by Robert Currer

Complete Story – 6000 Words

Sword out, a skeleton clad in strips of rotted leather charged down the dune rise, riding the tumbling soil like a wave.  Rivulets of sand still streamed from the hate filled ocular voids of its ivory skull.  It keened but the howl was swallowed by a boom of thunder so close that the very earth quivered.  The Scrap Knight sidestepped the wild arc of the rust flecked short sword and swung hard with his own notched sickle.  His tattered, canvas poncho lifted from his sides as he spun like a soiled blossom.

With a crash, the skeleton was no more.  Moldering bones scattered to the wind and not a moment too soon.  Cracks of violet lightning were pounding the wrinkled hillsides for miles around with increasing ferocity.  From each of the impact sites, ancient bones dragged themselves from the soil.  They clattered like spilling dominoes as they assembled into hordes of the hungry dead. 

Far too many gathered on the bunched slopes to think of slipping by unnoticed.  Though the Scrap Knight could move with uncommon quiet when he wished, the randomness of their roaming stacked the odds against him and very soon their numbers would swell so that even a single encounter would attract a lethal swarm.

The Scrap Knight paused but a moment, weighing his options with icy composure.  Danger gifts clarity to those who would receive it and the Knight was open to any and all charity in his present predicament.  A single path laid itself before him: retreat and hide until the storm passed and the dead became ornaments upon the sand once more.

He backed cautiously away from the spill of bones keeping his eyes on them in case their animus had not completely extinguished.  They did not stir but he was in no mood to take chances.  He stooped and swept up the dead thing’s sword before turning toward a promising outcropping. 

When he was nearly to the piled stones, his jog slowed to a walk and then to a hunched stalking stride.  He circled the mound scanning left and right, up and down for the smallest tingling of threat.  Purple lightning struck the hills all around, but none struck here.  His circuitous path instead bore fruit in the form of a tight, dark opening that hinted at a hollow beneath the mound.  With any luck (not that he ever had much luck) there would be room enough for him to slither out of sight until the morning.  A tickle of hope fluttered in his chest.  Hope, taken in excess, could be more dangerous than fear and he did his best to keep his small.

With steps so quiet they would have made a hunting panther blush with embarrassment, the Scrap Knight crept toward the opening.  Flashes of lightning illuminated all the world around for miles in frozen strobing frames, but not the opening.  Sheltered as it was by the leaning stones, it kept its secrets even against the low honey glow of the Knight’s eyes.

He was up against the rough sandstone boulder now, just to the side of the opening which came no higher than his knee.  The Scrap Knight tucked his sickle into his belt and tested his grip on the newly found short sword.  Its straight, vicious blade would serve him better than the sickle’s hook if the opening remained narrow for any distance.  He squatted, readied himself, and then whipped into the opening poised to strike.

The Scrap Knight was quicker than most but that night, he was not nearly quick enough.  Hands like gauze wrapped steel gripped his shoulders and sucked him into the hollow headfirst.  He was hurled to the ground and, before he could recover his wits, the sword was kicked from him.  Gauzed hands flipped him to his back with rough efficiency and a boney, swollen knee pressed into his chest.  A honed blade was thrust against the rind flesh beneath his chin.  Above him, a grey face wreathed in shadow pressed a finger to its lips for silence.

Dark wet eyes studied the Scrap Knight’s face, first the flickering candle yellow of his scowling eyes, then the pumpkin grooves of his cheeks, and finally the clenched slash of his lipless mouth.  For a long, tense moment those eyes deliberated.  Then the shrouded figure withdrew and moved to the other side of the cramped cave to sit silently against the wall, arms folded.  He bowed his head and waited so still that the Scrap Knight wondered if he might be sleeping until he buried his mouth in the crook of his arm to stifle a rasping cough.  The Scrap Knight settled into a corner of his own where he could watch the opening and the grey stranger.

The storm quieted after midnight while the dark was still tar under the new moon.  The stillness that followed felt like spun sugar, sweet but frail.  And so, the Scrap Knight and the grey man said nothing and waited for quiet to thicken into peace.  The first rose-colored rays of dawn were kissing the blackened bottoms of the heavy blanketing clouds when finally, the pair emerged from their burrow.

“This way,” said the grey man in a voice like wind over sand.  The man turned and scurried up the nearest slope.  Even in the morning light, he was difficult to follow with the eyes as he had wrapped himself in a peculiar cloak.  It was the granular, rusted khaki of the desert stone and patched with bristled tufts of grey-green protrusions that allowed him to appear as a simple desert shrub whenever he grew still. 

The Scrap Knight had a passing wonder as to why a man with such a cloak would bother hiding in a hollow, but he brushed the question away.  It was probably no guarantee of safety when one suffered human frailties like needing sleep.  He looked up at the foreboding cloud cover.  He would not want to spend a night in the open under those skies either, even with such a clever cloak.  And it really was a very clever cloak.  Perhaps the man would show him how to make his own.

Presently, they came to the top of a razor ridge.  “There,” said the man in his windy way.  He raised a wrapped finger and pointed to another rise only a mile or two ahead.  On it rested another jumble of stones that, after a moment’s reflection, the Scrap Knight realized were actually the ruins of a short tower. 

The man did not wait for consensus but began a sliding descent down other side of the ridge toward the ruins.  Strictly speaking, this was not in the direction of the dawn, the Scrap Knight’s ultimate destination, but it was also not not in the direction of the dawn.  It was perhaps a more scenic route than he had initially intended. 

And enigma swaddled the camouflaged man in a way that tugged determinedly at the Scrap Knight’s curiosity.  Who was this hermit who seemingly lived in these badlands?  The Scrap Knight discovered with some surprise that he wanted to know.  He surveyed the solid cloud cliffs amassing above the horizon.  A new storm, darker than the last, was forming.  This would not be the night to risk getting caught in the tempest.  With that decided, he jogged down the ridge after the camouflaged man.

Heat had returned to the desert beneath the rising sun when they arrived at the ruin.  The tower was built of heavy sandstone blocks that rose to a jagged break now capped by a fluttering patchwork awning.  The other half of the tower had been dashed against the rocky earth.  The camouflaged man’s gait slowed to a bowlegged saunter as he neared the door.  He looked back encouragingly at the Scrap Knight who even through the shadow of the man’s hood could see the tension draining from his tight grey features.

Once in the shade, the man lowered his hood with the exaggerated relief of one slumping into an armchair after an honest day’s labor.  His head was bald, and his flesh wrapped taut around his bones giving him a ghoulish quality.  The Scrap Knight tensed as memories of the hungry dead arose unbidden.  The man must have mistaken the Knight’s tension for something else because he looked abashed and said “Now where are my manners?  Make yourself at home.  Have a seat.”  The words wheezed out of him like a rusted hinge.

All the accumulated accessories of life had been spread out along the circular walls with only a cracked leather couch and a chewed looking side table pulled towards the center.  There sat a campfire with a translucent flame that could only be seen by the way it shimmered like the haze coming off a salt flat on a boiling day.  The flame gave off no heat, but the Scrap Knight still gave it a respectable berth as he obediently went to sit on the couch.  It was too soft for his liking.  He would have preferred the floor, but humans found it odd to eschew a chair in favor of hard stone.  He scooted to the edge where the frame made a stiff ledge and perched there.

“Here,” said the hermit pushing a leather mug of tepid water into the Scrap Knight’s hands.  He lowered himself to the ground next to the clear flame and nursed his own cup.  The Scrap Knight did not drink.  For a long while, they listened to the awning snapping in the wind.  The hermit broke the silence with a wracking fit of dry coughing which only subsided after he quaffed his remaining mouthful of water.  He looked almost embarrassed when finally, he recovered himself and, wiping his parched lips with the gauze wrapped back of his hand, he said, “Drink up.  There’s a well in the cellar so have your fill.”

The Scrap Knight’s eyes were round with a soft apologetic glow.  His smile was small and polite but uncomfortable. 

“Oh.  I guess you don’t take water, do you?  Sorry about that,” he said with a wheezing groan as he pushed himself to standing.  He poured the Scrap Knight’s mug into his own and asked, “Anything else I could get you?”

The jack-o-lantern head shook in the negative.

“You don’t say much, do you?”

Negative again.

The hermit bobbed his head in understanding.  “That’s just fine.  There are some who would call that a virtue.  Silence being golden and all that.”  He settled down on the couch next to the Scrap Knight.  Part way through making himself comfortable, he froze, head cocked as though an idea had only just struck him.  “But you can hear me, right?”  He spoke the question but also signed it with fluent gestures.

The Scrap Knight’s eyes rounded with surprise.  He signed back, “You know sign?”

The hermit chuckled.  “Sure do.  My ma and pa taught me about the time I was learning to speak.  There’s a strong deaf community where I’m from.  So, it comes in handy more often than people would guess.”  His skeletal smile widened to reveal a jumbled line of yellowed teeth.  “Didn’t you learn the same way?”

The Scrap Knight shook his head and signed, “A little girl—a friend I used to know taught me.”  The light in his eyes receded with the memory of Emilia, of her sweetness, of the village’s fear, of her little broken body on the wet cobblestone.  His chest ached.  The grey, emaciated head bobbed in polite commiseration.

Oaken hands found their way to the tattered ragdoll slung from the Scrap Knight’s belt.  He stroked a loving thumb along the patchy yarn hair.  Life had only begun for him and yet ghosts were already gathering.  Is it the curse of the living to be forever haunted by the phantoms of the past?  No answer stepped forward, and he shook his head to suppress the question.

The grey man asked, “So what do I call you?”

“Mostly people call me the Scrap Knight.”

“That’s a handful,” said the hermit his voice like the breeze through dry grass.  “How ‘bout I just call you SK?  What do you think?”

SK nodded and the grey man beamed.  “Well, it’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, SK.  I’m Harlow.”  He offered a wrapped hand and SK shook it. 

“How did you end up here?” signed SK.

Harlow gave a wan smile.  “It’s only temporary.  My people have watch towers like this all over the badlands.  I was the keeper here until a nasty storm hit and blasted the top two floors to hell.  Lucky for me I was down in the cellar when it happened.  Well long story short, I salvaged the signal flame,” he said pointing to the translucent fire.  “Signaled for rescue and set up camp here to wait.  But then those damn electrical storms started up.  With those undead crawling out all over the place, there’s no way my people can make it this far out.  That was ‘bout two weeks ago and still those storms come every single night.  I would have risked walking my way out by now, but I must have picked up a bug somewhere.”  He gestured to his grey, strained complexion, and suppressed a cough.  “As it is, I can barely make it more than a couple miles without hacking up a lung.”

He slumped back into the couch with a shrug.  “Nothing to do but wait it out.  Either the storms will run their course, or this bug will and either way I’ll be out of here sooner or later.  Until then, the cellar is fully stocked.  I can afford to wait.

“What about you?  If you don’t mind me saying, it ain’t every day I see a scarecrow come wandering through these parts.”

“I don’t suppose you do,” signed the Scrap Knight.  He hesitated.  No one had ever asked him where he was going.  He had on occasion wished that some one would ask, that one lone soul would show the slightest bit of interest in him beyond his shambling exterior.  Yet, now that the question had been asked, he wished it had not.  The thought of sharing his goal, his compulsion to meet the dawn suddenly made it seem paltry.  This calling east was all he had and now he was beginning to feel small and unworthy.  Slowly, with halting hands, he signed, “I’m going east to find the dawn in its home.”  SK felt overwhelming stupid as soon as he finished.

But Harlow did not laugh or grin.  Contemplation settled onto his emaciated face with a thoughtful sort of frown.  “That’s a long journey indeed.  What’ll you do when you get there?”

“Bask in all the colors,” the Scrap Knight signed a little more confidently.  “I love the colors the dawn paints on the world.”

At that Harlow smiled a wide and warming grin.  “I love the colors too,” he wheezed.  After a lull, the grin faded and he added more soberly, “The way those clouds are piling up you’ll want to hunker down until the storm clears.  You can stay here if you like.”

“I don’t want to burden you,” signed SK.

“It’s no burden at all,” said Harlow his voice a zephyr.  “It’s settled then.  You’ll bunk here until the weather clears.  Besides, it’s been a spell since I’ve had any company here.  I’d take it as a kindness to get to pass the time with a friend.”

Friend.  The word echoed in SK’s head even as a warmth spread through his chest.  It had been a long time since he had a friend.

If time is a river, the weeks spend with Harlow were a rapid for the Scrap Knight.  It had been over a year since he had exchanged more than a few sentences with anyone and even then, he had only had Emilia.  She may have been exceptionally worldly for her age, but their conversations were still constrained by her youth.  Harlow was different.  He had lived a soldier’s life of adventure married to misadventure.  He was well read and was generous with the books he had scavenged from the wreck of the tower’s small but respectable library.  In those halcyon days, the Scrap Knight profited mind and soul from his new companion for which he was immensely grateful.

One night when the twilight had only just thickened enough to be called dark, Harlow was busying himself with his evening rituals.  By the humdrum look on his desiccated features, they were of the most mundane sort, but SK had been fascinated by them each night and taken to the practice of sitting himself down on the couch to watch slyly from behind a book.

Harlow had return from the cellar, a collection of aromatic herbs and lackluster minerals in his hands.  With mortar and pestle, he ground each into a fine powder and then mixed them in precise proportions from memory.  The result was an unctuous dust with an aroma like petrichor.  The mix was poured into a leather pouch and before sealing, he tossed a pinch into the translucent flame.  The fire flared, snapping and popping, as a deep aubergine hue permeated the hollow flames.  A pillar of colored light shot into the heavens, piercing the belly of the gathering storm clouds.

Swathed in purple light, Harlow peered over his shoulder at SK with a smile that may as well have creaked like old leather.  The Scrap Knight had given up all pretense of reading his book and was staring with big round eyes and mouth agape in wonder.  He noticed Harlow watching him and straightened his face.  “You do that every night.  What is it for?”  he signed.

Harlow turned back to the column of luminescence; his face tilted toward the sky.  “It’s a signal.  The other watchtowers’ll see it and they’ll know I’m alive and waiting.”  There was a longing in his voice like a dusty wind whistling through a ghost town. 

The Scrap Knight searched for words of comfort but came up short.  He signed, “It is very beautiful.”

“You like magic?” asked Harlow conversationally.  His placid smile looked even thinner than usual.  The melancholy was gone from his voice but had not vacated his eyes.

“I like the color,” corrected SK.  The beam was the most vivid purple he had ever seen.

Harlow’s smile bubbled as he said, “Then let me show you something you’ll really like.”

He stood before SK with an air of showmanship.  Without preamble, he cleared his throat, recited an eldritch word, and rainbow sparks shot from his palm.  He flicked his other wrist.  There was a flash and a flame shaped like a skeleton pranced comically up and down his gauze wrapped forearm.  SK laughed noiselessly and clapped when Harlow took a bow.  Thunder boomed overhead, the first of the night.

“Liked that, did you?  Maybe I could teach you the trick of it sometime,” said Harlow with a gentle gust of pride. 

The Scrap Knight signed that he would like that and then after a pause asked, “Could you also teach me how to make a cloak like yours?”  He pointed to the door where a Harlow’s cloak hung, the one that allowed him to blend so seamlessly into the stubbled hills of the badlands.

Good humor drained from Harlow’s face leaving a taut, grim expression in its place.  “No.”  His voice was a crackling storm.  A tempest raged behind his eyes.  SK jerked back as if burned.  Then Harlow blinked and the storm was gone.  In a summer’s breeze he said, “I didn’t mean to take your head off.  It’s just that those cloaks allow my people to travel these lands unseen.  If their secret was to get out, it would put them all in great danger.  You understand.”  His smile was butter cream that soured at his eyes.

The air hung heavy between them for a long, still moment.  “I understand,” signed the Scrap Knight.  His fingers formed the words slowly as if weighing each gesture.

Harlow beamed garishly and said, “Here let me show you another trick.”  He pinched sand from the stone floor and breathed an incantation onto the grains before blowing them from his palm.  They took flight and whirled as lightning bugs in the electric summer air.  Another dazzling cantrip followed and then another.  Prestidigitation tumbled over charms and tricks until tempers grew tepid and then were forgiven.  But the Scrap Knight never forgot.

Days followed nights each spent pleasantly enough.  Though he never mentioned it again, SK burned to know the secret of the cloak.  Such a thing would be of great use to him.  Yet, even glancing in its direction made Harlow stiffen and the Scrap Knight found he could not shake the feeling that Harlow was withholding more than the cloak.  A spark of suspicion kindled into a tiny flame of resentment and, at last, he understood his days with Harlow were numbered.

It was not too long after that SK once again felt the call of the dawn road.  The thunderstorms had not abated.  Indeed, if anything, they had intensified.  The Scrap Knight could see the dead shuffling in the moonlight for miles around each night when he climbed the ruined stairs to the hole that had been the second story.  Lightning strikes lasted long into the morning and the clouds never cleared leaving only flat, dishwater days to mark the passage of time.

One such night, the Scrap Knight came down out of the gloaming and signed to Harlow, “It’s time I was on my way.”

Harlow laid his book down and sat up on the couch.  His grey skull features knotted in concern.  “Surely you don’t mean tonight,” he said.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for me,” signed SK.  Guilt panged in the stuffing of his chest at the hurt written on Harlow’s face.  But that pain would only grow if he stayed.  He wanted to leave before his own resentment grew into hate, while he could still call Harlow a friend.  Too many ghosts haunted his steps already.  “Your companionship and hospitality have meant more to me than I can explain but I have to be on my way.  I’ll leave in the morning when the storm quiets.”

“You won’t get far enough in the daylight,” said Harlow his sandstorm voice sounding unusually grim. 

“Then I’ll hide in some burrow or another until the next dawn,” signed SK.

If you’re lucky, but how many nights until your luck runs out?” countered Harlow his voice dripping with derision.  His ghoulish features twisted into a mocking sneer.

Red anger flared in the Scrap Knight’s eyes.  “I wouldn’t need luck if you would show me how to make a cloak like yours.”  His signs were hard and sharp.

Harlow slammed his book shut and bolted to his feet.  His voice was tight and strained like a sail in a gale.  “You ungrateful little shit!  I took you in and this is the thanks I get?  Who the hell do you think you are?”  Harlow stormed across the room.

“Is that a no?  Guess, I don’t have much of a choice then!” signed SK, his fingers shouting.

“Fine!  Get yourself killed for all I care!” Harlow screeched and the storm echoed his howl.  He threw his book hard, slamming it into the sagging shelves and dislodging several of the smaller volumes.  He stomped down the cellar stairs, slamming the door behind him.  SK threw himself down on the couch wishing he had something to smash.

Time passed. The Scrap Knight’s temper cooled, and he found himself feeling foolish.  It was not fair to make demands of the man who had taken him in, who had already shared so much.  Who was he to think Harlow owed him anything?  SK frowned and traced patterns in the sand on the flagstones.  He wasn’t angry at Harlow.  He was angry at himself for leaving his only friend.  Knowing without a shred of doubt that he had to leave did not make it any easier.  A fight just allowed grief to masquerade as rage.

A gauze wrapped hand settled on the Scrap Knight’s shoulder startling him out of his brooding.  “I need to show you something,” said Harlow, his voice low and resigned like morning fog.

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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