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Authors: William Bernhardt

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BOOK: The Black Sentry
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“There will be no change so long as people are not free to expres
s their own thoughts. As long as we are controlled by a power we cannot even see.”

B
rita stiffened. He couldn’t understand why. Then he detected movement in the shadows behind her. Someone was back there, staying at a distance. Listening. Lurking.

He bar
ely caught a glimpse of the top of a head, but he still felt certain he could identify it. Mister Hayes. The man who had accused him of blasphemy.

Brita cleared her th
roat. “I think perhaps the heat has begun to affect your mind, Daman.”

“Yes,” he
said, catching on. “Perhaps it has. I’m babbling nonsense.”


You don’t know what you were saying. Xander, help your master back home. A cool drink will do wonders for him.”

H
e caught a glimpse of Mister Hayes scurrying away. Had they fooled him? Or was he on his way to report what he heard to the Captain of the Guard?

I
f he didn’t learn to control his tongue, he would soon find himself confronted with the same choice as poor Mister Anton.

Exile
or execution. If they gave him any choice at all.

 

*****

 

Daman found a drink at Market Square. Xander left to perform his daily duties. Brita said she had chores to finish before sundown. He doubted it. More likely she didn’t want to be associated with this heretic, this crazed madman who blasphemed the Sentinel. When the Black Sentry came for him, she didn’t want to be anywhere near.

At the en
d of the day, his father sent him to the Nether End of the village to make deliveries to the slave quarters. He hated these jobs more than any other. Although it was still within the protective fence surrounding the village, the Nether End was the farthest point from where Daman and his friends lived. The Nether End was populated by slaves dwelling in shabby, filth-ridden housing. He could sympathize with the hard life they led, but the thought of being surrounded by all those deformed people, shuffling back and forth with their malformed heads, gave him shivers.

He had made many deliveries here ove
r the years, and it was not more than a mile from the forested banks of Blaine River, where he and Mykah and Evan had often played as boys—and where he had once saved Mykah’s life.

After
making his deliveries, he decided to take the long route home, following the tall fence. At one point, he heard an unsettling hissing, rattling noise just beyond the fence. Like the slithering of wet leaves.

Coul
d that be a Creeper? The men of the village said the Creepers lurked just outside the fence, eternally searching for a way in. Like most in the village, he had never actually seen a Creeper, but he had been told that they were deadly, that they could kill with a single blow, and that no one had ever managed to kill one.

H
e plunged back into the forest, with its perfectly spaced and identical trees, taking a diagonal route toward home. He knew a shallow place where the river could be crossed. Since he had completed his chores for the day, he took his time, mulling over everything that had happened. Before long, he had wandered farther south than he had intended.

He remained deep in reverie until suddenly he heard footsteps behind
him, footsteps approaching rapidly.

“Help me,” a hoarse voice gasped
. “Please help me.”

Rising up the crest of a hill, h
e saw a man like none he had seen before in his entire life. His face was strange. Deformed. His skin folded in on itself, rippling down the face and sagging under the chin. Even though he had never seen anything like it, he understood what it must be.

This man was old
. Older than anyone he had ever seen. Far older.

The man’s hair and
beard were white as clouds. His back was hunched, but he was still able to move at a steady pace. His dress seemed familiar yet strange. He wore his collar backwards, so that the white rounded part showed through the opening at the top of his tunic. He carried a small backpack.

A sudden thought struck Daman
. Was this the man the Acolyte had mentioned? The Rebel who fought against the Sentinel himself?

“Please,” the Old Man repeated
. “I need your help.”

He did not need to ask why
. He could see for himself. Down the path at the foot of the hill he spotted the Old Man’s pursuers. They were too far away to distinguish their faces, but he could make out their black shirts with shiny gold buttons, their goggled masks bearing the Emblems of Authority, their whip-like crops strapped to the hip.

The
Black Sentry.

 

 

 

 

 

7

 

Daman couldn’t decide what to do next. Could the Sentry identify him from this distance? Could he and the Old Man possibly escape?

“Quickly!” t
he Old Man urged. “Help me.”

There was no time
to think, no time to debate. There was only time to act, to do what seemed right.

He
took the Old Man’s hand and led him down the far side of the hill. They had to leave the main road or they had no chance of eluding the Sentry. Fortunately, he knew this area well. He was pleased to find that the Old Man, despite his age and obvious fatigue, could still move quickly.

The far side of the hill w
as thicker with trees. He reasoned that the trees would provide cover as they made their descent. They raced down the hill, zigzagging past the round boulders and rectangular hedges.

Still, as they approached the bot
tom of the hill, the Black Sentry were not far behind.

H
e started down the trail that would pass through the densest part of the forest. He could hear the Old Man gasping and wheezing beside him. Occasionally his feet would tangle or he would trip over an obstacle, but he never stopped for long.

“Only about a
fourth of a mile further,” he said, not breaking his pace. “Then we’ll reach the Collins place. There are haystacks and barns and other hiding places. We’ll be much safer there than out in the open.”

The Old Man nodded, without slowing
. His face was sunbaked and his eyes seemed large and watery. He moved without complaint, but he could not possibly keep up this pace indefinitely.

They rounded a co
rner and, in the distance, he spotted the Collins barn. A moment later, further down the road, he saw something else. Six dark spots dotting the road.

Another
Black Sentry platoon.

They froze
. The Sentry were both before them and behind them. There was nowhere to go.

He felt a heavy sick
ness in his stomach. He had acted impulsively—and stupidly. All he’d wanted to do was help this man—and now perhaps his rash actions had doomed them both.

“I’m sorry
. I’ve failed you.”

“N
ot yet,” the Old Man said, pulling him toward the fence. “We must cross into the forest.”


But the Creepers—”

“–can’t be
worse than the Black Sentry.”

“H
ow will you get over the fence?”

“The same way I came in.”

“But—” He heard the black boots drawing closer. Soon the Sentry would be near enough to identify him. A few seconds after that, they would be captured. And he knew what the penalty would be for assisting a Rebel. The Acolyte had made that abundantly clear.

“There is no place to plant your feet
. How can we climb the fence?”

“Just watc
h.” To his surprise, the Old Man reached into his backpack and pulled out a rope with a metal hook on the end. He swung the hook in the air a few times, then hurled it toward the top of the fence. The hook clamped down on the top snugly.

The Old Man pulled on the rope a few times, tightening it
. He stepped back several paces, then made a run at it. He leapt up, and hoisted himself to the top, walking sideways up the fence. Despite the huge difference between their ages, he doubted he could make the ascent half so well.

He
gave it his best try. He grabbed the rope, made a run for the fence, leapt into the air, and pulled with all his might. He scrambled over, then thudded down on the other side. He was less graceful than the Old Man, but he made it.

They had violated the primary Law of the Sentinel
. They had entered the forest outside the wall.

They were in the territory of the Creepers.

The Old Man retrieved his rope and quickly put it back in his pack.

He still couldn’t believe it
. He was outside the village walls for the first time in his life. A surge of excitement raced through his body, but it was soon replaced by another feeling altogether. “We will be dead in minutes.”

The Old Ma
n scanned the forest. “I know a few tricks.” He ran a few feet, holding a finger to his lips, signaling him to be quiet.

They
listened to the Black Sentry on the other side of the fence.

“Where did they go?” he
heard one Sentry ask.

A
few of them must have suspected where they’d gone, but no one spoke the words. Probably they feared that if they suggested their quarry had gone over the fence, they might be ordered to follow.

T
he Sentry moved along the fence. Their voices became more distant. He felt safe for a fleeting instant.

Then he detected the faintest rustling behind them. Within the forest.

“Creepers,” he whispered, barely able to form the horrible word.

“Follow me,” the Old Man said.

He
turned, wondering whether the Old Man would move left or right. To his surprise, he did neither. He moved up.

The Old Man
grabbed a nearby tree by its lowest branch and hoisted himself aloft. Climbing trees in the Forest of the Creepers? Was he mad?

“Come on!”
the Old Man hissed, hauling himself up to the next branch.

He
followed. Pressing his foot against the trunk, he managed to hoist himself to the first branch. This tree seemed different than any tree he had ever seen or touched in the village. The trees he climbed as a boy were perfectly formed, perfectly smooth. But this tree was rough and asymmetrical. Bits of bark broke off in his hands. Looking around, he saw that the trees were not perfectly spaced, but were irregular, almost haphazard. The Sentinel’s need for Order apparently did not reach outside the village fence.

“T
his tree seems...strange,” he commented.

“That’s because it’s real,” the Old Man replied
. “You must climb higher.”

Glancing up, he
saw that the Old Man was a good three branches ahead of him.

H
e continued his ascent until he was on the same level as the Old Man.

“We s
hould be safe. At least for a while.”

“I’
ve heard the Creepers can climb trees,” he said, barely daring to think the thought.

“You’
ve heard correctly,” the Old Man replied. “When the scent of prey is upon them, they will go almost anywhere. They can whip their tendrils around branches and pull themselves up. But it is a slow business.”

“I have heard
they can go anywhere and do anything. That they seek out evildoers like a hound hunts a fox.”

“You
’ve heard stories invented to frighten children. If they could go anywhere, why would they not scale the fences that surround the village?”

He did not know the answer.

“Because the fences are sheer and there is nothing for them to grab onto,” the Old Man continued. “They are vile creatures, to be sure, powered by a relentless hunger for flesh. But they are not invulnerable. Or invincible.”

H
e heard a rattling, slithering, crunching noise at the foot of the tree. And then, for the first time in his life, he saw the creature that had held him in fear his entire life.

A
Creeper.

Although his first
instinct was to turn away, he forced himself to watch. He felt paralyzed, transfixed by the putrid horror before him. It bore no resemblance to anything he had ever seen before. It was huge and pulsing, shifting its shape with every step. Its ghoulish exterior was covered by a glassy, revolting, gelatinous skin. It had no eyes as such, but two luminous green lights protruding from each side of what must have been the monstrosity’s head. It seemed neither plant nor animal, or perhaps both. It was mostly brown and green, and its outer covering was sinuous like ivy, but almost completely covered with oozing black pustules. Worst of all was its slavering, lipless mouth—an immense wet maw.

The creature
slithered forward leaving a fetid black trail of slime in its wake.

Just
looking at the monster made his blood run cold. The Creeper had two limbs, or tendrils, perhaps, that writhed above it as it slithered along the ground.

How it propelled itself was not immediately apparent
. Perhaps there were short legs on the underside of the body. All he knew was that it did move, and fairly quickly at that.

He gasped as he saw the
Creeper’s long green tendril-tail, many times the length of its body and easily long enough to strike a full-grown man in the face.

“It’s the tail that kills,”
the Old Man explained. “Once it has you close, there’s no man fast enough to escape it.”

“Is it deadly?”

The Old Man nodded. “It can be. A direct hit with its stinger will produce a painful death within an hour. Even a glancing blow can cause days or weeks of sustained agony or blindness, and can produce scars and welts that never disappear.” He paused. “I’ve seen many a good man and woman fall to the tail of a Creeper. Many a comrade.”

“There are more of you
? Rebels, I mean.”

“Later.
” The Old Man’s eyes focused on the ground.

The Creeper stopped
just beneath their tree. He watched as it moved its tentacles all around the tree.

The Creeper had detecte
d them.

“What can we do?”

The Old Man did not answer. He searched the neighboring trees, but none was close enough to reach. They could jump down, but they could not jump far enough to escape the Creeper’s whip-like tail. There was nothing they could do.

They were trapped.

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