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A Circle Of Red

They’ll be dead before the end of the year, their bodies wrecked and their minds twisted into the worst insanity. After committing their foul atrocities they’ll eventually be brought down by the royal armies, hacked apart and burnt alive. But not before making more of their own kind, always more.
Steve Dean's Fantasy Story A Circle Of Red

This story is about a cartographer, a mapmaker, who travels the realm checking the maps are all accurate. Adjustments are sometimes necessary, often for the most horrific reasons. This particular story came from a roleplay game scenario I wrote for a group of level one adventurers to get them into the campaign. It’s written from the point of view of the person who hires them, but if you read carefully, you’ll see the players.

*          *          *

Sometimes it’s the smoke, rising thick and black into a calm sky, or racing with the wind across the burnt fields like a dark predator. Sometimes it’s the smell, the stench of putrefaction almost a physical blow. Sometimes it’s the carrion-feeders gathering, their yellow eyes watching. And occasionally it’s the sound of people screaming their pain into an uncaring night. But worst of all it’s none of those things. Worst of all is the silence.

As a cartographer, my occupation is the making and checking of maps of the realm for accuracy. As I write this in my journal, we are camped a short distance from a village marked on the master copies of the maps as Umequa. The entry in the registration of lands says it’s of little importance and produces only goats. Population estimate: 48.

I pick up my quill and take out a small bottle of ink. The colour in the magelight is a deep red. My hand begins to shake, not good at all for writing in an official document. I put down both quill and ink, and try to forget the silence, but I’m only reminded of it.

We are travelling in a large party as we approach Umequa. Today, we have a junior cartographer with us, on his first trip. In cases like this we never go off the map, but only re-visit known territories to verify the accuracy of existing maps. With us also are six adventurers, also fairly young and inexperienced, but they came cheaply and should suffice this close to home. They’ll watch our backs as we pace out measurements and make our little drawings.

I am studying the existing map and so far, so good. The river comes into view, called simply the Umequa. It’s shallow during the dry season, allowing us to cross easily to Umequa itself. The first stirrings of unease enter my mind. We’re close now, there should be smoke rising, the smell of bread and goats. I prepare myself, straining my ears to pick out the distant sounds of life over the dull thud of our horses’ hooves. There’s nothing but the hated silence.

But we still have a way to go yet, there’s still a little hope. We round the edge of the small wood and Umequa is revealed. All hope dies under the smothering weight of silence. Nothing natural is ever completely quiet. People and goats and even fires make a noise. Only death is silent.

I remain calm as we get closer. Neither the junior nor the adventurers have noticed, although one of them has risen slightly in the saddle and has one hand on her sword. I feel sorry for them, they’ve yet to learn what the silence means.

As we approach the village gate, the other adventurers begin to react, two of them moving ahead and two dropping back. The junior is dull-eyed, being carried by his horse instead of riding it. The two ahead reach the village gates and stop suddenly, they aren’t prepared for this, but they’ll learn, or not. With a sharp word, I alert the junior, who is startled to full attention. He smiles when he sees the village, eager for food and rest. I fear he will get neither today.

At my gesture, the two adventurers go on ahead, I tell the junior to stop but I continue through the simple gate and into the village beyond. Umequa is much as you would expect a village of poor goat-herders to be. The houses are made from sticks and mud, the roofs poorly thatched, the ground dry dust and scattered dung.

We find the bodies in the centre of the village, 30 of them, the lucky ones. The young and old, the infirm and unsuitable. They’re arranged in a 6 by 5 square, the four corners to the cardinal points. Their heads and limbs have been cut off and swapped around so that no one corpse is complete. I see a man’s torso with a small leg where his head should be, a woman’s arms for legs, and the heads of goats in place of his own arms. We back away; sometimes they aren’t as dead as you’d like them to be.

The rest, well they’ll become hosts for the demon-spawn. They’ll be dead before the end of the year, their bodies wrecked and their minds twisted into the worst insanity. After committing their foul atrocities they’ll eventually be brought down by the royal armies, hacked apart and burnt alive. But not before making more of their own kind, always more.

We swiftly rejoined the others and left the area, riding back to the crossing place and making camp. The junior began to ask questions, but I silenced him with a gesture. The adventurers talk of tracking the missing villagers and force smiles onto their young faces. They’ll get paid by the guild when we return, but I think they were expecting more. There’s no glory here, no wealth or heroic rescues. Just one ignoble but essential job for them, burn the village, every last stick.

The corruption will slowly fade and the remnants of Umequa will be wiped away as nature reclaims it. 48 souls gone forever, no past, no future. And now there’s one last task to perform before we move on. By the light of a small magelight I calm myself and draw a simple red circle around Umequa. When this map is received at the guild, they will update the master copies of the maps, and the village will disappear forever.

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