It was a dark November afternoon. Ice-cold rain fell in sheets. A stark wind whipped at the man’s coat. He stood on a dirt road overlooking a wooded valley, its canopy billowing like an ocean in the wind. Beyond the valley rose vast hills, glowing gold and amber through the gloom.
The man held a long dagger in his left hand. It glistened wet in the rain. He waited, gazing ahead down the long path that cut into the forest at the bottom of the hill. The trees of the forest rustled and roared and cast deep shadows over the path.
The man sheathed his dagger in a leather sheath on his belt. He shook his long hair dry like a dog and pulled his coat’s hood up over his head. His face was cast in shadows and water dripped before his eyes. He started down the hill.
Deep in the valley the forest creaked and roared in the wind. Below the trees dry leaves chattered and sighed through a low covering of brambles. The man walked down the path over layers of wet rotting leaves, some disguising deep puddles in the rutted mud. His boots were caked in red mud. The hem of his coat was stained a deep red.
He stopped under a large oak. The rain hummed on, unabated. He sat on a root and leaned against the tree and closed his eyes.
The rain stopped. The woods were silent save for the sound of dripping leaves. The man walked down the mud road. Ahead, a large black sword stood, run blade first into the mud in the middle of the road. The man stopped walking.
A laugh echoed from the trees and a man in black armor stepped into the road. The armor he wore was shaped like the body of a bat. Sheathed metal wing parts fell from his arms to his sides and two metal ears stuck from his helmet. He walked to the sword and pulled it from the mud.
The man in black armor laughed again. The man drew his long dagger from his belt. He spoke.
“Let me by.”
The man in armor laughed.
The man looked at the sword. He looked down at his dagger.
“This is my dagger of healing. It will heal you of ill.”
The man in armor lifted a small twisted horn to his lips. He blew a shrill blast that echoed through the trees. He dropped the horn to his side and pointed his sword at the man. His eyes were bright beneath his helmet and his skin was wrinkled and pale. He spoke in a broken voice.
“Let this be the final voice you hear.”
The man in armor ran at the man. He swung his sword and the man jumped backwards. The man in armor swung again. The man leapt to one side and stuck his dagger under the helmet into the armored man’s neck. Blood rushed out and ran down the black armor. The man in armor fell down into the mud.
The man wiped the blood on his dagger on the leaves on the ground. He looked down at the armored man who was dead.
“You are healed.”
He sheathed his knife and grabbed the armored man and dragged him off the road and into the trees.
The man found a small shack at the end of a worn trail. A fire burned faintly in a pit. He removed the bat-shaped armor from the man and threw it to the ground.
The armored man’s skin was pale and wrinkled and smelled rotten. His teeth were crooked and sharp and his eyes were white and blank. The man bowed his head then dragged the body and the sword into the shack which was full of torn fabric and old bones and a pile of rusty blades. The man left the shack and took a piece of wood from the fire and set the shack on fire.
He left the shack to burn and picked up the armor where he had left it. He removed the chest plate from the rest of the armor and pulled back his coat and strapped it onto his chest. He threw the rest of the armor into the fire.
The rain clouds had blown away but the forest continued to rock in the wind. The sun set red in the west through the tangle of thorns and tree limbs. The man knelt at a stream that ran near the road. He removed the plate from his chest and held it under the dark water then placed it on the stream bed to dry. He looked around him at the trees then down into the dark water. The shadows under the trees became black.
The man made camp under an ancient pine near the road. He spread his coat on the dry needles beneath a large limb and lay down on one side and closed his eyes. The wind was gone. Nothing moved in the forest and the valley was full of silence.
In the morning the man started early. The rain had returned faint and the road was deep with red mud. The dawn was grey and silent and the hills loomed in the mist like clouds and the man walked down the road headed deeper into the valley.
At midmorning the man found a wagon on the side of the road. It was rotting and it’s wheels had fallen off and the trappings for the horses were rotten and torn. It’s floorboards were covered in black stains.
He looked at the torn trappings and the floorboards and he drew his long dagger and dragged it through the dirt around the wagon. The dagger struck metal and the man reached down and pulled a rusting spearhead from the dirt. It was made of black metal and it was long and barbed. The man examined it and threw it into the brush and turned and continued down the road.
At noon the man stood on a rise looking down at a tower that rose through the trees. It was a bell tower and the roof was caved in and the stones at the top of the tower were partially broken. Peaked roofs of houses circled the tower but there was no smoke coming from them. The wind had picked up now and blew from the direction of the tower and the roofs, but no sound was carried on it.
The man drew his dagger and walked slowly down the road towards the buildings.
At the bottom of the hill the road cut between two limestone walls. Water trickled down the walls into crevices beside the road. The mud was deep and the man trudged through it. He brushed his dagger against the wall to his left and it made a loud grating sound that echoed between the rocks. The man stopped and gazed down the road. Ahead lay another wagon, turned on it’s side. Horse bones protruded from the mud.
The man walked past the wagon. The road lead through deep woods and ended in a clearing far ahead. Houses stood in the clearing and the bell tower stood in the middle of it. The man stopped and bowed his head and raised his head and walked on.
The clearing was overgrown with dying grass and thorns. The bell tower stood in the middle of the clearing and a small town made up of houses and stables and shops stood around it. The wood and stone buildings were dark and empty. Their shingled and thatched roofs were caving in and their stone walls were crumbling. A few of the houses had been burned and were black and pointed against the sky. The deep woods grew close and the forest had begun to grow up inside the town.
In the center of the town stood the bell tower. Next to the tower stood a stone well. Wooden stakes filled the mud square. From each dangled a statue, each hung by a neck or limb and each covered in black marks and jagged symbols. A few statues had fallen from rotted ropes and lay shattered in the mud. The square was littered with these statues and debris that had fallen from the tower and the ruined houses huddled around the square with empty windows and doors and gaped.
The man stood and looked at the town and up at the tower and at the hanging statues and put his dagger back into his belt. He walked between the statues and entered the bell tower through torn and rotting doors.
The ground level was a chapel. A door to the tower stair was set in the far wall. Around the circular wall stood pedestals for statues. All were empty, some still bearing stone feet torn at the ankles. Black symbols were smeared across the walls. The man peered at the symbols in the gloom then entered the stair door and began walking up the tower stairs.
The stairs were strewn with rubble and many were missing. The man climbed them to the top and entered a ruined belfry. The bell lay on one side against a wall and the roof was partially caved in. The stone walls were broken and crumbling and large holes revealed the town and forest below.
The man clambered out onto the roof and surveyed the ruin below. The dim wood stretched out in all directions and the hills lay indistinct in the mist beyond. The town lay torn. The man looked down at scarred earth, burnt trees and debris spread deep into the forest. He saw the road he had come from, snaking off to the south into the leaves. He climbed to the other side of the roof. It creaked and a large section of shingles broke away and slid off into space. They hit the square below and echoed.
To the north the road continued from the town towards the hills beyond. To the east of the road lay a small clearing. The faint shapes of small mounds were just visible in the mist. The man turned and climbed back inside the tower.
Dusk was falling when the man entered the burial ground. The wooden gate lay in pieces at it’s entrance and the fence that had been erected around it was completely destroyed. The man stood and stared. Each mound had been burrowed into from the side or dug up from the top.
He walked from mound to mound, at least fifty in counting, each as empty as the last, not a strip of burial cloth or fragment of bone to be found. At the end of his searching he knelt, removed his hood and sighed.
The rain was over and a biting wind was driving the clouds away in torn shrouds. The man knelt on the farthest mound from the entrance to the burial ground and watched the clouds scudding over the thin crescent moon. A humid chill crept over the valley. The man rose and pulled up his hood and did up his coat. He walked slowly back through the cemetery, stepping careful around the gaping holes in the mounds.
The thin moon was not sufficient for light. The man entered one of the houses and picked out a piece of dry wood. He removed a flint and tinder from his coat and lit the wood. His small torch flitted like a single firefly in the dark emptiness of the town, gleaming on the broken stone walls and desecrated statues.
The man entered the bell tower. A gibbering voice met him, echoing in the darkness, chanting a wordless prayer. The man raised his torch. In the corner of the chapel an old woman knelt with her face to the floor. Her clothing was in tatters and her skin was pale and wrinkled. She continued unabated in her prayer as the man approached.
The man lowered his torch and spoke.
“Are you from this town?”
The woman stopped praying. She looked slowly up at the man. Her eyes were bright. She stared blankly at the man and then she screamed.
A second scream came from above. It was shrill and piercing and wild and it echoed over the whole town. The man drew his dagger and looked up. A loud scratching fluttering sound echoed down the stairwell from the belfry.
The man turned to the woman. She still stared blankly up at him.
“Did you come from the mounds?”
She was silent.
“This is a dagger of healing…”
The woman continued to stare. The shrill cry echoed from the belfry again. The man’s body tensed and he looked up. The woman gibbered and leapt to her feet and dashed out of the tower door. The man turned to follow, then stopped and turned to the tower stair. He gripped his dagger tightly and raised his torch and dashed up the stair.
As the man neared the belfry a powerful stench filled the air and the scratching sound grew louder. He stopped at the last turn and listened. All was silent, save for the sound of something breathing heavily. The man raised his torch and ran forward.
A giant bat hung from the belfry roof. It’s wings spread the width of the belfry and it’s eyes glowed red in the flame of the torch and its fangs glistened in a massive gaping upside-down grin. The man waved his torch at the beast and it screamed and lunged and bit into his chest.
The monster’s fangs punctured the man’s chest plate and the man drove his dagger into it’s neck. The bat tossed him against the belfry wall and screeched, its neck spraying black blood. It screeched again and threw itself into the night.
The man jumped up and dashed to the edge of the tower. In the darkness below the woman screamed and was silent. The wind whistled through the empty town and the bat screeched and a powerful wind hit the man and a black shape covered the crescent moon and was gone.
That night the man slept on the stairs of the tower, halfway between the empty mounds and the empty belfry.
The morning was cold and bright and cloudless. A thin crust of frost covered the ground. The man knelt outside the tower. Blood covered a patch of dirt in the square near the well. It was black and drying.
The man turned to the statues hanging from the posts. He drew his dagger and whispered.
“This is a dagger of healing. It heals all ills.”
He cut down a statue of a young boy wearing simple shepherd’s clothes. It’s eyes had been blackened. It landed on the frosty ground and it’s left leg shattered. He cut down the graffiti covered statue of a beautiful woman in a flowing gown and the statue of a noble king. Both lost their heads when they fell. He cut down a statue of a man much like himself, wearing weathered clothes and clutching a short blade. One by one all were cut down, all broken beyond repair.
The man sat on the edge of the well. His eyes were tired and his brow was wet. The wind howled through the trees and red and brown leaves flew through the cold air and landed on the desecrated statues and rattled across the square and collected in ragged piles against the tower and the empty houses and the man’s feet.
He sighed, stood and walked towards the nearest house. It gaped empty and dark. The thatched roof was partially collapsed and the door lay torn from it’s hinges. Inside a single large room with a rough wooden floor lay in disarray. Furniture was cast broken and burned in piles. Thatch from the roof sagged down in one corner. Bits of paper and strips of clothing fluttered in the corners and everything was covered in dark black stains.
The man drew his dagger and probed through the detritus. He grunted and left the house. The next house he entered was much the same: all was chaos and everything was stained black.
It was late afternoon and the man’s coat was covered in dust and cobwebs. He approached the large stone house nearest to the bell tower. It loomed jagged against the red sky, partially burned. He climbed a flight of stairs and opened the large front door. The passage beyond was filled with rubble. He climbed inside and up the pile.
A small crack opened between the rubble and the ceiling. The man clamped his dagger between his teeth and forced his way through the crack. On the other side he dropped to the floor and took the dagger out of his mouth. in the faint light cast by the crack a hallway stretched into the darkness. The wind whistled and howled through the crack.
The man walked forward into the gloom, his dagger held out in front of him. A door to the left was jammed shut with rubble. The stair at the end of the hall lead up into a jumble of charred wooden beams. The second story of the house had been entirely burned away. The man turned to the passage leading off to the right. It led to a steep stair that plunged into darkness.
The man removed his flint and tinder from his coat and hacked a stake of wood from a fallen beam. The partially scorched wood burned dim in the darkness. He walked down the stair.
The stone cellar below was full of broken casks and boxes. In a corner huddled a human skeleton, dressed in rusting mail armor. A small leather book lay nearby. The man’s eyes shown in the torchlight. He snatched up the book and buried it deep in his coat.
At the top of the stairs the howling had grown louder. The man quickly worked himself through the crack.
Outside the sun was gone and only a faint purple redness filled the sky. A wild wind drove sharp fingers of clouds across the valley and rocked the forest into a frenzy of shaking limbs and swirling leaves. the howling continued. It no longer came from the cracks in the walls or the trees but seemed to fill the air. It soughed mournfully through the empty town, a nightmare idiot gibber.
In the last moment of twilight he saw them, a myriad horde of pale naked ghouls loping on all fours out of the trees. They came from all sides, all with one purpose. The man drew his dagger and spun in a circle to survey the situation. Instantly he was dashing towards the bell tower chapel and the stairs beyond.
As one the ghouls converged on the tower. They howled through the chapel doors, squeezing and tearing and climbing over each other in rabid eagerness.
The man was halfway up the stairs when the first claw dragged at his coat. He spun and drove his blade into the ghoul’s face. The ghoul screamed and tore at it’s wound as a dozen ghouls leapt on it and devoured it. The man laughed and stabbed another and another, then ran up the remaining stairs.
In the belfry the man rushed to the edge and looked down. Below hundreds of pale forms clawed and squirmed around the entrance to the tower. The man grunted and ran to the bell in the corner. He grabbed it by the lip and pushed and rolled it slowly towards the stair. Below the ghouls had finished their meal and were rushing towards him.
The man heaved the bell over the edge of the stair and watched it roll, knocking back the advancing creatures. He climbed to the roof as dozens of ghouls streamed into the belfry.
For a moment the ghouls scrambled around the belfry, howling in confusion. Then an ugly white face appeared over the edge of the roof and howled and the horde came on.
The man brandished his blade and screamed.
“This is my dagger of healing! Be healed!”
And he plunged the dagger again and again and the ghouls howled and fell and fed on each other and his coat was torn and torn until he stripped it off and cast it over the side and his arms and legs were dragged and gashed by claws and he kept stabbing and stabbing and throwing ghouls to ghouls and throwing ghouls off the side of the tower. He was drenched in black blood and the ghouls were mewling and feasting on each other and preparing to strike again and his hand felt the bell rope and he grabbed it and threw himself over the side of the tower.
The night was dark and long and the ghouls mewled and gibbered and howled but they could not climb up or down the wall and they gnawed the rope but the man had already found a strong foothold. Many ghouls threw themselves to their deaths to splatter and be devoured by their fellows in the red mud below. By sunrise the ghouls had feasted on themselves till they were gorged and had loped off to the hills leaving only piles of bloody bones behind.
The man shivered in the cold dawn. He climbed stiffly back up the tower and down to the square. His eyes were wild with exhaustion as he rifled through the piles of bones. Beneath a pile of frost-covered drying gore he found the torn remains of his coat. He laughed and clapped his hands and pulled the book from the tatters. It was blood stained and scratched but otherwise unharmed. Quickly, the man threw his tattered coat over his shoulders and strode south.
That night the man slept high in a tree. Faint howling rose and fell in the distance. In the morning it snowed and late that evening the man passed shivering out of the valley.