"Gargoyle" by Jon Eke

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The Staff of J'leyth
by Brian C. Fadrosh

 

Tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .

I have heard that peculiar, cursed sound on three separate occasions during my lifetime. The first when I was a mere boy. A small boy in what seemed like an even smaller town. It was autumn, a cold October afternoon. That was when that sound first came to haunt my memory. I was alone in the front yard, pulling colored leaves into a pile over me, playing some long-forgotten child's game. At first it was only the faintest sound, hidden within the rustle of my fall bounty. Then I stopped and listened, my heart suddenly racing with excitement as the sound grew closer. At that time of my life, like most children, I knew nothing of true horror or fear. I was invincible, unbeatable to all, save my stern and withdrawn father, and the boogey-man that I sometimes suspected hid in my closet at night.

Intrigued by the mysterious sound, I ran inside, snatched my jacket from the hall closet, and hurriedly told my mother I was going for a walk. She reflexively reminded me to be home before dinner and to look both ways before crossing the street. It was such a simpler time then. Before she could kiss me goodbye, or tell me to wear a hat, I was gone. A flash of boyish exuberance, I rushed along, jumping the short fences and gardens of our neighbor's yards, charging through fields and woods, chasing after that sound. I was heading in the right direction -- the sound was growing stronger and louder with each stride. I would wipe my nose with the sleeve of my jacket, not daring to waste time pulling out the handkerchief stuffed into my back pocket. In the briefest moments of hesitation we fear we may forever lose whatever it was we seek. Now I wished I had stopped. Then maybe I would have not have done the things I have, and surely would not have done what eventually came to pass. But in my heart I suspect the final outcome was always inevitable, no matter what my actions.

I burst forth from the woods that separated my neighborhood from the town's main street. My heart sank when I reached the sidewalk. Standing there on the cracked pavement, I realized the sound had vanished. I searched to my left, quickly scanning the sidewalk farther down from me, the yards, the porch of the local funeral home, the restaurant. Only the small town I had always known was there. To the right was more of the same. Only the local firehouse, the shiny red fire engine reflecting the last rays of the day. Behind that, my school rose up, the flag waving on top, seeming to remind me coldly that there was nothing here for me to find. My excitement turned into disappointment. The fire truck pulled out and rolled down the street past me, its lights and sirens silent. I waved, smiling at the trumpeting reply. I decided to head home, letting the sound remain as it had begun, as a mystery.

And then it returned the moment I decided to leave it behind, as if it had read my mind, not wanting to be forgotten, begging to be heard. The steady sound called to me, and I heeded the message, following it toward the restaurant. I ran as quickly as my short legs would carry me, and when I reached the parking lot the sound changed. It was now the sound of a bell, the one that hung on top of the front door of the restaurant. It rang clear in the brittle fall air, telling me where the thing I searched for had gone. I still felt no fear. Only the excitement that filled my being drew me along. I would one day learn that fear is something to be respected, and heeded.

I smiled at the owner of the small diner, knowing him as my grandmother's neighbor. I took a seat at the counter, welcoming the free soda he offered. Drowning my thirst, he went about his business, whispering something with one of the customers at the same counter. Their eyes were cautiously watching something across the room, making sure the topic of their conversation would not notice. I turned in my stool, knowing they had found the thing I searched for. I never even bothered to hide my prying eyes. No one would fault a child for staring. The moment I saw him, my small town suddenly grew miniscule.

There a stranger sat, speaking casually with Charlie. Charlie, the town bum. My parents had raised me with good manners, so I was always polite to "poor Charlie". No one really seemed to know what afflicted him. Certainly, there were stories. Some said he was touched with a feeble mind since birth. Some said he was no more than a drunk. Others claimed he was crazy and should be put away. Then there were those who said he had fallen off his roof while installing a lightning rod, the rod attracting a bolt of power from a cloudless sky. No one really knew. And no one cared. For them it was "just" Charlie, a nobody, a local fixture in the small town, a mere object of gossip. At that moment, I knew differently. Seeing the stranger talking with Charlie told me there was much more to the local fixture.

The stranger drew my attention. I could see only a part of his face, just the tip of a sharp nose and a thin mouth framed by a close-kept beard and mustache. A fedora and shadow hid his eyes and remaining features. He wore a long black coat that covered everything from the neck down. Every so often he would shift in his seat, and a quicksilver flash of a jewel at his throat would come. My eyes focused on the thing that had called me: At his side, never leaving the grasp of a black-gloved hand, was the object of my affection.

The slender walking stick was like nothing I had ever seen, even now, at this late date of my life. The thick top ended in a silver ball that he constantly worked with his leather-clad fingers. The thin end, which had no doubt touched whatever faraway lands the stranger had visited, flashed with the same sterling glint. Even from where I sat at the opposite side of the room, I knew there were marvelous carvings covering every inch of that thing. Dragons, celestial signs, beasts the likes of which no human eyes had seen, and other such magical things crawled over the obsidian wood. Suddenly their conversation ended, and with a gentle pat on Charlie's shoulder the stranger got up and left.

The door hadn't even closed when I reached it. I called out to the stranger in an unintelligible shout. He stopped, spinning with a flurry of fabric and grace, twirling that magnificent thing nimbly, smiling, and waiting patiently for my little legs to close the gap between us. I clumsily asked to see the walking cane, unsure if he would let me, certain that he would send me on my way home, as most adults would. Instead, he held the stick at arm's length, turning it slowly so I could inspect all the carvings clearly, and telling me I could look but never touch. Not yet. I asked him why, to which he only said it was not time. I told him my name. With a flourish, he introduced himself as "Abraham Sinclair". He said I should remember the name, and promised that we would cross paths again in this lifetime. I ran home with butterflies in my belly. Years later I would forget the name, and then come to remember it again. I wish I had continued to forget.

That had been the first time.


* * *

Sinclair kept the promise he made all those years before. I was in my late twenties. Like most young men and women in my small town, I moved away, leaving behind the woods and tall grass, the childhood games, and, in my case, the memory of Abraham Sinclair. I joined the Air Force for a time, received a philosophy degree from a decent college, and moved alone to upstate New York, where I intended to live out the remainder my life as a school teacher. Our paths crossed after I was summoned back to Greensville due to the passing of both my parents. I had been making a depressingly modest living in upstate New York when Greensville had called for me. In life, my parents hadn't asked much of me. In death, I am sure the last thing they wanted for me was what I was to become.

I received the phone call early on a Sunday morning. The ragged voice on the other end was my uncle's, whom I hadn't seen for some time. In a sleep-deprived, loss-ridden voice he told me that his brother and sister-in-law, my parents, had passed on. I sat in silence, emotionless at the moment as he explained they had been taken away from us in a car accident on their way to the market. A void grew inside me while thoughts of my parents flooded my mind. That void was then filled with pain. I managed to ask through biting tears if arrangements had been made, if there was anything I could do. He told me to come home, drive carefully, take care of myself for now, and we would deal with the formalities once I arrived. Being the good son, I was worried about everyone else, knowing my anguish would tend to itself. It ran its first sprint through me before I left for the place I would always be welcomed. Home.

I managed my way through the funeral as best as anyone could expect. On the last day of our mourning an attorney approached me, asking if there had been any thought given to what would be done with my parents estate and their remaining earthly affairs. I decided within an instant, standing there on the funeral home's porch, telling him I would move into my parent's home and look after their land. He conveniently had the paperwork needed with him, which I signed, and then I sent him on his way. My eyes were drawn to the small diner a few feet away, the front door just closing, the bell ringing clearly. It sparked the merest glimpse of some childhood memory. I remembered the diner having some importance to me at one time. I stopped dwelling on the half-remembered memory when I noticed poor Charlie standing across the street, nodding solemnly, expressing his unspoken sympathy, and then moving on his way. I buried my parents that afternoon, and began moving into their home that night. I did what I could to tend to the home and the farm before winter. By that year's first snowfall, I had made the house from my childhood my home in adulthood. Only the ghosts of my past kept me company.

Winter and spring passed in the blink of an eye, and it was during a cool summer morning he appeared. The sun had yet to rise, and there already was work to be done. I sat on the front doorstep, drinking my first cup of coffee, planning that day's events, when I heard him.

Tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .

By the time he was a few feet away, I already could fully recall the drape of his long coat, the thin fedora crowning his head. In his right hand was the walking cane. Childhood memories shook me, sending the porcelain cup to the concrete with a crash. As I gathered up the shards of the cup, he told me he was in town to see an old friend, but wanted to pay his respects to me for my loss. I thanked him, still reliving that day during my childhood when I first encountered this man. I tried to hide my shaking hands, tried to slow my racing heart. When I was a child he had fascinated me, but now as an adult I thought I could sense something dark in him, something far more sinister than my memory would have led me to believe. Without further explanation of why he was here, he left.

He would be constantly on my mind from that point forward. His shadow-covered face stalked me in my dreams, and I felt his attention on me during my waking hours. I thought I would never understand the strange connection I felt to this man, but I would. It would be two months later from that summer morning, when I received a call to come to the nearest hospital at the request of a dying man. There is no staying the hand of fate, or death it seems.

Charlie, who had fallen ill and was beginning to find his way past this world, had specifically requested to speak with me. At the time I was surprised that Charlie remembered who I was, but the memory of him being at my parent's funeral compelled me to go. He was withered even beyond what we had all grown accustomed to. The whites of his eyes were now a dark yellow, and his lips were dry and cracked. Each breath he drew carried the sound of dried leaves, and when he coughed his entire body would spasm. I sat there for a few minutes, quietly in a chair across the room, not knowing exactly how to begin the conversation. Finally he asked that I come closer to his bed, which I did, sliding the uncomfortable metal chair across the cold, tiled floor. I sat and leaned closer to hear his hushed voice. He asked if I knew why I was there, and I told him that it was because he asked me to come. He shook his head sadly and told me I was wrong, that one way or another I would have come to him.

He told me he had known Abraham Sinclair for what would be considered lifetimes. He told me of a time when dark magic ruled over a world much like ours, but an older world, and one far more dangerous. He spoke of Dark Ones, men who were actually beasts that held terrible power, and that had even darker appetites. Charlie pleaded with me to do whatever it was that Sinclair asked of me. I simply took the story as that, a story, the ramblings of a dying man who wished to have some companionship in his last remaining hours. Once he had finished the tale, I promised him I would consider what he had asked of me. This seemed to satisfy him, and he asked that I leave him.


* * *

Not long after I reached my 40th birthday, I became bed-ridden due to an auto accident, barely surviving the ordeal. The doctors expected recovery, but told me it would be some time before I would be able to walk without the aid of crutches, and my body would never be the same. I spent months hobbling about. Friends and family did what they could to help pass the time and tend to the growing farm, but there was little they could do when I slept. I would have nightmares of Sinclair coming for me, murdering me there in my bed, or torturing me till even death would be no release from him. I often awoke soaked in sweat, screaming into an empty house, the ghosts of my parents vainly trying to comfort me. Those would be the times that I would think of the conversation with Charlie.

My third and final meeting with Sinclair came without warning. I had been startled awake by another horrendous dream -- my body being burned alive, a mob of angry people pelting me with stones, Sinclair orchestrating them like some crazed conductor. When I realized I had only been dreaming, I switched on the bedside lamp to find the very man who haunted my dreams sitting across from me, beating a slight rhythm on the floor with the tip of his cane.

Tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .

I screamed for help, but the nonmaterial bodies of my parents were of little help, and Sinclair dismissed them with a mere wave of his hand. He rose and came towards the bed, a long, curved knife glinting in his hand. I reacted from some primal place within me and tried to rise from my bed. I readied myself to kill or be killed. Somehow I ignored the agony seizing my legs and spine. He pushed me aside suddenly and stabbed the knife deep into something hanging in the shadows on the wall above my bed. A bizarre creature I had never seen before. Thick bile and strange colored blood poured across my bed as the thing died from the deep wound Sinclair inflicted. I had fallen to the floor and lay there, shuddering, crying, begging him to explain. He did as I asked.

He told me that his life was nearly at an end, and that I would be the next person to carry the mantle that the cane -- known as the Staff of J'leyth -- signified in this world. He said people like us were special, with unusual bloodlines and identifiable by certain astrological portents at birth, and that we had unseen helpers protecting us throughout our lives -- people like Charlie. Abraham then spoke of the Dark Ones that Charlie had mentioned and their intention of destroying all that we knew, a goal they had so far failed to achieve.

He explained that as long as there were still descendants of an obscure, forgotten race of Man -- people like me, of which only a few still existed -- and that if one of these descendants had this very cane in his or her possession, then the Dark Ones would be able to do nothing. He told me that only with the help of the power that resided in the staff would I survive. The Dark Ones would never rest until the entire human race was destroyed. Some unknown spirit within me surfaced, reaching out my hand and grasping the cane Sinclair held out to me. The moment my flesh touched the cool wood I knew that I was transformed, untouchable by disease, pain, age, and even death. The knowledge of centuries suddenly appeared in my mind, assuring me that I had not lost my mind. I stood up, easily, confidently.

But then the feeling began to change, and darkness seeped its way into my mind, strangling my very life force. Sinclair's face and body began twisting in the dim light of the lamp until he was nothing but a mass of tentacles and mouths, jagged yellow teeth chattering, flaming red eyes laughing coldly at my mistake. Something that looked just like the creature that had been hanging on the wall above my bed, a creature that I somehow knew had been a rival of Sinclair's.

"Did you think the Dark Ones held no sway over the minds of mortals? The tale I've told you is true. But what I did not tell you is that the stars say you are the final one to carry this last object of power -- the last human with enough of the old race within his soul and his DNA to be able to wield the staff. Once we found you, we made sure that you lived a solitary life, and we simply waited for a time when you were sufficiently weak. That time is now."

I staggered backward, falling back to the floor, my body heaving and screaming for death. A distant sound reached my ears as the thing that had been Sinclair continued to speak from its many mouths.

"But you see, we had the Staff of J'leyth, we have always had it, but we needed to be sure there were none left of your pathetic little branch of humans, no one left who would be strong enough to stop us from completely finding our way into this world, and to remake it in our image, to rebuild what we once lost. We have penetrated you and infected you. We are now bound to each other. Through you we now truly control the Staff and its immense powers." The creature paused, as if considering. "Do not worry, you will not die. Not now. I will grant you your small life. Just know this: you have murdered this world."

The dark thing turned and crawled from the room, leaving me there on the floor, pain-wracked, sobbing into the darkness of my house, and clutching the tainted Staff that had sealed the fate of the world. Even Charlie, whom I had thought a poor old fool, had been one of them. They are everywhere, which is the reason I struggle to tell this tale now. I know others have written similar testimonies, only for them to fall on deaf ears. I implore you, beg you, to please believe. They are already here, they have always been. And more are coming. The tapping sound grows stronger in my mind with each passing moment. I fear that all I will have left one day soon is that sound. The sound of the world's dying heartbeat.

Tap . . . tap . . . tap . . .




Story © 2002 by Brian C. Fadrosh b_fadrosh@yahoo.com

Illustration © 2002 by Jon Eke jon@galaxy5.fsnet.co.uk



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