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Iron Quill (The Hunt) - Vena's Violin

E.T.A. Hoffman

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            “Please, rest and retire from this senseless run. Stay, sit, stand, it’ll be so much more fun,” whispered a voice as light as the wind.


            Nell cried out with exertion, but her legs wouldn’t move any faster. A branch caught her cheek and another her shoulder, both tore into the skin. The forest was anything but safe for a girl.


            “Do you miss them, the miserable members of your family? Does it hurt, to recall that you allowed me to slaughter them all?” said the wind.


            Nell bit her tongue, she couldn’t retort or she’d collapse into tears. The sorrow was still too fresh; it had only been a few hours since her world had bled.


            A gap in the trees was growing wider, haloed by pale moon light. Nell was so tired, unsure if she could go on but the end was too close, she had to race for it with any vigor she could find.


When she tried to burst through the forest more branches caught her, grabbing at her black dress, as if to hold her inside the woods. She forced past them as they drew yet more blood from her.


          With a great cry she tore free of the last of the branches and tumbled into the clearing. A cold breeze blew across her sweat covered face. In her reprieve she became of aware of a pain in her feet; she hadn’t even realized that her shoes had come off. Still, she was free of the woods. But, the moment of relief that came merely ebbed across her heart before it was buried by the sight before her; rows, perhaps hundreds, of dark stones jutted out of the bitter green grass. The tombstones were as sullen and macabre as the rolling hills and empty horizon. Oh God, her thoughts screamed, no more… no more.


            “Feeling free from the frightening forest?” the voice was all around her.


            “What?” said Nell, her soft, round features contorting, “What more do you want from me?”


            The wind only laughed.


            With her free hand, Nell tugged at a branch tangled in her raven hair. It wouldn’t come easily so she tore it out along with her little blue bow; a fatherly relic from better days. She scanned her surroundings; there was no place to go, nowhere safe.


            “Took? Bartered perhaps!” said the wind, “taken nothing, have I, which was not offered for trade!” the wind replied with an indignant sort of humor.


            “I never offered you my family!” Nell cried. Then the tears came.


            Nell’s own voice echoed back at her. “Yes, I’ll trade you anything; just give me what I want.”

            She stood frozen by the sound of her own voice coming from the wind. She had said those very same words not one week ago, when she had sought out the creature in the forest. It was true… she had been careless. And now… now they’re dead. Everyone! She thought. Her knees felt weak and her body shook with grief.


            “Do not doubt the dubious deal, for you made it freely,” said the wind.


            The violin in Nell’s hand felt heavier than before. She looked down at it, the soul stones in the neck were swelling with emerald brightness.


            “Behold, the weight of the guilty,” said the voice on the wind.


            With mounting horror she realized with whose souls the gems had filled with. The brass and wood construct in her hand felt cold. Her hand trembled. But a strange numbness was settling in, she was walling up, it was impossible to feel so much at all once.


            “Why are you chasing me, if our deal is done?” asked Nell in a small voice.


            “Exactly so! Muse on the mutual matter we’ve concluded. Nothing more do I owe you,” said the wind. It rose suddenly in volume, “No deal not to steal you too!”


            Nell leapt aside as something white and massive brushed past her. The thing landed hard but was already turning back. It was a cat the size of a wolf. No, thought Nell, it was much too large to be a wolf or even a cerberus.  It had fur, short and sharp looking with hue as pale as the sickly moon. It prowled towards her on long and unnatural legs that split at the elbow into three thin limbs, each ended in paws made from jutting talons. The tale twisted and twitched in the air, it had to be at least seven feet long by Nell’s guess. Worst of all was its face; a strangely sentient thing with countless teeth bursting from it cancerous smile. The smile, Nell’s eyes locked onto it, a gaping maw like thing that split to pieces at the sides.


            “Clever child,” said the thing. Its limbs coiled as it readied to pounce.


            Nell was ready this time. She brought her instrument up just as the creature took to the air. With a quick jerk of her bow she brought out a high pitched staccato note. Bright emerald light swelled within the soul stones and a burst of force from the violin tossed the creature back. It landed against a head stone with a loud crack. It roared savagely, a look stark surprise on its face as it recovered with unpredictable agility. Not a moment had passed and it was on the attack once more.


          Nell was awed by her own playing. Never had she slung such beautiful sounds. The image of her mother floated to the surface of Nell’s mind. A tear rolled down her cheek. Her mother had always been such a wonderful violinist. It was then she knew that she wasn’t the one playing the instrument.


            Her hand tightened on the bow and she strung notes wildly as the creature closed the distance. Spears of light shot from her bow where they exploded into the earth as the creature dodged them. The cat was upon her, claws raking outwards. She leapt aside, dragging the bow across the strings leading into a crescendo and a great flourish of her arm. The earth beneath her exploded, lifting the cat and herself backwards. The claws had missed and only the cat’s powerful limbs and brushed past her.


            Both reclaimed their footing swiftly, but a terrible pain in Nell’s side called for attention. Where the cat’s fur had touched her she was bleeding and her dress was in tatters.


            The creature laughed at her surprise, “Teeth like glass, fur like razors; the creature of the forest.”


            Nell whimpered at the pain as she readied her bow.


            The creature stalked slowly around but made no move to attack. Nell kept her distance; she knew she needed time if it decided to attack. Her heart was hammering and her stomach was weighted with dread.


            It took a step forward, Nell took a step back. Again it advance and Nell retreated. What game are you playing, she asked herself. Something hard hit her back, she would have whirl around but the branches of the forest had ensnared her hair and dress. She could feel the thin but unyielding twigs slowly creeping towards her arms. The creature lunged. She clamped her fingers down on the strings and let loose a squealing trill. The air moved in towards her and out again just as fast she was changing notes, the branches shattered. With the creature of the forest falling upon her, Nell fell onto her back. The beast crashed into the tree and Nell rolled away and back to her feet.


            “Gore, glistening and glittering; I’ll devour it all!” the Creature of the Forest snarled. It didn’t wait, into another charge it leapt.


            This was her chance. It was too close to dodge, for either of them. Mere inches away, Nell rolled her bow across the enchanted strings. Grey tendrils of mist enveloped the cat, carrying it away and onto the ground. Nell played a slow and somber melody and try as the cat might it could not escape the cloud. The emerald light inside her violin swelled brightly as the cat began to fade.


            “I win,” said Nell, panting.


            “A deal! A deal! Let’s conjure a contract,” the monster wheezed as its life drained.


            “Why would I ever do that again?” As the adrenaline faded so too did her rage. The numbness, however, didn’t abate; it stayed locked over her heart. “You tricked me… now I have nothing…” she said quietly.


            “But more you received, more you will achieve. A pact with no tricks, this one’s life for eternal servitude,” the creature said.


            Nell held the violin out before her and looked at it, digging deep into its perfect sheen to see if such a thing could be possible. There was no going back, what was done was done and it would haunt her dreams until the day finally came when this accursed world claimed her too. What else could she do until then?  I have to keep moving, forever. Something inside told her she could avoid the guilt forever is she moved fast enough. But she was young, and Malifaux was perhaps the most dangerous place in existence. She would be dead in a week on her own.


            “Who’s servitude?” asked Nell.


            “Smart child,” said the cat.


            Nell contemplated it. She could never trust the beast, but she was pretty sure it was bound to the deals it made.


            “If I give you your life, you’ll be bound to me forever. You’ll serve my every whim and never act against my best interests?” asked Nell.


            “Yesssssss,” whispered the cat, it was but a mere outline of its former self.


            “Then the bargain is struck,” said Nell, she began playing the same song backwards and a rejuvenating light encompassed the creature. A moment later it was standing tall and terrible before her yet again.


            “This one, is thy will, Master,” it said.


            “We’ll need a name for you, I’m not calling you ‘this one’, she said.


            The Creature twisted its head, “Vena.”


            “No, you need a cat’s name.” Bingles! That’ll be your new name,” she said.


            “… Bingles…” said the beast with a voracious stare.


            Nell took great joy in the look of displeasure on its face. You’ll pay a thousand times for what you’ve done, she thought.


            “This form won’t do either, something a tad less conspicuous,” she said.


            In a cloud of white fog Bingles transformed into something small and cute.


            “Wonderful, nobody would ever suspect a kitten,” she said. “Come now, let’s go.”


            “Where?” asked Bingles.


            “I really don’t know,” she replied, but she would keep moving, endlessly.

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Interesting story. I have always had a soft spot for the whole "Deal with the 'Devil' " type of stories, especially when it comes to the terms of contractual agreement. The flow of the story seemed solid and I never was lost on who was speaking. Beyond a few spelling errors there isn't much I would change.


As always,

The Grue



(On a side note if Vena and Bingles ever need a new home, Captain Griswalde could always use some antagonists.)

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I really liked this piece! The pacing was consistent throughout and always kept me engaged. The personality of the creature is great, I have the sense that you had lots of fun writing the dialogue for it! The descriptions were suitably fluid - not distractingly elaborate or bland, but a perfect balance. My only comment has to do with the end of the piece - it felt somewhat less intense and vibrant than the rest of the story, but can't put my finger on why. Great work!

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