Eden’s End: Shadows Over Ivalstatt
by J. H. Zech
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The constable stood at the edge of town with a large entourage of townsfolk holding torches. Their eyes flickered with the dance of the flames.
“Cornelia Thromburg. Reiner Kaufmann. You are under arrest on suspicion of murder.”
“Pardon? What are you talking about?” Reiner cried.
“I can’t believe you’re so shameless,” Mayor Neinhart said, stepping out of the crowd. “You were the only ones at the scene of Judge Grimm’s murder, and you’re playing the fool?”
“We only arrived after we heard a scream. Judge Grimm was already dead,” Reiner said.
Madam Brunnclast said, “Those wounds aren’t something any ordinary person could have inflicted. And according to the constable, your own testimony proves it couldn’t have been a bear, Ms. Thromburg. The only one in Ivalstatt who could do something so bizarre is you. I always knew you were trouble. I had thought a sensible man like Reiner could keep you in check, but you’ve corrupted him too.”
“Mrs. Grimm should know it wasn’t us,” Cornelia said.
“She didn’t see the attacker’s face,” Mayor Neinhart said. “Her words can’t prove you innocent.”
“Burn the witch and her familiar!” a man said.
“Death to the witch!” a young woman shouted.
It was no use. The townsfolk weren’t in any mood to listen to reason. But what was happening with this pace of events? The murder of Judge Grimm, the corpse going missing, Cornelia being set up as the murderer. Whoever was involved in the corpse’s disappearance knew something about the plague, and Cornelia was getting too close to the truth, so they had to get rid of her.
The constable grabbed Reiner by the arm. “Come along. We’ll hold a trial for you at the courthouse.”
Cornelia pulled Reiner back, but he said, “No. Let’s go with them. Running won’t solve anything. We have to find a way to prove our innocence.”
When they arrived at the courtroom, Mayor Neinhart walked up to the bench and took Judge Grimm’s place. The bailiff looked like he wanted to say something, but Neinhart’s glare and the packed galley of townsfolk cowed him.
Neinhart banged the gavel. “We will now commence the trial of Cornelia Thromburg and Reiner Kaufmann.”
Trial? What a farce.
“In addition to the murder of Mark Grimm, the two are being charged with the murders of the following ten persons via spreading the plague.” Neinhart read a list of names in order of their death ending with Heinrich and Baumeister.
The names were familiar, not just because he knew them in this small town, but something about the dates and names bothered Reiner.
“How do you plead?” Neinhart asked.
“Not guilty,” Reiner and Cornelia said. The verdict was predetermined unless he could think of a way out of this.
“Madam Brunnclast. Please give the opening statement for the prosecution,” Neinhart said.
Brunnclast? That was it. Something was still missing, but this would buy them some time.
After Brunnclast finished rambling about Cornelia’s evil, witches, and Reiner’s descent into the witch’s clutches, Reiner stood up. “Everyone, we did not murder anyone. Cornelia has been working tirelessly to save the town from the plague, and now you’re all being manipulated to kill the one person who can save you. The plague has not claimed lives at random. All the victims are those who had quarrels with Madam Brunnclast.”
The townsfolk gasped.
“Furthermore, the victims all died on the same day of the week, approximately a week after their quarrel with Brunnclast.”
“That’s right, I remember! Lowitz died the week after he fought with Brunnclast over the Madam underpaying him for lumber.”
“Didn’t Merkel accuse Brunnclast of cheating at cards? She died a week after that.”
“Heinrich imported tea from somewhere cutting out Brunnclast’s company. Didn’t Madam Brunnclast catch on a few weeks ago?”
The whispers whipped up a frenzy of accusations. Neinhart banged his gavel to no avail.
The doors to the courtroom swung open.
“S-something happened!” Julia shouted.
“There’s something out there ransacking the houses!” Annie said.
Everyone ran out and followed Annie.
Julia followed behind them but looked hesitant.
“What’s wrong?” Reiner asked, stopping. Cornelia stopped with him.
She didn’t answer.
“Is there really something out there?”
“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
“Why did you say that then?”
“I was listening to the trial from outside. But the people were about to accuse Mother of murder! She’s angry a lot, but she’d never kill anyone. I had to distract them. I’m sorry,” Julia looked down.
“But wait. What’s this about something ransacking the houses?” Cornelia asked. “You didn’t say it wasn’t true, just that you didn’t know.”
“After everyone started pointing their finger at Mother, Annie said she heard something and went to check it out and came back and told me something was out there. I didn’t see it myself.”
All the pieces of the puzzle were starting to fall into place. Something had felt off about this plague, and Reiner felt close to the truth.
“Let’s go,” Reiner said. “If there’s something out there, we need to find it. It might be what killed Judge Grimm.”
Cornelia nodded, and the three of them ran after the townsfolk.
Everyone had gathered around a house with shattered windows and a broken door.
“Search the area in groups of two!” Neinhart commanded. “We’ll catch whatever’s lurking around here.”
Carrying their torches, the townsfolk spread around the area, but none dared wander out of sight of the others.
“Julia, you’re here!” Annie said. She ran over and hugged Julia.
“Thank you for helping Mother, Annie,” Julia said.
Madam Brunnclast came running over to Julia. “Where have you been?”
“Sorry. I was just a little slow.”
“And you two aren’t going anywhere.” Neinhart pointed at Reiner and Cornelia.
“Are you still trying to blame us for the plague?” Reiner asked. “Even if you execute us, nothing will change. You’ll have some temporary relief from the townsfolk’s demands that you do something, and then everything will fall apart when the next victim appears.”
“Silence. I don’t want any political advice from you,” Neinhart rebuffed.
“And I want to confirm one thing with you, Madam Brunnclast. Why are all the victims of the plague people you’ve had disagreements with?”
“I-I don’t know. Divine punishment. Yes, that must be it.” Brunnclast wiped the sweat off her brow with a handkerchief Julia handed to her.
Julia looked up at her mother with a concerned expression, and Annie at Julia with the same face.
A crash came from a nearby house, and the townsfolk stopped.
“It’s over there!” one of them shouted.
They ran towards that house.
Reiner looked down to think, and the shadows flickered. He thought it was from the fickleness of the torch’s flame, but something wasn’t right. Yes, something hadn’t been right the entire time. There had only been one person who could’ve spread the plague and had a reason to do so. Reiner whispered with Cornelia to confirm something, and she agreed. He had found a way to save them both.
“Mayor, please recall the townsfolk. I can prove our innocence,” Reiner said.
Neinhart clicked his tongue. “And if everyone disagrees with you, then that’ll be your verdict.”
He called out to the townsfolk and had them gather. They hadn’t found the source of the noise, only another house that had been broken into.
Reiner said to all of them, “I know the truth of the plague. There are four questions to answer to arrive at this truth. Who are the victims? When did the victims display symptoms of the plague? What is the source of infection? And who had both the motive and the means to spread the plague from the previous questions?”
Murmuring went through the crowd, but they were mostly silent. He had caught their attention, and they would finally hear him out.
“First, the victims are all those who’ve had quarrels with Madam Brunnclast.”
“So, Brunnclast’s behind it?” someone asked.
“No, as much as I wish that were the case, Madam Brunnclast did not spread the plague.”
“Then who is it?”
“I’ll get there,” Reiner said. “The second question. All the victims displayed symptoms on a Saturday. Two people is a coincidence, three is a pattern, and ten is a rule. If the time between an infection and symptoms varied, it’d be extremely unlikely for ten victims to show symptoms on the same day on separate weeks. But a normal plague wouldn’t be so consistent in that regard. Unless it’s caused by a parasite with a specific incubation period. Going by that theory, each victim was infected with the parasite on the same day of the week.”
“When were they infected?”
“There’s no way to know directly, but if we think about the point of infection, there’s only one day it could be. Cornelia did an autopsy of Heinrich.”
The townsfolk gasped. “Necromancy!”
“Nothing of the sort,” Cornelia said. “Not any more than gutting a fish.”
“It was necessary to find the truth. We found the infection in Heinrich’s body. It spread from his stomach. But we tested the water, and there were no issues. Heinrich mostly only drank boiled water anyway, so it’s highly unlikely the water contained the infection. That means the culprit is in the food.”
“I bet it’s the fishmonger!” a woman shouted.
“No, please think carefully. Everyone was infected on the same day. It has to be a food that people only eat once a week, and on the same day. There’s only one thing that fits that description. The bread of the sacred assimilation.”
The townsfolk went silent.
The pastor stepped forward. “This is blasphemy! Are you suggesting that the body of our savior Lord Zero is responsible for this plague from the devil?”
“Regardless of what meaning we choose to give it, that bread was made by human hands. A specific human’s hands. The one person who would have the means and motive to do this, you know who she is, right, Madam Brunnclast?”
Everyone turned to Brunnclast.
“No! It wasn’t me!” she cried.
“Indeed, it wasn’t. But you must know by now who the culprit is, and why the culprit did such a thing.”
“I...” Brunnclast held her tongue.
“Very well. If you will not speak the truth, I will do it for you. Why have all the victims been your enemies? I noticed something peculiar the other day. Julia had bruises on the back of her neck. You’ve been taking your anger out on her, haven’t you?”
She looked away from everyone.
“What did you do to Julia after having a fight with each of the victims? You beat your anger into her.”
“Hold your tongue!” she sobbed.
“I will not. The last question. Who had the means and motive? Someone who wanted to protect Julia. Someone who would think getting rid of your enemies means you wouldn’t be angry anymore. Someone who made the bread for the sacred assimilation.” Reiner pointed forward. “The culprit can only be you, Annie Neinhart!”
“There’s no way.”
Annie cried, “How could you say something so mean? If the bread were the cause, everyone would get sick since everyone ate it!”
Reiner’s face darkened. “Yes, everyone eats one piece of bread. One piece that you choose and hand to us, every Sunday.”
She went pale and stepped back. “No, no...”
The townsfolk turned to her and stepped forward.
“Is it really true?”
“I can’t believe it...”
Mayor Neinhart looked down at Annie. “Explain yourself.”
Annie gripped her head and collapsed to her knees. “No... No... No!” she screamed.
Crashes came from all around them. Humanoid shapes emerged from the shadows.
A man pointed at one of the figures. “T-that’s Heinrich! Er, is it?”
It was Heinrich, or at least something that resembled him. The black blob on his brain had grown an eye, and the blobs from inside him had grown tentacle-like appendages squirming out from the hole where Cornelia had cut him open for the autopsy.
Upon seeing these horrors in the fires’ light, the townsfolk screamed and scattered into a panic. The squirming corpses chased after them. The slowest runners, the old and children, were slaughtered first. The horrors tore through them and continued chasing after the others without stopping. These weren’t predatory beasts. They didn’t kill for food. Killing was just their nature.
“Annie, what have you done!” Neinhart shouted and shook her by the shoulders, but she didn’t respond.
“You said fire affected this substance, Cornelia?” Reiner asked.
“It’s all we know, so we might as well try!” Reiner grabbed a torch off the ground. One of the horrors came running at him, and he jammed the torch into its mouth full of tentacles.
It shrieked and ran in circles as the flames spread over the black substance.
Madam Brunnclast blazed red with anger and grabbed Julia and lifted her into the air. “This is madness! This is all your fault! Because you told your friend about our family matters!” She tossed Julia to the ground and slapped her across the cheek.
Julia sobbed and put her hands together. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! It’s all my fault! Please, don’t be angry with me.”
Annie looked up and glared at Madam Brunnclast. Her irises turned red. “No. This is all your fault, Madam Brunnclast. Julia wouldn’t have to suffer like this if it weren’t for you.”
One of the horrors dashed towards Brunnclast. It reached out with its hand, and the hand split into several parts, revealing a multitude of squirming appendages inside covered with teeth, and an eye in the center of the hand.
Blood splattered over the ground.
Julia stood in front of her mother, the appendages piercing her chest, her clothes dyed in red. She coughed up blood. “I’m sorry, Annie. I didn’t know how much of a burden I was putting on you. You shouldered it all alone for my sake. It’s okay. You don’t have to do it anymore. Just, please, forgive Mother. She’s not a bad person.” Her eyes became lifeless, and her head hung low having lost strength in her neck.
The horror withdrew its appendages, and Julia fell onto the ground in a puddle of her own blood. Madam Brunnclast screamed and ran. Annie came up to Julia and shook her body.
“Julia. Julia! No, don’t go... I was going to protect you.” Tears flowed endlessly down Annie’s cheeks. “Now... There’s nothing. Nothing to stop it.”
Stop what? Was something even more horrifying coming?
Annie shrieked and clutched her head. Black feathered wings sprouted from her back. She rose into the air and looked down upon the town as a vertical third eye opened up on her forehead.
“Pitiful beings, your time has ended,” she said in a cold voice.
“What’s happening?” Reiner asked. He couldn’t understand anything he was seeing right now.
“I don’t know. Forces beyond our current understanding have descended upon us,” Cornelia said.
“Lord have mercy. The devil has come for us,” the pastor said on his knees.
He couldn’t be more correct. The corpses of those slain by the horrors twitched and rose up, becoming horrors themselves. Soon, the town was ablaze, and corpses ran through the streets. They spotted Reiner and Cornelia and dashed towards them.
Reiner grabbed Cornelia’s hand and ran.
“There must be a way to save them!” Cornelia cried.
“Maybe there is, but that won’t do us any good if you’re dead! Ivalstatt is finished. We have to escape. We’ll find a way to fix this, I promise. For now, we must live.”
Cornelia grit her teeth and grabbed a torch. “Fire can ward them off.”
“There’s too many of them. I have an idea.” Reiner ran to the forest, Cornelia following. “We’ll set fire to the forest. It’s risky, but they won’t be able to chase us, and we’ll have time to run. Schwenberg is south of here, around a day’s walk. We should be able to make it.”
They set the bushes and foliage on fire with the torch and ran as fast as they could. The mob of horrors pursued them but stopped at the blazing wall at the edge of the forest. They screeched but didn’t proceed.
The beat of wings came from above. They looked up, and Annie soared above the forest. Reiner held the torch ready, but he had a feeling it’d be useless against her. Was it the end? He stepped in front of Cornelia. She could find a cure and save everyone. If anyone had to live, it ought to be her.
But Annie glanced at them and then looked ahead, uninterested. She rose higher and higher until she was a silhouette in front of the moon and disappeared into the distance.
“Did Annie spare us?” Reiner lowered the torch. “Why? She could have easily killed us.”
“We’re insignificant to her. She wouldn’t go out of her way to kill us. At least, that what it seemed like to me,” Cornelia said.
“Insignificant? What exactly has she become? Is she really the devil?”
“I don’t know. Whether she’s a devil, a twisted angel, or something else entirely beyond our comprehension doesn’t matter. We don’t know anything. So, we must find her. That’s the only way to bring an end to this.”
Reiner knew she was right, but he was afraid. Cornelia clenched her fists tight. Of course, she was afraid too. Who wouldn’t be? He held her hand; at the very least, they wouldn’t confront that fear alone.
They ran south following the stars, the usual grey clouds having cleared. The forest fire was slowly creeping after them. Reiner took one last look back at Ivalstatt. Flames flickered, and the shadows danced on the rising mass of smoke over the town. Annie’s darkness had not sprung up out of nowhere. Madam Brunnclast, Julia, Neinhart, and the town had all played a role in it. The looming shadows over Ivalstatt had always been there and had simply become visible.
He faced forward and ran. Reiner, of course, was also not free of sin. He had done nothing to help Julia. Whether his involvement would’ve prevented Annie from turning into a monster couldn’t be known, but he wouldn’t turn a blind eye anymore.
“I’ll find a way to fix this,” Cornelia said.
Bathed in the light of the moon, Reiner resolved himself too and added, “We’ll find a way.”
Cornelia looked back at him and smiled. “Like always.”
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Zech