She sits on a silver throne drenched in moonlight, wearing shadows as thick and supple as a velvet robe. Opaline eyes that see much and share little scowl down from her place of solitude. A hushed breeze scrapes dry leaves on stone, like knuckle bones cast for divination.
The Pale Queen waits, as patient as a sphinx; wisdom in her stillness, danger in her silence. Hair, straight and dark, entwined with living ivy, sways softly. The spell is broken.
Light, distant and terrible as a quasar, flares in the depths of her eyes. The corners of rose petal lips lift in mirth.
“What do you offer?” says this figure of light born from dark.
A kneeling man lifts his head, seeing her fully for the first time. “Myself,” he says, “my heart and mind and spirit refined by the journey.”
Red lips part to reveal white teeth; teeth for ripping and tearing. “Is this not what all bring? A gift would show proper respect.”
“As well as my arrogance.” His eyes, nearly as dark as hers are bright, flinch at the depth sensed within. “For one of timeless beauty I shall not offer any semblance of permanence, nor any object of mortal value. I bring all that I am; nothing more, nothing less.”
“Freely offered? Your destiny is mine for the taking?”
A chill of aeons compresses down on the man, turning his breath to vapour, like that of a spectre summoned.
“It is, Lady.”
Fingernails of scarab beetle shine clack on the throne armrest. “All men think themselves clever. Rise. Come closer so I may have a look at your sincerity.”
He stands, the oppressive cold vanishing. Steady and sure he steps nearer two paces, to the edge of the ghostly moonlight.
“Your heart,” says the Pale Queen, “belongs to me.”
“Warm and bloody, if that is your desire.”
“Your mind, belongs to me.”
“May it serve you well.”
“Your spirit,” she raises her hand toward him, comfortingly, hungrily. “This is not something you can give. Not unless you are a thief or a fool.”
Her arm drops, sucking the wind from his lungs. Fear, insidious as animal instinct creeps into his awareness, urging for action.
She looks into him, her gaze carving and calculating. “What do you ask of me?”
Courage alights, scattering his fear like unseen bats in a cave. He steps into the circle of light.
* * *
Seren walked alone down a narrow forest path with the sun sinking quickly behind him. The birds went quiet and the wind carried pure through the trees. The sweetness of that wind brought with it a scent of unwashed flesh and soiled clothing. He stopped, waiting for the ambush.
“You’re a sly one,” said a rough-looking man stepping onto the path. “Be a smart lad and hand over what valuables you’ve got.”
Seren appraised the thug’s weapon; a long, rectangular hunk of metal with a single edge for hacking. The would-be robber was thick in the arms and shoulders with a bulging gut.
Seren withdrew a notebook from an interior pocket, slick as card trick sleight of hand. “This is my most valuable item.”
“What is it?”
“Words, my grubby friend.” He waived the notebook back and forth then made it vanish. “Magic.”
“Can’t buy whores or drink with words,” the robber said, resting a fist on the side of his gut. “And I got no use for parlour tricks.”
A strong man, but not one for stamina. Dim-witted as well. But there’d be others, if this outfit was halfway decent, crouched and waiting behind and on either side.
“I don’t have much money,” said Seren. “Nothing worth working up a sweat over. I’d hate for you to exert yourself for no reason.”
The thug’s hand went to the handle of his weapon. From behind, Seren heard the pad of a person trying to move quietly but not quite practiced in the step.
“Tell you what,” said Seren, “how about you and your comrade join me at the tavern? The next town isn’t far and you can regale me with tales of being a brigand. I’ll pay for the drinks. Then we go our separate ways, each a better man than when we entered.”
“We get a few drinks and you get to live, eh?”
“As well as the added benefit of hearing your stories.” Seren shrugged. “If something in them shines right, then you might have a chance at immortality.”
Seren snapped his fingers and a pencil appeared. He gave a sweeping bow, spying a bowman in the shrubbery on the left-hand side. “I humbly request that you indulge my bardic sensibilities.”
“I’d rather just have the money.”
Seren sighed. “Uninspiringly pragmatic.”
He reached into a pocket, replacing the pencil with a small bag and tossed it over. The coins touched the path with a soft, metallic thunk.
“Huh,” grunted the thug. “You’re a coward.”
“This isn’t for my benefit. Now please take the money and go. I’ve been walking all day and am very much looking forward to seeing what happens in that tavern tonight.”
“A man who gives his money away so easily must have more.”
“Money is but a tool, and a much sharper one than you, apparently.”
The thug withdrew his dull grey steel, nodding to the bowman in the bush. Seren whistled, sending up a violent whirl of leaves moving swiftly towards the bowman. There came the throaty growl of a big cat then a man’s panicked scream. Seren spun, a flash of silver in hand.
His attacker dropped a metal studded club, hands raised to shield his eyes against the blinding light. Seren pivoted back to the lead-thug, his weapon slicing clean through the other’s heavy steel. He closed the distance in a blur, tight against the robber’s bulk, the tip of his sharpened pencil pressing into the softness beneath the other’s neck.
“You’re lucky I’ve recently changed my ways,” said Seren. “Your life is a story, remember this.”
Seren palmed his pencil, patting the stunned ruffian on the shoulder and stepped past. He scooped up his bag of money in stride. A large feline form prowled at his side before disintegrating into a thousand pieces and dispersing on the wind.
* * *
Warmth, wine, and the smile of a woman; Seren basked in it all. His long legs stretched out, weary feet pointing towards the fire, smiling as the waitress delivered his second cup of wine.
“Excuse me, Miss. Have you noticed any unknown or unsavoury characters in here lately?”
“Other than yourself?”
“Has the road been that hard on me?”
She pointed to his hand gripping the cup. Seren noticed a few flecks of dried blood on his fingers.
“It’s not mine.”
“That’s the problem,” she said.
“Would you believe me if I said I was a painter? No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” Seren raised a finger in seriousness. “My line of work does get a bit messy at times, but I assure you it is worth the risk.”
“Oh, and what is that?”
She laughed, light and easy, with only a touch of rudeness.
“Collecting stories and squeezing their essence is trickier than it seems.” He sipped at the wine. “In these times it’s not all firelight and caressing. Not anymore.”
“True enough.” She leaned in conspiratorially. “Rumour is the bog folk are mobilizing; nobody knows why.” She shivered at the thought. “Half animal they are. Drink your blood as soon as look at you.”
Seren’s eyes drifted to the twisting flames inside the hearth. “The plane of the Wild Beast grows quiet, in shadow, low and backed into a corner. Great nature senses an unknown danger and doesn’t know whether to bolt or strike.”
A silence of words unrealized filled the space between them. Seren set down his wine and wiggled his bloodstained fingers. “Which way to the washroom?”
Hands clean, Seren heard the unmistakeable vibration of a god’s voice. He splashed water on his face, rubbing some feeling into his cheeks.
“Here we go.”
Exiting the washroom for the short hallway leading to the common room, Seren found a spot to lean against a doorframe and watch the scene unfold. The gravity of the tavern interior was now dominated by a being of power incarnate. Head of a wild boar with curving tusks, body and arms of a well-muscled man, tree trunk thick legs ending in cloven hooves. The tips of hairy pointed ears twitched against the ceiling.
“Turog is willing to extend protection beyond the swamplands,” said the massive god.
A whir of beating wings pounded against the inside of Seren’s chest. His temples buzzing with hive intensity. The vibration of a god’s words always produced physical effects in a human.
“Turog, powerful and tenacious, shall bestow blessings on the worthy.”
“What kind of blessings?” questioned a large, inebriated man.
Turog spread his arms wide, rippling the air. Energy contained, potent as fire or earth, pulsed out of his form. “Weapons made of tusk inscribed with runes. Senses heightened to transcend your weak physical forms. Strength. All of this I make available in return for your service.”
“We ain’t no nasty bog folk,” said the drunk, slamming his mug on the tabletop.
“Little one,” said Turog, “you are but a pile of flesh and bone. With my blessing you may become more than you are.”
“Part of you becomes part of us,” said the waitress. “At the expense of part of us becoming part of you.”
Turog nodded his mighty head. “This is the way.”
Murmuring broke out amongst those within the tavern. Fear and opportunity vying for control.
Seren pushed off the wall, striding into the room. “Why do these people require your protection?”
Turog’s black, beady eyes stared down his snout. “The Never-Was approaches.”
Several people gasped. The drunk slammed his mug again. “Superstition!”
“Dark-eyed one,” said Turog, “you are already in service. A scent I don’t recognize.”
“You can’t protect these people, Turog. You seek their strength to quell your own rising fear.”
Turog snorted, rattling the beams. “Impudent cretin! Who speaks through you?”
“My words are my own. I humbly ask that you leave. No good will come of pursuing this end.”
“Threaten Turog!” The god’s bellow set the tavern shaking. Many patrons grimaced while covering their ears. “You and I will settle this outside. All may see my power then make their choice.”
Turog stomped out, having to duck and twist sideways to squeeze through the door. Seren walked slowly to the table and drank his remaining wine. He set the cup down, an act of ominous normalcy in the vacuum left by the god’s wake. He caught the wide eyes of the waitress.
“I told you my work can get tricky.”
Seren patted the notebook inside a pocket of his long all-weather coat and stepped outside to battle an angry god.
Turog stood ready, hands balled into fists as large as a man’s chest. Seren approached casually; tavern patrons streaming out behind him to watch the show.
“Renounce your god and I will spare your life,” said Turog.
Seren set his feet, right hand sliding to a pommel wrapped in dried flowers, stems and all, at his hip. A simple leather scabbard indicated his weapon to be a long knife. A chill wind gusted past, swaying summer grass in the lamplight. Turog roared, vibrating the light itself, unsteadying many of those watching. Seren remained still.
Giant hooves ripped the turf as Turog advanced like an avalanche. Men shouted and women screamed. The pulse of each step hit Seren in his core; feeling the rhythm for the instant of perfect timing. His weapon sang free in a glittering arc. Seren glided past Turog’s onrush. The god slowed, stumbling, a spread palm pressed to its gut. Golden liquid dripped to stain green grass, vibrant as the substance of a congealed star.
“How?” Turog stared at his wound in confusion.
More of the god’s blood streaked Seren’s weapon; a wide, serrated feather with a pointed tip, silver as a freshly minted coin. Turog turned and Seren was upon him, slashing and stabbing. The god collapsed with the crash of mountainside letting go. Deathly quiet was punctuated by Seren’s panting as he stood over Turog.
“The Never-Was,” said Seren, “where will it emerge?”
“Everywhere,” gasped Turog. “Not long now.”
Seren placed a hand on the dying god’s chest. “Rest, oh weary spirit, sink into dreams of simple joys, fade from the physical, trust in the earth.”
Turog’s black eyes closed.
Seren wiped his blade on the grass before returning it to its scabbard. He turned to the awestruck crowd, sensing their questions, their fear.
“Hurry!” shouted the drunk who’d questioned Turog. “Get buckets, cups, thimbles! Anything that can hold the god’s blood!”
“Stop,” said Seren. “There will be no coveting of this being’s power. He shall pass in peace.”
“Screw you, stranger!” Angry shouts went up from more than a few. “Get out of the way before it’s too late!”
Seren whistled, sending up a storm of debris. A lion made of leaves, sticks, and stones appeared. The changeling slunk around to sit in front of Turog’s body. Seated, the lion’s head reached to Seren’s shoulder.
“My friend will stand guard until Turog moves on. Test him at your own peril.”
Seren turned his back on the crowd, stalking away into the night. A man can change his ways, but putting intention into practice was proving difficult. Seren quickened his pace.
He was running out of time.