by Robert Currer
Part 1: Chapters 1 – 10
26,200 Words: 1 Hour 45 Minute Read
This work of fiction contains violence, sexual situations, and references to mental illness, self-harm, and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.
In his two weeks spent in St. Anna’s psychiatric care ward, no one came to visit Eric. No one called. The life he had outside the confines of the hospital flowed on, untroubled by his absence. When the day came, he stepped from the hospital doors back into the already baking heat of midmorning, suitcase in hand and stupidly hopeful. No one was there to meet him. Deflating, he slumped into a bench and called an Uber, wondering why the loneliness felt so much more acute in the garish light of day.
When he finally saw those people he called friends, they spoke to him as though he had just returned from a very boring vacation. “Oh my god, you look so rested! Next time, you should try this spa I’ve been going to. It’s absolutely ah-mazing!” said Blakely and then proceeded to twitter on about whatever skin care regime she swore by that month. It all sounded like witchcraft to Eric.
In another conversation, Isaac’s eyes swelled slightly at the news of where Eric had been. He said, “That sucks. I guess everyone needs some time away sometimes. Oh, dude! Did I tell you about the sick resort I’m taking Paige to? It’s gonna be fire, bro!” The thread of the conversation was swept away to discussion of some plastic sounding beach resort whose activities centered, bafflingly, around a saltwater pool. Eric tried and failed to pretend he cared.
Toward the end of the evening, Mutual Friend Mike pulled Eric aside. “Hey, man, look you’ve got to stop with the hospital talk. You’re bumming everyone out. I love ya and I’m glad you’re back but, you’ve got to just let it go. Cool? Rad.” Without waiting for an actual reply, Mike cuffed Eric on the shoulder and returned to the others. After the incredulity wore off, Eric quaffed his drink and left without a word to anyone.
Days later on a rare drizzly night when he felt as though one more second spent rattling around the crushing silence of his apartment might shatter his remaining sanity, he called his mother. “Hi, Mom,” he said trying not to sound too much like he wanted a hug.
“You sound tired,” she said a mote of motherly concern in her voice.
His shoulders felt like they were draped in a stone mantle so heavy that it compressed his spine all the way down to the tail bone. His eyes ached like he had been on them for hours. “I’m alright.”
“Are you getting enough sleep?” she said in a prodding, pointy instrument of a voice.
“Yeah” he said sounding utterly exhausted. An interrogation, for which she was clearly winding up, was not why he called.
“Have you been using that weighted blanket I sent you?”
“Yeah. I just wanted—,” he started.
“What about the melatonin? Have you been taking that every night? You have to take it every night or else it won’t work.”
“I’m taking it every night.” A painful tightness blossomed between his eyebrows.
“Good. Well, I’m glad to hear that you are doing so well,” she said. The concern eased out of her with a quiet sigh. She had long held to the belief that a good night’s sleep was all it took to cure pretty much anything.
“Mom, can we talk for a minute?” he asked trying to keep the worst of the ache out of his voice.
“Sorry but Dad and I are already late for the theater. Try to get to bed early tonight. I love you!”
“I love you too, Mom.” The line went dead before he finished.
Outside, rain ran down the windowpane like trailing tears. His whole body felt heavy and locked, his joints rusting into place. Some time passed but he took no notice, staring with unseeing eyes into the night.
The phone buzzed, startling him no less than if he had been shot. New message from Katie Tinder. He had entered her contact that way before their first date and had since learned her real last name. Yet, he had never got around to changing it in his phone. Did he want to meet for a drink? Eric realized, with some surprise, that a drink sounded like it was perhaps the only good thing in the world that night.
One drink turned to many and after last call, they both stumbled, trashed and dripping with rain, to Katie’s front door. “You should come in. My roommate’s gone for the weekend,” she said. Her words slurred luxuriantly from her full lips. She giggled while she fumbled with her keys. When the door opened, she half slumped, half leaned into him wrapping her arm around his waist. They staggered like a three-legged racer to her couch and collapsed together with a satisfied flop.
Eric sighed and noted with nebulous amusement that he could no longer feel the tip of his nose. Yup, he was definitely drunk but at least he didn’t have the spins… Yet. “Thanks for tonight. It’s the most fun I’ve had since I got back.”
“Night’s not over yet,” she said. Her breath was sultry on his ear and sent a tingle down his spine.
“I just needed this, you know,” he said. “After everything, it’s just nice to do something human again, something that makes me feel like my old self.”
Her lips worked their way down his neck toward the hollow of his collar bone. “Mmhmm,” she moaned softly and then traced the tip of her tongue back up to his ear lobe.
“It’s just that ever since I’ve been back everyone’s been treating me different like I’m made of glass or like I’ve got some horrible, shameful secret. I’m not broken, and I hate that they look at me that way. I just had a rough couple months, but I got help and I’m better now,” he said, his words flowing with that teetering sway unique to rambled, intoxicated confessions. “It’s like my therapist has been saying—”
“You really need to stop talking,” she said pulling away to look him in the eye. Hers were a frosty, jagged blue. “If I wanted a pussy, I’d play with my own. Now are you going to keep bleeding all over my couch or are you going to shut up and fuck me like a man?”
Eric walked home alone in the rain, Katie’s final frustrated barbs echoing in his ears. He was drenched to the bone. The chill that had seeped in through his goose pimpled flesh was starting to become a numbness where the water dripped from his fingertips and squelched around his toes. He didn’t mind. Numbness would be a welcome change.
“Be careful. I love you.”
“I will be. I love you too, Mom,” said Eric as he ended the call. He was feeling slightly guilty for lying to her. But he was being careful, jut not careful in the sense that she meant. His plan to hitchhike to the Grand Canyon and spend a few days wandering the trails alone was neither pragmatic nor safe. He understood that but what his mother wouldn’t understand was that the risk was necessary. The old darkness, the kind that put him in the hospital, had been creeping in at the seams of his loneliness for weeks and had only grow stronger as he was tossed about a squalling sea of acquaintances and fair-weather friends. A clean slate was needed if he was ever going to rise above the suffocating mire of his depression.
His mother could understand all that, but she would fail to grasp that, if he was going to snatch his life back from the clutching gloom, Eric first needed to remind himself that he could depend on himself. He needed to know that whatever else his failings were, he would not let himself down. So yes, there was risk but to do otherwise would risk so, so much more… Or at least he hoped that was true.
The early morning was dull and grayed by a thick marine layer that coated the rolling hills. The moisture made the morning cool and comfortable. Eric savored the nourishment of the wet air against his skin. He needed this. The miles that passed beneath his boots would untangle the knots in his head and, when he returned, he would have a memory, refreshing and intimate, that he could call on when he was feeling low again. For though his spirits were buoyed at the moment, they would find a trough sooner or later. He knew this and it was item one on the list of things he was trying to learn to accept.
The item two was that he made poor decisions in selecting his friends. He surrounded himself with selfish, cartoonish creatures with no more emotional depth than a shot glass… Maybe. Or perhaps, he was expecting too much of them. It must be hard for them to be reminded of his darkest days, when he was so low he couldn’t even dream of the sky, much less see it. That had to be a painful memory for them. Didn’t it? But it hadn’t been their darkness. It was his own which he had never lain at their feet. And hadn’t group therapy taught him that he was supposedly part of a tribe, that he shouldn’t have to go it alone? So why wouldn’t a single one of them shut the fuck up for two seconds and just listen? He wasn’t asking any of them to carry the weight that hung perpetually over his shoulders, only to unburden himself for the moment. Was that too much to ask? He would have gladly done the same for them. He was right the first time. He did have shit taste in friends.
As the sun rose higher in the sky, Eric plodded along with such smoldering anger that it might have been him that burnt off the morning fog instead of the mounting heat of the day. By noon, he was too tired and too hot to be angry any longer. He huddled in the dwindling shade of a stunted tree off the side of the road and wondered where he would sleep tonight. The first night was always going to be one spent under the stars as no one in Orange County would pick up a hitchhiker and it would take him all day to get through this stretch of Cleveland National Forest to the 15 on the other side. Out there he had better odds of getting a lift.
But that was tomorrow’s problem. Today was about avoiding heat exhaustion and finding a decent place to spend the night. Eric withdrew a sandwich from his bag and absently chewed the slightly crushed bread, rolling his options over in his mind. It felt good to need only answer simple questions of survival instead of the existential muck that civilized life forced on him. And there were worse places to spend an afternoon than in the gnarled shade of a juniper.
The question of where to make camp had ultimately been an easy one. A convenient hollow among the brush had presented itself near sunset and Eric ensconced himself comfortably within. The night was clear and already a splash of stars managed to puncture the light pollution of the coastal cities. He lay on his back looking up into the night and feeling contented for the first time in—he couldn’t remember how long. Day one had been a success. He had made good time despite the steepness of the hills and had even found a working water pump off one of the fire roads. Bunking down with the security of a full hydration pack gave him a little pang of pride. Today had been a win and, with that last little sigh of a thought, his eyes fluttered shut. He slept deeply and dreamed of being at sea.
The morning mist was thick as he had ever seen, like the fog machine kind they pump into werewolf films. It cloyed and swirled at the edges of Eric’s tiny camp. Normally, he enjoyed fog in a boyish way, but this mist hung heavy and solid, looming like standing stones around a sacrificial altar. A feeling like being buried alive was beginning to surge like vomit up his throat and he swallowed hard to force it back down. His few possessions packed up quickly but not rapidly enough to outrun the prickling on the nape of his neck like unseen eyes crawling along his skin.
Bag packed and slung over his shoulders, Eric’s metered stride hastened to a trot, then a jog, and finally a dead sprint as he fled down the side trail toward the main, rooster tails of sand splashed behind. The mist kept pace, rolling over the path behind him like an eerie tide. A maddening fear that something cloaked in the inscrutable fog nipped at his heels flooded him. Dread panic dashed him forward as if sucked up by a crashing wave. His chest felt crushed. He was gasping for air.
Eric skittered to a stop, folded over with his hands on his thighs and gulped the chill morning air. Nothing had been chasing him. His cheeks pinked and he felt like a child sprinting from the bathroom to the safety of his bedroom night-light. Twenty-five and still a scared little boy.
Ragged breaths smoothed at the edges until they were metered and near relaxed enough to allow him the fantasy of control once again. Eric frowned. Looking around, he did not recognize this section of the trail from yesterday. Had he run too far and missed the main path? No that couldn’t be it. He would have noticed if he and crossed another trail. He shrugged and guessed that the mist was simply thick enough to obscure the landmarks he remembered. Without knowing what else to do, he continued down the trail, his gait slow and tense.
No familiar landmarks had presented themselves. Yet, he had walked nearly two hours. He considered turning back and retracing his steps but oddly the fog had not abated. It swallowed the trail behind him so that his recent past was reduced to ghostly shadows. Rationality told him it was only fog; it would part if he stepped into it. But something deeper, more primal and more in tune with the rhythms of the world whispered warnings against setting foot in that unholy mist. There was something sinister about it. Eric was becoming increasingly convinced of that. Here and there a shadow would move in the mist at the edge of his periphery and creaking, groaning sounds would drift out. Just trees. Old trees groaning in the wind. Nothing more.
But the shadows did not move like swaying trees. They scuttled and skulked. And if there was wind, why couldn’t he feel it? Thick, sticky panic bubbled in his belly, burning up the back of his throat. Shallowing the acid burn, he focused on pressing forward, one cautious step at a time and convinced down to his very toes that stepping onto the mist meant certain death.
The day waxed and began to wane again. The sun never penetrated the fog with more than a spectral half-light. Walking the unfamiliar trail, Eric was now certain that he was completely lost. The path lead through a gap between two high peaks that were encrusted with pines and fir trees, unlike any native to the area. They grew tall and still, watching through the ever-present mist like grim sentinels. More than once, Eric had the sense the trees themselves were watching him. He didn’t like their cold eyes on him. Their rough bark looked a deep gray in the dying light and more than a few were scarred by powerful claw marks that left raw gouges down their trunks.
Eventually, the mist began to thin until he could see the yellow twinkle of lights on the slopes below. There tucked into a shallow valley was a small town surrounded by a wooden palisade. It had become night at some point while he was lost in the fog and the few lights that shone picked out the village in a relief of bottomless shadows. Icy fingers dripped down his spine. It might have been from the chill wind that buffeted the exposed ridge or from the haunted, ooze of the jaundice light below. Eric could not tell but he did not like the feel of either.
He hesitated, uncertain whether to turn back into the looming fog or to descend into the menacing, will-o-the-wisp lights of the town. He would almost certainly become lost in the mist and, yet the deep primal thing inside wondered if that was preferable to whatever lurked in the land ahead. Somewhere in the night a lone howl pierced the stillness and shook Eric from his indecision. He jogged down the crumbling hillside, sand and small stones tumbling ahead like heralds of his coming. For better or worse, he would take his chances beyond the mist.
The sun set quickly over the western peaks and a rind of dying daylight was all that endured by the time Eric reached the town in the valley. A bristling line of poles sharpened to stakes jabbed out from a dry moat that ringed its thick palisade wall. The only way in was a single lane sandstone bridge that spanned the gap and led to sealed gates, little larger than a two-car garage.
He had never seen anything quite like this in person. It reminded him of a particularly elaborate playground his grandparents had taken him to as a child, where towering wooden jungle gyms had been styled into fairy tale castles and frontier forts. Yet, this place held none of the playground’s whimsy and instead stared out at the world with the flinty gaze of a true survivor. The stakes were stained at the tips with something ominously dark and the iron bands which reinforced the stout wood of the gates bore scars that looked disturbingly like claw marks. The hairs stood up at the nape of his neck.
“Who goes there?” called a voice in the dark.
Eric spun a full circle trying to figure out where the voice had come from before thinking to look to the top of the gate. There at the guardhouse window stood a figure silhouetted in a warm light. The figure wore something atop its head that tapered to a blunted, conical point. Eric squinted trying to adjust his eyes to the shadowed figure. It looked like it was wearing some kind of medieval helmet. Had he stumbled on some elaborate LARPing group?
A curt whistle refocused Eric’s attention. “Stranger, are you gonna answer my questions or just sit out there all night waiting for the basks to eat you?” shouted the figure.
“Oh, uh, sorry,” said Eric not really sure how to play whatever game this was. “I’m Eric. Eric Milner. I’m a little lost.”
“State your business, Traveler.”
“Um, I think I took a wrong turn in the mist back there and I—”
“Mist Walker! Open the foot gate!” The figure called down to someone inside the walls. There was a sound like something heavy sliding out of position with a grunt of exertion. Then a door opened up in the thick beams of the gate. An armor-clad figure washed in torch light stood in the doorway, hand poised on the hilt of a sheathed sword. “Well, hurry the hells up!” barked the voice from above.
With a start, Eric trotted over to the open gate door and slid in past the guard. As he passed, she pushed the door closed and then went to work shoving a heavy wooden bar back into brackets across it. She wore a helm of steel that came to the same conical point and her armor was scuffed studded leather worn over a padded vest. The sword at her waist didn’t look like the foam replicas he had heard cosplayers used. Instead, it looked solid and professional with a leather grip worn smooth by time and sweat. He had a feeling that if she were to draw it the blade would be honed steel. Maybe this was some kind of movie shoot?
“Thanks,” he said. When she only grunted in response, he continued, “Do you know how to get to US-15 from here?”
She muttered something that sounded a lot like “lud tone” and gestured deeper into town with dismissive twitch of her head. Then she picked up a spear from where she had propped it against the wall and stood at attention, pointedly ignoring Eric.
He looked around, lost at sea. After a few frustrating moments, he said, “Sorry but my phone’s dead. Is there somewhere I can go to charge it?”
Her midnight blue eyes pivoted to their corners, slowly dragging the rest of her along until she was openly staring at him, her features stretched in annoyed disbelief. “Bloodstone Inn. That way, Mist Walker.” She pronounced the words slowly and precisely, like speaking to a moron. Her arm pointed down a dusty thoroughfare toward a two-story building that looked not unlike a wild west saloon.
He was such a fucking idiot. This was one of those crazy theme parks where all the employees had to stay in character the whole time. She probably would have been fired for the anachronism if she had acknowledged something like a modern highway or cellphone. Bloodstone Inn had to be the park reception. There would be someone there who could help him. Eric thanked the guard for her help, complimented her on her dedication to her role, and followed the road to the lurid slivers of light that peaked out of the inn’s windows.
A wooden sign creaked in the brisk night breeze. Under the words Bloodstone Inn, painted in peeling red calligraphy, was a carving like a stone bottle pouring blood red wine into a waiting goblet. The sign, though still recognizable, was beginning to look wind worn. So too was the inn’s clapboard siding. The elements had sanded it nearly smooth so that only fine tributaries of gray paint still clung to the wood. The widows were coated with a fine layer of rusty dust. Thick, faded curtains had been drawn across them but slashes of light cut into the dark where the edges met.
The porch boards groaned as Eric mounted them and pulled open the door. It squealed like a panicked hog on its hinges. A handful of sullen looking patrons, each clad in dingy, threadbare garb that, Eric supposed, was intended to be period correct—whatever period that was. Not a soul was speaking as they nursed glazed clay cups. Yet, the silence grew harsher as their dark eyes slid over him, framed as he was in the doorway. There was a deadness to their stares that reminded him of a shark’s inhuman gaze. A visible shiver ran through him as those hollow eyes shifted back to their drinks in brooding silence.
Behind a tarnished copper bar, a mountain of a man with a thick, black mustache wiped dust from the earthenware cups. As Eric approached, the man ran an appraising eye over the young traveler and said, “You ain’t from here.” Then he went silent, waiting for justification of this obvious deficiency.
Eric looked into the barkeep’s coal black eyes trying to read them. They were the eyes of a much smaller man, lording over his little dung heap. Looking into those beady spiteful orbs, he made up his mind. He did not like it here. Something was wrong about this place and it put him on edge as if the very ground might suddenly fall away. “Uh, yeah, I was camping nearby, and I got turned around in the mist.”
“It’ll do that,” said the bartender with a tight grimace of commiseration. “What’re you drinking?”
“Thanks, but I’m alright. Do you have somewhere I could charge my phone?” asked Eric, fishing his phone from his pocket.
Features pinched suspiciously at the smooth black box in Eric’s hand, the barkeep said, “No.”
“Okay…” They were really leaning into this “in-character” thing. “Then do you know how to get to US-15 from here?”
“How about a phone I can use?”
“Boy, I don’t understand a word you’re sayin’.”
“Then what do you have?” snapped Eric, throwing up his hands.
The barkeep’s onyx eyes gleamed darkly. He paused in polishing one of the glazed clay cups. “Reckon I have a map somewhere,” he said, making a show of examining the cup’s finish.
Eric plopped himself down on one of the rickety, wooden barstools with a puff of relief. Now he was getting somewhere. “That would be great.”
The barkeep put down the cup and wiped his hands on the rag tucked into his apron before disappearing into a back room. Eric wobbled back and forth on the stool’s uneven legs. When the barkeep returned, he carried with him a tattered roll of tea-colored parchment which he spread out across the greening copper bar top using a couple cups to weight down the edges. What it showed only raised more questions. A ring of barrier mountains encircled a stretch of wrinkled wastelands, at the center of which was a lonely mountain encircled by a lake and marked with a skull. It looked like something out of The Hobbit. Here and there stylized markers indicated settlements and other points of interest connected by dashed lines which Eric imagined indicated trails or roads. All around the edges, great billowing clouds were drawn. With a sinking feeling in the pit of stomach, Eric realized they were meant to indicate fog, a thick impenetrable wall of cloying mist.
“Look. This is really funny and all, but I really need to figure out where I am,” he said, voice higher and wavering slightly. “Do you have a real map? Not something you ripped out of some Tolkien knock off?”
An unkind smile smeared across the barkeep’s thin lips. It was a bully’s smile, the kind of malicious twinkle that sparks to life when they know they have you cornered. The little boy in him had lived in fear of that smile. Eric wished he could knock it off the other man’s face.
“You don’t understand, son,” said the barkeep, fighting through a sinister chuckle. “Don’t know where you were before but wherever it was, it’s gone. You’re through The Mist now. And there ain’t no going back.” With that said, his malign laugh could be contained no longer.
Asshole. “Thanks. You’ve been a big fucking help.” Eric hoisted his bag over one shoulder with a snarl and stomped off towards the door. Somewhere not far, church bells erupted in panicked peals.
“Wait!” called the barkeep. The cruelty had drained from his face along with all the blood leaving him pale and sallow. “Don’t go out there!”
A cathartic “fuck you” withered on Eric’s lips as he realized the other patrons were on their feet. Most were huddling back toward the shelter of the bar their wide eyes never leaving the front door and the wide, fragile windows that flanked it. Two among them had drawn swords and were padding their way toward the front like leery wolves. The first and younger of the pair reached the door and carefully pushed it open. Staying low and keeping his eyes skyward, he paced out onto the porch.
An inhuman shriek that sliced through the ringing bells was all the warning given. As he reached the edge of the porch, a diving blur of dark motion struck the man squarely in the chest. Before Eric could blink, the man was carried off into the void of night, only a splash of blood dripping between worn boards and a notched shortsword to give testament that the poor bastard had ever existed at all.
Eric froze, eyes rounded in incredulity. The man on the porch had been there a second ago. Now all that remained was a sticky smear of blood and a masterless sword. What was happening? Nothing felt real. It was as if he was trapped on the set of some horror movie, only there were no cameras, no takes, no lackluster lines. The hot wind carried the all too real stink of iron as it blew in over the blood slick. He could smell pain and misery in that sharp, metallic tang.
The second man to draw a sword grimaced causing the thin scar that ran from the thick hair of his scalp to the hard line of his jaw to bunch at his temple. This man moved more skillfully along the graying floorboards, keeping low and quiet, no stranger to this kind of hunt. The soldier crept to the thin column of wall that separated the door frame from the curtained windows and pressed his body to it as he craned his neck to look out beyond the shelter of the porch. A long breath passed as he examined the night. Then, with a sudden burst of speed, he dove back into the room as something impossible landed with a crash that rattled the floorboards.
It looked like pictures Eric had seen of vampire bats with its flat folded nose and veiny, over-sized ears. Only, this one was man-sized with a salivating mouth, bristling with jagged fangs. Its wings had been folded back so that it hunched on clawed hands at the mid-joint and on black-taloned feet. Wet, beady eyes found Eric in dumbfounded rigor at the rim of the bar. Lips peeled back into a snarl, the creature screeched a sound so high pitched that it was barely audible, yet, it struck him like a wave rolling his equilibrium until the world somersaulted. Everything churned and the strength drained from his legs. Eric grabbed the bar edge trying to hold himself upright but only succeeded in slowing his fall to a semi-controlled slide. Even solid ground seemed to rock like a boat on a savage sea. The contents of his stomach threatened to revolt.
Meanwhile, the soldier’s dive had tucked into a roll and found him on his feet, poised with sword in hand for the next assault. As the creature blasted Eric with its disorienting scream, the solider charged the beast, swinging his longsword in a double gripped, downward arc. The creature scuttled left with alarming agility, avoiding the blow. The powerful stroke left a deep gouge in the floorboards where it had been. It braced itself to shriek again, this time at the solider, but another cut forced the beast to reposition. When the third strike came, it was done running. With a clawed hand, it knocked away the ringing steel, forcing the solider to dance backwards to keep his footing.
Reality came rushing back to Eric like a crushing tide. He still didn’t know what was going on but that really didn’t matter right now. All that would sort itself out later. What he did know was that the creature was batting away sword strokes like pool noodles. If he didn’t do something soon, he wouldn’t live long enough to figure a way out. The soldier wasn’t going to hold out forever, and alone Eric would be dead before he could so much as scream.
He hopped the bar, sliding across the liquor-sticky copper, and landing lightly on the balls of his feet next to the huddled barkeep. The back wall was little more than a deep shelf where casks of wine rested on stands so that their brass spigots were at a convenient pour height. No help there. Squatting down he rummaged around below the counter until he found what he needed, a thin clay jug that smelled more like turpentine than whiskey. Moonshine. Or something like it. He snatched up a rag and stuffed half into the jug before inverting it to allow the pungent liquor to soak into the fabric. The odor singed his nostrils and made his eyes water. Perfect for what he needed.
From his pocket, Eric fished out a small gas station lighter. He had never been anything more than a sporadic social smoker who drunkenly bummed the occasional cigarette from a more serious devotee, but camping had taught him the importance of a quick fire source, though he never imagined using it for this. He thumbed the flint wheel twice before it lit, the golden flame swaying in his trembling hand. The soaked rag kissed the tip and ignited with a whoosh that nearly scorched off his eyebrows.
A deep fortifying breath filled his lungs and then, with the exhale, Eric popped up. The bat-beast had the soldier backed against the far wall despite the ferocity of the sword strikes. Even from here, Eric could see the beads of sweat on the soldier’s creased forehead. Time was running out. Eric tested the weight of the jug, took aim, and hurled it at the creature’s exposed back. The clay shattered soaking the greasy fur in liquid flame.
The beast reared and shrieked. The world reeled and wobbled. Eric clapped his ears and tried not to vomit. Behind the bar, the few actual glasses present burst like party poppers. The soldier saw his window and, with a roar of his own, drove his sword through the creature’s throat. A spurt of steaming blood splashed across him. The beast collapsed, its reeking carcass still smoldering.
The soldier tossed Eric a nod of thanks, stepped over the body, and dashed out the door. Drops of blood, which still streamed from his sword tip, left a dotted trail of violent crimson against the muted gray floorboards. He paused only a moment beneath the cover of the porch before cutting right, deeper into town.
The wave of nausea passed, and Eric eased himself down to the floor. Across from him, the barkeep huddled, shivering and unblinking. His black mustache looked especially dark against his now pallid cheeks and even his eyes, once so lively, had gone a flat stormy gray. Something like pity for the terrified man tugged at Eric.
By now the other patrons, five in total, had crept their way behind the bar as well, drawn by that magnetic pull of the frightened to congregate. Their fear, however, wasn’t nearly as acute as the barkeep’s. There was a weary acceptance in their dusty peasant faces that made them look hollow as if a lifetime of terror and grief had ground away everything inside that would rebel against even this horror, leaving only the most basic human need to avoid one’s own demise. Could this be hell? Eric brushed the question away. Whatever it was, he would find out soon enough. And with that resigned thought, he settled in among the wretched to wait for the all clear.
The night toiled on as the waiting huddled together in weary, taut silence. Eventually, the air filled with the relieved chant of church bells. The tension drained gradually from the crowd gathered behind the bar as if awaking from an extended nightmare. One by one, they each rose with stiff creaking joints and shuffled out the door, carefully avoiding the blood slick of the man who had been taken. With nowhere else to go, only Eric remained. As the barkeep shakily set about tidying up the chaos left by the night’s events, Eric found himself standing over the corpse of the bat creature. His mind reeled with a beehive of questions, too numerous and fleeting to grab hold of just one.
A creamy drawl spoke from behind him. “You were pretty quick on your feet back there,” said the soldier. His sword was sheathed now, and his leather armor had smears of dark blood across the chest as if they had been hastily wiped away with a rag. There was the twinkle of a smile in his granite gray eyes that flashed in the light like flecks of pyrite, accentuated by the silver beginning to creep into the hair at his temples. He looked older out of action, more life-worn now that the world had lost its sharp focus.
Eric felt self-conscious under the weight of the man’s stare as if there was an expectation held within. He wondered if he would live up to it. Not knowing what else to say, he said abashedly, “Thanks.”
“I should be the one saying thank you,” replied the soldier. “You helped me out of a real tight spot. The least I can do is buy you a drink.” At that moment, a pair of soldiers dressed like those from the gate arrived in the doorway. He directed them to remove the bat creature’s body and then turned to the barkeep. “Pol, two of the usual.”
They sat on the uneven stools and watched in silence as Pol sloshed two fingers of a bourbon-smelling liquor into a pair of brightly enameled clay cups. The soldier waved the barkeep off when he tried to put the bottle away. Then he tugged off his stained leather gloves and offered a hand to Eric. “Lojan Tharp, Sentinel of West Watch Ward, Ogadac Defense Force.”
Eric had no idea what any of that meant but it sounded like a mouthful. “Eric. Eric Milner,” he said clasping the offered hand.
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ebrik.”
“My name is Eric.”
“That’s what I said. Anyway, here’s to you,” Lojan said lifting his cup. Eric raised his own, clinked the rim against Lojan’s, and then touched it to the bar top before sipping the honey sweet bite of the whiskey within. Lojan raised an eyebrow and, licking the bourbon from his lips, asked, “Why did you do that?”
“Do what?” replied Eric.
“Tap your drink on the bar.”
“Oh that.” Eric chuckled, going a little pink in the cheeks. “Just a little superstitious, I guess. It’s like a kind of prayer to keep grounded, you know?”
“Do you always do that?”
“Pretty much always, yeah.”
“What if you aren’t at a table?” asked Lojan.
“I just use whatever’s around, I guess.”
“You’re a strange one, my friend,” said Lojan. Eric blushed from ear to ear, not entirely sure why he should care what this sword-swinging stranger should think of him. Yet, he did care, deeply. Lojan laughed with kind warmth. “Not to worry. Strange is good in these parts. To Ebrik the Strange!” They lifted their cups and quaffed the sweet fire contents, Eric maintaining his ritual.
“That’s not my name,” said Eric, coughing a little through the burn in his throat.
“What?” asked Lojan with disinterest as he refilled their cups from the bottle.
“Nevermind,” said Eric shaking his head. “So where are ‘these parts’? I got turned around in the mist and I don’t really know where I am.”
The mirth drained from Lojan’s smile. “But you saw Pol’s map? He wasn’t fooling with you. You’re off the edge of whatever world you came from. You’ve fallen into Karask Rev. May the gods have mercy on your soul.” He sipped his drink. Behind him, the bat creature’s corpse was being hauled away with the reverence given to especially odious and cumbersome bags of manure.
A feeling like a slow siphon dragging him down into the abyss filled Eric as the garbled flotsam of his thoughts spun around the rim of the whirlpool. This wasn’t a joke. He really was in some other place. How could that be? Then again, could he deny it? There was some weird shit in California but nothing like those bat creatures. An ice water thought spilled down his spine. If it had killed Lojan, would he be dead now too? Dead and forgotten in some land of the lost. His mother would never know what happened to him. He’d be just another missing persons flier stapled up at the grocery store, the kind people never really stop to see. The whirlpool spun faster. His breathing grew rapid and ragged. With a trembling hand, he reached out to his cup for grounding and drank it down in a single gulp.
Wiping the residual sweet heat from his lips with the back of his hand, he asked, “What were those things?”
Lojan took a slow contemplative breath as he refilled Eric’s cup and topped off his own. “They’re called Diyakosha, a thoughtful little gift that Ol’ Skulls sends us when he worries we aren’t getting enough excitement.”
“Wait. Slow down,” said Eric rubbing his temples. “Who is ‘Ol’ Skulls’? And why does he send you these dee-ah-koh-sha?” He pronounced the unfamiliar assembly of syllables in careful chunks like a child.
“That’s not his real name. Just what folks round here call him. There’s power in a name, and we don’t like to give him more than he’s already got,” said Lojan, toying with his cup. “As for why, damned if I know. I reckon no one’s walked up to his door and asked. Even if they did, doubt they’d come back. He doesn’t take kindly to uninvited guests.” A hateful shadow formed behind his eyes, and he fell into a brooding silence.
Eric sat in the lulling quiet with Lojan, each man trying not to drown in his own thoughts. When he could take no more, he said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” He immediately felt he could hardly have picked something more meaningless to say. People said it all the time but there was no actual grief behind those words. They were just hollow things used to clutter the void between the anguished and the fortunate.
Lojan sighed and scratched the back of his head. “Don’t sweat it, kid. We’ve all lost. All we can do is drink to the fallen and pray there will be someone left to drink to us when we take our final rest.” He raised his cup and clicked it against Eric’s. They both drank and, when the cups returned to rest on the bar, he refilled Eric’s and topped off his own. “You were pretty quick on your feet,” he said again. “I have to admit I was impressed back there. You really held your own.”
A watery smile spread across Eric’s cheeks. His face was beginning to feel comfortably flush with the warmth of the whiskey. It felt good to sit down with a person and share a drink, just talking, no ulterior motives. He couldn’t remember the last time he had a real conversation with anyone. So many people just talked at each other. He liked Lojan, he decided. “Thanks,” he said, his tongue feeling thick and unwieldy in his mouth. “I was scared shitless.”
“No, you were great. I would have been in a hell of a bind without you. Good to know that I’ve got a friend like you that I can count on in a pinch. To good friends!” Cups clicked again and Eric quaffed his drink. Lojan refilled it.
“West Watch could use a soldier like you,” he said, casually watching Eric from the corner of his eye.
A blast of laughter burst from Eric. “I’m no soldier.” His words were beginning to blur at the edges, bleeding into one another. “I can’t even do the… the… thing with the… the… sword.” He made a chopping motion with his arm.
“We could teach you,” said Lojan. There was seduction in his voice, the unsaid promise of a different life. Isn’t that what Eric had set out to find?
Eric’s eyes rounded dreamily as fantasies of adventures he could not quite picture but could certainly feel cavorted in his head. He could leave everything, everyone behind and start fresh. And who would care if he never returned? Would his friends even notice? The memory of his mother and father drifted up from the ether. They would care. They would be heartbroken if he disappeared. A pin of guilt stuck him between the ribs. “I can’t. I’ve got people to get back to,” he said, more soberly.
“Of course,” said Lojan. His smile was thin and sad with just a dash of regret. But there was the faintest flash of hardness behind his eyes, so quick that Eric thought he imagined it. He clapped Eric on the back and said, “Well you aren’t going anywhere tonight. Let’s have another drink.” They drank and talked together until the moon crested its zenith. Lojan told fantastic stories from his service. None were especially important, but he told them with such flare that Eric hung on his every word. As he spoke, Lojan kept Eric’s cup full, hardly tasting his own.
Slowly, the bottled emptied. Through bleary eyes, Eric squinted at it ruefully. “I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight,” he said, his eyelids flickering. He yawned. “I should probably figure that out.” He laid his head on his arms atop the bar.
“Come on.” Lojan looped an arm around Eric’s shoulders and hoisted him to his feet.
“Wait, wait… wait.” Eric pushed away from Lojan. He swayed in small ellipticals as he tried to get his eyes to focus properly. “If this is another world—not my world, a different one—why does everyone speak English?” His voice hushed to a stage whisper as if this was a very private question.
Lojan chuckled, shaking his head. “Not sure what ‘Anglesh’ is but it doesn’t matter. The Mist gets in your head and changes the way you speak, the way you hear. It’s Ol’ Skulls big joke. He makes sure everyone can enjoy this hell equally,” he said, a hard-edge surfacing in his affable demeanor as he spoke of Ol’ Skulls. “But enough of that for now. Time to get you to bed. You’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Eric nodded solemnly, this new information slowly permeating his booze pickled thoughts. None of what Lojan had told him made any kind of sense but he felt like it should have. Maybe he would understand in the morning. Sleep. That was definitely needed. Sleep and in the morning, he would figure it all out. He nodded again and allowed himself to be led toward the door.
Half carried, half shuffling, Eric made his way out of the inn on teetering knees. The world began to sway and grew hazy at the edges, slowly sliding into blackout. Lojan whispered, “Don’t you worry, Ebrik Strange. I know just what to do with you.” That was the last thing Eric remembered until the morning.
Cold water slapped Eric’s face. He bolted upright and immediately regretted it. His skull was several sizes too small for his brain, squeezing it in a cruel grip that shot white hot stars behind his eyes. His stomach rolled, forcing him to his hands and knees as he geysered vomit and then bile across the hay-strewn floor. When he was empty, his sides and throat burned. Only then did his bleary eyes clear enough to take in his surroundings. He was in a barn. Why was he in a barn?
“Pah-thetic,” boomed a voice somewhere behind him. It sounded distantly familiar, but Eric couldn’t place it. Panting, he rotated toward the voice, his limbs and bones aching from the effort. A man stood silhouetted in the piercing morning light of the open barn door. Eric lifted his hand to shield against the brilliance as it clawed at the back of his eyes sending daggers of throbbing agony all the way through his brain.
Slowly, the man came into focus. He was tall and upright with a triathlete’s strong lean frame. The disapproving planes of his angular features narrowed to the point of his chin, ending in the tuft of a woolly black beard. His uniform, desert khaki under armor of boiled leather, was immaculately clean as if in direct opposition to the dust and hay. He looked familiar to Eric. Then it came to him. This man was the guard from the gate house tower, though he wore no helmet today.
“On your damn feet!” The guard barked the words, each crowding the other as they spilled from his lips.
Eric groaned, massaging his eyes with the heels of his palms. His head was still pounding, and the garish dawn light was only making it worse. His guts did another somersault in the wake of the squeezing pain, making him grateful there was nothing left in his stomach.
“Where am I?” he asked. His mouth felt tacky and tasted rancid.
“I do not recall requesting input, Conscript. Now on your feet, gods-damned-right-now!” His burnt coffee eyes crackling.
Eric scuttled a few feet backwards. He did not believe this man would actually do him harm but there was a storm cloud intensity in him. The thunder was here and Eric didn’t want to tempt the lightning.
“Guardsmen Corbin,” the soldier said. Another soldier, presumably Corbin, stepped into the agonizing light of the barn door and strode to the first’s side. She was shorter but with muscular limbs that were not shy about their own power. Her silk black hair was pulled into a functional bun that showed the subtle points of her ears and allowed thin locks to fall along the sides of her cheeks, framing the almond curve of her midnight blue eyes. Another familiar face. Eric wondered if she still thought he was an idiot. Probably.
“Get this conscript on his feet,” continued her superior.
Corbin marched to Eric and grabbed his forearm, yanking him to his feet. A flash of pain shot up his arm and he hissed as if stung. When her iron grip withdrew, he looked at his arm to find an angry tattoo. It was a stylized eye with swooping black lines but in place of the pupil was an hourglass, the sand not yet begun to run. When did that happen? How did that happen? The questions bubbling on his lips were popped as Corbin shoved him into a lurching walk toward the other soldier. The ground rocked under his unsteady legs. Everything hurt.
The soldier ran his black eyes up and down Eric, his full lips pulled into a disgusted frown. “Looks like you’ve got nowhere to go but up,” he said boring his unblinking stare into Eric’s own, daring him to break.
Eric blinked and looked to the side. “I don’t know what happened last night, but clearly there has been some mistake,” he said digging for more confidence than he felt.
“There is no mistake, Conscript Strange,” said the soldier with relish.
“That’s not my name,” said Eric.
“It’s not my business what you call your soul to your livin’ god. But here your ass belongs to me, Conscript.”
“I’m not supposed to be here.”
A hard smile spread across the soldier’s dusky face. “Of that we agree. You were supposed to be dead on the road, taken by beasts or thirst. You were supposed to amount to nothing more than vulture shit but, gods be praised, your feet found West Watch,” he said with a preacher’s growing fervor. “That fate may still find you, Conscript. And that’s why I’m here. You may refer to me as Watcher Salmin and you may think of me as your own personal angel of mercy! I’m here to deliver you from certain death, Strange, to drag you kicking and screaming from the path of your own destruction!” A manic heat flashed in his eyes. Eric recognized that look, that wild half-crazed stare of a man who doesn’t believe he’s right, he knows he’s right. It was a look he’d seen often among the inmates of St. Anna’s.
Salmin turned on his heel and marched out of the barn. Corbin prodded Eric to follow. The sun was still low but already the air felt oven hot. The flat, grimy light seared his eyes as boozy sweat began to flow down his back and face. The mere act of slopping one foot in front of the other was an excruciating endeavor. What he would not have given to lay down in a dark room with a handful of aspirin.
“Listen up, Conscript, ‘cause I’m only going to say this once,” said Salmin without turning or breaking his metered stride. “You are a conscript in the glorious Ogadac Defense Force. You will serve a standard indenture of seven years at which time, presuming you are among the breathing, you will be awarded your freedom. Until that time, your bone bag belongs to the ODF. You will train to be a soldier. You eat, sleep, drink, and piss when I allow it. You—”
“And if I don’t want to be owned?” Eric stopped firmly in his tracks.
“Then by all means, desert,” said Salmin, pausing his stride. “One thing you should know. That beauty mark on your arm ain’t just for looks. The ink is laced with a time release toxin. Without regular doses of the antitoxin, you’ll be dead in a matter of days. Still want to be your own man?” He looked over his shoulder at Eric, his features neutral.
Eric darted a glance to Corbin at his side. Her features remained a hardened mask, but her almond eyes betrayed a sheen of melancholy. It was true then. He had been sold into servitude. A bubble of acid panic burst in his belly. What should he do? Run away and gamble that it was all just a bluff? Salmin didn’t look like the type who put much stock in scams. Or did he stay and hope he survived seven years here? Could he survive seven years of this? Of the monsters he saw last night? His head was spinning out of control, his brain wobbling off its axis and bouncing off the walls of his skull. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe. His legs turned to jelly and the world grew black at the edges and then—
“You’ve got a choice to make.” Salmin’s voice cut through the swirling panic. He had turned and was walking toward Eric now, rolling up his sleeves. “To stick your head in the sand and hope the gods spare you. Or to gamble on yourself and spend the next seven years showing this little slice of hell that it can’t kick you around. We’ve each stood in your place and made our choice.” He thrust his arm out so that Eric could not miss the faded tattoo, a ghostly mirror of his own. “Now, what’ll it be?”
A heavy boot rattled the wooden pallet where Eric lay undressed and snoring on his ODF issued bedroll. “Get your ass up!” He rubbed the sleep from his eyes to see the taut mask of Corbin’s face looming above. The arrow slits of her midnight eyes were the only betrayal of emotion on her otherwise steely features. She hammered the pallet again with the heel of her boot. “I said on your feet.” There would be no arguing with her today. There was never any arguing with her.
Eric sat up with a wince, his muscles whining like a rusty spring. Everything was sore from his shoulders to the arches of his feet. Six weeks of training and he had never felt more out of shape in his life. It never stopped and he hadn’t had a pain free moment since the night he arrived. If he wasn’t drilling with a sword, he was scrubbing something clean. How did the barracks get so dirty so fast? The filth seemed to grow back every night so that the scrubbing never got any easier. The only reprieves came at meals and when he finally got to pass out into the deep void of sleep. Neither came often enough, he reflected as his stomach gnawed at itself.
“Get your lazy ass in uniform,” said Corbin, her arms crossed, feet planted.
Joints popping, Eric pushed himself to standing with a yawn. “Right, I’ll meet you outside.”
She was glacier still.
“Chatty in the morning, aren’t you?” he said under his breath as he pulled on his uniform trousers. Moments later, he had wriggled into his scuffed leather armor and was striding down the deserted barracks hall in Corbin’s wake. She shoved her way out the door. Joyless sunlight exploded around her forcing him to shield his eyes and squint as he scurried after her. “You let me sleep late,” he said wary of what that might mean.
“Right past breakfast,” she said.
His stomach rumbled. “I think it’s your compassion that I like best about you, Corbin.” That was just like her. She despised him and he knew it. Yet, in some twisted joke, Salmin had assigned him to Corbin’s team and put her in charge of his training. She had been kicking his ass ever since without a moment of understanding or simple human fucking kindness. Two could play at that game. If she wanted to hate him for no good reason, he would hate her right back.
Up ahead, their patrol sparred with wooden swords. Their shouts hung in the sedentary heat like the plumes of rusty dust kicked up by their pounding boots. Watcher Salmin strolled among the whirling melees, a serene expression resting on his sun washed face. His coffee eyes turned bitter as they fell on Eric, his full lips pinching into a familiar disapproving pout. He barked and, as one, each of the bouts terminated. “Kind of you to join us, Guardsmen Strange. I do hope we didn’t interrupt your beauty rest.”
Grimacing, Eric jogged the distance between them and, coming to attention in front of the patrol leader, touched his fingers to the spot on his forehead meant to represent the third eye. “Sorry I’m late, Watcher. I over—”
“Sorry? Why be sorry when you’re just in time?” Salmin said with a humorless grin, his teeth flashing dangerously against his dark features.
“Just in time for what, sir?” asked Eric trying to brace himself for some fresh torture.
“For the show, of course. You made such a grand entrance. It would be a shame to waste it,” said Salmin. He spun on his heel to the rest of the patrol. Their faces were stony, but their eyes shone with a malicious delight. “Make room. Guardsman Strange is going to give us a show. Corbin would you be so kind as to assist Guardsmen Strange with his demonstration of sword technique?”
“With pleasure, sir,” said Corbin. As the others spread out into a ring, she retrieved two training swords. Her face was the usual shield of high rounded cheekbones beneath a quick bun of fine black hair, but the blue of her eyes had brightened to a thrilled sapphire.
A chill trickled down Eric’s spine. He swallowed and stepped into the ring, guardsmen snickering as they closed in behind him. With a toss from Corbin, one of the training swords landed with a thud in the dirt at his feet. Grudgingly, Eric leaned over and lifted the wooden sword, his muscles groaning their fatigue. It didn’t matter how often he practiced with one, they always felt heavier than he expected them to. Corbin swung her own gracefully, inscribing a circle in the still air before settling into a fighting stance. She was stronger than he was, the swell of her honed muscles visible even through the cloth of her uniform. He could not match her in strength. He would just have to be faster. If that was even possible in his current condition. His body felt like cold molasses wrapped around a growling belly.
His limbs groaned as he too took up a ready position. A flicker of a smile danced at the corner of Corbin’s lips. She was enjoying this. Eric bet the bitch had just been dying for this chance and now she had it. If he was weakened and unprepared so much the better. Well fuck her. He might not be the athlete she was, but he could out hate her. She could loath him, dislike him, wish him harm but his well ran much deeper. He could see in her every fair-weather asshole who had ever pretended to be his friend, who smiled and lied to him through their fucking teeth. He had hate aplenty for those people and he could pile it all on her.
“Have at it!” shouted Salmin.
Everything went red. Eric charged across the training yard, spittle flying from him mouth as he bellowed. Corbin held but as Eric unleashed his first ferocious swing, she darted back just outside striking range. Then with lightning speed, she reversed her direction and lunged toward his now unprotected back. He tried to spin away, to bring his own sword up to block as he had been taught but his muscles responded only reluctantly. The full savage force of the strike caught him across the spine blasting him to the ground and knocking the air from his lungs.
As his chest spasmed, Corbin’s sword tip slammed into the hard packed soil inches from his nose. Her point was clear. In a real fight, he would be dead, his life ended in two simple strokes. He rolled onto his back still battling to catch his breath.
“Very good,” said Salmin clapping like the host of some warped game show. “A skillful kill by Guardsmen Corbin and a fine example of how mastery of the fundamentals paired with some good ol’ fashioned athleticism can make short work of your opponent. Fancy moves have flair, but a solid foundation wins the day. Alright, pair back up and have at it.” He sauntered to Eric looking him over with a shrewd eye. “Well, you ain’t dead yet. That’s at least something.”
“Not fair,” said Eric. The words came out as a wheeze.
Pity washed over Salmin’s features, stinging Eric more than he would have expected. The patrol leader squatted down and said, “Fair fights are for dead men. If you want to live to see the end of your conscription, stop worrying about what’s fair and start worrying about winning.” He stood and jabbed a finger at Corbin. “Get him up and get back to sparring. And don’t go easy.”
As Salmin moved away, Eric eased himself back to his feet. “Making sure I missed breakfast was a dirty trick,” he said, glaring.
“I’m here to win. If you don’t like it, get yourself up in the morning, you little shit,” said Corbin. Her eyes gleamed brighter than ever as a smile cracked across her features. “Pick up your sword. I’m not done kicking your ass.”
I’m telling you this is the big one. We’re finally taking the fight to Ol’ Skulls’ door!” said the first guardsman. He had “reaper” tattooed in big letters that wrapped around his throat. His face shone like a kid on Christmas.
“Bullshit,” said his companion. A long scar slashed across his face turning one eye milky. “It’s just some orbital making the rounds so he can pretend he gives a shit about grunts like us. I bet he talks our damned ears off.” He looked up at the beating sun, his good eye squinting.
“I’m hoping it’s another one of those health and hygiene lectures,” said the third, scratching his crotch. “Then I can catch some shut eye.”
“If you hadn’t slept through the one on saadrus, you could spend less time itching your balls,” said neck-tattoo with a smirk.
“Excuse me for figuring your mom was clean.”
Neck-tattoo punched jock-itch in the arm. Jock-itch shoved him back playfully, knocking him into Scar-face. Soon all three were horsing their way toward the training grounds.
Eric rolled his eyes as he followed. He was part of the stream of guardsmen from all over the quarter all flowing to the same destination. It felt like walking behind the football team on the way to a high school assembly. Still, he couldn’t blame them for being in high spirits. Training had been canceled for the rest of day. So even if it was only for some old man with more medals than sense, it was a break in the monotony of routine. For Eric that meant half a day’s respite from Corbin’s campaign to riddle his entire body with bruises. As days in the ODF went, today was shaping up to be a pretty good one.
In the training grounds, most of the other guardsmen had already begun to form up. A wooden stage had been hastily assembled at one end. There was no podium which ruled out another hygiene lecture. The scholars who gave those couldn’t keep a coherent thought in their heads without a ream of chicken scratch notes. Scar-face must have been right.
“Should have known you’d be on time for anything that didn’t involve actual work,” said Corbin as Eric slipped into his assigned position at her left.
“I missed your sparkling personality,” he said.
“Eat shit and die.”
Silence rolled over the assembled crowd. The stage stairs creaked, pulling Eric’s attention back in time to make out Salmin and the three other patrol leaders filing behind another soldier. A stone settled in Eric’s gut as he recognized the long thin scar that ran from the soldier’s gray rimmed scalp to his stubbled jawline. Lojan Tharp. The son of a bitch who tricked him into conscription. It was no secret that Tharp was the Sentinel in charge of their hunt, but Eric hadn’t seen him since that hazy night. His hands balled into white knuckled fists, earning a curious side-eye from Corbin.
“At ease, everyone,” said Tharp, touching fingers to third eye in a perfunctory salute. “New orders down from The Tower. They’ve got a new lead on an artifact and are sending a team of scholars out west to oversee the dig. That’s our neck of the woods so we’ll be sending an escort to ensure their safety.” A groan rumbled through the audience.
“I know it sounds like a babysitting detail, but this one is right up on The Mist. I won’t lie to you. There is the strong possibility that we’ll be seeing some interference. Which is why we’re sending out the full hunt.” Excitement crackled through the gathered crowd. This must be big. Granted, Eric had never been deployed before, but he had seen teams and even whole patrols sent out. Never an entire hunt though, not a full quarter of West Watch’s defenses. He stole a glance at Corbin. She held herself unnaturally rigid as if the slightest shudder might betray her own thoughts. He had never seen her like this. It made the hairs stand up on his neck.
“We leave at dawn two days from now. I don’t have remind you what kind of abominations nest in The Mist. So, stick to your teams and remember your training. We’ll all get through to the other side of this. Report to your barracks and standby for your individual assignments. Dismissed.” Tharp saluted and strode offstage, Salmin and the other Watchers in tow.
The crowd of guardsmen erupted into an excited roar as they flooded out of the training grounds. Eric was a pebble in the stream, jostled by the rub of bodies but unmoving. Unbidden, images of the Diyakosha filled his mind, blotting out all other thoughts like clouds of leathery wings blocking out the moon. He remembered the snarling bat-like faces with their rows of needle fangs and the hateful, wet orbs of their eyes. The stone in his belly liquefied into an icy sick. This was bad. Very, very bad. He had to do something, anything to keep from being sent out there. He wasn’t ready to face those things again. This mission was going to kill him if he didn’t find a way out. Jaw clenched, Eric pushed against the thinning crowd.
“Barracks are the other way,” said Corbin, the almond curve of her eyes narrowed to slits.
He pressed on toward the stage. Just off the steps, Tharp had pulled his four patrol leaders into a tight circle. He spoke in a confidential tone to the grim-faced cluster of professional soldiers. “We could be stuck out there for a long time. So, we’ll be issuing extra antitoxin tablets to everyone. Keep an eye out for hording. A spike in desertion is the last thing we need,” said Tharp. His mouth opened to continue and then flapped shut as all five steely stares swiveled to Eric.
“Guardsmen Strange! What in the hells are you doing here? Get your ass back to the barracks with the rest of the patrol,” said Salmin, his features contorted into a lupine snarl.
Eric snapped to attention and saluted, ignoring Salmin. “Sentinel Tharp, I need to speak with you, sir.” Lojan was his only hope. He was a backstabbing mother fucker, but he wasn’t trying to get Eric killed… or at least Eric hoped not. And he knew just how green Eric was. Salmin knew it too, but he would force Eric into this on principle, convinced of some bullshit divine purpose. Lojan was too calculating, too pragmatic to needlessly waste a soldier. And, most importantly, he had the authority to override Salmin.
“Guardsmen Strange, march your sorry ass right back or—”
“It’s alright, Salmin,” said Tharp. “What’s on your mind, Strange?”
“Sir, it’s my duty to report that I’m not fit to serve on this particular mission,” said Eric trying not to look into the black fury of Salmin’s gaze. His fingers curled tightly at this sides, trying to still their trembling. He didn’t know what he was going to say until the words were falling from his lips. “Sir, I’m ashamed to say that I’m a weak link in this patrol. I’ve been under-performing for weeks now, and I would only be putting my team members at risk by my presence.”
Tharp gave Eric a hard look that seemed to poke at him, activity prodding for weaknesses in his story. Finally, he bobbed his head thoughtfully. Looking to Salmin, he asked, “And what are your thoughts on this?”
Salmin’s gaze never wavered from Eric. It was a pressing, unstoppable force that Eric felt would crush him if he didn’t get out of its way fast. Salmin said, “Sentinel, I believe Guardsmen Strange is selling himself short, well intentioned though he may be.” The flatness of his voice left no question as to what he thought of Eric’s intentions.
“Sounds like your patrol leader has faith in you,” said Tharp. It wasn’t a question, but he looked to Eric waiting for his reaction.
Eric’s blood throbbed in his ears. His thoughts raced as he bounced between the body numbing terror of the Diyakosha and the sinking dread of anticipating the punishment Salmin would concoct. He swallowed hard. Salmin wouldn’t kill him. Eric would only wish he did. Death trumped pain. He was all in. “Sir, I was trying to spare Watcher Salmin, but the truth is that I haven’t been properly trained for—”
“Liar!” Corbin’s voice cut in from behind Eric. She was standing on the rim of the conversation, her usual mask shattered into shards of disbelief and rancor. “You’ve had the same godsdamned training as everyone else. Just because you’re a lazy, malingering piece of sh—”
“Thank you, Guardsman Corbin, for your contribution,” said Tharp, one eyebrow arched in warning. Corbin reassembled the shards of her mask and fell silent. Tharp pulled a few steps away from the patrol leaders. “Step into my office, Strange. Now, what’s all this really about?” His voice grew low, intimate.
“I’m not prepared for this. If I deploy, I’m going to die out there,” said Strange. His heart galloped in his chest, rattling somewhere between loathing for the man who thrust him into this mess and pleading that that same man wouldn’t sentence him to death. It wasn’t fair that he should be tricked out of his freedom and then thrown to his doom. Lojan would see that. He had to. “There has to be something else I could do here, something I would be better suited for.”
“There’s no love lost between you and your team. You’re telling me that has nothing to do with your request?” asked Tharp, prodding at the motives like some country attorney playfully unravelling the truth. “Maybe some bonding time would do you all some good.”
Eric wanted to bloody his nose right then and there, screaming that he would not die for this stupid war. Instead, he swallowed the bile in the back of his throat and whispered, “You’re the one who got me into this. You owe me, Lojan.”
Tharp went stiff, his stare transforming to flint. Stepping away, he called to the cluster of scowling patrol leaders. “Salmin, Strange here is a special case. He needs a little extra attention if he is going to thrive,” he said. There was a pause, an infinitesimal beat like the stillness before a dropped glass shatters. “Which is why, I want you to ensure Strange receives your undivided attention for the duration of our mission.” He had the look of a boy poised to stomp an ant.
Salmin’s eyes ignited with a crucible stare meant for Eric alone. “Understood, Sentinel. We’ll make a soldier of Strange… or die trying.” Somehow, Eric couldn’t help but believe it would be the latter.
Bloated flies buzzed like static around the corpse in ODF fatigues. Even as swollen as the body was, Eric could still read the word “reaper” tattooed on its throat. He tried to breathe through his mouth. He could still taste the putrefaction, but it was dulled compared to the gut boiling stink that invaded his nostrils. The conscription eye tattooed on the dead man’s forearm stared up at them like a beast glowering over its kill.
“Take a hard look,” said Salmin, the sharp lines of his face carved in stone. “This is what happens to those who separate from their teams and get lost in The Mist.” He knelt by the body, swatting the flies from his face. “There’s no claw marks, no punctures. He got lost and the tattoo’s toxin did him in.” Salmin rummaged through the corpse’s pockets coming up empty. “Poor bastard must have lost his spare tablet.”
“Or traded it,” said Paydrin under his breath. Salmin had reorganized the teams after Tharp’s decree. Eric had no luck losing Corbin and had instead gained the gaunt, hunted-looking Paydrin to round out their team of four. He had slept no easier for it.
Salmin’s face turned sour. “We won’t disrespect our fallen brother with that kind of talk.” He returned his attention to the body and, while quietly intoning something that sounded like a prayer, stacked three small stones into a cairn at the man’s head. When he arose, he was onyx once more. Drawing his sword and shield, he motioned to the others to follow.
As they stalked off, Eric crouched next to the body and knocked three times against the sandy earth. “Good luck,” he said, his voice barely louder than the hush of the fog. He caught up with his team and slowed his pace to fall into step at the back of the foursome. “Do people really sell their tablets?” he asked in a low voice so that only Paydrin would hear him. The archer eyed him, all but sneering at his innocence. “Why would anyone do that?” asked Eric.
“Why does anyone do anything, kid?” Paydrin’s sallow face hung limp on his skull.
Eric kept on his heels like a puppy. “We’re issued a new dose each week. What possible reason could anyone have for wanting an extra tab?”
“You want to get out of this alive, am I right?” asked the archer, his wolfish eyes flicking toward Eric.
“It was just a question,” said Eric as if stung.
“I’m not done. So, the conscription eyes are laced with toxin slowly leeching into us every day, and the antitoxin in the tablets neutralizes it, right?” said Paydrin. “What if you took more than just enough of the antitoxin? What if you took a lot more?”
Eric’s eyes rounded as the answer came to him. “You could neutralize the whole tattoo!”
“Not as dumb as you look.”
“How many would you have to take?”
“Keep your voice down,” said Paydrin. “Those sorts of questions are dangerous.” His eyes shifted to Salmin, the tip of their spear.
“Come on. You must have heard something,” said Eric forcing his interest into a harsh whisper.
Paydrin pressed his thin lips into a hard line, sunken eyes searching all around. Finding no sign of snare or deception, he said, “If I knew for sure I would be out of here already.” He paused, scrutinizing Eric as if for the first time. He unclenched a degree and continued, “But I’ve heard twenty-five tabs is enough. Can’t just swallow them though. They’re meant to last in your system a week that way. You’ve got to grind them up and take them all at once. That way you get them in your blood as one single massive dose.”
He stared at Eric, his eyes lumps of polished amber. “You get caught doing something stupid, you leave me out of it.” His gaze gouged into Eric. Eric swallowed and nodded before jogging closer to the middle of the group.
The Mist loomed like a fortress wall bisecting the world into dishwater daylight and swirling fog as inscrutable as the deep ocean. Their patrol took them along the rim just out of reach of the wispy tendrils that fondled the edge. Ahead, a tangle of gray sticks and fur formed a table sized bowl that perched among the gnarled branches of a juniper. Salmin raised a fist to signal a stop and then waved Corbin forward. She crept along the sandy earth toward the tree trunk, her eyes locked and her spear ready. As she did, Salmin and Eric circled to her left and right, swords drawn. Silently, Paydrin notched an arrow and drew the bowstring back. It vibrated slightly under the tension.
At the base of the tree, Corbin paused, drew a deep breath, and drove her spear into the bottom of the nest. Eric’s muscles went rigid. Nothing stirred in the nest. She yanked her spear free and stabbed again. And again. And again, until broken twigs and tufts of fur littered the ground around her. The tightness drained from Eric as if a stopper had been pulled. Another abandoned nest.
It had been like this for weeks, hints of threat without any real action. In the beginning, every jumble of twigs, every rocky hollow had sent electricity through the whole of him, but with each trodden mile, the feeling of real danger drew farther away. Eric was struggling to maintain any kind of true readiness outside of these fleeting moments of anticipated combat. He was beginning to doubt if they were in any real danger at all.
At least The Mist kept the route fresh. In his first days stalking the boundary, he had imagined The Mist to be a fixed thing, an immobile line of demarcation like the Berlin Wall. He was wrong. The Mist seemed more like a living thing. Its boundary shifted and flexed as if breathing. It advanced and retreated, constantly reshaping their path. But boredom is a devil, and even change can become routine.
As they approached the midday turning point, Eric stifled a yawn. The soles of his feet felt bound and stiff, yearning for the release of a delicious stretch. The Mist had grown languid, producing no grasping tentacles of vapor. Instead, its surface rolled gently like a soporific sea. His eyelids felt especially heavy today, and he looked forward to the short break Salmin would allow at the turn. To his right, Corbin’s shoulders had rounded, and her spear had grown less turgid in her hands. Behind, Paydrin’s loping, hungry stride had shortened to a shuffle, his eyes looking even more sunken than usual. Only Salmin continued his tireless advance, fueled by a furnace of unfathomable zeal.
A hot breeze frolicked through the trees, swirling a cloud of fine sand and dust into the air. Eric’s head began to nod. Every movement felt as if he was walking through a deep jacuzzi. The heat soothing him until all he wanted was to lay back and float, free of the weight of his body, of the world, of everything. He paused leaning against the coarse bark of a juniper.
The wind picked up again, but it was no longer coddling. Its chill bite startled him. A cold wind only came from one direction in midsummer. Eric lifted his head just in time to see The Mist raging toward him like an oncoming train.
It overtook him with a rush that snapped the loose fabric of his fatigues. And just as fast, The Mist stilled. The world around him was reduced to gray, ghostly shadows that swayed unnaturally in the cloying fog. Only the roughness of the flaking bark against his palm kept Eric from feeling that he had been transported to another place entirely. His body tensed. Sword and shield raised, he spun slowly in place hunting for some sign of his team. A hush like new fallen snow roared in his ears against the rasping of his own breathing. He couldn’t see or hear anyone. The pommel of his sword tapped lightly against his shield three times before his breath would smooth.
One step at a time, he crept toward where the others had been. The fog seemed to stretch the distance between everything. Trees were nothing more than towering phantoms until he was on them. The spiny shrubs were clouds with teeth. Yet none of the shifting shapes resolved themselves into Salmin, Paydrin, or Corbin. Maybe they had made a turn to exit The Mist? They might not notice he was even missing until they reached the pallid light of day. He patted the pocket that held his extra tablet, feeling for the reassurance of the vial. He thought of the swollen corpse of the guardsman, the way the black flies crawled on the dead man’s open eyes. Cold trails of sweat ran down his spine. The extra dose was still safely ensconced in his pocket. As long as he had that, he had time. Eric forced himself to take three long, slow breaths. The tightness in his throat eased. As the strain drained from his limbs, fingers of mist caressed his skin leaving goosebump trails in their wake.
The panic subsiding, Eric found it easier to retrieve the memory of his training, of the safety briefings they had been given. They had been warned against calling out. The sound was just as likely to draw the creatures that inhabited The Mist as it was help. Instead, they had been told to head toward the edge and to regroup beyond the boundary. It was the safest place to rally. That was protocol which meant that was what Salmin would do. Eric had been careful in his steps and, mercifully, had not gotten himself too turned around. That was a bit of luck. Now, he turned toward the direction that he believed with reasonable certainty to be east and marched purposefully ahead. He kept his paces metered and made sharp, right angle turns whenever he avoided an obstacle. A grin took root. Against all odds, he’d managed to remember some facet of his training. He couldn’t decide what he was looking forward to more: the glimmer of pride on Salmin’s face or watching Corbin eat her armor.
A sound like pouring sand slithered through the air. Eric spun left and then right trying to hear the source over the rushing blood in his ears. It was growing louder, closer. The fog wrapped too tightly around him, making everything an impressionistic gray. The sound was nearly on him when the ground beneath his feet began to tremble. He whipped around in time to see the earth explode. From the wound, leaped the shade of a creature growing more solid as it hurdled toward him through The Mist. It had paws like shovels each tipped in a rake of long claws. They were outstretched towards Eric, prepared to funnel him in toward a star of fleshy digits that ringed a salivating maw of rodent’s teeth.
Eric jerked back. His heel caught on an exposed root, and he tumbled, landing flat on his back. The creature landed with a puff of dust at his feet. It wasn’t as large as the Diyakosha had been, but it was more solid, a mound of fur covered muscle the size of a mastiff. The fleshy digits at its mouth wriggled as if fondling the air, its head swaying side to side. In a flash, Eric realized the creature was blind. It might not be able to see him, but it would likely hear him if he just got up and ran. Not daring even to breathe, he silently propped himself up on his palms. If he could just scoot backward a bit, he could make it to one of the trees. In its branches, he could just wait until the creature went looking for other prey. He could make it. He just needed to get his feet under him. Slowly, he raised his leg, bending it at the knee and—
The creature swatted. Its claws sunk into the flesh of Eric’s calf. His eyes bulged, but he clamped his mouth shut. It was all he could do to keep from screaming, his face growing livid with the effort. The creature pulled, dragging him through the scraping sand. A whimper escaped his lips, cutting through the muffled quiet like a gunshot. His fingers scrambled through the sand before finding the wrapped leather of his sword hilt. He chopped at the beast, opening a gash at its shoulder. It released its grip on his calf with a feral hiss, scuttling back a pace or two. It was enough. Eric lurched to his feet. His calf throbbed, and he winced as he tried to put weight on it.
Snarling, the creature advanced, more cautiously this time. Eric batted at it, but it was faster than it looked. It darted forward and back, side to side with startling agility. It was all he could do to limp backward, struggling to keep his sword between them. The creature showed no signs of slowing. His chest felt tight as if gripped in a mighty fist. Each breath was a ragged, hard won thing. The creature was advancing, out pacing him. He had to get away. It feigned right and then, as Eric spun to guard, darted left with a swipe of its massive paw. The claws raked his thigh, shredding both his pant leg and the flesh beneath. A wild bleat like a doe in the clutches of a tiger burst from Eric’s throat. He slashed where the paw had been but struck only sand. It had already darted back, readying for another attack. He didn’t want to die, not here, not like this. The idea of being torn apart limb by bloody limb by some over-sized mole set every nerve in his body alight.
Eric swung wildly, manically. His sword cut a flurry of singing arcs through the air. He was fighting like a cornered rat, a torrent of sharp edges and reckless fury. The creature dodged and weaved, hissing as its claws clattered against the whirling steel. It was working. The creature began to back away in staggered, frustrated steps. A lightness buoyed in Eric’s chest like a soaring balloon. He was winning. He was going to survive this! Fuck this monster and fuck this rotten world. It wouldn’t get him. It would never get him!
A screech so high pitched it was nearly inaudible rocketed through the fog. Eric’s stomach rolled, and the world tossed like a ship in a squall. Not again! He choked back the burgeoning vomit in his throat and swung blindly toward the sound. But he was too late. A blackened mass like a charging bull slammed into his chest. His legs gave way and he crashed into the ground. His head bounced with a sickening crack. His vision doubled and danced. Through the swirling, Eric recognized the bat-like face of the Diyakoska and its rows of needle teeth. Shadows gathered at the edges of his vision, and he could no longer feel his body. It was as if he was falling back into himself, away from the pain and torment, away from the end that had finally arrived. Sinking into the void felt like drifting off into a feather bed. The fear and the pain were gone. There were no hard edges here.
Somewhere far off there was a sound like a shout underwater and a golden light. The Diyakoska snapped its head up toward the sound and reared, its great wings flapping as it pulled off Eric. The wind felt nice, ruffling his hair. His eyes drifted shut and he knew nothing more.
Somewhere in the gloaming, an arid breeze caressed Eric’s cheek. Wake up. It whispered in his ear like a Sunday morning lover. Fabric snapped and fluttered as the breeze grew. A deep breath filled him, chasing out the staleness in his lungs. His eyes fluttered open. He was on a cot beneath an open-air pavilion made of wooden poles and ODF khaki colored canvas.
“Welcome back,” said a voice. It was low and smoky, and it trickled down his spine in a way that sent tingles to the tips of his fingers. Eric turned his head to follow the voice, his muscles responding languidly as if he had been woken straight from a dream. Eyes like a turquoise sea were watching him and he found himself wondering what it would be like to be adrift in those eyes. They crinkled at the corners as a smile of blushing rose spread across her lips. “I had a bet with myself that your eyes would be blue. Looks like I win.”
Eric blushed and looked away. “Where am I?” He began trying to prop himself up on his elbows.
“No, don’t get up,” she said. Her hands went to his shoulders sending a ripple of pleasure through his neck. Delicately, she guided him back down to the thin mattress. “You’re at the aid station. You were wounded in the field. Your friends saved your life.”
“My friends?” The words fell from him thick and clumsy. Only then did he notice that she was dressed in ODF fatigues and wore the crimson armband that marked her as a member of the healers’ corps. Suddenly, he realized that his leg ached magnificently. The leg was bare, save for yellowing bandages wrapped around both calf and thigh where the claws had torn his flesh. The memory of the attack burst in him, and his chest felt suddenly tight. He bolted upright, trying to catch his breath. The swift movement made his head throb and his vision blur. Touching his forehead, he found it too had been wrapped.
“Just relax. Everything is going to be alright,” said the healer. Her smoky voice rumbled like a purr, massaging the tightness from him. “There’s nothing to worry about. I’ve got you. Shhh.” His pounding heart slowed, and his eyelids slid shut.
A sharp pain in his leg pulled his eyes open with a hiss. Pushing aside the damp hair that clung to the fevered sweat of his brow, Eric saw the healer bent over his leg. She had pulled back his bandage, a look of concentration settling onto her cherubic features.
“Sorry. I know that must sting,” she said. She scooped a dollop of mineral smelling ointment onto her fingers and gently but firmly worked it into the swollen, reddened edges of his cuts. Breath caught in his chest as he balled the sheets in his fists. He wanted to scream but not in front of her. Instead, he forced several long shaky breaths.
“All done.” Her voice sparkled like a chime as she tied off the last of the fresh wrapping. She wiped her hands clean on a rag. “You’ve developed a little bit of an infection. Not uncommon with your kind of wound. Shouldn’t be a problem to treat but we’ll want to keep an eye on it.”
“Thank you, Ms.—I’m sorry. I don’t know your name,” said Eric.
“I’m Zofia. Zofia Kotan.” She smiled wide and radiantly.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Eric.”
“I thought it was Ebrik.”
“But Strange is your surname, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you know?”
“I’m not sure I know anything anymore,” he said, easing himself back down with a groan.
“I should let you rest,” she said tying the cloth cover back onto the ointment jar.
“Only if you have to. I feel like I’ve slept for days.”
She hesitated, looking around. The organized human misery of the Aid Station tent looked almost peaceful in the delicate dawn light. “Alright. I suppose I can waste a few more minutes on you,” she said with a wink before settling herself onto a stool by his cot, crossing her ankles. “Tell me about yourself, Strange, if indeed that is your real name.”
He struggled to hold back a grin. “It’s more of a nom de guerre.”
“Nom de guerre. It’s French for—never mind. It doesn’t matter. I guess it’s who I am now.” The grin faded.
Her head cocked. ‘Who do you want to be?”
“You said my friends brought me in,” he asked.
“Does that surprise you?”
“I wasn’t aware that I had any is all.”
“I would say you do.” Her eyes softened to sea foam. He might have been an injured bird the way they caressed him. She looked down and then away before rising to straighten some instruments on a nearby preparation table. Back turned, she said, “The burly girl with the pretty, dark eyes seemed particularly distraught.”
“Corbin?” That didn’t sound like her at all. He tried imagining her looking anything close to distraught and failed. “How could you tell?”
Zofia snorted, covering her pink lips with her fingers as a blush spread into her cheeks. “Yes, with a face like hers, it was a challenge,” she said.
To Eric’s puzzlement, the dig at Corbin struck a sour chord. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
She looked at him over her shoulder, her ocean eyes full of siren songs. “Are you two…”
He stared at her dumbly for a moment before her meaning finally sunk in. “No! No,” he said shaking his head. He immediately regretted the motion. A vice-like pain pressed against the squishy walls of his brain, momentarily blurring the world around him.
“Careful,” said Zofia. She plucked a small pot from the table and eased him back down to the pillow, his features clenched in agony. “This will help.” She dipped her fingertips into the pot, and they came back coated in a translucent gray salve. The fingertips of each hand rubbed together to spread the salve between them. Then she leaned over him, massaging it into his temples. The balm was cool on his skin, and it smelled pleasantly methylated. She worked his temples until his face calmed and then her fingers slipped into his hair running over his scalp. She whispered to him as she worked, words of comfort, of ease. Words he hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath for weeks waiting to hear. “You’re safe now,” she said, her lips so close that he could feel them tickle his ear.
“Will you be here when I wake up,” he asked, the words barely more than a brush of wind as he slid over the edge of sleep.
“I promise,” she said, and he thought he could hear her smile.
A few days later, it was Corbin waiting on the stool by his bed. Midday had passed but the heat lingered in the air alongside the discordant percussion of hammers. In a vacant patch of rusted earth that stretched between the Aid Station and the work tents where the scholars cataloged the dig’s findings, a group of soldiers were nailing together a rude scaffolding.
“What are they building?” Eric asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
“A gallows,” said Corbin. She had a knife in hand and was shaving curls of wood from a chunk of tree branch. Her midnight blue eyes never strayed from her work.
Eric studied her, searching for some clue of misplaced humor. Her tea-colored features were as impassive as ever. “Why?”
“To hang someone,” she said, her tone was matter of fact, flippant even. Eric grimaced. She paused and looked up. “How’s the leg,” she asked, pointing at the bandages with her blade.
“Infected.” In fact, it itched horribly.
“Anything to shirk real work, huh?”
His jaw clenched, eyes flaring but, as he turned to tell her exactly where she could shove her commentary, he caught the thin curl of a smile nipping at the corner of her lips. There was a twinkle in her eye, and, with some surprise, he realized that she was making a joke. When did the ODF issue her a sense of humor? “All part of my master plan,” he said.
“Smart. Play up the injured leg thing, maybe walk with a limp. They’re sure to give you some cushy job.”
“I’m gunning for cook. Girls love a guy who can cook.”
“Doesn’t look like you are having any trouble there,” she said. Her look was knowing.
“What do you mean?”
“That cute little healer that’s always fluttering around you. Looks a little like a chipmunk but you always were a bit of a rodent. Come to think of it, she could probably do better.”
“Asshole,” said Eric with a laugh and Corbin smiled so big that her eyes became little crescent moons. Was Corbin developing a personality? A knot tied itself into his gut. He had been a dick to her every day since the moment he got here, and she had still saved his life. She had been trying to help him—albeit in her own perversely brutal way—ever since Salmin teamed them up. And he had been nothing but dead weight. His behavior had been disgusting. He should say something. Apologize. But how? Frankly, he’d be damn lucky if she would forgive him at all. Without thinking, he wrapped his knuckles against the cot frame three times.
“I’m not surprised,” she said.
“What?” he said startled. For a moment, he wondered if he had said all that out loud.
“That she likes you,” said Corbin and then, when it became obvious her meaning was lost on him, she continued, “Since she’s a Mist Walker like you.”
Eric’s jaw flopped open. It had never occurred to him that there might be others, that his situation wasn’t unique.
“You’re gonna let flies in,” said Corbin.
He snapped his mouth shut and went red at the cheeks. He had thought he was alone. But that was his whole problem, wasn’t it? He was convinced that he was somehow special in his suffering, that no one could hope to understand what he was going through. His head hung. He really was an asshole.
“Damn, Strange. I didn’t realize you were so bashful.” Corbin chuckled and went back to her whittling. It was beginning to take a rough, animalistic shape.
“Thanks for saving me back there.” The words came out low and rough. He didn’t dare look at her for fear that he wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears prickling at the corners of his eyes.
The rasp of her blade against wood ceased and silence flooded them like a watery grave. Just as he was beginning to fear he would drown, she said, “Don’t mention it.” The blade resumed its slow, purposeful strokes across the raw wood.
He gritted his teeth. There was so much more he was bursting to say. He wanted to promise her that he would train harder, that he would do better, that she wouldn’t regret it, that he wasn’t a waste. His lips parted to speak. He turned to look her in the eye. And he shut up.
She wasn’t looking at him. Her midnight stare was fixed on the craft in her hands, the branch slowly transforming into a carving. It was the same focused stare that filled her when they trained. He understood. She demanded no pledges from the wood, only that it allow itself to be shaped. That was all she asked. He would allow himself to be shaped. He owed her that.
Eric cleared his throat, but his voice still came out hoarse. “You know I bet she would introduce you to some of her friends, if you wanted.”
“Now you’re talking,” Corbin said, her blue eyes gleaming. “There just might be hope for you yet.”
Twilight spilled down from the horizon across all the world. Eric sat up in his bed, a cool wind tousling his hair, waiting for Zofia. He spotted her, hauling her medicine bag in his direction. The last rays of the sun caught her shoulder length teak hair, making it shine like spun gold. She blossomed with one of her slow, self-conscious smiles when she caught sight of him and Eric found himself transfixed.
Officially, she was there to check on his wound and ensure he was healing as quickly as possible. Yet, she always made sure he was the last of her patients for the night and she always took her time with him.
She set her bag down on the end of the preparation table and withdrew a pot of salve along with a roll of fresh bandages. When she turned to him, her cheeks were pleasantly flush. “Hello again! How are we feeling today?” Her eyes darted to his and then away only to return sparkling.
“Still a little tender,” he said trying to keep his tone relaxed despite how dry his mouth went whenever he spoke to her. “But better every day.”
“Let’s have a look.” Her delicate fingers unwound the bandage. Where they grazed the bare flesh of his thigh, tingles ran through his nerves, leaving him with a craving for more. She examined the lines of new flesh in the lantern light and asked, “How was your day?”
“Corbin came to see me. It was actually pretty nice. Not what I expected.” Eric couldn’t be sure, but he thought Zofia stiffened slightly at the mention of Corbin.
“What did you expect?”
“I don’t know. A black eye?” he said, with a laugh. “So, I never asked. Where were you from before the ODF?”
“Same place as you, I suspect.”
“DC.” A hollowness sounded in her voice like something had been plucked out, leaving a noticeable void.
He hesitated and then asked, “Do you miss it?”
She turned away from him to fumble inside her medicine bag. He waited, listening to jars and bottles quietly clink as she rummaged among them. Finally, her shoulders slumped, and she sighed. “I used to. Now I can’t decide if I wish I was back there or if I just wish I wasn’t here.”
“Ah,” he said feeling stung.
“I don’t know. I don’t love the ODF, but there are some things about this place that aren’t so bad.” He stared out into the growing darkness as he spoke, the bulge of the moon beginning to peak above the mountains.
She turned to look at him over her shoulder. The call of her ocean eyes tugged at him wordlessly until they held his gaze. “One thing is pretty amazing,” she said. They looked away from each other, blushing.
“How long do you have left?” he asked.
“Five years,” she said.
“What will you do then?”
She returned to his wound and began working a ocher ointment into the virgin flesh. “I’d like to travel a bit. There’s magic here, real magic that can do much more than these jars of goo. I want to find it. I want to learn how to use it.” The passion in her voice grew as she spoke, the strength of the dream growing inside her like a building wave. For a moment, she looked as though she might smash the ointment jar. Then she deflated.
“I’m not sorry that I found my way to Karask Rev,” she said bitterness seeping into her tone. “I’m just sorry that I stumbled into a hole like West Watch before I knew any better.” She slumped down onto the edge of the cot so close that he could feel the intoxicating warmth of her.
He reached out and laid his hand on hers. When she turned to look at him, her eyes were huge, round fountains, water spilling over their sides. He held her gaze this time, acutely aware of the soft swell of her lips. He leaned closer to her, not all the way but enough to speak his mind. She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him the rest of the way. Then there was nothing in the world but the heady press of her lips, the feel of her fingers sliding through his hair, the hungry way their tongues found one another. They were panting softly into the cooling night air when at last he pulled his lips from hers. Eric wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumb, marveling at how creamy her skin felt beneath his calluses. He kissed her again. She curled into him, clutching to his chest like a shipwreck survivor to the flotsam.
She looked into his eyes. Her own were wide and pleading. “Run with me,” she whispered. “Let’s be free together.”
Today was a hanging. A detail of guardsmen walked the gallows, inspecting the condition of the rope, testing the strength of the crossbar, experimenting with the slide of the noose. The trap door on which the condemned would stand fell away as one pulled the lever, examining the glide of the mechanism.
“It’d be a shame if everything wasn’t just right,” said Corbin. Her mouth was cut into a grim line.
Eric knew what she meant. A failure at the gallows meant prolonging the suffering but there was something unseemly about the obsessive attention to detail. “Yeah,” he said, wishing he was anywhere else.
The gallows were set in the courtyard formed between the Aid Station tents and the dig’s line of dusty work pavilions, a site chosen because it was one of the few open spaces in camp. A purely pragmatic decision but one that guaranteed Eric a front row seat to the gruesome spectacle. His leg was on the mend, but he couldn’t quite walk on it yet. Consequently, he was stuck in bed feeling like a ball of slime had settled in his gut.
“Feels cruel,” he said watching a guardsmen stomp on the closed trapdoor.
“Doesn’t seem to bother too many folks,” said Corbin. She scanned the growing crowd of guardsmen, scholars, diggers, support staff, and anyone else who could sneak away from their duties to watch.
“Vultures,” said Eric. He wanted to vomit.
The crowd grew until not a speck of dirt was visible in the rusted, orange courtyard. The roll of drums sent excitement crackling through the onlookers. A gap opened in the throng as the convicted appeared surrounded by an entourage in ODF khaki. Boos and jeers broke through the ominous rumble. As they mounted the stairs, Lojan’s pallid scar peeked out from the sea of heads, leading the procession. The condemned followed behind. Paydrin’s gaunt face was a map of ridges and shadow even in the noonday sun. The ooze in Eric’s gut soured at the sight of him.
“Just doesn’t seem fair,” he said, almost under his breath.
“What is these days?”
The guards pulled Paydrin to the front. He had been stripped of his uniform and dressed in plain clothes, but the tattooed eye on his forearm was still an inky black that stood out like a scarlet letter against his simple civilian attire. No longer one of them but still not free. That must have felt like a twist of the knife.
His wrists were bound behind his back. So he can’t fight the rope, thought Eric beads of cold sweat gathering on his brow. Eric’s heart was ping-ponging against his ribs, growing harding with each step his brother-in-arms took across the wooden boards of the gallows. Paydrin had been one of the three to save Eric’s life, and now they were going to watch him hang. Eric felt lightheaded. His eyes darted to Corbin, praying she wouldn’t notice. But her eyes were locked forward watching Paydrin. Her face was a porcelain mask again, but in the deep night of her eyes, Eric thought he saw a sheen of anguish. Eric followed her gaze back to Paydrin. Whatever his crimes, he stood tall, unbowed by the noose swinging behind him in the breeze.
Lojan stepped to the man’s right, and the drums ceased. A taut silence fell. “Wayn Paydrin,” said Lojan, addressing the crowd instead of the bound man. “You have been found guilty of hording antitoxin and aiding and abetting desertion. For your treason, you have been sentenced to hang from the neck until dead. Do you have any final words?”
Paydrin licked his chapped lips, his eyes were cast upward toward the blazing sun. When they descended, they too were alight. He said, “There are those among you who share my beliefs, that conscription is slavery, that no one should be forced to serve at their peril without their consent. Today, I become a martyr for the cause, a cause that does not end with me, a cause that will one day free the oppressed and tear down the oppressors. To a free ODF!” He snapped to face Lojan and spat in his face.
The crowd erupted with blood thirsty shrieks that echoed in Eric’s ears like the beasts of The Mist. Lojan wiped the saliva from his face, looking almost bored. The guards pulled the prisoner toward the waiting noose and held him. Eric’s throat turned to sandpaper. Lojan took the swinging rope in his hand and fitted it around Paydrin’s neck, sliding it snug against the condemned man’s throat. Eric tried to swallow and couldn’t. It was like breathing through a straw. The noose in place, Lojan leaned in close, whispering something in Paydrin’s ear. At this distance, it was hard to say but Eric thought he could see his features ashen.
“What do you say to someone about to hang?” asked Corbin. Her voice was grim. Her face was darkened.
Eric tried to open his mouth to speak but his tongue felt glued to the roof. His throat closed and for a moment, his lungs refused to breathe. A memory flooded him, unbidden.
He had pushed all his furniture to the walls, leaving a wide stretch of off-white carpet like a bald patch in the center of his old room in his old life. He was sitting on a cheap rolling desk chair that he had pulled out into the center of the void. Through puffy eyes made stiff by the cement of dried tears, he stared into the pure white expanse of a folded sheet of printer paper. Only his blue ink scrawl marred the virgin surface. In a dreamy way, he wondered if paper resented being dirtied by the inky lives pressed upon it. He hoped not, but even if it did, his life at least had been compressed to a few short lines. The things he wanted to say were so enormous they only required a handful of words. His thumb caressed the veneered tooth of the page.
With a sigh, he pushed himself to standing. His whole body felt heavy as if carrying a pack he could not put down. A few slow steps carried him to the desk against the wall where he positioned the note upright like an A-frame so that it could not be missed. He lingered, fingertips balanced on the wood of the desktop. At last, his fingers curled to a fist and knocked knuckles against the surface in three sharp raps.
Coiled like a python on the comforter was a length of coarse rope. He ran it through his fingers, feeling it scrap across his palms. When he reached an end, he looped a section before wrapping one line around the other with tremendous care. When he had finished, he tested the slide of the knot before opening it enough to fit over his head.
He climbed on top of the chair, balancing in his socks as it swiveled under his shifting weight. Securing the noose to the ceiling fan was harder than expected. He had to reach between the blades to find the downrod as he choked on a cloud of dislodged dust. He tugged the knot tight and stilled the swing of the rope before sliding his head into the loop. The noose tightened as if he were straightening a tie.
The things he had collected, the sum total of his life looked smaller up here, less important. Muted light filtered through the blinds creating slatted beams in which motes of dust wandered without aim. He could commiserate with their insignificant shuffling through life, doomed for ultimate oblivion. His whole body ached at the thought. He was tired. So fucking tired. He swallowed, took a breath, and kicked the chair away.
The fall took an age as Eric waited for the rope to go taut, to arrest his fall through this life with a snap. Rough cordage scraped up his neck and pushed against his jawline as it moved into position. He felt the hard grip around his throat that made his eyes bulge and his chest heave. When the rope went taut there was no snap but instead a terrible rending sound. He hit the floor on his back with a thud that shook his bookshelves. The ceiling fan followed him down, smashing into the carpet inches from his head. Eric coughed and sputtered as air once again rushed into his lungs. Through the snowy cloud of drywall dust, there was a hole in the ceiling where the pale scar of torn wood shone livid against the tattered edge of eggshell paint. He had laid there panting a long time.
“I wouldn’t know what to say,” whispered Corbin.
Fresh air surged into Eric’s floundering lungs. “Good luck,” he rasped, his knuckles rapping on the bed frame. “I’d wish him good luck.”
On the gallows stage, Lojan pulled a lever and the trapdoor under Paydrin swung away. He fell and the rope went taut. There was no fan to save him.
Eric eyed the dwindling shade as he readjusted his armor, trying to unstick the sweat soaked fabric beneath. Light duty had sounded fantastic when he was lying on his back in bed and could think of nothing else but the ache in his leg. No more hours of patrolling. No more demon monsters from The Mist. No more fly-bloated dead bodies. Instead, he spent his days watching a team of scholars dig a meticulously crafted hole in the ground, and his entire responsibility was to stand next to that hole with a spear in case something nasty crawled out of it. His entire existence had been reduced to standing by a hole with a pointy stick. A heavy sigh puffed from his nostrils. He never thought he’d say it, but he missed Corbin. Annoying her helped pass the time. He kicked a pebble, sending it skittering into the pit.
A shout came from below and he winced. It would be just his luck if the pebble had struck someone. Expecting to see upturned angry faces, he peered over the edge. Instead, he saw academics and workers were congregating around a shock of bright pink hair. A murmur of excitement rolled through them like a wave as the pink-haired scholar held something aloft. Eric had to squint through the noonday sun to see. It didn’t look like much, just a tube of dirt-caked metal. Nothing worth this kind of excitement. But scholars, he had learned, were an odd bunch who seemed to marvel over every scrap and trinket so long as it came out of the dirt.
Pink Hair mounted the rough wooden ladder that reached from the bottom of the dig to the surface. She was followed by the dig leader, Scholar Van Ustil. He was a short man whose bald pate gleamed with sweat as he ordered the others back to work. Belly jiggling, he trotted to catch up with Pink Hair. “Bloody well done. Takes an eye to spot one of these and a steady hand not to bugger it during extraction.”
“Thanks, Hem,” she said, adjusting her glasses. Her eyes were locked on the cylinder. “With luck, we’ll find something useful on it.”
He arrested her by a bony elbow, pulling her focus to him. In a confidential tone, he said, “Be careful, Mel. If you do find anything on there, I don’t have to tell you what someone might do to take that information for themselves.” His face read of fatherly concern.
“You don’t think…”
“Discoveries like this are career makers.”
She held his gaze for a moment and then nodded. “Good,” he said. His eyes surveyed the site, finally settling on Eric. “You! Guardsmen. You are to accompany Scholar Avery. Do not leave her side until her work is finished. Understand?” He turned back to Mel and patted her on the shoulder. Something passed wordlessly between them as watery smiles spread on both their faces. Then they parted ways, leaving Eric to scramble after Mel wondering what the hell he had just been volunteered for.
A moment later, they arrived at the line of work tents. Mel wandered into one at the far end. The canvas sides had been rolled up, exposing the long examination table and several weather-stained chests of instruments. Despite the oppressive heat, Mel set Eric to work unfurling the sides and fastening them in place. As he worked, she lit several lamps. The yellow light sent the unsettling shadows of occult instruments cavorting along the walls of the darkened room. The change in atmosphere sent a prickling up his spine like stepping into a fortune-teller’s tent. Mel for her part looked perfectly at home in the gloom among the inscrutable apparatuses of her profession.
On the examination table, she placed her soil-crusted treasure in a pool of clean light. Pulling her neon locks back into a ponytail, she folded her gangling limbs onto a stool. Hunched over the desk with eyes magnified by her thick lenses, she looked like a studious praying mantis. Her spidery fingers set to arranging a variety of brushes, picks, and solution bottles in a semicircle where they could be easily reached.
She worked first with her hands, peeling back loose bits of dirt and sand. Here and there she would employ a brush, sweeping away what her fingers could not easily access. Eric stifled a yawn. Watching her work had all the excitement of watching weeds grow. His feet ached from being on them all day. There was no airflow through the tent, making him feel like he was standing in a stagnant slow cooker. Well, if he was going to be roasted alive, he was at least going to sit down. He pulled a stool over and settled in to wait.
The thin cuts of daylight that slid in through the seams in the tent had worn down to mere pinpoints of fiery orange by the time Mel had worried enough of the soil away that Eric could get a real sense of what the thing was. He has been right. It was a metal tube but paper thin and speckled with green oxidation. A labyrinth of grooves was carved into the sides, each of varying thickness and depth.
“What is it?” asked Eric, the weariness of his boredom giving way to a bud of interest.
“The ancients called it a Testimonial,” she said. She didn’t look up.
“What’s it for?”
She huffed. “It’s a method of preserving spoken messages.”
“What kind of messages?”
“What’d you think is on it?”
“You ask a lot of questions for a guard,” she said laying her instruments down. Her eyes narrowed. “Why so interested?”
“I didn’t mean to offend,” he said.
“No, you just meant to interrupt.”
“I was just curious.”
“You’re not paid to be curious.” Her face twisted into a snarl. “I’m paid to be curious. You’re paid to sit there and shut the hells up until I tell you to do otherwise. So how about we both get back to doing what we’re paid for?”
Eric leaned back on his stool and nodded, looking anywhere but at Mel or the Testimonial. Grumbling, she returned to her work.
Hours passed in silence. Most of the detritus had been removed from tube by now, though Mel still labored in its cleaning. She pulled over a standing magnifying glass under which she examined each nook and groove with minute attention. Her fingers danced between the picks and the solution jars as she teased out a speck of dirt with a pick or caressed away a bead of corrosion with one solution or another. Soon, the Testimonial practically gleamed in the lamp light. Mel’s own glow had begun to fade. Her eyelids drifted closed and snapped back open. She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes.
“Go get me a coffee from the mess tent,” she said through a sonorous yawn.
Eric rose to his feet, his muscles practically moaning as they stretched. At the tent flap, he hesitated. He needed the walk. His cramping legs craved the relief. Still… “Scholar Van Ustil said I’m not to leave you.”
She gaped at him. “What did you say?”
“It’s just that his orders were very clear. I’m—”
“I don’t give a good godsdamn what he said!” She was on her feet, her face an apoplectic pink that nearly matched her hair. “Now go get me my godsdamned coffee, you inbred-goat-fucking-shit-stain, before I tear off your head and drink it out of your skull!” One of the jars whizzed past his shoulder, shattering against a tent pole. Eric darted from the tent, Mel still howling obscenities in his wake.
As he walked, he considered taking his time. The coolness of the evening breeze was a balm to the trapped heat of the examination tent. The moon had risen. Its silver light sketched lanes among the pooling shadows. He could already smell the soothing aroma of the strong, black coffee brewing in the mess tent. Tonight would be a perfect night for a stroll. He was tempted to find Zo. They could take their coffee and walk around the edge of camp, do their best to forget their predicament, maybe even make an honest to god date of it. Just the thought of her loosened the knot between his shoulder blades.
Ahead the lantern light of the mess tent spilled out like fool’s gold, garish and tawdry when laid next to genuine lunar silver. He looked in the direction of Zo’s tent knowing that it was too far away to see but savoring the gentle breeze that ran through his hair as if she had sent it just for him. He sighed. It was a beautiful fantasy, but that’s all it could be tonight. Eric turned his feet back to the mess tent to retrieve two mugs of coffee. He hoped Mel choked on it.
Snoring rattled out of the tent flap. He rolled his eyes. Of course, someone with her sense of superiority would sleep like a garbage disposal gagging on a bag of nickels. He shouldered through the flap, bracing himself for another string of abuse.
“Coffee’s he—” The words cut off. Inside, Mel was slumped over the examination table in blissful slumber, her arms wrapped protectively around the Testimonial. Next to her a figure dressed in black fatigues leaned over her trying to ease the tube free from her grip. The figure froze at Eric’s intrusion, lightless eyes peering out from behind the folds of a scarf that obscured their face and head.
There was a beat as Eric and the figure watched each other, neither moving, both tensing for the coming action. The figure threw caution to the wind and yanked the Testimonial from Mel’s grasp. As she pulled herself awake with a bleary snort, the thief turned to run toward one of the corners where a section of the canvas siding had been unfastened. Eric hurled one of the hefty clay mugs. It struck the fleeing intruder solidly on the back of the head, shattering on impact and drenching the figure in searing coffee. With a grunt, the figure was knocked to the dirt floor as the Testimonial bounced from their grip. Eric vaulted over the examination table and dove for the thief. The intruder rolled to the side and Eric landed in the dirt. A hard kick to the jaw knock Eric onto his back as he tried to climb to his feet. A shriek from Mel split the air as the figure took a step closer to Eric. They paused as shouts of alarm began to fill the night air. They turned and fled into the night.
Eric groaned, still reeling from the kick. He felt his jaw. It was going to have one hell of a bruise, but it didn’t feel broken. He gripped the edge of the table and hoisted himself to his feet.
“You fucking idiot!” Mel thundered. She was kneeling on the ground where he had just been laid out, her face a violent red. In her hand was the Testimonial. One end had been pinched shut. “You crushed it, you godsdamned orangutan!”
“At least you still have it,” said Eric, listening to his jaw pop as it moved.
“I’ll have to spend hours trying to restore it, all because of your fat ass,” she said, her lip curled into a snarl. “Fuck!” She slammed a fist on the table. Turning it over in her hands, examining the deformed end. The red rage began draining from her face and was replaced by gray fatigue. Tears threatened to spring from her blood shot eyes. “I’m going to need that cup of coffee.”
“Then go get it yourself. I’m not letting that thing out of my sight again.”
The dawn came slowly. When at last the golden rays shone through the tent flaps, Eric massaged his eyes with the heels of his hands. A cramp had developed between his eyebrows from pushing away sleep all night. Mel had been right. Reforming the Testimonial to its original shape had been the sum of hours of painstaking work. Other than a few reports made to the guardsmen coordinating the search for the would-be thief, he had been of little help.
“Make yourself useful,” said Mel, bent so close that her nose almost touched the Testimonial. She waved at one of the wooden tool cabinets and said, “Bring me the gramophone.”
Eric slid off his stool, body creaking. “Is it ready?”
“Near enough.” She sighed without catharsis like a runner resigning herself to the last quarter mile. “It’s the thing with the brass horn and the—Yes, that’s it.” She cocked her eyebrow at him.
He laid the gramophone on the table next to her. With enough care to defuse a bomb, she lifted the Testimonial and slid it onto the mandrel. She adjusted the sound box so that the needle fit into the first groove. Her whole body rose and fell as she took a deep breath and then began to turn the crank. A haunting static filled the air that even in the morning light lifted the hairs on Eric’s arms. Through the unsettling noise, a voice, deep as the abyss, spoke in a language that sounded stretched. He couldn’t understand the words, but Mel obviously did. Here and there she would stop turning the crank and scrawl a sloppy note in one of her journals. Exhaustion seemed to fall from her as the needle traversed the tube. When it crossed over the crease where the tube had been crushed, the voice grew distorted, warbling its words in a way that made Eric wonder if they were even intelligible. She kept turning the crank but took no notes.
At last, the recording reached its end, and Mel began scribbling again as she flipped between hand-drawn diagrams of the dig. “Did we get what we needed?” asked Eric.
“What? Oh, yes,” she said without looking up.
“What about the crushed end? Could you make it out?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She waved the question away. “I heard enough to find what we’re looking for.”
Eric looked back to the tube. The crease was set nearly a third of the way from the end. A third of the message had been lost and she said didn’t matter. The knot between his shoulders twisted. He couldn’t shake the feeling that it would matter in the end.
The sun hung low and orange over the crenelated horizon when Eric finally stepped into his tent. The twilight wind was beginning to pick up, tugging and snapping the canvas siding. He eased himself down onto the edge of his cot, feeling every inch of himself sigh with relief. The side of his face still throbbed where he had been kicked. He sat head hung with arms braced on the wooden frame for a while before summoning the will to pull off his boots. His toes stretched across the rough wooden floor with delight. The cot against the other side of the tent sat made but empty. Not for the first time, he thanked his lucky stars that his bunkmate had duty every night this week.
Eric rolled onto his back to watch the wind worry the canvas ceiling with a sigh. It was his first moment of peace in nearly two days. He should be sleeping. But, instead, his mind wound its way to Zo. He wondered what she was doing in a dreamy sort of way. Behind his eyes, her face appeared to him with her eyes like the sea, the warm swell of her grinning cheeks, and her silken lips. She had asked him to run away with her and, as he strolled the edge of sleep, he wondered if she was serious. He kind of thought she was. In the moment, drunk on the heat of her, he had agreed, but it was madness to run. Paydrin’s fate made that horrifyingly clear. She must have been just as caught up in the moment as he was. Running off into the sunset together did make for a pretty good fantasy.
“You really shouldn’t sleep until you’ve been checked out. You could have a concussion,” said Zofia. Eric bolted upright. She was standing just inside the tent smiling that self-conscious smile that melted him, her medicine bag held in both hands.
His heart leaped in his chest. Words stumbled over his tongue until he managed a very eloquent “Hi.”
She put her bag down on his footlocker and strode over to him. Her slight fingers lifted him by the chin so that she could see the dark purple bruise in the light. As she examined his pupils, she said, “You know you don’t have to keep getting hurt just to see me. Don’t think I’m not flattered but asking me out might be easier.” Her fingers crawled along his skull searching for bumps and breaks. At some point they stopped searching and started running through his hair. Her eyes gazed into his.
“How am I looking?” he asked, his voice low and breathy.
“Perfect.” She was so close that he could feel the heat of her. Then she blinked and pulled back, blushing. “That is to say perfectly healthy. Which reminds me…” She turned backs to her bag. The familiar chime of glass against glass rang out as she reached inside. When she turned back to him, she held a bottle of wine and two glasses. “A little something for the pain.” She jiggled the bottle with mischievous flair.
“Where did you get that?” Eric asked with a laugh.
“That’s a secret,” she said with a wink before passing him the glasses. Gripping the base of the bottle’s neck with one hand, she twisted and pulled with the other, releasing the cork with a pop. Wine sloshed into both glasses. “Cheers.” Their glasses clinked and Eric touched his to the cot frame before bringing it to his lips.
She took a luxurious drink, running the tip of her tongue along the wet pillow of her bottom lip. Eric’s brain stalled. “You’re not the kind of guy who had ‘not superstitious but a little stitious’ in their Tinder profile are you?” she asked.
He snorted, nearly shooting wine out his noise. “No,” he said. “I was one of those ‘loves to travel’ guys. Had a picture of myself in front of Machu Picchu and everything.” A little flush slid into his cheeks.
“I can’t judge. Mine said ‘let’s go on an adventure’,” she said, chuckling.
“Careful what you wish for.”
“Yeah.” The laughter petered out.
They sat in silence for a long while studying their drinks.
“Still game to run away together?” she asked without look at him.
“I need to be free of this place, of the ODF, of this pointless war against existence.” She slumped down to her elbows, cradling her drink.
“You saw what they did to Paydrin.” He swallowed. Even the memory made his throat feel tight.
“If you don’t want to be with me, I understand,” she said with a quiver in her voice.
Eric brushed a teak lock behind her ear. “I don’t want to see that happen to you.”
Her eyes were rippling ponds gone red around the edges. Through a weak smile, she said, “At least you wouldn’t have me bugging you all the time.”
He looked into her eyes. Tears flowed over their banks and dripped off the curve of her chin like rain. “That’s the best part of my day,” he said.
She held his gaze, searching perhaps for the lie or jest. He leaned in. Her rose petal lips parted and met his.
Later, she was nestled against the sweat damp flesh of his chest. Eric could feel the firm give of her breasts as they swelled into him with each breath. He pushed a strand of golden hair off her forehead and kissed the spot where it had been. His heart felt full to bursting, and he hoped she could feel its radiance.
“Be mine,” she said. The smoked cream of her voice was a delicacy.
“Always.” The word bubbled out through the dreamy cotton that filled his head.
She pulled herself on top of him, legs on either side of his hips. Her tender hands found his cheeks and gently tilted his eyes to hers. They were the same endless rolling turquoise as the hypnotic splendor of the ocean seen from a boat far at sea. “Really be mine.” He could feel the gravity of her, the pull of wanting nothing more than to fall into her.
“Always,” he said again.
Arching down, she drank deeply of his lips. Her hips rocked, grinding herself against him. She slid along his length, her slickness setting off fireworks inside him. A tightness gripped his groin as blood surged to her touch. There was nothing in the world for him but her. The rest had all fallen away leaving only an unquenchable thirst for her. When he was ready, she lifted herself to slide him inside. She bit her bottom lip with a devilish grin, toying with him for a moment. As she sat, swallowing him entirely, she moaned, “Run with me. Let’s be free together.”
“Always,” he said. And he meant it.
Two stone slabs laid at an angle against a hastily uncovered foundation. It looked like a glorified cellar door. Each was covered in creepy carvings of skeletons carrying candles around the rusted ring handles. Eric shifted his weight, his thumb jittering against his thigh. Something about the doors wouldn’t let him settle. The blurred words on the Testimonial kept playing on repeat in his brain. He had no idea what they meant, but they curled their way through every thought like moaning fog.
Mel did not look haunted. She looked busy. He watched her in the pit, her shock of pink hair bouncing to and fro as she spat commands at the workers regarding where to place their long pry bars. Apparently, it would be a crime worthy of beheading to so much as chip the damn thing. Maybe he couldn’t fault her. His eyes trolled along the rim of the pit, noting the press of intrigued faces. Not far off, Tharp stood with arms crossed, glaring down upon the young scholar, his features as discerning and neutral as a judge. Was it any wonder she wanted everything to go just right?
Movement opposite him caught his notice and looked up to see Corbin. She nodded in acknowledgment as their eyes met. The specter of a smile curled into her lips as her gaze traced behind him. Eric looked over his shoulder in time to see Zofia sidling up to him in the growing crowd. She brushed against him, her fingers sliding along his own, and he felt his heart leap in his chest.
She inclined her head to his and said, “Reminds me of a mummy’s tomb.”
“Like King Tut’s curse?”
“Exactly. Sort of thrilling, isn’t it?” A pink glow suffused her cheeks.
His whole body was pulled taut, waiting. What exactly he expected to happen, he couldn’t say, but the air felt charged the way it does before a summer storm. He glanced at her. She wasn’t wrong. It was some kind of thrilling.
At a nod from Tharp, Mel shouted at the workers to lean on their pry bars. As they heaved, she goaded and cajoled, her words a lash at their backs. The bars strained, bowing between the cumbersome stone and the strong arms pulling with all their bulging might. A venomous hiss slithered from between the slabs as they parted. It wriggled down Eric’s spine leaving a trail of sensation like cold slime. Zo gasped, her fingers reaching for his. The stone doors fell open with a crash that rang through the pit like the toll of dolorous bells. A shock wave of silence rolled across the gathered crowd as they listened in unison to the waning echo until at last it was swallowed up by the rasp of the hungry wind.
Eric’s mouth went sand dry, and a hunted feeling crawled up his shoulders. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he said, his voice as haggard as the wind.
The open maw of the tomb door gave a mournful howl as a sand-laden gust was exhaled into the pit. The workers dropped their tools and scattered to the sides as Mel threw up an arm to shield her face. The gust split into myriad churning eddies. As each formed, they slowed, finally coalescing into men and women so gaunt that their leathered flesh hung from their bones like the tattered vestments that wrapped them. There was one frozen second split from time as none moved, all still struggling to believe their eyes. Eric stared down at the bone-thin creatures that flooded the pit. There was a void of the deepest, world-swallowing black where their eyes should have been. He could feel their hunger radiating off them in noxious waves. As one, the Hungry Dead threw back their heads and shrieked to the heavens, a dissonant mind-melting cry that shattered the stillness. Then, all hell broke loose.
The Hungry Dead charged in every direction. One pounced on a worker. It gripped the screaming man by the stubbled line of his jaw and the rise of his muscled shoulder, tearing his head off with a jerk. A font of blood erupted from the ragged stump of his neck. The creature stretched its mouth impossibly wide like the jaws of a snake and then tilted the corpse so that the hot blood poured in buckets straight down its gullet. The other workers and scholars screamed and surged for the ladders. Most were dragged from the rough wood before they made the third rung, their tops popped and their drained bodies discarded like crumpled Coke cans.
One charged at Mel. She screamed, her eyes going round and white as she scrambled backwards. The creature was nearly on top of her when her heel caught a stone and she tumbled flat onto her back. It loomed over her. Its withered fingers reached for the throbbing artery in her throat. Corbin leaped down on top of the monstrosity, driving the tip of her sword clean through its spoon chest. Its hiss was an angry wind before it disintegrated into desert sand.
Zo grabbed Eric by the sleeve and yanked him backward as a dead hand crested the rim of the pit at his feet. Tattered nails, sharp as talons, clawed at the air where his ankles had been. Eric’s backwards stumble transformed into an awkward jog and then a run to keep up with Zo who still held a firm grasp on his wrist. Before he could really register where they had gone, she pulled him through a tent flap and into a lantern lit gloom of chests and wooden crates.
“What are we doing here?” asked Eric. His sword was drawn, and he was peering into the deep shadows.
She threw open a footlocker-sized chest filled with small bottles, each labeled with a yellowed tag. “This might be our only chance,” she said.
She rummaged through the chest. The tinkle of glass was a cacophony in the hush. A moment later, she selected one, holding it up in the light to read the tag. Apparently satisfied, she rose and carried the vial to the center of the tent. There stood a wardrobe of sorts. Its thick oaken sides were reinforced by bands of steel. A thick metal crossbar, which held the door shut, was secured by a padlock the size of Eric’s fist.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Zo plucked the stopper from the vial and trickled the solution along the base of the lock’s shackle. She danced back a couple steps as the metal began to sizzle and smoke. The lock popped and fell to the sandy floor. She heaved the bar up and swung open the door. Eric’s mouth flopped open. Inside was crammed full of bags upon bags of antitoxin tablets.
“Run away with me,” said Zo looking as earnest and bare as a girl asking her crush to dance. Screams from the hell beyond the tent floated in like dust.
“Zo, now is not the time,” he said.
“Now is exactly the time, the only time we may ever have.”
“They need us out there,” he said. He thought of Corbin, of the Diyakosha’s hot breath on his face, of the weight of it on top of him. He still owed her. He couldn’t abandon her now.
“I need you,” Zo said. She took his face in her hands and kissed him so hard and deep that he felt it in his toes.
When she pulled back, his arms were wrapped around her waist. “Then we’ll snatch enough for the both of us, and we can slip away tonight,” he said, “After all of this is over.”
She pushed him back, eyes aflame. “We can’t wait! The first thing they’ll do is check the count on the tablets. Do you want to end up like Paydrin?”
“I can’t abandon them.”
“Coward.” She shoved him. “Go! Run away from everything we have, everything we could have.”
Eric lingered, drinking her in one last time, the lump in his chest shattering in slow motion. He swallowed the words he wanted to say and turned toward the tent flap.
“I won’t wait for you,” she said, a subtle waver in the steel of her voice. “I won’t be here when you come crawling back.”
Eric paused at the tent flap, standing on the line between the brutal sun beyond and the balm of the shadowy tent. He looked back at her one last time. Tears bulged along the rim of her eyes making them shine like jewels. He wanted to speak, to tell her about how her rose petal smile made him glow, to tell her about the gaping hole in his chest whenever she was gone. Instead, he only nodded and stepped out into the screaming heat.
His boots pounded the ground, sending up plumes of rusted dust. Through the line of open-sided work tents, he could see the surviving ODF guardsmen rallying on the other side of the pit. At their front, Salmin’s sword hacked and slashed like a tempest at the surge of Hungry Dead that spilled over the lip. As Eric cleared the tents, a hand shot up from the edge ahead. It clawed at the orange soil as a shock of pink hair emerged from the pit. Mel spilled over the rim, smeared with dirt and blood. A bellow erupted from below. She scrambled to her knees and scuttled back to the edge.
“Grab my hand!” Her voice was a splintering shard. “Look out!”
A scream like nothing Eric had ever heard tore from the pit just as he reached the edge. Corbin leaned against the dirt wall, her sword swinging in sloppy arcs. All the color had drained from her face. Her right arm hung from her shoulder by only a thin strip of flesh. All around her tattered corpses circled, savoring the anticipation of the kill. Eric didn’t hesitate. He launched himself from the ledge, landing among the Hungry Dead.
He drew his sword and slashed with one clean stroke, disintegrating his target into ashen sand. Another lunged, clawed fingers clutching for his throat. Eric caught the hand at the wrist and spun with the creature’s momentum, throwing it to the ground and driving his sword home through its spine. He pulled his shield from his back in time to block a flash of razor nails from the side before severing the offending limbs with a quick chop. A fast step and Eric threw himself in the other direction, bashing his shield into another of the creatures. It toppled over and he crushed its brittle skull under his boot.
Above him, the sound of shouts and booted feet filled the air. A ladder dropped onto the dirt next to Corbin, spattering the growing pool of her blood. Through the twirling chaos, Eric saw her hoisted over a khaki shoulder and carried from the pit, sweat still dripping from the tip of her colorless nose. Her eyes caught his. He felt the weight of them, her longing to fight, her hunger for rest. She was alive. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was all he could ask for in this life at war.
The moment lasted no longer than the beat of a butterfly’s wings and then the fight shifted as more dead charged, eager to slake their own murderous hunger. As Eric’s blade sung, scattering the dead to dust on the wind, arrows rained down around him. A roar like a stampede welled up from the edge as ODF guardsmen poured into the pit. A wave of sharpened steel and hardened wood crashed against the undead. From the front burst a golden light that cut a wide swath. In its path, a line of Hungry Dead dissolved into mounds of ghastly dust. There stood Salmin, eyes smoking and sword glowing like the first light of the dawn.
Wind buffeted from the mouth of the open tomb, carrying the fetid stench of decay as it swirled the ashen sand. “Close the slab before it raises more of these abominations,” said Salmin. His voice cut like a church bell through the din. As soon as the words left him, his sword was dancing once more, igniting in a solar arc that burned through the Hungry Dead like a blowtorch through butter.
“Uh, Watcher?” said Eric as he buried his sword deep in the neck of one of the creatures.
“What is it, Strange?” said Salmin, his panther frame coiling for the next strike.
“There’s something different about you today. Did you get a new haircut or something?”
Though they were pure smoking white, Eric couldn’t miss the roll of his superior’s eyes. “Quit eyeballing me and get your mind in the fight.”
“Yes, sir,” said Eric, his grin stretching from ear to ear.
The tide had turned. ODF guardsmen closed like a snare around the tomb door, inch by bloody inch. The first guardsmen reached the solid stone doors. They gripped the time rotten edges and heaved against them, veins bulging from their necks and temples with the effort. With the sound of grinding sand, the slabs began to move.
Salmin, glowing like an avenging angel, called out, “Seal that bast—”
“Belay that!” Tharp appeared at the edge of the pit surrounded by a contingent of guardsmen. Like him, they were all splashed with blood. He and his men hopped down into the pit. Without even breaking his stride, he began barking orders. “You three, go get me that artifact. You four, reinforce the guardsmen at the doors. I want that tomb shut tighter than an Orbital’s asshole as soon as the recovery team returns. Now move!”
The guardsmen with Tharp set off at a run. As the three disappeared into to the darkened maw of the tomb, a belch of rancid air blew from within. Eric’s flesh crawled at the greasy feel of it as it swirled around him. The ashen sand at his feet spun into whorls on the breeze as it danced around his ankles. As it capered it picked up speed, drawing in more and more of the dead earth. It darted around him, and he whirled to follow. Even as he spun the dust was solidifying into the same ravenous corpse it had been before. It grinned at him through an oozing, graveyard smile, the rotten sinews of its shoulders tightening to lunge. Eric was faster. He threw all his weight behind his sword as he drove the tip through the creature’s chest. It crumbled once more into granular ash.
All around him the pit boiled as skirmishes broke out in every corner. Splintered screams mingled with the gurgled pleas of soldiers choking on their own blood as the full strength of Hungry Dead leaped upon the depleted ODF force. Eric glance back at the empty dark that led down the tomb’s gullet. Only three guardsmen remained at the doors. One lay gutted in the sand, and the others had joined the desperate fray.
From the tomb’s gloaming came a scream that was cut short. Then there was a frantic galloping of boots on stone. The sound grew nearer until a pale human face appeared in the shadows. Her eyes were wild and white. Tears cut ravines through the caked dirt on her cheeks. Eric charged toward the door. As he arrived at the threshold, she reached for him. In her hand, she clutched a forked brass rod. He stretched for her with both hands catching her at the wrist. He braced himself to pull her out, but a massive hand of living shadow wrapped around her waist. She wailed as the hand lifted her off her feet. Eric held fast, every muscle in his body trembling as he struggled to pull her free. She was slipping from his grasp. He could feel it. Her tears caught the sunlight making her pleading eyes shine like stars in the black. Her fingers slid from him, and she was sucked back into the hungry dark with a pleading scream that would haunt his dreams until the day he died. Numbly, he looked at the forked brass rod still caught in his quivering fists. It had something like a fox or a coyote etched at the base of the fork. His arms tingled all the way up to the elbow.
Shouts from behind rattled him back to his senses. He shoved the rod into his belt and scurried toward the edge of the stone door. He and the other guardsmen gripped the slabs and pushed. Blood pounded in his temples as he heaved. The tempest howl of the dead clashed with the aching bawl of dying men all around him.
Visions of Corbin, her arm in tatters flooded his mind. If they couldn’t get these doors sealed, it would be only moments before these shrieking monsters finished what they started. And then there was Zo. She would have a head start, but how long before these creatures poured out into the surrounding lands? How long until they caught up with her? Images of her, pallid and still, as these creatures hunched over her scattered entrails stabbed at him. Eric roared and the door began to grind against the sand. They pushed with all their shaking strength until finally the doors tottered and fell into place. The boom rattled Eric’s teeth. As it rolled through the pit, the Hungry Dead wailed and crumbled to dust on a dying breeze.
A cheer erupted from the survivors. Those who were still standing hugged and clapped each other on the back. Lojan pushed through the celebration. He took Eric’s hand and shook it. “Well done, son. I knew there was something special in you.”
Behind him, fresh corpses dotted the blood drenched sand. “You’re the devil,” said Eric. He glared straight into Tharp’s eyes.
“I am.” Lojan held Eric’s gaze. “But I’m the best we’ve got.”
“Tell that to the dead.”
“You’ll see the necessity of their sacrifice in time.”
“I won’t forget what you’ve done.”
“Good. Now, hand over the rod.” He held out his hand, granite in his stare.
Eric hesitated. He wanted to hit him, to beat that look of superiority out of him. Instead, he released a slow, shaky breath and pulled the rod from his belt. As he passed it to Lojan, he wondered if it would make his arm tingle too or if Tharp was too much a monster to feel anything at all.
“Thank you,” said Lojan. He started to turn and stopped. “When you’re trying to find a way out of hell, it helps to have the devil on your side,” he said in a low voice that hung in the air like a bleak morning fog. Then he turned to the others and began doling out orders.
The walk to the Aid Station was the longest of Eric’s life. The fighting was over, the dead and dying had been cleared, and camp was on its way to returning to normal as the sun began to set beyond the mountains. His mind was filled with a high-pitched whine that grew with each step closer to the line of drab tents. Still, it was better than thinking about what he was likely to find.
Ahead the medical supply tent loomed, squat and glowering. His heart thumped against his chest, slow and hard like a pounding fist. He reached for the tent flap and noticed that his hand was trembling. Inside were the familiar, shadowy crate towers. In the center, standing tall and defiant like an impregnable keep, was the tablets vault. The broken lock had already been replaced, and two extra crossbars had been secured across the face. Zo had been right. It had been checked first. Eric deflated. She was really gone.
“Can I help you?” said a voice from behind. Eric spun around with a start. It belonged to a tall, blond orderly. He had dark bags under his eyes and dried blood in his fingernail beds. Obvious suspicion was written in bold across features.
“Just looking for a friend,” said Eric. “Guess she isn’t here.”
“Then I guess you should look somewhere else.” The orderly folded his arms across his chest.
“Yeah. Right.” Eric started to trudge his way toward the aid tents and paused. “Hey, do you know where they took Sabina—Guardsmen Corbin?”
The orderly’s face softened. “The healers are still working on her.”
Eric rapped his knuckles against a wooden tent pole and asked, “How’s she doing?”
“They, uh, had to take her arm. But they think she’s going to live.”
“Well at least that’s something,” said Eric with a grimace. Suddenly, every bit of him ached.
“Are you a friend of hers?” asked the orderly. “Do you know an Ebrik Strange? She’s been asking for him.”
“I’m Ebrik Strange,” he said and realized he would never be Eric again.
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