~ The Talk ~
“ …it wasn’t your imagination. The plains are thick with goblins, especially along those dark gullys and river bottoms where no man has traveled in a thousand years. The natives learned to avoid the areas and the white settlers soon after. There are goblins and ogres all along there. No trolls though, no trolls…”
— transcript of a raving madman in Watertown, SD
I don’t know how long I sat on the deck. The moon wasn’t bright, and the lights were off in the house by the time I pushed myself to my feet and kneaded my back which was still pissed about the sixteen hour drive. I hadn’t slept since the night before last.
Somewhere in mid-stretch, I realized I wasn’t alone. I’m not sure what gave me the hint, but when I turned the direction my intuition pointed, there was a shadow where there shouldn’t have been in the treeline next to the house.
“Who’s there?” I said, glancing around the deck for some sort of weapon.
The voice that spoke was gutteral in a way that made me realize I’d never truly understood the word. “We’re not your enemy, Sean.” The large not-supposed-to-be shadow split into two: one shorter than me and one… still quite large. The shorter one spoke again. “We’re after the things that took your father.”
“Dirt-eaters.” He sounded hungry when he said it. He sounded like he was smiling.
There was a long pause while I searched for an appropriate response.
“You are directly the fuck out of your mind, aren’t you?”
The larger shadow snorted in amusement. It sounded like a prize bull huffing to scare off predators.
“You father’s missin’, yes?” The short one said.
“My dad, yeah. What do you know about it?”
“We know who did it.”
“Call the cops.” I thought about it. “Or turn yourselves in.”
The air actually got chilly. “You think we did it?”
I shrugged at the open night, wondering if they could even see it.
“You think we’re… dirt-eaters?” There was movement I caught only a bare second before the speaker was holding me by the shirt and pressing me against the side of the house. I looked down into a face a good foot and a half lower than mine, covered in random smears of grease that ran into his hair and beard. The knotted tree-branch of the arm that held me was covered in grease as well, or tatoos, or both. His eyes were bright in the moonlight and I could hear his teeth grind.
“Brock.” The larger shadow, still standing near the trees spoke softly, but his voice seemed to vibrate in the ground. “He did not mean anything by it. Let him go. You’re choking him.”
The voice was right; I couldn’t breath, but not because of the hand on my chest — the stench of sweat and oiled hair surrounded the short bastard in a miasma that made my eyes water. “Take…” I managed to choke out.
“Whazzat?” He growled in my face. His breath was a whole new color in the bouquet surrounding him.
I shoved sideways on his arm as hard as I could, using whatever leverage advantage that my height gave me, and staggered away from him. “Take a damn bath, you putrid son of a bitch.”
Another pause, this one broken by a deep chuckle from the trees that his partner on the deck joined in on. I glared while the chuckling died down. “Yeah, I’m hilarious, I’m sure. Who the hell are you?”
“Allies, if perhaps not friends.” The large shadow took a step that carried it into the moonlight, and nearly to the edge of the deck.
It held a spear in its left hand and stood close to nine feet tall, but I found it hard to focus on anything past the curving horn in the middle of its forehead.
Steven stared through the bars of his cage, looking at stars exactly the same as the ones he knew.
Which made it worse.
He didn’t feel the pain. He knew it was there, but it wasn’t active unless he tried to scrape away the mud. They definitely didn’t want him to touch the mud. He watched the stars and tried not to think about the sunburn feeling that itched along his skin.
He jumped away from the sound behind him and turned. The space behind his cage was shadowed darkness but he could make out some kind of movement. He thought for a minute that someone had found him until he realized that the movement was constrained by a cage like his own.
“Who’s there?” He tried to keep his voice pitched low.
“T- ahh…” There was a long pause. “Ted… Schafer? Do you know me?”
He did, although not well. Schafer and his wife were supposed to have auctioned their farm and declared bankruptcy a month ago. Folks said they’d moved.
“I know you. What–”
“It’s alright.” The voice in the shadows continued while a hunched form Steven couldn’t make out shifted uneasily within. “It’s alright if you want to… make noise. I watched them put the needles on you, and the mud. I know — know what it feels like for you right now.” The shape shuffled back into the shadows. The voice already sounded tired. “I just wanted to tell you that it’s alright.”
Steven watched the shadows for a moment in silence, then turned his back on the voice and sat back down.
“Hell if it is.” He murmured to the stars. “Hell if it is.”
“So…” I said, sitting on the back of a tractor in the machine shed and watching my ‘guests’, “you’re a dwarf from the nordic wastelands who’s been fighting your ancestral enemy–”
“Dirt-eaters,” Brock growled helpfully.
“Whatever.” I turned to his monstrous companion. “And you…” I’d somehow managed to miss that it was wearing full fifteen-century samurai armor, but in my defense it was nine feet tall and did have a damned horn sticking out of it’s forehead. “You’re some kind of ogre wizard –”
“Magi” it corrected.
“– Magi who’s been working with him for how long?”
The creature made a dismissive gesture and stepped toward me. “The duration of my partnership with Brock is not relevant, Sean. What is relevant is our partnership with you, one which can save your father. Also, please call me Bhuto.”
I stared at the proffered hand — one that could easily palm my skull — and shook my head blankly. It was withdrawn.
“What kind of partnership?”
Bhuto straightened and adjusted his armor. “The only one which can save you father from these –” he used a word that slid away from my mind like oil. “We should travel as I explain.” He appraised me. “Do you have a weapon?”
For the first time in two days, I felt like smiling.