I awoke to a face full of Ettori. “Ethan, are you all right?”
I pushed him away with leaden arms, straining under the unexpected difficulty. “I’ll be fine. I just got some of its blood in my mouth.”
He offered a hand to help me up, which I swatted away. Climbing to my feet, I realised that everything was not fine. The forest, the track, even the horses bounced in and out of focus. I had to grasp a tree to achieve my feet, as my body was convinced every way imaginable was down. I called to Atlas to come over. The horse ignored the summons, and then backed away. I ran fingers over my gut. The wound had healed, albeit leaving an eruption of corrupted flesh where the claws of the beast had raked. My body ached all over as if I had walked all night. I tried to summon my blood once more to relieve some of the weariness.
That was when I noticed something was off about it. Normally I am simply aware it is there, and become hungry when it is depleted. It felt different, it felt like it had been replaced by worms. Hundreds upon hundreds of tiny worms crawling through my veins. It felt like they were forcing themselves through, and causing my veins to bulge beyond capacity. The blood felt alive, and alien. I have no other words for it. Ettori looked askance of me.
“We should bury these things,” I said, “To conceal their presence from the mortals. It wouldn’t hurt if we could get one of their heads for study.”
“As you say.” He nodded back to the track, where the third beast lay dead. “That one is probably the best specimen.”
“You get cutting then, I’ll get digging.”
“Burying them will hide them from mortals. What about animals?”
I knelt down in the dirt and started pulling at it. The dirt resisted my efforts, though began to crumble away. Stopping for a moment, I pointed at Atlas. “See how skittish he is? Animals can sense evil. They won’t dig for them. They are smart enough to not eat them.”
“Unlike you, you mean?”
I glared at Ettori. “That beast won’t decapitate itself.”
Ettori returned to the fallen beast and attended to the head. He used his sword like a saw, grunting over his grisly work. Once done, he wrapped the head in a cloak and tied it to his saddle bag. By this point I had barely made any progress digging a hole. He dragged the other two carcasses over to my location and then began applying himself to the task of digging. Seeing that I was making very little headway he told me to rest, and when I refused, he simply said, “Go. Rest. You are getting in my way, and slowing me down. Take a break.”
I dragged myself to my feet using a nearby tree, the whorls on the bark reassuringly stable against my hand. “Fine. Whatever you say.”
Perhaps he was right, though it was hard for me to admit. I walked towards Atlas. The horse backed away again and snorted as I approached. Catching his eye, I applied my arts. “What is wrong, friend. You remember me.”
The creature gave me a blank stare as if a dog had tried to communicate. I could feel my arts responding, but they were not having any effect on him. I decided to try the old fashioned method. Advancing, I slowly raised my hand towards his face. I mustered every ounce of my concentration to hold my posture, and not stagger. That would spook him even more. I spoke the name I had given him in my normal voice, and reassured him. One step at a time, I approached. My hand met his face and I stroked it, giving him more reassurance.
“Why didn’t you just call him like you did before?”
The next words were harder for me to utter than fighting the creature was. “Because something is wrong.”
Ettori finished digging the gravesite and we buried the remains. We returned to Ellewyn as it was closer than the cave and I was utterly exhausted. Steinveld graciously offered hospitality, which we accepted. He led me to a hidden crypt and said I would be quite safe to sleep there. Ettori remained above ground, saying he was going to have a look through the scriptures that Brother Chax had read. I fell into slumber almost immediately, hours before dawn.
Reader, if you are unfamiliar with all the details of our kind then allow me to explain one to you. When we sleep, most of us sleep a deathly dreamless sleep. We fall to slumber as the sun rises, and awaken when it retreats. There is no wakefulness in between. This did not happen. When I sank into slumber, instead of knowing nothing, I was aware of the darkness that hides behind my eyelids. I could not move, nor could I speak. I could not see anything in the dark, nor hear anything. I was simply aware. I tried to scream myself awake. I failed. I tried to shake myself awake. I failed. I fancied that I heard faint and familiar laughter from within the darkness, and every time I tried to focus on it all I could see was blackness. This persisted for what seemed like hours. And then the faint occasional laughter was replaced by the sound of flapping wings; large, flapping wings. When I focused on the sound, I saw in the dark the outlines of black feathers. And I heard the laughter again, and then a mocking voice. “Poor, Poor Ethan. Slumbering, unable to-“
“Wake up!” My eyes opened to find Ettori standing over me once more. I called the crypt into focus and could see stone carvings on the walls and a mat on a raised slab where presumably Steinveld slept. Ettori looked concerned.
“Why are you shouting?” I rose to a sitting position, my head throbbing and the exhaustion of the previous night still present. The worms in my veins were at it again, this time I could feel them surging through my brain and to my eyes. Ettori appeared immediately above me, then the crypt stretched and he was far away, and then back again.
“You have slept long past sundown. I was concerned. We need to get you back to Cardiff and figure out what is wrong with you.”
Steinveld brought some of his flock to meet us, one of them offering his throat to me. I took as much as I dare without harming him. Steinveld had watered our horses and had one prepared for himself. When I commented he said, “Ettori thought I should know the site of the grave. Just in case.”
My head felt like it was in mud as I nodded. We departed without further discussion. Evidently Ettori had found nothing of any use in reading the scriptures, though Steinveld had a theory which he shared as we rode. “I do not believe it was what he read, rather, it was like he was a different person. I hesitate to use the word possession.”
I was in no particular mood to theorise though, truth be told it was what I had surmised. We reached the grave of the beasts and showed Steinveld. There was no outward evidence of corruption, which is a small favour. Steinveld agreed to check it nightly and have one of his followers do the same daily. We bid him farewell and made for the first of the caves.
We arrived within a few hours, and again, I was exhausted. I felt hunger, frustration and bitterness. We decided to hunt to gain some sustenance. The beasts of the forest refused my call once more, so I took to looking for sign of animals. However, my concentration was gone, and my vision swam, resulting in my utter inability to find a single track. Fortunately, Ettori’s rudimentary skills were sufficient to find us a deer, which between us we were able to bring down.
“I have no need for sustenance, Ethan, drink your fill.”
My beast rose within me, never quite reaching the surface but I could feel its infectious rage. “I don’t need your pity, Ettori. I would have got it myself, given time.”
Ettori shook his head and left me with a dying deer. I sank my fangs into its throat and drank, but it felt bland and unfulfilling. The worms were getting more active, which was making me fill physically ill. However, a plan was forming in my mind. But it would be too dangerous to enact here. I left the carcass of the deer for the wolves to get and returned to the cave. Sleep took me to my dark prison once again.
I woke to Ettori shaking me roughly. “Get a move on, Ethan! We still have miles to travel.”
I said nothing, we readied our horses and rode for Llandowi. As we approached the gate, Menw appeared on the road. Something was a bit odd, his face was completely shrouded in darkness. My beast stirred again, warning of danger and potential ambush.
“I’ll handle this,” I growled at Ettori. I brought Atlas to a halt just ahead of the man who appeared to be Menw. “When I was summoned to court, who carried the summons?”
Menw pulled back his hood and spoke. He sounded a bit irritated. “I suppose I should be used to this response. An unfortunate side effect of my clothing. The bitch carried your summons. Are you satisfied?”
“Good. We have to get to Cardiff as soon as possible, though Ettori might wish to speak to the locals here for a short while.”
His emphasis was on short. “Why? Last time we passed this way, they would burn him alive.”
“They have had a change of opinion regarding the priesthood. Ettori, go, minister to them.”
Ettori glanced my way and then to Menw. “Ethan is ill. I don’t know if we have time for this.”
Menw’s eyes glazed over. I had never really seen him without his hood before. He had no nose, only a hole in the middle of his face. His skin was closer to a yellowy brown than human, his ears were pointed, and his lips were twisted and gnarled. I noticed his right hand for the first time. It was a metal claw.
“So he is. We will not be able to make it to Cardiff this night, it is too far. We do have some time. Go, be a priest. Look for Edmund at the tavern. I will speak to Ethan.”
“You can stop treating me like a bloody invalid! And stop talking like I am not here!” Thinking back on that, the notion that this annoyed me is amusing, now. Menw simply waved Ettori to the village, where a young man leaned on what appeared to be a sharpened stick. He became excited when he saw Ettori dismounting, and led him off into the town chattering inanely about how good it was to have a priest again.
Menw held my gaze. “We are hidden. What happened?”
I briefly explained about Steinveld, his account of Chax and his theories. He became increasingly interested when I told him about the angry village mob, however held his silence until I had described fighting the beasts. Ettori’s mount was still with us, so I took the liberty of fetching the head and showing it to Menw.
“Do you know what this is?”
My elder examined it, bringing his face close to it. I imagine he was sniffing, though am not sure how one does that without a nose. “No. I have never before encountered any creature like this, nor any reference. We will need to use the resources of Emrick’s library. Perhaps we can find some lead. We also must get you back to the city. Someone there might be able to assist you.”
“Huh, you mean like Myrddin? Or Launce?” The thought of the treatment by a fleshcrafting fiend was as horrifying as the thought of another day in darkness listening to the incessant laughter.
“No. The Prince summoned aid. More of our kind are at court. One wearing the robes of a Cardinal, and the other, the habit of a Nun.”
“A cardinal…that is something in the church, isn’t it?”
“A high ranking member. Just below the Pope. Perhaps one of those two will be able to assist you.”
“What did you see, when you looked at me?”
“It is hard to describe.”
“Was it flickering?”
The anger that had been my companion for two nights now was replaced by something equally primal. Something ice rather than fire. Terror.
“Steinveld said that is what he saw when he looked at Chax. Is that happening to me? Am I going to become one of those things?”
“Flickering indicates change, transition.”
“That doesn’t reassure! I can feel my blood surging through my veins, tainted, alive and invading every part of my body! We can’t wait until Cardiff! I want it out of me!”
“Get a hold of yourself, Ethan!” His clawed hand clamped onto my shoulder and pressed hard. His strength was incredible, and my knees buckled. He hauled me back up to my feet as if I were nothing. “I may not have the arts to help here, but we will find help!”
“The blood, you idiot! I want it out of me! Don’t you see? It got in via blood. It gets to every part of my body through blood. I can feel it in my blood. We need to remove it entirely and replace it!”
Menw’s grasp on my shoulder lessened. “Your idea is very dangerous, but has some merit. Let me think on this.”
We advanced through the town under the protection of his cloak. We arrived at the tavern I had swapped stories in a few nights past. Ettori was coming out with a beaming Edmund. The innkeeper was slapping Ettori on the back, then awkwardly apologising for any unintended disrespect, whilst thanking him for the finest service in such a long time.
“Thank you, Father Ettori! We have been without the proper ministrations of a man of the cloth for some time now, ever since the last one sadly passed. And life being busy and all, we never got round to sending for another.”
If I hadn’t been so frustrated and concerned over my condition, this might have been comical. Ettori seemed to be handling the adulation reasonably well, whilst extricating himself from the growing crowd now leaving the tavern. Not seeing us, as we were still cloaked, he simply exited the town via the Cardiff road. He is smart when he wants to be.
We got ahead of him, with the mounts and appeared on the road. “Things appear to have changed since last we visited.”
“I may have changed their opinions slightly so that you would receive a favourable reception,” replied Menw. “Ethan, your condition is grave. I will summon allies to help with your plan but they will not be with us until tomorrow night. Can you manage until then?”
“I guess I will have to.”
We found the other cave from the first night very quickly. I bedded down as soon as I arrived. Ettori asked Menw for a private conference. I didn’t care. Sleep took me, and the laughter and feathers awaited.
The next night after being woken by Ettori I found Menw at the cave entrance with two bears. He spoke to me. “These are my friends. They will donate their blood to sustain you should you wish to go ahead with your plan. I informed Ettori, and he has misgivings. We could wait until Cardiff where it may be safer.”
“You said there were new people at court. Do we know what the situation is there?”
“Then, I would suggest it is not safer to wait. We have an uncertain situation ahead of us, and I am variable that cannot be fully accounted for. If we can eliminate the variable, we should. Can you restrain me, should it become necessary?”
“Yes. Ettori. Feed first. Summon your blood just in case. Ethan, Give me your left arm.”
Ettori fed on the first bear and then returned, ready. I presented my arm as commanded. Menw dragged one of his metal claws along it, spilling blood from the wound. My beast was furious to be starved like this, and it rose from my subconscious, demanding I stop, demanding I sink fangs into anything nearby to replenish all that was lost, and any more that I could take. It declared war on my conscious mind, growing stronger and stronger the more blood spilled from my veins.
However, I was resolved. It was the impetuous feeding of the beast within that swallowed the alien substance that I would have spat out. It was its fault I was impaired like this, and I was not going to allow it to rule here! I may look like a beast but I will not be ruled by one!
The spilled blood collected at my feet. As it left my system I felt weaker and weaker in the face of my beast’s onslaught. With a last gasp of effort I forced it back into my subconscious, my legs giving way beneath me as I did. Menw caught me as I fell, and held me up, at arm’s length. The last drops spilled from my veins, and I could see the presence of this much blood was making him restless too. He and Ettori flanked me and brought me to the bears. I sank my fangs into one and drank.
It tasted good, but that was my hunger talking. I drank from both beasts, taking enough to bring me out of danger of hunger frenzy. Ettori and Menw backed off, my elder scanning me. I could feel my blood writhing still. Menw’s expression was not positive.
It hadn’t worked.
The Mycroft Journals is a serialised fiction, written in response to a roleplaying game I play in. It serves multiple purposes. It acts as a permanent reminder of what happened in the story (so, it helps us players), it acts as an advert for the game, and I think our Games Master has provided us with a compelling story, which other people should get to experience.
Featured artwork is by Barry Martin. Check out his page