READ TIME: 10 MIN
A prompt from Chuck Wendig’s blog. He gave ten random titles and a 2,000-word limit. I had a lot of fun with this, and there may be a continuation at some point. Happy reading!
My shop door swings open with the tinkle of a bell. I jump up from my desk chair, plaster a smile on my face and adjust my too-large suit vest.
A couple walks in with a young boy. He’s scrawny, in that awkward age where his limbs have overtaken his body. His parents look around my shop uneasily, taking in the potions and books. The woman looks fearful while the man snorts with distain.
“May I help you, Mr. and Mrs. …”
“Braxton.” The woman looks to me, her eyes tired but hopeful as she takes my outstretched hand. “We’re here about our son.”
I introduce myself as Merlin Tuttle—not my given name, but it suits for now—as I guide them to the two worn chairs in front of my desk. Their clothes, I notice, are threadbare, showing years of wear and mending. No money, then. The man’s arms are browned and his boots are caked in dried mud, as is the hem of the woman’s dress. Most likely tenant farmers.
I sit across from them, leaning forward at my desk as if I have interest in their case. It wouldn’t bode well for business if I was rude, even if I know they won’t be able to afford my fee.
“I don’t believe in this malarkey,” the man says. He is sitting cross-armed in the chair, his face drawn into a hateful scowl.
I grit my teeth but appreciate his forthrightness.
His wife places her hand on his arm. “My cousin told me you helped her husband a few months ago—Carmen and George Brooks? He was bound for the grave, crows everywhere, she said, but you relived him of his awful fate.”
I nod. I remember the case well, as it is the only one I’ve had this year. It turned out the man indeed had a crow, a singular crow, that lived in his attic, but that was not the reason for his death knell. I soon discovered he owed a lot of money to his bookie, and my fee was cheaper than paying him off. I dispatched the bookie’s lackeys easily enough with a forgetting spell and that was that.
“I did indeed, madam. It was a tough case, that. The crows were stubborn, but I prevailed.”
The man sniffs then spits on my floor. I force a smile.
The woman continues: “My son is plagued day and night with a hoard of the evil creatures.”
This, I doubt. More than likely, then have a murder of crows eating their crops. Crows of this world are indeed attracted to the ones from Nine-World, but it is rare that anyone notices this before the poor soul is culled. It’s not as if anyone can see the Crows from Nine. Save me, and a few others, that is. And a good thing, too. The Crows from Nine-World do not possess palatable visages.
“Before we get too far into this, what, may I ask, Mr. Tuttle, is your fee?”
I look over at the boy, whose head is cocked to the side as he scans my bookshelves. Start high, see if there is any room for negotiation. This is their son, after all, and there isn’t much that a parent will not do to save their child.
“A thousand pounds.”
The man’s eyes bulge and his wife grips his arm tighter.
“And with that amount, you can guarantee your success?” she asks.
I recline and give her a sorrowful look. “I’m afraid not, Mrs. Branton—”
“That’s what I said. There may be a few incidentals, a few more expenses, and I still may not be able to save your boy. The crows are a determined adversary.” In truth, my services usually expired when the clients’ money did, a fact that is purely coincidental.
She gulps and I see the indecision on her face. Time for the hard sell.
I open my mouth, but am distracted by the flutter of wings outside my shop window. A crow, an ordinary one. Curious.
“Do we even know you can do what you say? How did you come about all this?” Mr. Braxton waves his arm around my shop.
Another crow joins the first at the shop window. I fight a grin; this is perfect.
“Sir, I could go into the particulars, how I was normal, relatively speaking, but had a near death experience. Or maybe I am the long suffering recipient of a hag’s curse. Or I may be the descendent of a long line of god hybrids. But what does any of that matter? Do you really want me to take the time out to invent a ridiculous story when those crows are sitting outside waiting to steal your lad’s soul?”
I point. The wife gasps. I see the boy hiding a smile. Curious lad.
“I will consider a deposit of half in order to begin my work immediately.”
Mr. Braxton rises from his chair slowly, his fists in balls. “We will not be swindled by a common huckster. Trained crows, those, I’m sure of it.” He hefts his wife from her seat by the arm. “We’ll be taking our boy to the church. They do magic for free.”
Damn that church. I was making a decent living before religion came to town.
I hurry after them. “Sir, I assure you—” The door swings shut in my face before I can finish. Damn.
The family pauses just outside to let a carriage rumble past. The boy is staring to the left. I follow his gaze and my eyes land on a Crow from Nine-World, its monstrous body the size of a small horse and its red eyes glaring. I inhale sharply and look back to the boy. He is definitely staring at the Crow.
My interest piqued, I quickly gather a few things and stuff them in a satchel, then close up shop and follow.
As I assumed, the family resides in a small hovel just outside of town. Chickens running wild, a pair of cows, a sow, and a field of grain behind. Not a large farm at all.
I wonder at the woman’s brief consideration of my fee. Where in Ten would they have gotten the money? An inheritance perhaps. Surely not savings; it looked as if they could barely feed themselves, let alone put anything away.
Raised voices float through the open windows. They are arguing over the merits of church magic versus my own. Perhaps I will get my fee in the end after all. I consider moving closer to hear them better, but doing so would take me from the cover of the copse across the lane.
A crow alights on a nearby branch, cocks its head at me. I throw a pebble at it and smile as it flies off, screeching in indignation. Crows from this world may not be the evil ones, but I’ve learned to hate them nevertheless. A byproduct of my profession.
“My mother says I am to die.”
I start and whirl around.
The scrawny kid stands behind me, a quizzical look on his smooth face. Crows perch in the trees surrounding him. I see no sign of the Crow from Nine, however.
“I don’t think I am to die, though,” he continues. “I do not fear the Monster Crow.”
I scoff. “Then you, boy, are an even bigger idiot than your father.”
I expect him to take offense, but he does not. Instead he gives me a thin smile.
“My father likes to consider himself a modern man, believes in one god, gives money to the church. Calls the old ways poppycock. He cannot see what I can. Nor what you can.” He looks at me pointedly. “My mother, though, she believes.”
He looks to the house and squints. The argument has intensified to a level of borderline violence.
“Is it true what they say about the Ten Worlds?”
“And what is it they say?”
He gives me an exasperated look but indulges me. “That there are Ten Worlds, each separate but connected. That all the dead live in Nine-World. That the Crows come here to cull innocent souls to take them back to Nine.”
I grunt. “You’ve pretty much got it, except the souls are rarely innocent.”
“And you think you can save people from the Crows?”
Ordinary crows continue to arrive. They are covering the ground now, a thick blanket of black. Still no sign of the Crow from Nine. It should be along shortly, however. I place my satchel on the ground and open it.
“My boy, I don’t think, I know,” I say as I ready my tools. “I am Merlin Tuttle, Crow Killer, Master of the Ten Worlds, Death-Avoider Extraordinaire.”
“And what am I?”
I look at him askance and consider. I’ve never met anyone who could See, not since Reginald found me in the asylum and trained me.
“Odd is what you are.”
The boy dances from one foot to the other. I can feel it, too: that tightening between the shoulder blades, the burning itch that can’t be scratched.
The Crow is coming.
Pursing his lips, the boy nods to my potions. “Will you teach me?”
“No.” I cannot be bothered with attachments. Besides, I am most likely leaving town soon. Business has dried up; it is almost time to move on, find a town without a damn church. I ready my herbs and crystals.
I hear the whoosh of wings and look up to see the Crow land. It snaps its beak.
The boy turns to the Crow, unafraid as he said.
With one hand, I pull my protection amulet from underneath my shirt, let the crystal shine in what little sunlight breaks through the trees’ canopy, while the other hand draws imaginary lines in the air. A warding spell. I am interrupted by the sound of another pair of wings. A second Crow lands. My heart speeds up. Only one Crow is needed to collect a soul; the second one must be here for me.
Then another lands. And another.
In total, six Crows from Nine-World surround us.
I’ve never seen so many Crows in one place. The boy seems unperturbed.
The Crows caw and hiss as I redouble my efforts. The spells come quickly, one after the other, without my having to think. Second nature at this point. Reginald trained me well.
My mind turns to other thoughts as my hands fly through the air. Why would so many Crows arrive to cull one boy’s soul? And why were they simply standing there instead of attacking?
“Get behind me, boy!”
He does not heed my command. Idiotic child will get us both killed.
The protection spells in place, I turn my attention to calling the nature forces. My wielding of these will be what sends these devils back to the World whence they came.
The first Crow attacks, somehow breaking through my protection spells. I reel away, my concentration lost. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the boy drawing circles in the air, his eyes closed.
The Crows, buoyed by the success of the first, attack in unison. I reach for my satchel, desperate to lay hands on the vial of potion inside. A Crow is on me, pecking and flapping. I kick and squirm.
A great breeze blows over my body, the aftershock of a powerful spell. It balloons out from the boy, ruffling the feathers of the Crows. The eyes of the one attacking me go blank, the red dulling to a low smolder. Then it flies away, screeching. The rest follow.
I look to the boy with amazement.
He looks back with equal astonishment. “They’ll be back, won’t they?”
“What did you say your name was, boy?”
“Well, Silas,” I say, standing and brushing the dirt from my trousers. “Would you like to be my apprentice?”