Something small with leathery wings struck Jacques hard in the back, skittering for a hold on his motley. With a grunt, he reached around and pulled at it, feeling the claws as long as his finger scraping against his arm.
Clutching the harpy in his hand he beat its head against the cave wall until he heard the sickening <snap>.
From up ahead, he could hear Fiend growling and snapping, as well as the high pitched ululations of the rest of the harpies. He readied a long, yellow handled knife, and moved forward quickly.
“Damn fool,” he muttered. “We’re both too damn old for all this.” He hacked the wings off another harpy as it dived for his face, and winced as two claws scraped their way down his cheek. Blood welled.
A heart-wrenching yelp of pain echoed down the cave, followed by even more furious growling, snapping, and the screaming of winged things.
Jacques broke into a run, slashing vaguely at harpies to keep them away more than in any attempt to kill them. They died anyway, pared to the bone by the flashing blade.
Finally, the screaming stopped just as he reached the main cave. There, in the centre, a small boy huddled over a furry, brown form that was breathing raggedly.
That at least was a relief, though a small one judging by the amount of blood that covered the fur.
“This your dog mister?” asked the boy in awe. Harpy corpses by the dozen littered the floor, in testament to Fiend’s dislike of the creatures. The boy, in further testament to the dog’s skill, had nary a scratch.
Jacques shook his head, the bells echoing faintly in the moss-encrusted cave. “Belongs to someone else, kid. I gave him to her a long, long time ago, but he makes his own choices. Always did.”
He crouched by the badly wounded Fiend and winced. The cause of the yelp was now obvious, as one of the dog’s eye sockets was filled with blood. Nothing but blood. Scores of claw wounds covered Fiend’s body, oozing blood as he breathed raggedly and made small, painful, noises.
Jacques sighed heavily. Too damn old.
“Next time your rmother tells you there’s harpies in the woods, kid, you listen to her alright.”
The boy nodded quickly. “He going to die mister?” He looked very concerned, but not frightened considering he’d been a few minutes away from being harpy food.
“I think so,” said Jacques not even bothering to lie. What was the point. “Had to happen eventually, I guess.” He stroked Fiend lightly behind the ears where there were no wounds. “Should have stayed boy. Told you not to go rushing off like that, but you never did listen.”
The child edged away and then came to a decision.
“I’ll get Granma Adelaide. She knows about cows ‘n dogs ‘n things!” Then he turned and ran down the passageway.
“You do that boy,” said Jacques absently. There wasn’t time for the kid to get back to town, dig up the old woman, convince her to come, and then make it all the way back.
Fiend whimpered, and trembled.
“C’mon boy, you been in worse.” Though he knew he lied. “What about that dragon that damn near burned all your fur off?” He smiled faintly despite himself at the image of Fiend, practically bald but otherwise near unhurt.
The knife went back into a pocket and he pulled out a small bottle of water, dribbling it onto Fiends tongue.
“Or that pack of werewolves you scared off. They don’t make a wolf bad enough, do they boy?”
He brushed a wisp of his hair along the base of the hat absently. And his hand came away covered in blood. Obviously more than just one of the harpies had scored a hit. His hands, too, were scored with claw marks. It wasn’t important.
“Fifteen years, boy. In dog years you must be older’n me. Positively geriatric.”
Fiend licked at the water slowly, weakly. His remaining large brown eye looked up sadly, glazed with pain.
Jacques sighed again. Fifteen years. Between them they had managed to save more people than he could begin to count. Had travelled more times around the whole planet than he wanted to remember. And had been beyond even that too many times. Hell, once was once too many.
It had to end sometime.
“At least those pups of yours won’t miss you,” Jacques shrugged again. “Hell, we don’t even know where most of ‘em are. You had more women in more towns than I ever did, boy. Bet there were a lot of surprised pure-breed owners over the years!”
The sound of rain from outside filtered along the caveway, and made damp, strange, echoing sounds around the cavern. Fiend whined sadly, his breath rattling through his body.
“Don’t know what those rabbits will do without you though. Probably be able to relax for more than twenty seconds I guess. I could never figure out what it was with you and rabbits.”
The rain must’ve been blown in, though he couldn’t feel much wind, because Fiend’s fur was getting damp, and it wasn’t blood.
“Never managed to figure you out at all, boy. Times you seemed nothin’ more than a dumb animal, and times you showed rather too much knowing intelligence for that.”
He felt tired. And old, so very old.
“And Anne-Marie said you were my last chance.” The ghost of Anne-Marie, at least. “Never figured that bit out either.”
He shrugged again, and scratched Fiend between the ears. Maybe the wind had picked up – he felt a chil in his bones.
“Though gods know you saved my life more times than I remember. Pulled me out of that underground lake in Valadeyva. Would have drowned for sure otherwise.”
That had been when they’d been rather younger, of course. And his old bones hadn’t creaked every time he’d moved. When Fiend hadn’t been as cautious as he was now.
Jacques nearly laughed at that. Cautious! The fool animal had rushed in when he’d heard the boy scream. Well, he was paying for that now. “My last chance are you?” He sighed, and held Fiend as close as he dared. “Well, I guess I’ll have no chances at all now.”
None at all.
“That kid and his granma should be here soon, boy. If this was Cendunti, they’d have been here already. You remember Cendunti, boy, where you helped me deal with those vampires. Guess you hated bats as bad as harpies, eh boy?”
Vampires, dragons, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, brigands, werewolves, and demons. They’d dealt with them all, and more, though Jacques never really knew what he’d been looking for. Regardless, Fiend had always been along and had more than carried his weight. “Harpies, boy. Had to be harpies didn’t it.”
He ran a hand over Fiend again. The wind must be icy, he thought. The dog must be chilled to the bone to feel like that.
It was then that he let himself realise that somewhere while he’d been talking to himself, Fiend had died. Quietly and without ceremony.
They buried Fiend out by a huge oak tree. Jacques, the boy, and “granma Adelaide” digging a spot not far from the river. Ms Adelaide hadn’t really understood what had been happening, only that she’d been too late to save the animal – who would have been beyond her talents anyway – and that this strange old man had somehow rescued Tolly from a horrible fate.
The boy stood in silence understanding only that the old man had lost his dog when they’d saved him from the harpies. For that, he somehow felt guilty. If he’d listened to his mother, and not ventured out into the woods then this man’s dog wouldn’t have died, and he wouldn’t have all those scars on his face and hands. He hadn’t meant to cause trouble. But he had never believed those stories his mother had told him, thinking they’d been just to scare him into being obedient. But it hadn’t been stories that had ripped the poor animal’s eye out. And it had pulled the harpies away from him.
It was all his fault.
Jacques was looking down at the mound of freshly dug dirt, and didn’t hear him.
Tolly shuffled nervously, feeling like he was about to cry. And he wasn’t sure if that would make him more, or less, guilty. “I’m sorry about your dog mister. It was my fault. I … ” he was crying now. “I’m sorry mister. If I hadn’t been there, he’d still be OK and you wouldn’t be hurt, and we wouldn’t be here burying him, and … and …” He subsided into tears.
Jacques glared at him for a moment.
Damn right, he wanted to say. Damn right it’s your fault you miserable brat. If you had an ounce of intelligence you wouldn’t have gotten us into this mess, and now I’m alone again. After fifteen years of having something more than just me, of having someone I gave a damn about, I’m alone again.
And it’s all_your_damn_fault.
He opened his mouth, and stopped.
Damn old fool.
Choices, it all came back to choices. He had made his. And, gods help the poor animal, Fiend had made his own.
“It isn’t your fault, kid.” And, gods help him, he really meant it. It wasn’t the boy’s fault. “It isn’t. And it’s not mine either.” He looked down at the grave, and sighed heavily. “Now you two get home before it gets dark. There’re worse things than harpies out in these woods after dark.”
The old farmwoman looked at him strangely, and then pulled Tolly to her, and they left silently, heading back to the small village.
Slowly, as Jacques stood by the tree and wept like he’d wept only twice before in his life, the sun dipped below the horizon, and the stars began to blink into existence. The moon rose, a full moon tonight, bringing with it a howling and rustling in the trees.
Wolves. Normal, every day wolves. They knew the woods were safe with the harpies gone. But maybe the farmboy would be a little more circumspect in future.
Finally, Jacques took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. He felt so incredibly old. Twenty seven he’d been when Anne-Marie had died. Fifty six when he’d woken on some gods-forsaken river bank to find a small brown furball licking at his face. Seventy one now. And there was nothing left to do.
He reached up and pulled on the last point of his hat. Not the one that made him invisible. There was nothing to hide from here, and he couldn’t hide form himself any longer. Nor the one that hasted him beyond belief. There was nothing to run from.
The one that would end it all.
“So you finally choose to come.” The voice was deep and had a sense of power, and intense malevolence about it.
“You’ve got my soul,” returned Jacques, tired beyond belief. “I give up. How many times is a man supposed to die?”
“Once,” offered the demon. “In some cases twice.”
“My life ended with Anne-Marie, it ended with Fiend in that cave, and now it ends for the third time, the last time, here. My soul, demon, do what you will. I no longer give a damn.”
The demon huffed, sending the stench of rot and death and hate across the field. “After all these years you give up so easily?”
“Easily?! Damn your foul bones, demon, I have endured more than you and your petty devilries to get this far. Take my gods-forsaken soul and be done with it.” A black knife was in his hand now. Not merely a black handled knife, but the blade and hilt were a black so complete, so insubstantial, that they swallowed the moonlight.
“Gladly,” returned the demon, but it was not happy. Steam and smoke arose from the creatures horns. “But it is not mine any longer.”
Jacques glared at it. And suddenly the knife vanished. As did the motley, and the tri-pointed hat.
“I no longer have a claim your soul, jester. For even such as I abide by rules. Rules set by higher powers.” There was anger, and hatred, and a touch of fear in its voice. “That animal carried your soul, and was your salvation, in a manner you will probably never understand. Your soul is your own.” And with that, it vanished in a furious cloud of brimstone.
But Jacques understood. Finally. Though it had taken him more than forty years to do so. He understood.
And so, he sat with his back against the oak tree, beside Fiend’s resting place, and closed his eyes for the last time.