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  • Writer's pictureMissMortuary

Chapter One

Updated: Feb 16

The last thing Spade remembered was the fist that knocked him out. By the time that punch was delivered, Spade had been kicked, slapped, and beaten until he tasted blood.

He shifted, his bones creaking as pain shot from his jaw and down his neck. He opened his eyes, vision blurred but gradually returning. He only remembered the fist that crashed into his face and knocked him out; the rest of his memories were scattered impressions he struggled to piece together. There were the noises that seeped into the alley from the main street: drunken hollers, raucous laughter, and the echoing of booted steps on the rough brick road. He remembered the moment his body crumpled. His hands fell, palms up, useless to protect him from the onslaught of fists and boots.

 Blood and tears trailed down his cheeks, creating a mixture that dripped from his chin and speckled his fingers. Was that when he started crying, or had he been crying the whole time? The pain had grown distant, still overwhelming but he felt nothing. It was as if his skin had turned to rubber. He could no longer distinguish between one punch or the next; it all bled together like the blood pouring from his mouth and ears.

As he lifted his numb, listless gaze, he saw one last thing before the punch that knocked him senseless. Cold eyes stared back at him, belonging to a face hollowed by lifelong starvation and cruelty–-Dral, the leader of the Youths, a boy barely older than Spade at seventeen. His broad, muscular frame towered above Spade as he lifted his fist, fingers clenched, ready to put him down.

Dral cracked each knuckle, bone-cracks punctuating his words as he said, “You should have just killed him, you know. It wasn’t worth it. It never is.” His fist connected with Spade’s face, and his gums burst. Blood spewed, and his brain rattled. Then, it all went black.

Now Spade woke, consciousness returning but confusion setting in. Where was he? Streams of morning sunlight cut into the alley, stinging his eyes. He winced as a foul odor overpowered his nostrils. A black mist buzzed overhead. As his eyes grew used to the light, he saw it was a hoard of flies. They descended, their little spindly legs walking across his skin. He trembled, his nerves waking, the pain returning.

What was this strange comfort embracing his body? He lied on something soft, not unlike what he imagined a mattress to be like. He turned his head. A pale face stared back at him, its stringy hair long enough that it cushioned Spade’s head.

“H-help! Help!” The words tumbled from his lips, weak at first. He managed to lift himself onto his elbows, sinking back into soft flesh. He realized where he was.

Another memory from the night before fell into place. At the end of the alley had been a cart full of corpses. The corpse cart. Hardly a rare sight in Hells Gate; the place was a shithole with not enough space for all the dead in the street. Death was a common occurrence, and only the dead that were significantly missed received last rights and a funeral. The rest ended up on the corpse cart, ostensibly to be burned later–but more likely to rot.

He touched his swollen cheek where a bruise had blossomed. His flesh remembered the shock of pain that shook his mind from his body. Tears coursed down his cheeks. He crawled across corpses, dead fingers brushing his face as he rolled off the cart.

He never hit the ground, instead collapsing into the warm, muscular arms of someone who was very much alive. Spade stared at his face in relief. A friend: Coren.

Coren spoke, and with every word Spade could see the hint of dimples at the corners of his lips. Whenever Coren had reason to smile, his dimples flashed with full effect. Then, he was not smiling. “Hell of a night, huh?”

Spade shook Coren away and dragged himself to his feet. A deathly odor clung to him. Flies buzzed around his ears, lingering even as he stood. “What? You here to say you told me so? Don’t bother, I fucking get it.”

With a sigh, Coren rested his hands on Spade’s shoulders. Like many others, he was larger than Spade, and his hands engulfed him. It was usually an annoyance, but in that moment, Spade found the gesture comforting. “I’m sorry, Spade. I’m so sorry.”

Instinctually Spade drew away, but, deep down, he was glad to see Coren. If he had anything left in him to feel, he would cry, but he had used up all his tears. He stared numbly, bags stark beneath his eyes.

Coren waved his hand in front of Spade’s face. “Hey now, don’t pass out on me again, okay? You really need to stay awake. You might have a concussion.”

“What, you mean my brain is bleeding?” He touched his temple and pain resonated from his fingers. The world appeared to him as a surreal haze. Was this a side effect of the beating? Or was he still unconscious somewhere and dreaming all of this?

Coren snapped his fingers in Spade’s face. “Don’t do that. Come back to me, Spade.”

“I’m here. I’m fine.” Spade recognized that his own voice didn’t even sound real to himself. He struggled to keep his eyes open.

Coren wrapped his arm around Spade, steadying him as they left the alley behind. “I meant it when I said you had a hell of a night. I swear, I’m not going to say, well, I told you so, but guys like Dral do this to people. The gangs around here kick the shit out of other gangs, and when they run out of enemies, they turn on each other. You’re lucky I found you.”

They walked into the open street together. People loitered, some already drunk and stumbling. Shops opened for the day, propping open doors to clear out the musty air. It was the kind of hot day that fried the very air, and the sweltering heat caused slick, sweaty foreheads and pits. A man took off his shirt and buried his face in it, wiping away sweat that would soon return. The corpse cart in the alley emitted a rank odor. The smell of death and life mingled; this was the Gate, a place where the living and dead wasted in the sun.

“I should have done it,” Spade muttered. “Everything would be fine if I just gutted the kid.”

“A kid?” Bleary as he was, Spade did not miss his friend's disgust. Coren’s fingers tightened, gripping his shoulder. “This is all because you wouldn’t kill a kid?”

“I didn’t, though. I let him go–and now look at me.” Spade spat as if to punctuate his regret. He ran his tongue across his teeth. Although he tasted the metallic flavor of blood, all his teeth seemed to be in place.

“You did the right thing. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but it could be way worse. A beating is nothing compared to guilt.”

Spade would rather feel guilty than hungry, but he could hardly muster the energy to disagree. He narrowed his eyes at Coren and tried to focus on anything but his pounding head.

Coren wore an apron crisp with dried blood. He hardly ever washed it, allowing layers and layers to accrue. From the smell, Spade could tell that the bundle tucked in his free arm was scraps of meat, the parts of the animal too impalpable to even sell. He was a butcher’s assistant; a butcher of animals, not people. This distinction was important to Coren, but Spade questioned why it mattered. What was the difference when Hells Gate’s thriving guts trade meant the whole place was a meat grinder? Human guts were the most lucrative product around. They could be torn out of human beings, packaged on ice, and sold to wealthier parts of Petrone or to the other city-states. The guts business never failed to turn a profit. In many cases, it was the only way to make any money at all.

When Dral showed Spade the child, small and terrified, Spade first thought of how many kraks a young and healthy liver was worth–but when it came time to take the knife and harvest the product… Spade choked. He couldn’t do it. He thought he was numb to those sorts of feelings, but as the child begged for his life, remorse hit him. He threw the knife on the ground and faced Dral, muttering that he couldn’t go through with it. It was a moment of weakness, the biggest mistake of his life, and not one he would ever repeat again. At the mercy of those fists, Spade learned the hard lessons that only violence could teach.

The two boys rounded the corner to the street that led to the orphanage, Coren’s loping gait leading the way as Spade trailed behind, withdrawn. Crossing into a narrow alley, they returned to the orphanage, their home away from work. The old building crumbled more everyday, its dilapidated structure and flaking white paint evidence of its cheap government-sponsored construction. Only two pillars stood strong, holding up the roof of a porch so small it couldn’t even keep out the rain when they sought shelter beneath it. The pillars were gray concrete and had never been painted,  no more than heavy slabs that held up collapsing shingles.

Spade pounded on the front door, practically shaking the whole building. “Hey, old woman! We’re back!”

As the door opened slightly, a woman stuck her face through the crack: Belsey, the matron of the orphanage. Many of the children in her care died or simply never returned home, but it wasn't entirely her fault. She cooked breakfast and dinner whenever she was able, usually a pot of stew made from scraps that older orphans like Coren brought back, staving off hunger for another day. 

The heavy lids of her eyes usually drooped apathetically as she peered at Coren, but at the sight of Spade, her mood soured, her voice pinched with disgust. “What do you want?” 

The scent of her cooking wafted through the crack, enticing Spade to shove on the door. His stomach rumbled at the reminder of food. “Let us in!”

She glared at Spade, wild strains of dark hair escaping her bun and frizzing along the sides of her face. She pushed on the crack, ready to lock him out.  “Why would I do that? I’ve heard what you’ve been up to, who you’ve been running around with. I’m surprised you’re not dead.”

Spade grit his teeth. If not for the pain in his jaw, he would have had something biting to say. As it was he swallowed his words and managed through clenched teeth, “Please? I need to see my brother.”

“Your brother?" Belsey scoffed. "Since when did you care? You’re never here! You don’t do any sort of sensible work. You run around with killers. Little shits like you are the reason the Gate is such a miserable place! If you're so intent on wasting your life, die already! We don't have room to waste on the dead.”

Spade’s fist tightened against the wall, inches from Belsey’s face. “Who told you that?”

Belsey pressed her face through the crack, her eyes so wide they seemed as if they might pop. “We all see it, Spade. You run around with Dral’s boys, let him tell you what to do. You always return home bloody. I’ve found the knives in your cot. You’re a guts cutter.”

Not anymore. The pounding in his head did not relent. Spade swallowed hard, pushing past the shame and disgust of last night. “What does it matter? I still bring kraks home, don't I? " Belsey scowled but did not argue. "What do you want from me?”

She looked him up and down, gaze tracing the blotches of bruises up to his swollen face. Her thin lips curled into a smirk.  “They turned on you, didn’t they? They beat you up. That’s what you get for lying down with dogs and wretches.”

Anger swept through Spade, his muscles tensing, but he knew better than to hit this woman. She was not the reason his body ached to move or pain shot through his jaw every time he spoke. But she was preventing him from seeing Knight, and he wouldn’t stand for that.

Coren adopted a smile meant to soothe Belsey’s ire, the dimples around his mouth making him seem all the more affable. “Why don’t you let us in? See, I brought some food.” He held up the bundle of meat, soppy with juices. 

She regarded them for a moment longer, eyes lingering on Spade, before the door opened fully. She took the bundle from Coren, cradling it with more affection than she did the babes upstairs, and scurried back to the kitchen. Coren gave his friend an awkward smile before heading upstairs to the bathroom. Spade begrudgingly followed the scent of food.

Despite the orphanage's dilapidated state, the kitchen was big enough to staff at least a dozen. Spade had always wondered if there had ever been enough food in the Gate to reason a kitchen that large, but found it unlikely. 

Belsey set the bundle on the counter and unwrapped it, the light from the window catching the sleek shine of congealed, lukewarm fat. Spade tilted his head; it was no different than the guts he'd carved out of the poor fuckers Dral tossed his way. Mostly, those bodies were Dral's enemies, rivals from other gangs, but this last time had been different. 

He stared at his hands, eyes shining. I couldn’t kill the kid.Why? The thought of his brother crossed his mind.  

A wet rag hit Spade in the face, plopping to the ground as his surprise turned to outrage. Belsey didn't spare him a glance, informing him in a matter-of-fact voice, “Go out back and clean yourself up. There’s a barrel of water. The Black Hearts are here.”

Spade’s ears perk at the sounds radiating from upstairs. The thudding of big boots and the scraping of furniture gave away the presence of the rowdy guards occupying their limited bedrooms. 

“Great,” he said. “Where are we supposed to sleep?”

Back turned away from him as she busied herself with the pot, Belsey didn't respond. It was larger than usual; Belsey usually only brought this pot out for holiday suppers, or–

The food wasn't for them, Spade realized. Even if it were, there would hardly be any left after the Black Hearts gorged themselves. There would be no beds tonight, either, their cots occupied by grown men with the authority to put them in the streets. The guards would always say they had a very serious matter they were investigating in the Gate and that the orphanage was a crown-sponsored establishment they were authorized to commandeer. Spade would like to see the kind of asshole cruel enough to authorize their bed-stealing.

There were already more orphans than places to sleep. At night the children packed into the bedrooms, the majority sleeping on the floor, elbows jabbing the arm of the next child. There was hardly room to walk and no such thing as privacy. These conditions motivated any orphan old enough to flee to the streets to find work. But like everything else, work was scarce, and Spade had often returned home empty-handed after spending the entire day aimlessly wandering, unemployed, and very broke. The Youths seemed as if they would be his big break, but he was wrong. Here he was, covered in filth, smelling of corpses and still broke. Another dead end.

"Fuck," Spade breathed. The pounding in his head wouldn't cease. He slammed his fist against the wall. "Fuck!" 

He hated the Black Hearts. Every time they visited, orphans would have to sleep in the streets, bodies shivering, listening to the bawdy laughter ringing inside. Belsey enjoyed her role as their gracious host, carousing with the men, emitting peels of careless laughter.

Spade's burst of anger drew Belsey’s attention. “Don’t use that kind of language. Show respect, especially with the Black Hearts here.” She paused, tone softer. “They’re the only ones that will save us from degenerates like you. Filthy murderer.

Although he was far from cold, Spade’s fingers trembled. He couldn’t even work up the nerve to rebut her, to say that he wasn’t a filthy murderer. She was right. As much as he hated Belsey, she spoke the truth. Even the worst things people said about him were true.

“Don’t let them know what you are,” she continued. “I don’t want them to think this orphanage houses criminals. We could lose our funding." Belsey chopped the fresh meat Coren brought and mixed it into the stew. "They’re here on official business. They’re cleaning up the Gate.”

Spade bit back his remark. Official business? He’d heard that before. The Black Hearts would have everyone believe they were very important men, totally unlike the gangs that prowled the streets of the Gate. They were the arm of the crown, enforcing the King’s will by maintaining order and justice in Petrone, but especially in the Gate. Everything they did was technically official business, but this was only a technicality. In reality, they were jackboot thugs, worse than the Youths. They did what they wanted and took whatever they desired. No orphan stood a chance.

“Fuck you and fuck the Black Hearts,” he snapped, fists shaking, heart racing. Belsey opened her mouth to respond, but Spade cut in, “Where’s Knight?”

Belsey dropped pieces of meat into the pot without responding. 

“Where’s my brother? You know, Knight? The one who looks just like me. The sick one. You know him, you old bat.”

Her shoulders stiffened, the only evidence that Spade’s words affected her. “Those men upstairs are the only ones who care about the Gate. I see it everyday; boys and girls like you who turn to lives of degeneracy and sin. Do not get in the way of better men.”

Spade imagined lunging at her, but that would only prove her right. Memories returned to him in flashes. A kick in the side, a bite to his shoulder, a punch to his face. His bruised cheek pulsated. The pain was all he could think about.

"Smells great, Bels!" Coren's voice rang out behind him, causing Spade to start. "Save me a bowl tonight, alright?"

Belsey waved him off. "You smell like death. Get out and don't come back 'till you're cleaned up."

"Aye, aye, ma'am." Coren gave a poor salute, but Spade remained where he was. He still needed to know where–

Someone tapped lightly on the kitchen window. Spade saw Knight’s pale face through the glass, looking ghostly even in the sunlight. The pain relented at the sight of his brother, relief washing over him.

"Evonry help you," he caught Belsey muttering to herself as he grabbed the rag and rushed out the door. "Evonry help us all."

The streets were a sight to behold. Children, all from the orphanage, lined the road. Many had already left to find day jobs or trouble, leaving only the youngest behind. These small stragglers drew close to one another. To the passerby, they might as well have been homeless urchins, and there were plenty of those in the Gate. The crown funded orphanages and other institutions like it–food banks, homeless shelters, and employment centers–but the relentless tide of discarded and lost children could hardly be contained by a few orphanages. Waves of the hungry and needy passed through Hells Gate’s charitable institutions, but their numbers never decreased. Spade agreed with the sentiment he so often heard loudly echoed over drinks: The crown did not give a shit about them, and their charity was all for show. The most cynical would always add that the suffering of the Gate was by design, that somehow it benefited the royal family for them to be so hungry and destitute. 

Spade had seen the royal family before from glimpses he caught through the window of a laundromat with a forever-on tv. The king with his eerie blue eyes, impassive and uncaring as the glass eyes of a taxidermy trophy. The prince, the guileless pampered idiot in his father’s shadow. Lastly, the now-dead queen and mother of the prince, rumored to have been murdered by the king himself. He remembered how she appeared with her family, chin down, clasping her son’s hands in her own. One day she disappeared, and the details of how and why were never officially revealed. This didn’t stop people from talking, and it was one of the stories the drunkest of Gate laborers loved recounting: the tale of the murdered queen and the king who covered it all up.

Knight trotted over to him before Spade’s foot even hit the sidewalk. “What happened? Where have you been?”

Coren gave Knight a weak smile, clasping his shoulder with brotherly affection. “It’s fine. Spade’s safe now. He–” Spade threw him a look, silently begging that he not reveal how harrowing the night before had been. “Well, he’s with us, safe and mostly sound. We should be grateful.”

Knight knit his brows in disbelief. Coren stepped back, pointing at the street over his shoulder. “Look, you guys talk about this, okay? I brought him back, and that’s the important part. Now I gotta get back to work before the boss flays me. I left when I got word that Spade was in trouble, but I can’t stay here all day.”

“Who told you I was in trouble?” Spade said.

This elicited a faint grin from Coren. “Mia told me. You know her; my boss’s daughter.”

“She’s dating Dral,” Spade replied. He knew firsthand how jealous Dral could be, but Spade could never dissuade Coren when he wanted something.

“Clean yourself up and be more careful. There’s only so much any of us can do,” Coren left them with that warning before he made way down the street.

Coren wasn't even across the street before Knight began his interrogation “What happened to you? Is that blood?” 

Spade brushed him off, walking behind the orphanage to a narrow alley. A high wooden fence separated the area from the neighboring building and a barrel of water rested against the back wall. He wet the rag and wiped his face.

"I'm fine."

Knight gave him a deadpan look.  “Have you seen yourself?”

“I got into a fight. So what?” Spade glanced into the nearby window at his grimacing reflection. He saw the reason for Knight’s concern. Blood caked his face, now dry and flaking, layered over blue bruises. The beating last night disconnected him from more than his senses; he barely recognized the sight of himself. Even the glazed look in his red eyes seemed to belong to a stranger. 

Those strange red eyes. According to the superstition, they marked him for a cursed life. They were the mark of Aroth, the God outcast from the heavens. Bullshit, that’s what Spade thought, but his red irises changed how people saw him, whether he liked it or not. 

“Why won’t you tell me what happened?” Spade could hear the exasperation in his brother's voice, but beneath it was anxiety. Fear. Knight wore his habitual expression of worry. As his twin, Knight’s face looked very similar to Spade’s, but there were differences. Chronic illness wasted Knight’s body. With no muscle to fill out his flesh, his skin hung from his bones. His brown hair had started to thin, falling from his head in clumps as he tossed and turned at night. In the morning, he would wake, sit up, and stare at the piles of hair left behind in tears. Spade always snapped, “It’s just hair. ” He knew that Knight only needed some kindness, perhaps even a few comforting words and a hug, but Spade could never give him these things. He'd tried–but after fifteen years of the same, at the sight of Knight’s tears, Spade’s heart turned cold. 

I do everything for him. Spade took another look at his own battered face: at the sallow, deathly countenance staring back. Everything. He had nothing left to give.

Spade rubbed his face. “It’s nothing, Knight.”

Knight sighed, mirroring Spade’s frustration. “Why do you smell? It’s really strong… like a corpse.”

“I always smell. Are you happy? Drop it.” His voice dropped to a near-growl–the sort he used to intimidate others–but it never worked on Knight. His brother flipped him off and Spade splashed water onto his face and body, washing away streams of filth. He intentionally kept his back to Knight.

After a long moment, Knight gently asked, “Are you okay?”

The water trailing down Spade’s face resembled tears. “Does it look like I’m okay? They beat the shit out of me, threw me in the corpse cart. I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t remember much. I guess it’s coming back to me, but fuck, I wish it didn’t.”

Knight’s eyes grew wide. He touched his brother's arm only to be brushed off. “Spade, I’m so sorry, I… I can’t believe it. How could they do that?”

Spade rolled his eyes at Knight’s naiveté. “Yeah, well, stuff happens. Can’t run with the old crew anymore. They’ll kill me. So, I gotta figure out what we’re eating and where we’re sleeping tonight. Do you know what a pain in the ass that is? And all because that uppity bitch and those jackboots kicked us out.”

“It’s always so sudden,” Knight said with an unhappy nod. “They showed up last night while you were gone. Apparently they’re looking for conspirators. We slept in the street; we didn’t know where else to go, but Coren stole a blanket. It wasn’t that bad.”

“It’s fucked,” Spade hissed. “You’re not sleeping in the street tonight. Now stay here while I figure this out.” He finished cleaning himself off, tossing the rag on the side of the barrel. 

“I always stay behind. Can’t I help?” Knight followed his brother down the alley but struggled to keep up.

“No, you’ll only slow me down.” Knight was weak. Worse, he looked weak; like an easy target for the kind of crowds Spade had to join to get anywhere. It was better that he stayed with the other urchins. There was safety in numbers. At Knight’s pathetic look, Spade tried to reassure him, “Look at me. It will be okay. Trust me.”

Trust? It was a lot to ask. Spade hoped he could deliver, but one look at Knight’s withered expression dampened his hope. Regardless, he would have to try so that one day they would never sleep in the street again.

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