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“If you think you’re a man, go on and take a look!” Cyrus Haverly, son of the Earl of Sax, Grafton Notch’s magistrate, pushed Erikson Gray towards the newly formed cave beneath the roots of an old twisted oak.
Erik brushed off his hand. “Why don’t you go?”
“Because I don’t have anything to prove,” Cyrus grabbed his crotch. “I’ve plenty of proof right here.”
“A touch of rot is not proof of manhood, as far as I know.”
Their companion, Reese, son of Vale, laughed.
“I’ll show you rot…”
Erik put up his hands in surrender. “Please don’t.” He pulled Reese away. “Careful. It might be contagious.”
Cyrus rolled up his sleeves. “My station allows me to bathe three times a month and with good soap too! It’s time I show you a thing or two about your place in this world.”
“Oh, unroll your sleeves, Cyrus. You know I’d knock you on your ass as usual.”
Reese nodded. “He’s right, Cyrus. Last time you cried.”
“Shut up! I did not. Just got a bit of dirt in my eye, is all.”
“Right, dirt. You may have money, but your hands are soft as a suckling pig, and that soap you’re using in all those bathes makes you smell like a maid.” Erik turned his attention back to the hole. “Did you hear that?”
“I thought I heard a voice.”
Erik pointed to the hole. “There.”
They all stopped and listened.
“Eh, there ain’t no voice. You just heard a blackbird or something.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. So, what do you guys think is down there?”
Cyrus stood on his toes to try to get a look without venturing too close. “Don’t know, but it was clearly dug out, and it sure is deep for a gopher and too small for a bear.”
“Well, what are you waiting for? You’re the one that pulled us out to these woods for an adventure. There’s one right there for you. Go take a look.” Erik sat on a log. “I’ll have my fair share of adventures soon enough.”
“Just because your uncle got you a berth on a stinking merchant vessel doesn’t mean your anything more than a blacksmith’s apprentice. Either in the Notch or on a ship, you’re still doomed to spend your days swinging a hammer.”
Erik straightened his ruffled vest. “You’re just jealous because you’ll be stuck in this stinking colony counting your father’s furs when I’ll be off on the high seas swooning mermaids!”
“More like kissing carp. You’re going to end up just like your old man, food for the fishes.”
“This is your second warning, Cyrus. My father was a great seaman! He fought with Admiral Colton in the emperor’s navy!”
“Eh, that’s what you say. Everyone in town knows your uncle is just hiding a bastard.”
Erik stood and straightened his back to gain as much height as he could. “Take it back!”
“I ain’t going to hold in the truth for your delicate nerves.”
“Take it back, Cyrus.”
The fat boy looked down at Erik’s clenched fists. “Fine. What do I care if your father was a seaman or not? It ain’t going to help you out a spot in life.”
Erik smirked. “That’s what you think. The Captain has promised my uncle that I’ll have avenues of promotion. I’ll be embarking on a fine career! Someday, I might even have me own ship.”
Cyrus laughed and looked at Reese. “It sounds to me like your uncle has been peddling cod when he’s only got a sardine to sell.”
“I’m small, Cyrus Haverly, but I’ve been known to give you a black eye. Now, your begging for another.”
“Hey, you two.” Reese stood between them. “We all know that Cyrus would run from his own shadow.”
“But Erik, if you think you’re worthy to face the dark seas, we ain’t going to believe you until you prove you’ve got the gumption.” Reese sneered. “Go down that tunnel and tell us what you see.”
“And what’s in it for you?”
“My father says bandits and pirates live in these woods. They choose caves just like that to hide their booty. If you’re brave enough to go to sea, then you’re brave enough to go down that tunnel and find us some gold.”
“Who would believe your father?” Erik threw a pebble into the hole. “He loves the bottle more than his life. I’ve not once seen him without a stagger in his step.”
“Then you’ve nothing to fear. It’s just a damn hole then.”
Cyrus smiled. “That’s two of three votes. You’ve got no choice.”
Erik looked back to the cave. “Fine, I’m not afraid.”
Cyrus giggled. “You will be when they slide a cutlass across that twig of a throat.”
“And you’ll be wanting when I come back from that tunnel with a handful of gold coins.” Erik gingerly stepped to the edge of the dark chasm but stopped as a cold breeze exited smelling of earth.
“You see?” Cyrus nudged Reese’s shoulder. “He’s too scared.”
Erik took a deep breath and slipped into the shadows. He was more than scared. He was dipping into an ominous pit located deep in the Acheron Forest, a place that was forbidden not just because so many had lost their lives but because even more had simply vanished.
Erik shielded his face from a minor avalanche. The walls of the cave were brittle, being just a breath stronger than wet clumped sand. Dark, twisted roots from the impenetrable forest above desperately grasped the crumbling coral, searching for scant nourishment. Now, Erik’s climb continuously robbed them of their treasure, leaving the ancient hands empty and wanting. His flesh seemed a good enough replacement, and the talons scratched his skin with wicked red tracks that burned terribly. With each heart-stopping slide, the boy risked a cave-in, or worse, tumbling into the abyss and its unknown hole of creep.
Erik’s hand slipped into a puddle of slimy wetness, black and slick like tar, but cold as the innards of a deep-sea fish. He damned Cyrus’s ability to coax him into these tests of bravado. The laughs and jibes echoing down the cave set images of that crooked smile and those devilish eyes in his mind. He would show Cyrus how brave he was, prove that he was worthy of the sea, and then punish his mockery by wiping his soiled hands upon that newly tailored jacket Cyrus had bragged about all morning. Erik smiled. That would show him.
The smile fell as a puff of air wafted from within. It no longer smelt of cold dirt, it now smelt of stale breath. No, it was worse than that. It was a gasp from the almost dead; a desperate wind passing gums turned black from decay. It reminded him of the old witch who begged on the corner near his home. The hag often yelled profanities and threats at the children who kicked mud upon her rags and pelted her with rotten fruit. Luckily, her failing memory stole her access to curses and hexes, for she would have already turned half the city to stone. Her only true weapon was the breath that vented from her crooked-toothed maw. It was just punishment for the children’s mischief. Erik wanted to shield his face as the children did when they harassed the hag, but he didn’t dare bring his drooling hands so close nor sacrifice his scant hold from a tumbling fall. He grew up between a mushroom grower and a swine pen. He had smelled worse, so he pressed on.
Erik stopped for a moment and waited for the dislodged rocks to stop falling so he could listen to the cool darkness. The faint whisper of trickling water echoed up from the belly of the earth, and it awoke a thirst he didn’t realize was there. The day had been hot, and his excursions had brought sweat upon his brow, dampened his shirt, and gave him a touch of a headache. He would advance to these waters for a drink and no further. Indeed, there was no gold in this cave. It was likely a den for a forest critter and not a vault, but a long cool drink would be treasure enough for him.
Several hours earlier, Erik and his friends had left the blazing hot streets of the city and ventured into the cooler wilderness, a place off-limits for all those not well-versed with a sword or spear and indeed forbidden for the children of Grafton Notch. But, in their mind, being twelve and thirteen, they were no longer children. Thus, such trespass seemed a minor infringement. They, of course, knew this was where the outcasts lived and for a colony as sinful as the emperor’s most forgotten outpost of Grafton Notch, being an outcast was saying something indeed. But as the boys had never faced such peril, their ignorance was bliss and their day’s journey all a game.
At first, Erik and Reese hesitated to enact this plan, but Cyrus called them cowardly girls, something he often did to gain accomplices in his mischief. Erik and Reese looked at each other and had no choice but to concede to Cyrus’s plan. They slipped past the dozing watchmen atop the city’s gate and into the areas left wild and free. For a long while, the boys were quiet, with wide eyes batting around the shadowy trees. The path eventually narrowed and then petered out altogether until they came to the warning signs that marked the boundary of the Acheron Forest.
They stopped for a moment gaping at the violent pictures and warning symbols. As many in Grafton Notch couldn’t read, some unknown artist embellished the words of warning with very graphic images of death and dismemberment to make sure the point got across- do not pass under pains of death.
The boys looked back the way they had come and forward into the forbidden zone. The forest looked the same. After some discussion, they decided that some ingenious trapper had found a honey hole, created the stories, and put up the signs to protect his claim. Everyone knew fur trappers were cheats, so this seemed a logical explanation. They looked at each other, shrugged, and carried on.
The sun grew hotter, and the three boys quickly forgot the severity of their trespass as they found a cool stream resistant to the droughts. They hopped, jumped, and tumbled. Searched for salamanders and built river stone dams. Soon, their play brought them entirely out of sight of the signs and certainly away from the towering city walls, which marked the boundary of the emperor’s weak justice in these wild and mysterious lands. Any apprehension vanished, and they soon ventured deeper into the forest than anyone alive had traveled.
Sudden silence from outside drew Erik’s attention back to the disk of light. His friends must have grown bored of their game. Perhaps they found a frog or turtle to torture, or maybe they dozed in a shady nook awaiting his return. Whatever the reason, Erik finally felt the pressure of their taunts relieved. He looked at his soiled clothes and black drooling hands. What was he doing? They wouldn’t know the bottom had alluded him. He could tell them he found a bear, knocked it on its ass, and then got bored. What would they know? Anyway, if he didn’t climb quickly, his friends would move onto other things and leave him alone to find his way back from the forest. They’re silence meant something distracted them and an adolescent boy’s attention span is fickle thing indeed.
In truth, Cyrus and Reese were not good friends. All of Erik’s real friends had either moved away or embarked on their careers in this moment of transition between childhood and adulthood. These two were his companions only because they were peers with time on their hands. As the magistrate’s son, Cyrus would likely never have to work a day in his life. For Reese, his father cared not what his son did as long as he kept bringing bottles. Reese had developed a taste for the liquor he would sip in transit from the shop and home and would probably follow his father’s path straight into the bottle. Thus, Erik wouldn’t miss them when he boarded that ship for the sea, and his trust in them was scantly above the faith he had for the root he was now using to help him in his climb. Reaching this root’s end, he grabbed another. But this rhizome was a rebel and didn’t want to shake hands with the boy who stole nourishment from its compatriots. It broke free, and Erik tumbled into the black.
When Erik’s eyes flickered open, he didn’t know how long he’d been lying there, but the disc of light at the cave’s mouth was much dimmer than it was before his fall. It must be late afternoon, and when the setting sun fell behind the snowcapped Astral mountains that encircled Grafton Notch, the night was swift to follow. The Acheron Forest seemed innocent enough during the day, but he certainly didn’t want to be here at night. For one, the city’s gates would close and not open until the drums at sunrise, and two, it was known that night is when the woodland demons came out to do their worst, here likely more than most, even if the warning signs were all a ruse.
“Cyrus? Reese? Are you up there?”
His companions didn’t respond.
“I’ve fallen. I need help. Come on, where are you guys?”
Erik sat up and checked his body. Other than a scraped elbow and a tender bump on his head, he seemed to be okay. It was a miracle. He had fallen more than fifteen feet through a jagged ring of volcanic stone and landed on a bed of fine white sand, just missing a scattering of sharp rocks.
Erik rolled to his knees and staggered to his feet. In front of him was a long dark tunnel, its mystery begged for exploration. Erik looked both ways and sighed. It was getting late and he needed to get home before dark, not just because he didn’t want to get trapped outside, but more importantly, if he wasn’t home to cook his uncle’s dinner when the coals of his forge cooled, there would be hell to pay.
Erik shivered at the thought and subconsciously touched his face, still a little bruised from his last transgression. He started climbing. But as Erik reached up for a handhold, he happened to glance over his shoulder. The tunnel’s path flattened just a few feet ahead, where a faint golden light shone from around the corner. Illumination emanating from the depths of the earth, especially a luminescence of this shade, was something he couldn’t pass up. He eased back down to the sand.
A quick look wouldn’t hurt. What if it were riches! Even his uncle could forgive a bit of tardiness for pockets full of gold!
Erik tiptoed down the cave. He wasn’t stupid. He knew that Reese’s tales of pirates could most certainly be true in these parts. It wasn’t unheard of with the rough ports of Bleakwharf being only eight miles away. Erik had never met a pirate in the flesh, but Reese wasn’t the only one with tales of buccaneers. Sometimes, late at night, men would come to visit his uncle. They would sit around the fire and whisper their worries over warm spiced wine. His uncle would smoke his pipe with a pensive face and nod at their anxieties. Erik feared his uncle’s wrath too much to venture closer to hear the tales in entirety, but the term one-eyed crook kept appearing in their hush tones. Who else could this one-eyed crook be if not a pirate?
Erik almost reneged again, but as much as he hated to admit it, Cyrus and Reese were right. If he was going to venture out to sea, he needed to know more about these pirates. Perhaps this would be his chance. He didn’t want to appear like a complete novice when he boarded that ship as a green landlubber. Maybe this was his chance to carve a couple notches of experience in his belt.
As Erik rounded the corner, he halted and his shoulders slumped. The cave was not home to pirates. But, what it did harbor, was far more mysterious. There, beneath the light radiating from a fissure in the ceiling of a large cavern, were the twisted boughs of an ancient tree with smooth rainbowed bark.
Erik immediately felt that this was a sacred place, one spoken of by the forest people- a place of magic and ancient wonder. He stood there and took in every detail so that he could brag to the others about finding such a mystical scene as a rainbowed ironwood growing deep within the earth. As such wood was hard as ash, flexible as a year-old pine, and rarer than gold, it too had value, especially for a blacksmith like his uncle who spent considerable time crafting weapons.
The limestone cavern around the tree was like a bubble frozen in time at the moment of popping. The fissure at its apex was jagged but ringed with soft tendrils of vegetation- green and shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Each vine gave birth to incandescent jewels that dripped down into a bubbling stream that snaked around the base of the tree. On the other side of the cavern, these waters sprang to the surface from crags of crystalline rock the color of a summer sky. The stream then wound its way across the debris-laden floor amongst stones, both large and small, before tumbling into another fissure to continue its journey into dark mystery.
Erik stumbled to the water and rinsed his hands and face before burying his lips deep into the gurgling flow. He shot up and spat the gamey fluid into the sand. As his eyes cleared from his coughing fit, he followed the stream’s path, searching for the culprit that tainted the flow. It took him only a moment to register the macabre scene. In his haste to quench his thirst, what he thought were rocks, leaves, and sticks were instead sun-bleached bones and the rotting carcass of some forest animal that had fallen through the fissure to its death.
It now made sense how such a tree of age and girth could grow within the confines of the cave. With sun from the fissure, water from the spring, and fertilizer from the deadfall, the tree had found a unique paradise and dug its roots deep into the smorgasbord of rich, death-infused soil.
Erik eased past the rotting creature to the springhead. Once he had recognized his thirst, he couldn’t get the thought of cold, clean water out of his mind. Erik must drink, both to quench his dehydration and to wash the corruption from his mouth. Having learned his lesson, he checked around the crystalline rocks of the springhead for spoilage. Finding none, he drank long and deep of the pristine water until his belly hurt from its cold refreshment.
As Erik drank, he thought he heard rustling leaves. He looked back to the tree, wiping his mouth. There was another faint crackle. He bent and peered through the foliage, but all he could hear now was the bubble of the stream echoing off the stone walls. He took another hefty gulp for the road and returned to inspect the ancient wood and its surrounding carnage more closely.
This timber a king of trees- its extravagant color the pomp of its position. It lurched from the underworld with knobby digits, greedy to horde sustenance just like any monarch, and, like jewels and silken robes, these colored stripes hid the true intention of its dark heart. With this extravagance of office, it would trick the innocence of forest life that frolicked above so that it could grab them into its lair of ruin. Some of the craggily branches still held evidence of this murder- pierced and crushed as the timber talons squeezed the juices of life to fuel its monstrous growth. The vibrant red blood of a fresh kill oozed down the trunk to clump in the thirsty sand at its base, the poor culprit hidden amongst the leaves.
Erik continued to circle until the bleeder was known- one of the sharp branches had impaled a small deer. His gaze remained on the fawn for only a moment. Having grown up next to a swine pen, he was no stranger to butchered meat. But, something else was there, something more intriguing hidden just behind the deer. Within the leaves, Erik thought he saw some fabric. He inched a bit closer before stepping back.
There, dangling from the tree, was a hand.
Erik froze. A piece of him wanted to shield his innocence and run from the murder. Somehow, he knew that to see a man in death would burn the image into his mind forever. But this was worse, for it was not murder. It was torture, as the hand still moved. Erik stumbled backward over a stone and fell into the frigid, blood-tainted water.
“Dosta era coodle? Dirk, era est?” The leaves rustled, and a blade hissed from its sheath. “Ist bin al vemoodi! Ist bin era aster est!”
Erik looked around him. There was no one else in the room. “It…it… isn’t Dirk, sir. I’m sorry, I only know a little forest speak. My name is Erik- Erikson Gray from Grafton Notch.”
“Grafton Notch?” There was a pause. “Erik, is it? I know no Erikson Gray.” The knife was replaced in its home. “Come, let me get a good look at you.”
“I should go.”
“No! Come hither… please.”
Erik swallowed. “Yes, sir.” His feet shuffled around the tree to get a full view of the man. Erik looked around for a weapon, anything he could use if this stranger proved dangerous, but found none.
“Come now. If this is a peaceful meeting, don’t give me a reason to doubt your fidelity.”
Erik gave up his search and stepped around the tree. Hidden within the leaves, the man dangled from a knobby limp about four feet above the ground. The skin beneath his scraggly black beard was pallid, but he had effervescent, piercing blue eyes. He wore golden scaled armor over a crimson gambeson and an ankle-length black traveler’s cloak over his armor. A sweat-stained handkerchief adorned his neck, and his long hair was unkempt and hung about like dead grass.
The stranger looked Erik up and down. “Ha! Reprieve, reprieve! You are but a boy.”
“I’m not a boy, sir. I’m twelve.”
“Of course. My apologies. You speak the high language well for your age!”
The man’s face became grave. His knuckles became white around the handle of the knife at his side. “Have you happened to see giants in your travels, my dear boy? Creatures of a grave disposition and ungodly appearance in the form of a man, but not a man?”
“No, sir. The path was free all the way from Grafton Notch.”
“I do not know this place. Is it near?”
Erik’s brow wrinkled. “Do you come from afar?”
The man looked at him with the corner of his eye. “Yes.”
“It’s about a mile to the east. Certainly, you would have seen the walls.”
“I was… distracted.”
“Well, no… we saw no one for several miles. This is a forbidden area.”
“Yet, you are here. Doing a bit of mischief?”
“Yes, it would seem so.”
With the threat of danger over, the man’s actual state spread across his face. His piercing eyes seemed to dull, and his expression became slack with apparent agony. Erik looked again at the man’s crimson gambeson and suddenly came to a revelation. The cloth was not red. It was white, stained with blood. In closer inspection, Erik soon realized that much like the deer, the man was pierced through the abdomen by a jagged branch.
The stranger followed Erik’s eyes to his wound and covered it with his cloak as if embarrassed. “As you’ve seen, young Erik, I’ve had a bit of a fall.” He looked up to the hole in the roof of the cave.
“A fall? My god.”
“I was chasing my breakfast through the woods and followed it straight through that hole yonder.” He smirked and shook his head. “It would appear that this tree both saved my life and damned it at the same movement.” The man chuckled as he uncovered the branch protruding from his belly and hesitantly looked down. His mirth was another show of empty strength as the expression in his eyes did not follow lead to merriment. “I have seen enough wounds in my life to know that, although this wood has slowed the loss of my blood, it has killed me. It be giving me a preview of hell, I think.”
Erik stepped toward the cave entrance. “I can get help…”
“No!” the man’s shout echoed. He grimaced, and his hand moved to the wound. “No… there’s no use. The maker has seen it fit that this be my destiny. It be best for all that I die in this here hole, hidden from those that wish to have what is mine.” The man laughed at Erik’s furrowed brow. “No, I’m not delirious. God forbid I’d be so blessed. My mind is more livid now than it has been in many years. But oh, what I wouldn’t do for a spot of Cassian rum to numb this damn pain. Do you happen to have a bit of strong spirits on your person?”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Pity.” The stranger signed. “I’m doomed to play out my wretched life before I die, haunted by my past and without a final swig of stout drink.” He looked at Erik. “Do you believe in a great maker, lad?”
“Aye, I do, sir.”
“Do you believe that if one confesses his sins, he may bask in the light of Providence?”
“I can’t say for sure, but the pastor always says that it’s so… that the Lord forgives.”
The man smiled and looked down. “He would have to be a very merciful Lord to look past my transgressions. Perhaps your Gods are more lenient than mine.”
“I think if one feels guilt enough. If they’re truly penitent for what they’ve done, it won’t hurt to ask for clemency.”
“Hmm, perhaps you’re right, but my story is long as an anchor chain, and my list of indiscretions against the good and the just would fill an ocean journey’s log… You know, it didn’t turn out how I thought it would.”
“This life. Way back, when I, too, was a youth, the world was filled with nothing but promise and adventure. It tests you, you know. Life gives you nothing but choices without telling you that the merit of your decisions ultimately decides your fate. Do you understand, lad?”
“Yes, I think I do.”
The man’s eyes seemed to gaze into another world. “I was never very good at making choices. I realize that now. I should have stayed in my homeland and faced the challenges before me instead of trying to pass them off onto another. After that one bad decision, I chose poorly over and over again, but I never thought I would end up here, especially with the secrets I know now. Frankly, I never thought a fate such as this was even possible. Humph, I wonder how much my life would be different if I had never made that choice to venture across the seas and over the mountains.”
“Are you a pirate?”
The stranger’s eyes focused back on Erik. “A pirate… me? Aye, I suppose I am… I don’t think I have ever been labeled as such, but yes, I believe that is what I’ve become- a pirate of life! From the lofty heights of greatness, I became nothing but a thief and a scoundrel. I do not know you lad, and I would understand if you wanted to leave this cave this very moment and flee the company of such a wretch, but I’m a dying man, and a dying man’s requests are often worth more. Would you do this man before you a vital service? Would you be willing to accept a gift so that it doesn’t continue to rust so far from the sun?”
“I promise you, you won’t be disappointed. Where I’m from, for me to atone for my sins- for me to ask forgiveness for all the misery I have caused and gain entrance into Valhalla, I must bestow my blade to another.”
“Yes, will you do this for me, son? Will you bring my sword back to the light so that I’m not forever doomed to wallow in this plane? Please, son.”
“Aye. I’ll take your blade.”
“Good, very good.” He took out his knife and carved something in the tree.
“What are you writing?”
The man didn’t answer him. He just continued to carve. Once finished, the stranger seemed to examine his work and nodded. He turned back to Erik and smiled. “It is done.” He closed his eyes as if granted peace and his head began to tilt back slowly.
“Are…are you okay?”
But the man didn’t answer. As his head reached the furthest extent of his neck, it began to age and wither, and a wind began to blow through the cave. Erik looked about for the source of such a breeze, but clearly, it was no average wind. When Erik returned his attention to the man, he jumped as the now skeletal head snapped free to tumble to the sand.
Erik stumbled back and again fell into the stream. He stared at the skull with wide eyes. The features of life were gone, but the scalp still clung to the man’s black hair. The wind ceased, and Erik looked up to the body to find it too had aged and withered. It was now no more than bones housed within the man’s armor, which itself had grown crusty with rust.
Once the initial shock of this transformation wore off, Erik rose and moved closer to examine the corpse. He stopped first at the skull. “What kind of sorcery is this?” he whispered as he kicked the head. He looked around, realizing the action’s disrespect, but no one was there to see the desecration. Anyway, it gave him a bit more courage to discover it was indeed inanimate- just an empty shell.
Erik moved to the head’s owner up in the tree. “Could it all have been a dream?” He asked. He was no expert in such things, but the body looked as if it had been dead for a very long time, evidenced not only by the skeletal state but also by the branch that sprouted from its abdomen. He hadn’t noticed before, but it had grown to absorb the edges of the hole in the rusted armor by the breadth of two fingers and now sprouted branches lush with leaves. Erik knew that ironwoods, especially of the rainbowed variety, were notorious for their slow growth. The narrow rings were what gave it strength. For it to grow around the armor like that meant it had impaled the poor man many hundreds of years ago. Was that why this phantom had not heard of Grafton Notch, which was itself carved out of the forest roughly fifty years passed?
Erik looked up to what this ghost had scratched into the tree trunk. It was in the language of the forest people, but he knew enough to decipher the following:
“The light’s blade rests again within the soil. Let my blood wash it of its stain. It goes now to another. May he elevate it to greatness.”
Erik looked at the knife in the stranger’s hand. Its hilt was left untarnished and fashioned of gold, but was it solid or gilt? He picked up a stick and poked the body to build up some more courage. It, too, did not resist his taunts. He moved closer and gently peeled back some of the liken and moss that entwined the knife. The rays of the fissure shimmered off jewels, and Erik ran his hand along these stones dazzled. Remarkably, the handle was still warm to the touch as if the skeletal claw that now clenched it had indeed pumped with blood just moments before.
Being an apprentice, Erik was poor. Gilt or not, this knife was a prize he could not resist. He carefully pulled the blade from the claw, but just as it was about to come free, he slipped. The jolt proved too much for this mummy’s rotting ligaments, and Erik fell from the rock in an avalanche of bone and armor. There was a tearing sound like grass ripped from the ground, and something peeled away from the moss of the tree trunk. It fell to the stones filling the cavern with the ear-piercing retort of hardened steel.
Erik sat and stared at the stranger’s apparent gift. All that remained of the sword was its blade. The leather and wood of the handle had long since rotted away, but it was the edge itself that interested Erik. It was untouched by rust, rot, or dirt and polished to an iridescent shine. He knelt beside the weapon and ran his hand across the gloss of the steel. It was as clean and unblemished as a sword recently polished under many stones.
A thousand blades had passed through Erik’s uncle’s shop in the years he had lived there, but he had never seen a sword like this. He was not a master bladesmith in any meaning of the word. Still, his uncle had long tried to instill his craft upon his nephew, and Erik immediately recognized a superior weapon. Beneath its sheen lay the subtle swirls of a metal folded and refolded a thousand times or more, the etch being a dark emerald blue. Erik knew this blade was the real treasure, likely worth ten times its weight in gold and making the knife look like a mere bobble in comparison. Such a prize just may still his uncle’s punishing hand upon his late return.
This was a gift indeed!
Knowing not what else to do, Erik took off his jacket and wrapped the blade as best he could. It was long and sharp and would be a burden to get up the tunnel and back to his home, but it would be worth the effort and stand as proof of what he had just experienced. He fashioned a strap from some leather bindings taken from the stranger’s armor and heaved the blade onto his back.
Erik looked down at the skull. “Thank you for your gift, kind stranger. I hope you find your peace.”
Such words of sentiment spoken to such an ominous symbol of doom was perhaps strange, but Erik shrugged and continued his trek to the light of day. But as he moved to the exit, something caught his eye protruding from the skull beneath the matted black hair. What Erik thought he saw made sense of everything he just experienced, yet he was still hesitant confirm his assumption. He took a deep breath and turned back. The warrior was not a man, at least not the type of man he knew. Protruding from the crown of the skull was a ring of black horns.
“Nephilim…” Erik whispered as he looked around the cave. The shadows grew long. The bones, the blood, and the forest creature dead suddenly took on an even more foreboding air. He wasn’t safe here. What he had witnessed was not innocent. It was something evil, and he should leave before it marked him.
Erik took off for the cave entrance. He didn’t dare glance back again. He needed to get back to Grafton Notch to warn the others.
When Erik exited into the bright afternoon sun, he looked through the lazy heat waves for his friends. There was no movement. The forest sagged in the heat without the slightest breeze of relief. Even the birds seemed to take shelter without the strength to usher a single tweet.
“Damn it, Reese. Where are you?” Erik muttered as he wiped the beads of sweat that formed on his brow. “Cyrus is useless, but I thought I could at least count on you.”
Erik called the names of his friends as he walked back, but there was no reply. He was angry at first, but then a thought struck him. Cyrus and Reese were going to be sorry they didn’t wait for him. When he entered the city alone with this great sword and his stories of Nephilim, he would be a hero, and his friends would share in none of it. He smiled as he adjusted the leather straps holding the prize to his back. Maybe even his uncle would be proud of him.
For now, Erik didn’t feel so small. He would enjoy it while it lasted. He got his bearings with a wide grin and found the path that headed for home, failing to notice the dark clouds at his back.