countdown to the end

Or:

A teaser for Cliff’s Edge, the last of the Callan books in the Iron Gentry series.


The forest rolled across this part of the country like a thick green blanket, covering the northern sprawl of mountains down through a spread of flat land, where the only things that interrupted the green were the patchwork brown of farms and the massive gray clutter of a city. In the swath of land between mountains and civilization, take a magnifying glass and look closer at the forest there. The road was relatively narrow, compared to the greater thoroughfare on the southern end, and the trees were just beginning to be tinged with the gold and scarlet of autumn.

A meandering half hour’s walk away from the city, among the gray and brown tree trunks, there was a flicker of something that could only be seen by the right eyes.

The wrong kind of eyes — or rather, a person with the wrong kind of eyes — squinted against the setting sun. The light filtered through the multicolored trees and turned the road into a dappled kaleidoscope of emerald and amber, alternately searing into his vision and leaving him in sudden darkness. The air was crisp and cool, but not unpleasantly so; what leaves that had already fallen crunched gently under his boots; it was the kind of evening that promised to get darker very quickly, but that would be no less benign when the sun had finished setting.

Therefore when the traveler heard a rustle, behind him on the right side, at first he thought it must be a squirrel or a rabbit. And when he turned, and could not find the source of the sound, he shrugged and put it down to the stillness and camouflage that prey animals often employ.

Then a shiver went down his spine, like someone had very lightly traced a finger down the middle of his back. But those shivers happened sometimes for no reason, didn’t they. “Someone walked over my grave,” he muttered to himself, and shook his head.

Close by, something laughed. Only it wasn’t what you’d call a laugh, exactly — it was closer to a snicker, the kind of sound you stifle behind your hands when you’re about to pull an awful prank on someone.

It wasn’t the kind of sound the traveler liked to hear, even on a sunset-dappled road not too far from home.

“Who’s there?”

The trees, innocent in the whole affair, remained silent and immobile.

“All right, come on out, I won’t whup you if you don’t deserve it,” the traveler said, using the same stern tone that he took with his oldest children. “You leave me alone, and I’ll leave you alone. That’s the end of it.”

Something else rustled behind him, and he spun on his heel to find the source of the sound, and now it was beginning to unsettle him that he still couldn’t see it. Whatever or whoever it was, it wasn’t possible to move that quickly, was it? Unless there were more than one …

“You stop that nonsense right now,” he said sharply.

“Or what?” said a rusty voice behind him.

This time he knew that it was a finger tracing down his spine, and he couldn’t suppress the automatic shudder of revulsion.

“Or what?” the voice repeated. “Tell us.”

He whipped around again, and he still couldn’t see the owner of that voice, and his own cracked automatically. “Show yourself!”

“If it please thee,” said a second voice, slyly, and he shuddered again.

Suddenly before him there were two feathery silhouettes. One of them turned to snicker at the other, and he saw the thick, sharp shape of a crow’s beak.

“What, thou wilt not speak, now?” said the other. It drew closer, its scaled clawed hands flexing at its sides. “Seelie got thy tongue?”

The first one laughed again, nastily.

“What are you?” he croaked.

“Stop talking,” said the second. With a click of its beak and a wave of its hand, suddenly the man felt his jaw glue shut. Instinctively he yelped with surprise, but only a muffled sound came out; and when he then tried to shout, he was just as unsuccessful. This, more than anything else, made his heart beat wildly against his ribcage. He stumbled backwards; his breath came fast and hard; he felt as though he were breathing through a straw, and wanted desperately to throw up, to scream, to do anything. He wanted to run, and knew that he would only fall over if he tried, because he couldn’t breathe; and he couldn’t, he couldn’t fall down around these things. He might be frozen stiff with fright, but at least he was upright.

“This one en’t putting up no fight,” said the first creature to the second. “Recall the last one?”

“Oh aye,” said the second. It sniggered. The creatures’ clawed feet made the leaves rustle as they approached, circled around him slowly once, and came back to stand before him. “Then again, the last one had somethin’ goin’ for it. This one? Not so much.”

“Still,” said the first. It stepped close to him — uncomfortably close, and he smelled the fug of decay on its glossy black feathers and gagged — and with its neat clawed hand, it prodded sharply at his shoulder.

Its bright black eyes glittered with cruel amusement.

“There now, human man, let’s see how fast thou can run.”

He didn’t need telling twice. But it wasn’t long (in fact it wasn’t much longer than a minute’s worth of reedy panicked breaths) before he tripped, and went down, and they caught up to him with their wicked-sharp claws.

And it wasn’t until the next day, around mid-morning, that a different traveler on a wagon found a mute, terrified, mutilated man by the side of the forest road.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” said the second man to the first, but bundled him up in his spare cloak to keep off the autumn chill and helped him onto the wagon …

… And never knew, or never understood, the haunted look in the first man’s eyes that told him he knew exactly how lucky (or unlucky) he had been.

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