by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 2
The sun set quickly over the western peaks and a rind of dying daylight was all that endured by the time Eric reached the town in the valley. A bristling line of poles sharpened to stakes jabbed out from a dry moat that ringed its thick palisade wall. The only way in was a single lane sandstone bridge that spanned the gap and led to sealed gates, little larger than a two-car garage.
He had never seen anything quite like this in person. It reminded him of a particularly elaborate playground his grandparents had taken him to as a child, where towering wooden jungle gyms had been styled into fairy tale castles and frontier forts. Yet, this place held none of the playground’s whimsy and instead stared out at the world with the flinty gaze of a true survivor. The stakes were stained at the tips with something ominously dark and the iron bands which reinforced the stout wood of the gates bore scars that looked disturbingly like claw marks. The hairs stood up at the nape of his neck.
“Who goes there?” called a voice in the dark.
Eric spun a full circle trying to figure out where the voice had come from before thinking to look to the top of the gate. There at the guardhouse window stood a figure silhouetted in a warm light. The figure wore something atop its head that tapered to a blunted, conical point. Eric squinted trying to adjust his eyes to the shadowed figure. It looked like it was wearing some kind of medieval helmet. Had he stumbled on some elaborate LARPing group?
A curt whistle refocused Eric’s attention. “Stranger, are you gonna answer my questions or just sit out there all night waiting for the basks to eat you?” shouted the figure.
“Oh, uh, sorry,” said Eric not really sure how to play whatever game this was. “I’m Eric. Eric Milner. I’m a little lost.”
“State your business, Traveler.”
“Um, I think I took a wrong turn in the mist back there and I—”
“Mist Walker! Open the foot gate!” The figure called down to someone inside the walls. There was a sound like something heavy sliding out of position with a grunt of exertion. Then a door opened up in the thick beams of the gate. An armor-clad figure washed in torch light stood in the doorway, hand poised on the hilt of a sheathed sword. “Well, hurry the hells up!” barked the voice from above.
With a start, Eric trotted over to the open gate door and slid in past the guard. As he passed, she pushed the door closed and then went to work shoving a heavy wooden bar back into brackets across it. She wore a helm of steel that came to the same conical point and her armor was scuffed studded leather worn over a padded vest. The sword at her waist didn’t look like the foam replicas he had heard cosplayers used. Instead, it looked solid and professional with a leather grip worn smooth by time and sweat. He had a feeling that if she were to draw it the blade would be honed steel. Maybe this was some kind of movie shoot?
“Thanks,” he said. When she only grunted in response, he continued, “Do you know how to get to US-15 from here?”
She muttered something that sounded a lot like “lud tone” and gestured deeper into town with dismissive twitch of her head. Then she picked up a spear from where she had propped it against the wall and stood at attention, pointedly ignoring Eric.
He looked around, lost at sea. After a few frustrating moments, he said, “Sorry but my phone’s dead. Is there somewhere I can go to charge it?”
Her midnight blue eyes pivoted to their corners, slowly dragging the rest of her along until she was openly staring at him, her features stretched in annoyed disbelief. “Bloodstone Inn. That way, Mist Walker.” She pronounced the words slowly and precisely, like speaking to a moron. Her arm pointed down a dusty thoroughfare toward a two-story building that looked not unlike a wild west saloon.
He was such a fucking idiot. This was one of those crazy theme parks where all the employees had to stay in character the whole time. She probably would have been fired for the anachronism if she had acknowledged something like a modern highway or cellphone. Bloodstone Inn had to be the park reception. There would be someone there who could help him. Eric thanked the guard for her help, complimented her on her dedication to her role, and followed the road to the lurid slivers of light that peaked out of the inn’s windows.
A wooden sign creaked in the brisk night breeze. Under the words Bloodstone Inn, painted in peeling red calligraphy, was a carving like a stone bottle pouring blood red wine into a waiting goblet. The sign, though still recognizable, was beginning to look wind worn. So too was the inn’s clapboard siding. The elements had sanded it nearly smooth so that only fine tributaries of gray paint still clung to the wood. The widows were coated with a fine layer of rusty dust. Thick, faded curtains had been drawn across them but slashes of light cut into the dark where the edges met.
The porch boards groaned as Eric mounted them and pulled open the door. It squealed like a panicked hog on its hinges. A handful of sullen looking patrons, each clad in dingy, threadbare garb that, Eric supposed, was intended to be period correct—whatever period that was. Not a soul was speaking as they nursed glazed clay cups. Yet, the silence grew harsher as their dark eyes slid over him, framed as he was in the doorway. There was a deadness to their stares that reminded him of a shark’s inhuman gaze. A visible shiver ran through him as those hollow eyes shifted back to their drinks in brooding silence.
Behind a tarnished copper bar, a mountain of a man with a thick, black mustache wiped dust from the earthenware cups. As Eric approached, the man ran an appraising eye over the young traveler and said, “You ain’t from here.” Then he went silent, waiting for justification of this obvious deficiency.
Eric looked into the barkeep’s coal black eyes trying to read them. They were the eyes of a much smaller man, lording over his little dung heap. Looking into those beady spiteful orbs, he made up his mind. He did not like it here. Something was wrong about this place and it put him on edge as if the very ground might suddenly fall away. “Uh, yeah, I was camping nearby, and I got turned around in the mist.”
“It’ll do that,” said the bartender with a tight grimace of commiseration. “What’re you drinking?”
“Thanks, but I’m alright. Do you have somewhere I could charge my phone?” asked Eric, fishing his phone from his pocket.
Features pinched suspiciously at the smooth black box in Eric’s hand, the barkeep said, “No.”
“Okay…” They were really leaning into this “in-character” thing. “Then do you know how to get to US-15 from here?”
“How about a phone I can use?”
“Boy, I don’t understand a word you’re sayin’.”
“Then what do you have?” snapped Eric, throwing up his hands.
The barkeep’s onyx eyes gleamed darkly. He paused in polishing one of the glazed clay cups. “Reckon I have a map somewhere,” he said, making a show of examining the cup’s finish.
Eric plopped himself down on one of the rickety, wooden barstools with a puff of relief. Now he was getting somewhere. “That would be great.”
The barkeep put down the cup and wiped his hands on the rag tucked into his apron before disappearing into a back room. Eric wobbled back and forth on the stool’s uneven legs. When the barkeep returned, he carried with him a tattered roll of tea-colored parchment which he spread out across the greening copper bar top using a couple cups to weight down the edges. What it showed only raised more questions. A ring of barrier mountains encircled a stretch of wrinkled wastelands, at the center of which was a lonely mountain encircled by a lake and marked with a skull. It looked like something out of The Hobbit. Here and there stylized markers indicated settlements and other points of interest connected by dashed lines which Eric imagined indicated trails or roads. All around the edges, great billowing clouds were drawn. With a sinking feeling in the pit of stomach, Eric realized they were meant to indicate fog, a thick impenetrable wall of cloying mist.
“Look. This is really funny and all, but I really need to figure out where I am,” he said, voice higher and wavering slightly. “Do you have a real map? Not something you ripped out of some Tolkien knock off?”
An unkind smile smeared across the barkeep’s thin lips. It was a bully’s smile, the kind of malicious twinkle that sparks to life when they know they have you cornered. The little boy in him had lived in fear of that smile. Eric wished he could knock it off the other man’s face.
“You don’t understand, son,” said the barkeep, fighting through a sinister chuckle. “Don’t know where you were before but wherever it was, it’s gone. You’re through The Mist now. And there ain’t no going back.” With that said, his malign laugh could be contained no longer.
Asshole. “Thanks. You’ve been a big fucking help.” Eric hoisted his bag over one shoulder with a snarl and stomped off towards the door. Somewhere not far, church bells erupted in panicked peals.
“Wait!” called the barkeep. The cruelty had drained from his face along with all the blood leaving him pale and sallow. “Don’t go out there!”
A cathartic “fuck you” withered on Eric’s lips as he realized the other patrons were on their feet. Most were huddling back toward the shelter of the bar their wide eyes never leaving the front door and the wide, fragile windows that flanked it. Two among them had drawn swords and were padding their way toward the front like leery wolves. The first and younger of the pair reached the door and carefully pushed it open. Staying low and keeping his eyes skyward, he paced out onto the porch.
An inhuman shriek that sliced through the ringing bells was all the warning given. As he reached the edge of the porch, a diving blur of dark motion struck the man squarely in the chest. Before Eric could blink, the man was carried off into the void of night, only a splash of blood dripping between worn boards and a notched shortsword to give testament that the poor bastard had ever existed at all.
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