Even in the wake of the most brilliant light, a grim penumbra will lurk beneath its gilded veil, eating, growing, and waiting. Indeed many horrors stalk our ancient lands, from the Lycanthropes of the Russik Valley to the Gargoyles whose endless stone legions assail the Dwarven kingdoms to this very drop of ink. I fear that I, Charles Halford, may have come across something more sinister in both form and aim than those grotesque phenomena we know. The beastly, while physically imposing at least provide solace in the fact that they too are mere flesh and blood. Meanwhile, more mystical things such as demons and specters are kept in check by the Inquisition and the Holy Order of the Angels. Yet the strange character I will present to you kind folk now, whether you believe in it or think it is mere misremembrance of an old fool, stalks its prey in means previously unfathomable by the most scholarly among us.
Such a beast is what murdered my dear friend, Earnest Cummings, many months ago in the village of Estes Dale. I had not seen dear Earnest for well over four decades, remaining connected via mere postage, yet his most recent correspondence left me distraught and wracked with insomnia for many a night. When I opened its envelope and unfolded the stationary within I was dismayed to find but one line penned upon its eggshell face. “Charles. I must go with her. –The Best, Earnie.”…
I had first met Earnest back in my days as a conscript in the king’s army, during the conflict with Nev’shavot and his Elven dominion. It was here that the infernal machinations of our tragedy began. I never fancied myself a soldier yet without any choice there I was a naïve and industrious youth amidst a well of gruff and muddy strangers. I was not allowed to bring anything else but photographs and my beloved Lute, which for the first day of encampment in Darken Vale I plucked away at idly in my tent playing simplistic, common tunes as I was at the time not so adept at the craft.
It was then that my busking attracted the admiration of a man of bull-like constitution who roamed in under my tent flaps. I paused as he spoke to me, and though a reasonably simple man in temper, he presented a curious synopsis of my piece. He had recognized the tune from a day when he had the luxury of visiting Korren while with his family, something that he would never do again in his lifetime. He had seen a minstrel, dressed in flamboyant satins playing the very same tune and described to me the strange sensation it had made him feel.
The slow, melancholy of the opening strings made him imagine a rose bush rising from amidst the grass, coiling into a wooden knot. Then as the song’s center played in a flourish, the roses bloomed into sanguine blossoms and finally as it wound down the petals began to brown and fall listlessly until all that was left were crude fibers. Charms of a Vivid Lover, as the piece had been called, was a mere children’s tune meant to warn of the dangers of temptation yet his wondrous take had been profoundly disturbing that it intrigued my scholarly mind in its uniqueness.
I soon found the man quite personable, despite his grim philosophy he was very grounded and genuine in his speech. A certain transparency characterized his opinions as he smiled broadly bearing his crooked teeth at you. It was my first time dealing socially with one of the rural folk of our kingdom, having only seen them in passing at the Korren markets. To be able to probe the mind of one such specimen could not be passed up for my curiosity’s sake and his good spirits made for wonderful companionship
Trouble began the following fortnight when I and my newfound friend arrived with the Army at the fortress of Beth-Shalahar. The fortification was nestled between the rocks of the Callous Foothills where the great stone shards rose vertically to the heavens serving as tombstones to giants and titans. The rock face shielded the acropolis on all sides except for a funnel-like sloping corridor facing the Neidel forest.
King Alfrus had been known at the time as a particularly brutal and callous figure having happily sacrificed countless divisions for the sake of crushing the elves, yet even he knew the disaster which would unfold if he sent the full extent of his forces into the hills. Instead, he had sent an envoy to the Dragons of the Northeastern Dominion while we were ordered to dig trench. Although led by Knight Commander Freydir, a man of renowned cunning and charm, the ambassadors found the mercurial Lizards to be a frustrating endeavor. Their King Tarkren had a particular weariness of humans and was still involved with his ongoing conflict against the Republic of Lorigav’s poachers along the border. Deals were drafted in great multitude only for the indecisive and paranoid King to reject them outright, despite the approval of his ministers.
In the meanwhile, Alfrus sent a company of dragoons to probe the fortress who were swiftly ambushed by irregulars lurking in the rocky crags and alcoves leading up the hill.
Having seen his sacrifice successfully taken, the king then issued my friend and I that evening to reclaim the bodies of those soldiers. After half a day’s digging in the trench line, we took our cart, flying the banner of Kamish, the Angel of peace, uneasily jumping at every shadow. Even though the Elves had historically respected the insignia, we were both inundated with rumors and myths of Elven Captains who assailed such parties in a campaign of terror, sending the horse back with little more than a smoldering flag pole.
However, whatever horrible things the elves might have done to us remained in our imaginations, the real terror was the carnage we were to tow back to camp. A pungent fervor buzzed in my chest at the grisly state of the bodies. I remember seeing the glassy eyes of a buzzard glare soullessly towards me as it ripped a string of sinew from a victim. Those subjected to cannon fire formed a strange effigy of heads, hooves, arms, and torsos, the fallout of which stained the surrounding rocks crimson like some primordial painting. What was most terrible of all was that no matter how much you peeled, scraped or scrubbed, you were always leaving some part of the poor bastards behind.
The two of us split up so as to cover more ground and here is where the first of Earnest’s fits arose. He would later give me a vivid account of the following: He came unto a small clearing full of yet more corpses and leaning over one in the distance was a darkened figure. Thinking it was an elven scavenger he pulled his revolver from his belt, its ebony metals glowing under lantern-light. “Hey!” he grunted loudly, voice bouncing off of the stones. “Get out of here ya’ vagrant!”
The figure did not appear startled, but instead rose up slowly and turned to him. Its face was that of a pale-skinned young woman with black-rimmed eyes and onyx lips. From about her waist, she clutched in her palms a swirling tendril of pearl light which quickly soaked into her digits, the uncanny energy running in streams through her veins.
The two stared, Earnest intoxicated by her strange beauty all the while terrified by the mysterious nature of her being, He started towards her, but the darkness opened like demonic jaws and swallowed her, leaving not even so much as footsteps behind.
When poor Earnest told me this I supposed perhaps she was an elf, or that their mages were entertaining themselves in our confusion “That weren’t an elf I’d ever seen, her face was broad and round like ours!” he protested, I continued my rebuke all the while we piled cadavers into our cart, until finally he gave up.
I still remember the ghastly words he said to me on the way back to camp. “Charles, it’s quite fascinating” I immediately asked what madness had overcome him. “To see the raw aftermath of battle, where blood has barely dried, bodies barely stiffened and where the scent of gunpowder still carries itself on the wind. It tells quite the visual story, you can see their tactics, their fear, their last moments. It speaks volumes more than any history I can read” The exuberance with which he spoke was like spikes of ice driven into my spine and I refused further discussion of the matter.
Upon our arrival, I retired to my tent to pen some correspondences with my family back in Korren but was interrupted again by the poor soul who thrust himself into my dwelling in a flurry of wild gestures and shouting absolutely nonsensible terms. He told me in an erratic sense that whilst he dozed in his bunk a voice spoke to him from out of the darkness. He described it as a sharp, feminine hiss and it said the following to him “You weren’t supposed to see me. That’s okay I don’t mind. We like your kind.” and that upon lighting his lantern waving it around madly he found only dirt stained fabric about him.
Of course, the foolish man I am, I assumed at this point he was going to great lengths to fool me and so I laughed heartily. I laughed! Devos save me! I laughed at the poor man’s suffering! Some companion I am!
He paced off limply at my rejection and in the following days he returned to his good-humored state as I brushed the matter into the far reaches of my mind, more worried about the elves in the hills than his imaginary voices.
They were a grueling few days, mud and steel are all that I remember as we burrowed through what little soft land there was. Gradually the cannons were brought from the robust tree line of Neidel and began to fire in a tumultuous harmony at the acropolis. The further our siege trenches extended the less cover we had and those sent to continue the digging came under fire from the elven skirmishers, undoubtedly the very same brigands who assailed the dragoons days prior.
The king decided it necessary for those stone redoubts to be cleared and so he ordered our Lieutenant to organize a fleet force to counter. What this meant for us was that small platoons were formed, given drab, burlap clothes so as to blend into the rockwork and for weapons, it was pistols and sabers only.
We were assigned the Northwestern most cluster, a large potato shaped outcropping which rose above the trench line like a strange earthen pimple. At nightfall, we left our trench and the elves fired from atop, sprawled out above its smoothly rounded peak. Quickly we conformed to its walls having taken very few casualties. Slowly we rounded the great stone, but Earnest hesitated, that horrific voice whispering in his ear. “Bring them to us.” I prodded him forward with the pommel of my saber harshly growling in his ear “This is no time to be messing about Earnie, go!” He then swore to me that he saw in the deep blackness of the moonless night, a waifish figure dance about the shadows. I waved my head at him and finally, he continued.
Soon we rounded their position and in a storm of lead and steel, we felled the elven defenders. As the fog of our guns cleared, Earnest heard her again “Where do they go? You wonder. We can show you.” I saw him physically wince and I merely patted him on the shoulder and beckoned him home, trying all too much to avoid eye contact with the freshly deceased.
Soon morning came and with it bitter news from our Lieutenant. “We’re makin’ the charge” he grunted, then ordered us to form ranks. The king as it so appeared had become impatient with both the indecision of our dragon allies as well as the lengthy campaign. Row by row, column by column we formed a mass of gray and red uniforms between the sprawling trenches, tension binding us together like magnets. The drummer began his nerve rumbling rhythm and in a thunderous march, we scaled the hill, soon taking fire from the Elven artillery. The projectiles whizzed overhead like overgrown gnats and pummeled the rocks, pinging off of their stony facing. I made the mistake of looking a few degrees to my right as we passed an outcropping for I witnessed a ball hammer into its rigid face and at an alarming speed and as result, it bounded down into our regiment taking Devos knows how many young lives.
The corridor heralded only more torment, for upon passing its wide lip the parapets of the fortress erupted in a cloud of smoke and like bees, lead rained upon us. Men burst into bloody pincushions and fell to the ground screaming, crying for Devos to save them whilst their brethren callously marched over. I would be a liar if I still didn’t hear their blood boiling words in my dreams on the odd night.
Earnest, as robust and firm as ever simply remained forward, his face folded in on itself in determination as he silently counted out the drummer’s beat. He hardly winced at the oncoming volleys, yet I could see that with every round and every casualty his broad chest rose and fell with greater tempo.
What meager force reached the base of the fortress walls attempted to establish grappling lines along the parapets, thrusting their tri-pronged hooks with all their remaining effort all the while avoiding bolts of lightning and balls of flame cast by overwatching mages. Yet it was in vain, for any who dared to scale the brickwork were immediately repelled in man to man combat.
We had been about to make our own ill-fated attempt when miraculously a great shadow swept over the field. I looked to the sky and saw the leathery wings of the great lizards soaring above in a fearsome V. At their head were the bronze scales of General Vek’num who with a mighty, ground shattering roar swept towards the fortress. Cannon, rifle, and magic tried feebly to repel him as his great maw opened and from the depths of his throat, a great inferno sprayed forth. The conflagration swallowed the brickwork and was soon followed up by his companions.
I would later learn that the deal was struck when Freydir offered his services to range the woods and sabotage further poaching efforts. While not in the King’s best interest to service troops to a foreign power, it was a relief to see the fireball the fortress had become.
We came within feet of its path, feeling the searing heat burst forth like an exploded shell. While we recoiled horribly, watching flailing slim figures fall smoldering as a heap of char. It became difficult to recognize them as sentient beings the more you stared.
Then, as if one with the fires themselves that vixen emerged arms outstretched whimsically, an ivory grin exploding from her face. “Yes!” it squealed “Yes, all of this! Thank you!”
“Who are you?” Earnest spoke in a strangely comfortable manner.
“We’re the answer. Come to me Earnest. I can show you the answer!”
It was then that my friend gave a sedated look and began to wander towards the flame. If it weren’t for my quick realization he would have met his fate much sooner.
“Earnie you whelp! What do you think you’re doing?” I asked, exasperated under the growing heat.
“I…uh…she’s beautiful, isn’t she Charles?” he said drearily.
I beat the man on the head and said “Nothing beautiful here, only the war!”
“Yes…the war…” he muttered back before silencing himself.
Once the smoke cleared, and the charred halls were probed by scouts the proclamation of victory was delivered. We cheered in an exasperated cry, all except for Earnest who stared mournfully into the smoke. “Why Earnest my dear fellow, we have won! Why so glum?”
“I’ve lost her.” He said, face falling. At this point, I had given up trying to make sense of his dribble and commented to our celebrating comrades.
“Damned Earnest, keeps goin’ on about that lady doesn’t he?”
Our platoon gave me a confusing range of expressions. “We didn’t know the man spoke,” they said between cheers.
“Yeah, he’s as silent as the rocks!” I was taken aback by these assertions, having learned that which I never realized the whole of the campaign. I folded my arms and paced worriedly as they callously continued their revelry. We returned to camp, Earnest only celebrating with a smuggled bottle of Ale in his hands which he sipped glumly. I could not find the words to probe his simple spirit, and so I left it well alone.
It was shortly after this victory that Knight Commander Harjim famously exorcised Nev’shavot at Hinder’s Pass, and the war was over sending me back to Korren, and my friend back to Estes Dale.
…We remained in touch as I had said. Although, as time went on, his correspondences became sparse. At one point a few years in, he mentioned he’d taken up grave digging as a profession, why in Devos’ name anyone would be willing to do such a ghastly task is beyond me! However, if there was ever a fellow I supposed it would be Earnest.
Occasionally he would mention the dark-eyed, black-lipped lady with quips such as “If only I’d taken her hand.” Or “You should never have stopped me”
Then after that damning letter came, my heart stopped, all blood froze in my veins as if suddenly freeze over. I ordered a carriage at once, knowing well what I must do.
After several days journey, listening to the hooves of our horses beat away like the ticking of the clock I arrived in the small village in the evening just as the sun touched the hills in a citrine glow. The township was the very definition of rural modesty. It had but one small general store supplied by a weekly caravan from out of Korren, one schoolhouse curated by one grey-bearded teacher, and one diminutive shed of a chapel dedicated to our lord Devos set atop its Northern Hill. The rugged folk, farmhands, and ranchers, for the most part, trickled down the beaten dirt paths in a leisurely manner. It was certainly an adjustment from the chaos of Korren square, and as I felt the breeze roam freely among the sparse buildings I hailed a young waif and asked her if she had known my dear friend. Her eyes ignited at the utterance of his name and she proceeded to speak fondly of an “Ol’ Earnest” who lived in a small shack behind the Chapel. I thanked her and went on my way, scaling the hill and skirting the border of the clapboard structure then found myself looking down into an earthen bowl which hosted a sea of drab and crumbling memorials to the dead neatly rowed and columned at its lowest point.
I made my descent and ended at the humble dwelling which rested on its southern perimeter. I wrapped at the door but waited several arduous moments with only the faint murmurings of the spirits on the winds. I attempted again, and then upon further silence, I hastily tried the rusted handle and swung the loosely hinged door open. As I did so a strange jingling rang from about my feet, and upon inspection found a mosaic of filthy glass bottles rolling aimlessly about the rotted woodwork. The room itself hosted little more than a crooked writing desk and a barren cot along its askew walls. I moved to its center taking in the foul scent of spoiled ales.
I step back outside and heard a familiar melody being hummed by a twanged throat. I followed its sorrowful notes and found amidst the gravestones a figure rising from a freshly dug hole. The gnarled, hunchbacked remnants of Earnest Cummings lumbered simply about the disturbed dirt and cast his spade into the ground, mounting it like a knight’s blade.
I called out to him, but he did not hear me.
He kept his knotted back turned to me and that is when I finally after many years of laughter and ridicule saw her! That ghastly waif grew from the ground like water falling in reverse and she leaned in close to him, murmuring sharply in his ear. As she did so, he tore from his belt the ebony metal of his pistol and raised it slowly pointing its nefarious barrel towards his temple. I ran to him, screaming and hollering to no avail! Then…with one climatic pop the balding scalp of Earnest Cummings erupted in a geyser of blood and brain matter, misting the ground with its morbid whimsy. As I approached him and the figure he slumped back, falling into his very last grave.
The harlot grimaced at me, licking her lips hungrily, grasping in her hands a strange pearl light, absorbing it into the tips of her fingers. I charged at her wildly as fast as my stiff joints would allow, finding in the end, that I stumbled feebly through nothing. I glanced around, finding only a cool breeze kiss my face.
To my surprise, the whole of Estes Dale attended his funeral. Every head of house and their kin, the grey-bearded teacher, the waif I first met, all were there. They regaled me with tales of their beloved Earnest. He used to take great joy in showing the children around the graveyard, lecturing on the history of all the families buried there. He was apparently apt to visit every bereaved individual before interning their lost ones, speaking in a soothing, insightful coo, salving the pain of grief. At the bar, on his nights off, he sang merry songs with the ranchers. He attended every wedding, and would lend a hand during harvest season to smaller families…
Yet it was all a masquerade, a tormented man loomed just under that giant grin and I rejected its existence outright. I never did know what that creature said to him before his death. Perhaps he had told me at one point those very same words and I had ridiculed him. Sometimes in the dark of the night, when the wind is still and the city rests I can hear her damming words murmuring in my ear, scratching at my wisdom with zealous accusations regarding the fate of beloved Earnest.