Newly released: Gilding Dark (a 2:05-minute-long orchestral single).
She found Harmon in his room, staring at a series of drawings affixed to the wall. In the center hung a meticulously detailed graphite illustration of a young dark-haired woman with handsome mediterranean features. Harmon’s eyes shimmered with strange intensity from where he sat in statuesque silence in the middle of the spartan room, on a stiff wooden chair, spine arched, hands upon a sketchbook and it on his knees.
He said nothing as the woman entered the room, the sound of charcoal upon paper filling up the aural void.
Harmon waved briskly in the woman’s direction without looking at her, his eyes fixed on the drawing, his hands moving across the surface of the cheap faux-leather-bound sketchbook, tightly clutched in his pale, scar-worn arms.
“I’m not bothering you am I?”
“No. Just distracting me. But I could use a little distraction. Couldn’t sleep?”
“Nah. Drank too much coffee at the cafe probably. Stronger than what I’m used to here.”
“Its pretty potent. Andy back?”
“No. Still out with the boys I guess. Probably got blitzed and spent the night at Jake’s house. Something of a habit for him.”
“I wanted to thank you.”
“For suggesting the cafe, introducing us to your friend, taking us all out to eat and paying for the food. It was nice. Andy needed that.”
Harmon nodded, “No problem.”
She moved forwards, hands in the pockets of her cotton pajama bottoms.
Before she could position herself behind him to view the illustration, Harmon softly shut the sketchbook and turned in his chair.
“I never show my work before its finished.”
She rolled her eyes and then offered him a beer.
“Wanna watch a movie?”
He took one last look at the portrait upon the center of the wall and rose methodically, placing his drawing upon the small and only table in his temporary domicile.
They moved to the living room, Harmon taking up the same spot in which he had sat when last he and Lyla were still talking, however infrequently. Marla sat down beside him, just where Lyla had when they’d watched Andy’s strange horror film. Harmon couldn’t remember how much time had elapsed since the four of them had watched the movie. All sense of temporal continuity had left his mind. Marla snatched up the remote from the battered wooden coffee table and snapped the ON switch. The news played. A young, smartly dressed woman with asiatic features stood upon a dock, close to the camera. Behind her stood a massive oil rig, rising from the industrial architecture surrounding like a massive alien starship, bright with flame.
“-were able to contain the fire. While initial reports speculated the blast might have been caused by a methane bubble in the drill column, Anton Schmidt, a spokesman for Synnefo Consortium Heavy Industries, dispelled the theory and told me, in a interview just a few minutes ago that the source of the explosion has been determined to have originated from a detention device planted near the drill column.”
A spray-tanned and whiskey-bloated man in a navy blue suit with a silken red tie appeared upon a secondary feed to the right of the female reporter.
“Are you saying this was an act of terrorism?”
“That what it looks like, Joe.”
“Astounding. Absolutely astounding. Alright. Thanks Ling.”
The woman nodded turned from the camera as a crowd of men moved swiftly past her, towards the blazing oil rig.
The feed cut out.
“I’m Joe J. Turner. Up next-”
Marla changed the channel as Harmon ran his hands from thighs to knees, spine curving as he bent forth in reverie.
“I can’t stand the news.”
Harmon turned towards her with a quizzical expression, “Why’s that?”
“Its so fucking depressing.”
“Good news is no news.”
“Rather not have any in that case, everything is depressing enough as it is,” she took a swig of beer and flicked the channel again. A film in early color played. A hideous amphibian monster attacked a woman in a pink bikini on a mist-covered beach as a melodramatic score, slightly too jubilant for the content, roared from the speakers.
“What’s got you down?”
She sighed and went lax, he head lolling against the couch cushion, her eyes wandering about the ceiling.
“I dunno. Its not one thing. Andy’s depressed. Doesn’t know what he’s going to do. For money. For a career. He can’t even decide on a hobby. Whole area is filthy. Trash everywhere. Drug peddlers. I thought it would be nice to get away from the city… but its precisely the same. And, oh, I don’t know… I just thought I’d be doing something interesting at this point in my life. Something better.”
She took a swig of beer and looked to Harmon expectantly.
“There’s no use worrying about that.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“What do you mean?”
“You never seem worried about anything. Didn’t seem to care at all you got fired. And by telephone. Didn’t even have the good grace to tell you to your face.”
“There’s always another job that needs doing.”
She shook her head.
“How is it you always manage to stay so calm?”
Harmon thought hard upon the question before answering.
“On my art. I had long considered drawing and writing a hobby. A pleasant diversion. I figured I’d be working construction for many years. Maybe I still will… but I’ve had time to reflect. To reconsider. Now I understand the importance of crystallizing my thoughts; of channeling my attention; of pairing away my delusions and examining my mistakes; of elaborating upon my fantasies that they may become realities.”
“What have you been fantasizing about lately?”
Harmon turned and fixed her with his gaze, his expression opaque. Harmon imagined Lyla weeping, on her knees before him, laying bare her transgressions and begging for forgiveness. Honest and unabsolved. Desperately seeking reconciliation.
“About what I’ll be doing once I leave.”
She reached out and touched his arm.
“I hope you don’t feel pressured to leave. We don’t mind having you around.”
“I appreciate that, Marla. But you two are building a life together, and with all the problems Andy’s been having… I just don’t want to get in between that.”
She smiled and ran her hand down his arm, rolling her head over the couch cushion towards him.
“You’re so sweet. Oh hey, I meant to ask – that drawing. In your room. That’s Lyla, isn’t it?”
At the mention of the name Harmon straightened and answered flatly.
He took a swig of beer and focused his attentions to the screen and the cop-drama unfolding before him.
“I thought so. Its really nice.”
“Wish someone would draw me.”
“Would you like me to?”
She smiled broadly and leaned against him.
“No,” she craned her neck up towards his face, her hands drawing about the back of his neck, “Right now, I want you to kiss me.”
Before Marla could taste his lips, Harmon shoved her hands free and withdrew and rose. He stood a moment, starring at the wall and then glanced at the woman over his shoulder.
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“Harmon, I’m sorry, I… just thought that-”
“I’m not disloyal.”
“I thought you and Lyla had broken up. I mean she never comes around and…”
“And what about Andy?”
“I wasn’t thinking. Harmon, wait, where are you going? Harmon, wait.”
The front door slammed shut and all was silence.
Praise the horns—damn he who takes them.
Praise the ulcers—hex he that makes them.
Says the throng—around the fire.
Edging closer—to the pyre.
“Goblin Slayer was calm as he delivered this answer that was no answer. He daubed his gauntlets with blood, then pulled a liver out from one of the bodies.”
—Kumo Kagyu, Goblin Slayer, Vol. 1 (2016)
§.00 The first installment of the novel series Goblin Slayer, Vol.1 (2016), written by Kumo Kagyu (with illustrations by Noboru Kannatsuki), opens with a creation story; the gods of light, order and destiny are locked in a cosmic struggle with the gods of darkness, chaos and chance (how many gods attend each attribute, we are not told). In place of fighting each other directly, their contest is engaged by the rolling of die. After some time the gods tire of dice and create the world as their board and all the beings upon it as their pawns.
§.01 After the table-top inspired prologue, a knowing, introductory line, preempting the cliches to come: “You’ve heard this one before.” More likely than not, upon reading Chapter 1, a fantasy-versed reader will, indeed have heard the set-up before; a young, would-be adventurer known only as Priestess (no characters in the novel have names, only class-designations) joins a guild, receives “porcelain” rank (the lowest of the guild’s 10-teir hierarchy) and is met by three other, young, would-be porcelain adventurers—Warrior, Fighter and Wizard—who ask her to join their party on a quest to save kidnapped maidens from the clutches of a band of goblins (which are described as “-tall as a child, with strength and wits to match”). Priestess after some hesitation, accepts the offer. The party then tracks down the goblins to their lair in a gloomy cave. Venturing within the recess, the party is filled with confidence, save for Priestess, who urges caution, however, her chiding proves fruitless—shortly thereafter, a band of goblins blindside the adventurers.
§.02 In a more conventional tale, the brave wayfarers would have just barely defeated the goblins, rescued the maidens and received a bountiful reward for their pains. However, in Goblin Slayer, they all wind up dead, or as good as. Wizard is gutted with a poison blade. Warrior is slaughtered. Fighter is beaten and raped. Priestess is set upon and takes an arrow to the shoulder. Yet, just before Priestess meets the same fate as Fighter, a mysterious man appears who is “not very impressive” and donned in “dirty leather armor and a filthy steel helm.” The man, a silver ranked adventurer (the third highest rank within the guild hierarchy), decimates the goblins and introduces himself as Goblin Slayer. He then tells Priestess that Wizard is as good as dead, due to the workings of goblin poison that had lined the blade which skewered her. Wizard asks to be put out of her misery and Goblin Slayer swiftly obliges and slits her throat without compunction, much to Priestess’ dismay. Slayer then states that he is going to finish off the rest of the goblins; Priestess goes with him and together they destroy the nest and find a secret room filled with goblin children born from the wombs of human females the goblin horde had kidnapped. Priestess inquires whether or not Slayer will kill them. He says he will and she tries to stop him by asking if he would still be willing to slaughter them if they were good, to which the Slayer replies “The only good goblins are the ones that never come out of their holes,” before clubbing the baby goblins to death. After this grisly affair, the Priestess resolves (rather surprisingly) to become a proper adventurer by accompanying Goblin Slayer on his bloody, ceaseless missions.
§.03 The first thing that struck me about the novel was how original its execution, despite its abundant cliches. In GS, cliches are dutifully employed to be forthrightly subverted, but not merely for the sake of surprising the reader, as when, in a Hollywood horror film, convention dictates a cat or trusted friend be responsible for the first jump-scare so that the effect of the second may be heightened by causing the audience to question whether or not it will again be a harmless animal or friend, or some genuine threat. For example, Goblin Slayer, a skillful warrior and thoughtful tactician, would, in more conventional fantasy works, ladder his way up from the stock genre threats (such as bandits, goblins, trolls, etc) to ever greater challenges (such as dragons and necromancers) in tandem with a plot ever expanding in scope, from the local, to the demense, to the national, to the continental to, invariably, the world, and, perhaps, other worlds (spirit realms, etc). This, however, is not the case with the slayer, who adamantly refuses to engage in any activity not related to exterminating goblins. His idee fixe is so extreme that the co-inhabitants of the town near where he resides come to consider him eccentric, if not mad, and they might be right, for even when he is told that the world is imperiled by “an army of demons” he refuses to aid those who petition his assistance, saying only, “If it isn’t goblins, then I don’t care.” His proclivity, no matter how unhealthy, proves salubrious to those previously living in fear of the diminutive raiders, as the “military won’t move against goblins.” (p. 135)
Further, a character who is introduced in a like-manner to the slayer in a conventional genre-work would also be charged with the characteristics partial to fantasy protagonists; which are generally either sullen and given over to reverie (as in Twilight or Lord of the Rings), whimsical and optimistic (as the protagonists in the novels of Charles De Lint), or a straight-laced ‘chosen one’ (as in Harry Potter or Star Wars), however, the slayer bares no similarity to any of these archetypes, or the hero archetype in general. Rather, he is more akin to a professional shorn of all social ambition—a obsessive tradesman—than the prototypical knight-errant of romantic literature. This is demonstrated in the sedulous way in which the slayer’s tradecraft is highlight, as in the following passages, “‘Leather armor prizes ease of movement. Mail would stop a dagger in the dark… His helmet, the same. Sword and shield are small, easy to use in a tight space.'” Kagyu, p. 130… “‘Clean items reek of metal,’ Goblin Slayer said, a note of annoyance in his voice. Goblins have an excellent sense of smell.” p. 132.
Of further interest is the fact that his trade is not a vaunted one, but is, instead, looked down upon as the preoccupation of an amatuer (the consensus in the story is that real heroes should always seek greater glory). One can see parallels between the snobbery of the guild adventurers, and the differential treatment by real-life society between the man who goes to college so as to become a doctor, and the man who goes to trade-school so as to become a lineworker. In recognizing this, Goblin Slayer Vol.1, functions as a cleverly disguised social satire as much as a RPG homage or action-adventure.
The novel series had its origins in a online thread posted by Kumo Kagyu in October, 2012; the story was later re-edited into novel-form and picked up by GA Bunko. On February 15, 2016, the first installment of the novel series was published via SB Creative (in Japanese). A few months later, in December 20, 2016, Yen Press licensed the novels and released the first volume in English. Both a comic (written by Masahiro Ikeno) and an animated adaptation (written by Hideyuki Kurata and Yosuke Kuroda) have been made in the interim since the initial publication of the novel series, which is, presently, still on-going (with ten volumes released in Japan as of 2019).
The blue sheen swept over Harmon’s pallid skin as he pulled on a pair of latex gloves and clicked on the login screen of Sprawls’ ConneXt account. Harmon still remembered the password from when Sprawls had once asked him to login into his social media via the former’s computer to update his followers on a music event in which he was to play after his phone had accidently been crushed.
Harmon typed in the words ‘Sixstringking’ and pressed ‘ENTER.’
His heart began to beat faster; the ensouled engine driven by the twin oils of gnawing fear and raucous elation.
“Should change your password more often, old friend.”
He scanned the screen; a jpeg of Sprawls, donned in a starchy dollar-store T-shirt, face adorned with a forced smile which Harmon assumed was supposed to be charming. The effect was merely awkward. The man was likely stoned when he took it. The man at the computer scrawled up to Richard’s most recent post, which read, “Sunday funday, niggas!” Harmon clicked ‘NEW POST’ on the upper right and began typing in the small, off-white square and hit ‘SEND’ and then closed Richard’s laptop and set it back on his small unadorned bed beside Richard’s plugged and charging smart phone, then he rose and withdrew the packet of China Town from his pocket, knelt and placed the synthetics beneath the bed, beside and under Richard’s dirty laundry.
Harmon straightened and cast a cautionary gaze around the room, backtracking, looking for fibers. When he found nothing he headed for the door, and paused on the upper landing, shower was still running. Abruptly, it stopped and Richard’s croaky, distinctive voice echoed out from below. He was drunkenly singing a R & B song Harmon didn’t recognize.
The intruder moved swiftly and soundlessly into his own room, thankful to find it unlocked and then pressed himself to the wall as Richard ascended the stairs, paused, and turned to the left, into his room, still singing to himself. Harmon could faintly hear his former roommate’s pacing. He waited until the pacing stopped before peeking out into the hallway, swiftly descending the carpeted stairs and slid out the living room window, shutting it gingerly and then vanishing off down the weather worn pavement.
Author’s note: The following text is a short chapter excerpt from my forthcoming novel, Tomb Of The Father. This installment will be one of the last chapter excerpts released until the book is completed.
Lord Eadwulf’s castle lay an hours ride from the city of Hableale, ensconced in rolling woodlands that trammeled out and merged with the flat vastness of the moor circumferent. The outer keep was a massive thing, ringed first by moat and second by huge curtain walls, ancient and wrought of stones from a foreign land, their providence as unknown to the inhabitants of Haberale as their age. Trumpets sounded from somewhere within the hulking monolith as two figures entered on horseback, driving hard across the drawbridge, through the mighty barbican and deep into the well trammeled haven of the outer bailey. To the right, a storehouse before which was chained a massive hound of some breed beyond the rider’s collective reckoning and to the left, a length of stable-barns from which the shunted braying of great steeds emanated like mighty gusts of wind. Folk of every lower class there labored; stable-lads hefting thick clumps of hay and the refuse of the equines as maidens dressed in the elegant red robes of the Order of Marta watched from afar, reveling in the excitement of their voyeurism, giggling with mischievous delight, fantasizing about that which their fathers would prefer they not. Older men moved large sacks of grain and salted meats from the castle proper and placed them within the store house in well-ordered piles and then dusted their calloused hands and stood chatting idly as their eyes followed the crows who turned half-circles up in the thermals.
The sky roiled with the dark harbingers of sunder, a heavy, howling wind tearing off from the far mountains and soaring in and under the battlements to scatter the hay and seed and chill the bones of every present soul. The guards looked to the darkening horizon nervously and then latched the great gate behind the two riders and then lead their horses to the stables and there bound and calmed them.
Gunvald dismounted first and looked around in wonderment. The grand keep’s ambit was so verdant and so ancient that it seemed more of some other world, some higher plane than the dull and barren sprawl of the short-flung town. He moved from the outer stable-barns and started on his way towards the wide stone-slated path which wound up to the mouth of the donjon like a gigantic serpent comprised of cloud. Baldric quickly followed and together, with a retinue of two guardsmen, they entered the castle proper. Through double doors of oak and across wide floors, well-laid with lavish carpeting, and up and down steps they went until at last they entered the well-packed banquet hall to the sound of muted strumming.
A great feast was underway and much merriment could be heard rising every now and then over the raucous clatter of instrumentation. Eadwulf Charmian sat, as was his right, at the head of the polished long table upon a throne garland with cushioned silks, hands overflowing with the splendor of his kitchens; spiced wine and phasianid. He was surrounded on all sides other by the host of the house, the chamberlain, his marshal, knights and footmen aplenty; pantler and butler moving to and fro with dutiful reserve, carrying plates of cheese and meats and trays of fish and hearty loaves and great and shimmering samovars of wine.
As Gunvald and Baldric made their way to the table they paused and, respectfully, bowed to their noble host who rose with great animation, smiling broadly.
“Duteous gentlemen, we welcome thee unto our hearth. One face familiar, the other, less so.”
Baldric gestured with melodramatic flair to his compatriot and then spoke in booming undulations.
“May I present, Ye Lordship, Gunvald Wegferend of Haberale, loyal solider to The Crown and honorable hero of our thede. Twas he alone who survived the massacre at Rivenlore and paid back the damnable cur, that architect of our goodly men’s demise, two-fold!”
A light of recognition there entered into the lord’s puffy, dull and inebriated eyes.
“Not with silver and gold, I trust!”
“No, m’lord,” Gunvald replied with a faint smile, “With blood and steel.”
“Aye, a most handsome reply! Come, let me embrace thee, worthy comrade!”
With a sudden burst of energy, the lord bounded across the floor and threw his chubby, ineffectual arms about Gunvald and then kissed his bewildered guest full upon the cheek and released him, smiling widely, patting the warrior’s arms as might a beneficent uncle.
“Now come, let us wine and dine and make merry!”
With some hesitation, Gunvald nodded and joined his Lord at the resplendent banquet table. Eadwulf made no direction and so Gunvald took a seat beside a old and grizzled pikeman whose helmet sat upon his lap, o’erturned as if he might at any moment don it once more and spring fiercely to violent action.
He scoured all present heads and gave a muted sigh. His lady was not present.
Where hast my love flown?
As Lord Eadwulf bade his Marshal, a stocky man named Haiden, raise the samovars and fill the newcomers goblets. Gunvald gritted his teeth, exerting every ounce of his considerable willpower to restrain himself from inquiry. At last, it became too much to bare; he turned full about in his chair and addressed his gracious host curtly.
“I hear tell, thee’ve taken on new hands. A young woman, if thy yeomen tell it true.”
Eadwulf gave a libidinous smile and in that moment, were he any other man, Gunvald would have leapt from his seat and cleaved him in twain. But he wasn’t any other man; he was a duke and more importantly, he was of Torian blood; of a certainty, there was no greater crime than the murder of one’s own kind – Gunvald recalled that not even that most abominable deity, Dactyl, whose very name were as a curse upon both the living and the dead, ever drew the blood of another Origin.
“Aye,” responded the lord, a twinkle in the eye, “A darling girl. A commoner, but none more beautiful, I tell thee true. Leofflaed is her name. I must introduce thee once she quits her bath.”
“She’ll be joining us?”
“Indeed, this is a special night, dear countryman! Hath thy dull brain been so wrought with valorous contemplation that ye’ve forgotten the day?”
Baldric, who sat dutifully beside his cousin, leaned in, whispering, “Tis Winter’s Dance.”
Gunvald perked up instantly, raising his goblet and forcing a wan smile.
“Of course, of course, I’d nearly forgot, tis Winter’s Dance.”
“Aye, Fall holds ever diminishing sway, master of the seasons no longer – the whispering winds of The Rimn rattle the cottages of our dainty hamlet already like the breath of some great beast,” Haiden exclaimed, shuddering slightly.
This pronouncement of fell dismay seemed to rouse much discontent in the host, the lord most of all.
“What now, sir? Is my Grand Marshal – sovereign of both horse and man – afeared of a light Winter’s gale?”
A portly old man nearest the Marshal, crimson frocked and hairless, replied darkly, “Haiden speaks it true, m’lord. These winds which blow so ceaselessly, the odd fog that seems to hang omnipresent o’er the moors, what seems to follow one in the passing, and those accursed crows – everywhere, simply everywhere – tis a bad sign. An omen. Marta is warning us.”
“Hush now, Summoner Thane,” Exclaimed Eadwulf, squirming upon his garland throne with nervous agitation, “Afore thy doomsaying proves ruinous to the good mirth of the house.”
The old man leaned back in his chair and folded his hands about his chest, over the heart. Gunvald recalled that the superstitious, masked peasants he’d met upon the road had made the same gesture when he’d uttered the name of the Eyeless-all-seeing. Gunvald remembered being taught as a child that the earthly manifestations of Marta affix themselves to the heart. It was said that the heart was the source of all emotion and that, if sufficient appropriations of piety were made to the goddess, she would cleanse the ailing organ of all that troubled it. Due this attribution, some had taken to calling her, Our Lady Pure-Heart, others still, The Reaper of Woe, though Summoner’s of a more parochial variety looked down upon such name-giving – some to the point of declaring such monikers heresies – for in the purist’s eyes, it was the very summit of arrogance to denominate pet-names to an Origin of beautitude. What place, after all, did the finite have naming the infinite?
Thane opened his wrinkled maw to speak but a harsh glare from his lord caught it there in his throat and, quickly, he fell silent once more, nodding to himself rather sadly as might the father of some harumscarum lad who’d the mind to go frolicking about the moors at night. Haiden too said no more and seeing this a fresh smile broke out over Eadwulf’s rotund and rosy face. He reached forth with his beefy, bejeweled fingers and raised his glass for a slender serving wench who poured a fresh pint of wine.
“What do thee make of all their pronouncements, landsman Gunvald?”
Gunvald looked from Haiden to the holy man and then shook his head.
“I am a footsoldier, before that, farmer. Premonitions and omens are, I am afraid, well beyond my ken.”
Suddenly, a new voice intruded upon the feast, low and sonorous, mannered like some orator of yore.
“This once venerable council has fallen to superstition most deplorably. Here you sit, High Summoner and Grand Marhsal, in the keep of the most powerful lord in the north, quaking like unsuckled babes at the prospect of supernatural despotism. Our dreams can, in times of direst contest, follow us full from that queer parlor, sleep, and pass into the waking world, latched to the insides of our selfsame skulls like a gaggle of phantasmal parasites. There they spring loose upon our fertile imaginations all manner of signs and signals, every style of omen and fell proscription. But by what method do we discern whether it is some connective coil that lends itself to providence or merely our dream’s own alcahest? Answer that question and thee shall surely have seized upon the truth of it.”
All present heads turned left, to the grand stair that let out to the upper landing, to behold a young man, garland in the finest of silks, blue and white. Upon his shoulder nested a falcon, whose piercing black eyes scanned the crowd the same as its master’s own and his lapis blue and more striking still.
Eadwulf gestured to the well-spoken dandy, “Landsman Gunvald, may I introduce to you the honorable Baron, Czemis Avarr, Ironmonger and Falconer of Caer Avarr. Our barton’s Master of Game.
Gunvald nodded respectfully towards the beauteous man who bowed respectably, but with a slight smile playing up one side of his face, as if he were possessed of some knowledge about the members of that venerable gathering which, if divulged, would bring about considerable embarrassment. The falconer then advanced to the table, his footfalls so soft and feline he made almost no sound at all. When he stood before the only empty chair opposite the lord, Haiden sighed and gestured to the falcon.
“Master Avarr, surely you do not mean to bring that carrion-beast to our table?”
The falcon sqwaked as if in rebuke as Avarr smiled ever so faintly once more.
“Not at all, for see thee not, he’s no carrion-beast. My friend prefers his prey were lively. The struggle of the hunt well whets his appetite.”
The Grand Marshal furrowed his brows with deep puzzlement and some apprehension, unsure as to the significance of the young falconer’s words.
“Meaning that he will leave thy food unmolested, lest thou there hath eft or shrew a scuttling.”
Avarr smiled his ghosting, barely discernable smile and straightened, extending the arm upon which his falcon nested as he whistled a command, whereupon the majestic beast flew full up to the rafters and then back down to perch upon the lower railing of the staircase like a dutiful guardian. The avian surveyed them intently as its master took his seat opposite Eadwulf, removing a small, silver cigarette tin from some inner fold of his jacket. All the while he moved, Gunvald’s eyes followed him, transfixed to the supple elegance of the singular man as he slid a machine-packed cigarette between his blood-red lips and lit it with a golden lighter. Languid and masterful were his movements, so much so that even the mundane action of his tobacco consumption seemed to eat up the energy of the room, to refocus and refine it. After a few long, languid drags upon his opium laced cigarette he leaned back upon the unadorned and old wooden chair at table’s end as if it were a throne more resplendent than Eadwulf’s own. The gesture seemed to say that it were now permissible for the party to continue, that his entrance had garnered sufficient appraisal. It seemed, to the veteran, that any man or woman who had no foreknowledge of the rightful placing of the household would have assumed this guady, white-haired falconer the rightful master of the keep.
“Thou must be Sir Gunvald, tis an honor to make thy acquaintance, loyal kinsman.”
Avarr extended a supple, white-gloved hand to the soldier who took it with some hesitation and shook it firmly. The falconer was far stronger than he looked.
“The honor is not thine alone, Baron Avarr, thy reputation precedes thee. Six years of fighting the grey folk and yet I never once encountered thee or thy men. Yet there were stories aplenty. Not a month went by where there was not talk amongst the war camp of thy valor. I wish we could have, if but once, shared the field.”
“We never had the chance to fight, side by side, as I never fought at the front. Fering – before his passing – stationed my regiment in the north-eastern forests near the base of the World Spine; despite my protestations, he believed, correctly, as it turned out, that my prowess as a huntsman would prove useful against the remnants of the Grey Folk who had deserted their war combine and who operated from that festering wood as brigands of a most savage disposition. Their operation had severely hampered our supply-lines and without supplies thy lot in the front would have crumbled, not from the foes to the north, but from the pangs of hunger and thirst. As thee well knows, the Grey Folk were not seasoned in open warfare, they’d have been crushed like insects under the hooves for a boar had they confronted the Torian Legions, army to army, on some open plain, as is our custom, for those weapons from my forge are scarce rivaled, even in Sage. Rather, they preferred the confounding architecture of their grand forests – subterfuge and skullduggery from behind bark and vine – arrows in the dark, knives in the back in twisting avenues where grapeshot is ill advised. Thou mayest recall the furor their tactics caused, we Torians had grown complacent in our ways and were outraged, foolishly, senselessly, when a tribe decided that rules and warfare mixed as water and oil. So our gracious Lord sent me to confront them at their selfsame game and thanks to the valor of my own men and, if it is not too bold to say, my own slow-flowering plans, I was able to best them most decisively.”
“As humble as ever, Baron.” Marshal Haiden sneered. Gunvald sensed bad-blood between the two and wondered at its origins. It seemed to Gunvald that there was some mote of jealousy in Haiden’s tone, buried firmly beneath his facade of civility. A venom particular to a man once scorned and unrecognized. A strange thing indeed, for the Grand Marshal was, in the hierarchy of the court, second in importance only to Eadwulf and the Arch-Summoner himself. What, Gunvald wondered, could he possibly be jealous of? What could a countryside ironmonger of minor nobility possess that the chief of The Lord’s army could not?
At length, Avarr turned to the Marshal and poured himself a glass of wine and lit himself another cigarette before speaking.
“I’ve been called many things in my life, Grand Marshal: ‘whore-monger,’ ‘addict,’ ‘pretentious,’ ‘tree killer,’ but never, ‘humble.’ At this point, such an allegation would sting worse than all the others. What is ‘humility’ but the perpetual pretense of inferiority? Nothing else. The humble man is he who says, ‘Ignore my prowess! It is meaningless! Praise only my boundless insignificance!’ When indeed, in reality, the feigning of his impotence and insignificance is the very thing which he hopes is praised; a substitute for true virtue. To be called humble is to be called a liar.”
The members of the house gave several terse, nervous laughs, unsure if Avarr’s comments were meant as jest or lecture or some queer combination of the two and when he laughed with them their mirth turned in earnest. Haiden merely grimaced and returned to his goblet, clearly displeased but not so sufficiently as to ruin his Lord’s graceful gathering.
Eadwulf leaned over his mutton, goblet in hand, remnants of fowl clinging to his girthful and graying beard, “Is Leofflaed coming shortly? Or is she still mucking about with her perfume and spice?”
The baron leaned back in his chair, smoking idly and looking off to where his feathery comrade fluttered about the rafters as if in silent rapport. At length, he spoke without turning.
“She dresses as we speak. I expect her any-”
Suddenly a shrill, impetuous voice boomed out from the upper landing.
“So I see that all have begun without me!”
Gunvald followed the voice from whence it came and turned his gaze to the grand stair whereupon a young woman stood, pout-lipped and grim-eyed, hands at her waist. Gunvald was shocked and elated. Elated at the sight of his beloved, shocked at how much she had changed in the space of seven years. Gone was the radiant smile of youthful innocence, in it’s stead, a cold, disdainful frown. Gone were the sun-faded and form-fitting lineaments of the village, replaced now by garish vestments of the keep, silk and sapphires, silver and gold. Gone was her agile frame and the supple movements which the soldier remembered so fondly from his youth, replaced now by an ungainly girth. None would have called her fat but the burgeoning plumpness of castle-excess was unmistakable.
“Thou hath no right to look so put-out, Leofflaed, one cannot expect all the world to run along the lines of thy clock,” Avarr replied flatly from below.
She surveyed the falconer with slowly softening vexation, then the party. Gunvald was surprised the Lord did not reprimand the baron for his chastisement. At length, she sighed and descended the stair, taking a seat beside Lord Eadwulf. As one of the serving girls pulled out a seat for Leofflaed, Eadwulf smiled and gestured towards her, his mouth half-filled with meats.
“Radiant, my dear, most radiant!”
Her only reply was a half-hearted smile, as transitory as the light glinting off her eyes.
The Lord motioned for the serving girls to fill her cup and move the food down to Leofflaed’s end of the table, as the silk-robed woman looked over the faces of every present soul. She seemed wholly disinterested in the affair, hands folded about her waist, lips stuck in what seemed to be a perpetual pout. Though she had gained weight and her countenance wore grim, she was still quite beautiful, the luster of fertile youth not yet wholly faded by time. What stirred Gunvald’s passions more than all her fading beauty was the memories of those fairer days wherein she and he had twined about the steps of the old temple, bounding here and there over moss and lichen, bracken and fern; how they had played hide and seek in the forests beyond Castle Avarr just before the moorland; how they embraced in times of woe and how they had kissed underneath the white bone of the moon by the statue at the edge of town whereupon he’d stumbled across the curious, one-eyed beggar. He remembered how they’d made love the day before he’d left for war, how she’d moaned and later cried and how they had pledged themselves to one another as the sun had risen red as the blood of all the men he had ever slain, as if portending all the masterful savagery he had done and all that he was still to do. Crushing sadness and unignorable agitation swam within the body of the swordsman, moving within his bosom and up from bosom to throat and from throat to mouth, bursting free of that fleshy cage like a lantern shattered in a barn of hay.
“Ne’er did I dare to believe that I would behold that face again; not in wildest dream-wanderings.”
Leofflaed turned to the upstart instantly, one brow going up with mild shock, the other down in confusion. Eyes met there for some indeterminable sphere’s turning, brown to green, green to brown forest to earth, plateau to vine. The shock swiftly dissipated into perplexed consternation.
“And thou art?”
Gunvald’s heart stilled a moment, then a pain, eerie and ethereal, slithered throughout the totality of the soma, palling the mind with direst imaginings. The soldier parted his lips to speak but no sound there escaped; he merely looked on, stunned to speechlessness. Fists balled like stones at his side, trembling with agitation. How, he thought, could she not remember?
Avarr turned to the woman and gestured to the soldier with his half-burned cigarette.
“Lady Leofflaed, may I introduce thee to Gunvald Wegerferend. It were he that slew Grim-Claw, Chief of the Gray Hordes of the North. Impressive, no?”
Leofflaed’s eyes grew wide, her body tense and still, her breath catching in her throat until a muted gasp escaped therefrom.
“Please… excuse me. I’m not… feeling well.”
Eadwulf lowered his goblet, furrowing his disorderly brows.
“What’s this now, have ye taken too much port afore the meal?”
“No, my dearest,” she turned full away from the still-standing soldier as she addressed her liege, as if she might wither away beneath his gaze, “I… do not not know what has come over me, some allergy perhaps, a fever of the seasons.”
Her facade fooled none but a few of the serving maids who cloistered round their ward, one of them fanning the lady with an empty soup dish, all the better to dispel whatever had befallen her. None spoke and, at length, the Lord intoned softly and somberly, “Well, get ye gone then. Off to bed. Off.”
The Lady left without another word as an uneasy pall settled over the feast. After the last footfalls of the Lady and her entourage had vanished up the well-varnished steps of the keep, The Baron rose and took Gunvald by the arm.
“Join me for a smoke upon the terrace.”
“But… the feast…”
Gunvald glanced over his shoulder and found Eadwulf’s beady eyes affixed to his own, sullenly regarding them with growing suspicion from beneath craggy brows and matted locks.
“I and our kindly guest wish to ply our senses to the crisp night air, by your leave.”
The Lord looked on a moment, his suspicion melting away almost instantly into a look of sadness then bewilderment, then comprehension. He nodded, “Ah, yes, yes, of course. Give him the goodly tour of it!”
“So I shall, my lord. So I shall.”
The two men, the baron and the landsman, left off out of the great hall to the whispering of the inner court, the distance rendering the sounds unintelligable.
Night fell like a blanket of smoke over the hunters, the clicking of crickets in the forest beyond the old bunker, the only sound save for the rustling of the lonesome wind. The men were two in number, one middle aged and the other graying about the temples, languidly smoking a cigarette and listening to the portable radio he’d set up inside the bunker. Phil sat fiddling with the radio, it hissing white-noise in bitter hums between channel emissions. The Sandhill Crane is exceptionally large, reaching heights of 7 feet and possessed of red coloring about its eyes-; hiss; the Brown Bear can often be found-; hiss; “I wish a buck was still silver. It was back when the country was strong. Back before Elvis. Before the Vietnam war came along. Before The Beatles and ‘Yesterday.’ When a man could still work, still would. The best of the free life behind us now. And are the good times really over for good?”
“Phil,” the younger man intoned with vexation, “Would you mind changing the channel?”
“What’s the matter, Tom, don’t like country?”
“Nobody likes country music.”
Tom raised his head from the elegant scribbling of the notebook, brows arching in reproachment.
“Fine, fine. Changing it. Can’t believe you don’t like Merle Haggard. Didn’t know better, I’d assume you weren’t American.” He switched the dial. Silence, then a voice, sonorous and official of tone.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Breaking news: mysterious sights seen over the town of Holdover, Nebraska. These reports come to us straight from our reporter on the ground, Emily Curtis who we have here on livefeed. Ah, hello, Emily, what are these ‘mysterious sightings’ really all about?”
“Good evening, Chris. To answer your question it’s hard to say. We recently interviewed several people who have reported glimpsing a strange creature, moving about the trees. Some say it had wings, though most say it was too dark to see but-“
A old voice, croaky and filled with agitation cut in.
“They’ll shake their heads and laugh, but goddammit I know what I saw! Its there! ITS THERE!”
When the newswoman had recovered her composure she interjected in befuddlement.
“Who are you, sir?”
“What’s there? What is it that you saw in the woods, Mr. Greene?”
“Well,” he calmed some and the sound of a beard being stroked could be heard over the airwaves, “I caint rightly say as I know what it were. Weren’t human, I kin tell ya that. No, ma’am.”
“Well, alright, there you have it, Chris. Emily Cochran reporting for National Vita, back to you Chris.”
“Thanks Emily. What a curious story,” the news anchor could barely contain his amusement, “Moving on, noted motivational instructor, Christopher Wisdom challenges noted ophthalmologist to a fencing match – the twist, the fencing match will take place on a hockey rink-“
“Well, hell, what do you make of that, Tom?
“Strange spot for a fencing match.”
“No, meant the business in the forest. You know they were talking ’bout Offstead Park, right? That means they were talking about this forest, our forest. According to that old timer, there’s some kinda… thing hereabouts.”
Tom gave his companion a looked of utter indifference.
“He sounds like the kind of fellow that’d think the earth was flat.”
“Come on, you have to admit, its weird.”
“What is? A soused hilljack leaping at shadows? Hardly out of the ordinary.”
“Come on, you know what I’m talking about. This is the eighteenth sighting in the past month. Ain’t normal. Something’s going on.”
“What do you fancy that something is?”
“Hell if I know,” Phil took a puff of his cigarette and a sip of his beer as he leaned back in the ancient wicker chair, the upholstery creaking neath his burly frame, “Could be anything, but it sure as shit ain’t nothing.”
“Ain’t nothing ain’t much of something.”
“Sometimes I think you just like being contrarian. Like when Frank was telling us about that haunted house.”
“You know I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Sometimes I wonder what you do believe in.”
“Pretty rich coming from a lapsed Catholic.”
Phil threw up his hands in exasperation, set his beer down with a decisive clink and turned to his compatriot.
“Listen, I’m not saying its spooks and goblins, I’m just saying I’ve heard about this kinda stuff, read about it too and there are just too many things that we can’t explain and dismiss out of hand. Back in 2021 there was an unidentified object over the pacific, US battle cruisers couldn’t get a bead on it, one of them said it looked like a giant bat with glowing eyes, had no idea what it was but it jammed their signal; 2023, four children said they saw a winged creature over their farmstead in Appalachia; 2029, 15 different people in Iowa claim they received strange phone calls where some fella up and tells them that there’s to be a death in the town in seven days, seven days come and pass and some young beauty is murdered by her boyfriend, crime of passion, or so they said. You just telling me all those people who corroborated each other’s stories were making it all up?”
“Not necessarily, though that would be more believable to me than a giant glowing bat that can signal-jam a battle cruiser. Could be mass delusion, could be their eyes deceived them and they made up a story after the fact to explain it. In India, there was a holy man who millions believed could heal the lame and wake the dead.”
“Well… maybe he could.”
“Yeah, and maybe the moon is made of cheese.”
“Now see, why ya gotta be that way?”
“Ain’t being no way.”
“Hell if ya ain’t. If I offered you two strippers, a pole and a case of black label, you’d assume it was a prank.”
“Knowing you, I probably would. You’d never shill out that much money for a couple of broads. Now the black label, that I’d believe.”
They exchanged smiles but Phil’s vanished quicker than his friends; he shook his head.
“Well, I ain’t one ta argue,” the older man noticed Tom was massaging his temple, blinking rapidly, “You alright?”
“Fine. Just a migraine. Head’s starting to pound all of a sudden. Must be the pressure from the elevation. Probably just not used to the altitude.”
Phil took a long drag on his cigarette and then bent to change the dial yet again, before his hand could reach it, the hissing of radio-static overtook the channel.
“Aw, dammit. Lost the signal.”
“Would you mind turning that thing off? My head’s gonna explode. Where’s the Motrin?”
“I’m trying, the dial is stuck,” Phil huffed under his breath, furrowing his brows with consternation as he tussled with the whirring machine, “Come on, you sonofabitch…”
Tom slammed his notebook shut and rose, passing the hunting rifles and coolers of beer and bottled water, and moved towards the door. Massaging his temples still, more forcefully now, face flush and a slight sweat beginning to break upon his brow, despite the frigidity of the old bunker.
“I’m going out. Taking a walk. Let me know when you’ve got that thing under control.”
“Aight. Just don’t go too far, wouldn’t want you falling down a mineshaft or stepping in a bear trap.”
Tom nodded and snatched a flashlight off his desk, threw on his Carhartt jacket, strapped his homemade knife-sheath to his belt and left the bunker. Outside the rusted construct a chill wind blew undergirded by the swelling cacophony of the forest’s multitudinous host. The building was situated in a small clearing, the ground, damp and mossy, here and there a stone, smooth and the height of a man’s shin, laying like the eggs of some gargantuan beast, calcified in some cataclysm beyond all reckoning. Oak and willows surrounding, heavy with slithering vine, scratching the sky as if in vengeful protestation of its withdrawal of the sun. Moonlight shown through the boughs, illuminating efts and mew alike and them skittering off into the darkness with the faintest of fey rustlings, the scent of mud and bark and wet stone heavy in the air.
Tom Callahan stretched and breathed deep the sweet scents and gazed up unto the night sky, his cold blue eyes shimmering with the reflections of the lunar disk, white as bone. His head was feeling better already. Lungs swelled with sweet mountain air. Skin caressed by the soothing filaments of the northern wind. He decided at length to look around. The bunker was a recent discovery and the duo had never scoped out the old quarry which they had seen from a distance when they had tracked a deer the previous morning. Curiosity swelled in his breast and without wasting any time he spun on a heel and left off to the north. He strode over tumultuous hillocks, then descended down a steep bank, once a mighty river that twined like a sorrowful and desiccated serpent, down onto a flat and trammeled plain of grey stone that crunched with every measured footfall, like a bevvy of pulpy chitin.
Callahan gazed about in wonderment at the quarry. It was more a place out of some fantastical eldritch workshop than a thing of known materiality, so queer-lit and ambiguously skeletal in its stony laylines of dryrent earth. Everywhere were large boulders, some standing thrice the height of any mortal man, they rooted to their respective moonshine and shade. As he approached, the wayfarer discerned yet another peculiarity about the wide, square boulder, strewn and stony expanse; small piles of bones. Animals of all habitats and morphologies, toads, newts, boar, deers, birds of many variations and, here and there, the great horned totem of a elk.
“What on earth,” he mouthed to himself as the wind swept up.
He drew closer to the nearest skull pile which had been carefully situated beneath a high rock outcropping which let down into a echoing cavern. Atop the bird, deer and elk skulls sat a horrid effigy.
A human skull.
Instinctively, unthinkingly, Callahan flinched and drew back, muttering a curse underneath his breath, quivering much from fear as from the wind’s savage increase. A cold, liquid dread slithered up his spine and coiled about his reptilian ganglia. Then, as if from a dream, eyes like flashing embers shone through the inky voided architecture of the cave. A great and terrible entity sprang forth, wings liken to the wings of a mighty sphinx, its body towering over the man, eclipsing him in its shade, as if the light were there leeched from his very essence.
The man screamed, turned heel and ran into the failing light as twisting tendrils of cloud slowly consumed the moon.
Phil watched the television’s techno-colored dance and fondled his everpresent cigarette and discount beer as Tom flipped furiously through the hefty stack of tomes he’d checked out from the local Offstead Library. There were only four other people in the bar and all of them eyed Tom nervously.
“Cuz they think you’re crazy.”
“I know what I saw.”
“That’s just what Greene said.”
“It’s not like they gave me the time of day, they’d moved on from the story.”
“Yeah, but you know how word travels. Look you know I trust you, but you’re getting too worked up about this. Haven’t even been to work since you saw, well, whatever it was you saw.”
“I’ve got new work to do now,” he muttered under his breath with vexation, peering at a series of black and white photograph on the page of one of his library books. Depicted were a strange humanoid looking creature, some eight feet tall, with round, glowing eyes, it appeared to be cognizant of the camera and, in the very last photograph, it vanished. The book noted it was the product of a hoax.
Gasping, Tom slide the book across the table to Phil.
“Look. This thing looks like what I saw.”
“Hell, Tom, you can barely see anything, could just be a man on stilts with a reflective mask. Says right here it was it was confirmed to be fake.”
Tom flipped to the previous page, “What about the fact that these sightings have a history dating back to the 1700s?”
“Tom, people see all kinds a thing in the woods out there. One time when I was out deer hunting I swore I saw a dinosaur, turned out to be a log sitting at a weird angle. Tricks of light and shadows,” He gestured sadly at the pile of books, “I just don’t see the use in all of this.”
Tom grimaced and slammed the book shut. “I don’t see the use in talking to you either. I thought you of all people would believe me.”
Phil held out his hand in entreaty, “Now, come on, don’t be that way. Tom!”
Tom ignored him and packed his book into the backpack sitting on the floor beside the bar. He ignored everyone as he left. He ignored the cold of the moon as he made his way back to the library which had become something like a second home to him since the sighting at the cave. The street was quite and the ghastly shell of the lunar disk peeked around high billowing nimbus, it reminded him of when he had seen it. He moved on with a wary eye and quickening feet. Suddenly a black shape drifted out from the shadows and screeched horridly. The world seemed to stop in its turning and Tom gave a shuddering gasp and fell straight back off his feet to the flat of his back, quickly peering up only to discover a large, unruly black cat starring back at him. He hissed at the beast until it ran off, then rolled his eyes and made his way across the deserted street to the library.
It was a old building, all of colonial brick, some of it crumbling and all in desperate need for repair. He passed beyond the high oaken double doors and passed the librarian who gave him a hesitant wave and then returned to watching the small portable television screen which had been set up at the front desk. Beyond the foyer, with its reception desk and low, flickering lights, and low, moldered ceiling and alabaster colored crenellations, lay the library proper, with fifty five rows of bookshelves standing about the room like dutiful sentries and the walls all likewise covered in the same. Tom adjusted his pack about his shoulder and scanned the books until he found one titled ‘Unexplained’ then he picked out a few more books and took them to his usual sitting place upon the upper landing nearest the southern-most corner.
Some twenty minutes into his venture the sound of footsteps intruded upon him. He looked up to behold a old man dressed in mangy flannel and tattered jeans. He was bearded and graying, gaunt, wild-eyed and possessed the look of one who had lived too long without company. The man pocketed his hands and stood a moment in silence before addressing the bookworm.
“You Tom Callahan?”
“Yeah. I recognize your voice, you’re Greene right, Cooper Greene?”
“Word sure does travel fast in this town, don’t it. Pleased to meet ya. I saw you climbing the stairs and thought I’d say hello. You mind if I sit?”
“No, go right ahead. Chairs here are public property, I don’t own um.”
The man gave a tired little laugh and set himself down opposite Callahan. After another few moments of uneasy silence the old man affixed Callahan with a curious gaze.
“They all laughed at ya, didn’t they?”
“Because a what ya said. Cuz of what ya saw.”
“Not much laughing, more like a whole lot of staring and whispering. No one believes me. My best friend said the shadows were playing tricks on me, wife told me that I’m just stressed out from working too hard, the reports I tried to talk to just waved me off as a crazy, said the story wasn’t a story, said it wasn’t worth covering, my kid said I was being silly. Even my fucking kid, doesn’t believe me, man. But you saw it, didn’t you, that thing.”
The old man nodded solemnly and looked out the window into the resting darkness beyond the pane. Out off into the blackening woodlands where an eerie mist was rising like the tentacles of a great, beached kraken.
“Yeah. I saw it. Went through the same. Boss told me to take time off, said I was bringing too many reporters to the office, said I was too distracted, that I wasn’t thinking clearly. Hell do they know? They weren’t there. They don’t know nothing. I just wanted to tell ya that, no matter what you do, no matter what you say, no matter how smart the people ya know are, they will never, and I mean NEVER, believe you, unless you walk into the sheriff’s office with that monster’s body slung about ya shoulder, ain’t no one ever gonna believe ya story, or mine.”
“You suggesting we go hunting?”
“Maybe I am, maybe I ain’t. Wouldn’t matter none until I hear your opinion.”
They held each others eyes for some time; the old man was intensive, determined whilst Callahan faltered under the weight of his uncertainty. He remembered the jeering voices of his wife then, of Phil, of his son, of his coworkers, his boss, his neighbors and the reporters he’d contacted. They’d all scoffed. Mocked him for weeks and weeks after that fateful encounter; everyone had turned on him. Eschewed him. Everyone but Greene.
At last Callahan fully met the old man’s eyes.
“I think a hunting trip sounds like a fine idea.”
Phil leaned back in his seat examining the woman with a cautious eye. He didn’t quite know what to say, words escaped him. Had she been any person other he wouldn’t have believed her, but Tom’s wife wouldn’t lie. Not about him. Not about this.
“He what now?”
“He left. Didn’t even phone me or David. How could he? I just don’t understand any of this.”
“Well, hell, Cathy, I wish I did. I knew he was worked up about… whatever it was he thinks he saw out there, but I had no idea it was eating him up this much. When did he leave?”
“Late last night. Said he was going out to the bar, with you. I called him and he said he had left the bar, that he’d went to the library to study about whatever it was he saw.”
“What he thought he saw.”
Cathy sighed and closed her eyes, rubbing her weathered and sun-kissed face with her palms and falling into stony silence for a beat. Then she raised her head and looked out the window of the tiny little burger joint at the dewy drops of rain, pecking away at the surrounding arboreal tarp.
“I just can’t bear the thought of anything happening to him, he means the world to me.”
Phil nodded gravely, “I know, Cat. I know. Ya know he used to save me from fights. At school,” he paused a moment, took a bite of his burger, found it tasteless and greasy, set it down, swallowed and looked again to the woman. She was crying now, shaking her head.
“You like Merle Haggard, Cat?”
“The singer. Ya like him?”
“Oh, gosh I haven’t listened to him in years. Not my cup of tea.”
“Not you too.”
“Too campy. Ya know, kitsch.”
Phil shook his head. “Well, then what all do ya like? Caint believe we never talked music before.”
“Townes Van Zandt.”
“He’s good, lonesome sonofabitch, but he’s pretty good.”
She at last broke out into a tired smile, chuckling faintly under her breath, then falling still. Her mind turning back to her husband and the dark woods into which he had fled. Abruptly, Phil placed his hand atop her own and leaned slightly forwards, the better to meet her gaze.
“You gotta calm down, I know he’s been agitated but he can take care a hisself. Now listen, I’m going to head up there, to our bunker, see if he’s holed up, if not I’ll look around the woods a bit. He can’t stay out there in those forsaken woods forever, he’s far too fond a that famous… hell, what do you call it?”
She smiled the slightest ghost of smile and spoke in a thankful whisper.
“Yeah. That’s the one. Ole Tom always did love that Frog food.”
“Thank you, Phil. Just, be careful.”
He nodded, rose from the booth, threw on his jacket and headed for the door.
The old man’s cabin was littered with crushed empty cans which rattled like wind-rapt bones, the walls covered corner to corner with red-lined newspaper clippings. In the center of the tiny hovel stood but a single wooden table, two rickety folding chairs and a single lantern that looked as if it was dredged up from some ancient silver mine. In the left-most corner lay a foam mat, a pillow, a backpack and a hunting rifle poorly concealed beneath the bedding. Nothing else in that creaking den but the two men who stood a moment, engulfed in fear and uncertainty. At length the old man moved to the southern wall and drew a grease stained finger across one of the newspaper clippings, “1978, strange creature spotted in woods beyond Offstead,” he drew his finger further across the wall, closer to Tom where he stood beside the doorway, “1998, another sighting, this time someone got a good look at it, massive black wings he said,” again the old man drew his finger further across the wall with more verve, “2010, two kids say they seen a monster in the woods, but they’re kids, so who would believe um. And now, its back. Or maybe, it never left.”
Tom nodded indecisively. He wasn’t certain that the old man’s tales were all true but he knew what he had seen in that cave and that was enough. One’s own eyes do not lie.
“If that’s the case,” Tom stated grimly, as he unslung his rifle from his shoulder, “Then we had best get a move on.”
The moonlit duo moved across the uneven ground like brigands skirting the law after some devious heist; hardly making a sound as they traipsed beneath the wind-twisted boughs of the forest groaning. The shrubbery seemed to obscure all manner of life which skittered and chittered here and thereabouts, yet never revealing itself unto them. Always in shadows. After some twenty minutes of trekking they made their way to the old quarry and passed beyond the piles of bones, illuminated in ghastly effulgence by the radiance of the celestial spheres. Standing before the cave the two men raised their rifles and exchanged anxious looks and nodded one to the other and passed into that infernal portal. There was nothing. The whole of the skull littered cave was devoid of sentience save their own. They left out of the chasm shortly and there heard a rustling, unlike those which had previously sounded, some ways off in the distance, cutting through the silence of the starry night with all the force of some mad executioner’s blade.
“You hear that?” Greene whispered to his compatriot. Tom nodded without speaking or turning; he realized suddenly his hands were shaking. It was close. He could feel it. Out there. In the blackness. In the shadow. In the null space which beckoned to him like some self-planned tomb. Watching him with those blazing eyes of fathomless fire.
Tom gestured for the old man to be silent and pressed his rifle-butt to his shoulder, dropping to a knee and scanning the treeline. The boughs rustled with the breeze and the shrubbery shook with the faintest breath of the wind. Tom’s heart leapt in it’s bony cage as he realized with terror that there was something moving through the bushes, moving out between the trees. A huge, looming shadowy thing, walking forth with the crunching of stick and stone with all the stolid confidence of an alpha predator.
“It’s here,” Greene mouthed breathlessly, crouching down behind a grassy hummock upon which Tom had laid himself out on his stomach. Tom’s hands shook upon the trigger and stock of the rifle as he steadied his mind and calmed his nerves. There would only be one chance to get it. This was the moment to prove what he’d saw, this was the moment where he would show them. He’d show them all how foolish they were for refusing to believe him. For telling him he was losing it. For saying he was mad.
“It’s coming out of the trees!” Greene hissed.
“Keep your goddamned voice down.”
The thing picked up speed as it descended a bushy incline and broke through the most dense portion of the treeline. Tom took a deep breath, aimed and pulled the trigger. The shadow-beast flinched and fell back into the shrubbery and scrambled across the ground. Greene took aim now and fired a volley into the darkness until the skittering had subsided.
Then all was silent save for the whistling of the wind. Tom and Greene exchanged dire looks, nodded and rose from their hilly perch, trudged across the mossy ground and peered behind the bushes. They froze in abject horror at the sight which then greeted their eyes.
A human body lay in a twisted heap upon the ground, a large red hole showing grisly and raw upon the abdomen. What little was left of the man’s head leaked out bits of brain and silver-black rheum upon the cool, lichen-wrought ground and somewhere a crow cawed in the darkness as if in acknowledgement of some soul’s passage into the underworld. Tom tore at his hair as he starred down at the body; it was familiar to him, dreadfully familiar.
It was Phil.
“Someone has been uttering heresies in the marketplace,” a grim guard informed Suryn, Paladin of the Light.
“You can tell the Duke I will find the blasphemer at once.” Clad in a simple white robe with a hood, she motioned to her servants who rushed to bring her armor. Short-haired, with a defined and resolute jaw, she stood dignified and still with her arms outstretched like wings as her shining silvery breastplate was strapped on and her great sword belt fastened around her. Within minutes, she was marching to a gate of the keep in full armor. She flung the heavy door open, emerging resplendent into the sunlight. All around were colorful merchant stalls and bustling crowds. Everyone quickly parted for Suryn, whom they regarded with a mix of wonderment and dread. She reached out with her senses and sure enough, she could feel the forbidden words still hanging in the air at the very spot they had been uttered. There seemed to her almost a foul vapor floating there before her, still slowly dissipating. Now she focused and began to track the Hate back to its source. The crowd looked on in silent suspense as she followed the trail. After some time of this tension she held still for a while, then abruptly pointed and said, “You!”
The crowd melted away in fright from the area she had indicated. They were rushing to leave the area now while city guards streamed in with a rhythmic clanking. Only the person Suryn had indicated remained there, a man stooped over in a dark cloak, his features not clearly visible.
“Who are you? Show yourself!” For what seemed a long pause the man just stood there. The guards tautened bowstrings, drew their swords, and began to close in on him. Suddenly, the dark man sprang into action, black cloak swirling about him. Hissing black spikes issued forth from his hands, lodging in the throats of some guards who immediately collapsed, clutching at their hopelessly spurting arteries, their boots jerking spasmodically. The archers let loose a volley of arrows but the dark figure simply shifted away from where he had been standing as if he had simply re-materialized.
Suryn drew her sword with a resonant toll of steel and charged at the dark man. Suddenly a shadowy force jolted into her and she stumbled backwards. A blow that would have killed an ordinary guard just slowed her down but it bought the dark man the time he needed. He stretched out and lifted his arms and several archer guards floated into the air, wriggling helplessly as blood started flowing from their necks in streams to the strange being they had encircled. Suryn tried to charge again, but was actually thrown backward this time. Now, drained of life, the guards were dropped to the ground and the survivors began to flee in terror. The Dark Man and the Paladin of the Light were alone now.
Suryn launched a white-hot blast of purity to incinerate her opponent but he responded with an assault of his own that intercepted it. The two blasts canceled out. A shower of incandescent white sparks flew on towards her opponent but caused him no discernible harm.
She tried attacking him a few times more but was rewarded with the same result. Now he lowered his arms and stood there calmly.
“I am glad you came to me so quickly.” He said in a pleasant tenor.
“What do you want?!” Suryn challenged him grimly. She continued to circle him, watching for an opening to close the distance between them and take his head off with her silver blade.
“This realm has lacked any serious opposition for a long age now. I would just like to inform you all; the days of ease are over.”
“Why are you here, Demon?”
“Because you are here. I am mystified as to why a full Paladin was sent here. I am the price they pay for asking your aid.”
At that moment, she sprang at him, flying swiftly through the air as her armor burned bright with her fury. The dark man’s form wavered for a moment and then seemed to fold backwards into itself in a swirl of shadow. He was gone. Furious, Suryn drove her blade into the ground and it slid through the earth smoothly. As she jerked it back out, bright drops of molten sand went flying through the air.
Despite her exhaustion, Suryn felt uplifted that night as she entered the chambers of the Duke. He welcomed her with a friendly smile, his dark and intelligent eyes gleamed in the light of lamps and candles.
“I hear you saved us today from the dark powers. I see that I was right to request your presence here after all.”
“He will come back.” she admitted with dread and disappointment in the pit of her stomach.
“But imagine if you had not been here!” he insisted. “If he’s a Demon, this is the sort of threat we have not seen for generations.” For a moment, even the Duke seemed worried. At least, a shadow passed over his open face and was gone. He took a step toward her.
“I just wanted to personally thank you for your valor today on behalf of the realm.” He looked into her eyes earnestly. In spite of herself, Suryn again found her heart racing in his presence.
“You have my full support to keep seeking out the heretics of speech and thought and deny this new adversary the power he might gain from them. As always, if there’s anything you need, you need only ask.” Suryn found herself only able to nod in affirmation. The Duke stood nearly a head taller than her and as she looked up, her legs felt weak. To her utter shock, he took her hand in his and squeezed it comfortingly.
“I trust you are unhurt from the encounter, at least in body. I wish you rest as well as you may tonight.” He let go of her hand and began to turn away toward his desk.
“Good night, brave guardian.”
Suryn’s hand seemed to burn as she returned to her own sparse chambers. Unbidden she remembered Kristyan, the young man in her childhood village. She had smiled at him every day and run her hand through her hair as she passed by until one day, she saw him with the wandering tinker’s daughter in his arms. She watched the pretty giggling fool fall into his arms as if from nowhere and then soon after her belly began to swell with new life.
She had always been the best student of scripture in the village; the elderly priests doted on her as a child and even as she grew into a young woman. She could cast blessings on the fields and help the sick. She won the gratitude of all, but the love of none. Then one day, she saw Kristyan and his wife gazing adoringly at their baby boy. That dark night, lying awake, she felt something tiny yet momentous silently snap inside her. Carrying almost nothing, she simply walked aimlessly into the hills, knowing even at that moment, she would never return.
One day, thirsty and nearly starved, she saw a white cathedral shining miles away. No matter how she marched towards it, it always seemed just as far off. She sensed somehow that her life was about to be decided and, with complete determination, she ignored the pains of her body however it might punish her and as she did, the cathedral started to grow nearer and brighter. Just as the last of her strength began to fail, she found herself somehow on its front steps. Then she had hauled herself up those final shimmering marble stairs and into the portal beyond.
Now Suryn realized she was curled up in bed with tears streaking down her face. Her palm still seared by the pain of the Duke’s warm hand. She had vowed to leave all thought of such things behind and if she was not careful, it would weaken her in her fight with the powers of Hate. She repeated calming mantras she had been taught as an initiate until she slid into the dreamless sleep of exhaustion.
The next day, Suryn marched down every street accompanied by guards, keen for the slightest scent of heresy. All the commoners she passed gazed upon her shining silver armor in awe and apprehension. She could sense their private fears though she could not know precisely what they were. They all felt to her like the mundane sorts of transgressions, not worth singling out. Then, down a tight row of houses she felt a disturbance that gave her a sickening feeling in her gut. Her guards immediately tensed up as they saw she was reacting to something.
“There.” Suryn gestured and they all rushed down the row to one narrow wooden house that looked little different from any of the others it was crammed together with. They immediately burst through the door to find a simple abode, dimly lit through a single window. Other than jugs of cheap wine, empty ones strewn across the floor, and workman’s clothing, nothing was there to tell more of the resident. No one was home; the guards started to look around, perplexed and awkward. To them, it was a simple room with nothing of interest. Suryn, however, was staring intently at the plain wall.
“I found it.” she said. She could see something like a swirling darkness on the wall, a portal of sorts that had allowed dark powers to enter. On the floor she could see from the dark marks lingering there, someone had knelt in supplication and sworn allegiance to the powers of Hate. She reached out her hand and closed the dark doorway with a flash of light that startled the guards. Then they stormed out of the house, questioning everyone in the area about the resident. They soon found him at his job working at a barrel shop. The guards seized him immediately and brought him to the Paladin.
The young man seemed surly and defiant. Suryn noticed he had piercing blue eyes that reminded her disturbingly of Kristyan.
“Why have you done this?” she asked him in a grim, level tone.
“What are you talking about?” he replied with something almost like contempt. Suryn felt anger flare in her. No one ever addressed her like that. Her suspects had always been frightened or just eager to be let free.
She pointed at him with a silver-gauntleted hand. “Dask, you have pledged yourself to the powers of Hate and let them into this city. I can tell that filth came from you. You are now under divine tribunal.”
Back in the keep, Suryn had Dask brought before her and told the guards to leave. Instead of cowering, the young man glared at her.
“I haven’t done anything. I just work my job to get by and pay the rent for a hole to live in. Doesn’t a Paladin of Heaven have more important things to do?”
“My work is to track down people like you. I could see in your house that you spoke to the Dark Powers there. Why?”
“I never mention the Darkness and I haven’t said anything heretical. Everyone knows better than that.”
“Your words or actions opened a Doorway. You invited a Demon into this safe and peaceful city. People have already died because of you. Your only chance now is to tell me everything you know.”
Dask was chastened this time and shuddered at the thought of the brutally murdered guards everyone had been talking about.
“The doorway was by the back wall of your house. You were kneeling at that spot when it was created.”
Fear and recognition passed over Dask’s face. “The Dark Powers? In my house?” he said with fearful wonder.
“What happened? Look here and tell me.”
He hesitated for a long while as emotions flickered across his face and he weighed his words carefully.
“I moved into that small room after the Duke’s judges gave my wife the house. The master cooper pays me well but that damn judge took away almost everything I had.”
“What did you do to her?” asked Suryn, her voice sinking into derision. “Are you a criminal against women?”
“No! One day she simply went to a magistrate and told them I had abused her. They never even talked to me about it. When I got home from work, I was shut out of my own house.”
“So far you have denied responsibility in any way you can. You have a lot to answer for now.”
“It’s not my fault!” he snapped “I don’t know how a Demon got in. I never even got to ask her why. They wouldn’t let me see her or our son!”
“Take care how you speak to me. Your soul hangs by a thread.”
“God damn my soul and yours too! I don’t care anymore.”
Suryn had had enough. Her face went pale with rage and she ordered the guards back in.
“Whip him.” Her tone was flat but her voice was tight. She watched intently as his shirt was stripped off his back and he was forced to his knees. His body was well-toned from honest work and he glared at her with his blue eyes. It satisfied her now to see this abuser prostrated on the ground. A guard tested a cane for its snappiness and found it to his liking. Then the whipping began. Before long, Dask was screaming in pain.
“Stop.” she commanded. She laid her hands on his lacerated back and soon there were ribbons of silvery smoke curling upward like a cauterizing incense. At first he screamed again and then began to sigh deeply. When she lifted her hands, his back was pale and unblemished again. The guards stood dumbstruck by what seemed to them a miracle.
“Again.” she ordered them. Hesitantly, they obeyed not daring even to spare any force in their blows. Then they obeyed again. By the fourth time what had seemed miraculous sickened them. The room was thick with that odd burnt odor of healing flesh.
“You can take him to his cell now.” she told them. Dask had fallen from consciousness from the pain, though his pale skin had not been left with a single scratch. When he was recovered she was confident that he would speak to her with proper reverence. Servants of the Divine were not to be trifled with.
Dask lay trembling in fevered sleep as the sensations of pain on top of pain troubled his dreams. In that maze of apparitions it came to him. He saw himself in a drunken rage on the night he had lost his wife, his child, and his house forever bellowing and throwing sloppy punches at the cheap plaster walls. Little paint chips had been embedded in his fists for a couple weeks after that, paining him every day at his job as he hammered iron hoops into place around oaken staves. He’d had to spend extra on some special ointment and bandages to heal properly at all. It came to him again. He had held his bloody fists to his chest and full of rage, had sworn himself against all this cursed land. As this vision of revealed memory faded, he thought he perceived a man in dark robes hovering over him.
“There, there.” The figure said. “You will be alright in just a bit more time. She saw to that much. Listen carefully, unless of course you want to stay trapped here answering her interrogations. When you come to, look for a jagged rock in the corner. If you want out bad enough you will chisel at that corner. Do not stop, not to eat, drink, sleep, or relieve yourself. That chisel stone won’t break, trust me. But it will exact a price of you. How much are you willing to pay for your freedom?”
Dask sank back into his trackless haze of pain and unknown hours passed as he slowly became aware of his surroundings, his muscles taut as wire, his jaw and teeth aching horribly from clenching, grinding, and screaming. More time passed before he dared to inspect his body for wounds and broken bones. He could only sob in incoherent amazement as he felt himself over and felt only his smooth skin. It was as though he had awakened from a nightmare and all the beatings had only been imagined. He heaved in relief and rolled in fetal position for a while trying to internalize his odd situation. Dask reflected in anguish on how his whole life had fallen apart in such a short time. His wife and child gone. Even his meager rented room and bottles of booze to ease the pain were gone now.
He heaved back and forth in his pitch-black cell, the memories of overlapped anguish still overwhelming him. Somehow he found himself crawling for the corner of his black cell and sure enough his groping hand found something smooth and glassy to the touch. The chisel. His heart jumped. It was cold and sharp around the edges by which he held it. He hesitated but then he remembered his rage and despair. Then blindly in the dark he began lashing out at the wall, heedless at how his own implement sliced fiercely into his hand.
Even as his hot blood poured forth against the frigid shard of rock he only renewed his efforts. Somehow in his gut he knew this was some kind of test on which his life depended. At length he heard footsteps coming down the hallway and instead of falling quiet he redoubled his efforts, scraping at the wall like a madman, now with hot sheets of his own blood running down his forearms. There was shouting outside his cell door but he ignored it. He kept hammering and slashing, single-mindedly now, channeling the last of his will into the knife. Just as the door began to creak open, he blindly lurched forward, expecting to smash his head against solid stone. Instead, he tumbled forward into an incomprehensible emptiness and fell.
The tunneler stood upon the rough-worn and carpeted floor of his ramshackle home, gazing about in contemplative dismay. How ugly was the construct that he called, “Home.” It a ugly thing with floors of warped wood and fluffy shag carpeting, dotted with chip crumbs and dirt specks and wine stains and dog hair – how he hated dogs. All across the ostentatiously papered walls were abstract paintings he had bought to impress his artistically minded friends – the tunneler knew not their meanings nor even if they possessed any at all. The ceiling was soft cream plaster, cracked and water bogged, little, smelly droplets plip-plopping down the far left corner of the living room.
And the furniture! It was everywhere, three couches upon each of which sat four or more pillows, then a arm chair, then a bean bag, then a stool he had planned to sell and forgotten, remembered and given up upon. Adjacent the couches, in the far right corner of the room, opposite the water leak, stood a large bright yellow wooden entertainment stand connected to his work desk upon which lay his computer surrounded by a whirring, messy conglomerate of wires and soda bottles and paper clips and pencils and their subsequent alcahest. Beside the computer, upon the floor, was a hideous fern, which his former girlfriend had insisted he maintain to bring some, “Color and character,” to his tumble down abode.
Clutter. Filth. Disorder.
The Tunneler hated it all.
He checked his ornate, gear-borne wrist watch and quickly put on his coat and exited his apartment. Late for work. He caught the bus and paid his way, the familiar clinking of coin on copper and the churning hiss-whirl of machinery putting his frenzied, fevered mind momentarily at ease. He sat in the back, he always sat in the back, the morning paper half-unfurled in his calloused and rough worn hands and his keen neon-blue eyes scanning the contents languorously.
New Shopping mall to be constructed. Historic Brutalist town hall to be torn down and replaced with environmentally friendly windmill generators. Immigrant rape scandal continues. Mayor calls for more international trade deregulation. Chrysanthemum killer still on the loose.
He dropped the paper in his lap with a heavy sigh and looked around, the faces on the bus were faraway, absorbed in their digital devices, machine as master of man when it should be the other way around. Their drone-like stupor disturbed him profoundly. It was something to be smashed, to be obliterated, like the evil magic of some shamanic blood cult.
He extended his hand towards a pretty middle aged blonde with too much make-up.
“You read the paper?”
She rolled her eyes in disgusted and turned around, burying her face in her digital device, some lap-top-turned-phone. He averted his gaze to the high, frail, winding spires mixed with fast blurring spatterings of smaller, neoclassical structures – they were the worst. Neither of the past nor present, a abortion of syncretism. Characterless facades. Ostentatious manses and hotels and tenements and strip malls without identity. They were of the world but of no particular part of it, like the foreign faces that hunkered about the bus, eyes glinting in the dull, blue light of LCD screens.
He’d see it all razed to the ground.