by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapter 3
Eric froze, eyes rounded in incredulity. The man on the porch had been there a second ago. Now all that remained was a sticky smear of blood and a masterless sword. What was happening? Nothing felt real. It was as if he was trapped on the set of some horror movie, only there were no cameras, no takes, no lackluster lines. The hot wind carried the all too real stink of iron as it blew in over the blood slick. He could smell pain and misery in that sharp, metallic tang.
The second man to draw a sword grimaced causing the thin scar that ran from the thick hair of his scalp to the hard line of his jaw to bunch at his temple. This man moved more skillfully along the graying floorboards, keeping low and quiet, no stranger to this kind of hunt. The soldier crept to the thin column of wall that separated the door frame from the curtained windows and pressed his body to it as he craned his neck to look out beyond the shelter of the porch. A long breath passed as he examined the night. Then, with a sudden burst of speed, he dove back into the room as something impossible landed with a crash that rattled the floorboards.
It looked like pictures Eric had seen of vampire bats with its flat folded nose and veiny, over-sized ears. Only, this one was man-sized with a salivating mouth, bristling with jagged fangs. Its wings had been folded back so that it hunched on clawed hands at the mid-joint and on black-taloned feet. Wet, beady eyes found Eric in dumbfounded rigor at the rim of the bar. Lips peeled back into a snarl, the creature screeched a sound so high pitched that it was barely audible, yet, it struck him like a wave rolling his equilibrium until the world somersaulted. Everything churned and the strength drained from his legs. Eric grabbed the bar edge trying to hold himself upright but only succeeded in slowing his fall to a semi-controlled slide. Even solid ground seemed to rock like a boat on a savage sea. The contents of his stomach threatened to revolt.
Meanwhile, the soldier’s dive had tucked into a roll and found him on his feet, poised with sword in hand for the next assault. As the creature blasted Eric with its disorienting scream, the solider charged the beast, swinging his longsword in a double gripped, downward arc. The creature scuttled left with alarming agility, avoiding the blow. The powerful stroke left a deep gouge in the floorboards where the it had been. It braced itself to shriek again, this time at the solider, but another cut forced the beast to reposition. When the third strike came, it was done running. With a clawed hand, it knocked away the ringing steel, forcing the solider to dance backwards to keep his footing.
Reality came rushing back to Eric like a crushing tide. He still didn’t know what was going on but that really didn’t matter right now. All that would sort itself out later. What he did know was that the creature was batting away sword strokes like pool noodles. If he didn’t do something soon, he wouldn’t live long enough to figure a way out. The soldier wasn’t going to hold out forever, and alone Eric would be dead before he could so much as scream.
He hopped the bar, sliding across the liquor-sticky copper, and landing lightly on the balls of his feet next to the huddled barkeep. The back wall was little more than a deep shelf where casks of wine rested on stands so that their brass spigots were at a convenient pour height. No help there. Squatting down he rummaged around below the counter until he found what he needed, a thin clay jug that smelled more like turpentine than whiskey. Moonshine. Or something like it. He snatched up a rag and stuffed half into the jug before inverting it to allow the pungent liquor to soak into the fabric. The odor singed his nostrils and made his eyes water. Perfect for what he needed.
From his pocket, Eric fished out a small gas station lighter. He had never been anything more than a sporadic social smoker who drunkenly bummed the occasional cigarette from a more serious devotee, but camping had taught him the importance of a quick fire source, though he never imagined using it for this. He thumbed the flint wheel twice before it lit, the golden flame swaying in his trembling hand. The soaked rag kissed the tip and ignited with a whoosh that nearly scorched off his eyebrows.
A deep fortifying breath filled his lungs and then, with the exhale, Eric popped up. The bat-beast had the soldier backed against the far wall despite the ferocity of the sword strikes. Even from here, Eric could see the beads of sweat on the soldier’s creased forehead. Time was running out. Eric tested the weight of the jug, took aim, and hurled it at the creature’s exposed back. The clay shattered soaking the greasy fur in liquid flame.
The beast reared and shrieked. The world reeled and wobbled. Eric clapped his ears and tried not to vomit. Behind the bar, the few actual glasses present burst like party poppers. The soldier saw his window and, with a roar of his own, drove his sword through the creature’s throat. A spurt of steaming blood splashed across him. The beast collapsed, its reeking carcass still smoldering.
The soldier tossed Eric a nod of thanks, stepped over the body, and dashed out the door. Drops of blood, which still streamed from his sword tip, left a dotted trail of violent crimson against the muted gray floorboards. He paused only a moment beneath the cover of the porch before cutting right, deeper into town.
The wave of nausea passed, and Eric eased himself down to the floor. Across from him, the barkeep huddled, shivering and unblinking. His black mustache looked especially dark against his now pallid cheeks and even his eyes, once so lively, had gone a flat stormy gray. Something like pity for the terrified man tugged at Eric.
By now the other patrons, five in total, had crept their way behind the bar as well, drawn by that magnetic pull of the frightened to congregate. Their fear, however, wasn’t nearly as acute as the barkeep’s. There was a weary acceptance in their dusty peasant faces that made them look hollow as if a lifetime of terror and grief had ground away everything inside that would rebel against even this horror, leaving only the most basic human need to avoid one’s own demise. Could this be hell? Eric brushed the question away. Whatever it was, he would find out soon enough. And with that resigned thought, he settled in among the wretched to wait for the all clear.
The night toiled on as the waiting huddled together in weary, taut silence. Eventually, the air filled with the relieved chant of church bells. The tension drained gradually from the crowd gathered behind the bar as if awaking from an extended nightmare. One by one, they each rose with stiff creaking joints and shuffled out the door, carefully avoiding the blood slick of the man who had been taken. With nowhere else to go, only Eric remained. As the barkeep shakily set about tidying up the chaos left by the night’s events, Eric found himself standing over the corpse of the bat creature. His mind reeled with a beehive of questions, too numerous and fleeting to grab hold of just one.
A creamy drawl spoke from behind him. “You were pretty quick on your feet back there,” said the soldier. His sword was sheathed now, and his leather armor had smears of dark blood across the chest as if they had been hastily wiped away with a rag. There was the twinkle of a smile in his granite gray eyes that flashed in the light like flecks of pyrite, accentuated by the silver beginning to creep into the hair at his temples. He looked older out of action, more life-worn now that the world had lost its sharp focus.
Eric felt self-conscious under the weight of the man’s stare as if there was an expectation held within. He wondered if he would live up to it. Not knowing what else to say, he said abashedly, “Thanks.”
“I should be the one saying ‘thank you’,” replied the soldier. “You helped me out of a real tight spot. The least I can do is buy you a drink.” At that moment, a pair of soldiers dressed like those from the gate arrived in the doorway. He directed them to remove the bat creature’s body and then turned to the barkeep. “Pol, two of the usual.”
They sat on the uneven stools and watched in silence as Pol sloshed two fingers of a bourbon-smelling liquor into a pair of brightly enameled clay cups. The soldier waved the barkeep off when he tried to put the bottle away. Then he tugged off his stained leather gloves and offered a hand to Eric. “Lojan Tharp, Sentinel of West Watch Ward, Ogadac Defense Force.”
Eric had no idea what any of that meant but it sounded like a mouthful. “Eric. Eric Milner,” he said clasping the offered hand.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ebrik.”
“My name is Eric.”
“That’s what I said. Anyway, here’s to you,” Lojan said lifting his cup. Eric raised his own, clinked the rim against Lojan’s, and then touched it to the bar top before sipping the honey sweet bite of the whiskey within. Lojan raised an eyebrow and, licking the bourbon from his lips, asked, “Why did you do that?”
“Do what?” replied Eric.
“Tap your drink on the bar.”
“Oh that.” Eric chuckled, going a little pink in the cheeks. “Just a little superstitious, I guess. It’s like a kind of prayer to keep grounded, you know?”
“Do you always do that?”
“Pretty much always, yeah.”
“What if you aren’t at a table?” asked Lojan.
“I just use whatever’s around, I guess.”
“You’re a strange one, my friend,” said Lojan. Eric blushed from ear to ear, not entirely sure why he should care what this sword-swinging stranger should think of him. Yet, he did care, deeply. Lojan laughed with kind warmth. “Not to worry. Strange is good in these parts. To Ebrik the Strange!” They lifted their cups and quaffed the sweet fire contents, Eric maintaining his ritual.
“That’s not my name,” said Eric, coughing a little through the burn in his throat.
“What?” asked Lojan with disinterest as he refilled their cups from the bottle.
“Nevermind,” said Eric shaking his head. “So where are ‘these parts’? I got turned around in the mist and I don’t really know where I am.”
The mirth drained from Lojan’s smile. “But you saw Pol’s map? He wasn’t fooling with you. You’re off the edge of whatever world you came from. You’ve fallen into Karask Rev. May the gods have mercy on your soul.” He sipped his drink. Behind him, the bat creature’s corpse was being hauled away with the reverence given to especially odious and cumbersome bags of manure.
A feeling like a slow siphon dragging him down into the abyss filled Eric as the garbled flotsam of his thoughts spun around the rim of the whirlpool. This wasn’t a joke. He really was in some other place. How could that be? Then again, could he deny it? There was some weird shit in California but nothing like those bat creatures. An ice water thought spilled down his spine. If it had killed Lojan, would he be dead now too? Dead and forgotten in some land of the lost. His mother would never know what happened to him. He’d be just another missing persons flier stapled up at the grocery store, the kind people never really stop to see. The whirlpool spun faster. His breathing grew rapid and ragged. With a trembling hand, he reached out to his cup for grounding and drank it down in a single gulp.
Wiping the residual sweet heat from his lips with the back of his hand, he asked, “What were those things?”
Lojan took a slow contemplative breath as he refilled Eric’s cup and topped off his own. “They’re called Diyakosha, a thoughtful little gift that Ol’ Skulls sends us when he worries we aren’t getting enough excitement.”
“Wait. Slow down,” said Eric rubbing his temples. “Who is ‘Ol’ Skulls’? And why does he send you these dee-ah-koh-sha?” He pronounced the unfamiliar assembly of syllables in careful chunks like a child.
“That’s not his real name. Just what folks round here call him. There’s power in a name, and we don’t like to give him more than he’s already got,” said Lojan, toying with his cup. “As for why, damned if I know. I reckon no one’s walked up to his door and asked. Even if they did, doubt they’d come back. He doesn’t take kindly to uninvited guests.” A hateful shadow formed behind his eyes, and he fell into a brooding silence.
Eric sat in the lulling quiet with Lojan, each man trying not to drown in his own thoughts. When he could take no more, he said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” He immediately felt he could hardly have picked something more meaningless to say. People said it all the time but there was no actual grief behind those words. They were just hollow things used to clutter the void between the anguished and the fortunate.
Lojan sighed and scratched the back of his head. “Don’t sweat it, kid. We’ve all lost. All we can do is drink to the fallen and pray there will be someone left to drink to us when we take our final rest.” He raised his cup and clicked it against Eric’s. They both drank and, when the cups returned to rest on the bar, he refilled Eric’s and topped off his own. “You were pretty quick on your feet,” he said again. “I have to admit I was impressed back there. You really held your own.”
A watery smile spread across Eric’s cheeks. His face was beginning to feel comfortably flush with the warmth of the whiskey. It felt good to sit down with a person and share a drink, just talking, no ulterior motives. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a real conversation with anyone. So many people just talked at each other. He liked Lojan, he decided. “Thanks,” he said, his tongue feeling thick and unwieldy in his mouth. “I was scared shitless.”
“No, you were great. I would have been in a hell of a bind without you. Good to know that I’ve got a friend like you that I can count on in a pinch. To good friends!” Cups clicked again and Eric quaffed his drink. Lojan refilled it.
“West Watch could use a soldier like you,” he said, casually watching Eric from the corner of his eye.
A blast of laughter burst from Eric. “I’m no soldier.” His words were beginning to blur at the edges, bleeding into one another. “I can’t even do the… the… thing with the… the… sword.” He made a chopping motion with his arm.
“We could teach you,” said Lojan. There was seduction in his voice, the unsaid promise of a different life. Isn’t that what Eric had set out to find?
Eric’s eyes rounded dreamily as fantasies of adventures he could not quite picture but could certainly feel cavorted in his head. He could leave everything, everyone behind and start fresh. And who would care if he never returned? Would his friends even notice? The memory of his mother and father drifted up from the ether. They would care. They would be heartbroken if he disappeared. A pin of guilt stuck him between the ribs. “I can’t. I’ve got people to get back to,” he said, more soberly.
“Of course,” said Lojan. His smile was thin and sad with just a dash of regret. But there was the faintest flash of hardness behind his eyes, so quick that Eric thought he imagined it. He clapped Eric on the back and said, “Well you aren’t going anywhere tonight. Let’s have another drink.” They drank and talked together until the moon crested its zenith. Lojan told fantastic stories from his service. None were especially important, but he told them with such flare that Eric hung on his every word. As he spoke, Lojan kept Eric’s cup full, hardly tasting his own.
Slowly, the bottled emptied. Through bleary eyes, Eric squinted at it ruefully. “I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight,” he said, his eyelids flickering. He yawned. “I should probably figure that out.” He laid his head on his arms atop the bar.
“Come on.” Lojan looped an arm around Eric’s shoulders and hoisted him to his feet.
“Wait, wait… wait.” Eric pushed away from Lojan. He swayed in small ellipticals as he tried to get his eyes to focus properly. “If this is another world—not my world, a different one—why does everyone speak English?” His voice hushed to a stage whisper as if this was a very private question.
Lojan chuckled, shaking his head. “Not sure what ‘Anglesh’ is but it doesn’t matter. The Mist gets in your head and changes the way you speak, the way you hear. It’s Ol’ Skulls big joke. He makes sure everyone can enjoy this hell equally,” he said, a hard-edge surfacing in his affable demeanor as he spoke of Ol’ Skulls. “But enough of that for now. Time to get you to bed. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Eric nodded solemnly, this new information slowly permeating his booze pickled thoughts. None of what Lojan had told him made any kind of sense but he felt like it should have. Maybe he would understand in the morning. Sleep. That was definitely needed. Sleep and in the morning, he would figure it all out. He nodded again and allowed himself to be led toward the door.
Half carried, half shuffling, Eric made his way out of the inn on teetering knees. The world began to sway and grew hazy at the edges, slowly sliding into blackout. Lojan whispered, “Don’t you worry, Ebrik Strange. I know just what to do with you.” That was the last thing Eric remembered until the morning.
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