I stared at the gold light dancing on the hem of my tunic for a full minute. Stupor lifting along with my gaze, I traced the reflection back across cobblestones, over the fire pit and up. Across from me a mystery. Orange-red flames licked the black of night, suspended in mid-air it seemed, playing where they didn’t belong. I blinked, then understood. A gold breastplate mirrored the flames. My eyes flicked up the torso and I started as the face of a warrior came into view.
“How long have you been there, stranger?” I asked. The fire crackled, and popped. His dark eyes, framed in a helmet, studied me through the ember rain.
“Awhile,” he said. His gaze shifted to my partner, sitting on the log next to me, then came back. “How do you know I am a stranger here?” he asked.
“Your clothes of course,” I said, scoffing. “A cloak and tunic the color of fresh blood, the gold breastplate.Your helmet. You’re a soldier – an officer of high rank, I’m guessing. Though I’ve never seen those colors on our military.” I turned to look over my shoulder for more of his unit. Only the swaying forms of party-goers moved throughout the city plaza. A night breeze loosened my hair, and I brushed away the stray tickling strands as I turned back.
“I am not a soldier,” he replied without blinking. His right hand was wrapped around the hilt of a sword, holding it out like a staff beside him. On the back of his hand I glimpsed the mark of a tracker. How did we not notice him sooner?
“A tracker then. How did you get into our city?”
“I know the only way in and out of where you live like the palm of my hand.”
I scoffed. “Who let you in the gate?”
“No man opens the gate for me. No gate keeps me out. There is no wall I cannot breach.”
I shifted in my seat, swallowing as I brushed something off my neck, too distracted by the stranger to care what crawled on me. “Your garments are of fine quality, but the color….” I said, changing the subject. I nudged my partner next to me. “Have you ever seen a tracker like him?”
Bragon leaned forward as he took a long drink of ale. He belched, squinted at the stranger, and then went back to leering at the girl with us. “What do you mean? He looks no different to me,” he slurred.
“No different!” I held out my palm toward the man. “Can you see the gold, the crimson? Of course you can’t. Your eyes are filled with Villicie,” I snapped, though I understood why. The woman was uncommonly bewitching. I smiled as her full red lips stretched into a coy grin, then turned on Bragon. “On top of that, you’re sopped again.” Reaching down, I picked up a discarded tankard. “How could you see anything?” Hair tickled my face once more, and I brushed it away, aggravated.
Bragon swayed and raised a fist, swooping the sky. “It’s a party! Who cares?” He reached over and grabbed Villicie around the waist, causing her to squeal in delight as she settled onto his lap. “Do you see anything special about him?” he asked, nodding toward our guest.
“No, I don’t,” she said, giggling. She touched her nose and then extended her long taloned finger toward me. “You’re being silly again.”
Rolling my eyes, I went back to the newcomer. “Ignore them.” I shook out my sleeve, adjusting it as I regarded the stranger. “Your clothes are different,” I said in a tone to disguise my fear. I glanced at the silhouettes of our city’s watchmen, tall and proud atop the wall. So this man was a little unnerving – more than a little – yet he was only one man. What could one man do? Feeling braver, I sneered. “In case you haven’t noticed, citizens wear white silk. Obviously you have not earned your right to the precious fabric.”
He arched an eyebrow, his chin tilted up. “You think it be silk on you then? What is it that you keep brushing off?”
I rubbed my face. Now I was simply getting annoyed. Why did we always attract the odd ones? “Yes, friend. It is silk.” I stood, and held out my arm so he could touch my sleeve. “Feel the lightness of the material, its soft, buttery texture. You cannot buy finer fabric anywhere. In fact, you cannot buy it. You’ve got to prove your worthiness in order to wear it.”
He only gazed up at me. I breathed out and dropped my arm. “Fine then. Maybe you should tell me what you’re tracking in our city.”
“I do more than track. Those eggs,” he tilted the sword in the direction of our merchandise, “you sell them for people to eat.”
“Ah, of course, that’s why you’re here. You wish to try the favored delicacy. Tell you what,” I held up a finger, smiling, “I don’t normally do this, but seeing how we have gotten off on the wrong foot…,” I turned back to grab a basket of them, and held it out. “Take your pick of the lot. It’s on me.”
Why I wanted to gain his friendship, I could not fathom. Apart from his uniform, he looked like a slave from one of the less advanced tribes. Definitely not a man any one of my mischievous daughters would go after. Except for the eyes….
Rather than take an egg, he detached a skin from his belt. Uncorking it, he offered it to me. “You are thirsty. Drink.”
“I am thirsty,” Bragon laughed. “If you have wine, give me some.”
“Tis water I offer. Water only your friend thirsts for.”
“He’s right there. I want only Villicie’s lips, and more wine.” Bragon slobbered a kiss upon her.
Suddenly I was aware of the thickness of my tongue, the dry scratch at my throat. I frowned. “How do you know I thirst?”
“You’ve been moaning for water. I heard you, and came to give it.”
“I have not been moaning. I’m happier than any here tonight, and I have no need. But if you insist, I will share a drink with you.” Keeping my eyes on him, I took the skin and lifted it to my parched lips. The water cascaded into my mouth, its taste fresh and sweet. I could feel it traveling through me, awaking my flesh. I squeezed the skin harder, and the water gushed over my face, down my tunic until the bag was drained. Wiping my mouth with the back of my sleeve, I handed it back to the tracker. “Forgive me, stranger, I… I drank it all.”
He shook his head. “No, you cannot drink it all,” he wagged the skin and I heard the water slosh inside. “You’ve only had a taste.”
Suddenly, a light, brighter than midday sun, flooded the plaza. I threw an arm over my eyes, and cried out as I fell to the ground.
“What are you screaming about?” I heard my companions yell.
“Don’t you see it? It’s blinding!”
“You’ve gone insane,” Bragon laughed.
“I’ve not! You’re blind if you can’t see this light.” Keeping my head bowed to shield my eyes, I pulled my arm away, and looked down at the ground. Spiders crawled all around me. I yelped, jumping back.
Then I saw my clothes. They weren’t white. They weren’t silk.
I screamed, tearing at the webs which hung from me. Spiders raced from the folds. Spiders of every kind, black widows, tarantulas, spindled red, long-legged, fat with venom. “Get them off! Get them off!”
Bragon kicked at me. Villicie cackled as she joined him. “Shut up! We’re tired of your ranting. Come to your senses.”
I rolled and looked up at Bragon. “You’re dead!” I screamed back. “She’s dead!” I pointed at Villicie. They stared at me with clouded, white eyes. Their grey flesh peeled in shreds from their bodies. They laughed through rotted teeth. Bragon grabbed the egg basket.
“Maybe you need to eat.”
I recoiled, and tried to get away, my feet slipping out from under me. The eggs were hatching. Vipers slithered from foul-smelling shells. The basket writhed with them. “No! No!” I shouted, holding up my hand. My dead hand. Turning it, I stared at the grey flesh covered in blood. Images flashed through my mind of people I had attacked, people I had killed or poisoned with my viper eggs. “We are undone!” I jumped to my feet, looking around, panicked by what I was seeing.
The party-goers weren’t dancing. They stumbled over the cobblestones. They groped at walls, moaning as they went. The youngest among us was decayed, filled with defiling things. We were blind, eyes white – visionless – clothed in webs purchased through our deeds of service to the kingdom of the dead.
I looked up. A watchmen pointed at me, his red eyes glowed with hate. As one, they all turned. The demons hissed. From every part of the wall, they began to run as wolves, leaping from wall to building, then building to building, moving toward me. They poured down, descending, crawling upside down like lizards their eyes never leaving me. I searched for a break – a way to escape.
“Bragon, we must flee!” I yelled, taking him by the shoulders. He flung me off.
“Touch me again and I’ll kill you,” he spat.
“They are coming for us!” I pointed to the hoards, dropping from their perches.
“Why do you ask a dead man for help?” the tracker inquired calmly. “I’m the one who gave you sight.”
I whirled, seeing him in fresh light. He radiated, gloriously beautiful next to our dead, rotting bodies. His clothes were not made of webbing, his eyes – not clouded with death.
“Have you come to fight the demon hordes? Do so now before we die!” I pleaded.
“I am not a demon tracker,” the stranger said as he swirled the red cloak off his back. He hurled it in the air, and I watched it sail out over me. It grew larger as it flew, becoming massive in size, a blanket of red big enough to cover me completely. As it descended, I heard the tracker’s voice ring out.
“It’s death in you I came to conquer.”