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Short Story

“What We Lost”

 This an unfinished story of mine I decided to polish up and release over here. I was trying to go for a dystopian aesthetic, and I thought that I’d be enthralled by the prospect of writing something other than fantasy. However, the Muse being the cruel thing that it is, I was unable to be invested in this for too long.  I still think another writer would be capable of doing something with it–but that writer is not myself.

“Ja—Jason? Can you re—read me?” Tim’s voice came sputtering from the walkie-talkie that Jason had strapped to his waist. This had been the sixth time on that day that his friend had bugged him over the old contraption.

Tim came on again, and again, and again. Jason rolled his eyes, and decided to give in to the protests of that annoying friend of his. It was in days like this that Jason often pondered cutting ties with the people he considered closest to himself, but he knew he’d regret it later. It was still good the toy with the thought on occasion, at least it provided a form of entertainment. With the static from the walkie-talkie still present, Jason reached his hands around the back of his waist.

For a few moments his hands had caught on to nothing, save for the chill that came with early morning around the suburbs. He grinded his teeth when it proved difficult to get a hold of the talking box. In truth, it was not speaking to Tim that really bothered him, any conversation was better than wandering the streets alone, it was just that he had the habit of placing the walkie-talkie in areas that cost him effort to reach. This had been one of the good days, where he’d been smart enough to strap the leather belts across his waist rather than around his shoulder. He could only shudder at how stupid he appeared on those times that he’d strapped the walkie-talkie to his back, where it would take him a good five minutes to reach. Five minutes of his free time.

His palm caught hold of a sharp angle on the device, and Jason maneuvered it around the tight fit that came with the two black belts he carried. He needed to jiggle it out of the knot he’d formed, unless he also wanted his knife to come clattering to the crooked pavement when he just wanted to take it out. They were not belts made to house utilities, rather they were the kind that one could spot on the waists of the pudgy businessmen of the past. With the suburbs being abandoned as they were, belts came as a useful commodity for holding on to one’s tools.

With one final grunt, Jason freed the walkie-talkie from his belts and held it up to his ear. He expected to be disappointed, it was probably just another one of Tim’s status updates “Loud and clear, Tim.” Jason drew out the sentence, so Tim would know to make it brief.

“Good God, Jason, would it kill you to get in a better mood anytime soon? I don’t like calling you a lot either, but it’s not like I’m doing it on purpose. You know how Jin can act when—“

“I get it, I get it, Jin’s going to throw a fit if you don’t call for an update every five minutes. Why can’t you just tell Jin to fuck off? The hell does he think he is? Our leader?”

Tim said something but faint static overtook the walkie-talkie for a bit. Covering one ear with his finger, Jason held out the walkie-talkie away from him. If it wasn’t so valuable, he would have wasted no time in slamming on the ground in those few moments “Ja—Jason? Damn it all, did you break yours again? Jin’s going to kill both of us once he finds out.” Jason sighed just loud enough for Tim to hear “Fine. If you’re going to act like that then fine. I just came to see how you were doing.”

“Just get to the point already.” There was a breeze that howled through the crackled tiles of sidewalk in the suburbs. Chill grazed Jason’s arms, making him wish he’d brought his jacket with him.

“Have you seen anything interesting yet? Anything worth noting? Anything you could bring back to the hideout? It doesn’t even have to be food, we should be covered on that for the next week. Stuff like board-games, dice, notebooks, you get the deal. They say there’s going to be another Sweep by next week, we need to make sure we’re all entertained while we hole up inside.”

“Nope.”

Tim sounded like he stifled a swear from the walkie-talkie but Jason didn’t give it too much attention “I don’t even know how you can live like that, Jason. Always the same damn thing with you isn’t it? If you haven’t found anything within an hour, come back to base. I don’t know how safe it is out there.”

“Got it.” Not bothering to hear what Tim had to say in response, Jason pressed the button that turned off the walkie-talkie. He strapped it to his belts again and got a good look around himself. He had to come back with something, or else they’d skin him alive back at home.

The suburbs were that same depressed shadow of their former selves that Jason had so often visited in his spare time. Houses with faded paint that gave way to the grey colors of their actual materials, dilapidated inboxes that were crooked this way and that. The place was like a war zone for all intents and purposes, but Jason liked it that way. He found a strange kind of freedom when he strolled through the abandoned streets, when he peered into houses whose doors were almost torn from their hinges. There was peace. He didn’t have to force himself into the company of all those idiots at home and if he wanted to he could settle down in one of the houses. But the Sweep would never allow him to accomplish that dream.

But while he could be out there, he relished his time.

There where houses with shards of glass still latching to broken window sills, the manner of places in which suspicious homeowners would peer past the blinds to inspect strangers that came into their neighborhoods. Cracked lines formed on the sidewalks like a spider’s cobwebs, where children would no doubt compete on who could walk without stepping on them. There were some slender trees whose branches pierced into the gaping holes of broken construction. Nobody had ever cared about what happened inside of the suburbs. Or at least, all the people who had actually cared decided to leave. Jason didn’t know when and not even why, but he couldn’t care less. When he was alone in the suburbs, he, and only he, was king around those parts. He could run around and steal from whatever house that he wanted, but he had to save that for later. Maybe if he got lucky he could find a trinket inside one of the houses.

He scoured through any houses he hadn’t been through before, dismissing at least five until he found one that was interesting. It was a decrepit old building […]

 

 

 

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Encounter at Sunkenskull Shore Duology II

READ THIS FIRST: Encounter at Sunkenskull Shore Duology I

***

   The embers of a fire simmered deep beyond the mouth of the hidden cave that housed it. The rock was slick with humidity and more than just a few stalagmites threatened to interrupt whatever chance at a peaceful rest Galik might have. While not as cold as it had been on his raining surroundings on the outside, Galik could still feel the breaths of winter coming in from the cave’s threshold. The driftwood from the wreckage had proven itself to be more than enough to make a campfire to last the night. He had piled the planks atop one another right after setting them down to dry, and when all the moisture on them had left, he set it alight with the flint and steel he had spared from his pack.

A dull pool of light was the only thing that kept from being consumed by the encroaching darkness of the cave, and his eyes could not help but linger on the veil of dark that was at his back. Galik had just realized that he was alone in this excursion of his. His only company was the brown mare which he had hitched along the sturdier stalagmites with a rope he found by happenstance in his saddlebags. He brought his knees up against his shoulder and huddled up next to the wall. His vision drifted over to one of the sacks he had strapped along his horse’s body which was giving off a faint glow.

“That again, huh.” He mouthed the words to himself just low enough to trick himself into thinking he was not speaking alone.

He ambled towards his horse and caressed its neck when it grew restless with his approach. After calming his horse, he undid the cord that fasted together the hide sack and was surprised that it had not torn due to the earlier rain.

He took a gulp, as he knew the risk that he took with doing what he planned to do. The mercenaries had not chosen to follow him for any arbitrary reason, for he had indeed stolen something of great value from them. With a sigh, his hands rummaged through the sack and produced a thin silver pendant. A pendant that held no decorations, no engravings, no gems encrusted into it, and nothing that most would consider of note. But as he had come to learn only recently, there was much more to the trinket than what its appearance would lead one to believe. Casting an almost supernatural glimmer along its features, Galik smiled as he stared at his own reflection in the trinket. He dangled the chain with his fingers forwards and backwards until the piece spun around in place, coiling its parallel links together.

His hands began to tremble while he held. Galik recoiled at the frigid touch that came with the smooth metal, a touch that held more frost than winter itself! A mere trinket had been the reason that he’d left his ancestral home and not a day passed where he doubted his decision. But the more he traveled with it, the longer it stayed near him, the more did Galik begin to believe that it was supernatural in nature. He had to keep up his pace—no doubt he had outrun his opponents by a matter of days, he had little to worry of. Or so he believed.

From the thunderous claps that rang out beyond the entrance of the cave and beyond even the barrage of waves upon the rocky shore, Galik could hear metal chinks creaking. Without a moment to spare he rushed over to his steel sword, a broad claymore he had stolen from his father, and held it aloft with both hands.

Sweat greased through his fingers and made the hilt slippery, so he coiled his fingers along the leather-bound hilt tighter. He proceeded forwards with the claymore hugging his side. The flat of the blade grazed his cheeks with all the trembling of his hands yet he reminded himself I am a warrior, I am an adventurer, I am a swordsman, but I am not a coward.

Night had fallen upon the beach outside yet the storm was relentless. Moonlight cast little of its radiance with the clouds inhibiting it from doing so. His horse whickered and brought forth its front legs and wriggled its neck along the rope that held it against the stalagmite. He jumped back as a gale swept through the cavern and assaulted the light of his fire, which cast the shadows of his struggling horse against the slick walls. The chinking of metal continued and a horrid grating accompanied it. They came irregularly and with a great deal of effort. There was only one thing that he could assume based on what he perceived.

It was steps that were approaching him.

Galik straddled his legs and flung himself ahead of his mare. His beast had proved a loyal companion for much of his journey and it would be a great disservice to his stallion should he leave it out as bait for his foes. Then it was that his mind began to find itself treading through dark and devilish thoughts. Thoughts that did little to bring him comfort. Thoughts that reminded him of the legends that surrounded Sunkenskull Shore.

It was then that under the pale moonlight of the seashore, that he saw it for the first time.  Skin stretched out over each one of its features, lining its rib cage perfectly along with its cranium. The same skin that was now blackened and broken to the point of looking like worn, rotten leather. The eyes were merely hollow sockets clogged up by a pool of black that held no expression as it dragged a Morningstar behind itself. The thing was what used to be a man—and not just any man but a sailor—a sailor that had found his tomb in Sunkenskull Shore.

Fear clutched Galik’s chest but that did not stop him from speculating just what manner of seafarer the undead had been before its demise. It snapped its head over to Galik, its bones cracking as it did so. Galik recoiled at the sight of those eyeless sockets capturing him within their gaze, as if they sucked the very life out of him. Yet he was not alone.

Trailing from behind him came at least five more dressed in the same fashion that they’d undertaken before their deaths. Tattered shirts, battered helms, rusty cutlasses, and boots with torn soles. Their hands were bony yet somehow they still retained a semblance of the vitality that they must have held in ages long forgotten. Their movements were jerky and unnatural as they stumbled from side to side in their efforts to clench their thirst for death, but the passion that they held in the past still followed their every gesture.

His feet began to turn back on him, urging him to turn tail and run away but Galik knew better than that. His only chance of survival would be to plow through them with sheer force and pray for the best. The abominations spurred their torn boots into a charge, or at least what was supposed to be a charge.

His horse gave a fright and Galik crouched down and sprang forth to his feet with his blade never leaving his side. He crunched through the bare stalagmite and leaped upon the first of his agressors, his blade cleaving straight through the decrepit skin. Its mangled torso fell with a thud as a hollow husk that had been slain twice in its life.

Two of the dread sailors brought down their weapons upon him, but Galik flung himself against the first one while his cutlass reached the rock floor. Pain shot down his shoulder as it crashed against the tattered skin, breaking the bone under his weight. Both of their faces grazed one another, the undead rasping one last repugnant breath before Galik took notice of its steel grip on his wrist.

Galik yanked himself backwards, but found that the undead was to him as an anchor was to a boat. Unearthly breaths could be heard behind him and he could glimpse the emaciated skin of his other foes approaching him. The hand of a demon had not only clasped unto his wrist but it had begun to strangle his resolve. The husk of a man tried to raise its sword arm before Galik bashed the pommel of his blade straight into its eyeless sockets. With a screech and in silence it fell limp upon the stone floor.

He swung backwards and caught the falling cutlass of one of his belligerents before it severed his head. The two metals rasped against one another and sang out the song of battle through their lyrics of steel. Both swordsman, living and undead, heaved themselves backwards and crashed back into one another with a flurry of pomp. Galik’s legs danced and weaved and skipped as his sword clanged against that of his foe, the fear of his other enemies speeding up his own blows. Moonlight made the swords gleam and the fire cast the shadows of the two fighters as though it were a spectacle being performed to an invisible audience.

Galik leaped backwards making distance between the undead and took the time for a couple of ragged breaths. His chest eased itself up and down, up and down, up and down—he had never been so near to death itself.

The undead he had battled earlier sprang up, emerging as though it spawned from the shadows, the curved blade arching to Galik’s abdomen. Galik saw the gleam of metal from under his matted hair, he flicked his wrists and parried the undead’s blow. His sword screeching as it trailed down the metal of the other blade, Galik plunged the cutlass downwards into the rock floor. Pressing his left foot to the initiative he brought back up the hilt of his sword and smacked the undead along its cranium. Its helmet bounced off and hooked itself on a stalagmite.

The undead brought itself back on its feet and raised a disfigured hand as though a trace of humanity was still to be found within its long lost souls. But Galik knew better than that. He knew that they had no hope.

He dug his sword into the chest of the undead, ripping through the rusty armor as though it ripped through a drapery’s cloth. The sword axed through the bone. When Galik heard a dud as his blade mad contact with the ground, he pried the notched blade from the century-old carcass.

He hoisted his sword upwards with only one hand. He crouched down again, ready to pounce on whatever foes with the ferocity of a tiger. When he reached his position he glanced up but then heard a whistle in the wind—!

A spiked mace came tumbling up above him from one of the undead that had pressed forward during his duel. A trickle of sweat slid from his cheeks and his head wrinkled back like a turtle concealing itself within its carapace. Yet he was not greeted with the sensation of one’s brains oozing out of one’s body—however that may feel—instead he caught a steely clang as the mace rebounded off a well-placed stalactite. The undead that had gone for the swing tumbled down, its jaw dislocating itself with the horrid screech it gave as it was impaled on the spear formations of the cave.

Embers flickered from the fire and moonlight only allowed him to see the last opponent that remained. The undead was strange among the others, in that it held some manner of frustration along its visage and lunged at Galik.

With a screech that reverberated all along the cave, Galik swung himself to the right and his back scratched against the rock. He feigned a charge and before the undead could realize its mistake, the arc of Galik’s blade swept right through him. It cleaved along its neck until chunks of skin came lose and sprayed against their surroundings. Galik forced his wrists and poured all the energy he could spare into them. He flung the corpse back with its head mangled and distorted.

Galik glanced over to his horse and watched its eyes flick open in disgust. It reeked of death.

He strapped his sword to his back once again and undid the hitching on his horse. He mounted the beast and rid himself of the amulet that still clung to his neck. He held the piece of silver cupped in his right hand “Only three miles remain. Only three.” He shook his head, and pocketed it into his saddle bag.

He exited the cave and spurred his horse into a gallop. This time he would make sure that it was far away from the wreckage near the coast. Let whatever further traveler make what they will of the haunted coasts of Sunkenskull.

 

 

 

Encounter at Sunkenskull Shore Duology I

  Howdy! I’m going to be very busy for the next few days, so I couldn’t really put time into making a new quality post. That being said, I figured it would be disrespectful for me to just reblog old posts considering how I did three times in a row last week. So, luck gracing me out of the blue, I recalled that I had an old short story of mine inside of this computer. It’s really nothing impressive, and since it was an older work of mine, there might be a glaring plothole here or there, and the occasional purple prose. But if anything, it should be of mild interest for you to compare this to my more recent works. And who knows? Maybe you think I improved? It’s a basic tail with a barebones plot (if you can call it that) but it ought to be of mild amusement.

Recent Works:

A Disciple of Zarathustra

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 3

Prelude to: “The Swordsinger”

“The Language of the Trees”

“Blood that Reeks of Iron”

Pick your poison 😀

***

   Ocean spray splashed against the jagged edges of the promontory that gazed out with a view of the West Ocean. The black stone had withstood there for many a millennia, its coarse surface never living a year in which the waters had not batted against it. Thunder struck out over the distance and a barrage of rain pelted down from the sky. The dark clouds swirled and mingled with one another, leaving the whole of the sky drained of any color that it may have housed in days past. Among claps of thunder one would be able to hear the gallops of a horse upon the soft turf.

Galik sped along the shoreline with droplets of water sliding down his cloak with unending fury. His horse, a brown mare bred for galloping, was indifferent to the booming that went off in the distance. Galik never took his eyes off the road that stood ahead of him. His mind told him that it would be in his best interest to sneak a careful peek at whatever lay behind him—such advice was to be expected from a wanted man.

The ocean stirred as though some angered god had decided to unleash its holy wrath upon the world. From the side of his eyes he could catch flashes of light blaring off over to both the horizons that sandwiched him. His mare trampled through mud and raced down the crooked road that was laid out by the rocky cliffs of the promontory. His hand always gripping on to the reins of his steed and his legs bucking under the constant motion of hooves, he looked forward to have at least some semblance of respite soon enough. Maybe then he would be able to think of a plan against Brogandan’s sellswords.

In due time, a path opened along the rough stone that his horse had to trek through. It wasn’t the safest of shortcuts, being a sandy trail only slightly longer than the width of his arm, but it was leagues better than being chased through open terrain. Holding on to the leather cords of his reins, Galik shifted his horse’s body towards the trail. The mare whinnied with the swerve and shook off the rain that clung to its mane.

Sand became runny and dense with the drizzle that it absorbed, causing Galik to take his horse’s descent steadily. He leaned over his saddle and slowed down to a walk with his steed, steering it whenever he caught a stray rock in its path. Rain slid down the dark rocks and gave a gleam to their faces, and whenever he rested his palm there for leverage they would slip off without warning. Puddles formed along the path and Galik shivered under the cheap cloak he’d only bought recently. It was made of only the thinnest linen in the region and could just barely scrape through the tough weather. His boots had been clogged up with rainwater that sloshed among his feet with every step that the steed took.

He raised his head and breathed into one cupped hand. He was blessed with a clearer sight of the oceans than the one he’d seen while still traveling along the promontory. He had likened the sea to a disgruntled god earlier but seeing what he did only confirmed that thought.

The white crests of waves crashed in upon one another with no apparent order as the sea succumbed to the merciless storm. Waters that did not glisten as they would in the times of morning, but rather darkened as the grey clouds concealed whatever light they could find. The scant shore was engulfed whenever the waves splattered against it. The water proceeding forwards to the point of covering most of the shoreline—on occasion almost grazing the rock that lined it. Yet there was one thing that caught his fancy more than the raging tempest that now called itself the sea, a tragic tale that one hears, but never sees.

Amidst the screeching thunder and ominous tides, Galik was able to spot scattered black dots floating along the ocean. He could not make them out from the distance but could see how the waves beat them back unto the shore. It was driftwood that floated aimlessly unto the coastline and not so far off he could spot the wrecked mast of a ship.

He had finally made it to the area that folk would often spread rumors of, the area that was used to scare children into sleeping at night, the area that he had refused to believe existed in the past. From the rage of the elements to the broken mast of the ship, Galik knew that he’d stumbled into trouble. Of all the hellholes and dark corners of the earth that I had to end up in, why did it have to be Sunkenskull Shore!?

With a free hand Galik tugged a corner of his cloak that had been slipping down his back and tightened it about himself. The storm had already made the day frigid, but with that bit of news he felt as though his whole body had been usurped by frostbite. There were many stories that surrounded Sunkenskull Shore but they always revolved around the same elements. Some crew from some far-off port like Glanden or Xerta set off over to the seas. The reason would always vary depending on whom told the story. The grizzled sailors would often tell that it was a regiment of troops sailing off to conquer a foreign land, merchants would say it was just a trade vessel, fishers would claim that it went on the hunt for exotic fish, but in the end, none of that mattered. The ship would crash against the bare rock offshore and the whole of their crew would be swept away by the waves or buried under the sand. Yet it was said that every night, when the moon reached its zenith, and the stars exposed themselves under the night sky, the dead would rise from their graves and walk about.

Or so the legends claimed.

His horse made it down the path. He had finally reached the beach and took in the aromas of salt that came whenever the violent ocean would pound upon the rocks that knifed into it. He scanned both of his sides while atop his horse, noting that both horizons stretched out into no end. He could lodge the night within the wrecked ship should he find all around intact, and there might even have been gold to be found! No…that would be unlikely. If the driftwood was as large an amount as he had spotted on his descent he doubted that any part of the ship would have made it. Yet the wood would prove valuable in starting a fire. He thought to himself.

Galik traced his hand along his horse’s dark mane, pondering if the beast had any opinion of the state of affairs “What do you think, buddy?” The horse remained speechless and whickered as rain continued to pelt against it. He could feel the animal shiver, which meant he would have to start a fire before night came.

Galik kept his hood down and tsked. Now he had no choice. For the skeptic he was, he would often have the bad habit of letting his earliest ingrained fears get away from the criticism that he gave to his newer ones. A part of him knew that it was far beyond ironic to think that a man who had been held at sword point more than twice in his life would be afraid of ghouls. Galik felt the hilt of his sword press against his coarse mail and his legs sensed his rounded helm rattle in his saddlebags. He took pride in that that was all the defense he’d ever needed. I am a warrior, I am an adventurer, I am a swordsman, but I will never be a coward. He’d never found a need to repeat such a phrase in his head but additional encouragement never hurt anyone.

He slapped his horse’s hind and sped to a trot down to where the wreckage of the vessel was to be found. Whatever treasures lay inside unbeknownst to Galik.

A Disciple of Zarathustra

Serrilin spread out his fingers until the skin wedged between them was like the webbed feet of a frog.

A dull sting crawled down his right arm, creeping with the stealth of a thief sneaking into a baron’s mansion. It coursed through his veins like a parasite gnashing at the boy from within. It was magma flaming through each and every nook or cranny within his body, leaving a searing, sizzling trail in its wake.

But above all, it was pain.

Unabashed, pure, and unadulterated pain. The very epitome of suffering. It did not discriminate, it did not relent, it did not take pity, nor did it relish it or even bask in it. The agony was indifferent. It would not so much as bat an eye at the boy should he endure it, and it would surely leave him to rot amid humid walls of that narrow cave should he perish.

But Serrilin would not–he could not, afford to die there. Not like some unfortunate wayfarer, reclined against some stalagmite and starving for days on end. That was not how it was meant to end. That was not how he was meant to end.

He pried his fingers apart further, feeling his bones cramp with a sore ache. He gasped out once, letting out misty breath, but bit his lower lip to distract himself from the pain. The flames of Asmodeus roared within him, and he embraced as the embers of his fire crackled inside of him. He eased his vision on his fingers yet again, and ache in his bones burned as his ring-finger snapped.

Serrilin gnawed on his lip, blood oozing and curdling through the gaps in his teeth. Through some miracle, he had stifled the shriek that so desperately wanted to leave the prison of his mouth. He ceased spreading his fingers apart for just an instant, and licked his lips. Iron.

“Asmodeus…I am…I am…” Serrilin croaked out the words from his frozen lips, only to stutter at the last moment. He felt the flames of hell festering at his fingertips. Their undulating forms coiled themselves along his fingers, he could not see it, but he knew that tendrils of hellfire strangled the life out his own arm with every passing moment.

Zarathustra. Who would have thought it? Who would have thought that after all these years, after all his travels, after all his dealings with beings beyond the ken of mortal men, and that after the innumerable tales he had lived through…who would have thought that the old warlock would still linger in his mind. As an apparition he came, only deigning to show himself in dreams that Serrilin never remembered or as a shadow streaming across the twilit horizon of frozen plains and tundras with crooked ebony trees.

He had taught him everything he knew, and had warned him that this was bound to happen. But Serrilin never listened to that. All those years of training and experience, he had taken the whole of it to his heart–save for one thing. The old Conjurer had called him a Cursed Child, one whom brought with him bad tidings and dreaded premonitions. He had scoffed at the assertion back then. If only he had known how right the warlock was.

But it was too late now. Much too late. “Asmodeus…I am…I am…I am…” the last word struggled to reach his lips, as though something–or someone–were holding it back. He gulped down the saliva that clogged his throat and slowed his wheezing breaths as well. He needed only whisper the final word, and all the pain would leave him. “Asmodeus, I am…” the hellfire nestled itself within his heart, now a permanent part of Serrilin. “yours.”

The last word echoed throughout the cave till it left its very mouth, only to reverberate back to the prone Serrilin. His arm went numb, and embers danced off the tips of Serrilin’s fingers. He felt as though a part of him had been torn away, cast into an abyss where he would never lay his eyes upon it ever again. And that much he expected, for that was the nature of taking the Blood Pact.

All men are bound to lose themselves one day. There are soldiers whom lose the final, fleeting traces of their sanity in far-flung battlefields, Kings whom lose their sense of self once they bear the crown of their peoples, and gods whose presence fades when the world forgets them. Yet there is only one kind of man capable of losing himself to the vile and unspeakable horrors that dwell beyond even the darkest recesses of the mind.
And this man was a Disciple of Zarathustra.

***

Who is Zarathustra? Who is Serrilin? Why is it that Serrilin is off in the middle of nowhere, stuck in some unknown cave?  This was another vignette I made yesterday. I’ve been trying to focus more on storytelling for a while now, considering that I’ve reached the 3rd Arc of my current book. Either way, I see this more as an excerpt from a longer work than anything else. Still, the setting might call me back for future projects…

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 3

The Story so far…

“The Philosopher’s Garden”

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 1

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 2

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 2.5

***

Tendrils of mist seeped through the iron grate fence that led into the old church. The fog, carrying the chill of late autumn, made the hairs on Archibald’s arms stand on their ends. The courteous gentleman that he was, Archibald refused to give a word of complaint, only blowing a draft of hot air into his silken gloves. They’d ridden from the city over to the heaths and shrublands along its outskirts, more than enough time for the frost to start seeping through Archie’s coat.

“I never was one for leaving the house in autumn. The frost is merciless this time of year.” Fordshire planted the stock of his M2 Gorond rifle on a mound of dead orange leaves.

“Family is more important than comfort, father. And the Fordshire name is at stake.” Daniella ambled her way over to the iron gate, and Archibald’s gaze was enthralled with the sway of her vermillion skirt. She coiled her fingers along one of the bars, staring with a keen sense of nostalgia over at the church. “I still remember Phillip. His smile, his voice, and his charisma, I still know them. We must bring him back to his coffin.” She clenched her delicate fist. “It is the least we can do.”

“Right you are, dear, right you are. If it was any other chap whose corpse was stolen, I’d have much rather stayed in the study, I’d be lounging by the warm hearth and sipping fine wine through the afternoon. But for family, I’ll always go the extra mile. Right, Sir Archibald?”

Archie snorted and shook his head from out of his sensuous stupor. He had lost himself within the folds of Daniella’s fabrics and in the sinuous motions of her hips. He scolded himself within his mind–what kind of gentleman would even fathom pulling a stunt like that? If his father still roamed the Earth, Archie would have surely been treated to a minimum of three lashes from the old man’s belt. And rightfully so! How could he even–

“Sir Archibald?” An angel’s voice spoke to Archie, to which he pivoted his head in its direction. But when he did, he saw it was none other than Daniella Fordshire whom spoke.

“You don’t seem quite right. Is anything amiss, perchance?”

Archie tugged at the collar of his suit. “No…no not at all. Just getting a feel for this morn’s weather. Not very good let me tell you, not very good at all.”

Both father and daughter Fordshire exchanged confounded expressions.

“Regardless,” Archibald regained his composure. He would gain nothing from acting like a nervous wreck in the face of a damsel. “let’s get a move on inside. The fresher the coffin is, the easier it ought to be to track down the trail of the thieves.”

They both nodded, and Archibald was relieved. Without further distractions, they creaked the aging iron gate open, both the men shuddering as the fog swept through them. Daniella, however, bore herself with every ounce of pride she held since meeting Archie at the bar. Her every stride was healthy and youthful, and not once did she slow her pace. It was a kind of courage unseen in maidens of noble status, and only a rare sight with the daughters of countryside farmers.

The chill crept up Archie’s spine, but to keep face, he kept himself aright. The group went through the hazy veil of mist with chipped tombstones emerging on occasion, only to be submerged yet again in the fog when they advanced. Sometimes, Archibald was lucky enough to spot a rose or daisy sprawled atop the burial mounds of war heroes–so far, those had been the only sign of color in the graveyard. A hummingbird warbled faint birdsong some ways off within a crooked tree in the graveyard’s corner.

“There it is.” Archie squinted past the haze till he saw Daniella’s finger pointing toward the church’s facade, which had just begun to poke out of the dense mist. “It’s been long since I was last here. I pray Philip is not angered with us in Heaven because of our delay.”

“Dani, Uncle Phillip was a man of moderate temper–if any temper at all–he’d be willing to wait centuries for his niece and brother, as long as they got the job done.” responded Fordshire as he hoisted his M2 Gorond up to his shoulders.

“And that we will.” Archibald pressed forward and spoke in his most dashing tone. “Not once in this life have I let a Turtillian get away with his schemes, and by God, the whole lot of them will be thrown out of Winsworth before my life is over. For that much I can vouch!” the cunning gentleman, Archibald of Newlenburs, played the best trick he had up his sleeve. Aristocratic ladies fell head over heels for men whom made bold promises. And that was another one of the Truths his father had shared with him.

“Beautiful words, Sir Archibald.” Father always knew best. “But…” Daniella gave a sidelong glance at the love-struck gentleman, her pupils gleaming like pearls. “words they still are. I’ve yet to know if your actions can live up to those expectations. I have heard much of you, but have experienced little of you. Only time will tell, Archibald.”

His heart beat once in a painful, knife-like motion, and he struggled to keep his jaw from dropping. “Hrrmmm…yes…of course. Lady Daniella.” Archie never thought he’d see the day where one of his father’s methods failed him.

Daniella smiled out of courtesy and went over to the stone steps that led to the church. It was a buttressed structure, founded in the gothic style of the Late Winsworthi Dark Ages, long before the seeds of industry had been sown. With vines creeping over sculptures fashioned in the shape of cherubs or moss cropping up inside the worn crevices of the stone, it was more than obvious that it was the relic of a past age. A simpler time, where men needed only tend to their farms and cattle, and where one’s every breath was not marred with the toxic smog of factories.

Admiral Fordshire and Archibald came up behind Daniella as she neared the double-doors of the church. Archie cleared his throat, and drew his trusty revolver from underneath his coat. Fordshire stood on the ready with his rifle aimed straight into the room, and Daniella took the honor of pushing both doors aside.

In an instant, the two doors slammed against the walls of the church, and clouds of dust were stirred into the air by the impact. Both Archie and Fordshire strode inside with their weapons brandished, for any would-be assailants to think twice before picking a fight with them.

The church in question was rather squat and tiny when one took into account that it was the burial ground of war heroes. Golden candelabras and shards of stained glass were just about the only decorum left. All else was a mess of plaster, benches strewn about haphazardly, and a pulpit that had been turned on its side. Oddly enough, there was a singular candle whose flame still shone, behind a small colonnade to the right of the church.

Archie coughed into his hands a few times, waving away the dust with his free hand. “My lord! What even happened here? The place looks like it’s been trashed by revelers or some other degenerates.”

“And it’s been less than a week since we buried Brother Phillip.” mentioned Baron Fordshire while he scanned the church through the sights of his M2 Gorond. “It only means they must have known about this somehow. But how…”

“The Brothers have eyes everywhere.” A voice that echoed throughout the church interjected Fordshire’s sentence. “Every person with whom you speak, every block in the major cities, and perhaps even in the cups of your drinks…” the voice cackled, and while Fordshire waved his gun around to see if he could shoot the sound, Archibald listened to how it spoke. Like a foreigner…Gurgelian almost.

“Who are you?!” Daniella came forward, bearing a pistol that was just barely larger than her own hand. She raised the weapon, arms trembling and all. “What did you do to my uncle!? What did your Brothers do with him!?”

Archie bit his tongue. He swore he had heard the voice before. He knew it was familiar. But from who was it? Bah! I’ll find out later, what matters now is Daniella! “Daniella! Stay out of the church! A damsel like you will only–” A shot blared out from behind the colonnade where the candle had been, and Daniella gave an ear-piercing shriek.

Before Archie could gather his thoughts, he caught the sound of Daniella’s gun skidding along the floor and the noise of a bullet casing rattle as it fell. Fordshire’s daughter stood with one hand grasping the other, her eyes widened, her moist lips contorted into a frown.

“Perhaps that’ll keep the lass quiet. You’re too young to be waving around a pistol like that.” A squat old man emerged from the final pillar in the church’s colonnade. His grey beard was sharpened to the point of looking like a pencil’s lead tip, and his bifocals gleamed with an ungodly amount of light as he stepped forward. On either of his hands were black iron revolvers. “Ah-h-h-h, Archibal, it’s been long hasn’t it? I’ve been dying to speak with you again since we last met. Surely, you do remember the name Dietrich Hengereg, old chap.” he grinned a grin that exposed more than one gap between his teeth.

“You…you BASTARD!” Fordshire yanked the trigger on his rifle, and the bullet raced to reach Dietrich.

Yet a massive blur streaked past the old man.

In moments, a hulking shape had manifested itself in front of Dietrich before the bullet could strike him. Another few seconds revealed it to be a brute of a man with tan skin, a bald scalp, and a long scar running down his eye. A singular stream of red rolled down the bridge of the giant’s nose. The bullet had struck home, yet the colossus stood. The tan barbarian flexed his muscles, his veins outlining themselves along his body, and the blood ran down to his pecks. Like an animal, the giant grunted, and wheezed, and as though through some miracle, the bleeding then stopped.

“Who are–who are you…you monsters!” Fordshire shouted in horror, with Daniella retreating to Archibald’s side.

“Thomas. Name is Thomas! Monster me not!” Thomas stepped to the side, and sobbed into his burly palms for a few seconds.

“Look what you’ve done. You just had to make my favorite giant cry didn’t you? That’s a shame, and here I was, thinking we could actually get along.” said the old man.

“Enough teasing, Dietrich.” Archibald planted a foot in front of himself, his revolver was aimed right at Dietrich. “Why are you working with the Turtillians? Answer me!”
Dietrich smirked and gave another flash of his glasses. “Well look at you, the noble’s boy thinks he had a right to know what I’m doing, now does he? I’m afraid you missed your chance, Archie, I don’t serve under House Newlenburs anymore, and don’t even think I’ll ever do so again!” Dietrich reeled his head back and cackled like a madman, all the while Thomas tried to imitate the laugh with moderate success.

Archie pressed forward, and he could feel Daniella’s arm twining with his as he did so. She came with him. “I promised I would kill you one day, Dietrich, and a gentleman never backs down on his promise.” Archie aimed the revolver at Dietrich, whom only shrugged.

“Archie, will we be alright?” Daniella spoke, her voice quavering.

“We’ll be just fine.” Archibald answered, despite not being too sure of that himself. Still…the ladies do love bold promises.

“A shame, a shame, a shame. You never learn do you, Archie? But who am I to complain? That only means more fun for me.” Dietrich raised both of his hands and clapped twice. “Barrabus!”

Archie blinked and craned his head to the side to indicate confusion, but rumbling came from beneath his feet, and his heart stopped in that instant. “What did you–”
A thud came from under the floor boards of the church. Archie waited an instant, and then another thud came, this time leaving a dent on the floor. “Game over, Archibald.”

“Wai–” oaken planks burst up into the air, and sawdust floated upwards, making Archie cough. Before he could reach for his revolver, Daniella hold on him made him drop the weapon.

It all came sooner than he could have imagined. One moment he stood on the ground, the other he was in midair, staring at a gaping chasm left on the church’s floor. He pivoted his head toward where Fordshire had been, but before he could see the Baron, a brawny palm snuffed out his vision and the world went black

“The Language of the Trees”

My reflection came fragmented when I stared into the river, as though I gazed into a dozen shards of glass. I suppose this would be as apt a time as any to describe myself, but I’ll spare you the irrelevant details. I came only to tell a story—my story to be precise.

I whiffed the earthy scent of pines into my nostrils, that same fragrance that greeted me whenever I traveled into the woods. It was not a common routine amongst the folk of my village, I’ll be the first to admit that, but I took pleasure in it. It was not so much that there was anything to do out in the wilds either. I was never good with the bow, so hunting game was never an option, and I was not young enough to even contemplate spending my time climbing on the boughs of rowans or pines. I only enjoyed the serenity.

Those notes of birdsong that rang out from the trees, the rush of running water twining through the brush, and that faint breeze that whispers through the leaves. It was that last one that always captivated me. Call me mad or whatever you like, but I knew that they spoke to me.

The trees, I mean.

I cast a pebble across the lazing waves of the river and I perked up my ears. Those hushed murmurings which the trees are so fond of keeping secret made themselves known to me. I listened with a monk’s patience. Perhaps this day I would understand…something! You might jeer at me for believing in such “hogwash” as you would undoubtedly call it, but whom are you to say that the trees do not confer amongst themselves? Whom are you to say that they do not laugh, cry, shout, sing, and combine all of these together just as we do? I was on the cusp of making the discovery of their words, and with that in my mind I awaited the serenade of the trees to lull my ears once again.

And then it came.

And then I listened.

And I had yet to understand.

I buried my sorrowful face into the palms of my hand, despaired that I had yet to understand the Secret Language of the Trees. So severe had my sorrow been that my heels spun toward the dirt path that snaked out of my beloved forest. But right before my boots took the first steps out of the wood, the leaves shimmered with the Secret Language of the Trees once again.

“Come…come…” they were words so low that, had I been a lesser man (which I can assure you I am not) I would have passed them off as stray thoughts. “I await…I await…” and it was then that I had known the Secret Language I belabored to seek for months without end.

Baffled, bedazzled, and awestricken, I had scarcely been able to contain myself in order to compose a response. For what, if anything, could mere man say to the face of such a being? How could it be that a great soul imprisoned within a temporal body, such as myself, would even deign to converse with oaks, rowans, and birches that had lived for centuries!?

“You needn’t fear…you needn’t fear…come closer…so you may hear the whole of my speech…” Unnatural—ungodly! It is only these words that could summarize the Secret Language of the Trees. It was a feeling more than a sound, a prickle at the nape of my neck, a tingle down my spine, and the wind’s chill embrace on top.

“V—voice that speaks in the Hidden Language of the Trees! Where is it that you may be?” I croaked out my response like a cowering toad.

As if in response to my question, a puff of wind tussled the locks of my hair from behind me. The instant I had whirled round, I was met with a rowan whose stout roots split the earth beneath it. Thick and rugged bark carpeted it, with broken chips of it revealing the pale wood that hid underneath. Its boughs were crooked so that the two of them faced me like the arms of a mother whom sought to cradle her child.

The reckless boy that I was, I dove straight into the question that burned in the back of my mind. “Are you the tree whom speaks the Secret Language of the trees to me?”

“It is no other than I,” the rowan tree vibrated just a trifle when it spoke. “Yet I know not why you call it the Secret Language of the Trees. The speech I utter is no secret, nor is it unique to the trees. The birds sing it in their chirps, the rivers shows it in its waves, and—as both you and I bear testament to—the human speaks it as well.”

“Then why is it that I have not heard the Language of the Trees until today? Is it that you wish to keep the humans at bay?”

“Nay, the Folk of Bark love the People of Flesh. It is the People of Flesh whom ignore us. Since long have they hafted the axe and cut out brothers down—yet the Folk of Bark love them all the same. Long have we waited for one such as you, a man of flesh whom can listen and understand the Language of the Forest.”

A grand burden had nestled itself within my heart. For despite his indiscernable visage, a sympathy had planted itself within me. “Say no more, Sir of the Bark! I’ve been given the gift of the Language of the Forest, and squander it I shall not! To the village I will go and bring my friends whom would surely love to know the Language of the Forest!”

The Folk of Bark shimmered and leaves soared from its boughs. “It gladdens this old tree’s heart! Go now! And tell your friends of the Language of the Forest!”

I took a deep breath and ventured out of the forest. Joy propelled my stride, and by midday I had come to the square of my village, and then I came upon the well.

It was there that I stood and heralded thus. “Come you lot, come to me! Many are the wonders that you shall see! For I have learned how to speak with the trees!”

Many a man wandered past me. About a dozen glances came at me within the village square. As the crimson sun melted into the horizon, I labored to tell of the secret Language of the Trees. Yet naught save for three souls came to me on that day. A woodsman whose beard dragged down to his waist, a cook whose apron was smeared with grease, and a guard whom treated his spear as his niece. It was these men that I took to learn the Secret Language of the Trees.

By late evening I had returned to the forest, and sought out that Rowan tree that had spoken to me. “O, Folk of the Bark, please listen to me! I’ve brought the men whom wish to make acquaintance with thee!”

A rumbling quaked from deep in the woods. “Hark! It gives me glee to know that you’ve returned, One whom speaks the Language of the Forest! Bring forward your friends so I may speak with them.”

I turned round again and urged each of them forward. Yet the woodsman, the cook, and the guard beheld me with confounded expressions.

“A proper fool you are! To say we can confer with the trees! My daughter has crafted better lies, and she’s just three!” the woodsman grunted and left, for he cared not for the Secret Language of the Trees.

“You’ve driven me away from my inn, and now my patrons are sure to cause a din! All because you chose to take me for a spin!” the cook groaned and stormed out of the forest. He too had never cared for the Secret Language of the Trees.

“Tis a demon with which you speak! Such habits belong only to the meek! The whole village’ll know o’ this by the end of the week!” And the finally left the guard, for he cared not for the Secret Language of the Trees.

“Despair not, friend.” The Rowan tree sang to me. “There ought to be others, and they are sure to believe in the Language of the Forest.”

Hope was rekindled in my heart, and thanking the old Rowan I set off for my village again. For what remained of dusk, I proclaimed to my town of the Secret Language of the Trees, Yet in the coming morn none had listened. But the Rowan’s hope remained in my heart.

And when the sun rose and the roosters cried, I came to the square and heralded the message of the previous night. Heads turned, children were rushed away from the square, and vendors screamed at me, for distracting potential buyers of their wares. And then dusk came, and not a soul had come before me. But the Rowan’s hope held its grip on my heart.

Day and night, night and day, and then came another night. I bore the message of the Rowan, but today none would spare me the time. Owls hooted deep in the wood, and then came a storm of rushing torches. It was the men and women of the village.

And they called me thus. “A madman you are! Keep away from our hearths! The trees cannot reason, and neither can you! So leave this town, for that is what you ought to do!”

I spared not a word for them, as they would not hear. And leave the town I did, shedding many a tear. Abandoned, lonely, and with no home to go to, I came to the Rowan’s wood. I whiffed the pines as I had done before, and called to the Rowan to give it my report.

“Friend of the Bark! Long has it been! But pray tell, why is it that you come alone?” said the Rowan.

“For I failed to find friends to speak with thee, whom would teach them the secret Language of the Trees. A madman they call me and cast me out they did! From the home I’d been raised in since I was a kid!”

“It is my fault, Friend of the Bark, it seems I’ve taken this too far. Pretend you never heard of me, and come back to your home. You need never speak to me again, for I will do well on my own.”

Another great sorrow had seized me from within, for then, when I had been alone, the Rowan had come to blame itself. Yet soon my heart knew another truth, and that was that I had indeed never been alone. For when while my old friends were now in the past, I had gained friendship with the Rowan, and one that would last. “Never will I return to the village, never will I see their faces anew. But it matters not, for I have gained the friendship of the oaks, birches, and the yews.”

The Rowan tree shimmered for the last time in delight, and whistled to me in the Secret Language of the Trees. “Man of Flesh, we have formed ties that bind. It brings me great joy, to think of the next days of our lives.”

And so it was that I gained kinship with the Rowan in that old forest, and how I had come to learn the Secret Language of the Trees. To this day I listen to birdsong, rivers, whistling wind, and all wonders of the forest, yet there is no wonder more wondrous than that of a friend. Sometimes folk of the village will come to the wood, and they mock me without abandon. But in truth, I could care less. For I have found a place where I was understood. So I ask you dear reader, bearing my chronicle in mind, the next time you go out into the forest and the next time you come upon the towering pines, rowans, or birches, that you stop a moment. Stop and listen.

For you too may hear the Secret Language of the Trees.

You could be as those people who go about life looking at everything as being normal, or you could stop for a moment and see the true wonders behind those things. People might mock you for doing just that, but don’t listen to them. The world is not as mundane as others would have us believe, and the sooner you realize that, the better your life will be. – QuestingAuthor

 

An old parable type of story that I published here some months ago. I wrote this during a blackout on my island, and I came out satisfied with the result. I’ll be out camping by the time this is reuploaded  on the blog, so best of luck to you all. I hope this is to your enjoyment.

– QuestingAuthor

 

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 2.5

I finally got back to this story. it’ll be a while before I make the next chapter, but since it’s been a while, I figured my newer readers could try catching up with the older stuff. I was planning on releasing this later, but I have no means of charging my computer and the prospect of typing out a whole post on phone is not one I like. This can be read without spoilers from the previous chapter, but reading them will add much-needed context. Stay frosty.

Part 1: Here

Part 2: Here

***

“Bring him closer.” a hoarse voice hissed from the veil of darkness at the end of the tunnel.
The three men whom stood at the threshold of the tunnel glanced at one another with gaping mouths and widened eyes that glistened with fear. The two burly men that held on to a stretcher had quivering knees, while the immobile corpse resting therein gave no complaint. The squat geezer whom led the party was also frozen in his boots. The fledgling old man, whom friends and family called Dietrich, swallowed whatever traces of common sense remained inside of him.

“Where are ze Brothers?” He nearly bit his tongue when he spoke. He had to remind himself to stop his Gurgelian accent from slipping through his lips, it made him feel vulnerable.

The slitherine voice that prowled in the back of the tunnel chortled once. Dietrich heard his underlings, Thomas and Barrabus, gasp at the echoing laughter. “It’s only me, Dietrich. Have you something against me? If so, you should have told me sooner.” Even Dietrich’s amplified spectacles were not enough to see the figure in the dark, but a deep recess in his soul could feel the disembodied voice’s smirk. “Perhaps I’d have made it a point to dispose of you the moment I met you. Mmmmyeeessss.”

That bastard. Dietrich thought to himself. Whenever he’d meet with the thing in the dark, it would always speak in that bastardized version of the colonial accent. Somehow, it was even more grating than an actual colonial speaker.

“WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR!?” Its authoritative tone boomed out of the tunnel, almost knocking Dietrich off of his feet.

Thomas, the more sensitive of the twins, started sobbing like a child whom desired its mother. He had a giant’s build, but if the soul was an inheritable trait, then it went without doubt that Thomas had inherited that of his mother’s. The brash Barrabus let go of his end of the stretcher, the body on top of it sliding down until Thomas steadied it, and then Barrabus brandished his working class knuckles at whatever stood in the dark.

Dietrich whirled to face Barrabus, the sheen of his glasses following the turn of his head. Barrabus was a powerful man without a doubt, and the coiled lines on his forehead indicated he’d been offended by the voice making Thomas cry. Yet what danger could a hulking brute like him pose to an astute fox-like whatever hid behind the darkness?

“I’ll handle the talking, Barrabus. Hold on to the stretcher, and make sure the body isn’t damaged.” It was a rare occasion to see Barrabus flinch once his inner beast was brought out. And whether it was the fear or direness of the situation, the giant conceded, and hoisted his end of the stretcher again.

“This oughta be worth it for Thomas’s tears.” Barrabus muttered with a scowl. “Lad hasn’t wailed like that in years–not since the days he went silent.”

“I’m still waiting.” taking on a playful, almost teasing tone, the voice in the dark called him forth. “Leave the body only six paces ahead of the tunnel’s mouth. After that, you know what the Brothers told you to do. Go back to the graveyard. The three days have passst, now the Metamorphosis is only misssing one final day. You will be rewarded handsomely…SO DON’T SCREW IT OVER!” Dietrich’s heart skipped a beat with the other boom of the voice, but Thomas braced himself this time around.

Dietrich faced the two burly men and nodded. Thomas and Barrabus gave a frightened approach into the tunnel. Their legs buckling under the weight of unspeakable horror, they rushed inside and lay down the stretcher with what little grace they could afford. Dietirch cleared his throat at the sight of the dead man.

Supposedly, he’d been a member of the aristocracy whom had served many a year in the navy. He’d died of old age, which was tragic enough, but what made it worse was his enhancement. Rumors circulated that he’d signed up to a government program which had his heart replaced by an artificial organ capable of transporting adrenaline throughout the veins at the wielder’s behest. The twist was, that none had told him that such an implant would only keep him in a vegetative state rather than let him die of old age. A poor fate, not being able to break the cruel chain of existence. A fate that was far too akin to an actual death.

Barrabus and Thomas emerged out of the cave like two whimpering pups whom were about to be beaten. They came beside their Lord, Dietrich, and the three traded glances with one another.

Just what sort of scheme have I gotten myself into? Dietrich thought to himself. Of course, the reward would be worth it in the end.

“YEEEESSSS” The serpent’s voice came out as an explosion yet again. And before Dietrich could tell them to stay, Barrabus and Thomas were already sprinting halfway towards the automobile.

But Dietrich stayed.

He took slow paces away, not knowing what it was that he wanted. More insight into the voice’s motives? A glimpse into what the voice looked like? Or perhaps one last gaze at the dead man in military fatigues?

As he was close to departing the tunnel’s threshold, and while he had half a mind to run out before he regretted not doing so, he heard the voice in the dark cackle yet again. It then gave a throaty cough and uttered the final words that reverberated in Dietrich’s mind on the trip to the graveyard. “PHILIP FORDSHIRE! HE IS MINE! ONE WITH THE HIVE!”

“Blood that Reeks of Iron”

 

Ergron’s thumb pressed against the hollow in Aegryn’s throat. Aegryn rasped out the final words of a sentence, yet those same words were swept away by a fit of sputtering coughs. Both of the men locked eyes with one another, two statues staring at one another for an eternity. Aegryn’s hand swayed this way and that until it caught a steel grip on Ergron’s gold-braided tunic. But he would have none of that today.

Ergron grit his teeth and clamped down his nails on his bastard son’s smooth flesh. He closed his eyes, stifling the tears, and then the warmth of pooling blood congregated around his fingertips. Aegryn’s prying fingers closed in on the hem of his tunic and from his mouth came gurgled pleas for mercy—pleas that Ergron was not willing to heed.

He sunk the weight of his fingers on the boy’s fragile neck, a neck he had cradled in his arms many a year ago, and a neck that would not know the tender kiss of a lover. Another gurgle came, and then his son’s claws scraped along his forearm, rending Ergron’s fair flesh asunder. And then another choke came.

And then the boy’s hand fell limp.

No longer was there a shuffle from underneath him, no longer was there the writhing of one whom toiled in his final efforts to live, and no longer could Ergron say that his bloodline would continue until time immemorial. He cracked open a slit in his eyes, and saw what had once been the beaming pupils of his youthful son were now glazed husks of what they had been in days past. His son’s warm flesh had grown cold.

Ergron let go of the boy’s body, rising up from where he had been crouched over the corpse. Corpse…his last son really was gone. But he could still feel the lad, breathing and pulsing and writhing and striving. That tingle that came from those final gasps for life still lingered on his fingertips, which twitched as though they’d yet to be loosed from the youth’s neck. He’d done it! He’d finally done it! That blasted sword was his!

But before he could go on to ponder over those truths, he sensed the hairs on his cheeks tickling. What caused it? He had yet to know. He brought his bloodstained hand and smeared his cheek crimson. It had been tears that tickled it.

He drew the hand away from his countenance, and gazed at the worn palm that was displayed before him. Ergron took a whiff of his fingertips.

They reeked of iron.

***

  Just a vignette I’d written some time ago. I had the intention of turning it into a sort of mini-series, but I haven’t had the drive to come back to it in recent days. I’ve been too busy with my current novel, which is currently scraping around 200k words (I need to learn to write shorter), but once I’m done with the first draft, I might toy around with this for another while. Questions like what the sword is, why the father wanted it, and many others are still unanswered in my mind. But I feel the prose here stands on its own as an atmospheric piece. Any thoughts or criticisms are welcomed!

   As always, this had been the QuestinAuthor. Keep writing, my friends.

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 2

The story so far…

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 1

***

A silken-gloved fist banged on an oaken door that had been garnished with square imprints. Not a sound came from within the building, so Archibald decided to knock again. He retrieved his hand and coiled it with the other from behind his waist. He grumbled to himself while waiting in the veranda that led into Fordshire Manor, he would have expected a response by now. Yet he was given none.

Wisps of wind sighed past his ears, until they swept through the black strands of his hair, only to whistle past the leaves of a grand fig tree that stood in the middle of the gardens. Even Archibald’s aged eyes burned with the fires of a forgotten youth when he gazed upon the garden. Fordshire Manor, home to Baron Fordshire XIX, was the most opulent corner of Grenal City. Most of the settlement was marred with grimy alleys and streets in which the honking of cars took precedence over even the most pleasant of conversations. It was a melting pot for outcasts and criminals alike, one where they could fester in their degeneracy or crimes.

But Fordshire Manor was nothing like that.

Fordshire Manor’s gardens where an ocean of emerald which was bathed in the splendor of the sun’s rays. Beds of roses, lilacs, and daisies were arranged in paths that the hapless visitor might lose themselves in just by daydreaming within the confines. Archie could see himself–as a child no less–frolicking amuck in the beds of scarlet roses, wafts of flowery fragrance teasing his nostrils. He could see the scrapes in his arms which had spent the whole of the day climbing atop the boughs of the fig tree, but he wouldn’t care. He had been free then–in that time where the Turtillians had been no issue to him. Yet perhaps that time could come back to him…maybe he had a few minutes to–

“Um, siiir?” Archibald’s thoughts came reeling back to the present after the butler that greeted him at the door had spoken up. His voice was a monotone one, without even a hint of inflection to add flavor to it. It had the aristocratic accent of those colonials whom were so fond of dragging out their vowels.

Archibald whirled backwards, almost stumbling over an ornate vase with circular patterns. He was then greeted with a frail gentleman in a navy dress suit. “My…condolences?” It had been some time since Archie had practiced proper etiquette. Truth be told, he never expected he would need that skill ever again.

The man squinted his eyes down at Archibald, and licked his lips once. “Hrm…yeees. Master Fooordshire has been waiting for you. Cooome right this waaay.”

Recalling that his weapons had been stripped from him before he’d been allowed into the premises, Archibald sauntered into the luxurious halls of Fordshire manor with the butler close at hand. It opened up to a large antechamber on which were hung portraits designed by renowned artists. The dingy landscapes designed by the School of Realism, the dandy fields of flowers crafted by Romanticists, and the unintelligible garbage that the Surrealists called “art” found itself displayed in galleries all around the manor. All of them in places with padded furniture and where trails of perfumed scents lingered.

With that, the old man led Archibald down one hall, only to come into another, and then another, and then he would take a sharp turn without Archie noticing. Archie had seen the same abstract painting on one of the right walls at least six times before the butler had made any real progress. That, or Mr. Fordshire XIX was fond hanging a replica of the same painting in every corner of his dwelling.

Soon enough, they’d reached a wide set of oaken stairs that led to a door that was wrought in the same fashion as the one that led inside. Before Archibald could speak to the butler again, the bald gentleman bowed and was halfway down the stairs before Archibald was able to think of what he would say.

“This ought to be the Baron’s room then…” Archibald muttered under his breath while slid a crack into the room.

His eyes were treated to a crackling hearth with the stuffed head of a grand moose hanging on a plaque that was directly above the fireplace. Fusils, rifles, and a slew of pistols were hung on walls and arranged on stands beside a variety of creatures that Archibald could only guess had been slain by the weapons. The door creaked while he went one step into the room, and he was met with a fresh, transparent whiff of air. He breathed in mouthfuls of it. It felt as though he’d been taken deep into one of the pine forests that were a ways off of the grim of cities. He would have allowed himself to inspect the room further, had it not been for the realization that he was not alone.

His curious gaze drifted along the room until it fell upon the arm of a high-backed chair with velvet cushioning. A stout figure rested against it, but it was no more detailed than a shadow to anyone whom gazed at it from behind. A robust arm protruded to his left, the meaty fingers twirling the stem of a wine glass. An uncorked bottle of the crimson delight stood on a small table which was also to his side.

Firewood crackled and the hearth belched out embers that danced in their flight. And then the person in the chair lifted the glass to his lips. “Come inside. I’ve been waiting for you. For a proper long time I have.” The Baron, despite what Archibald thought his age to be, still held a clear voice. The kind of voice that could convince a man to jump off a cliff, and if that same man lived through the drop, he’d jump over the cliff again should the voice command it.

Archibald bore himself forward, fawning over the rifles and pistols that had gone out of production years ago. Had he the free time, he’d go out hunting with one of those, yet time was not kind to him. It never had been.

Archibald seated himself on another chair that was behind the Baron. The oaken legs screeched a bit when he sat down, he’d have to remind himself to lose some weight later. “Baron Fordshire, I presume?”

“The nineteenth.” The Baron made a point to emphasize his place in the long line of Fordshires. He drummed his fair fingers on the rim of his seat’s armrest. Archibald could see that he wore an admiral’s vest, with golden stripes that were luminous when the hearth’s light reached them on his shoulder. “Let’s talk business why don’t we? But first, spare me a moment.”

Baron Fordshire XIX raised either of his palms and clapped twice. His callous hands being the way that they were, the sound echoed throughout the whole of the room. Right after the clap, there came a voluptuous mistress in a fine gown whom bore a tray with two wine glasses on her arms.. She wore a crimson gossamer dress that ended in flowery designs by the time it reached her bosom. A curling river of hair slid down one of her shoulders, and then Archibald’s eyes landed on her lips. Moist and the same color as her gossamer gown. The same woman he’d met at the pub.

“Been a while, hasn’t it? I wasn’t sure you’d come, but now your–” the Baron raised a finger toward her, and she zipped her mouth.

“We can leave the pleasantries for later, Daniella.” the daughter pouted, and Archibald watched as her shapely legs peeked out of the gown while she took up a seat beside the Baron. Considering the age gap, she was likely his daughter.

Archibald slouched against his seat and brought his arm to grip the stem of one of the vacant glasses. He looked into Daniella’s eyes for a moment to see if he was allowed to pour himself a drink, she nodded and by the time she finished his cup was already half-filled. Archibald took a swig.

“I’ve heard much of you, Archibald of Newlenburs. Your dealings, your recent excursions, but more importantly, I know that you and I are allies. Allies against those abominations that have crept into our glorious nation of Winsworth–of those Turtillian beings that hide, extort, and manipulate our proud people.” he slammed his fist on the armrest, only to regain his cool by opening his palm again. “You and I, we are much alike. We both know that they’re pulling the strings with their planned assassinations and the sudden replacements of noble peers.  Yet neither of us would just stand idly by and do nothing of it.”

“Yet I haven’t seen you call them out in public.” Archibald retorted, and a tense silence stood between both of them. Daniella narrowed her eyes at Archie’s bold remark. “If you really cared as much as I did, you’d be on radio broadcasts nationwide, telling everyone the truth.” Archibald sipped his wine. He would not allow himself to be compared to some pompous aristocrat whom happened to be aware of the truth. What good would that do if he wasn’t willing to stand up for it?”

“True, true. A coward I am, I’ll give you that much.” His inflection got rougher by just a tinge, to the point that only an educated man would have been able to notice it. “But bravery and truth aren’t commodities we give much value to in these times. Suppose I did say the truth, what would be the best that happens to me? Should I lose my lands and have all mention of my lineage erased just because I made myself a fool in the eyes of the public? It didn’t work out when it happened to you, why should it work out for me?”

“A wise man once said that we ought to value truth in spite of what anyone else believes.”

“Should he value truth above even his own daughter?” Archie raised an eyebrow, and spun his head toward the youthful Daniella, but he was not met with a playful smirk. She glared at him, with all the intensity of the pale sun.

Archibald was left speechless, so he downed the rest of his drink while he tried to think of how to phrase a possible rebuttal. Debating men of his own kind came naturally to Archibald, without regard to the individual’s status or wealth. Yet being the courteous gentleman that he was, he could never bring himself to argue with a woman, it had been the last thing that his father had taught him. And the only thing that Archibald regretted learning from Edward Newlenburs.

“Enough of that. We’ve come to talk business, not to argue.” Daniella returned to her seat after her father diffused the situation.

Baron Fordshire shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. He set the glass back on the table, and then he turned to expose his whole profile to Archibald. Had Archibald been a lesser man, he would have called Fordshire a freak of nature the moment he saw him, but Archie believed in principle.  But even that still didn’t stop him from being unnerved by Fordshire’s appearance.

An ebony sphere lay in the place of his left eye, with a burning cerulean dot shining in the middle of the void. The Baron blinked once and six metallic fragments came together until they met at one center point and retracted with a mechanical movement when he opened his eyes again. Vein-like wires protruded from under his skin right above and below both eyelids. He was one of the Enhanced Ones, albeit not to the extent that one would hear about in the news. Yet unlike most of their ilk, he was not some lanky youth that sought strength through artificial means, nor was he a senior whom wanted to relive his youth. Baron Fordshire was middle-aged, but among the healthiest of that demographic. His shoulders were broad and his short hair had only recently begun to gray. His muscular constitution threatened to burst out of his naval uniform at any second.

“Don’t be embarrassed. You wouldn’t be the first to react negatively to this. But enough of me, I’d like to bring in the subject of my brother, Philip Fordshire. Uncle to my daughter.” He waved a hand toward her and she gave a courtly smile.

“Philip Fordshire? My deepest condolences, it was just a week ago since he’d passed away was it not? I heard of it through the radio.” Archibald set the glass of wine on his lap and he leaned toward the edge of his seat.

Fordshire’s artificial pupil faded and shone, only to fade and shine again. It was odd. In truth, the Baron needed only get rid of that one part of himself to be human, but to see him so nearly resemble humanity made Archibald’s stomach churn. “Uncle died a peaceful death, but that isn’t the problem. It was old age that took him–earlier than I would have wanted of course–but I’m powerless against it. The problem was what happened after.” Daniella, whom had held any trace of emotion to herself since Archie had met her, now spoke with a subtle fervor.

She paused as though the Baron meant to speak again, but he took another sip of his wine instead.

“It’s what happened after he was buried that worries me the most.”

“What do you mean after?” Archibald bristled his moustache while he looked at the time on his pocket watch.

Daniella glanced from one end of the room to another, in the same way she had done back at the pub. Not a soul was to be found in the Baron’s personal study. She lowered her voice to that fine line between casual conversation and murmurings. “None of the journals circulating Winsworth know about this, it’s a family secret, but when my father had gone to visit the grave just four days ago, he found it empty. Not even a scrap of Philip’s clothing was left in the coffin, only an odor.”

“An odor as foul as horse dung and human waste, but it was faint.” The baron joined in all of a sudden. “I would have thought it to be dingy grave-robbers, but before I knew it, I had smeared my hand across a foul slime on the rim of the coffin. When I inspected it, all I saw was a black ichor oozing down the coffin.”

“Turtillians.” The word had a certain aura to it when Archibald mentioned it. The kind that could earn a couple of seconds of silence. “There’s no question about it,” Archibald elaborated and wrung his hands together. “they stole your brother’s body. You made a good choice in not reporting it. The authorities would have silenced you a mere moments the second you made the announcement public.”

“Oh Lord.” Daniella buried her face between the palm of her hands, and Archie patted her shoulder. Yet much to his surprise, she did not sob. By the time she’d removed her hands from her face, her expression was one of pure disgust.

“Don’t fret, milady, we can still recover him.” He had made his voice as dashing and heroic as he could manage, but that only worked on damsels that had been distressed. Daniella was not in tears, nor in sorrow, nor was she in pain. An almost masculine anger had seized her, the rage of one that has been wronged.

Baron conjoined his hands and rested his chin on them. “It is all fine to hear you speak of solving the problem. But a man is as good as cattle if he doesn’t act on his word. I would gladly take you to the church where my brother’s been buried–but only you can make the choice, Sir Archibald.”

That same grin that had found itself on Archie’s face in the pub had come to him again, the same grin he bore when he swore he’d kill every last trace of Turtillian filth in the Winsworth Imperium. Even if it took him one kill at a time. The moustached, gentleman hero, Archibald of Newlenburs, puffed up his chest and locked eyes with Daniella. They exchanged a glance, but one of pure determination. The kind of glance that defined men and women that would not allow the tides of history to drown them in their wake. Archibald offered his hand to Baron Fordshire XIX.

“I would be honored.” Archie said while he awaited the admiral to clasp hands with him.

Fordshire chuckled to himself, his cerulean pupil flaring up with newfound fervor. He brought his brawny hand and clasped it with Archie’s. “I knew you still carried the spirit of a gallant in your hands Archie. The Winsworthi aristocracy have a saying, but never has there been one that has lived up to it more than you.”

“‘Once a gentleman, always a gentleman.'” They both intoned the mantra, and Archibald felt the tight squeeze of Fordshire’s hand.

In due time, the admiral let go. He walked over to a stand that was above his fireplace, and hoisted a rifle that had been sprawled atop it. Above it hung the head of a mighty buck, one of the antler’s chipped with injury. A testament to the power behind the weapon’s bullets. Daniella crossed her arms and downed a drink of wine, all the while Archibald watched as Fordshire unloaded a cartridge from the rifle. It was an M2 Gorond, with a thick iron barrel beneath a carapace of oak. Fordshire strapped it to his back.

“Let’s get a move on, shall we?”

***

Previous Archibald Stories:

“A Price for Dead Men” Part 1

“The Philosopher’s Garden”

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