From "The Herald of Autumn."
I have one thousand beginnings.
No. That’s not right.
Nigh a thousand thousand, each stranger than the last.
This one began with me naked on my back against the cool earth.
The last traces of a dying summer floated on the wind in wisps of summer grass, of laughter, and of dappled shade. It was the perfume of warm twilight and nights sleeping under the singing moon.
Soon the turbulence of my awakening would pass. For now the world remained blurry. Still tired, I felt as if I should not be awake yet. I tried pushing myself up but felt weak.
The sun had not yet set.
That was important for some reason, but I couldn’t focus. My mind was shadows, was fog. I blearily peered around the clearing, trying to figure out why I felt so strangely. Something was wrong, like a note sung out of tune.
Then, he spoke. “Tommy Maple.”
My heart pounded in my chest. I hadn’t seen him; I hadn’t even known he was there.
My Name burned like a star in my mind. His speaking it had rung a great bell at the center of all things. It was thunder under my skin. Panic tolled behind my mind.
“Well. Here yeh are.” The voice resounded, ringing from everywhere at once. His voice, like the sun’s hammer, was brilliant and burning and stark. It sounded smug, laughing the laughter of someone who has already won, who knows the answers to questions I had never even thought of.
Who? How did he—? I tried to look, but heavy as stone, my head hardly lolled in the grass. My red hair hung in my face, dazzling in the slanted light.
The voice continued. “The thing to remember is, I found yeh. Yer lying there, weak as a puppy. I found yeh, and I have yeh here.” He laughed again.
I finally managed to face him but could only make out a blurred shape. I tried to speak but only croaked through the cotton and sand that seemed to fill my mouth.
“So, later, when yeh’re playin’ the part of a young buck, all wild and free, rearin’ to hunt what ails the world, yeh just remember. Remember that I found yeh, just like this. I did it once, and I can do it again.” He leaned in.
I could see him now, barely make out his stone-weathered face in the light of the dying sun.
Oh. Oh no.
Terror tore through me as soon as I realized who he was. Frantically, I reached around myself. Where was my bow? I felt only bare earth and tufts of grass.
No. I couldn’t risk drawing my bow. Not yet. I took a breath and focused upon the Old Man’s face.
He wore his long, gray hair pulled back in a simple queue. It matched the salt-and pepper of his beard. His face looked as if it had seen the years dance by hundreds of times. He was strong and powerfully built.
His eyes gleamed and flickered, utterly mad.
How had he gained my Name?
He held me like a hawk held a rabbit. My heart sought to burst from my chest. My fingers grasped at the ground again, seeking my bow though I didn’t know if I could lay him low, even if it did come to my hand.
Danger be damned. I would not lay here, helpless and afraid.
“We won’t be havin’ none of that.” His boot found my hand, and I gasped. He didn’t crush or grind, but held firm.
Almost instinctively, I began to gather glamour about myself. It was all I had that might hold his strength at bay. It was the glory of autumn. Changing leaves, frost on pumpkins, apples ripe in an orange afternoon, the full moon on a chill night, and the distant howling of wolves: they all answered me.
I felt his grip on my Name shudder the smallest bit. For the briefest of moments, my breath came with September frost.
He grinned, gritting his teeth. “Not jes’ now, O Herald.” He winked. “The settin’ sun still shines. Summer hangs on yet.”
I tried pulling away, but he stepped from my hand to my naked chest, a leather boot against my fair skin.
“Yeh got stones, Tommy. That’s fer sure. I was like yeh once, young, pulling on my traces.” He grinned at me. “Care to hear about it?” No one could Tell like the Old Man. A story from him could be the end of me. His words could unravel the world.
I shook my head, weak as a puppy. “No.” My voice was a rasping whisper.
He laughed. “I’ll wager not. Still, looks like I’m the one who’s dealin’. I reckon yeh’ll have my story whether yeh want it or not.”
I struggled to move, but he leaned onto the boot, holding me fast.
Power, unseen yet more real than the dying sun or the ground beneath me, gathered around us, whispering lost songs. When he began, his voice edged with night, the power in his words beat against me, merciless and sharp.
“Once, the people lived in darkness and cold, deep in the shadow of the first mountain. All knew that the creator had a great fire far away in the sky. The creator kept the fire because he believed that if man held it, he would learn all the hidden secrets of the world.”
The same power slumbered within me but sleepily turned its head toward the story in fascination at his ancient, fierce glam. His voice crashed like thunder through an endless sea. My secret heart opened to his words, and my glamour fed into his strength like the wind feeds a fire.
Terror stabbed like a spear in my chest.
He was stealing my strength, taking it and weaving it into a Telling that, no doubt, would only make him stronger. His words gouged as water shaping stone. He could kill me. He could steal every bit of glamour I possessed.
I had to stop him, yet for all my effort, I merely writhed on the ground.
The power surrounding us eagerly gave in to his story, taking the form that the old trickster gave it.
“So man called upon all the animals, asking for help to get some of the creator’s fire. Deer said he could grasp heaven’s flame as he was swift. He ran as fast as he could yet never got to the sky.” He winked at me. “Blue-jay said he could fly and pull down wisps of the sun. However, when it blackened an edge of his beautiful plumage, he turned back.”
His words shifted like shadows in mist. More than a mere tale of his strength, after gaining the power of his thousand-thousand Tellings, this story was palpable.
It had been told until it was true.
They told it around a fire; they told it in winter; they told it in the silence of night.
Yet even as I watched him shape the world, I could do nothing.
“Finally, I went to the people. I knew I could trick my way into the heavens to steal a piece of the sun.” He grinned fiercely. “I shadowed and stalked my way there, wending my way through the seven gates. I passed every guardian, beguiled my way through every door. Eventually, I stood at the creator’s hearth, where the sun burned.”
I took a deep breath, turning my head from him. On the horizon, the sun had not set.
It did not matter.
I had to steal his story. If I didn’t, he would draw every shine of glamour I had and leave me weak and mewling, completely in his power. I did not fight against his story—could not deny or disbelieve. No. The Old Man was too strong for that. Instead, I threw my glamour into his story, pushing it forward. I affirmed what he said, lent truth to the shadows he wove.
I drew everything I was:
Ten-thousand manic Hunts through the sleeping wood.
Cutting nights lit only by howling wolves.
Wind that warns, wind that beckons.
Frost biting life away, bit by bit.
Wind ridden by ghosts.
Summer must always give way.
His grip on my Name slackened as frost returned to my breath.
“YES!” I growled as fierce as I could make it.
He glared at me, those ancient, mad eyes wide with surprise.
Now, to make his story mine.
“You slipped to the hearth of the creator—cunning thief that you are—and you stole your way to the brilliant, blazing sun.” My words drew the glamour from his Telling, like the shifting of tides.
He reeled a bit as I drew his Telling. “Yes. Yes, I...” He shook his head, slightly dazed.
Danger laced my Tellings too, for I was no mere sprite of the maple tree. I was the Herald of Autumn.
The power, drifting around us like a rabid ocean, shuddered. Now that fascination slowly entrapped him.
I had just the barest thread of it, just the smallest bit. Slowly, I tried weaving my own glamour from his words.
“But then, you bit it off. Just the smallest piece.” I grinned at him. “When you did, oh, how it burned!” I saw it clearly in my mind. The fire, brighter than summer’s shine, burned in the Old Man’s mouth, and somewhere in the distance, I heard him scream with the pain of it.
I pushed up to a sitting position.
“You screamed and wailed as it burned away part of your tongue! At the creator’s hearth you found no water, no relief. The sun’s fire scorched and ate and burned. Like old, bent wood, you were little more than tinder, fodder to feed the flames.”
I saw in my mind not his cunning nor his cleverness, but his folly. Asunder in his foolishness for seeking the fire of the sun, this was the story that mattered. I told of his smallness, his weakness.
He shook his head, faintly, denying my story. He had not expected I could perform a Telling of my own.
My strength beat against his. Perhaps it was possible. Maybe I could…
Yet, maybe I couldn’t. The sun still shone on the horizon. Summer’s green grass wafted
in the wind…
No. Focus. I mustered my strength, steeling my voice.
“That’s where you get your broken tongue, Old Man! You dared to hold the sun’s fire in your mouth! It bent you, twisted you. That’s why you ever speak in riddles and lies! That is why you cannot be trusted. The sun’s fire burned you and left a mad, decrepit monster!” My words landed like hammers, pounding the power that sang around us into him. I pushed myself to a crouch, gazing squarely into him. My eyes sang with the power of the Hunt.
I glanced around for my bow.
He shuddered as the strength he had summoned thundered into him, wrenching its way into the filaments of sanity he had left. The power of our sparring tore through him.
The story changed what he was. Reality bent, reflected, changed.
No, it was what he always had been.
Then his scowl pierced me. The madness, once a shadow in his eyes, raged as a storm. Each breath blustered with seething insanity from somewhere deep within him.
The power buckled and boiled around us.
He grasped the thunderstorm, wielding it with little more than his triumphant grin.
I had believed, for just a shining moment, that I had him unawares. That perhaps, just perhaps, I could sever the last shard of his mind. I had hoped that I would walk away from this alive.
I was a fool.
Then, Old Man Coyote, shaman of the first people, spoke.
“Yes. I held the fire of the Great Spirit.” He laughed now, a twisted, mocking thing.
With that tug on the glamour that seethed and boiled between us, my weavings fell to broken threads.
He was magnificent.
“Its power drove me mad. By its light, I saw things none were meant to know.” His eyes met mine. “I saw future and past, laughing and dancing in every instant. I saw infinite histories, written in blood and pain.”
I remembered who he was. I remembered everything he had done. How could I have possibly hoped to wield glamour against him? He, who had stood against the Valkyries when they came to this virgin land? My struggle against his Telling was futile.
“Its wrath changed everything I was, Tommy. It was the secret heat at the center of all things; it was the passion between man and woman; it was the first Medicine.” He almost whispered as his eyes drifted far away. “Mine. Mine.”
The Telling slipped away from me, sand through my fingers. Too soon. My strength had failed me. I tried pushing myself to my feet, but of course I couldn’t. I stumbled backward.
The sun refused to set. Its light wrapped like shackles in my mind.
He stared into me, eyes empty. When he spoke again, it was a whisper, but the whole world listened.
“It is mine to call, mine to cast. It rests within me still.” Those words echoed through eternity. He drew in a powerful breath, and then, cupping his hands, whispered a secret into existence that no mortal would ever hear.
For an instant, the world was aflame.
A glowing light erupted from his hands, singing a forgotten song. The element flared with what fire was before there were men to name it. It was what fire dreamed of being again.
He held it high. The old, salt-and-pepper haired man faded. Now Coyote stood on two legs like a man. The sun’s fire burned white and eternal in his hand, but it burned him not. No, he wielded the fire, shaped it with secrets and shadows.
Then, the man returned.
Yet his words drawled strangely.
“I could kill yeh here, Tommy Maple.” His voice thundered when he said my name, though he no longer uttered a Telling. He held the fire toward me so I felt its heat, even from five strides away.
I squinted against the light. “If you meant me dead, I would be so.”
He smiled. “Clever boy.” He cast the fire, throwing it as one might a river stone.
It landed at my feet.
The ground trembled under the burst of yellow-white flame. The fire whispered, both beckoning and threatening.
The forest debris caught instantly.
I crawled away. In my weakened state, my ridiculous attempt at Telling had left me thoroughly exhausted.
The sun neared setting. Soon, summer would be gone.
“True fact. I could kill yeh, but I won’t. I need yeh, O Herald.”
“Ne’ermind that. Yeh just remember that I had yeh here. I had yeh, and I let yeh live. Cross me, and I’ll find yeh like this again. Next time, we won’t be friendly.” He leaned closer. “This is just the first step of our little dance. We ain’t through by a long shot.” He rocked back on his heels and glanced at the sky.
“Easy to threaten now.” I scowled. “Yet I’ll wager you are going to make away before summer’s last sun sets.”
He said nothing before walking away. Then, he turned back, as I weakly rolled away from the rapidly catching fire.
“Yeh’ll want to head to town, two hours north. The road’s this way.” He pointed and grinned, a helpful old man. “And, Tommy, we’re playing nice.” That grin turned feral.
“If yeh come a’ hunting, I’ll know. I’ll know it before you start.” He canted his head to the side, curious. “Yeh come huntin’, and I’ll be mist. I’ll be shadows.” His grin twisted with terrifying madness. “Yeh won’t see me again until next time autumn rolls ’round, if’n yeh follow.”
I nodded. I completely followed.
Then, like a snowflake in the sun, he was gone.
JM Guillen was an upstanding, churchgoing man in the Midwest who was an important part of his rural community. He donated shoes to poor people, and volunteered in kitchens that made soup or something.
NO ONE EXPECTED THE TOWN TO BE ATTACKED BY INHUMAN TROGLODYTES!
As the lumbering, amphibious creatures stole away the town's women and children, JM Guillen roused a few rugged farmers and heterosexual ranchers to take action. They met in the nearby church where they talked a lot about what it meant to be a man in America, and how they had to go out and save their families.
Heroically, they all grabbed their guns. JM Guillen, wearing an American flag as a cape, led them to the labyrinthine caverns outside of town.
THEN THEY WERE SLAUGHTERED BY THE VICIOUS HALF HUMAN CREATURES!
JM Guillen awoke in a shadowy world of ice and the wailings of the damned. Here, he wandered among the shades of those who had died without ever picking up or washing their own flippin' dishes. It was truly a realm of lament.
After wandering among the three hundred and thirty-three Chasms of Elder storms, he came upon a great bastion wrought from shadows and thorns. The guardians of this place were wraiths with voices that cried to the edges of reality, and they led JM Guillen into
the depths of their horrific keep.
Some say that while there, JM Guillen encountered remnants of ancient Egyptian deities who were clinging to existence only by the blood sacrifice of a few remaining worshipers. Others have claimed that while in the Bastion, he found a library that was tended by the undead Lich form of Solomon the wise. Still others believe that the skeletal forms of thirteen Chinese sorcerer-Kings lived within the tower, practicing alchemy that was older than mankind itself.
Regardless of the truth, only one thing is certain. Within this horrific place, he forged a dark pact with beings unknown.
Less than three days after his horrific defeat, JM Guillen reappeared in the graveyard of his sleepy mid-western town. His eyes burned with an unholy light, and with every step of his foot, the very ground beneath him withered and died. He set out to the troglodyte caverns, to take his vengeance.
HE NEVER EXPECTED THE CREATURES TO PRACTICE NECROMANCY!
The white-eyed horrors had raised the corpses of the townsfolk into shambling horrors, and once there, set his once-friends against him.
Yet the fell knowledge that JM Guillen had grasped proved too great even for this latest horror. Like a mad poet or perhaps some kind of eldritch gangsta rapper, JM threw down litanies of scarlet invocation, shredding the very glyphs that bound his friends' souls to their shambling corpses. With ease, he slaughtered the troglodytes, gleefully reveling in their agonized screams.
Then he rescued the town's women and children- even though the women didn't actually need rescuing and were getting ready to kill the troglodytes on their own.
Together, they returned to the town, where he began to write his biography regarding these adventures.