Stepping towards the phantom as it enveloped him, he swung in a motion that would have split any physical entity into three pieces - yet he hit nothing but air. 'Twas not air that clawed through his cloak, however; deep gashes appeared on his chest, and he was thrown ten paces from where he stood.
This is an adaptation of the Robert E. Howard short story, Skulls In The Stars. The adaptation has a TG twist. Please check out Howard's original story (to see the story told by the master!) at en.wikisource.org.
Ah, hello there. 'Moan' here again. I'm the keeper of the House of Sighs, the place for Sigh's eerie/spooky/weird tales. Boy, do we have tale for you today. A fantasy story, set sometime in the early 1700's, at a mythical place. Ladies, you've heard to watch out for strange men when you're out alone at night? Well, this yarn turns the tables on the guys ... heh heh heh...
There are two roads to Foxshire.
One is a short, straightforward path leading through a moor, a fieldland with scattered trees and brush. The other is a winding, treacherous path leading through a swamp. The former trek shall speed one to his destination within a few hours; the latter takes most of a day.
Elijah Stone knew this from his old maps, and thus set foot roughly an hour before dusk to walk through the misty moor. The moon would be full tonight, and allow enough of a shine to set one's boot on sure enough footing by that route. Bereft of horse or carriage, the evangel traveled lightly; a change of clothes, a small monied purse, two dragoons, and his father's rapier.
Thus it was that he proceeded with nary a stray thought other than a successful journey, when he heard the cries of a desperate youth approaching him from behind - from the small village whose tavern he had refresh'd himself in prior to setting off.
"Kind sir - please!" shouted the boy. "Stay thy feet before ye go any further!"
Stone looked back, with a shade of vexation. "What is it, boy? I asked in the town square if there be any need that I could attend to, being a soldier of right and justice. I left assured that things were well there, and I have business to attend to in Foxshire early in the morn."
"Sir," said the youth as he struggled for his breath, "Ye mustn't go through the marsh. If ye yearn to arrive whole by the end of your walking, ye have to proceed into the swamp."
The man standing before the child was no longer ired, but mystified. "The ... swamp? Surely ye jest, young one. That way is unwalkable by night, and over twice as long. I shall miss my engagement."
"Ye speak the truth, noble sir. If thou attempted to walk into the bog as darkness falls, a quagmire would surely claim thee, unless the asps or swamp-lizards did prior. 'Tis best to start through it in the day's first light. That way you could reach the cabin of the hermit - old man Cockrey - and give him money to allow you a resting cot with some meat to eat. Then after a half hour's respite, you can continue and reach through the other end of the bog before evening falls again. You can make Foxshire just before midnight from that point."
The youth spoke with a tremor. Elijah Stone at his full pace was a humbling sight, a tall pale gaunt man with a broad brimmed hat, thick overcoat and a two-holstered belt. Most unnerving was his countenance; his jaw set firm atop his long neck, with piercing blue eyes that rarely seemed to blink. It would be enough to make nervous any child or man, and surely that was what had this young one quaking. Or was it something else?
"Blast it, boy! I have no time for games! What you suggest would not only slow me by a full day, but make me poorer and more wearied as well. It reckons to me," said the frowning, grim knight, "that old man Cockrey has put you up to this, to earn him a little money. I imagine that he has no room for a resting traveler if he truly lives in a hermit shack. So if-"
"Kind lord, he has a spare room," cut in the child. "He's a widower of ten years, and he had a son - an effete, foppish son, who fancied himself a girl, causing untold shame to his father; but the boy ran away from home a while past, and Cockrey rents the room to resters. I get no pity nor penny from the old man; the men at the tavern at the village, they sent me to stop you."
Elijah's eyes were fiery, but he straightaway closed them and inhaled deeply, then exhaled slowly. He then with calm strode towards the young man, coming within a foot of him, then suddenly dropped to his knee. "Tell me, son. What is your name?"
"Roger, sir; but in the village I'm known as Stub."
"Well, noble Stub. I will hear thee out. Pray tell, why do the men of the village wish me to brave the swamp?"
"It not be the swamp, sir. It's the moors. We ... we dare not speak aloud of it. It is bad luck; I wish not to bring it from the field to my home by telling of it."
"Stub ... speak it in mine ear. I doubt the moors can hear a boy's muffled whisper from this point."
The youth's throat quavered as he breathed the warning at Stone's sideburn. "There is a phantom, a monster that haunts that way, for the last year. If any one traverses the fields at night - or even at day, in the deep fog - they do not emerge alive. It shrieks and laughs with a horrible evil. We can hear the unfortunate's screams and death pangs as it tortures them before delivering them to the reaper. When the day is clear with no fog, we can run in and retrieve their bodies, covered in blood and punctured through as with sharp swords, as well as claw marks over their bodies. None have prevailed against it. Now you see why you must turn - for that way, waits death."
Stone's heart quickened - but not with fear. Indeed, he felt a purpose in his tiresome existence once more. A bedeviling evil was about, and fighting wickedness such as this was his life's breath. Stub had no hint of reckoning that he stood in the presence of the man who had thrown out the conjurers of East Baden, who had slain the man-wolves of the Burnside manor murders, and had cast out the demons that occupied the devil's priest at the Spanish border. Indeed, Elijah was only truly alive when in battle against the darkness; all the rest of life seemed drudgery. And here, here was such an evil.
"Young Roger, tell the townspeople that you did a great work in thy warning tonight. I believe thee. Yet, still, I shall proceed to the moors, for if the specter be there, then 'tis my life's work to banish it, or perish in the effort. Either way, my fate does not fall on thee - the choice is mine alone." With that, the tall figure strode towards the patchy fog rising in the dreaded moors. The boy began to shed tears of sorrow, then ran back to the safety of the village.
Elijah walked into the first cloud of mist, senses honed to the point, his breathing slow and silent. He proceeded through the patch to a clear area, illuminated now by the rising moon. On and on he stepped, straining to see a glimpse of shadow, listening for any trace of movement other than his own. In mist, then in the clear, then into the mist again.
A scream halted his progress, and he drew his pistol. The origin was near, but the direction it arose from could not be discerned. It came again - a horrid, human, blood-curdling yell born of unimaginable dread. The crusader squinted; was that a shadow ahead? Nay, was it two? The damned shifting of the vapors confounded his sight. The screaming returned, ever closer, but this time with a gurgling base, and accompanied by a second voice - a hellish laughter. Not one of joy, but of malevolence.
The fiend had beset upon someone else traveling through the moors!
Now with some credence as to the direction of the battle, Stone broke into a run. He prepared to fire his pistol into the air to distract the hellhound from it's victim until he could arrive on the scene. He broke through a cloud of mist - and saw a sight that made him halt as if turned to ice.There at the base of a dead tree lay something that once was human, just seconds prior. It was now bloodied and disemboweled, lying sprawled on the sparse grass. Squatting over the carcass was a pale, wan, beautiful lady. Her hair was golden flax falling about her shoulders and down her back, and her apple face with a button nose would have once won a young man's heart. Once - but now, her fairness was marred by streams of blood pouring from her ear-holes, and there were two charred, black empty holes where her eyes should have been. She felt along the corpse's body with her hands, climbing up until they reached the dead man's head; then they held it still while the wraith's mouth opened. Out shot a long, forked tongue, and it licked the face of the victim on the left cheek, once, twice, yet a third time.
Then, the tongue retracted, and the ghost girl began to wail a long, mournful moan, betraying anguish, shame, and ... regret?
"Away from him, foul spirit!" Stone readied into a fighting stance. The ghost woman's head lifted as she sniffed the air; and it twisted suddenly to face his direction. The delicate nose sniffed long and hard again, as if catching hold of a scent. Then the lovely mouth deformed as it expansed into a demonic grin, stretching her face and exposing long, daggered teeth. The feminine hands grew into horrible claws, and the whole being rose into the air in a mix of tattered gown and mist. It lurched suddenly into flight with an otherworldly howling cackle, straight at Elijah Stone.
The people's protector fired his dragoon directly at the beast's head, yet it flew through it as if it were a cloud. He gripped his other pistol and shot, with effect of equal futility. He pulled his ancestral rapier that had bested many a monster. Stepping towards the phantom as it enveloped him, he swung in a motion that would have split any physical entity into three pieces - yet he hit nothing but air. 'Twas not air that clawed through his cloak, however; deep gashes appeared on his chest, and he was thrown ten paces from where he stood.
Elijah picked himself up. Another few strikes of similar malice would surely send him to his final reward. If I am to meet my end, he reasoned, it shall be from the front - facing my foe, rather than fleeing. As the banshee screeched on her resumed attack, he had no advantage save one: unflinching courage in the face of death. He swung with his fists, as the talons ripped into his flesh once more. He continued bravely to press, and to punch at the vision. And with one of the blows, finally, he felt an impact. All of his strength and will focused in on the righteousness of his cause, and his fists hit with more and more solidity.
Faced for the first time with a man who would not run, the apparition began to suffer from the blows, and began to give way. Stone could tell that he was beginning to subdue the creature, and alit upon it, taking it to the ground. As he whaled away at it with his hands, the creature began babbling in a tongue that would seem gibberish to the casual listener. But it spoke to Elijah's soul, and he could understand in his spirit the desperate cries emanating from the fiend.
And at once, the mystery of the monster became clear to him.
The next day, the sun was at high peak over the swampland that surrounded old man Cockrey's hermit shack. The owner of the shack walked outside to survey the sky for the weather's sake. He squinted his eyes and rubbed the huge scar on his left cheek as was his habit.
Then astounding sight greeted him, as a procession of male village-folk led by a tall, gaunt man in a black overcoat and great rimmed hat approached his cabin.
"Ye be Cockrey?" spoke the hollow-cheeked stranger.
"Aye. What of it? I have only enough room for one, mayhaps two, resters. The rest o' ye shall have to stand in the sun. But I still must have payment from all of ye, as fee for passing o'er my land."
"We are not here to rest, hermit. Pray tell, where be thy son?"
The old man spat. "I have no son."
"Aye, but ye did," answered Stone. "What became of him?"
"The boy - if ye could call him a boy, shameful wretch - took his leave from me a month after his mother died, ten years past. He was but nine years old. I know not if he lives; the bogs may have claimed him, or he may be thieving in a city. He did not want to live here, so I gave him no chase. Good riddance, I say."
"I see. And why have thou not remarried? Do ye not feel loneliness at times?"
"Bah! Yea, I sometimes yearn for a woman's breast. But ye cannot trust them. All one would want me for is my money, and land. Even my wife - God rest her - would not obey me fully; she allowed my accursed boy to dress and live as her daughter, just because he whined for it. Her death of consumption was therefore a curse, yet a blessing to me; I no longer must endure her rebellion. Now - why dost thou pry into mine own life? Pay me, or begone!"
Elijah stepped to the miser and grabbed his shirt collar. "You lie, Cockrey. You are evil, and guilty of the murders committed on the moors outside of the nearby village."
"Madness! I live here, an old man! Thou hast lost thy sanity, stranger! Who are you to accuse me?"
"I fought the demon of the moors last night; observe the claw marks on my shirt, my neck. I barely survived, yet overcame the beast." Stone pulled back his overcoat to prove the claim. "I could not banish her, though. Only one act can do that."
"Her?!" gasped old man Cockrey.
"Aye, her," said the crusader with a grim smile. "Thy surprise doth self-accuse thee, murderer. Your son did not leave you after your wife's death. Instead, you encouraged him in his effeminate actions, and he was relieved that you did so - until you soon decided that he should also take your dead wife's place in your bed."
The hermit's face became sheet-white.
"When thy son would not willingly acquiesce to your whims, you kept him hidden, chained and gagged, as a prisoner for you to despoil with regularity. You told any inquiries that he had run away, and since most folk hate the effete, no search was launched. Your torture continued up to a year ago, when the boy had grown enough to try to resist your invasions. So you killed him."
"How ... dost thou know these things? They are all lies," stammered the accused.
"The demon told me when I overcame her. That monster is the ghost of your son. She appears as a woman because her soul has always been so, no matter what her material form was," snarled Stone. "You burned the eyes and stabbed through the ears of your offspring as death overtook her. Then, knowing how ghosts yearn for revenge, you carried the body to the moors in the cover of night. Her ghost, deaf and blind, has been searching for you, for retribution; it kills everyone it comes across in an attempt to achieve it. However, when she can taste the left side of their face and find no identifying scar, she screams in regret - for an innocent life taken, and in frustration that you still live."
"Lies! Lies! All of it!"
The village blacksmith appeared from behind the shack, walking around to the front. In his hands, he held manacles, chains, cloths for gagging, and a torn dress spattered with old blood. Shaking his head at Elijah, he sobbed, "M'lord ... I found all this in the shack out behind the cabin, just like you said I would. It were a dungeon, sir. God, it look't and smelt horrible."
"Just as she told it was," whispered Elijah at Cockrey.
"He ... he was evil. An abomination. He deserved to be punished," blabbered the old hermit. "Ye are a man of the cloth - I can see by the cross hanging from thy wrist! You know that abominations must be punished!"
"I have fought wickedness in more forms than I care to count. I know good from evil. The commandments I follow begin and end with 'Love Thy Neighbor As Thou Wouldst Thyself'. What you acted on was out of pure, magnified hate. That, old man, is the abomination. Your offspring needed thee to love him - her - and got the opposing extreme. You not only tortured and murdered your true daughter, you used the ghost and the murders to drive people through the swamp, for your profit. And now, it is time for an end to it."
The procession was now in the Moors, as it was a rare clear day, though the night was coming soon. As the villagers tied old man Cockrey to a tree in that field, he begged for mercy.
"The horror must come to an end. When the fiend finds you and kills you, she will know her torture is over, her justice accomplished," spoke Elijah Stone in a somber tone. "You remember this tree. For in it, you stuffed the body of your child." Stone reached in through a rotted hole in the tree and pulled out a skull with the neck attached, with burned, charred skin still sticking to the eye sockets. "When you are dead, we shall return and bury your corpse with the swamp-lizards. We shall bury your daughter's bones in the village cemetary."As the procession speedily left the moors - for the sun was setting - they could hear the old man yelling.
"Death! Death comes tonight! O help - there is death in the trees!"
The boy Roger stuck beside Elijah as he trotted with the others back to the village. "You have done a great thing tonight, kind sir - for me, for my loved ones, and for the murdered child."
The knight smiled, sadly. "I suppose so, Stub. Yet, to accomplish it, someone else still has to die. And I can take no personal joy in that."
From afar off, a shrieking, angry laughter was heard. It grew louder and louder, and was soon joined by the maniacal screaming of an old man. As the moon shone and the mists descended on the moors, one could make out a low flying cloudlet with what appeared to be talons extended outward, approaching a great dead tree. The two sounds hit a crescendo, then fell silent. And from then on, the moors remained silent, night after night.
Well, well, well. As that old hermit discovered, your sins will find you out. I have to hand it to the ghost lady; I like her style! Hunts alone, guts and dresses her kills - after she UNdresses them, that is. And the way she used her tongue? She could kiss me with that any day. Oh! Did you hear that shriek? I think I just made one too many jokes at her expense ... now, phantom lady (may I call you phanny?), please, have a sense of humo- OW! Hey, that hurts! Yikes! Gotta run - NOW! -Moan.
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Thanks for reading - Hugz! **Sigh**
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