Owen pushes open the barn door. Sunlight spills across the huddled group as Arn rises from his chair. ‘Owen! Join us.’
‘Sure,’ Owen sighs. ‘By the way, you’re all going to die.’
Their eyes widen. ‘What?’ Ilsa gasps. Owen slouches into a corner, leaning against damp brickwork and folding his arms.
‘The bishop of this shithole is … ugh.’ He mimes a strangling motion. ‘Well, he’s beyond crazy. Over the top into new levels of batshit insane, and convinced that Gresit’s salvation lies in you people being torn to pieces by an angry mob.’
Matteo grunts. ‘When?’
‘Before sundown.’ Owen drags a hand over his face. ‘By his logic you have to die before the Night Horde appears to conduct their next raid. You all need to hustle out of here before the mob arrives.’
Ilsa raises her chin. ‘What happens if we stay and survive?’
‘Well then the Night Creatures come anyway and the church’ll blame you, and it’ll just start all over again. They’re baying for your blood out there.’
Arn frowns at his boots. ‘This is wrong. To be driven out for a lie that will doom these people, it’s not a Romani fault.’
Owen’s jaw tightens. ‘We had an agreement. I see the bishop, you leave.’
‘I don’t think it’s a Belmont fault, either.’
Owen advances on him. ‘I don’t care. You need to leave, and leave now.’
Ilsa shakes her head, flushed with indignation. ‘We can’t abandon these people, not in their time of need!’
Owen glares at her. ‘These “good people” believe you’re causing their time of need!’
‘Only because they’re misled by the Church!’ Matteo counters. ‘Does one run away when someone spreads lies about them?’
Arn nods, his eyes gentle. ‘What have the Church slandered about the Belmonts? That you were corrupted from dealings with the supernatural, that you mock God, that you’re a threat to the common good and that evil follows in your wake wherever you go. That you even love the monsters you slay. What did you do in the face of all that?’
Owen glowers back. ‘I didn’t run away,’ he grits out. ‘Isn’t there somewhere you can hide?’
‘Only down here.’ Matteo levers up a trapdoor in the corner, revealing a damp gloomy cellar below.
‘But what is your plan?’ Arn asks. ‘You don’t really have one, do you?’
Owen’s jaw clenches remembering the bishop, those pale bulging eyes aflame with madness … ‘Don’t really trust men with plans, no.’
‘No?’ Matteo raises a sceptical eyebrow. ‘And yet here you are, a hundred miles from home. Which of us is really running?’
Owen bristles. ‘You calling me a coward?’
‘No.’ Arn raises a placatory hand. ‘Never that. He’s calling you defeated, Owen Belmont. You fought your battle, long and hard. And decided that you’ve lost.’
Owen stomps into a corner. ‘We didn’t have a choice,’ he mutters.
‘Perhaps,’ Ilsa has risen to her feet, resting a hand on her father’s shoulder. ‘But we do. We carry with us the gathered wisdoms of this great country. We’ll use them to fight our battles. Alone, if need be.’
Owen sighs, suddenly bone-weary. ‘You’ll lose.’
Arn nods gravely. ‘We might well lose. But if nothing else, we might show someone that although battles are won and lost, there’s a far greater war at stake.’
Owen turns to him. ‘With Hell’s armies?’
‘No.’ Arn’s eyes gleam with resolve. ‘The war for our people’s very souls. Because if we truly are the sort of wretches who will butcher one another for a madman’s sick fantasies, perhaps it’s right and just that demons from Hell should rise up to wipe us all out. Like pigs for slaughter.’
Ilsa steps forward as her companions rise to their feet, closing ranks. ‘It’s time for those of us who fight that war to stand up and be responsible, Owen Belmont. Be account for our crimes and deeds alike. And if not …’ She closes her eyes. Bows her head. ‘Perhaps you should leave. These people are under our care. Will you abandon them, or stay and defend them for as long as it takes?’
Owen clenches his fists. ‘I said –’
‘Let’s be clear,’ Ilsa cuts him off, glaring into his face. ‘We don’t know you. You’ve been wandering alone for months. You creep around from town to town. You’re bitter and lonely and stink of ale, and you seem to me to be at least half-crazy. But we need you now.’ She pokes him in the chest. ‘I don’t need any bluster or low-key swagger from you. I need you to commit to saving these people. Because my life ain’t worth living if I can’t save theirs.’
Owen glances aside at Arn, who meets his sullen glare. Arn’s grey eyes are resolute and unwavering. ‘Time to choose, Owen Belmont. You’re either a jaded, cynical, wandering drunk … or the last living son of a proud warrior dynasty of heroes. Which is it?’
Owen turns away towards the door, shoulders sagging in weary resignation.
Then he halts.
‘No.’ He turns back, hand drifting to his swordhilt. ‘I’m done taking orders. You’re hiding. All of you. Right now.’
Weird, isn’t it. You meet people one at a time, they seem decent and kindly, they’re got brains that work, but then they get together in a mob and you hear the voice of the people.
And it snarls.
The townsfolk descend upon the barn, faces twisted with malice as they brandish torches, pitchforks, scythes and crosses. Soon a sea of fire surrounds it; two men step forward to batter on the door with sledgehammer and axe. The door shudders under each blow, and finally bursts inwards with a splintering crash.
The priests move in. One-Eye. Burly. A young slab-faced blond. A raven-haired brute with scarred cheeks. Flanked by his four thugs in black cassocks, the leader prowls inside. A scowling archpriest, his gold-trim purple stole falling from shoulders to knees. His eyes are cold flints beneath cropped iron-grey hair as he surveys the near-empty room; only Owen Belmont in a tattered travelling cloak, facing the candlelit mantelpiece.
‘Where are the Gypsies?’ he demands with low, grizzled menace.
Owen’s shoulders unclench. ‘I’ve put them somewhere safe.’
‘You defend evil!’ The archpriest’s hand curls into a fist. ‘Give them to us!’ He waves his knife at the chanting mob awaiting outside. ‘We’re here to wash this town clean of heretics, to rid this town of those filthy –’
The archpriest steps forward. ‘Excuse me?’
Owen rounds on him. ‘You’re not getting the Romani. You’re not getting any blood today, so shut. The fuck. Up.’
Smack! He flinches as the archpriest backhands him across the face. ‘You will give us the Gypsies,’ snarls the archpriest, his voice like a fraying rope about to snap, ‘so we can save this town!’
The smarting sting of pain, the bone-deep burning ache. Owen glowers back. ‘This town’s long gone. It was lost ever since you and your scumbags moved in!’
Smack! ‘And what?’ The archpriest turns away. ‘You’re here to fight us?’ He smirks as his goons chuckle. ‘You’re here to convince our flock that nomad black magicians are good for Gresit? And that it’s the presence of men of God who brought the Night Hordes down upon us? When your unholy family dabbled in the Dark Arts and consorted with Satan himself?’
Owen glances around the gloomy room. A quiet desperate atmosphere crackling with coiled menace, five thugs all glaring back at him, hard as nails and full of hostility toward the unwanted outsider.
‘You know where I live?’ he asks.
The leader’s smirk widens. ‘P’raps I could beat it out of you.’
‘You really couldn’t.’ Owen shakes his head. ‘I don’t live anywhere anymore. Not since you fuckers burned us to the ground. I drift around from place to place. Here, there, everywhere. So if I walk out of here tonight – and I will – I’m in the wind. You’ll never find me till it’s far too late. Count on that.’
‘You’ll never leave here alive!’ the archpriest sneers. ‘Not unless I choose to let you. Not until you bleed for it.’
Owen smirks, thin and terrifying. ‘You won’t use weapons in here. Not in front of all these townsfolk. But I won’t come quietly – there’ll be a mess. Churchmen spilling blood? Pretty sure that would piss off your Almighty no end. I’m here to help and you want to have me beaten up – not very Christian of you, is it?’
No answer. Owen nods and continues: ‘And I’m not worried about hand-to-hand either. Not against whiny little crybabies like these. You remember how it always was back in the old days, hm? Any monsters that came crawling and started stirring shit up, who did you call?’ He spreads his arms. ‘The Belmonts, that’s who. Hard monsters need harder killers. I was one of those killers. And I’m happy to be one again tonight. Against all of you at once, if you like.’
Nobody speaks. The archpriest’s face hardens; his thugs exchange worried frowns. ‘These people are ours to command!’ spits the archpriest. ‘If God hadn’t wanted them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep!’ He clenches his fist. ‘Does not Scripture tell us: Blessed are the meek?’
‘And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness,’ Owen finishes, ‘for theirs … is the kingdom of Heaven. I remember. Do you?’ He smiles, the warm flush of pride sweeping through him. ‘Y’know –’
‘Silence!’ hisses the archpriest. ‘Look at you!’ His voice drips with mocking contempt. ‘Your family are all dead! You’re alone! You’re a pathetic wreck. You stink of beer and piss – you can barely keep your eyes open!’ He gestures to his thugs. ‘What d’you even hope to achieve against us?’
In the hushed silence that follows, the faintest glimmer of a smile flickers across Owen’s face. ‘Absolutely fuck all.’
The archpriest scoffs. ‘So you’re going to die for nothing? For heretics you don’t even know?’
‘I don’t know any of you.’ Owen turns his back on them, gazing into the pools of candlelight. ‘But that doesn’t matter, does it? My family – the family you demonised, burned alive and excommunicated – has fought and died through generations for this country. We do this for Wallachia, and her people. Even those who scorned us, who rejected us. We don’t have to know you at all. We do it anyway. To defend those who can’t defend themselves. And it’s not the dying that ever frightened us.’ He shrugs off his tattered muddy cloak, revealing the golden family crest emblazoned on his back. The rising phoenixes gleam proudly in the torchlight. ‘It’s never having stood up and fought for you.’ He turns and faces them head-on, shoulders squared and head high. ‘I’m Owen Belmont, of the House of Belmont. And dying … has never frightened me!’
Silence … then the archpriest reverses his knife grip and drops into a fighter’s crouch, eyes glittering with bloodlust. ‘Good!’ His lackeys draw daggers. Move in.
Oh, for fuck’s sake … ‘Have it your way, then,’ Owen deflates with a tired sigh, his shoulders slumping; one hand drops to rest upon the chair rail. ‘You’ll burn them all if I don’t leave?’
‘That’s a promise,’ Blondie chuckles, leering. ‘Maybe we’ll have some fun first. ’Specially the redhead. I likes a fighter.’ He licks his lips. Cups lewdly between his legs. ‘We’ll hurt her so bad she’ll be begging to die –’
He pivots, one arm arcing around and the chair arcing with it. It smashes into the archpriest and Blondie as Owen launches past onto the others. Ducks a wild knife slash. Crashes a scything hammerfist deep into Burly’s sternum, two hundred pounds of boiling fury behind it. For Arn. Burly crumples boneless to the floor, rasping for air as Owen whirls onto the remaining pair. Sidesteps One-Eye’s feral lunge and drops him with a knee to the balls. The heel of his hand driving up into Scarface’s throat. Cracks his larynx. Scarface gurgles. Eyes popping. Choking and gagging. Owen sinks a fist deep into his belly and crunches an elbow full into his face. Lets him flop onto the floorboards, wheezing. Innards slopping around inside.
We didn’t protect this land by being nice.
One-Eye shoves off the wall and lumbers in. Knife glinting. Panting with bloodlust. Owen spins away and the blade hisses past his ribs. He steps in. Grabs One-Eye’s knife-wrist. Lunges forward.
And stabs his left thumb into the thug’s remaining eye.
One-Eye howls in agony as Owen propels him across the room. The knife clatters to the floor. Owen hooks his fingertips into One-Eye’s right ear and squeezes. Holds on with his thumb. Like pushing it through a bloody steak. One-Eye’s eyeball is nearly out. He’s screaming and flailing, beating madly on Owen’s forearm. Owen holds on. Tightens his grip. Pushes deeper.
No mercy. No quarter.
No more Mr Nice Guy.
The archpriest struggles up onto one knee. Claws for his knife. Owen kicks out at his face. Misses. Catches him in the throat. Crushes his windpipe. He collapses, choking on his smashed voicebox. One-Eye is still screaming. His frenzied blows weakening. Owen rams him back into the wall, splayed out and defenceless. Clamps his bandaged skull and drives three jackhammer punches deep into the bandages, right into his ruined left eye socket. One! Twice! Thrice! One-Eye topples limply aside. Blood spraying from his nose. His bandaged face a mask of gore.
Blondie lurches upright amid the splintered wreckage and flaps a feeble desperate swipe. Too slow. Owen catches his flailing wrist and crashes his forearm right through Blondie’s elbow. Shatters the joint. Like snapping a wishbone. Blondie screams and falls to his knees, sobbing. Wham! Air punches out of him from the brutal fist into his stomach. Another and another, a flurry of heavy savage blows, a crippling barrage of punches in a fast deadly rhythm, five six seven eight. Owen pounds him over and over again, a withering storm of crashing fists. Like a butcher tenderising a steer. He lolls, barely conscious as Owen slams his skull back into the wall.
We’ll hurt her so bad she’ll be begging to die …
Blondie sags forward, just as Owen unleashes the final crushing uppercut into his throat. A colossal, primitive, primeval blow, driven all the way from the centre of the earth, pulsing through the wet straw floor up through his knee, his thigh, his waist, his torso, his shoulder, his arm, his wrist, his clenched fist, every muscle and every tendon and every fibre twitching just once, rippling fast in perfect explosive devastating harmony. A beautiful blow, flooded with two hundred pounds of scorching rage and dusty ancient echo-memories left behind from savage prehistory, his fist swung in a vicious scything arc deep into soft gristle and cartilage and crushing right through it.
Blondie’s head snaps back like a ragdoll. He hangs slack and motionless for a second, then his legs crumple and he topples onto his face in a sprawled tangle of limbs. Like an ox in the slaughterhouse. His skull thumps on the dusty floor.
Walk away from that, you bastard.
Burly and Scarface are writhing around on the floor, groaning. One-Eye is limp and unmoving. Out cold. Or worse. So is the archpriest. Blondie too.
Owen straightens up amid the carnage and breathes out. An awestruck silence has fallen over the crowd, disbelief mingled with terror at the twisted carcasses at his feet. Every face fixed upon him, holding him frozen in the glare of hundreds of horrified eyes. A black-robed figure shoves his way to the front; another priest, dishevelled and panting as he raises a shaky claw at Owen and screeches, ‘There he is! There’s the murderous heretic! Someone seize him!’
Fear churns through his gut; Owen glares around nonetheless, hand drifting to his shortsword as he faces his fate. ‘You can try.’ The townsfolk wilt back, wide-eyed with dread. Owen nods. ‘That’s right. I’m walking out of here.’ A muffled thump behind him.
The priest’s face twists into a venomous sneer. ‘Yeah? You and what army?’
‘Ours,’ calls a mild voice.
A massive surge of movement at his back; before Owen can even blink, a swarm of Romani are flanking him on either side facing, not Owen, but the mob. Men and women standing as one, closing ranks around him, all of them glaring towards the priest, and Owen, awestruck and overwhelmed, sees cold steel emerging everywhere; hatchets and hammers drawn from belts and beneath cloaks, swords unsheathed from scabbards, knives pulled from sleeves and apron pockets. A line of gleaming steel faces the mob; even the urchins brandish wicked shivs. Owen gazes around at them all, a lump in his throat. Good people, all of them. Hard as nails. Steadfast and loyal. Steely resolve etched into every weathered face, ready to strike down the first one who dares take a step toward him.
Ilsa squeezes his arm, smiling. Arn beams proudly at him, iron-shod quarterstaff slung across his shoulders like a water-yoke. Matteo salutes with a crooked grin. ‘All right, mate?’
Owen smirks back, feigning nonchalance. ‘Eh, could be worse.’ Then, heartfelt, a deep surge of gratitude welling up: ‘Thank you.’
Ilsa’s eyes soften. ‘We owed you one. You helped us first.’ She pats his back. ‘Now we’re even.’
Owen smiles back, then a flicker of movement catches the corner of his eye; Burly trying to limp away unseen through the crowd. ‘You.’
‘Kill them!’ Burly roars hoarsely, jabbing his knife at Owen. ‘Kill them all!’
‘No.’ Owen advances on him, smiling grimly as the crowd murmurs uneasily. ‘You’re very big on ordering other people what to do. Telling the good people of Gresit to commit murder for you. Let’s see how well you do all on your own.’ He draws his shortsword with a grin that’s all teeth. ‘No flunkies. No backup. Just you ‘n’ me now. One on one.’ His smile widens as the townsfolk step away from Burly, giving him a wide berth. He nods at Burly’s trembling hand. ‘I see you’re carrying a blade. Wonder if the people of this great town of Gresit have ever seen their priest draw a knife before?’
Whispers ripple through the crowd.
‘Your long knife, my shortsword,’ Owen continues, his warrior blood singing in gleeful excitement of the fight ahead. ‘Let’s fucking go.’ He sees the priest’s stance hunch lower, weapon readied but hesitation flickering in his eyes. A bead of sweat trickles down his brow.
‘C’mon!’ Owen taunts him, voice building. ‘Come onnn. You were fine with persecuting these people the same way you persecuted mine. You had no problem beating an old unarmed man just this morning. Hm?’
More ugly scowls. More angry mutters. More disgusted head-shaking. If he could just swing the townsfolk his way, get them to turn on their masters, then maybe there’s still a chance. ‘You had no problem lying to these good people about the Romani. But they know better. They know who the real enemy is.’
Burly glances around wildly, into a wall of stony faces. ‘The Gypsies brought this evil upon us!’ he pleads, voice cracking.
‘No they didn’t – and you know it. The Romani stayed here, to offer aid. It was your bishop who brought all this down upon us! Your bishop … who started it all! By burning a defenceless woman! She wanted to help, she wanted to heal – and you fuckers murdered her!’
Burly’s eyes dart frantically left and right, seeking an escape. None. All around the townsfolk’s faces are twisted in revulsion and contempt. Owen feels the crowd drifting nearer, enthralled by his words, but keeps his gaze firmly fixed upon his enemy. Making sure every damning word stabs home. ‘You’re done terrorising people. You brutalised and tormented whoever you wanted. You would have made murderers of these good people too, but the only one here … who isn’t innocent …’ he levels his shortsword at Burly in a grim challenge, ‘… is you.’
Pounding footsteps behind make him turn, flinching from an unseen attack. But the man rushes right past him with a vicious yell …
… and sinks his knife deep into the priest’s belly.
As one the crowd roars and surges forward like a raging pack of wolves, descending on their doomed target. Burly manages one terrified blood-choked shriek before they fall upon him like locusts in an angry tide of vengeance. A knife plunges into his back. A pitchfork skewers him through the throat. He falls, gurgling blood.
And the blades flash down.
And the cudgels rise and fall.
Wow. Well … that’s that, then.
Owen smiles grimly, sheathes his sword and walks away, deaf to the butchery behind him. The Romani are gathered by the broken fountain.
‘Good riddance,’ Matteo mutters darkly, as Ilsa rubs Owen’s back and Arn clasps his arm, eyes shining.
‘That was quite some speech,’ the elder smiles proudly. ‘Prepare it beforehand, did you?’
Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Shut up.’
Other townsfolk are drifting closer. ‘What about the bishop?’ one calls, and there’s a rumble of answering growls.
Owen shrugs. ‘Sod him. Let the demons rip him apart for all I care. Fucker deserved it.’
Another man gulps. ‘But if we kill him –’
‘I won’t defend these self-righteous pieces of shit. I literally will not.’ Owen steps aside, gestures open-palmed at the church spire behind him. If that’s what God’s driving at, Hell it is for the rest of these pompous bastards. ‘What they did, what they wanted to make you do, I’m not going to say forgive it. But don’t do it because you think it’ll save you. Maybe he dies tonight to the demons and it’ll still mean nothing at all. Satan’s even more crazy than your batshit-insane bishop and God’s not even going to notice a damn thing. He doesn’t care. You’ll never undo what happened. What you did. So don’t be sorry – be better! The only way to stop this is to fight back. Kill the demons when they come.’
‘But they can’t be killed!’ wails a woman.
‘He can kill ’em if he’s really a Belmont, right?’ someone else mutters. ‘The Belmonts could fight monsters.’
‘The Belmonts dealt with black magic!’ an unseen voice snarls, ‘everyone knows that!’ And – as Owen opens his mouth to explain yet again that no, they fucking didn’t and could people please wait to be ungrateful bastards until he’s done saving their sorry arses? – the woman shuffles closer, pawing desperately at his tunic. ‘Can you summon your own demons for us?’ she pleads. ‘Is that how you’ll defeat the Night Horde? Please!’
Owen gapes at the crowd. After a minute, he manages, ‘Salt. Salt kills demons.’ His eyes rake over the villagers, taking in their weapons, assessing the situation. ‘Back to the far side of the square!’ he bellows, voice ringing out like a clarion call. ‘Pikes, up front, now!’
‘What?’ yelps a man, hugging his makeshift spear. ‘Why?’
‘Because I’m the only one here who knows how to fight these things.’ Owen yanks him close by the collar and turns to the wavering crowd. ‘Everyone with a pike or long weapon, get out in front with me!’ He drags the man into position, thumps his back encouragingly. ‘Hold steady. Eight in front, eight behind and eight in between, pikes forward!’
The people jolt into action, scurrying to and fro as directed. Owen’s had plenty of practice ordering untrained crowds around so he falls back into it easily enough. A lot like being a sheepdog: you go here, you go over there, you pack together in the centre because you’re all-but-useless even by my embarrassingly low standards, and if you’re stranded out in the open your head’s going to get torn off so stay close with the flock.
He backs up toward one of the more intact buildings and waves a hand. ‘We’ll be taking up position here. Funnel them down here into a chokepoint. Going into the buildings is a deathtrap, hellfire’s worse in enclosed spaces, so everyone stay clear outside, clustering up for defence. Double row of pikes to keep them off people, then those of you with knives and swords rush in once they’re skewered. Any demon who keeps its distance, I’ll take out myself. Stick the kids in the centre. For now, sharpen everything, make sure it’s not about to break, and gather any extra pikes you can.’ He gazes around. ‘I need a priest! One who was properly ordained, in a church!’
A hushed silence … then a black-clad deacon shuffles out of the crowd, raising a timid hand. Owen beckons him over. ‘Grab some people, go to the nearest well, start drawing water to bless. You know what to do for holy water, yes? Go!’ He cups his hands to his mouth and calls, ‘I want salt over here! As much as you can find!’
Soon more puffing citizens hurry over, lugging pailfuls of salt. Owen gazes around at the hesitant townsfolk. ‘Everyone with a sword, pike or axe, wipe your blades in the salt.’ He sighs as they shuffle forward to plunge their blades into the buckets. ‘We’re in for a long night.’ The deacon returns with sloshing water buckets, kneeling over them and hastily chanting prayer after prayer as his companions sprinkle handfuls of salt into them. Soon all the buckets are all blessed, the townsfolk lining them up alongside the salt pails before hurrying into the surrounding houses with more.
The deacon cringes back as Owen approaches. ‘I don’t punch people who haven’t punched me a couple times first,’ Owen grunts. ‘Don’t worry.’ He peers at the buckets. ‘So this should actually be holy water. Huh. One less thing to worry about.’
The deacon frowns. ‘You, ah, can’t tell?’
Owen stoops and plunges his hand into a bucket. Cold saltwater splashes up his forearm. ‘Well, let’s see now, hmm … I’m not a demon, so no.’
The deacon nods cautiously. Owen gazes around the circle of townsfolk, points to the buckets. ‘Holy water burns demons, so I want the ground here as soaked as you can make it. That won’t kill them, but it’ll sting them bad when they land. A distracted demon isn’t busy ripping anyone’s guts out. To kill them …’
Owen strides towards the salt pails and lifts a handful into the air. ‘To pierce a demon’s hide, all you need is to salt the blade. Salt messes with their healing, prevents their flesh from knitting back together. Salt kills demons.’
‘How come you can touch it?’ squawks a fishwife.
Owen grinds his teeth, resisting the urge to throttle someone. ‘It’s salt!’ These idiots. There really is something wrong with Gresit, unless it’s God fucking around to see how much more raw stupid insanity needs to be crammed into Owen’s personal fucked-up Hell before he gives up and beats his own skull in against a wall.
Someone else answers with, ‘He’s a revenant, not a demon.’
‘I’m not a revenant,’ Owen clarifies, and then can’t stop himself: ‘And no, salt does work on a revenant. And a revenant wouldn’t be helping you anyway because, oh yeah, it’s a rotted lunatic monster.’
Everyone’s staring at him like they’re still unconvinced, like he’s already a shambling corpse spouting nonsense. He’s doesn’t look that bad! Right?
‘Revenants can’t move under direct sunlight,’ he tries, and oh, that gets a mutter of acceptance. That they find vaguely convincing. Terrific. He sighs and lets the salt flow through his fingers into the pail. ‘Just remember: salt doesn’t need magic. If you can still taste it, it’s salt and it’ll work against monsters. Just salt will be enough for us to win. So!’ He gestures at the various pails and jugs. ‘Wipe all your blades with it. After a few strikes, it’ll be worn off and you’ll need to add more. But it’ll only take a few strikes to fight off the Night Horde. They’re not like an army of men. They rely on near-invulnerability to compensate for their low numbers. Shock and awe. They won’t have that tonight.’
Owen turns to walk off when the deacon clears his throat: ‘Er. Wouldn’t you be better off remaining inside until the sun’s finished setting?’
He resists the urge to eye-roll into next week. ‘What do I even have to do to convince you people?’
The man raises open palms placatingly. ‘It’s only – I don’t think anyone’s left to care about what you are, but … it’s clear your eyes can’t stand the sunlight.’
‘That’s just the hangover,’ Owen grinds out. There’s nothing unnatural about how the sunset slices over the rooftops and stabs right through his skull, the throbbing pain lurking there, snarling like a cornered rat. Fuck hangovers.
The man nods again; that sickeningly agreeable way of people who don’t actually believe a single word you’ve said. ‘Is it seriously harder to believe I’m hungover than that I’m a rotting lunatic monster?’ Owen grumbles. ‘I’m marinated in booze!’ Bad enough he’s wrapped in a constant hovering reminder about how much less all of this could hurt, can’t beer be good for anything nowadays?
‘You already told them you’re dead,’ Ilsa pipes up behind him.
He rounds on her. ‘What? No, I said I’m not a revenant. Not. Not is the literal opposite of yes.’ He turns back to the deacon, scowling. ‘C’mon, shouldn’t you know better? You guys do the last rites and funerals and shit – you know corpses, don’t you?’
The deacon grimaces at the ground. ‘… It would hardly be surprising if a Belmont couldn’t rest forever, even if you managed to get a decent Christian burial. And … that is doubtful.’
Seriously, God? He’s just fucked for being a Belmont? ‘I’m not a revenant,’ Owen growls.
The deacon nods hurriedly. ‘I know! I know.’ He hesitates, then: ‘You said the Night Horde came because the bishop – because the Church – persecuted those who were innocent. What dreadful tragedy befell the Belmonts … it’s much the same, isn’t it?’
‘Won’t say people haven’t tried over the years, but they didn’t succeed,’ Owen mutters. His heart pounds, his head throbs; at least that’s proof he wasn’t spat up from the grave. He grins. ‘But hey, what kind of Belmont would I be to lose a fight to men?’
The deacon just frowns. Owen sighs. ‘So you really think I’m some undead raving monster here for revenge on you lot. Shouldn’t you, I dunno … do something about that if you’re so scared of me?’
‘It seems you’re the only hope these people have left. Besides …’ He gestures at Owen’s still-dripping arm. ‘It doesn’t seem there’s anything I could do to harm you.’
‘Great. Great pep talk. Real encouraging.’
‘Well, you’ve already managed to touch water and it didn’t kill you,’ Ilsa deadpans behind him. ‘If you can get soap involved, perhaps there’s still some chance for you yet.’
Instead of any snarky comeback he just smiles at her like a gormless idiot. She rolls her eyes and turns away sharply, face hidden by her hood.
Fine, fine. Smiling is terrible. Message received, God: he’ll keep to stoicism for the rest of eternity. Ugh.
Owen turns back to the crowd, gazing over the rabble with pitchforks. ‘We’re taking these streets back. All right? There’s a wave of monsters coming, and we’re the rock to break that wave. If you face down a demon and it cowers, drive it off. Once they’re scared they stay scared. But if it tries to fight back – and the big ones will fight, because that’s all they know – then you will kill it! Burn it or stab it or hack its head off! Be merciless! Kill it dead! Do you hear me?’
A murmur of reluctant assent. Owen rolls his eyes. ‘I said do you fucking hear me?’
This time there’s a roar. Every face alight with flinty determination.
‘Good! And we’ll go on and on until every one of these streets is safe, from end to end! And then we’ll do it again! Until every one of these scaly bastards is dead or running screaming for its mum and these streets are ours! Because …’ He leans against the wall to catch his breath, and his next words are almost a whisper, ‘because tonight we will be cruel to them, and through our cruelty they will remember us … They will be sickened by us, they will whisper nightmares about us, and they will fear the people of Gresit … for tonight … together, united … we are something terrible.’
An awestruck hush falls. He smiles in the silence. ‘Sound good?’
A moment’s pause; then a full-throated roar fills the air like a thunderclap. Fists are pumped skyward, weapons brandished triumphantly, voices raised in excited cheer.
BOOM. Heat washes over his back as the square is bathed in firelight; the crowd cower and gasp at the searing column of flame rising into the darkening night.
‘It’s them!’ Ilsa growls. ‘They’re coming!’
Screams and explosions erupt in the cold night air around them. The ground shakes; fire belches from a nearby alleyway as dark gibbering shapes hoot and chitter within. Owen raises his voice over the demons’ shrieks. ‘Pikemen! Four paces forward!’
The townsmen march forward and halt, Romani and citizens standing shoulder-to-shoulder. The demons prowl closer, hissing and flinching from claw to claw as they squelch through holy water. Owen glances up at the surrounding windows. ‘Buckets! Now!’
The shutters are flung wide; washerwomen and housewives lean out to heave their bucketfuls over the invaders, who shriek and recoil as the holy water sizzles into their flesh like acid. Oily black smoke oozes from their bubbling wounds.
Enraged, a winged goblin bounds forward toward the defenders, unfurls leathery wings and pounces high with a delighted squeal. Jaws agape. Claws bared.
‘Rear pikes … up!’ Owen yells. As one the pikemen swing their weapons upward and the lunging goblin impales itself on their spearpoints. The line shudders as it twists and flails, claws lashing wildly.
‘Cut him down!’ Owen roars. A swordsman swarms in, hacking at the goblin’s torso as others hew at its limbs. Another goblin chitters and begins flapping ponderously away, but Owen’s whip coils around its hindleg and yanks it earthward. Another hurled bucketful of holy water sprays across the cobblestones, blue fire licking up the goblin’s legs as the Romani hack it apart with salted longswords and axes.
‘Salt kills demons!’ yells Owen. ‘Don’t forget! Spread the word!’
A woman screams. A huge horned demon lumbers out of the billowing smoke, shaking its shaggy mane and gnashing curved tusks. Gutting weapons. A primal hunter with no interest in magic or rules. A creature that would slaughter everything in its way. The perfect predator, from its meat-ripping fangs dripping with venom, to the dried gore crusted beneath its claws, the searing hatred spilling from blood-red eyes. It snarls and opens its jaws, chest glowing with internal fire.
‘Watch out!’ Ilsa cries.
Owen dives aside and the fireball scorches past him, blasting apart the house behind. Agonised screams echo from the burning wreckage; blackened bricks and charred timbers rain down as the shockwave shudders through Owen’s bones. The monster bellows in triumph.
The townspeople cower back, the demon’s blinding wrath scattering them like broken wisps of straw. Swordsmen and pikemen alike waver before the insane fury of its rampage; anyone within the arc of its scything claws and snapping jaws is overwhelmed and torn apart. Arrows hiss into its scaly hide but it presses forward heedless of jabbing spears and slashing swords, deaf and blind to anything but its ravenous thirst for bloody slaughter. The defenders falter before the frenzied brute as it plunges on, howling with glee, twisting this way and that in search of fresh meat, snapping spears in two like dry matchsticks.
Owen runs forward, whip cracking through the air to slash across the demon’s back. The demon rounds on him, snarling as its jagged wound hisses and bubbles. Owen rolls aside and the demon’s fist pounds into the ground. Breath punches from his lungs as it seizes him round the waist, raising him up towards gaping jaws. The foul reek of rotting meat washes over him …
The beast howls in pain and lurches forward; Owen glimpses Ilsa behind, lowering a broken spearhaft. Matteo sinks his hatchet deep into its footpaw and it crumples to its knees, grip loosening. Vision blurred, ribs grinding, Owen gropes for the silver-tipped stakes at his belt and draws them both, ramming them deep into the demon’s throat. Its claws open and he crumples to the mud.
The demon is writhing and flailing, its wicked claws gouging the cobblestones. ‘There’s an army of us! An army! From Hell!’
Owen rolls over, hand clamped to his aching ribs. ‘Listen,’ he growls, ‘when you get back to whatever steaming underworld shithole you crawled from, you tell them … there are still Belmonts up here.’
‘Nooo!’ the demon shrieks in agony as its glowing wounds bubble and swell up. ‘The Darkness is coming. He’s coming! He’s coming for you all!’
‘Yeah?’ Owen rises onto his hands and knees, bloodied and battered but unbowed. ‘And when he gets here, I’ll beat his arse too!’
The demon throws back its horned head and screams.
The world turns white. Searing heat blasts over them as blinding light fills the courtyard. When it finally fades, the demon is gone. Just a smoking crater deep in the earth, black blood smeared across the cobblestones and the lingering stench of charred flesh. The demon’s severed head lolls at Owen’s feet drooling blood.
The remaining goblins cower back whimpering as Owen staggers upright, every muscle and bone screaming in protest. ‘Look at them burn!’ he yells back at the hesitant townsfolk. ‘Look at them die! I know you’re all still tired and scared, but they’re just bloody animals! They’re only vermin – and vermin get put down!’ He cracks his whip, eyes hard as jagged flints. ‘Now let’s kill these bastards!’
He charges forward with Ilsa and Matteo beside him, a wall of spears at his back. They crash into the demons with a roar.
Then it’s a frenzied blur of slaughter. Adrenaline hissing through his skull like a raging storm. On his right Matteo grimly rams a longsword two-handed into the press of scaly flesh, his hatchet buried deep in a goblin’s skull. On his left Ilsa’s knives flicker and dart like vipers’ tongues as she stabs and slices at her snarling enemies. The night is thick with choking smoke, screaming women, wailing children and the bloodthirsty howls of the invaders. His world is fire and blood, a cacophony of anguish in his bleeding ears. He has his shortsword in one hand and his whip in the other, and the Night Horde pour out of the smoke towards him. All the snarling and howling and screaming fades, his prey lined up like dominoes before him, nothing else in the world but himself and a courtyard full of targets. He stabs and hacks and feints and slashes with his whip, whirling onto his next enemy with seamless clinical fluidity, smooth as a flowing river. He’s in the killzone and it’s beautiful, it’s flawless, it’s what he was born to do. And Owen –
A hand patting his face. Owen shakes his head, panting and blinking away smoke. ‘It’s over,’ Ilsa murmurs, cupping his chin. ‘We won.’ The world swims into view, Ilsa crouching before him and …
The courtyard is littered with corpses.
Demons are sprawled everywhere, sliced by swords, skewered by pikes, bludgeoned by hammers and chopped apart by axes. A heap of stinking slimy hell-flesh glistens at Owen’s feet, knife buried in its heart; he slowly calms his nerves, steadies his breathing as Ilsa helps him upright.
It’s eerily quiet. Nothing but the faint sizzle of burning meat and the distant moans of the wounded. It’s early evening and the first stars are glimmering above and Gresit is still standing. Huh. Arn is seated by the fountain, a gash down his forehead, hugging a sobbing widow close. The Romani gather around Owen; he sure isn’t expecting a warm welcome but a grinning woman thumps him on the arm (ow), Matteo thrusts a bowl of food at him (no beer? Uuugh) and a girl nuzzles into his side, hugging his knees. Owen absently ruffles her black ringlets and she giggles, snuggling closer.
Dazed townsfolk wander about; some drift closer to him, wide-eyed with shock and gratitude, babbling questions and praises.
‘Thank you, Belmont! Thank you!’
‘You saved us, Belmont!’
‘Here’s my granddaughter! Thank the brave man, Greta!’
‘Are the demons finally gone?’
‘Bless you, Belmont!’
There is hugging. So much tearful hugging that Owen nearly gets a cramp in his face from flinching.
Demons? They’re dead. All of them. There won’t be another attack anytime soon. Yes, really. Yes, really. Go home, actually sleep. No, eww, get off me. Seriously, people. This thing you have for hugging has got to stop. Bugger off, please and thank you. Do none of you idiots understand what personal space is. No, get off me, lady. Is that a mug of beer, mate? What? For free? I bloody love you. Eww, that’s enough grabby hands, miss, thank you. All the hugging and crying should be directed at Ilsa. Hug her all you damn well want. Take one for the team, Ilsa.
God? Can’t vouch for God today, sir, I’m absolutely not the guy to ask. But yes, I agree, burning the totally-not-a-church down to ashes tomorrow morning is a fine start. No clue whether it’s fixable from the bishop and his goons, Christ alone knows if it’s redeemable, yes ma’am, I agree that’s fucked up and creepy and in conclusion, fire. (‘Vindictive much?’ Ilsa mutters, because she’s terrible.) And now everyone’s staring at him. Bloody hell, an expectant audience. He groans. Puts aside his bowl and straightens up.
In the hushed silence, a woman calls out timidly, ‘Are the demons really the Church’s fault?’
Owen rounds on her because no, God, it’s not that simple: ‘How many burnings did you all watch?’ he demands, fists clenched. ‘How many people died because the rest of you spineless cowards let it happen, how many people were beaten and persecuted and imprisoned and tortured and exiled, while the rest of you looked away, kept silent, stepped aside and did nothing? Any one of you could have stood up and said, “No, we won’t act like beasts anymore. No, we’re better than this.” Why didn’t you?’
And thank fuck, finally some of these idiots have the basic decency to look ashamed. He gestures to the smoking heaps of charred flesh. ‘See these shitty bastards? They’re bloodthirsty, heartless, vicious and cruel. But they never burned and tortured and ripped each other apart and dared call it morality.’ What was it his father used to say, bouncing Owen on his knee? “Don’t despair at the world’s injustice. Get real mad first, then you can fix it.” Well, he’s seething now. He sweeps an arm over the burning devastation; the ruined buildings, the twisting columns of black smoke rising over the rooftops, the broken corpses spilling their guts into the mud. ‘You didn’t deserve a bunch of baby-eating freaks. But you could’ve done far more to prevent all this horseshit. So much more!’
He’s not really sure what the point is here. All right, he could’ve done more. He knows that now, because he already learned that, but then he did that. He stepped up, didn’t he? Got the job done. Because that’s what Belmonts do, when push comes to shove. Quit wingeing, knuckle down and do the work. Because there’ll always be things that go bump in the night. And Belmonts are the ones who bump back. Always have. Always will.
Owen sighs. ‘So yeah, demons were eating babies because your bishop burned one too many blameless people. He killed an innocent healer so God got real pissed and told Satan: “Go wild, kiddo. I won’t stop you”.’ Shocked gasps echo from the crowd, but Owen doesn’t care. It isn’t using the Lord’s name in vain when these idiots need an long-overdue ego check on responsibility, right? Right, God? But yeah, you pompous cloud-surfing bastard, on balance it was mostly the fault of their fucking homicidal bishop.
An elderly man casts a fearful eye skyward. ‘But if we beg God for forgiveness, show him we’re truly sorry –’
These morons. Ugh. ‘There’s no use praying to any God, because He sure ain’t listening!’ Owen fumes. ‘What, you thought you’d plead to Heaven for help, hoping all will be forgiven and God comes running up like an eager old greybeard, bowing and scraping, thankful He’s finally been remembered? Well it’s not like that! It’s all you! No Gods, no divine laws, no eternal judgement keeping you in line. What’s even the point of having Ten bloody Commandments if you won’t! Fucking! Listen!’ He jabs a furious finger at them. ‘Don’t you get it? Not Thou Shalt Not … Say I Will Not!’
A stunned silence falls. The deacon limps up nursing a bloody arm, face twisted in nausea. He throws a lopsided salute. ‘Church is deserted, sir. Doors broken down. No sign of the bishop, but there’s blood everywhere. Claw marks all over the lectern.’ He tosses something down with a clank. A pectoral cross, dripping with gore. ‘Looks like they tore him apart.’
Huh. Makes sense all the other priests would have all retreated back into the church, their pogrom in ruins, the crowd all against them, those whining bags of shit bidding their time indoors, waiting for everyone else to be slaughtered so they could emerge and smugly tell their corpses I told you so. And finally, days after leaving the place alone, the demons had crawled right in. Sanctity lifted long ago. An all-you-can-eat buffet just waiting for them. A bloodbath. A massacre. A feast.
‘He’s dead, then?’ Owen grunts. ‘Well, good riddance. God, I hate priests.’ A pause, then, heartfelt: ‘Fuck, there are some shitty people in this world.’
‘Indeed,’ Arn murmurs, a tired smile on his face. ‘But there are some good ones, too.’
‘Yeah?’ Owen rolls his eyes. ‘Do tell me when one turns up.’
‘You’re not all bad,’ Ilsa grins. ‘Little rough around the edges, maybe. But you’re a good bloke, just –’ she digs him in the ribs, smirking, ‘– not a very nice one.’
Finally. Something we actually agree on. Hooray.
Owen gazes over the jubilant scene, Romani mingling with townsfolk, talking, laughing and comforting each other. It won’t last, he thinks. They’ll soon see it can’t work out. I’m a drifter, always on the road, always alone. Better that way. Plenty of demons still out there, roaming the countryside. Sooner or later I’ll have to leave here.
But for one day at a time … let it be tomorrow.
The babbling chatter halts as Owen rises to his feet, the town instantly quietening. They wait, breathless, hoping for another visionary speech from him.
‘Goodnight,’ he grunts.
And stumbles off to bed.
© 2021 | Tom Burton
Pocketful of Time is now available from Amazon Kindle