‘Three days, three bloody days. What exactly do you think you’re playing at? How on earth are we supposed to find this thing and kill it in that sort of time frame?’ Sammy thumped the truck’s dashboard with an empty fist and swore as the plastic cracked. He buried his hands in his lap and scowled down at them. It was the first time he’d spoken since they’d left Syms’ hole two hours before and Edwin could see the storm clouds hanging around him.
‘Calm down,’ said Edwin. He checked the rear view mirror and flicked the indicator on before turning off the main road and onto one of the narrower country lanes that wound through the countryside. ‘It’s not like we’ve got to cross the ocean to find this thing and we’ve worked with tighter deadlines in the past. We do the same thing we always do, roll up, find out what’s what, stick the bad thing, move on.’
‘That only works for things like lone vampires and low key fey gone rouge,’ said Sammy. ‘Not Ancients.’
‘Well we’re not dealing with Ancients just yet are we hmmm? We’re dealing with something that’s stirring up the Ancients and that’s a whole different kettle of fish because we both know how uppity those bastards are and let’s be honest, it doesn’t take that much to get them muttering in their sleep.’
‘It takes a massive natural disaster, like the one that killed the dinosaurs.’
‘We that’s a bit of an exaggeration if you ask me,’ Edwin shrugged. ‘They’ve made themselves known now and again in the meantime.’
‘There have only been four recorded incidents of the Ancients showing signs of waking,’ growled Sammy. ‘All of them have preceded death tolls that totalled in the millions. Whatever it is that’s got them uppity is bad news and that isn’t an exaggeration.’
Edwin tutted and shook his head. ‘Sammy, Sammy, Sammy. What will I do with you?’
Edwin parked the car and checked the clock on the dashboard. It read five-thirty. He squinted at the church clock on top of the hill he was parked alongside and read quarter-past-four. A glance at the broken windows and boarded up door suggested that neither clock was particularly reliable and he fished his phone out of his jacket instead. Seven. He crammed it back into his pocket and shouldered the driver side door open.
‘Monsters do love a church,’ he muttered. Sammy climbed out after him and followed as Edwin fought his way past the brambles ensnaring the church yard gate. The hill had once had a pathway leading up to the church, but the grass had grown over and the ground was spongy with dew underfoot, soaking into the cuffs of their trousers as they walked. There were no graves. Edwin didn’t know if that had always been the case of if the dead were lying there unmarked. It didn’t matter much but he did like a headstone. It made things simpler when there was a signpost to tell you were someone was rather than having to play guess the spot with parish records.
St Edmunds read the sign down the road. It had been abandoned at the start of the millennium, declared unsafe but the local heritage groups were trying to raise the funds to fix the place up and reopen the doors. That was as much as Sammy had been able to find with the spotty phone service and limited data connection. There were no news reports about the men Syms had sent before them being killed, and no ghost stories to suggest anything was lurking there. Edwin was half convinced that the zombie had got things wrong.
The hill was higher than it looked and after fifteen minutes the church seemed no closer and Edwin could feel sweat breaking out on the back of his neck.
‘Stop.’ He held out a hand and heard Sammy’s footsteps halt behind him. ‘Bastards’ have gone some sort of spell on the place. A looping illusions or something. We can keep walking but we’re not getting anywhere near that church any time soon if we do. You think you can…’ he looked back at Sammy expectantly and cocked his head to one side. ‘Come on, you know you want to.’
Sammy shrugged and then turned his gaze to the church, frowning slightly.
‘Done,’ he said a moment later.
Sammy smiled. ‘Some of us don’t let ourselves get rusty.’
‘Easy for you to say,’ Edwin muttered. He sprinted fifty yards up the hill and was satisfied to see the distance between him and the church shorten. He tried not to let the apparent ease that Sammy had used to break the spell faze him. Unlike him, Sammy’s abilities were easy to practice unseen. Splitting the ground open at your feet was slightly more attention grabbing and tended to be noticed in public settings. Then again, picking apart the threads of a spell required its own sort of dedication.
Riddled with woodworm, the church doors gave way easily. Brushing the dust from his jacket Edwin stepped inside and coughed as he accidentally breathed some of it in. Sammy thumped him on the back and he almost went through the floor tiles.
‘Thanks,’ he wheezed, concerned that one or more of his ribs might have just snapped.
The church wasn’t huge. At most it would have seated a hundred parishioners and there was a small vestry clustered with shadows at the back behind the spot where the font had once been. The organ pipes were long since gone as well and the alter lay on its side in the chancel, the polished wood splintered and weather stained.
Edwin made his way down the pews checking for anything unusual.
‘Huh,’ said Sammy, scanning the paintings which lined the eastern wall. They were dusty but still serviceable. ‘You would think that out in the middle of nowhere, an empty place like this would be a kid’s dream come true, but…’ he turned and looked at the other walls. ‘There isn’t a lick of graffiti in this place.’
‘So there isn’t,’ said Edwin. He checked the pews again, this time examining them for any scratching of ‘I woz ere’ or ‘J+T’ in a wonky heart. Nothing. For a church that had been empty sixteen years there was a surprising lack of vandalism. ‘How old was that spell would you say?’
‘Three months maybe,’ Sammy replied. ‘It felt green still so it had to be relatively fresh.’
‘And there was nothing beneath it. No residual boundary spell that might have kept people from straying in here?’
Edwin frowned. ‘What do you think-‘
The rest of his sentence was lost as something large, black and muscular exploded from the vestry, punching directly into Edwin’s chest and driving them both into the pews.
Over the blood rushing in his ears Edwin heard Sammy yell and there was a high pitch whine as the creature buckled sideways, careering away from the knife that Edwin had thrust upwards into the flesh bit where leg met torso.
The hound stumbled. Hound was generous, the thing’s face was too wide, instead of fur there were scales, and a long, purple, forked tongue lashed back and forth behind the rows of sharp, white teeth.
‘Edwin, there’s more.’
Edwin didn’t need to look to know there was more. He could hear them growling as they paced out of the vestry. The one he’d injured studied him carefully, working out how to get the next attack in without Edwin drawing blood again.
Edwin could feel the creatures blood eating away at his clothing, the skin beneath starting to burn. It hurt, it really, really hurt, but there was nothing he could do about it right then.
‘Edwin, do something.’ Sammy was eyeing the creatures approach. They were cautious, they smelt blood and the wrong sort at that. It wouldn’t last long.
Edwin kept the dagger trained on the hound closest to him and placed his free hand against the floor. It wasn’t dirt and he was aiming for two different places which could do horribly wrong but-
The ground cracked open beneath the pack and a chorus of panicked yelps broke out as a few dropped in immediately, the ground snapping shut above them. Edwin heard scale and bone crunch as an unlucky few failed to fall completely, spines, legs, and necks breaking as the earth closed around them.
In front of him the hound had flinched, but the ground had failed to open.
‘Shit, Sammy move.’
There were two left from the pack and both bolted for Sammy, teeth bared. Edwin watched as he went down beneath them.
He didn’t watch for long as the first followed suit.
Teeth closed millimetres from his face, scraping the top layer of skin from his nose. Edwin’s arm trembled as he struggled to keep the hound at bay.
‘Shit, shit, shit.’ He thrust up with the knife again but it skittered across the scales. Claws dug into his shoulders and he could feel his skin threatening to blister beneath the creature’s breath.
Not here, not now. Ivory said so.
He brought his elbow up awkwardly and twisted his wrist so the knife went up, just missing the creatures eyeball. It snarled and pulled back. Edwin jabbed again, this time the blade went in and hot, white pulp poured down his arm.
He could see bone, he could see his bloody bone.
The hound went limp, its weight falling on him fully.
Screw Ivory, she’d lied. Of course she’d lied.
The air went out of his lungs and there was no more breath for screaming.
‘Edwin?’ Sammy grunted and there was a desperate, high pitched whimper as one of the hounds’ skulls cracked and fractured between Sammy’s palms.
Edwin could see grey. He was going to pass out.
This was unbelievable he decided. Syms was going to end up being right.
His arm was on fire, everything was on fire. He was dying.
Another crunch, another whimper.
‘Edwin, Edwin look at me!’
The world went dark.
When Edwin woke he couldn’t feel his hand. He looked down to check that it was still there and to his relief he saw it was. Bandaged and taped, it looked twice of large as it should have done, and none of his fingers would respond to command, but it was most defiantly still attached.
Edwin turned his head to see Sammy sat in the driver’s seat of the truck and realised that he was sat in the passenger seat. He frowned.
‘My head hurts.’ A lot hurt at that moment but Edwin was relatively sure that his head hurt because Sammy had smacked it on something so that was his first concern.
‘Yeah, you woke up when I was cleaning out your arm.’
‘Ah,’ said Edwin. ‘That explains it.’ He tried to move his hand again, scowling at his digits when they remained still. Sammy had wrapped them individually and Edwin could see the blood starting to seep through the bandages. ‘So Marie’s then?’ asked Edwin.
Marie was a hedge witch but a dam good healer. A few shades better and she’d be able to bring the dead back to life. The very recently dead of course.
‘You want to be able to use your hand again because at the minute it’s not looking good,’ said Sammy.
Yeah, though Edwin, defiantly Marie’s.
His head felt sort of floaty and despite being in pain, he was aware that he should have been in far more.
‘What did you give me?’ he asked. Sammy didn’t respond. ‘Sammy,’ said Edwin, his tone dangerous now. ‘What did you give me?’
‘Go back to sleep. We’ve got another hour on the road and I need to concentrate.’
Edwin sunk into the seat and slouched against the window.
Sammy took a right and something rolled around in the back of the truck. Edwin’s stomach tightened.
‘What was that? Please tell me you didn’t bring one of those things with us.’
‘No,’ said Sammy, eyes fixed on the road. ‘I burnt ’em.’
‘All of them?’
They took a left and then another right and the thing in the back rolled again.
‘It’s a head,’ said Sammy. ‘It might be useful.’
Edwin sighed but he was too tired to argue.
‘Do you think they were there guarding something or just to throw people off the trail.’
Sammy shrugged. ‘I didn’t stay around to look but I’m going to guess the second.’
Edwin nodded and sank deeper into the seat, searching for a position that didn’t aggravate some ache or pain.
It was rare to see one Hell Dog, but a whole pack. No wonder the previous guys had been killed.
Feeling his eyelids dropping Edwin blinked to keep them open, the road swaying beyond the windscreen.
Not dead, he reminded himself. Still alive.
He opened his eyes and realised they’d been shut for a while and the scenery had changed from open fields to woodland and they were following a narrow dirt track.
‘We here?’ he asked, words slurring. His arm was hot and throbbing, the pain jumping up through his shoulder into his chest.
‘We’re here,’ said Sammy, pulling up and killing the engine.
Edwin managed to open the door with his good hand and Sammy was there to catch him as he tumbled out. He vomited next to the front wheel.
‘Not dead,’ he muttered, letting Sammy drag him towards the wood cabin set in among the trees.
Not dead, he repeated, this time in his head.
Not dead, an he was going to keep it that way.
There were steps, Edwin didn’t count them.
There were voices, Sammy’s and someone else.
Hands, fingers, plucking, prodding, hurting.
‘What the hell have you two been up to?’
Marie, Edwin recognised Marie’s voice.
‘You know this should have killed him through shock alone?’
Edwin was sitting down, they had managed to get inside somehow and Marie had his arm in her lap.
His very bony, flesh-less, skeletal arm.
Edwin puked again, this time bile.
Sammy grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and forced him sideways. The bile hit the floor and not him.
Marie was there as well, hands on his face not his arm, pressing something to his mouth. It went down easily.
‘Catch him,’ he heard Marie say. Sammy’s hands came down on his shoulders. Before he could ask why he was falling sideways.
Oh, he thought. She’s drugged me.
So there we go! Part three of Solitary Creatures. Apologies about the long gaps between the sections/chapters/random spewing of story.
Please do let me know if you like this story so far. Part of my 2017 resolutions is to update this twice a month and turn it into a fortnightly feature so between then and now I’m going to try and stockpile some chapters. If you want to know more about the 2017 plans for this site then I’ll be posting a Weekend Coffee Share post either this weekend of next about what next year will have in store for Writing and Works.