Chapter 11 – A Letter in Silk and an Avenue of Heroes

Alright, finally another longer chapter.  I worked really hard on this one.  Due to my broken laptop I had to sit in the university’s computer lab, but it’s done.  For some reason I felt almost pensive at the end.  Must have been a combination of what I wrote, and the music I was listening to (World End by Flow – Animenz piano version; Departures by EGOIST / Chelly – Animenz piano version) whilst writing.  So, I suggest listening to those two songs for the last scene in the chapter for the full effect.

Anyway, please enjoy.

 


 

Antoine looked at the old man.  His eyes shone partially, and yet behind their sheen was hidden slight waves of confusion.  The tale the old man had told him was fantastical.  It was something he had never heard before.  But there were things the old man had mentioned that didn’t make any sense to him.  Some of the concepts were completely foreign, and he had asked the old man repeatedly to explain them to him, which he had done with great patience, but despite that, he still didn’t understand them.

The old man merely looked at him warmly and smiled.

“Well, that’s all I have time for today.  I should get going, I still have a few things to do.  Oh, child, could you help me up?”

Antoine woke from his daze.  He quickly stood up and offered the old man his arm, helping him stand up.

“Thank you, young man.”

“But what happened?  You’ve only just begun the story,” Antoine asked, trying futilely to hide his interest.

“No time, my child, no time.”

The old man thought for a bit before continuing, “Tell you what.  If you want to hear the rest of the story, why don’t you meet me back here in three days and then on the same day each week?  I’ll tell you a bit more of the story each time.”

“Is it such a long story?” Antoine asked.

“Indeed.  Can’t you tell already?  It’s an epic tale that will take a lot of time to tell.  But I promise, it is worth it!”

The pair reached the edge of the park, and the old man and Antoine went their separate ways.  Antoine watched the old man walk towards the main building at the other end of the park.  Only once the old man vanished through the doorway, and all chance of hearing any more of the tale was finally gone, did Antoine turn and head towards his next class.

 


 

“Where the hell have you been?!” Lily yelled into Antoine’s ear.

Class had just ended, and everyone was leaving.  The old man’s story had lasted much longer than he had expected it to; he had spent four hours listening to the story, and had ended up missing two whole classes.

He rubbed his ear a few times before answering.

“Sheesh, Lily… Do you want me deaf?”

“You’ve been deaf for as long as I’ve known you,” Lily answered dismissively, “So, where have you been?”

A slight shiver ran down Antoine’s back as the last sentence emerged from Lily’s mouth.  It was like being doused in cold water.  Just as he was about to answer, their lecturer interrupted.

“Antoine, what are you still doing here?”

“I was going to explain why I missed most of the class.”

“No need, I’ve already been informed.”

The lecturer, late into his fourth decade, waved a letter in front of him.

‘What?  How on earth did the old man get a letter out this quickly?  No one besides me came into the class after me, so the letter had to have been delivered before I arrived.  But I came here straight from the park, so there shouldn’t have been time to write the letter, much less have it delivered.  Mr. Platinus was also lecturing from the moment I entered the classroom.  He didn’t at any point stop to read the letter, which means that he didn’t get the letter just before my arrival.  The letter must have been delivered well in advance of my arrival, but that means the old man had known that he would meet me…  But why would he essentially arrange to meet me, just to tell me a – admittedly intriguing – story?

Antoine stared at the letter which the lecturer now had dangling at his side.  His eyes widened.

‘That material!  The paper’s made of silkweave!  That stuff is more expensive than gold of equivalent weight.  Who on earth could afford to use silkweave paper just to send a small note to a lecturer about a kid late for class?!’

Antoine felt his head spin slightly.  He took a few staggering steps back and fell on his rear, staring at the paper in the lecturer’s hand all the while.

‘Just who is that old man?!’

 


 

Two figures stood waiting at a carriage.  Their backs were stiff, their necks straight, and their arms held tightly against their sides.  Their middle fingers ran right along the seams of their trousers, which was a purple line that ran down each of their sides, from shoulder, to sleeve, to shoe.  Their feet were exactly beneath their shoulders, and their eyes pierced straight ahead.

They wore white uniforms.  The only dashes of colour were the crystals hanging on the tassels of their epaulettes, the lines running down their sides, and the crests on their chests where their hearts would be.  The crests were a simple heater shield, with two crossed swords on it, a crown resting on its top, and a streamer banner curving along its bottom upon which the words “eien teom, clinkon; eien roges, shwerin” were embroidered.  The motto on the streamer banner translated to “in peace, a shield; in war, a blade”.

An old man, bent from age, exited through the door to their front, flanked on either side by two more figures in similar dress to them.  As the group came closer, the two stamped their heals together, straightening their backs even more, placed their right hands over the crests on their chests, and bowed deeply.

The old man smiled at them, patted the shoulder of each the closest to him, and entered the carriage.

“Thank you for your hard work,” the old man said as he vanished into the carriage.

The two quickly stood upright once more.  Two of the others who had come with the old man entered the carriage as well.  The remaining two of the four closed the door and the four took their positions on the carriage.  The reigns flickered in the air and the carriage took off.  Behind the carriage, eight soldiers on horseback flicked their reigns as well, and followed.

“Your Majesty really should stop leaving the palace with so little guard,” one of the two youths in the carriage said, “It leaves Your Majesty vulnerable to attack.”

The old man merely waved the man’s concern aside.

“Teal, I am the emperor of the Twinstar Empire.  I am beloved by my people, adored by my retainers, and admired by my loyal soldiers and servants.  Who would wish to bring me harm?”

“Your majesty, had you yourself not said that ‘in a body of people of any sizeable volume, there is bound to be great diversity’?  A diversity of both the good and the bad, both the holy and the evil?  Our empire stretches from the western waters to the eastern rocks, from the northern frosts to the southern sands.  Our empire has nearly forty million citizens, and at least eighteen million slaves.  The nobility consist of several thousand barons, nearly two hundred comtes, forty dukes, eight kings, and the three Dukes Primaire.  We border six other kingdoms, eight principalities, and twelve duchies, not to mention the Lands of the Fae, the beastmen’s lands, and the desert monster tribes.  Surely amongst all of them there are a few who wish harm upon you.”

“Yes-yes, we’ve had this conversation several times already, Teal.”

“And yet we keep having to have this conversation, Your Majesty.”

“Aghhh… Can we not just enjoy our ride back to the palace?  You know very well His Majesty listens to your advice on many things, but this is not one of them,” the other uniformed youth interjected.

“If His Majesty listens to me on only one thing, this should be it,” Teal complained, but he didn’t pursue the matter further.

The carriage rolled along the streets in silence.  The emperor stared out through one of the windows on either side of the carriage at the city slowly scrolling by.  It was in the middle of the afternoon, and the shadows were just beginning to pick up the pace as they stretched out across the street.  The streets were wide.  Even the narrowest could still accommodate two carriages side-by-side, and the widest of the streets, the Avenue of the Elysian Fields, could take fourteen carriages side-by-side, it was a total of seventy paces across, including the sidepaths.

“Have I told you the story of the Avenue of the Elysian Fields?” the emperor asked as the carriage turned onto the broad avenue.

“I have heard the story, Your Majesty, we all learn of it in the academy.

“But have I told you of it before?”

Teal sighed before answering, “No, Your Majesty.”

“This avenue is as old as the city, and its length has increased several times since it was first constructed.  It is the widest avenue in the entire city, in the entire empire, mind you, and likely there aren’t any others that can match up to it even outside of the empire.  It is paved with fallen heroes, soldiers, and individuals who sacrificed themselves for the empire and its people.  These fallen are cremated, and their ashes mixed in with the mortar that binds the paving stones to one another and the ground beneath them.  The stones themselves are also inscribed with their names, the year they were born, the day they died, and what they died for or what they died doing.

“The most interesting parts, however, are the annual even held at the end of the apollonian cycle, and the victory parades.  The first is called the ‘March of Remembrance’.  Over the course of two weeks, pilgrims from all across the empire come to crawl the entire distance of the avenue on all fours.  All the way they read the names and stories on every pavement stone they pass over.  The third week of the ceremony, the final week of the apollonian cycle, the inhabitants of the capital itself make the same march.  Every person, regardless of social standing, from slaves to even myself, must complete this march.

The emperor looked at the stones as the carriage rolled along.

“Tell me, Teal, why do we do this every year?”

“It is so that we never forget those who gave up their lives for the peace and prosperity we enjoy.”

“Indeed.  I hope to one day join them, to become another pavement stone on the Avenue of the Elysian Fields.”

The emperor was silent for another few minutes before continuing.

“As for the victory marches, they are called ‘The Victor’s Pilgrimage’.  A victorious army, returning to the capital, must march along the Avenue of the Elysian Fields, always looking down to the names written on the stones.  They may not look at the crowds, nor may the crowds cheer or speak with them, nor make any sounds what-so-ever, until the entire army has crossed the entire length of the avenue.

The emperor turned to Teal, and looked straight at him.  The weight of his gaze made Teal recoil slightly.  Cold sweat began to run down the back of his neck.

“Why, teal, do we have this custom?” the emperor finally asked.

“S-So that those who are victorious do not forget the sacrifices they have had to make.  So that they never become arrogant in their victory, but remember that there are always others who have sacrificed more, and that until their death, they have not fulfilled their duty to the empire, and to its people.”

“True,” the emperor answered, “but you’ve forgotten something.”

Teal scratched his head but couldn’t think of what he had forgotten.  The emperor gave him several moments to try and come up with an answer, but finally answered himself.

“To remind them that it’s not just that their duty is only fulfilled with their death, but that their death itself has to serve the empire as well.  Only those who die to preserve, to save, the empire and its people are interned in the Avenue of the Elysian Fields.  If one is interned in the avenue, then even in death, one can still serve the empire.  This is the greatest honour one can receive.”

Teal thought of his father, who was interned in this very avenue, and couldn’t help but nod his head.  For as long as the city was inhabited, his father would be remembered, his story read and told at least once every year.  To be remembered by those for whom one sacrificed oneself, to become part of the city for whom one fought and died, is truly the greatest honour.  It was the dream of every child, and indeed of every soldier and citizen of the empire, to die in such a way as to be interned in the Avenue of the Elysian Fields.  Such a death was a sacred, holy thing.

‘I’m in no rush to be interned there.  I would rather live a long life, for every day I am alive, is a day more that I can serve His Majesty.  For me, this is enough.’

Teal looked at the old man whose gaze had once again left the carriage and returned to the stone outside.  He looked at the old man’s gentle smile, his intelligent eyes, and his aged and delicate features.  The emperor was an old tree which had seen the ages pass it by.  He was in the autumn of his life.  His leaves were ready to fall from his branches and send him into the eternal winter at any moment, but they held on, determined not to drift in the breeze until everything that was needed was done.

‘My father has already earned his place in the Avenue of the Elysian Fields,’ Teal thought, ‘I’ll earn my place at His Majesty’s side.’

 

< Previous chapter | Index | Next chapter >

Advertisements

Chapter 10 – The Veil Falls

Michael arrived at the eastern city gate just as the sun was about a third of the way through its descent to the western horizon.

“Afternoon, sir,” he greeted one of the guards at the gate.

“Afternoon,” the guard answered.

“I’m going to be leaving the city for a hunting trip.  Is there a permit I need to purchase or something of that sort for my entry afterwards?”

The guard looked him over once or twice.  When he saw Devil’s Cry’s badge where it hung, pinned to Michael’s chest, his expression relaxed.

Continue reading

Chapter 9 – Charles

Michael tied the two bags of vegetables to one another, hung them around his neck, and moved on to the next shop on his list.  He found the shop a few stalls further down along the side of the plaza.  It sold backs, backpacks and other related items.  From it he bought a big backpack, two pairs of wooden sandals, and other essentials such as a piece of fabric with which to make a small one-man tent, and a thick woollen blanket.  The first pair consisted of three parts of wood, one flat piece on which the foot rested, and two pieces that protruded from it towards the ground.

The foot was held in place by three straps.  The first two were secured at one end to the forward vertical piece of wood through the flat piece.  They curled around and secured to the sides of the horizontal piece of wood about two thirds of the way back.  The third strap emerged from the back of the flat piece of wood, where both ends were secured, and went around the ankle.  Together the three straps kept the sandal firmly attached to the foot and prevented any tripping.

Continue reading

SABC wants South Africans to purchase TV licences for tablets, smartphones, and computer screens

News

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has expressed the intent to ask for ammendments to the Electronic Communications Act that would make it compulsory for South Africans to purchase TV licences for “all devices they can view content on”.

These amendments would mean that South Africans would have to purchase TV licences for devices such as smartphones, tablets and computer screens.

James Aguma, the new SABC CEO, addressing parliament in Cape Town on Wednesday, stated that the SABC is preparing for a severe decrease in revenue from TV licences.  We will have to make drastic changes just to make sure we can survive the current crisis, Aguma said.  The SABC had over R400 million in losses last year.

One of the contributors to the losses suffered, is the drop in listeners to several of the SABC’s major radio stations, such as 5FM and Metro FM, that followed an announcement by the former SABC CEO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, that 90% of the music played on radio stations has to be locally produced.

According to Aguma, people’s usage patterns have placed even more strain on the broadcaster which is already coping with a less-than-ideal economic climate.  Users are choosing to view television content on devices that the SABC cannot, under current legislation, tap for revenue.

Aguma stated that the organisation’s bad reputation made consumers unwilling to pay their TV licences, and admitted that it has also dissuaded advertisers to some degree.

Parliament was presented a report in March in which the Auditor-General highlighted R5,1 milliard’s worth of irregular expenditures.

Commentary

It is already surprising that the SABC had losses of only R400 million, considering they had ten times as much in irregular expenditures.

By hook or by crook (likely a bit of both) the SABC is going down the drain. It’s revenue is tanking, and in the midst of this decline the SABC has made a string of bad decision and committed what is probably the biggest mistake in South African broadcasting’s history.

First the SABC decided that it would not cover protests, a decision which was followed by unanimous public outcry and protests from journalists and reporters across the country and from every media.

Then they decide that 90% of all music played on radio must be by local artists, and 80% of all television content should be produced locally.  The South African media and music industries cannot produce enough quality content to fill such a gap, and this lead naturally to a severe drop in listeners and viewers.

All of this has tanked the SABC’s reputation, and as a result, it’s revenue.  But instead of performing some introspection and undoing some of their mistakes, they decide it is a good idea to shove their greedy fingers into the pockets of those who have already left their kingdom because they are unhappy with their content and policies.

It seems South Africa is taking cues from the German government, which recently decided that streamers require a €10 000 radio licence to stream.  But I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that the powers that be would want to extent their power and deepen their pockets.

This is clearly over reach on the part of the SABC.  Their youtube channels’ videos get less than a thousand views on average, often times only about 200-300, with barely any comment.  People aren’t watching the same content they previously would have watched on television, online, they are watching completely different content.  The SABC has no grounds on which to ask for this extension of the licencing requirements.


Their argument is literally:

  1. We aren’t making money.
  2. People are watching online content rather than ours.


Therefore we should tax those not watching our content and paying for it, as if they were.

This should be stopped.

Chapter 7 – Extraordinary Skills of a Foreign Origin

“Alright, that’s good, you’re done.” Don said, staring at the results recorded on his record sheet.

“Already?” Michael asked.

“Yes.  You can go wipe off at the pool over there, I’ll hand in your results in the meantime.  When you’re done head to the counter, they should have your recommendation ready by then.”

Michael bowed to Don slightly.

“Thank you for your hard work!” he said before heading off to the pool to wipe off the sweat.

‘My, even this is so realistic!  I feel sticky and completely covered in dust,’ Michael thought.

Don watched him walk away, and looked down at the record sheet in his hand.

Continue reading

Chapter 6 – An Old Man in the Park

“Ahh!  That Doctor Wallin really is a monster!” Antoine exclaimed as he massaged his sore right hand, “He made us write a whole essay in the period.  Where does he even get the time to mark all of those?”

Next to him Lily was also massaging her writing hand.  He cheeks were puffed and her eyes frowned slightly.  It was actually a arather comical look, like a little pouting puppy.  Just by looking at her face Antoine could feel his sour mood lightening up.

‘I guess there advantages to having her as a friend,’ he thought.

“Hey, Antoine, let’s go get something to eat,” Lily said, hopping out in front of him happily.

‘She does switch between moods quite quickly,’ he thought.

“You know I can’t afford that gold you eat for food,” he answered.

Lily puffed her cheeks once more.

“Don’t be such a pooper!  I’ve told you before that you don’t have to worry about the cost.  I’m inviting you to lunch, so of course I’ll pay.”

“No, absolutely not.  I might not be rich, but I’ll pay for my own food.  If I can’t afford it, I won’t eat it.  One I’ll earn enough to pay for that gold, only then will I eat it,” Antoine said, puffing out his chest as if declaring some noble ideal.

‘Well, that’s not really the reason.  I can’t bare all those venomous stares from the other students.  If looks could kill, I would be dead the moment I sat down at the same as you.’

Of course, looks would likely not be what actually killed him.  He was keenly aware of the massive status gap between himself and the people who ate in the hall where Lily would no doubt take him.  In the Royal Academy he wasn’t just at the bottom of the social ladder, he was the ground it stood on.  How would the students all along the ladder possibly tolerate a pebble like him eating with the top step of the ladder?  If he was truly to do something like that, it was most likely that his body would be found with several dozen knives sticking out of it a day later!

‘No thank you, I like living quite a bit.’

This was one thing that Lily couldn’t overpower him on.  His holy rule, as it were; he would not eat with her.  In the three years they had known each other, he had never budged on this even once, no matter what Lily tried.  She also knew this well, and though she frequently tried to get him to eat with her, she had long since given up doing any more than make the occasional invitation.

“Fine, you go and eat that sludge you call food.  If you change your mind, you know where to find me,” she said before dashing off.

“Ugh… She really is a handful.”

Antoine stretched once more before turning in the opposite direction Lily had left.  He walked past several buildings before coming to a small park.  Well, ‘small’ wasn’t really the correct way to describe it.  It was about a whole square kilometre.  It was about the same size as his hometown, and yet it only accounted for about one twentieth of the entire surface area of the Royal Academy, excluding residences.

The campus was so massive it had taken Antoine two whole months to familiarise himself with the various building he had to go to on a regular basis, and those were spread over just a third of the entire academy.  He still didn’t know the first thing about the other two thirds.

After about ten minutes of walking, the park stretched out in front of him.  The park was a beautiful, and perfectly maintained, but hardly anyone ever used it.  It was the perfect place for someone who stood out like a sore thumb, namely him, to find a respite from everyone and everything.

Antoine sighed, and entered the park.

He walked about two hundred metres into the park before he neared the spot he usually had his lunch at.  However, instead of the usually empty bench, he found someone sitting on it this time.  It was an old man.

Antoine approached the bench from behind.  He circled it at a distance of about ten metres until he could see the old man’s face.  Indeed, the face had decades written on it.  The old man was at least seventy years old, quite possibly more.  His skin was pullled down by gravity, leaving deep wrinkles on his face.  His hair was copletely white, even his eyebrows were white.  He had a slight stubble on his face.  His face was very friendly, though.  He had a slight sile on it that appeared as though it had been carved by a mason into a mountainside.  It seemed to be as old as the man himself.  Antoine felt that the smile must have weathered everything the man had lived through right alongside him.

“Hello there, young man,” the old man greeted suddenly.

Antoine jumped slightly.  Truthfully, he had begun to wonder if the man was a wax statue.  He hadn’t seen the man breathe since he had first laid eyes on him, so the sudden greeting caught him off guard and surprised him.

The old man smiled at his surprise and patted beside him on the bench.

“Don’t worry, unlike most old people, I don’t bite,” he said amusedly.

Antoine stared at him for a moment, baffled by his sense of humour.

‘MOST old people don’t bite, you know,’ he tsukkomi’d in his mind.

He sat down beside the old man, none-the less.

“It’s fine to eat, I don’t mind,” the old man said, unperturbed by the fact that antoine had yet to greet him or introduce himself as was appropriate for a junior to do.

The words snapped Antoine out of his stupor.

“I-I’m sorry.  I’m being very rude.  My name’s Antoine.”

“Hello, Antoine.  You can call me Mister Mika,” the old man answered.

“Mika?  It’s a rare name, Uncle.”

“So I’ve heard,” was the simple answer.

Antoine looked at him for a few more momens before he shrugged his shoulders and unpacked his lunch.

It was as Lily had said, a simple sealed bowl of cold soup.  It wasn’t very tasty, but it had all the nutrition he would need, and most important of all, it was cheap.  Antoine’s scholarship gave him a small allowance, but it wasn’t much compared to how the academy priced most of the things its stores and vendors sold.

Antoine kept an eye on the old man as he took a sip from his bowl, but the old man did nothing.  A few sips later the old man couldn’t hold himself back, and smiled.

“What’s so funny?” Antoine asked in an irritated, yet respectful manner.

One never knew who one could meet in the Royal Academy.  He had to be especially careful, since a solitary old man like the one sitting beside him, all alone, was likely to be some eccentric noble.  If he angered the old man, he might just end up the first Royal Academy student in its (admittedly short) history to be jailed and executed.

“Oh, nothing much, really.  I just find your way of eating refreshing,” the old man said.

‘Sure enough, he is an eccentric noble,’ Antoine thought.

“Refreshing?” he asked.

“Yes.  Most of the nobles are so concerned with etiquette and image that they completely forget about the simplest truth about eating and food.”

“And that is?”

“To feed your body.  If possible, food should also be enjoyed, but the most basic function of food is to serve as fuel for the body.  Similarly, the simplest function of eating is to put food into one’s body.  All those convoluted etiquettes regarding what knife and fork to use when, when to eat what, what dish should be eaten first, what dishes should be served together…  They all are completely superfluous in the end.  What does it really matter?  Besides making food that is tasty and enjoyable, one should primarily be concerned with making sure that one has everything one needs to keep oneself well-fed and healthy.  Everything else is just a luxury.”

Antoine stared at the old man blankly.  How on earth did he, a noble, understand the basic function of food?  Nobles only ever ate as enjoyment.  They had never suffered through hunger or hardship.  THey’d never had to live off the most basic of meals.  They could eat as much as they wanted, and if they got sick from not eating right, they could afford to have a healer come to their mansion and heal them.  What did they know about eating healthily and making to have a balanced diet?

The old man smiled again.

“I know what you’re thinking.  ‘What does an old noble like me know about hardship and hunger, how could I know about eating healthily, and appreciate the basic function of food and eating’, right?”

Antoine couldn’t help but nod.

“How about i tell you a story?” the old man asked, “You don’t have to worry about missing your class, I’ll explain everything to your lecturer, they’ll understand.”

Again, Antoine couldn’t help but nod.

“Ah, let’s see, this was many years ago.  What has it een, fifty-three, fifty-four years?” he began.

 

< Previous chapter | Index | Next chapter >

Chapter 5 – A Crimson Coloured World

The trees flashed by quickly.  Several rabbits were startled as shadows streaked by them.

“What on earth is Migal thinking?  I thought the frail were supposed to be a little smarter than the brawny, but his brain seems to be just as shrivelled up as his body!”

“Shut up and move faster.  We have to catch up to him!”

The group sped through the forest as fast as they could.  They didn’t bother to pay attention to how much noise they were making, nor trying to keep that noise low.  They simply pushed their bodies to move as fast as possible.  If they weren’t fast enough, surely their comrade would be dead.

However, as they came closer to the source of the naked devils’ smell, Dawn slowed them down.  Something wasn’t right.  They should be hearing sounds of combat by now.  Sure, Migal was much weaker than any of the other howlers of his or the previous generation, but the difference in strength between howlers and naked devils wasn’t small enough that his comparative weakness should allow him to be so quickly and easily dispatched.

A few steps later, however, Dawn winced.  He grew even more unsettled.  This time it was not due to the absence of sound, but the presence of two strong scents, and the contradictory picture they portrayed.

The first of the two smells was that of blood, not howler blood, but naked devil blood.  In essence this wasn’t surprising.  Even if Migal had been defeated, he should have put up a decent fight, his hatred alone would have allowed him to inflict severe wounds on his opponents – even had he been a naked devil – and given that he was a howler, his strength should have been enough to even mortally wound or kill one or two of them.  What truly unsettled Dawn, though, was the second smell.

A stench of urine stained his nose.  It seeped into his nostrils and carved its way into his olfactory nerve.  It made him want to sneeze.  The smell would have been enough to overpower even the horrible sense of smell of naked devils.  Howles’sense of smell was several times more sensitive and acute than that of naked devils, so it was even worse for them.  Several of the other members of the group couldn’t supress their reflex and bellowed out sneezes that echoed into the forest.

Dawn gave them an angry glare, but couldn’t reprimand them.  They had no experience when it came to hunting, or combat, and couldn’t really be relied on much.  Besides, he was more concerned by what the smell signified.

Urine was released naturally when an animal died.  After the initial muscle convulsions that followed shortly after death as the muscles fought for air, they would all relax.  This included the sphincter muscles that kept the bladder closed.  This was true for all animals with bladders.  However, the amount wasn’t typically all that much.  Since the animal would typically be laying down, there wasn’t too much pressure to force the urine out of the bladder.  Whilst there would be a smell from the little that leaked out, it shouldn’t be anywhere near this strong.  This strong smell could only come from a complete bladder discharge.  Which meant that the dead had relieved themselves before their death.

As for the nature of the smell itself, that also told him two important facts about the situation that lay beyond the next couple of trees.  First off, each species had a different smell to their urine, and he could clearly tell this was naked devil urine, not howler urine.  This told him that Migal wasn’t dead.  But if he wasn’t dead, then where was he?  And why was the fight over already?

The second thing about the urine, was that amidst the normal stench of urine, there was mixed in the distinct flavour of fear.  It was the smell of a particularly intense kind of fear, a terror that shook the very core of the reliever.  The naked devils didn’t just die in fear, they died in abject terror.

This kind of terror, however, wasn’t something howlers could cause.  For all the evils of the naked devils, Dawn had to give it to them, they were smart.  They had come to understand the nature of the howlers, and the limits of their capabilities, so when faced with a howler, even a particularly desperately fighting one, much less a frail one such as Migal, they shouldn’t be releasing urine at all, not to speak of urine that wreaked of sanity destroying terror.

‘What exactly happened down there?’ Dawn thought.

If not for the absolute trust he had in his own sense of smell, he might have thought that some other, as yet unsmelt, creature was involved.  He drummed up his courage and determination with a cold ‘humph’ at his own hesitation, and stepped forward.

“Come on, let’s move!”

The others hesitated for a moment before following him.  They closed the remaining distance slowly and quietly.  Nowhere along their approach could they hear any sounds; the forest was completely silent.  The silence was to the extent that they could hear their own hearts beating, and their compatriots’ breathing.  Despite the attention they paid to being silent, they could hear their footsteps.  No leaf rustled.  No nocturnal birds chirped.  No animal moved, even in the distance.  It felt like they were in the graveyard of a vampire’s castle town.

The trees suddenly thinned, and they were confronted with a scene they had never seen before.  Out of the group of fifteen wolves, only Dawn had seen something in the same hemisphere as this.  The group grabbed either their stomachs or mouths in unison.  Some turned around and emptied their stomachs, whilst others couldn’t turn around fast enough and their lunches spewed forth in arcs.

The word in front of them was crimson.

The red covered the leaves like early winter snowfall.  It clung to the bark of the trees like honey.  Chunks of firmness hung on low hanging branches.  A few arms could be distinguished, and a hand clung to the hilt of a spear as if still ready to pierce through anything that approached it.  A head lay next to what seemed to be the leftovers of a cuirass, probably belonging to the leader of the former group.

“What, what’s going on here?” Kor asked.

“Wh-What happened?” Dick followed.

“This, this looks like the gateway to hell…”

“No, this, this… I don’t know what this is.”

“A slaughter.”

Everyone stared in disbelief, some vomited a second or even a third time.  Dawn took a step forward, and as if moving purely based on his body’s own momentum, he walked.  It couldn’t really be called walking, it was more like his body was drifting forward, and he was just keeping his legs beneath it.

“Migal,” he called out.

There was no answer.

The sound of incongruent whimpering entered his ear.  It appeared to be coming from behind a tree at the other end of the crimson world.  A pair of legs lay before the tree, and a blood trail led around it.  His body moved to the tree, and as he peered around it, he found the upper half of the body there.

The naked devil’s intestines were trailing in a small arc back the way the blood trail came.  It was holding a small pendant in its hand, whimpering what Dawn could only assume was meant to be a religious recitation, or perhaps what the naked devils called a ‘prayer’.

Its face slowly lifted to look at him.  Its entire face shook as it did so.  It seemed as though it was freezing from the cold, even though winter was still far away, and it was laying square in the fading afternoon sunshine.  In its eyes Dawn saw terror, and elation?

“P-Please…” the devil whimpered.

Dawn knelt and placed his ear closer to hear the last words of the devil.  It might be a naked devil, but the dying could be extended at least the small courtesy of having their last words heard.

“P-Please…” the whimpering came again, “k-kill me… Before, it c-comes back…”

The voice faded, and all life left the devil’s eyes.  The terror, however, remained, destined to remain in those glassy, lifeless eyes until they rotted away.

‘What, what demon did this?’ Dawn asked himself, ‘What being could move so swiftly.  What creature could kill these notoriously tenacious naked devils so quickly, and instil in them a fear that made them ask the creatures traditionally their enemies, for the mercy of death?  And more importantly, what did it do with Migal?’

It was at this moment that the rest of the group had finally managed to cross the clearing, and came around the tree.  When they saw the upper half of the devil, several convulsed as if to vomit, but their already empty stomachs refused to give them the satisfaction of expelling something from their bowels.  In the end, they could only convulse stupidly, like a fish struggling to breath out of water.

“What do we do now, boss?” one of the group asked.

“We spread out and search for him,” Dawn answered after collecting himself, “Since there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Migal is among those here, whatever did this must either have him, or be chasing him currently.”

Kor raised a paw, as though they were still sitting under the old tree of wisdom back near the cave.

“What is it, Kor?” Dawn asked.

“If the thing was powerful enough to do this so quickly, wouldn’t we only be making ourselves more vulnerable than we already are by splitting up?”

“Damnit!” Dawn slammed his fist into the tree, causing several pieces of bark to splinter off and fall around the corpse, “You’re right.  Alright, we’ll have to search for him together.”

“Can’t we just leave him and return to the cave?  If there really is a monster that can do this, we need to warn the rest of the pack, and Migal was the one who rushed off without a concern for his own safety in the first place!” another voiced their protest.

None of the others said as much, but they nodded in agreement.

‘Ah, they really haven’t had a chance to learn anything yet,’ Dawn thought, ‘If we howlers were so quick to abandon our own kind, we would have gone extinct long ago.’

“No.  We need to find Migal.  It would be a complete disgrace if we were to return to the pack without him,” Dawn added underneath his breath, “or at least a piece of his corpse.”

He shook his head once again and looked at everyone with the stern face he knew they all needed to see from the alpha-male in the group right now.

“Spread out and search around the edge of the clearing.  Find me some trail of blood that could indicate in which direction Migal and whatever did this went!  With this much blood around, there’s no way they didn’t get some of it on their feet.”

The others nodded and immediately spread out.

 

< Previous chapter | Index | Next chapter >

Chapter 4 – Hymn of the Night Sky

Well, it’s time for another chapter, chapter 4 this time, and also time to introduce the final of the three primary protagonists.  I also went with a different style in this chapter.  I focused a lot more on dialogue, as I wanted a condensed characterisation.  Let me know what you think and if you’d like to see more of this style in the future.


The group continued their march through the forest.

“The Naked Devils will never catch us.  They’re so loud when they move you could hear them from hundreds of strides away.”

“Yeah.  Unlike them we Howlers are born to the forest.  We know how to move through the forest: like the stars in the night sky.”

“Hear, hear.”

Migal only rolled his eyes.

‘Aren’t you being noisy now?’ he thought.

“Don’t you agree, Migal?”

“Don’t bother.  He’s even quieter than us.  I’ve only heard him make a sound twice since he joined us, and both times it was a fart!”

The rest burst out in laughter.

“Migal the Mute isn’t called that for nothing, I guess.”

“Quiet down.  You’re worse than the devils,” the leader silenced them.

Dawn was the leader of this hunting party; a tall, brawny howler.  He was named for his fur coat, which was like the dawn: a soft yellow-orange that darkened as it descended from his head to his tail, the tip of which ended in a flash of crimson.

“Yes boss!” the rest answered, and nothing could be heard from them for quite some time.

The group moved non-stop for several hours, only stopping once the nightsun was high in the sky.

“We’ll stop here for the night,” Dawn said when they reached a small patch of thinned forest.

The group immediately found small spots for themselves to rest.  Each claimed a tree and curled up next to it.  It wasn’t long before the majority were snoring away.  Migal didn’t fall asleep, however.  He waited until he was sure everyone was out cold, and snuck off.  He crept up the hillside until he found himself above the treeline, in a clearing at the top of the hill.

Above was a canopy of stars.  They were bright, shining like diamonds in the dark of the night.  Each had its own hue, its own shimmer.  He found himself a spot where the ground looked softer, and the grass a little greener, and lay down.  With his hands beneath his head he lay, gazing up at the sky.

Slowly, a lonely, solemn voice drifted from the hill-top.  It flowed down the hill and into the forest, weaving its way through the trees.  It found its way to a stream, where it drifted with the current, away into the unknown.

No matter how much I draw, it doesn’t become beautiful

The paints that I chose are not at fault

That shooting star I saw last midnight

I can still remember it

I was waiting for you

Hello shooting star, Hello shooting star

Again

I’ve been waiting for you

That girl who dreams

Is still right here, ah ah

Just like that day, ah ah

Hello shooting star, Hello shooting star

Again

I’m waiting for you

Please don’t stop dreaming

Even if you’re crying, ah ah

Even if you’re smiling, ah ah

Shine again and dispel

The darkness in my heart

The shadow in my soul (1)

The night, which was quiet already before, was completely silent when the voice faded away at last.  A shadow emerged from the forest, ascended the hill-top, and came to a sit next to Migal.

“It’s a sad song.”

“Ah,” Migal answered.

“Where did you hear it?  It’s not a song I know.”

“It drifts around in my dreams.”

“You hear songs in your dreams?” Dawn asked, “I thought all howlers dreamt of only two things.”

“And what would those two things be?”

“Hunting and howling at the nightsun, of course,” Dawn looked at Migal, slightly baffled, “It seems what they say is true.”

“They say many things; you’ll have to be more specific than that.”

“You really aren’t very good at being a howler, are you?  You don’t dream of hunting or howling.  You don’t howl at the nightsun, but instead you hymn to the stars.  You’re not big or brawny, and you refuse to hunt deer or any other animal for that matter.  I’ve heard all you eat are roots and plants, is that true?”

“I do hunt,” Migal answered.

“Oh?  What do you hunt?”

“Naked devils.”

Migal’s lips curled into a snarl as he spat out the two words like so many pieces of rotten meat.

“So that’s true as well.”

“What?”

“You have a deeper hatred for the naked devils than most.  I wonder why that is.  As far as I know you haven’t had any noteworthy encounters with them.  None of your family have been killed-“

“I don’t need to have lost someone to that filth to hate them.”

“…I see.”

Silence descended on the hill-top for a few minutes before Dawn spoke again.

“So tell me, why did you come on this hunt?”

“You really do talk a lot, you know that?”

“I do, now tell me.”

“Ah… You’re supposed to pass at least one hunt to become an adult, right?”

“That’s true, but only if you want to be allowed to leave the pack on missions, or if you want to join another pack.  You can live a good life within the pack even if you don’t pass a hunt.”

“I need to pass the hunt.  I have naked devils to kill, and they won’t be polite enough to come to the pack for their deaths.”

“Ugh, there you go again.  Why exactly do you hate the naked devils so much?”

“I have my reasons.”

“Humph.  Kid, let me tell you this: it would be best if you stayed at the back of the group for now.  Your slim body doesn’t have much strength in it, you’d only get hurt if you tried to do more than you’re capable of.”

“I don’t need lecturing.  I might not be as strong as any of you, or look as intimidating, but I kill just fine.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Dawn said as he stood up.  He descended the hill, heading back into the forest.  His voice echoed from the treeline.

“Don’t fall asleep up here, you’ll catch a cold.  I don’t want to have to carry you around for the rest of the hunt!”

Migal drew his knees against his chest and stared at the mountains in the distance.

“I’m not as weak as you think I am,” he whispered.


The morning was slow to come.  Migal spent most of the night gazing up at the stars as they marched across the sky.

‘How marvellous would it be if people were like that?  Just always walking the right path.  Marching to their destiny, never swayed by temptation or greed.’

He stood up slowly, and left the hill-top as the sky began to brighten and the stars fade.  He arrived back at the resting place of the group just as Dawn was kicking everyone awake.

“Come on, get up!  It’s time to get moving you bunch of bastards!” He laughed as kick after kick landed on the howlers, rousing them from their slumber.

“Oh, damn boss.  Why do you always have to kick us awake?  Can’t you nibble my ear or something instead?” Kor protested.

“Shit Kor, I didn’t know your tail curled!” Dawn rebutted.

Everyone burst out in laughter.  Some even rolled on the floor.

“Dick, you’ll have to be careful.  Next time you might want to pick a tree further away from Kor!”

“Stop it! You guys know I didn’t mean it like that!”

The teasing continued for several minutes, and by the time everyone had calmed down, the rude wake-up call was all but forgotten.

“Right, enough playing around.  We’re heading out.  We should be reaching the hunting grounds soon, so stay alert and keep an eye out for good pray!” Dawn shouted as he started heading off into the forest.

Everyone followed and soon the group had already travelled several thousand strides.

The forest was lush.  Every possible paw of ground was covered with one kind of foliage or another.  From his time spent in the forest, Migal could identify most of the plants, and those he couldn’t he knew he didn’t have to pay any attention to.  He knew every one of the important plants, the poisonous and the edible, everything else was useless and didn’t pose any threat to him.

The group was immersed in their banter the whole time, but Migal didn’t participate.  He remained as silent as the night.  Only his breathing, and the gentle swoosh of his tail kept Dawn aware of his presence.

“He’s quite silent that guy.  Not just doesn’t he talk, but his movements all seam deliberately made to be as quiet as possible.  I can’t hear any unnecessary sound coming from him.  If not for his weak physique, he would make a pretty decent hunter.  Ah, all the talent is wasted on the weak.’

Dawn could do nothing but lament nature’s twisted sense of humour.  Why was it that those with the brightest minds, or the greatest talent, always had the worst bodies?  His own elder brother was one such person: blessed with great tracking skills, but born without a tail.  Whilst this didn’t impede his normal day-to-day life, it prevented him from hunting.  The tail was essential to maintaining balance and performing fast and tight manoeuvres.  Without it there was no way one could catch anything faster or more agile than a tortoise.  As a result, his brother was relegated to teaching the concepts of tracking, whilst Dawn himself had to take the groups of youngsters out to practice their knowledge in the field.

‘Oh well, we each do what we can,’ Dawn thought.

He shook his head lightly and didn’t pay it any more heed.  He had a job to do after all.

The group slinked through the forest.  The sun slowly climbed up into the sky where it seared a golden hole in the azure blanket.

“Migal, come over here,” Dawn called.

“Ooo, seems Migal is in trouble,” one of the group teased.

“Doesn’t it seem like the boss has been far chattier with him since this morning?”

“You can’t really call that chatting, can you?  He’s the only one talking.  All Migal does is grunt or nod or shake his head from time to time.”

“That’s about as chatty as he’s likely ever to be, and it’s far more than he’s ever been before, wouldn’t you say?” Kor interjected.

“Of course, curl-tail Kor would know a lot more about how other males act, wouldn’t he?”

Everyone laughed.

“Come on, drop it already.  I told you guys it’s nothing like that!”

Migal glanced at them over his shoulder for a moment before merely shaking his head.

“Bunch of useless brats.”

“Ah, you shouldn’t be so self-deprecating, Migal.  You’re not completely useless,” Dawn answered sarcastically.

Migal only shot him an irritated glance before falling into silence once more.  A few minutes passed in such partial silence.

Suddenly, Migal stopped dead in his tracks.

“What’s the mat-” Dawn only uttered half his sentence before shutting up immediately as well.

“Hey, shut up back there!  Get down!” he yelled at the group behind him.

He turned back to Migal, observing him quietly.  Migal’s nose twitched several times, and his ears moved from side to side, scanning his surroundings.  A fire ignited in his eyes, and his lips curled into a demented, devilish smile.

“Naked devils.”

The words had barely left his mouth before he vanished into the trees.  Dawn felt a cold spark run up and down his spine.

‘So much hatred,’ he thought, ‘What exactly birthed such a loathing, such a thirst for vengeance in that kid?  Nevermind that, where did he go?  I can’t hear anything.  Is his stealth that good?’

Dawn was puzzled for half a moment before his eyes widened.

“The fucker!  He’s a complete idiot.  What can he do against a group of eight or more naked devils?”

He turned to the rest of the group.

“Listen up you bastards!  That idiot Migal rushed ahead at a bunch of naked devils like an idiot!  We better move and save him!”

“Oh come on!  It was bad enough that he was dead weight on the trip so far, but now he’s even sinking and dragging us with him?  I’m going to beat him up when I get my hands on him!” someone protested.

No one disobeyed, however, and the group dashed forward, trying to catch up to the shadow that slowly disappeared in the canopy amongst the branches and leaves.

< Previous chapter | Index | Next chapter >


  1. Lyrics adapted from Hello shooting star