Dagron Max had been stranded only twice in his life. The first time, he returned carrying a gun. The second time, he returned carrying a saddle, as well. In both cases, a horse died, but in the second case that a man died, as well. And not without cause.
“You just don’t mess with a man’s horse,” Dagron said, retelling the story to anyone who would listen. At the moment his audience consisted only of the bartender — and a horsefly on a filthy shot glass a little way down the bar. “A horse is the measure of a man’s status in this world. You fuck with a man’s horse, you fuck with his reputation. That shit don’t fly.”
Dagron tossed back another shot of the firewater the bartender had served up, the flames burning his mouth and throat as they slid down his gullet. He barely noticed. Smoke puffed out his mouth with his next words.
“That’s why I shot the man. Square between the eyes. You don’t put another man’s horse down like that.” He slammed the shot glass down onto the bar.
“You don’t do that kind of shit.”
I laid on my back on the forest floor, the deadfall beneath me striving vainly to push me closer to the sky. Perched above me a black raven rested on a branch, peering intently down at me, just as it had for the last two hours. The creature never moved, never blinked, never stretched a wing. It might have been dead, for all I knew, except that the occasional gust of wind forced it to readjust its stance.
We remained like that for a long time, the raven and I, staring at one another in quiet communion. I didn’t know why it held such an interest in me — or I in it, for that matter. But there was a sense of calm between us I couldn’t explain.
An old poem I’d read as a child kept replaying through my mind as I laid there. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. I kept expecting the raven to utter the word, “Nevermore!” and fly on its way. But it never did.
So I said it, instead. “Nevermore!” I called. The raven cocked its head in response, curious at my outburst. “So you do move,” I breathed. “That’s good to know.”
Captain Adriana Milosovic felt the deck tremble beneath her feet. It was subtle, barely even there at all, and yet it was enough that her senses came to high alert. She glanced around the bridge at her crew, but they were all engaged in their own tasks. No one else seemed to have noticed the oddity.
“Status report!” she barked. Immediately, her crew jumped to high alert as each one checked individual readouts at their stations. Several voices replied simultaneously, but she was used to sorting out the confusion. The gist of the impromptu systems check was that all operations were nominal, operating well within expected parameters.
Adriana returned to her captain’s chair and thumbed the comm for engineering. “Mr. Stock, report please.” The response was immediate.
“We blew a fuse, captain,” he replied. “We’re replacing it right now.”
“Very good. Any idea as to the cause of the failure?”
“None, captain. Diagnostics is underway.”
“Excellent, Mr. Stock. Report to me once you have something.”
The Priest lifts the lid away from the box and sets it to the side. The smoke inside the box swirls before him like an angry storm but remains in place for the moment. He dips a finger into the smoke, drawing out a long tendril of grey vapor. Then, with his other hand, he twirls the tendril around his index fingers, allowing some of the smoke to climb up his hands and disappear up under the sleeves of his robe. The smoke reappears again above his collar, wrapping around his head and face. His pupils dilate until his eyes are totally black, then return to their normal color. He grins, a toothy, malignant smile, then releases the smoke back to the box.
The medallion, still glowing with an ominous, green, sickly pallor, suddenly draws all the smoke from the box. The smoke surrounds the medallion, hiding it from view. It once again resembles a small, angry storm cloud, lit within by an eerie green light. Static charges shoot off the medallion like tiny lightning bolts, further enhancing the illusion of a storm.
He can see her there, standing just on the other side of the glass. She’s next to him, of course, there but not here. He can reach out with a hand and touch her shoulder. She smiles at him. Warm. Affectionate. But also sad. Because he is not truly there. Only here. He can touch her, but he cannot feel her.
“Hello,” he says to her, as he always does. They learned long ago that she cannot hear him, nor he her. But they have learned to read lips. He sees her mouth move in response, her lips forming the word, Hi. But it is silent on this side of the glass, just as it always has been.
He knows little about her world. It’s not like his own, despite the reflection. He can see only her but nothing else. It is an enigma he would dearly love to solve. He would give anything to pass through that barrier to be with her.
Her mouth forms words again, as he knows they must, as they have so many times before. I have to go, she says. She turns and slowly fades away, leaving only his own reflection and aching heart.
The wind gusted across the dusty peak, nearly knocking Zachariah off his feet. He pulled his weathered duster closer around him and pulled his hat down further over his eyes in a vain attempt to keep blowing debris out of his eyes.
The townsmen had said the climb would be difficult, at best. Zachariah remembered their tilted smiles, only just barely on their faces, but he could read both the amusement and resignation in their eyes. They’ve seen too many others attempt the climb and die, he had thought. But he would not be one of those so ill-fated.
And he wasn’t. He had reached the peak, despite the treacherous terrain, and now he stood here, bracing against the gale trying to pry him off.
“Not today,” he muttered. He pushed forward, eyes set on the one bit of rock ahead that stood just higher than the rest of the peak. The wind rose as he struggled with each step, striving to drive him back. But he would not be driven.
Finally, he reached the stone and stopped, gathering his breath. From a pocket of his duster he produced a pendant, glowing faintly of green light. That glow grew brighter, almost blinding, the moment he pressed it against the stone, and a seam of light appeared, tracing the outline of a doorway.
He unfolds the cloth first, revealing the medallion hidden within. The face that peers back is profane and vulgar, but it is not unknown to him. It is the sigil of a creature whose existence has long thought to be past but whose influence garners followers even now.
The Priest uses the cloth to pick up the medallion, careful not to allow any part of his flesh touch the unholy metal. He seats it into a slot in the pedestal designed for just such a purpose, then he casts the cloth to side.
The box itself he places on the pedestal so that it sits before the medallion. The eyes of sigil seem to leer at the box, the lolling tongue almost to lap at the box as if to sample its contents.
The Priest runs his fingers along the edges of the box, traces of smoke trailing behind, outlining it in a grey haze. Finally, he places his index fingers on either side of the box and whispers three words — foul and vile — and the medallion begins to glow. The box opens with a snick! and smoke flows out from the narrow seam.
One of the merchants produces the sigil, wrapped in cloth, from an inner pocket of his robe, and sets it in the Priest’s waiting hand. The box follows immediately. Wisps of smoky vapor puff upward from the Priest’s fingertips as they do so, but the merchants pretend not to notice.
“It would be… prudent, Holiness, to destroy the sigil,” says one merchant with a shudder, “if such a thing can be managed safely.”
The Priest’s voice is cold and sharp, icy with contempt. “Your recommendation has been noted, Xalto, but I will keep my own counsel on this matter.” He turns away from the merchants, facing the stone pedestal behind him.
“As you wish,” Xalto responds, chastened, his voice barely audible.
“You both may leave now,” the Priest commands, not looking at them. “I will call upon you again when I have need of you.” The merchants say nothing but quickly scuttle out of the tent.
The Priest sets first the box then the wrapped sigil on the pedestal before him. “Now then,” he says, “what have you brought me?”
The smoke merchants pace along the streets of the Market. The cowls of their grey cloaks are pulled up over their heads, obscuring their features. Everyone who comes to the Market maintains a level of anonymity, but the smoke merchants even more so. The product in which they deal is not well known and almost certainly not welcome. Few even know of their existence.
They approach a nondescript tent along a side avenue. It could be any tent housing any vendor, but this one is different. It is the permanent dwelling of their employer, and they enter without so much as announcing their presence.
Inside, the space is lit by candles. Books and scrolls sit on shelves that line the perimeter of the room. A tall man, robed in white, stands at the center, hands clasped behind his back.
“You have it?” he asks the merchants.
“Yes, Holiness,” says one. He reaches into his cloak and produces the box.
“The sigil?” asks the priest.
“We have that, too.”
“I will take them now,” says the priest and extends a gnarled hand.
He resists the voices, even as they wrap around him. He fights but is soon overwhelmed. There are simply too many of them. He feels them clawing at his mind, dragging at his psyche, pulling him down into unknown depths — and suddenly he is very afraid.
His head tilts forward, and streamers of smoke pour from his nostrils, black as soot, back into the red box. They carry with them a single wisp of white smoke, a wisp that appears to undulate away for just a moment. But more black fingers of smoke wrap around it, pulling it in, holding it tight, and soon all the smoke is once again contained within the box.
His body falls limp, coated in frost, half draped across the table. His eyes are empty white orbs, colorless and dead.
Two figures stand at the door to the room. One goes to the table and replaces the lid to the box, which closes with a quiet click. The other fishes the obscene coin from the dead man’s pocket.
The two men exchange a glance, and the smoke merchants leave without ever saying a word.