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THE CRAZED HOWL split the night. The people of Lokau woke in terror and lights began to flicker into life all over the village. In his bedroom upstairs above the Old Tavern, the innkeeper, James Kinson, threw back the covers and leapt out of his bed. “Where are you going, James?” inquired his wife nervously, sitting bolt upright in the big bed, clutching the blankets to herself.
“Go back to sleep, Jess,” responded her husband gently, “I won’t be long. It’s probably just a rabid dog or... or something. We’ll have to put the poor creature out of its misery.”
The innkeeper, however, knew that no dog could make that kind of tortured sound. That howl, filled with all the misery and pain in the world, had terrified him, and some base instinct was screaming at him that he knew exactly what kind of creature had voiced it. It had come to Lokau at last, and he was going to need all the help he could get.
Kinson paused, then leaned over the bed and kissed his wife tenderly.
“I'll be perfectly safe,” he assured her, “The other men will be here soon, you can count on it. Now you go back to sleep again. All this worrying isn't good for the baby.”
All the same, Jess slipped out of bed and padded barefoot to the wardrobe. Beneath her nightshift, her stomach swelled with the new life growing inside her; she was in the late stages of pregnancy – her first.
Kinson watched appreciatively as she put on a dressing gown. She was a good lass, his second wife after Laura died, and she knew how to handle herself in an emergency. Reminded by a twinge of pain of the events of two nights before, he gingerly rubbed his head where it had struck the table. The swelling had soon gone down, but his pride had been irreparably damaged.
Taking an old crossbow down from its place over the mantelpiece, he slung an old quiver of dusty bolts over his shoulder. Then, cradling the weapon in the crook of his arm, he pulled on a warm greatcoat over his nightshirt, put on his boots and went downstairs to the back door of his inn. A fairly large group of men had congregated in his yard, and as he walked out of the house they began to bombard him with questions, some anxious, others angry, all shouting together like children.
Not bothering to waste his breath calming them down, he raised his hands for silence.
“Quiet!” he barked. Startled, the men fell silent.
“Listen,” he said, his voice echoing in the frosty courtyard. “I’m not sure what kind of animal’s out there, but it is clear that it must be angry, or in pain. Now, I'm sure everyone here is thinking the same as me – the Sirtyn's beast has come to Lokau.”
There was a chorus of muttered agreement.
“Them over at Sirtyn's; they hurt this thing, didn't they?”
“Aye,” responded several in the crowd.
“So who's to say we can't hurt it? We've more men, better equipment and we're better prepared. Hurt it, aye, drive it away – or kill it.”
This time, there was scattered applause, mingled with loud assent.
“What say you? Who will go with me to destroy it?” He spoke confidently, and his words inspired courage in every man present.
“I’m with you, James!” bellowed the blacksmith, brandishing a hammer.
The other men were just as willing, and they raised their voices in a great shout.
The beast staggers a few steps down the street. Red eyes glow and the foul stench emanates from its slimy skin and loosely hanging jaw. The long tail drags in the dust, leaving a broad furrow in the beast’s wake. Yellow blood hisses as it hits the ground, dripping from a long gash in the beast’s side. Here it can replenish its strength. Here, it can feed again.
The owl settled in the spreading branches of an ancient oak, blinking once, twice, with golden eyes as bright and huge as the full moon that hung fat and heavy on the horizon. A night breeze ruffled its feathers. The same cool breath lifted the hem of a black cloak, played with it for a moment and then let it drop, sweeping upward to rustle the oak leaves before it went on its way.
Jude sprawled on the grass with his back to the stout trunk, visible only as a deeper shadow among shadows. His eyes were shut, his breathing even, and his black-gauntleted fingers were interlaced across his stomach.
But he was not asleep.
He caught the foul scent in the air, faint as it was, and his eyes opened slowly.
“Found... you,” he whispered, and springing silently to his feet, he sniffed the air once more. There could be no doubt.
He strode away into the forest, heading back to Lokau.
The men trooped out of the inn yard and moved out onto the street. Some of the younger ones were carried away by their enthusiasm; they were yelling and singing as they waved kitchen knives, hatchets and burning torches above their heads. The older, wiser men checked their weapons and remembered how many dead the beast had left in its wake.
James loaded his crossbow clumsily, but there was nothing clumsy about the way he lifted it, and his hands were quite steady on the old weapon. He had been a mercenary in his youth, and he had always been good with bows. As he stepped out into the street, a young man came running towards him, face as white as a sheet.
“Sir! Sir! Aron, and, and, Badrad!” He panted hysterically, his mouth working as he gulped for air, “Sir, they run off! Said they were gonna kill it—”
Kinson swore and missed a step.
“Hush, boy,” he snapped, “Call everyone together and be quick about it, or blood may be spilled this night!”
“Sret! It’s over there, Badrad.”
Aron could hear laboured breathing from the far end of the street, where it formed a crossroads with Lokau's single, wide main road. It sounded alien, strange, the hoarse, rasping pant of an animal in pain. Aron’s brother, Badrad, came running over. “Where?” he hissed, turning to look down the street as his terrified brother pointed with a trembling finger.
Badrad began to creep towards the sound of panting, emboldened by his craven brother, who finally scurried after him on the basis that being alone on these deserted streets was probably worse than being alone on them together.
“Say, Aron, what d’you suppose it is, anyway?” Badrad whispered after a moment.
“Dunno,” Aron gulped, “Hey, m-maybe we should call the others…?”
“No!” Badrad growled stubbornly. He had a reputation to uphold; if he turned tail and ran now, he’d never live it down. The two of them had decided to take on the creature alone, after all, and they’d slipped away from the group when James had called for silence, confident that they could dispose of the animal easily. However, Badrad was beginning to feel afraid – unreasonably so, of course. All the same... it had killed before, hadn't it? Awkwardly, he lifted his sword, a rusted relic taken from its place of honour over the fireplace.
As they moved past the barred door of a windowless cottage that opened directly out into the street, Aron made a face, wrinkling his nose.
“Ugh! What’s that smell?” he hissed, gagging. His brother paused, took a deep sniff and choked; he fumbled with his sword, dropped it and doubled over, retching. Forgetting the danger they were in, Aron snorted with laughter...
James, standing in the street as he called the townsmen to order, felt the fear run down his spine like snowmelt when he heard the sudden, chilling and above all human scream. The silence afterward was deathlike, as if all nature held her breath in horror.
It stood at the crossroads, an incarnation of evil, the stench pouring off it in a visible fog of poisonous vapour. The great fan of ribbed, leathery skin around its neck stood stiff and flared, an armoured collar, and its overlapping scales glistened with some dripping, viscous liquid. A booming thud resounded off the stark, whitewashed walls of the houses as its massive tail, as thick around as a man's thigh, slammed into the ground.
There was a hoarse, guttural bubbling noise…
Perhaps, as its eyes freeze the two boys to the spot, it feels some twisted emotion similar to amusement. But such complex feelings are difficult for it to grasp. The beast can feel only hunger now...
It was as though ice froze his limbs from the inside, and suddenly breathing became impossible. And the eyes... oh gods, the eyes... Aron tried to scream again, to shout, to plead, but not even a whimper escaped his lips. Badrad was on his knees, as though a terrible weight were pressing him to the ground; Aron felt his courage run down his legs, a spreading heat that pooled around his feet. He tried to stumble away, but his legs gave way beneath him and he collapsed, feeling blood fill his mouth from a tongue bitten almost clean through.
Again from behind came that unearthly, rasping shriek, followed by a snarl and a dry rattling of scales. Clawing at the chalky soil with his fingers, Aron tried to drag himself forward, tried to breathe, tried to speak through the thick, coppery taste of blood, but all at once there was a pain and a pressure on his back like a full-laden wagon and the moonlit world spun wildly.
And he heard a slow, horrible growl begin, right by his ear, bringing with it the raw blast of that overpowering stench that turned his bowels to water. Hot, fetid breath huffed, rasping loud enough to drown the thundering of his heart. Something splattered wetly on his neck...
It began softly, almost as though it had always been there, like all the sounds and sights and smells you thought you had forgotten.
Someone was singing. There were no words, only a soft, rhythmic melody that filled the night with a wild sound that was the wind in the trees, the fall of the rain, the melancholy howl of the wolf.
A black-cloaked figure was moving towards them. Aron saw him, a blurred image, a dream vision, perhaps – and yet so very real... and then the song faded, and the man stopped in the middle of the street, silent.
He shifted, and Aron saw the solid bar of shadow balanced in his hands.
Jude held the long, thick shaft of the weapon easily, enjoying the perfect balance and familiar feel of it. It was a spear; taller than its bearer by at least a head, the weapon was made of steel and engraved along its length with finely-etched designs. The leaf-shaped blade tapered to a razor-sharp edge, sharper than the finest grindstone could make it.
With an economy of movement born of long experience, Jude swung the weapon through a wide arc and swept it up to shoulder-height. The bright spearhead did not tremble as he tightened his grasp on the shaft.
And then, all at once, he was moving, sliding easily into a fighting stance and lunging forward in a ghostly swirl of black cloth.
Aron felt the weight on his back relieve slightly as the beast swung to face its challenger with a scream of rage. Aron tried desperately to wriggle free, but when he felt a massive set of claws unsheath and slice into his flesh it was all he could do to keep from passing out.
With his cheek pressed flat against the ground, he watched the beast turn its paralyzing gaze on the attacker, but the man hissed sharply – something that sounded almost like words, but not quite – and the beast squealed as its glowing red of its eyes faded and became black.
It reared up and screamed its fury at the sky, coming down on all fours with a grunt and a deafening crash as it swung its tail into a wall, trying to regain its balance.
Jude came up short, well out of range of that tail, and moved to the right, trying to gain the additional protection of a wall at his back. He watched the beast's every move with a frightening intensity.
It was the moment of quiet, the lull before the storm.
With a slow, menacing deliberation, the beast flared its nostrils, its blind eyes rolling in its head. Even through the white-hot pain hammering inside its skull, it could smell him. At last, it tensed and sprang, teeth bared and claws out.
Jude stepped aside; he made the monster seem slow. The great spear dipped once, blue-black in the moonlight, and ripped another gaping tear in the beast's side; yellow blood sprayed from the wound, spattering the ground and hissing as the beast roared and spun to face Jude again. Its left foreleg dragged, useless now.
Forgotten, Aron lay gasping in the middle of the street. Finally, the violence of the battle going on almost on top of him induced him to lever himself up and crawl for the safety of the street he'd crept down in the other direction, so long ago...
Feeling something wet beneath his fingers, he raised his hand to his face. A chance beam of moonlight illuminated the slippery red liquid staining his fingertips, and just beyond them... just beyond...
James heard the battle begin, heard the growls and snarls of the fight even as he sprinted towards the crossroads with the villagers right behind him. He had sent two other parties round to come at the crossroads from different directions.
His crossbow felt very heavy, almost unwieldy in his hands, but he swallowed his fear and plunged onward – until the bloody scene brought him up short. Still the beast roared and snapped out on the street, but James' eye was fixed in horror on Aron and his brother Badrad. Badrad, who was all but headless, lying in a bright pool of his own blood while his brother cowered in a doorway, whimpering like a madman.
Hearing the shouts of the villagers nearby, Jude knew that the time had come to finish it. When the beast came for him again, he slashed across the inside of its scaly neck to block the attack, cutting just within the stiff protective fan of hide, and moved in. He jerked the blade free of the scales and made to thrust upward.
But he had forgotten about the tail.
It took him at full swing, just below knee level, and he came down hard, the spear trapped beneath him. There was no time to recover his breath; he rolled onto his side, closed his hand on the spear shaft, scrambled upright – but the beast was already upon him, jaws wide like a portal to the underworld.
Everything happened very quickly. There was the thrum of a crossbow bolt, a scream as the beast stumbled – and a sound like the tearing of cloth.
James lowered his crossbow with shaking hands. He could not have summoned the energy to reload if the monster had been coming straight for him. It had been an excellent shot, one worthy of his skill, but there was none so surprised as he when the bolt had found its mark.
He watched the black-swathed man brace himself upright, easing his weight onto the butt of the spear where it had dug a deep furrow into the ground. James' eyes followed the steel shaft upward to where it vanished, thrust deep into the heart of the sagging creature impaled on the blade.
The wicked black shaft of a crossbow bolt protruded from the dead beast's right eye.
James felt no pride, only emptiness, as his eye strayed back to where Badrad's corpse lay twisted on the ground, a broken doll with eyes turned to hollows of grey ash.
|Jude Ch. 5||Jude Ch. 4|
|Jude Chapter 11||Jude Ch. 9|
|Jude Chapter 8||Jude Ch. 6|