My Least Immemorial Year, by Zach Shephard

(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play button below.  Read by Juliana Quartaroli.  Story illustration by Ronnie Tucker.)


My Least Immemorial Year – illustration by Ronnie Tucker – click to enlarge

If I’d been a few seconds later, he probably would have gotten away.

I got the rope wound around the stake in the ground one last time before the robed man burst out the back door of the rickety old house.  I dug into the grass with all four paws, clamped my teeth tightly over my end of the line, and pulled it taught with all my strength.

When his feet hit the rope, I let go, knowing I wouldn’t be able to hold on without being yanked headfirst into the stake.  I am just a twelve-pound fox, after all.

The trap was just tight enough to make the man stumble and fall.  Before he could recover his footing, my master, Hetfield, emerged under the starlit September sky and pounced on our quarry.

Hetfield drew his knife and laid it against the fallen cultist’s throat.  “One chance,” he said.  “You have one chance to tell me what you’re doing in Weir.”

The cultist grinned, his teeth bloodied from the scuffle inside the house.  “Come now, there’s no need to make threats—I’ll gladly tell you what your future holds.”

Hetfield pulled the knife away.  I kept watch on the field surrounding the house, just in case.

“Spill,” Hetfield said.

The cultist did, with a great flourish in his voice that matched the madness in his eyes.  Most of what he said didn’t really make sense to me at the time, being new to the Game as I was, but I listened anyway.  He told us something about his Master, and the Awakening, and a guy named Nyarlathotep.  When he was done with all his psychotic rambling, Hetfield asked him a question that apparently would have spilled one too many beans.

“Sorry,” the cultist said, “but I can’t divulge a thing about that little morsel.  The Master would have my hide, if not report me directly to Nyarlathotep.”

Hetfield switched his knife to a downward grip and held it above the cultist.  “How about this,” he said.  “You answer me within the next five seconds, and I won’t—”

There was a sudden movement and the next thing I knew the knife was hilt-deep in the cultist’s chest.  The robed man had reached up with both hands, grabbed Hetfield’s fist, and pulled the blade into himself.

The cultist’s lungs stopped rising, his eyes glazed over.  Hetfield ran a hand through his hair and sighed.  “You heard all of that?”

I nodded.

“See what you can find out about it—particularly that bit regarding Nyarlathotep.  I’ll track down Ada and see what she knows.”

Hetfield cleaned his knife and headed to the south.  I cut across the field in a different direction, in search of a contact of my own.

Overhead, a dark shape swept across the stars and was gone.

Ada was sometimes known as the Tinker, though I’m not sure she realized anyone called her that.  She’d built Tock, the clockwork mouse, who was the only friend I’d made since coming into town a few weeks ago.  At least, I thought he was a friend.  Apparently once the Game got started, that sort of label would get to be a little muddy.

In any case, the mouse had told me some useful things in the past, taking me under his wing (tail?) since I was new to all this.  We’d shared information pretty freely, but that’s probably because it was still September; once things got underway the following month, our mouths might be a little tighter.  Of course, that’s probably just the way he wanted my mouth, being that he always seemed a little worried I might eat him.

(As if I’d even want to bite down on a mouse full of greasy gears.  Yuck.)

I caught up with Tock in the field behind Ada’s house.  The Tinker’s lonely plot of land boasted an excellent view of the valley below:  the grass down there seemed to roll on forever, interrupted only by the tiny stone fences of the nearby farm.  It’s a shame Ada never looked up from her machines long enough to appreciate the beauty of her surroundings, but I guess we all had more important things on our plates those days.

Tock scurried onto an overturned, rusted metal box so that his eyes were at my level.  His tail, stiff as a nail, twitched once for every second that passed.

“Evening, Fennick,” he said.

I gave him a nod.  “Any news?”

“Some of the other players are starting to show up in town.  This Game should be an interesting one.”

“Anything I need to know about them?”

“Not just yet.  What about you?  Heard anything of interest lately?”

“You have no idea.  Up for a walk?”

“I’ve got nothing but time.”

The mouse with the clock-key in his back accompanied me into the valley.  We weren’t going anywhere in particular, but I wanted to get away from the place where he and Ada lived—she was a player in the upcoming Game, which meant there was always a chance her house would be under surveillance.  Best not to risk giving information to unwelcome ears.

“Nyarlathotep, huh?” Tock said.  “Not sure I’ve heard the name before.  I did know about the cultists in town, though.”

“Any idea what they’re up to?”

“Can’t say for sure.  But I’d bet Wil would know something about this Nyarlathotep guy.”

“Wil?”

Tock gestured with his head.  “Lives down that way.  Guy’s a real pig, but he knows his stuff.  I haven’t met his master, but apparently he’s a player too.”

“Do you think Wil would mind if we paid him a visit this late?”

Tock laughed.  “If we’ve got a question only he can answer, he’ll be more than happy to prove how big his brain is.”

“Lead the way, then.”

Tock stopped.  “Actually . . .”

“Yes?”  I could already tell by the way he’d been walking what it was he wanted, but it was always more fun to make him ask.

“Before we set out, I’m going to need a quick energy boost.  The legs are getting a little sluggish.”

“Not a problem.”

Using my mouth, I picked Tock up by the key sticking out of his back.  I then sat on my hind legs and used my forepaws to twist his body, winding him up.  He wasn’t very fond of the procedure (especially since it involved getting so close to a fox’s mouth), but it beat going into a clockwork coma.

With his newfound burst of energy, we continued into the valley.  We were just approaching the farm when we heard the struggle.

Tock and I dodged behind a wheelbarrow and watched as two figures stumbled out of the farmhouse, one after the other.  The first figure, retreating, unloaded both shots of his pepperbox into his lumbering assailant’s chest.  The smell of gun smoke drifted our way as the larger figure shrugged off the bullet wounds and got hold of his prey.  There was a terrified scream, quickly cut off by a snapping sound I wouldn’t mind forgetting.  I flinched, and when I looked at the silhouettes again, it seemed like the fallen gunman’s head wasn’t facing the way it should have been.

“What just—”

“Shh!” Tock said.  He moved next to me so my fur could quiet the ticking of his tail.  We stayed low beneath the wheelbarrow and continued observing as a green glow overtook the combatants.

The light was emanating from the winner’s frame.  We saw that he was a man wrapped entirely in strips of bandage, his face and skin hidden from view.  He crouched over his prey, made a slow hand gesture, and mumbled a chant we couldn’t make out.

The cloud of light expanded toward the dead figure and seeped into his body.  When it came back out a few moments later, it contained the wispy white form of a man.  The trapped spirit’s mouth opened wide in a muted scream, its fists pounding against the emerald cloud like it was trying to escape a glass room.

The gaseous mass re-entered the killer’s body, spirit and all.  The light faded, and the bandaged man was a silhouette against the night sky once again.

He shambled away and disappeared into the darkness.  By the time we came out to check on the body, it had already shriveled up and disappeared, bones and all.

“Okay,” a shaken-up Tock said as he led me around back to the pig pen, “we don’t mention that to Wil.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m pretty sure that was his master that just died.  I don’t know how he’d handle the news.”

“Won’t he find out soon enough on his own?”

“I think you’re overestimating how often Wil leaves his bed.”

We came upon the pig pen and slipped under the gate.  There were two dusty wooden stalls, one of which contained a giant pink loaf of meat that made breathing look difficult.

Tock poked the hog’s belly with his nose.  He waited, then poked it three more times before the sleeping giant finally stirred with a snort.

“Hm,” Wil mumbled, not yet opening his eyes, “yes, very good.  Candied apples would be just fine, thank you.  Mm.”

“Wake up, tubby.”  Tock poked his nose into the hog’s soft underside again.

A great black eye peeled open.  “Hm?  Oh, yes.  Hello, mouse.  I see you’ve brought a friend.”

“This is Fennick.  She’s got a question for you.”

“Questions, yes.  Hm.”  Wil smacked his lips a few times, which was the most movement he’d shown so far—he still hadn’t even raised his head off his straw bed.  “I don’t suppose you’ve come bearing snacks, have you?”

“Sorry,” Tock said.  “No pockets.”

“Yes, rather unfortunate, that.  Now then, what is it you’d like to know, Ms. Fennick?”

“There are some cultists in town,” I said.  “Their leader worships someone named Nyarlathotep.  We were wondering if you—”

“Ah, yes,” Wil said, “the Great Messenger of the Old Ones.  He Who Walks Among Us.  Very nasty creature, from all I’ve heard.  And you say he’s got a cult in the area?”

“They’re trying to summon the Old Ones.  But I don’t think they’re a part of our Game, so I don’t see how—”

“Oh, silly fox.  You’re new to this, are you?  Very good then, allow me to explain.  You see, once the Game starts, there will be Openers and Closers.”

“I already know the basics of—”

“The Openers, you see, will attempt to open—hence the name—a rift that will allow the Old Ones to return to our world on October the 31st, under the light of the full moon.  The Closers are rather opposed to such an event, being convinced that the Old Ones would devour us all, or some such business.  I’m certain you already know which side your master is on—”

“Yes, and I also kno—”

“—but the trick is in discovering where everyone else’s loyalties lie.  This delightful mouse-friend of yours, for example—can he be trusted once the Game starts?  Perhaps you’re not even on the same side.  Wouldn’t that be exciting!”

The hog kept on telling me things I already knew, but I didn’t try interrupting again.  Tock and I just exchanged a bored look, and I started counting the ticks of his tail to pass the time.

“But you see,” Wil continued, “the players of our Game are gravely mistaken in thinking they are the only ones capable of summoning the Old Ones.  A full moon on All Hallow’s Eve is a rare occurrence indeed, but it’s just one of many cosmic events capable of facilitating fantastic rituals.”

Finally, some new information.  I urged Wil on, and he was glad to share his wisdom.

“Nyarlathotep is the messenger of the Old Ones, you see.  If anyone can coordinate their summoning, it’s he and his worshipers.  Of course, once word about this nonsense gets out to the players of the Game, that cult will run into quite a great resistance, I assure you.”

“But only from the Closers,” I said.  I was careful to choose my words so that I wouldn’t divulge which side Hetfield and I were on—we were Closers, through and through, but no one needed to know that just yet.

“Hm, yes—you’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Wil asked.  “But no, even the Openers would not wish to see the Old Ones summoned on another man’s watch.  They want to be the ones to claim that special glory, and that means stopping this silly cult so that we can get on with our Game as planned.”

“So this cult will be opposed by players on both sides,” I said.  “But—we can only stop them if we figure out just what it is they’re up to.”

“Yes, Ms. Fennick, you speak the truth.  Although, I’m afraid I can’t help you with the specifics of this cult’s plot, considering what limited information you’ve given me.  Though if you were to find something more, I’d be tickled pink if you’d think of me again.”

Tock groaned at the hog’s wordplay while I took a moment to contemplate telling him about our most recent news.  I ended up deciding it was better to beg forgiveness than ask permission, so I went ahead and opened my mouth without consulting Tock.

“Do you know anything about mummies?”

“Mummies?” Wil asked.  “Yes indeed I do, Ms. Fennick.  Why do you ask?”

Tock shot me a look, but I mostly ignored it.

“We saw one recently,” I said.  “It killed a man, then knelt over his body and—”

“Green light, or some such thing?”

“Yes!”

“Hm, quite interesting, quite interesting indeed.”  I got the feeling that Wil would have rubbed his chin if his chubby arm could have reached that high.  “Mummies often serve as vessels that absorb essences for use in rituals, you see.  And they’re commonly of Egyptian origin, which just so happens to describe our good friend Nyarlathotep as well.”

“You think this mummy is leading the cult?”

Wil snorted a laugh, as if I’d just suggested that he might one day fly.  “No, Ms. Fennick, not at all.  Mummies, you see, are sorely lacking in brainpower—they don’t have, let’s call it, a ‘hog’s sophistication.’  These bandaged barbarians are servants, nothing more.  The leader of your Nyarlathotep cult is surely a different figure, one that’s pulling the mummy’s strings.”

I took a minute to chew on everything I’d learned.  It was all good information—Hetfield would be glad to hear it once we reached that one special hour of every night where he could understand my voice.  Still, I needed to know something more before I went back to him with my findings.

“Why here?”

“Pardon?” Wil asked, sleepily.  I got the impression he’d dozed off while I’d been contemplating matters.

“Why would a Nyarlathotep cult show up here in Weir,” I said, “at the same time the Game is preparing to get underway?  It seems awfully coincidental.”

“Because,” Tock said, his tail clicking away as he put the pieces of the puzzle together, “the mummy needs strong essences to absorb.  It’s come to kill the players of the Game.”

“Hm, yes,” Wil said.  “Right you are.  Tell me, when you saw this bandaged bandit, did you catch sight of its victim before he or she—let’s see here, how to put it delicately—disintegrated?

Tock and I exchanged a look.

“No,” I said.  “It was too dark.”

“Yes, very good.”  Wil thought about rolling onto his back, decided it was too much effort and just remained on his side.  He yawned and stretched his little hooves.  “If that would be all then, I do believe I’ve some napping to catch up on.  Do tell me if you learn more, will you?”

“Of course.  Thanks for all the help.”

“Yes, hm, indeed.”

Tock and I turned to depart.

“Oh, and if you should pass by this way again and happen to have any cashews or dried apricots weighing down your persons, I’d be happy to help with you that burden, of course.”

We told him we’d keep that in mind and continued on our way.  Just as we were reaching the boundary of the farm, I heard behind me a delighted snorting, followed by:  “Oh, tickled pink—I see it now!  Very clever, yes indeed!”

By the time I got home, I’d missed my window for vocally communicating with Hetfield.  Tomorrow night, maybe . . .

The next day, I decided to return to the scene of the mummy’s attack.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking for, but I figured a little investigation couldn’t hurt.

As it turns out, I was right:  my curiosity was rewarded with a clue.

Near the farmhouse’s front door was a bloody strip of bandage.  It must have been dislodged from the mummy when he was shot.  I scooped the scrap up and brought it back home.

That night, by the fireplace, I told Hetfield everything.

As the information stewed in his mind, he stared into the flames and held the mummy’s bandage to his nose, breathing in its odors.

“I’ll track him,” Hetfield said.  “If you take me to the farm where this happened, I can follow his scent.”

“Is that such a good idea?” I asked.  “The mummy is hunting players—”

“And he’ll continue doing so until he’s stopped.”  Hetfield stood.  “We’ll rest tonight and go searching tomorrow.  Let’s keep this under our hats for now.”

“Tock already knows most of what I do.”

“Meaning he’ll have told Ada.”  Hetfield rubbed his jaw, which was covered in a thicker layer of stubble than the previous night, even though he was still shaving every morning.  I figured in another day or so, he’d stop fighting it and just let the beard grow—that’s what he always did, when it got this late in the cycle.

“I suppose if anyone has to know, I’m glad it’s Ada,” he said.

“You think she’s a Closer as well?”

“Not necessarily.  But she’s been a trustworthy ally so far, and I’m betting things will stay that way for at least the first few weeks of the Game.”  Hetfield set down the bandage and moved to the staircase.  “Get some rest, Fennick.  We’ve got work to do tomorrow.”

Hetfield left and I curled up in the overstuffed chair by the fireplace.  Just as my eyes were falling shut, I thought I saw beyond the window a large figure swooping across the sky; it could have been a product of my imagination, but with the way things were unfolding lately, I highly doubted it.

October first.  The Game officially started that day, but we were so busy with more pressing matters that we hardly noticed it.

Following the trail from the farm was no problem for Hetfield.  I wished I’d remembered to have him bring some snacks for Wil, but it’d slipped my mind so we just avoided the pig pen all together.  I got the distinct feeling that Wil probably hadn’t even moved since last I’d seen him, and I wondered if he was starting to question where his master was.

The trail took us out of the valley, down a path by the river and into the crunching autumn leaves of the woods.  We stopped on a hill, crouched behind an old stump, and looked down at the cabin below.

“I don’t think the mummy’s home,” Hetfield said.  “His scent isn’t strong enough.”  He thought a moment, then, “I’m going to go investigate.  You keep watch.  If you see anyone, come get me—don’t yell.  If possible, I’d like to sneak out of here without being seen.”

I asked him to wait until we were closer to the full moon before he tried something this dangerous, but to him, my voice was just a sharp yip.  He patted my head and picked his way down the hill, sniffing the air and keeping his eyes alert as he went.

When he reached the front door, he leaned to the side and looked into the windows.  He seemed satisfied with what he saw, so he pulled on the knob.  It was locked.  Hetfield glanced over his shoulders to be sure he was alone, then gave the knob a good yank and ripped it right out of the door.  Apparently the full moon was closer than I thought.

Hetfield disappeared inside the house, and I was left to wait—but not by myself.

I heard the ticking of his tail just before he scurried up next to me.

“You know, you wouldn’t be able to follow my master so easily if you produced a scent like a normal rodent.”

“Don’t get mad at me just because I’m the more evolved creature.”

“Says the rat who would fall asleep indefinitely if he didn’t have someone to crank his key.”

“That’s mouse, not rat.  And while we’re on the subject, I could use a boost—you and your master set a mean pace.”

I lifted Tock by the key and gave him a few good twists.

“Thanks.  So—tracking the mummy, I assume?”

“This is the first stop on the trail.  Hopefully we find something here.”

“Why aren’t you in there with him?”

“I’m the lookout.”

“Oh.  How’s that going?”

“I saw you, didn’t I?”

And that’s when the cage scooped us up.  A gloved hand slammed the little door shut and twisted a key in the lock.  Tock and I scrambled for our footing after the disorientation, and saw a grinning man in a black robe looking through the bars at us.

“Come to watch your master die, fox?  Here, I’ll make sure you’ve got a good view.”

The cultist set us on a stump so that we could clearly see the cabin.  He sat beside us and pulled his knees into his chest.

The mummy stepped in through the cabin’s back door.

I wanted to yell.  I almost did, in my initial panic.  But since Hetfield had told me to keep quiet, I couldn’t make a fuss, because then he’d know something was wrong on my end—he’d be concerned for me, and that would distract him from the danger inside the cabin.  I just had to trust that his sense of smell had progressed far enough to pick up the mummy’s presence.

“Fennick,” Tock whispered, “we’ve got to get out of here.”

I glanced at the cultist, who wasn’t much concerned with watching his prisoners.  His eyes were fixed on the cabin, a devious smile on his face.

“I’m open to ideas,” I said.

We hardly had a chance to do any brainstorming before our concentration was broken by the first crash inside the cabin.

I yipped reflexively, though it didn’t really matter, because at that point the fight at the bottom of the hill had already started.  I thought I saw two shapes tumble past the window, and hoped that the fight would find its way outside so I could at least know what was going on.  The quarrel was filled with growls that didn’t sound quite human, which I took as a good sign.

The cultist wasn’t fazed at all by Hetfield’s barks; he seemed convinced that his side was still winning.  I decided I didn’t really care what he thought, so long as he wasn’t paying any attention to the two of us.

“Stand still,” I said to Tock.

“What are you going to—hey!”

His key was in my mouth, but it was no longer connected to his back.

“What’re you doing with that?”

“This cage,” I said.  “Recognize the craftsmanship?”

“Who cares about the—”

Tock took a look around, saw what I meant.

“Well I’ll be damned.  You are one clever, observant fox.  This is one of my master’s models.”

“These cultists really should be more careful about what they buy at the market.”

I maneuvered my paws through the bars on either side of the lock.  I stuck my snout out and dropped the key, and clumsily caught it.

“Careful,” Tock said, watching from below my work area.  “You never were any good at winding me with your paws.”

Once again, my lack of thumbs was proving to be my undoing.  “It would be a lot easier to concentrate if you’d keep quiet,” I said.

At the bottom of the hill, someone was violently rearranging furniture.  I kept working on getting Tock’s key into the lock.  It was definitely the right fit, I just couldn’t maneuver it the way I needed to.

And then, just like that, all was quiet.  I stopped what I was doing.  The cultist stood and took a step down the hill, a pleased grin on his face.

I swallowed.

“It’s okay,” Tock said.  “We don’t know who won.  It’ll be all right.”

We waited, all three of us on the hill.  My hopes dropped further with every second that passed.

“Hey,” Tock said.  “Wouldn’t we see the light?  That green glow—if the mummy had won, he’d be absorbing Hetfield right now.  Wouldn’t he?  I think we’d see it.”

He had a good point.  Unless the fight had ended away from the windows, anyway—in that case, we might not be able to see the light as it emerged.  Still . . .

With renewed hope, I resumed work on the lock.  After what seemed like an eternity, I managed to slip the key in and twist it.  The door popped open.  We hopped out.

When I looked up, I saw someone limp out of the cabin.  It was the mummy, and it was alone.

If not for Tock yelling in my ear, I probably would have just stood there until death came to take me away.  At his insistence we sped back up the hill and through the woods, a trail of tears floating on the air behind me.

I’d been pacing long enough to wear a path into Hetfield’s sitting-room rug.  My legs were probably tired, but if so, I didn’t notice.

“We should go,” I said.

“Not yet.”  Tock was craning his neck back to get a look at the new key sticking out of his spine—one of the spares from Ada’s house.  “It’s too soon, Fennick.  I don’t want to get stuffed into another cage—we might not make it out again.  We should wait until it’s dark.”

I put my paws on the windowsill by the front door and looked outside.  The sun was taking an awfully long time to go down.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.  “This is my first Game, and it just started, and I’ve already lost my master.”

Tock stepped up next to me, his tail quietly ticking in synch with Hetfield’s grandfather clock.

“I don’t want to sound cold,” he said, “but if I were you . . .”  He shrugged his tiny mechanical shoulders.

“Just say it.”

“I’d keep playing the Game.  It’s what my master would have wanted.”

I dismounted from the windowsill, shook my head.  “I barely knew what I was doing even with Hetfield’s guidance.  I can’t do this without him.”

“I could help you.”

“We might not even be on the same side.”

And that was the end of that idea.  As much as we may have wanted to, we both knew we couldn’t just announce what team we were playing for—handing out that kind of information at such an early stage in the Game could prove fatal, even if your confidant was a friend.

“You know,” Tock said, “it doesn’t matter where our loyalties lie.  We won’t even make it to the end of the Game if that cult summons the Old Ones.  Come on,” he said, and moved to the exit.  “Let’s go see what we can find out about your master.”

By the time we got back to the cabin in the woods, twilight was just setting in.  It was sufficiently dark that we felt confident in our ability to sneak around.  Tock’s tail sounded like it was clicking slower than usual, as if he was resisting the constant motion to keep it quieter.  It was working.

There didn’t appear to be anyone outside, so we snuck up to the door that was still ajar.  After a quick and quiet exploration, I waved Tock in.

“I think it’s clear,” I said.  “If we split up, we can—”

“Here.”

I came to Tock’s side.  He was standing by a dark stain on the wooden floor.

It was an awful lot of blood.  I took a quivering step back.

“Fennick, it’s—it may not be that bad.  Look at the way it’s streaked.  Whoever left this here tried to crawl away, and maybe . . .”

He trailed off, probably because he realized he didn’t believe his own explanation.

I turned and ran out the door.  I don’t know what I’d expected to find there, but I didn’t care to go looking any longer.

It was some time before Tock caught up to me in the open field of yellow-green grasses.  I was gazing at the stars overhead as I walked, searching for a constellation that might resemble a wolf-man.  I never did find one.

Tock was panting.  I gave him his wind-up without being asked, then continued on my way.

“Thanks,” he said.  “You know, I was thinking—we should talk to Wil.  See if he’s heard anything.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Whatever.”  We were already headed in that direction anyway, and I wasn’t in the mood to argue.

“You know, I hate to ask, but your legs are a lot longer than mine, and—”

I stopped and lay down so he could climb onto my back.  Once he had a good grip on my fur, I continued on my path.

“You’ll be okay, Fennick.  Just so long as—duck!”

“What?”

“Get down!”

I dropped below the grasses.

“There,” he said, pointing.

I lifted my head just enough to get a view of the moonlit meeting:  across the field, some thirty yards away, the mummy stood before a ghost.

She was white and translucent and her hair floated on the air like groping tentacles.  She was saying something, but I couldn’t quite hear it, so I moved closer.

“Now is not the time to get revenge,” Tock whispered, his grip on my fur tightening.  “Fennick.  Fennick!”

“Quiet,” I said, and got near enough to listen.

The mummy was shaking lightly all over, like it had some sort of brain damage and was trying to keep it under control.  Apparently Hetfield had done a number on the bastard before he’d gone down.  Good.

“Yes,” the ghost of the woman said.  “I sense the wolf’s essence on you.  It’s fresh.  Very good.”

The mummy made some groaning sound that wasn’t a word.  The ghost smiled at it.  I wanted to rip her wispy throat out.

“Seen her before?” Tock asked quietly.

“Maybe,” I said.  “Yes—I think so.  The past few nights, I’ve been catching glimpses of some dark shape in the sky.”

“She’s not exactly dark.”

“Well, she’s floating.  And I know I saw something in the sky.”

“You mean like that?”

Coming from high above, the winged figure smashed into the ground beside the mummy and ghost.  Its weight was such that its landing sent tremors through the earth and nearly shook Tock from my back.  It had broad shoulders and a thick tail, and its skin was the color of stone.  If my hunch was right, I was looking at a gargoyle.

“Your servants have prepared the ritual, my master,” the new arrival said.  “Nyarlathotep would be proud, and the Old Ones will surely be pleased when they are summoned.”

“Good,” the ghost said.  “And yes, let’s hope they’re quite ecstatic—they need to be, if they’re to rid me of this blasted curse.”  She took a half-hearted swing at the mummy, her hand passing harmlessly through its head.  She sighed.

“Soon,” she said.  “Soon, the moon will be full and I can regain physical form long enough to perform the ritual.”  She pointed a stern finger at the mummy.  “You will have absorbed enough essences by then.  Understood?”

The jittery mummy groaned an affirmative.

“And you,” the ghost said, turning her finger on the gargoyle, “will ensure everything runs smoothly, from now until the ritual’s end.”

“Of course, Master.”

“Good.  Be gone then, both of you.  You have much work to do.”

With a thrust of its powerful legs, the gargoyle took to the air once more and was gone.  The convulsing mummy shambled off, while the ghost floated in the opposite direction.

Tock refreshed his grips on my fur and we made for the farm, double-time.

The clockwork mouse dismounted at the edge of the pig pen.  He explained everything to our porcine companion while I caught my breath.

“Hm,” Wil said, lying on his side as usual, “yes.  Very unfortunate about your master, Ms. Fennick.  Perhaps I’m not alone in this world after all.”

Tock and I both knew what he meant, but were afraid of admitting as much.

“It seems as though my master has gone missing as well,” the hog said.  “I’ve not seen him in, hm, two days?  Three?  Time is so easily lost when one’s belly isn’t full of carefully arranged gears; though that’s not something I’d expect you to understand, Mr. Tock.”

The hog tried to smile at his own observation, but couldn’t quite make himself do it.  He looked sad, even though he was straining not to appear that way.  I could relate.

“What do you think about this ghost?” Tock asked.  “Or the gargoyle?”

“Yes, well, the ghost is clearly the leader of this cult you’ve been investigating.  And the gargoyle is her muscle.”

“We already figured that.  If you could tell us anything else—”

Wil rolled away from us.  “Terribly sorry for this rudeness,” he said, “but I’d rather be left alone now.  Good luck with your cultists, and the Game to follow.”

Tock wanted to keep pressing the matter, but I wouldn’t let him.  I snatched him up in my mouth and carried him back to Ada’s place, then continued on to my own home.

I’m normally up before daybreak, but that morning, I just didn’t have the energy to pull myself out of the chair.  In fact, I’m not sure I even moved a muscle before I heard the clicks of Tock’s tail.

“Don’t you ever knock?”

“I’m a mouse.  What do you want me to knock with?”

I put my chin on the arm of the chair, so I was looking out the window rather than at him.  “What do you want?”

“Apparently my master was up to some investigating of her own last night, while you and I were out.”

I inhaled slowly, let out the breath.  “Okay.”

“Fennick, come on—this is serious stuff.”

“And I’m listening to it.  What’s the problem?”

The sound of grinding neck-gears told me he was shaking his head.

“The ghost,” Tock said.  “She’s performing her ritual.  Tonight.”

As much as I wanted to ignore the world’s problems and just sleep the day away, I had to admit my blood turned a little cold at hearing that.

“Ada’s figured out where it’s happening.  She needs us to help stop it.”

I faced him.  “What about the others?”

“What others?”

“The players of the Game.  Wil said they’d all be interested in stopping this thing.”

“Yes, well—Ada’s not Hetfield.  She’s not great at convincing people to do things.  No one even believes her that this cult is real.  The only people who do believe it are already dead, with their spirits stuffed inside a mummy.”

“So it’s up to us.”

“Yep.”

“Does Ada have a plan?”

“It mostly amounts to:  kill the ghost once she’s corporeal.  Are you in?”

I asked myself what Hetfield would do in that situation, then realized I was wasting my time—the answer was obvious.  I hopped off the chair.

“Just tell me where I need to be.”

I had one last errand to run before joining Ada and Tock on the hilltop where the ritual was to take place.  I arrived at the pig pen just as the sun was starting to set.

“We’re going to take them out,” I said.  “Ghost, mummy, gargoyle and anyone else who wants to be a part of that ritual.”

“Very good, yes,” Wil said.  “And you’re telling me this because . . .?”

“I thought you deserved a chance to get revenge on the ones who killed your master.”

I got a look at his big black eyes.  They appeared to be wet from recent tears, though Wil would never admit to that.

“Hm,” he said.  “Yes.  It’s a lovely thought, I’m sure.  But I do believe I’m finished with all this business.  I’ve no more interest in this Game, or these cultists, or anything else that gets good, honorable men killed for no just reason.”  He closed his eyes, exhaled.  “Best of luck to you and our clockwork comrade, Ms. Fennick.”

I didn’t ask him again.  We all had our own ways of dealing with loss, and I wasn’t about to judge his method.

After a long journey under the stars, I got to the base of the grassy hill where everything would come together.  Tock found me there and guided me over to the bushes where Ada, the Tinker, hid.

“Good to see you, fox,” she said.  “Don’t worry—we’ll avenge Hetfield yet.”

She ran her hand over my ears, just like my master used to.  I licked her fingers.

Overhead, we saw a shadow cut through the sky.  The gargoyle had reached the hill.

“The ghost and mummy are already there,” Ada said, pulling her goggles over her eyes and checking the dials on some wand-like contraption she was holding.  “When the moon is a touch higher in the sky, they’ll begin.  We should move into position.”

I asked Tock if there was any more of a plan than the last time I’d inquired.  There wasn’t.

We split off from Ada and circled to a different side of the hill.  Ideally, she’d distract the gargoyle and we’d kill the ghost.  Or maybe the other way around.  As long as the outcome was the same, I didn’t really care about the methods.

Atop the hill was a stone altar flanked by flaming braziers, before which floated the translucent form of the ghost.  At her side, the mummy was having even worse shakes than before—either he’d been roughed up while tackling more of the players, or he’d absorbed so many essences that he was about to burst.  I hoped for the former.

The gargoyle stood before the other two.  He was an imposing figure, to say the least.  There were only a few robed cultists present, presumably the higher ranking members of their order.

I wanted to just sprint across the hilltop and go for the mummy’s throat, but Tock convinced me to hold off until the ghost had gone corporeal, because that was the only way we were going to kill her.  So I waited, as much as I hated it.

And then the moon was high in the sky, and the ritual began.

The ghost was chanting, but it was clear she wasn’t a solid form yet.  I found myself wondering what kind of timeframe we had—once she became corporeal, how long would it be before she summoned the Old Ones?  That was something I didn’t want to have to worry about, especially since I had a new concern on my mind:

We’d been spotted.

“Well, looky here—if it isn’t the rodents that busted out of my cage.”

I don’t know how the cultist had snuck up on us, but I wasn’t going to let him ruin things.  He reached down to grab us and I let him have it with all the force in my jaws.  The man screamed and recoiled and gripped his bloody hand with the other one, and as Tock and I ran away, I spit out the finger.

The ghost had surely heard what was going on, but she continued with the ritual anyway.  I saw her starting to take form . . .

We bolted across the short grass, but dug our paws into the ground and slid to a stop when the gargoyle landed in front of us.

“The master wishes not to be disturbed.”

He raised his foot into the air, its wide shadow peeling over us.

Then he got hit by a lightning bolt.

It wasn’t one of the standard vertical ones you see coming from a stormy sky, but rather the horizontal variety that apparently shoots forth from Ada’s mechanical wand.  The gargoyle stumbled back and fell, his grey chest blackened and cracked.

“I think she’d been saving that for the ghost,” Tock said.  “Here’s hoping there’s another charge left in the thing.”

A general panic filled the air as we raced around the feet of the cultists trying to catch us.  Someone went to grab Ada, but paid for it when she stuck him with some concealed device that made his mouth foam and legs go rubbery.

The Tinker shoved the disoriented man aside and raised her crossbow.  It looked heavier than the conventional model of that weapon, and boasted some unusual modifications.  She aimed at the ghost, who may or may not have been solid by that point—it was hard to tell for sure.

A cultist moved to take the bolt for his master, but Tock and I got tangled up in his feet and tripped him.  Before he could stand up, a tiny hatch opened in Tock’s side and fired a dart into the man’s neck.  He got woozy, swayed on his hands and knees, then dropped flat.

Ada took her aim and fired.  Her weapon made some sound that crossbows don’t normally make, like a bottle exploding from inside pressure.  The bolt soared through the air on a tail of white fire, straight at the ghost’s head.

It stopped halfway to its intended target when it struck the gargoyle’s outstretched hand.  He’d recovered just in time to lunge and block the shot.  It seemed to give him one hell of a smart, but that only made him angrier.  He rose up and towered over us.

The mummy, convulsing so hard now that he was bent partway over at the waist, moved to join the battle.

“No!” the ghost said.  “Stoneclaw has this under control.  I need you here!”

Like a good servant, the mummy obeyed.

Tock and I got separated as the remaining cultists scrambled after us.  The gargoyle moved on Ada and took big swings with its clawed hands, which she narrowly avoided.  She tried a number of tricks on it, her devices filling the air with smoke and flashes and the smell of gunpowder, but nothing seemed to slow it down.

Just when I thought I was about to break into a clearing and make a dash for the altar, a prone cultist I’d assumed to be dead reached out and grabbed me.

“You will not stop the master’s plans!”

I tried to bite his fingers, but he kept them away from my mouth.  I felt one of his hands move to the back of my neck, and I knew I wouldn’t be strong enough to resist if he twisted.

Then there was a scream, and I was released.

I turned around expecting to see Tock drilling a hole into the man’s cheek with a gadget from his tiny arsenal.  Instead, I saw 400 pounds of pork biting at my attacker’s face.

The screaming cultist rolled away, got to his feet and stumbled down the hill.

“And don’t you consider returning anytime soon, thank you very much!”

“Wil,” I said, panting.  “I owe you one.”

The hog shook some of the cultist’s blood from his chin.  “Yes, well, I do believe that fellow deserved every bit of it.  Now what say we go help the young lady and her mouse over there, Ms. Fennick?”

I looked where he gestured and found that Ada was on the ground, her leg bloodied, the gargoyle standing over her.  She was trying to scoot away.  Tock was on her chest, bravely standing between his master and danger.

Wil and I ran over.  The hog threw all of his weight into a charge, but knocked himself silly on the gargoyle’s stone leg.  He wobbled and fell next to Ada.  I moved into position next to Tock, who had dismounted from his master’s chest to meet the beast.  The gargoyle sneered, showing sharp stone teeth like stalactites.  He’d been struck by lightning, shot by a crossbow, and hit with who knows what else.  And yet, here he was, standing over us without looking even the slightest bit fazed.

“Well,” I said to Tock, “looks like this is it.”

He nodded as we backpedaled.  “It’s been fun, Fen.  I would have enjoyed playing the Game with you, even if we didn’t end up on the same side.”

The gargoyle’s fists raised above its head.

“Were you an Opener or a Closer?” I asked.

“Probably shouldn’t say,” Tock said, as the gargoyle took one final step forward.  “You never know what might—”

There came an ear-piercing banshee’s wail, which quickly turned wet and choked off.  The gargoyle whipped around to face the altar.  I maneuvered to see past the stone beast, and got a good look at what had happened.

The ghost’s corporeal form was dead on the ground, covered in her own ruby blood.  Standing over her was the mummy, his claws dripping red.

. . . Claws?

The mummy’s limbs and torso had grown large with muscle, stretching and splitting the surrounding bandages.  Tufts of brown hair stuck out from between the wrappings, and where once there had been a featureless face, there was now a slavering muzzle.  I knew those jaws anywhere.

Hetfield.  He was alive, and he’d resisted transforming under the full moon just long enough to keep the ghost fooled.

The gargoyle emitted a pained scream, its head tilted back as a column of white light shot forth from the ghost’s body and disappeared into the night sky.  With its master dead, the stone creature turned its furious gaze on Hetfield.  It opened its jaws and roared, and despite the labored breathing that followed, it took a wobbly step toward the wolf-man.  It then took another, and another, with each of the movements proving slower and less coordinated than the previous.  Hetfield stayed on his guard, hands up and ready to strike, but the caution proved unnecessary:  before the gargoyle’s foot could raise a fourth time, its body froze completely—it was a statue.

I went to move forward, but Tock cut in front of me.

“Wait!” he said.  “It’ll kill you!”

“Hm, no,” the recently recovered Wil said, “I think not.  You see, gargoyles are closely bound to their masters, and never outlive them for long.  This poor fellow’s just a hunk of old stone now, I’m afraid.”

Ada let her head drop back and smiled.  Hetfield tore the rest of the mummy wrappings away from his body.  I ran, hopped into his arms and licked his face.

“We did it,” Ada said.  “You were right.”

Hetfield carried me over to her and the others.  He used some of the mummy bandages to fix up the wound on her leg.  His hands were surprisingly dexterous, for a wolf-man.

“I don’t believe Hetfield can speak in that form,” Ada said, and Hetfield nodded to confirm, “so if you’re interested, I’ll explain what happened here.”

Tock and I couldn’t communicate verbally with our masters at that hour, so we showed our interest by sitting side-by-side and looking at Ada attentively.

“As you’ve probably guessed, Hetfield got the better of the mummy in the cabin.”

“Well of course, that much is plainly obvious,” Wil said, though to the people on the hill, it just sounded like a bunch of oinks.

“He knew that the immediate threat to the players was gone,” Ada went on, “but he still wanted to get to the source of the cult—their leader, the ghost.  So he hid the mummy’s bones in a closet and donned its wrappings to learn more.  He came to me—and only me—with his plan, knowing that he’d need help, but wanting to ensure no one else found out who the new mummy really was.  It was necessary to keep the secret tight.”

I gave Hetfield a hurt look.  He lowered his wolfish head apologetically.

“He wanted to tell you,” Ada said to me, “but you were new to the Game and we just wanted to be sure you wouldn’t share the information with the wrong people.”

So that was it, then.  All this time, he’d been alive.  As much as I was disappointed for not being let in on the plan, I was too overwhelmed with joy at the thought of having my master back to really care.  We were all pretty happy on the hill, just then.

Hetfield was just helping Ada to her feet when we heard a creaking sound coming from behind us, like something bending under a great force.

We all turned to the gargoyle.  Its skin was cracking and splitting, a white light spilling out from inside it.

“Oh, yes!” Wil said.  “Now I recall that last bit I’d forgotten about gargoyles:  shortly after they’re petrified, the energies used to summon them are . . . hm, let’s say, ‘released.’ ”

“Released?” I asked.  “You mean—”

“That fellow’s about to explode, yes.  Very much so.”

Ada and Hetfield seemed to know what was going on.  They were already hobbling down the hill.

“Come on!” I said, and threw Tock onto my back.  He grabbed on with all the strength left in his little paws.

“Oh, you needn’t be so dramatic, Ms. Fennick,” Wil said.  “The explosion certainly isn’t so mighty that we can’t withstand it.  If everyone would simply turn their back fat on the statue over yonder, I’m sure we’ll get through this without a scratch.”

The hog rolled away from the gargoyle and closed his eyes, a content smile on his face.

“Wil, I really think we should go.”

“And I really think I deserve a nap, what with all the, hm, battling and so forth I’ve done of late.”  He settled into the grass and let out a tired breath that made it clear he wasn’t going anywhere.

The gargoyle’s flesh groaned as the energy inside it expanded.  While I was confident that Wil knew what he was talking about in regards to his own safety, I didn’t think he realized the rest of us lacked the cushioning he had.

So after saying goodbye and wishing him luck, I let Wil doze off.  The rest of us, not trusting in our back fat, did what was necessary to escape:  the mouse held on tight, the wolf-man carried the Tinker down the slope, and the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy hog.

Zach says: A Night in the Lonesome October is unique among Roger Zelazny’s books, in that it’s a story everyone will like. Lord of Light is one of the greatest novels of all time, but not everyone enjoys science fiction; The Chronicles of Amber will forever be my favorite fantasy series, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t care to read about swords and spells and monsters and myths. (The fools!)  The story of Snuff, however, is something you can recommend to anyone, regardless of their tastes. And, chances are, they’ll love it. There’s just something endearing about that lovable dog and his valiant (albeit homicidal) master. I can only hope that A Night in the Lonesome October sees publication again some day (be it in physical or digital format), because it would make all my shopping for Neil Gaiman’s “All Hallow’s Read” holiday a lot easier.

Zach Shephard lives in Enumclaw, Washington, where he writes science fiction and fantasy stories whenever he’s not busy worshiping at the altar of Roger Zelazny.  You can check him out at www.zachshephard.com, but not until after you’ve done your homework and read A Night in the Lonesome October.  Twice.

Story illustration by Ronnie Tucker.

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4 responses to “My Least Immemorial Year, by Zach Shephard

  1. Thank you, Zach for a story that was an honour and a piece of cake to read for this eZine. It was well written and I fell in love immediately with the Vixen. And Tock, and even Wil.

    Most Sincerely
    Juliana.

  2. I loved everything about this story! Ada the clockworker evokes Ada Lovelace, which I would presume was not a coincidence. I loved the incidental details like “His tail, stiff as a nail, twitched once for every second that passed”, which really work to sell the world as a living place. All of the readings for each of the stories were good, but this one was outstanding! And the final line was a wonderful reference to the final line in October.

  3. (am in the middle of this and adore the characters am avoiding any specifics but <3 the care taken creating them so far)

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