By Jason Restrick
Gorek Alakai walked through the courtyard towards the castle gate. He was dressed for combat as well as for hard travel, wearing high black boots and leather woodsman’s greaves over his shins and arms. He had a round shield slung over his shoulder and a sword in its scabbard at his side. The sleeves of a fine blue tunic plumed at the arms where they emerged from beneath a chainmail shirt.
He inhaled the invigorating morning air, sharp with frost, and saw a bright sun rising in the awakening blue sky. A soft gust of wind swept along, carrying the rich scent of soil and pine nettles. Although he was bound on a haunted path, he smiled now as the chill wind blew. In the plateau of Maramures, high in the Carpathian Mountains, the days were brief and to be treasured.
Twelve archers, forty swordsmen, and the captain of the guard waited for the son of Vlach Alakai, last free duke of Wallachia. Words faded on the tips of tongues and backs straightened stiffly as the soldiers saw Gorek approach.
Lord Gorek, like the men that fought for him, was a care-worn figure, on whom signs of hardship lay heavily. The darkness beneath his eyes and the lines of strife on his face made him seem older than his twenty-eight years. He looked up at his father who stood without expression on a high balcony above the courtyard. Then, he turned again to the path ahead and felt a pang of sorrow to see the mightiest of Wallachia’s last men gathered for one more deadly excursion after having suffered such terrible losses. Yet when he neared and met each individual’s gaze, his eyes sparkled with an inner light.
“A fine morning, Captain,” said Gorek to Bela.
“But a foul eve to follow,” replied the captain of the guard. He frowned beneath his grizzled beard.
Gorek was undaunted as he viewed his chosen warriors. Black hair, pale skin, sharp features, and pointed beards characterized these somber, hardy folk. Their frames were thin and rangy, but they were not without strength; and here on the borderland of the world of men where the night of Earth kisses the blackness of cosmic space, they were steadfast. They looked silently at Gorek, and then he spoke:
“Men of lost Wallachia, we have been long without peace. For years we have fought. Now the king is dead, and all we have left is each other, and this, our home of Maramures, where the Mongol Horde dares not ride. The time has come to turn from what we have lost and fight for what remains.
“We march upon our oldest enemy. For too long have the hill creatures pressed their faces through midnight windows and stolen infants from their cradles. They have harried our valley and haunted our forests. Now, let us go forth against them; and by God, they will know that brave men here stand!”
The company raised their swords with a ferocious cry as the gate was drawn; and greatest of all was the voice of young Holfar; and though he had a fear of the woods, he was less than no other in bravery when battle called. He kept Gorek’s words close to heart, and afterwards wrote down much that his liege had said, and remembered him in times of doubt.
The villagers had gathered to watch the soldiers cross the muddy pass toward the woods. Before, when the army had gone to war, the people had cheered and clapped, blown instruments, sung, and tossed petals upon the dusty way. Now the war was lost; now the fighters walked deeper into the mountains, and the villagers were somber and quiet.
“They fear for us,” said Captain Bela.
The men walked gravely beneath the full light of day into the Carpathian woods. They knew well the peak where benighted torches shone on blackened nights. An old hunting path lay before them and the going was easy, though the trees were thick on either side.
After the huts disappeared behind them, Bela caught Gorek’s eye. He frowned beneath his beard.
“What troubles you, Captain?” said Gorek, pressing close and speaking quietly.
“What doesn’t trouble me? Rumania has been conquered; the empire is falling to the Mongols. The men have been home only six days, and now we march from one foe to another.”
“There is no reclaiming the realm,” said Gorek. “But neither shall the horse-lords pursue us here; they will not ride their steeds into the great heights. It’s time, at last, to strike against the worm clan. Twelve of our people were stolen while we were away.
“So, we plunge into the haunted woods to get them back?” said Bela.
“You know that there is no rescuing the lost. Still, the worm clan will answer for what they have done. We will set our heels on those snakes in the night—and by their blood, they will learn not to dare us.”
“Why now, with autumn covering the land?” said Bela. “Another month, and they will be buried in their caves until spring thaw.” The captain did not speak from fear. He had nearly fifty years behind him, yet his thick arms were still the mightiest among the men he commanded. He was a hardened, joyless man who knew not love nor peace. But he bled with his men, and pitied them their sorrow.
Gorek sighed. The old, rutted path, though black with mud and partially swamped, glowed beneath the year’s last warmth. Leaves of fire and bright gold fell from the trees, but their autumnal beauty was shadowed by the captain’s grim reflections. Bela always could sour a good walk, and soon it would be cold and dark.
“The king is dead,” said Gorek after a moment. “We have soldiers now to spare in our own defense. Shall we stand back, because we have suffered one doom too many?” The young duke paused, looking at the captain, then softened his tone. “Dorin’s widow was in the hall yesterday. Her child has been gone a week. She has lost everything. The fight is upon us; it has always been upon us.”
Bela frowned at the name of Dorin, who had drowned beneath a Mongol horse in Siret. The captain shifted uncomfortably to other concerns. “We risk much, to walk so far with so few men,” he said.
“You know as well as I that the hill folk would scatter before a larger advance. We go with enough strength to draw their numbers and defy them; and afterwards, they will remember what we have done.”
“Foolishness,” said the captain.
“You have not been among the people, Bela. You have not seen the despair in their faces, or understood their fear.”
“I was in the streets yesterday,” replied the captain. “I know that they call you their prince now.”
“It were better that they didn’t,” said Gorek. “For all we know the royal line may endure somewhere. My father is the duke of Maramures. We have no claim beyond that.”
“They need somebody to believe in,” said the old captain.
A little after mid-day, Gorek raised his hand to halt the men as a withered beldam paced in the path ahead. Her black gown fell in tatters about her bony legs, over which was a loosely tied apron that once must have been white. She had no shawl and her spotted pate was pale beneath wispy strands of hair. Her shaking hand held a cane, which she depended heavily upon as she shambled back and forth with a crippled step.
Gorek did not like the way she blocked the trail. “Ma’am?” he called. “Ma’am, I would speak with you.”
The hag turned blind eyes on him. Milky suffusion had long ago taken her sight, yet when she walked toward him her feet and cane deftly avoided root, rock, and rut.
“I bring men of war to Fellwind Peak,” said Gorek. The hag tilted her head but gave no response. “We will have done with their unholy sacrifices. No more shall the mothers of the vale cry for their lost children.”
An unpleasant smile stretched across the beldam’s sallow face. From beyond barren gums rolled a long, dry tongue that clucked on cracked lips. “You of the village,” she croaked, and her voice was like bone scraping against brimstone. “You who are base and ignorant, who know so little of the earth beneath your feet or the stars above your heads, you have not picked a good night to stroll through Carpathia.”
“What do you mean?” said Gorek.
“The star of Azur swings close tonight and the worm clan will reach for it.” Clouded white as her eyes were, still a spark of sin gleamed.
The crone’s withered hand stroked his youthful cheek. He recoiled but her quick fingers snapped upward, plucking a strand of hair from his head. Holding it between her splintered nails, she raised it before her blind eyes. Then she placed the hair on her tongue and moaned.
Shaken by an olden fear, Gorek shouted at her to yield the hair.
The crone laughed a terrible laugh that echoed of vile mirth. Then a dim haze filmed Gorek’s vision and his blood grew slow and clammy.
“Sabhata—! The witch of the woods!” he cried, and with a blind lunge drove his sword forward.
The blade slipped through her dried husk of a body—more she laughed—and Gorek fell in agony, clutching his own stomach. The sword clattered at his knees, yet there was no blood on it.
“The witch has put a curse on him!” growled Bela, seizing her head from behind and wrenching her jaws open. “Get the hair from her tongue! Cut out her tongue!”
Dragomir the archer stepped forward, his hand unsteady as he reached for that writhing muscle, tearing it out with an iron dirk. The witch shrieked like a wretch upon infernal coals and her talons thrashed at the archer’s face, who swiftly stepped beyond reach.
The captain peeled the hair from the discolored tongue, ending the magic that had seized the young duke. The pain of the sword left Gorek and passed to the witch, blood only now bursting from the wound in her stomach. She slumped to the earth, her cloudy eyes staring, blood spilling from her mouth. They threw her body into the trees and carried on.
“Gorek,” said the captain. “You heard what she said. There’s a festival tonight. The hill folk will come from all around. This changes everything.”
“This changes nothing,” said Gorek. “We carry on.”
“I sense that we will not come back from this,” Bela warned.
“If we hold together,” said Gorek, “they cannot break us.”
The company rested in the late afternoon. Their garments were heavy with sweat, their sleeves torn, but their greaves and tall boots protected them from the dense foliage at their feet.
Far behind in the village, the setting sun gently touched the shingled peaks of quiet homesteads. Smoke crept from chimneys above simmering pots of stew as the folk prepared their dinners. But it was dim in the Carpathian woods, for the sun found uneasy passage through the boughs of the forbidding trees.
The trail soon widened and ashes were congealed in the pulp of rotting leaves. Unfamiliar symbols were seen underfoot, scorched into the earth.
“Something unnatural here,” said Vali.
“The witch spoke of ill-omens,” said Bela. His eyes were cast upward, where red Aldebaran gleamed brightly in the unclouded twilight. All around the company, the forest was still and silent. Everyone was watchful.
Gorek looked at the shapes on the ground. They showed no kinship with any alphabet or alchemy that he knew of. “The witch spoke of a star of Azur. What is it?”
“It’s not the name of any star that I know of,” said Rodrik.
“Nor is this name from the host of the Fallen,” said Dragomir.
“My lord,” said Marius. “I don’t know . But I read something strange in Clara’s diary. Her father gave it to me when we returned home. On a cloudless night one month ago, she was out at dusk to retrieve a lost lamb.”
“What of it?” said Bela.
“It shivered against her as she carried it back in her arms. Something had frightened it. And her. She sang a holy song to cozen the spirits away.”
“And?” said Bela. His eyes remained on Aldebaran, the crimson star.
“Something sang back,” said Marius. “A song from the sky. The clear and empty sky. She disappeared three days later.”
“We will find her,” said Rodrik. He set his palm on his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll get her back.”
“We will, won’t we, m’lord?” Marius said to Gorek.
A tree croaked in the wind, or so it seemed. But no leaf or garment stirred in the stillness of the clearing.
“We’ll find her,” said Gorek. “If we can.” He pointed to the vine-choked paths ahead. “Onward, men. To Fellwind Peak.”
Dusk came and passed quickly. The trail was cruel and uncertain, so that they had little choice but to light their torches. As night deepened, they began to hear shrill, hackle-raising cries in the distance. Though the voices came from ahead, the men couldn’t help but look over their shoulders and into the absolute darkness on either side, their stomachs beginning to knot with expectant dread; but the torches were held in front of them, and their steps did not falter.
The company climbed a defile, pausing beneath the last wooded umbrage as they stared at the long, beetling hill whose crest was called Fellwind Peak. Torches were pitched across the slope, snaking weirdly along its height; and at the top stood a brightly burning pyre that cut through the black sky like a spear of flame. The rising, white moon began to peer dimly behind pluming tendrils of smoke.
All across the hill, stunted forms of elder-kind padded and danced in a multitude beyond counting. Their foul voices carried on the wind, and in the screams, songs and speech, madness stirred. Their arms and legs were bowed at ungainly angles, as though in a phase between reptile and biped. Their bulbous, cumbersome heads jutted forward on elongated necks, which seemed to throw them off-balance, and which must have shaped their graceless dance.
“There are hundreds of them,” said Dănut in a hushed voice.
The eyes of the men drifted to their liege as they huddled before the open stretch towards the crest.
“The witch spoke truth when she said that this would be an ill night for us,” said Bela. “Something has drawn them together. Tomorrow the tribes will disperse, which we can pursue and deal with more easily.”
The captain’s words passed into the shadowy temperance of Gorek’s mind, echoing his own thoughts, when suddenly the chanting of the hill folk grew in frenzy. There was a sound of crying, and a woman’s mortal scream.
Marius recoiled with a gasp. “Clara!” he whispered harshly. His wild gaze fell upon Gorek. “M’lord!” he said pleadingly. It was known that Marius’ parting with the miller’s daughter before the war was full of unspoken grief. They were young, and their love lived only in glances and rare greetings, beginning to grow but not ready to be expressed.
In an instant, Gorek saw the contrast between the faces of young, heartsick Marius, and grizzled, joyless Bela. He knew which world he wanted to fight for and drew his blade. “Swords, all of you!” he said.
The bowmen let their arrows rest in their quivers, for these would not be needed until after the hill was gained. With the woman’s wail still ringing in their ears, the company charged, each man with a sword; and Marius burst ahead of them all, screaming Clara’s name.
The foremost hill folk scattered in surprise as the Wallachian soldiers stormed them. Their panic and confusion lasted only a moment before others of their kind heard the commotion and bounded downward to meet the human charge.
As they clashed with sword and shield against the worm clan, the men began to notice that something else now stirred in the sky overhead. Strange creatures flew within the black night-gloom, monsters in the forms of men, but for wings and tail. They circled around the mountain peaks and chittered in a dismal tongue.
Undeterred, the men kept their momentum, and Marius was first into the next gathering wave. Scaly forms clad in blood and slime surrounded him, swinging wooden clubs and thrusting stone-tipped spears. Short, meaty fingers groped from webbed hands. Marius pressed forward relentlessly, gaining ground with each slash and thrust.
Gorek was with him in an instant, his men arrayed at either side in spearhead formation. Like giants without equal they ascended the hill, leaving a ruin in their wake. Bela halted his next foe with a boot-thrust, and gored it as it collapsed on the withered sward.
The duke heard a number of agonizing screams, and over the bulbous, scaly heads of the aberrations he saw vast stakes being raised within the smoke atop the hill. The devils in the sky descended, their arms burdened with struggling figures.
All the while the advance of soldiers moved ever onward through the enemy that still cavorted the higher ground. Many of the hill folk gave way before the onslaught, retreating toward the fringes of the pine forest, where others still emerged. Bela observed their growing numbers as they lurked hesitant and biding. He returned his attention to the fray ahead. The men moved together, nearing the top with swift brutality.
Smoldering flesh polluted the air and the song of the pagan priests persisted. Blackened corpses of kinsfolk lay against the flames, the sight of which weakened the knees of the bereaved among them, stirring their blood to hatred as they readied their final push. The winged things soared down, impaling three living humans on the three towering pikes. The sacrifices died instantly and voiceless; but the priests shouted and sang.
“Clara!” Marius choked. Out of breath, heaving, he dropped his heavy shield. He left the unit and broke through the ranks of the enemy, running with all his last strength toward the hilltop. The others held together amidst another clash, and Marius was lost from sight within the braying crowd, leaving the company of men forever behind. The pounding of strange drums and the shrilling of pipes sounded from the crest of Fellwind, where the devils chittered and the pagans danced.
Bela and Gorek issued orders to hold the unit together, soon forcing the enemy to retreat once more. They finally gained the top, where the priests put up little fight and were quick to flee. Of the winged things there was no sign in the smoke-drawn sky. But what Gorek saw below gave no comfort.
The fierce wind of the upper world thundered through the Carpathian heights, shaking the distant trees. Beyond the naked crest, a lurking chorus persisted where waves of the hill people continued to swell, all those that fled and all that yet gathered. They howled abysmally to the black sky as they drew forth, pouring from the unbordered darkness like a black tide.
The duke knew immediately the folly of his charge. A scream heard too late had driven them to the peak, and now they were surrounded, with the barely restrained flames of the pyre burning at their backs.
“This isn’t the end I would have chosen,” said Bela, “but here it is.”
“It’s one more fight, like any other,” said Gorek. “Now hold this front!” He then darted to the eastern face of the hill.
There was a restless calm as the men stood together. They raised their shields and braced themselves—and then the attack came. “Archers, now!” said Gorek. The archers drew and loosed their arrows in a succession of volleys; but they could not halt the inevitable.
Screaming wildly, the hill-folk reached the circle, throwing themselves against the wall of shields. Small, scaly hands raked through the chinks between, thrusting blindly with shards of flint. And there were some that found flesh behind the wall. Gorek heard Bela shouting from the other side of the ring, calling men by name to close rank over the fallen. Above their heads the fiends of the night flapped their leathery wings and screeched in the gibbering tongue of the nether pits.
“Hold this ground!” shouted Gorek. “Archers, back ten paces and keep launching!” The twelve archers retreated almost into the reach of the flames. Bows were aimed high and arrows flew unseen into the thick gathering of their foes. The winged fiends soared among the flight of shafts. Gorek glared into the gloom. He saw the flyers etched in shadow-plumes, unscathed, catching the arrows for sport and throwing them back. Further above, Aldebaran glared with a red-gleaming madness, and suddenly, the moon went wholly dark as though an eyelid had hushed its face.
The hill folk surged endlessly across their own piling corpses, crashing against the raised Wallachian shields.
“The quivers are empty!” shouted Dănut.
“Then back to the sword!” said Gorek. “We hold! Keep the circle!”
Suddenly the sharp crack of falling timbers thundered at their backs. “There’s something in the fire!” a man shrieked.
Gorek shielded his eyes against the flaring blaze. The soldiers fanned out uncertainly, fearing both the sky overhead and the flames behind. The men could feel the press against their shields relax.
Their frenzy halted, the hill folk stepped back in silent awe.
Dry, thick chunks broke from the pyre. Some greater evil was breaking free of a shell or cocoon that burst and crackled as the fire burnt it away.
A protrusion of ghastly eyes blinked from the flames.
“Arrows!” screamed Vali. “Arrows! In the name of God, arrows!”
“There are no arrows!” repeated Dragomir as he threw bones and rocks at the monstrosity. The worm clan chanted ever louder and gave way, prostrating themselves on the ground. The swooping fiends withdrew into the distance.
Rodrik held his sword in a loosening grip as he looked upon the beast. And each eye that looked upon him was like a lance that pierced his brain with unspeakable revelation. Here was no fiend of Earth, nor demon born of Stygian water. As he felt himself drowning in the pools of madness, a sudden shape stood before him and clasped him firmly. “Don’t die without your sword,” said Bela. “Hold on!”
Two vast wings spread from the fire, battering men at either side across the hill and causing flame and ash to shower the warriors, who huddled beneath their shields. A rush of air swept past as the monster hovered from its perch, and with a sudden roar as of cosmic wind blowing through endless gulfs, the flames licking the scorched ground vanished swoopingly into the black presence of Azur. The torches flickered and cringed as from a withering blast. As prophesied by the witch of the woods, something indeed had come to Maramures. Not from below, but from beyond—far, far beyond.
The duke stood low, feet pitched sideways, a palm held bracingly on the turf. The three pikes drew skyward with a groan while the limbs of the sacrifices flailed in a perverse imitation of life; then the wood was ripped from the earth, bearing all burdens into the darkness.
Dragomir scrambled feebly, his empty quiver rising from his back. He thrust his sword into the dirt, holding on as his legs lifted behind him. Further ahead, Florin crouched low, rocks scattering beneath his feet. There was a brief moment of struggle, a cry of woe, and the swordsman fell dizzily into Dragomir’s anchored blade. Their shoulders crashed together, and both disappeared into the hovering blackness.
On the western ground, Bela watched helplessly as faithful warriors tumbled through the mud and grass towards Azur. Strong hands clutched desperately at yielding turf. Squinting through the drawing wind over the rim of his shield, the captain saw Emil and Vali fall into the darkness, while Holfar clutched at the earth as his legs swept from beneath him.
The captain felt a surge of unbridled fury: he had seen too many fall, and his rage burned through his skin. With an unheard roar, he threw his shield and charged sword-first at Azur, leaping into the grasping void. Like a glinting moon-silver spear he flew into the unfathomed darkness, vanishing forever.
The powerful force stopped abruptly. There was a brief, unchallenged silence, and then Azur loosed a smiting cry that dazed the brains of the nearest men and left their ears dripping blood. Whether sated or wounded, the nightmare folded itself in its monstrous wings and rose skyward like an arrow to red-glaring Aldebaran. A crimson effulgence bled across the sky, and in this sudden and abhorrent brightness, all other stars lost their luster.
The remnants of the cocoon smoldered, glowing like coals. The last of the men closed together, huddling in a weakened band. Some were stricken utterly deaf, and all were nearly blinded in the red-litten smoke. The stunted hill folk cried out feverishly and loped towards the men. They flashed from torch to torch, jumping, clawing, gnashing their teeth.
Breathless and wounded, the men closed together once more, to defend for the last time against the endless waves of the surrounding foe. Knees buckled as heels dug into the ground beneath the weight of a thousand enemies. Arms loosened and shields lowered weakly.
The gore-splattered vista shimmered like a shadow-scene amid the stenchful embers and the moonlight in the Carpathian peaks where men battled monsters. The devils of the sky screeched as one and swooped upon them at last. Swords stabbed into the night and were turned aside by strong, grey arms as the beasts descended. Eight there were, and each snared a soldier in its talons, carrying him away.
The eyes of the hill-folk turned to the sky in distraction. They shuffled backwards as they watched the demons depart. As though a spell had been lifted, the primitive clan turned with all their remaining number into the fastnesses of the mountains. Nineteen soldiers remained, panting and scathed, while the hill folk were littered in ruinous heaps upon the ground. Aldebaran now diminished and the stars rekindled their grim vigil upon this smitten ground.
Standing together in the cold black night, the warriors peered into the gloom beyond the fallen torches. Gorek understood that they were better protected atop this loathsome hill behind the heaps of dead bodies than if they moved to less bloody soil. The last grim task of the fellowship was to wait out the night. The crackling of torches and the moan of the wind were all that could be heard.
Numb, white-knuckled hands relaxed their grip on sword and shield. As the night waned, the moon wavered mesmerically once more in ghostly prominence behind the lingering smoke. The mountain peaks were dim and phantasmal, black shapes against a black sky, from which direction the cries of an infant echoed suddenly from the darkness. Gorek trod the lines of his men, meeting their gazes each in turn. What he saw were haunted eyes. As if all they fought and suffered for came only to this, a feasting ground for an ungodly thing—something not told of in their scriptures—a thing of the outer dark.
Gorek’s hand went to the rood about his neck and his eyes glistened. He turned to Crassus. “Hold this ground until first light. If I have not returned, lead the men back to the castle.”
Holfar stepped forward, shaking his head earnestly. “Let the babe be! We may yet be surrounded and devils walk the wind tonight. Stay with us! We can do no more.”
Gorek clasped Holfar’s shoulder. “A child of our people cries at the Adversary’s threshold. I will not abandon it!”
“It may be but a phantom voice! Do not venture your soul for it!”
“My friend,” said Gorek, “we risk our souls if we do nothing.” And, so saying, the Wallachian duke went down the far side of the hill into the lower valley.
The soldiers watched their prince fade into the darkness. Though they had stood on a cursed hill and saw a demon born, they were less afraid now—for the light of Gorek’s bravery kindled their own fading sparks, and the day had not come that mankind would close their ears to the cries of a stolen child, even here, in the mouth of Darkness.
Leaving his shield behind, Gorek crept through the valley and did not rise upright until he was beneath the cover of the trees that crowded before the cliffs. The cries of the child came from some doomful cave along the precipice. Pebbles tumbled loudly behind him but it did not seem to matter anymore. The worm clan had truly left the hill, and even if they heard the infant’s voice on the wind, they knew it belonged to something other than themselves. They were not a folk to climb steep cliff-sides; it was not they that brought the child into the cave, but something worse and beyond them.
One hand closed over a sharp rim of stone, the other felt across air. Gorek pulled himself over a ledge into a basin-like promontory. He stood for a moment, catching his breath. The crying was close and loud, only a little ways above him. Feeling about for purchase, he scaled the last stretch. Soon, his hands locked about a smooth landing. He glanced over his shoulder at the specks in the distance that were the torchlights of his men. Then he pulled himself over the ledge and into the lair of the beast.
The smoke rolled away from the sky and moonlight bathed the ground at the mouth of the cave. A pink-faced infant, bundled beneath a mangy fur, lay fitfully within a crudely woven basket. Gorek drew his sword warily as he knelt over the child and patted its head gently with his free hand. He stared into the cave and knew something lurked within. He could feel its hateful eyes upon him. Stepping forward, he braced himself.
Gorek heard the rasping of breath and the faint scuttle of clawed feet. It came with a birdlike gait. A squat head emerged from the shadows, peering with black, lightless eyes. Its unearthly face bobbed upon a long, craning neck. As it stepped forward, Gorek saw its hunched shoulders and folded wings enter the dim light. With a sudden rattling croak from its tortoise-like beak, it darted forth.
Gorek met its charge and the two clashed together in a sudden, whirling movement. He struck overhead with his sword, but a flourish of wings battered him back. Gorek crashed against the cavern wall and the beast leapt against him. Hot, reeking hell-breath poured from its snapping beak. He plunged his sword into its midst, yet the creature still pressed upon him. He slumped beneath its weight. Clawed arms grappled his shoulders, pounding him against the stones.
He heard a cry behind him. “My lord! O Prince!”
Gorek, fending the beast with his legs bent against its chest, knew the voice at once.
“Holfar! Take the child!” He palmed the slavering mouth as it snapped at his face, doing all he could to keep its beak from closing about his throat.
Holfar clambered over the ledge. “My lord, I stand with you!”
“Name of the saints, man, take the child! God save you and take the child!”
He gritted his teeth and groaned as the monster clamped his hand in its jaws. He bent his legs and kicked, at last pulling his sword from the fiend’s belly as it lurched. It was upon him again before he could rise. He slashed weakly as it slammed his head against the rocks while its powerful tail slapped at the stones. Fleshy skin peeled away from the snapping beak, revealing yellow, pointed fangs that sank into his neck. A long-fingered hand held his cheek against the stone; he could see the ledge glinting in the pallid moonlight. No human form lingered there. Holfar was gone, and it eased him to know that the child was safe as he succumbed beneath the demon’s weight.
His sword arm was held back by a strength he could not sunder while his left arm was pinned against his body. Twisting free, he slipped his palm across the slurping mouth, pushing it away from his throat. Dripping teeth gnashed, while deadly hands clawed through Gorek’s linked mail, talons clenching in his chest.
Gathering his fast-fading strength, Gorek angled the sword awkwardly, stabbing upwards beneath the demon’s chin. Leathery wings fluttered in powerful spasms, and in the fury of its convulsions the blade ripped sideways from its neck, splashing the wall with blood. But still the fiend raged.
Gorek rolled and staggered to his feet, panting and bleeding, barely able to stand. He pointed his sword at its eyes to keep it from pouncing. The head lolled hideously, tethered only by half its neck muscles. The fiend slapped the sword aside while leaping once more upon the desperate warrior. Gorek’s wrist smashed against stone and the sword flew from his weakened grasp.
Its claws clutched his shredded armor and its dangling head snapped at his throat. Gorek cupped its beak with one hand and with the other dug his fingers into the split-open neck. He twisted and pulled with a bitter cry, and slowly the head gave way from the strands of flesh that held it—and, with a terrible rending, yielded itself to the prince’s savage might. Gorek threw the head aside with revulsion and limped towards the cavern mouth, unable to see Holfar or the child along the cliff or in the dark valley—nor did the babe give them away by crying. He did not fear for them any longer; he trusted that Holfar would make his way down, and knew also that the worm clan had left the hill and the devils were in their caves.
Grimly, he wiped the blood from his sword against the splayed wings of the dead creature. Then, returning the blade to its scabbard, he wriggled over the ledge of the cave. He dangled there with his legs kicking for some foothold as an awful dizziness swept over him. Feeling weak and nauseated as the moonlight dimmed, his hands lost their strength and he fell down the cliff-side, landing unconscious into the jutting rock-cradle below.
Gorek awoke, screaming with an awareness of being eaten alive. Then his vision and thoughts cleared a little and he realized that he was alone, and it was the pain of his many wounds that filled him with suffering.
The darkness of night still clutched the sky, for the coming dawn was gray and colorless behind a shroud of fog. He struggled to his feet, but his head reeled, forcing him to sit down again. He placed his hand upon his neck and winced. His palm was sticky with an unclean, dark substance that was not as the blood of man should be. The skin felt like it had curdled around the open wound. He felt a deep sickness that goes even beyond the sickness of body and he fell back against the rocks, heaving breathlessly as spasms of rot and nausea rolled through him. Bloody vomit splattered the stones.
“Saints preserve me,” he groaned, tugging at the mail that was far too tight around his chest. He took his chain shirt off slowly and with terrible pain, its broken links sticking into his torn chest where the demon had clawed through. Then he tugged at the rood around his neck as at a tightening noose. He shivered with chattering teeth as the freezing Carpathian morning swept across his clammy skin.
At length, Gorek realized that he had been watching the sun break across the sky through the thinning fog. He scuttled into the shadows of the rock, not understanding why he held the light in such terror. The skin beneath the cross itched hotly. He pulled it before his gaze, though it irritated his hand like a rash.
He had been raised on the same stories the grand-dames told all children to warn them from the woods. He knew about skin-walkers, wolf-men, witches, and vampires. He had thought that vampires roamed the barrens in the form of men; he realized only now that the beast in the cave and those that circled the sky during the festival were such creatures, the children of the Fallen One, blood-fiends, strigoi. And he had been bitten.
The sun sprinkled along the cliff like the foam of a rising tide. Wild, mad panic seared his soul. Unhallowed, godless panic. He pressed himself flat against the rocks and looked up towards the cave, and without thinking, scrambled with desperate effort from the pursuing dawn.
He pulled himself over the ledge with barely enough strength left to stand. He hobbled towards the cave and into the folds of shadow. From there he turned and saw the golden sun shooting lambent arrows through the parting fog. The light hurt his eyes. The cross now fully burned at his breast. He looked at the silent monster in the cave.
“Does it come to this?” he choked in a broken voice. His body shook. It was hard to draw breath.
He held fast on the ledge. The cross was in his hand and his skin peeled from its touch. He fell on his knees, lowered his head, and began to pray—but only wicked whispers tumbled from his lips. Tears fell from his eyes.
His hands groped forward along the dirt and stones. He crawled towards the ledge as the enveloping sun was just beginning to caress the stones. He smiled a broken-hearted smile and tumbled off the cliff into the glowing nook that had caught him the night before, where he was engulfed by the blanket of morning. His naked chest jolted, his back arched and his limbs flailed as though possessed. He screamed a wordless scream, a primordial howl of tormented, tortured, dying life. His skin blistered and burned. His hands groped at the air as he screamed such a cry heard across the earth, to heaven high and the pits below.
A lone figure in the Carpathians rose unsteadily in the freezing night. He looked across the moon-smothered valleys and heights, not knowing at first who he was or where. His agonies mounted until they reminded him of all that he had endured. He looked upon his pale flesh. It was somewhat blistered, burned in places, but not entirely. He reached a shaking hand towards a weight around his neck. He hesitantly clutched the rood that swayed from his quivering frame. He held it in his hand without any new pain and sighed as if a hand of mercy stroked his cheek. He realized that he did not die as he should have in the dawn, and that he was a living man that burned beneath the sun; for he went into it as the change came, and in its bright glow the curse was halted.
Weak, wounded, and broken, he slipped from the nook of the cliff into the hills below. He did not feel right at all, but his beating heart told him that he was alive. He knew, also, that he had an unclean hunger that he had never known before. What marks of the beast he had gained and what he had been spared, he would learn in the fullness of time. But until things were known one way or another, the wayward son of Wallachia knew he could not return home.
About the Author:
Jason Restrick lives in British Columbia, Canada. He enjoys monster movies, board games and kayaking. His writing has appeared in Helios Quarterly, Weird Tales, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Bête Noire and StoryHack.