Terry Childers
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S.W.A.T. - Special Weapons and Thaumatur ...

S.W.A.T. - Special Weapons and Thaumaturgy

Jul 04, 2021

Part One: Shadows in the Blackgloom

“There’s a name you might hear, If ye were unlucky enough to be near the Blackgloom Woods on a long winter night and the type of person that eavesdrops on the conversations of wyrd strangers in the woods at night. Wuzzat now? You ARE an eavesdropper of wyrd conversation? What’s wrong with you, didn’t no one ever tell you mind your beeswax? The Bees did? Wiseapple. Fine then. Gather in and I’ll tell you what I know of THE DARK HUNGRY. We oughta start at the end. Wuzzat? The beginning?  As you wish, Majesty.”   

Once upon a soggy winter night a child was born. A pink, wriggling boy that made all required sounds and smells and byproducts. He had a Papa and a Mama  and they lived in a homely but cozy cottage on the edge of the Blackgloom Woods. Papa tended a small plot and hunted and they eked out a living selling his excess in town. Mama did the normal motherly things like cooking, sewing and keeping house as well as doting on her firstborn and only son.   

The kid grew, as kids are wont to do, in much the usual manner. They were poor, but they were warm and full, filled with the warmth of a young, happy and very much in love family. Things continued this way for several years. But, like most stories, If it were all sunshine and flowers someone would have painted it instead.   

On a long winter night, just like this very evening, The Shadowy Men arrived. I’ll spare you the details of what the Shadowy Men did to the loving mother and the happy father, but the kid is a different story. 

The kid saw Papa argue with the men and one of the men flicked his wrist too quickly for the kid to follow, but something shiny blinked and Papa fell to his knees with red coming from his neck. Mama threw a cover over the kid and whispered for him to be still. The next word he heard Mama say would be the last: “Please”. 

The kid wanted to obey Mama but the Shadowy Men were calling him in a singsong voice and making promises of puppies and sweets. As the kid had never known anything but warmth and love in his entire 7 years, he uncovered himself and walked towards them, skinny arms raised. The men grinned. Master would be pleased.     

After quite a long ride, mostly in silence, the Shadowy Men decided to break for camp. They shared a wineskin and some cheese among themselves, but didn’t offer any to the kid. They seemed ratty and underfed. And filthy. The kid kind of felt bad for their shabbiness. If only they could go back to the cottage, surely Papa would share a pigeon pie or at least a cabbage. The Shadowy Men tied his hands, blindfolded and gagged the kid and placed him high in the crotch of a tall, swaying willow tree to sleep. With few options, the kid slept. 

The kid awoke with a start. Had he been dreaming or had someone shouted? He began to rub his face on the bark to pull the blindfold down. 

The kid glanced quickly towards the greasy light of the campfire and there he saw the Shadowy Men hung by their heels from a branch, rocking back and forth as if the woods were cradling them. After his eyes adjusted, he saw who hung them there. His breath stopped in his chest. 

In a semicircle between the trees hovered 7 of the tallest, thinnest things he’d ever seen. The Kid wasn’t quite sure he could believe his eyes. They all wore tattered, rough-spun cloth cloaks and seemed to have animal faces, one a puma; another a deer, a pair of cockerels and a bear, a wolf and the last was no animal the kid knew from the forest. His face looked damp and the color of old bacon fat, with curving horns and a mouth like someone had kicked a hole in a Jack o’ lantern. These must be the forest spirits Mama had told him about in so many bedtime stories: The Piskies. They were sometimes benevolent, sometimes benign, sometimes cruelly bloodthirsty.  

The Horned One paused and drew his finger along one of the men’s chest in an odd, practiced manner, then hissed and the animal faces snapped to attention. They sprung at the Shadowy Men and feasted upon them like starved chickens to a fat grub. 

The kid squeezed his eyes tighter than he’d ever done before and stayed as silent as he could as to not alert the Piskies. The rending and slurping and cracking of bones almost made the kid cry out, but he was far too scared to make a squeak. After a time, the Horned One growled and hissed and they melted back into the shadows. After he was quite certain he was alone, he allowed himself a short but intense cry and eventually slept, exhausted.   

He woke up sometime after the sun did and began to loosen his bindings, first with his teeth, then with his hands and feet. Once free, he shimmied his way down the tree, and fell the last few feet, softly to the verdant forest floor. 

The kid noticed what was left of the Shadowy Men and shuddered as yesterday’s memories flooded back. There wasn’t enough left of 4 of them to decide who might have been who, but the last in line was the man he’d shared a horse with. There were some kind of symbols clawed into his chest, but the kid didn’t know what kind of writing they were and couldn’t have read them anyway.   

He reached up and touched the bottom of the last symbol on the man’s collarbone, and felt an uneasy  tingling as the cuts seemed to throb. He jerked his hand back but wasn’t able to will his hand away. The shapes began to glow and pull themselves down the man’s chest onto the kid’s hand and up his arm. The tingling grew more intense as the letters approached his heart, crackling like fried pork skin, burning. The kid cried out and then all went dark.     

When he awoke, the sun was retreating and he was beneath the men in the tree, his hair and face slick with carrion ichor. With no explanation and no good reason the kid himself could conceive of, he reached up, suddenly hungry and with much revulsion began to gnaw on the outstretched hand of his riding partner. As he tasted the cool salty blood he felt the symbols on his chest start to tingle and burn. Before he knew what he was doing, The Kid had climbed up the torso and began ravenously gnashing and biting the soft part of the belly below the ribs. 

After the kid had supped, he rested, digesting and retching at the thought in turn. Until faintly, in the distance he heard a yowling hiss and panicked.   

The kid booked it, quiet as a ghost through the overgrown floor of the forest and bramble when he heard a commotion of snapping branches and screeching hisses from the direction he’d come. He found himself a hollow log he barely could squeeze into and waited.   

As he waited, his eyes adjusted to the bog black darkness. He spied a tiny nest, no bigger than a teacup. Inside the nest was one, perfectly egg-shaped, creamy white egg. He focused all of his attention on it while the Piskies thrashed the bramble, gibbering and sniffing, searching for whatever had stolen the spoils of their hunt.   

Aeons passed and the kid focused all his thoughts on the egg. His chest tingled and burned again, stinging tears from his eyes, laying in the damp log, cradling that precious egg when he heard the voice. 

“Your Majesty...” the prissy but formal voice began, “this is no place for a Prince of your station to sleep. Your royal finery will be ruined and if I take you home in that condition, your Father will have me scrambled on toast!”

The kid, eyes wide with disbelief, tried shushing the egg, which actually works sometimes. Try it yourself. Go on, I’ll wait. 

The egg continued “You’ve nothing to fear as long as I’ve got yolk inside my armor and anyway, nobody can hear me but you.” The Kid’s mouth opened and closed a few times, unable to find the words he wanted.   

“Now, allow me to introduce myself,” the egg knight interrupted, “I am Sir Eggers, Knight of Doves and Man-at-Arms to your Father, His Regal Highness, who has tasked me with your protection. So until you’re back home safely at Cloudbustle Court, I swear by my honor no harm will befall you.”

The ground seemed to slip away from the kid’s prostrate body and his frazzled young mind reeled with a nauseating clarity. Perhaps he’d gone mad. That would certainly explain a lot.  

To be continued in Part 2: Sniper at the Gates of Dawn

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