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Sins Of Humanity
by Rune Lai


Emergency! Emergency!

The cry went up all over Aiedo in the middle of the night.

Emergency! All available hunters report!

Faith woke to the distant sound of Dask's voice as his partner pounded on the front door. "Wake up! We've gotta move!"

Confused, though oddly still sedate due to his sleep-fogged brain, Faith roused himself. He groped for his shirt and pants, slung over a nearby chair, and managed a muffled "I'm coming!" as he tumbled out of bed, tangled in his sheets. With a curse, and now wide awake, he got to his feet and grabbed his clothes. It took a moment for him to dress, then he used the foi technique to create a ball of fire in his hand. With its light he found his sword and the last thing he never left home without, an amber pendant shaped like a teardrop.

"Faith! Hurry up!" More pounding.

He slipped the pendant's gold chain around his neck and dashed from the bedroom. His cloak, a new one of black cloth since a meta slug had destroyed the last one, was on the coatrack and he slung it around his body as he opened the door.

"What the hell is going on?" he demanded.

Dask's face was grim. "The hospital at the end of town has been taken over by bandits. They're using the patients as hostages."

"What? Why?" The hospital, specifically that one at the edge of town, was not a place for treatment of the physically injured, not a place where people took their loved ones to be healed. "Why not the mayor's? Or somebody with influence?" It was an asylum, a place for the abandoned. Only the well off could afford to pamper a non-working member of the household. The rest, the ill, the disabled that no one wanted or could care for, wound up in there where they subsisted on whatever handouts the city could afford.

"I know," said Dask. "It looks like they wound up there just out of bad luck. They botched a robbery or something and holed up there when they couldn't escape. They reportedly have guns with them."

"Guns." Those weapons were relics of an ancient civilization that used to live on Motavia. No one knew much about them, except the bits and pieces the occasional archeologist would find. For these bandits to have found a working gun, no, more than one, was incredible. He had heard that those weapons could kill a person as far away as five city blocks. "And someone's rousing every available guild memebr to fight them?"

"Not just someone. Neal."

Neal served as the elected head of the hunter's guild and as the voice of their community when necessary. He had no real power except as a figurehead, but most people liked him enough to do what he asked. Neal had never been a demanding leader.

Until, perhaps, now.

"I'm not saying I won't do this, but since when did Neal take it in his head to volunteer the lot of us? Are we even getting paid?"

Dask shrugged and turned to go. "I don't know. I figure we can worry about that later."

"I guess..."

The two of them arrived at the hospital to find a barricade of hunters and the militia formed in a ring around the building. Torches, placed atop poles at regular intervals, provided some small amount of illumination of the area. The asylum was in terrible shape, a dilapidated structure kept just sturdy enough so that it wouldn't collapse at a moment's notice. Most of the building's windows had been boarded up, as likely to keep the inhabitants in as any intruders out. The worn slats probably could be broken in a hurry if necessary. It wouldn't have been among Faith's choice of places to make a stand, but necessity chooses what it must.

"Hey, guys! Glad to see you could make it!" said a cheerful voice.

Faith turned to see Neal walking towards them. The older hunter clasped hands with Faith and Dask. He was in his mid-forties with scraggly brown hair and a pair of glasses that made him look rather academic for the head of the hunter's guild. Local legend had it that Neal had spent one too many assignments underground ferreting out monsters from their burrows and eventually his eyes couldn't take the strain anymore. Faith didn't know how much truth there was to that, but he did know Neal rarely took assignments anymore and they were always above ground.

"Why are we doing this?" asked Faith.

"How could we not?" Neal's grin looked absurd against the gravity of the situation.

"If you mean the morality in helping someone in need, I understand, but isn't this something that the militia would normally handle? We don't fight in an organized unit. We're hunters!"

Neal nodded. "That's true, but," --he looked at the hospital-- "the militia doesn't know how to handle something as complex as this. Hostages, bandits, and ancient weaponry all in one building? Hunters are used to thinking creatively. The militia is not."

Faith groused. "And who's picking up the tab for this?"

"The mayor has promised us a fair amount, but you realize that split between all the participating hunters it won't be more than a token payment."

"You're actually keeping track of who's here?"

"I know who's out of town on assignment: Gage Kippler, Mark Rawles, Alys Brangwin, and so on. The rest?" He shrugged. "The guild isn't that big. It won't be hard to go through the registry and figure out who didn't show."

And with that Faith had to be content.

"I have a special task for you," said Neal.

"Whatever it is, we can handle it."

"Actually," --and a look of amusement crossed over Neal's face-- " the two of you won't be working together on this one." Neal did not seem to notice the looks of disbelief on the two hunters' faces. "Because of the amount of people involved I'm dissolving the usual partnerships. I know Dask is a slicer user and I need anyone with a decent range attack to stay here. Faith, you're going to go hunting."

* * *

Faith actually wasn't the only hunter given that assignment, but true to hunter fashion, he carried out his part alone. Neal sent out hunters to scour the surrounding desert for the bandits' lair, to see what they might have been after and what kind of equipment they might have brought into the standoff with them. Several witnesses confirmed the bandits had at least one firearm, but Neal wasn't taking chances on what else they might have or how many. He sent out the hunters singly, in pairs, trios, or whatever they felt most comfortable with and armed each with a telepipe to use the instant information was found.

The sky was still dark, without a hint of sunshine, when Faith left the protective walls of Aiedo. The starlight usually provided enough light to guide by, at least for short distances. Faith stuck to the roads and carried a lantern with him, unlit for now, but he would use it once he found something.

The bandits had come at night, which meant they would have to have known the local area reasonably well in order to find their way in the dark. Aiedo rarely had trouble with robbery because of the hunter's guild. Anyone could easily place a bounty on a bandit's head and someone would go for it. These people, whoever they were, evidently thought themselves hidden well enough the guild would not be able to identify them after the robbery. Or, they were stupid. But he did not like to think that stupid people had obtained guns. He had never fought against a person with a gun before, but he had heard about the weapons. They were tubes of metal that either shot metal pellets or a blast of light, similar to the thu technique. Either one moved faster than a person could dodge. The best way to avoid being hit was to avoid being targeted in the first place. In close quarters such as the hospital, the bandits would have the advantage.

Packed dirt crunched beneath Faith's feet as he thought about how best to search his designated area. The farmlands on either side of the road were parched without crops. The recent drought made for tough times in a land where few plants grew to begin with. People had complained many times at the town hall in recent weeks, but there was nothing to be done. The mayor couldn't make it rain and the individual wells in the city were not designed to help irrigate fields. Fortunately the city had some food stored up, so any crops lost this season would not be missed as much as they would have otherwise.

"Aw, hell," he muttered. "I don't even know where to start looking."

Even if the city was up in arms over the bandits, the countryside wasn't. He hated to bother someone before the sun rose, but he tried to justify it by telling himself that farmfolk were early risers anyway. He picked a farmstead at random and knocked on the front door.

Several minutes passed before a light appeared in a room on the second floor. Faith watched it travel further in, disappear, and then show up against downstairs. A moment later, a young woman opened the door. She held up a lantern to shine the light on Faith's face.

"Yes?" she asked him.

"Sorry to bother you this early in the morning. but we're having a crisis in Aiedo right now and we really need the cooperation of the farmers on the outskirts around here."

"What happened?"

"Bandits."

"Oh. Well, come on it. Keep your voice down though. The children are sleeping."

"Thanks."

She showed him in and set the lantern on a table as she gestured for him to take a chair.

"So, you're from the militia?"

"No, I'm a hunter."

"I thought you looked strange for a lawman. What brings a hunter into civil service?"

Faith, still sensative about the subject, wanted to snap that he was only doing it so he wouldn't come off as a total jerk, but he swallowed his irritation and said, "Everyone is being pressed into service, even the hunters. A group of bandits have holed up in the hospital at the edge of town. Yes, that one. They've taken the patients hostage and we think they've gotten hold of some ancient weapons, which is going to make prying them out of there even harder. We have reason to believe that the bandits have been in the region for a while. They might not have been active before now, but they still might have left some trace of their whereabouts. Have you or your family noticed anything unusual lately?"

She shook her head and sank into the chair across from him. "No, though, now that you mention it, we're missing a bushel of grain. My husband was very upset about it because of the drought. The weather's usually good enough that we don't need much in the way of backup supplies. Missing the grain won't starve us, but it will mean a smaller plot next season."

"Could I talk to your husband about it?"

"You'd better not." She sighed. "He's probably heard us talking already, but he hasn't come down. He doesn't trust anyone from the city anymore. It's the drought, you see. Everyone in the city seems to be carrying on as normal, but we're not. We pay crops as a part of our taxes, and its based on the size of the farm, not the size of the yield. During good times that was not so bad. Even the small farms produced more than enough. But now... We need those crops. We haven't the meseta to purchase back what they take in taxes and the mayor isn't listening to us.

"I don't want to sound cruel, but I don't think my husband is inclined to help right now, not until his own needs are taken care of."

Faith nodded. "All right. Thanks for your time then. I'm not sure how long this standoff will last, but if you hear anything soon, let the guild know."

He managed to visit a few more homes before the first aura of daylight peeked over the horizon. The story was much the same; no sign of bandits. He couldn't avoid hearing the disgruntlement rampant among the farmers though. No one was outright hostile towards him, but they plainly did not want to help the townsfolk, who they felt would not help them in return.

Faith honestly couldn't see why Aiedo couldn't give them some of the crops in storage. They didn't have much, but it was something. The weather would improve eventually. Dry spells, while often unexpected, were not unheard of, and it always got better. But then, Faith never paid much attention to politics. Maybe there was another reason for this.

Too much time had passed, and he despaired of finding anything when he spotted something in the shadows of an open barn. Someone had been careless. He stepped inside, took a look around, and backed right out. Something was in there all right. Something fine and grainy, and he wasn't sure what. It didn't look like crops though.

Faith fumbled with his lantern under the starlight and lit a foi technique in the palm of his hand. As he did, he saw just what the powder was out of the corner of his eye. Parmanians rarely used it, but the Motavians often did in their mines. Crackdust, they sometimes called it, packing it deep underground to blow out chunks of rock in their search for titanium. Parmanians had another name for it.

Dynamite.

The flame disappeared from his hand as quickly as it had appeared. He'd better report back.

Faith raised the telepipe to his lips and played the tune for Aiedo.

* * *

He arrived in time to feel the force of an explosion knock him off his feet. Members of the militia scurried around him, hauling civilians in tow and darting back for more. He first thought to ask someone what had happened, but the smoke billowing from the hospital told him all he needed to know.

People flowed around him, surreal in their flight away from their homes and businesses. Aiedo was wide awake now if it wasn't before. He could see the hunters ushering people away. The hospital looked on the verge of collapse, a chunk had been blown out of the walls. There was some screaming, but it couldn't have been from there. Faith was still too far away.

He ran there, jostling his way through the crowd. People shouted at him, but he pushed through to what remained of the security line. By the time he reached it, few hunters and militiamen remained. Most civilians had sense not to run in this direction. Those that didn't were quickly herded away.

A hand grabbed his arm. "Faith! What are you doing here?"

It was Dask.

Faith shook his head, still trying to gather his wits. "I came back. I had to warn you guys, but..." He sighed, looking at the damage. "How did this happen?"

"We got in a fight," said Dask. "There was only one gun in there. I don't know how Neal figured it out, but once we realized that we tried distracting the guy with the weapon while the militia tried sneaking in on the other side." Dask grimaced. Blood stains shone on the blades of his slicers, held closely together in his free hand. "We did manage to disarm the man with the gun, but we didn't realize that was not all they had with them."

"The dynamite," said Faith.

"I gather that was what you meant to warn us about. Honestly, I didn't think they meant to use it. They took quite a pounding from our first assault before threatening to toss it out the window at us. We pulled back, but there seemed to be some disagreement within the group of them. Then the blast happened."

"What about the patients?"

"The what?"

"The hostages! Is anyone still inside?"

"I'd assume so. I haven't seen anyone..."

Dask did not get to finish his sentence. Faith lunged for the hospital only to be yanked back by his partner's arm.

"What the hell are you doing?" Faith demanded. His eyes blazed like twin fires.

"That building's going to collapse at any moment! Are you crazy? Neal's orders are not to let anyone through until we get the area evacuated, or haven't you noticed that there are still civilians running around here? After that, then we can use our techniques to try shoring up the building."

"I haven't forgotten, but look. If I hadn't noticed the dynamite I wouldn't even be here right now. You can do without me. I can't just leave those people in there. They might still be alive!"

"Faith, we're doing all we can."

"No, we're not," he said coldly. "Let go of me."

"I'm not going to let you hurt yourself..."

Faith tried wrestling his arm free, but Dask caught a fistful of his shirt in his other hand. The two men grappled, Faith pushing and Dask holding. He didn't know Dask would work this hard against him. Dask was always the straight arrow, always the one following orders, but damn those orders! There were people in there! If there was just one person alive in there, one person he could save...

Faith remembered pain. He remembered the people on whom others had given up; the sick, the rejected, the weak, the kind most no longer cared about. He became a hunter to help people. He would not give up! Someone had to help them, or no one else would. Faith could feel himself growing dangerous.

"I'm sorry, Faith, but I think I'm going to have to..." Dask broke away, raising his hand to cast a technique. Faith already knew which one. Rimit. Dask meant to paralyze him.

He reacted, arm coming up, mental forces gathering, as his mind focused the internal energy intrinsic to the casting of a technique. Zan. A vacuum formed above Dask, powerful and strong. It pulled him up into the embrace of the whirlwind, circled him once, twice, and flung him back to the ground. Dask landed headfirst with a crunch, body tilted at an odd angle from the neck.

Faith froze, horrified. Dimly, he was aware of the other hunters, the remaining members of the militia, gathering round, staring at him. He took a step forward, mechanical, as though to help his partner, but he had seen enough death during his years as a hunter to not recognize a corpse for what it was. The damage was beyond what even the rever technique could heal.

His partner. And he had... No. He couldn't think about that now.

Then, one thought emerged above the rest.

The hospital.

If he could do one thing it would be this!

Without another moment's hesitation, Faith dashed inside. The building smoldered, more smoke than fire, and the floor crunched like kindling beneath his feet. He wrapped his cloak about himself as protection against the soot and ash and pushed on. He could hear crying, babbling, somewhere above him. The hospital, at two stories, was not very large. The bandits, no, farmers, had been upstairs from what he remembered of the initial standoff. But with the explosion and subsequent weakening of the building, the second floor would no longer be safe-unless they couldn't come down, or someone wouldn't let them. The first explosion already showed someone's disregard for life.

Faith found a staircase. The explosion hadn't weakened it as far as he could tell, but the smoke upstairs looked even worse than down below. He covered his nose and mouth with the folds of his cloak and crept upstairs. His eyes watered and the smoke was almost unbearable, but he followed the sounds of the sobbing. He passed by things in the shattered hallway of the upstairs that he cared to forget; remains of those caught by the blast, now dead from the smoke or their wounds. Careful, lest the floor disappear beneath him, Faith crept on all fours to the one room where he still heard sounds of life.

He found a battered door and fumbled for the knob. Softly, he opened it and slipped inside, shutting it behind him.

The windows were open in this room, the smoke not so bad. Faith could not stand, but he could see. More corpses littered the room, these dead more from the cuts of a blade than burns of a fire. In fact, only three of the bodies in this room still seemed to be moving. A woman and a man huddled in the corner of the room, one wild-eyed and the other catatonic, and a lone man crouched opposite of them, several sticks of dynamite roped together under his arm. In one hand he held a sword, raised as though to keep the other two at bay.

This man looked at Faith, saw that he was alone, and scowled. "So," he said, "the city finally decided to sent someone in to talk? A little late for that seeing as how all my friends are already dead and those of us still here are going to be dead soon enough. I don't give this blasted place more than a few minutes."

"There's still time to get out of here," said Faith. "I just came up the stairs and they're sturdy. You and the patients can get out of here alive. Dying isn't going to solve anything. Come outside. I promise you'll be treated fairly."

"No," said the man, and Faith noticed he was rather old to be a bandit of any kind. He should have been home marrying off his children, not cowering in a room with the insane. Blood leaked out from a raw wound in his side. He would not live for much longer without treatment.

The man shuddered, clutching the dynamite. "If I leave here nothing will change. I'll be arrested, but the city won't listen unless something terrible happens to it. They have to realize that they can't ignore us."

"Lower your weapon and put the dynamite down. Please," said Faith. His voice was harsh from the smoke and his eyes watered. "You can let these people go. They've done nothing to you. Holding them hostage has done nothing for you. Surely you see that."

"I'd be just as happy if they'd leave, but I don't think they can and I'm not about to help them out the door."

"They may be ill, but this isn't their fault. This isn't fair to them."

"No, it's not fair," the man snapped. "You call your stupid government fair, but they don't care about us or them. Open your eyes, man! Do you think there is justice in this world? That everything has to be fair? I'll bet you don't even know why we're here!" He trembled then, his energy spent, but he still cradled the stack of dynamite.

"We're farmers not bandits," said the man. "And we only wound up here because we tried stealing back our crops and failed. Taking hostages seemed like the only way we might get out free, but I bet they don't tell things like that to soldiers like you. And even now, you didn't come here to negotiate. You just want the hostages. You don't have anything to offer me. The city values the leeches of the mental ward above the livelihood of its farmers!" He shook his head. "I don't blame you, but I can't let you win because I can't go back home, and no one else is left. If I don't hold fast, nothing'll change."

The smoke grew worse, and Faith knew their time was running out. "Why can't it?" he asked. "If it was so bad, why wouldn't the city cut you some slack?"

"Would you have? Knowing that if you helped us it would mean you would have to ration yourself? We were told we should've kept our own stores, that we're just being lazy and not trying hard enough, and that we couldn't back out of our taxes. Yes, maybe we should have stored more, but that does nothing to help us now! We need to eat!"

Faith coughed, but the air was so dry. "Let me try to change that then! I don't want anyone else to die today and I don't think you do either!"

The smoke was unbearable now and Faith was sobbing on his hands and knees in front of a desperate and dying man with a bomb in his hands. Did he come all this way to die too? Was Dask... for nothing? He couldn't believe that. What was wrong with people? What was wrong with being human?

He heard the man stir. Faith could barely see through his heat-scorched eyes, but it was enough.

Despair had made the man uncaring, but his pain would be their pain as well. The dynamite he held had been lit and cold fear set in the depths of Faith's gut.

No! No. I can't let it detonate! Too much pain already... He thought of the people outside, expecting the building to fall, but not like this! Were the hunters and militia standing far away enough? Someone... help me. I don't know if I can do this. Please...

And someone, or something, answered.

Power filled Faith. It was unlike anything he had ever felt before. Winds swirled about him, but he, he controlled them! This was not a technique, drawing on the mental prowess of the user. This was something else, something from outside his body. Something primordial and alien.

Trust in it. Faith knew what to do.

With a shriek, he hurled the wind at the dying man, whose gaze turned to horror as he looked upon Faith's face. The gale tore the dynamite away, leaving breathless the man who just held it, and battered down the door to the exit. Hurtling through the hospital, the wind smothered the flames, cast back the smoke, and swirled into the sky above. Its careful parcel, now extinguished and harmless, landed with a mild thunk amidst the hunters surrounding the building.

* * *

Faith did not remember passing out, but he came to while it was now morning. The patients were gone. So too, come to notice it, was the roof of the building. Did he do that? Still with him was the corpse of the farmer turned bandit, face frozen in fear. Somehow, Faith knew that the alien wind had not touched him, but he could not rid his mind of the expression on the man's face.

He heard steps behind him and saw Neal flanked by several hunters and members of the militia. They regarded him grimly, jaws set and weapons drawn but not raised.

"Faith Tragon," said Neal, "I am placing you under arrest for the death of Dask Lungred."

As the hunters moved to bind him, Faith just nodded and bowed his head. It was done. He had followed his heart and it lead him here.

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