Chapter 1: The Man in Black
Chapter 1 The Man in Black
Here at the end, with all the facts before me, I write out our history-- yours and mine. I hope to find that precise moment in time where I should have killed you, Joshua Rasgard.
I suspect with how things turned out, you may still wish for that too.
Joshua Rasgard kept a watchful eye over his shoulder for the Man in Black.
The mythical Man in Black was afoot. He stalked the countryside, haunted the fog banks, and preyed on the moors. How he was a myth already after appearing for the first time only a week ago, Joshua Rasgard did not know. What was certain to Joshua was that he would solve the mystery, find this “Man in Black,” if he was a man at all, and then let his brother do whatever came next.
Joshua’s muscles tensed and hands readjusted on the handle. He let out a grunt and brought the head of his spade downward in an arc, ripping the ground to shreds. Again and again, the farming tool struck the steaming dirt until a circular trench formed.
Joshua shot a dirty glare at his brother Kael who sat on a dirt pile with his shovel over one shoulder. If Joshua refused to help with any work from here on out, it would serve his brother right.
Back to it.
There was probably a gentler way to prepare a field for planting, but Joshua was too busy keeping an eye on the horizon, on the white hills to the south. Plus, he wasn’t much of a perfectionist anyway. He left that out when applying for this job, just like he left out why he took this job. The farmer who owned this land had been the foremost reporter of “Man in Black” sightings, which made the promise of fieldwork a prime opportunity to keep an eye on the countryside. If you believed the old farmer, it was more creature than man.
But for now, there was nothing.
Looking to the sky, Joshua gleaned that it would start snowing again. Great. As deep into winter and as far north as he was, the lightest dusting of snow would rarely lead to no less than a full-blown storm. If the white blew down, he’d have trouble seeing anything five feet away, let alone someone stalking the hill sides.
Anywhere else in the hemisphere right now and planting would be impossible. But Taerose was famed for its thermal vents and subsurface heat that allowed for a winter crop. He wasn’t in Taerose, but the surrounding nations that used to be part of Taerose generally had the same geothermal activity, if only to a lesser extent. Here in eastern Sela, it was planting time.
He grunted again and swung the hoe over his shoulder. His feet sloshed through the mud as he moved to the next plot. That was the thing about winter planting, you couldn’t just dig a straight line like in summer. Circles. You dug in circles and you planted in circles. Circles around those pockets of heat. All you could grow was ferrow anyway. Who wanted to eat that stringy excuse for rice?
“He’s going to deduct your pay if you keep digging ovals.” His brother’s voice came from behind.
Joshua craned his neck to look. His brother Kael wasn’t even paying attention; he was too focused on the hills.
“You’re too preoccupied to even look down and see my work, but you’re criticizing me?”
Kael lowered his gaze to the plots and plastered a smug “I-told-you-so” smirk on his face before looking back up to the nearest hill. It wasn’t so much that Kael didn’t like to work as he could only be bothered to focus on one thing at a time, and, at the moment, that one thing was finding the “Man in Black.” That quest was amusing to Joshua-- to Kael it was an obsession.
“Wouldn’t hurt you to help,” Joshua said through heavy breath, taking another stab at the earth.
“Saving my energy.” Kael shrugged. “I am the one who has to bring him down.”
Joshua mock mouthed the words as Kael said them. He then pressed forward knowing his brother wasn’t even looking. “I’ve been working all day and I could still catch the guy. Could probably do it before you.”
“You want a bet then?” Kael said, sitting up straighter. His hand flexed as the air distorted around it; a tiny spark of orange energy danced between his fingers.
Joshua grimaced knowing that with any competition against Kael, he’d have to compete against that. But he couldn’t back down. “Fine. I’ll bet you I catch the Man in Black before you. Not only that, but I’ll--”
“Excuse me.” A tiny voice piped from behind. “I brought you some. . . .”
Joshua and Kael looked over to see a small girl walking towards them from the farmhouse. She approached Kael and handed him a mug filled to the brim with an orange liquid, steaming into the air like the ground he sat on. Kael twitched his lips into a quarter-smile, the best he was able to achieve, and reached out for the cup.
Joshua scowled. He was the cold one, despite being dressed in a heavy winter coat. Kael might just have a windbreaker, but he couldn’t even get cold. Then again, Joshua couldn’t expect the farmer or the girl to know.
“You can tell the old man that I’m not going to catch a cold,” Kael said. The little girl’s lip quivered and she began to turn. “But thank you anyway,” Kael added, at least able to see his mistake. “Would you like to join me? We can share?” He stood and left the windbreaker on the mound, making a nifty seat.
She eyed him hesitantly but then plopped down. “Papa says that anyone else would have got new-monia by now.”
“That so?” Kael mused, tossing his tool aside and squatting down to her eye level.
Raising an eyebrow, Joshua said, “You want to know what I heard? I heard that old farmer isn’t your dad.”
“That’s a mean thing to say,” the girl said, lip quivering.
Kael shook his head but Joshua continued. “That’s what everyone in town is saying. They say you’ve barely been here longer than we have.” The appearance of the so-called Man in Black and the girl seemed to coincide if you put the townspeople and farmer’s stories together. That had to mean something.
The girl’s eyes glossed over and grew large. She stared at Joshua and then screamed.
He winced and tried to shush her. He could try and talk to her, but a child screaming? He had no idea what to do with that. What had he done anyway? But then he noticed where her gaze truly lay. Neither she nor Kael were looking at Joshua. They were looking behind him.
His head whipped around and his eyes zeroed in on the nearest hill. Through the low, steamy mists and puffy snowflakes falling from the sky, Joshua spied what he came here for, and it was more than he ever expected. A large figure dressed head to toe in black was saddled on top of a coal-black gelding.
Joshua jumped as Kael walked up behind him.
“Ready for a fight?” Kael asked, almost knocking Joshua down with one strong pat to his back.
The rider kicked the horse and it carefully stepped down the mushy hill. It was actually coming towards them. Joshua grew wide-eyed and looked around, and then ran. Back to the farmhouse. In the opposite direction.
Kael watched Joshua incredulously for a moment but then snapped his attention back to his quarry; he wouldn’t miss this one chance. His eyes stayed locked as the girl sprinted wildly following Joshua, arms flailing in the air, a scream high pitched enough to hurt the ears.
As the horse found solid purchase at the base of the hill, a roar sounded from behind Kael, some distraction he didn’t need; he was hunting now. Slowly, menacingly, the horse and its rider reached the bottom of the hill and stepped out onto the dirt road. Kael winced one last time as the girl’s soprano scream faded into the house.
Kael kicked up his shovel and felt energy rushing through his body. Maybe he would have a chance to let loose this once. The wood on the handle around his fingers sizzled, cracked, and orange sparks danced between the widening wood grains. After a week of waiting, he was beyond restraint.
The rider kicked his horse and sent it into a trot across the road. Did this man, or otherwise, think he would run? This is what he lived for.
Kael gave a devilish grin and marched forward. Who would surprise who? Who would turn? If it came to it, who would burn?
Kael and the Man in Black stayed true to their path, destined to meet in the middle. Just as the black rider cleared the road, mere feet away, an old pickup truck with its electric motor humming swung around the bend, its horn blaring to life. The clanging mess of metal swerved from the road and slammed into the rider’s gelding. The front of the truck impacted in and the horse was flung off its hooves. Together the Man in Black and his steed catapulted into the bank and rested deathly still.
As Kael approached the car, the headlights dimmed and the shaky electric motor cut off. From the driver’s side, Joshua slid from his seat and sauntered to Kael with his the back of his hand raised high.
Kael looked at the raised fist warily before giving in and meeting it with the back of his own hand, giving it a bump. “Good work Josh,” Kael said, his words dripping with disappointment. He bit his lip, trying to watch his tongue.
He brought it on himself; he knew. He goaded Joshua to this. If he kept this line of thought, he would be furious with either his brother or himself in a few seconds and he knew it, so he instead turned to their downed adversary.
Spread in a misshapen clump on the ground, the Man in Black was a joke compared to the farmer’s stories of some mysterious, perhaps even supernatural, entity in flowing black robes who stalked the moors.
There was no man before them but a kid, barely younger than Joshua or Kael. He lay moaning, his ski mask twisted and covering his face. His clothes nothing more than what anyone could find at the local department store.
“This is what we worked a week for?” Kael asked, his arms naturally crossing, his fingers grabbing his arm like a vice.
“I won the bet,” Joshua said, cocking his head looking over the scene. “I think we’re past the point where you pretend you did any work.”
“Focus J,” Kael said as he looked over the unconscious boy. “Someone is screwing with us.”