I push the key into the keyhole and stare right into the client’s –deep blue- eyes. He does his best to look like he has the faintest idea of what’s going on. His purse was big enough to hire an escort of fifteen warriors, trekking with him to Ledelhill, or just me, a single Troubleshooter, that can take him to the godforsaken village in a matter of hours and keep him just as safe. I can almost see his thoughts play out on his brow: You are a fool Nodrig! You gave them a fortune to take you north and instead, they push you into a basement, leagues away from Ledelhill! Well mister Nodrig, prepare to be amazed.
I turn the key and black fire spreads around the doorframe. The darkness of the basement deepens and the scent of stale air is replaced with the sweet smell of burning sugar.
I smile at mister Nodrig and his priceless expression. –His teeth are flawless- “Are you ready sir? It can be a disorienting experience, crossing the world between the seams.”
“I only fear sorcery that I haven’t paid for!”
“Good man. True sorcery always comes at a price.”
I push the door and the black flames die out with a sigh. The smell of burnt sugar is replaced with that of pine trees, snow and fresh air. This cellar door, which is affixed to the southern wall of the basement, within the world’s most expensive gentleman’s club, on the continent’s greatest metropolis, now leads thousands of kilometers to the northwest, in the outskirts of the Ledel Woods, quite possibly, the world’s armpit. While this door is open, the world remains folded, connecting armpit and metropolis together. “After you sir”, I say and shove the dumbfounded warrior through. Still, I should have shoved harder, for he still ends up vomiting as soon as his feet touch the ground. With a shrug, I pull out the magical key and follow.
“What? What was that? What happened? Where is this?” he says while spinning around.
“If I am not mistaken, this is the hunting lodge, south of Ledelhill.” I say while closing the door behind me. The wooden cabin seems derelict which doesn’t bode well for Ledelhill itself. “I’ve used it a few years ago while hunting chimeras. Nasty things but their distinct physiology allows for the most peculiar combinations of hides and pelts. Not a bad haul all told.” I still use the leather jerkin, I had made from that hunt. “Though it seems that hunting has died down nowadays. Looks like no one has been here for a while.”
“I told you people, this place is in danger! The last letters I got, were full of ramblings of glints in the night and sweet singing in the silence, whatever that means! The letters weren’t even signed! I tell you, Ledelhill is condemned! Beset by demons!” mister Nodrig says and pulls out a few pages of crumbled stationary from his belt-bag. How passionate. That won’t do.
“Keep your wits or you will condemn us too, demons or not, sir! These woods are both wild and lawless and if the people of Ledelhill had any sense, they would have abandoned their homes to the wilds long ago. Now, move and save your energy for the road. We are still hours away.”
With that, he tightens his weapon straps and pulls up his hood. His eyes are still agitated and the shadow play on his brow tells me he is still steeped in worry, possibly terror.
“You have every reason not to be afraid, mister Nodrig. After all, fear attracts predators out in the wild.”
With a reassuring tap on his –heavily muscled – shoulder, we begin our trek. I hope that mister Nodrig is simply a worrywart and wasted a lot of money coming here, but in my hard-earned experience, when someone hires a Troubleshooter, they, sadly, get their money’s worth.
A couple of hours later, mister Nodrig freezes in place.
“Did you see that? That tree moved!”
“I can guarantee that that tree hasn’t and will never move of its own accord. You have to collect yourself, sir. It is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.”
“By Time, man! Have you ever told someone to relax and it actually worked? And how can you be so calm? I tell you, these are demon infested woods!”
“While that is probably true, the reason for my collected disposition is quite simple. I am -almost constantly I must add- intoxicated, whether by alcohol or, as is currently the case, by mild narcotics. Perhaps you want some as well?”
I stop and start digging through my pouches for my stash with every intention to offer mister Nodrig a taste. I might even throw in a silly line to take his mind off of demons.
“What are you doing?” his voice, cold like steel.
“Ah, there it is. Mind-number extract. The perks of hiring a Troubleshooter with an alchemical background.”
I offer him the little vial along with a smile. He just stands there, the only motion, a vein twitching on his forehead. This man’s brow is like an art exhibition.
“Well go on. Just a little sip should help take your mind off of the grim possib…”
That crossed a line. At the last possible moment, I see him swing his –impeccably manicured– hand towards my face. Instinctively, I grab his –coarse and rough– palm and redirect his momentum towards the ground, laying him on his back. Before I can stop myself, my knee is on his throat and my blade hovers over his eye.
Shit! No need to make him more scared than he already is.
I stand up and return my eager sword to its leather nest. It slides in with the sigh of unblooded metal. Mister Nodrig coughs on the ground.
“Forgive me, sir! Reflexes and all that. I didn’t intend to hurt you or your sensibilities.”
I help him up and dust his coat.
“It’s just a matter of fact that in my line of business, I need to keep my composure level at all times. Hotheadedness or panic lead to mistakes, or worse, as you can surely tell from experience.”
“Right… Maybe I will relax when we see another person out here. It shouldn’t take long.”
“If all goes well, sir.”
At that moment I see it hanging from a tree. It’s not going to go well.
It is a small thing but so very, very dark. It looks beautiful from a distance, a dreamcatcher with a butterfly design in the middle and small wind chimes dangling from it. But up close, you notice that it’s not the wings of the butterfly but the skin of an expertly flayed rodent, stretched out to act as the surface and the bloody carcass along with its bones used as the frame. Worst of all, the wind chimes were made from human fingers –which didn’t chime at all-.
He looks at the gory item with that same constant puzzlement he has worn on his face since the moment I made his acquaintance. For all his talk of demons, mister Nodrig is obviously clueless.
“It seems you have every right to worry for the people of Ledelhill, mister Nodrig. This is not a good sign. In fact, this could only be worse, if we had found a flayed hand instead of a squirrel. This grisly trinket marks the territory of a demon clan. Kudos to you, sir. You were right. Ledelhill is condemned, beset by demons. Would you like to return now?”
“What are you saying man? We are to push on. I paid your people a fortune to get me to Ledelhill and that is what you are going to do!”
“You also paid me to keep you alive on the way and take you back. If we return now, I will have completed two out of three tasks. Not bad, If I say so myself. After all, everyone beyond here, is either dead or about to be.”
I shouldn’t have said that. He looks like the type that will want to save others.
“By all the Hours, you are to take me to Ledelhill and we are to help any person that is in any kind of trouble. I have signed a contract with your mistress and you are to honor it! I am told, she has ways of knowing which of her agents dishonors a contract and doubly so, which of her agents are cowards! Are you a coward, man? Are you one to go back on a contract?”
I wish he was wrong. A contract signed with Lady Dragoness is as close to a contract signed with Time itself.
“So be it sir. However I’d like you to know that you are not making my job any easier and you should keep your composure in check. Stay close.”
The sun shines high above us but the demon’s territory doesn’t seem to care. After the first dreamcatcher is behind us, the light seems to increasingly shy away, with every step. This unnatural gloom does nothing to make the woods easier on the eyes. Worst of all, the snow underfoot turns the earth into muck, which in turns, makes our progress glacial.
In the distance, a building can be seen.
“I know that dump. That’s Harold’s pig farm! Hogs so large, you can ride!” mister Nodrig says with refreshing excitement. –This is not the time for winning smiles, mister Nodrig- .
A cursory glance of the area reveals more than ten dreamcatchers hanging from gnarled branches. “I have been around more pig sties than I care to admit and they are not as silent as this. Perhaps we should investigate, clandestinely.”
Mister Nodrig pays me no heed. I should use smaller words. They will give him less time to act.
“Hey Harold! It’s me, Nodrig! I’ve returned! Are you ok friend?”
Silence. That’s good.
“HEY HAROLD! IT’S NODRIG! YOU THERE?”
Blood curdling squeals. That could be improved upon.
Something large sways in tune with the squeals.
“Are you so eager to be a hero, sir? Well heroes often have to fight monsters.”
And what a monster it is. It steps out of the pigpen on four long, meaty legs –that have far too many knees-. Its body resembles that of an enormous sow, draped over an exposed, bloody pig skeleton. Its mouth is a mess of bone and pig scull that squeals like a bag of piglets on fire. As it rises to its full height, I can see arm-like appendages protrude from its belly. Oh yes, mister Nodrig is sure to get his money’s worth.
He looks eager. That’s a pleasant surprise. Drawing his mean looking sword, he shouts curses at the monster. It seems that mister Nodrig is a man of action and violence when the cards are down.This will probably make my job harder but it’s preferable to protect a lion than a sheep.
Man and monster rush towards each other with deadly intent. The monster squeals horribly, the man lets out a defiant battle cry. In seconds, they will meet in a deadly dance of steel and bone. I make sure mister Nodrig is the lead by shooting one of the creature’s knees with a pistol.
This obviously surprised the demon sow more than it did the warrior. He quickly took advantage of the opening and slid under the unbalanced flesh-thing while carving a deep gush on the exposed side. Thank the stars, mister Nodrig can fight. I unload two more pistols on the monster’s flank before closing in with my own blade.
Up close, it is obvious that the thing has no business being alive in the first place. Its bones shift from under the skin to form jaws and claws and legs to end us. Mister Nodrig parries and blocks skillfully and repays each attack with two of his. However, from his –oh so expressive– brow I can tell that the spectacle does the real damage to him. He teeters on the edge of panic. Who can blame him? If this is what pigs became in Ledelhill, who knows what misshapen form the people took?
The flesh-and-bone mass that used to be mister Harold’s pigs, starts to buckle from our combined onslaught. Pieces of it mix with the mud on the ground, some of it still writhing. I make it a point to remove a chunk with every swing. Oh Hours. The smell is putrid. By reflex, I cut a massive piece from its torso and then follow with a kick. Regret immediately sets in, as this topples the dying monster right on top of mister Nodrig.
The valiant warrior screams in terror as the –finally- dead creature covers him.
“It’s all right sir! We have prevailed. Mister Harold’s farm is avenged.”
“Are you blind? It’s right over me!”
“Yes sir but it’s definitely dead. You can relax now.”
“No, not this thing! Help! Help me, man! Please!”
I can see nothing else of consequence in the immediate area. There are –almost certainly demon– glints in the gloom towards the northeast, a host of dreamcatchers all around the trees and the empty pigpen in the distance. That can mean only one thing.
“Damn it, Nodrig. I told you, you should stay calm. Fear attracts predators out here.”
I take out my bottle of homebrewed Mind-number antidote. I hate the thing.
“You are making my job really difficult mister Nodrig.”
The antidote sticks to my throat like sawdust. The burning cough follows like clockwork. With that done, I wait for fear to rush in and bring predators with it.
The Mind-Number’s effect fades away. I can feel my heart skip a beat. This place is terrifying. I can see the sun but the sky is dark as if it wears a funeral veil. The trees around us are hauntingly beautiful; beautifully adorned with skinned animals and maimed body parts. The mud beneath my feet is warm from the blood and it feels alive, as if it reaches upwards towards my ankles, like it wants to drag me in it. And in front of me, my client, mister Nodrig is being physically crushed by a dead mockery of flesh and bone and, almost certainly, mentally eaten alive by a fear-eater, while I can’t even see the damn thing without being terrified.
Why? Why are you screaming? I warned you SO many times! I told you, compose yourself! You thought I was being condescending? NO! I was being cautious! Now you see what happens, mister Nodrig? You thought demons were bad? Have you ever seen a fear-eater before? It will drive you mad with fear and suck your mind dry!
No. Don’t get angry. Don’t fight it. If you do, he will die and you will fail. Be afraid.
It is so dark here. It shouldn’t be dark.
I finally begin to see the fear-eater. It is so black, as if someone cut out a hole in the world in its shape.
Mister Nodrig was not overstating things. It is right over him. Its head is inches away from his screaming face, sounding like a terrible combination of giggling and gurgling. Its long, craning neck fills and empties in rhythm with the sounds. It doesn’t even bother to hold him down to feed; the monstrous carcass has trapped him, and now the fear-eater is savoring every scream. Mister Nodrig’s screams leave visible trails along the air that fill up the monster’s belly.
Feeding a fear-eater. It haunts you forever. My heart skips.
The horrible spirit sheds its blackness, gaining pallid color. I tighten the grip of my sword, forcing my blood to flow again.
It wears something like a human’s face. It could be my face or it could be my mother’s face or it could be both. Its unblinking eyes are black pools, each, with a single tiny pinprick of light shining through. Below its nose holes are teeth. No lips. The skin just continues over where lips and gums should be, to become teeth. Teeth set in a perpetual grin. And now it grins at me. Now we see each other clearly. Now we can fight.
It begins rising to its full height. I dive over the mass of pigs to Nodrig’s side. Immediately, I slap him hard. He looks at me, and, smiles?
“Push! Push man! We still have a ways to go!” I urge the madman.
I pull and he shoves, the carcass moves just enough. Nodrig pushes himself from beneath the dead monster, leaving a wide trench in the mud. Is he laughing? Or is it the spirit? I make the mistake of looking up at it.
It towers over me. Its arms are as thick as oak trees, ending on black, cruel claws. Its torso is at the same time, emaciated and bloated. From its chest, a pair of ancient sagging tits are hanging, like rotten cantaloupes. Between its two stubby legs, wizened male and female genitalia protrude and I can feel my breakfast trying to escape. It brings down its face to see me eye-to-eye. Its voice is that of a dozen little girls.
“See anything scary?”
The monster’s grip turns the whole world to terror. Somewhere in the haze, I can feel the fear-eater suck the air out of me and I remember every little thing that has scared me in the past. I see the knife dug deep in my chest again. I see the look my brother gave me when I cut him off. I see the night Lady Dragoness gave me my ring and key. I see my parents leaving me at the academy and taking my toys with them once more. I am all alone and cold and unloved and –TO HELL WITH YOU! I was all these things and I am so much more. I am angry and I am dangerous and I am on a job!
By instinct I swing my sword and I feel the shock bite through my arm, all the way to my shoulder. The blade found home around its neck, to little effect. It holds me in its left hand, like a doll, and mister Nodrig –the madman- assaults it from the right. It lets out a laugh like a dying bull and swats at Nodrig who expertly tumbles to absorb the blow and is immediately back on his feet. I keep swinging wildly. We both end up only scratching the monster, who, after all, is not made of flesh and bone, but fear and panic. Still, it is a matter of principle that we die fighting, even if we die of fear.
“Why won’t this beast die?” shouts mister Nodrig, mid-swing.
“It can’t die! It’s fear!”
“Nonsense! Everything dies!”
I can’t help but chuckle at this man’s simplicity. And yet, the spirit seems to be getting smaller, the sickly yellow color on its skin turning into a mute gray. Its grip loosens. Every swing seems to make it a little bit less scary, a little bit less deadly.
Nodrig seems to not be afraid of it.
It looks at me again. I swear, it smiles at me deviously. I bring my sword around its face and carve a second smile under its nose in retort. With, what I can only assume is, a scream, it flings me away and I land on a column of mister Harold’s pigpen. The fear‑eater starts to turn entirely black again but, now, it has two free arms. It grabs mister Nodrig in one hand and slowly, brings up a wicked black claw, aimed at his throat. It never takes its eyes of me. I can’t get there in time!
“Do it, you freak! You think that I am afraid to die? You think that I am afraid of you?”
Suddenly, mister Nodrig slides of the spirit’s grip, as if it was made of mist.
He is not afraid of it, so it cannot harm him.
I laugh and as I do, it turns completely black and thrashes around impotently. I keep laughing and my laughs cause a lot more damage than my blade ever did. The spirit turns smaller and more transparent by the second. As quickly as it came, the fear-eater is now gone, leaving us in the demon-infested unpleasantness. It is still, only noon.
“Are you alright sir? Is anything cracked or broken? Are you concussed?” –am I?-
“What was that thing?” he says and cleans his sword with a single flick of the wrist. He is so covered in mud that the blade looks like a silver line protruding from a clay statue.
“That was definitely an incarnation of fear, sir. A spirit that is made of –and feeds on- fear. Supposedly, only those that are truly scared can see and interact with it.” I threw the supposedly in there because I am sure both our prides could use the break.
“I bet it was a demon. Big, ugly, naked demon that was pissed, because we killed its pig.”
“Yes sir. Big, ugly demon pig herder. Good thing we managed to drive it back.”
“You think it will come back?” his voice was noticeably lower.
“I don’t think so. I think we scared it off.” And I am very tempted to spike your waterskin with some Mind-number to make sure it stays away. I was hired to protect you, even if that means from yourself, mister Nodrig.
I pick myself up and suddenly, the adrenaline wears off. I can feel a broken toe and finger. Some bruised ribs. He definitely got his money worth, alright.
Wincing, I move to mister Harold’s farmhouse. On a first look, it seems deserted. The door is open and it creaks as the wind pushes it.
“Come this way mister Nodrig. It won’t do to continue our trip, smelling like pigsty.”
He pokes his head in the house. After he is satisfied with its emptiness, I grab the doorknob and close the door. The beginning of a protest rises to Mister Nodrig’s lips but I quickly shush him as I take out the magic key. Black flames spring around the wooden door and without much fanfare, I open the door to my room in the Pearl Lattice bathhouse. Immediately, the stench of death, blood and manure mingles with soap, scented oils and rosewater. Mister Nodrig looks at me puzzled. I point at him and then at me and then at the candle-lit marble room beyond the farmhouse’s door.
“If we are to save anyone, I’d rather we are not covered in brown stuff mister Nodrig. It will lessen the experience for everyone involved. Care to join me for a bath?”
“You are weird.” This time, I didn’t have to shove him in.
The warm, running water of the pool makes sort work of all the mud, sweat and blood. Soon, only the bruises remain to blemish our skin. The mud-soaked clothes were taken by the staff and were to be replaced shortly. Mister Nodrig seems to enjoy the bath.
“You frequent places such as this, mister Nodrig?”
“Not as often as I’d like. I’d say more often than others but not to the extent of having one of my own, like you do.”
“I don’t own it. I just have it on retainer. I find it very convenient at times such as these.”
“Plus, I bet you can pass it of as another perk of hiring a Troubleshooter, right?”
“Well, most people that hire me don’t usually join me on the mission. You would be the first actually.”
He scoffs at the sound of that, grabs a pinch of soap from the basket and starts rubbing his impressive shoulders furiously.
“Well, my request requires a personal touch and is of an urgent matter. I can’t see what else was there to do but join you.”
I reach for the wine and the pair of glasses behind me. My broken finger is stiff as a board and swollen like a sausage.
“Aren’t you afraid, mister Nodrig?” I offer him a glass along with the question.
“Of what?” the glass almost slips from his soap-covered hand.
“Dying? Being eaten by spirits? Falling prey to demonic corruption? You know, all the dangers that this mission seems to entail.”
“To tell you the truth, that pig thing terrified me.”
“And yet, you fought on.”
“What else was there to do? It would kill us otherwise.”
“We could have left. We could have turned back and ran. Get more help.”
“Ha! And waste all the money I gave your creepy mistress? No way!”
He splashes water at me as he says that, ruining my wine. I prefer him scared.
“You realize that this fear you felt brought on the spirit, right?” I spill the watered wine in the pool and the current carries it away. “It feeds of fear. It is no demon, but a wild spirit that haunts people. The fewer the people, the easier it is for it to materialize.”
“If you say so.” He takes a sip and lowers himself in the pool, leaving only his head above the water.
“I am being serious. You were laughing at it. The moment, I came to get you, you started laughing. I don’t think it was panic.”
“No, it wasn’t.” He is playing with the glass, letting it float from hand to hand while that winning smile returns to his face.
“Now you’ve got me curious. What were you laughing about?”
“You see, when that freak stood over me, and begun feasting or what-have-you, I remembered all the other times I was scared. Terrifying stuff. Things that I have forgotten over the years. But you know what I realized? Every single time that I was afraid, I fought on, alone or with help, and I am still here, alive and well.”
I look at my broken finger. I must have broken it on my first swing against the spirit. That was a sloppy strike, but it brought me back from the fear-haze. I see where he is coming from.
“That’s… a very healthy outlook.”
“In fact, that pig thing was the last horror it showed me. And how did that end? You and me, we killed it. So, when I saw your ugly mug, worrying over me, I knew that things were not as bad. We had a fighting chance.”
He moves closer as he says that,and suddenly, lunges to dunk me in the water while laughing. Instinctively, I grab his palm and twist it, forcing his face on the marble wall.
“You should learn to pick your fights better in the future, mister Nodrig.” With my free hand,I grab his glass, down the remaining wine before releasing him and I step out of the pool. At the same time, the door knocks and a clerk brings inside the fresh clothes. A few minutes later, we come out of mister Harold’s farmhouse.
Undoubtedly, we smell like heroes.
You hear the tales, but you don’t put much stock in them. It sounds too wild to be true. But what if it is?How would you use such power? What would you do if you could bypass the world? If you could ignore guards and walls and wards? If you could get to where people think they are safe from the dark. To where they cower from the truth?
Such power. We need it.
We leave the farm behind us as the Troubleshooter drones on about pigs, and his misadventures with them in a past life. Apparently, while pork has several alchemical qualities, pig manure does not, despite what most fledgling alchemist believe.
“I bet it tastes worse than pork as well.” That sounds something a man-shell like Nodrig would say, so I say that.
“Therein lies the root of the confusion” the mercenary tattles. “Budding alchemists think they absolutely must put everything in their mouth like teething pups, and also adhere to the asinine belief that alchemical potency is inversely proportional to palatability.”
“Stupid alchemists.” Another spot-on Nodrig impression.
He chortles and carries on, spouting random nonsense. Tell me what I need to know.
“So what’s the deal with the doors? How did you make a cellar door lead to Ledel Woods? How come Harold’s farm leads to a fancy bath house?” Tell me.
“Something tells me that, ‘it’s magic’ will not be a satisfactory answer” he says with a teasing smile and an increased pep in his step.
“Can I learn this magic? It will make escorting caravans a breeze.” Tell me!
“I am of the opinion that with a hearty constitution and sufficient effort, there is nothing that can’t be achieved if one puts their mind into it.”
Thrice-blasted man-cancer! What did you do each time? You used some kind of key. Is that it?
“It’s that key, isn’t it? That key is magical.”
He chortles. “Perhaps. I’d be more than happy to discuss such arcane matters after we finish this ill-advised excursion. Maybe, over another drink or two?”
That won’t do, Troubleshooter. By that time, I will shed this horrible human face and will rejoin the Song. “What if we don’t make it back?”
He takes a bit longer to answer. “Now, why would you say such a dreadful thing?” His speech trails off a bit. Oh, yes. He begins to hear it.
“Come on, man. I’d hate to die not knowing how I got here. It’s that key?”
YES. I can barely hear him mutter his answer. He stops in place and drowsily fumbles for his pouch. The thought of impaling him on my sword flashes for an instant, but that would be a stupid mistake. Even drug-addled, he almost put a sword through my skull for attempting to slap him. Plus, he bested the perfected swine-meld in the same state.
But the fear-eater gambit paid off. He is now clearheaded enough to hear our Song. The Dream-song coming through the branches, captured and amplified by the dreamcatchers and resonating with a clear mind.The most beautiful melody, with the simplest, hope-filled message. Submit.
I only have to wait now. Soon he will break and join us. The Clan will embrace a Troubleshooter in its ranks.
I just told him about the key. What’s wrong with me? What do I do now? Kill him? Enroll him? –Shit- Maybe he didn’t hear me. My head is killing me. I reach for my Mind-number. My blasted finger gets in the way; opening the pouch becomes an agonizing trial of dexterity.
“What’s wrong? Why did you stop?”
“I need some Mind-number.” Why am I answering?
“Absolutely not!” He rushes over to my face, looking like a dissatisfied god. “You will do no such thing. What if the fear-eater comes back?”
“Well maybe you could also take some and…” I’ve never sounded as meek.
“I will not poison myself just because you are too weak to professionally perform your task, Troubleshooter. Let’s be done with this farce. Hand it over.”
What an amazing, moral, heroic, idiot. Maybe I should kill him now, call this one a failure, drink some Mind-number and head back. Failure is preferable than explaining why, a caravan guard from the north spreads rumors about magical keys. The Lady would understand.
He thrusts his manicured hand, palm-side up. Uncharacteristically, the smell of soap doesn’t help my mood.
No, I can’t do that. He is a good man and I will not make the world a lesser place by his absence. I hand him the tiny vial.
“You are the better man.” Blood rushes to my face. I leave my hand linger in his while saying that.
Paying me no heed, he spills the contents and throws the vial.
“Let’s go.” He wears a smug smile as he says that. For the first time, I find him ugly.
In my experience, fact imitates fiction, more often than not. As it would be in any self-respecting tale of daring, the closer we get to Ledelhill, the more horrific the demons’ folk art get. An observation that is both dreadfully trite and plain dreadful.
My head hurts.
The dreamcatchers are first joined by knee-high totems, made by still-bloody bones. These have been erected on the side of the seldom-used road that leads to Ledelhill. On the top of each of these totems, lies the severed head of a doe. I have seen this design once again, many years ago on a similar site. I didn’t realize then, the grotesque symmetry that each totem shares. Mister Nodrig destroys the first one we came upon and my heart sinks. I don’t know why.
We continue in silence. My broken toe occasionally sends fiery needles through my leg. From time to time some kind of ethereal melody can be heard in the distance but I pay it no heed. Just like light works bizarrely in the demons’ domain, so must sound, even though I have no recollection of such a melody from previous missions.
I am certain that the fear-eater –or a fear-eater- follows us in the distance. It is so black, that it stands out in the darkness. Mister Nodrig assures me that he can’t see it. Such a fearless, heroic simpleton. I admire and envy him for that.
A few dozen totems later, new, morbid art emerges. In the space between trees, the demons have stretched the flayed hide of a horse, with the carcass placed below it in a supplicant pose. The glistening blood glows eerily in the dark. I feel the urge to see one up close, but Nodrig urges me on. We are in the final stretch to Ledelhill.
Ledelhill is in many ways, not what I would expect. It’s deserted of course. Not a single person besides us. Yet, the light of the setting sun reaches it and dyes it in beautiful ruby and gold. Everything seems normal. No signs of struggle, no viscera or visceral art adorns the quaint, wooden buildings that sprout around the hill that grants its name to the village.
I can feel the melody, no, the Song. It’s coming from the tall longhouse on the top of the hill. Golden light sips from the cracks of its wooden walls. Mister Nodrig takes me there. I gladly follow him. The Song. What are they singing about? It sounds beautiful. I want to know the words, I want to join in singing too.
Mister Nodrig pushes the door of the longhouse, gold light floods the threshold and we enter. In the center of the empty hall, one meter of the floor something beautiful -a god- floats and sings the Song. My mind struggles to give names to its shape. The closer it comes up with is a golden moth with its rainbow wings suspended from floor to ceiling. Joined on its body are pristine, naked and perfect youths that sing the Song. All I can do is weep.
Mister Nodrig leans in my ear. He makes unimportant questions and I answer each and every one as fast as possible. I can’t let my voice interfere with the Song. Then he tells me to kneel. I do.
For an instant, I feel a nail of pain being driven through my foot. As it washes over me, the world becomes dark, silent. I smell blood. Then it all returns to the new, glorious, normal.
Next he opens his palm and asks me to give him something. –A key? I have a key-. As I reach into my pocket, incredible pain rips through my hand. My swollen, broken finger drags me out of the enchantment. There is no light here. There is no Song. Only pain, death and desecration.
That thing in the center of the room is no god. It’s bloody, broken people fused together and caught in a web made of their own skin that stretches from floor to ceiling. Black, moaning holes are where faces should be. The cobblestones are caked in dried blood.
“Give me the key, neonate.”
Mister Nodrig. You deceitful, beautiful monster. I look at his immaculate hand. It is much too perfect to ever belong to a real person. Once more, I prove to be a fool.
“Hand me the key and we will have the world join in our Song!”
“I was commissioned to safely take you to Ledelhill and back again.” I shift my weight to my healthy leg.
“What?” He curls his palm into a fist.
“I will do just that.”
I spring towards him while he goes for his sword. The faceless heads start screeching and golden light starts to fill the world again. I drive the blade of my hurt hand in mister Nodrig’s throat and the pain fully awakens me. Ghoulish figures emerge beyond the amalgam. Surely, they must be mister Nodrig’s allies.
While he is dazed, I swing him around and slam his back on the door. He manages to draw his sword and I draw my key. His thrust is fast and my footing is compromised. Time grinds to a halt as I feel the blade enter below my right clavicle and exit just over my shoulder blade. The sound of the metal click brings a smile to my face. I slump over his chest and take a deep breath. It smells of soap and burning sugar. Victory.
Our combined weight pushes the door open and we roll in a tangled heap on the floor of the Troubleshooter headquarters. I make no effort to move. My colleagues know what to do when that door opens and two people enter. So with nothing to do, I close my eyes and decide what to do with my payment. Another successful assignment.