"Darfang" by John Cowan

Darfang, by Patrick Stacy
Illustration: “Darfang” © 2005 by Patrick Stacy.

Peter Beckin was positive he’d never been so cold in his life. Or this scared.

The tunnel stretched for half a kilometer through the dark reddish rock, curving in a downward slope to disappear in a blue glow of lighting tubes that illuminated the mine. He paced back and forth on the hard ground, his legs exhausted and his feet aching. Each puff of breath from his dry throat faded in the half-darkness. He glanced often at the locked security gate behind him, toward the lift that could take him up to warmth and safety. Then he forced himself to look back down the tunnel. His eyes burned from lack of sleep. His heart thudded with every step he took, as if reminding him that each beat could be the last one.

He had nothing but a hand-held laser drill to defend himself with if the darfang came. The barin had demanded they bring no weapons of any kind to their planet, and the company, eager to get the mining operation functioning profitably as quickly as possible, had acquiesced without much argument. Corporate HQ didn’t care; light years away, the financial bottom line kept them safe and warm. Beckin and his crew here on the planet they’d nicknamed Tundra were just costs on a spreadsheet to them.

Oh, they’d honor the insurance claims, issue statements of regret, and the CEO would personally offer his condolences to the families of anyone who didn’t come home. Right now, Beckin would have mortgaged every asset on the corporate balance sheet for a blaster and a bottle of whiskey.

This is why they pay me the mega credits, he thought bitterly. Field manager Pete Beckin. Eight years fighting his way up the operations ladder for a management slot, and here he was, freezing his butt off while he waited to get ripped into little bloody shreds of flesh. The money was a little better, but the headaches were a whole lot worse. Not a good trade.

His comm unit buzzed. “Pete? You there?”

Beckin had trouble coughing up enough spit to answer. “Hi, Anya. I’m still here.”

“You okay?”

“Fine. But I’m seriously thinking of quitting my job.”

A short, sympathetic laugh. “Too bad the benefits are so good.”

“Damn right,” he said. “No sign of the darfang.”

“Dell hasn’t seen it either, but we can hear the thing on open comm. Dell sounds worse, but he won’t admit it. I’m not sure how much longer he can last.”

Damn it. Beckin stopped pacing and leaned against the hard, frozen rock wall, closing his eyes despite the danger.

Dell was one of Beckin’s mining engineers. When the darfang had attacked two days ago, killing two local barin, Dell had been wounded. He was trapped in his station down the tunnel, unable to walk. Beckin had sent two men in to get him out, and listened to them die over the comm when the darfang took them. The memory still made him want to throw up.

Beckin had cleared everyone out of the tunnel, and ordered the security gate locked. But he waited inside for a chance to get to Dell. Maybe the darfang would wander away, back to wherever it had come from. But if it didn’t, and Dell couldn’t wait any longer, Beckin knew he’d have to go down himself, and risk facing the darfang with nothing but a laser drill.

“I’ve been talking to the J’Kahr.” The barin ruling council. The J’Kahr didn’t want Beckin’s crew to pack up and leave. They were too greedy for the technology the company had offered to share in exchange for mining rights. “They’re insisting the darfang is a sacred beast and nobody can kill it without bringing dishonor, or bad karma, or whatever, on their family for thirty-three generations, but they’ve come up with something.”

“Like what?”

“They’ve got a volunteer to come down and kill it.”

Beckin rubbed his face and stretched his eyelids wide, wondering if he’d fallen asleep for part of Anya’s answer. “What’d you just say?”

“They call him a shalor. It means ‘shameless one.’ He can’t bring any dishonor on his family because they lost it a long time ago, if I’ve got it right.”

It almost made sense to Beckin’s tired brain. “What kind of weapons is he bringing?”

“That’s, uh, a little unclear right now.”

The barin didn’t really trust Beckin or the other humans. The feeling was getting more mutual all the time. “Whatever. I can use the company anyway.”

“It’ll be a few minutes.”

Beckin yawned and resumed his pacing. What kind of idiot, he wondered, would volunteer to join him down here? He wasn’t sure he wanted to find out.

* * *

“We are ready.”

Anya sighed and swiveled from the comm unit. Aline, whose family had been First in the J’Kahr for seventeen generations, stood in the office doorway. She was wrapped in thick, luxurious speckled furs, and she stared at Anya like a wealthy merchant pondering the empty life of a sanitation technician.

Behind Aline waited a tall male barin in thin colorless clothing, his eyes low to avoid meeting anyone’s face. Anya walked toward them, stopped, and looked him over.

He was large and bearded, with no scars from frostbite or disease that Anya could see. In early adulthood, he looked reasonably healthy. Young and healthy enough to die. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“You will address me,” said Aline. “We are ready.”

“Fine.” She zipped up her thermal suit and led them outside, through the icy wind to the entrance of the mine’s central shaft.

A group of local barin had gathered in a ragged semicircle around the mining center. At least a hundred, Anya estimated. They were chanting in a booming, rhythmic voice.

They were naked. Frost covered their body fur, and the patches of skin their natural fur didn’t cover looked red and raw, but they didn’t shiver or flinch, and their voices were firm as they sang:

“Carry our song to the sun. Bring the words of our heart to the warm sun. Carry the memory of our days through the empty sky to the heat of the sun. Speak of our sadness as you ascend to the fiery heart of the sun. Carry our song to the sun…”

Not lamentations for the dead, Anya realized after a few moments. The barin were mourning, yes, but they weren’t grieving the deaths of the workers in the mines. They were lamenting the imminent death of the creature that had killed them. They expected the darfang to be killed.

Maybe it made sense to Aline and the unarmed shalor. Anya didn’t get it, but with a shrug she unlocked the mine’s access structure and led them across a dark, empty floor to the main lift.

“I’ll have to go down with you to unlock the tunnel gate.” She opened the lift. The barin joined her, but Aline stayed back as Anya closed the door.

“Remember your duty,” Aline said. Her face was stern. Anya hit a switch, and the lift began to slowly descend.

“‘We’ may be ready, but I notice she’s staying up where it’s safe,” Anya said.

“I am shalor. I’m nobody,” the barin said. But he looked at her for the first time, and to her surprise she saw resentment in his pale eyes. “She is the First.”

Company policy discouraged employees from challenging the prevailing beliefs of any planet where they were doing business, but nobody pretended that their contact wasn’t going to have any impact on the various cultures they came into contact with. But Anya stayed quiet, unable to think of anything to say.

The lift came to a halt. “Well, whoever you are, you’re here.” She unlocked the security gate. “Good luck.”

* * *

The noise of the lift door startled Beckin from the drowsy trance he’d fallen into. He shook his head briskly and watched the door swing open.

The sight of Anya gave him a brief surge of hope. She gave him a crooked grin for reassurance, then shrugged and stepped to one side for the barin.

He stepped into the tunnel with eyes straight forward, as if he needed to anchor himself on something distant in order to move. Big and brawny, he had the build of a genetically enhanced wrestler. Beckin spotted a dagger in his belt, but no other weapons in sight.

“Hi, I’m Pete Beckin.” Would he speak? Maybe shalor weren’t supposed to talk to anyone.

“I am shalor. Nobody.” He glanced down at Beckin’s face, then began searching the shadows with dark, darting eyes.

“You got a name?”

The shalor fidgeted with the hilt of his dagger. Nervous? The thought forced Beckin to stifle a hysterical laugh. Of course he was nervous. Just because he was no one didn’t make him stupid.

“Morath,” the barin said. “That’s what they call me in my clan.”

“Well, Morath, I’ve been down here nine hours and I haven’t seen or heard or smelled anything. Not that I know what a darfang smells like. You got any plans for taking care of this thing?”

“The darfang is a sacred beast. Only someone without any honor to lose may kill it.”

“Not exactly what I asked.”

“I’m ready. If that’s what you mean.”

“Yeah, but how–”

Morath suddenly lifted a hand, as if his ears had caught a sound in the air. Beckin shut up, hunching his shoulders to listen.

But Morath shook his head. “Not yet. But it will come soon.”

Beckin felt even colder than before. “How do you know that?”

“The darfang will smell blood from—- from a great distance.” He tapped the blade of his knife. “This will bring him.”

“I hope you brought something more powerful than that blade.” He twirled the laser drill in his hand. “This is all I’ve got, and it’s nowhere near strong enough to kill it.”

Morath pulled the dagger from his belt and held it up as if comparing it with Beckin’s drill. His face was expressionless, but Beckin thought he saw a tremble in his fingers. Maybe the shalor wasn’t as ready for his fate as he pretended.

“Did you volunteer for this?” The sound of voices in the tunnel, after hours of nothing but his own ragged breathing, felt reassuring. He tried to remind himself of the danger of getting distracted by conversation, but he was too tired. He needed contact with another being.

Morath crossed his arms and tried to hide a sigh. “My clan did.”

“Oh.” What did they do to lose their honor? Asking was probably a bad idea. He rubbed his eyes and gazed down the tunnel, thinking of his own family, far away. They definitely hadn’t volunteered him to die in a frozen hole on any godforsaken planet, but here he was, same as Morath. They had something in common, and Beckin felt a little less frightened.

“Your wounded friend,” Morath said. “Will he live?”

“Not if we don’t get to him soon. What is this darfang thing, anyway? Nobody will tell us much about it.”

Morath nodded slowly, and seemed to think about Beckin’s question carefully before answering. “The scrolls say an ancient god got angry with the barin for quarreling and fighting all the time, so he poured all our anger and hate into a single beast, and then set it loose to teach us respect and fear. When we fought it, our anger made it split, and split again, until thousands roamed the world, hungry for our meat and blood. That’s why no one may kill it.”

“Except a shalor.”

“Maybe.” Morath continued: “Whatever made them, darfangs are wild and brutal predators. They hunt in the hills above the city, and sometimes they attack a farm or a traveler. They’re fast, and they have rows and rows of teeth sharper than fire, and eyes that can see through the blackest night, and claws–”

“Thanks. That’s a big help.” Beckin was sorry he’d asked.

“They’re also stupid,” Morath said. “They go after whatever’s closest to them, even when there’s slower, weaker prey in clear sight. They fight each other for food. They never protect their weak spots. They ignore everything but their prey when they attack, even if there’s danger in clear sight. They don’t give up even when they’re wounded, even if they’re dying.”

None of that made Beckin feel any better. “I guess nobody can say you didn’t know what you were getting into.”

“I’ve seen the darfang kill,” he said, as if that explained everything.

“I hope I don’t.”

“We have no choice in our destiny.” But Morath didn’t sound as if he liked that lack of choice, any more than Beckin did.

“Mind if I ask you something?”

“I am shalor,” he said, as if he had no right to refuse anything.

He had to know. “What happened to your clan? They must have done something pretty bad to make a dozen generations suffer for it.”

“I am the nineteenth generation of my clan. Shalor lasts for twenty-one generations, but if I succeed here, shalor will be lifted. My clan–” He hesitated, struggling with himself, then finally blurted: “I don’t know the offense.”

“You mean it’s a secret?”

“It is written in the scrolls,” he said defensively, “and it is not spoken of. Some of the older ones say we were cowards during the battle of Villiarch, and others say a clan member sold a flank of spoiled nestor meat to the clan of the Second of the J’Kahr, but nobody knows. It doesn’t matter. We are shalor.”

Beckin’s comm buzzed.

“Yeah?” he said.

“I think Dell just lost consciousness” Anya’s voice was tense. “He’s not responding to questions, but we can hear him sort of groaning. It’s looking like we’ve got to do something.”

What does she mean, “we”? Despite the cold, Beckin felt a layer of cold sweat on his skin. “Got it,” he said, not daring to say more.

He looked at Morath. The barin nodded solemnly.

Beckin watched Morath fumble inside his furs. With a grunt, Morath lifted a leather drinking pouch and tossed it from one hand to the other.

“What’s that?”

“From the First of the J’Kahr.” Morath loosened the cap and sniffed. “This will give me power to kill the darfang.” He capped it again.

He knelt on the hard ground and carefully set the pouch in front of his knees. Then he drew his knife, stared at its blade for a moment, and placed it next to the pouch.

“That’s going to give you super powers?” Beckin asked.

“So the First said.” Morath lowered his head, as if in prayer.

“And you believe her?”

His eyes flashed angrily at Beckin. “Do you think I’m a fool?”

Beckin stumbled backward a step, caught off guard by Morath’s anger. “No, I just thought– I thought–”

“I am shalor.” He looked down at the ground.

Beckin watched Morath close his eyes and take three slow, deep breaths. The barin murmured a few short words to himself, then reached for the pouch. He drank the liquid in four long gulps, then tossed the pouch aside and ran his fingers along the ground in search of the dagger.

With one quick, determined motion, Morath slid the sharp blade across his palm, then opened his hand wide to let the blood drip down in dark, thick drops.

Beckin felt a tight pain in his stomach, and inhaled with a quick gasp. Breathe, he told himself. Would he still be breathing ten minutes from now? He swallowed, wishing for a glass of water. Or a bottle of whiskey. Far away.

“The fresh blood will bring him.” Morath’s voice was a hoarse whisper. “Stay back.”

“No problem,” Beckin assured him. He backed away, never taking his eyes off the barin, until the wall brushed his back. Morath remained on his knees, hand outstretched, watching the darkness with wary eyes.

Beckin pressed himself against the tunnel wall for balance. “Hey?”

Morath’s eyes flickered, but he didn’t otherwise respond.

“Has anyone ever actually killed a darfang this way?”

In the shadows around Morath’s face Beckin thought he saw the beginning of a smile. “The scrolls of the clan Patt say that Dalder the Patt slew a darfang in the year 153.”

He couldn’t handle the exact calculation, but Beckin remembered the barin calendar well enough to know this was 346 or 347. “You mean, it’s been almost two hundred years–”

“Quiet!” Morath’s command was a hiss that paralyzed Beckin’s throat.

He bent his head forward to listen. Nothing. Even his own heart seemed muffled. Breathe, he told himself. Keep breathing.

Then he heard it. A ragged growl, pulsing in and out and getting louder as he recognized the sound from the attack on Dell’s station down the tunnel. He wanted to scream, wet his pants, and sink to the hard ground to pray for a quick and painless death. But he saw Morath’s steady hand holding the dagger. Beckin still wanted to run and hide and cry, but neither of them had anywhere to go. He locked his knees and checked the power setting on his laser drill.

Morath’s face looked like stone, but his lips moved silently as though in prayer, and Beckin could see beads of sweat on his forehead. How could he stand there waiting for the thing? Beckin couldn’t understand how any notion of family honor could give someone the nerve to throw away his life in a cold, dark tunnel half a klick underground, but what he thought didn’t matter. Beckin’s only priority was helping Dell. Morath obviously lived according to different rules– rules he was willing to die for. He was shalor. Nobody.

When the darfang charged from the darkness like a spear Beckin thought he’d go deaf from the beast’s roar. It moved so fast Beckin couldn’t focus his eyes clearly on it. A dark-blue blur soared across the rocky ground toward Morath, and Beckin caught a glimpse of yellow fangs before the darfang slammed into the barin’s body.

He couldn’t tell if Morath tried to leap back instinctively at the last moment, or whether the darfang’s charge shoved him violently to the ground, but he knew that Morath’s scream of pain was real. It cut through the cold air like a razor, drowning the sound of Beckin’s own terrified shriek.

Morath was suddenly flat on his back, kicking wildly at the beast’s hard belly. Beckin could see one arm up in the darfang’s face, straining to push its fangs away from the barin’s throat. His other arm, the hand holding the dagger, stabbed at the darfang’s scarred hide, jabbing over and over again, drawing short spurts of dark blood without seeming to inflict any damage or pain. The darfang’s eyes gleamed brightly in the half-darkness of the tunnel.

Beckin crouched, hoping the shadows would hide him. What did Morath say? They ignore everything but their prey… Maybe it wouldn’t even see Beckin. Maybe it would just go away after– after Morath was dead.

Coward, Beckin thought. But his shame wasn’t strong enough to push him into the fight.

He heard his comm unit buzz. “Pete? Pete, what the hell’s going on down there, are you okay–”

Beckin slapped the unit to shut it off. He didn’t want to think about anyone listening to Morath die. They wouldn’t understand why he couldn’t do anything to help. They didn’t know what the thing was like, up close, vicious and deadly.

Its shape reminded Beckin of wolverines, but a wolverine the size of a grizzly bear with the speed of a rattlesnake. Even now he couldn’t get a clear glimpse of the thing as it twisted its body and swung its thick arms — how many did it have? They moved so fast Beckin thought he saw four or six. It skidded around the rocky ground on stubby little hind legs trying to pin down Morath.

Morath refused to quit. He kept slashing frantically with his knife, his screams still battling the darfang’s roar, but the furs on his shoulders were soaked with blood. The darfang kept up its pressure, pushing Morath down, but the barin continued to kick and stab, his movements desperate and random now.

Beckin looked away, tears stinging his eyes. Damn it, there was nothing he could do. Even with his laser drill, how could he attack something as savage as that thing?

They ignore everything but their prey… they never protect their weak spots….

Weak spots. What was the darfang’s weak spot?

Beckin didn’t know. But the thing had eyes, didn’t it? And if it was busy attacking Morath, then couldn’t Beckin get close enough–

Morath’s scream cut through Beckin’s brain, and he looked up just in time to see Morath plunge his dagger into the side of the darfang’s throat and leave it there as his arms and legs went limp. The dagger fell a moment later, hitting Morath’s arm, but the barin didn’t grab for it. His arm flopped lifelessly as the darfang’s roar faded into a low, horrific grunting sound, and blood covered the ground around Morath’s body.

Damn it. Beckin let the impulse take him even as he told himself he’d regret this. Powering up the laser drill, he launched himself across the tunnel. His legs felt numb and he hoped he could stay on his feet as he moved, but he was committed now. If he tripped he was dead.

The darfang, true to Morath’s words, ignored him, intent on feeding itself. Beckin slipped in the blood, and cursed before he managed to catch his balance. He kept his grip on the drill and searched the darfang’s head for the glistening of its eyes. There: small and red and moist, they didn’t blink or flicker.

Beckin thought of Anya, waiting up at the top of the tunnel, and Dell wounded somewhere down the tunnel, and Morath, almost under his own feet, and with an effort of willpower that took more strength than he could have imagined he lifted the laser drill and pushed its white beam straight into the darfang’s closest eye.

The creature flinched and swung its head from side to side, as if trying to brush away a pesky insect. Beckin saw blood in its jaws and flesh lodged in its teeth. He waved the drill wildly at the darfang’s face and seared some of its fur, but the animal returned to Morath’s body, saliva spitting from its mouth, grunting loudly.

Again Beckin slashed with the drill, burning a long scar across the darfang’s neck. No reaction.

Then a splash of blood hit Beckin’s left eye. He dropped the laser drill and staggered back, desperately wiping his face as he suddenly realized what he was doing. Am I trying to commit suicide? He tripped, and his shoulder slammed the rocky ground, filling his good eye with bright stars of pain. “Damn it–”

His shout did what his laser attack had failed at: The darfang lifted its head and looked over in Beckin’s direction.

Not now! Beckin kicked his legs furiously, trying to crawl backward away from the darfang’s dripping teeth. He expected at any moment to see the darfang lunge for him. His life span could now be measured in tenths of a second. Would it hurt? A lot? What would death feel like after the pain was gone? Why–

Strangely, the darfang seemed to hesitate. When it did move, one of its feet slipped and it tipped unsteadily to one side. Then it reared back with a roar only half as strong as the one it had announced its attack with, a roar that sounded like an attempt to summon more strength. Beckin suddenly felt his heart thudding inside his chest along with a ghost of hope that it might keep beating for longer than his next breath.

The darfang slouched, its bright eyes glaring at Beckin, and then hopped forward. It fell, and Beckin scrambled beyond reach of its claws. The darfang stayed on the ground. It growled. And then it closed its eyes.

Jesus Christ, I’m still alive! Beckin rolled over, got to his feet, and scampered twenty meters down the tunnel. Hearing nothing but his own gasping breath, he risked a glance over his shoulder. The darfang hadn’t moved. It ribs didn’t rise and fall. He didn’t think it was breathing.

Morath had killed it.

Beckin stood in the middle of the tunnel, staring. Morath’s body lay shredded next to the darfang’s legs. Beckin looked away, his stomach churning. And as he looked down, he saw the pouch Morath had drunk from. Had staked his victory, and his life, on. Beckin picked it up.

With one hand he shoved it into a pocket. With the other he tapped his comm unit. “Anya? Anya, get a med team down here for Dell. The darfang is dead.”

* * *

Twelve hours later he sat in his office, more exhausted than ever. Dell had suffered some frostbite and lost a lot of blood but would ultimately be okay. Beckin had gotten some sleep and a fresh set of clothes, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever feel warm and safe again.

Anya poked her head in through the door. “Aline is here.”

“Send her in.”

The First of the J’Kahr entered in her regal furs. She glanced about stiffly, as if the office stank and her virtue was in danger. “You requested my presence?”

“Yeah.” He sat forward in his chair, still feeling unsteady on his feet. “I just wanted to tell you about Morath.”

“His clan is shalor no longer. His name, Moraldakar, will be written in the first scrolls of his clan as the barin who raised his family up from dishonor.”

“That’s what he wanted, all right. I just wanted to make sure you guys held up your end of the deal.”

“It is not your concern.”

“I talked to him. I watched him sit there and wait for the darfang to come and eat him, just so his family wouldn’t be untouchable anymore. He did what he was supposed to do.”

“We expected no less.”

Beckin pulled a drawer and set Morath’s leather drinking pouch on his desk. “This yours?”

“Our gift of strength.”

“Strength.” He felt dizzy. Time for another nap soon. “My people analyzed this. I know what you gave him.”

Aline said nothing and seemed impatient.

“Poison. Potent enough to spread through his body in minutes, so when the darfang ate him it would die too. He was half dead before the thing showed up. And he knew it, too. He knew what your gift of strength was.”

“What is your point?”

Beckin sighed. “I just wanted to make sure he gets what he wanted. What you promised.”

“It is not your concern.”

“Yeah. Seems like it was nobody’s concern but his.” Beckin shook his head. “All right, I’m finished. Go away.”

Aline nodded and backed her way out of the office.

Anya buzzed him on the comm. “They’re ready to start up in the mine, Pete.”

“Go ahead.” He rubbed his eyes. “I’ll be up here for a while.”

“You all right?”

“Just tired.”

He sat with the lights low, and dozed. In half-formed dreams he saw the darfang’s teeth, felt the rush of fear, shivered from the cold, and heard Morath’s voice: “I am shalor. Nobody.”

He leaned forward to press the comm. “Hey, Anya?”

“Right here.”

“Do we have any shalor working for us right now?”

“Uhh… I don’t know.”

“We’re going to. I’m going to take care of it.”

“I kinda doubt the J’Kahr will like that very much.”

“I’ll work it out somehow. I owe something to Morath.”

“Got you.”

“I’ll be down in a while.” He closed his eyes. For the first time in days, he felt ready to rest at last. *

About the Author: John Cowan has edited newsletters for more than 15 years, in such areas as leadership skills, sales management, corporate and political speechwriting, and other topics. Born in Michigan, he has an M.A. in English from the University of Chicago and now lives in Chicago with his wife and son. His literary influences include Star Trek, Doc Savage, and Robert B. Parker’s private eye, Spenser.
(c) 2005 John Cowan JCowan@ragan.com

About the Artist: Patrick Stacy, like many before, started young. His main emphasis in childhood was in comics. Never content, the challenge was then to illustrate freehand — now that would be talent. Early influences are still inspirational today, such as the legendary Frazetta, Vallejo, and Parrish. Classical influences were Rubens and Caravaggio. Stacy was winner of the L. Ron Hubbard’s Illustrators of the Future contest in 1996 and has two illustrations within the volume.
(c) 2005 Patrick Stacy artboy@adelphia.net

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