Monthly Archives: April 2012

Fighting and Winning, Pt. 2

I don’t know how long I laid there. Maybe a day, maybe more. Every so often, I’d try and push myself to my feet, but the pain in my shoulders flared up, and so I laid still some more. By the time I did finally stand up, the growl in my stomach had turned into a roar. There was probably some food in the keep’s larder, but I couldn’t stay there. Not with the dead fellers rotting away without the wizard’s magic to keep them alive and the wizard soon to join them. Besides, what if the adventurers came back? I knew I couldn’t beat them so long as they could use their magic to freeze me in place, and they weren’t going to make the mistake of not making sure I was dead a second time.

Before I left, I gathered my weapons and went to take one last look at the wizard. I didn’t know how to feel about him dying. He was never a friend to me, not like the friends I would have later, but he was the first person I’d ever known. That has to count for something, I suppose. But he’d died with that ugly sneer on his face that he always had. He died cursing the adventurers. He’d never had a kind word for me, not that I’d ever expected kindness from him.

There was nothing to be said, so I left. I guess that’s what being a man like the wizard gets you. When you die, there’s nobody to say nothing about you, good or bad.

I left the wizard’s chambers and went out into the hallway. I went through the keep on my way to the larder, passing by a few rooms the adventurers hadn’t gone through. The dead were doing whatever the last order the wizard had given them was, whether it was standing guard or filling a pot with water or chopping firewood. I shuddered. The rotting fellers would fall apart eventually, but the skeletons… Those might stand there forever. I imagined the keep crumbling but those skeletons still standing, a rusted sword in one hand, a worm-eaten wooden shield in the other.

I think in that instant I began to understand why so many people came to kill the wizard over the years.

The longer I stayed and thought about the keep and everything that must have happened in it, the more uncomfortable I became. I grabbed a sack from the larder and loaded it with a few loaves of bread and hunks of cheese, some dried meat and fruit, and I left.

* * *

For three days, I walked through the woods that surrounded the keep, not having any destination or direction in mind, other than “straight away from the keep.” I’d never spent so much time outside before, and the brightness of the sun and the way the stars and the moon shined at night awed me. The woods were alive with noise, with birds chirping and bugs making their bug noises and little furry animals of all kinds doing whatever it is little animals do. I even thought I saw some of the little green guys, but even now, I don’t know if that was my imagination or not. I like to think that I did, though.

By the end of the second day, I’d eaten all the food, and by the morning of the third, I was hungry again. I wasn’t sure what I would do, not knowing how to start a fire or how to hunt back then, so with no better plan, I kept walking. But I was lucky. It turned out there was a human village not far from the keep. I didn’t know what to expect from the villagers, but I was hungry enough that I didn’t care. If they ran away screaming, then I’d just help myself to their food. If they tried to fight me off, I’d beat them senseless and then take their food anyway. It seemed like a good plan to me. I figured that not every human was an adventurer, right? Most of them were probably as frail as the wizard, but without any magic to protect them.

I was half-right. The villagers weren’t adventurers, but they weren’t frail either. Most of the people who lived in the village of Quail’s Leap, as I’d later find out it was called, were farmers or hunters. They were good, tough folk, used to having no one to rely on but themselves and used to having to be tough enough to survive in a world full of things that could kill them. So when I stumbled into the fields around their village, dirty and smelly and hungry, they didn’t run away scared. But they didn’t challenge me, either. The first human I encountered, a thickly belt man plowing his fields with some cattle, stood tall and watched me, confusion and caution in his eyes.

I held his gaze. I was too hungry to be cautious, and I wasn’t going to let any human stare me down anyway. Instead, I just said, “I’m hungry. Where can I get some food and drink?”

The human said nothing. Maybe he was surprised to hear me speak. We stood there in silence, and finally, I repeated my question.

“Willem has an inn that way,” the human said, pointing deeper into the town. “He’s got food and drink. Don’t know if he’ll do business with ye, but he’s got food and drink.” I grunted in reply and began walking in the direction he’d pointed out.

* * *

I came across a few more humans in the streets as I walked, females and children. Some of them gasped when they saw me, and the little ones stared at me with wide eyes, but none of them ran. They just stood their ground in front of the huts they lived in, smallish things no taller than they were and built from wood and straw and mud. I knew that I was different from the humans. I’d never seen myself in a mirror, but I knew my skin was the color of the needles on the trees and the humans’ skin seemed to be every color but that. I was taller than almost all of them, too.

I didn’t know which building was supposed to be the inn, but when I reached the end of the road a lot of the little huts were built on, there was a taller building, made from thicker pieces of wood and with a wooden roof. A sign with a painting of a loaf of bread and a tankard hung from the outside wall, and I could smell the scent of cooking meat coming from inside and hear the sounds of people talking and laughing, so I figured it was the right place.

When I went inside, the building was all one big room and full of people, some of them dressed in the simple clothes of the villagers, and some of them in outfits that looked more exotic. There was no one dressed in metal armor like the adventurers I’d seen, but a few folks had swords or knives or clubs on their hips. Some of them might have been farming tools, but most of them didn’t have any purpose other than splitting someone’s head open.

No one noticed me at first, but as I walked towards the big wooden counter where a man dressed in an apron was pouring drinks and taking orders, folks begin to see me and stop talking. By the time I reached the counter, everyone was silent and staring at me. I ignored it and sat at one of the stools at the counter.

“I’m hungry,” I said. “I want some food.”

The man behind the counter, a little paunchy and bearded with thinning hair atop his head, blinked stupidly, as if I’d just asked him a question in a language he didn’t speak. “Uh… What’ll you have?” he asked.

It was my turn to blink like fool. I’d never had an option before. I only ever just ate whatever the wizard gave me. “Whatever’s good,” I said. I looked around the room at the other patrons, and my eyes settled on a fair-skinned man in fine clothes with a plate of roast meat and potatoes and some leafy green vegetable. I pointed at the plate. “I want that. It smells good.”

“Roast beef isn’t cheap,” the man said uncertainly. I didn’t know what cheap meant, so I just repeated myself. “I want that.”

The man turned and shouted at a young girl who was tending to the fire in the back of the room. She jumped to attention and began assembling a plate for me. “You want anything to drink?” the man asked when turned back to me.

I thought about it. “Mead.”

He shook his head. “We don’t have mead. We have ale, though.”

“What’s ale?”

A look of shock skittered across the man’s face, more shock than he’d expressed the first time he noticed me. There were some murmurs from the back of the room. “Ale’s…” the man began. “It’s like a mead that’s made from grain instead of from honey. It’s not as sweet, but it fills you up more.”

“I’ll have an ale, then.”

The man turned to a cask and filled a tankard full of some dark brown liquid with foam on top. The young girl came with a plate of the meat and the vegetables and set it before me. I took a deep breath, and I tell you, I’d never smelled anything so good before, and I’m not sure I’ve ever smelled anything so good since. I tore into the food, eating it with my hands and ripping at it with my teeth. I took a long drink from the tankard; the ale was more bitter than I was used to, but it went nicely with the taste of the meat. And the meat! It was amazing. Carefully cooked and seasoned, unlike anything I’d ever had before. The room was silent save for the loud noises of me eating.

As I finished the meal, gnawing on the bone from the center of the roast, I began to feel uneasy again. The looks of uncertainty and caution had been replaced by disgust and mistrust, and I could feel a familiar but strange tingle at the back of my neck. Like when I was getting ready to fight someone in the wizard’s chambers, but different. Like instead of being excited to be fighting again, I was on my guard, waiting for someone to try and hit me. But the man behind the counter wasn’t looking at me like that. His face didn’t have any expression at all, but his eyes were darting around nervously, like maybe he had the same feeling I did. “How are you going to be paying?” he asked.

“What?”

“Paying. You know. Money. Silver. How will you pay me for the food you just ate?”

“I don’t have money,” I said. “Can I pay you without money?” The man frowned, but not as if he was angry. More annoyed, like it occurred to him a while back that I didn’t have any money and that there wasn’t anything he could do about it and that he didn’t like finding out he was right.

Before he could respond, though, there was the sound of something clattering to the ground behind me and an angry voice shouting, “It says it doesn’t have any money, and we’re supposed to just let it get away with that? Look at the beast! It ain’t natural!”

I turned to look and see who had had the guts to call me a “beast” and an “it” and smash them good for it. It was a big man, as tall and as muscular as I am, with a red complexion and a hateful look on his face. Not as hateful as the wizard could get, but close. “Where’d you come from, you rotter?” he asked. “What filthy hole did you crawl out of so you could come here and eat our food and terrorize our women and children, huh?”

I said nothing. I knew a lot of folks hated the wizard and it wouldn’t do me any good to mention him. And then I thought about it a little bit more and I started to wonder where he got all the dead bodies he used to make the skeletons and the rotting fellers, or even where he got the food we used to eat. No, it wouldn’t do me any good to say anything at all. So I sat there and was quiet, and the big drunk human just worked himself up more and more, muttering and closing the distance between us. “Calm down, Ethan,” the man behind the counter said. “I’m sure this… fellow… doesn’t mean us any harm. He can work off his debt by washing dishes and mopping the floor same as anyone else.”

But the drunk human wasn’t having any of it. In an instant, he was in my face, and in another, he was winding up his fist and throwing a punch square into my nose. I fell out of my seat, and a gasp went up through the crowd. I could hear a high voice shrieking, “Why’d you do that? He wasn’t hurting anyone! He wasn’t hurting anyone!” and the man behind the counter shouting, “Gods damn you, Ethan! Get out of here!” and the chatter of every last human in the bar. And then the taste of blood hit my lips, and a flash of anger burned through me.

I put my hand to my face, and it came back bloody. My nose was bleeding, and just like that, I was back in the wizard’s keep, staring down some foolish human that didn’t know to leave well enough alone. I could feel my lips pull back in a grin, revealing my teeth, my fangs, my tusks. I’d never fought a human with just my bare hands before, but that just meant it would be new and fun.


Fighting and Winning, Pt. 1

“Fighting and Winning” begins below! This marks the first fantasy story to appear in the blog. I imagine it’s going to be low fantasy, with magic being relatively uncommon and unimpressive, but we’ll see where it goes. Enjoy!

I don’t got a lot of memories. I don’t remember having a mother or a father or nothing like that. What I do remember is a bunch of little green things, with noses that were too big for their faces and big floppy ears. There were a whole mess of them, and they all lived in a cave, and they’d go out into the woods and hunt small animals and eat bugs and mushrooms and sometimes they’d steal from any humans that happened to be nearby.

They were alright, those little green guys.

The next thing I remember is the wizard. He was just there, staring up at me behind his old, wrinkled face. He looked frail, like the slightest thing could crush him, but his eyes… There was something that burned in his eyes, hotter than any fire, as blank and merciless as the sun on your back when you’re dying of thirst. I seen a lot of different kinds of folks look at me like they wanted to slit my throat, but I ain’t never seen anyone hate like that old man.

I still remember his first words to me. “I am your master. I have made you to kill for me. Do you understand?”

I understood just fine. He called me Ork, but that’s what I was, not who I was, you see? I wasn’t anyone back then. I was just a thing to him, like the skeletons that stood guard in the halls, or the rotting fellers that he used as servants. I was different than those other servants of the wizard, though. Other than being alive, I mean.

See, every so often a band of strangers with armor and weapons and magic would invade the wizard’s keep. Sometimes they were a bunch of nobodies and they’d be torn to pieces by the living dead. Sometimes they’d be killed by the traps that lined the halls and chambers of the keep. But sometimes they’d put up a good show, and they’d kick open the door to the wizard’s personal chambers, bloodied and battered but still full of fighting spirit. That was where I came in.

The wizard was old, see, and I may not be that smart, but I know a man like the wizard didn’t get to be old by being careless. He had too many enemies, folks that wanted to do him personal harm and folks that wanted to see him dead just for the kind of man that he was. And the wizard knew this, and he took proper precautions.

I was one of the wizard’s last lines of defense. He said that he made me to kill for, and I don’t know much about that, but I do know one thing: I was made to fight and to win. There wasn’t a single man or woman that got to the wizard’s chambers alone that could beat me one on one. Sure, I took my lumps, and I got plenty of scars to show for it, but not one of them ever beat me. But I almost never actually killed any of them. See, I may have been the wizard’s bodyguard, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t take care of himself. Plenty of times, I’d beat some would-be hero unconscious and the wizard would have one of his living dead bind them so he could taunt them before he killed them. Sometimes the wizard would just say one of his words of power, and the hero’s heart would stop, or their body would burst into flames, or any of a hundred other horrible things would happen to them.

That’s the thing. I don’t think the wizard really needed me. I think he’d just killed so many folks over the years that he got bored with it and wanted something new to spice things up.

He was a real sick grot, the wizard was.

But I’m not complaining. There was plenty of food to eat and mead to drink, and if the wizard slaughtered a dozen overambitious adventurers a month, well, it was their own fault for not being stronger. He was an old man, for the gods’ sakes. Sure, he had his magic powers, but why couldn’t a young man with magic powers take him out?

It finally took a band of four heroes to defeat the wizard. I may not remember much, but by the gods, do I remember them. A tall, dark, muscular man with a sword as tall as he was and a set of heavy armor. A short woman with light hair and light eyes and a tongue as sharp as her daggers. A thin and sickly looking middle-aged man with powers like the wizard’s (except not nearly as finely developed.) And an older woman in robes covered with holy symbols, with a sort of far-off look to her eyes like she was seeing something no one else could see.

One day these four folks storm the castle, and the wizard is watching through his looking glass as they tear through the living dead, disable the traps, and just generally make a mess of things. The wizard watches, but he doesn’t really care. He’s got that smile on his face that he always gets when adventurers came knocking, that smile that says that whatever you might think you’re doing, you’re really just a puppet dancing on his strings. He just turns to me and says, “Prepare yourself,” and then goes to sit atop the throne he made for himself out of the bones of dead heroes.

So, I’m standing there, watching the door, my hands gripped tight on the sword in my one hand and the mace in my other, feeling a sort of nervous excitement. I’ve never fought four folks at once before. They had the advantage of numbers, but only one of them had any real meat on his bones. The two older humans looked like they’d drop with a single sharp blow to the head, and the woman didn’t look she’d do much better in a straight fight. So I was feeling good about my chances, confident. I could feel a smile starting to creep across my face. I was made for two things, fighting and winning, and no humans were going to beat me.

At least, that’s what I thought. Turns out I was wrong.

The big human kicks open the door to the wizard’s chambers, and sure enough, he launches into a speech. “We are the Order of the Morning Star, and we have come to put an end to your evil! In the name of all that is good, I, Sir Perceval Roderick of–”

And then the wizard blasted them with a fireball.

It was a favorite thing of his, I think, to let someone launch into a monologue about who they were and why they were going to slay the wizard, and then burn them up mid-sentence.

But it didn’t work that time. The older female human had her arms up and her hands stretched out, and there was a kind of glow coming from them, and I could just see a sort of bubble that encompassed the entire group. “The blessings of the gods protect us from your dark magic, necromancer! I, Maya, am their chosen agent in this land!”

“Oh?” the wizard shouted, that same smug grin on his face. “And will your gods protect you from a sword through your gut? Get them, Ork!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I’d never seen one of the wizard’s spells not work before, and I was eager to see if their magic would protect them from my muscle.

It did. Sort of.

I let out a roar and charged, my sword ready to hack and to stab, and my mace ready to smash them good while they were busy trying to defend themselves from my sword strike. I thought I’d focus on the big human, this so-called Sir Perceval, since he looked like he’d put up the most fight. But Sir Perceval saw me coming and shouted, “Alonsius! Use your magic!” The skinny male turned to face me, his mouth speaking the same kind of nonsense words the wizard spoke, and all of a sudden it felt like I was trying to swim through mud. Every step was a struggle, and I could do nothing but watch in frustration as the heroes turned their backs on me and busied themselves dealing with the living dead that the wizard sent to attack them. Sir Perceval beat them aside with his sword, Alonsius burned them with fire and shattered them with ice, and Maya stood behind the two, chanting in a low voice and maintaining the bubble that protected them from the wizard’s magic. But the young female was nowhere to be found.

Not until she appeared behind me and sunk her daggers into my back.

I bellowed in agony and fell forward onto my face. I tried to push myself to my feet, but Alonsius’ magic still impeded me, and the weight of the woman sitting on my shoulders and twisting her blades wasn’t helping any. I could feel her shift forward until her mouth was inches from my ear and she whispered, “The name’s Quinara, ugly. Thought you might like to know it before you die.” And with that, she grabbed the back of my head and smashed my face into the flagstone floor. Everything went black.

* * *

I was only out for a few moments. With great effort, I opened my eyes to find the heroes gathered around the wizard’s throne, Sir Perceval ranting again and the wizard just laughing and telling him to get it over with. Sir Perceval obliged. With a single thrust, he ran the wizard through with his sword. The wizard gasped, and then he began laughing. “You may kill me,” he said in halting breaths, “but you will never be rid of me. My spirit will haunt you to the ends of your days, you who have come in the name of the light and have convinced yourselves you’re doing the work of your gods. With my dying breath, I curse you!”

Slowly, he slumped forward. The heroes were silent, looking nervously at each other, before Sir Perceval cleared his throat and spoke. “Our work here is done. Let us leave this wretched place.”

“What of the creature the necromancer called ‘Ork?’”Alonsius asked. “I have never seen anything like it before. The Magi’s Circle may be interested in studying it.”

Maya shook her head. “Let the beast rot with his unholy master.”

“Well, what about the treasure?” Quinara asked. “I mean, the necromancer’s got to have a hoard of gold somewhere, right? Men like him always do.”

Sir Perceval gave her an angry glare that said there would be no further discussion on the subject, and she let it drop.

I watched as the humans left, staying perfectly still and silent as they did so. My back hurt horribly, but I would live. Part of being made for fighting and winning meant being made tough, and I knew that before too long, I’d be fine. So I laid there, thinking about what I would do next.


Fearful Symmetry, Pt. 4

The plan was simple. Kuthra would return to Pennagaram with Corman’s body, and Richard would push on into the wilderness in pursuit of the tiger. There was no room for discussion. Richard announced his intentions and ignored Kuthra’s attempts to dissuade him, to caution that he wait for a native guide to join them.

“You do not know these jungles!” Kuthra said. “You do not know tigers!”

“No, but I know how to track a big predator through the woods. And I can hit a target from a hundred yards out.” Richard smiled. “This tiger may be a man-eater, it may be hundreds of pounds of muscle and teeth, and it may be the greatest predator on the face of the planet, but if it bleeds, I can kill it.”

Kuthra shook his head. “You are an arrogant fool.”

Richard’s smile became a grin. “No, Kuthra. I am a hunter, and I am finally going on a hunt.” With that, Richard turned and knelt, examined the drops of blood sprinkled along the ground, and headed into the jungle. Kuthra watched as the hunter’s form became obscured by leaf and vine and branch. He looked around, taking in his surroundings, analyzing, interpreting, and pressing on. In less time than it took to speak it, the hunter was gone, swallowed by the jungle, and Kuthra began the long walk back to the village with the body of Kenneth Corman.

* * *

It was dark by the time Richard returned to the village. Lanterns had been affixed to the walls of the various huts, perhaps in honor of Corman’s passing or perhaps as a deterrent to the tiger. Kuthra was sitting in a chair outside of the hut Corman had been sleeping in, a pipe in his hand, the dead man’s rifle leaning against the wall next to him, and his vision fixed firmly on the darkness of the jungle. He heard Richard’s approach and turned to look at the tired, frustrated man.

“The look on your face suggests to me that you were not successful,” Kuthra said. As an afterthought, an insult, he added, “Hunter.”

“That’s the nature of the hunt,” Richard said, trying to project a sense of optimism but not smiling. “You have to be patient. Some days, your quarry walks in front of your sights, and some days, not a goddamn thing happens.”

Kuthra said nothing but turned to look at the jungle once more and drew another puff of smoke from his pipe. “I am returning to Bangalore,” he announced dispassionately, “and I am taking Mr. Corman’s body and the vehicle with me. When I return, I will be bringing another hunter, an associate of Mr. Corman’s.”

Richard snorted. “What? You don’t think I can hunt the tiger on my own?”

“I think,” Kuthra said slowly, “that by the time I return, you will be dead.”

Richard frowned. He opened his mouth to shout an insult at Kuthra, but saw no point in it. Richard shook his head and began walking back towards his hut. Some of the villagers could speak passing English, he knew. He would simply find one and have them help make a map of the area. He would visit the other bait stations that they had set-up before Corman’s passing and check on them and let his findings guide the next day’s hunt.

Richard slept dreamlessly that night.

* * *

Richard awoke with the dawn to find that Kuthra and the car were already gone. Communicating with the villagers without Kuthra to translate his words into their language and back again was difficult, but manageable. Eventually, Richard was able to convey to a teenaged boy that he wanted help making a map. The boy was able to reproduce a crude but accurate representation of the surrounding five miles or so, but made it abundantly clear that he would not be Richard’s guide, that none of the villagers would help to slay the rakshasa out of fear of becoming the evil thing’s next victim. And so Richard set forth alone once more.

All of the traps that Corman and the men under his direction had laid for the tiger were bare, but there was no trace of blood at any of them. Indeed, the poles that had staked the pigs to the ground had been knocked over, and there was nothing left but splintered wood and the scent of animal terror. Upon coming across the first such pole, it had been easy enough to dismiss it as the work of a boar who had been worrying at the stake for two straight days. By the time Richard came across the final pole, he refused to think about it any longer, refused to think that the ground had not been dug up, the pole had not shattered where the scratchings from the boar’s tusks and paws had left their mark.

Richard took his lunch in the shade and wondered how fast he could run, how quickly he could climb a tree. How quickly he could move. “Fast,” he said to himself in between bites of his meal, his mouth chewing mechanically. He swallowed his food without tasting it. “If I had to, I could move very fast.”

* * *

The rest of the day was uneventful. Richard walked a circuit through the jungle, his ears straining to catch every sound and his eyes meticulously examining every object he came across in detail, searching for the scratchings of claws on tree trunks, of branches and twigs broken underfoot by powerful paws, of spoor with traces of fur and bone from prey animals in it. But there were no signs of the animal at all. The tiger, the rakshasa, seemed to have disappeared just as surely as the wild pigs that had been captured and left as bait for it. Richard wandered for hours searching for any trace of the tiger, and as the sun began to set and light began to fade from the sky he returned to the village, his heart heavy with disappointment and relief in equal measure.

The villagers watched Richard’s return with hope and then with fear. It was not difficult to tell from the way he carried himself that the hunt had been unsuccessful. The villagers looked at the hunter expectantly, hopefully, and as they saw him draw closer, his head down and his gait slow, the great rifle he had taken from Corman hanging limply in his grasp, they turned and returned to their homes. There would be no promise of safety that night.

One of the villagers that could speak English, an older man with few teeth in his mouth, his dark skin lined with wrinkles and the scant few hairs atop his head completely white, asked Richard if he would be willing to move his belongings into the hut that Corman had slept in before his death. There were families that had been displaced, the old man explained, that wanted their homes back, and since Richard was now their only guest, perhaps he could move his things into the other hunter’s hut?

There was so much unsaid, Richard thought. The villagers didn’t regard him with the same kind of awe that they had shown Corman. He was darker, scarred, he did not smile or speak much. Richard thought to himself, Corman was an Englishman, and they understood Englishman. But I’m unknowable and potentially dangerous. They don’t see me as a hunter. They look at me and see a killer.

Without further conversation, Richard retired to the hut and began planning his next move.

Loathe as he was to admit it, if he couldn’t track the tiger on foot then setting up bait and luring it out into the open may be the best option. He frowned. That wasn’t hunting. That was cowardice. That was less sporting than when he was a boy and his father would sit out in the field under a tarp he had erected for shade and shoot the ground squirrels that threatened to dig up the crops before they could establish themselves. There must be another option, he thought. A dog, perhaps. Maybe the tiger could be hunted with a pack of dogs, or by horseback. Were there any horses in this area? He’d have to look into it.

Richard began going through the things that Kuthra had left behind. Some ammunition for the rifle. A trunk of Corman’s belongings that had been too cumbersome to load into the car without assistance. A half-empty bottle of gin which Richard helped himself too.

“To hell with it,” he said to himself. “Nothing to do about it at night. I’ll go to bed early and get a fresh start in the morning.”

He laid down on the dead man’s bed and tossed and turned until he fell asleep, his clothes still on, the light from the lanterns meant to ward off the tiger filtering in through the windows and under the door of his hut.

* * *

A roar, as loud as a thunderclap and right outside the door.

Richard jumped upright in the bed, his heart pounding. Outside, he could hear the cries of the villagers, their senseless terrified screaming. It was dark in the hut, too dark to find Corman’s rifle. All he could find were the .45 pistol, the magazines for it, the trench knife he had set by the bed.

Another roar, echoing in Richard’s head and freezing him in place for a second. This was it, he thought. It had my scent, and the entire time I was out in the jungle trying to track it, it was following me. Richard imagined the tiger watching him from a distance, staying hidden. Observing his patterns and learning his movements. Or perhaps he was giving the creature too much credit, projecting his own life onto that of the tiger’s. Perhaps it had simply spent the day sleeping in a cave somewhere, or hidden in a grove of trees, and when the night came, it awoke and wandered to the village in search of easy prey.

It didn’t matter now. The tiger was outside the door, and it was very likely that tonight would be the night Richard died.

A wave of regret filled Richard. This would be a bad death, a terrible hunt. Caught in the dead of night without his weapon, torn apart like an amateur.

The door shattered inward, and the tiger was there, fangs bared, eyes alight with a killer’s instinct. Richard raised the pistol and fired without aiming, uncertain which shots were hitting the tiger and which were flying off harmlessly into the walls or out into the jungle.

The tiger roared and crouched, preparing itself to pounce. More out of instinct than out of conscious thought, Richard turned and ran for the nearest window, dived through it, the wooden frame catching on his clothes, tearing them and scratching his skin. He pushed himself to his feet just in time to see the tiger’s face and paws appear behind him, snarling, watching him.

Richard fumbled with his gun, ejected the empty magazine and tried to push in a new one. By the light of the lanterns all across the village, he could see that the tiger was unbloodied. Every shot had missed.

The creature began to pull itself through the window, and time seemed to slow down for Richard. Well, he thought. At least you won’t die cornered in a hut. He turned to run, determined to put as much space between himself and the tiger as possible, to make it to a tree and wait for daybreak if need be, when he saw the lantern.

Someone had knocked it over in their desperation to flee the village, and it lay on its side, its flame extinguished but kerosene leaking from its body, forming a dark and shapeless pool on the ground.

Richard grinned. It wasn’t fair, but then, the tiger could shatter his spine with a single blow from its massive paw. Nothing about this was fair.

He jammed his knife and his gun into his belt and ran for the nearest hut with a lit lantern. He grabbed it as he rushed to kick the door open. The tiger roared behind him. “Chase me,” he hissed under his breath. “Chase me, chase me, chase me.”

Inside the hut, he pushed his way towards the window, stumbling over the belongings of the family that lived there. The hut was empty, thankfully. He didn’t believe he’d be able to follow through on his plan if the family had still been inside.

The tiger appeared at the door, and roared. Richard turned and dove through the window, the tiger pouncing as he did so. Its claws caught his leg, dug through his calf like knife blades. He screamed in pain, nearly dropped the lantern.

He rolled over onto his back to find the tiger staring at him. He pushed himself away from the hut as the tiger leaned forward, tried to claw him. With all his might, he threw the lantern as hard as he could through the window. The tiger’s head disappeared back into the hut as it dodged the projectile, and there was the sound of shattering glass and the muted rush of the kerosene igniting.

Richard pushed himself to his feet as the tiger roared in surprise and terror. He had seen predators trapped by fire before. He knew it would look for an easy escape, and not finding one, it would have to force itself to brave the flames and rush out the door. He had some time to enact the next stage of the plan. Richard limped towards the nearest hut, pulled the lantern from its hook, and shattered it against the wall. The wooden structure quickly caught fire, and Richard dashed towards the next nearest hut to do it again.

The villagers would understand, he told himself. It was necessary to trap the beast, and if it found itself surrounded by a wall of flames, it would have no choice but to stand his ground. Panicked and unthinking, it would fall easy prey to his firearm, he told himself.

The tiger burst forth from the burning hut it had chased Richard into. The smell of smoke and the stench of burning hair filled the air, and the tiger paced nervously, snarling and roaring and looking anxiously back and forth between Richard and the encroaching flames. Finally, it steadied itself and locked its eyes on Richard. There was no more pacing, no roaring. Just a flaring of the nostrils and a look that Richard chose to believe was hatred. His hands went to his hips and he drew his pistol and his knife. The tiger snorted.

Richard smiled. By the fires that burned all around them, turning the forest of the night as bright as day, the two hunters faced each other. This would be a glorious death.

Thank you for reading, and sorry about the sporadic updates recently! Be here on Friday for “For Fighting and Winning!”


No Update Today, 4/20

Well, it would seem that I’m still behind schedule on everything thanks to my illness from earlier in the week. Expect “Fearful Symmetry” to conclude on Monday with an update slightly longer than I’ve been averaging these past few weeks. Thank you all for your understanding!


No Update Today, 4/16

I’ll keep this short. I’m fighting a stomach virus, and I just don’t have the energy to work on the story today. Friday’s post should come as normal, but there will be no new content today. My apologies to everyone.


Fearful Symmetry, Pt. 3

My apologies for the late post. Unfortunately, I’ve been having some computer issues. Nothing serious, but nothing that can get resolved before Monday. Hopefully Monday’s update will come as scheduled, but no promises at the moment.

There was nothing to do the next day. The blinds were built, the animals captured, and the tiger nocturnal. Richard ached to get out and move, to explore the forest for some sign of the beast, but the villagers were too frightened to accompany him (not that he could have really communicated with them anyway,) and Corman and Kuthra had no desire to do anything other than peacefully await nightfall and settle in for twelve hours spent sitting in a tree waiting for the tiger to take the bait. Richard considered going out on his own, but reason prevailed over emotion; he was unfamiliar with the area and, more importantly, unfamiliar with the hunting habits of tigers. It wouldn’t do any good to get caught by surprise and torn in half before he could react. That would be a terrible death.

Better to have been gored in the final breath of a Cape Buffalo he had shot. Better to go down struggling against a grizzly with his knife and his pistol in his hands. Better to die face-to-face with a pride of lions, a pack of wolves, any of a dozen other deaths where he could stare his killer in its inhuman face. It simply would not do to be pounced upon in a moment of inattentiveness.

To die such an ignoble death would certainly make for an unsuccessful hunt.

So Richard listlessly wandered around, watching the villagers go about their business. He took his lunch without pleasure, he napped, he disassembled his pistol and cleaned, laid out his hunting gear and checked it, checked it again, napped again. Finally, as dusk began to fall, Corman came to Richard’s hut and grinning announced, “The hunt is on, my boy.”

* * *

Within an hour’s time, Corman and Richard were sitting on a small platform nestled some thirty feet above the ground in the branches of a marda tree overlooking the river where the first victim had been found. The blind was just big enough for the two men to sit side-by-side comfortably and store their gear and a dabba with their dinner in it. Richard was displeased about having to sit up in a tree waiting for the tiger to come, and his distaste for the situation only intensified when Corman told him that they would have to stay in the tree until the morning. “Tigers being nocturnal and all. But don’t worry! It’ll pass by quicker than you think, I’m sure. We’ll sleep in shifts, and we’ll have the sounds of the night to keep us company.” Much to Richard’s chagrin, that category would include Corman’s snoring.

Hours later, Richard sat with his legs falling asleep, the heavy double-barreled rifle that Corman had loaned him cradled against his chest, Corman deep in sleep next to him. The forest was alive with the sounds of a hundred different strange animals and insects and birds, and Richard could not decide whether he felt at peace or annoyed. He brushed a leaf from his face and tried to look at the stars through the canopy of branches and leaves above him.

Thirty feet below on the ground the pig that they had captured and tethered to a post they’d driven into the ground slept. It had squealed and thrashed when they released it from its cage, but Corman had insisted that baiting the tiger was the best way to draw it out. “It’s a shame we don’t have access to any of its kills,” he’d said. “They don’t climb trees, not like leopards. But they’re so bloody big they don’t have to. Often, they’ll just leave a kill where it lay, and come back later on to finish it. Track it down by scent, I suppose.” Still, Richard didn’t like it. It may have been expedient, but there was no sport in it, no challenge. Sitting in the tree, they weren’t hunters; they were opportunists.

This was the last thought Richard had as he began to drift off into sleep.

* * *

The pig squealed. Richard’s eyes shot open and he jumped in his seat.

Corman muttered, shifted slightly, and did not awake. Richard shook his head, did his best to rub the sleep from his eyes. He had no idea how long he’d been asleep, but the fact that the pig was still present meant he hadn’t missed the tiger, at least.

But the pig’s squealing was insistent. There was an urgency to it that had been lacking earlier. Richard leaned forward to examine the creature and saw that it was frantically struggling against the makeshift harness they had bound it with. It alternated between crying out, trying to paw its way free, and trying to chew through its bounds.

The little thing was terrified.

A chill struck Richard. He shifted his rifle, his hands settling to bring it up to his shoulder at a moment’s notice. His eyes worked backwards from the pig’s intended route of escape, and he saw it.

Its muscles rippled under its fur. Its fur shone in the moonlight like burning embers. There was intelligence in its eyes. There was purpose in its step. This was not some lumbering buffalo with a foul temper that gored those who got too close. This was not a lion, petulant and self-serving. This was not a grizzly bear, enormous and unsubtle. This was something altogether different, smarter, faster, more intelligent, more horrible.

It was beautiful.

It stalked forward, sniffing the air and looking languidly about. Even from high up in the tree, Richard was awed by its size, its power. He was a boy again, mouth agape and eyes wide in the presence of a creature that could rend him limb from limb with less effort than it took him to eat his own dinner.

The pig was helpless. The tiger brought a paw, its huge impossible paw down on the things’ back and pinned it flat against the ground. The pig gasped for air, and the tiger bit the back of its neck. In an instant, it was over. As quickly as Richard’s brain could process the action, the pig was dead and the tiger feasting.

It was perfect. It was perfect, and Corman wanted to shoot it from a tree, wanted it unaware and unable to defend itself when it died.

Richard frowned. To do so would have been an insult to the tiger and an admission of inadequacy to the hunters. He would do no such thing, would not even take part in it. What he would do, then, was watch this magnificent animal eat. Study it. Understand it. Best it. Kill it.

The tiger roared. Richard’s breath caught in his throat, his heart began pounding. Corman was more awake than he had ever been, all in a single instant. Corman fumbled the rifle he held in his hands, but kept his grip on it. He watched in silence as the tiger stretched out and savored its meal, and then he brought the rifle to his shoulder.

“No.”

Richard shoved the barrel of the gun aside, and the shot went wild, echoing through the forest and threatening to knock Corman from the blind. But the tiger did not run. It sat perfectly still, its vision locked on the treetops, searching for the source of the noise.

“You damn fool, what are you doing?” Corman hissed.

“Not like this,” Richard said. “Not like this.”

Corman stared at him for a moment before turning his attention back towards the tiger and preparing to fire again.

Richard reached out and grabbed the rifle, yanked it towards him. Corman was taken by surprise, but he gripped the gun tighter and pulled back towards himself.

“If you want the shot, take it!” Corman shouted, all pretext of remaining quiet given up now.

“I do. I will. But when I kill it, I’m going to be staring it in the eye, not hiding up in a tree.”

Corman stopped struggling, but kept a tight grip on the rifle. “I can’t let you do that,” he said. “It’s pure foolishness. We can end this now, and be back in Bangalore relaxing in civilization by tomorrow afternoon.”

Richard stared at Corman in silence. He shook his head and sighed. “You people and your goddamn civilization.” He let go of the gun and Corman eyed him suspiciously before returning his attention to the tiger below them, the tiger that still watched them with an unnatural and detached calm. And seeing his opportunity, Richard pushed the older man with all his might.

Corman fell thirty feet to the ground screaming. He landed on his feet. There was a snapping sound that hit Richard’s ears like a gunshot. Corman pitched forward and fell onto his hands, the rifle laying a few feet away from him. The tiger stared at him for a moment, observing him. It walked forward, slowly, confidently. Corman tried to pull himself forward, to reach the rifle, but he wasn’t fast enough. The tiger was upon him, its massive paw pinning him in place as it opened its mouth and went about subduing its prey.

But it didn’t eat. It paced in a circle around Corman’s body, sniffed at the rifle, looked up at the tree. Richard smiled.

“What are you telling me?” he whispered. “My move? Is it my move? Alright.”

Richard threw down his rifle. The tiger walked up to it and sniffed at that one as well. It hesitated, took deep breaths, walked over to Corman’s body and his rifle, sniffed them again. Richard watched in confusion and all at once it struck him what it was doing.

“Getting my scent. You’re getting my scent, aren’t you?”

The tiger roared as if in affirmation. It turned its back on the hunter and returned to the jungle it had emerged from.

* * *

The next morning Richard awoke to the sound of Kuthra shouting at him from the ground. “Wake up! Wake up! What in the devil happened?” Richard saw the man standing next to the savaged corpse of Corman, anger and confusion playing across his face.

“I’ll be right down!” Richard said.

When he reached the ground, Kuthra repeated his question, and Richard looked at the ground, feigning shame. “We fell asleep. The tiger roared, and startled us awake. Corman bumped me and I dropped my rifle. Then he tried to take the shot himself, but he was unsteady, missed, and the recoil made him fall.” Richard looked up and crossed his arms in indignation. “There wasn’t a goddamn thing I could do about it. Did you want me to try to climb down the tree just to get killed too?”

Kuthra said nothing. His dark eyes bore into Richard as if they could pierce his very soul, but Richard held the man’s gaze. “I do not believe that Mister Corman would have fallen from a blind, like a fool.”

Richard smiled. “Believe whatever you like, but the fact remains that I am now the most accomplished hunter here. If you thought that you could save these people alone, you would have done so without contact the great Kenneth Corman, no?”

Kuthra was silent, his eyes smoldering with anger. Richard’s smile grew a bit wider. “In any case, I am going to hunt this tiger. You can help if you like. And if you would prefer not to, then help me bring Mister Corman’s body back to the village and then get the Hell out of my way. I’ve got work to do.” With that, Richard turned his back on Kuthra and began to climb back up the tree, mentally assembling a list of the things he would need for a successful hunt.


Fearful Symmetry, Pt. 2

They rode down to the village in Corman’s Standard Ten, the car rocking and shaking with every bump in the road. Kenneth’s shikari, Kuthra, drove while Corman and Richard sat in the back and discussed whatever happened to be on Corman’s mind at that moment.

As they traveled farther south, the flat plains of Bangalore gave way to hills and trees and the villages became fewer and farther between. It took the better part of a day, but they eventually arrived at the village of Pennagaram, where Kuthra had said the attacks had taken place.

Richard exited the vehicle and took in his surroundings as best as he was able. The village itself was unlike any he had ever been to before, relatively untouched by British influence, at least in comparison to Bangalore. The villagers looked on at the car with envy, at Richard and Corman with an expression between uncertainty and frightened optimism. Kuthra spoke with someone Richard assumed to be a local leader in rapid Tamil. Corman paid them no mind, lighting a pipe and regarding the villagers going about their business with something not unlike paternal pride. Somewhere off in the distance Richard heard a murmuring noise that he realized must have been a waterfall.

“The elder says that the rakshasa claimed another victim last night. That brings the total to ten in the past two months, he says.”

Corman’s eyes went wide. “Ten in two months? By God, what a beast!”

“What is a rakshasa?”

“Hindi word,” Corman said. “Sort of like a demon, if you will.”

“Why do they call it that?”

“Probably because the bloody tiger’s eaten ten people, I’d imagine.”

Kuthra shook his head. “It has not eaten them, the elder said.”

Corman was silent for a moment. His pipe sat forgotten in his hand until he tapped it and brought it once more to his lips. “What?”

“It does not eat them. Every villager killed has been found whole.” He paused, considered his words. “More or less whole.”

Richard turned to Corman. “I thought you said that tigers who preyed on humans were old and sick and looking for an easy meal.”

Corman snorted. “They are. Usually.” He took another puff on the pipe and frowned. “What the devil kind of animal hunts a human for fun?”

* * *

The next morning, Corman insisted on having a local take them to places where the attacks had taken place. “Gather your things! We have a long day ahead of us. Lots of walking to do.” That Richard brought his old trench knife with him and that he insisted on carrying his rifle rather than letting a shikari do it for him raised laughter from Corman, although not as much as the 1911 pistol Richard wore on his hip.

“What are you going to do with that thing?” Corman said between laughs. “Piss the tiger off before it kills you?”

“It holds seven rounds. Six for it, one for me, if it comes down to it.” Richard grinned at Corman behind humorless eyes. Corman didn’t return the gesture, and the matter was dropped.

The first victim had been on the banks of a river leading to the falls. “A fisherman,” their villager guide explained as Kuthra translated. “He left early one morning and had not come back by the afternoon. By nightfall, his family was worried. They found his body fifty feet from his gear. There was a trail of blood. The rakshasa dragged the man before killing him. His bones were broken, as if the tiger had played with him, batting him about.”

The second victim had never been found. The third victim was a woodcutter who had been killed in the forests around the village. The man’s neck had been snapped, his leg gnawed on it, but the body largely untouched.

After hours of hiking through the woods, up and down the river that ran by the village, the group of five men stood over the spot where the tenth victim had been found. He had been hunting, and the heavy bladed tool that he carried with him bore traces of blood that was not his own upon it. Corman’s cheerful enthusiasm for their endeavor had worn away in the face of the day’s physical and emotional exhaustion. “Well,” he said. “I’m glad someone managed to hurt the damn thing. Not enough, mind you, but I suppose we’ve got to give the blighter credit for trying.”

* * *

Back in the village, Corman began laying out their plans for catching and slaying the tiger. “Tomorrow we’ll catch some wild boars, alive, and tether them to poles near the spots where the beasts’s kills were found. We’ll build a blind in one of the trees, wait for it, and shoot it when it comes. Simple.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to enter the jungle? To try and determine its range and kill it there, rather than hope it comes to us?”

Corman shook his head. “Too much effort. I’d rather just offer it a free meal and wash my hands of the beast when it comes to claim it.”

Richard snorted in disgust. “Weren’t you telling me that these ‘beasts’ were some of God’s most beautiful, most noble creature?”

Corman said nothing. His glare was icy, and had Richard not had any respect for an older man trying to leverage authority over him blown out of his body by an errant artillery shell so many years before, he might have been cowed. “This is my hunt, Mr. Cesar. Don’t forget that.” The older man cleared his throat as if to regain some measure of lost composure. “And besides. Whatever natural nobility this creature may have possessed was lost when it chose to flout the natural order.

“Now, then. There’s work to be done.”

* * *

The day found Richard and Corman tracking boar through the forests while Kuthra stayed behind and directed the villagers in the construction of blinds at each of the kill sites. By the time night fell, three of the hunting blinds sat in the treetops while an equal number of boars sat in wooden cages in the village. Corman’s spirits improved over the course of the day, and he invited Richard to join him for a drink. To Richard’s surprise, Corman was forthcoming with an apology.

“About earlier,” the older man began. “This situation is strange to me. It defies my knowledge as a hunter, and… well, I pride myself as being a rather good hunter. You can see where that might leave me short-tempered. Moody, as it were.”

Richard nodded. He thought that Corman was presuming too much about the creatures he hunted. He didn’t respect them as predators. It never seemed to enter his mind that they were creatures capable of killing him. They were just trophies to be claimed.

Corman went on. “Anyway, tell me about yourself, friend. I feel like I’ve been talking since we met. Why don’t you speak for a while?”

Richard shrugged. “Not much to say. I don’t know. What do you want to know?”

“Do you have any family?”

Richard shook his head. “Mother and father are dead. Brother somewhere in California I never talk to.”

“No wife?”

“Had a girl before the war. She’s dead now.”

“I’m terribly sorry.”

“Not as sorry as I am.” Richard pointed at his face. “I was in Argonne. K company. Shelled by my own goddamn side. I spend a month in a hospital and then get a medical discharge. But there was a mix-up in the papers, and word got back to the States that I was dead when I was just injured. And my Becky was so torn up she killed herself.”

“My God. That’s terrible. Like something out of Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.”

Richard said nothing, just stared at Corman in silence. “Yeah,” he finally said. He shook his head. “Like something out of Shakespeare.” He stood up then, rolled his shoulders and his neck from side to side. “If you’ll excuse me, I do believe the drink’s gone to my head. I think I’ll turn in for the night.”

Richard stepped outside of the hut. The temperature was warm still, even though it had been night for a few hours. Eighty or seventy, perhaps, and the air was humid enough that Richard could feel beads of sweat running down his face. Some five miles away, Hogenakkal Falls roared, its sound calling out to him across clear starlit sky. And somewhere much closer, the tiger, the rakshasa slept, or else stalked the jungle, or else sat nearby and stared at Richard as he stared into the dark of the night.


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