Part Five of Lee's epic horror, The Osseous Box
The boughs reached out to touch one another creating a canvas of foliage. Tubes of light worked through the gaps in the vegetation to land and dapple the gloom.
Alder knelt and removed the snare from the rabbit's neck before giving it a twist. Bray watched on whilst his belly made impatient noises at the simple thought of food.
The din of bracken being trampled by something large startled the pair. A fiend exploded from the brush to show itself. Both men's faces instantly paled beneath the grime. Alder felt warmth as he pissed himself.
The monster didn't stop when it saw them, if anything it gained speed. The men couldn't move, rooted to the spot through terror as the two-headed monstrosity charged them.
One head looked as though it belonged to that of a disfigured man and was trained on the direction in which it was moving, whilst the other more animalistic head swept from left to right searching for side-line danger.
With a swift back-swipe from a clawed fist Bray went tumbling through the air to vanish into the scrub.
Alder faired worse as he was directly in the beast's path. The thing reached and grabbed him. It broke him into two pieces like he was nothing more than a sprig. His blood didn't so much spray as plunge heavily to the ground in a single splatter.
Bray lay stunned, breathing in both blood and teeth. He could hear the monster continuing on its godforsaken way. He didn't need to move any closer to know that Alder was dead. He gathered himself up and used the front of his grubby smock to staunch the flow of blood from his busted lip. Bray had to warn someone about the beast and Wulf's hut was closest.
The flames within the hearth danced amongst themselves. Wulf sat before it and stared into its depths.
He cast a glance over at the preacher who was napping on his sleeping pallet. The preacher was well into his grey years and tired easily. Wulf didn't mind giving up his bed in exchange for the man's teachings. To Wulf, his faith in the man Christ made more sense than what the druids and pagans babbled on about.
Wulf's own eyes grew weighty. One moment he was watching the restless cavorting of the flames and the next he was asleep. The flames, they followed him into his slumber.
The dream was strange. It was unlike anything he'd seen before. Wulf saw huts that were a hundred times taller than his own and constructed with stones that showed no gaps. The huts were so high as to pierce the sky.
There were whole roads made of smoothed black rock with broken white lines running down the centre. Wulf had no idea how such a thing could be made.
Wulf turned around slowly, wondering what the Romans had been up to this time. The buildings were riddled with flames that crawled like red-ivy. Smoke spewed out of holes in the buildings and reached for the heavens like the hands of a beggar.
His ears were filled with shrieks. Metal poles poked from the hard ground. At the summit of some dangled pots filled with plants and flowers, all wilted and dead. On others dangled bodies, strung up by the neck and eviscerated.
As Wulf walked he realised that he could not feel the heat from the flames.
He watched as a woman was dragged to the ground by men that were warped with ugliness. They had horns, like those of Pan. They were busy dropping britches and waiting to take a turn. Wulf made fists out of his hands and bore down upon them. He threw punch after punch. Each should have loosened teeth and broken eye-sockets. Each punch however whistled through the air, connecting with, nothing. He tried to yank the beasts from the screaming woman but found his hands moved through them and he very nearly lost his balance.
His whole body was tense with frustration at not being able to do anything. Wulf walked on, the walk soon turned into a run as he tried to outpace the nightmare. His fury rose with each atrocity that visited him.
Wulf had known war aplenty. He had seen the aftermath that marred many battlefields. But nothing had been on the scale of this.
Ill-shaped metal wagons housed carnal sins. Legs dangled out of the bucket-shaped holes, toes curled, and moans of all varieties seeped out.
Anything solid and upright had something tied to it that had either been flogged or flayed. Wulf stopped to watch the monsters parade through the carnage. They were the personification of the preacher's words. Wulf saw pure evil for the first time, he also felt fear, but fear he had felt many a time, fear was natural. The demons were not.
Wulf heard a hammering noise.
Wulf opened his eyes. He dragged in a breath to calm himself. The images were still vivid as though they'd been tattooed into the front of his mind.
The hammering continued even though Wulf was awake. It took a moment before he realised it was someone hammering upon his door. He stood and cast a suspicious eye over at the hearth. The flames seemed to move as if taunting him.
Wulf passed the preacher who was still snoring, oblivious of the determined knocking. Wulf raised the wooden latch and opened the door just as Bray was about to deliver another round of urgent raps.
The first thing Wulf noticed was the state of Bray's face. It was all blood, muck, and horror.
"What has happened Bray?"
Bray tried to tell Wulf but it sounded as though he was talking around a mouthful of pebbles. Wulf led him inside. The preacher finally roused.
Little by little, Wulf managed to get the general idea from Bray's mumblings and gesturing. His eyes narrowed and he looked to the preacher whose face mirrored Wulf's alarm. For what Bray had just so woefully described resembled some of the disgraces that he had seen in his vision. For now there was no doubt that it was a vision, and not merely a dream.
The preacher looked to Wulf. "This abomination must be slain."
Wulf nodded and went to where his sword hung upon the wall. He hadn't had occasion to swing it for a handful of years. But something inside him had always made him keep it in more than serviceable order. Without a word he reached for it.
The horse was old and had grown idle. Wulf struck it hard in the side. It ceased protesting as he saddled it. He helped the preacher up into the saddle and then jumped up himself. He grabbed the reins.
"Bray, keep up as best you can." Wulf dug his heels into the horse’s flank and headed off at a begrudged gallop.
With the weight of the two men upon her back the horse found it a struggle to get up to a decent speed and then maintain it.
They soon reached the spot where Alder had been slain. The horse whinnied at the scent of the blood and became ever more belligerent. Another hard blow from Wulf got her shifting again.
They covered another few miles before they could hear the beast ahead causing havoc as it tore its way through the forest. Wulf looked over his shoulder.
"Get down, and follow on foot." Wulf's frosty eyes told the preacher that this was something that was most certainly not up for debate.
The preacher nodded and climbed down. Wulf drew his sword and drove the horse forward.
The demon-beast was shouldering whole trees out of its path. Wulf was sure that if it wasn't for the trees slowing the demon down that he would never had caught up with it.
Wulf whispered a little prayer, raised his blade high, and spurred his mount onwards.
"In the name of God!" Hollered Wulf as his sword cleaved into the muscled and distorted back of the demon.
The Hell-Creature emitted a howl so unearthly that the horse faltered. Wulf swung down from his mount and slashed again as the demon wheeled around to confront its aggressor.
That second strike did more damage than the first and he managed to cleave a decent hunk of searing red flesh from the beast. Smoke and the stench of brimstone rushed out into the surrounding air.
Wulf backed away as the beast confronted him. Eyes the colour of blood burned and raged within the pits of both heads. Its clawed hands moved through the air, eager to destroy the man who dared to engage it in battle.
Wulf moved in a wide circle. He knew it was now a waiting game to see who made the first mistake.
The demon didn't want to play a waiting game. It wanted to destroy Wulf. The beast came straight at him. Wulf rolled and dipped behind the thick bole of an oak just as the beast lashed out.
Wulf dashed out as the tree toppled. Wulf kept low and ran the blade of his sword down the centre of the beast's belly. The gash was deep, yet not so deep as to spill its damnable guts.
It was deep enough to cause the demon to howl in a mixture of both agony and frustration.
The human-featured head began to speak. Wulf couldn't understand any of the guttural drawling.
The preacher came out from the brush. His breathing was noisy and ragged.
The demon heard the loud inhales and exhales. The talking head turned to check out the source. Its leathered lips curled into a baleful snarl and then began again with its uttering.
The second head kept a careful watch on Wulf as he worked his way back and forth looking for another opening.
“What is it saying?” Wulf shouted.
“You must slay it Wulf!”
“That much I know preacher! But what is it saying?”
“That it will destroy us and then return to Hell and gather the hoards of the fallen. Destroy it!”
Wulf dodged a strike by the demon but couldn't find a gap to return the gesture.
He understood the demon must be slaughtered but the urgency in the preacher was unsettling.
Wulf saw an opening and dashed in. The edge of his blade opened up a gash on the demon's thigh. Wulf wasn't quick enough in his retreat and the demon struck him hard.
Wulf was tossed through the air and the landing winded him. Though a lack of air in his lungs were the least of his problems. The demon's claws had managed to open him up from sternum to groin.
Wulf felt his life-blood escaping him. He could smell its coppery scent in the air and taste it in his mouth.
The demon roared in triumph and turned its attention to the old preacher.
The preacher held a pathetically small knife.
The demon actually laughed and then began to close in on the preacher.
The preacher stood his ground. He knew this would be his death, but he had to at least try.
He knew what was at stake should the demon make it back to Hell and it showed the others the way out. It was bad enough that this one had found a way out from the fires of Hell to the earthly plane, without it returning to guide the other beasts to freedom.
The preacher began the Lord's Prayer. Shouting it as the beast towered above him, basking in the knowledge that it was about to slay one of God's praying soldiers.
It raised its claws.
The maws in both its heads opened up wide. Its four eyes opened even wider.
The preacher watched as the beast's insides became its outsides. Fire and meat plummeted to the ground. Its legs buckled and it began to sway. Gasps of rusty breath seeped from its jaws as it landed in a heap.
The preacher watched as Wulf collapsed. His entrails had fallen free and were dangling. The last of his strength had been used to open up the gut wound that he had started when the fight had been fresh.
Wulf's eyes rolled back in his head. As he collapsed he spoke two final words.
The preacher crossed himself and skirted the fallen demon and said a prayer over Wulf.
“What the?” said a voice.
The preacher looked up. It was Bray. He had finally caught them up. Bray couldn't take his eyes from the demon.
The preacher closed Wulf's eyes. There would be time for mourning later. Now there was work to do. Evil had a way of resurrecting itself.
“Take this sword. There is work to do.” He handed Wulf's sword to a puzzled looking Bray.
Chunks of demon were being burned to ashes on a makeshift pyre while the preacher undertook some grisly work involving the corpse of Wulf.
Bray had watched as the preacher began to skin Wulf and strip the flesh from his body. Working the corpse until it was only the bones remaining. From those bones the preacher fashioned them into a chest, a box of sorts. Wulf's ribcage was worked into the walls of the box. His other bones worked to strengthen it.
Bray helped shovel the ashes of the demon into the coarse sack that the preacher had made out of Wulf's ruined smock. They put the sack of remains into the box. The preacher closed the bone lid and began to pray over it.
“Wait until those back at the village hear about this!” Bray said once the praying was all done with.
The preacher looked at him long and hard. The preacher drew the now blunt knife and buried it deep into the neck of Bray, and then prayed.
The preacher found Wulf's horse. He wrapped the bone chest in a cloak and fastened it to the back of the horse.
He led the horse through the forest. The Osseous Box needed to be buried somewhere secret. And as long as it remained secret and the demon was confined within the bones of the martyr, then Hell would remain a prison to its own evil.
Jon blew out air. Hell of a story. But he had a question.
“If it's such a secret how come so many know about it”
“The preacher wrote about the Osseous Box and its origin, but never about its location. When my visions started this river always appeared in some way or other so I worked from there.”
“How'd you know about the blood thing?”
“Holy blood has been used before to find holy relics in times of need.”
“You seem to know a shit-load about this.”
“I have to.”
Beth decided to chip in. She'd remained quiet, listening. “But in Revelations it says Jesus has the key to Hell and death.”
Jon shrugged. “Sounds like someone left a window open.”
Bio:Lee Hughes's short fiction has appeared in Cern Zoo: Nemonymous 9 and on Thrillers, Killers 'n' Chillers, A Twist of Noir, FlashShots, Powder Burn Flash, The Daily Tourniquet, MicroHorror and Blink-Ink. Find out more at www.LeeHughes.net