(Continued from Part 1)
“Mortimer, you stink!” Gus said, pointing a finger at the object of his ridicule.
“Hey, leave him alone.” Bart’s head, topped with his mop of brown hair, peered over Gus’s shoulder. It was an easy feat, since he was a foot taller than his companion. “What did ol’ Mort ever do to you?”
“It’s true!” Gus slapped his hand on the fence of the corral. “All the other pigs try to avoid their own poop, but Mortimer doesn’t care. He’s so old and fat, he just lays right in it. Don’t you, you stupid fat hog?”
Bart watched as Mortimer, seemingly offended, waddled away towards a shady spot in the pen.
“Why do we even keep pigs?” Gus grumbled. “An important family like mine should have chickens, for Omim’s sake.”
“We keep pigs because we can turn them loose to forage in the woods. They eat things that we won’t, like acorns and—”
“I know that!” Gus spun around. He resembled a pig in some ways himself, with his round face and upturned nose. Even the wispy hairs on his upper lip and chin made him look porcine. “It was a hypological question, idiot.”
Bart rolled his eyes. “Fine. I thought you wanted to talk about Katya, anyway.”
“I do,” Gus said. “I’ve got a plan, so listen up. This evening, when Katya gets back from the berry-picking, you’re gonna pick her up and throw her in the pen with Mort.”
Bart stopped and considered for a moment. “That’s not really much of a plan, is it?”
Gus narrowed his eyes and snarled. “You didn’t let me finish! You’re not actually going to drop her in there. Right when she thinks she’s going to fall and get covered with mud and pig shit, I’ll show up and stop you. All you have to do is pretend like you’re scared of me, and do what I say. Once she sees that I’m her savior, she’s going to want to marry me even more than she does now.”
“Hmm,” Bart said, absentmindedly scratching himself behind his neck. “I don’t think it’s going to work. I mean, I’m pretty sure she knows that we’re friends. So isn’t she going to figure out that this is all a trick?”
“She’s not gonna figure out anything!” Gus jabbed his finger at the larger boy. “Girls aren’t smart like that, Bart. Don’t you think I know what I’m doing? I’m the son of the chief elder!”
“All right, all right, I’ll do it,” Bart said. “But what do you mean ‘even more than she does now’?”
“Her father’s been holding on to her for as long as he can, way past the age of womanhood, because he wants to cash in on her wedding. And now my dad is willing to pay for her to be my bride, which means it’s going to happen whether she likes it or not.”
“So if she’s going to marry you anyway, why all this pig-throwing stuff?”
“Because, there’s a big difference between what a girl will do because she has to and what she’ll do when she wants to. Don’t you know anything? Look, just be ready by sundown, OK? I’ll give you a signal. And whatever you do, don’t let word get around! If anyone finds out about this, then—”
His words were cut off by the sound of cracking branches coming from the edge of the forest. Ian emerged into the village clearing, covered in scratches and pine needles.
Gus stared at him, bewildered. “Ian? What are you doing here? Were you listening in on us?”
Ian paused to catch his breath. “I…I need to talk to the elders. To your father. It’s an emergency.”
Gus glanced at Bart with bewilderment. He looked back at Ian and crossed his arms defiantly. “My father is busy. He doesn’t have time for artisan nonsense.”
“It’s not nonsense!” Ian shouted, a bit louder than he had intended. “I just fought with an orc in the woods!”
The absurdity of juxtaposing those two statements made Gus and Bart burst out laughing. Ian’s face flushed red.
“Sure,” Gus said between chuckles. “And I just saw a wisp come out of Bart’s ass!”
“Well that makes sense,” Ian said. “You do usually have your head stuck up there.”
A sudden hush fell over the clearing.
“What did you say?”
“I uh…” Ian stepped back a few paces.
“Bart,” Gus said. “Let’s show this little freak what we do with people who spy on…hey!”
Ian had already taken off. Bart may not have been the fastest runner in the Region, but Ian knew from experience that it would be better to get a head start against his long strides.
The houses on the northern side of the village tended to be large, so Ian had only gone past one of them before he heard sounds of pursuit. His stamina rapidly fading, he made a dash around the next corner and spotted a likely hiding spot behind Elder Farnish’s leaf barrels. He dove for it immediately, sliding against the hard wood and rolling himself into a ball.
His gambit paid off when Bart ran by seconds later without so much as a backwards glance. Ian continued to stay put after the tall boy had gone out of sight, hoping that he wouldn’t notice his mistake and double back.
A face bounced around the corner and looked directly at Ian, making his heart jump. Then a hand appeared in front of the face, waving at him excitedly.
It was Pip, the local orphan boy. “Hey Ian, what are you doing in there?” he asked.
“Go away,” Ian said.
“Are you hiding from Bart? I just saw him run past here. Hey, do you want me to try and throw him off your trail? That guy is such a jerk.”
Ian stood up and dusted himself off. It had never been made clear to him where Pip had come from or why he had remained in the village for so long, instead of being shipped off to the Wanderer academy in the Capital like most other uncared-for children. “I don’t need your help, OK? I can take care of myself.”
Pip nodded with aplomb. “All right. So do you want to play a game, then? Looks like you’re already set to play hide and seek.”
“I don’t have time. I have to go see my father. It’s about something really important.”
“OK then. If I were you I’d go that way, though. Not that I’m helping you or anything!” He gave Ian an exaggerated wink.
Ian scowled, stood up, showed Pip his back and jogged away. He turned to his right, following the edge of the town clearing until he came to the main road. From there the center of the village was visible: nothing more than a small collection of ramshackle dwellings thrown up on both sides of the central roadway. The road widened slightly at the center into something resembling a main square, currently empty except for a few lazy residents sitting outdoors and gossiping. Ian continued across to the southern side, where the houses were little more than tightly packed huts. He approached his own home, distinguished from the others by a brick kiln standing out back, still smoking from a recent firing.
When he stepped inside, he saw what the kiln had been used for. Sitting on the cooling table was his father’s favorite creation, the Piece. Physically, it resembled an eight-inch circular plate with ornamental web-like lines running across its surface. But it was the finish that made the Piece special; it was glazed by a process that his father had invented, which involved painstakingly collecting the white dust spewed by the byeff fungus when it burst open to distribute its spores. The dust was mixed with a clear lacquer and fired onto the Piece layer by layer, slowly building up a hard, perfectly white enamel. To Ian’s knowledge, there was nothing similar to the Piece anywhere in the entire Region; it could easily have fetched a high price if it was sold as a fancy wall decoration for some rich household in the Capital.
That is, if his father could ever be convinced to sell it. As it was, he had always insisted that the Piece wasn’t ‘ready’ yet, and required ‘one more’ coat of glaze before it would be complete. Ian let out a small sigh as he watched it cool yet again. Certainly, finishing the Piece had become something of an inside joke in their small family, but it was also the longest-running of his father’s many eccentric, unprofitable projects.
The back door creaked and opened, and his father entered, carrying a cloth sack filled with dried rushes. He was a tall man, with unkempt, shoulder-length hair that partially hid a face possessed with a magnanimous, friendly smile.
“Ian! You’re back a little early. You didn’t have a quarrel with Giesling, did you?”
“No!” Ian said. “I ran back as fast as I could. An orc attacked me on the path. I came to warn everyone. The village might not be safe anymore!”
“Hmm…” His father looked dubious. “How do you know it was an orc?”
“Well it definitely wasn’t human!” Ian said. “It was hideous. And it had an orcish helmet on.”
“Ah, but that doesn’t mean anything necessarily. It could have been stolen. Do you remember what it looked like? Maybe I could draw it for you. I wonder if a drawing of an orc would sell to a caravan.”
Ian threw up his hands. “Don’t you think you should be taking this a bit more seriously?! Orcs! There could be thousands of them by now, crawling all over the woods. And what about the Decay? What if it’s moving, and the orc was—”
“Now, now, let’s not get too worked up over one orc. I mean, sure, seeing one is pretty rare. But it’s not totally unheard of. It was probably lost when you came across it. Maybe it got sick and was wandering off to die.”
“Sick? Actually, there was something sort of strange about it…the inside of it…I don’t know, it still seems dangerous to me. Should we go and tell the elders?”
“I’ll tell you what,” his father said. “I’ll bring it up next week at the festival planning. Why don’t you help me prepare these rushes right now? I’m going to weave them into a basket for Lady Miranda.”
“The elders…next week…” Ian paused for a moment, lost in thought. “Hey, wait a minute. What do you know about that letter saying that I’m going to be Giesling’s apprentice?”
His father frowned. He slung the rushes off his shoulder and turned away, suddenly acting busy. “It seems like you’re angry.”
“Of course I’m angry! Why would I want the elders deciding my fate behind my back? Please, tell me you didn’t sign that letter!”
His father turned and looked his son up and down. His expression was loving, but somehow sad. “Well, you never seem to want to help me with my projects. Perhaps the elders are right. This could be the best path for you to take.”
Ian’s jaw dropped. “‘The elders are right’? Since when do you say things like that?!” He turned away and stomped across the rough wood floor to the doorway.
“Ian! Wait a second!”
“Forget it. I’ll see you later. Try not to sell me to any passing caravans while I’m gone.” He flung the front door open, walked out, and slammed it behind him without looking back.
What’s worse, he thought, my own father conspiring against me, or running all that way and almost getting my butt kicked for nothing? Glumly, he walked back towards the square, his eyes glued to his feet. I guess I should be glad for the excitement. Everything here is so boring, anyway. Speaking of which, I wonder where…
Before he could complete the thought, he was airborne, lifted by two strong hands under his armpits.
“Bring him over here,” Gus called from behind him. “I’ll grab his legs.”
“Hey! Stop! Cut it out!” Ian writhed furiously, but Bart’s grip was implacable, and soon Gus managed to get a hold of him as well. “What are you doing?!” he yelled as they carried him through the village.
“We’ve had a little change of plans,” Gus said.
“What? Help! Someone help me!”
“Aw, keep it down, you’ll spoil the fun. We’re almost there anyway.”
Ian looked down to see where they had taken him, and saw Mortimer’s flat nose and beady eyes staring back up at him. “No! Not that! Please!”
His outburst made Gus and Bart laugh uproariously as they swung him back and forth and heaved him over the fence. He landed on his side in a particularly fetid pile of ‘mud,’ the laughter of his tormenters still echoing through his gunk-filled ear.
Mortimer didn’t seem nearly as amused. He calmly waddled over to Ian, taking a sudden keen interest in the area near his right shoe.
“What are you doing? Stay away from me.” Ian attempted to wave off the old hog with his foot, which made him notice something odd: the bottom of his shoe was smoking. It had started as a subtle vapor, barely distinguishable from the steam that rose from the fresh pile of pig dung, but now it was growing in size and density. “What in Omim’s name…” he said, leaning in closer.
Mortimer was curious as well. Gingerly, he stepped forward and sniffed at the shoe, coming close enough to touch his wet nose on its surface.
The old hog let out a blood-curdling squeal as his face melted into brown goo.
It happened in a flash; one moment Mortimer was a fully formed pig, and the next he was a skeleton, standing in place with his flesh exploding in all directions. Where the brown muck that had been his skin hit the mud, it seemed to multiply, transforming the ground itself into a tidal wave of ooze.
Gus and Bart stopped laughing for a split second before the wave washed over them, melting them instantly. Ian looked on in shock as the chain reaction began to grow out of control. Wherever the goo traveled, it transformed whatever it touched into more of itself, and the force of the change was enough to send it flying explosively in all directions.
Ian scrambled to his feet and vaulted over the fence. All of the pigs on the other side were gone. Gus and Bart had been completely obliterated as well, leaving behind only fragments of bone, some tattered clothing and two pairs of boots. To his right, he could hear people screaming as the villagers ran out of their houses in panic.
“Decay! It’s the Decay!” someone shouted, but screams of pain and the sizzling sound coming from the ground made it impossible to determine who it was.
Ian’s eyes grew wider as the realization hit him. “Father!”
He ran towards the center of the village. There, crowds of people ran between the penned animals, and the Decay was eating through all of them with equal vigor. Somewhere a cooking fire had overturned, and the area began to fill with black smoke as flames spread among the tightly packed houses. Pulling away from a melting hand that had reached out to grab his arm, Ian took off towards his own house.
“Father! Are you in here?!” The only reply was the creaking of the back door as it flapped in the wind. Did he run out that way? A crackling noise from behind made him aware that the flames were rapidly approaching. The Decay was helping to spread them, the ooze igniting on contact like lamp oil. Ian looked around in panic, searching for a clue to his father’s whereabouts. His eyes settled on the Piece resting on the table beside him. Without thinking, he grabbed it and then rushed out the back door, leaving the rest of the household to be consumed by the blaze.
The area behind the cottage was empty, so Ian ran back around to check the town again. One look told him that going back through the center wouldn’t be as easy the second time around. Ian spotted a small shape coming towards him through the chaos, deftly stepping over half-melted bodies. The shape looked up, and its brown goo-covered face brightened with recognition.
“Ian!” Pip said. “Come on, we gotta get out of here!”
“I have to find my father!” Ian yelled.
“No good!” Pip grabbed Ian by the arm and attempted to drag him in the opposite direction. “It’s the Decay, Ian! This whole place is lost! We have to head down out of the mountains!”
“No! I can’t leave yet!” But even as he said it, Ian knew that Pip was right. Half the village was already a raging inferno, and the other half…Ian could barely bring himself to look at it.
Cursing, he turned and followed in Pip’s footsteps through the sticky brown muck streaming down the main road. He sprinted as fast as he could, for as long as he could, keeping his gaze forward and focusing all his attention on his breathing.
Finally, after running for what seemed like miles, he collapsed face-first onto a low ridge. Beside him, Pip was kneeling calmly, looking back at the burning remains of the village.
They both stayed and watched for far too long, unable to tear themselves away from the sight. Ian felt strangely numb. He had seen what had happened with his own eyes, and yet his brain was simply refusing to process it. He tried to speak to himself, to narrate the events that had led up to the calamity, but all that came out was incoherent mumbling. What could he possibly say as he sat and watched his own village, the only home he had ever known, simultaneously going up in flames and melting into brown ooze?
“Wow,” Pip said, as if answering the question, “I never realized burning pig shit could smell that bad before!”
END PART 2
To read the rest of the story, see the main book page.