Michael C. Pennington
Previously Published by
The message runner burst through the door, stumbling on the threshold into the inn, barely clothed, skin and blond hair streaked with road grime, dripping sweat. He leaned over, hands propped on his knees.
The common room went from uproarious to silent in an instant. Every head turned his way, the teenager’s urgency evident. Community runners were never used for trivial matters.
The messenger’s head jerked up, his desperate eyes searched the room and sought them out.
Ulrich sighed with false exasperation at the interruption. There was no avoiding the kid. The two were obvious, dressed in issue forest camouflage. In contrast to the homespun or frayed clothing of an age gone by that everyone else wore.
He had foolishly hoped for a little time off, the two of them were always after some rogue beast or homicidal mutant. They had just returned that morning from an outlying homestead investigating the murder of an entire family.
The pseudo vampires were the number one suspects, only God or the a devil knew what motivated them to drain and drink the blood from their victims. They were a scourge on the rest of mankind.
Ulrich sat with the master hunter, each with their back to one wall in the back corner. He had loudly enjoyed the midday meal, shoveling in food to fuel his large frame. Until, the messenger disturbed his peace.
The kid dodged around the tables to reach them, his chest heaving. Between heavy gasps, in a wheezing whisper he spilled out his dire news into Rolf Thorson’s ear.
The journeyman hunter watched his friend’s face turn grim. “Six?” Rolf asked to confirm.
The messenger nodded his head.
Ulrich anticipated that they would be leaving at any moment and stuffed the last part of his meal into his mouth. Food was scarce, a quality meal even rarer. He privately raised his flagon of red wine to fighting Death and gulped the bitter sweet concoction down.
Only then did he wipe his sweeping brown mustache with his cloth napkin, rise and pull the dark hand-woven balaclava down over his ears. He lifted his and Rolf’s gear from the pegs on the wall near the table. Discreetly, observing the crowd of local business scions and there lackeys. There were few prosperous professions that would allow a man to take his midday meal in an inn. Those present were the town’s cream of scoundrels.
Unlike the rest of the inn’s patrons, he didn’t strain to eavesdrop on Rolf’s inquiry. Soon enough he would face whatever awaited them. More than likely, he really didn’t want to know what manner of beast caused the haunted fear on the teenager’s face.
He sized up the possibility of a new recruit, if he could be persuaded to leave the Sheriff’s employment.
The hunters’ talents were in constant demand these days. Amongst the destruction, the disease, the famine and the monsters that crept out of the dark. Few wanted to venture outside the confines of the human enclave, let alone fifty miles or more in any direction. It took nerves of iron to stand against a raging man-eating tiger, a maniac with a meat cleaver or something that shouldn’t exist, but did.
Together all three of them left the dining area. Rolf ignored the questions thrown at him as they passed several tables. The patrons’ voices burst into a roar of worry and curiosity as the door closed behind them.
With grim purpose they strode up the street for the town’s northern border. Running vehicles were in short supply and fuel rationed, the gas kept mostly in reserve for farm equipment. The hunter’s were used to travelling on foot.
Ulrich heard the door to the inn slam open. He rolled his eyes and turned with his longbow in one hand. His right hand upon an arrow half drawn from his quiver. Ready to assert that they were not to be followed, he coldly stared down the men sent after them. He shook his head, dropped the arrow back in the quiver and stabbed his index finger back at the inn.
Not a single set of eyes met his. Most knew him well. There wasn’t a one he wouldn’t thrash. No doubt their own employers would deride them, but better for them than an arrow in a foot or a sound beating.
The last thing they needed was the town’s folk mucking up the crime scene. Ulrich turned and lengthened his stride to catch up with the master hunter. The gossips would just have to wait.
When the terrorist’s activated their satchel nukes, the dirty kind, they devastated multiple American and European cities. The radiation spread and vital areas became uninhabitable. The terrorists had planned well. For all the good it did their nuked out countries.
The world shifted into a change twenty years ago. The War on Terrorism forced the enactment of the United States’ Continuation of Government. America deployed her troops, retaliated for years and eventually brought what few soldiers that were left back home. Men like Rolf.
The borders closed and aid stopped going out to solve the rest of the world’s problems. America faced a hard enough time just caring for her own citizens. While the rest of the world fared even worse. The world plunged into anarchy after the United States, the United Kingdom and the rest of her allies waited out the aftermath in a defensive posture while the Four Horsemen reigned.
The grassroots of democracy were just now springing back up around the scattered pockets of civilization. The United States only a shadow of her past glory. The appointed COG officials claimed the terrorists hadn’t won the war. However, they would have a hard time convincing the rest of America’s survivors of that.
The everyday citizen not only fought corruption, but still had to face the more serious risks of starvation, multiple diseases and the weather. Plus, the wide spread radiation caused gene mutation in beasts and man. A person could harvest a deer, catch a fish, plant a crop or open an old can and die within a few days of radiation poisoning. Death took more forms than Ulrich could imagine.
An hour later, Rolf conferred with the Sheriff. His hand hovered about the revolver strapped to his waist. While Ulrich waited with the two deputies a dozen yards away. They wore expressions of men that would prefer to be anywhere else than at the scene of slaughter. Each kept glancing at the sun in the west, no doubt calculating the time before sunset.
It was more than just superstition. Statistics proved more people died after dark. The numbers also showed that folks were more likely to be murdered than pass peacefully in their beds.
“What do you think did this?” Ulrich asked them.
“F’en Vampires!” Stu blurted.
These weren’t the old movie vampires that Stu was worried about, or the kind that a person read about in books. They were changed humans, afflicted with radiated virus that caused an insane craving for blood. The majority weren’t restricted by daylight or bound by arcane rules. More often than not, they couldn’t be distinguished from normal humans, until it was too late.
“Vampires don’t dissolve and strip the flesh from the body and leave nothing but a pile of bloody bones.” Deak shook his head at his partner’s ignorance. “You watch yourself Ulrich. I’ve never seen the likes of this. Ghouls or something new.”
Ulrich shrugged, keeping his eyes on Rolf.
“I wish they’d hurry up,” Stu complained.
Rolf motioned for Ulrich to join him as he turned away from the Sheriff.
Ulrich said in parting, “I’ll see you two back in town. I’d keep this quite if I were you. There’s no reason to scare everyone half to death.”
“You mean like the two of us?” Deak called after him. The deputies were good enough men, just out of their environment.
Ulrich joined Rolf and the two surveyed the campsite. “They’re about ready to crap themselves.” He whispered to the middle aged hunter.
“I don’t blame them.” The skin beneath Rolf’s left eye twitched.
Ulrich leaned forward and traced the prints on the ground.
“See that.” Rolf pointed at multiple spike holes in the soil, each set surrounded a blood stained pile of bones. Torn remnants of clothing and metal implements lay amongst the mayhem.
Most of the victims’ packs, boots and personal possessions were undisturbed where they had stacked them before bedding down. Ulrich flipped the top of one pack open, noting the quantity of gadgets and precious metal versus clothing and food. Rolf grunted at the sight. Ulrich wondered if they had been scavengers or thieves.
He switched his attention elsewhere. “What leaves that kind of tracks?”
Rolf glanced up at Ulrich, the twitch more evident. “I’ve no idea.”
If Rolf Thorson had told him he was a winged fairy, Ulrich would have been less surprised. The man was the best tracker and woodsman in the northwest. “Oh, great.”
“How many do you think we’re facing?” Rolf asked as he usually did to test Ulrich’s skills. “What do you see?” He pointed at each pile of bones.
“I…” Ulrich stared hard at the scene. Only the spiked holes overlay the earlier scuff marks of the encampment. Not a single spiked hole had been scuffed out. “There’s no sign of a struggle. It took them in their sleep.”
“Right. What else?”
Ulrich stepped away from the site. He prowled the entire perimeter then concentrated on one area. Coming back, he eyed his friend and then ventured his assessment. “There’s only one trail in or maybe out. The spike holes only seem to lean in one direction, all angled away from the site. The other thing is; depending on how many legs the beast has that did this…” He pointed at the spike marks around one pile of bones counting the number. “Eight legs. It looks like only one beast did this.”
“Lord Almighty! It had to kill each one of them without the others even knowing.”
“My thought too.” Rolf stared off at the sun and then to the north at the upper slope that the old forest darkened.
“A giant spider?” Ulrich ventured.
“You ever see a giant spider?” his friend asked sarcastically.
“No. Not yet. But this thing’s appetite, six men…” Something caught Ulrich’s eye and he looked closer.
“We’re done here.” Rolf motioned him to take the lead.
“Wait.” Ulrich pulled an arrow from his quiver and picked at a pile of bones. He teased out a set of false vampire teeth and picked them up with a scrap of cloth.
“Pseudos!” Rolf grabbed the fangs. “Well this is a turn of events.”
“They won’t be missed and it explains the booty.”
Rolf signaled the Sheriff and went to meet him.
Ulrich knocked the arrow across his bow and followed the trail up the slope a little ways despite his inner fear. He had long since learned to confront his terror. He had a job to do, but that didn’t stop his imagination or the nightmares.
He observed Rolf wave farewell to the Sheriff from the corner of his left eye and heard Stu bawl out his relief.
“Thank God! I thought they would never finish.” The two still had to gather the men’s processions, before they could join the Sheriff and runner in the open jeep.
Ulrich was ready to bet that Deak would keep the throttle floored on the way back to town.
The rainforest towered over the pair. Several deadfall lay scattered about, each heavily encrusted with lichen. Fern and low bush crowded the ground between the trees near the forest’s edge. However, the deeper they trekked, only the lichen and a rare fern grew from the thick mulch.
Tracking the beast became difficult, finding an occasional scuff amongst the lichen. The failing light threatened to make the task impossible. His eyes never stopped scanning the ground, the trees about him and the branches above him. His cautious heart pounded at the thought of being ambushed.
They found a game trail, just a hint of brown in an indentation in the lichen. It followed the easiest way through the trees. The slope steepened and the dark shadows pressed in.
Ulrich froze in place. His neck craned back to pick out Rolf leaving the path. The master hunter placed each foot down with deliberate caution, careful to leave as little sign as possible. Ulrich followed; paranoia and terror amplifying his senses. Tracking a rogue monster in the dark was one of his least favorite tasks.
Rolf stopped and prepared his climbing equipment. He pointed at a tree close by for Ulrich to mount. “I’ll take the first watch.” He growled out in a low monotone, the higher pitch of a whisper tended to travel further.
“Do you think it can climb?” Ulrich reciprocated.
“I’m not sure. Now be quiet and get up the tree.”
Ulrich strapped the spikes to the inner side of his boots, flung a fat rope about the bole of the tree and adjusted the length at his belt. They both humped up the tree about twenty feet, high enough to get a vantage point, low enough to get down fast if the need arose. The two positioned themselves where they could see the trail and each other, and then lashed a padded platform to the tree that they could sit on.
The hours of the night passed, and just the slightest hint of false dawn crept beneath the forest’s canopy. Ulrich scanned the trail and the forest around him. The wind had picked up and every rustle of the branches caused his eyes to jerk about. He peered up into the tree above him, afraid to make a sudden move with anything but his eyes.
He shuddered, the thought that all anyone would ever find of him was a pile of bloody bones occurred to him. Well aware that Rolf had purposely set them in place to ambush the beast. His eyes dropped back to the trail.
A large deer with several tines stepped into view. Hesitant, it paused with one hoof in the air. The buck took a pace forward, head bent down to nibble and then moved on.
Another buck followed, just as cautious. Ulrich’s eyes flowed about the forest, half expecting the deer to be attacked. The first passed by, before he noticed the strangeness to the shadowed outline of the second. When he perceived the deception, his heart raced and the hair rose on the back of his neck.
The head and antlers were there, but what he thought to be the animal’s legs were too spindly. The body looked like the deer’s hide, but was too lumpy. A hot rush of revulsion swept his mind.
Something wrapped about the deer, not even its companion seemed to notice. In one fluid motion, he lifted, drew back the bow and let the arrow fly. The long shaft buried deep into the torso of the deer, just behind where the front shoulder should have been.
What looked like an umbrella shaped, batwing spread out from the far side. The deer collapsed to the ground, a mess of bowels and blood spilled. Pinned by the arrow to the deer, the monster thrashed about to free itself.
He had observed Rolf jerk awake at the thrum of the bowstring. Ulrich freed the rope that held him to the tree stand. He dropped a coil of line to slide down. Intent on putting an end to the creature, he leaned out from the tree to belay down.
Blackness fell about his body, as if a leather hide was thrown over him and tightened. He felt himself fall, struggling to free his arms and face from the smothering interior that engulfed him. A scream of terror escaped his lungs, when he realized that one of creatures engulfed him. He slammed against the ground, the wind knocked from his lungs.
The sharp scent of expelled putrid musk assailed his nostrils and fouled his taste buds with his first inhaled breath. Spiked dew claws punctured his skin and something sucked at the stocking cap trying to get at his scalp. In a second wave of terror and hysterical strength he thrashed about. His hand closed on his knife just as he and the beast that enshrouded him rolled down the slope.
He stabbed the knife deep and slashed down. Then again and again; until, the creature’s flesh parted and he struggled out from its fetid insides. They both rose up in confrontation. The monster stretched out before him, maybe eight feet in diameter with triangular teeth lining a mouth like ring in the center of the inner surface. Far larger than the one his arrow pinned to the deer.
He backed away wishing he had a boar spear. He thought to look for Rolf, expecting help to come to his aid. A mistake, the beast must have observed his distraction.
The monster sprang toward him, like a circular net cast by a fisherman. Ulrich fell on his backside and kicked out in panic. Legs entangled in the shroud, he frantically slashed at the monster with his climbing spikes. His left hand automatically closed about one long claw where the thick skin flapped loosely from one of his earlier cuts.
Ulrich rolled and dragged the thick hide of the shroud with him. He heard a snap of hollow bone. The monster was surprisingly light. He sheathed his knife, hoping his impulsive idea didn’t fail him.
A second spiked claw stabbed out at him and he grabbed it. He pulled the other one in his left toward his right hand to clutch them together. Scrabbling to the top of the outer surface, he folded the shroud back upon itself. Articulated joints popped, when separated, and the snap of bone seem to weaken the beast with each fold. With his last effort he tied the claws together with a game strap from his belt.
Scrambling away, he climbed to his feet to look for Rolf. Another shroud enfolded the master hunter’s upper torso and arms. Knife back in Ulrich’s hand, he ran to his friend’s aid.
Rolf flopped on the ground, his legs flailed at the air. Ulrich grasped a leg spike, applied the knife’s edge and sliced upward toward Rolf’s head and the monsters center. His nerves on edge, because the shroud had a lot more time to work on the hunter. He peeled back the shroud, folding the monster back upon itself like he had the other. Dew claws ripped from Rolf’s skin and clothing.
Free from the shroud, Rolf rolled away, desperate his hands wiped at his reddened face. Ulrich finished securing the shroud, leapt for his fallen pack and tore the goatskin water flask free from its strap. In another second he was beside Rolf to drench his face and hair hoping the water would dilute the acidic burn of the saliva.
Perhaps instinct warned him, maybe it was just a noise, but he looked up in time to see the shroud he pinned to the deer, tear itself free. Like an undulating jellyfish, it sprung into the air. To spread its umbrella like shape to drift down some distance away, furled its self and then sprang into the air again.
Ulrich went for his pack. This time he freed the double headed woodsman’s axe. He crouched to wait for the attack. Only the shroud flapped away in the opposite direction, headed deeper into the forest.
Rolf staggered to his feet, wiping at his face. “How many?”
“Two bound up, the first is getting away.”
“Go get it. I’ll be right behind you.”
Ulrich took off with only the ax and his knife. He ran as hard as he could. The shroud disappeared ahead amongst the trees.
With the axe gripped to his chest, he burst into a clearing. The shroud stood ballooned up in front of him. There were several black spots near the top, spaced about the center. He wondered if the spots were eyes. He couldn’t even guess which way the monster faced.
Behind the shroud a white nest of strand like material squatted on eight stubby legs. He charged the shroud. His axe lifted up above his head at the last minute.
He drove it down into the motionless creature. Unsure and confused why the shroud didn’t try to fight back. Or at least flee into the nest to take refuge.
When, he pulled back on the ax to free the blade. The shroud pulled away from another beneath. He didn’t hesitate and stomped down near the center to gain enough leverage to free the ax.
The axe sucked free to take a swipe at the other one, just as the shroud sprang toward the nest. Its legs scrabbled to pull down a trap door in the side. Ulrich had no intention of letting it get inside, terrified to go in after it.
Desperate, Ulrich arched his back with the ax once again held high. He hurled his body forward letting it fly. The heavy blade tumbled once and clove into the escaping shroud. Without hesitation he surged forward to finish the kill. Ax back in his hand, he lifted his head to check the nest.
The open trapdoor, and dark interior frightened him. He backed away, not taking his eyes from the gaping hole. His imagination at work, he was ready for more monsters to swarm out.
Rolf stumbled into the clearing, with Ulrich’s bow over his shoulder, exhaustion evident from his heaving lungs. He bent over hands supported on his knees to keep watch the open trap door. “Anymore?”
“I don’t know.”
The hunter pointed at the smaller forth one. “Did that come from inside?”
“No. I think it cloned off the larger one.”
“Like cell division? Mitosis?”
“Lord, help us sinners.” Rolf looked back the way he came. Perhaps thinking of the two they left behind multiplying. “I wonder how fast they breed.”
“I thought monsters like this were just science fiction stories,” Ulrich complained.
“What do we do?” Ulrich asked, unsure of his next move.
“Use that axe and drop a tree on the nest. A big one.”
A half hour later, the tree gave a sharp pop and a low pitch squeal as it leaned toward the machine. Ulrich in quick succession slashed the axe twice more into the cut to direct the trunk’s fall. The remaining wood snapped and fibers pulled as it fell exactly across the hatch, flattening the nest down the center. The tree completely sealed the trap door beneath its weight.
But the nest burst open from the side and emitted a high pitched scream that the men felt more than heard. The pressure on their eardrums was relentless. The two hunters backed away from the nest that Ulrich now suspected was alive.
Ulrich traded Rolf his axe for the bow. He quickly knocked an arrow just in time. A stack of shrouds burst out of the torn side. They were smaller than the originals ambushers, each about the size of a large pumpkin. A second stack followed.
Ulrich put an arrow into the first stack. The second stack popped one shroud off the top, then another and another until they faced three in the air. The first stack, unable to disperse, scuttled straight for Ulrich.
Rolf intercepted and buried the axe in the stack’s top shroud, while the rest puffed up their skirts trying to break free from the arrow.
Ulrich launched an arrow to pluck a looming shroud from the air.
“Don’t let any get away,” Rolf yelled out. He hacked at the stack taking the lower legs out from under the bunch.
Ulrich’s third arrow took a second one from the air, when the bottom one from the separated stack launched itself from the ground. He ducked, but the claws caught on his cloak and the shroud spread itself on his back.
He threw himself down with the intent to hurt the monster. He pawed at the shroud to get it off his back. Before, it crawled up on his neck.
Parachuting down, the remaining shroud in the air hovered above Rolf, who still flailed at the pinned beasts. “Look out,” Ulrich screamed.
Rolf drew and fired the heavy caliber pistol with no effect, going down with the shroud over his head, spiked claws digging in. The hide rippled and ballooned. He cursed a continuous string of muffled profanity. While he beat and pried at the shroud, unable to get the blood sucker off his head.
He stumbled over the entangled mass that thrashed about at his feet. Rolf took a hard fall and rolled about fighting suffocation.
Ulrich latched on to a spiked claw that appeared in his vision. The gratifying snap of bone, momentarily panicked him afraid the leg would pull free from the shroud. He clutched at the hide instead and slammed it to the ground to stomp the lump into a quivering puddle.
Yanking his blade from his sheath, for the second time that morning, he rushed to cut a shroud away from Rolf. The hide sucked in close to the neck. He pulled it away, afraid for his friend, before pealing back the skin.
“Burn the nest! Burn it,” Rolf scream in fury as the shroud pulled away from his face.
In agreement, Ulrich dug for his flint and steel as he strode toward the nest. He had no idea if the fibrous material would burn. He wasn’t surprised when the sparks only smoldered amongst the damp fiber.
He ducked under an old tree and stripped dead branches from the trunk. Stepping back, he jumped and snatched at some dried moss. Then pealed at the red bark, until he could hold no more clutched to his chest.
Returning to the nest, he went to his knees to sort the kindling into a workable pile. He rolled the moss into a wad, dug in his pockets and pulled at the lent and what threads he could loosen to push into the center. Then once again, he raked the flint striker along the rod.
With each stroke a stream of sparks fell into the tender. At the hint of smoldering, he cupped his hands around the sparks and gently blew into the smoke. Flame flashed and he wedged the burning tender amongst his kindling.
Soon, he directed the burning pile against the nest, before jogging back for more wood. With worry, he watched the fire over his shoulder. The flame didn’t seem to want to catch.
He kept adding wood to build the flame. The heat increasing as the size of the fire grew. Abruptly, the air boomed in displacement and the nest burst into flame.
Ulrich backed away toward Rolf, who still sprawled on the ground. He bent over to help him up. “Hey Rolf. What’s the matter? You hurt? Or just getting old?”
Rolf shook his head and kicked at the nearby stack of skewered shrouds. “I guess we know how they took out the pseudo vampires. Dropped on them from the air and then walked out in a bloated stack.”
Rolf nodded. “We’ll have to get a bulletin out, incase more nests turn up.”
“The bastards are smart. They set a trap for us.”
“You know Ulrich, I’ve been thinking.”
“It’s about time you took on an apprentice or two for these little sojourns.”
“Why?” Ulrich bent over, manhandled the stack of squirming shrouds and hurled them into the fire.
“Times are changing. I prefer the simple vampire or rogue tiger.”
“You’re joking. You’d miss all the action.” He hustled after the two with protruding arrows that flapped on the ground.
“No. I think it’s time that I took on a desk. Someone needs to coordinate the overall mission, there’s too much activity. You can handle the field work from now on.”
“You’ll get fat.” Ulrich tossed the shrouds on the fire.
“You’re still going to pay for the meals, right?”
“I’ll be feeding more than you if I have my way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Death’s rearing his mighty head.”
Ulrich turned and gave all of his attention to his friend. He realized his friend spoke of something else besides retiring.
“The change is upon us again.” Rolf pointed at the pyre.
“What can we do?”
“We’ll gather as many worthy apprentices as we can muster. I want to create a new group of Death hunters.”
“Where we going with this?”
Rolf glared at him intently. “We’re going to fight back. I refuse to just keep taking these monstrosities on as they come. We’re going to hunt them out and kill them.”
“You’re speaking of a small army.”
“Exactly. An army of rangers for the continuation of life.”
“It sounds like a religion.”
“If needs be. You Ulrich shall be our first captain.”
“Rolf. Are you alright?”
“Never better. We’re not going to stop at killing Death’s minions either. We’re going to teach the people how to survive death, how to grow their own food, fight disease and when the time comes stomp out the corruption around us.”
“A tall order. What makes you think COG will let us?”
“Their local cronies won’t be able to stop us. Which would you choose, a way of life that doesn’t protect you from death, or one that promises life? Before they know it we’ll be too strong.”
Rolf leaned on Ulrich. “Then the Four Horsemen don’t stand a chance. A fifth rider will take the field for Life.”
Ulrich couldn’t resist asking. “Rider? And what color of horse do I get?”
Rolf laughed. “An old swayback appaloosa.
“Huh?” Ulrich turned to his friend in surprise.
Rich laughter echoed up into the trees. “It will represent what we have left to patch the world back together with.”
Michael C. Pennington is the owner of Aurora Wolf Literary Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. “Against Death”, was originally published by Static Movement 2010.