Tales from the Nine Tailed Cat - 05 Keep on Running (Final)

It was an ordinary day in Harlswarde. I had been working hard and, come evening, I was looking forward to a drink in the Cat. The Snug Bar was playing host to the usual crowd and I quickly joined them with my pint of throttled piglet, this week’s guest ale. The banter was good this evening as we traded good-natured insults and tall tales. A small crowd gathered to join in the merriment amongst which I spotted a stranger, a youngish man but with a face worn with care beyond his years.

In a pause in the conversation, I beckoned him to join us, introduced myself and said: “Well met, Sir. I see that you are not from these parts and I discern that you have had a hard life for one so young. Do you have a tale that you would share with us and, perchance, unburden yourself of some of your load?”

The stranger took a drink from his glass, looked around, and then said: “I will gladly share my tale with you but I must warn you that this is not a happy story and it will be at odds with the current mood of the company.”

“Nevertheless, we are always glad to hear news from afar. Our own stories suffer from repeated telling and our jokes grow wearisome form frequent re-telling. Look, here’s a pint of ale to ease your throat and aid the telling of your tale.”

The stranger accepted the drink and saluted the company.

“Very well. My name is Cenric Yungney and I hail from a cursed land far from here. In my land it was normal for boys of seventeen summers to be conscripted into the army with service usually lasting for eighteen months. Recruits are released unless they volunteer to serve on and make a career as a soldier on my seventeenth birthday, I gladly joined up and spent a month being drilled and learning the basics of war before being assigned to the Puckleburn Watch. I had no idea what would be involved in this posting but I set out on an autumn day with enthusiasm on the long journey to the distant village of Puckleburn.

“The journey passed without incident and I arrived at sunset on the third day where I was met by Sergeant Willem Marchmain and assigned to a bed space. The next day, Captain Theobald Hardsman, a grizzled veteran soldier who now commanded the Watch, interviewed me and explained the role of the Watch and my duties.

“I soon discovered that Puckleburn is a small village in the middle of nowhere and with no interesting features. The Watch house is sited about a mile and a half from the village, making it even less interesting and even more in the middle of nowhere. The routine was boring and there was little to do in any time off.

“So why was the Watch there in the first place? Well, years before there had been an incursion by Abyssal creatures and the source of the infestation had been a cursed temple in this vicinity. The Watch was in place to ensure that any subsequent Abyssal incursion from the temple could be dealt with quickly. Captain Hardsman had been assigned to the Watch years previously as a young recruit before signing-on as professional soldier. He had now returned after years of service to see out his time in this post.

“After three months of this posting, I was bored stiff with the routine. One cold winter night, I found myself on duty, watching the ruins of the temple, becoming drowsy and thinking
longingly of my warm bed. I say ‘temple’ because that is what the ruins were called but, truth to tell, no one really knew what the buildings before me were for. There were massive figures and heads with strange and grotesque features carved from stone and now crumbling and overgrown with creeping vines. A huge skull of some fantastical horned creature stood on a tall pillar, leering at some cosmic joke. In the centre, a low square mound was paved in stone with some dread marking in the centre. Giant carved skulls fringed the mound, their gaze seemingly always alert and watching me as I made my sentry rounds.

“The temple was surrounded by a wall and an outer fence. A statue had been erected years earlier by the wall, a memorial to those who had lost their lives in the Abyssal invasion. Carved from stone, it depicted a grieving mother, weeping over the tomb of her slaughtered son.

“At night, the whole site was creepy. Moonlight threw the ruins into stark relief and the swaying of trees seemed to make the shadows dance, transforming in my mind into bizarre and hideous forms. A cold seemed to emanate always from the ruins, regardless of the weather elsewhere, chilling the blood as one approached. I for one, had no desire to cross the barriers and enter the temple and kept as far from them as my duty would allow.

“I was roused from my torpor by Captain Hardsman, who had arrived with silent footfalls.

“ ‘Anything happening, lad?’ he said.

“Nothing to report Captain. There is never anything to report here. I don’t understand why we still guard these ruins after all this time.

“The Captain grunted. ‘We guard them because they are dangerous. You were still in nappies when the Abyssals last invaded these lands. Many were slaughtered and their souls stolen for the Dark Ones. It took many months of fighting, and the loss of many men, before the threat was beaten-back. Since then, we have stood guard over the ruins to make sure that our land is never threatened again. When I first came to the Watch, we based a regiment here to guard the wall and fence. Now, many people think like you and do not see the need for our guarding. I have only a troop of old men like me or inexperienced youngsters like you to keep the Watch. But, mark my words, the Abyssals will be back.’

“His words stayed with me, but I scarce credited them. The murmurings of a scared old man I thought.

“Some weeks later, I was on duty again at night. There was a bitter wind blowing, making the air even more chill than usual, and carrying strange moans from the temple. I was unsettled by the atmosphere and the Captain must have felt this too for he joined me on my watch.

“Suddenly, I saw a strange glow coming from the ruins. The Captain saw it too. ‘I don’t like the look of that,’ he said. ‘Alert the Watch.’

“I didn’t need telling twice for I was now seriously spooked. I ran back to the Watch-House, shouting ‘Stand To! Stand To!’.

“The members of the Watch tumbled out of the building, pulling on armour and grabbing weapons. In less than 5 minutes the fence was manned, with anxious faces peering into the dark.

“The glow grew brighter and the air grew chiller. The shadows seemed to move independently of any physical structure casting them and we stared into the gloom, desperate to make sense of what was happening. Suddenly, without warning, a jet of yellow and red flames and sparks shot into the air, temporarily blinding us. When our eyes recovered, hulking forms could be seen moving around.

“As my eyes recovered, I was able to make out more details. The forms slowly became distinguishable as monstrous creatures. Taller than a man, perhaps nine feet or so, they had the appearance of gigantic women. Their skin was red and orange and glowed as though on fire. Their long flowing hair stood up and blew in the breeze. In their hands, they grasped bladed weapons that glinted threateningly in the moonlight. Amongst the ‘women’, marched strange beings that seemed to burn most fiercely with bright yellow flames. They had no legs but moved as though blown by the wind.

“The scene was beyond anything that I had ever seen and I was frozen to the spot, my mind appalled and terrified. In this, I was not alone and many of my comrades were struck motionless, unsure of what to do. My mind told me to flee from this terror and I could see the same thought in the eyes of my fellows.

“ ‘Stand firm everywhere,’ shouted the Captain. ‘You are soldiers of the land and sworn to protect our folk. Now is the time to remember your oaths, put fear aside and let your swords sing in your hands.’

“His words seemed to galvanise us and our training kicked in, even while our minds seemed to be still frozen. We manned our posts against the fence and gripped our swords more firmly. The creatures had now reached the inner protective wall and pushed against it. Daring to hope that perhaps this might hold them, our prayers were dashed as an explosion blew a massive breach in the defence and the beasts marched through. Now all that stood between us and them was the fence.

“In no time, they were on us. I seemed to go into some sort of automatic action as mind subconsciously took over my body and I parried blows and struck back as though in a dream. Alongside me, my Watch-brothers also fought with energy and courage.

“The fence seemed to confuse the foe and we were able to stop their advance and even inflict some damage on them. With a lucky blow, I struck the hand from one of the beasts, black blood spurting high in an arc. To my horror, the brute simply stepped back and I saw the flesh knit together again, as though sewn by a surgeon, and it came at me again.

“To my left, Storten Amwer was combatting two of the foe. He was a better swordsman than me but even his skill could not prevail against the multiple arms besetting him. I saw him duck one blow but then get struck on the helm by the other attacker. As he stepped back the first brute then stabbed him through the chest, the blade sinking in to the hilt, releasing blood and guts to stream down Storten’s armour. He looked down with an expression of shock on his face and a blade descended and took his head clean off his shoulders.

“Elsewhere, others of my friends were falling and it became clear that this was a battle that we could not win. I prepared myself for death.

“Do you think that there is anything worse than death? The Captain had previously regaled us with stories of Abyssals sucking the soul out of victims that they had killed. I had never believed this, thinking them only stories designed to scare us, but what I saw that night changed my mind. Storten’s body lying broken on the ground, started to glow with a hideous green light. Even though he was dead, he sat up, his face contorted with pain and terror, and then I saw his soul ripped from his body and sucked into the mouth of the foul creature bending over him.

“My mind rebelled and I stepped back from the fence. I was no longer capable of rational thought, could not even raise my sword to defend myself. Peering around, I could see that the Abyssals had prevailed everywhere. Only the Captain remained upright and as I watched him, he fell before a furious onslaught. Looking up he caught sight of me. ‘Quick, run lad, back to town and alert the population that the Abyssals are come again.’ A blade descended and split his head in two.

“I ran.

“I reached town and I spread the news as I ran down the street, but I didn’t stop. What I had seen was so horrific that I simply kept running.

“I have been running ever since and I intends to keep on running, trying to keep one step ahead of those horrors. But I know that they will catch up with me one day and so I keep this with me now at all times.” He opened his coat and showed us a pistol stowed in his belt.

“I keep it loaded, ready for when I meet them again.”

“One pistol? Do you think that is enough to fight off an Abyssal?” I asked.

“No, you misunderstand,” he replied. “The pistol bullet is not for them.”

It was a sobering tale and we dispersed that night in sombre mood.