The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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11. Traces Uncovered

Pain. Fear.

The pain rose and fell, always gnawing at his leg. The fear went away, happy dreams came, and oblivion, then the fear came back as bursts of terror that hammered in his chest, but didn’t quite resolve into anything solid to fight against or flee from.

Flee? What, run? On this leg?

Pain, always the pain.

Sheets, a candle. Jenna leaning over. Worried, bruised. Sweet, sweet Jenna. Must tell her ... what happened?

Memories returned, reconstructed in the dark of the hours before dawn, like nightmares given the stamp of veracity, nightmares unlikely to fade when the sun rose. Still, hard to accept as things that had really happened.

Justin had screamed as the badger---impossibly huge, swollen, distorted rather than merely large---burst from the trees and fell on him. He had swung his hatchet fiercely, hacking at its head, but it bore him down and tore at him. Its first mouthful was coat and brandy flask and hatchet head.

Its second bite took Justin around the elbow, and it shook his arm to the side. There had been a crack and a scream. Ashlin had been running towards the thing---towards it! He couldn’t get there in time, he had a hand on the hilt of his useless sword, or rather gripping the hilt with a sword-useless arm.

Something smacked him in the ear and continued past him, at and into the side of the creature. The harpoon.

The badger coughed black-red blood over Justin and roared, unbelievably loud, terrifying. It looked at Ashlin, then turned back to its prey, opening its jaws hugely and lowering them towards Justin’s screaming face. He had lost the hatchet but he delivered possibly the most solid and desperate left hook any man ever delivered to the side of a jaw. Had the badger been a man, it would have been felled or even killed. But it was not a man, or even a mere beast. It was a monster. Its teeth were the size of kitchen knives, coming down and together.

Ashlin reached the beast, abandoned his attempt to draw the sword and leaned hard on the embedded harpoon. There was a meaty grinding from the point, and another enraged roar. Jenna rammed her staff into its face, and it snapped at the distraction. Another few seconds of life bought for Justin, if that. Ashlin bent his knees, pushed the oak up, lifted, levered the thing. Another staff appeared at his feet, jammed under the belly of the beast, Jenna pushing it, Derk helping. The bulk of the monster tipped, slipped at the edge of the steep slope below. Ashlin pushed harder, it fell away, the butt of the harpoon caught on his sword belt, threw him over the creature's back as it fell, took him with it.

Its filthy, fever-hot weight was on him, and his leg was white fire from the knee down. He couldn’t breathe. Every shallow stifled breath was stench. As everything became grey and dim, he saw the pommel of the short sword lying near his face, the letters, worn and old and significant.

“It’s a B!” he shouted.

He must have slept, because it was full daylight. Derk was sitting by the bed.

“Steady, Ash, steady. All is fine, clear sailing. We all followed your instructions.”

“My ... what?”

“We managed to not get killed. Justin, only barely.”

“Oh. Good.”

“We also made lots of notes.” Derk grinned, to show this last was a joke.

Ashlin managed a weak smile in return. Although Jenna probably had in fact made notes.

“Got to get out of here,” he said after a moment, “get back to Atlar, report this.”

“On that leg?”

This echoed his own fevered inner monologue so much that Ashlin felt a flash of the terror return. Run? On this leg? He looked down, expecting to see a stump. He saw an intact leg, but expertly splinted and bound. Broken for sure.

Three questions, in the order they occurred to him. Where am I? No, wait, never mind that now.

“Is Jenna alright?”

“She’s fine. No bites, no breaks.”

“Good. Is it dead?”

“Very dead. Although it smelled dead already if you ask me. But we made sure. Jenna cut its throat with that sword.”

The sword. It’s a B. What is?

“Where am I?”

“At the Inn. The rooms we were in weren’t suitable according to the doctor. This is the Royal Suite, so they tell me. Royal enough for a badger survey maybe, but it wouldn’t do for a king, I expect.”

“Is Justin going to be ... I mean, his arm?”

“He’ll keep it. Unless it goes bad. The doc poured a lot of stuff on it that he got from Dennis, which he says has never failed before, so we’ll see. Dennis wants to see you, by the way. Shall I say you’re awake?”

Dennis. Vicar with a sword. RBSA. B, not R. Royal Badger Survey of Atlar.

“Vicar, my arse.”

“What?”

“Send him in. I want to talk to him.”

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