“I’ll take this.” Tanner slid a worn parchment on the long counter top. A spindly bald man in a greasy apron eyed him.
“That there is a bounty for a night-terror.” he trailed off.
Tanner followed the man’s eyes to his dented artificial leg. Metal bones fused to his left leg’s stump. Tanner swung his cloak over it.
“Never seen a cripple in your tavern before?”
“Not one who could walk.” He scoffed.
“Ten gold now, and the remaining ninety pieces when I bring back its head.” Tanner said.
“By the prophet, I ain’t losing ten. You bring me it’s head and I'll give the whole hundred.”
Tanner grimaced. “What can you tell me about it?” He asked through gritted teeth.
“Comes out at night. Steals livestock from farms out north. Had to raise the bounty since it ambushed a merchant. If it ain’t rid off, word’ll spread. Can’t have merchants being skittish, we got taxes to pay.”
Tanner crossed his arms. He had passed through farmland on his journey to Dunwick. “This merchant still in town?”
“Couldn’t say.” He answered. A flash of daylight brightened up his face as a new patron entered his tavern
“Then how about a pint?” Tanner smiled. The smell of the ale made him cringe as it was poured.
“A silver piece then.”
Tanner froze, both men holding the dirty glass, locking eyes. A loud metal clunk drew their attention.
“I’ll cover it.” A porcelain white gauntlet laid on the counter. Tanner’s heart sank, and so did his hand. Elegant armor of a prophet’s chosen started at him. He gripped the hilt of his sword, with as much stealth as he could muster. “And bring me a warm cider. No alcohol, thank you.”
As if suddenly drenched by a cold splash of water, the familiarity of this knight’s voice rushed into Tanner’s mind. “Ben?” Tanner’s voice dripped with cautious optimism.
“The one, but not the only.” He removed his helm. Smooth cut face, and slicked back black hair instantly soothed Tanner’s jitters, but made his missing leg ache.
“What are you doing here?” Tanner asked.
“Don’t worry. No church business for you. I’m here to support this new governor. He isn’t popular.” Ben rested his hand on Tanner’s shoulder. It felt heavier than it had five years ago. “Thank the prophet you are well.”
Ben sat beside him. “The Chosen Order is spread thin these days. Punishments for apostasy have been reduced, the church has made progress. You should consider returning to the prophets' grace.”
“No more hangings now?”
“Only a penitent crusade.” Ben sniffed his fresh cider.
“Only a suicide mission? That is progress.” He took a swig of his dark ale, choking it down. “No matter how much I drink, this taste never grows on me.”
“Don’t drink it.” Ben took a sip of cider.
“It numbs the pain.” He groped his stumped left thigh.
Ben’s voice lowered. “Is there anything I can do?”
Tanner scratched at his patchy beard, picking at invisible scabs on his scars. “Where could I find a merchant?”
Dozens of stalls lined crowded streets. Ben carried his helm under his arm, and a few awkward elderlies begged for his blessing. Tanner waited, but his impatience grew as these delays became more frequent. He found a stall with no patrons, and approached it.
“Excuse me sir, have you heard of any merchants who had any unpleasant nights?” Tanner asked. The fat vendor took notice, and smirked.
“Strange question to ask. Maybe I have, if you have pieces to share.” He leaned toward Tanner, and bounced a coin purse attached at his hip.
Tanner frowned, his patience at its limit. Before the old vendor could react, Tanner had his palm flat, and a knife deep in the wood between his fingers.
“Talk.” Tanner’s grip was iron.
“Unhand me fool. The city watch will…” Tanner cut him off.
“Perhaps you are under the impression that they are capable of plugging up all the holes I'm going to put in you.” He pushed the edge of his knife against the vendor's skin, cold steel gently slicing into his warm flesh.
“Friend, could you please answer? Consider it a gift to the prophet.” Ben’s voice came over Tanner’s head. “Release him.” he whispered into Tanner’s ear, but he was ignored.
“Muriel, spectacles and grey hair. She peddles up the road. Red caravan. Y’can’t miss’er.” He squealed. Tanner’s grip loosened.
“Was that so hard?” Tanner slid his knife under his cloak, and excused himself. Ben
bowed to the vendor as he backed away.
“I don’t approve.”
“I don’t care.” Tanner could feel his old friend’s gaze burning against the side of his head. “It’s been a pleasure to see you again, but I think this is where we part.”
“No. Our reunion is a miracle. What I just saw, makes me worry about your soul. I’m staying.” He delivered his intentions with remarkable authority.
Tanner relented. Walking together reminded him of how comfortable life was. Wading through crowds, Ben became more reluctant to give any more strangers his attention. They found an abandoned corner with a lonely red wagon. Tanner approached the door, Ben overcame him.
“Allow me.” He said, and knocked. “Muriel? My name is Benjamin. I am here to relieve you of your fear.” Ben’s armor hummed with magical white light. Radiant white knights come to slay evil, or so they told the devout. A weeping mess of a woman answered.
Ben nodded his empty head along as she spoke. Every detail of her babble was soaked in tears. Tanner strained to understand her, only deciphering a handful of landmarks. She had no recollection of its appearance, to his dismay. He noticed scratches on her arms, she had gotten away in one piece, more than Tanner could say for himself. His missing knee ached.
He exited Muriel’s caravan, and mulled over possibilities. During the ambush, she swung her torch wildly, and her assailant fled. This night-terror may be more complex than he once thought. An exceptionally hungry or territorial creature wouldn’t give a damn about a torch.
“What’s next?” Ben bounced after him.
“I thought you had church business to attend to?”
“It is only natural to help a friend in need.” Ben smiled, glancing at Tanner’s leg.
“Is that so?” Tanner’s glared daggers. “If only you had that opinion five years ago. I may still be in one piece.”
Ben’s grin faded, and his shoulder’s sunk. “I’m sorry. What’s wrong?”
“There has never been a moment when I needed your guilt or pity. I have managed well enough without it these past years. I do not require your assistance any further. Thank you.” Tanner shifted his weight on his metal leg.
“But what if?” Ben reached out, stunned.
“If I manage to find myself in the jaws of this night-terror. I am confident it will not hurt as much as it did last time.” Tanner scoffed before making his way to the stables.
Evening settled on farmland. Blue haze seeped between swaying corn stalks, and the last glow of warm purple faded behind rocky peaks. Tanner lit a small lantern, enough to brighten his steps. Its light swayed as he walked in shadow.
Darkness had hidden his lower half when he explained his purposes to the land owner. Nightly visits from the local night-terror had left him little choice but to allow Tanner to use his livestock as bait. He offered twenty local men to Tanner’s operation, but Tanner declined any assistance. After all it was his bounty to collect, and he was not keen on sharing.
Cattle grow restless when their vision fails them. Instinct takes them over, and they huddle together tight. Tanner's horse had been tied to a post along the cattle fence. Tanner covered his lanter, swaddled himself in a blanket, and settled on a wide branch of a modest tree. Starlight poked through a black canopy as he watched them, their shapes moving in darkness like ripples in a dark pond. Their tin bells clumsy thumping.
It had been a similar night, and a similar mission. Two young knights, in shining armor, ready to deliver evil. He wished he knew how much evil loves young things. He could still remember fist sized teeth rending his flesh, as he stared into hate filled yellow eyes. How could something so full of hate exist? In the end, Ben cut its throat while he bled in its jaws. He received high praise for saving his fellow chosen’s life. How heroic.
Tanner’s missing knee twitched. He heard crushing leaves, snapping twigs, and a sort of scraping noise. It came from a far off treeline. He angled himself, ready to hop into Boxer’s saddle. A black shape crept through a clearing toward the cattle fence. Cold sweat trickled down his neck, and a cold breeze made him shiver. He squinted hard, watching it move closer.
Effortlessly a dark mass crushed the white fence. It rose, standing tall as the branch Tanner rested on, only a stone’s throw away. He heard a desperate moan from a cow. He held his breath, and listened. A faint voice overcame the wind.
“There you are. Mommy was worried. Why would you run off?”
He hadn't expected a voice so feminine, and horribly calming. He fell into Boxer’s saddle, the sudden drop sent a jolt of energy through his body. He unwrapped his lantern. Dim candle light bathed black gnarled skin. Dozens of mutilated limbs tangled together in a vicious mockery of legs. Hands, arms, legs, all grasping, wriggling, and struggling to keep its torso stable. His eyes followed the light up to its chest. The poor bovine was cradled in two massive arms, like one might hold a puppy. Its eyes bulged white with confused terror.
Boxer whined, his instinct to flee overpowering. Tanner grappled with the reins, and snapped the rugged mount back into line. He groped for his steel and faced the horror. Candlelight glimmered in its eyes like any nocturnal beast.
Tanner froze, considering his options.
“Yes.” He loosened his grip.
She leaned toward him, a mangle hand of eight fingers wrapped around him. Now he could smell it, a mixture of sulfur and rot. He dropped his lantern and relieved the contents of his stomach as she lifted him into her bosom. Boxer took the opportunity to run. Coward. Tanner could hardly blame him.
At this distance, he could see the outlines of her face. Remarkably, she had a trace of youthful beauty. Wind suddenly rushed past his face, and he could breathe again. Branches whipped his ears, and his missing leg ached. He argued with himself, unsure if this monster would kill him or if he would become hopelessly lost in a maze of brush and pine trees.
Star light trickled through overhead branches, what little there was of it. Suddenly the shapes of branches vanished. Rushing wind dwindled, replaced with echoes of awkward flesh on stone. They finally arrived. She set him down with care. Her fingers combed through his hair. Cold wet lips pressed against his forehead.
“Don’t you ever scare mommy again. Mommy has to make supper.” She said softly, as if to not wake a sleeping child.
The ground rumbled as she moved away, humming as she went. Tanner listened. Shock jolted up his spine when he felt a wet tongue slither across his neck. When he whipped around to face the molester, a hot breath from an irritated bovine greeted him. It trotted off after a quick sniff. He tried after it, but fumbled on unseen stones. It had been a long time since he asked the prophet for anything, but he needed to see. He unscrewed its pummel. Holding it in his hand, he put it close to his lips.
“My name is Tanner.” He paused. “I am here to relieve your fear.”
To his surprise, a glow of light seeped out from the center. Enough to give him some idea of where to put his feet. It was silent, except for her humming. He followed it, step by step it grew louder until on the edge of his bubble of light, a wriggling tar black arm appeared. It tugged at gravel, fruitlessly trying to pull itself away. He could only guess what occupied her attention, but she noticed him quickly.
“Rudy? I’ve drawn a bath for you.” He heard a splash of water and noticed a pool of water beside her. “You must be filthy after running around all day.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Hmmm?” she hummed. “I’m surprised you haven't heard your father say it. Mommy’s name is Anna. Now could you…” she faced him. Her smile fell quickly into a vicious frown. “Who are you?” she hissed.
“My name is Tanner.” Like a sudden gust of wind, her calm had been replaced with murderous intent. He thought quickly. “A doctor.”
“What sort of doctor enters a home unannounced?”
“Anna, I do not believe you are well.” He could feel the earth trembling around her.
“Why should I care about your opinions on my health?” her tone grew short.
“Where do you think we are?”
“We are in my kitchen, and you should be leaving Mr. Tanner.” He could see her hand pointing over his head.
“Could you please look in the water for me?” He slowly approached the pool.
“And why would I?”
“Please. I will humbly leave. One look.” he said.
“One look.” Her tone was final. Tanner lifted his light as high as he could. The water reflected her true appearance, and her face twisted in horror.
“What is this? What sort of cruel trick is this?” She fell away, squirming.
“I can’t explain it. There is magic and horror in the world yet unknown.” Tanner kept a safe distance.
Her world crumbled around her, shapes she knew melting into jagged edges of granite. “Where am I? What is happening?” She sobbed and mumbled, collapsing into a mess of horror. He sat a few strides away, and hummed. Trying his best to replicate her tune, but his gravel filled voice failed. For a time, she laid motionless, managing only quick fast breaths.
“Who was the last king you remember?” He could see her outline move in dim light. She cocked her head, as if to hear better. Greasy hair clung to her cheek.
“Rudeus the kind. We named our son after him.” Tanner shifted uncomfortably on his stone. “What is it?” she asked.
“He has been dead for two hundred years now.”
“Is that so?” Her tone struck him as familiar.
“I haven't been entirely honest with you. I’m not a doctor. I’m a bounty hunter. You’ve been stealing from locals and terrifying them. I came to collect your head.” he confessed.
“This must all be some horrible dream. That I am truly in my bed, beside my husband.” She leaned into the light, and exposed the nape of her neck. “Do what you must. End it. Please.”
Tanner stood. He stepped close, a wave of stench brushed against him, but he maintained his composure. His steel hissed as he drew it. He could see her neck stiffen, cringing at the sound. It felt heavier than it ever had. He put it to her grey-black skin, and lifted it with both hands. Best to make it one clean strike. They stood there in silence, his missing knee ached.
“I can’t.” he said, dropping his edge to his side. “This isn't right, you’re not a monster. Only confused.”
“You selfish bastard. I want to see my family.” Her voice cracked, and she held herself. He put his hand on her back.
“Your family would want you to live on.” Suddenly, the value of her bounty slipped away. It had been sometime since he comforted a woman. The thought of how easily she could kill him never left his mind, but she needed kindness. Only he could give it. “Do it for them.” One glowing eye peeked from behind her greasy black hair.
“Perhaps there is a cure.” He showed her his metal leg. “People are always inventing strange things. I’m certain some clever mind can think of something.” He twisted his mouth into an unfamiliar shape, doing his best to smile.
“Live on, for my family.” she repeated in a whisper.
“It’s best if you stay here. Let me talk to the folk in Dunwick. When they see, their livestock is still alive, they will be more receptive to talking.” He gave her a gentle pat. “I’ll be back.”
“Thank you.” She muttered, between sobs.
She faded into the darkness behind him. Climbing out of the cave took an unsurprisingly long time. Daylight seeped into the cave as he came close to its exit. Fortune had been kind once more, she had left a trail of broken branches and a slight odor for him to follow. Walking back to town took hours. Exhaustion took its toll, his shoulders drooped. He limped every other step. While his metal leg was functional, it was not meant for long distances.
Despite his pain, relief brought him some satisfaction. He struggled to think of the last time he comforted anyone. A giddiness overtook him, an eager desire to help her. If he could save her, anyone could be saved. He went over his story, repeating what he had learned. Delicate matters were hardly his specialty, but he would treat it with the same cleverness as ever. He limped into the tavern he had been in the previous day.
“Welcome back.” said the skinny tavern keeper.
Tanner smiled. “I’ve taken care of your night-terror.”
“Oh, have you now?” he said with feigned delight. “You’re a little late. Your shiny friend already claimed the bounty. Damn thing reeks.”
Ben noticed Tanner mid-boast. He smiled, and held both arms in the air. On the cold stone floor, slouching beside a brick hearth, sat a large burlap sack.
Some things never change.