Petka Fawcett woke up no more or less exhausted (spiritually and physically) then when he dropped into the hex-coma, which made sense in that he currently inhabited a land where nothing really added up, and you couldn’t take two steps without bumping into an anachronism or timeline contradiction. Once Finnen awoke, the four’s movement was one of determination and action, mixed with the lingering anxiety when one faces a well-nigh impossible task.
Further, Finnen awoke not understanding why his pants were wet. After a change of clothes, they all ate a hearty breakfast of unicorn eggs (another strange aspect of the giant rodents) and medium-rare unicorn steaks, which almost didn’t taste like rat if one pretended very hard.
After eating, the three looked down over the ledge, where an impossibly long, rickety wooden ladder descended into what was clearly an eternal darkness; a place where it was always night. And though the bottom was obscured by the inky black of perpetual eventide, one could clearly see the pale light of a horned and gibbous moon, hanging useless, grinning sardonically in the sky. Thin clouds covered up the stars, and Fawcett felt a pang of wistfulness in the loss of the constellations- they were his guides, certainly, but were also storytellers pinned in the firmament– he often (before sleep took hold in the real world) looked at those twinkling shapes and allowed his mind to wander as to what stories they could tell; what lives they lived before being immortalized in the purple-black sky above before the Romans or Greeks had their say.
Finnen, Chaim, and Raksha were all looking at Petka with an almost palpable anxiety, matched only by a sense of Petka’s sheer determination.
“Okay Fawcett,” said Finnen, “This is your show now. What’s the plan?”
Petka Fawcett, who had spent the lion’s share of his time in lonely places wrought with danger for most of his adult life, thought for a minute before speaking.
“Chaim, can I see that book for a moment? We’ll need to know the next peace-cry.”
Chaim nodded, and handed over the Book of Leaves and Ivory, and Petka studied a page intently.
“Okay,” said Petka, confidently, “Here’s the plan.”
* * * * *
Finnen, most understanding the need to defend oneself, led the group to a little ramshackle hut that doubled as an armory. Despite its small, dilapidated appearance it was deceptively big on the inside, and contained an astounding number of weapons- some easily recognizable, others from a time or place wholly unknown to Petka– some rifles were no ordinary rifles and some swords were no ordinary swords.
Stretching out his knotted muscles, Finnen vowed revenge against Chaim for his “unchecked, pants-wetting aggression”, though was frankly at a loss as how to actually accomplish it.
“Look Irish,” said Chaim with a voice of mock-apology, “It’s true- I may have placed your hand in warm water, and further, those pants may be ruined forever. Frankly, we’ll never know for sure. What I can tell you- and tell you for certain is that there really isn’t anything you can do to me that life hasn’t already done. Think on that Sir. Your pants can be cleansed, but the stain of sorrow on my soul? That’s for keeps, Irish. Think about that.”
And Finnen did think about that, at least for a minute- his brow furrowed in a mixture of annoyance, with just the vaguest hint of sympathy.
“I have to say Canid, that your words- well, they hit me right were I live.”
Chaim nodded with a smile, thriving off the sympathy.
“And further, I have to admit that when I force-feed you rat’s milk- teat-direct, of course- it’s goin’ to be, well… a little less satisfying- bittersweet even. Well, enough of that phil-o-sophical nonsense. Pucker up, Canid. I’m getting one of those idiot-boned rodents just flush with milk. Oh, don’t worry- I’ll be gentle- the unicorn on the other hand… well, that thing will likely not be happy, oh no, no, no.”
“Finnen!” cried Chaim in true panic, “You- you can’t be serious!”
“Oh, serious as a judge– serious as the cold embrace of the grave. You see, Canid, my usual response to such a prank would be something known as the dreaded ‘Rear-Admiral’- it’s where your skivvies leave – by force- the sanctity of your rear end, and find purchase upon your forehead. (“Hey!” interjected Petka with a smile of recognition, “I saw that on the way here!”) But, seeing as how this is impossible in you aetheric state, I am afraid you will be shotgunning a few quarts of rodent milk from a screeching idiot rat- a perfect storm if you will- all claws, and hooves, and horns- but hey- do we not reap what we sow?”
“P-P-P- Petka…” stuttered Chaim- life, it seemed, had not subjected the Spirit of the Lonely Hollows to this particular type of punishment. Petka remained silent, partially in shock of the utter calm in which Finnen explained his plan– he had buried his face in his hands and began chewing on his beard (a rare occurrence displayed only in the most stressful of circumstances). His eyes were shut tight, and he was grinding his teeth.
“Ya a’right Fawcett?” asked Finnen with authentic concern, placing a hand on Fawcett’s shoulder, “Because I am going to need yer help holdin’ the Canid down,” then, to Chiam, “You are a squirmer, aren’t you?”
“Enough!” shouted Fawcett in a rare break in his usual demeanor, “We are way off track here! How did I end up in a place where I am expected to help some pissed-pants Irishman restrain a ghost wolf as he’s forced to suck off a uni-rat for its fetid milk?! I could deal with time being frozen, I could deal with the carnivorous lamprey-gnomes- but this? It’s too much!”
This outburst seemed to reach the two. Both Finnen and Chaim looked down apologetically, grinding their toes into the dirt and with their feet occasionally kicking some dust. Each muttered a shame-tinged apology under their breath, and continued to look at the ground.
“Now,” said Petka, slamming his right fist into his left open palm, “We gathered here to collect our weapons. I have my bow. Chaim, you have your staff and one useful hex; Finnen, you have two of those… what were they? Repeating blunderbuss? “
“Kee-rect, but I got somethin’ even better for meself!”
“Okay, good. Great! What would that be?”
Slipping on some kind of whitish leather, Finnen had evidently made a suit of “armor” out of unicorn-hide, the taxidermied head- replete with horn- was drawn over his own brow much like the hood on a jacket– and as if this were not enough, each gloved hand terminated in a single, razor sharp unicorn horn, making for some quite strange, though no doubt effective knuckle dusters.
Petka, at this point, was too tired to ask questions, and Chaim was too impressed to say anything but positive things. In the end Petka sported one of the “repeating blunderbusses” with a sharpened uni-horn attached and Chaim had donned an enormous “rifle”, which he slung over his shoulder with a thick, leather strap. The gun seemed to belch forth a kind of green plasma, obliterating whatever it hit to a few light particles and a pile of glowing ash (as tested on the nearest uni-rat)– Finnen, of course, had his “battle gear” prepped and ready.
“Now listen up,” said Chaim with an air of authority, “I’ve been thinking about Irish’s story. The mobile deceased that slaughtered the innocents in this town? I believe they were the skeletons of fallen adventures temporarily ‘reanimated’ by the Wisps we’ve talked about. That being said, They are like me- normal weapons might break a bone but that won’t stop the Wisp from just hopping into another skeleton. So we need a one-two punch- and that second punch had better be something that will kill the Wisp inside.
“Finnen, your knuckle dusters are perfect- pierce one of those bastards and it’s curtains for ’em. Fawcett, Plunge the bayonet in first, pull the trigger second- or vice versa- just make sure that uni-horn punctures the light.”
“Yeah, that’s a’right an’ fine, Canid, but what about you?”
“Oh, this old thing? I have a feeling it’ll do exactly what we need it to,” the ghost wolf-man patted the enormous, humming metal hunk affectionately, “But what about Raksha?” Chaim tapped his fingers on his fingers on his scruffy wolf’s chin, pretending not to notice that Petka’s wolf friend was not staring, unblinking, in his direction.
“Don’t worry about her, Chaim. Raksha can handle herself.”
Thus the three men, now prepared for battle shook hands (where applicable) and Finnen led them in a brief prayer– Fawcett bowed his head solemnly and Chaim studied the Irishman with a mixture of curiosity and respect.
“Any las’ words, gentleman?” asked Finnen with a laugh meant to lessen the palpable anxiety the three held between them– and while Chaim laughed quietly along, Petka, it seemed, had a very specific request which reflected his anticipated chances of survival.
“Chaim,” said Fawcett, his voice dead serious, “I have a very important job for you.”
“When I am down there in perpetual night, and when I become inevitably pinned down by the ravenous dead, please do not stop them until they remove me from my head and I stop screaming.”
Chaim thought on this for a moment.
“But what if your head continues to scream after it’s removed?”
Fawcett stared unblinking at Chaim’s puzzled face for a minute, then turned to Finnen.
“Finnen, I have a very important job for you.”
“Not now Fawcett,” replied Finnen, admiring himself in a mirror, “I just feel so damn sexy right now.”
* * * * *
Raksha, who had been happy up until this point- what, with nipping at the heals of the somnambulistic “unicorns”- was now quite perturbed with her situation. Her consternation started when her human started talking to the loud bald man and the half ghost wolf.
“Alright,” started Fawcett, “Here’s what we know for sure Creighton and umm… the Misses-”
“Johannah,” interrupted Finnen.
“Right, Johannah. When the went down the ladder, something happened, which stirred up the bloodthirsty, vengeful dead. They marched up the ladder and slaughtered nearly everybody, and thanks to the giant douche of a pachyderm, one has to wade waste deep through the skeletons of the dead at the mouth of the cave. That testicle-torture obsessed stone-ephant didn’t let them out. Certainly won’t let us out either if it came down to it.”
“Good for the world, bad for us,” added Chaim, hand stroking his chin.
“Exactly,” agreed Petka, “So we can expect danger. Lots and Lots of danger. We are to going down armed to the teeth and we need prepared for absolutely anything.”
“Though their probably just on break!”interjected Chaim with authority.
“Right, or they’re… anyway, I have also taken the liberty of fitting Raksha with some adorable and quite functional wolf-armor.”
It was with the application of the post-apocalyptic style metal armor that Raksha became first displeased- not with her human of course, but she needed to blame somebody, and Finnen was as good as a candidate as any other. He rarely approached her anyway and this was likely due to the cold, unblinking stare she greeted him with whenever they crossed paths. Her human, with only the best of intentions (of this she was sure) had buckled some kind of metal bowl to her head, with a slot for her ears, and a leather, metal-studded coat-thing cobbled together with some haste, over her midsection. The biggest insult of all, she felt, was the pink ribbon tied to her tail. She was never much for pageantry and cared not for the garishness of the thing, but her human rationalized by saying,
“It’s so we can see you Raksha, besides, who’s a pretty girl?”
Raksha was certain the question was rhetorical– she new that she was the pretty girl- there was simply no doubt about it. In the true spirit of the love for her human, she decided to simply let it go, but reminded herself to nip at Finnen later on. Raksha then fell asleep for a while, and had a dream she was running, then awoke to find that even more clothing- some manner of harness in fact, was being affixed to her frame. Then her human spoke.
“Now,” said Petka, “It should be obvious that Raksha- my best buddy and pretty girl, cannot climb down a ladder on her own. That is why she will require assistance. Finnen, I will be strapping Raksha to your back.”
“What!?” cried Finnen, “She hates me! I nearly lost me fingers in a attempt to scratch her behind the ear. Shes got the devil in ‘er eyes, Fawcett, mark my word- and hell, I would know! My animal companion is a murder-spirited, squawkin’ carrion bird!” Charon had been, and continued to circle overhead, as if she knew something they didn’t- and given her age and bone-deep bitterness for all life, save Finnen, she probable did.
“Oh, Finnen- you probably just startled her,” replied Petka, with a dismissive wave.
“I am NOT losin’ an ear to your wolf!”
“Finnen, look- I’m to spindly to carry her weight and Chaim, what being a Spirit of the Lonely Hollows, simply doesn’t have the ability. So come on big guy- what do you say?”
Finnen cursed, and kicked the dust at his feet.
“Foine Petka Fawcett. But mark my words by Agnes Dei and Stella Maris that if I lose an ear to your beast, I’m takin’ both of yours.”
Upon hearing the threat Raksha bared her mouth of sharp teeth causing Finnen to jump back, hastily covering his neck and his testicles– the fear was palatable.
“See?” said Fawcett, “You’ve spooked her with your jerky movements and negative energy,” Petka then turned to Raksha, “Now you be a good girl, and let Finnen keep his eyes, ears, and nose. And if you’re good, I have a nice piece of bacon-jerky just for you! Sound good?”
“Jesus, Fawcett! She doesn’t understand I thing you’re saying! Is this supposed to comfort me? Also, you had bacon this entire time?”
Raksha, out of respect for her human gave Petka her paw but continued to stare unblinking at Finnen’s ears as if to say, “Be glad you don’t wear glasses”. It was disturbing to Finnen and even Chaim, who was aetheric and therefore immune to ear-severing bites.
Soon, Raksha began to think about the present situation, and her growing dislike for the reckless Irishman.
(“Think I don’t understand you Finnen? Ohhhh, the things you don’t know. Oh, and the secrets that spill out of you! You talk in your sleep– did you know that? I know your deepest, darkest fears- that you’ll fail to protect the ones you love, that you will die alone…turtles- hey…HEY? What the -!?)
Raksha’s Finnen-directed screed was interrupted as she was roughly slung onto the broad and burly back of Finnen McKinnon- her tail immediately went between her legs as the three started to descend the crickety, rickety, and seemingly endless ladder to perpetual night and whatever scattered, glowing things that danced beneath them. As they moved down the protesting ladder, loose shale fell to the bottom of the canyon with a crash.
Raksha began to whimper and struggle.
“Stop yer shakin’ ya cur! “ Shouted Finnen, at the end of his already taxed patience, “Do you want us to topple like stones?!”
Raksha immediately stopped.
“Eh, Fawcett! I think she’s finally taken to me! Just a little tough love that made all the difference!”
Raksha, it seemed did not agree.
(“I will destroy you Finnen.”)
When finally, after they descended what seemed to be miles of wooden ladder haphazardly affixed to the stone wall, they at last set feet on the earth below. Just as it appeared from above, it was soaked in eternal nighttime. In surveying their present location, they found themselves to be in a wide canyon. Loose shale walls reached to their former settlement, and did so quite literally straight up, dotted here and there with strings of dead, desiccated strings of moss. Escape- except for a very slow one via the groaning wooden ladder- seemed well-nigh impossible. In fact, save for the ladder, there was really no evidence that Creighton’s Rest had even existed though it ostensibly still sat just above them, as unchanged as it would likely always be. It was thoroughly night time now; a sharp horned and gibbous moon hung low in the sky that was devoid of stars, their familiar shapes, and whatever comfort they once had brought.
To add to the utterly bizarre condition they found themselves in, feathery purple clouds, as if by some kind of bizarre sentience, seemed to obstinately hung over where familiar skies could have been seen, creating a quite off-putting scenery. Perhaps, though, the stars had vacated this sky, having preferred the dusty, thorn scrub-thick, dusty ground for among the strange, slightly glowing ash-colored cacti, were were a 20 or so tiny lights, offering pale purple illumination- hardly enough to read by, though enough to watch where one was walking– they did also glow just enough to make it evident that the little Wisps were each hovering over an immobile skeleton still clad in strange armor and gripping rusted swords and other known and unknown tools of war.
“Well, this is something.” whispered Petka.
“These are the bastards that murdered the citizens up there- every time I felled one o’ dead, one of the little lights would depart back to the canyon. I would have killed them all, if only there had been a way.
“Well,” sighed Petka, “Let’s hurry. Here goes nothing. Ahem,”
Oh Children of the Night!
Birthed of the pale moon-light-
Assemble themselves in line!
So safely I may pass on by.
The little Wisps made no discernible movement– the lights continued to hover silently over the bones of the dead, each emitting a small, thin cloud of smoke much like would come come from a thin cigarette or cigar.
“Chaim,” said Petka, concerned, “What’s going on? Did I read it wrong?”
“Don’t think so…” replied Chaim, “Maybe read it louder?”
“God above!” shouted Finnen, “Their really quite ugly up close! Like a faintly glowing anus.” Finnen spit, and out of nowhere, a little nasally voice spoke up wrought with a anger and arrogance.
“Hey!” said the little ball of light, “Are you the jerk-offs that think it’s funny to kick stones off the cliff and onto people?”
“Some of them, yes,” said Finnen with his arms crossed angrily; he then yelped a bit as what appeared to be a lit cigarette bounced off of his forehead. “
“Are you the jerk-offs who think it’s okay to go around slaughtering an entire settlement of innocent people?”
“Sorry, I don’t answer to troglodytes that drop pebbles on people when they go down a ladder! But I’ll have to rip into you fleshy things later ’cause we’re on break and you dimwits show up and- oh, you’re just the worst! How would you freaks like it if people dropped pebbles on you while you were taking your contractually guaranteed 15 eon break? Here we are- smoking, shooting the breeze, drinking coffee- and let me tell you, our off-clock time would be a lot better with out a few ugly neanderthals gawkin’ at us!”
Here a chorus of little voices piped up in agreement.
“Wait, wait, wait- you’re on break? How is that even possible?” asked Petka, exasperated.
“We’s under new management now,” replied another low-pitched voice emitting from a ball of swirling plasma. “Now your wasting my time and that of my associates! Oh gods my cogs is killin’ me.”
And, upon seeing Petka, Finnen, Chaim, and Raksha still standing there in disbelief, the wisp added, “What is you, remedial? I said to buzz off!”
“Look,” said Chaim as magnanimously as possible, “Clearly something changed here, and we don’t want to interrupt your smoking, drinking, and…whatever the hell that thing is doing.”
“You insensitive prick!” barked the first amorphous ball of plasma, “He happens to be relieving himself, as the porta-johns haven’t arrived yet! No one cares ’bout the workin’ sphere!”
“Shouldn’t he be doing that in a corner or something?”
Small, ectoplasmic piles littered the ground as these strange little wisps had gotten into the habit of simply “letting it fall where it may”.
In as much as a wisp could spit, the “alpha” wisp did.
“Well I guess he could have, but we weren’t aware we was entertaining royalty today! Better put airs boys, or we’ll offend the friggin’ Queens of gods-damned eternity!”
“Yeah, well break or no,” spat Chaim angrily, “We simply don’t have time for this nonsense. We’re just going to just walk right on by you, so you can smoke and relieve yourself wherever and whenever you please.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” said one particularly gravely voiced wisp, “Yous ain’t goin’ anywheres! Our job is to defend this canyon from outsiders, and that means yous!”
“What!?” thundered Chaim, “You’re on break! Why can’t we just move on through?”
“On account-a you’d be breakin’ the laws!”
“Fine!” shouted Finnen, “When does your break end? We might as well just ‘wait it out’.”
“Another 13 eons,” replied another surely ball of aether.
“We are not- here me? We are not waiting 13 eons! Besides, for the love of God an’ everything holy, time doesn’t exist here! Now get off off yer collective, glowing arses, or we’re going to stomp our way tru the lot of you!” It was a moment of pure rage for Finnen– his face had grown a beat red, heat seemed to radiate from his body and his hands were shaking in anger.
“Oh yeah, bozo?” countered a wisp, “I’d like to see you try!”
“Enough!” belted Chaim in pure, shaking frustration, “We’re getting nowhere! I wish to lodge a formal complaint with your union representative.”
“Oh Spirit, you betcha!” shouted the gravely, Brooklyn-accented voice of a particularly chubby sphere of light, “Tim- Tim! We got a bunch of poofters here who have a problem with our regulations!”
From somewhere in the mist emerged a singularly strange little glowing ball of light. The glowing ball bafflingly seemed to be bald on top, with a ponytail hanging long behind. On his face were thick square spectacles, despite lacking ears or a nose. If nothing else, at least his tone was pleasant.
“Hi there folks, I’m Tim. Leroy told me that you had an issue with our scheduled break time. How can I help you gentleman?”
“We just need to get by,” said Chaim calmly, “We’re not here to cause any trouble, or interrupt anybody’s hard-earned break.”
“Well, I’m sorry Sir,” said Tim with a faux-apologetic voice, “ You see, we do have a contract to guard this canyon, and under the new management we negotiated a 15 eon break. We do only have 13 eons left to go, so if you wouldn’t mind waiting…” Tim motioned to some rickety folding chairs adjacent to the ladder.
“We can’t wait 13 eons,” replied Chaim, losing his patience, “ First, there’s no actual concept of time here. And second- I mean 13 eons? Isn’t that just a little excessive?”
Tim gave a jovial laugh.
“Well I am sorry that you are dissatisfied. I can give you some paperwork to send to our quality assurance department.”
“No,” replied Chaim firmly, “We really need to get this moving. Is there nothing you can do?”
“Look wolf-man, muttered Tim, “You’re being a real hard-on about this.”
Tim sighed and shook his head (well, his whole frame moved right and left, as he had no actual head), clearly annoyed.
Finnen McKinnon had clearly had enough of diplomacy. He and diplomacy had never quite been on good terms anyway, and he wasn’t about to make its acquaintance now.
“Get off yer asses before I boot you into the stratosphere!” added Finnen, “And for that matter, just how is an anus s’posed to get off itself?! It’s a logical impossibility!”
“No need for ugliness, Sir,” said Tim calmly, with a flip of his ponytail, “Fine. The customer is always right. Rosco, Leroy, Buttons, Mittens, Buzzsaw- yeah all you guys- let’s get to work. I will file the overtime paperwork to get you all compensated at time and a half. Let’s do our jobs.”
“Great,” said Petka with a sigh of relief, “So you are going to light the way?”
“Oh, heavens no! That was the old management. We negotiated a new contract with the new management. Pretty proud of it too- healthcare, defined-benefit pension; a five percent raise… heck, we’re off on holidays and we no longer have to respond to the so called ‘peace cries’- now we get to inhabit the bones of the dead and eviscerate all interlopers.”
“I Goddamn bloody well knew it! You were the monsters that slaughtered those innocent people in Creighton’s Rest!”
“It was in our contract, sir,” replied Tim nonchalantly.
“Well, it ain’t in me contract, but I am going to take you apart piece by piece- hear me? Piece by piece!”
Here the little purple wisps disappeared into the mossy bones of soldiers from all time periods- everything from roman legionaries and samurai to viking warriors and to strange warriors wearing strange body armor that seemed squarish and metal, as if from some unknown place in time.
A grizzled smile seemed to crack over Finnen’s face; he pulled the unicorn skull down over his face, and prepared his knuckle dusters. The bones of a soldier dressed like a conquistador (this one with Tim’s voice) raised his spear and shouted a nasally “Excelsior!”
And so the battle began.