I open my eyes and see the night sky begin to brighten. Day is beginning to break, and the muted sun would soon rise. I did not expect a blue morning through the cold haze of the northern clouds. The asterisms of the sky are waning, bereft of their brilliance, appearing now as faded skeletons of dead light. The decomposed firmament becomes more apparent with every wakening. Not that it looks any better in dreams.
The caravan moves lockstep to a somber and focused march through the chilly ever-changing landscape of the Wildern. Hybrids and Hominids alike trudge in the wake of their leader’s steps, each individual burdened by their respective yoke, whether it be rucksack or rickshaw. The canvas-covered carriages of Crozley’s cortège continue as they always did in a self-made concourse, which they traveled many times prior. But this morning they were to take a different route.
Crozley’s personal carriage was a converted corbillard, refurbished to resemble something less associated with death and more that of mobile luxury. Its refinements consist of iron wood reinforcements, an enlarged cab big enough to sit six, and replete with comforts. The glass of the hearse is blackened on all sides by curtains made of animal hide. The driver’s seat covered in dark leather canvas, and the rear bench seat where two of Crozley’s guards sit matches the front enclosure. The roof has a single seat molded into the frame of the transport, a perfect perch for a lookout. Such is my role at present. The way has been clear and empty, so my counterparts and I keep watch on our companions and cargo. The top of Crozley’s conveyance is covered in stacked chests and sacks made of burlap or leather secured with rope. The latter makes for an excellent place to rest during a shift change, and it is just about that time.
Cane is my current partner, and thankfully so, for he is naturally reluctant to engage in conversation and cognizant enough to leave me alone whilst I sleep.
I awake to chatter amongst those nearby in the line as the pace of the caravan comes to a lull. We shift direction, now heading uncomfortably deeper into the wastes. We have far surpassed the more populated Northern Rises and now approach the dreaded woods before us. Through the blur of waking eyes I can see the horizon of the forest edge, and I know now the murmurs are that of concern and caution. A sudden breeze sends a bitter cold through the trees, slithering its way around the shuddering growth. The sun is reluctant to peer through the grey skies of these hinterlands, but it never shines where we are going.
The remnants of a winding roadway is our path to the forest, highlighted by the glowing mists that materialize over it. We stop at a pair of broken stone cairns that flank either side of the overgrown macadam. Aged-cloth pennants stuck in the piles of stones billow in the wind, nearly disintegrated from their time in the heavy air that surrounds the woods. The colors are somewhat discernible: intersecting stripes of blue, red, purple, and gold. Geometrically patterned into a dark petaled flower, faded and eaten away by time. The wind shifts, and the flags blow in different directions. The wind dies and still they would blow, as though gravity has no effect. Nothing makes sense here, for this network of copses that lies ahead is known as the Wolds. Neither the foolish nor the insane would deign to set foot past these stones. Crozley certainly has both his wits and wisdom intact, so it leaves one to wonder why he would take such a risk. But I know. We all do. Money, for one, and madness for all.
Crozley’s transport comes to a halt and the rest of the caravan begins to form a semi circle around his transport. Considering the hundreds involved, the process can take hours.
I rise and Cane acknowledges me with the slightest of nods. He addresses me with a moment of silence before speaking.
“He told us to keep only the rear cordoned.” The Hund growls deeply as he speaks, an attribute of his canine analogue. Cane’s accent is throaty and harsh, perhaps due to his breed. He has the build of a mastiff, the height of a sight hound, and the countenance of a cur. Being relatively new to the company, I have yet to see his weapon of choice. But his fists, claws, and lean mass are a sufficient arsenal. A long green hooded robe is his only layer, but the thick brown fur on his body is more than enough to compensate.
“The front is too vulnerable,” I say. “Is he overconfident or is he mad?”
Cane removes a small wooden barrel from the recesses of his robe, pops the top bung and takes a swig of the beverage contained within. The thick black liquid froths from the hole of the vessel, streaming down his cheeks. He takes a moment to imbibe, then finally answers.
“Perhaps both. But nothing comes out of those woods as far as I know. What happens when you go in is another question. But you will find out soon enough because he wants you on escort.”
“I am aware. This is the entrance to the Hallow.”
“As per the stones, yes.”
“Grave markers more like.”
Cane chuckles, handing me his tankard. “Ours, if this job sours.”
“Those flags carry Lovren’s colors.” I chug and hand it back, “and the grave is already full, and I don’t plan on jumping in someone else’s plot.”
The door to the corbillard opens and out comes Crozley, his pipe lit and smoldering as it hangs from his lips. His step is heavy and body stiff from the ride. He pauses to stretch and let out an elated sigh.
“Ah, the fading of the bloom, how I love this time of year. Everything is dying, and soon the torpid tide will flow. When the snows are upon us, everything will be dead. Such is the swan song of the seasons.”
He inhales deeply, raising his crosier behind his back and resting it upon his shoulders. He bends backwards and to each side in a series of stretches, crackling his muscles. He takes long drags from his pipe during the exercise, then paces about his conveyance as the rest of his caravan settles. He looks up at his driver, an aged hominid male with meline-like features. The old man turns and grimaces at his boss’ full fanged grin.
“Walcroft, I know it has been a long trip, but try and put on a smile for our guest when she steps out.”
Walcroft hocks and spits out a substance so black it was a wonder his lungs still functioned. But the codger maintains a sturdy physique, built like a stone wall and sharper than most. Crozley only keeps the strongest close to him. The mucous from Walcroft’s lips dribbles down his stained white beard, which he promptly wipes it with the sleeve of his tattered overcoat. He frowns and scans Crozley with angry eyes, lips, and teeth discolored from the chew, face dirtied by whatever metallic compounds he was dealing with in his gun shop prior to being assigned as Crozley’s driver.
“You are lucky that I even agreed to this hunt,” he barks. “Not all of us enjoy the company you are currently keeping.”
“Well not all of us enjoy the company of a dying old man,” Crozley chuckles.
“Hopefully sooner than later,” Walcroft coughs and hocks again. “I don’t want to be alive when she starts casting her spells on everyone.”
Crozley laughs, “Fine, but before you wander off and choke on your bile, tend to the weapons and wagons will you? Feed our beasts of burden, and while you are at it, let them loose from their reins and free from that awful cough of yours.”
Walcroft waves Crozley off in an incoherent fit of curses as he dismounts and complies with Crozley’s commands. Crozley then raises his crosier in our direction rapping the edge of the corbillard roof and dragging it along the length of the car as he whistles a dissonant tune. His staff is versatile weapon hewn from iron wood sourced from the copses of the Howl, an area of the Wolds that is much more hospitable. All the forests there are rich in ferrous trees, where one could harvest an iron-like ore from the knots of the foliage. Crozley’s crosier retained the teak color of the species, with areas of the haft giving off a matted sheen from the rough ore that was still embedded within. The bottom serves as a spear in the form of a corseque, while the top is a combination of club, halberd, and voulge. The top is also adorned with a small banner that bore the standard of Crozley’s caravan: a pair of open claws surrounded in geometric patterns of red, black, yellow, and grey.
He does not look up at us but instead stares upward to the sky until he reaches the rear where he can observe the other carriages beginning to align in the appropriate defensive position. Fires are already being lit and tents pitched, some even set up their shops in the slim chance of a passerby. But we are the only ones crazy enough to be this close to the Wolds.
The brutish Brune sits in the rear seat, his giant arms crossed over his club as he silently watches the caravan take formation. He turns to nod and Crozley responds in kind. Urcus sits with his Manis companion, wrapping his caestus securely around his fists and shoving bits of dried jerky into his mouth. He reaches up to offer a piece to Tala who sits in a little perch attached to the roof where I am. With a youthful and playful grin she pivots and throws a piece to Cane, who in turn offers me a piece.
“Hungry? I couldn’t tell you what animal it is, but it is boiled in theine and peppered in naganine,” he says.
“Keeps you fed and alert then?” I take a bite and receive a blast of savory flavor and spice that lingers on the tongue. Theine is a caffeinated oil that is naturally occurring in the scales of the serpent, released when boiled in water. It only takes a single bite to feel the effects. Cane and I wash it down with some of his drink, looking to Crozley as he paces the outside his corbillard.
Crozley is just shy of Brune in height, but carries a more refined posture. Lean as Tala but with more mass. He was indeed a hybrid, as most Chimera are. His genetic makeup is difficult to discern and lacks an obvious derivation. He wears a tailored green overcoat, buckled at the waist with an expensive looking belt, fastened all the way up the chest except for the final three button straps near his neck. His hood is down giving full view of his vulpine likeness with long tufted ears and lengthy soft vibrissa. With his sleeves rolled up, I can see that his arms are very much like an eagle’s legs complete with talons and spots of down. From the middle of each forearm and extending to his elbow, there are brown and black marbled wings similar to that of an owl. They appear to be more of a vestigial feature and certainly do not have the strength to keep him aloft. They are a curious anatomical feature, reacting to the slightest movements of his arms, stiffening and relaxing as he draws a breath and exhales.
Through the unbuttoned portion of his coat one can see the color of his fur varies from head to torso. Red to grey then to gold below his waistline where at this point his hindquarters were that of a lion, covered in linen slacks and leather spats. A lupine tail is the last of his numerous physical attributes. It sticks out from a tailored hole in his pants and the tails of his coat. He stands in cheerful observation as he packs the brass chamber of his long churchwarden pipe. Crozley strikes a match on Brune’s scales and ignites the drug within. The Manis is indifferent, shifting in his seat and tapping his claws on his club.
Continued in our Winter 2023 issue!