Ricou needed help and I was running out of ideas. I didn’t like what I was about to do, but it seemed I had no other choice.
We walked—or, rather, shambled and hopped—down the lane under a cool October moon. The cypresses watched over us from either side of the path, their needles the orange-brown of rust, that same autumn color that infected every other plant in the world, regardless of species.
I’d never actually seen a green plant (except for Iggy, of course), save for in pictures from Ricou’s last surviving books. Foliage across the globe was always the color of near-death, even during spring and summer, because that’s just how things had been ever since the world ended half a century ago.
Ricou started to stray from the path, his wet feet slapping toward the tree line. I hopped over and took his hand, guiding him back on course.
“Just a little farther,” I said.
And then we were there.
At the end of the path was the beginning of a hill, and at the bottom of that hill was a stone tomb. It was perfectly framed by a moonbeam, which brought blue light to the star engraved on the door.
Ricou stopped. He looked at the star with his one good eye, its pupil so big and black you could scarcely see the white around it.
“Do you remember?”
“Ula,” he said. It was the first word he’d spoken all night.
“Yes—Ula. Good. That was all I wanted you to see. Now we can go—”
“Give key,” he said, his clawed hand lifting the padlock on the door. “Need to see her.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Ricou.”
He placed his other webbed hand on the stone. He dragged it gently down the lines of the engraved star.
“Need to see,” he said, mostly to himself. “Love in her luminous eyes…”
Sai wasn’t my full name, but it was the most he could remember. I wondered how long it would be before he forgot that much.
I reached into my pouch. Uplifting my finger, I held out a small loop of twine from which dangled the key. Ricou took it and clumsily undid the lock next to the engraving.
“Sadly,” I muttered, “this star I mistrust.”
The door opened and a strip of moonlight led us inside.
Ricou went straight to the coffin on the back shelf. He placed his hand on the lid. It seemed like he was thinking about opening it, but decided not to. I was glad he didn’t. We were there to jog his memory, not make him weep.
There were other items in the tomb, strewn about the floor or sitting on the shelves. They had been placed there by Ricou, long ago.
He started looking through them. He started to remember.
“They killed her,” he said.
“Before I was around.”
He made his way through the small structure, his webbed feet dragging over the dirt and crisped leaves that had blown in the last time we’d visited. He reached the thing that reminded him most of Ula and stopped.
He knelt before the loom. It was a simple thing, nothing more than a small wooden frame, but she had used it every day of her life, and that made it important.
When I looked at Ricou there in the moonlight, he seemed more human than ever. He’d always appeared as a young man—in his early thirties, I’d guess—but there was just enough fin-blood in his veins to give him a few unusual features: patches of scales on his arms and shoulders and neck; webbed fingers and toes; and those eyes, one shiny and black, the other ghost-white and blind, each with the potential to look horrifying or beautiful, as dictated by circumstance.
Just then, they were beautiful. Ricou was three-quarters human, and as he knelt before the loom, it was starting to show. I had to take advantage of the opportunity.
“You had plans,” I said. “Do you remember them?”
His brow crinkled in thought, but his eyes stayed on the loom. He could find nothing to say.
“The Banishing Wand,” I said. “I need to know where it is. Before you forget again.”
“Yes, the wand. Please, Ricou—this is very important.”
His fingers moved toward the loom. “Ula…”
“Focus!” I shouted, and his mismatched eyes rose. He saw the moon behind me, shining through the doorway, and the fin-blood started to take over.
I backed toward the door. “Ricou,” I said warily. “Stay with me.”
His eyes fixed on me. He rose from his crouch and stepped forward. I’d seen that look, that movement, before.
His lips drew back. Most of his teeth were broad and flat like a human’s, but the others were like sharpened needles. It was those others that scared me.
He hissed and lunged, the moon’s insanity reflected in his one good eye. I leaned back on my tail, shot both feet out and struck his chest so hard that he rolled to the far end of the tomb.
Thankfully, I come from a long line of kickboxers.
I turned swiftly and hopped out of Ula’s resting place. If Ricou wanted kangaroo for dinner so badly, he’d have to try again later.
I escaped down the lane, the sepulchral roar of an angry beast resonating at my back.
I didn’t see Ricou for the rest of the night. Nor did I really want to.
The next day was October 31st. It was the day the world’s fate would be decided, in a winners-take-all ritual that would either banish the Old Ones to another dimension or allow them to keep terrorizing our planet for the next few decades.
Ricou was the only Player on our side of the struggle. He was the lone banisher against a trio of strong protectors. But if I couldn’t find a way to heal his diseased mind, he’d be useless to us. We’d lose. The Game would be over, and with the world’s human population being almost entirely eradicated already, we’d probably never get another chance to play again; the Old Ones and their tentacled horrors would remain unchecked indefinitely, and life as we know it would be a thing of the past.
I had until the moon was full in the sky to fix my broken master. Less than a day to save the world.
I had no idea what to do, and I was scared.
I’d been hopping aimlessly under the morning’s ashen skies, just trying to clear my head, when I realized I was moving in the direction of Auntie Sixgills’s place. I guess that made sense, because I always visited her when I needed advice.
Normally we familiars can’t speak to humans outside the witching hour, but Auntie Sixgills, like Ricou, was part fin, which allowed her to understand us at all times of the day. Her shack was a rickety old thing in the middle of a meadow, surrounded by tall, burnt-orange grass. There was a pond out back, which is a nice amenity for someone who spends most of her time underwater.
I’d just about reached the shack when I smelled something that made me hop to a stop. My nostrils flared, my ears twitched. I sensed movement a few yards to my right and turned toward it.
Rising from the grass, deadly and fearsome and full of sharp teeth, was a white wolf.
He came over and licked me on the face.
“Hello, Riss,” I said.
“Hello, beautiful. What brings you here this morning?”
“I’m not really sure. I guess I just needed to talk to Auntie.”
“She’s out, I’m afraid. Anything I can help you with?”
“Not unless you’ve figured out how to piece together a shattered mind.”
“Ricou’s getting worse, then?”
“Every day. I don’t know if he’ll be ready in time for tonight.”
Riss sighed, a warm breath gliding through his yellow teeth. “I suppose that’s it, then. How do you think we should spend our final hours?”
“Working. I’m not giving up until I know it’s over. And you shouldn’t, either.”
“I suppose that’s what Ricou would have wanted,” he said, nodding. “Although I’m not sure what I have left to do. My only assignment has been to keep an eye on the protectors’ activity, but they’ve never done anything noteworthy, and I don’t expect them to start now.” He shrugged his snowy shoulders. “After winning the last Game by default, I guess they’re not concerned with making preparations—as near as I can tell, they just plan on showing up and going through the motions.”
He was probably right. The protectors didn’t have much to fear from our side. In all likelihood, they’d just walk right up and use the Sealing Wand to make sure the portal didn’t suck their masters into oblivion, then turn around and go home.
Still, there was always the chance they’d make a strange move before the big event, and if that happened I wanted to know about it.
“Keep watching them,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
“Sure thing, beautiful. Hey—have you heard from the birds lately?”
“I haven’t seen them in a while. I was getting worried.”
“Hopefully I’ll run into them when I talk to Iggy. They like hanging around his place.”
“When are you headed that way?”
“You said Auntie’s not home?”
“Not at the pond, either.”
“Then I guess I’m going now.”
“Want some company?”
“Thanks, but you’ve got some protectors to watch. Go keep an eye on the trio.”
“Aye-aye, Cap’n.” He tried to salute, but his arm couldn’t really bend that way. He settled on licking my face again. “See you around, beautiful.”
I hopped through endless, empty plains, the tall grass transitioning into a field of blood-red wheat around me. I was glad I couldn’t see the position of the sun through the sober skies, because it would only have reminded me how close we were to the end.
I reached the point where the wheat no longer grew, and hopped to a stop. Before me was a perfectly round clearing, some hundred yards in diameter, with dirt the color of yellowed clay. In the center stood Iggy.
If you asked Iggy, he’d say that of all trees, he’s the best. And I’d have to agree. He was, after all, the only one in the world that was still green.
There was no grass or wheat growing in the enormous ash’s circle, and no one—not even Iggy himself—knew why. Riss’s best guess was that the corrupted plant-life of the world didn’t want to get anywhere near something so pure and beautiful, and that sounded about right to me.
I was just about to hop into the clearing when I saw movement across the way: clumps of wheat were shifting as if pushed about by a strong wind, even though there was no breeze to speak of. I crouched to stay hidden, and waited to see who might be paying Iggy a visit.
The red wheat-stalks flattened to the ground as though trampled by a grizzly bear. The trail being drawn through them opened into Iggy’s clearing, but nothing emerged.
I could no longer perceive any movement, but I heard something dragging across the yellow dirt of the clearing. I didn’t have to see the invisible visitor to know it was a servant of the Old Ones.
If the sound in my ears was any indication, the damned thing was making a move on Iggy. I wasn’t about to leave my friend to fend for himself, because despite his intimidating size, he was still a tree, not a fighter—his bark was definitely worse than his bite.
I burst out of the wheat and entered the clearing at full speed. I got halfway to the tree before I realized I had no idea how to fight an invisible monster.
There was a slobbering, guttural roar from somewhere to my left, and I made a quick hop away from it. Dirt shot out from the ground where I’d just been located, rising up in a cloud as though something long and thick had slapped against it. A vision of a tentacle entered my mind, which was worrying, because tentacles on the Old Ones’ servants tended to come in large quantities.
I hopped toward Iggy and circled his trunk, trying to put some sort of barrier between the thing and me. I heard my opponent give chase with its shambling, angry gait.
Seeing with my nose, I sensed it come around the right side of the trunk. On a hunch, I ducked.
Something wet slapped Iggy’s bark just above my head, hard.
I leaned back on my tail and fired a two-footed kick into what looked like empty air. I hit something and heard a grunt.
Before I could get another shot in, an invisible limb lashed out and slapped me aside.
I got up slowly, tasted the blood in my mouth. A tentacle started to wrap around my body, but I pulled away so that it was only able to ensnare my arm. The thing yanked me closer, and I smelled a foul breath coming from my future destination. I leaned back and tried to get away, but the thing’s pull was too strong.
I felt warm, fetid air exhaled over me, and heard the soft pat of drool dripping to the ground. I yanked away with my arm as hard as I could, but the thing’s grip held tight. In a final act of desperation, I lunged forward and bit at the area around my trapped wrist.
Green blood squirted from between my teeth, and the thing roared in pain. I was free.
I hopped away to recover. I turned and used my nose to find the thing as best I could, but I could only focus on a general direction. Its damaged tentacle was plainly visible, being the source of the dripping green blood, but the limb writhed about so wildly there was no way I could target my opponent’s central mass for a good kick. I didn’t have a chance of winning that fight, and I was just considering a retreat when Iggy’s branches started shaking as if in seizure.
A shower of leaves fell from above. Most of them hit the ground, but some came to a stop on what looked like thin air.
The thing, once wholly invisible, was now blanketed with the product of Iggy’s molting.
I hopped forward, leapt into the air and aimed my feet at the vaguely man-shaped monstrosity in the foliage gown. My claws ripped into what must have been its abdomen and spilled steaming black guts onto the ground.
The thing recoiled and grabbed at the wound with its half-dozen leaf-wrapped tentacles. I took the opportunity to throw another kick and drag my claws down its face.
It tried shambling away. I chased it and kicked its back some more. When it finally fell, it didn’t get back up.
Breathing heavily, I made my way over to Iggy.
“Thanks,” I said, and sat with my back to his trunk.
The response came in the form of a deep voice, which resonated from an indiscernible location: “Thank you, young hopper. I fear what may have happened without your intervention.”
“I’m just glad we’re both alive to talk about it.”
The fight had left me exhausted, and Iggy must have realized it: his branches shook overhead, and a moment later an apple fell next to me. I’d never known the old ash to bear fruit before, but I wasn’t about to look a gift-tree in the bark.
I picked up the apple and took a bite. It was juicy and crunchy and, in a departure from all other apples I’d experienced in my life, not rotten. I gobbled half of it down without pausing for a breath.
“I am glad that you appreciate my offering, young hopper. But you did not come here for fruit.”
He was right, of course. The wise old tree always seemed to know.
“The Game’s coming to a close tonight,” I said. “And Ricou’s still not well. Riss and I may end up having to pull this thing off by ourselves, and we don’t have a clue what we’re doing.”
“Then you have come for advice.”
“I’ve come because you’re significant to the ritual in some way.”
“You are certain of this?”
“Look at the facts, Iggy: Ricou’s the one who planted you here decades ago. You’re the only tree in the world to resist the corruption of the Old Ones. And now the very spot where you stand will be the location of the Game’s end? That’s too many coincidences coming together. Ricou had plans for you—it’s the only explanation.”
Something like a sigh rumbled through Iggy’s trunk, shaking the ground beneath me. “Yes,” he said, “it is likely you are correct. Unfortunately, my mind has fallen victim to the termites of time, and there is much I do not remember. If Ricou ever explained to me my purpose, it has been buried so deeply in my rings that I am wholly unaware of it.”
“Yeah, well—you’re not the only one in the dark. Ricou didn’t make a habit of telling any of us what was going on.”
“Secrecy was important to your master. Surely you can understand why.”
Of course I understood why. Ricou was worried about defectors. In the past, Players in the Game would each employ only a single familiar: the animal companion they could trust most, who would forever stick by their side. But Ricou was the lone banisher in that Game, and since he knew he wouldn’t be getting any other Players to join in his cause, he’d compensated by recruiting a small zoo.
Between Riss, the ravens and me, you’d think we’d have been able to piece together Ricou’s plans. But even our own tasks were a mystery to us, because Ricou had never explained why he was having us do the things we did.
I didn’t know what his grand scheme was. I didn’t know what he wanted us to do next. And I certainly didn’t know how he’d managed to predict the location of the final ritual back when he’d planted Iggy, because that’s a calculation that’s supposed to be difficult to solve even after the Game begins—let alone decades in advance.
I decided to ask Iggy about this last mystery, because if anyone would know, it would be him.
“I cannot answer for certain,” he said. “But I can say that your master is a skilled sorcerer and brilliant plotter, and that this thing does not seem beyond him.”
The answer was no real help, but I guess I shouldn’t have expected it to be.
I stood and gave my body a shake from head to tail. Iggy dropped me another apple and a peach, and I put them in my pouch for later.
“What are we going to do about him?” I asked, gesturing at the invisible corpse under the layer of leaves. “We can’t just leave him lying around; I don’t want the protectors to know I took out their scout.”
“Could you drag him to the wheat?”
“Not if I want to get anything else done today.”
I looked around for some sort of tool I could use to make the dragging easier. My search was stopped by Iggy’s voice:
“I believe I see our solution.”
A pair of dark leaves fluttered high in the dull metal sky, soaring toward us without the aid of a wind. As they got closer I saw their true shapes, and realized they were actually two black birds.
“Pardon my pessimism,” I said before the ravens were within earshot, “but I don’t think Ginny and Ninny are strong enough to move that thing.”
“No, but they can feed on its entrails, and pick the leaves from its body while you tend to more important matters. The creature will remain in its present position, but should go unnoticed by prying eyes.”
I shrugged. “Good enough for me.”
The ravens landed on one of Iggy’s lower branches, which was still rather high. One of them had something in her beak. Her head twitched like a chicken looking for its attention span. That would be Ninny.
“Good to see you two again,” I said. “We were getting worried.”
Ninny squawked. She seemed surprised when she realized this would cause her to drop the thing in her beak.
I hopped over and picked it out of the dirt. It was a small blue bead.
“I told her it wasn’t important,” Ginny said. “But she couldn’t resist. It was entirely too shiny.”
I held the bead up between my fingers and looked at it with one eye. “Is this supposed to be…”
“A tool of the Game? I think not.”
Ninny made another loud noise.
“Oh, you be quiet,” Ginny said. “You’ve no idea what you’re squawking about.” Ginny held a wing to one side of her beak, as if it would keep the other bird from hearing her: “The poor girl thinks anything capable of reflecting the tiniest glint of light is a powerful talisman. I’ve explained the notion away a number of times, but her memory isn’t what it used to be.”
“No luck in the search, then?”
She lowered her wing. “No, unfortunately. Though the matter would be made simpler if we had even the foggiest idea what we were looking for.”
“I know. I’m sorry. We’re all working with limited information here. Just keep your eyes open, and if you come across any trinkets that look important, grab them.”
I couldn’t blame the ravens for coming up short in their task. Before Ricou’s mind had started failing, he’d mentioned briefly that there are mystical tools in this world whose powers could sway the outcome of the Game; unfortunately, he’d never gotten around to telling us how to identify them.
I quickly brought the birds up to speed on everything and explained to them the leafy carcass in the clearing. Ginny was happy to help hide the body, and Ninny would do whatever she was told so long as the instructions were simple enough. I decided to give them a hand clearing some of the leaves away before I left.
“I do hope Master Ricou finds his memories soon,” Ginny said as we worked. “We’ve no hope of winning this without him.”
“Don’t remind me.”
“Have you contacted him today?”
“I’m afraid to.”
“Yes, well—were I in your position, I would be more afraid of showing up at tonight’s ritual unprepared. Especially if my only means of quick egress involved travel by land. Ninny and I are rather safe in our ability to fly off when things turn sour, but you and the wolf are not so lucky.”
That was a good thought. I was lucky to have such wise friends.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll go track him down now. You two can finish this without me?”
Ginny and I heard something that sounded like a sharp, high-pitched burp. A few yards away, Ninny gave us a stupid look, then resumed happily devouring the dead thing’s guts.
Ginny’s beak parted and curved down slightly, in what I can only assume was a bird’s look of disgust.
“Yes,” she said. “We’ll be fine, thank you. Good luck with Ricou. And do let us know if you should learn what it is my sister and I are looking for.”
I thanked her, said my goodbyes and was on my way.
Ricou’s pond was a big, dark thing surrounded on three sides by brown-leafed trees. The water there was always black, and you couldn’t see the earth beneath it, even in the shallows. Normally the opacity was a good thing for Ricou’s protection, but since I knew there was a chance my submerged master might go crazy and attack me on sight, I found myself wishing for a little more visibility.
I hopped through the golden grass and stopped a few feet away from the water. The yellow bark of the trees showed faintly in the black mirror, which soon started moving.
Quiet ripples traced the slow motion of something under the surface. It was a subtle shift, like the movements of grass around a stalking tiger; I never would have noticed if the rest of Ricou’s pond hadn’t been so deathly still.
I took a step back and called out Ricou’s name. The ripples didn’t answer, but continued drawing a line toward me from the center of the pond. I backpedaled again and felt the grass against my tail.
When I heard the trees rustling on the far side of the pond, I knew I was in trouble.
A cold October breeze came through the area and disrupted the water’s serenity. The pond shuddered under the chill wind, and I lost track of the ripples.
I should have gotten out of there—that would have been the smart thing to do. Instead, I stood and watched.
Something burst from the water and lunged at me. It was big and slimy and full of pincers, and it was certainly not Ricou.
I stumbled backwards and fell. The thing’s arms shot out at me, its lobster-claws opened wide. I shut my eyes and turned my head.
There was a loud snapping sound, and a scream.
I opened my eyes. The creature was inches away from me, sprawled out on the ground, grasping for purchase as Ricou dragged it back into the pond by its tail. When the thing was halfway submerged again, it stopped resisting and turned to fight. There was a lot of splashing, and they both went underwater.
The wind stopped. Half a minute later, so did the thrashing.
I stared into the black mirror for what seemed like an eternity. Then, inch by inch, something breached the water.
I’d recognize those mismatched eyes anywhere.
Ricou strode onto the shore. I backed up, just a little bit.
“Ricou,” I said, keeping my words slow and calm. “Are you… okay?”
He came forward, seeming somehow taller than I remembered. Just as I was getting ready to run, he lowered himself and sat before me.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “About the tomb.”
I let out my breath, allowed my muscles to relax some. If he could remember attacking me when we’d visited his beloved Ula, that was probably a good sign.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “Thanks for saving me.”
“That thing had been snooping around my pond for too long anyway. He had it coming.”
I hopped up and licked his face. It was probably dangerous to get that close, but I wanted to do it anyway. He responded by stroking my neck.
“We don’t have much time,” I said. “Tonight’s the night.”
“Do you remember what you had planned?”
He looked away.
“I remember a lot of things,” he said. “I remember how the Game works. I remember what’s at stake, and that the odds are stacked against us. What I don’t remember is how I planned to fix things.”
“What about the Banishing Wand? Please tell me you know where that is.”
“No. I’m sorry, Sai.”
The wand was the single most important thing to our side of the ritual. If we couldn’t find it before everything came together, the protectors would win by default.
“How have you been holding up?” Ricou asked.
“I’ve been fine,” I lied.
“And the others?”
“They’ve kept busy. Riss is watching the protectors, but they haven’t made any moves. Ginny and Ninny haven’t been around much lately, because they’ve been spending all their time searching for talismans.”
“Have they had any luck?”
“They don’t even know what they’re looking for. And I don’t know what to tell them, because I don’t know what qualifies something as an item of power.”
Ricou looked into the distance. His hand idly scratched between my ears.
“Talismans aren’t born with power,” he said. “They’re given power by the people who cherish them.”
As much as I appreciated the effort, Ricou’s cryptic explanation was of no help. I wanted to ask him to elaborate, but his mind was teetering on the edge of awareness as it was, and forcing him to think too hard on any given subject didn’t seem like a good idea.
“You seem better today,” I said.
“I don’t feel all that great.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
He shook his head. “The moon’s got a hold of me. She’s the only one who can decide whether or not to let me go.”
“I don’t understand. I’ve seen you walk under plenty of full moons before, and nothing like this has ever happened.”
“That’s because you’ve never experienced one on October 31st. This is a different sort of moon—it’s what fuels the Game, and what’s calling to the fin blood inside me.”
“Then why isn’t Auntie Sixgills affected? She’s half-fin, and she’s fine—you’re only a quarter, and…” I trailed off, because I didn’t want to make things worse by questioning my master’s sanity to his face.
“Auntie Sixgills never played with magic,” Ricou said. “And she couldn’t have if she’d wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I love my aunt, but she has the intelligence of someone who’s half-fin. The only reason I was able to study the Art is because I had the perfect balance for it: a strong human intellect to complement the dash of magic in my blood.”
“I don’t know if I’d call the balance ‘perfect,’ ” I said. “It’s left you crippled by the moon.”
I didn’t realize how harsh I must have sounded until I detected a hint of shame in Ricou’s posture. His eyes turned away, but I could still see the side of the white one—the one that had been blinded by a botched sorcerous experiment, so many years ago.
“It was the only way to give us a chance against the Old Ones,” he said.
“If the Old Ones make a personal appearance tonight, I don’t think any amount of sorcery is going to help.”
“They won’t come. They fear getting too close to the ritual that could banish them from this world. That’s why they send the protectors to conduct their business and make their sacrifices.”
“Sacrifices?” I asked. “This is the first I’ve heard about sacrifices.”
“I don’t expect it to be an issue. Sacrifices for the Game require human blood, and there hasn’t been a full-blooded human in these parts since Ula died.”
At the mention of his missing beloved’s name, Ricou became silent. I’d never known Ula, but I’d seen some of the things she’d woven on her loom and I’d heard lots of stories; she seemed like a special lady. Ricou was entranced (or perhaps haunted) by her memory, and I could understand why.
He blinked back to reality, the wet sheen over his eyes breaking. He ran a scaled forearm across his cheeks.
“You should go,” he said. “I don’t know how much longer you’ll be safe around me.”
Ricou stood, but I wasn’t ready for him to go yet—there were too many questions to be answered.
“What should I do?” I asked. “How can I help prepare for tonight?”
“You can’t. We don’t even know what I had planned.”
“So we’re just hoping you’ll remember between now and then?”
“I might. The moon is a strange mistress: harsh at times, but occasionally forgiving. All we can do is show up and be ready.
“But until then,” he said, “you should rest. If you don’t want to meet me at Iggy’s clearing tonight, I’ll understand. Do whatever seems right to you, Sai.”
He bent over and kissed me atop the head. My master disappeared into his black pond before I could say another word.
I turned and reentered the grass, not sure where I was even planning to go. I made it about three hops before Riss showed himself.
I stopped. “How long have you—”
“I heard the whole thing,” he said. “I was keeping an eye on you, just in case Ricou got in touch with his fin side.”
“Thanks, but if he’d turned on me at this point, I’m not sure I would have wanted to be saved.”
“I get what you mean—things are looking pretty bleak. Are you going to show up tonight?”
“You know I have to. If there’s even a small chance I can make a difference, I’ve got to be there.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve got nothing else on the agenda. Why not check out the fireworks?”
We headed away from Ricou’s pond. The golden grass swished at our sides.
“What are you going to do between now and then?” Riss asked.
“What Ricou suggested.”
I nodded. “I don’t like being idle, but I also don’t think anything I do now will have any impact on the Game. Might as well gather my strength, for whatever that’s worth.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me. I’ll probably do the same, but first I want to check on the protectors one last time. I figure it can’t hurt.”
“Keep me posted on anything exciting.”
“As always, beautiful.”
The wolf ran his tongue up my cheek and was gone. I kept hopping until I found a nice, soft patch of grass, then laid down and somehow managed to stop being awake.
I didn’t talk to anyone for the rest of the day. I never caught up with Riss again, and the birds were predictably scarce. I couldn’t have a chat with Iggy, because his clearing was the site of the big finale, and I had a feeling the protectors would be showing up early to prepare.
According to Ricou, the Game is supposed to end with a contest of wills, as Players vie for control of the Banefire using their collected items and talismans. Still, even the best-laid plans hit their snags, and every now and then the whole thing just comes down to an old-fashioned fist-fight.
As night fell and I hopped over to Iggy’s place, I decided it didn’t matter which way the winners would be determined—we didn’t have the muscle to beat the trio in a physical confrontation, and with our only Player going crazy under the full moon, we certainly couldn’t match them on a mystical level.
But that wouldn’t stop me from showing up anyway.
When I arrived, the Banefire was already burning hot-orange in the clearing, thanks to the trio’s early work. That blaze was a neutral tool that each side required for victory, so it didn’t much matter that the protectors had been the ones to build it.
A quick scan of the area showed me I was the only one present from my team, unless you counted Iggy, who was dying.
I rushed up to him, his bark a shimmering silver-grey in the light of the nearby Banefire. Several of his lower limbs had been torn off.
His voice was weak—not the great, booming thing I was used to.
“I believe I have found my purpose, young hopper. My wood is to feed the Banefire.”
“They’re killing you!”
“If that is my fate, so be it.”
One of the trio walked up, his footsteps thundering through the ground. He was a giant, twice the height of any man, his form so dark that he seemed a walking shadow. There was a sword in his hand, a crude thing of bone, whose edge carried stray flames of the Banefire. The giant reached up and took one of Iggy’s thinner branches in one hand, and chopped it away from the tree with his weapon. There was a flash of sparks and wood chips as the limb came loose, but Iggy did not scream.
The giant tossed the branch across the clearing, over by the Banefire. Another protector—the one I recognized as their leader, from Riss’s description weeks ago—picked up the wood and dragged it into the blaze. He was a humanoid creature the color of a sockeye, his scales bright red, his piranha-head a shade of olive green. He had eyelids like a serpent’s fangs, dripping what looked like venom down his fishy face.
The third protector was somewhere on the other side of the Banefire. I couldn’t make out his shape, but I thought I saw something slithering about like a thick snake.
The giant cut a few more limbs from Iggy. The tree told me not to resist, so I didn’t.
I looked up at the moon. It hadn’t quite reached its peak, so I didn’t have to worry about a confrontation just yet, be it physical or otherwise. But the ritual would be starting soon, and if Ricou didn’t show up, I’d be alone.
I didn’t want to be alone.
Someone must have heard my wish.
“Riss!” I said, hopping over to the wolf as he emerged from the wheat. “Thank goodness you—”
He walked right past me. There was something in his mouth.
I followed him over to the Banefire, where he spit out the thing he’d been carrying. It was a webbed, scaly hand, its stump dripping red blood. The piranha-faced leader of the protectors picked it up, examined it, and then walked away.
“Riss,” I said, “what just happened?”
He scratched his ear with a hind paw, as if in no rush to answer. He stood and gave his body a shake.
“Possibly nothing,” he said. “After all, Ricou did say a proper sacrifice requires human blood. But hopefully Auntie’s will be potent enough to do the trick.”
I saw the leader carve some symbol into Auntie Sixgills’s palm with a ritual knife. I looked back at Riss. “I can’t believe it. You switched sides.”
“Hey, now—that’s not a nice thing to say. Especially since it’s not true. I’ve always been on their side.”
“How could you do this? How could you serve the Old Ones?”
“Because they never hunted my kind for sport. They never tried to tame us, to break us—to make wolves into their servants.”
“You’ve gone mad. Your brain’s more screwed up than Ricou’s.”
“You think this is all happening in my head? I’ve been around a lot longer than you, joey. I remember the days before the Old Ones. I remember when humans treated my kind like filth—when they treated all of us like filth. And they still do—even the ones with some fin blood in them. Have you ever been inside Auntie’s shack? Have you ever stepped on that nice, soft rug just inside the door and wondered who died to provide it? The pure-blood fins don’t care about clothing or decor or anything else that exploits our kind; it’s only the ones with a hint of humanity left in them that will kill unnecessarily.
“Letting the Old Ones take over was the beginning of our road to progress,” the wolf said, turning away. “You’re a fool if you want to go back to the way things were.”
He joined his team on the far side of the Banefire. Apparently the conversation was over.
I went to Iggy and told him the news. His voice was still weak, and it didn’t have anything uplifting to say.
I took another glance at the sky to check on the state of the moon. The silver orb was crossed by two dark figures.
Ginny and Ninny landed on the ground next to me. They were empty-beaked, meaning their search for a talisman had gone about as well as expected.
I told them about Riss. I told them Ricou hadn’t even shown up yet.
“Actually…” Ginny said.
“Ricou is present. We saw him on the way in.”
My back shot up straight. I stood tall and looked around.
“He’s just beyond the Banefire,” the raven said. “Though I’m afraid you’d rather not see him.”
I ignored her advice and hopped over to have a look. Just as she’d said, there was Ricou, throwing a branch onto the Banefire, helping to build the font of fiery energy we’d need to banish the Old Ones.
He looked right at me with his mismatched eyes: the giant black one and its milky white brother.
He blinked once, and turned away.
“Ricou!” I said, but he didn’t seem to hear me. He shambled over to Piranha-face and the giant shadow with the flaming bone-sword. Something slithered about behind them.
The four conversed in a low, slimy language I couldn’t understand.
Ginny landed on my shoulder.
“I’m frightfully sorry, dear. I did try to warn you.”
“I don’t believe it,” I said. “This can’t be happening.”
“The moon has tightened her grip on him. There’s not a thing more we can do. I’d advise you to flee while the opportunity remains.”
The smart decision would have been to take the bird’s advice. I chose to do the stupid thing.
I charged the protectors. The moon wasn’t high enough for the ritual to begin, so no one expected any sort of confrontation just yet; they didn’t even realize I was coming until it was too late.
I snatched up the Sealing Wand from the protectors’ pile of talismans and got out of arm’s reach before they could react. I hopped toward the center of the clearing at full speed.
“Iggy!” I said. “I need a branch, fast!”
The ash moved like a man with old joints, creaking as he bent a branch as low as it would go. I could hear the pounding footsteps of the giant behind me, along with Riss’s angry barks.
I had just enough of a lead to beat them to the tree. I laid the Sealing Wand across a few of Iggy’s twigs and yelled, “Go!”
With a roar of effort, the tree let his branch snap into place. The Sealing Wand sailed across the night sky and disappeared into the wheat.
Something knocked me down and pinned me to the ground.
“Idiot!” Riss said, his teeth bared above me. “Do you think any of this will matter? All you’ve done is slow us down. We’ll find the wand. And even if we don’t, it makes no difference. I heard everything Ricou told you—he doesn’t know where the Banishing Wand is. If neither side can perform their ritual before the moon falls, the status quo is retained by default. You lose, either way.”
The dark giant growled something at Riss and pointed his fiery weapon in the direction of the missing wand. The wolf glanced that way, then turned back to me. His teeth dripped hot saliva.
“You’re lucky you don’t matter, beautiful. I’d rip you open right here, but I’ve got better things to do.” He got off me and started toward the wheat. As he exited the Banefire’s glow, he shouted, “If you’re still here when I get back, you can watch the rest of us weave a better world. If not, I can always hunt you down later.”
The ravens landed next to me.
“Are you all right, dear?”
“I’m fine,” I said, sitting up.
“That was a silly thing you did.”
“It may have been just what we needed. Riss gave me an idea.”
“I’ve got a job for you,” I said, and whispered something into Ginny’s ear. She and Ninny took off, and I could only hope they’d return before it was too late.
After an exhaustive search Riss returned with the wand in his mouth, just like the obedient dog he was trying so hard not to be. Carpe baculum indeed.
He returned the item to his masters. Piranha-face, the giant and the coiling serpent stood in a half-circle around the Banefire. They had Ricou toss a few last-minute items into the flames—including Auntie Sixgills’s hand, which burned up with no effect—before joining them.
I hopped over and stood alone on the banishers’ side of the fire.
“You’re hopeless,” Riss said from across the way. “You don’t have the Banishing Wand. You don’t even have a Player to carry out your end of the ritual. This will be over in a few minutes.”
“You may be right,” I said. “But if that’s so, I want to be here to see the end of the world. I’d hate to miss any good special effects.”
The moon reached her proper position, and the chanting of the protectors began.
The Banefire’s flames changed colors: purple, green, silver, back to orange. The dead pieces of Iggy popped and snapped, and a soft wind slid through the clearing.
Riss barked, snarled, bared his teeth at me. He was either trying to intimidate or distract me, but it didn’t matter either way: I was no longer a factor in this thing.
I looked at Ricou’s glassy-eyed stare. I wondered if he had any idea what was going on.
The wind rose to a howl. The Banefire changed colors again. I held out hope.
Piranha-face raised the Sealing Wand. He chanted something I couldn’t understand, and in that moment, my hopes began to fade.
Suddenly there came a snapping, as of pennants gently flapping, and I saw something pass under the moon. The dark shape descended on the clearing, and as it got closer I realized it was actually three distinct objects: two ravens, plus the item they carried between them.
Ginny and Ninny landed by the Banefire. They dropped Ula’s loom in the dirt.
Ricou’s good eye fixed on it. I thought I saw a spark somewhere in that oily black well.
My master took a cautious step forward.
“What is this?” Riss barked. “What’s going on?”
“You said something about weaving a new world,” I said. “Let’s see how that works out.”
Ricou reached the loom. He kneeled and moved his webbed fingers toward it.
He stopped, his hand just short of contacting the wooden frame. His eye rose and caught mine.
“ ‘Talismans aren’t born with power,’ ” I said. “ ‘They’re given power by the people who cherish them.’ ”
Ricou looked at Ula’s loom. He touched it.
“No!” Riss yelled, but it was too late.
Ricou stood, moved both arms in a clockwise arc and thrust his hands at the protectors. The violet flames of the Banefire heeded his sorcerous command and rushed forth to the opposition’s side.
Piranha-face and the giant split to the flanks, but the coiling serpent in the middle was caught off-guard. The flames overwhelmed and crisped him.
Ricou dropped to one knee and the Banefire returned to its previous state. The spell had taken a lot out of him. I hopped over to him and tried to help him up.
“Ricou,” I said. “Are you…”
He put an arm around me, leaned on me heavily. His head was still low, but I saw a smile curl up his face.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m back. And I remember something very important.”
The giant drew its flaming bone-sword. Piranha-face opened his fanged eyelids wide and hissed.
Ricou rose slowly to his feet, too strong and proud to need my help. A distance of some thirty feet separated him from the opposition. He reached into the Banefire and stole a flaming brand the length of my body.
“By the power of this spear, let old memories awaken!”
He turned and hurled the shaft of wood. It blazed across the clearing and struck Iggy squarely in the trunk.
There was an explosion of golden-red flames. When the sparks cleared, eighteen fiery runes of eighteen different colors burned in a circle on Iggy’s silver trunk.
The tree’s branches spread wide, as if he’d been caged for centuries and was standing with full posture for the first time.
“Yes!” his voice boomed. “The fog of memory lifts! My purpose becomes clear! I am the Banishing Wand, planted and grown, mighty as the tree of all life!”
Iggy’s branches bent and pointed at the Banefire. A howl like a hurricane wind overtook the clearing, making his leaves shiver and take on a golden glow. The flames twisted in agony.
Ricou took my hand and ran me over to the tree. He shouted above the wind:
“We have to protect him! We have to let him complete the ritual!”
The opposition had other plans.
The giant came at us, while Piranha-face picked up the Sealing Wand and stayed by the Banefire to contest Iggy’s spell.
Ricou shoved me away. We both knew I couldn’t help against the sword-wielding behemoth, but I could at least work on the protectors’ red-scaled leader.
I hopped toward the Banefire. A furry white streak darted past me going the other direction, but I didn’t stop to worry about it. I charged at full speed and threw myself into Piranha-face.
He side-stepped, and I missed.
He took a swing at me with his free hand. The claws narrowly missed, and he tried again with the same result. I was afraid to get too close, but being within my kicking range wasn’t really necessary anyway—as long as I kept the thing with the wand distracted, Iggy was winning.
The Banefire changed colors to something like a bronze dragon’s scales, and the flames grew higher. Whatever Iggy was doing, he’d drawn Piranha-face’s attention.
I took the opportunity to dig into him with both feet, as hard as I could.
My claws barely scratched his crimson scales. He backhanded me, and I rolled away from the fire.
There was a loud, deep roar of pain, and I saw a colossal shadow fall toward us like a felled tree. I don’t know if Ricou had hit the thing with a spell or if Iggy had batted it away with a branch, but either way, the giant was about to turn Piranha-face and I into very flat stains.
I got up and hopped away as fast as I could. Piranha-face ran and dove at the last second.
The shadow crashed to the ground with a thunderous boom. He narrowly missed us both, his dark body having landed just next to the Banefire.
Somewhere in the confusion, Piranha-face had lost his grip on the Sealing Wand. It was on the ground, halfway between us. We both realized it at the same time.
I was faster, but his first lunge had covered too much ground. Even if I got to the wand first, he’d get his claws around my neck.
I tried anyway.
Birds to the rescue.
The ravens swooped past my opponent and took some shots at his face. They distracted him just enough to let me get the wand and hop away.
He got up and followed.
I couldn’t turn and fight him—I’d seen what little effect my claws had on his scales. But I also didn’t know if I could outrun him long enough for Iggy to get the job done.
I hopped and I hopped, my lungs on fire, my mind racing for a solution. All around me I heard wind and screams and growls and barks. The Banefire’s light was a standard flame-yellow just then, and I had no idea what that meant.
I looped a wide circle around Iggy to the darker, non-Banefire side of the clearing, with Piranha-face still in pursuit. I hopped over some fallen leaves and had an idea.
I took a sharp left. After three normal hops, I took a strong leap that broke my stride a bit, sacrificing speed for height and distance.
When I landed, I hit the brakes and whipped around. I turned just in time to see Piranha-face trip over the invisible corpse I’d just vaulted.
The moment he flattened out on his chest, I jumped forward and tested my claws on the olive-green scales of his face.
The armor there was not so strong.
I cut gashes into his cheeks and forehead. I had to stay away from the eyes, because I was worried about the dripping fangs of his lids. Ginny and Ninny swooped in to help. They were a lot more reckless with their beaks, and their aggressive approach paid off.
We didn’t kill him, but I think the birds may have blinded him. That was good enough for me.
I looked across the way and saw the giant starting to get up by the Banefire. He seemed woozy. Iggy’s branches continued pointing into the flames and manipulating the magic there. In all the chaos of light and sound, I couldn’t find Ricou or Riss.
“That looks to be a problem,” Ginny said, watching the giant rise to a knee. “Does it have eyes? If not, I’ve no idea where to go about my pecking.”
I thought about the runes glowing on Iggy’s other side, facing the Banefire. I remembered what he’d said about being the Banishing Wand. I reached into my pouch and pulled out two items, each ablaze with the same golden light as Iggy’s leaves.
“Take these and drop them on the Banefire,” I said. “While the giant’s still close. Hurry!”
Ginny took the apple, while Ninny grabbed the peach. I wasn’t sure they’d be useful at all, but I was willing to try anything.
I watched them swoop by and unload their cargo. As the glowing fruits landed in the Banefire, there came two large explosions that knocked the giant aside.
“Success!” Iggy said. “It is done! The ritual is complete!”
The Banefire shot all the way into the sky and pierced the clouds, a twisting pillar of rainbow flames that bridged our world with another.
I circled the tree and found Ricou and Riss at its roots. The wolf had my master pinned down, but his attack ceased when the Banefire drew his attention.
“No!” he said, watching as the shadowy giant was sucked into the flames and devoured. “You don’t realize what you’ve done! We’re all doomed now!”
Ricou threw Riss aside with the last of his strength. They were both bleeding from a number of wounds, the wolf’s white coat stained red in several places.
I hopped to Ricou’s side and Riss looked at me. He showed his teeth, disgust and contempt all over his bloody face. The only thing he could think to utter was a long, mournful howl as he ran off into the wheat and darkness.
I helped Ricou sit up. He looked bad; the wolf had torn into his arms and chest, and opened a gash on his cheek.
“It’s over,” I said. “Iggy did it. We won.”
A low sound rumbled through the world, long and loud. I thought it was thunder at first, but then I recognized it as the bellow of an enormous octopus-faced creature being ripped through the clouds, clawing for purchase in the sky as it was sucked into the Banefire.
“It’s banishing them,” Ricou said, and coughed blood. “The Old Ones are being pulled into their former world.”
“That’s good. Isn’t it?”
“Yes. But it’s not the type of thing I think we want to stick around for.”
The birds came over to check on us. I helped Ricou to his feet. We limped away from the clearing.
“What about Iggy?” I asked.
“I think he’s happy where he is.”
We entered the wheat and I stopped to look back. As more Old Ones and their minions were sucked into the heights of the Banefire’s flames, the old ash laughed a mighty laugh, the eighteen fiery runes burning brightly on his trunk.
We retreated into the darkness, while around us a new world was born.
Zach Shephard writes fantasy, science fiction and horror stories from his home town in western Washington. He spends a lot of time reading and re-reading Roger Zelazny’s works, and occasionally goes to the park to throw a boomerang because no one will play catch with him. His fiction has appeared in places like Weird Tales, Daily Science Fiction and Kazka Press’s holiday-themed flash-fiction anthology, At Year’s End. You can find links to all his work at www.zachshephard.com.
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Story illustration by Mike Dominic.