I apologize for my absence on Cereal Authors; it has been a strange and hectic couple of months. Not that my fellow authors here are not busy themselves, it is just that each month I struggle with what to post and then in the swirl of catastrophe or conflict, I end up missing my day completely. There is no good excuse. But, to make up for it, I offer a short story rather than a mere sliver of a longer tale. This is a brief yarn built off of my fantasy series, Translations from Jorthus. I hope that you will enjoy and forgive my neglect. 🙂
“What do I care where I belch?” Came the loud, insolent boast as the towering ogre swayed over the spittle-dampened bartender. “I apologize to no man!”
The well-dressed, though tussled, human beside the beast shrugged regretfully, paid the bartender, and began their exit from the Vomiting Myrmidon Tavern. He knew this display was the signal that his large companion had consumed enough to be manageable on the road, but too much to still mingle with good society. Trevalin Dun’Malcolmn slapped the rumbling back of the ogre and bid farewell to the patrons that had suffered their company thus far on this stormy evening. It had been nice to be inside a cozy pub with warm ale and cool food, but he would surrender this comfort in order to prevent a bar fight, which was exactly what his fellow traveler was searching for with his crude words and even cruder etiquette.
“Come along now, Bastid,” the seasoned fighter coaxed as he tossed a few more silver pents to the owner in apology. “We have business to attend, do we not?”
“Right!” Bastid roared proudly, lunging to his uncertain feet. He knew the previous upset in the room was not his problem; it had been clear that the puny little human barkeep was simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Plus, someone seemed to be shifting the floor under his boots. “Insufferable town,” he muttered (not quite under his stinking breath) as he pushed Trevalin aside to get to the door. The ogre came spilling out of the pub doorway with some effort and, for the moment, the low building looked to be earning its name.
Trevalin stood behind for a breath on the rainy, mud-filled street of Oppintyne, worrying with the golden clasp on his silver wolf-pelt cloak. The rain tickling his face made rivulets of reflected gaslight from the porch dance across the intricate artwork carved in the silver of his right hand. The glove, an artificial extension of his lost limb, had been a gift from the Fae Folk of the Northern Wood for services rendered, even though it had been earned at great personal cost; decades of his life lost among the trees and mists of that forbidden land. He had been grateful for the mercy of the Fae. Few humans that stumbled into their realms ever reemerged; yet the delicate movements of the metal fingers, while a marvel of design mixed with the majiks of mind and spirit, only reminded him of his loss and what he may never feel again: the comfort that he was completely human.
Pulling on his tan leather hood, tugging it low over his amber eyes, Dun’Malcolmn peered along the quiet streets waiting for his large, over-indulgent friend to remember their new mission and sober up enough to not make it into another carnage-strewn, unnecessary fiasco. He had partaken of a good amount of ale himself, but only to the point of numbing his fear as well as silencing the voices in his head that nagged him to return to his family estate and face the dreary inheritance that was waiting to suck the remainder of his life away until he died alone, bitter, and clutching after his own hollow ecstasy inside a tapestry tomb. The despondent nobleman shuddered each time he heard those voices.
From the looks of it, the pale green ogre had forgotten that he even had a business partner and was lumbering up the road in search of the next open pub door. With a heavy sigh, Trevalin stumped after him, the puddles rewetting the layers of caked dust and mud on his thick leather boots and threatening to soak through to his feet and make him miserable on the long vigil that lay before them this night.
Oppintyne was not a friendly town. Pressed up against the wooded borders of Yarna, it stretched out to the abandoned trade roads in thin, desperate piles yearning to not be forgotten by the world, as the twisted timbers at its back swallowed large portions in choking dark ivy and curtains of moss that fluttered gently, like tattered shrouds in the moonlight. The fallen signpost greeting travelers had once been an inviting, cheerful cherry color, but now was the smeared lip rouge and cracked skin of a trembling harlot that warned the unsuspecting of its hidden shame.
The ogre and the wandering knight, however, were not here to judge or taste of its wares. Rumors of fortune had tempted them to follow the lonely path to this town; and as far as the darkened, slender, amber eyes of the man could tell, the rumors were proving true. Citizens here were seeking help; eager for deliverance from a shadowy haunt that crept through their recent nights, dragged their old and weak from street or porch, and cackled like a shrill, drunken banshee until they hunkered in their hovels; eager to offer all that their lives had accumulated in order to pay for their safety.
Earning that payment was assured for the two adventurous travelers. Bastid, upon hearing the complaints and tales at the pub, had claimed it to be the work of a rabid wolf immediately, but Trevalin knew wolves too well. His thoughts were caught by the hoarse whispers of one old, gnarled man sitting near the fire, as the orange tongues had spit and hissed with dripping fat from the venison above them. The retired farmer had hinted at a humanoid beast, deformed and hungry, lurking between the shadows, slipping up to claw the juicy eyes and suck the marrow from fractured bones. A ghoul, someone gasped. This creature did not sufficiently satisfy the knight either, since ghouls, by legend, kept to eating the flesh of the dead; they sought victims that did not struggle. What stalked the darkness around these homes was not wolf or ghoul, but it was outside of nature … like him.
The odd pair of hunters made their hiding place just outside the dim glow of the small village, rain masking their scent as they curled deep in unkempt weeds that managed to stand taller than the ogre’s broad back. Watching and listening, until Trevalin felt his eyes grow thick and the pat of dripping water from the branches above counted out a lulling rhythm. Darkness slid over his vision. A shriek of appalling laughter ripped him back to the world.
In the next instant, Bastid nudged his arm with a snort in the direction of the village. Trevalin followed with a glance, his heart beating wild and rough. Movement near the darkest edge of the wood. A human-like beast skulking in and out of the tree line, a vague object dangling from its jaw. Its gait was quick, but unsteady, using its thin arms as much as its legs.
“Perhaps that old kook was right,” the ogre hissed in a low rumble. Trevalin gave him an astonished look. He had thought that the ears of Bastid had closed to others’ opinions as soon as the big rogue had made his own conclusions, but his strange companion was continuing to surprise the knight.
Inspecting the creature as it drifted out into the wood, Trevalin shook his head. Something still was not right. “Does look like a ghoul, but they are scavengers, not predators,” he whispered up to the ogre, who was already beginning to rise in pursuit. “Whatever has been killing folk here—”
A meaty hand yanked the knight into motion. “They’re paying for a ghoul hide, we’ll give’em a ghoul hide. Why do you always make these things harder than they have to be, Dun’M?” Bastid grumbled.
Trevalin hushed his reservations and his step as he followed the unusually light-footed ogre beneath the black and creaking forest. Their cringing prey was swift; hiding quickly in the pits of slick roots, it relied on this ability without the cognitive thought that its pursuers could not only smell its unholy stink of rot and sweat, one of them could also see the faintest body signature in the dark. Bastid was world renown as the best bounty hunter for good cause, and he plucked the hissing, pitiful bone-sucker from the bowels of the tree trunk before they heard the town clock strike the midnight hour.
As the big ogre twisted the ghoul’s head off in irritation at its flailing and scratching, Trevalin caught the half-chewed limb that fell from the thing’s lips. A child’s pallid arm.
“It’s fresh.” The knight choked back vomit at the thought. His attempt to drop the tiny appendage failed, streaking his mind with revulsion as his artificial fingers refused to release their hold. He wished to be gone from here; there were too many strange feelings colliding inside him. Fortunately, his partner did not catch onto his unease.
“But he don’t have blood on his hands or breath,” snorted the ogre, tossing the crumpled corpse of the ghoul carelessly into a bag for the villagers. “Maybe they’ll pay double if we can snag another one.”
“Your acquisitive instincts know no bounds, do they?” Trevalin marveled, quelling emotion with banter. The bounty hunter took this as a compliment before tracing the ghoul’s journey back to Oppintyne.
Night had enveloped the glistening boards of the tiny, shivering city as it tried to hide its superstitious nose beneath the bedcovers, untouchable by the spiny fingers of the unknown. Residents could hide, but not so their town’s splintered secret. The two hunters stopped as they both recognized the visible remains of a struggle beside a rickety outhouse. The tracks of the ghoul had not been far away. Though the drizzle had washed the blood deeper into the earth, masking the stain and dripping trail that screamed out the facts of another fight, Bastid had picked up the subtle stench of fresh blood and feces, which was not wafting from the lime-sprinkled privy, as easily as Trevalin had seen the two divergent trails in the thick mud. Furrows from kicking heels dragged by flat, smashed footprints of a four-legged animal, in the opposite direction from the tentative scratches of the scavenger they had executed.
The blue moon hid her face in shame behind rounded towers of black clouds as Trevalin carefully slid his long sword free from its sheath, his amber eyes flashing warningly to the ogre in the hesitant red glow of the smaller moon. He felt sure that they would need the advantages that his father’s charmed weapon bore. The thump of his heart hard against his stiffened leather breastplate was uncomfortable and rapid. Bastid led the hunt. The ogre’s keen senses searching the night for the fading signature of the child’s body, if not anything else. Dun’Malcolmn stepped carefully behind.
Signs of a voiceless resistance led them deeper into the town, between sleeping buildings, to the backside of the lower houses. The disgruntled decay of this forgotten edge was quiet, except for the flapping of loose boards caught in the storm’s after-breeze and the ravenous snuffling of a nameless beast devouring its wretched prize.
The winds changed against them and the meal was ended abruptly. Scents are acute on the damp air and theirs were no exception. Bastid froze with one hand up. The moment before they knew whether it would flee or charge was agonizing, but brief.
Trevalin saw the shaggy blur strike from his left, out of a shattered stable, knocking him to the ground as it latched onto the ogre. Their dual growls mingling to insanity as the human saw his partner flail huge arms, trying to grab at his back. Try as he might, Bastid could not pluck the scratching, snarling form off him.
Leaping out of the muck, Trevalin slashed; his blade connecting with soft fur and slobbering jaws, knocked it loose from the ogre. Light from a distant flash in the sky brought their opponent into clear view for an instant, and then hid it in shadows once more. It was a hunch-shouldered, dog-like beast; stripes raked through its long, disheveled coat. A thick mane circled its pointed, drooling snout and flat cone-shaped ears. Trevalin did not have time to try and place the name that tickled his brain at the sight of it, for he was its next target.
With a lunge of long forearms and jagged teeth that flattened him, it filled his vision; caught by instinct he was suddenly grasping it by the neck. Its claws tearing at his leather, spittle washing his face, the knight’s body strained to keep hold as the beast was frantic to escape his silver hand. The mechanism tightened in his panic, squeezing off its squeaking howls. Trevalin’s thoughts strayed from the confused horror of identifying it or surviving; they were filled with imagined flashes of faceless, defenseless victims that had not had the strength to fight back against its hideous strength. Innocents, the weak, those that could not fight … Trevalin felt his hand crack its neck before Bastid had even gotten close enough to rip it from his grip.
Bolting up, gasping in his harrowing victory, the knight felt drops fill the air to a downpour. His blood was pounding through the shell that was his body, pulling life back into his spirit. The tingle of the beast’s flesh and bones still reverberating in the silver of his false arm. He could feel it; could actually feel something there. His heart beat faster.
Then he smelled it. An odor he recalled from the depths of his childhood. Burnt hair and skin. Looking down, Trevalin saw smoke rising from the fingers of his metal glove. Matching them to five scorched marks on the fur, he realized that it had suffered from the silver more than the strength. A were-beast, a morphanthrope like his father.
Trevalin’s heart skipped a beat and froze again, his elation gone as the rain washed long strands of cursed hair away from the transforming body. The small, thin arms lay inert and pale. The snout revealing its true cherubic shape and soft, golden hair. Lifeless, innocent brown eyes stared up into the knight’s amber ones and asked the eternal question in silence, Why? Why was I this way?
That question had echoed in Trevalin’s mind for decades …
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