As promised! Let me know what you all think.
Under the cloak of an autumn night, Vague observed the inn she’d chosen as bait.
The Stable, it was called. A squat wooden structure in the shape and style of an old cabin, it huddled against the winter chill. Light from within leaked out into the night but did little to chase away the darkness or the cold.
Vague knelt by the open window, her eyes flitting between the faces of those inside. She rummaged through her pack, pushing aside changes of clothing and empty containers of travel food, until she found what she was looking for.
A flute, carved with obvious care from a dark cherrywood but pockmarked with scratches and dents from years of use. Vague stroked the top of it, feeling the grooves that were more familiar to her than anything in the world.
She brought the flute to her lips, softly blowing a perfect nonave through the window. It was barely audible to the folk in the inn, absorbed as they were in their conversations and their drink. Still, it caused a sort of a stir in the atmosphere in the room.
She let her fingers meander, playing a short piece of music. The occupants of the Stable looked to one another in mild confusion, but as the soft wisps of song drifted further indoors, they returned their attention to their beers. Their eyes glazed over and mellow smiles appeared on their faces.
A hint of a grin curled on Vague’s top lip. She pocketed her flute and headed to the front of the inn.
The autumn chill pervaded outdoors, but within the Stable, several lit hearths kept the room warm. Their steady glow lit the worn faces of the farmers and agricults who took their barley beers in small huddled groups. Their quiet murmurs filled the Stable with a comfortable cadence.
Vague crossed the tavern, smoky gray cloak swirling as she made her way towards the back. A few drunken pairs of eyes turned her way, but she was quickly dismissed. Usually, a traveller would have been swamped with good cheer, free drinks, and requests for news from abroad, but tonight, it seemed the people of Summeroak had other, darker things on their minds.
Or perhaps her prelude had ensured her invisibility.
Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the notice of the innkeeper. He appeared from behind the counter, carrying a tray full of drinks across the tavern floor. He brought them to his patrons, calling each by name; by the time he reached her, the tray was completely empty.
“What’ll it be, friend?”
She met his eyes – or, rather, his plain brown hider lenses.
“You keep a beautiful inn,” she said. The lovingly polished oak, the calm radiance of the hearths… this place was a haven for folk whose life was a struggle for subsistence.
A smile lit the innkeeper’s face. “Much ‘ppreciated.” His accent was soft, rural, and delightful. “Kin I ask what you’re here for? If it’s lodgings, I’m afraid we’re all booked today.” He lowered his voice to a knowing whisper. “Folks’ll be wanting to drink their fill tonight, without worrying about trying to return home in the long hours.”
Vague grimaced. “That is unfortunate. Is there any way you can accomodate for me? I have no objections to sleeping down here by the hearth.”
“I’m sorry, miss. It just won’t do. But how about a warm mug of spiced wine for the road? Free of charge, on account of my not having room for ya.”
The innkeeper began to leave without waiting for a response. Vague almost caught herself smiling again before she remembered why she was here.
“Innkeep?” she called.
The man turned.
“What is your name?”
He scratched the thick beard that decorated his chin. “I’m called Erryn. And you?”
“That’ll make ya one of them government folks from Imperik, right?”
Vague hesitated, then nodded.
“Strange for you to be so far west.”
She said nothing.
The innkeeper shrugged. “It’ll have to be an extra mighty mug, then. Ya look like you’ve got travelling to do.”
He turned back towards the bar. Vague felt the warm trail of a tear down her cheek.
She turned, scoping out the rest of the bar. She’d come to the right place – she could tell simply from the downturned grimaces of the patrons, the crumpled postures with which they huddled over their mugs. They spoke only infrequently to each other, and when they did their rough tones carried a weight of emotion.
As she scanned, one man lifted his head from a table nearby and caught her eye. A sort of question formed on his face and he stood, wobbling slightly.
Vague withdrew her flute from her pocket and began to play, her fingers wandering seemingly of their own accord. The soft, lilting song rose in volume to match the conversations around her, swelling and swirling around the tavern. It whispered in the ear of each and every patron. Another comfortable lull settled into the Stable.
Vague closed her eyes, caught up in the music. It poured forth from her, gaining force and sway, allowing her for a single moment to forget why she was here.
A loud crash from in front of her put an abrupt end to her song.
It was Erryn. He had dropped her mug, the wine seeping into the floorboards around shattered bits of ceramic.
As the music ceased suddenly, the stupor left the room and the people began to come back to awareness. They glanced around, searching for something they could not describe. Eventually, they returned to their conversations.
Erryn, however, gaped at Vague. “What,” he whispered, “did you just do?”
Vague shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Relax. I’m an agricult from down south. I wasn’t playing anything in particular.”
“Liar,” Erryn hissed. “You said you were from Imperik. You’re bewitching my people.”
Vague rose to her full height, eyes narrowing. “And you’ve created a sanguinic facade, but you don’t have a drop of red in you. So it would seem that neither of us is being entirely honest.”
Erryn paled, but his voice was steady. “You need to leave. Right now.”
“You don’t understand. I’m here to – “
“I don’t care what you’re here for!”
The words scythed through the atmospheric calm. Several patrons nearby turned and regarded the innkeeper towering over the hooded stranger.
When Vague spoke, Erryn had to lean in to hear. “I’m going to ask you to turn around and leave me alone.” As she spoke, she raised her right hand up into view. Etched into the flesh of her fingertips were five dark tattoos of strange symbols.
“You can’t frighten me with that,” Erryn said, his voice growing louder. “I’ve seen those things before. They’re not nothing but parlor tricks.”
Vague tilted her head to one side. Her hood fell back, revealing a cascade of auburn hair. Her voice remained a touch above a whisper. “Would you really stake the lives of everyone here on your understanding of a magic you’ve never truly known?”
The eyes of nearly everyone in the Stable now regarded the pair at the back. Erryn struggled to form a response, his face now beet-red. Mostly choleric, to be sure.
I’ve lost control of the situation. It would be best to retreat and try a different venue tomorrow night.
“You don’t have to worry,” Vague said. She waved her tattooed hand at him. “I intend to depart immediately.” She brushed past him, taking slight pleasure in the way he jerked back from her touch.
It was only when she was halfway to the door that she noticed the newcomers standing just inside the threshold to the Stable.
They appeared humanoid, at least in form. The resemblance ended there. Three long, naked torsos of knotted muscle and pale flesh heaved with gasping breaths. Under the skin all over the creatures’ bodies, turgid translucent veins coursed with brown fluid. Vague could see the throb of their pulse in every swollen artery.
At their sides they carried swords, the handles thrust into scabbards which hung from their loose ragged leggings. Despite their grotesque appearance, none of the Terravenians had noticed them, attentive as they were to the conflict between Vague and Erryn.
Vague froze. Her left hand reached for a hidden mechanism on the side of her flute. A short blade popped out of the end of the instrument.
“Whoa, now,” Erryn said, palms held up. “I didn’t mean to – “
“Hush,” Vague whispered. Her eyes refused to leave those of the Humorless for even a moment. Faced with the inevitability of conflict, the thumb-length blade of her instrument now seemed puny and insignificant.
The Humorless observed the inn silently for several seconds. Still none of the farmers turned towards the doorway. That was probably better for them.
She took a step forward. Then another. The Humorless locked eyes with her. They had no discernable pupils or irises, only milky white orbs suspended in the same viscous brown fluid that flowed through their veins. They might have been blind, but if they were, they could still somehow sense Vague.
A few more steps forward. She was in striking distance –
From behind her, a woman screamed.
The Humorless drew their side swords with soft scraping sounds. The weapons were entirely composed of some sort of glittering black substance, unlike anything Vague had ever seen in her life.
Quadre above… the stories are actually true.
The Humorless moved past her towards the farmers. As Vague leapt at one, the creature batted her aside with the flat of the blade. She was thrown bodily across the room into the side of the bar, landing heavily on her stomach. Her fluteblade clattered to the ground several paces away.
Vague shook her head to clear it, feeling a sharp pain in her side. Knocked breathless with at least one broken rib, she was unable to speak to the villagers. They all sat paralyzed with terror, watching as ghost stories walked among them, wielding blades of night.
The lead Humorless stopped in front of the woman who had screamed. She now sat completely still, tears welling up in her eyes, words falling from trembling lips. “Quadre save me… I am not whole….”
The lead Humorless cocked its head to one side, listening to her prayers. Then it raised its glittering sword high above its head.
Vague snapped her fingers.
The inn shattered.
Every bit of wood in the entire building splintered instantaneously. A deafening roar pierced the room, accompanied by the violent howling of a sudden wind. Villagers sitting by the hearths screamed in agony as logs burst into hot ash and embers that peppered their skin. Those who hadn’t been struck by the explosion scrambled for cover under the sudden maelstrom of woodchips and slivers.
In mere moments, the destruction had ended. Every single stick of wood in the entire inn had disintegrated, leaving only the stone hearths and the steel foundation beams jutting upwards into the night sky like broken bones. Farmers and agricults alike cowered in place, paying no heed to their fellows who had been tossed aside by the explosion and now lay unconscious on the hard-packed earth.
Only Vague still stood, one hand stretched out before her. Floating above her palm was a red-hot sphere of scorched fragments of wood, humming softly. Its glow was now the only illumination in the pitch-black night. It lit the curve of her nose, the hawk-like focus in her eyes as she scanned the wreckage.
Someone nearby struggled to stand, shaking off dust and ash. Erryn. His thick brown beard now stained black with soot, he took stock of his inn. A low moan escaped his lips. “You… you Muse! Damn you. Damn you all….”
He fell to his knees and began to sob. Vague paid him no attention. Her eyes flitted from body to body, searching for the creatures. Where in the Ghost’s name were they? She raised her hand higher, casting the light from the orb of burning wood farther into the depths of the wreck.
Something moved under the hearths.
Vague snapped her fingers again – this time her thumb and her little finger – as two of the Humorless leapt at her from the dark corners of the fireplaces. The coalesced ball of wood shot forward in a thick stream of angry red chips, knocking the creatures down. The smell of singed flesh filled the air.
Neither of the Humorless made any noises of pain. They simply rose from where they’d been thrown to the floor, clutching their black blades, the smoldering embers still embedded in their skin. As one they lurched forward, raising their swords to strike.
Vague dodged aside their blows, twisting between flashing dark glass. It helped that now, with her fiery sphere scattered, the only light came from the still-burning skin of the Humorless. As their gossamer eyes sought her in the darkness, she darted forward and swung the blade of her flute towards the neck of the nearest Humorless.
It reacted with inhuman speed, turning and raising its shoulder to catch the blade, which sank in all the way up to the wood. As the Humorless turned, the flute was pulled from her hands; now unarmed, Vague was forced to dance away from the pair of demons.
She snapped her fingers again – this time, the thumb and fourth finger of her left hand – and the metal support beams of the inn twisted downward toward the ground, striking like lightning at several spots between her and the Humorless. One beam pierced straight through the leg of one of the creatures; another slammed into the shoulder of the wounded one, knocking Vague’s flute loose. It clattered to the earth in front of her.
She took a half-moment to study it. The blade glistened with the viscous, brown fluid of the Humorless’ veins.
That was all she needed.
A sudden cold pain jolted through Vague’s arm. She looked up to see that one of the Humorless had thrown its sword at her, slicing through the center of her bicep. Immediately, her right arm went numb, hanging limp to her side.
Vague snapped two new fingers. At her command, the various thin metal support beams swam forward through the air and coalesced into a new orb in her palm. She flicked her wrist and the metal formed into a single solid bar as thick and long as a tree trunk.
The Humorless dashed at her, their blades aimed towards her throat.
She snapped once more.
The iron bar hurtled forward, wrapping itself around the two Humorless. It continued to accelerate, dragging the two struggling creatures far off into the distance. Their howls of frustration soon faded.
Vague rummaged in her pack, which sat undamaged nearby, and procured a power candle, which she lit. A cursory glance around told her that the third Humorless had long since left the wreckage of the Stable. The patrons shied back from the candlelight, whimpering and clutching one another.
She raised trembling fingers to end their lives.
From somewhere in the darkness, a child cried out for her mother. Vague lowered her hand.
“The danger is over for now,” she said. She was greeted with silence, apart from Erryn’s loud sobbing.
“It may yet return. You will need to leave this area. Abandon Summeroak and find new fields eastward. You have been warned.”
Vague pocketed her flute – being careful to retract the blade with the intact sample of Humorless fluid, as the mechanism had been built for sample capture – and turned her back on the charred remains of the inn. From behind her in the darkness, Erryn’s voice floated, whispering the three curses – the most vile oath a person could utter.
“Your body, may it never rot. Your mind, may it never rest. Your soul, may it never be accepted.”
Vague limped away. Her tears remained, to cool the scorched earth.
If you liked that, let me hear it! I’d be down to post more as I continue working through the draft.