Back at his lodge, Andrei is poring over a heap of scrolls and large leather-bound books. He looks up as Owen and Stefan enter, dumping Scarface facedown with a heavy thud.
‘Found your vandal,’ Owen smirks, dusting off his hands. ‘He’s a very naughty monk. We caught him carving a weird symbol into the side of a home.’ He tosses the defaced wooden slat onto the table, its twisted rune gouged deep. ‘The same one we saw at the front gates. They’ve been leaving them all over town.’
Andrei’s face darkens. ‘Bastards!’ He moves around the desk to glare down at Scarface.
Stefan crouches low beside his captive. ‘Tell us what the symbol means,’ he grunts.
Hands bound, Scarface glowers from the floor. ‘Fuck you to death!’
WHAM! Andrei kicks him viciously in the ribs. He curls up, groaning.
‘Keep a civil fucking tongue in your head when addressing me, monk!’ Andrei snarls, his voice an axeblade hacking ice.
Scarface bares bloody teeth. ‘I ain’t tellin’ you shit!’ He juts out his chin defiantly. ‘You can’t keep me here, you can’t do nothing!’
Stefan plants a heavy boot on Scarface’s skull, pressing his face down into the floorboards. ‘Maybe we’ll just kill you,’ he growls.
Scarface fumes beneath Stefan’s boot. ‘This ain’t over! My brothers’ll come for me. They’ll make you pay!’
‘Sure thing, ‘Owen shrugs. ‘Call ’em right now.’ He gestures towards the heavy bolted door, the thick oaken walls. ‘Yell real loud. Go on. Try it. Oh wait.’
‘You’re dead meat. All of you. Dead!’
‘How’s that, mate? You got any more mad monks with you? Apart from those two chumps lying dead back in town?’
No answer. Owen smirks. ‘Didn’t think so.’
‘Fuckin’ Belmonts,’ Scarface spits, glaring daggers at Owen’s crest. ‘Alway sticking their filthy snouts where they ain’t wanted. Everyone here knows not to approach the priory, not to ask questions, not to interfere with our sacred work.’ He wriggles in vain, fuming. ‘You couldn’t just leave us alone? Keep well out of this?’
Owen crouches down, patting Scarface’s shoulder. ‘Not my style, mate. Sorry.’
Andrei traces the carving, his gaze flickering between the carved wooden slat and an open book covered with twisted glyphs. ‘Seems this symbol’s all bad news. I found a worrying set of meanings. Look here: the alchemical sigil for Saturn. And lead, representing transformation and rebirth. Order and focus. But more sinister undertones, too. The dark metal, corrupted. Cleansed only by fire. And its pronged pitchfork – see that crescent below the cross there? – denoting time. Death. Decay. The harvesting of souls.’ He taps the page, shutting his eyes in dismay. ‘This isn’t just some idle carving that happened to look like that symbol. This is intentional. Sala and his men planned this long ago.’
Ice shivers through Owen’s veins. ‘They’re enacting something magical in nature. Some kind of action against the town involving these alchemical symbols.’
Andrei pales. ‘The same ones we’ve seen?’
Owen nods. Andrei grips his arm, eyes bleak. ‘Tell me what kind of action. Please!’
He shakes his head. ‘I don’t honestly know.’ Then he smirks down at Scarface. ‘But he does.’ He crouches before the monk. ‘So: spill the beans.’
‘Fuck. You.’ Scarface jerks his head towards Maria in the doorway. ‘And your harlot!’
CRACK. He slumps back with a bloody nose. Oops. Silly Owen, what a shame this wanker somehow managed to hit your fist with that smug-ass face. Clumsy of you. Not.
‘Now that’s not very nice.’ Owen leans close. ‘I’m going inside to meet your friends later. Anything I should worry about?’
Scarface grins bloodily. ‘They’re all armed to the teeth.’
Owen rolls his eyes, voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘I’m shocked and amazed. What else?’
Scarface clamps his mouth shut and glares back defiantly.
Fine. Fine. Persuasion it is. Owen winks over at Stefan. ‘Ever noticed how it’s always the bigger blokes who don’t handle pain well?’
Catching on immediately, Stefan grins back. ‘Yeah. They usually bulk up to hide the fact that they’ll pass out whenever they get a measly splinter.’
Owen hums sagely. ‘Though so. Alrighty, then.’ He draws his knife. ‘Ever seen what a six-inch knife can do to the human eye?’
Scarface turns white. ‘H-Hang on!’ he splutters, wide-eyed with dread.
‘Shall we assume you don’t wanna learn?’
‘Do what you want!’ Scarface blusters, his confident tone betrayed by his scared-shitless expression. ‘I’m tellin’ you nothing!’
‘Aw, the strong silent type, huh? You’re no fun.’ Owen traces his blade over Scarface’s cheek. Slowly. While the guy tries (and fails) to contain his panting. His wheezing. And his tears.
Owen pats Scarface’s cheek with the knife blade, point scratching ever so gently under his twitching eye. ‘You know it’s not true that you blackout before your eyeball gets popped out. Right? You’ll feel it all. Real slow. The whole damn way.’
‘Y-You wouldn’t!’ Scarface whimpers.
Owen gives him a bright cheery smile. Full of teeth. ‘Want to convince me not to?’
Sweat glistens on the monk’s brow. His terrified eyes dart to and fro, seeking escape. Finding none.
Owen clamps his skull. Waggles the knife before him. ‘Last chance, pal …’
‘All right!’ Scarface sobs, slumping over in defeat. ‘All right! I’ll talk.’
‘There we go,’ Owen sing-songs, patting his head. ‘Now: why don’t you tell us how many of you are up in that priory?’
Scarface’s eyes turn flinty. ‘Not as many as there were, but more than enough.’
Stefan scoffs. ‘What – you lot been eating each other in there or something?’
‘We’ve been leaving … for days! Just a few of us, one a day. Walking to other towns, spreading the word.’
Owen narrows his eyes. ‘Like an infection.’
‘Like evangelists!’ Scarface’s face glows with fervour. ‘Passing on the knowledge. The Great Plan. Bringing Hell … to this abandoned earth!’
Andrei stares, aghast. ‘This is Sala’s plan?’
Scarface slumps back against the wall with a smug snigger. ‘Our Visitor’s plan. He spoke to us that blessed night. We heard his voice in our heads.’ His eyes gleam. ‘Since that moment, everything has been made clear.’
‘What was your Visitor doing here?’
Scarface chuckles wetly. ‘Not was. Is!’ He thrashes uselessly against his bonds. ‘He lies beneath our hallowed home, awaiting the hour of reckoning when the full moon walks high!’
Andrei’s face hardens. ‘Fanatics! It really did drive them insane.’
Owen shrugs. ‘Perhaps. But Night Creatures do wield dark magic. It may have twisted their minds beyond breaking point.’ He scratches his chin, pensive. ‘And if they’ve got a Night Creature still under the priory …’
Andrei pounds the table with his fist. ‘They didn’t kill it, after all. They hid it!’
A hasty knock on the door. The captain from the front gates enters, twisting his wide-brimmed hat in his hands. ‘Sirs! Urgent news, if I may?’
‘At ease, Captain Jakob,’ Andrei reassures him. ‘What’ve you found?’
‘Ah.’ Owen holds up a cautionary finger. ‘One sec.’ He crouches down and digs his thumb into the side of Scarface’s neck, compressing the artery feeding his brain. Soon Scarface’s eyes roll up and he slumps sideways with a heavy sigh. Unconscious. Owen straightens up, smirking. ‘Carry on.’
Andrei nods his thanks. He claps his hands; two uniformed guards enter, pick up Scarface’s limp carcass and drag him out. Andrei turns to Jakob. ‘As you were, captain: how many houses have been marked?’
‘All of them, sir,’ replies Jakob mournfully, nursing his hat before him in the classic Ai-Senor-Pesky-Bandits-Have-Raided-Our-Village pose. ‘They’ve defaced every one.’
‘Apart from Maria’s,’ Owen points out. He sweeps the wooden slat onto the floor and stamps down hard, cracking it in two. ‘What night’s the next full moon?’
Andrei rifles through a well-worn almanac. He stops. Turns pale. ‘Tonight.’
‘Well, shit. Things can’t get much worse.’ Owen unties Scarface’s armband from his sleeve and holds it out, baring the symbol. ‘What d’you make of this?’
Andrei turns to another page. His eyes are bleak. Owen peers over. The double crucifix, the endless coil of infinity …
The Leviathan Cross.
‘It’s the alchemical sign for sulphur,’ Andrei mutters, his words dredged up from deep within, aching with weary resignation. ‘Used by ancient philosophers to denote … Hell.’
Owen resists the urge to eye-roll into next week. Next month. Next year. ‘The universe just loves proving me wrong, doesn’t it?’ He cracks his knuckles. ‘Right: so the priory’s deconsecrated, they’re working with a living Night Creature underground, and there’s dozens of these crazy fuckers guarding it. Great. Really great.’ He glances at the others. ‘I can handle the demon, but I’d rather not wade through a small army of mad monks to reach it. Your men shouldn’t be anywhere near that. Just punch a hole for me, then stay topside and keep the monks off my back.’
Andrei nods, grim-faced with purpose. ‘I’ll summon my men-at-arms in stages. No need to cause public alarm or give Sala undue warning. We’ll strike at sundown, when the townsfolk are all safely indoors.’
Owen frowns. ‘We really got time to wait until then?’
Andrei’s expression hardens, his voice firm and resolute. ‘This is my town, Belmont. You’ll do as I say.’ He mashes a fist into his open palm, eyes alight with determination. ‘We must have strategy, and force of numbers. This will be done properly. I’ll begin preparations at once.’ He bustles out the door, Stefan and Jakob flanking him.
Maria uncrosses her arms and saunters forward. ‘What’ll I do?’
Owen squeezes her hand. ‘Take in as many people as you can shelter under one roof. Whatever happens tonight, if I’m right – and that’s a big “if” – then your inn’s one of the few safe places left out there. You got an underfloor basement, or a cellar?’
‘Nope,’ she deadpans. ‘I just like stacking my beer barrels right behind the bar, because I’m an idiot.’ She swats his arm playfully. ‘Of course I’ve got a cellar, numbnuts. You’re painfully anxious sometimes, y’know that?’
‘I’m responsible,’ Owen claims, which gets him an eye-roll and an elbow in the ribs. ‘I am. I’m being responsible right now.’
She still looks unconvinced. ‘Look,’ he sighs, ‘I just. I want to get this over with. And you agree. Kind of. I mean, you like the excitement and adventure and heroics and all that bollocks, but you’ll be far better off keeping an eye on your neighbours over at your place if this whole fuck-up melts into a disaster. It’s not just sitting around idly and passively waiting shit out. If we’re overrun – hopefully not – they’ll need somewhere to shelter safely.’
Maria reddens. ‘I’m not their damn babysitter!’
‘No. You’ll be their protector. Big difference.’
Well at least Maria doesn’t look pityingly at him. More like irritated. It’s a toss-up which is worse, frankly.
‘You’re really good at keeping folks in line,’ he tries and God, does that sound feeble. ‘I’ve heard you working. You’re great at getting people’s shit together. So you’d be doing far more good staying put and keeping them safe from this whole damn mess.’ He’s clutching at straws now; ugh, this is so lame. ‘You’re reliable.’
Maria snorts. ‘You might’ve led with that.’
‘I really should’ve.’
A long pause … then Maria nods. ‘Okay. I’ll do it.’
He sighs in relief. ‘Good. Get as many townsfolk underfloor as you can. Put as many thick walls between them and the battle, and please, make sure you –’
Suddenly all the breath is crushed from his lungs as Maria throws her arms tight around him, hugging him close. Her head nestles beneath his stubbled chin as he strokes her hair. She smells of lavender soap and honey.
‘Be careful,’ he finishes, almost a whisper.
‘You too.’ Maria mumbles into his chest. Then she chuckles fondly. ‘My boy Paul? He would’ve loved you. Little tyke used to dash around the house in his blue buckled shoes: “Mummy, Mummy, look at me! I’m fighting monsters, Mummy!” Galavanting off into the woods with his daydreams, or picking the prettiest wildflowers to bring home. Loved that little rogue to bits, bless him.’ She sighs. ‘Until he ran away three winters back. I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since. Hope he’s okay out there.’
Not just a brash-mouthed landlady then, all prickles and sharp words to drunken louts. A grieving mother still mourning her long-lost child. Owen rubs her back. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Not your fault.’ Maria kisses his cheek tenderly, then sweeps out the door.
All alone again, Owen breathes out. And smiles.
Right, then. Got a town to save, monsters to slay and a battle to win. No pressure.
Just like old times.
Under the fading glimmer of sunset they march up the barren slope towards Reikstadt’s priory. Andrei leads the way, Owen, Jakob and Stefan at the head of a band of militia large enough to make Owen feel uncomfortably like a commander … or maybe just an expendable grunt sent in with the first wave.
His fingertips brush over his weapons, preparing each for its quickest draw: his shortsword sheathed on his right hip. The chainwhip coiled at his left hip. His pair of handheld eight-bladed circular buzzsaws strapped to the small of his back for close-quarters insurance, razor-edged and thirsty for blood. His lean body a machine of war.
The priory looms ahead, its doors barred and silent. Owen’s expected nothing less. He waits while the soldiers form ranks behind them. Finally Andrei strides forward to deliver his ultimatum.
‘Prior Sala!’ he calls, voice thick with contempt. ‘When you were a simple man of the Church, I tolerated your hold over my town. When you became a mad hermit who shunned my people, I tolerated you still.’ His face hardens. ‘No more! You will vacate the priory, immediately. Throw down your weapons as you leave!’
No answer from the priory. Andrei stomps closer. ‘Sala! I know you have deconsecrated the priory. God no longer dwells in this house. You enjoy no protection from Him! Out! All of you! Now! Or we come for you, Sala!’
Owen’s hand rests on his Morningstar as he meet Stefan’s gaze where the sergeant hovers protectively behind Andrei, longsword resting on his shoulder. Stefan grimaces: Here we go.
Andrei turns away with a snort of disgust. ‘Raving lunatics.’ He raises a clenched fist to his soldiers. ‘Get ready! We’re going in!’
The sun slips below the horizon. The plaza falls dark.
Then a roaring boom shakes the town behind them. And all Hell breaks loose.
First one home, and then another explodes into hideous flames that pour upward into the night sky, arching overhead, twisting and snaking pathways no natural fire has ever made. Three other houses instantly incinerate, shooting yet more streams of Hellfire high into the night; the conflagration is so sudden and absolute that even nearby trees crackle and wither. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. At this helpless distance, Owen hears no screams; maybe there isn’t time for anyone to scream, but the people are still trapped down there, every one of them burning alive in their doomed homes. Horrifying deaths consumed in searing agony. And Owen can’t even stop it. He shoves down his panic but it claws back up his throat, rattling against his clenched teeth.
You can’t save them. You can’t save any of them. You never do.
One look at Stefan’s horrified face tells him they’re beyond all help.
‘My God!’ Jakob gasps at the soaring pillars of Hellfire. ‘How’re they doing that? They out there setting fires?’
‘No!’ Andrei groans miserably. ‘The markings on the walls! It’s the harvest. I just didn’t see it!’ He gazes down at his empty hands in despair. ‘And I waited until everyone was back in their homes! I’ve damned them all!’
A ninth house bursts into flame in the valley below, much closer this time; in the soaring column of fire nearby Owen glimpses ghoulish twisted faces, mouths agape in frozen screams. His heart plummets with sickening dread: the souls of murdered innocents feeding the fires of Hell.
Sometimes you can’t save everyone.
And sometimes … you can’t save anyone.
The raging tongues of flame converge together high above their heads in a howling mass of fire. They watch in helpless horror as the flaming torrent plunges down toward the priory, streaming straight through the roof’s jagged hole like a serpent seeking its underground den.
‘We have to get in there!’ Stefan yells, and in his voice is … not panic. No. Desperation. They have to stop all this, now. Storm the priory. But how could they get past those huge locked doors? Maybe break in through the narrow windows, or perhaps could clamber down through the gaping roof? If it ever stops burning.
‘Then we force a path inside!’ Andrei’s face twists with vengeful fury. ‘Take it!’ he bellows to his men. ‘Take the priory now! They’ve murdered your families … so let’s kill these bastards!’
The soldiers rush past him with an eager roar, weapons readied as Owen leads their charge. Then the priory’s double doors crash open and a yelling mob of shit-for-brains monks come flooding out before them, waving knives, axes, pitchforks and sickles. Howling for blood. Through the open doors behind them, the church nave is ablaze with Hellfire.
Owen’s wolfish brain perks up. Well. Small blessings, indeed. At least the door’s open. Now: just have to get past these fuckers. Simple enough.
He draws his sword and whirls his Morningstar, smiling with grim resolve. Now’s here’s something I can fight. Here we go!
© 2021 | Tom Burton