Above Reikstadt’s blazing ruins, Owen grimly carves through the howling rabble of armed monks, dual-wielding his chainwhip and shortsword. Around him the bloody carnage deepens. Throats are slashed, spears ram through chests, swords hack down with mad abandon, knives plunge deep. A monk’s screaming face is split open with a battleaxe. A militiaman is skewered through his back. Men cradle their drooping entrails in both hands, staring dazed at their own innards as they crumple to their knees. Soon monks and militiamen lie strewn across the blood-soaked plateau, curled together in twisted embraces as they gasp out their last death-rattles.
Using the whip handle as a knuckleduster, Owen ensnares the next monk’s spear haft and pounds him into the ground. No finesse. No elegance. Simplest is always best. Tugging his bloody weapon free with a sickening wet squelch, he turns as another roaring acolyte charges in swinging a sickle. Dodging each wild slash, Owen dances around him, brings him to his knees with a crushing pommel strike to his sternum and wraps the chain around his neck, strangling him. Tighter. Tighter. Finally the monk’s neck snaps with a grating crunch, and he topples boneless into the mud.
Panting heavily, Owen surveys the raging chaos. The monks continue to slaughter Andrei’s soldiers with knives, sickles and crude scimitars, stabbing them through the neck, chopping them down and disembowelling them in a murderous frenzy. The soldiers’ numbers are slowly dwindling, more and more outnumbered by the murderous monks. Across the plateau a tight knot of Stefan’s gnarled veterans are grimly hacking their way towards the church, Andrei shielded behind a protective wall of steel as he roars encouragement.
Time to end this. Owen powers through the battlefield between the frantic pockets of clashing men. Up the priory steps into the nave, the hellish scene stretched before him. An inverted statue of Christ pointing earthwards. The gaping hole in the ceiling. The stream of fire pouring through the roof and rushing down a long flight of stone stairs alongside the altar.
Hurrying down the stone-walled corridor, Owen emerges into a vast underground many-pillared chamber lined with flaming torches, the walls dripping with slime. The torrent of fire swirls in a roaring vortex in the centre of the room, Prior Sala standing alone on the far side of the flames. He draws a dagger, and Owen’s wolfish brain perks up: Really, bitch? Before the flames howl across the chamber and slam into the chest of a huge purple horned Night Creature pinned against the wall. Its six hairless limbs are thickly corded with muscle, two of its outstretched arms nailed to a ceiling beam in a gruesome parody of the crucifixion. Its torso spasms and writhe as the Hellfire pours into its flesh. Hideous howling faces strain beneath rippling skin as it grows. Tendons creak. Limbs stretch. Bones crack and lengthen. It opens its toothy maw wide, swells its chest and spews a blistering river of fire from its mouth into a corner of the chamber.
The back wall explodes revealing a massive oval-shaped portal ablaze with light, stretching from floor to ceiling. A rift in the fabric of reality itself. Shit. Portal to hell. All the torches sputter out as a howling wind rushes from the portal.
And a half-dozen vicious winged nightmares swarm out of it, gibbering and hooting with glee. Horrific gaunt batlike goblins, like furless wolves. They scuttle across the floor, fanning out between Owen and the crucified monster. He braces himself against the portal’s strong wind.
Cower and die? Run and hide? No. Stand and fight!
Enemies. Real enemies, at last. Owen uncoils his whip. Great. Five – no, six – hostiles between him and his prey. Well, this’ll be fun. The Morning Star folds itself into his hands like heated gold. He’d trained since childhood for this; he was born for this. He takes aim at a leaping goblin, cracks the whip like a flyswatter and watches the demon explode mid-air, the blast knocking its nearest companions to the ground. He advances across the floor, stepping into an ancient warrior’s dance Belmonts had choreographed for untold generations, sliding his bodyweight into the whip, wrapping its chainlinks around his forearm and snapping the mace forward, knowing without thinking just how long it needs to be to reach its next target, killing opponent after opponent with efficient, seamless grace. Battling back and forth keeping his enemies on the defensive.
Two, three, four more goblins screech, swell up and explode into splatters of black slime as Owen advances across the chamber. The final two remaining goblins hiss and scrabble away from him, leathery batlike wings unfurling, but the Morningstar snaps out to wrap around one’s leg and yank it to the floor. As the goblin uncurls Owen darts forward, sweeping his shortsword up so its heavy blade punches deep into the goblin’s throat. Still gripping the shortsword two-handed, Owen rips it back hard and the razor-edged steel saws through sinew and muscle and gullet. The floor is awash with black blood as the demon collapses, gurgling.
Enraged, the final winged goblin leaps at him, knocking the shortsword from his hand and pinning him to the floor. Owen grits his teeth, draws both circular buzzsaws and slashes across its ribs. The goblin howls in pain and scrabbles back, its jagged chest wounds smoking and hissing.
Anyone else would feel a shard of remorse. Not Owen. He’d seen too many good men gored by fatally injured Hellbeasts. Now’s the dangerous time. No room for hesitation. Or mercy. Time to terminate with extreme prejudice.
Panting, he staggers upright and plants his feet. His fingers pump the spring-loaded triggers; the hooked sawblades spin faster and faster until they’re a menacing, buzzing blur of serrated steel.
The goblin’s lidless eyes narrow.
Game on, mate. You and me – let’s go!
Owen moves in for the kill, brandishing his handheld buzzsaws. The wounded goblin claws at him, but Owen ducks and weaves like a prizefighting boxer, fluid, brutally balletic, dodging each feral swipe as his sawblades whir and slice with merciless efficiency. First he takes out the hamstrings, bringing the stricken goblin to its knees. The crippled demon lashes out pathetically, even managing a few feeble glancing blows. Owen ignores them. Toiling like a battlefield surgeon he grimly takes it apart limb by limb, his clinical pinpoint slashes reducing it to a heap of quivering scaly flesh in seconds. First its left wing flops limp, hanging by a slimy thread of sinew. Then its severed right arm tumbles to the floor, flapping around like a dying fish. As the one-armed goblin rears back for a final desperate lunge Owen spins close, arm scything outward as the sawblade bites deep.
Black blood sprays. The goblin convulses, chest heaving, then topples to the floor gushing blood from its slashed throat.
Owen holsters his bloodied buzzsaws, then limps across the room to retrieve his chainwhip and shortsword.
The ground shudders; a shrill screech fills the air as Owen turns towards the portal. Out crawls … he stares. A half-torn mangled nightmare twice the size of a man, a hulking shadow of cold, hairless necrotic flesh and crushing muscle fuelled by ravenous, insatiable hunger. Long sinewy forelimbs drag it forward, hooked talons scraping the flagstones. Its emaciated legless torso reveals a cavernous stomach that flops open like a dreadful gaping wound, dripping organs hanging from the rotting cavity. Its warped twisted body crawls forward, leaving a filthy smear of bloody entrails in its wake. Greasy locks droop from a wizened scalp. Bloodthirsty sunken eyes blaze deep in its gaunt noseless face. Dead grey flesh is stretched tight over its jutting ribcage like sodden rags. Beneath hate-filled eyes a skinless maw yawns wide, bristling with needle-sharp fangs.
‘Mournghul,’ Owen mutters, eyes narrowing. ‘Right out of the family bestiary.’ He sighs. ‘God shits in my dinner once again!’ He braces himself and whirs the Morningstar in a lethal figure of eight before him, faster and faster, the steel chain-whip buzzing through the air like an angry hornet. ‘Say “aah”, fuckface!’
The mournghul lunges forward with a bloodthirsty screech, but Owen dodges a wild clawing swipe and lashes it across the face with the Morningstar. It crashes back with a gurgle against a stone pillar. Chunks of masonry rain down. Green slime drips from its bubbling wounds and hisses deep into the smoking flagstones. Blinded and furious the monster flails about wildly, but Owen skilfully snags the chain around its outstretched forearm and watches the spiked mace-head swing back around, smashing full force deep into the creature’s withered chest.
Bullseye. It vanishes in a searing fireball amid the stench of charred meat, shrivelled scraps of flesh scattered across the floor. Owen nods grimly. Apparently they hadn’t heard of pendulums in Hell.
An enraged snarl. A rushing shadow bursts out of the smoke and slams him aside, knocking the Morningstar from his grasp. A scorched arm backhands him across the room, landing in a crumpled heap. A badly-placed pillar breaks his fall. Fucking great, now he’ll have back bruises too.
Ugh. Some nights are just better spent in bed.
The Morningstar clatters away far out of reach as – oh, brilliant – the mournghul looms over his aching body, drool dripping from its toothy maw. Its skin charred and blistered.
Burnt. Blackened. And bloody furious.
One of the wall-mounted sconces is lying on the floor, a twisted length of wrought iron with its flame snuffed out. Just beyond arm’s reach. Worse than useless.
Better than nothing.
Owen’s boot straightens like a striking cobra and smashes full into the mournghul’s gaping jaws. It recoils with a screech of outrage, spitting broken fangs as Owen twists free and bellycrawls across the floor. The guttural heaving pants of the nightmare as it scuttles after him. Hot reeking breath washes over his neck. His scrabbling fingers close around cold iron and he whirls around with a vicious two-handed scything swing, all two hundred pounds of coiled fury behind it.
The mournghul blunders backwards, dazed as Owen struggles upright. He spies a second torch sconce atop a half-crumbled column.
Muscles screaming in protest, Owen forces his aching body into a desperate sprint. He surges forward, launches off a rubble heap and tears the sconce from its bracket. He drops to the floor, a weapon in each hand. The mournghul rounds on him with a murderous glare as it begins to circle, its eyes flashing with malevolent hatred. He sinks onto one knee, scraping both sconces across the paving slabs. A line in the stone. A challenge. Here I am … Come get me, bastard!
The mournghul prowls around him like a wolf circling its cornered prey, before unleashing a horrific, primordial berserker shriek. ‘ROOOAAAARRRGHH!’
Owen shudders, then bares his teeth and roars right back. ‘RAAAAH!’
Wham! He backhands a sconce across the mournghul’s jaw, blasting it back. Owen explodes upward, dual-wielding both sconces like warclubs as he batters it repeatedly, driving it across the chamber with a relentless barrage of multiple blows. He bites back a hiss of pain as it swipes at his arm, a talon snagging his bicep and tearing through muscle.
Playtime’s over. Let’s finish this!
Owen smashes both makeshift cudgels across the mournghul’s face, metal crunching into its jaw as it reels back with an agonised wail. Dodging its slashing talons Owen darts inside its reach and thrusts the lethal spike up beneath its chin, all twelve inches of cold iron punching right through its brain and bursting out the back of its skull. As it slumps forward he rolls behind it, flips his second sconce around spike-first and plunges it deep, straight and true, impaling the mournghul’s heart through its back.
Any monster worth staking is worth staking twice. No such thing as overkill in the Belmont business.
Smoking green slime spews from its mouth, sizzling as it eats into the flagstones. The mournghul collapses lifeless on the floor, flesh melting off its bones which crumble to ash.
Owen stretches blood into his weary limbs. His scalp is bleeding. He ignores it.
Through the massive glowing portal he glimpses a horrifying vista; a wide river of blood snakes between spiky trees festooned with flayed corpses. The dry cracked riverbanks are fissured with glowing magma, teeming with hooting, snarling demons. Amid the jagged mountains in the distance, a giant horned figure claws its way out of the barren earth and raises a flaming sword.
So that’s Satan, Owen thinks dimly through the searing waves of pain. Huh. Okay then.
Kill this bastard. Then close the portal. Save the world. No pressure.
Now’s the time. Ten long years of study and training, fifteen more years wandering the wilderness, a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears all now focussed, resolved, channelled into this single defining moment; the sole purpose of his short span of life to prepare him to enter the heart of night and bare his light against the crushing darkness.
Owen tightens his bandoleer strap against aching ribs. He steels himself. Breathes out.
And moves in.
‘Oi! Big boy!’ he snarls through clenched teeth, advancing on the crucified monster. ‘I’m still here!’
The towering creature raises its lizard-like muzzle to regard the small figure trudging boldly toward it, battered, bruised and bleeding from ugly wounds across his chest and arms. But still standing.
‘You know me?’ it snarls, guttural voice dripping with dismissive scorn.
Owen closes in, an ant before the storm and brazenly defiant despite it. ‘I’m Owen Belmont, of House Belmont!’ he growls, gazing at it cooly. ‘Of course I know you. Finding things and recognising things is what we do! And you are absolutely a Thing!’
The monster glares down with burning red eyes, oozing malice from every slimy pore. ‘I was born in fire and blood at the dawn of life to feed on your kind,’ it boasts. ‘You puny little meatsacks chasing the light, clinging desperately to your feeble suns … which die. You are but maggots to us. Worms to be squashed.’
It rips free of its restraints and drops onto all fours with an earth-shaking thud. ‘The Darkness is my domain. Only the Darkness endures. The Warriors of Light chained us in the Pit for all eternity … yet I shall live forever in men’s bleeding hearts, in their vanity and lust for power.’ Its rumbling voice drips with the confidence from uncounted eons of unchallenged superiority. ‘The Lord of Darkness chose me to spearhead his vanguard, and burn this world to dust! I’m a little more than a … thing.’
Owen keeps walking, icy blue eyes never leaving the immense monster even for an instant. ‘No … you’re only a thing,’ he declares, words filled with contempt. ‘You’re just an age-old killer.’ He unhooks the Morningstar with a rattle of chains, his forefathers’ ancestral weapon dented and coarsened from countless past battles. ‘You don’t build anything, you don’t live. You just eat and hide!’ He halts before the monster, weapon in hand and shoulders squared. ‘Time to give this world back to people who can build anew.’ The portal’s howling wind billows around him, flapping his matted hair and torn clothes. ‘You ’n’ me? We’re just killers. It’s time for us to go.’
‘And who’s going to make me go?’ gloats the monster, its voice dripping with distaste. ‘You? You tiny pathetic crawling mouse, spitting noise and pretending you’re important? You worthless stinging fly? All alone? With your feeble scrap of string?’
A grim smile curls Owen’s lip as he raises his chainwhip, brandishing it taut across his chest. ‘Probably not, no … but y’know what they say? One beastie, one Belmont!’
He begins whirling the Morningstar, angry steel thrumming through the air. ‘My family defeated you for a dozen generations, we banished you back into the Eternal Void! “The Gatekeepers” you called us. “The Oncoming Storm”. When monsters rise again, we kill them dead! Remember every black night we ever stopped you?’
The enraged demon stamps the floor; dust showers from the ceiling. ‘My master has awakened!’ it roars, sinews bulging on its neck. ‘His knights will scorch the earth for his glorious arrival, as I must. This world is doomed!’
Owen smirks. ‘Yeah? It’s been doomed before. And you lot sure aren’t the first to try – there have been so many! But ask yourself: what happened to them?’
He bares his teeth.
The demon howls and charges. The Morningstar meets it mid-leap. The room floods with blazing light. More than one man against a monster; more than human blademasters against the legions of Hell; more than the last descendant of a warrior dynasty versus the Dark Lord’s prized champion.
The Last Belmont against Satan’s Hellknight.
Good against evil.
Light against dark.
Winner take all.
Dancing around the lumbering beast Owen strikes out repeatedly with his Morningstar, unleashing a crippling flurry of slashes. Each whipcrack burns the Hellknight until it’s engulfed in flames. He leaps back; as the smoke clears the creature emerges, skin crackling and burning as its gaping wounds knit back together. It swats him aside, sending him hurtling into a wall.
Owen struggles to his feet, wiping blood from his mouth. No sharp lancing pain when he breathes, nothing so bad that he could feel it through the adrenaline rush of fighting. But that thing skitters towards him again like some nightmarish unkillable salamander, regrowing limbs as fast as he destroyed them, and he can’t afford to take many more hits like that. Can’t do this forever.
What he wouldn’t give for an extra large bucket of salt right now.
An idea uncurls inside him. Crazy. Insane. It’ll hurt like a bitch. But it just might work.
Owen squares his shoulders. Locks eyes with the creature.
And drops his Morningstar. It clatters to the floor.
The Hellknight’s eyes gleam with triumph. It knocks him flying into a stone pillar. Owen lies still, eyes closed. The Hellknight chuckles and scoops him up with a giant clawed hand, squeezing the breath from Owen’s lungs. No response; it raises its prey to its mouth, opens its jaws wide —
Owen’s eyes snap open. ‘Sucker!’ He draws his shortsword with a hiss of steel. Lunges forward.
And twenty inches of castle-forged steel stabs deep into the Hellknight’s eye.
It reels back, blinded and bellowing in pain. Owen drops from its flailing claws. He scoops up his Morningstar and attacks with a relentless barrage of strikes. With every whipcrack, another chunk of torn flesh is exposed, each slash flaying muscle from bone.
Owen smiles grimly. And suddenly they are all beside him: his long-dead forefathers, parents and beloved sisters, eyes burning with ghostly vengeance, chanting their hallowed mantra in a single resolute voice.
In brightest day, in darkest night –
The Morningstar crackles with energy, sizzling blue flames licking down the chainwhip.
No evil flees the Belmonts’ might.
Owen whips it high overhead, arms burning with exhaustion.
Let those who toll out evil’s knell –
The mace-head flashes white, ablaze with holy fire as they roar as one –
Beware our power: the scourge of Hell!’
Owen yells a battlecry and chops it down with punishing force. The Morningstar plunges earthward.
Straight through the demon’s horned head. Cleaving it in two.
The fiery explosion blasts the creature apart in a gory shower of guts. Searing heat washes over Owen as blinding light fills the chamber. When it finally fades, the demon is gone. Just a smoking crater deep in the flagstones, black blood smeared across the floor and the lingering stench of burnt meat. The demon’s severed head lolls at Owen’s feet, blood drooling from its gaping jaws.
The portal fizzles and shrinks, a faint echoing roar of outrage: ‘Nooooo …!’
Then it winks out. And vanishes for good.
Everything hurts. Where’s Stefan? Is he still alive? Here he is, too small to be a demon, slipping a blood-soaked arm under Owen’s aching shoulders. Supporting him towards the staircase. Ouch. Ribs. Ouch.
The ceiling cracks above them, chunks of rubble raining down. ‘Run,’ Owen croaks, and they do. Up the stairs, along the gloomy passageways out into the roofless nave as the the priory crumbles around them. Outside is a sea of carnage, the courtyard littered with corpses. Monks and militiamen lie entangled in deathly embraces, cold fingers still clawing at the weapons that had slain them. A handful of battle-weary soldiers trudge among the piles of dead, dispatching dying monks and tending to wounded comrades. Andrei’s men have won the day. Barely. All around the horizon glows red, an entire town on fire.
And there’s the Magistrate. Lying on the cold hard ground. A knife buried deep in his chest. Fuck. The whole town gone, burned to ash, and now the one official who’d been nice to him, who had asked for his help like a civilised person instead of trying to have him executed first – done for.
Owen sinks to his knees next to Andrei. He can mend broken bodies, reset bones and bandage cuts, given enough time and energy, but this — a blade through the heart — is far beyond him. He could win all of his battles and yet save none of the people.
‘I’ve killed Sala,’ Andrei whispers. ‘Sent him on his path to Hell.’
Owen kneels beside him, taking his hand. ‘Where is he?’
Andrei coughs hoarsely, then: ‘Take the back field into the woods. Go right at the fork. Cross the stream. You’ll find him beneath the apple tree.’ He squeezes Owen’s hand. ‘Give me my knife,’ he rasps through bloody lips. Owen presses it into his trembling hands. Andrei clasps it to his chest and chuckles wetly. ‘I’m going to wait for that b-bastard in Hell, and k-kill him all over again when he arrives!’ He exhales. ‘B-burn my house down.’ Blood trickles from his mouth. He heaves a long weary sigh, then his hand slackens in Owen’s grip and he goes limp.
Owen gazes helplessly down at Andrei’s corpse. He can strong-arm and fight and even protect, but here, once it’s all over, he has nothing left to offer. Andrei’s blood is smeared over his fingers as the stench of smoke and charred meat clogs his nose, the moans of the wounded and dying scattered around him. Not his fault. Just one more death in a blood-drenched night of carnage. And they’d won, technically. Hadn’t they? He’d beaten all of his enemies and sent them screaming back to Hell. He’d closed the portal. He’d foiled the friars’ plans to unleash Hell upon the earth. He … he hadn’t saved the town, not a single innocent person in it. But he’d still won.
The night settles into his bones with a gnawing chill that makes him feel dirty, tainted, like he’d need a week-long hot bath to wash away all the blood caked beneath his fingernails. He finds the pit easily enough, before the laden apple tree. Gazes down at the bloodied spikes lining the bottom, Sala’s fallen carcass skewered through his arm, his chest, his left eye socket. Underneath him lie mouldering scraps of tattered clothing, bones so small at first Owen’s mind screams ‘animal’ instead of ‘human’.
He knows better.
Here? Every little story is such a huge event … A farming accident. A sickness. A lost child …
My apple tree …
It has its little pleasures …
They weren’t even granted the simplest dignity of a shallow grave. Instead left to slowly rot beneath an uncaring sky, totally exposed to scorching sun and hissing rain, amid the lethal sharpened stakes that killed them. How many of them died instantly, a quick painless jolt into endless night? And how many were left dying down there, alone, abandoned, crying and sobbing and wailing in terror and confusion and excruciating pain, a slow agonising death where nobody could hear their final awful screams. Crying out in the night for parents who never heard. Who never came.
Who never even knew.
In some dark corner of his mind he knows he’s supposed to recoil in horror or vomit in disgust, or fall to his knees and scream against the unfair injustice of the world. But he simply stares down, a boiling, blinding anger churning beneath his skin so intense it numbs his mind. Blood roars through his ears, bubbling with primal sizzling rage. Searing fury scorches through him. His anger is a white-hot hissing sound between his ears like a shrieking kettle, like a cornered rat snarling. It is a tight band wrapped around his chest, pressing hard against his ribs. It is arms that ache to wreak violence, fingers that twitch with the urge to drag Andrei back up from Hell and rip him limb from limb, to cut/smash/rip/punch/tear/crush/DESTROY.
His despair is the howl of icy wind over scoured-bare mountaintops. Andrei’s world will burn for this.
He killed Sala. This was his pit.
Fucker died too quickly.
He approaches Andrei’s house. One of the last few buildings left standing in this whole ruined town of smouldering rubble and charred bones. Because God’s sure got a warped sense of humour.
Inside the empty room is dark and silent, a slash of moonlight across the floor. A stub of candle wax flickers on the mantlepiece. A freshly-oiled torch in a wall bracket. Owen pulls it free and lights it with the dying candle. He scans the room: on the table is a small dish. The same ornate brass key from earlier.
A side door hidden away in the corner, half-shrouded behind a dark curtain.
The key slips in noiselessly. The door smoothly swings open on greased hinges. A back room shrouded in total darkness.
Owen folds the door all the way back. Stands in the moonlight for a long, agonising moment. Then he raises the lighted torch.
And steps inside.
© 2021 | Tom Burton