Horror and Thriller Fiction posted November 5, 2012


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Vikings in search of plunder uncover a great evil

They come at night....

by duaneculbertson

They come at night, seeming to prefer the darkness. I write these words as a warning to any who may come after. The tale is not a long one, but one of great import. The vellum is quite worn here; perhaps it will prove an interesting palimpsest one day, if it is ever recovered. How was I to know the mundane details of our raiding party would so desperately need to be overwritten? Division of loot, duties - these trifles melt away after all that has happened.

The lunar light shines down upon me, allowing me to write, temporarily safe, yet trapped. It is perhaps fitting symmetry for this tale. Some 28 days past, as the moon rose to illuminate the midnight waters, our boats ran ashore on this rocky promenade, a blasted stretch of land we would later curse.

Two longboats brimming with the sons of Odin we were. Looking for plunder, we had dreams and expectations. Metals, weapons, the more delusional of our party entertained thoughts of gold. Who could say? We sailed through mists to the unknown.

The lone scholar, I came to document and learn this new land. Son of a warlord, the others dared not mock my academic ways, although, truth be told, I was a skilled warrior of the First Order. Having fought bravely in many battles, I knew what it was to drive fear into a man's heart and read it in his eyes, stealing his life the very next instant with thrust or slash from sharpened steel.

Redmen are primitive. They use only stone. They know not the secret of steel. The lads want Redwomen, but they never keep. Captivity wilts them within days; else they grow ill from us.

Our first attack was devastating, a resounding success, yet little of value did we find. Skill turned common items of bone and wood into things of beauty. However, none of these things would fetch much coin back home.

It was admirable to see the Redmen fight for their land. The survivors of our first onslaught rallied those who yet lived, staging valiant, albeit unsuccessful counterattacks. Sorely outmatched, they harassed us with projectiles of stone, yet these only fueled our bloodlust, doing little to pierce our armor of leather and mail.

In hand-to-hand combat they were woefully unprepared. Only an overwhelming number could bring them any success, yet they lacked this capability. We respected them for their swift and purposeful movements, like animals they could walk the forests with stealth, uncanny in their ability to hide and melt into the shadows.

Outmatched as they were, they still somehow managed to thin our number with each passing night, furtively stealing our men without so much as a groan or choked whisper to alert the others. And these were no green sentries! These were seasoned veterans, free of rations of grog. Yet the next morning it was always the same - gone without a trace. No signs of the violence that must have transpired. It was as if they had been swallowed by the forest. With each passing night, our numbers became fewer.

Moreover, the forests have been eerily silent since our arrival that first full moon. It is as if all the animals have left. Perhaps they fled from something; it is not natural.

The Redwomen usually died before the men could enjoy them. Idle warriors do not a healthy camp make, and the elder members among us urged the craftsmen to work harder, hastening the repairs of the boats.

The restless lads became emboldened, their agitation giving way to insubordination and dissolute behavior. They elected one of their own, Hlodvir, to openly challenge our chief. The nerve of that boy, for Thornton was a bear of a man. It had been utter foolishness.


"It's time we take what is ours," said the youth. "These women are useless. This place reeks of despair and stagnancy. I will lead us to the mountains, where we will no doubt find better Redmen more worthy of our steel."


"Silence, whelp," ordered Thornton. "We repair the boats and set sail for new lands as soon as we are able. Hold your tongue, boy; else I hold it for you."


But the lad was simply too full of self-import and ambition. Greatly underestimating the chief's strength and skill, he played his dark hand; however, the dagger he produced never hit its mark. Instead he found himself transfixed on Thornton's blade, the powerful thrust delivered with great skill and swiftness. The lad's eyes grew wide and went dim as the sword was twisted and removed. The chieftain released his iron grip on the boy's wrist, and allowed his adversary's lifeless body to fall upon the ground. Torrents of blood stained the sand crimson.


"Let this be a lesson to all of you," Thornton bellowed. "We are men of Odin. We do not fight each other. Keep your heads. I will lead us out of here. To better lands. Then back to our homeland."


Alas, it was never to be. That very night, Thornton wandered into the forest and was never seen again. This event unnerved the men, and it was my turn to rally them. I was the most experienced, and my noble blood commanded that I lead. Scholarly pursuits would have to wait; I had more important duties now.

Speaking of scholarly pursuits, I had recently acquired an old Redman. Too frail for flight, he had been abandoned to our mercy. The boisterous Hlodvir wanted to make sport of him, but I saved his life. Nuk-nuk he was called. I have endeavored to piece together the rudiments of his strange language. He is of a gentle nature and, recognizing that I saved his life, was only too eager to please me. I did not even bother to chain him to an anchor, so certain was I that he was far too senile to plot an escape and far too weak to carry out any plan he might conceive. Alas, I can recall his ultimate fate only too well.


"Kill that red devil," came a gruff voice behind me. It was Ivar. Brooding, surly Ivar. A stalwart campaigner, he was nevertheless disliked by most. His advanced age was more of a liability for our raiding party. He was brought along for his special knowledge of navigation. I had once thought of tipping him into the sea myself on the voyage here, so irksome and incessant were his complaints.


"I will do no such thing," I replied soundly. "You need to learn your place, old man; else you will find yourself banished from camp. Or better yet, I will put you on watch. We'll see how you fare against these nocturnal mysteries."

His eyes grew wide with fear; he did none like the sound of that. He spat a curse at me, one I was about to check with a blow from my hand, when a commotion arrested our attention. Horrible screams pealed some distance away. Olaf, Brother of the slain Hlodvir, was making a scene in the middle of the camp. He had managed to catch a Redman in the forest and had staked him out on the beach. The unfortunate savage screamed, his eyes wild with terror. A fire blazed nearby. One end of a metal pole lay in the hearty conflagration. The other impaled the savage, who struggled vainly against the leather thongs that bound him to the ground. The young Redman shrieked; he was being cooked by this pole from the inside out.


Cruelty was not uncommon in our ways, but rarely was it practiced to such a perversion. The lads needed discipline, and this was not helping. I strode through the circle of gawking men and endeavored to put an end to this abhorrent distraction. My sword sang as I unsheathed it, and with one measured stroke, I separated the head of the screaming savage from its body. A fountain of blood spurted from the egregious wound. Much of it splashed upon Olaf, who stood slack-jawed, his face a mix of anger and fear.


"You were on wood gathering duty!" I bellowed. "This does not include bringing back a forest savage and torturing him for sport! Shame on you for conduct not worthy of a son of Odin! Save your brutality for battle! Fool!"


"Well, something needs to be done," retorted the headstrong boy. "We have nothing here for us. Each night more of us disappear, and ne'er do we find any trace. And what are you doing about it? Nothing!"


"Hold your tongue, boy, and show some respect to your elders. Must I remind you of your brother's fate?"


"Yeah, Chiefy cut him down, didn't he? But where is Cheify now? Gut-fur-nichts wandered off, probably got himself killed. What good is a battlemaster who gets lost in the woods? I am glad he is gone."


Some members of the audience nodded their ascent. Others grumbled words of encouragement. This was not what was needed.


"Knabe!" I cursed, striking him with my mailed glove. "I ought to cut out your tongue and feed it to you!" I was gripping the youth by the throat, doing my best not to kill him, when we heard the first cries of alarm.


The old man had gone. Perhaps the fearful spectacle of seeing one of his own brutally tortured and beheaded was too much for him. His shambling thin form was small on the horizon. He was making his way around the cliffs, navigating through the large boulders and water passages. We had so often convinced ourselves of the futility of navigating such a path that we did not consider that it could possibly lead somewhere. Perhaps the man knew of something we had not seen.

I led six of us to follow the red senex. Although we could not see him, we knew he could not possibly have gone far. We would soon overtake him.

The tide was coming in and the ocean sounded angrier than usual. The surf pounded the rocks of the cliffs. We hugged the walls and found footholds. The Redman must have fallen and cut himself, for fresh blood marked an easy trail to follow. Indeed, this man must have had some knowledge of the cliffs, for passages unseen were suddenly revealed, crevasses hidden in plain sight. The water had cut caves and alcoves into the very rock. The cliffs were all made of this soft white mineral. It was a miracle the whole structure did not come down, pounded by the surf as it was.

We had just found the mouth of a substantial cave. Reflections from the water and a strange unexplained phosphoresce made the cavern as day. An unnatural air seemed to blow past us, as if betraying some secret deep lair within. Sons of Odin, many of us keen like feral beasts, often sense and feel things without having to see them. Many of the lads stopped in their tracks, reluctant to go further. I must admit I shared the sentiment. I became aware of my skin in an unpleasant way. This was not the excitement I would often feel before battle. This was something untoward, something perverse. It was a crawling madness that penetrated deep within our very fibers.

I have seen Olaf cut down many a foe in battle, often rushing those twice our number with nary a concern. Indeed, we all believed that to die in battle was the greatest good, that to die for Odin was an exaltation that one could only hope for. And yet, the signs of terror seemed permanently etched upon his face. Prompting him to move did no good, and none of the other lads listened to my commands. It was as if a cloud of fear had descended upon us, a pervasive paralysis we all seemed to share.

Just then a scream of terror arrested our attention. A lugubrious wail so passionate, so horrible, that it cut through us like a knife. Something was coming at us. This familiar battle scenario roused the men from their stupor. Frantic footfalls echoed throughout the cave. And then a figure ran into sight. It was Nuk-nuk, his face a mask of abject terror.

So often in battle have we seen our enemies flee from us with primal fear in their eyes that this reversal seemed an abomination. Frenzied, the Redman flew into my arms, searching for some seemingly elusive safety. Cowering at my feet, he was no longer a thinking creature.

Why had the man run to us and given himself up to our tender mercies when he had just witnessed the brutal torture and killing of one of his fellow tribesmen?
What was it he so ardently fled?
And if he feared us so, how horrible must be the alternative?


Seeing their former victim and captive running to them for support was deeply disturbing to the men. With supreme effort, I appealed to their valor with what little was left of my own. I implored them to continue down the passage.

However, only Ivar dared follow me, a fact that made me reconsider the character of the man. We crept forward. The cave bent to the right and the noises of the surf were suddenly nullified behind us. We listened carefully, but heard nothing over the sounds of water dripping from the stalactites.

And then we saw it!
A figure. Not moving, but a figure. We cautiously approached. In the lurid light, it was grotesque to behold.
Thornton!

Or what was left of the once great battlemaster and war chief. He had been tied to a stone slab, propped up at an angle, the horrible apparition made even grimmer by the reflections of the water bathing what remained of his countenance in an emerald glow. Half of his face had been hideously disfigured. The flesh had been excoriated, the left eye removed. The white bone of the jaw lay exposed, and the few teeth he had enjoyed in life were missing. Ivar approached before full realization bent him double to vomit. With effort, I resisted the contagious urge and forced myself to investigate further. Examining the mutilated body, I realized this was not the work of some unskilled, unthinking creature. It was not an animal that had done this. No, this heinous act had been carried out with precise violence; a calculating evil was responsible for this atrocity!

Once in a foreign land, I studied a tome of anatomical drawings. With horror I made the connection, that our chief was the subject of some investigative exploration. The signs were only too clear: the muscles of his left arm had been separated, his leg had been butchered, and a noisome stench came from a stone nearby where his entrails had been placed. I shuddered to think how our great Chieftain met his end. I hoped it had come swiftly and nobly.


A dark passage lay before us. A door. A door that seemingly led to blackness, to nothing. Footprints could be seen in the wet sand before the smooth slab of stone marking the threshold. There were several tracks. Odd in appearance, most were webbed, like those of an alligator. Steady traces seemed to suggest heavy items had been dragged along this path as well. Finally, I noticed a fresher set of tracks that were more distinct than the others. The smooth impressions were suggestive of the animal skins worn on the feet of the Redmen. They lay on top of the other tracks that had come before. On the right, they tentatively entered, crossing the threshold into the black passage beyond. On the left, they reappeared coming back from the doorway. This time, however, the impressions were much deeper, the footprints only partial, revealing just the toe portions with larger spans between them.

I wanted to investigate further but the tide was rising. Laden with heavy armor, we had to leave quickly. It was vital that we would be able to see our footing. A fall would be the end for us, for I have seen warriors drowned in two feet of water because they lost their footing and were unable to rise under the weight of their leather and mail. Already the water pooled at our feet. Yet the black gate was enticing! Words seemed to call from it! Sibilant sounds and low tones that were almost felt instead of heard. Not a word I could relate, but the message was quite clear, a malevolent sophistication wished us harm.

And the door, it was enormous! Why would anyone need it to be so large? And for what purpose?

A bas-relief was carved into the lintel above. The figures therein were too whimsical to be real. What strange people could have imagined such monstrosities? There were people who looked like fish, and fish that looked like people. Many tentacled things. Rare things. I have only seen a squid once in my life, yet I could easily recall its elements. These images, however, were something more hideous. Terrible to behold, they seemed to radiate hate. Such menacing art I have never seen. The Redmen must be more complex than I had originally thought. More engravings could be found along the wall, but the water was rising and Ivar grabbed my arm, pointing to the water mark on the wall. If we remained we would surely be drowned.

Without any time to spare, we returned to the men and Nuk-nuk. The fellow was half-crazed with fear. What he saw, perhaps I will never know. The basics of his language were beyond my grasp. For him to articulate the full extent of his terror would be nigh impossible. Besides, it was a meaningless consideration, since the shock had unhinged his brain. He merely repeated the same word: "Ka-too-loo". Like a mantra he repeated this over and over. The word was not of his original lexicon and I wondered what it meant, if it meant anything at all.

Suddenly, the unfortunate man raised up, and wild eyed, he fell back into the water. Dead. His lifeless eyes seeming to question our very presence. I was fond of this primitive creature, and I would have liked to give him a proper pyre, unlike his brethren who we usually buried in shallow graves.
Questions roused me from my thoughts: some of the stouter of the men asked us what we had found in the cave. Ivar and I exchanged knowing glances.
"Nothing," I said.

We waded out of the tunnel and made our way back to the camp. The sun was setting and there was an unusual agitation exciting the men. Many claimed to have heard sounds from the forest. Some say they heard a bellowing out at sea. The latter could not be confirmed and was attributed to a few of the rascals who ransacked the last cask of grog in our absence. I yielded to the temptation of disciplining them. There was too much else at stake here tonight.


"T'aint natural, sire," a boy of fifteen was at my arm. "We need to get out of here. Let's sail back home, leave this accursed place forever!"


I could see genuine fear in his eyes. I forgave his insubordination. He was only lending his voice to what every man on that blasted beach was thinking.


"Yes, lad," I said. "We will be back in the homeland soon."


The men cheered as the comment was relayed around the camp. I could only hope the boast would prove true.


"Drykull, make ready with the boats," I ordered. "We cast off at nightfall."


A man clad in green robes turned his weather-beaten face towards me. Lines of worry etched his features and I knew what he would say. Anticipating his response, I raised my hand to mitigate his protests. He edged forward and cautiously uttered his complaints in hushed tones.


"I want to leave as much as the next man, sire. But the waters ain't right. There's something stirring them up. Maybe a storm's coming. I ain't sure."


"We are masters of the sea," I said with some asperity, wishing to embolden the man with confidence. "Odinsen! Give me not excuses! Make ready to leave!"


"Aye, sir," replied the seaman. He had agreed with much less confidence than I would have liked. He continued his preparations, woefully regarding the turbulent sea.


The sun had long since departed as we broke camp. All was loaded on board. And none too soon, for a creeping fear invaded our resolve. The men imagined they heard noises. Voices or barking, low grunts. Many felt as if we were being watched.

One man, Isindil, was driven to action by the pervasive fear. He claimed to have seen forms shambling among the trees. He rushed off before anyone could stop him. Shortly thereafter, we heard a terrible cry. It was choked off just as suddenly as it had sounded. I organized a search party, leaving a few stalwart warriors to guard the ships. I was determined that this recent outrage would not go unpunished. I climbed the hills with a dozen of my men. Darkness was upon us now, and this was not our land. The foolishness of our endeavor was apparent to me. I had led the men into a trap.

Or so I thought, but no further harm would befall us. Certain as I was that our movements were being watched, we were not assaulted. For some reason we were allowed to leave the grove where an ambush would have easily destroyed us. As I say, we were untouched, yet a briny miasma pursued our movements, molesting our senses and mingling dread with nausea. Rotten fish had a better scent than that which followed us, haunted us.

The moon had risen, giving us more light with which to navigate our way through the cursed forest. As we reached the beach, I chanced a look back and thought I saw a large head silhouetted against a pine tree. It disappeared before I could get a good look at it to comprehend its form, though I felt with certain dread that I knew what it was, for I had seen it, felt its hatred earlier that day when it was just a static picture carved in stone.

Disembarking was a great relief, one that was silently enjoyed by all. It felt good to be free of that toxic soil, where the lives of so many of our own had been mysteriously claimed. This campaign had been a complete failure, an utter disaster. We had lost so many great warriors, including our chieftain. Where once we were two score men; now just over a dozen remained.

We were about to clear the bay when we knew something was wrong. We felt it. The boats rocked violently. The waters foamed and bubbled. Churning. There was a moment of silence and then it happened.

Boom!

Airborne, a nauseating feeling of helplessness, incredulity.
I smacked the water hard. Dazed, though not unconscious I looked back. Our boat lay in splinters. Panicked, the men in the other sea-craft reversed direction. I could hear their frantic cries some fifty feet away, urgent commands followed by rapid actions.

I could only see random glimpses as I rose from one giant wavecrest to another. The undulating waves were incessantly roiled by some huge force. And there it was again! With a cacophony the second boat was shivered into a thousand pieces. This time I saw it! A giant squid! Or so I thought, by analogy. More horrible than could ever be imagined with olive-green, oily skin shimmering in the moonlight, the monstrosity thrashed about. To my horror, I realized the creature was standing. It had approached from beneath, but was clearly standing! Tall as a mountain, clad in seaweed and filth, the noisome behemoth was a great pillar of terror. With a body like a man, the bipedal beast stood upright. Large crimson eyes radiated hate as if beacons of the sun. Myriad tentacles hung from the creature. Seemingly with a life of their own, they sought their prey.
My men!

Some had been killed instantly. They were the lucky ones. Most were clinging tightly to the wooden pieces of the ship that still remained. The creature began its frenzied orgy of terror with the victims from the second ship. It seemed to feed off their fear, reveling in their fright. A roar unlike any I have ever heard boomed from the monstrosity, the stentorian blast tearing the air asunder; it shook one's frame and stole one's reason. Panicking, the men attempted to flee, but this is just what it wanted - to hunt them for sport. Tentacles quickly slithered around one victim, holding him fast. It was Seaman Drykul. Eyes wide in terror, he screamed as he was drawn into the gaping maw of the fiend. Bits of him fell from a great height as the sharp beak tore through his body. The beast craned back its head, seeming to masticate the remains momentarily before swallowing them quickly. And so the extermination began, a process that seemed to take hours yet could only have been minutes. One by one the men were snared, dragged screaming to their deaths, and quickly devoured. The process seemed inevitable, a foregone conclusion. The steeliest of men could not pass this test of mental toughness. Screaming in fear, their unfocused efforts resulted in their swift demise. Even the strongest swimmers could not make it to shore before being cruelly attacked. Occasionally it allowed them to get close. The creature enjoyed some perverse amusement by doing this. And methodical as it was, it occasionally changed its method of executing the men. Sometimes it would toss one high into the sky and let the concussion kill him before devouring the body.

I lay still and this was what saved me. The men who panicked and splashed about were easy to locate and dispatch. Ivar and I were floating near each other trying to resemble driftwood as much as possible. All of a sudden a great tentacle slapped down near us. Ivar lost his hold and panicked. He reached for my hand, but he never made it. I will never forget those eyes, imploring me for help as he was snared by a tentacle which dragged him screaming to his death.

I closed my eyes and implored Odin to give me a chance. Let me die nobly on a field of battle! Not left to perish in the briny sea to be eaten by fish.

Perhaps he gave me my wish, for before I knew it the sun had risen. I must have passed out from the ordeal, because I know not how I came to live. The yellow light bathed everything in a beautiful glowing gold. Perhaps everything looked majestic to me, for I thought I would never see the light of another day. Warm hope seemed to invade my limbs, and a thirst for life gave action to my thoughts of self-preservation.

I spent the morning safely navigating back to the beach. There was no other way about it. Much as I wanted to find another beach on which to land, I simply was not strong enough to swim out of that swirling current. I had to swim with it, if ever I was to survive. The wooden mast of my ship gave me a good vessel I could direct, and after an hour of vigorous kicking, I found myself on the shore. I was alone. I could find no others. In a moment of weakness I wept for the thought that we were so close to leaving this cursed land. Alas it was not to be.

I need not document all the details of how I survived. I built a fire and found food. All the while, I was certain that I was being watched as I am being watched now. I made my way to the top of the cliff. One of the lads had found the path, and Nuk-nuk had told us that it led to the top of the cliff. The strange ones continued to follow me as I made my way up the side of the mountain. Strangely, they did nothing to halt my progress. The top of the barren cliff is the most defensible position, and yet I hold no illusion as to what will happen here. I am grateful to Odin for heeding my calls. I praise him for allowing me to die nobly in battle.

I can see the fish people lurking in the shadows of the trees. They wait for something. A signal? The moon perhaps? Yes, that must be it. Tonight is the 28th day and the full moon returns. I can see it now rising slowly. It is a large golden disk hanging in the sky. The number of the fishmen are growing with each passing minute. I have been writing for over an hour, and they have left me unmolested, but I fear that will change. I am happy for the opportunity to write you.

There is a great evil in this world, an evil most will never know. It lurks in these odd places, hidden from the light of day, down in the sea, shielded by mortal eyes. Did the Redmen know this? Is that why they seemed to thin so soon after our arrival? Were my brethren taken by these fishmen? It seems likely now. In fact, a great many things that once seemed dark are suddenly clear to me. I know not how these creatures fight, but they must be powerful to have taken down the best of our warriors without any traces of a struggle. Bah, let them come! By the end of this night, I will have seen the color of their blood! The moon is high. It is now late in the night. They are croaking in strange tones. I feel their presence rather than see them. I am surrounded. They are coming.....


Halloween Horror Story contest entry

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It's been five years since I wrote on Fanstory. I am happy to be back writing again, and I hope this is a hit with the readers.
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