A spear-head flashed as it stabbed out. The tassels on the haft made a buzzing whir as the weapon whipped around in an arc. Cho breathed out sharply as he finished his form and grounded the butt of the spear in the dirt.
“How much longer before you’re done?” he asked Xan.
Xan grunted, ignoring the question, focusing on the work at hand. Carefully gathering the last of the fragile whitecaps from underneath the log and placing them into his satchel. For two hundred years, Mogu village had cultivated the mushrooms in this section of the forest and dried them in the grotto on the side of Laoren mountain.
“Just about there,” he replied absently, squinting to make sure he hadn’t missed any of the spongy growths. Satisfied, he rocked the decaying log back into place and took a quick scan of the encampment. Everything looked good at the entrance of the mushroom farm.
He wiped the back of his dirt-covered hand across his forehead and stood with a groan, his back aching from the work. Finished with harvesting for the moment, Xan turned to the packages they had filled with already dried fungus. There were several bundles of mushrooms, each package wrapped in a different color of cloth, which corresponded to the specific variety. Flaky Urn, Ling Agaricus, Weeping Morel, Black Tooth. All rare and potent in their own right. The village used the various fungi in a multitude of herbal preparations ranging from health and energy supplements to medicinal cures.
Xan glanced over at his friend, Tang Cho. The young man wore the same simple brown jacket and pants as Xan, his lower legs wrapped with a tan cloth, which wound down his calves, ending at his worn and dirty leather shoes. Cho’s short cropped sandy brown hair caught the sunlight peeking in through the trees.
“Can’t wait to get back to your guard training?” Xan asked, though he knew the answer. He and Cho had been friends since the beginning and he knew exactly how much he was looking forward to leaving Mogu behind—even if only once in a while. “I’m sorry you got stuck with helping me,” he said with a wry grin. “Though if you hadn’t been caught kissing Wen Mei, your father wouldn’t have sent you with me instead of Rikki.” Xan chided, then smirked at Cho’s embarrassment.
Cho coughed, “You heard about that, eh?” He quickly changed the subject, rubbing at the back of his neck with a calloused hand. “You know, I don’t think they’ve filled all the guard appointments yet. Have you given any more thought about joining me?” he asked. The look on his face showed that he already knew Xan would say no. Again.
“I really want to be a guard,” Xan replied wistfully, his eyes dreamy and distant. Distractedly, he used an old rag to wipe his knife clean. Thoughts ran wild of stories from the few books the village had which told of adventures on the Silk Road. “Travel with the trade caravans. See more than our village and this mountain.”
Xan slid the knife into its worn leather sheath at his belt, metal rasping on leather. “But, my father has other ideas,” he finished after a moment. “He wants me firmly on the Path of Peace.” Xan grimaced and stuck out his tongue in distaste. “More like the path of boring.” Xan relished his time up in the mountains away from the tedious meditations his father put him through. That and the endless lectures on moral philosophy and the wisdom of the peaceful ancients. He started putting bundles of dried mushrooms into the packs.
“I’m amazed you can keep these straight. How many different types of mushrooms are there?” Cho held up his hands at Xan’s sharp look. “I’m serious, it’s a gift.”
Xan continued to pack the bundles into his backpack. After finishing with the tan packages, he started on the blue bundles—the earthy smell of the mushrooms surrounded him and filled his nostrils. “Truthfully, there are more kinds than I know. Master Sung said there are hundreds of different types of mushrooms, but more hurt than help. That’s why we only cultivate five kinds here.” Xan remembered the storeroom at the herbalism shop with dozens of jars, boxes and containers. Some of those, Master Sung expressly forbid him from touching.
“As much as I like spending time with you, I’ll be happy to never touch another rotten log or haul mushrooms again if I can help it.” Cho hefted one of the bulging packs easily. Not only was he taller, he was very fit—his body lined with athletic muscle. Though, Xan thought his friend looked a little tired. Maybe he was pushing himself too hard in his desperation to get into the guard. Not that they would reject him, considering who his father was. Plus, they always needed fresh bodies for the longer routes.
“Okay. If you can get one more deadfall, I think we’ll be set.” Xan wiped his hands on the cloth.
Cho leaned his spear against a tree, picked up the leather drag straps and his stained canvas gloves. “If you aren’t going to be a guard what will your father let you do?”
Xan shrugged and deflated a little. He’d asked himself the same question more times than he could remember. “Well… I start working with Master Sung full-time when we get back. I’ll continue to learn herbalism and will probably be stuck coming up here since Master Sung can’t physically make the trip anymore.” He picked up an empty drying rack and got ready to move to the next log for harvest.
Cho watched his friend for a moment. Xan saw him shake his head before he headed off into the trees in search of another deadfall. Cho’s father was the head of the village guard and supported Cho’s decision to join the village defenders and Xan wished he had that. Support from his father.
Xan could sense his friend’s disapproval as he left, but Xan needed to honor his father’s wishes. Besides, mushrooms had a lot of uses even if they weren’t as glamorous as gleaming spears or dusty, open roads. No, not glamorous but important all the same since the dried mushrooms were one of the few items they could trade to the passing merchants and caravans. Xan had been entrusted with a great responsibility by the village elders and he needed to honor it.
Xan shuffled to the next log.
Crouching down, he glanced out and noticed a streak of red and orange across the mountainside. He shifted a bit and peered more closely. What looked like a really thick growth of red and orange mushrooms grew on the other side of the draw he stood in. It was similar to the red and orange fan-shaped mushroom he was about to harvest, but the new formation grew up vertically from its rotten stump, sprouting in a shape that resembled a deer’s antler hence its name, Antler Reishi. Orange Antler Reishi mushrooms were renowned for enhancing energy and vitality. Master Sung had expressed to Xan that this kind of mushroom had to be an ingredient in the mythical elixir alchemists have been seeking for centuries, the elixir of longevity. Xan looked around for Cho, and while the fungi was a bit away from their prepared harvesting area, the size of the Reishi couldn’t be ignored.
He gripped the drying tray and crossed through the trees.
Xan knelt on the ground before the growth, the chill of moisture seeped into his pants where his knees touched the leaves. He pulled his knife and gently cut at the base of the mushrooms, careful to support the twelve inch stalks with his other hand. As with the other mushrooms he harvested, he left a bit at the base so the mushroom could regrow in time for the next harvest. “I’ll have to put some catalyst on you so we can keep the critters away,” he muttered to himself.
With nimble fingers, he gently set the fungi on the tray. Xan was excited to see what Master Sun’s reaction to this incredible find would be. Elated? Possibly—
The thought died in its tracks as the birds suddenly went quiet. An ominous silence that sent chills racing along Xan’s arms and down his spine. He glanced around the forest, unsure what had caused the deathly stillness. The birds had grown used to Xan and Cho over the past week so it couldn’t be Cho and his heavy-footed thrashing. Xan listened.
He heard a rustle in the leaves behind him. He turned fully expecting Cho, but instead a pair of glowing eyes stared at him from a pool of deep shadows. Something growled, low and gruff, and stalked forward into the dim light coming in through the canopy, its large paws placed carefully to not make a sound. Xan froze, his body refusing to respond to the voice in his gut screaming to run. The creature was a coyote… or, at least, it had been. Once. This beast appeared larger than the coyotes he had seen before and was lumpy and gray, its fur mangy in places. Its eyes burned faintly with purple fire and its gaze never wavered from Xan.
It issued another rumbling growl and glided forward, fangs bared, the greasy hackles on its back erect.
This was odd. Normally coyote were skittish and bolted at the first noise or sudden movement. This thing was different. Aggressive. Xan took a deep breath, overcame his initial shock, grabbed a stick, and hurled it at the coyote. “Hah!” he yelled, hoping to scare the beast off.
The coyote snapped the stick out of the air with its jaws, breaking it into bits. The creature didn’t look impressed or scared in the least.
Xan slowly backed away, carefully stepping between the trees, his heart racing.
The strange coyote advanced, lips pulled up in a snarl, drool dripped from large fangs in its narrow snout, head low to the ground. The burning gaze never left Xan. Its ears were laid flat back. Xan turned, ready to run, just as it lunged.
He dodged around the tree, forcing the creature to skitter in the leaves trying to catch him. Legs pumping, Xan sprinted. Behind him the creature thrashed through the leaves as it pursued him.
Xan darted back toward their encampment hoping to catch a glimpse of Cho. Where was he with that spear of his? “Cho!” he shouted.
The crunching leaves and growls grew closer. Xan glanced back just in time to see the coyote’s slavering maw closing in. He grabbed a trunk with his right hand to give himself leverage for a quick direction change.
The beast’s jaws snapped behind Xan, missing him by a hairsbreadth. It scrambled right, its wicked claws tearing uselessly into the loamy soil, and smacked into a tree with a wet thud.
Xan yelled again “Cho! Ch—” He tripped on a root, landed with a whoosh and slid belly first down the slope, finally coming to a stop in a pile of leaves at the bottom of a depression. He managed to push onto his back as the coyote reached the lip of the bowl above him. His breath caught in his throat and his heart hammered in his ears.
The creature snarled at Xan, fiery eyes boring into him, and gnashed its large blackened fangs. The coyote gathered itself for a leap, its haunches wiggled, its back feet scraped the leaves away to get a better purchase.
Xan got his hands beneath him and frantically clawed at the slope behind him, kicking at the dirt and leaves to propel himself backwards. With a howl, the creature leapt at Xan, jaws wide.
A gnarled stick slammed into the coyote mid-leap with a meaty slap.
The coyote crashed into the undergrowth and slid down the depression until it hit a fallen branch.
“Get up Xan.” Cho huffed and shifted the impromptu weapon in his hands to get a better grip on it.
Hope bloomed in Xan as he scrambled out of the hollow and ducked behind Cho while his heart thundered in his chest. “What the heck is that?” His voice squeaked in near panic.
“That,” Cho said, “is a corrupted coyote.”
Xan took a slow, deep breath to calm his nerves. He was amazed with how controlled Cho seemed.
The creature gained its feet, shrugging off the blow.
Blackish-purple blood flowed from a cut on the side of its head. It shook its muzzle, blood droplets flying everywhere while its burning gaze landed on Cho. Its eyes narrowed and the beast laid back its ears as it crept from the leafy bowl. This time it moved cautiously, not rushing the pair madly, but circling slowly as it looked for an opening. The unnatural coyote paused for a beat, a deep growl rumbling in its chest, then it circled back the other way.
Cho followed the movement keeping the branch pointed at the beast. Xan stayed right behind his friend, hand on his shoulder even as Cho turned. Terror-fueled adrenaline surged through Xan and his hands shook.
The creature stopped. Once again, its back claws scratched at the leaves to clear them away in preparation.
Xan felt Cho tense and saw his gloved hands shift on the branch. “Get ready,” Cho whispered. Nervous sweat trailed down the side of Xan’s face as he took a step back and to the left so Cho could swing freely. Cho waited, back straight, a sly smile on his lips—a man born to this.
With a snarl and a short bark, the creature lunged at Cho.
Cho swung for it. But the branch passed in front of the stopped creature. It was a feint and Cho had fallen for it. The beast leapt forward, fang filled mouth agape. Cho danced backward but lost his footing on some loose scree; he crashed onto his back and the creature landed on top of him. Cho barely got the branch in-between him and the vicious jaws, descending for his throat. It clamped down on Cho’s cudgel, and with a shake of its head, the weapon was ripped from his hands and landed in the dirt well out of Cho’s reach.
It loomed triumphant over Cho and growled. Putrid drool dripped from its mouth.
It lunged at Cho’s throat again. Cho barely got is hands up to the sides of the creature’s head, delaying a mauling for a few moments. It snapped and grunted, fetid breath and spittle coating Cho’s face. Unable to overcome the beast’s strength, bit by bit, the creature’s fangs inched closer to him.
Xan panicked. How can I help? What can I do?
He spied Cho’s spear and grabbed for it. Swinging it around, Xan shoved the head of the spear into the beast’s maw. It went in deep and with the slight angle, Xan was able to force the creature’s head to the side. It whimpered with pain. The interruption gave Cho the break he needed to clamber out from under the beast and regain his feet. He grabbed the haft of the spear, and together with Xan, they thrust the creature violently back into the bowl. It slid on its side, blood fountaining from its muzzle.
“Thank you, Xan. Let me take it from here.” With relief, Xan surrendered the weapon to his friend.
Cho stepped forward and slammed the spear into the creature’s head with all of his might. The creature let out a yelp as black-purple blood sprayed from the impact. The creature bounced in the dirt and leaves. Bones crunched as Cho stabbed down again, skewering the coyote-turned-monster. It let out a last whimper as it finally stopped moving, its chest still, blood oozing through its matted fur. Cho spat on the dead creature and backed away. His arms shook and he clenched his fists to keep his hands from shaking. Cho glanced at Xan, and though he looked tired, there was also a slight smile gracing his lips as he nodded in appreciation.
Hazy purple light erupted from the creature’s corpse, forming into a swirling mist of burning dark power. After a moment, it coalesced into something almost solid and then sped off through the trees, disappearing after a few seconds.
“Okay what just happened with the corrupted coyote?” Xan squeaked, finally able to talk.
“That?” Cho shook his head. “I’m not sure. But I do know that the corrupted scavengers, like this one, follow along with trouble. They prey on the weak. And the world is full of things like them.”
“How did you know what that thing was?” Xan stared at the corpse. “I’ve never heard of one and I read way more than you do,” he whispered.
“The guard has run into them on occasion. Knowing the threats to the village is part of our training.” Cho looked pointedly at Xan. “That’s why you need to learn to take care of yourself, regardless of what your father or the Path of Peace people say. Because the reality is, I’m not always going to be here to save you. The world is a harsh place. If you are going to be on your own, you need to learn to fight.” Cho took off his blood-soaked gloves and tossed them on the creature’s corpse.
“So if that thing follows trouble, what was it doing here?” Xan quickly scanned out into the woods. At that moment there was a long howl quickly answered by several more.
Cho wiped his hands with some leaves to get the rest of the beast’s ichor off. He looked off into the distance, listening to the coyote calls, “We best get moving.”
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- Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
I’ve been in Colorado since I was a young teenager. I live in the foothills of Pikes Peak with my wife, two children and various dogs and cats. I have a crazy technology background having founded several tech companies centering around human machine interfaces before I discovered a passion for writing.
When I’m not slinging the ink and trying to get paid to fabricate tales that entertain, I like to shoot competitively, drink craft beer, ride motorcycles and play games with friends.