by Robert Currer
Part 4 of 4 – 1800 Words
Wheezing, Harlow shuffled toward the cellar. SK cocked what passed for an eyebrow on his rind face. He had never bothered to go down there. By all description it held only a well and food stuffs, none of which held any interest for the Scrap Knight. What could be down there that was so important?
Harlow mounted the stairs and waved SK to follow before disappearing into the gloom below. With some small hesitation, the Scrap Knight walked to the steps. They were wooden and empty. A heavy curtain hung at the bottom blocking the rest of the cellar from view. SK descended the creaking stairs, step by groaning step, tendrils of unease taking root in his belly.
At the bottom, he pushed the curtain aside and what he saw dropped his jaw. A large, ornate lantern hung above a crumbling well from the pulley where the bucket would have been. A brilliant, translucent flame swayed behind the glass casting the whole of the cellar with a pure, clean light. Harlow stood next to the well peering over the short, decaying wall.
His eyes lingered for a moment before he lifted his head to address his guest. “SK, I’ve been at this post for a long, long time. Nearly all of it alone. I don’t mind telling you that you’re the best friend I’ve had in many a long year. I want to show you something before you go. Something that I have not shared with anyone. Ever.” His dark eyes grew watery so that they shone in the sanitized light. He looked back down into the well and beckoned with a gauzed hand. “Come stand by me and see.”
The Scrap Knight hesitated. Suddenly, he was feeling very naked without his sword or sickle. “What’s down there?” he signed but Harlow was not watching.
The unease in his belly grew into a ball of heavy roots and SK forced his feet into small, deliberate steps craning his neck to see what might be in the well. When he reached the edge, he looked down to find a smooth line of clear blue water with something dark floating near the bottom. The surface rippled unnaturally, and the Scrap Knight realized it was not water at all but a massive ooze that filled the depths. As the jelly quivered, the dark mass rose towards the surface resolving itself into a suspended corpse, slowly dissolving within the acidic slime.
“I’m sorry,” whispered Harlow. He shoved SK into the pit with both hands.
The Scrap Knight screamed soundlessly. He plummeted into the writhing gelatin landing on his back with a sucking, wet thop. His eyes howled in pain as acid ooze blistered the flesh on the back of his head. Worse, his body was sinking into the thing and finger-like pseudopods sprouted from the surface tugging him closer to complete envelopment.
Harlow had disappeared, but SK could hear him rummaging through something not far away. His windy voice carried down the well. “I had hoped you would want to stay but I can see now that what we had was nothing but dust in the wind to you. After everything I’ve done, you would throw me away like trash!” These last words came like blown gravel as he slammed something wooden shut with a vehemence that echoed through the cellar.
Low and tight like a breeze bottled into a canyon, he said, “Despite all that, I’m not sore. I’ll keep you here close to me and bound to my very soul. I know you’ll soon come to realize you never meant to leave. In your heart, you know you would never abandon me!” His voice rose into a shrill tempest of its own so that the air above swirled, rocking the lantern.
The Scrap Knight clenched his jaw and pulled against the sucking ooze with all his might until pop! An arm sprung free. Roots, hunting moisture in the desert, had begun to break through the well wall widening the gaps between the stones and he dug his wooden fingers into the soft earth they revealed. His eyes flared with crimson rage as inch by inch he dragged himself free of the searing jelly. He was halfway up the wall, red smoke curling from his eyes and mouth, when Harlow reappeared.
The tempest whipped at his loose garments peeling them back and unwinding the gauze that wrapped his arms and calves until he loomed bare chested at the precipice of the well. His emaciation was more pronounced below the neck such that his grey, unwholesome flesh hung on his bones like a sheet. Harlow reached across the void and opened a door on the lantern. From a pouch on his belt, he withdrew a powder like the one he used for the signal flame, but which smelled of fresh grave dirt. He tossed it into the lantern. The clear light turned aquamarine and flared. It built in intensity until the very frame of the lantern trembled like a kettle come to a violent boil.
It was then that the Scrap Knight understood why the storms never ended, why that grey putrid flesh never healed. Harlow was no lonely watchmen, risking the madness of isolation for the good of his people. He was a lich feeding on the poor souls who wandered the badland’s roads. He was the evil in this land!
A keening wail detonated from the ooze below as the dissolving body trembled as if dragged to the surface by some unseen hand. Its howling, terrified soul was ripped from the trapped body and sucked like blue ether into the lantern’s dancing flame. Harlow ran his withered tongue over cracked lips in satisfaction.
“Don’t worry. There’s still plenty of room for yo—Ah!” Harlow swallowed a startled cry. The Scrap Knight, blazing with fury, had gained the lip of the well. He grabbed Harlow by the belt and ripped him from his feet. Harlow tumbled headfirst into the ooze below.
The Scrap Knight scrambled over the wall and peered down long enough to see Harlow pulled below the surface. Harlow’s dead lips were sheered back into a crazed grin, all teeth and malice. SK snatched the lantern from its fixture, raised it high above his head, and dashed it against the side of the well. It bounced harmlessly off the ancient stone.
A deep, burbling guffaw rumbled up from the pit rattling the stones and dislodging dust from the rafters. “Thought you were rid of me, did you?” An enormous gelatin claw emerged and gripped the side of the well caving in a section as it pulled its colossal bulk over the lip. The Scrap Knight skuttled backwards, clutching the lantern to his chest, just as Harlow stepped onto solid ground. He was wearing the ooze like an immense suit of armor. Clad as he was, Harlow had to stoop to keep from scraping against the low ceiling. Dust stuck to his moist, undulating shoulders.
Eyes like yellow moons, SK scrambled for the stairs. As he whipped around the banister he slipped, falling to his knees. One of Harlow’s slime claws shot toward him stretching the ooze arm to impossible proportions. The Scrap Knight found his footing and leaped up the stairs. Behind him, the steps exploded spraying splinters of wood as SK charged toward the surface.
Out of the cellar, he swung his head around unsure where to run next. Outside, the electrical storm raged with lightning strikes closer and more numerous than they had ever been before. There would be hordes of undead prowling the night, ravenous for blood-hot meat. It made no difference that he had no meat to give. They would tear him apart searching for it just the same.
SK set his jaw and dashed toward the door. Maybe all that was true and maybe he could stay ahead of the dead. But, if he stayed here, destruction was a certainty. He would take his chances among the zombies and ghouls. Oaken fingers grazed the door handle and then were ripped away as a jelly fist closed around his waist. Harlow flung SK into the far wall with the speed of a whip crack. The lantern bounced from SK’s grip and went skittering across the stone floor. Any breathing creature would have had the wind knocked from him at the least, but the Scrap Knight recovered before he hit the ground. He rolled to standing and sprinted toward the lantern.
Harlow’s jelly arm stretched for the aquamarine light. Fat fingers poised to envelop it. A chair exploded against the back of his hand knocking it away. The Scrap Knight hurled the splintered pieces at Harlow even as he kicked the lantern. With a sloppy roar that drowned out even the rolling thunder, Harlow grabbed the Scrap Knight by his chest, hoisted him into the air, and slammed him down into the sandy flagstones. SK could feel his wooden bones straining nearly to the point of snapping as the lich crushed against his chest.
Harlow lowered his face to SK, his wet eyes boiling with triumphant mania. “Poor little knight, can’t scrap your way out of this on—agh!” Harlow screamed as SK jabbed his twiggy fingers into those hateful, wet eyes. The ooze grip slackened for hardly a second as Harlow clutched his eyes with his other hand. But it was enough. The Scrap Knight scrambled on all fours toward the lantern. With a desperate lunge, he knocked it into the signal fire.
The translucent flame turned midnight blue as the lantern’s metal boiled. Harlow shrieked a waning, wheezing whine and clutched at his chest. The ooze armor melted away from him into puddles of drying slime. Harlow’s grey flesh blistered and bubbled until a million needle-like beams of aquamarine light burst from him in every direction. He writhed and shrieked a sound like a choir of a hundred rending souls. The Scrap Knight clutched his head, screwed his eyes shut, and curled into a ball.
When the corpse that was Harlow went mercifully still, all the world grew quiet. Even the thunderheads hushed and drifted away abashed. The Scrap Knight pulled himself carefully to his feet, his joints creaking like a ship at sea. After a few tender steps, he collected his things and prepared to leave this horror behind. At the door, he stopped. Harlow’s camouflage cloak still hung on its peg. SK waivered for only a moment before wrapping it around his own shoulders and stepping out into the first rays of a clear sky morning. He had earned it after all and there was no telling what he might need chasing the dawn.
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