Friday, October 10, 2014
Fright Fest Friday Fiction
Hi all, Julia here. It's Fright Fest Friday, and my turn to provide a bit of October macabre for Heroines of Fantasy. Wait, did someone say ghoulish? You want ghoulish? I got your ghoulish right here. This is a spooky sample from Ice Will Reveal, where both the reader and one of the main characters meet wraiths (aka ghouls, or as I like to fondly refer to them, zombies, even though they are technically their own variant) for the first time. It'll get much, much worse for Our Heroes after this...bwah hah ha ha!
Scouting was by no means Jarrod's specialty, but he tried to keep quiet, crunching through the snow from tree to tree in an attempt at giving himself cover. The sounds continued, then stopped, then began again, growing louder the farther away from his companions he went. Crackles, crunches, yelps, rustlings--what in Ahnweh's mercy could be out here, in the winter-locked mountains, so close to all that ravenous death? It was difficult to hear over the pounding of his heart.
Off the pathway the slope steepened, and even with his snow boots on he had to concentrate and balance carefully to keep from skidding down it like a runaway sled. The trees thinned off to his left; he headed there, hoping to see something.
When he finally slipped and squeaked his way over to the last tree, what he saw stole his breath and squeezed his heart with fear.
He stood on top of what must once have been a high riverbank. A hundred feet below was a chaotic tangle of beasts and people, fighting on the frozen ground. He saw the ummeks immediately, handfuls of deadly furred forms darting this way and that in blurs of snapping teeth. But who were they attacking?
There were perhaps two dozen people, but something was not right about them: limbs misshapen or missing, clothing tattered and too thin for the cold, grey and withered skin showing through the tatters. More than that, there was an unsettling strangeness to the way the people moved. Some were stiffly clumsy, hardly jointed; some were horribly quick and sinuous, as if their muscles no longer anchored tightly to the bones.
But this horror was as nothing compared to the truth that dawned on him next: the ummeks did not just attack the people. The people attacked the ummeks. With bare hands.
The ummeks dropped as soon as they were touched, crumpling to the ground with high-pitched yelps. Jarrod could see at least a half-dozen furred bodies lying still upon the ice. Most unnerving, the withered grey people were silent, except for the occasional grunt or moan when an ummek struck. He watched in growing horror as the number of ummeks dwindled and he could see the withered people more clearly. Despite the distance, he could tell that some of the people were shorter and wider than the others, and even though he had never seen a pureblood, there was no mistaking the heavy brows, broad noses and squared jaws of the Norenoni.
Jarrod's mind reeled; it was at least several breaths before he thought to duck back behind a tree. He stood with his back pressed hard against the bark and tried to bring his thoughts--and his breath--back in line.
These were the wraiths from Mother Corandonn's truevision.
But this was no army--there were perhaps only twenty of them, and certainly not all were Norenoni. And they had no weapons that he could see.
He couldn’t decide if it would be best to speed back to his companions with the news or watch longer and risk discovery. Then he heard the crunch of something coming through the snow from the trees not far off to his right, and the decision was removed from his hands.
He drew his sword--the scrape of metal on scabbard, too loud!--and crouched down low behind the tree trunk, wishing it were bigger, wishing he were smaller. He chanced a quick look around the tree, but couldn't see anything.
The crunching grew louder, and he nearly exploded from the tension of waiting without knowing what was coming--then it receded, down toward the river below. It sounded like something scrambled down the high riverbank--something big. Was there a path? Keeping low, Jarrod peered around the tree.
Goddess! What is that? He blinked and squinted.
Below him, another, even stranger figure had joined the others: a rider upon a mount. But the mount was no horse. It was unlike any animal he'd ever seen. It was vaguely ummek-like--four-legged and grey-furred, with a long tail and triangular head. But it was bigger than any ummek, bigger than most horses, and its proportions were those of neither wolf nor horse. Its head was huge, with a large underslung jaw filled with sharp fangs that its lips could not quite cover, and tiny up-pointed ears. The head sat at the end of a long, flexible neck, reptilian in appearance despite its thick fur. The body was squat, with most of its height coming from its long, thin legs. The legs ended in oversized paws, not hooves, each sporting four giant curved claws easily as long as a dagger blade.
The beast wore no proper saddle or stirrups; the rider was lashed to its back with a collection of ropes and rags. No bridle or reins either--the rider clutched the coarse fur at the base of its neck, more for balance than for control.
The rider was hooded and swathed in layers of ragged cloth, but one thing was clear--the rider had no legs. That explained the lashing, but only added to the mystery of how the rider controlled the grotesque beast.
He waited to see if the wraiths would attack this new presence as they had the ummeks, and indeed, they converged on the strange rider as soon as they saw it. But they stopped in a loose circle around the rider and steed. As Jarrod watched in amazement, each one approached the rider in turn and held up a hand. The rider leaned down and clasped each proffered hand, lingering a moment, then moved on to the next. Those touched withdrew and stood quietly a few feet away. When the rider had touched all the wraiths, it straightened up again and turned its steed in a circle in order to look in all directions.
As its hooded gaze swung toward him, Jarrod hurriedly ducked back behind the tree, his heart racing. Could it see him? He listened, hard, but heard nothing at this distance. Should he look again? Should he stay or go?
The tension and the stillness were too much for him. Sword in hand, he scrambled back up the slope with all the speed he could muster, silently cursing every crunch and squeak his own clumsy boots made. He was almost back up to the path when a noise behind him made him whirl in time to see the first wraith racing up the slope with arms outstretched.