16 years ago
And now the mist was like a moist rag thrown over his face, filling his nostrils, blocking his eyes and stifling his breath. It enclosed him. He hated it. It was like the thing they did to him as a boy: the other novices, the hall master. He squeezed his eyes shut trying not to remember. He couldn’t breath. He opened his mouth wide and sucked in cold, moist air but it was not enough. His heart thrust against his breastbone, too fast, too violent, as if a small animal had been locked in his chest and was fighting for its life. Surely it would burst open or stop altogether. His head buzzed and his lips and fingers tingled. The constriction of his throat was like a hand around his neck, squeezing, squeezing – like the others did to him. He couldn’t even swallow his own spit. Soon he would blackout. Then he’d die.
With a trembling hand he shoved back his hood and a bolus of chill water splashed down the back of his neck, breaking the building terror better than a hard slap.
Litanus sucked a ragged breath deep into his lungs as his vision cleared and his breathing began to slow. The opaqueness of the vapour had lessened and he could now see the pale, twisted outline of swamp gums on both sides and ahead. The ground beneath was soft and wet. He realised he was not moving so he forced his boot forward into the slush, struggling to regain focus. He mustn’t lose control, not now. Sound travelled far in fog like this. A stumble on loose rocks, a boot clipping a shallow tree root or a fretful moan – noises like that would warn his prey.
For three moons he had travelled with his cova, the furthest they had ever been from the monastery. Up ahead his creatures lurched through the heavy mist, Brothers that he had resurrected from the grave for the raid. Nearby, another monk did the same with a group of undead myling, and here and there he could see other sets moving in and out of the mist. The journey had been long, and despite the cold, the exhumed bodies had deteriorated, their rotting flesh now showing through tattered rags. The stench from them was constant.
He kept up a steady chant, propelling the pale bodies before him, their stilted gait and vacant, decaying faces frustrating him at this critical time. Right now the song was a steady hum – a rhythmical, low drone that used only a handful of notes to prod the bodies along. He sensed a muffled buzz through the mist from the other Brothers nearby. Normally, the regular murmur calmed his nerves but, with the proximity of his quarry, he felt a nervous excitement rising within. Intense cold bit into his scalp and threatened to seize his jaw muscles. Perhaps he should raise his hood? But he couldn’t let the cadence of the chant change or he would lose control.
Ahead, the mist cleared enough for him to see their goal – a loose settlement of huts on the edge of a swamp. They had been travelling through this stinking swamp for the last week and he would be glad to be away from it. He was cold and his boots were caked with mud and his feet wet and frozen. How could these people live here? He hoped their children would be acceptable sacrifices to the Great Lord.
What if they were not? What if his cova had come all this way only to have their hard-won sacrifice rejected by the Great One?
His chant dropped off for a moment in his consternation and a few of the myling stumbled off course. Concentrate! He must not fail. The Master depended on his success. A stench wafted around him and he held his hand to his nose, uncertain whether the reek was from the swamp or the myling. Maybe the villagers would smell them before they heard the chant. Focus.
Litanus controlled his set and made them pick up pace as he willed his chant to a perfect cadence. He felt the tension of the song mount as the beat quickened. He shifted up an octave and subconsciously registered that his Brothers had done the same. One day he would improve on this Iteration. Then he would control the creatures without having to stumble behind like a shepherd driving a flock. His myling reacted to the change. Their slack backs straightened and their arms gradually rose before their bodies ready for an attack, putrid flesh hanging from them in strips.
A light from the closest hut told him that someone was at home. The villagers would be preparing their evening meal.
The cova paused uncertainly and some of his Brothers dropped their chant allowing their myling to lurch out of control along the uneven village track. Litanus motioned angrily to his Brothers, directing them to huts further along. He intensified his own song and felt the frequency of the others change to an uncomfortable high-pitched whine. The collective chant now became a jarring collection of imperfect chords and stray notes that made Litanus’s spine tingle and his teeth ache. The villagers would hear them now but it was too late. The myling were alert as if they were alive.
Litanus willed his set towards the closest hovel. The dim light of a fireplace flickered within. At another time he would have found it warm and welcoming. Through the door he saw a woman smile over a baby’s cot. Litanus also smiled. Success on his first attempt!
The woman looked up when she heard the mylings enter, her face beaming with happiness. Litanus realised she must have expected her husband.
She screamed. Usually the victims froze at the sight of dead creatures stumping into the room. But this one had more fight than the others. She pulled up a chair and threw it at the first myling causing it to stumble. But the next creature was upon her pulling her to the ground, its dead fingers clamped around her neck.
The third moved to the cot. But something was wrong. It raised its dead arm and flung a rusty axe down into the crib.
Litanus screamed at the creature and shoved it aside furiously. The myling should not have attacked the baby. It was needed for the sacrifice.
With horror, Litanus looked into the crib and was astonished to see not one but two faces – identical boys a little over a year old. The axe had cleaved a finger off one and had taken the side of the scalp off the other. Both infants were screaming. More children cried in the back room. Litanus was stunned. All around was mayhem. This was not meant to happen. He gaped at the injured twins – his precious sacrifices – now lying in a pool of blood. Then abruptly, he was shoved aside. Somehow the woman had beaten off the creatures and she lunged at the crib. She cried out in horror when she saw the twin’s injuries.
In a smooth motion, Litanus unsheathed his long knife and stuck it deep into the woman’s belly. As she moved forward, her weight forced the full length of the blade within and he felt it crunch as it lodged into her backbone.
He jumped back, pulling the blade with him to let the woman drop to her knees. Her brown eyes, full of terror, locked onto his. Her face was close, her breath hard on his cheek, eyes wide with surprise – brown eyes, like his own.
Normally he was insensitive to his victim’s suffering but strangely Litanus felt something – a feeling that tugged at a memory. It was an emotion he had experienced a long time ago, from before he could remember.
The woman slumped to the floor, blood soaking through the fabric of her clothes.
Desperate to regain the memory she had triggered, Litanus knelt beside her and pushed her over onto her back. Her breaths came in short gasps and she stared up at the ceiling with glazed eyes. She reminded Litanus of a near-dead fish thrown onto a riverbank by a fisherman. Her smock was ripped open and one plump breast, tense with milk, stood up on her chest.
Something stirred within him – an unfamiliar feeling. He did not know what it was – he was only used to feeling nothing but emptiness. He craved to feel something else.
The breast was engorged. A bead of milk sat on the nipple and veins coursed beneath the skin. The woman blinked slowly, her breaths shallow and jerking.
With eyes closed and, unsure of his actions, Litanus bent his head to the woman’s chest and closed his lips around her teat. Nothing came. He opened his mouth wider and sucked the taut breast inside. He bit down. Milk flooded into his mouth, sweet and watery. He gulped and sucked some more. The woman moaned. Her breast was plentiful and warm milk pumped into his throat, which he swallowed greedily. Tenuous memories were dredged from deep within his mind – a soft breast, a woman’s hand on his cheek, a loving face beaming down at him. He had the overwhelming feeling that the face was his mother’s. But he had never known her.
Litanus felt a stirring in his groin. He grunted as he sucked. He knew it was wrong to be aroused but he was impelled. A weak hand tried to push his face away. Or did she caress him? She murmured into his ear and he let the breast fall from his mouth as he cocked his head closer to hear her words.
“Spare my babies … I beg you.”
Ignoring her, he ran his tongue around her nipple, savouring the last drops. He pushed himself up onto his knees. His stomach was full and warm. But there was still the same elusive feeling. Was it love? He had never known love so he could not be sure. A moment ago he had felt comfort … and … desire. But now those sensations were gone. Somehow he had to hang on to them. The woman would die but he needed a token from her to allow the unfamiliar feelings to survive.
He picked up his knife. His hand moved deftly. A piercing scream deafened him and he lashed at her face with his fist to shut her up. He carved again and at last his prize was free; a lump of yellow tissue covered with white skin and a nipple, oozing blood and milk. It smelled sickly sweet. Holding the knife between his lips he stuffed the fleshy mass down the front of his robe. It was warm and wet against his skin. It felt good. He sucked the woman’s blood from the blade and allowed it to mix with the residual milk in his mouth. Finally, the woman stopped breathing.
Just then, the back door burst open and a man bellowed at the top of his lungs. Aghast, Litanus snapped back to his purpose. In his distraction, he had stopped the chant and now all around was pandemonium. The myling stood in a useless huddle, dead eyes aimlessly wandering. A young girl was at the opening of the back room, staring with wide eyes and screaming, snot running from one nostril. A newborn’s wail came from further back and joined those of the twins in the cot.
The bearded farmer ran screaming into the room flailing a wood axe. The sharp edge found the neck of one of the undead but failed to sever it cleanly. The myling’s head flopped to the side but was held on by a few tendrils of rotting flesh. Desperately, Litanus jumped to his feet and resumed the mantra, needing to shout to be heard above the din. Under the monk’s direction, the creatures attacked.
Litanus reached into the crib and grabbed the child covered with the least blood. But before he could seize the other, an axe blade carved an arc in front of his face and lodged into one of the myling. The farmer let out a victory yell but then hesitated when he noticed his wife’s desecrated body on the floor.
“Jenna,” he cried. He released a guttural moan which turned into a snarl as his eyes shifted to his wife’s murderer. Screaming with rage and grief, the man yanked his weapon from the myling’s torso. But Litanus increased the cadence of his chant to a fever pitch and, as one, the myling jumped at the man and dragged him to the ground, as he bellowed like a wounded bull, kicking and biting into the dead flesh. But there were too many creatures. Litanus was safe.
Holding the still-screaming child, Litanus strode from the hut and made for a clearing outside of the village. He quickly assessed the other sets and, with a rising frustration, realised the attack was less than the success he had planned for. Of the thirteen monks, he could only see four with babes, a poor effort for the distance they had come. It would have to do, but he could not suppress his dread. Did they fail because of his lapse? Why did I do that? He searched for an excuse and thought back to the woman’s captivating brown eyes. She bewitched me. But the Master will not be pleased with the paltry catch. He felt the tightening return to his throat and his heart banged against his ribs. Then he reached beneath his robe and stroked the moist lump of flesh that was hidden there. He began to feel better. Perhaps it had been worth it. Then, with self-disgust, he jerked his hand away.
His Brothers stood before him awaiting orders. Wordlessly, he pointed westward and the monks moved away leaving the myling behind. Screams and moans could be heard from all over the village as the creatures created havoc. But without the energy provided of the monk’s chant, the myling would soon return to their lifeless state and the villagers might yet survive. Then, as quickly as they had come, the mist closed around the monks and they were gone.