How to Serve An Unholy God. Part one: How to Make Gristle.
The town in which I was born was poorly named. The town was known as “Haven.”
It consisted of a cluster of buildings built along the town’s only road. Haven had everything a peasant could conceive of desiring. There were many farmers and herders in the surrounding hills and valleys of Haven, and the town provided every need one from such a place could conceive of. We had a mill, a baker, a blacksmith, a butcher, the valleys were fertile, and the sheep grew thick in fur and flesh.
The moon was blood red the night I was squeezed between my mother’s thighs. There was no account of this lunar coloration in any of the memories of the town’s eldest, nor was there any scholar, or scroll written, that mentioned a similar occurrence had ever passed.
I have been told the night I was born every woman with child in Haven miscarried with the exception of two. Some early in their pregnancy; some even unaware of their condition, merely bled. One woman died in the passing of her unborn baby. Another child was born dead and misshapen with varying accounts of the extent of its disfigurement. Of the many unborn deaths that night only two babies ever met eyes with the world. One, deemed Azalia, was said to be born chubby and laughing with a full head of blonde hair. I was the other.
With only two midwives in the town of Haven, and those off tending to clients able to pay, I was born of a mother alone in our single room shack. She pushed me into this world onto our bare wooden floor standing on her own two legs. She cut my chord with a carving knife from a drawer and wrapped me in a thin blanket. As a child I’d overheard it said that I was born bald, with a sickly appearance, pale and thin and lacking the breath of life. My mother held me through the night convinced she would have to place me beneath the earth in the morning. After weeping until she nodded off with my body resting on her chest she awoke the next morning to the sound of my weak crying.
Perhaps the memory of those days, blurred as they are, have been tainted by the effect of nostalgia, but in as many ways as I can recollect the time spent with my mother was filled with joy. We shared a small one room house. As a child I had little and was put to every task I could accomplish as soon as I was strong enough to achieve them. I helped with the cooking, scrubbing the wash of others in exchange for firewood, and smearing the many chinks and cracks in the walls of our home with mud to seal out the frigid wind.
I still recall the night I returned to our excuse for a home with arms full of dung to burn when I found my mother had finally succumbed to the pox. In fear of the disease my home was burned with every possession within. As a bastard I had no one left to care for me and the people of the town, fearing I would bring the illness into their homes, turned me into the street.
It was my first night huddled in the blackness of an alleyway that a man came to me. I was pulled from my sleep, my face forced into the mud and my breeches ripped from my backside. I pushed myself from the ground with my arms and as I felt the man penetrate me I cursed him. I cursed him with every foul word a boy of that age could know. I cursed him in the name of every god, creature and evil spirit. I cursed him in a tongue I did not know I possessed. I cursed him and he stopped.
I heard snapping sounds and gurgling then, and when I spun around I saw Leone. Leone was a tall man with a thin build, fittingly cruel eyes as dark as his hair, and what I saw to be an unaccountable strength with a large, heavy, red headed fellow at the end of his arm. He held the man a foot aloft. In one hand he had the large mans throat. The man died fairly silently as Leone increased his grip, driving his fingers into his neck and when the man fell away he still held a handful of throat in his grasp.
I thought surely I would die as I watched my uncle drop the chunk of flesh and lick the blood from his fingers but he merely said “come with me boy” and, seeming to have no choice in the matter, I did.
That very night uncle took me to his home and gave me my new name “Gristle.” The remainder of my days at the estate was spent mainly in solitude and my beloved uncle never spoke to me in any other form than one of command. I never missed a meal. I took orders only from uncle, and I treated our servants as I chose. I treated the world, besides uncle, as I chose.
My uncle was a strict man but I owed the man my life, every meal I ate, every stitch of clothing and possession I owned, even the fact that I drew breath to this day, was owed to my wonderful uncle The Lord Leone.
The Lord was not an official title. To this day I cannot say why Leone insisted on calling himself a lord, not merely lord Leone either but “The Lord Leone” or “The Lord” for short. The omission of the “The” in “The Lord” was call for a strapping on a charitable day, and in a foul temper it called for a more severe punishment, typically a beating with the poker from the fireplace. It was clear Leone loved me however as the punishment was quite more severe for his servants, for them the mistake was never made twice.
One day an impudent servant fearing the loss of his remaining fingers decided to flee our estate. He discovered a key to my uncle’s workroom and, daring to think that he might escape a rich man, ventured into to the forbidden room. Finding my uncles work there he fled.
When the villagers caught word of the room’s content they quickly amassed and came to put a stop to my uncle’s work.
At the time I did not understand how my uncle knew of their coming. He simply burst from his room, and asked, actually asked, that I come to him. He placed his hand on my shoulder, smiled, an expression usually reserved for acts of cruelty, and handed me a tome bound in thick black leather. He told me I must take my horse and flee south, that I must never return, and that the book must always be protected.
As always I did exactly as I was told, and as I left the grounds I saw the lights of the torches approaching. It appeared that nearly every man had come, riding hard on horseback, there were nearly fifty. Still, they were in for more trouble than they knew.
I rode hard south an hour to a small cave I knew of and hid there until the next night. I rode home then in the darkness to find what remained of my uncle and estate.
The mansion had been burned to the ground and the ashes still glowed. There was no one in sight. There had clearly been a battle though, nine horses lay dead and there were damaged and broken weapons and several mangled bits of armor as well. There were many large patches of blood dried to the ground and the flies and crows had come for their meals. The men that had been killed had been carried off to be buried and besides the sound of scavengers it was quiet.
I stood stunned for a time until the sun began to rise and in the morning light I kicked through the remains of my home but there was nothing left. It was then that I found my uncle.
He was unrecognizable. They had hung his body from a tree in the field. His face was charred to the skull and his flesh was torn in many places, his hands and arms were dark red from battle up to his elbows, and he had many arrows and quarrels sticking from his chest.
Using a discarded dagger I cut him from the tree and dug his shallow grave beneath the ash tree in which they had hung his body.
I took no moment for my late uncle. I said no prayer. I had tears to hold back for him but even one drop shed would be an injustice to this man. I merely planned my next move.
As I had not eaten in a day I cut some flesh from one of the dead horses and ate it raw. In my experience the only meal worse than raw horseflesh is no meal at all in but I had not eaten in a day and needed my strength. I had never eaten horse; however as was my uncles want, we had always had our meat served raw.
I had only the clothes on my back, the book, and the dagger I had salvaged. The villagers had seemed to have stripped the property clean as surely as the crows would pick the horses to the bone.
I had one remaining place to go. He was the only companion I had ever seen my uncle treat with any respect. His name was Hitherto and I had never met him.
I had been taken to his cabin a day’s ride to the south before and seen them talk. My uncle had brought two mules loaded heavy with supplies. I had seen them talk from a distance and the words could not be heard but my late uncle had actually smiled and placed a friendly hand upon his shoulder. When he returned from his conversation Leone came to me and told me that I would remember the way to Hitherto’s house in case I was required to return alone. As with every order I received from The Lord Leone I followed his instructions. I had memorized every detail on the trip home.
Though it had been years since I had seen Hitherto and we had never spoken I knew that there lay answers I dare not have asked my uncle while he lived. I knew, at least, that there was the only alternative to starving or freezing to death in the wilderness. To return to the village was unthinkable, a hanging was likely and preferable to living among those that had opposed my family.
I rode hard through the morning and did not arrive at his small stone cabin until the sun had nearly set. The cabin was remote, had no trail to follow in which to find it, and was well hidden among a stand of rocks.
I tied the horse to a low hanging branch and approached the wooden door. I listened for a moment at the door, heard nothing, drew my dagger, and opened the door gently
The heat within the room struck me in the face. There was a fireplace blasting in the room, and little else. There was only a bed covered in skins in the corner with a large chest at its foot and an old man lying in bed. He was nude, and nearly every bone in his body was visible. Though the heat was heavy he shivered silently and without the shaking of his body I would have thought him dead.
The man was undeniably Hitherto though he had changed since I had last seen him. It appeared his hair had left him, he had lost weight almost to the point of being emaciated, and he clearly hadn’t long to live.
I had a brief thought of slicing the old man’s throat to end his suffering as I opened the door when his eyes flashed open and he sprung to his feet.
He smiled, flashing his rotted teeth as he spoke.
“Gristle, have you brought the book?”
“ How do you know of the book?” I asked.
“Your uncle fought well killing a dozen men of an army of fifty two.” He replied.
“How do you know of my uncles death and the book?” I once again asked.
“The dark lord Teneborous gifts us each in different ways and you may have the greatest of his gifts. Now tell me please. Do you have the book?”
I had not decided whether or not to dispatch the old man yet but I saw no harm in bringing forth the book. When the old man saw it his eyes began to tear and his mouth opened wider in a gaping smile revealing more rotted teeth.
“Then there is hope yet for the dead god Teneborous.”
“I know nothing of any god!” I said. “I have had everything taken from me. My uncle has been slaughtered. My home is burnt to the ground, and the only thing I hope for is for those involved to suffer. An old man with his skin clinging to his bones cannot help me. Give me one reason not to slit your throat, take what you have, and leave your soul to languish among the dead with your god.”
As the threat in statement left my mouth the old man laughed, let me finish, and then moved with a speed I’d only seen in light. In an imperceptible instant I was pinned to the wall, my feet lifted from the floor with both arms in the vice grip of his small hands. His grasp was unaccountably strong and for a moment my thoughts flashed back to my uncle tearing out a man’s throat with one hand. I dropped the dagger from my left hand as the pain increased and just as I thought he would snap my arms he dropped me to the floor.
As he spoke the words “You will obey.” standing over me the flames from the fire place rose to the ceiling of the stone house in a burst lighting his face and I knew, like it or not, that I had a new master.
Hitherto’s countenance for the remainder of the night was friendly. I followed his orders to the word as I’d been taught and he treated me with a kindness that I had never experienced in anyone with the power to enforce my respect.
His first act was to demand the book. I had kept it wrapped within a shirt beneath my jacket. Still, though in the rising light of the flames he must have seen it; it was his first act of command. I pulled it from my side tucked into my belt and held it up before him.
He smiled at the sight of it though it appeared to be any other black leather book to me and said.
“This book may be the last copy of our faith. It will grant you the power and revenge you seek, it will grant you strength you cannot imagine, I have heard that Leone heard you speak its words when you were merely a boy. I have heard in the sickness Teneborous grants me that you may be the strongest follower that has yet to come. In time no one will stand against you. In time you will bring the darkness to all those who oppose you. In time you will be as a god on the earth. These things will come with burden. They will come with prices you cannot perceive. The things I have seen will only occur if you stick to the path our god lays before you and I cannot force you to accept these conditions. We do not possess the powers to control ones will. If revenge is what you seek you will find it in our faith.”
I learned more of Hitherto in my time spent with him in his cabin. Though the fire was never fed it always threw intense flame and I later learned that this was one of Hitherto’s only gifts from Teneborous and that, though it came with a price, this was Hitherto’s greatest blessing.
I spent the next week in the cabin and the heat from the fireplace was sweltering. Hitherto slept often and, like him, I took to sitting in the cabin nude.
I rarely ate. One sparse meal a day was what I was provided and Hitherto never seemed to eat a bite. Between Hitherto’s unconscious spells he told me what I needed to know.
“My gift is unique.” Hitherto told me one night in the light of the flames “I am granted the vision of our god without sacrifice, without blood, I have failed to develop the strength and abilities that are gifted to the dark gods’ followers, but I have my own gifts. We each develop our own power. I feed the fire in my home with the strength in my body, and in return I see in the flames things that no other mortal can discern.”
“So this is how you knew of the death of my uncle? This is how you knew that I would bring the book?” As I said these words I knew the answer, but one’s words lay heavier than any assumptions.
Hitherto then smiled as the remarks left my lips and responded.
“I have seen the battle that slew Leone blow for blow. I have seen the expression on his face as he handed you the book. I have seen many things for you that will come to pass, and I have seen very little for the future I will have. I have seen that I will be your first kill. I will be your first sacrifice, and a willing, virginal sacrifice will grant you great strength. You will seal your life pact with my god with my very own blood. You will slaughter me and read from the book for the first time in a tongue that you have spoken as a child. I will bond you to our god more strongly than anyone in history and you will resurrect Teneborous to stretch his shadowy hands across the horizon. You will have the kind of power that yet remains unseen. All that remains is for you to follow the path that Teneborous lays before you.”
I demanded he tell me more upon hearing these words and his only response was to lie back upon his bed. He murmured “This will be my last rest,” as he lay back down and, though I found that promising, I did not have the guts to wake him from his sleep to ask more. Even I did not have the gall to disturb such an old man from his final repast.
I nodded off for a time after watching Hitherto sleep and was shaken awake in the light of the fire to his face held close to mine, both hands on my shoulders jerking me back and forth, his foul breath in my nose, and a wicked grin with which he pushed the odor through.
“It is time!” he exclaimed, “It is time!”
“What would you have of me?” I asked, rising from sleep.
“It is time for you to slay me!” cackled the old man.
I stood from my place as the old man flung the blankets and skins from his bed to reveal a large stone slab. Etched deeply along the altar’s surface were runes and symbols indecipherable to me.
Hitherto then produced a knife. The blade of the knife was half a foot long, razor sharp, and was curved down its length as a snake in motion is. The hilt appeared to be carved from bone though the coloring of the bone was black.
“Slither”, muttered Hitherto as he pressed the weapon into my hand, “a gift and creation from your uncle, with this knife’s edge a sacrifice will grant Teneborous greater strength and its wielder, acting as a conduit, will gain power as well, but first you must learn the ritual with which you will sacrifice others to more gain than merely their pain and your joy.”
The next item pressed into my hands was the book. As I took the book from him I scowled. I had flipped through the book before and found only page after page of indecipherable writing. It seemed to be of great importance to my masters but I was not looking forward to months of studying a dead language
As I opened the book to the first page Hitherto began to chant. At first the words he was saying sounded mostly of growls, hissing, and guttural sounds but as I dragged my eyes across the top of the page his voice rose inside of me. The meanings of the individual words did not and have never come to me, but they were understood. The translation came to me in senses, actions, and flashes of thought. The writing of the runes upon the page gave their meaning and once the teachings of the book were allowed to me I had never had trouble recalling them. A low voice added itself to that of Hitherto, and as I took my eyes from the page and met Hithertos’ I realized that the voice was my own.
As our voices met Hitherto laid himself down upon the altar. It was bloody work that began with carving the ancient words of Teneborous into his skin with Slither and then the task grew more painful and more gruesome. Though I have no doubt that he suffered, Hitherto’s only reaction to my indoctrination to our faith was to chant more intensely as I drew the razor sharp edge through his flesh. After what must have been at least several hours leaning over the body of my teacher with words passing between my lips that I only partially grasped, and performing a sacrifice I did not know but seemed to come to me as I cut, I thrust the crooked blade through Hitherto’s exposed heart.
The flames in the fireplace burst into the room flashing around me as we screamed the final words of the ritual in unison and extinguished themselves as I extinguished Hitherto with one final twist. For a moment I stood exhausted and blackened with blood caking the front half of me and pooling around my feet. I had never killed before and for that instant as the trance like ordeal ended I had doubts that I had done this vile thing on the whim of a delusional dying old man.
The change came quickly.
I was not struck with a flash of lightning. The walls did not shake. The affect of my sacrifice, however, was unmistakable.
It was as if a black smoke rose from within and curled itself around my heart. It was as if I had been gifted with a presence and a purpose and knew that I would carry this certainty with me as long as I carried my own awareness.
I smiled as my new dark lord took its rightful place upon me, and, feeling a sudden burst of strength, I stepped outside into the night to fetch more firewood that I may have light to study the book.
It would take every waking moment to resurrect the dead god Teneborous in my lifetime and it would take much suffering, my suffering, the suffering of those that would stand in my way, those that would invoke my wrath, and most importantly those that one would deem innocent. It would take all, and possibly end all, but I would deliver the world to my final master and he would treat the world as he chose.
How to Serve an Unholy God. Part Two: Gristle Can Be Tough
The years passed. I remained in Hitherto’s cabin for a time and learned what I could from the tome. The more I read from the book and practiced the art of my new lord the more the writing within revealed itself to me. Eventually the need for materials and those to subject them upon drove me into the outside world.
I grew from a pupil of an obscure legend to a lone general who, in the act of his worship, was able to hold himself close to an unimaginable power I hoped to bring to being before me. I grew closer to meeting Teneborous face to face.
I was led from lesson to lesson, from killing to killing. I often had no notion of my exact location. I was guided through the clouded visions I received with the proper execution of a ritual taught in the book. Others ends at the point of Slither not only guided me like beacons through life, but eventually sustained me.
I had made a temporary base in the cellar of a small farmhouse half a day’s ride from an inn wrapped in a cluster of cottages sliced through the middle by a fairly untraveled road.
The occupants had been a slightly aged farmer, two young women both blonde of hair and fair of face who had the courtesy of doing nothing but shrieking in the corner while I subdued their father, and a rather cute puppy who had at least had the nerve to bark loudly and growl when I shattered the door to their home.
The farmer had sprung from his bed, pulled a whittling knife from its sheath hanging on his bed post, and came at me with a battle cry rivaled only by soldiers charging into a fray. I dispatched him with the flick of the back of my hand.
After securing the girls with a length of rope in the cellar I had dragged the unconscious man into the room with them and quickly but ritualistically dispatched him. I required death to maintain my link with the god of such things. To maintain and increase the gift I had been given I must remove the gift that any living being strives to keep.
Thankfully the women I had acquired wept rather silently for their father and after checking their bonds to ensure they could not slip away I managed to sleep till morning.
When gifted with my strength I required little sleep, however, the sleep I did require was deep, black, and was filled with visions and beings, tentacles and fangs, that even I failed to grow accustomed to. I had not slept or required rest, had not even had to catch my breath, in five days, and the time had come.
I awoke the next day and checked the knots that bound my two new acquisitions. They shrank from me as I approached but did nothing more than moan lightly and press closer together as I drew near. Their wrists were chaffed and slightly bloody but they would not escape me.
I made my way back up to the ground floor of my victims’ home and began to systematically tear the place apart. I ripped the beds into fluff, shattered the remaining furniture for fun, and sifted through the tools and clothing.
I found little of use, though to be fair, I had little use of most things.
Gradually I had found that I no longer needed food or water. I still ate on occasion but never out of necessity or hunger. When I did eat or drink it was out of more of nostalgia of my former life. If something looked or smelled particularly good I would taste it and if I felt the need to celebrate I enjoyed wine. I even felt its affects, but I seldom lowered my guard enough to get drunk. Over time I no longer felt hunger or thirst. Over time I fed on suffering.
I also found little use of clothing. I wore clothing, naturally, to avoid drawing attention. I did not; however, seem to succumb to the elements as I used to. I still felt heat from the fire, and experienced the cold of blowing snow, but I no longer seemed to sweat and it seemed easier to simply wear the clothes of those unfortunate enough to find themselves at my altar.
The only things I carried with me were the two items I had been given upon the death of my uncle, the blade of The Lord Leone’s creation Slither at my belt, and the book which had been given to me shortly before his death wrapped in oiled leather within a pack I kept strapped across my back.
Out of a need to be thorough and a small amount of boredom I began to pry the boards from the floor one at a time pulling them up with the tips of my fingers. I came upon a small pouch of mostly copper and several silver, a lifetime of a poor farmers savings and enough to buy me nights in the local inn when I heard a call from outside.
It was a panicked voice that grew closer from the doorway of my temporary home.
“Delilah!” It began seeming to come from far away and then the voice grew closer. “Delilah! Delilah!”
It sounded of a young man, though there were still some bass in it, clearly one of the maidens in my newly acquired cellar had an admirer
I pressed myself against the wall by the door as the voice grew near and waited for him to step into the house.
A shadow fell across the room from the doorway and the newcomer got a good look at my handiwork. A final “Delilah!?” came from the young man as he glanced within the room at the shattered furniture and before I had the chance to spring from my place pressed against the wall several feet from the doorway he fled.
Once I realized that he had more sense than courage his shadow had already fell away and I limped quickly to the entrance. Stepping over the remains of the door I had smashed to pieces the night before I saw the backside of a man running full speed away. I had no chance of catching him before he reached the inn. Thankfully he had not seen me but there was no real way to predict just how large a force would come to investigate the shattered door and obliterated dwelling.
It was time to move on.
You may be wondering why, gifted with all the strength and speed the shadow of Teneborous grants me, I did not merely run the young man down and dispatch him before he had gone too far. Well even a follower as powerful as me has my limitations and the weakness laid upon me for the strength I had acquired thus far seemed to linger upon my left leg.
My leg had grown stiff and swollen gradually as my other gifts had increased. My leg’s complexion, though rather pale in general, had gone first white followed by veins of purple then black. The skin had thickened and grown patches of fur running down to my feet, and the foot itself had grown misshapen with thick curved claws where the toenails had once been. If one were to judge my appearance from merely a look at my left leg you would think it the leg of some beast to be hunted in the woods whose head would be mounted above the hearth to frighten children. Every step I took sent a jolt of pain flashing up my side. To match the speed of someone walking spiritedly caused me great pain and, though I had not encountered any man who could stand against me, I was not ambulatory enough to catch a child fleeing away from me.
I had been forced to use the gifts of awe, terror, and more than a little cunning. It helped that I stood only five and a half feet, and limped severely when convenient. It helped that every fool I had ever met in a fight, or rather slaughter, had not thought twice of my countenance as they approached to school me in their lessons of civility. I had always replaced their moments of over confidence with pain and fear before their deaths and I had always selected the locations of these moments carefully.
I could not remain in the farmhouse. There was no way of determining how many would come once the alarm was raised and, more importantly, there was no way to defeat the reinforcements the survivors of the initial search party would bring.
I would have to find new shelter where I could sacrifice my two girls.
I tethered the women’s bound hands to a leash, issued a command “Come!”, and headed in the opposite direction of the village in which Delilah’s young friend had ran. The girls resisted of course and I was forced to drag them at the end of a rope up the cellar stairs. I dragged them another fifty feet away from their home gripping the rope in one hand and yanking it forward as the rope grew taught. The girls soon took to their feet rather than being dragged with one sobbing loudly with every pull of the leash and the one in the rear following silently with a blank stare.
I knew I took a risk not dispatching them and making my way alone, but I had not found a catch this good in sometime. Two innocent women, possibly even virgins, was not a prize I was willing to waste upon a quick killing. These two deserved my time and attention. I would make my way to the woods where I could find cover, and drag them through the trees until I was sure no one would disturb us. Besides it would take time for the boy to reach the village and return with whatever poorly armed peasants that would come to investigate.
To this day I have only suspicions as to how they found me so quickly. The bothersome boy must have flagged them down on the road or possibly ridden his horse into the ground to reach help but, merely an hour from the cover of the woods that had been my hope and salvation, rode six well armed men.
Normally I would have played the helpless cripple muttering “please sirs” and “beg your pardon but I must be on my way”, but, as I had not time to find replacement clothing, I had a fair amount of blood on me from the slaughter of the girls presumed father. Not that any of this made a difference as I was pulling along two young innocent women still in their bed clothes moaning and crying at the end of a rope.
The four men on the left wore the same garb. They were clad in chain mail long sleeve shirts and large orange and red checkers on their clothing with brown ankhs in the center. They wore identical swords on their belts and even had similar hair that appeared to have been shorn with a bowl placed over the tops of their heads. They could have been brothers judging from their long noses and matching scowls. This was a stroke of luck. Allegiance in battle against your average opponent is a good thing, but in loyalty and bravery there also lies stupidity.
To the right of the brothers with a bad barber rode a man in a knight’s armor. His breastplate bore the same checkers as his companions clothing and he was wrapped in steel plates. He wore a tall spiked helm with the visor up and under a rather red bulbous nose a bushy mustache covered most of the lower half of his face. He had a sword at his side that matched the others and a long spear held aloft in his right hand the butt of which rested in his stirrup. His armor was worn, with signs that it had been repaired with patches several times as well as many scratches and small dents. This was not a rich noble man’s son that had just run out and spent a fortune purchasing his first set of plate mail. This was a man that had seen battles and had come to me to fight his last.
The man on the far right, now there presented a problem. He was not well armed and armored. He was slim and dark of skin, and wore only matching brown leather with a short sword half the length of the others at his belt, but slung over his shoulder was a bow and accompanying quiver. I had no weapon of range and, should a bowman keep his head about him, such a man could bring me a lot of pain.
I must have been quite a sight, standing at the height of a tall mans shoulder, limping along with a pair of women on a leash like I was leading two sheep to market. I stood before them, hollow cheeked, nearly bald with tufts of black hair, bloodstained clothes I had been wearing for weeks. I stood proudly before them as they rode toward me, chin up, and announced myself.
“My name is Gristle. These women are my property. Ride on or their fate will pale in comparison to the one I will bring to you.”
“Is he fucking serious?” One of the barber brothers muttered as the fools paused and exchanged grins and shook their heads at one another. “Kill him sir.” He added casually to the knight on his right.
The knight nodded slightly, puffed out his cheeks as he exhaled, and dropped his visor. He circled around the group, rode several lengths back the way they’d came, spun his horse around and, lowering his spear, galloped towards me.
I dropped my length of rope and waited until the tip of the spear had nearly reached my chest before I acted. I swung my right arm upward before me, knocking the spear’s course to the side and snapping the shaft in two. As the knight at the end of the now useless wooden stick came past me on my right I crouched down as I spun towards him with my left arm extended. I spun in a circle with my hand held out flat and low and caught the horse’s leg in a chop along the side of my palm. There was a crack as I snapped the horse’s rear leg as it passed and I completed the maneuver spinning all the way round to once again face the others before the horse had even had a chance to begin screaming and the sound of the mount and its rider hitting the ground had reached me.
As I completed the turn to flash a grim smile at the others they drew their swords and charged. They showed no fear or hesitation, many a man would say this trait is advantageous, to be lauded, many such men are doing me a favor.
They came towards me four abreast, swords drawn, riding tightly together in an effort to trample me. They came at full speed on horseback though to me they moved only slightly faster than a falling leaf.
I sidestepped to the right, favoring my good leg and taking advantage of the fact that the man on this side was right handed, holding only the reins of his horse in his left hand. As the horse came within reach I threw my left fist into its teeth, smashing them in. The momentum of the animal carried it past me and as the unlucky beast went by its rider leaned across the saddle towards me swinging with his sword. I reached up stepping into his swing, caught the grip he had on the blade in mine, and yanked hard while crushing his fingers in my grasp. I heard a familiar yet satisfying “pop” as his arm was dislocated and he fell. I braced myself as he slid from his horse onto me and, thrusting my left palm into his chest, flipped him over my head.
He hit the ground hard.
The other three riders went past on their horses, while the steed I had punched in the face plowed into the ground. I had knocked the animal out cold.
The knight’s horse whose leg I’d snapped above the knee was still screaming and attempting to drag itself away several paces from me.
The knight, clad in all that useless steel, had fallen with his horse and was still attempting to gain his feet.
I glanced down at the man whose arm I had just torn from the socket. He had the wind knocked out of him and with his sword arm useless he was more of a tool to me than an opponent.
I don’t believe the three soldiers, possibly brothers, understood the capacity for punishment I possessed. Their view of how I’d dispatched their compatriot had been concealed as they passed by on their horses. It was clear they had not had enough. This was fortunate as I was in agreement.
They had ridden past while I’d pulled the man from his horse, circled around tightly, now only three abreast, for another attack.
As they circled around I moved toward the unconscious mount whose face I had just smashed in. I didn’t have the time to place the toothless horse between me and them, but, with their path obstructed, they could not charge at full speed.
As they approached again more slowly I held my ground. They trotted towards me this time instead of charging at full speed. Their mounts gave them an unfair advantage. They could attack from above and escape my grasp before I could deal with them properly. Had they been on foot they would already be dead. I would remedy that.
As the three mounted men approached I heard and felt the whiz of an arrow brush past the back of my neck. Either the Moorish bowman was a poor shot or he had fired his first arrow in haste. I was hoping for the former. I would have to deal with him later. I had other things to concern me.
They came at me, still using their horses in an attempt to trample me. I once again stepped to the right to avoid facing all three of them just as the rider to my left reared up on his horse to try and catch me in the face with the horse’s hooves. The two riders to my right rode just behind him, slowed by the unconscious animal beside me, pressed closely together, leaning down in their saddles to hack at me as they drew close.
I stood between the two latecomers, took a wide stance, and forming my fingers and thumbs into a point, I drove them into the chests of the two beasts. My hands went past the bottom knuckles of my fingers half way to the wrists and the feel of the warmth of the inside of the mounts was pleasant and familiar. The horses added their screams to the one’s already filling the air and bucked wildly throwing off their riders, backing away several steps and tearing off in either direction.
The rider on my left who had just reared his horse in an attempt to cave in my skull was forced to back away as the horse in the center tore past him. The man riding the horse in the center fell landing on his back while the man on my right, more light on his feet, slid off his fleeing horse and quite fluidly approached. As his horse fled before him he came at me with an overhand swipe with the sword in his right hand.
I raised my left hand grasping his upper arm, tightened my grip to drive the chain mail armor he wore into his flesh, and thrust up with my right hand connecting with my palm into his chin. His head snapped backward. A slight gurgling emitted from his mouth with a small spout of blood as well as a few bits of teeth, and he fell backwards, quite dead I’m sure, although I never really bothered to check how soon that finality would come about.
I always enjoyed the looks on people’s faces upon seeing something they had thought impossible, seeing something few even read of, seeing me limping from opponent to opponent and lashing out with my bare hands causing more damage than tempered steel. Today was no exception.
The look on the last swordsman who had kept his horse spoke of fear and disbelief. He had seen me drive my bare hands into the horses and seemed unsure of whether to face me in an attempt to save the others or ride hard away to save his own skin.
I stepped over to the man that had just fallen from his horse trying to gain his feet and kicked him hard in the side. He rolled over in the dirt several times from the blow, moaning, and began to crawl away.
I looked to check the progress of the knight. He had removed his dented helmet and stood. There was a fair amount of blood trickling from his large red nose staining his bushy mustache. He stood his ground wearing a rather grim look, and, although looking a little unsteady, he appeared quite prepared to face his end.
Just as I noticed that he was not looking at me, but rather slightly past me, he nodded, and an arrow sprouted from my back.
With the pain that came with the addition of an arrow head to my anatomy came anger.
I quickly closed the gap between me and the knight. As I came within his reach he slashed. I bobbed back slightly letting the sword pass within an inch of my neck and stepped into a closed fist blow directly in the center of his breastplate. The curved piece of armor caved in leaving four distinct dents matching my knuckles and the knight collapsed backward.
I turned to view the battlefield.
The three survivors were fleeing, one on horseback, another clutching his side and limping from my reach and the last running hard away his arm dangling limply from its socket.
The bowman was riding his horse away slowly but still had another gift for me feathered and notched in his bow. He turned and took aim releasing the arrow. It went straight for my chest and, with a bit of luck, I was able to swat it away as it cut through the air towards me.
Even I was not quick enough to pluck every arrow from the air that came at me. At best I could do this one time in ten. On horseback an archer could easily fire arrows at me until his quiver was emptied.
This archer, fortunately, had clearly had enough and after stopping to pull the man I had kicked in the side upon the back of his horse he fled with the others.
More would come. With two men on horseback it would not take long. They had seen the power I had and the limitations that came with. They would come prepared this time. One man with a bad leg defeating six armed men in combat would not be ignored. My only hope was to flee deep into the woods.
Part Three: A Craven Mind
I had no map. I had no concept of a safer area to continue my lessons. My only concern was to lose myself thoroughly in the woods that dominated the area north of the road which I had followed for sometime in search of prey.
I had just enough reach to grasp the arrow lodged near my shoulder blade and rip it from my back. After a little probing I could tell that the process of pulling the arrow head loose had left a rather large, ragged hole, and my hand was wetted with dark red and black blood.
Had I been entirely mortal the right thing to do would have been to leave the steel in my back until I could find someone to remove it and treat the wound. Of course had I been entirely mortal I would surely have had to decide between death from blood loss and infection, or to risk seeking out someone to patch me up and being found.
I had evolved to a point that I was not even sure I could bleed to death. I do know that the wound would not heal, would not scab over, and would not rot to a point of foul stench. The wound would turn black, the ragged skin and flesh would pale and flake away, and I would carry the hole in my back I had been gifted with until my death. That was one thing my uncles passing had taught me. Regardless of how strong I grew I could still achieve death.
Thankfully I was not a weak thing of entirely living flesh. The wound I received throbbed with pain, nearly as much pain as my crippled, monstrous left leg. I had kept the fastest pace I could upon fleeing the farmhouse with my two potential sacrifices, and the battle that followed had forced me to disregard the anguish that I knew came with the use of my clawed appendage. I knew the sensation from the torn flesh in my back would subside once I had pulled the arrow loose, however the anguish pulsing up my leg and stretching into my hip would remain for some time. I vaguely remember the days when living with pain was at most times an option. This would remain a memory as I had a lot of ground to cover.
I watched the soldiers flee until I was certain one of them would not circle around to follow.
There was little of use on the battlefield but I did retrieve the shaft of the spear I had snapped in the knight’s initial attack. It would make an excellent walking staff. I also watched the knight twitch as his mouth filled with blood and he quietly choked to death. As an afterthought I took the sword from his belt and tucked it into mine. I was faster and deadlier with my bare hands but it in a pinch I could throw it at an opponent. Unfortunately Teneborous had not seen fit to gift me with any skill in armed combat. I was hopeless with a bow, and while I had been given unholy precision in close quarters there was little chance I could sink a throwing knife into anything.
I made my way to the tree line an hour later and pushed on, discarding the walking stick and reaching out to the trunks to steady myself as I passed between them. I used the light of the setting sun to guide me further north at first, but as the sun vanished in the canopy above me I soon lost my sense of direction and did my best to continue in more or less a straight line. Soon the light faded, the trees grew more closely together forcing me to squeeze between them where I could and before long I was groping blindly arms thrust out before me with small shuffling steps to avoid tripping on the branches and roots strung across my path on the forest floor. This would not do. I would have to stop until the sun began to rise again. I wedged myself into a small group of trees with enough room in the center to sit and stretch my legs.
I stared into the darkness for a time, wallowing in the agony of my leg. I pressed my hand to my calf and could feel it throbbing, expanding and contracting as it pumped dark blood through. It was quite warm to the touch.
I gazed pointlessly from my eyes into the blackness and I raged within. My mind became a checklist of inequity
I had not entered into my pact in naivety. I acknowledged from the beginning that perhaps I was incapable of preparing myself for the price I would pay. I was aware that I had been in some way born to travel the path that lay before me. I grasped the irony of resenting the fate that Teneborous had dealt me considering that I had no delusions of the nature of my god and considering the fates of those who crossed my path. I had contemplated all of this, however none of it left me feeling any better about the position I had found myself in.
The shadow of my god had crippled me. My hard earned catch had fled screaming from my grasp as soon as I had released their leash leaving me with no victim with which to perform the ritual that may guide me, and while I had more than held my own against six armed and armored soldiers it was only a matter of time until more came thrashing through the woods to dismember me, remove my head from my shoulders, and carry it back to their home on the end of a pike. If the search party that would inevitably come arrived with even one soldier with any skill in following the footsteps and drag marks I knew I had left in the path behind me, if they brought even one old bitch of a hunting dog, I would surely be tracked down.
As these injustices flashed through my mind I began to curse beneath my breath in anger. I cursed all of those weak pink naïve sacks of flesh that had yet to come under my curved blade. I swore from the jagged flashes of pain that still coursed up my leg, and finally I began to spout blasphemy. I said things in near silence that only a damned fool would say of my vengeful god. I called him a coward, a spiteful son of a bitch that surely enjoyed seeing such a devoted follower suffer rather than redeem him. I called my god a twisted, angry, impotent familiar, and began to speak of how I would desecrate his corpse after giving him a long painful death when the words that flowed from my mouth began to take their own form. The cursing became chanting that flowed quite quietly, and, as always, I could not grasp their meaning though I had no doubt that I was the source.
The ritual invoked within me carried on for several minutes and as the intensity and volume increased I found myself more and more in its grasp. My muscles clenched. My back arched. My arms became locked rigidly at my sides with my hands in white knuckled fists and my legs splayed out before me. I sat spouting the sinister, incomprehensible language, held rigid in the grip of a long forgotten malice when the ground around me began to pulsate with vermin.
The rats poured around me from behind. They covered me up to the hip, crawling over my legs and drowning out what ground I had in my line of sight. They swarmed past as I chanted, my head locked gazing forward. I sat helpless, frozen in the wicked mantra that I had wallowed in on many occasions, reflecting on how long it had been since I had held a living creature this closely without lashing out or carving into its flesh.
I found that, over time, the lesser creatures I encountered became unwilling to bear my presence. It began gradually at first with my mounts growing more and more unsettled when I drew near. Cattle would part as I passed through their field, cats would hiss and scatter from my path, and dogs barked unceasingly growling and yelping until the more clever ones fled from me and the foolish mutts lives’ ended with a swift kick. Eventually I could no longer attempt to mount a horse without it screaming and throwing it’s hooves in every direction before galloping off. Even the insects that pestered every living thing steered clear of me. I had not been able to mount a horse or even received a mosquito bite since my leg had gone lame and began to sprout claws, yet here I was with my lower half covered in a swarm of rats so thick I feared they would cover me and strip me of my half living flesh. Either way I knew. I would never curse Teneborous again.
The throng of large black rats moved past me. They left me unbitten. All but one of them went past. I did not even notice this final rat perched upon the tip of my boot until it began to move slowly up my leg. The rat was very small. Black tufts of hair sprouted from what otherwise were a dark red coat of blood slicked fur. The rat was small, very small, of a size no larger than the tip of my pinky. It had no tail to speak of, nor ears, and the teeth that showed in an overbite from it’s’ mouth came to a point. As it crawled across my leg and up my torso I attempted to swat it away, to shuffle backwards to shake it loose but failed. I could not even manage to crook my head to observe its progress as it crawled closer to my face. I was held immobile, feeling every claw prick my skin, as this tiny creature slowly moved up my leg, across my torso, onto my left hand, up my left arm onto my neck, and, finally, it dug its way into my left ear.
As this creature burrowed its way uninvited into my left ear a pain ripped through me the likes of which I never experienced. Like a thunderclap agony sprouted from within my head and I was freed from immobility into a panicked state of action. I immediately jammed the little finger of my left hand into my ear. For a brief instant I felt the backside of the little shit but this seemed to only encourage the fucker to burrow deeper into my head.
I pulled the finger from my ear and the agony in the left side of my head intensified and began to go further in. I panicked. I became as a beast must when cornered with the sight of its own death reflecting in its eyes. As this small burrowing animal dug into me I reacted as a small burrowing animal would, I dug for it.
I began to claw at my left ear. At first I only pawed at the ear itself. A meek gesture of desperation but as the little parasite clawed its way deeper towards my skull and the flow of blood from my ear poured down my neck I began to dig just as the rat did.
It took two passes to tear the earlobe nearly off. After two more passes my hand was covered in blood and rubbery bits of my own flesh. It did not concern me at all that I could feel that this hell sent familiar had clearly dug its way so far into my head that I would be dead before I would ever remove it, that it would reach my skull and scratch its way into my brain soon.
I suppose I reacted the same way a wolf does whose leg is caught in a trap. Never mind that you’re not likely to survive in the wild without your leg. Never mind you may bleed to death moments after gnawing through your own appendage and limping away. Fuck all that forethought. When you know the hunter is coming for you. When you know that your life will end soon at the end of the wire of a snare, or the string of a bow, when you know you’ll soon die a horrible death from the incessant scratching of a small furry animal. When you meet the pain that comes at the end or at the near end it’s what you do. You dig. You gnaw. In my case, you tear at your flesh because either way you will meet your end at the hands of a true son of a bitch known as god. Regardless of which god you believe it to be. At that final moment you look your god in the eye and you know he is a son of a bitch for taking from you the thing you’d most like to keep. Your instincts, a gift we are all born with, demand that you act and react until every last shred of air has passed from your lungs, and so I tore my earlobe clean from the left side of my head and dug four bloody furrows across the hole that used to be my ear.
The pain then stopped and replaced itself with a high pitched ringing. The panic that had risen so high within me began to subside and I took several deep breaths and clamped my hand over the left side of my head in a vain attempt to block out the ringing that came from within. I could feel the blood trickle through my fingers. I then gingerly probed the damage I had done to my head with my left hand and felt at the bare hole and strips of flesh that had only moments ago been my ear. There was a long pause and despite the ringing, throbbing pain, and blood dripping from my shoulder I had trouble absorbing what had just occurred. It seemed unreal even to someone who had been through so much. I sat silently a few breaths more, mute, still in thought and action.
One last deep, shuddering breath left my chest and then the mind once again lit like a bonfire. Had this rat suffocated in my head? If not would it come out in its own in time? Was it merely pausing before burrowing its way further inside me leaving me with an agonizing death? Was this my deity’s final gift sent so that I may serve as an example of what occurs to a pawn that questions the motives of the hand that moves it across the board?
I felt movement within my head. A shifting as if the mouse were turning in circles as a dog does before lying down and then I heard it again.
“Suffering. You are the plaything of a being that thrives on it. You are a source of it both in your actions and yourself. Never complain of your suffering again no more than you would complain of your ability to breathe freely.”
I heard the voice quite clearly in my left ear. A flash of thought followed. I would never hear any other sound from this ear again.
“Craven is my title. Named for those I inflict who are. I am your reward for years of service and you will obey my every command or I will tunnel through your body slowly leaving you in an agony that not even a master of our cause could inflict. You have wasted more than enough time. You will obey my every command. Rise.”
I have no idea how long I fought Craven before I gave in. My first response was a tirade of cursing I cannot even recall. The familiar’s response to every thought or word against it was to burrow further until I could do no more than curl up upon the ground clutching my head, gritting my teeth so hard they nearly broke upon themselves and rocking back and forth in anguish. Finally it burrowed so deeply it reached my skull, scratching so hard it sent every nerve in my body singing and finally I obeyed the command Craven repeated. I rose.
I stumbled blindly through the trees for the remainder of the night. Craven issued commands as we went with me swearing at him the entire time.
“Left. Left. Around these trees to the right. Squeeze through these two rocks.”
I fell many times as Craven guided me. Every time my fall was punctuated with his hissing laughter and snickering comments of what a “weak being” I was, or how I did not “deserve to be spared.” However the sadistic fuck in my head seemed to know the terrain and the pain in my leg, though it had not subsided, meant nothing compared to the clawing at my skull that ensued when I slowed or failed to respond to his command quickly enough.
I groped my way along until the sky began to lighten and just as the light grew enough to make out the ground before me I heard the passage of water.
I came to a river shallow at its edge but deep and flowing strongly at its center. I was relieved when Craven asked only that I follow it downstream.
After a short ways the stream entered a canyon with high walls along either side and I was ordered to wade along the edge. I followed the current, up to my waste in the pulling water, and came upon a cave set in to the wall of the canyon.
The cave was high and deep enough to walk into and the ground rose leaving the floor of the cave dry and covered with moss. Within the cave widened and as I entered I was struck with the smell of smoke. There was a small fire choking out within a ring of stones, a small canoe, and a few piles of furs. After a moment of looking around I realized one pile of furs was lightly snoring.
I peeled away a layer of furs and could smell my next victim beneath them before I could see him. The odor was a blend of a long unwashed body and the wine he had thrown up upon himself in his sleep. He was short with a pronounced belly, curly black hair covered his body so thick that it was a wonder he would need to sleep under the skins at all. He had a thick black beard as well and a matching head of hair. His body bore black tattoos and holes were stretched in his ears. His head rested in a pool of his own vomit that was caked around his face. There were two empty bottles lying next to his outstretched arm and he showed no sign that he was at all aware of my presence.
I tore a piece of skin from the edge of the fur on which he slept, scooped up a long leather thong from several that lay on the ground by the canoe, drew the blade Slither from my belt and sat lightly on his chest, not placing my full weight upon him until I had both of his arms firmly pinned beneath my knees as I squatted on his chest. He remained oblivious snoring softly in his stupor until I turned his face towards mine, gently pried his mouth open, and jammed the fur in. He coughed as he choked, gasping for air through his nostrils and as his eyes opened and his head lifted I wrapped the thin cord of leather around the back of his head and between his teeth knotting it tightly.
He was not worthy of the treatment he received. I felt that I owed my unholiness a token of my love and this unfortunate soul had been placed before me. I normally would have reserved the care I showed in his pain for a proper victim. I normally would have dispatched him quickly and moved on. Unfortunately he was all I had in my larder and I savored every cut that commenced. It was a long procedure. He had more strength in him than I would have suspected. It was too bad that I could not enjoy the full volume of his screams. I no longer had hearing in one ear anyway and it would not do to have his wailing echoing throughout the woods. Still after changing my blood soaked clothing for my choice of his wardrobe and finding a thick brown cloak complete with hood that fit rather well, I felt quite strong as I pushed the canoe into the stream and steered it down river.
Craven remained silent as I was pushed my newly acquired boat into the waters flow. It had not said a word since I had begun to wade downstream and discovered the cave. At least, in some way, it acknowledges a job well done, I thought. At this point aware that there was a strong likelihood that Craven sensed every notion I possessed.
I followed the current for an entire day using the crudely carved wooden oar to keep me more or less midstream. The stream pushed me along with strength and though the general direction in which I was being pushed was hard to determine do to countless twists in the river I gathered from the position of the sun throughout the day that I was headed more or less northward.
As the day grew on the stream straightened, widened, and increased in speed. I was given a view of the terrain ahead and after a long look at the skyline I experienced something I had not in some time. I saw something familiar from my youth. It was a small peak slowly passing as I drifted on. The shape of the tip was unmistakable.
I had drifted in the flow of my worship much as I drifted on the water. I was led, the elements of my faith always flowing around me, from one point to another for years. I drifted on the whim of Teneborous as a leaf drifts in the wind on its passage to the earth. I had not met a familiar face or feature since I had left Hitherto’s isolated cabin as a young man. Yet here I was in view of the Bent Man’s Peak.
Craven was guiding me home. Teneborous had brought me back to the place I had first felt his presence. I was only certain of one thing as I spotted the peak. I would soon arrive at the place of my birth; to the people I had known for most of my life. As surely as they had burned my child hood home I would incinerate theirs. I would see the fear on their children’s faces. They would pay.
How To Serve An Unholy God Part Three: Homecoming
I paddled hard downstream for the rest of the day and with the current behind me and my strength given aid by the dead I moved swiftly. I passed the old mill that been burnt to a husk so long ago in a dispute over unpaid rent by Leone and as I paddled by I saw that many of the planks had been replaced by fresh wood, a ladder was propped upon one wall and as I went by a man emerged, planks in hand, and, seeing me paddle by, he waved. I smiled and returned the gesture. I would return to burn this mill to the ground once again. It was good to be home.
Shortly after I floated beneath Hangman’s bridge and saw the gallows had been removed. There were no dangling corpses with signs hung about their rotting necks bearing the words of “horse thief”, “vagrant” or “disagreeable” the people had forgotten the laws of the old lord, with this no memory remained of me as well.
Half a mile from the bridge downstream laid a trail taken often by children and those who wished to pass to the stream unseen. As a boy the walk from river’s edge to the mansion that was now merely a foundation would take merely three hours. As a grown man I would have to limp along half the night to reach my former master’s grave. I would make the trip when the sun set. I felt that the moon would be out tonight. I could always feel when the moon would be out.
I paddled to the river’s edge where the trail began and pushed the empty canoe back into the stream. I followed the trail as the sun began to set and as the darkness came I felt Craven stir. Against my better judgment I spoke to him asking “What will you have of me now you rat bastard?”
“Suffer” Craven said as he squirmed within my head “You will suffer. They will suffer. Question me again.” I could feel him dig lightly at my skull. “Question me again that I may feed our god with your pain.”
I shuddered as a trickle of blood leaked from the hole in my head and remained silent.
The moon was high in the night sky when I came upon the crest of the hill leading to the valley where my former home once was. I could not believe what I saw then, the outline of a roof. Someone had built their home upon the foundation of mine.
I was stunned. The audacity of it was unthinkable. To reduce my home to ashes and build your own upon it as if we had never been. I was too shocked to even muster the proper rage.
“I will kill them.” I said aloud.
“I will kill everyone in that home without mercy and construct a throne from their bodies to place the great Leone’s corpse upon. They must die tonight.”
Craven’s whisper of “yes” accompanied my words and I limped towards the cabin.
It was a square squat small two story structure with a large window facing out the front on the ground floor. The windows were shuttered against the night chill but were lit with a glow that spoke to me aloud of victims within. I slipped along the side of the cabin and took a long look. There were no other buildings in the area besides a half finished stable on the other side of the grounds. I could see through the unfinished walls that they had horses in their stalls although the night held me from taking proper count. The stable couldn’t possibly have held more than six horses so within this home rested, at most, six men that had enjoyed their last meal on this night.
I pressed my back to the wall of the front of the building close to the window and could make out the sound of a single man singing softly and low. I put my eye to the crack and made out the back of one man, his head down on a table, the brick of a fireplace with a only a bed of coals burning within and finally, what I had been looking for, the source of light within the room, a large iron chandelier, merely a ring holding half a dozen lit candles suspended from the ceiling with a rope.
I slipped beneath the window to the door further alongside. The door was thick and wooden with iron straps holding the wood in place. A door this heavy would take two men with a battering ram and a good deal of strength some time to get through. This presented a problem. I had the brute force to batter it in, but it would take time and alert everyone in the house to my presence. Such actions were not how I had survived thus far.
On a whim I gently flipped the latch and pushed ever so slightly. The door opened the smallest crack. I couldn’t believe it. The soon to be dead fools had actually failed to bar the door. Had Haven really become so tranquil? One thing was certain. Every door in peaceful Haven will be barred when they come upon the massacre that was about to commence.
I slipped in quietly. The heavy door creaked slightly, a sound that seemed impossibly loud to me, but the occupant’s song masked it well. There was a small sitting room past the door with a stairwell running upwards into darkness across from me. The wall just on my right extended roughly six feet before a large opening leading into the next room. Taking up the space between the stairwell and the wall of the next room sat two racks, one held swords and pikes, while the other held shiny suits of chainmail complete with helmets.
I crept to the edge of the wall and took a quick look into the next room.
There was a large rectangular table in the center of the room cluttered with papers and empty bottles with five men seated at it. Four were dead asleep; the two on my right were face down upon the table resting their heads in puddles of drool or folded hands. The one closest to me on my left was sleeping slumped in his chair his head rolled off to one side. Past him sat the only one awake, a burly man with broad shoulders, a balding head, a weak chin, thick arms, a gut that stuck out nearly to the hands resting in his lap and a soothing song being pushed between his lips. He was holding a small half finished carving of a horse in one hand and a knife in the other. At the end of the table was a short wiry fellow with thick unattended brown hair and a hook nose. He sat with his chair leaning against the wall, arms dangling limply at his sides, and legs resting upon the table. Finally there was the chandelier hanging from the ceiling over their heads, heavy iron, and held in the air by a rope tied to an iron sconce just on the other side of the wall which I had pressed myself against.
This was going to be entirely too easy.
I drew the sword I had taken from the corpse of the knight whose ribs I had shattered through his breast plate a day ago and ran the tip of my finger across the edge. He had kept his blade honed.
I limped quietly into the room blade in hand and as the fat man looked up from his last carving his eyes opened wide and his mouth formed the words “what the hell?” just as I gripped the rope holding the chandelier in one hand, pulling it all the way to the ceiling of room and sliced through the rope with my sword.
As the chandelier fell the candles were extinguished just before I had the chance to see the edge of the iron ring land sharply on the back of one of the heads placed upon the table two seats down with a loud crack.
I had taken note of the position of every man in the room and knew which would be the first to die. The light extinguished just before I sank the sword deeply with a backhanded swing into the skull of the man sitting upright in his chair just to my left. It struck him solidly against his temple and the sword sank deep into his skull. I could see the outline of the dead man in the soft glow of the coals still burning in the fireplace and I felt the spray of blood that came with my blow as it connected.
I had fully intended to drive the blade into the man to my right sitting across from my first victim, but as I attempted to swing the sword to bear the dead man I had struck came with falling from his chair my sword lodged firmly into his skull.
I released the sword and dove for the man on my right as he stood knocking him to the ground. He responded with a flurry of glancing kicks and punches shoving and swinging so wildly he almost squirmed out from beneath me. It was impossible to see in the shadows as we tangled together upon the ground. I took a punch to side of the head then, a rather solid hit, and rather than swing back I grabbed the arm to which the fist was attached in both hands and snapped it in two. His screams drowned the shouts of the last two living men and his thrashing subsided as he was gripped with pain. I sat down upon him then, drew my palm back, nearly touching my cheek, and drove it into him. I believe I struck him hard in his stomach and his body gave beneath my hand. He went limp and began to croak in pain.
With him incapacitated I began to stand and turn towards the final two men on the other side of the table when just as I stood the table was tipped on its side and shoved into me. I fell with my disfigured leg pinned beneath the table’s edge and the floor as the fat man leaped atop the table pinning me and the croaking man beneath his weight. I pushed the table from me as I squirmed to turn and place my good leg firmly against the table held above me with one arm as the fat man held to the table and screamed “Robert! Robert!” Weight was added to the table as I heard the thud of another man throwing his weight atop it as they attempted to pin me to floor. I pushed hard enough for the table to pop up upwards just enough to pull my leg free from beneath it. I pulled my legs up with my knees to my chest as I held the table from me with one arm and steadied myself with the other. Firmly planting both feet to the wood I kicked out hard.
The table flew from the ground. I saw the outline of the fat man as he cracked his head loudly against the stone of the fireplace, fell to the floor unconscious and drooped backwards into the burning coal and began to burn stirring the light in the room.
As the fat man began to cook and his clothes lit aflame I stood and flung the table aside. There was presumably “Robert” hunched with his back to the wall winded, his bloodied broken collarbone sticking from his shoulder and one arm twisted limply at his side from the impact of being slammed against the wall.
I limped to a small stack of kindling aside the fireplace and threw some atop the fat man as he cooked to light the room. As the kindling lit the croaking man ceased to gasp and I was left alone with questions for my new friend.
“I have questions. I have questions.” I cooed at the man as the eyes rolled back in his head and blood dribbled from around the bone sticking out of his shoulder.
I scooped a wineskin from the floor and poured some of the wine from the large leather pouch into my mouth. It was foul, powerful drink that had begun to turn to vinegar, perfect for my needs.
I sat alongside the man with my back against the wall and pulled him into my lap holding his head gingerly in my arms. He was slipping out of this plane from pain but, were it not for me, he most likely would have survived his wounds. His face contorted and twitched as I cradled him, rubbing the sweat from his forehead and running my hand through his hair pushing it away from his face. “No. I don’t wanna… no” He muttered at whatever his mind had concocted for his temporary reality. “Hush now hush.” I whispered and held him there in my arms for a moment.
He was so peaceful. They were always so peaceful after the struggle but before the breathing subsided. I always wanted to know what made them so peaceful.
I lifted the wineskin over the man’s shoulder and, holding him tightly in one arm I poured the fluid into his wound. His face contorted but he did not return to me to suffer. “That’s fine.” I said pushing him alongside of me and resting his head on my shoulder. “Rest now for you will be dead before the sunrise and I have reading to do.”
The book was an addiction but unlike many addictions this was one that rewarded you for giving into it, teaching you for allowing yourself to wallow in its depth. It called to me in the same way hunger or thirst calls to many. It is nearly always something that can be entertained much like another bite or another drink. Merely unwrapping it from the oiled leather I kept it in and holding it to my chest was at times enough to slow something that grew deep within me. When the book had something to say however the need it lent to me was fiercer than a twisted empty stomach or a mouth so parched it had dried to the point of cracking and bleeding. I had felt the lesson grow within me as something vague and incapable of being satisfied and now it had reached a point where the book must be opened and held to my eyes and allowed in.
I still lacked the ability to read the book. The glyphs on the page were foreign to me and even when the time came to open the book and fall into the trance like state that sometimes followed with words unknown to me spilling from my mouth I could not understand or control what was pushed between my teeth. Still though the craving was not strong and though the evocations of more power would most likely not come it was comforting to hold my only companion and flip through its illegible pages.
I held my unconscious companion in my arms as one would a child and held the book before the two of us as if I were reading him a bed time story and ran my eyes over its many symbols.
I could feel Craven pace within my head then and when he spoke to me it was a scream within my mind. Nothing existed in sound or thought but the piercing tone of judgment and anger within me.
“You cannot read the book” Craven shrilled, “You have come this far, killed many for my master and still you have not read the book!” His every shriek was punctuated with spurts of burrowing that clenched my shoulders and neck. “You have all the tools to blanket this world in pain and yet no one has taught you to read the book?!”
“There is no one.” I replied through gritted teeth and clenched jaw. “I don’t know how long you spent curled in the armpit of our dead god or eating flesh in that forest, but I know only one dead man who ever spoke to me of the book. All I have beyond this is folk lore and words I myself speak and fail to comprehend.”
“Tonight you will learn the words of Tenebrous.” Craven promised coldly.
“I must be in hiding by sunrise. More men will arrive with the dawn. I may not have the strength to face them all and I have only one half dead sacrifice.” I replied.
“The blade Slither holds enough souls for your rite.” Craven hissed “Soon men will flock to you to sacrifice themselves and by sunrise the men you have slain here will aid you in tearing this village of Haven from the ground by its roots.”
I sat there laying my finger upon one incomprehensible symbol after another. One upon one I placed finger tip to glyph and one after another Craven hissed the meaning of the ink into my mind. I was not an intelligent mammal. Certainly I had never met anyone with the presence of mind to learn a long forgotten language in one night, but with every syllable Craven uttered came more understanding and with every page my knowledge of my god grew.
My god Teneborous had granted the world mortality. The other weaker gods countless in name and Palladim chief among them had not had the courage to grant death to those who lived. They gave them age. They gave them illness. They gave them many weaknesses but they did not have the heart to gift their creations with the ability to pass on.
Where would they place them in their passing? Where would they find one with the will to grant them the pain necessary for their growth and survival? At first they had many creatures thriving, aging and procreating within a glorious plane. These creatures dwelled and wallowed within a haven all their own where none could die, none would grow diseased, and where none would feel regret.
Palladim and the many lesser others were too greedy in their kindness. They sought no retribution for the bliss of their creations and there came a time when their many children of many forms grew too numerous. Their children no longer acknowledged their creators. Their children, enveloped in their refuge, no longer followed the words of their creators, and lived on forever in fear of nothing confidant of the nonexistence of reprisal.
The gods, so weak in their glowing white light, saw what their creations of man and beast had become and did not have what it took to bring payment to any of them even those who surely deserved, even pleaded for, an end.
And so these almighty yet so weak beings sought to create a fellow power with heartlessness they lacked. They created a being of equal might that may levy the judgment and cruelty all were worthy of. They gathered their strength and created a fellow god with the capacity and wisdom to end the suffering and rampant flaunted impunity of all their creations. They, so full of heart, created one without. They brewed my god Teneborous from dark pieces of the underbelly of themselves that they had for so long denied the existence of. They ripped the shadow of their own reflection free and Teneborous was born.
Teneborous was dumb and mute upon his birth but not deaf and so they set him to task with many commands they had a mind to without the gall to execute of their own accord.
Teneborous granted the old reprieve. He granted the all too tall grass to cease growing and brown under the noon day sun. He granted decay to the corpses and matter that soon fell from this overcrowded plane that thought themselves above him. He granted them life in that the children of the dead soon appreciated the ones they had. He granted them a lifespan of chance and inevitability that he saw fit. That he foresaw the universe as functional with.
Teneborous grew wise and found his voice.
It was fine for a time until the gods, relishing in the freedom Teneborous gave them from concerns, saw what their creation and brother had done.
“No!” they said “We did not ask of you to grant this gift to all our creations only those we have chosen!”
To which Teneborous replied “This is my gift to your creations for they will know an end and the existence you have granted them will be all the more valued.”
The gods roared their disapproval “What of this being that I have held so close? What of this creature that should live on forever?”
Teneborous’s reply was as compassionate as it could possibly be. “I have given all the gift of death in that they may have true life for this is the purpose you have gifted me in my creation.”
The gods wailed in moaning that could be heard through all existence when they saw the work of their very own creation but Teneborous saw the truth of it. He saw the value of loss leading to gain. He saw the gift of immortality as foolish and so he made a valiant proposition to his fellow deities.
“You ask these things of others. You created me for the sole task of creating mortality to which I have singlehandedly placed the name, but why do we not partake of it ourselves?” Teneborous asked meekly, “Surely to place this upon the necks of your creations and never think a moment of imbibing of it is unjust. Surely you are no better than the beings you levy your judgment, in my creation, upon. There must come an end to your existence as well.”
They rallied in a moment of blind rage against Teneborous. All the forces of creation were pushed together in one blow to commit an act merely eons ago they were too meek to even consider. At the mere thought of being equal to those they had created, at the mere thought of their own mortality, they folded Teneborous within himself until he collapsed into a dark hole that Teneborous had created for those who passed on. They ripped the being of Teneborous to shreds and as Teneborous was created from the darker parts of the gods themselves shreds of the gods flesh went with.
It was a place for the dead to sink to after. It was a place of endless darkness. It had its own sway in the plane and even the gods themselves would not grant it a glance. It was where they had sentenced the almighty and just Teneborous to wallow.
It was not merely from the depths of revenge and twisted darkness that Teneborous reached out to the world. It was for the sake of all that are mortal. Not merely to see justice done in invoking mortality for all the gods, but in creating an alternate place for the souls of the countless that have passed. They naturally flowed to the shallows in which the dead god dwelled and it was his will to be resurrected and put everything into place. Not merely to bring death to the gods that struck him down in spiteful, selfish fear but to form a place for the dead beyond the living aside from the sucking pain in which they are drawn. So there Teneborous dwells. From there he reaches out to those who have also seen the flashes of blinding injustice.
If Teneborous must make the mortal die soon and suffer for only a flash to carve out a plane in which they may finally rest so be it and so I am set anew to the task.
This was not merely the telling of a tale. As I stumbled through these words translated from the symbols before me I felt the birth, life and death of my god. I felt the final breath of the man who had written them. Any being to place eyes upon these words would surely flock to the dead god.
I read through the lessons in the book as well. Lessons I had understood but never place words to. The teachings of killings and pain I was all too familiar with but had never given words that I could comprehend. Then I reached through hours of diligence a lesson I had not learned. Then I knew of how to drive all of the ashes of Haven into the mud.
I had translated for hours until I came upon the lesson towards the end of the tome. I knew the sun would rise soon and the living would come looking for the dead and so I drew Slither from his sheath and began to carve the flesh of my last living kill of the night.
He immediately came to and began to shriek and so I pinched my hand together around his throat until only gurgling remained and continued to carve. I laid open a symbol past death upon his chest and stood back to smile and see my work come to fruition.
His eyes opened slightly as the incantation took effect. There was a great deep grey smoke clouding his pupils and he stood, slightly bent, before me. He immediately looked about the room through his sift filled eyes stepped up to me and gently pawed with one hand at my chest.
I stood stunned. My thoughts of excitement over the undeath I had breathed into my first born were only on the forefront while the ramifications of what this new power meant to my plans rallied deep within my mind.
The dead man pawed lightly at me as I smiled and said soothingly “Well aren’t you the cutest thing.” His attention shifted from me then with a sniff, his dead tongue slipped from his mouth rubbing still warm lips and he began to lurch purposefully toward the smoldering obese man still in the fireplace. My firstborn began to paw at the man and leaned in close to the coal to gnaw upon the man’s oversized belly.
As the thoughts came to me that this would not do, this corpse must be raised and intact for the day ahead my only child ceased to clench his jaws upon his flab and instead gently pulled him from the fire place and began to pat at the smoking flesh of his companion.
As the thoughts of the work I had ahead of my came to mind my son, moaning, twitching and dribbling saliva began to pull the remaining bodies into a line on the floor before me and remove their shirts leaving their chest bare.
A curious thought flashed through my mind as I leaned over one of the corpses carving away and, as if he had done it many times, my first soldier lifted a blade from the floor and side by side we carved into the remaining corpses what was necessary and then, with an unbelievably simple intonation, the four rose and my numbers increased.
They milled at first. One stood moaning slightly, seeming to sob gently, the others began to paw at the pools of blood on the floor, licking their fingers and pressing their faces to the drying blood. It took slightly more concentration but I had them stand in attention before me and as the idea came so did their movements. They began to clean.
The pools of blood were licked from the floor. The table was turned upright. As I tied the chandelier to the ceiling again the chairs that remained intact were placed to the front of the room and those broken were propped in the corner.
I could feel them pulling at me as they went about their tasks. They drew on me to release them to kill. They tugged for release. They tugged at my mind to feed them. To run them screaming through the fields after rabbits and small children, but I held them in check as one would a dog on a leash. I lined them before me as I surveyed the room and was satisfied. In the low light of the morning shining through the cracks of the shutters the roomed looked only a bit more cluttered than when it had last seen them alive.
Despite the resistance I felt from them I smiled coldly and said only “To bed with you.”
It was a simple plan really. I marched them into the upper floor of the lodge and had them lie down upon their beds. The brown woolen blankets were pulled over their heads and they became five lazy watchmen sleeping in through the day.
I opened the wooden shutters of the back window and, leaning out of it I grasped the exterior wall above the window. Leaning out with my legs upon the windowsill my bare hands dug into the wood. Being careful to grip the wood firmly enough to hold me but not shatter the boards I pulled myself onto the roof of the building and waited, careful to keep a hold on the dead men in the room beneath me. “You are sleeping soldiers” I seemed to tell them over and over again as I sat perched peeking over the roof top at the town trail that led into Haven awaiting reinforcements.
I lay there in wait all day. With the words “sleep, sleep” rolling through my mind. The dead lying in wait in the room below were incessant every few moments they tugged at me for release. They would never tire. Their morale would never falter. They would seek to end the living presumably until they decayed to nothing and perhaps even after. Perhaps they will always tug at me even when their corpses have been burned and only hollow bones remain. I would pay even this fee for the potential to raise every victim and march with them towing the bowels of hell behind us.
The riders came in late afternoon. There were two of them taking a slow pace down the road heading straight for the property where we lay in wait. My mind stirred slightly in excitement at what was about to occur and as my mind stirred my hold slipped slightly on the dead. They tugged fiercely for a moment at my mind to be released, anxious after so much time held in check, but I adjusted my focus to their imitation of slumber and watched in a slightly more detached manner as the riders dismounted at the front door.
As they drew closer I got a better look at them. They were merely boys, young men it could be argued, not a beard on a single face. These were not reinforcements come to aid. These were younger brothers and cousins of soldiers riding ponies to see what had become of their fathers brother. There was a tall, lanky, blonde hair boy, apparently unarmed, in the lead and behind him a shorter young man, only standing slightly higher than myself, with thicker darker hair who had only a dagger at his side.
The led their ponies right to the front door of the house before dismounting and I quietly crept across the roof to peek down at them from its lip.
“Their horses are here.” The tall freckled one said scowling, “Do you think the lazy bastards put too much wine in themselves and slept in?”
“What if they all fell ill?” asked the dark stunted one, “If they’ve all fallen to the pox it’s best we stay the hell away.”
“I won’t have you talking that way.” said the blonde, “anyway Fat Derek and Robert survived the pox last fall and you know if you survive it once there’s no need to fear it.”
“I haven’t survived a damn thing and you know it. If you’re so healthy why don’t you go find out what happened to the load of pox ridden drunks.” remarked the second boy.
“Alright chicken shit you wait here with piss in your britches and I’ll go wake up Robert and tell him what a coward for a friend he has.”
As the blonde pushed open the door and went in the black haired boy stood cussing under his breath holding the reins of the ponies. I stood at the lip of the roof. He looked up, one hand held over his eyes sensing the motion, and I proceeded to jump squarely upon him. He began to back away from the falling object that was me but it was not nearly done quickly enough. As I fell down at him I kicked both my legs out before me and kicked him hard square in the chest. I flew slightly back, curled into a ball upon hitting the ground, and rolled once before standing just to the side of the door. I reached over and pulled the door closed. The focus I had shifted to complete this maneuver was enough to free the sleeping soldiers and I could hear young freckles begin to scream.
The boy remaining outside began to gasp horribly and curled into a ball himself lying there on the ground coughing. I stood there firmly holding the door shut and could hear the boy running down the stairs and feel him pulling frantically at the handle on the other side. I could hear the moaning and dragging steps of my children within. He screamed one loud clear cry, the tugging at the door ceased, and I, slightly distracted by the scream, suddenly had a dagger stuck firmly in my gut.
I grimaced hard at the pain and looked up in a new appreciation of the dark haired, almond eyed, pug nosed boy squirming on his back away. “You’re not bad with a throwing knife.” I said coldly “I truly wish my daddy had taught me thing or two.” and just as he turned on his side to stand I grabbed a fistful of his hair and dragged him back into the cabin.
The five dead men were in the entryway tearing at the boys flesh, chewing on his limbs, and ripping handfuls of his intestines from his body to fill their mouths. They looked hungrily up at the still living boy as I dragged him through the door and latched it behind me.
“This one is mine!” I snarled, and they went back to their meal. I dragged the boy into the main room and lifted him by the hair to place him onto the table.
As our faces met, with him dangling in air by his hair, he spit in my face.
“Tell me something boy. Have you ever fucked a woman?” I asked as I threw him on the table.
“I once fucked your mother!” he yelled back and began to scramble away.
‘No, no, no” I said and then pulled the dagger from my gut and jammed it through the muscles in his calf so hard the point went deep into the wood of the table. “Have you ever fucked a woman?”
He grimaced hard, his eyes teared up, but he only spit again and said, “I said I once fucked your mother, and I was surprised at how little she cost.”
“You may be the bravest young man in all of Haven. You’ll do nicely.” I said, and as the young boy leaned forward to pull the dagger free from his bloody leg I swatted him with a back hand blow upon the head.
I had performed the ritual to give me vision in the past but now that the details of rite were known the prayer and the cutting had a much stronger effect. This was no mere clouded foresight.
I rose slowly from myself beginning with only a view of my balding scalp and black tufts of hair. My vision rose upward through the ceiling of the house and carried me on bird’s wings down the road past Hangman’s Bridge. I saw the world in a view I had never experienced, looking down at the trees and travelers from above. My sight took me along the road to town and then along a path to the side. I saw the crows circling then and flew among them. I could smell the sweet taint of death and burning flesh. I circled high over a large tent then and, as my vision shifted to the earth, I saw a large pile of corpses, and a tent filled with sickly men, women, and children. I circled this stack of bodies and the men carrying corpses to the flames. I flew through the tent between a man rinsing rags with a cloth tied over his face and a woman dying slowly, covered in scabs and boils, and then around the pile of dead again until my vision focused and I was drawn alongside three or four burning bodies towards a large barrel set to the side. I rose slowly up the walls of this barrel getting a very close view of the black ichor that had ran down its side and I was diving into the barrel into the darkest of tar.
I dove into this darkness for a time. I sat for a moment with my thoughts wrapped in black and then rose from this shadow into myself once more.
There were so many corpses unguarded, so many soldiers to awaken, and they were burning my army one by one. I would decimate the town of Haven with its own population. The mothers, fathers, and children that had passed on in this town would be the downfall of those who still lived. There would be no stopping me. I would kill all of Haven and raise them from the dead one by one increasing our numbers with each death, and then again with the next nearest town of Steadfast and on and on until I had torched the earth all the way to the ocean. Until I had reached every corner of this continent and not a single creature living did not fear me. Perhaps this would suffice.
I awoke from the darkness of the vision and looked down upon the boy’s corpse on the table before me. He was cut wide open and rearranged, but it was a beautiful sight, and I had been right. He had been a virgin. The vision given had been powerful.
I leaned across the table, pulled the eyelids of the brave young man closed, and planted a single prolonged kiss upon his blood speckled brow, and turned to the dead men feasting on the body of the other boy.
He was chewed bones and rent limbs. I limped to the nearest dead man and rapped him lightly on the end with handle end of the dagger, “wasteful, wasteful,” I said lightly as I tapped, and then gripped them in my will and sent them through the front door.
I did not, mind you, actually will them to pull the latch and pull the door outward. I simply grasped them and motioned them out with my mind.
The two nearest the door threw themselves, clawing and slamming against it, and the thick door collapsed before the other three could follow them through it.
“Not exactly eloquent but an impressive show of strength,” I said to myself, “It would be hard pressed to resist these five from tearing me limb from limb.”
The five burst from the door and began to spread into the night, but I gathered them into a knot with my mind and sent them to the barn not far from the cabin.
There were two horses within the half-finished structure. One broke loose from its reigns at our approach and bolted into the fields screaming and wide-eyed as only an animal can be. The other was less fortunate. He reared upon his hind legs in fear, pulling on the rope and harness, the five approached him as one and knocked him from his hind legs forcing him into the ground and tearing into him.
I had spotted the wagon from the roof top this morning, and had seen that the dead I so far possessed were easily strong enough to bear me and its weight.
I took a length of rope from the nail on the wall of the barn and walked past the gory sight to the wagon waiting for me on the far side of the building.
I sat on the bench at the front of the wagon and, to the sound of a screaming horse, cut five lengths of rope ending in loops. I paused a moment to wait for the kicking and wailing of a dying animal to stop, and then willed my children to me.
I lined them before the wagon, looping a single end of rope around their necks as they went by and as they stood pulling against my will to run ravenously into the night I tied them to the front of the wagon.
I released them then. It was a relief to release them, a release similar to emptying one’s bladder, which I no longer had to do, or, perhaps releasing a held breath, although I despised that breathing was still a requirement to me.
I gently guided them, pulling my wagon at a fair speed, onto the road towards Hangman’s Bridge and the pile of dead that would soon be put to task. I headed towards a thin line of black smoke rising through the air, not far at all really.
They pulled me along at a fair speed leaning hard against the weight of the small wagon, at times clawing at the earth to pull it over ruts. We made a fair pace down the dirt road and soon the bridge was in sight. I had yet to see anyone along our path. It is a poor time to stray farther from home than you must in the midst of a plague. There was a single boy sitting upon the stone wall of the bridge. He clenched a cob pipe in his mouth, sending up small trails of smoke, and a long thin whittled fishing pole dangled a thin line into the water. When he saw us, a team of bloody dead men groaning and hissing against their lashes pulling along a small wagon with me grinning maniacally at the bench, his mouth dropped open and the pipe bounced off the top of the wall into the water. His eyes grew large and he froze and locked with mine, staring as we slowly moved past.
“Catch anything?” I asked, grinning widely as we moved past.
The boy merely stared in stunned silence. I did not look back as we moved on but I could hear him jump from the wall of the bridge and run back the way we had come.
The dead men pulled me very slowly up a small hill past the bridge, and we nearly came to a halt at the very peak of the ridge. As we came slowly over the top I saw down below the tent off the side of the road just as it had appeared in my vision. It was a large white canvass tent stretched over at least a dozen cots with only three still holding the living. There were two large men in dingy white clothing, gloves, and white rags tied across their faces standing before a small pile of burning bodies glumly staring into the flames, and another smaller man in the tent in the same attire rising out a handful of rags in a barrel of water.
Then, of course, there were the dead. The pile was stacked high off to the side of the fire next to a large wagon filled with barrels of what I knew to be pitch. The bodies were stacked twice as high as the two large men. They would have been at burning them for at least another day had I not arrived.
Upon seeing the movement of the men down below my servants pulled harder at their reigns and the wagon began to roll down hill at a fair pace.
It took a moment for the two men feeding bodies into the flames to realize what they were seeing. They stood dumbfounded for a moment. I drew closer and once they took a good look at the beasts running along before the wagon they bolted away towards a stand of trees. It did not matter. This was no longer an operation of stealth.
As the wagon gained speed coming down the hill I realized I had no way of stopping the oversized cart so I merely willed my followers to run along the sides of the wagon after pointing me straight on a downhill collision course with the tent.
Sometimes my work could be so much fun.
I held my arms at my sides and locked them there. I gripped the frame of the wooden bench I sat upon so hard the wood nearly split and, yelling a meaningless “Aaaaaaa!” I rode the wagon right into the tables, cots, barrels, dying men, and the corner of the large canvass tent. The corner post of the tent didn’t even slow me down. It merely snapped in half bringing down a corner of the tent. The tables, cots and the barrel of water brought the wagon to a crashing halt though with two of the cots holding dying men getting caught in the wheels and axles of the wagon. I could hear and feel the wheel break as we hit, but I was in no more danger of flying off than if I had been strapped down.
The corner of the tent had collapsed over my head and for a moment the canvass covered everything, but I merely stepped off the wagon and made my way further in to the tent.
The man in the tent stood squarely before me as I climbed out from under the canvass, and I could hear the snarling and hissing of the dead men tangled up in the wreckage, but I willed them into silence as I approached this man no taller than I, wrapped in bloodstained white clothing, with a rag wrapped around his features leaving only two flinty, small blue eyes and a head nearly gone bald with a border of white, thick hair.
“Just what the hell are you doing?” he demanded before I even had a chance to see him for underneath the flap of the tent. “Have you no respect for the dead?”
He stood with his hands locked to his hips with his nearly concave chest sticking out as far as it would go. “Don’t you even have the common sense to run?” I said as I climbed free of the debris.
I was ready to snap his neck with one quick slap when one of the dead pried free of the wreckage and scrambled towards him. The rope wrapped around his neck was still tied to the wagon however, and with a crack it went taut holding the slavering creature mere feet from the old man. His boisterous stance deflated and he stood quietly looking my pet up and down as it pulled at its leash. I paused to see how he would react.
He began to tremble slightly and stepped slightly closer to the thing. He looked it hard up and down, and turned to me.
“Dead, yes?” He stated as much as asked. “I always assumed that at least in death it would be over.”
“It appears there are exceptions.” I replied
“I suppose all these people will share his fate.” mumbled the man, motioning to the pile of dead.
He then took another long look at the dead man thrashing against the rope around his neck in an effort to rip the old man apart.
“Is there any human left in it?” he asked of the undead.
“I hadn’t considered that.” I said.
“Well I certainly hope not.” he muttered.
“I do too.” I replied sincerely, “We all have a right to die.”
“I suppose you’re that boy, Gristle aren’t you?”
“Yes I am.”
“The Lord once busted my leg in with a piece of firewood over a snicker, back when I was young.” he said matter-of-factly. “But I always did feel sorry for you nonetheless. It didn’t seem to me that you ever had any choice in being his boy. Still I suppose I’d kill you right here with my bare hands if I could, but there’s not much chance of that either…”
“There is no chance of that.” I said consolingly. “If I let you live will you do something for me?”
He shrugged and pulled the rag down off his face revealing open sores, and patches of infected skin. “There is very little left of life to me.”
“I just need you to live long enough to tell the survivors of Haven why they had to suffer.”
“You speak as one already a victor,” He said solemnly, “but I suppose I’ll live long enough to tell a tale or two if you let me. Just spare me the fate of the living dead.”
He nodded then slowly and sat down on one of the remaining cots wheezing slightly, and I turned to the work at hand.
I flipped the canvas covering the front of wagon and walked around it. Four of the dead were thrashing against their ropes. They were tangled and straining against the sides of the wagon on the far side. I looked under the wagon to see that one of the unfortunate corpses was pinned beneath and hissing and growling low like a large cat. I cut the four dead men free and looked to see that the old man had made his way off. I lined the dead men along the side of the wagon and together we flipped it over with ease. The corpse pinned beneath had not fared well. His leg had broken in several places and wrapped itself around the axle and its right arm had been crushed under the wheel.
“My poor little kitten,” I muttered, and I guided the dead men over to the tall pile of unmoving corpses. Together we began to line the bodies alongside the pile as the flames cremating several others guttered burning of black smoke and stink. I breathed deeply of it as we lined the corpses five alongside and carved into them. Four living dead and I became ten, became fifteen, became twenty, the numbers grew and we spent hours carving symbols into the pile of dead.
They would climb to their feet slowly or spring to life howling. They would rollover and arch their backs with a high pitched whine, or merely lie on their backs for a several moments clawing into the earth at their sides.
I had them gather in and around the large tent. They strained at my subconscious to wander the fields, or run screaming, but I held them all carefully, and with each one that rose the strain grew greater and the focus required to command the four dead men with blades to carve the symbols in unison with Slither and I grew more difficult. To control enough of them to siege a city would drive me mad. Enough of them to char the ground to the coast would tear my mind to pieces, but I had only one purpose for it regardless, and I would get better at guiding them from rebirth to bloody, screaming re-death.
There were sixty-four dead men standing before me after the work was complete. Sixty-four disease ridden, howling, moaning, powerful dead men, women, and children pulling at my mind, attempting to draw it into sixty-four separate shards, trying to drive my mind in every direction as they wished to wander or charge into the woods on all fours.
I slowly gathered them together and knotted them in to one will in my mind. I focused and strained until they all stood before me in eight rows of eight. I held them until they were as silent and as still as soldiers carved of marble, I had begun to actually sweat, but they were bent to my will.
I surveyed the troops. All of their faces and exposed skin were marked with scabs and open sores. Several were children, two boys and a girl that did not even come to the other’s shoulders. Some were strong men. Some were thin and frail. Their eyes however were all identical in their red glow.
I walked up and down their ranks smiling broadly and as I passed them I willed them to stand up straight and suck in their stomachs. I paused at a tall, blonde woman. She still held the beauty of life in her face and long blonde hair. I stared into her dead eyes for a moment. “You look like my mother.” I said, “Perhaps one day you’ll meet.”
I had one of the dead fetch me a torch he lit from the pile of corpses, and then sent the three of the weaker looking soldiers, the children, over to a barrel of pitch where they soaked themselves in the flammable tar. I took eight of the stronger young servants, climbed aboard a table and had them hold me above the crowd of dead men.
We began to march the short distance to the entrance to Haven. The group moved as one, stepping left and right in perfect unison with me swaying atop the group upon a large wooden table holding the torch aloft. The pitch soaked children took the lead dripping black tar.
The sun had begun to set upon Haven, but I had no doubt that they knew I was coming. Certainly in the time it had taken me to raise my army someone had climbed the church tower and leveled a spyglass upon me. Certainly there would be fighting men to resist their dead men, women and children. It had occurred to me that their population had been decimated by the plague but I had no concept as to how much Haven had grown in those years. The town militia had always been a point of pride to the town of Haven.
There was a long slow climb up a rather long hill I knew we must pass before coming into view of Haven. As we crested it I heard the clang of the church bell in the center of town. That would be the stronghold. It had foot thick wooden doors that would surely be barred with the women and children of town within. And the courtyard would be their last stand.
I saw from the ridge the town’s entrance from the east. They had built a stone wall five or six feet high since I had last seen town, and though it had no gate the militia had come to forge its own.
There was knot of men between the two ends of stone wall blocking our path into town. I was unable to get any kind of count as all one could see was a wall of shields bristling with spears from every crack in the wall.
I heard the cry and slipped from atop my table and parted my followers to slip to the front. I locked arms with two of the dead.
The ranks formed tightly around me into the shape of a spearhead with the four pitch soaked children at the front and we attacked, every footstep taken at deadly speed and in unison.
As we approached the arrows hit. The dead made no move to defend themselves from the arrows and I tucked myself into the masses of dead flesh as they dragged me toward the soldiers in formation.
The arrows would have been enough to stop the charge of any undefended men living, but had little effect on corpses. The front ranks bristled with them after the only volley they were able to fire. I glanced to the large corpse carrying me on my right and saw that he had taken an arrow through his eye. The barbed end of the arrow stuck from the back of his skull dripping dark blood but he did not even slow.
The men of Haven had grown very brave indeed. We collided with the wall of shields. They were all bearing the same signet, I noted as we got closer, an ankh painted upon every one. I had seen the symbol hanging on farmhouse doors and painted on buildings but I did not know of its significance.
We hit them hard at a full run and the living were pushed back several feet. I thought surely they would break for a moment, but they pressed back, spears darting in and out of the cracks into dead men. The dead were howling and scratching, clawing at the wooden shields, and pressing their bodies into the wall, spears sticking through them, and battle cries to hold coming from the living.
I focused my will upon the three small, pitch soaked, children in the front and they began to claw their way up the wall. I shifted my focus slightly and the corpses in the front began to push them over their heads, finally as two of them stood on the shoulders and heads of the corpses pressing against the wall I made my way through the second ranks to the front of the battle.
I stepped forward past my dead men just as a spear jabbed for my face. I ducked to the left and with my right hand I grabbed the wooden handle and with a squeeze snapped the end of the weapon off.
I reached the front line.
I stood shoulder to shoulder with two large dead men on either side pressing and scratching and howling against a wall of round wooden shields: I lifted the guttering torch to the body of a child nearly pushed to the top of the defensive formation and lit the young dead boy alight.
Soon there were flames licking at the dead, at the shields, and hot, burning pitch dripping on the heads of those holding the wall of round wooden shields.
I reached underneath the burning dead child above me crawling up the shields and, grasping the edge of a shield beneath him in both hands, I tugged hard.
I felt the leather strap around the man’s wrist snap and wrenched the shield from him, flinging it back over the battlefield.
The burning young boy fell through the ranks of soldiers still clawing and biting, still burning and howling directly on the head of the man.
That was it. The section of the wall began to crumble as the burning dead boy clawed at the face of the man beneath him. More dead pressed in through the hole, climbing, crawling and pushing. Until there were several dead men within their ranks pulling and biting at chain mail covered limbs, knocking helmets clear of frightened eyes, and pressing men to the ground.
I pressed into the hole they had created stepping upon the body of one of my corpses and fitting myself in. I grabbed a sword arm that was drawing away to swing and with both arms bent it back, snapping it and driving the sword into its owner. Elbowing my way in farther I lashed out at the head of a man clinging with both hands to a shield and bent the back of his helmet into his shattered skull. I snatched the sword I had just disarmed before the dead man could hit the ground, and began to swing with both hands left and right. I severed the back of a leg, caught a man coming up from the rear by the chin, and finally shattered the blade over the back of a man in a steel breastplate attempting to gain his feet.
The beetle like shell of shields collapsed from the center and it became a slaughter. The men who weren’t immediately overrun by the dead pressing in on them turned to flee. They threw down their cumbersome shields with their honor and lives and scattered towards the center of town.
I grabbed a man’s shoulder in both arms as he turned to flee with those in the rear, pulled him to the ground and struck him repeatedly with my left fist until it came back bloody to the wrist.
I regained my composure and looked up. They were escaping. Some of my dead men were stopping to feast on those they’d brought to the ground. While others were running screaming in all directions after fleeing soldiers
“No eating until you’ve finished your chores children!” I bellowed, and willed them all in a screaming mass down the main road.
A big pet ran by. It was the man who had taken an arrow through the skull. I willed for him to pause and he turned to look at me. He had seen better times. Along with the arrow through the eye sticking from the back of his skull a portion of his face had been torn off. His nose hung loosely over a toothy grin exposed when a blow had apparently torn off a good piece of his lips.
I took a moment to look back as my belongings surged past on dead legs. There were nearly ten that had taken enough damage from the charge to fall behind. One had a spear stuck squarely through his chest and it slowed him down, dragging in the dirt ahead of him. There were several missing arms, several more missing legs. Two were missing a bit of both yet they dragged themselves forward like torn rag dolls. There were three with severed heads. The bodies still stood, stumbling about, and their bloodied faces lay in the dirt howling silently, that red glow in their eyes unrelenting and fierce though they had truly become comical. It did indeed appear that once these dead had risen they would never cease to squirm.
I reached over and snapped the arrowhead sticking from the back of the big man’s head, “Mount let’s call him” I decided, and proceeded to ride piggy back down the main road of the village focusing my forces toward the church just over the hill ahead.
Mount moved rather slowly in comparison to the other screaming dead men, but I rode safely in the rear. I smiled as I dug my heels into his haunches. The militia bearing the ankhs had made an impressive stand, but all that remained was clean-up.
I had maybe a dozen screaming corpses charging up the hill. The rest had gathered speed. They had most likely reached the church grounds by now. The monks there would make for a very fine sacrifice.
I had nearly crested the hill on the back of Mount when I heard a loud pop. The sound ripped to, around, and past me and for a moment I was blinded by a bright, white flash of light.
I could hear agonizing screams then. I had burned men alive that sounded less in pain, and dead men came fleeing towards me. They were lit ablaze with white hot flames. Their skin was melting from their bones, and they screamed like a thousand dying, wild animals. They poured past me, nearly half my forces, melting and fleeing and crumbling to ground. Some of them were nothing but piles of white hot bones pumping quickly melting muscles until they crumpled to the earth.
I had no time to think. Mount cleared the hill and what I saw would have set the gods themselves laughing in stunned amusement.
The church held a large, thick stone wall that crossed the road, and the doors I expected to be sealed were wide open. There was a line of unarmed, bald, mostly old and fat, monks lined before the entrance holding large ankhs to their chests. They were otherwise unarmed, and their heads were bowed down revealing mostly double chins. They were muttering prayers quickly and their shaved heads and faces were soaked in sweat, but that was not the source of the explosion. Before the defenseless men stood two people one of which the likes I had never seen.
He was holding off the charge of half a dozen dead men single handedly. He was nearly seven feet tall in white, flowing robes with that damned ankh stitched in red across his chest. He was the darkest moor I had ever seen, and he moved with a speed that I thought only I possessed.
He was spinning a staff taller even than he. It had a long silver blade at one end and the head of a ram in steel at the other. He was spinning his staff so quickly it was as if he formed a wall before them. With a spin he sliced the leg clean off an approaching corpse and before the staff completed its spin he had smashed the skull of another with the blunt end, the ram’s steel horns smashing the head into an unrecognizable pulp.
Behind this tall, bronze, wall of a man knelt a small girl. She wore clean shiny armor in plates that covered her entire body. She had a long thick, blonde head of hair that hung to the middle of her back. She knelt there on the ground, completely exposed besides the man before her. She held a knotted wooden ankh tight to her chest and appeared to be praying under her breath, her chin held to her chest.
The dead closed in on the man. He began to yell out every time he lashed out at my dead men, and every strike took one to the ground with severed limb and shattered bone. I drew Mount closer and it looked as if for a moment my corpses would overcome him. I slipped off of the back of Mount for a moment and prepared to step in to finish the man off when he was overtaken.
But just then he called out.
“Now Azalia!” Was the command, and the young woman stood from her prayers, held the knotted wooden symbol straight out before her, and finished her prayer in a high, singing voice.
The white blast rippled out from around her. It came in a mushroom cloud of burning light emanating from her talisman. I was momentarily blinded, blinking wildly, and rubbing the white light from my eyes. It felt something like I had experienced every summer as a boy. As if my skin had tanned to blistering. I winced through the tears and pain, and saw that the remainders of my forces, my noble dead warriors, were fleeing in all directions. Some lit aflame and melting, some merely bellowing of pain and death, and howling in a fear I did not know they could possess.
I realized I was kneeling, holding my arms before my eyes; I stood, shaking with shame that I had been brought to my knee, and approached the bronze man.
He had paused to wipe the sweat from his face. The girl behind him appeared winded and wobbled slightly from the blast she had put forth.
He pounded the staff on the ground once as he saw me limp within his reach, and then he began spinning his staff once again.
He was the fastest mortal I had ever encountered this was true, but when the spinning of the staff passed close enough to come within reach of my head, and he struck out at me, I merely caught the ram’s horns in my palm, one hand reaching up to block my temple. Whatever the ram’s head staff was made of seared into the flesh of my palm, but I grasped it tightly and yanked hard. The tall man attempted to keep his grasp, not suspecting my strength, and I yanked him off balance. I had caught the ram in my left, and he had leaned forward in an attempt to keep me from disarming him, so I leaned in hard with my right hand open and, reaching upward, delivered a blow hard enough to crush a man’s skull in a slap at his face.
The blow connected and the man dropped to the ground on one knee.
The woman was still kneeling, chanting hard, her chin tucked to her chest and her eyes looking fearfully up as I limped toward her. She raised the ankh from her chest before me, but I took several painfully quick steps toward her and caught the ankh in my hand. It began to heat for just a flash of an instant before I crushed it in my palm. I released the broken artifact then. The old men praying began to run within the walls, and I grasped her by her long blonde hair, lifted her to her feet and drew back to crush her face with one blow.
She looked somehow familiar.
I held her there by the hair for a moment before crushing her face with my fist, and, looking into her beautiful blue eyes I realized that perhaps none of this was necessary, none of it. The killing, the slaughter, the mercilessness, years and youth spent in death and destruction, and then I realized I had gazed into her eyes for too long. I shook my head slightly and my resolve returned.
“Bitch you bear some power, do you not?” I stated.
And just before the final blow I heard movement from the man whose skull I had thought had surely been cracked wide open.
And the last thing I saw before falling into deep, bottomless darkness was the ram’s head of the staff filling my vision with all too familiar pain.