Not Quite a Hero

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic


This is the second story I submitted to the Hall of Heroes anthology. It's still free on Amazon, so pick up a copy and enjoy.

Submitted: November 06, 2017

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Submitted: November 06, 2017

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Dana Illwind waited at the forest crossroads north of her town, not happy with her current situation.  That was unfortunate given she was responsible for ninety percent of what was happening to her.  Maybe eighty-five percent responsible.

It was getting dark and cold, and she pulled her cloak tight over her shoulders.  She’d worn her extra thick dress and fur lined boots, and a fur cap over her brown hair.  It was still early in the year where winter’s cold and spring’s warmth traded places nearly every day.  Dana had brought a backpack loaded with two days of food, a lamp and extra oil, a knife (never leave home without one) and a purse with her life savings.  Granted fourteen copper pieces and three silver coins didn’t go far, but her father was fond of pointing out most people didn’t have two coins to rub together and got by on barter.  Barter was also harder for the king to tax.

The thick growth of pine trees would make it hard to see her guest when he arrived.  He’d said he’d come today, but they were rapidly running out of today.  Maybe he was delayed and wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow.  That would be bad.  She’d used every excuse she had to get out of today’s chores.  Her parents wouldn’t tolerate her missing another day.

An owl hooted to the north.  Maybe he wouldn’t come at all.  But then why bother writing to say he would?  Paper cost money, and the scruffy-looking man who delivered his letter must have been paid.  If he had no intention of coming then he could have saved time and money by ignoring her request.

“Ms. Illwind, I presume?”

Dana screamed and leaped off the road, landing on a thick carpet of dead pine needles.  She scrambled behind a tree and drew her knife.  It took her half a minute to stop hyperventilating, and another ten seconds to get angry with the smirking man standing off to the side of the road.

“That was not nice!”

“I’m not a nice person.”

Dana sheathed her knife and returned to the road.  The man who’d scared the daylights out of her (and nearly several other things) was in his thirties.  His long blond hair was a mess, even if it was clean.  His clothes were, well, odd.  He favored black with silver highlights, and she’d never seen the style before.  The cape flowed like there was a wind, his black gloves ended in silver tips, his boots came up to his knees and his belt was segmented black metal that reminded her of a centipede.

He was attractive and doubtlessly drew attention wherever he went.  Part of that was how confident he looked, like victory was assured by nothing more than his presence.  Maybe there was magic at work here?  It wouldn’t surprise her.  He carried no weapon, a rare move when traveling in the wilderness, and more so for a man of his fierce reputation.  Then again, if he was half as powerful as the stories claimed, he wouldn’t need a sword or bow.

“Um, Sorcerer Lord Jayden?”

“A pleasure, Ms. Illwind.”  Jayden walked onto the road.  She curtsied, and to her surprise Jayden circled her.  “I must admit I thought you’d be a tad older.  I also expected the town mayor to come in person rather than send his daughter unescorted.  It speaks poorly of him.”

Dana put her hands on her hips.  “I’m fifteen, a grown woman.  I’m sorry my father couldn’t come.  He’s a very busy man, sir.”

“Busy?”  Jayden reached into a pocket and pulled out a letter.  “He wasn’t too busy to send a letter begging for my help.  He gushed his admiration in flowery language, yet after I came a great distance he decides not to meet me?  Instead he sends a slip of a girl.  I take offense at that.”

Oh dear.  Dana waved her hands in front of her.  “No, no, it’s not like that!  He, uh, he wanted to come, but he’s sick!  He’s drunk!  The horse kicked him!  The sheriff bit him!  I mean the dog bit him!”

Jayden tilted his head to one side.  “You’re sure the horse didn’t bite him?”

“Very sure!  Definitely the dog.”

The Sorcerer Lord stared at her a few moments before turning his attention to the letter he’d taken out.  “I can’t help but notice a level of flattery seldom employed by men.  Most are too proud to ask for help, and the more authority they wield the less willing they are to admit weakness.  It makes me wonder.”

“Wonder what, sir?”

“I wonder if I were to track down your father the mayor, would he know anything about this letter?  It has his seal of office on it.  That normally proves a letter’s authenticity, except such a seal can be borrowed, especially by someone living in his house.”

Dana blushed and looked at her feet.  Jayden walked up to her and put a finger under her chin.  He pressed up gently until she was looking him in the eyes.

Terrified, she managed to say, “My father…doesn’t know you’re here.  He doesn’t know about the monster, either.  I couldn’t tell him.”

“Pray tell, why not?”

“Because he’s mayor.”  She took a deep breath and tried to keep from shaking.  “If a town is in danger the mayor has to lead its defense.  He’s an old man, and these monsters have killed before.  If we still had the town militia we’d stand a chance, but they were called up for military service by the king.  That leaves the men still left in town, none of whom know how to fight, and my father leading them.

“They’d be killed!  But, but my father knows his duty, and he’d go anyway.  Maybe he’d win.  His father killed one of these monsters, but others tried and never came back.  So when I saw one of the fiends in the woods I didn’t tell him.  I wrote the letter asking for help, and I hired a traveling peddler to deliver it.  He said he knew where to find you.  I’d heard you saved another town from a manticore.  I have money.  It, ah, should cover your expenses.”

Dana closed her eyes and braced for the fallout of her lies.  She trembled, wondering if he’d burn her alive, cut her to pieces or maybe turn her into a newt.  Getting Jayden here had been a long shot, but she’d been desperate, and now was willing to admit, overconfident.  But lives were at stake, every one a person she loved.  She had to do something even if it was risky!  It was, at most, eighty percent her fault.

Jayden threw his head back and laughed.  “You have got to be the most conniving, devious, manipulative woman in the entire kingdom!  I’m glad we met.”

She opened one eye.  “You’re not going to rip my liver out and feed it to ravens?”

“That would limit your usefulness.  After all, you’re the only one who’s seen this monster and can lead me to it.”

“Wait, what?”  Both her eyes were open and her jaw dropped.  “I, uh, you can’t find it with your magic?”

“No.”  Jayden reread the letter she’d sent him.  “Your letter describes the beast as a spider made of dead branches and animal bones, big as a wagon with holes in it wide enough you could reach a hand inside.  It’s called an estate guard, brutes I’m familiar with and have killed twice before.  Your accurate description made me believe this was a legitimate call for help and not a trap or hoax.”

“It was very scary, and I really would rather not meet it again.”

Looking up from the letter, he asked, “What was it doing?”

“It was pulling a dead tree deeper into the forest.  There’s a place in the woods we’re not supposed to go.  That’s where the monsters live.  They come out once a generation, maybe twice, and our people have to kill them.  Some of our men said the monsters come from ruins the old Sorcerer Lords made.”

Jayden folded up the letter.  “With due respect to your menfolk, there’s only one monster, a blessing indeed.  May I borrow your lantern for a moment?”

Dana handed it over.  “You know about them?”

“Yes.  I was being quite literal when I said there was only one.  The others your ancestors killed over the years?  It was the same monster.  You destroyed its body and nothing more.”

“How is that possible?  Hey, what are you doing?”

Jayden opened her lantern and put her letter to him inside.  He watched it burn before returning the lantern.  “Your father’s name and seal are on that letter.  He would be in considerable trouble if someone should find it.  The king and queen wouldn’t understand, especially after I poached their deer, robbed two of their storehouses and looted a caravan bringing them wine.”

Dana backed up until she hit a tree.  “You did what?”

He smiled at her.  “I told you I’m not a nice man.  Without going into excessive details, I don’t like them and they don’t like me.  Be honest, do they stir feelings of love and loyalty in your heart, or do their names churn up fear?”

“Fear.”  Dana was ashamed to say it.  Her father had warned her to watch what she said, but there seemed little risk of saying the truth with no witnesses.  “Taxes are still high to pay for the civil war twenty years ago.  We’re struggling to get by, and the king’s calling up men to start a new war.  So many people have been exiled.  My brother Owen, he, um, they took him and said he has to stay in the capital.”

“As a hostage, insurance that your father does as he’s told.  All mayors were required to surrender their eldest sons last year.  It’s barbaric behavior that the queen takes a fair share of the blame for.  Trust me, I’ve met her and she leaves much to be desired.  But that is neither here nor there, and we have a monster to kill.  So, if you’ll take me to where you saw it last we can finish this business, and make sure no member of your fair town need face this threat again.”

* * * * *

It was totally dark as they walked through the forest, Dana’s lantern their only source of light.  There was no undergrowth beneath the trees.  She saw patches of snow where the trees shaded the ground so completely that the sun never touched it.  Dana saw several fresh stumps where lumberjacks had taken trees last winter, but there were no houses or farms.  The earth was too sour to support crops except blueberries, and even goblins weren’t foolish enough to live here.

“You said there’s only one monster, but we’ve killed many,” she said.

“Destroyed, yes.  Killed, no.  The monster of bones and branches you saw was a temporary body the estate guard built.  It can lose that to rot, fire or damage in battle.”

“Then how do you kill it?”

Jayden climbed over a fallen tree lying across the road and stopped to help her over.  “Estate guards are actually gold talismans three inches long and shaped like a scarab beetle.  It had to be attached somewhere on the body you saw.  You need to find that and smash it.  Stop at burning or crushing the body and the talisman will crawl off to make another.”

They’d reached the spot where Dana had seen the monster weeks ago.  Several pines had died, leaving an opening to the sky above.  That provided enough light to support blueberry bushes that were leafing out.  Not far from the clearing was a narrow trench six inches deep and running hundreds of feet, and to either side of it were potholes a foot across and just as deep.

“That’s where it was,” Dana told Jayden.  “I was checking rabbit snares when I saw the monster grab a dead tree and pull it away.  I hid in that hollow over there until it left.”

She shivered at the horror of that night.  She’d been having a good day when the stuff of nightmares had come within feet of her.  She’d hidden as best she could, held her breath and prayed that the beast would pass.  The sound it had made, a rasping, scratching sound, would stay with her until she died.

Jayden bent down to study the tracks.  “Most estate guards were destroyed long ago along with the original Sorcerer Lords.  No loss there.  The Sorcerer Lords were greedy, vicious and thoroughly detestable.  Most of them died when they turned on one another, and the rest fell in battle with the ancient Elf Empire.”

“Are you one of their descendants?”

That made him laugh.  “Heavens no, and a fact I’m proud of.  I simply took their name and as much of their magic as I could find.  Quite a few others have done so over the years.”

Dana perked up.  “I’d never heard that.  Where are they?”

“Dead,” he explained.

“Dead?”

He nodded.  “Extremely dead.”

“I didn’t know there were degrees of being dead.”

“Oh yes.”  He spoke casually on the grisly subject, as if it was no different than discussing the weather.  “Most people end up extremely dead.  Some end up sort of dead.  Vampires, ghouls, ghosts, barrow weights, it’s surprisingly common.  Nearly all of them wish they were extremely dead.  I’ve met a few vampires and none were happy.”

“Oh.  Uh, why was the monster taking a tree?”

“That’s something we have to worry about.  Estate guards need to make bodies for themselves.  If they come across dead material, fallen trees and dry bones, they can pull them together and become a threat to others.  But stumbling across enough materials by chance is harder than it sounds, especially bones.  Those normally decompose or are eaten by predators and scavengers.”

Dana peered over Jayden’s shoulder at the tracks.  “It was gathering parts for a body?”

“Clever girl!  That’s exactly what it was doing.  Most estate guards aren’t too bright, but this one has been active for centuries, long enough to learn.  It’s had bodies destroyed before, so it’s collecting what it needs to make a new body if it loses this one.”

Worried, she asked, “How many bodies does it have?”

He shrugged.  “There’s no way to tell.  If the estate guard hasn’t been seen in a generation then it’s had plenty of time to prepare.  There could be enough branches and bones hidden for it to jump from one body to the next a dozen times.”

Dana looked down.  “The stories said people fought these monsters for days.  That’s why, isn’t it?  They’d kill it but not the talisman, and it made a new body to attack again.  Why does it come after us?”

Jayden got up and followed the tracks deeper into the woods.  “Estate guards protected the property of the old Sorcerer Lords.  I’d guess this one is doing just that.  A Sorcerer Lord once claimed this land and this estate guard survived its maker.  As far as it’s concerned, your townspeople are trespassers.”

“But we’ve lived here for three hundred years!”

“And the old Sorcerer Lords died out eighteen hundred years ago.  Common sense and good manners demand it accepts the situation.  Unfortunately estate guards were built to obey, and while they can think and learn, they can’t change their orders.  This state of affairs will go on until it’s killed.”

Dana ran ahead of him and smiled.  “You’re a Sorcerer Lord, not like the old ones.  Can you make it stop being a jerk?”

“I’ve mastered some of the old Sorcerer Lords’ magic, but not enough to make an estate guard or seize control of one.  Regretfully this must end in violence.”

“Um, exactly how much magic can you do?”

Jayden bared his teeth.  “There are three things you never ask: a woman’s age, a miser’s wealth or a wizard’s power.”

“Sorry!  Sorry, sorry, sorry—”

“You’re sorry, yes, we established that,” he interrupted.  “Apology accepted.  Now if you don’t mind, we…we have a problem.”

The tracks ended abruptly, for the estate guard had dragged the fallen tree across stony ground.  Jayden marched over to where the tracks ended.  He muttered strange words Dana didn’t understand, and a glowing orb appeared in his hands.  The orb floated high into the sky before winking out, long enough to illuminate the forest for half a mile in all directions.  Jayden scowled at what he saw.  The rocky ground went on beyond the light of his orb.

“I’d hoped to send you home and finish this alone, but I’ve little chance to find the monster’s lair with the trail gone.”

Worried, she asked, “What do you mean?”

“You spoke of ruins the monster uses as its lair.  Do you know where to find them?”

Dana frowned.  Where was he going with this?  “Sort of.  I mean, I heard the same stories as everyone else in town.”

“That will have to do.  Take me there or as close as you can.”

Worry quickly turned to panic.  “Wait a minute, I can’t go there!  You’re a Sorcerer Lord, a new one, anyway.  You can fight scary things like this.  I can’t!”

“I don’t need you to fight, only guide me to it.  You can leave once I’m there.”

“Can’t someone else in the village do that?”

“That would require them to meet me.  You don’t want your father to know I’m here, difficult enough when only you know of my presence.  Do you want a friend or neighbor to know your secret?  Can they keep it?”  He kept speaking as he walked back to her, his words remorseless.  “Will you place them in danger you’d avoid?  I thought you braver than that.”

“But, but—”

“You summoned me here.  You want the estate guard dead and your town forever free from its menace.  I’m placing my life at risk for your neighbors, your friends, your family.  If you respect nothing else about me, respect that and reciprocate.”

Dana gulped.  Sweat poured off her regardless of the cold.  Bringing Jayden here had been the most terrifying thing she’d done, hoping and praying he’d come and that no one would learn about it.  She’d done as much as anyone could expect.  This wasn’t fair!

Fair or not, dangerous or not, Jayden was right.  He had to find the monster’s hideout.  Without help he could spend weeks searching for it, every day risking discovery.  People who saw him might inform the authorities.  Or Jayden might leave if she didn’t help.  Her town would be in the same mess it had been in for hundreds of years.  How many more people would the monster kill?  If even one person died and Dana could prevent it, the loss would be on her head.

Taking a deep breath, she steeled her nerves and pointed west.  “It’s supposed to be at the base of the largest mountain.”

* * * * *

Dana had never intended to stay out this late.  She’d originally hoped to meet Jayden in the early morning and point him in the right direction, then return home.  Her parents would be furious.  Her sisters would be scared.  Her little brother would be digging through her belongings like a deranged raccoon, looking for and probably finding her hidden bag of chocolates.  Those goodies had cost her two copper pieces!  This was now officially only seventy percent her fault.

The land grew progressively more mountainous.  There were still pine trees growing where rock gave way to soil, and they were giants over a hundred feet tall.  Lumberjacks would drool at the sight of such beautiful trees, or weep knowing they couldn’t harvest them without being attacked.

“What’s that up ahead?” Jayden asked.

Before them was a clearing with three destroyed houses.  Their doors had long ago rotted away, but the damage to the brick walls wasn’t caused by the ravages of time.  One had the front wall caved in, a second was missing two walls and the third was little more than a pile of bricks.  A pine tree fifty feet tall grew from the rubble of the second house, proof of how long ago the damage was done.

“This is from the first time the monster attacked my people,” Dana explained.  “Our baron’s great, great grandfather built this as a hunting lodge.  His workers had just finished it when the monster attacked.  You can see what it did.  The baron escaped in his underwear but lost all his hounds.  His family, ah, they don’t come here anymore.”

“Even to fight monsters that humiliated their ancestor?” Jayden asked sarcastically.

“Especially to fight monsters.  The last time the monster attacked, my grandfather asked for their help.  We were told the baron was indisposed and so were all his men.”

“Hunting’s less fun when the quarry fights back.”  Jayden studied the ruined buildings and surroundings.  “I see a footprint between those stones that could only have come from our foe.  There don’t seem to be more.  It came this way, but I can’t tell its direction from one footprint.  How far are we from the beast’s lair?”

Dana stopped and took a flask of oil from her backpack.  She topped off her lantern’s reserve and put the flask away.  “It’s supposed to be a few miles from here.  We’ll reach it by midnight.”

“An inauspicious hour, but it will have the benefit of being dramatic.”  He smiled when Dana gave him a confused look.  “I’m told I have a tendency for being overly theatrical.  Allow me my weaknesses.”

She hesitated before going further.  “You’re positive there’s only one monster?”

“If there were two, your town would be little more than a memory.”

Dana led him on, her lantern their only light.  Jayden made no move to summon another of his light spheres, but it had burned out so fast there was little reason to bother.  That was the only spell she’d seen Jayden cast.  It worried her.  Were all his spells so weak, so limited?  He certainly seemed confident, smug even, so maybe he had better magic he was saving for the battle.

“Um, I have a question,” she began.  “Why did you come alone?  This would be easier if you’d brought your men.”

Jayden laughed.  “That implies I have men.  I don’t.”

Dana stopped and stared at him.  “No one follows you?  But you’re famous, or infamous, maybe both.  People should be knocking each other over to work for you.”

“Followers are expensive.  You have to feed them, arm them, house them, and don’t get me started on pensions and medical care.  If they have families, I’m expected to support them as well!  Studying magic costs an appalling amount of gold, and I have precious little.  My choice was learn magic or hire incompetent, smelly, barely educated and possibly disloyal followers.”

“That’s kind of harsh.”

He smiled at her.  “If you only knew.”

Jayden’s reasonable (albeit rude) response gave her the courage to ask a question that had been bothering her.  “You don’t like the old Sorcerer Lords much, but you call yourself one.  Why?”

Jayden walked on in silence for so long Dana thought he was ignoring her, or worse, angry with her again.

“It’s a fair question.  The old Sorcerer Lords performed incredible deeds rivaling that of the ancient Elf Empire.  I recognize their achievements but curse their name for how they accomplished them.  No deed was too foul if the act advanced their power and position in society.  They went down in history as monsters, and deservedly so.

“But, and this may seem strange, their name has great allure.  If I called myself a hero, a revolutionary, a scholar or a wizard, few would notice me.  Calling myself a Sorcerer Lord draws men’s attention.  They recall the glory of those days and not the blood.  My claim is fair to a point, given all my spells were learned from ruins of the old Sorcerer Lords.  I use their tools if not their methods, so I feel using their title is justified.”

Struggling to make a point without making an enemy of him, Dana said, “But you get the bad part of their reputation along with the good.  If they did bad things, people will think you might, too.  They’ll be afraid of you.”

“There are people I want to be afraid of me.  I want them to tremble at my name and the passing of my shadow.  I want them to be afraid because they live off fear, they use it as a tool, and it’s high time they felt what it was like.”

Without thinking, Dana said, “Someone hurt you badly, didn’t they?”

She instantly regretted her words and flinched from whatever magic Jayden was sure to throw at her for speaking to him that way.  To her amazement Jayden didn’t even look at her.  The confidence seemed to drain out of him, just for a moment, and he said, “It’s not a tale for children to hear.”

People in her town liked Dana, and that had little to do with being the mayor’s daughter.  She helped those in need, nursed those who were sick and fed those who were hungry.  Following her father’s example, she also knew when to ignore minor crimes done from desperation or ignorance.  They loved her and she wanted it to be that way.

What sort of person wanted to be feared?  It boggled the mind.  Jayden’s personality seemed to shift as often as a clock’s pendulum, kindness changing to anger.  Dana wondered what had led him to this point.  Whatever it was, it had left him scarred in ways that were hard to heal.  Was there anything that could lead him away from giving in to his anger?

It didn’t help that Jayden was alone most of the time with no followers or friends.  People get weird when they were alone too long.  She’d seen it in Anton Carothers, who lived outside town and swore gnomes were after him.  Admittedly they might be, given how foul tempered most gnomes were, but that was beside the point.  Loneliness could eat away at a man until he was left bitter.

They stopped where the forest gave way to mountains that towered high above them, wreathed in clouds and capped with snow.  Technically this was still part of the kingdom, but no one came here.  You couldn’t grow crops, raise livestock or even gather wood, and these mountains held no metals or gemstones.  It was worthless to all, a property abandoned to the monster because there was nothing here worth fighting for.

“I’m told The Kingdom of the Goblins is nearly this desolate,” Jayden said.  “Mind you, I think that’s just bad press.  And unless my eyes deceive me, our goal is at hand.”

The ruins at the base of the mountains were in terrible shape.  There were five buildings made to massive proportions, three or even four stories high.  Two were little more than outer walls with the ceilings and interior gone.  Another was an architectural wonder on one side and a rubble pile on the other.  The last two had holes in the walls big enough to ride a wagon through them.  There were seven piles of rubble so large they must have been buildings at one point.  Moss grew across the ground to form a thick carpet that muffled their footsteps.

Jayden walked fearlessly to the edge of the ruins.  “This was certainly built by the old Sorcerer Lords.  I’ve visited ruins like this often enough in the far north to recognize their style.  I believe it was the private residence of one of their wealthier members, and by the look of things he went down fighting.”

“A Sorcerer Lord lived here?”

He nodded and pointed to the buildings one after another.  “Oh yes.  That was his mansion, that was a storehouse, the third one was a workshop, that was the slave pen, and—”

“Slave pen?”  Dana’s hand reflexively went to her knife.

“Few people know this, but the Sorcerer Lords made up less than one percent of the population in lands they ruled.  The rest of the people were property, owned from the day they were born until they breathed their last breath.  Men, elves, ogres, minotaurs, gnomes, they’d put anyone in chains except goblins, who were too hard to control and could do too little work to bother breaking their will.”

Pointing at the ruins, he added, “And somewhere in that mess is our enemy, guarding rubble for a master long since dead.  I’d feel sorry for it living such a pointless existence, save for the fact it will kill for a cause lost long ago and never worth fighting for.”

“It could be hiding in a dozen places waiting in ambush.  How are we going to find it?”

Jayden stretched his arms over his head.  “We aren’t going to do anything of the sort.  Your job was to get me here and you succeeded, a deed to be proud of.  The rest is up to me.  Find a safe place to wait and let me dispose of the estate guard.”

Worried, she asked, “You’re just going to walk in there?”

He let his arms fall to his side and smirked.  “Hardly.  The estate guard is bound by ancient commands to defend this slovenly hole in the ground.  I need only cause some property damage and it will come to save its home.  Once it’s in the open the fight will be short and exceptionally loud.”

“Sounds like throwing rocks at a hornet net.”  Dana was glad to let Jayden do the hard part.  This was so dangerous it was at best fifty percent her responsibility.  But she hesitated before looking for cover.  “Um, Jayden, the first time I met the monster was miles away.”

“And?”

She waved her hands at the distant forest.  “How do we know it’s here?  It could be in the woods looking for parts to make more bodies, or patrolling for invaders.”

A rasping, scraping sound came from behind them, the sound of dry branches rubbing against each other.  Dana and Jayden turned to find the estate guard cresting a hill not thirty feet from where they stood.  Its front legs carried a load of deer antlers that must have been shed by their owners a few weeks ago.

The monster was as terrifying as the last time she’d seen it.  It was a mishmash of pine branches and animals bones woven together to form a hideous spider.  The body and legs weren’t solid, instead having holes where the parts didn’t fully come together.  Scattered across that horrible body were skulls of deer and elk, bears and wolves, their empty eye sockets staring out in all directions.  The spider’s abdomen was mostly empty space, a net of curving branches and ribs that reminded Dana of a cage.

Surprise froze all three as still as statues.  The estate guard acted first and threw down the pile of antlers.  It raised its front legs high in the air and howled as it charged them.

“Go left!” Jayden shouted.  He went right and spoke strange words she’d never heard before.  Dana ran left towards the largest wrecked building.  To her horror she heard the howls and rasping growing closer.  It was coming after her!

Dana screamed and ran.  She nearly slipped on the mossy ground, recovering just fast enough to keep from tripping.  She looked behind her to see the estate guard closing the distance between them while Jayden finished his spell.  With a final unpronounceable word he formed a purplish lash in his hands.  He drew back his arm and swung it, the lash stretching farther and farther until it wrapped around the monster.  It burned like acid where it touched, but the estate guard raced after Dana regardless of the injury.  It ran so fast the lash couldn’t stretch quickly enough, and Jayden was pulled off his feet.

Dana kept screaming, the monster kept howling, and Jayden cried out in surprise as he was dragged behind it.  Every breath Dana took stank of wood smoke and smoldering bones as the magic lash continued burning through the monster.  Dana heard the monster only feet behind her.  She planted a foot on a large rock jutting up from the ground and pushed left.  That was enough to throw her to the left, and she rolled as she hit the ground.  The monster tried to follow her, but it was so large it couldn’t stop in time and skidded to a halt twenty feet away.

Facing the very real possibility of dying, she was sure this was at most ten percent her responsibility.

Dana scrambled to her feet and saw the monster wheel about to face her.  Jayden came to a halt as well, but he’d never let go of his magic lash.  He braced himself against the same rock Dana had jumped off.  Pushing back hard, he pulled the lash and it tightened across the monster.  The lash had already eaten through much of the beast, but now it looped around it, pinning legs together until the beast fell as helpless as a roped calf.

The monster rocked back and forth in a vain attempt to escape.  The lash kept burning through it, taking off one leg and then another.  The abdomen was cut in half.  One leg got loose only to be hacked off at the base.  In seconds the entire monster fell apart into a pile of smoking branches and cut bones.

“That was, I, oh God,” Dana gasped.

“Find the talisman!” Jayden ordered.  He kicked through the debris as the lash dissolved.  “Don’t let it escape!”

Dana ran to the monster’s body.  She held her lantern high with her left hand and dug through the remains with her right.  The remains smelled horrible and were hot to the touch, but nothing looked like the gold bug Jayden had described.  Suddenly something glinted off the light of her lantern.  It tried to scurry under loose branches, but she dug through them until she saw it.

The talisman managed to be both pretty and revolting at the same time.  It was only three inches across and looked like a beetle.  Whoever had made it had put a lot of effort into the job, and it looked gorgeous.  But then the eye on its abdomen blinked, an eye so very much like a person’s eye, and it was watching her.

“There!” she shouted.  She tried to grab it, but the talisman scuttled away as fast as a racehorse.  Jayden cast another spell and formed a magic sword pure black and edged with white.  He swung at it and missed, the blade burning through the mossy ground and rocks beneath it.  The talisman went right then left, dodging both Jayden and Dana, and ran for the nearest ruined building.  It made a mad dash and climbed into a crack in the wall.

“Run before it assembles another body,” Jayden ordered.  He headed for the nearest hole in the building large enough for him to fit through.  Dana looked for a place to hide before the monster returned.  Going into the forest was a bad bet when the monster ran faster than she did.  The other buildings were close and intact enough for her to hide in.  She ran to the one Jayden claimed was a slave pen.

She’d nearly reached it when the estate guard marched out with a new body.  This time it was an enormous hound, just as large as the spider but with terrifying jaws big enough to fit a grown man inside.  It came out the main entrance with Jayden following a step behind.  The hound raced away before Jayden could stab it, and was so quick soon it was a hundred feet from him.

Dana ducked into the slave pen, a foul structure that looked like a brick barn three hundred feet long and fifty feet wide.  There were rusted gates across wide stalls, some open and others crushed shut.  It disgusted Dana to even be here, to see how people had once been treated.  She turned away and stayed by the entrance.

Outside, the fight was back on.  The estate guard in its new body turned and charged Jayden, and he ran right for it.  The hound leaped at him, and Jayden slid onto his back and raised his magic blade.  The hound went over him and the blade split it in half down the middle.  He got up and dug through the bones and branches.  Dana didn’t see the talisman from this distance, but Jayden must have because he ran after something on the ground.  It escaped into the old mansion.  Jayden gave chase and the sounds of battle came from inside the crumbling structure.

Dana saw a wall bulge on the mansion until the bricks crumbled away.  Jayden came out with the estate guard after him.  This time it had the shape of a man ten feet tall but without a head.  It had bear skulls on its shoulders and hands ending in long claws that tried to impale Jayden.  He dodged the monster’s swing and hacked off one of its arms.

“This is insane,” Dana said.  Jayden was taking the monster apart again and again, but his victories were as hollow as the ones her people had won against it so long ago.  It kept fleeing and returning as good as new.  Jayden would tire sooner or later.  Could he run out of spells?  That would be just as bad.

The estate guard lost another body when Jayden impaled it with his magic sword.  He pulled left and the sword sliced through it until the upper part tumbled to the ground.  Again he scrambled after the escaping talisman, and again it found enough materials to rebuilt itself, this time as a huge lizard.  Battle was joined again, and it knocked him down with a swing of its tail.  He recovered fast and lopped off the tail.

Dana backed away from the entrance.  She’d brought Jayden here and he was going to get killed.  She should have gotten more people so they could catch the talisman between battles and break the stupid thing!  Wait.  The estate guard had hidden branches and bones for new bodies in the other buildings.  Had it left more here?

Dana hurried back inside the slave pens.  Some of the pens were open, and sure enough one had a heaping pile of pine branches and animal bones.  She checked the rest of the building and found one, two, three, four pens loaded with wood and bones.  Dead pine needles from those branches were thick on the floor.  Each pile looked like it was big enough to make a new body.

She went through her possessions for something that could destroy these spare bodies before the estate guard could use them.  Her knife couldn’t cut through the thick branches fast enough.  She dug through her backpack.  Food?  No.  Money?  No.  Oil?

Oil!  Dana smiled.  She had extra oil for her lantern, but there wasn’t much left.  The estate guard had stashed the wood here so it wouldn’t get rained on and rot before it could be used.  That made sense, but it also meant the branches were dry, and dry pine burned fast.

Dana poured the flask of oil onto the piles of branches.  She had so little she could only lightly lace each pile.  Once she was out, she used her lantern to ignite each pile in turn.  Whoosh!  Flames raced across the piles and the dead needles on the floor.  Dana ran outside when the building started to fill with smoke.

She returned to see Jayden dispatch the huge lizard by decapitating it.  The rest of it fell apart and the talisman fled.  Jayden’s sword flickered and went out, and he made a lash to replace it.  He swung at the talisman, but the thing was incredibly fast.  It went one way and then another, skittering under bricks and into cracks whenever he got close.

The talisman reached the slave pen Dana had just left.  It ducked inside then hurried back out to find her waiting for it.  She grabbed at it, but it scuttled back inside.

Jayden caught up with her and saw smoke billowing from the slave pen.  “What did you do?”

“I torched four spare bodies,” she explained.  He looked shocked, and she added, “I got bored.”

To Dana’s amazement the estate guard left the slave pen with a new body.  It resembled a giant stag beetle with huge jaws as long as its body and human skulls for eyes.  But this body was built from burning pine, a walking bonfire that lit up the ruins.  It lunged forward and tried to catch them in its jaws.  Jayden and Dana ran for their lives as the animated inferno chased them.  Dana’s neck and back felt hot as embers fell around her.

Two of the beetle’s legs burned through, and it struggled along on the other four.  It hobbled along a few more paces until another leg gave out and the beetle crashed to the ground.  The talisman was forced to abandon the body as it burned away, but this time Jayden and Dana were right on top of it.  It circled around the burning pine, trying to use it as a shield, but Dana caught up with it when it made a run for the mansion.  She grabbed a loose brick off the ground and swung it like a hammer.

Crack!  She smashed off three gold legs from the talisman.  It kept running, but slower than before.  Jayden swung his magic lash and struck it.  Snap!  The talisman broke in half under the blow.  Its remaining legs curled up and the eye on its back twitched and closed.

Jayden stared hard at the broken talisman.  “That was incredibly satisfying.”

* * * * *

Dana woke up the next morning in what had once been a mansion.  It was spacious, but the place felt wrong.  The angles of the walls were odd and the doorframes tilted to one side.  It was jarring to look at, and she didn’t see how anyone could feel comfortable living here.

Her brief stay was unpleasant but necessary.  She’d been too exhausted to go home after the fight.  She’d also used all her oil, and it had been so dark she’d have hurt herself stumbling about at night.  Chances were the whole town would be looking for her by now, and she could only imagine the punishment waiting for her.

Jayden joined her from another part of the mansion.  He carried an armful of loot and smiled like the cat who’d caught the canary.  “Good morning, and a glorious morning at that.”

“What did you find?”

“This, madam, is a prize beyond all others.”  He held up a black granite tablet a foot across and two feet long, with markings in white marble on one side.  The markings looked like letters, but not in any language she could read.

Dana needed only seconds to guess what it was.

“That was written by the old Sorcerer Lords, wasn’t it?  It’s a spell!”

Jayden smiled.  “You are clever.  The old Sorcerer Lords wrote their spells on granite tablets.  It’s not very portable, but they last far longer than spell books written on paper or velum.  I don’t recognize this incantation.  It looks promising, and I’m sure it will be a good addition to my repertoire once I’ve translated it.”

Her heart sank at the sight of it.  “Is that why you came?  I mean, is that what you were after?”

He shrugged.  “It was part of the reason.  I told you I recognized what you described in your letter as an estate guard.  If it was here then at some point there had been treasure worth guarding.  Any riches might have been carried off or destroyed long ago, so there was no guarantee of a reward for my efforts, but thankfully I won’t leave empty handed.  There’s also a bit of gold I’m happy to share.  You went beyond expectations yesterday, and a reward is owed.”

Jayden saw her crestfallen expression and frowned.  He sat down next to her and set aside his treasures.  “Don’t be like that.  Saving your people is important.  Lord knows the king wouldn’t lift a finger for you.  But good deeds don’t pay the rent, and I’ve spent all the gold I got for those stolen horses.”

Dana put her hands on her hips.  “You didn’t mention that when you listed your crimes yesterday.”

“Please, I’d need a day and a night to tell you everything I’d done against the king.  I’m sure those knights won’t mind going to war on foot.  If I’m successful they won’t go to war at all, but we’re a long way from that day.”

With that he bent over and kissed her on the forehead.  Dana blushed, in large part because her father did the same thing.  “Cut that out!  I’m not a little girl!”

Jayden smiled and stood up before helping her to her feet.  “Now we need to come up with a story for you, young lady, one that leaves me out.  When you get home, tell your parents you were attacked by the monster.  That’s true enough.  You ran from it when a stranger appeared and defeated the beast.  It was too dark to see the stranger’s features clearly, but you’re sure he’s dashingly handsome.”

Dana folded her arms across her chest.  “Oh, am I?”

“You’re positive of it!”  Jayden held out the broken pieces of the estate guard and pressed them into her hand.  “He gave you this and swore the monster is gone, never to return.  Your people may enter these woods without fear.”

“You’re not taking the credit?”

“The king and queen don’t think highly of me.  If they learn I helped your town they’d punish your family, at the very least exiling you and more likely executing you.  Better for all concerned if someone else gets blamed for this.”

Jayden left the mansion and Dana followed.  It was hard to say whether he was a good man or not.  He had done good things and others that were questionable.  Her father often said flawed men could work wonders if someone gave them a chance.  What would Jayden do next?  What would he become if left alone with no one to help him should he go off course?

She ran in front of him and stood in his way.  “I can help you.”

Jayden raised an eyebrow.  “You, child, are going home.”

“You want more magic.  I know a place where you might find it.  There’s a castle by the sea, abandoned before the kingdom was founded.  It might date to the old Sorcerer Lords.  There could be treasure in it or even those tablets.  No one ever looted it because they say there’s a monster there called The Walking Graveyard.”

“I’m sure it’s done much to earn that charming nickname.”  Jayden studied his fingers as if he’d never noticed them before.  “I’ve spent very little time in that part of the kingdom and know little of it.  I don’t relish wandering across a desolate coastline for weeks in search of this castle.”

Dana took a deep breath.  When you made a choice you have to take responsibility, all of it.  “That’s why you need a guide.”


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