It has been weeks since my last visit. Just as I got back in town, I got some disappointing news from the owner of a small shop across the street. I blew off some steam in a scuffle and came to one of the only bars that will serve me.
The barkeep gives me a look of recognition that isn’t unkind. He raises two fingers and his eyebrows in question. I shake my head and raise three fingers. A double portion of this drinkable lighter fluid won’t cut it today. My boots stick to the floor in a familiar way. Though the bar top has more scars since my last visit, the liquor burns the same. I drink it in one gulp and throw up another three fingers. If I do this a few more times, maybe I can zig-zag my way to a decent night’s sleep.
The lights are low enough that I can’t see the oily sheen on my drink but I can feel it coat my mouth. This isn’t a place that does well in bright light. Most of the patrons hide in shadowy corners. Since the world’s gone to shit, bars are where us damned souls go to forget the world has indeed gone to shit. The people along with it.
The second drink singes my nose lessening my ability to smell the sweat and blood odor that permeates the wooden floors. I’ve contributed my fair share to that. When the doors slam open and someone shouts at me, I have the feeling I’ll be contributing more.
The barkeep gives me a warning look. I throw down a few coins to cover what I’ve drunk so far. He gives an appreciative nod and makes his way to the other end of the bar. He knows to let me handle my own business.
“Hey, asshole! You messed up our friend.”
I turn and slowly finish my drink while giving him a questioning look. “What friend would that be?”
“You busted his knee not two hours ago.”
“Ah, that friend. He’d been bragging about doing the same to some girl. I was just providing him with some empathy. Atone for what he’d done.”
“Atone for what he’d done?” This guy’s not alone. Two others spread out, trying to surround me. “You’re going to talk about atoning?”
I just stare at him keeping the others in my peripheral. “He was bragging about beating up a woman. He deserved to get his ass kicked.”
“What you did is nothing to what you’re about to get.”
“A hefty tab for damages?”
His snarl only lasts for a second before I punch it off. With a foot around his leg, I cause him to stumble into his friend. The third guy throws a punch at my face. I turn just in time, catch his arm, and jerk it. He howls and holds his arm at an odd angle, his elbow dislocated.
The other two right themselves. The chatty guy picks up a lamp and swings. I raise my arm to block it. The sharp smelling liquid inside spreads from my elbow to my side. The flame follows the same path. I roll and take off my jacket to smother the fire.
Trying to take advantage of the moment, the one with the injured elbow launches himself at me. I kick back causing him to grasp his man parts in pain. His friends kick at me, but I keep rolling until I’m under a table. They throw it aside, giving me just enough time to damage more knees. They fall in pain. I take the chatty guy’s head and smash it on the ground a few times. I stop when I’m sure he won’t move.
I glare at the one guy remaining. He holds up his hands in surrender.
With a groan, I get up. The barkeep looks at the damage. Not too bad. A broken lamp and a small scorch mark on the floor. “Let’s say nine this time Lance.”
“So low?” I ask, pulling out the coin to cover the damages.
“That one was set on burning down the place. I’ll give you a discount.”
“Appreciated.” I hand him an empty water skin. “Some of the strong stuff to go.”
He nods, taking my skin and filling it.
The diluted smell of the promise of deep sleep wafts over me. “Did they have open tabs here?”
The barkeep glances over his shoulder. “No, they went to the other side of town, I believe.”
Not everyone can handle your good stuff.” I take the skin he offers me and give him the extra payment.
He holds up the coin, tucking his chin in farewell. “Until next time.”
I give him tense smile as I leave.
People flee with the sun, leaving the dirty streets more hopeless looking than ever. Everyone knows to run indoors before dark. Only fools like me stay out, those that welcome death or are just sick of life, what little of it there is left.
Sometimes, I really miss being dead, that blissful connection to everything.
I turn up my collar against the stares. They all hate me. I can’t say I particularly like them, but they don’t understand the real order of things. If they knew what our pitiful lives were really worth, what those they pray to actually are like.
Nowhere in town would offer me lodging. I knew that before I even stepped foot in the town. Food I can get on my own, but a stiff drink is harder to come by. I adjust my pack and hurry on. I want to make it to the shelter of the trees while there’s still enough light.
I find an overturned tree and set to work. The hole is just big enough to fit me, but I dig it deeper. Fallen branches packed with dirt add to the shelter. The usual charms and runes are set around the entrance and on every surface I can manage. Propping the last few branches against the opening, I etch in the last few symbols. With a short chant, they glow faintly green.
I build a small fire, placing the large stone on top. The smoke will kill me if I don’t make sure it burns clean. I carefully pick up the stone with gloved hands and place it at a short distance from my feet under what cover I have. The drink rocks me into the abyss of sleep.
I’m oblivious to the sounds of the night. Large slithering bodies and screeches of warning all go unnoticed. The creatures sniffing for my scent find their eyes stinging and wander on. I survive another night.
The stone’s turned cold by morning. The fire, nothing but ash. Numerous runes glow telling me something nearly made me their meal. I clench my jaw.
Once the pack is closed, I begin my journey west. I’ve had enough of the forests; mountain air sounds appetizing. Tomahawk strapped to my right thigh, machete to my left, I begin my journey with a single, groggy step.
These paths are more forgiving in summer. Each day I walk until I’m hungry. I’ll hunt, usually squirrel or some small bird. If my hunt is unsuccessful, I eat the dried meat in my pack. Herbs and berries are foraged, even bark finds its way into my belly. Since the world ended, meals are hard to come by and consist of whatever you can find, no matter the taste. My next meal is never guaranteed, even in the cities. Spices are worth more than gold.
Traveling is about rhythm: left foot, right foot, sleep, awake, eat, shit. The more it becomes automatic, the faster the days go. I can’t just let the days blur together. I have to pay attention. Things that can kill me are everywhere: poisonous berries, flesh eating insects, spiked vines, and worse. Though not everything that looks scary wants to kill. I gaze up at the trees to see such a harmless creature. Rolling eyes and tentacles ending in hooked barbs, it looks like something from the deep ocean or nightmares but it’s harmless. It uses its hooks to dig into the tree. A long, thin tongue lashes out and termites are savored with a deep growl of satisfaction.
After a week of travel, Yathn, a town I don’t visit frequently, appears between the evergreen boughs. I keep my cloth covering up to avoid the stares. The tavern closest to the outskirts of town is small but warm.
Though my purse is far too light to get what I want, I have enough coin for a few weeks of relative comfort in a smaller place like this. Still, I’ll need to find work. I ask about trouble in the town, what places to avoid. I’m told there are demkrea, descendants of half-breeds or just those unlucky enough to be heavily affected by the demonic power that blankets the Earth. Animalistic features like horns, hooves, or scales permanently scars those affected. I finish my food and drink and head east toward those chastised for daring to want to live despite being different.
When I don’t leer at the demkrea as I pass, I’m marked as an ally. I’ll have to avoid the rest of town now. No great loss from the look of things. I look for lodging and am told by a gentleman with horns and a relieved smile that I can find a decently comfortable bed at the Rusty Coin. I give him my thanks and turn away from his bemused face.
The room is comfortable enough. Downstairs, I order a pitcher and a cool glass. The drink is room temperature. Considering the summer weather, it suffices. It gives my hands something to do as I scan the faces that avoid turning my way.
Sitting at my table her posture is open, determined. “You’re the heaven killer.” She’s intrigued. Her eyes take me in.
“I’m known here?”
“Unfortunately for you.” She bats her eyes and has a suggestive tone to her voice. Normally, I’d comply and bring her to my room, but I’m tired, and I need work.
“Then you know what I do.” My tone is a bit firm. I’m all business.
She nods, taking the subtle rejection. “A woman named Ageth. She’s need of someone like you.”
I nod my thanks. Her hoofs clunk against the floor when she leaves. I finish my drink and rest before finding Ageth.
I make it plain I’m offering help, not asking for favors, and she’s pointed out to me quickly enough. She’s a woman of maybe forty, dark hair, dirty clothes, wise eyes. She welcomes me into her home, where she makes her request known.
“I’m widowed. My husband was a good man. He was cursed by a demon when my husband beat him in a game of cards. He’s frozen now, I’m told, in a sort of limbo between worlds. His soul is still tied here.” She lifts an amulet from under the neck of her dress. “To this. If I can combine this with a certain artifact, his body will go out of limbo and rejoin his soul here. I just need the artifact.”
I lack the courage to ask how he died. So many people are separated. Loving relationships severed too soon.
“Do you know where it is?”
She points to the mountains. “It’s why I came here. It’s guarded. I can’t get to it. No one can.”
I quote her my price.
She flinches slightly. “You really think you’re worth so much?”
“Don’t let this pretty face fool you. Those that do find themselves waking up on the floor with a headache, if they wake up at all.”
She agrees to the price.
“Anything else I should know?”
She nods. “The guardian is formidable. If you can get past the door, it will be a great challenge. It strikes fear even onto demons.”
I nod. “Sounds about right.”
When I wake, I check over my pack. The weapons are oiled and carefully strapped on my legs and back. The cords of the pack are tightened to ensure everything is water-tight. I open my black pouch with reverence. Inside is the dust I need for my protective markings and a small coin. With my reputation, even respectable residents can get itch fingers. Satisfied nothing is missing or in need of recharging, I repack everything and take the safest path up the mountain.
In this world, safest doesn’t mean safe.
The path winds around great boulders and thorny bushes so thick and entwined even the sharpest talons can’t cut through. What you have to worry about are the kreekans. With hides thick as stone, they can skitter through the thorns without harm. They have a taste for shield spider silk, and shield spiders have a taste for humans. They look exactly like a stone. Their shells are rough but if you know what to look for, you’ll notice they are fairly symmetrical and tend to gather in groups. Nature doesn’t create perfectly oval stones by the dozen.
Shield spiders earned their name from the giant plate that covers most of their body. It’s hard as the stone it mimics and curves around the body like a turtle shell. A smaller, but thicker, plate grows up from the forehead of the creature. Twice as tall as a man, they blend in with the stone by half burying themselves. Large patches of flat rock should be approached with caution, especially if surrounded by numerous fallen branches that twitch. Those are the legs.
The kreekans learned over the years to main humans to provide a meal for the spiders. When the spiders wrap their meal, the kreekans wait patiently. After the spider enjoys its liquid meal, the kreekans sweep in on the husk of a corpse and eat the silk used to trap it. By the time the spider’s prey is dead, devoured, and abandoned, a small ecosystem has been fed.
I keep an eye out. I don’t want to be a meal twice over just because I stepped on a rock that wasn’t a rock. Yet, the trail’s nothing but rocks. When one twitches, I carefully step around it onto another rock that shifts so severely I lose my balance. Over a dozen rocks reveal themselves to be kreekans. Before I can regain my balance, I hear the shriek of a shield spider.
This swarm of kreekans has outsmarted me but I can’t think about that. I draw a small pouch from my belt and ready my machete. The kreekans flee beneath me. I’d flee too, if I thought it would do any good.
Another shriek briefly precedes the reveal of the shield spider. Over eight feet from front to back, dark gray, and ruthless. It is nearly unkillable, and it knows it.
I force down my fear as it attacks with a shriek. Legs are everywhere. A dark green liquid drips from its mouth. Its eyes lock onto my juicy torso. I empty the small pouch onto my head and disappear. The creature halts, screeching in fury. Unseen by the creature, my boots flash a light purple. Suddenly gravity feels less; my steps are softened.
The creature sweeps its legs about furiously. Its blind attacks are random but far from harmless. I grunt as I duck under a massive leg and its gaze nearly locks on me before it begins to sweep again. It knows about where I am. I need to act quickly.
The shield spider does have a couple weaknesses. It relies on sight and feeling most. With those gone, I am nearly invisible to the creature. Nearly. It can still hear just fine, and I haven’t exactly stopped being solid. Shield spiders have a large plate on their head, like on those ancient, giant lizards that were, but there’s a small soft spot on the back on their neck. This means to get to the vulnerable spot, I must climb onto its back and stab it in a space about the size of a human palm before the spider realizes I’m there.
I take my tomahawk into my hand, turning it so the small spike points forward. The spider lurches at my position. I roll as it moves, disguising the sound of my movements with its own. It takes a step forward as I try to step onto its leg. I’m knocked over, and it turns.
“Shit!” I roll out of the way.
It bites rocks instead of flesh. With its head low, the moment is prime. I don’t waste opportunities. I jump as high as I can and land on its head. My tomahawk sinks into its head plate. The creature gives a screech. Suddenly, it only wants to flee. It tucks its legs in, becoming a ball, and rolls down the mountain side. I hang on for a few seconds but am quickly thrown off.
“Damn it!” Not only have I lost my brief advantage, I’ve lost altitude.
I lift a rock and drop it forcefully to my side. The spider takes the trap and lunges at the sound. With a single leap, I jump behind the head plate. The spider realizes what’s happening and bucks wildly, but I bury my tomahawk deep in its neck for leverage. Before it manages to fully tuck again, I force my full weight onto my machete and force it into the one spot that can kill this damned creature.
It begins to curl, dead but still moving. With great effort, I yank out my blades and fling myself from the creature. Breathing heavily, I watch the creature’s corpse roll down the mountain side.
I look up and mutter a curse. I’ve lost a good hour of progress. Patting off the dust, I restart my climb.
About an hour later, I pass by a collection of kreekans that aren’t pretending to be rocks anymore. One gives me a disappointing look. “Yeah well, fuck you too buddy.”
My way up takes longer after that. If the kreekans have gotten sneaky, I’m not taking any chances. I can’t get paid if I break my neck day one. I pick my way around every rock I can, which means I’m covered in burs when I arrive at what appears to be the opening of the cave. I’m going a bit on faith here, because it doesn’t look like an opening. It’s in the right place and has all the correct visual markers; tan stone, deep cracks, some markings that “won’t make sense,” and a sudden lessening of wind.
That last one clues me in to the power of the place. I squint at the markings and sprinkle some precious emerald green dust I have for instances like this. It can make things a bit clearer, reveal things lost to time or translation.
“That’s never good.”
Simple runes made of short lines somehow managing to be unequivocally elegant are carved into the stone. They speak of a sacrifice, a duty to protect, a time of hard decisions and a rare something. Someone’s guarding something inside. That’s clear.
With that assurance, I scan the bits I can actually translate to see if it says how to get in. The woman had been quite vague. I got the impression she didn’t really know what was inside. She seemed desperate for anything that could possibly get her husband back to her. It is possible that after I collect my fee, it might not even work. I could be going through all this for nothing.
Not nothing, I remind myself. There’s a good amount of gold waiting for me when I deliver whatever is trapped in this mountain. I turn my attention back to the markings.
Sacrifice, guarding, unbidden. That could be something. Imprisoned, great burden, keep safe that which is something. My angelic is rusty. Since leaving heaven, I haven’t really had the occasion to use it. Thinking of what I plan to do with the gold, I remind myself to practice.
Angels had scattered to the winds after the Great Annihilation. Some became random do-gooders, helping humans with everything small while avoiding the real issues. Others turned dark. They gave up completely after heaven was destroyed. Many became like humans, various shades of gray, ashamed of what they were, what they’d failed to save. Who knew what they were up to?
I could relate.
There was something about a phrase? I can barely pronounce the words I mutter. Yet, a circle appears in the stone and spins.
I stop translating, and it stops. Nothing else happens. When I go back to reading the carvings, it moves once more. As I read the rest of the words as best I can, a crack appears in a wide arc. A great gust of wind tips me forward. A dark smear appears on the rock under my hand, and my palm stings from a cut. My blood seeps into the stone.
The crack completes itself, turning into a door that swings open of its own accord. I take my weapons into my hands and step forward cautiously. After wrapping the thickest branch I can find with a small strip of fabric soaked in tree sap, I set it alight to illuminate the tunnel. It is old, ancient. It looks to have been carved well before The Time of the Shattering, before demons and angels roamed the earth, back when dying had the hope of bringing you somewhere better.
The runes tell the same story as the door with more detail. The guardian is gifted with Sight to see any oncoming threats. This surprises me. If it knows I’m coming, why does it let me come? The flickering light reveals the guardian’s tale. There’s mention of a great sacrifice, a sadness, and a balance that must be maintained.
Yeah, I wouldn’t want the dead coming back to life either. I grin at the irony of my thought.
Great doors appear before me with more angelic. I use my powder to reveal anything hidden. The runes tell of a debt that must be paid to enter. They let me know the debt is that of life force. I don’t want to lose any years for this, not that I can’t spare them. Upon further reading, I find that it considers exertion a great act of life.
“Sweat, the doors want sweat. Okay.” I jog in place and feel like an idiot.
Once I’ve worked up a sheen, I wipe my brow and swipe it against the door. My perspiration glints a moment over the runes that say debt, carved deeper than the others—a clear give away.
Once more a great arc materializes in stone. Dust settles to the floor as the arc becomes deeper. The door swings back maybe an inch. I shove on the stone to open the door the rest of the way. A room is revealed.
The room is massive. Chains as thick as my arm come from every corner. Dozens of the massive chains converge on a figure I haven’t seen since I was dead. I suddenly feel very sick.
“Hello,” I say in angelic. My voice sounds harsh yet elegant.
The thirty-foot-tall figure is bent down in defeat. Upon hearing my words, he lifts his head. Black hair parts to reveal a pale and impossibly perfect face. I lose my breath just looking at the angel.