North-west of Merywyn, Llael.
8th of Katesh, 611 AR.
Peter hustled out of the foxhole, grateful to get away from whatever confrontation was about to happen between Kirk and the captain. He also really needed to pee. Trudging into the woods in the thickening gloom, the crunch of his boots on soft loam drowned out Kasey’s soft voice behind him. Kasey had that sharp look in his eye. The look he only gave you when something was wrong with your gear and he was waiting for you to notice. No reason to be in the line of fire.
The chill air frosted his steel armor, still warm from the day’s sun, condensation dripping off the edges of his pauldrons and into his clothes. After a few minutes he looked back, realizing he’d gone farther than he meant to. He couldn’t see or hear anyone. A woodpecker rattled off just above him, sending a quake of surprise through his limbs. For a moment he felt fear; he wasn’t certain how far he’d walked. These little moments of lost time were becoming more frequent as he continued to suffer the effects of prolonged sleep deprivation. One could only get so much rest in a foxhole at night. A handful of crickets chirped mournfully in the undergrowth. Soft wind rustled the leaves. Peter looked up and closed his eyes, breathing the cool evening air. He’d never been anywhere so calm, so peaceful. The irony of finding such calm in a warzone was not lost on him. He unbuttoned his fly and began to relieve himself. The crickets stopped.
A feeling of dread passed over him. The icy trickle of adrenaline flooded from his kidneys up to the nape of his neck and then back down his spine. There was a rasping chuckle from just behind him, a familiar sound from a long-forgotten nightmare.
“No…” Peter whispered, frozen in place. “It can’t be…” No fear he’d experienced in battle came close to this one. With its memory came physical pain as his body recoiled. Bruises and broken bones from his childhood resurfaced as though freshly-delivered. His asshole burned like a hot coal. “No, no.” Peter began to cry. “No, it’s not possible.” He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe.
“Finally,” the terrible voice said, trembling with some foul combination of excitement and malice. The tip of a knife pricked the base of Peter’s neck. “Move and you die. Scream and you die.” The ghost behind him gently slid the rifle off Peter’s shoulder. “I’ll take this.” Leaves crunched beneath heavy feet and the prick of the knife disappeared. “Your trench knife. Toss it away.” Peter obeyed without any will of his own, unsheathing his large blade and tossing it out of reach. “Turn around, my boy. I want to look at you.”
Peter couldn’t move. Quiet sobs racked his aching ribs. Wake up! He screamed inside. Wake up! This isn’t real!
“Oh, this is real, my boy,” the voice said, chuckling. “Yesss, that’s right. I still know what you’re thinking. I’ll always know what you’re thinking.”
Wake up! WAKE UP!
“Turn around!” the evil voice snapped. “I won’t say it again.” Peter’s legs obeyed against his will. He circled in place, hands locked at his sides, face streaming with tears. And there he was.
He was just as tall and slender as Peter remembered, draped in that familiar black greatcoat that stuck to his bony shoulders. It was dirty and torn now, mud-covered and patched in many places. His old jet-black bowl of hair looked thinner, with a few subtle streaks of gray that weren’t there in his remembered version of this walking, talking moral depravity. His eye sockets were deeper than ever, with those dead grey eyes peering out from the shadows like some other man was controlling this vile corpse from far away. His scarred cheeks were pale, almost ashy white.
There was that smell, too. That faint acrid sulfur smell, only stronger now than Peter remembered, like Uncle Kay had just stepped out of Urcaen back into the land of the living. He smiled his humorless, wicked smile, revealing two perfect rows of milky white teeth. “My, you have grown,” he rasped, fingering Peter’s rifle nervously. He glanced down at Peter’s open trousers. “Well, parts of you, anyway,” he murmured with a chuckle. Peter blushed with angry shame. “D’you miss me?”
“How?” Peter managed to squeak. Still he could not move. Uncle Kay’s spell was as strong as ever. “How?”
Uncle Kay’s smile vanished in an instant. “How indeed,” he snapped. He bit every word like it needed to be cut in half with his teeth. “If only you knew what I’ve been through to get here now. The things I’ve had to do. The deals I’ve had to make.” His words came in ragged gasps like they hurt him. “You’ve cost me a lot, boy. A whole lot.”
“Why?” Peter mumbled, feeling his scalp going numb as the terror consumed him.
Worse than mortar fire.
Worse than doom reavers.
“I had no fucking choice,” Uncle Kay bit back. “Believe me. You think I want to be out here? Chasing you to hell and back? No, no, no. This is your own fucking fault.”
“You’ve come all this way,” Peter whispered, “just to take me back?”
Uncle Kay sneered. “Back? Back to what? Corvis? Turinsdale? Hah!” He adjusted his grip on the rifle. “If you thinking I’m going to drag your skinny little ass all the way back there, you’re as stupid as you’ve always been. I see that your new military life didn’t give you a brain.”
Peter could see now that Uncle Kay was genuinely frightened, something new and strange to see on the face of a man who had been pure terror and agony his entire childhood. Something unlocked inside him. The fear began to drain away.
You’re a trencher. Act like it.
“You’re not a trencher,” Uncle Kay said, laughing. “I’ve seen trenchers. You’re a teenage boy playing soldier.” He shook his head, the greasy strands of his hair wagging about his face. “Not a trencher.”
Peter thought about the Bloody Trench. He thought about his first footsteps across no-man’s-land. He thought about the siege mortar’s reign of fire on their front line. He thought about facing the dark hallways full of doom reavers.
He took a step forward.
Uncle Kay’s sneer vanished. He squinted. “What’s this?” He lifted the rifle up. “None of that, boy! Stand still or I’ll remind you what happens when you don’t obey me.”
Peter’s steps halted momentarily, but he continued forward. The ice in his blood was fading. Unable to persist through the crucible of war, Uncle Kay’s spell had lost its grip.
“I want answers,” Peter said softly. “I want to know why.”
“I don’t owe you anything, you little brat!” Uncle Kay pointed the barrel of the gun at Peter’s face. “Stop this nonsense. We have a meeting to keep.”
Peter’s hand went to his knife, but it was not there. The panic returned. Captain Williker’s voice sounded in his mind over the wailing fear, drowning it out: “everything in your kit is a weapon if you’re motivated enough.” He reached over his shoulder and pulled his trench shovel out from its loop on his backpack.
Its sharpened edge glinted in the faint light.
“Tell me why,” Peter said, voice growing firmer with each step even as Uncle Kay shuffled back. “Why the beatings? Why the abuse? Why chase me out here?”
“I’ll put a bullet in your skull, boy,” Uncle Kay said. His voice sounded as menacing as ever, but the fear in his eyes was growing, and with it grew Peter’s courage.
“No you won’t,” Peter said. “If you had come out here to kill me, I’d be dead already.”
“Don’t test me,” Uncle Kay ordered even as he took another step back. His grin returned. “I can hurt you without killing you.” He lowered the rifle, taking aim at Peter’s knees. Peter used the momentary distraction and juked to the side before lunging forward, swinging the blade of the shovel in a wide arc right at Uncle Kay’s head.
Uncle Kay’s entire body flickered and disappeared. Peter gasped, stumbling forward. The butt of his own gun slammed into the back of his helmet, sending him falling straight into a tree trunk with a painful thud. He fell to his knees.
“Told ya,” Uncle Kay said from behind once again. Peter whirled around, stumbling back.
“How are you doing this?” Peter gasped through the jackhammer in his skull. Fight! He’s the enemy, fight!
With speed that surprised even himself, he was back on his feet, lunging forward with the trench shovel toward Uncle Kay’s abdomen. Again the man flickered and he was suddenly six feet back.
“Stop!” Uncle Kay shouted and Peter was once again rooted to the ground, legs wooden.
“Aaagh!” Peter cried, willing his legs to move and only stumbling forward.
“Impossible,” Uncle Kay breathed. “How are you–”
“Fuck you!” Peter shouted as he swung the shovel, smacking the barrel away from his chest even as it fired into the trees, deafening them both. Uncle Kay reached into his jacket for something– a blade, Peter could see it flash in the darkness– but he was too slow. Peter whipped the shovel back around, its edge slicing through Uncle Kay’s wrist and spraying blood into both of their faces, sending the little knife off into the darkness. Uncle Kay screamed and dropped to his knees, clutching his left hand as it dangled by a single tendon.
Peter slammed the edge of the shovel into his enemy’s left shoulder, cutting deep into the muscle and bouncing off his shoulder blade with a dull thud. Uncle Kay let loose a shrill cry.
“How did you break free?” he moaned. Peter pulled the shovel out of the man’s shoulder with a vicious yank, releasing another spray of dark blood.
“I didn’t,” Peter said. “I just found a better hell to live in.” He bent down and picked up the rifle, slowly reloading it. Someone from his platoon would be here any second. He didn’t have long. He held it up and aimed at Uncle Kay’s head.
“No, no wait,” Kay begged, holding out his good hand, panting. “I’ll answer your questions. I’ll tell you everything. Only if you let me live.”
“Maybe I don’t want to know,” Peter muttered, grinding his teeth. “Maybe it doesn’t matter.”
He pictured the bullet going through Uncle Kay’s head, his eyes losing focus, jaw going slack.
Uncle Kay’s eyes went wide. “No, please,” he said.
“Still reading my thoughts?” Peter asked. He pressed the barrel into Uncle Kay’s ashen forehead. “Only one way to fix that!”
“You were holding up a deal!” Uncle Kay screamed. Peter could hear footsteps approaching from behind.
“What fucking deal!?” Peter shouted. “Use me up and sell my body to someone else?”
“No, nooo, not your body,” Uncle Kay whispered with ferocious intensity, scrambling in the leaves to back away, “your soul. Your soul!”
“Peter!” a voice cried from behind. It was the captain. “What is–”
“Holy shit,” came Kirk’s voice, interrupting Kasey. Peter didn’t turn to look at either of them.
“What does that even mean!?” Peter shouted, advancing forward and jabbing the rifle into Uncle Kay’s eye.
“A deal’s a deal,” Uncle Kay muttered. “I signed it. And two days later, before I could pay, you were off.”
“And the beatings? The– the–” Peter couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud. Not with Kirk and the captain so close. Even with his life in the balance, even with his hand hanging off his arm and his shoulder split open, Uncle Kay couldn’t help himself. He couldn’t pass up the delight of watching Peter’s agony.
He smiled. “That was for me,” he whispered. His pleasure in the suffering of others had always been his greatest weapon of terror.
It had the opposite effect here and now.
Peter’s entire body shook with unrestrained violence and he fired his rifle.
Uncle Kay’s brain splattered the forest floor and his body crumpled. At the same instant– so close to the rifle shot that it went almost unnoticed by all of them– a distant growl resonated through the air. They all looked up. A strange green light settled over Uncle Kay’s corpse. Six feet away, the same light formed a circle beneath the leaves. A blood-curdling shriek split the air, sending all three trenchers to their knees with their hands over their ears. From the ground emerged a vision of the abyss.
A serpentine monstrosity, its form and motion defying all natural physics, its shape so grotesque that their minds struggled to name it, slipping and tearing at the edges of reality. Tentacles flickered out of its black maw, probing towards Peter. The closer they came, the stronger his fear grew; like the spell that Uncle Kay had once cast on him magnified a thousand times over. The tentacles reached for Peter, turning at the last moment to the light growing over Uncle Kay’s corpse. With painful slowness, a skeletal likeness of the dead man peeled away from his lifeless body.
“No! NO! NO! NOT ME! HIM!” cried Uncle Kay’s voice, echoing through the ether without making a sound in the air. The monster did not heed his direction. Its tentacles gripped the spectral form of Uncle Kay’s soul, tearing it screaming from his body and slurping it like a stew into the black void of its mouth.
It stared at Peter the entire time.
And then it was gone.
No sound, no light, no nothing. Peter could breathe again.
“Evil!” Captain Kasey said, gagging at the end of the word like he’d eaten something rotten.
As the fear drained away, Peter’s body felt light. The perpetual nagging worry that had been clinging to his heart for months was finally gone– the sense of being stalked, finally over.
“I’m free,” he whispered. “I’m finally free.” He looked at Uncle Kay’s bodys. As he gazed upon it it began to wither and crack, skin flaking off like ash, transforming into a desiccated mummy. As it floated away on an invisible breeze, Peter’s turmoil went with it.
“What in Morrow’s name was that?” Kirk asked, voice shaking so hard he sounded like he was singing.
“Soul hunter,” Captain Kasey said, falling onto his butt in shock. “A soul hunter. I never thought I’d witness one.” He reached around his neck and pulled out his menofix, rubbing it between his finger and thumb. “Come to collect an infernalist’s marked soul.”
“Demon-worshipper,” Kirk breathed in amazement. He looked at Peter. “You were raised in an orphanage run by demon worshippers.”
Peter stared at Kirk. He seemed to grow taller and stronger in Kirk’s eyes, the ghost of a boy transforming into a man right in front of him.
“Am I still marked, do you think?” Peter asked, voice resigned.
Captain Kasey shook his head. “It didn’t come for you,” he said, slowly standing to his feet and grabbing his rifle off the ground. He looked at Peter with wonder and a respect that surpassed anything that rank could earn. “Whatever deal that man made with your soul, I think he just took your place.”
They all stood silently for a while, processing what they had just witnessed. The same questions were on all of their minds: how had the infernalist tracked Peter this far into Llael without being caught? Was Peter’s soul now free, or would a soul hunter come to collect when he died? Nobody spoke their questions out loud. There would be no answers.
“We should go back,” Peter said at last. Still, nobody moved.
“I think you’re right, Kirk,” Captain Kasey said after another long pause.
“Maybe the world would be less evil without magic,” Kasey said.
“I wonder…” Kirk said, looking at Peter.
Peter stared back at him. “Don’t blame magic for Uncle Kay.” He reloaded his weapon and trudged off back toward their foxhole. “Magic didn’t make him a monster.”