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TODAY

Monday, June 24

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Airbags

Bicyclist Shot by Own Gun

A man riding a bicycle was shot when the gun he was carrying accidentally discharged early Tuesday in the Rogers Park neighborhood on the North Side, police said.

The man was riding a bicycle in the 1500 block of West North Shore Avenue when the gun he was carrying, possibly in his waistband, discharged about 12:30 a.m., according to a Rogers Park District police lieutenant.

The man suffered a gunshot wound to the leg and was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston in good condition, according to the lieutenant.

The man could be charged for carrying a gun, the lieutenant said.
—Chicago Sun-Times

It is cold and near morning before we reach the bottom of the cliff face, before we stand ankle-deep in the fragrant mulch covering the floor of the Forest of Arboula.

Neither Wilhelm nor I speak during the climb, nor does the recaptured gnome, though this is not especially out of character for him. Wilhelm Warhammer's grim silence, however, is more puzzling; troubling, even. I give my head a shake for what must be the thousandth time that long night, trying to clear it, to process everything that happened in the hours that came before.

Nan, the mysterious cloaked woman who had been following us (leading us?), revealing that she had served the court of Lord Mandrake, that she serves the king still, if only in memory. A magician, she had turned herself to stone each night in defense against Wilhelm... Wilhelm, who she warned me against, just before stepping off the cliff and into the abyss below, as he charged her. Why I was not to trust Wilhelm, she never said.

And now we stand here, boots sunk into the loose soil of the forest floor, staring at the imprint in the ground before us. The height is a match for Nan's, but the impact could only have been stone.

"She said if she petrified herself once more, it would be permanent..." I murmur, and Wilhelm nods slowly.

Taking me aside, he tells me how she clouded my mind with spell-craft, how she had known our trail before we knew it ourselves, and how she had distracted me while using magic to free the gnome, so he could escape to alert the Black Guard to our whereabouts. I nod as he says this, feeling just how red and bleary my eyes are, staring down where her stone form landed. It all fits. And yet...

~*~

Around midday I awake to the sound of Wilhelm berating the gnome, no doubt taking out his anger at Nan's disappearance. He stops when he sees me rouse, perhaps embarrassed. I ignore him, simply gathering my effects and shouldering my pack as Wilhelm does the same. We move on without speaking.

The broad leaves of the ancient trees darken our way and we move among shadows, even as the sun moves directly overhead; below, we pass between gnarled and twisted trunks, spongy with wet moss. Odd sounds emanate from the hollows around us, deep sounds, ghastly and hooting, sounds of the old earth and others that are something else entirely. The gnome, pitiful creature, darts fearful eyes this way and that, but Wilhelm strides onward, never looking around. For my part, I plod with my gaze cast downward, still pondering the night before.

The day wears and wanes but we walk on, speaking little, not tiring. Perhaps the gnome is tired, I can't know. Neither of us deign to ask him. There is a feeling in the air, a thrumming that thickens with each step. The great Summoning Tree is coming near to us, where M'yrrgh, the Hag Queen, is already at work calling forth some foul beast from the most cursed wells of the earth. As though he hears my thoughts, Wilhelm Warhammer quickens his pace.

~*~

The first thing we see is the light of the fire. Green. Of course.

There is no hesitation. Wilhelm and I fall into step, me on the right and he to the left. The gnome trails us, nearly crippled with fear. Perhaps he has some heightened sense of what it is we will face, but this is not a subject that interests me. My ax is in my hand, and Wilhelm's own has found his hammer.

Chanting is audible now, echoing softly off the aged trees and their cavernous branches. Within seconds I know it to indeed be M'yrrgh — her raspy, cracking voice chills me, and when she comes into sight the first thing I see is her cursed Seeing Eye, that which she once tricked me into retrieving for her. It shines blood red in the darkness, shifting from the ghostly green flames up to the black leaves overhead and back down again. When finally she spies us, her chants fade to creaking laughter.

"Axman," she croaks, almost happily. "I wondered when I'd see you again."

"You'll not trick me twice, crone," I spit, hastening toward her, knuckles white upon the ax-handle. She simply throws back her head of brittle white hair and laughs.

"Such foolish heroics come far too late in the game, Axman. The Beast's arrival is imminent, and soon enough all the world will know."

Probably I ought to say something fearless and witty, but nothing comes to mind, and I simply raise my ax overhead as I take the final steps toward where she stands, the green flames playing across her grotesque face, the bulbous nose and sagging, pasty cheeks. But then the ax is torn from my hand and I am thrown to the ground by — Wilhelm?

He tosses away my weapon and stands back as invisible bonds tighten around me, M'yrrgh chanting again behind me. His eyes, cold, remain on mine as the gnome scampers forward to bind my wrists with rough rope, my ankles.

"Traitor."

"It is what it is, Blagg. Things change, whether we like it or not, and they can never go back to how they were before. I'm sorry."

Somewhere M'yrrgh is cackling, but now her laughter is joined by another voice, deeper, hollow. Empty.

I jerk my head around in time to glimpse the Dark Lord Kayne step forth from the shadow.

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About the Author(s)

A former mercenary for hire, Blagg is an axman by trade and still carries the banner of King Mandrake, the once and true ruler of the realm. Gapers Block readers are invited to contact Blagg for advice, insight and recommendations at blagg@gapersblock.com. His column appears every other Saturday.

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