Another bit of mtg fanfic, returning once more to Ulgrotha and the Homelands set. Bit late for All-Hallows, but I hope you enjoy all the same!
The boy started awake as the meagrely-laden cart shuddered, jolted out of a rut. He could feel, having made this trip countless times before, that they had gone too far. Rubbing sleep-heavy eyes, he peered into the drawing gloom. Close-coppiced trees blocked out his vision after more than a few feet either side of the path. He looked over at his grandfather, the old man’s figure shadowy against the swinging lantern behind him. The old man must have noticed that his grandson was awake, but gave no outward sign, keeping his eyes on the road ahead. There was something unusual about all this, the boy felt.
Shifting on the wooden bench, the boy looked behind him – yes! There it was! Bouncing with each stony depression the wheels fell in to, the boy watched the lights of An-Havva Inn twinkle in the distance. They were still close enough that a burst of laughter and music reached them, as some wayward patron staggered out the main door. They turned a corner, and the last cheery sign of it was gone. The boy shuddered as the dark seemed to pull in on them, heavy, dank, and oppressive. It passed quickly, though – a moment more and the moon shrugged off its foggy shroud, casting its light on the road ahead of them.
“Papa,” the boy said, “why aren’t we stopping at the Inn, like we usually do? Where are we going?”
The old man shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the wood boards rasping a different note than the usual creak of motion. Finally looking at his grandson, he held the gaze steady for a long moment. His face was drawn, greyish and lined in a way the boy hadn’t seen before. He looked old, older than he did yesterday. A sudden snap out in the forest broke him from his reverie, and, with a shake of his head, he turned away. The rustle of leather and rumble of the wheels were all that was heard for a time, until the old man began to rummage by his side. He produced a dull, pewter flask, and, unscrewing the lid with shaky hands, he drank deeply. The smell of the liquor was thick on the air as he exhaled, the unusual odour making the boy feel queasy. His grandfather hardly ever drank, even only having a single mug of hard cider during the Harvest festival. The queerness of the situation did nothing for the boy’s state of mind, making him feel all the sicker.
“We’re not bringing anything to the Inn, tonight, not yet…” the man said, still looking ahead. “We’re…taking our stock to another place…yes, another market…” As the sentence drifted off, he lifted the flask for another pull. The woods on either side, organised and humane on the road approaching the Inn, began to take a disorganised, wilder look. Unworked, old – the trees drooped with moss several feet thick, the bark knotted and horny. The air was close, musty – and threatening.
“Say,” he said, turning to the boy in sudden animation. “Do you remember the, well, this would have been quite a few years back, so you may not, but do you remember the tinker that stopped at the village for several seasons – name of Rorik, I think.”
The boy screwed up his face in concentration, trying to remember. It had been several years ago, and, the boy being so young, he couldn’t remember much past two harvest-times with any degree of clarity.
“Ah, as I remember it, Rorik used to put on shows for you young’uns. Puppets and whatnot,” the old man said, warming to his subject.
The memory of the displays, always a burst of colour in the small, pastoral life of the boy, cleared the fog of time.
“Oh, yeah, I remember him!” he said excitedly. “Are we going to a puppet show? Will he be there? I haven’t seen Rorik in ages!”
“Erm, no, my lad, not quite,” the man said, uncomfortably. The brightness of the memories fled from his face, leaving him once again looking ragged. “No, I was just thinking, you recall how Rorik…how he had to leave us, at the village-like?”
The boy, thinking about how long it had been since he saw the strange, cartoonish man, nodded.
“Well, that Rorik, he didn’t just leave, like. He helped the village, y’see?” the man said, earnestly, a strange urgency in his words as if he was trying more to convince himself than his grandson. The boy, for his part, mostly looked bemused.
“And then, do you remember Tallin, the carpenter, who came the year after? He helped to build the mill at the base of the Green Run? Well, he didn’t stop there – when he left afterwards, he helped out even more!” The boy knew how important the mill was to his village, it was what set their home apart from the surrounding districts. It made sense to think of it as a lasting aid – didn’t people, at least before, come from miles around to use it?
“And after that, too,” his grandfather continued, “there was Oan and his wife, and their daughter. They helped the village a lot!” The boy remembered this family well – the daughter, Sigri, was only a year older than he himself. There were so few children in the village, they had become fast friends. Quickly, they had become inseparable, spending every moment they could together, those that they could steal away from the chores on their families’ farms. But then, after only a year and a season, Sigri and her parents had abruptly left the village. One day, Oan had been discussing with the other men the best way to lay out his meagre fields for the coming season – it had been early Spring – and the next, he and his family had left. Sigri hadn’t even said goodbye to the boy, hadn’t even mentioned their intention to leave the village. The boy still hadn’t gotten over the loss, though it was several years ago. He didn’t know what Oan and his family could have done to help the village, though he trusted his Grandfather. Oan couldn’t weave stories like Rorik, dazzling the crowds with feats of acrobatics or enthralling with music. Nor did he have the ability that of Tallin to shape wood, the know-how to raise structures that stood for years and harness the power of the rushing Run. Oan had been poor, with the worst plot of land in the village. Sigri had always had threadbare clothing, her mother unable to do more than repair the scraps and off-cuts of other villagers’ charity. No, the boy didn’t know how Sigri and her parents could have offered the same sort of help as the other strangers.
“Yes, my boy, all those poor folk, they helped the village. Without them, well, we wouldn’t have gotten by, no indeed,” his grandfather continued, though the over-bright expression he had worn before had been replaced now, returning once again to a stolid set.
“We’ll be helping the village ourselves, tonight,” he said with a note of finality, another drink quick on the back of the words.
What must have been nearly an hour passed. The fog thickened as the air cooled, muffling the sounds of the night time forest around them. The boy began to nod, the rhythm of the slow nag rocking him into a fitful sleep. His fevered mind, though, gave him no respite. Dark dreams, filled with half-seen terrors that flitted about, kept him from truly falling asleep. Coming to full wakefulness of a sudden, he perked up his ears, hearing a thunder in the distance. He looked quickly to his grandfather, who stared ahead of them, gimlet eyes peering into the darkness. Clearly, the sound had distressed the man, as well. Though the sky was overcast, the clouds didn’t look to be carrying a storm in their bellies, and so he wondered at it. Few moments passed as the sound grew, seemingly from all sides, and then –
a great crashing and a terrified whinny from the mule, which pulled the lot of them into the ditch as a dark shape hurtled by. The boy caught a glimpse of a white face, twisted into an inhuman, silent shout, struggling to restrain a brace of the largest stallions he had ever seen. Jet-black, they stood at least 20 hands at the withers – taller than any dray horse he’d seen in his short life, and much more sleek. Despite their tumultuous passage, the carriage they pulled seemed to glide behind them. Glossy wood, painted or naturally ebony, the boy didn’t know. The shape of it was elegant, and unsettling. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he spied another face, within the carriage, before the obscuring curtain was twitched back into place. This face was white, like the other, but, where the first was animated by its struggle, this second one was placid, calculating. Like a still pool, the depths of which were obscured by the mirror-like surface. Time passed quickly, and the face was gone as the vehicle sped along the empty road. Not even sure he’d seen the passenger, the boy was left deeply unsettled by the thought of its gaze.
It took nearly half an hour to right the cart and settle the mule. The animal, normally sombre to the point of dullness, danced and shied as if a colt, though its energy evidently sourced from something more dire. It was fortunate the cart itself was so lightly loaded – their usual cargo, the heavy barrels of cider and ale, would have checked any efforts to pull the cart from the muddy trench.
The trio finally continued on their way – the somewhat-calmed mule tugging the vehicle steadily uphill, the old man sitting silent, every so often taking a pull from his flask, and the child, trying to stifle the mounting unrest brought on by the extraordinary events of their nocturnal travels. They climbed above the reach of the fog, its tendrils clinging to them as they jerked along, as if loathe to let them go. The air, crisp outside the fog, was cold. Once again, the clouds pulled back, and the gibbous moon revealed itself to the solitary travellers. High above them, now, its thin light illuminated their surroundings. The boy looked out into the forest, and a break of some several feet in the surrounding trees opened up a scene beyond and below them. Far off in the distance, leagues and leagues, the yellow moonlight lit up a vast wasteland. From their high vantage, they could spy some of the outer edge, the way that the surrounding forests and fields came to an abrupt, unnatural end. Barren rock, taupe in the moonlight, covered acres of land. The boy looked out, and, at the furthest reaches of his sight, he thought he caught glimpse of a single, loan tower rising above the background waste.
“Ill luck, boy,” his grandfather said gruffly. “Ill luck to look on the Basalt Spire by moonlight. Look too long, they say, and you’ll set the Old Witch to ringing her chime once more. Best to look away,” he finished, another swig of his flask. He needn’t have bothered, as, within a few moments, the forest returned thick as ever.
The boy could feel their descent steepening, and, soon, they were confronted by a solid wall of fog, blotting out the way ahead. The mule paid no heed, and dragged them into it without slackening pace. The boy shuddered as the thick moisture settled on his bare skin. He wrapped himself in his skimpy traveling clothes, trying to retain what heat he could. Droplets of water fell from the tip of his Grandfather’s large, crooked nose.
The cart jerked to a halt, and the boy awoke, disoriented and perplexed. The moon had fled – it was the darkest hour of the night, some short time before dawn. He realised he must have fallen asleep, despite the clamminess of the fog. He looked around him, trying to make out his surroundings. His Grandfather had jumped down from the cart, and stood, conversing lowly, with someone – or something – just beyond the reach of the lamplight.
“Papa – where are we?” the boy called, a tremor in his voice.
“It’s – it’s alright. Come over here, Grandson,” the last word caught in the man’s throat, emotion choking his alcohol-blurred speech – the first time he had uttered the word, their long journey.
The boy gingerly descended the cart, still bundled tightly in his small robe. The muck was thick on the ground, oozing overtop of his boots. Pulling himself free with difficulty, the stink of it curled his nostrils. When he had made his way over to his grandfather’s side, his mysterious associate struck a light and set a lantern burning.
The boy beheld the ugliest man he had ever seen, a face more animal than human – almost that of a pig. Great, rotten teeth peaked up above a quivering lip, the top of his mouth covered by greasy bristles of a patchy moustache. The eyes, dark and hard, pierced the boy, looking more through than at him. The boy whimpered in fright. The gaze shifted to the older man, a questioning look on its swarthy features. The man faired hardly better than the boy.
“Now, Grandson -” he began. “Just as I, erm, was saying, we’re going to help the village tonight…” there was a pleading edge to his stammering speech, guilt stamping it false. “Y’see, there’s been no strangers through in such a long time, and, and, the crops ‘ave been failin’, and praying to Serra’s no use…” the man looked utterly wretched. Fat tears began to slide down his grey face. “It, it was discussed, it was decided – I fought them, I did! I fought them, but, it’s for the good of the village, and the crops be failin’, an’ it be decided…” he ended weakly.
The rough man grabbed the boy by the arm, his grip like a vice on the thin limb.
“You will be rewarded,” he rasped, his speech treacly, like the muck they stood in. “The Dark Barony is ever in need of fresh meat,” he said.
The boy looked at his grandfather, imploring silently with his eyes, but the man would not meet his gaze. He turned, began to shuffle back to the cart with drooping shoulders.
“Wait!” the brute called to him. He fished about in a soiled pocket a moment, and thumbed a thick coin to the broken man. Flipping through the air, it glinted gold in the firelight.
“For your troubles…” and he began to laugh.
The coin fell into the mud by the man’s feet. He looked at it a moment. The boy reached out to him, hoping, still hoping…
The man bent and fished the soiled money from the filth, though he knew the real payment was yet to come.
Another bit of M:TG fan-fic, also set in a decades’ old set. More atmos, less narrative in this one. Hope you enjoy!
A fog thickens as the foliage-filtered sun drops below its noon-height, the soil sloughing off its moisture in the quickly cooling air. There is a stirring amongst the still-dense foliage, what seems a shambling mass off vegetation emerges, distinct from the surrounding fronds. The creature turns its head, what, in any proper animal, would be the head, to the waning sun. Semi-globes of corrugated material, half a foot in diameter, look to the sky. A shadow obscures the vision, and the creature is aware of a stone arch, peeking out from beneath entangling vines. The eyes are able to resolve the image, focusing in on the clarity of line, the delicacy of carving, well beyond the power of human or natural ability. Despite the encroaching greenery, despite the years of weathering, the span with its twin columns still proudly arcs above a path, once a grand artery, now reduced to a choked trail.
A stirring, not of memory, but of something more primal, twitches in the creature’s sub-sentient intelligence. The graven images, the hewn rock natural yet stamped with the work of art, they stimulate something deep within the creature’s psyche. In its own way, it recognises – recognises the same hand in the creation of the still-strong arc as in its own beginning. Recognises the maker in the object. A second thought follows from the first. Not hot on its heels, but turgidly, a rolling gait. The hand of the maker – and the hand of the unmade. Brief shots, images of violence, hours of fire and screams, flash before the inner perspective, memories of years and years ago. Nature gives, and Nature takes away. Unheeding of this, the one maxim, their doom was laid out in inevitability. Hubris only made it swifter.
The panoramic vision granted by the peculiar ocular setup alerts the creature to movement behind it. Stirring itself from its reverie, it turns to face the being approaching. If the creature itself pushes the boundaries of Nature’s design, the shambling entity it is faced with is entirely outside. Able to better define the image, the creature sees the stilted way the interloper hopped along the path, a tripod of three human-like arms, each ending in a proper, right hand. Atop this mis-matched trio was mounted a human head, greasy black hair cropped close to scalp, eyes sewn shut. The mouth, however, was left open, and would loll and gape at each jerk, tongue projecting one way, and then the other. The impossibility seemed as if it shambled along by way of some preternatural proprioception, sensing the world around itself in relation to its own whip-stitched form. A hand, whichever was oriented towards the current direction of travel, would crawl forward a space, feel about the area, and then, propelled by the two remaining appendages, the “body” would lurch forward. It was an awkward, uneven mode of locomotion, but, given the alien form of the creature, any animation at all was jarring.
As it was, the monstrosity carried on its haphazard way, weaving from one side of the path to the other in a stilted, jerking progression. The path itself lead upwards towards the graceful arch, rising from the surrounding murk. The areas beyond and behind the deformed creature, the place where it had come from, were of a distinct character. This arch marked the edge of the forest, the border between it and the Western Swamps that stretched in an unremitting morass for untold leagues. In years past, this area, at the point of flux between the two dominant geographies, had held host to a body of mangroves. The quickly dropping temperatures of the past decades, though, had left the area mostly empty. Save for a few, diseased-looking willows and accompanying bodies of rushes, most land was submerged. Pools of standing water, once choked with life, were now glassed over with delicate layers of ice. Open spaces, where the rime had yet to spread, were slick as if with the sheen of oil, the usual swamp scoria concentrated by the hiemal weather.
An half-dozen feet from the transition point, the freak of the bog notices his, its, counterpart, the ersatz forest-dweller. It stops short, tongue retracting and jaw snapping shut, and regards the creature. An outside observer, if there had been one, would have now been sure that this was a creation of some foul, necromantic magic – this unnatural assortment, this gangle of mismatched limbs, it could see the fungus-animal before it, despite the obvious wiry impediments. It saw, and its opposite saw it. A stillness, already the natural state of the area, deepened. Belying the creeping entropy, the slow, ice-bound death this world was suffering, something of moment was approaching.
Claws dug into damp earth as the beast set it’s six legs wide, preparing for any sudden movements from below. Twelve fingers turned the frigid rot, raking steaming furrows. As one, animate vegetable and sentient corpse shift – and turn back in the direction each had come, the plant-creature swaying as it passes back into the darkness of the forest, the construct jerking along with its characteristic shamble. Without exchanging words, the possibility beyond either, the two recognised the concord of their kind. The agreement, perhaps based on a shared natality, perhaps no more than an on-going armistice, that had held for decades now – the division of this land, the entire continent, between the flesh artefacts and the vegetal host. They saw, and knew one another, and knew that they met no enemy in the other. And so, both went their separate way, back into their own domain to await the approaching, inevitable, ice.
Bit of fan-fic. Gave it a miss in my teens, but there’s no time like the present. Top-marks to whomever can guess the identity of protagonist!
Gift, Forcibly Lent
“One crack two crack three crack four,
five cracks and there’ll be no more!”
The crone warbled as she shuffled about the cluttered garret, nimbly weaving her way through the assorted refuse littering the space. Over-turned oil lamp, filled only with clotted residue. Stack of half-way tanned leather, best not to examine too closely. A hoe of antique design, propped against mouldering wainscot and jarringly out of place.
The ancient finished her circuit and came again to the prone figure beneath the sole window, who, chilled once more by the cruel shadow, shuddered a whimper.
“Ah, duck, don’t cower so,” the beldam cooed, drawing a long, yellowed nail across the soft flesh. “Soon it will be over, and you’ll regret having made such a fuss!”
The girl only answered with another sob, trying against her restraints to get away from the talon’s rasp. Bad as the sharp scratch felt, it was at least a point she could concentrate on, a star of pain within the shrouding mist of her thoughts, muddled by whatever foul concoction had been forced upon her…what seemed like hours ago. The following embrace of the parchment-skinned hand, cupping the girl’s bare stomach, sent tendrils of repugnance through her drug-addled mind. The dry yet clammy embrace cut through her befuddlement, and the horror of the situation was brought home to her.
She could just make out a gibbous moon through the window, riding high above her in a sky of blue velvet, as she tugged wildly at the head strap. To her left, a shapeless mass of dark hair, gaunt hands grasping a winch. Directly in front of her, the object of her misery – the witch of legend, the terror of the all the Dark Barony. Blood-shot eyes with xanthous iris’ starting from her face, hair so much straw, pulled back with in a rough twist, teeth crooked and gapped. Her chest, visible as her virdigris gown rippled with the manikin movements, slim as a pre-pubescent boy, thinner, sunken in amongst the ribs and cartilage.
“Yes, soon it will be over,” the fiend sighed, her breath redolent of grave earth. A sharp glance towards the heap of impossibility in the corner, and another twist of the chuck. The apparatus the girl was fastened to heaved, pulling fearsomely at her bound extremities, till, at last in her agony, she heard a pop as her body rearranged itself to the strain.
“Ooo hoo hoo hoo!” the hag giggled, clapping her hands and jerking about in delight. “Hear the pop, hear the crik craketty crack!”
“Crack, you say?” A far-away light seemed to awaken in the crone’s eyes. “If not a crack, then, then maybe…a shatter?”
Rictus horror imprinted itself on her whipcord visage, and she pulled at her hair, and she ran about the room, shrieking.
“It was just a chime, a little chime! How was I to know? How was I to know!? I’m sorry! I’m so-so-sorry!” she cried as she ran, ample tears sluiced the pre-graven lines of her face. Without any outward warning, she stopped of a sudden, hunkered down and pulled her bony knees towards her chest.
“Alone, all alone now. Alone forever and a day. Alone forever more,” she whispered pitifully as she rocked back and forth.
“All alone here in my Spire of dead rock.”
Despite the terror of the situation, despite the raw agony she was feeling in every inch of her body, the young maid was moved to something like pity at the sight of this creature, obviously insane and yet possessed of an acute pathos. In the swirl of her foggy mind, she wanted to make some sign of commiseration, some effort to lessen the sadness on display before her.
She murmured what she hoped was a comforting sound, difficult, given her secured jaw.
The sound seemed to lance through the other woman, who immediately stopped her rocking, and, for a time, simply stared into the middle distance.
As she drew herself up, she said
“Ah, but then, my beautiful Grandson, he came and he opened the tower. He came and he showed me how much fun there was to be had in this new and blear homeland of ours!”
A quick twist of the neck, and the tawny eyes were boring holes into the girl’s nude body.
“Isn’t that right, duck? Such fun!”
Before the thrill of terror she felt could more than but blossom, the girl saw the withered head jerk once more to the side, and, following another pop, everything went dark.
The furred thrull, not much more than ball of hair, scurried about cleaning. Cleaning gore off lewd machinery. The crone, gem-encrusted goblet in hand, flexed her skin, reveling in the restored suppleness of it, the vitality she could feel coursing through her. Time to spread a bit of fun!