A GROUP OF MONKS fled with the forest snapping at their heels. The forest itself squealed with bending tree limbs and groaning trunks; the deafening thrashing of lush branches grew wilder as the exhausted and despairing monks burst into a clearing. They prayed to be able to see the next village from the treeline. It couldn’t be far.
Instead of a village, a massive stone wall choked with vines and lichen blocked their path.
“Over here!” To their right, two men leaned out from a section of crumbled wall, waving their arms. “This way!”
Without losing a moment, the monks dashed for the opening in the wall and tripped through it over partly buried stones.
Inside the wall, the monks found themselves in a spacious, overgrown courtyard flanked by a buckled cobblestone path and a fallen tree, long dead. A smattering of structures large and small made up what remained of a once well-to-do dwelling place where every last structure was blackened and damaged by fire to some extent. Many had collapsed and existed only as incongruous piles sprouting patches of hardy grasses and dotted by flowers; saplings grew strong from between stones here and there as they pleased.
Several other people had taken shelter in the walled space: a huddled family of four with a year-old infant; a sullen young goat herder who was surrounded by his anxiously bleating wards; a golden war horse whose ears were pricked with curiosity rather than terror that stood in the farthest aspect of the yard where grass grew green and happy; and behind that horse hid jittery bay palfrey that snorted at every sound from the forest.
A blast of wind ripped across the opening in the wall followed by an ear-popping boom, however the gust didn’t touch the clothes of either man standing just inside the entrance. Inside the wall, they appeared to be safe from the angry forest spirits.
The first of the two men was a knight. He was clad in an azure tunic belted over glinting chain mail, light fawn hair fell to his shoulders, and a well kept beard framed his kind and easily recognizable face.
“Sir Falhsing!” cried the elder monk as the knight moved to speak to them. “Thank the heavens!”
Smiling courteously, Sir Falhsing waited for monks’ outpouring of joy and gratitude to subside before speaking.
“This wall belongs to one of the old rectories,” he explained. “It had been partly destroyed during the war and was abandoned rather than repaired. Thankfully, holy ground remains holy even after the priests who blessed it are gone.”
The second man was a wiry fellow with a beard. Clad in simple clothes appropriate for riding, he said nothing as he continued to watch the trees.
“Hallowed be thy name, oh Lord!” said a monk with cherub cheeks.
“This holy ground has kept evil at bay.” The elder monk addressed his people, “My brothers and sisters, let us give thanks…”
As the monks circled together and murmured a chant-like prayer, the wiry man glanced aside and spoke in low tones to the knight who rejoined him at the opening in the wall. It was then that the elder monk caught a glimpse of the wiry man’s face. It shimmered strangely like a reflection in a pond, and behind it was a second face. A huge face. Square, brutish, with piercing eyes. Its lips moved in perfect synchrony with the outward face.
The elder monk stared in horror. “That man…”
The prayer petered out as his baffled brethren followed his gaze.
“What is it, Brother Bernard?” asked a young monk with a hawkish nose on a pinched face.
“That man…” Pointing, the elder monk cleared his throat. “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”
Everyone—the monks, the knight, the huddled family, the unhappy goat herder— turned their collective heads to regard the wiry man who appeared every bit a common villager.
The wiry man stared back. “How could I stand on hallowed ground if I was evil?”
Gazes returned to the monk who grumbled something unintelligible as Sir Falhsing and the wiry man turned their attention to the forest.
“How are you standing on hallowed ground, Coxon?” Falhsing whispered to the wiry man in jest. “Doesn’t it burn?”
Exhaling in hiss through his teeth, the wiry man squinted out at the trees. “It would if I was actually evil.”
“You’re probably more tainted now than you’ve ever been.” When his companion frowned at him in bewilderment, Fahlsing nodded. “The person you’re possessing is less likely to do good and more likely to kick starving dogs, drink the tavern dry, and knock over small children.”
Coxon became introspective. “I should find a beehive and stick his head in it.”
Fahlsing smiled effortlessly. “At any rate, I wish you would’ve chosen a different body. Someone of my station consorting with a man of such ill repute…” He gave a half-shake of his head and clicked his tongue. “It’s hardly above suspicion. The raven or wolf suited you much better. Even a feral cat would be more favorable.”
“I agree wholeheartedly, unfortunately archers keep threading my animal forms with arrows.” Coxon looked down at his hands. “For now I’ll settle for having thumbs. However, if you’re eager to help, then, by all means, find for me an animal that’s not infested with parasites and that’s of a species that hunters rarely feel urges to murder, and I’ll wear it happily.”
” ‘Find one’.” Fahlsing scoffed, folding his arms. “How do you suppose I do that? Play a fairy’s flute and charm the forest creatures into allowing me to inspect their bodies for fleas and lice?”
A mocking salute. “Then enjoy consorting with the village drunk.”
A resounding boom from deep in the forest shook the ground. The shrill screech of something unearthly split the air in bizarre warbles, followed by a series of consecutive booms and bangs, and the sound of a falling tree. This earned a fresh round of discordant bleating from the goats, snorts from the palfrey, prayers from the people, and wailing from the infant.
Fahlsing and Coxon were unconcerned.
“I’ve seen foxes all over these lands,” said Fahlsing. “Fairly robust creatures. I could—ah, no, no, wait.” He lifted a gloved finger as he searched his mind. “There’s a merchant. In Zenna.” He pointed at his companion. “The loud one with the striped donkey. He has a honey badger that’s been impossible to sell. It’s well cared for and well fed. That would do?”
Coxon’s brows arched. “Did you say honey badger?”
Coxon considered the knight in astonishment for a long moment before he broke into a long peal of laughter—a soulful, nostalgic sound that Fahlsing hadn’t heard since before Coxon perished in battle and became the wandering soul that he was.
A rush of emotion surprised Fahlsing. Startled, he looked away quickly, out at the trees, and waited for it to pass.
“Only if I get to travel…” Coxon said between giggles, “In a sack on your back… so I can growl at anything that passes!”
Behind them, the monks stared disapprovingly at their backs.
Fahlsing cleared his throat. “First,” he said as his companion wiped a tear from a borrowed eye, “We need to devise ordinary means of escape for these people lest we expose your true nature and risk an exorcism.”
Coxon shuddered. “Dear God, not again.”
“Hell doesn’t want you anyway.”
“Neither does Heaven apparently. Hence why I’m still here.”