September 2018


Various folk helped the Dark on its way. While this might seem insane on its face, they each did so for their own short-sighted reasons. Some saw the Dark as a weapon to use against their enemies. Some saw it as a way to make money. Many, of course, lied to themselves about what they were doing, if in fact they knew that the Dark had any hand in their actions at all.

But the end result was the same. The Dark only cared for one thing, the thing that it had obsessed over since the first guttering sparks had arisen: extinguishing every last light. Those folk, themselves creatures of light, failed to see that in aiding the Dark they were simply buying themselves the privilege of being extinguished last.

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Not long after the hunting lodge of Sarmej struck out and devastated the village of Ilajescu, a strange traveler appeared. He was clean and well-spoken enough that many took him for another noble or well-heeled member of the Imperial bureaucracy–notions that he did little to dispel. The stranger said that word of Ilajescu’s tragedy had reached him, and that he, a former soldier in the Imperial army, was willing to aid the villagers in striking back. He would do this without recompense, he said, and would feed the town with provisions purchased from their neighbors.

While some were skeptical of his generosity, the stranger nevertheless found an enthusiastic audience in the grieving folk. He aided them in building basic fortifications, making passable weapons and armor from farming implements, and drilling them in basic formation fighting. The process took all winter, but in the spring, the denizens of Ilajescu were ready for their attack.

Approaching Sarmej from the north, a group created a diversion to draw its inhabitants out while another moved in to cut off their retreat. Seven villagers died, but at the end of the savage combat all five of the Sarmej hunters lay dead. Other than being rather pale and finely clothed, they seemed rather ordinary nobles save for the quality of their weapons, which was extreme. The stranger congratulated the townsfolk on their feat and bade them to camp for the night, promising to help them occupy the lodge at first light. When some from Ilajescu insisted on entering Sarmej at once, the stranger argued persuasively that it might be booby trapped and that it would be better to have the light of day to make their investigations. The townsfolk reluctantly agreed, though one or two of them still stole into the lodge to collect small items in the dark.

The next morning, the stranger had vanished–and with him the lodge and the bodies of the dead. Only a stone foundation remained. And over the next month, every villager who had managed to acquire something from Sarmej–a weapon, a trinket, even a bit of stone–was burgled. Those who had hidden their treasures well and retained them soon wished they had not, for a terrible wasting sickness took them before the year’s end.

By the conclusion of the affair, Ilajescu was severely depopulated and was abandoned not long after. The great hunting lodge of Sarmej was never seen again.

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As long as the inhabitants of the tiny, isolated Carpathian hamlet of Ilajescu had any folk memory, the great hunting lodge of Sarmej had existed on the great forested berg to the south. Smoke could occasionally be seen rising from it on clear days, and still nights often revealed lights within, but the people of Ilajescu never ventured near the lodge all the same.

The people who occasionally lived there were known to dress finely, speak rarely, and kill intruders on sight. The Imperial governor and his lackeys always dismissed these concerns when they were raised, noting that the lodge’s inhabitants were free nobles of good standing, but they were always noncommittal about the nobles’ actual names and titles. By the time of Emperor Francis, the Imperial authorities refused to acknowledge the lodge at all.

Ilajescu remembered, though, as a villager would be murdered every few years for straying too close to Sarmej, an unfortunate circumstance not helped by the local youth who viewed a successful trip to and from the remote lodge to be a worthy feat of manhood and test of mettle. But if the mysterious nobles of Sarmej caught an intruder, they would return, at best, with a harrowing tale of being pursued and shot at.

Eventually, after a night of heavy drinking following a successful harvest, a group of youths set out for Sarmej with the intention of breaking in and taking something from it as proof of their feat. Not one of the eight youths was ever seen again, and the following evening, the inhabitants of Sarmej attacked Ilajescu itself. Bearing flaming brands and dressed in dark clothing, they targeted the homes of the eight and burned them to the ground. A large part of the harvest was also destroyed, as were the five townsfolk who attempted to fight back.

No one was able to see the figures clearly, and the Sarmej attackers never uttered a sound.

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When I was little, maybe eight or nine yers old, I saw an open padlock with no key in the empty field near our house, the one I had to walk by every day to get to school. I guess it had fallen off a truck or something, and it was pretty similar to the one Dad used to lock the garage, so I knew just how it worked.

It was heavy in my hands, worn but not rusted, and by gingerly testing the spring of its clasp, I could see that it would lock readily. But without a key, there’d be no getting it back open again. Bolt cutters and angle grinders weren’t something I even considered at the time, but even if I had known about them, I’m not sure it would have mattered.

I hid that old lock in my backpack and spent the next couple of days in thought about what to affix it to. Like cutting and grinding, the idea of just throwing it away never even crossed my mind. Locks were made to be locked, and this one would have to be locked around something. That’s just how it was.

The old fence, every empty lock-clasp I’d seen around school or round town…I thought about every one of them as a home for my new lock. But I kept coming back to the lack of a key. In my mind, whatever I locked would be locked forever. Whatever I put the lock on, even if it wasn’t a lock, it would be stuck there forever.

Looking back, I think that lock was my first real idea of permenancy, of consequence, regarding my own actions. Whatever I did with that beat-up old lock would be forever, there’d be no undoing it. Was there anything I wanted to lock with that level of permenancy?

In the end, I experimentally hung it a few places but chickened out each time. Instead, I kept the lock with my knickknacks in my room, waiting for a better occasion to use it. As far as I know, it’s still there, in my parents’ house, in some old box. Still waiting to be locked; still waiting for forever.

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All the neighborhood kids knew to stay away from Bill, who could often be seen wandering the parks and public areas quietly nursing a bottle of cough syrup. All the adults knew that he was taking cough syrup to keep the shakes at bay until his next fix, and as a result all the kids knew as well, adept as they were at listening to whispers and picking up on the unsaid.

Though he rarely mumbled anything but terse greetings, the older and more adventurous knew that he would pay cash from his government disability check for cough syrup with codeine in it, open or not. As a result, it wasn’t unknown for the occasional child in need of pocket money to pinch a bottle from someplace and trade it for ten bucks, which bought an awful lot of summer-rate sweets and arcade time.

Naturally there were plenty of darker rumors about him, but $10 from Buffalo Bill Codeine was still an enticing prospect to some.

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Q: Why didn’t the motorcycle go anywhere?

A: It was two tired.

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“What happened?” I asked Lunkwit. “Did you get surprised from behind and behdeaded again?”

“Yes, boss,” he said, holding his severed head up with one hand by the hair. His speech was thick and phlegmy, an unavoidable byproduct of the necromantic wards that bound his departed soul to his cold husk. “Sorry, boss.”

“The contract is for ten years of servitude, to be raised and knit together as appropriate and as the dark arts allow,” I said, “Are you aware that, for those who do not perform, another option is available?”

“What’s that, boss?” Lunkwit said. “Five years’ servitude?”

“Oblivion,” I said,holding out my hand. With the barest flick of my fingers, I was able to loosen Lunkwit’s soul from its fleshy cage. I could see him visibly shudder in horror, fighting to hang on to it.

“No, boss!” he cried. “Not oblivion!”

“You made the choice to accept the bargain,” I said. “Face the unknown and unknowable void, or serve me for ten years at a time and remain safe on this mortal coil, protected by my sorcery. No place exists for your should to flee to now that its time has gone. If you disappoint me again, you will find it snuffed out like a low candle. Am I understood?”

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