Continuing the story, Aphelia has a conversation with a familiar (and rather odd) barman before taking to the air on her resupply mission. Sorry if it needs a little more work – you’re really my beloved guinea pigs for these drafts.
Be sure to catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t:
And if you want to let me know what you liked, or didn’t, then throw in a comment.
Aphelia lay on her side in her dormitory bed, unable to sleep. Across from her, Merrietta lay on her own bed, limbs draped over it’s edges as she snored. Between them was the bottle of rum, half empty and resting on the bedside cabinet they shared. She hadn’t drunk a lot, just enough to warm her against the oncoming chill of night and put her into a light doze.
Yet the knowledge that the mission bell would ring had kept her awake, the anticipation of its chimes making it near impossible for her brain to shut down. Instead she stared at the label on the rum. It was probably one of the very last bottles left in the whole world, and the thought stirred a shadow of a memory. It flitted through her mind. There had been a bar….. somewhere. It was indistinct. There was a stranger who had served her rum and beer, but didn’t want the money she had tried to pay with.
“It’s not shiny enough,” the bartender had said.
Perhaps it had just been some sort of dream. Aphelia drifted through soft, floating memories of another place…..
She was riding in a car through the afternoon sunshine, all rolling hills and woodland. The coming of Spring was in still in the air even as the Moon swung into view; low in the sky, round and pregnant. Theran was driving, but he looked younger and as strange as he looked, the landscape itself was baffling her because there were no signs of war, no craters or skeletal trees, no blasted scars marring a tortured landscape. It was a world untouched by the hordes of creatures that had swept in relentless waves over the face of the civilised world.
It almost lifted her heart, but where she should have been happy, instead she was resentful about something. Yes, she was annoyed because there were going to some old factory and a party where she was supposed to wear a mask. She wanted to go somewhere else, but Theran had insisted and passed her a likeness of a bird. The memory shifted and she caught an image of herself in a mirror: the head of an owl, big eyes in an oval face. She blinked and looked around. She was standing at a bar lit by strings of little lights hung from the walls, incense coiling in the air and a muffled thud of music from somewhere nearby…..
Someone said a name. “Ellie?”
She blinked. The barman had his head cocked on one side, giving her a strange look. Despite the empty, black eyes and the bleached bone of his skull, she was sure that she knew him. “You?”
“Me?” replied the bartender quizzically. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Who are you?”
The stranger cocked his head. “I seem to remember having this conversation before. You can call me Crow, but I think you already knew that, hmmm?”
Waves of memories suddenly crashed against each other in her mind, a tidal collision that tossed her soul on the crest of the wave. Ellie shuddered and put out a hand to steady herself on the bar. This place was so familiar, how was it that she felt that she had been lost in some other world, lost in some sort of nightmare about a war?
“I was dreaming…..”
“A dream? Indeed,” replied Crow. “Want to tell me about it?”
The initial swell of conflicted memories subsided, like a wave pulling away from the beach to reveal freshly washed stones. Each one was a little piece of a life Ellie knew, but mixed into were other memories that she could simply reach out to and pick up.
Each one was a recollection from those eddying currents of that strange dream world….
“Go on,” Crow insisted. “Tell me what you remember of the other place.”
“It’s not real. Just a dream.”
“I thought it was a war. You’re aircraft was downed, but you survived.”
“Yes…..” Ellie wasn’t sure. She shook her head as if to clear the confusion.
“But this is where I belong,” she retorted. “I know this place.”
“Humour me. Tell me of this other world that you dreamed about. All you need do is reach out to them.”
She knew she shouldn’t, and as much as Crow was insistent, it was her curiosity that won over: her name Aphelia and she had been a teenager when it had all started. The first signs had been worrying news broadcasts that talked about a possible toxic spillage, but it was quickly apparent that there was something else going on. The government had a project that was digging a super deep mine to extract the crystals that lived at great depth in the mantel of the planet, drilling deeper and deeper until something bubbled up out of the ground and attacked the machinery and their operators.
The old footage had become required viewing by the time she joined the military effort, a scene filled with the same scrabbling madness, the flailing limbs and manic faces as the creatures who had engulf the biplane. They surged forth, perhaps from a hollow world as some had it, or perhaps they were aliens or the product of a dozen different, bizarre theories. The scientists had analysed what they could, and determined that the things were biological, but like nothing they’d seen before. Given their number and swarming behaviour, they had been dubbed The Tide and they were numerous beyond imagining.
The bizarre goblin gaggle of limbs and laughter had been joined by great lumbering beasts like golems of living rock that had been like living bulldozers, and a myriad of other bizarre things that digested concrete and steel, things that killed themselves throwing their bodies into the engines of jet planes while the tales of deep sea terrors like the Kraken had come to life as great tentacled beasts dragged shipping to the ocean floor.
And flying above the ever entrenching Front had come the Tidecallers, the only creatures that might have been thought to have some sort of human equivalence to intelligence. They were humanoids, shrouded in armoured plates of dark bone or bark who flew astride great feathered, fire breathing carrion mounts. Despite their best efforts, the military had never caught one of these creatures, nor had they ever attempted to communicate with humanity.
The war raged on, and after the shock of the initial assault waned, humanity had retaliated by bombing huge swathes of the tidlings, striking against the greater beasts with their heaviest weapons and searching for ever more ingenious ways to attack the creatures. Yet there had been no end to them and eventually the system became so strained by internecine warfare that it had recycled every last piece of civilisation in order to survive, turned every citizen to a soldier.
Aphelia had been a trainee pilot when the war started, and that had earned her a place in the auxiliary pilots corps, eventually bringing her into the primary force as crews dwindled. A few short years later she had arrived at Bastion which had now held for three years, its foundations apparent proof against attack from below, and time and again had survived the enemy where it had broken through the Front. Yet the Tide never relented, and the Front was a forever shrinking cordon.
“How long will they hold?” Ellie asked Crow.
Crow shrugged. “Days? Weeks?”
She wanted it to not be true, but she had been part of the fight long enough to know that it was hopeless. The Tide couldn’t be stopped, no matter how many you killed; they just kept coming. They were monsters, devils that had escaped the bowels of Hell itself.
“I prefer the term anti-bodies,” said Crow conversationally as he wiped the bar, then placed a glass and a bottle of rum beside it. “Drink?”
She nodded, silent as she tried to process all the material passing through her mind. “B-but what about this life?”
“This life?” Crow mused as he poured. “And what is this life you talk of? The life of a British urbanite? Did you really live in some small, dirty estate on the edge of the big city? A place riven with division against ephemeral enemies that you are either unaware of or cannot comprehend? A world where you can access information at the press of a button, yet still ignorance persists? It is a world of blurred lines and uncertainty, a world that surely must be some fevered dream compared to the war, where there is no need to sift through the endless flow of information buzzing between fuzzy lines: you fight the Tide, you fight for life. How could that not be real?”
Ellie stared at him, and Crow smiled. Was he right? The memories stood in stark contrast, and she was drawn more easily to those of fighting; they were so much simpler to comprehend, the people so bold and courageous in their struggle. They gave their heart and soul to arrest the onslaught. What was real was the war, the coming mission, the comrades struggling against the Tide.
And so Aphelia grabbed the glass of rum and threw it back.
Crow cleared his throat. “I haven’t been completely honest,” he said. “You see, this isn’t a case of one thing being real, the other not. It is foolishness to simply dismiss one as a dream, the other as real. What exists are mere tangents of your soul.”
“Tangent of my soul?” Aphelia frowned. “What does that even mean?”
Crow sighed and picked up the bottle of rum. “Let us assume that can accept that there are other realities?” Aphelia nodded. “Then why would it be so hard to think that your being, the essence of your soul if you will, exists in tandem with them?”
Aphelia shook her head. “That’s doesn’t make sense. If a person has a soul, then surely they have one only.”
“I never said you didn’t,” said Crow as he poured himself a drink, “But think of it like this. If you stand in a river, are you not both above and below the water.”
“Yes….. I suppose I see what you are saying, but why? Why would you show me this other world.”
“Well,” Crow replied, appearing slightly embarrassed. “There is a little matter of payment.”
He leaned over the bar and poked a finger at her. “I want my shiny. You still owe me.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I have no money here. We are at war.”
“Oh indeed you are. Remember that before you surrender to the inevitable.”
“I’ll never surrender!” Aphelia snapped.
Crow chuckled. “Spoken like a true warrior. Perhaps you’ll win the day after all.” Then he threw back the rum and disappeared. The glass hung suspended for but a second before tumbling to the floor and shattering, making Aphelia start awake. She looked around the dormitory, but it was empty. On the floor lay a shattered glass, and the sound had stirred Merrietta too.
“Wha – ?!” the engineer mumbled, rolling onto her side. Her one open eye focused on Aphelia.
“It’s okay,” Aphelia said to her with a sad smile. “Just an accident. Go back to sleep.”
* * *
The night had drawn down as the Moon had risen, full once more and there was not a cloud in sight. The temperature had fallen off and frosted the small windows of the dormitory where Aphelia, shaken by the strange dream, had briefly dozed off only to be awoken by the mission bell. The pale light glowed through the patina of ice and she saw that Merrietta had already upped and gone.
She dressed quickly and went in search of her friend in the hangars. It didn’t take long to find the ever smiling engineer doing pre-flight checks on the instrumentation, fuel and under wing mounts.
“You are awake!” smiled the giantess. Her breath made great plumes in the air. “You come back safe my little flower, dah?”
“Little flower?” Aphelia frowned.
Merrietta shook her head, smiling in bemusement. “Your nickname. It’s what I always call you.”
“Of course,” Aphelia smiled. She wondered why this had slipped her mind; her parents had named her after the first flowers of spring which were blooming on the day of her birth. “Where’s Theran?”
Merrietta shrugged. “He was standing out on the strip earlier, waiting for us. He’s eager always to be up in the air.”
Yes, thought Aphelia, he is. He enjoyed the freedom of the air, being above it all and getting a chance to rain fire down on the enemy. He still hoped, still believed that the Tide could be turned. Aphelia sighed. The fight was keeping the creatures at bay, but how long could they keep it up?
It wasn’t a thought to dwell on, especially now that she could hear the Cleric preaching to the work crews in the adjacent hangar: “….. and there will come a day when the enemy falters, a day when their numbers will thin, and if we have been too easy on ourselves in this purgatory, then what good shall it do us? We strive for our very survival! So rally your spirits! Those that do not fall will know that they have been blessed to carry on the light of the human spirit! Fight on, for who knows what tomorrow will bring!”
As the loading crew began to affix their payload, a familiar voice called out, “Ready for the off?”
Aphelia and Merrietta turned to see Theran strolling up. He was grinning with a maniac gleam in his eye.
“What’s so funny?” Aphelia asked.
“Oh, nothing much. Just that there isn’t a cloud in the sky.”
It was true, and all she could say to herself was “Great!” as she rolled her eyes. There was nothing they could do about it, Aphelia reflected. It was in the lap of whatever benevolent powers were watching over them to give them safe passage. There were soldiers on the ground relying on them, and they had their orders.
“Good to go!” shouted one of the loading crew. Theran gave him the thumbs up.
“Looks like we’re all ready,” he said. He checked his watch. “No point hanging around. Let’s get this over with, then we can get ourselves loaded up with something a little more explosive.”
With a grin, he hugged Merrietta and climbed up into the cock pit, and with one last embrace Aphelia bid the engineer farewell and followed Theran into her seat. Theran gunned the engine and the propeller became a blur. A moment later and it was chocks away.
The plane taxied to the strip and joined the other half dozen biplanes waiting for the off. Theran and Aphelia waved to the other crews as they waited for the signal, Aphelia’s leg twitching with nerves. This was always the worse part, waiting for take off out here on the strip. Once they were in the air they would be above the world and she could busy her mind with the navigation.
She didn’t have to wait long. A flare shot up and the biplanes set off, trundling down the grass runway, bumping along as they gained speed, then with a little wobble Aphelia’s stomach lurched and they were climbing up into the sky to join the Moon.
* * *
The drawback of a clear sky was also the only benefit: they could see you, but you could see them. At least that was the theory.
It started as an itching on the back of her neck as she hunched over her map and compass, out of the wind with a small torch focused on the details. They were on course – and there wasn’t a one in her squadron who would have doubted her intuition on that whether she had a map and compass or no – and after an hour and a half’s flight they would make deployment in maybe another half hour. But something was bothering her, and she started to scan the skies for a threat.
She leaned forward and shouted her fears to Theran. He nodded and radioed the others. No one could see anything, but the unease amongst the squadron was growing palpable. You could feel it, that sense that someone was watching you……
Another ten minutes went by.
Aphelia shivered and cursed. To take her mind off it she set about checking for a course correction which she knew she didn’t need to make.
And that was when the roar of flames churned the air in a blazing streak, lighting the night sky around them.
A giant avian shadow sped past and disappeared back into the night as the squadron peeled away from each other in emergency manoeuvres. One of their number was burning, the wood and canvas biplane ablaze. Aphelia craned her head and watched in horror as it spiralled out of control, heading for the earth. The crew had jumped but everything was burning, and they were nothing more than blazing candles hurtling toward the ground, parachutes brief wicks fluttering into petals of embers blown on the breeze.
And somewhere out there the great bird wheeled and made another pass.
Aphelia’s heart pounded, every second an agony of expectation as her eyes scried the darkness for their attacker, and when the night lit up again she flinched, her scream swallowed as Theran jammed the stick over and they rolled away. Her head wheeled and she saw a flash, and as they exited the roll her eyes were drawn to the plane that was descending on them, it’s crew jumping from the burning wreck. This time they were lucky enough to make it out before the flames engulfed the plane, but as the doomed aircraft slashed past on the left the fuel tank ignited.
Their own plane gave a little jolt, and she saw Theran slump forward. The nose dipped and they went into a dive that threw her back even as she reached forward to grab his shoulder. Her hand caught his collar and with all her strength she hauled him back from the controls. He was heavy, but with one hand holding his collar, she used the other to take the spare controls and level the biplane out.
Breathing hard, they were stable and Aphelia spared a quick glance around for pursuing danger.
She couldn’t see anything, but the tension wouldn’t relent and the ache of her muscles was beginning. She didn’t have long before she’d have to let Theran go, and she prayed that he was just unconscious. If he woke up in the next couple of minutes…..
But if he didn’t then she better get prepared. They were flying low now, and she needed to get her orientation. Her thoughts turned to the target. They had been quite close to the drop, and she might still manage it. She closed her eyes and breathed. They were close, very close. She had a release on the payload, and she could still make the drop.
If the worse came to the worse she might be able to ditch nearby and take refuge with them. She flew on, flinching as something lit the night, but it had dropped behind and she was moving away from the horror, skimming the wasteland towards the troops.
A flare went up, and she allowed herself a tight smile. With all her strength she guided the plane towards the entrenched soldiers. They were dug in and barricaded on a hill small hill, and as she skimmed the top of it she could see men waving.
The pain in her arm was almost numb now, but she was going to make the drop. Releasing the payload as she buzzed past, there was a moment of relief and triumph waxing in her heart.
She had done it.
The only question now was whether Theran would wake up? For all she knew he could be dead – pleasepleaseplease don’t be dead – but there was no way to tell without climbing forward, and the failing muscles in her arm told her that in a minute she lose her grip on him.
She banked around, intending to try and land as near the troops as possible. After all, there was a relief mission attempting to break through for them. If she could reach them, she might still make it back to Bastion.
At that moment the engine spluttered and Aphelia’s eyes went to the fuel gauge and saw that it had hit empty – whatever had hit Theran must have hit a fuel line or something.
She fancied that she could hear cruel laughter a moment before the engine died and she was suddenly gliding down through the night and into a no man’s land lit by a bulbous, glowing Moon.
End of Part 3
Find out just what happens as the tide comes in for the penultimate chapter!
She was groggy, but the cold air blowing in from the car window was bringing her around from some nightmare about an old aeroplane. The car bucked and bounced through a pot hole. Jon must have found her and they were on their way home….
Next to her she heard voices speaking low.
“Jon?” she murmured, still half gone.
Damn, it felt cold. Didn’t he have the heating on?
Her eyes cracked opened in search of the window winder but instead found the cramped interior of a truck. The sound of its heavy engine surfaced through the haze of her thoughts as a sudden wave of cold morning air swirled in under the heavy canvas covering. The chill snapped her fully awake; she was wedged between two soldiers, and her head throbbed with a persistent ache. She reached up and probed the bandage gingerly.
“What the f – ?”
The truck bounced through a deep pot hole, nearly pitching her to floor but for the strong hand that held her steady. She looked into the face of the soldier next to her, weariness and resignation haunting his face. He nodded at her and went back to staring at the floor.
Ellie took a deep breath and closed her eyes against the vertigo rising up through the soles of her feet. There had been a bar…. the pill….. Was she still tripping? Dreaming perhaps? But it was all so real as she looked around at the soldiers, eyes glazed and staring at nothing, rifles held across laps or stood upright between their legs. No one seemed to have the energy to speak beyond a few mutters of gratitude for the pack of cigarettes being passed around like a form of communion, and she wasn’t about to refuse this small salvation from absurdity. The soldier next to her struck a match, lit up and offered her the flame.
She nodded her thanks and a moment later sat back with eyes closed against the weightlessness of her mind. She felt like a dandelion seed desperately clinging to its stalk while the wind howled and raged…..
* * *
It was the voice, not the name it called, that roused from the vague respite of slumber.
Ellie stared into Jon’s face, but the schism in her mind was prepared this time. The man standing over her wasn’t the same Jon she knew: he wore a flying jacket similar to hers, his hand gripping the overhead rail as he looked on her with grave expression. Despite the knowing that it wasn’t him she couldn’t hold the name back, “Jon?”
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked. “It’s me, Theran.”
“And who’s Jon?” Theran asked with a smile trying to cover his worry.
“No one, I…. I just got confused.”
“Not to worry. We’re nearly back.”
“Good,” Ellie replied, closing her eyes again. She took a deep breath to steady herself, and searched through her mind for the thread of reality that told her this was all a dream, but instead there was only a void, and she was floating between two memories: both were hazy, like dreams, and she didn’t know which one to go to any more. When she tried to retrace her steps, the place she wanted to go to receded further away until the memories she tried to coax from her brain just seemed like faint after images; she’d been at a party, with other people somewhere, and there had been a stranger in dark clothes. He had given her something and she had woken up here….
Or she had been in a plane crash and just dreamed about a party. That was the more probable explanation. As she wrestled with her thoughts the truck started to slow until it halted and soldiers began to stand, shuffling about and jumping out the rear.
“Like the fucking Matrix or something….” she muttered and opened her eyes to find Jon – no, Theran – staring at her with concern.
“What’s the Matrix?”
She frowned. “You know, I can’t remember. It’s a…. book, maybe?”
“The medic said you might have a mild concussion,” he said.
Ellie shook her head. “I don’t think that’s the problem….”
“You’ll be fine,” said Theran with a wide grin. “Which is good, because we’ll have to be back in action for tonight.
“Aye, can’t be flying without my navigator.”
“I swear, you must have bumped your head harder than I thought,” he chuckled and jumped down from the back of the truck. “Come on, it’s not much of a trek back.”
Ellie got up and followed Theran to the rear of the truck, hopping down onto a hard packed, gravel strewn road. As she stood in the morning light there didn’t seem too much out of the ordinary. The land here was a mossy heathland, purple heather and soft clouds scudding across the chill sky. The confusion she had felt was like a lurking discomfort, but every time she passed through it her mind became clearer: how could she have forgotten that she was Theran’s co-pilot and navigator? They had flown over a hundred night missions in their time together. Last night they had been on the return from bombing the hordes of creatures collectively known as the Tide when an engine failure had forced them down. They had been lucky to ditch on their side of the Front.
“Stand clear!” someone shouted, snapping her out her recollections as the truck ambled off in an arc, heading back the way it had come; it was heading back to retrieve more of the soldiery as they fell back. Ellie watched it dwindle away, passing an approaching truck laden with more retreating troopers, then she turned to follow Theran up the road –
– and gasped.
“What’s the matter?” asked Theran. “You look like you’ve never seen home before.”
They were a good mile off yet still the edifice’s tiered walls rose immense against the sky, bristling with artillery emplacements and gun platforms. The bulk of it was sunk into a rocky cliff face, and access was across a bridged chasm and through a heavily fortified gatehouse. This was the last redoubt of human courage, the hardened spirit of survival made from concrete and steel. It’s walls were thick enough to resist anything that the Tide had thrown at it, and it’s cannon barrages could pound any attack for mile upon mile, thinning their numbers with each step forward.
For a moment she stood amazed, as if she really hadn’t seen it before, but the fortresses name sprang instantly to mind, as if it had been there all along like a book forgotten on a shelf just waiting for her finger to run the length of its spine.
Bastion; last redoubt of a beleaguered humanity.
Aphelia was home.
* * *
Via the bridge and through the gatehouse, Aphelia and Theran made their way through the armoured bulk of the fortress for over two miles until they reached the enclosed airfields on the other side. Row upon row of assorted biplane stood waiting, engineers and crews working on those that had made it back and those that were to fly soon. These represented the last of their airborne capabilities, a hodgepodge of retrofitted civilian aircraft, trainers and purpose built scout bombers.
It was a scene so familiar that Aphelia wondered how she could have ever been confused about where she belonged. It was her workaday world, the reality she had lived for years as she and Theran bombed the advancing Tide over and over, sometimes flying three, four, even five sorties in any twenty four hour period until they bought themselves respite for a week, maybe two. Even so, the Front was a constantly shrinking series of trenches as humanity slowly retreated from the apparently unending numbers of the enemy.
The weight of that knowledge settled on her then, the nudging worry that the enemy was getting closer and closer, day by day. Yet somehow this place had become a mental fortress against the creep of an inevitable end. It’s walls were high and thick, impervious like its defenders.
So too did they had food, water and enough raw materials and manufacturing capability to last many more years. The notion that they could hold was reinforced upon them every day by the sermons of the Clerics who rallied spirits with their exhortations to not lose hope, to fight on, for the enemy must have its limits and it was humanity’s task to rain fire on the unholy creatures until those limits were found, until their numbers ran dry. It was a burden that Theran embraced with casual enthusiasm, dragging Aphelia in his wake day in and day out.
And right now he was gearing up to take them straight back out there, despite ditching in the field and with a navigator-cum-co-pilot who might have mild concussion. It had clearly caused some sort of strange bifurcation of her thoughts when she had bumped her head, but she was fine now, wasn’t she? As her comrades in the hangars hailed them with cheers she was certain the fugue in her mind had passed off.
“Aphelia! Aphelia!” roared a woman who looked like she could wrestle a bear. The ground veritably shook as the giant engineer Merrietta came running and scooped her up in her arms. “Dah! When I heard you had were down I feared the worse, but here you are with a head wrapped in bandages.”
“It’s nothing,” said Aphelia.
“Nothing? Pah!” snorted Merrietta and poked a finger at Theran. “I told this buffoon that the kite needed more work. Now he has lost us a plane and nearly lost us you.”
“Hey,” Theran held up his hands, “It wasn’t a complete waste. I managed to radio in the movement through the Gottane Valley.”
Merrietta nodded. “Dah, they are squeezing us tighter and tighter. I hear most of the troopers made it out.”
Theran smiled. “So, one plane for how many soldiers?”
“I’ll let you have this one then,” replied Merrietta and crossed her arms, returning her eyes to Aphelia. “More importantly, if you hadn’t made it back, then you were going to leave me that bottle of rum, dah?”
Aphelia grinned. “No chance of me not coming back while there’s still a drop of that left. I could use a glass right about now.”
“That,” Theran interjected, “Will have to wait until after we make a report to the captain.”
Aphelia groaned as Theran began to drag her away, and all she could do was give Merrietta an apologetic shrug before falling in line with Theran as the engineer waved and went back to her tasks with a rueful smile.
In the middle ground of the hangars stood the aerial command bunker, and together the pair descended through cordons of guards and officials, down corridors lined with bare bulbs hanging from cords. They were directed to a briefing room where Captain Nerrund sat amid a whirl of paperwork; he was the eye of a storm as his three secretaries organised, tidied and redeployed orders and communiques before they were lost to the constant threat of over-spill.
Theran knocked and the whirlwind paused. A moment later they stood before Nerrund who had suddenly become an isle of calm peering over his steepled fingers with faint gratitude.
“Good to have you back. You were instrumental to our successful withdrawal.”
“Thank you sir,” Theran saluted. Aphelia followed suit.
“And,” Nerrund continued, “I can see you’re ready for more.”
“Of course sir.”
“What about you?” Nerrund asked Aphelia. “You have a head wound?”
“Just a bump,” Aphelia replied. “I’m fine.”
Nerrund sighed. “I’ll have to take your word for it because tonight you’ll be flying resupply.”
Nerrud nodded and Aphelia groaned. “Fly by” meant skimming the ground and dropping supplies literally on top of the friendlies. While she had never missed a target, it was the most stressful kind of mission because you couldn’t make a mistake.
That, and the fact that there were Tidlings that could jump high enough to reach the plane. She’d seen it happen before: a crew in front were intercepted by dozens of creatures resembling giant, multicoloured frogs. They came arcing through the air like a jet of water, splashing over the plane and causing it to plummet. Theran and Aphelia has pulled up just in time to escape a similar fate.
“Who are they?” Theran asked.
“We have an outpost in the Chencorn Pass that was cut off. They’re still broadcasting, and the main flow of the Tide is heading past them on the east side. We’ll try and give them enough time for us to move the 7th Artillery Battery up from Pallasad and clear a path for them. So once you resupply you’ll be flying straight back out and pounding the Tide to stem the flow on the eastern side.”
“Very good sir. Who’ll be flying cover?”
“Sorry,” Nerrund shook his head. “You’ll be flying without escort.”
“That’s madness,” Theran retorted, then remembered himself, “Sir.”
“It’s unfortunate, but nothing I can do. We’re low on numbers and I need them covering the artillery.”
“But – ”
“Those big guns are sitting ducks, while you have the advantage of speed over the enemy.”
“No good if we fly straight into them. It’s a full moon out there, and they’ll see us coming if they’re looking.”
“Of course,” sighed Nerrund, trying not to bristle. “I don’t like it any better than you do, but we’re stretched and there’s a whole battalion of troops out there. I have to weight the risks – a half dozen resupply planes against the loss of an artillery battery and a battalion of men. I’m sorry, but I can only do what I can do. You’ll have to pray that it clouds over.”
“But sir – ”
“Dismissed!” snapped Nerrund in a voice that brooked no argument. Everyone stiffened. Theran’s jaw bunched and he looked like he was chewing a mouthful of bees as Nerrund added. “You’ve got six hours to rest, so I suggest that you make the most of it.”
The pair saluted and made to leave.
“And Aphelia,” Nerund called after her, “Get that head of yours looked at.”
“Yes sir.” With a casual salute she pulled the door closed behind her and found that Theran had disappeared. She sighed, and went to find Merrietta.
No nice way of saying that many of us are having a right crap time of it. Here in England the weather has decided to be a bastard and churn out some clear blue skies while the populace goes on lock down.
As for myself, it’s been difficult to write much with my little boy at home (along with everyone else), but I’ve managed to put together a little something.
It was always a plan to write something seasonal along the lines of the Christmas Crow story I wrote a while back, but there are a load of excuses for why it didn’t work out.
However, this story seemed to come together, so over the next month I’ll be posting it in sections to give me time to finish all the edits etc.
The sun was setting in an orange haze beyond the rolling hills of southern England, its light hitting the pregnant belly of the Moon. Under its pellucid light a car wended down narrow country roads, a young woman in the passenger seat staring out the window into the night sky.
Ellie looked at the rabbit – or was it a hare? – and reminded herself that the Moon was waxing. How she knew that she had no idea. Perhaps some sliver of knowledge gleaned from a nature documentary……
Next to her Jon, the driver, started tapping the sat-nav with a finger. “Damn things on the fritz again.”
Ellie didn’t reply, just kept on staring out of the window as she wondered why they had to come out all this way. There were perfectly good parties in town they could have gone to. This was just another one of his random whims.
Jon cursed, meandering across the road.
“Watched where you’re going,” she chastised him.
“Did we pass the turning?” Jon replied, ignoring her.
Ellie pursed her lips in irritation. The sat-nav had been his idea because he thought that her ‘impeccable sense of direction’, as he called it, made her uneasy. It didn’t really because it was something that she had learned to live with. She just knew which way top go, what path or road to take on any given journey and normally she could just turn it off, or ignore it, but just like that she could switch it on as if it were just in sleep mode. No, it didn’t bother her.
What did bother her was having an issue made out of it, and it was something that he was pretty good at. For the most part she loved his enthusiasm, but sometimes he just couldn’t see the harm he was doing out of his good intentions.
And while it irked her, the gift remained indifferent in its slumber, just waiting to be woken. It was as easy as a quick look out the windscreen. “No, it’s coming up, just around this bend, on the left.”
A moment later Jon swung the car into the narrowest lane yet, lined with high hedgerow. He was theorising out loud: “Must be the hills blocking the signal.”
They drove on in silence until Ellie spoke. “You know, we could have just gone to the Warehouse.”
Jon glanced over and shrugged. “Yeah, but this is gonna be way more interesting. Spring time costume party! Who could say no?”
Ellie sighed as she stared out the window. She liked the Warehouse, it was familiar and there’d be friendly faces there. Instead, Jon was dragging them into the middle of nowhere for some secret-not-so-secret Spring Surprise. “Just don’t know why you have to do something different all the time. It’s like some kind of fear of missing out.”
“Hey, the FOMO is real,” Jon quipped. “You never know until you know.”
“But I like the Warehouse,” Ellie continued. “We don’t always have to get out of the comfort zone, you know?”
“Come on Flower – ”
“I told you!” Ellie snapped, “Don’t call me that!”
He shrugged, lapsing into brooding silence. He always called her that when he wanted to annoy her, and then played the victim when she snapped back. Jon just didn’t seem to understand how horrible she found that name. It reminded her of her mother……
“Hey, I think we’re nearly there,” said Jon suddenly. He pointed and over the tops of the trees Ellie could see large, industrial chimneys rising up like fingers into the twilight, their long digits pointing to the Moon.
Still irritated, all Ellie could managed was a caustic mutter: “Great.”
* * *
The twilight was settling into evening as Ellie and Jon followed a couple of other cars up to a pair of rusty old gates. Up ahead the dark bulk of the building loomed amongst the trees and on their left a sign read: Welcome to Three Moons Ice Cream.
“You didn’t say it was in an ice cream factory,” said Ellie.
“I didn’t know,” Jon replied, grinning, as he slowed the car and slotted it into the faded remains of some old office parking spaces. ““Does it matter? It’s abandoned, which means a free licence to tear it up.”
Ellie huffed, willing that she could be anywhere but here. “This better not be boring.”
“Mask?” Jon asked leaning into the rear and rummaging about for a moment before passing her the pale oval of her owl mask. For himself he wore a badger.
“Looks like a skunk,” Ellie remarked.
“Oh, you doth wound me,” Jon retorted. “Keep it up and I’ll spray you.”
“Now there’s an image.”
Ellie opened her door and the night air was a cool wave compared to the heated box of the car. Coming around she followed Jon towards the silhouetted bulk of the factory, then paused in its shadow to take a hit on her vape. She stared up at the crumbling façade where the dirt had washed over the building, along with moss and small plants that sprouted from cracks in the concrete. As the flavour of cappuccino rolled off her tongue, she shrugged and hurried after Jon into the maw of the old building.
Inside they traversed a musty, long corridor where fairy lights hung in loops from nail hammered into the crumbling masonry and illuminated a mixture of street art, crude graffiti cocks and obscene suggestions in perpetuity. A few guests leaned against the walls, phones out as they smoked. One or two glanced up as Jon and Ellie passed by in a gaggle of revellers, all heading toward the inner grotto, gravitating towards the heavy thud of drum and bass.
At the end of the corridor a pair of heavy double doors waited with green paint peeling and lights flashing though their small windows. Jon pushed on through and Ellie followed, wondering why the doors reminded her of an abattoir as a blast of heat and music washed over her.
The room was huge, like a warehouse but all the a-gleam with abandoned steel piping gone mad under a cornucopia of disco lights. On a gantry in pride of place was the sound system as if raised up upon an alter above the churning masses held in the central floor space.
“Awesome!” Jon enthused, and she knew what the word signified; she had lost him then and there to the pumping atmosphere. His hand slipped from hers and she’d no doubt have to rescue him from the dance-floor later. That was his bag, while hers was finding the bar…. because there had to be a bar, right?
As Jon disappeared down the stairs Ellie instinctively drifted along the landing, took a left through a passage to where a dark room beckoned in revellers with more twinkling lights. The bar inside was decked out like some kind of fairy tale woodland.
“Kinda weird,” Ellie muttered, but she had to concede it was pretty neat compared to the blandness of the Warehouse. She sauntered over to the bar and perched on the railing to wait while a man in a crow mask served up beer, wine and spirits out of a variety of ice packed cool boxes. She smoked some cape and soaked up the ambience; the bean bags and odd lighting, the soft eastern music that was as hippy as the curling patchouli incense.
“And what can I get you young lady?”
Ellie turned to the bar tender. He was regarding her with an intensity she found slightly unnerving, and his mask was so life-like she wondered where he had got it. “Beer please, and a shot of rum if you’ve got it?”
“Sure do. Ice?”
“Coming right up,” and he reached under the counter for a glass. The rum was from a bottle she didn’t recognise, but whatever, as long as it wasn’t Captain Morgan’s, right? The barman started talking as he poured, “So, how do you like the place?”
“It’s growing on me,” replied Ellie, reaching for the glass. The bartender dug out a beer from a cool box. The rum was like liquid fire, sweet and smooth. “Wow.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, just something I picked up on my travels. I thought you looked like you might appreciate something a little more refined.”
Ellie put the glass down, examining the man and not knowing what to say; it was a bit too up front. Was he coming on to her? Or was it something else….
“No problem,” said the crow, and poured the beer into a pint glass. It was also not a brand she recognised. He pushed it across the counter.
The crow shrugged. “What do you have?”
Ellie fished in her pocket, quite happy to slap any amount she found on the counter just to get away. She found a £20 and popped it down. The barman stared at it with those strange, dark eyes, then picked it up and examined it against the illumination from fairy lights. Then he slid it back across the counter and waited with crossed arms.
“What? Isn’t that enough?”
The crow cocked its head at her again. “It’s not shiny enough.”
Ellie laughed nervously. “What are you, a real crow?”
“That’s what they call me. Crow.”
“Well, you got the right mask for it.”
The stranger inclined his head. “As do you. The owl is an interesting choice.”
Ellie shrugged. “Is it?”
“Oh yes. Often thought of as a symbol of death, but that is perhaps a misunderstanding,” said the stranger. “The owl is many symbols, depending on who you talk to; ruler of the night, seer of souls, incarnation of intelligence and learning.”
Ellie smiled nervously behind her mask. “Really?”
The crow nodded as he continued, “but I have often considered them to be the guardians of the dead.”
“Wow, creepy,” Ellie said with a nervous chuckle. She wanted to escape, the overly intense regard of this stranger what she and her friend Marie jokingly called the serial killer vibe, but she was strangely drawn to those dark eyes. “Not much of a pick up line.”
The stranger cackled, sending shivers down her spine. Ellie was aware that everything sounded as if it had shifted to the periphery, but she couldn’t take her gaze off those eyes as the crow spoke: “Oh, if only we had time for dalliances, eh? No, time is short and there are whole worlds to be explored. What do you say?”
“W-who are you?” Ellie asked, embarrassed at the quaver in her voice.
The crow shrugged. “An explorer.”
“The expanding realms of existence and experience. I am,” and he bowed, “Angel to some, demon to others.”
Ellie’s eyes narrowed. She’d heard that somewhere before….. but as her mind tried to recall the words she was already being offered the strangers outstretched fists. They were feathered, like his mask, in black.
“Choose, if you will.”
“What is this?” she scoffed, uneasy.
“Like in The Matrix? Please.”
Crow cocked his head. “Ah, a film that separates the real from the unreal, the simulation from reality. Who is to say that the two are indivisible? Have you read much Dick?”
“Sure,” Ellie nodded and gave him a thin smile. “Three Stigmata was my favourite, although Time Out of Joint was great too.”
“Ah, Palmer Eldritch, one of my favourites also,” and he offered his hands again. “Which shall it be?”
“What is it? Acid?”
“Oh, nothing so mundane,” Crow said with a shake of his head, then smiled. “I can assure you, the result will be anything but boring.”
A little voice told her to turn away, to run, to take the car and leave Jon here. She could come and get him in the morning….. but those eyes, so intense, almost reassuring the way there were filled with knowing……
“Come little owl,” said Crow. “Are you not Athena, brave warrior maiden whose vision pierces the obscurity of the night?”
Ellie teetered on the edge, somehow charmed by the danger, by the slight giddiness and fever of the little bubble she found herself in. There was only her and this stranger; everything else in the world was on mute as his words buoyed her up. She could do anything….
“Fuck it,” she said and tapped his left hand. The little voice, if it be reason, could take a ride. She hadn’t wanted to come here, and the primordial part of her that courted danger was thrilled to just throw it all in Jon’s face. He could go fuck himself, and before her the hand turned over to reveal a little purple pill. Ellie shuddered with anticipation, a strange blasé finger-up-to-the-world attitude suffusing the night. She didn’t hesitate to throw it back with the rest of the run.
“Cheers,” she said, and slapped the glass down, but as did so she saw that Crow had disappeared. Instead the bartender, a young man wearing a cheap toy-shop mask was staring at her with grave concern.
“You okay?” he asked.
“S-sure. Did you…..?” but she didn’t bother to finish. She reached out and grabbed the beer, leaving the bartender to serve someone else. Ellie took a long draft and raked over the sudden question of just what the fuck had just happened.
“That was fucking dumb,” she said to herself, the realisation solidifying around her heart. Was her head starting to swim? She could have taken anything, and the bubble of breathlessness in her chest started to swell as the walls closed in. If she rushed to the bathroom perhaps she could puke it up, two fingers down the throat…..
Pushing through the throng the tempo and volume of the music was increasing, pulsing harder to the beat of her heart. Cold sweat broke over her body, and the voices around her were swirling with laughter as the floor seemed to shudder with a giant’s footfalls.
She pressed on until, with a bang, the bathroom door hit the wall and Ellie stumbled towards the white porcelain, intent on ridding herself of whatever madness was coming.
But the room was canting at ninety degrees. She keeled over, the pounding of her heart reverberating through the cold, hard floor like the pounding of distant artillery……
* * *
There was a crunch, a jarring sense of running into a wall and for a moment Ellie thought the lights in the toilet had fused. There was a ringing in her ears, a fuzz around her head that turned like a radio dial to the sound of chaos. She opened her eyes and her brain could not assemble the images, like a muddle of different jigsaw pieces. The physical thump of colossal sound sent a shiver through her body….. and was it raining? But it was more like hail peppering her face. Some had gone in her mouth and that snapped her upright, spitting. Dirt! More grit pattered against her face and she looked around, through the haze, as a series of bright flashes lit up the scene.
She was outside…….
High above the Moon showered her pellucid light down.
A hand grabbed the collar of a jacket she hadn’t been wearing, hauling her up and half choking her as voice shouted over the din, “Snap out of it! Come on!” The hands went up and under her arms, pulling her out of the hole she must have fallen into. With an ooph! her rescuer heaved and together they went free falling into shadow.
A split second and she was pulled to her knees. The man before her wore a flying jacket, his face smudged with soot or dirt, and she knew him.
“Are you okay?” he shouted.
She was bewildered, mumbling. “J – ?”
He didn’t even let her speak, grabbing her once more and pulling her to her feet. Half carrying, half dragging her, they stumbled away into the dark across barren earth.
Bewildered, she managed a look over her shoulder.
“What the…..” Her voice trailed away. Parked at an awkward angle, it’s wheel in a crater, was a biplane like the kind you saw in old movies. its wings and fuselage limned by the light of the Moon, “….. fuck?”
The sight was eclipsed by the flash and concussion of more explosions. The man who was carrying her – the pilot? – was shouting something that she half understood, a name that wasn’t hers, “Come on Aphelia! The ground units are about to fall back!”
“What’s the matter?” he barked. “You bang your head too hard?”
“I think I must have…..” Ellie murmured, taking another look back. Under the silver light she could see the biplane, and behind it a slow moving wave, bubbling and foaming. It surged over the stricken aircraft, engulfed it and kept rolling. Ellie shook her head and half stumbled, snagging Jon – or whoever he was. He cursed and spun her around, dragging her onwards in haste as her brain tried to comprehend the imprint of the image last seen; like a million faces all grinning and laughing, hands and legs whirling in a surging mass of bodies.
They were like thousands of little….
– her brain grasped for a suitable word –
Sudden dizziness assailed her and she knew nothing more for a time…..
Dear Reader, here is a little tale that was accomplished in short order, perhaps 10 days with only one round of edits and revisions. In this respect you have become it’s beta readers, and I apologise in advance for any mistakes made.
It was essentially done for a bit of fun and comic relief from the every day affair of working on manuscripts, blogs and biographical memoires. It is likey to appeal to fans of Terry Pratchett and is not meant to be taken seriously.
If you enjoyed it, then please like and share, or leave a comment and tell me what you think.
[EDIT: a big thank you to my friend Collette for pointing out many of the typos]
The Reawakening & Subsequent Adventure Thereof Regarding the Most Stubborn of Bastards, Thaadrek of Clan Ushentharl, mightiest of all the Clan Chief’s in the Great Northern Wastes & His Most Irreverent Warband of Misanthropes, Outcasts & Assorted Individuals Both Human and Otherwise . . .
David J Cambridge
The Most Imperious and Hallowed Omnifex, His Holiness Yladiel Astingius Patrelleaux reclined upon his ivory throne and cast his gaze upon the Legate, his eyebrows arched as if perpetually surprised to find a deed most foul besmirching the sole of his shoe. His expression remained for the entire minute it took the man to come flapping up the candlelit isle, his holy robed billowing, sandals smacking against the bare stone.
Breathless and trembling, the Legate bowed under that aloof disdain of one so infinitely superior, and for all that the man upon the throne was not physically intimidating – being that he was twig thin and bald unto a soft gleam – the Omnifex emanated an aura of cold command that chilled the heart and turned bones to jelly.
“And?” The single word was sufficient to send the Legate to his knees.
With a quavering voice the man replied. “All preparations have been completed for the scouring of wrong-doings, the castigation of the unworthy, and the purification of all that is tainted due to the imminent rise of the full moon upon this unhallowed Midwinter.”
“Very good. And?”
“Unto the very limits of the Blessed Realm have our messengers delivered the Holy Writs informing all blessed Ears, Eyes and Hands of the punishment due to those who engage in frivolity and laxity at a time of such inauspicious and imperilling cosmic alignments.”
“Continued, my lord?”
The Omnifex craned forward with a stare that was like a spear pinning the man to the floor. “You are my Legate, are you not?”
“Then why are you here provisioning my ears with your babble?”
The Legate jumped up. “I am departing immediately my lord.”
“Excellent. You have my leave,” said the Omnifex with a casual wave of his hand.
“Yes lord. Sorry lord. Blessed be the Triune!”
“Blessed be the Triune,” replied the Omnifex, leaning back once more.
The Legate scuttled off as fast as his bandy legs could carry him while the Omnifex pursed his lips and steepled his fingers in contemplation. Midwinter, such a dangerous time when planets and stars aligned in conjunction with the full moon. Such were the mysteries and tests of the Triune’s cosmos, and woe betide any who failed in their vigilance at such a time.
After all, anything might happened on such an unholy night.
There is a time and a place to do things, a time and place when the barriers between this life and the next grow thin. Thus, under a full moon on a Midwinter’s night when the stars were in the right place and the planets aligned just so, three men met in a graveyard with everything they needed for an unholy ritual: one spade (freshly stolen), one finger (freshly cut from a hanged man), thirteen black candles, a hefty bag of chalk dust, and one rather scrawny chicken.
The wind moaned long and low…….
“That’s the village cockerel,” Brother Burlev spat, breath pluming in the cold night air.
“Is it?” Brother Asteg held it up by its neck and examined it.
“You berk,” Brother Yeshin cuffed him round the head. “Don’t you think they’ll notice when the morning comes up?”
“I said get a chicken,” said Burlev, grabbing Asteg by the front of his robe and pressing their faces together. Asteg suddenly felt just a little bit sweaty.
“Cockerel’s a chicken, right?” Asteg whimpered. Everyone paused to think about it.
“He’s got a point,” Yeshin shrugged.
“Yeah,” Burlev growled, “But just not THAT chicken!”
“Ha, bit of a cock up eh?” Yeshin sniggered. The two men turned their heads to him. The vein in Burlev’s temple was starting to throb, and his eyes had that red wide, angry look about them. Yeshin’s smile fell, vanishing.
“Well, too late now,” Burlev said as he let Asteg drop to the floor. The cockerel, sensing a sudden lessening in attention made an attempt at escape. Unsuccessfully. It did however managed to lose half its remaining feathers. “Come on,” Burlev waved them onward, “We don’t have all night.”
So they slunk through the shadows with appropriate sinister shiftiness, towards where decaying crypts perched on a ragged cliff edge to overlook the tempestuous ocean far below as it whipped itself to white foam. When they reached the bottom of the hill Burlev, party leader, chosen of the mistress’ coven, and by day respectable pillar of the community of St. Esticaria paused. He cast an eye behind them to make sure no one had witnessed their passage and was satisfied that no one was out taking a midnight stroll in the graveyard on an auspicious Midwinter’s midnight.
“Come on,” he growled. “We don’t have all night.”
“Which one?” wheezed Yeshin as he humped the bag of chalk.
“The one at the top. It’s the oldest.”
“How did I know you were going to say that.”
“Why don’t we swap then?”
“Cuz,” said Burlev, smartly cuffing his colleague, “You picked the short straw.”
Yeshin stopped dragging the bag along and blew on his hands. “How about you just take a turn and I’ll carry the spade and candles.”
“How about I smack you over the head and leave you to the sodding crows?”
“How about you do that?” Yeshin dared to retort. “Then you’d have to drag the bag up there and carry the other stuff too.”
Burlev considered this new dimension to the problem. “Okay, see where ya coming from. Asteg, give him a hand.”
“What about the chicken?”
“Just keep hold of the cock with one hand and grab the sack with the other.”
“Yeah, that’s just what ya wife said yesterday,” Yeshin grinned, then jumped back as the spade came whistling towards him. He bumped into Asteg who let out a curse as he dropped the chicken. The poultry promptly fled up the hill. A moment later it decided that it would take its chances with the ragged ocean’s fury rather than the three men advancing with the intent of doing evil unto its body, so it leapt.
The wind moaned long and low……
Together they stood on the lip of the cliff and Burlev was of a mind to toss both his companions over the edge and go home for tea. But the Mistress wouldn’t be very happy about that now, would she?
“What are we gonna do?” asked Asteg with a sniff as he wiped his nose with the back of his sleeve. Burlev gritted his teeth, considered what it might be like putting a knife somewhere inconvenient in Asteg’s person, but decided that the dark powers would probably be offended if he attempted to substitute a lesser offering like Asteg instead of the chicken.
“What’s the big deal anyway?” muttered Asteg. “What we need the chicken for?”
Burlev and Yeshin stared at him until Yeshin said, “What do you think it was for? When you call something from….. you know….” – his voice dropped to a whisper – “the otherside, well you need to give ’em something to sate their hunger.”
“What their hunger?”
“Sate! As in, to appease it,” Yeshin explained.
“So why didn’t we bring peas?” Asteg said, scratching his head.
“Shut it!” barked Burlev. “We need to find another offering. Any ideas?”
* * *
If you were to be unfortunate enough to be clinging onto the edge of a precipice with a fiery oblivion below you would almost certainly think twice about letting go. But it wasn’t just the doom that awaited him that kept him holding on for the past five hundred years. Oh no, it was sheer stubbornness because no one got the best of Thaadrek of Clan Ushentharl, mightiest of all the Clan Chief’s in the Great Northern Wastes.
Sure, they’d managed to kill him in the middle of the night, but he wasn’t counting that as a victory for their side. He’d had a lot of time to think about it and this is how he saw it play out in his mind.
A wagon rolls through the barbarian’s territory loaded with barrels. It’s guarded by a company of Hands, the soldiers of the Triune. They looked nervous, and Thaadrek smiles to himself. Like beasts these men feel the primal instincts stir at the presence of unseen danger. The bloody work takes but a moment after the horde arise from hiding and descend upon the prize. The barrels they take back to the village and proceed to enjoy the fine vintage that is contained within. Oh cruel trickery though, for the enemy has no stomach for the heroic deeds of mortal combat. Instead they have suffused the wine with a soporific and while the village lays insensate with sleep, the Triune’s assassin’s creep into the village and do the dirty deed of ending the Clan’s resistance. Thaadrek, with the constitution of a bull still kills three of them before they bring him low.
No, he wasn’t counting that. There was fighting dirty and then there was being a bunch of chicken shits.
Worse, when he awoke not to his own promised and glorious afterlife but rather the Burning Hell promised by the Triune he had been filled with an enduring cold fury. So he had grasped the ledge in perpetuity, a fiery oblivion below and a churning maelstrom of cloud above. With the passing of time he had given him the situation not an inconsiderable amount of thought. There was one conclusion that he had arrive at regarding this unfortunate turn of affairs.
In defeat he had allowed the Triune to extend the dominion of its (so called) Blessed Realm not only over his people’s lands, but over his people’s spirit world as well. This meant that all his people, his kin and clansmen, had gone into the Triune’s Burning Hell. His enduring cold fury became an icy resolve. Thaadrek would not follow, and if there was one characteristic that the relevant people who were asked might say about the once famed barbarian warrior Thaadrek of Ushentharl, it was that he was, without a doubt, most certainly, the most stubborn of bastards. So he clung to the precipice and prayed to the Old Gods that he might right this wrong. By barbarian logic he could see clearly just what it was that he would do to free his people. All he needed was one chance.
When it came, he would take it, and then there would be…… consequences.
* * *
Skiela Drum lay in the darkness on her bed, stomach grumbling from lack of dinner. Beyond the large sheet that served as a thin partition between bedrooms she could hear her father explain just what had occurred today in the market and contemplated the question of why adults were incapable of believing anything that they were told by children.
“….. and when I turn around she’s only talking to the Grand Ear of the Triune as he’s sauntering down the street!”
“What? Why?” her mother asked, voice trembling.
“Bold as you like starts talking to him, telling him that she’s heard this talking crow! A talking crow! And how it’s been saying that the Grand Ear is really deaf as a brick privvy, and a pompous old windbag to boot!”
“By the Burning Hell!” said Skiela’s mother, and she could well see the colour draining out of her mother’s face as the Catechism of Preservation began to roll off her tongue.
“So,” her father continued, never to let another’s discomfort keep him from embellishment, “Like I says, she goes and tells him to his face!” – the words of the Catechism increased in speed and fervour – “And thank the Blessed Protector that the bastard really is deaf, because he’s looking like he was about to send her to the pickling vats there and then!” – her mother actually paused in breathless terror – “But I grabs her and spin out a yarn about how she had overheard old Mr and Mrs Shebbins talking all that blasphemy. He turns red and the sends me over to give the scrivener the details. Ha! Expect they’ll be getting a little visit tonight, mark my words. That’ll teach ’em for stealing my spade.”
Her mother doubled up her prayer, and Skiela could hear the creak of the bed frame as she rocked back and forth. She was probably as astonished and disgusted as Skiela by the satisfaction in father’s voice.
“Triune’s sake woman, knock it off,” said her father.
“You’re truly a reprehensible man,” her mother hissed. “We’ll both be for the pickling vats if anyone finds out.”
“Just keep your mouth shut then.”
“What about Skiela?”
“I’ll have a word with her in the morning. If she keeps up this nonsense she’ll get a good thrashing. That ought to set her mind right.”
Her mother began to weep, but her father just ignored it, rolled over and went to sleep. Skiela listened as he mother’s sobs faded, and she waited in the darkness, mulling over the problem. It was simple. Adults just didn’t have the brains to understand that she had quite clearly witnessed the bird speaking. Why was it her problem if she told the truth to the Ear? They were the ones who were supposed to sort these strange occurrences out, weren’t they?
There was only one thing for it. She would have to go out tonight and find the evidence. That’d show all these damn adults that she wasn’t to be trifled with, all four feet of her with her messy blonde hair and big, blue eyes.
Once she heard the snores next door she was up and slipping into her coat and boots, then out the door and into the dark streets of the village. She’d have to be careful not to get caught by the night watch, otherwise it’d be a flogging, but they were slow and stupid…… like most adults she added.
Anyhow, she’d done this before and she wasn’t afraid of anything.
Out into the dark then, off to find that talking bird.
* * *
“Right, what does it say on the instructions?”
Brother Yeshin, the only one capable of reading (and rightly proud of the fact) guided the other two in the layout of the arcane ritual. The pentagram of chalk dust came first, then the candles accompanied by the requisite ritual mutterings, then finally the finger. Typically rather a rare commodity in the peaceful town of St. Esticaria, the brothers had the good fortune that the Holy Triune’s Holy Writs were in effect. The Grand Ear was here, listening for whispers of dissent, while the Grand Eye scrutinising the masses for signs of deviancy, and finally the Hands were generally acting like thugs with privileges, going around being obnoxious until some poor sod lost his patience and snapped, earning him an instant free ride on the twon gallows. After all, such inauspicious conjunctions demanded extra vigilance against the ever wayward commonality and their grumbling attitudes towards their superiors, thus provisioning those in occult circles nicely.
“How in the Burning Hell does a finger open a door to…… the other side?” Asteg was asking as Yeshin produced the offending digit.
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” growled Burlev.
“Yeah,” Yeshin rolled his eyes. “It’s magic, ain’t it.”
“Oh, I see,” Asteg nodded. “Makes sense.”
“Right, let’s get this ritual started. Then we can get our new servant of the Burning Hell back to the mistress.”
All three quivered in excitement. This could get them more than just a nod of recognition, oh no, this might get them privileges.
“Yeah,” sniffed Asteg, “I’m sick of cleaning out the privy every time you lot take a dump.”
“Quiet. Brother Yeshin, is all prepared!”
“I require only the offering Brother Burlev!”
“I got it here somewhere,” muttered Asteg, patting his pockets. The other two glared at him. “What?”
“Just pass that to Brother Burlev,” Yeshin said. “Right, where were we?”
“I said,” Burlev said through gritted teeth. “Is all prepared?”
“It is indeed Brother Burlev.”
“Then let the summoning begin!”
And with great pomp and ceremony did they recite verse most diabolical.
* * *
Thaadrek felt a tingle. He focused on the sensation. It was the first truly novel thing that had happened in years. What did it mean? Was something happening? Were his muttered prayers to the Old Gods about to give him a chance at redemption, at revenge?
Above him the maelstrom of cloud churned and tingled of lightning flashed within.
“Come, show me the Bloody Path once more, and I shall reap a road all the way to the heart of the Triune’s Blessed Realm!”
As if in answer, the thunder peeled.
* * *
The night watch sauntered past Skiela’s hiding place, two of the towns less reputable middle aged men deep in discussion over the finer points of which tavern provided an adequate ration of beer to water set against the relative cost in coin, and following inebriation why it was that women found the former’s charms irresistible a moment before he broke wind loudly.
“Damn bean stew,” he muttered.
“You need to watch that,” said his companion. “I heard that them vapours can be caused by evil spirits.”
“What? That doesn’t make sense.”
“Sure it does. They get in the beans, see?”
“How do they get in the beans?”
“Well, you know, they…. inhabit them.”
“Why would an evil spirit inhabit a bean?”
“Well, when you put it like that, I’m not sure,” and the man scratched his head. Then an idea came to him. “Probably afflicts them like a pox when they’re hovering in the air…..”
Their voices drifted off into the clear, cold night and Skiela Drum kept to the shadows, searching and searching for that elusive bird. It wasn’t long before she caught its silhouette against the moon. She approached slowly, like a cat stalking a mouse, to where it perched on a wall with its head cocked, watching her slow approach with a hint of amusement.
“Not you again,” it sighed.
“You got me in trouble,” she hissed.
“Did I tell you to go talking to that pompous windbag? No, you went and blurted it out, right to his face! Oh my life girl! Are you trying to get yourself pickled? It’s a damn good job that the bastard really is as deaf as a doorknob. And damned lucky your father was there.”
“My father – ”
“Is also a pompous windbag,” the crow interjected. “I heard he was busy today dropping someone else in the proverbial dung-heap for what you said.”
“It was you who said it first!”
“Oh no I didn’t!”
“Oh yes you did!”
The crow was about to reply when it cocked its head towards the mouth of the alleyway Skiela had entered. A split second later she heard the tramp of boots on cobbles. The watch were coming back and she was in a dead end with no where to hide. If they looked this way then she’d be done for. Trembling, she saw the two men step into the moonlight, the closer man’s head turning as suddenly someone said.
“What did you just call me?” the man turned to his companion.
“What? I didn’t say nothing.”
“Yes you did, heard you plain as day.”
“You must be imagining it. I haven’t said a word.”
“So what, I’m delusional am I?”
“Probably them beans again. I warned you, didn’t I?”
“Oh, so I’m talking out my arse, am I?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time……”
And so it went. While they argued Skiela had climbed the wall and slipped into the higher shadows, following a dark shape as it fled over the roof tops.
* * *
Something was ascending from the Burning Hell, rising from the depths of oblivion towards Thaadrek. Hanging upon the precipice he could feel the shuddering of the infernal mantle, the cacophonous roar of those in torment like the wail of a a thousand demon mothers giving birth to a thousand misbegotten spawn……
Whatever it was that had escaped the clutches of the pit was headed towards him, a black spot against the bright flames, but surely he was not its intended target. He looked up and saw that the churning storm clouds of the underworld were being drawn up into a whirling funnel, but by what means he had no notion. Below him the black spot was resolving, coming up quickly now and it was not a moment longer until Thaadrek made out the fine features of a young woman, eyes closed and long hair billowing. Her face had a serene expression like she was savouring a rare and delightful aroma……
She was close now, and as she rushed toward him he tensed, then launched himself into the void and caught hold of her as she passed. For a moment he was afraid they’d both go plummeting into oblivion but the invisible force was like a rope hoisting them ever up towards that swirling vortex in the sky.
Into the portal they went, and there was a dislocation of thought and feeling, quickly followed by an awareness that he was suffocating, as if forced into garments far too small for him…….
* * *
“Did it work?” asked Brother Yeshin.
“How should I know? Candles went out.”
A match flared, bringing with it sparse illumination. Asteg let out a shriek of horror and they all turned to look at where the finger lay on the floor, stretching and distorting, pulsating and growing rapidly. It was crawling like a caterpillar, then Asteg’s shriek turned to a startled cry of pain as he burnt his fingers.
“Light the sodding candles!” Burlev shouted, spade drawn back in preparation of any necessary swatting to be done. From the direction of the finger came some rather nauseating and disturbing sounds as Asteg struck match after match to no avail. Then something shuffled near Burlev and he let fly with a cry that was half manly roar and half girlish squeal of fright.
“Bloody Hells!” Yeshin shouted as he pitched over in the dark.
“Hurry up Asteg!”
“Yeah, before this bastard kills me by accident!”
There was the sulphurous fizzle of a match and Asteg hastily lit a candle with a shaking hand, then another off that and raised them together to get a good look at the where the crawling finger had been.
“Quick! Find it!” Burlev shouted. They began a frantic search of the crypt.
“Over there!” Yeshin cried, pointing. It looked like the stump of an arm disappearing behind one of the musty sarcophagi. Spade at the ready the three advanced, candles held high, but when they looked behind the sarcophagus there was nothing.
“Where is it?” hissed Burlev as he swept a candle back and forth. In the jumping shadows something was moving, but it was hard to pinpoint where.
“It sounds like it’s getting bigger,” Asteg whimpered.
“Man up!” Burlev snarled, trying as much to convince himself as the others, “So it grew an arm. It’ll need more than that to take on all three of us.”
Burlev’s search came full circle and what he found would have unmanned the sturdiest of souls, for it was now towering before him, a pale revenant shaped like a giant of man, muscles on his muscles with smouldering, dark eyes. It was also totally naked. With a cry that was more surprised panic than savagery, Burlev swung the spade. The revenant caught it and wrenched it from him as simply as if taking a toy from a toddler. Yet it did not attack, and Burlev’s wit, which was a notch above his cowering brothers, kicked in a moment later. “Quick! Bring the offering!”
Yeshin shuffled forth and the cheese was passed to Burlev who promptly proffered it to the thing before him.
“Isn’t it supposed to say something like what is thy bidding?” hissed Yeshin. Burlev shrugged, prodded the cheese at the creature and said, “Maybe it’s not hungry.”
The revenant stared from the sweat beaded face of Burlev to the cheese in his hand, then back. When it spoke it had the voice of a gathering thunder-head about to break. “That is a piece of cheese.”
“And by its power do I bind thee!”
The revenant frowned, then roared with laughter. The three men quailed as the sound echoed in the hollows of the crypt, and watched dumbfounded as the creature handed Burlev the spade and turned to leave, laughing all the while.
“Wait!” blurted Burlev. “I forbid thee to depart!”
His words failed to produce any reaction and the creature, still chuckling to itself, strode out of the crypt, up the stairs and into the moonlight beyond. The three brothers looked at each other.
“What do we do now?” asked Yeshin.
“We better go after it,” Burlev replied reluctantly.
“Did you see the size of its – ” Asteg began, but Burlev cut him off. “I don’t want to even think about it!”
“And it’s damn cold too,” Yeshin remarked.
“Well, at least it didn’t kill us and eat us,” sniffed Asteg as they shuffled up the stairs. “Or it could, you know, have had its way with us and all…..”
“What?” Yeshin frowned and shook his head as if to clear it of any unwanted images. “Why would it want to do anything like that to us?”
“I heard about it from the mistress,” Asteg replied with a touch of pride at his depth of knowledge. “I heard them from beyond the grave has ape-tights, you know?”
“It’s ‘appetites’ you idiot! And I told you that piece of cheese was a bad idea,” Yeshin cuffed Asteg around the head as they emerged into the moonlight. “Obviously not fresh enough.”
“Ouch!” Asteg rubbed the back of his head. “That cheese was almost fresh. I only had it in my pocket since yesterday.”
“Clearly it’s not the freshness,” said Burlev, scratching his chin, “It’s the vintage.”
* * *
The three men departed, and in their wake the darkness gave rise to a vaporous apparition that slipped from the shadows behind a sarcophagus, its form that of a naked woman, her hair a long cascade and her eyes the blank white of blindness. In the silence of the crypt she drifted across the floor, through the stone works to where the cheese lay, her dainty nose twitching as it unerringly drew her to the discarded cheese. With relish, she drew a deep breath, inhaling its aroma. The cheese visibly diminished in size. Delicious. She drew another long inhalation and devoured the cheese with relish, her form attaining some greater sense of solidity.
It was the first sustenance she had had in a good half dozen decades, but the passage of time was akin to the fuzziness of an alcoholic’s morning after. The thought at the forefront of her mind was that it had been the aroma of cheese that had drawn her back, yes….. because, because she had been…… what? A cheese maker? No, that didn’t seem right. She cocked her head and cupped it in the palm of her hand as she searched her thoughts. It was as if she’d awoken from a dream, only to find herself still in one. Who was she? Where was she? And why did she have no clothes on?
She remembered…. ah yes…. being blind. Her nose and ears were her guide. That was why she had definitely not been a cheese-maker. But she knew about cheese. About the way it smelled. And that had something to do with those three men that had just left. She had a clear sense of them in her mind, their distinct minds and the flow of their thoughts…….
The idea seemed to trigger others, the memory of blindness recalled to her the feeling of wearing a strip of cloth across her eyes. With it came the renewed sensation, so real, as if…..
She put her hand up and felt the cloth. So by extension, if she thought about clothes…… and the feeling of a garment draped her.
Who am I? That was the question that went with what am I?
If only she could remember. There had been flames and screaming, hadn’t there? Yes…..
But any time to think on it further was curtailed by a distant sound caught on the edge of hearing, the blood curdling bay of hounds on the loose, and even as an apparition her body trembled. So up the staircase she fled, following her ear and nose to the rich smell of freshly dug graves, the cold chill of a woodland, the voices of three men discussing what to do about the spirit they had summoned.
The howl went up again, closer this time.
She fled on towards those voices, seeking the veil-thin safety of company.
* * *
“Watch out!” hissed the crow.
Skiela threw herself into the shadows as a squad of Hands marched past, between them Mr and Mrs Shebbin. She could hear the eldsters complaining about the roughness of their man handling.
“….. and if it’s about that spade, I told you, I never touched it.”
“Shut up!” barked the sargeant. “This is about blasphemy.”
“But spade theft isn’t blasphemy!” protested the old man.
“No, but calling the Grand Ear a pompous windbag is! So get moving. It’s the pickling vats for you two!”
“Hold up!” Mrs Shebbin protested, trying to dig her feet in without success. “It’s none of my business if my husband’s been saying such things! Serves him right, that’s what I says, but don’t be taking the innocent to punishment!”
“Wife! How can you betray me so?”
“Because you’re the one what stirred up trouble with that Mr. Drum in the first place, calling him a smelly footed turnip molester.”
“I see,” said the sergeant. “So, you have form for this sort of behaviour.”
“No no no,” replied Mr Shebbin. “I said he was an dung eating arse canker.”
“You’re not doing yourself any favours here,” said the sergeant.
“In my defence sergeant,” explained Mr Shebbib, “It was only cuz he says I stole his spade. I’m innocent!”
“You’ll have your chance to plead your innocence later.”
“But we all knows what that means!” shouted Mr. Shebbin. “Ain’t no one innocent before the Triune.”
“So are you admitting to the theft of the spade?” asked the sergeant.
“Well, the spade’s immaterial anyway,” the sergeant waved it aside. “I’m taking you in for blasphemy.”
And he marched them off pronto as the crow hopped down onto the barrel beside her. “Ha, that you father’s handiwork, is it?”
Skiela was frowning. “It’s not right.”
The crow seemed to shrug. “Such is life.”
Skiela was about to pursue the squad, and the crow thought about letting her confront them while it slipped away, but….. “Hey! Don’t be a knucklehead. You’ll be lucky if you just get a flogging for breaking curfew.”
“I’m not afraid of them!” she announced, standing up straighter.
“Yeah, you won’t say that when they put the red hot irons on the soles of your feet and ask you what you know. You’ll be singing like a lark about that spade, I can tell you.”
“Oh yeah, how would you know?”
“Because,” it said as if rolling its eyes, “I’ve been up on the windows of the Triune’s temple. I’ve seen what they do in there with all that castigating and flagellating and purifying.” And it ruffled its feathers as if shivering. “Trust me, you don’t want to know the details.”
They looked at each other for a moment, the girl pouting and defiant, the crow wry as it said, “Anyhow, you’re welcome. Now, why are you still chasing me?”
“I want you to come and see my father.”
“No chance,” and the crow hopped aside as she lunged for it. “What’s the windbag want with me anyhow?”
“They don’t believe me.”
“Probably for the best,” said the crow. Skiela lunged again and the chase resumed as they headed towards the edge of town. Two minutes later the crow was perched on the high wooden palisade staring down at her.
“Leave me alone,” it said. The girl was certainly tenacious, the crow would give her that, but it was getting annoying now.
“No!” she stated, stamping a foot.
“If you don’t stop I’ll…. I’ll – ” Then it stopped and cocked its head as if listening.
“You’ll what?” Skiela demanded.
“Shhh! Did you hear that?”
“Something……” and the crow hopped into the air, calling back to her as it headed toward the woodland, “I’ve got to see this!”
“Hey wait!” But the bird was gone.
Skiela pouted, but was not going to be dissuaded from pursuit. Of course she knew where there was a hole out through the palisade that the gates-men didn’t know about. A few moments later she was chasing after the crow into moonlit woodland, breath pluming in the chill of the night. But it wasn’t the cold that gave her the shivers, it was the unearthly howling that rode the air.
And even Skiela Drum, afraid of nothing, paused for just a moment before plunging on into the moon tinged tree line.
* * *
As Thaadrek entered the woodland the three men in black robe dogged his heals with entreaties to halt, but it was not their words that drew him to a halt. He cocked his ear at a sound all too familiar and altogether not of worldly origin.
“Ah…. finally,” wheezed Burlev as they caught up to him. He spared them the briefest of glances, then shrugged and continued to walk. A chorus of protests followed in his wake, and as their repeated entreaties for him to halt failed to elicit any response what-so-ever, they instead opted to arm themselves with whatever improvised weapons they had to hand: one spade, recently stolen, a gnarled tree branch and the half empty bag of chalk dust. One minute later the dust was settling and they lay on the forest floor in a variety of poses with a variety of black and blue hues swelling in lumps across their personages.
Thaadrek, framed by heroic moonlight, thrust the point of the spade into the ground and looked down at them with a mixture of pity and contempt.
“Attempt to stop me again and I shall not be so gentle.”
Burlev, sprawled sideways and half up a tree trunk did manage to raise a hand as he wheezed, “Understood……”
The next howl split the night open and all three men were quickly crawling, limping and shuffling past Thaadrek who stood and stared with a sense of deja vu. The woman who had provided his escape from the infernal precipice was once again approaching him at high speed.
And hot on her trail three hounds of grotesque aspect and improbably large build, with shaggy ruffles on skinless bodies the colour of dried blood and orange fire burning in their eye sockets.
Thaadrek rolled his shoulders and strode forward, thrusting the woman behind him and blockading the path with his considerable frame. The three hounds slowed, paused to assess the threat and growled with malice.
“Come! We shall begin the bloody path this night,” and then Thaadrek roared mightily as he leapt naked into the fray. The spade rose and fell, and blood and meat began to fly. Jaws snapped shut upon the haft and Thaadrek released it so that he might wrestle the beast to the floor before pulling its legs off and giving the final hell beast a savage drubbing. It alone fled whimpering back the way it had come as the two dead slowly dissolved like red candles in a fire.
The mightiest Clan Chief of the Great Northern Wastes reclaimed his spade, recently stolen, and planted it point down between the brace of his legs and roared at the fleeing creature.
“None shall catch me napping again!” and he spat upon the ground.
A wry voice interjected, “Yeah, but they might catch you with your trousers down.”
The revenant did not so much turn as swivel, fixing his eyes upon a small girl that had burst from the undergrowth. She was staring in open mouth awe at the scene. A flutter of wings announced a large, and somewhat smug, crow in the branches above her.
“Who,” Thaadrek point a finger at the crow, “Are you?”
When it simply cocked its head and did not answer he snarled like a angered wolf and the crow ascended a branch or two as it answered, “How about a little you show me yours and I’ll show you mine?”
“You may address me as Thaadrek. Your name crow or I shall enjoy you as a quick repast!”
“Murph,” said the crow.
“And you girl?”
“She’s Skiela Drum.”
Thaadrek nodded. It was as it should be.
“I might add,” said Murph, “That you might want to pop a loin clothe on or something. You know, minor’s present and all that.”
Thaadrek ignored him and turned to the three robed men who were approaching, much chastened. Behind them came the apparition of the young woman. Everyone stood in awkward silence.
“Well, what happens now?” asked Asteg.
“I am for the Bloody Path,” stated Thaadrek.
“Sounds lovely,” said Yeshin as Burlev stepped forward.
“We was supposed to take you to our mistress.”
“If she requires an audience, then she must come to me.” That appeared to be the end of the matter as far as Thaadrek was concerned. He pointed to the apparition. “You, woman, who are you?”
“I… I cannot remember my name.”
“You were summoned by these fools?”
“Hey, who you calling a fool?” Asteg protested, then met Thaadrek’s gaze. “Forget I asked. Obvious really…..”
“I think so…..” said the nameless woman. “I was somewhere bright and dark at the same time…. And hot! Filled with pain….”
“You escaped the Burning Hell,” Thaadrek said and explained what he had seen. Everyone gaped in awe. “And so I grudgingly acknowledge that even these fools have played a part in our regaining of freedom.”
“You’re welcome,” muttered Burlev.
“And where do you go now?” asked the woman.
“Where ever I must to find recompense against the Triune.”
And with that Thaadrek made to leave.
“Wait,” called the apparition. “What of us who also bear grievance?”
“What claim do you make?” Thaadrek asked as he stopped and stared down at her.
“I was burnt at the stake,” said the apparition, shivering. “I was a diviner, a tyromancer.”
“A what?” Asteg interjected. “A tyro-what?”
“A seer of the cheese,” Thaadrek nodded, “An unraveller of paths. Will you join me upon the Bloody Path?”
She nodded. “It is only right that the dead return for vengeance. Beside, I have nowhere else to go…..”
“I am pleased to have a companion on the path,” Thaadrek said, nodding ever so slightly.
“Yeah, and they took Mr and Mrs Shebbin away when they hadn’t done nothing!” added Skiela Drum. “It ain’t right.”
The crow rolled his eyes. “Hell’s Teeth girl, isn’t it time you went home to bed?”
“I’m not going unless you come with me,” and she crossed her arms.
“You bear a grudge against the Triune?” rumbled Thaadrek.
“No,” said Murph.
“Yes!” said Skiela.
“Then do you desire to walk the Bloody Path with me?”
“No, she’ll sod off home and get some bloody sleep.”
“I was not,” growled Thaadrek, pointing a finger, “Talking to you.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Murph, dipping his head. “Fair enough. My mistake.”
“I shall join you on the Bloody Path,” said Skiela.
“You can’t be serious?” It was Burlev’s turn to interject. “He’s talking about murder and mayhem. You’re just a little girl.”
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she stated, three feet tall and staring down a grown man.
“I am pleased to welcome you to my war band,” saidd Thaadrek. “We shall meet the enemy standing tall and heap great ruin upon them!”
“Warband?” Burlev said, holding up a hand. “You can’t go to war with just three people? What do you think you’re gonna achieve?
The revenant fixed him with those smouldering, dark eyes as the moon shone through the tips of branches above to cast crazed shadows over his face.
“They have a god,” said Thaadrek with a grim smile. “I shall kill it.”
A week later the Legate scurried with all due haste into the presence of the Most Imperious and Hallowed Omnifex, His Holiness Yladiel Astingius Patrelleaux who leaned forward in his chair and fixed the quivering man with a penetrating stare.
“And?” The Legate fell to his knees.
“Sire, the scouring of wrong-doings, the castigation of the unworthy, and the purification of all that is tainted was duly delivered unto the masses as per your instructions.”
“I err…. that is…..”
“Speak Legate, or I shall have your tongue removed and pickled so that it may reside beside your bed as a reminder of your procrastination.”
“Y-yes s-sire.” The Legate was nearly horizontal on the cold flagstones now. “I regret to inform his holiness that I received a missive from St. Esticaria.”
The Legate produced the rolled paper and cleared his throat. “To whit, that upon the most auspicious and unholy night of the full moon one week past the Grand Ear of Esticaria did receive rumour that abroad that night were a host of unclean and malicious spirits.”
“He was pursuant of all rumours and with the assistance of both the Grand Eye and our holy Hands, they did extract from the local peasantry a list of all possible demons, phantasms and familiars whom did cause much commotion within and without the precincts of the town, thereby disrespecting all Triunic Authority and compliant with none of the Holy Writs.”
Head bowed the Legate approached and passed the Omnifex the parchment. He perused it for a moment then sat back with pursed lips and steepled his fingers together. “These are most disturbing of tidings that you deliver Legate.”
“Yes sire. My apologies.”
“What measures have been taken?”
“What has been done to apprehend and punish these miscreants and their demonic summonings?”
“I….. er, your servants remain on high alert sire. Companies of Hands are scouring the countryside as we speak in an attempt to root the unclean from their hiding places.”
“Yet this missive Legate,” purred the Omnifex, tapping the parchment with a bony finger, “Claims that the barbaric apparition bested a squad of our men during what is described as a ‘raid’?”
“Er…. yes sire, that is, well – ”
The Omnifex cut him off. “Beside the questionable notion that one man constitutes a ‘raid’, might it be that if a squad of the very Hands that are supposed to apprehend it can be so easily bested, that it need not concern itself with concealment.”
“Sire, surely the efficacy of our Hands in number will suff – ”
“And if they do not?” the Omnifex asked, the volume of his voice increasing by but a fraction. The Legate trembled, now just a puddle upon the floor. The Omnifex sighed. “It would appear that I have no option but to summon the Winnower and her cohorts.”
“But sire – ”
“Summon her. Now!”
“Yes sire,” the Legate replied, peeling himself from the flagstones. “I shall see to it immediately.”
“Very good,” purred the Omnifex as he closed his eyes for contemplation, thus allowing the Legate to escape without further scrutiny. Once beyond the doors of the Omnifex’s chambers the legate let out a long breath and hastily muttered a prayer.
“Bad meeting Legate?” asked the Hand guarding the door.
“Ah, yes. I am…. er, I am to summon the Winnower.”
“The Winnower?” the guard said, turning white as he made a warding sign and muttered a quick prayer. He watched the Legate shuffled off and thanked the Triune that he was just a guard, because if there was one person that everyone feared more than the Omnifex, it was the Winnower.
Her and her merry little band of merciless, deadly and holy eliminators.