The Fight

Following is another short story I wrote. This one not necessarily in the world of Zarathuz. I hope you enjoy.

This work is copyrighted 2013 by Nathan Washor. All rights reserved.

The little girl pulled herself up onto the barge, water streaming onto its weathered wooden deck. “Daddy, watch me!” She yelled as she ran and leaped off the opposite side, splashing into the gentle river’s blackness.

The little girl’s father barely noticed her pleas for attention as he spoke to his wife of ten years. “I know, that’s what I told him.” He said.

She sat, legs crossed, on an upturned crate in front of him. “Jake, then you need to get him to pay us back. We can’t keep living like this.” She grasped his arm, causing him to look up into her eyes. She had to get through to him. She said again, “We need that money back.” She held his gaze until he turned away in shame. She hadn’t meant to do that.

“I’ll talk to him again.” His demure voice betrayed his feeling of hopelessness.

She gently shook his arm, causing him to look back up at her. She smiled warmly and added, “I love you Jake. You can do this.”

He smiled back, some small bit of his youthful vigor returning.

His daughter pulled herself back onto the barge from the other side. “Did you see that daddy?” She asked him. “Did you see my splash? It was huge!” She exclaimed.

He turned around and grinned. “You’re amazing sweetheart. You got me wet all the way over here.” He lied as he flicked his hand pretending to dry it in the air.

She beamed. “Watch this one daddy.” She said as she ran and jumped back off the other side of the barge.

Jake turned back to his wife and said, “I will try again Mel, but he’s not likely to let us out of it. And I know what you’re thinking, but no. The authorities won’t help us in this matter.”  Annoyance prevailed over his carefully checked emotions. He added in an accusatory tone, “Besides, it’s our own fault we’re in this mess, Mel.”

Her eyes bit deep. “You want to start that again Jake?”

He really didn’t. He was tired of this same old fight. They both had made mistakes. She more than he he thought, but that was not how she felt. Inevitably though, every time they quarreled it came back to this, and here they were.

“Look Mel, I really don’t want to fight today. I will talk to him tonight. I doubt he’ll agree, but you never know, right?” He just said this to get Mel off his back. Jake knew talking to Oli was a hopeless task. He probably wouldn’t even try, but Mel didn’t have to know that. Asking for an audience with Oli was dangerous. Mel realized this, but she didn’t really appreciate it. She figured since Jake and Oli were close friends as children, that afforded Jake immunity to his notorious temper. While this may have been partially true, Jake did not want to try his luck. People had a tendency to disappear around Oli when he got in one of his moods.

Mel’s jaw tightened as he had spoken those last words. She replied, “If you can’t handle it, I’ll go. I don’t know when, but I’ll go.”

“You want to go? Fine. Have fun.” He said smiling, his hands thrown in the air. “I’ll get you the contracts from the vault tonight.”

She said, “I can’t go tonight. It’s ladies night. I’ve had plans to go with Kellie for weeks. You know that. You bought me the tickets.” She stared at him, her face flushed crimson.

“Fine, don’t go tonight. I’ll get you the documents and leave them out for you. You go whenever you can.” He said disgusted. He stood up, suddenly wishing he could go for a walk, but he was trapped on the barge. Jake sat back down and sighed.

“Where’s Ana?” Mel asked, horror already creeping into her voice. “Jake!” She screamed. “Where’s Ana?”

Jake leaped into the water where Ana had jumped in only moments earlier. He grasped frantically at the water’s depths trying to find a strand of hair or a limp limb but felt only water. He came up for a breath and quickly dove back under, desperate to find his little girl. He kicked himself down deep and felt his foot connect with something solid. He turned around grabbing, but she was not there.

He twisted around feeling for her with stretched palms. He tried to calm his racing heart. He told himself not to panic; things would be okay. He’d find Ana, pull her up to the barge and pump the water from her lungs. She’d be okay. He grasped about aimlessly until he realized his searching was useless. He needed to get onto that barge and scan the water. Again, the back of his right hand touched something solid. He twisted it around and curled his fingers about a leg. Ana’s leg.

He pulled her to the surface and swam back to the barge. It had grown agonizingly distant from them. With all his strength he threw Ana up onto the platform and practically jumped up out of the water. Mel was already holding Ana, wailing a mother’s worst fears come true. Jake shoved her away and laid Ana flat on her back. He breathed into her mouth and pumped on her chest. Water poured out of Ana’s mouth as she choked and gagged on her first breath. Jake reached down and gathered her into his arms, sobbing.

A few minutes later Ana asked, “Daddy, did you see me?”

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The Sacrifice

Warning: This post is rather graphic and contains ritualistic human sacrifice.

Following is another very short story I wrote. I hope you enjoy.

This work is copyrighted 2013 by Nathan Washor. All rights reserved.

Small circular windows shone thin beams of moonlight down from the vaulted ceiling. Their glint off the medallion’s silver was reflected by the jewel’s innumerable facets, cascading tiny rainbows about the blackened chamber. Lights danced to the medallion’s slow spin as its beaded chain twirled between her finger and thumb. The scent of oranges and cloves clung to the air. The scene hypnotized, lulling her sacrifice to trance. The time was near.

* * *

He came willing, hearing his master’s call from beyond death’s veil. Still, terror of the act gripped his heart with claws that dug deep into that muscle. Fear’s fist would not be the one to tear flesh from his ribs. That job was reserved for the slender digits that suppressed his panic with their mesmerizing motion. Those delicate fingers. They had so loving caressed him that morning; his master’s final act of gratitude on this side of the veil.

She had said it would be quick. She had said, “Almost painless. Just a little prick.” She had not said how the waiting would be torture itself. She stood there so beautiful in her poise, naked in the moonlight, rainbows twinkling in her eyes. He laid there sheathed in sweat, strapped to the altar, trembling in the dark. Her perfume wriggled up his nose, gently massaging the knots of panic in his mind. Gradually, his shivers calmed and his breath steadied. The time was here.

* * *

The moon shone full through the tenth window. The medallion angled the beam and the gem glowed green. The portal was opening.

She withdrew the knife from its plain leather sheath. Its glass blade was so fine and delicate, so incredibly sharp, its purpose so sinister. The point glided through his exposed neck, separating throat from jaw. His head tilted back. His eyes bulged and rolled as his body spasmed under its restraints. Blood pumped furiously, flowing in a torrent down chiseled grooves to pool around her bared feet. She raised the blade and sliced a long, deep furrow down the center of his torso. She set the blade in the bowl of water resting on a side table and looked down with purpose.

She flattened her hand as it dove into his cavity. It quested following the stalling beats and grasped the organ tight as she ripped it free. She held it aloft in the green glow of the open portal.

She cried with zeal, “Blood and muscle, join with my flesh and bones so that my body may become a perfect vessel for my lord!” She bit deep into the heart, chewing savagely and swallowed. She cried again, “Lord Nosos! Master of disease. Enter me, your willing servant!”

The portal winked out. Her face contorted in dismay and shock as she dropped lifeless to the ground. Rejection was something she had never conceived.

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The Murder

Following is a very short story I wrote taking place within the world of Zarathuz. It is to be continued.

This work is copyrighted 2013 by Nathan Washor. All rights reserved.

Colors swam over his vision, a liquid ball of pigments swirling over and around one another, but never mixing. His hands began to tingle and his legs were already numb. This was the cost of life, and payment was due.

Half his skull had been shattered by the red knight wielding his awful mace. He somehow retained consciousness as he had fallen from his own steed to land beneath stomping hoofs and fighting men. He had lain there, bodies piling up all around him, cloaking his still breathing corpse under a guise of death. The battle still raged on, but this piece of blood soaked ground had already been claimed. Its true victor waited for one more soul to pass into its grasp.

He closed his eyes, but the colors would not dissipate. He longed for oblivion’s sweet embrace to take away the pain, the nausea, the involuntary twitches that wracked his body. Death did not come though, and had it, it would not have been so merciful.

He had lived a hard life. A mercenary’s life. He had killed innocents and vented his rage and lusts on the victims of his warfare. The gods, whether he believed in them or not, would not grant him peace everlasting. Instead he had a visitor.

The crow looked down on him with an intelligence one only thinks capable of men. A new fear welled up inside him. He wished to flail his arms to shoo the little beast away, but they did not obey. He growled at it, but all that came out was a choked gurgle. The colors danced more brightly from the strain and his head throbbed in pain. The bird hopped forward and in one fast motion, plucked his left eye out with its beak. The man watched in stunned horror with his remaining eye as the thing tilted its thick black neck back. It opened its beak and scoffed down its morsel. A savage urge of delight welled up in the man, mixing with his already present anguish and horror as it choked on its prize. It only lasted a moment and a deep feeling of loss replaced delight as the creature managed to get its meal down. It cocked its head at him, stepped forward again and plucked out the other eye.

The man tried to scream, but met the same shortcomings as before. Colors still swam before the vision that had so permanently been robbed of him. A flutter of wings foretold of the beast’s friends arrivals, but the flutter soon became a chorus, and then a roar. The air about him stank of carrion and a rhythmic wind pattered his face, drying to his cheeks the blood that dripped from his empty sockets. The man now knew fear. This was his payment; to be eaten alive. How he wished he had been luckier.

Had he not blocked most of the red knight’s furious assault, he would already be dead. The jealousy he had of his fellow corpses flared with each moment as the murder descended on them. Tiny claws gripped onto exposed flesh as the clinks of feet on metal were all but drowned out by the ruckus. Then he noticed a voice in the commotion, as if the thousands of wings themselves spoke.

“Mortal man” the murder said. “You can hear us mortal man?” It asked of him.

The man gurgled, “yes”. He choked on his own words and coughed hard, relieving the phlegm in his lungs for a moment. He reiterate with a stronger voice, “yes.”

The murder responded, “Good. Mortal man, We have need of you. Will you obey us? We will return life to your dying body.”

The man cried, “My eyes. I can not see.” He whimpered, crying too difficult to achieve. “How can I help without eyes?”

The murder said, “We took your eyes. You will not need them. Had they remained, you would be dead.”

The man just sobbed in self pity.

The murder said, “Will you obey us? Or will you die? We are not patient and grow ever hungry.”

Fear jolted the man again. The thought of a god consuming him was a horrible one. “I will obey”, He squeaked as another coughing fit racked him.

The murder said, “Then sleep.” He obeyed.

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Old Friends

This is the introduction chapter of one of the main protagonists in The Tree of Dreams, Aban.

This work is copyrighted 2013 by Nathan Washor. All rights reserved.

Aban’s considerable bulk was masked by the narrow alley’s shadows. He lowered his head to the ground to study the ruined metal grate. Its thick iron bars looked as though they had been cut by something very hot. Their melted tips protruded about an inch creating a large hole through which almost anyone could pass. Aban rubbed a tentacle over a severed prong and held up a glass vial with a tiny jellyfish bobbing within. He gave the flask two quick shakes. In response the creature lit up with a bright blue glow. Under the expelled light Aban looked at his tentacle inspecting for rust. He found none, the cut was fresh. He squeezed his massive frame through the grate into the sewers below.

He landed in a crouch, his hands and feet splashing in a shallow runnel of waste from the city above. The water barely crested his naked toes and although it wasn’t drinkable, the smell could have been much worse. Aban breathed in surprised relief when he realized the upper crust of Krasnyi must have their filth carted and dumped in the slums’ sewers.

There was only one way to go. He clutched the jelly lamp high with one of his tentacles. Its light extended far illuminating a long tubular corridor. Aban waddled forward, his feet and hands quietly slipping forward as he crawled. He held his other four tentacles free of the filth not wanting to get unnecessarily fouled. After half a league the first man-sized connection joined with his tunnel.

Before approaching the intersection, Aban slipped the jelly lamp inside his tunic extinguishing its light. He approached silently, probing with his tentacles for any clue of Sindar’s passing or a trap he may have set. It wouldn’t be the first trap Aban discovered that could have proved fatal. As he approached the corner of the adjacent tunnel, he heard a clatter of metal on stone followed by two cries of surprise. He withdrew his kukris holding one in each hand and turned the corner to confront the commotion.

Two human men, Aban figured most likely Wealdish by their size, struggled with a monstrous snake. It coiled about the farther man’s waist. The free man, seeing struggle was pointless, nearly slammed into Aban’s form as he turned to abandon his friend. His metal oil lantern clanged on the floor and almost went out after being dropped in shock. Another lantern lay snuffed next to the serpent’s body. Two blurs of Aban’s kukris were nearly invisible as they separated chunks of the snake from the trapped man’s torso.

“Another t-t-toad.” The reeling man stuttered as he looked up in horror at Aban.

“I, am not, a toad,” Aban wheezed from the sudden exertion. After a few more breaths, his breathing steadied. He said, “I am a negroil. I am here looking. Looking for another. Another like me. You said another. You have seen another? Tell me. How long ago? Where?” Aban’s stare held the man fixed in place. The coward seemed to lose all senses, able to reply only in stammers. Aban snapped his mouth open and shut and croaked, “Listen! Answer me. Time is short.”

The man, startled by Aban’s flashing teeth, sobered up. He replied, “Yes, this, this morning. I, we saw it, him, she.” The man seemed to falter, not wanting to offend this creature that could so quickly end his life. When no provocative action was taken, the man continued, “Apologies if I offend…” The man paused, unsure of how to address the toad-beast in front of him. “Sir?” He added.

“My name… Aban. Continue please. Where was he?” Aban asked in a grating croak.

The other man, now clearly recovered from having his life nearly squeezed from him, answered for his terrified friend. “Sir, we see’d him. Yes, we did. We see’d him this morning, yes we did. Aaron and I see’d him near the slum pits we did sir. We can take you there sir. Take you there sir, we go. Come sir, follow Jarek, we take you,” The simple man stooped down, grabbed and re-lit his lantern with the twist of a switch, and ran down the hall with Aaron in tow who was too fearful to be left alone.

Aban followed the pair along winding corridors and down steep stairways until Jarek grabbed Aaron by the shoulder and hissed, “Jarek, you bear-brained fool. I don’t think our master here wishes us to alert his friend. We should let him go alone from here.”

Only a stairway back, Aban had noticed a faint wind pulling him forward. Here, the wind was stronger and an audible roar could be heard ahead in the distance. Aban knew he was close.

Jarek said, “Right, right. You so smart Aaron. That’s why you is the leader, it is.” Then Jarek screamed as Aaron’s head toppled forward.

Aban croaked, “I am sorry.” Mercifully, he did not give the child-like man time to truly understand what was happening. He quickly decapitated him in the same manner as Aaron, sighed sadly and hopped onward.

Aban turned a corner. An intense heat washed over him from the mouth of a cavern less than a stone’s throw away while the howling wind he’d been following sucked him onward. An ancient stone bridge crossed a dark lake connecting the tunnel to an island. At its center a great column of fire was devouring a huge pile of refuse. The flame’s light reflected off still waters illuminating giant stalactites poised overhead as if aiming to bring down the whole cave’s weight on those within. The city’s trash was collected and incinerated here, though never were the flames so greedy in their voracity. Most of the smoke poured up and out through pits in Krasnyi’s slums. Still, a choking haze hung low and thick enough to burn Aban’s windpipe even as he remained in the hallway. Standing in front of the great pyre and commanding it was Sindar. There was no mistaking the other negroil even from this distance.

All five of Sindar’s tentacles were raised in the air tracing patterns of command as he stared upwards, a look of determination etched in the squint of his eyes. His left hand held straight forward the silvery rod those of his order require to focus their energy in the casting of flame and metal. His right moved like a child feverishly digging in the sand, seemingly directing the base of the fiery tornado as the monstrosity danced in similar fashion.

Aban drew shadows about himself, making his form impervious to the light flooding the entry into the chamber. Wary of his quarry siting him, Aban crept forward onto the old bridge probing with both his tentacles and shadows for the inklings of the trap he knew Sindar would have placed to warn him of any intruders. The stones beneath him burned with absorbed heat. Aban knew he’d need to reconsider his slow approach across the expanse. He hopped forward, but as he landed the stones beneath his bulk screamed in protest. Together, they fell away into the waters below.

Surfacing, Aban heard Sindar bellow, “Aban, old friend! There is no sense denying. I know it is you who joined me here. Only one so fat as you could have smashed through those stones I weakened so cleanly.” He chuckled and added, “You took down half the bridge, Aban! And besides, I’ve known you’ve been following me for quite some time, old friend.”

Old friend. Indeed the two were old friends, but only in the sense they were friends a long while ago. Different choices on life’s journeys brought the two to very different destinations. Those decisions shaped who they had now become. Sindar’s path was often found delving into the darkest regions of the world. Aban now pitied his childhood playmate for the task he was set on more than three years earlier. Aban had been sent to kill Sindar.

His high pitched croak sounded almost sickly. With sucking shallow breaths Aban responded as the illusory magic he commanded threw his voice in all directions. “Oh Sindar. You have fallen so far. Yes. My body is fat. My movements slow. My voice winded. But don’t underestimate. My spirit. Or my body. They are powerful. I regret. Regret I could not spare. Spare you the knowledge. The knowledge of your impending death. I wished you that last mercy.” He eyed Sindar from the concealing depths.

A chortling croak erupted from Sindar’s thick lips. “Aban, old friend. Must we war? We were spawn brothers. I would have you an ally, not another victim of our masters’ wills. Throw aside your delusions. Join me. I will show…”

Aban cut him off. “Show me Sindar? Tell me lies? Feed me poison? Throw my flesh to Yrdel? Like you did to Khalil? No. Old friend. You know why. Why I have tracked you. Tracked across nations.” Aban dove beneath the surface. An enraged Sindar bent the column of fire over on itself to churn and burn the waters where he had been hiding only moments earlier.

Aban’s massive legs kicked as his powerful arms pulled. The giant webs on both thrust him far from the hellish cauldron that section of the lake had become. Sindar’s fury was relentless. He cast the flame across the waters all around the island. The bowed jet carved furrows into the surface leaving a boiling wake as it passed. If Sindar were allowed to keep torching the water, Aban would be cooked alive.

Aban swam deep below the passing flame. He came up silently and quickly swam to the island’s shore. The ripples would give away his location, but Sindar’s back was turned. Aban’s magic muffled his noise as he remained shrouded in shadow, all light passing right through him. He crouched on the trash strewn soil a mere three hops from Sindar. He unsheathed the khanjar his masters entrusted to him for this purpose only and leaped.

Something warned Sindar of his presence. He whipped around, just as Aban had closed in for the kill. The tower of flame lashed Aban’s leg, burning skin and muscle, charring bone. Aban spasmed. The artifact fell free of his hand to fall useless at Sindar’s feet as agony racked his body.

Sindar shuffled back in shock. He looked down at the blade. Crafted of violentium, sheer ribbons of purple danced just below the dull-silvery surface. Realization dawned. Sindar grinned savagely at the sight of his old friend twisting in agony at his feet. Two flicks of the flame and Aban lay motionless. “Old friend.” Sindar said with only a hint of remorse. He crouched down, gathered up the blade and its sheath off of Aban’s corpse. Sindar turned back to his task, searching through the pile of refuse, for something.

* * *

Aban awoke. He was shackled in chains. His leg throbbed, his back burned, his left eye was blinded. He looked about with his good eye, but saw nothing more than shadowy outlines. A small square room, a shallow puddle of water pooled in the low corner. No, not water. Ordure and urine by the rank smell of it. The pain was too much. He blacked out.

“Wake friend. We have some questions for you.” The velvety voice lulled him from his fevered dreams. A torch now sputtered in the far corner by the room’s only entry, a heavy wooden door with a small barred window. A man stood near in crimson robes, head cast in the shadows of his cowl. “Yes. That’s right. Wake up now. We would like to know who you are and how you came to inhabit our sewers.” The man asked Aban as he slowly came awake.

Aban’s body agonized, his leg most of all. He tried to make out his injuries, but the shackles held him tightly. Straining against his bonds only resulted in increased pain that was just too much to bear. Aban looked at his captor, finally understanding his situation. He had failed. Sindar was gone and now he lay in some rank dungeon beneath the Rhokian capital city of Krasnyi. Worse, the labyrinthine tattoos snaking over the hooded man’s exposed hands marked him as a seer – the bane of his own order, the illusionists.

The seer said, “I can ease your suffering, but you need to first tell me who you are.” The man’s voice seemed to pull at Aban’s very nature. He wanted to tell this man the truth, and all of it. From when he and Sindar were children to the day his masters tasked him to track and slay the renegade negroil. Aban knew this was sorcery tugging at him, imploring the truth free itself from his mouth, but there was nothing he could do. Resistance was hopeless. He was trapped, bound, and unable to control his umbra. He had no defense save his own willpower and that was so weak. The honeyed words worked their magic.

He said, “My name is Aban.” With those words, the truth flew from his mouth in a torrent.

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The Mushroomers

I wrote this short story this weekend when we were all worrying about Sandy. I wanted to get some writing done before the power went out. I really like it. I haven’t done heavy edits, but I don’t think it really needs much.

It started out as the intro to a larger story but took a life of its own. Let me know what you think.

This work is copyright 2012 by Nathan Washor. All rights reserved

The skinny man griped, “That crook said, ‘Follow the red blazes. You can’t miss the cliffs,’ he said!”

The old man wheeled on the lout. He was nimble for one up to his knees in muck. One fist raised in the air. He warned, “You better stop your gods damned complaining Glen. I’m sick of listening to your constant whining. Shut your face yourself or I’ll save you the trouble.”

The leader of the trio said, “George is right, Glen.” Glen scowled but had enough sense to leave it at that. “Besides, it’s your fault we lost the trail in the first place,” Steven reminded the merchant.

Emboldened by Steven’s support, George added “if you kept that cotton in your ears, none of this would have happened. Jordan would still be alive.” Glen looked shamed at the reminder as George drove the nail home. “You owed him your life. Without his tracking skills, you’d be stewing in some siren’s gullet by now. And how’d you repay him? You got him killed!”

“That’s enough George,” Steven reprimanded. “He gets the point. And besides, you can hardly blame Glen for the bite of a viper.”

Glen’s scowl darkened as the three trudged through the swamp in silence.

It was impossible to tell time under the thick tree tops. They hadn’t seen the sun peek through in three days. Their drinkable water ran out earlier in the day.

Steven called a halt. “It must be getting late. We should make camp over on that bar.” He led the way, hopping from half submerged reefs to mangrove roots. They waded in brine up to their waists the final distance.

Glen pitched his lean-to and suggested, “If we can make a fire and boil some water…”

George cut him off, “There you go again. You’d build a beacon for every creature within a mile.” Cursing Glen’s stupidity he continued, “You know we can’t drink the water, even if we boil it.”

Steven said, “You two can calm down. Glen is half right. We should build a fire.”

George’s eyes opened wide. He asked, “You agree with him?”

Glen smirked and Steven responded, “I do.” Steven then told Glen, “Go and find the driest wood you can but don’t wander far.” After Glen was out of earshot, Steven told George, “Something has been following us all day.”

George sighed, “You think it’s her?” Steven nodded. “So what’s the plan then?”

“Not much of a plan, but I’ve heard she doesn’t like fire. She didn’t attack us in the daylight. Maybe she won’t with a big enough fire blazing.”

George said, “I’m going to go help Glen gather wood.”

“Good idea,” replied Steven.

A half hour passed. Dusk had settled and a thick fog rose. George and Glen had brought back a good pile of downed branches and twigs. George apologized to Steven, “Not all of it’s dry.”

Steven didn’t seem too worried. “Even wet wood burns if you get the fire hot enough.” He winked at the old man and smiled.

The old man quipped, “Glad to see you’re so optimistic oh fearless leader.”

While the two men had been out, Steven had dug a hole in the ground. He had placed a cooking pot in its center. His leather cloak spanned the pit, tanned side down. It was secured in place with heavy rocks around the edge. One smaller stone sat in the center of the cloak just above the pot below.

“What’s that for?” asked Glen.

George responded for Steven, “Water.”

Steven added, “The moisture in the dirt gets trapped. It condenses on the cloak and rolls down into a pot I placed below. I should have enough to quench my thirst in an hour or so. If I were you, I’d recommend doing the same.”

“Can I borrow your shovel?” asked the merchant.

“I don’t have one. Used my hands,” Steven responded showing his scraped and muddy digits.

Glen’s scowl returned as he scuttled off to dig his own waterhole.

George looked at Steven and grinned. Steven reached into his pack and tossed the old man his spade.

As the other two men prepared their own waterholes, Steven built the fire. Soon there was a crackling blaze at the center of their camp.

George returned and sat by the fire to warm his bones. He took a strip of dried jerky from his jacket pocket. “Can we trust him with a watch tonight?” George asked Steven.

Steven responded, “I don’t trust him. Do you want the first watch or the second?”

“I’ll take second watch.” George took a nice sized bite of the meat. “I wake up earlier and earlier in my old age anyway.”

Steven smiled. He politely warned, “Be careful with that jerky. Its salt will dehydrate you.”

The old man rolled his eyes at that. He set Steven’s mind at ease. “It’s heat cured. Doesn’t last as long, but won’t make me thirst as much as the standard fare. You just make sure to wake me if she shows her ugly face.”

Glen had just walked back into the campsite. He overheard their last exchange and asked, “Her?”

Steven answered, “Don’t worry about George. The old man is growing befuddled.”

Glen didn’t look appeased but didn’t press the issue.

They all ate their rations in silence. The sounds of the swamp were eerie. Occasional bubbles of gas belched up from the muck. Frogs croaked and crickets chirped. Fish and eels gulped insects that skimmed the still water. Over it all, the fire spit and hissed.

Suddenly a great splash caused them all to perk up. Glen actually jumped up and looked about for somewhere to run. “What was that?” he asked, terror clear on his face.

“Shut up,” hissed both George and Steven.

“You said, ’she’! What aren’t you telling me?” cried the merchant.

Steven asked him, “If I tell you, will you sit down by the fire like a big boy?”

George didn’t answer him, but slowly sat back down. After a few minutes of quiet he muttered to himself, “Probably just a branch that fell. That’s all it was – a branch.”

Steven said, “No. It’s the siren. She followed us all day.”

Glen began to sniffle and sob. George couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up, walked over to Glen. He knocked him out cold with one strong fist to the face.

Steven reprimanded, “You didn’t have to do that.” He relented, “At least if we all die, you gave him some dignity. I’d hate to watch him begging for his life fruitlessly.”

George sat back down by the fire. He asked, “Why doesn’t she just call to us?”

Steven answered, “Because she already has us trapped. Now she just plays with us.”

“What a bitch!” George yelled.

She answered his taunt with cackling laughter. The sound reverberated throughout them bringing rise to childhood fears neither had felt in many years. Both men were battle hardened and kept control of their wits.

“What direction?” asked Steven.

George answered, “I couldn’t place it. Maybe your 6?”

Steven said, “Same here. It could have been my 12 for all I could tell.”

The pair sat staring over one another’s shoulders. Each held swords draped in their laps. Time dragged by. Their eyes grew heavy as their minds ran wild. Thoughts of impending death coupled with exhaustion gave rise to hallucinations. Phantom splashes echoed in their ears. Ghostly apparitions hovered on the edges of their vision. George started to drift but Steven woke him with a word. Only a few minutes later, George returned the favor. Sometime late in the night, both men collapsed from their exhaustion.

Steven woke with a start. He looked around. Glen was still unconscious by the glowing coals of what had been their blazing fire. George was nowhere to be found.

“Shit!” he hissed. He yelled, “George! Old man! You out there?”

Only the normal sounds of the swamp answered.

He shook Glen. “Wake up!”

Glen stirred. He opened the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut from the old man’s punch. “What? Who?” He stammered on.

“Glen, wake the fuck up!” Steven jerked him repeatedly as the merchant started to fall back unconscious, but it was useless. The man’s wits were still rattled from the blow.

Steven threw another log on the fire. The driest wood had already been burned. It smoked for some time before it finally caught flame. After the fire was lit, Steven retrieved the water that had collected under his cloak. He drank.

Steven’s mind reeled from the loss of his old friend. He hoped his death was swift. He expected it was not. Sirens were cruel creatures. They tormented their victims, sometimes for days. What they did with them afterwards was unknown.

The sky lightened. Dawn had arrived. Steven broke camp.

Glen shot awake. “What’s going on? Where’s Jordan?” He then winced as the throbbing in his head nearly doubled him over. “Why does my face hurt?”

Steven just snorted at him in response.

Glen slowly stood, bewildered. He touched his face. “You hit me? Why did you hit me?”

“George hit you. Gather up your shit. We’re leaving.”

Perplexed, he obeyed with obvious discomfort. “I shit myself. I need to clean up first.”

“No need. You’ll be wading through worse soon enough,” Steven replied.

Glen looked around. It dawned on him he wasn’t on the forest trail hunting for rare mushrooms. “Where are we? How did we get here? Where are George and Jordan?”

“Dead,” Steven answered flatly.

“Dead? What do you mean dead? We were just on the red blazed trail last night! What in the world happened?”

Steven growled, “You happened!” He continued, “And that wasn’t last night you idiot. That was four nights ago! You took out the cotton. Jordan tracked you into these gods forsaken swamps. He got bit by a snake. We couldn’t find our way back out without our tracker. The siren killed George last night. It’s just you and me now. Gather up your shit, we leave here in five minutes.”

Glen’s britches bloomed fresh as he stood motionless.

“I can leave you here if you’d rather.”

Glen ran about stuffing his belongings in his pack. He stepped on his leather cape and fell into the pit below. His ankle twisted and he screamed out in pain. He pulled himself up and said, “What the hell was that for?”

“Water,” Steven answered. “You ready yet?”

“Water?” asked Glen as he limped about favoring his ankle.

Steven thrust a half full skin at George. “Here, have George’s, he doesn’t need it anymore.”

Puzzled, Glen accepted the offering and guzzled.

Steven berated, “Drink slowly! It’s all you’ve got.”

Glen choked spitting the precious liquid down his shirt. He moaned, “No more water?”

Steven didn’t waste his breath with an answer. “Let’s go.”

They continued their trek walking in no known direction. After some time Glen asked, “Do you think she’s still following us?”

Steven responded truthfully, “Depends on how fast she eats. Don’t worry. I’m sure she’ll catch up.”

Glen asked no more questions. Steven chose a direction he hoped would deliver them from their nightmare stalker. The air grew uncommonly cool for the season and their teeth chattered. Hypothermia was setting in.

Steven said, “I know it’s early. We need to make camp. We’ll die if we don’t dry out.”

Glen sheepishly followed to a large bank. It was similar to the one the trio had camped on last night. Glen set off to gather deadfall.

Steven thought to himself, He didn’t wait to be asked. Perhaps George knocked some sense into him last night. He set to digging three waterholes, one for each cloak the pair carried.

Steven indicated where the fire would be built. Glen stacked the pile of branches neatly. With guilt in his eyes Glen said, “Steven, for what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

Steven replied, “As you should be.” He was going to voice his earlier thought, but decided Glen didn’t need the invective. As an afterthought he added, “Don’t dwell on it now. If we get out of this alive you’ll have ample time.”

In response to Steven’s remark, a loud thump sounded in their midst. Glen recoiled at the ghastly sight. George’s head stared up at him with bloody eye sockets. Arteries and bone dangled from the base of the skull. Ragged skin hung loose where the head and neck used to connect.

“As though she ripped it right off.” Steven voiced his analysis in macabre awe. “Better help me with the fire,” he added. “Not much daylight left.”

The two sat in front of the fire as the gloom turned to darkness. They didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later they heard thrashing in the water. The noise was heading toward them. Steven stood up. He held his sword low.

Her form was outlined in the fog. Features were indiscernible, but she was massive. She paused, seemingly content to let their fear feed her. Glen whimpered. She dropped on fours and charged.

Steven swung his sword as she closed in. The stroke was masterful. Twisting with inhuman speed she evaded his blow. On her backswing she knocked the blade from his hands. It flew in a great arc and was lost to the swamp’s depths. She cackled with glee as the two men fell backwards.

Steven tripped on a root and fell into the fire. He screamed and rolled in agony as his skin was charred by the coals.

Glen fell to his knees and begged the monster for his life. He pleaded to all the gods he ever prayed to and some he had not. The beast crept toward him, drinking in his anguish. She reared up and roared. Glen stood motionless on his knees as he awaited his end. She lunged for the kill and was turned aside as Steven shoved a flaming branch into her eye. Her agonized shriek filled the air as she batted the torch away. This time Steven’s grip was true.

She tore off into the swamp. The Siren splashed and screamed, “You will pay for this, wicked man!” Her howls of anger and pain slowly receded into the distance.

Shaken to his core all Glen could manage to say was, “Thank you.”

The rest of the night passed uneventfully. Neither man rested. Steven had been badly burned. The pain was too much to allow sleep. The dirt and wetness would sour his wounds. The burns would fester. He’d lose an arm and the other hand if he even survived.

Glen lay awake. He was terrified the Siren would return and exact vengeance. He feared her wrath as a result of her wounds. He silently wished she had killed him. The waiting and wonder was torture.

They set out just as the darkness started to lift. Neither man said much. They were at their wits end, broken. One more shove and neither would get up. They wandered aimlessly. Apathy replaced hope. They lumbered on not to escape, but simply to do something rather than sit and die.

Mid-morning they came upon the week’s first sign of civilization. “Too bad we weren’t here a few hundred years ago,” Steven barked at the irony.

A round stone tower rose out of the swamp.

“No door in,” said Steven after he walked its perimeter. “Lift me up. I’ll squeeze through a window.”

Glen silently obeyed. He cupped his hands together and Steven stepped in them. Steven grasped the window ledge and pulled himself up. Blisters broke open as his muscles strained, but he managed to pull himself through.

Once inside he dropped down onto a circular stair. It wound around the outside wall of the tower. He felt the stones shift slightly under his weight. He tread cautiously as he climbed up the stairs. The stair opened on a small circular room. It once had an iron ladder that led to the roof. The ladder’s only remaining evidence was rust stains on the wall. The tower’s roof was intact except for where the exit hatch used to be.

He walked down the stairs. The bottom floor was half submerged in the swamp. Strange mushrooms grew everywhere on the walls. Steven grabbed one and ate it. No reason to fear poison with that beast trailing us. A mushroom’s death would be more merciful anyway. He found the fungus tasted rather good and popped a couple more into his mouth. He climbed back up to the window and called out to Glen. “It’s as good a place to die in this swamp as any I’ve seen yet.” There was a central pillar supporting the upper floor. He tied his rope around it and dropped the other end out the window.

Glen grabbed onto the rope and readied himself to climb up. Steven shouted down, “Not so fast. We need some wood to build a fire. I’m in no shape for gathering it. If you want in, you’ll tie your pack to the rope and fill it with wood a few times.” Glen turned away dejectedly. He tied his pack and went to gather as much deadfall as he could find.

After three trips filling his pack, Steven let Glen and their belongings join him in the tower.

“Look downstairs, mushrooms!” Steven said. “And they’re tasty too! Tastiest morsels I’ve had in days for sure.”

Glen was surprised at Steven’s change of mood. He walked down the stairs and inspected the mushrooms. Nothing I’ve ever seen, he wondered. Glen was a master mushroomer. Finding some black toadstools was the whole reason he’d set out on this trek in the first place. A bushel of the rarities would fetch quite the price. Gourmet chefs from the finest inns to castle keeps paid gold bits for a quality batch. The fact he’d never seen such a specimen before caused his mind to race. Are they poisonous? Steven said he already tried one. Probably doesn’t matter. We’ll likely die here anyway. Glen grabbed a few and walked back up. He joined Steven beside the small fire. “Eat one and I’ll believe you” he said as he held one out.

Steven grabbed and ate it without acknowledging the insult to his honor.

Glen sighed and ate the other two. “These are good,” he remarked. Feeling moderately safe for once, both men drifted to sleep by the fire.

They woke up to a roar of rage. It was pitch dark outside. The fire had burned itself out. Neither man even bothered to rise. If she got in, they were done for. There was nothing they could do to keep her out. Their survival this night was completely at the whim of the tower. Both men rejected the fact that death circled them. They fell back asleep.

The next day Glen climbed down to fetch more wood and the water that collected overnight. He had to venture further than the previous day for the wood. He was disheartened to find the Siren had destroyed their waterhole supplies. He returned with the bad news, but all Steven did was shrug. They had a breakfast of mushrooms and the few scraps of rations that remained.

Glen realized out loud, “Your wounds are healing remarkably well!”

Steven looked down at his hands. His eyes widened in wonderment. He looked back up at Glen. “As is your face. Must be the mushrooms,” Steven responded. “They must be medicinal. A lot of good they’ll do us in the long run though.”

The men spent the day resting. They even talked a little as their spirits lifted ever so slightly. Glen learned about Steven’s past as a conscript in the king’s army. He’d received high honors for one born so low.

Steven grew to understand Glen’s own motivations. He had a wife at home. She required expensive presents to return his affections. He had a son with her who was almost a man’s age. Glen confided he wasn’t sure if the boy was really his. “Jason is really big. Look at me. Am I big? Do I have red hair?”

They conversed into the night as they awaited her return.

More than half the night passed without a sound. Her roar of triumph tore through the stone building. Steven jumped up and bolted over to the stairwell opening. There she was below. She shook her great body. Mud flung about. She must have tunneled underneath, Steven realized in horror.

She saw him and grinned as she leapt up the stairs. She reached the top with a final jump. The stones buckled under her massive weight. Half the floor and all of the stairs gave out underneath her and Steven.

Glen leaned over and saw she was trapped under a pile of rubble. Steven lay on top of her struggling form. A dagger of rock jutted straight out his back. Steven looked oblivious to his own mortal wound. He jammed his thumbs into her eye sockets. He pushed with all of his strength as the thumbs sank deep into her skull. Blood squirted and flowed over his hands and he still kept driving his thumbs deeper. Her body stopped struggling under the rocks and began to convulse in its death throes. Steven sensed her death and relaxed his own struggles.

Glen stood motionless looking down at the scene. The Siren was clearly dead. Steven was soon to follow. He didn’t know what to do. He was alone now, lost in a vast swamp. He noticed Stevens arm beckoning him. Glen carefully dropped into the room below and waded over to Steven.

Steven motioned Glen close and Glen complied.

Steven said, “Do me a favor.”

Glen nodded and said, “Anything.”

“If you survive this mess, bring my daughter her mother’s ring.” Steven, reached inside his shirt and pulled forth a red velvet bag. It was tied around his neck with a long cord. He handed it to Glen and motioned for him to put it on. Glen tied it around his own neck and stuffed it under his shirt. Steven smiled. “Tell her Roger is a good young man. He’ll make a fine husband. Tell her everything I owned is her inheritance. She should be able to provide a sufficient dowry.” Steven relaxed for several minutes. His breath came in shallow gasps. He said one last thing, “Tell her I’m sorry that I can’t give her hand away.” He took one last breath and heaved himself off the jutting stone. His blood flowed out into the pool below.

As I said, this started out as the intro to a larger story. I have more written following this, but I don’t like it as much. I will end up tossing out most of it and writing a proper sequel to this short. I hope you liked it. Let me know in the comments section either way. I honestly want to hear your feedback whether positive or negative. I have very thick skin.

 

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