If Liosene was called the Hand of God, then the South Step slums—in all their shit and grime—were the middle finger. The giant “fuck you” to the people who aspired to go about their days without the fear of being murdered, beaten, raped, or some awful combination of the three.
Nemesis I’bar had been on the receiving end of fists and palms more times than she could count, and god knew how many times the streets of Liosene had taken her in alleys or the bright lights of some rich prick’s penthouse suite. All in the name of leads, she would remind herself. Running leads was work, but the line of work that Nemesis was in…well, it fucking blew, and sometimes she did too. In a city like this, trying to avenge your mother’s death was about as easy disease was sparse.
But tonight the ills of Liosene seemed slightly less profound: Nemesis had a lead. The lead. If things went well she’d have a trophy to commemorate revenge—the head of Dolos Atticus, the Wraith of Liosene. God avert your gaze this night, she thought. I’m going to make a mess. I’m going to paint the city with his blood, and if you try to stop me then it’s you I’ll come for next.
Nemesis started down the midnight street, the derelict tenement buildings rearing over her like hardened pricks. When the South Step fucked you it was dirty, and it stayed with you, shaped you. The Nemesis from ten years ago would have cowered in the shadows; she wouldn’t have dared brave the South Step slums, let alone this late at night. But this Nemesis? You didn’t dance with a devil in the darkness she called home. Those who did learned why she was a Marked One.
It was still, tonight, nothing Nemesis wasn’t used to. Nonetheless she clutched the hilts concealed beneath her tattered cloak; in this line of work vigilance was your only god and you were stupid if you thought otherwise. Or dead.
In the distance bloomed a dot of light. Nemesis continued at a measured pace, her many scars tingling, itching with anticipation. If her lead panned out then she had found So’nahm. And if she had found So’nahm…
Nemesis felt that cold, creeping feeling in her spine, vigilance whispering that she held the shadows’ gaze. Keep on. Pretend you’re unaware. She neared the faint light; inhaled softly, nearly lost composure as she discerned the scent of iron in the air.
Nemesis lingered at the door. Her heart was caught, pounding in her throat; adrenaline flowed like whiskey on a drunken night. Vigilance hissed; Nemesis ignored her god and pushed the battered door ajar, greeted by a candle, slaughtered pigs, and a child’s version of a smiling face, painted on the wall in blood.
The night chuckled.
Nemesis wheeled around, daggers drawn, met by empty windows and a barren street. She swallowed, eyes darting left and right.
“You seem perturbed, my dear,” the shadows mused. Nemesis clenched her jaw and spun a full turn counterclockwise. Laughter echoed; metal dragged on stone. “My companion, Whiskey, reckons you could use a drink, but I think she’s getting ahead of herself. Tell me, sweetheart, why so serious, hmm?”
Nemesis ground her teeth. “The lead. So’nahm’s ‘meeting’—it was you, wasn’t it?”
“Indeed,” a voice whispered in her ear. Nemesis started, stumbling forward; when had he dropped down behind her? Dolos regarded her, hands clasped to his back, blond hair brushed behind his ears. “You’ve held my interest for a while now, though not as long as I’ve held yours, I think.”
Nemesis clutched her daggers tighter yet. “…You killed her.” What more to say?
Dolos frowned and rubbed his nose. “I’ve killed a lot of people. You’re going to have to be a little more specific.”
“My mother.” Nemesis lunged; Dolos sidestepped easily and kicked her in the ass.
He chuckled again. “Slaughtered several mothers.”
Nemesis screamed and swung.
Dolos deflected her attack and dropped her with a knee to the gut. Nemesis gasped, daggers clanking out of reach. “Sweetheart, I’ve been at this game for nearly fifteen years,” he goaded. “My advice? Harness your ire lest it lead you to an early grave. Your eyes give every move away.”
He kicked her in the ribs and she doubled over, wheezing breathlessly. Pain flared in her shoulders as he forced her to the street and pinned her arms behind her back.
“Your passion is admirable,” he said. “Relatable. You seek justice for your mother in the way I did my father. He was a good man; he deserved a nobler ending than a crimson grin. Tell me, little Marked One. Tell me of your kind and honest mother and perhaps I’ll tell you why Whiskey and I quenched her thirst.”
“…name…” Nemesis strained, “…Nisoma…bleed you…pig.”
“Oh.” Dolos heaved a sigh, and gripped her in a way that made the world begin to swirl. “We’re going to have an illuminating conversation in dark room. I’m going to make you understand, and it’s going to hurt like hell.”
Nemesis sputtered. Wherever she’d been taken it was black as pitch and smelled like dust, mold, shit, and rotten meat. She moved to stand but couldn’t feel her legs—she couldn’t feel or move at all.
“Give it a minute,” Dolos murmured. “It’ll wear off.”
Poison. Nemesis snarled inwardly.
“I remember you, Nemesis I’bar. I remember those blood-red eyes of yours; the fear, the shock, the hatred that they held that night five years ago.” Dolos sighed raggedly. “You weren’t supposed to see me, to see…that—”
The knife handle protruding from her mother’s throat, the blood pooling.
“—and I am sorry that you did. But perhaps it’s for the best.”
Gradually, the numbness faded; with it went the darkness of the room. The lighting was dim, her vision blurred, but Nemesis discerned the Wraith, seated just a couple feet away.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“One of the darkest rooms you’ll ever know,” Dolos said softly.
Nemesis spat. “Doesn’t look so dark to me.”
“That, Marked One, is because you’ve not yet seen the truth beyond this candle’s light.” He approached, knelt, offered her his hand, and it was all that Nemesis could do to keep herself from lashing out. But doing so would have been futile. She was weak, unarmed, so she took his hand and stood.
Dolos led her at a measured pace, arms swinging loosely at his side. “Once upon a time they called this place the Devil’s Gut.”
Nemesis cringed. In its heyday the Devil’s Gut had been one of the most notorious auction houses in the child slave trade. The smell of this room—which she guessed was far larger than her eyes could see—made a lot more sense.
“It was the hub,” Dolos said. “The heartbeat, if you will.”
Something crunched beneath her boot. A sideways glance revealed the tattered remnant of a child’s doll, one eye wide, the other gone, and half its face caved in.
“A pedophile’s dream come true,” Dolos half-hissed, “and the city’s largest source of meat.”
Nemesis swallowed. “Meat?”
Dolos stopped to regard her. “You didn’t know—don’t know? A young woman as resourceful as yourself, and you’re so masterfully ignorant of the meat that Liosene consumes the most?” He furrowed his brow and scoffed. “You’re either an expert in compartmentalizing trauma or you just give far less fucks about this wretched place than most.”
He extended his arm; just beyond the candlelight Nemesis discerned a forest of rusted shackles, either mounted to the wall or hanging from the rafters. They were arranged in rows and columns; beyond them, booths and slabs, discarded blades, bones, all crusted with blood, mold, and god knew whatever else.
Nemesis doubled over and retched.
Dolos dragged her along as she spewed. “I was sold here in my youth. Raped in plain sight countless times. I know hell like the back of my hand, but it’s the pain at tunnel’s end I’m glad to have escaped. The very bottom of the pit.”
Nemesis wiped the bile from her mouth, each footfall less sure than the last. She was a Marked One, vengeance made manifest…so how the fuck had she missed this?
Because of mother. Because of her steadfast belief that Liosene was slowly rising from the filth. Nemesis recalled the orphanage her mother had overseen, how happy the children had been, how many of the poor things had gone on to be adopted, whisked away from this nightmare.
“Those in positions of privilege have a duty to protect those less fortunate,” Nisoma I’bar had said once. “These children…we can shield them from the darkness of this city, Nemesis. Keep them safe just as I have you, my dear.”
The tunnel stretched on for god knew how long, the blackness more pervading by the minute. Eventually Dolos’ grip on her hand relented; he knew she was no threat to him in this moment.
“She killed my father,” he said. “Your mother. Slit his throat before my eyes.”
“A lie,” Nemesis snapped.
“They were lovers,” Dolos continued, leading her up a flight of rickety stairs.
“My mother had no one,” Nemesis said; her own father had cut town ages ago, when she was four. Violent prick he’d been too, coming at her mother with a knife one night. Scarred her body horribly. “She didn’t need anyone.”
“Yes, and according to her blade neither of us needed pada.”
The stairway leveled out and Nemesis nearly tripped. Pada was what she’d called her father as a little girl.
“You’re lying,” she half whispered, half hissed, legs wobbling. “You’re not my—” Brother? But how else could he have known? “My mother didn’t—”
“Flinch when father swung his knife?” Dolos said. “Didn’t let him add to her collection of scars?”
“Her…” Savage, angry blemishes the same as Nemesis’ own: a cut for every kill. Nemesis choked down the urge to scream.
“The thing about these scars we cutthroats wear?” Dolos said. “They’re like candlelight. They cast shadows on the truth. For example, I’m a man of god. But you wouldn’t know it by the sins I’ve carved into my flesh.”
He took her by the hand and led her toward a thread of light at the end of the dark landing—it came through a hole in the wall. A keyhole in a door.
“You”—Dolos nudged the door and it creaked ajar—“are not so vicious as you make yourself out to be. You’ve a soft spot for children.”
First came the adrenaline, then the cold. The cold of memory, of familiarity, of horror. The desk, the tattered paintings; broken furniture and a carpet stained with blood. Fuck the ruin—Nemesis knew exactly where she was.
“Her office. The orphanage.” She dropped to her knees, hand to her mouth. “No…no, no, no.” She smacked herself repeatedly, as hard as she could. “NO!”
Dolos caught her hands. “Accept it. She murdered our father because he knew—she was a Marked One and a slaver. She sold me, she sold children,” he snarled. “To the pricks who like their fuckholes ripe. To the slaughter chains, because infant flank and toddler legs fetch hundreds in this god-forsaken city. She was begging for a drink”—he tapped the dagger at his belt—“so Whiskey here quenched her thirst.
“How much longer, Nemesis? How much longer do you think it would have been before she put you on the block? Before the luster of a coin held more appeal to her than did her daughter’s love?”
Nemesis collapsed into a heap, sobbing.
“I know what’re you thinking. You want this all to be a nightmare, a stain of a dream. You want to believe your mother was a saint—you ache to. In this moment you desire that lie, that facade of character more than you do revenge. But let me tell you something…” Dolos leaned in, lips brushing her ear. “The only truth? In Liosene everyone is ugly. Safe is just a shadow.”
Did you like this story? If so, check out THIRSTING FOR WHISKEY, another grimdark short story set in Liosene.