Chaos Embraced

by Robert Currer


Complete Story – 2000 Words

This story contains strong elements of body horror. Reader discretion is advised.


You look pale,” said the tavernkeeper.  Her eyes squinted suspiciously from beneath the hard line of a greasy unibrow as she recoiled slightly at the sight of me.  In her hand was the steaming bowl of chowder I had ordered.  “You don’t carry plague to my bar?”  I thought it was probably a question but with her meaty accent it could have been a command.

“N—no, Ma’am.  I’m quite well,” I said, trying to control the chattering of my teeth.  They felt loose in my gums.  Fire raged in the round, central hearth painting the walls in eerie dancing shadows.  If there was heat to accompany the glow, I had no sense of it.  A chill had sunk deep into my bones on the ship, and I had yet to find the warmth to chase it out. 

Her black eyes narrowed as her thick arm drew the chowder closer to her chest as if to shield it from my foulness.

A booming, feral laugh cut the tension like a cutlass as Jirko appeared at her elbow.  “Not ta fret, Kala!  Lad’s as hale and hearty as yer horse!”  The one-eyed dwarf slapped the tavernkeeper on the back with such zeal that anyone else might have been knocked to the floor.  Kala, however, remained stone still, scowling at him through the corners of her eyes.

“I don’t own horse,” she growled.

Jirko’s smile widened so that his golden tooth was visible and, in a more conspiratorial volume, said, “The boy’s just arrived through The Mists.  That be enough ta make anyone pale.”  His accent was an oddly blended brogue that I had never quite been able to place.  There were many things about Jirko that mystified me, but he had not abandoned me to my illness.  That was more than most.

Kala’s unibrow softened and she lay the creamy chowder in front of me.  “You eat.  Kala’s chowder will chase chill from bones like hounds chase hare.”  She said this with a kind of iron fisted pride but, behind it, there was a glimmer of kindness that would not quite quit her black eyes.  It may have been the last real kindness I ever saw.

Jirko sidled onto the bench next to me after Kala left.  Following a furtive glance about the crowded room, he leaned in and asked, “Is it gettin’ worse, yer condition?” 

It was.  My bones felt brittle like glass.  I couldn’t manage to get warm and yet my skin was perpetually coated in a film of grimy sweat.  My joints were swollen to where I could feel each individual tendon and ligament.  But worst of all was the throbbing, brain melting migraine that had blossomed in the center of my skull.  The agony of it blurred my vision and churned my gut.  Corroded by torment, my temper was beginning to fray.

I felt the other patrons around me like ants on my skin.  Drinking their stinking ale.  Griping about empty nets.  Whispering lurid gossip.  Parasites.  What right did they have to comfort when I suffered so?  Putrid insects, no more significant than dust motes on the wind, just waiting for a boot crunch their bones and—the migraine dulled slightly, and my wits returned all at once.  Where did that come from?  How could I think that about these beleaguered, desperate people?

“No,” I said hastily.  “It’s actually a little better, I think.”

Jirko smiled without showing any teeth.  “Good, good.  Eat yer chowder.  We’ll go to see the healer shortly.”

“Can’t we go now?”  I hoped he could not hear the desperation in my voice.

“I’ve sent word ahead.  He’ll just be ready for us by the time we arrive.  Not ta fret.”  He patted my pallid, boney hand with perfunctory reassurance.  A bubble of searing rage popped inside me so that I could feel the rising rancor in my chest, thick and caustic like acid tar.  With effort, I wrestled it back down.  He said, “Eat yer chowder.  You’ll need warmth back in yer bones.”

A short time passed which I spend in brooding silence, spooning thick lumps of clam and potato between my thin lips.  Meanwhile, Jirko gave sway to his more gregarious nature bounding between the other tables.  Yet, he never drifted too far and never let me out of sight.  Behind his bravado, wariness hung in his eyes like a specter at the feast.

The night was thick with a chill fog that clung to the cobblestones when at last we took to the streets.  Our boots echoed along the vacant avenues.  The hollow clicking sounded weak and hunted in the gloaming.  Sweat oozed down my forehead stinging my eyes and I gaped my shirt collar as to allow the cool air unhindered access to my chest.  A heat had blossomed within me and built steam until I was a boiler to the touch.  No place was hotter than the three long claw marks down my back, a secret shared only with Jirko.

He led the way at a brisk pace that my shuffling, weakened stride found difficult to match.  Paltry wind wheezed in and out of my chest such that when paired with the pounding blood in my ears sounded to my fever addled mind like an orchestra tuning up for one final dirge.  Through winding lanes and back alleys, we wove our way through the dingy harbor district until I could not have even told you which way to the water.  All the while, each stumbling step was a marathon until finally my legs gave way and I tumbled to my hands and knees, coughing and retching until my ribs felt like they would crack.

Blood from my lips spattered across the damp stone, twining with the droplets into a sinister dew.  The hacking was forcing something thick and slimy up my windpipe.  A thing fleshy and slick with blood and mucus deposited itself in my mouth.  A final gagging hawk forced it out to the ground where it struck with a heavy slop. 

I gawked at the morsel of gore dolloped on the cobblestones.  That came from inside me.  Mind and guts both wriggled like bloated worms.  I coughed up part of me.  It did not feel real, more like I was watching some other poor bastard fall to pieces.  This could not be my life.  What had I done to anyone?  I didn’t deserve this!  This couldn’t be happening!  The lump of phlegmy flesh stared back as if to assert its own existence.  The miasma of my reality began to suck me down into madness.

Rope callused fingers gripped me by the scruff and jerked me to my feet.  “Don’t eyeball it, lad.  All the more reason ta make haste.”  Jirko pushed me into a teetering walk.  My bones felt loose in their joints like a wobbling tower of children’s blocks and my head was throbbing again with that white-hot pain.

Jirko had hardly rung the bell when the door opened.  A coughing spell had overtaken me and I was hunched over hacking bloody sputum into my palm when frigid spidery fingers took me by the elbow.  They guided me into the foyer.  Through my tearing eyes, I had a vague sense of surrounding opulence.  My wet boots sunk pleasantly into a plush rug.  The soft lamp light shone off polished mahogany and gleaming brass.  Suddenly, like the flash of a powder bomb, the juxtaposition of fates sprayed my insides with a phosphorous rage.  Why should I be so poorly off when this insect of a man lived in comfort?  Why should I who had never hurt a soul be afflicted with such a fiendish condition while he enjoyed every luxury?  It wasn’t fair!  I growled a wrathful slur of unintelligible syllables, but the ineloquence of my vitriol only angered me further.

I reared back, my fist balled white-knuckle tight, to swing at this spider-fingered personage so that they might know something of my suffering.  Jirko caught me by the wrist and wrestled my arm back as the long, sinuous finger held tighter. 

“Oh my.  We haven’t a moment to lose,” said a maddeningly placid voice.  Bestial noises bellowed from my salivating lips as I thrashed against the two men.  My rage went unrequited, weakened as I was, and they managed me handily to a room at the far end of the hall.

The door opened to a garish light that detonated in my head like an exploding star such that I went quite blind with the agony.  Momentarily drained of all vitality, I was dragged to an examination table and strapped down with thick leather belts.  My vision returned in swirling shades of white.  The migraine was ringing in my ears as though my skull was the church bell clapper.  Past my feet at the far end of the room by the door, Jirko was saying something to a tall, slender man dressed in clean, starched garments.  The slender man extended his spidery hand and deposited a leather pouch, gravid with coin, into Jirko’s eager palm.  The dwarf’s one good eye gleamed hungrily. 

He looked at me, bound and sweating.  A smile curled into his stubbled cheeks as he said, “Twas a pleasure ta make yer acquaintance.”  Then, without so much as a look back, Jirko abandoned me to my fate.

The slender man leaned over the table and examined me with ocean blue eyes down a narrow hawkish nose.  His hallow cheeks would have held water if he ever laid down in the rain.  I raged against the leather restraints rattling the whole table with fury.  The man did not even flinch.  Indeed, the ghost of a smile manifested on his features.  “Oh yes.  You arrived in the nick of time,” he said and slipped from sight.

He returned with a squeaking, rattling thing that appeared a large, bowled mirror with an oil lantern suspended beneath a hole cut in the center to serve as a chimney.  Another of these contraptions appeared at my other side.  The face they reflected back to me was not my own.  The eyes had grown red to match the tomato pallor of my cheeks.  My head had widened and grown flatter at the top.  A huge grin of sharp, grizzled teeth smeared across my now toad-like visage.

I stared into my own manic eyes and saw an infinite swirling void of carnage.  I longed to bath in the wanton chaos I saw there, to feel the hot blood of these insects drawn with my own gleaming, black claws splash against my crimson, froggy flesh.  There was no hate in the eyes I saw reflected back, only the divine lust of savagery. 

The lamps lit, dousing me with painful, bleaching light that ripped me from my rapture. All my bones and joints ached as they stretched and contorted, finishing their transformation into something else.  A scream born in my chest burst form my lips a mighty roar that rattled the mirrors.  Slitted pupils constricted and acclimated to the light until they could again see their own magnificent reflection.  The ruby red face the shone back stretched into a carnal, amphibian grin, all pain and weakness finally departed.  I was slaadi now.  I knew this as one of a kind instinctually recognizes another.

The slender man reappeared, a gleaming blade balanced in his delicate fingers.  “Nearly done.  Now to extract that pesky control gem.  Do hold still.”  His eyes were placid pools of blue.  They grew to stormy lakes at the sound of the rending leather belts and white caps foamed in from their edges as my claws pierced his chest.  Even after I festooned the clinic with his entrails and painted my warty flesh in streaks of blood, I never forgot the sublime surprise in those watery eyes.


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Chaos Embraced is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC.

Vector

by Robert Currer


Complete Story – 1000 Words

This story contains strong elements of body horror. Reader discretion is advised.


Arthur’s guts squirmed uncomfortably as the airliner barreled down the runway toward the sky.  He had never cared for flying.  Not that he was frightened of it; there were many things in life more deserving of fear.  It was only that he was prone to motion sickness and three years walking rural Guinea’s dusty roads had done little to improve that predilection.

Feeling sweat damp and pale, he flipped through the seat back pocket to find the plastic lined air sick bag and moved it to the front for easy access.  Then he dialed his vent to high, shut his eyes, and focused on breathing while waiting for the queasiness to pass.

The plane reached cruising altitude with a bump.  A pale static came over the PA.  “Hey folks.  It’s your captain speaking—uh, just wanted to let you know we’re in for some bumpy air—uh—nothing to worry about but we’re going to be keeping the fasten seat belt sign on a bit longer—uh—so just hang tight and we’ll get over smoother air as soon as we can.”  The announcement ended and Arthur wondered vaguely if airlines added the static these days to make pilots seem more trustworthy.

Turbulence rattled the cabin and Arthur’s amused grin inverted into a grimace as his gut churned.  The nausea had dissipated but the discomfort had only moved lower into his intestines.  He squirmed in the narrow seat, painfully aware of the mocking seat belts light overhead.

As they continued to rumble along the clouds, a molten, bulging pressure grew in his bowels.  He clenched his cheeks as tight as he could fighting the desperate need to shit.  More maddening, his sphincter had begun to itch mercilessly.  He wriggled in his seat hoping the friction of his underwear would provide some relief while trying not to look like a dog rubbing his ass on the carpet.  The seat belt light remained viciously constant.

Arthur gritted his teeth struggling against the impending explosion.  He was returning from a three-year extension tour with the Peace Corps.  Three years in rural Africa where things like dysentery were so common, they were almost a rite of passage among volunteers.  There was even the whimsically named Oopsie Poopsie Club which included every volunteer who shat their pants while serving.  Arthur had never met the membership requirement and he sure as hell wasn’t going to now.

He unbuckled his seat and staggered down the rolling aisle toward the coat closet sized lavatory.  Ignoring a stern Sir! from the flight attendant, Arthur pushed through the folding door and slammed the bolt to occupied.  Then the lid was up, his pants were down, and his innards were splattering against the oddly breezy stainless steel.  The pressure relieved, Arthur sat panting and feeling delightfully empty.  Then he wrinkled his nose.  The itch was still there and worse than ever.  It had started to burn.

During training, he had been warned of things called pinworms that lived in the rectum and itched horribly when they slithered out the anus to lay their eggs.  He prayed he did not have worms.  Arthur tore a ball of single ply toilet paper off the roll and reached back to both wipe and scratch.

A tendril like strained spaghetti wrapped around his index finger.  Arthur dropped the wad of toilet paper with a gasped Fuck!  It wriggled between his cheeks and he felt his stomach roil.  The wriggling intensified.  Like a message down a telephone wire, the slithering sensation moved inside him until the whole of his belly felt packed with a bait shop’s worth of squirming night crawlers. 

Arthur gripped the steel hand bar and again felt his insides pouring out into the toilet.  This time there was no diarrhea splatter.  Instead, pallid tentacles no thicker than noodles began to twist out from the toilet seat.  He swore and bolted upright trying to yank his pants above his knees with one hand while brushing away the grasping, wormy tendrils.  Panicked tears flooded his eyes as he clawed at his bare ass with both hands, not willing to believe what he found.  Oh God!  They’re coming out of me! 

He had to get help.  He had to see if there was a doctor on board.  He reached for the lock and the airplane bounced.  Arthur lost his balance and tumbled headfirst into the door with a bang.  He saw stars.  The tendrils spread, crawling along his thighs and pelvis before working their way up his body.

There was a knock.  A muffled voice said, “Sir?  Sir?  Are you alright in there?”  Then a second more urgent knock.

Arthur opened his mouth and tried to shout, “Yes!  Please!  For the love of God, help me!”  But the words were choked from his lips as grasping tendrils squeezed around his throat. They were strengthening now, twining themselves into thick, fleshy ropes that swathed his limbs so tightly that prickling needles shot all the way up to his elbows.  A livid hue blossomed on his cheeks.

His arms moved unbidden.  They pushed him to his knees.  He was enveloped now.  The woven doughy tendrils used his bones like a brace, rising to his feet.  Eyes bulging, he keened noiselessly, impotently, and the tendrils tugged at the soft flesh of his lips.  A slithering tickled the corners of his eyes so close that his eyelashes parted like reeds.

“Sir,” the muffled voice was back.  “We’re going to come in to make sure you’re okay.”

Help me!  Only a gurgling sputter was heard, the snot thickened words ringing only in his mind.  Searing, salty tears blotted his vision, dribbling down his cheeks as his breathless chest heaved.  A tendril licked the water away even as others began to thicken over his vision.  The bolt slid to vacant as the darkness swallowed him.  Limbs no longer his own lunged.  A woman shrieked in the blackness and the taste of blood found his tongue.  Then there was nothing at all.


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Black Bear Mountain – Complete

by Robert Currer


Complete Text – 5500 Words

This work of fiction contains elements of horror, violence, and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.


In my youth, I wandered mountains wishing I was a bear.”  This was said by an elderly man known only as Merlin as he passed a joint to his left, the yellow smoke still hanging like morning fog on his lips.  He and his audience of three sat around a modest fire pit near the hikers’ hostel that he owned and operated deep in the mountain wood.  The fullness of the day had passed and, as they four basked in the evening glow, Sunshine, Lynx, and Goat grinned like conspiring children. 

The three companions were no strangers to this trail.  Years ago, on their first long hike together, they had discovered Merlin and his hostel.  It did not take them long to figure out how he had earned the name.  The man was magic.  There was no doubt about it.  Partially, it was because he grew the finest cannabis any one of the three had ever sampled.  But mostly, it was his stories.  He was a wizard in the lost art of campfire tales and more than anything that was what kept them coming back.  There was a fickleness to him though.  Merlin never pushed his art on others, and he did not perform on demand.  His magic yarns had to be teased out of the unusual old man.

Sunshine examined her nails, carving away the dirt from beneath with a stick, and asked, “Did your wish ever come true?”  Her tea-colored eyes prodded their periphery trying to catch a clue in Merlin’s craggy features.

“It did,” said Merlin accepting the joint from Goat on his right.  Holding it carefully between finger and thumb to avoid igniting his thick grey beard, he breathed deeply of the acrid smoke letting it roll from his mouth like a storm cloud before drawing it up into his nostrils and then finally blowing it out like a spring breeze.  He said with ocean eyes growing distant, “That it did but I paid a price.”

“What happened?” asked Lynx sounding more retriever than cat.  It was a clumsy maneuver and he winced as he heard himself say it.  Sunshine shot daggers through her thin eyes at him while Goat only sighed and shook his head.

Sunshine made a small show of savoring her pull from the joint.  “Did you have to pay a lot?” she asked hoping to recover Lynx’s fumble.  Lynx’s reddened blue eyes, plead their thanks.  Sometimes she felt he was the idiot brother she never had. 

Merlin smiled a slow, indulgent grin, the kind a doting grandfather might wear.  “Do you want to hear the story?”  The three companions inched closer and nodded vigorously in unison, a movement which caused Goat’s curly black beard to bounce comically.  “Alright, then.  I’ll tell you.  It all started many years ago when I wasn’t much older than you three.”


A decades younger Merlin awoke in the cool of the morning, stretching with all four limbs and a wide yawn.  He sniffed, blinked the sleep from his eyes, and rolled his legs over the side of his hammock.  The mountain air smelled sweet this summer day as he munched a quick breakfast and repacked his pack.  He had a long trek ahead and he was very much looking forward to putting some miles in beneath the sunshine. 

After only a handful of minutes on the trail, there came the rustling of something large from the brush.  The sounds of crunching leaves and snapping twigs grew closer.  Merlin pulled himself to the shadow of a tree and waited to see which of the mountain’s denizens would emerge.  He was somewhat surprised when the bushes parted, and a woman stumbled out.  She was dressed as a through hiker but carried the smallest, lightest pack Merlin had ever seen.  He blushed, feeling self-conscious beneath the heft of his own supplies.  The woman took two steps on the trail and then caught her boot on a root.  She fell to all fours with a grunted fuck.

Merlin stepped from the tree to the trail and jogged to her.  “Are you okay?” he asked, offering a hand.

Holding him for support, she gingerly tested her gait.  Then satisfied nothing was amiss, she said, “Yeah, I’m okay.  Just a little clumsy this morning.”  Her voice was smokey and low in a way that drew him a half-step closer.  She dusted off her knees and then pushed an errant strand of ebony hair behind her ear.  With a smile that was slightly abashed, she said, “Thanks, by the way.”  They shook hands and her fingers lingered on the release.  “I’m called Ursula ‘cause I’m all legs and I can’t sing worth shit.”

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Merlin… for other reasons.”

They fell into a light banter and somewhere along the path to acquaintance they continued their trek.  As the sun climbed, they ascended the mountain.  The weather grew sweltering beneath a sky so blue and so humid that it might have been a sea.  Leagues fell away beneath their boots and the pair continued to walk side by side exchanging parcels of words and the hidden feelings inside.  Their banter did not slacken as the day grew.  Instead, it deepened until it was no longer banter and was transformed into conversation. 

As the shadows came to dance in the twilight, Merlin and Ursula stopped to camp.  By this time, their conversation had blossomed into confession and Merlin found himself telling Ursula secrets he had never shared with another living soul.  There was an ease about her that was as unjudging as the wilds themselves.  He couldn’t remember who kissed who first, but he never forgot the night that followed.  In the end, they fell asleep wrapped in each other and clothed only in the gossamer of the starry night air.

A bone deep chill woke Merlin with a shiver in the first rays of dawn.  He was naked and alone, lying on the bare dirt.  He scrambled to his feet, spinning around in a groggy panic before realizing he was still in camp.  His pack was packed and laid patiently against a tree with his clothes from the night before folded neatly on top.  Ursula and her gear had gone. 

Merlin dressed in a hurry and then hunted around for some sign of her.  The ground was soft loam, prime for tracking.  Their trail shoes left distinct tread marks where they had entered camp, tangled together, and then laid down for the night.  But there were no other imprints from her shoes.  The only other tracks were those of a bear that must have wandered in as they slept.

Merlin slid down the trunk of a tree, his head spinning.  It was no dream.  The sour musk of their tryst woven into his clothes and beard dispelled all disbelief.  He wondered where she had gone and then realized it made no difference.  All that mattered was that she had slipped away without so much as a good-bye.  He raked his fingers through his tangled hair and could think of nothing, but the fist clenched around his heart.  It was not helpful to remind himself that he had only known her a day.  There was something singular about Ursula that he had understood instinctively and as surely as he knew that she was now lost to him forever.  The fist squeezed and burst his heart.  Merlin huddled against the tree and wept.


“Did you ever see her again?” asked Sunshine with a hint of hopeful pleading.  All three were leaning in closer to Merlin now.  The crackling fire sent their towering shadows dancing behind them like specters.

Merlin shook his head with care as if easing through an old injury that never quite healed.  “I never did see her again.” 

Sunshine could still hear a tinge of longing in his voice.  Her own heart swelled to aching for the lost lovers.  “Is that why you came up here?  So, you might find her again?” she asked, her voice warmed with romance.  Tears collected like dew at the rim of her smoke-reddened eyes.

But Merlin chuckled.  “No, no, I didn’t build this place for many more years after that.”  Sunshine’s tears sublimated without falling and she sunk back into her chair, disappointed.

Goat’s brow knotted.  “Wait.  So, what does that have to do with getting to be a bear?” he asked tugging his own curly black beard. 

Lynx rolled his glassy eyes dramatically.  “Weren’t you listening?  She transformed him into a bear before they—you know—did it.  Then she wandered off when they were done.  Duh.”  He looked at the assembled company as if speaking to a group of particularly dense and annoying teenagers.  In slow unison, Sunshine and Goat pivoted their heads to stare with open, confused derision.  There was a long pause.  Lynx looked at his friends, puzzled.  “What?”

Goat reached across and pulled the joint from Lynx’s fingers.  “No more of this for you,” he said and flicked the roach into the fire.

Merlin held up an ancient, knobby hand and the three youngsters grew still.  “I’m getting to all that,” he said settling back into his weathered Adirondack chair.  He pulled a fresh joint from the pocket of his sweater and lit it, savoring several deep pulls before passing it to Sunshine.  The smoke still clung to his voice when he began again.  “It was a sixteen years later when I became a bear.”


The steamy summer air hung thick with the buzzing of bloated flies so large Merlin could see the rainbow sheen of their bulbous eyes.  He swatted them away with his hat, his face held in a tight grimace. 

The county sheriff at his side held a handkerchief over his mouth and nose.  “Never get used to seeing this sort of thing,” he said.  His voice was subdued, the kind of quiet that people use at funerals.  At their feet was the body of a hiker, a woman by the look of her mangled face.  Her ribs were exposed and peeled back.  Her torso was only a fly-ridden cavity, hollowed out by the claws of some great predator.

“Bear, you think?”  The sheriff phrased it as a question but the lead in his voice said he already knew the answer.

Merlin nodded.  “Count on it.  No other tracks about but hers and the bears.  And the claws were too big for anything else.  Big for a black bear too.”

“Just like the others,” said the sheriff.

“Just like the others,” concurred Merlin.  As they drifted into silence, the weight of a great loss settled on his heart, both for the woman at his feet cut down in her prime and for what would come next.

“Merlin, do think you could gather up some of the other guides and meet me at the station in a couple of hours?  Don’t want to lose any time.”

Merlin nodded with a sigh.  Heartache sunk deeper into his ocean eyes and the whole of his being felt suddenly weary.  “I can make some calls.”

As the sun dipped low on the western horizon, Merlin slung his thirty-aught-six and joined the other hunters.  They fanned out along the slope in a wide line, stalking through the brush.  A light breeze rattled the leaves and Merlin felt it chill his cheeks.  A cold front was cresting the summit and pushing wind down the mountain side.  That would put them downwind of their prey, favorable conditions for the hunters.  Merlin dreamed it was not so. 

As the twilight waned, the hunt waxed.  To a man, they had each walked these mountain forests more than any could near guess.  The line moved steadily and quietly over the sodden leaf litter.  Here and there a message carried by hand signs would trickle down the line.  It would tell of scat or scratch marks or some other clue to guide their path like a road map through the unfettered wilderness.  Merlin wished he had thought to contact only green guides who could not read scat and would crash through the foliage louder than a rutting buck.  But he was no good at sabotage. 

Near the edge of full dark, just as the call to head back had been sounded, something thrashed in the brush ahead.  Merlin froze, praying to every god had ever heard of that the sound was only his imagination.  Out of the deep shadow, the lumbering bulk of a huge male shuffled into sight.  It was bigger than any Merlin had ever seen on the mountain, and he knew without question this was the beast they hunted.  His heart sank.  The thought of killing any bear filled him with a disgust that he could never quite wash off, but the evil had to be done.  It had already killed three hikers, including one little boy.  It would not stop hunting now that it had a taste for human prey.

Merlin lifted his rifle and took aim.  His lungs filled with a steadying breath.  At the bottom of his exhale, he squeezed the trigger and the crack of a bullet split the night air.  The bear staggered with a pained grunt and turned toward Merlin.  Its massive bulk tensed to charge with more fury than a raging bull.  With practiced fluidity, the hunter chambered another round and fired again.  The bullet struck with the shock of a sledgehammer.  There was a wet moan and the bear stumbled and fell.  Merlin paced a few steps closer and then fired one more shot into the still creature’s head.  He couldn’t be too safe when approaching a downed bear.

Headlamp beams popped with the dazzling light of flashbulbs as shouts suddenly filled the forest.  Merlin called out the kill and the lights converged on him.  He crept closer to the inert mass of shadowy fur.  Its giant chest did not even tremble and black blood began to pool on the leaves.  Satisfied the poor beast would never rise again, Merlin slung his rifle and pulled his own headlamp from his pocket.  He clicked on the beam.  Then his heart shattered.  The bear had his ocean eyes.


The campfire was silent save for the hissing, popping flame. 

Then Lynx said, “That bear was your son.”  A stoniness had solidified in his features giving them a grim neutrality like a sphynx or a justiciar.  “And you killed him?”

Merlin bobbed his head, still staring deep into the cracking fire.  His ocean eyes were wet and far away.

Sunshine felt a gouge in her chest like a melon baller to the heart.  Tears ran straight tracks down her cheeks.  She bit her lip but did not wipe them way.

“Fuck,” said Goat with the puffed-cheeked exhale of a man overwhelmed.

Sunshine studied the desolation etched into the fissures of Merlin’s features.  His face was like the mountain, a cluster of ravines and ridges that gathered to create something more evocative than any would be alone.  There was a depth of soul there and, perhaps because she was very high, Sunshine thought she could see what Ursula had seen in him.

She reached over and laid a hand on his arthritic knuckles.  Then gently, in a tone she used to sooth her kindergarteners, she asked, “And then what happened?”


For a week after, Merlin wandered the mountain.  It was a stormy week where tempests seemed to sit upon the mountain shoulders pouring endless oceans of rain into the valley.  Merlin did not care.  He gave no thought to the perpetual damp nor did he care that his softened skin chaffed until he was red and rashy all over.  The wheels of his mind had many miles of revolutions to make, and they could not turn in town. 

At last, the gales abated, and Merlin limped back down the mountain.  His mind was still wracked by squalls of guilt and duty, but his personal storms had petered out into a perpetual gloomy drizzle.  He expected those clouds would not leave him anytime soon. 

Home was a rundown trailer that sat on the edge of both the town and the long acres of mountain that he had inherited from his grandfather.  The sky was still gray and laden when Merlin pushed in through the front door.  He eased his sodden pack onto the peeling kitchen linoleum, opened a beer from the fridge, and went to take a hot shower. 

A damp but noticeably cleaner Merlin was holding a towel around his waist with one hand and cracking open another beer with the other when there came a knock.  He licked the thin foam from his top lip and shuffled to the front door.

“Hey Merlin.  Welcome back,” said the sheriff brightly.  He was dressed in uniform—he was always in uniform—but carried a cumbersome cardboard box.  “Mind if I step inside for a moment?”  He gestured to the box with a tip of the head.

Merlin stepped out of the door, holding it wide open.  “Come on in, Sheriff.  Do you mind waiting here until I’m dressed?”  He indicated a small square space of uncoordinated, found furniture.  The sheriff nodded, set his box on the counter, and reluctantly took a seat on a sagging, stained couch.  His face was the tight mask people wear when they are politely trying not to call a place a shit hole.

When Merlin re-emerged, he was bare foot still but dressed in jeans and a much-worn t-shirt with a faded design that once upon a time had been a stylized tree.  He eyed the box on the counter.  “Now what can I do for you, Sheriff,” he asked.

“Well, the town is just so grateful for what you did, Merlin, putting down that old boar like that,” started the sheriff, dusting off his uniform pants.  He walked over to the box.  “We—the whole town wanted to show you our appreciation.”  He unfolded the carboard flaps.  “So, we thought, what better way to commemorate your service than with this.”  Out from the box, he lifted the head of a snarling black bear.  It bared its fangs through squinting glass eyes that were not quite ocean colored but near enough.  The head was attached to a pelt, tanned and taxidermized into a fine bearskin rug.  The sheriff presented it as proudly as if he had shot the beast himself.  Merlin’s ocean eyes turned watery. 

Extending his hands, he accepted the creature’s caricaturized head and then winced when he touched it.  There was no memory of life in the thing.  A familiar squeeze gripped his chest.  A tear broke the levies and trailed down Merlin’s face.  The sheriff coughed into his fist uncomfortably, cuffed Merlin on the shoulder, and looked down at his feet. 

“Look, I’ve got to run but we’re all real grateful to have you in these parts,” said the sheriff backing towards the door.  Merlin did not stir.  The sheriff let himself out.


That night, the clouds burst.  Rain poured down in great unending sheets and lightning tore through the sky in violent purples.  Merlin huddled on the floor of his trailer, drunk and sobbing.  The bearskin rug that had been his only son lay folded in front, glaring at him through rage-filled, false eyes.  A patch of fur stood up from its snout like scuffed suede and through his choking tears, Merlin clumsily smoothed it with his thumb. 

His fingers lingered and trailed towards the creature’s brow, rubbing it soothingly as if to say “everything will be alright” which of course was not true.  But it was a comforting lie between father and son.

Merlin pulled the rug closer, hugging it to his chest and nuzzling a tear-stained cheek into the coarse black fur.  He sat swaying and clutching the rug to himself.  After some time, his tears were depleted which was worse because there was no longer anything to distract him from the black hollowness that pierced his gut.  Looking his son in the wrong eyes, he wondered what life must have been like for him as a bear.  He could not have been more than fifteen years old, mature for a bear but not yet a man.  Merlin wondered if his son was always a bear or if he could change back and forth like his mother.  Maybe because Merlin was always human and Ursula could be either, the son was forever a bear to maintain some sort of cosmic balance.

Merlin blinked and wished he could cry again.  What did he know of shape-changers and the bear-children of women?  He was none of those things.  He only knew that his son was dead, and it was his fault.  He drew the pelt to his chest.  The rug wrapped around Merlin, swaddling him in warm fur so tight it was like a second skin.

No, not like a second skin.  It was a second skin.  Merlin’s vision blurred and he felt suddenly farther from the floor.  He looked down.  His hands had widened and coarsened into massive paws with great hooked claws.  Fur covered his round belly all the way down to his short legs and pawed feet.  He was a bear, a colossal black bear as big as an Alaskan grizzly.  Merlin reached a claw back and scratched behind his triangular ear.  His furry brow furrowed.  He thought that this was a strange development and would have puzzled further had not a gust of wind blown in from the kitchen window.

The air was a riot of screaming odors and Merlin’s prodigious gut growled.  Tantalizing scents tugged him in all different directions.  Thick ropes of saliva formed on his ursine lips.  With some difficulty caused by his size, Merlin negotiated the path to the kitchen.  Fumbling at first, he managed to pry open the refrigerator door with his claws.  Inside there were only a few morsels of bread, deli meats and cheese, and a pot of yellow mustard.  Merlin devoured each.

The rumbling of his belly had not abated when he licked the last of the mustard from his snout.  He lifted nose to the air and drank deeply of the blustering night.  The wind brought stories of forage to be found beyond these rooms.  Merlin lumbered back toward the front door.  He paused, grasping at the memory of how such contraptions worked but the knowledge wriggled from his grip.  He bumped the door with a stout shoulder, rattling it in the frame.  He tried again.  When that did not work, he pushed himself to standing and then, paws out, fell against the door with all his bulk.  The cheap, weathered wood cracked off the hinges and fell beneath him.

Outside, the wind howled, and rain pounded his face.  He took a shuffling step back, considering retreating to the protection of his den, but the hunger gnawed all the way through him.  Merlin the black bear stalked into the night guided by the siren song of food.  Though his nose led him along the gravel road toward town, it was nearly twenty minutes before the first home came into view.  It was a long, low boxy place, only a little larger than his den, but the smell of forage was strong here. 

He followed the scents to a pair of trash cans, each ripe with toothsome delights.  Merlin struggled to pull the lid free, but it was stuck fast.  His gut tore at itself as he puzzled the riddle of the cans.  There was a trick to opening this type of bin designed to keep creatures like himself out.  He could remember that much but the secrets of his human life seemed so arcane, so eldritch, that Merlin struggled to call them into focus.  The howling of his belly made thinking no easier.

A sound like the clattering of a screen door cut through the wind and rain.  On the wet air, there came a smell so rich and succulent that drool frothed on Merlin’s jowls.  In the dark, the odor took shape, growing legs and arms and a large black bag.  It ambled closer with a lopsided gait.  Merlin crouched in the shadow of the cans and waited.  The scent was nearly within reach.  Only a few steps closer…

Merlin sprang with a roar that rattled bone.  He fell atop his prey with the full weight of his bulk, grasping it between rending claws and ravaging it with tearing teeth.  Its scream became a gurgle and then became silence.  Merlin licked the hot blood from his snout.  He bent low, gripped the body by the shoulder, and dragged it into the darkness.

When dawn broke, heavy and golden like a cracked egg, Merlin groaned and threw a fleshy arm over his eyes.  His head was pounding, his mouth tasted like stamp glue, and he was wet.  He shivered.  Why was he wet?  Carefully, Merlin pried open his eyes.  The sunlight was needles stabbing his brain.  He grimaced through the pain.  When finally, he could focus again, he was naked and lying on a bear pelt in the shelter of a large tree.  How did he get here?  He had dreamed that he had been a bear.  His hands were wet and tacky with blood.  Merlin’s heart pounded against his ribs.  He touched his face and found his lips wet and tasting of pennies.  Only then did he see it.  A few feet away, half buried in the damp leaves was the sheriff’s corpse.  His chest was torn open, and his innards had been eaten. 

Merlin licked his lips and cocked his head.  “Huh.”


Embers danced high into the starry sky as Merlin eased back into his Adirondack chair.  A darkened smile lurked at the corners of his lips.  Sunshine, Lynx, and Goat gaped in a stunned hush.

“You—You killed him?” asked Sunshine, her horror slowly clearing the cannabis fog.

Merlin only grinned a smile that might have been a grimace and lifted his chin to look at the sky.  Ursa Major could still be seen high among the stars.

“Dude,” said Goat.  His lips flapped like a fish unable to put his thoughts into words.

“Bullshit,” said Lynx.  Merlin lowered his gaze to the young hiker across the frolicking flame.  The grandfatherly warmth had left him.  Lynx hesitated, rattled his head, and then doubled down.  “That’s a load of bullshit.  Merlin, you tell some of the best stories, man, but no way in hell you turned into a bear and ate a cop.”

Sunshine held her breath and watched Merlin from the corner of her eyes.  “Think I’m telling tall tales, do you?” asked Merlin, his eyes glowed in the firelight like a predator in the deep wood.  Lynx held his stare.

“Yeah, I do,” he said.  His hands were balled into white knuckled fists. 

There was a foreboding in Merlin’s eyes like gathering thunder clouds that made the small hairs on Sunshine’s neck stand on end.  She could feel mounting pressure as the storm grew ready to burst upon them at any moment.  Sunshine no longer questioned that Merlin could kill.

Then Merlin blinked and leaned back with a chuckle.  He scratched the back of his head and through a stoner simper said, “Ha, you got me.  I was pulling your leg.  Sorry about that but I just couldn’t help myself.  I really did shoot that bear though.  Still got the bearskin in the house.  Want to see it?”  He did not wait for an answer before staggering into the hostel.  Sunshine looked to the others, unsure what to do.  A few moments later, Merlin returned with the pelt of a tremendous bear draped over his arms.  The head was posed into a ferocious snarl and the eyes were too dark for ocean green. 

Merlin stepped into the ring of firelight and held up the fur so that the others could see it clearly.  “It’s my prized possession,” he said with a dopey grin made more comical by his shaggy beard. 

Then he lowered his chin so that his eyes flashed in the light of the flames and his smile spread into a wolfish sneer.  “And when I hunt as a bear, I put it on like this,” he said with a growl.  As he spoke, he whipped the heavy fur over his shoulders so that the head lay atop his own.  There was a terrible sound like rending flesh and crunching bones followed by a scream that became a roar.  The old man was gone and, in his place, loomed an enormous black bear. 

Goat swore and Sunshine shrieked so loud that a flock of birds erupted from the trees.  But Lynx just stared with wide-eyed, slack jawed surprise.  Merlin bowed his square head toward them and bellowed a roar so deep and primal that Sunshine and Goat leapt to their feet.  Lynx sat frozen, shorts soaked with urine.  Merlin charged, bowling Lynx over as claws and teeth tore meat and life from the young hiker.  Lynx gurgled something through the gash in his throat and spoke no more. 

Sunshine and Goat sprinted into the darkened forest.  They rocketed around trees and crashed through underbrush.  Branches, thorns, and vines tore at the exposed flesh of Sunshine’s arms and legs.  Her toes were bleeding from repeated bludgeoning against stones and roots.  She paid no notice to these torments.  Thorns no matter how wicked were nothing compared to what hunted them. 

Somewhere behind in the night, another roar shredded the forest air.  In the gloaming, she could just barely make out Goat and mostly his eyes, so wide that that they were all whites.  Another roar, much closer than the last, erupted from only a few hundred yards away.  Sunshine ran harder, pushing her body to the limit until her legs filled with battery acid and her heart detonated with every beat.  She could hear a crashing through the underbrush hurdling toward them.

The moon pierced the canopy allowing shards of silver light to fall upon the forest floor.  For a flash, light spilled onto the tapestry of terror that was Goat’s face until it was torn from view by the swipe of a giant paw.  Goat’s braying screech was cut short so close at hand that steaming blood spattered across the bridge of Sunshine’s nose. 

Her lungs flapped like a moth trapped in a jar, battering against the walls of her ribcage.  But still she ran.  Her thighs melted under the searing acid burn that spread all through her until her limbs prayed for something so sweet as a cramp.  But she did not stop.  She pushed herself beyond endurance until a euphoria rose like an updraft within her.  Her body shed its weariness, and she soared from step to step nimbler than a sprinting doe.  Sunshine pushed harder and she flew down the mountain slope, pulling away from the monster that murdered her friends.

A bulge of granite reached out and grabbed her toe.  She stumbled, and grace fell from Sunshine like glasses from a tray.  The ground rose up and slammed into her outstretched arm with an agonizing crunch.  She screamed and bounced and tumbled ass over kettle down the mountain side.  When at last she stopped falling, Sunshine’s vision whirled, and she blinked hard trying to recalibrate.  She felt nothing of her body, her senses still rebooting, but she could see the angle of her forearm and knew it to be unnatural.

Sunshine tried to move, and her senses came back online with a blaring siren of agony.  Short panting breaths pressed against the pain struggling in vain to keep it at bay.  With great effort, she pushed herself to hands and knees but, before she could stand, two predatory eyes shone from the surrounding night.  Sunshine’s breath caught in her chest.  A low hunting growl came from the darkened trees and the black bear bled from the shadow like a woodland wraith.

She tried to stand, tried to flee once more to the town in the valley.  But as she pushed against the rocky earth, a coarse-haired paw the size of a catcher’s mitt swatted her to the ground.  Merlin’s ocean eyes loomed above her.  Sunshine screamed.  She tried to scramble away but Merlin’s paw crushed her to the earth like a hydraulic press.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said choking out the words with what little air was left in her chest.  Deep rivers ran from her bulging tea-colored eyes.  Ursa Major watched from on high.

Merlin’s snout sniffed its way to the nape of her neck and along the curve until she could feel his rancid breath in her ear.  In a well deep voice, Merlin whispered through ropes of hot drool, “Once you have a taste, you can never stop.” 


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Black Bear Mountain – Part 3

By Robert Currer


Part 3 of 3 – 1200 Words

This work of fiction contains elements of horror, violence, and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.


Embers danced high into the starry sky as Merlin eased back into his Adirondack chair.  A darkened smile lurked at the corners of his lips.  Sunshine, Lynx, and Goat gaped in a stunned hush.

“You—You killed him?” asked Sunshine, her horror slowly clearing the cannabis fog.

Merlin only grinned a smile that might have been a grimace and lifted his chin to look at the sky.  Ursa Major could still be seen high among the stars.

“Dude,” said Goat.  His lips flapped like a fish unable to put his thoughts into words.

“Bullshit,” said Lynx.  Merlin lowered his gaze to the young hiker across the frolicking flame.  The grandfatherly warmth had left him.  Lynx hesitated, rattled his head, and then doubled down.  “That’s a load of bullshit.  Merlin, you tell some of the best stories, man, but no way in hell you turned into a bear and ate a cop.”

Sunshine held her breath and watched Merlin from the corner of her eyes.  “Think I’m telling tall tales, do you?” asked Merlin, his eyes glowed in the firelight like a predator in the deep wood.  Lynx held his stare.

“Yeah, I do,” he said.  His hands were balled into white knuckled fists. 

There was a foreboding in Merlin’s eyes like gathering thunder clouds that made the small hairs on Sunshine’s neck stand on end.  She could feel mounting pressure as the storm grew ready to burst upon them at any moment.  Sunshine no longer questioned that Merlin could kill.

Then Merlin blinked and leaned back with a chuckle.  He scratched the back of his head and through a stoner simper said, “Ha, you got me.  I was pulling your leg.  Sorry about that but I just couldn’t help myself.  I really did shoot that bear though.  Still got the bearskin in the house.  Want to see it?”  He did not wait for an answer before staggering into the hostel.  Sunshine looked to the others, unsure what to do.  A few moments later, Merlin returned with the pelt of a tremendous bear draped over his arms.  The head was posed into a ferocious snarl and the eyes were too dark for ocean green. 

Merlin stepped into the ring of firelight and held up the fur so that the others could see it clearly.  “It’s my prized possession,” he said with a dopey grin made more comical by his shaggy beard. 

Then he lowered his chin so that his eyes flashed in the light of the flames and his smile spread into a wolfish sneer.  “And when I hunt as a bear, I put it on like this,” he said with a growl.  As he spoke, he whipped the heavy fur over his shoulders so that the head lay atop his own.  There was a terrible sound like rending flesh and crunching bones followed by a scream that became a roar.  The old man was gone and, in his place, loomed an enormous black bear. 

Goat swore and Sunshine shrieked so loud that a flock of birds erupted from the trees.  But Lynx just stared with wide-eyed, slack jawed surprise.  Merlin bowed his square head toward them and bellowed a roar so deep and primal that Sunshine and Goat leapt to their feet.  Lynx sat frozen, shorts soaked with urine.  Merlin charged, bowling Lynx over as claws and teeth tore meat and life from the young hiker.  Lynx gurgled something through the gash in his throat and spoke no more. 

Sunshine and Goat sprinted into the darkened forest.  They rocketed around trees and crashed through underbrush.  Branches, thorns, and vines tore at the exposed flesh of Sunshine’s arms and legs.  Her toes were bleeding from repeated bludgeoning against stones and roots.  She paid no notice to these torments.  Thorns no matter how wicked were nothing compared to what hunted them. 

Somewhere behind in the night, another roar shredded the forest air.  In the gloaming, she could just barely make out Goat and mostly his eyes, so wide that that they were all whites.  Another roar, much closer than the last, erupted from only a few hundred yards away.  Sunshine ran harder, pushing her body to the limit until her legs filled with battery acid and her heart detonated with every beat.  She could hear a crashing through the underbrush hurdling toward them.

The moon pierced the canopy allowing shards of silver light to fall upon the forest floor.  For a flash, light spilled onto the tapestry of terror that was Goat’s face until it was torn from view by the swipe of a giant paw.  Goat’s braying screech was cut short so close at hand that steaming blood spattered across the bridge of Sunshine’s nose. 

Her lungs flapped like a moth trapped in a jar, battering against the walls of her ribcage.  But still she ran.  Her thighs melted under the searing acid burn that spread all through her until her limbs prayed for something so sweet as a cramp.  But she did not stop.  She pushed herself beyond endurance until a euphoria rose like an updraft within her.  Her body shed its weariness, and she soared from step to step nimbler than a sprinting doe.  Sunshine pushed harder and she flew down the mountain slope, pulling away from the monster that murdered her friends.

A bulge of granite reached out and grabbed her toe.  She stumbled, and grace fell from Sunshine like glasses from a tray.  The ground rose up and slammed into her outstretched arm with an agonizing crunch.  She screamed and bounced and tumbled ass over kettle down the mountain side.  When at last she stopped falling, Sunshine’s vision whirled, and she blinked hard trying to recalibrate.  She felt nothing of her body, her senses still rebooting, but she could see the angle of her forearm and knew it to be unnatural.

Sunshine tried to move, and her senses came back online with a blaring siren of agony.  Short panting breaths pressed against the pain struggling in vain to keep it at bay.  With great effort, she pushed herself to hands and knees but, before she could stand, two predatory eyes shone from the surrounding night.  Sunshine’s breath caught in her chest.  A low hunting growl came from the darkened trees and the black bear bled from the shadow like a woodland wraith.

She tried to stand, tried to flee once more to the town in the valley.  But as she pushed against the rocky earth, a coarse-haired paw the size of a catcher’s mitt swatted her to the ground.  Merlin’s ocean eyes loomed above her.  Sunshine screamed.  She tried to scramble away but Merlin’s paw crushed her to the earth like a hydraulic press.

“You don’t have to do this,” she said choking out the words with what little air was left in her chest.  Deep rivers ran from her bulging tea-colored eyes.  Ursa Major watched from on high.

Merlin’s snout sniffed its way to the nape of her neck and along the curve until she could feel his rancid breath in her ear.  In a well deep voice, Merlin whispered through ropes of hot drool, “Once you have a taste, you can never stop.” 


Thanks for reading! If you have enjoyed my story please consider supporting me on Patreon by clicking the button below.

Black Bear Mountain – Part 2

By Robert Currer


Part 2 of 3 – 1900 Words

This work of fiction contains elements of horror, violence, and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.


The campfire was silent save for the hissing, popping flame. 

Then Lynx said, “That bear was your son.”  A stoniness had solidified in his features giving them a grim neutrality like a sphynx or a justiciar.  “And you killed him?”

Merlin bobbed his head, still staring deep into the cracking fire.  His ocean eyes were wet and far away.

Sunshine felt a gouge in her chest like a melon baller to the heart.  Tears ran straight tracks down her cheeks.  She bit her lip but did not wipe them way.

“Fuck,” said Goat with the puffed-cheeked exhale of a man overwhelmed.

Sunshine studied the desolation etched into the fissures of Merlin’s features.  His face was like the mountain, a cluster of ravines and ridges that gathered to create something more evocative than any would be alone.  There was a depth of soul there and, perhaps because she was very high, Sunshine thought she could see what Ursula had seen in him.

She reached over and laid a hand on his arthritic knuckles.  Then gently, in a tone she used to sooth her kindergarteners, she asked, “And then what happened?”


For a week after, Merlin wandered the mountain.  It was a stormy week where tempests seemed to sit upon the mountain shoulders pouring endless oceans of rain into the valley.  Merlin did not care.  He gave no thought to the perpetual damp nor did he care that his softened skin chaffed until he was red and rashy all over.  The wheels of his mind had many miles of revolutions to make, and they could not turn in town. 

At last, the gales abated, and Merlin limped back down the mountain.  His mind was still wracked by squalls of guilt and duty, but his personal storms had petered out into a perpetual gloomy drizzle.  He expected those clouds would not leave him anytime soon. 

Home was a rundown trailer that sat on the edge of both the town and the long acres of mountain that he had inherited from his grandfather.  The sky was still gray and laden when Merlin pushed in through the front door.  He eased his sodden pack onto the peeling kitchen linoleum, opened a beer from the fridge, and went to take a hot shower. 

A damp but noticeably cleaner Merlin was holding a towel around his waist with one hand and cracking open another beer with the other when there came a knock.  He licked the thin foam from his top lip and shuffled to the front door.

“Hey Merlin.  Welcome back,” said the sheriff brightly.  He was dressed in uniform—he was always in uniform—but carried a cumbersome cardboard box.  “Mind if I step inside for a moment?”  He gestured to the box with a tip of the head.

Merlin stepped out of the door, holding it wide open.  “Come on in, Sheriff.  Do you mind waiting here until I’m dressed?”  He indicated a small square space of uncoordinated, found furniture.  The sheriff nodded, set his box on the counter, and reluctantly took a seat on a sagging, stained couch.  His face was the tight mask people wear when they are politely trying not to call a place a shit hole.

When Merlin re-emerged, he was bare foot still but dressed in jeans and a much-worn t-shirt with a faded design that once upon a time had been a stylized tree.  He eyed the box on the counter.  “Now what can I do for you, Sheriff,” he asked.

“Well, the town is just so grateful for what you did, Merlin, putting down that old boar like that,” started the sheriff, dusting off his uniform pants.  He walked over to the box.  “We—the whole town wanted to show you our appreciation.”  He unfolded the carboard flaps.  “So, we thought, what better way to commemorate your service than with this.”  Out from the box, he lifted the head of a snarling black bear.  It bared its fangs through squinting glass eyes that were not quite ocean colored but near enough.  The head was attached to a pelt, tanned and taxidermized into a fine bearskin rug.  The sheriff presented it as proudly as if he had shot the beast himself.  Merlin’s ocean eyes turned watery. 

Extending his hands, he accepted the creature’s caricaturized head and then winced when he touched it.  There was no memory of life in the thing.  A familiar squeeze gripped his chest.  A tear broke the levies and trailed down Merlin’s face.  The sheriff coughed into his fist uncomfortably, cuffed Merlin on the shoulder, and looked down at his feet. 

“Look, I’ve got to run but we’re all real grateful to have you in these parts,” said the sheriff backing towards the door.  Merlin did not stir.  The sheriff let himself out.


That night, the clouds burst.  Rain poured down in great unending sheets and lightning tore through the sky in violent purples.  Merlin huddled on the floor of his trailer, drunk and sobbing.  The bearskin rug that had been his only son lay folded in front, glaring at him through rage-filled, false eyes.  A patch of fur stood up from its snout like scuffed suede and through his choking tears, Merlin clumsily smoothed it with his thumb. 

His fingers lingered and trailed towards the creature’s brow, rubbing it soothingly as if to say “everything will be alright” which of course was not true.  But it was a comforting lie between father and son.

Merlin pulled the rug closer, hugging it to his chest and nuzzling a tear-stained cheek into the coarse black fur.  He sat swaying and clutching the rug to himself.  After some time, his tears were depleted which was worse because there was no longer anything to distract him from the black hollowness that pierced his gut.  Looking his son in the wrong eyes, he wondered what life must have been like for him as a bear.  He could not have been more than fifteen years old, mature for a bear but not yet a man.  Merlin wondered if his son was always a bear or if he could change back and forth like his mother.  Maybe because Merlin was always human and Ursula could be either, the son was forever a bear to maintain some sort of cosmic balance.

Merlin blinked and wished he could cry again.  What did he know of shape-changers and the bear-children of women?  He was none of those things.  He only knew that his son was dead, and it was his fault.  He drew the pelt to his chest.  The rug wrapped around Merlin, swaddling him in warm fur so tight it was like a second skin.

No, not like a second skin.  It was a second skin.  Merlin’s vision blurred and he felt suddenly farther from the floor.  He looked down.  His hands had widened and coarsened into massive paws with great hooked claws.  Fur covered his round belly all the way down to his short legs and pawed feet.  He was a bear, a colossal black bear as big as an Alaskan grizzly.  Merlin reached a claw back and scratched behind his triangular ear.  His furry brow furrowed.  He thought that this was a strange development and would have puzzled further had not a gust of wind blown in from the kitchen window.

The air was a riot of screaming odors and Merlin’s prodigious gut growled.  Tantalizing scents tugged him in all different directions.  Thick ropes of saliva formed on his ursine lips.  With some difficulty caused by his size, Merlin negotiated the path to the kitchen.  Fumbling at first, he managed to pry open the refrigerator door with his claws.  Inside there were only a few morsels of bread, deli meats and cheese, and a pot of yellow mustard.  Merlin devoured each.

The rumbling of his belly had not abated when he licked the last of the mustard from his snout.  He lifted nose to the air and drank deeply of the blustering night.  The wind brought stories of forage to be found beyond these rooms.  Merlin lumbered back toward the front door.  He paused, grasping at the memory of how such contraptions worked but the knowledge wriggled from his grip.  He bumped the door with a stout shoulder, rattling it in the frame.  He tried again.  When that did not work, he pushed himself to standing and then, paws out, fell against the door with all his bulk.  The cheap, weathered wood cracked off the hinges and fell beneath him.

Outside, the wind howled, and rain pounded his face.  He took a shuffling step back, considering retreating to the protection of his den, but the hunger gnawed all the way through him.  Merlin the black bear stalked into the night guided by the siren song of food.  Though his nose led him along the gravel road toward town, it was nearly twenty minutes before the first home came into view.  It was a long, low boxy place, only a little larger than his den, but the smell of forage was strong here. 

He followed the scents to a pair of trash cans, each ripe with toothsome delights.  Merlin struggled to pull the lid free, but it was stuck fast.  His gut tore at itself as he puzzled the riddle of the cans.  There was a trick to opening this type of bin designed to keep creatures like himself out.  He could remember that much but the secrets of his human life seemed so arcane, so eldritch, that Merlin struggled to call them into focus.  The howling of his belly made thinking no easier.

A sound like the clattering of a screen door cut through the wind and rain.  On the wet air, there came a smell so rich and succulent that drool frothed on Merlin’s jowls.  In the dark, the odor took shape, growing legs and arms and a large black bag.  It ambled closer with a lopsided gait.  Merlin crouched in the shadow of the cans and waited.  The scent was nearly within reach.  Only a few steps closer…

Merlin sprang with a roar that rattled bone.  He fell atop his prey with the full weight of his bulk, grasping it between rending claws and ravaging it with tearing teeth.  Its scream became a gurgle and then became silence.  Merlin licked the hot blood from his snout.  He bent low, gripped the body by the shoulder, and dragged it into the darkness.

When dawn broke, heavy and golden like a cracked egg, Merlin groaned and threw a fleshy arm over his eyes.  His head was pounding, his mouth tasted like stamp glue, and he was wet.  He shivered.  Why was he wet?  Carefully, Merlin pried open his eyes.  The sunlight was needles stabbing his brain.  He grimaced through the pain.  When finally, he could focus again, he was naked and lying on a bear pelt in the shelter of a large tree.  How did he get here?  He had dreamed that he had been a bear.  His hands were wet and tacky with blood.  Merlin’s heart pounded against his ribs.  He touched his face and found his lips wet and tasting of pennies.  Only then did he see it.  A few feet away, half buried in the damp leaves was the sheriff’s corpse.  His chest was torn open, and his innards had been eaten. 

Merlin licked his lips and cocked his head.  “Huh.”


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Black Bear Mountain – Part 1

By Robert Currer


Part 1 of 3 – 2300 Words

This work of fiction contains elements of horror, violence, and drug use. Reader discretion is advised.


In my youth, I wandered mountains wishing I was a bear.”  This was said by an elderly man known only as Merlin as he passed a joint to his left, the yellow smoke still hanging like morning fog on his lips.  He and his audience of three sat around a modest fire pit near the hikers’ hostel that he owned and operated deep in the mountain wood.  The fullness of the day had passed and, as they four basked in the evening glow, Sunshine, Lynx, and Goat grinned like conspiring children. 

The three companions were no strangers to this trail.  Years ago, on their first long hike together, they had discovered Merlin and his hostel.  It did not take them long to figure out how he had earned the name.  The man was magic.  There was no doubt about it.  Partially, it was because he grew the finest cannabis any one of the three had ever sampled.  But mostly, it was his stories.  He was a wizard in the lost art of campfire tales and more than anything that was what kept them coming back.  There was a fickleness to him though.  Merlin never pushed his art on others, and he did not perform on demand.  His magic yarns had to be teased out of the unusual old man.

Sunshine examined her nails, carving away the dirt from beneath with a stick, and asked, “Did your wish ever come true?”  Her tea-colored eyes prodded their periphery trying to catch a clue in Merlin’s craggy features.

“It did,” said Merlin accepting the joint from Goat on his right.  Holding it carefully between finger and thumb to avoid igniting his thick grey beard, he breathed deeply of the acrid smoke letting it roll from his mouth like a storm cloud before drawing it up into his nostrils and then finally blowing it out like a spring breeze.  He said with ocean eyes growing distant, “That it did but I paid a price.”

“What happened?” asked Lynx sounding more retriever than cat.  It was a clumsy maneuver and he winced as he heard himself say it.  Sunshine shot daggers through her thin eyes at him while Goat only sighed and shook his head.

Sunshine made a small show of savoring her pull from the joint.  “Did you have to pay a lot?” she asked hoping to recover Lynx’s fumble.  Lynx’s reddened blue eyes, plead their thanks.  Sometimes she felt he was the idiot brother she never had. 

Merlin smiled a slow, indulgent grin, the kind a doting grandfather might wear.  “Do you want to hear the story?”  The three companions inched closer and nodded vigorously in unison, a movement which caused Goat’s curly black beard to bounce comically.  “Alright, then.  I’ll tell you.  It all started many years ago when I wasn’t much older than you three.”


A decades younger Merlin awoke in the cool of the morning, stretching with all four limbs and a wide yawn.  He sniffed, blinked the sleep from his eyes, and rolled his legs over the side of his hammock.  The mountain air smelled sweet this summer day as he munched a quick breakfast and repacked his pack.  He had a long trek ahead and he was very much looking forward to putting some miles in beneath the sunshine. 

After only a handful of minutes on the trail, there came the rustling of something large from the brush.  The sounds of crunching leaves and snapping twigs grew closer.  Merlin pulled himself to the shadow of a tree and waited to see which of the mountain’s denizens would emerge.  He was somewhat surprised when the bushes parted, and a woman stumbled out.  She was dressed as a through hiker but carried the smallest, lightest pack Merlin had ever seen.  He blushed, feeling self-conscious beneath the heft of his own supplies.  The woman took two steps on the trail and then caught her boot on a root.  She fell to all fours with a grunted fuck.

Merlin stepped from the tree to the trail and jogged to her.  “Are you okay?” he asked, offering a hand.

Holding him for support, she gingerly tested her gait.  Then satisfied nothing was amiss, she said, “Yeah, I’m okay.  Just a little clumsy this morning.”  Her voice was smokey and low in a way that drew him a half-step closer.  She dusted off her knees and then pushed an errant strand of ebony hair behind her ear.  With a smile that was slightly abashed, she said, “Thanks, by the way.”  They shook hands and her fingers lingered on the release.  “I’m called Ursula ‘cause I’m all legs and I can’t sing worth shit.”

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Merlin… for other reasons.”

They fell into a light banter and somewhere along the path to acquaintance they continued their trek.  As the sun climbed, they ascended the mountain.  The weather grew sweltering beneath a sky so blue and so humid that it might have been a sea.  Leagues fell away beneath their boots and the pair continued to walk side by side exchanging parcels of words and the hidden feelings inside.  Their banter did not slacken as the day grew.  Instead, it deepened until it was no longer banter and was transformed into conversation. 

As the shadows came to dance in the twilight, Merlin and Ursula stopped to camp.  By this time, their conversation had blossomed into confession and Merlin found himself telling Ursula secrets he had never shared with another living soul.  There was an ease about her that was as unjudging as the wilds themselves.  He couldn’t remember who kissed who first, but he never forgot the night that followed.  In the end, they fell asleep wrapped in each other and clothed only in the gossamer of the starry night air.

A bone deep chill woke Merlin with a shiver in the first rays of dawn.  He was naked and alone, lying on the bare dirt.  He scrambled to his feet, spinning around in a groggy panic before realizing he was still in camp.  His pack was packed and laid patiently against a tree with his clothes from the night before folded neatly on top.  Ursula and her gear had gone. 

Merlin dressed in a hurry and then hunted around for some sign of her.  The ground was soft loam, prime for tracking.  Their trail shoes left distinct tread marks where they had entered camp, tangled together, and then laid down for the night.  But there were no other imprints from her shoes.  The only other tracks were those of a bear that must have wandered in as they slept.

Merlin slid down the trunk of a tree, his head spinning.  It was no dream.  The sour musk of their tryst woven into his clothes and beard dispelled all disbelief.  He wondered where she had gone and then realized it made no difference.  All that mattered was that she had slipped away without so much as a good-bye.  He raked his fingers through his tangled hair and could think of nothing, but the fist clenched around his heart.  It was not helpful to remind himself that he had only known her a day.  There was something singular about Ursula that he had understood instinctively and as surely as he knew that she was now lost to him forever.  The fist squeezed and burst his heart.  Merlin huddled against the tree and wept.


“Did you ever see her again?” asked Sunshine with a hint of hopeful pleading.  All three were leaning in closer to Merlin now.  The crackling fire sent their towering shadows dancing behind them like specters.

Merlin shook his head with care as if easing through an old injury that never quite healed.  “I never did see her again.” 

Sunshine could still hear a tinge of longing in his voice.  Her own heart swelled to aching for the lost lovers.  “Is that why you came up here?  So, you might find her again?” she asked, her voice warmed with romance.  Tears collected like dew at the rim of her smoke-reddened eyes.

But Merlin chuckled.  “No, no, I didn’t build this place for many more years after that.”  Sunshine’s tears sublimated without falling and she sunk back into her chair, disappointed.

Goat’s brow knotted.  “Wait.  So, what does that have to do with getting to be a bear?” he asked tugging his own curly black beard. 

Lynx rolled his glassy eyes dramatically.  “Weren’t you listening?  She transformed him into a bear before they—you know—did it.  Then she wandered off when they were done.  Duh.”  He looked at the assembled company as if speaking to a group of particularly dense and annoying teenagers.  In slow unison, Sunshine and Goat pivoted their heads to stare with open, confused derision.  There was a long pause.  Lynx looked at his friends, puzzled.  “What?”

Goat reached across and pulled the joint from Lynx’s fingers.  “No more of this for you,” he said and flicked the roach into the fire.

Merlin held up an ancient, knobby hand and the three youngsters grew still.  “I’m getting to all that,” he said settling back into his weathered Adirondack chair.  He pulled a fresh joint from the pocket of his sweater and lit it, savoring several deep pulls before passing it to Sunshine.  The smoke still clung to his voice when he began again.  “It was a sixteen years later when I became a bear.”


The steamy summer air hung thick with the buzzing of bloated flies so large Merlin could see the rainbow sheen of their bulbous eyes.  He swatted them away with his hat, his face held in a tight grimace. 

The county sheriff at his side held a handkerchief over his mouth and nose.  “Never get used to seeing this sort of thing,” he said.  His voice was subdued, the kind of quiet that people use at funerals.  At their feet was the body of a hiker, a woman by the look of her mangled face.  Her ribs were exposed and peeled back.  Her torso was only a fly-ridden cavity, hollowed out by the claws of some great predator.

“Bear, you think?”  The sheriff phrased it as a question but the lead in his voice said he already knew the answer.

Merlin nodded.  “Count on it.  No other tracks about but hers and the bears.  And the claws were too big for anything else.  Big for a black bear too.”

“Just like the others,” said the sheriff.

“Just like the others,” concurred Merlin.  As they drifted into silence, the weight of a great loss settled on his heart, both for the woman at his feet cut down in her prime and for what would come next.

“Merlin, do think you could gather up some of the other guides and meet me at the station in a couple of hours?  Don’t want to lose any time.”

Merlin nodded with a sigh.  Heartache sunk deeper into his ocean eyes and the whole of his being felt suddenly weary.  “I can make some calls.”

As the sun dipped low on the western horizon, Merlin slung his thirty-aught-six and joined the other hunters.  They fanned out along the slope in a wide line, stalking through the brush.  A light breeze rattled the leaves and Merlin felt it chill his cheeks.  A cold front was cresting the summit and pushing wind down the mountain side.  That would put them downwind of their prey, favorable conditions for the hunters.  Merlin dreamed it was not so. 

As the twilight waned, the hunt waxed.  To a man, they had each walked these mountain forests more than any could near guess.  The line moved steadily and quietly over the sodden leaf litter.  Here and there a message carried by hand signs would trickle down the line.  It would tell of scat or scratch marks or some other clue to guide their path like a road map through the unfettered wilderness.  Merlin wished he had thought to contact only green guides who could not read scat and would crash through the foliage louder than a rutting buck.  But he was no good at sabotage. 

Near the edge of full dark, just as the call to head back had been sounded, something thrashed in the brush ahead.  Merlin froze, praying to every god had ever heard of that the sound was only his imagination.  Out of the deep shadow, the lumbering bulk of a huge male shuffled into sight.  It was bigger than any Merlin had ever seen on the mountain, and he knew without question this was the beast they hunted.  His heart sank.  The thought of killing any bear filled him with a disgust that he could never quite wash off, but the evil had to be done.  It had already killed three hikers, including one little boy.  It would not stop hunting now that it had a taste for human prey.

Merlin lifted his rifle and took aim.  His lungs filled with a steadying breath.  At the bottom of his exhale, he squeezed the trigger and the crack of a bullet split the night air.  The bear staggered with a pained grunt and turned toward Merlin.  Its massive bulk tensed to charge with more fury than a raging bull.  With practiced fluidity, the hunter chambered another round and fired again.  The bullet struck with the shock of a sledgehammer.  There was a wet moan and the bear stumbled and fell.  Merlin paced a few steps closer and then fired one more shot into the still creature’s head.  He couldn’t be too safe when approaching a downed bear.

Headlamp beams popped with the dazzling light of flashbulbs as shouts suddenly filled the forest.  Merlin called out the kill and the lights converged on him.  He crept closer to the inert mass of shadowy fur.  Its giant chest did not even tremble and black blood began to pool on the leaves.  Satisfied the poor beast would never rise again, Merlin slung his rifle and pulled his own headlamp from his pocket.  He clicked on the beam.  Then his heart shattered.  The bear had his ocean eyes.


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House of Endless Days


Complete Story – 1000 Words


Food never spoiled in that kitchen.  I once left a gallon of milk on the counter and, when I returned to throw it away, condensation coated it still.  In the same span, the orchids in the library had blossomed and wilted.  That was four days for me.  I don’t know how long it was for everything else.

A car crash had left me an inheritance from parents I barely knew.  It was a hodge-podge of architectural styles piled into three stories and smeared across too much land.  The inside was much the same with decayed Queen Anne antiques jumbled among art deco pieces and modern Scandinavian minimalism.  Whatever the era, everything smelled of dust and damp.

Salem and I had come for the same reason as every married couple who leaves their life behind to move to a strange house far away from everyone.  We came to start over, to find a time when we were younger and dumber, and the clock moved slowly enough for us to grow together. 

It had been our first day rambling about the ad hoc rooms.  I was folding away our clothes when Salem called from the bath, “Hux!  The water is freezing!”

I set off to find the water heater, happy to have those little spousal tasks that were the dew of normalcy.  Wandering the maze of nonsense rooms, I eventually found the cellar. 

Expecting a hoarder’s dream, I was surprised to discover a huge contraption to be the only occupant.  A wren’s nest of piping erupted from a central core that appeared as the love child of a water heater and the space shuttle.  On the face there was only a single dead, red bulb and a fat, plastic switch slumbering in the off position.  I flipped the switch, and it broke off in my hand.  Still the red light blinked to life and a sound like moving water rumbled within the pipes.

I trotted back upstairs and wound my way around the aimless corridors until I arrived at last at the door to Salem’s bath.  I rapped twice and peeked in.  Salem spun away and rubbed her nose with one hand while she swept the rim of the tub with the other.

“Water heater’s on,” I said my jaw tightening. 

“You need to knock, Hux,” she said without looking at me.

“I did,” I said.  “You promised you were going to stop all that.”

“You made promises too,” she said sounding hollow.  She was shaking but, whether it was from the cold or the anger or the powder, I didn’t care. 

Days flowed by like storms, passing in either a flash of fury or lingering for weeks of grey bitterness.  During those tempest days, I explored more of the house and less of Salem.  I discovered why a twenty-minute nap in the third floor’s fourth guest room left you feeling completely rested and why you should never read a good book in the conservatory.

Today, I was hiding out in the library among the orchids and yellowed pages.  There was more life in there than in the whole of the house and it was rarely haunted by my wife.  The hall clocked moved more slowly than my watch in the library and I had learned early that I could spend all day reading before she was even out of bed. 

The trove was stocked floor to ceiling.  I had selected for my pleasure the collected horrors of Poe and was reading The Cask of Amontillado when a creaking from behind drew my notice.  Craning my head around, I saw the doors swing shut.  I frowned.  Despite its other peculiarities, the house was not a drafty one.

I laid the book aside and shuffled in my slippers towards the carved double doors.  Gripping the tarnished brass handles, I pushed but they did not turn.  I rattled them and found them locked.  After a moment of disbelief, I set my jaw and threw my shoulder hard against the stout wood.  It quivered but did not yield.

I pounded on the door with both fists screaming, “Salem!  Let me out!”  I shrieked until my throat burned.  Just when I could scream no longer, there came a knock that stretched over hours like a horrible moan. 

A sticky note popped out from under the door.  “Good morning,” it read above a smiley. 

I hammered against the old oak.  “Let me out!  This isn’t funny!” I called and then screamed and then whispered when my voice grew too rough to use.  Finally, I slumped against the door and waited.  She would not keep me here forever.

I waited while the hands on my watch trudged a day’s journey.  My throat was blistered, and my head ached.  A few hours’ sleep found me propped against the door.  I woke to a stretched scratching and after minutes, a second note emerged.  “Still there?”

My fists pounded against the door until they were bloody and bruised.  My throat shredded as I screamed through the glue that has been my saliva.  When at last I collapsed, a third note appeared.  “Hope you’re having fun.”

Salty tears dribbled down my cheeks.  Salem, please.

Time passed in sputtering, lurching hours like a rickety car.  My skull squeezed my brain to the point of bursting.  White sparks exploded behind my eyes.  Every joint and muscle ached with its own weight.  Blessed sleep counted only in minutes as the agony of thirst ripped me from rest.

On the third day, I could not rise.  My moans were a desert wind, and the world swam about me.  Salem, why?  Salt crystals clotted at the corners of my eyes.  The weight of exhaustion crushed my bones and tugged the shades on my eyes.  As I relaxed into the relief of my final sleep, a yellow note arrived beneath my nose.  “Good night.”


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Midnight’s Wrath


Complete Story – 8000 Words

This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.


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!”


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Midnight’s Wrath


Part 8 of 8 – 600 Words

This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.


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!”


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Midnight’s Wrath


Part 7 of 8 – 1200 Words

This work of fiction contains strong elements of horror and violence. Reader discretion is advised.


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.


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