The drink flowed well during the banquet, and even better afterward. Many participants favored a local ale that had an aroma of cinnamon and beer. The JuJu berry wine was even more popular; Drake thought it looked like cherry Kool‑aid, but it smelled and tasted like bitter apples. The first swallow burned the throat but only briefly; it was fermented of the same berries that Drake had been given earlier as a pain killer.
In distilled fermented form it not only stopped all pain, it usually produced a state of mild euphoria accompanied by various entertaining hallucinations. The drug stimulated the pleasure and memory centers of the brain to the same extent that it tranquilized the pain center. It was not unusual for an intoxicated Rauder to engage in conversation with unseen guests. Occasionally a Rauder would even strip off his or her clothing and engage in passionate sexual activities with their invisible partner(s). Though it was taboo to take advantage of a Rauder in such a state, it was considered fair sport to watch and to laugh. The laughter was usually so uproarious as to break off the drunken illusion, leaving the poor Rauder naked and bewildered by the laughing crowd.
Drake’s fourth tankard of JuJu berry wine had failed to bring on the promised euphoria. Oh, he was feeling no physical pain. But as the wine eased the tight controls that bound up his mind, increasing feelings of mental pain and anguish spilled through, making Drake more morose; and in a vicious circle, more eager to down another tankard to get rid of the pain.
Drake was nursing his fifth, hand wrapped securely around the hollow horn cup, his consciousness having narrowed till he had clear awareness only of the smooth hard cup. He was not yet willing to surrender that final bit of reality. The pain, the real pain deep in his gut and inside his head, was almost finally drowned when Paul walked over and sat down next to him. Paul had a round hole in the middle of his forehead, and it stared at him like a third eye that had been plucked out. As Drake watched, tiny worms began to crawl out of the hole. Paul smiled.
Drake dropped his tankard, heard it hit the table, roll and fall to the floor. He screamed and lurched to his feet, legs banging against the table, spilling drinks and food on several irritated Rauders. Paul kept on smiling, the splashing wine and ale going through him without leaving a stain. Then he bent down, picked up Drake’s tankard, and stared at it wistfully.
“I would have liked some wine, Drake. But you screwed that up royally.”
Drake backed away. “You’re dead. You’re dead. I shot you myself, dammit!”
Paul moved his hand up to his forehead, feeling the hole. He crushed the worm, pressing and grinding it into the bone around the rim. Drake gagged, looking at the brown and yellow pus and at the flattened rubbery body of the worm that hung now like a flap of rotted skin from the edge of the hole.
Paul nodded. “Yes, you shot me Drake. Clean kill. Just came by to ask you one question, then I’ll go and leave you alone.”
Drake was dimly aware of several Rauders staring at them, but he ignored them. “So ask your fucking question, you goddamn corpse!”
“Why?” asked the corpse. “That’s all I want to know. Why did you kill me?”
“You know why! I had to kill the one of you that got the fewest of the enemy soldiers. It was the only way to maintain fear and discipline!”
Paul spat on the floor. It was blood, not saliva, and it oozed its way across the floor towards Drake. “That’s bullshit. You were so busy that there’s no way you could be sure who killed the most or the least.”
“Kratia was watching. She saw who was doing the killing. She told me that you had the least. She told me that you had to die.”
“Great,” moaned the corpse sarcastically. “Trust the lives of your men to someone else. Just follow orders, and expect absolution for your sins.”
“No, it wasn’t like that.”
“Well, you’re not getting any absolution from me, you fucking wimp! Taking orders from that whore like you’re a puppet on her string. Hey, Pinocchio! Dance some more! And if you’re good enough, maybe…”
“It was the only way we could win! Kratia told me ‑“
“…Kratia will even turn you into a REAL little boy! But for now, if she…”
“ – that I had to do it. And something in my mind agreed with her.” Drake paused, frowning.
“…cut your strings, you’d fall like a lifeless hunk of wood. Or perhaps mindless is a better word than lifeless?”
“And something in my mind didn’t agree at all,” Drake murmured.
“Then why did you do it?” said Paul. “Do you often kill your own men? How often? How many?”
“It’s stupid to shoot your own men!” Drake shouted. “A team grows by trust and respect, not by fear. I’ve never, never shot one of my own men. As an object lesson, it’s doomed to failure.”
“Why did you shoot me, Drake?”
Drake stared at the dead mercenary, sixteen fucking years old. Barely old enough to shave. His whole life should be ahead of him. At the least, his death should have been with honor, in battle. Not a shot in the head from his own commander. Drake’s fear disappeared, replaced by a growing rage.
“That bitch Kratia made me do it!” he yelled, banging his fists onto the table, and shaking the plates again. “She got into my brain and messed me up. Turned ME into a fucking zombie!”
Drake looked for Paul, but saw only the staring faces of a dozen Rauders. None were laughing.
He glared around the room. “That slimy whore’s gonna pay for that! No one messes with Drake and lives. NO ONE!” Drake left the banquet area and stomped off to find Billy. If the ninja had a clear mind, then there might be a chance to set some things right.