Today’s SFB story comes to us from Eric Lewis Spitler, a synthetic organic chemist in the Pittsburgh area. Enjoy.
Allard held his breath and drew the bowstring taut. The stub of his amputated pinky made the grip feel strange, even though it was healed at last. He had his target. Half a second to take aim, half a heartbeat, and…
Got him. It tried to jump away at the last split second but the arrow pinned its hind leg to the icy ground. It scrambled and writhed in panic, and Allard sprinted over and stomped its head to put the thing out of its misery. He wrenched the shaft out of the hard dirt and held up his prize- a scrawny black squirrel. Barely enough meat to be worth the trouble, he thought, though his stomach protested with a grumble. The forested mountainside suddenly darkened as the sun dipped below the high horizon.
“Banwick,” the lad called, not entirely able to hide his nervousness, “hey Banwick! Where are you?”
A rustling of brush a hundred feet or so off answered him. “Here- but keep your voice down!”
“You catch anything?”
Allard’s companion came stalking through the snowdrifts and bare trees empty-handed but for his own unused bow. “Not a thing, as usual. You?”
Allard held up his kill and Banwick frowned, dejected.
“That’s all? Damn dead winter anyway.”
“We should head back to camp,” said Allard, “it’s getting dark.”
“What’s wrong kid,” Banwick said with a sneer, “afraid of the stories they tell about this place? Ghosts, demons, demiurges, who-hoo-hoo…”
“Better to be afraid of the duke’s men- kicked up a hornet’s nest with that last raid- they’ll be after us no doubt.”
“Aw, we ain’t took that much,” whined Allard, “’sides, it’s wartime! Ain’t they got better things to do?”
“Just the opposite. His Fluffy Grace the Duke can’t have uppity peasants walkin’ all over ‘im, can he? Otherwise the dear countess might get similar notions.”
The pair spent another empty-bellied night huddled around a fire kept low and pathetic so as not to draw notice from afar. And with good reason-, stealing from the duke’s winter stores was a hanging crime to be sure, but deserting his army in wartime earned a long, lingering crucifixion for draftees like Allard and Banwick. They’d run into the hills with no plan, forced to steal what they couldn’t find to survive.
Still better odds than survivin’ the countess’ mercenary marines, Banwick thought before drifting into a teeth-chattering sleep. Though not by much.
The next day they were back out again to forage for whatever they might. Allard shivered and breathed icy fog while keeping an eye out for game, hoping he didn’t fall prey to anything himself, human or otherwise.
He tensed and put a hand to his rusted antique short sword. Banwick’s voice carried an urgency he’d not heard before. What’s wrong? Have they found us? Allard’s mind raced with terrible possibilities. The man came loping down the slope as though a devil were indeed after him. But…is he smiling? Somehow, that made Allard more nervous rather than less. “What is it?”
“Come on,” Banwick said, and said again minutes later as he dragged Allard up the incline. “Come on, we’re almost there!”
“There.” Banwick stood beaming, his arm swept forward as though presenting him to the emperor.
“What…?” Allard approached the jutting rock formation uncertainly.
A trickle, a splash. Flowing water, in this frozen wasteland? He crept closer, brushed aside a tree branch. And…steam? “A spring,” he concluded, “you found a hot spring!”
“Yes!” Banwick danced and hopped from one foot to the other like a lunatic, ecstatic.
“That’s incredible! I didn’t think there were any around here. We might starve to death but as least we won’t freeze.”
“More than that. We can have baths, my young friend! Remember those? Gods know you could use one. I figure one of us can stand watch against any unfriendlies whilst the other takes his turn. Then we switch.”
Allard gazed on the steaming pool with giddy anticipation. It did look inviting… “Alright. Don’t gotta tell me twice-”
“Whoa,” said Banwick, clamping a hand down on the youth’s shoulder before he could get any closer. “Finder’s rights- I get to go first!”
“Shit, I’m lost.” Bestre plodded through the woods looking for his squad. They’d gotten separated in the dark but he dare not call out for aid. Not in this place, hells no. He lifted a wineskin to his lips but tasted only the last sour dregs. Great. Lost, cold and dry too.
They’d been sent to investigate reports of outlaws, or possibly partisans of the countess prowling the area. But there were other accounts about this mountain, and those far more terrifying- savages performing human sacrifice long ago, invisible monsters, demons, things even more sinister that men could not conceive of for fear of going mad.
Bestre shook his head to clear the cobwebs. “Stupid,” he said out loud with more certainly than he felt. “Just drunken stories, that’s all.” They must be. He looked up at the bright full moon shining down through the boughs and tried to remember his navigation training to get some bearings. “Let’s see, downhill is that way, and the moon is to my left so…wait. That way is down too…aw crap.” Should I risk a shout?
Bestre picked through a tangle of branches dragged down by the weight of snow, and some birds overhead made his heart jump as they flew off. Ahead he heard something- water gurgling over rock. Maybe I can follow it back down. He crept toward it, faster now that he had a direction to fix on. He stepped out of a thick patch of underbrush and was faced with the rising solid ground. Then he looked up, and his blood went cold as hoarfrost. No…
A demon towered over him. It shimmered silver at the edges and all blackest dark in the middle. It had the vague shape of a man, but rippled with muscles and was enveloped in an ethereal vapor that twisted and writhed all around like a skin made of serpent ghosts. In one claw it held a sword the likes of which he’d never seen. And it was looking straight at him.
It snorted a stream of smoke, and Bestre managed to force his trembling, piss-soaked legs to turn and flee back into the trees. He screamed in terror, and he kept screaming when he heard that the demon was chasing after him! He tripped, scrambled to his feet, ran some more not daring to look back. He came to a sharp drop of more than ten feet, and without thought threw himself over the edge. Just get away get away get away havetogetawaygogogo…
After some nameless amount of time Allard realized he was no longer covered in a layer of hot water but of ice, and only then did the cold hit him. “Argh, that was dumb!” He gave up the chase after stubbing his toe on a rock, and then hobbled back to the spring’s warmth before hypothermia could set in. He tossed his sword onto a pile of clothes and slithered into the pool. “Oh, that’s better.” Who had that fellow been? It was dark but by moonlight it looked like it might’ve been one of the duke’s soldiers. Great.
From the other direction came the crunching of snow, then wheezy breaths. “Whawazzat? I heard screams.”
“Thanks a lot Banwick,” Allard muttered, “excellent job guarding the place.”
“Sorry, can’t be everywhere at once. Should I go after-?”
“Don’t bother, he’s long gone.”
“For now, anyway,” said Banwick. “But if we been spotted it means we have to get moving again.” Too bad- they could’ve been comfortable by the spring for a little while anyway.
“Least I got my bath,” said Allard.
“All good things,” shrugged Banwick. “Meet you back there then?”
“Yep.” Allard luxuriated a few more minutes before crawling out again, steam roiling off him. He dried and dressed quickly then headed back to camp.
In the morning, near the base of the mountain Bestre’s squad mates found him cowering, injured, and babbling incoherently. When they finally calmed him enough to hear what’d happened they figured it best to get away from the place as fast as possible. The soldiers even left behind a fine supply of wine and rations, to be found soon after by two very lucky deserters who would never know of their considerable contribution to the mountain’s reputation.