Hellhunter (7/8)

Above Reikstadt’s blazing ruins, Owen grimly carves through the howling rabble of armed monks, dual-wielding his chainwhip and shortsword. Around him the bloody carnage deepens. Throats are slashed, spears ram through chests, swords hack down with mad abandon, knives plunge deep. A monk’s screaming face is split open with a battleaxe. A militiaman is skewered through his back. Men cradle their drooping entrails in both hands, staring dazed at their own innards as they crumple to their knees. Soon monks and militiamen lie strewn across the blood-soaked plateau, curled together in twisted embraces as they gasp out their last death-rattles.

Using the whip handle as a knuckleduster, Owen ensnares the next monk’s spear haft and pounds him into the ground. No finesse. No elegance. Simplest is always best. Tugging his bloody weapon free with a sickening wet squelch, he turns as another roaring acolyte charges in swinging a sickle. Dodging each wild slash, Owen dances around him, brings him to his knees with a crushing pommel strike to his sternum and wraps the chain around his neck, strangling him. Tighter. Tighter. Finally the monk’s neck snaps with a grating crunch, and he topples boneless into the mud.

Panting heavily, Owen surveys the raging chaos. The monks continue to slaughter Andrei’s soldiers with knives, sickles and crude scimitars, stabbing them through the neck, chopping them down and disembowelling them in a murderous frenzy. The soldiers’ numbers are slowly dwindling, more and more outnumbered by the murderous monks. Across the plateau a tight knot of Stefan’s gnarled veterans are grimly hacking their way towards the church, Andrei shielded behind a protective wall of steel as he roars encouragement.

Time to end this. Owen powers through the battlefield between the frantic pockets of clashing men. Up the priory steps into the nave, the hellish scene stretched before him. An inverted statue of Christ pointing earthwards. The gaping hole in the ceiling. The stream of fire pouring through the roof and rushing down a long flight of stone stairs alongside the altar.

Hurrying down the stone-walled corridor, Owen emerges into a vast underground many-pillared chamber lined with flaming torches, the walls dripping with slime. The torrent of fire swirls in a roaring vortex in the centre of the room, Prior Sala standing alone on the far side of the flames. He draws a dagger, and Owen’s wolfish brain perks up: Really, bitch? Before the flames howl across the chamber and slam into the chest of a huge purple horned Night Creature pinned against the wall. Its six hairless limbs are thickly corded with muscle, two of its outstretched arms nailed to a ceiling beam in a gruesome parody of the crucifixion. Its torso spasms and writhe as the Hellfire pours into its flesh. Hideous howling faces strain beneath rippling skin as it grows. Tendons creak. Limbs stretch. Bones crack and lengthen. It opens its toothy maw wide, swells its chest and spews a blistering river of fire from its mouth into a corner of the chamber.

The back wall explodes revealing a massive oval-shaped portal ablaze with light, stretching from floor to ceiling. A rift in the fabric of reality itself. Shit. Portal to hell. All the torches sputter out as a howling wind rushes from the portal.

And a half-dozen vicious winged nightmares swarm out of it, gibbering and hooting with glee. Horrific gaunt batlike goblins, like furless wolves. They scuttle across the floor, fanning out between Owen and the crucified monster. He braces himself against the portal’s strong wind.

Cower and die? Run and hide? No. Stand and fight!

Enemies. Real enemies, at last. Owen uncoils his whip. Great. Five – no, six – hostiles between him and his prey. Well, this’ll be fun. The Morning Star folds itself into his hands like heated gold. He’d trained since childhood for this; he was born for this. He takes aim at a leaping goblin, cracks the whip like a flyswatter and watches the demon explode mid-air, the blast knocking its nearest companions to the ground. He advances across the floor, stepping into an ancient warrior’s dance Belmonts had choreographed for untold generations, sliding his bodyweight into the whip, wrapping its chainlinks around his forearm and snapping the mace forward, knowing without thinking just how long it needs to be to reach its next target, killing opponent after opponent with efficient, seamless grace. Battling back and forth keeping his enemies on the defensive.

Two, three, four more goblins screech, swell up and explode into splatters of black slime as Owen advances across the chamber. The final two remaining goblins hiss and scrabble away from him, leathery batlike wings unfurling, but the Morningstar snaps out to wrap around one’s leg and yank it to the floor. As the goblin uncurls Owen darts forward, sweeping his shortsword up so its heavy blade punches deep into the goblin’s throat. Still gripping the shortsword two-handed, Owen rips it back hard and the razor-edged steel saws through sinew and muscle and gullet. The floor is awash with black blood as the demon collapses, gurgling.

Enraged, the final winged goblin leaps at him, knocking the shortsword from his hand and pinning him to the floor. Owen grits his teeth, draws both circular buzzsaws and slashes across its ribs. The goblin howls in pain and scrabbles back, its jagged chest wounds smoking and hissing.

Anyone else would feel a shard of remorse. Not Owen. He’d seen too many good men gored by fatally injured Hellbeasts. Now’s the dangerous time. No room for hesitation. Or mercy. Time to terminate with extreme prejudice.

Panting, he staggers upright and plants his feet. His fingers pump the spring-loaded triggers; the hooked sawblades spin faster and faster until they’re a menacing, buzzing blur of serrated steel.

The goblin’s lidless eyes narrow.

Game on, mate. You and me – let’s go!

Owen moves in for the kill, brandishing his handheld buzzsaws. The wounded goblin claws at him, but Owen ducks and weaves like a prizefighting boxer, fluid, brutally balletic, dodging each feral swipe as his sawblades whir and slice with merciless efficiency. First he takes out the hamstrings, bringing the stricken goblin to its knees. The crippled demon lashes out pathetically, even managing a few feeble glancing blows. Owen ignores them. Toiling like a battlefield surgeon he grimly takes it apart limb by limb, his clinical pinpoint slashes reducing it to a heap of quivering scaly flesh in seconds. First its left wing flops limp, hanging by a slimy thread of sinew. Then its severed right arm tumbles to the floor, flapping around like a dying fish. As the one-armed goblin rears back for a final desperate lunge Owen spins close, arm scything outward as the sawblade bites deep.

Black blood sprays. The goblin convulses, chest heaving, then topples to the floor gushing blood from its slashed throat.

Owen holsters his bloodied buzzsaws, then limps across the room to retrieve his chainwhip and shortsword.

The ground shudders; a shrill screech fills the air as Owen turns towards the portal. Out crawls … he stares. A half-torn mangled nightmare twice the size of a man, a hulking shadow of cold, hairless necrotic flesh and crushing muscle fuelled by ravenous, insatiable hunger. Long sinewy forelimbs drag it forward, hooked talons scraping the flagstones. Its emaciated legless torso reveals a cavernous stomach that flops open like a dreadful gaping wound, dripping organs hanging from the rotting cavity. Its warped twisted body crawls forward, leaving a filthy smear of bloody entrails in its wake. Greasy locks droop from a wizened scalp. Bloodthirsty sunken eyes blaze deep in its gaunt noseless face. Dead grey flesh is stretched tight over its jutting ribcage like sodden rags. Beneath hate-filled eyes a skinless maw yawns wide, bristling with needle-sharp fangs.

‘Mournghul,’ Owen mutters, eyes narrowing. ‘Right out of the family bestiary.’ He sighs. ‘God shits in my dinner once again!’ He braces himself and whirs the Morningstar in a lethal figure of eight before him, faster and faster, the steel chain-whip buzzing through the air like an angry hornet. ‘Say “aah”, fuckface!’

The mournghul lunges forward with a bloodthirsty screech, but Owen dodges a wild clawing swipe and lashes it across the face with the Morningstar. It crashes back with a gurgle against a stone pillar. Chunks of masonry rain down. Green slime drips from its bubbling wounds and hisses deep into the smoking flagstones. Blinded and furious the monster flails about wildly, but Owen skilfully snags the chain around its outstretched forearm and watches the spiked mace-head swing back around, smashing full force deep into the creature’s withered chest.

Bullseye. It vanishes in a searing fireball amid the stench of charred meat, shrivelled scraps of flesh scattered across the floor. Owen nods grimly. Apparently they hadn’t heard of pendulums in Hell.

An enraged snarl. A rushing shadow bursts out of the smoke and slams him aside, knocking the Morningstar from his grasp. A scorched arm backhands him across the room, landing in a crumpled heap. A badly-placed pillar breaks his fall. Fucking great, now he’ll have back bruises too.

Ugh. Some nights are just better spent in bed.

The Morningstar clatters away far out of reach as – oh, brilliant – the mournghul looms over his aching body, drool dripping from its toothy maw. Its skin charred and blistered.

Burnt. Blackened. And bloody furious.

One of the wall-mounted sconces is lying on the floor, a twisted length of wrought iron with its flame snuffed out. Just beyond arm’s reach. Worse than useless.

Better than nothing.

Owen’s boot straightens like a striking cobra and smashes full into the mournghul’s gaping jaws. It recoils with a screech of outrage, spitting broken fangs as Owen twists free and bellycrawls across the floor. The guttural heaving pants of the nightmare as it scuttles after him. Hot reeking breath washes over his neck. His scrabbling fingers close around cold iron and he whirls around with a vicious two-handed scything swing, all two hundred pounds of coiled fury behind it.

CLONK.

The mournghul blunders backwards, dazed as Owen struggles upright. He spies a second torch sconce atop a half-crumbled column.

Perfect.

Muscles screaming in protest, Owen forces his aching body into a desperate sprint. He surges forward, launches off a rubble heap and tears the sconce from its bracket. He drops to the floor, a weapon in each hand. The mournghul rounds on him with a murderous glare as it begins to circle, its eyes flashing with malevolent hatred. He sinks onto one knee, scraping both sconces across the paving slabs. A line in the stone. A challenge. Here I am … Come get me, bastard!

The mournghul prowls around him like a wolf circling its cornered prey, before unleashing a horrific, primordial berserker shriek. ‘ROOOAAAARRRGHH!’

Owen shudders, then bares his teeth and roars right back. ‘RAAAAH!’

Wham! He backhands a sconce across the mournghul’s jaw, blasting it back. Owen explodes upward, dual-wielding both sconces like warclubs as he batters it repeatedly, driving it across the chamber with a relentless barrage of multiple blows. He bites back a hiss of pain as it swipes at his arm, a talon snagging his bicep and tearing through muscle.

Playtime’s over. Let’s finish this!

Owen smashes both makeshift cudgels across the mournghul’s face, metal crunching into its jaw as it reels back with an agonised wail. Dodging its slashing talons Owen darts inside its reach and thrusts the lethal spike up beneath its chin, all twelve inches of cold iron punching right through its brain and bursting out the back of its skull. As it slumps forward he rolls behind it, flips his second sconce around spike-first and plunges it deep, straight and true, impaling the mournghul’s heart through its back.

Any monster worth staking is worth staking twice. No such thing as overkill in the Belmont business.

Smoking green slime spews from its mouth, sizzling as it eats into the flagstones. The mournghul collapses lifeless on the floor, flesh melting off its bones which crumble to ash.

Fucking finally.

Owen stretches blood into his weary limbs. His scalp is bleeding. He ignores it.

Through the massive glowing portal he glimpses a horrifying vista; a wide river of blood snakes between spiky trees festooned with flayed corpses. The dry cracked riverbanks are fissured with glowing magma, teeming with hooting, snarling demons. Amid the jagged mountains in the distance, a giant horned figure claws its way out of the barren earth and raises a flaming sword.

So that’s Satan, Owen thinks dimly through the searing waves of pain. Huh. Okay then.

Kill this bastard. Then close the portal. Save the world. No pressure.

Now’s the time. Ten long years of study and training, fifteen more years wandering the wilderness, a lifetime of blood, sweat and tears all now focussed, resolved, channelled into this single defining moment; the sole purpose of his short span of life to prepare him to enter the heart of night and bare his light against the crushing darkness.

Owen tightens his bandoleer strap against aching ribs. He steels himself. Breathes out.

And moves in.

‘Oi! Big boy!’ he snarls through clenched teeth, advancing on the crucified monster. ‘I’m still here!’

The towering creature raises its lizard-like muzzle to regard the small figure trudging boldly toward it, battered, bruised and bleeding from ugly wounds across his chest and arms. But still standing.

‘You know me?’ it snarls, guttural voice dripping with dismissive scorn.

Owen closes in, an ant before the storm and brazenly defiant despite it. ‘I’m Owen Belmont, of House Belmont!’ he growls, gazing at it cooly. ‘Of course I know you. Finding things and recognising things is what we do! And you are absolutely a Thing!’

The monster glares down with burning red eyes, oozing malice from every slimy pore. ‘I was born in fire and blood at the dawn of life to feed on your kind,’ it boasts. ‘You puny little meatsacks chasing the light, clinging desperately to your feeble suns … which die. You are but maggots to us. Worms to be squashed.’

It rips free of its restraints and drops onto all fours with an earth-shaking thud. ‘The Darkness is my domain. Only the Darkness endures. The Warriors of Light chained us in the Pit for all eternity … yet I shall live forever in men’s bleeding hearts, in their vanity and lust for power.’ Its rumbling voice drips with the confidence from uncounted eons of unchallenged superiority. ‘The Lord of Darkness chose me to spearhead his vanguard, and burn this world to dust! I’m a little more than a … thing.’

Owen keeps walking, icy blue eyes never leaving the immense monster even for an instant. ‘No … you’re only a thing,’ he declares, words filled with contempt. ‘You’re just an age-old killer.’ He unhooks the Morningstar with a rattle of chains, his forefathers’ ancestral weapon dented and coarsened from countless past battles. ‘You don’t build anything, you don’t live. You just eat and hide!’ He halts before the monster, weapon in hand and shoulders squared. ‘Time to give this world back to people who can build anew.’ The portal’s howling wind billows around him, flapping his matted hair and torn clothes. ‘You ’n’ me? We’re just killers. It’s time for us to go.’

‘And who’s going to make me go?’ gloats the monster, its voice dripping with distaste. ‘You? You tiny pathetic crawling mouse, spitting noise and pretending you’re important? You worthless stinging fly? All alone? With your feeble scrap of string?’

A grim smile curls Owen’s lip as he raises his chainwhip, brandishing it taut across his chest. ‘Probably not, no … but y’know what they say? One beastie, one Belmont!’

He begins whirling the Morningstar, angry steel thrumming through the air. ‘My family defeated you for a dozen generations, we banished you back into the Eternal Void! “The Gatekeepers” you called us. “The Oncoming Storm”. When monsters rise again, we kill them dead! Remember every black night we ever stopped you?’

The enraged demon stamps the floor; dust showers from the ceiling. ‘My master has awakened!’ it roars, sinews bulging on its neck. ‘His knights will scorch the earth for his glorious arrival, as I must. This world is doomed!’

Owen smirks. ‘Yeah? It’s been doomed before. And you lot sure aren’t the first to try – there have been so many! But ask yourself: what happened to them?’

He bares his teeth.

Me.’

The demon howls and charges. The Morningstar meets it mid-leap. The room floods with blazing light. More than one man against a monster; more than human blademasters against the legions of Hell; more than the last descendant of a warrior dynasty versus the Dark Lord’s prized champion.

The Last Belmont against Satan’s Hellknight.

Good against evil.

Light against dark.

Winner take all.

Dancing around the lumbering beast Owen strikes out repeatedly with his Morningstar, unleashing a crippling flurry of slashes. Each whipcrack burns the Hellknight until it’s engulfed in flames. He leaps back; as the smoke clears the creature emerges, skin crackling and burning as its gaping wounds knit back together. It swats him aside, sending him hurtling into a wall.

Owen struggles to his feet, wiping blood from his mouth. No sharp lancing pain when he breathes, nothing so bad that he could feel it through the adrenaline rush of fighting. But that thing skitters towards him again like some nightmarish unkillable salamander, regrowing limbs as fast as he destroyed them, and he can’t afford to take many more hits like that. Can’t do this forever. 

What he wouldn’t give for an extra large bucket of salt right now.

An idea uncurls inside him. Crazy. Insane. It’ll hurt like a bitch. But it just might work.

Owen squares his shoulders. Locks eyes with the creature.

And drops his Morningstar. It clatters to the floor.

The Hellknight’s eyes gleam with triumph. It knocks him flying into a stone pillar. Owen lies still, eyes closed. The Hellknight chuckles and scoops him up with a giant clawed hand, squeezing the breath from Owen’s lungs. No response; it raises its prey to its mouth, opens its jaws wide —

Owen’s eyes snap open. ‘Sucker!’ He draws his shortsword with a hiss of steel. Lunges forward.

And twenty inches of castle-forged steel stabs deep into the Hellknight’s eye.

It reels back, blinded and bellowing in pain. Owen drops from its flailing claws. He scoops up his Morningstar and attacks with a relentless barrage of strikes. With every whipcrack, another chunk of torn flesh is exposed, each slash flaying muscle from bone.

Owen smiles grimly. And suddenly they are all beside him: his long-dead forefathers, parents and beloved sisters, eyes burning with ghostly vengeance, chanting their hallowed mantra in a single resolute voice.

In brightest day, in darkest night

The Morningstar crackles with energy, sizzling blue flames licking down the chainwhip.

No evil flees the Belmonts’ might.

Owen whips it high overhead, arms burning with exhaustion.

Let those who toll out evil’s knell

The mace-head flashes white, ablaze with holy fire as they roar as one –

Beware our power: the scourge of Hell!’

Owen yells a battlecry and chops it down with punishing force. The Morningstar plunges earthward.

Straight through the demon’s horned head. Cleaving it in two.

The fiery explosion blasts the creature apart in a gory shower of guts. Searing heat washes over Owen as blinding light fills the chamber. When it finally fades, the demon is gone. Just a smoking crater deep in the flagstones, black blood smeared across the floor and the lingering stench of burnt meat. The demon’s severed head lolls at Owen’s feet, blood drooling from its gaping jaws.

The portal fizzles and shrinks, a faint echoing roar of outrage: ‘Nooooo …!’

Then it winks out. And vanishes for good.

Everything hurts. Where’s Stefan? Is he still alive? Here he is, too small to be a demon, slipping a blood-soaked arm under Owen’s aching shoulders. Supporting him towards the staircase. Ouch. Ribs. Ouch.

The ceiling cracks above them, chunks of rubble raining down. ‘Run,’ Owen croaks, and they do. Up the stairs, along the gloomy passageways out into the roofless nave as the the priory crumbles around them. Outside is a sea of carnage, the courtyard littered with corpses. Monks and militiamen lie entangled in deathly embraces, cold fingers still clawing at the weapons that had slain them. A handful of battle-weary soldiers trudge among the piles of dead, dispatching dying monks and tending to wounded comrades. Andrei’s men have won the day. Barely. All around the horizon glows red, an entire town on fire.

And there’s the Magistrate. Lying on the cold hard ground. A knife buried deep in his chest. Fuck. The whole town gone, burned to ash, and now the one official who’d been nice to him, who had asked for his help like a civilised person instead of trying to have him executed first – done for.

Owen sinks to his knees next to Andrei. He can mend broken bodies, reset bones and bandage cuts, given enough time and energy, but this — a blade through the heart — is far beyond him. He could win all of his battles and yet save none of the people.

‘I’ve killed Sala,’ Andrei whispers. ‘Sent him on his path to Hell.’

Owen kneels beside him, taking his hand. ‘Where is he?’

Andrei coughs hoarsely, then: ‘Take the back field into the woods. Go right at the fork. Cross the stream. You’ll find him beneath the apple tree.’ He squeezes Owen’s hand. ‘Give me my knife,’ he rasps through bloody lips. Owen presses it into his trembling hands. Andrei clasps it to his chest and chuckles wetly. ‘I’m going to wait for that b-bastard in Hell, and k-kill him all over again when he arrives!’ He exhales. ‘B-burn my house down.’ Blood trickles from his mouth. He heaves a long weary sigh, then his hand slackens in Owen’s grip and he goes limp.

Owen gazes helplessly down at Andrei’s corpse. He can strong-arm and fight and even protect, but here, once it’s all over, he has nothing left to offer. Andrei’s blood is smeared over his fingers as the stench of smoke and charred meat clogs his nose, the moans of the wounded and dying scattered around him. Not his fault. Just one more death in a blood-drenched night of carnage. And they’d won, technically. Hadn’t they? He’d beaten all of his enemies and sent them screaming back to Hell. He’d closed the portal. He’d foiled the friars’ plans to unleash Hell upon the earth. He … he hadn’t saved the town, not a single innocent person in it. But he’d still won.

Hadn’t he?

The night settles into his bones with a gnawing chill that makes him feel dirty, tainted, like he’d need a week-long hot bath to wash away all the blood caked beneath his fingernails. He finds the pit easily enough, before the laden apple tree. Gazes down at the bloodied spikes lining the bottom, Sala’s fallen carcass skewered through his arm, his chest, his left eye socket. Underneath him lie mouldering scraps of tattered clothing, bones so small at first Owen’s mind screams ‘animal’ instead of ‘human’.

He knows better.

Here? Every little story is such a huge event … A farming accident. A sickness. A lost child …

My apple tree …

It has its little pleasures …

They weren’t even granted the simplest dignity of a shallow grave. Instead left to slowly rot beneath an uncaring sky, totally exposed to scorching sun and hissing rain, amid the lethal sharpened stakes that killed them. How many of them died instantly, a quick painless jolt into endless night? And how many were left dying down there, alone, abandoned, crying and sobbing and wailing in terror and confusion and excruciating pain, a slow agonising death where nobody could hear their final awful screams. Crying out in the night for parents who never heard. Who never came.

Who never even knew.

In some dark corner of his mind he knows he’s supposed to recoil in horror or vomit in disgust, or fall to his knees and scream against the unfair injustice of the world. But he simply stares down, a boiling, blinding anger churning beneath his skin so intense it numbs his mind. Blood roars through his ears, bubbling with primal sizzling rage. Searing fury scorches through him. His anger is a white-hot hissing sound between his ears like a shrieking kettle, like a cornered rat snarling. It is a tight band wrapped around his chest, pressing hard against his ribs. It is arms that ache to wreak violence, fingers that twitch with the urge to drag Andrei back up from Hell and rip him limb from limb, to cut/smash/rip/punch/tear/crush/DESTROY.

His despair is the howl of icy wind over scoured-bare mountaintops. Andrei’s world will burn for this.

He killed Sala. This was his pit.

Fucker died too quickly.

He approaches Andrei’s house. One of the last few buildings left standing in this whole ruined town of smouldering rubble and charred bones. Because God’s sure got a warped sense of humour.

Inside the empty room is dark and silent, a slash of moonlight across the floor. A stub of candle wax flickers on the mantlepiece. A freshly-oiled torch in a wall bracket. Owen pulls it free and lights it with the dying candle. He scans the room: on the table is a small dish. The same ornate brass key from earlier.

A side door hidden away in the corner, half-shrouded behind a dark curtain.

The key slips in noiselessly. The door smoothly swings open on greased hinges. A back room shrouded in total darkness.

Owen folds the door all the way back. Stands in the moonlight for a long, agonising moment. Then he raises the lighted torch.

And steps inside.

© 2021 | Tom Burton

Hellhunter (6/8)

Back at his lodge, Andrei is poring over a heap of scrolls and large leather-bound books. He looks up as Owen and Stefan enter, dumping Scarface facedown with a heavy thud.

‘Found your vandal,’ Owen smirks, dusting off his hands. ‘He’s a very naughty monk. We caught him carving a weird symbol into the side of a home.’ He tosses the defaced wooden slat onto the table, its twisted rune gouged deep. ‘The same one we saw at the front gates. They’ve been leaving them all over town.’

Andrei’s face darkens. ‘Bastards!’ He moves around the desk to glare down at Scarface.

Stefan crouches low beside his captive. ‘Tell us what the symbol means,’ he grunts.

Hands bound, Scarface glowers from the floor. ‘Fuck you to death!’

WHAM! Andrei kicks him viciously in the ribs. He curls up, groaning.

‘Keep a civil fucking tongue in your head when addressing me, monk!’ Andrei snarls, his voice an axeblade hacking ice.

Scarface bares bloody teeth. ‘I ain’t tellin’ you shit!’ He juts out his chin defiantly. ‘You can’t keep me here, you can’t do nothing!’

Stefan plants a heavy boot on Scarface’s skull, pressing his face down into the floorboards. ‘Maybe we’ll just kill you,’ he growls.

Scarface fumes beneath Stefan’s boot. ‘This ain’t over! My brothers’ll come for me. They’ll make you pay!’

‘Sure thing, ‘Owen shrugs. ‘Call ’em right now.’ He gestures towards the heavy bolted door, the thick oaken walls. ‘Yell real loud. Go on. Try it. Oh wait.’

‘You’re dead meat. All of you. Dead!’

‘How’s that, mate? You got any more mad monks with you? Apart from those two chumps lying dead back in town?’

No answer. Owen smirks. ‘Didn’t think so.’

‘Fuckin’ Belmonts,’ Scarface spits, glaring daggers at Owen’s crest. ‘Alway sticking their filthy snouts where they ain’t wanted. Everyone here knows not to approach the priory, not to ask questions, not to interfere with our sacred work.’ He wriggles in vain, fuming. ‘You couldn’t just leave us alone? Keep well out of this?’

Owen crouches down, patting Scarface’s shoulder. ‘Not my style, mate. Sorry.’

Andrei traces the carving, his gaze flickering between the carved wooden slat and an open book covered with twisted glyphs. ‘Seems this symbol’s all bad news. I found a worrying set of meanings. Look here: the alchemical sigil for Saturn. And lead, representing transformation and rebirth. Order and focus. But more sinister undertones, too. The dark metal, corrupted. Cleansed only by fire. And its pronged pitchfork – see that crescent below the cross there? – denoting time. Death. Decay. The harvesting of souls.’ He taps the page, shutting his eyes in dismay. ‘This isn’t just some idle carving that happened to look like that symbol. This is intentional. Sala and his men planned this long ago.’

Ice shivers through Owen’s veins. ‘They’re enacting something magical in nature. Some kind of action against the town involving these alchemical symbols.’

Andrei pales. ‘The same ones we’ve seen?’

Owen nods. Andrei grips his arm, eyes bleak. ‘Tell me what kind of action. Please!’

He shakes his head. ‘I don’t honestly know.’ Then he smirks down at Scarface. ‘But he does.’ He crouches before the monk. ‘So: spill the beans.’

‘Fuck. You.’ Scarface jerks his head towards Maria in the doorway. ‘And your harlot!’

CRACK. He slumps back with a bloody nose. Oops. Silly Owen, what a shame this wanker somehow managed to hit your fist with that smug-ass face. Clumsy of you. Not.

‘Now that’s not very nice.’ Owen leans close. ‘I’m going inside to meet your friends later. Anything I should worry about?’

Scarface grins bloodily. ‘They’re all armed to the teeth.’

Owen rolls his eyes, voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘I’m shocked and amazed. What else?’

Scarface clamps his mouth shut and glares back defiantly.

Fine. Fine. Persuasion it is. Owen winks over at Stefan. ‘Ever noticed how it’s always the bigger blokes who don’t handle pain well?’

Catching on immediately, Stefan grins back. ‘Yeah. They usually bulk up to hide the fact that they’ll pass out whenever they get a measly splinter.’

Owen hums sagely. ‘Though so. Alrighty, then.’ He draws his knife. ‘Ever seen what a six-inch knife can do to the human eye?’

Scarface turns white. ‘H-Hang on!’ he splutters, wide-eyed with dread.

‘Shall we assume you don’t wanna learn?’

‘Do what you want!’ Scarface blusters, his confident tone betrayed by his scared-shitless expression. ‘I’m tellin’ you nothing!’

‘Aw, the strong silent type, huh? You’re no fun.’ Owen traces his blade over Scarface’s cheek. Slowly. While the guy tries (and fails) to contain his panting. His wheezing. And his tears.

Owen pats Scarface’s cheek with the knife blade, point scratching ever so gently under his twitching eye. ‘You know it’s not true that you blackout before your eyeball gets popped out. Right? You’ll feel it all. Real slow. The whole damn way.’

‘Y-You wouldn’t!’ Scarface whimpers.

Owen gives him a bright cheery smile. Full of teeth. ‘Want to convince me not to?’

Sweat glistens on the monk’s brow. His terrified eyes dart to and fro, seeking escape. Finding none.

Owen clamps his skull. Waggles the knife before him. ‘Last chance, pal …’

‘All right!’ Scarface sobs, slumping over in defeat. ‘All right! I’ll talk.’

There we go,’ Owen sing-songs, patting his head. ‘Now: why don’t you tell us how many of you are up in that priory?’

Scarface’s eyes turn flinty. ‘Not as many as there were, but more than enough.’

Stefan scoffs. ‘What – you lot been eating each other in there or something?’

‘We’ve been leaving … for days! Just a few of us, one a day. Walking to other towns, spreading the word.’

Owen narrows his eyes. ‘Like an infection.’

‘Like evangelists!’ Scarface’s face glows with fervour. ‘Passing on the knowledge. The Great Plan. Bringing Hell … to this abandoned earth!’

Andrei stares, aghast. ‘This is Sala’s plan?’

Scarface slumps back against the wall with a smug snigger. ‘Our Visitor’s plan. He spoke to us that blessed night. We heard his voice in our heads.’ His eyes gleam. ‘Since that moment, everything has been made clear.’

‘What was your Visitor doing here?’

Scarface chuckles wetly. ‘Not was. Is!’ He thrashes uselessly against his bonds. ‘He lies beneath our hallowed home, awaiting the hour of reckoning when the full moon walks high!’

Andrei’s face hardens. ‘Fanatics! It really did drive them insane.’

Owen shrugs. ‘Perhaps. But Night Creatures do wield dark magic. It may have twisted their minds beyond breaking point.’ He scratches his chin, pensive. ‘And if they’ve got a Night Creature still under the priory …’

Andrei pounds the table with his fist. ‘They didn’t kill it, after all. They hid it!’

A hasty knock on the door. The captain from the front gates enters, twisting his wide-brimmed hat in his hands. ‘Sirs! Urgent news, if I may?’

‘At ease, Captain Jakob,’ Andrei reassures him. ‘What’ve you found?’

‘Ah.’ Owen holds up a cautionary finger. ‘One sec.’ He crouches down and digs his thumb into the side of Scarface’s neck, compressing the artery feeding his brain. Soon Scarface’s eyes roll up and he slumps sideways with a heavy sigh. Unconscious. Owen straightens up, smirking. ‘Carry on.’

Andrei nods his thanks. He claps his hands; two uniformed guards enter, pick up Scarface’s limp carcass and drag him out. Andrei turns to Jakob. ‘As you were, captain: how many houses have been marked?’

‘All of them, sir,’ replies Jakob mournfully, nursing his hat before him in the classic Ai-Senor-Pesky-Bandits-Have-Raided-Our-Village pose. ‘They’ve defaced every one.’

‘Apart from Maria’s,’ Owen points out. He sweeps the wooden slat onto the floor and stamps down hard, cracking it in two. ‘What night’s the next full moon?’

Andrei rifles through a well-worn almanac. He stops. Turns pale. ‘Tonight.’

‘Well, shit. Things can’t get much worse.’ Owen unties Scarface’s armband from his sleeve and holds it out, baring the symbol. ‘What d’you make of this?’

Andrei turns to another page. His eyes are bleak. Owen peers over. The double crucifix, the endless coil of infinity …

The Leviathan Cross.

‘It’s the alchemical sign for sulphur,’ Andrei mutters, his words dredged up from deep within, aching with weary resignation. ‘Used by ancient philosophers to denote … Hell.’

Owen resists the urge to eye-roll into next week. Next month. Next year. ‘The universe just loves proving me wrong, doesn’t it?’ He cracks his knuckles. ‘Right: so the priory’s deconsecrated, they’re working with a living Night Creature underground, and there’s dozens of these crazy fuckers guarding it. Great. Really great.’ He glances at the others. ‘I can handle the demon, but I’d rather not wade through a small army of mad monks to reach it. Your men shouldn’t be anywhere near that. Just punch a hole for me, then stay topside and keep the monks off my back.’

Andrei nods, grim-faced with purpose. ‘I’ll summon my men-at-arms in stages. No need to cause public alarm or give Sala undue warning. We’ll strike at sundown, when the townsfolk are all safely indoors.’

Owen frowns. ‘We really got time to wait until then?’

Andrei’s expression hardens, his voice firm and resolute. ‘This is my town, Belmont. You’ll do as I say.’ He mashes a fist into his open palm, eyes alight with determination. ‘We must have strategy, and force of numbers. This will be done properly. I’ll begin preparations at once.’ He bustles out the door, Stefan and Jakob flanking him.

Maria uncrosses her arms and saunters forward. ‘What’ll I do?’

Owen squeezes her hand. ‘Take in as many people as you can shelter under one roof. Whatever happens tonight, if I’m right – and that’s a big “if” – then your inn’s one of the few safe places left out there. You got an underfloor basement, or a cellar?’

‘Nope,’ she deadpans. ‘I just like stacking my beer barrels right behind the bar, because I’m an idiot.’ She swats his arm playfully. ‘Of course I’ve got a cellar, numbnuts. You’re painfully anxious sometimes, y’know that?’

‘I’m responsible,’ Owen claims, which gets him an eye-roll and an elbow in the ribs. ‘I am. I’m being responsible right now.’

She still looks unconvinced. ‘Look,’ he sighs, ‘I just. I want to get this over with. And you agree. Kind of. I mean, you like the excitement and adventure and heroics and all that bollocks, but you’ll be far better off keeping an eye on your neighbours over at your place if this whole fuck-up melts into a disaster. It’s not just sitting around idly and passively waiting shit out. If we’re overrun – hopefully not – they’ll need somewhere to shelter safely.’

Maria reddens. ‘I’m not their damn babysitter!’

‘No. You’ll be their protector. Big difference.’

Well at least Maria doesn’t look pityingly at him. More like irritated. It’s a toss-up which is worse, frankly.

‘You’re really good at keeping folks in line,’ he tries and God, does that sound feeble. ‘I’ve heard you working. You’re great at getting people’s shit together. So you’d be doing far more good staying put and keeping them safe from this whole damn mess.’ He’s clutching at straws now; ugh, this is so lame. ‘You’re reliable.’

Maria snorts. ‘You might’ve led with that.’

‘I really should’ve.’

A long pause … then Maria nods. ‘Okay. I’ll do it.’

He sighs in relief. ‘Good. Get as many townsfolk underfloor as you can. Put as many thick walls between them and the battle, and please, make sure you  –’

Suddenly all the breath is crushed from his lungs as Maria throws her arms tight around him, hugging him close. Her head nestles beneath his stubbled chin as he strokes her hair. She smells of lavender soap and honey.

‘Be careful,’ he finishes, almost a whisper.

‘You too.’ Maria mumbles into his chest. Then she chuckles fondly. ‘My boy Paul? He would’ve loved you. Little tyke used to dash around the house in his blue buckled shoes: “Mummy, Mummy, look at me! I’m fighting monsters, Mummy!” Galavanting off into the woods with his daydreams, or picking the prettiest wildflowers to bring home. Loved that little rogue to bits, bless him.’ She sighs. ‘Until he ran away three winters back. I ain’t seen hide nor hair of him since. Hope he’s okay out there.’

Not just a brash-mouthed landlady then, all prickles and sharp words to drunken louts. A grieving mother still mourning her long-lost child. Owen rubs her back. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Not your fault.’ Maria kisses his cheek tenderly, then sweeps out the door.

All alone again, Owen breathes out. And smiles.

Right, then. Got a town to save, monsters to slay and a battle to win. No pressure.

Just like old times.

*

Under the fading glimmer of sunset they march up the barren slope towards Reikstadt’s priory. Andrei leads the way, Owen, Jakob and Stefan at the head of a band of militia large enough to make Owen feel uncomfortably like a commander … or maybe just an expendable grunt sent in with the first wave.

His fingertips brush over his weapons, preparing each for its quickest draw: his shortsword sheathed on his right hip. The chainwhip coiled at his left hip. His pair of handheld eight-bladed circular buzzsaws strapped to the small of his back for close-quarters insurance, razor-edged and thirsty for blood. His lean body a machine of war.

The priory looms ahead, its doors barred and silent. Owen’s expected nothing less. He waits while the soldiers form ranks behind them. Finally Andrei strides forward to deliver his ultimatum.

‘Prior Sala!’ he calls, voice thick with contempt. ‘When you were a simple man of the Church, I tolerated your hold over my town. When you became a mad hermit who shunned my people, I tolerated you still.’ His face hardens. ‘No more! You will vacate the priory, immediately. Throw down your weapons as you leave!’

No answer from the priory. Andrei stomps closer. ‘Sala! I know you have deconsecrated the priory. God no longer dwells in this house. You enjoy no protection from Him! Out! All of you! Now! Or we come for you, Sala!’

Owen’s hand rests on his Morningstar as he meet Stefan’s gaze where the sergeant hovers protectively behind Andrei, longsword resting on his shoulder. Stefan grimaces: Here we go.

Andrei turns away with a snort of disgust. ‘Raving lunatics.’ He raises a clenched fist to his soldiers. ‘Get ready! We’re going in!’

The sun slips below the horizon. The plaza falls dark.

Then a roaring boom shakes the town behind them. And all Hell breaks loose.

First one home, and then another explodes into hideous flames that pour upward into the night sky, arching overhead, twisting and snaking pathways no natural fire has ever made. Three other houses instantly incinerate, shooting yet more streams of Hellfire high into the night; the conflagration is so sudden and absolute that even nearby trees crackle and wither. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. At this helpless distance, Owen hears no screams; maybe there isn’t time for anyone to scream, but the people are still trapped down there, every one of them burning alive in their doomed homes. Horrifying deaths consumed in searing agony. And Owen can’t even stop it. He shoves down his panic but it claws back up his throat, rattling against his clenched teeth.

You can’t save them. You can’t save any of them. You never do.

One look at Stefan’s horrified face tells him they’re beyond all help.

‘My God!’ Jakob gasps at the soaring pillars of Hellfire. ‘How’re they doing that? They out there setting fires?’

‘No!’ Andrei groans miserably. ‘The markings on the walls! It’s the harvest. I just didn’t see it!’ He gazes down at his empty hands in despair. ‘And I waited until everyone was back in their homes! I’ve damned them all!’

A ninth house bursts into flame in the valley below, much closer this time; in the soaring column of fire nearby Owen glimpses ghoulish twisted faces, mouths agape in frozen screams. His heart plummets with sickening dread: the souls of murdered innocents feeding the fires of Hell.

Sometimes you can’t save everyone.

And sometimes … you can’t save anyone.

The raging tongues of flame converge together high above their heads in a howling mass of fire. They watch in helpless horror as the flaming torrent plunges down toward the priory, streaming straight through the roof’s jagged hole like a serpent seeking its underground den.

‘We have to get in there!’ Stefan yells, and in his voice is … not panic. No. Desperation. They have to stop all this, now. Storm the priory. But how could they get past those huge locked doors? Maybe break in through the narrow windows, or perhaps could clamber down through the gaping roof? If it ever stops burning.

‘Then we force a path inside!’ Andrei’s face twists with vengeful fury. ‘Take it!’ he bellows to his men. ‘Take the priory now! They’ve murdered your families … so let’s kill these bastards!’

The soldiers rush past him with an eager roar, weapons readied as Owen leads their charge. Then the priory’s double doors crash open and a yelling mob of shit-for-brains monks come flooding out before them, waving knives, axes, pitchforks and sickles. Howling for blood. Through the open doors behind them, the church nave is ablaze with Hellfire.

Owen’s wolfish brain perks up. Well. Small blessings, indeed. At least the door’s open. Now: just have to get past these fuckers. Simple enough.

He draws his sword and whirls his Morningstar, smiling with grim resolve. Now’s here’s something I can fight. Here we go!

© 2021 | Tom Burton

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