Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chapter Eight

A light gray creature clung to the bark of a birch tree near the mouth of a cave. It would have been nearly impossible for even a trained hunter to pick it out because of its color, but its motionlessness added even more to it ability to remain undetected. The creature’s color had even earned its name, a greyling. Only the most careful observer was able to detect the slight rise and fall of its chest or the ever present swiveling of its eyestalks as it watched everything around it. Most would have simply mistaken the movement as the flutter of a leaf in a mild breeze. Of course, these traits, and a few not so obvious ones, where the very reason that the greylings were bred. Greylings somewhat resembled a fleshy worm about a foot long and as thick as an average thumb. Of course, few worms sported wide, bat-like wings and grasping claws, but the greyling had them. The creature’s hodgepodge of strange features could only mean one thing. Greylings were not natural creatures. Most likely, they were the result of some twisted fleshcrafter’s art, meant to fulfill a specific task not intended by nature. This particular greyling was about to achieve its purpose in life.

Its eyestalks twitched eagerly as it saw several humanoids approaching its hiding place. The aerie keeper had magically imparted this location when he had released this greyling. The creature knew to wait and observe until it either dropped dead of starvation or saw something worth back. The greyling watched as a Human, a Cairnfolk and a Canid passed nearby and entered the cave it had been set to watch. As soon as they passed and nothing else seemed to be coming, the greyling took wing, flapping its leathery wings to gain altitude for its long journey back to its aerie.


Skitnik the goblin skittered through the hollow corridors with its shoulders slumped and wearing a worried expression. Its eyes downturned lest he see something he was not supposed to and be summarily executed. The creature navigated the maze of corridors like a rat in a maze. Most messengers did not last very long in the Tangle. Skitnik had outlasted most, mostly due to a healthy portion of paranoia and a knack for disappearing when it was time to deliver bad news to the Master. By far the most dangerous duty for a goblin here in the Tangle was that of being the bearer of bad news.

Luck had been with Skitnik so far, but today his number had come up. A greyling had come in that morning, exhausted from the long flight to the Tangle. The small flying reptile delivered its news to the aerie keeper and promptly died, its heart ruptured from effort. Using a sharp, hooked knife the keeper split the creatures gut, plunging two fingers inside. After a moment of concentration, the keeper extracted a small clear gem from inside the creature. Tossing the corpse of the greyling aside, he lifted a chamois from a nearby work table and cleaned the gore from the gem. He held it up to light streaming from the aerie’s entrance, peering into its facets. He grunted, seemingly satisfied and slipped the gem into a small leather pouch. He then turned to look for someone to deliver the message gem to the Master. Unfortunately for Skitnik, he was the only goblin unlucky enough to be nearby.

The aerie keeper was a Jurouk who, despite his jade green skin and red glowing eyes, looked almost human.

“You there,” he pointed at Skitnik. “Come here now. This message needs to be delivered to the Master.”

Skitnik whirled around, desperately hoping that the aerie keeper could possibly mean someone else, but he was not so lucky.

The aerie keeper took several steps toward Skitnik, scowling. “Yes, you moron, I mean you.” He held out the pouch. “Take this to the Master’s chamber immediately, and don’t trifle with it. I’ll have your head if you do.”

Skitnik bobbed his head in agreement, careful not to meet the Jurouk’s eyes.

“Now get going, you filthy git, or I’ll skin you,” the aerie keeper growled.

Skitnik peeped in alarm, his claws clicking on the stone floor as he hurried away. He muttered under his breath, angry that there had been no one else to take the message. He had a bad feeling about this one. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but his paranoia was scratching vigorously at the back of his mind. “Beware,” it peeped.

As he approached the Master’s chamber, the peep had become a shout. Skitnik trusted his paranoia, more than he trusted anything else in this world and so he decided to listen. He slowed his pace, careful to avoid letting the long claws on his feet click on the stone floor. With a wary look over his shoulder to ensure his privacy, Skitnik crept into the dark shadows left by the spotty light from the lanterns hung at regular intervals down the hall. He could see a brighter glow farther down the hall. This pearly luminescence came from the magic globes used for light in the Master’s chamber.

Skitnik hunched down, embracing the shadow and the invisibility it offered. His sharp ears strained for any sounds coming from the room ahead. He occasionally heard muffled footsteps and once he picked up the distant crash of dishes from the kitchen, but not a single sound came from the Master’s chamber. Skitnik’s heart leapt. Perhaps the Master was asleep, or away from his chamber. Neither was very likely as the Master did neither very often. Steeling what modicum of courage he did have, Skitnik crept forward, careful to stay as deeply in the shadows as he could. He quiet padded forward, wearily scanning the corridor for even the smallest indication that he had been seen.

The light pouring from the chamber banished all of the shadows directly around the entrance, leaving the goblin without any more room to maneuver without stepping out of the shadows. Skitnik stifled a whine, his eyes desperately searching for an alternative to showing himself, but there was not one.

Skitnik sighed, thinking to himself, “So this how I die?”

With a burst of speed the goblin scampered across the brightly lit corridor into the Master’s chamber. Having been there several times before, he knew the layout of the room and raced toward the large desk dominating the center of the chamber. Perhaps if he appeared to be doing is task as a messenger with gusto the Master might overlook the messenger’s role in delivering bad news.

Skitnik slid to a halt, his claws tick-tacking on the stone floor, seeking purchase to halt his slide. He hopped onto a step stool placed in front of the table, put there so that the Master could see his smaller minions without the need to rise from his usual place at the desk. At times the stool was insufficient because of the scrolls and books piled on the desk. They formed a veritable bulwark of vellum and parchment between the Master’s work area and his servants.

After hopping up on the stool, Skitnik craned his next to see over the musty books, but no one was at the desk. His heart leapt. Had he managed to come when the Master was not here? Had he escaped his doom?

Skitnik jumped down from the stool and scampered around the desk, careful not to knock over any of the books stacked under the table. A carved wooden chair topped by a thick red cushion sat behind the desk, pushed away slightly. Skitnik’s heart jumped at the sight. The Master might return any moment and find him there. Surprising the Master with his presence could prove very unhealthy for a servant.

Skitnik hopped deftly onto the chair, standing so that he could see the top of the desk, and set the message gem on the desk carefully. He placed it directly in the center of the desk, on top of a sheaf of yellowed parchments covered with strange writing, but then again all writing was strange to Skitnik. He thought that the Master was sure to see the gem when he returned. Flushed with the confidence of success, the goblin took an extra second to bounce up and down a few times on springy seat cushion. Its velvety texture felt good to his bare feet, making him almost purr.

“Who is there?” A loud, strangled voice disturbed Skitnik’s woolgathering. He jumped down from the chair, skittering under the desk to cower behind one of the heavy legs.

“I asked who is there?” The voice asked, sounding a bit clearer.

Skitnik scanned the room frantically from his hiding place. He suddenly realized that the voice was coming from the heavily draped bed. He strained to see beyond the dark canopy covering the bed, but only caught flashes of movement.

“WHO?” The voice bellowed this time, filling the chamber.

Mustering his courage, Skitnik piped up. “A messenger, Master.” The goblin’s head involuntarily bowed when he addressed the voice.

“Leave the message and be gone, before you are my dinner.”

“As you wish, Master. It is on your desk” Skitnik began to back away from the bed, thankful to have completed his task.

“Wait,” the voice murmured. “Bring the gem to me.”

Skitnik’s shoulders drooped in despair. Fate had handed him doom when he was at the edge of escape. His paranoia was chanting a steady mantra of ‘I told you so’ in his head as he retrieved the message gem and plodded toward the bed.

A hand and arm emerged from with the darkness of the bed’s canopy. It was twisted, covered with rippled and pocked skin the color of a corpse. It beckoned him forward with deformed fingers tipped with cracked and discolored nails.

Skitnik froze at the sight of hideous arm, not eager to lay eyes on the rest of the creature. The Master motioned again, this time annoyance showing in the choppy gesture. The goblin strangled a whine and began to inch forward, holding the gem out at arms length. As he got within reach the hand extend, palm out.

‘Strange,” Skitnik wondered. The hand seemed to be smoother and the nails more well groomed than he originally thought. In fact, it was almost pink, not corpse-like pale. It must have been a trick of the light or his own nervousness, he concluded. He quickly plopped the gem into the Master’s waiting grasp.

“Good,” the Master said, drawing Skitnik’s attention toward the dark recesses of the canopy. This close, some light penetrated the shadows and the goblin would later swear that he had glimpsed the face of a beautiful woman in the shadows. Just as quickly as the face appeared, it disappeared back into the dark.

“Go,” the master ordered.

Skitnik bowed deeply and scrambled out of the room, not caring if his nails caused a racket as he fled.

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