'That's Ginger Groves,’ Anastasia said as the figure moved closer. ‘I wonder what’s brought her into civilisation.’
‘Trouble,’ the other woman said, her voice little more than a whisper. ‘Bloody trouble. I’ll know more once I’ve read her hand.’
The woman stopped a few feet away, breathing heavily; it looked like she’d run the whole way there. ‘There’s... a... horse,’ Ginger said, fighting to get her breath back.
‘Calm yourself and give me your hand,’ Grima said, holding out her palm. Her hands shaking, Ginger complied without question. Grima’s brittle but soft skin felt paper-thin. ‘Just relax, you’ve got nothing to fear.’
Setting her lips in a line, the younger woman nodded. She seemed eager to do as Grima said, but Anastasia noticed that she looked terrified.
‘It’s worse than I thought.’ Grima said, either not noticing Ginger’s panic or ignoring it. ‘Two lives were taken in Elkbury during the last witching hour.’
‘I heard about Crispin Boyd this morning.’ Anastasia said. ‘Who is the other?’
If she was annoyed at being interrupted, Grima didn’t say anything. Harsh words would have been spoken if the interruption had come from anyone else. Grima let her lifelong friend get away with a lot.
‘A trader,’ she said. ‘The owner of Ginger’s new horse.’
‘And are they both... y’know?’ Ginger asked, obviously believing that questions and interruptions were now allowed.
Grima tutted. ‘You can say the bleedin’ word, child. The word itself can’t hurt you.’
‘Fine,’ Ginger said, even though the look on her face suggested she was anything but fine. ‘Were they both... murdered?’
Satisfied, the old woman gave a slight nod. ‘In a way,’ she said. Neither Ginger nor Anastasia could tell if being vague was Grima’s intention.
‘Someone should tell Father Arcadius,’ Ginger said.
‘Run along then,’ Grima said, waving her away.
From his spot just behind the door, Hedwin listened, a mixture of fear and excitement flooding his senses.
Dirt splashed up against the back of his legs as Hedwin ran from the house. He found Laura Beth exactly where she always was, hiding near the church, watching the comings and goings of all who entered. He and Laura Beth had been born in the same week and were the closest thing to a sibling that either had. Both were quiet and watchful, apparently taking it upon themselves to keep an eye on the village.
Laura Beth was leaning against an apple tree, playing with a piece of string. ‘It’s a Cat’s Cradle,’ she said, holding it up for her friend to see and anticipating his question.
‘What’s it for?’ he asked.
‘It’s not for anything... sometimes things are just fun.’ she said.
‘Strange stuff has been happening,’ Hedwin said, changing the subject and taking a seat on the grass next to her. ‘There were two deaths last night. Grima said so.’
‘I thought you didn’t like Grima,’ Laura Beth said.
‘It’s not that I don’t like her... she just scares me,’ Hedwin said, unafraid to confess such a thing to his closest friend.
‘Who is the other death?’
‘Someone we don’t know. Grima said it was a trader. He had a horse.’ Hedwin shrugged as he spoke, the identity of the other victim uninteresting to him. ‘Grandma is worried, I can tell.’
‘Was the trader in Taun Grove?’ the girl asked, even though the answer was obvious. If he had come to the village, someone would have seen him.
‘He was... but at the lake, I think,’ Hedwin replied. ‘Do you think the daemons got him?’
‘Probably.’ she replied as she twisted the string in her fingers. ‘We should go to the lake.’
‘What? Why would you want to do that?’ Hedwin asked.
‘Answers,’ she replied. ‘We’ve been told about these daemons all our lives, haven’t you ever wanted to see one for yourself?’
‘No, not at all,’ Hedwin said. It was the truth. He couldn’t think of a single reason why you’d want to see a daemon up close. ‘I’d be perfectly happy if I never got to see such a creature in my entire life.’
‘Fair enough,’ Laura Beth replied, ‘but I’m going to see one. I just know it.’
At that time, neither of them could know how true that statement would end up being.
He didn’t know how, but he was beyond the trees, standing before the lake that he knew existed, but had never seen. It was forbidden for all but a few to visit Taunriden Lake. It was not a place for people, it was a place for daemons.
But, somehow, Gary was by the lake.
It was then that he saw it, the horse. At first, he thought that the animal had led him here on some fool’s errand, but then he noticed the lack of bite marks on its flank. It was like he was seeing something from the past. This couldn’t be real. Gary realised this must be the kind of thing his Aunt Grima saw. Maybe it ran in the family and, in his forties, Gary was just a late bloomer.
Or, more likely, this was a vision sent from the daemons themselves. He knew what Father Arcadius would say; he could almost hear the priest’s voice in his head. ‘They’ve marked you,’ the voice said, ‘you belong to them now.’
Gary believed that voice. It was hard not to, it matched everything the priest said each week from his pulpit. Up until now, Gary had thought he was safe, but one vital thing had changed overnight. Now Gary had committed the kind of sin that guaranteed a person a trip to purgatory on your way through to Hell. A noise tore Gary away from his internal battle; a horse in distress and a man calling to it. Gary watched as the man strolled over to the lake, ignoring the noises from the horse. Instead, he started to paddle and look into the water.
At first, it seemed that the man was merely studying his reflection in the pale moonlight, but Gary knew that couldn’t be the case. Whether this was a dream, a daemonic vision, or the ‘verum visus’, he had the feeling he wouldn’t be shown something as mundane as a man admiring his own image. Gary’s perspective shifted in an instant and without warning. No longer was he an interloper watching someone else’s scene play out, now he was playing a major role. Looking through the stranger’s eyes, Gary was able to see what had held the man so enraptured.
He instantly wished he hadn’t.
Eyes stared back at him. Unblinking eyes. Yellow eyes.
Even though he had never seen such eyes before, he recognised them straight away. A primal part of his brain - a part locked deep inside him - knew what that expression meant.
It meant death.
Something grabbed his ankle.
‘Come along, let’s get this over and done with,’ Arcadius Elk said, his voice almost cheerful as he took the others through the trees. Leaves had started to turn brown and fall, and he knew that it wouldn’t be long until the trees looked skeletal. At that time of year, it was even easier to make sure his flock didn’t stray where they weren’t supposed to.
Behind him, he heard someone stumble. ‘Perry,’ Arcadius said, ‘Don’t tell me you’re in your cups already.’
‘Of course I’m bloody well in my cups. We’ve had two deaths here in one night - neither of them sanctioned, I might add - and now we’ve got to clean up the bloody mess... cos it will be bloody, won’t it? Of course I’m in my cups. I’m going to sodding well get completely off my tits if it makes today any better,’ Perry Smith replied, slurring almost every other word.
‘So eloquently put,’ Arcadius said.
‘You could at least have shared it, Perry,’ Myra Woods said. ‘I feel like I could do with a tipple after seeing that poor Crispin earlier. It ain’t right what happened to him. Not right at all.’
‘And that’s why our work is so important,’ Arcadius said. ‘And it’s also why we must keep what we find here to ourselves. There’s nothing to be gained by increasing the villagers’ fears. It will cause panic.’
‘What are we likely to find?’ Myra asked. She had only recently joined Arcadius’s trusted followers, the Order of Altum (a special part of the religion of the area), and her original enthusiasm was starting to wane.
‘Chaos,’ Perry said. ‘Bloody chaos.’
‘Now Perry, there’s no need for that,’ Arcadius said, before turning his attention to Myra. ‘There is a strong chance that this could be more than a little unpleasant. For that reason, you must prepare yourself for the worst, most vile and depraved thing you can imagine.’
‘Well, that makes me feel so much better,’ Myra said, wondering if it was too late to back out and head back to the village. The night had made it difficult to see much further than their lanterns and the more she looked around, the more she was sure that the forest around them was getting darker. There was more than a good chance that she’d get lost along the way, taken in by the trees that now surrounded them on every angle. Or worse. Tonight, she was due to see the work of the creatures she’d feared since she was old enough to understand the stories told in Arcadius’s sermons every week. Tonight, she was due to see the work of actual daemons.
‘Try not to worry,’ Arcadius replied, and Myra almost let herself get lulled by his deep, calm voice. It was the same voice he used in his weekly sermons. He had the kind of voice that could calm you, educate you, and persuade you into doing anything he wanted. ‘Remember, what we’re doing is incredibly important. The village will be forever in your debt.’
‘Sorry,’ she replied, ‘I’ll try to keep calm... but prepare myself for unimaginable horror.’
‘That’s all I ask,’ Arcadius said, either not noticing her sarcasm or just plain ignoring it. ‘Another thing you need to remember is that I wouldn’t have asked you to join The Order if I didn’t think you were ready for it. You are about to embark upon an incredible journey, young lady. I have to say, I’m a little jealous.’
‘Jealous?’ Myra asked, unable to hide the surprise in her voice. The idea that Arcadius could be jealous of anyone was preposterous. Not only did it go against a lot of what he preached, but Arcadius didn’t seem to want for anything. As Elkbury’s priest, he had the love and respect of everyone in the village, and he could feast at the table of any household. What could a man like that possibly be jealous over?
‘Yes, Myra, jealous. Believe it or not, I am capable of feeling such a thing. I am only human after all,’ Arcadius said. ‘I’m jealous because you’re just starting your journey. You are about to see why we do what we do for the very first time. Your whole world is about to change. It’s a truly wonderful thing.’
‘A truly terrible thing...’ Perry muttered from somewhere behind them. They both swung their lanterns around to find him in time to see him trip over again.
‘Ignore him,’ Arcadius said. ‘He can be a drunken fool at times.’
Myra nodded in the lamplight, not trusting herself to talk. Perry was most definitely drunk, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have a point. She had been told to brace herself for something awful, hadn’t she? Was this really a journey she wanted to start? It didn’t make a difference either way, she’d made a commitment. And not just a promise to anyone, she’d promised Father Arcadius.
‘We’re almost there,’ Arcadius said. ‘Now, remember what I said. Brace yourselves... both of you.’
Arcadius stepped between two trees that were already starting to look skeletal and the others followed him. Each of them held up their lantern to get a good look at the scene that awaited them. Together, Myra and Perry screamed. Arcadius suppressed a sigh; he’d seen it all before.
Shaking and covered in sweat, Gary awoke. In one swift movement, he opened his eyes, jumped out of the bed and tore the sheet from his wife.
‘What in the gods has got into you?’ Ginger asked, now awake too. Her own sleep had been light and troubled, plagued by the things she’d seen that day and her visit to Gary’s aunt. It didn’t matter that Grima was a pillar of their community, she still terrified Ginger in ways that she couldn’t explain fully. That woman saw things she had no business seeing. Things that no human should see. As far as Ginger was concerned, Grima was a witch and it was well known that witches consorted with the Devil. The same devil that sent the daemons to Taunriden Lake.
‘Daemons...’ Gary said, looking around in the darkness for intruders.
‘What are you talking about?’ she asked, not daring to mention that she’d spent most of the night thinking about that very thing.
‘I’m so sorry, Ginger,’ Gary said, ‘the daemons are coming for me. I think I’ve brought them to our door.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ she said. ‘Daemons don’t come here. Arcadius makes sure of that. You just had a nightmare. Get back in bed and try to relax. How about some hot milk? Would that make you feel any better?’
With reluctance, Gary climbed back into bed. ‘Hot milk won’t solve anything. It doesn’t matter what we do, they’re still coming for me.’
‘Sounds like it was a pretty intense nightmare...’
‘It was more than that, Ginger... so much more.’ Gary said, his eyes wide and wild in the darkness. ‘It was a vision. Just like Grima gets.’
Before she realised what she was doing, Ginger had shifted further away from her husband. Had he been consorting with the Devil too? Is that why the Dark Lord’s minions were after him? If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.
‘What’s happened? What have you done?’
‘Something terrible... I thought I was doing the right thing... but I feel like I’ve been hoodwinked.’
‘What did you do?’ she asked again.
Hanging his head in shame, Gary refused to answer.
‘If it looks valuable, we’ll take it with us,’ Father Arcadius said, addressing the others as if this situation was completely normal. ‘Leave the... er... flesh here. They’ll probably be back for that later.’
‘The... daemons?’ Myra asked.
‘Indeed.’ Father Arcadius replied.
As she looked around at the chaos surrounding them, the stories she’d been told all her life suddenly seemed real. The daemons were real. They were as real as she was... and they had torn whoever this used to be limb from limb. Bones littered the ground at her feet, almost seeming to glisten and glow in the light from her lantern. Moving closer, she saw deep grooves cut into those bones; grooves that could have only been created by something sharp. Sharp teeth. Sharp claws.
‘Shouldn’t we bury him?’ Myra asked, trying not to think about what must have happened to the man to leave him in this state. ‘Or what’s left of him...’
‘Nope,’ Perry said, ‘that’s a terrible idea. Those daemon freaks probably left these bits for a snack to have later. We wouldn’t want them to come looking for something else to munch on when they can’t find him.’
‘Would they do that? Could they really leave the area around the lake? I thought they were trapped here... that’s why Elkbury is safe.’
‘You’re absolutely right,’ Father Arcadius said, before turning his attention to their other companion. ‘Perry, stop filling her head with this nonsense. You’re really not helping.’
‘Sorry,’ Perry said, his voice like that of an insolent child.
‘As long as we abide by the rules, we are completely safe,’ the older man said. ‘It’s all about keeping the balance. We have to play our part and, in return, we’re kept safe. Now, let’s get to work. We can’t spend too long here; if we outstay our welcome, that delicate balance will be broken.’
Myra looked around again. A wooden cart stood undisturbed, piled high with food and fabrics, a veritable treasure trove. It was almost as if it had been left as a gift.
‘Help me pull this back to the village,’ Father Arcadius said. ‘We have to move quickly though; the sun will be up soon.’
‘Wouldn’t daylight make this easier?’ Myra asked.
‘Yes, but we need to stay hidden. This must be kept secret. The others cannot know where these goods came from.’
‘It would cause panic. Can you imagine what would happen if people knew there had been a daemon attack? We must shield them from this. We have to protect them.’