Hellhunter (5/8)

The boy darts through the busy marketplace, giggling as he swerves around scowling vendors, hurdles vegetable crates and leaves basket stacks wobbling precariously in his wake. A merchant curses and shies away, almost dropping his potted plant. A mother rears back, accidentally jostles the baby cradled in her arms and groans as he starts wailing. But the lad dashes on heedlessly, his red velvet shoes pattering through the mud.

Only to skid to a halt before the Magistrate, who glares down with hands on hips. ‘No running! I’ve told you long enough I won’t have children charging about like wild dogs through my town. And I’ve told you in particular more than twenty times, haven’t I?’ He wags a stern finger. ‘Haven’t I, boy?’

Behind, Owen winces in sympathy as the shamefaced lad pouts at his shoes, shoulders slumped. Andrei sighs and crouches eye-to-eye with the miserable boy. He nods towards the food stalls, the packed trays of fruit. ‘And you’re always here first thing every morning because you like the freshest apples, don’t you?’ He smiles as the boy nods eagerly. ‘Mmm. I thought so.’

He leans in with a stage whisper. ‘Want to know a special secret?’ He points towards the trees. ‘If you go into the woods through the back field, follow the path down the left fork and carry on to the big tree you all say looks like an angry face, hm? Then you cross over the stream, past the point your parents say you shouldn’t go, right?’ He smiles. ‘Luckily I know there’s an apple tree in that next clearing. Biggest, juiciest apples you’ve ever seen!’ He places a hand over his heart. ‘Well, it’s my apple tree, and nobody’s allowed to go there. So,’ he ruffles the lad’s messy hair, ‘if you promise not to tell your parents where you’re going … go get yourself three apples. Off you go, then!’

The boy beams and scampers off, Andrei smiling after him. ‘And no more running!’ He sighs, shakes his head fondly, then catches Owen grinning and frowns. ‘What?’

‘Aww,’ Owen teases. ‘See? You do care.’

‘I do not, Belmont.’ He smoothes down his lapels, blushing. ‘I’m just … keeping an eye on him, that’s all. Sending him on a nonsense errand gets him out from under people’s feet. Little ankle-biters.’

‘Yeah, yeah. Ya big softie.’

Stop.’ He snorts a laugh. ‘Suppose we were all young once.’

‘Let him have his fun,’ Owen smiles. ‘They’re just cheeky kids.’

‘Indeed,’ Andrei admits, then his expression turns grave. ‘And kids always grow up into men. The boy who steals toys from his playmates will grow into the thief who robs at knifepoint. The child clumsily dashing around without a care for anyone else’s safety will one day cause an accident that hurts more lives than it should. I’m protecting these people, Belmont. Scolding their kids today will safeguard their tomorrow. Cruel to be kind. Don’t you see that?’

Owen sighs skywards. ‘Whatever you say, pal.’

Andrei ushers him inside his home, a wooden lodge that oozes comfort. Taking a seat, Owen gazes around while Andrei pours tea; wealth and luxury wrapped in deep shadows. Varnished oak-panelled walls gleam golden-brown. A large table of rich mahogany scattered with papers before him. An ornate brass key on a plate.

Andrei passes over a steaming mug. ‘I know the monks make you wary too. I need to know what’s going on in the priory. I run the town, but my power stops at the priory’s door.’

Owen leans back in his chair, folding his arms. ‘The place is obviously crawling with lunatics – what else d’you need to know?’

Andrei sips his tea. ‘Reikstadt was hit by a pack of Night Creatures only a fortnight ago.’ His face darkens. ‘The monks barricaded themselves safely in the priory, while outside townsfolk were chased down and butchered in the pouring rain. But I pride myself on a carefully organised town. My men-at-arms wiped their weapons with salt and shit.’

Owen grunts approvingly. Not just a lazy boyar townsman sat on his arse collecting taxes, then. ‘Salt on the blades, very good. Shit to make the wounds sicken and fester. Smart. That’s old army tactics.’

‘From ancient empires, yes. The Church still labels them heathens, but … the Greeks, Romans and Persians truly were centuries ahead of their time.’ Andrei reclines back in his chair. ‘Reikstadt has always defended herself. That’s why we’re far more than just a wide spot in the road, Belmont.’ He sighed. ‘We surrounded them with pikes and longswords. My men slew all but one of the Night Creatures, which fled. We pursued. It ended up crashing right through the priory roof. For a moment there was horrified screaming inside, then … silence. It was quiet for so long, I couldn’t imagine even a single monster could’ve killed everyone inside so quickly. But it hadn’t killed them. No. It was talking to them. Lightening cracked down, all the priory windows glowed from within. And the rain just … stopped.’ He steeples his fingers over his belly. ‘Soon after the monks staggered out, holding blackened chunks of flesh.’

Owen’s stomach churns with unease.

‘I’ve no idea if those pieces added up to the entire beast.’ Andrei shrugs. ‘They couldn’t stop crying. They all looked, well … broken. None of them could speak a word.’ He gazes into his mug. ‘They just dropped the remains outside and then crept back indoors.’ He sighs heavily, kneading his temples. ‘Next morning, it began. The townsfolk wanted to give thanks for God’s mercy, but Sala wouldn’t allow them into the priory’s hall. A few days later the first stranger arrived, looking for the priory. A priest covered in blood. Dagger in his hand. Couldn’t stop shaking. Babbling nonstop. Pissed himself in the marketplace.’ Andrei chews his lip, brow furrowed. ‘The monks took him in. Been happening every few days since. Swelling their numbers. I have to know what happened up there.’ His eyes narrow, fist clenched. ‘I have a community to look after here. Innocent civilians. I need to know why the priory in my town is attracting damaged men. I need to know if they’re planning something dangerous.’

Owen gazes back, intrigued. And worried. Any broken place drawing in such threatening strangers, after an ordeal like that? Always some kind of dark magic brewing somewhere.

Andrei’s eyes drift to the key by his hand. He reaches over and touches it, then sighs. ‘When you arrived last night, I took you for a simple adventurer. Someone who might take a chance for a fair payment.’ He smiles over the rim of his mug. ‘But you are a Belmont, nonetheless. Your family were heroes to this country, and its people. Watchmen, protectors, guardians of Wallachia and shields against the night. So many legendary stories! Even monsters have their own nightmares.’ He lowers his tea. ‘I believe you’ll help me because these are dangerous times. And it’s the right thing to do, and because, well … I think this is what you like, deep down. It’s in your blood. Because you’re a kind, brave warrior who’ll always help those in need.’

Owen rubs the back of his neck, blushing. ‘All right, all right! Not need to make a whole song and dance about it. Jeez!’

Andrei chuckles. ‘Sorry. That’s why I said I think you like this.’ His jaw tightens. ‘Also, I don’t normally flatter people since it’s so much easier to just have them flogged in the square until they do as I damn well tell them!’

Owen smirks with amusement as Andrei continues: ‘But those fanatics are armed. Their numbers now match my militia at full strength. All of the town and their capabilities are well-known to the prior. But you … have the advantage of anonymity.’ A long pause. Then he smiles, eyes twinkling. ‘Plus I’ll pay your rent while you’re staying at Maria’s. If that helps.’

A heavy silence … then Owen nods. ‘Okay. Where do we start?’

*

Just like being a burglar again, Owen thinks as he creeps through the gloomy alleyway, Sergeant Stefan shadowing him. Already six carved symbols found on as many households. This isn’t some random act of petty vandalism. Looks deliberate. Widespread. Planned. Elsewhere the sergeant’s men are busy combing the town in pairs, hunting for more occult symbols hidden away. Stefan’s a squat, no-nonsense hardbitten veteran who sneaks along behind, tracking their shared quarry with grimfaced resolve. Decent backup in a fistfight, Owen grudgingly admits.

Low chanting makes him melt back into the bushes, pulling Stefan with him. Goddamn, they’re like roaches, he thinks as yet another hooded monk creeps past muttering gibberish. They watch the monk glance around furtively, draw a knife and beeline for the nearest homestead’s unmarked wall.

Only to find that lurking in the bushes are far more dangerous surprises than hair-snagging twigs. Together they drag him back under cover; he’s a wiry young lad but a dirty fighter (Owen will have to stitch up his left forearm sometime and Stefan’s hand has brand new teethmarks, thanks asshole) who’s plenty wriggly until Stefan smothers him in a headlock and grimly chokes him out while Owen clamps his mouth shut. He struggles. Not for long.

More shuffling footsteps. Two more thickset monks round the corner; one’s a bearded cove with his dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, the other’s paler and bald, his sunken cheeks crisscrossed with lurid blade scars. Their eyes flickering toward the rustling bushes.

‘Windy today,’ Ponytail grunts.

Crap. Will you go to sleep, pal.

A band of squabbling crows overhead distracts the pair’s gaze. Thank fuck. Finally their captive goes limp, and Stefan sets about binding and gagging him while Owen watches the brawny newcomers. First they notice the dropped knife, then the monk’s sandals (not too hard, given that Owen deliberately left them out in a sunny patch) and start competing on whose curses sound worse; Romanian or Bulgarian.

Owen smirks. Amateurs. If these choirboys really wanted to get down and filthy, they’d learn Greek.

The two monks argue between themselves before Scarface scoops up his brother’s knife and stomps onward. Leaving their prey senseless in the dirt, Owen and Stefan follow them like silent moon-wraiths.

Owen peers around the next corner. His wolfish inner voice growls in triumph.

Got em. Both hulking monks are stooped close to the planked wall of Maria’s inn. Out of view of the windowpanes. Scarface carves a jagged rune deep into the woodwork with his knife while Ponytail stands guard, eyeing the shadows.

‘What’s going on?’

Maria appears at Owen’s side like a ghost. He doesn’t jump, honest, because manly fearless monster hunters do not jump and squeak like a pansy. ‘Hey, friendo,’ she smirks, and Owen almost glances around, but she’s beaming right at him.

‘… Hi.’

‘What’re you both gawpin’ at?’ Maria peers past him at the two loitering thugs, and her glare deepens. She mashes a crude brass knuckleduster into her open palm. ‘Saw ’em skulking around from my upstairs window. Want me to sort ’em out?’

Stefan shakes his head, aghast. ‘We need to question them! Magistrate’s orders!’

Crikey, but Maria’s scowl is fierce. ‘We only need one breathing for that!’ she hisses.

‘Keep your voice down, miss!’ Stefan mutters. ‘We don’t want the alarm raised up at the priory.’

Owen interposes himself. ‘Let me handle it.’ He rolls his shoulders. Clenches his fists. ‘I’ve been feeling bloody useless ever since all this turned in dark magic and weird graffiti.’

Maria pokes his arm. ‘Don’t think I’m some helpless damsel always needing men doing me own legwork!’

‘Of course not!’ The monk’s knife scratches as Owen continues in a hushed undertone: ‘But if I mess with them, there’s no blowback on either of you. I’m a drifter, remember? They don’t know who I’m staying with, so they can’t retaliate. Let’s keep it that way.’

Maria sighs. ‘All right, but …’ She squeezes his shoulder, eyes creased with concern. ‘You sure?’

He smirks back. ‘Yeah.’ He pads out of the shadows toward the monks, cracking his knuckles with relish. ‘I’m a simple man with simple pleasures …’

‘Be careful,’ Maria whispers.

‘Always am.’

‘Don’t kill ’em,’ Stefan mutters.

Ugh. If you say so. Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Sure thing, Mum.’

Owen’s barely five yards away when Ponytail finally turns and notices him. His eyes widen, mouth parting to yell a warning –

Too late. Owen hop-skips forward and crashes a fist deep into his throat. Ponytail crumples to his knees, coughing hoarsely and clutching his bruised windpipe.

And yippee, it’s on. Scarface rounds upon Owen, ripping the knife free from the woodwork and closing in. Owen darts back with raised fists, dancing on his toes like a nimble fox pouncing away from a slow lumbering bear. Scarface swarms in, dark-eyed and vicious, but Owen dodges slash after wild slash with a shit-eating smirk, taunting him onward. ‘C’monnn, that the best you got?’ The knife hisses past his face. He grabs Scarface’s blade arm and yanks him forward off-balance, crunches a knee into his balls then kicks his legs from under him.

Ponytail finally staggers upright with a grunt, ripping off his habit’s long sleeves to reveal thick muscled arms. Arms that certainly haven’t gotten that way from flipping Bible pages all day long. A brutish primeval leg-breaker, like a bareknuckle prizefighter who’s survived twenty hard years deep down in slimy catacombs among the rats and cockroaches.

Finally, purrs Owen’s lizard brain, a challenge!

Ponytail snorts like an enraged bull and pounds his fists together. Growling with bloodlust he charges –

Owen flings off his travelling cloak and sweeps it over Ponytail’s head in one fluid motion, like a bullfighter’s cape, ensnaring him, blinding him. As Scarface lurches to his feet, Owen swings Ponytail around and heaves him into his partner. Momentum’s a bitch. They both go sprawling, tangled together.

Owen’s niggling inner voice scolds him: ‘Knock them out already! End the fight here and now!’ But he savours that primal urge to step back and let these idiots get up again for another beatdown, prolong the fight even further, let them tire themselves out. Brawling’s such fun.

After all, what’s a little harmless fun clobbering some goons?

Both dazed monks struggle upright, glaring. Scarface brandishes his knife.

‘Ooh, I love meeting a professional killer!’ Owen smirks gleefully, dancing from foot to foot. ‘And that reverse grip? Gives it away every time!’ Both snarling monks blunder in but Owen’s far too agile for them. He bobs and weaves playfully between them, avoiding their clumsy flailing haymakers. Ducks a feral left from Ponytail. Dodges each vicious swipe of Scarface’s blade. Sends them reeling away with pinpoint blows.

The knife slices past his torso. Barely missing him. Too close for comfort. His jaw clenches.

Okay, then. Playtime’s over.

Owen darts inside Scarface’s reach, doubles him over with a punishing barrage of gut punches, clamps his skull and smashes him headfirst into the wall. As Scarface slumps unconscious to the floor Ponytail bellows and lunges. Owen sidesteps his wild charge and buries an elbow deep into the brawler’s belly. Ribs crack. Ponytail folds forward and Owen wrenches him down, slamming his knee full into the falling monk’s face.

CRUNCH.

Game over. Both monks lie splayed in the dirt. Ponytail is limp and unmoving, his shattered face a mask of blood. Unbreathing, too. Owen winces and crouches close. No reedy pulse jumping beneath his fingertips. Damn. Ah well. One less asshole to worry about in future.

Scarface groans and shifts feebly. Owen smirks. One still alive for questioning. Mission accomplished. He plants a boot on Scarface’s back, grinning as the others join him. Stefan is wiping his blade clean.

Owen raises an eyebrow. ‘What happened to our other monk over there?’

Stefan sheathes his knife, shrugging. ‘What other monk?’ He gazes blankly down at Owen’s prisoner. ‘Just another nameless nobody to bury, yeah? Don’t need all that baggage. Took care of it. Pushing up daisies now.’

Huh. No loose ends. Harsh but fair. Owen’s starting to grudgingly admire this guy. ‘Mind if I borrow that?’

Stefan hands over his knife, watching as Owen leans in and starts levering out the defaced wooden slat. A firm jerk and the board finally pops loose, Owen examining the carving. Yep, same creepy symbol that’s gouged into the gatepost. Weird.

He passes it to Stefan. ‘Well, that’s one house left unmarked, for sure. C’mon, matey! Up you get.’ He hauls Scarface upright, draping one beefy arm over his shoulder and pulling the monk’s hood up over his face. They stagger off together as Stefan supports his far side, grimacing under Scarface’s deadweight. The idiot groans and tries to wriggle free, until Owen pinches a nerve cluster deep behind his ear. Hurts like a bitch, and it makes the monk squeak and sag limply between them like a dozy drunk. Win-win.

He is obnoxiously heavy.

‘What’re we even doing here, Owen?’ Maria hisses as she trails behind them, eyes darting around.

He winks back. ‘Taking this chump to Andrei’s.’

Maria frowns. ‘And then what?’

Ah. Perhaps Maria’s worried about the other monks lurking up the hill, soon due their just desserts. Bless their damned little hearts. He grins roguishly. ‘I won’t do anything you disapprove of, Maria.’

She huffs and rolls her eyes. ‘You mean, other than so far.’

‘Yyyyup.’

That scowl of hers: so great. Stefan chuckles – actually chuckles! – and now Maria is in full-on Stern Mum Mode. It’s hilarious.

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Hellhunter (4/8)

Owen passes through the town gates with a nod to the guardsmen, the open woodland sprawled before him. He inhales deeply, savouring the dawn chill. The steady clink of the blacksmith’s forge and the faint chatter of voices fades behind him as he heads deeper into the forest.

The spring thaw is already throwing off winter’s icy shackles. Budding magnolias droop their lush pink crowns overhead as he walks along the well-trodden path, the sounds of newborn life flowing around him. A stream tinkling over mossy stones. Birds chirping. Green grass and purple crocuses breaching the patches of snow. A magpie chuckles overhead.

A tawny fox eyes him from atop a twisted root ahead. It wrinkles its muzzle and snarls, fur bristling and ears flattened. Owen just gazes back, blue eyes staring deep into gold. That was me once. Showing my teeth and growling, acting tough. Warning others away out of fear, to protect myself, not to hurt anyone. Just a bluff. All bark, no bite. He smiles and walks on, drawing closer. The fox’s eyes widen before it yelps and streaks away into the undergrowth, white brush flickering.

Owen smiles fondly after it. Take care, matey. Good hunting.

Soon the path opens out into a secluded haven, a small pond surrounded by sawn tree stumps sodden with age and festooned with toadstools. Places to sit and admire the peaceful hush. But its beauty is lost on Owen, who stomps to the pool’s edge and glares down at his reflection.

‘What the hell are you doing with your life?’ He crouches low. ‘I’m talking to you, Owen Belmont. Of House Belmont with no living relatives. Last surviving monster hunter, out here in the gaping grey stinking armpit of the world. What the actual fuck are you thinking? Idiot.’

He scuffs the water, stands up and begins pacing, counting off on his fingers. ‘You’re a tramp. You’re excommunicated. You have no family, you have no friends. You’ve spent your entire adult life alone, being hated by everybody you ever met.’ He raises his eyes towards the treetops. ‘And you were fine with that. You even liked it. Nobody could get near you. Nobody could ruin your fucked-up life anymore because there wasn’t much left to ruin, was there? But that last tiny little sliver? That was all yours.’ He clenches his fists, almost seething. ‘And then what? A pretty girl holds your hand and takes you to bed and oooh, all of a sudden –’

‘All of a sudden your world upturns overnight, and you’re left feeling utterly lost.’

Owen tenses and whirls around, hand dropping to his shortsword. Then he relaxes. ‘Oh, it’s you.’

Andrei grins back, leaning against a treetrunk with folded arms. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to eavesdrop.’

Owen regards him flatly. ‘You weren’t following me, were you?’

The Magistrate scoffs. ‘Of course not! Just …’ His sharp gaze slides over Owen, assessing. ‘Wanted to get a better look at you in daylight.’ He chuckles. ‘Such an entrance last night! Dragging in a dead veidraugr behind your horse. Quite the dramatic flourish.’

Fair enough. Owen rolls his eyes and draws back his cloak, baring the gleaming family crest resplendent across his surcoat. ‘Owen Belmont. Of House Belmont. Monster fighter, demon slayer, beer drinker, yadda yadda yadda … satisfied?’

Andrei frowns. ‘You could’ve told me that yesterday.’

Owen nods towards the distant spire peeping above the treetops. ‘Your local, uh … cultists made me think perhaps that name shouldn’t be spoken aloud round here. Since they apparently love demons and, well …’ he shrugs, ‘I kill them.’

Andrei regards him dubiously. ‘Yeah? Prove it.’

Ugh. Fine, fine. Showboating it is. Owen nods towards a gnarled oak across the clearing, maybe twenty feet away and ten feet up. ‘See that branch stump?’ His hand drifts toward his bandolier of throwing knives. ‘Pretend it’s a gargoyle’s eye.’

Andrei squints into the distance. ‘You mean with that big scar down the –’

Ssssthunk! The knife whizzes from Owen’s hand like chain lightning. It pinwheels hissing through the air and thuds deep into the centre of the stump. Bullseye.

Owen lowers his outstretched arm. ‘Well?’

Andrei gapes between him and his target with newfound respect. ‘Oh! You’re really the last living Belmont?’

‘In the flesh,’ Owen deadpans.

Andrei blushes and bows. ‘Forgive my skepticism. My deepest apologies for doubting you.’ He waddles close, patting Owen’s shoulder. ‘Thought I recognised that noble family crest on your fine tunic. Well,’ he wrinkles his nose, ‘this fine tunic that has in fact seen better days. Hasn’t it? Maybe one of our local artisans might conduct some discreet repairs upon it.’ He winks. ‘Perhaps even introduce it to the apparent mysteries of soap and water.’

Owen pulls away, scowling. ‘All right, all right! What d’you want?’

‘Just wanted to check how you were. Settling in well?’ He smiles knowingly. ‘Maria’s rather a crusty landlady, isn’t she?’

‘Er, we’ve …’ fucked. ‘… met,’ Owen settles on.

‘Glad to hear. What brings you to remote Reikstadt?’

Owen shrugs. ‘You had demon trouble. I’m a Belmont, remember? We go where the trouble is.’

Andrei nods. ‘So why skulk out here away from everyone else?’

‘Hopefully to get five damn minutes of privacy for once. What’s your excuse?’

‘Fair enough.’ Andrei sweeps an arm over the peaceful glade. ‘This is my little place of refuge, too. I come out here to think sometimes. Gather my thoughts. Get some peace and quiet.’

Owen raises a sceptical eyebrow. ‘Pretty sure your nice little house has a door on it somewhere.’

Andrei chuckles. ‘I can’t always relax at home. A public man with a public role? Someone always comes knocking for me eventually. Asking for a favour. Wanting my advice. Somebody always needs something.’ He waddles over to a mouldy tree stump and sits, hands resting on his plump belly. ‘Sometimes I have to walk far outside the town to be able to see it properly. Regain some perspective, y’know? Get away for five bloody minutes.’ He inhales deeply, then smiles. ‘So: you’re an actual Belmont! I grew up with stories about your family. The Belmont Clan! Living legends, killing grumpkins and snarkrippers and all the other horrid beasties our wetnurse frightened me with.’

Owen grimaces. ‘Scary bedtime tales, huh?’

‘Mostly. They still tell them here, y’know. But they have a different ending now.’

‘Oh?’

Andrei leans in, voice lowering to a jovial whisper. ‘They end with “And the Belmonts aren’t here to save you anymore, so if you aren’t good the monsters will come gobble you all up!” Works wonders on kids.’

Owen almost eyerolls into next week. ‘Christ,’ he mutters.

Andrei smiles indulgently. ‘Heh-heh. Well, Reikstadters are a basic sort of folk. Simple-minded. Honest to the point of brutality, bless them.’

Owen’s eyes narrow. ‘You’re … not one of them?’

Andrei shrugs. ‘Not really. Can’t be part of a town and also rule it well. To be a good leader, you’ll always be … held apart from the rest of your world.’ He smiles as two woodpigeons whir away through the trees overhead. ‘I was born here, so at least I can claim to be a Reikstadter. But my family all left when I was young – we moved to the capital.’ He scoffs. ‘I remember thinking as we rolled out those gates: “God, hope I’ll never see this crapsack shithole again.” Funny old world, eh?’

Owen nods grudgingly. ‘Felt the same when I left my old home. Places have a strange habit of catching back up with you.’

‘Suppose so. Like circular roads.’ Andrei pulls out a wineskin flask and swigs from it, then tosses it across to Owen. ‘I rose in court at the capital and did just well enough to be sent back here, to head the town myself. A penance, of sorts.’ Andrei chuckles to himself. ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’

Owen takes a grateful sip of wine before tossing it back. ‘Do you miss it?’

‘Targoviste?’ Andrei snorts. ‘Not really. Although coming back here to run the town was an odd little eye-opener for me. The same stories happen in cities, but there are so many more people around that the stories just rush on by. Soon forgotten. But here? Every little story is such a huge event. People natter on about them for days after. A wedding. A farming accident. A sickness.’ He bows his head, gazing down into empty hands. ‘A lost child. A death. They have … an importance to the whole place. Just doesn’t happen in cities.’ He sighs, then pats his knees and brightens. ‘So! How long have you been roaming the countryside, then?’

Owen shrugs. ‘Couple of years. I meant to grow up learning monster-slaying at my dad’s knee, but …’ He trails off. Blinks away the memories, the smoke, the crackling flames, the screams. ‘… Things happened, and I just decided to keep travelling, I s’pose.’

Andrei eases upright with a groan of relief. ‘Always on the move. Doesn’t sound like you’ve decided much of anything, really.’

Owen shrugs, ambivalent. ‘I guess not.’

Andrei gives him a sidelong smirk, eyes twinkling shrewdly. ‘Not really a man with a plan, are you, Belmont?’

Owen’s jaw clenches remembering the bishop of Gresit, those pale bulging eyes aflame with madness … ‘Don’t especially trust men with plans, no. That Sala git in town, he’s a man with a plan.’

Andrei’s face darkens. ‘Fucking charlatan,’ he mutters. ‘We used to see his type all the time skulking around the capital. Zealots flouncing about in their robes and incense, droning on about “The End Times” and “Judgement is nigh”. Pah!’ He waves a dismissive hand. ‘Never liked priests, myself.’

Owen finds himself smiling. ‘Me neither.’

Andrei grins back. ‘Finally, someone with good sense!’ Sunlight dazzles them as they emerge from the trees before Reikstadt’s walls. As they approach the wooden stockade Andrei slows, frowning at the gatepost. ‘Wait.’ He leans closer. ‘That wasn’t there yesterday.’

Owen peers past him. A glyph has been carved deep into the wood. Looks like an ornate curly letter h with a line slashed through its vertical, forming a crude cross. Something about it tugs at his memory … he shrugs. ‘You sure that’s not just some idiot kid fucking around with his first penknife?’

Andrei straightens up, fists clenched and face flushed. ‘Children do not run around defacing property with knives in my town. Rule-breakers don’t run around at all, if I can help it!’

Owen nods slowly. ‘Riiight. And you know for sure that it’s brand new? Wasn’t there yesterday?’

Andrei shakes his head, grim-faced. ‘This is my town, Belmont. It’s my job to pay attention to it. My responsibility to safeguard law and order here. My job to ensure disruptive troublemakers don’t go dashing around causing such a damn nuisance!’

Aaand his control freak is showing again. Owen sighs. ‘I gotta admit, running a township does not sound like it’s much fun.’

Andrei inclines his head with a brittle smile. ‘It has its little pleasures. Fancy joining me for tea?’

‘Not really.’ Owen’s gaze slides to the men-at-arms now flanking his host, and rolls his eyes. ‘On second thoughts, do I actually have a choice?’

Andrei smirks back. ‘Not really.’ He beckons Owen onward. ‘Hot leaf juice first, beer later. C’mon!’

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Hellhunter (3/8)

‘That’s enough.’ Andrei steps in and snaps his fingers; uniformed men-at-arms suddenly flank him. Hands on swordhilts. Halberds glinting. ‘It’s time for you and yours to move along now, Prior.’

Sala draws himself up haughtily, then inclines his head. ‘Indeed,’ he murmurs. ‘We shall … give thanks.’

Owen watches them shuffle off, then turns to the Magistrate. ‘Okay, what the fuck was that?’

Andrei sighs. ‘We suffered a demon attack during the recent troubles. It was … a difficult night for the priory.’ He grimaces, stroking his neatly-groomed beard. ‘Honestly, though? When it was learned that the actions of the Church unleashed all this, burning that poor woman … I think it just sent Prior Sala and his monks quite mad.’

‘Oh dear,’ Owen deadpans. ‘What a shame. Never mind.’

Andrei huffs a laugh, then turns sombre. ‘He’s been taking in similar refugees ever since the attack. Other priests raving nonsense. Damaged, frightening men. It’s a problem. Mister …?’

‘Owen.’

‘Ah. No last name?’

Owen gazes uphill towards the looming priory. ‘Not until I feel a little safer here.’

‘Hm. Sensible of you.’ He holds out a pudgy hand, and Owen shakes it. ‘Well, Mr Owen, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Welcome to Reikstadt.’

Owen watches him waddle off between his armed escort. Weird place, for sure. Headman’s rather a gruff hardass, perhaps. Still, he seems vaguely likeable. Affable enough. If rather naive.

‘What d’you want fer each tooth?’

He turns. ‘’Scuse me?’

A rat-faced merchant approaches him, carrying a hooked knife and a pair of pliers. He waves towards the veidraugr. ‘I’ll give ya two silvers fer each tooth!’

Owen regards him coolly. ‘Really?’

‘All right … three, then!’

Huh. Seems simple enough. Owen raises open palms, smiling. ‘Three coins a tooth’s just fine, but … you’ll have to get ’em out yourself.’

The merchant brandishes his tools. ‘Heh! Happy to!’

Yeah, good luck with that, pal. Owen’s gaze wanders over the roadside market stalls, then his eyes gleam. An outdoor bar. And that man there … has beer. The bartender wipes his countertop with a rag, a rack of gleaming brass tankards hung behind and – count them – one, two, three barrels of beautiful ale on tap!

‘Could I get a mug?’ Owen asks, smirking at the sounds of puffing and straining behind him. ‘I’ll have some coins. In a minute. Maybe five.’

The bartender raises an open palm. ‘You killed that bastard thing? You get one free.’

Owen clasps his hands together. ‘I bloody love you,’ he sighs.

The bartender slides the mug in front of him, full to the brim, smelling of hops and foamy on top, the way the best beer always froths when the keg’s just been freshly tapped. Owen inhales deeply, letting the foam tickle his nose, then lifts the beer to his lips, savouring the heavenly taste that would bite the back of his tongue with the soothing warmth that makes everything bearable and leave his belly purring for more.

He takes a sip and oh God, yes, he’s already in Heaven. Bloody marvellous, this stuff. Like sunbeams and melted gold. Nothing beats the warm heavy buzz of a good ale. Or three.

He lowers the half-drained tankard with a grateful moan. ‘Oh my God,’ he breathes, his habitual prayer of relief. ‘That’s beautiful.’ Almost worth tomorrow’s hangover.

Afterwards he finds a spare attic bedroom at the crowded inn two streets away, Roach stabled nearby. Top floor, tucked beneath the roof with rafters criss-crossing the cramped space. But it’s warm and dry. A soft bed. A door that locks. Perfect. Better than sleeping under damp trees, that’s for damn sure. The innkeeper is a scowling discontented young woman with flashing green eyes and a loud, grating voice. As Owen unpacks his meagre belongings he can still hear her two floors below, laying down the law on some lingering drunks downstairs. He winces. Feisty landlady.

Once the last singing drunkard has stumbled off down the street, she comes to his bedchamber later and asks, ‘D’you want anything?’ No thanks, he says, but soon after she returns, peering around the door with a smouldering gaze: ‘What, really nothing?’ Her raven curls tumble to her shoulders, a bodice strap hanging artfully loose.

‘All right,’ he yields, pulling back his bedsheet, ‘stay, then. But keep your voice down.’

‘No promises,’ she smirks, approaching with swaying hips. Her blue nightgown puddles at her feet as her eyes rake hungrily over the hard scarred planes of his chest. Noisy she might be, but safer than a back-alley wench. ‘I ain’t made of glass,’ she giggles, stifling a moan as his hand drifts lower and begins to stroke. ‘Now get cracking with that sword of yours, warrior.’

And well, with a creamily naked offer like that eager and waiting … who is he to deny a woman’s pleasure?

‘Yes ma’am, whatever you say, ma’am,’ Owen snarks, before her willing arms pull him down, down, down.


Owen wakens to the music of birdsong.

Dawn sunlight spills over the windowsill. A woman is singing downstairs – perhaps some maid cheerfully sweeping – and for a moment he’s back home in the Belmont Manor, with his sisters Sonia and Eve clattering about and giggling. His father’s rumbling laughter as he plays with the fireside dogs downstairs. His mother combing her long brown tresses and humming next door. His whole life stretched before him. But no: bathed in sunlight, he moves each limb; no fresh cuts or bruises. Just old aching scars. He’s here. Reikstadt. A new day.

His landlady is curled up against him, warm and cosy and deliciously naked, her usually-stern face relaxed into sweetness as she dozes. Owen smiles up at the ceiling, savouring the gentle blissful glow of a golden morning, utterly at peace. All is right with the world –

Until his bedmate mumbles, turns over and flops a hand over his face.

‘Huh. Guess I’m awake now,’ he mutters.

‘Mmrn, shu’ up,’ she burbles drowsily.

‘Er … sorry?’

She pats his cheek. ‘Mmm … good boy.’

Gently Owen disentangles himself and slips out of bed. As soon as he’s up, his landlady instinctively shifts into his warm imprint left behind. Burrowing down into the rumpled blankets like a snake gone to ground. Her fingers scuff over empty sheets, there’s a muffled grunt and one bleary eye cracks open.

‘Not leaving yet.’ Owen squeezes her shoulder. ‘Just gunna piss.’

She hums and snuggles down into the blankets, smiling as she falls back to sleep. A trip down the hallway’s out of the question, so he lurches over to the nearby chamberpot and relieves himself, kidneys aching in gratitude.

When he eases back under the covers, the landlady hooks a bare leg over his knee and pulls him closer.

‘Hey,’ he teases, stroking her cheek. ‘Gotta wake up soon.’

‘Nnngnh,’ she groans, nuzzling for warmth. ‘Ten more minutes.’

‘Stuff to do. Rent to collect. People to serve. Drunks to turf out.’

‘Uuuggghhh.’

He chuckles fondly. ‘I know. I’m so sorry.’

There’s a dangerous pause.

Eyes closed, she mutters, ‘If that’s a knife in your pocket … I’m going to murder you with it.’

He grins. ‘Happy to see you too.’

‘I’m a scary landlady,’ she warns darkly, voice scratchy with sleep. ‘I can do it.’

‘Uh-huh.’ He presses a gentle kiss to her shoulder. ‘Lady in the streets, beast in the sheets. Got it.’

The silence stretches, warm and comfortable. Eventually she cracks open muzzy eyes and squints. ‘You’re still here?’

Owen hums, snuggles closer and wraps an arm around her waist.

Yeah. Somehow. He is.

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Hellhunter (2/8)

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.’

‘Why?’

‘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

Hellhunter (1/8)

A twig cracks.

Owen Belmont jerks awake, hand clenching around his shortsword. Beside him, Roach paws the damp earth and nickers. The dripping pines tower around them, glistening under the faint slivers of moonlight. The fire just a smoking heap of ash now.

A boar’s scream slices through the night as it fights to the death. Roach whinnies and stamps as the boar’s squeals weaken to a gurgling whimper, mixed with the brittle snap of bone and the wet ripping of flesh.

Poor bastard. Owen waits.

Another twig cracks. Off to his right. Something is crunching over dead leaves nearby. Something big. Heavy, steady footfalls. Moving with purpose. A cloud crawls across the moon, and the clearing darkens.

No fire. No moonlight. Stalked in the dark by a prowling Night Creature. Terrific. God shits in his dinner once again.

‘Easy, girl.’ He pats Roach’s muzzle and the chestnut mare nuzzles against him, snuffling into his hand. ‘This’ll all be over in a minute.’

He eases back against the treetrunk, scanning the undergrowth. Branches creak. Leaves shiver. Footfalls growing louder. A guttural bubbling snarl echoes from the darkness. The cloying reek of grave-mould and putrid rotting flesh.

This fucker again. Ugh. Took him long enough.

Owen grips his shortsword tight. His pulse a steady thrum in his ears.

Aw, hell. What’s the worst that could happen?

You’ll die, he answers himself. Duh.

Welp … better get this party started, then.

He breathes out. Purses his lips.

And whistles.

With a bloodthirsty roar, a frenzied mass of pale sinewy limbs and scything claws bursts from the darkness past him, barrelling straight towards Roach. She rears up and screams –

Owen dances out from cover and swings his sword. Hard. It sinks deep into the monster’s back. He plants his boot on the nightmare’s haunches, grits his teeth and tugs the weapon free. The sky-steel blade relinquishes its bite with a sickly squelch. Owen skips backwards, dropping into a defensive crouch.

The creature rounds on him with a screech of pain, its jagged gash bubbling and hissing. Owen’s eyes harden: a veidraugr, a shambling mummified corpse revived and twisted by blood magic, with a ravenous, insatiable hunger for life. Relentless. Merciless. Unstoppable. Fingernails stretched into cruel foot-long claws. Gaunt grey flesh writhing over bulging muscles. Mouldering bandages trailing from skeletal forearms. Its undead jaws peel back in a lipless snarl; a shred of bristly meat dangles from its leering mouth. Glittering black eyes blaze with fury. And unease. It’s injured now, and wary. It begins to circle.

‘What the hell kept you?’ Owen snarks. The veidraugr hisses and lashes out. Scare tactics. Testing the waters. Owen doesn’t even flinch.

‘Yeah yeah, real scary,’ he goads it on, spreading his arms wide. ‘C’mon then, you stinky fucker. C’monnn. Come at me. I’m right here!’

It shrieks and charges, claws slicing through the air –

Misses.

Owen sidesteps a killing slash and darts inside its reach, hammering home a devastating uppercut with his swordhilt. Crack! The veidraugr staggers back, claws flailing, spitting bloody fangs from smashed gums. Then it blunders sideways as Roach’s hooves slam into its ribs. Owen dances after it in a heartbeat, steel singing as he hacks and cleaves, gouging ragged chunks from undead flesh. Lunging cobra-quick, he pins one taloned foot beneath his blade. The nightmare shrieks; concussed, blinded by blood and now crippled. Owen smirks grimly.

That’s right, you slimy bastard. Undead or alive, you’re coming with me!

Enraged, the veidraugr snarls and swipes at him. Owen ducks and rolls. The monster finally rips its mangled foot free and comes at him again. Every swing, Owen dodges. Jagged claw marks gouge the treetrunks around them.

Owen dives between two trees. The veidraugr hisses and shambles after him, shoving them apart with superhuman strength.

Just the opening he’s been waiting for.

Owen swarms forward, clenched fist crunching deep into its throat. The veidraugr gives a gargling wheeze and reels back. Two more jackhammer punches to its larynx bring it to its knees, clawing at its windpipe as it rasps for air. Owen clamps its bandaged jaw with both hands and wrenches its head back, further and further until –

CRACK

The veidraugr crumples to the forest floor, oily black blood spurting from its torn-out throat and splattering the leaves which sizzle and shrivel. Panting, Owen straightens up and pads towards the undergrowth.

A hoarse rattling whimper greets him as he shoves aside low branches. The boar is sprawled on its side in a puddle of gore, belly ripped open as its hooves twitch feebly. Owen kneels beside it with a heavy sigh. ‘You poor bastard. Today just isn’t your day, is it?’ He pats its trembling flank. ‘At least you fought hard.’

The mortally wounded boar groans, tusks gnashing weakly. Hooves scraping the mud. A slow agonising death from blood loss awaits. Unless … Owen draws his knife, readies it behind the boar’s skull and covers its eyes. ‘Best mercy I can offer. Sorry, pal. It’ll be quick.’

He grits his teeth and plunges the knife deep. The boar squeals and thrashes, then falls still with a shuddering death-rattle. Jaw clenched, Owen straightens upright and trudges back to Roach, wiping his blade clean. His steed skitters away, nostrils flared at the stench of blood.

‘Hey, heyyy,’ he soothes her, stroking her sweaty mane as she nuzzles into his neck. ‘Thanks for the assist.’ She huffs and begins nibbling his hair. ‘Ow, fuck. Quit it.’ He swats her nose.

She sneezes into his face. Gross.

The veidraugr‘s corpse is sprawled at his feet, oozing blood. Serious bounty. Perfect insurance for the next township. Shows he means business. A useful stranger worth befriending. Perhaps even free food and a soft bed for the night? That’d be nice.

‘You ain’t gunna like this, missy. Don’t hate me.’ Roach whinnies and shrinks back, wide-eyed with fear as Owen drags his prize closer. With every muscle complaining he heaves the limp carcass across Roach’s hindquarters and lashes it tight; soon the veidraugr is draped behind his saddle with its claws trailing in the mud. Roach snorts and butts her nose against his jaw.

‘A bit less of your shit, please,’ Owen grunts, and saddles up.

© 2021 | Tom Burton