The Face in the Fireplace

From TALES OF THE FALLEN by Nescher Pyscher
A closeup on Solly Mond, the storyteller

“Jack’? But tha’s th’ name o’ the—“

Solly smiled. He thought that name’d provoke certain members of his audience up. Eyes flicking to where Padraig sat, he was unsurprised to see him sitting forward in his chair, eyes alight with eager anticipation. Pulling himself back from the narrative, he happened to look into the fire that was roaring in the grate. He tried not to let his reaction show on his face but it was a near thing.

Ana’s fireplace was a river-rock-lined hearth, big enough to roast an ox in, end to end. The draw of her chimney was tremendous. Unwary drinkers nearest the chimney had actually had full flagons of ale tipped when the wind blew just right. Ana had to keep the flue closed until the fire was burning good and hot, otherwise it’d extinguish itself trying to roar up the chimney. Ana’s Hearth—spoken of in the proper sense by the people of Oakenfield—wasn’t a modest feature.

Solly’s eyes were arrested by the appearance of a pair of yellowing, rheumy eyes looking back at him malevolently. A head—smoke and soot blackened, with attendant wisps of white, wiry hair—was peeping from just under the bottom of the chimney wall. From its place above the greedy flames, it looked exactly like some sort of gargoyle—or devil-born imp—leering out at him.

Solly could see the fire licking over that raddled skull, could see the way the lips were cracking from the heat. He shuddered inwardly to think of the power necessary to drive that pain away. Solly raised his tankard in a muted salute to the head and smiled politely. The head’s eyes narrowed.

Oh, aye. Smile while yeh still got yer teeth, Solly Mont. A reckonin’ is comin’! I will have my pound o’ flesh, an’ I wil’ have it pounded thin!

The voice was thin, whispery, worm-eaten. It came not to Solly’s ears, but to his mind; in a place Solly—no stranger to mental invasion attempts—had long ago isolated from the rest. He left it in plain sight, as a sort of irresistible lure, to those who would attack his innermost self. It was also a doormat of a kind, to those who would politely seek mental communication with Solly.

The voice lay across the polished-steel sphere of Solly’s mind like a thrown egg. Solly grimaced at the feel of it.  He suspected that Padraig—for that’s who the eyes and head belonged to, whether he was using them at the moment or not—had revealed one of his allies, a night-kin. They weren’t the smartest creatures, and they had little experience dancing in another’s mind. Solly, on the other hand, could tango.

Like a hunter crafting a careful snare, Solly let a thin tide of fear rise within that isolated place in his mind. He understood this kind of night-kin; they felt their strongest when they could gloat. Solly, the careful hunter, drew Padraig’s little friend in with the thin smell of hot fear. Cutting his eyes briefly to where Padraig himself still sat, he was unsurprised to see Padraig’s eyes slitted in pleasure.

Scared, are yeh, boy? Should be. I’ve friends. Aye! Friends that’ve come a long way indeed to have a word or two with yeh. Friends that whisper and speak of black winds and darkest night and great, bloody shards o’ poisoned glass. What think ye o’ tha’, Solly Mont?

Solly smiled to himself again and tossed the ale remaining in his flagon off with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. Night-kin were a dime a dozen. If you knew where to look you could find them congregating together in numbers. They lived under every rock, in every shadow, and at the base of every rotting tree. Give them the slightest reason to obey you, and they would, clothing themselves in whatever shape or form you desired. Solly had met his share, though he’d never met any that went so far as to mimic their master so closely. Solly decided Padraig must truly feel indestructible if he would go this far.

The problem here was not the peeping night-kin. The problem was Padraig DID have friends, powerful friends who knew how to give Padraig the leverage he needed to draw Solly Mont into the open. Padraig he could handle. Night-kin he could handle, but Padraig’s unseen, powerful allies? They could be a problem.

Standing idly, he stretched and cracked hi back with a grimace, all the while never letting his eyes lose the head peeping from the chimney. Wondering what the Padriag-shaped-night-kin was holding on to, Solly moved absently toward the fire irons. The chimney walls were as smooth as glass and clean, besides. A sudden mental picture of a spider with a Padriag-shaped head and withered limbs looking at him with undisguised hate filled his imagination.

Holding the night-kin’s gaze, he could feel witchy brushes against his mind. Drawing it in a little more, he let it feel some of the unease he was experiencing. He put out a mental perfume that acted on the night-kin in the same way a Venus Fly Trap’s worked on a fly. Little by little, Solly coated the honeyslide of him mind with those weakening emotions the night-kin craved. And little by little, as the night-kin’s confidence grew, it came further into the closed and slowly locking box canyon that was Solly’s mind.

Padraig, in his seat across the room, continued to gloat, not realizing that Solly held his ally—mentally speaking—in the palm of his hand. Solly bent to the hearth, under cover of warming his hands. The night-kin’s face was inches from his own. Solly could smell smoke, ashes and raw meat on the night-kin’s breath: service sacrifice, most usually eaten by the hopeful applicant. Solly wondered where Padraig had found the meat.

I’ll burn this place down. Aye! Burn it down and pee on th’ ashes! What think yeh o’ that, Solly Mont? Eh? Think tha’ll be a jolly time?

The little creature continued to gloat and whisper its diseased promises of death and retribution right up until Solly hit it in between the eyes with all sixty pounds of his poker.

The night-kin are, at best, weak, hedge-wizards, still struggling with the most basic of cantrips and ritualia. They are bound by the laws associated with their kind of magic. In order to perform this little reconnaissance and fear mission, Padriag’s little friend needed to borrow power from something much stranger than it was in a parasitic way. Solly was certain the lender was Padraig. And he was rewarded with this gamble by seeing, from the corner of his eye, Padraig fall out of his chair, mewling pathetically, and holding his head.

The fire roaring in Ana’s hearth, that a minute ago wasn’t of any consequence to the night-kin, roared up in greedy acclamation as Padraig’s protection was ripped from it by the crashing impact of Ana’s poker. It fled up the chimney, still tossing off vile curses and threats, fast as it could scuttle. Solly looked to the poker, and was unsurprised to see its end blackened and twisted as if it had come in contact with heat too great for it. There was no blood on the poker.

With a sigh, he laid it back down next to the hearthside.

All this took far less time than it takes to tell, and went largely unnoticed by the patrons of the Beller-Inn, save for those around Padraig’s table, and he was up much quicker than Solly would have liked, rubbing his head and throwing a single, hate-filled and baleful glance Solly’s way before sitting himself and righting his spilled cup.

Father Parsons, a man in touch with the invisible, called out, “Alrigh’ then, Solly?” He’d only seen Solly bang the poker, with some force, against the bottom of the chimney’s entrance.

“Aye, Father. Just knockin’ a bit of filth free,” Solly replied. He turned to face the crowd, in particular, an now furiously blushing Conley. He smiled at the reddening giant, wondering what was bothering him.

“Sorry, Solly,” that worthy rumbled in his basso-profound way.

“Whatever for, Conley?” Solly asked.

“I din’t mean ta’ interrupt,” Conley replied.

Solly realized he’d completely forgotten about the voice that’d pulled him from his narrative. He smiled over at Conley. “S’alright, Conley. I was getting’ a bit dry, myself.  Who’s for another, then?”

The shout that came from the crowd rocked Ana back on her heels. She was kept busy for several minutes, pulling flagons of ale and filling the food orders that came her way.

When all had returned to their places, ale flagons to elbows, Solly resumed his perch. His eye happened to fall on a very large, acorn-shaped nut atop the mantel. It was the size of a large watermelon. He looked at Padraig, who stared back, impassively. A curious idea crossed Solly’s mind. Padraig had friends, but then, come to that, so did he!

“Now then,” he said, taking a steadying pull off his flagon, “I b’lieve you were tryin’ ta’ tell me summat, Conley,” Solly said, smiling guilelessly.

Conley blushed again. “I done apologized for tha’, Solly, so I have!”

“Aye! An’ I’m no mad at yeh, yeh great, thunderin’ bullywug! I’d like yeh ta’ finish tha’ thought, if you’d be so kind!” Solly replied, to a chorus of good-natured laughs.

Conley grinned himself, a beautiful sight on a face that could kill a charging bull, and said, “Wall, I was sayin’ summat about Jack. Ain’t tha’ th’ name o’ tha’ hero in yer story abou’ Fort Noplace?”

Solly laughed, his head rolling back on his neck. “It’s Fort Nowhere, yeh tremblin’ son o’ Finn! Fort Nowhere, but aye, ye’ve hit the nail on th’ head, so yeh have.”

“Then ‘tis th’ same feller?: Conley asked, his brow furrowing.

“Wall now, Conley, it’s funny yeh ask tha’. For just then I interrupted Weaver with a shout o’ my own.”

Solly sat back on his story-telling roost, his hand pulling the strange, over-sized acorn over to him. He went on with the story, but another part of his mind was remembering a debt owed.