"He will come this way," the shadowy figure said as it stared out of the window. Lightning flickered in the clouds as the storm raged across the land.
"I'll be waiting," a voice, sweet and sickly like deadly poison, replied.
"He's fast and strong," the shadow warned.
"It won't matter," the other voice laughed. "Men can't fight me."
The light was fading and the rain pouring down when Marcel saw the silhouette of the old keep rising out of the twisted trees. Whether it was god sent or devil sent could be ascertained later. Right now Marcel needed shelter. The downpour had soaked through his cloak and seeped under his armour. The track, already in poor repair, had been made treacherous by the torrential rain. Night was closing in and he didn't want to risk his horse, Abbie, losing her footing on the uneven ground.
He dismounted and led his horse down the side path that led to the building. The path was almost completely overgrown. Rain pattered heavily on the leaves above his head. It didn't look like anyone had been this way for a long time.
Marcel had hoped to be in Bresslaw by now, but the heavy rain had triggered a mudslide that had blocked the main pass. Although a local trapper had pointed him in the direction of an alternate road, it was so rarely used he'd been unable to make good progress in the rain.
He cursed himself for not taking up the trapper's offer of shelter for the night. The man had warned him he was unlikely to make it over into Bresslaw, but Marcel had pressed on anyway. He didn't want to waste any time. News had finally come from King Charleson of Ludlovia and it was not good. A blight had spread across the countryside, rotting the crops in the fields. Now there was talk of a strange-garbed preacher fomenting dissent amongst the peasants.
It was Japalance. Marcel was sure of it. He'd always suspected the demon had survived their battle in the tower and now he'd returned to spread his corruption in neighbouring Ludlovia.
Marcel was the King's Hawk, the highest ranked knight in the kingdom. He was the youngest man to ever hold that title. King Farrell had released him to go to Ludlovia, not because relations between the two kingdoms were good and Farrell wished to aid his counterpart, but because he knew he wouldn't be able to stop Marcel from going anyway.
The abandoned fort was a reminder that relations between Salopia and Ludlovia hadn't always been good. There were many like it studded at key points along the border. Most had fallen into disrepair through neglect and this was no exception. It hadn't been lived in for a long time. One of the heavy wooden gates had fallen in. The wood was already reclaiming the land as ivy ran up the crumbling brickwork.
Marcel tied Abbie up at a small stable attached to the side of the building. The wood was warped, but it would keep off most of the rain. Abbie was uncharacteristically skittish and neighed her disapproval.
"I don't like it much either, but at least it's shelter for the night," Marcel said, patting his horse reassuringly.
The light grew worse as the sun descended behind the hills and the sky was crowded with thick black rain clouds.
"Hello," Marcel said as he made his way to the entrance.
He climbed over the fallen gate and entered a small courtyard.
He ducked as a bird shot overhead in an explosion of black feathers. Other small animals rustled in secret nests. Dusty old cobwebs festooned the walls. Marcel found an old lamp and after some struggling with damp tinder was able to get it alight.
He climbed a small flight of wooden steps that creaked and groaned beneath his feet. The wooden banister was warped and pitted with holes left by burrowing insects.
At the top of the stairs was a small room that had once been a living room. Mice nested in faded old chairs. Rotted old books mouldered in a warped old bookcase. Everywhere was covered in the white sticky strands of spider webs.
This had been built as an outpost, but at some point had become someone's home. In the old days it was a frequent occurrence. Knights that had distinguished themselves during the war were rewarded with small freeholds. Now it was nothing more than a ruin. Some tragedy had befallen this household in the past. The residue of that evil still lay in this place. Marcel could sense it and wasn't surprised the building remained empty and abandoned.
Marcel gripped the Cross of Miura he wore round his neck. Marcel feared no man. Since turning eighteen Marcel had not been bested in combat by another man. He was the King's Hawk by virtue of being the best. However, he also knew there were occasions when mortal speed and strength were not enough.
He searched through the rooms. All were in a similar state of disrepair. Whatever human life had lived here had long since departed, leaving only memories to haunt the crumbling walls.
In one of the upper rooms Marcel found the master bedroom. The former occupants had once enjoyed a degree of luxury. A large, canopied bed stood in the centre of the room. The canopy was moth-eaten and hung with dusty old spider webs, but the bed as a whole was remarkably well preserved.
Lightning flashed outside and for a split second Marcel saw the room as it once might have been. Warm light filled the room with a soft intimate glow. The luxurious silken canopy was tied back against burnished wooden posts. Plush cushions were piled high on a silken bedspread.
The flash of lightning faded and the bed was once more moth-eaten and dusty.
Marcel's body ached from the hard day's ride. The bed might be old and worn, but it would do for the night. He removed his armour and peeled off his soaking wet clothes before gratefully collapsing on the aged mattress. Lulled by the drumming rain overhead, he quickly fell asleep.
"Help me Marcel!"
Marcel tossed in his sleep. The nightmare was familiar. It never changed.
Japalance stood before him, a monster dressed in the vestments of a holy man. Catriona, Marcel's little sister tugged hard, but couldn't escape the iron grip he had around her wrist.
Marcel hadn't wanted his suspicions proved right. This was kindly old Japalance, the man who had been like a father to most of the children, who put them on his knee and told them tales of far off lands filled with brave heroes and dastardly dragons. He hadn't wanted to believe, but had followed Catriona when she'd told him the holy man wanted to see her that night. Too many children had vanished from the streets of Shrewston.
"Unhand her monster!" Marcel cried before charging with his sword drawn.
Marcel couldn't have known how accurate his words would prove to be. Japalance was not the elderly man he appeared. That much became apparent when he sent Marcel flying back across the room with one dismissive backhand.
Marcel crashed against a pillar, his head rapping painfully against the stonework. He collapsed to the floor in a heap, flickering in and out of consciousness.
"Two treats for me tonight," Japalance said in a voice filled with rusty daggers.
Marcel struggled to clear his head as evil chuckles filled the room. His sister screamed piteously and was abruptly cut off.
Marcel fought back from the verge of unconsciousness only to see two pathetically small feet slide down Japalance's gullet.
"Noooooo!" he howled.
The monster turned and smiled at him with a mouth full of sharp white teeth.
Marcel screamed with incoherent rage, tears streaming down his cheeks as he lifted his sword unsteadily above his head.
Japalance was too fast. He was right in front of Marcel before he even had a chance to blink. A claw-tipped hand grabbed him round the throat and slammed him up against the pillar, lifting him up until his feet were kicking empty air.
"Seconds, yum," Japalance said.
Marcel shuddered with revulsion as a moist tongue ran up the side of his face. A burning smell filled the air and it took a while for both Marcel and the demon to realise it was coming from the demon's hand.
Japalance cried in pain and withdrew his hand. He ripped open Marcel's tunic to reveal the holy cross Marcel had worn since he'd been a small boy.
"A Cross of Miura!" Japalance said, his face twisted in both pain and bewilderment. "It can't be."
Marcel took the opportunity provided by the demon's confusion to run him through with his sword.
There was a commotion at the door as men burst in to see the abomination that was Japalance reeling backwards in the centre of the room.
"Gods Marcel, you were right," Prince Terr said.
Marcel ignored them. He pulled out his sword, but there was no blood, only a thin trickle of black ichor. It wasn't a mortal wound, not for this horror.
Japalance was in great agony, but he would recover. All he needed was a moment to smash this whelp.
He never got it.
Marcel squashed all his fear, hatred and despair down into a tight little ball. He became an automaton as he hacked, slashed and thrust, harrying the demon and driving him back across the room. The floor became slick with black ichor as Japalance was pushed back to the window. There Marcel impaled him right through the heart and watched as the horror tumbled out of the window and into the freezing Eigern river below.
Then he collapsed and wept uncontrollably over the loss of his sister.
He was just fifteen years old.
.... There is more of this story ...