We were assigned to investigate the Grey Watcher, a castle which had become so old as to lose its first name. Like the moss and vile vermin which had overcome its collapsed stonework, what was once known about it had since been devoured. Consumed by time. Replaced by speculation and the ill musings of those who forget to remember that, just like any other home, it once knew a life without phantoms. It was once bustling with people. Laughter. Lives. Human lives.
I’ve come to know—something that few know—that there are other creatures in this world looking to defend the name of ‘living’. And there are some creatures, my friends, whose stomachs stir with disgust to think of the word ‘human’ being beholden to it.
It was a late night when we started this fool’s errand. A winter’s night, too. Of course it was. Flooded with rain too indecent to become snow.
We were compelled to go. The whole town had gathered coin, tossed the lot in a bag and thrown it at us. Their eyes glittered from torchlight with a faltering hope. Rumours about our Order were fresh on their lips. The silver spilled out from the pouch when it hit the mud, such was its overflowing contents. The four of us had never seen so much coin in one place. And the townspeople had never given up so much in a single hour.
The four of us wanted to believe we weren’t seeing it. We’d be damned idiots not to accept it. Yet even then we all exchanged glances. Not one of us leapt out to claim the small fortune.
It was Morgan who grabbed the pouch and nodded at the gathering of citizens with a braver face than the rest of us. Once she turned from them with the payment in hand, there was no taking it back. Our Order has always had a policy with accepting payment and the verbal contract being signed therein. True enough. We could have turned tail on the lot. Forgotten about our allegiance. Split the pay. Swept off to brighter fates without so much as a backwards glance at that husk of a town called Birchwood’s Pass.
Maybe what stopped us was the same childish virtue that didn’t let us turn down the job in the first place. God knows the three of us fought Morgan every step of the way as soon as we were out of earshot.
Soon enough, we were piled into the armoured carriage and clattering down the Severed Road. As was typical, Jeremiah was steering through the weather hatch. Caitlyn was loading shot into rifles, pistols, checking flasks of holy water and pouring shots of whiskey. The way that substance snaked fire down the stomach seemed to be the only warmth in the world in that short ride.
“Why’d you take it?” I asked Morgan.
She fed bolts into her cartridge crossbow with a numb fluidity. “Get the pay. Do the assignment. Same as always.”
“No chance of me getting a better answer for you risking our lives before we had a proper discussion?” I asked.
“That right there, Captain, is a fortune,” she said, looking at the pay. “There’s your discussion.”
“Not if we’re dead,” I told her. “The stories they told of that place. If it’s at all true. No. If a tenth of it is true …” My mouth was dry. I swallowed and massaged the belly of my pistol.
“Every city and town’s got a ghost story,” she replied.
“Not one like that,” I replied. “I don’t think I intend to ever hear it again. I … it … much less live it. Ghost stories don’t kidnap thirteen girls and send back cauterised hands. Haunt everybody’s head. Give them all the same nightmare on the same night.”
“That’s where the fear got to them. That’s the fairy tale part of it,” Jeremiah said from the hatch. “Some murdering madman sends them all insane with grief. Sure as sin. But the second part of the story can’t be true. We’re not stalking ghosts. Just killing killers. A cult, if it was my best guess.”
“Are you certain?” I asked him. “The nightmare told them that whatever is responsible for this is in the Grey Watcher. And here we are … racing towards that damned castle! On the word of townspeople we can’t admit are sane because if there’s the smallest chance they’re right, we should all be pissing our pants right now!”
Jeremiah looked back from the road, his eyes lingering a little too long on mine.
“ ‘Every nightmare’s soul contains a crying infant. Each monster’s heart, a child helpless,’ ” Morgan interjected. “That’s what my father told me. Madman or phantom, there’s mercy for them at the end of a blade. Or bullet. It’s not their fault they’re this way.”
“Oh, not this sympathetic nonsense again,” Caitlyn piped in. But there was too much emotion in her eyes to keep her teasing. Hesitation. Fear. It was spilling out. She opened her mouth, then watched the passing scenery. And when that was too much, when the darkness from the surroundings rushed to fill her imagination of whatever nightmarish contrivance we were about to meet, she looked between her hands. Then she closed her eyes.
That was better.
Anywhere but here.
I brought the pistol to my lips and breathed a sigh against it.
“Elias,” Morgan said to me. “If all you have is fear when you raise your pistol, you’ll only be taking aim at yourself.”
“How’d your father die, Morgan?”
“Ghoul. Took a bite out of his neck.”
“Why’d he get close enough to let it happen?”
“He thought he could talk him out of eating the child in his arms.”
“Did the child survive?”
Morgan looked out from the window as the carriage rumbled on, saying nothing for a long while. The lantern burned a deep crimson against the midnight of her hair.
When our party reached the bridge which once joined the castle’s island with the mainland, we left the cover of our carriage. What was left of the bridge were gnarled stones like broken teeth sticking out over the Warren River. Its usually calm waters now flooded with anger from the storm. Our heels splashed in the muddied road, every step suctioned from the deep sludge.
Jeremiah and Caitlyn got to work unsaddling the horse while Morgan and I drew out our rifles, kneeling on either side of the carriage’s backside. We didn’t have long. Soon enough, rain would seep passed the covers which kept the ignition points of our flintlocks dry.
Morgan and I held our aim, watching the scenery beyond. Both of us could feel it watching us. Old Hungry, the town called him. Some kind of bog giant. Typical in places like this. They weren’t sure what it was, really. Once their livestock had started going missing they’d sent some people to investigate. After a few survivors came back to tell them what they saw, they moved their livestock away. Told their children never to enter the forest, so on and so forth. Problem solved.
Fact is, creatures like that get hungry. Starving it will only make it wander outside its territory. This spot being the only real entrance and exit to the Grey Watcher, we had what you might call a vested interest in making sure that creature wouldn’t be hungry on our return after a long fight.
Also, there was a bonus if we dealt with it. That helped. We didn’t have any real plans of killing the giant. That’s messy, usually takes a small army, or several hours if lacking the requisite bait. But, there’s no harm in feeding the thing and letting the town assume the best long after we’re on our way.
Plus, our horse had been getting old. This seemed a fitting way to say goodbye. At least she’d be used for something. Feeding the earth and all that.
“Damn chain is stuck,” Jeremiah grunted.
“Well jangling it won’t help,” Caitlyn said, taking over.
Morgan and I risked a glance at each other with our rifles aimed at the forest beyond. When she brought her eyes back to her sights, she muttered some unintelligible insult.
"You’re going to need to be faster than that!” I couldn’t help shouting backwards. “We haven’t got long! Rain. Gunpowder. Not an amazing combination.”
“Keep your voice down,” Morgan hissed.
“Over this storm? Can hardly hear myself. With any luck that thing’s just as bothered by the rain as we are. How’s it going back there? Let the damn thing loose already!”
“It won’t budge!” Caitlyn shouted back.
Then we saw it. Made to look even more amorphous in the darkness, the hands stretched out between the tops of tree trunks. Gigantic eyes to us, but still tiny for the size of its head, stared in a starved fixation towards us—a heaping mound of snacks.
“Douse the lanterns!” Morgan called back.
“Oh it’s too late for that,” I growled as the monster tentatively exited the forest’s edge. “Ever seen a sorrier lot of bait waiting to be killed? Damnit Jeremiah!” At the head of the carriage, Caitlyn and Jeremiah were taking equally ineffective turns to detach a single link of the horse’s harness, the last one keeping it to the carriage.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Jeremiah asked me as I approached, with what I can only assume was the most unfiltered look of annoyance and fury on my face.
A groan of expectation? The rumbling of its insides? I wasn’t sure what noise exactly was being emitted from the monster emerging from the forest. Only that its vibration lashed the ground. Our carriage shook, one of the lanterns jostled from its hook and shattered against the ground.
“That’ll just about be it for time, then!” Morgan shouted.
I cocked the rifle and took aim.
“Have you lost your mind?” Caitlyn protested.
The appropriate response, one filled with a plenty of profanities, was drowned from the shot’s explosion. A gunpowder cloud engulfed us with an irony spray. The startled horse flayed about, too fast for us to remove the saddle. That final link trailed behind it, its end smouldering as the beast ran off in the opposite direction towards the forest’s edge.
Morgan screamed a curse and dove under the carriage. Not due to the horse. The bog creature lumbered towards us, the steps throwing us off our feet, shaking the earth, causing more of the bridge’s edge to slither off into the river. We scrambled backwards, losing what ground we had to retreat on.
We could see it now. Indomitable, starving. A sopping hulk of branches, algae, and exactly the kinds of things you would think a bog would vomit out if they could.
It raised its arm up, looking to bring its fist down onto the carriage. As the hand fell, its eyes caught sight of the horse, and in a final reaction for the largest meal, it swung its mass around to catch it before the poor beast could get away. The bog monster took hold of the horse the way a toddler might grasp its doll. Then there was the first bite. A mulching chomp with deep popping sounds, like that of a hound unflinchingly grinding through a chicken’s shoulder bone.
We watched in stupor, almost just as satisfied as the creature, knowing that it wouldn’t be any of our bones emitting those horrendous noises. With half of the carcass hanging from its jaws, the massive silhouette, dreamlike in its silhouetted terror, slouched off towards the forest to finish its meal.
“Come on,” Caitlyn said, “we don’t know what kind of appetite it’s capable of. Best be off while it’s occupied. Morgan, you’ve got the grappling prepped?”
The archer unholstered a crossbow from her back that was daring to equal her weight in steel and wood.
“Jeremiah,” I said, “it’s best that you grab the pay from the carriage before we cross the river. In case Old Hungry gets curious about our transportation while we’re away. We don’t want to come back with empty hands once we’re out of this.”
“Captain,” Morgan said, priming the crossbow, “did I hear a tone of optimism in your voice?”
“Greed. You heard greed.”
Jeremiah came back, pocketing the pouch of silver into a satchel at his waist.
“Right,” I said, “Morgan. Fire that grappling into the boulder on the far side of the water. Make us a neat little tightrope towards that circus of Gehenna that town calls a castle.”