Dollar Dreadful Vol 1:
A Tangle of Shadows
by M. L. Hart
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- Gaea Parallaxis -
- the chronicles and testaments of Citizen No Name Kane -
- Chapter Four -
A brace of Black Shucks!
“Step forward then Sir.” said Sergeant Rowdy Redstone, the short watchman at the armoury who was almost as broad as he was tall. “Lets 'ave a look at ye.”
I stepped forward and he looked me up and down. Appraising me. He shook his head a couple of times and then loudly sucked a lung full of air in through gritted teeth.
“Is he well enough?” The watchman asked of Arranwen.
“I think so.” She replied. Then added, “The Rector... and the Magister think so too.”
“He's tall and quite broad, I'll give you that.” The watchman sergeant said to her as he circled me. “A little too lean and grizzled though – a bit of fattening up 'n' some physical training and 'e could probably put up a good fight.”
I felt like telling him that he might be built like a brick-shit-house but he was way too short and bristly to be mistaken for anything other than a denizen of Moria who'd just done delving in the deepest of its darkest mines... for I swear – if I didn't know better – I'd say he looked like a dwarf. That is, of course, not a human that has some form of dwarfism – but an actual, or should I say mythological, dwarf - like those from ancient Norse folklore, fairy tales and modern fantasy fiction – now popular with the role play gaming and movie going crowds... or at least they were popular in my hotchpotch remembering of the world.
I tried to tell my self I was being ridiculous. Although he was typical of all sergeants – meaning, stand there and take their shit and you'll be fine, complain or answer back and he'll make your life hell – he was by no means typical of all people. There was definitely something not quite human about him... but I couldn't quite figure out what it was. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there was something not quite Modern Human about him. For Watchman Sergeant Rowdy Redstone bore an uncanny resemblance to a reconstruction of a Neanderthal I once saw. He had thick dark reddish-brown hair and a full bodied beard of the same colour – probably making up for the fact that he had a large bald spot on the top of his oversized head – he was around four foot nine tall and about 240 pounds. His strong looking arms seemed too long and his stumpy looking legs seemed too short. He had a big nose and surprisingly big, ragged ears. What he lacked in the forehead department he more than made up for with his rather pronounced, and hairy, brows. He had quite a ruddy complexion and his dark shadowed eyes were full of wisdom and wily cunning.
He noticed me staring. “Am I going to have a problem with you?” The small but powerfully built, and armed to the teeth I might add, Watchman Redstone asked me directly. Standing before me and staring fixedly up into my face. He had a lethal two-headed axe and a complicated looking cross-bow harnessed and crossed on his back. A strange looking gun strapped to the right of his thick heavy belt – where it could be easily grabbed by his left hand - and a dagger mirrored it on the left – to be easily grabbed by his right hand... should the need arise. And the sergeant gave the impression that the need might arise at any moment
“Not with me.” I said. Now trying to stare anywhere but directly at him and his fixed eyes, being a good foot and a half taller than he, I gazed just as fixedly straight ahead and straight over his balding and sloping dome - at the suddenly fascinating, solid, utilitarian – and probably very thick – stone wall behind him.
“Good.” The sergeant said, turning away from us. “Let's get you both kitted out then.” He was wearing a heavy black leather jerkin over a padded grey doublet that had various insignia on his bulging upper arm – presumably indicating he's a watchman and a sergeant. He had on similarly grey trousers and was wearing heavy black leather knee-high buccaneer style boots. “Are you left-handed or right-handed?” He asked loudly.
“Em...” I said, thinking about it. “Right-handed.” I answered, kind of pleased that I had actually remembered something about myself.
“Really?” He said, walking out of sight and into an adjoining room through a massive security door set in the thick stone wall behind him. “We don't get many of them... they say 'bout one in twenty is right-handed... but I'll be buggered if it's that many. Though it's not that long since they used to beat it out of 'em – 'n' forced 'em to be left-handed like the rest of us, if you'll excuse the expression, normal people.” The sergeant came back with two gun belts similar to his own. Each had a gun and a dagger too. He handed one to Arranwen and the other to me. I took it, then held and balanced its heavy weight before me. Arranwen immediately fastened hers around her waist.
I couldn't get my head round the enormous white elephant in the room. Or was it a red herring? I wasn't sure. Either way it was the apparent dwarf. Arranwen treated him like nothing was out of the ordinary – so obviously, so would I... I've embarrassed myself quite enough in front of her – and I've got to remember that I'm the stranger in a strange land here, so he's just another person and is nothing out of the ordinary. But – his presence had my mind reeling for possible explanations as to why a supposedly mythological being or a long extinct hominid – in my world at least – would be real and present in this increasingly stranger than strange world I now found myself in. Only two occurred to me.
One, I was playing a wholly immersive fantasy role playing game within some sort of virtual environment – but my memory loss means I don't remember starting the game... or remember my life before it... but, can I really be playing a game in a virtual world? Is this kind of immersive world even possible?
Or, two, I'm dreaming the whole thing – this is a dream world – maybe, back in the real world, I'm in a coma or something – a trauma to my head left me in a coma and wiped my memory... and I'm dreaming this whole damn thing?
But then that led me to a third explanation – May be this world is the real world and the other world I semi-remember is the dream world? But that route leads to madness so I refused to consider it.
“Put ye'r gun belt on, lad.” The heavily armed dwarf said to me. “Have you fired a plasma-gun before?” He asked.
Fumbling a little I finally got the heavy gun belt fastened and comfortable on my waist and hips. Briefly my hands hovered over the two weapons holstered in the belt – the right hand crossed over to the plasma-gun on my left and then the left hand crossed over to the dagger on my right. I don't mind saying it felt right and it felt good. I finally realised I'd been asked a direct question. “No sir,” I said, though it was more an assumption than actual knowledge that led me to that answer, “I have not.”
He took his bulky and quite blocky looking gun from its holster and showed it to me, cradling it in his surprisingly big hands. “This,” he said, “is the Peacemaker 3-0-4, it's the standard issue law enforcement side-arm. Like all plasma-guns it forms an electromagnetically charged bubble of low energy plasma gas... or some such – made up of ionised particles... and powerful spinning magnets send it at great speed out of this end.” Now holding the gun in his left hand he pointed to the flared business end of the wide barrel with his right index finger. “It has four settings that can be selected here.” He now pointed to a button on the side of the weapon. “Slide this along to the setting required. It's default position is marked zero, this renders the gun inert and it will not fire.” To prove this he pulled the trigger a couple of times and nothing happened both times. “Always return the button to this position when you're finished using the gun.” He looked at me to see if I was paying attention.
I nodded. He continued. “If you nudge this button up and slide it along and then down into the notch marked one,” he did this as he spoke, “this powers up the weapon,” a line of twelve green lights lit up on top of the gun as it hummed quietly to itself, “and makes it ready to discharge a pulse of electrified particles that should be enough to stun most adults and render them briefly insensible.” The dwarf pointed the plasma-gun down the length of the room toward a square, scarred and burnt, metal lined, box like indent in the wall at that end. He pulled the trigger and the gun emitted a muffled wumff sound as it suddenly sent a small glowing orb of green sparking energy zipping down the length of the room and into the metal box where it dispersed and crackled over the blackened back plate.
The phrase, Set phasers to stun! - popped into my head. “Nice!” I exclaimed aloud – probably a little too enthusiastically.
The Watchman Sergeant ignored my exclamation and continued his demonstration. “You will notice,” he said showing me the row of lights on the top surface of the gun – one of which had turned a dull red, “that each stun shot will use up one-twelfth of the gun's charge. A kill shot – which is the notch marked two on the side – will use up two-twelfths of the charge. It delivers enough of a shock to kill most average sized adults.”
Kill shot! Proclaimed my internal monologue. Bonus one hundred experience points! I managed not to say anything aloud though.
“While the third notch, which I like to refer to as the overkill setting – using up three-twelfths of the charge – will deliver enough energy to stop even the biggest Jotunheim troll dead in 'is tracks.”
When you absolutely positively gotta kill every mother-fuck... -ing TROLL in the room!? “Wait a minute!” I said, incredulously. “Did you say troll?”
“Oh yes.” He replied earnestly – missing the focus of my incredulity. “As dead as a day old spit roast.”
“Well,” interjected Arranwen – probably concerned that I was about to get bogged down in a shit-load of questions... which I was. “We had better be getting a move on.” She said, and then to the sergeant, “Can I get my usual compound bow and quiver?”
“Of course.” He said and headed for the security door again, then looked back at me and said. “Would you like a back-up weapon?”
“Sure.” I said immediately, without even thinking. “How about a sword?” I asked, half in jest – not really expecting them to give me an actual sword – and half in a kind of cavalier bravado, not wishing to be out done by Arranwen's request for bow and arrows.
“You'd better come through and pick one.” He said, as if my request was nothing out of the ordinary.
Somewhat speechless, I followed him through.
A short time later Arranwen and I were each mounted on an equinoid. The gunmetal robo-horses thundered out of the wooded and sleepy village that lay outside of the Seminary walls and I held on to mine for dear life as I followed her north and up onto the moors. Although controlling the equinoid was relatively easy and pretty intuitive – push the reins-like control bar at the nape of its neck to go forward and faster; pull to slowdown, stop or reverse; and nudge left or right to turn left or right – it still very much had a mind of its own. It wouldn't go where it couldn't – for example, up too steep an incline, or off a cliff. You basically pointed it in the direction you wanted to go and it would work out the best route and take you there till you pointed it somewhere else.
Despite the increasingly rough terrain, the ride was surprisingly smooth – certainly compared to how I would imagine a real horse ride would be – but I still found the whole experience rather precarious... and painful. A fall from this height, on this terrain and at this speed would certainly be punishing. My feet were therefore solidly pressed into the stirrup like foot-holds and my thighs were already burning from gripping onto the body of the running mechanical beast, and I didn't dare lessen the vice-like white-knuckle grip that both hands had on the control bar. And my tensed and hunched over back was now seriously killing me!
As we wound our way upward the trees thinned and were gradually replaced by bracken and then heather on the undulating plateau at the top. We galloped toward a ridge line that turned out to be a raised, and relatively well worn, trackway running east-west. Arranwen led us west briefly along it then stopped and I pulled up beside her.
There was something I was dying to get off my chest. “Look, I realise this is probably going to sound ignorant,” I said, “... but, the Watchman Sergeant... was he a – I can't think of another way of putting this... a dwarf?”
She looked at me – but didn't seem even slightly perturbed by my, at least perceived by me, ignorance – and said, “Yes he is. He's an Alpen dwarf... from the continent – you normally don't get too many of the dwarffs outside of their mountain strongholds – at least, you don't usually get many in these parts anyway.”
“Really?” I said. “And that stuff he said about trolls... are there really trolls?”
“Oh yes.” She said, almost delighted – in a perverse sort of way. “The ones of which he spoke – the Jotnar trolls of Jotunheim – are the meanest, baddest and biggest of the lot.”
I looked around nervously. “And do you usually get trolls in these parts?”
She laughed. “No – no, not this far south... and certainly not Jotnar trolls – they're up in Hyperborea, north and across the Nordic sea.” After a pause she pointed to a spot just south of the track way. “ Down there,” she said, “is where I found you.”
It was a shallow hollowed out dip just a few metres away. I walked my equinoid down into it with a few light nudges of the control bar and, a little awkwardly, dismounted to have a closer look in the fading light. “Where exactly?” I asked.
“Just to the right of where you're now standing.”
The area was certainly disturbed. The course grass and heather flattened in places and some dry patches of dirt were scuffed, scratched up and scattered. “What kind of position was I in?”
“You were in the foetal position... with your arms up as if to protect your head. I guessed they, whoever they were, had felled you with the blow to the head – then gave you a severe and sustained kicking for a while before leaving you for dead.”
I crouched down and rummaged around and through the broken, flattened and tangled vegetation, scattering bits of dirt and plant matter hoping to find something... anything that might give me a clue – but no such luck. From the amount of disturbance and the size of the area it covered there had been quite a scuffle, it seemed there could have been up to three, or possibly four, attackers.
“Kane!” Said Arranwen rather suddenly but I was lost in thought
What the hell was I doing up here on the moors? Where had I come from? Where was I going? Who would want me dead... and why? And why was I naked?
“KANE!” She shouted this time – and I realised she was calling my name – and was clearly alarmed. “Black-shucks! Two of them!”
I started to stumble through the thick undergrowth back up to the trackway. “What the hell are black-shucks?” I disgruntledly mumbled to myself as I reached the crest of the rise and then saw for myself. “Oh shit!”
Two massive dog like creatures were running hell for leather right at us – and they clearly weren't friendly. They looked like some kind of Bulldog-Rottweiler mix, but bigger – much bigger – with shaggy black matted fur, glowing red eyes like burning coals from the pits of hell itself, and the biggest sets of glistening pin sharp teeth that I'd ever seen. “Oh shit!” I said again – louder this time.
I thought about going for my plasma-gun but by the time I'd fiddled with the settings and took aim – which wasn't guaranteed to be sure – the one heading straight for me would already be on top of me. Without even thinking, my right hand had reached over my shoulder and loosed the classic early medieval longsword that was sheathed across my back. I raised the weapon high, holding it vertical and point down, with my right hand gripping the leather bound hilt firm and my left over the rounded and polished pummel, ready to press home hard – I'm really going to have to time this right.
The massive beast bounded to within two feet of me with a deep, guttural growl like thunder and was about to launch itself at my throat when, roaring a scream back at it, I brought the thirty inches or so of cold hard razor sharp steel straight down onto it's huge slobbering head with all my might. The force of my thrust forced the creature's skull down hard to the ground and the lethally pointed blade pierced it's cranium and brains right through as I put all my strength and weight into pile-driving it deep into the trackway dirt. The forward momentum of the hell-hound's back end caused it to rise almost up and over it's pinned front end before flopping back down dead with a heavy – and very final – thud. It's glowing eyes dulled to blackness.
Panicking I looked up for the other black-shuck, it was a short distance away but luckily was now just as dead as the first. It had two black arrows sticking out of it, one in the head and the other deep in it's chest. Arranwen was still atop her equinoid with her impressively futuristic looking compound bow in hand and a third arrow notched and ready, pointing at the beast at my feet. “I thought you were done for.” She said matter-of-factly.
“So did I.” I replied, my heart thumping hard and fast. I put my boot to the hideous hound's head and, straining a little, pulled the bloodied sword out of it – and a good six inches of earth – then, trembling slightly, I wiped off the dark and glistening gore on it's thick and tangled fur. I've just killed another living thing. Is it for the first time? Should I be appalled? The adrenalin speeding through my veins and the mind exploding shock of staring death in the eyes said no... but?
“Why didn't you use your plasma-gun?” Arranwen asked as she dismounted to retrieve her arrows.
“Instinct I suppose... why didn't you use yours?”
“I need the practise.” She smiled cheekily.
“What the hell are these black-shuck... things?” I asked, indicating the corpses with a wave of the sword now christened by blood... perhaps I should name it. Skull Piercer maybe... or something of that ilk?
“They were originally bred as war dogs thousands of years ago. Apparently, it was the Kobold goblins who first used them as particularly fierce and formidable battle mounts... but not for centuries now. These days the beasts roam wild and free... it's very rare – and not a little concerning – to find them this side of the old Great Wall.”
Oh my God! I thought. The more I learn – the crazier it gets. Goblins now – and a great wall of some description... keeping the wild things out? Or us in? Will elves soon be coming into the picture? What about giant ogres, dragons or even unicorns? Do THEY exist in this... other world? With the tip of my sword I idly parted the fur on the scruff of the formidable creature's neck... to reveal a thick, studded strip of black leather. “Hey, maybe they're not so wild... this one has a collar.”
“What?” She said, surprised. She checked her kill. “This one does too. That's... very strange.” Delving beneath the felled creature's neck she removed its collar. “I'm taking this with us. We had better get back on the equinoids and get away from here.”
I rushed back down to my dark metallic steed and mounted it quickly after returning the sword to the scabbard on my back, and before any more unpleasant surprises could appear. I joined Arranwen back on the raised trackway and surveyed the darkening moors suspiciously, determined not to be taken unaware by any strange or unnatural creatures again. I hesitate to use the word unnatural, for whose to say what's natural or unnatural in this place, certainly not me. But it seemed appropriate, for the lingering memory of the glaring, glowing red eyes of the hell hounds we had just slain was, I have to admit, totally freaking me out... that and my close call with imminent death.
Arranwen pointed west along the trackway. “There's a little hamlet a mile or so from here. With a small wayfarer's inn... a watchman should be stationed there. We should warn them and let the watchman know what's gone on here.” She looked at me as if for approval.
A small cowardly part of me wanted to say, Fuck 'em, let's get back to the priory... or seminary... or whatever it is – but there was no way I was going to say that to her. A much larger part of me wanted her to be impressed by my actions, or at least wanted her to not be unimpressed by them. “Yes.” I said as emphatically as I could. “We should warn them.”
We nudged our mounts to a gallop and headed west. I determined to keep my eyes peeled and to survey the surroundings vigorously as we went.
“That was some pretty nifty sword play back there.” Said Arranwen, her voice raised to be heard over the rapid clomping of heavy, hard rubber hooves.
“Thanks.” I called back. “Your archery was pretty much on the money too.”
“Thank you... I think?” She seemed a little puzzled. “I'm assuming on the money is good?”
“Oh it is... very good.” I assured her. “Extremely good in fact.”
The air was getting quite frosty as darkness descended and a chill wind blew in from the north. The equinoids each had a single headlight, front and centre where the neck and sternum met. They lit up the road ahead with a pale and ethereal glow. I lifted the hood of my robe up for the first time, trying to give my ears some shelter from the increasingly biting cold – looking like a Jedi wannabe was now the least of my worries. I probably looked more like a personification of Death himself – a pale faced black hooded spectre riding his gun-metal electric horse... and carrying a sword called... Doom Bringer, maybe?!
“See that wind turbine?” Arranwen said as she pointed to the dark horizon ahead.
“Yes.” I could just make out a vague silhouette of the tower and turning blades against the orange tinged glow of fading twilight low in the western sky.
“That's our destination.” She said.
“Will there be food?” I asked, suddenly very hungry. The prospect of a cosy and warm inn was becoming increasingly appealing. I felt far too exposed out here on the moors.
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