A Little Less Feeling

Xalthus looked down perturbedly from the branch he perched on. He stared at the smoking crater, and tried to figure out if his situation could be worse. When this got too depressing he instead considered ways his life could be improved. Maybe if he were some other animal?

He had put some thought into this before and, on the whole he enjoyed being an owl. He had sometimes thought about what his existence might be like as some other creature Maybe a cat, they had the advantages of stealth and grace. Perhaps a bear, good hardy creatures, strong, intimidating. Bears, like owls were also seen as fonts of wisdom, in certain cultures anyway.

He often had reason to review a long list of other things he could have been. In the end he was usually grateful that he was not Guillaume.

Guillaume was the young man lying in the crater, looking slightly bewildered, heavily singed and smelling mostly of ozone. He was nice enough fellow, Xalthus supposed, hard working, friendly, eager. Just perhaps a bit too timid and nervous in ways that spoke to something in Xalthus’s owlishness and reminded of a mouse. At times Xalthus found himself fighting the urge to swoop down on the boy and snare him in his talons. All in all though, he was a decent sort, if you were into the whole consorting with mortals thing. He could take it or leave it himself, except having been forced to take it and forbidden to leave. Guillaume’s major fault was that he was a bit too uncertain of himself. Yes, that was it, under confidence. Also he lacked sufficient concentration for his given profession.

Given was the operative word, Xalthus conceded. Guillaume was not offered a real choice in the matter. Rupert needed an apprentice and Guillaume’s parents needed one less mouth to feed so a bargain had been struck. The boy was too honest to run away. Not Rupert that was cruel master, he was just easily frustrated. Rupert wasn’t a particularly patient teacher either. Eventually their combined shortcomings made the the boy’s training untenable.So, the old wizard summoned Xalthus, and bound him him to the form of an owl, which again was not overall an unpleasant experience, and essentially said, “You there. Show him the ropes and, make sure he doesn’t get in too much trouble.”

Xalthus sighed, he supposed neither one of them really wanted to be here. Still neither had much of a choice. He let himself ponder this for a bit longer, then stretched his wings.

“Alright lad, “ he tried with an encouraging tone, “let’s try it again. Once more, from the top. This time with, perhaps, a little less feeling.”

This story was written in response to a Flash Fiction Challenge issued by Chuck Wendig at his blog Terrible Minds. You can check out the other entries in the comments there.
The random photo I received as a prompt for the challenge can be viewed here, and I hope I did it some justice.
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Hounds

He was running.

That’s all Josh knew. He was running away. Faster, he had to run faster. He had to escape the howls and barks running behind him.

He had been traveling along the highway, trying to make it south before the weather changed. It hadn’t been a good couple of days. Most of them spent getting hassled by small town cops. He managed to hitch a ride with a guy that agreed to take him as far as Clementsville. The dude seemed alright at first talked a lot of religious nonsense, Josh had learned to tune that crap out after a couple of years of hitching. After a couple of hours in the guy started getting creepy. He started asking Josh a bunchof pervy questions about himself. All sorts of bad experience told him it was time to bail.  He told the guy he needed to take a leak, and  got him to pull over. Josh got out and tried to grab his bag from the back of the truck. Pervy guy saw this and jumped out of his seat. Josh just bolted into the woods. The bag was just stuff, it maybe everything he owned but just stuff.  

He wound up trekking pretty deep into the woods just in case the weirdo decided to be persistent about looking for him. He got farther in than he had planned but, through experience, was able to figure out which way was south and started walking. It was getting dark and all of his gear was in the back of some creeps pick-up. He really hadn’t set out planning on doing survival camping today. At least the moon full so he would be able to see where he was going. He figured on traveling through the woods for a while, find a reasonable place to hunker down and head back out to the highway in the morning and try his luck thumbing up a ride. It was a couple hours later when he ran into the asshole with the dogs.

Josh spotted the light from the campfire a little ways off. He didn’t see any people but he could see the dogs lying about near the fire. Huge black dogs, some kind of hounds he was pretty sure. They were noisily chewing on their evening meal. Josh figured it was just some rednecks out hunting hogs and getting drunk. That type of good old boy was usually friendly enough but he figured it was best if he didn’t spook the dogs by sneaking up on them. While he stood there wondering what to do he felt a hand fall on his shoulder. He wheeled around and came face to face with this really tall psycho wearing a ghillie suit.  Josh started to back away cautiously and raised his hands.

“Hey sorry man, didn’t know you were out here. I’ll just be on my way.” Josh peered over his shoulder at the dogs, they didn’t seem to know he was there.

“You should run.” The man said, as if to no one in particular. He was wearing a crown sort of thing made of antlers.

“What?” Josh heard himself questioning what was clearly a sound idea.

The man took his distant, blue eyes off of Josh’s and motioned with his oddly long chin towards the dogs, “You run, they chase. That’s how it works.”

“How what works?” Josh, looked over his shoulder, the dogs weren’t paying any attention.

“The hunt, now run.”

“Hey look,” Josh slowly backed away, “I don’t want any trouble from you, or your hounds.” Maybe, he thought if I just move real slow I’ll get out of this. He’d been on the road long enough to know dogs. They’re way more likely to ignore you if you just don’t run.

“Run.” The hunter said impatiently.

Josh took another cautious step back. Still nothing from the dogs. He breathed heavily.

Run! The thought screamed into his brain and down his spine. His heart slammed blood into his legs. The dogs looked up suddenly and then Josh’s legs took over.

Then he was running.

That’s all he knew. He had to run. Faster. He had to out run the howls and barks that were chasing behind him. Faster. His lungs burned. His legs ached. He knew he couldn’t stop. He had to keep going. He had to get away. He had to… Where was he running to?

After a few years on the road he was no stranger to running. Away, was important. That was always first priority. But, you needed somewhere to run to. You needed a plan. Dogs, what was the dogs plan? He crashed through the brush and low hanging branches as he pushed forward.

People, People was always part of a good plan. Get to where the people are. People out here, in the woods, nearest to town was maybe twenty miles down the highway. Which way was the highway? Could make it to the highway. There might be a passing car, a cop, someone who could help. The highway. He could move faster on flat ground. So could they.

Running.

Running water. Some how through the pounding of blood in his ears, over the howls of his pursuers he could hear it.

Water. There was a stream ahead. The highway, he remembered. The highway ran over a stream. The water might throw the dogs off. It lead to the road. People, get to the road get to where there’s people.

He surged forward, heading for the sound of the water. Legs pumping faster, burning. His foot slid sideways as he planted it on some wet leaves. His other leg buckled. He fell, sliding down an embankment. His head struck against a rock. The world clouded. For a moment felt warm. He was bleeding. He was falling. He was fading.

Stark coldness woke him as he rolled into the stream. His arms flailed. He tried to right himself. His hand caught something. Sharp. He cut himself. He grabbed anyway. He pulled himself up. The thing cutting his hand came loose. He stumbled. Reached out with his other arm. Found his feet. Standing again. Shaking ankle deep in the water. His bleeding hand still clenched around a piece of rebar he’d wrenched from the mud of the stream bank. He panted heavily as he wiped away the blood from his forehead away from his eye. He could hear them coming. He ran plodding through the water, towards what he was sure the highway.

Down the stream. To the road. Get to people.

He kept moving. He was cold. Blood kept running into his eye. HIs legs ached. He couldn’t tell how bad he was hurt. Later, he knew, later he’d feel all of it.

He stepped out of the stream after a time. He couldn’t hear them after a while. Had he lost them? Where was the highway? He should be able to hear cars, even this late. What time was it. His eyes drooped just a bit. His pace slowed. He staggered from side as he jogged along. He was tired. He had to have lost them. He need to rest just for minute.

A twig snapped behind him.

He spun around and lashed out with his blood soaked right hand. The metal bar he still clung to struck the mouth of the hound just as it was lunging. He cut his hand again on its razor teeth.

The beast leapt sideways and let out a long wail of pain as it rubbed its face in the dirt. An acid smell filled the air. The black dog’s cry was answered by it’s brothers off in the distance.

Josh ran.

A stumbling, half-hearted, run.

He was going to die. He was going to be ripped apart by this fucking psycho’s dogs he knew it. His feet kept pulling him forward. Down along the edge of the stream. It was over.

The sounds of branches breaking behind him.

Tears began to stream down his face, washing the trickling blood from his eye. He passed through the edge of the woods.

Excited yowls and growls of eager mouths

Josh stumbled forward, finally collapsing near the deserted highway, next to the old drainage pipe that let the stream run under it.

Hungry black shadows at the edge of the trees.

Sobbing he pulled himself into the drain and curled up. The cold water flowed around him.

The shadows came forward and stopped at the entrance of the pipe. They sniffed cautiously at its edges and whimpered. They circled the highway, to the other side of the pipe. Josh shook in fear and cried. He waited. The dogs barked and lunged at the entrances to the pipe, never quite coming far enough in to reach him. From both sides of the drain they bayed at him. 

Josh screamed out at them, in great sobbing breaths. Why didn’t they just kill him? They just kept at it, growling and barking. Menacing from the outside all night.

The long hours passed, and as the sun began to come up the dogs quieted. Josh peered through his hands. As one turned and walked back into the woods. Just like that, as if he no longer existed.

***

Josh woke up crying. He sat up and grasped the piece of rebar he kept near his bed. It always made him feel better, more grounded. The dreams were getting worse again. Bea said they would around this time every month.

Sometime after the dogs left, he crawled out that pipe. Made his way down the highway. He found pervy guy and his truck a few miles later. He’d had some kind of spear through his chest. But the keys were still in his truck, as was Josh’s bag. He drove it, through various scenes of horror, south til he got to Clementsville, or what was left of it. There were people there. Most of them digging graves. The rest huddled around a pizza shop and listening to the old woman who ran it. She took him in and got him cleaned up. Some young girl named Harper treated his wounds as he told them his story.

She told him that the dogs could smell the iron in the rust of the drain pipe. That like all fey they were loath to touch it. That corrosion was what had saved his life. That if they had caught him and killed him, he would become one of them. Rebirthed as a hound in the huntsman’s pack.

“Not many people manage to get away from a wild huntsman,” she told him when he had finished, “but you outlasted his hounds and survived til sun up. For that insult to him, he’ll chase you for the rest of your days. Even in your dreams. Best you not wander far from The Circle on nights of the full moon.”

Rest Stop

Harper stalked away from the gas station leaving the others to fill the tanks. She just need a moment of calm quiet away from Josh and Erin’s constant nagging. It was obvious they didn’t want her along, and only took her because Aunt Bea insisted. Sometimes she hated that the old woman meddled so much on her behalf, it just made everyone else not want her around. She took the faded red ball cap off her head and let her hair down to feel the warm summer breeze blow through it as she crossed the empty highway. When she reached the median she sat down, placed her pistol beside her, and ran her hand along the carpet of fresh wild flowers. She reached into her bag and retrieved a  sandwich.  Peanut butter, again. She was so tired of peanut butter. She took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully as sat among the flowers, enjoying the cleanness of their scent carried with it.

The air at home was full of the choking smoke of the foundry and the fuel exhaust of the generators. Out here the sky was clear and blue, for once she didn’t feel like she was constantly suppressing a cough.The world out here seemed so beautiful and vibrant. So much more colorful and alive than behind the built up wall of grey cinder blocks and rusted iron scrap that she lived behind. Out here the only thing blocking her view of the world was the tall green of the trees.

There, at the tree line on the other side of the highway,  a deer stood staring at her. It was an enormous buck, antlers crowning it majestically. Sitting on its back was a woman, elegant and tall. She wore a sheer gown, its color just a slight shade away from the sky’s hue. Her legs both draped over the beasts right side as they casually approached Harper.

When she was small she had been raised on all the old fairy tales and as she got older she came to grips with the difference between make believe, and the ugliness and boredom of the real world. Then it all changed, everything. Oberon and his people had returned, and the new reality of things took hold day by day as she grew up in the hot noise and dust of The Circle. Now here was one of them. Beautiful and perfect, and in the flesh. This is as close as she had ever been to one, before this there had only been brief glimpses of them from the top of the wall. It was singing.

The woman sang as she approached. A faint, soft song in a voice that seemed to be part of the wind, and harmonized with the bees as they buzzed among the flowers around where Harper sat. Those beautiful sweet flowers, that used to droop and turn grey here on this strip of lawn as cars belched their filth into the world as they sped their owners up and down the flat dark roadway. Harper felt her hand brush against the pistol beside her. Ugly thing, she thought as she pushed it away, cold and ugly metal thing. Just more crude death that we carry with us, more ways to destroy. More ways to be ugly. Not like them. They are life. They are beauty. They brought back the flowers, and the birds. They didn’t just return to the world, they returned with the world.

The woman rode closer, still singing. Harper could hear it so clearly now, that beautiful song in an unknown language. She heard herself singing along, as if she had known the song all her life. The woman in blue held out her hand invitingly. Harper stood and took the offered hand, and looked up into the enchanting face, its eyes staring at her with pity and forgiveness. Harper could still hear that song of love and sweetness, even though the woman’s lips were not moving. Those pale and pink smiling lips. The other hand came into view holding a long knife. Harper was still singing along with the woman’s thoughts. She tilted her head up waiting for the cool blade against the flesh, waiting for a final and warming stroke of the razor sharpness across her throat.

Then the song ended.

It ended in a sharp crack, like thunder and a fast whisper, like silk. The beautiful whiteness of the woman’s face became marred with a streak of red velvet leaking from her temple. The clean air now smelled of burnt flesh from where the iron slug had pierced it. First the knife fell, and then the woman slid sideways off her mount. The beast shook its head and then bolted back towards the woods as another shot rang out.

Erin came running up, panting, smoke still curling from the barrel of the hunting rifle. She caught her breath for a moment.

“Fuckin’ elves!” She spat, “Be more careful and don’t wander off next time damn it. Bea ‘d have my ass if I let anything happen to you. C’mon now, Josh’s loaded up all the gas we can carry, let’s head back home.

Iron Circle

It had been quiet day so far, he thought as he pulled up to the former pizza joint to see Aunt Bea.

The old witch had opened the place years ago, no one knew back then.  Gray hair, flowing skirts, Lennon glasses, and healing crystals, everyone just pegged her as some aging flower child when she moved here. She made good pizza though. No one really believed she was a witch except for a few kids who listened to her stories. The ones she told when she’d sit outside the store like she was holding court, over her tall glasses of overly sweetened tea. No one understood the day she changed the sign of her shop.

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Soon after her “sisters” moved to town. After that the rumors started, then news reports, then the blackouts. No one wanted to believe, but now they had to. The Fey had returned to earth.

The hear Aunt Bea and her sisterhood tell it, those modern Wiccan types got it wrong. The root of witchcraft wasn’t so much the worship of nature or the fairies and their kind. The spells, the charms, the herbs all of it meant to placate the their king and to keep them sedated and pacified, safely away from our world. Centuries of inquisition, and witch trials decimated the keepers of that part of the lore. Time  and the frailty of human memory did the rest. When she would get in one of her moods she would mutter about blood. How girls these days were too squeamish about the blood. According to Bea, it always came to the blood sooner or later.

The news brought by the thin, steady trickle of refugees fleeing from the cities and towns sounded like mad tales, invented by trauma stricken minds. No one wanted to believe their stories of chaos and bloodshed. Now, Oberon led his armies across the world. They wanted their blood and would take it as they liked. Those who stood against them were cut down by ancient eldritch weaponry. Those who ran were left for the huntsmen, most every night you could hear their packs howling with savage glee.

When the fairy king finally turned his armies in their direction people on the outskirts of town took the worst of it. Even after hearing the horror stories of survivors, after Aunt Bea called for everyone to move to the center of town; some fools stood both in defiance and disbelief as waves of goblins and boogeymen were driven forward and over them by beautifully radiant men and women who rode upon gaunt specter like horses. Panic soon took over as bullets and weapons seemed to do little to stop the marching host. The Fey continued  forward, setting buildings ablaze, strange grey men in red coats would prowl the carnage feasting on the bone and blood, of both living and dead. People fled to the sisters, begging for help. The three women stood in the center of town, hands joined, eyes closed. At their feet was a brass bowl. It was filled with blood.

They lifted their heads and screamed.

The Fey screamed. They howled, as they piled up behind one another unable to stop their advance as they seemed to march into an invisible wall. They roared and shrieked as if they we burned. There was a great flash of light, then silence.

The brass bowl was empty. The Fey had retreated, vanished.

The lucky ones, who made it into the town were saved.

The sisters had picked that little town because back in the eighteen hundreds, right after the civil war a would be rail baron decided to make it his home, there was a silver mine, a boom, then a bust. After that there wasn’t much left to see. But, the old baron’s legacy remained a wide circle of railroad track, wrought iron was still there, buried under the streets and building foundations. The Fey found it nearly unbearable to cross such a line. The sisters workings kept them further at bay most days.  Aunt Bea says there’s more than likely others who found away to get by, to drive back some. Others who knew how to hurt them. One day we might find out for sure.

When they asked her where the armies were, where the nukes were. How did the government let this happen? Why didn’t the sisters do anything to stop it?

She tells them that their leaders were probably the first to go, replaced by changelings months before it all started, the sidhe aren’t stupid. The armies used lead and steel and fire, they weren’t any real use, not without iron and magic. Bea said, they should just count themselves grateful that Oberon is too stubborn and too bloodthirsty to use them; besides he wants this world for himself. And, as for doing something? What could be done, their warnings fell on deaf ears. Best could be done was saving who they could.

She never bothered to change the sign.

Not like things were about to change anytime soon. The old wood ovens still fired but they hadn’t produced a pizza in months. Now the days are filled with tending to little rooftop gardens or sneaking out of their small iron ring of safety to find food and other supplies. Their nights are spent huddled together telling old stories and, marking runes on rifle slugs or filling shotgun shells with shrapnel made from what scrap iron they could scrounge. In the space in between they tried to live.

As he reached for the door the old hand cranked siren on engine company number two began to moan it’s sad warning. Letting all know to prepare themselves. Fey had been spotted off to the east. He turned back to his car and drove to the clock tower to take his perch with the others. The rest of the afternoon would most likely spent looking through a rifle scope, waiting.

And it had been such a quiet day.

This was written for a Flash Fiction Challenge, hosted by Chuck Wendig at his blog Terribleminds. You can find some damn fine stories over there.

The Thing In the Tunnels

It had been some weeks since my arrival in Berian, and thus far the majority of my time for this quarter was spent in my classes, quietly contemplating the various possibilities of sneaking out and exploring the wondrous city beyond the walls of the university.

Despite my family’s relative affluence, we apparently had not been wealthy for a sufficient number of generations for the general aristocracy to converse with me. I was shunned by the majority of the students for my decidedly rural upbringing. As a result my closest companions were also from the, by comparison, lower stations of society, conveniently we somehow managed to end up sharing the same dormitory.

Harmon was a tall, strong backed fellow from the northern reach. His father’s rather successful mining venture afforded his tuition and acceptance by the deans of the esteemed foundation which we attended. He was not the sharpest of wits but he was kind enough and had a generous sense of humor. His imposing stature rescued me from more than one assault on my person during our friendship.

Our other roommate, Lethan was the son of a foreign sea trader; who I had been assured, on several occasions, was a completely legitimate businessman. Handsome, slim, and possessing an accent that had the charming and remarkable ability to grow more pronounced around members of the opposite sex. He was always sent the most wonderful packages from home, smelling of exotic spices and containing delightfully strong intoxicants in deceptively labeled bottles.

It was after sampling one such package when a rumor that a long forgotten tunnel had been unearthed by work men clearing debris of a building that collapsed in a recent fire in the southern quarter of the city.  My compatriots and I, armed with lanterns, rope and a misplaced sense of adventure, made the decision to venture out to explore this portal.

***

One by one we lowered ourselves into the hole. Harmon went first and myself taking the rear. As I slid the last few inches down the rope my feet came to rest on finished stone, We found ourselves in a curving hall built of large stone blocks.. We followed that passage, listening to eerie silence, broken only by the sound of our feet shuffling across the dusty floor. We walked, single file, down that abandoned in mild fear until it opened into a rough square chamber. Harmon stumbled across the threshold, his fall extinguishing one of our lanterns. The clatter of the light hitting the ground broke the silence and the tension of  the moment. We let out a short burst of laughter and help the tall man back to his feet. He set about relighting the lantern, while Lethan walked the perimeter of the room. As he walked he waved his own lantern  making a ghostly sounds. Harmon’s match finally struck despite his hands trembling in an attempt to control his giggling. With both lanterns lit we took stock of our surroundings.

The room was of plain finished stone, with and arched passage leading out from the center of each of the walls. I looked down and tracked our footsteps  across the dust ridden floor. The long skid left by Harmon as he tripped. The trail of oil drops left as the lantern tumbled away from him. The long loping stride of Lethan as he acted out his taunting pantomime of a lost spirit. My own steps mingled in with theirs.

Then, there in the interwoven impressions in the dust, I was certain I could see a fourth set.  They were mostly covered over by our tracks, but I was certain they were there.

Short, shambling, barefoot steps.

I cleared my throat to bring my discovery to my companions attention. That was when I heard a long and piercing scream erupt from Lethan’s throat. I quickly raised my head and saw my friend staring gape mouthed, lantern raised high, his eyes wide and distant as if he was staring at something mile away.

I followed his gaze across the room and there in on of the arched portals, it stood.

Hunched, head forward. Grey mottled skin, hanging loose. Large eyes,circular bulbous. Twisted hands, nails overgrown. Distended jaw, teeth like razors.

My horrified friend stood paralyzed by the monstrous visage. It opened its maw as if to scream but only a low hiss emanated from it as it lurched forward towards Lethan. I began to shout, but Harmon was already moving. He threw himself towards the beast.

The thing grabbed the large man as if he was just a child , snapping his arm like a twig and tossed him aside. It turned its head and followed his arc as he landed in the corner near me, screaming in pain. Returning its reptilian eyes back towards Lethan and stalked onward.

I stared in terror, watching helpless as it drew closer towards its prey. Toward my fiend. I barely heard Harmon as he said my name in a hoarse croak.

Something inside of me stirred and I looked down to see Harmon’s lantern, still lit, laying at my feet. As in a dream, I found myself reaching for it. The thing shuffled forward, Lethan stood still frozen under its dread stare. I hoisted the lamp up and back. The thing began to stretch its arm towards my friend. My arm swung forward, and the light sailed forward through the air.

The lantern struck the alien thing and its pallid flesh caught fire in an instant. The thing crumpled to the floor. The jagged mouth opened and shut in silent screams as the monstrous thing’s body rendered in a pillar of fetid smoke, and quickly turned to ash.

The minutes that followed seem so insignificant. After seeing that thing destroyed Lethan recovered from the petrifying fear he suffered when he first met its stare. Through the shock of the encounter we managed to help our injured friend back to his feet and somehow managed to find our way back to where we began our explorations. We used our ropes to pull our companion back up to the street. We returned to the university and placed our friend in the care of the infirmary.

In the weeks that he spent healing we related our story to the authorities. We were told, by the faculty of our school and several representatives of the civil powers, that this was not a tale to be loosely told in taverns and public houses of the city. We were assured that it would be look d into. It was inferred that keeping the existence of such a beast a secret was for the public good. We were reminded that we were also members of the public.

The burned out ruin of the house was cleared and the tunnel was filled in. We were left with the memory of what we saw.

The City of Berian

It was just before dusk as the sky ship swam lazily through the oppressive summer air towards our destination. The amber glow of the setting sun highlighted the needle like spires of the docks that rose even higher than the grand dome of the ancient cathedral, or the highest towers of the palace of Prince Ethaniel. This was the first time I had visited Berian, the capital of our grand province, and though I considered my self to be fairly cosmopolitan I must confess I was awed by its size and majesty. Taggart, my family’s trusted servant who had been charged to ensure my safe arrival at the university, pointed how many of the buildings boasted new construction to raise them up closer to the activity of the sky docks. There were even ladders and walkways built to span the gaps between structures, roadways and avenues were being made among the rooftops of the city. If one were to look closely you could see tents and stalls of merchants littered a midst the gargoyles and crenelations of the newly found elevations of the city.

Once our vessel was securely hooked to a spire we disembarked and took the long basket ride down to the more traditional streets of the metropolis. As we descended I became familiar with the various layers of smells that blanketed the capital. The heavy damp summer air of the afternoon mingled with the odor of coal and wood smoke from the chimneys of the residences and workhouses. Travelling lower down the floral perfumes of the higher classed bordellos and hotels of leisure were added. Finally, once on the ground, the ripe pedestrian smells of food, alcohol and sweat from the taverns and inns that surrounded the sky dock completed the bouquet of the city. I began to marvel at the naivety of my beloved parents for thinking that this wondrous and sinful locale might somehow provide distraction from my own natural curiosity and  reckless behaviors. After all, attending university would hardly be akin to being sequestered in a monastery.

Taggart and his cohort fell in around in an effort to shield me from the dangerous and immoral activities of fruit vendors, street tumblers, jugglers, and tavern goers, as well as the occasional prostitute and potential sneak thief as we traveled through the cobbled streets and alleyways towards the more desirable, wealthier, and better smelling areas of the city. We traveled uptown past the provincial palace it’s wonderfully clean stone facade, behind its stone walls and black iron gates, complimented by the nearby lush gardens of red and yellow flowers, the same hues that occupied the crest of the royal family. Farther away on another hill we could spy the gilt and stained glass dome of the Cathedral of the Patrons that we had seen from the distance as we flew over the city; one of the many marvels of the empire, not just of our humble province.

Just a little further on and we passed through the gates of the University of Berian, its white marble edifice shone in the last of the days dying light. The fabled Ivory Tower of education in the province. Here less than hundred years ago Leumas Nerals created his magnificent device, that gave to the empire the power of flight. Here in the dormitories of this fine institution I would reside for the foreseeable future, far from my family’s home. After being received by the Deans, and explaining the lateness of our arrival, I said my goodbyes to Taggart and the other men that had accompanied me here. I was escorted by one of the schools porters to my room. It was a small space that I was informed I would be sharing with two other young men, who I was quite anxious to meet. As I unpacked my things and tried to settle in I found myself staring out of the singular window of my new bedroom, past the rolling green lawns of the campus below and out into the city that would be my new home.  My mind wandered back to the events at Persley Station some days ago, and the horror, and carnage I found at that old barrow. Though I was still haunted by the images of that night, my mind held an odd fascination of the experience. I began to wonder,perhaps with a touch of hope, if that would just be the first of such adventures for me.

This narrative inspired  by a Weekly Challenge.

The Forgotten Barrow

When the summer came to a close on my sixteenth year it was decided that I was to leave the pastoral splendor of my family’s plantations to travel to the capital to attend the university there. It would seem that I had, unbeknownst to myself, exhausted the knowledge of what erudite citizenry could be found locally; and my beloved parents had begun to fear that, if  left idle  too long I might be tempted to become a wanderer and a wastrel. Such was the fate had befallen my great grand father, who I am named for.

I have often marveled at the frequency and convenience of which the fact that it was elder Penumbra Finefellow, the great scoundrel, who bore the greater responsibility for our families good current fortunes. It was no great secret to my beloved parents that I was filled a great desire to follow in his footsteps and experience life on more or less reckless, and carefree terms so, bearing my best interests to heart, they made every attempt to distance me from his legacy.

It was a several day journey from my family’s home to Persley Station, a town of moderate size that would be little more that a hamlet full of pig farmers were it not on the main artery of the sky ship lanes headed to the capital from the southern reach.  It is quite frankly, a dung heap but some of the amenities near the sky dock are quite nice, if a bit on the rustic side. When our party had arrived we attempted to secure lodgings for the night at an establishment that was of some good repute. When we entered the common room it was full of men with dour faces, talking of dark events.

For some time they had been occurrences where small numbers of the livestock had seemed to have wander off, or disappeared from their stables and pens at night.  This at first was credited bolder actions of local poachers and rustlers. That was until they began to find the corpses, butchered, dismembered, and left to rot in the countryside. Soon after that the first of the citizenry vanished.

It was the son of one of the assembled men, ten years of age. Over the following days others came to be missed as well.  The wife of one, the brother of another, and a handful more. Upon the previous nights, fires and hooded men were seen to congregate around the old barrow on the outskirts of the town, it was here that they were convinced that their kin or those who had captured them. They had sent for help but the authorities were too slow in arriving, and so it was here in the saloon, armed with farm implements, hunting bows and whatever crude weapons they could muster,  they gathered to go and do something about it.

 Now, my family are respected members of the community at large and so, despite the objections of my fathers employees, that were my companions, I felt it was our civic duty to assist in this endeavor. Taggart, our coachman and a man of great spirit and compassion , took charge of the rabble. He agreed to allow me to accompany them provided I stayed towards the rear and away from the fray; this suited my plans as physical combat was not something I excelled at, yet would give me the opportunity to witness this heroic act.

This band of unwashed men could by no stretch be called an army, yet they walked silently and with grim purpose through the fields and forest to that ancient burial place. As we traveled I could see in the eyes of each man the hope held on to that they might see their loved ones safe, and also the fear of what horrors they might find at the end of this nights march. When we drew closer to our destination Taggart slowed us on our progress. Creeping slowly up to the barrow we spied only two of the hooded figures standing about near the entrance. Through the portal they were guarding emanated an orange glow. The smell of smoke told us this was the light of a fire, yet one could not but imagine that it was the passage to a deep and final hell as we looked upon it.

A long moment of quiet hesitation fell upon the group of us, with the exception of my coachman I had doubts that any of our number had ever bore arms against their fellow-man; and now, here, their courage was to be tested. Taggart raised his hand and all drew in their breath in anticipation.When his hand fell, they expelled a roar and ran forward.  The dark figures at the entrance tried to run inside to raise the alarm but the first wave us closed the gap before they could make it inside.

As we pressed through the opening into the old tomb, I was tripped by one of my fellows and was sent sprawling to the ground, knocking the wind out of me; it was only by luck, and my position towards the back of our troop, that i was not trampled in the ensuing melee. By the time I was able to regain my feet the fight was done and my compatriots had won the day. Few of our band had fallen as they had the advantage of both surprise and numbers. Taggart and a few held at bay the survivors of the dark brotherhood we had sought out, including one wearing a headdress adorned with the horns of a ram, we presumed him to be the leader of their foul cult. Others tended to our few who were wounded, still more stood agape or weeping as we took in the gruesome horror of that old chamber.

Their loved ones, children, wives, and parents, hung from the ceiling like animals in a slaughter-house or were splayed on altars as fresh corpses posed in unnatural positions, screams of agony frozen on their faces and entrails filling bronze bowls.Those face haunted me as we marched our prisoners out into the grey light of that dawn. Those faces looked out from behind the eyes of the townsfolk as they strung those villains by their necks one by one when we came to the treeline, and it was those faces that must have spoken to the honorable and just heart of Taggart as he let it be done.

It is those contorted faces of pain that have been constant companions in my slumbers since that day.

The Sorcerer’s Road

Gared surveyed his men, a hardened crew of robbers huddled around their small fires, counting their shares of the latest pickings. He had tracked down and hand-picked his men based on their reputations, each one of them experienced survivors of  broken bands of thieves and brigands. Unafraid, unbeaten, and most importantly unimprisioned. Free men could not be asked inconvenient questions. The bandit captain made it clear that a captured man’s share was forfeited to the one who killed him. In the two years that they had been marauding the highways  he had yet needed to award such a bounty.

Mobility was key, never get greedy and stake out the same stretch of road for too long. It was best to move on before word of their activities reached the ears of anyone who was likely to do anything about it. It was hard to get caught if you were already gone.

Stay small that was the second rule, too many men got killed or thrown in the gaol for having the ambitious dream of becoming a “Bandit King” like in the tales of raconteurs. Besides, a half-dozen or so skilled men could easily take all but the most heavily guarded merchants. Also, fewer men meant fewer shares and mouths to feed, which meant the stakes could be kept manageable.

Be fair, and be generous. Men were less likely to turn mutinous when there was little to envy. Even his own share wasn’t much larger than any other man’s in the gang, and there was always boons given for bravery, loyalty, and service. These were always distributed nights they could spend in their drinks and songs, and Gared made sure there were plenty of those.

Over two years and they were all the richer. Yes, with these men, he had a great string of success. Provided they kept to their ways, he felt they would never be beaten. Soon they would be headed for Brayton to overwinter and begin again when the thaws came.

Something glinted in the tree line and caught his eye.

His hand fell naturally to the hilt of his sword. He squinted to see better.

A pinprick of light winked. The trees seemed to waver slightly. There was silence and the feeling of vertigo.

The forest in front of the outlaw spun widdershins in on itself leaving a hole where the trees had been.

A man stepped out. He was dressed in black breeches and a red tunic of silk, belted at the waist. His dark hair swept back and tied into a short tail.

Gared drew his sword. “Warlock!” he croaked, trying to alert his men. “Sorcery!” 

Those that noticed what was happening began to gather their feet beneath them and there weapons to their hands, most unsure of whether to fight or run.

The stranger, raised two fingers and drew a small pattern in the air. The cool evening air seemed to thicken, and condense into dozens of clear, blue, ice-like shards which exploded outwards and into the band of thieves.

The forest unfolded itself back into existence.

***

Leyto lowered his hand and looked around at the remains of the camp. The presence of the bandits had been unexpected and regrettable. Mournful tradition decreed that no one but the initiated know of the where Sorcerer’s Road touched the world. These men had the bad fortune to camp within sight of one of its outlets. Besides, it simply would not due to have the locals talking of his presence, not till he reached Athendal anyway. Normal people always get so nervous around warlocks for some reason.

Picking up a fallen spear the warlock went about the unpleasant task of ensuring that none of them remained alive. He then washed his boots and began to walk down to the road that led through the forest and would take him to the city. He hoped to be there by noon tomorrow.

There he world find his swordsman.

The Scent of Cedar

“Cedar, you say?” The lean, pale figure asked, Jalen was tall and slim, dressed in green and gold; only his eyes betrayed the slightest hint of the weariness of his years. “And, your sure I am his grand-sire?”

The  tattooed aesthetic nodded at him and passed his hand over the freshly raked patterns in the soil, indicating a small pebble painted blue and red with a thin black line separating the two hues; it seemed to be orbiting a fist sized piece of of malachite.

“That would be Auren’s issue then, the one birthed by the girl in the Southern Kingdoms I suspect.” He said, furrowing his brow. “Given eons I would never understand his fascination with those women. Cedar?” He said the name again with a hint of bemusement, “Why is it that any time one of them spews from between her hips, any offspring with the slightest of points to its ears they rush off and name it after a tree?”

The monk gazed a nearby pool, paying little heed, as Jalen began to pace around the garden.

“It’s not as if that, when we manage to rear a half-breed among our midst we try to apply the labels of Robert, or Henry, or Ancestors forbid George; but neither is it that we even name our own sons and daughters after the local flora all that often. I have lived for almost five hundred years and I can count on my hands the number of Oaks, Ashes, or Willows, Rowans, or Acacias of our race I have met in my time; I dare say I would have a finger or two to spare as well.” He continued to rant as he waved his arms, “I do not know whether to credit her with originality for deciding on something coniferous, or was it simply first bit of foliage the witless cow happened to espy after the blessed event.”

Jalen walked toward the western arch of the garden wall, the sun would soon be setting and he was loathe to miss the view. “I do realize that the lower races do tend to refer to us as the so-called Children of the Forest; but honestly Dagden,” He said smiling at the aesthetic as he motioned through the arch to the city sprawling below the palace steps, “Does this look like a forest to you?” He sighed heavily, “I suppose we should place the fault on bards and their songs.”

Dagden did not stir from his meditation.

“Well, if you are sure that he is the one? There is no one else?”

The monk nodded slightly.

“Very well, have them prepare my horse and my hounds, with any luck they will pick up his trail quickly.” he stepped towards the blue and red pebble, and drew a dagger. Slicing into his own thumb he smeared an X of blood across its surface. “The hunt begins at moon rise.”