Ebrik Strange: The Hungry Bones

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 4

2,600 Words: 11 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ebrik Strange: Restless Dead

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 3

2,900 Words: 12 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I got ‘em!”

“Light them!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His grip slipped.

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

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Ebrik Strange: Coyote Spyglass

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 2

3,000 Words: 12 Minute Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ebrik wrinkled his nose and looked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s something behind this wall?”

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

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

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

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

“We’ve already walked the walls.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ebrik Strange: Death’s Daughter

by Robert Currer

Part 2: Chapter 1

3,800 Words: 15 Minute Read

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

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

Something in the dark screamed and all but Ebrik startled. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Could be.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is?” asked Ebrik.

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

“What’s curious?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Urwin, I can do it,” said Ebrik.

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

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

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

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Ebrik Strange: The Lost and The Found

by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 9

3,600 Words: 15 Minute Read

This story contains sexual content. Reader discretion is advised.

Eric eyed the dwindling shade as he readjusted his armor, trying to unstick the sweat soaked fabric beneath.  Light duty had sounded fantastic when he was lying on his back in bed and could think of nothing else but the ache in his leg.  No more hours of patrolling.  No more demon monsters from The Mist.  No more fly-bloated dead bodies.  Instead, he spent his days watching a team of scholars dig a meticulously crafted hole in the ground, and his entire responsibility was to stand next to that hole with a spear in case something nasty crawled out of it.  His entire existence had been reduced to standing by a hole with a pointy stick.  A heavy sigh puffed from his nostrils.  He never thought he’d say it, but he missed Corbin.  Annoying her helped pass the time.  He kicked a pebble, sending it skittering into the pit.

A shout came from below and he winced.  It would be just his luck if the pebble had struck someone.  Expecting to see upturned angry faces, he peered over the edge.  Instead, he saw academics and workers were congregating around a shock of bright pink hair.  A murmur of excitement rolled through them like a wave as the pink-haired scholar held something aloft.  Eric had to squint through the noonday sun to see.  It didn’t look like much, just a tube of dirt-caked metal.  Nothing worth this kind of excitement.  But scholars, he had learned, were an odd bunch who seemed to marvel over every scrap and trinket so long as it came out of the dirt. 

Pink Hair mounted the rough wooden ladder that reached from the bottom of the dig to the surface.  She was followed by the dig leader, Scholar Van Ustil.  He was a short man whose bald pate gleamed with sweat as he ordered the others back to work.  Belly jiggling, he trotted to catch up with Pink Hair.  “Bloody well done.  Takes an eye to spot one of these and a steady hand not to bugger it during extraction.”

“Thanks, Hem,” she said, adjusting her glasses.  Her eyes were locked on the cylinder.  “With luck, we’ll find something useful on it.”

He arrested her by a bony elbow, pulling her focus to him.  In a confidential tone, he said, “Be careful, Mel.  If you do find anything on there, I don’t have to tell you what someone might do to take that information for themselves.”  His face read of fatherly concern.

“You don’t think…”

“Discoveries like this are career makers.”

She held his gaze for a moment and then nodded.  “Good,” he said.  His eyes surveyed the site, finally settling on Eric.  “You!  Guardsmen.  You are to accompany Scholar Avery.  Do not leave her side until her work is finished.  Understand?”  He turned back to Mel and patted her on the shoulder.  Something passed wordlessly between them as watery smiles spread on both their faces.  Then they parted ways, leaving Eric to scramble after Mel wondering what the hell he had just been volunteered for.

A moment later, they arrived at the line of work tents.  Mel wandered into one at the far end.  The canvas sides had been rolled up, exposing the long examination table and several weather-stained chests of instruments.  Despite the oppressive heat, Mel set Eric to work unfurling the sides and fastening them in place.  As he worked, she lit several lamps.  The yellow light sent the unsettling shadows of occult instruments cavorting along the walls of the darkened room.  The change in atmosphere sent a prickling up his spine like stepping into a fortune-teller’s tent.  Mel for her part looked perfectly at home in the gloom among the inscrutable apparatuses of her profession.

On the examination table, she placed her soil-crusted treasure in a pool of clean light.  Pulling her neon locks back into a ponytail, she folded her gangling limbs onto a stool.  Hunched over the desk with eyes magnified by her thick lenses, she looked like a studious praying mantis.  Her spidery fingers set to arranging a variety of brushes, picks, and solution bottles in a semicircle where they could be easily reached. 

She worked first with her hands, peeling back loose bits of dirt and sand.  Here and there she would employ a brush, sweeping away what her fingers could not easily access.  Eric stifled a yawn.  Watching her work had all the excitement of watching weeds grow.  His feet ached from being on them all day.  There was no airflow through the tent, making him feel like he was standing in a stagnant slow cooker.  Well, if he was going to be roasted alive, he was at least going to sit down.  He pulled a stool over and settled in to wait.

The thin cuts of daylight that slid in through the seams in the tent had worn down to mere pinpoints of fiery orange by the time Mel had worried enough of the soil away that Eric could get a real sense of what the thing was.  He has been right.  It was a metal tube but paper thin and speckled with green oxidation.  A labyrinth of grooves was carved into the sides, each of varying thickness and depth.

“What is it?” asked Eric, the weariness of his boredom giving way to a bud of interest.

“The ancients called it a Testimonial,” she said.  She didn’t look up.

“What’s it for?”

She huffed.  “It’s a method of preserving spoken messages.”

“What kind of messages?”

“Important ones.”

“What’d you think is on it?”

“You ask a lot of questions for a guard,” she said laying her instruments down.  Her eyes narrowed.  “Why so interested?”

“I didn’t mean to offend,” he said.

“No, you just meant to interrupt.”

“I was just curious.”

“You’re not paid to be curious.”  Her face twisted into a snarl.  “I’m paid to be curious.  You’re paid to sit there and shut the hells up until I tell you to do otherwise.  So how about we both get back to doing what we’re paid for?”

Eric leaned back on his stool and nodded, looking anywhere but at Mel or the Testimonial.  Grumbling, she returned to her work.

Hours passed in silence.  Most of the detritus had been removed from tube by now, though Mel still labored in its cleaning.  She pulled over a standing magnifying glass under which she examined each nook and groove with minute attention.  Her fingers danced between the picks and the solution jars as she teased out a speck of dirt with a pick or caressed away a bead of corrosion with one solution or another.  Soon, the Testimonial practically gleamed in the lamp light.  Mel’s own glow had begun to fade.  Her eyelids drifted closed and snapped back open.  She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes.

“Go get me a coffee from the mess tent,” she said through a sonorous yawn.

Eric rose to his feet, his muscles practically moaning as they stretched.  At the tent flap, he hesitated.  He needed the walk.  His cramping legs craved the relief.  Still… “Scholar Van Ustil said I’m not to leave you.”

She gaped at him.  “What did you say?”

“It’s just that his orders were very clear.  I’m—”

“I don’t give a good godsdamn what he said!”  She was on her feet, her face an apoplectic pink that nearly matched her hair.  “Now go get me my godsdamned coffee, you inbred-goat-fucking-shit-stain, before I tear off your head and drink it out of your skull!”  One of the jars whizzed past his shoulder, shattering against a tent pole.  Eric darted from the tent, Mel still howling obscenities in his wake.

As he walked, he considered taking his time.  The coolness of the evening breeze was a balm to the trapped heat of the examination tent.  The moon had risen.  Its silver light sketched lanes among the pooling shadows.  He could already smell the soothing aroma of the strong, black coffee brewing in the mess tent.  Tonight would be a perfect night for a stroll.  He was tempted to find Zo.  They could take their coffee and walk around the edge of camp, do their best to forget their predicament, maybe even make an honest to god date of it.  Just the thought of her loosened the knot between his shoulder blades. 

Ahead the lantern light of the mess tent spilled out like fool’s gold, garish and tawdry when laid next to genuine lunar silver.  He looked in the direction of Zo’s tent knowing that it was too far away to see but savoring the gentle breeze that ran through his hair as if she had sent it just for him.  He sighed.  It was a beautiful fantasy, but that’s all it could be tonight.  Eric turned his feet back to the mess tent to retrieve two mugs of coffee.  He hoped Mel choked on it.

Snoring rattled out of the tent flap.  He rolled his eyes.  Of course, someone with her sense of superiority would sleep like a garbage disposal gagging on a bag of nickels.  He shouldered through the flap, bracing himself for another string of abuse. 

“Coffee’s he—”  The words cut off.  Inside, Mel was slumped over the examination table in blissful slumber, her arms wrapped protectively around the Testimonial.  Next to her a figure dressed in black fatigues leaned over her trying to ease the tube free from her grip.  The figure froze at Eric’s intrusion, lightless eyes peering out from behind the folds of a scarf that obscured their face and head.

There was a beat as Eric and the figure watched each other, neither moving, both tensing for the coming action.  The figure threw caution to the wind and yanked the Testimonial from Mel’s grasp.  As she pulled herself awake with a bleary snort, the thief turned to run toward one of the corners where a section of the canvas siding had been unfastened.  Eric hurled one of the hefty clay mugs.  It struck the fleeing intruder solidly on the back of the head, shattering on impact and drenching the figure in searing coffee.  With a grunt, the figure was knocked to the dirt floor as the Testimonial bounced from their grip.  Eric vaulted over the examination table and dove for the thief.  The intruder rolled to the side and Eric landed in the dirt.  A hard kick to the jaw knock Eric onto his back as he tried to climb to his feet.  A shriek from Mel split the air as the figure took a step closer to Eric.  They paused as shouts of alarm began to fill the night air.  They turned and fled into the night.

Eric groaned, still reeling from the kick.  He felt his jaw.  It was going to have one hell of a bruise, but it didn’t feel broken.  He gripped the edge of the table and hoisted himself to his feet.

“You fucking idiot!” Mel thundered.  She was kneeling on the ground where he had just been laid out, her face a violent red.  In her hand was the Testimonial.  One end had been pinched shut.  “You crushed it, you godsdamned orangutan!”

“At least you still have it,” said Eric, listening to his jaw pop as it moved.

“I’ll have to spend hours trying to restore it, all because of your fat ass,” she said, her lip curled into a snarl.  “Fuck!”  She slammed a fist on the table.  Turning it over in her hands, examining the deformed end.  The red rage began draining from her face and was replaced by gray fatigue.  Tears threatened to spring from her blood shot eyes.  “I’m going to need that cup of coffee.”

“Then go get it yourself.  I’m not letting that thing out of my sight again.”

The dawn came slowly.  When at last the golden rays shone through the tent flaps, Eric massaged his eyes with the heels of his hands.  A cramp had developed between his eyebrows from pushing away sleep all night.  Mel had been right.  Reforming the Testimonial to its original shape had been the sum of hours of painstaking work.  Other than a few reports made to the guardsmen coordinating the search for the would-be thief, he had been of little help.

“Make yourself useful,” said Mel, bent so close that her nose almost touched the Testimonial.  She waved at one of the wooden tool cabinets and said, “Bring me the gramophone.”

Eric slid off his stool, body creaking.  “Is it ready?”

“Near enough.” She sighed without catharsis like a runner resigning herself to the last quarter mile.  “It’s the thing with the brass horn and the—Yes, that’s it.”  She cocked her eyebrow at him.

He laid the gramophone on the table next to her.  With enough care to defuse a bomb, she lifted the Testimonial and slid it onto the mandrel.  She adjusted the sound box so that the needle fit into the first groove.  Her whole body rose and fell as she took a deep breath and then began to turn the crank.  A haunting static filled the air that even in the morning light lifted the hairs on Eric’s arms.  Through the unsettling noise, a voice, deep as the abyss, spoke in a language that sounded stretched.  He couldn’t understand the words, but Mel obviously did.  Here and there she would stop turning the crank and scrawl a sloppy note in one of her journals.  Exhaustion seemed to fall from her as the needle traversed the tube.  When it crossed over the crease where the tube had been crushed, the voice grew distorted, warbling its words in a way that made Eric wonder if they were even intelligible.  She kept turning the crank but took no notes.

At last, the recording reached its end, and Mel began scribbling again as she flipped between hand-drawn diagrams of the dig.  “Did we get what we needed?” asked Eric.

“What?  Oh, yes,” she said without looking up.

“What about the crushed end?  Could you make it out?”

“It doesn’t matter.”  She waved the question away.  “I heard enough to find what we’re looking for.”

Eric looked back to the tube.  The crease was set nearly a third of the way from the end.  A third of the message had been lost and she said didn’t matter.  The knot between his shoulders twisted.  He couldn’t shake the feeling that it would matter in the end.

The sun hung low and orange over the crenelated horizon when Eric finally stepped into his tent.  The twilight wind was beginning to pick up, tugging and snapping the canvas siding.  He eased himself down onto the edge of his cot, feeling every inch of himself sigh with relief.  The side of his face still throbbed where he had been kicked.  He sat head hung with arms braced on the wooden frame for a while before summoning the will to pull off his boots.  His toes stretched across the rough wooden floor with delight.  The cot against the other side of the tent sat made but empty.  Not for the first time, he thanked his lucky stars that his bunkmate had duty every night this week.

Eric rolled onto his back to watch the wind worry the canvas ceiling with a sigh.  It was his first moment of peace in nearly two days.  He should be sleeping.  But, instead, his mind wound its way to Zo.  He wondered what she was doing in a dreamy sort of way.  Behind his eyes, her face appeared to him with her eyes like the sea, the warm swell of her grinning cheeks, and her silken lips.  She had asked him to run away with her and, as he strolled the edge of sleep, he wondered if she was serious.  He kind of thought she was.  In the moment, drunk on the heat of her, he had agreed, but it was madness to run.  Paydrin’s fate made that horrifyingly clear.  She must have been just as caught up in the moment as he was.  Running off into the sunset together did make for a pretty good fantasy.

“You really shouldn’t sleep until you’ve been checked out.  You could have a concussion,” said Zofia.  Eric bolted upright.  She was standing just inside the tent smiling that self-conscious smile that melted him, her medicine bag held in both hands.

His heart leaped in his chest.  Words stumbled over his tongue until he managed a very eloquent “Hi.”

She put her bag down on his footlocker and strode over to him.  Her slight fingers lifted him by the chin so that she could see the dark purple bruise in the light.  As she examined his pupils, she said, “You know you don’t have to keep getting hurt just to see me.  Don’t think I’m not flattered but asking me out might be easier.”  Her fingers crawled along his skull searching for bumps and breaks.  At some point they stopped searching and started running through his hair.  Her eyes gazed into his.

“How am I looking?” he asked, his voice low and breathy.

“Perfect.”  She was so close that he could feel the heat of her.  Then she blinked and pulled back, blushing.  “That is to say perfectly healthy.  Which reminds me…” She turned back to her bag.  The familiar chime of glass against glass rang out as she reached inside.  When she turned back to him, she held a bottle of wine and two glasses.  “A little something for the pain.”  She jiggled the bottle with mischievous flair.

“Where did you get that?” Eric asked with a laugh.

“That’s a secret,” she said with a wink before passing him the glasses.  Gripping the base of the bottle’s neck with one hand, she twisted and pulled with the other, releasing the cork with a pop.  Wine sloshed into both glasses.  “Cheers.”  Their glasses clinked and Eric touched his to the cot frame before bringing it to his lips.

She took a luxurious drink, running the tip of her tongue along the wet pillow of her bottom lip.  Eric’s brain stalled.  “You’re not the kind of guy who had ‘not superstitious but a little stitious’ in their Tinder profile are you?” she asked.

He snorted, nearly shooting wine out his noise.  “No,” he said.  “I was one of those ‘loves to travel’ guys.  Had a picture of myself in front of Machu Picchu and everything.”  A little flush slid into his cheeks.

“I can’t judge.  Mine said ‘let’s go on an adventure’,” she said, chuckling.

“Careful what you wish for.”

“Yeah.”  The laughter petered out.

They sat in silence for a long while studying their drinks.

“Still game to run away together?” she asked without look at him.

“You’re serious?”

“I need to be free of this place, of the ODF, of this pointless war against existence.”  She slumped down to her elbows, cradling her drink.

“You saw what they did to Paydrin.”  He swallowed.  Even the memory made his throat feel tight.

“If you don’t want to be with me, I understand,” she said with a quiver in her voice.

Eric brushed a teak lock behind her ear.  “I don’t want to see that happen to you.”

Her eyes were rippling ponds gone red around the edges.  Through a weak smile, she said, “At least you wouldn’t have me bugging you all the time.”

He looked into her eyes.  Tears flowed over their banks and dripped off the curve of her chin like rain.  “That’s the best part of my day,” he said.

She held his gaze, searching perhaps for the lie or jest.  He leaned in.  Her rose petal lips parted and met his.

Later, she was nestled against the sweat damp flesh of his chest.  Eric could feel the firm give of her breasts as they swelled into him with each breath.  He pushed a strand of golden hair off her forehead and kissed the spot where it had been.  His heart felt full to bursting, and he hoped she could feel its radiance.

“Be mine,” she said.  The smoked cream of her voice was a delicacy.

“Always.”  The word bubbled out through the dreamy cotton that filled his head.

She pulled herself on top of him, legs on either side of his hips.  Her tender hands found his cheeks and gently tilted his eyes to hers.  They were the same endless rolling turquoise as the hypnotic splendor of the ocean seen from a boat far at sea.  “Really be mine.”  He could feel the gravity of her, the pull of wanting nothing more than to fall into her.

“Always,” he said again.

Arching down, she drank deeply of his lips.  Her hips rocked, grinding herself against him.  She slid along his length, her slickness setting off fireworks inside him.  A tightness gripped his groin as blood surged to her touch.  There was nothing in the world for him but her.  The rest had all fallen away leaving only an unquenchable thirst for her.  When he was ready, she lifted herself to slide him inside.  She bit her bottom lip with a devilish grin, toying with him for a moment.  As she sat, swallowing him entirely, she moaned, “Run with me.  Let’s be free together.”

“Always,” he said.  And he meant it.

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Ebrik Strange: The Hanged Man

by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 8

1,500 Words: 6 Minute Read

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

Today was a hanging.  A detail of guardsmen walked the gallows, inspecting the condition of the rope, testing the strength of the crossbar, experimenting with the slide of the noose.  The trap door on which the condemned would stand fell away as one pulled the lever, examining the glide of the mechanism.

“It’d be a shame if everything wasn’t just right,” said Corbin.  Her mouth was cut into a grim line.

Eric knew what she meant.  A failure at the gallows meant prolonging the suffering but there was something unseemly about the obsessive attention to detail.  “Yeah,” he said, wishing he was anywhere else. 

The gallows were set in the courtyard formed between the Aid Station tents and the dig’s line of dusty work pavilions, a site chosen because it was one of the few open spaces in camp.  A purely pragmatic decision but one that guaranteed Eric a front row seat to the gruesome spectacle.  His leg was on the mend, but he couldn’t quite walk on it yet.  Consequently, he was stuck in bed feeling like a ball of slime had settled in his gut.

“Feels cruel,” he said watching a guardsmen stomp on the closed trapdoor.

“Doesn’t seem to bother too many folks,” said Corbin.  She scanned the growing crowd of guardsmen, scholars, diggers, support staff, and anyone else who could sneak away from their duties to watch.

“Vultures,” said Eric.  He wanted to vomit.

The crowd grew until not a speck of dirt was visible in the rusted, orange courtyard.  The roll of drums sent excitement crackling through the onlookers.  A gap opened in the throng as the convicted appeared surrounded by an entourage in ODF khaki.  Boos and jeers broke through the ominous rumble.  As they mounted the stairs, Lojan’s pallid scar peeked out from the sea of heads, leading the procession.  The condemned followed behind.  Paydrin’s gaunt face was a map of ridges and shadow even in the noonday sun.  The ooze in Eric’s gut soured at the sight of him.

“Just doesn’t seem fair,” he said, almost under his breath.

“What is these days?”

The guards pulled Paydrin to the front.  He had been stripped of his uniform and dressed in plain clothes, but the tattooed eye on his forearm was still an inky black that stood out like a scarlet letter against his simple civilian attire.  No longer one of them but still not free.  That must have felt like a twist of the knife. 

His wrists were bound behind his back.  So he can’t fight the rope, thought Eric beads of cold sweat gathering on his brow.  Eric’s heart was ping-ponging against his ribs, growing harding with each step his brother-in-arms took across the wooden boards of the gallows.  Paydrin had been one of the three to save Eric’s life, and now they were going to watch him hang.  Eric felt lightheaded.  His eyes darted to Corbin, praying she wouldn’t notice.  But her eyes were locked forward watching Paydrin.  Her face was a porcelain mask again, but in the deep night of her eyes, Eric thought he saw a sheen of anguish.  Eric followed her gaze back to Paydrin.  Whatever his crimes, he stood tall, unbowed by the noose swinging behind him in the breeze.

Lojan stepped to the man’s right, and the drums ceased.  A taut silence fell.  “Wayn Paydrin,” said Lojan, addressing the crowd instead of the bound man.  “You have been found guilty of hording antitoxin and aiding and abetting desertion.  For your treason, you have been sentenced to hang from the neck until dead.  Do you have any final words?”

Paydrin licked his chapped lips, his eyes were cast upward toward the blazing sun.  When they descended, they too were alight.  He said, “There are those among you who share my beliefs, that conscription is slavery, that no one should be forced to serve at their peril without their consent.  Today, I become a martyr for the cause, a cause that does not end with me, a cause that will one day free the oppressed and tear down the oppressors.  To a free ODF!”  He snapped to face Lojan and spat in his face.

The crowd erupted with blood thirsty shrieks that echoed in Eric’s ears like the beasts of The Mist.  Lojan wiped the saliva from his face, looking almost bored.  The guards pulled the prisoner toward the waiting noose and held him.  Eric’s throat turned to sandpaper.  Lojan took the swinging rope in his hand and fitted it around Paydrin’s neck, sliding it snug against the condemned man’s throat.  Eric tried to swallow and couldn’t.  It was like breathing through a straw.  The noose in place, Lojan leaned in close, whispering something in Paydrin’s ear.  At this distance, it was hard to say but Eric thought he could see his features ashen.

“What do you say to someone about to hang?” asked Corbin.  Her voice was grim.  Her face was darkened.

Eric tried to open his mouth to speak but his tongue felt glued to the roof.  His throat closed and for a moment, his lungs refused to breathe.  A memory flooded him, unbidden. 

He had pushed all his furniture to the walls, leaving a wide stretch of off-white carpet like a bald patch in the center of his old room in his old life.  He was sitting on a cheap rolling desk chair that he had pulled out into the center of the void.  Through puffy eyes made stiff by the cement of dried tears, he stared into the pure white expanse of a folded sheet of printer paper.  Only his blue ink scrawl marred the virgin surface.  In a dreamy way, he wondered if paper resented being dirtied by the inky lives pressed upon it.  He hoped not, but even if it did, his life at least had been compressed to a few short lines.  The things he wanted to say were so enormous they only required a handful of words.  His thumb caressed the veneered tooth of the page.

With a sigh, he pushed himself to standing.  His whole body felt heavy as if carrying a pack he could not put down.  A few slow steps carried him to the desk against the wall where he positioned the note upright like an A-frame so that it could not be missed.  He lingered, fingertips balanced on the wood of the desktop.  At last, his fingers curled to a fist and knocked knuckles against the surface in three sharp raps.

Coiled like a python on the comforter was a length of coarse rope.  He ran it through his fingers, feeling it scrap across his palms.  When he reached an end, he looped a section before wrapping one line around the other with tremendous care.  When he had finished, he tested the slide of the knot before opening it enough to fit over his head.

He climbed on top of the chair, balancing in his socks as it swiveled under his shifting weight.  Securing the noose to the ceiling fan was harder than expected.  He had to reach between the blades to find the downrod as he choked on a cloud of dislodged dust.  He tugged the knot tight and stilled the swing of the rope before sliding his head into the loop.  The noose tightened as if he were straightening a tie.

The things he had collected, the sum total of his life looked smaller up here, less important.  Muted light filtered through the blinds creating slatted beams in which motes of dust wandered without aim.  He could commiserate with their insignificant shuffling through life, doomed for ultimate oblivion.  His whole body ached at the thought.  He was tired.  So fucking tired.  He swallowed, took a breath, and kicked the chair away.

The fall took an age as Eric waited for the rope to go taut, to arrest his fall through this life with a snap.  Rough cordage scraped up his neck and pushed against his jawline as it moved into position.  He felt the hard grip around his throat that made his eyes bulge and his chest heave.  When the rope went taut there was no snap but instead a terrible rending sound.  He hit the floor on his back with a thud that shook his bookshelves.  The ceiling fan followed him down, smashing into the carpet inches from his head.  Eric coughed and sputtered as air once again rushed into his lungs.  Through the snowy cloud of drywall dust, there was a hole in the ceiling where the pale scar of torn wood shone livid against the tattered edge of eggshell paint.  He had laid there panting a long time.

“I wouldn’t know what to say,” whispered Corbin.

Fresh air surged into Eric’s floundering lungs.  “Good luck,” he rasped, his knuckles rapping on the bed frame.  “I’d wish him good luck.” 

On the gallows stage, Lojan pulled a lever and the trapdoor under Paydrin swung away.  He fell and the rope went taut.  There was no fan to save him.

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Ebrik Strange: Convalescence

by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 7

2,800 Words: 11 Minute Read

Somewhere in the gloaming, an arid breeze caressed Eric’s cheek.  Wake up.  It whispered in his ear like a Sunday morning lover.  Fabric snapped and fluttered as the breeze grew.  A deep breath filled him, chasing out the staleness in his lungs.  His eyes fluttered open.  He was on a cot beneath an open-air pavilion made of wooden poles and ODF khaki colored canvas.

“Welcome back,” said a voice.  It was low and smoky, and it trickled down his spine in a way that sent tingles to the tips of his fingers.  Eric turned his head to follow the voice, his muscles responding languidly as if he had been woken straight from a dream.  Eyes like a turquoise sea were watching him and he found himself wondering what it would be like to be adrift in those eyes.  They crinkled at the corners as a smile of blushing rose spread across her lips.  “I had a bet with myself that your eyes would be blue.  Looks like I win.”

Eric blushed and looked away.  “Where am I?”  He began trying to prop himself up on his elbows.

“No, don’t get up,” she said.  Her hands went to his shoulders sending a ripple of pleasure through his neck.  Delicately, she guided him back down to the thin mattress.  “You’re at the aid station.  You were wounded in the field.  Your friends saved your life.”

“My friends?”  The words fell from him thick and clumsy.  Only then did he notice that she was dressed in ODF fatigues and wore the crimson armband that marked her as a member of the healers’ corps.  Suddenly, he realized that his leg ached magnificently.  The leg was bare, save for yellowing bandages wrapped around both calf and thigh where the claws had torn his flesh.  The memory of the attack burst in him, and his chest felt suddenly tight.  He bolted upright, trying to catch his breath.  The swift movement made his head throb and his vision blur.  Touching his forehead, he found it too had been wrapped.

“Just relax.  Everything is going to be alright,” said the healer.  Her smoky voice rumbled like a purr, massaging the tightness from him.  “There’s nothing to worry about.  I’ve got you.  Shhh.”  His pounding heart slowed, and his eyelids slid shut.

A sharp pain in his leg pulled his eyes open with a hiss.  Pushing aside the damp hair that clung to the fevered sweat of his brow, Eric saw the healer bent over his leg.  She had pulled back his bandage, a look of concentration settling onto her cherubic features.

“Sorry.  I know that must sting,” she said.  She scooped a dollop of mineral smelling ointment onto her fingers and gently but firmly worked it into the swollen, reddened edges of his cuts.  Breath caught in his chest as he balled the sheets in his fists.  He wanted to scream but not in front of her.  Instead, he forced several long shaky breaths. 

“All done.” Her voice sparkled like a chime as she tied off the last of the fresh wrapping.  She wiped her hands clean on a rag.  “You’ve developed a little bit of an infection.  Not uncommon with your kind of wound.  Shouldn’t be a problem to treat but we’ll want to keep an eye on it.”

“Thank you, Ms.—I’m sorry.  I don’t know your name,” said Eric.

“I’m Zofia.  Zofia Kotan.”  She smiled wide and radiantly.

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Eric.”

“I thought it was Ebrik.”

“Common mistake.”

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


“Don’t you know?”

“I’m not sure I know anything anymore,” he said, easing himself back down with a groan.

“I should let you rest,” she said tying the cloth cover back onto the ointment jar.

“Only if you have to.  I feel like I’ve slept for days.”

She hesitated, looking around.  The organized human misery of the Aid Station tent looked almost peaceful in the delicate dawn light.  “Alright.  I suppose I can waste a few more minutes on you,” she said with a wink before settling herself onto a stool by his cot, crossing her ankles.  “Tell me about yourself, Strange, if indeed that is your real name.”

He struggled to hold back a grin.  “It’s more of a nom de guerre.”

“A what?”

“Nom de guerre.  It’s French for—never mind.  It doesn’t matter.  I guess it’s who I am now.”  The grin faded.

Her head cocked.  ‘Who do you want to be?”

“You said my friends brought me in,” he asked.

“Does that surprise you?”

“I wasn’t aware that I had any is all.”

“I would say you do.”  Her eyes softened to sea foam.  He might have been an injured bird the way they caressed him.  She looked down and then away before rising to straighten some instruments on a nearby preparation table.  Back turned, she said, “The burly girl with the pretty, dark eyes seemed particularly distraught.”

“Corbin?”  That didn’t sound like her at all.  He tried imagining her looking anything close to distraught and failed.  “How could you tell?”

Zofia snorted, covering her pink lips with her fingers as a blush spread into her cheeks.  “Yes, with a face like hers, it was a challenge,” she said.

To Eric’s puzzlement, the dig at Corbin struck a sour chord.  “I didn’t mean it like that.”

She looked at him over her shoulder, her ocean eyes full of siren songs.  “Are you two…”

He stared at her dumbly for a moment before her meaning finally sunk in.  “No!  No,” he said shaking his head.  He immediately regretted the motion.  A vice-like pain pressed against the squishy walls of his brain, momentarily blurring the world around him.

“Careful,” said Zofia.  She plucked a small pot from the table and eased him back down to the pillow, his features clenched in agony.  “This will help.”  She dipped her fingertips into the pot, and they came back coated in a translucent gray salve.  The fingertips of each hand rubbed together to spread the salve between them.  Then she leaned over him, massaging it into his temples.  The balm was cool on his skin, and it smelled pleasantly methylated. She worked his temples until his face calmed and then her fingers slipped into his hair running over his scalp.  She whispered to him as she worked, words of comfort, of ease.  Words he hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath for weeks waiting to hear.  “You’re safe now,” she said, her lips so close that he could feel them tickle his ear.

“Will you be here when I wake up,” he asked, the words barely more than a brush of wind as he slid over the edge of sleep.

“I promise,” she said, and he thought he could hear her smile.

A few days later, it was Corbin waiting on the stool by his bed.  Midday had passed but the heat lingered in the air alongside the discordant percussion of hammers.  In a vacant patch of rusted earth that stretched between the Aid Station and the work tents where the scholars cataloged the dig’s findings, a group of soldiers were nailing together a rude scaffolding.

“What are they building?” Eric asked rubbing the sleep from his eyes. 

“A gallows,” said Corbin.  She had a knife in hand and was shaving curls of wood from a chunk of tree branch.  Her midnight blue eyes never strayed from her work.

Eric studied her, searching for some clue of misplaced humor.  Her tea-colored features were as impassive as ever.  “Why?”

“To hang someone,” she said, her tone was matter of fact, flippant even.  Eric grimaced.  She paused and looked up.  “How’s the leg,” she asked, pointing at the bandages with her blade.

“Infected.”  In fact, it itched horribly.

“Anything to shirk real work, huh?” 

His jaw clenched, eyes flaring but, as he turned to tell her exactly where she could shove her commentary, he caught the thin curl of a smile nipping at the corner of her lips.  There was a twinkle in her eye, and, with some surprise, he realized that she was making a joke.  When did the ODF issue her a sense of humor?  “All part of my master plan,” he said.

“Smart.  Play up the injured leg thing, maybe walk with a limp.  They’re sure to give you some cushy job.”

“I’m gunning for cook.  Girls love a guy who can cook.”

“Doesn’t look like you are having any trouble there,” she said.  Her look was knowing.

“What do you mean?”

“That cute little healer that’s always fluttering around you.  Looks a little like a chipmunk but you always were a bit of a rodent.  Come to think of it, she could probably do better.”

“Asshole,” said Eric with a laugh and Corbin smiled so big that her eyes became little crescent moons.  Was Corbin developing a personality?  A knot tied itself into his gut.  He had been a dick to her every day since the moment he got here, and she had still saved his life.  She had been trying to help him—albeit in her own perversely brutal way—ever since Salmin teamed them up.  And he had been nothing but dead weight.  His behavior had been disgusting.  He should say something.  Apologize.  But how?  Frankly, he’d be damn lucky if she would forgive him at all.  Without thinking, he wrapped his knuckles against the cot frame three times. 

“I’m not surprised,” she said.

“What?” he said startled.  For a moment, he wondered if he had said all that out loud.

“That she likes you,” said Corbin and then, when it became obvious her meaning was lost on him, she continued, “Since she’s a Mist Walker like you.”

Eric’s jaw flopped open.  It had never occurred to him that there might be others, that his situation wasn’t unique.

“You’re gonna let flies in,” said Corbin.

He snapped his mouth shut and went red at the cheeks.  He had thought he was alone.  But that was his whole problem, wasn’t it?  He was convinced that he was somehow special in his suffering, that no one could hope to understand what he was going through.  His head hung.  He really was an asshole.

“Damn, Strange.  I didn’t realize you were so bashful.”  Corbin chuckled and went back to her whittling.  It was beginning to take a rough, animalistic shape.

“Thanks for saving me back there.”  The words came out low and rough.  He didn’t dare look at her for fear that he wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears prickling at the corners of his eyes.

The rasp of her blade against wood ceased and silence flooded them like a watery grave.  Just as he was beginning to fear he would drown, she said, “Don’t mention it.”  The blade resumed its slow, purposeful strokes across the raw wood.

He gritted his teeth.  There was so much more he was bursting to say.  He wanted to promise her that he would train harder, that he would do better, that she wouldn’t regret it, that he wasn’t a waste.  His lips parted to speak.  He turned to look her in the eye.  And he shut up. 

She wasn’t looking at him.  Her midnight stare was fixed on the craft in her hands, the branch slowly transforming into a carving.  It was the same focused stare that filled her when they trained.  He understood.  She demanded no pledges from the wood, only that it allow itself to be shaped.  That was all she asked.  He would allow himself to be shaped.  He owed her that.

Eric cleared his throat, but his voice still came out hoarse.  “You know I bet she would introduce you to some of her friends, if you wanted.”

“Now you’re talking,” Corbin said, her blue eyes gleaming.  “There just might be hope for you yet.”

Twilight spilled down from the horizon across all the world.  Eric sat up in his bed, a cool wind tousling his hair, waiting for Zofia.  He spotted her, hauling her medicine bag in his direction.  The last rays of the sun caught her shoulder length teak hair, making it shine like spun gold.  She blossomed with one of her slow, self-conscious smiles when she caught sight of him and Eric found himself transfixed.

Officially, she was there to check on his wound and ensure he was healing as quickly as possible.  Yet, she always made sure he was the last of her patients for the night and she always took her time with him.

She set her bag down on the end of the preparation table and withdrew a pot of salve along with a roll of fresh bandages.  When she turned to him, her cheeks were pleasantly flush.  “Hello again!  How are we feeling today?”  Her eyes darted to his and then away only to return sparkling.

“Still a little tender,” he said trying to keep his tone relaxed despite how dry his mouth went whenever he spoke to her.  “But better every day.”

“Let’s have a look.”  Her delicate fingers unwound the bandage.  Where they grazed the bare flesh of his thigh, tingles ran through his nerves, leaving him with a craving for more.  She examined the lines of new flesh in the lantern light and asked, “How was your day?”

“Corbin came to see me.  It was actually pretty nice.  Not what I expected.”  Eric couldn’t be sure, but he thought Zofia stiffened slightly at the mention of Corbin. 

“What did you expect?”

“I don’t know.  A black eye?” he said, with a laugh.  “So, I never asked.  Where were you from before the ODF?”

“Same place as you, I suspect.”


“DC.”  A hollowness sounded in her voice like something had been plucked out, leaving a noticeable void.

He hesitated and then asked, “Do you miss it?”

She turned away from him to fumble inside her medicine bag.  He waited, listening to jars and bottles quietly clink as she rummaged among them.  Finally, her shoulders slumped, and she sighed.  “I used to.  Now I can’t decide if I wish I was back there or if I just wish I wasn’t here.”

“Ah,” he said feeling stung.

“Do you?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t love the ODF, but there are some things about this place that aren’t so bad.”  He stared out into the growing darkness as he spoke, the bulge of the moon beginning to peak above the mountains.

She turned to look at him over her shoulder.  The call of her ocean eyes tugged at him wordlessly until they held his gaze.  “One thing is pretty amazing,” she said.  They looked away from each other, blushing.

“How long do you have left?” he asked.

“Five years,” she said.

“What will you do then?”

She returned to his wound and began working a ocher ointment into the virgin flesh.  “I’d like to travel a bit.  There’s magic here, real magic that can do much more than these jars of goo.  I want to find it.  I want to learn how to use it.”  The passion in her voice grew as she spoke, the strength of the dream growing inside her like a building wave.  For a moment, she looked as though she might smash the ointment jar.  Then she deflated.

“I’m not sorry that I found my way to Karask Rev,” she said bitterness seeping into her tone.  “I’m just sorry that I stumbled into a hole like West Watch before I knew any better.”  She slumped down onto the edge of the cot so close that he could feel the intoxicating warmth of her. 

He reached out and laid his hand on hers.  When she turned to look at him, her eyes were huge, round fountains, water spilling over their sides.  He held her gaze this time, acutely aware of the soft swell of her lips.  He leaned closer to her, not all the way but enough to speak his mind.  She grabbed him by the collar and pulled him the rest of the way.  Then there was nothing in the world but the heady press of her lips, the feel of her fingers sliding through his hair, the hungry way their tongues found one another.  They were panting softly into the cooling night air when at last he pulled his lips from hers.  Eric wiped the tears from her cheeks with his thumb, marveling at how creamy her skin felt beneath his calluses.  He kissed her again.  She curled into him, clutching to his chest like a shipwreck survivor to the flotsam.

She looked into his eyes.  Her own were wide and pleading.  “Run with me,” she whispered.  “Let’s be free together.”

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Ebrik Strange: Mist Edge

by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 6

2,600 Words: 11 Minute Read

Bloated flies buzzed like static around the corpse in ODF fatigues.  Even as swollen as the body was, Eric could still read the word “reaper” tattooed on its throat.  He tried to breathe through his mouth.  He could still taste the putrefaction, but it was dulled compared to the gut boiling stink that invaded his nostrils.  The conscription eye tattooed on the dead man’s forearm stared up at them like a beast glowering over its kill.

“Take a hard look,” said Salmin, the sharp lines of his face carved in stone.  “This is what happens to those who separate from their teams and get lost in The Mist.”  He knelt by the body, swatting the flies from his face.  “There’s no claw marks, no punctures.  He got lost and the tattoo’s toxin did him in.”  Salmin rummaged through the corpse’s pockets coming up empty.  “Poor bastard must have lost his spare tablet.”

“Or traded it,” said Paydrin under his breath.  Salmin had reorganized the teams after Tharp’s decree.  Eric had no luck losing Corbin and had instead gained the gaunt, hunted-looking Paydrin to round out their team of four.  He had slept no easier for it.

Salmin’s face turned sour.  “We won’t disrespect our fallen brother with that kind of talk.”  He returned his attention to the body and, while quietly intoning something that sounded like a prayer, stacked three small stones into a cairn at the man’s head.  When he arose, he was onyx once more.  Drawing his sword and shield, he motioned to the others to follow.

 As they stalked off, Eric crouched next to the body and knocked three times against the sandy earth.  “Good luck,” he said, his voice barely louder than the hush of the fog.  He caught up with his team and slowed his pace to fall into step at the back of the foursome.  “Do people really sell their tablets?” he asked in a low voice so that only Paydrin would hear him.  The archer eyed him, all but sneering at his innocence. “Why would anyone do that?” asked Eric.

“Why does anyone do anything, kid?” Paydrin’s sallow face hung limp on his skull.

Eric kept on his heels like a puppy.  “We’re issued a new dose each week.  What possible reason could anyone have for wanting an extra tab?”

“You want to get out of this alive, am I right?” asked the archer, his wolfish eyes flicking toward Eric.

“It was just a question,” said Eric as if stung.

“I’m not done.  So, the conscription eyes are laced with toxin slowly leeching into us every day, and the antitoxin in the tablets neutralizes it, right?” said Paydrin.  “What if you took more than just enough of the antitoxin?  What if you took a lot more?”

Eric’s eyes rounded as the answer came to him.  “You could neutralize the whole tattoo!”

“Not as dumb as you look.”

“How many would you have to take?”

“Keep your voice down,” said Paydrin.  “Those sorts of questions are dangerous.”  His eyes shifted to Salmin, the tip of their spear.

“Come on.  You must have heard something,” said Eric forcing his interest into a harsh whisper.

Paydrin pressed his thin lips into a hard line, sunken eyes searching all around.  Finding no sign of snare or deception, he said, “If I knew for sure I would be out of here already.”  He paused, scrutinizing Eric as if for the first time.  He unclenched a degree and continued, “But I’ve heard twenty-five tabs is enough.  Can’t just swallow them though.  They’re meant to last in your system a week that way.  You’ve got to grind them up and take them all at once.  That way you get them in your blood as one single massive dose.”

He stared at Eric, his eyes lumps of polished amber.  “You get caught doing something stupid, you leave me out of it.”  His gaze gouged into Eric.  Eric swallowed and nodded before jogging closer to the middle of the group.

The Mist loomed like a fortress wall bisecting the world into dishwater daylight and swirling fog as inscrutable as the deep ocean.  Their patrol took them along the rim just out of reach of the wispy tendrils that fondled the edge.  Ahead, a tangle of gray sticks and fur formed a table sized bowl that perched among the gnarled branches of a juniper.  Salmin raised a fist to signal a stop and then waved Corbin forward.  She crept along the sandy earth toward the tree trunk, her eyes locked and her spear ready.  As she did, Salmin and Eric circled to her left and right, swords drawn.  Silently, Paydrin notched an arrow and drew the bowstring back.  It vibrated slightly under the tension. 

At the base of the tree, Corbin paused, drew a deep breath, and drove her spear into the bottom of the nest.  Eric’s muscles went rigid.  Nothing stirred in the nest.  She yanked her spear free and stabbed again.  And again.  And again, until broken twigs and tufts of fur littered the ground around her.  The tightness drained from Eric as if a stopper had been pulled.  Another abandoned nest.

It had been like this for weeks, hints of threat without any real action.  In the beginning, every jumble of twigs, every rocky hollow had sent electricity through the whole of him, but with each trodden mile, the feeling of real danger drew farther away.  Eric was struggling to maintain any kind of true readiness outside of these fleeting moments of anticipated combat.  He was beginning to doubt if they were in any real danger at all. 

At least The Mist kept the route fresh.  In his first days stalking the boundary, he had imagined The Mist to be a fixed thing, an immobile line of demarcation like the Berlin Wall.  He was wrong.  The Mist seemed more like a living thing.  Its boundary shifted and flexed as if breathing.  It advanced and retreated, constantly reshaping their path.  But boredom is a devil, and even change can become routine.

As they approached the midday turning point, Eric stifled a yawn.  The soles of his feet felt bound and stiff, yearning for the release of a delicious stretch.  The Mist had grown languid, producing no grasping tentacles of vapor.  Instead, its surface rolled gently like a soporific sea.  His eyelids felt especially heavy today, and he looked forward to the short break Salmin would allow at the turn.  To his right, Corbin’s shoulders had rounded, and her spear had grown less turgid in her hands.  Behind, Paydrin’s loping, hungry stride had shortened to a shuffle, his eyes looking even more sunken than usual.  Only Salmin continued his tireless advance, fueled by a furnace of unfathomable zeal.

A hot breeze frolicked through the trees, swirling a cloud of fine sand and dust into the air.  Eric’s head began to nod.  Every movement felt as if he was walking through a deep jacuzzi.  The heat soothing him until all he wanted was to lay back and float, free of the weight of his body, of the world, of everything.  He paused leaning against the coarse bark of a juniper. 

The wind picked up again, but it was no longer coddling.  Its chill bite startled him.  A cold wind only came from one direction in midsummer.  Eric lifted his head just in time to see The Mist raging toward him like an oncoming train. 

It overtook him with a rush that snapped the loose fabric of his fatigues.  And just as fast, The Mist stilled.  The world around him was reduced to gray, ghostly shadows that swayed unnaturally in the cloying fog.  Only the roughness of the flaking bark against his palm kept Eric from feeling that he had been transported to another place entirely.  His body tensed.  Sword and shield raised, he spun slowly in place hunting for some sign of his team.  A hush like new fallen snow roared in his ears against the rasping of his own breathing.  He couldn’t see or hear anyone.  The pommel of his sword tapped lightly against his shield three times before his breath would smooth. 

One step at a time, he crept toward where the others had been.  The fog seemed to stretch the distance between everything.  Trees were nothing more than towering phantoms until he was on them.  The spiny shrubs were clouds with teeth.  Yet none of the shifting shapes resolved themselves into Salmin, Paydrin, or Corbin.  Maybe they had made a turn to exit The Mist?  They might not notice he was even missing until they reached the pallid light of day.  He patted the pocket that held his extra tablet, feeling for the reassurance of the vial.  He thought of the swollen corpse of the guardsman, the way the black flies crawled on the dead man’s open eyes.  Cold trails of sweat ran down his spine.  The extra dose was still safely ensconced in his pocket.  As long as he had that, he had time.  Eric forced himself to take three long, slow breaths.  The tightness in his throat eased.  As the strain drained from his limbs, fingers of mist caressed his skin leaving goosebump trails in their wake.

The panic subsiding, Eric found it easier to retrieve the memory of his training, of the safety briefings they had been given.  They had been warned against calling out.  The sound was just as likely to draw the creatures that inhabited The Mist as it was help.  Instead, they had been told to head toward the edge and to regroup beyond the boundary.  It was the safest place to rally.  That was protocol which meant that was what Salmin would do.  Eric had been careful in his steps and, mercifully, had not gotten himself too turned around.  That was a bit of luck.  Now, he turned toward the direction that he believed with reasonable certainty to be east and marched purposefully ahead.  He kept his paces metered and made sharp, right angle turns whenever he avoided an obstacle.  A grin took root.  Against all odds, he’d managed to remember some facet of his training.  He couldn’t decide what he was looking forward to more: the glimmer of pride on Salmin’s face or watching Corbin eat her armor.

A sound like pouring sand slithered through the air.  Eric spun left and then right trying to hear the source over the rushing blood in his ears.  It was growing louder, closer.  The fog wrapped too tightly around him, making everything an impressionistic gray.  The sound was nearly on him when the ground beneath his feet began to tremble.  He whipped around in time to see the earth explode.  From the wound, leaped the shade of a creature growing more solid as it hurdled toward him through The Mist.  It had paws like shovels each tipped in a rake of long claws.  They were outstretched towards Eric, prepared to funnel him in toward a star of fleshy digits that ringed a salivating maw of rodent’s teeth. 

Eric jerked back.  His heel caught on an exposed root, and he tumbled, landing flat on his back.  The creature landed with a puff of dust at his feet.  It wasn’t as large as the Diyakosha had been, but it was more solid, a mound of fur covered muscle the size of a mastiff.  The fleshy digits at its mouth wriggled as if fondling the air, its head swaying side to side.  In a flash, Eric realized the creature was blind.  It might not be able to see him, but it would likely hear him if he just got up and ran.  Not daring even to breathe, he silently propped himself up on his palms.  If he could just scoot backward a bit, he could make it to one of the trees.  In its branches, he could just wait until the creature went looking for other prey.  He could make it.  He just needed to get his feet under him.  Slowly, he raised his leg, bending it at the knee and—

The creature swatted.  Its claws sunk into the flesh of Eric’s calf.  His eyes bulged, but he clamped his mouth shut.  It was all he could do to keep from screaming, his face growing livid with the effort.  The creature pulled, dragging him through the scraping sand.  A whimper escaped his lips, cutting through the muffled quiet like a gunshot.  His fingers scrambled through the sand before finding the wrapped leather of his sword hilt.  He chopped at the beast, opening a gash at its shoulder.  It released its grip on his calf with a feral hiss, scuttling back a pace or two.  It was enough.  Eric lurched to his feet.  His calf throbbed, and he winced as he tried to put weight on it.

Snarling, the creature advanced, more cautiously this time.  Eric batted at it, but it was faster than it looked.  It darted forward and back, side to side with startling agility.  It was all he could do to limp backward, struggling to keep his sword between them.  The creature showed no signs of slowing.  His chest felt tight as if gripped in a mighty fist.  Each breath was a ragged, hard won thing.  The creature was advancing, out pacing him.  He had to get away.  It feigned right and then, as Eric spun to guard, darted left with a swipe of its massive paw.  The claws raked his thigh, shredding both his pant leg and the flesh beneath.  A wild bleat like a doe in the clutches of a tiger burst from Eric’s throat.  He slashed where the paw had been but struck only sand.  It had already darted back, readying for another attack.  He didn’t want to die, not here, not like this.  The idea of being torn apart limb by bloody limb by some over-sized mole set every nerve in his body alight.

Eric swung wildly, manically.  His sword cut a flurry of singing arcs through the air.  He was fighting like a cornered rat, a torrent of sharp edges and reckless fury.  The creature dodged and weaved, hissing as its claws clattered against the whirling steel.  It was working.  The creature began to back away in staggered, frustrated steps.  A lightness buoyed in Eric’s chest like a soaring balloon.  He was winning.  He was going to survive this!  Fuck this monster and fuck this rotten world.  It wouldn’t get him.  It would never get him!

A screech so high pitched it was nearly inaudible rocketed through the fog.  Eric’s stomach rolled, and the world tossed like a ship in a squall.  Not again!  He choked back the burgeoning vomit in his throat and swung blindly toward the sound.  But he was too late.  A blackened mass like a charging bull slammed into his chest.  His legs gave way and he crashed into the ground.  His head bounced with a sickening crack.  His vision doubled and danced.  Through the swirling, Eric recognized the bat-like face of the Diyakoska and its rows of needle teeth.  Shadows gathered at the edges of his vision, and he could no longer feel his body.  It was as if he was falling back into himself, away from the pain and torment, away from the end that had finally arrived.  Sinking into the void felt like drifting off into a feather bed.  The fear and the pain were gone.  There were no hard edges here.

Somewhere far off there was a sound like a shout underwater and a golden light.  The Diyakoska snapped its head up toward the sound and reared, its great wings flapping as it pulled off Eric.  The wind felt nice, ruffling his hair.  His eyes drifted shut and he knew nothing more.

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Ebrik Strange: West Watch

by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 2

1800 Words

The sun set quickly over the western peaks and a rind of dying daylight was all that endured by the time Eric reached the town in the valley.  A bristling line of poles sharpened to stakes jabbed out from a dry moat that ringed its thick palisade wall.  The only way in was a single lane sandstone bridge that spanned the gap and led to sealed gates, little larger than a two-car garage. 

He had never seen anything quite like this in person.  It reminded him of a particularly elaborate playground his grandparents had taken him to as a child, where towering wooden jungle gyms had been styled into fairy tale castles and frontier forts.  Yet, this place held none of the playground’s whimsy and instead stared out at the world with the flinty gaze of a true survivor.  The stakes were stained at the tips with something ominously dark and the iron bands which reinforced the stout wood of the gates bore scars that looked disturbingly like claw marks.  The hairs stood up at the nape of his neck.

“Who goes there?” called a voice in the dark.

Eric spun a full circle trying to figure out where the voice had come from before thinking to look to the top of the gate.  There at the guardhouse window stood a figure silhouetted in a warm light.  The figure wore something atop its head that tapered to a blunted, conical point.  Eric squinted trying to adjust his eyes to the shadowed figure.  It looked like it was wearing some kind of medieval helmet.  Had he stumbled on some elaborate LARPing group?

A curt whistle refocused Eric’s attention.  “Stranger, are you gonna answer my questions or just sit out there all night waiting for the basks to eat you?” shouted the figure.

“Oh, uh, sorry,” said Eric not really sure how to play whatever game this was.  “I’m Eric.  Eric Milner.  I’m a little lost.”

“State your business, Traveler.”

“Um, I think I took a wrong turn in the mist back there and I—”

“Mist Walker!  Open the foot gate!”  The figure called down to someone inside the walls.  There was a sound like something heavy sliding out of position with a grunt of exertion.  Then a door opened up in the thick beams of the gate.  An armor-clad figure washed in torch light stood in the doorway, hand poised on the hilt of a sheathed sword.  “Well, hurry the hells up!” barked the voice from above.

With a start, Eric trotted over to the open gate door and slid in past the guard.  As he passed, she pushed the door closed and then went to work shoving a heavy wooden bar back into brackets across it.  She wore a helm of steel that came to the same conical point and her armor was scuffed studded leather worn over a padded vest.  The sword at her waist didn’t look like the foam replicas he had heard cosplayers used.  Instead, it looked solid and professional with a leather grip worn smooth by time and sweat.  He had a feeling that if she were to draw it the blade would be honed steel.  Maybe this was some kind of movie shoot?

“Thanks,” he said.  When she only grunted in response, he continued, “Do you know how to get to US-15 from here?”

She muttered something that sounded a lot like “lud tone” and gestured deeper into town with dismissive twitch of her head.  Then she picked up a spear from where she had propped it against the wall and stood at attention, pointedly ignoring Eric.

He looked around, lost at sea.  After a few frustrating moments, he said, “Sorry but my phone’s dead.  Is there somewhere I can go to charge it?”

Her midnight blue eyes pivoted to their corners, slowly dragging the rest of her along until she was openly staring at him, her features stretched in annoyed disbelief.  “Bloodstone Inn.  That way, Mist Walker.”  She pronounced the words slowly and precisely, like speaking to a moron.  Her arm pointed down a dusty thoroughfare toward a two-story building that looked not unlike a wild west saloon.

He was such a fucking idiot.  This was one of those crazy theme parks where all the employees had to stay in character the whole time.  She probably would have been fired for the anachronism if she had acknowledged something like a modern highway or cellphone.  Bloodstone Inn had to be the park reception.  There would be someone there who could help him.  Eric thanked the guard for her help, complimented her on her dedication to her role, and followed the road to the lurid slivers of light that peaked out of the inn’s windows.

A wooden sign creaked in the brisk night breeze.  Under the words Bloodstone Inn, painted in peeling red calligraphy, was a carving like a stone bottle pouring blood red wine into a waiting goblet.  The sign, though still recognizable, was beginning to look wind worn.  So too was the inn’s clapboard siding.  The elements had sanded it nearly smooth so that only fine tributaries of gray paint still clung to the wood.  The widows were coated with a fine layer of rusty dust.  Thick, faded curtains had been drawn across them but slashes of light cut into the dark where the edges met.

The porch boards groaned as Eric mounted them and pulled open the door.  It squealed like a panicked hog on its hinges.  A handful of sullen looking patrons, each clad in dingy, threadbare garb that, Eric supposed, was intended to be period correct—whatever period that was.  Not a soul was speaking as they nursed glazed clay cups.  Yet, the silence grew harsher as their dark eyes slid over him, framed as he was in the doorway.  There was a deadness to their stares that reminded him of a shark’s inhuman gaze.  A visible shiver ran through him as those hollow eyes shifted back to their drinks in brooding silence.

Behind a tarnished copper bar, a mountain of a man with a thick, black mustache wiped dust from the earthenware cups.  As Eric approached, the man ran an appraising eye over the young traveler and said, “You ain’t from here.”  Then he went silent, waiting for justification of this obvious deficiency.

Eric looked into the barkeep’s coal black eyes trying to read them.  They were the eyes of a much smaller man, lording over his little dung heap.  Looking into those beady spiteful orbs, he made up his mind.  He did not like it here.  Something was wrong about this place and it put him on edge as if the very ground might suddenly fall away.  “Uh, yeah, I was camping nearby, and I got turned around in the mist.”

“It’ll do that,” said the bartender with a tight grimace of commiseration.  “What’re you drinking?”

“Thanks, but I’m alright.  Do you have somewhere I could charge my phone?” asked Eric, fishing his phone from his pocket.

Features pinched suspiciously at the smooth black box in Eric’s hand, the barkeep said, “No.”

“Okay…”  They were really leaning into this “in-character” thing.  “Then do you know how to get to US-15 from here?”


“How about a phone I can use?”

“Boy, I don’t understand a word you’re sayin’.”

“Then what do you have?” snapped Eric, throwing up his hands.

The barkeep’s onyx eyes gleamed darkly.  He paused in polishing one of the glazed clay cups.  “Reckon I have a map somewhere,” he said, making a show of examining the cup’s finish.

Eric plopped himself down on one of the rickety, wooden barstools with a puff of relief.  Now he was getting somewhere.  “That would be great.”

The barkeep put down the cup and wiped his hands on the rag tucked into his apron before disappearing into a back room.  Eric wobbled back and forth on the stool’s uneven legs.  When the barkeep returned, he carried with him a tattered roll of tea-colored parchment which he spread out across the greening copper bar top using a couple cups to weight down the edges.  What it showed only raised more questions.  A ring of barrier mountains encircled a stretch of wrinkled wastelands, at the center of which was a lonely mountain encircled by a lake and marked with a skull.  It looked like something out of The Hobbit.  Here and there stylized markers indicated settlements and other points of interest connected by dashed lines which Eric imagined indicated trails or roads.  All around the edges, great billowing clouds were drawn.  With a sinking feeling in the pit of stomach, Eric realized they were meant to indicate fog, a thick impenetrable wall of cloying mist.

“Look.  This is really funny and all, but I really need to figure out where I am,” he said, voice higher and wavering slightly.  “Do you have a real map?  Not something you ripped out of some Tolkien knock off?”

An unkind smile smeared across the barkeep’s thin lips.  It was a bully’s smile, the kind of malicious twinkle that sparks to life when they know they have you cornered.  The little boy in him had lived in fear of that smile.  Eric wished he could knock it off the other man’s face. 

“You don’t understand, son,” said the barkeep, fighting through a sinister chuckle.  “Don’t know where you were before but wherever it was, it’s gone.  You’re through The Mist now.  And there ain’t no going back.”  With that said, his malign laugh could be contained no longer.

Asshole.  “Thanks.  You’ve been a big fucking help.”  Eric hoisted his bag over one shoulder with a snarl and stomped off towards the door.  Somewhere not far, church bells erupted in panicked peals.

“Wait!” called the barkeep.  The cruelty had drained from his face along with all the blood leaving him pale and sallow.  “Don’t go out there!”

A cathartic “fuck you” withered on Eric’s lips as he realized the other patrons were on their feet.  Most were huddling back toward the shelter of the bar their wide eyes never leaving the front door and the wide, fragile windows that flanked it.  Two among them had drawn swords and were padding their way toward the front like leery wolves.  The first and younger of the pair reached the door and carefully pushed it open.  Staying low and keeping his eyes skyward, he paced out onto the porch. 

An inhuman shriek that sliced through the ringing bells was all the warning given.  As he reached the edge of the porch, a diving blur of dark motion struck the man squarely in the chest.  Before Eric could blink, the man was carried off into the void of night, only a splash of blood dripping between worn boards and a notched shortsword to give testament that the poor bastard had ever existed at all.

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Ebrik Strange: Into the Mist

by Robert Currer

Part 1: Chapter 1

2900 Words

This story contains references to mental illness, sexual situations, and adult language. Reader discretion is advised.

In his two weeks spent in St. Anna’s psychiatric care ward, no one came to visit Eric.  No one called.  The life he had outside the confines of the hospital flowed on, untroubled by his absence.  When the day came, he stepped from the hospital doors back into the already baking heat of midmorning, suitcase in hand and stupidly hopeful.  No one was there to meet him.  Deflating, he slumped into a bench and called an Uber, wondering why the loneliness felt so much more acute in the garish light of day.

When he finally saw those people he called friends, they spoke to him as though he had just returned from a very boring vacation.  “Oh my god, you look so rested!  Next time, you should try this spa I’ve been going to.  It’s absolutely ah-mazing!” said Blakely and then proceeded to twitter on about whatever skin care regime she swore by that month.  It all sounded like witchcraft to Eric.

In another conversation, Isaac’s eyes swelled slightly at the news of where Eric had been.  He said, “That sucks.  I guess everyone needs some time away sometimes.  Oh, dude!  Did I tell you about the sick resort I’m taking Paige to?  It’s gonna be fire, bro!”  The thread of the conversation was swept away to discussion of some plastic sounding beach resort whose activities centered, bafflingly, around a saltwater pool.  Eric tried and failed to pretend he cared.

Toward the end of the evening, Mutual Friend Mike pulled Eric aside.  “Hey, man, look you’ve got to stop with the hospital talk.  You’re bumming everyone out.  I love ya and I’m glad you’re back but, you’ve got to just let it go.  Cool?  Rad.”  Without waiting for an actual reply, Mike cuffed Eric on the shoulder and returned to the others.  After the incredulity wore off, Eric quaffed his drink and left without a word to anyone.

Days later on a rare drizzly night when he felt as though one more second spent rattling around the crushing silence of his apartment might shatter his remaining sanity, he called his mother.  “Hi, Mom,” he said trying not to sound too much like he wanted a hug.

“You sound tired,” she said a mote of motherly concern in her voice.

His shoulders felt like they were draped in a stone mantle so heavy that it compressed his spine all the way down to the tail bone.  His eyes ached like he had been on them for hours.  “I’m alright.”

“Are you getting enough sleep?” she said in a prodding, pointy instrument of a voice.

“Yeah” he said sounding utterly exhausted.  An interrogation, for which she was clearly winding up, was not why he called.

“Have you been using that weighted blanket I sent you?”

“Yeah.  I just wanted—,” he started.

“What about the melatonin?  Have you been taking that every night?  You have to take it every night or else it won’t work.”

“I’m taking it every night.”  A painful tightness blossomed between his eyebrows.

“Good.  Well, I’m glad to hear that you are doing so well,” she said.  The concern eased out of her with a quiet sigh.  She had long held to the belief that a good night’s sleep was all it took to cure pretty much anything.

“Mom, can we talk for a minute?” he asked trying to keep the worst of the ache out of his voice.

“Sorry but Dad and I are already late for the theater.  Try to get to bed early tonight.  I love you!”

“I love you too, Mom.”  The line went dead before he finished.

Outside, rain ran down the windowpane like trailing tears.  His whole body felt heavy and locked, his joints rusting into place.  Some time passed but he took no notice, staring with unseeing eyes into the night.

The phone buzzed, startling him no less than if he had been shot.  New message from Katie Tinder.  He had entered her contact that way before their first date and had since learned her real last name.  Yet, he had never got around to changing it in his phone.  Did he want to meet for a drink?  Eric realized, with some surprise, that a drink sounded like it was perhaps the only good thing in the world that night. 

One drink turned to many and after last call, they both stumbled, trashed and dripping with rain, to Katie’s front door.  “You should come in.  My roommate’s gone for the weekend,” she said.  Her words slurred luxuriantly from her full lips.  She giggled while she fumbled with her keys.  When the door opened, she half slumped, half leaned into him wrapping her arm around his waist.  They staggered like a three-legged racer to her couch and collapsed together with a satisfied flop. 

Eric sighed and noted with nebulous amusement that he could no longer feel the tip of his nose.  Yup, he was definitely drunk but at least he didn’t have the spins… Yet.  “Thanks for tonight.  It’s the most fun I’ve had since I got back.”

“Night’s not over yet,” she said.  Her breath was sultry on his ear and sent a tingle down his spine. 

“I just needed this, you know,” he said.  “After everything, it’s just nice to do something human again, something that makes me feel like my old self.”

Her lips worked their way down his neck toward the hollow of his collar bone.  “Mmhmm,” she moaned softly and then traced the tip of her tongue back up to his ear lobe. 

“It’s just that ever since I’ve been back everyone’s been treating me different like I’m made of glass or like I’ve got some horrible, shameful secret.  I’m not broken, and I hate that they look at me that way.  I just had a rough couple months, but I got help and I’m better now,” he said, his words flowing with that teetering sway unique to rambled, intoxicated confessions.  “It’s like my therapist has been saying—”

“You really need to stop talking,” she said pulling away to look him in the eye.  Hers were a frosty, jagged blue.  “If I wanted a pussy, I’d play with my own.  Now are you going to keep bleeding all over my couch or are you going to shut up and fuck me like a man?”

Eric walked home alone in the rain, Katie’s final frustrated barbs echoing in his ears.  He was drenched to the bone.  The chill that had seeped in through his goose pimpled flesh was starting to become a numbness where the water dripped from his fingertips and squelched around his toes.  He didn’t mind.  Numbness would be a welcome change.

“Be careful.  I love you.”

“I will be.  I love you too, Mom,” said Eric as he ended the call.  He was feeling slightly guilty for lying to her.  But he was being careful, jut not careful in the sense that she meant.  His plan to hitchhike to the Grand Canyon and spend a few days wandering the trails alone was neither pragmatic nor safe.  He understood that but what his mother wouldn’t understand was that the risk was necessary.  The old darkness, the kind that put him in the hospital, had been creeping in at the seams of his loneliness for weeks and had only grow stronger as he was tossed about a squalling sea of acquaintances and fair-weather friends.  A clean slate was needed if he was ever going to rise above the suffocating mire of his depression. 

His mother could understand all that, but she would fail to grasp that, if he was going to snatch his life back from the clutching gloom, Eric first needed to remind himself that he could depend on himself.  He needed to know that whatever else his failings were, he would not let himself down.  So yes, there was risk but to do otherwise would risk so, so much more…  Or at least he hoped that was true. 

The early morning was dull and grayed by a thick marine layer that coated the rolling hills.  The moisture made the morning cool and comfortable.  Eric savored the nourishment of the wet air against his skin.  He needed this.  The miles that passed beneath his boots would untangle the knots in his head and, when he returned, he would have a memory, refreshing and intimate, that he could call on when he was feeling low again.  For though his spirits were buoyed at the moment, they would find a trough sooner or later.  He knew this and it was item one on the list of things he was trying to learn to accept.

The item two was that he made poor decisions in selecting his friends.  He surrounded himself with selfish, cartoonish creatures with no more emotional depth than a shot glass…  Maybe.  Or perhaps, he was expecting too much of them.  It must be hard for them to be reminded of his darkest days, when he was so low he couldn’t even dream of the sky, much less see it.  That had to be a painful memory for them.  Didn’t it?  But it hadn’t been their darkness.  It was his own which he had never lain at their feet.  And hadn’t group therapy taught him that he was supposedly part of a tribe, that he shouldn’t have to go it alone?  So why wouldn’t a single one of them shut the fuck up for two seconds and just listen?  He wasn’t asking any of them to carry the weight that hung perpetually over his shoulders, only to unburden himself for the moment.  Was that too much to ask?  He would have gladly done the same for them.  He was right the first time.  He did have shit taste in friends. 

As the sun rose higher in the sky, Eric plodded along with such smoldering anger that it might have been him that burnt off the morning fog instead of the mounting heat of the day.  By noon, he was too tired and too hot to be angry any longer.  He huddled in the dwindling shade of a stunted tree off the side of the road and wondered where he would sleep tonight.  The first night was always going to be one spent under the stars as no one in Orange County would pick up a hitchhiker and it would take him all day to get through this stretch of Cleveland National Forest to the 15 on the other side.  Out there he had better odds of getting a lift. 

But that was tomorrow’s problem.  Today was about avoiding heat exhaustion and finding a decent place to spend the night.  Eric withdrew a sandwich from his bag and absently chewed the slightly crushed bread, rolling his options over in his mind.  It felt good to need only answer simple questions of survival instead of the existential muck that civilized life forced on him.  And there were worse places to spend an afternoon than in the gnarled shade of a juniper.

The question of where to make camp had ultimately been an easy one.  A convenient hollow among the brush had presented itself near sunset and Eric ensconced himself comfortably within.  The night was clear and already a splash of stars managed to puncture the light pollution of the coastal cities.  He lay on his back looking up into the night and feeling contented for the first time in—he couldn’t remember how long.  Day one had been a success.  He had made good time despite the steepness of the hills and had even found a working water pump off one of the fire roads.  Bunking down with the security of a full hydration pack gave him a little pang of pride.  Today had been a win and, with that last little sigh of a thought, his eyes fluttered shut.  He slept deeply and dreamed of being at sea.

The morning mist was thick as he had ever seen, like the fog machine kind they pump into werewolf films.  It cloyed and swirled at the edges of Eric’s tiny camp.  Normally, he enjoyed fog in a boyish way, but this mist hung heavy and solid, looming like standing stones around a sacrificial altar.  A feeling like being buried alive was beginning to surge like vomit up his throat and he swallowed hard to force it back down.  His few possessions packed up quickly but not rapidly enough to outrun the prickling on the nape of his neck like unseen eyes crawling along his skin. 

Bag packed and slung over his shoulders, Eric’s metered stride hastened to a trot, then a jog, and finally a dead sprint as he fled down the side trail toward the main, rooster tails of sand splashed behind.  The mist kept pace, rolling over the path behind him like an eerie tide.  A maddening fear that something cloaked in the inscrutable fog nipped at his heels flooded him.  Dread panic dashed him forward as if sucked up by a crashing wave.  His chest felt crushed.  He was gasping for air.

Eric skittered to a stop, folded over with his hands on his thighs and gulped the chill morning air.  Nothing had been chasing him.  His cheeks pinked and he felt like a child sprinting from the bathroom to the safety of his bedroom night-light.  Twenty-five and still a scared little boy.

Ragged breaths smoothed at the edges until they were metered and near relaxed enough to allow him the fantasy of control once again.  Eric frowned.  Looking around, he did not recognize this section of the trail from yesterday.  Had he run too far and missed the main path?  No that couldn’t be it.  He would have noticed if he and crossed another trail.  He shrugged and guessed that the mist was simply thick enough to obscure the landmarks he remembered.  Without knowing what else to do, he continued down the trail, his gait slow and tense. 

No familiar landmarks had presented themselves.  Yet, he had walked nearly two hours.  He considered turning back and retracing his steps but oddly the fog had not abated.  It swallowed the trail behind him so that his recent past was reduced to ghostly shadows.  Rationality told him it was only fog; it would part if he stepped into it.  But something deeper, more primal and more in tune with the rhythms of the world whispered warnings against setting foot in that unholy mist.  There was something sinister about it.  Eric was becoming increasingly convinced of that.  Here and there a shadow would move in the mist at the edge of his periphery and creaking, groaning sounds would drift out.  Just trees.  Old trees groaning in the wind.  Nothing more.

But the shadows did not move like swaying trees.  They scuttled and skulked.  And if there was wind, why couldn’t he feel it?  Thick, sticky panic bubbled in his belly, burning up the back of his throat.  Shallowing the acid burn, he focused on pressing forward, one cautious step at a time and convinced down to his very toes that stepping onto the mist meant certain death.

The day waxed and began to wane again.  The sun never penetrated the fog with more than a spectral half-light.  Walking the unfamiliar trail, Eric was now certain that he was completely lost.  The path lead through a gap between two high peaks that were encrusted with pines and fir trees, unlike any native to the area.  They grew tall and still, watching through the ever-present mist like grim sentinels.  More than once, Eric had the sense the trees themselves were watching him.  He didn’t like their cold eyes on him.  Their rough bark looked a deep gray in the dying light and more than a few were scarred by powerful claw marks that left raw gouges down their trunks.

Eventually, the mist began to thin until he could see the yellow twinkle of lights on the slopes below.  There tucked into a shallow valley was a small town surrounded by a wooden palisade.  It had become night at some point while he was lost in the fog and the few lights that shone picked out the village in a relief of bottomless shadows.  Icy fingers dripped down his spine.  It might have been from the chill wind that buffeted the exposed ridge or from the haunted, ooze of the jaundice light below.  Eric could not tell but he did not like the feel of either.

He hesitated, uncertain whether to turn back into the looming fog or to descend into the menacing, will-o-the-wisp lights of the town.  He would almost certainly become lost in the mist and, yet the deep primal thing inside wondered if that was preferable to whatever lurked in the land ahead.  Somewhere in the night a lone howl pierced the stillness and shook Eric from his indecision.  He jogged down the crumbling hillside, sand and small stones tumbling ahead like heralds of his coming.  For better or worse, he would take his chances beyond the mist.

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