include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for The Whisper of the Coals by , available in its entirety at Smashwords











The Whisper of the Coals



by James Wolven








The Whisper of the Coals by James Wolven.



www.jamesburtonvo.com



© 2017 James Wolven



All rights reserved.



Cover created through www.canva.com.



Contact: jamesburtonvo@gmail.com. But choose your words carefully...

Rafal lifted his head to the darkened sky once more, studying it like he was looking for a speck in a painting. His heart skipped a beat as he noticed the twinkling of something bright and cosmic from over a tree, then relaxed as he realized it was simply an especially close star. There were only a few clouds in the sky, but he was paranoid one might have obscured the moon this night. He didn't know what it was about the giant hunk of rock in the sky that made the ritual tick. All he knew was that it couldn't be there, and he might potentially be stuck on the Mountain of Reflection for a cursedly long time if he misjudged the timing of the days.


He never did. He'd been hunting, tracking, and killing in the woods since he was old enough to hold a knife without cutting himself. He had his fair share of scars to remind him of his failures, and after making one, it was never repeated. If he thought tonight was a new moon, that was the end of the conversation – there would be no moon in the sky.


But a slight tremor wracked his hands anyway. If he was right 99% of the time, this night couldn't be the 1% that proved him wrong.


Rafal looked back down to the rough, craggy path leading up the mountain, weaving between conifers and testing his stamina with every step. Mountain of Reflection, a deceptively peaceful name for a place few people returned from.


There were bears and wolves and cliffs; there was a seemingly endless sea of pine trees swaying in a chilling symphony in the wind; there was the biting chill of the air that only threatened to grow worse as the days went by, heralding the departure of autumn and the arrival of an unforgiving mountain winter. None of that, however, was what made the mountain so dangerous. That was true of any mountain, but not all of them were considered cursed.


No, Rafal was here to pay a visit to the one that separated hapless fools from their lives. So what did that make him?


The lantern swayed in his hand, the creaking of the metal handle one of the only sounds in the ocean of quiet surrounding him. Even wild animals stayed away from this place because none of them were so stupid as to risk the mountain's wrath. The path was dimly lit before him, illuminating just enough to prevent him from tripping over a snaking tree root. His horse was much farther behind on the trail, partly because he didn't want it anywhere near the mountaintop when the ritual began, and partly because it, like the other animals, wouldn't dare go further anyway.


He'd only brought the lantern, a short sword on his hip, and a few bags attached to his belt or slung over his shoulder. One of them contained a carefully-sealed jar of oil, but it wasn't for the lantern, even if it went out.


Rafal looked older than he was and felt older still. He was thirty-four, his dark hair cut short but flecked with gray already. He walked now with a slight limp, an unfortunate souvenir from his time spent fighting a war he didn't especially believe in. His friends back in the village over fifty miles away joked that his face was broken, once capable of emotion but now unable to smile. That wasn't true, but he didn't smile much these days anyway. The gold and prestige he'd earned in the war hadn't softened the impact from the sour turn his life had taken.


His thighs continued to protest at him. His knee throbbed, worsening the limp. The peak had to be close. He sucked in another breath of the cool mountain air, compelling himself onward. Not much longer, and it would all be over.


Another five minutes of uphill walking, and the path evened out. If not for the lantern, he would see nothing, but he knew the view during the daytime would be incredible, for he'd reached the top of the mountain. He inched forward slowly, extending the lantern to examine his surroundings. The grass was short and stunted here, not like the tall, wild grass he'd trekked through to get to this place. He gradually examined the perimeter of the peak, starting to his left. Rows of conifers stood over the edges of the peak, shielding the horizon from prying eyes and hiding the steep cliff sides that would spell certain death for an unwary traveler. Every so often he would find a circle in the grass, yellowed or blackened where the stubby grass couldn't even grow.


There would be thirty-six of these circles, Rafal knew. Thirty-six coals on a moonless night, plus a pit with many coals more...


He recoiled and reached for his sword with his free hand as a face loomed out of the darkness. He wasn't alone.


Rafal controlled his breathing, waiting for the face to make a move, but it remained still. A few seconds passed. It didn't speak, breathe, or move. Reluctantly, Rafal made his way forward again, right hand hovering over the hilt of his sword on his right hip, left hand reaching out further with the lantern to expose his spectator.


His breath caught. It was no human, but a perfect statuesque rendition of one, charcoal gray and withered after years of exposure to the elements. It was of a man, he saw, hair long and well-groomed, tall and handsome, dressed in a tunic too fancy and embroidered to be that of a common peasant. Every last part of it was stone, meticulous but dead. The man's face was contorted in fear, a second away from a scream that would never come.


The rumors had not been exaggerated by common folk trying to scare their audiences, then. All who failed to choose their words carefully after beginning the ritual would lose themselves to the Whisper of the Coals.


Rafal reached a hand out to the statue, running a finger along its face. He'd seen flawless statues in the gardens of nobles and royalty alike, but none of them had ever achieved this level of perfection. Once, the statue he passed his hand along hadn't been a statue. It had been a man, perhaps a bit like him.


He withdrew his hand and made his way around the rest of the perimeter. That wasn't the only statue that would be watching him as he initiated the ritual and began to bargain. Countless more revealed themselves as he walked around the mountain peak, men and women alike, dressed in the simple cloth of peasants or the robes and dresses of nobility. All fools that were too...obsessed to build their dreams with their own hands, flesh and blood they could trust. The Whisper of the Coals could not be trusted.


Rafal could shake his head at these poor saps all he wanted, but something had brought him here, too.


He strode to the middle of the peak, set all his bags down, and began the ritual.


He recited the directions aloud to himself as he made a slow circle around the peak center, his low, coarse voice breaking the oppressive silence of the forested mountain. “Thirty-six coals placed in a circle around the middle on a moonless night...a pit in the center, three feet long, two feet wide, one foot deep...fill the pit to the brim with coals, coat them in oil, light them ablaze, say the words.”


He couldn't forget the instructions of the ritual now. They were all that had gone through his head for the past week. Maybe longer than that, but the passing of the days hadn't felt the same ever since he'd committed to this evening.


He paused every few feet to lay down a piece of coal, using the light of the lantern to guide his way until he'd made a perfect circle of the little black chunks. He triple-checked the circle, counting each piece to ensure it was up to the ritual's standards. Deciding his work was up to par and hoping the Whisper wasn't the uptight sort of supernatural entity, he returned to the middle, withdrew a spade from one of his bags, and set to digging.


He glanced back up to the sky. Still no moon. Feeling the passing minutes eating at his sanity, he dug faster, harder, pausing every now and then to measure the pit. A few minutes later, he'd dug a tiny, rectangular grave.


Rafal opened up another bag and upended it over the pit, letting a torrent of coals cascade into it, clacking against one another and twinkling like tiny stars in the firelight. When the bag was empty, he evened the coals out, letting a few fall outside the pit's borders to be good and sure it would be to the Whisper's liking, then opened the jar of oil and poured it over the pit, dousing it. Withdrawing a tinderbox from his pocket, he opened it up and pulled out the flint, firesteel and char cloth within. He draped the char cloth over the coals, then struck the flint and firesteel together above it, showering the pit with sparks until a warm glow enveloped the bed of coals. The flame had been started.


He'd made a test run before leaving for the Mountain of Reflection, and he knew he'd brought enough. Now it would all be up to the Whisper.


He sank back, admiring his handiwork. There was only one part of the ritual left before he would lay eyes on the demon.


Rafal sat cross-legged, hands on his knees, taking a few deep breaths before continuing. Once he uttered the words, there would be no going back. “Great giver of the mountain,” he murmured, his voice flat and expressionless, “give unto me the five that I seek; let the coals be our witnesses, and may the pain whisper to me what I desire most.”


A deep breath in through the nose. A long, slow breath out through the mouth. For a moment, he felt like he was hunting his first deer again, or storming the duke's front gates, his new friends crushed by falling stones or burning alive coated in pitch. He'd survived those moments, and he would walk back to his horse and ride away calmly when this was over.


One more deep breath in. Then the oppressive silence became sentient silence. He could feel the change in the air, though he couldn't place what made it different.


Something burst and crackled behind him. He turned to it sharply, resisting the urge to put a hand on his sword in case he angered the Whisper. The first coal he'd lain had exploded into flame, a pyre dancing too tall and strong for one small coal to support. The second one he'd lain right next to it burst into a column of flame right after, followed by the third. The chain reaction heightened in speed, racing around the circle of coals, erupting each into tall red flames. Rafal was trapped in a cage of fire, one he'd created himself.


The final coal burst into flame behind him. He watched the rise and fall of the pyre, tall enough to reach his chest if he'd been standing. Now the dark, somber mountaintop was alive with dancing shadows and flickering lights, and the silence had been replaced by the angry crackling of thirty-six pyres, all fueled by something that wasn't human.


He looked back to the bed of coals to find a pair of bright eyes staring back at him.


Rafal swallowed, returning the cold, unflinching stare of the wide, shining eyes. This was the moment he'd planned for.


The eyes, at first, didn't appear to belong to a face, or even a body. In fact, the more Rafal stared at the eyes, the more he started to think they weren't there at all, like his mind was playing tricks on him, giving into his unvoiced fears and showing him what he dreaded.


But with each passing second, the wide, inhuman eyes grew brighter, impossible to ignore. The irises were sea green at first, then sky blue, then the purple of the evening horizon, like the bearer couldn't make up its mind what color it wanted to be.


Five wishes. Five sacrifices. An exchange with the shapeshifting spirit known as the Whisper of the Coals, the promise of riches and power and enlightenment. One who survived the encounter would know what they truly valued in life after giving and obtaining so much. Yet Rafal didn't need to look back to the statues surrounding the peak, watching the Whisper and its guest fearfully, to know what would happen if he didn't bargain wisely.


The Whisper didn't want to give. If there was a loophole in the bargain, it would find it. If there was a fear to be preyed upon, it would attack it. Every word it uttered would be an attempt to twist Rafal's mind, to get him to say anything that would give up his soul. The Whisper yearned to grow its collection.


Calmly, he reached into one of his nearby satchels and withdrew a bottle, gleaming colorfully in the moonlight. He held it up before the eyes, gently swishing its contents around. Red wine.


“Riverberry from the Dancing Valley,” Rafal explained. “Nothing better in the kingdom.”


The eyes closed, disappearing from view. Rafal was worried for a moment he might have offended the spirit. Perhaps it wasn't a drinker.


Then a soft, lilting woman's voice came from the depths of the coals glowing and spitting before him. “You offer this to me?”


Rafal paused.


Anything – absolutely anything the Whisper phrased as a question – was an opportunity to steal his soul, to cheat him of his wishes and frustrate his designs. It was a game the Whisper had been playing for centuries at least.


It could not grant a wish without a sacrifice – an offering – first. If he said yes to its question, he was inviting the Whisper to blow the door open and take him down a rabbit hole he couldn't come back from. To follow the Whisper's lead anywhere was to court death. Rafal shifted his crossed legs and smiled pleasantly. “No. But have some if you like. I brought my own goblets.”


The eyes returned. The irises were the purest shade of gold now, unchanging, distinctly feminine. As if a veil was being lifted, Rafal began to see the form of a woman sitting on the coals. Her legs were tucked beneath her, bare and gleaming in the firelight. Her skin was bronzed, her hair long, flowing, and burning red like the coals surrounding them. Her eyes were slight and narrow, perceptive and intriguing. Shadows covered her torso like a drape, hiding her nakedness but leaving little to the imagination.


A sound strategy. Distract the visitor with beauty and sensuality, then take advantage of them when they leave their senses. Regrettably for the Whisper, it had no effect on Rafal.


The Whisper could take any form it wanted. If it decided Rafal's interest was in men, it likely would have become a bare-chested, picturesque form of masculinity. If it decided Rafal was annoying and looked rather delicious, it could turn into a dragon and devour him. As it was, he preferred the feminine form it now took.


Rafal withdrew two simple small metal goblets from the same satchel he'd taken the wine from. He placed one gingerly near the bed of coals the Whisper sat on, uncorked the wine, and held it tentatively over the goblet. “May I?”


The Whisper smiled broadly, revealing perfect white teeth. “Who am I to refuse good alcohol? After all, it won't poison my liver. Sadly, the same can't be said for you.” Rafal filled the goblet, then did the same to his own. As he lifted it to his mouth, the Whisper added softly, “Why don't we toast? It's not every night you bargain with a wish-granting spirit. In an hour or so you'll walk out of here far richer than when you entered, so you might as well commemorate the occasion.”


Rafal maintained his pleasant smile. “No. Merely drink.”


The Whisper raised an eyebrow. Its golden eyes perceived much. “No? A simple man. Those annoy me. Let me guess, your first wish will be immortality, and the second will be countless riches. And the third, a sword to slay the gods themselves? How close am I?”


Rafal sipped his wine and shook his head. “Not close, I'm afraid. I've come to bargain for far simpler things.”


The Whisper lifted the goblet to its lips. “A killjoy and a cheapskate,” it muttered into its cup, “all rolled into one.” It lowered the goblet a little, observing him over the top of it. Rafal returned the stare, calm, stoic and simple as ever. The Whisper inhaled sharply and gestured to the edges of the mountain peak. “Do you like what I've done with the place? My little garden of rocks? I think it sets the appropriate mood.”


Rafal glanced at the statues. One was recoiling in terror. Another one's face was bunched up, tears frozen permanently on its cheeks. A third gripped a sword tightly in both hands, a meaningless barrier between prey and predator. Many of them had probably sat precisely where he sat now. He looked back to the Whisper, eyeing him like a wolf waiting for him to twitch. “No. I'm afraid I don't.”


The Whisper swirled the wine around the rim of its goblet. “Why not?”


An inescapable question. Rafal thought for a moment, then shook his head slightly responded, “No one deserves to die in terror.”


The Whisper gave him a lopsided smile. “But most do, whether they deserve to or not. I rather like my garden. They're important reminders of the past. What we did wrong. What they did wrong.”


It continued to stare at him, golden eyes expectant. Rafal chose to humor it this once. “And what did they do wrong?”


The Whisper leaned back, studying the twisted stone faces. Finally it pointed to one on Rafal's right. He couldn't help but notice the entire left half of the statue was missing. “That one there, the princely one with the awful hair. Look at him clutch that quill. He came with a list, a set of guidelines. I've been playing this game for a very, very long time, and I assure you there is no manual.” The corner of its mouth twitched. Some of the humor left its eyes. “His very first wish was for ninety-nine more wishes. And let me tell you, he was a pompous donkey of a man to begin with. He told me I must abide by the rules – his rules, the ones he wrote on his little piece of parchment – and that he was the one in charge. On my mountaintop. Playing my game. What did I do...pardon me, I've not even caught your name yet. What is the name of the handsome man willing to risk it all for fame and fortune?”


Rafal,” he answered with a short nod. “And no, I don't know what you did, but the result is...intriguing.”


Now the Whisper's eyes crinkled up in morbid delight. It looked back to the princely statue with the awful hair. “I turned into a chimera. I love those creatures. He backed himself right up against one of those trees, eyes so wide I thought they would pop. I asked him if he would lend his soul for me to spare his life. He was too busy soiling his pants to answer. So I leaned down and I...took a little nibble.” It rolled its eyes. “And he tasted awful, by the way, but that feeling, his blood warm and fresh trickling down my maw, the peak painted with everything he had inside, perfect food for the birds...I confess it put rather a spring in my step.” It waved a hand nonchalantly. “And then I turned what was left of him into a statue anyway. For posterity.”


Rafal sipped at his wine again. It looked a little too much like blood.


It's a wonderful feeling,” the Whisper finished, “knowing I make the rules. No one comes to me to use my services like some cheap prostitute. They are my guests. And just like a guest, I can expel them if they anger me. Or better.” It leaned closer to him, resting its chin on its interlocked hands, face beautiful but haunting over the coals. “So. Are you willing to risk it all for your heart's desire?”


Rafal's eyes flicked briefly to the half-eaten statue, then returned to the Whisper's face demanding an answer. “Not everything. But you will learn what I desire most, and you will learn what I am willing to risk.”


The Whisper shifted, extending its legs toward him, wiggling them slowly and playfully. “Then shall we bargain?”


Another question. The Whisper delighted in those. “We shall.”


It turned its head, eyeing him from the side, cheeky and inviting. Rafal knew how the bargaining process worked. Every so often someone returned from the Mountain of Reflection alive, and the ones that talked made sure to transcribe every detail burned painfully into their minds.


Rafal reached behind him and unhooked a small dagger from his belt, holding it in both palms. It was a beautiful piece, the hilt carved in dragon bone, the steel forged from some exotic, foreign material whose name he couldn't even pronounce. It wasn't much longer than the tip of his finger to the crook of his elbow. He'd been sure to clean and polish it regularly, but it was only ceremonial, not intended for actual use.


The sacrifice came first. The wish came after, and only if the Whisper was satisfied with what was offered. More than that, he would have to verbalize his offer and coax the Whisper into accepting it, another opportunity for him to slip up and say something damning. Rafal presented it to the Whisper and said, “I offer you this family heirloom. It has been in my family for eight generations. It is important to my lineage.”


The Whisper raised its eyebrows. It didn't make any motion to accept the dagger. “Important to your lineage? What makes you so brazen that you'd give up something so priceless?”


The dagger had always been a part of Rafal's life, hanging over his father's mantel. They'd had money, but they'd never been lavish, so the dagger had always presented some mystery to him. His father had woven all kinds of stories about it, most probably fabricated or drummed up just to entertain the whims of a small child.


When Rafal was nineteen, his father had taken him hunting for boars in the nearby woods, a common part of everyday life for them. They'd found a boar; Rafal had lined up a killing shot with his bow. The arrow had hissed out of sight, just barely missing its target. Rafal didn't know what was different about this boar, but it hadn't run. It had charged them, squealing itself hoarse. His father put an arrow in it. The boar hadn't slowed its course. Rafal had blinked and was greeted by a spray of blood as the boar's left tusk drove into his father's abdomen, piercing all the way through. In desperation, Rafal had drawn a knife and slit the beast's throat, pulling it off his father and wrestling it to submission until it finally gave out from blood loss.


Rafal didn't know what his father's final words were. He'd said something, probably something Rafal desperately needed to hear, but the words were too choked in pain and blood to understand. His father had died in his arms. The world as Rafal had understood it shifted.


As the eldest son – the only son left alive, actually – the estate and all its possessions had fallen to Rafal. His father hadn't owned much in the way of art or heirlooms, save for that dagger. With the head of the household gone, times became rougher. Rafal and his mother couldn't stay in that house. He'd taken the dagger, relocated his mother to another place, journeyed to a baron he'd heard good things of, and offered to fight for him in an effort to rebuild the family's finances and good standing.


The dagger was the only thing he had left of his father.


Then again, his father wasn't all that had been taken from him in recent times. There was nothing left of him now.


I have no family left to keep it,” Rafal muttered, trying not to lose himself in memories. “There's no sense in pretending otherwise. It is a cherished part of my lineage, but if it can serve my purposes now, I will trade it.”


The Whisper reached a hand toward the dagger, first running a finger along the smooth, polished blade before closing its hand around the bone hilt, examining it in the dancing light. “A very beautiful piece. Are you so sure you wouldn't rather trade something else?”


If I want a lovely view,” Rafal rebutted, “I will wake up early and watch the sunrise. I offer you this dagger because I desire something more.”


The Whisper's eyes fell to a spot below Rafal's neck. He'd worn the necklace there for what felt like an eternity. He often forgot it was even there. A ring was attached to it, silver but simple, a rune he didn't understand etched into one side.


A beautiful piece as well,” the Whisper muttered. “Have you come to trade that, too?”


Rafal returned his hands to his knees. “No.”


The Whisper smiled. “So stingy. You never know, I might just accept it from you.”


Rafal's face was humorless. “I will not trade the necklace.”


Ah. The memories you bear with this ring outweigh the ones you bear of the dagger, it seems.” Its eyebrows rose in curiosity. “The ring looks too small for your finger.”


The Whisper was still running its own fingers over his father's dagger. Hoping the Whisper would divert the subject, Rafal rasped, “It belonged to someone else. This necklace is not to be bartered.”


The Whisper sighed and laid the dagger down on its lap. “Then what do you request in exchange for this very shiny pokey-stick?”


Rafal realized he'd been neglecting his wine. He sipped at it, gathering his thoughts, then said, “Forty-eight inches of thin, clean white cloth.”


The golden eyes looked back and forth between Rafal's. When he said nothing more, the brow over them furrowed and the eyes narrowed. The Whisper was almost as still as the statues around them. Rafal thought he saw something angry flash in its pupils. “I enjoy a good joke myself,” it uttered slowly, “but only when there's a punchline. What do you mean by forty-eight inches of cloth?”


Rafal set the goblet of wine down to free his hands for gesturing. “Thin, no broader than the average elephant ear plant, no thinner than a piece of parchment. The cloth is useful for things like cleaning, or bandaging. This is why it must be clean cloth, you see.”


I know what cloth is used for,” the Whisper growled, voice low. “Why do you offer a priceless family heirloom for it? And why specifically forty-eight inches?”


I was told you enjoy specifics.”


Certainly.” The Whisper pulled its legs back under itself and glared at Rafal. “But I'm very touchy about people taking me for a fool.” It straightened up a bit and cocked its head to the side. “Wait a minute. People have done this to me before. You're testing my abilities. You ask for something little to prove I have power. You doubt me.”


Rafal shook his head. He hadn't budged from his cross-legged position since the bargaining had begun. “I am not testing you, nor do I doubt your abilities. I merely desire forty-eight inches of thin, clean white cloth. Made of cotton. Twelve inches wide, the thickness of the leaf of an elephant ear plant.”


The Whisper chewed on the inside of its cheek for a few seconds before responding, “I can give you much more, you know. You only have five wishes. Make them count. Eternal youth. The mysteries of the world. The power of ten men.”


I desire forty-eight inches of cloth,” Rafal repeated, his voice betraying no emotion.


The Whisper looked as if it couldn't make up its mind whether to transform into a chimera and bite him in two. After a few suspenseful seconds, it plunged the dagger into the coals it sat on, letting it vanish below the surface and out of sight. It raised a hand, flexing its fingers. From the depths of the coals, right where the dagger had disappeared, something long and thin slowly rose up, twisting in a helix. As the embers dropped from it, it took form and color, soft and white. The Whisper closed its fingers over the top and reached out to Rafal like it was offering an edict on a scroll. “As requested, I hope. Four wishes remain. Four wishes and four sacrifices.”


Rafal accepted the cloth and draped it gently by his bags. The pen of fire caging him in was uncomfortably hot, and he hoped it didn't ignite the cloth he'd just traded his father's dagger for.


He watched the Whisper. The Whisper watched him. Clearly it wanted him to make the next move.


Slowly, he drew his sword from its scabbard by his right side, holding it reverse-grip. Any sudden movements, and the Whisper could view him as a threat. Rafal needed to take only one look at the princely statue to know how the Whisper could respond. The sword wasn't much longer than the entirety of his arm, the blade double-edged and sharp, the hilt small, unadorned and shaped unceremoniously like the letter T. Rafal had a better piece hanging in his home, a gift from the baron he fought under, but he trusted this one more.


A bit simplistic for another heirloom,” the Whisper grunted.


Rafal switched his grip and held his left wrist out. “The sword is not the offering.”


The Whisper turned its head aside, its interest caught. “No?”


Rafal paused, hovering the blade over his wrist. “No. I offer you a promise and an exchange of one liquid for another.”


The Whisper pointedly ran its tongue over its lips. “'I promise.' My favorite words any mortal can utter. What do you promise?”


This, Rafal knew, was where so many overreaching dreamers would slip up. They would wax philosophy, perhaps even orate a speech they'd memorized; they would change the world, they would become better men and women, they would show the Whisper something it had never seen before. The Whisper would listen carefully for them to get a little too poetic before leaping on an offer or wish they hadn't realized they'd made and shattering their momentum. Once they turned into cornered animals, they would be the Whisper's playthings.


Not Rafal. He knew the game and the risks that came with it. “I promise to end our barter quickly and to stay focused. The blood dripping from my arm will give me something to think about. You will know my conviction by how I refuse to.”


A purse of the Whisper's lips. “You will have your arm cut for me?”


Yes. Half an inch deep, eight inches long, from the palm to the middle of the arm.”


The Whisper had no need for blood, as he was sure it had no need for most anything offered it, but it was the loss and grief from the giver that counted. Rafal hoped his “promise” had piqued its interest.


It leaned forward, eyes boring into his own. Rafal had a sword in his hands, but he didn't trust himself in confrontation with this evil shapeshifter. “I accept this offering,” it intoned, “but only if I get to cut you.”


Rafal frowned a little deeper. This he hadn't expected.


He wracked his mind for everything he'd said – the promise, the conviction, the specifics of the wrist wound. What had he said that might be used against him? There wasn't much else he could offer in the place of his blood. His other offerings were yet to come.


Reluctantly, he adjusted the sword in his group and proffered it to the Whisper. It looked the blade over, then gently nudged it aside with a hand. “No need for steel and iron. I will do it myself.”


The specifics. He should have given the specifics earlier than he had. What else might he have done wrong?


He focused on his breathing, dropping the sword by his side and holding his left wrist out for the Whisper to examine. It extended a finger to his skin, a long, perfectly-shaped fingernail gliding over the veins and tendons.


Nothing to do now but let the Whisper play its game.


The Whisper moved its finger up to a spot just below Rafal's palm. Its fingernail hovered agonizingly over his arm, then sank down into his flesh.


Rafal had been stabbed, punched, kicked, and shot before, but he flinched anyway. Laceration by fingernail was somewhat new for him.


The Whisper drew its fingernail gradually down his arm, as easily as a warm knife cutting through butter. The skin parted around it, seeping blood down Rafal's wrist in its wake. He looked up to a star in the sky and focused intently on it, distracting himself from the experience. He could take the pain, but the suspense of wondering when or how it would end was difficult.


Just as he thought the Whisper would find a loophole in his flimsy promise and slit him all the way up to his ear, it pulled its fingernail out of his arm with a soft squelch, dripping blood from the end onto the mountain. One cut, palm to the middle of the arm. It had stayed within Rafal's parameters.


Stay focused now, Rafal,” the Whisper cooed. “We know what happens to the unfortunates who lose their minds.”


Rafal laid his arm on the ground beside him. Another flesh wound, and he had many. That round of suspense was over. Many other rounds remained.


Now,” the Whisper said soothingly, satisfaction shining in its eyes, “tell me your second wish.”


He flexed his fingers. The pain was fading into the background as the instincts of a soldier and hunter took back over. He remembered what he wanted next and how he wanted to say it.


I wish,” he began, “for forty liters of oil, made from the fat of a deer, contained in nine jars made of clay. The jars are to be no taller than my knee when standing, no broader than my chest.”


The Whisper's face was expressionless. It sat quietly on its coals, red hair blowing softly in the breeze and uplift of the embers. “You know, I still don't know whether to turn into an ogre and fling you off this mountaintop or indulge my curiosity and see where this is going.”


Because you are curious,” Rafal noted.


Quite.” It raised a hand, preparing to summon. “Are you certain this is your wish? Why do you require forty liters of oil made from the fat of a deer? I assume it's not all for your lantern. I know you have enough oil tucked away in your bags.”


Rafal allowed another small, pleasant grin to appear on his face. “The sooner we complete our bartering, the sooner you will know.”


The Whisper looked less amused by that statement, but it made no comment on it and flexed its hand. The coals beneath it began to shake and scatter. A line of coals wound away from the pit, quick and sentient like a serpent. It slithered to the edge of the ring of fire behind Rafal, crackling and spitting, glowing brighter in certain places as larger objects emerged. As it moved, it left behind simple, round clay jars, still shining bright from the light and heat of the coals, yet somehow unable to melt or ignite. When nine jars had been laid out behind him, the snake of coals slithered back to the pit, filling it to the brim once more.


Once more,” the Whisper said in a flat voice. “Power. Vitality. Wisdom. Riches. I have turned peasants into kings, kings into saviors. I have granted every impossible dream that could be fantasized. And yet you sit here and ask for oil and cloth.”


Rafal's wrist was still bleeding. If the Whisper had cut it just right, it was possible he could lose too much blood and pass out within thirty minutes, but he felt he was still in control. The blood would naturally clot before long and begin the healing process. “You said it yourself, Whisper. I am a simple man.”


I dearly hope,” the Whisper warned, “for your sake that it's all worth it.”


Rafal bobbed his head once. “I believe it will be.” He passed his gaze over the statues surrounding them once more. “I am curious to know how the ones before me bargained. Whether they succeeded or failed.”


The Whisper toyed with its hair, coiling a strand around its finger. It apparently hadn't accepted that Rafal had no interest. “You want to know what a success or a failure with me looks like?”


Rafal thought for a moment. “It would please me to hear a story of one of your petitioners. Particularly if it ended in stone and terror.”


The Whisper sighed. “Simple and morbid. You've shown some intrigue so far, so I'll humor you. Who do I even start with? There was one peasant woman begging for love that I dangled over the cliff side as a giant squid...”


He tried not to look at the other statues too closely. He needed his mind clear, even though he'd voluntarily had his arm cut open by a demon's fingernail. “Your last petitioner, then.”


The Whisper stared into the distance for a few seconds, hands still running through its hair. A mirthful smile cracked its face. “Agnieszka. I remember the names and faces of all who beseech me, right down to preferred intonation and which side the mole is on. Yes, Agnieszka would be a fun story to tell.”


A story of failure. Rafal had chosen his words carefully so the Whisper would tell him as a bonus, not as one of his wishes. He refocused his eyes on the Whisper's, steadying his heart rate, clearing his mind. “Go on.”


The Whisper sat up straighter, considering where to begin. It pointed to another statue behind it, not far from the open cliff that led to certain death far below. “There she is. Beautiful and blonde with a heart of gold. A bleeding heart, one that poured when she saw another in distress. The perfect daughter, I'm sure, perfect wife, sister. I don't know who she left behind when she laid out the coals on a moonless night, but I'm certain they miss her terribly.”


Rafal's voice was flat and his face blank. “Doubtless.”


She was also naive,” the Whisper went on. “All the good people are, I think, a facet of humanity I rather appreciate. She performed the summoning ritual flawlessly. She came with a respectable medley of things to sacrifice, certainly more honorable than the slaves, harems and expensive baubles every other ruler attempts to peddle on me. It wasn't long, though, before she ran out of items to give, and so she turned on her own body. 'Take the vision in my left eye.' That was her third sacrifice. One eye light and green like a meadow, the other gray and empty. I told her the contrast was pretty, but she brushed off the comment, so determined to save the village was she.


The village,” the Whisper repeated, its smile growing a little wider. “I never told you what she visited me for. All manner of beasts and monsters had overrun a nearby village, she said – wyverns, ghouls, drakes. The funny thing was, she had no connection to this village. No family there, no home there, no investment. Her heart just broke when she saw the throngs of wounded and desperate souls fleeing to safe havens. She came to me for help.”


Mm-hmm.” Rafal didn't gamble much anymore, but his gambling face was still in top form.


And I did,” the Whisper continued, reliving its own pleasant memories. “Agnieszka never got to see it, but I did. The wounded were healed. The wyverns turned around and flew back to their mountains. With everything Agnieszka sacrificed, the world became a safer place. Her fourth offering was the gait in her right leg so she could never walk normally again. I took the tendon behind her foot. Half-blind, half-crippled. I could tell she was running out of things to offer.


So I gave her a little suggestion.”


Rafal raised his head a little, waiting for the Whisper to finish.


I cupped my hand gently below her chin,” the Whisper said, voice low, “raising her eyes to meet mine. I asked her as the tears began to overtake her, 'What are you willing to give up to save these innocent lives, really?' And she said, 'Anything. You can take anything from me.'” It gestured back to the statue of the woman at the top of the cliff. “So I did. The poor girl never got to see what her sacrifices had wrought. An apt metaphor for life, I believe.”


Rafal paused. The Whisper had finished its harrowing story. “This was your last petitioner?” he asked.


The Whisper nodded slowly. “It wasn't so long ago that I would forget. The memory is fresh in my mind still. So tell me, will anyone benefit from your sacrifices? Blood and heirlooms for household materials?” Its voice went quieter. “Will you even live to see it?”


He didn't move. “An interesting question. I would offer you my third sacrifice.”


The Whisper sank back a little and folded its hands over its lap. “Of course. A man of business, as ever.”


Rafal hesitated. The heirloom was a treasure of the past he no longer needed. Blood could be replaced. Now he was venturing into territory he couldn't so easily come back from.


However, he'd made up his mind long ago.


He reached into one of his bags and withdrew a folded piece of parchment. He opened it up, several paragraphs of writing inked into one side, ending with a few large, curvy signatures near the bottom. The Whisper skimmed over it as Rafal continued, “I offer you the deed to my own house. You can read it yourself to see it's official.”


The Whisper took a few more seconds to finish reading, then glanced back up at him. “A kind gesture, Rafal, but I'm rather fond of this mountain and I don't plan on relocating soon.”


It's useless to you,” Rafal agreed, “but not to me. The burning of this paper signifies I will legally have nothing to return to. I made sure to sever my ties.”


The Whisper hummed. “Well. At least you'll have four feet of cloth and nine jars of oil to soften the blow of being homeless.” It closed its fingers around the deed and looked it over again. “You began this offering long before you came to my mountain. I must question if this even counts.”


It was done for you,” Rafal responded. “The deed is merely the closure.”


A few more seconds passed. Rafal was willing to start trading in body parts if the deed wasn't acceptable, though he hoped it didn't get that far.


The Whisper released the paper down to the coals below. It caught fire as it drifted, slowly burning before being absorbed entirely into the burning pit. “Very well. I accept.” It looked back up to him, face set somewhere between amusement and irritation. “What is your next wish? A chamber pot, maybe? Three and a half chopped logs of firewood, perfectly rectangular to satisfy your obsessiveness?”


Rafal finished his wine and reached for the bottle to pour himself some more. The riverberry wine and the blood seeping from his arm looked a little too similar. “I wish for success when I see the woman I love.”


The Whisper blinked, a little taken aback. “Oh?”


He filled the goblet halfway and corked the wine. “When I see the face of the woman I love,” he said lightly, “I want the woman looking back at me to be paralyzed with love. Unable to move. Unable to speak.”


The Whisper's eyebrows lifted in something like admiration. “Unable to resist?”


Rafal sipped the wine. It helped stabilize him. “Yes.”


The Whisper wrapped one arm around itself and rested its chin on the palm of the other. Its movements were subtle, a devious gleam in its eyes. “Perhaps you are a more...base man than I took you for.”


I never said I was a saint.”


You want the woman to stop moving when you see each other.”


I do.”


Entirely?”


Yes.”


Another mirthful smile grew on the Whisper's face. A look of victory. “Then this is your third wish? To paralyze the one you love looking back on you? No resistance?”


Rafal nodded once. “That is my third wish.”


They held each other's gaze for several more tense seconds. Then the Whisper said, its voice lilting, “It is done. You will know the magic when it happens. I hope for your...success in romance.”


At the very least, he'd put himself back in the Whisper's good graces. He was starting to worry for his immediate safety after his first two requests.


He felt certain it would appreciate his next two.


The night somehow seemed darker. The fires seemed brighter, more animated. The gold of the Whisper's irises sparkled, watching everything from the beating of his heart to the rise and fall of his chest. “Make your fourth offering,” it commanded.


Minus the fires and the remote location, from an outsider's view, it probably looked like a man and woman having a peaceful conversation. In reality, they were two animals circling one another, and neither knew who truly had the upper hand.


Rafal had brought a thick, heavy bag reserved exclusively for his fourth offering. With a heavy hand, he dragged it closer and opened it up. Digging inside, he withdrew a round gold piece, pinning it between his fingers. This time, he waited for the Whisper to make the first move.


It relented after a few moments, taking the coin from his grip and turning it over in the firelight. There was a symbol on both sides, encircled by writing from a language no one spoke anymore. Rafal had never learned what the words meant. “A valuable piece,” the Whisper observed. “And genuine. Smart lad. I don't have the statue to prove it, but there's another interesting story you could stand to hear about the man who tried to offer me false money.” It looked to the bag Rafal had taken it from. “Are there more like it?”


Rafal scooted the bag closer and opened the mouth wider. Lugging it up the mountain had been arduous given the size and weight. Hundreds of gold coins were within. “I'm sure you have no use for money either.”


The Whisper eyed him with interest. “No. But...?”


But I do. This is all the money I have left. Without it, I can't even pay for a bed to lay down in.”


The Whisper laughed lightly. “And how do I know you don't have another stash elsewhere?”


You said I was smart enough not to try and trick you with false money,” Rafal answered. His legs were starting to hurt from sitting in the same position for so long, but he retained his composure. “I suppose you should trust I'm smart enough not to lie to you either.”


The Whisper balanced the gold coin on the end of its finger. “It is a substantial amount of money. You offer me everything, then?”


Rafal was about to answer, then reconsidered his words and tried again lest the Whisper trap him. “I offer you all the money in the bag. It is all the money I have left. No home to return to. Nothing in my coffers for food or lodging.”


The Whisper's eyes softened. “I was right to think you an interesting man. You're really not as simple as I thought.” It reached an arm out and scooped the bag into the coals. Like the house deed and the heirloom before it, it sank quietly beneath the surface.


He'd been somewhat fearful when he'd begun the ritual. He knew what he would risk, and he knew what he wanted, yet the suspense of the unknown had eaten at him. With everything he now gave up, he grew more somber, but more focused. Soon there would be nothing left of him but the clothes he wore and a sword. No longer a soldier. No longer the head of the household, because there wouldn't be a house. Yet this needed to be done. What he gave up was symbolic of something new about to start. It was necessary, if painful.


Two wishes remained. The Whisper waited expectantly.


My fourth wish,” he said after some deliberation, “is for the most beautiful poppy flower in the world.”


The Whisper crossed its arms. The playful girl act was fading, replaced with the image of the powerful demon it was. “And here I thought you weren't the sentimental type.”


Rafal had owned a garden once. It wasn't very large nor very lavish, but he'd been proud of it, even if he hadn't been the one to take care of it most of the time. They'd never grown poppies, however, though he thought they were beautiful plants.


The poppy will be the same length as my elbow to the tip of my middle finger,” Rafal elaborated. “The most vibrant shade of red. No part of the petals will be clipped or torn. The flower will be whole. Coated in water, damp against the fires surrounding us.”


The Whisper raised an eyebrow. “A gift for the woman you love?”


Rafal downed the rest of his wine. Their bargaining was coming to an end soon. “A gift for the woman I love.”


A woman who captured the heart of a man so strongly he would ask the Whisper of the Coals for aid. I should like to meet this woman.”


Rafal studied the inside of his goblet, waiting for the Whisper's affirmation.


This is what you wish for?” the Whisper asked. “The most beautiful red poppy in the world, as long as your elbow to your middle finger, whole and perfect, damp to preserve its beauty against the heat and flame?”


Rafal nodded and raised his goblet in response. “That is my fourth wish, yes.”


The Whisper raised its hand in the customary summoning of an item from the embers. Rafal watched as something long, thin and glowing protruded from the coals. It looked to be on fire at first, but as the glow from the cinders faded and the object regained its color, he could see it was the top of the flower. The petals spread out and bowed upward, forming a cup. Not a single part of it was torn or shredded. Every petal was full and plump, damp with dew.


The Whisper plucked it from the coals and handed it to him. “Not much of a bouquet. Tell the fair maiden who has bewitched you to treasure it.”


He felt along its petals, feeling them slide against one another. The inside of the flower was black and seedy, aligned in a perfect circle around the center. The shade of red was otherworldly, so pure and bright Rafal wondered if it was even in the real color spectrum. The stem, long, thin and forest green, was straight and unbowed.


It really was the most beautiful poppy flower in the world. She would love it, he knew.


Though he almost couldn't take his eyes off it, he coaxed himself into putting it headfirst into an empty spot in one of his bags to preserve it against the heat.


He glanced back up at the sky. He must have been going night-blind. The stars were no longer visible against the pyres and the golden eyes that demanded his attention.


The Whisper looked...hungry.


One wish left,” the Whisper murmured. “One sacrifice.”


Rafal said nothing at first. He didn't know how to phrase his final request. He hoped the Whisper might help him.


One more chance to change the world,” the Whisper offered, voice low, sensual and soothing. “Ask, and it will be done. Think about who you want to protect. Think of what you want to become. Only ask, and with this last wish I can give it to you.”


What Rafal truly wanted no longer existed. There was only one desire left he clung to.


I am a hard man to rattle,” Rafal said quietly.


I can see,” the Whisper replied. Very gradually, it moved its legs off the bed of coals, inching closer to him. “I've been trying to understand you since you summoned me, and at every turn I am surprised. Few have made it so far. The ones that did were always broken in mind. Not you, though. You are steadfast until the end. What gives you that conviction? Tell me, Rafal.”


This was one last chance for Rafal to get what he wanted. It was one last chance for the Whisper to claim his life. It would do anything to knock him off balance.


Rafal licked his dry lips. “Am I really so different?”


The Whisper left its bed of coals and knelt in front of him, beautiful but monstrous. It caressed his face with its hand. Its bronzed skin was hot to the touch, but soft like a woman's. Rafal looked up into its narrow, unnatural eyes and felt nothing for it.


From the ones who came before you?” the Whisper asked. “Yes. Ask me for anything, Rafal. You know I'll grant it to you.”


He held its gaze. Its face was close to his now. He could feel its breath, warm but sensual. “What if I told you I feel weak? Desperate. Cowardly.” He finally shifted from his long-held cross-legged position. “I must know if I was any better in the end. I'm certain I look just like the others. Weak.”


The Whisper leaned closer. “But you don't.”


He shook his head and looked away. “Then I'd rather you show me. Show me what your last petitioner looked like before you turned her to stone so I can believe it.”


The Whisper halted its advance. The light of victory blazed in its eyes again. “What?”


You're a shapeshifter,” Rafal explained. “Show me what Agnieszka looked like before she died.”


One last smile broke the Whisper's face, slowly at first, spreading until its perfect white teeth were in full display and the corners of its eyes crinkled. “Thank you for giving me your last wish.”


Rafal had not phrased the request as openly as when he'd asked for Agnieszka's story, and the Whisper was not against bending protocol for its own convenience. It would demand the sacrifice afterward, something grave and horrible.


The Whisper kept its arms wrapped around Rafal, but its body began to change. The Whisper's form grew shorter, skinnier, its skin lightening and its hair turning into waves, though the feel of its skin was still hot like coals. The red hair turned into a light blonde; the narrow, angular face softened to become smaller and rounder; the bright golden eyes turned to the gentle green of a meadow.


This would be the hardest part, because he knew this embrace, achingly seared into his memory.


The Whisper pulled back to look at him more fully. “Whatever you were hoping to wish for is gone. You have wasted your final wish. Now show me what you're willing to trade for it, and if it does not please me, I will have you join the others in death and obscurity.”


Rafal lifted his head to meet the green eyes of Agnieszka. “The same way you took my wife from me?”


The glow of victory faded from the Whisper's face. The triumphant grin lowered into a surprised frown, the beautiful eyes growing wide. Its mouth parted to respond, but no sound came out.


Agnieszka's perfect blonde hair flowed and danced in the wind over the mountain and the light of the flames, but woman staring back at him became still as a statue.


He didn't know why he felt so unsteady. Perhaps it was the continued loss of blood from his wrist. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he'd given up everything to get here. Maybe it was because he'd finally seen her again after a year of separation, and behind her face was a demon.


He forced himself to his feet, prying the Whisper's arms – the arms of his wife – off his shoulders. He gripped his sword in his right hand, holding it firmly. He'd always wanted the best for her. Safety. Comfort. Happiness. He'd never wanted to imagine putting a sword into her chest, but he would do whatever needed to be done.


Rafal had loved Agnieszka more than anything else in life. After fighting battles he didn't believe in, watching friends and family alike die having accomplished nothing but the ambitions of others, Rafal hadn't found much joy in life. Then she'd become a part of it, and his world had changed. Her sweet kindness was infectious, overwhelming. Her selflessness made her well-known in the community. She made a difference in the world. She'd made a lot of difference to Rafal. He'd turned a new chapter in his life.


Then those beasts attacked a village some fifty miles away. The refugees had come pouring into town, begging for help, anyone to drive off the hordes. Some suspected a sorcerer was behind the act, controlling the monsters like the general of an army. No one knew the truth. As a hunter, Rafal could only work hard to bring them food, wood and fur, but it wasn't enough. There were wounded. There were sick. There was still the threat of a unified army of monsters.


Her heart had broken for them. She'd seen only one solution. Rafal had begged her not to go, but she was as stubborn as she was kind. The rumors of the Whisper on the Mountain of Reflection had been traded around the villages for years, and he'd never imagined...



Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-35 show above.)