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Strangeways - Winter Solstice (1)

No comics this week. Only stories without pictures.

Part 2 drops Wednesday. Hoping it'll be wrapped up then, but it may not yet be so.

STRANGEWAYS – WINTER SOLSTICE

The crescent moon hung low, sickle-silver and cutting. Collins stopped and watched it a moment, though if he’d had any sense at all, he’d have pressed on. The cold outside was nothing to joke about, and while it wasn’t the bone-gnawing chill of the Georgia swamps he’d once trudged through, it had fingers that found every popped seam and tear in his clothes. But still, there was a real beauty in that sky, all purple and red velvet as the sun went down. He got the feeling that the moon wasn’t so much following the sun so much as it was chasing, sharp edge hungry.

The horse chuffed once and swished his head back and forth, impatient. It occurred to Collins that he didn’t even have a name for this one.

“What you want, hoss? You tired of standing in the cold?” He patted the horse’s neck and waited for a reply. “All right then, let’s us move on a bit.” Collins gently spurred him on and down the rolling hill.

Where not smothered in snow, the grass was long and stringy like a dead man’s hair, pushed listlessly in the chill breeze. The last of the sunlight laid out a tarnished gold glow that was not warm in and of itself. If anything it only served to remind Collins how cold it actually was. Up ahead, the grassland gave way to a tangle of spreading oak and scattered granite boulders like giant knucklebones dug out of the soil.

Wind through the trees hummed and rustled, and something else. What was that sound?

“The hell?” Collins muttered. “Is that a, a horn?”

The tone rung out across the rolling hills, from nowhere and everywhere. Eyes to the sky, Collins saw the edge of the moon dip below the horizon and the sun itself went red, plunging out of sight. The sound then solidified, focused. It was coming from behind him now.

And there was something else too, something else coming at him in the scarlet dusk. It howled. Had this been but months ago, he’d not have given it a second thought. But that had been before Silver Branch and before the thing that was neither wolf nor man but the worst parts of both. And while it had seemed that the wolf-man hadn’t been alone in his kind, the others that were left seemed to at least tolerate Collins. But perhaps that was no longer.

There was another howl, coming from the scrabble of the trees. He saw what looked like flashes of green light, sharp in the deepening gloom. Wind rushed, making the trees flutter and grasp and birds flew from them as if released from a hundred traps and they were silent as they rose into the crimson sky.

Collins was out in the open here, unprotected and without cover. He spurred the horse to an outcropping of stones that looked for the world like a sundial’s pointer. Easy to see, but it might afford some protection while he went for the silver.

He slid into a dismount and tied off the horse quickly. No use in having it bolt in the middle of things. And then he heard something new. Thundering? There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That wasn’t it. This was low to the ground and thrumming, a regular and vigorous pounding that carried through the ground. He could feel it now through even the cold in his boots. His hands slipped on the ties twice before he could get the bag open. Cold enough now that even the wood stock felt like ice, Collins grasped it and opened the cylinder.

Working by feel, he looked over at the source of the sound, towards the black treeline. And there it was, there he could finally see it.

It was a stag, but like none other he’d ever seen. It must’ve been as big as a horse. It broke through the treeline as if it had been blowing through low grass. Leaves and limbs were tossed aside in its wake, head low and antlers streaming shambles behind. Raising its head, Collins saw the last light of day shining on its coat. That must have been it. Nothing else could explain the…glow that it gave off. Muscles rippled like waves underneath its skin and its eyes gleamed of intelligence, of reckoning. Not of Collins, but of something else.

The stag was alive, gloriously so, fierce and proud and though running, it was not running away but moving as if it were moving towards something, though for the life of him, Collins couldn’t see what. So enraptured he was, that he let the sixth round slip from his fingers as the stag ran past the stone where he sheltered.

The horn rang, seeming to come from right next to Collins’ head. He jumped in spite of himself. His eyes turned back to the treeline, where he had seen the green lights before. The horn’s pure tone faded, melting into another sound. More howling. Not from one, but from many. The flickering green lights pressed closer to the gap in the trees and then Collins could see the pursuers. He could see them.

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