Mikhailsburg was placed on the Eastern outskirts of Portal City, isolated but still well connected. Sebastian knew they were getting close when he noticed people watching them from behind distant dunes. Another minute’s walking and Mikhailsburg revealed itself. It was a wooden manor with an imposing, faux crenulated facade, and no ground windows. It had a barbed wire fence, a ditch and a watchtower defending it.
A squad of guards met them a hundred metres from the entrance.
“State your purpose!” The leader, a scarred black man, asked.
“We’re here to collect the bounty for Ansar,” Sebastian said. “The poster directed us here.”
The man glanced left and right. “Look man,” he said, dropping his voice, “If you haven’t got the real Ansar, I’m giving you this one chance to turn around. I’ve had to mop up the guys that try trick him.”
“We’re legit,” Sebastian said.
“Okay,” the guard said. “It’s your funeral. We will escort you to Mikhail.”
Jax hurried up so he was right behind Sebastian. “What if the hole in his waistcoat angers him? What if Ansar’s decayed so much he can’t be identified?”
“What if, what if?” Sebastian replied. “We want the bounty, don’t we?”
“The Casino Platinums are five hundred water standard each! What’s one hundred more?”
Sebastian turned and looked him in the eyes. “In the desert? One hundred more days of life.”
The escort took them up to the front door of the manor. It was a two door portal, ten feet high. It carried a sense of dark foreboding. The guard knocked once, a loud booming noise. One door swung open on creaky hinges. The room beyond was dark and dank. The guard motioned them in. Sebastian entered first. There was the faint scent of desert steel in the air.
He was in a musty entrance hall. Bars of light shone in the dusty air. Shadows moved in the far distance. A low muffled noise hummed in the woodwork and twisted Sebastian’s gut. The rest of the group stepped in behind him. They all stood huddled right by the doorway.
“Too spooky for me,” Pauly said. The guard entered behind them and shut the door. Its slam had a disturbing finality to it. The guard pushed past them.
“Follow me,” he said.
They did just that until he ushered them into a waiting room. A threadbare couch, scrounged from some Portal drop presumably, had the pride of place. A small coffee table with tawdry gossip magazines was a jarring addition of normalcy in what was feeling close to a demon’s lair.
“Wait here,” the guard said, shutting the door. It locked with a loud click.
Pauly picked up one of the magazines. “‘Twenty-one tips on keeping your haunted house of horrors hip,'” he read. “‘Torture devices for the young professional.’ Yecch. Is this place creepy or what?”
“Is it?” Tanaka asked. “I hadn’t noticed.” He went over to the sofa and lounged in it like he owned the place.
“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” Jax asked.
“We’ll see,” Sebastian replied. “Put Ansar on the coffee table for now.”
They did. He made a more appropriate decoration than the magazines.
They waited. A bloodcurdling scream made them all jump. They laughed nervously and waited some more. A squat man entered through the door opposite to the one they’d entered. He was middle-aged, and had a round, creased face. Another guard followed him at his heels. His arms were red with blood up to the elbows.
He smiled amiably. The guard carried in a shallow bowl of water. He rinsed his hands off on it, dipping them in and shaking them dry. The guard left and hurried back with a towel. He rubbed the excess blood and water off his arms. He smiled again.
“Terribly sorry about the wait,” he said. “Had an especially stubborn man to work on. I am Mikhail.”
In the light, Sebastian saw that Mikhail’s face wasn’t just creased. The heat of the lightning strike had melted his face half off. Rubbery pink skin clung to his skull. One eye was white and unseeing. Lichtenburg figures, fractal scarring from the electricity, ran down his neck, under his shirt and across his arm. He was a horrific figure.
“Hello Mikhail, I’m Sebastian,” Sebastian said.
Mikhail put out his hand. “Put her there.”
Sebastian stared at the arm, his mind working. He took it and shook with no sign of disgust. “We got Ansar.”
Mikhail smiled. “Ooooh, yes, yes. Is this him here?” He crouched over the corpse. It was decayed and dried up, but the clothing and some features were still there. Mikhail kissed the corpse, wet and loud. “That’s him!” He crowed. “You got him!” He danced a jig. “Fifty water standard he stole from me. Worked for me for months, then turned. This’ll be instructive for all those who try follow in his footsteps.”
“Our reward?” Sebastian asked.
“Of course!” Mikhail said. “Never let it be said I don’t give people their dues. Is US dollars fine?”
Sebastian nodded. Mikhail fished the right amount from his pockets. He paused with his hand just above Sebastian’s.
“Where’d you find him?”
“You ever meet Gwendolyn and Timmy?”
“Short, baby faced boy, tall red head. They might have gone under another name.”
“Sounds like Jack and Jill. They got lost after Dune’s End. Only met them briefly.”
Mikhail nodded. “They’ll probably stay lost if they know what’s good for them.”
He dropped the money into Sebastian’s hand.
Sebastian stood there, rigid.
Mikhail doddered around the corpse, muttering to himself. His hands traced lines along the desiccated flesh. He drew a sharp knife from his belt. When he looked up and saw they were still there, he looked surprised.
“You can leave now. Take the stretcher with you.”
They left slowly, like one does backing away from a growling dog. Once outside Sebastian let out a massive sigh of relief.
“That place was desert steel, man,” he said.
They walked towards Portal City along a more regularly trafficked route. Once they were well clear of Mikhailsburg, they stopped. Sebastian lay on his back, trying to see the stars through the blue veil of the sky.
“I’m going to give Ansar a grave,” he said at last.
“Arslan,” Pauly said. “His true name was Arslan.”
“‘The Lion’?” Sebastian said, raising his eyebrows. “Oddly appropriate.”
Sebastian took the stretcher, once a door, and pried its boards apart. Then with some twine he tied one board to the other, making a rudimentary cross.
“Do you think he was Muslim?” he asked. “He was some kind of Turkic Russian, right?”
Pauly shrugged. “I can’t recall.”
“Or Orthodox?” Sebastian continued. “Their cross is different.”
“It’s fine, Sebastian,” Tanaka said. “In a good deed, intent is worth as much as outcome.”
“Yeah, like Hitler thought he was doing good killing all those Jews,” Jax laughed dismissively.
Sebastian jammed the cross into the earth. There was a solid hard dirt here, not light sand. He hammered the top until it was dug two feet into the ground. It had been human height before, now it reached up to Sebastian’s stomach. He pulled out his knife and scratched deep into the wood ‘A R S L A N’. He sat back. Everyone contemplatively stared at his work. It had a strange solidity for such a frail piece of wood in a temperamental desert.
“He never actually killed anyone, you know,” Pauly said. “Just threatened to a few times.”
“He was a slippery son of a bitch, that’s for sure,” Jax said.
“He was so calm and fearless,” Tanaka said. “He had a hero’s heart, but a rogue’s soul.”
“His poetry was shit though,” Sebastian said.
“What say it of a man,
when there’s a smile on his death mask?
Is he brave? Is he a fool?
What do his dead eyes see?” Pauly recited. “I think that was his best one.”
“Hmmm,” Sebastian assented, staring at the cross.
“There’s one thing I don’t get,” Pauly said. “He told me he stole four hundred and fifty water standard, but Mikhail said he only stole fifty.”
“Maybe he lied,” Jax said. “Empty boasts are plentiful out here.”
Pauly ignored the subtle jab. “He never made empty boasts. I don’t think he had reason to, either.”
Sebastian laughed suddenly, making everyone except Tanaka jump.
“What?” Tanaka asked.
“I figured it out,” Sebastian said. “He did steal four hundred and fifty water standard.”
“How?” Pauly asked.
“The bounty,” Sebastian said. “He was never going to let himself be taken alive and be tortured by Mikhail. By having us kill him, he ensured the bounty went to us, outsiders.”
“Thus robbing Mikhail of another four hundred,” Pauly said, understanding dawning on his face.
“Screwing over your enemies even in death,” Tanaka said. “That’s hardcore.”
“That’s desert steel,” Sebastian said. “He was the real deal.”
He reached forward and carved on the vertical plank so the cross now read: