Ebrik Strange: The Hungry Bones

by Robert Currer


Part 2: Chapter 4

2,600 Words: 11 Minute Read


Ebrik scooped up his sword and sprinted up the spiral stairs, leaving the dead to slake their hunger on the steaming meat that had once been Urwin. His boots slapped against the stone, taking the steps two, sometimes three, at a time. His heart beat a torrent in his chest as he whirled upward in the cloying dark. Finally, a dull edge of sunlight bled into the corners of the gloom, growing in intensity until searing sun gushed in through the opening in the desert floor above. He hurled himself onto the sands, gulping mouthfuls of arid heat as the acid in his veins diluted back to salty blood.

“Where’s Urwin?” asked Burshel.  His voice was an octave too high.  He ran past Ebrik to the opening, scanning the worn stone for his brother.  When Urwin didn’t appear, he turned his huge, wet eyes to Ebrik.  “Where’s Urwin?” The pleading in his voice felt like a razor dragged across Ebrik’s heart.

Ebrik held Burshel’s gaze for a long beat, his own features held has hard as the truth they conveyed.  He picked himself up from the sand and, still holding Burshel’s stare, said, “How do we close the opening?”

Burshel’s heart exploded into a million shards as Ebrik watched.  “But Urwin…”  He barely choked the words out, tears and snot flowing.  His thin, bird-like frame folded still clinging uncertainly to the rim of the opening.  Poor kid needed a hug.  But now wasn’t the time.

Ebrik yanked Burshel to his feet.  “Get your shit together!” He shook the boy hard.  “Unless you’re looking to get us all eaten, we need to seal this fucking hole.”  As if to punctuate his point, ravenous moans echoed up from the stairwell.

“I—I don’t know how,” said Burshel, recoiling from Ebrik as if struck.  Fat tears dribbled down his hollow cheeks.  “Th—there’s nothing in the story.  I just don’t know.”

“Don’t look at me,” said Ayders as Ebrik’s gaze swiveled in his direction.  The old scavenger looked like me might be sick at any moment.

Ebrik’s eyes shot from Ayders to Burshel to the black facets of the obsidian altar.  There had to be a way to seal it back up.  He just needed a minute to think.  The ground trembled and the rumble of a shifting wave of sand gouged through the sighing wind.  All around them, small mounds formed as if the earth itself had goosebumps.  Wind swept the bubbling sands and the smooth, ivory curve of a skull pushed free of the mound at his feet.  “Run!” He grabbed Burshel by the shirt and pulled him into a stumbling sprint as all three fled across the boiling sands. 

All around, skeletons clawed their way through the earth itself like men drowning in reverse.  Sand spilled into the cavities their bodies left behind causing the shifting sand to slide this way and that.  Ebrik, Burshel, and Ayders careened passed the standing stones and through the arcade.  As they raced through the ruins, the sand rippled and a broken arch, ten feet high, swayed.  They darted through its shadow just as it listed.  Great sandstone blocks tumbled free, breaking apart at their rotted mortar.  Ebrik darted left and then dodged right, dragging Burshel in his footsteps.  He heard the kid’s breath catch and instinctively yanked the young scholar clear as a massive stone block tumbled to the earth so close that he felt the spray of the sand as it struck.

He risked a glance backward, trying to find Ayders in the chaos.  The old man had fallen farther behind than Ebrik had thought, but the distance had kept him clear of the falling arch.  One look at the grizzled scavenger told Ebrik it was a mixed blessing.  Ayders stood hunched and panting.  His face was paler than a salt pan and his eyes were underlined with a black sheen. 

“Keep moving,” Ebrik said to Burshel and pointed toward the ridge line.  “Make for the spot where we camped last night.”  Then he took off toward Ayders.

All around skeletons had half-clawed their way free from the sand.  He curved around a fallen stone and felt the graze of bony fingers over his trouser legs.  He broke his stride long enough to punt its skull clean from its shoulders before continuing.  The old scavenger was breathing hard, his eyes wide and searching.  Ebrik reached to take him by the shoulder, and Ayders jumped as if he hadn’t realized the mercenary was with him.  As recognition set in, he shrunk closer to Ebrik, curling in on himself. 

“They’re everywhere,” said Ayders, his words coming out a wheeze.  He didn’t look at Ebrik.  His eyes were on the ground, furtively darting to the corners.

“We’ve got to move.”  Ebrik growled the words as he tried to prod Ayders into motion.

The old man shuffled along a few hesitant steps and stopped.  “Too many.”  His voice was a thready wind, so quiet that Ebrik strained to make out the words. 

Ebrik huffed.  Ahead, he could still catch glimpses of Burshel’s mad dash through the decaying ruin.  The kid was moving at a good clip.  At least someone wanted to make it out alive.  Still survival was by no means a certainty for any of them.  All around, a horde of the undead were wriggling their way out of the clenched fist of the desert sands.  Every second wasted could mean the difference between living to strike it rich another day or being ripped apart a handful of flesh at a time, fed into a blender of inhuman hunger.  Just like Urwin.  Ebrik’s gut turned sour.  The vision of the older brother being pulled apart into hunks of dripping meat was still painted on the back of his eyelids.  Even here, in the scrap of the dry wind, he could almost hear the ringing screams and smell the coppery aroma of the bloody mist.

He willed himself back from the brink.  Urwin was dead, but he wasn’t about to let the horror of that reality kill the rest of them too.  Setting his jaw, he turned to Ayders.  The old man felt cold to the touch despite the blistering heat and shivered as if the surrounding dunes had been snow instead of sand.  He was on the verge of locking up, and then there would be nothing Ebrik could do for him, short of carrying the wiry old reptile on his back. 

Taking a steadying breath, Ebrik lifted Ayder’s chin so that they could look each other in the eye.  In tones that felt like a warm washcloth, he said, “I know this frightening, but we have to keep moving.  There’s a campfire waiting for us at the end of the day, hot food and a warm place to sleep.  We just have to put one foot in front of the other until we get there.  Can you do that for me?”

“But—,” Ayders’ huge eyes started to drift away from Ebrik.

Ebrik resisted the urge to slap some sense into this wizened child.  Instead, he gently held the sides of the old man’s face.  “Don’t worry about them.  I’ve got you.  Just come with me, and we’ll make it.  I promise.”

Unblinking, Ayders gave a slow, slight nod.  With a plastic smile, Ebrik took his hand and step by step built their momentum until they were running again.

By now, Burshel was out of sight, but that was probably a good sign.  The absence of grizzly clues suggested he had not yet met a horrific end.  Ebrik and Ayders were making better time than they had been, but the bow-legged elder ran like he was at sea, in clipped teetering strides.  Ebrik reminded himself that it wasn’t fair to blame Ayders for that.  The shifting of the sands had only become more pronounced, and even the tattered bits of ruin rose and fell with their oceanic motion.  Fair or not, it didn’t change the fact that their chances of survival dwindled with every moment they spent in the basin.  All around them skeletons had nearly freed themselves from the pull of the sands.  It wouldn’t be long until Ebrik and Ayders found themselves overrun.  They needed to clear the ruins and get up to the ridge line where the jutting tooth-like boulders would offer shelter.

Ebrik looked over his shoulder and swore.  Ayders wasn’t there.  In his focus to pick up the pace, he had let Ayders fall behind.  Why hadn’t he kept a hand on the wiry reptile?  Stupid!  His eyes raced along the path he had taken and found the old man a dozen yards back.  He had stopped in the shade of a standing triangle of wall.  One hand on the wall for support, Ayders was hunched over, breathing hard.  His face was the burgundy of a deep bruise.  His left arm hung limp at his side.  Ebrik broke into a sprint, scolding himself.  He was pushing Ayders too hard.  The old man better not have been having a heart attack.

Ayders lifted his head to look at Ebrik.  His chin bobbed as if agreeing to some imagined request, and he collected himself to start running again.  The wind gusted through the surrounding tumble of stone, carrying veils of sand between them.

“Stay there!” Ebrik shouted, but his words were lost in the wind.  The earth rolled again.

Ayders squared his shoulders.  He took a step, and his knees gave way.  His eyes bulged as he clutched his chest.  Shit!  He was having a heart attack.  Ebrik was almost there now.  Not that he had any idea what he could do, but at least getting there would be a step in the right direction.  He bounded off rock and block as the sands beneath their feet continued to pitch and roll.  Then the shadow around Ayders shifted.  The old man hadn’t noticed, too preoccupied with trying to keep his heart from failing, but Ebrik saw the masonry lean.  His shout of warning was swept away in the gust.  The wall fell.  Ayders was crushed, a starburst of gore stabbing out from beneath the stone.

Ebrik felt like the wind had been knocked from him.  He skidded to a stop short of the glistening, red sand.  For a moment, his brain stalled, sputtering as it tried to take in what had just happened. 

The bluster slowed to a momentary lull.  In the screaming quiet, he could hear the hiss of sand pouring from the rag-draped bones of the dead as they pulled themselves free.  Ayders was no more, and there was nothing he could do about that.  But Burshel might still be out there.  Ebrik owed it to the kid to find him, to get him out alive, to make amens for failing to save the others.  That much he owed. 

He paused only long enough to rap out three quick knocks on a broken column before racing off in the direction he had sent Burshel.  Sand flew behind him as he made his desperate dash, vaulting over crumbling masonry and weaving around piles of fallen sandstone.  All around the dead clawed their way from the earth.  Skeletons, freed to the knees, lunged for him as he passed, trying to drag him down.  Ebrik spun, weaved, bobbed, and twirled just to stay out of death’s embrace. 

The jumble of ruins was still too thick.  He couldn’t see more than a yard or two ahead, but he bent an ear to the breeze, listening hard for scream or shout.  What came back to him was braying.  It was a wild, panicked noise, and as he rounded a collapsed section of wall, he saw the mules.  They were straining against their tethers, kicking and bucking, driven half mad with fear.  It was easy to see why.  Only a stone’s throw away, the first skeletons had pulled themselves free and were beginning their shuffling advance on the foaming beasts of burden. 

Nearby, the cart of supplies waited beneath the tarp awning as it snapped in the mounting gale.  One wheel had become partly buried, but otherwise all appeared to be in good working order.  Ebrik was tempted.  Even if he made it to Burshel in time, they would be hard pressed to survive the unforgiving landscape of The Wastes without supplies.  But he pushed that thought from his head.  There wasn’t time to harness the mules before the rest of the dead descended upon him, and a barrel of water wouldn’t do him any good if he died trying to get it.  Instead, he darted to the post where the mules were tied and severed the ropes with a quick chop of his sword.  The beasts needed no encouragement from him.  They reared and tore off into the surrounding desert, instinctively heading for the high ground.  “They’ll be alright,” he said to himself, aching for that to be true.

To his left, a newly freed skeleton lurched toward him.  He dispatched it with a single cut and resumed his run.  This time it was a scream that found him.  The ruins parted and there, in the barren rise of sand, was Burshel.  Three skeletons chased after him.  One seized a fist full of his shirt which tore as Burshel struggled to get away.  The delay in his flight was enough for another to snatch his arm.  The young scholar spun trying to yank himself free and lost his balance.  He tumbled to the sand, flat on his back, shrieking as the three dead crowded in around him.

Ebrik charged.  This could not play out.  Not again.  His pounding feet bowled him across the short distance and directly into the first skeleton, scattering its bones like ivory pins.  With a two-handed grip, he swung his sword hard and flat, throwing all his body weight into the momentum.  The blade cut clean through the next skeleton, leaving the legs and hips standing even as the ribcage fell to the sand. 

The last skeleton was on top of Burshel, gripping him by the calf.  The young scholar kicked at the creature, his face contorted into a feral hiss.  Ebrik grabbed the creature using its ribs as a handle and threw it from Burshel.  Fresh blood dripped from its chattering grin.  Ebrik wasted no time in driving his sword through the creature’s skull.

Moans flooded the air as thousands of shambling skeletons called out in hunger.  The chorus sent a chill down his spine.  No good would come from delaying their flight to the safety of the ridge line.  Burshel was climbing to his feet, still gasping lung fulls of scorching air.  There was no time for rest.  Ebrik grabbed him by the collar and propelled him into a run.  Together they scrambled up the barren rise toward the crenelation of outcroppings that ringed the basin.

They didn’t stop once they reached the top.  Ebrik pulled Burshel through the labyrinth of jutting rocks until he was at last satisfied that they had put a reasonable distance between themselves and the wandering dead.  His legs could have melted they burned so badly.  He folded at the waist, guzzling the air as he tried to force his heart from a gallop to a canter.  When he could finally manage to wheeze out a few words, he asked, “Are you okay?”

Burshel gave him a wan smile and said, “Never better.”  He swayed a little, owl eyes rolling into the back of his head, and then collapsed.


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Ebrik Strange: Restless Dead

by Robert Currer


Part 2: Chapter 3

2,900 Words: 12 Minute Read


From the catacombs, the waking groans of the dead echoed off the earthen walls.  Bone clicked and scraped across stone berths as Ayders and the brothers looked to their hired mercenary.  Ebrik shoved the spyglass into his bag.  Ignoring the tingling it left in his fingers, he darted to the chamber door.  The first skeletons were beginning to emerge from their open crypts.  Cobwebs clinging to them like filmy shrouds, they tottered as their legs took the weight of their bodies for the first time in centuries.

Ebrik glanced back at his clients, his mind buzzing.  “Grab what you can and follow me.  We’re going to make a break for the stairs.”

Burshel snapped his leather-bound tome of notes shut and scurried to Ebrik’s side.  Ayders snatched up the golden surgical instruments while Urwin swept a line of urns into a waiting burlap sack.  Ebrik drew his sword and shield as Ayders darted into position behind Burshel.  Urwin’s heavy feet slapped the stone behind him, the burlap sack bouncing on his muscle-bound back. 

“What’re we waiting for!  Let’s beat feet,” said Ayders as he came to a skidding stop behind Burshel. 

Waiting for Urwin to get into position at the back of their column, Ebrik raised his shield and readied to bowl through the long aisle ahead.  It was a straight shot from this end of the catacombs to the stairs.  If they were fast enough, they could clear the distance without getting swarmed.  His charges now assembled, he broke into a jog. 

As they reached the first stone pillar, one skeleton of six had found its footing.  With a haunting moan, it stretched a bony talon toward him.  He slapped at it with his shield, sending it reeling.  It tumbled backwards and its skull smashed into the lip of the funeral slab.  A web of fractures blossomed along its cranium as the malevolent light within its empty sockets was snuffed out.

All around them the dead awoke from their timeless slumber.  The creaking of old bones and moans like great hunger pains rumbled throughout the massive burial chamber as they dragged themselves from their rocky beds, scattering the moldering offerings that surrounded each like cheap trinkets.  Ebrik dodged around a pair of grasping hands, coated in thick webs like the yellowing lace of a grizzly glove.  Burshel shrieked as the fingers of a skeletal grasp grazed his temple.  Urwin swung a lumpy sack of looted urns, smashing the flimsy arm while pushing his relations onward.  Even as he was hurried along by his massive nephew, Ayders paused to scoop up a tarnished ring that fell from the rotting hand.  Burshel needed little goading.  He clung so closely to Ebrik that that he might have crawled inside the mercenaries scuffed leathers given half the chance.

Skeletons were pouring from the alcoves all around them now, flooding the passage between them and the stairs to the surface.  Born by sheer momentum, Ebrik crashed through the creatures, splinting bone with each chop of his sword.  A grinning skull lunged from the darkened alcove at his shoulder.  He spun away just as the rotten teeth snapped shut, catching nothing but air between the click of its jaws.  He reversed his motion bringing his shield to bear and slamming the skull into the rough-cut wall.  A gut rending crunch followed and the pulp that had been bone fell to the floor. 

Something bumped into Ebrik from behind.  He risked a look back and found Ayders crowded into Burshel pushing his bird-limbed nephew into Ebrik’s back.  Urwin swung his bag of treasures in wide, artless arcs with a raw strength that sent bones flying like bowling pins.  Sweat flowed down the strong man’s face as he lifted the bag to swing again, knocking a swath of mindless dead to rest.  The heavy sack was like a wrecking ball, but Ebrik could see the effort it took for Urwin to lift time and again.  Even now, his strokes were slowing.  They weren’t going to make the stairs at this pace.

“Ayders!” shouted Ebrik through the melee.  “Do you still have those blasting charges?”

“Why in the hells does that matter?” said Ayders as he ducked to avoid a bone sent flying by Urwin’s crushing blow.

“Do you have them?”  This was not the time for explanations.

“I got ‘em!”

“Light them!”

“You gone daffy, boy?”  Ayder’s eyes bulged, round and yellowed, making him look like a bearded toad.  “That could bring the whole place down around our ears!”

“Light the godsdamned dynamite!” roared Ebrik, spittle flying from his mouth as he cleaved a skeleton in half, crushing its skull beneath his boot.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch,” said Ayders.  His hand plunged into his bag all the way to the shoulder and fished about.  When he pulled out, he had two sticks of the explosive clutched in his gnarled claw.  He held their fuses in the flame of Burshel’s torch.  Flaring, both sputtered and caught.  The sparks fizzed in his eyes as he hollered, “Fire in the hole!” and sent both sticks sailing, one ahead and one behind.

The dynamite tumbled through the air, over Ebrik’s shoulder, and falling among the throng of advancing dead like a drunken star.  Ebrik spun.  He grabbed Burshel by the shoulders and threw him into an empty alcove near the floor.  Rolling in behind the kid, Ebrik shielded him with his own body.  The explosion rattled the world around them as dust and dirt rode the rolling tide of the shockwave, chased by a burst of flame.  Shrapnel of bone, stone, and lacquered wood fell like hail all along the corridor.  He didn’t wait for the world to still.  Coughing through the smoke and dust, he climbed to his feet.

“Everyone okay?” he asked, squinting as he tried to peer through a haze that smelled of char and fresh turned earth.  Before him lay a field of charred bone fragments.  The skeletons that had clotted their path had been blasted to shards.  He listened through the desperate silence, searching for the sound of shuffling boots or gluttonous moans.  None found his ears. 

“Well smack my ass!  It worked,” said Ayders climbing to his feet.  Dust clung to his face, accentuating the topography of creases that marked his features.  “Burshel, you alright?”

The scrawny scholar crawled from the stone berth clinging to his notebook like the last piece of flotsam in a shipwreck.  All the color had drained from him, and his eyes were impossibly wide behind his soiled spectacles.  He shivered and Ebrik guessed it was more from fraying nerves than the temperature.  “Hale if not entirely hearty,” he said, his voice cracking.

There came a grunt from behind Ayders as the other brother hefted his mountainous bulk to standing.  “Still whole back there?” said Ebrik craning his neck to see around the others. 

“Mostly,” said Urwin, his gravel voice rumbling off the stone like a slow landslide.  A shard of shrapnel protruded from his thigh.  The blood that trickled from the wound looked almost black compared to the moonlight white of the bone.  He wrapped a massive fist around the shard and steadied himself.  With a sharp inhale, he yanked it from his thigh.  He cast it aside almost casually and gave Ebrik a grim nod.  Urwin’s features were held taut between the pain and the need to carry on.  His eyes were soldier’s eyes, suffering but stoic, weary but unyeilding.  Salmin would have liked Urwin.  That thought curled a smile into Ebrik’s lips.

A distant thunder of hungry moans pulled Ebrik back to their present predicament.  It wouldn’t be long before the dead from the other aisles, who had not been scattered by the explosions, pressed in on them.  They needed to run while they still could.  “Time to go!” called Ebrik.  He grabbed the still stunned Burshel by the collar and broke into a run, the boy stumbling into a loping gait behind him.

The stairwell huddled at the end of the aisle, just at the edge of the torchlight, a beckoning void in the gray tans of the sandstone walls.  Ebrik was at the threshold in seconds, shoving Burshel into the shelter of the darkened steps before whirling to the side to allow the others to pass.  Ayders was on their heels, but Urwin wasn’t there.  Ebrik looked down the passage to see Urwin gripping his thigh as he limped toward them, not yet half the distance.  Even in the treacherous light, Ebrik could see his jaw clenched against the pain and the dripping blood that trailed his steps.  The wound must have been deeper than they thought.

“Go!  Don’t wait for me,” shouted Urwin, waving them on even as he lurched closer. 

Ebrik looked to the aisles to his left and right.  Already tomb-stained skeletal faces were emerging from the shadows en masse.  The clack of shambling bones grew louder by the second.  Urwin wasn’t going to make it to them in time. 

“We’ll meet you on the surface,” said Ebrik to Burshel and Ayders, drawing his sword and readying to hold the archway.  When the pair hesitated, he barked, “Move!” sending them sprinting up the steps. 

He turned his attention back to Urwin and the impending horde.  The dead would be on him soon, but Urwin would only need a few extra seconds beyond that to make the stairs.  Then even if the dead followed, the narrowness of the passage would make their numbers meaningless.  It would be a fighting retreat, but he could manage it long enough to break the surface.  He only hoped that Burshel and Ayders were coming up with some way to re-seal the stairs once he and Urwin were clear.

Calming his breathing, he stepped away from the wall.  He would need space to move if he was going to fight on two fronts.  The worn leather of the sword hilt and the easy weight of the stout wooden shield brought him a feeling of reassurance.  He focused on those sensations, picturing the speed of the blade when he finally exploded into motion, imagining the thumping of blows deflected by the shield.  He visualized the perfect kill, just as Salmin had taught them.

The throng was closing in.  The front runners careened toward Ebrik on both sides, their bone hands outstretched, jaws of graveyard teeth held wide.  He darted left and swung low with his sword, cutting the first off at the knees even as he pirouetted to smash into another with his shield.  The blow knocked the skeleton back, and he followed through with a high chop that separated skull from shoulders.  The first dragged itself toward him, its ribcage scrapping across the sandy flagstones as it grasped for his ankle.  He kicked out with his back foot and connected, sending bits of bone and teeth flying.  Then he hopped back a pace and dashed toward the other line of approaching undead directly behind.

As he passed through the intersection of the two corridors, he shot a glance to Urwin.  The hulking man doing his best to close the distance, the whole of his muscled frame rising and falling with each ragged breath as he forced himself forward.  Somehow, he had picked up speed.  Ebrik felt the specter of hope fall on him as he bolted down the corridor toward another line of shambling dead.

He neared the first of the skeletons and launched himself forward with a blurring burst of speed.  His sword thrust outward like an extension of his arm.  The force of the blow drove the tip clean through the creature’s sternum and severed its spine.  He shoved the inanimate bones off his blade with his shield and side-stepped to avoid a swipe from a clutching hand.  He danced forward a step and cut a quick chop into the offending skeleton’s side, cracking free a shower of browning ribs.  The dead thing wobbled with the force of the hit, and Ebrik seized the opportunity.  He kicked out with his front foot, striking the skeleton at the side of its knee.  The knee buckled, and it dropped to all fours.  One more quick slash, and Ebrik lopped off its head. 

The rustle of bones and rotten leather tugged at his attention.  He risked a quick glance over his shoulder and swore.  The dead were moving faster than he had hoped.  The bulk of the horde was within a few yards of the intersection.  If Urwin didn’t hurry up, they would be overwhelmed.  Ebrik smote a skeleton that had advanced on him ahead of the wall of shuffling corpses.  He danced backwards two steps before spinning on his heel and charging toward the other advancing line.  At the intersection, he paused, head swiveling back and forth.  Urwin was still hobbling as quickly as his leg would carry him, but it wasn’t going to be fast enough.  If both waves of undead crashed on them, they would be torn to shreds.  Ebrik couldn’t hold them all on his own, not on two fronts, not in this exposed intersection.  And Urwin was too big to carry…

“Fuck it,” he said to himself, slinging his shield across his back.  He darted toward Urwin, the sound of his slapping boots echoing down the corridor.

“What are you doing?  Get out of here,” shouted Urwin, his face a contorted blend agony and surprise. 

Ebrik grabbed the brother’s tree trunk of an arm and hoisted it over his shoulder.  He then wrapped his free arm around Urwin’s waist, taking some of the weight off the injured leg.  “Fucking hells you’re heavy,” he said with a grunt.  The pair hobbled forward picking up speed.

“We aren’t going to make it in time,” said Urwin through gritted teeth.  “Leave me here and get going.”

“Your brother will slit my throat in my sleep, if I do.”

A grin cracked Urwin’s knotted features.  “Slow poison’s more likely.  He’s got a bit of a vindictive streak.”

“It’s always the quite ones,” Ebrik said, managing a chuckle through his panting.

They were nearly to the intersection now.  Yet, Ebrik could hear the chorus of moans just around the corner.  It was going to be a close one.  He pushed harder, half carrying, half dragging Urwin along.  Rivulets of sweat ran down his face as the stench of moldering air and Urwin’s bestial body oder mingled in his nostrils.  A few more yards and they would be out of this hell.  Just a bit further.

As they burst into the intersection, mere steps away from the archway of the stairs, both walls of grasping hands and time-stained, groaning skulls clattered across the threshold together.  Ebrik lashed wildly with his sword, batting back the first to reach them, even as he dragged Urwin closer to the archway.  The mountain swung his bear-paw fist in wild sweeping haymakers, sending fetid teeth flying.  They were almost there.  Ebrik stepped into the archway, ready throw Urwin in front for the slow climb up the spiraling steps.  Behind him, Urwin roared.  Ebrik pulled hard, bracing the elbow of his sword arm against the stone for support.  Urwin didn’t budge. 

Ebrik looked back.  What he saw crushed the air from his lungs.  Skeletons had swarmed Urwin.  Their bony claws covered him from the neck down, clutching anywhere they could grasp.  They pulled him backwards with such force that one leg had already been lifted from the ground and he was struggling to keep the other foot planted.  His face was clammy with beads of perspiration clinging to his brow.  Foam frothed at the corners of his mouth as he howled against the dead tide.  Still, he was being slowly dragged from Ebrik’s grasp.

Ebrik dropped his sword and held on to Urwin with both hands.  He planted a boot against the stones of the archway and heaved with every muscle in his body.  “Don’t let go!” he screamed as Urwin’s arm slid.  He still had the brother by his wrist.  He could feel Urwin’s fingers trying to find purchase.  Urwin’s eyes were huge and nearly all whites.  He wasn’t roaring any longer and a pleading whine bled from his trembling lips. 

“I won’t let go,” said Ebrik.  His joints crackled and popped.  Every muscle felt stretched to the limit as though any moment they might simply snap.  The blood was rushing like rapids through his ears and every limb burned.  “I won’t let you g—”

His grip slipped.

In slow motion, he watched as Urwin was ripped away toward a tempest of gnashing, rancid teeth.  Ebrik willed his arms forward.  They snatched at empty air, trying to catch Urwin’s outstretched hands, but he couldn’t move fast enough.  He was still straining to reach Urwin when the first putrid jaws sunk into the brother’s flesh.  Urwin started to scream, his face stretching wide as mouths all around him opened to slake their terrible hunger.  By the time the next rending round of teeth sunk into Urwin’s flesh, he was well beyond Ebrik’s grasp.  Time sped back up.  From then, it was like watching his friend put through a blender.


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Ebrik Strange: Coyote Spyglass

by Robert Currer


Part 2: Chapter 2

3,000 Words: 12 Minute Read


Perfect dark ruled the world ahead.  The lantern swung in Ebrik’s hand as he worked his way down the winding stair, each step taking him deeper beneath the desert sand.  Ayders followed a few steps behind with Burshel close at heel and the towering Urwin bringing up the rear.  They walked in silence, their long shadows creeping along the sandstone walls.  At the bottom, the narrow passage widened to a room cut from living rock that stretched beyond the reach of the lantern light.  Stone shelves that stretched from floor to ceiling filled the space at intervals as regular as soldiers.

Ebrik held the lantern aloft trying to catch a glimpse of what lay within the darkened recesses of the broad shelves, but each was curtained by a thick rug of cobwebs.  He probed with the blade of his sword, tearing away the dust laden webs.  A face of stained bone stared out at him with a sinister grin held together by golden fillings that glittered in the lantern light.  The skeleton was arranged on its back with arms crossed in a way that Ebrik thought was supposed to approximate sleeping.  It only reminded him of the way he had folded himself to ride water slides as a kid.  It was clothed in decomposing rags that had once been dyed leather.  Icons of splitting wood and sticks of bone jewelry lined the back of the shelf.

“Keepsakes for the next life,” said Burshel in a hushed, reverential tone.  The scrape of his pencils against the paper of his notebook echoed softly through the chamber.

Alcoves like this one were cut into the stone above and below, the shelves stretching as far has Ebrik could see in any direction.  He wondered if each held a skeleton like this one.  If so, there were hundreds of them stacked liked cellared goods waiting for rebirth.  A feeling like icy fingers dribbled down his spine as blood-soaked memories of Hungry Dead blew in like a winter chill.  He held his breath, listening for the slightest brush of wind.  All was still.  So far the dead were behaving, he admitted to himself with a tremble of relief.  But that could change.  His eyes still tracing the line of alcoves, he hoped these dead weren’t hungry.  A prodding from Ayders pulled him back to the present. 

The reptilian neutrality on the old scavenger’s face showed no sign of concern for the moldering bones that would soon surround them.  “Rotten junk,” he said, turning over a ruined idol as one might examine a particularly ugly vase at a yard sale.  He let the idol clatter to the floor, the hollow sound echoing through the dusty gloom.  “Let’s get going.”  Without waiting for a response, he lifted a torch and continued down the aisle of cobweb crusted tombs. 

“Godsdamnit,” muttered Ebrik.  The old man was going to get them all killed blundering around like that.  The ancients had a nasty habit of leaving surprises behind for grave robbers.  Grave robbers.  The word left a nasty taste in his mouth, but he choked it down.  Karask Rev wasn’t the place to stand on principle.  Only thick skin thrived in this desert.  He’d see that firsthand.  Setting his jaw, he stalked off after Ayders, waving the brothers to follow.

They wove their way among the stone pillars, probing alcoves at random.  They were all the same, time-stained bones wrapped in ruined finery for which only Burshel had any appetite.  At the back of the chamber, peeling gold halos caught the dim edge of their light.  When Ebrik turned the lantern on them for a better look, he almost wished he hadn’t.  The halos were part of a mural and encircled the bleached skulls of a pair of skeletal infants.  Each was swaddled and held lovingly in the cloaked arms of Odpok, the ghost of a doting smile peeking through the shadows that shrouded his hooded face.

Urwin let out a low whistle.  “Well, ain’t that something…”

Burshel’s head bobbed as his pencil flew across the page.

“Now we’re talking!”  Ayders licked his lips, creeping closer to the mural as if drawn by unseen strings.  The gnarled fingers of one hand stretched out in front of him as he advanced.  They caressed the painted plaster, and a small moan escaped his lips.  He rubbed his cheek along the wall.  “Yeah… That’s more like it…”

Ebrik wrinkled his nose and looked away.

“Did you find something?” asked Urwin without a hint of embarrassment in his voice.

“Come and feel for yourself.”  His uncle waved him over, still lingering in the the wall’s embrace.  He wrapped a red, swollen knuckle on the mural.  “Right there.”

Urwin reached out with a hand that was nearly the size of his uncles head and pressed it to the wall.  He screwed his eyes shut as if concentrating.  For a moment, he was still and only the rasp of Burshel’s pencils filled the air.  Urwin shook his head.  “I don’t feel nothing.”

“Not with your hand, boy,” said Ayders.  He pulled away from the wall and showed Urwin his palm.  “Hands work for a living.  They grow calluses thicker than toad hide.  It makes them tough, but it robs their senses.”  He stroked the thick gray whiskers that clung to the sharp edge of his jaw.  “But cheeks stay soft.  They can feel what hands never will.”

The hulking boy nodded, his brow thick with focused knots.  He leaned his cheek to the wall where his hand had been.  His eyebrows shot up in surprise.

Ayders chuckled.  “Now you’re getting it.”

“I felt it,” said Urwin, his face glowing with awe.  “There’s a breeze!”

“That’s right.  It’s faint but it’s there.  And why do we care about a little, old puff of breath?”

“There’s something behind this wall?”

“Exactly!”  Ayders clapped his star pupil on the shoulder.  Urwin’s cheeks swelled red with embarrassed pride as he toed the dirt.  “Now, we’ve just got to find how to get to it.”

Burshel’s pencil ceased its dance.  He turned his huge amber eyes to Ayders and Urwin, blinking as if only just processing what was said. 

“There’s got to be a door,” said Ayders.

“We could follow the wall until we find it,” said Urwin.

“We’ve already walked the walls.”

“Maybe there’s another entrance from the surface?”

The younger of the brothers listened as his brother and uncle debated their options and then swung his attention back to the wall.  The light from Ebrik’s lantern spilled over it in an oblong beam that held Odpok in the hot center.  In the dim halo that surrounded the beam, the skeletal infants looked like the larva of enormous moths.  Burshel’s head cocked, and he stared at the mural unmoving for a while.  Not for the first time, Ebrik found himself wondering what it was the young man saw when he looked at the world.  What details found him that eluded everyone else? 

Burshel turned to Ebrik.  Without a word, he repositioned Ebrik’s left hand so that the beam was now focused on the grinning skull of the left infant.  It stared back at them like some monster caught in a car’s headlights.  Burshel took a few hesitant steps as if weighing every angle of what he was about to do.  Then he reached up and touched the upper arc of the skull’s hollow eyes.  Ebrik saw it then.  There was a thin-cut rind of stone separate from the smooth continuity of the rest of the carved face.  It was a switch of some kind.  Burshel’s fingers hooked the edge, preparing to pull.

“Burshel!  What in the hells are you doing?”  Ayder’s voice bowled through the silence, shattering the trance of discovery that had gripped Ebrik and, apparently, Burshel. 

Burshel blinked several times before answering as if shaking away some mental fog.  “There’s a switch here.  Perhaps, it opens a secret door of some kind.”

“Well don’t touch it!”  Ayder’s bowlegged stride carried him to his nephew’s side.  He leaned in close to examine the switch, his whole face squinting with the effort.  Burshel looked like his uncle had just asked him to drink drain cleaner.  “Gods, boy!  For being so smart you sure are a dummy sometimes.  If someone took the time hide a thing, they probably took the time to ward it too.”

His eyes roved along the crests and the troughs of the carved skull before settling.  With a gnarled finger, he traced the lines of the teeth until he came to a gap that was only just wider than the others.  “Urwin, hand me my kit,” he said reaching back towards the bigger of his nephews with the other hand.  Urwin rummaged through his pack and withdrew a roll of leather.  He placed it in Ayders’ outstretched palm. 

The old man unfurled the roll at his feet and withdrew a pair of long thin metal instruments.  As he inserted the instruments into the gap between the teeth, his eyes fluttered closed.  He worked by feel.  The soft scrap of the tools against stone was the only sound beyond the rattle of their breathing.  The hush stretched on for an eternity.

At last, a near silent click boomed through the chamber.  Ayders’ eyes opened and he wiggled the instruments as if trying to tease something out of the gap.  The tip of his tongue poked through the corner of his lizard lips as he worked.  Eventually, a small glass ampule emerged.  He plucked it from the gap with two fingers and held it in the light.  The inside was filled with grains of a greenish-white powder. 

“Take a good look, boys,” he said, turning the ampule over.  “This powder is nasty stuff.  When it meets air, it turns to poison gas.  Inside that there hole was a tiny hammer that was poised to crack the glass on this here ampule and drown us in gas.”  Turning to Burshel, he continued, “If you had pulled that switch without disarming the trap, you would have died choking on your own blood.”

Even in the dim light, Ebrik could see Burshel blush.  Ayders must have seen it too because he patted the boy on his shoulder and then delicately deposited the ampule in a nearby alcove.  When he returned, he dusted off his hands and said, “Now, we’re ready.  Burshel, would you do the honors?”

Hand quaking, Burshel touched his fingers to the thin rim of the switch and pulled down.  The stone slid over the hollows of the infant’s empty eyes like eyelids, giving it a look of quiet repose.  There was a pause as they clicked into place and then a quiet rumble like distant thunder as a mechanism moved somewhere out of sight.  The whole mural shook and begrudgingly rose into the ceiling, streamers of sand falling to the flagstone floor.  A stench like musk and formaldehyde wafted from the opening.

The mural settled into place and the chamber stilled, revealing a cavity of endless dark beyond.  Ebrik squinted trying to pierce the veil.  The stillness raised goosebumps along his arms.  The air stirred and a pair of torches within the chamber sputtered to life, followed by another pair, and then another.  They shed a living, golden light that cavorted among tall iron shelves that lined the sandstone walls.  Hunched urns crowded these shelves, ominous despite their finery like filigreed crows.  A layer of dust and cobwebs did not stop their gold detailing from catching flashes of light. 

The center of the chamber was occupied by a slab of obsidian set at table height.  It was lined by a rim, an inch or two high, that tapered to a channel at the foot which drained into a basin of solid gold.  A standing tray was set at a convenient proximity to the table upon which an array of dust-caked surgical instruments awaited practiced hands.  They were untarnished despite the length of neglect and as Ebrik’s eyes fell on them he shuttered to realize that the whole of the room was laid out like the operating theater of a morgue.

Ayders was the first to cross the threshold, the fingers of his free hand bicycling as if unable to contain their anticipation.  He made an ambling circuit of the room, passing first along the numberless urns.  Puffing up his cheeks, he blew the dust from the busty curve of one, groaning with pleasure when the light caught the luster beneath.  Then he turned his leathered neck toward the obsidian slab, the deep grooves of his wrinkles holding their shadows as the torch light added their honey gold to the sunburned weathering of his face.  He paced the slab looking it up and down, from the rim to where it melded into the flagstone floor.  The facets danced, darkened foils to the torch light.  When he had made three full passes around the slab he turned his attention to the instruments, again blowing hard so that a plume of bone white dust billowed free.  His eyes gleamed dark and hungry as he loomed over the warming splendor.

Ebrik cleared his throat and Ayders blinked as a man returning from a daydream.  “Should be alright,” he said with a twang.  “Urwin, bring me them sacks and the rope from the pack.  Burshel, you be quick with your sketching now.  There’s a lot to load.”  He ran a hungry tongue along his lizard lips.

Returning his sword to its sheath, Ebrik crossed the threshold with a slow, calculated gait.  He followed the route of the shelves along the wall, eyes sweeping each urn and crevice for anything that might give him that cold feeling of warning in his gut.  It wasn’t that he thought Ayders a fool.  The old man wouldn’t have lived this long in this profession if he didn’t know his trade, but Ebrik didn’t trust that the lust for gold wouldn’t overcome Ayders’ better judgment.  And there was much that glittered here. 

The urns themselves were made of fine black porcelain, coated in delicate patterns wrought in gold.  There were hundreds, nearly overflowing the shelves that housed them, and each would turn a tidy profit at the border town markets.  The thought brought Ebrik little comfort.  For such wealth to be hidden by so few safeguards felt far too easy.  If Karask Rev had taught him anything, it was that the deadliest things wore the friendliest masks.

He continued his slow inspection to the music of Burshel’s rasping pencil and the murmur of conversation between Urwin and Ayders as they prepared to begin packing up the surrounding treasures.  At the back corner, he stopped, his brow furrowing.  One shelf, sandwiched among the others, stood empty save for a tarnished brass spyglass.  It was an odd place to find such a thing but that wasn’t what made Ebrik’s breath catch in his throat.  From the greening metal, an etching of a coyote stared back at him.  He blinked, certain his eyes were playing tricks on him but the coyote remained.  He couldn’t be sure but something inside him screamed that it was the same coyote from the divining rod they had pulled from the sands by The Mist the day Zo had run, and Corbin had lost her arm.  The rod had tingled all the way up his arm when he touched it.  Would this do the same?  His hand was reaching for it, trembling fingers outstretched while the world fell away like petals off a dying blossom.  The only sound was his heart galloping in his chest.  The dusty pads of his fingers no more than a whisper away.

“’Bout damn time, Burshel,” said Ayders.  “Urwin, let’s get to packing.  We’re burning daylight, boys!”

The spell broke.  Blinking, Ebrik withdrew his hand.  It must have been his imagination, but he could have sworn the coyote looked almost disappointed.  His eyes lingered on the spyglass.  He knew he should pull away and help Urwin pack up what would be their haul.  But it was just so odd to see that same icon after all these years.

“Burshel,” said Ebrik.  “What do you make of this?”

The young man strolled to Ebrik’s side, polishing his glasses on his shirt.  He replaced them and leaned in to examine the etching.  The frown that spread across his features made him look like an especially consternated owl.  “How remarkable,” he said.  He licked a finger and leafed through his notebook, the sketches flying by like a wondrous carousel.  When they stopped, the page laid open to a page of hieroglyphs arranged around a central pictograph, the coyote. 

Ebrik’s blood chilled but as Burshel opened his mouth to elaborate a gust of frigid wind howled into the chamber.  It sent the notebook pages fluttering and Ebrik had to crush his hat to his head to keep it from taking flight.  Then just as abruptly the gale ceased.  He looked at the others.  Ayders was hunched, beard frazzled and beady eyes darting from side to side.  All the color had drained from Urwin.  The giant had the first urn carefully gripped between bear-paw hands, having only just been lifted from its resting place on the shelf.  He had frozen to the spot when the wind hit, and beads of sweat were forming like condensation on his forehead.

“Wh-wha-what did I do?” stammered Urwin, his whole body clenched. 

No one spoke.  Ebrik floundered for some answer to give.  He looked to Burshel, hoping to find some clue written on the savant’s earnest features.  They were as empty and stunned as his own face must have looked.  He flapped his mouth a couple of times like forcing it open would turn over its motor and the words could flow.  As syllables sputtered on his lips, a sound like bone scrapping across rough stone dragged itself to their ears.  Ayders’ scaly face scrunched with confused concern.  Then a low mournful call echoed off the stones and was answered by another.  The sound of shifting bone filled the air.

The words found him.  “You’ve raised the dead, Urwin.  And I’m not sure they’re happy to see us.”


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Ebrik Strange: Death’s Daughter

by Robert Currer


Part 2: Chapter 1

3,800 Words: 15 Minute Read


The frenzied yipping of coyotes carried on the wind.  Ebrik listened to their overture as he watched the campfire dart and whirl in the gusts.  Across the flames, Ayders shivered.  He was a lizard of a man, all sinew and sun-leathered flesh, with a wild gray beard.  “I ain’t never got used to the noise,” he said, pulling closer to the fire, “Especially, the night before a job.  Sounds like demons tuning up the orchestra.”

“Just the symphony of The Wastes,” said Ebrik.  He tapped his knuckles against the dead log on which he sat, wishing luck to the wily hunters.  His years in the ODF had sparked a fondness for coyotes.  They were lone hunters, who survived by cunning more than their brawn.  He could relate.  Without thinking, he glanced down at the conscription eye tattooed on his forearm.  It had faded to almost white, the toxin within long since spent.

Something in the dark screamed and all but Ebrik startled. 

“You really telling us none of this spooks you?” said Urwin.  The mountainous man stoked the fire, sending orange light dancing over his bulging muscles.

Ebrik stood dusting off his pant legs.  “It’s when the night goes quiet that you have to worry.” 

The big man snorted.  “You’ve got more balls than brains.”  He pushed himself to his feet, and retrieving a blanket from his pack, wrapped it around his uncle’s bony shoulders.  Ayders patted his nephew’s hand in thanks.

“He does have a point,” said Burshel, glancing up from his book.  With his over-sized head and owl eyes, he looked like a baby bird compared to his older brother, Urwin.  “Native species like the coyote have more refined senses than we do.  They would be alert to a significant threat long before we would take notice.”

“If you say so,” said Urwin.  He lifted his brother’s canteen and gave it a shake, frowning at the sound of the sloshing water.  He handed it back and said, “I want you to finish this before you go to sleep.  We’ve got plenty more.  I don’t want you dehydrated.”

Burshel looked put out.  His eyes darted to Ebrik for support.  “Hydrate or die,” said Ebrik, quoting one of Salmin’s favorite aphorisms.  Pouting, Burshel sipped his water.

Ebrik strolled to the edge of the ridge where they had camped among the boulders and stared into the basin below.  It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the thready moonlight of the cloud blanketed night.  A field of tumbled pillars and jutting stone filled the basin’s floor.  At its center, an arcade ringed a circle of standing stones which enclosed a black slab.  An altar, he guessed.  It was hard to say at this distance in this light.  The prospect of it sent a shiver down his spine.  The way the stones were arranged, the way they caught the ghostly light, they might have been specters circling a corpse.  He shoved his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking.

He’d been doing this kind of mercenary-guide work in The Wastes for a little over a year now, ever since he finished his tour with the ODF.  Most of it was pretty routine and the money wasn’t bad.  But religious sites still gave him the creeps.  More often than not they still had the true magic in them, not that alchemical hocus-pocus peddlers passed off.  They had the real stuff which meant they were good places to strike it rich and even better places to die.

Returning to the fire ring, he unfastened his bedroll from his bag and laid it in the sand by the warmed stones.  He eased himself down onto his side facing away from the flame.  Looking back over his shoulder at the others, he said, “Get some sleep.  Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”  With that, he closed his eyes and slept dreamlessly through the night.

The morning came with a sky of brush stroke clouds in pastels limed in golden light.  By that time, Ebrik and his clients had packed their things and were leading a team of mules along the narrow foot path that wound down the rocky slope.  The sun had risen over the jagged horizon when they reached the bottom.  Already the sand that stretched between them and the drunken line of tumbled stones that marked the edge of the ruin shimmered in the heat.  As they made their way across, a scalding wind tugged at the loose cloth of their garments and scooped up the sand at their feet.  Eddies formed in the wind’s current creating whorls of sand like half-pint tornadoes.  Ebrik’s hand drifted to his sword, determined to be ready for what might form, but the whirling sand drifted away only to scatter once more. 

Just inside the edge of the ruin, they sheltered the mules in the only standing corner of a fragmented wall.  With poles and a tarp, Ebrik and Ayders created shade for the beasts while the brothers unburdened and watered them.  By midmorning, they hoisted their packs and set out toward the center of the ruin.  Ebrik took lead, his sword drawn, shield still slung on his back.  He picked his way among the litter of stone blocks, each rounded and warped by the centuries of grating wind.  No trees or grasses grew here.  It was a dead place like a colossal skeleton trapped in the shifting sands.  The wind curled through the rubble like a moan as they grew closer to the center.  When they were within sight of the arcade ring, Ebrik signaled halt and listened.  He couldn’t find anything masked by the groaning breeze, but that did nothing to ease the knots in his shoulders.  They crept to the shelter of the arcade, Ebrik insisting they find a spot where they could stand on solid stone instead of sand. 

The arcade pillars were made of mortared sandstone blocks.  Where once carvings had decorated their sides, time had worn nearly all away, giving them a gnawed look like a bone scarred by the jaws of a massive hound.  They paused in the shade.  As Ayders and Urwin wet their parched lips, Burshel already had his notebook and pencils in hand, sketching every detail he could manage.  Ebrik squinted through the blinding sun at the circle of standing stones.  They were thrust up from the earth like shards of black glass, still razor sharp and gleaming even after all this time.  That was a mixed blessing at best.  The Wastes were a cruel mistress, grinding down all that dared enter their embrace.  Here anything that repelled the scarring climate had power, and power cut both ways.

Ebrik rapped his knuckles thrice on the column and then took a long drink from his canteen.  Even warm, the water was fresh melt over the dry creek bed of his throat.  He wiped his lips with the back of his hand and turned to his clients.  “Listen up.”  He spoke in a hushed voice, in case the stones had ears.  “Stick close to me when we get to the standing stones.  There’s something unnatural about them and I don’t want to find that out the hard way.”

“You mean like magic—true magic?” asked Burshel.  His owl eyes sparkled.

“Could be.”

The brothers looked at each other with schoolboy grins.  Ayders took the news with professional stoicism, but he couldn’t hide the gleam in his eyes.  Greed wasn’t an uncommon trait among men in Ayders’ profession which is why Ebrik preferred to work with small family companies where blood ties could balance out one’s lesser nature.

“Focus,” barked Ebrik at the boys, though it was as much meant for their uncle as it was for them.  “This shit could go sideways real quick.  Stay on task and we all get paid, we all make it home.  Understood?”

Urwin and Burshel stood up a little straighter looking like a bear next to a plucked goose.  Their heads bobbed in agreement.  “Yes, sir!”

Good little soldiers.  Ebrik resisted a grin.  If he wasn’t careful, he was going to end up sounding like Salmin. 

Good to their word, they stuck close as Ebrik lead them from the arcade.  He moved first around the circumference of the standing stones, examining each at a distance before slinking on to the next.  At every pause in their path, Burshel sketched frantically as if terrified he would miss even the most insignificant detail.  More than once, Urwin had to guide him by the shoulder around a bit of rubble so that he wouldn’t trip with his nose in his book. 

When they had made the full loop, Ebrik signaled for them to stay crouched in the dwindling shadow of one of the blade-like stones.  He passed his pack off to Urwin and moved to the threshold of the gap between two stones.  Their razor blade edges were split so thin that they were translucent like smoked glass, like they could split the very seams of the world.  He took a deep breath and crossed the threshold.  The air eased shakily from his lungs when nothing happened.

He stalked toward the thick obsidian slab that sat like a table in the center.  The sun flashed off its sharp planes, dazzling Ebrik so that he was forced to adjust the wide brim of his hat to avoid the glare.  As he slipped alongside, eyes scanning, he could feel the crackle of dormant energy that pulsed from the altar like the charge in the air before a summer storm.  Channels had been cut into the slab that intersected at right angles and dropped over the side.  Otherwise, the hunk of rock was unsculpted. 

A lump settled into Ebrik’s throat.  Faith demanded sacrifice in Karask Rev, usually of the physical variety, and there were only a few sacrifices that would flow through channels on an altar.  He was betting it wasn’t wine.  Ebrik’s head swiveled sharply around as his eyes hunted for some sign of snare or missed threat.  The only movement was dust tumbling on the sighing wind. 

His eyes fell to the standing stones, their dagger-like shape stabbing upward as if to pierce the sky itself.  A cloud drifted across the sun and the shifting light caught the edge of something carved into the glassy surface.  He crept closer, brow furrowing to find an entire relief had been sculpted into the face of the stone.  In fact, all of the nine standing stones had a relief carved into their inky faces.  Each was unique but the same three figures reappeared again and again: a shrouded man with a bulging purse, a woman with hair that flowed like water, and a child in a flower crown.  What did they mean?

“Is it safe?” asked Burshel, craning his long neck out of the shadow.

“Yeah…” said Ebrik, still turning the scenes over in his mind.  He blinked and forced himself to refocus.  “Yes, you can come out.  Just take it slow and be careful.”

The three emerged and Ayders let out a long, low whistle.  “Well, howdy do.  This is a mighty fine sign.”  His thin lips split into a grin of yellowed teeth.

Burshel looked overwhelmed.  He staggered through the sand from each stone to the next, his mouth hanging open.  When he finally remembered himself, he darted to the nearest obsidian shard and, before Ebrik could stop him, began taking a rubbing of the relief.  Scampering between them, he took rubbings of all nine, annotating his notes to indicate the location of each relief in the circle. 

As he worked, the others spread out, searching the base and sides of the stones for a hidden cache or door.  When their efforts ultimately proved fruitless, Ebrik wandered back to the altar.  He paced slowly around it, trying to glean some insight into its secrets.  He was ready to give up and suggest they explore the rest of the ruin, when Burshel wandered over, flipping through his notes and sketches.  The sun gleamed off the young man’s spectacles.

“Curious,” said Burshel.  His head cocked in an avian way.

“What is?” asked Ebrik.

“What?”  Burshel’s big eyes blinked as if registering Ebrik’s presence for the first time.

“What’s curious?”

“Oh!  The carvings.  They’re from an old children’s fable.  Odd to find them out here.”

Ayders ambled over on his bow-legged gait.  “What’s this about a yarn?” he asked, holding his straw hat on his head as a gust of wind ruffled the brim.

“Look at the scenes together.  They’re telling Death’s Daughter.”  Burshel pointed to a stone, the smoked glass surface depicting the shrouded man and the water-haired woman holding a baby with a flower crown.

“I see it,” said Urwin, sounding more than a little awed by the revelation.

Ebrik wrestled with himself for a moment.  He had learned a lot in the eight years he had been living in Karask Rev, but there were still some gaps in his knowledge.  Trying to keep the embarrassment from his voice, he asked, “What’s Death’s Daughter?”  When the question generated looks of confusion from his three companions, he added, “I’m not from around here.”

He could see more questions bubbling on Burshel’s lips and was grateful when Ayders headed them off.  Fanning himself with his hat, the old scavenger said, “That’s a yarn I ain’t told in a long time.  Why Urwin must have been knee-high to a dune beetle the last time.  But if we are going to be telling tales, let’s find some shade to sit in.”

Back in the close-cut shadow of a standing stone, Ayders eased himself to the ground with a sigh.  He waved the others to sit around him with such aplomb that Ebrik could imagine him gathering the brothers as boys to his knee for their nightly story.  Indeed, the brothers must have felt it too as they both looked like dew-eyed children eager to hear of the wonders of the wide world beyond their hearth.  He wondered if those same stories were the reason they had followed their uncle into his unforgiving profession.

When the boys had stilled, Ayders began.  “One day when The Wastes were still green and the mountains still growing, Life and Death had a daughter.  They called her Dorsteny, goddess of nature, and they loved her with all their hearts.  She was a sweet girl with hair the color of autumn leaves and a voice like a songbird.  She could run like the deer and swim like the fish, and nothing delighted her more than to do just that.  Her daddy Odpok, god of death, loved to watch her play and went with her everywhere she went.  He taught her a whole mess of things like how the desert grasses die to feed the deer and how the deer die to feed the scorch wolves and how the wolves die to feed the grass.  He taught her that she was both her mother and her father, both life and death dancing in perfect harmony and that rebirth comes to all things in one form or another.  Dorsteny loved her daddy and hung on his every word.”

A tiny grin crested Ebrik’s face as he watched the brothers, sitting cross-legged in front of their uncle, drinking up every word.  The sight was made all the more humorous by the fact that Urwin, even seated, towered over Ayders.

“Her mama Boj, goddess of life, wasn’t near as doting,” continued Ayders.  “She taught her daughter that all life was a struggle, that only trial gave it meaning, only by suffering was it made special.  That was why mamas suffer labor pains, why we bleed when we fall, and why life is taken from those who don’t fight for it.

“As I said, Dorsteny loved her daddy best.  This made Boj jealous and so one day she took her daughter out to the wilds, Dorsteny’s favorite place, and said ‘Today, I give you a gift my baby girl.  Today I make your life special.’  And with that she transformed Dorsteny into a fish and plopped her in the water.  Then she watched, waiting for her daughter to be caught by an animal or a fisher.  But Dorsteny was too cunning for all that.  She soon grew grew into a great salmon and became queen of the rivers.  Frowning, Boj summoned a drought and shrank the mighty rivers to a trickle.  Dorsteny was too big by now to breath in so little water and she began to flounder.  Still, she would not give up.  She opened her mouth to suck in the air and in the doing grew lungs.  Then she pulled herself from the stream and waddled her way to the Sweet Water, which was then still fresh and not yet befouled by Ol’ Skulls.”

Ol’ Skulls.  Everyone loved to blame him, an entity no one had ever seen, for all the misfortune in this life.  It had been Tharp’s constant refrain until the devil had been promoted out of West Watch.  Ebrik glanced to the horizon where, even at this distance, he could just make out the outline of Odpok’s Finger, the spire of windswept rock where Bone Watch Keep was supposed to roost.

“Dorsteny’s success enraged mama Boj.  She transformed her daughter into a deer and set a pack of scorch wolves upon her.  But Dorsteny could run like no other, and she outpaced the wolves.  Boj growled her discontent and threw steep mountains up to block Dorsteny’s path.  But Death’s daughter was wilier still.  She shortened her legs and made herself small like a goat.  Then she bounded up the mountain, from rock to rock, to places where the wolves could not follow.  Outwitted, Boj screamed and stamped her foot.  Her stomp made the whole earth tremble and her shriek sent boulders fleeing down the mountain slopes.  Dorsteny was caught in the landslide and crushed.”

Burshel and Urwin each let out a tiny gasp as Ayders leaned in close and smashed the imaginary Dorsteny in his knobbly fist.

“Odpok scooped up his daughter and brushed the stones from her hair.  He took her to his kingdom deep in the earth and laid her out on a bed to rest.  When she awoke, she was so upset that she had failed that she sobbed tears so mighty that they filled whole caverns.  Odpok wiped away her tears and looked into her golden eyes.  ‘You can try again,’ he said.  ‘Like all things, you get to try life again.’  When she was ready, they walked hand and hand back to the realm of the living where Dorsteny could struggle once more.”

The moaning wind filled the delicate hush that fell between them as Ayders finished the story.  The boys looked spellbound and Ebrik had to fight a smile.  All grown up and still just big kids. 

Now wasn’t the time for such thoughts though.  He pulled himself back from the dreamy land of story with a shake of his head.  “So how does that help us?” he asked.

Urwin looked to Ayders who only shrugged.  Polishing his glasses, Burshel said, “Obviously, it has some kind of significance, some clue as to the ritual conducted here.  If we can figure out the ritual, perhaps we can learn more—and find something of value.”  He added the last bit for his relatives who looked less enthusiastic about braving the ruins for intellectual pursuits alone.

“Okay, so it’s a story about the struggles of life and resurrection.  What does that tell us?” asked Ebrik.

“Well, the iconography on these ruins would indicate that the temple was dedicated to Odpok, deity of death,” said Burshel, “And—”

“We’ve got to kill something!” said Urwin looking elated that he had puzzled out the solution.

Burshel’s eyes narrowed at his brother as he continued.  “And we know that Odpok plays a supportive, paternal role in the story.  Likewise, Dorsteny doesn’t actually die but suffers a symbolic death before being welcomed into Odpok’s loving arms.” He looked around at the others as if the solution was now obvious.

“So… we’ve got to play at dying?” asked Ayders feeling through the words like he was dipping a toe in the bath to check the temperature.

Burshel buried his face in his hands with a groan.  Ayders looked at Urwin who shrugged back.

The memory of the altar came back to Ebrik.  It was rough cut and unshaped save for two perpendicular grooves.  Only a few kinds of liquid were ever sacrificed on an altar.  His throat went dry.  “Blood,” he said.  “He means blood.”

Burshel beamed.  “Glad to know someone was paying attention!  Yes, I would guess that we’ll need to make a sacrifice of blood on the altar to enact the ritual.  Don’t look at me that way.  It shouldn’t take much blood.  It’s a symbolic death, remember?”  The excitement had pulled him to his feet and the others stood to join him looking considerably less enthusiastic.  Burshel bounded toward the altar as they trailed behind.

They had drifted into a circle around it when Burshel asked the question.  “So, who will it be?”  His smile was almost as lurid as the afternoon sun as he looked at his assembled companions. 

Ebrik took a deep breath and said, “I’ll do—”

“I’ll do it,” said Urwin.  He patted Ebrik on the back.  “This is a family job, and it should be a family sacrifice.”  He looked to his uncle and brother for some kind of agreement.  Burshel cocked his head, examining Urwin as if he was some unknown specimen.  Ayders just looked at him like he was crazy.

“Urwin, I can do it,” said Ebrik.

“No.  Really, it’s okay.  It should be one of us.”  Urwin forced a smile.  “Besides, it’s just a little cut.”

With a resigned nod, Ebrik drew a long hunting knife and passed it hilt first to the bigger brother.  Balling his hand into a fist, Urwin held his arm over the altar.  He took a steadying breath and then made a single quick slash across this forearm.  Crimson blood filled the wound like a well and then dribbled down the curve of his muscle, forming a red tributary.  It gathered in a line of droplets that swelled until they could cling to the flesh no longer and fell, splattering against the glassy, black stone with the pitter-patter of rain.

There was a rumble like thunder, and the ground shook beneath their feet.  The altar slid to the side, revealing a darkened staircase that spiraled into the earth.  A gust blew out from the opening that gripped Ebrik’s chest like an icy hand.  On it, he could smell the musky scent of old graves.  They would be descending into Odpok’s kingdom.  He prayed resurrection wouldn’t be their only way out.


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Dawn Drifter

A Scrap Knight Anthology

By Robert Currer


19,000 Words: 1 Hour Read


Forward

As a boy, I sat wrapped in bed hanging on my father’s every word as he read me The Hobbit. I could see Bilbo in my head, plump and fretting, being thrust into a world of wonder and magic to come out the other side kinder, stronger, and finally comfortable in his own skin. My dreams would be filled with daring adventures where I would court death only to be transformed, like Bilbo, into the man I was truly meant to be.

I grew up and had many adventures. And while I am not yet an ideal version of myself, those quests have made me a (mostly) better man. Then one day, again like Bilbo, I found a curious need to commit all that I had seen and heard to paper. I chose a less literal narrative style than Bilbo and after many false starts, I set myself to writing my own tales of wonder and magic.

This month marks the first anniversary of my creative writing journey and I felt it fitting to mark the occasion by revisiting one of my favorite characters, the Scrap Knight. Below you will find a collection of three stories featuring that dawn-ward drifter. These tales follow him in his own adventures towards becoming the hero he was meant to be. Thank you for reading and I hope you enjoy.

Robert Currer – September 2021

The Scrap Knight

An autumn wind rustled the moon drenched leaves above as a lanky figure stepped from the shelter of the tree line.  Tall only by goblin standards, he stood a full head higher than any of the other raiders which had amassed in a small band among the tree trunks.  His dented steel helm glinted in the silvery light as he peered over the spread of farmland below.  Lifting his flattened, scarred nose to the breeze, the helmed goblin sniffed the air.

“What do you smell, Urlfar,” asked another goblin stepping clear of the others.  This one had no helm but wore an overlarge tunic of boiled leather armored by heavy brass rings.  Tucked into his belt, the stiff leather bulged out making him look nearly as wide as he was tall. 

“Easy pickings is what I smell,” replied Urlfar.  The scar that ran across his nose was livid in the moonlight as a grin like an old graveyard spread across his thin lips.  “Easy pickings, indeed.”

The raiders followed the helmed goblin down the grassy slopes and into the valley below.  No sound but the muted slapping of feet heralded their approach.  They wove through fields and splashed across the creek, its clear waters sparkling like jewels under the full moon. 

As they neared the first lonely farmhouse, Urlfar led them into the tall swaying stalks of a cornfield before slowing their pace to creep through the orderly rows.  His mind swirled with lusty dreams of looted silverware and pilfered jewelry, seared man-flesh and stolen hooch to wash it down.  If it were not for the shade of the corn, a sheen of saliva would have shown at the corners of his grisly mouth.

Whether he was too preoccupied or simply uninterested, the helmed goblin did not pay the slightest sliver of attention to the scarecrow that stood draped over a cruciform post near the center of the field.  If he had, Urlfar would have seen the scrap wood arms and legs, the threadbare tunic stuffed with straw, and the pumpkin carved with lopsided triangles for eyes and a jagged grin.  Whatever the reason, Urlfar saw none of this.  Instead, he paused at the post, squeezed out a squeaking puff of wind, and continued on his way.

As the raiders passed, Scarecrow stirred.  The skin of his jack-o-lantern face felt tight in the frosty breeze, yet he woke not with a chill but with the somewhat puzzling realization that he was alive.  Two dull points of yellow light flickered into existence inside the empty triangle sockets that were Scarecrow’s eyes.  With them he gazed out upon the moonlit fields and orchards of the valley.  What a dark place the world is, he thought, and leaden feeling bubbled up within him.  Scarecrow had not known what he had hoped the world would be but certainly not this cold and colorless.

Gripping the post with twiggy fingers, he turned to climb down from his perch and in doing so, looked behind.  He froze, transfixed with the sight of what was there.  Above the horizon of the corn sea crested an island of a house.  Even strips of wooden siding coated the whole thing painted in a pale color that looked a shimmering white in the moonlight.  A dark roof with a steep pitch capped the whole thing but it was a window on the second story, just beneath the eaves, that held his softly glowing stare.  All the other windows held only gloom but in this one glassy portal a single lamp flame danced, spilling a warm orange light over the night’s silvery grays.  Beautiful, thought Scarecrow with a stillness that only awe can inspire. 

The moment’s pause allowed a worming thought to wriggle its way into the hollow space behind his eyes.  My creators.  Perhaps they live there.  Scarecrow rolled the idea around in his head, testing its strength.  He looked at himself, at his construction and form.  He must have had creators.  How else could I have come to be if not by design? And if I have creators, that light must belong to them for how could anyone but those who brought me life hold anything so brilliant in this murky world?  Perhaps that is the light of creation itself…  The thoughts writhed inside his gourd and he felt giddy for a moment, nearly losing his grip on the post. 

Scarecrow shook his head as if to clear it.  He was getting ahead of himself.  Answers would come once he made the pilgrimage to the light.  Sobered, Scarecrow climbed down his post to the soft earth below.  The torn leather boots that were his feet sunk comfortably into the ground as they took his weight for the first time.  He did not mark the trails of goblin feet that traced paths around him.  Instead, he found an alley among the stalks and began his midnight sojourn, marveling at the newness that enveloped him.

Nearly a quarter of the way through the corn, Scarecrow had squatted down.  His ambling walk had overturned a stone revealing something underneath.  He watched in slack jawed wonder as a tight, segmented curl unfurled.  A hundred, pointed pale legs spread out from the sky black plates that fit together to form a curving body tipped with a pair of dangerous looking mandibles.  How his creators could have imagined such a fantastic creature, Scarecrow could not begin to fathom.  Truly, they were beings far beyond him.

Lost in his own curiosity, Scarecrow was watching the centipede skuttle over the rolling soil in search of new shelter when the crash of broken glass and a piercing cry rent away the quiet of night.  Hoots and howls in a sneering, guttural tongue sprang up from beyond the corn.  Scarecrow bolted upright and listened through the wind stirred stalks.  A second shriek found him, and he set off running.  With all the speed his wooded gait would allow, he plowed through the field toward the screams, arms raised to protect his face from the slapping husks.

The chill wind rattled the stalks as he emerged from their boundary.  A wide yard stretched out between him and the white-walled farmhouse.  In the gap, three goblins danced around shouting and calling out in a husky language that Scarecrow could not understand.  As he watched, one of the creatures, an especially squat goblin with greasy black braids, leaned down and tugged a fist sized stone from the earth at her feet.  The goblin tossed it to herself a few times, testing the weight, and then began to spin.  She spun round and round, arms stretched out and picking up speed, until finally she released the stone.  It rocketed towards the house shattering one of the darkened windows with a crash.  The goblin giggled, shouted something nasty sounding into the wind, and staggered dizzily for several paces before she set back to hunting for things to throw.

Scarecrow scanned the pale siding looking for the warm orange light again.  The window that had held it was reduced to shards of glass stabbing out of the wooden frame.  Did they destroy it?  Has it gone out?  It can’t be extinguished!  It can’t be!  His mind reeled, spinning more wildly than the goblin and threatening to veer into panic.  Then he was saved.  It was very faint, but an orange light rimmed the edges of the shattered glass.  It’s safe.  For now…  Scarecrow’s relief sublimated into rage.  These savages!  Don’t they know what they seek to destroy?  Vile enemies of the light!

His eyes flared red and he cast his gaze around for a stick, shovel, or stone.  Anything that he could take up to drive these infidels from this holy land.  His seething eyes fell on a sickle left next to a woven basket at the field’s edge.  It was speckled with spots of rust, but the rest of the curved blade gleamed like divine justice under the silver moon.  Scarecrow scooped up the reaping blade and thrust it into the air in a salute to the hidden orange light.

His leather footfalls and creaking joints were all but silent under the screen of the goblin war cries.  His triangular eyes narrowed to vengeful slits and he slunk towards his first target.  The squat goblin had found something worthwhile in the dirt and was bent over trying to yank it free.  Scarecrow stepped behind her; his jack-o-lantern grin transformed into a pitiless scowl.  She grunted and struggled with the stone.  He raised his sickle high above his head.  It shone with terrible purpose and the flames that were his eyes blazed bright and hot. 

The heat prickled the nape of the squat goblin’s hairy neck.  A fog of breath hung in front of her trembling lips as slowly she turned her head to look behind.  Their eyes locked.  Nightmarish rancor drenched every groove and blemish on Scarecrow’s face.  He stared deep into her eyes.  He watched as they grew wide and wet with understanding.  Her mouth fluttered open to scream but it floundered in her throat. Then Scarecrow brought the sickle down hard into her neck.

The goblin collapsed to her back, sputtering as she tried to scream through the blood.  With great care, Scarecrow placed a booted foot on her sternum and then shifted his weight to press down.  The squat goblin’s eyes bulged as her hands clawed feebly at the merciless boot.  Scarecrow braced himself and the tore the sickle free ripping a gouge across his victim’s throat.  Blood and bile spilled thick and black on the moon wet grass as the goblin’s eyes rolled wild, searching in vain. 

When the blood slowed, she went still and pale leaving Scarecrow to gaze upon his work.  He peered down at the lifeless thing trying to make sense of the nagging tug in his chest.  A word for what he was feeling surfaced from the depth, but he pushed it aside, refusing to give it the power of a name.  Instead, he lifted his pumpkin chin to once again find the edge of orange light still glowing in the broken window.  All for you, my lords.  I do this for you.


Scarecrow stood resplendent and terrible in the moonlight with goblin gore spattered across his tattered vestments.  These creatures had been repugnant things that squealed like pleading swine when he gutted them.  One almost feels sorry for them.  Almost…, he thought while staring down at an eviscerated goblin corpse.  Death dulled eyes, still frozen in disbelief, stared up at him from above a mound of entrails.  His own eyes still fiery red, Scarecrow bent down and retrieved the dead thing’s shield.  It was small and cobbled together from uneven planks of reclaimed oak, but it sat well on his own wooden arm.  He hoisted it into a defensive position and the relaxed before hoisting it again.  He repeated the process a few times with an approving nod.  He liked the weight and feel of it. 

Armed with sickle and shield, Scarecrow stepped onto the back porch.  His own knees creaked like floorboards as he climbed the steps and stood listening at the kitchen door.  It was ajar and lolled gently in the night breeze.  From within there came a clamor like the whole contents of the kitchen were being spilled out onto the floor.  The corners of his jack-o-lantern mouth tipped down and his scowl deepened.

The kitchen was a scene of rampant chaos and destruction.  Shards of clay, porcelain, and glass were all about like a jagged shore.  They were washed with myriad unrecognizable fluids that mixed in swirled shades of gray upon the moonlit floor.  The air smelled of preserves and brine and turning milk.

An island stood among the sea of debris in the form of a much-used table.  Straw packed cartons of jars had been stacked upon it next to piles of serving silver.  Among them sat a goblin looking corpulent in oversized ring mail.  As Scarecrow watched from the door, the goblin waggled his fingers over a wooden carton, the tip of his fat tongue stabbing out from the corner of his mouth in anticipation.  Seemingly at random, he selected a jar and held it up in the beam of moonlight that fell through kitchen window.  He scrutinized the peach slices within for a few moments before peeling back the wax cloth top and taking a long deep sniff.  Almost immediately, his face contorted into a look of absolute disgust and he hurled the jar across the room smashing it on the kitchen wall.  Peach slices slid slowly down among rivulets of syrup.  Then, for good measure, the puffy goblin tossed the whole carton to the floor with a grunt.  The jars within shattered adding their glass and contents to the sea of destruction below.

As Scarecrow stepped in through the kitchen door, the goblin pulled a clay jug from one of the other cartons.  He tugged the cork stopper out of the neck and took a delicate sniff.  A look of absolute glee oozed over his cruel features with a smile that was not capable of looking anything but sinister even at its most elated.

The crunch of Scarecrow’s boots interrupted the goblin’s long thirsty guzzle.  Surprise transformed to rage with a speed that would have make a cobra blush.  The creature bellowed something in its own tongue as it arced back and catapulted the jug at the interloper.  Scarecrow threw his rough shield up, only scarcely managing to block the impact of the heavy vessel.  It shattered dousing his shield and boots in a clear liquid that smelled of strong alcohol and just a hint of turpentine. 

Dripping with hooch, Scarecrow advanced a single step before raising his shield to deflect another missile.  A jar of pickles erupted against his barrier.  It was closely followed by a second and then a third.  Between volleys, he managed a fleeting glance over the shield at the puff ball goblin.  The creature, despite his rather stupid looking appearance, had deftly amassed a stockpile of jars, bottles, and jugs to serve as projectiles.  With a manic howl, the goblin heaved a pint of pickled rhubarb at Scarecrow that sent him ducking behind his shield. 

Eyes burning hellish crimson, Scarecrow charged, knocking back preserves and pickles alike.  He swung hard with his sickle, but the puffed goblin proved more able than the others.  In a swift fluid motion, the goblin dropped the jar and drew a long, notched dagger from his belt.  He parried Scarecrow’s attack with the same motion.  The veteran raider then shifted his weight to his front foot nimbler than a dancer and poured that momentum into a potent thrust.

The stab was not sloppy but poised and practiced.  Scarecrow deflected it with his shield, but the force rattled up his arm.  The goblin snarled with a mouth bristling with crooked needle teeth and quite suddenly, Scarecrow understood what the ridiculously puffed-up armor had been trying to tell him all along.  He killed someone much larger than himself for it.  If Scarecrow had been capable of sweat, it would have run cold.

He took a step around the edge of the table bringing himself closer to the goblin and swung again for the creature’s unarmored neck.  With a deft step, the puffed goblin dipped and then lunged inside Scarecrow’s defenses.  Scarecrow felt the sickening edge of the blade as it pieced the straw of his torso and thudded into the wooden frame within. 

Confusion marred over the goblin’s otherwise perfect scowl.  A cut like that would have killed any goblin or any man.  A thrust like that would have earned him Urlfar’s helm.  Yet, Scarecrow stood tall, almost looming, as the notched steel blade pulled back coated with nothing more than straw dust.  The goblin stared into those hateful red eyes while his pulse played a dirge in his pointed ears.

Wrath swelled inside Scarecrow.  He grabbed the contemptable thing by the collar and slammed it bodily onto the kitchen table.  The goblin clawed frantically at the wooden arm that pinned it down as Scarecrow savored the blossoming panic.  With a sharp tug, Scarecrow withdrew the dagger from his chest and carefully aligned it with the struggling creature’s throat.  He watched the muscles tense and relax between desperate screams and gulping hysterical breaths.  An impossibly wide grin spread across the rough flesh of his face.  Then he began to cut.


Scarecrow left the severed head on the kitchen table and relieved the body of its oversized ring mail armor.  Donning it took some effort as slipping his pumpkin head through the neck hole was a tight fit, but he prevailed in the end.  Standing at the edge of the hallway that led from the kitchen to the rest of the house, his twiggy fingers felt the boiled leather beneath the rings that covered where the dagger had pierced him.  It was far from a mortal wound, but he still felt pain there while his stuffing began to knit back together.  Even among the killing, it had never occurred to him that he himself could die.  Mortality was a trait he had come to associate with goblins and the commonality grated his conscience like sand.

The hallway ahead was dark, illuminated only by a halfmoon of pearly light from the window above the door.  It had been ransacked just like the kitchen but showed less wonton destruction.  A vase of wildflowers lay shattered on the floor spilling water and petals across the hardwood.  The cabinet on which they had rested was pulled open and its contents scattered.  

Scarecrow stepped across the threshold and the floorboards creaked underfoot.  He paused at the rabble of odds and ends littered in front of the cabinet, tilting his head.  Then he squatted down and scooped up a ragged bit of cloth and stuffing.  It was a doll or had been at least.  Its mismatched button eyes stared back at him from above its placid stitching smile.  He turned it over.  The back had been slashed open and the stuffing half pulled out as if she had been gutted to search her insides.  Monsters, he thought as his eyes bent into melancholy crescents and grew a dim yellow. 

With a twiggy finger he traced the doll’s lifeless smile and caressed between her button eyes.  As he stared, his mind churned.  He could see himself in the doll.  Not literally of course but the fundamentals of his construction where there.  Perhaps he himself was modeled from a form like this when his creators lovingly crafted him.  Would she have been given life too? 

For a moment he felt as though something might break inside his chest and then a familiar inferno burst behind his eyes.  It consumed the heaviness in him and grew to a searing glow.  Sacrilege!  Heresy of the highest order!  How DARE these vermin come to sack the temple of the creator?  Scarecrow’s thoughts roared a psychic scream that rattled through him so powerfully that his wooden bones creaked.  He tucked the dead doll tenderly into the pocket of his ragged trousers as his eyes flamed crimson once more.

A sound pulled him from his vengeful mulling.  It was a heavy pounding as if against a door, loud enough to carry through the floor to the hallway below.  Scarecrow looked up at the ceiling and cocked his earless head toward the noise.  He was still listening hard trying to decern what could cause such a sound when a voice broke through.  “Open the door, sweetheart.  I promise I won’t hurt you.  We’re just gonna have a nice chat.”  The voice was deep and greasy.  There was a pause.  “No?  You don’t want to come out to play?  Well then ol’ Urlfar will just have to come to you!”

There was a sound like slapping feet pounding down the hall and then a hard thud that rattled the ceiling.  The sequence repeated itself once more and Scarecrow sprinted down the hall.  At the far end, he found a staircase leading up to a landing.  As he mounted the stairs, a tall, helmed goblin charged from one side of the landing.  He threw himself bodily against a closed oak door at the far side.  The wooden frame splintered, and the door swung free.  From within, a trio of screams erupted.

“Oi, don’t be like that little ones,” sneered Urlfar, menace spread thick as jelly on his words.  “We’re just gonna have a nice talk.”

Scarecrow thundered up the stairs and vaulted over the railing onto the landing.  Face contorted into a glowing grimace, he gripped Urlfar from behind with both hands and hurled the raider against the wall.  Then silhouetted in the orange glow of the open door, he widened his footing, hoisted his shield, and readied his sickle to face the goblin leader.

Urlfar climbed to his feet, his eyes bugging and spittle foaming in the corners of his mouth.  “I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, lad, but that was the last mistake you’ll ever make!”  The goblin squared his helm, unslung his own shield, and drew a rusty scimitar from his belt.  With a throaty war cry, the goblin raced toward his waiting adversary.

A storm of strikes rained from Urlfar’s scimitar with such dizzying speed that Scarecrow would have found it easier to defend against a hurricane.  The few slashes Scarecrow managed to sneak through the maelstrom were easily deflected by the seasoned warrior.  The onslaught showed no signs of slowing and Scarecrow twisted, slashed, spun, and maneuvered to avoid the chopping strikes while not giving up the doorway to his roaring aggressor.

A grim smile slid into Urlfar’s eyes as he saw his opening.  The Scrap Knight, or whatever the junky construct before him was, lacked cunning.  He could see that now and that gave Urlfar all he needed.  The goblin feigned a cut with his scimitar and watched as the Scrap Knight twisted to block with his stolen shield.  Urlfar side stepped to the right and threw his weight behind his own shield, bashing into Scarecrow and pushing him off balance.  Then Urlfar swung hard with the scimitar at the Scrap Knight’s exposed shield arm.  The blade bit deep notching the wood of Scarecrow’s arm.

A silent howl of pain flashed across Scarecrow’s face as he recoiled from the cutting blade.  Weight already on the back foot, he stepped toward the goblin and lashed with the edge of his shield.  Urlfar ducked beneath the clumsy attempt with a chuckle and swung again at the threadbare cloth of the Scrap Knight’s trousers.  The savage blade sank into the unprotected wood like an axe.

Scarecrow stumbled forward as his eyes went round as full moons and his mouth warped into a tormented grimace.  He dropped both shield and sickle.  The Scrap Knight bent forward and wrapped his arms around Urlfar’s middle.  He arced his back and heaved the goblin upside down into the air.  Urlfar’s dented steel helm tumbled off as the raider swore in surprise.  Then Scarecrow slammed the raider headfirst into the floorboards with all the weight of his wooden frame. 

Urlfar’s head bounced against the floor with a sickening crack.  His vision swam as he lay dazed trying to clear his wits.  Scarecrow climbed on top of the prone raider.  Pressing both knobby knees into Urlfar’s chest, he squeezed the wind from the goblin’s lungs.  The raider gasped for air while fog still clung to his senses.  Twiggy fingers found the lost helm and raised it high above Scarecrow’s head.  His eyes burned bright and wild.  For a moment, when those hellish eyes burned a torrent, Urlfar thought he caught the faintest whiff of brimstone.  Then he thought no more.  Hot blood spattered the landing walls as the Scrap Knight brought the helm down again and again on Urlfar’s face until it was nothing more than pulp and splintered bone.


After a while, Scarecrow stood and retrieved his shield and sickle.  He frowned at the blood that was spattered across his chest and arms as he straightened and smoothed his armor.  Scarecrow wished he had time to make himself presentable.  Surely, they will understand, he thought to comfort himself as he turned his gaze to the door.  It had swung nearly closed in the scuffle so that it blocked the room allowing only a halo of soft orange light to escape.  He stepped over the mangled corpse to stand at the doorway.  The color felt warm on his face.

Scarecrow extended his hand toward the door and paused.  He stretched out his fingers and realized they were shaking.  With effort, he curled his fingers into a fist and squeezed until the trembling stopped.  Then gently, almost timidly, he rapped his wooden knuckles on the door.  He reached for the handle and paused fingers hovering just over the metal.  He felt… inadequate.  Am I even worthy?

A muffled sob escaped from the room beyond.  It was followed by a tender but urgent shush.  The Scrap Knight rattled his head and straightened his back.  Squaring his shoulders, Scarecrow gripped the handle and pushed the door open. 

The room beyond was a riot of color compared to the muted midnight shades that washed all the rest of creation.  Furniture made of rich chocolate wood populated the room.  Rose red curtains framed the shattered window.  Shards of broken glass dotted the floor like mirrors, catching the light and making it dance.  A thick down mattress dominated the room and was swaddled in a plush checked quilt over white sheets like red peppermint sweets over a bed of decadent frosting.

His mouth fell open as his soft yellow eyes devoured all the delicious hues.  Scarecrow’s gaze passed hungrily over every corner as he glided into the center of the bedroom.  His head spun dreamily, unable to take all in at once. 

Then there was the sob again.  The Scrap Knight blinked twice and scanned around for the source of the cry.  On the other side of the bed, huddled together was a mother and her two small children.  All three were shaking uncontrollably with silent rivers flowing from their eyes.  As he moved into view, the mother clutched her children to her chest and sobbed something harsh and desperate but unintelligible. 

The creator!  Scarecrow’s eyes went round and yellow.  He fell to his knees.  Here was the creator herself in the company of her angels!  He trembled, overwhelmed by the power of the moment he had longed for all his life.  His pilgrimage and all its trials complete; he would finally understand the meaning of his existence, his purpose in this world of paltry light.  He would soon learn the creator’s grand design and her will.  Now here she sat, something beyond beauty embracing her cherubic angels with her eyes shining in the soft orange light. 

The orange light!  Scarecrow’s eyes drifted from the face of the divine up to the bed side table and there it was.  The light of creation swayed sensually upon the wick of an oil lamp as it spilled its warm essence on the world through a glass chimney.  Scarecrow’s jaw grew slack again as his orbitals widened and the pale light of his eyes swayed in time with the flame.  It’s so beautiful…  Mesmerized, he crawled forward on reverent hands and knees.

A shriek that could have curled cream ripped him from his rapture.  The creator screamed again clutching her angels even tighter to her breast.  She lashed out at him with the heel of her barefoot trying to force him away. 

Confused, Scarecrow skuttled backwards.  Had he broken some boundary, some law of propriety?  Angry for his ignorance, he prostrated himself.  In silent supplication, he prayed his error, whatever it may be, would be forgiven.  Please, let it be forgiven…  He prayed she would understand his actions were out of ignorance, not disrespect.  Slowly and with penitence in his eyes, he lifted his gaze from the floor and back to her.

The mother screamed something at him, but her words were choked out by wracking sobs.  The angels in her arms balled their chubby fists into her night gown and lent their shrieks to the chorus.  She kicked at Scarecrow again and again.  He was well out of her reach but still she flailed.

An ache filled Scarecrow’s chest.  What did I do that is so unforgivable?  Eyes sunken to deep wells, he reached out towards the creator.  Twiggy fingers extended; Scarecrow tried to calm her.  He was her child, her loyal servant.  He would do anything to appease her.  He needed her to know that.  Please understand…

The creator snapped her foot back as soon as his splintery fingers grazed her big toe.  She screamed and turned her body to place herself between her children and Scarecrow.  He advanced slowly, hand outstretched and without sound.  She could see the unholy glow inside those jack-o-lantern eyes.  This demon could take her if he must, but she prayed to every god she knew that he would not hurt her babies.

“Stay back!”  She wailed as she groped for anything to put between them and this nightmare creature.  She reached up to the nightstand and fumbled for the oil lamp.  When her fingers found the thick glass base, she whipped it off the table and hurled it at Scarecrow.  “Leave us alone!” she screamed in a voice thick with tears and snot.  The lamp arced over Scarecrow and impacted the wall shattering into a spread of burning oil.

Scarecrow jumped back.  He saw the horror on her face.  Her abject disgust for him was etched in every groove and ridge.  He was an abomination to her.  He saw that now.  Somewhere deep inside his straw chest, he felt something crack.  A deep ache spread throughout his whole being.  His own maker would destroy the light of creation out of sheer hatred for him.  A heaviness settled into this body and all of him wished she had made him capable of tears.  But alas, she had kept that luxury for herself.

I don’t belong here, he thought pulling himself to his feet.  The ache in his chest made his limbs feel sluggish but he shuffled over to the bed.  Trying not to listen to the sobbing woman and her children, the Scrap Knight pulled the quilt from the mattress, ambled over to the splash of burning oil, and smothered it.  He left the quilt crumpled on the floor before staggering out the bedroom door.

With no purpose left to him, the Scrap Knight wandered out of the house and into the fields beyond.  There were no answers to be found here.  No higher truths to be uncovered.  There was only an ugly, darkened world left to him.  That’s where I belong, with the other ugly things, he thought as he shuffled away from the valley. 

He was nearly at the tree line when the first light of dawn bubbled up over the mountains.  Too numb to be startled, he settled himself onto the wet grass to watch with detached curiosity.  Soon a wash of powder pink painted the cottony clouds.  The mountains transformed from a jagged line of deep shadow to a rolling spill of purples and blues that were eventually crowned by a radiant disc of the purest gold.

As rich hues and subtle shades filled the sky, the disc spilled its honey light over the rim of the summits.  It flowed down the slopes, across the valley, and washed over him with a rush of warmth that ran up his wooden bones.  His rind lips parted as he watched.  When the warmth of the morning had finally driven the chill from his straw chest, those same lips curved upward into a smile nearly as wide and warm as the sun itself.  She didn’t destroy it after all.  Hers was but a mote, a minor imitation.  This was the real light of creation!  The Scrap Knight sat on the slope in the brilliance of the dawn reveling in all the beauty it held.

Midnight’s Wrath

The door to Crot’s Hole Tavern crashed open.  “Milton!  Get yourself over here!”  The shout sounded a long way off as though called across many miles.  Ambroys blinked and tried to clear fog from his head.  Yet his eyelids held only visions of the dead and his ears rang with bloodied screams.  He forced his eyes open and held them that way.

His midnight blue tabard was torn, drenched, and soiled.  His mouth was gluey with thirst and his knees wobbled making each step a ponderous, rickety affair.  How long had he wandered Umbra Morass before finding Reaper’s Fen?  How long had he laid in the dirt at the edge of the village before he had been found? 

“Well don’t just stand there gawking!  Make yourself useful, boy!  Come give me a hand with him!”  The voice belonged to an elderly halfling man from the village–Anton, wasn’t it?  In response, the barkeep came hustling over still dressed in his morning clothes.  He threw Ambroys’s left arm over his shoulder and together the pair led the beleaguered man to a tall-backed armchair by the hearth.  Despite the heat, Ambroys shivered so violently that the chainmail beneath his tabard rustled.  He gripped the chair’s arms until his knuckles went white trying to force order back into his limbs.

While Milton scurried off to find something fortifying, Anton pulled a blanket off the back of another chair and wrapped it around Ambroys’s sopping wet shoulders.  Anton’s face was gouged with the furrows of age all twisted in a mask of grave concern beneath a halo of bushy gray hair that ringed his bald head.  He rubbed Ambroys’s arms with the blanket trying to get some warmth back into the hulking soldier’s extremities.

Milton returned with a pitcher of water and a glass of whiskey.  He laid both on a small table that sat near the chair and took an uncertain step back, openly gaping at the disheveled, mountain of a man.  His guileless features flapped between shock and confusion.  Ambroys offered a thin smile and nod in thanks before lifting the pitcher and guzzling the cool water within. 

“Thank you kindly, Milton.  Maybe you’d be good enough to fetch Candle Ozzen.  Go on.  I’ll keep an eye on this one,” said Anton.  He gave Milton a reassuring wink and pulled a halfling-sized stool next to Ambroys.  The barkeep bobbed his head and retreated for the door.

Once he had disappeared into the dishwater gray light of the morning, Anton turned back to Ambroys and gesturing to the whiskey said, “Down the hatch, boy.  Ain’t nothing in this world that’ll chase off a night in the Morass like a good stiff slug of the Fen’s finest.”

Ambroys lifted the glass to his lips stopping just short.  His hand was still shaking.  He took a long slow breath and then quaffed the amber liquor.  It seared all the way down, but Anton was right.  He felt a little better for the burn.

“There’s a good, lad,” said Anton with a smile that spread all the way to his wrinkled eyes.  He patted Ambroys on the knee and then pushed himself up off the stool.  His joints creaked as he did, but no glimmer of pain showed on the elder’s face.  He strode behind the bar and helped himself to the whiskey jug and another glass.  Upon returning, Anton filled both their glasses and then settled himself back down on the stool placing the jug on the floor next to him.  The pair sipped their drinks in silence.

When at last Ambroys had stopped shaking and the color had begun to creep back into his face, Anton took a long pull from his glass.  He ran his tongue over his lips and said, “I turned one hundred and sixty-seven years old last month.  I’ve lived in Reaper’s Fen my whole life and, let me tell you, I’ve spent more nights in the Morass than I’ve had hot suppers.”

Ambroys shot him an incredulous look from the corner of his eye.  Anton smirked and continued, “It’s true.  I’m a trapper by trade you see.  Point is I’ve seen things in that swamp that would scare the stripes off a skunk.  They used to keep me up at night, them things I’ve seen.  That is until I learned that the secret to mastering fear is to name it.  Why naming a thing will wring the terror right out of it!”

The halfling leaned close to Ambroys.  Ghosts drifted through the hollowness behind Anton’s eyes and Ambroys lost any doubt that what the halfling had said was true. 

Anton reached out and laid his knobby knuckled hand on Ambroys’s knee.  “You want to try naming the things you saw?  You want to try wringing the fear out of ‘em?”  The halfling’s hazel eyes were wide and warm.

Ambroys nodded with slow solemnity and swallowed hard.  He took a sip of his whiskey and swished it around his mouth before letting it burn its way down his throat.  He’d never had a taste for the stuff before but this morning it might as well have been liquid gold.

When he finally spoke, his voice rasped like wind in the desert.  “My patrol was already dead when it came,” he said.  His eyes glistened in the orange firelight, dancing with ghost all their own.  “It swept in from the dark like the wrath of midnight.”


Ambroys’s head was pounding even before his eyes opened.  He groaned and tried to raise a hand to the source of the throbbing to find that his wrists were bound together.  His eyes peeled open only to screw down tight again as sparks exploded inside his skull.  He gritted his teeth and clenched his hands into fists until the pain dulled. 

More carefully, Ambroys inched his eyes apart letting them adapt to the change in light.  A bonfire roared next to him and, with the throbbing starting to settle to a dull ache, he could now feel the intense heat of it biting at his cheek.  His other senses began to clear.  He could hear voices, harsh barking voices mingled with yipping and the occasional raucous howl.  They came from all around him attached to lanky shadows that danced in the flickering glow.

There was a smell like roasting beef and sizzling pork fat.  No.  That was wrong somehow.  It smelled more pungent, more rancid, turned but not rotting.  It was carried on the smoke and coated his nostrils like fetid grease.  Ambroys rolled his shoulder and turned his head to look at the fire trying to make as small a movement as possible lest his captors realize he was again conscious.

His squad mate Berard’s lifeless eyes stared back at Ambroys from atop a roasting spit.  Ambroys’s eyes widened and bile raced up his throat.  He winced trying to keep the contents of his guts inside.  It was too much.  Ambroys bolted to his hands and knees and vomited the entirety of his stomach onto the damp soil.  A mocking howl erupted from the revelers.

A hand, hairy and strong, gripped Ambroys by his blond locks.  It yanked him back onto his heels until his neck arched agonizingly.  A lupine face hung above him with a wicked grin.

“What’s wrong, manling?” sneered the creature.  His voice was hoarse.  His long tongue ran hungrily from one side of his mouth to the other as his one good eye gleamed yellow with amused malice.  “You don’t fancy our roast?”

Ambroys glowered back into the creature’s eyes, one golden and the other milky white.  Lupekin.  Wolfmen.  He had been warned about them shortly after reporting to Reaper’s Fen.  They roamed in packs hunting any thinking creature they came upon.  It was said they were merciless monsters to be eradicated.  With the gut-churning reek of Berard’s roasting flesh still clinging in his nostrils, Ambroys tended to agree.

The Lupekin held Ambroys’s cold stare a while longer as his toothsome grin grew cartoonishly wide.  A sort of manic glee percolated behind his golden eye.  When it reached a boil, he threw his head back and howled to the night.  The others joined the hunter’s chorus.  Then he threw Ambroys back to the ground and spread his arms as wide as they could stretch.  Spinning slowly, he barked at the rest of the pack.  The gathered crowd erupted into a cacophony of harsh, yipping laughs.  He’s either real pretty or their leader.  No one laughs at a one-liner like that unless they are trying to get screwed now or hoping they won’t get screwed later.  Something told Ambroys it was not the Lupekin’s looks.

The creature pulled a long knife with a worn bone handle from its sheath at his hip and strode over to the spit.  Standing next to Berard’s crackling skin, the wolfman tossed a side-eyed glance at Ambroys who had struggled back to his hands and knees.  “Perhaps, you only think that you do not like our roast,” he said as he carved a strip from the dead man’s thigh. 

He took a step toward Ambroys. “But how can you know if you’ve never tried,” he said teeth glinting dangerously.  He snatched Ambroys’s chin into a vice-like grip and squeezed until the man’s lips were forced open.  Ambroys’s eyes went wide as the strip of roasted muscle was dangled before him.  He gripped the Lupekin’s wrist with both hands and tried to rip it away.  His nails dug into the beast’s reddish gray fur and pulled at the skin beneath, but the Lupekin’s clawed fingers only crushed tighter against his cheeks. 

Ambroys howled, hot with fury.  He released the Lupekin’s arm and swung hard with his fists catching his foe in the ribs.  The creature coughed and dropped Ambroys who scuttled backward as quickly as he was able with bound wrists and ankles. 

Before he could get a body length between them the Lupekin was on him.  The creature’s hairy fist smashed into Ambroys’s already blackened eye setting off an explosion of fireworks in his skull.  Ambroys reeled and tried to swing again despite the disorientation.  The Lupekin just knocked his arms away and gripped him again by the jaw.  This time the wolf leaned in, climbing on top of Ambroys.  The creature panted rank, hot breaths into his face.

“Shh, shh, shhhh.  Hush now, pup,” cooed the Lupekin.  His grin smeared across his snout and curved up into his yellow eye.  “I’ll not have you say Volk kept all the kill to himself.”  Ambroys’s howl turned to a muffled scream as his friend’s roasted flesh pushed past his lips.


Ambroys bolted behind the bar and collapsed over a basin.  His guts splashed out against the weathered wood in great rolling heaves.  There was little but bile and whiskey in him which left an acid burn from the back of his throat all the way down his chest once he was finally able to take a few gasping breaths. 

His sides ached right down between the ribs.  Jelly-legged, Ambroys pushed himself to his feet.  He pulled a napkin from underneath the bar and wiped the vomit from his lips.  It left a foul greenish yellow smear on the white rag.  He lifted his eyes back to the room to find a crestfallen Milton standing next to Walter Ozzen, Candle of the Vigil.  “Sorry,” muttered Ambroys to Milton with a cringe.  Both napkin and basin had been recently cleaned.

“What in the hells are you doing?” shouted Ozzen.  The dwarf was a full foot and half shorter than Ambroys but stared the taller man down with a pugilistic squint that made Ambroys feel like a guilty little kid.  Ozzen chewed on the end of the hand-rolled cigarillo that lived perpetually wedged between his molars.  “You’re an Eye of the Vigil, son!  Pull yourself together!  Now gods damnit!”

Ambroys snapped to attention, eyes fixed into a thousand-yard stare.  “Eye Wester reporting from Bywater Patrol Viper, Sentinel Felgrim patrol leader,” he called out at a clip that barely left distinction between each word.

Ozzen eyed him hard for a long breath before giving the younger soldier a curt nod.  “That’s better.  Now, son, you look rougher than the only whore in a harbor.  Take that seat by the fire and you can catch me up on what I missed.”

Ambroys would have sprinted back to the chair if he had not been afraid that Candle would ream him for his lack of poise.  Instead, he marched, straight backed as stone like he had been taught in training not so long ago.  Sitting on the first third of the chair, still rigidly upright and staring blankly into the fire, he waited as Ozzen pulled over a chair for himself.  Ambroys’s pulse drummed as he fought to keep his breathing even.  How does he do it?  How does that stump of a dwarf make me want to piss myself with just a stare?

Ozzen settled into his chair just at the edge of Ambroys’s peripheral vision.  He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees, and fingers laced.  The firelight poured over his left side leaving the other half of him in deep shadow so that only that eye gleamed out from the dark.  He shifted his cigarillo from one side of this mouth to the other.  “Alright, son, let’s have it.”

Ambroys reported everything he had told to Anton eyes locked dead on the fire, unfocused and unseeing.  His whole body clenched as he tried not to tremble in front of Candle Ozzen.  Showing weakness had never succeeded in endearing anyone to the weathered veteran.

“Woah there.”  Ozzen lifted a broad hand and brought Ambroy’s report to a pause.  He leaned back still watching the younger soldier through his permanent squint and rubbed the clean-shaven edge of his jaw.  “That’s one hell of a yarn, son.” 

Ambroys felt the Candle’s eyes prodding at him like a child might poke a dead bird to see if it would flinch.  He clenched his teeth.  I’m not dead yet, you son-of-a-bitch.

Ozzen pushed himself standing and waved Ambroys to stay seated with a perfunctory “as you were”.  He sauntered over to Anton chewing his cigarillo like a cow might chew its cud.  Then he lifted the whiskey jug and refilled Anton’s cup before walking to the bar.  He laid two clean glasses on the varnished wood and poured a few fingers in each.  He fished a shining coin from inside his clean, pressed tabard and laid it on the bar with a nod to Milton.

Ambroys was trying not to look down at his hands which had been balled into white knuckled fists when Ozzen held out one of the whiskeys.  Ambroys risked a glance up at this commanding officer.  Was this a test?

Ozzen took a sip from his own.  “Like I said that’s one hell of a yarn, son.  And before you get to telling me just how you managed to get yourself out of that particular hell, I would say it is only fitting and proper that we toast the fallen.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

Ambroys furrowed his brow.  This felt like a test.

The whiskey glass jiggled.  “Now, son, are you going to make me toast alone?  Seems a might unhospitable seeing as you’ve already had one.  That is why I smell alcohol on your breath, isn’t it?  You and Anton were honoring the departed.”  Ozzen raised an eyebrow and miraculously managed to keep squinting.

Ambroys’s saliva went to glue again.  Swallowing the sealant, he took the proffered glass and stood up as did Anton.  The three held their cups aloft and Ozzen said, “To the fallen.  Rest well.  Though your vigil is done, our watch goes on.”

Ozzen licked the whiskey off his lips and gave a look of almost begrudging approval towards his glass.  Then he seated himself back down in his chair and leaned forward again, fingers wrapped around his cup.  He gestured for Ambroys to take his seat.  “Alright, son.  So how did you make it out?”


The evening’s revelry had tapered off.  The dancing was done, and the fire had burned low with what was left of Berard’s bones charred among the embers.  The Lupekin lounged in slung hammocks clustered around the few trees that grew from the small isle in the black water of Umbra Morass.  Only a pair of the wolfmen remained at the fire.  One of them only had his left ear and the other has a scar that had cleft his lips revealing one snaggletooth.  They sat across from Ambroys talking together in their low gruff voices and sharing what smelled like moonshine from a skin.  The wetness of it gave a rapacious shine to their thin lips.  Here and there, their eyes would rove lecherously over Ambroys making his skin crawl.

He blinked away the discomfort.  The throbbing in his head had finally begun to subside allowing his mind to clear for the first time.  He was not about to waste this window before his growing dehydration muddled his thoughts again.  Focus.  Those are the guards.  The others will be asleep soon, leaving only these two to content with.

Ambroys stole a side glance at the pair trying to size them up.  He knew their type.  Overconfident and lax.  They would lose interest and doze not too long after the others were snoring with the frogs.  One of the Lupekin passed the skin to the other as he stifled a yawn.  Ambroys fought his own wolfish grin.  Soldiers were soldiers no matter the army and he had seen this type of soldier before.  Hells he had nearly been like them, would have been like them if Ozzen, the old bear, hadn’t beaten discipline into him.  This would be too easy.

The night waxed on.  The moon was full, but the sky was clouded over allowing only the intermittent beam of moonlight to pierce the swamp’s viscous gloom.  Ambroys swatted a mosquito on the sweat soaked nape of his neck and grumbled to himself.  The crooks of his elbows were burning with bites and he had lost ten pounds in sweat to the sauna heat that still blanketed the Morass.  What sweat he lost, his clothing found and chaffed his sodden flesh.  Worse, his headache was back.  What a hell hole. 

How did they stand it?  He glanced warily around the camp.  At the edge of the firelight, a dozen or so Lupekin snored free of all consternation in their hammocks.  One yipped quietly in his sleep, like a dog dreaming of the chase.  Ambroys’s lip curled into a snarl, his mind a nebulous mass of murderous wishes. 

At least the other two are coming along.  The Lupekin guards had nearly finished their skin and were looking bleary-eyed.  Their speech grew slurred and was punctuated by yawns of increasing frequency.  Soon.  It’s almost time.

The thought no sooner entered Ambroys’s mind than one of the guards, Snaggletooth, stood.  He patted his companion on the shoulder and barked something in their tongue as he made a motion toward the Morass with his snout.  Then he shuffled off, already laboring to unlace his trouser fly as he stepped beyond the edge of the light and into the inky shadows.  He did not return.

Ambroys noticed the unusual length of the Snaggletooth’s absence before Left Ear.  Ha!  Bastard probably passed out in the slough and drowned!  A smirk spread across his face as a painfully slow look of concern blossomed on Left Ear’s drunken features.  The wolfman staggered to his feet, paused to steady himself and then stumbled off in the direction of Snaggletooth without so much as a glance back at Ambroys laying quietly on the other side of the fire.

Now!  Ambroys pulled his knees to his chest and began tugging at the knots that bound the thick hemp cordage around his legs.  Shit!  It’s no use.  Sodden with sweat and swamp water, the rope had swelled so that there was no longer any space between strand and bight.  His bindings were stuck fast and would have to be cut off.  He pushed himself to his knees and spun his gaze around the camp, hunting for something, anything with a cutting edge.  The Lupekin slept in their clothes with their knives on their belts.  He could not risk waking up the camp by struggling for one of those. 

Damn!  He was running out of time.  Any second now, Left Ear would either come back or call out and wake the whole damn pack.  Ambroys’s pulse roared in his ears and sweat ran in rivers down his face stinging his eyes all while his pounding headache crushed inside his skull.  He wanted to scream.

There!  At the edge of the camp, under one of the hammocks, jutted a thin rock worn sharp by time and chance.  Oh, Ruvest, you beautiful, armored bastard!  I swear I’ll light a candle at your shrine for this!  Ambroys wriggled his way toward the rock with all the speed his could risk.  Furiously, he rasped the rope across the sawing, stone edge.  The sodden strands began to split.  Ambroys rubbed faster trying desperately not to pant for fear that it would rouse the snoring Lupekin that slumbered inches from his head.

The final strand snapped, freeing his ankles.  Ambroys could have shouted for joy but, before he could even climb to his feet, a scream arose from the blackness of the Morass and was suddenly silenced.  Ambroys dropped to the fetal position and pretended to have been asleep as the rest of camp jerked into instant alertness.  As the pack scrambled from their hammocks, the Lupekin above Ambroys dropped down on top of him, stumbled to regain her balance, and then kicked him as she swore.

Volk took charge of the rabble.  With a few short barks, he sent two of the wolfmen to investigate the scream and the others he set in circle around the camp.  Blades were drawn, ears twitched, and more than one among them sniffed the air.  The swamp hung thick with coiled tension as they waited long dragging seconds for some report or sign from the hunters. 

Ambroys wormed his way toward the edge of the firelight, trying to keep his ankles together and praying that no one noticed they were no longer bound.  He made creeping progress heading for the swamp in the opposite direction of scream.  As he reached the limit of where he could slink without the aid of a distraction, he paused, forced his breathing to slow, and waited.  The returning hunters would draw the pack’s attention long enough for him to slink off into the night.  He just had to be patient a moment longer.

A severed Lupekin head arced up out of the gloom and over Ambroys.  It hit the ground and rolled to a stop near the fire, its dead eyes staring back at him.  His own eyes widened.  It had been one of the hunters.  As one, the pack had turned to watch the head fly in from the dark and come to rest in their midst.  A rumble of panic rolled through the mob.  Eyes that showed too much white to feign aplomb swiveled from the severed head to Volk. 

Volk licked his snout and cast an appraising look around the pack.  His grip tightened on the worn bone handle of his own notched blade.  As he lifted it to point at the gathered pack and speak, a bloodcurdling scream split the stagnant night air.  Ambroys snapped his head toward the source just in time to see the Lupekin who had stepped on him pulled off her feet and sucked into the impenetrable darkness beyond the firelight.  Her cry was cut short by a gurgle and flecks of blood spattered the soil just inside the ring of light.

With a collective enraged howl, the Lupekin pack charged towards their fallen comrade and into the hungry darkness.  As they surged in one direction, Ambroys leapt to his feet and sprinted in the other.


“Hold up now, son,” said Ozzen massaging the bridge of his nose.  “Let me see if I can get this straight.  You are telling me that something killed five Lupekin warriors, the very same Lupekin warriors that slaughtered your patrol, and did that without showing itself and without making hardly a sound?”

“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys, his face a mask.

Ozzen nodded thoughtfully and leaned toward the fire to finally light his cigarillo from a taper.  Though the dwarf was rarely caught without a one clenched between his molars, Ambroys had never seen him actually smoke.  It was a change in the seasoned veteran, a foreign wind.  The young soldier tensed all the muscles in his body to keep from squirming in his seat.

Candle Ozzen eased himself back into the chair and took a few contemplative puffs, his arms crossed.  “And you say, you never caught a glimpse of it?  Never heard a splash or a rustle or gust of wind?”

“Yes, sir,” said Ambroys.  He fought to bite back his irritation.  Of course, he hadn’t seen or heard anything!  He had already said as much.  Why make him repeat himself?

“Boy, I’ve seen a lot of things in that there Morass.  I saw me a flock of harpies once.  I even saw a stink ape wrestle a bear but I ain’t never seen no swamp demon like that,” said Anton eyeing Ambroys over his whiskey.

They don’t believe me.  The realization struck him hard in the ribs.  He did not know what to say.

Ambroys’s surprise must have leaked onto his face because Ozzen leaned forward looking Ambroys over with his perpetual squint.  “Way back–must have been seventy-five years ago now–I had just had my first Eye stitched on.”  He pointed to the single golden eye insignia embroidered on the shoulder of Ambroys’s ravaged tabard.  “I was stationed with the Marsh Hawks just outside of Window, green as new grass.  One day my squad and I are on a routine sweep for smuggler’s caches along the coast.  We should have been paying more attention, but the littoral patrol boats had already reported clear and it was a hot, sticky day of slogging through the mud when we knew we wouldn’t find a damn thing. What we didn’t count on was a gang of smugglers out of Risen Crest had paid off the patrol boat skipper for the day.  Me and my whole squad stumbled right into them.”

Ozzen took a long pull on his cigarillo and swirled his whiskey.  “We were completely surprised.  I got hit hard on the head and went down early in the skirmish.  When I came to my whole squad was wiped out and the smugglers were gone.  Now I struggled with the guilt of that for a long time.  Hells, it still churns my gut to think that they’re all dead while I’m not.”  He took a swallow of his drink before continuing.

“Son, the point is you’ve been through hell.  Someone only has to look at you to see that.  It’s natural to feel guilty for surviving when your friends didn’t but no one would blame you for living.”

“Sir, I’m not lying-”

“No one is accusing you of that, son,” cut in Ozzen.  The dwarf wore a sad smile that he probably thought looked comforting.  In the shifting slick of firelight shadows, it just looked grim.  “All I’m saying is that grief does funny things to us all.  It can… blur the details, warp them out of proportion.”

Ambroys’s mouth hung open.  They think I’m losing it, cracking at the edges.  They think I’ve been through too much and my mind is warping reality to deal with the guilt.  “I–I–,” stammered Ambroys grasping for some response.

“Maybe it ain’t one devil,” said Anton looking as helpful as a man selling prayer books door to door.  “Maybe it was a whole mess of them.  You know, the Grimwood tribe might’ve done this!  Now there’s a group of goblins with a flair for the dramatic.  Why I once saw them use flash powders and burning oil to drive a terror bird into a trap.  If they were trying to drive out a pack of Lupekin they might do something like that to make sure fear keeps the mutts gone.  Why I wager that’s exactly what happened,” he said slapping his knee and beaming at the others with a creamy smile.

Ozzen shook his head.  “I don’t see it.  I have nothing but respect for the Grimwood people.  Savages though they may be, they do indeed have a way with theatrics.  However, I find it hard to believe that a band of goblin primitives would be able to accomplish such a mission against a Lupekin pack that slaughtered eighteen trained Vigil soldiers.

“Well now, Candle, you just might be an expert in war and tactics and such.  And you ain’t no stranger to the Morass.  But I think you are giving them goblins short shrift,” said Anton.  “I have been wandering the Morass since I was a sprout tagging along after my Papi.  Them gobbies have more tricks than a squirrel in a nut house.  Why once when I was trapping along the Bywater–”

“It wasn’t goblins, Grimwood tribe or any other,” interrupted Ambroys, frustration giving his words more bite than intended.  Then turning to Ozzen, he continued, “Sir, it was one creature.  I know that is hard to believe but it’s true.”

“Son, I know–,” started Ozzen.

“Sir, I’m not confused.  I know what it was because I saw it,” said Ambroys.  His face was flush, and the fire danced in his eyes.

“But you said that you didn’t see the creature,” said Ozzen leaning in.  His natural squint narrowed until his eyes looked nearly shut.

Ambroys stared back eyes locked unflinchingly with his superior.  “I said I didn’t see it then.  It was later while I was running through the swamp.”


Ambroys’s chest heaved and he gulped for air as he pushed through the thigh-deep, black water.  He had only been running for a few minutes but the combination of the drag from the water, the mud sucking at his feet, and his own dehydration already had his muscles ablaze.  He would not be able to hold this up for long.  I only need to push on for a mile or so.  Then I can rest.

Mercifully, the cloud cover had begun to break up allowing shifting pools of mottled moonlight to spill through the canopy.  The only other light sources were fireflies drifting among the infinite shade of the trees.  Well, he hoped they were fireflies, but they could have just as easily been will-o-the-wisps, Crot’s Guides, hunting for souls.  Either way, they were of no use to him.

He stumbled through the tangled trees and vines that choked the swamp waters.  Their grasping roots and runners might have been a bane now, but they would be a boon when he finally stopped to rest, helping to confound anyone that might be following him.  Ambroys cast a hurried look behind.  There was no sign of anyone giving chase, not that he would have had much luck spotting them in the dark.  Gods, I can hardly see two feet ahead.

Something floating in the water bumped against his thighs.  Ambroys froze.  There were stories of snapping turtles in the Morass that were as big as a shield and could bite clean through a man’s calf.  He prayed to Ruvest that the stories were not true.  The thing did not move away but bobbed on the rippled waters against his trousers.  He swallowed hard to try to loosen the knot that had tightened around his heart and reached down to nudge the dark mass aside.  It felt fibrous like moss or the bearded lichens that hung from the boughs above.  Definitely not a snapping turtle.

As the tension eased from his chest, the clouds shifted again, and moonlight illuminated the object.  Ambroys gasped and snatched his hand back.  The body of a Lupekin floated in front of him.  Its throat had been slashed so deep that the white of its spine glinted among the dark ooze of blood.  The creature had been this way!

Ambroys screwed his eyes closed and dredged with his ears through the mélange of croaking frogs and chirping insects that clotted the night air.  Was the creature still here?  Or had it left already?  Maybe it approached the camp this way and was still occupied with the Lupekin?  Nothing.  No hint reached him.  He opened his eyes, cast a useless look around the impenetrable dark, and crept passed the floating corpse leaving it bobbing in his wake. 

This slow slink through the water was somehow more exhausting than sprinting.  Every muscle in his body was ratchetted so tightly that Ambroys feared he might snap in half.  Blood pounded in his ears with each manic heartbeat and he fought to smoothen the raggedness from his breathing.  It had been an eternity of this sulking through the dark with only the night songs following.  I think I’m alright now.

What was that?  He had heard a splash.  Or at least, he thought he did.  Ambroys went stone stiff and listened.  Nothing.  It was nothing—no there it was again!  Definitely a splash from behind him like something stumbling through the mire.  Shit.  I’ve got to hide.

Ambroys edged toward a shadow that was shaped like the trunk of a large tree.  Each step was a journey as he felt his way gingerly among the roots and mud, trying to move as little water as possible with each gliding stride.  When finally he reached out and felt the wet bark on his fingers, he pulled himself in tight to the trunk and prayed to be a hole in the swamp.

A third splash made a dissonant cord in the night’s chirping song.  Ambroys hardly dared to breath as he strained his ears trying to find some indication of the creature’s position, but the frog calls carried on unblemished.  The clouds had once again masked the moon blanketing the bog in the gluey ink of night.

Come on!  Where are you, you murderous bastard?  There!  Ambroys heard another splash and furrowed his brow.  That one was different, diminished somehow.  Was it farther away?  No, it had been just as loud but smaller.  He craned his head around the tree trunk, hoping beyond hope to catch a glimpse of the thing in the fickle light.  He strained his eyes to pierce the night’s veil.

A weight struck Ambroys from behind with the force of a bull.  He toppled over and plunged into the murky water.  The weight pressed upon him, forcing his face down into roots and river grasses.  The cloying mud filled his nose, choking him.  Ambroys drove his bound wrist against the sodden earth and scrambled his knees beneath him.  Through gritted teeth, he propelled his bulk towards the surface.  The force dislodged his assailant who splashed into the thigh-deep water.

As Ambroys gasped for air, the clouds shifted, and pied moonlight filtered through the canopy.  A lupine face emerged from the bog with one enraged yellow eye gleaming and the other deathly white.  Volk.  Rancid water streamed from the matted fur and dripped off his clawed fingers.  Volk lifted his chin to the full moon and a chilling howl tore from his chest.  Then he pounced.

Ambroys tumbled onto his back and, again, was forced underwater.  Volk’s hands wrapped around the young soldier’s throat, pinning him under and constricting with a brutal inevitability.  Ambroys tore at the clawed hands but their grip was like iron.  He kicked and thrashed, trying to get a leg under the beast.  The grip only tightened as sinuous muscle masked under rough fur drew taught.  Volk’s lank frame may as well have been made of steel for all that it waivered under the panicked assault.

Ambroys’s lungs burned and his chest began to spasm as his body screeched for air.  Still, he struggled but he was growing weaker with each thrust and kick.  His thrashing was becoming sluggish and weak.  His thoughts grew cloudy.  The water was murky and, even with eyes wide and bulging, it made him sightless.  Yet, he could sense the darkness creeping in at the edge of his vision, consuming him by degrees until the gloom would swallow him whole.  Ambroys made a final feeble push before going completely limp.  The world felt so far from him now as did all the concern it contained.  So.  Very.  Far.  Somewhere, many lifetimes away, a wolf howled to the moon.


Ambroys’s eyes snapped open.  A sudden awareness flooded him as the iron pressure of Volk’s muscle slackened.  With a final desperate surge, he heaved against the soggy fur.  Volk offered no resistance.  Indeed, what had once been an immovable weigh was now brushed aside like so much flotsam. 

He struggled to the surface coughing and hacking and gulping the rank swamp air.  Moonlight still filtered through the tangled boughs enough to see the inert outline of the Lupekin floating away on the wetland’s infinitesimal current.  The light held long enough to see Volk’s head loll at a funny angle.  His neck had been broken.  Then the atmosphere shifted, and the light failed, casting Umbra Morass into inky shadow. 

Despite the cloying heat of the summer’s night, a shiver raced down Ambroys’s spine.  His heart hammered in his chest and he struggled to control his panicked breathing.  A prickling ran along the base of his neck and every muscle in his body constricted tighter than a bowstring.  There was something moving behind him.  He could feel it like ants crawling up his spine.

Ambroys’s eyes darted to the corners and tugged his head into a turn.  As his body began to twist around his hands balled into fists.  He might not have a chance in the hells, but he’d be damned if he was going to die without taking a swing.  Momentum building, Ambroys whirled around, fist raised, and found empty darkness.

The whole of the swamp seemed to hold its breath as Ambroys spun back and forth, swinging into the void for a demon that could not be seen.  When no fiend could be found, he dropped his arms, panting.  Perhaps the creature had moved on.  Maybe it couldn’t see him under the blackened water.  He stood for a moment, letting his breath settle and his muscles uncoil.  He was letting fear get the better of him.  He just needed to relax and think.  Two deep breathes rolled in and out of his lungs, draining the tension from his shoulders.  He was jumping over nothing.  If the creature wanted him, it would have had him by now.  It must have moved on.  There was nothing left hunting him from the shadows.  Nothing left to fear.

Two red eyes blazed to life like tiny fires in the gloom.

Ambroys ran.  He ran for all his life, splashing through the water like a torrent, but he did not dare look back.  The eyes were following him.  He could feel their heat on the back of his neck like the breath of death itself.  His heart flogged his chest and his legs pumped acid.  His lungs heaved like bellows until they flew so quickly that he felt like he was choking on his own breath.

A hand, hard as cured wood, gripped him by the collar of his chainmail armor.  It hoisted him nearly free of the water and then hurled him into a stand of trees.  Ambroys hit with a sickening thud and fell to the spongy earth.  His head reeled and he struggled to clear the murkiness of his rattled senses.  Through the gloom, the raging eyes advanced.  Whatever they were attached to made hardly more than a ripples worth of noise as it glided through the swamp.

They were nearly upon him.  Ambroys felt around the syrupy dark for anything that might aid him.  Just as the eyes stepped into reach, his hands clasped around a stout fallen branch.  He hoisted it and swung hard at the creature.  He struck true with a solid wallop and the fiery red eyes bounced from the blow.  Ambroys lifted the branch to strike again, but the creature caught it mid-swing and wrenched it from his grasp. 

The vice-like fingers of a single solid hand wrapped around Ambroys’s throat and lifted him off his feet, pinning him to the tree trunk.  The red eyes flared against the unblemished dark like midnight’s own wrath.  Not a sound escaped the creature as the skies shifted and a pillar of silver light spilled upon the pair. 

A jack-o-lantern face twisted in hideous rage glared at Ambroys.  The arm that held him aloft not only felt as solid as wood but was wood, a scrap bit of beam notched with ill treatment.  It connected to a tattered suit of sodden ring mail armor.  The creature’s other hand held a raised shortsword, nearly as notched as his wooden arms.  From its pommel, dangled a charm that looked like a small rag doll.  It was much repaired and marred by poor stitching.  Loose straw and leaves poked out through gaps in the seams.

As the Scrap Knight stared into Ambroys’s horror-stricken face, his features softened.  His red eyes diminished to a pale-yellow glow and it eased Ambroys to the moistened soil.  He took a step back from the choked soldier and sheathed his sword.  The two stared at one another.  Ambroys massaged his bruised throat and searched that inhuman face for some reason for this reversal, some explanation why this monstrosity had not slain him.  The Scrap Knight said nothing, his features a mask of vague melancholy.  Without a sound he turned to leave.

“Thank you,” Ambroys croaked after him.  He immediately felt stupid but could think of nothing else to do.  This Scrap Knight may have been a murderous monster, but the creature had saved his live.  He should not be tempting fate by drawing its attention again and yet, he owed the thing a debt.

The Scrap Knight stopped and waited.

Ambroys took a few hesitant steps forward.  “You saved my life,” he said, his voice still husky.  “I owe you thanks.”

Haltingly, the Scrap Knight turned.  He squinted at Ambroys with his glowing jack-o-lantern eyes, his head tilted to one side. 

“Please, I owe you a debt and I must repay it.  Ask anything of me and you shall have it,” said Ambroys stepping closer.

For a fleeting moment, the Scrap Knight looked hollowed out as though keenly aware of a void that he could not fill.  Then he slowly shook his head and began to trudge back into the bog.

Ambroys reached out and grasped the knight’s arm.  The Scrap Knight whirled around, his shortsword ready to strike.  Ambroys eased back, bound wrists held up in a pacifying gesture.

“Please, there must be something I can do to repay you,” he said.  His eyes washed over the knight now fully illuminated by the pale light of the moon and settled on the charm swaying gently from the sword’s pommel.  “Your doll.  Maybe I can get it properly repaired for you?” he asked making a stitching motion with his hands.

The Scrap Knight’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.  He pulled both sword and doll to his chest.  A twiggy thumb brushed over the doll’s soiled forehead. 

“I promise no harm will come to her and I’ll return her as soon as she is mended,” Ambroys said taking a knee and bowing his head.  “You have my word as an Eye of the Vigil.”

A wooden hand rested on Ambroys’s shoulder.  He lifted his eyes to see the Scrap Knight’s sword tip pointed at his chest.  Before he could flinch, the Scrap Knight had sliced through the rope that bound his wrists.  The knight delicately unfastened the doll and placed it in Ambroys’s hands.  Then without so much as a glance back, The Scrap Knight disappeared into the gloom.


Ozzen let out a long, low whistle and Anton erupted into a fit of laughter so convulsive that he spilled his drink all over himself.  Ambroys grit his teeth and glared at the elderly halfling. 

“Scrap Knight!  Ha!  That’s a good one!” said Anton still seizing with peals of laughter.  “Next you’ll be telling me that Crot guided you from the Morass himself!  Does Ruvest tuck you in at night too, boy?”  The halfling tried to struggle out a few more words but they were eclipsed by his side-splitting guffaws.

“I’m glad you find this all so amusing,” growled Ambroys.

“Well, Son, you do have to admit that it’s one hell of a yarn,” said Ozzen.  The Candle’s brow was furrowed.  He took a long draw off his cigarillo and blew slow deliberate smoke rings.  “Sometimes I forget just how young you new recruits can be,” he said more to himself than to the others.

“Excuse me, sir?” said Ambroys taken aback.

“Boy, the Scrap Knight ain’t nothing but a legend,” said Anton wiping his eyes.  “He’s the boogeyman of the bog, the story we tell sprouts to keep them from wandering into the Morass.  ‘Don’t go in the swamp or the Scrap Knight will get you,’ that sort of thing.  But he ain’t real.”

Ambroys stayed focused on Candle Ozzen.  “Sir, I’m not from Reaper’s Fen.  I don’t know what the hell a Scrap Knight is, but I know what I saw.”

Ozzen held his young soldier’s stare so long that Ambroys thought he could almost count the cogs as the gears turned behind the officer’s eyes.  He didn’t give a rat’s ass if Anton believed him but Ozzen was his commanding officer.  If Candle didn’t believe him, then his credibility in the Vigil was shot.  His career would be over before it really began.  Worse, folks would start to wonder why he had lied.  They’d whisper.  At best they would say he was nuts or maybe a coward.  At worst, they’d say he was a traitor.  Just the thought made the vein in his temple throb.  No, Ozzen was a good man.  He’d see the truth.

Candle Ozzen ran a thick hand over his broad jawline.  With a sigh, he plucked the stub of the cigarillo from his lips and chucked it into the fire.  Then he patted his knees and stood.  “I think this has been a long morning for you, son.  Let’s get you back to the barracks, let the medic take a look at your scrapes, and get you some rest.  We can go over all this again tomorrow.”

Ambroys did not move.  He stared coolly back at the Candle and said, “Sir, I’m telling the truth.”

“No one’s calling you a liar,” he said with a kind of put-upon patience.  “Let’s go.”

Ambroys remained seated.

Ozzen planted his feet and pulled another cigarillo from an interior pocket.  He jabbed it between his molars and said, “Son, I am trying to help you right now, but you are testing my patience.”

“Candle, I am not asking for your help.  I am asking for you to listen to me,” said Ambroys jumping to his feet.  “I saw what I said I saw, and I’ve got the proof!”  He reached into his tattered tunic and withdrew a rag doll, soiled with straw poking from the seams.  He brandished it at the two of them like a talisman.

The cigarillo fell to the barroom floor as Ozzen’s mouth fell open.  Anton choked off his chuckles.  “Well fuck me running,” he said.  The color drained from his wrinkled face.  “The Scrap Knight is real!”

Night Fires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t say much, do you?”

Negative again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mostly people call me the Scrap Knight.”

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

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

“How did you end up here?” signed SK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wheezing, Harlow shuffled toward the cellar.  SK cocked what passed for an eyebrow on his rind face.  He had never bothered to go down there.  By all description it held only a well and food stuffs, none of which held any interest for the Scrap Knight.  What could be down there that was so important?

Harlow mounted the stairs and waved SK to follow before disappearing into the gloom below.  With some small hesitation, the Scrap Knight walked to the steps.  They were wooden and empty.  A heavy curtain hung at the bottom blocking the rest of the cellar from view.  SK descended the creaking stairs, step by groaning step, tendrils of unease taking root in his belly. 

At the bottom, he pushed the curtain aside and what he saw dropped his jaw.  A large, ornate lantern hung above a crumbling well from the pulley where the bucket would have been.  A brilliant, translucent flame swayed behind the glass casting the whole of the cellar with a pure, clean light.  Harlow stood next to the well peering over the short, decaying wall. 

His eyes lingered for a moment before he lifted his head to address his guest.  “SK, I’ve been at this post for a long, long time.  Nearly all of it alone.  I don’t mind telling you that you’re the best friend I’ve had in many a long year.  I want to show you something before you go.  Something that I have not shared with anyone—ever.”  His dark eyes grew watery so that they shone in the sanitized light.  He looked back down into the well and beckoned with a gauzed hand.  “Come stand by me and see.”

The Scrap Knight hesitated.  Suddenly, he was feeling very naked without his sword or sickle.  “What’s down there?” he signed but Harlow was not watching. 

The unease in his belly grew into a ball of heavy roots and SK forced his feet into small, deliberate steps craning his neck to see what might be in the well.  When he reached the edge, he looked down to find a smooth line of clear blue water with something dark floating near the bottom.  The surface rippled unnaturally, and the Scrap Knight realized it was not water at all but a massive ooze that filled the depths.  As the jelly quivered, the dark mass rose towards the surface resolving itself into a suspended corpse, slowly dissolving within the acidic slime.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Harlow.  He shoved SK into the pit with both hands.

The Scrap Knight screamed soundlessly.  He plummeted into the writhing gelatin landing on his back with a sucking, wet thowp.  His eyes howled in pain as acid ooze blistered the flesh on the back of his head.  Worse, his body was sinking into the thing and finger-like pseudopods sprouted from the surface tugging him closer to complete envelopment.

Harlow had disappeared, but SK could hear him rummaging through something not far away.  His windy voice carried down the well.  “I had hoped you would want to stay but I can see now that what we had was nothing but dust in the wind to you.  After everything I’ve done, you would throw me away like trash!”  These last words came like blown gravel as he slammed something wooden shut with a vehemence that echoed through the cellar.

Low and tight like a breeze bottled into a canyon, he said, “Despite all that, I’m not sore.  I’ll keep you here close to me and bound to my very soul.  I know you’ll soon come to realize you never meant to leave.  In your heart, you know you would never abandon me!”  His voice rose into a shrill tempest of its own so that the air above swirled, rocking the lantern.

The Scrap Knight clenched his jaw and pulled against the sucking ooze with all his might until pop!  An arm sprung free.  Roots, hunting moisture in the desert, had begun to break through the well wall widening the gaps between the stones and he dug his wooden fingers into the soft earth.  His eyes flared with crimson rage as inch by inch he dragged himself free of the searing jelly.  He was halfway up the wall, red smoke curling from his eyes and mouth when Harlow reappeared.

The tempest whipped at his loose garments peeling them back and unwinding the gauze that wrapped his arms and calves until he loomed bare chested at the precipice of the well.  His emaciation was more pronounced below the neck such that his grey, unwholesome flesh hung on his bones like a sheet.  Harlow reached across the void and opened a door on the lantern.  From a pouch on his belt, he withdrew a powder like the one he used for the signal flame, but which smelled of fresh grave dirt.  He tossed it into the lantern.  The clear light turned aquamarine and flared.  It built in intensity until the very frame of the lantern trembled like a kettle come to a violent boil.

It was then that the Scrap Knight understood why the storms never ended, why that grey putrid flesh never healed.  Harlow was no lonely watchmen, risking the madness of isolation for the good of his people.  He was a lich feeding on the poor souls who wandered the badland’s roads. 

A keening wail detonated from the ooze below as the dissolving body trembled as if dragged to the surface by some unseen hand.  Its howling, terrified soul was ripped from the trapped body and sucked like blue ether into the lantern’s dancing flame.  Harlow ran his withered tongue over cracked lips in satisfaction.

“Don’t worry.  There’s still plenty of room for yo—Ah!”  Harlow swallowed a startled cry.  The Scrap Knight, blazing with fury, had gained the lip of the well.  He grabbed Harlow by the belt and ripped him from his feet.  Harlow tumbled headfirst into the ooze below.

The Scrap Knight scrambled over the wall and peered down long enough to see Harlow pulled below the surface.  Harlow’s dead lips were sheered back into a crazed grin, all teeth and malice.  SK snatched the lantern from its fixture, raised it high above his head, and dashed it against the side of the well.  It bounced harmlessly off the ancient stone.

A deep, burbling guffaw rumbled up from the pit rattling the stones and dislodging dust from the rafters.  “Thought you were rid of me, did you?”  An enormous gelatin claw emerged and gripped the side of the well caving in a section as it pulled its colossal bulk over the lip.  The Scrap Knight skuttled backwards, clutching the lantern to his chest, just as Harlow stepped onto solid ground.  He was wearing the ooze like an immense suit of armor.  Clad as he was, Harlow had to stoop to keep from scraping against the low ceiling.  Dust stuck to his moist, undulating shoulders.

Eyes like yellow moons, SK scrambled for the stairs.  As he whipped around the banister he slipped, falling to his knees.  One of Harlow’s slime claws shot toward him stretching the ooze arm to impossible proportions.  The Scrap Knight found his footing and leaped up the stairs.  Behind him, the wooden steps exploded spraying splinters of wood as SK charged toward the surface.

Out of the cellar, he swung his head around unsure where to run next.  Outside, the electrical storm raged with lightning strikes closer and more numerous than they had ever been before.  There would be hordes of undead prowling the night, ravenous for blood-hot meat.  It made no difference that he had no meat to give.  They would tear him apart searching for it just the same.

SK set his jaw and dashed toward the door.  Maybe all that was true and maybe he could stay ahead of the dead.  But if he stayed here, destruction was a certainty.  He would take his chances among the zombies and ghouls.  Oaken fingers grazed the door handle and then were ripped away as a jelly fist closed around his waist.  Harlow flung SK into the far wall with the speed of a whip crack.  The lantern bounced from SK’s grip and went skittering across the stone floor.  Any breathing creature would have had the wind knocked from him at the least but the Scrap Knight recovered before he hit the ground.  He rolled to standing and sprinted toward the lantern. 

Harlow’s jelly arm stretched for the aquamarine light.  Fat fingers poised to envelop it.  A chair exploded against the back of his hand knocking it away.  The Scrap Knight hurled the splintered pieces at Harlow even as he kicked the lantern.  With a sloppy roar that drowned out even the rolling thunder, Harlow grabbed the Scrap Knight by his chest, hoisted him into the air, and slammed him down into the sandy flagstones.  SK could feel his wooden bones straining nearly to the point of snapping as the lich crushed against his chest. 

Harlow lowered his face to SK, his wet eyes boiling with triumphant mania.  “Poor little knight, can’t scrap your way out of this on—agh!”  Harlow screamed as SK jabbed his twiggy fingers into those hateful, wet eyes.  The ooze grip slackened for hardly a second as Harlow clutch his eyes with his other hand.  But it was enough.  The Scrap Knight scrambled on all fours toward the lantern.  With a desperate lunge, he knocked it into the signal fire.

The translucent flame turned midnight blue as the lantern’s metal boiled.  Harlow shrieked a waning, wheezing whine and clutched at his chest.  The ooze armor melted away from him into puddles of drying slime.  Harlow’s grey flesh blistered and bubbled until a million needle-like beams of aquamarine light burst from him in every direction.  He writhed and shrieked a sound like a choir of a hundred rending souls.  The Scrap Knight clutched his head, screwed his eyes shut, and curled into a ball.

When the corpse that was Harlow went mercifully still, all the world grew quiet.  Even the thunderheads hushed and drifted away abashed.  The Scrap Knight pulled himself carefully to his feet, his joints creaking like a ship at sea.  After a few tender steps, he collected his things and prepared to leave this horror behind.  At the door he stopped.  Harlow’s camouflage cloak still hung on its peg.  SK waivered for only a moment before wrapping it around his own shoulders and stepping out into the first rays of a clear sky morning.  He had earned it after all and there was no telling what he might need chasing the dawn.


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Ebrik Strange: Part 1

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.


Chapter One

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.

Chapter Two

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?”

“No.”

“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.

Chapter Three

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.”

“Eric.”

“What?”

“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.

Chapter Four

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.”

Chapter Five

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.”

“You first.”

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.

Chapter Six

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.

Chapter Seven

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.”

“Common mistake.”

“But Strange is your surname, isn’t it?”

“Potentially.”

“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.”

“A what?”

“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.”

“Cali?”

“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.

“Do you?”

“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.”

Chapter Eight

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.

Chapter Nine

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?”

“Important ones.”

“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.

“You’re serious?”

“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.

Chapter Ten

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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Ebrik Strange: Ash on the Wind

by Robert Currer


Part 1: Chapter 10

3,500 Words: 15 Minute Read


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.


Thanks for reading! If you have enjoyed my story, please consider signing up for my mailing list by clicking the button below.

Ebrik Strange: The Lost and The Found


by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 9

3,600 Words: 15 Minute Read

This story contains sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.


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?”

“Important ones.”

“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 back 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.

“You’re serious?”

“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.


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Ebrik Strange: The Hanged Man

by Robert Currer


Part 1: Chapter 8

1,500 Words: 6 Minute Read

This story contains references to mental illness, self-harm, and suicide. Reader discretion is advised.


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.


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Ebrik Strange: Convalescence

by Robert Currer


Part 1: Chapter 7

2,800 Words: 11 Minute Read


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.”

“Common mistake.”

“But Strange is your surname, isn’t it?”

“Potentially.”

“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.”

“A what?”

“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.”

“Cali?”

“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.

“Do you?”

“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.”


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