Grief’s Zenith Offers Grand Views

Ino slides the door to his room shut as he feels the numbness that had pursued him throughout the day begin to ebb. He lets his cauldron down with a thump, and stares into its cast-iron depths. Fear blossoms in his chest, but this time he stamps it out. He knows what he must do.

The package is at the very bottom of the cauldron, wrapped in a fading crimson banner branded with an axe and a shepherd’s crook. He lifts it out with a mix of terror and reverence, as though he expects it to explode. The package is placed on the floor, and is carefully unwrapped with slightly-trembling fingers. At last the banner comes free, and Ino sits back.

The Shepherd stares up at its master with sockets of vacant steel, and there is the briefest moment where Ino meets that gaze with one of longing… before he sees the old axe-head resting beneath the helmet, dull and stained. The Shepherd grins its terrible, pointy-toothed grin, and Ino meets that grin with distain.

“…it has been a long time.” Ino sighs, “I had hoped it would be much longer.”

The Shepherd grins, its hollow expression full of cold malice.

“I hope you know I hate you with every fibre of my being, and that I will always do so. You bring only death and leave only misery…”

The Shepherd grins, its rusting jaws flecked with painful memories.

“…yet…I fear you more. And that fear has only worsened over the years, ever since that moment when I realized who you- what I- what you were.”

The Shepherd grins, its many scars a roadmap through blood-salted lands.

“I had thought I was fleeing you for his sake… That if I simply melted down my armour to make a cauldron I could somehow honour Ori’s spirit…”

The Shepherd grins, its empty eyes beckoning oblivion.

“And in doing so, I only failed him a second time. You are a monster… but I am a coward… I allowed a lone 16-year-old girl to make decisions that would crush even a king. All because I was afraid that if I stood tall my shadow might resemble yours.”

The Shepherd grins, its dented brow ringed with a circle of pilfered gold.

“…my son is gone, this time not by your hand but by my own. Even in death he was braver than us both, and now… now he… h-he is…”

The Shepherd grins as Ino hides his face in his war-weathered hands, tears tapping against the helmet’s face as they slip between broad fingers. The giant’s shoulders heave as a sob escapes his chest, then another, until he cannot hold himself any longer and the dam breaks.

“M-my boy…!” He wails, as tears trickle down the Shepherd’s brow and hiss against the axe-blade beneath, “my ch-child! M-my baby! Huh-how? How cuh-can you forgive suh-someone as…as wretched as me?”

Ino is helpless against the great grey ocean of grief that comes pouring out from within. It stains his cheeks and tangled his beard, it rakes his lungs and contorts his spine, it fills his heart and empties his mind, until at last his body is too weak to continue, and grief leaves him be.

“How?” He whispers hoarsely, staring at the ceiling, “Ori… how can you forgive me? How…how do you do it? After I failed you over and over… how do you forgive me when I cannot even forgive myself?”

His bloodshot eyes widen as they fall on the Shepherd, its ghoulish face flecked with his tears, its head ringed with gold.

“I…understand.” Ino murmurs as the Shepherd weeps. “Even now… I have been selfish. Ori… when you gave yourself up… it didn’t matter what you wanted… only what we needed. Hiro, Fuu, Norihiko, Miyahira, even Amako… I cannot give them what they need as a cook, or as a monster. But… that is not all that I was… or all that I am. What did sensei always say? ‘To kill your past, embrace his future?‘”

Ino reaches down and -with a grunt- pries the shining ring from the Shepherd’s rusting temples. He sees himself reflected across its warm, curving shape, and smiles.

“Ori… my son… I have failed you twice now. Once as a father, and once as a monk. I will not fail you again. You did not sit and hope that Enya might curb my tyranny… and I cannot sit and hope for someone else to guide my friends.”

Carefully Ino laces his beard through the ring, pulling it up towards his chin until it binds the wild mass into a ponytail. He re-wrap the Shepherd in its banner, and as he stands to banish it back to the cauldron’s depths, he does so with a firmness that was not present before; an assertive air now fills his formidable frame. As the crown of Skorvlan glints in his locks, Ino Chichikuma prepares to assume a role both familiar and foreign.

The Broken Man

The scar-speckled moon hangs in heaven’s black void like a white tumour, its rebellious light joined by a spreading rash of stars. They gaze upon the gently-cooling corpse of a dead world. Her still face now tinted a faint blue with ice and snow, her cold flesh dotted with the once-living, the once-warm.

The man is no-longer certain if he is living, although he knows he is not warm. He lurches, slowly, through a frozen forest. Long-dead trees sprout from the snow like twisting black hands, grasping at the glittering sky. The man is wrapped in a ragged coat, his face is hidden behind a gas mask with one broken lens. From behind jagged shards of glass, a bloodshot eye stares forward. What little flesh and bone that can be sees around it has been pulled and crumpled, so that the eye bulges from its socket, threatening to squirt out with the slightest shift.

The way the man moves is wrong. The way his limbs zig and zag beneath his coat, the way his back seems to fold like a broken beach chair. He is dragging a rusty weapon behind him, the husk of a sword with a hooked tip. Both the man and the sword could have been elegant once. You can tell by the shape of the coat and the curve of the handle. Both have also been twisted and warped by time, divorced of any past function.

Snow crunches in an uneven rhythm as the man slumps his way through the night, the sword scratching across ice behind him. His breath twists and bites like barbed wire, each exhale a death rattle, yet Death does not come. It has been many years, and still Death has not come.

There is a faint snap that echoes through the forest’s frost-claimed limbs. Beneath him, the man’s shin folds at a ninety-degree angle. He falls without complaint, and the world returns once more to silent serenity.

Then, faintly, the man groans. One hand reaches from the snow, sporting gnarled fingers that pat the freezing ground, and eventually grasp the blade of the dropped sword. Gently, the man pries himself upwards, draped over his sword like an old crone with a cane. He shakes his useless leg until a broken brace slips into the snow.

Very slowly, the man hobbles to a nearby tree. He leans on the dead trunk, then squeezes the hilt of his sword. When he strikes a branch, it breaks like an icicle and tumbles to the ground. The man lets himself scrape down the trunk, until the branch is within reach. From a pocket, he procures a cord.

As he begins to fashion a fresh splint, he looks up the stars above, and starts to sing.

“I pray to no gods…and no demons…

For the world they’ve made, was bound to fade,

And there’s nothing we can do…

I say, to those gods…and those demons…

What right have you, to leave me here,

In a world so cold and blue?”

I Beat You

Alone at last in the anteroom turned mortuary, Oscar stood above the pallid husk of a legend. The body had been set atop a tavern table, as though it were the roast hog centerpiece to a king’s feast. Somewhere in the tavern proper the corpse’s widow and daughter prepared for another day’s work. Business was business, after all, even while the body of your father or husband slowly rotted behind a locked door. They’d hold a proper funeral for him, probably, but Oscar could pretend they wouldn’t. He could pretend that this was all the so-called hero would ever get.

“Where’s your legions of fans now, eh?” Hissed the wizard, “none of ‘em were there to save you when…whatever it was that happened…happened. Just you and Death.” He paused to swig the last of the ale from his flask, “this is good stuff, all the same. Can see why you thought you’d retire to it. Lot of good it did you.”

Oscar stared at the body on the ‘viewing’ table’ for a long time. Long enough that his knees began to ache, and his back began to bend.

“I beat you,” he said at last, his cracking voice no-longer a whisper, “you’re dead and I’m not. That…that means I win. I was here before you and I’m still here after.” As sounds of alarm played out in the next room, Oscar paused again to drink from his trembling flask, although he knew it was empty. As heavy footsteps approached, Oscar began to shriek.

“And they’ll remember me better! Because I won’t die to some… some random happenstance! Like I was some…common man! Like any common man could do what I did! What I will do!” Thick arms wrapped around the old man, but he continued to wail even as he was being dragged away. “What sort of legend ends like that, eh!? So sudden and stupid! Where’s the buildup!? The climax!?”

It was still raining outside. Oscar felt the manic rage drain away as cold water soaked into his robes, leaving nothing but a dull ache in his chest and a bitter taste in his mouth. “People…used to whisper your name,” he mumbled, “they…they sang songs about you.” He hugged his chest as the chill began to seep into brittle bones.
“I beat you.” He repeated, but it was more to himself then to the dead man.

“…I beat you.”

Chapter 2

In a world were reality is as malleable as wax and boggart repellant is sold next to the bear spray, there is a high demand for people with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain humanity’s place at the top of the food chain. Head of this noble pursuit is the aptly-named Prometheus, a global agency working to discover, contain, and harness the world’s tumors for the good of all mankind. When it soon became apparent that they couldn’t be bothered with every small town’s bogeyman infestation, those with an entrepreneurial, desperate, or slightly mad mindset were quick to find the nearest stake and set out for wealth and glory.

Sally Palm has been hunting for the past thirty years, and although she once encountered Bigfoot, she is starting to wonder if the elusive beast known as “Wealth and Glory” might just be a myth after all. Still, a bounty is a bounty she reasons as she puts her cigarette out on the dashboard and parks her motorhome at a seemingly random spot on the thin dirt logging road. She reaches over to a window and strains to slide it up. As cold air filters in from the frozen forest beyond, Sally sits perfectly still and listens to the wind whistling between barren branches. After almost a minuet, she hears it. Although this is her first time hearing that howling roar, it is familiar to us. This time however, it is much closer, and is accompanied by a second, weaker wail.

“Hm,” grunts Sally as she pulls a small recording device from a coat pocket. Her voice is like gravel. “Sounds like we’re dealin’ wit’ a bestial entity. Judgin’ by te’ way its voice gurgles I’m goin’ te’ assume its current state is a unnat’ral mutation. Too early te say if it’s te’ result of occult forces or-”

“Ah-HA!” bellows a gigantic, bald, bearded man as he appears behind Sally, causing the entire motorhome to shift slightly beneath his weight. Everything about him, from his baritone voice and thunderous brow to his chiselled-from-granite nose and blazing eyes, it all gives the impression that a cheerful mountain has learned to speak. “The beast yearns for battle!”

“Quiet, Oz,” hisses Sally, eyes still trained on the treeline as she exhales of puff of smoke. As the silence stretches onwards, she sighs, pocketing her recorder and lighting a cigarette. “Dis ting is skittish, bye[1]. Dis job is goin’ te require a del’cate touch,” she glances back at her first-ever employee as she tries not for the first time to resemble a competent boss, “now away and get- Jaisus Christ what are you wearin’?” Oz has stuffed himself into a plus-sized wool sweater. The crimson garment stretches and strains as muscles the size of small watermelons bulge beneath.

“You instructed ‘cold climate’ attire, Misses Palm! I knit this during my morning meditations!”

“I meant a jacket, bye!” Sally herself is wearing a military-green hunter jacket and a brown Ushanka hat. “Y’won’t last five minuets out dere in dat.” Oz’s eyes light up as Sally says this.

“On the contrary, Misses Palm…” He begins, thumping a fist against his broad chest, causing the taut fibres of his sweater to twang. He gazes stoically at the horizon through the windshield as Sally groans internally. “Heartland Order trains its warriors to endure any environment using only their own Inner Flame! FOR IT IS HUMANITY’S CRIPPLING RELIANCE ON TOOLS AND-”

“Aye, sure.” Sally interrupts quickly as she watches a conspiracy of ravens fly from a nearby tree in surprise, their rasping cries mingling with the last echoes of Oz’s booming voice.  “‘ow about you tell me more after we’ve collected our bounty, bye? Now go get my winter bag from te back closet.”

“At once, Misses Palm!” Oz disappears through the curtain dividing the motorhome’s cab from its body, Sally wincing as she feels the entire vehicle shake with his every footfall. She remembers that she locked the back closet as the sound of splintering wood reaches her ears. She sighs as Oz returns, carrying a backpack bag in one huge hand.

“De closet was locked, Oz.”

“It was? I didn’t notice!”

“I could tell. Now hand me that bag and pipe down.

“Of course, Misses Palm!” Oz thumps the bag down on Sally’s lap and proceeds to stand as stiff and silent as a mannequin advertising the latest trends in amateur knitting. Sally unzips the bag and reviews its contents, doing her best to remind herself why she recruited Oz. Sure, he was clueless, God was he clueless…but she had also never encountered someone so…strong. Not just physically, although that was certainly impressive, but personality-wise as well. Whether it was because of his so-called ‘Inner Flame’ or not, Sally had never met anyone so impossible to discourage. The man cheerfully bounded through every obstacle life threw at him as easily as he tore open closet doors.

Sally, on the other hand, is nothing like Oz. She hasn’t bounded a day in her life. In her experience, a monster-hunter doesn’t approach her fifty-fifth birthday by trusting everything to work itself out. No, Sally thinks as she takes inventory of her backpack, de only way you get anywhere in tis business is if you make sure everyting works out.

“Oz, this job will probably be a mite more dangerous den what we’ve done up t’ now. I’ll admit I was impressed when you pulled dat big spider’s legs off back in Idaho, but I’m ordering you t’ take de gun and at least wear snow shoes.” Sally pulls her trusty revolver from its holster and presents it to her employee.

“B-but Misses Palm…!” Oz stares at the gun as though it is a live tarantula he has been told to swallow, “I need only my Inner Flame! The human body is the greatest weap-“

“It’s an order, bye.”

Oz looks wretched as he takes the revolver and holds it gingerly with two thick fingers, like it were about to explode. He opens his mouth to say something but is interrupted by a distant blood-curdling duet. He brightens up as he recalls the abominable murder-machine he would soon face. Sally grunts. “Dat’s our cue,” she flicks her cigarette out the open window and retrieves a battered rifle form under the dashboard, “let’s go make te world a little less ugly.”

[1] “Boy”

Breivhardt & Rosemary

Lord Breivhardt sat reading the newspaper in front of a large, moonlit window, just like he had done for years, as evident by the old boot-marks that scuffed the windowsill’s surface. Lord Breivhardt did not currently have his boots up on his sill, however. Rarely did he wear boots, anymore. The reason for this was provided by Lord Breivhardt’s armchair of choice, which had wheels attached.

He slammed the paper on the sill and wheeled across the room to where a laptop rested on a stately mahogany desk that shared the sill’s foot-based scars. Breivhardt tucked his legs beneath the desk, his brow furrowing as his index fingers pecked at the keyboard like a pair of old hens. It took him two tries to enter his password, and a few minutes to open his email. The video files sat in his inbox. He clicked on the first one.

“ROSEMARY!” He bellowed after a few moments, still focused on the grainy grey footage.

“Yes, sir?” Had Breivhardt still control of his legs, he would have jumped. He hadn’t heard his young assistant and protege enter. Or approach. Or stand directly beside him. All within ten seconds of his summons. He needed to get the girl a bell. She was a very tall woman, currently dressed in workout clothes and breathing heavily. Her eyes were grey, her jaw was strong, her hair was tied in a long damp ponytail.

“Have you read about the business in Breivhardt hospital? The one I funded?” The aging lord paused the video and reached for the newspaper on his lap before remembering he had slammed it on the sill.

“No, sir. I’ve been busy.” Responded Rosemary, handing him the paper as he opened his mouth to ask for it.

“…Ah! Well. You’ll recall a few weeks back they had to shut down a wing over that whole insect business.“ Breivhardt rifled through the headlines, hunting for the single article that had caught his attention.

“I remember, sir. You were quite enthusiastic about it.”

“Indeed I was! Indeed I was! Now…here! Look at this!” Breivhardt reached up and handed the paper to his assistant. It displayed a small aerial photo of the closed-off wing, its roof collapsed and smoking. “The paper says the hospital wasn’t allowed to say what happened. You recall I told them not to share anything about the insects. Didn’t want the public to panic.” Breivhardt stroked his old-fashioned handlebar muttonstache benevolently.

“Or for another hunter to have all the fun before you could.” Rosemary said matter-of-factly.

“Well, er, yes. That may have crossed my mind.” Admitted Breivhardt, his hand falling from his facial hair. There was nothing accusatory about how she had said it, there never was. She was simply saying out-loud a fact both of them were aware of. “Anyway! As I was saying! It seemed like someone else *did* end up investigating first, so I had Dave call up the place and erm… *borrow…* the salvaged security footage for the wing. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but…well…have a look!” He hammered the laptop’s spacebar to play the footage.

Even blurry and monochromatic, it was a sight to behold. A large man wielding an ornate glaive was hacking at a seething swarm of black scarab-like insects. They were climbing all over him, but their razor-sharp pincers couldn’t leave so much as a mark on his dark skin. This was impressive, but was immediately overshadowed as a short, slight woman with only one arm rushed into the room. As she approached the swarm there was a flash of light and a spectral limb sporting huge talons sprouted from her bandaged stump. She slashed at the insects, leaving an arc of fire searing momentarily in the air.

Breivhardt grinned up at his assistant as the footage continued to play. Rosemary didn’t so much as blink. Or move her face in any discernible fashion. She simply stared in that expressionless way of hers. It wasn’t cold, or disinterested, or slack. It was just…impossible to read. Breivhardt couldn’t for the life of him recall that last time she’d simply *smiled.* 

She hadn’t been like this when she was young, back when he’d been a famous monster hunter and Rosemary’s mother had payed him for samples of his marks. He’d keep young Rosemary entertained with stories of his adventures for hours while her mother was off in a lab somewhere, studying the regenerative ability of a Scandinavian troll or something. Even back then he had considered himself a sort of unofficial uncle to the girl. 

Things had changed since then, of course. Breivhardt had fallen out of touch for some time, she‘d grown up, he’d had his accident, and her mother…well…

He’d given Rosemary the position of assistant/protege for a few reasons, one being he’d hoped to crack that unhealthy poker-face of hers before she started terrifying his other staff. Also because she was the most efficient and competent human being he’d ever encountered, and Breivhardt desperately needed someone who knew how to organize things. But mostly because of the first reason. Mostly.

“I’m impressed.” She said after the video was finished. For her that meant she was flabbergasted, “you believe these are the people you’ve been looking for, sir?” Roused from his brooding, Breivhardt nodded enthusiastically.

“Just look at them! They’re inexperienced, sure, but there’s *so much* potential! The woman cut a table in half with that arm of hers! And the man lets that grenade explode in his *hand* and acts like it was just a punch in the gut! It’s unbelievable!” Rosemary was silent for a while.

“Are you certain about this, sir?” She said, eventually. Her tone was as controlled as ever but Breivhardt knew she was concerned. Or he guessed she was, at any rate. He closed the laptop with a click and ran his hand through his thinning hair.

“…I am, Rosemary. I can’t stand being cooped up in here. Our little trips have been fun, but there are so many bigger fish to fry.” *And I want you to learn how to work with a group,* he thought to himself, “besides!” He added in his more usual, boisterous tone. “You saw how they just ran in there! Like a couple of Neanderthals! If they keep that up they’ll get themselves killed! It’s our duty as fellow hunters to show them how things are done! Why, I remember back when *I* was starting out…” 

Rosemary could tell when her boss was settling in for a long and exaggerated story, but she didn’t mind. Or if she did, it was very hard to tell. Beneath the bluster, there was a man who had survived forty years of monster-hunting…

“-it would’ve torn my throat out if old Spit-Fire Sam hadn’t shown up and walloped it! Then he walloped me for being so green! He was quite the character, Spit-Fire…”

She listened politely. She knew many of these stories by heart at this point, and although most people would see them as simply tales to entertain, Rosemary listened to every detail. She analyzed every account, learned everything she could about the hunt.

“One time I remember, we were in this dusty little bar somewhere in Africa…can’t recall where…and in bursts this hoard of feral dogs, lead by some bloke wearing animal bones standing right in the middle of them all…”

Some day, Lord Breivhardt promised, she’d inherit everything he’d gathered on his travels and be ready to hunt on her own, just as he had.

“And old Sam, quick as a whip, he’s lobbed his half-finished bottle of whisky at the chap before I can blink. Then he follows it with his cigar! Threw it like a bloody dart!”

She looked forward to that day, had been for a very, very long time. The day when she’d take everything she’d learned, and pay her dear old mother a visit…

“There was one hell of a light-show after that, let me tell you! And of course the dogs are pancaking…”

The pair stayed in that office late into the night, one wandering the past, the other focused on the future.