A story nearing the end of the Grey Guardian, a running series of mine.
The leaves upon the trees rustle, dry and cold husks. Their fire hues given way to earthy brown, they rattle ready for a final descent. Those fallen stir in the breeze and dance as nymphs away from the forest's edge, seeking gutters and yards to clog before feeding the new life come spring. The sky above is grey and implacable, a ruffled slate canvas muffling a weakened autumn sun.
Gad rolls the sweet smelling paper into a tight line, drawing it to his mouth. He lights it with a match, tasting the Cyril, a tobacco hybrid, drift over his tongue. He inhales, allowing it to caress his lungs. He puffs a dark billow, the wind whipping and shaving it. It goes south with the rest of the warmth.
When he finishes, he tosses his handmade cigarette to the stony road. He sits upon his mount, a vargr, assessing his haul. Slung over the flank of the great wolf are the obsidian carcasses of his last quarry. He had come and slain the remaining few. Now he wore their pelts as armor, their tight scales shifting freely and offering superior mobility despite the weight.
He spurs the beast gently, and it trots up the northward road. Gadren plans on visiting Emeros, where he can get a fair price on the meat and hides.
The road is long and silent save for the wind. The scales of the dead canines scrape a bit, but it is a soft and unobtrusive sound. The padded paws of his mount are light upon the road, and they move swiftly into the biting wind. The fur of the beast ripples against Gad's armored legs. The two are suited for this weather.
He arrives at Emeros the following morning after daybreak. It is a larger port city resting against the icy Mourning Sea. The smell of salt and sea life is mild, hampered by the chill of winter's onset. The city is cut into the jagged cliffs of the Iron Hills, transforming the smooth dark stones of amorphous design into symmetrical hovels and windowed fortifications. The city had stood long years against the northern water's assault and the tireless winters, and it is now a hardy, if morose, bastion above the foam.
Gad rides into the city proper, which is an elevated canyon between looming rock walls. The street here is flat and wide, full of merchant stalls and traveling traders. Exotic wares can be seen laid out on counters or hanging from hooks. Spices and meats from foreign places and trinkets, real and counterfeit, move from hand to hand in exchange for local goods and gold.
He dismounts and speaks with vendors trading pelts and articles of clothing. There are silks and cottons, denim and leather, furs, and various fiber and metal pieces of protection. He bargains and haggles, a few of his buyers attempting to outbid one another. By the time he finishes, he brings in a good haul of supplies for the road, which he stows carefully into the saddlebags of his beast. Furthermore, his coin purse is pleasingly weightier than it had been before.
As he exchanges the last of the carcasses for a few more bits of gleaming metal, the final trader thumbs his nose and eyes Gad's mount. "The warg there." He tilts his chin (on which hangs a wiry goatee) toward the great wolf. His accent is emphatic, pausing momentarily between each word. It is a manner of speech common in the southeast of the continent in and around the Salt Desert. "You would not happen to be selling it, would you? Or, could I convince you?"
Gad shakes his head. "I'll be traveling south again soon. Going to need him for that." He turns and looks at the beast, tempted to pet it but turns back and continues talking instead. "Would there be any work around here? Sirens out on the rocks? Pesky mist sprites? I've got a long trip from here. Want to be stocked up."
The man with the goatee waves off a window shopper and then crosses his arms, puzzled. "You must have earned a good penny today." He shrugs. "Ask around. I'm just traveling myself."
Gad does not head straightaway to gather information but instead ventures deeper into Emeros, descending its many hard cut steps. He wants to familiarize himself with the area and find a kennel for his mount. He had been to Emeros once before about a hundred years past. Back then it had been little more than a fishing village with huts built onto the side of the slopes, not carved into them. Now, however, it sprawls with high towers and weaving tunnels, sentinels and burrows resisting the sea. The people stream through the streets endlessly, trading, commuting, or begging.
After finding a place to board his beast, Gad moves down into one of the lower districts and visits a serviceable inn. It's a bit nicer than his usual haunts. In the main room is a service desk and bar, clean tables about. There are patrons, peaceable ones at that, sitting in the low light and eating decent looking meals from the kitchen. The inn is carved entirely of stone from the mountain, though the tables and other furnishings appear to be hardwood. There are electric lights with green glass housings hanging over the tables. In the corner is a working radio. Gad smiles at the eldritch technology, and his hand runs over the side of his coat, under which is his revolver.
He takes a seat at the bar and spends the evening emptying glasses. To his disappointment he notes the establishment is not the kind to provide evening comfort, so he settles for the pleasantries of alcohol and music he thought had been lost. The liquor has little effect on Gad, but what little it does is soothing. He sits undisturbed into the night but is brought out of his waking rest by the radio.
"And debut single by a local boy. His life was cut short, but he left us some of his talent. Rolling Cloud by Cal Burner, everyone." The sound of an acoustic begins. It plays slow and light and soon is harmonized by a violin. Then Calix's voice enters the rhythm.
Watch the grey expanse
And fall into its trance
It passes by just like the years
And all our late night tears
Grey, grey, you ride so high
And I watch you pass overhead
Grey, grey, upon the sky
I'll soar like you when I'm dead
I remember when I held you in the rain
How we shared each other's pain
But sorrow clears just like the grey
Forever in my arms you can stay
Grey, grey, you ride so high
And I watch you pass overhead
Grey, grey, upon the sky
I'll soar like you when I'm dead
Rolling cloud which hides the sun
I will stand; I will not run
When the storms--
Gad turns to the innkeeper, unable to listen any longer. "Do you have a room for the night?"
"Huh?" The innkeeper is taken by surprise by his silent customer, but he smiles when he comes to. "Of course. The Grey Guardian is more than welcome to stay. A room on the house even."
"I couldn't." Gad feigns.
"Ah." The man rubs his stubbled chin. "You can pay for the drinks, if that eases your conscience. Tell you what, I have a friend with some interesting relics. I'll have him swing by in the morning."
"Fetishes? Ground necromancer teeth? A wrist watch?" Gad restrains a grin.
The innkeeper leans across the counter. He smells of the alcohol he'd been handling all day and of cedar wood. "A working camera. It's not an original, mind you. It's something they conjured up down south. Reverse engineered." He points at a barren section of wall by the radio. "He's been taking pictures with it, and he managed to get his hands on a printer. You know, maybe one day we'll have flying ships again and figure out why our so-and-so great-grandparents got stranded here." He snorts and clears his throat. "Anyway, I commissioned him to get me some decent pictures. Going to hang them up. It'll be novel. Now," he smiles and bounces a finger at Gad, "I get a picture of you standing in here, and I'm liable to draw in your fans. That can be your room payment." He stands back and holds out his palms, nodding with raised brows. He relaxes and adds, "Besides, business is slow now. I can afford a room."
His rest is uneasy that night. Gad experiences another variant of the sacrifice he had made well over a hundred years past. The pale moonlight, the sharp wind against the branches, and that familiar corpse. This time his brother speaks from his grave, begging to know why, but when Gadren relents an answer, the boy seems deaf. He only continues to ask, as though he was dissatisfied with the response.
In the morning he dons the scaled armor and humors the innkeeper. He had not had his picture taken since he was a little boy, and his brother had still been crawling. While he wore his years heavily, the hunter of monsters sees in his photo that unnatural vitality he had bargained for. He has jovial words with the proprietor and the photographer, but the sight of his sin sours his gut, and he leaves without eating.
He does not find the work he had wanted. Things are drying up, and he knows it. Mankind is gaining a real foothold on this once wild planet, and soon there will be little room for those of his vocation.
So, instead of searching for work, he makes a deposit at a network bank and finds a few warm articles of clothing to place under his armor. He has a considerable fortune, when all is taken into account. The income itself is not an issue, but he is nearing the end of his purpose.
He takes his vargr from the livery and leaves the city, heading up the craggy and battered coast. Time was when he could see sirens out on such frothing rocks or a basilisk spawning ground, but now there is only the angry waves and the fishing-vessel-dotted waters. He rides on a high unmarked road which overlooks the uninviting beaches. Down below there are smaller ports and private docks. Youths can be seen now and then in gangs and pairs tossing stones into the waves, huddled around fires, or sneaking off to secluded grottos. They do this because they are young, but they succeed because they are safe.
He rides on.
The steady breeze combs his short beard, and the sound of it reminds him of his true youth. The wind never changes, he thinks. It sounds the same and feels the same now as it did then. Whatever death cheating deals he makes, that wind was before him and it will be after. He considers this, watching the stunted high hill grass mimic the water below. He is only a temporal phase in a larger scheme, and his lifelong ambitions can never outlast the flowing air.
Gad makes a camp that night. He gives raw meat to his mount before eating some himself. In his beast's skin plate and his mouth full of uncooked flesh he is more akin to the creatures he's hunted for more than a century. A doppelganger had once told him as much, that he was little more than a monster himself. For the most part, the things he has pursued all these years were born enemies of man and goodness, yet he was offered choice. He remembers Faust. His father had told him the tale.
Beads of sweat form on his brow, painful in the frosted air. He raises his right hand to the firelight and holds his palm out before his face. There is a circular scar roughly hewn into the leathery skin. Gadren Amon grimaces and fingers one of his knives with his free hand. He looks over at his vargr, and the titanic wolf watches him curiously and half-awake, as it is curled up beside the warmth. He pulls the knife free and presses the frigid flat side to the scarred palm.
He takes a deep breath and lifts his eyes to the abyssal sky before focusing again on that circle. He whispers then, his words lost in the wilderness. "I am going to parlay with the devil again."