This short story was submitted to the Post Apocalyptic Media Short Story Contest for 2021. All rights belong to the writer.
Rain pummeled Ánne’s body as he crested the dune. The ocean entering his vision was a murky, seething mass occasionally lit by flashes of lightning. He was glad for his sealskin coat; the towering beachgrass offered little shelter from the torrential downpour. In the dying light, Ánne could hardly make out the short silhouette of his guide. Minute by minute, he regretted embarking on this madman’s trip more.
“How much further?” he called out over the noise. His guide paused for a moment and yelled something inaudible. Ánne swore. His coat kept out the rain, but could do little to ease the cold. He thumbed his only heat stone. He might need it later; probably best to not tap into it right now. Grumbling, he gritted his teeth and broke into a jog. How could such a tiny woman – no, a girl still – keep up such a killing pace?
Syluw finally came to a stop near a crumbling brick wall. The girl looked hesitant. Ánne caught up with her, panting. “Where to now, Miss Necromancer?”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “I prefer the term medium,” she replied curtly. “I rarely work with actual corpses.”
They stood in awkward silence for about ten seconds, and then Ánne gave in. He was cold, tired, and not in the mood for arguing with a teenager again. “Alright, Miss Medium then! I’m sorry, ok? Just… where do we go next?”
Syluw pouted and muttered something. “What was that?” Ánne demanded. She shot him a furious look. “I lost it, alright? Tracking a rogue spirit is actually quite hard. Not that I’d expect a brawn-for-brain soldier like you to understand.”
Ánne hit the wall in frustration. He had to calm down. This girl was not his daughter, and he needed her. Probably. If she wasn’t making everything up. He was half praying she was. Ánne sat down on a brick poking out of the sand, and stared at the wall. It looked oddly familiar. Suddenly, he realised it wasn’t straight, but curved round. He knew exactly where they were. “Executive decision,” he said, standing up. “We make camp here. This is the Titankeep, or what’s left of it. We weather the storm here, and try to pick up the trail tomorrow.” She was about to protest, but Ánne cut her off. “Listen, it’s dark, the storm’s about to hit its peak, we have lost the trail, and the nearest homestead is at least two hours away from here. You needed a bodyguard to keep you safe, and I’m doing just that. We camp here, and that’s final.”
Syluw’s shoulders sagged in defeat.
Rivulets cascaded over the weathered rim of the Titankeep. Ánne had managed to build a relatively dry shelter on the leeside of the ruins; his sealskin coat acting as a canopy for the both of them. The girl sat demonstratively as far away from him as the little shelter allowed, with her back against a toppled brick. She was chewing on some kind of dried fruit. “Listen girl,” Ánne tried, ” I’m not asking you to huddle together, but you’ll catch pneumonia if you don’t at least use my sheepskin blanket. I have a heat stone, so I’ll survive.” “I told you I’m fine,” she bit back. “Why can’t you get it into that thick skull of yours? I don’t need a fucking chaperone to wipe my ass. Just keep the wildlife away from me, like I asked you to. And stop calling me ‘girl’ all the time. I passed sixteen a winter ago.” Ánne sighed. Almost exactly Cíutu’s age. Perhaps he should give up; she was an adult, and she certainly looked like she was in a better state than he was, physically at least. He knew nothing about the powers of a medium; perhaps she did have some way of staying warm and staving off fatigue?
“Very well then,” he said, “I apologise for patronising you.” Then he added a bit wryly, “I sometimes forget I don’t have to be a father anymore.”
She looked up. “You have a family?”
“A wife and a daughter. Your age,” he added. “Although it’s just me and my wife now. My daughter went her own way.”
“Too much patronising?” the girl volunteered with a smirk.
“Could be part of it,” Ánne admitted, “but more importantly, I disapproved of her partner. A peddler, and bloody Norfolk to boot. No future there. Still, she ran off with him before last winter, and not a word since.”
“Sounds like she did love him,” the girl replied. “Maybe you should have supported her.” “She’d still have left us,” he said bitterly, then added: “but maybe on better terms.” Ánne turned to Syluw. “So what about you then? Even for a travelling medium, you are quite far away from home. Your name isn’t exactly common in these parts.” He tried it: “It’s pronounced ‘Seelew’, right?”
Syluw chuckled. “That’s pretty close for a Merfolk, actually.” She stared at her feet in silence for a minute or two, then started talking.
“I was born in Ensy. Sunwards and Dawnwards from here – I’m Hillfolk,” she added in response to Ánne’s nonplussed stare. “Anyway, I was raised in an orphanage. Worked in the marl quarries to repay the debt. When it got out I was Gifted, a wandering Artificer took me under his wing. Been travelling with him since. We got separated,” she replied before Ánne could ask the question. “Look, I think I’ve had enough talk for tonight. Let’s rest up and try to pick up the trail tomorrow.”
Ánne nodded. “You sleep. I’ll keep watch. It’s too late to wake me up once we’re being attacked.”
The young woman gave him a nod, then curled up in her cloak. She drifted off in minutes. Maybe she was a mortal after all. Ánne wrapped himself in his sheepskin blanket, and focused on his heat stone. He found its thermal energy reservoir, and gave it a light mental Push. In response, it instantly gave off a gentle warmth. He tucked it under his tunic, feeling better already. Then he loaded his shotpipe, and balanced it between his knees. The steel tube – as long as his legs – was heavy, but it greatly improved his accuracy. Better fulfill his role as a bodyguard properly.
Ánne woke up being stared down by a curious herring gull. He slowly raised his shotpipe. When the gull saw him move, it bounded forward, opening its beak. Without hesitation, Ánne rose. He rammed the shotpipe into the gull’s gaping gullet, and Pushed. The lead rod in the chamber jerked forward. Ánne could feel it nick the barrel as it shot out, burying itself into the gull’s gut and ripping open the bird’s abdomen on its way out. Ánne had seen enough fighting to know it was lethal. The gull rolled backward in a cacophony of screams. Syluw jerked awake, pulling out a dagger with unnatural speed. “What was that?” she demanded. Then her eye fell on the huge flailing bird. “By the Creation! Did you do that?” Her face was a mixture of respect and disgust.
“Young herring gull. Must’ve thought we were an easy snack. We need to move – the storm has passed, and there will be more birds in the sky. More dangerous ones as well.” Ánne left out that he had dozed off near dawn. Damn it all. Five years ago, he wouldn’t have fallen asleep on watch. He skirted the wretched bird and picked up his lead rod. It was mangled, and not just from the impact. He must have accelerated it too quickly. Well fuck. He was really losing his touch. The rod was useless to him now.
He turned to the bird. It had managed to work its way to the edge of the wall, but it wouldn’t even last until noon. Probably a kindness to finish it off now. He tested the rod’s kinetic energy reserve. Satisfied, he tossed it toward the bird and Pushed full power. The rod
crumpled as it struggled against its inertia. Then, it smashed into the gull’s skull, coating the wall in gore. Grimacing, Ánne checked his shotpipe. Its muzzle was cracked, but it would still be usable.
He untied his sealskin coat, shook off the moisture, and donned it in one fluid motion. “Have you picked up our target’s trail yet?”
His voice snapped Syluw out of her daze. “Possibly. I may have found a fresh victim. It could still be close.”
“Works for me. And you may want to put that dagger away for now.”
Blushing, she sheathed the blue blade. He knew the dull, flexible material well. Titancraft. It made him uncomfortable. It wasn’t a weapon for killing wildlife, but for killing people. Gifted people. Where did she get it?
“Good,” he said, “now let’s get out of here. You go in front, and we stick together. That should discourage most gulls. Provided they have any sense.”
The watery autumn sun failed to alleviate the chill of morning. As the pair trudged along a damp sheep trail on the inland side of the dunes, Ánne scanned the horizon. No seagulls. That was a good start, but he wasn’t particularly worried about just gulls. Syluw’s mood appeared to have improved significantly overnight. Immediately upon picking up the scent, her step had become energetic again. However, this time she made sure Ánne could keep up. Suddenly, she turned around and kept on walking backwards with unnatural finesse. “So, I guess One-Shot Ánne lives up to his reputation then?”
Ánne sighed. “Rumours breed myths. I was just a fairly competent shooter in the right place at the right time. I shot thousands of bullets during the Norfolk war. One of them just happened to end it.”
He stared over the grassy plain. “And now I mostly guard sheep herders. I settled. Let the youngsters talk of sailing upriver and raiding and looting. I have done my part and am glad it’s behind me. Meanwhile, the old folk in town teach their children I’m some kind of bullet juggler. All the town kids want to see me do is trick shots.”
Syluw tilted her head. “Tricks? Like what?”
Ánne huffed. “Hitting the same mark a dozen times in a row, shooting shells out of the sky. Bouncing bullets. Cheap tricks that are worth shit when you’re staring down a Norfolk soldier. Or a ghost,” he added, hoping she would change the topic.
Oblivious to his hint, Syluw continued. “Bouncing bullets? Like, actually hitting your own shots?”
“I’m not going to give a demonstration, if that’s what you want. My shots are too precious to waste on party tricks. It takes me ages to charge them, and lead and steel ain’t cheap either.”
“Party pooper.” Syluw winked. She seemed a lot more talkative than yesterday. Ánne figured he could hazard a question in return. It would probably be good to know more about her powers. Then again, something else bothered him as well…
“So, about that dagger of yours…” Syluw stiffened. “It’s my mentor’s,” she said curtly. Then she relaxed a bit. “He sometimes needs it for exorcisms. Titancraft affects the spirit, so it works pretty well on lost souls. I borrowed it.”
“Your mentor must be a pretty influential person if he got his hands on a Titancraft blade.” Syluw turned away from him. “He is,” she muttered. Then she chuckled. “He’s a travelling academic. Intelligent, but couldn’t cook if his life depended on it. I’ve been taking more care of him than he has of me.”
“You sound very fond of him.”
She turned to him. Her eyes were slightly wet. “I am. He’s…like the father I never had.” “Are you ok?”
She wiped away her tears. “Yup. All good. It’s just, we got separated when we landed here on Téser. But he always said job first, so here I am.”
“That why you asked for my help?”
“Well, even if I weren’t solo, we always try to pick up a local guide or bodyguard. Neither of us are fighters. But I guess I got lucky to land a mythical warrior on my first solo job?” Her smirk was back.
Ánne harrumphed, looking away over the plain. Then he overtook her in one swift step and tried to press her head down to the ground. Halfway down, it felt like he hit a solid barrier, and she wouldn’t budge.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she demanded indignantly as Ánne lay down flat on his belly.
“Buzzard,” he grunted. “Get down, if you value your life.” With quick but meticulous motions, he loaded his shotpipe with a gravel bag. If that monster swooped down, grapeshot might be his only option.
The bird soared overhead, heading Evenlightwards. As it disappeared over the horizon, Ánne relaxed. “You could have just told me to get down before trying to grab me,” she said as she brushed herself off.
“If you spot a buzzard, you can be sure it spotted you a hundred times over. We should be glad it wasn’t interested in us.” He hesitated, then added: “Next time I’ll shout. Just make sure you lie down right away.”
He was a strong man. How had she stayed upright?
They continued their trek without encountering any large beasts other than a single startled mouse. As the sun approached its zenith, they reached the crumbling remains of a titan village. Ánne called for a break, and they sat down in the shadow of a clump of sorrel poking out of the concrete foundations.
Ánne cut off a young leaf and took a few bites to make his oatcakes a bit less bland. Syluw stuck with her dried fruits. “You sure burn a lot of sugar,” he noted.
“I need to be constantly switched on for tracking,” Syluw said, “so I need the energy. It’s not too bad, but you don’t want to know what it does to my digestive system.” “True, I don’t.” Ánne got up. He drank a few gulps of water to wash away the sourness in his mouth. “You ready to move on?”
Syluw bounded up. “I wasn’t the one who wanted a rest. We’re almost there too.” She pointed towards a small copse of trees about a quarter of an hour ahead. “Should be over there.”
Ánne frowned. “You sure?”
“Wellllll… no,” Syluw said. “Just that something big died there recently. Violently.” “Rogue spirits do that, don’t they?” he said unconvinced.
She turned and looked into his eyes. “Some do, Ánne.”
“Alright, alright,” he said, “the treeline it is. Stick close to me. Trees obscure my line of sight. Don’t want to be caught off-guard by another buzzard.”
It took them almost half of an uneventful hour to clear the distance. As they drew close to the forest’s edge, Syluw changed course slightly. “It’s this way. We’re really close now!” She trotted off towards an opening in the foliage.
Ánne was about to tell her off when he saw a grey shape detach itself from a tree to the left. His heart froze.
“Goshawk! Run, run, run!” he yelled as he brought up his shotpipe.
Syluw tore into a dash, but the goshawk was closing in fast. By the time Ánne had the raptor in his sight, Syluw was in his line of fire. Fuck. “Duck!” It took all his self-restraint to accelerate his shot slow enough to let it maintain its integrity. Helplessly, he watched as the projectile was still picking up speed as it left the barrel. There was no way it would make it in time.
Ánne yelled as the goshawk bore down on Syluw, and a flurry of feathers obscured her from his view as the goshawk was pelted by gravel. Ánne sank to his knees. He had failed; the shot had definitely connected too late.
Then, Syluw rolled into his view, and broke into a mad dash for the treeline as the bird recovered and gave chase. Ánne’s heart kicked back into action.
“Over here!” Ánne shouted. “Lure it away from the trees!”
Syluw changed directions with the agility of a hare, and nearly matched one in speed as well. The goshawk gave chase on foot, keeping up with a series of fast strides. Ánne reached for one of his remaining lead rods on his belt. No time for the shotpipe; he would have to shoot without assistance. Syluw veered left and right with uncanny speed, just managing to keep the goshawk out of reach. Ánne tried to aim, but could hardly keep up with the pair. This was not going to be an easy shot.
The goshawk swiped a talon at Syluw. As she dodged, there was a slight pause in the bird’s movements. Ánne threw his rod like a spear and Pushed. The projectile picked up speed, and tore through the goshawk’s back feathers. Cursing, Ánne grabbed his last rod, but the goshawk was on the move again. “Tag with me!” he shouted at Syluw. She dashed towards him, and barely dodged the accelerating missile. The rod nicked the goshawk’s chest and drew blood, but the angle was off. That would be nowhere near enough to stop it. And now the bird was coming for him.
Ánne gritted his teeth. No other option now.
With all his strength, he Pushed on his gravel shot. As the goshawk went in for the kill, Ánne rolled to the side. Dozens of tiny rocks dug into the bird’s back, and this close, Ánne could keep pushing. For just a short moment, the goshawk was pinned to the ground. Then the grapeshot ran out of energy. Triumphantly, the goshawk reared up and opened its beak for the kill. Ánne heard Syluw scream. He groaned from the effort as the twisted tangle of lead rods he had been Pushing finally returned and nailed the monster’s neck to the ground. The bird went silent.
Ánne leaned against a tree. He was exhausted. Syluw sat next to him. She had finished looking after his wounds and was now bandaging herself. Every exposed part of her body was covered in scratches and bruises, and she had a long cut across her back. Still, it didn’t seem like any of it was too serious.
“That,” she said, “was a pretty amazing last shot. I couldn’t even sense when you brought back that second rod.”
“Didn’t. I used the first bar to change its course.”
“You bounced it?” She grinned.
“Gave you a demonstration after all, huh?” He grimaced. “By the Creation, we got off lucky,” he grunted.
Syluw looked at him incredulously. “You call this lucky?” She showed him the cut on her back. “If I had been a heartbeat later, I would have had a talon between my ribs!”
“That’s why we’re lucky, Syluw. No offence meant, but by all means, you should have been dead. No one dodges a goshawk like you did today. No one normal at least. I won’t pry. But, well… I’m glad you’re still alive.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I may know a bit more than just communing with the dead. I also have the Gift of Artifice, but please keep that quiet. It’s pretty rare to have two, according to my mentor.”
“My lips are sealed. And I don’t understand enough about the Gift anyway.” He rose and extended his hand to help her up. “After all, I’m just a brawn-for-brain soldier.” She grinned back at him and took his hand.
“Let’s see if we can end this adventure and get back to civilisation. If you Merfolk even know what that means. My present companion isn’t making a very convincing case.” She winked. Ánne laughed. “Well, guess I’ll have to disprove that. You’re welcome to stay with me and the missus for a start. Then, we can look for that mentor of yours. I have old war buddies in almost every town on Téser; we’ll have found the guy in days.”
She turned away from him and started walking. “That would be lovely,” she muttered.
The carcass leaning against the tree was still fresh. The sheep’s head had been torn off, and its guts spilled out of a hole in its belly. Its body had been raked by claws, and the air was filled with the smell of sheep dung. “A ghost did this?” Ánne asked incredulously. “I told you,” Syluw said, wrinkling her nose. “Restless spirits can do that. What do these claw marks look like to you?”
“Dog, if I had to guess,” Ánne said. “No wolves on Téser. But I’ve never seen a shepherd’s dog do this to one of the flock.”
“That doesn’t matter. A rogue spirit takes control, and if the host’s mind is weak, it is consumed within days. This dog is just an incarnation of hatred now. The spirit will keep killing until its host’s body gives out. That is the sad nature of all undead.” “A wild dog,” Ánne grimaced. “That is bad news. If this thing entered a town…” “It would massacre the place.”
Ánne whistled. “You weren’t kidding when you told me this might concern the safety of the entire island.”
“I didn’t know it was a dog when I recruited you. But I’ll admit this is worse than I imagined. We’ll have to exorcise it as soon as possible.”
“So, any new leads now we’re here?”
‘That’s the strange thing,” Syluw said. “Usually, restless spirits have their own… wavelength that I can detect. But I just put the sheep’s spirit to rest, and there’s just no other…” She went quiet. Ánne could hear a growl coming from the bushes.
“Looks like it was here all along,” he said as he placed himself between the noise and Syluw. She stared in shock.
“Impossible! There’s no way I would have missed a signature this big. Not unless – but ghosts don’t know Nullification…”
As the beast emerged from the undergrowth, it took Ánne a few moments to recognise it as a dog. It was the standard black-and-white shepherd’s dog favoured on Téser because of their gentleness. However, slavering, snarling and covered in blood, it was a nightmare incarnate. The monster stared him down with bloodshot eyes.
“So, Ms Medium, what’s the plan?” Ánne said, never looking away from the beast. “We,” Syluw hesitated, “we normally subdue it. Then I can exorcise the spirit. But it’s too late for the dog, so you don’t have to hold back. You can kill it.” She looked uncertain.
“I honestly wonder if I can.” Ánne slowly took four grapnel shots from his pack. “This ain’t a frail bird. Shotspikes and rods are useless against a mammal that big. I’ll try to get it tangled up. You do your thing once I restrain it.
“Right.” Syluw sounded tense.
He swallowed hard. “No promises though. If I die, you run, hear me? Get away from here with that insane speed of yours and never look back.”
She bit her lip. “I can’t abandon you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. No use doubling the victim count. Go Evenlightwards until you hit the coast, then follow it Sunwards. You’ll stumble upon a village called Ráca in two days. You could probably do it in one. They’re good people. They will help you find that mentor of yours.” He paused. “And tell my wife I love her.”
“Don’t count yourself dead yet. We’ll beat this thing together. And you’ll need me. This thing isn’t natural, even for an undead.”
Ánne handed her two thin, spider silk ropes. “Tie this to the brambles over there, and put the grapnels somewhere clear. We’ll want to slow that thing down as soon as possible.” She looked grim. “Let’s go.”
As if on cue, the dog shot forward, like it had been held by an invisible lease that had snapped. Its frothing mouth opened wide to reveal a set of teeth larger than Ánne’s fingers. Ánne veered to the left as Syluw backed off to the brambles. Then he fired his first grapnel into the beast flank. He let go of the rope for now; the beast would just drag him along. Unfazed, it closed the distance and snapped at Ánne. He threw himself backwards and hit the forest floor hard. The beast’s maw shut an arm’s length away from him. Its breath reeked of rotting meat. Swallowing back bile, Ánne pulled a bronze knife from his belt and thrust, tapping its small kinetic energy reserve. The knife buried itself into the dog’s nose. It didn’t even seem to faze the monster. Ánne janked the knife back with a Push to roll out of the way of its fangs.
As Ánne got up, a paw caught his ammunition belt. He slashed the straps to free himself. Turning around, he aimed his last grapnel. This time, he embedded it in the beast’s neck. Ánne dashed underneath its belly, and looped the rope around its back leg. The dog tried to lunge for him, but staggered due to the rope. Ánne used the moment of respite to unhook his last grapeshot from his discarded belt. It was better than nothing. He grabbed the trailing rope of his first grapnel with one hand, then raised the grapeshot with the other. The dog turned and bared its fangs. Its fetid maw was only a pace away from him. As the beast opened it, he heard Syluw yell his name. Ignoring his fear, he jumped and Pushed as fast as he dared on his grapeshot. It shot up, dragging him along into the air. The dogs maw snapped shut, and he could feel its fangs close around his right foot. He screamed as it was torn off at its ankle, but he didn’t stop Pushing until the grapshot was depleted, and he landed in a slow arc on the dog’s back. Panting and cursing, he tossed the useless bag of gravel.
The furious dog twisted and bucked, trying to throw him off. Ánne did not have the energy to stay on its back, and he let himself slide down on the other side, still clutching the rope. He ended up dangling helplessly just two paces above the ground. If only he could reach the monster’s legs, he could restrain it! The beast opened its maw again, ready to finish the job…
Something streaked past him and hit the dog square in its jaws. The two grapnels Syluw held dug deeply into its flesh. Ánne let go of the rope and hit the leafy floor hard. He groaned. “Last rope. Tie this fucker down.”
Without pausing, Syluw leapt for the last rope and swung around the beast’s legs. She rammed Ánne’s dropped dagger into its leg to secure the knot.
The monster struggled and twisted, entangling itself until it finally toppled. It’s mouth frothed and its eyes darted around madly. As Syluw took out her Titancraft dagger to finish the job, Ánne’s consciousness faded.
A painful throbbing woke Ánne up. His foot hurt. He opened his eyes and grasped at it, but found only a bandaged stump. He slumped back and felt bark pressing against his back. So it hadn’t been a dream after all. Bloody mongrel.
He scanned his surroundings, but didn’t recognise them. It was the same copse of trees, but a different section. He tried to call for Syluw, but his throat was parched. All he managed was a croak.
Looks like they had survived somehow. As he eased himself against the tree, he gasped from pain. Syluw would probably have to carry him out of here. And then he wouldn’t touch that bloody shotpipe ever again. He’d had enough. After helping Syluw find her mentor, he should get a prosthetic foot done. Some of his buddies were worse off. And then he could do something different with his life. Maybe… he could go find his daughter? Would she still hate him?
He was disturbed from his musings by a loud conversation. “… a huge disappointment. Can hardly believe I fell for the rumours.”
The voices moved closer. One of them was masculine, but the other sounded like Syluw. “That is hardly my fault. Anyway, I held up my end of the bargain. Now, release him. You gave me your word!”
Ánne could detect some glee in the male voice. “I said I would release him if the marksman passed. He didn’t. He lost his bloody foot! What am I supposed to do with a footless body when I have a perfectly serviceable one right here?”
“You were going to… possess him as well?”
“Quite so. This mentor of yours isn’t all too powerful. I would love to add a strong Artificer to my arsenal… but alas, this one was a disappointment. I will have to dispose of him later.” “Unnecessary. He’s already dead. Blood loss. But that’s not the issue here! You swore by the Creation.” She sounded desperate. “And what is this about passing? Were you just testing him?”
“Not just him, my dear,” the man said with malice. “The marksman was a failure. But you. You passed with flying colours.”
“What are you…” Syluw cut off, and Ánne heard her retch. Still in a daze, he tried to move, to help her. His body refused to listen to his pleas. He heard something heavy fall down on the leaves, and the rustling of approaching footsteps. Then Syluw came into view. She was alright! Relief flooded over him as he attempted to croak her name. Then he stopped. Her face was contorted in an evil grin. “Well,” she said mockingly, “looks like she did grow soft in the end. And she even bandaged you!” Syluw approached, her stare as cold as ice. “How futile.”
Ánne felt a sharp pain between his ribs, and was faintly aware of a warm sensation spreading over his abdomen. “No loose ends,” Syluw said. Then, Ánne slumped down and his world went black.