Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Part VIII: The Map

         Murphy vanished before Balric’s eyes.  The manservant looked every which way to see if he could spot where the ghost went, but there was nothing.  Silence.  Then, there was a breeze, and Balric felt a chill.  It began at his fingertips; slowly it crept up into his hands.  Panic started to seize Balric and he furiously rubbed his hands together for warmth.  There was none to be had.  The chill only inched higher.
“Master!” Balric called, but Declan did not answer.  It was only Mad Murphy’s laughter that replied to the manservant’s call: evil and echoing.
The chill kept rising; up his forearms and into his shoulders.  It spilled over a bit into his chest before finally cascading into the rest of him.  Balric fell over, clutching at himself for warmth.  Nothing worked.  This was the coldest he’d ever felt, and his limbs began to ache even as they were beginning to dull.  
  Balric looked up at Delcan one last time as he felt the chill spread to the furthest reaches of his toes.  His master’s head was bowed and the lad’s hands were out, as though ready to receive a gift.  
The map materialized instantly.  It held a moment, in the air above Declan’s awaiting hands.  Then, like a feather, it began to float down.  Once it touched Declan’s fingers it was clutched tightly.  Balric saw his master’s head rise suddenly, and the boy began to run.  
“Now Balric!” Declan shouted as he ran toward his freezing serf.
“Now?”  Now what?” Balric thought amidst the agony of the chill.  His mind was wracked with the pain he felt, and when he could wrench his thinking from his torment he only gained brief instants of conscious thought.  “Is this it?”
“Big picture!” Declan screamed as Balric writhed on the ground.
“Big picture?” Balric thought as he felt his heart getting slower and slower.  His mind was easing and things were growing dark in his eyes.  Shadow was falling from the corners, and even Declan seemed so distant and far away.  “Big picture,” he thought one last time as it all faded.
And then…

Balric opened his eyes with a start.  He breathed deeply, as though he had been drowning.  He sat up and came face to face with Declan, who had been kneeling over him.  Declan was wearing a look of relief.  
After a good few moments of taking in sweet air, Balric greeted his master with the widest smile he had ever given in his life. 
“Balric?” Declan asked concernedly.
“I understood master,” Balric answered.
A high pitched scream echoed all around them.  Declan looked up.  Balric looked up.  Slowly, the pair rose to their feet and took in their surroundings.  They could see no sign of Mad Murphy.
Darkness, pitch as…pitch, suddenly fell on them and closed them in as though they were in a bubble.  Here and there, though, they could see cracks of light shining through.  The black tried to cover up where the light had pierced, but the black struggled to keep up.  
“How is this possible?” Murphy’s harsh, high-pitched voice boomed in the bubble.  “You’re mine slave!”
“No sir.  I’m not,” Balric replied stoutly.  
“Declan, tell this impudent cur he belongs to me now.  You gave him to me!” Murphy’s voice shrieked.  
“Did I?  I don’t believe I ever said that…explicitly,” Declan replied impishly.  “All I said was that Balric and I needed the map and that we both had living souls.  Thank you, by the way, for giving us the map.  Very generous, wouldn’t you agree Balric?”
“Fool!” Murphy chortled.  “You think semantics work in the land of the dead?  I gave nothing.  In this place, a deal doesn’t need to be spoken to be struck.  The exchange only needs to be agreed to in the mind.”
“Well, there’s your answer then.  Even if I could, I would never give up Balric’s soul.  Not for anything.  Of course, that’s not really what did you in though.  Balric?” Declan bowed and gestured to his manservant.
“Thank ye kindly sir,” Balric bowed back to his master.  “Far as I could tell from a brief, but lovely visit to the other side…one man don’t own another.  Your own pride’s what got you, Mad Murphy.  Specially since there’s something so important about my service to Declan that you don’t seem to understand.”
“What’s that dog?!” Murphy wailed, clearly in some form of pain.  Light was breaking through the shadow bubble more and more now.  Piercing it like swords.
“I don’t serve for pay,” Balric said with resolve.
“Ugh” Murphy reacted as though he’d been dealt a blow.
“Nor some family legacy,” Balric spat.
“I serve for friendship.  For loyalty.  Honor!” 
“Ooh!  Ow!  Pew!” Murphy’s bubble was halfway gone now.
“Are you startin to see the big picture?” Balric asked with a cavalier grin.
“How…is….this….possible?!” Murphy howled.
“Precisely cause I aint no slave,” Balric laughed.  “I volunteered.”
There was one last piercing scream as a beam of light shot through the heart of the dark.  Declan and Balric closed their eyes and could feel the swirling wind blow all around them.
When it died down, they opened their eyes to see the sun rising on Saltana.  In the light of the morning, the place did not look at all frightening or menacing; just sad and barren.
“We did it Balric!” Declan said as he clapped his manservant on the back.
“Aye sir, we did,” Balric replied.
“You scared me for a moment there,” Declan said.  “I almost thought you wouldn’t figure out my plan in time to fight his hold over you.”
“It took a bit longer’an I would have liked,” Balric said.  “But I should’ve known you’d never sacrifice me.”
“Never, my friend,” Declan said simply.  “Now!  Shall we run?”
“Only if we want to make it back in time,” Balric said as he stood up.
“Good!” Declan said as he stood as well.  “Oh, wait.  We’re so far off the main road, I don’t’ know if I remember the way back to the docks.”
“Don’t you worry sir, I’ve been thinkin bout going back since we got here.  I can find the way,” Balric said as he began walking.
“Excellent!  You lead,” Declan said as he began prodding Balric from the back to start running.  “One moment Balric, would you mind holding this for me?”
Balric turned around to see Declan holding out the map he’d just swindled Mad Murphy out of.  
“The map?  Really sir?” Balric asked, dumbfounded.
“It should fit nicely in your satchel, and I hate running with something in my hands if I don’t have to.  Now, on Balric!” Declan said as he pointed ahead.  
Balric smiled, turned, and began to run.  His master was close behind.  He looked up at the sun trying to judge the time.  “Even the sun don’t help you with tellin the time here,” Balric thought.  Nothin to do but keep my head down, get to the docks, and trust to a little luck.”

They were off!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Part VII: Mad Murphy

              “That’s enough!” a strong voice yelled out.
            Balric spit out the little wine he’d taken into his mouth.  He turned then, and standing in the doorway through which he’d come was Declan.
            “Master?!” Balric was incredulous.
            “Did you swallow?” Declan asked quickly.
            “Never swallow,” Balric answered in rote. 
            “NEVER swallow!” the living Declan declared with a smile.  “Good man!”
            Balric found himself smiling wide in return.  For a moment, he’d forgotten the situation he was in and reveled in something familiar.  Then, realization struck him and he turned back to his host.  The ghost Declan was still there, but the shade was not smiling now. 
            “Pardon sir, but who are you?” Balric asked of the phantom.
            “My friend!  I’m hurt!” the ghost replied as he put a hand to his chest.  “How could you dismiss me so quickly?  Unless…Saltana is getting to you.  Yes, I see you’re falling under its spell.  As you did with that merchant we faced.”
            Balric turned back to the living Declan.  Then to the ghost.  Then back to the live one.  Again to the ghost.  “They’re identical!  Who am I s’posed to believe?”
            “Worry not, my friend,” the living Declan boomed.  “There is a simple answer to this riddle.”
            “There is?” Balric asked.
            “What could be in that admittedly handsome head of yours?” the ghost directed to his live counterpart.
            “Only this,” the Declan with a pulse said as he placed a hand on Balric’s shoulder and beamed with a smile Balric only saw when the lad won a game of chess.  “Why don’t you tell my manservant here what his name is?”
            “What does that have to do with anything?” the ghost replied calmly, also wearing an easy smile.
            “I’ve been standing in the doorway listening for the better part of your conversation.  Not once in that entire time did you refer to my friend by his name.  If you really were me, you’d have used it at least three times.  It’s very enjoyable to say.  The reason you haven’t, is because you don’t know it,” the live Declan finished with a flourish.
            Balric immediately set to thinking back over the entire conversation.  But focus as he did, he could not remember if the ghost had used his name or not.  The shock of losing Declan was all he could dwell for the last half hour.
            “Go on then.  Prove me wrong,” the breathing young lord dared.
            The ghost rose, rather than stood, upright.  Balric felt a surge of excitement.  The living Declan towered behind him while the shade loomed before them both. 
            “Well played,” the ghost giggled.  “I don’t know the fool’s name.  What use is it to me?  He is a servant.  A fact I immediately saw when he walked in.  I didn’t think he’d be missed.”
            “Well, you are wrong sir.  I’d miss him,” Decaln said.
            “You’d miss me master?” Balric asked.
            “Not now Balric.”
            “I suppose a softer man like you would form an attachment to servants rather than to fellow nobles,” the shade mocked.
            “I assure you I am no soft man.  I am hard.  Hard as stone.  Hard as a Chinese puzzle box.  Hard as comforting your wife after a slip of the tongue.  Hard as…”
            “I don’t quite see where you’re going with this, but I can tell I may have misjudged.  Clearly you’re someone who pays attention to the details.  Even this fool couldn’t’ tell I was being vague during our chat.  He was too caught up in losing his master,” the ghost scoffed.
            “I feel like I should stand up for myself,” Balric said.  “I dunno how, to be honest, but still.”
            “There there Balric, don’t let this merchant offend you.  He’s just sore that he lost,” Declan said with another of those chess-winning smiles.
            “Aren’t you a tasty dish,” the ghost said.  “How do you know that I am a merchant and not some other ghost?  Saltana is a bazaar it’s true, but we are in the underworld after all.”
            Declan put his hands behind his back and started to walk.  It seemed to Balric his master intended to walk in circles while answering the ghost’s question.  The problem, as Balric also saw, was that the shack they were all in was large enough for a small round table, a pair of chairs and nothing else. 
            “Quite simple really; it was the wine that gave you away.  You see, the ferryman that brought us into Saltana…oh, excuse me Balric,” Declan interrupted himself as he squeezed past his manservant to finish his first revolution.
            “The ferryman said that the only way merchants of this bazaar could be freed was if they sold one of their wares to the living in exchange for a soul.  And so they would pass on.  You were much more cunning than…oh, sorry Balric,” Declan inched past his friend a second time.
            “You were much more cunning than the last merchant.  You didn’t offer Balric your goods directly.  Instead, you played on his distress at having lost his master to get him to drink your wine.  Very cle…oh bother, sorry again Balric I thought I’d have gotten through it all by the third time,” Declan said as he squeezed past.  “Clever!”
            “Mm, scrumptious,” the ghost replied.  “Such perceptive reasoning escapes most living folk who make it this far.  Who are you my dear boy?”
            “I think I have earned the right to your name before I give you mine, sir,” Declan said.
            “Very well.  I am Charles Montgomery Murphy.  Very pleased to make your acquaintance,” the shade said as he bowed. 
            “That sounds awful familiar,” Balric thought as his brain began to comb his memory for where he’d heard that name before.
            “I am Declan Bruntfodder.  And this is Balric,” Declan said as he tilted his head toward Balric.
            “Declan Bruntfodder.  That is a name I will keep in my bosom until the end of time,” Charles said as it seemed to Declan that he licked his translucent lips with a glowing tongue.  “Tell me Declan, are you a curious man?”
            “I beg your pardon?” it was the first time in the conversation that Declan seemed he did not have the upper hand.
            “In life, I was very curious.  It’s one of the few qualities that passed over with me into death.  So I simply must ask, what brings a nobleman like you to Saltana?” Charles finished.
            “I seek a map!” Declan proclaimed.
            “Master!” Balric cried.
            “Cat’s out of the bag now Balric.”
            “What map?” Charles asked calmly.
            “Sir, I really think you need to be more cautious,” Balric whispered as he stood to get close to his master’s ear.
            “It’s alright,” Declan said loud enough for Charles to hear.  “We need to move quickly.  Besides, who is Charles going to tell?”
            “Ha,” the burst of laughter from Charles caught them both off-guard.  “Precisely!  You really are delightful aren’t you?  The world needs more spirited noblemen like you.  Perhaps if I can ever get out of this damned place I’ll be reincarnated.”
            “Reincarnated?” Declan asked.
            “It means to be reborn.  I learned about it in India.  Very few nobles there,” Charles said.
            “Indeed.  We’ve been to India as well.  You just didn’t strike me as the type of person who would have traveled.  When you were alive, I mean,” Declan said.
            “Well, you are wrong my handsome friend.  An insatiable desire for discovery drove me and cataloguing my findings became my legacy.  I traveled the world and early on began making maps as a, sort of seaman’s journal.  They told the story of where I had been, and where I had yet to go,” Charles finished as he looked out the small window in the shack, seemingly to the life he left behind.
            “Pardon sir, did you ever visit a place called Miranga Island?” Balric asked timidly.
            “Now that my little ruse is up, I suggest you tell your dog to keep to himself.  Two noblemen are trying to have a conversation,” Murphy replied as he turned back to Declan.
            “I can take it from here Balric,” Declan said with a smile and a pat on the shoulder.
            “Yes sir,” Balric replied.
            “Have you ever been to Miranga Island?” Declan asked of Charles.
            “I have.  Tiny island…always a good place to round up a crew with minimal questions,” Charles answered with a grin.
            “Did you make a map to it?” Declan asked.
            “Come with me,” Charles said as his grin grew wide enough to bear his ghostly teeth.
            He led the pair out of the small shack they had been in to the sparse desolation outside.  Nothing but scorched earth and dunes of ash surrounded them as they walked.  There was no road and it seemed Charles was taking them away from any sense of the bazaar into the desert of the dead.  Charles stopped over a particularly dark patch of earth and turned to face them. 
            “Like any good pirate treasure, what you seek is buried here,” Charles said.
            Then, the ghost bent low and put his hand through the ground.  When he pulled it out, he held an old, yellowed scroll.  He rose upright again and offered the scroll to Declan.
            “You’ll want to examine it, I’m sure.  It’s what I would do.  And we are so alike the two of us.  So clever…and strapping,” Charles said.
            “Thank you,” Declan said with bated breath as he took the scroll from Charles.  He opened it immediately, his hands shaking in anticipation.  He unrolled it and looked at it for several moments, squinting in the dark of the underworld.  Balric tried looking at it over his shoulder, but Declan was moving it this way and that trying to find some more light.
            “Balric?” Declan finally asked as he held the map in front of his manservant’s face.  Balric tried to take the map from his master, but Declan held on tight.  Balric studied it as best he could, moving his head like Declan had to try and catch more light. 
            “Well?” Declan’s voice came, forcefully.  Almost gruff, it seemed to Balric.  He’d never heard his master like that before.
            “Seems to be what we’re lookin for.  Based on what we know, o’course.  But somethin’s off…” Balric began.
            “Thank you Balric, that’s all I need to know,” Declan interrupted.
            “Indeed,” Charles said.  Even for a ghost, Balric could see that he was fidgety.  Anxious.  Then, suddenly, he let out a blood curdling laugh.  “HAHAHAHA.  Indeed.  Yet now we come to the elephant in the forsaken land of the dead.  I am happy to give you this map, but in exchange, I require a living soul.”
            Instantly, the map flew from Declan’s hand and hovered over its owner’s pale head.  The grin that Balric saw on Murphy’s face belied more than mere satisfaction.  It was no chess-winning smile, but the smile of a predator that had cornered its prey.  To look into the eyes of Charles Murphy at that moment, was to see an insatiable hunger.  And that’s when Balric had a realization.
            “Mad Murphy,” the manservant whispered.
            “Speak up boy,” the ghost taunted.  “No silent revelations among friends.”
            “I know you,” Balric began.  “Leastaways, I know of you.  Sailors at every port we’ve been too know the story of the obsessed map maker who sailed all over the world in search of its secrets.  He’d drive crews hard…without remorse, drivin some to mutiny.  But those that did, never saw home again.  Men would be brought on at each new port to clean the ship.  They’d tell stories of the unnatural red of the wood…and the stench.  But bribe or bully, this nobleman got enough new crew whenever he needed’em.  This happened so many times that sailors settled on a new name for the deranged captain: Mad Murphy!”
            “You do know your nautical history.  If I believed in rewarding you I’d toss a biscuit,” Murphy said.
            “You underestimate him,” Declan chimed in.  Balric looked to his master, but the lad did not return his gaze.  The young lord had eyes only for the map that hovered above Murphy’s head.  “Balric has many uses.”
            “They are helpful with the mundane drudgeries of the everyday, I grant you.  But really, aside from cobbling your shoes and rubbing your thighs what value does this peasant offer?”  Mad Murphy asked as the cruel smile on his face began to twist into an awful grimace.  “It was the same with all the seamen on my ship.  None of them understood their place.  They were fuel; fuel to keep my quest going.  When they stopped serving that one, simple purpose…”
            He said no more.  He only looked at Declan; a look of cruelty and kinship.
            “I suppose, in some horrible way…I understand,” Declan said.
            The boy was shaking.  Sweat was pouring down his face.  Balric had never seen him like this before.  Not once in all their time together.  And still, the lad’s eyes were fixed on the map. 
            “Only you would, my dear man,” Murphy replied in what seemed to Balric a haunting, melodic tone.  “Only you could.”
            “In this moment, I find myself grateful for Balric being here.  He’s my companion in all this.  Someone else.  To share with me the trials of this place, the struggles…the costs,” Declan said, still focused on nothing but the map.
            “How delicious,” Murphy replied as that wicked, hungry grin returned to his face.  “You would give me HIS soul in exchange for the map?”
            “What?” Balric thought.  He meant to say it out loud, but somehow the word wouldn’t come out.
            “I need the map to save my sister.  Balric and I both have living souls.  When I stand back from it all; look at the big picture; the choice becomes clear,” Declan said.
            Mad Murphy turned his gaze to Balric.  The manservant stepped back in terror.  The eyes of Charles Murphy were no longer hungry or cruel.  There was no sense or reason in them anymore.  They were deranged; the mad eyes of a butcher.  Balric instantly imagined himself a rebellious sailor on Murphy’s ship coming face to face with the captain’s justice, and he knew that along with curiosity, something else had crossed over with him into death.
            There was a puff of smoke where Murphy had been; an unearthly breeze that blew past, thick with the scent of rot.  And Balric heard a whisper in his ear.
            “You’re mine!”