First off, still adjusting to life outside of the horrors of retail work during Christmas so things are a little off kilter for a bit. While I am still transitioning, we will be seeing only two posts per week here. I have a number of projects that are in the works and need some attention so it is a matter of getting things back on track.
Second, I haven’t forgotten my Patreon supporters. I owe you a story (at the least) this month. This will be coming very soon. And within that same framework, the third installment in the Hate Candy series will be coming out shortly. This means you (Patreon supporters) will also be receiving a new book.
The world has been a bit topsy turvey recently but I can feel a normalcy of sorts returning soon. (oddly this feels a bit like some lines from a Douglas Adams story). But with all that said. It is my hope that this offering helps to appease some hunger for stories…
Honor and Steel
“You failed.” Robert didn’t mince words, the bold statement delivered without a hint of salt to give it flavor.
“That’s obvious,” Jared said. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirtsleeve then hefted the axe over his shoulder. He stepped around the block in front of him to get a look from a different angle. “This isn’t over yet.”
Robert followed his lead to stand opposite Jared. “I don’t think you will get it this time either. Maybe you should call it a loss and save what little pay you have left?”
Jared glared at him as he raised the axe again. The blow rained down with a heavy thud as the log split free. It wasn’t a clean strike but it was enough to split the log completely. “Three strikes,” he said. “Still one less than yours. This wood is much trickier to split than it appears.”
Robert pulled coins from the purse at his waist. “These should cover the wager,” he said. “But maybe we could make for something more. I don’t like the idea of you walking away with my coin.”
Jared took the coins and dropped them into his coin purse. “Have you ever really thought this through? I always take your coins on these bets.” He set the axe, blade down, next to the chopping block. “I would think at this point you would learn to stop with such efforts.”
He scanned the space behind Jared before he stepped close to him, closer than Jared had been comfortable with. “The thing of it is,” Robert said. “That wasn’t my money to lose, not this time at any rate. You must give me a chance to win it back. I can’t return home like this.”
Jared stepped back, a strong need to be away from the stench of fear and failure. “What would possess you to throw away another’s money with foolish wagers?” His eyes traveled up and down Robert’s body. The man shook, something Jared had not noticed in the past. His clothes were rumpled and out of season. The threads had broken through at the seems of the man’s tunic.
Robert had issues, sure. Jared knew this in every encounter they had in the past. The man had traded coin on failed bets too often, risks he should have known better than to attempt. But the times in the past, he seemed calm, sure of himself and his ability to make it back. The desperation oozed from Robert’s pores. “What do you suggest?”
“The house has been abandoned for some time,” Robert said. He spoke little of his wager while he led Jared to the house. The most he would offer during the trip was the promise of a reward for an item retrieved.
Jared knew, could feel it deep in his bones, he should walk away while he was ahead. But something about Robert’s desperation played at his nature. He did not make it a point to take advantage of a desperate soul but for Robert he could make exception. He made it so easy. “That’s it then? Just step inside and come out with this blade?” Much too easy. “And why have you not made the trip yourself? What keeps you from retrieving this blade and making the sale?”
Robert stepped back, further from the house. His eyes traveled to the spaces around but his gaze did not linger on the house itself. “Did you want to earn half the sale or not? Are you frightened? You have snapped up my other wagers with no question.”
He scratched at his chin, his fingers combed through his scraggly beard. “I find your evasive answers a bit disconcerting. What is it you seek to hide?” Jared thought to walk away from these shenanigans. Robert had always made good in the past but something about this did not sit well.
Robert pulled at his arm. “You must go,” he said. Tension crinkled his forehead and his eyes had gone wild. “They took Elaine.”
“What nonsense is this,” Jared said. “Speak sanely man. Who took Elaine?” He pushed at Jared’s grip with his free hand.
“Look, I know this makes no sense,” Robert said. “I have a problem. You’re not the only one I’ve gambled with. There have been times in the past when I have won, and won handsomely.”
“I have little trouble doubting this. I have not known you to ever be one for work. Do you even have a trade?”
“That’s the thing. My father’s lands at one time did well to maintain my lifestyle. But I went against the Moldaines.”
Jared stepped back, away from Robert, as if he were diseased. “You are more the fool than I thought. What goes on inside your head?”
“I was winning, at first anyway,” Robert said. “I have always been lucky when I threw the bones. But they cheated me.”
“The more you speak the more the fool you prove yourself to be,” Jared said. “Do you honestly have no sense? Of course they cheated, I haven’t known a man to gamble against them yet and win. What made you think you would be an exception?”
“I don’t know… I just thought that maybe, just maybe I could win enough to have no need to gamble again.” Robert placed his hands to his sides as he kicked at the dirt. He raised his gaze to look Jared in the eyes. “I can’t do this alone.”
“You’re a fool,” Jared said. “Though an earnest fool. This is against my better judgment. My father taught me not to suffer fools for long. But I will aid you in this.”
Robert released a long sigh of relief. “Thank you, thank you. I don’t know that I can thank you enough for this.”
Jared raised a hand, palm outward. “Hold there,” he said. “You have not yet mentioned what happened with Elaine. Nor have you told me what it is exactly we are doing here for this sword.”
“They have taken Elaine as collateral,” Robert said. His gaze fell to the ground. “I was such a fool. I couldn’t stop them. They threatened to kill us both if I interfered. I must pay her ransom to free her from their captivity.”
Jared nodded. “This is not the first time they have taken such measures,” he said. “And you hope to claim this sword and sell it to pay the ransom? Why can’t you simply claim the blade and pay the ransom?”
“That is where it has gotten, sticky. You see, the blade is guarded by a beast,” he said.
“This becomes better and better the longer you speak.t So you need me to slay this beast, is it?”
“Not exactly. I had hoped you might help me distract the creature so that I could take the blade. We would meet up here when all was said and done. From there we could take the blade to my contact and make the sale.”
Of all the most ludicrous ideas, Jared had not heard one with more holes than this. Though he was no master, he knew himself to be handy with a blade. He stood proud in the duels to his name, the training of his youth paid dividends in that he no longer needed to duel to prove himself. But a beast, what manner of creature, that could be something else entirely.
He opened the door and a fell stench blew into their faces. Dust and disuse flavored the blast of air. The hovel itself was smaller on the inside. What furniture and shelving remained were broken and scattered. The great room, if it could be called that, covered the majority of this floor. An alcove, mezzanine could be reached via ladder. The former occupants made their beds there by the look of it. But through all this, Jared could see no beast, no blade they could retrieve. “I think they have had a jest at your expense,” Jared said. “I see nothing of value here and no protector for a trinket of any kind.”
“It’s here. It has to be,” Robert said. “I think we’ve missed something.” He searched through the room. In the process he kicked and shoved detritus out of his way. “It has to be here. I know it is.”
“Where did you learn about this blade and the beast that guards it?” Jared asked. “Is it possible someone made a jest of your predicament?”
“If only it were that easy,” Robert said. He pulled a parchment from his jerkin and unrolled it. “I found this in my father’s study a while back but thought little of it. I have grown desperate and this seemed like my best chance.” With a quick pass the parchment found its way to Jared’s hands.
After he scanned the document, “I have seen this before. A few years ago, a drunkard bragged about this map and how he had won it in a game of chance.” He rolled it up and passed it back to Robert. “I think you have been taken in by false wishes.”
“I refuse to accept that. I can’t accept that, for Elaine’s sake if nothing else. I must find a way to save her.” He kicked at the ground and was rewarded with a hollow thud. “I think I found something.”
Jared stood beside him and kicked at the dirt. As the dust and debris pushed away they uncovered a trap door in the floor. “You think this may be what you have been looking for?” Jared asked.
“Open it.” The words burst through his lips. “Open it now.”
Jared took a knee to examine the trapdoor more closely. It wasn’t large enough for an adult to climb through, but something could be stored in the space beneath. It appeared to him that it might have been a storage space in the past, a space in the floor of the home that could be covered by a rug. The trapdoor had been made of metal, forged for strength. It would not bend or break under the pressure of daily walks across its surface. But there was more. Interspersed across the metal, polished obsidian stones formed a pattern.
“What do you think this means?” he said.
“It’s nothing,” Robert said. “Open it already so we can grab the blade and get out of here.” He paced around the trapdoor but never stepped next to it. He had given Jared room to maneuver around the doorway, a bit of space to pry the lid open. He clenched and unclenched his fists, then placed his hands on his hips.
“I don’t like this,” Jared said. He stood up and stepped back from the trapdoor. “What do you expect to find in there?”
“I told you. We have to get the sword and sell it to my contact,” he said. “It’s the only way I can save Elaine now.”
Jared scanned the room. It was still the mess they had walked into. Nothing had changed. They were alone in the quiet of a still house. “You said it was guarded by a beast…”
Robert struck fast, his dagger clenched tightly in his fist. The strike had gone wild in his haste and the blade bit a shallow slice into Jared’s shoulder. “All you had to do was open the doorway.”
With a flourish, Jared stumbled away Robert and his swinging dagger. With a singular flash, he pulled his rapier and held it ready before him. “This, this was your intent?”
The words that belched out of Robert’s mouth were not in Robert’s voice. They registered on a lower octave that rattled Jared’s ribs with each syllable. “Open the door.”
His face had changed. Not physically, the features remained as Jared had known them. But their character, a darker hue, richer shadows, had enveloped Robert’s visage. He had changed into something more than the man intent to gamble away his soul. Jared held his rapier like a holy symbol, a protection from the evils that now stood before him.
“I will not yield to villainy,” he said. “Give up your claim to my friend and let us go in peace.”
The darkness stepped through Robert and his body dropped to the ground. Fully formed, the creature had taken hard shadows for its shape. Robert’s blade had become a wicked talon that the creature held before it, ready to strike at Jared.
“The cretin gambled and lost,” it said. The baritone of the thing’s voice had gone to an even lower register and rattled Jared’s teeth as it spoke. “Double or nothing, two for the price of one.”
A chill struck the base of Jared’s neck and crept across his shoulders and down his spine. Power pulsed off the creature and he had begun to think his rapier wouldn’t be enough to fend off the beast. “What… what was the wager?”
The great beast crossed its arms and leaned back on its tail as it regarded Jared a moment. It scratched at its chin with its talon, though its eyes never wavered from the human in front of it. “It no longer matters,” it said. “The fool has paid half its marker. I will now collect the other half.” The creature extended its talon and the air around it bubbled and steamed from its heat.
It slashed at Jared, a wide strike that he riposted into a quick strike at the beast’s breast bone. The rapier struck hard against the shadowy chest piece and then passed through like a hot knife through butter. The shadows clasped the blade and wrenched it from his hand. The beast’s pull knocked him off balance and carried him forward with the momentum.
It brought up its wicked talon within an inch of Jared’s neck and stopped short of driving it through. Heat reddened then blistered the skin of Jared’s neck. “Yield,” the creature hissed. “You will not win this day.”
Jared’s shoulders and chest shrunk in the acceptance of defeat. He softened and fell back, away from the wicked talon intent on finishing him. As he fell back his hand swung up and knocked the talon back against the creature.
It screamed in pain and frustration as the talon burned into its chest. Smoke and the acrid stench of burning flesh billowed out from the wound. Jared hammered against the base of the talon and drove it deep into the creature’s chest and out through the back of its neck. It fell to the ground and spasmed in death.
Flames consumed the beast and fed on the floor around it. It would not take long for the detritus scattered about to feed the flames. Jared took a moment to grab his rapier and then attempt to rouse Robert. The man did not respond so he hefted him over his shoulders and he rushed toward the exit of the room and then house.
Black smoke and flames grew fat and happy with all the fuel around them. The mass choked Jared into a coughing fit and threatened to bring him down before he could win his freedom. Even in death the great beast would claim him if he did not find his way out into life giving air.
He stumbled and twisted and bounced from wall to wall in his haste but in the end he had found the exit and he collapsed at the base of the field across from the house. Jared had lost Robert in the confusion of his escape. The man’s body had fallen from his arms but he never noticed in the heat and smoke.
As he lay in the field, he belched black smoke from his lungs until he passed out from the loss of oxygen. When he finally awoke, the house had been reduced to cinder and ash. He stumbled through it but could find no sign of Robert, nor the beast that had caused the trouble. The trapdoor had disappeared under the ash, lost to a different place he could not return to.
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