2 Terrors of the River

Template of the Rephaim

Story Parts:

Danubian Principality of Moldavia,
September, 1859

Morning. The next port was small. It dated back to an ancient time when ships were the principal mode of transport and commerce among the cities bordering the shores of the Black Sea. In this age of trains it was rarely ever used by commercial ships. Yet, it was the appointed place for Ossipov’s relatives to come aboard. The Russians made arrangements there to send their cousin’s body back home. If they had any idea who would have wanted to murder him, they kept it to themselves.

There were others there also waiting. Not gypsies with dead cattle like at the previous port, but just as desperate. Their hope of finding a doctor on board had been fulfilled.

Between De Soray’s understanding of Turkish and the Russians’ interpretation of the more obscure bits of the farmer’s dialect they were able to make sense of the locals’ words. The captain agreed to delay his itinerary by one day. While the constable made certain that none of the passengers wandered too far from the port, Santiago, Dr. Vedeen, and two of her aides accompanied the Romanian farmers back to their village, twenty kilometers inland.

The sick were in a worse state than they had understood: two were babbling incoherently, their swollen tongues making their random utterings practically unintelligible. One was catatonic. One was deaf, both eardrums punctured as if by an explosion. “Epileptic seizures,” Dr. Vedeen muttered the only rational explanation, “violent by the damage to their tongues and their joints. But how? All at the same time?”

“At least they have all their blood.” De Soray’s whisper did not go unnoticed. The young farmer’s wife, who had been serving as interpreter, blanched. In a moment they were being led to a field about a kilometer north of the village, to witness a pile of assorted burnt carcasses. The mutilation of cows, reported by the gypsies at the previous port, had not been an isolated incident. Whoever had been responsible had been practicing in this village on dogs and sheep. The sick men had gone to that field two nights earlier to burn the bodies of the dead animals.

There was no explanation the doctor could offer and nothing much they could do. Dr. Vedeen did her best to treat the physical injuries of the men. She left a bottle of opiate derivative with the farmer’s wife with strict instructions on a graded dosage, in hopes that the forced stupor would bring them back slowly from whatever nightmare they had shared. And then they set back for the ship.

Their arrival at port by twilight was unexpectedly aided by the light of fires at the water’s edge, sooty fires that filled the air with a smell like camphor. As they approached they realized the fires were torches mounted high on posts at the bows and sterns of three dinghies that were tethered by hooks and ropes to the ship.

“Pirates?” The incredulity in Dr. Vedeen’s voice turned into anger and horror as a man slipped out of the shadows of the trees and herded them at rifle point toward the rest of the passengers. There, two men, waving single shot rifles, kept them all huddled together in front of the port office while half a dozen others raided the ship. “No you can’t take those!” Dr. Vedeen’s scream snapped Santiago’s eyes to the crates being lifted out of the hold. “It’s medicine, hospital equipment.” Two other passengers tried to pull her back, to quiet her. But she had already drawn the attention of the nearest pirate. He approached. She shook off the hands holding her back and stepped up to meet him. “What good is that to you?” She pleaded and the man’s face seemed to relax for a moment. For that moment she hoped, and then his face hardened again as his eyes caught the sparkle of diamond and gold hanging from her neck.

With a casual sweep he snatched it off her neck. Her hands reached for his hand. But another hand got there first. It locked itself around the pirate’s fist and jerked it down in a direction it was never meant to bend. The snapping of bone was drowned by the man’s scream. Santiago’s other hand caught the man’s falling rifle in midair, and, before the other pirate had a chance to lift his weapon to aim, the Spaniard had already fired. That man glanced down at the burst of red in the middle of his chest in disbelief before collapsing.

“British issue,” Santiago noted satisfied, “accurate to two-hundred yards.” He had the first pirate on the ground, his neck pinned under his knee, barely able to breathe. The Spaniard was searching the man’s pockets for another round before the others had a chance to retaliate. But there was no retaliation. The other pirates jumped down to their boats, unfastened the hooks and pushed off the port.

The constable ran to pick up the dead man’s gun while Santiago De Soray retrieved the doctor’s pendant from the ground. There were tears in Dr. Vedeen’s eyes as she received it into cupped hands. She stepped back, holding it close, her eyes alternately glancing from the diamond to the Spaniard to the disappearing light of the pirates’ fires.

They dragged the pirate into the port office. The man offered little resistance. The sight of his accomplices vanishing into the twilight was rapidly filling him with a manic fear that made interrogating him nearly impossible. All they could ascertain was that he was a relative of one of the others and had recently joined their ranks. Of whom they sold their wares to he had no knowledge. And he would never give away their lair; a compact of death clearly sealed his lips on that account. But it wasn’t that deadly allegiance that made him tremble so. It was the darkening of the sky.

He kept glancing at the windows in between broken replies and curses. By the time the lights inside that office outshone the outside world he was visibly shaking. He demanded, he begged, he threatened. He offered to confess to anything, give anything to be taken away from that river. The constable’s only option was to take him on the ship to the next port where they could summon the authorities.

Passengers and crew returned to the ship to take stock of the loss and the damage. Most were thankful to be alive. Brighton and the Russians rushed to their cabins. Dr. Vedeen stayed outside on that gravelly shore under the hesitating sparkle of the first stars. “There may be something left in your cabin.” The Spaniard nodded toward the ship.

“They took all that mattered,” she replied hollowly.

“There is a telegraph station at the next port. Our constable is the region’s new chief law enforcement officer; surely he will have authority to expedite requests.”

“It took over six months to collect all that equipment, all the medicines, from every hospital that my family’s influence could garner. It took almost as long to schedule transport all the way to Zimbabwe.” She fingered the diamond held safely inside her hand purse. She would almost give it in exchange for the crates.

“I will be glad to assist… in any way. Money is –”

“Money can’t buy time!” The anger in her eyes took him aback, and then it spilled out in a single burst of tears. She turned her face, ashamed at herself, at letting the anger lash out against this gentleman. “I, I am sorry, Signor.” Two more angry tears flowed at the closing of her eyes. “I wanted so much to set things right.”

Santiago again surprised himself by probing, intruding into someone else’s life. He never did that. He could never reciprocate such confidence. Yet, the fire of those emeralds burnt brighter as they glistened with tears. The passion for her mission aroused strange feelings within him. He had heard of this Doctor Livingstone she spoke of, his letters were the talk of England and Europe. The courage with which he defied the worldwide slave trade had all the hallmarks of the spark that ignites great revolutions. But could this century survive such a revolution?

She went on with her story. The Dutch slave traders, Livingstone’s archenemies, having missed their chance to kill him did something even worse. They followed him. And calling themselves the sons of Doctor Livingstone they harvested every unsuspecting tribe for their inhuman trade.

No one had the right to take upon herself the guilt of her race, to single-handedly try to set things right. But that was her goal, to bring Dr. Livingstone the supplies and support that he desperately needed, to stay and help him, to make amends for the treachery of her own people. Santiago knew there was no point in attempting to change the doctor’s mind. He had tracked a single man once through the Black Forest. He could find those three smoking pirate boats blindfolded. So he convinced her to continue on the ship to the next port and wait for him to meet them there. With luck he would find the thieves’ lair and bring the local authorities by morning.

*

He followed the trail of the boats up a nearby river to within half a kilometer of a castle, and then he became the hunted. The “guards” on the wall stirred to life as soon as he had stepped out onto the clearing. He had been careless, assumed they were stone gargoyles, until they reacted to him by moving sideways across the top of that wall, bobbing with an inhuman gait. From that distance their silhouettes against the bright grayness of the sky gave them the appearance of giants, or the torsos of giants with enormous heads and narrow shoulders.

Santiago started for the cover of the forest again, in vain. They decided to come down after him, down along the side of the castle, down head first, crawling on all fours over the stone wall. Their dark long coats, also defying gravity, hugged tightly their slender bodies. He ran.

His hunters were carelessly noisy. Snapping branches and rustling leaves kept Santiago ahead of them, but only barely. They neither carried lamps nor torches and yet they were able to track every turn he made in the woods, almost as if they could see his footprints in the dark. Returning to the river finally threw them off the trail. He swam upstream and found the branch of the river that split off to the west, and he let its waters carry him back towards the sea. It took him to the next port and the ship, and a dockyard full of bloodless corpses.

The only living thing left on board was the Arabian mare in its travel stable. Santiago found the bodies of its owners in the corridor outside the cargo hold. The white horse, still tied to its post, was covered with a frothy sweat as if it had galloped for hours. It suddenly reared itself up on its hind legs and neighed wildly, and that reaction saved Santiago’s life.

He turned, and the thing’s first thrust missed him by a foot. It, whatever it was, was larger than a full grown mastiff. And it was angry. Obviously injured by the horse in a previous attack, it dragged one of its front legs under itself like a broken marionette’s limb. But the other three legs, black, spindly, covered in bristles, were more than enough. They slid across that wooden floor with the speed of striking cobras, rotating the creature in noiseless jerks: right and left, back and forth as it measured its choices. Somewhere inside that bulbous head a decision was made. And it started shivering furiously.

The blast of sound it emitted felt like an explosion, numbing Santiago’s ears instantly. And yet, the infernal droning kept grinding into his being, eroding reality away. Santiago found himself running inside a nightmare of blazing color. With every burst of sound the colors burned brighter, and his knees started to buckle. He made it off the ship and into the dock master’s office. But inside that cacophony of color and noise, doors had no meaning, walls did not exist; there was nothing he could use to shut it out, and the thing was before him again, ready to strike.

Within the madness it was almost impossible to think. Yet somewhere in the race he had brushed against the glass-sharp tip of that hideous snout and he knew its purpose; he knew it was seeking his heart. Against a field of dripping violet and roiling yellow waves he saw it raise itself onto its rear legs; oily black skin unfolded like burnt leather as the hinged joints beneath shifted the monster upright.

Somehow a voice ripped itself away from a distant memory and came to the surface. “Reduce the problem to one already solved!” A German mathematician had taught Santiago that maxim long ago. The creature’s head retracted slightly, tilting forward the twin iridescent bowl-sized domes that framed its head, until all its eyes focused on the target. The voice shouted its command once again. And Santiago complied. He thrust himself upon that saber-long snout.

It missed heart and artery. If there was pain, it was lost in the echoes of the voice still screaming inside his mind. The sickening sensation of intrusion reduced time to a dribble. Nausea backed up at his throat, more at the feeling of a barbed pipe sliding back through his viscera than at the grotesque sight before him. The thing was surprised, like the Frenchman from the tavern.

“Reduce the problem to one already solved!” The scream came again. This time it was his own voice commanding himself to act. The thing sucked, and the taste of air put a momentary stop to its incessant shiver. Santiago De Soray had no knife this time. He stiffened the fingers of both hands and rammed them sideways into the glassy domes before him. They shattered like crystal but echoed like snapping wood. The incongruity of the scene was heightened by the feeling of his hands brushing past each other, somewhere inside the creature’s head. That sensation almost pushed him over the edge of insanity. But it worked. The thing shivered no more.

He did not remember feeling the blade on the way out in that London alley. There was a memory of him gazing at his own blood on it, as it reflected red lamplight back at him from half its length. He did not remember drawing it out this time either. But the thing was now at his feet, still and silent; and Santiago still stood, bleeding freely from belly and back.

With the silence came the halting return of the rest of his mind. The blazing colors faded and, slowly, memories fell back into place, back into logical order. The mathematical maxim that had saved his life vanished into the recesses of school memories from whence it had come. The Frenchman was nine months dead again, in a London grave.

Santiago regained control of his senses. He was in the dock master’s office. It was still night outside, and he was still bleeding. But the flow was finally thickening. He had to stop it and hope he would not hemorrhage inside.

He was alive, not like the rest of the bloodless corpses he found upon his arrival. Why? He pushed deliberately against the last vestiges of haze that still lingered over his thoughts like a nightmare that refuses to end. He looked down at his hands. The yellowish muck covering his forearms almost to the elbow and the pain across his chest proved to him that this was no nightmare. He had indeed returned to the ship. And they were all dead. That thought brought her to mind. No, not all.

She was not among the dead; neither were the Russians or Brighton. A long bandage fashioned out of his shirt, wrapped tightly across his midriff, stopped the flow of blood. Had it been any other place, any other time, he would have stopped to examine the carapaced abomination at his feet, but there was no time. He stepped over it and walked over to the telegraphist’s desk. His body was toppled over the back of his chair. By now Santiago had gotten used to the sight of paste-white skin, frozen into a contortion of horror. No wonder the pirate with the broken hand had been terrified of the night. They knew. Yet, if they did, why did they risk these waters? Perhaps the camphorated smoke afforded a measure of protection.

The log book’s last entry, the last incoming message, gave the answer he sought. The sender called himself ‘the master of the castle’ and he claimed to have redeemed from disreputable traders a large supply of medical equipment. He requested that Brighton bring the rightful owner, to return it. “My carriage will come.” That was the last line.

They had left before the carnage. That explained the lights Santiago thought he saw gliding along a road far away in the darkness as he was fleeing from the castle. Moving away from those lights towards the river had been the only way to escape his pursuers.

But now, he had to return to the castle.

[Template of the Rephaim appears in the Crossover Alliance’s Second Anthology. If you like this story, you may want to read the Anthology for stories by other authors too.]

Template of the Rephaim

Story Parts:

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