A VIOLENT LOYALTY
Once Upon a Time Paul limped down the winding passage towards the cell where he communicated with The Dust. Paul kissed his fears full on the lips but his nerves ran like stallions on the shores of his soul. He unlocked the door to the cell and slipped inside, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom within. The cell was small, slick and dark like an open wound stinking of old blood, sweat and shit in every breath. In the farthest corner, something had grown there. It was a desiccated ball of chitin, dripping with strings of translucent mucus and pulsing in time with Paul’s heartbeat. He tried to look away, to focus on the ritual of communion which allowed him to communicate without risk of attack.
The Dust came, ragged fingernails scraping down his spine and the hot, wet breath of a rapist at the back of his neck.
‘We’ve had fun with your little hunter.’ It said.
The sacred texts and histories related to The Dust contradicted one another in terms of its origins. Paul, ever the pragmatist had found the rituals and wards to summon and control it but as time went on, he entertained doubts about his actions. He was aging and each time he communed, another sliver of his soul decayed and fell away.
‘Don’t mock me.’ He said.
The Dust laughed like an unrepentant mourner and the darkness coalesced towards him, denied by the wards which protected Paul from harm. The ball in the corner pulsed with a gruesome enthusiasm.
‘Is that him?’
The Dust was silent and the ball split, spewing a torrent of black bile, seething with small, fat grubs onto the packed dirt of the cell. A hand reached out, the fingers thin and tapering to claws which curved over followed by a forearm ridged with jagged lengths of bone, the skin having healed around it but still carrying the pink of infection. The abhorrent birth throes spat the thing out, human in shape but as it lifted its head, it smiled and revealed several rows of tiny, sharp teeth underneath black lips and patches of yellowed beard. Paul could not meet its gaze, seeing too much of Ernst in the reconfigured anatomy. There was intelligence there, the kind which inspired children to pluck the wings from butterflies and men to hurt their women in places which would never heal. Paul fought the urge to vomit or weep and turned his head.
‘Your only true child.’ It said.
Paul pressed his knuckles against his closed mouth and squeezed his eyes shut.
‘Shut up, damn you.’ He said.
The Dust laughed and Paul saw the perpetual damnation he had surrendered to. He was a king in every part of his kingdom, but here he was servant to a master who was a genius in the art of cruelty. Paul sighed and looked into the darkness.
‘It needs to play.’ It said.
Paul coughed and nodded. The parts of his intellect which saw the picture from an elevated perspective considered the application.
‘I know somewhere.’ He said.
The Ernst-thing mewled like a starving infant being fed pebbles and Paul ended the ritual with a wave of his hand and backed away. He said he would return with instructions and a location.
The Galloping Horse was a small inn, popular by its position on the first stretch of good road out of the forest. Ingrid and John had run the place with more elbow grease than talent and when Ed, their nephew came to him, with a talent for making bread which was not burnt and raw and stews which smelled of rich memories, they had found a life, small and hard like a stone in a boot, but not without its pleasures. The rooms were full, and all of them worked to keep the beer, wine and food coming to their patrons. The sun had set, and Ed was looking forward to sitting down when Ingrid came up and pinched the back of his neck which made him yelp with indignant surprise.
‘Go to the stable, horses are playing up.’ She said.
He snarled at his aunt, rubbed the sore spot where her nails had dug in and wiped his hands on his apron.
‘Don’t let the loaves burn. Uncle John blames me when it happens.’ He said.
Ingrid hissed at him and rolled her eyes. He strode past, thirteen years old and thin from constant motion and a spare diet, walked outside to the stables. He took a breath and a thick, metallic scent clotted in his nostrils.
Ed froze, seized by a jolt of utter panic before he flung himself towards the stable. He swung open the door, overwhelmed by the stink of blood and in the shadows, he saw the glistening pink ropes of intestine, dragged and slashed to ribbons in a shuddering pile. Themare, ridden by a hedge knight had been kindand even tempered, but now Ed could make out one sightless, staring eye at him. He he backed out, opened another door. The stallion had reared at him, and Ed had dodged a hoof to the temple with more luck than skill before muscling it into the stable.
Its head sat on the floor, stared up at Ed with a final pleading look in its eyes as a thick pool of blood spread out, pieces of straw floating away. The rest of its body laid in the back as Ed saw a pale, emaciated figure hunched over it. Ed heard the gristle of torn flesh and the flat, damp sounds of feeding before he turned on his heels and ran.
He heard someone screaming and realised it was him. The stable door flew open and Ed stared at the door to the inn. He had fostered a grim acceptance of his life there, burns from the fire and bruises from his relatives, an ache in the small of his back and knees which was his only companion.
An impact knocked him forwards, the breath forced from his lungs as he clipped his chin and caught the tip of his tongue between his teeth, sent it flying like a pink, meat fly as his mouth filled up with blood. He tried to call for help but hands clamped either side of his head and twisted. Ed felt the bones in his neck wrench, cutting off the words before he could speak. His last memory was his perspective tilting and looking down at his headless corpse.
Ingrid pulled the batch of bread from the oven, eyes narrowed against the smoke and bitter ashes which spewed from the oven. Ed had allowed this to happen, and she itched to transfer her failings to him with a sharp pinch or a good slap. John loved his nephew and wouldn’t lay a hand on him, pointing out how his cooking kept people coming back. She heaved it onto the table and coughed, expecting his skin between her nails when she heard the tinkling of broken glass and a cry of alarm. John bellowed and she ran through to the main room of the inn. The patrons were on their feet, backing away as she muscled through and saw what came through the window.
She swooned, but regained herself as she saw the head which landed face up on the wooden table. Ed’s last expression had been disbelief and terror, carved into his muscles and frozen forever. Her eyes went from the head to the broken glass as a shape filled the gap, curling its elongated fingers around the frame as it hissed with carnal anticipation. It darted forwards, too quick and quiet to be anything human, leaping at the nearest patron and sinking its teeth into the man’s neck with abandon as it wrapped its legs around him. Ingrid ran towards the back, the wet cacophony of violence reaching a terrible pitch as people tried to flee the carnage.
John was in there, but Ingrid kept running, barrelling through the door and fleeing into the woods without looking back.
She ran until her lungs burned and her legs were hollow, unable to stop even when a low branch smacked across the bridge of her nose and sent a flare of pain up into her forehead. She ran through the pain, but the branches overhead shook with a terrible urgency and she felt blood drip onto the crown of her head from above before she looked upwards and saw an emaciated figure leap onto her from above.
She stared out at nothing and unable to explain what happened. Her skirts were soaked with blood and the patrol traced her path back to the inn. One of them reported this to their commander, and the regent.
Carrey received the news with a closed expression. He called for a scribe to compose a letter.
It had begun.
Ingrid laid in the apothecary’s quarters, silent and unmoving. Something turned in the pit of her stomach and opened its eyes.