Horrendus, p.1

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  by Lori R. Lopez

  All rights reserved

  No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any

  media without written permission from the author, except

  brief excerpts in critical reviews and articles.

  This is a work of fiction.

  Copyright © 2012 by Lori R. Lopez

  Front Cover Illustration by Lori R. Lopez

  “’TWAS THE EVENTIDE of an autumn day, the merchants closing shop, families gathered to sup ere shuttering eyelids for the night. Hens began a ruckus, clamoring as if some demon were amongst them. And, indeed, one was.”

  The Storykeeper paused for a drag on his pipe and a slurp of his drink. Villagers huddled around him, adults and children alike, waiting as if entranced. They knew the legend well, yet each word was a drop of nectar to parched ears hungering for excitement.

  “Out from the gritty tarrish depth of the forest he came, the accursed heathen conceived of a devil’s dark unsavory spite. He was so awful, so disgusting, the town called the wretch Horrendus and feared him like nothing else that ever walked.

  “The monster’s first meal was a grizzled codger like myself, singing, weaving a trail to his door from visiting a friend. He cried out at the common, passing the cheer-lit windows of his neighbors. They’d find what was left in a field, devoured and spat out in disgust by no beast that any could name — until they gave him a title.”

  The teller of tales swigged from a tankard then puffed heavily, cheeks expelling a ball of somber gray smoke about his head. Sagist Rogan cleared his throat harshly.

  “The second was a maiden, a lovely girl fair and ripe, and they felt her loss profoundly.

  “The folk knew it was no random act. The village had been marked for desecration. A hunting band set out to slay the miscreant. ’Twas their solitary hope. Stout brave men, the eleven did not return. Thirteen heads were tossed from the fog in fury. Heroic bodies lay shredded, their pieces scattered all directions.

  “This town’s doom had been sealed.

  “Livestock and horses vanished the next night. Ground was matted with scraps of hide and feathers. A day later, more or less, every woodland animal for miles was taken. Birds flew off in trepidation. Then crops were spoiled, trampled or uprooted.

  “The frightened populace was willing to forsake their creed for a darklord in order to survive.

  “‘Horrendus!’ they wept, as if a prayer, ‘what have we done to deserve your vile unyielding wrath? How can we serve you, Master?’

  “The ogre bade like peals of thunder, ‘You must spread my name, father to son, so all will hear of me. It is a simple task but if you neglect to comply, the consequence shall be dire. I will destroy your village as if it never stood. All that is asked beyond this, the life of one boy or girl from every bloodline in your midst on each centennial of my nascence. Do not begrudge me. And do not beg. I have no mercy, for I have no heart.’

  “And so it is that the demon reappears to collect his due — a sample of every family’s young on his hundredth anniversaries. We must not forget lest we incur his rancor and another famine strike. Or this town be swept from the very soil on which it was built!”

  Here the story typically ended, with a note of warning delivered like a familiar moral, a stock religious lesson. The audience sighed, relishing its conclusion.

  This time, however, the harbinger sucked his pipe decisively then leaned forward to declare, “Those alive today have grown complacent, gone back to olden ways. Heed my words, the date of reckoning is upon us! At the stroke of Twelve he will resurrect, arriving like the sough of the wind to claim his chosen desserts!”

  People gasped. They had never heard this version of the tale. Some were afraid, others enraged. Only one believed it a jest.

  Her voice rang out. “You are all fools if you credit his nonsense! How many times has he regaled us in this manner, spouting these preposterous notions, and yet who can honestly say they saw the beast or knows of any who did? It is a myth, a tale for All Hallows to spook the children. Monsters do not exist, just men who gnash their molars and grope at greater power! Every death can be explained by some genuine cause. Wisen up, the lot of you! Else, like a mob of starved moor-hounds you may tear at each other!”

  Silence greeted the scornful pronouncement. Eyes pinned her to the rear of the hall, lantern light gilding her complexion between raven tresses. She met the stares, her features bold.

  The Storykeep’s face had paled. His smoldering pipe had fallen. His mug spilled its dregs. “Sacrilege!” Rogan shouted, lips trembling. He had performed his duty, sounded the alarm, exactly as his forefathers had done for generations. Who was this child to cast doubt like a stone of public condemnation?

  “Do you worship devils, then?”

  The crowd was mortified.

  “Giving credence to this rubbish is no different,” the girl accused. “You give power to darkness and invite it to step through the door.”

  “What would you have us do, Luwynda Maundrell?” the wife of a farmer demanded. “If you’re so clever, tell us how we’re to stop him — whether man or monster — from taking our children!”

  Voices crescendoed in agreement.

  “If he should come,” she humored, “like any bully he would covet respect, timorous admiration. Take that away, ignore him, and you’ll deprive him of strength. Your monster will evaporate, I promise.” Luwynda strode to the portal, turning heads in her wake.

  The same heads began to nod. Her words made sense. They desperately wanted to believe there was hope.

  Solely the augur was left shaking his noggin.

  Villagers bustled to their hearths, mothers clutching babes a little tighter, daring to dream that by disregarding the fear they could subdue it.

  All Hallows Eve would expire like any other night. No bonfire. Absent most of the annual rituals to ward off foul revenants. They had only to pretend it wasn’t The Deadline.

  But contrary to their fervent desires, the girl’s disbelief and their general attitude of indifference would summon the ghoul before the hour of his birth.

  Shrieking with antagonism, aching for revenge, he crept from the shadows of the timber to convince a pack of faithless folk he was no idle superstition.

  When his ghastly screams were discerned, they knew at once though they had never heard such despicable cries. Families filled the common, jabbering.

  “You were wrong!” they verbally accosted, words and gazes hurled like lances.

  “Anger has made him stronger!”

  “And fetches him sooner!”

  “Perhaps this time he will take us all!”

  “No,” the girl stated quietly. “It is me that he wishes. I shall go to him and put an end to this terror.”

  “What can you do that our heroes could not?” The Teller gruffly disdained.

  “I can outsmart him!” Luwynda replied with brash confidence and a wink. “In my experience, bullies are not very bright.”

  The girl marched forth, bearing no weapon or shield, with merely her wits and steely assurance for protection.

  The villagers flocked into the hall and barricaded its entrance with wood tables and chairs then hunkered to wait, sheltered from the onslaught of the monster’s enmity. Not one fragment of reliance endured that the girl was anything but insane for imagining she might defeat the beast alone and unarmed. Yet none of them would join the fey female on her mission of madness.

  A cold wind rattled branches. The gust stirred crisp embers of an orange carpet that crackled like flames beneath her boots.

  “What are you doing?” she muttered to herself, attempting to tread softly, grasping her cloak as if chilled. “You’re
not even dressed proper for a fight.” She peered down at her long skirt. “You could’ve at least borrowed a pair of britches!”

  Luwynda faltered as a swirl of fog parted and the cretin became clear out of the blackness surrounding him. He had reached the end of the grass at the edge of the village. On the summit of a gentle slope a row of carved and flickering gourds grimaced, a flimsy line of defense. The Sagist’s work, she assumed, a ridiculous tradition! What good did it do except draw attention — show the barbarity precisely where to come?

  The girl steadied her gait, sauntering past the pumpkins — her skirt and cloak cinched — advancing till she was near enough for a chat.

  Horrendus met her approach with a snarl of derision: “You must be the mocker.”

  “And what if I am?”

  “You will die first,” the animus stated.

  “But shouldn’t you save the best for last?” challenged the girl.

  “Hmm, you might have a point.” A ruminative interval. “If I wanted your opinion!” The fiend nastily swung a forelimb to deal a crushing blow.

  The girl lithely ducked, then sprang from a crouch through the daemon-troll’s massive trunken legs.

  A nimble somersault, rendered awkward by her attire. She leapt up behind and gave him a shove. Caught off balance, the heavy lout pitched to sprawl clumsickly on a hideous oversized countenance.

  He straightened to a towering height of brawn, sinews rippling, morbid expression irate. Shambling in a semicircle to confront his foe, pocked writhing
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