It was a white-hot summer noon, late in July. A heavyset man in his mid-to-late forties mopped at his forehead and beneath his several chins, trying desperately to stem rivers of sweat before they pooled in his seams. It was to no avail; very shortly, his crisp creased handkerchief was soaked through and useless, stained with the grease of his skin. He grunted unhappily and lurched onward, chasing the wisp of his young daughter as she disappeared around the next bend.
“Darling, wait for daddy,” he called, pressing his hands against his knees as he scaled the rocky slope. He was not willing to admit, even to himself, that the hike was too much for him, that he had been foolish to think he could be the one to take his daughter to the Falls for her birthday. Instead, he built mental rage-brick prisons for his ex-wife, convincing himself that she had somehow orchestrated their daughter’s wish, that she had once again set him up to appear inadequate. Somehow, it had to be her fault that he had taken the wrong trail.
It was the rage that woke Zuk. It wafted into his crevasse as hot apple pie, tantalizing on a sunny summer windowsill. Zuk rolled and billowed and stretched, wanting.
“Darling,” the fat man puffed. “Darling, at least stay where daddy can see you!”
Tinkling laughter, black bouncing curls.
“Hurry up, Daddy, I can hear the water falling!”
A thick blue vein was popped and pulsing in his temple, but the fat man smiled. He hadn’t told his daughter they were lost. Perhaps now he wouldn’t have to.
There were gravel-laden wooden stairs to be navigated, narrow and steep, and another sharp twist into the mountainside before the faint path opened above the valley. The view was dazzling. Thick bushy evergreens staggered down the slope, splintering lances of sunlight into shifting patterns of lace. A wide rushing river was spanned below by a dangling rope bridge. Somewhere in the distance, obscured behind screens of trees, several hundred tons of water per second made themselves known by pounding into the river at a deafening volume. The fat man’s daughter raced toward the bridge, zigzagging down the cliff side. Her giggles bounded off rock and were swallowed by the distant roar of the Falls.
Directly below the bridge, on the far side from the man and his daughter, a dark slit in the rock darkened, and shapeless shadow glided up the rock face. Zuk lurked at the end of the bridge, waiting.
It had been centuries since anyone had set foot on one of Zuk’s bridges. The last had been a young married couple, lost while hiking in the wilderness. Their arguing had blazed ahead of them down the mountainside, wakening Zuk in time to build them a bridge of worn ancient stone that arced precariously across the chasm. But their love—their fear— had been too strong. In the end, they had chosen to perish together.
But this time…this time, Zuk smelled freedom.
The child’s shadow, he knew without tasting, would savor of purity, innocence, goodness and light. He chose not to sully his incorporeal tongue. Instead he flicked it out and tasted the fat one’s shadow, barely a sliver as the sun passed noon; cold cash, dirty paper money, numbers heavy with zer000000s. Malice and spite and selfishness. Love was a tiny pin-prick star in that vast dark space. Zuk shuddered with delight.
“Darling, that bridge doesn’t look safe! Wait for daddy!” The fat man stumbled into a jerky jog.
Either the child didn’t hear him, or she wasn’t listening. When the fat man was a hundred feet from the swaying bridge, his little daughter stepped onto it. It dipped and creaked violently. The girl giggled and shivered, thinking it a game. She wobbled to the middle, shrieking with laughter every time the bridge jolted.
“Ooo, Daddy I’m scared!” she called, still grinning. She turned carelessly to look at her father as he reached the beginning, red-faced and gasping from his short run. Zuk hummed with excitement as the man placed his hands heavily on the rope rails and bent double, sucking air.
“Darling,” he began, then succumbed to a fit of coughing. Instead of speaking, he waved a jiggling arm at his daughter, beckoning her back to him. She shook her head, tossing curls, and took two steps backward—the man took one step after her, onto the bridge.
One step was all Zuk needed.
The moment the man’s sole touched wood, something closed over his throat, choking him. At the same moment, the next plank his daughter stepped on broke with a resounding crack, dropping her through the gap. The man clawed at his skin in vain; he couldn’t grab the hands around his neck, couldn’t feel them there. As his eyes bulged in pain and fear, a rapid flickering darkness in front of him caught his gaze. Dazed, he swore he saw his own shadow being throttled by one much larger, much darker, horned and only vaguely human-shaped. His daughter screamed below them in one high wordless note.
Zuk subdued the fat man’s shadow with very little trouble. He controlled it with one large clawed hand around its frail throat.
“What are you?!” the fat man rasped. “Let me go!”
“There isss a toll to crossss Zukss bridge. You have not paid it.”
There was no mouth, but the voice whispered just below the fat man’s ear.
“A bridge troll. You’re a bloody bridge troll?!” Panic rose in the man’s voice.
Zuk shuddered in the eyeless equivalent of an eye roll and bent what passed for his arm sharply; the man’s head snapped forward, and now his bulging stare was frozen on his daughter. She dangled from a broken plank, which dangled in turn from the rotting rope which dangled between mountainsides, over the ruthless rushing river full of deep sharp places to die….she spun in a slow helpless circle, alternately whimpering and shrieking. Zuk squeezed the fat man’s spindly shadow a bit tighter. The fat man gagged.
“I’m a very rich man. I can pay whatever you like. Whatever your stupid toll is! Just let us go!”
“My toll…is your daughter’ss life.”
The child saw her father just watching her, standing there with his hands at his throat.
“Daddy, daddy, help! Help me, why won’t you help?”
“And if I refuse to pay your toll, you sick bastard?”
Zuk shivered, a hissing chuckle wavering in the sunlight.
“If you do not pay my toll, you both die. Her life for yoursss. A sssimple trassaction for the ssimple bussinessman. Choosse.”
The fat man lurched. Zuk’s claws sank deeper into his shadow’s throat.
The fat man chose.
He walked along the bridge with extreme care, keeping an eye out for more rotted planks. He hauled his daughter up, hand over hand on the frayed rope line, with her sniffling on the end. He held her; he kissed her cherub cheeks free of tears.
He carried her back to solid ground.
Zuk slid his essence along warm flesh. He tasted sour sweat and salty copper. He sank into pores with exquisite slowness, luxuriating. He opened his eyes and looked down. His plump stubby fingers were white-knuckled, squeezing. His meaty bulk was pitched forward, pressing the little girl into the shard of rock that had cracked her skull. Thick blood was matting her curls and spilling sluggishly into dusty gravel, darkening it. The stickiness was seeping into the knees of Zuk’s ridiculous slacks; annoyed, he released the dead child and rolled away. He attempted to leverage his matter to an upright position, and promptly fell over. Lying spread eagled in the dirt, he tried to remember the last time he’d inhabited a body. Which strings did one pull to work the legs?
Eventually, and not without a great deal more awkwardness, Zuk managed to stand. He reached down to lift the broken child in his short arms. Almost tenderly, he carried her to the open chasm. There was no longer a bridge spanning the river; no longer a trail leading to it. Respectful of the sacrifice if not the human itself, Zuk tossed the girl gently to the river below.
“Let’s hope that doesn’t wash up somewhere that will cause me trouble,” Zuk sighed, dusting his pudgy hands.
There was screaming from somewhere deep in Zuk’s new skull.
“Be content, Gregory,” Zuk said aloud, his voice more resonant and musical than Gregory’s had ever been. “I let you keep your life, did I not? Our bargain is upheld.”
The afternoon sun was finally casting decent shadows. Zuk admired his, eight feet tall and prominently horned. It burped slightly; Gregory’s shadow had been as substantial as his body.
Zuk fumbled to loosen his tie, readying himself to make the long trek back up and over the mountains. Back to civilization. In spite of its general blubbery qualities, Zuk found his new host’s mouth perfectly suited to a darkly triumphant smirk. He started walking.After almost a millennia of imprisonment, Zuk was finally free.
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