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       Eldnium, p.28

           Enoch Pyle, Jr

  Morning came with a flourish, the sound of shouting voices pounding through the walls of the cottage. As Landon’s wits returned to him, he could make out a few words from amongst the racket.

  “Back! Get back!” An authoritative voice.

  “Where’s Ah’ni? What’ve yous done with him?” An old man.

  “He’s the Queen’s concern. Now, get back!”

  “Is he under charges?” A woman’s voice this time.

  “Get back or we’ll strike you down where you stand! And shut up while you’re at it!”

  There was a rattle at the door now, someone fidgeting with the latch outside. “Locked, Commander.”

  “Then kick it bloody in!”

  With a BOOM and a CRASH the door burst open, and Landon jumped to his feet.

  “Hands where I can see ‘em, boy!” An armored knight entered through the open door sighting down an arrow he’d drawn into his bow. “Hands, or I shoot you through the eye!”

  Landon obliged, raising his hands slowly into the air. No sudden movements.

  “He’s in here, alright,” the knight said, and another armored man entered, this one wearing very similar armor and a red cape, obviously the commander of this troop. Landon couldn’t help but notice the parallels between these men and The Control.

  “Are you the boy Ah’ni found by the sea?” the man asked.

  Landon lied out of reflex. “No. I don’t know anyone named Ami.”

  “That’s interesting, seeing as you’re in his house,” the commander said, and he stepped closer to Landon, looking him up and down, skeptically considering every inch of Landon’s body, mannerisms, and clothing. “You precisely fit the description of a…” the commander pulled a piece of parchment from under his bracer and read, “…Landon of Boat.” He looked back at Landon, piercing his eyes for signs of deceit, and asked, “Tell me, where lies the village of Boat?”

  Landon had a choice to make. He knew there were two options. One would be to continue with the lie and eventually be caught out. But even if they believed him, he would still be at the mercy of people who didn’t trust him. So the other option was to come clean…to tell them who he was and why he was here. But that would leave him at the mercy of a regime with a history of finding and killing heroes.

  Then, a third option struck him. On his home planet, when a civilian was arrested, the police had to read them a list of rights, and one of the rights was about being able to keep your mouth shut if you want. On second thought, he dismissed that, too. He felt certain that civil rights were something this little kingdom had not yet enacted.

  Before he could stop himself, Landon made the worst choice possible. He made the lie bigger.

  “It’s true. I’m an ambassador of the gods. I come from the Realm of Boah, not ‘boat’. Ah’ni must have misunderstood. I am here to have conference with the Queen regarding the death of our loyal servant, which took place fifteen years ago. Bring me to the Queen, and I’ll let you live.”

  It sounded ridiculous, and Landon immediately regretted it.

  “Okay,” the commander said. “I’ll bring you to the Queen. But only on charges of heresy.” And he shoved Landon against the wall, spinning him around and binding his hands in a flash…something the commander seemed to have developed into a skill, leaving Landon to wonder just how many people on this planet are wrongly arrested every day.

  And now Landon was happy to stay silent, with no need to keep digging himself into a hole.

  Silent while the knights put him in the back of a horse-drawn wagon.

  Silent while they rode away from the village, the villagers staring and whispering amongst themselves.

  Silent as they entered a dark bank of woods, the air thick and black.

  Landon could hear wild animals growling and braying from the shadows of the trees, and soon the shadows themselves dissolved into pure darkness, the direction of the wagon led only by the horse’s adept eyes and senses. There were sounds of movement all around them. At first, the movements sounded cautious…curious, maybe…like a house cat prowling around a neighbor’s yard. But then the thing, whatever it was, became bolder and more frightening…predatory.

  Around him, though blinded by the dark, Landon could hear the breath of the soldiers changing. Shallow. Rapid. He imagined their faces contorting with fear. Something existed in these woods that had them frightened. And Landon couldn’t help but embrace the fear in the air, beads of sweat forming against his skin.

  The wagon started jumping and jerking, the horse throwing fits, thrashing violently, terrorized by the things in the trees. Landon heard a critical SNAP! and felt the horse break free of its mount, stamping into the dark. It didn’t get far, however. Suddenly, it began neighing madly until its cries were drowned in the sounds of gurgling blood.

  A dozen barking laughs broke through the darkness and filled the air with a chill…not a sound from the lips of man, but a sound from what could only be a pack of deranged and vicious animals…or possibly a single, nightmarish beast.

  They sat in silence for a few short moments. Nothing but the sounds of a dozen men breathing against their fear.

  The commander spoke.

  “We’ll continue on foot.”

  Landon heard mouths open in protest, but none spoke a word as the commander lit a torch. The flames provided a little light, but the air was so dark Landon wouldn’t have believed it was still daytime above the canopy. The blackness in the forest had a heaviness to it. A presence.

  “Stay close,” one of the guards whispered to Landon. “Keep quiet. You make a single peep, you’ll get us all killed.”

  Landon nodded that he understood, but also hinted with his eyes for the guard to come closer. The guard did, and Landon whispered, “Cut my ties? So I can defend myself?”

  “I thought you said you were an ambassador of the gods,” the guard whispered back. “Defend yourself? We should be asking you for protection…”

  Landon imagined giving himself a good swift kick in the crotch for having muttered such a ridiculous lie back at the cottage. The guard helped him down from the wagon, and the caravan formed a single line down the path, afraid to stray too close to one edge of the path or the other.

  Landon could barely see through the blackness that pressed against his eyes. The commander held the torch at the front of the line, and Landon followed near the back, where the air hanged too thick and dark. It wasn’t long, however, before he could make out chunks of the cart horse lying in the path, still steaming with warmth, the dirt muddy with blood.

  Whatever could do that to a horse in such a short amount of time had Landon developing a specialized fear of the dark.

  And then it happened.

  A whoosh sailed through the air…a shadow…whisking one of the guards into the black veils at the path’s edge. The men around him panicked, spinning on the spot, drawing their daggers and scanning in every direction, firelight glinting off the blades.

  “Keep your heads about you!” the commander whispered urgently.

  Landon started fiddling with his ties, trying to get enough wiggle room to free his hands. As he did this, another shadow exploded from the trees, and Landon watched as the commander himself was ripped from the path, the torch flying from his hands, where it hit the ground, sparked, and lit the ground, spreading slowly through the darkness.

  “Fire!” one guard shouted. And just as soon as the words had left his mouth, he was pulled from his place by another shadow, disappearing behind the sound of his screams.

  Landon couldn’t get his hands free. He dropped to the ground to try and run his arms under his legs and get his hands out in front of him, but just as he fell, something black swept over him, caught the shoulder of the guard next to him, and knocked that guard to the ground, his lower half obscured by the shadows and his face close enough to Landon’s that Landon could feel his breath. The guard’s dagger fell next to Landon, and he looked from it to the guard’s eyes which sparkled in the firelight.<
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  “Help me,” the guard whispered, fear boiling from his face.

  But Landon couldn’t.

  With a flash, the guard was yanked into the trees on the dark side of the path.

  Landon found himself able to get his hands in front of him, and as he struggled to use the fallen dagger to cut the ties, he kept a watchful eye on the shadows. He could see shapes now—thanks to the spreading wildfire—shapes as dark as night, darting around, furiously intent on staying out of the firelight, but also determined to catch what prey remained.

  With a final weak slice, the Landon managed to cut the ties from his wrists, and he found himself low to the ground, trying to separate light from dark with eyes that just couldn’t adjust to the contrast between the flames and shadows.

  And then he saw it, its eyes glowing in the flickering light. And it stared at him from a distance, covered in darkness, as Landon tightened his grip on the dagger, afraid to look away, suddenly aware that Iclovar had given him no combat training. His hand shook, but he held the point of the blade steady, unfazed. He stared right back at the beast. Right back into the glowing, slit-pupils of the thing in the trees. So deeply he stared that he felt he could see himself in the reflection. He could smell the blood on its breath. He could feel its hunger.

  And then the eyes were gone—disappeared—and another WHOOSH came out of the shadows, and the thing was on him.

  He kicked and screamed and thrashed about, but it was no use. It was too heavy. It was holding him down against the dirt path, letting out a horrible cry. Its teeth fell against his neck. He could feel their jagged edges, razor sharp, heavy, moist air puffing weakly through them. And then he felt a warm liquid running into his clothes. A final puff exiting the thing’s mouth. The heavy weight of its fur and scales limp across his body.

  The beast was dead.

  Just two guards remained, shivering, teeth chattering, slowly bringing themselves out of a state of shock. They came to Landon’s aid, rolling the beast off of his body, and then quickly brought him to his feet. Without a word, and without looking back, the three survivors hurried through the remainder of the forest, leaving it aflame, feeling delighted to finally escape to the light of day.

  The Queen and The Seeker

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