The Cloak

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

Jairn finds out the hard way that, sometimes, the thing you want most changes by the time you achieve it.

 

The fog was thick and the mud thicker. Any soul who got lost in Foggy Boralis, a swamp at the foot of the Killdaire Mountains, might as well give up, lay down, and die. I wagered many had made that choice - it reeked of rot and disappointment. 

 

All I could muster was a choked sardonic laugh. Life's ironies always seemed to slap me across the face, as if I was in danger of missing them. It would’ve been hard to miss this one, it was tragic.

 

I was, in fact, lost in this part of the world, but I didn’t think of laying down and dying. 

 

No, not at all. 

 

I thought about how I was standing and dying, by reason of being waist deep in quicksand. To add insult to injury, my only hope of escape was my viridian cloak... that was wrapped under my armpits, pinning my arms skyward, and threatening to hang me from the branch it was snagged on. Normally, Castor and I would find this all very funny, and we’d have a great laugh about it later. Unfortunately, I was on my way to bury Castor and currently I was alone.

 

All in all, it was a poor situation made much worse by cruel irony; the one thing that had given me hope for a better life, was in all probability going to kill me. It all led back to the viridian cloak.

 

See, you don’t become a mercenary that is bestowed the honor of this cloak overnight. It takes years of hard work, dedication to your craft, luck, and the occasional backstab. I had all of that and more. 

 

Now, I wouldn’t say I’m a Boris Breakneck or a Thorgood Backbreaker (you need a lot more than ten years of mercenary work to finagle a broken body part into your name and get away with it), but I was getting there. A pivotal part of that journey was earning an esteemed viridian cloak. Well, that and finding a menacing body part to mesh with “Jairn”.

 

A viridian cloak was the mark of a top tier merc for those “in-the-know”. You needed it to win the eyes of Nobles (who knew), and therefore their contracts. It was the difference between getting hired to break the kneecaps of some small time thief for peanuts compared to leading a royal coup for buckets of gold. I have always strived to be the buckets of gold kind of merc and there is only one way to get there - a cloak.

 

In pursuance of that sweet green trophy, with its secret pockets, indestructible Vermese Cloth, sewn-in runes, and baby-seal-fur-lined hood, you have to run a contract for the Lynx. You also need to be okay with the cruelty that is a baby-seal-fur-lined hood. 

 

Oh, the price of luxury.

 

Now, to fully understand the cloak you need to understand the Lynx. He is the only known Yoni, which is fancy-speak for someone who can feel the pulse of magneki, in this part of the world. You can find plenty of priests, monks, or eccentrics who claim to be Yonis over on the Finnegot Islands, but out in the sticks of Herrbryd it’s a rare commodity. 

 

There are a few ways a merc can use such a service; you can hire a Yoni to create runes, put on a magic show for your lads, or suss out the location of Animates.

 

Animates are anything alive (or undead) that live (or undie?) purely off of the magneki pulse. I’m talking about dragons, gnarls, bollyhoos, and fiends. Ferocious creatures that have a centennial long history of maiming adventurers with large egos.

 

The most important question that’s left is: Why would any merc willingly seek out Animates?

 

Ehms.

 

Yonis, in and amongst their many talents, can use metals manipulated by magneki, or Ehms, to study magneki. Iron, nickel, or cobalt found around Animates get charged full of it.

 

Put this all together and you have the Lynx and his fever for the stuff. He sends you on a contract for Ehms and he pays you with a cloak. 

 

I know it may seem ridiculous to any Herrbryd outsider, but it’s more than just an eye-catching cloak. It is a respectable and powerful merc tradition that, surprisingly, only started seventy five seasons ago.

 

The Lynx and his cloaks gained notoriety when the Lynx had his first contract fulfilled by a merc, but had no way to pay. Serendipitously for future mercs, he was robbed blind the night before pay was due. The poor bloke had only empty hands to show the man who had just returned from murdering a manticore for lumps of nickel. The only thing he could offer in return were the clothes on his back. 

 

Using what he knew and the materials the merc had brought back, he had enhanced his cloak with runes sewn into the cloth. It was indestructible, enhanced his strength, and was incredibly fashionable. The merc accepted graciously. 

 

Soon, word got around that you couldn’t stab the guy wearing that cloak in the back, and if you tried, he could rip your arms off. A legend was born.

 

Being a sucker for legends, I needed it. But...I knew in my bones I couldn’t do a contract alone. You had to be realistic about the once-in-a-lifetime talent needed to pull that off solo. I was cocky, not suicidal. The question was, who could put me over the top and help pull off a heist like that? Castor could, bless his soul.

 

I didn’t find him right away. In fact, it was mostly luck that we had met at all. I find that if you’re looking for someone with high intelligence and wit, you went to the local Inn and found them drinking in a corner alone.

 

That’s all well and good, but the problem I ran into is that the highly intelligent were often miserable sobs who thought way too much about the minute details of the world. Most end up being nihilists. Unfortunately, nihilists make poor mercenaries - they are reckless and don’t care if they lose their “meaningless” lives. I found that out the hard way, but that’s a story for another time.

 

No, dear Castor was found in his more natural setting, which was either being bullied or mugged. On the fateful day we met, he was in the process of both.

 

I was coming off a successful murder-for-hire and was in good spirits, so I decided to lend my hand. You would think that God grants favors for good deeds, but looking at the current moment, which had me stuck in quicksand and choking to death, I’d say labeling our meeting as a “favor” is a toss-up.

 

Regardless, we became fast friends. By that, I mean I made it aware he owed me one.

 

What I came to learn about Castor was that he was weak of body but strong of heart. One of the rob-able items he had on his person was a chronicling of all known attempted Lynx contracts. He wanted to take a stab at a contract himself!

 

Tired of being bullied and pushed around, he wanted to outsmart the mercenary life and use his wit to succeed. He was well versed in potions, traps, poisons, and droll lectures to distract and disable targets. Very useful, indeed! 

 

In those early days, we were seen together so often they started to say we looked like brothers. They said that regardless of the fact that he was a head shorter, bald, a bit round at the midriff, and was missing his ring finger from his right hand. But, before he went bald, he had dark hair and I guess that’s where people see the resemblance. I wouldn’t ordain to know. 

 

What I did know was that we made incredible progress. While we continued our education into Lynx runes, Ehms, and success stories (and equally horrific failures) we worked together on small time contracts. It was a beautiful swan song of strong arming, deception, traps, blow darts, strong “talking-tos”, and bribes. The more we worked together, the more it came apparent we could succeed in any contract, including the Lynx. It didn’t matter that those who took on the Lynx contracts came back alive one out of every ten times - we couldn’t stop winning! 

It was time to conquer the Lynx.

 

Rumor had it that you don’t find the Lynx, the Lynx finds you… which was complete rubbish and goes to show that you shouldn’t listen to everything you hear from old crotchety men who spin tales to any drunkard who will listen. I’m not sure who started that rumor, but Gruber Dregg, who was one of those intelligent sobs at the Inn, pointed us to the outskirts of town where we would find a thatch hut next to the Reddington farm. 

 

We found him quite easily, as there was a sign that read “The Lynx” in bold letters on the dirt road leading to his home. He was tall and lanky with an unnatural gleam in his eyes, almost like he had pearls or opals embedded behind his lids. Other than that, he didn’t strike me as a man to fear or someone exuding clouds of the unknown. 

 

His real name wasn’t even exciting - it was Harry.  He reminded me more of the old archivist down in Bradbury village, which is why I let Castor do most of the talking so I could do most of the watching. Unassuming men like him could always have the potential to be deadlier than a snake in the grass...

 

Except, he wasn’t. Two cups of tea and an enjoyable conversation later, we came to an agreement. It was straight forward, really. 

 

We would head East to the Killdaire Mountains. There, we would find a certain Animate that mined iron ore to use for their nests. We find a nest that was pinpointed by the Lynx, grab the Ehms, then scram. The snag was that the Animates were Iron Widows, or in plain words, wholly-metallic-giant-spiders. 

 

At first, it seemed almost too easy since I took the optimistic approach to the word “giant”. Most blokes fear insects bigger than a gold coin and spout off about meeting one. Before you know it, the rumor mill churns out sightings of man sized hornets. 

 

Ol’ Harry squashed that optimism immediately. We were informed that they stood a bit higher than a stalk of corn, are meticulous to kill, and have fangs the size of my sword.

 

As the saying goes: if mercenary life was easy, everyone would be doing it. 

 

Castor and I got straight to work. It wasn’t all smooth, as I did have to chain Castor to a horse trough once he made it plain he wanted to withdraw. He started blathering about how “It’s impossible to fight off thousands of angry metal spiders” and “What does ‘meticulous to kill’ even mean?”

 

I sternly reminded him that he owed this to himself to finally realize his goals of being feared, respected, and rich. 

 

I reinforced that mindset by telling him a compelling story about my father - the one that kept me going when the times were tough. Although my da’ wasn’t the biggest, the strongest, or the smartest, he found a way to win. Every time he was pushed to his limits, he preserved, although the rest of the world doubted he would. He inspired me as he should inspire Castor. 

 

They were of course terrible, flagrant lies. I felt guilty, but Castor put my back against the wall.

 

My dad was an alcoholic who dropped me on my head when I was young then decided to leave for greener pastures. Or maybe a town with better bars, I’ll never find out. 

 

Nevertheless, we couldn’t quit and I convinced Castor of the same. Plus, if you turn down a Lynx contract, there are no second chances - a merc who agrees then rebuffs is never seen in the same light again. In sum, we were in too deep. 

 

I let Castor fetch our things as I prepared mentally for the journey... with a few rounds at the Inn. By the time I was finished, Castor had rounded everything up from the alchemist, the archives, and Lynx sponsored runesmiths in town. 

 

Castor did a nice job on our gear. We had to travel light, since mountain terrains weren’t friendly to heavy armor, but thanks to Castor my shirt was warm, my boots were sturdy and light, and our packs were filled with spider traps and food. 

 

We were on our way. 

 

The very few readings we could find on Iron Widows were scarce, since anyone going up to research them most likely died before making it back to publish, but what we did find was useful. We felt confident that we had an advantage over prior fortune seekers since we had runes, thanks to the Lynx. If it hadn’t been enough, my death would probably have been quicker than the one I’m staring at now, but why dwell on such things?

 

The idea behind runes was they attune to the ever present pulse of magneki. It is akin to a tool that used air in a focused way to create energy. But instead of air it was magneki, and instead of random energy you got whatever the Yoni transcribed in the rune. Whether that be used for warmth or giant fireballs was up to the runes author. 

 

The other important thing to know was that the more you “stacked” runes, the more power you could pull. To make it all work, runes needed closed circuits - which means you couldn’t just swallow a single rune and shoot lightning out your arse. You would need to swallow one rune, stick the other up your arse, then when they connected you might shoot lightning or cook yourself medium-rare. That’s why we let Yonis instruct us on the combinations. You just never know.

 

Anyway, we had hoped that the runes we stacked on the traps were enough to do the trick on the nightmarish arachnids.

 

It took us three days, two wolf attacks, one highway robber attempt, and a poor choice of wild berries later to reach the base of the mountain. The climb up the mountain was harrowing, and I nearly lost Castor early to an eagle attack, like a squirrel to a hawk, but through it all we managed to make it to the Iron Widow nest.

 

We knew we had arrived when we spotted huge swaths of webs that had remnants of their main prey, cave bears. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the sight dropped my stomach to the soles of my feet. The reality of the task at hand, that we had to outsmart thousands of cave-bear-eating-giant-metal spiders felt too large for our meager plan. We continued on, not out of courage, but of fear and embarrassment. I was too deep into my career and my life choices to really reverse my decisions. If I came back without any injuries or lumps of Ehms, I’d be a laughingstock and out of a job. No, I couldn’t see my life ending that way. 

 

Castor had a little more reservation about his life, but at the end of the day, he was a pushover and I made sure to push just enough. I would like to think he would thank me for being such an influence on his life, but it’s hard to know...since he disappeared during our assault on the nest. 

 

Plans never unfold how they are intended to. The ones who survive this unpredictably sinister world are the ones who know that ironclad fact. What we didn’t anticipate was the degree of failure in our first attempt. 

 

The Widows were active, we could feel the earth shake as they stalked around, building their webs. The sounds they made were akin to stabbing the dirt with the tip of a hundred swords, over and over again. We didn’t even see them and we were terrified. 

 

We were quiet and soft-footed, as we opted to have little leather or chain. Of course, we had our swords and our boots were leather, but besides that, the only metal that could be found were in the clips holding our packs shut and the buttons on our shirts. It seemed that even with armor, we didn’t stand a chance if caught in an attack, so cloth seemed the logical choice. Furthermore, from what we knew about Widows, they didn’t have great sight or hearing - they reacted more to vibrations, so we planned to use that to our advantage.

 

We had wire with attached runes at three arm length intervals. The runes were for a powerful electric current, once we closed the circuit. The idea was to pump these spiders so full of lightning that they would die, collapse, or at least be distracted. We both had a length of wire that could wrap around a small hut twice. 

 

The trap was laid all throughout one of the derelict webs on the outskirts. Once laid, we took the two ends of the wire and hid behind trees a few strides back. Sweating profusely and ignoring the immediate need for a bowel movement, we started to shake the wire and subsequently the web. 

 

The stabbing of a thousand swords stopped inquisitively for a moment, then bounded towards our location. We had gotten their attention. 

 

They swarmed within a few feet in hordes. It was no wonder cave bears had no chance, they hunted in packs of fifty.

 

They molested the web, with fangs bared, turning and twisting to find the disturbance. We closed the rune circuit and prayed. 

 

What we wanted were incapacitated spiders. What we created were walking lightning storms. 

 

Unfazed by the electric current, they continued to twist and turn as they looked for the non-existent bear meal. This, in a horrible twist of luck, created chain lighting that shot around in all directions - including ours. 

 

Bark exploded as fallen trees thundered to the ground. More Widows, confused by the ruckus we had created, started to appear around us. More spiders, more lightning. We were invisible in this new chaos, but we were also completely surrounded. We were dead men. 

 

Then it hit me. 

 

Then, I hit Castor.

 

“What do we do now!?”, I bellowed.

 

Looking back, I believe it was one of the most intelligent decisions of my life to lean on Castors brilliance.

 

He snagged my backpack and opened the top flap. He started to rip at the pack clips, which I was astonished to see was also a rune. What I failed to know, that Castor did (since I made him run all the pre-adventure errands), was that most of our equipment, not just our traps, were complemented with runes. 

 

Castor, being ever so studious, actually read the study materials on the Lynx. I’ll admit I wasn’t the most attentive during our learning sessions, but Castor was like a sponge. He must’ve read that you can stack different runes as long as there was a closed circuit. The problem was, we didn’t really know what would happen once you mixed rune combinations outside the ones that were already prepared for us. It was a complete gamble. 

 

Our shirt buttons were inscribed with the rune for warmth for the cold trek up the mountain. 

 

Our boots had runes on the bottom for air, to make them lighter with no cost to quality. 

 

Lastly, our packs had the rune for magnetism etched into the metal clips to keep the flaps closed. Silly, I know. 

 

With seconds to spare, Castor ripped the metal clip free and slapped it onto the closed electrical runes. The Widows bodies, which had multiplied the effects of the electric runes, now multiplied the magnetic effect of the pack clip. The spiders, our buttons, and our boot runes, ripped away from us violently into an singular point around the web. 

 

His gloves saved him from the shock, but his terrible reaction time couldn’t save him from the aftermath. As the spiders were pulled into each other, a Widow’s leg caught Castor from behind and by his shirt. He was instantly dragged into the fray and out of sight. 

 

With the spiders crushed together and indisposed, I leapt up to cry Castors name. I had tried to see through the mess, but there were too many spider bodies, and no room to pry myself inside to find him. The magnetism was strong, and my constitution was weak.

 

I could have opened the rune circuit and therefore the magnet, but that was suicide. It would put me in the same situation I barely escaped from and I know that Castor wouldn’t have wanted us both to die. At least, that’s how I sleep with myself at night. 

 

There were only a few remaining spiders in the alcove so it wasn’t difficult to sneak in and gather the Ehms. We were supposed to have two packs of the stuff, but I had hoped that the Lynx would understand what I had to trade just to bring one pack back. 

 

I could feel the magnet pulling at the Ehms in my pack from a long distance off. I could also feel the guilt from having Castor killed pull on my soul. That is still pulling to this day. 

 

Long story short, battered and bruised, I returned to the Lynx. I traded the Ehms for my brand new viridian cloak, with its secret pockets, indestructible Vermese Cloth, sewn-in runes and baby-seal-fur-lined hood. 

 

But I had one less Castor. 

 

And that’s lead us to my current predicament of taking a dip in certain death. After all the trouble I had gone through to earn this cloak, I realized that I didn’t need it to become a better mercenary. I had been so wrapped up in the search for the one thing that I thought would enrich my life that I didn’t realize I was already rich with good company. 

 

I didn’t need a cloak to do that. I needed a friend. 

So I decided to use the cloak to go back and find Castor to give him a proper burial. It’s the least I could do. Plus, I really needed to get over it so I could move on and find another friend.

 

But alas I find myself here. The cloak was no replacement for a solid partner. I was one day off from attempting the mountain when I was ambushed at night by wolves. Through my panic, I had run through the swamp only to knock myself unconscious and wake up in this most definitely fatal state. The indestructible cloth kept me from ripping myself free, the neckline of my baby-seal-lined-hood dug into my neck, and the quicksand plugged me into the ground like a turnip. If I pulled too hard, I either broke the branch or dug myself deeper, stretching my body past its limits.

 

I was going to starve, suffocate, drown, or go insane. Neither of those enticing choices were way I wanted to go, but who really gets to choose their ending? Castor certainly didn’t. 

 

As the branch crackled and popped ever so slightly, I would have taken the odds on drowning but then I started to see ghosts and put my coin on insanity.

 

Through the twilight of the waning afternoon night, I turned my head slightly to see a figure - still bald, slightly less chubby around the midriff, and missing an extra finger on that right hand. He held it out to me with a wry smile across his lips.

 

That was no ghost, that was flesh and bone. 

 

Oh dear Castor, how you’ve done it again!


 


Submitted: November 05, 2020

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