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Authors: Kevin Hardman

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Warden

BOOK: Warden
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WARDEN

 

“Good Lord!!!” Gale shouted, going pale and bug-eyed, as well as placing a hand over her heart. Errol followed her gaze to the window, where he caught a quick glimpse of something…horrid.  Ruinous, desiccated flesh clung lazily to a nightmarish, skeletal face.  Small wisps of gray-white hair hung in random clumps from a dome-shaped skull that housed two lidless eyes.

It was only in the window for a second, and then the thing - some sort of ghoul - was gone, its footsteps clumping audibly as it apparently walked down the porch towards the edge of the house.

Errol grabbed his crossbow, already cocked and loaded, and raced out onto the porch.  The skeletal thing was almost at the corner of the house when he fired.  The bolt took it in the upper right shoulder, sinking in deep.  Knocked off-balance and sent spinning by the shot, the creature fell off the porch and into the dirt.

Errol stood still, breathing heavily, with Gale behind him as the ghoul started to get up.  He could now see that the bolt hadn’t just gone in deep; the head had travelled all the way through and was actually sticking out of the monster’s chest.

The thing reached up and gripped the arrowhead.  With a grunt, it yanked the bolt out, spewing an arc of green ichor from the wound. Still holding the arrow, it began walking towards them. Belatedly, Errol recalled that he hadn’t brought any more bolts outside with him (not that he would have had time to cock and load the crossbow anyway).  Reaching down, he pulled his throwing knife free of its scabbard and threw it in one smooth, seamless motion.

The knife flew true, straight at the monster’s throat.  Almost absentmindedly, the creature batted the blade aside with the arrow it still held. The knife went into one of the porch’s supporting posts with a metallic twang, vibrating.

The thing closed the distance between them in surprisingly quick fashion, so fast in fact that Errol only had time to place himself protectively between Gale and the monster before it was standing right in front of him.  It thrust the arrow at Errol…

 

WARDEN

 

Book 1: Wendigo Fever

 

By

Kevin Hardman

 

This book is a work of fiction contrived by the author, and is not meant to reflect any actual or specific person, place, action, incident or event.  Any resemblance to incidents, events, actions, locales or persons, living or dead, factual or fictional, is entirely coincidental.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Kevin Hardman.

 

Cover Design by Isikol

 

This book is published by I&H Recherche Publishing.

 

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

I would like to thank the following for their help with this book: As always, I am thankful to GOD for all HE has done for me; my children,
who keep me on my toes; and my
wife, who keeps me grounded.

 

Ward
/
wôrd
/ -

 

1.  A division or district of a city or town, usually for administrative, representative or political purposes;

 

2.  A person under the protection, custody or care of another;

 

3.  A means of protection or defense; to protect or guard

 

Warden
/
wôrd
n
/ - A person charged with the protection, custody or care of something

 

 

Chapter 1

 

For the millionth time in his sixteen years of life, Errol Magnus decided that being a Warden had to be the absolute worst job on the planet. How could a single occupation simultaneously be the most boring, abominably stupid,
and
extraordinarily dangerous profession imaginable? And yet, here he was, staying absolutely still for what must have been hours (
boring!
), while hiding in a giant dung heap (
stupid!
) from a raging manticore (
dangerous!
). For a day that had started out so well, everything had gone horribly wrong in amazingly short order.

The day had begun with Errol’s older brother Tom, in atypical fashion, allowing him to sleep in an extra hour.  Being the brother of the Warden essentially meant that Errol was - unofficially - a Deputy Warden (complete with uniform!), and most mornings Tom had him up with the sun. The day usually started with exercising - primarily running and calisthenics - followed by weapons training.  Breakfast would come next, and then studying.  Lastly, they would make their rounds for the day.

Needless to say, Errol hated the entire routine - aside from breakfast, that is.  Although he came from a long line of Wardens (including his father, his father before him, and
his
father before
him
), Errol had no intention of entering the family business.  Rather than spend the rest of his life patrolling some rural, backwater ward, he hoped to eventually make his way to one of the cities (which were allegedly free of the types of beasties he and Tom currently tackled on a far-too-regular basis).

On the particular morning in question, Tom’s odd behavior in giving Errol additional time to sleep should have served as an indicator that something untoward was happening.  Instead, Errol had - foolishly, in retrospect - assumed his brother was starting to mellow and not take things so seriously. Other warning signs, such as Tom stating that exercise and weapons training would be skipped, were also ignored.

It wasn’t until Errol was eating breakfast that Tom sprang his trap.

“A raven came in late last night,” Tom had said nonchalantly. “A manticore was spotted out by the Devers’ farm.  I want you to track it and set the ward.”

Errol, who was shoving a piece of bread into his mouth at the time, nearly choked.  This was exactly the kind of thing that made him hate the whole idea of Wardens.

“Look,” Tom had gone on, before Errol could voice any objection, “I know you haven’t done it before with something like a manticore, but you should be beyond this stage now. I was setting wards for things like this with Dad back when I was twelve.  You’re four years older than I was then.  It’s time.”

The mention of Dad, as Tom well knew, would evoke compliance from Errol. Their father had died seven years earlier saving young Jennie Bevel from a swamp constrictus. It was sad, but not unanticipated; Wardens weren’t expected to live long lives.  There was an old adage:

 

A Warden who dies of old age is said

To have allowed his charges to die in his stead.

 

In other words, if you live a long life as a Warden, you haven’t been doing your job very well as far as protecting those in your care - your wards. As if life wasn’t hard enough living this close to the Badlands.

They had left shortly after breakfast, each packing their own gear: weapons, food and water, camping items (heaven forbid, though, that they should have to spend the night outside) and more. Errol had only had time to briefly review the reference manuals on the topic of “manticores” before they left. He had wanted to take the appropriate book with him, but Tom had refused.

“You have to know this stuff,” Tom had said.  “If you start taking books with you they’ll become a crutch, and you’ll never be able to do anything without them.”

Thus, the horseback ride out to the Dever farm was mostly a silent affair, with Errol trying to remember everything he could about manticores and the wards for restraining them, and Tom giving him time for reflection.

En route, they had encountered - separately - a direwolf and a gulon.  In each instance, Tom had insisted that Errol ward the monsters off, which he was able to do successfully and with little effort. He had even received a rare compliment from Tom, which made Errol suspect that perhaps his brother had called the beasts in order to get Errol relaxed before having to deal with the manticore. Lots of Wardens were known for their ability to drive away monsters from the Badlands, but Tom was quite rare in having the talent to actually summon them.  (Errol, however, saw little value in a skill that allowed you to beckon things that only wanted to eat you.)

Fancy Dever, the patriarch of the Dever clan, had been waiting for them when they arrived. Errol didn’t know what his given name was, but everyone called him “Fancy” because - as a young man - he had always wanted to leave the farm and move to the city (to be a “fancy city boy” as everyone said).  Eventually he did leave, but came home to Stanchion Ward several years later with a greatly changed mindset. He tackled farm work with aplomb afterwards and took over when his own father died.

Fancy was a fountain of knowledge about city life, but he advised Errol (and anyone else with ideas of moving there) against it. When Errol had once asked about cities being free of creatures like those in the Badlands, Fancy had merely said, “There are monsters everywhere, even in the cities. The only difference is that the ones there tend to walk around on two legs.”

On this specific morning, Fancy had taken Errol and Tom to a corner of one of his fields and shown them a few large bloody splotches on the ground.

“My eldest boy, Cedric, saw it right here yesterday,” Fancy had explained. “Said it swallowed one of our milk cows whole and then went trotting into the woods.”

Tom had nodded sagaciously while Errol had gotten down from his horse and began removing the requisite paraphernalia from his pack. This included, among other things, his warding wand and one-hand crossbow.  His dagger and throwing knife were, as always, at his left and right hip, respectively.

Properly armed (or at least as well-armed as conveniently possible), Errol had looked around for the monster’s leonine tracks and began following them into the dense undergrowth nearby that marked the edge of the forest. The Badlands. Although he would never say it aloud, Errol had hoped that Tom would follow to oversee everything. To his chagrin, Tom stayed put, talking to Fancy about something mundane, like the size of this year’s crops.

The tracks were well-formed and deeply imprinted.  At a guess, Errol figured the manticore would be full grown - at least ten feet in terms of body length, and more than twice that from nose to tail.  He followed the tracks as stealthily as possible, relying more on the noise of wildlife - birds, insects, and the like - to give him warning should he start closing in on the creature.

As he walked, Errol mentally went through what he knew about manticores. They were fierce creatures, with the body of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, and large leathery wings like a bat. More often than not, the face of the monster would be almost human in appearance, which was quite unsettling. He was not surprised that it had eaten Fancy’s cow whole, as manticores - with the ability to unhinge their jaws like serpents - had a reputation for swallowing prey in that manner.  Moreover, like so many of these weirdling beasts, manticores also had a predilection for human flesh. The sting from its tail would inject its prey with a paralyzing venom, and then the poor victim would be eaten whole - clothes and all - leaving nothing behind. (Aside from, perhaps, some blood from when the prey was stung.)

About two hundred yards into the forest, Errol came to a clearing, in the center of which sat a small hill.  The tracks led to the base of the hill, where there appeared to be the entrance to a large tunnel. Mounds of freshly churned dirt were scattered around the front of the tunnel.
Of course!
The manticore had dug itself a burrow.

Errol stood still and listened for a few moments.  Birds in the forest canopy were chirping loudly, and other small animals on the forest floor were also making noise.  He took this to mean that either the manticore was not around, or it was in the burrow and had been there long enough for the normal sounds of the forest to resume.

Deciding that it was safe for the nonce, he had circled around and crept up to the tunnel entrance from a side angle, so that anything inside would not witness his approach. Moreover, the wind was now taking his scent away from the entrance. (Manticores allegedly had terrible eyesight, but an incredible sense of smell.)

When he got close enough, he again became as still as a tree, this time listening for any sounds of life coming from within the tunnel. After a few seconds, he caught the sound of deep, rhythmic breathing.
It was asleep!

Quickly, quietly, Errol began using his wand to etch an immobilization ward on the ground in front of the tunnel. Unless the creature was a proven man-killer, Tom’s standard operating procedure was to immobilize beasts like this, and then put an impulsion ward on them to make them stay away from areas inhabited by people. If they found their way back a second time, despite the impulse put upon them, then Tom would eliminate them.

Without warning, the breathing pattern inside the tunnel changed, became a sort of snorting.  Errol hastily put the final touches on the ward as a low growl rumbled forth from the dark recesses of the burrow. Satisfied, he muttered the activation incantation, causing the ward to flare light blue for a second, before quickly scrambling away. He stepped back into the brush of the forest, then circled around until he was once more in view of the tunnel mouth.

As he watched, he garnered the impression of movement inside the blackened interior of the burrow.  He brought up his crossbow, with the bolt pointed directly at the entrance of the tunnel. He was so high-strung that he almost pulled the trigger the second he saw something coming from the darkness into the small patch of light at the front of the hole. He sighed in relief, relaxing and letting out a breath that he didn’t know he had been holding.  It was a man coming out of the tunnel.  He didn’t recognize the person, but the man had wide-set eyes, a broad nose, and sideburns that ran down into a thick beard.

Errol chuckled silently to himself, thinking how morosely comical it would have been if he had plugged this guy with an arrow. He was about to step into the clearing and say so when the face - and the rest of the body attached to it - moved farther into the light.  Errol froze.
It was the manticore!

Somehow, he had mistaken the monster’s face for human. (However, aside from what he could now see were razor-sharp teeth and cat-like ears, it was a forgivable error.)

Errol watched in horror and fascination as the monster stepped from its lair. Because of where he had drawn the ward, the creature wouldn’t be able to avoid stepping on it - even if it knew what it was. As Errol watched, the manticore’s right forepaw came down on the symbol he’d drawn. Almost immediately, blue light blazed up from the ground.

In a perfect world, the manticore would have become frozen, immobilized by the ward’s magic. As it was, the creature uttered an unearthly howl of pain and anger as it hopped immediately to the side.  Its roar had a riptide effect, causing the surrounding forest to become instantaneously silent. As if animated by the monster’s anguish, its scorpion tail whipped viciously back and forth, seeking the source of the injury, before slamming into the ground a few times with concussive force in the exact spot where the ward was drawn.

Errol knew with dread and certainty what had happened. In his haste to finish the ward, he had somehow etched the symbol incorrectly. Thus, it hadn’t immobilized the beast, only wounded it in some way.  Worse, instead of having a paralyzed manticore in front of him, he had one that was wounded and angry - and therefore much more dangerous.

Slowly and inconspicuously, Errol began backing farther into the dense bush of the forest. He kept his eyes on the manticore as he did so, noticing that it favored the limb that had touched the ward. The monster gingerly tested the paw, placing it on the ground and carefully putting weight on it.

Still thankful that the monster had not yet noticed him, Errol’s good fortune came to an end when, through his slow, backwards retreat, he stepped on a dry twig. To Errol, the sound it made as it snapped was as loud as a thunderclap in the muted forest. Suddenly, the monster’s ears perked up.  It roared again, looking around as it did so - an obvious attempt to make any nearby prey flee.

It looked in Errol’s direction - directly at him - and roared again, a sound full of ferocity and bloodthirst.  It was all Errol could do not to run, but he remembered the creature’s poor vision and knew that it couldn’t see him.  He merely had to be patient and wait it out. Then his luck took a final turn for the worse.

BOOK: Warden
6.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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