In the tales previous to this, a nameless sword slinger killed a vicious Baron at the request of a little girl named Mel, with her help. In this installment, the sword slinger and Mel must
In the tales previous to this, a nameless sword slinger killed a vicious Baron at the request of a little girl named Mel, with her help. In this installment, the sword slinger and Mel must tie up a few loose ends. This is the 6th and final installment of this chapter of the story. Read part 5 here, part 4 here, part 3 here, part 2 here, and part 1 here.
Returning to the room where the Baron met me, I find my worst fears confirmed. The lightning strike devastated the space. Pieces of stone are scattered around, and the old furniture has burned to ashes, leaving dark sooty spots as reminders of where they’d stood. The stench of curdled milk manages to overpower the smell of smoke. The horrid odor is coming from the spot where the outsider conversed with the Baron. The doorway that held the gigantic crimson eye is as destroyed as the rest of the room, but the smell tells me something got out.
Drawing my sword, I approach the debris, sifting through it for any other signs of foulness. I’m in no shape to fight anything else tonight, the sorcerer and the dragon were more than enough. I need rest now, but I keep looking. My determination pays off when I uncover a yellow eggshell hastily hidden beneath the ash. The object is roughly the size of my fist, and there’s green mucus dripping off it. I spot the slightest hint of tracks in the soot nearby. Whatever got out had two toes, but the tracks stop abruptly. It must have wings.
From the edge of the ruined tower, I survey the night sky. The ever-present clouds that had hung over the castle are quickly dispersing, and in the moonlit night I can just make out a black speck flying away. It could be a bat, or it could be whatever hatched here. No way to tell. I sheath my sword and decide to leave this place for good.
Mel waits for me outside the castle. “Well, did whatever you were worried about getting out, get out?”
“What did you do to it?”
The night’s adventure has me ready to fall asleep standing, and the last thing I want to do is talk. “Nothing.”
“It got away. It’s not my concern. I’ve sworn to take revenge on those who destroyed my country, not protect the world from monsters.”
White vapor streams out from the trees and surrounds us. It moves with intelligence, and my hand sluggishly grasps the sword on my hip as I push Mel behind me. The living fog grows to tower over our heads before contracting into shapes. I swirl around to look for any signs of pending attack.
Mel grabs my cloak. “They’re wights.”
My sword flies free of its sheath, and I brandish it in front of us. “I don’t suppose steel is much use against them?”
“My uncle tried a pitchfork once.”
“How’d that work out?”
“We found him impaled on it.”
The milky forms continue to evolve as distinct features become visible. They all seem to be women, and they are all peasants from the village below. The Baron’s past victims.
Mel steps closer to one of the shapes. “Leann?”
The wight closest to us reaches out a hand toward Mel. The wispy fog of her shape coalesces into a form that must be identical to the one she had before dying. Mel steps closer to it, but I grab her shirt and yank her back.
“That’s my sister. Let me go!”
“Don’t be a fool. She’s after the warmth of your blood.”
The wight, Leann, speaks. “No. We are here to thank you for freeing us from our cursed existence. Now that the Baron’s been killed the souls he devoured have been set free.”
I point my sword in the hungry ghost’s direction. “Happy to help, but I’d rather you moved on now. I don’t want any of your old appetites coming back before you go.”
The wights around us return to their mist form before quickly dispersing into the night air. The shade of Leann remains ahead of us, but I already feel safer. Now we have several directions to run if Mel’s former sister decides she wants some human warmth.
Leann looks down at her living sister. “I wish I could’ve been there to help you more. It’s cruel we got so little time together.”
Mel bursts into tears. “I’m sorry I pushed you in the mud the day you got your new dress from the traveling merchant. You were gone so soon after, and I kept thinking about how mad you were at me until you went to the Baron’s.” She rushes to embrace her sister before I can stop her. The two meet, but Mel simply passes through Leann’s incorporeal form.
“All is forgiven, sister. Don’t give it another thought. Remember the good times we had instead. Picking fruit, playing finders keepers, and catching salamanders by the stream.” Leann smiles down at her sister as her form rematerializes after Mel’s hug sent it misting off in different directions. Her eyes leave her sisters and lock on my own. “Mel, beware this man. He is far closer to a wight then I am now.”
Before I can retort, the ghost is gone. Mel’s cries continue, but I don’t interrupt. The first rays of sun peak over the mountain, and the grieving girl manages to turn her tears into sniffles. Then she’s ready to return to her village.
I awaken in the hut of Zeb and Mel. My body feels back to normal, but I have no idea how long I’ve been recuperating. The scent of cooking eggs makes my stomach growl. I look over to see two yolks sizzling on a pan above the cookfire. Whoever prepared the food is missing. I stand up and stretch before exiting.
Outside, I find Mel’s dad, Zeb, relieving himself in a ditch the village dug. It is cut into the side of the hill and waste flows away from the homes. An effective, if crude, form of sanitation.
Zeb catches sight of my approach and finishes his business. “You were asleep for a day and a night.”
He offers me his hand in greeting, but I don’t take it. “Your baron won’t trouble you any longer, but you’ve got a hungry forest dragon in the castle up there.” I gesture to the ruined fortress on the side of the mountain. “I’d suggest having someone go up there to feed it livestock on a regular schedule. Otherwise, it might find it’s way down here.”
Zeb nods in understanding. “Will you be staying much longer? The village would be happy to thank you with a feast.”
“No need. Save your harvest for yourselves. But I will partake of those eggs you were cooking, and I might take some supplies for my journey out of here.”
The sun hasn’t reached the middle of the sky, and I stand at the edge of the jungle ready to leave the village forever. I look back to take in the sunlight before heading into darkness. The jungle is a miserable place to travel through.
Mel runs up the hill to join me. She’s dressed for a journey, and she carries a traveling pack of her own. The smile on her face is unsettlingly large.
“What are you doing here?”
“My father said I could travel with you.”
Mel starts toward the jungle. “He thinks you’re a knight sworn to the king, so I convinced him you’d take me to the capital to learn a trade.”
I grab the girl’s pack. “I can’t travel with a little girl, Mel. My paths only lead me into danger, never away from it. You’ll be better off staying here.”
Mel wrenches free and turns to face me. “Every year there’s less food, and every year more of my village dies from animal attacks or disease. I don’t want to stay here.”
“No, tough is the fact that you are in my debt because I saved your life in the hedge maze. You owe me this.”
I clench my fists so hard they hurt. I forgot how frustrating children could be. Without another word, I turn Mel around and inspect her pack. She’s done a surprisingly good job of picking out the right things to bring.
“You’re smarter than the average village girl. Where’d you learn so much?”
“My mother taught me to read, and she used to have tons of books that I loved, but when Leann died, she—”
“Left for the capital with the books.” The picture is suddenly clear. “Why seek out a parent who abandoned you when you have a perfectly good one right here?”
Mel scowls at me. “I have my reasons.”
“Fine. You can come with me, but I can’t guarantee your safety, and I won’t slow down for you. Plenty of things in the jungle would be happy to make a meal of you.” I start through the foliage, pushing aside large branches of vegetation, with Mel following me. “And I do plan to visit the capital, but it won’t be for at least a year.”
“That’s fine. I always wanted to see some of the world.”
I help the girl over a fallen tree just inside the jungle. “It’s a six-day walk to the Emerald River. From there we can improvise a boat and sail south to our next destination.”
Mel hikes along with me. “Where’s that?”
I smile as I picture the barren smoky landscape at the end of the river. “The Accursed Plains. My next target thinks I won’t find her there.”