Chapter 18: Mystery of the Two Notes
Table of Contents|
Chapter 17 appeared
in issue 139.
Little Ventra Palilas knew about the dead. At the tender age of seven years, her blue eyes had seen the horrors that came with death, especially during the days when many people of her village were being buried alive. It happened to her mother, and if her young mind served her correctly, so had her aunt. Her poor auntie Alma May, she thought. Her aunt had lost her mind soon after that. She would stare at the walls of their tiny shack for hours on end. Mommy would tell her not to stare.
It continued that way until Auntie May passed away. Ventra found her scary looking, she remembered. The woman looked like one of those dead things daddy found in the backyard once. Her eyes were all sunken and her face was sharp as her bones shown through. Auntie Alma May passed away one night yelling and screaming in terror. She didn’t want to be buried alive.
No she didn’t.
So living through all that, Ventra knew, looking out her little window that the bodies rising out of the ground beyond the cemetery gates wasn’t normal.
On bare feet, she padded softly across the wooden floor of her shack to her father’s bed.
“Daddy,” she called him.
“Daddy!” she said a little louder when he didn’t stir.
“Aye,” he said groggily. “What is it, girl? Is there a storm coming? Aye.”
“No!” she yelled when she saw he was going to fall back asleep. “Daddy, men are coming from where Auntie Alma May sleeps.”
He opened his eyes immediately at that. “What? Show me, girl.”
She grabbed his hand and tugged him over to the window. There was a storm coming. She could tell. Why hadn’t she noticed it before?
“Oh, my goodness,” said her father softly. Beyond the gates of their cemetery several bodies banged against each other clumsily. She thought she heard a low, soft moan come from their direction and it terrified her more than her auntie’s yells. A draft came through the crack beneath their front door and the room filled with the stench of something dead. It reminded her of the smell of rotting chicken.
She didn’t realize she had vomited until she heard her father gagging.
“Come on,” he called to her. “We must warn the village.” He went to a chest and pulled out a soft coat for her. He went back to his bed and put on some shoes and slipped a shirt over his head.
He waved her over. She didn’t need to be prompted twice. Following behind him, he reached the door and stepped into the night. Nothing stirred out here, nothing except the dead.
He ran across the narrow space between cottages and started knocking in their neighbor’s door.
“Miguel! Open the door!” Her father didn’t wait for anyone to answer. He ran to the next shack. He was already to the next-door neighbor when Miguel’s door opened slightly.
Miguel was an older man with graying hair. He looked older as he peered down at young Ventra through the crack of a slightly ajar door.
“Has your dad gone mad, girl?” he asked her. Before she could answer a low, soft, and long moan filled the air. He must have seen the fear in her eyes because suddenly she saw he was afraid, too. When the stench hit again, his eyes watered noticeably.
“I’ll be right out, girl. Go help your da’ wake the village. Scream fire. That’ll get them out of bed.” He closed the door with a bang.
She went to her father. A light had come on at the door he was knocking at. The old lady lived there. She looked back and thought she saw a shambling form there in the darkness. She felt the blood drain from her face.
In front of her dad, the door opened slightly. The old lady known for her herbs looked down at the two of them. “What is it, Bill?”
Her father stepped back. “Aye, Ereen, the dead ar’ waken.”
Little Ventra never liked the woman. None of the kids her age did. By the way the lady’s eyes squinted after her father spoke, Ventra liked her even less now.
“Go and get everyone, Bill. I’ll get what I need.” With that she closed her door softly.
Ventra looked up to her father and found him looking over her shoulder. He was shaking visibly and suddenly she felt like crying. She wanted her mommy, but mommy was away.
Her father reached down and pulled her behind him. In front of him, a form shuffled towards them from between two cottages. It made a hoarse sound as it walked and dragged a limp leg behind it. The smell of rotting eggs filled the small area where they stood. Her eyes watered and she began to grab her stomach. She had to double over as she began to puke again. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
She almost screamed when the thing came into view of the light coming through a window. It used to be a woman. One eye was missing and the thing’s nails were black and grimy. Cords of muscle were exposed where the thing’s skin had rotted away. Strands of hair covered her balding head.
When it opened its eyes, small dots of flame shown beneath lidless eyes. Little Ventra could barely take it and she screamed. She screamed with everything she had. She yelled for as long as going without air would allow her.
The thing moved back a step before continuing its slow trek towards them. Her father jumped away as a spark of flame flew towards him from the thing’s eyes. It was a long stream of fire that splashed against the herb lady’s cottage. It caught fire instantly.
Then she remembered Miguel’s instructions. “Fire!” she yelled. “Fire!”
The rotting corpse slammed against her father and they tumbled to the ground. The thing let out a vicious growl and lurched venomously over the prone man. He gave out a yell as the thing bit him again and again.
She tried to move but froze when the thing turned to her. The thing crawled on all fours and bit her father once again. He gave a quiet yell and lay silent.
“Daddy!” she screamed. The thing turned to her its eyes matching the inferno that consumed the nearby cottage.
She moved away and the thing lurched after her. It might have been slow on two legs, but on all fours the thing was as fast as a horse. Young Ventra had to duck as the thing lunged at her. It missed her by a hair as it slammed into a wall, splintering the wood and leaving a giant hole there. She heard a yell come from within but the thing chased her.
She ran as fast as she could, but the thing caught her. Little Ventra fell to the ground with a hard thud. She bit her tongue and her lungs exploded. The thing was on her in an instant. It clawed at her back and she felt her flesh tear. The thing bit her and she screamed. She almost lost consciousness from the pain. She felt something move close behind her and a second later the thing was off her.
Miguel swung a shovel back and forth as the thing tried to reach him. The thing was fast and darted in low and scratched the old man in the leg. He yelped in pain and stumbled back. He kept the shovel between himself and the dead thing but it wasn’t enough.
Little Ventra tried to get up but her wounds burned.
“Here, dearie,” came Ereen’s voice next to her. The woman was half burned. Her face was covered with soot and her clothes were completely singed. Blisters were forming on her cheek.
After the burns settled to an ache, Ventra got to her feet. Ereen turned from her to help the dying Miguel. The man lay on his back as the thing chewed on him. Ventra could actually hear the flesh tearing. He struggled in vain as the thing slashed at his flailing hands. The shovel lay at his feet.
Ereen walked behind the thing. The aging woman reached into one of her pouches and produced a small vial. She shook it twice and threw it at the thing’s feet. It burst into a hundred tiny pieces and a cloud of dark smoke covered the ground.
“I’m sorry, Miguel,” Ventra heard Ereen say. The smoke rose into the air and hid the lady and child from view of the thing. The burning cottage was reduced to a bright glow through the haze.
Ereen came out of the grayness. She took the young girl’s hand and they fled. They passed through an intersection and were greeted by the sounds of the dying. Ventra Palilas saw more of those things running rampant through their tiny village. Men and women yelled in fear. Children hid inside houses as their parents tried to protect them. At one corner, a group of people rallied with shovels, hoes, and rakes as three of those monstrous things charged into them. Ereen stirred her away from there as the things ripped into them.
“Where’s daddy?” she asked through tears.
Ereen only looked down at her sadly. “I’m sorry, Ventra. It’s just me and you now.”
Through tears of pain, hurt, and anger Ventra held on to Ereen’s hand for dear life.
* * *
Ivan Lustcrow knew something was wrong with him. He couldn’t quite place it, but he knew it. He could feel it. It was like a shadow in a room full of light. It was like walking through a deserted hall and hearing footsteps next to you.
He sat down next to the campfire as Light Bearer Alguin Sorrel gave him a cup full of broth.
“Drink it, Ivan,” said the man gently. “It will keep the cold away.”
Ivan couldn’t bear to look into the man’s gentle brown eyes. Alguin Sorrel had a face to warm any place. His smile was gentle even for the most unfortunate soul. Ivan couldn’t stand him. His hands shook with his hate, spilling some of his broth.
“Come now, drink,” came the other’s voice. “Even men from the Iinnin Lodar catch a cold once in a while.”
“You’re right,” he replied through gritted teeth. If they thought Ivan Lustcrow had a cold, then let them. What better way to hide his hatred for them?
“Yes, drink it, my young friend,” came a second voice through the trees. Aurin Nubel strode into camp with his saber in hand. The man wore white and grays, much to Ivan’s chagrin.
“We can’t afford to have you sick right now,” came Aurin’s explanation. “You are a member of the Iinnin Lodar. That makes you the best fighter here. This close to the Raven’s Reach, we need you up and alert.”
Ivan almost threw his cup at him. “I’m only getting a cold, Aurin. I’m not dying.”
Alguin stood up before him. “It’s only a cold now, but it could turn into something worse, like the flu. What then? The best fighter we have would then become our biggest liability.”
Ivan wanted to kill them both. “I’m not that sick!” he yelled. That drew the other man back. Can’t you see I just hate you? I can’t stand both of you!
“I can carry on fine. Excuse my outburst. I guess I’m not feeling too well.”
The Light Bearer only smiled. “It’s okay. We understand.” It only made Ivan hate him more.
“Take it easy, Ivan.” The Light Bearer walked away and sat opposite Aurin on a log. The makeshift camp was somber and quiet besides. The horses were tethered a distance away. They usually provided food for unwanted things. No point in taking a risk in putting them so close to the camp.
“I know,” said Ivan as little ashamed. “Sorry.”
“No apology needed,” countered Aurin. “We’re only concerned for you. Besides, a Light Bearer, a guard of Nomen, and a soldier from the Iinnin Lodar... Sounds like a joke.”
That brought a chuckle from all three men. Of course, Ivan’s was faked. In actuality he did find it funny. He found almost all of Aurin’s jokes funny. But something wasn’t letting him laugh. Something in his heart was making him sour. No, evil was the word for it. He didn’t feel like himself as of late. He felt detached somehow.
Aurin looked away from Ivan and turned to the Light Bearer. “Don’t worry. He’ll feel better once we reach Geamehn.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t talk so loud,” stated Alguin. “This close to the Raven’s Reach we could attract some serious trouble.”
Aurin nodded agreement. “We’ve journeyed all this way in record time. We’re two days out and it’s been less than a week. So maybe we should be quiet.”
All three men fell silent after that. True, they had come this far quickly, but the journey had not been without its struggles. Twice they had to fight off wild game. One night they had woken to the sounds of growls and howls. They didn’t sleep much after that.
Besides losing two horses, Aurin thought they had gotten lucky on their travels. But something inside Ivan Lustcrow told him otherwise. It didn’t make sense that whole companies had to travel through this region in tight formation to survive yet here they were just three of them and in perfectly good health.
What unnerved him more was that he felt responsible for their safe passage so far. Sometimes, as they rode, he could feel things out there. When they rode they attracted all matter of creatures and wild life, but they never got too close. It always happened when he felt the darkness.
On those days, he felt as if he could kill for the sheer fun of it. The first village they had passed he had been feeling that way. He could have sworn killing at least two people. But then the darkness would lift and not everything would be remembered. He felt acutely that he wasn’t remembering everything.
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Lawler