The conversation stuck with Jason. He was not the sort of person much given to introspection, at least not when it came to his own thought process. This may explain why it took Jason so long to realize what bothered him about it.
He considered the issue while Operative Grave escorted him to the police helicopter for the next step on their tour of the city’s more important locations. So wrapped up in the unaccustomed process was he, that they had been in the air for quite some time before he realized that their flight had actually taken them out of the city, to the east.
Hector was already present when they set down. Five of him were arrayed in a loose circle, in full gear, while a sixth had split off to approach Jason and their superior. Jason stepped out of the helicopter and gave his friend an absent minded greeting, ignoring the odd look on Hector’s face. The site was somewhat underwhelming.
They were near a simple two lane road, clearly under-maintained, that stretched from east to west. Behind them, Phoenix was still visible while there was nothing of note in the other direction. To either side, there was sand, broken here and there by a tuft of grass.
The one thing that stood out was a circle, the same one that most of the Hectors were surrounding, facing out. Its inner portion was more of the same sand, the border a foot high stone wall. It began about a hundred feet from the road and continued another hundred feet out. Between the two, there was a series of dirt mounds, at least twenty but probably not much more than that.
The dirt was fresh and, combined with their size and shape, it made them fresh, unmarked graves simple to recognize.
“The Challenge Circle.” Operative Grave said, breaking him out of his reverie. “It’s an old Battlegrounds tradition. When someone decides he’s tough enough to take the city from a Lord, he shows himself at one of these. Eventually, the Lord shows up, they fight, and before long the minor lords and the rest of the city find out who’s in charge.”
“What happens if the Lord fails to appear?” Jason asked.
“Depends. Could mean the Lord thinks the challenger isn’t worthy. He’ll either agree and back down, flee the city, or go on a rampage to try and draw the Lord out. Could also mean the Lord doesn’t think he stands a chance and he’s the one that fled. Then the challenger can just move in and take over.”
Jason considered it for a moment. “How does the challenger know which is the case?”
Grave shrugged. “Judgment call, not exactly something Battlegrounders in general, and lords especially, are famous for. More than one new Lord has done a fair bit of damage to his new city before realizing it actually was his new city.”
“That seems messy.”
“You’ll find that most Battleground traditions are. At least this one’s useful to us. Means that when someone decides to cross the border and come after us, we can fight em here instead of in the city. Keeps loss of life and collateral damage to a minimum.”
It did not take Jason long to think of the obvious peculiarity. “What of the one you fought yesterday? Reaper.” He suspected that Hector was already familiar with both the answer and the explanation behind it. Jason chose to ask anyway.
“Recent trend, and not one I like. Over the last seven years or so, more and more challengers have been bypassing the Circle. Most of the time, they pick somewhere else to pull the same thing. City Hall and the police department I operate out of are the two most common. Rarer, but getting less so, they pick a spot they like and jump me without presenting themselves first. Worse, a few just skip straight to the rampage.”
“Why the change? If it is a long standing tradition… There must be some reason to abandon it.”
“Stainless.” Hector interrupted.
Robert Grave nodded. Jason did not recognize the name. “He’s… well, I wouldn’t say he’s a new Lord, not exactly. He’s been around for at least five years that we know of, maybe a bit longer. The problem is, he’s breaking all the rules.”
“Rules like the challenge circles?”
“Yeah, exactly. His method of challenging is generally to murder the city’s Lord in their home, along with most of the minor lords. Add to that, he’s branched out, got at least twelve cities under his control. Given that they’re more or less evenly split between the east and west borders of the southern Battlegrounds… well, its a pretty safe bet that he’s got more.”
“Just how bad is this?” Jason asked.
“Bad.” Operative Grave nodded toward the piles of dirt. “Those are all the Lords I’ve killed here. About half are from the last two months. Whatever he’s doing, it’s got the other Battlegrounders terrified. They’ve been jumping ship at the least sign of trouble, not actually that weird, but instead of running to another city in the Battlegrounds, they’re all heading to Border cities.”
Jason thought it over for a moment. “So, this phenomenon is escalating. We should expect to see more of Reaper’s ilk, likely soon.”
Their superior left Hector and Jason alone for a short period after their conversation. It seemed he had something he wished to discuss with the helicopter’s pilot. Hector, once more wearing that odd expression, took the opportunity to ask Jason a question.
“The bank, why?”
“I told you Hector, I simply needed to open a new account.”
Hector shook his head from side to side and released a heavy breath. “Jason… no, that’s not what I-”
Jason smiled. “I apologize. I was attempting to make a joke.”
Hector’s eyes widened slightly. “Jason- That’s… actually kinda funny, especially for you, but also really inappropriate when you’re talking about something where people died.”
“I know they died, Hector. I killed them.” Jason couldn’t quite keep a little bit of irritation from seeping into his voice. He’d spent enough time talking about this already and- Ah! That was it.
“I want to know why you killed them.”
“I could say it was to protect the others at the bank. If I had demanded their surrender or attempted to subdue them, it is very likely that someone else might have been harmed in the ensuing struggle.” Hector nodded. “However, the simple truth is that I did it because I was irritated.”
Hector’s expression changed. Jason was not sure what it had been or what the new one was -they were both quite odd- but he was certain that something had changed.
“Do not misunderstand me, the tactical reason would have been sufficient. I fully believe my actions were justified. However, I had been standing in line for quite some time. I was bored and their interruption irritated me. That is what was at the forefront of my mind at the time.”
Hector spoke very slowly. “Would you… still have killed them if it wasn’t justified. Was… would the irritation have been sufficient in and of itself?”
Jason did his friend the courtesy of considering his question rather than giving his reflexive answer. “No, Hector. I would not have done it from irritation alone. I know the value of a human life and I am aware of the consequences of my actions.”
“Good. That’s… good. Thanks Jason.”