“You say you’ve been traveling for how long?”
“About two weeks now, I’ve been following the shortest route.”
“Did nobody tell you the shortest route was also the most dangerous?”
“Dangerous? My map didn’t mention that at all.”
“Let me see that.”
Shuffling through his pack the traveler pulled out his map and spread it out on the ground in front of the countryman.
“Yep, you see this pass right here? That’s where we’re at, your map doesn’t list a road at all.”
“Oh, the last tavern keeper pointed me this way.”
“Well he doesn’t know the area like I do, a magical beast hunts this pass at night.”
The traveler shot a nervous glance towards the sun, already beginning to dip behind the western mountain. “Maybe I should head back and take the extra day to go around…”
The countryman just shook his head. “You won’t make it back before the sun sets. Best to just stay here.”
He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “Thank you sir, what’s your name?”
“I am Kuman of the Steeps, and your name traveler?”
“I’m Herron of Portsville.” Herron held out his hand in a friendly offering.
Kuman glanced at down but didn’t offer his own in greeting. “I only ask that you follow two rules during your time.”
Herron shot another glance towards the mountains which ate away at the light like shadows on a dying flame. “Anything you ask.”
“Good. First, you will leave as first light breaks over the Eastern mountains. The pass can be crossed in a day from here, which way you choose to travel is of no consequence to me.”
Herron nodded his agreement.
“Secondly, during the night you’ll hear a tapping on the windows and doors. Under no circumstance are you to open either, for any reason.”
“I shall do as you ask.”
“Very well, enter quickly. The beast is likely on his way already.”
Kuman turned to the side and gestured into the doorway of his home. Herron shuffled in quickly thankful to be inside.
Decorating the walls of Kuman’s home were various packs of different style and shapes. They hung along one side of the cabin taking up almost every inch of one wall. He stopped to gaze at them all, marveling at the collection. Some alluded to wealth, made of quality stitching with small glittering rocks for buttons. Others looked like the rucksacks typically carried by beggars, filled with patchworks and small holes.
Kuman slammed the door closed behind him, causing Herron to jump slightly. The large countryman only gave a amused grunt as he began to fasten the doors and windows.
“Is there anything I can help with?” Herron asked.
“No. I will do this, I must ensure they are all closed correctly.”
Herron shuffled on his feet for a few seconds unsure of what to do, before deciding to settle down at the table in the center of the room. “Why do you have so many bags?”
“I collect them from travelers who continue up the path.”
“I see,” Herron paused studying the bags once again, “why aren’t they left bloody and torn after the beasts attacks?”
Kuman slammed the last window shut, and pulled the shutters. His home was now cast in complete darkness except for the glow from his fireplace. He walked to the waning embers and tossed in a bundle of tinder as he stroked the fire. Satisfied with its glow he turned over a sand dial on a cabinet by the fire, and came to the table.
“The beast is a sadistic creature, he likes to toy with his victims. Strike when they’re most vulnerable, running in fear through the night. He’s been trying to get me for fifteen years, tapping on my glass every night to see if I’ll peak out.”
“I don’t understand, if this beast is as ferocious as you say why doesn’t it just rip down the door?”
“You don’t need to understand!” Kuman slammed his fist down on the table. “All that matters is under no circumstance do you look outside during the night.”
Herron held up his hands defensively, startled by the outburst. “Of course Kuman, I swear I won’t.”
“Good, now I suggest we sleep. The less time we spend awake the less the beast can tempt us.”
Herron pondered at the question, but thought better than to ask after the outburst from before. “Where should I sleep?” he asked instead.
“Across the room by the window there’s a small cot.”
Herron nodded and collected his things hurrying to his bed for the night.
Kuman fell asleep quickly in his bed. His back faced the rest of the cabin, his face practically mushed against the logs. As much as Herron tried to sleep, he found himself unable with the loud noises originating from Kuman in his sleep.
Each time his eyelids would droop another violent sound would come from across the room. Herron, as weary as he was from his day of walking, longed for sleep. His mind questioned his decision to stay here as he mused his suffering.
Tap tap tap.
Came a sound from the window just over his head. He froze momentarily straining his eyes to look away from the shuttered window.
Tap tap tap.
“Leave me alone,” he groaned in frustration, “I just want sleep.”
Tap tap tap.
It came again, as if in response. Herron jumped slightly, startled by its persistence. He decided to stay quiet, in the hopes the creature would leave.
Tap tap tap tap tap tap.
The sound came again, now at a steady rhythm that would not end. Herron could feel the sound filling his head. It seemed to drown out everything even Kuman’s loud snores. In frustration he grabbed his bag and pulled it over his head, hoping to blot out the sound from the window.
As he squeezed the bag over his head, the rhythmic tapping stopped without reason. He poked his eyes out from under the bag and stared towards the shuttered window. His curiosity grew more and more as he studied the shade. He sat as patiently as he could, expecting the tapping to return at any moment.
Another violent sound from Kuman made him jolt up from his cot, his mind filled with visions of the beast tearing down the door.
There’s gotta be a way to sneak back to town, that beast has given up by now.
Even though he had promised not to, he made his way towards the window. His hand shook as he reached for the secured blind.
Just a peak is all I need, enough to see if the beast is still around.
He pulled on one corner, separating it just enough to see out with one eye. He scanned the forest back and forth, prying as much as he could in the dim light. He breathed a sigh of relief as he saw no creature stalking through the forest or around the hovel. Then, something deep in the forest caught his eye. Two silvery orbs the size of a stone hovered above the ground.
What is that? he thought, just as he began to feel a pressure on his skin. The pressure built rapidly from a small tingle to a tug. He felt his body being pressed against the wood, as it seemed to turn ethereal and sink in. In the snap of an instant, Herron felt himself surrounded by the cold of the night. His naked body dangled in the hand of a large beast still cloaked in moonlight. All he could see were two silvery orbs the size of dinner plates, and a large grin of razor teeth.
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