Taken from Corcitura, Chapter 6, The Haunter of Darkness
The flames near the Acropolis had died. I cocked an ear, but didn’t have to strain this time, for there were no longer any revelers at the top of that hill. Stefan must surely be back by now, unless Sorina Boroi had spirited him off to yet another den of iniquity.
I retrieved my key from my pocket and slid it into the lock. When I tried to push against the door, it held fast. “Stefan,” I called out. “Stefan, are you there?” I asked a minute later. Still, there was no answer.
I shouldered my weight against the door again. Nothing. It had been jammed.
I was ready to try the hole that served for a window at the back of the hovel, when I heard a sound coming from within—a low sibilant sound, like the hiss of a snake…a very large snake.
Stefan was in there with that snake. A boa constrictor, an anaconda—whatever other foul kind of snake that was indigenous to Greece could have been in there strangling the life out of him.
I jangled the lock, making a terrific noise that surely must have caught its attention—drawn it away from Stefan and turned it toward me. But nothing happened.
Then I heard the sound again. This time it was different, more defined, almost human—a low, rasping voice, sounding as though it were struggling to speak, as though its vocal chords had been damaged and it couldn’t talk above a whisper.
I tried to swallow. My mouth felt as though it was full of sand. I pressed my ear against the door and heard the voice hiss a name…Zigmund.
A gurgling sound snaked through the wood beneath my fingers. My hands clenched, causing splinters to embed in my skin. I could care less about the pain. My only thought was that this couldn’t be happening.
Snakes could not laugh.
Stefan was in there with that horror, that gurgling horror, whatever it was.
I threw my weight against the door and it gave way. The blackness disoriented me; the room was so dark, I couldn’t see a foot in front of my face. Not even the moonlight pierced through the window on the other side of the room.
I took a step forward. My foot knocked against something on the floor—something that gave off a low moan. Startled, I sprang back, colliding with the overturned crate that served as a night table. The din that erupted was enough to wake the entire village. I slid to the floor, trying to conceal myself behind the crate, but the creature either did not hear the noise or was too busy to care.
I reached up my trembling hand until my fingers closed around the neck of the oil lamp resting on the crate beside the bed. Slowly, carefully, I settled the lamp next to me, then reached up once more in search of the matches.
There were none.
Lovely. They had been there that afternoon. Where the devil had they gone? I was ready to give up, but then I realized they might have been knocked to the floor. When I stretched out my hand, one of the matches snapped beneath the weight of my probing fingers.
The snuffling above me ceased at once. My arm remained stretched out. If I tried to move, the rustling of my clothes would give me away. This was an entirely new problem. The thing seemed not to care about loud sounds, but make the tiniest of noises and it would go berserk.
I could hear it moving…coming closer…leaning down from its perch on Stefan’s bed. Stefan’s bed! He couldn’t still be in it? The thing on the floor…no, that was definitely not Stefan.
A gust of hot air was expelled against my arm. I had to bite my lip to keep from choking. The stench of the thing’s breath was unbearable—like the dead earth of centuries-old graves.
There was no wind that night, but something was ruffling my hair. Oh, yes, that’s wonderful, I thought. The thing was sniffing inches above my head, but the room was too dark for me to discern anything. Why hadn’t it attacked me yet? Was it blind? The thought gave me courage, for if it was, I had an advantage, though the thing sounded as big as a bear.
I slouched lower and drew my knees to my chest, trying to tighten myself into a ball. The match was between my fingers. I drew my arm in as slowly as I could. For some reason, the thing jerked away at that moment and went back to its incessant hissing, cooing over whatever it had trapped beneath itself in the bed.
I didn’t know what I hoped to accomplish by lighting the lamp. I suppose I was counting on the thing being scared of light. Whatever happened, I had to know what was there, no matter what, yet to strike the match and light the lamp before being seen was surely impossible. I had no weapon, save the lamp, which I already planned to hurl at the thing if the situation turned desperate. But what good would that do? Stun it for an instant, during which I would have to run like mad to escape before the thing realized it should be giving chase? Ridiculous.
As if it had read my thoughts, the thing began to laugh low in its throat.
That decided me. This mocking devil would be unmasked now. No more waiting, no more fear.
I struck the match, threw it inside the lamp, then wrenched the turner up as far as it would go and leaped to my feet.
The light blazed forth so strongly I was blinded for a moment. I lowered the lamp to lessen the glare, and that’s when I saw what I was up against for the first time.
It had started to screech—a terrible, high-pitched yowl—yet I was too petrified to run and could do nothing but stare at it in horror. It must have been a man at one time, but now it was plague-ravaged beyond distinction. Although it was still screeching, its tongue seemed to have a life of its own. The barbs encircling the tongue lashed against the thing’s face with each jerky movement—puncturing holes in its cheeks from which blood dripped forth. I swallowed hard to keep the bile from rising in my throat, but still I could not turn away.
Sores split the death white skin of its face. There was a bulge underneath the cloak where its stomach should have been, a bulge that was much too large. This was not fat. The thing was engorged and had most probably just fed—on whom, I did not even want to venture a guess.
Red-rimmed eyes stared out from that pale mask that looked more like a skull than a face. The cowl of its cloak had fallen back to reveal a baldpate with more of the same oozing gouges. They weren’t as fresh as the ones on its face; something must have stabbed it in defense during an attack some weeks ago. But from the way the tongue lashed and whipped about, I suspected that the creature, in a moment of desperation, must have been driven mad by its own bloodlust and inflicted the wounds on itself.
I swung the lamp toward the creature’s face; it screeched and reeled backward, tumbling off the bed.
And that’s when I heard Stefan groan. He had been on the bed…being crushed to death underneath the monster’s weight.
Madness and terror took hold. I threw the lamp at the thing’s head. There was a burst of flames and a horrid scream as the lamp shattered against the creature’s face. Shards of glass imbedded in its head, its flesh hanging in strands. A huge piece of the glass protruded from its cheek, which was bubbling underneath the flames like melting wax. Nothing could have survived those injuries. The thing would surely collapse in a dead heap, but all my assumptions were wrong tonight. The beast yanked the shard from its cheek, and its skin began to change.
The flames flickered then disappeared, seemingly sucked into the creature’s face. A ripple broke out underneath the ravaged surface…and then the skin stretched until it had grown taut over the wound. I blinked in disbelief, for the cheek had been restored—becoming as smooth as if there had never been an injury. The horror of this transformation was too great for me to fathom. Why should the self-inflicted gouges remain, yet the cheek I had nearly burnt off heal at will?
I now had nothing left with which to defend myself. If the thing wanted me, it would get me. But I wasn’t going to let it attack Stefan again. If it wanted him, it would have to take us both. I balled up my fists and advanced.
I don’t know if it was because it had used up all its strength to heal itself, or because it actually was as terrified of me as I was of it, but all the fight seemed to go out of the creature the moment I took that first step toward it.
The barbed tongue shot out of its open maw. Was this a prelude to attack or one last show of bravado? The creature’s eyes darted to the right. Salvation was only a few feet away. I couldn’t cut it off from the opening in the wall, and the creature knew it. In one wild leap, the beast yanked the cowl down over its head and thrust itself through the window.
I heard it screeching long after it had loped off. I had already wasted enough time worrying over something that I’d never, hopefully, encounter again. My concern was all for Stefan now.
I leaned over him and tore open what was left of his shirt. Large, purple blotches bruised his torso. A thin red gash ran down the middle of his chest. On closer inspection, I saw that it was thankfully only a surface scratch. But still…
I reached for his wrist, feeling for a pulse, but there was none. He couldn’t be gone. I refused to believe it.
I looked around for something with which to revive him—water, sal volatile, spirits, anything—but there was nothing in this blasted hovel.
“Stefan, Stefan!” I shouted, shaking him by the shoulders. “Wake up! You are not dead, do you hear me?! You are not dead!” I slapped him. Nothing I did produced any signs of life in him. Hot tears burned my eyes, but I refused to give in. Not yet. Not now, even though I knew the battle had been lost and my best friend was gone.
I pounded his chest, trying to revive his heart, but that didn’t work either. My hands shook uncontrollably as I tried to lift his body. What was I hoping to do, raise Lazarus from the dead?
I’d come too late.
I released my grasp and let him slump down upon the pillow.
He couldn’t be gone. He wasn’t supposed to die, not like this at any rate. How could he go now before we had even had a chance to really live? I shuddered, for wasn’t that what had caused all our trouble? Our desire to live? To forsake all caution and strike out on our own? I choked on the sob in my throat. Now my brother was dead…what good was freedom if it got you killed?
I felt nauseous. My reason was slipping away. I couldn’t lose control now, yet what need had I to keep up the pretense any longer?
I was alone.
I turned away from the lifeless body of my best friend and buried my face in my hands.
Tears had been blurring my vision and streaming through my fingers for what seemed like an hour before I heard the sound. I thought the creature had come back, but then I heard him gasp and felt his hand latch onto my arm.
Stefan was alive! I was so relieved, I didn’t consider how drained of energy he was and crushed him in an embrace that would have snuffed out the rest of his life had I not realized what I was doing and released him before more damage was done.
“What happened? What the devil was that thing?”
“I have no idea,” he said, barely above a whisper. “We had come back from the revel at the hill and had just entered when there was a knock at the door. Of course, we didn’t know who it could be, so we did not answer. Then there was another knock and a voice…a voice…” he faltered and broke off.
“Go on,” I coaxed.
“A voice, Eric, too horrible to describe…a voice that hissed ‘Zigmund’ over and over again. ‘Zigmund,’ ‘Zigmund,’ always that dreadful name. Sorina wanted to fetch Vladec, but there was no time. We bolted the door…it was already too late. It knew we were inside. The window…we forgot the window…I tried to fend it off, but it knocked me unconscious, and Sorina…Sorina…God, Eric, where is she?!”
He bolted upright in bed, but immediately collapsed for lack of strength. It was at this time that I noticed a trickle of blood near my foot. A rivulet, streaming down a hill. The hovel was on an incline. Why had I not noticed this before?
I struck a match and lit the lamp on the opposite side of Stefan’s bed. Light flashed into the gloom. My eyes followed the stream of blood, the light in my hand revealing all.
I nearly retched when I saw what the shadows had kept hidden.
©2010, 2013 Melika Dannese Lux and Books In My Belfry, LLC. Unauthorized use or reproduction of this excerpt without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited.