It rains the entire way.
The. Entire. Damn. Way.
Eight solid hours of trudging through God-knows-what headed God-knows-where, staring ahead into a dreary grey endless drizzle. Eight hours slumped on a worn-out mare, feeling every stone and sunken pothole jolt his bruised and battered ribs. Eight hours on an endless winding track, little more than a muddy stream in places. Hissing, torrential rain hammer into the woods around them as if trying to bore down to Hell itself. Huddled in the meagre shelter of Roach’s quivering flank, soaked to the skin and miserable. Too much like his drifter life before Gresit. Before he’d begun reusing his house name openly, baring the Belmont crest with pride again. Before he’d met a tired rabble of trapped, weary Romani and saved a townful of ingrates from ravenous demons.
Life comes at you fast.
Owen’s never been so disgusted, so bone-weary, hungry, muddy, sleepless, or generally chafed from neck to toe as all his wet-weather clothes worsen from decent fabric to a sodden, itchy hair-shirt sent to destroy him. His old scars sting and ache. Roach plods along, utterly exhausted. The thunderous patter of rain on his hood is truly maddening. Perhaps he’ll be hearing it in his dreams for the rest of his sorry life. Welcome to my world, he thinks grimly, where everyone disappoints you and the weather’s shitty. Enjoy your stay. Ugh.
But come dusk, the torrent finally – finally! – begins to lessen and the stormclouds part, the first timid stars glimmering overheard. Eventually the endless muddy trail hardens into a broad, half-decent road, and suddenly … a settlement ahead! The rising moon peeks shyly from behind a cloud: an actual, proper walled town!
The spire of a distant hilltop priory looms ahead, overlooking the thatched rooftops like a giant predatory bird of carrion. Owen scowls up at it. A minster town, then. Great. More Church bullshit. But the next village lies another twenty miles further south. Through woods crawling with monsters, knowing his sorry luck. Besides, they’ll still have coin here. Beer isn’t free. He spurs Roach on through the puddles.
By nightfall he reaches the gates. The wooden stockade towers before him. The guards slouch against their halberds, regarding him warily. Crimson tunics. Steel helms. Swords at their belts. Seem capable enough. Their captain steps forward, thumbs hooked into his belt.
‘Help you?’ he grunts.
Which in Owen’s experience are two words that’ll precede anything from warm wholehearted cooperation to an axe in the face. His hand twitches toward his swordhilt, but doesn’t draw it; the man’s tone isn’t openly hostile, just bored and mildly curious.
He jabs a thumb at the limp carcass trailing behind Roach. ‘Found some trouble on the road. Fixed it for you.’ A pasty-faced young guard claps a hand over his mouth, reels away and spews into the mud.
Owen smirks as the captain narrows his eyes and nods tersely. ‘Very well. In you go, sir. The Magistrate will see you shortly.’
Owen nods and spurs Roach ahead. ‘Cheers, mate.’ He trots through the gates into the marketplace amid hushed murmurs of gawping townsfolk, ignoring their gasps and mutterings as he dismounts and clears his throat. ‘So, uh … have you been having problems with Night Creatures outside your lovely town?’
A fat, smartly-dressed man in gold-fringed robes approaches, flanked by glowering men-at-arms. ‘If you mean “Were terrible naked scaly bastards from Hell trying to eat people in the forest”, then … yes,’ he smiles ruefully.
‘Huh,’ Owen grunts. ‘So had the village down the road. They told me the pack had been hitting travellers and wagons.’ He gestures at the corpse outstretched behind his horse. ‘Thought I might take care of that for you.’
‘Indeed.’ The man’s stern brown eyes drift over Owen’s black surcoat, the golden Belmont crest half-hidden beneath his grimy travelling cloak. ‘Heard of the old fortress at Villengaard, perchance? Terrible rumours a few winters back … another swarm of demons was raiding settlements from there. Ever been?’
‘Nope. Not me.’ Owen shrugs. ‘But my mum was. Once.’
The man tuts. ‘All ruins now. Totally destroyed. Blasted apart from inside – vaporised the lot of them.’
Owen smiles faintly. ‘Like I said. Once.’ He gazes around at the sturdy half-timbered houses, the market stands packed with bread and fruit, the street lined with lantern gibbets aglow with candlelight. The townsfolk are clad in plain but finely-crafted damask tunics and silk dresses. They seem contented. Prosperous, even. A far cry from the grimy woollen shirts and muddy peasant smocks people usually wore, the squalid desolation he’s seen across the Wallachian countryside. ‘Where are we?’
The man gestures proudly around. ‘This is Reikstadt. I’m the Magistrate, landlord of the town.’ He places a hand over his heart and bows. ‘Andrei Peshka at your service. It’s a genuine honour, sir. And you are …?’
Owen opens his mouth, then stiffens as footsteps approach. ‘Hold that thought.’
They turn as a trio of tonsured monks in brown long-sleeved habits and sandals approach, with green armbands above their left elbows each marked with a mysterious twisted symbol. The greybeard leader wears crimson-edged robes with a silver crucifix pendant at his throat; something about his wide-eyed yet vacant stare makes Owen’s nerves prickle. And the daggers on their belts. Priests with knives. It’s Gresit all over again. Fan-fucking-tastic.
‘Monks from the priory,’ Andrei mutters, eyeing them grimly. ‘Take care. They’re somewhat, ah … broken.’
The monks halt before the veidraugr‘s carcass, bathed in lanternlight. The leader’s wet grey eyes slide over the bloody remains, then flicker up. ‘Magistrate.’
‘Prior Sala,’ replies the Magistrate coolly.
The Prior glances between them. ‘What sorrow! This is a Night Creature of Hell’s legions.’ His voice is a soft lilting monotone that has Owen’s skin crawling.
‘It is,’ Andrei grunts.
Sala’s unblinking eyes narrow at Owen. ‘Did you kill it?’ he growls.
Owen folds his arms, the casual gesture fully concealing his family crest. Best not shout his identity to the rooftops just yet. ‘Sure did,’ he answers, feigning nonchalance.
Sala slides his hands inside his wide sleeves, smirking. ‘Good. Hellbeasts were marauding unchecked across the land, burning villages, butchering babies.’ His lip curls. ‘Murder at the hands of vagabonds and dragged behind a horse’s arse is no less than they deserve.’
Andrei bristles. ‘And how do you know all this?’
Sala raises a hand, looking smug. ‘Ravens still carry messages between minsters. They say a warband of demons was trapped at Gresit and slaughtered with holy water and salt. Sent screaming back down to Hell.’ His eyes harden. ‘I would very much like to know who killed them, Magistrate.’
‘So my men can punish those responsible. They were evil, yes, but … Hell’s legions sought to reunite us all in the underworld, freed from this accursed world. Unshackled from this abandoned earth. They would bring light to our clouded souls.’ Sala’s eyes gleam with delighted fervour. ‘The name “Lucifer” mean “Light-bringer”, yes? God created Hell as part of His great plan, didn’t He? Just as the angels of Heaven are bearers of His infinite wisdom … so too are the demons of Hell itself!’
Owen’s teeth grind. Broken is far too kind a name for it. There’s something deeply, deeply unsettling about how this greybeard praises Hell and its demons with such awed reverence. Crazy old sod gives him the creeps.
He nods warily. ‘Ohhh-kay then. Nice to meet you.’ He turns to leave.
‘There was a warrior at Gresit. A newcomer.’
Owen halts. His fingers twitch towards his chain whip Morningstar.
‘They say this wandering stranger saved the town,’ purrs the Prior. ‘What’s your name, traveller?’
Owen turns on him, hackles raised. ‘There’s travellers everywhere nowadays, mate.’ He shrugs. ‘If someone was at Gresit aiding the townsfolk, props to them, I’d say.’ His frown deepens. ‘You got a problem with that?’
Sala’s hulking acolytes scowl and edge forward, ham fists drifting beltward. Owen sighs inwardly. Aw, shit. Here we go again …
© 2021 | Tom Burton