“An’ don’t come back without som’thin’ ta eat!”
His da’s words burned in Coln’s ears as he staggered out the door, his side hurting from where the man had caught him with a hard foot. Trying to stay on his feet, he tripped and fell in the filthy street, landing in a puddle of stagnant water. He pushed himself up on his elbows and wiped the grime from his face, then glanced back at the hovel they currently called home.
His da stood in the doorway, reeking of sour sweat, cheap gutjack, and failure. He stared sullenly at Coln through sunken eyes the colour of mud, then raised the small ceramic flask to his lips and drained it.
“Y’heard me, ya useless cur!” he shouted, flinging the bottle at Coln, narrowly missing his head. It shattered with a tinkle on the metal floor of the alley. “Git out there and bring back some food! Or som’thin’ ta drink! Ya ain’t comin’ back in ’til ya do, hear me?”
Shaking his head in disgust, the man turned and stumbled back inside, leaving his son out on the dark streets of Gelspar all alone.
Coln stared at the closed door for a few moments, then raised trembling fingers to his throbbing cheek. He had gotten scraped when he’d fallen, and his fingertips came away bloody. He licked them clean, then pulled up the ragged hem of his shirt to dab at the bleeding until it stopped. His blood merged with the dozens of other stains on his shirt, forming a stiff, dirty crust on one of the two items of clothing he could call his own.
With a last scornful glare at his home and the useless waste of a parent inside, he trudged away, his bare feet splashing through the puddles of cold water that constantly dripped down from the rest of the city overhead. His stomach growled as he walked, but he knew he had to bring something back for his dad if he didn’t want to spend the night on the streets. And no one wanted to do that. You might make it through one if you could find a good hiding place, two if you were lucky, but few survived three nights outside in Gelspar. Coln had known too many people who were here one day, and just disappeared the next. The only problem was where to find enough food to satisfy both his father and still leave a few bites left for himself. A bottle would be better, but the Order had nearly chained him the last time he’d gotten his hands on some gutjack, and he had no desire to see their well-fed, smirking faces again. No, he’d just have to see what he could scrounge up. Maybe there was a ship at the Port of Dreams he could sneak aboard—
“Hey! Hey, Coln, stop!”
The shout interrupted his plotting, and he looked up to see two teens from the Alley Bleeders charging right at him. The second he saw them, Coln took off running the other way. They finally caught me, he thought as he pounded down the narrow street.
The Bleeders weren’t coming after him to say hello. Last week, Coln had been hired by the minor gang to serve as lookout while they pulled a robbery in the warehouse district by the Red. The operation had been botched from the start, with the Order waiting for them. Coln had given the alert, then barely escaped the dragnet himself. He’d walked away with nothing but his freedom, but all that earned him was a beating the next morning when he returned home empty-handed.
“Gonna make ya fly, rat!” one of the gangers shouted as they chased him. Obviously, the Bleeders thought he had double-crossed them. “Making him fly” meant taking him to the edge of the slum and throwing him over. Even though Coln’s life was wretched every day, he didn’t want to give it up just yet.
He burst out of the street and across the Hacksaw, a dilapidated lane of metal that spanned one of the many chasms throughout Gelspar. The wind, channeled through the packed rows of crude buildings, lashed at him, pushing him within a few steps of the edge, but he corrected for it and ran on. The larger boys slowed a bit as they entered the bridge, also wary of being blown off into the dark below.
Their hesitation allowed Coln to extend his lead, and when he hit the other side, he scanned for a place to hide. Spotting a narrow gap between two ramshackle buildings, he headed for it, but skidded to a stop at the entrance, his nose wrinkling at an acrid odour he knew well—miasma.
“Twistmist” they called it down here—the mysterious vapor kept at bay by the hearth crystals that could poison a person’s mind and body if they were exposed to it long enough. Coln hesitated, then glanced over his shoulder at the running gang members. Better a maybe death than a certain one, he thought. Pulling his dirty shirt over his mouth and nose, he ducked into the opening.
The foul-smelling cloth blocked the odour of the mist and the stink of the rotting garbage littering the ground, but Coln knew every second he stayed in here risked further contamination. Hopefully the Bleeders would think he kept running and pass him by. Finding a relatively bare spot, he hunkered down and kept a watchful eye on the opening to the street outside.
That’s when he heard a low growl from behind him.
Coln froze right where he was. The sound was unlike anything he’d ever heard before—not that he ever got the chance to see an animal in Gelspar that often. It was rumbling and breathy, but also an oddly wavering noise… almost like whatever was making it wasn’t entirely there.
Slowly, he turned to look at what was menacing him… and for a moment, thought there was nothing behind him at all. The growl sounded again, but then tapered off into more of a whine. Peering closer, Coln saw movement amid the shadows at the back of his hiding space. The form woofed at him and shifted, then whined right afterward.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t attacking him, so Coln stood up and hesitantly stepped toward it. Squinting, he could make out what appeared to be a squat, powerful dog of some kind… but this was unlike any dog he’d ever seen before.
The hound was large, its broad shoulders rising above his waist, and coal-black, with squat, powerful legs, and a shovel-shaped face with large, jagged jaws. As it wriggled and whined, every so often parts of its body shifted and blurred into black smoke before solidifying again. It also appeared to be stuck where it stood, even though it seemed like it should be able to pass through anything. As Coln got closer, the hound dipped its head and woofed at him.
“Wha’s ’hat?” Coln turned just enough to hear one of the Bleeders at the entrance.
“Y’hear somethin’?” the other asked.
“Yeah, in’nere… le’s check it.”
Right in front of the hound now, Coln could see why it was stuck. A narrow rod of metal jutting up from the floor had impaled its side, and although it seemed to be trying to turn that area to smoke and free itself, for some reason it wasn’t happening.
“Stinks in’ere… twistmist all over th’place,” the second Bleeder said.
“Don’ matter… he gotta pay for turnin’ the knife on us.”
Coln was trapped… just like you are, he realized, staring down at the hound. Neither of them wanted to be here, yet here they both were. But…
He studied the rod—it could be done, but it would hurt… a lot. He stared into the hounds glowing eyes. Will you trust me?
The dog woofed quietly.
“There y’are. Nowhere ta run, gutter rat,” the first ganger said as drew a thin-bladed knife.
Grabbing the top of the rod, Coln hung on it with all his weight. The metal shivered, then began bending down.
“We’ll make it quick, don’t worry,” the other one said, slapping the metal-tipped end of a club into his free hand.
The rod bent over until the hound could get off—if it could wriggle sideways. It shuddered and shook, scrabbling with its paws, but couldn’t get enough traction.
Coln grabbed its torso with both hands and held its gaze again with his own. “Easy, boy… easy now.” The hound quit struggling and just watched him.
“What ya doin’ there, ratty?” the first Bleeder asked.
“Helpin’ m’new friend,” Coln said as he pulled at the hound’s body with all his might. It snapped at the air as it slid free of the rod, but didn’t bite at him or claw him with its huge paws.
As it got its feet back under it, it did see both gang members advancing on them, and let out a growl that echoed of the walls of the makeshift chamber.
“Whoa… didn’ know ya had tha’ sorta friend…” The two Bleeders began retreating as quickly as they’d entered. The hound took one step forward, opened its mouth, and barked once. The sound hit the two gangers like a blast, and the pair turned to run from the area like they were on fire.
The hound plopped down on its hindquarters and looked back at Coln with a satisfied woof, as if confirming that it had taken care of business. Coln approached it carefully, surprised to see that its injury seemed to be closing up already. Except for a bit of drying dark blood, there was little sign it had ever been injured in the first place.
He reached out a tentative hand, ready to pull it back if necessary, but the hound stayed still and placid. Touching its head was a unique sensation—the dog’s skin was warm and its skull was solid, but even so, Coln got the sense that it was constantly on the verge of shifting into that smoke form at any second. It didn’t, however, and raised its head to lick his palm with a broad, rough tongue, making him grin.
“Yer a big one,” he muttered as he dared to stroke its head again. “Bet yer hungry, ain’tcha?” He walked to the entrance of the narrow space and looked outside. The street was deserted. He looked back to find the hound right by his side, staring up at him, as if it had always been there.
“Come on… let’s get you something to eat.”
* * *
It didn’t take long to retrace his path back to Coln’s shack. He walked with a new purpose now, not slinking from shadow to shadow, but proudly, without fear. And indeed, the various denizens of the darkness looked at him, then looked harder at his new companion, and decided to go find easier prey.
Soon enough, he stood at the door of his home. Raising a fist, he pounded on the door, then stepped back and waited.
“Wha… who’s there?” a bleary voice asked from inside.
“I’m back, Da,” Coln said, his hand on the neck of the hound, which stood silently beside him, every muscle tensed and ready.
“What?…. Coln, what’re ya goin’ on…” The door creaked open, and his da stared out through slitted eyes. “What’d bring me?”
“I didn’t bring you any food, if that’s what you mean,” Coln said, lifting his hand. “But I did bring someone back here to eat.”
Shocked understanding dawned on his father’s face even as the hound took a step forward, then another. “Boy… Coln, now wait a… just… wait, please!”
Coln’s Da threw an arm up as the hound sprang on him, but it wasn’t nearly enough. He staggered back as the animal sank its jaws into his flesh, and the two fell back into the shadows, struggling and barking.
And as he waited outside for the fight to end, Coln thought his da’s screams and cries, along with the hound’s savage growls, were the sweetest music he had ever heard.
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.