Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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Six Thegn Quean

Episode Three

by David Ulnar-Slew




DEDICATION

This is for my sister. We have been through a lot together. She was there for me when I needed her.

Thanks, S.D.



Basic Training

The only member of the coterie of northern women who had the patience, skill, time, and an actual speaking voice to train the villagers was quiet little Katlyn. Naomi was planning with the town elders. Grenda was busy teaching some of the older men and women herb-craft, for healing and poisoning, for when the time came. The other three were readying themselves to leave on the scout mission. Those three would not have made good trainers anyway. So it left the most unobtrusive and demure of the women to attempt to bring some of the younger villagers up to speed on fighting technique.

A mishmash of men and women stood in the town square making chitchat and milling about. She tried to clear her throat to raise their attention. It didn't work for her like it did for Naomi and Grenda. She never really practiced bringing attention to herself. Her fate was to go unnoticed; if anything, she had perfected that. When it was time for her to fight, people usually died before they realized she was a combatant. She could fight, no doubt, but she always found it easier to throw a blade from afar or put one in a back. This was working against her now, as the villagers took no notice.

"Excuse me, please," she squeaked into the uproar created by the socialization. "Please, we need to start."

She felt someone approaching behind her and whipped around in time to see Warrant Officer Poke storm by her. "Let me help ya, miss. Perhaps you can show them some blade things, but I can show them soldiering, which is a bit more than fighting and cutting."

He stormed to the edge of the crowd and bellowed in a voice that felt like a blunt instrument, "All right, you nose-picking, sheep-humping dimwits, get in line and listen up or I'll have my boot in your arse so far you'll have the name of my cobbler on your lips."

The crowd silenced and scrambled to get in some semblance of a line while he continued to scream in a bass voice, which seemed a talent all its own. "Move it. Move it. Move it. Stop jerking me around or I'm gonna cut someone."

They formed two rather straight, even lines eventually. "This here is Miss Katlyn. She is going to show you vomit-stains how to not die when you fight. She was picked because she knows how to kill from a bit of a distance and kill without drawing attention. This is a good thing, because you dimwitted cripples would all die fighting schoolchildren with sticks where I come from. Now, she speaks softly compared to me, so I will help her out by coming really close and repeating her words to anyone I thinks didn't hear them well enough. I suggest you listen, because if I have to do this I will be put out and inclined to yell much louder than this, my normal conversational tone. So I will turn it over to her, but when she asks you a question you will all sound off with this answer 'Aye Ma'am' after she finishes. If'n I actually take the time to speak to ya, you best give me an 'Aye, warrant officer' or else I am gonna take me nose picking finger," at this he raised his pointer, "and I will ram it through your eye and touch yer brain." He paused for a moment. "Do you all understand me?"

Every last voice from every last mouth shouted "Aye, warrant officer," at the top of their lungs.

"Well, lass, they is all yers."

Katlyn was gobsmacked. She had seen male warriors bellow. She had seen her Naomi or Grenda command attention of people, but had never seen the like of what had just happened. It was near supernatural. "Umm... thank you."

"We will start with blade work. Could anyone who has any blade experience at all step forward?"

They all sounded off. "Aye, ma'am." Two stepped forward, men, probably hunters by the look of them.

"Which of you thinks they are good enough with a blade to score a hit on me?"

The larger man looked at his friend, shrugged and stepped forward. "Ma'am, no offense, but no one I have ever tussled with has ever so much as bruised me, and once I got a bullheaded soldier in a bar and cut him so bad he might have died if a healer wasn't nearby. I think perhaps I shouldn't be going after a girl."

She smiled a smile that should have been pleasant, but had something predatory about it enough that the warrant officer looked away in discomfort. Perhaps he knew a killer's grin all too well and responded appropriately. The young hunter seemed much more ignorant of the forthcoming threat. "Good, then, I have here two knives, mostly dull, covered in red clay along the edges. It will stain whatever it touches red, symbolizing blood. I will toss one to you handle first. Catch it and come kill me. I will remain still until you are upon me and coming for a cut." Her childlike voice in a hushed tone made the statement all the more macabre. She threw the blade to him hilt first. He caught it well and took a moment to consider its weight. Then he charged.

He had obviously decided to try to show the girl she was mistaken for using him as the example. He came hard and fast in a thrust that would probably break ribs and could puncture despite the dulled edges.

She was a blur. His blade slipped past as she twirled out of the way, sending her unencumbered hand up to smash his nose into his face. Then she turned full circle and slashed twice across the back of his neck and stabbed twice, over where the left lung and heart would be.

He fell to his knees. "You broke my nose, crazy bitch. That was just trickery. You hit me and stabbed me behind. That isn't how to fight."

"First of all, the how of fighting is limited to the quick and the dead; you are one or the other. Secondly, I did the blows to your back so the others can start learning the correct swipe and puncture placements for severing the spine and hitting heart and lungs by puncture. You were dead theoretically long before then. Stand up." He did, holding his free hand over his nose. There was a red line across his throat, three puncture dots in his chest, and one across his groin.

The other villagers gasped in awe. "What?" He looked down at himself and wiped his hand across his throat when the old officer made a sympathetic gesture cueing him to check his neck. The back of his hand returned with clay. "No one moves that fast."

"You better hope you are wrong once again if you hope to live through the hordes coming." She winked at him. "Now please return to the line."

He looked as if he had something to say, but the countenance of the warrant officer staring at him reminded him better. "Aye, ma'am." He found his place in line.

"Very good. Let's learn how to not die, then I will teach you to kill. It is to be hoped that while we accomplish this the warrant officer could assist me by teaching the lot of you not to piss and shit your pants when the horde comes thundering down on us. It is very distracting to the martial process to be befouled when killing."

The old man chuckled audibly. "Yes, ma'am, I would be glad to help. I think perhaps we would make a good team."

"Wonderful. Let's begin."

Take a Walk to Take a Gander

The scouting party decided to go by foot. Cammi was never big on riding, and there was nothing that would carry Raz. The twins despised riding, and Snigin could go either way, but preferred to be in solidarity with the twins in all things lately. The three of them were inseparable. The girls had truly made a pet of him, and he enjoyed every minute of it, so it seemed.

They went out two days after the fight in the forest with the Eoten. They made good time and distance, as they were all seasoned travelers. They were three leagues away by midday. The big Ogrim could have covered more ground on his own, with his large steps and superior stamina. It did occur to him, though, that it seemed the twins were holding back, even for him. They were relentless and untiring. The two often sprinted ahead over a kilometer just for fun and to have a look around only to run back to be with the group for a bit. They were perhaps as much an anomaly as he was. When they returned to the village he must learn more about them and their past from Naomi. Something about them reeked of the southern makers and they were obviously not native Thegn or mid-kingdom born.

Cammi saw him thinking and touched his shoulder. "What are your thoughts, Raz?"

"I was considering just how deadly a group we travel with, is all. Woe be anyone who crosses this little band. Especially those two, I think."

"Aye, luv, the girls are rather inflexible when it comes to threats. I think I could make them stop, and Snigin could probably pause them, as they fancy him. Without Naomi or Grenda though, it would be best if no one put them in a position to retaliate. They have a tendency to not be able to stop after a certain point.

"When there is a large battle, there is an elixir that Grenda brews that makes the unguent amplified. She will probably brew it for the time that the horde comes. When that happens, the only place to be is behind them or at their feet. They are a force of nature, even to me."

"Hmm. Also, we are followed."

"Yes, when the wind is right, I smell him as well, though I see him nowhere. I seem to be more ogress each day I spend with you."

"It is biological. It has to do with the science of pheromones. They are smells we put off to each other. I have been meaning to speak to you about that. You will be having some changes now that you are exposed to me. My smells will make things take root that are dormant in you. I cannot think of a delicate way to explain this..."

"Spit it out, then."

"You will be sexually maturing, at least the Ogrim parts of you. This will cause some changes. You will be more Ogrim. It may have never happened if we had not met, but now, that die is cast. You will be getting a little bigger and stronger, a bit more coloring. Some senses will be a bit sharper."

"I thought so. The clothes are a bit tight and my skin is getting a bit grapey."

"You disapprove?"

"Nay. I have never fit in, due to size and such. I have you, now. It will do."

"How quaintly romantic, woman!"

She smiled at him. "Do ogresses fawn over their men? Should there be flowers and poetry?"

The two both caught Snigin behind them smirking at their conversation. Cammi turned toward him. "You are judging the oddities of our relationship, bandit?" He had the good taste to blush.

They saw the girls running back. There was blood on them. It must have happened quickly, as they were clothed. They fired off hand-speak, and Snigin struggled to keep up. His skills had surpassed Cammi, as he was a captive audience for the twins now. Eve put her hands down and let Lilith explain. Snigin translated.

"Six bandits. Three in the road. Two in trees to either side. One sneaking up behind. The girls were far enough that the bandits thought they were alone. She says they were morons; why would two girls be alone on the road south. They are all dead. It was messy. They have salvageable gear on them, and a camp off the road, which would be good for the night. She says 'Fortune smiles' and they claim first dibs on the gear." Lilith and Eve both smiled and fawned on Snigin for a moment, proud of his progress with hand-speak.

Raz started forward again. "Well, then, let's go and see what fortune has brought us." He surprised everyone by signing to the twins 'Bodies?'

Eve signed back. 'Dragged into woods, will burn.' Raz nodded.

Snigin and Cammi just shook their heads. It seemed that they both should have realized the intelligent Ogrim would both take an interest and acquire the hand-speak if it was continually used in his presence. It made sense the better you knew him. He was an intellectual; it was just hard to remember because he was the size of a hut.

They walked another kilometer and a half. The signs of the battle were evident; the bandits had horrible tactics. They were probably more common thugs, who were filling the void left by the horde's passing and absorbing the more adept highwaymen. They had paid the price for playing out of their league. They were stacked like cordwood about a hundred feet off the road.

'The camp on this side?' Raz signed. Eve shot back 'Yes.'

'Move the bodies, other side of road, far in, two hundred feet, at least.'

Before he had finished, the twins had grabbed head and feet on the top corpse and headed off in that direction, not even needing to show agreement, just recognizing good logic. Raz threw one over each shoulder and Cammi likewise. Snigin, not wanting to look inferior by too much of a margin, threw the last across both of his shoulders and they headed to the other side of the road.

They finished tossing the bodies in a small gully they found and returned to the camp that was left. A fire and some lean-to shelters. They had stripped the bodies. The weapons were not worth taking, other than a dagger or two, because you can never have enough knives secreted on you, right? The food was poor, but saved breaking into their rations. It was better than sleeping on the road or just under the stars. It was also better than having to commit the effort of building their own shelters, so no one complained.

Snigin spoke up first. "We should sleep. Seems safe enough. No one sneaks up on the girls anyway. Right ladies?" The twins seemed to smile demurely at him. That was disconcerting to anyone that had spent time around them.

Raz looked at Cammi. She nodded. "Tell them."

Raz sighed. "I think the Eoten is following us." The twins sprang into fighting crouches and tilted their noses in the air. Both girls ears were twitching, straining to pick up any extra sound. "No, girls. They are adept at being quiet and unseen. Also, he is staying well back. We can smell him when the wind is right; it isn't pleasant. Those damn things live in caves and don't cook their meat or bathe." The girls looked slightly disappointed.

Snigin perked up a bit. "Would he have any idea what the girls are capable of?"

The Ogrim shook his big head. "Doubtful. I have never seen the like of them, so he probably hasn't either."

The bandit smiled playfully, "Then let them hunt!" The girls chirped and squeaked. Lilith clapped her hands and Eve made a begging gesture with her folded hands.

Raz nodded. "They are their own beings. I need sleep. If he is dodging them he can't bother me. Have at him if you can find him."

They were gone before he finished.

Cammi pouted solemnly. "My poor sisters are putting themselves in danger, and you would let them?" She punched the purple behemoth in the arm.

"Poor sisters? Like as not, poor Eoten!"

And What to My Four Eyes Doth Appear

Kre had grabbed a deer that was passing the rock pile he laid behind. He was covered in forest mud and more silent than a thing his size should be. Eoten were big and strong, but nothing served them more faithfully than their skills at camouflage. It was surreal how well they blended. What was not generally known outside their tribes was that their skin faded to colors around them in hue. None discussed this, as it was forbidden religiously to ever be seen as any color but red by an outsider.

He tore the deer apart with two mouths simultaneously as he held it up to his faces. He had stopped well back from the interlopers' site, then skulked until he saw where they were planning on resting. He then went back a kilometer and prepared to settle in for the night. The deer was a bit of luck. He hated to go to sleep hungry. Then again, he hated everything about everything. He even hated him. Which hated which was irrelevant. They hated each other. The only time they weren't actively loathing each other was when they had someone else to fixate on. The only thing that united them enough to follow these intruders was the fear that somehow they knew, and were going there to get it.

He smelled something pungent on the air. It wasn't natural; it seemed made. Animal, but mixed, and aromatic like flowers, too. He looked around but saw nothing. Then the forest sprang to life and the women sprang forth with growls.

They were so fast, and on him quickly, cutting. He flailed at them and knocked the lead one into a tree. Not only did that do nothing to deter the remaining attacker, but the discarded one immediately sprang back up and ran back over. His skin was tough, but their blades were cutting everywhere. He reached out desperately and luckily caught both by the necks. It was a once in a lifetime maneuver born of equal parts luck and desperation. They struggled, cutting at his arms despite the obvious advantage he had. He gave them a shake each, but stopped short of snapping a neck. The brute force of it dislodged their weapons and jostled them properly enough that they settled, if only to let brains settle in skulls.

"Look, Kre."

"What now?"

"They are Shen, are they not?"

"Shen, here? Why would Shen be here? This is heathen land. Too far, too cold."

"Shen, I tell you. They came for it. Kill them, kill them now."

"Shen or not, let's kill them anyway. I am still hungry."

That was all Snigin could tolerate. Girls being on their own be damned. They could be mad at him later. They looked half conscious in his big hands. He flung the dagger through the air from the safety of his perch in the tree where he'd climbed to watch the fight. It hit true, right in the left eye of the left head.

"Dah. Treachery! Run! Run!"

"The pain! My eye!" The Eoten dropped the girls and turned to run without further thought. One side clawed at its face to remove the blade. The girls were getting their bearings quickly, as their condition was as much lack of breath as it was shaken brains. They armed quickly again.

Snigin snapped off a hand-speak warning against pursuit. They made the gestures to argue, but for the first time he had ever seen, their hearts were not in the chase.

He asked, 'All right?'

Lilith responded, 'He said S-H-E-N.' She spelled it out as there was no hand-speak for it.

Eve nodded, 'I remember that word. I remember it from father, before the wolves.'

They both signed 'Die like a S-H-E-N.'

Lilith signed, 'Need a sign for it.' She made the sign for twin with one hand, and the sign for death over it with the other hand.

Eve nodded and copied it. 'Shen.'

Snigin used the new sign, and asked, 'What is a Shen?"

Lilith replied. 'We are Shen. Father was Shen. We will find more Shen.' The way she signed, it was very ominous and final.

He moved his hands slowly, showing great care in his actions. 'And then?'

Eve shrugged. 'We will see what we are, and do what we are supposed to do.'

Lilith waved at them both. 'Let's go back to camp. Much to consider. Hungry. Horny.'

The other two nodded and followed.

#

Kre watched from afar. "They know. They want it back."

"Nothing we can do now except run ahead while they sleep. We must get there first. They can't have it."

Show Me

Katlyn stood in front of her charges. In a week, with much drilling, they had done more than she would have guessed they were capable of. They had some moves down. They had some theory. They needed practice.

She called Ren the hunter, her favorite pupil since day one, up front. He had taken his initial humiliation with a proverbial stiff lip. He practiced harder than the others. He intended to be the best pupil, almost as if he thought he would get to a point where he could best her. It was admirable but unlikely.

"Ren, here are the practice blades. Let us repeat our day one exercise. Hmm?"

He nodded and caught the blade. He started forward and she began her forms. It seems he had learned nothing. Pity. Then he threw his dagger. Brilliant, but ultimately ineffective. She spun, and it rolled off her torso. In real combat it would be a wound, but not mortal. His momentum brought him by her, and she finished the form. They stopped and turned back toward each other. He was covered in death-strokes as before.

"A new tactic which caused a wound at the cost of your life. Not what we ultimately require."

"But progress, milady?"

"Humph. Hardly." It was then that she saw the others looking at her oddly. She looked back to him and noticed he was holding another small dirk covered in clay. She looked down and saw a red dot over her heart and a large slash across her womanhood. Her laugh was melodic. "There is hope for you yet. You are dead, yet so am I. Now we just need to get it so you don't die when you kill. There are lots of the horde and not many of us."

He winked at her. "The quick and the dead. Aye, ma'am!"

The warrant officer leaned on a wagon nearby and chortled audibly. She grinned at him and he tipped his helmet a bit. The old soldier was impressed with how she adapted to leadership as quickly as they adapted to killing.

Grenda came up next to him. "How is my girl doing with them?"

"Well, she has done better than I think I could have this quickly for learning to fight. If she keeps it up they will be the most formidable villagers I know. Fighting that horde is going to be another thing entirely. I sure hope there is some plan more than a platoon of soldiers, a bandit troop, and a handful of villagers against gods only know how many hungry, mean, rapey bandits turned barbarian."

The poisoner looked serious. "Working on it. So far I think it will be a lot less easy for them, and there is an outside chance they won't want to bother if they see preparations when there are softer targets."

"You believe that?"

She shook her head. "Nope; did you?"

"Nope."

"Probably shouldn't try to sell that one at the village council meeting then?"

"I wouldn't."

"Humph. Well, we have had all the gods' luck so far, maybe we are due for some more. Your Commander penned a letter to the king asking for aid and sent a pigeon to the capital. That may be the bravest thing any of us have done yet."

"Or the most foolhardy. Won't do to survive the horde just to have that little prick send someone to kill us all. OOPS! That was aloud weren't it? Gods save the king, I meant to say."

She spun on her heel to hide her laughter. "I need to go. I have a meeting to attend. You should come. Your rank entitles it, I am sure."

"Sure it does, too. Happy here, outside, near training and drilling. If his Nibs needs me he knows where to find me. Commander knows who I am and what I'm about. We have an agreement: I fill a billet and don't change a thing about me, and he accepts it."

"Well, then. See you around, Poke."

"A yup."

She sauntered off to her meeting. She wasn't one to saunter normally, but that old veteran was attractive in a rugged kind of way. She aimed to be closer to him someday, when time allowed and tragedy subsided. Then again, maybe sooner would be better, as they were all probably going to die horribly soon. It was good to have goals. It kept hope alive.

The village council was all headed for Naomi's trade post, as that had become the de facto town hall. It had the biggest room with the biggest table. It also had the best food and drinks. Time to use her sweet talk and quick tongue to make them believe this was possible, and that they would be better off for it in the long run. Gods, how she hated outright lying. Naomi was waiting for her at the door.

"You know what you are going to say?"

"Nope. You?"

"Sadly, no I do not."

"We are all going to die, you know."

"I know. But if we play our cards just right, it can be later rather than sooner. It all depends on if they listen to us properly."

"Will they? And if they don't, do we stay?"

"If we can't get them to listen, then no one will. The horde needs to be resisted as soon as possible. It has to at least start here. We must take the wind from their sails after they cross the mountains."

"Good luck to us. Come, let's tell stories to farmers."

Town Meeting

Naomi and Grenda sat at the end of the long table. Lola was serving drinks to everyone present. She had adapted well to being off the road, and had closed up shop on her side businesses to help Naomi with the trade post. She was telling a fortune here and there, but the other income was forsaken for the sake of the village accepting her. They had enough of a chore getting the muckity-mucks in the council to agree to take all the soldiers and bandits in, even though it was not only in their interest, but possibly the only way they would survive. If Lola decided to ply her trade and wives took exception, it would turn bad quickly.

Father Relchior and Reichart sat on either side of them. The priest represented his own interests but was most definitely siding with them, as he was the one who insisted on help anyway. Reichart had wanted to fight to protect their village in the first place, but he was even more resolute now that he knew that there was a real force in the village to fight back. He also knew what was coming better than the other council members, as he had been briefed at length on the journey home. He also sided with the Thegn women, because he knew better than to do otherwise at this point, and he thought of them as friends after having his life saved and being on the road with them.

The rest of the council was made up of older villagers and senior tradespeople. Most had already openly accepted help that was brought, and word had spread of the terror coming with the horde. Certain tradespeople felt that they didn't want soldiers and rogues settling in the village. They felt the soldiers owed them the defense of the village without any turnabout. The rogues, they thought, should just go away or should accept wages to fight, then leave. They disbelieved the severity of the horde's threat publicly, as it fit with their agenda. The fact that these were the only soldiers for tens of leagues, and that they could not pay mercenary wages in anything but food, was just ignored in their arguments.

The baker, Pyn, was the leader of the pack of fools. He felt that if this many people stayed, eventually he would be called upon to provide bread at reduced cost or even possibly free. He did not realize his profits would do him no good if he was at the bottom of a shallow grave. He believed the mere presence of the soldiers would keep the bandits away, and was fully of the opinion that they were doing their duty, for which he already paid his taxes. He was also very upset that Naomi had changed sides in this argument. The exodus had left him in a position of importance though, being the most prominent citizen on the side of the naysayers. The lot of them sat as far away from the others as they could, crowded around the other end of the table.

Pyn waited till the drinks were served, never one to get inflammatory or hostile before free drinks got served. Once Lola had finished, he drank deeply, some of it spilling down his gluttonous chin as he overindulged. He cleared his throat, "We all know why we are here. I assume you know you will never get our cooperation. We are not going to become the charity for ruffians and soldiers. One set of them have no place here, and the other are the responsibility of the crown, the last time I checked."

Naomi stood and spread her hands in as non-threatening a gesture as she could manage. "I think we just have a communication problem. If you understood how dangerous this is. The horde is going to be massive when it returns this way. We will all certainly die if we do not accept aid from all these men. It may be even then we are lost. I have gone over this so many times with each of you as individuals and as a group. I am begging you, please."

The baker stood, and his flunkies stood with him. The last of them who had something in their cups quickly drained them in anticipation of the exit which was imminent. "We have had enough of this. You do not have our support." He turned and stalked away, followed by his entire band, less one. Nana Crowley, the old woman who first saw the horde, stayed in place. When Pyn realized he had lost one, he stopped at the door and turned. "Dear lord, old woman, don't tell me you've lost your senses enough to listen to them."

She shook her head. "I am an old woman, so I didn't want soldiers and ruffians amongst us. But I recall what I saw. If that group of bandits is bigger, we will die. If it gets half as big as they claim, it could be worse. My family is one of the biggest and oldest in this village. I am one of the oldest living here; people will listen to me. I am with them now, not you."

The corpulent baker stormed out and the others followed.

Naomi smiled at her once they left. "Well, Nana, glad you changed your mind."

The old woman held out her glass. "I meant what I said. It makes more sense what you're saying. Also, I know what I saw. Lastly, I would like the antidote to what was in those drinks, and I hope you only intend to make them too sick to resist your plans and rabble-rouse. I have been picking herbs for fifty years and brewing things, and I know what beer is supposed to taste like."

Grenda just shrugged and took a vial out of her pouch and poured some in the old woman's cup. "They are going to be dancing the green apple quick step till they are so exhausted they can do nothing but sleep for about a week. That should be enough time to get everyone's support and make the preparations, if they are not in our way."

The ancient grandmother smirked. "Seems like a prudent and merciful plan. I would have just killed them myself, if it meant that bunch or my kin at the end of a blade."

Naomi, Grenda, and Lola looked at each other; perhaps they got the only one at that end of the table worth having.

Get There First

The weather was miserable. It rained, and the wind blew hard, throwing the rain and anything else it could lift through the air horizontally. It was enough to drive someone mad and make them volatile enough to kill. It had little additional effect on Kre. He was mad and violent even among his kind, who were unstable, prone to violence, and antisocial as a race. He moved right down the center of the road at a full clip, skin red as wine, screaming his rage at the world from both mouths. He cursed until he could think of no more profanities, then it just became angry noises. No one dared to brave this storm, so he was alone on the road. The pace that was being set would be inhuman to, well, any human. His racial psychosis and anger fueled him to keep going regardless of fatigue. He had to arrive there before they did, so he could move it or protect it. He wasn't sure what he should do, but he must be there to do it first. The master trusted him, the master freed him and sent him north. He only had to hide it in the tomb and check on it occasionally to remain free. Now the Ogrim and the Shen were after it, both. How did they find out he was hiding it here?

"We are almost there. Keep going."

"Die, just die. I hate you."

"Shut yer hole. You got us into this mess."

"How you figure that, smelly?"

"I don't know, but you did it. You must have told them where we hid it."

"Yer stupid, and ugly."

His left fist swung up and punched his right face. The right responded by clawing at the left's eyes.

"Stop touching me."

"I'm not. You're touching me. I'll kill you!"

"Enough. Truce. We are almost there. Over the next ridge, and the catacombs are there."

"Fine; let's go, before you do something stupid again."

He trudged up the ridge whistling on one side and humming a different tune on the other. The sun was setting as he crested over the top and looked down on the obelisk which marked the entrance. It wasn't hidden per se, but if you didn't know what to do it was just a mysterious pillar in the middle of nowhere. Even if you stumbled on the right way to open the secret entrance, you would just end up walking around miles of tunnel. There were probably things that would kill you. He chuckled with himself. In a moment he would be one of those killer things in the tunnels. Going down the hill was cumbersome due to some loose scree underfoot.

"Careful, clumsy."

"Shut up, or I will kill you. I don't jest."

He circled the pillar looking for the proper symbol to start the combination. The carvings were meaningless to him; the sequence he used was given to him to memorize by the master. The left hand moved over the symbols while the right hand tapped a finger in the air counting out a pattern. A release of air signaled that he had succeeded as the entrance rolled open in the earth creating a stygian hole in the ground.

Eotens were not supposed to be sane, extremely intelligent, or cowardly, but something made Kre hesitate. The aura creeping out of that catacomb gave even him pause. It wasn't the place. The location wasn't cheery by any means, but the aura was the thing seeping into everything around it. Some form of dark art surrounded that thing, which gave even a dim-witted, psychotic monster a reason to think twice.

He shook it off by shaking both heads vigorously until the thoughts went away. He knew sometimes the simplest ways were best. Now he just had to have a plan for when they came to steal it. Hide? Move it? Open it? No. No. No. Not open it. There was something bad in there, bad for even him. The master made it very clear that only he could deal with what was inside. It was very bad. He would hide for now. He slunk down into the earth, hitting the switch on the side of the stairs to start the hole closing.

#

He needn't have worried, as the Ogrim's party of folk were going to turn and head toward an easier road to the west that crossed the mountains to the south, eventually. They came to a fork where they would begin to head west. Raz and Cammi took the right fork to continue on. The twins stopped and Snigin walked into them. They were looking in the distance down the left fork. The Ogrim stopped and looked back.

"Yes, there are tracks, even in this rain. He is big, and I smell where he went. We need not trouble ourselves with it if he has decided to go away."

Lilith shook her head. Eve put her hand on her sister's shoulder in a show of solidarity.

Lilith's hand came up. 'We are Shen.' Then she spelled it out as the sign was new to Raz. 'The creature knows something.'

"The Eoten called you Shen?" Raz scrunched up his brow. "I suppose, yes. They look many different ways as a people, as they are defined more by law and religion than by physical characteristics. Many of them are brown-skinned like you. It would explain a bit. Perhaps we should follow him. Meanwhile, I will try to explain the Shen. I do not know everything and what I know is from books, but I will share my knowledge while we travel. We will put the Eoten to the question before we kill it, and find out more. Two fish with one worm, aye?"

He took Cammi's hand and led her back. She was more than willing to follow him at this point, and was a bit intrigued about this subject herself, as well.

As the group walked, he told what he knew. "The Shen live to the south of the largest continent of the Master Kingdoms." Already he was losing them. "The world has lands on the other side of the oceans. The ships that anyone in the north, south or middle kingdom have can't cross it safely. It is far. The Master Kingdoms have ships which cross the water. They do not come here because of long established treaties, and because there is nothing they want here right now. There is a longer explanation for another time. The Shen are a religious warrior people who follow one god who they claim is the only god truly. They have a leader called the Chosen, who speaks to him and tells others his laws. They have methods of fighting which are different, some say superior to all others. They have ships which are not as good as the Masters', but are good enough to cross oceans. They usually have no business this far away, either. They do not leave their lands often. When they do, it is on a mission from their god. That is essentially it. If I think of anything more, I will tell you. Also, if I ever get home I could look in the libraries again. They were never a subject I studied heavily. They are so far away and have such little contact with others. If you are Shen, then your parents and all with them were Shen. Their missions are usually small in number. If a Shen's entire family was with him, I imagine it meant he was never going home. Your folk were here for a big reason, I imagine. Then there is that whole one true god thing. It is just odd. Never really interested me to find out more."

Snigin tapped his big shoulder. "And these Masters? I do not think I care for someone who proclaims himself master to all."

"They would not care about your opinion. They live in or around their high cities. Some live on entirely different continents. They used to create, kill, war and politic, but now hardly are seen or do anything. They are responsible for everyone of every race, one way or another, if you believe them. And I misspoke before. There is one here. Malik, who lives with the Ogrim, the one who taught us of the existence of some sciences, is a Master. He is not much more accessible than the others, though. Even Ogrim two generations my elder do not recall the last time they laid eyes on him."

"How do you know he lives, then?"

Raz made a sour face. "Later. That is not good talk for now. We should stop near here tonight. My map says it gets hilly a little further on."

Snigin and Cammi had similar thoughts and said together, "You have a map?"

"Yes. I mentioned that, didn't I? I am sorry. Let's make camp and I will show it to you. This book I carry has many maps. I can even show you the one with the continents and the oceans on it." The twins looked excited and started jumping up and down.

"Easy, girls. I will show you. Let's just get a camp set up and we can look before we sleep. Then tomorrow we find an Eoten and unravel this mystery a bit more. He knows something, and I will enjoy beating it out of him."

Lilith raised her hand to speak, but Eve started first. They both signed, 'Get in line. He is mine.' They corrected each other simultaneously and signed 'Ours.'

The Eoten might be better off to let him and Cammi beat it to death than to stand in the way of those feral twins. The more he thought about it the more he was considering just watching the action when the time came, and keeping the self-preserving lout from fleeing their fury. It might just end up in a race to see who could end the vile creature, though. Why the evil creature turned away and went this way instead of following them again or going for the gap road was worth some consideration tonight, though. He would give it some thought while sharing his maps with the others. He did so enjoy showing off his maps.


Coming soon ... Episode 4


Copyright 2015, David Ulnar-Slew

Bio: David Ulnar-Slew was born in Innsmouth, MA, to Dutch immigrant parents of the famous Diepeen family, grew up in Newburyport, MA, and moved to an undisclosed location in the woods of VT in 2010. For ten years he taught Dark Magic to cannibal dwarves in the American Southwest. His first book, "Possible Flash Damage" is what he calls, "the beginning of Humankind's indoctrination into the ways the Elder Gods want us to think."

The truth:

David Ulnar-Slew is the nom-de-plume of Ed Sullivan. He is the former flash fiction editor at Aphelion: The Webzine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and the Editor-in-Chief at Cheapjack Pulp. He needs a pseudonym because his given name is not terribly good for him in terms of search engine placement.

He would also be pleased if you were to visit:

http://www.cheapjackpulp.com

E-mail: David Ulnar-Slew

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