It had all started with noise, just as most everything in the world does. This was, however, a different sort of noise. It was not the sort of noise that pulls itself together into a collage, a picture suddenly and slowly coming into focus. No, that was not the kind of noise that this had been and as Pan sat, her long auburn hair blowing around her face like wisps of flame, she felt the pang of loss.
It had been normal the day before and the whole of the town was bustling, busy as bees. The sun was not shining down upon then and no beautiful smells came gently carried into the town. It was, in fact, a gray day, one where the cloud blocked out the sun and left the air cold and the world empty. It was the sort of day where the only smells were those of burning logs and oil meant to keep the chill out of homes. It was the sort of day Pan disliked her job as town guard.
A guard position, or so it was said, was not a profession for a young lady. It was tradition that the youngest men of the town would put their time into, come out of, start families, and be vaguely familiar with martial skills. This was ordered by the king for each town, city, and hold to uphold in case there were ever invasion from the ever present mage threat. Pan, however, had felt differently and, through a test of skill, she had rightly earned her position. Though, truth be told, the guards operated more like a police force, settling disputes and marital quarrels. On the off occasion that there was something to be killed it was most often a bandit or some sort common draccus that wondered too closely too the town. Or else it was a spitfire hawk hunting game and killing the chickens. Very rarely had there ever been any real threat.
Well, expect, Pan thought as she strolled through town, her short sword kept still so as it would not bang against her armor, for that time a stray pack of black dogs wondered near. The creeping death that they brought with them killed a few townsfolk and nearly crippled our farms.
The armor that Pan wore was a listless silver that did not reflect the light that pressed against it but rather absorbed it, pulling it into the depths of its own oblivion. It was old armor, the sort that had been used by many before her, yet Pan felt a claim of title to it. When she donned her armor she was no longer the child of a baker, no longer the wild daughter of the town smith but the sworn sister of the town guard.
Pan had power, a fact that she smiled at, even on the most bitter and gray days.
“Guard! Guard!” a voice called to Pan's left and she spun toward it. It was the town crier shouting to her, waving his meaty hand in the air, beckoning her to come.
“Yes,” Pan called back, donning her most commanding of voices, “what's the problem here?”
“A boy I paid to pin up these posters, as sent by our King, has not returned and it has been several hours. I fear something may have happened to him.”
The town crier was a fat man named Hendrik who had dodged service with the guard due to his poor health. It was well known that when news would come from the King and it could not be simply shouted in the streets he would pay local boys and girls to tack the fliers to the door of every resident.
Yet in all that time he had never once come to any of the guard for help with a missing child. It was something that simply did not happen.
“I will find the boy, Hendrik, and make sure that no harm has come of him.”
Hendrik's huge frame shuddered as he exhaled in relief, “Thank you, Pan, thank you. The boy's name is Jeremy. I do hope you find him.”
Pan nodded and set off. The boy, Jeremy, was one that was familiar to her. He was a kindhearted child no older than ten. Oft times he would follow Pan on her patrols, discussing with her all the gossip of the town and complaining of his older brother, Thomas.
On one particularly memorable instance, Jeremy had complained of Thomas' constant desire to play mage and knight, a game in which one person takes up a wooden stick as a sword and whacks the other while they try and use their spells to stop the knight. In reality it was a cruel little game that older brothers everywhere invented and practiced as a way to terrorize their younger siblings. Naturally, refusal failed to stay the hand of the knight, so, feeling equal parts bold and foolish, Jeremy decided to exact revenge by coaxing the local stray cat to relive itself on Thomas' shoes.
Pan had snorted in laughter when she heard, “you, my boy, are smart as the crack of a whip.”
Jeremy smiled from ear to ear at that, “there's reasons not mess with a mage.”
Remembering the event Pan quickened her step and began her search for the other small children in the town. They would be her guide to finding the poor sweet boy.
Finding the boys was a rather difficult task. The first thing that Pan had done in search of them was to stop by the houses of several of the children that Jeremy was wont to run with. The mothers and fathers of the house were rather surprised and afraid of her presence and it only made matters worse when she informed them of her interest in their sons and daughters. One mother in particular broke down in tears at the mention that Pan was in search of her boy.
“Oh, what has little Graham done now, oh tell me he hasn't hurt himself, please please, tell me he's okay.”
Pan stifled a nervous laugh and comforted the woman. When she knew what it was that Pan wanted with her boy her demeanor changed drastically.
“I couldn't tell you where that boy is. I never see hide nor hair of him except when it is time for him to eat. He's just like his father, running around all day and only coming home when he wants a hot meal.”
The woman's ranting continued on for a few minutes more and, when at last Pan managed to disengage herself from the woman's woes she had no further questions to ask.
Barring the help of the mothers and the fathers of the town Pan was left to old fashioned footwork to locate the other children. For near a hour she walked the town, going where the children were known to frequent.
The clear blue steam that flowed not a few yards from the town was a known sanctuary to the children. It was there they would go to play their games of knights and house, or to try and capture or antagonize all forms of wildlife. In the summer months they would jump into the cold water, washing off sweat and mud that clung like brambles too them, refreshing themselves for more mischief. This was the first place that Pan checked and, ducking under the thick brush that had grown in over the past few months of fall, she found not trace of the children.
“Black damn,” she swore as she untangled herself from the brambles and bushes, her auburn hair tangling in every branch, as if they were trying to pull her in and keep her. The thought made her shiver and, she thought, it would be good to get a trim before the days end.
If the children were not near the water it was known that they would be off in the fields further from the town. The fields were not a place that the children often dared to venture. It was far enough from the town that, were something to happen, there would be no chance for help. Yet, it was this very prospect of danger as well as the fields open, endless flatland that appealed so greatly to the children.
As Pan came to the old elk tree that stood sentinel, marking the separation between the small and crowded wood and the open field, she heard the cries of children and her blood ran cold. The shrieks and cries she heard were not those of children at play, but the frightful screams of children who have come face to face with something monstrous, something dangerous.
Pan drew her sword and ran toward the sound of shrieking children.
The children had grouped together at the opposite end of the field and, directly in front of them was a snorting Steel Boar. The creature was digging its metallic hooves into the soft ground, rooting up the ground. It's head was tucked low, its blade like tusks were white as bone and as long as Pan's forearm. It was clear, Pan noted as she approached the boar from behind, that the children had been dodging the mechanical hybrid for some time. Each of them shone with sweat and the ground all around was torn to pieces.
And there was, Pan noticed, the stench of fresh blood in the air. A shiver slithered down her spine at the thought.
Pan shouted out, “Hey!” and the Steel Boar ran forward a few yards, turning just short of the children and stopping adjacent to them to see where the sudden sound had came from.
It locked its eyes with Pan and she stared down at the beast. It dug its hooves into the dirt and Pan entered into her fighters stance, legs spread wide, body hunched low and sword angled above her head like a scythe.
The boar took charge at her, a full on dead barrel. The world slowed as Pan focused on the beast, everything narrowing to a thin tunnel and when the boar was just a few yards away, Pan shifted her weight, turning away from the charging animal and expertly slipping her sword under the Steel boar to its soft, fleshy belly.
Pan twisted and, bring her blade up with her, she dug deep into the flesh of the boar. The wet sound of tearing flesh and blood and intestine spilling form the body filled Pan's ears for a moment and she knew the beast was dead.
Pan turned and looked down at the hybrid animal. It's back was all metal and wires, its tusks, though appearing natural, were made of an alchemical mixture that made them strong a steal and hard as bone. From what little Pan knew of these creatures they grew and functioned like their organic brethren, yet they were twice the threat. The only way to slay one of these beasts was the cut at its underbelly; an unenviable task.
Pan flicked the blood off her sword and walked toward the children. Though the beast was dead they huddled and shivered in their fear and, all subtly dotting the grass around their sweaty, dirty bodies there was blood.
With two big steps forward Pan was inside the cluster of children, pushing them apart. In the heart of their sweaty mass was Jeremy who held the head of his gored brother.
Kneeling down Pan asked, “What happened here.”
“We were playing mages and knights when we heard the boar rustling in the grass. Thomas threw a rock at it and it charged him. We all ran from it at first but Thomas tripped and stuck him,” said Jeremy, his voice slight and quivering.
“Fucking idiot,” Pan cursed, “how bad is he?”
“He's still awake, but he stopped moaning just before you got here.”
“Alright then. Jeremy, I need you to take off your shirt-yes that's right. This should be plenty.”
Tearing the shirt and stretching it apart, Pan wrapped it around Thomas' wound, tying it off tight as she could. Then, hefting him up onto her shoulder, Pan called the other children and they began their walk to town, moving quickly as they could. The jostling and bumping of the road rekindled Thomas' moans and promoted Pan to make small cooing sounds, slowly calming him back into silence. Yet even as he was silent Pan could hear the bubbling in his breathing as the blood began to pool in his lungs.
“Come,” she said, beckoning the children to pick up their pace, “we must hurry.”
Returning to town Pan commanded the gaggle of dirty children to return home, excepting Jeremy. There was, to her small surprise, no argument roused from the children and, after they had gone, Pan walked with Jeremy to the town physician, a man freshly appointed to his position after several years studying at Ase'ar, The University of The World.
“After I hand Thomas over to the physician I will go to your parents and tell them what happened. You will stay and give your brother support, Jeremy.”
The boy nodded and silence lulled.
The physicians hut small and packed with a hundred different types of medical tools, potions, powders, plants, and so on. An alchemical chandelier hung about them and cast blueish light over the room that mixed with the gray light of the outdoors, lending a peaceful aura to the room. Despite how densely packed the hut was, everything was in place and perfectly ordered, though what that order was Pan could only guess at. Still, the scalpels and saws and braces that hung on the wall, as well as the rainbow arrangement of potions, eased Pan's mind.
Standing up, the physician looked at the three who had just entered into his hut, defiling it with the blood and dirt and sweat that caked their bodies, slithering down to the floor. His coat was eggshell white and hanging around his neck was a large metal pendant, patterned with a snake sneaking up a rod, the identification of his profession as an arcane doctor.
“What what?” he said, stepping toward the trio, “what's happened?”
“It was a steel boar. Gored the boy when he was in the field. I did my best to tie off the wound and keep him from bleeding out,” Pan said as she passed Thomas to the physician.
Quickly stepping away with the boy the physician set the bleeding boy down upon a table in the left most corner of the room, directly beside the majority of his medical instruments and potions. Once down he stripped him of his clothes and removed the make-shift tourniquet, pulling caked dried blood from the wound. Picking from the wall a small hooked tool and a mirrored glass the physician picked at the wound, pulling the flesh back like a marionette, moving the flesh and his mirror so as to see the lacerations that the steel boar had caused Thomas.
Replacing the mirror the physician grabbed a bottle full of yellow-green liquid, a small pair of tweezers, and some balls of cotton. Pulling back the red-black flesh the physician fished inside of Thomas, pulling out dirt and fragments of cloth. Once sufficiently satisfied that nothing lurked within the wound the physician removed the stopper from the bottle and, turning it upside down, he soaked one of his balls of cotton. Taking up the ball in his tweezers he began to liberally wipe and dab at the lips of the wound, removing the dried blood.
“The boys condition is not good. Are you aware of the infections that come from the tusks of a steel boar?” asked the physician without turning away from his work.
“No,” Pan replied tightly.
“They are siege beasts, you know. They were made with the intention of charging foes in battle, weakening the line. Their armored backs make them hard to kill, but their alchemical tusks are the real trick. They are made from the same bone that make up their organic cousins, however, the draccus was a clear inspiration for its effectiveness. Those damned tusks are made porous so that the bacteria can seep into the tusks. Fucking Black Alchemists. Toy with nature, make a war beast, and then, when the wars done, nothing left but to let it free.”
The last part was said under his breath, yet Pan heard it.
Kneeling before Jeremy she whispered, “I'm going now. You stay here. I will send word to your parents.”
Jeremy nodded, his brown eyes far away. Pan hugged him before she departed and she felt his warm, brackish tears touch upon her cheek.
Hendrick ran toward Pan, calling out to her and weaving one of his bulbous hands above his head, “Guard! Guard!”
Pan slowed enough to allow the crier to catch up to her and when he did he asked, “have you found Jeremy?”
“Yes, Hendrick. I found him in the field. He was playing with some of the other children. There was some trouble with a steel boar and now he is waiting with his brother at the physicians. It does not look good.”
Hendrick's fat head turned the color of the moon, his eyes and mouth resembled craters now more than the features of a human face. Pan did her best not to stare at the horrified man, instead allowing the silence to grow wild between them.
“Is Jeremy okay?” The criers voice was as thin and wispy as the wind or else a single strand of hair.
“Yes, physically. I cannot say as to how his mind handles these things.”
The crier nodded and looked glum. He knew that something must be done, he could feel it deep within him, begging him to move like living flame under his foot. Yet, as to what must be done he could only grasp.
Finally, “I will go to the boy. Wait with him. You are going to retrieve his parents, yes?”
“Good. Tell them that I will take care of their bills. They will have enough to worry about without the pressure of a doctors bill.”
Pan nodded and, with only a bit of shuffling about in uncertainty, Hendrick left her to deliver her morbid message.
Thomas and Jeremy's parents took the news of their sons possible death as well as was expected. Their mother, a thin woman with a round face stared off, glass eyes, her brown and gray hair a messy halo about her. The rag that was in her hand had found itself wrapped tightly around her fist and pulled tight, as if she were tying off the outcry of pain that bloomed within her.
Her husband, a lean, muscled man with leather brown skin, wore a broken face. Tears fell freely from his eyes as he wrapped her arm around his wife's shoulder. The couple seemed pale and shriveled. Pan got the impression that every bone in their body had been replaced with fractured glass and, with the slightest touch or movement they would shatter into dust to be scattered in the wind.
Yet off they went, shuffling in bug-like fashion as Pan watched, her heart heavy as lead in her chest.
Having had her share of tragedy, Pan decided to treat herself to a drink and lunch at the Lightning Tree, a small inn that had sprung up in place of the Pissing Pig, which had burned to the ground five or so years back. The Lightning Tree received its name, or so the owner, a man with sandy hair, a long pointed noise, and golden eyes, claimed, from the great beast of a tree that had been used to build it. According to him, in his home land there was a tree that had produced the most beautiful of fruit. It was a pale fruit, the color of the stars, and it was used primarily for brewing.
However, the Seven grew jealous of this tree and the worshipers that sprung up in its honor. It was planted by fae and was, therefore, an affront to them and as such they sent a bolt of lightning to burn the tree. However, the great beast that was the tree stood against this trail and, though it was blackened, it did not fall or burn, but nor did it produce fruit anymore. So it was that as time passed and the worshipers of the tree and its planters died off that the tree was forgotten by the town from whence it came, at least until Mr. Walker came to use its black wood for his inn.
Pan loved that story and all the other stories that Mr. Walker would spin like a spiders web, entertaining her as she ate.
Today was no exception, “Pan, have you ever heard the story of Simmon de Feor ?”
“No, sir,” said Pan between mouthfuls of warm honey bread.
Mr. Walker grabbed a jug of warm smelling summer cider, pulled up a chair beside Pan, and poured himself a mug, allowing the spiced cider to fill the air, making it pregnant.
He took a long drink, “Well, Simmon de Feor is more commonly know as Faesmith. Does that ring a bell for ya?”
“Oh! Of course. He made the same sword Oren of the Vale uses. The blood-drinking sword.”
“Yes, that is likely his most famous creation. Or maybe it was infamous? But that doesn't matter, what matters is how he learned to craft as he did.
See, Simmon went to The University of The World and learned everything from rune-craft to naming. He was a top student and, it's said, he was dear friends with Oren of the Vale, before he was “of the Vale.” He could craft the most intricate of runes, the kind that would make the smiths of legend weep. The sort that were dangerous and beautiful. The sort that broke the Iron Law.
He could, or so they say, sing to his creations, caressing them gently with magical energies. Yet, even with all of this, Simmon was no better than any genius might be.
He merely built upon what others had done before him. He was not an innovator, just an exceedingly clever student. Until, of course, he stumbled across a book.
See, dear Pan, all great stories and adventures start with the discovery of a book. It is with them that we can open up the doors that were once locked. They are keys and clues and the only real, true treasure in the world. And when Simmon found this book the doors were blown wide.
He packed up his things and left only a note and he searched from land to land for whatever secret thing was in that book, of which there is no shortage of speculation.
Those that believe in the Seven will tell you that he made a deal with a fae woman, impregnating her with his mortal seed in exchange for a secret magic. Those who worship the fae will, curiously, tell something similar. And to an extent they were right.
Simmon did find a woman, and a beautiful one at that. He found a women in a far off land where night stretches on forever and the purple lands are populated with creatures whose names have been lost to the time, blown in the wind. And he fell in love with this woman, deep and true as any love could be and, in that land of night skies and purple lands, where the waters tasted sweet as honey, he resolved himself to stay.
But, of course, this story would be nothing without tragedy. Of course there were those that travel the land, seeking out the fae that make their home among the humans. Those who wear the mantle of the Seven and, when they find those ungodly creatures, they destroy them.
And so, one a day when Simmon had left his lady love to journey and discover his new land, these men came and slew the woman, mangling her body and leaving it to leak blood into those sweet waters. When Simmon came and found his lady dead, it is said, he found those men that took her life through magical means and took from them their lives. And when he was done he returned from that enchanted land, now tainted by the touch of death, and vowed never to tell the secrets of his lady love.”
Mr. Walker was silent then and that silence radiated outward, sucking sound from the room. Pan quietly sipped the last of the spiced cider she'd ordered for herself and sat, soaking in the silence around her.
Then the noise came, descending down upon them with indignation. It was the sound of screaming and alarm bells. It was the sound of invasion, of marching death.
Pan jumped up from where she had been sitting and, sword drawn, ran out into the chaos. The sirens wailed and screamed madly, begging and pleading for attention. People screamed and babbled, shouting questions that were promptly ignored.
Mr. Walker came out then, “What's happening?” he shouted above the wail of the sirens.
“Invasion,” Pan replied, absently.
Mr. Walker muttered something then, something that Pan did not understand at the time, something that would not come back to her until years down the road when she remembered this grim day and when she did finally remember what he said this day would all make sense. But now, as she was, her mind was too far gone, fear gripping it and adrenaline pumping through her veins.
The rush of danger pushed her into action and Pan ran forward, heading toward the town gate where she was sure the guard captain would be. She swan upstream, past the growing horde of frightened town-folk, some of which carried their children to their breast or lead them by hand, pulling them should they slow. Those without children dragged their material goods or else their animals with them. At one point Pan saw the physician, a sack filled with what she was sure was medical equipment and, just a few paces behind him, was Jeremy. Where were his parents?
Turning off from her course and dodging thee gaggle of runners Pan ran headlong into the hut that had been the physicians. Inside there was no semblance of order. The walls had been picked, their contents in the bag of the fleeing physician or else on the floor. The impression of God-like cleanliness that had pressed upon Pan when she had come earlier had been disrupted and, in its absence, a rift grew. Chaos had been here, like a wind storm or else the fury of the Seven.
Holding the hand of their boy, huddled in the corner, were Jeremy's parents. They were stoic, statuesque, a perfect part of the scenery.
“You must go,” Pan said, her voice louder than the sirens and the screaming, “it is not safe.”
There was no response from either aside from a blank stare, “did you not hear me? Can you not hear the alarms? It is not safe. Something is happening and you must leave.”
Still they stared, their eyes fathomless, abyss-like.
Anger flurried within Pan's chest, fanned hot by the black faced statues that stood before her. She stepped to them both and, only a few inches away, pulled back and slapped the both of them hard across the face.
“You will leave here now. You will find your boy and the physician, or else I will drag you both from here myself,” she commanded.
“What of him? What of Thomas?” asked the mother with a croaked whisper.
Pan looked down at the boy on the slab. His chest rose and fell with great effort and with each breath came a gurgling sound. His skin had lost its color and, to Pan, it appeared as though he were slowly decomposing into nothing.
She knew he would die and, in those broken faces that his parents wore she could tell that they knew as well.
Nantosila, take this one, Pan prayed, into your wormed embrace. Dear Goddess, from the sky he came and on your soil he walked, now weary he comes into the Earth so he may rest.
“You must leave him,” Pan spat these words as if they were poison, “you know he will not recover and to take him with us would only bring him greater pan. Give him to Nantosila, or else Jeremy may grow to resent you both, or else suffer a similar fate.”
Jeremy's parents stood there, silently, and the distance between Pan and them widened and deepened.
“Okay,” said the mother, her voice little more than a whisper.
However, as she shambled like a corpse for the door her husband stayed. She looked back at him, eyes dull, but said nothing. She merely left him there, towering like a lonely giant above their dying son.
“I'll bury him,” he said, seeing that Pan's eyes were fixed on him, “I'll bury him.”
Pan left him there, allowing him the privacy to preform his morbid task, and continued to the town gate.
When she was only a few yards away she saw her commanding officer, standing tall and gallant as always. The sight of him in his metallic gray armor, gray hair being tossed by the wind, and sword at the ready eased her mind. Commander Bryn had fought in the King's army when he was a young man and had received the King's grace as reward. Anywhere he went he would have power and position. Bryn would never want for money nor land nor, if ever something befall his wife, women.
Commander Bryn turned and saw Pan's approaching her. His wrinkled face looked grave as he squinted to see her in the orange light of the setting sun. Bryn raised a great, mangled paw and waved her to him.
“Sir, what's happening?” Pan asked, standing tall and brave next to her superior.
“Take a look,” Bryn said, passing a telescope to her.
Peering through it Pan saw the grim death that was soon to be upon them; a siege of the Black Alchemists. Their dark robes and mutated bodies giving them away immediately. Pan felt the touch of fear and grim certainty that soon nothing would be left of her town but the ash customary whenever the King's Justice descended upon the land.
“Sir, I don't understand. Why are they coming here?”
“To kill every last one of us, Pan.”
Pan looked at her commander then, looked at the man she had so long considered to be fearless. She looked at him and saw all the fear and anger and regret painted plainly on his grizzled, angular face.
“Why the hell would they do that? We're loyal to the crown. We worship the Seven and pay our taxes in full.”
“The Black Alchemists aren't sent out for taxes. You've heard the stories. You know why they'd be here.”
“We aren't harboring any criminals!” Pan replied, indignant and fear-filled.
The guard commander was silent, his eyes focused forward. He was still as water, but only deceptively so. Below the surface the waters churned and shifted with the kind of angry bitterness that sought to drown the first fool to dip their toe.
“Round whatever of the town is left and leave. They will track you, but better a life on the run than the torture that awaits you if you are caught.”
Pan did not pursue the guard commander beyond that and shame and fear were born in her as a result.
Her first stop was to the Lightning Tree in search of Mr. Walker. She came rolling through the doors like lightning, loud and booming with her voice, calling out for her old friend. She called and searched frantically but found not hide nor hair of him, or much else that would indicate that he'd ever been there.
Puzzled but frantic Pan left the Lightning Tree with reluctance and went about checking every corner and home in the town. Most people she encountered screamed and shouted, oblivious to her directions in their total fear. Many a time Pan found herself with sword in hand, shouting and spitting frantically, even threatening, so that they would compose themselves and leave.
Children cried, snot dripping from their noses as they asked and begged their parents for explanation. People, as is their nature, gathered together what they could, trying desperately to hang onto their lives through their collected junk. Pan would force many of them to leave behind all but the essentials and when the townsfolk would fight, kick, and scream, Pan would leave them to their fear and dread, leaving them with the promise that they would not be coddled or cared for because of their stupidity.
The gathering of the frightened took the better part of an hour and as the whole of the town ascended the hillside Pan turned to see the place she had called home. She watched as the first fires began to spread and the scent of blood began to taint the air. She watched as a convergence of mutated figures descended upon the town like flies or a black plague. She listened as they burned and killed, stabbing at the heart of her home and, years from now, when Pan was asleep in bed with her lover, well, who would blame her for awaking in a sweat, the scent of blood in her nostrils.
All this Pan watched without shedding a single tear as a black cancer formed within her and gorged itself on regret and anger and the knowing of answers to questions unasked. Slow poison spread through her veins and, turning away, she found herself glad of Mr. Walker's, no, Simmon's, disappearance.
*Apologies for fomatting issues, one and all. Blogger is not a fan on indents. Aside from that, I hope you enjoy this peak at the collection of short stories I am working on and, if you like me then you can find me on facebook or subscribe to the blog for regular updates on said collection and regular posts. Thank you.*