A/N: This is the first story in a series of short stories. The cover art is made by Malabra on Deviant Art. PLEASE do NOT use this cover for your own projects without express permission from Malabra. Enjoy!
The Bell started tolling, its eerie melancholy pulsating throughout the city, ominously. The river had brewed a fine mist and sent it out through the streets, where it blanketed the cobblestones and was occasionally touched by a light gust of wind causing it to reach upwards with thin, skeletal fingers before collapsing back into a white formless mass. The sun was setting, casting its fiery glow over the towering buildings in defiance, the red, angry eye trying to penetrate those petty structures and gaze upon the inhabitants, judging them, burning them with its unending flame.
A tall figure, clad in dark, stood inside the city gates with both hands resting on a cane, planted firmly on the ground. Sharp eyes stared into the shadows and a grim expression adorned the weathered features. The massive iron gate swung shut with a metallic clang and a low, humorless chuckle was heard behind the newcomer.
"Another piece o'meat faces the night," a croaky voice announced, coldly.
The gatekeeper walked up to the dark figure, studying his face with contempt.
"You made it far, I'll give ya that. But yer mind must be wearin' thin, by now, eh boy?"
He breathed heavily, barring his rotting teeth in a grimace that could barely be discerned.
"What'll be breakin' first? Yer body or yer mind? The latter, I wager, no?"
His hoarse laughter was hollow and tinged with a kind of madness that grated the very inner parts of the ear, unpleasantly, yet it did not seem to touch the stranger. As the shadows lengthened, faster, the gatekeeper's eyes flickered to the darkest parts of the streets, then breathed out heavily.
"Fun's about to start, Hunter. I'll be seein' your corpse, soon enough."
With that, the man limped off, seeking shelter, for the night. The Hunter did not move but remained in place, waiting for the inevitable darkness; the mist seemed to sense the lone presence on the otherwise empty streets. Rolling lazily towards the figure there was an almost noticeable intelligence underneath the formless, white cover.
There was a whisper, barely audible, moving through the air; though incomprehensible, there was a chilling, yet seductive note to it. As the sun's rays finally relinquished their last desperate hold on the world and twilight took over, the whisper intensified, its presence almost physical, as an undercurrent beneath the mist, a small whiff of icy air from the depths of the shadows, a warm, rancid breath down the back of the neck from an unseen foe.
The Bell fell silent, signaling the beginning of the night and the end of safety and peace and still, the Hunter did not move, simply observing the strange mist and deep shadows. Somewhere, a new Bell started ringing; with each toll, there was a change in the atmosphere, an oppressiveness that constricted the body and almost robbed it of breath. The mist started moving, erratically, and the shadows became denser, more tangible.
The Hunter knew of the lowlifes, who now dragged themselves from their pathetic hideouts, greeting the night with madness and glee as they carried their disease and rot like a perfume, a brand to recognize the nightly crawlers from those who walked in daylight. They would sniff out the newcomer soon but they were negligible.
No, the Hunter was not here for them, they would die in their misery, soon enough. What hid in the shadows was far more engaging, far more delectable to the senses. Their stench was one of death, of fire and brimstone, of despair and madness. In the darkness they clawed their way to the surface, through portals visible to no one.
The Bell drove them; each toll was a whiplash, seared across their primal, deranged minds forcing them into a furious, frothing frenzy. The Hunter's heartbeat intensified, pumping his blood more rapidly into the vessels in the brain until it reached a familiar level and settled into a dull, pulsating ache in the back of the skull augmented by the Bell's monstrous, ever rising peal.
Senses were enhanced and it was now easy to discern exactly where the creatures were coming up; a low snarl was heard from the left and a pair of glowing embers became visible in the deepest shadows, quickly fixating on the exposed prey, inside the gate. A small smile stretched pale skin and a feverish gleam of excitement took up residence in otherwise deadened eyes as the Hunter firmly tapped the cane into the ground; the polished, wooden surface seemed to melt away to reveal a thin, long blade.
The growling intensified; there was an almost human note to it, a pained, deranged, otherworldly double note, rasping against every nerve in the ear. It edged closer and a front limb slowly exposed itself; the muscle sinews were red with blood, tatters of skin still hanging on. Something that resembled a human hand was planted at the end of it. Long, gray claws were protruding from three of the fingers, while freshly bleeding stumps showed the price the beast had paid in its struggle to reach the surface.
A malodorous scent became apparent as the skinless creature showed itself, completely; tall as a man, when down on all four, it resembled no animal but rather a giant. Its naked form was obviously male, though its genitals were little more than bloodied meat, hanging limply. The pieces of skin that yet clung to the body were charred around the edges or bore visible scrape marks. The ever-staring eyes were aflame with a madness, emphasized by the absence of eyelids and compounded by an all-encompassing feeling of hatred.
Its glare flickered rapidly, barely registering the surroundings before settling again with sudden certainty and intensity on the Hunter. It uttered a guttural snarl, growing in volume and ferocity as it stepped closer to its adversary. The human remained still, observing the maddened creature; his muscles tensed as his hands gripped the cane handle, tightly. The toll seemed to reverberate through the Hunter's body as the foes readied themselves for battle; despite the demonic cries of the city's night visitors, there was a stillness between them as they stood, poised.
Time erupted as the creature lunged, slashing wildly at its enemy; the Hunter saw, almost felt, the attack coming and sidestepped it, gracefully, before swinging the cane-turned-blade in a small arch at the giant's side. The tip only glanced the flank before the other turned around, faster than humanly possible, and charged again.
Forced to jump out of the way, the Hunter felt the impact of the ground and rolled to get back up, facing the enemy. Again, the beast had reacted faster than anticipated and he could barely register what had happened before being hit by a monstrous claw and flying backwards; even when laying sprawling on the ground, he could feel the fiery eyes focus on nothing but their prey.
The creature came closer, a guttural, triumphant snarl freeing itself from its throat as it stood above the other. Before it could deal the killing blow, the Hunter rolled out from under it.
Quickly getting back in balance, he leaped forward and struck out with the blade, piercing the skin and thrusting deep into the side.
The giant's painful scream tore through the night, deafening and terrifying, before turning into a shriek of rage as it spun on its adversary, again. Blood poured forward as the blade was pulled out, splattering on the cobblestones.
The Hunter stepped back and got ready for another attack; the creature wobbled slightly before regaining its footing. Lunging at him it was clear that the injury was tapping it. Again, he sidestepped, this time ready for a quick retaliation but the movements that came were sluggish; the giant was disoriented by the smell of its own blood and the excruciating pain it was undoubtedly in.
It was easy to avoid the claw and step under the extended limb to deliver another blow, this time, in the chest. Another unearthly, double-layered scream erupted and ended in a wet gurgle as the blade went between the ribs and through the lung. Blood rose and bubbled out the mouth of the creature as it writhed in a desperate death struggle. The Hunter only narrowly escaped a massive claw as its limbs thrashed in protest against its fate. Then it was over; the foe lay at its victor's feet, a bloodied, twisted mass of something that from the onset never resembled anything from this world.
The first battle was over, he could move on.
Time was not something a Hunter kept track of after the sun set. The incessant toll of the Bell made it impossible to gauge how much time had passed and the shadows remained constant as the night dragged on. To someone who partook in the Hunt, it mattered little, however; one creature slain, the next one would be fast incoming.
The Hunter could only guess how long he had been fighting, cutting down one blighted foe after another. The whisper seemed to ebb and flow with the tide of each battle, sometimes ecstatic when blood flowed, sometimes subdued when death had passed but always discernible over the chime of the Bell. It reached a level of close to intelligible to the Hunter, who seemed on the verge of understanding its enigmatic message, then it died away again, leaving a void of frustrations, an inner itch with no relief.
Noises came from the boarded up houses: quiet prayer interrupted by mad cackling, destruction of kitchen ware and furniture amid hysterical sobbing, loud arguments born of desperation and desolation, the destitute citizens wallowing in all their misery; it filled the city with a stench of despair, repulsive, yet enticing. It was a strange kind of freedom, which was born from facing the dangers rather than waiting to be found, a power, one might say, a superiority over the pathetic plague-ridden cowards who hid behind locked doors. The Hunter reveled in it.
A slight noise betrayed yet another attacker, waiting around the next corner; the whisper intensified, yet again, aroused by the prospect of battle. The Hunter thrust the cane out but it was deflected with a metallic clunk before the other figure stepped out. A fellow human who stalked the hellish creatures stood in the darkness; guns in hand, the other Hunter bowed, politely, which was returned in kind. For a moment they sized each other up then parted ways.
As the other walked away the Hunter saw: a slight wavering of the air around, a small hole in the disguise; the toll seemed to intensify as did the whisper, its message becoming clearer. In front, was an enemy.
It was easy to remain unnoticed; the gun was pulled from its holster, already loaded and cocked. There was plenty of time to take aim. Time seemed to slow as the trigger was pulled; the Hunter could almost see the bullet as it made its way from the barrel to its target. The other fell to the ground without a sound but the disguise remained intact; the victor approached the body with cold curiosity. He turned the body over with his boot and saw the face stare silently at nothing, still looking human. He moved on, readying himself for the next fight.
The Hunter moved through the darkened streets with little purpose and direction, merely cutting a path through the monsters and diseased citizens. Eventually, a young woman fell to her knees.
"I'm not crazy!" she cried out.
The Hunter looked down at her.
"They threw me out, they said I have the plague but I don't! You have to help me!" she pleaded.
Her scent was thick with perfume but underneath it was the unmistakable stench of malady. The plague made people insane, incoherent. Whatever afflicted this one, it was of no concern to him. The whisper seemed agitated by the female, a feeling compounded by the Bell's toll which seemed to increase in volume.
"Please, you have to save me!"
Monsters started approaching, their snarls clearly audible from the shadows. No doubt, the foolish woman's screams had alerted them. The Hunter looked at her; for an instance, the barest moment, he saw her mouth pull at the corner. It was gone before he could blink but he had seen it.
"Oh, god, what are those?" she whimpered, pathetically, staring towards the menacing sounds.
Before she could turn her gaze back, the bladed cane thrust its way through her delicate frame. She did not have time to cry out as her chest was pierced by the sword. She slid to the ground and her killer calmly removed the blade from her body.
The creatures came faster almost as if they sensed her death; they burst from the shadows in full attack and immediately jumped on the dead body, tearing into the flesh with beastly vigor. The Hunter stepped back; observing the carnage. He then took his time and disposed of the monsters with cold indifference. The remains of the woman were a bloodied mess; there was no telling if she had been human or not. The whisper quieted down but stayed as a quiet hum in the back of his mind, urging him on and the Bell's toll made the dull ache in his head flare up.
As the night wore on, he slaughtered beasts and men alike, his mind never at peace; the hushed voice was never still, its incessant beckoning digging deeper into his brain as he cut his way through the city.
Though he could not understand the words, the message became clearer: there was something, close by, something that was waiting for him; he was approaching it with every step and every kill. He got rid of a group of diseased citizens and stopped for a moment to clean his sword. As he wiped a piece of cloth along blade he caught a glimpse of his other hand through the corner of his eye; it seemed twisted and wrong. He focused on it and it was nothing more than his hand, a human hand. The Hunter finished up and continued on.
He found another shut-out, an old man, banging on the door to his home, begging to be let back in; he spotted the newcomer and his eyes turned wide with fear.
"Pl-please don't kill m-me, Hunter. I-I just got home, to-too late," he stammered.
Another toll rang through the city and the old man started at the sound; he looked around, nervously.
"Th-that infernal Bell!" he spat.
"Wish that I co-could shut it o-off."
The Hunter stiffened as he smelled something. There was another enemy, nearby; no, there were more of them. Their stench was barely traceable but it was there, burning slightly as he sniffed in. The old man seemed to have caught on as well and was wobbling towards him, carefully.
"I-I know they're comin'. I wo-won't be in your way, I'll st-stay nice and quiet behi-hind you."
The man was pressing himself up against the wall behind the Hunter; the latter dismissed him as he turned his attention towards the coming threat. The whisper intensified, egging him on to fight, to kill his enemies. He tried to ignore it as he readied himself.
He heard their howls; they almost sounded like animals, yet their voices were layered with something transcendental. They looked like hounds, three of them; they had no skin and all their exposed muscles were glistening with blood. Two were missing an ear and one of them was humping on three legs, the missing limb seemingly ripped from its body, violently. They were growling with their tongues lolling from their mouths. Empty eye sockets were observing the Hunter, hungrily.
Their growling was not that of a dog or even a wolf; it was a throaty, wet, gargling noise, as if they were choking on their own blood. They approached, carefully eyeing the Hunter's blade. They seemed to understand the danger it posed, yet they were driven by the Bell as well.
Two of them lunged at him, simultaneously; one went for his head while the three-legged circled around to attack from the side. The Hunter jumped out of the way of both, while slashing his blade at the nearest one, cutting a gash on its cheek. A screech sounded from the wounded dog as it retreated. As they regrouped, he heard a cry from behind and quickly turned his head to see the third dog drag the old man away from the wall. Before he could intervene, he was attacked again, by the two in front.
He saw them split up to attack from both sides; he rolled forward, away from the attack, and quickly spun around to find that the hounds had had too much momentum to break off their charge and follow him. They ran past each other and tried for him, again. He quickly ran to the one missing a leg, lifting his blade as it jumped and impaled it. As its dead weight hit him, he used the force of its attack to spin back towards the other one and sling the dead creature at it.
It tried to avoid the corpse but could not turn in time and was hit with the full force of the body. The Hunter glanced towards the thirds one, which was now dragging the old man away, screaming. The hound had torn the man's body open, his intestines spilling out on the ground, yet he was still alive, desperately trying to escape the death grip from the monster.
"He-help me...Hunter!" he pleaded.
The other man heard another growl and turned his attention back to the remaining dog. It came running straight for him, snarling. As he prepared to meet the attack, it suddenly feinted right and charged past him, grabbing the dying man's arm and helping the other dog drag him away, wailing.
As they disappeared the Hunter saw a slight wavering of the air around the man; a slight distortion of the scene. He saw the man reach towards the dogs and they let go of him before pressing their noses against his hand; then the darkness closed around them and they were gone. The Bell was the only thing he still heard; it took a few minutes for him to realize the Whisper was still there, in the back of his mind. The thumping in his head reminded him of where he was and that he needed to press on.
He moved through the city, slaughtering diseased and hell spawn along his way. The strong presence was becoming ever more noticeable as he came closer to the town square; the amount of enemies increased with each advance he made in the dense city landscape. An infected area was always ruled by something, a creature, far superior to the drivel running rampant in the streets; these monsters were at the heart of the chaos, feeding on the despair and death which surrounded them. He was getting close.
As he entered the open space in the heart of the city the air quickly became heavy with the stench of corruption and disease; the Whisper was louder than ever and it was urging him.
You've come! A Hunter has come to me.
He now saw the enemy. It turned around and bowed to him. He was facing another Hunter but this one was different; the hood of her cape was pulled forward so her face could not be seen. Her gloves were too thin to fit normal hands and the stench of rot hang around her. He saw that her clothes were dripping with blood; there were no dead bodies around. When she bowed he could hear a sickening wet noise coming from her body and her joints were creaking and snapping in unnatural ways making her movements stiff and puppet-like.
He did not return the gesture, staring at her intently. The Whisper was at its height, the Bell's peal thundering in his ears, reverberating through his entire body.
As they stared at each other the female cocked her head slightly, obviously expecting something from the man. He grabbed his blade, tightly, and kept staring at her; she made no move to start the fight.
I'm not your enemy, Hunter.
The Whisper had taken on a note like metal grinding against metal; it was still low, barely audible, but it was there. Again, the figure bowed and looked at him with anticipation. He still did not return it. Then she took out her weapon: it looked like a giant meat cleaver at the end of a staff. The blade was dripping with blood, as well.
He blinked and the blood was gone; in front of him stood another Hunter, her body no different from his own. Her movements were smooth and trained and her face was clearly visible. He blinked again and she was gone; the monster stood in front of him, once more. He blinked a few times but the vision did not return.
I'm no different from you.
He hardened his resolve and took an attack stance, ready to start the battle. Yet, the figure seemed hesitant to do the same. The second she was ready he moved to strike.
She blocked his attack with the staff and deflected his blade before following the move with the cleaver. He jumped back and saw it swing down to the ground, where he had stood a moment earlier; he used the chance to move in, before she managed to lift her weapon again and thrust his cane forward but her weapon still had momentum and she slammed her staff against it, knocking it off course.
They both whirled away from each other and stood still for a moment; the stuttering in her mobility made her difficult to read. It seemed as if her body moved too fast for him to follow it, completely. Then she charged and he sidestepped the cleaver, just to be met with the staff as it impacted on his chest, sending him staggering backwards. She did not hesitate to follow up and he jumped over the blade as it swiped over the ground where his legs had been, a second ago. He rolled away from the attacker and quickly got back on his feet.
She had not stopped her assault and he quickly jumped out of the way of her weapon. He realized, too late, that she had struck with the staff. He moved but was too slow to completely dodge the incoming cleaver; it hit his leg, digging in until he could feel it scrape against the femur; he screamed out in agony. As his opponent wrenched the blade free, he stumbled back and hit the ground, dragging himself as far away from her as he could manage. The wound was bleeding, profusely, though not enough to assume the artery had taken damage.
He saw the monster advancing on him, calmly, and pushed himself up, making sure he put no weight on the injured leg. She stopped and waited for him to take his attack stance. He held his blade out, in front of him, waiting for her to make the move. He was quickly running out of time to finish this; even if he defeated her, the smell of his blood would no doubt attract the lower creatures roaming around.
The infernal Bell seemed to inflame the pain he felt with each toll. He tried to ignore it as he gathered himself for another attack.
The monster ran at him, swinging the cleaver; this time he took notice of both the blade and the staff and managed to avoid both, though it forced him to put some weight on his other leg. He ducked under the weapon and thrust his blade into the side of his enemy. She cried out. Her voice was too high-pitched, it hurt his ears as it scaled several notes above that of a human. She recoiled from him, immediately pressing a hand against her side.
He took advantage of her shock and attacked again, forcing himself to ignore the pain of his leg; she only barely managed to deflect his attack and he charged again, knocking the cleaver out of his way and slashing his cane across her throat. He felt her flesh give way to the steel and saw the blood gush out. She took a few steps back. There was no scream, this time, only a hushed choking sound as she collapsed on the ground in front of him.
He sheathed his weapon and limped over to her body to look down at it. There was no hood, anymore. He saw a face he had glimpsed, earlier, staring at nothing with her mouth agape. The gloves were no longer covering skeleton hands but human hands. He kept staring at the woman, not fully comprehending what he was seeing. He realized that the Whisper had not ceased with her death. It had gotten louder, to the point where it seemed to be roaring in his ears.
The Bell tolled and the Hunter screamed out as a sharp pain ran through him. He buckled to his knees, holding his head, trying to keep it from splitting open.
You're mine, Hunter!
He heard the words clearly as the Whisper turned into something like laughter. A quiet, ghostly laughter. Another peal sounded, sending another wave of pain through him.
I'm inside you!
He felt the rot and corruption spread through his body as he tried to understand what was happening. The Bell tolled again and he covered his ears, hoping to quell the sound and the agony it brought.
I've always been inside you!
He tore off his gloves and dug his nails into his head, drawing blood as he tore his skin. Another toll of the Bell.
It's too late, Hunter. Look to the east!
He did and saw the sky had brightened. The dawn was coming. The monsters would soon retreat to where they had come from and the sick would find a dark corner to hide from the sun. The citizens would be safe. The next toll seemed to sear across his mind, taking his breath away.
But you won't, the Whisper insisted.
He looked at the body, next to him, before crumpling on the ground as the Bell's peal crashed against him.
Just another Hunter. A Hunter you killed.
He was not sure what to believe, anymore. He needed the Whisper gone, he needed silence to think. This time, he screamed as the Bell rang, again.
There's no more silence, Hunter.
He felt something pull at his body, pulling him against the ground; he tried to rise but the force of whatever held him kept him from moving. Then the ground started cracking around him. He felt the tremors as the stones beneath him shattered and he was pulled downward. The shard dug into his flesh as he was pressed against the hard surface. He tried to struggle but could not keep it up as another toll of the Bell exploded in his ears. He screamed and covered them as he saw cobblestones drop down, into blackness around him; he was laying on a portal. He heard the howls and screams of other creatures dragged down through the entrances to whatever hell they had come from; but he was not one of them!
Oh, but you are.
But he was. He remembered killing that woman and the Hunter, letting the hounds get that old man; as the Bell rang again he open his mouth and laughed. It was a mad, shrill laughter, shrieking through the night air. He knew where he was going and it filled him with dread, yet he could not stop laughing.
The last of the ground beneath him gave way and he fell, looking as the portal immediately started closing again. He turned his sight downward into the darkness; it was not cold here but also not warm. The air was disgusting, clammy and heavy. Everything was death and despair down here. It seeped through his armor and into his bones with every peal of the Bell.
He felt something pull at his wounded leg and looked up to see his foot caught in the closing portal. As the pull increased he could feel the muscles in his leg protest as he was stretched beyond the ability of his body. He cried out and clawed it his leg, desperate to get free before it was torn off. He pulled out his blade and started to slash at his ankle, fighting against the pull and the pain. He almost felt relief when he finally saw the cane slice through the last tendons and he was pulled away from his foot, down through the darkness, surrounded by the ever present toll of the Bell.