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 (8 page)

BOOK: Warden
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Chapter 15

 

They found Digby the next morning – or rather, what was left of him – as their journey to the fire marsh continued. His corpse was about one hundred feet from where they had made camp and set deliberately along the path they were travelling so that they were sure to come across it.  Like what they had discovered at the cabin, the body had been ripped apart (in fact, the head was nowhere to be found), but enough clothing remained on the body for them to recognize who it was.

Gale trembled slightly at what she saw, and tears started rolling down her cheeks.

“Don’t,” Errol gently admonished her, then put a hand up to his mouth as he coughed. “This was intentionally left here for us to find.  It wants us scared, to know what’s coming.  Let’s go.”  He coughed again.

“Sh-shouldn’t we bury him? Isn’t that the decent thing to do?”

“It is, but we aren’t going to,” Errol said, coughing once more.  “It’ll take time that we don’t have.  That’s what the Wendigo wants.”  With that, they moved along.

 

**********

 

They kept up a healthy pace throughout the morning, although travelling in almost complete silence.  Outside of the ordinary noise of the forest, the only sound to be heard was the continual hack of Errol’s coughing, which seemed to grow more frequent throughout the day. When Gale asked him if he was coming down with something, he simply waved her off.

They stopped only once, to refill their canteens – and anything else that would hold water – at a spring that ran close to the direction they were headed.  They also let the horses drink their fill, as this would likely be their last chance at fresh water before they entered the fire marsh.

By mid-afternoon, they had reached the fire marsh itself.  The first indication was the grass, previously lush and green around them, slowly giving way to blades that were brown, dry, and brittle. The trees changed as well, going from the normal, fruit- and nut-bearing variety to twisted, mutated giants with heat-resistant bark and leaves. The ground on the road ahead of them shimmered in the heat of their new environment, and as they entered the marsh proper it became soft, muddy earth that made squishing sounds as their mounts lifted their hooves out of the muck.

Errol and Gale began to sweat profusely due to the increased heat. Strange creatures of varying descriptions scuttled out of their path as they rode, occasionally spitting out noxious fumes or even fire when feeling threatened.  At one point, a huge tentacle – covered with snapping maws full of knife-like teeth and with a huge, bulbous eye on top – arose from the marsh and snatched up a crablike critter right in front of them, squeezing it tight enough to crack its thick shell in seconds; the tentacle also took a swipe at their horses, but disappeared, shrieking, after Errol put a crossbow bolt through its eye. In addition, plumes of flames shot up sporadically from the ground around them – once so close that Errol’s horse reared up and almost threw him.

“Doesn’t walking here hurt the horses’ hooves?” Gale asked at one point.

“The marsh ground isn’t exceptionally hot,” he answered, between coughs. “Gases and vapors float up from underground, but they don’t mix and become combustible until they hit the air.  Even then, they have to mix in the right combination, so while they do heat up – and keep the temperature around here blazing hot – the danger of them actually igniting isn’t that great. That’s why you can even build a fire in the marsh without a lot of worries, although there’s still an element of risk.”

Errol realized that he was talking a lot, but he was doing it intentionally. Since entering the marsh, he had noticed Gale starting to imitate some of Digby’s prior behavior: looking around erratically and beginning to start at every little noise.

Suddenly she turned to him. “Did you hear that?”

“No,” Errol said, then coughed again. “I didn’t hear anything.”

 

**********

 

The Wendigo watched the boy and girl as they travelled. It was relatively far away, but had greatly enhanced vision, as well as hearing and speed.  Having eaten relatively recently, it could – for the moment – ignore its never-ending, all-consuming hunger and enjoy this hunt.

The prey, it knew, sought the protection of the fire marsh.  Thus, they knew something of the Wendigo’s nature, its weaknesses.  However, while it might avoid the marsh by day, they had made an error in presuming the same was true at night. Its stomach rumbled in anticipation at the thought of the meal they would make.

Like the little man the night before, the girl was succumbing to the Fever. The Wendigo could see her eccentric movements; it listened to her fearful questions about sounds only she could hear.  Soon, its scent would overtake her as well. Before long – maybe tonight, but certainly by the next – she would come and offer herself.

As to the boy, he intrigued the monster.  Although the boy appeared to be getting sick, spending the day coughing, the Wendigo had reasons for saving him for last.  First of all, the boy warded, like the prey from several nights back. (The thought of that prey brought a snarl from the Wendigo.) The boy also dressed like that prey, and even smelled a lot like him.  He would be delectable.

 

**********

 

They stopped for the evening at the first and only patch of solid ground they managed to come across.  It was obviously a well-used campsite, as Errol noted the remains of numerous campfires all around when he warded the area.  Using his axe, he cut down several reedy plants from the nearby marsh that he knew would make a good fire.

As night came on, Errol’s cough continued unabated. When she wasn’t glancing around nervously, Gale looked at him with clear anxiety. Errol knew that she was concerned about him being sick.  He was more concerned about her, because in addition to hearing things, she had now started asking him if he smelled something funny.

He built a big roaring campfire, as the marsh became surprisingly cool with the setting of the sun. Not being particularly hungry, he only nibbled at a biscuit but took a big gulp of water from his canteen before pouring some in a bowl for the horses. He was just fixing the feedbag around his horse’s head when he heard Gale draw in a sharp breath.

Turning in her direction, he saw her glance at him, then point to the edge of the campsite.  Peering into the darkness, he saw something move, gently bobbing from side to side.  Something about it seemed familiar…

“Wait here,” he instructed Gale, and then he went to investigate. A few moments later he came back grinning, holding a plant that appeared to have a little balloon on the end of it that bobbed up and down.

“It’s a marsh floater,” he said in response to her unasked question, then followed it with a cough. “The upper part of the plant is an elastic seed pod that’s filled with inert gas. When the weather gets hot, the gas expands, inflating the pod and making it float. Some of them must be retaining a little bit of warmth from the heat of the day.”

He began walking towards their campfire and, after coughing again, continued. “When it gets hot enough, the pod will break away from the rest of the plant and float away.” He stopped a few feet from the fire and then slowly, carefully extended the plant towards it.  The little balloon grew bigger as it got closer to the flames; then, with a small tearing sound, it broke away and floated up into the night sky.

“The hotter the temperature gets, the bigger the seed pod gets.  Finally, it pops, spreading seeds all over, and that’s how the plant propagates.” As he finished, the floater he had released, still rising, vanished from their sight.

Errol realized he had been talking excessively, but it was partly intentional, as before. He had to keep Gale’s mind preoccupied, and talking about the floaters seemed to do so, as she was still watching the spot where the balloon had disappeared. As he reflected on the fact that the effect would probably be short-lived, an idea flashed through his brain.

Errol ran back to the marsh, appearing again a few moments later with about a dozen of the seed pods – minus the plant – in his hands. Making sure he kept an appropriate distance from the campfire, he sat down on the ground and pulled out his throwing knife. In his other hand he held one of the seed pods.

Uninflated, the seed pod appeared more cylindrical than round, and was about the length of his hand. As Gale watched, Errol used the tip of his knife blade to make tiny little holes in a straight line down the length of the seed pod. Then he carefully walked towards their campfire and placed the pod on the ground with the little holes facing the flames.

The pod began expanding almost immediately, but as it did there came a small hissing sound, like air being blown through a straw. At the same time, the flames of their campfire suddenly roared higher.

“It worked!” Errol shouted, laughing. “It worked!” He grabbed another seed pod.

Gale looked on, frowning for a second, before she, too, realized what had happened.

“I get it!” she uttered, smiling. “The heat makes the gas expand; as it expands, it comes out through the holes you made. Then it hits the fire, making it burn brighter.”

“Exactly!”

“I want to try!”  She snatched the seed pod Errol had been holding and tossed it towards the campfire.

“No!  Wait–” That was as far as Errol got before a loud *BOOM* sounded and he found himself bombarded with marsh floater seeds that hit his hands and face with stinging force.

“What happened?” Gale asked.

“I hadn’t punched any holes in that seed pod you grabbed,” Errol responded, wiping seeds off his face, “and you tossed it directly into the fire. Apparently, it exploded.”

Gale, who had also been peppered with seeds, started giggling. Errol, although initially miffed at her, found the laughter infectious and was soon chuckling himself.

They were still smiling a few moments later when a blanket of cold settled on them out of nowhere, and the campfire suddenly shrank down low. Errol was in the process of placing about half of his supply of seed pods in his pack when it happened, and he spun around in alarm.  As with the previous night, the horses appeared to go crazy, and Errol quickly saw the reason why. The Wendigo was back.

Again, it appeared on the opposite side of the campfire from him, at the very edge of the area where light from the flames reached.  It seemed to watch Errol, who raised his hand to cover a cough, with great interest.  Then it turned its head towards Gale, who stood off to Errol’s left and appeared mesmerized by the monster.  It was the opportunity Errol had been waiting for.

He raised his hand to his mouth again, apparently preparing to cough once more, but this time he held the mini-blowgun in his hand.  He took a deep breath, aimed, and blew.

The Wendigo, focused on Gale and seemingly unthreatened by Errol’s movements, was caught unaware when the tiny dart struck it in the abdomen.  Based on its size, the dart should have been little more than a pinprick, but suddenly there was a gaping wound in the monster’s belly.

The Wendigo screamed in pain, a shriek of madness and fury that was almost agonizing to hear.  At the same time, a freezing wind swept across their camp, almost causing the fire to die out. The Wendigo vanished, and a second later Errol found himself hoisted well off the ground, face to face with the creature while held in its powerful grip.

The wards around the camp flared up, giving off a ghostly light. The Wendigo’s skin turned red in various places, blistered and split. The monster disregarded whatever pain it felt. The wards were obviously hurting it, but not doing nearly enough damage to be effective.

Errol struggled, kicking madly and beating at the hand that held him.  The Wendigo ignored him.  With its free hand, it reached inside the hole in its stomach and rooted around, grunting with the effort. Then it seemed to find what it was looking for.

It brought up the object of its search – a small, oval-shaped piece of metal that glinted in the moonlight.  The Wendigo held the metal up between itself and Errol in order to get a good look at it. Errol, however, already knew what it was: a silver link from the bracelet of the revenant. The metal hissed and smoked in the Wendigo’s hand, scorching the monster’s flesh before finally being flung away.

The idea had come to Errol the night before, and he had surreptitiously fitted one of the silver links over the end of one of his darts. Then – knowing that the Wendigo was probably watching them - he had spent the day feigning the onset of a cough, so that the movement of his hand to his mouth would be routine by the time the creature showed up at their camp.

“Clever, boy,” the Wendigo acknowledged, its voice a deep, unnatural rumbling. Its breath, hot and rancid, washed over Errol’s face, making him want to gag.  “Now, I return the favor.”

BOOK: Warden
11.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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