AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story will eventually be an epic, in the tradition of Neverending Story, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Labyrinth and the like. Though of course with my own twist. After all, I can't write straight fantasy, and I especially can't write high fantasy. So, welcome to "horror fantasy." ::big grin:: I'll eventually work on the next chapter, which I have planned out but not written yet, though I have many other projects to get to before I write ch1. So for now, enjoy the prologue.
'Untitled Dark Horror-Fantasy'
By R.C. Carpenter
The gloom in the air was heavier than normal that evening. Fear was draped over the land like a blanket of thick, wet velvet.
The messenger broke from the shadowy forest and ran from its edge until he could run no more. He collapsed to the ground with his breathing labored and his mind reeling. The young boy glanced behind him to the tree line.
A sigh of overwhelming relief escaped his dry lips. He shut his eyes, thankful to not be hounded for the briefest of moments.
After his breath had been caught and his chest had stopped pounding in his ears, the boy walked to the crest of the hill. There he stopped at the sight of the vast, empty expanse ahead of him. A slowly creeping fog dipped in and out of the rolling hillside, protecting from his sight whatever creatures might be out there waiting to ambush him.
The boy shivered with the sudden realization that, in order to fulfill his duties, he would have to cross that desolate wasteland.
Someone would ambush him; of that he had no optimistic delusions. What worried the messenger was not the impending attacks waiting in the seemingly open and welcoming field, but the unanswerable questions of how many there would be, when they would come for him, and which of his master's enemies might have the pleasure of tormenting him that night. With his horse lost in an encounter the night before in the forest, his hope had dimmed until it was barely a flicker in his simple heart.
Rocks scattered as the boy skidded down the barren hillside. His balance was thrown when a twig from a half-dead bush caught the corners of his tattered coat. He lurched forward and slid the rest of the way down the slope on his face.
For many long minutes he stayed there completely still and lying on his stomach. His cheeks and forehead bled from tiny cuts. His clothing had taken on a pale brown shade from the dirt and dust his fall had kicked up. With a careful shrug, he checked to see if anything had broken and was eternally grateful to have all his bones still intact.
Cautiously, he glanced up but dared not move his head.
Had anyone noticed him, he wondered.
He let a stretch of time pass before he even contemplated finding his feet. At last, he was convinced that nothing had seen him- not yet at least- and the messenger boy continued onward in his journey.
The mist was unnaturally dense and it made him shiver. His master had chosen him for the task of delivering a very important message because of his youth, his swiftness, and his bravery. Children were not often suspected to be the errand boys of the powerful, his master had promised. Though many had begun to catch on, his master still felt it safer to send someone young than to send a fully armored envoy instead. At the moment, the young boy wished that his master had at least allowed him a better weapon than a knife.
Everyone in the world that the messenger knew valued speed and agility. Be quick or be killed, that was what they said. Of the other servants in his master's employ, the boy knew himself to be the quickest in mind and in body. As the journey became longer, however, his once prized athleticism was becoming useless. With only a small breakfast the morning before and no sleep in almost two days, no amount of training could have prepared him for the reality beyond the boundaries of his master's property.
Bravery was a coveted quality at any age. There were things in that land that could scare a man half to death if his courage was not with him.
Of all his skills, the boy was counting on his nerves to remain steeled. Nothing had taken his wits so far and, oh, the things he had endured! He thought of how most of the other servant boys would have snapped by that point or gone running back at the first sign of danger.
As he walked further into the fog, there appeared up ahead two giant mounds that stretched far across the field as far as the boy could see. Slowly other shapes began to take form. Finally he found the large stone pillars that he had been told marked the entrance to the field. When he approached, the haze thinned enough for him to just see a tall metal gate bent off its hinges. The gate had been burst through by something, but whatever it was hadn't been trying to get in. The gates were titled open in a telltale sign that someone had been fleeing what the gate barred the entrance to.
If there had been another way through the field, the boy would have taken it without a second thought. As it was though, the travel through the forest around the edge would have proven much worse than whatever might lay inside.
On the left gate there was a rusted old plaque. The boy brushed the dead vines away from the inscription and read it:
Peaceful Gardens Cemetery
A lovely place to spend that eternal slumber
Graveyards had never been among his favorite places, but it could have been worse. It could have been the night before all over again.
The cry of his horse still echoed in his skull. The noble beast trumpeted and snickered as the monsters took her, though her rider had run fast and far ahead when the trap had caught around her legs.
It still hurt that he had to leave her behind but the boy knew that, even if some hunter mad enough to trek so deeply into the forest had accidentally left behind the snare, the horse would not be able to walk again. She had toppled to the ground the instant the huge jaw snapped shut on her.
What he regretted was that he hadn't been able to bring closure to her pain himself. Instead he was forced to hear her horrible end from a distance, where his imagination ran wild at all the possible forms of torment transpiring on the path. Perhaps the worst of it was that, even if there had been time and no one was hot on their trail, he hadn't been stocked with the tools necessary to do anything.
The boy hadn't traveled far into the cemetery. The mounds of earth and starved grass, bushes, and trees still stretched onwards into the field. They seemed endless. He looked behind him and couldn't see the battered gate. He looked ahead and could see only darkness.
There came a sudden scent on the lazy breeze that whirled into the small chasm. It smelled like… like nothing he had ever smelled before. The closest thing his mind could compare it to was the stench of overripe fruit, week old meat, and manure thrown in the heap near the pigsties on his master's farm. The cocktail of offensive odors assaulted his nostrils and he gagged.
The boy clutched for the ground at the side of the chasm. Bile rose in his throat. He retched stiffly, spit the taste out, and steadied himself to continue his journey.
It was as his own insides were rejecting what little remained in his empty stomach that he had noticed a few broken pieces of wood scattered on the cliff face. At a second glance, it was revealed to him that the few broken pieces were no apparition.
He forced his gaze upward along the mound. He did not falter when he saw the coffin jutting out of the earth like a bone pierced through skin. No, he did not turn to run either when he saw the creature's mouth fixed in an open scream. Whatever had died in that coffin- or been buried mistakenly- it was long dead now. It looked to him that the not-quite-so-deceased had broken through the lid of its coffin and had met its ultimate end only moments later. There was no skin on the carcass, only the mostly rotted remains of what had once been its muscles clinging to disjointed bones.
All down the mound he saw similar scenes of the rejected coffins, though none of the other bodies looked like they had been buried alive. He half-tripped over a partial skull and saw the rest of the skeleton a few yards away. Throughout the dirt there were different bones. Some were still mostly together, others were missing what would be vital to existence as a living person, and here and there were forearms and fingers and jawbones with most of the teeth still in tact.
Trying to look past it all, remembering that he had entered a graveyard after all, the boy strove forward.
The fog began to clear.
He came upon a thin fence and behind it lay an ornate crypt that the wind howled through like a ghostly instrument. It chilled the boy right down to his very bones, especially as his mind began to play tricks on him. He thought saw movement out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned nothing was there.
A groan caught his ears but again he saw no one.
He growled at his own fears creeping up. Now was not the time to let the eerie setting get the best of him. He had been through too much to be frightened now of all times when all there was to scare him was his own mind.
There was movement up ahead. This time he knew he saw something, that it wasn't just him conjuring things up. He was caught between whether to hide somewhere until who or whatever it was passed or to keep going and see if perhaps, by some insane stroke of luck, it was someone neutral. He could never hope for a friendly face but someone who wasn't out to kill everything that moved didn't seem much to ask.
He heard the figure speak but didn't understand what it had said. Friend or foe, it had seen him regardless at that point. "Hello?" he called. "I don't mean to intrude. I'm just passing through. A messenger is all."
Again the figure ahead spoke but his words were too soft for the boy to hear them.
"I'm sorry, sir, I cannot hear you from there." The boy stood his ground and waited for the man to meet him along the windy road that curved between the mausoleums. The young messenger took note of his surroundings and possible places to duck away into if the man meant him harm.
The man had an odd walk to him. He looked like he was dancing, like a beat was in the air or in his mind. As he got closer, the boy thought his walk very strange indeed. It was as though he was made of jelly, jiggling and wiggling in strange ways.
He stood before the boy. The darkness revealed little about him. He was only slightly taller than the boy was himself. On his head was a cap and he seemed to be wearing a suit. When he turned a little, there seemed to be a short wiry beard on his chin.
The fog and the cloudy night sky made everything else unknown.
"I am a messenger, sir. Forgive me if I in-intruded," he said as he stumbled over his words. "I thought that this graveyard had been closed off for many years now."
"Oh yes," the man replied. His voice was low and gruff. "You should have gone around the back way, so you could be safe. You see," the man said and took a step closer to the boy, who caught a whiff of something awful. "This used to be a beautiful place, where everyone wanted to be buried. Just dying to get in."
The boy smiled nervously at the joke.
"But! When the first few bodies were lain in the ground, the earth began to change. The trees were twisted in agony and their sap ran like blood. Grass turned to ash and any animal that dared set foot on the land died instantly, and their corpses littered the fields."
Though he had seen no animal skeletons along the road, the prospect of touching the ground and dying a moment later did not sit well with the boy's stomach.
The man continued. "Then two giant mounds erupted as if to say--" His deep voice went lower and more ominous as he said, "No one can enter here… All that's left is this desolate wasteland. As you said, the cemetery was closed off many years ago."
"Yes." The boy stepped back when the man moved towards him again. "I should go the back way then."
"Well, that would probably not work." The man gave a laugh. "You're already here. We don't let fresh meat go just like that, just because it asked to be let go."
The man reached forward and grabbed the boy. Being as close as they were revealed to the young lad the true nature of the stranger.
His face was deathly pale, glossy and smooth. His eyes were sunken in, and a worm crawled in and out of his half-rotted cheek. He was a zombie!
The boy tore from the zombie's grip and turned to run.
The sight that met his eyes might as well have been a solid punch.
From the graves in the ground, from the crypts and mausoleums, from simple piles of dirt they crawled. There was nearly a dozen of them in all stages of decay and dressed in all manner of person.
"Fresh meat," some growled. "Food," moaned others.
What was long ago a young man moved slightly faster than the rest of the shambling bunch. "Oh, an arm. Look at it… you don't need two arms, do you? You can keep the other one, I promise."
The boy turned back again into the worm-faced zombie's path.
The zombie grinned widely with his stinking yellow teeth shown with pride. The boy was dumbstruck as the zombie stared him down.
Then he took off, pushing violently past the head zombie as fast as his feet had ever carried him.
He heard the lead zombie cry out in his gravely voice, "Run, rabbit!"
The boy felt the fingers clawing at him as he rushed down the path. He stepped on the hands that protruded from the ground and fumbled for his ankles. He didn't look at them, didn't think of them. He only had enough sanity to think of running.
They taunted him as he ran, those that had the senses left enough to speak.
There ahead, through the breaking fog, the boy saw the tree line. He remembered his master's words from long ago, that a zombie could not make it past the land he was buried in. If he could only make it to the tree line, he would be all right for a few minutes. He could rest and laugh at them instead.
He heard the zombie before he saw it, and it had him before he had time to react. Like the head zombie back down the path, this one moved almost normally. He slammed his bald head into the boy's side and knocked him flat on his back. The zombie towered over the young boy, who would have looked small in comparison to the zombie even if he had been standing.
The zombie pressed his foot against the boy's chest and held him there pinned to the ground.
The head zombie approached after a moment with the rest of the gang in tow. "Nice work, Bowdoin," he offered with a vicious grin.
"Never a problem, dear Talbot."
Talbot leaned to the boy. "They all run, rabbit. And they all fall."
He stood back up and addressed the horde that had grown behind him. He lifted his festering, rotting arms up into the arms and exclaimed, "Fresh meat, boys! Fresh meat!"
With that, the zombies descended upon the horrified young messenger.