This was written for the Of Mist and Magic anthology.
Enter the world Of Mist And Magic, where fairy tales are reimagined under the influence of Really Slow Motion’s inspiring music, in this enchanting anthology of short stories. Proceeds of the Amazon exclusive ebook will be donated to Elevate Life and Art studios, an amazing youth organization in Asheville, NC.
Piper wiped his face with a hand, and then he spat as mud rubbed off his palm and into his mouth. His raft hadn’t survived the collision with the rocks. He had, somehow, but now he was late for the extermination.
He squinted at his coat sleeve in the moonlight. Not much better than his hand. Black splotches covered the red and yellow patchwork. He lowered his arm and pulled his bag closer to check the contents. Blanket, protection amulet, hat, spare set of clothes–unfortunately soaked–and a scarf.
He shuffled through the contents again.
Where was it?
He hadn’t lost it in the river, had he?
Muscles tightened down his neck. He turned the bag over and dumped everything onto the grass.
It had to be here!
His spare set of clothing unraveled, and his wooden pipe tumbled onto the riverbank. He snatched the instrument before it fell into the water and clutched it to his chest. Closing his eyes, he sighed.
Roaring water competed with the crickets for loudest sound of the night. He wrinkled his nose as the pungent stench of rotting vegetation wafted from upstream. It probably came from the city.
He shoved his clothes and blanket back into his bag, emptied his boots of river pebbles, and rose. Carrion birds watched him from the trees with glowing yellow eyes. Wood creaked as they adjusted their claws on the branches. He slid the amulet over his neck, put on his hat, and started into a jog.
Clouds drifted in front of the moon, and darkness pressed in on him. He lifted his pipe to his lips and blew two low notes and one high. Sunback squirrels darted ahead of him, their fur illuminating his path. They scurried over the rocks and into the holes, more joining as they passed. He continued playing as he ran.
Until his foot struck a log.
He pitched forward and pinwheeled his arms. Something caught the back of his coat and stopped him short of hitting the ground. The same force yanked him up and dropped him on his feet. Squirrels scattered, dousing their light. The grip on his coat eased, and a scarred face emerged from the darkness.
Piper gulped. “Hey Mayor.”
Mayor’s lips twitched into a smirk, which didn’t make him any prettier. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Piper craned his head to peer around the hulking man. “Corp’s here already?”
Bright flame burst to life. It danced jovially in the palm of a raven-haired woman. She smiled at him. “Nice to see you again, Piper.”
Heat rushed to his face, and he rubbed the back of his neck. “You too, Corp.”
Mayor turned his back to Piper and stooped to pick up a bag. “We should leave now, while most of the nest is asleep. Piper, you’ll draw them to the river. Corp will pick them off, and I’ll cut them off from behind.” He slung his sack over his shoulder.
Corp dimmed the fire in her hand and took the lead into the darkness. Mayor followed, with Piper at the end.
“Careful.” Piper lifted his legs as he walked and tested each step. “There’s a log around here somewhere. I tripped on it.”
Mayor snorted. “That was my foot.”
Piper scowled at the man’s back. “Three-toed, purple-tongued, son of a–”
“What’d you say?” Mayor glowered over his shoulder.
Piper grinned, showing his teeth. “Nothing.”
They strode in silence until they reached the brush just outside the city. They ducked behind the trees and surveyed the battlements.
Silhouettes loomed ahead. Stocky buildings huddled in groups like frightened children. In the center, a tower watched over them with two open windows and glowing lantern eyes.
Crickets refused to trill this close to the city. Their silence said everything.
Monsters dwelled within.
A two-legged shadow patrolled the top of the wall, massive with a long snout and whipping tail. Whiskers twitched in the moonlight, and eerie red eyes glowed as they scanned the area.
Piper froze. Goosebumps rippled up his arms. “Rats?” He grabbed Mayor’s shoulder, jerked the man to face him, and hissed between clenched teeth. “You didn’t tell me we were fighting rats.”
Mayor twisted Piper’s wrist and dislodged his grip. His nostrils flared, and he flattened his lips to a thin white line. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you wouldn’t come.”
“I don’t do rats.” Piper spun back the way they’d come. Mayor grabbed the back of his coat collar and twisted. Cloth dug into Piper’s armpits and held him firmly in place. He scratched at Mayor’s thick fingers and slapped the man’s hand, but couldn’t break free.
Mayor lifted him off his feet and set him back down facing the city. “Think of the reward. It’s a thousand pieces for each of us.”
“Yeah, well, it should be fifty-thousand when it involves rats.” Piper folded his arms, though it lacked the dignity he’d intended since the grip on his coat made his elbows poke into the air. “I’m not doing it.”
Mayor released him. “You’ve got to pay your debts before somebody sells you to the council.”
A shudder raced through Piper. The council. They’d strip his magic and boil his bones for their spells. That nasty bunch took any human–criminal, infant, or even terminally ill. Nobody survived once within their clutches.
He straightened his coat. “I’m debt free, thank you very much. Cook called us even after I got rid of his roaches.”
Mayor rolled his eyes. “Then think of it as the chance for revenge.”
“I don’t want revenge. I want to avoid them, to never see them again, to live life without ever being reminded of what those things did to me.”
“If we kill them, we keep them from hurting others.” Mayor drew his sword. “Come on, you know I hate them just as much as you do.”
Piper shook his head. “If you did, we wouldn’t be going in there.”
Corp laid a hand on his sleeve. Her long, slender fingers caressed the muddied leather. “Please, Piper. We need you. We tried to find someone else. Really, we did. Nobody else has your talent.”
He ground his teeth and glared at Mayor. “This is the last job I ever take with you.”
Mayor grinned. “Let’s hope it’s not because one of us dies.” He pointed toward the gate. “Get into place.”
The stars had faded, and to the east, dark violet had lightened to gray.
Piper trudged toward the gate, clutching his pipe and kicking rocks whenever he found them. Rats. Why’d it have to be rats? He could handle moles, toads, and even vipers. But rats? He shuddered. By far the worst scourge to ever set foot in the kingdom. They terrorized cities, abducted humans, and fed on pain. He’d been their prisoner for three seasons before finally escaping. The scars still ached even after all this time.
He stopped several feet from the gate, lifted his pipe in a shaking hand, and pressed it to his lips. His throat tightened.
Was the money really worth it?
Mayor and Corp were good, but it was three of them against an entire city filled with rats. And he was playing bait. If they caught him…
He lowered his pipe and wiped the sweat from his face with his other hand. Corp waved from the side and offered him a fire-lit smile. Mayor stared stoically from the trees, sword drawn and ready.
A shriek sounded from the top of the wall. Piper flinched. The patrolling rat whipped the bow from its shoulder and fired an arrow. Piper jumped back, inhaled, and blew into his pipe. Three shrill notes pierced the air.
The city gates crashed open. Rats poured out, brandishing swords and hefting shields. Armor plated their muscular, furry bodies.
Piper spun, still playing, and raced down the main road. Clawed feet made scratching noises as they scurried after him. An arrow shot past his head. He forced more power into his song, willing more enticement into his pursuers.
Flames lit the night, and heat blazed across his back. Terrible squeals from burning rats sent shivers up his spine. Vibrations rumbled through the road as hundreds of bodies chased him, nipping at his heels. He didn’t look back. He pressed on, though his legs ached with exertion.
The bridge crossing the river rose into sight. He ran to the right of it, skidding down the bank until his boots splashed into water. He dove beneath the bridge and grabbed onto a support beam to keep from being swept away. Cold cut through him. Water sloshed down his collar, invaded his nostrils, and flooded his mouth. He climbed the support beam and wrapped both arms and legs around it, clinging with everything he had.
Rats tumbled in after him. They snarled and slashed their claws. One caught his leg and crawled up him like a rope.
He screamed and kicked it in the face until it let go. Another grabbed his coat, shredding the tails of it into multicolored strips. A fire dart knocked the rat free and drove it into the water. He gasped in air tainted with singed wet fur and fumbled for his amulet. His cold, wet fingers caught the pendant at the end of the chain. “Sis,” he whispered, “are the pies ready?”
No, came the inaudible reply.
The sky had lightened, but black furry bodies darkened the banks. Above him, on the bridge, metal clattered and swords rang. “Piper,” Mayor shouted. “You need to keep playing!”
An arrow sliced Piper’s arm and struck the support beam. He flinched and pulled the pipe to his lips, his knuckles white around it.
A rat leapt onto his back, thick muscled arms wrapping around his neck and choking him. The rat bowed him backward, and he lost his grip. They plunged into the icy water and hit the support beam on the other side of the bridge. The impact dislodged the rat. Piper caught hold of the beam with the tips of his fingers and pulled. He broke the surface, heaved a breath, and blew into his pipe.
Rats leapt into the river. They flowed over both sides of the bridge like a double waterfall. The current dragged them under and swept away the tide of terror.
His arm shook with fatigue, but he clung to the support beam and focused on playing. More rats plunged into the water from the banks. His hold slipped.
Water rushed over his head. He tumbled, hitting rocks and breaking the surface before repeating the pattern again. He gagged and choked as he struggled to get a breath. Something yanked him to the side. He rammed into the bank and flailed for anything to grasp. Leathery fingers gripped his arm and pulled him free.
He tumbled onto the bank, vomiting up river water.
“You’re alive,” Mayor said, the words distorted by water trapped in Piper’s ears. His heavy hand thumped Piper on the back. “You survived.”
Piper heaved in ragged breaths of putrid air, made sweet by the taste of life. He cracked his eyelids and checked his pipe, still clutched tightly in his hand. Safe. He curled in on himself and pressed his forehead against the bank.
Corp knelt next to him, her delicate fingers pushing the hair from his face. “Are you all right?”
Piper coughed and sat up. His head throbbed, and his sinuses felt like they might burst. “I don’t think that was worth a thousand pieces.” He patted his chest and found his protection amulet still around his neck. It was probably what had saved him.
Mayor tapped his chin with a meaty finger and scrutinized Piper. “You look like a–”
“Don’t say it!”
Piper scowled. “That isn’t funny. It only furthers my conviction that I’ll never do another job with you again.”
“That’s what you said last time.” Mayor offered a hand.
Piper took the help and climbed to his feet. His ears popped, and water drained down his jawline. “The last one didn’t involve rats.”
Corp tossed him a sopping mess. “I found your bag.”
It squished between his fingers and dripped water onto his boots. He wrung what water he could from it and slid it over his shoulder. “What about my hat?”
She shook her head.
The sun peeked over the horizon, painting everything a golden hue. Even the drab city looked less menacing.
Mayor climbed the riverbank to the main road. Corp followed, and Piper took up the end again, checking over his shoulder for any possible rat survivors. His limbs shook, but he managed not to collapse. Yet.
He checked his coat and frowned at the tears in the red and yellow pattern. His share of the reward was enough to pay for a house, let alone a new set of clothing. But this had been his favorite outfit. He finger-combed his wet hair. Hopefully his sister would make him a new hat.
They strolled in through the deserted main gates of the city. The stench of decay grew, and Piper covered his nose with a hand. Weapons lay in piles, strewn about the main square. Based on the housing structure, the square doors, and otherwise even architecture, this had probably been a human city before the rat infestation. The rats had added their own share of stolen baubles and jewels to the decorations.
Corp kicked over a wooden bucket and whistled. “I think we hit it big.” She bent and picked up a gold chain as thick as her thumb. “I’ve never seen this much gold in one place.”
Piper scooped a handful of cut diamonds from a dead flowerbed and shoved them into his pocket. “Rats love shiny things.”
Mayor skipped the perusal and strode straight for the tall tower in the center of town. Piper and Corp gathered what treasures they could carry and hurried after him. Mayor flung open the door and turned right, down a spiral staircase. Corp stopped outside, but Piper continued down.
“Hey, Mayor.” Piper ran his hands along the wall to keep his balance. “Where are you going?”
“Don’t follow me.” Mayor’s footsteps echoed, though he had disappeared around the bend.
“Well, gee. I thought we were a team. What is…” Piper rounded the corner. His stomach seized into a knot. A row of jail cells stretched before them, with hundreds of tiny hands poking through the bars. He stumbled backward and slammed into the wall. His knees gave out, and he slowly sank to the floor.
Mayor looked down at him. “I told you not to follow me.”
Piper pressed his palms to his eyes. Bile burned the back of his throat. Tremors shook his body with the memory of his time spent in a rat cage.
Mayor cleared his throat. “How about you go upstairs?”
Piper crawled up the stairs. Stone bruised his knees, but he couldn’t find the strength to stand. He made it outside and sat at the base of the tower, leaning against the wall.
Corp cast a sympathetic look his way. “Here.” She handed him a glass bottle.
He held it, staring down the skinny hole at the dark amber liquid. The scent of barley and spring apples wafted up to him. His sister’s laughter echoed from the depths of his mind. His hand shook, but he recapped the bottle and handed it back without drinking. “I…can’t. I’ve managed without a potion for over a season now.”
She took it and stowed it in her vest. “Sorry, I didn’t know, or I wouldn’t have offered.”
He rubbed his face and stared ahead at nothing in particular.
Silence stretched. She nudged the dirt with her boot. “How’d you beat it? The need for potions, that is.”
He met her beautiful dark gaze and shrugged. “I ran out of money, so I went home. My mother and sister live on a farm, and they’re too poor to hire extra hands. They put me to work. I didn’t have time or opportunity to buy one.”
He fingered the amulet around his neck. It’d taken the joint effort of his mother and sister to make it with their magic. His mother wove her love into the chain, saying it would protect him. His sister crafted the pendant, reminding him he always had a home to return to.
Metal squeaked and rattled from inside the tower. Moments later, the first of the prisoners stepped into daylight.
The girl’s skin had gone beyond pale. She wore rags, and her brown hair hung limp around her boney face. She stared vacantly at the sky before being shoved aside by other children. They hobbled out, bracing each other, most unable to stand on their own. Some had lost limbs. One had been blinded.
With each addition, Piper’s stomach turned.
They were young, some maybe three or four years old. It was hard to tell though. None of them were any wider than a stick. They filled the square, but not one of them made a sound.
Mayor stepped out and closed the door behind him. “That’s it for the live ones.”
Piper climbed to his feet. “What are we going to do with them?”
Mayor stared at the listless group of over a hundred children. “The council wants them.”
Piper jerked, and a new qualm ran through him. “You can’t give them to the council!”
“Who do you think sent us on this job?” Mayor wove through the crowd, stalking like a giant among them. “Nobody else has pockets that deep.”
“Forget the money then!” Piper ran after Mayor, the jewelry in his pockets jangling with the motion. “We’ve got enough here to be set for life.”
“The council will blacklist us if we don’t fulfill our contract.” Mayor stopped by the gates and turned around to survey the group. “Nobody will buy from us, let alone speak to us. This treasure is worth nothing if we can’t sell it. Besides, look at these children. They’re as good as dead anyways.”
Piper stepped in front of Mayor. “They can recover. If you hand them over to the council, there’s no chance of that.”
Mayor shook his head. “Recover? You spent three seasons with the rats and need a spell to sleep every night. Even then, you wake up screaming. These children have been here for eight seasons, barely given enough to survive. This has been their childhood. How do you expect them to come back from that?”
“Get them as far away from here as possible.” Piper pointed to the mountains. “Teach them there’s a better life. Help them discover everything wonderful.”
Mayor smirked, and the scar running down his face twisted. “You always were a dreamer. But what if they haven’t learned by the time they come into their power? We’ll have over a hundred potentially lethal killers without the emotional and moral background to know right from wrong.”
“You’re willing to throw away their futures on a chance that they might become monsters?” Piper stepped backward and sought out Corp across the crowd. “Please, talk some sense into him.”
She shook her head. “I’m with Mayor on this. These children are dangerous.”
The first girl watched them dispassionately. If she knew about the council and their heinous ways, it didn’t show.
Piper grabbed Mayor’s vest in one last plea. “What about their families? Their mothers and fathers probably want them back.”
Mayor waved to the buildings. “This was their home before the rat infestation. Do you see any humans left besides these children? Their families are dead.”
Piper released his old friend and stepped back. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have helped you.”
Mayor pulled a leather pouch from his belt and tossed it to Piper. “Here’s fifty pieces. You don’t have to come with us to deliver. You can find me afterwards and collect the rest of your reward.”
Piper bounced the pouch in his palm, its blood-weight adding to that already bearing down on his soul. He threw it at Mayor’s feet and met the man’s gaze. “I’m sorry.” He lifted his pipe.
Mayor’s face tensed, and a muscle bulged in his jaw. His hand went to his sword. “Don’t do it.”
Piper blew three soft, sweet notes. The children came alive. Smiles creased faces that may have never seen joy. Excited chatter filled the air, mixed with whispers and sweetened with giggles. Tiny hands clawed at him. “Take us to the magic place!” they shouted. “We want to go!”
Mayor drew his sword and slashed.
Piper ducked and dodged, running past Mayor through the open gates while still playing his pipe. Children raced after him, laughing as they tripped and stumbled on legs that hadn’t been used in seasons. A fire dart struck his shoulder and ricocheted off, shooting into the air. The amulet around his neck heated. He grasped the pendant, and cut off playing to take a breath. “Hey sis, are the pies ready?”
He resumed playing and veered right outside the city, heading for the mountains instead of the river.
Mayor tackled him from behind, slamming him face down into the dirt. His meaty fist wrapped around Piper’s playing hand and squeezed.
Bones creaked. Pain shot up Piper’s arm. He lifted his face free of the ground, pursed his lips, curled his tongue, and let loose a piercing whistle. Fire barreled into Mayor, knocking him off.
“Cripes!” Corp shouted. “He used me, Mayor.” She lobbed more fire darts, this time at Piper.
Piper scrambled to his feet and started running again. He shook his throbbing hand and switched to playing with his other. The children trundled after him, resuming their giggles. Chunks of earth exploded around him, showering him with dirt. Heat scorched his face. Flames licked the grasses and caught on the trees.
He glanced over his shoulder.
Mayor rolled to his knees, holding his burned side. He roared and charged after Piper, swinging his sword. His footsteps shook the ground with magic-amplified strength.
Piper staggered, ran faster, and played harder. His lungs burned with inhaled smoke, and he fought the cough rising in his chest. The children chased him, captivated by his song and oblivious to the danger. Trees thickened around them, and the trail up the mountain roughened.
A loud crack shook the air, and a tall tree crashed down across their path. Corp climbed atop it from the other side, and Mayor pushed his way through the children. Piper kept playing to keep the children entranced, but eyed his former associates. Fire surrounded them, and smoke blackened the sky.
Mayor rested his sword on his shoulder. “I don’t want to kill you, but I will.”
Corp waved to the children. “Piper, you’re feeding them a lie. There’s no magical place for them. What will happen when you run out of breath and they realize you’ve given them nothing? They’ll turn on you.”
He couldn’t rescue these children from the rats only to deliver them to their executioners. They didn’t deserve that. Sure, he couldn’t give them the winged horses or candy trees his song promised. But he could give them a chance at life.
Corp fired a thin, straight shot, burning his hand and setting his pipe aflame. The pipe seared his palm and turned to ash. The children gasped. Some whimpered while others screamed.
Corp culled the fire surrounding them.
Mayor stomped through the burnt shrubbery and grabbed Piper by the front of the coat, lifting him off the ground. “I oughta pound you for that.”
Piper smiled. “Maybe next time.” He whistled a low tune.
Mayor’s eyes glazed. He dropped Piper and turned toward Corp. She stiffened and took aim again, but Mayor blocked her path. He charged her, grabbing her as he leapt onto the log, pinning her arms to the side. She screamed and kicked, but Piper increased the volume of his whistle. Mayor and Corp tumbled onto the other side of the massive fallen trunk.
Piper grasped his amulet. “Hey sis, are the pies ready?”
Yes, came the reply. Come have a slice.
Purple light shot out from the pendant. He glimpsed Mayor and Corp climbing the log as the portal opened beneath him and the children.
The purple light vanished, along with the mountain and trees. They stood in a field on the edge of an orchard. The children murmured and huddled together, the younger ones clinging to the older. Whatever shock or stupor the rats had driven them into had worn off with his song. They now stared at him with terror etched into their tiny faces.
He swallowed hard. “Uh…hello…everyone.” He counted heads. One hundred thirty. What was he supposed to do with one hundred thirty children? He flexed his hands–one burnt, the other nearly crushed. He didn’t have his pipe, so the best he could do was lead one child at a time.
The girl with limp brown hair stepped forward, rubbing her arm with one hand and staring at the ground. “Are you still going to take us to the magic place?” Her quiet voice held so much hope, it broke his heart.
He bent, resting the edges of his palms on his knees and craning his face to meet her gaze. “I’ll do one better. I’ll take you to a place where people will love you, keep you safe, and help you grow big and strong. Would you like that?”
The girl nodded.
He straightened and scanned the group. “Follow me then.” He turned on his heel and strolled into the orchard. The children picked up fallen fruit as they walked, hungrily chomping down on any piece they could find.
Soon, the house came into view with smoke floating from the chimney. Fruit pies cooled in the windows, and an older woman swept the front step with a straw broom. She looked up, and a smile bloomed on her warm face. “Piper!”
He opened his arms and hugged her. “Hi Mom. Do you think there’s room at the dinner table for company?”
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