Read the prologue of Conterminous in our Autumn 2022 issue

“Hither and yon they went to where dark things wallow, thither to places that wither and hollow, yarely they descended into Lovren’s Hallow.”

Crozley stokes the fire with his cane. The warmth of the waning flame is lost on us, smothered by the encroaching dark of night. The day had been long and grey, as it always was, and our travels have been extended beyond their usual habit. Although the fire proves futile, it was not the heat we sought in this endless cold, but the aesthetic of the burning wood, a diversion for our wandering minds. Relictual things such as us were conditioned to the climate of this sad world, but also to the inclinations of those who lacked our constitution. The fire is more a reminder of when warmth provided comfort. Such are the ways of the strays in a now nameless land.

“What is down there, Mr. Crozley?”

The fay Vespine’s voice is pitched relative to her diminutive frame. She is perched on his shoulder as she so often is. She is a tiny thing, easy on the eyes, but unfortunately her insectile size prevents any more than admiration. Her species was nearly wiped out in the Cull - as so many in Crozley’s employ were. The few of them left are known for their eagerness to serve in exchange for protection. Of all the members of his harem she falls outside my broad standards for the obvious reason of size comparison. That didn’t stop Crozley from indulging in his lechery, and I had no interest in his leftovers. She assists him despite his questionable proclivities, and is eager to do so. Crozley reciprocates in kind, for his affection for the wayward overtakes his lust.

“Something old. Something bitter. Something better left alone,” replies Crozley.

He removes his pipe from his cloak knowing that despite his dismissiveness there would be further inquiry. The powdered naganine he deposits into the chamber would make him apt to oblige. Vespine whimpers at the smell of the thick smoke that billows from his mouth. Her wings shudder as she coughs away the narcotic venom of the serpent from which the drug was refined.

“Was it one of us, this, ‘Lovren’?”

Tala is more agreeable to my tastes at least in regard to her figure. Still, chimera such as her are difficult when it came to interspecies relations. She is mostly humanoid though, save for her skull structure. The overall countenance is human but shares the likeness of a jackal, cloaked by a full, flowing mane. Her cranium may be a blend of beast and woman, but below the neck the hominid portion of her is slender and lithe, clad in a fur loin fauld and halter. She is a long armed, long legged creature with elongated hands and feet replete with claws that Crozley remembers vividly during the throes of her primal passions, and is more than happy to share with me the details. I had almost found out for myself the night before, as it was a long ride and I needed a diversion, a proposition Crozley facilitated. But my level of intoxication had reached a point where the act was never performed, thankfully. Tala is known for her promiscuity, but such is the nature of her species. Her beauty makes her an asset, but she is both a profound expert at coercion and close quarters engagements when needed.

“Hardly,” Crozley exhales sharply. “He predates your kind, as he does many others, even myself.”

“What is this thing? What is older than we?”

Brune’s speech is assumed by many to be characteristic of an invalid, but there is an undeniable and often overlooked intelligence to this creature that outweighs his broken words. His musteline clade is not known for their conversational aptitude but for their size and strength, and he accurately represents these attributes. Manis are large in sense of musculature, and Brune is also blessed with a towering height which is rare for his kind. Most tend to be as tall as the average hominid if not more commonly shorter. He is never far from Crozley, even now standing at his side, leaning on his giant iron wood club that dwarfed even him.

“Lovren is an eternal. A cultivator of the world. One of very few that are much, much, much older than thee and me.”

“He was a Preceptor. Not many left. Few remaining are hiding.”

Vore rarely speaks, perhaps because he knew his voice tended to intimidate all that heard it. The Lacerta are famous for their mass, and they produce the sound to match. We are puny in comparison. Despite Vore having long proven both his loyalty and friendship, all the members of the company tend to keep a distance between themselves and this hulking bodyguard. The enormous butcher’s cleaver that is currently stuck in the ground next to him lacks the elegance of a finer weapon, its crude design befitting of his kind. It is less a sword and more a large hunk of metal sharpened on one side with a large handle fit for the enormous hands that grip it. The weapon is both weapon and tool, as Vore doubles as the caravan’s cook, and a fine one at that. His prowess in the kitchen is matched only by his skill in a fight. I just hope he doesn’t cook everything he kills. Then again, this company is full of individuals with varying tastes.

“The Preceptors are forgotten,” Crozley adds, “and wish to remain so.”

“The Cull took most of them and their offspring, more during the Interfections, and the rest went in the Calamity. The three tragedies they call it.”

Urcus is much like his reptilian counterpart in terms of size, but more inclined toward conversations that required fuller sentences. Still, he always seems lost in thought, even as he spoke, as though everything he says is for his ears only. He warms his giant hands, the fur missing from his knuckles from years of fending off those who would attack the caravan. His claws are intact, but he preferred the use of blunt force, reinforcing it with a pair of metal battle gloves wrapped in hardened leather. Ursine are notoriously tall and bulky, but every ounce of them is muscle covered in thick fur that served just as well as any armor.

“The three deaths of the world. An epoch of slaughter, murder, and conflagration.”

Cane, a Hund, sat near my side, drinking from a large wooden mug. A heavy cloak obscured his large figure and canine appearance. He was an observer, much like myself, and tended to mind his business. I liked him, but knew little about him. He was too busy with his personal introspection. Normally I am wary of those who are too quiet, but he gives off an aura of calm. Woe to those who disturb the peace of an unruffled man.

“They are the children of the cosmic crucible,” says Crozley. He raises his hand and fixes his eyepatch. “Their eyes witnessed the beginning of Reality. Their ears heard the birth cries of Existence. Their bodies were tempered in the forge of Space and Time. Their voices commanded the marches of history. Their’s were the hands that shaped the world. Their progeny would inherit this place of provenance, and Lovren’s children were those that destroyed it.”

“Not without reason,” my thought comes out as a whisper. The others did not seem to notice, but nothing escapes Crozley’s ear, or gaze. He grins, turning his head ever so slightly toward my direction. The narcotic vapor snakes through his teeth as he speaks to me for the first time since sitting. His voice is grainy and accent charming, underpinned by a perpetual tone of mischief and what seems to be a general sarcastic distaste for anyone he addresses.

“What about you, newcomer? You have been awfully quiet since you arrived. Have you something to say?”

My own speech sounds strange to me, deep and aged, almost guttural. But with a hint of lingering juvenescence brought on by my current curiosity.

“I want to hear his story.”

Crozley hesitates and takes another long drag from his pipe, exhaling deliberately, as if to purposely build the tension for his audience. His propensity for such theatrics is well known to his followers, and they take the gesture as an invitation to move closer to the fire and to their benefactor. His vulpine countenance slowly formed into a wide and excited grin.

“Well, we all must tell stories to remember, and to survive, do we not? But his is a story we tell little of, because he tried to end all of our’s. If you speak of the dead, then the dead will hear you.”

“No one really dies,” I say. “Even the dead are willful in this world. A great will is empowering, and enough to even bring the dead back.”

“Well, I suppose we will see soon enough. If you are so interested in his story, then you may ask his ghost. We will be at his final resting place soon enough.”

To be continued!