Grotesque was aptly named. His flesh was an unhealthy shade that resembled wax, or the putrefaction of a corpse. Bone hooks jutted from his back and gangly limbs, punched through his skin to act as crude jewelry. His back was exaggeratedly hunched, and his eyes—small, beady things—seemed almost luminescent.
It was close to being time, now. The moon-of-light was gone, tonight. It was almost time that the dark-moon, the strong-moon, Morrslieb, was to rise up. This was the night of purification. The Great One had promised them a feast beyond compare.
Well, no. The Great One intended to feast beyond compare, was the truth. But his emissary, the man-of-death, he had promised that the bevy of scraps remaining would be for Grotesque and his brethren. There was nothing in all the world that could stand in the Great One's way, either, and so this promise of meat was one that was sure to be fulfilled.
Grotesque and his like kept out of the Great One's way as much as possible. Before they had learned to, several of them had graced His teeth.
There! There was the first finger of the green light of Morrslieb on the horizon.
Grotesque and his kin kept onward through the forest. Woodsmoke drifted faintly on the air, though it was only his bestial sense of smell that let him detect it. It fired his mind to higher imaginations of the desecrations they would enact, the marrow that they would suck from splintered bones...
The door, which had seemed so solid and immovable when fashioned a mere six-month ago, now let the chill gusts slant through altogether to easily. Upon returning to her village, Marie had purchased what aged lumber she could to rebuild the inn, but much of the new siding and the doors had been raw, green wood, as dictated by need. Most of her coin—what had been her man's coin, in truth—had been used to provide the inn with its pig and starting stock of beer.
Rakwith, her man, had appeared in her life so suddenly, spiriting her away from the town as it and her life had lain in ashes. He had brought her a brief, brief stretch of overwhelming joy—and then died. She had returned home heart-broken, if heavier of purse, and nine months later, well, she had had a little surprise...
She compulsively hugged little Rakwith closer to her chest. That was to shelter the babe from the draft, she told herself.
“Don't squish him, now,” giggled Bellise, who was a pretty girl, but not half the rare beauty that she thought that she was. It was a comment typical of the empty-headed young woman. Marie smiled half-heartedly.
Her hands ached from serving, her ankles ached from walking back and forth across the floor of the inn, her shoulders ached from carrying dishes, her back ached from cleaning, and her posterior ached the most, from the sum of all the day's work. Beside her, though, the witless girl paid no attention to Marie's exhaustion and was babbling about which of the town's boys she preferred to share the straw with. Bellise gave Marie some not-too-subtle suggestions on the subject, despite Marie's obvious lack of interest.
Running the inn with only herself and the cook took too much out of Marie, and Rakwith only added to the load of work, for all that she loved him. She dreaded the day when he would be able to stand, walk, and get underfoot. That was a day fast approaching—was he already almost four months of age? It was time, perhaps, that she find a helper, and one who would be able to work more regularly and efficiently than Bellise. The disastrous afternoon that Marie had spent with the girl on the staff was not one that she wished to repeat in a hurry.
The door boomed under a sudden series of blows. Bellise started nervously, and the few men still drinking in the inn lifted their heads from their cups. Who would be out this night of all nights? Even those present, Marie's steady customers, intended only to stagger home, tonight.
She began to rise to answer the door, but the man sitting closest to the door, a scarred veteran of the militia named Henriech Ganstone, motioned for her to sit back down.
“Who is it?” grunted Henriech loudly.
“A traveler,” came the muffled reply, “seeking solace and a fire for the night.”
Henriech harrumphed. “How is it,” he said, “then, that we know you're not a goblin or a beast-kin? This is the night for it.”
“And you believe in such things, good sir?” came the external voice again, sounding amused.
“Beasts that walked as men burnt this town to the ground a year ago, traveler,” spat Henriech, “and I fought the same near a score of years ago. Do not mock us if you wish for bed and board.”
“Oh, no, sirrah!” came an indignant reply. “You are wise to fear the dark and what it holds. But I'm no threat to you, not poor wandering Phillomon the minstrel. I'm a Sigmar-fearing man, I am.”
Henriech stood, and Marie could hear him grumbling something about evil men fearing Sigmar just as much as good. Nonetheless, he cracked the door, peered out, and opened it to let the man outside in.
Phillomon, as the newcomer called himself, was swathed in a cloak of dyed rags that caught the eye, and a misshapen instrument case of indeterminate contents. Underneath, he wore a tight suit of black, which had clearly seen better days, but had tidily burnished buttons. His face was weathered and creased with age, and an erratic fringe of white hair was all that remained of whatever had once graced the crest of his head.
“Ah,” he said, having been let through the rickety portal, “my thanks, Herr Proprietor.”
“That wouldn't be me,” smirked Henriech. “You'd be wanting Marie, over with the babe. Don't give her no trouble, though.”
“I wouldn't dream of it,” replied the minstrel, turning his eyes over Bellise appreciatively, then meeting Marie's gaze and smiling graciously. Something in his grin left her unsettled. He seemed harmless enough, certainly, but she couldn't help but feel slightly repulsed.
“Ah, the lady of the house. What are the rates, then, fair beauty?”
Bellise huffed into her hands as she walked back from the inn back toward her disappointing hovel. Miss Marie high-and-mighty might have her house of twigs, but nobody cared enough for poor, pretty little Bellise to make anything but mud. That old lecher of a minstrel had driven her from the inn with his presence and unwanted looks. She wouldn't let him touch her with his nasty, wrinkled hands, as he had been likely to try to do. And she would bet that his hands weren't all that was wrinkled...
But she didn't intend to stay at her own house tonight, anyways. She paused inside the hut long enough only to make sure that nobody was watching her before plunging out again and off into the forest.
The walk to the old menhir was long enough to stretch into tedium, and the trees pressed down around her as she made her way uphill and into the forest. It was said that the old witch from the next village over had come to dance at the rock every Gehemisnacht, and she had lived to be ancient and a half.
Bellise knew where her priorities lay—squarely with herself. If that meant that she would dance naked every now and then, well, that was that.
A crackle in the bushes near her made her jump markedly. No, that would just be a squirrel, or something. It was nothing.
Something moved in her peripheral vision, and she swore that she saw big, nasty teeth. She shrieked, picked up her skirts, and ran. Trees whipped and grabbed at her, and she stumbled and skinned her knee on the hill's steep slope. Finally, she broke into the menhir's clearing. She paused and looked around, beginning to giggle at her silliness.
Then the Beast that awaited her curled forward from the darkness behind the menhir and snarled. It sounded eerily like laughter.
“H'lo, lil warm-blud,” it hissed in a feral, jagged voice.
Bellise was silent. She heard shufflings behind her, but didn't dare turn her eyes from the massive bat-beast in front of her. It looked upon her even when hunched over more than double to peer into her eyes.
“”D'y know wut I am, warm-blud? My bret'ren, tey shun me. Shun me an' look down on me, 'acause I dare t'reach higher tan tem. Tey're the lords n' ladies of yor kind. But me, embracin' my tirst—I am as a God. Yor Sigmar is empty. Yor Nortern Gors, they are...” the Beast laughed again.
“Tey're...shallow. Blud is my vessel, my body, my feast, and I want yors. My broters an' sisters, tey're te vampires. But again I say, d'y know wut I am? Yed've herd sum nasty stories, I'm sure.”
The Beast flexed its bat-snout and needle-like fangs and laughed a third time, horribly, gratingly. It lurched upwards to rear above her at its full, nightmare-inspiring height. Bellise uttered a faint shriek.
Before it snapped downward again and devoured her, she heard its last words.
“I am Vargulf.”
Bellise had left to go back to her hut a while ago. Little Rakwith had finished squalling—hopefully for the night—and been put to bed in his room in the back. The remaining regulars in the inn, as few as they had been, had dwindled as well. Now, only Henriech and Phillomon remained in the common room. The latter had declined to play a song on his as-of-yet unrevealed instrument. He had promised to share a song or two on it before dawn, but Marie and Henriech had contented themselves with listening to a ribald ditty or two until then.
Despite Phillomon's cheerful activities, however, he continued to leave Marie feeling unsettled and on guard. His eyes kept flicking back to her when he thought she wasn't looking—and if she caught him staring at her, he only brazenly continued. She didn't suspect the man capable of anything particularly harmful...but all the same, she was glad that Henriech hadn't yet decided to go home. In fact, she suspected that this might be part of the reason that he hadn't. He watched out for Marie like an uncle. She'd have to thank him tomorrow.
A mighty crash shook the night, shaking the three of them to alertness. Henriech jumped toward the door with admirable swiftness, considering the depth of his inebriation. Phillomon, meanwhile, returned to his most recent drink.
“It's probably a tree falling,” Phillomon said, dismissing the sound. Nonetheless, even he wasn't able to remain calm when a second crash followed soon after, and a scream.
The door swung inward to Henriech's fumbling fingers, and the village was revealed. The roofs of two of the mud-and-plank houses of the village had been all but demolished—and over the closer of the two hunched a massive blot of shifting darkness. As they watched, this Beast reared into the air, something bloody vanishing into its gullet.
Framed against the light of the full Morrslieb, the true horror of the Beast was revealed. A full eighteen feet in height, it's shape was a rough mixture of bat and simian. A shaggy pelt was eclipsed by vast stretches of membrane and leathery flesh. It's muscular haunches had already proved their power by reducing the thatch of two buildings to discarded scatterings of straw. Its razor-needled maw was splattered with blood, and its slanting, predatory eyes glinted red. But its size—by the Hammer, it was massive!
A small shape, a young boy, ran from the ruins of the house upon which the Beast was perched. It crashed down upon the child, and for several seconds, cracks and ripping noises were clearly audible.
Shrieks filled the air from other directions too, now. Villagers fleeing in blind panic found themselves confronted by hunched, vicious figures. These foul new beings poured from the darkness, pouncing upon the unwary and savaging them to death.
Henriech slammed the door shut, barred it, and dragged a table in from of it. He strode back to Marie's side.
“Cellar,” he spat. “Marie, open the cellar.”
“Are you insane?” asked Phillomon with an unhinged giggle. “We have to get out—that thing will smell us and tear through the floor like...you saw what it was doing. We'll stick together, and get out.”
“No chance. You saw the ghouls. We can break open the barrels of beer to mask our scent, underground.”
“No!” snapped Phillomon. “I won't stay and die!”
“Then run and die,” spat Henriech.
Phillomon span jerkily around and grabbed his instrument case, snapping open the clasps. A change came over his posture and his face, hardening them. He opened the case's lid and drew out a long, curved knife from the assortment of wrapped objects within.
“No,” he hissed, brandishing his weapon menacingly, “we run. We have a better chance, together. I have a better chance.”
More crashes and screams from outside. Henriech lifted a chair and circled to put himself between Marie and Phillomon.
“Marie,” Henriech said, “Open the door to the cellar and get your babe.”
Marie hastened to obey, tugging on the heavy trapdoor latch behind the bar.
“Stop, woman,” snarled Phillomon.
“Get it open,” said Henriech, his eyes not wavering from the other man, and his chair held ready to bat away the knife.
Something rattled the shutters of the inn. There was a crash from one of the back rooms. Phillomon waved his knife a few times, and each time, the hefted chair tracked its pathway.
The trapdoor came up with a groan, and, with a wave of cool air, the dark, dank cellar lay open.
Phillomon lunged forward, slashing. Henriech dodged and lashed out, bringing the chair down to crack across Phillomon's right elbow and sending the knife skittering into the shadows. But Phillomon wasn't done. He slid past the now-extended chair into arms reach of Henriech, and, with his free left hand, grabbed the veteran by the throat.
So frail and ancient a man as Phillomon should have been unable to harm Henriech, especially after the jarring shock to his other arm. However, Henriech grew pale and began to shudder uncontrollably in Phillomon's grasp. Where the hand was wrapped around his throat, veins bulged and flesh shriveled and necrotized.
The unnatural, withering decay continued, spreading from Henriech's neck to his face and vanishing beneath the collar of his shirt. Within seconds, Henriech had been reduced to a shriveled husk of his former self. Phillomon let him fall to the ground, where he lay, clearly dead.
The minstrel turned to Marie.
“You picked a bad time to let in travelers, missus,” simpered Phillomon, absently rubbing his injured elbow. “You are remarkably pretty, though. I think that I shall enjoy what time we have before the Vargulf gets you.”
“You...” Marie breathed, “you're with them.”
“Oh yes,” he replied breathily, beginning to edge around the bar. “I'm the envoy between the sniveling ghouls and the snarling feral vampire, and, when need be, a scout of villages. I do my own experiments and learning, traveling with them. It befits my calling. I said that I would play a tune later, did I not? Yes indeed, with seven bells to make the dead walk. That's my song, pretty.”
He was drawing nearer to her and blocking her route of escape. She might be able to slip into the cellar and block the door behind her, and maybe even survive the night survive—but she wouldn't have Rakwith. Her baby wasn't safe.
She shoved past Phillomon in a sudden panic, flailing and breaking the brief grip he managed to get on her arm. She spilled forward, crashing down the hall and through the door to her and Rakwith's room, Phillomon just barely behind her.
She came to a horror-stricken stop. The window-slats had been broken open and pushed aside, and the room was already occupied. A daemonic, hunchbacked, waxy-skinned creature was bent over the crib.
Phillomon came to a halt behind Marie as she fell to her knees.
“I see,” panted the necromantic minstrel. “Your child. Unfortunately, the good Grotesque beat you to him...”
Responding to its name, the foul ghoul looked up. Painted black by the darkness, blood dribbled from its fingers and lips.
What sphinx of plascrete and adamantium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Imperator! Imperator!
Last edited by Mossy Toes; 03-27-11 at 03:55 AM.