's 2017 Horror Write-off:

Brothers in Rust pt. 1

Submitted by Kira M.

Both of us sat at the cluttered table and stared at the tea colored slip of paper. We'd gotten the invite several days earlier from one of the townspeople eventually eventually. We don't have any kind of formal post office or mail delivery, letters are typically just given to someone who might be headed in that direction. It was hard to make out most of the letter since it'd apparently gotten in the rain, but in bold red letters it said "HERTZ FAMILY REUNION, ROSS COUNTY NEAR THE THREE LOCKS! JULY 30th." 

The date today is July 5th. At any other point in history this would've been something to just go to seeing as how where we live, the Hocking Hills, are roughly 40 miles from Three Locks. It'd take an hour or so in a decent car, and maybe 12 hours on foot. Unfortunately, cars are a rarity now a days and walking is essentially the only reliable source of transportation. Sure, back in the good days you could walk there in 12 hours if you were so inclined, but things like that are impossible today. The world is a very different place now...

94 years ago a great catastrophe befell the Earth. The year was 2037; after several years of fighting between the United States, Russia, China and the United Nations, the proxy wars and localized skirmishes finally stopped. We'd been on the brink of another World War, but space colonization had opened humanity's eyes to what we could accomplish if we worked together; not as nations or countries, but as a species of one planet. All of that changed on March 13th. Accounts vary on the finer details, but it is said that several hundred gigantic entities appeared over some of the most populated areas across the planet. For over 23 hours these beings did nothing except float around aimlessly, occasionally destroying any missile or fighter aircraft that'd strayed too close for their comfort. The beings came in two forms, one looking like a ghostly blue multi-legged starfish while the others appeared to be humanoid with heads of either rams or deer. 

Countless attempts were made to communicate with them to no avail. There was no contingency plan for such an event, at least not like this. At the 24 hour mark they finally spoke. There are many written accounts and even a few surviving video or audio recordings of what was said by the beings. It's said that they spoke eloquently in every language possible, but they made it clear that Earth would now become a testing ground of sorts; that the following years would be terrible and more difficult than anyone could imagine, because it was decided that our planet would now host the world's of several other overlapping realities. Be kind and friendly to your new neighbors and in time grow together. We have faith that you'll work it out; and so they launched thousands of nuclear weapons and destroyed half of the human population in three minutes. And so began The Test.

In the immediate aftermath black rain fell from the sky, sometimes even hundreds of miles away from the blast zones; the unlucky people who survived the bombs became soaked and even drank the black rain out of desperation. Unfortunately, the black rain was in fact fallout in the form of precipitation. It was over 130 times more radioactive than standing at ground zero. Within moments of drinking it, their stomachs became radiation burned ulcers and they'd suffer through the new sensation of every cell in their body being ripped apart. In those last few hours they would envy those who'd died in the nuclear hell fire. The black rain fell for nearly two weeks in some places, irradiating and killing anything it touched. Entire forests and ecosystems died in a matter of hours from it, and soon the inky death trickled into the streams and rivers. Millions of humans who'd tried in vain to escape the heat joined forces with even more dead fish, creating rivers so choked with corpses you could've easily walked across them. 

During the proxy wars the nations of the Earth had held another arms race. With unlimited military spending they built nuclear bombs bigger than ever before, bombs with 250 megaton yields, missiles that sprayed nuclear warheads like grapeshot, even gigantic kinetic weapons fired from space. These weren't weapons of warfare; they were weapons of planetary destruction, built to replace life with death. The Gods let us construct the instruments then used them to pass their judgment. It's written that after the black rain ceased, that the entire world became shrouded in a toxic black smoke. When the monstrous nuclear bombs burst over top cities, they reached temperatures of 100,000,000° Fahrenheit. Heat so intense it vaporized 97% of New York City in a heartbeat. Glass and steel skyscrapers thousands of feet tall disappeared, turned people, bridges, cars and homes into a superheated gas. The heat made roadways for miles around spontaneously combust, a long with oil refineries, coal mines and land fills.

For nearly ten cruel years the smoke blotted out the sunlight on Earth. Any plants that did manage to survive only had the poisonous acid rain for hydration. Global temperatures dropped by 37°F on average, and billions starved to death during the first decade. The few remaining humans experienced things so unbelievably horrific that the term hell doesn't even begin to do it justice. These people didn't believe in hell, there was no Christ the redeemer. They worshipped the things that were certain, the things that surrounded them forever and always: Death. Suffering. Decay. 

Of course, that's all well in the past now. We live decently, and we make do with what we've got. My brother Jay is a hunter and trapper, while I am a sort of medicine man. Go to Jay if you're hungry and go to Kay if you're not feeling well after eating whatever Jay fed you. We live in separate houses that happen to be connected by a long hallway. Jay's home is quite nice and tidy. Weapons of every century and manner of smash, slash and bash hang on his walls like holiday portraits along with several maps of the town with its surrounding areas and the names of residents. There is a big board with who does what and who owns what, because you can only moderate the argument of who owns the 'salt and pepper color chicken' between the same two assholes so many times. It's an easy way of keeping people managed and above all happy without much oversight. He is very orderly and I do admire him for it. 

My home is... less tidy. I've never been one for cleanliness or organization because on a certain level I find it to be dishonest and highly suspicious. Nature isn't organized unless something else decides to make it that way, and then people like me have to wonder about the true intentions of that out of town beaver or the shady looking anthill down the road. I don't trust any of that stuff because it didn't organize by means of letting it accumulate wherever I left it at last. What looks like the remnants of an exploded library is actually a very complicated filing system called 'it was there the last time I looked'. Books, papers, sketchbooks, pamphlets, magazines and anything else that might have the misfortune of having information is littered onto every available surface. In a few places this has grown into ever expanding islands on the floor. And yet, if you were to ask me where the book on fungi should be I would know exactly where I put it. Then I'd tell you to stop by in a while because I need to finish looking for it. 

Our large H shaped home has become the default building for anything important in town. Jay and I built the place about 15 years ago when we'd only been 16-17 years old. (well, I helped take measurements...) And after awhile people just started showing up. Nobody invited them, but nobody told them to leave either. The only requirement to become a resident was that you had to have some skill. Farming, baking bread, knitting, taking care of children, whatever; be good at it and you can stay. All in all, there are maybe 200 people making up the village of Fort Nonsense. Jay acts as the sheriff, though there's little crime here. And I do most of the mayorship stuff behind the scenes. Jay is the face and Kay is the brain as they say. He's a good face too, as not too many people like to argue against a man who's 6' 5" of pure muscle and once knocked a draft horse unconscious by sneezing on it. 

I myself am quite stout, even though fat would be a better word. You can usually find me either out in the forest collecting flowers, herbs and insects, or in my house behind a tower of precariously placed books. I am actually the older brother by three years, but most people don't believe that, and I don't blame them. Jay is more serious, more mature and more adult than I could ever hope to be. We make a good team in that respect. When the invitation had arrived Jay and I both tried to ignore it, because we knew what it meant. So, for two weeks we went about the task of preparing for the journey without so much as saying a word. There was the occasional brief glance to one another that said with out words "Fuck I don't want to do this." but we knew we had too. By the time everything was packed and ready, we'd already told the villagers what was happening, who'd be in charge while we were gone and such. Inheriting some kind of sick pleasure from my grandmother, I loved packing and did so obsessively to make sure it was all there. It included:

One AK-47 with two magazines and 87 rounds. One sawed off shotgun with 20 shells. One revolver with 43 rounds. One machete. 5 grenades. One compass. Two first aid kits. A watch. A sundial. A large box of strike anywhere matches. A magnifying glass. Half size crossbow, 13 bolts. A small white flag. Flare gun, 3 shots. Iodine tablets, one bottle. Ponchos. A large tent. One KABAR fighting knife. Two large canteens. 8 pounds of dried meat. 12 MRE's. Bug repellent. A slingshot. A bottle of my homemade liquor. A satchel of opium. A clay pipe. Two ounces of marijuana and two ounces of tobacco. There were other odds and ends, some string, lots of various sized glass bottles, clothing, pills and various chemicals I'd whipped up, plus stuff to trade if we need too. And of course, there was the shovel...

The shovel deserves a story all its own. It has been our only family heirloom for 50 years now, and these days it does little more than sit above the mantle of the fireplace. It's said that our grandmother, Biddy Jewel, had gotten it specially made for her by one of the Others, after she invited it into her home and out of the rain. There are many Others, and it's really just a generic name for the people and entities that now occasionally pop into our world after the Test. This particular Other was one that is very strange and rare to encounter, and people called them Day Knights. Indeed, they do look like knights in suits of armor, if your idea of a knight is one that stands 9ft tall and is covered in a spiked metal suit carrying a sword nearly as large as them. It's not known if they're biological or mechanical, but most credible sources believe they are something like a sentient robot. Either way, the Knight was touched by Jewel's kindness and asked if there was anything he could give her in return. Biddy Jewel was a practical woman, and mentioned she could use a new shovel. The Knight nodded and in the morning he had left. By that afternoon there was quite a crowd growing outside of the local blacksmiths forge watching the knight from a safe distance.

It's said that he dragged one of the bizarre living metal trees back from the Dread Shores, with the tree struggling and fighting every inch of the way. He dispatched it with a single chop from his mighty green sword, and worked for two days and two night rendering the tree down in the furnace. Finally, on the third day there was a loud clank at Biddy's door and the Knight delivered the shovel. It looked normal enough with a very long handle and sharp spade. The entirety of it was black and silver with red runes etched into it, completely made of the tree metal; it looked to weigh 100 pounds or more. But surprisingly enough, the thing was light as a feather. The knight explained that whatever you need it to be, it will be that. Need to cut down a tree? Swing the shovel and within three chops it'd be felled. Need to smash something with several tons of force? Swing it. It shall respond to the willpower of the user and change accordingly. It would also dig a very nice hole. At least that's how the story goes. In actuality, only a few people have ever been able to use it, let alone pick the damn thing up. 

In the last 20 years, only myself, the book reading drug making man behind the scenes has been able to use it. That doesn't stop Jay from occasionally trying to pick it up and use it, usually resulting in him hurting his back or getting stung by the thing. So at dawn, we slung our bags over our shoulders and waved goodbye to the people of Nonsense. Jay carried the rifle while I held the shovel, wishing I'd told someone to water my garden while I was gone...


"We've been walking for a little more than an hour now, you know we're going to go right past Conkle's Hollow if we don't get off the trail soon." 

"Humph, bunch of freeloaders and pushovers as I recall. They won't give us any trouble, none worth dying over anyway. Mooching hippies is what they are, they got no right to the clean water up there, don't respect the land none at all." Said Jay.

The dirt trail had already started to become laced with the soft limestone sand and patches of thick green moss as we drew closer to the Hollow. It really is a beautiful place, full of shallow pools of cold water, several spring fed waterfalls and more caves than one could keep track of. This time of year, the Hollow is cooler than the surrounding area, blanketed by a thick shade from the huge trees. Swallowtail butterflies thrive in the caves, and sometimes after disturbing them the air is so thick with yellow it seems like it's on fire. From somewhere high above us on the cliffs, a tiny rock fell down and bounced into a still pool of water. We both immediately stopped and for a moment all that was heard was our breathing, until Jay jammed a clip in the rifle and pulled the slide back, echoing throughout the forest.

"4 o'clock, two guys. Have crossbows. 10 o'clock. One guy. Rifle." Jay whispered without looking at me. "Judging by the rifle guy, I'd say he's never fired it, I doubt it has bullets. I think you can sweet talk them."

I sighed and slowly took the white flag out of my pack and fluttered it around. "We're not raiders or whatever, so you can be at ease. We're actually from just over the ridge, we're sorta the mayors of Fort Nonsense. Just passing through to a family reunion, if you can believe that." I shouted. 

The once hostile figures suddenly appeared to be very confused and looked at one another while bickering back and forth. Then one of them yelled out. "So, uh, you ain't been sent here by that one warlord, what's his name, Blood Spit or Blood something? The camp near the Rose lake?"

"Oi, you mean Blood Spider the Vicious?" Yelled Jay.

"Yeah yeah, that's the guy! I knew it was blood something. So you ain't spies for him or a scout troop or anything?" The guard said wearily. 

"Nah, afraid Spider's been busy with some family stuff actually. His wife came down with a terrible fever a week ago, we're quite worried about her to tell the truth. I went up last Saturday to bring her some medicine and stuff for the pain. Spider is worried sick, never seen him like this before." I half shouted. 

One the crossbow guards lowered his weapon and shook his head. "That's a damn shame really, his misses is a nice lady. It's them trout in that lake, they're still not fit to eat really ever since that algae bloom last April."

"Yeah, that's what I said to Spider, some type of poison or parasites making them risky to eat. She pull through though, Helen Blood is a strong woman, bless her heart." I said.

One the of the guards hopped down the side of the cliff like an ibex and came up to us. "Right, well you can pass through, but we'll have to take you to see the chase."

"The chase? What's his name?" 

"The chase's name is Chase actually. If you'd be so kind to follow me, I'll take you to him, he likes a visitor now and again. Oh, and please remove the clip from the rifle please... thanks. And now pop the one from the chamber... Right! All set then." The guard was scrawny and covered in numerous tattoos. He wore an ancient Kevlar vest and canvas shorts. He led us through the thick forest until we finally reached a small hut on stilts sitting halfway in a cave surrounded by a great blue pool of water. 

"Yo, Chase! Yah got company!" 

From out of the hut stepped a tall slim wisp of a man with long blonde hair. He was shirtless and only wore a ragged pair of cargo pants and thick boots, and in his waistband was a pistol. 

"Oh oh visitors! Some young boys came down round here to see little old me?! Yah got any candy or gifts for me strangers?" He hopped off the deck of the hut into the knee deep water, and made his way to the sand bank, staring at us the whole time. The Chase's eyes were a vivid blue with a red streak going through one of his eyes. He smiled impishly while circling us, and prodding our backpacks. The way he moved and swaggered so carelessly made him seem like a tom cat who had just found a very interesting mouse to play with. He was unnerving to say the least; usually I can get a good read on people but this guy... I can't tell, but he's either extremely stupid or very intelligent. 

Jay tried to back away from the flaxen haired cat, only to be tripped by a suspiciously well placed boot. He fell flat on his back and before he'd even gone through the neural circuitry of getting up, he'd gotten mad. You could tell when he was mad by watching his lips be drawn in and a flaring of the nostrils. He sprung up and made a reach for the knife on his belt but the moment the tiniest bit of blade was exposed a dozen crossbows and shotguns were pointed directly at us. Jay weighed the possibilities and decided that he wouldn't kill them after all, for their sake of course.

"Be carful, you weird little shit! I've got fucking explosives in my backpack, you could've killed us all!" Jay snarled at the cat.

"Yeah okay, bub. I was just messing with you. Besides, you're easier to provoke than your fat... brother, I presume? Just trying to get a rise." The chase cat purred. In a movement that wasn't quite visible as much as felt, Chase had slipped behind me and began poking the shovel. "Why do you have a shovel? Planning on digging up treasures? Or maybe digging a grave?" He said with a small smile.

"Wh-what? No! It's a family heirloom! Like I said, we're going to a family reunion. And it's my shovel..." I said kicking around the soft sand.

"It's just a shovel though, a weird looking shovel but a shovel nonetheless. What's so special about it? Can I hold it?" 

"Sure, be my guest!" I said as straight faced as possible. Chase unhooked the shovel, grabbed it, and groaned under the weight and dropped it. Even more cat like, he now probed and poked the shovel, tried moving it with his feet then summoned two guards to help him hold it, all to no avail. He then looked at Jay and pointed at the spade.

"Eh, sorry, I can't pick it up either. Kay is the only person who seems able to lift it. Show him, Kay." And I reached down and picked it up, and even twirled it in the air a bit before catching it. "See? Lite as a feather?" I grinned. Chase was clearly not amused but didn't dwell on it. We traded him some tobacco for a some kind of spirt mushrooms and we went on our way. 


We kept trekking westward for a few more hours, but we'd wasted a lot of time with the cat man. So we were forced to stop and make camp near the top of a ridge. After we set the tent up and started a fire it was well after 11pm, and we sat and enjoyed the silence of the forest. We had a bit of dried beef and a few bowls of green herb, and felt like maybe it'd be nice to see the family again. With our minds relaxed we drifted off to sleep underneath the stars. 

"hey...pssh...yo, K! wake up. something's lurking around us..." Jay gently but firmly woke me up with whispering. "shhh... listen... hear it? it's like someone's right on the edge of the ridge..."

I tried listening as groggily as possible and trying to remember the dream I'd been having about a couple of nurses in an ice cream parlor. So cold and pointy... "wait... yah I heard that... it's like whispering..."

The fire had died down to embers and it suddenly made me very nervous that whatever was there could see me by the glowing coals but not the other way around. I reached for the revolver but instead found the shovel. Jay had loaded two shells into the shotgun and was scanning for signs of unwelcome life. It's so dark, I just wish we could see whatever's out there... the shovel began to hum.

The runes on the handle glowed briefly and suddenly Jay and I were aware of every living creature around us for within a mile. We could see birds, deer, raccoon all outlined in a silver shimmering light. Then we saw the three human figures. They each wore long billowing cowls with weird leather face masks. They gripped a pipe, a machete and a big stick, plus they seemed pretty intent on testing them out. Yet they maintained their distance while whispering to each other. It seemed like they were waiting for something.

"What do we do?" I asked. "Well, we can't kill'em for just standing around while looking menacing, they ain't tried to come near us really. I say we wait." Jay grumbled.

And so, we waited. And waited. And watched. The three ruffians didn't even seem interested in us, or really even aware of us. After an hour of waiting, we finally heard the sound of wheels and hoofs; the unmistakable call of a traveling merchant. A while later two torches were barely visible through the thick forest night, and then the silver outline of the merchant and his horse appeared, along with two hired guards. One of the hooded figures that'd been waiting turned his back, and that's when I saw it.

"Jay, Jay!" I whispered in a panicked tone. "Look at the symbol on that guy's back!" 

Jay strained his eyes looking at it. "So? It's just like a circle and symbol things, lots of towns and tribes have their own seal." 

"Yeah, but that ain't just some kind of symbol, that's the sigil of Decaying Umbra!" I hissed. 

Jay crinkled his brow "Decaying whatsit?" 

"*They're a goddamn death cult, Jay!!*" 

"So what? Lots of people worship stuff like the sun or that guy they nailed to that tee a long time ago. What's wrong with worshipping death, it's a natural thing, yah know?" Jay said trying to sound worldly and tolerant.

"That might be true, but Decaying Umbra take a very direct and active approach to death by doing it themselves." 

Jay's face grew into a toothy grin that'd give a shark a run for its money. "Oh. Well... I suppose we should stop them then, huh? Heh heh..." While still smirking he put his foot in the stirrup and pulled the bowstring back until the crossbow gave a satisfying little click, and then placed a bolt in the groove. 

"Wait, I've got an idea!" I said excitedly. 

Jay groaned. He was all too familiar with anything I considered to be a plan. To Jay, a plan is something you use to make sure things go correctly by using tried and true methods of action. Jay also knew when I had a plan it meant I was about to do something stupid, untested, harebrained or dangerous; a lot of times it was all of those things. For example, I had once devised a new method of boiling water. Unfortunately it meant keeping a huge kettle a half mile away from the town and wearing a lead mask and apron to boil water, because it involved using a highly radioactive chunk of corium I had found near the Dread Shores. It never really caught on with the townsfolk. In short, Kay loved testing things and inadvertently making a simple task like boiling water complicated. 

I rummaged through the many pockets of my backpack until I found my makeshift chemistry set and an empty glass bottle with a cork. It was hard to work quickly with only the coals of the fire for light, but I'd spent a lot of time in the dark working with photosensitive chemicals and had developed a second sight by feel alone. I carefully poured some thick yellow solution into the ancient wine bottle, and gently swirled into around; the bottle gave off a faint yellow light and sizzled in protest to being agitated. 

"Okay, when I say now, I want you to close your eyes and put your hands over them. I only have one pair of the glasses, and I'll need them on to throw this. It's very important that you don't open your eyes until I say it's alright. Got it?" 

Jay nodded. I slipped on the thick black glasses, and placed two small purple tablets into the bottle then quickly jammed the cork into the mouth, and gave it a couple of vigorous shakes. The dark green bottle started to gently glow at first, then the yellow-green light was bright enough to see Jay's astonished face. The glow turned to a steady flashing before growing into a violently piercing strobe. I was getting nervous that this was a mistake when I suddenly got the signal I'd been waiting for in the form of a sharp whistling sound and the unmistakable heat of an exothermic reaction. Showtime!


A few different things happened simultaneously after I shouted. Jay obediently shut his eyes and covered them with his hands, even going so far as to turn his head away. All three members of Decaying Umbra swiftly turned around to face the top of the ridge and stared at a fat man who'd shouted. The cowled figures also became aware of an ominously flickering bottle that was rapidly approaching them. The first of the figures wondered what the bottle contained, the second figure was already thinking about killing the fat man, and the third figure wished he'd chosen a different night for his first official mission. The four pairs of eyes, well, five pairs if you include the owl perched in a nearby tree who'd been observing the scene with interest, watched as the flashing bottle soared through the air and landed harmlessly with a loud clink at the feet of the cult members. 

After a moment with more tension than a bowstring, one of the hooded figures chuckled and his accomplices sheepishly joined in. They shook their weapons threateningly at the fat man who returned the gesture with a bemused and cocky grin. "Time to die, you fat fucker!" And the enraged leader of the group charged forward and delivered a heavy kick to the scintillating bottle. The thing about bombs is that the shrapnel and heat aren't nearly as deadly as the pressure changes created by the shock wave; however this bomb kills using light. All bombs are also incredibly sensitive to criticism, and in this case the criticism of a steel toed boot caused it to loose its temper. 

There was sound like *thudump* (if you've ever heard a potato cannon you'll know the noise) then a blinding flash of yellow-green light that expanded till about eight feet in diameter. Of course, it did all of this within milliseconds and then quickly disappeared with a crackle of electricity. When it was safe, Jay opened his eyes and stood up beside his brother looking down over the ridge. However there was wasn't much to look at. The ground where the group had been standing was bleached white and faintly glowing, while some of the sand had turned to glass. Here and there were a few tiny patches of grass that were smoldering. But the most striking and horrible thing was the complete lack of bodies. There was evidence that there had been three figures, but it was in the form of their permanent shadows standing in stark contrast to the bone white ground. 

"Christ almighty, Kay, what the hell was that you threw at them?" Jay said in a stunned murmur.

"Uh, well, I don't really have a name for it. Maybe a firefly bomb? That's what most of it was made of. Fireflies, bit of white phosphorus, foxglove root and some concentrated Necrotic Lotus. You remember when Ms. Asuka said she wanted a new cellar for her preserves and stuff?" 

"... Yeah. I remember her asking and then in the middle of the night there was a huge explosion and thought it... huh, so that was you that did it?" Jay asked.

"Yup, it was the first time I made it, and hadn't gotten the ratios quite right so it was rather tiny compared to the one I just used. Still worked though."

"You blew up her tomato patch and scared the entire town half to death! Wait wait, did you say you used... necrotic lotus? You ain't supposed to be going near the Dread Shores, let alone messing with no otherworldly magic plants! Magic isn't something we piss around with, Kay! That's dangerous shit, you think I want me own brother to die like our dad did?!" Jay was furious but his voice quavered with fear. And he did have a point. Our father died while messing around with the magical things that've leaked into our world. He was always curious and said he didn't think it was magical, just stuff that we didn't understand yet. 

"That's different though, dad was careless about it. I ain't messing around with anything I can't control..." 

Jay looked at me with disdain in his eyes. He was worried but Kay is so much like dad; if dad or Jay tried to discourage or forbid something, you could bet Kay would turn right around and do it out of rebellious spite. Kay never did well in school despite being a bright student, because if a teacher told him to do something as lowly as homework he'd probably use it as fire kindling. He refused to do anything that he thought was unimportant. He learned what he wanted to learn, not what he was told too learn. He said he didn't respect them teachers, so he dropped out. He did respect Ms. Aliss, the village witch and resident magic expert of sorts. He became her apprentice, helping her look for herbs and minerals and the like. He adored the old woman, even waking up early every day to make her breakfast and tea before she woke up. When she died, he didn't come out of his study for two weeks. He didn't even come to her funeral. Kay still wouldn't talk about her unless he'd had a few drinks in him.

"Hmm. Whatever. Let's pack up. That trader is almost here, you want to see what he's got?" "Yah sure..." The two of them loaded their gear and slid down the ridge in a controlled fall. They lit a couple of torches and waited for the merchant to arrive. When he came into the clearing he audibly gasped and his guards raised their weapons.

"Oh, will you relax, we want to see what you've got for sale." Said Jay.

"Ah, right, of course. Sorry about that, we're a bit jumpy with all these raiders and cults around here. Looking for anything special?" Said the merchant.

"Yeah do you have anything from the Dread Shores or Rifts?" I asked. Jay shot me an icy cold stare that would've made a mole wish it didn't have such big eyes. 

"You know, it's strange that you mention that because I actually do. Typically I steer clear of anything like that, bad luck they say, but the person I got it from was so desperate to get rid of it I couldn't pass it up..." The merchant lifted up the canvas tarp covering his cart and dug around till he produced a small white box and a burlap sack. 

"The box has an amulet inside it, the guy said it was supposed to let you walk unheeded through the Dread Shores. I have no way of knowing if that's true, but it does look magical at least." The merchant flipped open the box and showed us the amulet; it was a circular black pendant with white flickering symbols on it, some kind of sigil but I didn't recognize it. The amulet was held in place by some copper and iron chains. 

"And so what's in the bag, then?" Jay asked. The merchant and even his guards suddenly all looked very uncomfortable.

"Ahem, well... it's a bit more complicated. It's a gauntlet, don't know what kind of material. Incredibly strong though, we bashed it with clubs as hard as we could, and even threw it in a forge; didn't so much as blemish it. Repels iron, lead and some steel alloys as well." The trader said proudly.

"What do you mean 'repels' them?" I asked with an eyebrow raised.

"I'll show you." The bearded merchant grabbed the sack and dumped the gauntlet on to the ground. Jay and I knelt down to examine it. Even with only the firelight it was the most beautiful piece of armor I'd ever seen. This wasn't made by some small town blacksmith or even a professional armory craftsman, this had been constructed with the passion and love of an artist or a madman. Its surface was so black it actually fooled the mind into ignoring the intricate details, as if absorbing all available light. It had multifaceted rivets, and the entirety of it had overlapping plates with edges that grew out into cruel spines. The knuckles had spikes for a brutal punch and even the fingers had short blades on them. Shapes that'd I'd only seen in geometry books were engraved all over, along with countless sigils and runes all inlayed with a strange blue metal that have off a ghostly light. 

I was still transfixed on the gauntlet when the merchant nearly have me a heart attack as he slammed a large iron hammer onto the metal glove. But there wasn't any kind of noise. He struck it again with more force and was nearly knocked backwards as the hammer sprung out of his hands. "Here, try it."

I took a sword from one the merchant's guards and took a strike at it, but to my surprise the sword was simply pushed back and away from the gauntlet. I took several nails out of my bag and dropped them one by one onto the glove. Each time the nail would fall, and briefly bob back up before landing a foot or two away. It's like trying to push two magnets together, that's exactly what it feels like I said mentally. This is amazing... 

"I'll take them, both of them." I said firmly. Jay's mouth opened once or twice as if to protest but he knew it'd do no good. Kay would just want them more if he said something...

"Um... if you're going to buy the gauntlet there's something you should know about it... the person who had it last, well... he..." The merchant became silent.

"The guy made us cut his arm off. We tried to pull it off, butter it, everything, for hours. He found us and said he'd been wondering around the hills for days trying to get it off. So, we cut his arm off. Which fell out of the gauntlet afterwards. Unfortunately, he was so dehydrated and shit we couldn't save him. I tried, and I have some medical experience, but he bled out so fast. He looked relieved to die, frankly." Said one of the gruff hired guards. Everyone looked at nothing for a moment, silently contemplating the horrible fate of the poor stranger. Then all at once everyone looked at the gauntlet. It seemed to be glowing brighter as if thrilled to be talked about. I looked at it for a while longer just studying this vicious thorny glove with a mind all its own. Then I decided.

"I still want it. The amulet too. So how much? Or would you rather trade?" I asked as nonchalantly as buying a new hat. Everyone stared at me as if I was trying to pay the ringmaster to let me put my arm into a tigers mouth. 

"Um... I don't think I should sell it to you, I'd rather not get a reputation as a bad merchant..." the man sputtered.

"I'll give you a gold piece for both."

"SOLD!" The merchant sang.

Jay grappled with my arm and pulled me aside. "The fuck you doing!? You heard the guy, it eats peoples arms!" He hissed through clinched teeth. I wrestled myself free "I'll do what I like, Jay, it's not like it's your arm or your money, so fucking butt out!" I walked over and pulled a coin out of the pouch around my neck and handed it to the trader, who promptly bit it to test its purity. He carefully handed me the box with the amulet, and I stuck it in my pack. 

"I'm taking the burlap sack too." 

"Sure sure, that's fine. We'll be on our way then." The caravan packed up and made its way back slowly into the thick night. I picked up the gauntlet and Jay eyed me like a venomous snake, and I put into the sack. I tied it to my bag.


"Yeah..." said Jay.