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The swamp fog clung to my clothes and hair with a wetness that was palpable. My hair was plastered to my face, and I'd lost my hat somewhere around the same time my shoe had gotten stuck and lost in the muck. As if all that wasn't bad enough, the sound of the demon centipede creature was beginning to really grate on my nerves.
My partner for this trip wasn't much help at the moment, either. He was busy sorting through a knapsack full of magical trinkets and knick-knacks, none of which would be more useful than my gun. Well, if my gun hadn't been cursed, that is. Even so, my gun could at least be as useful as a rock to throw, whereas I doubted any of the penny-charms my ex was busy sorting through would do a thing.
Oh yeah, did I mention my partner for this mission was my ex? Because he was. At this point, I didn't know what was worse. The swamp fog that soaked me to the bone, the fact that I'd let my damn ex-husband talk me into this fool job, or the fact that I once again would not get paid for my effort.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. Maybe the demon centipede would cough up the client's wallet.
* * *
I had been taking a late afternoon nap on a lazy Sunday, planning on doing not much at all for the rest of the week. The money from the Green case was waning, but not yet gone, and my investment from that money was better than the one from the Johnson's money. I would have to remember the name of that horse. The only other thing I had on the docket was a recurring client that wanted me to call him back, but seeing as how his keys were always in his left coat pocket I didn't see any pressing need to get on that.
I was roused from my nap by the sound of my door being flung open. I started awake, the sudden jolt sending me tumbling from my desk chair and to the ground. With a fluid motion I stood up, immediately began to act as if I had not, in fact, been napping, and then promptly realized that it didn't matter because the man who'd flung my door open was the most useless, irresponsible, scruffy-looking, two bit cheating spellboy schemer in the history of ever. He also happened to be my ex-husband, but I didn't see where that mattered.
“Whatever you're here for, Eddie, you can turn right back around. I'm not interested, and you don't have enough money.” I spoke in what I thought was a very firm way. A way that left absolutely no room for questions about what I wanted out of him. Which was absolutely nothing. Imagine my surprise when he reached into the pocket of that torn and tattered utility vest he always wore and pulled out a stack of bills.
“Really, Sam? You always seemed interested in money before.” I didn't know what was worse. The fact that he was smiling that smug smirk that made his dimples stand out even through the two weeks' worth of stubble, the glimmer in his baby blue eyes as he thought he had me hooked, or the fact that he wasn't wrong. So I did what any self respecting girl would do. I slapped him.
“Ow!” He rubbed his cheek, giving me a look that wavered between complete understanding and the look a dog gives you when you whack it on the nose with a newspaper. “...Are you still sore about Allison?”
“Still sore?!” I looked at him with disbelief, my hands flailing about as I spoke so as to keep them from around his neck. “Know what, Eddie? I could have forgiven you cheating on me with Allison. I mean, I get it. You were in the middle of a cave out in the Songhi desert, things got intense, and you decided to think with that big lump in your pants instead of the small one in your head. I was angry, yeah, but I coulda gotten over Allison.”
“Then what?” he asked in a tone that suggested he truly didn't understand.
“It was Maranda, and then Rebecca, and then...”
“All very intense situations!” he protested.
“Candy was a lounge singer!”
“A very intense lounge singer!”
I rolled my eyes, falling with a sigh back into my chair. I reached over to my whiskey, pouring myself a glass. I supposed I shouldn't be so hard on Eddie. There were good times, and it's not like I didn't know he was a cheat and a liar when I married him. Leopards don't change their spots, you can't teach old dogs new tricks, and I should have known better than to think he wouldn't lie to me.
“What do you want, Eddie?” I finally said, resignation clear in my voice. If he noticed, he didn't make any sign of it. He reached into the bag he'd brought with him, and pulled out a small manila envelope. This he tossed onto my desk in front of me.
“Ever hear of a Tribal clan called Centipede's Children?” he asked with a hint of mystery in his voice. I knew that tone. He was about to ask me to go on some fool adventure.
“No.” I practically spit the words at him.
“That's alright,” he continued on, as if he didn't know exactly what I was saying no to. “Information's in the envelope, but short version is...”
“No, I mean I'm not going out to the wetlands to track down whatever ancient Tribal artifact you want to sell to some rich idiot who doesn't know what the wetlands are like.” I took a sip of my whiskey before continuing. “And why you thought I would just proves making you sign those divorce papers at gunpoint was the best choice I ever made.”
“Yeah, about that. You know that's technically assault, right?” He gave me an annoyed look.
“The gun wasn't even loaded.” I shrugged, a casual tone in my voice. “Anyway, that's not the point. The point is, I'm not going out to the wetlands.”
“Job pays sixty grand, plus expenses. Split it fifty fifty.” Just like always, the prick knew exactly the right words to make me putty in his hands. I sighed heavily, taking another sip of my drink. It was a stalling tactic more than anything. With that kind of money, he had me, and he knew he had me, too.
“...Fine. What's the job?”
It was a dumb decision, and I knew it at the time. The bastard had never talked me into anything I didn't regret afterwards.
* * *
By the time we were on the rickety airplane flying across the ocean into the wetlands, I was more certain than ever that I'd made the dumbest decision of my life. I had found out at the last minute that our trip was being funded by a rich idiot who was convinced that he was 'roughing it' on an 'adventure'. I thought it impolite to point out that we were actually 'taking a deathtrap' on 'an illegal artifact hunting expedition'.
The wetlands consisted of a series of small islands that could only be reached by boat. To get to the boat, you had to take an airplane across a large body of water to a completely different island. The plane could not fly directly to the wetlands because technology acted strangely there. In fact, everything acted strangely there. The threads in the wetlands are twice as potent as anywhere else in the world, which caused all sorts of interesting things to happen to technology and magic. By 'interesting', I naturally mean 'exploding death'. If you were incredibly lucky.
That didn't stop rich idiots from taking trips into the wetlands, though. The wetlands were a draw for two reasons. The first, and more legal, reason was that it was an honestly interesting place. The flora and fauna found in the wetlands were different from anywhere else in the world, and if one had enough money to hire good magical defenses it could be a good time. Many tribal clans were happy enough to barter with or ignore tourists, since they were usually rare enough not to cause any damage, so the exotic foods, plants, and wet, heavy fog everywhere was a big draw to certain people. The second, and less legal, reason was the tribal artifacts.
I've made mention of magical items in the past. They're difficult to make in any permanent way, and so most magic users don't bother. The wetlands, however, is crawling with magic items. If you're determined enough, you could happen upon one within a week of showing up with no map and no idea of what you were looking for. That would be a bad idea, since you'd then proceed to piss off a tribal clan who saw the artifact as sacred, set off ancient wards that modern magic users couldn't hope to fathom, accidentally awaken an ancient demon, or more likely all three. Then there was the fact that tribal artifacts often did strange and unknown things, to the point that even trained wizards and ritualists couldn't fully deduce their exact purpose. Thus, hunting tribal artifacts was highly illegal, and trying to sneak them out of the wetlands was twice as illegal.
Which brings us back to our patron. He was a short, squat, balding man
who had insisted his expertise would be valuable in the wetlands. Near as I
could tell, his expertise involved being unable to realize my ex was lying to
him about how great a treasure hunter he was, and being willing to pay top
dollar for a deathtrap airplane. Eddie seemed to be of the opinion we could
leave him at the hotel on
The plane descended towards the one and only city on Troga island, and I thanked every ethereal being I could think of that it hadn't started rattling apart yet. Troga itself was a small city, made up mostly of the airport, and a number of hotels and bars and other types of businesses that would cater to the income level of people who would fly out to explore the wetlands. Slightly outside the city sat the huts and hovels of the people who were actually employed by aforementioned businesses. If not for the various boats that took people to various islands in the wetlands, it would be just like any other tourist city.
“We should go directly to the island!” Our patron declared excitedly as the plane touched ground. I groaned internally.
“Actually, I think it would be better for us to go over the plan one more...” I was cut off by our patron's exuberance.
“We've been over it a dozen times! We get to the village, you and Eddie search out the thread, we grab the sword. It's easy and simple!” He sounded annoyed, as if he were explaining things to a small child. I bit back the urge to explain to him exactly how difficult the threads could be to properly navigate while in the wetlands, instead working to find a way to convince him to let me luxuriate in a nice hotel for at least one night before I went to get myself killed for his damned artifact. Thankfully, Eddie proved useful for once.
“What she means is, there's certain tools and supplies we'll need before we can properly set up the rituals needed.” Our patron opened his mouth to protest, but Eddie cut him off. “Couldn't get them back in Sonyar. Not without letting people know what we were doing. Unless you were wanting us to get found out?” That shut him up. Our patron sat back, actually pouting, and Eddie shot me his 'you owe me' look. I owed him something, alright.
Our patron was right about one thing, though. The plan wasn't the hard part. In theory, it was pretty simple. Our patron had happened upon information leading him to an artifact sword that supposedly had some great historical knowledge attached to it. I didn't know much more than that, and honestly I didn't care. Through a series of convoluted events that would take too long to explain and would make you think even less of my choices in men, Eddie had met the excitable businessman and convinced him that he was a great ritualist. So great, he said, he could easily use the information to track the item and make it safely through the village it supposedly sat in.
Problem was, Eddie was not a ritualist. I'd tried to teach him what I knew, but he'd never had the patience for it. I confess, I may have been a little distracted whenever we were alone and naked, but I place the blame entirely on him for having such a rugged physique. He could pull a spellboy, but since that was a good way to get yourself turned inside out seven different times before exploding, he was left between a rock and a hard place. Thus, he'd decided to give his wonderful, kind, loving, generous ex-wife a call. Finding this out immediately made me demand a seventy-thirty cut of the profit. I felt he was getting off easy, too, considering connecting with the threads could still be plenty dangerous. Any magic was dangerous in the wetlands, and only the most skilled could pull it off. I'd been in the wetlands precisely twice in my life, and neither time had been a picnic. And I hadn't even been doing anything illegal those times.
The plane finally rolled to a stop, and I was off the clattering thing as quick as a rabbit darting from a wolf. I resisted the urge to fall to my knees and kiss the ground, but only just. Eddie and our patron followed soon after.
“I don't know why you brought her,” our patron complained to Eddie. “She acts like that plane ride wasn't marvelous!”
“It still used a combustion engine!” I shot back. “One of which gave out halfway through the flight!”
“The pilot got it running again!” our patron countered.
“He's got a point,” Eddie added helpfully. If looks could kill, the one I gave him would have been deadlier than the threads in the wetlands.
“Can we just get our luggage and get to the damn hotel so I...so we can get prepared for this job?” The official story, according to Eddie, was that he had commissioned my help in following the threads because it made it safer. It wasn't a complete lie, since without me Eddie wouldn't be able to do anything at all with the threads. At least, not if he wanted to remain alive, in one piece, and not turned into some kind of newt.
“Fine, fine,” our patron waved his hand dismissively while looking at Eddie. “I know women are whiny in general, but you sure did bring an especially bothersome one.”
Instead of throttling the man paying me, I instead grabbed the nearest airport attendant by the collar, stared him directly in the eye, and demanded my luggage. I thought I had been quite virtuous.
* * *
Instead of one of the multiple luxurious hotels in which we could have stayed, our patron decided that we should stay in a hotel on the edge of town. It was one of the cheaper hotels, and by 'cheaper' I mean 'rat's nest'. The plumbing didn't work, the sheets had cigarette holes in them, and their electricity fairy was worse than mine. It gave me a place to sleep for the night, however, so I couldn't complain too much.
Eddie spent the afternoon and much of the night trying to convince our patron that he should stay behind. He had no luck, which was about as much a surprise as finding out the sun was going to rise the next day. I chose to take a long bath, and spend my time enchanting a few more bullets. Whether or not enchanted technology would work in the wetlands was an issue of whether or not you had pissed off any ethereal beings the past few weeks, but having them would be better than not having them.
The next morning, at the bright and early hour of too damn early, I was rudely awakened from a sound sleep and dreams of muscular, rugged men atop large piles of cash by a knock on my door. Eddie announced to me that we'd be leaving in half an hour and breakfast was on a tray outside. Because I am a professional, it took me twenty five minutes to choke down the breakfast of weird mush and dried fruit, put on my robe, shoes, and hat, and be ready at the door of the hotel. Our patron was already waiting, dressed in a comically 'adventurous' way. In addition to the khakis, long sleeved shirt, and utility vest, he'd put on a pith helmet, a hiking backpack filled to the brim with who knew what, tied a length of rope around his waist, holstered a revolver, a hunting knife, and dangled a protection charm from his belt. Eddie had simply brought his knapsack.
“...What are you dressed for?” our patron asked, a derisive tone in his voice. It was already too early for this.
“Her part involves holding the threads while I sort through them. The robe helps her hold all the energy,” Eddie offered. Our patron seemed to consider it for a moment, and then snorted.
“Well, I guess a woman would need help...” he said dismissively. I glared at Eddie.
“...Seventy five twenty five,” I stated firmly. Eddie looked about to protest, but thought better of it. He knew full well I'd walk and leave him unable to complete the job. I suppose we were lucky our patron knew almost nothing of how magic worked. It would make any lie we had to tell him easier.
“Anyway, come on,” our patron said as he turned to the door. “I already commissioned us a boat to take us to the island.”
A rickshaw that looked to be held together by duct tape and bubblegum awaited us outside. I got in and sat down, though not without shooting another glare at Eddie. After everything was said and done, I planned to have a very long talk with him about scamming only people smart enough to hire non-death trap forms of transportation.
The rickshaw bounced and rattled through the city streets, taking us past elegant hotels and restaurants, well tended parks, and the occasional sidewalk cafe. The cut off between the tourist area and the living area was sudden as a slap to the face, as we first passed several empty, less well-tended streets and then smaller, dirty buildings. Many of them looked to be homes, with laundry hanging from lines in front and bits of trash whipped by the wind into what I presumed was to pass for lawns.
Even with the rickety rickshaw, I found myself feeling thrilled to be so close to the ground. Even though every bump jarred me harder than an insistent hobo grabbing my arm, it was at least not thousands of feet in the air. I actually allowed myself to feel calm about the situation and the job. Until I saw the boat.
“...Oh hell no,” I said without realizing I'd spoken.
“Are you going to complain again?” Our patron sounded exasperated. It was hardly my fault he was a moron.
The boat, if one could call it that, was an overly large canoe with a sorondium motor strapped to the back. That alone I could have handled, but the devil is in the details. The wooden structure was twisted and lumpy, and dozens of inexpertly patched holes decorated the hull. The floor was covered in a shallow puddle, which rippled each time the boat swayed in dock. The captain was glassy-eyed, tangle-haired, and dressed in clothes that had seen better days. I didn't want to go anywhere in that boat, and I didn't want to go anywhere in any boat that he was piloting.
“...Sam...” I felt Eddie place what I was sure he thought was comforting hand on my shoulder. It only caused me to grit my teeth in annoyance.
“Eighty.” was my only response.
With that agreement, I moved onto the boat. It swayed under my step, and I had to grab the dock to steady the thing. The water sloshed angrily into my shoes, the cold shooting through my feet like a knife. I was determined to ignore it, because forty six grand was enough to make me suicidal. The rocking only got worse as Eddie, our patron, and our captain got into the boat. Thankfully, the captain untied the boat and started the motor as soon as we were seated, which left me little time to back out.
The trip across the water was uneventful, though I could feel the pinpricks of magic as we moved into the heavy fog that marked the edges of the wetlands. In case you were wondering, the fog was everywhere. It hung in the air like a cloud too lazy to rise any higher, and clung to you with the tenacity of a bulldog. We hadn't been in the fog for more than twenty minutes by the time my hair was soaked through and my robe stuck to my naked skin. For once, I was almost glad that one had to connect to the threads while nude. Any more clothing than the robe would have been about as uncomfortable as sand in the wrong places.
“I hadn't realized it would be quite so wet,” our patron grumbled as he tugged on his clothes. I bit back a comment, instead choosing to look to Eddie. He didn't seem to be faring much better, though he hid it well. For all my insults, the man had traveled to a great many places. He was used to annoying weather.
“You have the map, right?” While it hadn't been discussed specifically, I couldn't imagine Eddie being so dumb as to let our patron try to lead this expedition. For once, he didn't disappoint.
“Yep. I'll have to get a better feel for things when we actually get to the island, but it should be a short hike to where we need to be. Just have to hope the legends about Centipede's Children are true.” He gave a casual shrug before leaning back against the edge of the boat.
“...What legend?” This was the first I'd heard about a legend, though I felt as if I should recognize the name 'Centipede's Children'. Eddie smirked his smug smirk at me, and I only resisted slapping him because his dimple was cute.
“Didn't read the stuff in the envelope, did you? Legend has it there was a tribal clan called 'Centipede's Children' that ruled this island. They disappeared about a hundred years ago, and no one knows why. The one and only expedition to this island since turned up a single village left standing, and no living people. Other than the general tools and weapons you'd expect, the only thing found was the gemstone our intrepid Mr. Matthas acquired and a note etched in stone saying only 'Centipede's claw will show the way'. Standard weird stuff, nothing out of the ordinary. So with luck, we won't run into any tribals trying to kill us.”
“Because I've been so lucky on this trip thus far,” I completely failed to stop myself from muttering.
* * *
The island was mostly forest and swamp. The trees speckled the entire place like a child's Popsicle stick diorama, and the muck and mud of the ground made an angry sucking sound as it made every step a battle for freedom. Worst part was that after an hour of travel, it didn't seem to get any better. I was light of foot enough to make it through without much issue, and Eddie was strong enough that the extra effort didn't seem to bother him. Our patron was another story.
“This...mud is a little...troubling...” he grumbled as he tried to walk with his heavy pack. I very politely laughed only a little.
“It's the pack, sir,” Eddie said smoothly. “The extra weight is holding you down. If you dropped it, you could move more easily.”
“Drop my pack?!” Matthas seemed dismayed by the very idea. “But what if we need this equipment?! I've got a battery powered hotplate in case we need to cook food, and a kerosene lamp, and...”
“Wait,” I said, a realization suddenly hitting me. “A hotplate? Like, off the shelf from a camping shop?”
“....Well, yeah. I mean, not off the shelf, it's top dollar, but essentially the same thing.” He spoke as if speaking to a child. I didn't know what made me more angry. The fact that his equipment was top dollar except for what I had to use, or that he was so woefully unprepared.
“None of what you have is magic, is it?” I spit the question at him, angry as a kicked cat.
“Of course not,” he said derisively. “I wouldn't trust any of that gypsy shit you find in the cities. Half of it's snake oil, anyway, and what isn't is so watered down as to be useless. I'm just glad I found Eddie to help guide us through this, otherwise who knows what kind of con-artist might have tried to say they could help.”
“We can pick it up on the way back,” Eddie spoke quickly, cutting off the scathing yet witty thing I was about to say which would have totally made Matthas rethink his entire stance on everything. “But for right now, it's slowing us down. You wanna do this quick, or slow?”
That seemed to make Matthas think. With a sigh of resignation, he unstrapped the pack from his shoulders, and let it slide to the ground. The swampy mud sucked it in with a wet slurp, and in less than a second the pack was half deep. A second later, it was completely sucked down.
“...That's strange...” said Matthas, turning to look at the spot where his pack had once been. He began to reach down to look for it.
Eddie reacted before I had fully decided whether I cared enough to do so. He reached out, grabbing Matthas by the arm and yanking him away at full force. Matthas yelped in surprise and anger, but Eddie had been smart. A second after Matthas' feet were yanked from the spot, the mud began to spasm and wobble. A hole began to open up, the mud sucking down further into the ground to make a large indentation.
The thing about the wetlands, in regards to fauna, is that it's impossible to tell whether something is a native animal that wants to eat you, or a demon that wants to eat you. The only upside of this problem is that, when a centipede-shaped creature digs itself from the mud, it's antenna waving aggressively, its strangely human like face opening its mouth filled with razor sharp teeth, it doesn't actually matter whether it's a demon or a local animal.
By the time I'd managed to pull my gun from the robe's protective pocket, Eddie had yanked the revolver from Matthas' belt and had it aimed. He pulled the trigger three times in quick succession, resulting in nothing more than a bright light and a small explosion. Eddie yelped in pain and surprise as he threw the gun away, trying to get the source of combustion away from his delicate meat parts. This only served to draw the centipede creature's attention to him.
I acted more quickly this time, diving towards Eddie and Matthas as the centipede's head darted forward. The mud tried to fight my freedom, claiming one of my shoes as its own before it would let me go. Even so, I managed to shove Eddie and Matthas out of the way of the oncoming jaws of doom. The three of us fell down into the mud, but I was beyond caring at that point. I sat up, wrapped my hands around the handle of my gun, and pulled the trigger.
I could barely contain my joy as I saw the blue pulse of magic at the tip of my barrel. The pulse shot forward, leaving streaks in the air behind it as it darted straight into the centipede's chest. The creature's back burst open as the magic energy exited its body, and the creature roared in pain. It then stared directly at me, and emitted a series of grunts that sounded suspiciously like words before it fell into the mud. I felt a tingle of magic in the air, and even without being currently connected I could feel the threads re-aligning themselves, causing some form of sympathetic bond that I couldn't properly translate. The centipede creature began to sink into the mud, and the mud slurped and burbled as it claimed its prize.
I turned to Eddie, ready to yell at him. The look on his face stopped me. His brow was creased like a well ironed shirt, and he was muttering under his breath. I knew that look. He was trying to translate something. The fact that it actually had spoken words, and not impressively erudite grunts, at least confirmed the thing as a demon.
“What did it say, Eddie?” My tone was not a question.
“Well, the language bears only some resemblance to another language that's fallen out of favor in the past hundred years...” he stammered.
“What. Did. It. Say.” I spoke more firmly, since he appeared to have had trouble understanding the first time.
“Well, it either said 'horrible is the weapon that struck me'...” Eddie spoke cautiously. For a moment, I allowed myself to feel relieved. Maybe the tingle of magic had been my imagination, and it had simply cried out some form of death babble. “...Or 'your weapon shall take from you horribly to kill me'.” So much for relief.
“...It cursed my gun, Eddie.” Once again, it was not a question.
“I know,” he replied with no small amount of apology in his tone.
“My cut just went up to eighty, Eddie.” I made the decision that if he argued, I would pistol whip him.
“...I know,” was his only response. He was lucky, this time.
“I don't know what all the fuss is about,” Matthas said as he pushed himself to his feet. “We'll just get my gun and that will be fine.” He began to brush the mud from his clothes, for all the good it would do him. For my own part, I got up, feeling the mud grab at me desperately, and resisted the urge to shoot him. The curse only dulled my desire a little.
“Your gun is currently destroyed, because you are an idiot who didn't think to get enchanted bullets. You used standard, machine produced rounds, which exploded in a standard, machine produced way.” I no longer attempted to hold back my disdain.
“...What is she talking about?” Matthas looked to Eddie for explanation. The idea of shooting him looked better and better.
“The wetlands makes technology not work. If you're lucky, it's just an explosion. I tried to tell you this before we left, sir.” Even though I could hear the annoyance in his voice, Eddie still managed to speak politely. This was why he was the con artist, and I was the one with a cursed gun.
“....I thought as long as it was extremely well made...” Matthas began to speak sheepishly. Eddie simply pushed himself to his feet. He tugged on his backpack to get it free from the mud, and then reached into his pocket to re-check the map.
“Village is only a bit further north. If we hoof it, we should make it in another hour or so.”
* * *
The village, such as it was, was nothing more than seven dilapidated huts on a patch of rock. The huts had been made of the same wood as the trees around us, though the walls had long since rotted through. Only one still had a roof, and even calling it a roof was being generous. Whoever had built the place had taken advantage of all the space the rock would give them. For my part, I decided that the rock was my best friend ever and I would have to buy it a birthday present.
“Alright. Let's find the hut where this gemstone came from, and do our thing,” Eddie sounded about as tired as I felt. The thing with the centipede demon had clearly jarred him. It had jarred me, too, if I had to be honest. I just had my hate and disgust to keep me warm.
We searched the huts one by one, deciding to keep together. Not that we could have done a whole lot should another demon appear. I didn't know what my gun would do, Eddie had nothing more than a few penny-charms, and Matthas had nothing left but his knife. Even if we decided to throw our shoes at the thing I'd have been out of luck. The mud had refused to give me back my footwear.
We found the hut on the fourth try. It was one of the roofless ones, the rotted bits of wood scattered across the ground. It felt wet and slimy against my bare foot, but after so long in the mud it was almost welcome. As Eddie had said, there was a stone brick in the hut, which sat directly in the center. It was covered with moss, and tiny black bugs crawled along it. Eddie stepped forward, pulling a rag from one of his utility vest pockets. He used it to wipe away at the moss and bugs, checking the stone carefully.
“...Yep. There it is. Though I'd have interpreted this as 'sword', but, details.” He shrugged, turning to Matthas and me. “Well, I suppose we should begin. Mr. Matthas, if you'd please give the gem to Sam so she can begin to properly hold the threads while I search through them?”
Our patron looked less than thrilled about the idea, but reached into his pocket. From it he dug a small red stone, about the size of a quarter. Even in the dull, fog-laden sunlight it glimmered, and I could feel the magic pulsing inside of it as soon as it touched my skin. I wrapped my fingers around it tightly, before bending down to take off my remaining shoe. I considered strongly leaving the thing here in the village, since it did me little good by itself.
Gemstone in hand, I began to focus and chant in order to connect myself to the threads. I knew from experience that candles and other such casting tools weren't necessary in the wetlands. The threads were so powerful that you could usually sense magic without being connected to them at all. Just like I remembered, the threads in the area slapped into me within seconds, engulfing my body in a searing heat that threatened to char-broil me from the inside out. I managed to keep myself from crying out, though I'd be lying if I said I didn't lose my knees from under me.
I felt myself grabbed before I fell to the ground. My eyes fluttered open, and I found myself staring into Eddie's baby blues. He looked genuinely worried, which was something I hadn't seen him look in years. Even with the threads piercing me like a thousand fiery needles, I managed to smile softly in gratitude.
“Ugh, can she not even do the job she was hired for?” Matthas said, disdain heavy in his voice.
“She's doing the heavy part of this job,” Eddie spoke before I could collect myself enough to insult our patron. “Maybe you could show a little bit more respect to someone who just set their insides on fire for your artifact.” That caused Matthas to shut up, though he looked insulted. I smiled a bit more broadly.
“Aw. That's sweet, Eddie.” I got myself back to my feet, figuring I shouldn't lean against my ruggedly handsome ex-husband any longer, for both our sakes. I had a job to do, after all.
I held the gemstone in front of my face, peering carefully at the threads connected to it to find the one I needed. Eddie, meanwhile, stood in front of me and began gibbering in random languages, in order to look like he was doing something other than cheating Matthas out of sixty thousand dollars. I discarded the weaker threads, they were too freshly made to be what I wanted. I spent only a few moments on the threads that led back to the village itself, wondering why we'd used a map when one of those threads would have led us there. Then I realized Eddie had been protecting me from having to hold the threads any longer than necessary. That realization almost made me regret making him sign our divorce papers at gunpoint. Almost.
I finally found the thread that would most likely lead us to the artifact from which this gem came. It led back to the altar, which was odd, but it wasn't the altar's thread. It lacked the feel of centuries old stone, and what's more it had a magical command attached to it. Curiosity caused me to tug on it lightly, in an attempt to discern the nature of the command. I really should know better than to do things like that.
The altar began to shudder, and then crumbled into dust and pebbles. That caused us all to start, our already tense bodies moving away with all haste. I'm not ashamed to say I was already halfway through the door before Eddie said something.
“Wait! We found it!” Eddie's elation caused me to stop and turn. Sitting in the midst of the altar's dust and chaff was a small knife, about six inches long. I could feel the power of the threads connected to it, and I didn't like what they were saying.
“...My sword!” Matthas felt no such threads. In his excitement, he ran to the knife. He reached out a hand to grab it, and if I'd been just a little quicker things might not have gone to hell.
The second he touched the knife, the threads whipped around him like a squid catching prey. They grabbed his limbs, and he screamed as they began sinking into his flesh. He struggled and pulled against them, but the knife had him solid. Eddie reached out to grab him, but I grabbed Eddie.
“No. We need to get the hell out of here. The knife's using him as a summoning point!” I practically screamed it at him before turning and trying to run.
“Can we rip the thre...of course we can't, not here. What if we killed him? That would stop the summoning!”
“With what?!” I was already out of the hut and sprinting towards the mud at this point. I could feel the threads thrum and pulse, feel the power burn through the air, and only adrenaline was keeping me going in spite of the pain. “My gun's cursed, remember!?”
“...Shit.” I heard Eddie running behind me as my feet hit the mud. It slurped around my bare skin, but after hiking for an hour with one shoe, I'd gotten used to it. The cold, wet slime did serve one useful purpose, however. It slowed me down enough to realize I was still holding the gem.
I inspected the gem's threads as I moved. One continued to pulse and thrum with power, and I realized it was still connected to the knife. Only the knife was moving now. I heard a roar behind me, and turned to see the giant centipede creature from before destroying the hut from which we'd just fled. That was the command of the thread. The knife didn't just use the wielder's life force to turn him into a demon. It turned him into a specific demon. The Centipede. The knife must have been activated by the last host's death.
Was that the curse on my gun? I tried to inspect it as I ran, but found I could do only one or the other. I got as far as recognizing that using the gun would drain my life energy before Eddie caught up with me. He ran past me, grabbing my arm as he did so to help pull me along. The mud continued to grab at my feet as I moved, and it was like, well, like trying to run through shin-high mud.
“Eddie, we're not gonna outrun this thing!” I screamed. True to my words, the centipede demon was already on the move, slithering through the mud much more easily than either of us were running. I decided our only option was to try my gun.
I pulled it free from its protective pocket, and quickly took aim as the sympathetic magic command threads snaked around my wrist and latched into my skin. The centipede demon reared up on its hindquarters, roaring a challenge. I chose to forgo my usually witty repartee and instead pull the trigger. Once again, the blue magic pulsed and flashed in front of the barrel, before the bolt of power shot forward. The centipede moved quickly, and the bolt caught only a glancing blow. I've since been informed that the bolt of energy took a chunk of flesh from the creature's side, but at the time I was too busy grabbing my ribs in pain to notice. The thread connecting me to the gun became white hot, and seared my insides as if I'd been run through. I cried out in pain and fell to my knees, managing just barely to keep a grip on my gun.
“And you say I'm the dumb one,” I heard Eddie say. I felt his hands reach under my arms, and I was lifted up out of the mud. I thought to respond, but the only things I could think to say were very unladylike.
Eddie began to run, half-pulling and half-carrying me. I managed to glance back, and saw that my shot had at least slowed the creature down. It was sinking into the mud, its glowing red eyes staring out at us balefully. Even after one shot, I was feeling as though I could barely keep going. I didn't know if I had a second in me, but I didn't think the demon was going to let us get all the way back to the boat.
“...Eddie....” I managed to get out. To this day, I'm not entirely sure what I was going to say. Now, of course, I can think of a million things I could have said. At that moment, however, the only thing I could think of was how this was all Eddie's fault but I still wanted him to tell me everything would be alright.
“I know,” he responded, cutting me off. He stopped running, turning to look at the demon. The demon was beginning to rise up, its segmented legs pulling it through the mud like a fish through water. I looked at Eddie with confusion, wondering why the hell he'd stopped running. My answer came when he reached over and grabbed my gun from my hand. I saw the gun's threads rip free from my hand and forearm, and then take a second to latch around his hand and wrist, pulsing with their sympathetic command. The pain in my side let up, but only a little.
“If it helps any, none of them were as good as you. And not a one could do that thing you do with your tongue.” Before I could demand an explanation, he let me go. I fell to my knees, but instead of helping me back up Eddie began walking towards the demon.
I realized his plan when he raised the gun and took aim. He shouted in a language I couldn't understand, and pulled the trigger. I saw the blue energy pulse and shoot through the fog, and the demon roared in pain as it hit square. Eddie screamed in pain as well, and fell down to his knees. His face was creased, his breathing was short and rapid, and I could see the threads around his wrist entangling themselves in his life thread and tugging at it. They pulsed and glittered, and it looked for a moment like they would actually rip his life thread in two.
Though the first shot was solid, the demon didn't die as it had before. It moved more slowly, but still with a purpose towards Eddie. Eddie raised the gun again, wrapping his hands tightly around the handle. His hands shook as he tried to aim his shot, and I could see the fear on his face. He knew he was going to die, but he was going to do it so I didn't have to.
Like hell I was going to let him have a heroic sacrifice to hold over me for the rest of my life. I pushed myself to my feet, running towards Eddie with all the power my legs could give me. The way the threads had latched on to Eddie gave me hope of one plan, but I'd have to be quick.
I dove the last few feet, leaping at Eddie. I knocked him down into the mud, and he yelped with a mixture of pain and surprise. I paid it no heed as I ripped the gun out of his hands. Without wasting so much as a second I pointed it at the centipede and pulled the trigger. The blue bolt of magic cut through the fog just as the command threads latched onto me, and I felt searing pain as the bullet blasted into the centipede's face and out of the back of its skull. I threw the gun away as quickly as I could, watching the threads reach hungrily to stay connected. They went taut, and the moment seemed to last forever before they finally pulled free of my wrist.
I fell into the muck as it slurped around the dead body of the centipede, my vision going blurry. I didn't know if I'd been quick enough, but I supposed I'd find out if I woke up. For the moment, my body was insisting that it was nap time, and I didn't have the strength to argue.
* * *
I did wake up, laying naked in a bed, clean sheets pulled over my body. All of me hurt. My joints throbbed, my head pounded, even my skin itself threatened to pack a bag and go on vacation. I thought to speak, but only managed to groan.
“Oh, you're awake!” Eddie's voice came to my ears moments later. He stepped from where he was to the bed, standing over me to inspect me carefully. “It was touch and go there for a bit.”
“...I'm still alive?” I managed to speak more clearly this time while Eddie's fingers gently prodded my various joints. Now that my vision was clearing, I could see he had a health charm in his hand, and was using it to gently guide my healing.
“Only just. That was stupid, you know. What, were you relying on firing too quick for the command thread to grab you?” He snorted, his tone making it clear what he thought of that plan.
“Don't knock it. It worked.” I muttered weakly. Then another thought came to me. “...We're not getting paid for this job, are we?”
“No, I don't think so, Sam. Sorry,” his tone was genuinely apologetic.
“...I hate you so much,” I replied before closing my eyes again.
“I know. Our plane back home leaves tomorrow morning. You rest up until then, alright?” The last thing I was aware of before drifting off to sleep was Eddie kissing me softly on the forehead and muttering 'thanks'. Then I drifted off to a world where I actually got paid for putting myself in life threatening situations. It would be a nice dream until I had to wake up.
|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
|The Wizard's House|
|A Fisherman's Guide to Bottomdwellers|