A Scrap Knight Anthology
By Robert Currer
19,000 Words: 1 Hour Read
As a boy, I sat wrapped in bed hanging on my father’s every word as he read me The Hobbit. I could see Bilbo in my head, plump and fretting, being thrust into a world of wonder and magic to come out the other side kinder, stronger, and finally comfortable in his own skin. My dreams would be filled with daring adventures where I would court death only to be transformed, like Bilbo, into the man I was truly meant to be.
I grew up and had many adventures. And while I am not yet an ideal version of myself, those quests have made me a (mostly) better man. Then one day, again like Bilbo, I found a curious need to commit all that I had seen and heard to paper. I chose a less literal narrative style than Bilbo and after many false starts, I set myself to writing my own tales of wonder and magic.
This month marks the first anniversary of my creative writing journey and I felt it fitting to mark the occasion by revisiting one of my favorite characters, the Scrap Knight. Below you will find a collection of three stories featuring that dawn-ward drifter. These tales follow him in his own adventures towards becoming the hero he was meant to be. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy.
Robert Currer – September 2021
The Scrap Knight
An autumn wind rustled the moon drenched leaves above as a lanky figure stepped from the shelter of the tree line. Tall only by goblin standards, he stood a full head higher than any of the other raiders which had amassed in a small band among the tree trunks. His dented steel helm glinted in the silvery light as he peered over the spread of farmland below. Lifting his flattened, scarred nose to the breeze, the helmed goblin sniffed the air.
“What do you smell, Urlfar,” asked another goblin stepping clear of the others. This one had no helm but wore an overlarge tunic of boiled leather armored by heavy brass rings. Tucked into his belt, the stiff leather bulged out making him look nearly as wide as he was tall.
“Easy pickings is what I smell,” replied Urlfar. The scar that ran across his nose was livid in the moonlight as a grin like an old graveyard spread across his thin lips. “Easy pickings, indeed.”
The raiders followed the helmed goblin down the grassy slopes and into the valley below. No sound but the muted slapping of feet heralded their approach. They wove through fields and splashed across the creek, its clear waters sparkling like jewels under the full moon.
As they neared the first lonely farmhouse, Urlfar led them into the tall swaying stalks of a cornfield before slowing their pace to creep through the orderly rows. His mind swirled with lusty dreams of looted silverware and pilfered jewelry, seared man-flesh and stolen hooch to wash it down. If it were not for the shade of the corn, a sheen of saliva would have shown at the corners of his grisly mouth.
Whether he was too preoccupied or simply uninterested, the helmed goblin did not pay the slightest sliver of attention to the scarecrow that stood draped over a cruciform post near the center of the field. If he had, Urlfar would have seen the scrap wood arms and legs, the threadbare tunic stuffed with straw, and the pumpkin carved with lopsided triangles for eyes and a jagged grin. Whatever the reason, Urlfar saw none of this. Instead, he paused at the post, squeezed out a squeaking puff of wind, and continued on his way.
As the raiders passed, Scarecrow stirred. The skin of his jack-o-lantern face felt tight in the frosty breeze, yet he woke not with a chill but with the somewhat puzzling realization that he was alive. Two dull points of yellow light flickered into existence inside the empty triangle sockets that were Scarecrow’s eyes. With them he gazed out upon the moonlit fields and orchards of the valley. What a dark place the world is, he thought, and leaden feeling bubbled up within him. Scarecrow had not known what he had hoped the world would be but certainly not this cold and colorless.
Gripping the post with twiggy fingers, he turned to climb down from his perch and in doing so, looked behind. He froze, transfixed with the sight of what was there. Above the horizon of the corn sea crested an island of a house. Even strips of wooden siding coated the whole thing painted in a pale color that looked a shimmering white in the moonlight. A dark roof with a steep pitch capped the whole thing but it was a window on the second story, just beneath the eaves, that held his softly glowing stare. All the other windows held only gloom but in this one glassy portal a single lamp flame danced, spilling a warm orange light over the night’s silvery grays. Beautiful, thought Scarecrow with a stillness that only awe can inspire.
The moment’s pause allowed a worming thought to wriggle its way into the hollow space behind his eyes. My creators. Perhaps they live there. Scarecrow rolled the idea around in his head, testing its strength. He looked at himself, at his construction and form. He must have had creators. How else could I have come to be if not by design? And if I have creators, that light must belong to them for how could anyone but those who brought me life hold anything so brilliant in this murky world? Perhaps that is the light of creation itself… The thoughts writhed inside his gourd and he felt giddy for a moment, nearly losing his grip on the post.
Scarecrow shook his head as if to clear it. He was getting ahead of himself. Answers would come once he made the pilgrimage to the light. Sobered, Scarecrow climbed down his post to the soft earth below. The torn leather boots that were his feet sunk comfortably into the ground as they took his weight for the first time. He did not mark the trails of goblin feet that traced paths around him. Instead, he found an alley among the stalks and began his midnight sojourn, marveling at the newness that enveloped him.
Nearly a quarter of the way through the corn, Scarecrow had squatted down. His ambling walk had overturned a stone revealing something underneath. He watched in slack jawed wonder as a tight, segmented curl unfurled. A hundred, pointed pale legs spread out from the sky black plates that fit together to form a curving body tipped with a pair of dangerous looking mandibles. How his creators could have imagined such a fantastic creature, Scarecrow could not begin to fathom. Truly, they were beings far beyond him.
Lost in his own curiosity, Scarecrow was watching the centipede skuttle over the rolling soil in search of new shelter when the crash of broken glass and a piercing cry rent away the quiet of night. Hoots and howls in a sneering, guttural tongue sprang up from beyond the corn. Scarecrow bolted upright and listened through the wind stirred stalks. A second shriek found him, and he set off running. With all the speed his wooded gait would allow, he plowed through the field toward the screams, arms raised to protect his face from the slapping husks.
The chill wind rattled the stalks as he emerged from their boundary. A wide yard stretched out between him and the white-walled farmhouse. In the gap, three goblins danced around shouting and calling out in a husky language that Scarecrow could not understand. As he watched, one of the creatures, an especially squat goblin with greasy black braids, leaned down and tugged a fist sized stone from the earth at her feet. The goblin tossed it to herself a few times, testing the weight, and then began to spin. She spun round and round, arms stretched out and picking up speed, until finally she released the stone. It rocketed towards the house shattering one of the darkened windows with a crash. The goblin giggled, shouted something nasty sounding into the wind, and staggered dizzily for several paces before she set back to hunting for things to throw.
Scarecrow scanned the pale siding looking for the warm orange light again. The window that had held it was reduced to shards of glass stabbing out of the wooden frame. Did they destroy it? Has it gone out? It can’t be extinguished! It can’t be! His mind reeled, spinning more wildly than the goblin and threatening to veer into panic. Then he was saved. It was very faint, but an orange light rimmed the edges of the shattered glass. It’s safe. For now… Scarecrow’s relief sublimated into rage. These savages! Don’t they know what they seek to destroy? Vile enemies of the light!
His eyes flared red and he cast his gaze around for a stick, shovel, or stone. Anything that he could take up to drive these infidels from this holy land. His seething eyes fell on a sickle left next to a woven basket at the field’s edge. It was speckled with spots of rust, but the rest of the curved blade gleamed like divine justice under the silver moon. Scarecrow scooped up the reaping blade and thrust it into the air in a salute to the hidden orange light.
His leather footfalls and creaking joints were all but silent under the screen of the goblin war cries. His triangular eyes narrowed to vengeful slits and he slunk towards his first target. The squat goblin had found something worthwhile in the dirt and was bent over trying to yank it free. Scarecrow stepped behind her; his jack-o-lantern grin transformed into a pitiless scowl. She grunted and struggled with the stone. He raised his sickle high above his head. It shone with terrible purpose and the flames that were his eyes blazed bright and hot.
The heat prickled the nape of the squat goblin’s hairy neck. A fog of breath hung in front of her trembling lips as slowly she turned her head to look behind. Their eyes locked. Nightmarish rancor drenched every groove and blemish on Scarecrow’s face. He stared deep into her eyes. He watched as they grew wide and wet with understanding. Her mouth fluttered open to scream but it floundered in her throat. Then Scarecrow brought the sickle down hard into her neck.
The goblin collapsed to her back, sputtering as she tried to scream through the blood. With great care, Scarecrow placed a booted foot on her sternum and then shifted his weight to press down. The squat goblin’s eyes bulged as her hands clawed feebly at the merciless boot. Scarecrow braced himself and the tore the sickle free ripping a gouge across his victim’s throat. Blood and bile spilled thick and black on the moon wet grass as the goblin’s eyes rolled wild, searching in vain.
When the blood slowed, she went still and pale leaving Scarecrow to gaze upon his work. He peered down at the lifeless thing trying to make sense of the nagging tug in his chest. A word for what he was feeling surfaced from the depth, but he pushed it aside, refusing to give it the power of a name. Instead, he lifted his pumpkin chin to once again find the edge of orange light still glowing in the broken window. All for you, my lords. I do this for you.
Scarecrow stood resplendent and terrible in the moonlight with goblin gore spattered across his tattered vestments. These creatures had been repugnant things that squealed like pleading swine when he gutted them. One almost feels sorry for them. Almost…, he thought while staring down at an eviscerated goblin corpse. Death dulled eyes, still frozen in disbelief, stared up at him from above a mound of entrails. His own eyes still fiery red, Scarecrow bent down and retrieved the dead thing’s shield. It was small and cobbled together from uneven planks of reclaimed oak, but it sat well on his own wooden arm. He hoisted it into a defensive position and the relaxed before hoisting it again. He repeated the process a few times with an approving nod. He liked the weight and feel of it.
Armed with sickle and shield, Scarecrow stepped onto the back porch. His own knees creaked like floorboards as he climbed the steps and stood listening at the kitchen door. It was ajar and lolled gently in the night breeze. From within there came a clamor like the whole contents of the kitchen were being spilled out onto the floor. The corners of his jack-o-lantern mouth tipped down and his scowl deepened.
The kitchen was a scene of rampant chaos and destruction. Shards of clay, porcelain, and glass were all about like a jagged shore. They were washed with myriad unrecognizable fluids that mixed in swirled shades of gray upon the moonlit floor. The air smelled of preserves and brine and turning milk.
An island stood among the sea of debris in the form of a much-used table. Straw packed cartons of jars had been stacked upon it next to piles of serving silver. Among them sat a goblin looking corpulent in oversized ring mail. As Scarecrow watched from the door, the goblin waggled his fingers over a wooden carton, the tip of his fat tongue stabbing out from the corner of his mouth in anticipation. Seemingly at random, he selected a jar and held it up in the beam of moonlight that fell through kitchen window. He scrutinized the peach slices within for a few moments before peeling back the wax cloth top and taking a long deep sniff. Almost immediately, his face contorted into a look of absolute disgust and he hurled the jar across the room smashing it on the kitchen wall. Peach slices slid slowly down among rivulets of syrup. Then, for good measure, the puffy goblin tossed the whole carton to the floor with a grunt. The jars within shattered adding their glass and contents to the sea of destruction below.
As Scarecrow stepped in through the kitchen door, the goblin pulled a clay jug from one of the other cartons. He tugged the cork stopper out of the neck and took a delicate sniff. A look of absolute glee oozed over his cruel features with a smile that was not capable of looking anything but sinister even at its most elated.
The crunch of Scarecrow’s boots interrupted the goblin’s long thirsty guzzle. Surprise transformed to rage with a speed that would have make a cobra blush. The creature bellowed something in its own tongue as it arced back and catapulted the jug at the interloper. Scarecrow threw his rough shield up, only scarcely managing to block the impact of the heavy vessel. It shattered dousing his shield and boots in a clear liquid that smelled of strong alcohol and just a hint of turpentine.
Dripping with hooch, Scarecrow advanced a single step before raising his shield to deflect another missile. A jar of pickles erupted against his barrier. It was closely followed by a second and then a third. Between volleys, he managed a fleeting glance over the shield at the puff ball goblin. The creature, despite his rather stupid looking appearance, had deftly amassed a stockpile of jars, bottles, and jugs to serve as projectiles. With a manic howl, the goblin heaved a pint of pickled rhubarb at Scarecrow that sent him ducking behind his shield.
Eyes burning hellish crimson, Scarecrow charged, knocking back preserves and pickles alike. He swung hard with his sickle, but the puffed goblin proved more able than the others. In a swift fluid motion, the goblin dropped the jar and drew a long, notched dagger from his belt. He parried Scarecrow’s attack with the same motion. The veteran raider then shifted his weight to his front foot nimbler than a dancer and poured that momentum into a potent thrust.
The stab was not sloppy but poised and practiced. Scarecrow deflected it with his shield, but the force rattled up his arm. The goblin snarled with a mouth bristling with crooked needle teeth and quite suddenly, Scarecrow understood what the ridiculously puffed-up armor had been trying to tell him all along. He killed someone much larger than himself for it. If Scarecrow had been capable of sweat, it would have run cold.
He took a step around the edge of the table bringing himself closer to the goblin and swung again for the creature’s unarmored neck. With a deft step, the puffed goblin dipped and then lunged inside Scarecrow’s defenses. Scarecrow felt the sickening edge of the blade as it pieced the straw of his torso and thudded into the wooden frame within.
Confusion marred over the goblin’s otherwise perfect scowl. A cut like that would have killed any goblin or any man. A thrust like that would have earned him Urlfar’s helm. Yet, Scarecrow stood tall, almost looming, as the notched steel blade pulled back coated with nothing more than straw dust. The goblin stared into those hateful red eyes while his pulse played a dirge in his pointed ears.
Wrath swelled inside Scarecrow. He grabbed the contemptable thing by the collar and slammed it bodily onto the kitchen table. The goblin clawed frantically at the wooden arm that pinned it down as Scarecrow savored the blossoming panic. With a sharp tug, Scarecrow withdrew the dagger from his chest and carefully aligned it with the struggling creature’s throat. He watched the muscles tense and relax between desperate screams and gulping hysterical breaths. An impossibly wide grin spread across the rough flesh of his face. Then he began to cut.
Scarecrow left the severed head on the kitchen table and relieved the body of its oversized ring mail armor. Donning it took some effort as slipping his pumpkin head through the neck hole was a tight fit, but he prevailed in the end. Standing at the edge of the hallway that led from the kitchen to the rest of the house, his twiggy fingers felt the boiled leather beneath the rings that covered where the dagger had pierced him. It was far from a mortal wound, but he still felt pain there while his stuffing began to knit back together. Even among the killing, it had never occurred to him that he himself could die. Mortality was a trait he had come to associate with goblins and the commonality grated his conscience like sand.
The hallway ahead was dark, illuminated only by a halfmoon of pearly light from the window above the door. It had been ransacked just like the kitchen but showed less wonton destruction. A vase of wildflowers lay shattered on the floor spilling water and petals across the hardwood. The cabinet on which they had rested was pulled open and its contents scattered.
Scarecrow stepped across the threshold and the floorboards creaked underfoot. He paused at the rabble of odds and ends littered in front of the cabinet, tilting his head. Then he squatted down and scooped up a ragged bit of cloth and stuffing. It was a doll or had been at least. Its mismatched button eyes stared back at him from above its placid stitching smile. He turned it over. The back had been slashed open and the stuffing half pulled out as if she had been gutted to search her insides. Monsters, he thought as his eyes bent into melancholy crescents and grew a dim yellow.
With a twiggy finger he traced the doll’s lifeless smile and caressed between her button eyes. As he stared, his mind churned. He could see himself in the doll. Not literally of course but the fundamentals of his construction where there. Perhaps he himself was modeled from a form like this when his creators lovingly crafted him. Would she have been given life too?
For a moment he felt as though something might break inside his chest and then a familiar inferno burst behind his eyes. It consumed the heaviness in him and grew to a searing glow. Sacrilege! Heresy of the highest order! How DARE these vermin come to sack the temple of the creator? Scarecrow’s thoughts roared a psychic scream that rattled through him so powerfully that his wooden bones creaked. He tucked the dead doll tenderly into the pocket of his ragged trousers as his eyes flamed crimson once more.
A sound pulled him from his vengeful mulling. It was a heavy pounding as if against a door, loud enough to carry through the floor to the hallway below. Scarecrow looked up at the ceiling and cocked his earless head toward the noise. He was still listening hard trying to decern what could cause such a sound when a voice broke through. “Open the door, sweetheart. I promise I won’t hurt you. We’re just gonna have a nice chat.” The voice was deep and greasy. There was a pause. “No? You don’t want to come out to play? Well then ol’ Urlfar will just have to come to you!”
There was a sound like slapping feet pounding down the hall and then a hard thud that rattled the ceiling. The sequence repeated itself once more and Scarecrow sprinted down the hall. At the far end, he found a staircase leading up to a landing. As he mounted the stairs, a tall, helmed goblin charged from one side of the landing. He threw himself bodily against a closed oak door at the far side. The wooden frame splintered, and the door swung free. From within, a trio of screams erupted.
“Oi, don’t be like that little ones,” sneered Urlfar, menace spread thick as jelly on his words. “We’re just gonna have a nice talk.”
Scarecrow thundered up the stairs and vaulted over the railing onto the landing. Face contorted into a glowing grimace, he gripped Urlfar from behind with both hands and hurled the raider against the wall. Then silhouetted in the orange glow of the open door, he widened his footing, hoisted his shield, and readied his sickle to face the goblin leader.
Urlfar climbed to his feet, his eyes bugging and spittle foaming in the corners of his mouth. “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, lad, but that was the last mistake you’ll ever make!” The goblin squared his helm, unslung his own shield, and drew a rusty scimitar from his belt. With a throaty war cry, the goblin raced toward his waiting adversary.
A storm of strikes rained from Urlfar’s scimitar with such dizzying speed that Scarecrow would have found it easier to defend against a hurricane. The few slashes Scarecrow managed to sneak through the maelstrom were easily deflected by the seasoned warrior. The onslaught showed no signs of slowing and Scarecrow twisted, slashed, spun, and maneuvered to avoid the chopping strikes while not giving up the doorway to his roaring aggressor.
A grim smile slid into Urlfar’s eyes as he saw his opening. The Scrap Knight, or whatever the junky construct before him was, lacked cunning. He could see that now and that gave Urlfar all he needed. The goblin feigned a cut with his scimitar and watched as the Scrap Knight twisted to block with his stolen shield. Urlfar side stepped to the right and threw his weight behind his own shield, bashing into Scarecrow and pushing him off balance. Then Urlfar swung hard with the scimitar at the Scrap Knight’s exposed shield arm. The blade bit deep notching the wood of Scarecrow’s arm.
A silent howl of pain flashed across Scarecrow’s face as he recoiled from the cutting blade. Weight already on the back foot, he stepped toward the goblin and lashed with the edge of his shield. Urlfar ducked beneath the clumsy attempt with a chuckle and swung again at the threadbare cloth of the Scrap Knight’s trousers. The savage blade sank into the unprotected wood like an axe.
Scarecrow stumbled forward as his eyes went round as full moons and his mouth warped into a tormented grimace. He dropped both shield and sickle. The Scrap Knight bent forward and wrapped his arms around Urlfar’s middle. He arced his back and heaved the goblin upside down into the air. Urlfar’s dented steel helm tumbled off as the raider swore in surprise. Then Scarecrow slammed the raider headfirst into the floorboards with all the weight of his wooden frame.
Urlfar’s head bounced against the floor with a sickening crack. His vision swam as he lay dazed trying to clear his wits. Scarecrow climbed on top of the prone raider. Pressing both knobby knees into Urlfar’s chest, he squeezed the wind from the goblin’s lungs. The raider gasped for air while fog still clung to his senses. Twiggy fingers found the lost helm and raised it high above Scarecrow’s head. His eyes burned bright and wild. For a moment, when those hellish eyes burned a torrent, Urlfar thought he caught the faintest whiff of brimstone. Then he thought no more. Hot blood spattered the landing walls as the Scrap Knight brought the helm down again and again on Urlfar’s face until it was nothing more than pulp and splintered bone.
After a while, Scarecrow stood and retrieved his shield and sickle. He frowned at the blood that was spattered across his chest and arms as he straightened and smoothed his armor. Scarecrow wished he had time to make himself presentable. Surely, they will understand, he thought to comfort himself as he turned his gaze to the door. It had swung nearly closed in the scuffle so that it blocked the room allowing only a halo of soft orange light to escape. He stepped over the mangled corpse to stand at the doorway. The color felt warm on his face.
Scarecrow extended his hand toward the door and paused. He stretched out his fingers and realized they were shaking. With effort, he curled his fingers into a fist and squeezed until the trembling stopped. Then gently, almost timidly, he rapped his wooden knuckles on the door. He reached for the handle and paused fingers hovering just over the metal. He felt… inadequate. Am I even worthy?
A muffled sob escaped from the room beyond. It was followed by a tender but urgent shush. The Scrap Knight rattled his head and straightened his back. Squaring his shoulders, Scarecrow gripped the handle and pushed the door open.
The room beyond was a riot of color compared to the muted midnight shades that washed all the rest of creation. Furniture made of rich chocolate wood populated the room. Rose red curtains framed the shattered window. Shards of broken glass dotted the floor like mirrors, catching the light and making it dance. A thick down mattress dominated the room and was swaddled in a plush checked quilt over white sheets like red peppermint sweets over a bed of decadent frosting.
His mouth fell open as his soft yellow eyes devoured all the delicious hues. Scarecrow’s gaze passed hungrily over every corner as he glided into the center of the bedroom. His head spun dreamily, unable to take all in at once.
Then there was the sob again. The Scrap Knight blinked twice and scanned around for the source of the cry. On the other side of the bed, huddled together was a mother and her two small children. All three were shaking uncontrollably with silent rivers flowing from their eyes. As he moved into view, the mother clutched her children to her chest and sobbed something harsh and desperate but unintelligible.
The creator! Scarecrow’s eyes went round and yellow. He fell to his knees. Here was the creator herself in the company of her angels! He trembled, overwhelmed by the power of the moment he had longed for all his life. His pilgrimage and all its trials complete; he would finally understand the meaning of his existence, his purpose in this world of paltry light. He would soon learn the creator’s grand design and her will. Now here she sat, something beyond beauty embracing her cherubic angels with her eyes shining in the soft orange light.
The orange light! Scarecrow’s eyes drifted from the face of the divine up to the bed side table and there it was. The light of creation swayed sensually upon the wick of an oil lamp as it spilled its warm essence on the world through a glass chimney. Scarecrow’s jaw grew slack again as his orbitals widened and the pale light of his eyes swayed in time with the flame. It’s so beautiful… Mesmerized, he crawled forward on reverent hands and knees.
A shriek that could have curled cream ripped him from his rapture. The creator screamed again clutching her angels even tighter to her breast. She lashed out at him with the heel of her barefoot trying to force him away.
Confused, Scarecrow skuttled backwards. Had he broken some boundary, some law of propriety? Angry for his ignorance, he prostrated himself. In silent supplication, he prayed his error, whatever it may be, would be forgiven. Please, let it be forgiven… He prayed she would understand his actions were out of ignorance, not disrespect. Slowly and with penitence in his eyes, he lifted his gaze from the floor and back to her.
The mother screamed something at him, but her words were choked out by wracking sobs. The angels in her arms balled their chubby fists into her night gown and lent their shrieks to the chorus. She kicked at Scarecrow again and again. He was well out of her reach but still she flailed.
An ache filled Scarecrow’s chest. What did I do that is so unforgivable? Eyes sunken to deep wells, he reached out towards the creator. Twiggy fingers extended; Scarecrow tried to calm her. He was her child, her loyal servant. He would do anything to appease her. He needed her to know that. Please understand…
The creator snapped her foot back as soon as his splintery fingers grazed her big toe. She screamed and turned her body to place herself between her children and Scarecrow. He advanced slowly, hand outstretched and without sound. She could see the unholy glow inside those jack-o-lantern eyes. This demon could take her if he must, but she prayed to every god she knew that he would not hurt her babies.
“Stay back!” She wailed as she groped for anything to put between them and this nightmare creature. She reached up to the nightstand and fumbled for the oil lamp. When her fingers found the thick glass base, she whipped it off the table and hurled it at Scarecrow. “Leave us alone!” she screamed in a voice thick with tears and snot. The lamp arced over Scarecrow and impacted the wall shattering into a spread of burning oil.
Scarecrow jumped back. He saw the horror on her face. Her abject disgust for him was etched in every groove and ridge. He was an abomination to her. He saw that now. Somewhere deep inside his straw chest, he felt something crack. A deep ache spread throughout his whole being. His own maker would destroy the light of creation out of sheer hatred for him. A heaviness settled into this body and all of him wished she had made him capable of tears. But alas, she had kept that luxury for herself.
I don’t belong here, he thought pulling himself to his feet. The ache in his chest made his limbs feel sluggish but he shuffled over to the bed. Trying not to listen to the sobbing woman and her children, the Scrap Knight pulled the quilt from the mattress, ambled over to the splash of burning oil, and smothered it. He left the quilt crumpled on the floor before staggering out the bedroom door.
With no purpose left to him, the Scrap Knight wandered out of the house and into the fields beyond. There were no answers to be found here. No higher truths to be uncovered. There was only an ugly, darkened world left to him. That’s where I belong, with the other ugly things, he thought as he shuffled away from the valley.
He was nearly at the tree line when the first light of dawn bubbled up over the mountains. Too numb to be startled, he settled himself onto the wet grass to watch with detached curiosity. Soon a wash of powder pink painted the cottony clouds. The mountains transformed from a jagged line of deep shadow to a rolling spill of purples and blues that were eventually crowned by a radiant disc of the purest gold.
As rich hues and subtle shades filled the sky, the disc spilled its honey light over the rim of the summits. It flowed down the slopes, across the valley, and washed over him with a rush of warmth that ran up his wooden bones. His rind lips parted as he watched. When the warmth of the morning had finally driven the chill from his straw chest, those same lips curved upward into a smile nearly as wide and warm as the sun itself. She didn’t destroy it after all. Hers was but a mote, a minor imitation. This was the real light of creation! The Scrap Knight sat on the slope in the brilliance of the dawn reveling in all the beauty it held.
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.”
Ambroys’s head was pounding even before his eyes opened. He groaned and tried to raise a hand to the source of the throbbing to find that his wrists were bound together. His eyes peeled open only to screw down tight again as sparks exploded inside his skull. He gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists until the pain dulled.
More carefully, Ambroys inched his eyes apart letting them adapt to the change in light. A bonfire roared next to him and, with the throbbing starting to settle to a dull ache, he could now feel the intense heat of it biting at his cheek. His other senses began to clear. He could hear voices, harsh barking voices mingled with yipping and the occasional raucous howl. They came from all around him attached to lanky shadows that danced in the flickering glow.
There was a smell like roasting beef and sizzling pork fat. No. That was wrong somehow. It smelled more pungent, more rancid, turned but not rotting. It was carried on the smoke and coated his nostrils like fetid grease. Ambroys rolled his shoulder and turned his head to look at the fire trying to make as small a movement as possible lest his captors realize he was again conscious.
His squad mate Berard’s lifeless eyes stared back at Ambroys from atop a roasting spit. Ambroys’s eyes widened and bile raced up his throat. He winced trying to keep the contents of his guts inside. It was too much. Ambroys bolted to his hands and knees and vomited the entirety of his stomach onto the damp soil. A mocking howl erupted from the revelers.
A hand, hairy and strong, gripped Ambroys by his blond locks. It yanked him back onto his heels until his neck arched agonizingly. A lupine face hung above him with a wicked grin.
“What’s wrong, manling?” sneered the creature. His voice was hoarse. His long tongue ran hungrily from one side of his mouth to the other as his one good eye gleamed yellow with amused malice. “You don’t fancy our roast?”
Ambroys glowered back into the creature’s eyes, one golden and the other milky white. Lupekin. Wolfmen. He had been warned about them shortly after reporting to Reaper’s Fen. They roamed in packs hunting any thinking creature they came upon. It was said they were merciless monsters to be eradicated. With the gut-churning reek of Berard’s roasting flesh still clinging in his nostrils, Ambroys tended to agree.
The Lupekin held Ambroys’s cold stare a while longer as his toothsome grin grew cartoonishly wide. A sort of manic glee percolated behind his golden eye. When it reached a boil, he threw his head back and howled to the night. The others joined the hunter’s chorus. Then he threw Ambroys back to the ground and spread his arms as wide as they could stretch. Spinning slowly, he barked at the rest of the pack. The gathered crowd erupted into a cacophony of harsh, yipping laughs. He’s either real pretty or their leader. No one laughs at a one-liner like that unless they are trying to get screwed now or hoping they won’t get screwed later. Something told Ambroys it was not the Lupekin’s looks.
The creature pulled a long knife with a worn bone handle from its sheath at his hip and strode over to the spit. Standing next to Berard’s crackling skin, the wolfman tossed a side-eyed glance at Ambroys who had struggled back to his hands and knees. “Perhaps, you only think that you do not like our roast,” he said as he carved a strip from the dead man’s thigh.
He took a step toward Ambroys. “But how can you know if you’ve never tried,” he said teeth glinting dangerously. He snatched Ambroys’s chin into a vice-like grip and squeezed until the man’s lips were forced open. Ambroys’s eyes went wide as the strip of roasted muscle was dangled before him. He gripped the Lupekin’s wrist with both hands and tried to rip it away. His nails dug into the beast’s reddish gray fur and pulled at the skin beneath, but the Lupekin’s clawed fingers only crushed tighter against his cheeks.
Ambroys howled, hot with fury. He released the Lupekin’s arm and swung hard with his fists catching his foe in the ribs. The creature coughed and dropped Ambroys who scuttled backward as quickly as he was able with bound wrists and ankles.
Before he could get a body length between them the Lupekin was on him. The creature’s hairy fist smashed into Ambroys’s already blackened eye setting off an explosion of fireworks in his skull. Ambroys reeled and tried to swing again despite the disorientation. The Lupekin just knocked his arms away and gripped him again by the jaw. This time the wolf leaned in, climbing on top of Ambroys. The creature panted rank, hot breaths into his face.
“Shh, shh, shhhh. Hush now, pup,” cooed the Lupekin. His grin smeared across his snout and curved up into his yellow eye. “I’ll not have you say Volk kept all the kill to himself.” Ambroys’s howl turned to a muffled scream as his friend’s roasted flesh pushed past his lips.
Ambroys bolted behind the bar and collapsed over a basin. His guts splashed out against the weathered wood in great rolling heaves. There was little but bile and whiskey in him which left an acid burn from the back of his throat all the way down his chest once he was finally able to take a few gasping breaths.
His sides ached right down between the ribs. Jelly-legged, Ambroys pushed himself to his feet. He pulled a napkin from underneath the bar and wiped the vomit from his lips. It left a foul greenish yellow smear on the white rag. He lifted his eyes back to the room to find a crestfallen Milton standing next to Walter Ozzen, Candle of the Vigil. “Sorry,” muttered Ambroys to Milton with a cringe. Both napkin and basin had been recently cleaned.
“What in the hells are you doing?” shouted Ozzen. The dwarf was a full foot and half shorter than Ambroys but stared the taller man down with a pugilistic squint that made Ambroys feel like a guilty little kid. Ozzen chewed on the end of the hand-rolled cigarillo that lived perpetually wedged between his molars. “You’re an Eye of the Vigil, son! Pull yourself together! Now gods damnit!”
Ambroys snapped to attention, eyes fixed into a thousand-yard stare. “Eye Wester reporting from Bywater Patrol Viper, Sentinel Felgrim patrol leader,” he called out at a clip that barely left distinction between each word.
Ozzen eyed him hard for a long breath before giving the younger soldier a curt nod. “That’s better. Now, son, you look rougher than the only whore in a harbor. Take that seat by the fire and you can catch me up on what I missed.”
Ambroys would have sprinted back to the chair if he had not been afraid that Candle would ream him for his lack of poise. Instead, he marched, straight backed as stone like he had been taught in training not so long ago. Sitting on the first third of the chair, still rigidly upright and staring blankly into the fire, he waited as Ozzen pulled over a chair for himself. Ambroys’s pulse drummed as he fought to keep his breathing even. How does he do it? How does that stump of a dwarf make me want to piss myself with just a stare?
Ozzen settled into his chair just at the edge of Ambroys’s peripheral vision. He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, and fingers laced. The firelight poured over his left side leaving the other half of him in deep shadow so that only that eye gleamed out from the dark. He shifted his cigarillo from one side of this mouth to the other. “Alright, son, let’s have it.”
Ambroys reported everything he had told to Anton eyes locked dead on the fire, unfocused and unseeing. His whole body clenched as he tried not to tremble in front of Candle Ozzen. Showing weakness had never succeeded in endearing anyone to the weathered veteran.
“Woah there.” Ozzen lifted a broad hand and brought Ambroy’s report to a pause. He leaned back still watching the younger soldier through his permanent squint and rubbed the clean-shaven edge of his jaw. “That’s one hell of a yarn, son.”
Ambroys felt the Candle’s eyes prodding at him like a child might poke a dead bird to see if it would flinch. He clenched his teeth. I’m not dead yet, you son-of-a-bitch.
Ozzen pushed himself standing and waved Ambroys to stay seated with a perfunctory “as you were”. He sauntered over to Anton chewing his cigarillo like a cow might chew its cud. Then he lifted the whiskey jug and refilled Anton’s cup before walking to the bar. He laid two clean glasses on the varnished wood and poured a few fingers in each. He fished a shining coin from inside his clean, pressed tabard and laid it on the bar with a nod to Milton.
Ambroys was trying not to look down at his hands which had been balled into white knuckled fists when Ozzen held out one of the whiskeys. Ambroys risked a glance up at this commanding officer. Was this a test?
Ozzen took a sip from his own. “Like I said that’s one hell of a yarn, son. And before you get to telling me just how you managed to get yourself out of that particular hell, I would say it is only fitting and proper that we toast the fallen. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Ambroys furrowed his brow. This felt like a test.
The whiskey glass jiggled. “Now, son, are you going to make me toast alone? Seems a might unhospitable seeing as you’ve already had one. That is why I smell alcohol on your breath, isn’t it? You and Anton were honoring the departed.” Ozzen raised an eyebrow and miraculously managed to keep squinting.
Ambroys’s saliva went to glue again. Swallowing the sealant, he took the proffered glass and stood up as did Anton. The three held their cups aloft and Ozzen said, “To the fallen. Rest well. Though your vigil is done, our watch goes on.”
Ozzen licked the whiskey off his lips and gave a look of almost begrudging approval towards his glass. Then he seated himself back down in his chair and leaned forward again, fingers wrapped around his cup. He gestured for Ambroys to take his seat. “Alright, son. So how did you make it out?”
The evening’s revelry had tapered off. The dancing was done, and the fire had burned low with what was left of Berard’s bones charred among the embers. The Lupekin lounged in slung hammocks clustered around the few trees that grew from the small isle in the black water of Umbra Morass. Only a pair of the wolfmen remained at the fire. One of them only had his left ear and the other has a scar that had cleft his lips revealing one snaggletooth. They sat across from Ambroys talking together in their low gruff voices and sharing what smelled like moonshine from a skin. The wetness of it gave a rapacious shine to their thin lips. Here and there, their eyes would rove lecherously over Ambroys making his skin crawl.
He blinked away the discomfort. The throbbing in his head had finally begun to subside allowing his mind to clear for the first time. He was not about to waste this window before his growing dehydration muddled his thoughts again. Focus. Those are the guards. The others will be asleep soon, leaving only these two to content with.
Ambroys stole a side glance at the pair trying to size them up. He knew their type. Overconfident and lax. They would lose interest and doze not too long after the others were snoring with the frogs. One of the Lupekin passed the skin to the other as he stifled a yawn. Ambroys fought his own wolfish grin. Soldiers were soldiers no matter the army and he had seen this type of soldier before. Hells he had nearly been like them, would have been like them if Ozzen, the old bear, hadn’t beaten discipline into him. This would be too easy.
The night waxed on. The moon was full, but the sky was clouded over allowing only the intermittent beam of moonlight to pierce the swamp’s viscous gloom. Ambroys swatted a mosquito on the sweat soaked nape of his neck and grumbled to himself. The crooks of his elbows were burning with bites and he had lost ten pounds in sweat to the sauna heat that still blanketed the Morass. What sweat he lost, his clothing found and chaffed his sodden flesh. Worse, his headache was back. What a hell hole.
How did they stand it? He glanced warily around the camp. At the edge of the firelight, a dozen or so Lupekin snored free of all consternation in their hammocks. One yipped quietly in his sleep, like a dog dreaming of the chase. Ambroys’s lip curled into a snarl, his mind a nebulous mass of murderous wishes.
At least the other two are coming along. The Lupekin guards had nearly finished their skin and were looking bleary-eyed. Their speech grew slurred and was punctuated by yawns of increasing frequency. Soon. It’s almost time.
The thought no sooner entered Ambroys’s mind than one of the guards, Snaggletooth, stood. He patted his companion on the shoulder and barked something in their tongue as he made a motion toward the Morass with his snout. Then he shuffled off, already laboring to unlace his trouser fly as he stepped beyond the edge of the light and into the inky shadows. He did not return.
Ambroys noticed the unusual length of the Snaggletooth’s absence before Left Ear. Ha! Bastard probably passed out in the slough and drowned! A smirk spread across his face as a painfully slow look of concern blossomed on Left Ear’s drunken features. The wolfman staggered to his feet, paused to steady himself and then stumbled off in the direction of Snaggletooth without so much as a glance back at Ambroys laying quietly on the other side of the fire.
Now! Ambroys pulled his knees to his chest and began tugging at the knots that bound the thick hemp cordage around his legs. Shit! It’s no use. Sodden with sweat and swamp water, the rope had swelled so that there was no longer any space between strand and bight. His bindings were stuck fast and would have to be cut off. He pushed himself to his knees and spun his gaze around the camp, hunting for something, anything with a cutting edge. The Lupekin slept in their clothes with their knives on their belts. He could not risk waking up the camp by struggling for one of those.
Damn! He was running out of time. Any second now, Left Ear would either come back or call out and wake the whole damn pack. Ambroys’s pulse roared in his ears and sweat ran in rivers down his face stinging his eyes all while his pounding headache crushed inside his skull. He wanted to scream.
There! At the edge of the camp, under one of the hammocks, jutted a thin rock worn sharp by time and chance. Oh, Ruvest, you beautiful, armored bastard! I swear I’ll light a candle at your shrine for this! Ambroys wriggled his way toward the rock with all the speed his could risk. Furiously, he rasped the rope across the sawing, stone edge. The sodden strands began to split. Ambroys rubbed faster trying desperately not to pant for fear that it would rouse the snoring Lupekin that slumbered inches from his head.
The final strand snapped, freeing his ankles. Ambroys could have shouted for joy but, before he could even climb to his feet, a scream arose from the blackness of the Morass and was suddenly silenced. Ambroys dropped to the fetal position and pretended to have been asleep as the rest of camp jerked into instant alertness. As the pack scrambled from their hammocks, the Lupekin above Ambroys dropped down on top of him, stumbled to regain her balance, and then kicked him as she swore.
Volk took charge of the rabble. With a few short barks, he sent two of the wolfmen to investigate the scream and the others he set in circle around the camp. Blades were drawn, ears twitched, and more than one among them sniffed the air. The swamp hung thick with coiled tension as they waited long dragging seconds for some report or sign from the hunters.
Ambroys wormed his way toward the edge of the firelight, trying to keep his ankles together and praying that no one noticed they were no longer bound. He made creeping progress heading for the swamp in the opposite direction of scream. As he reached the limit of where he could slink without the aid of a distraction, he paused, forced his breathing to slow, and waited. The returning hunters would draw the pack’s attention long enough for him to slink off into the night. He just had to be patient a moment longer.
A severed Lupekin head arced up out of the gloom and over Ambroys. It hit the ground and rolled to a stop near the fire, its dead eyes staring back at him. His own eyes widened. It had been one of the hunters. As one, the pack had turned to watch the head fly in from the dark and come to rest in their midst. A rumble of panic rolled through the mob. Eyes that showed too much white to feign aplomb swiveled from the severed head to Volk.
Volk licked his snout and cast an appraising look around the pack. His grip tightened on the worn bone handle of his own notched blade. As he lifted it to point at the gathered pack and speak, a bloodcurdling scream split the stagnant night air. Ambroys snapped his head toward the source just in time to see the Lupekin who had stepped on him pulled off her feet and sucked into the impenetrable darkness beyond the firelight. Her cry was cut short by a gurgle and flecks of blood spattered the soil just inside the ring of light.
With a collective enraged howl, the Lupekin pack charged towards their fallen comrade and into the hungry darkness. As they surged in one direction, Ambroys leapt to his feet and sprinted in the other.
“Hold up now, son,” said Ozzen massaging the bridge of his nose. “Let me see if I can get this straight. You are telling me that something killed five Lupekin warriors, the very same Lupekin warriors that slaughtered your patrol, and did that without showing itself and without making hardly a sound?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys, his face a mask.
Ozzen nodded thoughtfully and leaned toward the fire to finally light his cigarillo from a taper. Though the dwarf was rarely caught without a one clenched between his molars, Ambroys had never seen him actually smoke. It was a change in the seasoned veteran, a foreign wind. The young soldier tensed all the muscles in his body to keep from squirming in his seat.
Candle Ozzen eased himself back into the chair and took a few contemplative puffs, his arms crossed. “And you say, you never caught a glimpse of it? Never heard a splash or a rustle or gust of wind?”
“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys. He fought to bite back his irritation. Of course, he hadn’t seen or heard anything! He had already said as much. Why make him repeat himself?
“Boy, I’ve seen a lot of things in that there Morass. I saw me a flock of harpies once. I even saw a stink ape wrestle a bear but I ain’t never seen no swamp demon like that,” said Anton eyeing Ambroys over his whiskey.
They don’t believe me. The realization struck him hard in the ribs. He did not know what to say.
Ambroys’s surprise must have leaked onto his face because Ozzen leaned forward looking Ambroys over with his perpetual squint. “Way back–must have been seventy-five years ago now–I had just had my first Eye stitched on.” He pointed to the single golden eye insignia embroidered on the shoulder of Ambroys’s ravaged tabard. “I was stationed with the Marsh Hawks just outside of Window, green as new grass. One day my squad and I are on a routine sweep for smuggler’s caches along the coast. We should have been paying more attention, but the littoral patrol boats had already reported clear and it was a hot, sticky day of slogging through the mud when we knew we wouldn’t find a damn thing. What we didn’t count on was a gang of smugglers out of Risen Crest had paid off the patrol boat skipper for the day. Me and my whole squad stumbled right into them.”
Ozzen took a long pull on his cigarillo and swirled his whiskey. “We were completely surprised. I got hit hard on the head and went down early in the skirmish. When I came to my whole squad was wiped out and the smugglers were gone. Now I struggled with the guilt of that for a long time. Hells, it still churns my gut to think that they’re all dead while I’m not.” He took a swallow of his drink before continuing.
“Son, the point is you’ve been through hell. Someone only has to look at you to see that. It’s natural to feel guilty for surviving when your friends didn’t but no one would blame you for living.”
“Sir, I’m not lying-”
“No one is accusing you of that, son,” cut in Ozzen. The dwarf wore a sad smile that he probably thought looked comforting. In the shifting slick of firelight shadows, it just looked grim. “All I’m saying is that grief does funny things to us all. It can… blur the details, warp them out of proportion.”
Ambroys’s mouth hung open. They think I’m losing it, cracking at the edges. They think I’ve been through too much and my mind is warping reality to deal with the guilt. “I–I–,” stammered Ambroys grasping for some response.
“Maybe it ain’t one devil,” said Anton looking as helpful as a man selling prayer books door to door. “Maybe it was a whole mess of them. You know, the Grimwood tribe might’ve done this! Now there’s a group of goblins with a flair for the dramatic. Why I once saw them use flash powders and burning oil to drive a terror bird into a trap. If they were trying to drive out a pack of Lupekin they might do something like that to make sure fear keeps the mutts gone. Why I wager that’s exactly what happened,” he said slapping his knee and beaming at the others with a creamy smile.
Ozzen shook his head. “I don’t see it. I have nothing but respect for the Grimwood people. Savages though they may be, they do indeed have a way with theatrics. However, I find it hard to believe that a band of goblin primitives would be able to accomplish such a mission against a Lupekin pack that slaughtered eighteen trained Vigil soldiers.
“Well now, Candle, you just might be an expert in war and tactics and such. And you ain’t no stranger to the Morass. But I think you are giving them goblins short shrift,” said Anton. “I have been wandering the Morass since I was a sprout tagging along after my Papi. Them gobbies have more tricks than a squirrel in a nut house. Why once when I was trapping along the Bywater–”
“It wasn’t goblins, Grimwood tribe or any other,” interrupted Ambroys, frustration giving his words more bite than intended. Then turning to Ozzen, he continued, “Sir, it was one creature. I know that is hard to believe but it’s true.”
“Son, I know–,” started Ozzen.
“Sir, I’m not confused. I know what it was because I saw it,” said Ambroys. His face was flush, and the fire danced in his eyes.
“But you said that you didn’t see the creature,” said Ozzen leaning in. His natural squint narrowed until his eyes looked nearly shut.
Ambroys stared back eyes locked unflinchingly with his superior. “I said I didn’t see it then. It was later while I was running through the swamp.”
Ambroys’s chest heaved and he gulped for air as he pushed through the thigh-deep, black water. He had only been running for a few minutes but the combination of the drag from the water, the mud sucking at his feet, and his own dehydration already had his muscles ablaze. He would not be able to hold this up for long. I only need to push on for a mile or so. Then I can rest.
Mercifully, the cloud cover had begun to break up allowing shifting pools of mottled moonlight to spill through the canopy. The only other light sources were fireflies drifting among the infinite shade of the trees. Well, he hoped they were fireflies, but they could have just as easily been will-o-the-wisps, Crot’s Guides, hunting for souls. Either way, they were of no use to him.
He stumbled through the tangled trees and vines that choked the swamp waters. Their grasping roots and runners might have been a bane now, but they would be a boon when he finally stopped to rest, helping to confound anyone that might be following him. Ambroys cast a hurried look behind. There was no sign of anyone giving chase, not that he would have had much luck spotting them in the dark. Gods, I can hardly see two feet ahead.
Something floating in the water bumped against his thighs. Ambroys froze. There were stories of snapping turtles in the Morass that were as big as a shield and could bite clean through a man’s calf. He prayed to Ruvest that the stories were not true. The thing did not move away but bobbed on the rippled waters against his trousers. He swallowed hard to try to loosen the knot that had tightened around his heart and reached down to nudge the dark mass aside. It felt fibrous like moss or the bearded lichens that hung from the boughs above. Definitely not a snapping turtle.
As the tension eased from his chest, the clouds shifted again, and moonlight illuminated the object. Ambroys gasped and snatched his hand back. The body of a Lupekin floated in front of him. Its throat had been slashed so deep that the white of its spine glinted among the dark ooze of blood. The creature had been this way!
Ambroys screwed his eyes closed and dredged with his ears through the mélange of croaking frogs and chirping insects that clotted the night air. Was the creature still here? Or had it left already? Maybe it approached the camp this way and was still occupied with the Lupekin? Nothing. No hint reached him. He opened his eyes, cast a useless look around the impenetrable dark, and crept passed the floating corpse leaving it bobbing in his wake.
This slow slink through the water was somehow more exhausting than sprinting. Every muscle in his body was ratchetted so tightly that Ambroys feared he might snap in half. Blood pounded in his ears with each manic heartbeat and he fought to smoothen the raggedness from his breathing. It had been an eternity of this sulking through the dark with only the night songs following. I think I’m alright now.
What was that? He had heard a splash. Or at least, he thought he did. Ambroys went stone stiff and listened. Nothing. It was nothing—no there it was again! Definitely a splash from behind him like something stumbling through the mire. Shit. I’ve got to hide.
Ambroys edged toward a shadow that was shaped like the trunk of a large tree. Each step was a journey as he felt his way gingerly among the roots and mud, trying to move as little water as possible with each gliding stride. When finally he reached out and felt the wet bark on his fingers, he pulled himself in tight to the trunk and prayed to be a hole in the swamp.
A third splash made a dissonant cord in the night’s chirping song. Ambroys hardly dared to breath as he strained his ears trying to find some indication of the creature’s position, but the frog calls carried on unblemished. The clouds had once again masked the moon blanketing the bog in the gluey ink of night.
Come on! Where are you, you murderous bastard? There! Ambroys heard another splash and furrowed his brow. That one was different, diminished somehow. Was it farther away? No, it had been just as loud but smaller. He craned his head around the tree trunk, hoping beyond hope to catch a glimpse of the thing in the fickle light. He strained his eyes to pierce the night’s veil.
A weight struck Ambroys from behind with the force of a bull. He toppled over and plunged into the murky water. The weight pressed upon him, forcing his face down into roots and river grasses. The cloying mud filled his nose, choking him. Ambroys drove his bound wrist against the sodden earth and scrambled his knees beneath him. Through gritted teeth, he propelled his bulk towards the surface. The force dislodged his assailant who splashed into the thigh-deep water.
As Ambroys gasped for air, the clouds shifted, and pied moonlight filtered through the canopy. A lupine face emerged from the bog with one enraged yellow eye gleaming and the other deathly white. Volk. Rancid water streamed from the matted fur and dripped off his clawed fingers. Volk lifted his chin to the full moon and a chilling howl tore from his chest. Then he pounced.
Ambroys tumbled onto his back and, again, was forced underwater. Volk’s hands wrapped around the young soldier’s throat, pinning him under and constricting with a brutal inevitability. Ambroys tore at the clawed hands but their grip was like iron. He kicked and thrashed, trying to get a leg under the beast. The grip only tightened as sinuous muscle masked under rough fur drew taught. Volk’s lank frame may as well have been made of steel for all that it waivered under the panicked assault.
Ambroys’s lungs burned and his chest began to spasm as his body screeched for air. Still, he struggled but he was growing weaker with each thrust and kick. His thrashing was becoming sluggish and weak. His thoughts grew cloudy. The water was murky and, even with eyes wide and bulging, it made him sightless. Yet, he could sense the darkness creeping in at the edge of his vision, consuming him by degrees until the gloom would swallow him whole. Ambroys made a final feeble push before going completely limp. The world felt so far from him now as did all the concern it contained. So. Very. Far. Somewhere, many lifetimes away, a wolf howled to the moon.
Ambroys’s eyes snapped open. A sudden awareness flooded him as the iron pressure of Volk’s muscle slackened. With a final desperate surge, he heaved against the soggy fur. Volk offered no resistance. Indeed, what had once been an immovable weigh was now brushed aside like so much flotsam.
He struggled to the surface coughing and hacking and gulping the rank swamp air. Moonlight still filtered through the tangled boughs enough to see the inert outline of the Lupekin floating away on the wetland’s infinitesimal current. The light held long enough to see Volk’s head loll at a funny angle. His neck had been broken. Then the atmosphere shifted, and the light failed, casting Umbra Morass into inky shadow.
Despite the cloying heat of the summer’s night, a shiver raced down Ambroys’s spine. His heart hammered in his chest and he struggled to control his panicked breathing. A prickling ran along the base of his neck and every muscle in his body constricted tighter than a bowstring. There was something moving behind him. He could feel it like ants crawling up his spine.
Ambroys’s eyes darted to the corners and tugged his head into a turn. As his body began to twist around his hands balled into fists. He might not have a chance in the hells, but he’d be damned if he was going to die without taking a swing. Momentum building, Ambroys whirled around, fist raised, and found empty darkness.
The whole of the swamp seemed to hold its breath as Ambroys spun back and forth, swinging into the void for a demon that could not be seen. When no fiend could be found, he dropped his arms, panting. Perhaps the creature had moved on. Maybe it couldn’t see him under the blackened water. He stood for a moment, letting his breath settle and his muscles uncoil. He was letting fear get the better of him. He just needed to relax and think. Two deep breathes rolled in and out of his lungs, draining the tension from his shoulders. He was jumping over nothing. If the creature wanted him, it would have had him by now. It must have moved on. There was nothing left hunting him from the shadows. Nothing left to fear.
Two red eyes blazed to life like tiny fires in the gloom.
Ambroys ran. He ran for all his life, splashing through the water like a torrent, but he did not dare look back. The eyes were following him. He could feel their heat on the back of his neck like the breath of death itself. His heart flogged his chest and his legs pumped acid. His lungs heaved like bellows until they flew so quickly that he felt like he was choking on his own breath.
A hand, hard as cured wood, gripped him by the collar of his chainmail armor. It hoisted him nearly free of the water and then hurled him into a stand of trees. Ambroys hit with a sickening thud and fell to the spongy earth. His head reeled and he struggled to clear the murkiness of his rattled senses. Through the gloom, the raging eyes advanced. Whatever they were attached to made hardly more than a ripples worth of noise as it glided through the swamp.
They were nearly upon him. Ambroys felt around the syrupy dark for anything that might aid him. Just as the eyes stepped into reach, his hands clasped around a stout fallen branch. He hoisted it and swung hard at the creature. He struck true with a solid wallop and the fiery red eyes bounced from the blow. Ambroys lifted the branch to strike again, but the creature caught it mid-swing and wrenched it from his grasp.
The vice-like fingers of a single solid hand wrapped around Ambroys’s throat and lifted him off his feet, pinning him to the tree trunk. The red eyes flared against the unblemished dark like midnight’s own wrath. Not a sound escaped the creature as the skies shifted and a pillar of silver light spilled upon the pair.
A jack-o-lantern face twisted in hideous rage glared at Ambroys. The arm that held him aloft not only felt as solid as wood but was wood, a scrap bit of beam notched with ill treatment. It connected to a tattered suit of sodden ring mail armor. The creature’s other hand held a raised shortsword, nearly as notched as his wooden arms. From its pommel, dangled a charm that looked like a small rag doll. It was much repaired and marred by poor stitching. Loose straw and leaves poked out through gaps in the seams.
As the Scrap Knight stared into Ambroys’s horror-stricken face, his features softened. His red eyes diminished to a pale-yellow glow and it eased Ambroys to the moistened soil. He took a step back from the choked soldier and sheathed his sword. The two stared at one another. Ambroys massaged his bruised throat and searched that inhuman face for some reason for this reversal, some explanation why this monstrosity had not slain him. The Scrap Knight said nothing, his features a mask of vague melancholy. Without a sound he turned to leave.
“Thank you,” Ambroys croaked after him. He immediately felt stupid but could think of nothing else to do. This Scrap Knight may have been a murderous monster, but the creature had saved his live. He should not be tempting fate by drawing its attention again and yet, he owed the thing a debt.
The Scrap Knight stopped and waited.
Ambroys took a few hesitant steps forward. “You saved my life,” he said, his voice still husky. “I owe you thanks.”
Haltingly, the Scrap Knight turned. He squinted at Ambroys with his glowing jack-o-lantern eyes, his head tilted to one side.
“Please, I owe you a debt and I must repay it. Ask anything of me and you shall have it,” said Ambroys stepping closer.
For a fleeting moment, the Scrap Knight looked hollowed out as though keenly aware of a void that he could not fill. Then he slowly shook his head and began to trudge back into the bog.
Ambroys reached out and grasped the knight’s arm. The Scrap Knight whirled around, his shortsword ready to strike. Ambroys eased back, bound wrists held up in a pacifying gesture.
“Please, there must be something I can do to repay you,” he said. His eyes washed over the knight now fully illuminated by the pale light of the moon and settled on the charm swaying gently from the sword’s pommel. “Your doll. Maybe I can get it properly repaired for you?” he asked making a stitching motion with his hands.
The Scrap Knight’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. He pulled both sword and doll to his chest. A twiggy thumb brushed over the doll’s soiled forehead.
“I promise no harm will come to her and I’ll return her as soon as she is mended,” Ambroys said taking a knee and bowing his head. “You have my word as an Eye of the Vigil.”
A wooden hand rested on Ambroys’s shoulder. He lifted his eyes to see the Scrap Knight’s sword tip pointed at his chest. Before he could flinch, the Scrap Knight had sliced through the rope that bound his wrists. The knight delicately unfastened the doll and placed it in Ambroys’s hands. Then without so much as a glance back, The Scrap Knight disappeared into the gloom.
Ozzen let out a long, low whistle and Anton erupted into a fit of laughter so convulsive that he spilled his drink all over himself. Ambroys grit his teeth and glared at the elderly halfling.
“Scrap Knight! Ha! That’s a good one!” said Anton still seizing with peals of laughter. “Next you’ll be telling me that Crot guided you from the Morass himself! Does Ruvest tuck you in at night too, boy?” The halfling tried to struggle out a few more words but they were eclipsed by his side-splitting guffaws.
“I’m glad you find this all so amusing,” growled Ambroys.
“Well, Son, you do have to admit that it’s one hell of a yarn,” said Ozzen. The Candle’s brow was furrowed. He took a long draw off his cigarillo and blew slow deliberate smoke rings. “Sometimes I forget just how young you new recruits can be,” he said more to himself than to the others.
“Excuse me, sir?” said Ambroys taken aback.
“Boy, the Scrap Knight ain’t nothing but a legend,” said Anton wiping his eyes. “He’s the boogeyman of the bog, the story we tell sprouts to keep them from wandering into the Morass. ‘Don’t go in the swamp or the Scrap Knight will get you,’ that sort of thing. But he ain’t real.”
Ambroys stayed focused on Candle Ozzen. “Sir, I’m not from Reaper’s Fen. I don’t know what the hell a Scrap Knight is, but I know what I saw.”
Ozzen held his young soldier’s stare so long that Ambroys thought he could almost count the cogs as the gears turned behind the officer’s eyes. He didn’t give a rat’s ass if Anton believed him but Ozzen was his commanding officer. If Candle didn’t believe him, then his credibility in the Vigil was shot. His career would be over before it really began. Worse, folks would start to wonder why he had lied. They’d whisper. At best they would say he was nuts or maybe a coward. At worst, they’d say he was a traitor. Just the thought made the vein in his temple throb. No, Ozzen was a good man. He’d see the truth.
Candle Ozzen ran a thick hand over his broad jawline. With a sigh, he plucked the stub of the cigarillo from his lips and chucked it into the fire. Then he patted his knees and stood. “I think this has been a long morning for you, son. Let’s get you back to the barracks, let the medic take a look at your scrapes, and get you some rest. We can go over all this again tomorrow.”
Ambroys did not move. He stared coolly back at the Candle and said, “Sir, I’m telling the truth.”
“No one’s calling you a liar,” he said with a kind of put-upon patience. “Let’s go.”
Ambroys remained seated.
Ozzen planted his feet and pulled another cigarillo from an interior pocket. He jabbed it between his molars and said, “Son, I am trying to help you right now, but you are testing my patience.”
“Candle, I am not asking for your help. I am asking for you to listen to me,” said Ambroys jumping to his feet. “I saw what I said I saw, and I’ve got the proof!” He reached into his tattered tunic and withdrew a rag doll, soiled with straw poking from the seams. He brandished it at the two of them like a talisman.
The cigarillo fell to the barroom floor as Ozzen’s mouth fell open. Anton choked off his chuckles. “Well fuck me running,” he said. The color drained from his wrinkled face. “The Scrap Knight is real!”
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?”
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 form 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 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, SK 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 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 thowp. 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. 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.
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 wooden 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 clutch 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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