Wagging Tongues Will - Part XVIII

His dreams were quite disorienting and strange. Kaleas was not often prone to nightmares, for that was surely what these must be, but he seemed plagued by them that evening. He’d barely set his head upon the pillow in their shared room before bizarre images had come unbidden to his mind. He felt as if he were running from something, chased no less, at every corner. His breath was ragged, his well-sated body, sweating from every pore as he tried to stay ahead of whatever horror lay behind him, nipping at his back.

And then, just as he could feel savage jaws locking a hold of him from behind, crushing at his chest, the wicked teeth piercing his flesh, he would start from bed, gasping, drenched in his own sweat. It was cold in the night air, but still he felt an unbearable heat all over. Kaleas looked this way and that, but his companions were still curled tightly within their blankets, only the dimmest of outlines visible. The only light he saw in the room seeped through the window panes, more of a shadow than a light. He wished to throw the blankets off from his heat, but knew that doing so would leave him vulnerable to a sickness. Instead, eyes heavy with a strange exhaustion, he laid his head back down upon the pillow.

And instantly he was back up once more sitting in bed. He no longer felt sweaty, and his body was alert. Kaleas, swung his eyes from door to window, but saw nothing amiss, no creature astir. The window panes rattled in the wind suddenly, and his head snapped back to them. They settled down after a moment, and the merchant snorted in derision. It was only the wind after all, not uncommon at a seaport.

However, he no longer felt tired, and so pressed his back against the wall, the thick quilt pulled over his chest. As he sat there he ran his mind over the accounts, calculating how much they had made from their trading at the various warehouses, how much they had taken from their foolish gambling friend, and how much they would have to spend on the morrow. Numbers filled his mind, bouncing back and forth, the tidy sum adding up bit by bit. It would not be long before they would be able to afford their own warehouse, and never have to venture from the city again. That would no doubt please his wife. He might even attempt to have another child with her, an heir to carry on his business.

The windows shook again, rattling forcefully. His head snapped once more, noting the shutters, the way they banged inwards at the window panes. He could almost fancy that they moved that way because something was trying to push its way in. And then, they fell silent once more, the unearthly stillness of night filling the room. Kaleas blinked several times, all calculations of his business having flown from his mind. He gingerly slipped his foot from beneath the quilts to test the air, and then quickly drew it back. He shivered at the chill and pulled the quilt tighter about himself.

Besides, he reasoned as he looked still furtively at the window, what could possibly be beating at the shutters aside from the wind? What bird would still be flying about in the winter, and what robber would announce himself so openly? Set once more at ease, Kaleas continued recounting his fortunes, enjoying the thought that soon he would be an established man. It had taken him far more years than he would have wished it, but it would be soon. For his partners it would not be nearly so long. Marin had a sharp but loyal eye, while Thulin was one of the craftiest and most cautious traders the man had ever known. He could not have brought himself so far without them.

He glanced across the room to the beds on the other side of the room where they slept. Thulin slept near the window, his back to the wall, face half-buried in the feather pillow. Marin was rolling over in his sleep, turning them to face his fellow merchant. A shallow haft of light pierced through the windows and fell then on the young man’s face. But in that single moment, it was not the bearded face that he saw, but a horrific visage, reptilian with gleaming fangs that dripped with moonbeams.

Kaleas shook his head and pressed himself further against the wall, and the image was gone, the peaceful sleep of his friend taking that of the monster’s. He breathed heavily for several moments, wondering what could have led him to imagine such a visage, when the doorknob rattled. His head snapped over to the wooden door that they’d locked for the night. Someone was trying the handle, twisting it this way and that. And then whoever it had been left, satisfied.

Before another moment was out, he heard the rattling of the window panes again, the shutters buckling inwards for a second or two, and then ceasing. Kaleas shivered, pulling the quilt tight to his chest, his fingernails nearly ripping through the thick fabric. His eyes did not leave that window, scanning the nearly impenetrable darkness for its outlines, noting that the locks were secure. What in the world was going on, he wondered in a slight frenzy.

He thought to light a lamp, but the nearest lamp was set upon the table in the middle of the room. Glancing down upon the floor, he watched as the inky black shadows coiled and turned beneath him, as if there were something down under his bed. Glancing back up at Marin and Thulin, he wondered why all the noise had not woken them from their slumber. He wished to cry out to them, but felt his voice stuck in his throat. Perhaps if he gave cry, then whatever was out there might redouble its efforts to reach him.

Instead, Kaleas slowly lowered himself back onto his pillow, curling tightly on the thin mattress, the quilt wrapped snugly over his frame. Though he tried to close his eyes, he found them wide open despite his best efforts. And his ears picked at the air, eager for any sound, and more eager for their to be no sound at all. He felt his heart pound within his chest, unable to calm itself. He needed some surcease, some refuge that he could turn to. But there was nothing for him here. Yet he dared not leave his bed, though he knew that he must do so.

And then he heard it, a small cry in the distance, as of a girl wailing. He held still, listening to the child’s cry, as it rose higher and higher, yet still remained at some terrible distance. And then, with a wet smack, it was suddenly silenced, and the wall thudded, as if something had been smacked against it. Kaleas pulled tighter beneath the covers, glancing at the walls, half afraid to find the body of that child smeared across it, her blood dripping down to stain his quilt. But they were empty, as they had always been.

But what was worse was that so was Thulin’s bed.

Kaleas felt himself grow colder then, a coldness that the quilt could not combat. A strange warmth began to trickle across his legs, and in shock he realized he’d soiled himself. Pulling his legs tighter, he felt the dampness soaking the mattress and his stockings. Glancing back across the room, he could see that his friend was simply nowhere to be seen. Marin was still asleep, laying there with his back to the wall. The covers on Thulin’s bed were in a jumbled mess, torn and shredded as if by long claws.

The window banged hard, rattling firmly in its casing, the panes shaking with ever increasing fervour. Kaleas gave out a sharp report then, cringing back once more against the wall, his legs pulled tightly to his chest. Through the cracks in the shutters streamed a sickly light, and flickering before that light were vague shapes, shadows and suggestions of form. And then, the light and the rattling vanished, silenced once more.

Kaleas was breathing rapidly now, his heart pounding so hard in his chest he was afraid it would explode. What was happening, and what had taken Thulin? Glancing from one side of the room to the other, he could only see the inevitable darkness. Gingerly, he scooted forward on his mattress, scanning the floor at the side of his bed for his bags. Although still cloaked in the shadows, he found them, one corner of his leather knapsack poking up along the wooden frame.

He slipped one hand out from the quilt, and felt the cold night air grip it. He shuddered slightly, trying to ignore the way the hairs on his arm pressed down against his skin, as if another were holding him firmly. With one quick thrust, he wrapped his fingers about the edge of his bag, and began to lift it up, drawing it onto the bed. And then the doorknob rattled again, turning this way and that, more feverishly now. Violent epileptic spasms rocked his body, and Kaleas flung himself back against the wall, dropping the bag in shock. With a solid thunk it landed upon the floor and was lost within the shadows.

He closed his eyes forcefully, trying to shut out everything about him. The door had since gone silent, leaving him alone in the darkness and the moribund quiet. His fingers trembled beneath the quilt, his soiled stockings starting to turn cold upon him. He counted the moments as they passed, repeating the calculations he’d made in his mind once more. Over and over he said them, as if they were a prayer. Yet, despite the continued silence, he did not feel in the least bit relieved. After going over his ledgers a tenth time, his innate curiosity began to nag at his senses. Had Thulin really disappeared, or had he simply imagined it all? Perhaps this was just a dream of his, one that he could not escape from. But if he could not wake from a dream, would not that make the dream real?

Finally, after repeating his accounts three more times, he managed to crack one eye open and scan the darkened room. It was empty as it had been before, although something had arranged the sheets upon Thulin’s bed. Thulin was still missing, and Marin was sleeping peacefully. He glanced closer at his younger friend, and their seemed a gleam to his flesh, as if his skin were not truly skin at all, but something else. He shuddered once more, but found he could no longer close his eyes.

And those eyes darted to the door once more as he heard the creaking of wood outside. Something was moving out in the hall just past his door, but it did not sound of footfalls, or even of boots. It was simply a creaking, as if the very being moaned in rhythm with the walls. He pushed himself further along the bed, back away from the door, his heart pounding so quickly within his chest he wondered how he could possibly still be alive.

But the sound faded after a moment, and the door knob did not move. Looking over the bedside, he tried to see where his pack had fallen. To Kaleas’s dismay it had fallen into the shadow, lost from view. He had no desire to reach down into the darkness, but the chill developing in his stockings was not to be denied. Slipping his hand past the quilt once more, he bent over the bedside slightly, and reached down to the floor, feeling around for his pack.

He felt something warm though, a lumpy mass that was sticky to the touch. He felt paralysed of a sudden, his fingers unable to pick themselves off whatever it was laying there upon the wooden floor. And then it moved beneath him, leaving him perched over the air. With another sharp cry he flung himself back against the wall, arms beneath the quilt once more, pulling it tight around himself as if that had been any protection for his friend.

An echoing cry in the distance matched his wail, this one sounding as if from a boy. He felt his heart stop suddenly then as he heard it. Offering up prayers he had not uttered since his childhood, he wished for that cry to cease. And he felt a sting of betrayal when it did cease, once more in that sick wet smacking sound. Kaleas shuddered, leaning forward, afraid that he would lose control of his stomach. And then, just as he peered down into the darkness once more, he felt something heavy land on his back with a liquid splatter.

Kaleas fell from the bed and landed on the floor after giving off a sharp scream, carrying the quilt with him. The bright light suddenly flared from the window then, and he heard it rattle fiercely, glass shattering inwards and the howling of the wind rising in octaves. A similar pounding ensued on the door, accompanied by a terrible screaming that echoed from all around. He felt as if his mind would burst from the inundations, all traces of his identity wiped out in the onslaught. There had to be some surcease from this unwholesome madness that had gripped him, someone who could bring him relief.

With the splintering of the door, he shrieked anew, his mind lost in the cacophony of wailing and unholy cries that resounded on either side of the room. That terrible light flashed all about, burning at his skin, while distorted shadows played across it, beating at the window and doors. The bars on the shutters broke inwards the glass of the window scattered about him on the floor. The door knob careened from the frame, rolling and spinning about just at his side. A titanic gulf began to pour forth, and draw out at the same time, as if he were to be sundered in two by opposing forces.

And then, all was silent once more. Kaleas huddled beneath the quilt for several minutes more, his whole body trembling, his stockings wet anew. He could not place when it had happened, his memory of the events so distorted. But his legs grew cold once more before he ventured to lift the edge of the quilt to look about the room. Before him on the floor were the shards of glass from the window, and several bits of wood and the knob from the door. Above stars flickered in the newly opened frame, their febrile light giving little illumination.

Turning about on his heels, he saw that Thulin’s bed was still unoccupied, the sheets neatly arranged, if slashed by long sickle-like talons. Marin lay within his bed, though his face still had that strange luster to it. Peering once at the doorway, the door having been smashed inwards, long scars gouged into the frame, he saw nothing else in the hallway. And so, Kaleas stood within the centre of the room, took the flint and steel left upon the table, and lit the lamp once more.

Strange shadows flickered about the room, and their was a sheen to the walls that he could not quite identify. Turning instead to his sleeping friend, he bent over and peered closer, noting the creamy whiteness of his cheeks. He blinked and looked closer, noting the way the cheeks were bent inwards, and in fact how all of the flesh just hung from his friend’s bones. With a dawning realization, Kaleas backed up, his belly threatening to vomit once more, while his eyes gazed fixedly at the sickly sheen upon the walls. They were soaked in Marin’s blood, who’d been completely desanguinated.

Unable to bear the horrors anymore, Kaleas plunged headlong into the hallway, and running along its length. He did not stop to wonder if there might be some foul monstrosity waiting for him beyond, he simply ran, the quilt billowing behind him, held firmly in one hand, the lamp in the other. When he reached the stairs, he saw that there was light beyond, a pale blue nimbus that filled the main room. For some reason, he found himself pausing at the top of the stairs, peering out into the strange light.

The blue light shone from the candles burning all about the room, a group of them set in the centre of each table. The hearth also burned with that blue light, casting an eerie glow about the floor. Kaleas slowly moved out along the railing, and then down the stairs, noting the way each creaked beneath his bare feet. Despite his chill, he continued on downwards, glancing furtively behind him, but only seeing that empty hallway. Yet, just before he’d lost sight of his doorway, he’d noted a strange light starting to grow within those walls, and the vague outline of something standing in that room. The outline had been distorted strangely, but he knew that it was no man, nor anything that he had ever seen. Some ancient memory, as if borne to him by ancestors filled his thoughts, of a terror lost within time but come back to haunt him filled his mind.

He skipped down the stairs quicker, knowing that soon that whatever it had been, whatever ancestral link existed, it was going to come for him now that his partners were dead, and he had left the room. He stumbled backwards through the main room, watching the railing, as the shadows rose and fell with the flickering of the blue light. Kaleas backed into several chairs, the hand holding the quilt finally letting it go so that he could feel his way. Yet when he reached the centre of the room, he noticed that he was no longer alone in the main room. Sitting at the same table as he always had, right underneath the banister, was the stranger they had met. That man who’d called himself Krabbe.

He was sitting with his back to the stairwell, legs crossed before him, hands resting imperially upon the arm rests. His face was firm, resolute, watching Kaleas the whole while, as he himself were responsible for the slaughter in his rooms. Kaleas felt his knees freeze, and he fell to them, legs too weak to stand any further. And thus, kneeling, he felt compelled to plead of this man. “Help me,” he whispered.

“Come to me then, and it will all cease. Or run as long as you can.” The man’s voice was impassive and uncaring.

Kaleas’s eyes were then drawn upwards to the railing, as the shadows shifted once more. The candles then dimmed weakening as something terrible began to depress the wooden planks along that railing. The merchant gave out another cry of terror, and bolted for the door, dropping his own lamp in fright. His heart pounded firmly in his chest, and the sweat stood out upon his face as he ran through the snow-clogged streets. Aside from the snow the streets were empty, and not a single other soul was about. He ran on, knocking on doors, pounding and crying to be let it, but there was never a response.

And so he ran on, the sound of that monstrosity just shortly behind. Finally, he turned around one corner and could see the stars glinting before him, above and below. Setting into a mad dash, he did not dare look behind him as he feet set to take to the sky, to jump into the limitless void where he could be safe. He heard the grinding of stone behind him as the beast thundered along, the wailing of freakish voices giving vent to its fury.

Kaleas ran as fast as he could, his feet standing upon wood now, while the stars shone all about, blinking and scattering around him. A moment later, he heard the monster’s mighty pace take it upon the wood as well, the planks creaking under some immense weight. The merchant gave out a startled cry as he saw all of the world but the stars disappear before him, and he jumped, eager for the emptiness to take him. And then he felt a swift force yank him backwards. Vicious teeth crushed against his chest, wicked fangs gleaming in that light piercing his flesh once more. He screamed in agony, arms still held out, grasping for the stars, for anything to save him.

And with one final crushing blow, Kaleas jumped from the covers of his bed and wrest free of his nightmare. He jerked his head about, glancing this way and that. He was still in his bed, both Thulin and Marin in theirs. The window was in place, it had not been broken. And the door was where it should be as well. He reached one hand to his stockings and found them wet only with his own sweat. He was still breathing heavily though, and so he remained seated in his bed.

He did not wish to hold onto the images from his nightmare, and they thankfully began to fade with each new breath of the cold air. But just as he began to catch his breath, the window pane rattled sharply in its frame. Kaleas felt the full weight of that terror crush him down once more. He jumped from his covers, bolting to the door, feverishly tugging at the lock. He did not notice that the window had ceased its rattling, he only fought at the door to open it wide so that he might escape the horrors to come.

Finally, Kaleas managed to open the door, and he plunged into the hallway, only a single light at the far end to guide his path. Unlike before, this was an actual lantern held just before the main room. He reached the railing and pressed his belly against it, panting hard. The main hall was empty though, only the faint snapping of a few errant coals gave any indication of life. Turning his back to the banister, he peered down the hall, but it too was silent and empty.

And then he saw that the door next to his own opened wide. He felt his body tense, though his legs froze in place. From within the door stepped a dark figure, though from its outlines, he knew it to be a man. The man turned to face him, and when the light fell upon that face, he felt a relief as he had never known in his life before. It was Krabbe, the one who could take all of his fears away forever.

Krabbe stood at his door, eyes surveying Kaleas for a moment, before he gestured inside his quarters. Kaleas was quick to oblige, practically rushing into the safety of the man’s rooms, lit solely by the lamp at his bedside. His host shut the door behind him, and then moved over to the bed, and a black bundle that lay upon it. “You wish me to take your fear?” the man asked, resting one hand upon that bundle.

Kaleas nodded firmly, his whole body still sweating terribly.

He nodded and pointed with one finger at the ground before him. “Kneel,” he commanded, and the merchant quickly found himself upon his knees before the dark man. He gazed upwards into that narrow face, the single lantern bringing strange shadows to flicker across it. Yet he no longer had any fear.

From beneath the bundle Krabbe drew a long golden sword and set it point downwards before him. “Kiss the blade.” Eager to satisfy his saviour’s wishes, Kaleas leaned forward and pressed his lips to the cold metal of the sword. He felt as if ice for a moment, and half fancied he would fall over stiff as a rock, but he remained flesh as he drew back. He gazed up into the man’s eyes, eager for his next instructions.

“Go back to bed. You will not be troubled by those nightmares anymore. And tomorrow, you must help make Thulin mine as well.”

Kaleas nodded firmly. “Yes, my master,” he intoned softly, rising to his feet. He smiled his thanks and adoration once, and then turned to do as his master instructed. It felt so good to be free of the fears that had clutched at him.

When he came back into his own room, he saw that Thulin had stirred and was sitting up in bed upon one elbow. “Kaleas? What are you doing?” he asked, his voice groggy.

Kaleas smiled once and then closed and locked the door behind him. “Oh, I just needed to walk off a foul dream. That is all.”

“Are you all right?” Thulin pressed.

“I am better than I have ever been, my friend.” Kaleas smiled as he slipped back beneath his quilt, pulling it warmly over him. “Return to sleep. We have much to do tomorrow.”

Thulin grunted and lay back down upon the pillow. “I imagine so.”

Kaleas did not notice the tone in his partner’s voice as he lay upon his bed, thankful for peaceful sleep at last, and for his new master. How he longed to serve him. And with that thought upon his mind, he drifted into a peaceful sleep.

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