by Max Barry

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by The Wandering City of Eisenstern. . 25 reads.

A Girl's Best Friend



When they come to hang you

Stand straight, brace your neck, be stronger


The crunch of snow beneath lightly-shod feet. It echoes over the white-clad knolls, weaving from bough to branch, settling in dried-out hollows and rotted stumps. The trees are dead here. The girl running between them is not - for the moment.

There is red on white - droplets scatter with each footfall. A flash of bare anke, here and there; pale flesh, raked by brambles. No time to tend to such paltry wounds - the distant baying of hounds draws nearer.

The ground is uneven. Roots poke out from between banks of snow, threatening to snag the unwary. The girl trips, and the clothbound bundle in her hands drops onto the carpet of white. She scrambles for it on her hands and knees - snatching it up, she pulls herself to her feet.

The chase draws closer still.

There are flickering lights, now. Swaying along behind, in a frenzied rhythm. Will-o-wisps, flashing through the thickets - visible, were the girl to turn. She does not. She doesn’t need to - her wild-eyed sprint is acknowledgment enough.

She runs, out of breath. Stumbles, out of time. Black, and red, and tan on bone-white - out of place. Up ahead, through the trees, there is a different sort of light. Immobile, unswaying. Not the maddened swinging of the torches, but rather something that is embedded. Fixed. A beacon of safety, perhaps. She has little choice but to run ever forwards.

Out, past the withered branches and winding thorns.





Hope was smothered, as quickly as it had blossomed.

She knew this light well. Its guiding glow had drawn her over many a mountain path, untold meters down in the canyons below. And now she’d run right up to it, through the thickets - a stoutly-built structure of piled-on stones, bearing a caged bonfire. Behind it, a sheer drop some few hundred meters down.

There was nowhere else to go.

She turned, her face too frozen to express much of anything; both literally and figuratively. She watched the torches creep closer - now, the incessant cries and chants were joined by the splintering of brush underfoot, and under the constant hacking of blades. They were not as nimble as her, nor as swift - still, they could afford to carve a path. And now they were almost upon her, bearing out from the deadened undergrowth with eyes full of firelight, and hands full of glimmering steel.

The bonfire behind her was a small mercy, serving to slip some warmth back into her weatherlashed limbs, but it was the last thing on her mind now. Its roaring form belched forth tendrils of acrid smoke into the clouded skies - a stream of inky black, coiling through the air as some vaporous serpent. It drifted over the snow, over the single trail of footprints, about to be joined by a myriad more. And then, inexplicably, it halted.

Scores of boots had trampled the dirt and snow for miles, and yet they could go no further. The smoke descended before them like a solid thing, multiplying outward into a wall of acrid darkness. It swirled around the clearing almost faster than the eye could follow, physically casting aside the nearest few members of the halting mob. With a force unbecoming of mere vapors, it was whipped into a curtain around the girl, and its passage was enough to blast the snow aside as if by cannonfire. An umbral hurricane - a defiant newcomer in the face of age-old winter.

Within the maelstrom’s eye, there was an oasis of calm. The fire still burned as brightly as ever, undisturbed by the hurricane winds outside; the girl stared, wide-eyed, as a figure emerged from the cloud. She had seen it before, diminished - never like this. Towering over any man alive, a gaunt silhouette of smoke and magmatic fire. Twin embered voids seemed to bore into her very soul, their depths awash with the heat of some primordial forge. Its mouth, when at last it bowed its head and spoke, a roaring furnace-maw; hemmed with an assortment of daggers, in crude emulation of crooked teeth. And the voice itself was something altogether alien - the burning of fuses, the grinding of flint over steel, twisted into words by a mind that barely grasped the concept of language.

”Hello.”

They stood there for a moment, regarding one another. One, remaining silent in the absolute knowledge that, for the moment, all that it wished to say had been said. And another, too cold and tired and altogether lost to formulate a reply. At last, when the warming glare of the fire had returned some feeling to her face, she responded with laughter. It was lengthy, drawn-out, and egged on by the ambiguous mixture of aimlessness and abject terror that now filled her mind. The thing, for its part, regarded her without emotion, for it was nigh-impossible to show much of anything with a face made from smoke and knives. In any case, it knew that words would be forthcoming - indeed, as the last few vestiges of mirth petered out, the girl graced her companion with something more substantial.

“You’re here.”

Ripples flowed over gaseous skin as the specter nodded.

“I took… altogether too long to find… you.”

Its pauses were not for breath. It had no lungs to fill, and thus filled the voids in its statements with grinding metal and bubbling acid, drawn from some eldritch reservoire of sound. Irrespective of sentence structure of basic meaning, the breaks it took between words were about as obscure in purpose as their speaker was in function.

“Signs were wrong, you… neglected alignment.”

“I- I didn’t have time. I didn’t know.”

“You… have forgotten? Have you… not references?”

“I didn’t know they’d come.”

“I understand inconveniences borne… from interruption. But I had an anchor in...”

Here it genuinely seemed lost. Seconds ticked by - with no words forthcoming, the girl took it upon herself to probe.

“I thought you knew all the words you needed. You told me that, once.”

“I do. You don’t. I am beginning to understand… your understanding. I seek to… adapt. A further anchor… found. In you.”

“What do you mean, in me?”

“To have brought… me here. Granted insight. A picture… was formed of knowns… and of unknowns. I see the… outlines you leave. Upon this world. The rite loses… function.”

“You… don’t need it anymore? The circle, the sigils?”

“They help. But… I can make do without. Soon, they will not… help at all. Nor need… to.”

“Thank you.”

“What… for?”

She motioned at the still-swirling mass of smoke.

“All this. If you hadn’t come, I would be…”

Her eyes slid downwards, boring into the snow. The sentence remained unfinished; after another stretch of mutual silence, the smoke-thing let forth a few more words.

“You have… potential. Internalized, memorized tracts… of use here. The cliff should be no… impedance, and neither… should they.”

“I-”

Slowly, her gaze returned to meet that of the un-creature.

“I tried. I really did. But there’s nothing. I can probably manage something now-”

Between trembling fingers, she conjured a mote of light. It sat in place, shimmering, as a modest complement to the bonfire glow.

“-but now I’m safe. Out there, I was cut off. Head too clouded, too much… fear? More than that, I think. I could barely string coherent thoughts together.”

“Fear. Loss. Cold. Stimuli, to… list a few. The flesh claws… for dominance of the mind.”

“I couldn’t do anything. I could barely run.”

“No small… victory. You live.”

There was something more to this next pause. Some newfound void - an absence of even the attempt to reply. There was no snow around the brazier; she sank down to her knees, onto grassy loam. When a response did finally claw its way from her, it did so almost inaudibly over the crackling of the fire - though lacking ears of any sort, the shadow-creature could still pick out the words with ease. Yet the fact that its companion refused to look back up as she spoke told it volumes more than words ever could; for something so alien to human thought, it had gotten a decent grasp on social cues.

“They’re dead, aren’t they?”

The thing’s silhouette seemed to stretch even higher than its already considerable size had allowed - casting its twin embers skyward, it stood with its head thrown back for a moment or two. What it saw in the cloud cover, if anything, was anyone’s guess. Then it settled back down, eyes turning back to the shivering form before it.

”Yes.”

“It was all my fault. I killed them.”

“No. They were-”

Her voice rose from nigh-imperceptible whisper to hoarse, cracking cry in less than a breath. One would think it impossible to interrupt speech brought into being by some direct force on local reality, but she managed.

“I did! If it wasn’t for me, wasn’t for-”

Her bare foot slammed into the cloth bundle, sending it skidding a good few feet.

“-this, they wouldn’t have gone out there! There wouldn’t have been a mob at our door!”

The apparition had technically lied, earlier, for ease of understanding. It felt no compassion - indeed, it didn’t feel much of anything in the traditional sense. Nor did it think as man did, nor know. It merely was, and had been for as long as it couldn’t remember. And yet there was a need for clarification, and for a righting of untruths. Its jaws hissed open once more, rusted cadences smoothing over a rapidly-rising mess of sobs.

“Hindsight remains… clearer than foresight by far. You fall victim… to rage borne from ignorance. You merely traveled… down a path, and loss came from without. Gain, also.”

A hand of writhing darkness placed itself weightlessly onto a battered shoulder. Reassurance was also not quite in the thing’s repertoire, yet some iron figment of storied thread had guided it into place. This was expected, somehow.

”Your misfortune was brought about… by a convergence. A meeting of… fates, in form and principle much… apart. It was road to which… you were bound. Are, still, but… tools in hand, there is an exit.”

Through tears, she could barely see the deadened, knife-toothed grimace. But she made the effort to raise her head nonetheless, wiping each eye with a trembling hand.

“What are you talking about?”

The screech of a dozen rusted, ground-together blades accompanied what might have been a shrug. Somewhere within the shadowy mass, there was a shift.

”You have tasted knowledge… of the sort your kind rarely does. You understand, without… truly understanding that you do. It… may make little sense now, but you… hold them. The building-blocks… of a future that is your own.”

“That doesn’t help!”

At once, the air shifted - though comparatively still prior, it now seized up into an almost solid thing, as if something was purposely keeping it in place. There was a sense of crystallization, almost, as the shadow-figure bent down to eye level, its form contorting into some perverse approximation of a spring. Pits of smoldering amber stared directly into orbs of pale white, mere inches away. The next few words to slide from the furnace-jaw were measured, without pause, and clarified to the point of audible sharpness. They made their way directly into conception, skipping over the byways to which sound was ordinarily beholden; conveyed not through air, nor ear, but simply shunted from soul to soul.

”Your past hardships are immutable. What is done is done - to dwell on it is to squander your future. Your actions have brought you not only grief, but power. And now it is up to you to decide on how you will use it.”

Having proclaimed thusly, it oozed back into its more mundane shape; its speech thereafter was still as uniquely unnatural as ever, but now devoid of forced clarity. At the very least, it gave the ears some illusion of use.

”It was not my intent to… startle. I sought to better convey.”

The sobbing had faded out, amidst the icy declaration; though still stained and bruised, the girl’s hands no longer shook. And her voice, too, was steady - still uncertain, but cracking no longer.

“You say that with such certainty. And I think I know what you’re trying to tell me, but-”

Absent-mindedly, she fiddled with the light-mote. It danced around her fingers, far too simple a thing to take cues from its surroundings; it had simply been brought forth, and now it was content to stay. In some small way, it gave comfort - if nothing else, a minor distraction, while her mind went through motions it really, really didn’t want to make.

“-I still don’t understand. You tell me I have power, but the moment anything’s at stake I just fold over. I might as well have nothing - what good is something like that, if I can’t use it when I need to?”

”Power comes in… forms upon forms. I refer to many. Your magic, certainly, but other… facets also. You had the fortitude to make… it out here. To evade for as long as you… could. And of course, you… have me.”

“Why?”

This one came suddenly - a question stemming directly from realization, with minimal mulling-over from conscious thought. When no response seemed immediately forthcoming, she decided to elaborate.

“Why did you come all the way out here? I appreciate it, really, but I didn’t call for you. Not properly. You stepped in of your own volition.”
⠀⠀
”You have brought… me unto this world. By roads you… did not understand, and bindings… too weak to hold me. Yet I stepped... forth. Again and again, and through… our interactions have shaped myself. To better… fit this worldly place. I may come and… go as I please, yet. You are less anchor, more… beacon. Less summoner… more associate. We have learned alongside… one another, and will not cease to. You cannot have… will not die this day. So say I, with voice that is being.”

“So… does that mean you’ll get me to safety? Without a contract, without bindings? I didn’t think that’s how your kind worked.”

”Your tome speaks... from limits. Writ of one. I speak for myself, as… another. My kind, I cannot speak... for. Nor will I say, nor do, beyond agreement… and basic absolutes. Your path is… yours alone, though I may shape it for you. At behest, til your own hands... bear practice.”

“I… I want to get out of here. But I don’t know where to. I don’t know anywhere, not really. Outside of these plains, all I have is what the books told me. And books lie - I know that now.”

”Your world is many things. Not… all, but many. What you see through words on a page can… very well be found. Oft. If you desire a path, I... shall pave it.”

Though still unsteady, the girl rose to her feet. There was a slow rise of something from within - some kernel of determination that had hitherto been buried under sorrow, confusion, and all the other short-term emotional baggage she’d had neither the experience nor understanding to unpack. But it seemed as though these brief few minutes of conversation had been enough to spark it; a driving core, around which all now rose to attention. It snaked its way into her words, as she scooped the battered bundle from the dirt, and turned back to the shimmering apparition.

“Then we should get going.”

At once, the curtain of smoke tore itself to pieces, exposing the two of them to the winds, and to the withering gazes of their pursuers. The mob had reassembled after the initial confusion - though its attempts at breaching the barrier had been ineffectual, it now seemed as though they’d finally broken through, at least to them. They’d had no real impact, of course, but the illusion had given them back some of their original zeal; once more, they moved forwards in a human tide of malice. Yet the leading few were buffeted back by ever-strengthening gusts of wind, and so their actual advance slowed to a crawl some dozen meters from the cliff’s edge. The shadow-figure, meanwhile, strode right on over to the canyon’s lip, and cast its arms wide - at once, a bridge of darkness rolled forth, stretching to the other side of the chasm. Though woven from the same oozing smoke that still rose from the bonfire, it seemed remarkably solid. The girl tested it with one foot, and indeed it responded to touch as a hunk of stone would. The surface felt like smoothed marble.

Their torches blown out, their blades cast into the snow by the uncaring and unnatural weather, members of the crowd resorted to shouting across the scant few meters that separated them from the object of their fear and hatred. Here was the witch-child, its pet demon beside it, so close and yet wholly out of reach, kept from the grasp of righteous retribution by the same eldritch forces that they’d wielded to mislead. To corrupt and undermine, to sow the seeds of every foul occurrence possible, from failed harvests to still births. They had no proof of connection, of course, but there could certainly be no coincidence about the whole thing; the girl was a servant of the vilest forces, and it was on her that all blame for every misfortune could be squarely and simply placed. And so obscenities flew across the clearing - most snatched away by the wind, but some finding their way piecemeal to the very edge of the cliff. Where the girl had stepped squarely onto the bridge, setting her previous cares for stability aside… and stopped.

She turned, slowly. She’d distanced herself in some way, mentally, from recent events. But now they crept back in fragments, ferried on snippets of curse and condemnation - blind hatred, steeled by ignorant conviction. Her face had long-since recovered from the cold; now it froze over once more, though in a very different manner. The specter at her side cocked its head quizzically, even as the mob’s cries grew in volume and clarity; seeing her halt and turn around, they grew emboldened.

”You wish to… listen? To learn from… their anger?”

“No, but I-”

She was cut off by one very particular, barbed remark. Though the last few words faded on into the wind, their brief presence had been enough - they had sunk their fangs into her mind. “Family of traitors”. Three simple words, adjoined to the end of yet another rage-fueled tirade. Hurled alongside curses of the foulest order - by comparison, almost innocuous, devoid in themselves of profanity. And yet the tone was venom itself, each syllable spat forth as a hunk of bile. It ate its way into the girl’s heart, and down into the bubbling darkness within. And it leaked. So her posture changed, and her breathing slowed, and her eyes took on some indescribable quality, likening them to the glacier on which she stood. Her own words, in turn, now bore a novel harmonic about them, and the shadow-figure heard them clearly above the wind and insults both.

“You said you’d pave me a path. Do for me now what I can’t yet, so that I can learn.”

”Yes.”

Pale irises gleamed in the firelight - from bonfire and burning sockets, reflected motes danced freely. With an expression like slate, she threw out each following word as cleanly and levelly as her voice would allow; devoid of tremble or hesitation, they rang out as more proclamation than request.

“You told me, once, that you’re a being of creation. But you still know, don’t you? How humans work. How to make them stop.”

”Yes.”

“I want you to kill for me.”

It regarded her as impassively as ever.

“If this is the path... you wish for, I will grant it. There is a burden to bear... for such a thing, and a price to pay - know that they will be yours.”
⠀⠀
“I’ll give it to you. Anything.”

”You… misunderstand. Creation does not equate to… benevolence. Nor goodness, nor… life.”

Though standing tall already, the shadow-thing grew ever grander. In mere moments, it towered not only over each and every figure upon the snowy plain, but over the bonfire around which they’d taken refuge minutes prior. Its voice grew more distant, but louder by far - prior grating cadences now joined by an assortment of novel, disquieting sounds.

”And the payment… is not to me.”
⠀⠀
As the villagers found themselves finally winning out against the oncoming winds, and bearing down on their quarry, they came face to face with something quite distinct from the gaunt, wiry shade they had seen prior. The being before them stood almost as wide as their entire throng of bodies combined, and loomed over them all. Up above, through the wafting snow, all they could see of its face were two points of amber light; with them came a voice, drawn from the fall of a thousand hammers on steel - the huddled pursuers could make no sense of the words themselves, but there was enough force behind each to shake the very earth.

”I am... of synthesis. I am the... fulcrum of man’s enmity. I am Ezzamuth. And I…”

In the frigid darkness, there was a shifting of shapes. Angles and shadows, outlining objects of staggering variety, arranged by maddeningly complex design. Some hauntingly familiar, others disturbingly alien; all bearing the same instinctive, wicked purpose.

”Bear thine will.”





She strode away over the bridge of darkness, a field of crimson in her wake. A frigid abattoir, soon to be swept over once more by fresh-falling snow. One may have pinned all this on the demon - or, more accurately, Daemon - yet it remained a thing of absolutes, and of reflections. It was coalescence of concept; it knew no guilt, and indeed one would be hard-pressed to pin guilt on something that so brazenly was, in defiance of purpose. A tool, in this case - guided, as ever, by the kernel of animosity that dwells within even the noblest soul. Humanity needed no demons, no otherworldly temptation, to bring forth atrocity after atrocity - each act of wrath and of brutal righteousness stemmed from simple, internalized nature. Some understanding of this came to the girl even now, as she crossed the canyon-pit, marred as it was by the maelstrom of conflicting emotion that her mind had become. It would internalize itself far more thoroughly later, and from this sentiment she would come to draw a great deal. But that was a story for another day - for now, a battered yet resolute waif stepped onto the next stretch of natural land, with ice in her eyes and a hole her heart. Shadows coiled around her, as smoke. She pressed on, for now she had something to press towards - her eyes remained squarely locked, due South.

Soon, the snowstorm swallowed her.




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