by Sam J. Brougher
Nali stumbled through the dark wood as fast as she could. She glanced back, saw nothing, and slipped over a moss-covered boulder. Her legs split painfully, banging her rear knee into the boulder. She rolled, tumbling down the bank and splashed into the rushing stream. She scrambled upright and pushed up the opposite bank through the brambles. The thorns tore off her cloak, scratched her arms and legs. She pulled out her knife and cut a large length of brambles, then glanced frantically through the forest.
Brown. Brown. Brown. White.
Nali sprinted to the birchbark, colliding and spinning off first one tree than another. She wrapped the stolen vines around the trees and tied knots. Bent Bow. Wagon-Wise. Spider’s Cross. Lastly, most importantly, Hollow Bone. Her task complete, Nali collapsed at the base of the tree.
“Much was asked. Much was given. Were you prepared for the cost?”
Nali woke, a rose mask inches from her face. She gasped, spun, scrambled behind a nearby tree.
“The Watchers were called. The Watchers answered. He he he. You led me to your village, little mouse.”
Nali glanced around the edge of the tree. The Watcher was tall, at least six feet, and wore a flat mask with a painted rose. No eye or mouth holes in the mask; how he saw was a mystery. One arm seemed normal, but the left was barked over, a bramble wrapped tightly around it, thorns scratching against it. Both arms bore long scratches that bled softly, red from the normal arm, a sappy yellow from the bark arm. Otherwise, the Watcher wore normal clothing: tunic, tall boots, cloak, and pants.
When she’d tied the knot, it was early night, only a single moon above. Now, both moons were visible, each dancing above opposite horizons. At least half the night disappeared into her sleep.
“Sir, my village, this way, a horrible monster—”
“You led me, little mouse. The particulars I found out shortly after.”
Nali rushed ahead, back through the brambles and the stream. She tore her clothes, her skin again, but she hardly noticed. She scrambled up the bank and looked back, only to see the Watcher plodding along at a brisk walk. He moved with purpose and inevitability, but not with haste.
“Hurry, sir! My people! My family, sir—”
“What’s done was done; we arrived at the proper time.”
“No! They’re dying! We have to go now!”
The Watcher stopped. “You waited. We must have been cautious.”
Nali charged him and pounded on his chest with her fists. “What good are you?”
“My people are dying!”
“Little mouse,” the Watcher effortlessly pushed her back. “You looked around you.”
“No!” she screamed. “Why won’t you save my family?”
“You looked around you!” the Watcher didn’t raise his voice, but placed such force into it that he could not be ignored. “Where were we?”
Nali looked around, but couldn’t catch her bearings. This was not the path back from the stream. And, in fact, the stream was gone, though they’d just crossed it moments ago. The trees should have been oak and pine and hemlock, but were instead aspen and cedar. These were not her woods.
“I was wood wise enough to know when I was deceived,” said the Watcher. “But not enough to have found the true path once again. That, you did, little mouse, or we wandered these woods until we died.”
“But, I can’t, we aren’t, this isn’t anywhere…” Nali hyperventilated.
The Watcher kneeled in front of her to put them face-to-face and put his hands on her shoulders. His bramble wrapped hand dug painfully into her shoulder. “Much was asked of you this day, and you rose admirably. But you did not mistake the circumstances. Even with me there, we had but little chance of success. Much more was asked of you soon after.”
Nali hiccupped with each breath now. “I can’t… hic… can’t… hic…”
The Watcher stood abruptly, shrugged, and turned away from her. “Then we failed. We found the nearest safe village and left you there, and we forgot about your old village and family.”
Nali released a small cry.
He turned to her once again. “Or you took your pain, and fear, and anger, and compressed it into a hot core. Compressed it as small as it could go. The more you crushed it down, the hotter it became. Then, with that core of flame to energize you, we walked into your village and banished the enemy. We saved those we could. Did you do that, little mouse? Did you form a hot core?” He extended a hand to her.
Nali pushed the Watcher’s hand away, and, with a great physical effort, bent forward until her hair brushed the ground. She took everything she was feeling, everything she was, and collapsed it into her belly. Smaller and smaller she pushed it, scooping out fears and worries from the far corners of her body and smashing them into the central mass. Then, when she was sure she had it all, she grabbed her stomach with her arms and compressed it, again and again and again. And the more she pressed, the hotter her core, until she was consumed by sure fire.
“That was it, little mouse. We were ready.”
Nali looked at the Watcher, and said, “I’m not a little mouse anymore. I have the hot core.”
The Watcher shook his head slowly. “It was because you had the hot core that you truly became the little mouse. Did a basilisk need a hot core? Did a wyrmbear or Old Todd? The mouse was a small thing in a very large and dangerous world. But did the little mouse shiver with fear, weeping over its plights? Or did it compress all its fear into a hot core, and face the dangers of the world? Did it not face the cat, and the man, and the traps, just for a bite of bread? I told you, little mouse, I learned the trick of the hot core from the little mice of the world. The powerful could never be brave.”
“Then.” The Watcher stood. “Where were we?”
Nali looked around again. Cedar trees. “We must be in Rope Forest. We harvest the cedar bark here. It’s on the opposite side of the village from the stream. I’m not allowed to come here.”
The Watcher nodded. “Good. Then we turned around, and went back the way we came. That time, we had full concentration on where we were. We anchored ourselves in every step we made, marked every tree we saw. The maze magic worked best on the distracted; we fought it with perfect awareness and mental discipline. And we persevered.”
“I’m having trouble following you. Do you mean we do that now? We haven’t done that yet.”
The Watcher shook his head. “I spoke of the past, even when I meant the present, or the future. It was an affect that I could not shake.”
Nali retraced his words in her head, then looked him in the mask and nodded. They turned together and walked with purpose the way that had come. Except, it was not. There was no stream, no brambles, no birch stand. Sparse undergrowth littered the forest floor, sprouting out of the deep loam, years of accumulated cedar needles and aspen leaves. A flying squirrel, with bulbous purple eyes, stared at them briefly from a nearby tree before darting around the trunk, chittering madly.
The Watcher held out his hand. “We stopped. Did you see?”
Nali squinted through the forest. On the far side of the trees, almost beyond where she could see, a number of trees were stacked horizontally. No, it was a building. She could see the shingled roof through a gap in the branches. Howie’s old inn. She looked up, but no smoke rose into the sky. Howie always kept the hearth burning, even on the hottest summer day. Maybe they weren’t close enough to see the smoke, yet.
“Then, little mouse, you told me the nature of the beast. And we made a plan.”
Nali shuddered. “We all woke last night at the same time. It sounded like trees falling, but was only branches. We have a festival tree in the center of town. A giant, reaching beyond the sky. But something had cut the branches halfway. The remaining branches looked like spears. Some guardians went to investigate, but…” Nali’s breath caught in her throat, but she swallowed it down, compressed it into her hot core. “One by one, something picked them up and flung them into the tree. Each was impaled on a branch. Then we heard it searching houses. My house is on the edge of town, close to the stream. While it was in another house—I heard their screams—I crawled out a window and ran to the tree.”
The Watcher hesitated, then nodded. “This was a difficult challenge, little mouse, and more was asked of both of us than I expected. This creature, I had heard of it. It was a vampire, a most despicable kind. It was large, twice as tall as me, with great leathery wings. We defeated it, but only just. Do you know where to find an axe? The largest one you can swing.”
“An axe? Howie’s inn—that building we can see—he always keeps the hearth burning. The wood pile’s on the left side, looking at the inn from here. There should be an axe there.”
“Good. I distracted the beast. You got the axe. When you were ready, I disabled it, and you cut its head off. Very important, that you cut its head off and not anything else.”
“If its a vampire, can’t we wait until dawn? The night’s almost over.”
The Watcher shook his head. “At dawn, it killed anyone still alive and fled to ground, never to be found again. We had to strike before dawn, or all was lost. After you struck its head from its body, you stayed away from both. They were still be dangerous. But, you did not let them re-attach, or it was healed. When the sun struck the head, the monster died.
“You counted to twenty.” The Watcher pointed to Howie’s inn. “Then you went for the axe. You yelled out when you had it, and were ready to strike.” The Watcher moved, then, faster than she’d seen him before. His purposeful walk, somehow, inexplicably, was as fast as anyone else jogging.
One, two, three, four, five…
Nali crept forward, even though she was supposed to wait. The Watcher leapt high into the air, landed on top the inn, then jumped off the other side out of sight. An inhuman shriek pierced the night, ahead and to her left. She ducked behind a tree, flatting her back against it as hard as she could.
…six, seven, eight, nine, ten… enough.
Nali sprinted around the tree to the wood pile. Something large passed overhead and crashed into the festival tree. The Watcher and the beast, locked together. A great branch from the tree, as thick as Nali’s leg, stuck from his stomach. But, the Watcher stabbed a dagger into monster over and over. It shrieked again, almost deafening her despite how far away she was. Then, it ripped the Watcher from the tree and dropped him to the ground. The Watcher grabbed the beast’s taloned foot, but couldn’t maintain a hold, and fell from a height taller than any building in town. Taller than most trees. Nali did not see him land.
Yet still, she heard him shout. “The axe, little mouse! Do you have the axe?”
She shook her head to clear it, compressed her core again and felt it blaze to life, and rushed around the wood pile. The axe was not on the chopping block, as she hoped it would be. It was not among the stacked cords of wood.
Of course not, she thought to herself. No one would leave an axe out to rust!
She hurried around the other side of the stacked wood, and found it: the tool shed. It was locked. She yelled, and punched the lock, hurting her hand.
The Watcher flew over her head like a tossed marionette and collided with the stacked wood. He went down in a heap of scattered wood, mask cracked and fallen to the side. Blood poured from his many wounds, but none so much as the hole in his stomach. The beast landed lightly on the roof of the inn, talons clacking against shingles. It ignored her completely.
She got her first real look at it. From the neck down, it resembled a bat of gigantic proportions, with taloned feet that were deformed and over-sized. The ears were also bat-like, but the mouth was that of a snarling wolf.
“This is it?” the beast said, his voice oddly deep and sonorous. “A single thorn walker?”
The Watcher stirred and pushed himself up. He picked up both halves his mask, and placed them back on his face. Somehow, they stuck.
“All I needed was an axe,” the Watcher told the beast.
“An axe? You idiot, you need a lot more than that!”
The beast leapt upon the Watcher once again.
Nali drew steady from her hot core, pulled a pin from her hair, and set to picking the lock on the woodshed. Locks like these, she knew, were not about keeping out determined thieves. There were about deterring casual borrowing and bothersome children. Unfortunately, for the owners of such locks, this meant that bothersome children quickly learned to pick such locks. It was open in moments. The axe sat on the shelf at head height. She grabbed it and ran around the wood pile.
“Axe!” she shouted.
The bat thing laughed. “It’s far too late for that!”
Underneath it, the Watcher was nearly torn to pieces. Both arms barely hung on, his clothes and chest shredded by talons.
Then, suddenly, the Watcher was whole, and the beast was in agony. It rolled off the Watcher, wings in tatters, face a bloody mess. It rolled on the ground shrieking louder than anything Nali had ever heard.
“Now?” Nali asked when the scream ended.
“You fool…” the beast muttered.
“There was one more,” the Watcher said. “You were ready for the cost. We could not save them all.”
“You fool!” the beast’s voice was stronger. Its wings twisted, and reformed. It shook the blood off its face, and was healed. It stood, growing steadier by the moment. “I never could learn not to play with my food. This lesson might finally stick.”
“Goodbye,” the Watcher said.
Holes opened in the Watcher, tearing through him. Most through the chest, but a few through each arm and leg, and one through his neck. For a brief moment, the Watcher looked more not there than there.
Behind her, the festival tree screamed with a hundred voices.
Then, the Watcher was whole once again, skin (or bark) smooth and unbroken as ever.
The beast shrieked again, and Nali dropped the axe to cover her ears. The Watcher was yelling, but she couldn’t hear him, just that awful shriek, pounding into her head like a carpenter pounding a nail.
She grabbed hold of her hot core with all her strength, took her hands off her ears, and picked up the axe. She walked to the creature, which writhed on the ground in agony. It bled from dozens of holes in its body, some the size of curtain rods, some the size of logs. Without hesitation, Nali hacked into its neck. She struck three times before the head came off. Then, she swung the back of the axe head into the beast’s head, sending it rolling away from the body. The body continued to thrash, but, mercifully, the shriek stopped.
“I had one more task.” The Watcher had sat up. He shook his head slowly back and forth, as if he were silently chanting. His back suddenly arched, and he collapsed to the ground once again.
“Watcher!” Nali rushed to his side and grabbed his normal hand in hers. “Watcher, we did it!”
“We did at that, little mouse. Which means it’s time for me to go. I haven’t got a lot of time. I took… I took as much as I could. But there was ever a price, and victory was never total.”
“Is that Nali?” someone behind her yelled. “Nali’s over here! She’s got a Watcher!”
Soon, they were surrounded by men and women of the village. A group of Lookouts appeared from somewhere with sticks and poked at the thrashing body of the dead monster.
A man kneeled on the other side of the Watcher from Nali. Howie, inn proprietor and mayor. “Watcher,” he said. “What happened? I was… I was…” he shuddered. “And then I wasn’t, I was falling. I fell so far, I was sure I would die. And then I hit the ground, and I was dying, but then I wasn’t.”
The Watcher wheezed gently. “I took your wounds… wheeze… and I gave them to that.” He nodded vaguely to the thrashing corpse. “You made sure sunlight struck the head and the body, as soon as you could.” He nodded to Nali. “And this girl was a Lookout.”
Howie looked at Nali in confusion. “She’s not a Lookout. Only boys are Lookouts.”
“She was a Lookout,” the Watcher insisted.
“Sorry, friend, but—”
The Watcher grabbed Howie by the arm with his bramble-covered hand. “She will be a Lookout. You will make it so. You will train her like any boy. Or I will return and I will give back every pain I took from you this day. She was a Lookout, and she was awarded the Mentath Vampirica, Journeyman Honor Badge. And several dozen others, as appropriate.”
Howie winced as the brambles dug into his arm. He shook his head, almost looked like he would resist, then spat to the side. “As you say, sir.”
The Watcher nodded, and collapsed back to the ground, spent. “You took me to my birch stand.”
Howie pointed to two men nearby and gestured at the Watcher. Then, he put his hand on Nali’s shoulder and led her away.
“My parents?” Nali asked shyly, looking around at the gathered crowd. “I don’t see them here.”
Howie rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand, and avoided looking at her. “You see… the thing is… not everyone… lived… long enough for the Watcher to save them. And some of them fell so far… and they couldn’t survive that, either.” He paused, then rushed forward. “I don’t know about your parents, maybe they didn’t—”
Nali’s hot core cracked, then burst. The heat filled her, from the tips of her fingers, to the top of her head, to the bottoms of her feet. It rushed through her, devouring her, hollowing everywhere it touched. She gritted her teeth, tears falling freely, and compressed that heat down once again. Mastered it, tamed it, tucked it away into her belly, and did not let it consume her.
“Then I will be a Lookout?” Nali said, eerily calm despite the still-flowing tears.
Howie spat to the side. “We don’t have a choice on that count. Can’t have that devil coming back. But, look, you don’t have to—”
“No,” she cut him off. “I’ll do it.”
“Nali died with her parents. I’m Little Mouse. And I’m a Lookout.”