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 Five -
Showdown at Grey Wayfarer's Inn!
We finally crested the hill enough for us to see the small hamlet nestled in the shallow, round valley ahead of us – it was a still black pool but for the tiny rectangles of inviting light and potential warmth framed in the small windows of the inn and other assorted buildings that were otherwise lost in the dark shadowed hollow below.
“Will I be able to smoke?” I asked as we paused briefly. The silence seemed eerie after the incessant heavy clomping of galloping equinoid hooves.
“I'm sorry?” Arranwen questioned.
“At the inn. Will I be able to smoke my pipe?” At first I wanted to begin my explanation by saying 'In my world', but that would make me feel like I should be talking to some alien being and not an intelligent, capable, attractive – and most definitely human – young woman. “Where I come from,” I ended up saying, “I'm pretty sure they don't allow smoking inside ANY public place... not even bars and pubs... in fact, they're quite fascistic about it. Non-smokers were made so paranoid about the supposed threat of passive smoking that being a smoker became tantamount to being a mass murdering child molester. It took the soul out of pubs and bars I can tell you, not being able to smoke. All the atmosphere was gone. Replaced by the stench of body odour and stale alcohol. It was a complete nightmare!”
I noticed she was giving me another quizzical look. God, I thought – silently, but severely, admonishing myself. I've really got to stop babbling when I'm around her!
She nudged her equinoid forward and started a slow winding descent to the inn. I followed close behind and she said back to me, “You don't need to worry about that. Most bars, coffee houses and dragon houses are smoking establishments... or will at least have a smoking room.”
After a short pause she continued, “They tried enforcing a total restriction on various intoxicating substances here once, banned them outright, a few hundred years ago. It included coffee, tobacco, all drinking alcohol, the green, golden and brown dragons, and even shrooms. It didn't last long – about twenty years maybe. It was all part of the theistic monarchist coup that was the Royalist Reformation. There was a massive loss in taxes and the inevitable migration of the substances to the black market caused a hike in petty crime levels along with a rise in the fortunes of organised criminal gangs – not to mention an explosion in accidental overdoses from unregulated intoxicants. The country went to pot. Too many coffee houses, ale houses, dragon houses, inns and the like faced ruin; people even feared it would erode the national character, impact on creativity and output, and be detrimental to the nation's morale – and, needless to say, various prominent occultists, apothecaries, mystics and mages weren't too pleased about the shroom shortage it caused either. Yep, prohibition was a big mistake – its ultimate demise came when the popular uprising against it turned into a full blown Civil War. Prohibition officially ended the day they executed the hated Royalist leader, Charles the Usurper, for high treason. They hacked his head off. They say the whole country partied that night. They lit bonfires – up and down the land – and made effigies of him, to abuse, then place atop the fire.”
“Well, there's a moral to be learned in that story.” I said – somewhat overwhelmed with information – but glad I wasn't the only one with a tendency to babble.
“There is!” She stated emphatically. “Don't prohibit! Just regulate... and educate moderation – but accept that there will always be those who overindulge or get dependent – they can be monitored and managed best by treating the intoxicant concerned as a taxable, licensed consumable that has a quantifiable medicinal, psychological, recreational or even magical effect... then at least it's a known quantity.”
“I couldn't agree more.” I said, pleased that she seemed to have similar views to my own regarding the ridiculous banning of intoxicants. “Well it just goes to show, if you get rid of too many 'recreational pastimes' – that the majority of the population manage to enjoy fine, mind you, and still lead productive and law abiding lives – you'll soon have a rebellion on your hands.”
“Indeed.” She said. “A happy populace is a productive one and is much more willing to fight for a good way of life, if that way of life is threatened... whether it be by an invading army or by over puritanical leaders.”
Arranwen suddenly pulled her mount to a standstill and raised her hand as if for silence.
I pulled up beside her. “Is something wrong?” I whispered. She was staring intently down into the hollow.
“I'm not sure.” She said in a low voice. “It seems awfully quite down there. And why aren't there any outside lights on?”
I assumed her question was rhetorical so didn't bother trying to answer her but I immediately upped my alertness level to amber – which is wary, one step from orange – which is alarmed, and two steps from red – which is panicked. I won't go into what it's three steps from, though you can probably guess what colour its allocated – suffice to say that it would require a rapid change of underpants once the alert level had dropped again.
We continued slowly down into the hamlet of a few silent stone houses and assorted rural sheds and stores... and it was indeed eerily quite, still and dark – despite the occasional dull light spilling from the heavily draped, small-pained leaded windows that looked like they'd been there for centuries... and hadn't been cleaned once. As we approached the central inn the muffled but reassuring sounds of voices could be discerned from within. They were hardly the warm, welcoming sounds of riotous enjoyment I had fantasised of while up on the cold, windswept moors; but at least there were some people about, probably gathered in the warmest place around, and I could definitely detect the faint aroma of hot food, varied ales and a selection of sweet, sweet tobaccos.
We dismounted and led the equinoids to a stable like holding down the side of the inn at the back. Lifting a vaguely tail shaped casing at the rump of both the metal steeds, Arranwen showed me a socket in each – ha ha, I laughed to myself, just where their anus would be – and into which we plugged a couple of heavy duty electric cables to top up their charge. There were two other equinoids housed there and also charging. They were slightly bigger and chunkier than ours and had a mottled camouflage-style paint job. “That's interesting.” She said, looking them over. “They're military grade. There must be a couple of rangers inside... I wonder what they're doing here – they usually patrol nearer the border.”
Leaving the equinoids charging we walked back round to the front of the inn. Just as we got to the entrance Arranwen stopped in her tracks. “Damn!” She said. “I forgot to bring the collar from the black-shuck – it's in my saddle-bag.”
“Its Okay.” I said, eager to please. “I'll run and get it – you head on in and get warm.”
I ran and got the collar from the 'saddle-bag' like storage compartment built into the side of her equinoid then ran back, keen to be in the warm myself.
As I slowed and approached the double doors for the second time I realised there were no longer the sounds of numerous voices coming from inside. There was the sound of one voice. A very guttural and angry, male voice. Demanding and confrontational to the point, it sounded, of violent aggression. I hesitated only briefly before pushing the doors inward and walking through with as much calm and confidence as I could outwardly muster.
The interior of the inn was more pleasant than I would have guessed from the outside, with its warm décor and homely comforts typical of a well kept, if old-fashioned, pub or tavern. Its clientele, or at least a large portion of them, were far from pleasant however. There was a very nervous looking gentleman – presumably the landlord – behind the bar that ran the length of the left side of the room and a couple of pale and petrified old men, nursing half-full pints of beer, sitting together at one table among the many opposite the bar. Then there were the six ugly brutes in-between, standing in a semi-circle and menacing Arranwen who stood a few steps ahead of me and slightly to the left. My mind raced as I tried to take the scene in. The jittery and ragged, barely human gang of ruffians all had a distinct and distasteful grey-blue cast to their skin. They had large, tattered and pointed ears and black, cesspit eyes. Their sickly, purple lipped mouths were full of over-sized, sharpened and yellowing teeth that barely kept their long, black, slobbering tongues at bay. They all sported coarse, rust coloured, tufting and bristly head and facial hair of varying bizarreness – shaved in places while sprouting wild in others. Most were a little smaller than Arranwen but one was about my height and much weightier – his hair was bleached, like a scull cap it was in glorious isolation on the top of his otherwise bald head and tied into a topknot that spouted yellowy white hair like a fountain of frozen piss that cascaded down behind his lumpy, bulbous noggin and thick, rolling neck. Goblins?! I thought. Got to be!
Unfortunately a seventh goblin goon was lingering unnoticed by the doorway just to my left and as I entered he immediately brought a long machete looking blade up close to my throat to halt my advance – it worked. “Hey... 'ere's 'nother un!” He said in a surprisingly high pitched and excitable voice. I raised my hands slightly forward and out, to show that I was not about to reach for anything and slowly turned my head to face him. I gave him a stone cold stare and tried to think of some witty, dead-pan quip to say...
“Thanks...” I said, doing my best 'Dirty Harry' Callahan impersonation, “but I've had a shave today.” It was the best I could come up with on the spur of the moment.
“Well, well, well...” said the biggest of the miscreant bunch. “Anover 'ooded stranger come in from the cold.” He was the nearest to Arranwen and appeared to be their leader. It was he that possessed the loud and aggressive voice I had heard outside. “Who's this then, truth seeker?!” He said, addressing Arranwen and waving what looked like her plasma-gun rather wildly at me and then back at her. “Is 'e y're body guard?!” He said sarcastically.
“Who, him?” Arranwen slowly looked back at me. “Oh, no...” She said in a surprisingly cool and clear voice – apparently totally unfazed, “... he's my executioner. He dispatched those two black-shucks you had guard the trail like... that!” She clicked her fingers loudly, timed with her last word, for added impact. What's she playing at? I wondered.
Suddenly all black eyes in the room were very intent on me. I was really hoping that her apparent blasé attitude was an indication that she had some sort of plan to get us out of this so I decided to go on with her little ruse. I still had the collar in my right hand so I raised it slightly and let the buckled end drop down and dangle there. I jangled it a little too, for good measure.
“Y-you executed Bumfluff 'n' Snot-rag?!” Said the clearly upset goblin beside me.
“Shut it, Alrik!” Shouted the boss.
“Split both their skulls in two.” I announced loudly with a grim grin – and still channelling 'Dirty Harry'.
“Is 'e from the seminin... the semininary too?” Shouted the big goblin to Arranwen, trying to stamp his authority back on the room despite stumbling over his words. He was clearly suddenly very interested in me.
“The seminary? Why yes – he is.” she replied.
“Alrik, pull 'is 'ood back...” he said to the goblin by my side, “'n pull y'self together y' snivellin' little shit!”
Alrik did as he was told and let out an audible gasp as he revealed my face to the light of the room. “It's 'im, gaffer... 'e's the one we come for!” he said excitedly – inadvertently letting the blade at my throat lower slightly.
The boss gave a hideously grim grin of his own. “Well it looks like we've been saved a trip boys... the object of 'r little hunt'n' party 'as come t' us.”
I didn't like the sound of that at all – my alert level was fast approaching brown – and knew that the time to act had come. Arranwen clearly thought so too, for – while he was intent on me – she grabbed the big goblin's wrist with one hand and pushed the plasma-gun away and out of his grasp with the other... in one quick fluid movement she broke his finger, reclaimed her gun, flicked the switch to overkill and discharged a plasma ball right into his chest – where it hung briefly and burned a charred cavity the size of a foot-ball before fizzing out.
Before the oaf's body hit the floor I took a small, quick step back, then as fast as I could span right round a full 360 degrees, whipping Alrik hard across the back of the head with the buckle end of the collar – slashing his ear and cheek and flicking his dark blood across the room – before loosing the collar and sending it flying at the face of the next nearest goblin on my right. Before Alrik could react in any meaningful way my sword was in hand, pulled from its sheath on my back, and I brought it sweeping over my head and down to the ground – slicing right through his arm. His massive machete like blade, with the lover half of his sinewy arm still grasping it, fell to the floor with a heavy clatter and thud. A dark arch of goblin blood spewed from the remaining stump as Alrik squawked in agony and collapsed to the floor in shock.
The next nearest goblin was already charging me – rather recklessly I have to say – with a curved scimitar high above his head and screaming “Aaaaargh!”
I, or more specifically my sword, was still low to the ground with the follow through from my swipe at Alrik. Staying low I took a long step toward the oncoming goblin, hopefully bringing me too close too soon for him to make an effective attack with his raised sword, and slashed my blade diagonally up and across his trajectory as I went. The fool ran right into it. The mercilessly sharp sword, which I held firmly in both hands, sliced entirely through the top of his right thigh and then lodged deep into where his groin met the left. I braced as the goblin crashed into me, ducking my shoulder into his stomach I used his forward momentum to flip his not inconsiderable frame – well, most of it anyway, it was minus a right leg – up and over me. The manoeuvre wrenched the sword from my grasp and sprayed a spectacular shower of blood – like a short lived but particularly gruesome Catherine-wheel – in front, above, then behind me. The impact of his body set the floorboards briefly a-tremor and small plumes of dust rose from between them.
I straightened and quickly grabbed my plasma-gun and drew it, flicking the switch to overkill, then surveyed the room for the nearest threat. Arranwen had already shot three of the goblins, including their bulky leader – that left two. They were both standing stock-still, an expression of shock on each of their faces. There was something odd going on with those two. Both Arranwen and I stared at them with plasma-guns raised and aimed but not quite sure what to make of it. Their throats had apparently been cut but they just stood there... with a kind of shimmering haze aura about them – it slowly dawned on me that they were being held up. Suddenly, and simultaneously, the two goblins fell forward, face first onto the floor – both quite dead – but the weird, body shaped auras remained standing. The room was heavy with the sickening smell of coppery blood and charred flesh and I suddenly became conscious of my thumping heart. It made me wonder if its beating had paused during the brief but intense period of combat.
I stared aghast as each of the barely perceptible auras split apart like two rents in the very fabric of space and time... then it suddenly clicked that in fact it was two figures cloaked and hooded in some sort of light bending material that effectively made them as good as invisible when entirely enveloped in it. The invisibility cloaks were opening to reveal two people, one a very pale skinned woman, the other a very dark skinned man – both wearing military style, armoured battle dress covered in the same mottled camouflage as the two equinoids we'd seen earlier. Arranwen lowered her pulse-gun. “Thank the gods!” She said. Then added, “Stand down Kane, they're Rangers.” I slowly lowered my weapon and, realising I was gawping, closed my mouth.
The man seemed nothing out of the ordinary, a black-man of African descent – or whatever this world's equivalent of that is – he was youngish looking, but his very short cropped hair was greying slightly at his temples and in his goatee. The woman though... she was anything but ordinary. Her pale skin had an iridescent, mother-of-pearl cast and she had large, almond shaped eyes with strange, oversized, cat-like pupils. Her hair, styled in a kind of boyish pixie cut, was silvery white and her ears tapered ever so slightly into points at the top. Oh, my God! I thought. She's an elf – she's GOT to be?! I knew it'd only a matter of time before one showed up. Then she spoke.
“I'm Warlock Swansong and this is Ranger Katto, and before anyone asks...” she said this with a look directly at me, “... yes, I am an elf. An Atlantean elf to be precise – what most commonly refer to as a sea-elf.” She spoke with an air of absolute authority and not a little contempt, there was a tinge of sarcasm in her voice but a frisson of both interest and amusement in her eyes. She continued looking at me and her attention made me feel a little anxious. Somewhat preposterously, I couldn't help but think that she was trying to read my mind... but then, how preposterous was it? I had to admit, she probably was reading my mind, she seemed to know that I suspected she was an elf and, after-all, her reading my mind wouldn't even be the second most extraordinary thing to have happened to me that day.
I was relieved when her gaze finally left me and fell on Arranwen. The elf woman said, “We've been investigating reports that at least one band of Boggart goblins, from the Rheged hills to the north west, have gone orc and are carrying out thieving and pillaging raids deep into neighbouring territories... apparently even here, behind the so-called Great Wall. These,” she indicated the room full of slaughtered goblins, “must be them. We've had seventy years of relative peace and we're letting our guard down. The wall hasn't been maintained or repaired in fifty years. It hasn't been manned in any meaningful way for thirty. Our northern shires are ripe for the picking... especially in these uncertain times. We can't let some of our more unsavoury and unsophisticated neighbours think that they might have free reign in any of our Sovereign Commonwealth Territories... especially not THIS far inside our borders.”
“Well, apparently THEY were HERE to kill ME!” I excitedly stated a little too loudly.
“Or capture you?” interjected Arranwen. “ Maybe they just wanted to capture you! That goblin said that you're the one that they'd come for. He didn't say anything about killing you.”
“I know those black-shuck things weren't trying to capture me!” I said as Ranger Katto started to check the goblins over and search through their stuff. I had the horrible thought that maybe in some quarters I'm WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE! For the moment my overexcited ego chose to forget the little detail that one of the beasts had been heading for Arranwen.
“Who ARE you?” The Atlantean elf was looking directly at me again. “And what did THEY want with YOU?”
Her unnerving voice insinuated itself into my mind and demanded that I answer her truthfully, but all I could say was, “I... I don't know...” Her eyes scrutinised mine, as if trying to dig the answers right out of me. “... and that's the answer to both your questions.” I said belligerently. “I've lost my memory – I have no idea why a band of goblins would be after me. Not only do I not even know who I am, I don't even know where I am or when I am. I am at an entire loss as to...” I waved my hand at the bloody mess of goblin corpses and severed limbs “– THIS situation!”
“Er, excuse me.” The landlord behind the bar meekly interjected, raising a trembling hand. “I'm sorry to interrupt... but is someone going to do something about this...” he pointed to the body littered and blood spattered entrance to his inn, “... er... mess?”
“I'm sorry, sir.” said Arranwen, “But this is a crime scene now... it may be some time before you can... clear things up.”
“Head's up, people!” The ranger suddenly shouted as he bent over one of the goblins, “This one's alive! Unconscious, but alive. Maybe he'll be able to tell us what they wanted with our sword wielding friend here.”
It was the one called Alrik, though he must have lost a great deal of blood. Strangely, the knowledge that he survived suddenly filled me with a hideous sense of remorse and anguish at what I'd done – even if it was in self defence. I'd actually killed someone and left another grievously injured... and at the time didn't even think twice about doing it.
“Call it in Ranger.” Said the elf. “And get an Incident Team and an emergency Medivac over here ASAP.”
“Yes, Ma'am!” He said, pulling out a small hand-held device. “Ranger Station Gretchen One Five, this is Unit Artemis Three Nine. Ranger Station Gretchen One Five, this is Unit Artemis Three Nine. Target contact at Grey Wayfarer's Inn, Sector Twelve Seven. Target contact at Grey Wayfarer's Inn, Sector Twelve Seven. Threat neutralised. I repeat, threat neutralised. Request immediate Incident Team and Emergency Medivac for one bogie. I repeat, request immediate Incident Team and Emergency Medivac for one bogie.”
While the ranger continued to exchange extremely well annunciated military gobbledygook with his base – which seemed, rather annoyingly, to involve saying everything twice – Arranwen spoke out.
“Shouldn't there be a Watchman stationed here?” She said. “Does anyone know where he might be?”
Warlock Swansong announced “He was here when we arrived a couple of hours ago. He went out to do his patrol not long after... and about ten minutes before the goblins burst in threatening violence and demanding beer and food. We'd been looking for a trace of them for days and they just walked right into where we stopped for dinner – what are the chances of that? We were in the stalls at the back and went immediately covert – they didn't even know we were there – but I haven't seen the Watchman since.”
The landlord piped up, “D'ya think they killed 'im?” He was clearly concerned.
“I'll go out and look around for him.” Said the elf, heading for the door.
To which Arranwen replied, “But it's pitch black out there... I think they took out all the lights.”
The words “I'll be fine... I've got night-vision” drifted back as she left. I couldn't help but wonder if that meant elves could see in the dark or that she had some form of high-tech military goggles. I supposed either was possible but I wasn't going to embarrass myself by asking either Arranwen or the Ranger Katto – who was now busily tying a tourniquet round Alrik's arm – which it was. I went and sat on a stool at the bar, close to where its middle-aged proprietor stood. I looked at my hands. They were shaking slightly and covered in blood.
The landlord put a shot-glass in front of me. “Here,” he said filling it to the brim with a golden brown liquor. “You look like you need it.”
I downed it in one. It burned like a mother-fucker all the way down, but once it was home I felt a warm invigorating glow emanate throughout my body. “Wow!” I said with a slight cough. “Packs a punch, don't it?”
He smiled. “Its the best little pick-me-up this side o' the wall.”
“This probably seems like a strange question, but... have you seen me before?” I asked as Arranwen joined us at the bar. “Like, maybe, three or four days ago?”
“No, son.” He shook his head. “I think I'd remember you.”
“He wasn't wearing these clothes,” added Arranwen, “and his hair and beard was longer... more unkempt.”
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I'm pretty sure – I haven't seen either of you two before.”
Arranwen persisted. “Did you have any strangers come through here about then. Maybe leaving early on the morning of the seventh?”
“On the seventh?” He appeared to rack his brains for a few seconds. “Y-know, we did have three fellas come in on the night of the sixth. They each bought food an' a bed for the night. Didn't see 'em leave, they must have gone before dawn on the seventh. Very unsavoury lookin' they were.”
“Unsavoury?” I said. “In what way?”
“They were traveller types. Vagabonds. Very rough an' ready, if you know what I mean. One of 'em had a mighty ol' scar running down the left side of 'is face, went straight through 'is eye – which was all milky white an' nasty lookin'.” He shuddered as if to emphasise how nasty looking it was.
“Do you know where they were travelling?” Asked Arranwen. “Or, in which direction they were going?”
“No idea.” He said. “I think they were some sort of cultists though. Y-know, all beads an' amulets, shaved heads an' strange tattoos. Not ya usual religious pilgrim types, mind – like I said – these were very rough an' ready looking. It was all very odd, come to think of it.”
“Odd.” I let out a short, hollow laugh. “That about sums up my life at the moment.”
“You said they bought beds and food.” Arranwen questioned further. “How did they pay?”
“Not with credits, if that's what your thinking. They each paid with gold coin... though they weren't Umbrian. They were from some-other commonwealth.”
“The coins. Do you still have them here?”
“Sure do.” He said, bending down and rummaging under the bar. “Don't get coins often these days, most people pay with credits.” I could hear some kind of lock-box being opened. “But not this bunch...” he stood then spilled six identical gold coins on the bar-top, “... 'ere ya go.”
Arranwen picked one up and looked at it very closely. “Humph... ” she mumbled under her breath, “... they're from Rheged.”
Just at that moment the sea-elf returned. She helped a young Watchman – who was nursing a bloodied head – through the doorway and to the nearest table where she sat him down. Through the open doorway I could see bright flood-lights and an approaching commotion.
“Looks like the Incident Team has arrived.” Said Arranwen. “I better go and see what's what.” She put the coin down and headed for the door.
I remained sitting, pulled out my pipe and prepared it for lighting, then looked the landlord squarely and earnestly in the face.
“I think this is going to be a long night.” I said. “So, please tell me you have some hot food on offer?”
Chapter Six will be available soon.
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