by Mark Eller
part 1 of 2
Reed woke in a dark barn to find his hand cupping a woman’s bare breast. He jerked away, stood, and adjusted his clothes. The woman lay at his feet, a naked body cradled in hay, faintly illuminated by thin moonlight coming through the open barn door, drained of blood and soul through an opened neck. Another victim to the perfidy of Dr. Wise.
“Hunt Night,” a low voice said. Reed heard a faint rustle, and then a thin, dark-bodied wraith walked out of the opposite stall. The wraith spread her arms wide, opening her leather-skinned wings, and she smiled. “I smell your blood.”
Reed slowly rose and groped for his knife. The back of his left shoulder throbbed, but he could not remember being injured. He did not know why he was in this barn when his last memory was of driving his wagon on the Helad Plain. “Are you going to kill me?”
The wraith shook her head and pointed a talon at the dead woman. “I have already eaten her soul and tasted your blood, but I am not the only one you should fear. This is Hunt Night — the night when we Changed choose to feed, and you have been marked as prey.”
In the distance, Reed heard breaking wood and a scream. He gripped his knife tighter, felt for the magician’s bag strapped to his belt, and wished his magic was more than just slight of hand. Outside the barn, he heard a snuffling. Elsewhere, horses shifted in their stalls.
“One comes,” the wraith promised.
“It’s dark,” Reed whispered, hating the quaver in his voice. “I can’t see.”
“I can,” the wraith replied, and she faded back.
Reed swallowed hard. He jerked his head around, looking for a better weapon than his knife, but saw almost nothing in the dark. He backed away from the dead woman’s body, backed deeper into the shadows, until his heel touched the barn wall.
The snuffling grew louder, working on his nerves until he wanted to yell. He heard the pad of feet, the shuffling of straw, and then a ghoul ghosted into view. It crouched in the stall’s opening, a squat thing, half hidden in shadow, a being of long legs and thin arms. Its mouth opened in a grin, revealing two rows of sharp teeth. It eased forward and stopped beside the dead woman. Reed’s stomach clenched and roiled.
“Run boy,” the ghoul whispered just before it lowered its head to feed.
Reed ran. He raced past the ghoul, banged his shoulder against the stall door, and then he raced out of the barn. Once outside, he stopped. Panting, he looked around.
Though the moonlight was dim, Reed recognized the village. His family had traveled through it many times these last few years. Like everywhere else, Cairn was not the town it had been before Dr. Wise caused the Fall. Many of its houses were caved in. Some were gone; others had become burned beams and ash. The hardware store still stood, and a roofless pharmacy. Only a frame remained of the tavern where his father had sometimes played guitar.
Reed shuddered at the sight. Every time he came through Cairn more buildings were burned. Nothing was ever repaired, because humans were becoming rare.
Light shone past the closed drapes of the standing homes. Dark figures lay in the street. Other figures capered or crept. Glass broke somewhere, and Reed pressed himself tight against the outside barn wall. Sweat ran off his forehead and stung his eyes. He drew in on himself and wished he could safely melt into the ground. His heart hammered so hard he feared the hunters would find him by zeroing in on its sound.
Wings flapped. The wraith landed by his side.
Reed cringed away and wanted to plunge his knife into her belly, but he knew she had twice his speed and four times his strength. Her talons would rip out his throat before his hand barely moved.
“How old are you, boy,” the wraith demanded.
“Six... sixteen,” Reed stammered.
“Young enough to stink of fear,” she said. “Old enough to fight. Will you fight, my bantam, or will you die?”
“I’ll run,” Reed said. He crouched low and slowly moved away, hoping that if he moved slow enough in the dark he would not draw the hunters’ attention. He put away his knife, edged around the side of the barn, and crawled past a burned out building to reach a house with lighted windows. The light called to him like a beacon, beckoning him away from the shadows and the monsters.
Once there, he drew his knife and tapped it against a shuttered window.
Silence answered him. Reed shuddered and wanted to cry. His knife shook in his hand.
“P-Please,” he called softly, “let me in.”
“Go away,” a gruff voice replied. “We’ve weapons and people enough to kill your kind.”
“Please,” Reed tried again. “I’m Magus Reed. The magician. I came through Cairn j-just three days ago.”
Long silence, and then the shutter parted slightly.
“Put your face over by the crack,” the gruff voice demanded.
Reed moved into the shutter’s released light. He tried to hold still, tried not to show his fear, but hunters roamed the night and he was in plain view.
“You’re human,” the voice said, “and you look like Magus, but Magus Reed was last here more than two months back, not the three days you claim. Have you gone and caught the nano-plague?”
“Do I look like I’ve caught it,” Reed demanded. “Have I grown fangs or claws or wings? Have I grown too tall or too short? Has my face become leather? I’ve no more nano in me than anybody else who’s mostly human.”
“He’s human enough for us,” a voice said, and then a weight flung Reed into the house wall. Fangs sank his into his shoulder. Reed screamed and jabbed his knife into the dark shape clinging to him. He stabbed it again and again while something else grabbed for his legs, and then the shape holding him burst into flames and fell away. Two small, dark shrouded bodies lay on the ground. An old man leaning out of an open window jerked a spear from one of the bodies. A goblin stood ten feet away. Its squat body was only three feet high but it had fangs and strong arms and its face wore an unhappy frown.
“You have killed us when you were not prey, Robert Tailor,” it said. “Your name goes on the next hunt list.”
“I understand,” the old man said. “Until then, I’ve a wounded boy to care for.
The goblin spat on the ground. “He already heals. His nano is strong, but that will not save him this night. He has been marked as prey. She carried him here for the hunt. Do not interfere again or you will surely die, Robert Tailor. I will not protect you again.”
The old man nodded, looked at Reed, and pointed his spear at Reed’s gut. “I’m sorry lad, but I can’t take you in. Nobody here can. There’s an old mine a few miles to the east of town. It has narrow walls, so it should be easy to defend. You might try going there.”
The night filled with the shrill sounds of a man’s scream. The scream continued on and on, impossibly long. The scream was answered by another, and then a child’s voice rose from someplace nearby. Something released a howl, and something else cackled.
Robert tossed Reed the spear. “Take it and run. I’ll feed you breakfast and take back my spear if you’re alive in the morning.”
Reed grabbed the spear, lunged forward, and shoved it through the remaining goblin’s heart. The goblin gasped and fell.
“What’d you do that for?” Robert demanded. “Now they’re likely to kill us all.”
“Will that matter?” Reed snapped. “They already kill us faster than we breed. Now he can’t put your name on the hunt list.”
“I am always safe,” Robert said.
Reed turned on his heels and ran. He ran past broken homes and burned buildings. Were-rats darted out of a pile of sludge, but Reed stepped on them before any bit his feet. An attacking wyvern swooped out of the air. The spear jerked around in Reed’s hands in time to run itself through the wyvern’s throat.
The wraith wove into view from the shadows. She towered over Reed when she looked down on the dead wyvern. Her face was dark leather parched by too much sun. Her eyes were humored and human. The wraith kneeled down to rest a taloned hand on the wyvern’s head.
“She was once my friend,” the wraith said. “We roomed together in college and were lovers for ten years until she decided she preferred men.”
The wraith leaned down, kissed the wyvern’s saw-toothed beak, and laughed when she looked back at Reed. “Her mistake. She had to die. So tell me Magus, how does it feel to make your first kills? Did they make your head light? Did they make your blood flow?”
“You’re sick,” Reed said.
She laughed again. “I eat souls and suck blood. A person can’t get much sicker than that. Did you like it when you ran your shaft into her body? Was it better than sex?”
Reed shook his head with confusion. “Humans never kill the Changed. It can’t be done, but I killed the wyvern and that goblin caught fire.”
“The Changed can burn?” The Wraith stroked her boulder-hard breasts, smiling suggestions. “Are you smart enough to learn why?”
“She didn’t burn,” Reed protested. He gestured toward the wyvern.
The wraith smiled and pointed at the spear.
Reed shifted his grip on the spear and realized that it had acted on its own. He had not known of the wyvern until after it was already dead. Real magic, he had heard, did exist, but it was the magic of nano gone rogue. It was the magic of nano infecting trees or stone or a child’s eating bowl. Even without a controlling mind, nano sometimes achieved an awareness and purpose of its own.
“Thank you,” he told the spear. The spear bent in his hands until its tip faced him. A silver eye blinked within the blade, and then the shaft straightened.
A woman screeched thinly. An angry bay followed the sound of ripping flesh.
“Run boy,” the wraith said. “All the other prey are dead. They’ll come after you in turns.”
Reed nodded and ran at a jog. He could barely see the way. The moon was dim, the stars faint, and clouds drifted in. He knew where the mine lay because he had been there before, but everything looked different in the dark. The path felt uneven, unsure, as if it had not decided if it were going to stay. Cloying flowers and nano sweet cloves filled his senses. They made his head reel.
Before long, his nose clogged. Mucus ran thick in the back of his mouth. Water ran from his eyes. The baying fell farther behind. The screams faded, and then he ran through a silent night. His feet thudded into the ground, a steady drumbeat racing a third as fast as his heart.
Winded, Reed stopped less than two miles from Cairn. He coughed up phlegm, blew his nose, and set the spear’s butt to the ground. Panting, he bent over his knees and wished he had not spent so much time sitting on a wagon seat. He was not used to running, was not used to hard work. Reed earned his way with flashing lights, colored scarves, and mirrors. The only things he had killed before this day were fish flopping on a lure.
Catching his breath, he straightened and listened for hunters closing in. Crickets chirped and a faint breeze stirred. The stars had disappeared. The moon was a dim glow behind thick fog. Clouds roiled, stealing light so he could barely see his hand.
A stick cracked.
He tensed, gripped the spear tighter and tried to remember what had happened to his knife. It was back in the village, he realized, buried in the body of a burning goblin.
He turned a slow circle, knees bent and spear held ready, but it was too dark to see. He stood on a path, no longer sure which way to go. One way led to the village, the other to the mine, but he was turned around and lost.
The hunters, the killers, they were out there and he was the next thing to blind. He strained his senses and smelled nothing. He heard no sound, but that did not reassure him. The hunters were Changed. When the Changed hunted, no human could survive.
“Wraith,” he whispered with a suddenly dry mouth, hoping, but she did not answer. He heard nothing but his quick breaths and his beating heart. Reed tapped around with the spear until he felt brush and trees to discover where the trail’s edge lay. He tapped again, seeking comfort in the sound.
And then he stilled.
The wraith, he knew, was near. She followed him, watched him, and played her game, but he did not know why. He was not her kind but he knew her type well because his mother had caught the plague. She became wraith and thought herself human until the hunger struck. In front of her family, she sucked out her daughter’s soul.
Reed fought back the memory, but failed. He remembered his mother quietly directing her husband on exactly how to cut her throat while they stood over their daughter’s drained body. Three days later, Reed’s father became ill and started his own change. Reed stole the wagon and ran. He had run ever since.
“I love you,” he whispered to the memories of his absent father, to his mother, and to a sister whose soul was no more. He wiped a hand across his eyes, wishing he could see, wanting to fold to the ground and hide under last year’s fallen leaves.
“Please,” a young voice whispered in the dark. “Help me. I don’t want to die.”
Light flared, making Reed close his eyes. When he opened them he saw two goblins standing over a boy. One goblin held a sputtering flare. The other held a revolver. Wet piss ran down the inside of Reed’s leg.
“Our turn,” the armed goblin said, and it raised its weapon. Reed shook. The spear jerked in his hands and threw itself through the air to enter the gun’s barrel. The gun fired and blew apart. A piece of the spear flew back towards Reed. Fingers fell away from the goblin’s wounded hand.
Acting on instinct, Reed grabbed the broken spear from the air, lunged forward, and shoved the splintered shaft into the wounded goblin’s throat. Spinning, he swung the shaft towards the other goblin’s face, but the goblin swayed to the side. It dropped the flare and leaped for him, clawed arms held wide, gaping mouth aimed for Reed’s neck.
Reed screamed and fell to his knees. The goblin passed over his head, arms reaching, surprise spread across its narrow face. The shaft swung with its own volition and Reed heard breaking bone. The goblin hit the ground, rolled, and scrambled into deeper brush.
Shaking, Reed stayed on his knees. In the unsteady flare’s light he watched the wounded goblin quiver and die. The broken shaft felt dead and thin in his hand. He opened his fingers and let it fall.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Eller