Friday, August 12, 2016

The Trials of the Horned One, Part One

Waking up to a crack from a whip across the back isn’t any way any man should be awakened. Alas, dear friends, twas how James was awoken. Shaking his head groggily, he rubbed at his aching head and stinging back, blearily looking around to try and figure out what exactly had happened to him. Last he remembered, he was serving as a guard for a Jewish Caravan traveling through the Northern regions of West Francia towards Bretagne. 

Spice merchants, they’d employed him and three others to act as guards for the journey. For forty shekels a piece, we were more than happy to provide the service to the superstitious Heebs. They truly believed the hills of the area to possess mad ghosts of men and women buried at the crossroads, of the beasts that roamed the wood looking for the tender flesh of children, and most of all they feared the Slender. A tall and gaunt figure without a face, the Slender was said to scare you and, in your moment of fright, snatch away your soul through your opened mouth.
Well, judging by the knot on the back of his head, James was willing to bet they’d all been caught up by a group of people that liked spreading the rumors of all the beasties and nasty’s that supposedly haunted the wilds of Gaul. Looking up from his prone position on the ground, he groaned at the sight of iron bars, and a burly looking, whip wielding thug with a sneer full of yellowed teeth.
“Great,” James said, letting himself fall prone to the ground once more with a wet splat. “Bandits.”
Crack!
James winced as the whip snaked between the bars well enough to crack across his back once more, rolling over and edging his way to the back of his cell, however small it was. Set into unworked stone, he truly had no space to really even stand if so desired, and a crack above him allowed a continual drip of water into his cramped quarters, creating a perpetual puddle that he’d been rolling about in.
“We’re not bandits, you simple minded cretin!” The man sneered, twirling the whip loosely about the floor. “We’re followers of the Horned One.”
Great, James thought, rolling his eyes, Cultists. Damn countryside is getting full of ‘em.
Cultists to various dark or pagan God’s were commonplace in the wilds of Gaul, far from the bustling urban centers like Paris. The Word of God hadn’t made it this far, or hadn’t made it successfully. Most Cultists were mere lunatics and madmen that polite society had cast away, their only crime being perpetually on the verge of violence or possessing a horrifying temper. Exile was best for them, and sadly they usually ended up beneath one banner, the banner of the craziest amongst them.
Judging by the semi-official looking leather jerkin this goon wore, emblazoned with a horned diamond, James could hazard to guess where he was.
In a Cultist’s prison.
“You’re good with a sword, right?” The jailer asked James, cracking the whip against the wall, a torrent of cries and pleas letting James know he wasn’t alone. “The put you in the fighters block for a reason, right?”
“Oh yes, sure!” I said, holding up my calloused hands as if they were evidence. “Been using a sword all my life, why, damn things almost like a second hand to me.”
The guard squints at James before grabbing a rusty ring of keys… three keys to be precise. That is an odd thing to see, James thought to himself as the heavyset man began unlocking his door, you’d think they’d have more keys.
James scampers out of the narrow door, standing up with the help of the wall, popping his sore back as he finally got to stand up. He closed his eyes in bliss as he popped his back and stretched his arms before remembering why he was actually standing in the first place. Opening his eyes, he spun to look for the guard and see what the man wanted him to do…
…only to end up looking about two feet too high. The sneering guard with a whip was almost a dwarf when compared to James, who had an easy two and a half feet on him, as well as half a stone in weight.
Before he could get any plan into motion to dole out some justice to the minute man, the whip cracked painfully close to his ear, sending him back against the stone wall, panting as he rubbed at the aching spot.
“March pretty boy,” The dwarf chuckled darkly, twirling the whip back for another strike.
James chose to march down the dark, cavernous tunnel, the only light coming from the occasional sconce in the wall, usually a skull with a candle inside it, his only companion a surly sadistic dwarf that seemed to get off on hurting people bigger than him.
Namely James.
The sound of their footsteps, along with the dwarf’s labored breathing, was the only thing echoing about the tunnel for what felt like ages until James could finally see a light ahead at the end of the tunnel, and hear the steady hum that came from man voices speaking at once. Looking back at his guide, James decided to give the squat little toad the slip and burst into a dead sprint. Ignoring the foul midget’s cry, he ran as fast and as hard as he could towards the light, until he burst from the tunnel at his fastest.
Slamming into a poorly built iron rail, the metal bending loudly as James fell onto his back cursing and swearing everything that he could. Beneath his pounding fists he idly noted that wherever he was no, the floor was at least wooden instead of stone.
“Brothers! Sisters!” Came a shrill cry from below, echoing up along the curved walls and high cavern ceiling. Oh great… James bitterly thought. More Cultists… “Gather for tonight’s homage to the great Horned One!”
A chorus of mumbling and laughter broke through what sounded like a crowd, James noted sourly as he rolled to his side, pushing himself up to his knees. His friend the jailer had just caught up with him, panting and gasping for air now, with his hands on his knees as the small ball of greasy fat and muscle fought to remain standing.
Looking down, James could see he was at what appeared to be the top of a great carving of a human skull with prominent horns leading up from its temples, curling like a rams horns before swooping up and back, almost like antlers. Standing atop the skull, where a small wooden platform had been set coming from its own stone tunnel, was a miserly looking grey-robed man, half his face covered in weeping boils, the other half bearing a brand of the Horned One.
“He must not go out terribly often…” James muttered to himself. James’s own platform sat atop one of the stone horns, and overlooked a great auditorium, filled with grey-robed men and women, and even children, dancing about the seats surrounding a deep looking pit.
“Tonight the Horned One will dine on the souls of the wicked and the just! If the sacrifice lives, we shall not release the plague upon the merchants. If he dies, the merchants go free to spread the Horned One’s hunger to all they would trade with, those struck down by the illness fodder for our Lord’s unending hunger!”
“Ok, I don’t like the sound of any of this… dwarf, who’s the sacrifice?” James says, turning to the gasping dwarf.
James gets his answer when the wooden floor beneath him drops out, revealing his position atop one of the carved horns to actually be over a chute. Almost by reaction, he lashed out and grabbed the dwarf (who immediately stopped gasping and started screaming) as they both started plummeting down the smooth stone chute, sliding like a pair of greased up geese over a cooks chopping block.
Tumbling about in darkness, the chute finally opened up into the pit that had been far below, but was sadly now all too close for James to enjoy. Scattered about the odalisque pit were bits of rusty armor and a smattering of weapons: swords long forgotten, maces half embedded in rock over brown stains, and even a spear or three were all within reach. As well as a gasping dwarf and his whip, which James quickly liberated without so much as a fight.
“Let the Horned One reveal to us his plan!” Bellowed the disfigured man from above, pulling a lever and walking back and out of James’s line of sight. A horrid cranking of gears and cracking of chains echoed from within the walls around him, seeming to radiate from the front of the Horned One’s edifice, as the lower jaw of the great carved skull began to lower slowly, dripping red hot fluids that seemed almost luminescent. As the maw widened, three figures came tumbling down most unceremoniously from the maw, steaming with the glowing juices and striking the stone floor with a wet slap of fish hitting the pier.
James could only watch in horror as the three fallen figures rose bonelessly from the ground, their eyes as black as pitch and their flesh as grey as the stone around them, steam rising from their bodies as they began to awkwardly stumble his way, arms outstretched and a low moan escaping from all three of their lips. 
The pitch-eyed dead come at him faster than he'd like, a slow lumbering gate that while not exactly fast, promises that it will never slow down. All three have similar wounds, a simple torn out throat, and a carving of the Horned One’s emblem upon their foreheads. James recognizes one of them to be his comrade in arms Heinrich a fraction too late as he is forced to raise his arm in defense of the grasping fingers of the first of the groaning corpses.
As these zombies were once soldiers, all of them seem to have retained their strength and then some. James had hoped the leather handle of the whip would have been enough when draped over his arm, but the hungering maw of the dead merely bit into it, the bloodied teeth scraping so close to James’s arm in the process, and begins to chew through the tough leather like it’s a slice of roasted ham.
Ignoring the jeering crowd above, James kicks Heinrich in the stomach, sending him tumbling back into his fellows, and makes a break for one of the spears lying on the ground some ten feet away. The dwarf squawks in fear, and runs back with me, scooping up a sword with both hands. He looks to James in desperation, the dull gleam that James had grown accustomed to seeing in the dim jailers eyes pleading him for aid.
James merely nods before moving forward, slowly. The downed dead right themselves seamlessly, requiring neither hands nor knees to pull themselves up from the ground, merely the muscles of their body working in complete and utter concert together.
“That is not right,” James grumbles at the sight, choking back the bile billowing in his throat from the smell of the rotten flesh pervading the air, as well as whatever fluid they were covered in… ale?
The undead move in unison, shambling forward, one with a whip dangling from its mouth as it continued to choke the weapon down, the long cords of leather slowly disappearing down the dried gullet of James’s former friend.
Before they even get within striking distance, James lunges forward with the bronze-tipped spear, sinking it deep into the throat of the largest undead, yanking it to the side to sever the esophagus and vocal cords, but sadly not the spinal column. Some damage was done it would seem, as the ghoul drops to the ground, seemingly forced to drag itself with one arm while kicking out with one leg to propel itself in a truly bizarre shuffle.
The Dwarf is trying his best to handle Heinrich, and failing utterly due to James’s former-allies superior strength. The Dwarf sank the blade deep into Heinrich’s hip, causing his right leg to go slack. Sadly, going slack doesn’t prevent Heinrich’s probing hands to gain purchase on the Dwarf’s leather jerkin, ripping into it with the full ferocity of a starving wolf, the whip now waggling about like some obscene tongue. The other undead, a hulking mass of rotting flesh that could have only been Baldric, reached over Heinrich and grabbed at the dwarf as well, his jagged nails tearing a deep gouge into the hapless jailer’s semi-exposed chest, blood spurting out from the wound in thick gouts, splattering across the cold floor in a messy streak that only seemed to excite the dead further.
James whirled his spear around and once more stabbed at his crippled foe, this time scoring a solid meaty wound into the beasts swollen back, the bronze tip sinking into the creatures back like a knife slicing into undercooked meat, black blood welling up from the wound, dribbling onto the cold floor like heated tar. The dead thrashed about at the end of his blade, but it allowed him enough leverage to kick the beast in the side of the head, cracking it’s skull open and dislocating its jaw with a meaty thump. The creature shuddered and collapsed, its energy spent and its body done.
James released the spears haft and made his way to the two undead ripping into the jailer. His jerkin had finally been peeled off; revealing his hairy folds of greasy fat to the hungering dead’s questing fingers. Heinrich, the tail of the whip now dangling past his swollen and torn lips, was twisting and pulling on the screaming dwarfs arm with a fervor bordering on the mad, the arm in question cracking and snapping at the rough treatment it was receiving, already dislocated from a brutal yank.
Baldric’s titanic form had pushed Heinrich out of the way, lifting the dwarf bodily into the air as he sank his rotten teeth into the jailers flank, tearing away a wide strip of flesh with wild thrashings of the head, chewing on the meat noisily as the Dwarf screamed and pleaded for aid. Above it all, this disfigured man had begun a sermon concerning the Horned One’s kindness, his love for us all, and how we could repay it.
Wrenching the sword from Heinrich’s hip, James brought the gore-spattered blade in a high arc before flashing it low, sinking it deep into the back of Heinrich’s neck, tearing through sinew and spine alike as he yanked it free to stab once more into the rapidly expanding wound. By the third strike Heinrich fell to the floor truly lifeless, his head dangling from his neck by mere strips of worn and leathery flesh.
Turning on Baldric as he tore into the Jailer, James took a moment of ignoring the dwarf’s dying screams to take in all that Baldric had become. Pitch black eyes, with skin pale enough to see the dead veins beneath his cold flesh, heavily muscled limbs seeming to strain with every movement as Baldric’s body and muscles moved in complete tandem, unlike James’s own living body, which would scream in agony should he try and move like Baldric.
Despite his terrifying size and strength, he was dispatched easily enough as he was too enthralled by his captured dwarf, the light sword taking four hearty chops to fully remove his head from his taut shoulders, the dwarf falling to the ground like a forgotten chicken bone. James stomped on the poor dead things head, just to make sure he wouldn’t have to fight a diminutive zombie next.
“The Champion of Light has showed us the way!” The disfigured priest declared before a distraught audience, silencing their growing anger with his jubilant praise. “The Horned One desires the merchants to be better tested upon later, gifted with a more potent plague perhaps or some other amazing boon from the Horned One. For now, Champion of Light… what is your name?”
“Uh… James. James Hartglow.” He calls up, a tad embarrassed, and confused. He’d never had so many eyes upon him at once.
“Well than praise to James, Champion of the Light of Truth, shining unto us the true will of the Horned One through sacrifice, going so far as top slay the jailer that held him for us.” The disfigured man bellowed, clapping his hands three times in a slow rhythmic way that his congregation followed. “Go now my children, and come back once the New Moon has come, when the eyes of jealous God’s will be closed.”

As the crowd apparently began to disperse, James looked up to see the smiling face of the disfigured priest. “Go on then Champion, the jaw is also a set of stairs to the kennel. I will have someone meet you there.”

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