One evening in mid-summer, I happened to be drinking a mellow pint of Throttled Piglet in the Nine Tailed Cat with some friends when a stranger walked in and sat down with a pint at a table by himself. He seemed troubled and I approached him to see if he would share his burden with us so that we might offer solace.
“I see you are troubled, friend,” I said. “They say that a trouble shared is a trouble halved and we are good listeners here should you wish to engage us with your tale.”
“I thank you, friend. Perchance by sharing my tale, a new solution to my woes may appear.
“My name is Jaykaub Scallion. I fought in the War against the Abyss as an officer in a pike regiment. Although the fighting was bitter, fortune seemed to favour us and we escaped most engagements with light casualties. I myself was slightly wounded on two occasions, but this amounted to nothing more serious than a few deep scratches.
“That all changed at the Battle of the Ford. The battle was hard-fought with first one side and then the other in the ascendancy. Initially, we were stationed on one flank and saw little of the action but then an Abyssal force headed in our direction and we readied for the impact. The shock of the charge was huge but we stood our ground and fought the foe to a standstill. They withdrew and then charged again. Once more, we stood firm but our numbers were depleted and we were hard pressed. I knew that we would be lucky to hold a third onslaught without reinforcement.
“And so it proved. As the enemy poured forward, our front line gave way and the foe were amongst us. We lost cohesion and every man was fighting for himself. Things would have gone very badly for us if not for reinforcements arriving suddenly, taking the enemy in the flank and throwing them back. At the time, I knew nothing of this for a huge Abyssal Guardsman chose me as his target and attacked furiously. I was already tired from our earlier exertions and was barely able to deflect his initial blows and then I slipped on the bloody ground and his weapon came crashing down on my head. I knew nothing more.
“I regained my senses in the evening and found myself in intense agony but strangely paralysed so that while I could not even open my mouth or blink my eyes, I could see and hear everything that transpired. My men had carried me to the surgeons tending to the wounded but there was to be no aid for me. The surgeon took one look at my wounds, felt for my pulse and then declared me as good as dead. I was lain on the ground amongst the corpses and he moved on to the other injured.
“I lay there and waited in agony to die. They say that when you are about to die your life flashes in front of your eyes. No such thing happened to me and I found no peace that night as I raged against the cruel misfortune that propelled me to this end.
“Deep in the night, I must have lost my senses for a moment for I suddenly started and found myself being surveyed by a strange creature. I could not accurately describe the apparition as it seemed to blink in and out of my sight, now clear in outline and colour and then more of a blur in the light preventing me from seeing the sky clearly. A strange smell assaulted my nostrils at this time, I had smelled nothing like it before and I could best describe it as the smell of decay mingled with the smell in the air after a lightning strike.
“The creature spoke to me although no words came, from its mouth, they simply appeared in my mind. To my surprise, I found that I could communicate with it.
“ ‘You are in pain,’ it said. ‘You are close to death, I can feel it in the air.’
“I said nothing in response to this pronouncement although I knew it to be true.
“ ‘Mayhap, I can help you, but by rights I must have something in return. I propose a contract. I will save your life and you will render me a small service in the future.’
“When I look back now, I curse myself for what happened next. My only defence is that I was in agony and in great mental turmoil, knowing that I would die and not see my wife and daughter again.
“ ‘What is this service that you would have me perform?’ I asked.
“ ‘Nothing too onerous. Just that I will come to you in the future and ask you to make a choice for me. Come, this is a small enough payment surely for saving your life?’
“Again I curse myself, but in my tortured mental state, the contract did indeed not seem too onerous and I agreed. As if from the air itself, the creature drew a parchment and before my eyes writing appeared outlining the agreement. The creature offered the parchment to me and asked me to sign. I said that I had no pen and it simply dipped my forefinger into the blood from my open wound and pressed it against the document.
“Once more, I must have lost my senses for when I again awoke, my pain was subsiding and my wounds were closing before my eyes. I found that I could speak and I shouted for help. The surgeon ran over amazed and pronounced my survival a miracle. Over the next three days, my body mended and I was able to rejoin my regiment but my mind was troubled. Had I really signed a contract with a creature during the night or had this been just a nightmare brought on by the wound I had suffered?
“When the war was finally over, I returned home to my loving wife Pangolin and our beautiful daughter, Daisy. In their care, I managed to put the horrors of the war behind me and returned to managing our estate. I delighted in their company and my love for both of them grew. But something still nagged at my mind. What was that creature that had appeared to me and what did the contract mean? As the days passed, the worry grew and I decided that I must find out the truth.
“I travelled far and wide, consulting learned men and scouring libraries for forgotten tomes of arcane advice, always searching for an answer. Over time, I came to the realisation that the creature was a Nightstalker, one of those unspeakable denizens of another dimension that must have been ripped through a portal in the fabric of reality, drawn by the pain and suffering brought on by the War of the Abyss. I learned that Nightstalkers find moving between dimensions easiest when the power of the Abyss is strong and when there are strong emotions on which to feed and I hoped that the inundation of the Abyss and the end of the war might have sealed my nemesis away forever. Each passing day that did not bring another visitation fuelled my hope.
“My wife and daughter are away staying with her parents and I was alone in the house. I was drowsing in my chair at sunset when I was awoken by a sickly but familiar smell of decay and lightning. Fearing the worst, I looked up and there was the shadowy outline of the creature looking down at me.
“ ‘I have returned,’ it said. ‘It is time for you to fulfil your part of the contract. You must now make a choice for me.’
“ ‘What is this choice?’ I asked.
“ ‘It is simple,’ replied the creature. ‘You have cheated death and now a soul is required to make up the tally. You must choose if I am to take your wife or your daughter.’
“I was numb at this statement. How could I possibly decide? In vain, I pleaded with the creature even though I guessed this would be in vain. ‘Take me instead,’ I pleaded
“The creature grinned and shook its head. ‘He who binds himself to a blood contract cannot die until the contract is fulfilled. You must make this decision, there is no other course of action.’
“ ‘What if I refuse to choose?’ I asked.
“ ‘Then I will take them both,’ it replied. ‘I will return at sunset tomorrow for your answer and then I shall take one or both.’
“What could be the motivation for this creature to set such a trap? It is the conceit of men to expect that other creatures are bound by the same rules or mirror our emotions and it is possible that this creature’s motivation is alien and completely unfathomable to us. However, I have come to believe that it seeks strong emotions as sustenance and feeding on them gives it the power to navigate between dimensions. With power of the Abyss broken, it needed a powerful source of energy and what could produce stronger emotions in man than the choice it has set me?
“All through last night and today I have wrestled with this decision. I have cursed myself for entering this contract but there is no way out of it. I must choose to lose either my wife or daughter or find that I lose both. But how can I live with this decision? If I choose my daughter, how will I ever explain to my wife what I have done. If I offer up my wife, how will I comfort my daughter in her loss?”
For once, the bar was silent. We had all listened to the story with mounting horror, the others doubtless thinking like me of how we would face such a decision. No-one could find a word of advice or comfort, wrapped up as we were in our own thoughts.
Jaykaub stood up. “I see that you have no words of advice. I suspected as much, for I have wrestled with this choice all day and no answer has come. It is no surprise that you who are new to the question have no answer.
“Now, it is late and sunset approaches. I must leave you to find my nemesis and make my choice.”
And with those words, Jaykaub Scallion walked out of our lives. I have heard no more of him, but I still wonder what choice he made and, indeed, what choice I would make in his place.