Archive for horror

Terrible Instruments

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2017 by beautifulimposter

The sunlight today is an act of violence,
Arrows slicing the clouds to ribbons
Such awesome and terrible storms of light,
Bright and ragged banners streaming
Battle cries thundering along the channels
Of the raging winds.

I once laid in a fever, between dream and vision
The roof above my head ripped away
The vaults of the night sky split
As overripe fruit, edges ragged as wounds
The pulp and pith of the heavens
A yawning, hungry, pure flame.

Angels peered over the edges,
Mouths bloody, teeth wicked and sharp
Wings of blackened, pitted iron spreading
A rustling of edges and rust
Hungry, feral, carrion birds eying their feast
Beautiful the way a naked blade is still lovely.

Frozen to the sweat soaked sheets
Bones the kindling for the fire set in my flesh
Unmoving, tears burning canyons into my cheeks
For the first time feeling the death in me,
Printed upon each cell as blackletter,
A whispering mirrored by the watchers’ lips,
As threads sewn beneath the skin,
Tied and knotted, a skein, a tapestry.

The fever broke, yet still I feel the tugging,
Still out of the corner of my eye
Wings beat at the shadows
Pinned beneath all my words,
All the brutal blood and sex and mortality
Tainting blue skies and sunlight
So that I will never not see the tooth marks left
By God’s terrible instruments.

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Strange Bedfellows

Posted in Prose with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2015 by beautifulimposter

At last, the long awaited sequel (well, maybe not long awaited, and not exactly a sequel per se) to the short story “The Promise of Dawn”. I am not at all sure about how well this one works, or how well it will stand in comparison to the first offering of what I do still hope will turn into an ongoing series, but I offer it up now just as I banged it out. As always, I do hope it is enjoyed. This is a tale that is meant to be at least somewhat horrifying, perhaps even disturbing. I do urge though that if anyone out there thinks I may have GONE TOO FAR to please let me know. A little unsettling can be entertaining in the right doses, however I sincerely do not want to make anyone unduly upset or uncomfortable in the reading. Any and all feedback is welcomed and as always to all of my readers, cheers all.

A cautious shadow broke warily away from the deeper darkness of the tangled forest eaves, booted feet making hardly a noise upon the hard packed dirt of the road. Beyond the wood lay a good league of fields and pasture yet the former lay fallow while the latter grew rank and wild, un cropped by herd or flock, not the first signs the lone traveller had noted as he neared the village that lay ahead, signs that much was amiss. Overhead the earth’s moon was low on the horizon, a thin, waning crescent casting but a thin, feeble light that was all but washed out by the Corpse Moon, waxing gibbous, fat and high. The landscape was washed in pale, fell wyrdlight, twisting shadows, limning stalks and stems with a cold wavering flame. The distant sloping rooftops seemed turned to marble, what should have been shapes familiar, homely, welcoming took on aspects of the grave, becoming mausoleums and sepulchers huddling together around a swift flowing dark stream. Within the traveler’s breast was a growing sense of foreboding, cold and hard, filling him not with dread but a grim determination and a weary resignation. As the years had turned such sights had become all too familiar to his eyes. Beneath his heavy leathern cloak one hand tightened around the butt of a pistol as his even strides took him down towards the silence haunted streets.

There were no lights in any of the outlying cottages, every window glared black and empty where they were not heavily shuttered. This too spoke to his growing unease for in these dark times even farmers to bed with the sun would keep at least one light burning through the night and none would leave any part of their home unbarred past nightfall. The silence hung palpably, muffling his already stealthy footsteps as the dirt beneath his boots turned to rough cobbles as he neared the village square. In the distance a door flying loose in the grasp of the fitful, chill night breeze cracked like a gunshot, or more like the rattle of old bone upon bone as it rebounded from clapboard wall. No sound of livestock rustling in their sheds, no low, sleepy clucking from coops, not even a lone bark of a dog sounded as the stranger passed doorways and neatly fenced yards, the stillness etched sharply upon his senses.

At last the road opened up upon the village square, the wicked moonlight splashing over a multitude of twisted, writhing forms. Before the stranger’s eyes was painted a portrait of mind shattering horror in stark black and white. Around the low stone well in the center of the square several long tables lay upon trestles with many feasters still appearing at their revels. Food piled high lay roting upon platters or clutched in stiff fingers or even yet more grotesquely spilling from gaping jaws as those who dined had gorged themselves beyond need of food. Some others still had seemed less than satisfied with the pleasures of the table, having ravenously torn into the limbs or bellies of their fellows or themselves. All round about the tables other bodies were piled, some as if they had been dancing, twirling with abandon upon ankles eventually shattered. Others were locked in lascivious embraces, limbs twined and locked together, frozen in attitudes of unspeakable lust, some with fingers dug deep into their lover’s flesh, tearing and rending, features twisted into rictuses where pleasure and pain became one. At least two hundred souls and half again as many beasts lay strewn about in every shape and form of ignominy, with no respect to kind or sex or age. Even with eyes and heart hardened by many scenes of horror and butchery the stranger had to fight the clawing fingers of revulsion as they scrabbled along his spine, bubbling up his throat.

The silence of this unholy tableaux was broken softly, drawing the stranger’s eyes towards the shadowed rim of the well. A figure sat upon the lip on the far side, back towards him, crooning a macabre tuneless tune to itself. It was obscured by the darkness yet what could be seen of it was spindly, grayish flesh stretched taut over bone, emaciated trunk displaying ribs and vertebrae. The dark stranger froze, watching intently as the figure seemed to work at something in its grasp, arms seeming to stretch and tug, accompanied by faint, wet tearing sounds.

“Must be careful now, yes I must.” The voice was soft and high, a mockery of something feminine issuing from a throat unfamiliar with the tones of anything mortal. “Oh, such fun I’ve had and more is to come, so many bright ones to play with, oh yes.”

Slowly, moving just a fraction of an inch at a time the stranger tried to close the distance between himself and the slender shadow, hoping to God that it wouldn’t make note of him amidst its grisly work and wicked burbling. Only one chance would he get, no more. Words of Banishing flickered breifly behind his eyes but died before reaching his lips. No shade was this, no protrusion of the infernal upon the realm of life and light, ’twas a manifestation, one of Hell’s legion given form and shape. The stranger felt the unfamiliar clutching of fear’s fingers about his heart at the thought, silent prayers falling from his lips as he eased the pistol from his baldric, ever so slowly bringing it to bear upon the humped dome of the thing’s skull, thumbing the hammer ever so gently back. God above, Lord of Hosts, lend me your strength, hold mine hand in yours oh God, let my shot strike thy foe true. He was within feet of it, separated only by the circumference of the well mouth, cold sweat running down his spine, breath held behind the fence of his bared teeth, inching the flint back, back, praying for all he was worth…it must be the same instant, not even a fraction betwixt cocking and firing, it must be NOW!!!

The shadows fled the bright orange of the muzzle flare, the retort of the shot echoing and rebounding over and again throughout the charnel house square yet the silver ball cleaved only moonlight. The ragged, spindly form was just another shadow, whirling with terrifying speed, spinning the man about as he desperately sought his foe, spent pistol flung aside, hand darting to the hilt of his sword, eyes casting this way and that in near desperation.

“What has I hear then?” The sickly sweet of the voice purred “oh what has we here, a fresh playmate I thinks, yes”

Within the shadows cast by the low eaves of a house at the edge of the square a deeper darkness stirred. Stepping slowly forward, one arm extended in the way one would slip on a coat the demon emerged, pulling a gasp from the stranger’s lips as the Corpse Moon’s light revealed nightmare. New flesh adorned the horrid, thin frame, drooping and sagging, an ill fitting suit that had once been the outer covering of one of the village women hung in grotesque parody of life. The skin of the extended arm hung limp at the ends, fingers dangling and empty, yet a horrid writhing beneath crept up its length, filling it, giving it shape. The stranger staggered backwards, wretching, dragging his sword from its sheath, breath coming in ragged gasps as he fought down revulsion and terror.

“God have mercy on thy sons and daughters” the words rose in strangled whisper even as his fist clenched upon the hilt, the knuckles beneath his leathern gauntlets going white as he prepared to fight, his only hope that he may kill it before it rent his life from him.

“God lives here no longer” the demon chuckled in its high voice, raising its head, deep, dark eyes peering from the empty holes in its borrowed face. “We have come to take…possession…of what is by rights ours oh dear Nameless one”

Nameless tensed yet was not near fast enough, the demon’s limbs given the Devil’s own speed, the backhanded blow spinning him off his feet, sending him skidding onto his hands and knees, sword skittering off as numbed fingers let go their grip. Fighting to catch his breath, Nameless rolled onto his back, drawing his second pistol, knowing in the pit of his stomach how futile a gesture it was. He cocked back the flint, boot heels sliding over the cobbles greased with blood and other fluids none would care to contemplate as he backed away from were the fiend last was, eyes raking the moonlit square.

“Oh, we can’t be having that, oh no we can’t” a sudden shadow loomed over Nameless’ features as with ungodly strength the creature ripped the pistol from his hand, dropping it to the ground with a disdainful clatter. Nameless looked up into eyes that became wells of hunger, pits which no amount of gluttony or license would ever hope to fill. A smile writhed upon lips that should never have been able to still take such shapes as with a second sharp blow consciousness was driven from Nameless who fell back into almost welcomed oblivion.

*****

“We shall not be needing this I thinks”

Nameless rose slowly back to consciousness, feeling a tugging as his breastplate was pulled off of him, the ringing of it sounding as thunder in his aching head. He could feel its presence, could feel it hovering just above him, the foulness of it washing over him like a tide of filth, causing his flesh to writhe as if could flee. His heart hammered within his chest, ribs aching, each breath a stuttering agony, eyes screwed tightly shut, dreading their opening. Yet digging deep within himself Nameless forced his lids to open. Oh God how he wished he had kept them closed.

The demon squatted over him, its suit of mortal flesh now seeming to fit it more snugly; Nameless watching in morbid fascination as the sags became smooth, muscles beneath the skin cleaving to that which lay further beneath. Soon the crouched form above him was no longer hellish but rather that of the woman it had once been, although no less horrible for the illusion of mortality. The figure was fine and full, what once must have caught many a farm lad’s eye, naked and gleaming now in the swollen maggot light of the hellish moon.

“Do you think I’m pretty?” The voice was breathy now, soft, a caress almost even as it tore open his tunic, baring his chest. “I know you think so, despite your efforts, your mind is just as all men’s, simple, hungry, filled with…lust.” Its fingertips ran lightly over Nameless’ skin, tracing over the line upon line of scripture tattooed over every inch, lines from each of the Great Books meant to ward, to protect.

“Why would you disfigure yourself so, with such doggerel?” Nameless struggled beneath the gloating thing yet found his muscles would not obey, something within the voice lulled his body, holding him just as fast as if it were iron bands. “Did you think they might save you?” Mockery dripped from every word as the cold hands caressed him, yet horror fought with something deeper and darker within Nameless’ breast, something tugged at by the voice and the questing hands.

“Fight if you must, it makes the savor sweeter” downwards now the hands slithered, confident, sure, coaxing. In his mind Nameless ran through verse upon verse, prayers, litanies, anything to steel his mind, to wrest back control, but to no avail. He could feel himself stirring, rising up, his flesh responding to irresistible summons. “Castigate and castrate yourself all you like, you cannot resist…you are all the same, you priests and whores, all chained to the flesh, slaves to your petty, miserable appetites…in the end, you are all just like me, you all want me, crave the bounty I have to offer, will feast and gorge till you are all undone and empty.”

The hands unclasped gun belt and baldric, jerking away his remaining pistols, letting them drop just out of reach, tantalizing, Nameless’ rigid fingers only a hair’s breadth away yet for all intents and purposes as unreachable as the hellish moon glaring down from above. He strained to cry out, to scream a denial yet the words strangled in his throat even as the demon freed him from his britches, its icy hand running lovingly over his rigid manhood.

“How lovely and strong you are, tis a pity such strength should all go to waste. Spilling so much blood yet never any seed, all for masters you know glut themselves at my table.”

Inside his head Nameless screamed, his mind trying to hold fast to The Word yet filled now with riotous thoughts, sweat and limbs, bodies writhing, as it spoke to his flesh. He was helpless in the rebellion of his body, the corridors of his mind echoed now to desperate pleas…no, no, please, My Lord, no, no…NO!!!! Hot tears streamed down his cheeks as the wicked thing above him moved, shifting slightly, moaning now like an animal in heat. Nameless felt a cold, loathsome slickness envelope him, clinging, pulling as the semblance of a woman slowly moved above him, shuddering as much at the struggle within him as any carnal pleasures. He could feel a rhythmic pulsing growing, tried in desperation to fight it off, knowing full well what this thing wanted, more than his soul, more than the fear and hatred and lust it was dragging from him, more than anything it desired to be born into this world with actual shape, an abomination and a plague forever upon the world. Yet fight as hard as he could it had him within its grasp, reaching past all shields of will or faith deep into the darkest reaches of his mind, pulling out the agonies of his body’s betrayal as within the tiny shelter of his mind Nameless screamed pathetic, waning defiance.

*****

“Ahem”

It was a soft clearing of the throat, yet it carried behind it the power to still the whole world. For a single moment that stretched itself beyond all reason silence reigned again over the grim cobblestones of the village square. The weight above Nameless shifted, turning its head in predatory fashion, drawing away its attentions. Then, even further beyond reason a flute began to play, a low, warbling melody, something flowing as slow and sure and smooth as the stream passing along the other side of the square. The demon still held Nameless within the foulness of itself, he was still beneath its weight, but he found he could move, life returning to limbs as his fingers began to crawl with what to him seemed agonizing slowness towards the butt of the pistol that had been cast aside with his gunbelt. The body above swayed softly as the flute continued to play, seeming entranced by the slow rising and falling of the tune, completely oblivious to its former prey beneath it. Once more, it was the harsh click of the flintlock cocking back that drew its full attention, head snapping around just as Nameless pulled the trigger, having brought the gun to bear belt and all, the leather scorching as the shot rang out. The silver shot slammed into the thing’s chest, Nameless having not the control of his limbs enough to aim for the head, the flesh splitting like overripe fruit over what lay beneath. The close range sent the foul creature sprawling backwards, hissing and spitting, writhing as it hit the ground. With strength and speed born of pure desperation Nameless rolled to the side, still half blinded by the powder flash, hand scrabbling along the ground headless of the mortal remains strewn about as it searched for his sword. With his other hand, Nameless flung his belt over his shoulder, fearing to feel the counterattack at any moment, knowing full well his foe was far from slain.

As abruptly as it had begun, the tune changed sharply, the flautist moving from the somnolent air to a quick reel, the notes tumbling over each other in wild profusion, almost discordant. Nameless shook the daze from his head, fingers finding at last the hilt of his sword, sweeping it up with a gritty ring off of the cobbles. Whatever lingering effects the siren creature’s spell had upon his mind or limbs seemed to be washed away as Nameless turned to face the thing, now itself crouched on all fours, legs bent beneath it, fingers out and splayed, head swiveling from side to side in what appeared to be confusion. It cast its gaze back and forth between the unseen player and Nameless, now approaching it with grim determination.

With a sudden hiss, the demon leapt with a speed greater than a hunting wolf yet to its surprise and alarm its prey had moved with yet greater swiftness still. Instead of the feel of rending flesh it felt only the bitter burn of cold iron as Nameless’ blade drew a searing line across its belly. So began a grim and terrible dance through the otherwise grave still mortuary of the village square. The soaring notes of the wild flute seemed to fill Nameless with strength and speed whilst at the same time confounding and befuddling his foe as they twisted and turned in deadly strife, each telling a score or more of wounds upon the other, yet Nameless just a bit more than the hellspawn, just enough.

“Curse your bleating feeble monkey!!” voice shrieking vituperation as the thing circled, “when I have finished my game with this tasty morsel I shall flay your living mind open, I shall drink your shrieking agony like mother’s milk!!!” Yet the threats seemed empty, the playing only increasing its rising rhythm. The once shapely figure was rent and torn, the breasts sagging forward like some obscene tunic from where the first shot had torn into it and other thin tatters of flesh hung oozing thick, dead blood from where Nameless’ blade had cut or pierced. It narrowly avoided another lightning quick lunge, shaking its head as the air around it filled with a weird frenzy.

Despite the aid of the mysterious minstrel, Nameless was flagging, his head still aching from the blow that had rendered him senseless earlier, vitality dripping from him slowly as blood flowed from the wounds the beast had given him during their predatory dance. Breath came fast and ragged through clenched teeth, his face a mask of ferocity and desperation as he knew even with help unlooked for he could not bring down his enemy with blade alone.

Keeping his weaving blade on guard, Nameless fumbled at the belt over his shoulder, allowing himself a small, grim rictus of a smile as a metallic cylinder settled into his palm. Feinting right, his left hand thumbed free the stop holding the small piston in place, slamming it down upon his thigh, feeling the delicate glass bubbles within shattering, counting slowly, one breath, two, three…

The creature snapped out a hand, catching the flung cylinder just as it ruptured. The first flash was blue white, actinic, flaring throughout the square, casting its own counter shadows to those cast by the Corpse Moon still high above. The second flare was a hungry, sooty orange as screaming in agony the demon was engulfed in flame. It lunged towards its former victim turned tormentor, flailing limbs trailing greasy flames. Nameless sprung away from the cursing, spitting thing as it writhed, the morbid flesh covering it falling away in great, crackling gobbets. In mad desperation it turned, fleeing towards the darkness of the well mouth. In the air, seeming to match the greedy crackling of the flames, the notes of the flute lent a different fire to Nameless’ limbs as he dove between the fiend and its only path to escape. Tossing his sword, Nameless caught it by the blade just below the hilts, reversing his grip so that the sword was pommel up, the straight quillions casting a long shadow, the moonlight behind his back throwing a perfect cross upon the still shrieking abomination.

“You think you have won?!?!” it spat, the remains of the village woman’s face still clinging in charred shreds to the hideous mockery of a face beneath. “You miserable worm, dog, scrabbler of refuse and offal at the master’s table, you have won nothing…” as the fiend cursed and railed, as the flames began to devour its shape Nameless began to chant, the exorcism pouring from his lips with conviction, all doubt and fear gone, nothing remained but cold, bitter hatred. “Nameless!!! Our master remembers, remembers your name well, you will burn in hell with all the rest, you will BURN!!!”

The village rang out with the final rage of the demon as with a defiant shout Nameless completed the rite, the echoes of it smothering the thing’s final curse as it crumbled within its pyre. The silence that feel afterward was nearly in and of itself deafening, as if the drama of what had just transpired had swallowed all sound, even that of the devilish flautist.

“Aye, I will” the bleak resignation within Nameless’ voice fell limply into the night as he sagged in place, drenched in sweat and blood, swaying. The world seemed to spin beneath him and he would have fallen if not just then another voice ruptured the silence.

“As fearsome a warrior as thou art, me thinks at least one of thine blades would need sheathing” there was a wry humor in the rough tones, one could almost hear the wink within them. Barking out a mirthless laugh, Nameless fumbled with his gear, the statement’s absurdity stabbing through his weariness. He even felt a slow flush creep up his neck as he re-tied the lacings of his breeches, the ridiculousness of how he must have looked for that last desperate battle playing out now in his mind.

Turning slowly, at last he took in the form of his deliverer. The man was long and lean, dressed in a tailcoat of violent and conflicting colors, with skin tight britches of cream buckskin, thigh high riding boots with the tops turned down at the knee and an obscenely large codpiece. To add to the bizarreness of his garb, the man was crowned by a mad tangle of hair, falling in wiry profusion to his shoulders from a hairline revealing a great deal of gleaming pate. His bright, sharp, blue eyes twinkled above a thick, scraggly beard with piercing clarity and, despite the dire straights just barely passed, gleamed with a merriment hardly holding with the situation. He leaned back upon a bench near one of the ghastly tables, seeming oblivious to the morbid company he was surrounded by, one leg thrust out, the other bent at the knee and crossed over the other, his arms cradling his flute to his chest.

Nameless was dumbstruck and nearly laughed aloud again at this mad apparition until his own sharp gaze rested on the thick, golden torque gleaming about the man’s neck. With a sudden indrawn hiss of breath Nameless raised the point of his sword, stepping back and on guard.

“If you insist upon further belligerence, I shall be more than happy to oblige thee, although twould be a wasteful shame to save your life only to reave it from thee.” Shifting slightly, the minstrel patted the hilts of his own sword. “Methinks I would easily be the master of thee given your recent exertions, and I would weep most fulsomely for at least half a minute’s span after I cut thee to mince.”

“I think I must concede the point” Nameless lowered his own blade slowly, knowing full well he would be a dead man if he pressed the argument. “It seems I am in your debt pagan, though not happily.”

“No debt at all to those who share a common purpose, though methods and means may differ. Not only The Nameless guard what light remains.” Springing lightly up and spinning his flute about in one hand the new stranger executed a low and complicated bow before rising and extending his hand. “Well met my un-monickered friend, allow me to unburden at least one of my many names upon thee, call me Strange Ian.”

With at least some show of reluctance Nameless took the man’s hand, shaking it firmly. Strange Ian grinned broadly, flashing a quick wink. “I have known a few hellcats in my day yet none quite this persistent, even if they did promise a similar fate, much worse than death.”

“and pray, what fate might that be?”

“marriage” the jest jarred another small chuckle from Nameless’ lips, more from its excruciating inappropriateness than any actual humor. Nameless stumbled, swaying still further, nearly swooning. His new acquaintance’s face creased in concern and he shifted his grip from Nameless’ hand to across his shoulders, allowing the weary man to sag against his rangy frame.

“Steady on lad, let us get you seen to” up close Strange Ian could see more clearly the relative youth of the grim warrior, his features softening just a bit in something like pity, for he knew something of this man’s burden. “Come” Ian’s tone changed yet again to one of joviality “I know a fine place just a little ways down the road where weary travelers may rest behind high walls, the mead flows steady, and the amusements not nearly as dire”. With slow steps the two set forth, pausing only to gather Nameless’ scattered gear. “Let us mend thy wounds, drink to our victory until we are stinking and we can attempt to convert one another.”

“I am forbidden drink” Nameless mumbled, staggering along, barely registering Strange Ian’s continuing prattle.

“Well, I am enjoined by my  faith to celebrate any triumph with a great deal of mead, so I make to you the following proposal. I shall drink your share and you shall thus be sober, all the better to beat the heathen out of me”

“Fair enough, lay on you mad bastard.” The curse slipped from Nameless’ lips without thought, the chaos of the night had his mind reeling. He had bested a demon in its flesh with the aid of this madman from the Isle of Bloody Queen Bess, how much more strange could things possibly become? “If I live through to this den of iniquity of yours, I swear to God I’ll have you safely in the fold by dawn.”

Together the two limped down the cold road as the Corpse Moon set, the horrors of the night vanquished for now and behind them, the remaining shadows chased along by Strange Ian’s hearty laughter.

The Promise of Dawn

Posted in Prose with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2014 by beautifulimposter

What follows is what I hope to make the first in a series of short stories along the lines of those found in pulp magazines like Weird Tales. It was inspired by the characters of Conan and Solomon Kane made famous by Robert E. Howard, Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber and the various incarnations of the Eternal Warrior created by Michael Moorcock, particularly the mighty Elric of Melnibone and I am trying to capture some of the high adventure, grit, sorcery and horror of those tales. This first effort is told from the perspective of a secondary character, rather than what will become the main protagonist of these stories as I thought it a better way to immerse readers into this world I am creating, which is going to be a kind of alternate, darker version of history, set on Earth after it has been shaken by a dreadful apocalypse. This is one of the first pieces of fiction I have attempted in quite a while and it seems to have taken the shape I wanted, however I am sure it is still rough around the edges. In posting this, not only am I hoping it will be read and enjoyed but that it may generate comment that I can use to refine it or gather new ideas for future stories. That being said, read on good friends and enter my new world of darkness and adventure. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did in the writing. Cheers all, until next time.

 

 

“It appears we have some sheep who have strayed from the flock”

Gretta stared into the Captain’s sneer with all the defiance she could muster despite the pounding of her heart, so strong she felt that her whole body must be quaking. The others stood beside and behind her, heads bowed, shuffling just like sheep confronted by the shepherd’s dogs which for all intents and purposes they were.  Eight men on horseback hemmed them in including the Captain whilst two more sat at the reins of a large wagon all of them chuckling to themselves, eying their prey with dark, glittering eyes.

“Pray, where is it you think you are going, my little sheep? ‘Tis ill advised to travel such wastes in the black of night and in such inhospitable weather as well. It would seem to me that only knaves or rebels would have good cause to be upon the roads.” 

“We are neither good captain, just pilgrims on the road to Constantinople, poor and of little means so that we must travel day and night unable to take lodgings.”  Gretta’s father spoke softly, voice almost lost in the drumming rain that had churned the road to thick mud, his eyes never meeting the Captain’s, instead focusing on his hat clenched between white knuckled fists.

“So rebels it is then, seeking shelter from our gracious Lord in the arms of his enemies. It shall be a great pleasure to have you ungrateful rabble flogged back to Avignon. If you found your lives burdensome under the beneficence of this realm you will find quite quickly how much more severe they can become.”  The malice that infused his words sent waves of terror through the thirty or so people whilst the other men at arms pressed closer, leering down, masks of obscene cruelty made of red-orange and shadow torchlight. Sobs and moans where choked back, children’s cries quickly stifled by mothers’ skirts.  All had known upon setting out the risks but in the end it had been a choice of evils, the road or lives of fear in a land wholly under shadow so they had set out, only what they could carry easily, all else left behind in desperate flight over hundreds of miles with the barest of hope before them.  Then the night storm rolled in, and with it brought the guardsmen and the extinguishing of that frail light.  They stood, soaked to the bone, looking death or even worse than death full in the face and these poor people, farmers, craftsmen, the simple felt fear and despair clench their iron fists about their faltering hearts. Only Gretta would not bow her head, as terrified as she was she would not bend, a lone, slim figure in the torches held high.

“At least this one shows some spirit” The Captain spurred his horse forward, leaning down, his face only a foot from hers.  “not the cells for this one I think and there may be others of value” his breath blew hot and rank into Gretta’s face yet still she did not flinch. “Yes, fetch the dog, we must not through away anything that might please our good Lord.”

“You and your ‘good lord’ be damned!” Gretta spat full into the Captain’s face, every fiber of her straining to keep her voice from shaking. “You are nothing but the craven dogs of a…” the blow slammed high across her cheek, spinning her light frame nearly clear around, the only thing preventing her from falling as the cruel knotting of the Captain’s fist in her hair, snapping her neck back and up. She struggle painfully but his arm held her up nearly off her feet, the slick mud offering no purchase.

“Gretta, no…please Captain she does not know” Gretta’s father ran towards his daughter hands clasped together pleading.  The Captain turned and his booted foot caught the old man under the jaw, sending him sprawling back.

“You rats need a desperate lesson, one I would take great pleasure in supplying, however I have not the time.  We were on the road for other purpose and we cannot be delayed over long.  Come, bring the blasted hound before I lose all patience and simply feed these scraps to those yon!!!” At this last the Captain jerked his head to the large, rectangular block of the covered wagon.  The black draping gave an unsettling tremor that seemed more than simply the rising wind.  Thunder growled above and lightning added a fitful glare to the unsettling tableau as one of the soldiers went behind the wagon, untying something that had been chained behind it. A lump of blacker shadow followed the guardsman’s horse, bent backed, scrabbling toward the ring of torches. A scream rose in Gretta’s throat as it came into the light but was strangled quickly by the Captain’s first jerking her back. The thing had been a man, perhaps, once but now was a twisted parody, a broken thing of nightmare. A hairless head swiveled back and forth atop it’s neck as if it was peering around but that could not have been possible as a band of iron appeared to have been riveted to it’s skull. Beneath the mutilated eyes was what amounted more to a snout than a nose, nostrils wide and flaring, snuffling and animal while the mouth was a broad red slash, horribly wide, teeth sharpened to wicked points over which a long, sinuous tongue lapped in slavering licks.  It’s back was hideously bent, allowing it to move on all fours while still letting it stand at times.  The limbs and body seemed covered over in slick black leather gleaming wet but clinging so close that it could be almost a hide.  It approached Gretta, leading the guardsmen who had fetched it by the length of chain that appeared to be somehow fused to the back of it’s skull.  Gretta’s eyes rolled in her head, her body cringing in revulsion as the snuffling thing crept closer, whimpering as it came withing inches of her, sniffing at her, misshapen head moving between her skirted thighs, up to her belly.

“Yessssss…pure…unspoilt…” the wheezing, rasping voice rolled out like foul oil, the fact that this thing could make speech adding to her mounting horror. It’s mouth split into a slobbering grin and it wrung together it’s long, slim fingered hands.  It’s words seemed to please the Captain who motioned his guardsmen towards the others still huddled in a clump a few feet away. Jerking the chain the guardsman lead his foul hound to the frightened pilgrims, letting it paw and sniff at each, occasionally purring or gibbering out in delight when it found what it sought. Another guard used his horse to cull those selected from the rest, mostly children as well as the few young lads and maids, leaving the elders.

“A fine catch indeed, these will fetch us a fine price upon our return.” The obscene pleasure in the Captain’s voice was punctuated with a sudden splitting crack of thunder followed by a near blinding flash of lightning. His cruel satisfaction was short lived however, for in the instant of the sudden light another figure had appeared in their midst. Tall, covered head to toe in a long cloak, hood drawn far forward so that even in the glare only mouth and jawline were revealed the silent apparition appeared to have just been carved out of the gloom by the levin bolt itself. A few of the soldiers started at this mysterious appearance, hands clenching on hilts or pistol butts. The Captain jerked his reins moving his charger forward, dragging Gretta along, straining to keep herself from slipping or having her neck broken.

“You there, move along! There is nothing here to concern you and if you do not take the road swiftly you may find yourself sharing the same fate as this lot.” Gretta shook like a rag doll in the Captain’s grip as he jerked her forward to emphasize his point, her joints shrieking in protest. Despite the threat, the man stood stalk still, showing not even a sign that he heard. Silence seemed almost to roll out from the man in slow waves, drowning out the tempest still raging all around. The Captain moved yet closer, leaning down in his saddle as he drew along side the hooded figure, attempting to penetrate the depths of the hood.

“Identify yourself rogue, swiftly now, you try my patience” still nothing, not even a glimmer of response was issued. Another of the soldiers moved to the left side of the man at a motion from the Captain. “Tell me now, who are you!” There was a new note in his voice, a touch of apprehension creeping into the Captain’s bluster.

“Judgement” The single pronouncement was spoken low yet seemed to carry over wind and rain to find every ear. The hooded head turned and Gretta caught a glimpse of high cheekbones and shining, dark eyes as the man turned his face upwards to catch the Captain in his glare. More important to the Captain was the glint of silver about the stranger’s throat. Eyes suddenly wide, the Captain inhaled sharply, mouth open to shout out a command but whatever that command might have been was strangled sharply as the motionless figure suddenly exploded into violent action. The right arm shot out from under the heavy leather cape, the pistol clenched in gloved fist thrusting it’s long barrel into the Captain’s mouth, upper teeth shattering, sudden scream garbled. New thunder sounded as the flint struck the powder, burning the Captain’s face, blinding him in the last moments before the lead ball tore through the back of his skull, blood mingling with the rain, thick smoke pouring out of the gaping wound. Without pause the cloaked man dropped the fired piece, turning to face his next victim just as the alarmed man reached for his own holstered weapon. A second pistol in his left hand roared, the bullet catching the mounted guard under his armpit as his horse reared, shattering bone and tossing him to the ground. Gretta was herself yanked to the muddy road as the corpse still holding her hair slid backward off his mount, her face pressed into the stifling quagmire. She lifted her head, eyes wide and clouded with foul water, watching in fascinated horror.

The other men at arms marshaled themselves, shaking off the initial shock, drawing blades figuring the murk too great for shooting even with the torches, their opponent just another shadow among many. The lone assailant reached to his belt behind his back, drawing another brace of pistols, almost as if to prove his opponent’s judgement fatally incorrect. One of the men on the driving board of the wagon stood, he alone drawing from beneath his seat a large mouthed blunderbuss, bracing the weapon’s butt to his shoulder and pulling back the hammer. The loud click drew the stranger’s attention, head swiveling in the direction of the coachman, followed swiftly by the pistol in his left. Two reports sounded, the loose shot of the blunderbuss splattering just where the man had been moments before, the single bullet striking the guardsman in the belly with a sickening wet tearing sound as the dark figure lunged forward, running to meet the rest.

The guardsman holding the hound released his charge who bolted towards the hood man, growling deep in it’s throat as it bounded forward in great leaps, showing a hideous strength in it’s twisted limbs. The dark man ran to meet his foe, discarding the spent pistol from his left hand, swinging his arm around to meet the fiend’s snapping jaws just moments before they closed about his throat. The hounds hard, sharp nails scrabbled futilely against the breastplate that had been hidden beneath the cloak, allowing the still armed right hand to bring the pistol between the struggling bodies. A fourth shot exploded from the bent back of the horror, a yelp of animal pain ripped from it’s throat as the stranger tossed the twitching body aside. As if in one fluid motion he drew a sword from it’s scabbard on his hip, whirling about, seeking the next enemy.

Still laying in the mud, Gretta watched this all unfold, eyes unused to such violence unable to look away as the battle raged. As she followed the lone warrior move swiftly between his foes, using their mounts, uncertain light and slick footing to his best advantage she was overcome with a feeling she was not looking at a man, rather she was watching some deadly machine, an engine of death relentlessly and brutally levying cold wages of slaughter. She lay in the cold, oozing mud, fingers clenched in the churned earth, just beside her the gaping cavern of the Captain’s ruined skull. Terror fought with a strange elation, what to her sensitive soul seemed a perverse joy in the destruction of her would be persecutors as the scene wound to its bloody conclusion.

The last guardsman lay on his back, boot heels scraping as he tried desperately to back away from the apparition of fear stalking towards him. His lips mumbled pleading, begging mercy as tears cut trails through the grime on his cheeks. Not breaking stride, no sense of hesitation or remorse the dark figure reached the blubbering cur, driving the length of his blade through the guard’s skull, pinning the now thrashing corpse to the ground. The silence that  fell as the wretch’s feet stopped twitching was profound, even the driving rain seeming to slacken for a moment as if the world was pausing for breath. The grating of steel on bone as the hooded one withdrew his sword sent a shiver through Gretta’s spine, bringing the world crashing back. Slowly she rose, almost dreamlike in her slowness, each step forward seeming to take every bit of strength she had left. While the rest of the cowering pilgrims huddled together well outside the ring of carnage she drew close to the menacing man in black, no less afraid than them but driven forward by her curiosity and desire to thank their deliverer.

Seeming oblivious to the ragged pilgrims, the man was busying himself with dragging the bodies of the fallen towards the still covered wagon, piling them about the large wheels. There seemed to be greater agitation beneath the canvas covering the wagon’s sides, growing as each bloody corpse was dropped. Gretta found her steps now drawn towards the wagon, a morbid curiosity overtaking her first impulse. As she drew closer a charnal stench filled her nostrils, a foetid rotting smell raising bile in her throat. She paused a few inches from the loosely hanging tarp, hand raised as if to peel it back but still hesitant. Without warning a ragged nailed hand shot out at her, fingers held stiff, raking at her face. She stumbled back, slipping on the mud and falling hard on her backside, eyes locked in terror on the withered grey fleshed arms straining out of what was clearly a cage. Behind the writhing limb she caught a glimpse of a twisted face, black toothed mouth and hollow eyes impressing upon her terror filled brain an impression of unholy, ravenous hunger. She sat trembling, unable to break that gaze until a sudden sweeping flash passed between her and the thing followed by the thud of a severed arm hitting the ground and a madness inducing howl of pain. The hungry eyes disappeared suddenly into the darkness of the covered cage, the flap of the canvas tarp mercifully concealing whatever was occurring withing as the wagon shook and rocked, the air suddenly filled with wet tearing noises, gristly snaps and gnashing.

Without warning Gretta found herself yanked to her feet, an iron grip wrapped like a vice about her upper arm. The rest of the night was suddenly shut out by a dark face, Saracen features glaring at her, deep set dark eyes like pools filled from the cup of the surrounding night piercing into hers. Strange marks writhed over cheeks and brows, almost every bare inch of skin covered in tattooed writing, scripts of Latin, what appeared to her uneducated eyes as what might of been Hebrew intermixed with other strange squiggles and dots. The stranger’s other hand gripped her chin, turning her face from side to side, eyes flicking, searching.

“Fool girl, did it cut you?!? Answer me, swiftly, did it touch you at all?” Again the low voice, deep, rolled out from grim lips, shaking her roughly, his eyes boring into her almost as cruel and hard as the Captain’s had been.

“N-n-no” Gretta managed to sob out, all of the horrors of this cursed night piling upon her, crashing down as she sagged in this brutal man’s grip, body wracked by sudden uncontrollable weeping. She had always thought of herself as strong, a life of bleak hardship and want instilling in her a resolve even most of the men in her former village found hard to match but she was still young and while she had been told of the darkness that held her home in it’s sway, of brutality and acts of wanton depravity she had never witnessed first hand such things and this was just too much. She twisted in the hard grip of the man above her, twisting and beating futilely against his arms and chest, wanting nothing more than to run and run until her poor heart finally burst and she could escape this hell.

“Be still now, be still child. I am sorry to have been so rough in your handling but your rash actions put you in more danger than you have ever been this night” Gretta looked up into the savage face, tears blurring it’s lines but she caught a faint softening in it, the lines about the mouth less stern, the eyes less flint hard. More gently the grip on her arm pulled her up until she found her feet then released her, allowing her to collect herself, wiping the tears from her eyes with the mud grimed back of her hand. Now that he had confirmed that she had not been harmed by the thing in the wagon his attention went back to his grim task of gathering bodies allowing Gretta to better take in the details of his manner and dress. Most of the torches had been dropped in the melee but there were two lanterns hanging from the wagon and in this dim pool of light she noted many peculiar things about his dress. His garments beneath his long leathern cloak were simple, loose black tunic and breeches of rough spun material and thigh high boots with the tops turned down were normal enough but the breastplate worn over the tunic was of unusual make and it’s surface was scored all over with strange glyphs and wards. Around his waist was a broad baldric from which hung the sheath of his sword and the holsters for his pistols, the leather also tooled in strange mystic fashion. It wasn’t until her eyes lighted on the silver collar about his neck that a faint realization began to dawn.

“Tell me, good sir, for I would wish to know, what is your name? I would like to be able to address our savior and thank him appropriately”

“I am Nameless” The words were thrown out casually as he continued his task but they thundered in her ears. All of her life she had heard the tales, since the coming of The Corpse Moon and the rise of evil, of the Order of Uriel and The Nameless Brothers but never in her wildest dreams had she ever thought to meet one. Yet here, before her was this lone, grim man, one of the precious few left fighting back the darkness.

“I-I cannot thank thee enough Brother, you have saved myself and my kin from a bleak fate.”

“Bleak would not be the word I would use, but something much blacker. If I had not come across these corpse monger’s trail your kin would have found themselves joining yon hell-wights in damnation and those of you scented by their hound would have been bound for Avignon where your purity would have been put to blasphemous usage and the pleasure of The Apostate” 

A shudder ran through Gretta as Nameless let such fell words fall so casually. She turned once more to the covered jail, face pale as death. Glancing back she looked upon her father amongst the still fearful group of travelers, his mouth bloodied, now unable to meet her gaze. “What are they, those in the cage?”

“They were men and women once, before they found themselves in The Apostate’s clutches.” Nameless paused and looked towards the cage, a mixture of loathing and pity upon his face. “They were most likely put in a deep pit, probably more than a hundred at first, crammed together tight in the dark. They keep the starved, no food at all, growing ever more hungry and desperate. The weakest would count themselves lucky, just dropping dead. It’s the ones that held on who would suffer so much more.” He turned then to look into Gretta’s eyes, holding them with his fathoms deep eyes. “So, what do you do when you’re starving, surrounded by darkness, without hope and your fellow prisoner’s corpses your bed mates? From the first bite it takes hold, the new, endless hunger. Once all the dead ones are devoured they turn on the living, the weaker, tearing them apart. That leaves only the strongest, the hungriest you see, the ones they want. It’s a common little trick of theirs, to bring a wagon load of ghouls to a city or stronghold that still resists them and release the foulness within upon the inhabitants. The dead flesh gives them strength and they are damned hard to kill. Along with the need to kill and feed they bring plague. Twenty to fifty strong is usually enough to soften up whatever resistance exists before the armies march in and finish up.”

“God have mercy!” Gretta gasped, drawing her hand to her mouth, fresh new waves of horror threatening to overcome her again.

“As I am His instrument, they will soon feel it.” As he spoke, Nameless drew from a pouch at his belt several phials tightly sealed. Within them Gretta glimpsed what appeared to be lumps of some kind of metal suspended in thick oil. He held them delicately in his palm, his concentration momentarily absorbed before turning to her once again. “It shall soon be dawn and your passage more easy yet not safe. You had best hurry on while you have some cover in the night and move with all swiftness. About sixty leagues along this road you should come to a Bavarian way fort. Once there you should be able to shelter and gather supplies. Your ultimate journey has many more miles to its fulfillment but at least you will be beyond The Apostate’s immediate reach.”

Gretta turned towards where her folk still cowered, Nameless’ cool words filling her with purpose and at least some glimmer of hope. She had already taken a few steps away before turning back, a sudden fear in her eyes. “You mean you will not bring us hither, you shall leave us?”

“Alas, I must, although I have confidence you will not find the way held against you. There are others of this ilk” here he kicked one of the corpses at his feet “that I must thwart however I may. My task is long and wearying but I cannot lay it aside even for a short time to ensure the safety of a few when the salvation of all is what I have sworn to do or die in the trying. Go now and swiftly, the gates of the way fort close at dusk and you will be lucky to make it there even if you make good time” Nameless turned away then, focusing back on the wagon and some obscure preparations he seemed intent on preforming.

Silently Gretta turned, walking back to her people. They shuffled away at first, as if they were a little frightened of her, that she was somehow apart from them now. Maybe she was at that. She quieted their questions, explaining as much as she needed to get them back upon their journey. She went to her father, tearing off a piece of her skirt to wash away the blood about his mouth and nose. He was a good man, but simple, full of fear and in a world he could barely understand. His life had been twenty miles of Provence as had the lives of all his fathers fathers. She looked at him tenderly then to all of the others, little better prepared than he to face the hardships before them. “Come now, we must go” her soft words drew them about her and they set off, none looking back.

As they neared a bend in the road the rains began to lessen and there was a faint lightening to the gloom ahead. There was promise there, the hope that they might find some haven down this long road and their steps quickened slightly. Suddenly from behind there was a loud rushing noise, a sudden whoosh and crackling. The others scurried forward, completely unable to bring themselves to spare even a glance back. Gretta however stopped, turning around in the road way to take in the scene behind her. The road behind was still mostly pitch black, save that where the wagon stood was an inferno, huge, greasy orange and red flames lined with thick streamers of black soot clawed and waved in the black casting into sharp silhouette a lean figure, standing tall and alone. The image struck her sharply, the darkness all around pressing in from all sides threatening to swallow everything, all that stood to resist it’s onslaught a single grim, terrible, lonely man within an island of light. With that last thought, Gretta turned away for the last time and lifter her gaze forward, to the horizon and the promise of new dawn.