a white linen cravat; a charcoal, double-breasted frockcoat that covered the top half of his trousers held by leather straps; and a lavender rose boutonniere pinned to his right lapel. A cool wind brushed dirt through his feathery, silver hair that reached his neckline; and mud caked his jet black, laced ankle boots.
The wool lining of his dark, sheepskin gauntlets warmly cushioned his hands—one reaching into his front waistcoat pocket to check his brass, stem-wind, hunter-case watch chained through a buttonhole and the other gripping a steel sword with only half a blade and the ricasso in which the two letters D and A were engraved. He closed the pocket watch whose cover was engraved with the name NERO, tucked it back in his waistcoat, and knelt on one knee before a small fieldstone bearing ancient runes along the edges and in the center the inscription DUKE; then he firmly shoved the broken sword up to the cross-guard into the dry soil as a funerary gift.
“I’m sorry, Duke,” Nero said softly, “but I couldn’t find the other half.” He glanced at the billowing, viridian clouds enclosing around the distant city as a light mist drizzled across the canyon, followed by a bolt of lightning and a roll of thunder. “It hasn’t been the same without you; the city hasn’t been the same without you—something about the water and the air. Already six months have passed, and so much has changed . . . and yet nothing has; and the storms are growing. This was not the future you had for me, and this was not the future I had for you. Do the gods hear our prayers? Do the angels carry them? Do the demons steal them? Do the people offer them? If your spirit has crossed that great chasm, then send down the guardians of this city. Something is coming—I can feel it, but we need more time; we need divine providence. Otherwise, I fear that this imminent disturbance might just destroy this place for good.”