A long term agreement (Part 1)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: The Dark And Suspenseful

What would you be willing to offer in exchange for your life? How would you feel when payment becomes due?

It was late evening before his hearing began to return; before this, the explosions were only discernible to him by the vibrations of the muddy ground he clung to for dear life. The quagmire of mud shuddered and undulated with each impact of the heavy shells; as if some gigantic creature were burrowing upwards from the bowels of the earth. The artillery round that had exploded near him hours before had cast him like a rag doll into the shell hole, and the world had suddenly grown silent. Now that the great meat grinder was gearing down for the night, the first sounds he could hear were the screams of the wounded and dying. At first, the sounds were muffled and appeared to come from a great distance, but as his hearing recovered the screams burrowed into his brain like parasites fuelling his fear.

The behemoths that had turned the landscape to a blood-filled abattoir had fallen silent, and the screams were only interrupted by the intermittent sharp cracks of sniper fire. Darkness began to settle over no man’s land, and eventually, even the screams faded to muffled moans. The fading of the light gave him the courage to shift his position from where he lay, and he slithered on his belly to the top of the shell hole. Any thought of making a break for it was dashed when the cloud cover parted, and the battlefield was illuminated by bright moonlight. He looked longingly at the forest in the distance; the nearest trees had been stripped of leaves, branches, and even their bark by flying shrapnel. But beyond those skeletal trees that pointed accusingly to the heavens, the vast ancient forest lived on, as if in defiance to man’s attempts to kill it.

Looking behind him he could see the outlines of razor wire that marked the position of the trenches he had started from that morning; it was less than a hundred yards from him. But he had no intention of ever returning to his lines, he had his fill of king and country. He and millions like him were to be sacrificed for lines on a map, so the rich could grow even more obscenely rich. No matter what uniform you wore, or what language you spoke, you were still only cannon fodder. The fat generals at the rear sent wave after wave of young men to their deaths, or to live like vermin among the mud and corpses. While they puffed on their Cuban cigars, drank vintage Cognac, and fucked French whores.

 The moonlight was suddenly lost as a flare lit up the vista brighter than daylight; he gaped wide-eyed at the devastation surrounding him. The broken corpses of men hung like obscene decorations from the razor wire that appeared to grow like thickets of brambles from the blood-soaked ground. The flare slowly sank to earth only to be followed by another, and so it went on, and the battlefield remained brightly lit. The crack of rifle shots intensified as snipers on both sides exchanged fire, and he withdrew from the exposed rim of the shell crater. Crouching midway down the slope of the crater, he found his eyes being drawn to the corpses that populated the bottom of the shell hole. The bodies were arranged around the stagnant pool of rainwater as if they had struggled from its depths and lay exhausted after their efforts.

The pyrotechnics floating slowly to the mangled earth created flickering shadows that gave the corpses the illusion of movement. Even in daylight, it would have been impossible to determine which side the dead men had come from, out here in no man’s land the universal color of uniforms was a muddy grey. A movement in his peripheral vision drew his eyes to a particularly damaged body; the right arm was missing and the right side of its face and skull had been shaved off as if a gigantic blade had passed over it. He watched in horror as the head began to turn, it would begin to turn in his direction only to fall back, then start the same movement moments later. A fresh flare lit up the night and he saw the cause of this movement, a rat the size of a large domestic cat was gnawing at the ear of the dead man. Pulling juicy morsels from the lobe and causing the head to move.

In the light of the flare he now became aware that the shell hole was teaming with these vermin, they fought and clawed at one another in their haste to get their share of the dead flesh. The level of fear quickly rose in him, he had witnessed first-hand what these scavengers were capable of. Every soldier knew that one bite from those devilish creatures might cause disease, and he had heard tales of swarms of them eating wounded soldiers. The number of vermin grew by the minute until they covered the corpses in a heaving mass; some of those that could not reach the bodies began to take an interest in him. Several of the big rodents approached him without fear; he watched in horror as a huge one reared up on his hind paws and sniffed the air in his direction. Grabbing a handful of stones he threw them at the rats; the rodents scurried away but soon returned. He had not slept properly in days and the thought of falling asleep here among the rats terrified him, when the latest flare began to fall to earth he made his move.

Leaping from the shell crater he took off running in the direction of the distant forest, crouching as low as he could he tried to make himself as small a target as possible. Taking a meandering path he made it fifty yards or so, before his boot planted on something slippery and he tumbled headfirst into the mud. He had no sooner hit the ground before another flare lit up the battlefield, laying here in the open ground the feeling of vulnerability terrified him. He looked behind him to see what had tripped him up and discovered to his horror that he had trodden on a wounded soldier. The man was closer to death than he was to life, his abdomen had been sliced open spilling his entrails onto the ground in a sticky mess. It was this mess he had stepped in, but the wounded man was past all feeling and only a heartbeat from the next life.

It seemed to take an eternity for the flare to fall to earth, and as soon as it did he was up and running again. He had spent most of his life running from one authority or another, and he tried hard to call on his base instincts of survival. He had started life as a poacher and graduated to serious crime from there, he had raped, stolen, and murdered. Yet so far he managed to avoid capture and the hangman’s noose, now he prayed that his luck would not run out. He had so many different identities in his short life that his real name no longer mattered to him, even the name he had enlisted under belonged to someone else. Those of the criminal fraternity that knew him for any length of time knew him simply as the poacher. He was less than a hundred yards from the woods when the next flare went up, he never heard the shot but he felt as if someone had struck him in the shoulder with a sledgehammer.

For the second time that day, the poacher was lifted from his feet and deposited in a shell hole. Only this time when he landed in the mud he lost consciousness, and when he came around the front of his tunic was soaked in blood and he felt weak. The poacher did his best to keep his eyes open, but his eyelids felt as heavy as lead. Despite his best efforts sleep overtook him, and with it came the strange dream. The dream centered on a blonde-haired woman, a woman of rare beauty but with the deathly pale complexion of a corpse. The poacher was both smitten and yet terrified by the woman, for even in the dream he felt her otherworldliness. Whispering in his ear she promised him so much, yet even in his dream state, he knew there would be a great price to be paid for what she offered. The blonde woman leaned over him and offered her hand, but the gesture only caused him to whimper in fear.

At first, the poacher thought he was still locked in the dream; it was the only sane explanation for what he saw before his eyes. The scruffy-looking boy hunkered on the edge of the shell hole, watching the poacher with a disinterested expression on his filthy features. The child was barefooted and wore short pants and an army-issue tunic, which was several sizes too big for him. On his head, he wore a silk top hat that had seen better days; and was nonchalantly eating an apple, as the sniper's bullets whizzed past his head with the sound of a swarm of angry wasps. The poacher struggled to a sitting position and the child smiled as he groaned in pain, that smile and the child’s eyes were as cold as an arctic night.

What do you want child, why are you here?” His throat was parched and the words came out in a hoarse whisper, the boy turned his face towards the heavens as if searching for an answer to the poacher's question. Then without a word he leaped from his position and landed on his feet beside the poacher, something about this strange child terrified the wounded man. Up close the boy looked even younger, and his smile appeared even more menacing. His teeth were crooked and ended in needle points, and a vision came to the poacher’s mind of those teeth gnawing at human flesh just like the trench rats. The ragamuffin whipped off the top hat and bowed from the waist, in a manner worthy of a pantomime actor. “I have been sent to rescue you, soldier, although you hardly seem worth the effort. Were it up to me I would just as soon put you out of your misery.” The boy’s right hand reached behind him and reappeared holding a lethal-looking dagger, he held the knife close to the poacher’s face and the blade glinted dully in the moonlight.

An involuntary whimper escaped the poacher’s lips and the urchin laughed softly, but his humor did not reach those cold eyes. Before he had a chance to say a word the boy replaced his hat and grabbed the front of the poacher’s tunic. He was hauled to his feet as if he were no more than a manikin; the strength of the child was unnatural. “Follow me poacher and do not fall behind, for if you do I will come back and slit your throat.” The devil child practically dragged him to the parapet of the shell hole, where he released his grip and started in the direction of the forest. “Keep up or you die poacher.” The boy remarked over his shoulder, before walking through no man’s land as if he were on a Sunday morning stroll. As if in a trance the poacher followed on behind him, in his mind he knew that he had only a very slim chance of avoiding a sniper's bullet. But he also knew that the child would not hesitate to carry out his threat.

As if by a miracle they managed to reach the broken part of the forest without as much as a stumble, but by the time they had negotiated the skeletal trees the poacher’s strength began to desert him.  The wound in his shoulder was on fire, yet he was covered in a clammy sweat and shivering with the cold. Every step required tremendous effort and his legs felt like jelly, the strange child was barely discernible among the trees far ahead of him. The gradient began to rise sharply until he finally could not find the strength to put one foot ahead of the other. His vision began to blur, and the ground lurched until he found himself staring at the stars. His last thought before slipping into unconsciousness was how in the hell did the boy know he was called the poacher.

The poacher drifted in and out of consciousness, but he was never awake long enough to make out his surroundings. Where ever he was, it appeared to be perpetually night, with only the flickering lights of candles or torches keeping the shadows at bay. When he finally came to, it was to the sensation of someone slapping his cheek. A pale blur was all he could make out of the features of whoever was squatting by his head. “Wake up poacher, the mistress will be here soon. Try to look as if you are worth saving.” The voice sounded familiar but it was a while before he realized it was the ragamuffin that spoke, he was struck once again by a stinging slap on the cheek. He gathered what strength he had left and struggled to a sitting position, but a wave of dizziness washed over him and he puked. Nothing came up but bile and it burned his already parched throat like acid.

The boy just managed to move back before being covered with bile, the poacher looked up at him and the look on the child’s face made him gasp. “But for the fact, the mistress wants you as a pet, I would gladly slit your throat, poacher.” The child’s words were spoken with such venom that the poacher felt the cold fingers of fear grab his insides. Whatever this thing was he was no child, the voice sounded young but the tone of the voice was old and filled with hatred. The boy in the top hat turned on his heels and withdrew into the shadows, leaving him to try and make out his surroundings. The area felt vast and dank, tallow candles burned at intervals along the stone walls, but he could not make out any features in the place. The poacher had a feeling he was in a subterranean room, he tried to stand but a fire erupted in his shoulder. The stench of corruption wafting from the wound told him he was badly infected, he lay back on the cold stone floor and closed his eyes.

Time passed without anyone coming near him, the fever burning in him caused his mind to fly elsewhere. He lost himself in a cascade of visions from his past life that paraded through his mind, women he had laid with and men he had killed came to visit him in his mind. The sound of an infant crying drifted through his head, but the cries were quickly silenced. At one stage he became aware of disembodied voices nearby, he could not tell what they were saying but he knew they were discussing him. The poacher tried to open his eyes to see who was there, but it was as if the lids had been sewn shut. He cried out but even in his mind he could not make out his words, then he felt hands on him as his tunic was roughly ripped from his body. Flesh as cold as that of a corpse touched his body, and then a searing pain sent him spiraling downwards, into blissful darkness.

The next time he regained consciousness the fever had passed, he was weak but he did not feel as near to death. He rose gingerly on to legs that threatened to fold beneath him and made his way to the nearest candle. Taking the tallow candle from its holder, the poacher held it aloft to gaze at his surroundings. He was in a vast cellar the walls were of carved sandstone, at the far end of the room rows of bottle wracks stood against the wall. To the left of these he spotted a stone staircase leading upwards, he made his way to the staircase with a gait like a newborn fawn. At the top of the stairs, he found himself in the ruins of a grand reception area, a hallway branched off to the right and a faint illumination was visible. The poacher made his way towards the illumination; it was coming from a door that stood slightly ajar. The smell of something cooking wafted from the open doorway, and he followed it inside.

At the center of the once fine drawing-room, a brazier stood, and above it hung pot from a tripod. The smell of a meat stew made his mouth water and his stomach grumbled, the boy in the top hat was stirring the pot with his back to the poacher. “Come in and be seated you are just in time for the meal.” The voice drifted from the shadows that clung to the edges of the room, and it was a woman’s voice. Something about the sensual voice was both appealing and yet terrifying, and the poacher stared in the direction it came from. “Join me over here.” The voice had a seductive tone to it that made his skin tingle, he found himself walking towards the shadows as if he were hypnotized. At the back of his mind, a small voice pleaded with him to run from this place, but it was as if he no longer had control over himself. The sound of a match being struck was followed by a tiny flare of light. He watched the disembodied flame, as it moved through the darkness until it met and ignited the wick of an oil lamp.

The hand holding the lamp was small and delicate and the color of polished porcelain. The remainder of the person’s features were lost in the folds of a cowl of velvet; the garment was the color of an old bloodstain. The oil lamp was placed on a marble-topped side table, and the hand adjusted the wick until the corner of the room was illuminated. “Take a seat Anthony; we have much to talk about. But first, we must eat.”  The poacher gasped at the mention of his birth name, the only person that had ever called him that was his mother and she had long since gone to fertilize the earth. The small pale hand gestured to a wing-backed armchair opposite, and the poacher sat. When the woman sitting across from him reached up and removed the loose hood, the poacher’s heart skipped a beat. The blonde-haired woman was every bit as beautiful as he remembered, and here in the real world, she was vastly more terrifying than the dream. Her piercing green eyes held his, and he felt like a deer caught in the headlights. He could feel her inside his head, and his innermost thoughts were laid bare to her.

The boy in the top hat suddenly appeared at his side carrying two bowls of steaming stew, one he gave to the mysterious woman and one to the poacher. The delicious smell of the food caused his mouth to fill with salvia, but every fiber of his being pleaded with him not to eat. “Eat poacher, this food will sustain you, I have brought you back from the brink of death.” The woman’s voice was soft but there was no mistaking that she was ordering him to do her bidding. He lifted the spoon and disturbed the meat resting beneath the liquid in the bowl, what he saw horrified him. Fighting back a wave of nausea he closed his eyes and spooned the food into his mouth as quickly as he could. From the far side of the room, he heard the mocking laughter of the boy, and in the deeper shadows others joined in. “Eat up Anthony, for when you are finished I have an agreement I wish to discuss with you.” The blonde-haired woman’s words chilled him to the bone.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Submitted: March 23, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Patrick G Moloney. All rights reserved.

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