Valter Ekstrӧm rode along the dirt path to his homestead, the dust of the road clinging to the sweat on his brow and streaking his white shirt. The midday sun baked the plains and left the air hot and stagnant without a single gust of wind to break the heat. The brightness of the sun drowned the color of the land in a pale hot light that forced Valter to squint as he made his way towards the comfort of shade.

On the porch of the white farmhouse, Kaija was sitting on the deck swing, reading as she idly rocked back and forth. When she noticed him riding down the road, she gave him a wave and announced Valter’s arrival to the rest of the house. When Valter was close enough, Kaija called out to him.

“Did you have a pleasant ride, Papa?” Valter nodded as he dismounted, eager to get out of the sun.

“Where is your brother?” he asked. Kaija shrugged. “He went to check the south field I think.”

The lanky human farmhand ran across the yard to take Valter’s horse. Valter stepped onto the porch and removed his hat, dabbing the sweat from his forehead with his kerchief. Kaija’s face was buried in another book from some starving human writer.

“Why do you read that nonsense?” Valter asked.

“Would you like me to read more of our local writers?” Kaija retorted, giving him a smart look. Valter answered with a raised eyebrow of bemusement. In his heart, he knew she was right. The political pamphlets and newspapers of the southern provinces made for poor reading.

Valter walked into the foyer of his house and was greeted by the light seafoam colored walls that his wife had insisted on. Pictures of Valter’s father and other deceased family members kept a vigilant watch over the house’s entrance while the grandfather clock kept time quietly in the corner. Valter had no real eye for decoration and was grateful that Irja had taken the initiative on making the house a proper home.

He stepped into the kitchen and sat down at the table, feeling the weight of the heat slowly easing off his shoulders. Irja entered the kitchen and kissed Valter’s forehead. Unlike Valter, Irja was pure farming stock. With a large, strong frame and a round, unassuming face, she looked far more at home on the frontier than Valter ever did. Whatever attraction Irja lacked, she was a good mother and well-suited to life in the borderlands.

“What’s the latest news from town?” she asked. Valter grumbled as Irja placed a plate of dried mutton sausage and black beer bread in front of him. With no concern for etiquette, Valter tore into the spread before him.

“There’s trouble on the border. They might call up the reserves.” He said, chewing through a link of spiced meat. Irja shook her head as she placed a glass of water next to Valter’s plate. He greedily gulped it down, washing down the meat and dust that clung to his throat. “I need to speak with the boys.”

Milo was the first to appear after being summoned by his mother. He was sandy-haired  young man with pine-green skin made darker by a childhood in the fields. While strong and healthy, he looked younger than his age, much to his distress. He took a seat in the living room, adjusting his suspenders. Valter’s eldest daughter Mikaela entered next after giving her father a quick kiss. Mikaela favored her mother with a similar round face and tightly braided dark blonde hair, though was of slighter build. She took her place next to Irja, highlighting the similarity even further.

Hugo entered the room last, the dust from his morning ride still hovering about him. Even a penny novelist would struggle to describe a more ideal countryman. Hugo stood tall with broad shoulders atop a frame of sinew and close cropped hair well out the way of his strong, angular face. His white shirt stretched across his muscles and even the dust that streaked his boots and trousers seemed like a fitting ascent rather than a mark of dishevelment. He was a true Orc of the land, as the old farmsteaders would say.

“What’s the latest news from town?” Hugo asked, wiping the sweat from his face.

“There are disputes with the humans to the North. A colonel from the frontier reserves was taking names of all able men in the event we should be called up.” Valter announced, all of his children taking in the news in their own way. The girls stirred and looked to each other while Milo shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Everybody waited for Valter to speak.

“I volunteered our farmhands to the auxiliaries and requested that you boys stay on the farm.” Valter said, watching the relief fall in his wife’s eyes.

“They would let you do that?” Mikaela asked. Valter nodded.

“We may be granted exception provided we supply grain to the army. But in the event the reserves are called to regular service then at least one man from each household must go. If it comes to it, Milo will go.” Milo’s face displayed a flash of total surprise he tried to suppress.

“Gods, why Milo? He’s barely of age!” Irja protested.

“The boy’s nineteen and in good health.” Valter countered, his tone grim and even.

“Why not let me go if the reserves are called?” Hugo asked.

“Without our hands, I’ll need you working in the fields. If the call is made, then your brother will answer.”

“Valter, please. Milo can’t go off to war. Surely taking the help is enough!” Irja said.

“Damnit, he’ll go if I say so, woman!” Valter shot back. The room tensed as Irja stepped back. She bore a look of scorn into Valter’s neck.

“If the call is made, I’ll answer it, mother.” Milo finally spoke. Valter nodded in approval but his face remained sour. His children all quietly took in the news and waited for Valter to speak again. Even Hugo knew better than to challenge his father’s authority now.

“Is there anything else, father?” Mikaela asked, trying to ease the tension.

“Things will likely grow harder in the coming weeks. I expect you all to pull your weight. Understood?” Valter asked as his family solemnly nodded.  He turned and exited the room, unwilling to endure more of Irja’s silent anger or the looks of his children.


Prisoner Pt. 1

“This is Block 8, where we keep political prisoners and enemies of the Republic. Be on your guard when on patrol here, private. These devils are just as dangerous as murderers,” the commandant said as he led Thomas along the narrow catwalk above the cells of Block 8. The drab stone and brick interior was as oppressive as the guards patrolling with rifles and clubs. The block felt colder than the others, silent as a crypt. A shiver ran along Thomas’s body as he walked in step with the sharp click of the commandant’s boots.

“At present, we have 74 prisoners in this block. Your duty will be to patrol the block during the day and to man the firing post when roll is called. Roll will be called every morning at 6 and every night at 8. Any prisoner who does not leave his cell for roll call is to be taken to solitary confinement.” The commandant never stopped to look back or break the pattern of his rehearsed speech. Each cell was small, barely enough room for a man to stretch his arms out. There were no windows in the cells, not even bars on the doors. Light seemed more distant than their freedom.

More guards were patrolling down the long corridor of cells. They all marched slowly, pausing at each door to listen. At a glance, it was difficult to believe they were even human. The mechanical nature of their patrols, the lifeless sound of their footsteps on the cold stone floors, and the utter silence in which they haunted the prison were other-worldly.

“At the end of this tour, you’ll report to the armory and be issued a Kolth-Bauer rifle, a black-jack, an alarm whistle, and a set of keys for cells 70-73. Those will be the cells you personally oversee. In addition, once a week you will be reassigned to the supervision of cell 74.” The commandant said before turning to look at Thomas. The commandant had a skeletal face and a thick mustache that seemed out of place. Thomas tried to keep his commander’s stern gaze but felt that he was under guard as much as the prisoners. “Do you have any questions?”

“Yes sir. Where is cell 74?” The commandant narrowed his eyes slightly at the question before directing Thomas’s attention to a lone cell door at the end of the hall, separate from the other rows. There were two guards stationed next to the door with a third sitting off to the side by a small wooden table.

“Any time you have to enter 74, you must enter it in the ledger. Captain Wilkins records every entry into 74. Under absolutely no circumstance will you be permitted to enter that cell without authorization from Captain Wilkins and a search for contraband from the sentries.”

“Yes sir.” Thomas said, uneasy with the severity of the commandant’s response.

“Any further questions?”

Thomas had one question. He wanted to know more about cell 74, but he dared not test the commandant’s patience any further.

“No, sir.”

“Name, rank, serial number, Captain Wilkins said in a mechanical monotone, not even bothering to look up from the leathery book on the table.

“Rourke, Thomas. Private. 8736-0152.” Thomas responded.

“Purpose of entry?” Captain Wilkins asked after recording Thomas’s responses.

“Delivery of food and cell inspection”

The captain recorded the information and checked earlier pages of the ledger. After a few minutes, he waved Thomas forward. He hadn’t moved two steps before one of the sentries ordered him to halt and prepare to be searched. The sentry patted Thomas down and inspected every possible piece of food on the iron tray.

“Turn over your rifle,” the sentry ordered, “Too unwieldy in a cell,” was the only explanation he got. Thomas felt uncomfortable with the idea of surrendering his rifle but was more fearful of refusing an order. He unslung his weapon from his shoulder and the sentry grabbed it out of his hands.

“Here is a service revolver. You are ordered to use this if 74 makes any sudden movements while you are in the cell,” the sentry said. Thomas took the pistol and shoulder holster, picked up the tray of food and moved to the cell door. The second sentry handed Thomas a candle lantern.

“It’s quite dark in there. You’ll be wanting this,” he said.

The sentries slowly turned the iron hatches, unlocking the black door. Once all the locks were removed, Captain Wilkins took a key out from his pocket and undid the final lock. Thomas was trembling as he heard the door unlock. Who could possibly be so dangerous? What could be so dangerous?

Hunter’s dance

Theodoric walked up to the townhouse door and gave a quick knock. The three constables with him stood waiting on the street. While they might be useful in getting access to reports and providing a plausible reason to break into a household, they’d be little use against what was possibly inside this shanty building.

The door opened to reveal a silver-haired old lady with a pinched and wrinkled face.

“Mrs. McCreedy?” Theodoric said in a calm and pleasant voice.

“Yes?” she responded in a sweet Irish accent.

“My name is detective Kendrick. I am here to investigate the damages inflicted yesterday. May I please come in?” he asked with a smile.

She beckoned him inside the house and he followed cautiously. Inside, the house was full of knick-knacks, pictures of a large family, weathered furniture and claustrophobic air. There was something else there too. Theodoric could feel it the minute he stepped inside. He followed the old lady up the stairs to a broom-cupboard of a room. There was debris scattered across the room and there were claw marks across the wall. He slid his hand underneath his overcoat and touched his revolver.

“Thank you very much for showing me the room Mrs. McCreedy. You have such a lovely home. Could I trouble you to wait outside with the constables while I examine the room?”

“Of course, officer. I’ll just be outside then,” she said as she shuffled off down the steps. He waited until he heard the down shut before tightening his grip on the pistol grip.

He whipped a small glass vial across the room and it shattered against an invisible surface. A fine white powder settled on the unseen intruder.

“I’d like the thank you for waiting until Mrs. McCreedy left before we started talking,” Theodoric said to the demon his vial had revealed.

“There is no reason we cannot observe civility,” the demon replied to him, its voice a sinful and deep rumbling in his ears. “I must say, it has been so long since any of your kind had the power to see me,”

“Salt taken from the Red Sea. It’s no great challenge once you know what to look for,”

“It is that simple. Pity so few of you know that. It’s so very boring at times, effortlessly slipping into your lives and then breaking your will,”

“That’s your flaw. You become too comfortable using your powers and hiding. Too much preying on lambs has cost you your fangs,”

The demon laughed, amused by the challenge issued by a mere mortal.

“I have fang enough to silence you with ease,” Theodoric knew how accurate that was. Demons were enough to put fear into even the most veteran of knights. It was practically suicide to fight one alone. But suicide or no, Theodoric would not run.

“And when I’m finished with you, that sweet old lady will be next. She has such a large family. It’s simply too tempting a prize to forfeit,” it said, it’s invisible mouth dripping with gluttonous anticipation.

“Your head is too tempting a prize for me to forfeit. I’m afraid that leaves us at an impasse,” Theodoric replied.

“So it does. Well, knight, it has been a lifetime since I’ve faced an opponent that posed a challenge. Do not disappoint me,”

The creature was staring at him, pure malice resonating from it. The static in the close air seemed to be feeding it as it grew more and more euphoric at the coming duel. Theodoric could feel sweat beading along his forehead and his pulse quickening in his neck. Second by second was torturously dragged on, with each one getting slower. The world froze around them. Even Theodoric’s breathing seemed to vanish. Everything froze, waiting in anticipation.

Moment by moment, the hiatus lingered like a shadow.

Then, the bolt came and the demon charged as Theodoric brought his pistol up to fire.