The Beast of Agnesi
From the Tranquil Mountains where the North Road ends, to the edge of the Fertile Plains in the South where half a dozen kingdoms grow their wheat and barley, the Forest Agnesi slumbers. He’d crossed the plains many times and scaled the mountains once long ago, but never hunted these woods before. So peaceful was its face, so common its trees, and so dull its legends that his feet hadn’t bothered to learn its trails.
But the one picture ‘Agnesi’ held in his mind was a fond one. He could still remember an afternoon spent on the mountainside watching the forest—an unbroken ocean of green, its waves and contours mirroring the land beneath. True, it was a warm memory—but in his wanderings he’d seen autumn spread a hundred shades of red, orange, and yellow all over the Old Bones in the Far East. He’d seen spring’s Second Snowfall come as a thousand peach trees flowered their pure white blossoms in the Crescent Grove. However lovely Agnesi was, he would never return for beauty’s sake. It was not until his needle flickered in the forest’s direction it had aroused his more potent appetite, curiosity.
Beneath the canopy in the shadows of late afternoon, he waited in silence. Summer heat gave him a coat of sweat in the stillness. He was upwind of a deer pacing slowly towards his hiding place. It approached him, finally close enough; he simply reached out and touched its head. Its eyes rolled back and, as it fell unconscious, he caught it. Retrieving a knife from his boot, he shed its blood and it passed from the world without pain.
His knife seemed to fly of its own volition across the animal’s body in a ballet of shining steel. It was the work of minutes to separate the edibles, and minutes more to prepare the meat. Hunting had become easier since gaining the Hoshi no Tama and, though he sometimes thought using it on animals was unfair, he had no love for sport.
He returned to his campsite before nightfall, leaving few traces of his passage. He stacked wood to make a cooking fire in the manner he was taught, containing it with a ring of stones. In the dirt, he drew a Rune with his finger, and covered it with a hand.
It was a singular, distinctive symbol. This was no letter of an alphabet, spoken or forgotten, but a completed entity of itself that meant much more than he knew, to his dismay. Its edges curled and seemed to convulse; the tail of each stroke in the letter swirled in the half-light. The curves of its form reminded him of tongues searching. It looked hungry.
He glared at the structure of tinder and kindling through his eyelids. An audible ‘pop’ filled the tiny clearing and he felt a puff of warm air on his face. Opening his eyes, he wiped the symbol from the ground and watched fire consume the wood until just cooking embers remained.
Earlier in the day he’d picked some rosemary that, given a twist, brought back nights of laughter and drinking, sea air and grilled pork. It was just a single note of flavor for the venison, but still better than the last few days; the only things left in his spice pouch were pieces of bay, sage dust, and a single leaf of thyme. Without salt and with no smoking equipment, curing the meat wasn’t an option, so he cooked the rest and promised to eat it before it could spoil. After dinner he added wood to the embers until the fire was large enough to ward off most animals.
From a hidden pocket he withdrew a needle and placed it in a circle drawn in the soil. The small bone needle was carved with tiny letters in a delicate hand. His mind traced the Letters, and each line his awareness touched gained a soft glow. The needle levitated above the circle, forming a compass. The needle twitched left and right but came to rest in the southeast, once again confirming his object was stationary. Continuing as before, he would reach it before noon tomorrow.
The light of the fire gave his face the gentle warmth of a friend at an Inn’s hearth, and in that spirit of leisure he closed his eyes, leaned back against a tree trunk, and listened. Foremost was the sound of the fire; it crackled and sputtered over its fuel, occasionally popping with glee. His mind quickly muted this sound and investigated the noises of the deep forest. Next came the melody of wind playing on the leaves; every forest sang a different tune. Softer were the rustles in the brown leaves that fat insects and tiny rodents made as they went on their nocturnal forays. Testing the limits of human hearing was the gurgling of a river coming down the mountains some distance off.
As sleep wound its way about him, an approaching noise demanded his attention. Only mankind could be so graceless in the night woods. A hand to sword-hilt was his sole movement. The newcomer was charging the fire for unknown reasons, but the sword wouldn’t leave the sheath until he was sure it was an enemy.
Nearing the campfire, the sound revealed its owner to be no larger than a child. He could hear its desperate breath and feel its fear. At this realization, his hand left the sword and he remained seated. Seconds later a preadolescent boy tripped out of the woods and stumbled to a stop. He had short brown hair and brown eyes, and his skin was slightly pale as if he hadn’t been in the sun recently. His arms and clothes were scratched and torn from running through the woods, but he was otherwise clean. He was obviously terrified, but his features held a sense of determination and strength beneath the fear.
“Yes?” said the stranger.
Startled, the boy took a step back, looked once over his shoulder into the darkness, looked back at the stranger, and compromised by half turning so he could see the other out of the corner of an eye. He hoarded air for his lungs while trying to orient himself to the situation.
“You seem to have escaped,” the stranger said. The boy turned to him and nodded. “What’s your name?”
In the safety of the firelight, the boy’s fear finally gave way to manners: he straightened like a marionette pulled too tight. “Henry, Henry Costa2, sir,” he said with a small and awkward bow.
“What were you running from?”
“The Beast.” The boy loosened and wiped sweat from his face and neck. He was drenched. Henry was now calm enough to laugh at his mistake, “I thought I could handle getting some water. They hadn’t let me outside in days, so I snuck away when I got the chance. It was waiting for me all that time; that thing is evil…”
“What kind of animal did you say it was?”
“It’s no animal! The Beast is a curse of magic on the village. Why else would it stalk me like that? The whole forest to roam in, but it attacked me the second I was free.”
“How did you escape?”
“I just concentrated on not being seen and ran.”
“Sit down, you’ll be more comfortable. No use trying to get home before daybreak.”
Henry started at the stranger’s words as if he’d already forgotten where he was, and took a seat by the fire. The conversation lapsed for a minute until Henry asked, “What are you doing, out here in the woods?”
“I’m looking for something.”
A pause of silence, as the boy waited for anything else to be said. “Where are you from? One of the Southern Kingdoms? An island in the Archipelago; or across the Dark Sea in the East? Somewhere in the West?”
Henry grunted like he understood exactly what that meant. The boy was watching the stranger, looking him up and down, when something caught his eye. “Is that a real sword?”
The stranger half smiled and extended it hilt-first to the boy. “Only one way to find out.”
The boy looked at the stranger with a doubtful grin, not believing his own luck, but pulled the sword out all the same. “I’ve never seen a sword before; we just have pitchforks and axes.” Henry let the blade catch the firelight, and saw dozens of tiny letters drawn in black ink. Even in the firelight the stranger could see the boy’s eyes clearly. As they gazed on the Letters, their color changed from brown to a faintly glowing iridescent and then back to brown when Henry looked to the stranger. “What are the letters for?”
“They’re asking the sword to be sharper.”
“Like how we ask the gods for a better harvest each year?”
“It’s not quite the same,” the stranger said. “But you’ve got the idea. Try not to cut yourself; shift your grip on the hilt, like this.”
“Thanks sir, mister…ah—”
“—It’s late. Get some sleep while I keep watch. How far away is your village?”
“Not far at all, I think we can follow my trail back.”
“A blind man could follow your trail back.” The boy laughed at this, and the stranger managed a friendly chuckle at his own joke. The laughter brightened the darkness, and reduced the world simply to the warm fire and the late hour. The boy soon fell asleep. The stranger didn’t mind keeping watch till morning; he didn’t care to sleep after taking a guess at what was hunting the boy.
Mist covered everything in the predawn as they set out. Compared to the sweltering day and humid night, the morning was refreshingly cool. The stranger shared the venison with Henry, and they found some blackthorn raspberry bushes after half an hour. The trail generally wound in the direction the man had been traveling, and neither had trouble following it. Henry, far from the frantic bumbler of last night, had the cool head of a woodsman’s son.
“Do you think they’ll be angry?” the boy said as he chopped at a thistle with a stick.
“How can I know their thoughts if I don’t know them?”
Henry studied his shoes.
“But,” the man continued, “If you were my son, I’d have been too scared to be angry.” The man glanced down at him, “After we get back to the village, would you like me to teach you some swordsmanship?”
“Really?” the boy asked. “Yeah, that’d be great.” Henry’s stick-swinging became more enthusiastic.
Their progress improved, and they reached the village by midmorning. From the dense trees and brush, they stepped into a huge cow pasture surrounding a quiet village of several hundred people. The field beyond the village looked to be full of grain, and there were vegetable gardens closer in to the homes. The buildings were tightly packed, their backs to each other like a herd protecting their young. A single artery for traffic divided the small town.
From far off they were noticed by a herder. His surprise was comical; indeed, at the sight of the boy he broke into a wide smile and ran into the village, shouting frantically. As the pair made their way through the grass, the sound of excited villagers grew from drone to roar. A small group which was undoubtedly the boy’s family ran at the head of a crowd. It seemed the whole community had come out. The boy embraced his sobbing mother and then his tear-stained father, a man who had given up and couldn’t quite believe his eyes.
At length the people quieted enough that the boy’s father could talk to the stranger. Henry’s father wasn’t exceptionally tall, nor was he much more muscled than the other farmers. He had the handsomeness of a weathered cliff side, and his skin was the color of sun baked soil. But his voice was well oiled leather: smooth, supple, and tough. The other villagers naturally gave way to him, and allotted him more space than an average man. When he spoke, every eye was upon him. He was not old, but he was their head.
“My name is Gregory3 Costa, and you have returned to me my only son. I don’t know the words for how thankful I am. Nothing I have can repay you for your kindness, but please accept a warm meal and shelter with my family.”
The farmers were so happy it seemed they could overlook the strangeness of the man. His plain traveler’s clothes were worn from use and seemed slightly mismatched. Nothing was outright contradictory, but a careful eye could find some strange details: his shoes were mud crusted, but originally of high quality Southern leather. His belt was cheap, but its buckle had a strange Eastern design. The cloth of his garments had an unfamiliar texture and his sword was a Western-style piece uncommon in their area.
His hair was long and cluttered with dirt and burs, while the farmers’ hair was cut short for relief from the heat. His skin was not as tanned, and his hands and face were smudged. He was lean without being thin, and about Gregory’s height. He never met an eye with his own, head lowered in respect. The quiet attractiveness of his face, despite grime, made him appear to be a young man in his late twenties, though hardened by experience. His greeting bow was made to show humility, but its grace and strength marked a confidence bordering on arrogance.
“I gladly accept your hospitality, sir. However, I must say your son found me by my fire’s light, and we found the village by his trail. Henry has enough wood lore to find home without my help, and I’m sure the search party would have found him in a matter of hours.”
Gregory’s voice dropped to a darker tone, “No one has bothered to go after the children in many days. My son owes you his life.” The smile returned to him as he said, “Now is the time for rest, and we will have a celebration tonight. I’ll tell you what I can at my house. Your welcome will be warm today in the Village Agnesi.”
The houses of the village were simple: kitchen, dining, beds, and living space were united in a single cramped area. Gregory spoke with the stranger over the wooden table he made with his father years ago. The stranger enjoyed the fresh bread, cheese, and warm beer the Mrs. Costa served while he and the farmer talked. Gregory asked him about news in the Southern Kingdoms and, though the stranger said they were not fresh, his words were still welcome. They spoke of his journeys, why he was traveling, and why he had come to Agnesi; but the stranger politely rebuffed every advance without revealing himself. Soon Mrs. Costa left the house and Henry went out under the eyes of half a dozen villagers. They were alone.
“I see you wear a sword,” said Gregory, still trying to find an opening.
“I fought in the Western Army,” replied the stranger.
“So you’re from the Old West.”
“You don’t come from the South, or the East, and nobody comes from the North because of the Desolate White. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere for you to come from.” The farmer sighed as if at their mutual problem, and then seemed to have a thought, “I thought the West was united.”
“It is; I didn’t go to war.” The stranger’s finger drew in the condensation left by the cellar-cool beer. “What I want to know is why no search party was sent for an only son so far from home.”
“We don’t see many strangers. No trade. No one comes out here to bother us.”
“There’s no trade here, but we can still exchange favors. Tell me the story and we’ll go from there.”
The farmer retreated into himself to weigh his options. He collected his thoughts, and told his story. “Not too long ago, one of my neighbor’s children went into the forest to gather raspberries. At that time we thought the woods were emptied of wolves and bears by the work of our fathers before us, so she went alone. She never came back. The whole village searched the forest from East to West, but we never found a body. We mourned with the parents, sent them meals, and gave them time to grieve.
“There’ve been no disappearances since the time of our fathers. No murders in even longer and sickness has taken few because of the midwife’s skill. It was a shock, but just bad luck we prayed not soon to return.
“A week later a little boy disappeared; his tale much the same. Days after, another was gone. With every passing week, more children went missing. Those days were a horror of fear and sorrow that left us numb; with each loss, the search was shorter. We lost heart.
“Strange hair at the edge of the forest sent us hunting. With our shovels and torches we searched from the north to the south for our enemy. We found nothing but the muddy tracks of some huge beast.
“We set up a town-wide curfew: no one out after sunset. One night, something startled the cows and everyone came to see. One of the pens was broken and the pieces thrown across the field. The herd was short several heads and, while we stood and stared like fools, a child was taken from its bed. We put those left under constant guard.
“Every day, a farmer would find an animal gone, or rations stolen, or fences broken. We fought harder than ever to hold on to our children but, in time, something would happen. Once, a shed was crushed and a lantern inside caught on fire. Every man hurried to free the animals and keep the fire from spreading. When the threat was gone, one man realized his daughters were unguarded. His house was found empty.
“No animal I know cannot be tracked, can smash a shed, and can steal children without a trace, but this beast does all these things. I have not given this thought voice among the others, but their minds must hold the same fear that what we face is not an animal.”
“You think this Beast is a remnant of the Mage Wars,” said the stranger.
“I know the mages and their monsters were wiped out in the wars, but I know of nothing else which could have done these things.”
“You’re wrong,” the stranger said. “The mages were killed by the end of the wars, but their knowledge and creatures were merely scattered. You were right in saying there’s been no war in the West since the Mage Wars, but some divisions of the army saw action. Crops, trade, and peace of mind were threatened by the remnants, so we were ordered to scour the land of monsters and magic. By all appearances it seems the South took similar action.”
“Are we so deaf to the world we know nothing of this?” said Gregory.
“No, the hunters in the South were tasked and dismissed in secrecy.”
Whether it was true or not, Gregory was entranced by this explanation that confirmed his long held secret fears. His fists were tight and white knuckled, and his gaze never left the averted face of the stranger. “Why?”
“It was because their failure. Though they slew many, uncounted scores of monsters retreated into the dark corners of the world. In the beginning I’m sure the secrecy was to prevent the spread of fear and allow them to work efficiently, but when the immediate threat had passed their losses were unjustifiable to a people who wanted to believe the darkness of the Mage Wars long gone. The task would have required the army’s mobilization to complete but, considering the monsters were only a danger to those living in the most reclusive areas, the South deemed the cost outweighed the gain and dismissed our company.”
“It seems one beast chose our corner of the world. Still, how has this creature survived into this age?”
“Have you ever seen your son’s eyes change?” the stranger asked. Gregory’s face mingled fear and protective anger, but he said nothing. “This idea ‘the time of magic has passed’ is a delusion of the people. Its power, and the monsters’ strength, has not diminished one iota since those times. The mages didn’t die out, they simply went untrained. You needn’t worry, the change in the eye disappears if not nurtured with magic; he’s just reacting to the beast.”
“My son is the last. He’s my only child, and now the village’s only child. They will celebrate tonight but—as the one man whose son is safe—I can’t look them in the eye. Their sorrow is spent; they simply want revenge on the beast. I’ve told you our story, now tell me why you’re here. Are you hunting it?”
“No, I entered the forest on a whim. That you, the beast, and I all chose this place is coincidence. I need supplies and money to continue on my way and all I have to trade are my skills, which mostly involve the sword. I need to negotiate a bounty.”
“Talk to the midwife, Maria Gaetana5. She was the midwife for our children, she knows the time for sowing and harvesting better than any farmer, and saved us from disease with her medicines. The village will honor any deal she makes.”
“Take me to her,” said the stranger.
At the end of the road which split the village into halves lay a large house made of stone. While the tiny wooden homes of the villagers were closely wedged together, this one had a luxury of space about it. Its main entrance faced the village, while the other houses faced the woods. The foundation was thick: three stone stairs made of rocks carried down from the mountains led up to the threshold.
When the stranger saw the house, his mind’s eye was momentarily blinded before he could shield his Mage Sight. Over the plains and through the forest he had followed the needle here, but this close to his destination he knew without consultation what he had come for was inside. The farmers couldn’t sense it, and would never know it was there or what it was.
“If you’re willing, tell me who lives there,” said the stranger.
“That’s the midwife’s house,” said Gregory.
“May I ask why the midwife has the best home in the village?”
“It’s well known that her father was a rich merchant before he settled here. He hired stonemasons to build the house and carpenters for the furniture.” Most of the farmers, or their fathers, probably built their houses themselves. “He had them build rooms for sleeping, cooking, eating, and even a greeting room.” Luxury, to these people. “The merchant then placed all he owned inside and lived there with his wife and child.”
“The rich live in cities for trade or private estates for solitude, why would such a man settle in a village—no matter how lovely it may be?”
“Indeed, our fathers built this village to get away from the rich and proud. My grandfather spoke with the merchant and was convinced the man wanted to live quietly and peacefully with his family.”
“That, at least, is something I can understand,” said the stranger.
“Quiet he found, but not peace. The midwife’s mother died of disease while she was still a child, and her father was bedridden long years before his death. She cared for him all that time, as she has cared for all of us: finding herbs for diseases, remedies for any sore, and birthing the babies. This house belongs to her family, and no one would begrudge her that. You’ll likely find her inside, reading some book. I’d wager every written word in the village is in her library.”
“Thank you for telling me your story, I’m sure the midwife and I will make an arrangement to deal with the beast.”
“Thanks again for what you’ve done. You’re welcome to lodge in my home through your stay in the village, if you like.”
“I’ll accept your offer, thank you Mr. Costa.”
“Call me ‘Gregory.’”
With that the farmer left the stranger at the foot of the great house. After climbing the stairs, he gripped the iron knocker on a thick wooden door and knocked three times. The door opened inward to reveal an elderly woman, face wrinkled with thought and a crooked body bent by a weight no man or woman should have to bear. “You must be the gentleman who rescued Henry Costa,” she said. “My name is Maria Gaetana.” Her voice was silken like her grey hair, which must once have been a smooth black.
“It’s lovely to meet you Ms. Gaetana. I’d very much like to discuss with you a certain matter involving the rumors regarding a beast in the surrounding woods,” he said.
“Please have a seat in the parlor, we have much to discuss,” said Ms. Gaetana.
The midwife withdrew into the house and eased into a large upholstered chair with an open book resting on an arm, giving the stranger a clear view of the living room. The parlor was larger than most houses in the village; it had two closed doors on the far wall and several large open windows. Three wooden chairs of simple design but excellent craftsmanship were placed in a circle. The detailed oil on canvas landscape of the Northern Mountains on the wall opposite the door would have dominated the room, except that strewn around the perimeter, on the walls, and hung from the ceiling were the merchant’s goods.
Such as could only be found at the most exotic of bazaars were packed on every table, cabinet, and dresser in the room so tight the wood could hardly be seen. Odd music makers, elegant costume jewelry, intricately designed silverware, handmade ceramic bowels filled with beads of semi-precious stones, necklaces, bracelets, rings, earrings, toe rings, combs, and even a few weapons lay uncategorized and dusty. Ornate plates and tiny paintings hung on the walls beside and under shelves that held still more trinkets. The stranger’s eyes scanned the multitude as he entered, his Mage Site useless this close. After decades, his target’s aura had settled evenly over every surface in the house.
A smile creased Ms. Gaetana’s amiable face as she watched him take in the wonder of the room. It would take a prince to be unimpressed with the sheer variety, even if nothing was of princely value. There’s no way I can fake disinterest, it’s best to play it straight.
“Why have you come to our village, young man?” said the midwife.
“A wanderer must follow his nature, and this is as good a place to wander as any.”
“Why would you help us?”
“I’m not offering my services free of charge. But allow me to remind you that, for me, failure is death. You lose nothing to hire me but a day’s worth of food; and my success means revenge on the child hunting monster.
“What is your price?” asked Ms. Gaetana. “We have no coin to offer, just provisions from our stock. You seem to like these,” her gesture encompassed the room, “They can be traded for coin in any city. Choose your price from among them.”
Found it at last. Hard gained wisdom kept him from a gasp of success. The calm he normally associated with dueling came over him as he let his hands slowly pass over ornaments and meaningless talismans, lingering over each as if interested, without seizing the treasure.
“Ms. Gaetana, would you truly pay my fee for the whole village out of your own father’s mementos? I can’t recall the last time I witnessed such generosity.”
“This is for all our sakes and if I alone possess the means to hire you, then I shall,” said the midwife.
The stranger picked what might have had the greatest resale value of what he saw, careful not to draw attention to his desire until he picked it up nonchalantly between two more elaborate pieces. The object of his search appeared to be an attractive, but otherwise normal, hair comb—but on it was carved the same hungry rune he used in the forest to make fire. He felt his skin twitch and hairs rise, but he kept up the façade. Instead of convulsing as they had the day before in the woods, the lines of the rune were motionless and depicted a single flame. With the treasure and the decoys in hand he said, “These and a week’s worth of provisions I will accept as payment for the beast’s head.”
“That brooch is a favorite of mine I wore as a girl; are you sure nothing can take its place?”
She’s either completely sincere or as skilled a merchant as her father must have been. If I relinquish the brooch, she might ask for the comb next; then I’d refuse to swap the comb and she’d know what I want. He wasn’t sure it mattered if she knew, but he decided it was safer to relent nothing.
“You offered of your possessions; I made my decision and won’t accept less.”
“Yes, there is never room for mercy in business,” she said. “When you defeat the beast, bring me its head and I shall present your reward.”
“Swear it, as I swear on my honor I will protect the villagers and kill the beast.”
“I so swear,” said the midwife.
They shook hands, and both smiled. It was the smile of a most satisfactory deal struck.
The celebration felt forced. There was food in plenty, beer, and laughter, but not the laughter of children. There was no joy in the laughter; an outsider might have mistaken it for a funeral. As the night wore on, nerves frayed and alcohol sharpened their tongues. Soon even the spiteful laughter died, and only the men stayed to talk over games of chance.
That night, the stranger played cards with Gregory and the farmers. The cards were older than the village, and had been there at its inception. The game the men played was ancient, one of a hundred and more variations the stranger had heard of. No farmer had anything the others could not make or find, and without trade there was no money, so they placed their bets with food. Eyebrows rose and eyes widened when the stranger pulled out a gold coin.
There’d been no gold in the village since the merchant paid for the construction of his house so many years ago. “What’s gold to us?” said Gregory. “No better than dirt. Give us something to chew on.” So the stranger smiled, took back the coin engraved with a face no one recognized, and laid down the rest of the venison. They drank as they played, and spoke of farms, the distant harvest, rainfall, and cows. Eventually one man’s lips loosened enough to ask the stranger about the deal.
“So the midwife got you to hunt the beast? What fool hunter goes after uncatchable prey?” said a farmer at the table.
“I was the one who requested the bounty, and I’ve yet to meet a creature which can’t be killed,” said the stranger.
“Just how’re you going to do that, let alone find it? It’s been weeks of tracking for nothing. Even our best traps get crushed to pieces, so it must be tougher than iron. No one’s seen anything like that since the Mage Wars.”
“And yet the soldiers of the day brought even those beasts down. Failing at a task doesn’t make it impossible,” said the stranger.
“You trying to say you’re better than us? You’re an arrogant fool.”
“What I mean is you don’t have the right tools. Do you think even soldiers who dedicated their lives to battle could win with shovels and picks? Your foe is a coward that runs from battle and steals children. It won’t be so fearsome when cornered.”
“But how can you catch it? No one’s seen it; just some loose hair, a few claws, and dead animals.”
“I’ve seen it,” objected another farmer.
“It was a tree’s shadow,” said Gregory, and the rest laughed. The tension eased a little and tempers cooled.
“I have a strategy,” said the stranger. “If it’s been stealing food and provisions from the village, there must not be enough game in the forest. It can’t ignore hunger, so it will be back soon and that is when I attack.”
No one challenged the stranger again that night. One by one, each at the table rose and left either to keep watch or to sleep until their turn. As the night drew on, every man left the game except the stranger and Mr. Costa.
“Do you really believe we can kill it? Anything that smashes sheds and carries off cows must be huge. You haven’t seen its footprints yet; they shake a man’s resolve,” said the farmer.
“Only I will attempt the slaying,” said the stranger.
“What idiot fights a monster alone?”
“It’s better this way; nobody gets hurt except the stranger.”
“You have a name?”
The stranger looked at Gregory and said, “Guess.”
“I don’t play children’s games.”
“Then let me get some rest, it’s not coming tonight.”
The famer sighed and said, “I’ll keep watch anyway.” He was about to get up but first looked at the stranger, who wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Make sure no harm comes to my boy.”
“I can’t do anything more than say ‘I would sooner die than break the oath on my honor to protect this village.’”
That seemed enough for Gregory, though the sag of his shoulders said he wished there was more to be had. “There’s enough room in my house for you tonight.”
“Thank you for the kindness.”
“I’ll see you in the morning, stranger. Or sooner,” he amended.
He was twelve years old again, standing farther away from the village then he had ever been in his short life. He saw how small the houses seemed from this distance. Alone, he spoke with a man he did not know.
The old man was ancient; his frizzled white hair melted into his beard and, proudly carved between the two, was a face wrinkled with dozens of laugh lines. The old man was thin so the bones in his arms stretched the skin, and the veins in his hands stood out like rivers in a tired land. Up close he seemed frail like twigs tied together with string. From a distance his dull traveler’s clothes made him seem like an autumn leaf about to be blown away in the wind.
But the old man’s eyes had the most incredible life to them. Staring into them was to see a glorious sunrise banish the winter and herald the spring, the sun set bloody red on a million lives for why he couldn’t guess, and the life-blood of the world beneath his feet rise up to burn the sky. Those eyes blazed with power and a passion for something too great for him to understand. In that instant he knew no darkness could hide these eyes burning in splendor. No man alive had eyes like that, and yet this man lived and stood before him.
“You have good eyes,” the old man said, “Clever, with a strong will to match. I’ll give you a choice. If you like it here, stay and live as a farmer for the rest of your life. Or, you can leave this place now and learn magic from me. All you need is a good teacher, and I can be that mage to you. Think carefully, I leave now and shall never return. Nor can I promise you a homecoming if you accept. If you decide to come, understand you may never see anyone you know here again. As hard as it must be, I ask you make your decision.”
He opened his mouth to reply, to make the first great decision of his life. He did not give the choice much thought; a fact of which he was now ashamed. “Yes,” he said, “I’ll come with you.”
“Is there someone to whom you’d like to say ‘goodbye’?”
“No.” And in that reply, he had unknowingly made the first in a long line of severances that would dominate his adult life. He would never again see the woman who had raised him, the man who had tolerated him, or the other children who ignored him. The town that had raised him was empty when he found his way back years later.
I have no family.
I have no village.
I have no country.
I have no name.
In the morning the boy’s family and the stranger breakfasted together, a hearty meal for farmers who worked long hours before noon. The stranger usually ate a light morning meal, sometimes nothing, and so this was a rare treat for him that he savored. The dream of the night before lingered in his mind, but as he enjoyed the food a smile graced his cheeks.
It put him in such a mood he said to the farmer, “I feel I am taking advantage of your hospitality, let me help repair the fence.”
“Don’t trouble yourself. A few meals won’t come close to what a monster slayer deserves,” said the farmer.
“And if I fail, I’ll leave this life for the next and take your generosity with me. Allow me to clear my conscience before the battle.”
Many of the wooden stakes had snapped at the base and pieces of railing were thrown across the field. Each stake of the fence had to be dug up and replaced by a whole picket, so it was just as much work removing the old fence as building the new. The stranger saw one of the footprints still preserved in the mud. Six toed and more round than a human foot, the creature that made this could easily be over twelve feet tall.
Other villagers Mr. Costa helped previously assisted them through the morning. Though the stranger never complained, he was soon covered with sweat because the heat and humidity was so oppressive even in the morning. Together they completed the project in a few short hours, followed by lunch. Gregory didn’t need or want the stranger’s help with the daily work all farmers attend to, so he said a small word of thanks and went about his business.
While at the repair site, unnoticed, the stranger pocketed a tuft of peculiar hair. Alone in the farmer’s house he tried to slice the hair with his knife. Even when held taught the hair wouldn’t be cut. It really is like iron. If I go into the woods I can prepare without being seen, and it’s still too early for the beast to attack. He took two clay bowls and a plate from the farmer’s cupboard, swung on his pack and headed for the forest.
The stranger peeked around the corner at Gregory and said, “You don’t mind if I take a few bowls? I’m going to the stream to wash up.”
“Do as you please,” Gregory called back without turning around. He was already gone.
He approached the strong, clear stream the village used for water. The cool shadow of the trees shaded him, and he decided to walk a few minutes upstream to avoid any possible interruptions. Setting the bowls and plate down on a rock, he took off his pack and went through his belongings. He took out a slender fine-tipped brush, a small metal tube, and a throwing dagger with black Letters along the blade.
Concentrating, he reached out with his mind and touched something inside the backpack. He pulled out a book which was deeper than the pocket and heavier than the backpack. It was over a foot in both height and width, and thousands of pages deep. Its binding was sturdy leather and the cover was unmarked. Within it were all the magical Letters, Glyphs, and Runes he had accumulated over the years, often stealing them from the many book-fires the Western Army started during his service.
Setting the book aside, he collected water from the stream in a bowl and poured in the contents of the metal tube. Stirring with the brush, it formed a black paste. He took a cloth, dipped it in the stream and wiped the dagger of its Letters. While letting the dagger dry, he leafed through the book.
The Letters inside the book were all unique; some curved like fishhooks while others were formed of rigid rectangles. Brushing over them with his mind, each Letter reacted with an individual aura of power and would faintly glow its own color. It seemed impossible to think they were from the same written language or that they had anything in common with each other. They were like the millions of people who populate a country, each with their own pasts, emotions, and drives, but united in common goals and beliefs. It took the skill gained from association and a measure of inborn talent to see where and how they were connected, to feel out the underlying patterns in the confusing array of shapes and colors.
The brush played across the dry dagger, leaving perfect miniature replicas of the Letters he selected while in a self-induced trance. In this state he could see the connections between the Letters and copy without error. He hadn’t learned how to do this, his master had merely shown him how to engage the Letters and allow them to guide his hand.
When the dagger was finished on both sides, he went through the same pattern of cleaning and drawing with the sword he wore at his side. However, he chose a different set of Letters for his main weapon. The beast is a creation of magic, down to the hairs on its skin. I can make three guesses on how to cut it, one on the front of the sword, second on the back, and third by combining the two.
Then he came to the plate. He turned the pages of the book until he arrived at a familiar place, an entire page taken up by one Rune. Like the Fire Rune in the forest, this was yet another alphabet unto itself and not a character or word in any language. It was something like a circle but the edges blurred into lines that were sometimes straight and sometimes curved, and it always looked like a single eye. It had the sharp and predatory slit pupil of a cat about to pounce. Behind this eye, there was a fearsome force desiring solely destruction. A friend once told him after he angered a man, ‘If looks could kill, you’d be dead.’ Those words echoed in his mind when he saw this rune. It was staring at him.
Fire is difficult to control, but it has a thousand uses. This Rune is simple to direct, but even harder to restrain once brought forth. But, sometimes, destruction is needed. He copied the Rune onto the face of the plate, and then set it aside. It took everything I had to find Lightning and escape with my life. I’ve been searching for years and have just two Elements.
Last was the second bowl. Unlike the Letters, the Glyphs on these pages of the book were all faintly reminiscent of animals. Swirls were tails or claws, dots were eyes, and lines were legs and bodies. He wasn’t experienced with making his own designs from these; instead, there were drawings and descriptions of what the Glyphs on the opposite page would do. Searching through the pages, he found one spell he hoped would make the difference in the coming battle.
He painted the Glyphs on the outside of the bowl and let them dry. His hand carelessly scooped up dead leaves, stems, sand from the stream bed, dirt from the bank, anything crawling in that muck, and small rocks. These were unceremoniously dumped in the bowl, and capped off with water from the stream.
There was a part of him that could touch, see, and control magic. He could feel it when he focused his mind. It was like a muscle: weakening with every use, but growing back stronger each day. To him, it was like a third arm and a third eye, the Mage Touch and the Mage Sight. He held the bowl in his hands, and felt the Glyphs with his mind. At his touch the Glyphs animated, growling and crawling and flying in silent pantomime on the sides.
The bowl’s contents became indecipherable, parts alternated between mush and resemblance of life. As seconds passed, the confusion resolved into distinct shapes. Three inches long from stinger to head, the wasps lay as still as death with legs crossed about their chests. They were iridescent with stripes of blues, greens, and reds making them look like jewels in the dappled light of the forest. Their tiny bodies had a smoothness of natural perfection typical in the animal: slender, elegant, and deadly. The amber glow of the Glyphs saturated their bodies, and ovoid abdomens pulsed with new life, legs uncurled, and the wasps slowly began to right themselves. They raised their heads, each with a frightening set of mandibles, and buzzed experimentally. The air soon filled with noise as they flew, crawled, and tasted the air.
The stranger refilled the bowl and began again while his creations examined their environment with interest, while being careful not to stray too far from their master. As their numbers grew, some of them drank from the stream while others hunted prey among the branches. They made short work of slower insects, and birds fled the area.
An hour later, with dozens of wasps made, he washed the Glyphs off the bowl and set out to return it and the bowl of ink to the Costa’s house. A still pool formed from an offshoot of the river caught his attention as he passed, seeing his reflection. Who is this mud crusted vagrant? On the road to Jachium4, showing him my back would be an invitation to his knife. Yet the farmers seem fool enough to trust him. He knelt at the water’s edge and cupped a handful to his face. A clean face would make him seem a slight more trustworthy.
In the end he washed his clothes and bathed in the stream, wearing his spare shirt and pants back to the Costas to hang up the wet clothes. He even got most of the twigs out of his hair. He made his way back to the village and managed a brief nap before he was awoken by Henry.
“Like this?” said Henry.
“Lower the point,” said the stranger. “Now, control the swing.” Henry yelled while swinging vaguely in the stranger’s direction, and was precisely deflected by the man’s stick. “How can you tell where you’re swinging when your eyes are closed? Wait until you can control its path before giving it your full strength.” With no yell, and evident concentration, the blade came wobbling up to the stranger. He smacked it away. “Keep it steady.”
Farmers watched from across the road and up the street as the stranger first taught Henry how not to swing a sword. They eyes were drawn to the sword but their bodies would never face it directly, so they watched with a corner of an eye or while looking up between chores. It doesn’t matter if they see it now. They’ve accepted that I’ll be necessary for revenge. Whether they truly believe it or not, they can feel what I am in their gut. Even a stranger with Letters on his blade is welcomed when things are desperate enough.
Swords are much heavier than boys often imagine them being. Henry now felt the weight, and let the tip touch the ground. “Who taught you to how fight? Was it a sword master, or a war-hero, or were you part of a warrior guild?”
“It was actually a retired Captain who gave me my first lessons in swordsmanship. I was about your age when I started. We parted ways sometime after that and I’ve been mostly traveling since, picking up what tricks and skills I have along the way.”
“Have you ever sailed on the Dark Sea? Did you fight any pirates?”
The stranger laughed, “I’ve visited several islands, and seen a few pirates.”
“Someday, I’m going to leave this farm and go see the ocean.”
“You’ve never been to the ocean? At even a leisurely pace it’s less than a week’s travel straight east.”
“There’s no way dad would leave the farm for two weeks. He said, ‘When you’re man you can go by yourself,’ but who knows when that’ll be.”
The stranger nodded, “A man who’s taken root in the land doesn’t have much freedom.”
“I’m never going to do that. I’ll head east and sail the Archipelago.”
“It’s certainly not a boring life,” said the stranger.
“What’s it like? Have you seen the whole world? The Old West, the Southern Kingdoms, the Wild East, and the Free Archipelago?”
“I’ve been to all those places, but I haven’t seen the world. I’ve always enjoyed following roads to their end and seeing the lands change beneath my feet. The world’s a great deal larger than I thought, and I still have a long way to go. The East especially, it may go on forever; I couldn’t pass the black desert, and there might be anything beyond that. Even for all the wonders of adventure, there’s been one question I keep asking myself. ‘What would life have been like if I’d stayed a farmer?’”
“It’s all cows,” said Henry.
“That’s not what I mean,” the stranger smiled. “I think that, even knowing how great exploring mountains, valleys, and the ocean is, being with people who care about you can be just as fulfilling. I remember how the sailors of the Dark Sea, after weeks or months of sailing, would all go down to the same tavern. They’d drink all night and keep the whole town up until morning with their singing and dancing. I think the reason they love sailing so much is that the crew became their family, and they come home to port together. When you finally do travel, Henry, don’t forget where your home is.”
The sun was setting, and twilight crept across the wheat.
Candles lit the table as the stranger joined the Costas for dinner. There were only three chairs, so Gregory stood with plate in one hand, fork in the other. The stranger offered to stand, but Mr. Costa insisted his guest take a seat. Once again, the stranger found the meal delicious and complemented Mrs. Costa on her cooking. There was some polite conversation, but they all stayed far away from the subjects dominating their thoughts.
After dinner the night was wearing on, and the weight of its dark folds was felt by all present. Mr. Costa decided it was time for him to join the watch bordering the village, ready to shout a warning at the first sign of movement. Mrs. Costa would join the women this night, and the stranger would guard Henry alone. Nothing could get in or out of the village without being seen. Henry lay on his bed and stared at the candle-lit wall. It will be tonight.
The stranger took a cup from the shelf, and set it on the table. He filled the cup with clean water, and withdrew a disconcertingly light pouch from his backpack. This could be the last for months. Opening the pouch, he poured out rose hips, a cinnamon stick, hibiscus petals, licorice and a few minor components into the cup.
He took several of the candles and poured their wax onto the table. Working quickly, in an area no larger than the base of the cup, he drew the Fire Rune in wax. Once before he had seen someone draw the flames so they looked like worms, on the comb they had seemed hungry, and when it started his cooking fire they had looked to him like tongues. At that time he wanted it to lick up the wood and give him coals to roast meat on; now he wanted much less of it, so he drew the rune carefully.
When he finished, it reminded him of the linked fingers of a couple holding hands: passionate, yet reserved. His Master once told him the true mark of skill was restraint. He placed the cup of water on the Rune, his Mage Sight allowing him to see it through the pottery. Brow furrowed, like before in the forest, once again he reached out to the rune and pulled forth an infinitesimally small portion of the inferno on the other side.
In small quantities, Fire is fairly easy to control and manipulate. But he knew how quickly fire could become uncontrollable, threatening even the mage’s life. Using Fire against the Beast could bring the whole Forest Agnesi down, including the village and the stranger.
Soon steam and delightful smells rose from the cup. There was no trace of smoke from the table in the smell, he noted with satisfaction.
“You’re a mage,” said Henry. He watched the stranger like snow in summer.
“You already knew; you didn’t find me by the light of my fire alone.”
The boy lowered his eyes.
“You sensed the afterglow of magic through the dark. You didn’t see the beast either; you felt it coming and ran before it could catch you. The beast retreated because it’s cautious of unfamiliar mages. It is a plague of magic on this village which should never have survived the mage wars. It’s not difficult to see why the villagers don’t care for magic. I doubt you trust it much either.”
“The beast killed our cows, stole our food, and wrecked our homes… You saved me,” said Henry.
“Magic is like any other weapon or tool: it won’t make you like the beast, or like me. It allows you to fulfill your inner desires, whether those desires are to protect your friends or to destroy your enemies.”
“So you’ll use magic to fight the beast? They say even iron can’t harm it, but you can still save us.”
“I shall tell you why I came here. Ms. Gaetana has, unbeknownst to her, a magical item among her mementos. The item’s creator made a sacrifice to the Fire Rune in exchange for power. The comb is a token of the deal and, when its magic is used up, the contract will expire and the item be rendered worthless. The comb’s connection with Fire allows magic to leak onto our side, accumulating to the point where it could be sensed from far away. Mage Sight is about contrast: you probably haven’t noticed it because you grew up surrounded by the aura.”
“How did he make the contract, and what is the Fire Rune?”
“Plan on making one yourself?” the stranger asked. The boy looked away again. “I’ve been searching out the remains of the mage wars over the years, and my journey led me here. This item is very dangerous: anyone who can use magic could bring about great destruction with it. Even you could easily burn down the whole village. I made a deal to slay the beast for the comb.”
“You could steal it,” said Henry.
“But you won’t?”
“You want to fight the beast.”
“I have my reasons. You can judge me later; it’s good to give people the opportunity to prove themselves.”
“Father says, ‘Don’t let a fox guard your henhouse.’”
The stranger chuckled. “Your father is a wise man; I didn’t say you shouldn’t prepare for betrayal.” There was a pause after this; the boy sat in thought and the stranger drank from the cup.
“Is that a potion?” Henry wondered.
“Just tea,” another pause between them, and the stranger took a sip.
Henry noticed the stranger was answering most questions, so he continued to exercise his curiosity. “Why do your lips move wrong when you talk?”
The stranger raised his eyebrows in interest. “You’re a sharp one. This,” from under his shirt he removed tiny stone tablet on a silver chain with four characters in relief on its face. Unlike the Runes, which burn their shape into the mind, these characters were difficult to look on directly and were impossible to remember. “Lets me understand anyone, and makes them hear my words in their own language. If you concentrate on my lips or the sound of my voice, you can tell I’m speaking a different tongue.”
“What about your eyes? You won’t look anyone in the eye while it’s light out.”
“As I said before, your people don’t trust magic. The first sign of a mage is a change in the eyes when active magic is nearby, reverting to normal when it dissipates. The next is the Mage Sight, allowing you to sense active magic against a uniform background. You become a mage, irreversibly, when you first connect with one of the Letters, a Glyph, or a Rune. You are very close to that point. Average people may take years or even decades to make the connection, but you could become a mage tonight if you so chose.”
The boy studied his hands while sitting on the bed, not speaking or moving.
“I’ve never taken an apprentice before, but I will offer you the position. If you come with me I will teach you everything I’ve learned, to do with what you will. I leave after the beast dies and I take the comb, you have until then to make your decision.
“Remember, magic is not inherently evil, but the things people do to get it may be. Only you can choose what you become.” He took another sip from the cup.
Henry continued to watch from his bed as the stranger made his final preparations but, before much more night passed, the boy fell asleep. The stranger brought out the needle he used in the forest. His finger drew a circle on the table, though it left no discernable mark. After he placed it in the center, he touched the Letters on its side with his mind and the compass needle rose above the table. However, instead of picking out a direction, it merely spun faster the longer it was in the air.
You have found many treasures my friend, and I know we are close to one now, but what I need from you this time is different. You sensed the comb from across the Fertile Planes, for your sight is sharper than mine, but I need you to dull your perception. Our eyes are blinded by it, and we need to see clearly: ignore the comb. The needle continued to spin. If that cannot be, then shorten your range and point to the comb as you did from far away.
The needle slowed to a stop, swung back the other way, and pointed to the midwife’s house. The stranger half-smiled at his success. With the plate hidden beneath his cloak, the sword at his waist, and the dagger in his boot, he felt prepared to fight. Now I wait until the beast moves; when it does, the needle will twitch towards it.
Long hours passed, measured by the waning of the candle on the table. He dare not look away or let his mind wander, for fear his clue come while distracted. Using the Awakened Touch, he entranced himself to care solely for the needle. Time burned away, like the candle shrinking to a stub, until the crescent moon past its peak.
Finally, the needle trembled minutely, breaking his trance and telling him all he needed to know. He replaced the needle and quietly made his way to the door. He glanced at the sleeping boy and said, “Rest well Henry; I end this tonight.” Judging his course by the midwife’s house, he started for the forest.
The watchmen spotted the stranger running over the grass and followed his path with their eyes in time to see one of the trunks on the tree-line move. It was gone, retreated into the deeper dark, long before they realized how close the beast had been. The cry went up: the farmers grabbed their tools and, with a hunger far surpassing fear, they charged the black woods. But even the fastest was standing compared to the stranger whose legs devoured the beast’s lead. They tried to follow the man and the tree-sized shadow, but the night swallowed them both and erased their traces beyond all hope of pursuit. The impotent anger in the farmer’s voices was all to be heard in the cool air.
The night is usually filled with noise, thought the stranger while passing through the thick underbrush and between the trees. The silence is the forest’s terror of the beast, and yet it flees from me. Is this war-relic merely a scavenger afraid for its life, or a skillful predator waiting for its chance? The beast’s breathing grew louder and the vibrations from its heavy steps grew stronger as he caught up. That something so large could move so rapidly through the vegetation spoke of incredible strength and animal skill. Though it was dark in the forest as he pushed his limit for speed, the beast’s outline was clear to his Mage Sight.
We’re too deep in the forest for the farmers to find us, so I won’t have to worry about the beast attacking them. So close he could smell its musk, they entered a natural clearing in the woods. A backhand like a low-hanging branch swept over the stranger as he leaned back to slide under—flipping at the end to face his enemy. As they stared each other down, the beast paused with arms spread and ready to knock the head from his shoulders. It was covered in dense shaggy hair that had months’ worth of leaves, twigs, and dirt tangled in knots. Every hair on its body was so brightly lit with energy his Mage Sight could have followed it in total darkness. The beast came into crystalline focus as the picture in his mind’s eye overlapped with the emerging moon’s illumination.
Bipedal and hunched over like a chimpanzee, it was still twice the stranger’s height. On the beast’s massive shoulders sat a proportionally small head no bigger than a man’s. Each leg was a tower’s foundation, and seemed to anchor itself in the earth for balance. Its mighty back bore the weight of two mammoth arms which, from shoulder to fingertip, were as long as the beast was tall and thick as tree trunks. Its hands matched the arms with long dirty nails dense as metal and serrated like cruel daggers.
The stranger drew his blade and held a defensive sword-stance—don’t look away for an instant—He slipped into a clear and focused serenity, breathing calmly with muscles ready and limber. His periphery vision registered no obstacle or cover inside their arena. The stranger’s mind brushed over the Letters written on one side of the blade and drew out their power. The Letters emanated a thin aura of violet light projecting from the cutting edge of the sword.
Only an experienced eye could have seen the play of muscles under fur and predicted the raking blow of the right hand’s claws—an eye the stranger seemed to have as he rolled under the beast’s arm. The monster’s speed was staggering, a mountain flying as a sparrow, but the stranger managed to lash out at the beast in his roll, trimming a lock of hair on the forearm.
Quickly recovering from his rolling dodge, the stranger put his back to a tree on the rim of the field. He waited as the beast threw a claw like a spear at his chest and side-stepped so it just missed his flesh. The claw lodged in the tree and the stranger, in fierce retaliation, slashed the arm that nearly skewered him. Though the blade was edged with magic, it cut merely hair. Without hesitating to consider a second blow, he immediately leapt away.
With titanic strength the beast freed its claws, eviscerating the tree, and sent a backhanded slash at the stranger. He felt the sting as a claw sliced his sleeve and scratched his arm. Shifting weight to continue its assault, the beast swung its other hand at the stranger’s torso. His feet had scarcely touched down when he dug them into the earth and wrenched his body away from the swing, muscles protesting but somehow carrying him through. With successful evasion came the stranger’s response, a wrist driven work of finesse that removed patches of hair.
The beast stabbed, sliced, and slashed in quick succession, faster and angrier for the loss of hair. The stranger barely dodged each swipe as he leaped, ducked, and rolled across the clearing, but several of the attacks tore his traveler’s clothes and nicked his skin. It’s not slowing down; the first spell is barely effective; perhaps the other set of Letters will be deadly. With that thought, the purple aura disappeared as the writing on the sword’s other side came to shining life. The blade was soon sheathed in a hard violet brighter than before, but smaller and denser.
Perhaps the concentration taken to change the spell left the stranger momentarily vulnerable, or maybe something made him pause, but the beast took advantage of whatever weakness it saw. After the stranger dodged a sweeping slice by jumping back, the beast lunged forward with its shoulder and slammed him into a tree trunk, knocking the wind out of him.
Reeling and choking on his own breath, he was almost too slow to avoid death. A barely eluded claw caught his upper arm and drew blood, leaving dirt and stink in the wound. In spite of the damage and pain, he slashed at the beast’s body. This time the stranger cut through hair down to skin and sliced shallowly across flesh. Now both sides had drawn blood.
The stranger recovered his defense quickly, cleanly dodging most blows but needing to parry others. After dodging, he replied with a nick or scratch to the beast. When parrying, it took all his strength to block and all his accumulated skill to avoid the follow-up: a crushing blow beyond the limits of human ability to defend against. Blood poured from the cut on his shoulder with every beat of his heart, and the sword spell slowly drained him of his ability to control magic. His grip was soon threatened by blood flowing down his arm, but dropping the sword is a fool’s death I refuse to suffer.
Though the beast struggled against its own mass with each movement, it was fueled by a store of magic which gave it a lethal combination of speed and strength. Despite its many cuts and loss of blood, the beast was relentless; not even voicing the pain it surely felt from each stroke of the shining blade. I can’t get a solid opening to finish the thing, there’s no guarantee the third spell will be more effective, and if I wait any longer my strength and magic will fail me.
He summoned the wasps.
“Attack!” yelled the stranger after dodging another claw. At this word, a buzzing blared from bushes and trees surrounding the arena. A cloud of dozens quickly formed and swarmed the beast without pausing to consider betrayal of their master.
They attacked every exposed area: each wound from the sword and every sensitive spot was a target. They burrowed under the fur and bit and clawed and stung the beast’s arms and head and chest. Their scissor-like mandibles cut repeatedly and severely, while their stings swelled painfully into large welts filled with pus.
The individual sword slashes had been bearable, but so much pain at once broke the beast’s assault. It slammed its arms and hands against its body, sometimes cutting itself with its own claws. Some wasps were crushed, and continued to bite and sting in their death throws, while others were hidden or cushioned by the beast’s own hair. The beast rolled on the field, pounding the earth and splintering trees with the weight of its body.
When he was sure the beast was thoroughly distracted, the stranger sheathed his sword and removed the plate. He held the saucer at arm’s length with both hands, pointing the single eye-like rune at the beast’s writhing form. He closed his eyes and reached into the Rune with his mind. The cat’s eye shone in a faint blue light, which grew stronger with each passing second.
Its world reduced to the immediate agony, the beast was oblivious to the gathering spell. The air felt alive with power, and strands of the stranger’s hair rose up as the sound of pops and crackles intensified. The stranger released the plate, his hands hovering a few inches away from the surface, allowing it to float freely in the air while his mind remained connected to the Rune. I have to maintain control; it could easily backfire if I don’t give it my full attention. The Rune was now brilliant with whites and blues, and sparks showered from the plate.
As arcs of intense blue light shot between the plate and his hands and the ground, he shouted, “Fly!” At this word, the insects obediently took to the sky as one. Animal mind driven insane by its pain, the beast leapt bodily into the air at the stranger with claws poised for merciless revenge. By now the continuous shocks to the plate had disintegrated it entirely—leaving only the sharp white-blue etching of the Rune in the air. Suddenly animate, the eye dilated, and then contracted into a slit focused on the beast.
A condensed bolt of lightning then shot from the eye, crackling with energy and lashing out against the grass and trees with arcs of hot blue light. Colliding in the air, the bolt stopped the beast’s flight and propelled it back while ravaging its smoking body with claws of white-blue energy. Flung across the clearing, the beast crashed into a tree and was pinned against it as the bolt slammed into its stomach. Dissimilating into a dozen pieces, the smaller fragments of elemental energy spiraled over the beast and into the trees, vaporizing leaves and bursting trunks into flame before they disappeared. The stranger fell to one knee, drained by the battle and his spell. With effort, he rose to his feet and once again drew his sword.
Bald, smelling of burnt hair and flesh, covered with a thousand cuts and stings, and with a charred and bleeding stomach wound, the beast propped itself up on one clawed hand and then the other. The stranger’s hair was frizzed and wild, though not burnt, and his cuts still bled, but his stance was strong. He summoned his resolve, and brought out the sword’s third spell. The two sets of Letters coated the blade in a hard white-purple light that cut the night wherever the sword passed.
Rising to its feet, the beast brought its arms and claws in close to its body—a defensive position. The stranger stared down the beast as the fires grew around them, as if willing it to attack. The flames left by the Lightning Rune grew as they stood, bathing the clearing in an orange-and-yellow light that shadowed their faces. The beast, still imposing despite all its wounds, lifted one mammoth foot—and stepped back.
“There is no more freedom for you, only the release of death,” the stranger stated. He charged. The stranger was a fearsome sight illuminated by fire and the otherworldly light in his hand. The beast extended its claws to meet him and, with the strength of a cornered animal surging through its massive arms, countered him once with each hand. At the beast’s first counter the stranger twisted away, and the claws tore the cloth on his undamaged arm without wounding him. But the second counter cut into his side, and blood flowed freely. Between the beast’s arms now, he jumped into the air and pushed off the beast’s chest for another few feet. He brought the sword around and through in a single deadly motion of light and steel, separating the beast’s head from its body.
He landed rolling, and struggled up to one knee while the sword dimmed, his grip on the third spell lost. Feeling his remaining strength pouring out through the gash, he fumbled in his pockets for something. He retrieved a coin of dark metal engraved with four quadrants, each containing a separate character, with the flipside a spiral of snakes on a rod with a pair of wings. The strange characters defied the mind, impossible to look on directly or remember. He held it to his side, touched the coin with his mind, and the letters gave off a faint amber light. The skin began to knit itself together, and the bleeding soon stopped.
The stranger sighed as the pain receded and slowly stood—careful not to reopen the wound. Looking about, he saw the night’s darkness shred by the tongues of flame eagerly consuming the Forest Agnesi. Branches cracked and fell, sending bursts of sparks into the air that caught on the leaves of neighboring trees.
The fire will spread back to the village if I don’t stop it. He drew the Fire Rune in the clearing with his sword, delicately this time. When he finished, the lines representing flames that sometimes appeared as tongues or worms appeared to him motionless and dead. His mind connected with the Rune, and the all-consuming Fire entered his mind as it tried to burst through the channel. He resisted the foreign compulsion and focused on reversing the flow, but he knew the task would be beyond his remaining strength. Unless a sacrifice was made.
Luckily, I’m covered in blood. He positioned his wounded arm above the rune, and let the blood flow. As the drops of blood fell, they were consumed by Fire. “An offering of blood, freely given. By my word: Withdraw!” Suddenly, heat left the air around him. All through the clearing, the light of the fire dimmed. The energy in the flames was sucked into the rune like water down a drain, they flickered and died. The embers cooled to coal, and the night’s chill entered the clearing. Darkness replaced firelight, until only the moon and stars remained.
Mind tired from magic, body aching, he sank slowly to the ground and lay face down with his head turned to the side, resting on a cheek. An eye opened, and he saw the dead beast’s head staring blankly back. It was then, staring at that dead face, he saw something to chill his blood. What he saw, his mind rejected. It was impossible, a trick of moonlight. But his dead enemy’s face was absolute, unyielding to reason. His brain finally accepted what he knew to be true, and the implication he was avoiding struck home. This changes everything. I have to get back. The boy—Henry.
Standing up was the most important thing. He wobbled up to his knees and a stabbing pain ran through his belly. His arms were bloody and shaking, and he almost lost balance. You made a promise, on your honor. Isn’t that the only thing you haven’t thrown away? His body stilled, and he rose to his feet. Filled with a second wind that would cost him come morning, he picked up the head in one hand and set off for the village.
The night is not yet over.
The farmers could be seen wandering about the edge of the forest, faces lit by torches, but the stranger did not stop to speak with them. Instead, he ran past, gait disrupted by pain. None saw him as he flowed shade-like from the trees to the grass of the field, damp now with pre-morning dew. On any other night he would have reveled in the scents of the field, drunk in the sounds of the night, and stared into the deep sky.
Tonight he was covered in a sour-smelling cold sweat. All his concentration was bent on the task at hand: keeping control of his own bloody and exhausted body. His grimace testified to the pain of his passage and the fear gripping his heart. From house to house now, he ran to the one he knew best. At the threshold, he could see candlelight through cracks in the wood. With his free hand he opened the door. Inside, there was nothing.
Henry was gone.
The venerable, thick wooden front door of the midwife’s house with the iron knocker burst inward; no lock guarded a house of so small a town. The midwife, standing on the side of the room opposite the door, turned to see the beast’s head thrown into the room, land, and roll once to stare up at her with glossed eyes.
It had no mouth. Below the nose was skin leading to the chin of its primate face.
“I present the beast’s head, Ms. Gaetana. Do you acknowledge my claim?” If the dirt of the road had left him barely presentable when he entered the village, now he was barely human by appearances. Covered in his own and the beast’s blood, twigs and burs in his clothes from his run through the woods, and mud congealed on various places, he seemed a battered corpse.
“I couldn’t believe it anything else,” her voice was a tone rougher than before, as if a few grains of sand invaded her silk. “You’ve done more than I expected and fulfilled our bargain. As for your reward—”
“—First, tell me, where is Henry?” he asked as he walked across the threshold.
Ms. Gaetana, her face the portrait of wisdom, opened her mouth to speak, but instead gestured with a hand. Immediately, three circles hastily carved in the ceiling with dozens of Letters dancing on their edges came to life in harsh saffron. While the stranger was still in midstride, rings of light descended around him—before he could react, the rings contracted. The first ring brought his legs together at the knees, the second secured his hands to his sides, and the third closed around his neck. Taken off balance, he would have fallen if the rings had not held him up.
“So you are the witch of this village, the Witch of Agnesi.”
“Yes,” said the witch Gaetana. She now had a glow in her eyes that highlighted their natural hazel color. “I am to blame for all that happened here. I created the beast, I controlled it, and now I have found what you were looking for in my village,” her long and delicate fingers held up the comb with the Fire Rune, “A treasure among those trivialities. I think you will provide the perfect test for its abilities.”
“Wait, I don’t understand—the monsters used in the Mage Wars had mouths so the mages wouldn’t have to waste magic feeding them before a battle. The beast had no mouth. This was a precaution to ensure loyalty on a journey, as its only food source would be the mage’s magic. Why make the beast that way if you were only going to stay here? Did you not intend to leave?”
“Why would I need to stay here, with my powers?”
“Because you can’t leave,” he said. “Something binds you to the village. In your youth you must have been isolated by your wealth and speech. You were taught how to speak and behave in the civilized South, and had to adjust to living with uneducated farmers. You learned about the world through books and your father’s stories as a merchant. You must have desperately wanted to go, but couldn’t.” He hesitated to think it through, and then he had the answer. “It was your parents. Your mother died of disease when you were young. That must have been hard on you. You spent years caring for a bedridden father—”
“—Who didn’t know when to give up,” she finished. “We were trapped here, hiding from the Witch Hunters and book burners in the wake of the Mage Wars. My mother died and I found nothing but pity in the village. Then my father became bedridden and I was trapped with him. How could I survive in the world without his secrets? Father’s enemies and debt collectors would take everything the minute I stepped into the Southern Kingdoms. He wanted me to settle down here! Here, where there was nothing but idiots. All they felt for me was envy. I wanted to be free of this mud hole in the woods and walk my own path. My youth expired as I waited for him to give up and tell me. Finally, as he died, he taught me the secret, and I could learn to use magic. Decades passed as I taught myself the skills necessary to perform even one spell. When I was ready, my life was gone, wasted here. My body is incapable of making the journey I desire.”
“Maybe they’re to blame for much of what’s happened to you, and luck wasn’t on your father’s side either, but how many of those problems were your own doing? You chose magic over the people around you, and you have to live with that decision. Why focus your anger on the village? Why make the beast if you couldn’t leave?”
“Because I hate this place! Every single farmer and every last child! I hate them because they hate me.”
“They trust you,” he said.
“They trust me to save them, to use my knowledge for their benefit. They pretend to feel sorry for me, to pity me, but in their hearts they all hate me. They’re just glad to have someone to look down on, ‘Even better if her house is larger, even better if her clothes are nicer, because it didn’t do her any good, did it? She could never get a husband, she could never have children, and that’s why we’re better than her.’”
He positioned his wounded arm above the rune, and let the blood flow. As the drops of blood fell, they were consumed by Fire. “An offering of blood, freely given.”
“Where is the boy,” he suddenly asked, “What have you done with Henry?”
“It shouldn’t make any difference to a dead man such as yourself.”
“You had no right to take the children.”
“Right? I had every right. Their mothers may have conceived them, but I delivered them. Without my skill they would not have survived, they were mine to take.”
“They are human beings, belonging to no one but themselves. You only attacked the villagers because you couldn’t reach your real enemies. The children had nothing to do with this, are you too much of a coward to confront your peers?”
“I will not justify myself to the dead any longer,” she said as she raised the comb. “They will never rise again, and I raze the village tonight with this.”
“You’ve made one important mistake.” She hesitated. “You said I fulfilled our oath, freeing me of my honor-bound obligation to protect the villagers—including you. Attack.”
From the open windows and doorway came the swarm of wasps, the stranger’s own conjured beasts, converging on the witch. Instead of using the comb, she reached into her pocket and withdrew a glass marble with magic Letters etched in its surface. A crimson bubble visible to his Mage Sight expanded from the marble and quickly enveloped her. She’s using the glass to control the Letter Pattern’s shape. To normal sight there was a hazy distortion in the air around her body.
Undaunted, the wasps crashed into the bubble and tried to pierce it with their stingers or mandibles, creating tiny cracks in the membrane. Recovering her concentration after the wasp gambit fazed her, the witch focused on the comb, awakening the Fire Rune into a deep and hungry scarlet. The stranger did not waste the seconds he’d bought. He kicked the dagger out of his boot and into his hand, blade turning violet as he twisted to cut the first ring of light binding his knees.
He flicked the blade across the ring binding his arms—shattering it—and a final sweep of the blade that just nicked his throat freed him completely from the witch. He retaliated by throwing the dagger at her chest. Though the blade penetrated a mere inch into the bubble, large cracks erupted across the membrane.
The three rings of light slowly sank in the air like wrecked ships to the bottom as he began walking toward the witch. He felt the heat of her anger as he felt the heat of the flame spiraling out of the comb, burning dozens of wasps in its sweep. By spinning the comb and then thrusting it forward, she collected the tiny cyclones of fire into a dense ball of hot force to shoot at the stranger.
By feigning left and then diving right he was able to evade the blast at the cost of only the hem of his cloak and a few hairs. He was coming up from his roll, a stab of pain in his gut, when the wall behind him burst into flaming debris. Burning trinkets and baubles rained down as the stranger drew his sword, shining the hard white-purple light of the third spell, and sprinted across the room.
The witch had a cold sweat and her hands trembled, but fear brought desperation as she prepared a second blast of fire for the stranger who had invaded her decades of self-imposed isolation. As this ball of fire formed, every remaining insect was incinerated by the heat. In those instants before the sword would pierce the shield, she released her last attack. The stranger twisted away as the swirling mass of fire shot from the comb. The intense heat vaporized his cloak and burned off a foot of his hair as it passed. Off balance, falling, and wounded, he flung the sword at the witch. A shaft of white-purple light slid past the embedded dagger, shattered the witch’s barrier, to its inevitable conclusion between ribs. As witch and stranger fell to the once beautiful house’s living room floor, the east wall vomited fire and rubble onto the street.
The stranger smothered the little tongues of them on him before the fire spread; it’ll take weeks to lose the smell of burnt hair. He added the forming blisters on his back to the list of general muscle pains and cuts, and then walked through the smoking rubble to the collapsed witch. He sheathed the fallen dagger as its glow faded, and pocketed the sleeping comb. After wiping the blood off the sword and placing it in its scabbard, he said, “I didn’t puncture a lung, so you should be able to talk.” The witch’s eyes were livid, staring at him, but the once-proud light in them was gone.
“I’m sure spell-casting is quite impossible for you with that hole in your chest, so I’m not worried. I’ll patch you up, and then we’ll talk about Henry.” He withdrew the healing coin, knelt down so they were at eye level, and held the coin to her wound. He tried to connect to the healing coin, but, as he feared, his Mage Touch was exhausted. It would take hours of sleep before he could again use the Letters or the Runes.
“I don’t have the strength left to heal, but connecting to the coin should require less concentration from you than casting a spell. Use it to close the wound.”
Her expression was drawn with pain, but the sneer welled up in her cheeks. The memory of the kindly midwife he’d met yesterday shriveled before this spider gorging itself on self-indulgent spite, “Why? If they blame you for killing me, I can have revenge on you as well.”
“Don’t be so quick to choose death; we can still cut a deal. You point out a direction and I’ll take you there, as long as you live, just tell me where Henry is.”
“These past months have been more fulfilling than all my previous decades combined. It’s not about seeing the world anymore; I’ve seen enough to know it was never worth my trouble. You were right. It’s about biting the hand that stole my years and anything else I can sink my teeth into; including you.”
His patience for the odious witch ended there. “We’ll discuss this after you’ve been healed.” Her opinion won’t matter to the Hoshi no Tama. He touched her forehead with a finger. ‘Use the coin to heal yourself, and then tell me where the boy is.’
“You think you are the only one who knows such tricks?” the witch said as her breathing slowed. She learned from her father? “My will is stronger than yours,” she managed between gasps. He leaned in as she whispered to him, “You lose,” before the life left her eyes. He was aware of the smoke choking the room, the fire spreading over wood, and the shouting of the villagers to bring water. These things meant nothing to him. You have won. And I have failed.
Flames hissed as the house fires were extinguished by water. The debris from the two explosions was burning in pockets scattered across the street. I shouldn’t have let things be this way. Each piece had to be doused with water or stamped out before fire spread to nearby homes. How could I have left Henry unprotected like that? The doorway and the corners of Ms. Gaetana’s house still stood, but much to the left and right of the door was simply gone. Why did I waste so much time on the beast? If I hadn’t worried about conserving energy, things wouldn’t have gotten out of hand. Fire would soon spread to the roof, but several men using the water buckets passed to them down a line of villagers were controlling the flames. I should have made better preparations.
“So the beast is dead,” said Gregory. After taking a few more steps he added, “And so is the midwife.” The farmer stood by the stranger, gazing on her corpse. “Why’d you kill her?”
He swallowed. He didn’t want to explain himself; he didn’t have to. He could still leave without being stopped. “She was the witch who conjured the beast.”
“My son is gone.”
The farmer hesitated, and then said, “I believe you. But the others will need some evidence, about the witch. Things could get dangerous here otherwise.”
“Her library. The books will have drawings of the beast and some Letters.”
“That’ll be enough proof for anyone, let’s go,” Gregory held out a hand to the stranger. He was sitting on the floor now, next to the witch covered in blood. He took the hand.
“I never thought Henry would be in danger while I—”
“—Those wounds must be painful; you shouldn’t say more than you have to.”
They started with the nearest door, peaked into the kitchen covered in ash, and moved on to the next room. They explored the house neither knew well in silence.
She’d moved her bed into the library. Stacks of books covered the wooden floor and lined the walls dozens of shelves. A short bed with a feather mattress, pillow, and blanket covered in books occupied a corner of the room. A thick wool carpet pooled at the foot of the bed, the room lit by a candle on the nightstand.
The books were bound in leather, linen, or merely tied together with string. They smelled ancient, and the pages had yellowed with time, but the covers and shelves were free of dust from frequent use. Subjects ranged from the political borders of the Southern Kingdoms to the relative merits of forest herbs. The stranger reverently inspected each book he removed from the shelves, while Gregory quickly flipped through and tossed aside most anything.
“This mean anything to you?” said Gregory. In his hand was a hard-back sealed shut with a leather clasp. The lock had no key hole, but on it was a single Letter the stranger found familiar. He accepted the book, hopefully it doesn’t take much, even translation magic is difficult in this state, and reached out to the Letter. It refused to glow bright in his hand but, after a brief moment of internal struggling, they heard a click as the clasp released.
On the inside of the half-inch thick cover was a small hollow perfectly fitted to a glass bead. Within the bead was the Fire Rune, a coil of vipers. The stranger recognized the design and its purpose. This was built to destroy itself should someone without magic force it open, a mage’s response to the searches after the Mage Wars. Her father didn’t want there to be any evidence he was a mage if he was ever found. It also explains why the witch couldn’t teach herself; she needed to learn how to use that letter before she could even open the books.
Carefully turning the pages, he inspected the contents. Inside were words in a language he recognized without magic; it quickly became apparent this was a book of spells. The last third contained sketches of various monsters—something doesn’t fit—some familiar to him from his army days and others even he found strange and frightening. The stranger’s eyes widened in understanding: the last piece had fallen into place.
No mouths. Not a one could fend for itself. What if she didn’t know how to give the beast a mouth because the books were written by a traveling mage who wanted absolutely loyal guards? If she didn’t have the experience or skill with magic to nourish the beast, than she would have to turn to other methods of obtaining magic. That’s where the children become involved.
She couldn’t hide the beast inside the village but, since she was its only source of food, it would always stay near. If she couldn’t feed it, it might have killed her in animal desperation. The only place she could hide a source of magic from the eyes of the farmers and have it be accessible at any time is in her own home. And what safer place than her most private room—
The stranger disregarded the book, letting Gregory catch it, and kicked aside the rug to uncover the floor. Eyes scanning the tightly fitted wooden boards, he spotted an indentation. When his fingers shot into the hole and lifted up, a masterfully cut trapdoor opened into an enormous dark cellar carved into the foundation. The stink of spoiled food erupted into a room previously filled with the smell of smoking rubble.
The last flames extinguished, greasy smoke hung about the carcass of what was once the proudest house in the village. A sickly dawn lighted on the faces of every man and woman in the community, drawn to the spectacle of destruction. The farmers had preserved much of the center and rear of the building through determination and sweat, but the front was mutilated into scattered rubble and tarnished trinkets.
All gazes caught on the figure descending the steps below the threshold; for in its arms was the withered body of a girl. A second passed. A farmer and his wife cried out in recognition and ran to the stranger who was picking his way through the debris. Her chest was still, her eyes were closed. Behind the stranger came Gregory, Henry likewise motionless in his arms.
They made as if to take her, but the stranger declined. He sank to the ground and laid her on the grass. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but no words came out. He closed his lips, and then inhaled. Pressing his thumb to her forehead, he gave voice to the word, “Awake.” He felt nothing.
Like a fool caught in foolishness, he dared looking into the eyes watching him, but could not stand their sight for long. Whatever hope might have blossomed on their faces had quickly vanished like mist before the day. The witch is dead, I can beat her. Before anyone could work up the strength to take her, he once again spoke the word, “Awake!”
The curtain tore, and dawn touched her face. The child inhaled sharply and rolled onto her side. Her sleep-crusted eyes held mostly confusion as they looked into her parents eyes. The assembly lost their breath, but one kept his head, “We’ll need help bringing the rest out,” said Gregory.
The men’s faces were a slideshow of confusion, surprise, understanding, and joy as they rushed the stairs. The women wasted no time in taking up the child now, and they set about to clean and treat her. Henry was next, and seemed unharmed from the last time the stranger had seen him. Now I know I can, the rest should be simple. The men brought each child before the stranger, who spent that first early morning hour stirring to life their emaciated bodies. And while his hands and lips worked, he thought.
It was her choice to summon the monster; but by utilizing that freedom, her own lack of power trapped herself in the village with those she hated. Being denied freedom at the climax of her ascent must have fed her hatred to the point where she became willing to do anything. As she got deeper into her immorality, it ceased to be about escaping and more about exacting her revenge. The final twisting of her hopes into hate made her ultimately unable to accept my help, taking the pain of the villagers over whatever pleasure she might have found.
By enslaving the dreaming minds of children she gained a constant source of magic to feed the beast. Though they could never gather magic without training under normal circumstances, with the witch guiding their thoughts they performed like mages in miniature. All she had to do was keep them alive. Getting enough food for them led to the stealing, and that led to the destruction of property to cover it up. The beast must have brought the food under cover of night. We can be glad she only knew to use their dreams for gathering magic. This would be a very different scene if she’d learned the secret of Fire.
The sky lightened, going through the mélange of colors dawn had brought countless times before. Dew sparkled off of every blade of grass and leaf as stranger rose from the last child to be brought out. The Henry and his father stood nearby.
“My offer still stands,” said the stranger.
The boy thought for a breath, and then said, “Thanks, but I want to be a farmer like my dad. Traveling the world might be nice to think of, but if we don’t work hard to catch up we won’t make it through the winter.” His father gave him a one-armed hug.
“I thought you might feel that way, but it would be an insult not to ask.”
“Stranger, you have brought nothing but good to our village. You killed the beast, and the witch, but that’s nothing to this. You returned our children to us even when we thought them dead. Anything we have to offer is yours.”
“I ask for the witch’s spell books.”
“Take them. We’re tearing down the house today; there won’t be one stone on another to remind us. There must be something more you need?”
He took several generous offers of food, salt, and spices on his way out. He was invited to stay by many, but refused all. He assembled the books he desired and slipped them one by one into his backpack, quickly exceeding any conceivable conservation of space. Before the farmers could begin to dismantle the house, he was on his way out of the village.
Gregory spoke with him away from the others. “At least stay for the celebration.”
“I can’t, I have to get moving. Does it not bother you I’m walking away with a fair share of loot?”
“There’s not one of us who thinks it’s enough. You’re welcome here if you ever come this way again. The Village Agnesi will never forget you.”
The stranger bowed his head, turned, and left. He did not look back to see how long the villagers stared at him before going back to work. The stranger barely put five minutes between himself and the village before collapsing into the crook of tree’s roots. Deep aches were coming on strong but, despite the pain, he was calm. He fell asleep romanticizing the life of a farmer.