AnimalHeart - Book 1 - Rodolphus
A savage, violent, blood-drenched world produces the most terrifying villains. The universe answers with heroes and antiheroes in the cosmic conflict between evil and good. Flashing swords, rushing war speeders, poison, peril, giants, vampires, fighters and evangelists, Blackguard and fallen angels, Wolf and Bear, resounding with the clash of steel upon steel, the screams of the dying, and the faint blast of distant horns: it is a very dark world, but in steel halls of gloom, beauty yet survives. AnimalHeart, not for the faint of heart. A Rodolphus masterpiece.
Also by Rodolphus
Storyteller’s Last Stand
The Wolf Doth Grin
Rodolphus Short Stories
©Copyright 2011 Rodolphus. All Rights Reserved by the Author. No part of this book may be reproduced (except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews) or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the publisher, Wolftales UNlimited. This book is a work of fiction. People, places, events, and situations are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or historical events, is purely coincidental.
The Friend, The Brother
My Ineffectual Theo
— prologue —
A thunderbolt roared over the yards and people, reverberating dragonlike in the mist. Possibly, the noise was mere thunder, projections from a storm far away. Of course, it was more probable the enemy shelling plastic magnums at the Speeders of the Freedom Army, too close for anything other than fleeting comfort. But most of the refugees, waking from dark dreams to much darker reality, believed the noise to be the belly of the barracks, grumbling for flesh, starved for human souls and blood. The barracks — once upon a time a military post and later a temple — crouched like a giant lizard over the Dying River, brooding, powerful with the spirit of long-ago drills and later muttered prayer. Ever hungry for either flesh or soul, the mixed-blood barracks devoured the staggering peoples — refugees, who, drooling, flinching, weeping and dazed, bedded on the damp soil about the haunted barracks, while others stood grimly, stubbornly in eternal lines for scraps of relief food and smaller scraps of rag blankets.
The sky was hooded, the air yet dark, even though the dawning of the day was already past. Electric bulbs created flickering shadows that loomed over the crowded yards. The people watched the shadows and listened to the grumbling of the barracks and huddled in rag blankets, waiting for the sun, trying not to watch and listen and huddle, attempting to think warm thoughts and dream secure dreams.
But they remembered the vivid colors and pungent smells of crucifixion, feces on splintery, musty-with-blood wood, and screams, people they knew alight at the stake, the screams, the screams yet rang in their ears like trapped flood waters in their head. The people blinked and saw the faces of those they loved who were no longer among the living — those who went ugly and loud into the other realm.
“Are the troops coming?” called a weak voice.
The people near enough to hear the query considered it an idiotic question. Even so, they — the people — looked back, toward the East, where if troops did indeed approach, they could be seen and heard.
A soldier dressed in the high-top battle boots and matte-black uniform of the Freedom Army paced the lines of refugees. He distributed cigarettes, candy, paper toys for bug-eyed children, and toilet paper for anyone who might have consumed food in the last week or so.
“Don’t worry, good people, the evil vampires won’t fly in today — not in the next five minutes anyway,” the tall, smiling man said, winking for a few of the older people. “Truth is, they’re at least five days behind us.”
Although his face and posture were young and strong, his thick hair was bone white, and deep lines spread from his eyes, etched his high forehead. This man was not young, but he was handsome, youthful, shoulders wide and his hands, at the end of long arms, huge. He paused before an elderly man.
“Hello, papa, the skies just couldn’t be any bluer,” said the white-hair, placing an encouraging arm about the other. But the elderly man would not look at him.
He did, however, attempt to speak: “I — I know, son. I know. But…family got — caught. Zealots. And they wasn’t … Christian — my family.”
“I bet Wolf will make them pay a little bit before we’re all through.”
The old man stood a bit taller. “I know he will, son. Thank you.”
The soldier gives him cigarettes, but the pack is returned — a nonsmoker, this one, one of the very few left in the world. The white-haired soldier gives him some candy instead … and the old man smiles, his teeth glowing in his dark-bright face. And the soldier continues amidst the gray-faced people, patting some, hugging others, letting some touch his beautiful white hair.
“Are the troops coming?”
An oily rain leaked from the heavy skies but the people did not comment. The people pretended there was no rain, nor cold — for at least the rain was not snow. Flashes of yellow fire punched through clouds and moments later thunder grumbled. The people stood looking at the muddy ground as water beaded in their hair and on their clothes, listening, waiting, and watching the troubled sky for signs, dark or bright.
A geezer without shoes or shirt walked amidst the refugees. He hobble-danced amidst the sleepers and the line-waiters, bare chest seemingly impenetrable to the cold, mumbling to nobody in particular: “I was a soldier once myself back in ’45 — no respect. None. Christians, anyway....”
He snorted, his shoulders bunched and humped, long hair hanging like greasy fingers before his face, and he marched onward, grinding his gums.
A clacking hum arose from the train rails. The refugees quieted from any talk and backed away from the long steel tracks.
Freedom soldiers, three, appeared from a dugout, two carrying shortsword, one with hand upon sabre. They spread across the tracks and faced the west.
The people whispered and murmured.
The apparent leader of the soldiers dropped his hand from the hilt of his sword. He signaled to the other soldiers with a curt knife-flick of his hand. “It’s an ally. I’ll meet her.”
Captain Timothy Llewdoarb stood arrogantly in the gray morning mist, water-blue eyes crinkling, narrow shoulders flexing both ways for maximum girth, his black jacket short at the waist, stylized and smartly cut to present the illusion of strength and virility, flamboyantly adorned with white epaulettes upon padded shoulders.
“Of course, Captain Llewdoarb,” sneered one of the soldiers. He wore the common knee-length coat of the Freedom Army.
Llewdoarb gave the man a look and then turned to where the Speeder was now visible. He stood at attention until the sleek aluminum-and-steel vehicle glided to rest ten feet before him, faint blue electric sparks beneath the craft subsiding as the static field extinguished. On silent hydraulics the top half of the Speeder lifted and swung back. Inside the Speeder four people emerged, a woman and three men garbed in the simple gray tunics of the Bedouin Military; these people represented a faction with which the earliest Freedom Army had warred, ferociously, not more than five years before.
“Greetings, Captain,” said one of the Bedouins, not looking at the soldier as he pulled himself from the low-slung Speeder. “The Lieutenants Pierce, Storml and Burensha,” he said, bowing, and the other men quickly followed suit as each name was presented.
“This,” said Lieutenant Pierce, the first man out of the speeder, indicating the young woman, “is the daughter of our Brigadier General Thoomass: Kasharra Thoomass, of Tyger Great and Grand.”
“Ms. Thoomass,” said Captain Llewdoarb, bowing.
The young woman stood very still, dark hair pulled tight to the back of her neck, dark eyes curious beneath a beaked cap pulled low on her smooth brow. Tall for a Bedouin, she stood taller than her three male lieutenants — yet Kasharra still looked up to meet the young captain’s gaze. She studied him for many long moments.
Llewdoarb, arching his brows and grinning confidently, opened his mouth to take command, but the woman stepped forward and began to speak.
“I am very pleased to meet you, Captain Timothy Llewdoarb. It was a beautiful run you made last winter — but I think none was more surprised than your own Wolf,” said Kasharra Thoomass — famed Peacemaker between Freedom Army and Bedouin Empire — looking younger than her twenty years, and at the same moment seeming much older.
The captain widened his eyes. He began to speak, stopped, began again, stopped, coughed, and then laughed.
“Thank you,” is what he managed to say, his face going red. He glanced uneasily about him, and bowed again. Then, louder: “It is my honor, lady.”
“This is a highly unofficial visit, Captain Timmy — my father would probably declare official war if he knew of it — but if you could spare us a man or two for an extended tour of your evacuation facilities...”
“...uuh, duh,” said the captain with much-practiced wit, his face flushing again. He turned halfway toward the dugout from where he recently sprouted, then back to the Speeder, then again to the young woman. “I suppose we could arrange something — but it would have to be unofficial, highly, on our part, too.”
“Of course, Captain Timmy. It is well known the anger of your Wolf at the helpful intentions of allies. Perhaps we could visit with him after our tour?”
The captain smiled and for the first time the visitors saw his extremely crooked teeth. And now — instead of the intrepid soldier famed for a suicidal run and success at single-handedly destroying four Battle Cruisers — he was just a tall and gawky man in his early twenties.
He bowed, sweeping his long-fingered hand eloquently, and winked at the ambassador.
“We’ll see what we can arrange,” he said.
“Give him another glass — no, you idiot! Stupid fool! I said another glass! A stinking BIG fishbowl, and full! Yes, yes, you boob! All the way till it slimes over the top like pus from a chancre!” slurred the fat man, his anger transformed to mirth by the end of his speech. He laughed and thumped his young companion on the back as the grimacing bartender filled the huge stein until it overflowed.
“Now drink it, Kewpie Doll, drink it up!” roared the fat man, Francis Ranier. He slapped an affectionate arm about the Rookie Speeder.
The shave-tail rookie slammed the mouth of the stein to his own mouth. The beer drained fast, like water from an aquarium with three sides. The rookie’s eyes went round as the beer gushed into his gullet.
“Faster! Faster, Kewpie Doll, faster!”
But a healthy belch worked its way up the rookie’s throat and tripped over his tongue. Beer sprayed on everyone within a ten-foot radius.
Francis Ranier, the fat man, roared with laughter. He caught the rookie up in a crushing bear hug — the beer stein fell and broke — and he positively screamed his pride in the shave-tail. Two more Speeders, these with single white stripes down their black leather jackets, joined in the maelstrom of beer and laughter. They participated in a short punching brawl, cackling and belching, but sobered when the bartender slammed a gavel down on the bar, threatening to throw them out. The four men from the Freedom Army returned to somewhat more quiet drinking. They made debauchery in the Borderline Zone Bar, where anyone, including the troops of the invading army, could come for drink, playmate or varied other oddities.
Francis Ranier rambled to the younger men a story.
“Wolf and Wally and I were all sitting in the Wolf’s study — I don’t remember if it was morning or night, but I had been drinking a lot, so it might have been dark outside, except in those days I did some drinking in the morning too, so just shut up, it don’t matter anyway, has nothing at all to do with this story — except I don’t know exactly how drink could have nothing to do with any story, let alone any of mine! — anyway, Wolf had on some of those round glasses and his beard was all grown out all shaggy, even high up on his face, maybe about an inch below his eyes; he had both his eyes at this time — duh, haven’t you noticed lately, he’s only got one eye? What idiots with which I drink, anyway fill this up, idiot. We were trying to figure out a strategy to keep the King, rest his scabby hide in peace, from a treaty with the Lordmen, because if he did make peace then his brother, Duke Raymond, would have another weapon to throw at our Eagles.
“Wolf did all the strategies himself back in them old days, just had Wally and me in there to keep him some company. And old Whitey, I suppose. The dumb monk. No, wait, Whitey wasn’t there, because he poked his head in the door a few minutes later in this wondrous tale — so quit trying to get me to jump ahead. Sheesh. Loneliness bothered Wolfo a lot more back then.
“Wally was listening to Wolf, real patient like, nodding his black head and saying truly wise things like hmmmm and yessss or I seeeee like only dear old Wally could, while I was telling some of my best and greatest jokes — did you ever hear my joke on Respect?”
“Yeah, so what about Wolf?” said the shave-tail rookie, a little more than half-drunk already.
“It’s a very good joke, my respect joke, though a little off-color! Ha! Wally would have loved that one! But not you mental conscientious objectors, sorrily — but anyway, um, Wolfo, yes Wally and me were sitting around his big desk and Wolf was looking real dark, extremely wolfish that night, muttering to himself and trying out different strategies on Wally, who kept making those wise noises and nodding all the time. Then someone knocked on the door, and that was strictly against the rules when Wolf was in his study with the chosen ones.
“‘Come in,’ Wolf says, without even showing that who-the-Hell-had-the-balls-enough to knock on his door was probably brave enough to lose his whole a’knocking hand! Well, in comes Whitey, stinking monk, only then Whitey’s hair was kind of salt-and-pepper colored, with a tad more salt than pepper. He’s looking pretty grim, like his mother just died or something. Says, ‘Sorry about disturbing you, Wolf, but we have had some trouble down at the Allkinds Bar.’ That’s what this bar used to be called, by the way.
“‘That’s okay, Samuel. What kinda pissin’ trouble?’ Wolf says. Well, maybe I don’t remember so good how Wolf talked, but that’s close enough. ‘Three of our rookies have been beaten, pretty badly’ — we didn’t ask the skirtman how the hell a guy could get beaten pretty, especially if it was done badly (the rookie at the table laughed and had the drunken audacity to slap Ranier on the back) — but Whitey says ‘and Beaumain has a busted jaw.’ You pipsqueak monkeys know Beaumain, don’t you? Yeah, he’s the slobbering major, been with us a long of a long old time. His little dinker just keeps on dinking, a lot longer than a lot of tougher dudes I’ve known, let me tell you bunch of Kewpie Dolls.
“‘A brawl?’ says Wolf, getting his hairy ass up and taking off his glasses at the same time. Maybe he said: ‘A stinking brawl?’ Something like that. Blah blah blah-dee-blah. ‘No, sir. It would appear that one man antagonized the fight and then that one man tore up our men.’ says the monkey, our famed monk, skirtman, and puckering whitehead, Sammy ‘Whitey’ Mandigo. He doesn’t any more, but he sure used to wear some pretty red dresses, that ole Whitey.
“‘Who’s the man?’ says Wolfo, slipping into his speeder-suit. ‘Apparently a merc of Rettlaw Neslar. He started the whole affair by telling our men that Neslar would be in charge of the Blackguard and that the Eagles would be disbanded.’ Ooh, y’know that’s just not gonna go over big with our furry friend Wolfo. ‘Which of our men threw the first punch?’ says our own Wolfo, a bit of a smile coming that was big enough to disturb his tanglebush beard. Yuck. You think his beard is bad now! ‘Mm, sir, I believe it was Captain Beaumain.’ (Ranier switched voices, making Wolf’s dark and mean and growly, Mandigo’s softly effeminate.) Sheesh. That Whitey. Absolutely no personality. ‘Yes, I thought so!’ says Wolf. ‘Sir?’ ‘Yes, Samuel?’ ‘This Neslar thrall — he is a big man, about six-seven, maybe two-sixty.’ ‘Good,’ comes back the Big Bad Wolf. He’s checking his hair in the window above the desk and now he’s walking lightly to the door. ‘Sir?’ says our favorite dingbat, Whitey. ‘What is it, Samuel?’ ‘This big man. He told Beaumain that he would be waiting on any of our men at the back of the tavern.’”
Francis Ranier’s big body swung back and forth on his creaking chair, moving with the inflections of the story.
“And what did Wolf say?” said the drunken bald-headed rookie, clanging his empty stein on the hardwood table, his excitement mirrored in the faces of his three older, wiser and supposedly more experienced contemporaries.
“Well, Kewpie Doll, Wolf, our hero, he looks at Whitey, and he smiles. A real bona fide shit-eating grin. Ah, what balm to my sphincter. Used to do that quite a bit when we were younger — but by this time he never made it beyond a grin. Was a joke some of the men used to make: When the wolf doth grin it is time to SIN. I think ole Whitey got it from Shakenberry, Shaking Spear, or some sod like that — I think.”
Francis paused to drink.
“Then what happened?”
“What? Are you retarded?” snorted Francis. “I’m telling you a story. You don’t have to ask me then what happened? In a story that’s exactly what you get, then what happened. So, anyway, then what happened is that Wally, Whitey and me follow Wolf real quiet to his Speeder. Oooh, shhhh, tippy-tippy tippy toes!
“‘No,’ he says. We all stand around looking kind of funny until Whitey says let’s go in his Speeder. We liked that. It seems only Whitey, me, Wally and Timmy were ever stupid enough to go against Wolf’s orders.
“Now only Timmy is that stupid.”
“You mean like his run against the troops?”
“Of course, Kewpie Doll,” said one of the Speeders. They all looked back to Francis.
“When we got to the Allkinds Bar, Wolf still wasn’t there. We let Wally drive. None of you knew Wally. He sort of drove like a mad man, on purpose — like a man who’s crazy on purpose. We beat Wolf there and Wolf drives fast — all of you do know that. We went in there and I wanted to go right over and knock the big guy on his big butt; but Whitey says no, we’re going to watch, only. Bet none of you knew Whitey was so sly? Still, maybe I should have done it, because maybe it’s not such common knowledge these days, but I was about the toughest brawler around, even did a stint as a wrestler, then later a stinger, can you believe it? But that Whitey was sly, yes he was.
“Well, don’t tell him I told you,” Francis crooned, blinking drunkenly. “See, this is just the booze talking, not me. Oh no. (Burp!)
“Anyway, we all slink around the milling creatures that used to come in here before the wars and find a nice little table,” he pointed above them at the balcony where there was only a mess of old storage boxes, chairs and pots and junk up there. Then, during the period of time when Francis’ questionably accurate story took place, the balconies had been the choice seating — you could throw things down at men when a good brawl started up.
“I had to throw two guys out, but they were smaller than me, so it was okay. We sat up there and ordered drinks. Whitey got water. Never drank booze since I’ve known him. God, what a waste. Wasn’t it Solomon who said there was nothing better than to get drunk off your ass and enjoy a good woman? Then go out and pound the shit out of some rookies! Doesn’t that sound great! Those have got to be the best things in life. Oh. And petting puppies. I believe it was Solomon who said you should get drunk, have a good woman, and pet a puppy.
“After a while — hey Briban, mind blowing your pipe smoke somewheres else? Never did care for smoke — of course I never minded Wolf’s cigars, but he’d probably kill me if I did. What was I saying, now?”
“After a while,” blond-headed Briban prodded.
Ranier slapped him.
“Yes. After a while,” Ranier said sweetly, then: “what?! Idiot! What is the question! Oh, that’s right, after a while we hear the noises of the crowd get louder. We look over and in strides Wolf, his boots all polished and a long black cloak over his shoulders. He looked like a giant. Even without that patch, which everyone thinks makes him look frightening, he looked pretty scary. Ooh, booga-booga-booga. Scared ya! Admit it! You made pooky in your pants, didn’t you, Kewpie Doll! But Wolf looked hard, you know? Like he wasn’t skin and muscle and bone — but more sculpture, clay or even bronze. Everyone in the place goes quiet —”
“— everyone and his brother,” laughed the bald-headed rookie.
Briban knocked him in the ribs with his elbow.
Francis gave the rookie a hard look, but realized it was his own fault for sopping the kid. He smiled and felt real warmth inside for the kid. Looks a lot like me when I used to wear my noggin like that. He continued his story.
“Everyone and his brother gets real quiet. Moves out of the pit where Wolf is standing. You can’t see Wolf’s hands or arms; they’re hidden in that big cloak. I asked Wally if he thought Wolf had a weapon. Wally shook his head a little bit, never looking away from the pit.”
“That rhymes,” snorted the rookie. “Bit — pit! Pit — bit! By my TIT!”
Francis laughed and shook the kid by the neck with one of his meaty hands.
“Then through the smoke we can see where Wolf is looking. At the back of the pit there’s a little table. Behind the table is the big guy. And boy is he ugly! His head is as bald as yours, Kewpie Doll, but it’s about as big as the three of your heads together. But what’s really nasty is his shoulders! Unholy son of a bung. Seriously, he’d have to turn sideways just to get through a normal kind’a door.”
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