and there were beasts... Editor
The Devil's Own
by Tom Olbert
Jeremy’s flesh crawled at the unmistakable sound of immense claws raking across the wooden roof tiles. In the midnight darkness, shadows danced across the bare wooden floor in the flickering light of an oil lantern.
His sister Alison screamed and clutched at their mother. “Hush, both of you,” their father whispered sternly, and blew out the lantern. Jeremy crossed himself as the room went pitch black. Alison’s scream was muffled, apparently by Mother clamping a hand over her mouth.
“Hush, child,” he heard Mother say in a quieter whisper still, terror showing in the faintest quiver of her voice. The hair stood up on Jeremy’s neck at an ungodly sound, like a thousand snakes slithering across the roof. And, a low, muffled clicking. Shotgun blasts shattered the darkness. Jeremy’s heart froze. His father and two neighbor men were briefly illuminated in the flashes as they fired at the ceiling. Alison’s screams intermingled with the inhuman shrieking that penetrated Jeremy’s heart.
He shut his eyes tightly and prayed. He had the coldest feeling that no one heard.
At dawn’s pale light, the villagers gathered in stunned silence in the damp morning chill, around the half-devoured remains of their slaughtered animals. “What have we done to bring this on ourselves,” old pastor Stephens said in a horror-stricken whisper, the others muttering under their breath. “Ours has always been a God-fearing village.”Jeremy shivered, a tremor passing through him as he tried to shake off the lingering terror of the night before. After the horror of waking reality had faded into the seemingly endless night, his sleep…what little there was…was no more peaceful. He had been haunted by childhood nightmares of iron dragons and fire from the sky. We deserved this, he asked himself, something rebelling inside him at the thought. Even the pastor admitted doubt. Were not all the answers there in his precious book? He knew such thoughts were forbidden, but…he felt solid foundations he’d long trusted weakening beneath him.
“Jeremy, are you well?”
He started at the sound of the girl’s voice. Stephanie. Lovely as ever, her pretty brown eyes showing concern. Her presence brought the promise of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. As always, her closeness brought a light tingling to his chest and a cloudy haze over his vision. Though it felt foolish, even sinful in the wake of the hellish atrocities the village had just suffered, it was a welcome touch of humanity that brought warmth flowing back into his veins. He pulled himself tall and straight, hoping to impress her. “Yes, are you?”
She nodded. “We hid in our root cellar. They killed two of our cows, but hurt none of us, thank the Heavenly Father.” She stepped closer, drawing her shawl about her shoulders. Her breath was white steam as it touched his cheek. He felt warm. “I was worried about you.” She smiled, sweetly. He felt himself blushing as he worked up the courage to reach for her hand. The night before had taught him how brief and fragile a thing life was, how precious every moment.
There was a harsh commotion, his neighbors shouting. He looked up and saw the stranger in the black frock coat and wide-brimmed hat riding into the village on a finely-groomed black stallion. A hush fell over the crowd as the stranger reined his horse to a stop. He touched the brim of his hat and surveyed the villagers with cold grey eyes. Heads bowed, eyes averting from the stranger’s fearsome gaze.
A lump formed in Jeremy’s throat as Stephanie nestled behind him, softly touching his arm. They both knew full well this man was an inquisitor from the Church Directorate. Jeremy crossed himself and clasped her hand. May God protect us, now.
Jeremy coughed, covering his nose and mouth against the choking stench of the bodies in the fire. He stole a fearful glance, his eyes tearing in the smoke. Men with kerchiefs around their faces pushed the bodies of the slain into the fires with pitchforks. Human flesh blistered and roasted in the crackling blaze. He looked away, feeling sick. “God casts out the Devil’s own,” the Inquisitor shouted, holding his gold cross aloft, its metal glinting in the firelight. The flames illuminated the Inquisitor’s gaunt, pale face. His voice was strong. Unlike the gathered villagers, he seemed unaffected by that awful stench. His eyes were cold as the stern gray sky, showing not a tear, despite the cursed black smoke blowing through the crowd, black ashes fluttering down in a horrid rain. Jeremy felt a revulsion, a hatred rising inside him like the flames.
As Jeremy looked away, he saw the next of the condemned being dragged to his fate in ropes by the villagers. He could barely recognize the man as the old miller, Ezekiel Corbin. Jeremy averted his eyes in revulsion from the once-man’s hideously distorted and wildly asymmetrical face. Black lesions swelled from what had been flesh and bone. Curved fangs and mandibles protruded from under peeling, rotted human flesh. The man’s shirt had been torn open by his captors, revealing flesh turning black as coal, the nubs of tentacles writhing horribly. The poor wretch growled and sputtered in a voice no longer even remotely human. The villagers howled and shrieked hatefully, pelting the wretched creature with stones. His face was smashed open, grayish blood spurting from the wounds as the half-human thing staggered in half-consciousness, pulled toward the fire. Jeremy winced, feeling the pain of those wounds. Would anyone choose this, he wondered, blinking back stinging tears, his gut twisting.
“Let all whom would consort with the beast know…the true servants of the Lord shall smite thee without quarter or mercy!” the Inquisitor shouted, waving his holy book. “By these flames, our land is purified of this hellish evil!”
Jeremy could stand no more. His head swimming, he staggered from the crowd and smoke, feeling faint and sick. He leaned against a tree and breathed deeply, wiping cold sweat from his face. He feared he might be ill. He started, a soft hand on his shoulder. Stephanie. “Come with me, Jeremy,” she whispered urgently in his ear. “Let us get away from here.” Her eyes pled with him, though he needed precious little coaxing. She took his hand and led him away. They left the village, making their way into the surrounding woods.
Where, it was said, lived the demons.
The meadow overlooking the brook was a peaceful, beautiful place. Jeremy smiled and sniffed the sweet fragrance of a pretty wildflower he’d picked, the sun breaking through the clouds, blue sky appearing. Stephanie giggled, child-like as she playfully nuzzled his ear. It was like a beautiful dream. Or, was it the waking of reality, the nightmare of the village at last left behind? He felt more free than he’d ever felt before.
He pretended to protest as she removed his hat and ran her slender fingers playfully through his hair. “Jeremy…” she whispered, kissing him lightly on the cheek. “Have you ever ventured down there, beyond the river’s fork?”
The question sent a cold pang through his stomach, but he took care not to let her see his fear. “No. I’ve had no reason to. Why?”
“The forbidden place.” She said it with an enticing hint of wonder as she looked off down the river, her face snuggling beside his. “If the elders and the Church Fathers don’t want us to go there…might it be the path to freedom?” He fought to repress a shudder as he looked off at the shadowed forest path leading down the hillside into the dark caves beyond. An evil place, it was said. Some said, the very threshold of hell itself. But, the mention of freedom stirred some long-hidden longing, tucked away in a dark corner of his gut the pastor would have called a hiding place for sin.
“No one’s ever come back,” he said quietly, his throat constricting. He cursed his wretched fear. He did not want to appear a coward in her eyes. But, everything he had ever been taught, either by his parents, or in the school house…indeed, every fiber of his being it seemed, filled his body with a paralytic, icy cold at the mere thought of that unholy place.
She gently turned his face to hers, her hands on his cheeks. “I have.” She said it with a cold smile, her eyes penetrating with a dark knowledge beyond her 15 years. He felt an icy chill spread through him. He began to pull away. “Don’t,” she said gently, softly stroking his face. “I could never hurt you. You know that.” She slowly removed his jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt. His head pitched and swayed in the soft breeze, his eyes clouding over in a light haze, the birds distantly chirping in the rustling branches. The fear and the passion battled inside him, the passion drowning the fear. He surrendered to the one thing he could trust. His love for her. He didn’t protest as she lay upon him, her sweet lips upon his. His fingers played through the softness of her loose, wild hair.
He smiled. He had never felt so alive.
He awoke with a start, in darkness. The sun had all but set. Only a dim, smoldering red line marked the tops of the trees. The first faint stars were already peeking out. He looked about, frantically, in the shadows, picking up his hat and coat. Stephanie stood silhouetted by the river’s edge, the sunset turning the rippling waters burning blood red behind her. “We should go,” she said coolly, buttoning the bodice of her dress. “Our parents will be out looking for us.”
His heart pounded in fear as he clumsily buttoned his shirt and pulled on his jacket. He imagined he must look like a disheveled scarecrow. His face flushed hot. “What are we going to tell them?”
She stood there looking at him, her face hidden in black shadow. “We’re not going back to the village, Jeremy. We can never go back. Not now. We have to go there.” She pointed down the river. To the forbidden place. He felt his face go cold. Dear God. Was she mad? Or…was she… His teeth began to chatter, and his whole body to tremble as she started slowly towards him. He wanted desperately to run. But, his feet were anchored to the earth. Some unseen power bound him to her. The coldness running through him was supplanted by warmth as she drew close. The last rays of the sun slipped below the tree line, darkness closing in. He could not move. “Come. My love.” She said, her hand touching his face.
He recoiled, his blood freezing at the feel of leathery flesh against his cheek and the tips of sharp claws ruffling his hair. He heard the fabric of her dress tearing as multiple writhing tentacles extended, brushing his arm. A familiar clicking sound came from her unseen face, a soft slurping sound intermingling with the gnashing of curved fangs. He screamed and ran blindly into the night.
His mind was a wash of gray shadows, branches whipping his face, the rasping sound of his own labored breathing filling his ears. A cold prickling ran down his spine, as though something were closing in from behind. “God, forgive me my sin,” he whispered under his breath, his brain numb with fear. “Heavenly Father, protect me…” He tripped, crying out in sharp pain, his ankle twisting. He groaned in pain as he tumbled down a steep incline, stones battering his sides. He scraped his forehead as he slid into the dirt. He gasped, whimpering as he struggled to rise, his head swirling. He looked around, now completely lost in pitch-blackness. His hand touched something. The rough bark of a tree trunk. His face was streaming with sweat, his heart pounding, his lungs pumping like twin bellows.
Branches cracked in the woods behind him. He started, then heaved a grateful sigh of relief as he heard the approaching voices of men and saw smoky shadows dancing through the faint orange glow of torches. His heart leapt as he discerned the angry but welcome voice of his father. “Father,” he shouted with joy, as best as his strangled voice could muster, and staggered toward the torchlight. “Over here. It’s Jeremy.”
“Son?” He soon found himself facing his father, and surrounded by neighbor men, all with torches. He smiled, weakly. He had never been so happy to be facing the prospect of a lashing, now so close at hand. God had spared him, in spite of his sin and foolishness. He silently recited a prayer of thanks, and vowed he would never again stray from the teachings of Pastor Stephens or his parents. His heart grew cold, the blood draining from his face as the Inquisitor stepped from behind his father, his penetrating eyes like gray-silver glass reflecting the torchlight.
“Out for a late stroll, are we, young squire,” he asked coldly, fingering his crucifix.
A lump formed in Jeremy’s throat. He looked at his father. His father looked more fearful than Jeremy had ever seen him, licking his lip and glancing nervously at the Inquisitor. “Good sir…” he said in an uncharacteristically submissive voice. The Inquisitor raised a hand, and Jeremy’s father turned his head down, wincing in obvious pain. Jeremy’s knees turned to putty.
“Step forward into the light, young sir,” the Inquisitor ordered, beckoning with his finger. Jeremy had to force his legs to move, his feet seemingly weighed down with massive iron chains. “Raise your right arm.”
Jeremy hesitated, staring into the man’s face. “S-Sir?”
“Raise your right arm, I said! Into the light, that I might see.” Puzzled, Jeremy did as the Inquisitor commanded. The men all gasped in horror, drawing back and crossing themselves. Even Jeremy’s father. The Inquisitor raised his cross and said something in some book-learned tongue only churchmen knew. Frightened and confused, Jeremy looked down at his arm. His heart turned to ice. His brain froze in horror. The flesh of Jeremy’s hand had turned to a leathery hide black as coal. The fingers had elongated to twice their former length and now ended in curved claws. His second and third finger had fused into one. In the torchlight he could see that, under his loosened shirt cuff, the black rot of the mutation was spreading up his arm. Dear God, no. “The Devil’s poison has claimed another! Kill him! Burn the evil from his bones!”
Jeremy’s heart throbbed as the men surrounding him circled like rabid jackals, broad smiles crossing their stubbled faces as they brandished ropes and knives. “No!” his father shouted. “You cannot take my only son! He can be cured, I tell you! Can not the love of our family and church exorcise the devil’s touch?”
“He is one of the Devil’s own now, man,” the Inquisitor said sternly. “The fire is his only salvation. Do not interfere, or you too will face my judgment!” The sharp bite of a horsehide rope cut into Jeremy’s throat as he was seized from behind. His head spun with pain as he felt ropes biting into his arms, cutting off his circulation.
“No!” he heard his father screaming as Jeremy was bound to a tree. “Get away from him, you murdering heathen!” He attacked like a madman, slashing at the men with a sickle. One of them stepped up behind him and thrust his arm forward. Jeremy saw his father’s head snap back, a grimace of pain on his face. His father sank slowly to his knees. The man behind him put his boot to his back and pushed him faced-down into the dirt, pulling the bloodied knife from his back. Jeremy choked on a strangled scream. Another man howled in joyous hatred as he lifted an axe over his head and swung it toward the head of the fallen man on the ground before him. Jeremy averted his eyes as he heard a softly muffled crack, followed by harsh, guttural laughter. He sobbed, tears streaming down his face. What had he done? His sin had brought his father to this. Why had God condemned an innocent man for the sins of his son?
The men began gathering kindling and stacking it around the base of the tree, piling it over Jeremy’s feet. He grit his teeth in anger, his wrists straining against the ropes. He glared in hatred at the pale, death-like figure of the Inquisitor. “Damn you!” he screamed, rage rising from his gut, the wood creaking against the ropes. “Damn you all to hell!!”
“Burn him!” the Inquisitor shouted. The torches drew close. Then, stopped. The laughter and obscene chatter of the men stopped cold. The men looked around, fearful expressions on their faces as their eyes scanned the rattling, creaking boughs above. From the darkened upper branches came a familiar slithering sound and hungry clicking. The man closest to the tree moved slowly back, raising his torch. He screamed as something reached down and seized him. His torch fell and ignited the wood at Jeremy’s feet as the man was pulled off the ground, his feet dangling in mid-air. One last scream as the man’s legs jerked and hung still. A spray of blood splattered across the grass and across Jeremy’s shirtfront. The blood hissed and sizzled as the fire roared to life, circling the tree. In the firelight, Jeremy saw the black tentacled things…shapes unimaginable. They moved so swiftly, living black shadows. Their claws and fangs flashed like knives in the firelight, disemboweling the screaming men, tentacles pulling them up into the trees. A strange sense of wild animal titillation raced hot through Jeremy’s blood at the carnage. He felt a part of him was dying, the rest eagerly becoming part of the wildness of these God-forsaken woods.
Jeremy roared in pain as his clothes caught fire. He strained in rage, the ropes catching fire and snapping like thread as his limbs found surprising strength. Jumping clear of the fire and pulling off his burning coat and shirt, he turned and found himself staring straight into the face of a demon. If it could be called a face at all. A gaping, sucking, diamond-shaped black maw of bloodied fangs and clicking mandibles, brimming with human gore. Astonishingly, he felt no terror. No revulsion. Only a mouth-watering hunger. He gasped and drew back in fear as the creature before him burst into flames, screeching its inhuman death rattle. Jeremy shielded his eyes from the flames, and saw the Inquisitor, the gold cross brandished in his hand. The crucifix glowed like golden fire, a radiating beam of light like the rising sun emanating from it. The Inquisitor’s face was cold as ever as he turned, the light from his crucifix like a fiery sword cutting down the demons, their bodies burned to ashes.
Jeremy’s teeth clenched in rage. His hatred for the man rose like a roaring fire within his breast. Not only for his father’s death, it seemed. But, for something else within him for which he had no name. Something primal. He picked up the axe that had killed his father. The blood on the blade’s edge glistened bright red in the firelight. As the Inquisitor turned to kill another demon, Jeremy lifted the axe over his head and swung with all his strength, hacking off the man’s arm. Jeremy gasped. From the severed arm of the Inquisitor came not the splatter of blood Jeremy had expected. But, a wild crackling of white sparks, like lightning. Jeremy stared agape as the arm fell to the forest floor, the hand still clutching the crucifix. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Silver and copper wires and flashing crystalline gems filled the arm, like the stump hanging from the man’s shoulder, now also sparking and smoldering. A choking stench, like molten metal on a blacksmith’s forge reached Jeremy’s nostrils.
He could only stare in wonder at the Inquisitor’s face, even now still and cold and calm as the surface of a lake in the moonlight. “Thy sin will destroy thee,” he intoned, holding his bible aloft. Jeremy screamed in blind rage and horror, smashing the axe blade against the man’s face. The ring of metal surprised him. Jeremy’s heart stopped, the axe dropping from his numbed fingers. An extraneous layer of dead, bloodless pale flesh peeled away from the Inquisitor’s face. Beneath it, a grotesque metallic skeletal mask glittered silver in the firelight. A shattered glass eye ball fell away, revealing a hollow metallic eye socket, red light burning behind it like a smoldering coal. The Inquisitor…or the thing that had taken his shape…staggered wildly about like a drunken man.
Jeremy’s eyes darted about in the firelight, fixing on a large stone. Acting on blind instinct, Jeremy lifted the heavy rock and smashed it with all his strength into the back of the Inquisitor’s skull. Another, more potent explosion of crackling white lightning blinded him. The Inquisitor’s head cracked open, revealing still more flashing glass lights and sparking silver wires. The bible fell from his hand, smashing open against a rock. Jeremy stared at the book that was not a book. More smashed bits of metal and…a small silver-metallic cylinder, vibrating as if with a life of its own. A voice, cold and inhuman, emanated from the strange object. “Sat-link established. Off-world star net spacefold wave upload. Unit 27 report. Status, experimental Earth re-creation environment #77013. Report.” What devil’s tongue was this?!
Another voice boomed from the pulsing red light emanating through the jagged hole in the back of the Inquisitor’s head, as he lay faced-down on the forest floor. “Experiment non-viable. Human gene matrix unstable. Genome of indigenous intelligent species reverting to original state. Cannot correct. Nanobot strains ineffectual. Experiment failure. Experiment failure. Experiment…”
Jeremy could stand no more. He raised the rock and screamed in a mad rage, bringing the rock down hard on the back of the Inquisitor’s head. One last explosion of white sparks, and the voice was gone. The red light faded to darkness, and Jeremy was alone. He breathed heavily, his eyes rapidly sweeping the dark forest in the waning firelight. Must get away. That was his only clear thought. Must get away.
He ran through the woods. Somehow, not blindly, as before, but with an unseen force guiding him, as though with clear purpose and direction. He felt himself growing stronger by the second, the last of his clothes shredding and peeling away. If was as if something weak and false was peeling away from his soul as well, something older and stronger stirring to life inside him. He felt his limbs growing strong and agile, carrying him swiftly and easily through the woods, the forest floor racing beneath him as he leapt from tree to tree. He could see in ways he never could before, the darkness no longer a veil. Shimmering, ghostly shades of reddish amber illuminated every rock, tree and gulley as he made his way down the forest path toward the river fork, down the hillside toward the caves. The forbidden place. It no longer frightened him. As he approached the cave mouth, he felt only a sense of comfort and safety. Of home.
As he crawled down into the subterranean caverns, his claws scraping across stone, he felt the last struggling vestige of the lie dying within him. False beliefs and feelings created by an unseen multitude of tiny machines swarming through his blood. It was all dying as his true self emerged from its long sleep. In those last few moments of the transition, the false emotions, the true race memories of his kind and the demon intelligence of the alien machine all came together as one. The nightmare images that had haunted his false childhood came flooding back. Across the black pit of space, he saw the evil machines rise on columns of fire from the world of their creators. A distant world called Earth.
A world destroyed by the greed and hatred of a race long dead. A race called humanity. Their last surviving leaders, seeing the end of their world was at hand had sent their thinking machines across space to shape other worlds over in their image. The machines saw other life only as raw material to be molded into their masters’ form, so their life could go on. Not as it had truly been, but in the purest form their minds had craved it to be. What had been Jeremy remembered the machines descending on the world of his true ancestors, like iron dragons raining fire from the sky. They had devoured the land and his kindred, breaking down their living mass and re-shaping it into the false world they had created from the dreams of the dead.
He found himself in the steaming, sulfurous caves of his breeding hive. The sweet odors of mating filled his olfactory organs. The shadowy recesses of the cavern thrived with the writhing tentacled masses of his copulating brethren. In the center of it all, she waited. The hive queen. She who had chosen him above all others. He approached her, in awe of her beauty. Even now, it emerged from beneath the dissolving cocoon of her own false identity. The face that had been Stephanie’s was melting into a blackening, gelatinous mass of tissue, mandibles cutting through constraining layers of rotting human flesh. Her tentacles slithered lovingly across the many egg pods even now pulsing with fruition. And, across the mound of human bodies on which she and her copulating drones fed.
“Come to me, sire of my brood,” she called enticingly, her many clawed limbs opening to receive him. “Come to me, and add your essence to the hive.”
Overcome with desire, he answered her call, and they were one.