Month: November 2021

Kraken

1

They’d spent last night in a clean and neat little cabin of light wood. James wished he knew what it was. They did this stuff at school nowadays, design and technology, D&T. Making tables and all that. Ed had told him. But it seemed unauthentic somehow. He wondered if they did any woodcutting (probably not). They’d go against the grain. Most amateurs did. As he walked further away from the cabin, the circles molded together into a homogenous mass until he could no longer see them.

Lena had said she’d get the boys to pack, so he went to the café alone to get coffee and sandwiches and to leave the keys with the barman. He passed the white plastic sign nailed to the wall of the café (the same pale wood as the cabins):

‘FILMORE CASSEY LEASURE: LOG CABINS SALES & HOLIDAY. HOT–TUB SALES NEW& USED’

Most places had so many signs now you ceased to see them. OPEN, JUST EAT, No smoking, Mind the step, FOOD HYGIENE RATING–and so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. This one looked lonely on its own on the brown wall.

To the left of the café was a small playground stretching over half the lawn in front of the open car park. Two swings were tied to a thick horizontal wooden bar resembling a crossbeam. No wonder Sammy loved these things. They were proper authentic swings like the ones James used to have as a kid. No plastic nonsense around here.

I might get Ed a beer.

Immediately, he remembered he couldn’t. Ed had wanted to drive and he’d said “yes”without thinking. Now there was this, on top of the condoms. Lena still didn’t know and Lena would have a fit, though Ed was seventeen and had a full license. It was funny she was pissed off about Ed–of all things. It was James’ guilty conscience, of course.

He kept wondering whether maybe–maybe–she did know.

“Good luck with your drive.”The barman said as he poured filter coffee. “Where are you guys off to?’

“Sunderland.”

“Geordie women with big hair and yellow fake tan, eh? Why Sunderland?’

“Nephew’s going to study there. We’re from Manchester ourselves.’

“A bit far from home, no?’

“Yeah.” James said. “We think it’s because of a girl. My sister’s having a fit, of course. But I mean, why not? Tony Scott went to the University of Sunderland, did you know that?”

“No.” The barman said. “No, I didn’t.”

The Demon in the Cage

“I don’t see it,” Hinaru confessed through gritted teeth, dropping his head in frustration and embarrassment. “I’ve stared at that cage for half of the day and I have not seen anything but empty bars.”

He felt a hand settle on his shoulder. The Chain Breaker, the head of the Demon Guard stood behind the ornate, velvet-cushioned chair where Hinaru sat. The man had remained in the stone hall with him and waited patiently for hours, allowing a potential new initiate every opportunity to pass this final test. But it had been wasted time.

“Forgive me, Breaker Allito,” Hinaru said, trying to keep the stinging in his eyes from resolving into tears. It was bad enough he had to admit defeat, he would not have the highest-ranking soldier in the city see him cry. He could not live with that shame. “I’ve failed you. I will collect my property from the barracks and leave at once.”

“You will not,” said the old soldier behind him. “You have failed no one and you are not going to be banished.”

The Chain Breaker walked around the chair to stand in front of Hinaru. His craggy face, marked deep with the passage of time and painted with a gray stubble along his jawline, was surprisingly kind. He paused a moment, waiting for the younger man to look up and meet his eyes. “You have passed every other test we have administered. You are smart, courageous and, if your instructors are to be believed, one of the finest swordsmen they have trained in years. Even if you can’t see the demon and are unable to join the Demon Guard, you have earned a place with us, Hinaru.

“And, the test is not necessarily over.”

The leader of the Demon Guard pointed to the wall on Hinaru’s right, indicating an assortment of twenty-three swords hanging from metal brackets. Each weapon had a gleaming, narrow blade the color of milk. They appeared as delicate as porcelain, but Hinaru knew they were made of the hardest substance known to the Realm. Forged in Hell, and stolen from the demons during the human uprising, they were nearly indestructible. And they were the only defense men had against any future assault from the underworld.

Several tens of empty brackets were also visible on the wall.

“How many pale blades belong to us?”

“Fifty-seven,” Hinaru answered immediately.

“Fifty-seven,” Breaker Allito repeated. “Very good. You have been paying attention to your lessons. Of those fifty-seven, thirty-four are currently in the hands of guardsmen and twenty-three remain hanging uselessly on our wall. That is not good for us. That leaves us weak and vulnerable. We need men to wield the swords.

“But, we need the right men.” The graying soldier turned his back on Hinaru to face the cage located in the center of the hall. It was a gleaming white monstrosity, all sharp edges and jagged points welded together. The structure was four paces wide and four paces deep; rising from the floor to the height of two tall men. “Do you know why we have the cage, Hinaru?”

“To test new potential soldiers,” he responded. This was common knowledge. “You cannot kill a demon if you can’t see it.”

The Chain Breaker flapped a hand dismissively at his answer. “Yes, yes. But, do you know why the cage was built?” He spread his arms wide, encompassing the metal structure before him. “The humans collected almost two hundred swords from the demons in the uprising. Why do you think building the cage was so important that men would destroy most of the weapons Lars Itarsa, the first Chain Breaker, worked so hard to gain?

Two hundred, thought Hinaru. That was not part of his training. Why would anyone use a hundred and fifty swords to build a cage when those blades could be so much more useful in the hands of trained soldiers?

“I didn’t know about the other swords, Chain Breaker. I thought we always had the cage. I don’t know how to answer your question.”

Breaker Allito nodded, expecting such a response. The man hooked his thumbs into his red leather, sword belt, then turned back to face Hinaru. “It is not a secret, but neither is it discussed much openly. Many thought it a mistake at the time, and some still do now. But that decision was made long before I was even born, so questioning it serves no good purpose. I can tell you the reason it was done, however, if you care to hear the explanation.”

Hinaru nodded quickly, and the Chain Breaker smiled at his eagerness; an expression that sat unexpectedly well on the old soldier’s time-worn face.

“When men organized and revolted against the demons, we won because we outnumbered them, and they had grown careless enough to allow us access to weapons. They did not believe that we were intelligent enough or courageous enough to turn on our fearsome masters. At the time of the uprising, every man, woman, and child in the city could see the demons. We believed this was normal and did not find the fact remarkable.

“Thirty years later, during the Second Wave, the demons almost took the city back. We were lucky there were only a few tens of the creatures that attacked our walls in that assault. Even so, many men died. We discovered that of those born after the uprising, only about one in five could actually see a demon. At first, we thought this was because of something the demons had done to blind us to their presence, but that idea was soon discarded.

“The truth of what was happening was discovered when survivors of the original uprising shared stories of the demons murdering and eating children by the hundreds. Four out of every five children born were killed. It was believed that these numbers could not be coincidence. Do you see?”

The Chain Breaker paused to allow Hinaru an opportunity to answer, but the young man had not yet made a connection between the story he was hearing and what the soldier wanted him to understand. When it was obvious his young student was unable to respond, the older man continued.

“Only one in five men has ever been able to see a demon. When the creatures ran the city, they eliminated those that could not see them. A slave is of very little use if it cannot see its master.”

Light dawned in Hinaru’s eyes as he digested the information. The people of that time believed that everybody could see demons because everyone alive had the ability. They also thought the death of children at the hands of the demons was a random act rather than the specific selection process it truly was.

“I think I understand. The cage allowed them to test their soldiers and find out who could see the demons. So, the demon in this cage is dead? The body was collected after the Second Wave?”

“Of course, it’s not dead,” snapped Breaker Allito with some disgust at the suggestion. He began to pace, slowly making his way around the chair where Hinaru perched. Hinaru was forced to shift sideways and crane his neck to follow the Breaker’s movements. “A dead demon decomposes too rapidly. Besides, why build a cage to hold a corpse? No, the demon is quite alive.

“When the Second Wave was over, and the Chain Breaker of that time, Samanth Ken, realized the nature of the problem, he gathered the soldiers who had proven themselves able to see the enemy. He formed the first Demon Guard, then collected all the white-metal weapons in the city and placed the pale blades in the hands of those that could most effectively use them. Finally, he put the members of the Demon Guard in charge of the rest of his forces. He made certain that at least one of them was always on the city wall, watching for the demons’ return.

“Time passed. Forty years went by and there were no more attacks. Members of the Demon Guard were growing old and dying, and there was no effective way to test for new recruits. Breaker Ken, himself, eventually died, and Todrick Bortu replaced him. Breaker Bortu was the man who ordered the cage built. He knew that when the last of the Guard was gone, the city would be unable to properly protect itself. The best they would be able to do was to arm men at random and hope by sheer chance that the right people were fighting when the demons came again.

“Because the white metal is the only thing we know that can effectively harm or hold a demon, he ordered that most of the swords the Realm possessed be reforged and made into a cage. He justified his actions, explaining that the only way to protect future generations from the same uncertainty experienced in the Second Wave was to capture a demon and use it to test new Guard members.

“He was taking a great gamble, because if the demons came again after the last of the Demon Guard had died of old age, the reduced number of remaining swords lessened our chances of survival. Although not building the cage, he believed, carried bigger risks.”

Breaker Allito dropped a heavy hand onto Hinaru’s shoulder, startling him. The old soldier leaned forward to speak softly into his ear. “But, you can guess what happened next, can’t you? We are, after all, still here.” He stood, not waiting for Hinaru’s answer, and resumed his pacing.

“Whether by a fool’s luck or by divine intervention, the Third Wave struck the city barely one year after the cage was created. We turned the demons away from our walls and captured the creature that now resides in the cage before you. It was fortunate that Breaker Bortu took the gamble that he did, as it has been over a hundred years since the Third Wave was defeated and there have been no subsequent assaults on the city. There is not a man alive today that has ever seen a demon.”

The Breaker paused in front of Hinaru and pointed a finger, directing his gaze to the center of the great hall; to the gleaming white bars. “Except for the one trapped in this very room.”

“We are alive today, Hinaru, because of the foresight of the Breakers who led this city before me. They decreed that only those who can see our enemy may become soldiers of the Demon Guard. I will not go against their orders. However…”

“Yes?” asked Hinaru when the Chain Breaker paused. “However, what?”

The Breaker smiled again, his bright, blue eyes sparkling kindly. “However, the decision does not have to be made today. You may come back tomorrow morning and try once more to see the demon. It does not happen often, but there have been instances of soldiers who failed on their first attempt yet were later able to see it. Perhaps you will be one of those few.”

Breaker Allito patted the younger man on the cheek like an affectionate parent, then turned and strode away.

Hinaru remained in the chair a moment longer, listening to the soft pad of the Breaker’s leather boots on the stone floor as he exited the chambers. A door opened, hinges groaning slightly as it swung out then back to its closed position.

With one last disgusted glance at the empty cage, Hinaru rose to his feet and stormed angrily across the room to the main entrance of the great hall. There were only two ways in and out of the Chamber of the Demon, as it was called by the soldiers in the barracks. The Breaker had exited through a private passageway to the south that led to his personal chambers, while Hinaru retreated to the massive, wood and metal, double doors at the north end, through which he had originally entered.

As he pushed through the doors, back into the labyrinthine passages of the Demon Guard’s keep, he was intercepted by one of the guardsmen.

“Hold up, Hinaru. I’d like to speak with you, if I may.”

The man was tall and thin, with a long beard of black hair oiled and twisted to a single braid that hung almost to his belt. He wore the red and brown uniform of the Demon Guard, and pinned to the left breast of his shirt was a small gold medallion in the shape of a closed hand. His name was Oatha, Hinaru recalled. He held the rank of Fist; responsible for the training and supervision of five soldiers. Hinaru stopped and bowed formally.

“Of course. How may I be of service, Fist Oatha?”

“First, you can stop bowing. I am not here as a fist, but rather as a friend.”

Hinaru blinked, unsure what to say.

“You didn’t see the demon?” continued Oatha. “No, don’t answer that. I already know you did not. How could you? There was nothing in that cage to see.”

“What?! What do you mean by….”

Oatha draped a friendly, but firm, arm around Hinaru’s shoulders. He guided the confused young man down one of the many hallways. “Walk with me, Hinaru. A moving conversation is much harder to overhear, and I do not want what I am about to tell you to become common knowledge.”

The two walked in silence for several seconds, Oatha occasionally glancing down branching hallways, or cocking his head slightly as though listening for pursuing footsteps. When he seemed satisfied that they were not being followed or spied upon, he spoke.

“The demon in the cage is a test designed to remove undesirables from the Demon Guard. It is a final challenge for anyone who has passed all the other requirements but, for one reason or another, is still deemed unfit by members of our order. Before you pass the test, a current member of the Guard must judge that you are worthy to join us, then let you in on the secret of the initiation.

“I have seen you spar, and I know you are quick witted enough to make a fine addition to our ranks, so I have decided to give you the information you need to pass this test. Just as another member of the Guard did for me before I joined.”

Hinaru paused, forcing Oatha to stop and turn to face him.

“I still don’t understand,” Hinaru said, his face pinched in thought. “It isn’t real? But what about the white metal? What about the swords, and what the Chain Breaker told me about the Third Wave?”

Oatha placed his hands on Hinaru’s shoulders, squeezing lightly and forcing the recruit to meet his gaze. “I believe that demons used to exist, a very long time ago. They seem as reasonable an explanation as any for the origin of the white metal. But they have been gone a very long time and I think it highly unlikely they will ever return. They probably died out following the Third Wave.”

Oatha slipped a hand behind Hinaru’s back and started them walking again.

“Regardless, whether there were ever demons in the first place, there aren’t any now. If there was a demon in that cage, it died over a hundred years ago because there is nothing at all currently between those bars.”

“The Chain Breaker told me….” Hinaru began.

“Yes, I know what he told you,” Oatha interrupted. “The older officers will never openly admit the truth. Particularly not the Chain Breaker. The Demon Guard is an elite force, destined to carry the pale blades and defend the city from the hordes of Hell. So, consider this: how elite would the Guard be if it became common knowledge that there are no demons? Even though it is a lie, the cage is a symbol of our position. The secret must be kept if the Guard is to survive.

“I believe in you, Hinaru. I think you belong with us, and I think you can keep our secret. That is why I am talking to you, now. I’m going to tell you how to pass your final test.”

Hinaru stopped again and bowed deeply toward Oatha. “Thank you, Fist Oatha. I will not disappoint you. What do I need to do?”

“It’s simple,” said Oatha, taking Hinaru’s arm with exasperation and standing him back up straight. “You must describe the demon in the cage.”

Hinaru’s face fell. Was Oatha toying with him? Was this all an elaborate joke by the Fist before the soldier escorted him to the gates of the keep and kicked him out?

“Fist Oatha, I have not seen a demon. How can I describe something I have never seen?”

“That is the easiest part,” Oatha assured him. “I’m going to tell you what to say to the Chain Breaker. You must describe the creature exactly as I explain it to you. That will let the Breaker know that you have been approached by one of us, and that you are not just guessing.”

“I’m listening.”

Oatha held up one finger. “First, the creature is hideously ugly. Its face is a cluster of horns and spikes over a massive mouth filled with long pointed teeth. It walks on two legs, standing half again the height of a man, and it has two arms that each end in narrow hands with three, clawed fingers. Although tall, it is still slender, and the body moves like that of a serpent. But most importantly, you must mention that in the center of its chest…”

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Meh Teh

“But surely it’s not unreasonable to suppose a yeti can be taught to operate an automobile,” Henry Graybill fumed against the frosted windshield. The cheap Daihatsu wasn’t doing so well this high in the Himalayas. It’d been this way since he’d visited his brother Richard only to find the “Gone Preachin’” sign hung on his door. If only his brother hadn’t fraternized with those damn monks. They’d distorted his rational faculties. He’d heard how they’d even dowsed their naked bodies in cold water and sat out under freezing skies to meditate, their body temperatures rising to keep pace with the falling thermometer. What spiritual lesson had Richard possibly found in that?

The furry creature beside him in the driver’s seat was obviously intelligent, sympathetic even, but he was hopeless when it came to manual transmission. And hygiene. And Henry’s broken leg wasn’t healing itself.

It was hard on the eve of Whitsuntide, yet this high in the mountains Henry still felt the lingering drudgery of winter. He couldn’t blame the abominable snowman for having difficulty navigating these deeply rutted mountain roads—tracks, more like. Henry knew gangrene remained a serious danger in a situation like this, and the mythical beast in the driver’s seat was his only hope of not losing the leg—or his life—altogether. “Depress the clutch with your left foot,” he articulated slowly. “Check to ensure you’ve selected the proper gear.” The oversized hand on the negligible gearshift was perhaps part of the problem. Could the monster comprehend the schematic printed on the ball?

Why couldn’t Richard remain as loyal as when they were children? Brothers owe that to one another. The strain of constantly attempting to lure his brother back to reason had proved the most wearying experience of Henry’s adulthood. Lessons others learned while at university Richard seemed to have rejected. Becoming a preacher in an age of science placed Richard high in their mother’s esteem, but now that she needed his spiritual counsel he was nowhere to be found.

Not to spite her, Henry hoped.

Now that mother required them both, Henry had made the trip to Kathmandu and beyond to locate his high-minded sibling. It was Henry’s attempt to please her that led to this strange turn of events.

“Let the clutch out slowly as you depress the accelerator with your right foot.” He reached over and twisted the key again, stretching across the vast hairy shape wedged into the driver’s seat, the dirty fur pressing into his face. The wind fulminated outside. “Try it again.”

The Daihatsu choked threateningly. The accelerator pushed to the floor, the engine raced. The yeti slipped the clutch. With a sickening, violent lurch, the car stalled. Again. “Slowly!” Henry cried. “Release the clutch slowly!” He was never going to get off this mountain alive. Where was Richard, anyway? There was nothing for it but to try again.

The worst part of all was that Henry didn’t believe in the paranormal. Yetis, he knew, were a combination of mis-reported bears and tracks in the snow that had melted and refrozen into larger parodies of themselves. How this one had found him, had known to lift him into the vehicle, he couldn’t fathom. The pain had mercifully blacked him out. Shock is nature’s own opioid. He awoke surrounded by a musty smell somewhere between a wet dog and freshly broken fungus, strapped into the passenger seat. The looming, white, furry presence beside him.

How they eventually got down below the tree line, Henry could not comprehend. Yeti had probably popped the clutch and it’d jolted the car forward enough to get it rolling downhill. His monstrous friend was helpless with standard transmission, but steering was something anyone could do. When he opened his eyes they were near a smoky village nestled in the shelter of the mountain.

“How do you nurse your own mother?” he asked the beast filling the space beside him, knowing he couldn’t comprehend. “Parents—they live so long these days and the economy obstructs their children caring for them. Is it the same in yeti civilization? Or have you advanced beyond us? I’m here because I need to locate my irresponsible brother, seeking his own spiritual enlightenment. How selfish can one be?”

Henry swung open the door and almost tried to stand on his broken limb before he recalled he was immobile, fainting with pain. Yeti sensed these kinds of things and had soon scooped him up in noisome but warm fur and shuffled off toward the hamlet. The stench of his own leg wound reminded him that he was in no place to judge the washing habits of this impossible primate. A sudden crack like concentrated thunder stopped yeti in his tracks. Henry could hear the large heart thumping like a kettledrum build-up in the massive chest. “It’s only a rifle discharge,” he mumbled. “Nothing for a person to fear, my friend.” Yet yeti stood, as if lost in thought. As the reverberations from the report died down, Henry winced in pain. Yeti, concerned, plodded on toward the human habitation.

The room in which Henry awoke couldn’t be termed a proper hospital. Clearly it was intended as a place of care. His right leg, now splinted, ached dully. He recognized the somnambulant effects of opium, minimally administered. The memories of finding his brother gone, the sickening snap of bone as he slipped from the steep trail that led to Richard’s isolated hovel, forced themselves upon him. His foot wedging into the cleft of jagged rock as his body continued downward at gravity’s command. Fifty years of manhood sliding out of control. He heard the break before he felt it. Awaking in his hired car next to a creature he knew couldn’t exist. The yeti, he was certain, had saved his life. It couldn’t drive worth a damn, but it was as real as this wooden splint now strapped to his throbbing leg.

A wizened woman looked in on him. Struggling to make himself understood, he tried to ask about the yeti that had shown such kindness. His feverish head swam. The woman, warmly bundled in the peasant garb of the region, fussed about his immobile leg, not understanding his gibberish. What was the word they used here? What did they call the abominable snowman? His thoughts flailed here and there. Finally they stumbled upon a phrase. “Meh-Teh,” he muttered. The woman stopped her ministrations, eyes opened wide. “Meh-Teh,” he repeated, nodding his head. She quickly quitted the room. Henry lapsed into and out of sleep.

The sound of feet awoke him. Yeti, he thought, had returned. Instead his weary eyes revealed an aged Englishman, stooped but sincere. “Yeti,” Henry moaned.

“You must be still,” the old man responded. “I am Rev. Murphy, a missionary on this mountain for thirty years. I gather from your identification that you are related to Richard Graybill.”

“Brother,” Henry managed.

“So I had assumed. I know Richard. He came here as a missionary, like myself. Local culture has overwhelmed him, however. He’s gone his own way. Rest, my son. Aanchal will take care of you. She’s the local healer. Rest.” The missionary departed.

What kind of brother, Henry wondered in the delirium of half-sleep, absconded with family responsibility? Left an aging mother alone while he pursued his own self-fulfillment? And he called himself a religious man! Under the warm blanket of the village healer, his thoughts wandered back to the yeti. How had it known to help him? He’d been told it was a killer. A man-eater. Instead, its warmth and care had saved his life. Even brought him dangerously close to human habitation. Like a brother should. Where was Richard?

When Henry next opened his eyes, the hut seemed even more humble than before. The smoke from a constant fire made the air close, if warm. Curious locals could be espied through the small, clouded window. They seemed to be pointing at him. Their excited voices could be heard, but not understood. Henry strained his ears. Aanchal looked in and saw him wakeful. Some time later Rev. Murphy shuffled back in, heavy parka hiding his dangling cross. “How do you feel, my son?”

“My brother?” Henry asked.

“Ah. I had supposed you might be curious once the opium wore off. He’s become a village leader. Quite a celebrity, actually. Gave up the ministry long ago.”

“The sign?”

“The locals read no English, my son. The use of the sign on his cabin door had been ironic from the beginning. He traded in his Bible for a Remington years ago. Leads hunting expeditions now. Still calls it ‘preaching.’ Leaves the sign up when he’s out on a hunt. Snow leopard’s found at these altitudes. Himalayan musk deer. Other exotics.”

Henry struggled to express his thoughts. The missionary didn’t understand him. The old man encouraged him to rest. The crack of a rifle jolted Henry back to consciousness.

“Don’t worry, my son,” soothed the cleric. “You’re safe here. Aanchal warned the villagers you’d been attacked by Meh-Teh, the yeti. Yes, we know they’re real. You mustn’t worry. Your brother has returned. He’s organizing a search party even now. Perhaps that shot we’ve just heard felled the horrid beast.”

Henry strained to object. Aanchal hurried in with her medication. As his eyes grew heavy under opium he heard the locals shouting with jubilation.

“Ah,” the minister smiled, gazing out the small window. “It seems they have destroyed the troublesome Meh-Teh after all.”

Henry bolted upright in his bed, tears exploding from his eyes. “My brother!” he screamed into the gathering darkness.