Excerpt from a supernatural fantasy novel i’m writing
You may think the dark is empty, that it is just space without light. But this is an untruth. For in the recesses and corners of this world where, shadows form and night banishes day, there are things that live and breathe. Though you may not have seen them- or perhaps you have and just dismissed it as your mind playing tricks- they are there and they are dangerous.
It is my job to hunt them, to track them, to drive them from their shadowy pits and to kill them. Believe me, it’s not easy. When you’re groping around in the inky nothingness with naught but your wits and heightened senses for company, that’s when you have to shun fear and face what lies in wait.
Many call me a heretic, their narrow minds refuse to acknowledge that which preys upon them. Others call me a demon; they say I was born from the dark. The truth… the truth is I cannot remember very much. In fact I recall nothing of my life, but for one thing, one memory that is set in my mind as if carved there. It is the image of a woman’s face, pale, blood smeared and screaming while charcoal fingers scrape at her, pulling her backwards. But for that image I remember nothing until three years ago. That is when I began hunting the denizens of the dark, tutored to do so by one who called himself, The Deliverer. Now, I don’t hold with such egotistical titles, no, that’s not my way at all. My name is lost with the memories of my life… But my title, what they call me, I am Darkbane.
The flame sputtered as the wick it danced upon burned closer to the pool of melted tallow in the base of the tarnished brass holder. The candle had burned through the night, during the long hours when the dark is at its thickest. But, as the red fingers of dawn reached over the rooftops, the flame gave a final, almost relieved hiss, and went out. Through the thick rippling panes of glass the first light of the new day broke, sending the room beyond the window into coppery relief. The light fell upon a battered wooden table, strewn with curling playing cards, a dented plate: empty but for a scattering of crumbs and a hard bread crust; and a silver dagger. There was little else in the room, just a rickety set of drawers, a heavily fortified wooden chest and a bed. And, stretched across the bed, fully clothed and seemingly dead- for there was no twitch of a finger nor a flicker of closed eyelids- was a man. It was only as the dawn’s rays: warm and probing, fell across his scarred, bearded face that he did move. His eyes opened, wide and alert as if their sleeping owner had been pretending all along and had not just awoken from a mere hour’s rest. He grunted, realising that it was only just morning. Not yet, he thought, not yet.
It was the hammering that woke him next. Thrice the sound came: a sonorous thudding that echoed up from below. It seems I’ll be busy this night, he thought.
Ignoring the spikes of agony that lanced up and down his back, he rose from the hard bed. He glanced at the remains of the setting sun as it retreated over the silhouetted mountains far in the distance and a grim, knowing smile creased his face. Though he was weary- something the day’s rest had done little to alleviate- he mustered a small reserve of strength and cast his hand in the direction of the table. A flame sprang into life atop a half melted candle and the room was lit indistinctly with its soft glow.
“Darkbane, your services are called upon.”
The call was one Darkbane had heard often. He smiled again, nodding to himself. He made his way to the window and glanced down through the panes.
Standing in the street below, his figure distorted by the rippling glass, was a young man. In one hand he clutched a flaming torch in the other a hammer. The pale oval of his face turned up to the window and for a moment the lad was perfectly still before he turned and took to his heels. As if the devil were in pursuit, thought Darkbane, smiling.
“To work then,” he mumbled, turning away from the window.
Pain struck him again, stinging this time, as he started towards the iron braced chest beside the door. Carefully, Darkbane pulled up the sleeve of his battered leather long coat. An ugly gash that ran from his wrist to his elbow was revealed, glistening scarlet as he held it closer to the candle. Wincing, he procured a length of fraying white cloth from one of his pockets and bound the wound. He wondered why he had not felt the cut before. But the thought was fleeting; he had more important things to concern himself with.
Darkbane knelt down in front of the chest and passed his uninjured hand over each lock and bolt that adorned the trunk’s face. After a series of metallic thuds, clicks and whirs the heavy lid groaned ajar.
Rising now, Darkbane swept back his long coat to reveal a belt patterned with loops of leather, several sheaths and a long scabbard. Then from the chest he procured an array of silver and wooden instruments, and with the speed and grace of a hand well practised, slid each of them into his belt. There were three daggers of flawless silver, a rowan stake, a pouch of iron filings, an iron chain and then he drew forth a long sword. With reverence Darkbane held the blade up, examined it, before sliding it into the scabbard. Lastly, from a hidden compartment in the chest’s lid, Darkbane brought a small glass vial, filled with a clear liquid, a piece of bone and a shard of rowan. He dropped the amulet into his pocket.
“So it begins.” With gritted teeth he plucked a battered leather fedora from the chest of drawers, fitted it on his head and left.
The address scrawled on the scrap of parchment was one Darkbane knew. He ripped the scrap free; leaving the nail among the many others that pierced his front door and set off.
A bone pale moon grinned in the starless sky overhead, dappling the muck caked cobbles with distorted shadows. The night was soundless but for the muffled ruckus emanating from the tavern at the top of the street. As he passed them, Darkbane grunted at each house he saw that had ignored his instruction and neglected to place a candle in one of their windows. “Fools,” he growled.
With a vigilant gaze, Darkbane scrutinised the dark alleys and corners as they passed. A frown furrowed his scarred brow. The stillness and quiet unnerved him. But he had little time to think on his misgivings as his destination loomed up from the dark.
The wattle and daub house was gilded with the light of a dozen torches; their bearers fell quiet as Darkbane approached. A path appeared between the gathered ranks before he had stepped within five yards of them. Their silence belied their fierce stares, though he knew none would speak their mind until he was out of earshot. Then my ears will burn, he thought.
The young man who had hammered the request parchment to Darkbane’s door was standing outside the house shifting uneasily. “M-master Shadow S-slayer,” he said, inclining his head.
Darkbane returned the gesture. “Did you not see fit to heed my instructions?” he said, making no effort to hide his anger, as he motioned to the shadowy windows of the house.
“M-my father s-said it w-was nonsense, sir,” the man said, eyes fixed at his feet. “He says that no mere candle can keep the Devil in hell.”
Darkbane grunted. “Well,” he said, “show me to this witch, young master and let us see what we are dealing with.”
Darkbane could feel a presence before he had even crossed the house’s threshold. The witch’s dark power assaulted him from every corner of the house as he entered. He felt it as a dull pain in his heart.
“This is no ordinary hag,” he said, fingering the implements on his belt with one hand and tracing the wall with his other. “The light of my candles would have done little to keep this witch at bay.”
“Can you rid us of it, master Darkbane?” The young man said. The light of his lantern danced frantically across the walls.
“Hold that lantern steady,” Darkbane said. “She may be powerful but she certainly won’t like its light. And to your question… nothing is certain, not when you’re dealing with the dark.”
As they moved deeper into the house, the pain in Darkbane’s chest grew fiercer, until it felt as if a dozen bodkins were puncturing his heart.
“She appears in the attic,” said the man, his voice cracking.
Darkbane nodded. “I know, lad,” he said. “There’s no need for you to accompany me any further.” He stopped at the foot of a staircase and turned to face the young man whose eyes were wide and fearful. “You must not come up, no matter what sounds you hear. Neither must anyone else, do you understand that, lad?”
The young man nodded earnestly, “Yes, sir.”
“Then hand me that lantern, and get you gone. And, lad…”
The man handed over the sputtering lantern as Darkbane pulled a pouch from a loop on his belt and handed it over, “if things go awry, seal off every entrance to the attic with the iron filings in there.”
Nodding again, the man turned and hastened back out into the street, clutching the sack as if it were a lump of gold.
With every creaking stair Darkbane climbed, the witch’s power burned harder within him. But he bit back his anguish and, arriving at the top of the staircase, pushed open the attic door.
The room beyond was lit indistinctly with the soft glow of the lantern’s tallow candle. Not that there was a great deal of anything to light. The attic was barren but for the cobweb drapes strung in the eaves and a dark stain upon the floorboards.
As he closed the door behind him, a ringing silence resonated in Darkbane’s ears. He placed the lantern on the floor at his feet then set his hat alongside it. The top of his spine tingled.
From the hush a low moan rose up, a chill thickened the air and as Darkbane watched, the dark stain on the wooden floorboards began to smoke. With the curling tendrils of steam came glistening scarlet liquid that bubbled and spat through the cracks between the boards. The groaning waxed louder and the boiling puddle of blood spread and thickened across the floor.
The ribbons of smoke reached into Darkbane’s nostrils and mouth with acrid fingers, coating the back of his throat with a foul, metallic taste. His grip upon the hilt of his sword tightened, his other lingered at his side, fingers twitching, anticipating what implement he would draw from his belt.
As Darkbane took a step backwards, retreating from the lapping edges of the pool, something burst from the scarlet depths. It was an arm, bloody and crudely formed. Another swiftly followed and from each of the arms reached splayed fingers that slapped wetly down onto the boards. The thin limbs trembled under the strain of supporting whatever lurked below the gory surface.
Now, Darkbane did draw his sword. He held the silver blade ready as a hunched back rose up now, followed by a long neck and a bald head. Gore dripped from the body in thick ropes as it rose fully from the pool. It spread its thickening limbs and jerked its head up. A maw split the now sallow, featureless face in two and a guttural, rasping sound emanated from deep within its throat. With a flick of talon fingers, the form commanded the cobwebs from the eaves and the thick sheets draped across the chalky limbs and wrapped about the emaciated body. The last strings of blood dripping from the head, darkened into knots of pitchy hair and in the sunken sockets two black eyes formed. And standing there, hunched and grinning, was the witch.
Her thin lips parted wider, “What fool is this,” she rasped, “that dare’s stand before me? Speak human, or I shall carve the flesh from your bones.”
Darkbane held forth his sword, “I am Darkbane, witch, and before this night is done you will meet your doom.”