THE HUNTER CHRONICLES: RETURN TO EXILE excerpt
Prologue: Shiny Bobbles and All
Phineas T. Pimiscule was not what you’d call an “attractive” man. He wasn’t “desirable” or “appealing.” He didn’t like “things” or do “stuff” or “wash” himself. He was not the kind of guy to “put” “quotation” “marks” around “words” or to say things in an unassuming or assuming way.
He was the kind of guy who wore a monocle.
He had also been known to fraternize with unsavory characters—a necessity of the job, and possibly a result of monocle-wearing. He traveled the world, seeing the worst of it—places with grotesque names like The-Twelve-Levels-of-Hidden-Terror, Devil’s Hill, and Wyoming.
His wasn’t a glamorous life, but it was a necessary one . . . more necessary than anyone realized.
But tonight—on the third night of the Hunter’s Moon—the necessities of such a life had caught up to him. And after all these many long years, Phineas could finally feel his time drawing near, and he almost welcomed it. Almost.
Cradling a crying infant in his arms, he raced along the lonely path that led from his property to the sleepy, unknowing town beyond. Decaying trees towered over him like a big tower towers over smaller, less-big towers.
Dead leaves crunched beneath his feet like sharp teeth on bones, and the moon cast blue-black shadows all around that looked like monstrous figures eating unspeakable living buffets.
His antiquated frock suit coat from him in tatters, ripped by claws, fangs, and worse, and Phineas, mumbling and cursing, did his best to ignore the pain that shot through his body with each jarring step.
At the bottom of a long and lonely hill, Phineas collapsed gratefully against a fallen tree.
“Shhh . . . no more monsters, Sky. Cross my heart,” Phineas promised, bouncing Sky gently in his arms, “You’re safe now. Uncle Phineas is here. No more of that nasty business. Shhh . . .”
Glancing down, Phineas grimaced as he noticed dark blood trickling from a black mark on Sky’s small hand. Phineas sopped at it with a dirty handkerchief, revealing two crescent moons running vertically on Sky’s palm, from his fingers to his wrist, with the moons pressed together at the tips like a giant eye. Another mark, pale and white, sat within that dark eye, smaller, and with horizontal moons.
Phineas pressed his handkerchief against the trickle of blood, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t seem to stop tears—his own tears—from coming.
“I’m so sorry, Sky. I’m so, so sorry. Your mother was right. I couldn’t protect you. And now look what I’ve done.”
Sky quieted as he watched Phineas weep, the infant’s forgiving eyes as big and blue as the ocean. And then, with eager hands, Sky reached for Phineas’s monocle.
“You like that, do you?” said Phineas, using the dirty handkerchief to wipe his eyes and nose before returning the cloth to Sky’s hand. “I suppose you would—shiny bobble and all.”
Phineas pulled the strange monocle from his eye and dangled it in front of Sky, swinging it back and forth like a pendulum.
There was a noise above—the fluttering of wings. Looking up, Phineas spotted dozens of oversize black and white crows landing on the branches around them.
“Piebalds,” said Phineas, narrowing his eyes at the strangely intelligent black-and-white birds, “there’s plenty to eat back at the manor!”
Phineas glared. He’d never cared for the things: Never trust a creature whose brain is smaller than a pea.
“CAW!” cawed the largest of the Piebalds.
“What do you mean you’ve become vegetarians?” Phineas replied suspiciously. “Since when?”
“Neat trick,” said a voice from the shadows.
Phineas spun, a gun slipping into his palm from up his sleeve.
“Hold on, hold on! I’m not armed! Not even a hunter anymore—remember? You booted me out yourself!” The man stepped out of the shadows covered in grime and gore, hands raised. He was unshaven, his skin rough and tanned like toffee left in the sun, and a faint smile played on his lips like a sun waiting to shine—if only there weren’t so many clouds.
“Beau?” said Phineas. He shifted his leg, cringing at the pain. “Your timing is impeccable, as always. Though, next time you attempt to sneak up on me, try not to smell like entrails.”
“Attempt to sneak up on you?” Beau scoffed. “You seemed pretty surprised to me.”
“All for show,” said Phineas. “I like for my former students to have a healthy sense of self-worth.”
“So,” said Beau, taking a few steps closer, “you really are Phineas, then?”
“At your trial three years ago,” said Phineas, holding the gun steady on Beau as the man took another step closer. “I gave you a book, but for the life of me, I can’t seem to recall the title.”
Beau stopped a few feet away. “The book was Twenty Things You Didn’t Know About Women and Wish You Could Forget Now That You Do. It doubled as a wedding gift.”
“Sorry,” said Phineas, lowering the gun. “I didn’t mean to dredge up the past.”
“Don’t apologize,” said Beau. “At least we know we’re both us.”
Phineas snorted. “I knew I was me long before you showed up. . . . Though, come to think of it, I have been suspicious of late.” Phineas dusted his monocle with the dirty handkerchief and returned it to his eye. “So, Malvidia couldn’t be bothered to come herself, then? She’s usually so hands-on when it comes to traitors.”
Phineas pushed himself to his feet with a huff while Sky sat cradled snuggly in his arms, watching the Piebalds.
“I think she knew you wouldn’t kill me, and maybe she thought I could talk some sense into you,” said Beau as they began walking down the path together.
“It’s hardly the time for sense, I should think, since nonsense has been serving us so well,” said Phineas, sounding annoyed, and frustrated, and terribly tired all at once.
“So, you’re really running, then?” asked Beau. “You’re going to let Malvidia take over what’s left of the hunters and just hide from it all? What will the Hunters of Legend think of that?”
“The Hunters of Legend rejected me long ago, and good riddance to bad rubbish, I say,” said Phineas. “Besides, they have their own problems at the moment.”
“Namely you,” said Beau. “I know you want to protect Sky, but do you really know this boy anymore? Can you vouch for him—that he’s really what we think he is? With that black mark on his hand, are you really so sure he won’t become what we all fear?”
The air between them grew silent and heavy. Even the Piebalds stopped their constant cawing.
Finally Phineas spoke, his forehead creased with thoughtful lines.
“Ah, ‘fear’—a funny word, that,” said Phineas. “Did you know you can’t have ‘fear’ without an ‘ear’? Imagine if we used a nose instead of an ear. Do you suppose people would fnose a nose as much as they fear an ear? I don’t suppose I know . . . s.”
Beau almost smiled. “You always knew how to ruin a moment. But just because you’re not afraid doesn’t mean others aren’t. The hunters are the weakest they’ve been in centuries—since the days of Bedlam Falls! What are we supposed to do when the Arkhon’s prison fails like the others? You and Nikola are the only ones who understand how it works, and Nikola’s now insane!”
“There are fail-safes to buy us time if it fails,” said Phineas.
“And those are?” asked Beau.
“Something I’d rather not talk about, lest prying ears overhear,” said Phineas, glancing at the Piebalds flying overhead. “But I’ll be watching. When the time comes, I’ll return more openly. Maybe then I will have enough leverage to ensure Sky’s safety.”
“And if you die before then?” asked Beau.
“I won’t leave you clueless,” said Phineas, smiling.
Beau sighed. Phineas knew Beau hated puzzles, but that just made Phineas smile all the more.
Up above, the Piebalds flapped off into the night, cawing and thinking about what they’d heard. They flew north toward red, blue, and black clouds full of strangely colored lightning and unnatural thunder—toward a terrible storm raging like unholy titans above a sprawling, dreadful manor.
Lightning struck the manor and the grounds around it again and again, illuminating a gargantuan glowing wall several football fields away from the manor itself, and hundreds of dark figures of all shapes and sizes (some human, some less so) locked in a horrifying struggle.
As the Piebalds sailed higher, they noticed countless bodies—so many bodies scattered everywhere.
A funnel cloud of furious lightning and color formed over the manor. Great rushing wind rose up, drawing the Piebalds closer. They banked left, racing to escape the funnel’s pull.
The dark figures below broke, racing for the glowing wall.
Thunder cracked. A gruesome wave of light and darkness exploded out of the manor, crashing through everything.
And then . . .
A Trap, Like a Good Story
“A good trap is like a good story: hidden and leading toward one inevitable conclusion,” muttered Sky, checking his vines with a practiced delectation.
He dropped to the ground to get a closer look, his dirty black hair dragging through the dirt.
“Rule number two,” whispered Sky, brushing leaves over the vine, trying to make the pattern look random. “A good trap, like a good story, has to arise naturally from the environment. It has to be seamless. If the prey suspects what’s coming, they’ll bolt.”
Standing but still partially crouched, Sky shimmied behind the closest tree. He peeked out, surveying the forest for signs of life. Traces of fading sunlight slipped through the canopy above, moving across the earth like matadors with threadbare capes teasing and taunting the night onward. And the night—stupid thing that it was—kept taking the bait.
Just like Sky.
His stomach growled at the thought of bait. He’d eat some right now if he had any. The problem was, he’d already eaten it. He pressed his back against the tree, holding his stomach.
Didn’t his uncle know there were child labor laws to protect kids from this kind of thing? He must have set up a bazillion traps today, and still nothing. He was only eleven, for crying out loud! No, not eleven—twelve, actually. It was his birthday, after all, and an awful one at that. And yet nobody seemed to care. He’d been wandering the woods all day, hungry, alone, and with nothing to look forward to, except for yet another horrible move.
He was getting tired of it. He pulled out his yo-yo and practiced a few tricks: pinwheel, double or nothing, rock the baby. Just as he was slipping into a Ferris wheel, he heard it—
He flipped his yo-yo into his pocket and raced west toward the sound.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!” He ran into the broad clearing and saw Uncle Phineas hanging by his ankle on the clearing’s edge. “HA! Goulash for you!”
His uncle smiled down at him.
“Yes, yes, well played. I get goulash for your birthday party tonight, and you get leftover pizza. Bully for you. Now, if you wouldn’t mind cutting me down?” said Phineas.
Sky walked toward the tree that served as the linchpin of the trap, laughing. “You mess with the best, you hang like Aunt Tess.”
“That was your great-great-aunt Tess, and she wasn’t hung. She was drawn and quartered,” said Phineas.
“Same dif,” said Sky, searching through the jumble of vines to find the primary link.
“Only in that your bowels void in both situations. Though I assure you one is much messier than the other,” said Phineas.
“Really? Which one?”
“I’ll leave that for your overactive imagination to puzzle out,” said Phineas as he swung back and forth, back and forth.
“That’s the third rule of trap building, right? A trap,” said Sky, trying to imitate his uncle’s not-quite-British I’ve-been-in-America-too-long accent. (Clear throat.) “A trap, like a good story, needs to hint at greater things without revealing them until the prey is snared.”
“Spot on, though your imitation could use some work,” said Phineas.
“You can add vocal coaching to my curriculum right after botany,” said Sky, “since you seem intent on boring me to death.”
Sky found the main vine and started tracing it through the jumble. This was a particularly complex trap that used all the fundamentals of trap building: direct and misdirect, attract and repel, lure and snare—all the things his uncle had taught him over the years.
“Botany could well save your life one day, you know,” said Phineas, “if you’d only read all the books I gave you and not just the ones you like.”
“Pshaw,” said Sky. “If the day ever comes that I need botany, I’ll eat the goulash—a whole pot of it.”
“I don’t think goulash is healthy for a body in the throws of rigor mortis. . . . Actually, I think goulash may cause rigor mortis, but if you promise to eat it, I’ll see to it that you have some in your hour of need,” Phineas replied. “It might make a good side dish to your words.”
“Ha, ha. Eat my words. I get it. It’s a word puzzle, like an acrostic or an anagram, but not as clever,” said Sky sarcastically as he gave up on the vine he’d been working on and started tracing another.
Phineas smiled. “It was very clever of you, Sky, using a triple trolley—or the troll snatcher, as Sir Alexander Drake used to call it before he was brutally murdered.”
“You don’t have to call it the ‘troll snatcher,’ Uncle Phineas; I’m twelve now, all grown up. I know there are no trolls to snatch,” said Sky.
“Which reminds me . . . ,” said Phineas, wiggling around like a prize marlin. A small wrapped box fell from his tattered frock coat. “Happy birthday.”
Sky let go of the vine he’d been playing with and crossed the open space between them to pick up the box.
“Well, go on! Open it!” said Phineas, smiling down at him, his strange monocle fastidiously clinging to his face despite all the laws of physics. He’d worn the monocle for as long as Sky could remember. It was dark, strange and thick, like a jeweler’s monocle, with retractable hooks that fit over the nose and ear.
Sky shook the box.
“But . . . aren’t you going to be at my party tonight?” asked Sky, suddenly worried.
“Of course. I know I haven’t been around as much of late, but I’ve never missed it before, have I?” replied Phineas. Sky felt measurably better. He couldn’t imagine a party without Phineas.
“I’m giving this to you now because this is one gift best given in private,” Phineas supplied, answering Sky’s next question before he could ask it. “Well, go on!”
Grinning, Sky ripped off the wrapping paper and opened the box. Inside he found an antique pocket watch, similar in style to the monocle his Uncle wore, but lighter, sort of grayish.
“Your watch?” said Sky, surprised. He flipped it open, watching as the numerous dials ticked and the moon made its way around the edge like a peddler looking for a place to push his wares. Phineas had tried to show him how to read it once, but he’d never figured it out.
After a moment the dials settled down and the moon took its place in the night, full and heavy—just like the moon overhead. “It’s amazing! Thank you.”
“She’s old, but she keeps good time,” said Phineas. “The great monster hunter Solomon Rose and I once argued over whether or not the moon ran by her or the other way around. You share a birthday with him, you know, both born under the Hunter’s Moon.”
“Solomon Rose? The greatest monster hunter of all time? Died more than four hundred years ago—and you claim he argued with you over this watch? I find that hard to believe,” said Sky.
“I argued with him, actually. And just because you find it hard to believe doesn’t mean it’s not worth believing,” said Phineas. “Sometimes the hardest things to believe are the only things worth believing at all.”
Sky closed the watch and started to put it away. He paused, noticing an etching on the back: a white eye, like two crescent moons pressed at the tips, set deep into the metal. He raised his right hand, comparing the etching to the birthmark on his palm; they were identical.
His white birthmark had always felt so strange to him, like paper held too close to a candle, not yet burning, but destined for ash. Another mark, black and gruesome, surrounded the first with the two crescent moons running vertically from fingers to wrist. He called this second mark his cicatrix, or just “trix” for short, because it reminded him of an unhealed wound. Whereas the birthmark felt hot, the trix felt cold, shifting, and sometimes brittle, like it might burst open at any moment.
The watch didn’t have the trix, but there was no mistaking the birthmark.
“You did this?” asked Sky, showing Phineas the etching on the watch.
“Not me. That etching was done a long, long time ago. Centuries ago, in fact,” said Phineas.
Sky smirked. “Yeah. Uh-huh.”
“It’s true, Sky! Your birthmark—it’s special. It’s the Hunter’s Mark, not seen since Solomon Rose himself.”
“Really?” said Sky, not taking Phineas seriously, but wanting to. “So where’s the trix, then? I assume it’s special too?”
“Not particularly,” said Phineas, his expression unreadable.
Something in the back of Sky’s mind seemed to growl as if upset—a peculiar sensation that usually ended with him in trouble. Over the years, he’d come to call this unpredictable sensation his “little monster.” His sister assured him it was completely abnormal, and probably terminal—perhaps an incurable disease eating away at his brain or, even worse, early onset puberty (if there was, in fact, a difference between the two).
He didn’t think it was abnormal, but having never been inside a normal person’s head, he couldn’t be certain.
The sensation didn’t really bother him—in fact, quite often it was the only friend he had—but sometimes it could get on his nerves.
Feeling uneasy, though he couldn’t explain why, he ignored the sensation and grabbed the next vine.
“Sky, do you remember the poem from The Evil Echo of Solomon Rose?” asked Phineas, swinging, his face turning as red as a turnip as blood continued rushing to his head.
“Er . . . not particularly,” said Sky. “Something about evil echoes and gloaming? I’m not really sure.” The Evil Echo of Solomon Rose was his favorite story. He knew the poem, though perhaps not as well as he should. He tended to skip poems when he read, but what was he supposed to do when so many of them droned on endlessly and made no sense whatsoever?
Besides, it’d been almost a year since he’d read it. . . . Well, since he’d read anything, really.
“You should know this poem backward and forward by now, for how many times you’ve read it,” rebuked Phineas. “I’ve seen the book. It’s all ragged and abused.”
“I know, I know,” said Sky, “but maybe you should tell me the poem to help me remember.”
Sky preferred hearing Phineas recite the poems anyway. His accent and old-world charm—magnified by the frock coat and monocle—gave the poems a portentous air. Plus, Phineas was hanging upside down and looked like a beet; in Sky’s opinion, it didn’t get much funnier.
“All right, then—but just this once!” said Phineas.
Just this once had happened many times before.
The evil echo came, a gloaming in the dark,
’pon belly bowering and crawing for the Mark,
to Solomon Rose the same, who sang the names of yore,
and with it brought his evil forth, a gibbering from the moor.
My branches shook and writhed, and standing did I shriek,
“Why callest thou me, thou thawing thorn? What sorrows dost thou seek?”
Old Solomon shook and shivered, but dreaming of Lenore,
’pon his evil he shed his mind, and cast it in the gore.
“I’m Solomon,” he said, “and my servants you shall be,
till earth and sky begin to shake,
and the sieves of time begin to seep.”
Then he found us, and bound us,
and sent us off to dream,
till finally watchful waiting, our senses fading,
his evil echo slithered off to sleep.
Phineas finished, and the grove filled with a weighty silence.
Sky knew all about the Echo. They weren’t popular like vampires and werewolves, monsters that—according to his uncle—had been a little too popular and had been hunted to extinction as a result.
Phineas claimed (and Sky doubted) that dozens of different kinds of monsters, like the Echo, survived still—monsters that were far cleverer, far better at hiding, far stronger, and far more terrifying than vampires and werewolves.
The Evil Echo of Solomon Rose described the various Echo as vaguely treelike, with large black leathery wings that folded out of their trunk-ish bodies. Their branchy arms could be as inflexible as iron one moment, and as slithery as tentacles the next, and when the wings spread out, the branches swept downward into a rickety protective shell. Or, if the Echo chose, the wings spread outward like writhing spears to flay and terrify those below. A tree one instant, a nightmare with wings the next.
Great pupil-less white eyes ran half the length of the trunk—eyes that Solomon Rose gouged out, one by one, when the Echo refused to follow him against a monster he claimed would destroy the world. Robbed of their sight, the Echo began to “see” through highly sensitive organs in their branches and mouths—tasting the scents, sights, and emotions around them.
Echo kept to themselves, hiding in the old, dark forests of the world. Tangled roots spread deep, deep beneath them, clinging to the roots of other Echo like children holding hands, and they spent days and nights lost in a haunting sort of collective dream.
According to the Echo narrator of The Evil Echo of Solomon Rose, breaking an Echo from its roots ended the dream, effectively exiling the Echo, and was one of the cruelest things that could happen; it was also one of the best, because a rooted Echo couldn’t fly, and flying, as the narrator claimed, was a dream worth waking up for.
“The Mark in the poem is the Hunter’s Mark,” said Phineas.
“Are you sure about that?” Sky appreciated his uncle’s efforts to tell a good story, but honestly . . . “Are you sure it isn’t just a terrible paper cut? Or maybe a stick caught Solomon in that moor—left a nasty mark on his cheek—big red welts all swollen and puffy . . . just horrible.”
“I know the kind,” said Phineas. “I suspect I may have one just like it around my ankle.”
“I am here to serve.” Sky swooshed a tangled vine in front of him and bowed mockingly from his knees, like an actor taking full credit for a mediocre performance. “And I’m twelve now. I can do without all the lessons.”
“I think I may still have a lesson for you,” said Phineas. “A grape might become a raisin, and taste the sweeter for it, but even a raisin will rot on the vine, if you do nothing for it.”
“You just rhymed ‘for it’ with ‘for it,’” said Sky.
“That’s atrocious—just dreadful really,” said Sky, mimicking his uncle; maybe he couldn’t mimic his uncle’s accent very well, but the words were easy enough. “You could’ve just said you wanted down. You didn’t have to bore me with a poem.”
“Ah, but can’t a poem have more than one meaning?” asked Phineas. “Perhaps I was making the important points obvious to illustrate a point.”
Sky followed one of the vines across the ground, pulling it from the earth. “Hold on. I almost have it.” It seemed to be leading him toward the next tree, but for some strange reason he couldn’t remember laying it. Of course, he’d laid so many today it was hard to keep track.
“You know,” said Phineas, “the triple trolley really was brilliant. The only thing I can think of to top it would be the quadruple quandary—”
Sky stopped suddenly, the vine taut in his hands.
“No—” But he didn’t get any further. The coil under him snapped closed around his ankle, dragging him into the air. Uncle Phineas started laughing and clapping his hands together.
As Sky rose upward, Phineas gently descended to the ground. Phineas undid the coil around his ankle and crossed to stare up at Sky.
“How do you like my poetry now?” asked Phineas.
“You meant ‘for’ as in ‘four’ . . . as in quadruple—as in quadruple quandary,” said Sky. “You were giving me a clue.”
“Quite so,” said Phineas. “You really should pay more attention to poems.”
“You tricked me,” accused Sky as he swung in the air.
“Of course I did. If I didn’t trick you, it wouldn’t be a trap,” said Phineas. “Use your heart. Understand. Learn to see things in the now, not as they were or will be, or as they might or should be, but as they are, right now, in this moment. The heart sees the now; the mind only sees the next. If you can’t learn to see the now, you’ll never see what’s truly there, and then where will you be?”
“Trapped,” said Sky.
“Precisely. But if you take care of the now, the future will work out as it should. Rule number four: A trap, like a good story, pretends to be something it’s not until the very end.” Phineas turned and started walking away.
“But that’s the same as rule number one!” Sky exclaimed.
“Maybe if I say it twice, you’ll remember,” Phineas called over his shoulder.
“Where are you going?” cried Sky, beginning to feel nervous.
“You’re moving to Exile tonight, remember?” Phineas prodded. “Some of us don’t have time to hang out.”
Sky groaned. The pun was bad enough, but did he have to bring up moving?
“Wait,” said Sky, suddenly realizing something. “Aren’t you coming with us?”
“If things turn out as I hope, we’ll finally be neighbors!” chirped Phineas, sounding more excited than he’d sounded in a long time. “See you back at the house for your party—and goulash! Happy birthday, Sky!”
Phineas laughed, quickening his pace. But when he reached the far edge of the clearing, Sky saw him slow down, and then stop. For a second he wondered if Phineas would let him down after all, but Phineas just stood there staring into the far woods, as silent as the approaching night.
Phineas turned around, and Sky could see his face in the half-light. Phineas’s smile had disappeared, and he looked grim, almost frightened. He removed his monocle, dusting it with a handkerchief before returning it to his eye, and then he spun around and ran off into the gathering darkness.
For a moment it almost seemed to Sky as if the deepening shadows followed after him, terrible and menacing. Something long and silvery flashed in Phineas’s hand, and then he was gone.
Sky shook himself. Too much blood in his head—that was the problem. Couldn’t see straight. He’d thought Phineas might come back for him, but then . . .
Well, not coming back after all. It was just like him. Always disappearing when Sky needed him.
Sky swung slowly back and forth, back and forth. He was hungry, alone, and he had nothing to look forward to except goulash and a move. And now he was trapped. This was definitely, hands down, bar none his worst birthday ever.
© 2011 E.J. Patten