Fingers of Death—No, Doom!
by Lucien Soulban
Chapter Four: Caught Red-Handed
"We let them out!" Fife said, his voice edged with panic. They dashed through the tall grass, Fife following in Darvin's wake.
"You can't be sure of that," Darvin said, though he suspected the truth of it.
"We've as good as killed that village!"
"Fife," Darvin said, spinning around to grab his brother by the shoulders, but the halfling ran a good dozen paces behind the longer-legged human. Darvin dropped his hands. "By the Gods, your voice carries."
"Darvin!" Fife protested.
"Fife," Darvin warned, and kept pace with the halfling as he whipped by. "As you said, the creatures had already venturing out to slit the throats of farmers. They could leave the manse."
"Then why not kill everyone?" Fife said, "I'll tell you why. Because they only murdered those who stole from their master. But once you broke the seal on the door..."
"So it's my fault?" Darvin demanded.
"You just had to kick down the door."
"It was in the way!"
"It had a handle!"
"Oh." Darvin slowed down a touch. "That part won't be in the tales, will it?"
"Come on, you egomaniacal yak!"
The pair had reached the stables on the edge of the village, the Andoren draft horses within snorting and tramping the ground in their anxiety. All around them, shouts and cries of terror sounded from villagers driven out of their homes by the things that crawled through their windows. Villagers gripped pitchforks and sickles tightly, a few hefting rusting blades of a more martial nature.
Too much, Darvin thought. He slowed and stopped, the horror of it driving stakes through his feet. He watched numbly as Fife ran to people, trying to get them to move, to act, to do something to pierce the same fear that poisoned Darvin. Nobody heard the halfling, however; to them all he was a child to be set aside with both hands, even when he kicked and pulled the crawling thing off a terrified farmer who rolled around in the dirt.
Fife looked to Darvin for help, but Darvin backed away—one step, then two before he forced himself to stop. Only one thing mattered, he forced his fear-addled brain to concede. Only one person.
Darvin grabbed Fife by the shoulder.
"We have to go," Darvin whispered, and began pulling Fife along as the halfling bucked and screamed...
"No, Darv!" Fife said, trying to free himself from his brother's iron grip.
"Come on," Darvin said, hoarsely, pulling the struggling halfling against his will.
"We have to go!" Darvin shouted, dragging Fife off his feet, but the halfling managed to jerk away, ripping his shirt in the process.
"We have to save them," Fife said, staring up into his brother's eyes.
"We can't!" Darvin said, looking around.
Fife hesitated a moment. "Darvin, the hero of the Mad Necromancer's Wars, pulled his trusted blade from its sheath."
"What?" Darvin said, blinking.
"He set his eyes upon the imperiled village, ready to leap into—"
"What are you doing?" Darvin said.
"In—into the fray," Fife continued staring all around him as cries shot from the shadows like arrows.
"Stop it! That's just make-believe," Darvin shouted. "This isn't one of your blasted stories!"
"Everything's a story!" Fife shouted back with a voice that felt ready to tear itself apart. "Who says my stories aren't the ones we haven't lived yet?"
Darvin stared down at the halfling as though studying an alien, unfathomable thing. Then suddenly, he shook his head, his eyes focusing. "By the gods, you are mad."
"Only a little," Fife said, smiling sadly. Then he continued. "Darvin, hero of the Mad Necromancer's Wars and champion of plump maidens, princesses, and swordswomen everywhere, unsheathed his trusted blade and leapt into the fray...."
A small smile flickered on Darvin's lips. He inhaled sharply. "Right. Hero. Just make sure it's a suitably epic recounting." Then he darted into the crowd, forcibly pulling the men and women into fighting circles around the children.
Fife nodded gratefully and then set to kicking and stabbing at the hands that scrabbled after them. A handful of villagers fought to remove a hand about the throat of another man—the merchant Cullins, Fife realized. Harvander was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he was already dead, or fled.
The halfling gripped his small dirk tighter and ran toward the men. He jostled for place and edged the blade for the hand about Cullins' throat. The bladed fingers were squirming for the merchant's jugular.
"No, you'll hurt him!" someone yelled, but Fife ignored him. He deftly sliced the first dorsal tendon between the thumb and forefinger, and the hand came loose easily. The men stamped it into the ground as Cullins coughed for breath. He rose to his feet with a heavy hand on Fife's shoulder and checked his neck with the other. It bled, but not so fiercely that he'd die.
Fife looked around, desperate for a solution as they ran for the nearest circle of armed farmers. The hands darted in and out of the shadows of the buildings, nicking and slicing with their blades before vanishing again. Several bodies lay where they had fallen, still and no longer bleeding. Others crawled or were dragged to safety, and yet the hands galloped fearlessly on the tips of their sometimes broken digits, eager for mayhem, unfeeling of pain.
The realization thundered inside Fife like a storm overtaking the plains. He grabbed Cullins' arm just as they reached the circle of men and women.
"Is the temple sanctified?" Fife asked.
"Well, the priest diddled Farmer Hoskin's daughter there," one of the men added helpfully.
"Once!" a slender, bearded farmer (who Fife could only assume was Hoskins) replied.
Cullins ignored the other. "It should be," he said.
"Get everyone there. Go! It should protect you!"
Cullins nodded and shouted at the others to join him as they ran for the simple stone building at the crest of a small hill. Fife let them go and turned back into the town to find his brother.
Darvin knew he was no hero, but argue that with the adrenaline coursing through his veins. He noticed the villagers running for the hill, the cry carrying through the crowd to "Fight your way to the temple!" Though instinct screamed at him to run, Darvin helped with the retreating stragglers, fending off the hands that leapt and flew at them.
He heard a cry from a nearby house—a woman's voice, or perhaps a child's. Two men glanced at the home, but continued retreating. Darvin wanted to join them, but forced himself to remember Fife's words.
"Darvin, hero of the Mad Necromancer's Wars..." he muttered. The phrase was oddly comforting. He ran for the doorway, crushing a hand that scampered near—far too near—under a hard boot.
The unlit, one-room, wood-and-mud home lay disheveled. Straw bedding was scattered underfoot, the stone hearth gasping out its last ember warmth. Backed into the far corner, a young woman grabbed whatever lay in reach—wood figurines, serving plates, clay cups—and lobbed them at the three hands that advanced on her like a pack of jackals.
Darvin acted before he could talk himself out of it, stabbing the closest hand perched on the small table through with his blade. The impaled hand wriggled and jerked on the end of his dagger, and the other pair turned on him instantly.
Furiously trying to whip the dying hand off his dagger, Darvion grabbed the table and flipped it over between him and the advancing monstrosities. It barely slowed the pair down as they sprang over the wood.
One hand leapt for Darvin's shin, nicking it as he tried to sidestep. Hot pain flared up his body and his pant leg grew wet; he fell backward as the other hand tried to run between his splayed legs.
Darvin slammed his foot down again and again on the nearest hand, trying to crush it, then settled for pressing it down into the floor with his heel. The impaled hand continued to jerk at the end of his blade, and Darvin slammed the dagger into the ground, pinning the monster to the irregular slats of the wooden floor. But he'd lost track of the third hand that had drawn blood while the one under heel struggled to free itself.
Darvin couldn't move. He heard something behind him and craned his head around as a shadow moved in the corner of his eye. Fife materialized into view like a ghost, stabbing the third hand through with his dagger, continuing to slam his tiny blade home until it stopped moving.
"Help me," Darvin said as he struggled to kick the trapped hand under heel with his other boot, pain shooting along his wounded leg. Fife set about helping Darvin dispatch the two pinned creatures before both men had a chance to stop, breathe, and finally stare at the wide-shouldered, wide-hipped woman huddling in the corner.
"A plump maiden," Fife whispered to him. "I told you my stories just hadn't happened yet."
"Indeed," Darvin said, grinning at the woman and straightening his clothing.
"Perhaps Darvin might one day prove a hero after all."
As Fife suspected, the hands couldn't cross the temple's threshold. And slowly, the men and women of the village dispatched the single-minded hands, with rocks, pitchforks, and scythes.
When Darvin and Fife approached the temple gate with the woman, however, Cullins stepped in the way and whispered, "You two best be going."
Fife, full of heroic charge and heart thundering with nervous excitement, said, "But we just saved you!"
Cullins studied the halfling, his eyes hard. "You brought those creatures here, did you not?"
Fife and Darvin exchanged quick glances. "Not deliberately," Fife said. "And they were already escaping before, weren't they? Because the townsfolk looted the manor."
"You sent us there," Darvin said quietly, a dangerous new note in his voice. "You have equal guilt in this."
Cullins nodded. "Perhaps," he said, looking at the bewildered villagers. "But you're outsiders here. This is the only courtesy I can give you. Go, before they regain their senses enough to blame you for this mess. Frightened people do that."
Fife wanted to argue more, but he felt Darvin's hand on his shoulder. "Let's go," Darvin said.
Dawn touched the horizon, a passing glimpse of what the day could be, and Darvin watched his brother carefully. The halfling had a tendency to brood, weighed down by his thoughts and crushed by self-criticism. Unlike most people with his disposition, however, Fife had turned that brooding into a fine art, and Darvin could see the parables of disappointment in his brother's stories, the roads of regret for paths not taken except, perhaps, in longing dreams and sidelong glances. The business of the village weighed even heavier on him for that.
Darvin nudged Fife.
"What?" the halfling demanded sourly.
"Are you getting shorter?" Darvin said.
"Isn't that how it works with halflings? The older you are, the shorter you get?"
"Are you mad, you self-involved moose?"
Darvin shrugged. "Then maybe it's just you," he said cheerfully, and continued onward despite the pain in his bandaged leg.
They walked in silence a bit further, Fife glaring up at Darvin. The human's chirpy attitude and perpetual grin suggested that all trouble was destined to flow off his back. But Fife knew better. His brother needed anchors in this world, an emotional connection to guide his feet along the path. Darvin tended to hurdle obstacles, attracted by bright shiny things, almost entirely self-involved. The number of times Darvin nearly got himself killed staggered and frightened Fife. If Fife hadn't been there, to give Darvin pause, to remind his brother that they shared in the repercussions of Darvin's actions, then Darvin would have suffered for his enthusiasms. For that alone, Fife was glad to be a burden that only brothers shared.
Still, it didn't mean that his brother didn't get on his nerves occasionally.
A wicked thought occurred to him.
"Say, Darvin," Fife asked casually, "do you know what the word ‘incontinent' means?"
"Sure," Darvin replied. "It means spanning multiple continents, right?"
"Absolutely. I was thinking that my next story of your adventures might involve some jungle exploration in Garund."
Darvin grinned broadly and gripped the halfling about the shoulders. "See, that's why you're the writer!"
Fife nodded. "And you the hero," he said. "Oops—I meant the incontinent hero."
Darvin accepted the title with a bow and a flourish, and the pair continued on toward the next town, the rehearsing of another tall tale under way.
Coming Next Week: The return of Norret the Galtan alchemist in Kevin Andrew Murphy's "The Perfumer's Apprentice."
Lucien Soulban is an accomplished fantasy and science fiction author who's written shared world fiction for White Wolf, Wizards of the Coast, Black Library, and more, including the novels Blood In, Blood Out and The Alien Sea. For more information, visit his website at www.luciensoulban.com.
Illustration by Daniel Masso.