Read Warden Online

Authors: Kevin Hardman

Tags: #Teen & Young Adult, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Horror, #Coming of Age, #Myths & Legends, #Greek & Roman, #Paranormal & Urban

Warden (7 page)

BOOK: Warden
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It was shaped like a man, but extraordinarily huge.  Errol estimated it to be at least ten feet tall. He could only see one of its arms, but it ended in a hand accentuated by terrible-looking claws, as did its feet. The massive, round head was completely hairless, and - now that he noticed it - the chill in the basement seemed to emanate from this monster.

Without making a sound, Errol slowly headed towards the stairs, heedless of the fact that he was stepping in blood along the way. When he reached the stairs, he turned to look at the creature one last time - and saw that its head had turned away from the wall and it was staring at him with sickly yellow eyes.

With the need for stealth gone, Errol raced up the stairs. Once outside, he pivoted and immediately swung the cellar doors shut. One of the doors, ill-fit for its frame, bounced back up, reverberating. Errol raised his foot and stomped on the door, hard, forcing it closed and leaving his own bloody boot print superimposed on his brother’s.

He raced around to the front of the house, screaming for Gale to go. Already seated on her own horse with the little man behind her, Gale took off.  Almost without breaking stride, Errol leaped into the saddle of his own horse and raced behind her.

 

Chapter 12

 

They rode at top speed for the next hour, with Errol continually ignoring Gale’s questions, until she insisted that they come to a stop. Her horse, burdened with two people, was exhausted and needed a rest. Errol’s own mount wasn’t in much better shape.

The place where they chose to stop was fortuitously located near a stream. There, they insisted that the little man take some time to bathe himself and wash the charnel stink out of his clothes. The man, however, whose name was finally revealed to be Digby, was terrified of being alone. He insisted that they stay within eyeshot of him while he took the requisite bath. (Thankfully, he only meant that he wanted to be able to see them at all times, not that
they
needed to see
him
.)

Errol took the opportunity to go through Tom’s pack while Gale broke out lunch. There were, of course, the usual items, such as a nesting kit for meals and medical supplies. There was also Tom’s log, which he had taken with him the last time Errol saw him.  Finally, there was a weird book that Errol had never seen before.

The book was bound in some strange, leathery material he wasn’t familiar with, and had unusual runes drawn on the outside of it. However, he only needed to flip through a couple of pages before he recognized it for what it was - a book of magic!

Of course, the Wardens had their own books, in which were recorded certain types of magic, such as the wards that they used. This book, however, was something entirely different. He had no idea how Tom had come across it, but he quickly put it away.

Errol then turned his attention to Tom’s log. As he had hoped, Tom had jotted down other entries since the last time they were together, and Errol eagerly read them, hoping to find out his brother’s fate.

What he read chilled him to the bone. He now knew why Tom hadn’t come home, knew why he hadn’t been able to get word to Errol. Moreover, he knew that even someone as competent as Tom might not have survived the events detailed in the log. It also explained what Errol had seen in the cabin cellar.

Tom had crossed paths with a Wendigo.

 

Chapter 13

 

“A what?” Gale asked again.

“A Wendigo,” Errol repeated softly. He was trying to keep his voice down; Digby was still bathing, but Errol was afraid that mention of the thing that had captured him would further unhinge the man.

“It was supposedly a man at one time,” Errol went on, “who was cursed for committing cannibalism and transformed into a monster that craves human flesh.”

“Is there any kind of monster that
doesn’t
crave human flesh?” Gale asked rhetorically. “Anyway, we should be safe now, right?”

Errol shook his head. “You don’t understand.  Once a Wendigo starts tracking someone as prey, it never gives up. It will pursue them forever if it has to. Moreover, when it catches them, it’ll kill anyone with them.  That’s why Tom never came home.  It would have tracked him there and killed him
and
me.”

“Wouldn’t both of you guys have been able to kill it? Ambush it or something?”

“It’s not some dumb animal that’s just going to walk into a trap. It used to be a man and still has the intelligence and cunning of one. On top of that, Wendigos are incredibly fast, preternaturally strong, and have enhanced senses, like hearing and smell.”

“But it has to have some kind of weakness.”

“Just two,” Errol said, frowning.  “Fire and silver.  But even if you could manage to kill it, Wendigos are supposed to be able to resurrect themselves. Then they come after the person who killed them.”

“So, basically this thing is unstoppable?”

Errol just shrugged.  “Hopefully Tom noted some things that could help us.”

With that, he went back to reading Tom’s log again, which didn’t describe the Wendigo itself in great detail, just how Tom had encountered it. Apparently the Wendigo was the thing Jarruse had seen, although why it hadn’t come after the apothecary was a mystery. Going in the direction Jarruse had indicated, Tom had come across the cabin (and the slaughter therein), which seemed to be the monster’s lair. It was also the place where he’d found the odd book of magic, although Tom hadn’t been able to glean much more about it than Errol.

He read the last few entries in the log two more times before snapping the book shut and putting it away. In the last entry, Tom noted how he was starting to hear strange sounds all the time. Errol didn’t want to think about what that meant, nor did he want to dwell on the fact that there were bloodstains on his brother’s pack.

“Anything in there that could help us?” Gale asked.

“Maybe. According to his log, Tom’s plan was to head to the fire marsh.  We should do that as well.”

“The fire marsh?” Gale was obviously a little shocked.  “Isn’t that, well, dangerous?”

“Yes, it’s dangerous. So is being here. So is sneaking into the Wendigo’s lair. So is farming next to the Badlands. It’s all dangerous, Gale! Everything we do is dangerous!”

Gale looked at him with watery eyes, although no tears fell. He hadn’t meant to let his emotions get the best of him like that, to lash out at her in that way, but she didn’t seem to have an appreciation for the gravity of their situation. He had no doubt the Wendigo would be coming after them. Moreover, he still had no idea about the fate of his brother.

In truth, hers was a fair question. The fire marsh was a large boggy region of noxious fumes and combustible gases. During the day it exuded mind-boggling heat, and spontaneous fires were not unknown.  In addition, it was home to a number of fierce creatures, large and small, that had somehow adapted to – and in some cases adopted – the fiery temperament of their environment.

“Look,” Errol said in a calmer voice. “It
is
dangerous, but fire is one of the few things that can hurt a Wendigo.  It will probably circle around if it really wants us, so going to the marsh will probably buy us some time.”

“What makes you think that we’ll even get that far if this monster is as strong and fast as you say?”

“Because it likes to hunt its victims, terrify them, before it kills and eats them. The fun will be over if it kills us right now. I think that’s the only reason I – and probably Tom before me – ever got out of that cabin cellar alive. I think that’s the only reason it left Digby alive.”

“What do you mean?”

“It uses that pot to store food for a rainy day, but it put Digby in there essentially unhurt.  I think it was for future entertainment value. If and when it got bored, it could let him ‘escape’ and then hunt him down.”

Gale’s eyes went wide as the truth suddenly occurred to her. “That’s why you’re so sure it’s coming after us. This is Digby’s escape. Maybe not the way that thing intended, but an escape nonetheless.”

“Yes, and now we’re part of the fun.”

 

Chapter 14

 

After Digby finished his much-needed bath, they were back in the saddle again, with Digby eating lunch as they rode. Errol estimated that, riding a little faster than usual, they would arrive at the fire marsh the following afternoon.

They rode in solitude for the most part – or rather, Errol and Gale did. Digby, however, seemed a bundle of nervous energy, and he chattered away aimlessly about almost anything and everything. In a very short time, his travelling companions knew almost his entire life story.  The only subject he tended to avoid was that of the cabin where they had found him, but eventually – in bits and pieces – they learned what had happened.

In brief, Digby had been part of a hunting expedition that had had the misfortune to encounter the Wendigo. Getting him to disclose the details had been difficult, but in essence the monster had begun showing up every night wherever they made camp. It would seemingly appear out of nowhere, moving so fast that it couldn’t be seen; one second there would be nothing there, and the next it was in their midst.  Blades and arrows would damage it, but the wounds healed almost immediately. Then, it would either grab one of the hunters and drag him screaming from the camp, or – more likely – would simply go away. In those instances, however, one of their band would always be missing the next morning when they woke up.

It was the same routine every night until Digby was the only person left.  However, although the creature had slaughtered his companions, it took him back to its lair and placed him in the pot.

Aside from the Wendigo, Digby freely spoke about all other topics, even when it was clear that his companions were not listening. As the day wore on, however, his tireless rambling gave way to another behavior.  Still riding behind Gale on her horse, he began speaking less and less and looking around, erratically, more and more. Occasionally, he would excitedly ask, “Did you hear that?” or “Do you smell that?”  By the time Errol called a halt for the day, near sundown, Digby was as wild-eyed and distressed as when they had first found him.

The place where they had stopped was a previously-used campsite with several tree stumps in close proximity that could be used as stools.  After warding the camp and getting a campfire going, Errol plopped down on one of them and took a swig from his water canteen.  He offered some to Digby, but the man’s hands shook so badly that he spilled more than he drank.  Moreover, he jumped at almost every sound – even when he was addressed directly by Errol or Gale.

“What’s wrong with him?” Gale asked in frustration, sitting on a stump next to Errol and out of earshot of their companion. She had just tapped Digby on the shoulder to offer him something to eat, and the man had leaped aside, screaming.

“Wendigo Fever,” Errol replied.

Gale was suddenly alarmed. “What is that? Is it contagious?”

“It’s less of an actual disease and more of a curse.  The Wendigo’s prey starts sensing things – seeing, hearing, and smelling stuff – that no one else can. They might also have nightmares that make them wake up screaming, or even physical pain, like they’re on fire.  Basically, they go crazy and end up running off into the woods and are never seen again.”

Gale was amazed at his breadth of knowledge on the subject.  “How do you know all this stuff?”

“Studying.  Tom thinks a Warden needs to know everything that could be out here in the Badlands, so he makes me bone up on this kind of stuff all the time.  And he tests me on it.”

“I guess it’s a good thing he did, because it’s certainly coming in handy.”

Errol silently agreed. He had never really had an appreciation for all of the stuff that Tom had made him learn, trained him to do. But now, he could see the benefit of it. Tom had done his best to make Errol a survivor more than anything else.

“So,” Gale continued, “are you this knowledgeable about everything dangerous in these parts?”

“Not everything,” Errol said, shaking his head and laughing.  “Hardly anything, in my opinion.”

“Just Wendigos and revenants, I take it.”

“Well, the Wendigo thing is just kind of a fluke.  Tom once asked me to name what I felt were the ten most dangerous things in the Badlands.  Then he made me learn everything I could about them, his logic being that if I knew how to handle what I felt was most dangerous – basically, the things I feared the most – then I shouldn’t have problems with anything else.  Wendigos, of course, were on my list.”

“You don’t seem to be acting like you’re afraid of it.”

“Oh, I’m actually terrified.  But Tom always says that being afraid is natural.  Panicking, however, will get you killed. So I’m just trying not to panic and lose my head.”

Then he told her about the manticore. How he had bungled the ward. How he had missed with the crossbow.  How he was determined not to let that happen again.

 

**********

 

The darkness of nightfall saw Digby’s agitation grow even worse.  Errol and Gale, who had sleeping bags, each offered him a blanket, as the night had suddenly turned chill. Nevertheless, the man’s teeth chattered uncontrollably, and he had taken to making odd noises – short screeches and cries for no reason at all. Thus it was that Errol paid him almost no mind when Digby’s latest shriek reached his ears. However, the sudden, wild neighing of the horses did capture his attention, and when he turned to see what had disturbed them, he saw it. The Wendigo was standing on the other side of their fire, just outside the periphery of their camp - and the wards.

Standing, it seemed even bigger than it had in the cellar – at least twelve feet tall.  Pale white and humanoid in appearance, it was gaunt beyond belief, its ribs easily distinguishable beneath the skin of its uncovered torso. It appeared to be grinning, showing a mouth full of razor-sharp fangs and teeth, at which point Errol realized that the monster had no lips. The claws at the end of its hands clicked together spasmodically as its fearsome yellow eyes locked with Errol’s own.

Not unnaturally, Gale screamed, and the Wendigo turned its baleful glare upon her.  Taking advantage of the monster’s distraction, Errol whipped his warding wand out of his belt and fired a spark of light at it.  It struck the Wendigo in the chest, causing massive damage in the form of a fist-sized hole in the general vicinity of where the creature’s heart should be.

The Wendigo absorbed the assault almost nonchalantly, the only indication that it had been hit being a slight step backwards.  It casually looked down at the wound, which began to heal almost immediately.

Errol fired another spark from his wand, but suddenly the Wendigo wasn’t there anymore, and the spark passed harmlessly through the place where it had been. Errol looked around warily, but the monster seemed to have left them for good. He glanced at the other members of his party. Digby was looking at the place where the Wendigo had stood, whimpering; Gale had her eyes closed and was trembling slightly.

“Gale, are you okay?” Errol asked, going to her.  She nodded vigorously, not quite able to speak yet.

Errol could have kicked himself. How could he have not realized what was going to happen? Digby had mentioned that the thing had visited his camp every night.  He should have realized the exact same pattern was going to repeat.

He was so lost in his own thoughts that he almost didn’t see Digby starting to walk out of the camp. The man had a weird look in his eye, almost as if he were seeing something else besides the forest - something visible only to him.

Errol quickly stepped to him and grabbed the man’s arm.  Digby turned to him with a blank expression on his face.

“I have to go,” Digby said.  He tried to turn and continue walking into the woods.  Errol pulled on his arm and turned him back around.

“Digby!” he shouted, then shook him.

Digby blinked, then shook his head as if to clear it. “I’m sorry,” he said.  “What were we talking about?”

“We were discussing how we all need a good night’s sleep,” Errol replied.  “Right, Gale?”

“R-r-right,” Gale answered, still appearing shaken.  She looked like she was about to add something, when an unexpected voice sounded from nearby.

“Help me!”  It was a woman’s voice, filled with terror.  “Someone please help me!”

Errol spun around, trying to pinpoint the source of the cries.  The voice seemed to be coming from several different directions.

“Oh, no!” Gale wailed. “Someone’s out there!  That
thing
has them!”

She made a move as if to run in the direction of the last shriek, but Errol grabbed her arm.

“No!” he firmly shouted. “There’s no one out there. It’s the Wendigo.” Gale gave him a bewildered look, so he went on.  “It can mimic human voices.  It’s trying to draw us out.”

With that, they tried to ignore the pleas for help, which changed over the course of the next hour to that of a young child and then a crying baby.  Twice during that time, they also had to keep a blank-eyed Digby from wandering off.  When Errol finally fell asleep, his dreams were filled with images of bodies torn asunder and blood covering everything he could see.

 

**********

 

Errol woke up well before dawn to the sound of a bloodcurdling scream.  His wand was immediately in his hand.  He looked and saw that Gale was also wide awake, having bolted straight up. Digby was nowhere to be seen.  The scream came again, and this time something in the inflection or tone told him that it was their new friend out there, meeting his fate.

Sleep was a long time coming after that, but Errol used the time wisely. The rudiments of a potential strategy were beginning to take shape in his mind, and by the time he fell asleep again, he had the vague outlines of a plan of action for the next day.

BOOK: Warden
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ads

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