Part 1 of 8 – 900 Words
This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.
The door to Crot’s Hole Tavern crashed open. “Milton! Get yourself over here!” The shout sounded a long way off as though called across many miles. Ambroys blinked and tried to clear fog from his head. Yet his eyelids held only visions of the dead and his ears rang with bloodied screams. He forced his eyes open and held them that way.
His midnight blue tabard was torn, drenched, and soiled. His mouth was gluey with thirst and his knees wobbled making each step a ponderous, rickety affair. How long had he wandered Umbra Morass before finding Reaper’s Fen? How long had he laid in the dirt at the edge of the village before he had been found?
“Well don’t just stand there gawking! Make yourself useful, boy! Come give me a hand with him!” The voice belonged to an elderly halfling man from the village–Anton, wasn’t it? In response, the barkeep came hustling over still dressed in his morning clothes. He threw Ambroys’s left arm over his shoulder and together the pair led the beleaguered man to a tall-backed armchair by the hearth. Despite the heat, Ambroys shivered so violently that the chainmail beneath his tabard rustled. He gripped the chair’s arms until his knuckles went white trying to force order back into his limbs.
While Milton scurried off to find something fortifying, Anton pulled a blanket off the back of another chair and wrapped it around Ambroys’s sopping wet shoulders. Anton’s face was gouged with the furrows of age all twisted in a mask of grave concern beneath a halo of bushy gray hair that ringed his bald head. He rubbed Ambroys’s arms with the blanket trying to get some warmth back into the hulking soldier’s extremities.
Milton returned with a pitcher of water and a glass of whiskey. He laid both on a small table that sat near the chair and took an uncertain step back, openly gaping at the disheveled, mountain of a man. His guileless features flapped between shock and confusion. Ambroys offered a thin smile and nod in thanks before lifting the pitcher and guzzling the cool water within.
“Thank you kindly, Milton. Maybe you’d be good enough to fetch Candle Ozzen. Go on. I’ll keep an eye on this one,” said Anton. He gave Milton a reassuring wink and pulled a halfling-sized stool next to Ambroys. The barkeep bobbed his head and retreated for the door.
Once he had disappeared into the dishwater gray light of the morning, Anton turned back to Ambroys and gesturing to the whiskey said, “Down the hatch, boy. Ain’t nothing in this world that’ll chase off a night in the Morass like a good stiff slug of the Fen’s finest.”
Ambroys lifted the glass to his lips stopping just short. His hand was still shaking. He took a long slow breath and then quaffed the amber liquor. It seared all the way down, but Anton was right. He felt a little better for the burn.
“There’s a good, lad,” said Anton with a smile that spread all the way to his wrinkled eyes. He patted Ambroys on the knee and then pushed himself up off the stool. His joints creaked as he did, but no glimmer of pain showed on the elder’s face. He strode behind the bar and helped himself to the whiskey jug and another glass. Upon returning, Anton filled both their glasses and then settled himself back down on the stool placing the jug on the floor next to him. The pair sipped their drinks in silence.
When at last Ambroys had stopped shaking and the color had begun to creep back into his face, Anton took a long pull from his glass. He ran his tongue over his lips and said, “I turned one hundred and sixty-seven years old last month. I’ve lived in Reaper’s Fen my whole life and, let me tell you, I’ve spent more nights in the Morass than I’ve had hot suppers.”
Ambroys shot him an incredulous look from the corner of his eye. Anton smirked and continued, “It’s true. I’m a trapper by trade you see. Point is I’ve seen things in that swamp that would scare the stripes off a skunk. They used to keep me up at night, them things I’ve seen. That is until I learned that the secret to mastering fear is to name it. Why naming a thing will wring the terror right out of it!”
The halfling leaned close to Ambroys. Ghosts drifted through the hollowness behind Anton’s eyes and Ambroys lost any doubt that what the halfling had said was true.
Anton reached out and laid his knobby knuckled hand on Ambroys’s knee. “You want to try naming the things you saw? You want to try wringing the fear out of ‘em?” The halfling’s hazel eyes were wide and warm.
Ambroys nodded with slow solemnity and swallowed hard. He took a sip of his whiskey and swished it around his mouth before letting it burn its way down his throat. He’d never had a taste for the stuff before but this morning it might as well have been liquid gold.
When he finally spoke, his voice rasped like wind in the desert. “My patrol was already dead when it came,” he said. His eyes glistened in the orange firelight, dancing with ghost all their own. “It swept in from the dark like the wrath of midnight.”
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