by Clayton Snyder
“The gods are dead, Trapper. Ain’t naught left but devils with the faces of men.”
Bharga stirred the embers of the fire with a long stick, the end charred and chipped to a point. Sparks swirled up into the night, and Trapper followed their ascent, burning fireflies spiraling in the dark. He watched them mix with the stars and wondered if it were true. If the corpses of immortals littered the heavens.
Bharga poked him with the stick, the heat of the tip pulling Trapper from his thoughts.
“Check the wards,” Bharga said.
For the fourth or fifth time that night, he checked the wards around the fire. The last thing they needed was imps in the campsite. They looked intact. He’d etched them on stone with the tip of his dagger. It would take some time for them to erode. The gods may have been dead, but the gods-damned devils weren’t.
Their mounts, great beasts with the bodies of wolves and bone-covered heads, snorted in the chill air. Bharga tossed bones to them, pieces of the rabbits they’d snared earlier. The beasts snatched them up, growling low in their chests while they snapped the bones, the blue fire in their eyes flashing. Trapper listened to them eat and thought the cost of the barghests was well worth the protection they offered.
“You take the first watch,” Bharga said.
Trapper eased onto his bedroll and set his blade close to hand. He listened for a moment while Bharga rolled into his own bedding and made himself comfortable. After a few minutes, the big man was snoring. Before long, the excited panting of the barghests quieted to a steady drone of breath, and Trapper knew he was the only one still aware in the dark. He rolled onto his back and slipped his hands behind his head, staring up at the stars. His gaze fell on the black tear in the sky, a void where no stars shone. He wondered again about the gods.
The job had come to them through a friend of a friend. Not that Trapper would call Kips a friend. He was more like blood lichen – sure, he’d latch on to you and keep the annoyances away, but there were times when he couldn’t figure the difference between a bug and the hand that fed him. Which explained the roadmap of scars on the man’s face. Trapper knew from experience that Bharga had added to the man’s collection. At the thought, his own itched, and he resisted the urge to scratch until the feeling had passed.
Kips had come to them with a letter, sealed in wax – that alone meant money – and a simpering expression.
“Hey, boys. Got a job.”
Bharga waved a hand. “Bullshite. You’ve got naught but an itch to take more of my coin.”
“You’re not still sore over the Harenbull job, are you, Bharga?” Kips wheedled.
Bharga grunted. Kips looked at him, then back to Trapper, and thrust the parchment into his hand.
“Big payday,” he said, a little lower. “Plenty of coin to go around.”
Trapper cracked the seal and opened the letter. Bits of wax fell to the floor like dead petals. Trapper shook the remains off the paper and read. Something flickered in his chest, though whether it was hope or greed, he couldn’t tell. He’d felt the latter more than the former, but both shared similarities. They made a man warm inside, made him think of the things he might do in the future. After a moment, he walked the paper over to Bharga, and held it up.
“Good pay,” he said.
Bharga raised another hand, this time in a buzz off, pest gesture. Trapper knew he couldn’t read, but if the other man thought Trapper was treating him like he was stupid, he’d have bigger problems than just an annoyed Capo. He took another tack.
“Someone wants us to get Greelo.”
Bharga slammed a hand down on the table. “Fuck Greelo. Been looking for that little gobshite for months. Do they know where he is?”
“In the wood.”
Bharga looked up, a suspicious expression on his face. “Who knows this? Who’s paying?”
Trapper looked at the letter. “Viscount Grawl.”
Bharga appeared to chew the information over. “How much?”
Bharga snorted. “I’d do it for 5. We’ll leave tomorrow.”
“Finder’s fee?” Kips asked in a small voice.
Trapper hushed him and ushered him over the threshold. “I’ll see what I can do. Just don’t push him any harder, or he’ll feed you to the hounds.”
Kips nodded and thanked Trapper, who shut the door in his face before it could get embarrassing. He walked over to Bharga, the parchment still in his hands. After a moment, he fed it into the hearth. The paper crackled and blackened, the edges turning in. Trapper could see the imps playing in the flames and ran a hand over the stones of the fireplace.
The heat made his scars itch. He stayed fingers twitching to scratch and spared a glance for his capo, the big man digging into a hank of meat like a wolf at a carcass. Something like hate rippled through his stomach, another feeling he wasn’t unfamiliar with. He squashed it. He’d considered retribution for Bharga spilling his blood in the past, and had discounted it. Not only was he big, he was quick with a blade. And usually on his guard. It would take more than one scrawny cutter with a grudge to take him down while he was on his feet.
Besides, in this world, you threw in with whoever wanted your knife and not your severed head. Most of the time, that meant men like Bharga. Or worse. Sometimes he wondered if worsewasn’t just different. That feeling, hope or greed, flickered in his chest again. He turned to the capo, a question on his lips.
“We’ll start tonight,” the big man said. “I don’t trust the little weasel to try to beat us to the punch.”
They found mounts just outside the city circle. The merchant had set up shop beside the walls, using abandoned stables left over from fair tournaments and better days. Bharga haggled with the man over the cost of the barghests, but in the end had paid three-fourths of the price to have something reliable to ride. They would have preferred horses, but the last few were meat pies a generation ago.
They swept out of the inner walls and through the main causeway, past throngs of dirty refugees and what appeared to be a former cleric. The cleric was holding a painted sign on a pole that read ALL ARE DEAD ALL IS LOST. Trapper caught the man’s eyes as they passed, hollow and haunted, and then they were out of the gates and onto the plain.
The plain was sere and stony, the few crops the people had managed to plant into the inhospitable earth straggling up on brown stalks. Fog gathered in hollows, and here and there a small creature scuttled by, its movements furtive. To their left, what had once been a mighty river was little more than a muddy stream that fed into the sea. Ahead, the plain opened up, bracketed by strands of woods.
They turned their mounts towards the woods, the barghests loping easily over the stony soil. As the sun sank, they could hear the occasional howl of a hungry beast, but let it worry their minds little. Barghests were swift, and fierce fighters when cornered. The wind picked up, sweeping the howls away, and they hunkered down in their saddles and rode on.
They halted at the edge of the wood. Trapper dismounted and ran a hand over the trunk of the nearest tree. Overhead, the bare branches clattered together. Someone had carved wards in the wood of the trunk. He looked to the next tree, and the next. It was the same on both sides of the path, deep into the wood. There was something in the forest, and someone wanted to keep the road safe.
They remounted and entered, the path wide enough for them to ride side by side. The barghests moved slower here, cautiously, as though they could smell whatever was waiting ahead. They rode in silence for some time.
Bharga broke the silence. “Should bring back an ear or somethin’. The high and mighty ain’t gonna believe a couple of cutters if we just show and say we did it.”
Trapper nodded. Something was moving at the edge of his sight, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it. He made a motion at Bharga.
“You see that?”
Bharga swiveled his head to the side, enough to see what Trapper thought he did. His eyes widened a bit.
“Forest daemon,” he whispered.
Trapper turned his head as well. He saw it then, something mossy and hulking, with glowing green eyes and great antlers on its head. It shambled along beside them in complete silence, the smell of rotting vegetation following it. Their mounts didn’t react at all, a fact that unnerved Trapper. They either knew what it was, or hadn’t noticed it. Worse, they knew it, and were related somehow.
They halted in the middle of the trail for a moment. Trapper turned to Bharga. “Do we turn back?”
Bharga looked up the trail, then down. Up ahead, they could see a squat building between the trees. Weather and time had worn and stripped away any beauty it may have once had, moss and lichen growing in patches on the roof, and crooked windows. He glanced over at Trapper.
“You think Greelo’s got himself wards up there?”
“What if he didn’t?”
Trapper thought about that. A gap in the wards would mean the shambler could get in. It might just do the work for them, and when it was done and gone, they could clean up after. He drew his dagger, the small blade reassuring in his hand.
“Let’s get to work.”
They rode to the cabin cautiously. When no shout of warning came, and no arrow tried to decorate their chests, they dismounted as quietly as possible and set to work cutting the sections of tree out where the wards had been carved. It was hard work, since the runes were etched deep, and the whole time they hacked away at the wood, the shambler watched from the perimeter, lurking, its eyes glowing that baleful green.
After an hour, they had a swath of the wards cut out. They moved back to the barghests and waited. The shambler approached the trees slowly, as though unsure. As it drew closer, it seemed to sense the magic protecting that place had diminished, and suddenly charged through the gap.
It slammed into the cabin, shaking the building on its foundation. From inside came a frightened shriek. It slammed again, and the cabin trembled again, like a scared child. There was the sound of breaking glass, and an arrow sailed from a window, lodging in the shambler’s shoulder. It roared and reared back, then hit the cabin one more time. The wall collapsed in a cloud of dust.
For a moment, there was silence, then the thin form of Greelo emerged, clutching a longbow. He sighted the beast, and then Bharga and Trapper. Fury contorted his features, and he charged at them.
“Shite,” Bharga muttered. Then, “Mount up,” as he saw that the shambler had given chase to Greelo.
They mounted as fast as they could, and before long, were charging along the forest floor, yards ahead of Greelo and the monster. They spurred the barghests, and heard Greelo scream curses that changed into an ungodly shriek. Trapper risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the shambler had caught up to Greelo. The little man was impaled and writhing on one antler, and still the beast came.
Ahead, the trail ended, widening out into the plain again, and they put on a final burst of speed to escape the trees. Behind them, the shambler roared in frustration as it came to the end of its domain, the sound drowning out Greelo’s whimpers of agony. They rode a few hundred meters past the entrance to be safe, then stopped and turned. The shambler watched them for another minute with its balefire eyes, as though memorizing them. It turned, and in a few seconds, had disappeared back into the forest.
“Shite!” Bharga cursed. “Fuckin’ Viscount ain’t gonna believe this.”
Trapper nodded. He looked up at the sky, which was a deep purple. Stars were starting to dot the firmament.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s camp here. Maybe we can go back in the morning.”
They made camp.
Memory lifted from him, and Trapper looked over at the fire. Bharga was still dead asleep, and the embers had burnt down to almost a flicker. He took a breath and carefully slipped from his bedroll, slipping his dagger from its sheath. He inched to the fire, and with a good deal of care, pulled one of the wardstones from its edge. The flames rekindled for a moment, as if acknowledging what he was doing.
He pricked his finger and let it drop into the fire, and there was another flare. Bharga snorted and muttered in his sleep, then rolled over, his back to Trapper. Trapper crept over, and thought of the words on the parchment Kips had handed him. He acted quick, his blade slipping deep into Bharga’s back. Trapper wrenched on it and spun it in a circle, cutting a hole in the now dead man. He reached inside and pulled out Bharga’s heart, holding it for a moment, still fresh. He was surprised. He thought it would be blacker.
He dropped the heart in the fire, and the barghests growled, the scent of cooking meat exciting their senses. It did blacken then, and when it was fully charred, Trapper pulled it from the fire, the hot flesh searing his hand. He shoved it back into the hole he had made in Bharga’s back, then sat and waited.
After a time, the big man rolled over and sat up, his eyes blazing orange and red and yellow. He smiled, and it was fiery.
“Yes,” he said.
Bharga was right. The gods may have been dead, but there were sure as hell devils left, and they paid well.