|A Felony of Birds|
|The Greer Agency|
|Time Wars & other SciFi Tales|
A Manuscript Once Owned
Prynn Alstern studied his opponent. He sat opposite the table from him, a set of rounded marble-like eyes peering from behind his cards and a greasy pate, glowing fiercely in the alchemical light. So unsettling was the sight Prynn ran a hand through his own stringy brown hair, tied back into a long tail, and breathed a sigh of relief.
The man known as Mortwul had a face like a slab of stone and as many expressions. Patrons of the Foxhole, the most famous gambling establishment this side of the Trembling Straits, whispered that the man had no tells, no indication to whether he had a million marc hand or had received word that his mother had been bludgeoned to death. A real blank slate, so they say.
Prynn grinned his lopsided grin, the thin scar notching the right side of his upper lip fading from pink to white as it pulled taut. By his own approximations the gods wouldn’t last three hands with him, if one were foolish enough to sit down with him in the first place. (Prynn had a slight arrogant streak.) He had played for a ten million marc purse in Ostyn and won. (A single hand had lasted for seventy-six hours and ended up, coincidentally, as the single longest game ever played.) He once wagered his own life on a hand against a twisted Gangorian silk merchant down at the Golden Standard, the deadliest and most ill-reputed snake’s den in existence, and lived to tell the tale. And on precisely two occasions, he went up against two different world champions, winning each time. (He cheated the first time and did not get caught. He cheated the second time as well and was caught but won the duel that ensued shortly thereafter, cinching the overall victory in his mind.)
When he was finally satisfied, Prynn flopped his hand to the table and lounged back in his chair, arms crossed behind his head. This flat-faced, balding, bespectacled caricature of a man unreadable? Ha!
But then again how many can boast six centuries of experience?
Mortwul’s eyes appeared little more than icy deadness behind his rounded frames. His head dipped a fraction. Prynn guessed that was about as close to soul-crushing disappointment and physical sickness as the man managed.
“Well!” Prynn rocked forward, pressing his long forefinger onto his exemplary hand, majestically spread out in a geometrically sound arc, quite unable to refrain from gloating a second longer. “How many chests can I expect? Four-hundred thousand marcs would require at least – oh, what – two full to the brim? Ha! I’d throw my back out even trying to move one!” He grinned his widest grin, the one reserved for his smuggest moments. “You know what, Mortwul? I’m feeling rather generous. I do believe I’ll need a hired hand to help me cart all of this money back. I have quite a ways to go, you know.” He procured a shiny five-marc piece rendered glittery gold under the Foxhole’s alchemical lamps, their pale, reddish light made hazy by the acrid smoke hanging thick in the air. He flicked his thumb and the coin bounced, landed, and spun in a lazy circle before wobbling to a stop in front of Mortwul.
It was at that moment that No-Tell Mortwul, much to the delight of the gallery, allowed his very first and most discernable expression.
Vinton Landozia stalked through the kitchen, looking far more predatory than was customary. A multitude of emotions seized him while Prynn was away. The majority were of a negative variety, mostly stemming from the constant exasperation caused by his master. Vinton cursed, stamped, and spat. He rued the day he apprenticed himself to Prynn. Aside from an elementary grasp of alchemy, a level of sorcery sufficient to boil water and scare cats, a childlike ability with a blade, a working knowledge of presumably every known cure for a hangover (Prynn had also suggested, quite adamantly, that Vinton keep a journal detailing theories regarding new cures and breakthroughs), a passing aptitude for the culinary arts, and a raging ulcer, his apprenticeship fell woefully short of what he had expected. What frustrated him the most was that Prynn had the abilities to help him excel in a great many things but lacked the drive and initiative to do so wholeheartedly.
At about the moment that Vinton was near to throwing up his hands to declare no more, the door exploded open, showering the large cake Vinton had labored over all morning in splinters. The apprentice flung himself over a table, raking everything upon it to the floor in his flight. A cloud of dust and splinters fogged the room, throwing him into a hacking fit. He coughed, coughed some more, as he cowered behind the table. He dared a glance at whoever had burst in to kill him.
Prynn strode through the wreck that used to be a door.
“Prynn! What the bloody hell!” Vinton jumped up and shouted. Momentary terror had turned into seething rage. (Truthfully, he half-expected to die every day. This really comes as no surprise as Prynn makes enemies, intentional and un-, wherever he sets foot. Vinton’s jeopardized welfare was a casualty in Prynn’s endless war against predictability, logic, and sobriety.)
Prynn looked around the room dumbly as the languid cloud of debris settled. He didn’t consider Vinton. He raked a hand through his tangled hair and puffed his cheeks out. “Oh.” His gaze fell on the cake as though it were a true curiosity. “The mayor’s daughter. Birthday.” (Prynn had a gift for pointing out the obvious.)
“Uh-huh.” Vinton’s eye twitched. He snapped a trembling finger toward the ruined tower of flour and sugar. “And that was her cake. The one there covered in splinters and dirt.”
“It’s the most beautiful mess I’ve ever seen.” Prynn stroked his chin in admiration of the ruined confection. He nodded approvingly. “Baking skills,” he began profoundly but ended abruptly.
Vinton was about to let fly a torrent of venom-laced words when he noticed the sorry state of his master. (Filthy would have been a more apt description.) Grime coated his face and his normally pristine hair was a tangled, dirty mess. His fine clothes had been reduced to rags, and he wore that travel weary look that sings of hard times and a long damned way of slogging it. But whatever had befallen him, it was undoubtedly poor reasoning to go about childishly venting his anger, or whatever was going on with him, on the door.
As he began to inquire as to Prynn’s condition, a loud thumping sounded in the distance, like a faraway earthquake with stomping feet. Vinton scrunched his nose, listening intently to try and discern the source of the approaching racket. Prynn continued his vigil of the cake, making little measurements with his hands, murmuring to himself in hushed contemplation. All in all he seemed quite pleased though he was two steps past the appearance of grimy vagrancy and he had just blown up his own kitchen door. The apprentice tried to envision all the scenarios that could have led up to Prynn’s reduction to shuffling filth and wondered how much undue woe his master’s folly would cause him. (And as normal it would prove considerable.) Vinton’s head nearly exploded with the deluge of possibilities.
The whole of the kitchen shuddered as the loud stomping drew even closer. Each thundering step rattled hanging ladles and utensils, clanked iron pots together, and shook the heavy preparation table. Dull shock seized Vinton and his eyes went wide.
“No!” Vinton shouted, his voice rising several octaves as panic took full root. He rushed to the side door (the only one remaining) and grabbed the knob, and the door promptly exploded, hurling the mewling apprentice across the room, through the cake, and into the far wall. Spongy yellow cake and icing splattered against the ceiling and walls and showered across the room like sugary rain. A hulking figure in dull armor stood in the crumbling doorway.
“Gods! Gods!” the apprentice raved as he lurched unsteadily to his feet, one hand to his spinning head, the other still clutching the doorknob. The ten-foot behemoth of armor regarded him with two burning green orbs set in the blackness inside its helmet, a great red plume hanging haphazardly from the top of it. If its eyes could reflect any sort of emotional state whatsoever, apathy would be as good a guess as any.
Low thunder rumbled from the armor. It wasn’t actually an identifiable sound, and it was certainly not human, but it sounded similar to a moan. So, the armor moaned.
“No, no,” Prynn sighed and hung his head low enough to rest his chin on his chest. “Everything isn’t okay, Empty.” (Prynn referred to the golem as Empty because it was, well, empty. He had reanimated the old relic decades ago. It was once an instrument of absolute chaos and destruction, employed in the Red War to ravage cities, decimate populations. To have seen one meant to see one’s own death coming. Now, it performed light cooking duties, conquered dusty corners, and vanquished unpolished floors.
“You’re damned right everything’s not okay!” Vinton continued, raging at Prynn, Empty, the shattered cake, the world, and anything else listening, flailing in spite of the sheer futility of the act. “The cake! It’s ruined! Not to mention I had to pay for the ingredients out of my pocket because somebody took all the money from the general fund and left without telling anybody where he was going even though the highest paying job of these last few miserable months was coming up and that particular job concerned the daughter of the most important man in this godsforsaken cesspool excuse of a town. Oh, how I hate this place! If we left yesterday it wouldn’t be soon enough.” He was almost blue in the face when he finished his tirade.
“I told Empty.” Prynn pointed an indicting finger.
“You’re the only one that can understand him, you dolt!”
Prynn considered this. “Valid point. Very astute. I don’t care for your tone though.” Empty moaned his concurrence.
“Never mind that.” Vinton was almost moved to tears. “What are you going to do about the cake?”
“Nothing? Did I hear that correctly or am I losing my hearing as well as my mind?”
“Your ears are intact. Your mind I cannot vouch for.”
“And the mayor’s daughter?”
Prynn clicked his tongue. “We’ve got bigger worries.”
“Collecting a very, very rare manuscript in the possession of a very, very nasty witch. Failure to do as much will likely result in sorceries of the blackest magnitude rained upon our little oasis here.” He held his hands out with a theatrical flourish indicating the whole of the shambled kitchen. When only blank faces met his grand gesture, Prynn brought both hands up to his head and rubbed his temples whilst grumbling something. Empty and Vinton exchanged what could be construed as meaningful looks. Prynn looked at the both of them, met their inquiring eyes, and frowned very hard at what he had to say.
He muttered, in equal halves explanation and self-admittance, “I lost a card game.”
“So you bet a manuscript you didn’t actually own – ”
“I do own it,” Prynn protested, “I just don’t have it. Currently.”
“ – and this sorcerer, this Mortwul, didn’t kill you on the spot because...”
“Because he admires my work.”
“Ah, yes, your books. Are there many collectors of one-hundred and fifty year old low-brow, poorly written romance? There’s no accounting for taste I suppose.”
Prynn shrugged, swaying lightly on the ambling ass he rode. “What can I say? The man has good taste. Nasty disposition though. He took my horse and what little money I had. Just for a white lie! The nerve.”
“How did he recognize you?” Vinton arched his eyebrow. Empty stopped his lumbering, apparently interested in knowing as well. Prynn rolled his eyes as though plagued by a nagging fly.
“Sorcerer,” he said as though speaking to an infant. “We often see that which others overlook.” He inclined his head proudly. (Prynn, being Prynn, failed to mention that he had overlooked Mortwul’s being a sorcerer. Vinton, being Vinton, knew this but failed to point it out because morale had decreased considerably in the merry crew and also because Prynn complained like no other when having his inconsistencies pointed out.)
“Answers that answer nothing, as usual,” Vinton grumbled as he nudged his sickly mare onward along the narrow path that crept through the pine forest on the outskirts of Trent.
The trio continued on the snaking path for three misery-filled days of blistered hell. Empty slogged by foot. (Once, Prynn postulated Empty could ride a horse. The poor beast didn’t make three steps.) Vinton rode his mount as well as he could, what with the horse coughing more often than he did. Prynn sat atop his aged ass as though he were a knight-errant. (As with most other things, he had been at one point.) On the fourth day, an exceedingly rainy, damp, grey, dreadful day, the three emerged from a bramble-choked jungle of twisted dead trees and crested a hill. That high vantage point revealed their destination - a ruined black castle built into a ragged mountainside. The three stood motionless upon that hill in the grey sheet of rain.
It looked like something plucked from a nightmare and then planted on a landscape that would make a dark god blush. Three onyx-colored towers of differing heights jutted up from the castle, reaching up to strangle the dreary skies, and crumbling parapets ringed the top of it, ending on either side where the rear of the castle settled back into the crag. One of the towers was snapped off halfway up like a broken tooth. A lone path extended from the hill where they stood down the rocky slope, across the barren and blasted nothing that the castle loomed over like an unholy shadow, and then up the crag to the castle proper.
“Wow.” Prynn’s inflection did not match his declaration. “I like what she’s done with the place. Centuries ago, even before I was a twinkle in a horny dog soldier’s eye, the castle was a demon lord’s palace. Even so, this place used to be filled with oaks, gurgling streams, and a carpet of flowers that rolled and spilled over the terraces. Demons appreciate beauty, too.” His eyes drifted over the cracked streambeds, charred snakes splitting the dead ground where blue waters once lapped against low banks. The terraces were reduced to crusted and scorched mounds. Those once proud oaks barely clung to life in the blasted ground, gnarled and twisted corpses of trees, their dead branches spidering out through the air like twisted fingers reaching. “But then again the witch living here is one of the blackest souls alive. The place matches her personality and, coincidentally, her heart perfectly. Eternal damnation is her idea of a fun time.”
“You’ve been here before?” Vinton asked. He surveyed the domain of blasted, scorched earth before him and grimaced. He wiped the damp from his face and slicked his wet hair back away from his eyes. “And why do you know so much about the witch? Same social circle?”
The rain began to beat down harder, a steady tattoo upon the desolation. Vinton reined in his mount beside Prynn. Perhaps it was the gloom’s unhappy influence but his master looked grim and wretchedly old for a moment in that pouring rain. Idly, Vinton wondered if it had been raining this way when Prynn left his hometown, so long ago, the whole of the hamlet burning as he walked away that cold night. Then, as though someone removed a veil, he appeared as he normally did – languid, apathetic, a careless picture of contented ennui.
Prynn sucked at his teeth and then spat. “Old girlfriend.” That being said his ass began ambling down the rocky path.
“How did you ever come to date a witch?”
Prynn, Vinton, and Empty stood before a tall, battered, oak door that barred access to the castle, the colossal slab of wood reinforced by big rusted iron studs. Walking in had been a fairly simple matter. The outer curtain was crumbling so they walked around the gate, so badly rusted it couldn’t have been opened from either side anyway, and through a fallen section in the wall. Drawing closer to the castle they realized just how ragged its defenses were. A rotten wooden grill, not fit to cage a chicken, stood in place of the portcullis, the original having succumbed to the ages long ago. Empty brushed his hand across and it crumpled into a pile of termite infested, sopping rot. The barbican was empty and musty, and the only thing pouring from the murder holes was rainwater and tendrils of algae. The courtyard before the broken steps was choked with weeds and thistle. Fragments of cracked flag stuck up all over the courtyard like quills of a stone porcupine.
The ageless Prynn observed the rubble, the ruined castle, and frowned deeply.
Time could be a very cruel mistress.
The door was in decent enough shape, though.
“Like you said,” Prynn smiled, answering Vinton’s earlier query, “same social circle.”
“So what happened? Falling out? Lovers’ quarrel?”
“Uh, something like that.” Prynn bypassed the large iron ring and rapped upon the thick door with his fist. A dull echo sounded inside. Empty stepped back a little, his oversized gauntleted hand falling to his longsword. Vinton became exceedingly nervous and started running down sorceries in his head.
“Ah,” the apprentice stammered, “do you think she’ll just give it back to us? Just like that?”
“Maybe.” Prynn shrugged. “Who can say for sure? It is mine after all. But I fully expect a hiccup or two.”
Empty moaned loudly.
“Just a minute,” Prynn grumbled.
“A hiccup? What does that even mean?”
“Would you both just leave me alone?”
Empty moaned again. Prynn pounded the door again.
Nothing happened. The apprentice turned to consider the moaning golem.
“I think you’ll want to see this.” Vinton tugged on Prynn’s sleeve.
“Great gods! What is it?”
Prynn turned to quite the gruesome tableau. An array of skeletons dressed in combat armor and wielding maces, swords, and bows, accompanied by a host of demonic dogs and snarling monstrosities of every order, all stood against them. They swarmed out of the rotten holes and crannies of the courtyard and the crumbling walls like roaches.
“What was it you did to this witch?” a pallid Vinton asked in a hushed voice.
Sheepishly, Prynn looked at his apprentice. “I killed her sister.”
Vinton buried his face in his hands. The hissing, spitting press drew closer. “Gods,” he murmured.
Save for a long, scarred table, the banquet hall was empty, cold and inviting as an abandoned tomb. The plaster had long peeled from the walls revealing the naked stone beneath. Low candlelight banished the overwhelming blackness that had engulfed the room when the three were ushered in. No taper had been employed in the lighting of the candles; the tiny licking flames had sprung into existence of their own accord.
Prynn stood at one long window staring out over the gnarled landscape. He appeared nonchalant about the whole matter of being hauled inside the castle by a horde of reanimated skeletons and demons. Vinton, on the other hand, looked rather ghastly, drained of every ounce of his color. Empty stood rigidly upright some distance away, looking no particular way, his hand kept fumbling for a sword that wasn’t there, Prynn having made him surrender it earlier to the horde. He moaned lowly.
“I really couldn’t help killing her,” Prynn murmured quietly. Vinton shuffled over next to him, looking about nervously as though something might materialize from the shadows at any moment.
“Back when I had...darker sensibilities, the sisters and I were thick as thieves, as the axiom goes. Oh it’s easy enough to meet their sort when you’re dabbling in the dark arts. What an arrogant fool I was...” his voice trailed off. Vinton shifted uncomfortably. He knew what was coming. (This was one of Prynn’s confessions. He rarely indulged in them, but when he did he delved into his sometimes sordid past with more than a little self-loathing and regret. These episodes disturbed Vinton to the core. He knew Prynn was a lot of things, but there were dark chapters in his master’s life he could not comprehend though he tried.)
“Well,” he continued, “after enough atrocities to sate a devil, I eventually saw the error of my ways and parted company with the sisters, even Tryst with whom I came to...enjoy spending time with.” He fell silent for what seemed like a very long time in that deathly quiet hall, thunder growling off in the distance somewhere beyond the castle. (Prynn’s perception of what is long is quite different from Vinton’s. Time is rendered inconsequential to one of Prynn’s unique nature and as such he often paid it little mind.) Finally, he continued: “Decades flew by and my conscience, insubstantial as it is, gnawed at me. I knew the things, the awful things that they did. That I did. Then the elder sister, Zorphyl, laid siege to the town of Nuvel, located in what she fashioned her realm, bringing with her a legion of demons and creatures from below. I couldn’t stand by any longer.” Prynn turned and stared squarely into Vinton’s eyes and the piercing grey of his own immortal eyes seemed to bore into the apprentice’s soul. “I went into Nuvel alone, slew her legions, and then struck her down.”
“That was you? My parents used to tell me that story at bedtime. I never knew.” He disengaged his eyes from Prynn’s. He found the intensity unsettling.
“Well, it was a very long time ago. The only benefit of that black affair was the slot it earned me among the Seven.” He sighed. The rain still pattered outside, speckling the window with glistening drops. “And in time I managed to botch that as well. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. A story for another day maybe.”
The doors in the rear of the hall groaned open. An unseen force took hold of Prynn and Vinton, snatching them and roughly depositing them to seats at the table. Empty froze stock-still where he stood, apparently gripped by the same invisible power. A sleek figure sauntered through the gaping doorway.
Vinton now knew why his master could have been smitten by her, witch or no witch. He had known her for around five seconds and she had already bewitched him. The witch Tryst wore a formfitting silk dress, cleavage pouring from the top. She had shockingly red hair, long curling tresses hanging down her back and in front, the fiery tips just brushing her pale breasts. Her skin was the color of milk, and she wore a predatory smile. She seated herself at the end of the table, close to Prynn, her chair pulling itself out before she settled into it. She folded one long leg over the other, pulling her legs open apart just enough to be tantalizing while doing so, and leaned in toward the immortal.
“Prynn,” she said in a sultry voice. It sounded like music to Vinton. He smiled to hear it. Prynn’s mouth remained a taut line etched across a stoic mask. “I always knew you’d come back. And I see you’ve brought a friend.” She turned her delicious eyes upon Vinton. “I always have enjoyed doubles.”
“I haven’t come to grace your bedchamber or cater to your fantasies,” Prynn said flatly. “I left something here last time I was over. A little manuscript. F’vlaka er Despitori. I’m sure you know the one. I’ve come to collect.”
“You think you can waltz here and demand something from me? After all this time? After what you’ve done? Prynn, my dear, you must be insane.”
“My sanity has never been well-founded. As far as the manuscript is concerned...well, it’s mine to demand.” The witch nodded slowly to Prynn.
“It is,” she cooed, “it is.” She allowed a sinister smile foul enough to tarnish her beautiful features. Vinton wanted to cringe at that smile, oozing malevolence and grim hatred as it did, but he found he couldn’t budge. “I have something to demand as well. Blood for blood. Tit-for-tat. One death for another.” Her eyes cut in a serpentine style.
“Here I sit.” If Prynn was daunted, his features didn’t betray it.
“Yes,” she hissed, “there you sit.” Her face twisted into something unrecognizable. A sneer contorted her beautiful face into something ugly and beyond vile. Vinton desperately wanted to flee the table, wanted to look away from that horrid visage, but Tryst’s ensconcement held him firmly in place. “And if I so decide, I’ll rip you open and suck your entrails out like spaghetti while you watch, while you sit helplessly.” Her narrow eyes suddenly turned from Prynn and burned into Vinton. “Or maybe I’ll feast upon your friend while you watch. Oh, it’s quite the spectacle. I’ve practiced. He’ll entertain me for hours and hours before he expires.” She turned back to Prynn, curling her lips back to reveal long needle-like teeth.
“Your tastes have grown considerably more obscene since we parted.”
“Once you entertain a black lust,” she said lasciviously, chewing suggestively on the tip of her finger at the thought and lounging back in the chair, “you’re compelled to indulge in it again and again and again.” She leaned forward and ran an inhumanly long, flicking tongue across her pale lips, nearly tumbling out of the low-cut top as she did so.
“True enough.” Prynn smiled a sickly smile, shooting Tryst a cold look. “I indulged in one myself. For far too long. You’ve lost your humanity, Tryst. I find that very sad.”
“Humanity!” she snorted. “Just another word for weakness used by those pathetically clinging to sentiment. What good does coddling the writhing maggots of this world do? They will forever be the sheep while I am the wolf. Humanity has no place for the wolves of the world.”
“Even demons have a sense of humanity. They know its value even if they despise it and hold it in contempt. But you, you’re so far gone, beyond the realm of normal depravity, that you’ve lost all sense of the notion.” He sighed and shook his head as if disapproving. “No doubt you were bad before, but now...now you’re a monster. Your castle, this land, has putrefied like a week-old corpse and festered like an infected pustule. Everything around you has rotted along with your soul. Now your deeds are so black and reprehensible that hell won’t even wait for your arrival; it’s sprouting up all around you.”
For a moment all of the wretched features that had rendered that beautiful face so gruesome vanished. She appeared as she had before, as a beautiful woman, but her expression denoted a wound of the deepest and most grievous nature. Her milky skin had taken on an even more ghastly pallor, and her mouth hang slightly open. She blinked and the ends of her lashes sparkled wetly. Vinton knew at once from her look of stunned horror and hurt that this woman still loved Prynn despite the years and the perceived wrongdoing on his part. However, his urgency to flee increased tenfold because he also realized the scorn and utter unpredictability of a jilted lover and that this particular jilted lover was a witch powerful enough to bind the movement of a wizard as powerful (although lacking in so many other areas) as Prynn. Still, the apprentice couldn’t help but wonder what kind of fiery relationship his fleeting master and this ravishing witch could have had. And though he tried to push it to the farthest corner of his mind, he couldn’t help but wonder at what wicked ends the pair endeavored in his master’s dark past.
“Monster?” Tryst hissed suddenly. Her womanly veneer melted away again but to a much more frightening degree than before. Her face darkened and it appeared as though a thousand scurrying worms squirmed beneath her skin, setting a writhing and revolting ripple across her flesh. She leapt from her chair, knocking it to the floor as she came to her feet. The whole of her body pulsed now. “Monster!” she roared. She leveled a crooked finger at Prynn who appeared entirely unaffected. “I’ll show you a monster! And if you believe that hell has sprung up around me then maybe it has. But know this, Prynn Alstern, hell is about to swallow you whole!” She ended on a shriek, her voice pitching to something decidedly not human and most assuredly evil. It rattled the walls, the heavy table before them. The windows of the hall quivered and then shattered, sending a glittering cloud of broken glass into the air. Unable to move his arms Vinton squeezed his eyes shut, as much as to shield himself against the horror as to protect his eyes from the flying shards. A cold damp gust rushed in from the outside and extinguished the already guttering candles.
The witch bowed backwards, her head almost touching her lower back and her shrieking voice grew ever deeper and lower in pitch until it sounded as a roar from a demon. She lurched forward and bellowed even louder than before. Crumbling mortar fell and a great stone dislodged from the ceiling and crashed through the table only feet from Vinton. The table split instantly, one of its broken planks smacked the apprentice into the stone wall behind him. Then Tryst began to change. Her neck lengthened, and her face bulged until it seemed it would rip apart. Without warning she erupted from her skin, tearing it asunder as though it were wet parchment.
“Now I’ll have my vengeance!” Tryst roared from her gaping maw. The witch had transformed into a gore-slicked monstrosity. She was massive, horned and bearing ragged claws. Her skin lay in bloody tatters all about the floor. She stalked toward Prynn, her talons clicking in anticipation with each sticky, crimson step. Prynn gazed up at her from his seated position and shook his head. He had a look of detached curiosity of the sort a man who hated children might display at having seen a child take her first steps.
“No,” he said with a frown, “you won’t.” The words had barely left his lips before Empty blurred across the length of the hall and planted a steel fist into the monster’s face. She wailed as she came from her feet and crunched into the wall with a dull crack. Before she had crumpled from the wall to the floor, the golem was on her again, his fists flying with reckless abandon. The momentary advantage Empty enjoyed was lost as Tryst regained her senses. With a mighty swing she flung the golem aside, sending him through a wall and into the hall outside. She wobbled to her feet and found Prynn standing before her. She started for him, but a blinding blue light emanated from the immortal and swirled around her, weaving a cocoon of blinding thread and arresting the witch’s movement. Rendered immobile she collapsed to the ground with a gargled scream.
“How! How?” she raged, struggling against her magical bindings. She howled in pain.
“Are you really so presumptuous to think you could bind me? You overestimated your abilities and, as you always did, underestimated my own.” He gestured vaguely at giant golem tottering back through the hole in the wall through which he was flung. “I dispelled your bindings on myself and my faithful Empty some time ago. Did you think I’d become so weak, Tryst?”
The witch writhed on the floor and slowly took on a more recognizable human form, though only in shape now. Vinton’s stomach protested at the sight of her bloody carcass, the flesh having been flayed from her body when she burst forth from it. He imagined her skin would take a long, long time to grow back.
“Argh!” she cried as she writhed on the floor. “It’s burning! Searing into my skin! Prynn!” She shouted his name in desperation, but he turned his back to her.
“I stopped dabbling in the black arts long ago.” He spared her another look and nodded toward the thread that bound her. “I picked that up during my time as a knight of the Holy Blades.” His voice dropped. “It was part of my personal penance...naïve as it was. Despite that you’ll find holy magic is quite effective and extraordinarily painful for those with evil hearts. Truth is I have no idea how long it will last.” He turned away once again. “I put every bit of my being into casting it.”
And it showed. Prynn’s shoulders sagged and his face was sallow. He drew ragged, rattling breaths. Vinton noted that even as his master stood still he wavered unsteadily as though he might collapse at any moment. Whatever manner of magic he had brought to the fore, he had paid a price for its use.
“Make it stop!” she screamed, her bindings scoring flesh wherever they rubbed. Prynn shook his head sadly, still looking away from her. He turned to Vinton, who lay prostate on the floor beside the table, and muttered something with a slight fluttering of his fingers. Vinton rose, and instantly put a hand to the purple welt dominating the left side of his face from where the plank had struck.
“I’m sorry, Tryst. You plead for an act of humanity for your benefit yet you have none yourself. You don’t even grasp the concept.” He closed his eyes as he silently decided on something. Firmly, he said, “No. You hold on to your beliefs. I wouldn’t want to sully those by extending such a pathetic act to you.” He moved for the door, scrubbing the toes of his boots against the stone floor in his exhaustion. Vinton glanced toward the witch and quickly looked away. That vengeful, horrifying woman that had only moments earlier turned into an unimaginable beast and attempted to kill them lay weeping bloody tears quietly on the floor. The apprentice looked away and shuddered. He didn’t tell Prynn.
Vinton swept the floor while Empty labored over the oven. The steel giant cut a comical figure, wearing a stained apron. It was a nice change of pace for Vinton, and he certainly didn’t mind the tedium of sweeping the dusty hardwood floors. He glanced over at Empty who was examining a casserole of sorts for doneness. The apprentice grinned and Empty’s fiery green eyes smiled back. He seemed to be rather enjoying the swap in duties as well.
It hadn’t taken Prynn long to find the manuscript for which he had come calling in the first place. Similarly, it hadn’t taken Empty long to decimate the ghoulish army that had greeted them. Vinton had assisted him, casting what magics he knew. When Prynn had returned, he carried the manuscript and Empty’s sword too, apparently both squirreled away in the same location. After they departed Prynn parted ways with them and began the long journey to the Foxhole to settle up with Mortwul.
Vinton leaned on the broom and sighed. Prynn was late. He didn’t know whether his master had gotten into trouble yet again, or if he was off at some tavern nursing his sorrows after his unhappy reunion with Tryst, or if Mortwul had decided to take the manuscript and kill him. What he did know was that business at the restaurant had floundered. Aside from the few shabby townsfolk awaiting the sausage casserole, the custom was scant with the exception of four who had taken their morning meal (burnt grits compliments of the golem) there, and that was not a number worth bragging over.
Empty was the first to hear the steady clip clop of approaching hooves. Vinton stuck his head through the sheet that served as a makeshift side door and saw Prynn approaching in mad gallop upon a weary beast. Lather coated the horse’s broad chest and it blew threads of mucus from its nose with each mighty blast from its nostrils. He had driven the poor beast near to its death. He leapt from the horse before it had even stopped.
“Pack your bags,” Prynn said hurriedly, paying no mind to the horse as it continued on its reckless path at breakneck speed with no rider.
Vinton stared at him blankly. No question need be asked, at least not verbally. The apprentice crossed his arms, determined to not move one step before he had an answer.
“I don’t have time to quibble with you right now, Vinton. Get what you can carry.”
“Mortwul?” the apprentice asked. Prynn ignored him, glancing nervously over his shoulder as though he expected somebody at his back. Vinton snorted, “I can’t believe it! What did you lose this time? Another manuscript you don’t have? All of our savings? Let me guess, your romance novels couldn’t save you twice.”
“Just get what you can.” He punctuated each word with urgency, and also with irritation. Vinton laughed at the ridiculousness of yet another situation he didn’t cause but was certain he was about to be neck-deep in. His mirth faded as a shape resolved in the distant sky. It was a black carriage being pulled by two black stallions, tramping a trail of fire through the air in their wake. A short, slab-faced man furiously whipped the pitch-colored steeds.
“Great gods! Is that Mortwul?” Prynn nodded gravely. Empty gazed at the sky from the doorway, still looking extremely out of place with the apron around his steel waist. “What’d you do, Prynn? What the hell did you do?”
“He has a lovely daughter.”
Prynn managed a weak smile before he ploughed through the sheet, ripping it down in his haste, to go and gather his own possessions. From inside he shouted, “You’re getting your wish, Vinton! We’re leaving this cesspool of a town.”
Two sharp moans grated from Empty. It sounded a lot like laughter.
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Well done! Great story, excellant prose, and a delightful humor throughout.
I loved it from beginning to end! The character of Prynn is awesome. Is this story the first installment in a series?
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