CREATURE FROM THE BLACK CASTLE
Count Karl von Bruno stood on a half-rotted pier and shouted orders to the shirtless men loading the barque. He had hired the ship to take him back to Europe. The fresh eyepatch covering the throbbing ruin of his right eye itched. The more agitated he became, the harder his pulse hammered inside the bloody socket. Sweat trickled down his forehead and cheeks.
Count Karl von Bruno hated Africa, hated it with a venomous passion.
Not long ago the simple natives had worshipped him as a god. He dreamed of building a veritable empire in the steaming jungles. Then the Englishmen came, Burton, Sterling, and Brown, and ruined all his plans. Defeated in battle, his former worshippers turned on him for the simple sin of being mortal. Now he was beaten and bloody and running for home like a scalded dog with his tail between his legs.
“Careful with that! If you drop that crate I will whip you until your bones show through the stripes!”
The African worker didn’t understand a word of von Bruno’s German but the rage in his voice needed no translation.
Von Bruno stopped the clumsy oaf and checked the contents of the crate. Inside, nestled in mats of straw, were a dozen crocodile eggs. The Count smiled. He had ten crates full of live crocodile eggs that he was taking back with him. He hoped that enough would survive the trip and hatch to give him breedable stocks of the reptiles. He had plans for the vicious meat-eating reptiles. Grand plans!
Assured that the eggs in the crate had not been broken by the jostling they received, he gestured for the worker to carry them aboard.
So focused was he on checking the eggs, that he didn’t hear the approaching footsteps until they were practically upon him. When he did hear them, he pulled a long knife from his belt and spun around, ready to fight for his life. He had many enemies in Africa.
Instead of a would-be assassin, he found himself staring at a sweaty, bearded Portuguese merchant in clothes that were once fine but now were stained and threadbare, and far too heavy to wear under the blazing African sun.
“A thousand pardons, your Excellency! I did not mean to startle you.” The man spoke German with an atrocious Iberian accent that rendered his speech almost incomprehensible.
“Who the Devil are you?” Snarled von Bruno, jabbing his knife at the man’s face.
“My name, it is not important. I am a humble merchant with an offer to make.”
“I’m not interested.” Karl had no idea what the man might be peddling, but he was sure he wanted nothing such a disreputable, greasy Portuguese had to offer.
The man flinched, but he also smiled slyly.
“Then it is not true? That his Excellency has an interest in the reptiles? He does not look for the things that swim and bite and crawl?”
Karl snorted, but relaxed slightly.
“I already have all the crocodile eggs I need. You’re too late.”
The man smiled a very wicked, very sly smile.
“What I have, Senhor, it is not a crocodile. It is not anything that his Excellency has ever seen before.”
Despite himself, Karl was intrigued.
“I have such a thing. It is on my boat. It is a thing that was caught in a net, in the river, deep in the jungles beyond the colonies of Brazil. It is a thing such as no man has ever seen before. No sane man, that is.”
Karl picked his way across the filthy deck of the merchant’s ship. There was an overpowering stench, a reptilian musk, the smell of stagnant water turned foul. A hint of the tang of spilled blood, old but still there, like a bitter aftertaste on the tongue. Despite himself, Karl was beginning to feel excited.
The merchant barked orders at a couple of his men, wretched specimens, nearly naked with matted hair, tangled beards, and arms covered with dark blue tattoos, crudely drawn. They lifted a heavy oak bar from a hatch set in the deck, then carefully opened it up. A powerful gust of the musk and foul water smell blossomed out of the open hatch.
Karl covered his mouth and nose with a perfumed cloth.
“Come here. Look! See for yourself that I say is truth.”
Karl leaned over the open hatch and looked down.
There was a metal tank with riveted sides in the hold below. Water sloshed fitfully inside it. Iron bars covered the top of the tank, secured with thick chains. The fetid water roiled, swirled. Something was in the water, something that was growing angry and starting to thrash.
Suddenly the occupant of the tank rose to the surface, threw itself against the iron bars hard enough to rattle the chains. Whatever it was, it had thick rubbery scales. Gills like cloth frill around its neck gaped and puckered. The thing’s bald green head rolled to one side, then it turned its face up to the light. Its wide piscine mouth gasped. It lifted its legs--no not legs—but arms, like a man’s, and clutched the bars with two huge webbed hands, wide as mitts, with long fingers that ended in vicious curved claws.
But the most astounding thing about it was its eyes. Dull, filmy, and black, completely fishlike, but there was something in them, a glint, a cunning gleam that said the thing watched him with deliberation, as a man would.
“What is that thing?” Whispered the Count.
“The Devil, maybe.” The merchant shrugged. “Something older, maybe. But perhaps it is something that would be worth a fortune, to the right kind of man, eh?”
Karl nodded slowly.
“I think you are right.”
The thing in the water made a rasping, hissing sound, then sunk out of sight.
“I must have it. I will send my man, Gargon, with payment, to arrange delivery. Tonight.”
The merchant grinned, eyes squinted half shut. He nodded vigorously.
“I will be ready for him, then. Just after the nightfall?”
Karl nodded, fascinated by the ripples in the dark water.
Oh, he thought to himself, I don’t think you will be quite ready enough. Not for Gargon.
Later that night, the Portuguese merchant dropped over the side of his ship, neck broken, eyes wide with surprise. He slid into the water with barely a sound. His men joined him shortly thereafter, though they actually managed to put up a brief, desperate fight before meeting their ends. The huge, hulking shape of Gargon appeared above the deck. He made a short sharp whistle and the Count’s men joined him. In the darkness, under a harsh white moon, they set to work.
The Black Castle was a grim edifice with a reputation as dark as its black granite walls. It crouched atop a rocky hill, surrounded by gnarled trees, looming over the surrounding forests in a profoundly predatory fashion. The shadow it cast, across the countryside and men’s hearts, was long and cold. It had been the seat of power for the von Bruno family since the bloody days of the Middle Ages and was the primary residence of the current Count von Bruno.
The walls of the Black Castle contained many secrets. One of those was the fact that the fortification had been constructed over the ruins of what had once been ancient baths. A network of hot springs, aqueducts, and bathing chambers were hidden in caves beneath the crest of the hill. The springs provided the masters of the Black Castle with both a secure water supply and a convenient way to heat the castle in winter. Iron grates opened in the ceilings above the hot pools and the warm air was carried throughout the castle by a network of air-shafts and hidden passages. The pools under the castle used to be boiling hot, but had cooled slowly over the centuries. By the 18th Century, the time of Karl von Bruno, the water was still warm as milk fresh from the cow, more than warm enough for the purposes the Count had in mind. It was perfect for growing crocodiles in the otherwise chilly Austrian clime.
The crocodiles were placed in one flooded pit near the torture chamber and dungeons. The Devil was given another larger grotto nearby.
The Creature was sullen, being only rarely seen. Most of the time it lurked in the unplumbed bottom of its pools. It rose to the surface only to feed. Most of the time it lived in total darkness. The only time it saw light was when Karl, Gargon, and sometimes the Count’s fiancé Lenora entered the room above its pit, carrying torches and lanterns to light their way. It spent many hours crouched in the murky blackness staring upwards, waiting for the flickering lights. When it saw them, it would leap to the surface, pushing off the bottom with its powerful legs and thrashing until it broke the surface, where it would bob with only its eyes above the water.
Every time it did so the Count clapped and Gargon shouted wordlessly and the Lady Lenora laughed. At first they tossed cold dead fish at it and half-spoiled chunks of mutton. Eventually they learned that it preferred its food alive. Live fish and buckets of wiggling eels were tossed to it. Sometimes they tossed squawking chickens or small rodents into the water, whooping with excitement when these were scooped up and dragged under. Occasionally a crocodile was thrown in, once the reptiles had grown big enough to be proper sport. For amusement they watched the swirling, vicious death battles. Sometimes a goat was thrown in. Once, as an experiment, a highwayman captured outside the castle, practicing his trade on the Count’s roads without giving von Bruno his proper share of the spoils, was dragged screaming into the water. The results were so dramatic that the Count was inspired to create even more elaborate diversions.
The Creature was taught to fight for its food. Every feeding was accompanied by whipping and gaffe-prodding by Gargon. In time, simply lighting the torches that illuminated its black pit was enough to bring the Creature to the surface, clawing and thrashing with murderous rage.
The Lady Lenora, Count von Bruno’s betrothed, took a particular interest in the Creature. Lenora was a thin, pale young woman with waist-length blonde hair and thick black eyebrows. She was afflicted with odd seizures, during which she experienced ecstasies of a strangely rapturous nature, and possessed an intricately cruel sense of humor. Dropping a live goat into the Creature’s pit to see if it would be killed by the Creature or drown first, was her idea. Von Bruno found her endlessly amusing and humored her every whim. They both ignored her father’s sputtering outrage at her long tenure as the Count’s “guest,” prior to any formal wedding ceremony. Lady Lenora adored two things most in life, the taste of blood smeared across her lips, and painting. She was a very accomplished artist and even the Bishop in nearby Karlstadt had to acknowledge that her technique was little short of miraculous, though he found her choice of subject to be “disturbing.” Her depiction of the martyrs being ripped apart by wild animals in the Roman arenas were a little savage, a little too detailed for the Bishop’s tastes.
Lenora was completely enraptured with the scaly green “Devil” in Karl’s pit. The first time she laid eyes on it she collapsed in a shivering, moaning fit that almost saw her writhing her way over the edge of the pit. When she recovered, she stretched and yawned happily, oblivious to her half shed clothing.
“I must paint him.” She whispered to Karl, who acquiesced with an indifferent nod.
And so the Lady came to spend many restless nights sitting at an easel under a blazing chandelier, hauled down to the pit and swung out over it to provide adequate lighting for her work.
The Creature, for its part, climbed out of the water and crouched on slime-covered rocks while she worked. It sat there, staring up at her with its unfathomable black fishy eyes. Its mouth fell open and snapped shut as it gasped at the air. As long as she sat at her easel, it would crouch and stare up at her. Sometimes she sang to it, Bavarian lullabies.
It made no sounds, but occasionally would paw the rocks with its claws, scratching long light furrows in the black stone. It would raise its head as if it was about to say something. Often it would dive into the dark water instead, only to climb back out after some frenzied corkscrew swimming, thrashing bubble-wreathed circles in the dark water.
Samuel Sterling stumbled down the endless staircase, blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. The barrel of a loaded musket was pressed against the back of his neck. He was surrounded by harsh laughter and rude taunts in German. Sterling cursed the foolish incaution that led him and his companion, Adam Brown, to accept an invitation to a hunting holiday in the Black Forest, offered by an unnamed nobleman with “a taste for sport” and an interest in tales of the Englishmen’s adventures in Africa. That nobleman turned out to be Count Karl von Bruno, who harbored a seething hatred toward himself, Adam Brown, and their absent friend, luckily still in Africa, Sir Ronald Burton, for thwarting the Count’s African schemes. The hunting holiday proved to be authentic enough, only Sterling and Brown had been invited to be the prey, not hunters. They had been chased through snow-dusted forest by horsemen, lashed with whips until they dropped from exhaustion.
Sweat ran down Sterling’s brow. The air was growing hot and damp, despite the early snow outside. Half delirious from fatigue, pain, and hunger, Sterling wondered if von Bruno was going to just march him all the way straight down to Hell without bothering to kill him first. He was more right than he suspected.
Finally he stumbled out onto flat cobblestones and was yanked to a halt. A rough hand tore the blindfold from his face. He blinked at the glare from dozens of candles blazing around and above him. The first thing he saw, as his eyes adjusted to the light, was a thin, pale woman in a flowing white dress who waved a paint brush in his direction.
“Hello, Sir. And good day to you.” She said. Her eyes wandered dreamily in his direction but never quite focused on him. “Such a shame you’re going to die now.”
She smiled and turned back to her canvas.
Samuel Sterling felt an ice-water chill spill down his spine.
The men around him chuckled.
“Now, now, Dear.” Chided von Bruno. “We mustn’t spoil the surprise for Mr. Sterling.”
The woman giggled and shrugged.
“I have decided to give Mr. Sterling a sporting chance to save his own life.” Declared von Bruno.
The men around him jeered and protested.
Von Bruno held up his hands for silence and the grumbling died down.
He pointed toward a yawning black pit and a rickety bridge of rope and wooden planks stretched across it.
“On the other side of that bridge, Sterling, is a door that leads outside the castle. All you have to do is cross the bridge, open the door, and you may walk to freedom. I promise that there will be no pursuit. What do you think of that, eh?”
“I think there’s likely to be more to it than that.” Spat Sterling.
Von Bruno laughed.
“Of course there is!”
A coarse bellow, part rasping shout and part growl, came from the other side. Gargon stepped out of the darkness and stood by the far end of the bridge. The huge brute flexed his shoulders and raised great, calloused fists toward Sterling. His face contorted in a bestial snarl.
One of von Bruno’s men cut the ropes binding Sterling’s hands, but the musket jammed harder against his neck, to discourage any sudden action.
“So it’s me, half-starved, exhausted, and bleeding, barehanded against that brute? Hardly sporting if you ask me, Count.”
“You know, you’re right.” Agreed von Bruno amiably. “We will have to even the odds, a little.”
He pulled a long hunting knife and handed it to Sterling with exaggerated courtesy.
Sterling briefly considered lunging at von Bruno with his own knife, but the musket man sensed his thoughts and rammed the muzzle of the gun against his skull.
The Count gestured toward the bridge across the pit and smiled. The musket man began shoving him forward.
Gingerly, Sterling stepped out onto the first wooden plank. The whole bridge swayed and creaked. He was forced to grab the rope railing for support. It nearly gave beneath his weight. A plank fell away, tumbling through darkness to splash in water below.
Something moved in the water. Looking down Sterling could barely make out something swimming I agitated circles beneath the orange reflections of the Count’s torches. Whatever it was, it looked almost like a man, but had thick scales banded around its body. The head turned to look upward toward him. The face was inhuman.
“What the Devil is that?” The Englishman screamed.
“With luck and the grace of God, you may never need to find out!” Shouted the Count. His men jeered and laughed.
Sweating profusely in the steam rising from the pit, Samuel Sterling began inching his way across the bridge. The structure swayed with each movement, quivered at every tensing of his grip. Every plank creaked and groaned beneath his feet. Halfway across, Gargon leaned out, took hold of the ropes, and began to shake and twist them with all his might.
Sterling cursed and grabbed hold for dear life. The bridge twisted and swung. Boards dropped off to splash below. The plank beneath his foot cracked apart. Sterling grabbed a rope with one hand, flailing and kicking in mid-air.
Everyone laughed. Even the Lady Lenora, though she raised a hand to her mouth as if she’d just said something impolite at a dinner table.
The Creature below became fiercely agitated. It dove underwater, disappearing into the blackness, leaving only a ring of white bubbles on the surface.
A long quiet moment passed. Sterling swung by one hand over the water pit.
“Well. That’s disappointing!” Muttered the Count.
With no warning, the Creature surged up from the pit’s depths and launched itself into the air. It easily reached the level of the bridge, which drooped down from the sides of the pit. One slash with a razor-sharp claw and the bridge flew apart. Gargon was almost dragged in. The Englishman fell with a scream and hit the water. A great white splash rose all around him, like some flower blossoming out of the deep black water.
In an instant the Creature fell back into the water, kicked once, and closed to grapple with the Englishman. Sterling, to his credit, lunged into his attacker, stabbing furiously. The two combatants spun in the water, as Sterling fought fiercely for his life. Locked in combat, they sank beneath the water. The surface bubbled and surged with a bloody red foam boiling across it. Then all subsided. In moments there were barely ripples moving on the still water.
“Well. That was dramatic, but over a little too quickly, I think. We will have to make sure Brown is given a more lengthy entertainment.”
The Count’s party loitered at the edge of the pit for another hour, but no body floated to the surface and there was no sign of the Creature.
Along with pits for crocodiles and devils, the hots springs beneath the castle fed a Roman-style bath, in a chamber deep under the main keep. No bare stone and mud here, the bath was a small but sumptuous room with tiled floors and marble steps leading down into the hot mineral water. Corrosion-spotted mirrors covered the walls and a concave mirror-dome filled the ceiling. The mirrors multiplied light from candles, as well as providing bathers ample opportunity to marvel at their own bodies. Count von Bruno rarely bothered with the baths, but his betrothed delighted in them. With clothes shed she swam like a long, lithe, white cave-fish in the underground pool. Her servant, Inga, stood patiently holding her dressing gown while Lenora floated cross-like on the dark waters.
“Look!” She shouted to Inga. On dripping hand pointed languidly at the mirrored ceiling. “It’s like I’m floating in the night sky and all the stars are too shy to come out and join me! Maybe they’re ashamed because they cannot compete with my magnificence?”
“No doubt that’s it, Mistress.” Inga replied.
Despite herself, she could not deny that there was something ethereal about Lenora’s beauty, something not quite of this world. With her long legs and halo of white-blonde hair, small breasts with nipples that were so pale that they looked like barely rose-tinted drops of white chocolate, her belly smooth and flat and not yet stretched out by even her first child, Inga had to admit that she was, in fact, magnificent. On anyone else Inga would call such beauty “angelic,” but there was little of the angels in her capricious mistress.
As she gazed at Lenora’s slender form, floating over the deepest, darkest corner of the pool, where the marble gave way to raw stone which in turn gave way to inky blackness, she saw something white and lumpy and shredded rising in the water below her. Murky, rising from the deepest corner, all she could make out was whiteness and a general shape.
“Mistress! Get out of the water! Get out of the water, now!”
Lenora pulled in and spun about in the water, anger flashing in her pale gray eyes.
“What are you bleating about?” She screeched at Inga, angry that her reverie was interrupted.
Speechless, Inga pointed at the reflection of the slowly rising shape in the mirror overhead.
Lenora barely cast a glimpse upward before the shape broke the surface practically right next to her.
Though bleached white by death and bloated from days underwater, Lady Lenora instantly recognized what was left of Samuel Sterling.
“Oh. Hello.” She said calmly.
The Englishman’s eyes and tongue were gone, leaving only black holes in the puffy, bloodless face. His skin had been razored by slashing claws until the strands floating around the corpse looked more like stringy hair. All of his clothes had been ripped from his body and various parts were missing.
“Get out of the water, Mistress! Oh dear God, get out of the water!” Sobbed Inga.
Lenora frowned, but began swimming toward the edge of the pool. In a moment her bare toes touched the marble steps.
“I don’t see what you’re so excited about.” She pouted at Inga. “It’s just a dead body.” It was as if she couldn’t understand why one would be upset about sharing a bath with a mere corpse.
Then a green clawed hand seized her calf.
“Oh!” She yipped, more surprised than anything.
Another hand grabbed her by the thigh, claws digging in, breaking the skin.
Both hands pulled her away from the marble steps, toward the deep water.
The hand on her calf let go and flattened across her belly.
A cold, rubbery body slid up against her back. She could feel a heart beating beneath the slabs of scale and muscle. It was slow, but powerful.
A claw grabbed her by the breast, squeezing hard, nails digging into the flesh. Rivulets of red spread through the water.
Now she tried to scream, but a huge webbed mitten of a hand closed over her mouth and nose.
For a second Lenora’s panic-filled eyes locked with Inga’s horrified ones, a flicker of despair flashed between them.
Then Lenora was yanked beneath the surface of the water.
Inga watched her ivory form dwindling into the dark. The shape beside her, dwarfing her, was gray-green and its black eyes stared at Inga from the reflection until both shapes were lost in the murk.
“Gargon, turn the wheel!”
At the Count’s barked order, Gargon grabbed the huge spoked iron wheel that controlled the water level beneath the castle. The corroded iron was rough and slick beneath his fingers. The wheel hadn’t been turned in decades. Gargon had doubts that even his prodigious strength could budge it now. For several long minutes he struggled against the metal. Legs braced, shoulder shoved in against the rim, Gargon’s face contorted with his effort.
Slowly, he began to win the battle. There was a terrible creak. Scales of rust flaked off the great wheel. There was a metallic screech, then a rumble. Finally, as Gargon grunted and heaved, the wheel began to turn. It screeched and rattled in protest, but after a few turns it began to rotate smoothly.
The waters in the pits and pools beneath the Black Castle were fed by hot springs deep beneath the lowest levels of the dungeons. Numerous grates and brick-lined tunnels connected the various pools, allowing the spring water to rise up to where it was needed. The great iron wheel in the guardroom controlled sluice gates downhill from the fortification. With those gates open, water gushed out in steaming streams and the water level fell below the tunnel works, draining them dry.
The water in the crocodile pit drained out, leaving only a thick slurry of mud for the reptiles to wallow in. The water level in the Creature’s pit fell steadily until an iron grate was revealed. The badly corroded metal bars of the grate, under water for a century or more, had been broken away, allowing access into the long, arch-roofed tunnel that fed spring water into the pit.
Sterling’s body was dragged out of the baths with a gaffe and tossed carelessly aside. The Count watched anxiously as the water in the pool flowed out, revealing one slick marble step at a time. Eventually the water sunk to the level of another iron grate. Those bars had been broken and bent outwards by something with incredible strength.
The Lady Lenora’s body was nowhere to be seen. Poles were jammed down into the deepest crevices to make sure she hadn’t become lodged in some out of the way cranny.
“The beast dragged her down and carried her off, into the tunnels.” Von Bruno said bitterly.
Fetch my musket and my sword. We are going after them.”
Lenora nearly drowned while the Creature was dragging her through black tunnels full of water. Just before blackness took her, she was shoved upward. Her face broke the surface of the water and she was able to suck in gasping breaths of stale, dank air. A wide clawed hand held her up, planted in the small of her back, until she recovered enough to float steadily without support. Then the hand was removed and she could feel a huge body swimming away beneath her. The surge of water displaced by its movement caused her to bob upwards and her nose scraped rough stones. There was only a couple of inches of clearance between the water level and the roof of the tunnel she was in.
Lenora gasped and cried. She probed the stone ceiling which was slippery with moss and slime. She screamed until her voice grew hoarse. Then, exhausted and hopeless, she floated in the dark, awaiting whatever fate lie in store for her.
After a timeless eternity of floating, gasping in the steadily worsening air, she felt a surge of water beneath her. A wide webbed claw rose up and clamped over her nose and mouth. She was dragged once more beneath the black water.
Carrying an oil lantern, the Count von Bruno, with a handful of his most trusted men, crawled into the ancient aqueduct tunnels. At first they had to crawl on hand and knees, backs still scraping against the slimy stones above. But after an indeterminate crawl, von Bruno stepped down into a much wider, taller tunnel. He raised his lantern above his head and could only just see the arched brick ceiling above him. Mud and muck were calf-deep in the bottom of the tunnel. Karl gritted his teeth and slogged ahead, glad that he was wearing his highest topped riding boots.
Lenora did pass out this time, succumbing to blackness after a long convulsing struggle. She was startled when she woke much later with a pounding headache and bruises inside her chest. She would have drowned if the Creature’s webbed hand, clamped tightly over her nose and mouth, hadn’t kept her from sucking water into her lungs. She was sliding along through deep, soft mud, fine like silt. It took her a few moments to realize that she was being dragged by her hair. She groaned and reached up with both hands grabbing hold of a thick, cold wrist. The Creature only wound its claws more tightly in her hair, firming its grip as it dragged her along.
In the pitch blackness she could hear it rasping and gasping ahead of her. There was a strange glottal popping after each gasp. After a moment she realized that it was air passing out through its open gill-slots. They were no longer in water. She wondered how long the Creature could continue to forge ahead, deprived of water to breathe in.
Karl von Bruno stood panting in the middle of an intersection of tunnels. They had passed through several lengths of tunnel, through natural cave pockets with steaming potholes of water, and found odd little rooms with brick walls and flat ceilings, some with barely discernible paintings on ancient plaster. Tritons and nymphs mostly, and Venus rising out of her clamshell. All just ghosts of the images they once were, barely stains on the water-soaked plaster. The Count had no idea which way to go in pursuit of the Creature. He dispatched men down each of the branching tunnels with orders to look for any sign of passage.
A lantern appeared in the left-hand passage, bouncing as his footman ran to give him a report.
“This way, Milord!” Panted the man, who was smeared from head to foot with gray mud. “There are footprints down this tunnel. Longer and wider than a man’s. Marks…where claws gouged the mud. A long groove. It was dragging something behind it.”
“Good work, Hans.” The Count nodded his approval and the footman beamed like a happy child.
“This way!” He shouted, voice echoing down the surrounding tunnels.
The Count’s men scurried back to join him and together they began to stalk down the left-hand passage. Muskets loaded and at the ready.
The Creature, chest heaving, gills fluttering like distressed mothwings, collapsed on a pile of moss-covered boulders. Lenora blinked, eyes burned by the sunshine pouring in through a heavy grate ahead of them. Cold air, fresh and crisp, gusted in through the opening. The water here was ankle deep, sluggishly flowing forward to spill out through the grate and down the hillside beyond. Lenora shivered. The water was hot, hotter than the water in the bath she was accustomed to. Steam rose from it. The hillside beyond the grate was obscured by a great cloud of fog. But the air from outside was icy and she was naked.
The Creature stared at her, its black fishy eyes unfathomable. Its mouth gaped and closed. It seemed too weak to rise from where it fell. Lenora sat, haunches in the hot water, arms crossed over her breasts, and waited. She was ready to watch the Creature die. Instead, it did something strange and deeply disturbing. It raised its razor-sharp claws to its head and sliced deeply into its own skin. It raked claws across the thick bands of scales covering its chest. When it was done doing that, it collapsed and closed its eyes.
The Count and his men stalked warily through the main drainage tunnel. They could feel the cold breeze of outside air blowing through the opened flood-gate. Steam poured off the hot water, which was ankle deep, filling the tunnel with a thick mist. Von Bruno did not want to be ambushed by his pet Devil in that fog, so he crept cautiously, just behind two of his footmen. Sunlight flickering through the swirling steam cast impossible shadows along the walls and ceilings. Some of them moved in distressing ways. Beads of sweat trickled down the Count’s forehead.
“I found it!” Shouted one of the footmen excitedly.
Karl waited for the shots, for screams. His own musket was raised and ready. He was puzzled when he heard neither musket fire nor sounds of struggle.
Hans came splashing back down the tunnel, musket lowered at his side.
“The carcass is just up ahead, Milord.” He said, heaving slightly. “It got as far as the outside grate but stopped there for some reason.”
“Didn’t like the cold, is my guess.” Mused von Bruno. “What about the Lady Lenora?”
“There are some footprints that may be hers, but no other sign of her.”
The Count hurried on ahead.
He joined his footmen, who were standing beside the remains of the Creature, jabbing it experimentally with their toes. The Creature lie on its back, flat and lumpy, half-draped across the rocks. There was no mistaking the thick green scales, or the pale belly. The thing’s claws still curled against the rocks.
I’ll have to take those as trophies, Karl thought to himself.
The body was thin, emaciated. It lie bonelessly sprawled over the rocks. Completely bloodless, having no doubt bled out during the long pursuit. The eye sockets were completely empty. Long rips were torn through its scales, as if it had been slashed repeatedly with a knife.
“Must have died of its wounds.” Karl said aloud. “The Englishman put-up more of a fight than anyone would have expected. Bravo for him!”
“What about Milady?” Asked Hans, poking the flaccid sack of skin with his musket.
Karl looked up at the grate that covered the mouth of the outflow gate. The thick iron bars were broken, rusted through long ago. The remaining stubs of bars looked like broken teeth in a stone mouth.
“She must have wandered outside and down the hill. Maybe she escaped and didn’t know the beast was dying. We better find her before she freezes to death. You men start searching outside the grate. Try to find which direction she went. I have a couple of matters to attend to, then I’ll change clothes and come around with the horses.”
The looks on the men’s faces eloquently expressed how they felt about venturing outside in their current attire, wet and muddy from hours spent crawling around in the half-flooded tunnels under the castle.
“Well, go on then!” The Count shouted, annoyed at their hesitation.
There was some grumbling, but the men ducked through the broken grate and started the search. They were shivering before they got ten paces out into the chilly air.
“Not you, Hans.” Karl said, catching the footman by the shoulder.
“You come with me. We’ll backtrack through the tunnels. I hope you remember the way we came.”
“Yes, Milord.” Hans replied quickly. “I marked the entire path so we wouldn’t get lost.”
“Good man!” Karl shivered slightly and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. “Let’s get out of this draft.”
They headed back into the hot, steamy tunnels.
“You’re a fool, von Bruno!”
The Count glared with his one good eye and took another long sip of brandy.
“That is a rather curious choice of greeting for someone in your position, Mr. Brown.”
Adam Brown was stretched out, shirtless, on a wooden rack. Gargon stood over him with a red-hot branding iron. The brute’s face was crinkled with glee as he waved the brand over Brown’s bare chest. There were several splotches of blackened skin, seeping red, where the brand had already been applied.
“It does seem a bit cheeky.” Agreed Count Steiken, one of von Bruno’s closest friends.
“Downright rude.” Chided Count von Melcher, another of von Bruno’s inner circle.
The two noblemen had only recently learned that von Bruno had captured Sterling and Brown and had ridden hard to reach the Black Castle before they missed all the fun. They were both a bit peeved that they had not been present for Sterling’s demise.
“Why, for the love of all that is holy, would you say such a thing, when by all rights you should be begging for mercy?”
Gargon applied the brand while Karl was talking. Brown’s scream nearly drowned out the question.
“He’s beginning to smell a bit like bacon, don’t you think?” Remarked Steiken with a smile.
“Beg…from you?” Brown gasped out. “Never!” And he spat on the Count’s boot for emphasis.
“We will see about that. In the meantime, I am still waiting to hear exactly why you think me a ‘fool.’”
Adam Brown coughed hard and nodded.
“You said that you found the body of this devil beast that carried your lady off. This Creature was bigger than Gargon here?”
The Count nodded.
“But the body was scrawny, emaciated, practically flat on the rocks. What happened to all that bulk? Did the thing’s meat just melt away? In a matter of hours?”
The Count shrugged, though Brown could see that he’d piqued the man’s interest.
“Were there any bones with this ‘carcass?” I mean, did you actually see any?”
Von Bruno shook his head again.
“No.” He said through pursed lips.
“Why, a snake like you, von Bruno, you should have guessed what must have happened. Reptiles shed their skins, don’t they? When they grow.”
The Count’s lone eye widened.
“The Devil is still alive! It just shed its skin and escaped through the open flood-gate.”
Brown nodded vigorously.
“And it still has your Lady, von Bruno. What do you suppose a great scaly brute like that wants with such a wee scrap of a girl?”
The Count didn’t answer him, but made ready to leave and join the pursuit, post haste.
Brown coughed again.
“You need me, Karl. You know you do. I’m the only one who can find her fast enough. You know that.”
There was a tense pause.
“Surely not!” Von Melcher blurted, guessing what the Count was contemplating.
“I’m a better tracker than any of you. Better than any of your hired huntsmen.”
Steiken and von Melcher watched Karl come to his decision.
“Adam Brown, detestable meddling fool that he is, is the best bush scout I’ve ever seen.” There was finality in the Count’s voice.
“Gargon, cut him loose. Doctor Meissner…”
Karl waited as his personal physician crept out of the shadows in the back of the room, where he had been watching the Englishman’s torture. He was under strict orders not to let Brown die, too quickly.
“Yes, Count?” Meissner’s voice was deep, velvety, always just a little insinuating.
“Patch him up the best that you can. He needs to be able to walk, and ride. We leave within the hour.”
The Doctor began to protest but the Count cut him off with a flat chop of his hand.
“Within the hour.”
Meissner watched as von Bruno left with his friends. Gargon sullenly began to cut Brown’s ropes. Leaning close to the Englishman, the Doctor whispered.
“Can you walk? Ride?”
“I’m going to have to.” Muttered Brown, who could barely sit up.
Meissner removed a glass jar of unguent from within his robe. He scooped some out and began to slather it on Brown’s wounds. It smelled of bitter mint and camphor. His fingers poked the charred, cracked flesh a little harder, rougher, than Brown expected, causing him to cry out.
Meissner looked up at him through bushy eyebrows. His teeth were bared in a fierce, predatory grin.
Adam Brown bit his lip and stifled his groans.
He had to do this. It was his only hope for escaping the Black Castle, alive.
Lenora watched in horror as the Creature began to strip off its own skin. The Creature clutched its face with both hands and pulled. The skin covering the head slid away. The thick rubbery scales were shed, revealing another fresh skin underneath. This second skin was smooth instead of scaly. It looked more like seal skin than the rough reptilian armor that had covered it. While the outer skin was an olive green, with a tan-colored lighter underbelly, the new skin was darker, more greenish-gray, and the underbelly was still lighter, appearing almost white. The frilly gills came off. Even the outer coating of the eyes peeled away.
Beneath the discarded lenses the Creature’s eyes were white with dark pupils. Those eyes stared back at Lenora and in them she could see the awareness of every torture, abuse, and deprivation the Devil had suffered in the Black Castle. Whatever the beast might have been in its natural environment, she could see that the thing standing in front of her now was mad, in every sense of the word.
Lenora fell into one of her seizures. Bright lights in colors never before seen by mortal eyes flashed through her vision. Orgasmic waves rippled through her body. The Creature came to her and lifted her in its arms. She rose, as if ascending to Heaven. She glided out of the darkness. Sunlight washed over her. She could see the expression on the sun’s face and the lewd coupling of the shapes in the clouds above her. She wanted to sing, but instead she moaned tunelessly and passed out.
The next time she woke, the thing was carrying her through a bank of rolling fog. Leafless, skeletal trees loomed up from all around and the ground underfoot was a mire of black mud. The mud squelched beneath each footstep of the Creature. It sank deep with its great weight, but its strength was such that it easily pulled free from even the deepest mud. The Creature walked as easily and naturally through the swamp as a man might going down a cobblestone road.
Suddenly there was a distant crack.
A bullet hit the Creature in the back of the shoulder and tore all the way through. Lenora was splattered with the thing’s blood. She was surprised that it wasn’t hot, just barely warm. She licked her lips. It tasted like normal blood, perhaps a bit saltier than usual. The iron tang of it on her tongue made her smile.
There was another crack followed by several popping sounds. Lead balls ripped through the air around them, sounding like sheets being torn. Men bellowed and charged. She could hear the wet squish-squish-squish of their approaching footsteps.
The Creature abruptly dropped her in the mud and turned to face its attackers.
The black mud was hot, heated by the outflow of hot spring water from under the castle. She spread full length and hugged the warmth with her whole body. Feeling began to return to limbs that had gone numb from the cold.
The Count’s men, shivering cold in wet clothes and tired from hours of slogging through the tunnels under the castle, hoped to overwhelm the much larger Creature with numbers, charging and tackling it as one.
The Creature caught one in mid-leap and bent his body in half. His spine cracked like a damp log. He was dead before his dropped body hit the ground. A second tackled the Creature around the waist. It started to rake him with its claws before realizing that it had shed its claws with its outside skin. Its hands, while still webbed, were smaller and more like a man’s hands. It made a fist and slammed the tackler square on the top of the head. The man’s skull shattered like a clay pot. The remaining men clung to its arms, neck, and legs. The Creature shook itself like a dog. It threw its attackers off. They crashed through brush before hitting the wet ground.
With the same uniformity of intention with which they had attacked, the Count’s men decided to flee, to run for their lives. They scattered in all directions.
The Creature stood for a moment, panting. Its lungs were still newly opened and not yet as strong as they would become with use. It reached down, grabbed Lenora by one leg and casually threw her over its uninjured shoulder.
Lenora was dismayed when she was pulled away from the hot mud.
“No! Warm!” She cried.
The Creature ignored her as it walked off, plunging deeper into the bog.
“So. The Creature is still alive after all.” Murmured the Count.
“Unlike Konrad and Gerhardt.” Said the mud-splattered, bedraggled footman, shivering in the cold.
“So is the Lady Lenora.” Offered Steiken helpfully. “There’s that to be grateful for.”
Van Bruno glared at Brown who had dismounted and gone several yards ahead. The Englishman tested the mud with a long stick, then stood, measuring the wind direction and speed.
“It went that way.” Brown said, pointing at the trail of deep footprints punched into the mud.
“Amazing.” The Count’s scorn dripped off the word.
“But it won’t keep going that way for long.” He added. “The farther it gets from the outflow gate, the colder the mud gets. It’s been following the path of the hot water outflow, trying to stay warm. But the mud is already firming up. It won’t be long before its tramping through half-frozen bog land. The wind is picking up and the temperature is dropping. It will have to seek shelter, at least to get out of the wind before it freezes.”
The Englishman pointed toward a stand of evergreens a couple of miles downhill from where they stood.
“My guess is that it will go in there.”
“Excellent! Then we will ride ahead and corner it when it comes out of the bog.” He looked down at Brown with his one good eye, appraisingly. “You might earn your release yet, Mr. Brown.”
The Creature had to struggle a moment to pull its foot out of the mire. The surface of the ground was crunchy hard. Beneath the top layer, the swamp mud was firmer, more like soft clay than mud really. Already the Creature felt its skin stiffening in the cold air. The wind through the bare trees around it whistled and howled, tearing the fog surrounding them into shreds that were quickly scattering across the ground. Soon they would be exposed with little to no cover. Its feet were already numb. It wouldn’t be able to outrun the yapping air-breathers if they came after it again. The Creature looked around and spotted a thick wood of evergreen, a type of tree it was unfamiliar with, but the full foliage of needles promised respite from the wind, anyway.
The Creature turned and began slogging toward the trees.
Just few steps into the wood, the wind stopped, blocked by the swaying bows. It was warmer here, though still far too cold for the Creature’s tropical blood. The air was sweet with the pungent aroma of pine needles. It had never smelled anything like it. The Creature paused and drew in great lungfuls of the scented air. Its mouth hung open and it closed its eyes. Sunshine, lungs full of wintergreen air, the warm pulse of the she-thing over its shoulder, the Creature had not know a moment of such peace since it found itself snared in the nets of the Portuguese.
The moment did not last long, however.
First there was the musky meat-smell of the horses, their shrill whinnying like fingers on chalkboard to its ears. Then the crack of musket fire, hot gusts of burnt sulfur in the air. Most of the lead balls fired its way whined past harmlessly. One musket ball hit its leg, which exploded in pain as if it had caught fire.
Another lead ball hit it in the chest. The thick bone of the Creature’s rib stopped the bullet from tearing into soft heart or lung tissue. But the stabbing pain, the grinding of lead on bone with each breath, nearly knocked the Creature off its feet.
The ambush worked perfectly!
The Count smiled his fiercest huntsman’s smile. The thing was hit, bleeding from multiple wounds. Already it was wavering on its feet. It would probably have been dead already had the hunters not been hampered by the need to not hit Lenora, still slung over the Creature’s shoulder, as they fired.
“Gargon! While we reload!” Von Bruno ordered.
The huge henchman tumbled off the horse he was riding and lumbered forth, arms wide in a wrestler’s stance.
The Creature saw him coming. There was no chance of mistaking the intent behind the body language. The Creature opened its mouth wide and let out a low, deep bellow of primordial rage.
Gargon’s eyes crinkled, he grinned viciously. His own raspy, wordless shout answered the Creature’s bellow. With a lurch, both brutes lunged at each other.
The Creature still had the naked Lenora slung over one shoulder. Her bare, pale ass and limply dangling legs distracted Gargon for just an instant as the brutes clashed. That distraction allowed the Creature to clout him across the head with a big green-gray fist. Gargon’s eyes rolled up and he stumbled aside, swaying drunkenly but refusing to fall down.
The Creature continued its charge, slamming into one of the hunters on horseback. It caught the horse in mid-rear and easily threw it aside. Horse and rider crashed onto the ground and rolled in dead pine needles. The Creature continued to lumber straight ahead, barreling into a thicket too close for the horses to follow.
Oaths were shouted and several muskets were fired blindly after it.
“Stop that firing!” Roared von Bruno. “You’ll hit the girl.” His face was livid with rage.
Adam Brown stumbled from his horse, wincing as the crisp skin over one burn cracked open and he began to bleed again. He staggered a step before recovering, then went to the dark tunnel the Creature plowed through the thicket. Somewhere deep in the dark undergrowth he could hear it still crashing forward, moving faster than should be possible. He stood and pointed down the dark hole punched down the thicket.
“It went through here.” He said, laconically, gesturing with his thumb.
The furious Count drew a flintlock pistol and leveled it at his head.
“Say another word, English dog!” He snarled.
Adam Brown waited a few long tense seconds for the Count’s rage to subside slightly.
“It’s going to stay in the underbrush. It won’t go where we can follow it on horseback. This is like swimming to it. This is something it understands, moving unseen where others cannot follow. It will certainly turn and ambush us if we are foolish enough to try to follow it through there, on foot.’
Brown looked up at the sky and at the lengthening shadows of the trees.
“It will be dark soon. It’s still going to be looking for shelter. And it’s probably going to go for high ground. Hard to say for sure. It spends most of its time in water but it is clearly familiar with dry land as well. It surely knows the advantage of staying above its enemies. Do you know where this thick underbrush runs out? What’s on the other side?’
The Count thought for a moment, hand holding the pistol still trembling with rage, pistol still leveled at Brown’s head.
“I think so. The brush continues up the hillside, and the trees close in tighter. The wood runs up toward the rocks. There’s a high pasture on the other side, before one comes to the cliffs and crags around the lake. Goat herders, I think. They have a barn and a cottage.”
Brown nodded, thinking.
“That’s where it’s going to go then. Unless it finds a cave to hide in.”
Von Bruno shook his head. The hand with the pistol dropped to his side.
“There are no caves through here. None large enough to hold a beast that size, anyway.”
“Then it will find the barn, the herders’ cottage. It will go in one of those to get out of the cold.”
“Mount up! We’ll have to ride around the wood. And we’ll have to ride hard to get there before night fall.”
Either the creak of the barn door or the bleating of the animals stirred Lenora to consciousness again. Her nose wrinkled at the smell of goats and goat dung. The scent of hay was like a tickle inside her nose. With effort, she opened her eyes. She was still slung over the Creature’s broad shoulder. A huge, cold hand was planted in the middle of her back, to hold her in place. Looking down she saw blood running down one of the Creature’s legs, dripping onto the packed dirt and straw floor of the barn. She looked around, saw goats huddled in their stalls, practically piled on top of each other for warmth. Most were bleating with distress at the unfamiliar scents and the strange thing stalking through their midst. Others stared in mute incomprehension.
The Creature swayed as it walked. Its wounded leg trembled. Its breathing was hoarse and labored. Its wounds and the cold were sapping it of its prodigious strength. With a rasp that might have been a weary sigh, it heaved her off its shoulder and dropped her on a pile of hay.
It stood there, looking down at her with its unreadable eyes, mouth agape, gasping in one breath after another.
Lenora burst into tears.
“What? What do you want with me?” She screamed. “You could have killed me long ago. What do you want?”
She sprang to her feet, nearly collapsing again, and beat her fists feebly on the thing’s chest. She stopped and looked at her hands, which were sticky with the thing’s blood. When she saw the chest wound from a hunter’s musket, the blood rushing out of it in shallow pulses, she covered her mouth with her hands and stepped back. It was wounded and where she was hitting it had to cause it great pain. A wounded animal in pain could be very dangerous.
She looked up at its face. It still stood there, gasping and staring with its now disturbingly human-looking eyes, but eyes that were still flat and filmy and impossible to read. There was no expression that she could read at all on its face. No sign of anger, she had seen it angry and knew what that looked like. There was no sign that it even felt her pounding on it. It barely acknowledged her at all.
“What?” She asked, pleadingly.
Abruptly the thing reached forward and grabbed her crotch, hard. Big, blunt fingers slipped inside her lips and traced the length of her. She gasped, mostly in shock, and because the Creature’s fingers were quite cold.
Then her eyes widened and she stumbled backwards, shrieking.
The Creature made no effort to come after her. It continued to just stand there, gasping for breath, swaying on its feet. She still couldn’t tell what it was feeling from its blunt, rubbery features, but there was something going on behind that inhuman face. Was it angry? Frustrated? Lustful? In love? What?
Without making any move toward her, the Creature slumped down on the hay and began to burrow into it. She thought of crocodiles burrowing into heaps of rotting vegetation in search of warmth or shelter. It disappeared under the hay, though she could still feel its eyes upon her. Did she dare try to run? Her legs were numb. She was wobbly just standing. Did she have the energy to even try to escape? She felt one of her seizures building and concentrated all her energy on keeping it down.
“Not now. Not now. Please.” She whispered.
The door to the barn creaked open, letting in the waning orange sunlight of pre-dusk and a gust of cold air that set her to shivering again. A burly peasant man stood there, unkempt hair, scraggily beard, wearing a sleeveless overcoat of raw wool.
“There is someone in here!” He shouted over his shoulder to an unseen companion. “Told you I heard somebody.”
The goat herder looked her over and licked his lips.
“Well, who is it? Who’s in there?”
“Never you mind who’s in here.” The man said with an unmistakable leer. “Something I can take care of myself.”
“Stay away from me. I am the Count’s betrothed and soon to be the Mistress of these lands. You would do well not to anger me.”
“Is that so?”
The man stepped into the barn and closed the door behind him.
“It is!” Lenora raised her chin with all the dignity she could muster.
“Well, it just so happens that I’m the Count’s Best Man and we share everything!”
“That’s not true. Von Melcher is supposed to be Karl’s Best Man and Karl never shares anything that belongs to him.”
The seizure was building and her mind was going fuzzy. Everything looked out of focus and she had to concentrate to remember where she was.
The man lunged forward and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Enough talk!” He sneered.
Lenora could still feel the Creature’s eyes on her, dark, peering out from under the hay.
“You don’t want to be doing that.” She whispered with a vengeful smile.
Whatever the goat herder was going to say next was lost in the bellowing of the beast erupting from the hay.
Lenora slumped to the ground and turned away.
She saw the shadows on the back wall of the barn. It was more bearable that way. A huge, bullet-headed shadow seized another in its hands, lifted it far overhead and bent it. There was a muffled crack. Then the big shadow twisted the other until it came apart in the middle. Lots of lumpy shadows fell out of the broken one. One or both of the shadows was screaming but suddenly fell silent. The echoes of the scream stayed in her ears and hurt her head.
A shout came from the front of the barn and another shadow appeared, looming large over the wall, dwarfing even the big shadow with the bullet-head. But this new shadow shrank quickly as it ran up to the first, something long and stick-like in its hands. The big shadow seized the stick with one hand, snapping it like a twig. Its other hand grabbed the new shadow by the neck and easily lifted it from the ground. There was kicking and gurgling and shaking until there was another crack. The smaller shadow went limp and the bigger one tossed it aside, after one last shake.
Lenora rolled over and looked toward the front of the barn. Animals were streaming out the open door, kicking and leaping to get away. A huge black shape stood between her and the door, backlit by the sinking sun. There was something terrifying and tragic and almost regal about how it stood there.
Colors unseen, unimaginable, began to blossom like exploding flowers behind it. Exotic sea scents filled her nostrils and the wood around her began to sing, with a hoarse baritone voice.
Lenora lifted her arms toward her mysterious beast.
Then the seizure took her.
Shadows were long and bruise dark, the sky was turning orange by the time the Count’s hunting party thundered into the goat herders’ thinly grassed pasture. Von Bruno raised his hand and the riders pulled their tired horses to a halt. The first thing that was evident was the loose goats milling and running about the sparse meadow. The doors of the barn stood open, one flapping like a broken wing in the wind. There was no sign of life or movement from either the barn or the herders’ cottage nearby. The smell of blood and death was heavy in the air.
With a gesture Karl ordered several of his men to move in and investigate. The men dismounted and crept toward the barn with loaded muskets. Karl unslung a skin of a particularly fine red wine, took a long swig, and then offered it to his friends, Steiken and von Melcher. Brown sat on his tired horse and watched them drink.
A few minutes later Hans ran back to give his report to the Count.
“It’s been here, alright. There are two bodies in the barn, the head of the family and his eldest son. They’ve been torn apart. There’s no sign of the Creature or the Lady in the barn, just some footprints and blood splatters to show that they’ve been there. The rest of the family is holed up in the cottage. They heard the animals acting up, the two men went out to investigate and never came back. They have been too afraid to venture out, or even look out the windows, but they swear that the Devil himself was walking around the property not long ago, trying the door and the window shutters.”
Count von Bruno grunted. He dug a few silvers out of a pouch on his belt.
“Give them these and my condolences. And take one of these goats back to the castle. We’ll have it for dinner when this is all over.”
Hans nodded and ran off.
The Count turned to Brown and smiled.
“Time to earn your keep, Englishman. Which way did the beast go from here?”
Adam licked his lips, tried to sit up and ignore the stinging of his burns beneath the shirt he wore.
“I could use a sip of that wine.”
“I never waste good wine on a dead man. Beg some water off one of the men.”
With a curse, Brown slid off his horse and started limping around the perimeter of the well-trampled pasture. Every once in awhile he would kneel down to look at something. Once he pulled loose a handful of yellow grass and sniffed. It. Eventually he settled on a barely noticeable footpath that vanished into tangled scrub and jumbled boulders.
“They went through here. Not long ago. The Creature is bleeding and the blood, He held up his handful of grass, “Isn’t quite dry yet.”
Karl squinted at the setting sun, already the lower valleys were in darkness. Only the hilltops and high grounds were still lit by the sun. He looked up the trail that Brown pointed out. It headed upwards, toward the clifftops and peaks to the east. The light was still bright up there. They still had a little time left.
“He’s heading for the rocks, with the lake beyond. If we don’t catch him soon, we aren’t going to catch him at all.”
The Count struck his thigh with a gloved fist. He could barely contain his anger and frustration.
“We can’t take the horses in there. We’re on foot from here on. You two, stay with the horses and see that they don’t run away. The rest of you, dismount. We still have hunting to do!”
With a few gestures and shouts von Bruno rallied the hunting party and they set out to follow the Creature’s trail into the brush.
By the time they caught up with their quarry the sun was behind the far mountains to the west and the sky was blood red. Oddly, it was actually warmer now than it had been during the rest of the day. The wind had ceased entirely and there was a deathly stillness to the air. The day birds had quit their singing and the night birds had yet to begin. The Count and his men charged up a trail over broken ground, surrounded by thorny brush, through gray turning purple shadows.
“There they are!” Shouted one of the men.
Up ahead was a towering crag of rock, easily a hundred feet high, which leaned out drunkenly above the lake which was itself not yet visible, being on the other side of the outcropping. Locals called the crag, “The Highwayman” after a folk tale about a highway robber who chose to throw himself off the top of the stone and into the icy lake beyond rather than be taken prisoner. Since the villain had been fleeing one of the Count’s ancestors, von Bruno couldn’t help but believe that the man had made the right choice. Better a free fall and a quick death than a life spent in the dungeons beneath the Black Castle.
The Creature could be seen, climbing the almost sheer rock face, with a white shape draped over its shoulder. It had almost reached the top of the stone, levering itself up by the strength in its fingertips and toes where any man would have needed rope and piton.
There was a loud crack and a cloud of gun smoke puffed past the Count’s head. The lead ball hit the rock face a couple of feet from the Creature’s head, kicking up a cloud of dust and stone chips.
“Stop that shooting!” Shouted the Count, whirling toward the firer. “Are you insane? Even if you hit it, instead of Lenora, the fall would kill them both.”
Von Melcher smiled back at Karl.
“I just wasn’t thinking, I guess.” He said calmly.
Karl looked at the cliff ahead. A determined man, with the right tools, could climb it easily enough. But none of them carried climbing gear and to attempt to free climb it, in the gathering darkness, with a raging monster above you, waiting at the top, would be sheer suicide.
“We’ll only have one chance.” He said, squinting his one good eye toward the top of the crag. “When it reaches the top, before it can head to the other side or slip away toward the waterfalls, we will have a few seconds to get a shot at it. Hopefully, it will set Lenora down to rest before it does anything else. Line up your aim, be ready to take your shot the moment it lets go of her. It’s going to be long range and we will only have one chance, so make your shots count.”
The Creature reached the summit of the crag a few minutes later. It dropped Lenora beside it and stood, black against the dark wine sky. It looked down at its pursuers, in no way afraid, shoulders squared back in an unmistakable challenge. Lenora climbed shakily to her feet, standing at its side, white and ethereal in the gathering gloom. She was naked and blood-stained and mud-splattered and covered with bits of straw. Her hair was a wild tangled halo about her head. Clearly she could see the Count, because she lifted her arms in supplication.
Karl already had his musket to his eye and was lining up his shot.
“What do you think the Devil’s been doing with her all this time?” One of the men whispered to another.
“Don’t know. Can’t barely imagine.” Replied his comrade, also in a whisper. “But I’m not sure I’d want her back, meself. After…that.”
“Well, take a look at her.” Said another, too loudly. “I’d like a ride on that no matter where it’s been.”
There were some soft snickers and murmurs among the rest of the men.
Karl glanced over at Count von Melcher, who had also overheard the men talking. Von Melcher raised an eyebrow, glanced up at the naked Lenora, then softly shook his head.
Karl gritted his teeth, but seemed to agree.
He turned back to his raised musket, adjusted his aim, and took his shot.
The loud crack echoed among the crags.
Lenora jerked suddenly, clutched her breast, then stumbled a few steps. She slid to the ground and toppled off the far side of the crag, over the ledge and toward the lake below.
“I missed.” Said von Bruno casually.
The Creature seemed mystified at her disappearance, reaching its webbed hand toward where she had just been standing. It looked down at the ground, then behind, peering over the ledge of the rock.
The Count’s companions and the rest of the men opened fire. A thick black cloud of gunpowder smoke rose from the woods at the base of the rock. Puffs of dust and splintered rock sprayed up all around the Creature. The dark shape twitched as several shots hit home. It seemed to ignore the gunfire and its new injuries. Then it reared back, lifted its arms to the bloody sky and let loose a long, mournful bellow that rang like thunder above the icy waters of the lake.
It went over the edge and disappeared, possibly falling, possibly leaping.
“A pity about the Lady Lenora. My condolences.” Von Melcher said.
Karl looked up, startled out of a reverie.
“Yes. A pity.”
“It was a difficult shot.” Von Melcher continued. “No one could blame you that it went…wide.” There was admiration in his voice.
“Yes. A very…difficult shot.”
The Count sighed.
“I was planning a special hunt to celebrate our first anniversary. I’m having a panther brought in from Africa. With no wedding, there will be no anniversary to celebrate.”
“A pity.” Agreed von Melcher.
“Doesn’t Lenora have a sister?” Asked Steiken.
“What? Little Elga?”
“Not so little, anymore, I would think.” Offered von Melcher
“She is a pretty thing.” Karl mused. “She’s just so…dull.”
“But her father is still as wealthy.” Steikan said with a laugh.
All of the noblemen chuckled at that.
Night had fully fallen by the time the bedraggled and dispirited hunting party returned to the Black Castle.
Adam Brown stared at the black battlements and candle-lit windows. He stopped well before passing through the castle’s iron gates. There was nothing, no one, that could force him to re-enter that cursed keep.
The Count stood talking with his cronies while grooms came to care for the horses. The mute beast Gargon was standing at his side. Gargon held the side of his head where a great swelling bruise was spreading from where the Creature had clouted him. He did not look at all happy and kept frowning and grimacing at what the Count was saying. He was listening to the count, but his bleary eyes were locked on Adam Brown.
It’s got to be now, Adam thought to himself. He had to make his move now. He dismounted, reluctantly, and let the glaring groom led the horse away. Walking carefully and holding himself as straight as he could manage, he approached the Count.
Von Bruno, Steiken, and von Melcher ceased their conversation and watched the Englishman approach. Karl looked like he was swallowing something bitter. The other nobles seemed amused and somewhat curious.
“Count von Bruno,” Brown said, dropping by habit into the formal tone and wording of the Court. “We had a deal. I was to help you, to the best of my ability, and you would release me from my imprisonment. I have fulfilled my side of the bargain.”
“I don’t recall that we ever made anything so formal as a ‘bargain’ or a ‘deal.’ I remember saying that I would consider releasing you, if you proved sufficiently useful.”
Steiken and von Melcher made faces and actually booed.
“Don’t be petty, Karl. The man did his best.”
Von Bruno sighed and waved his surrender to his friends.
“Very well. I had other plans for you, English dog, but you have provided some considerable assistance in this most troubling affair. You have earned some measure of leniency, I cannot deny.”
Brown began to relax. He might get out of this alive after all! He had barely dared to hope for such since the moment he and Samuel realized they’d walked into a trap.
“Gargon, release him.”
“What? Wait…” Brown’s eyes went wide.
With a leering grin and gleefully crinkled eyes, Gargon stepped to him. The brute’s massive hands slapped hold of both sides of Brown’s head, and began to squeeze.
That was when everything ended.
Roughly two hundred years later, a very bored Marcia Barton was winding her way through yet another Medieval German castle with the rest of her tour group. They all seemed tediously alike to her, but visiting castles seemed to just be one of those things you do when you visit Germany. The tour was really just a way for Marcia to get away from the States, spend some of the money she’d inherited from her deceased husband, Dr. William Barton, and forget certain things she did not want to remember, certain people she didn’t want to be reminded of.
The tour guide was droning on about some quaint folk legend associated with the castle. Something about some kind of devil that carried off a Count’s lady and jumped into a lake with her. She really wasn’t paying much attention. After the last castle she’d visited with its gruesome tales of a doctor who stitched dead bodies together and tried to bring them to life with lightning, she decided that German legends were, in general, quite horrible and should be avoided whenever possible.
The tour guide wandered into a last chamber in the castle, some kind of gallery with high ceilings and windows to let in the light. The walls were covered with portraits of rather grim looking noblemen and paintings of awful things happening to luckless Christian martyrs. The tour guide wound down her long-winded story about Lake Devils and Sirens and Curses of some sort. She gestured to a particular painting in a secluded niche in the hall.
The painting was titled, “The Devil’s Grotto” and was not quite finished. It depicted a gloomy underground pool surrounded by jagged rocks. There was slime and mold and moss dripping off of everything. A horrible green creature, presumably the “Devil” of the title, reclined on the rocks. It was scaly and long limbed, had gills like fringes of lace along the sides of its head, huge catcher’s mitt hands with wicked claws. Its eyes were black and fishy and the painter had captured a kind of inhuman cunning gazing out of them.
Marcia’s mouth dropped open. Her knees went weak. She very nearly spilled herself on the carpet but a very handsome, and sadly very married, man in her tour group caught her before she completely passed out. She made her excuses and stumbled out of the hall. She went straight to the nearest phone, patiently stumbling through what German she knew until the lady at the counter realized that it was an emergency call, and placed the person to person long distance call she’d promised herself she would never make.
She waited while the operator worked her mysterious magic, chewing on a nail.
“Hello? ...Yes? Hello, Tom. …I know, it’s been a long time. …I’m fine. …No, it’s not that. Tom, there’s something here that you have to see in person. …Yes. …No, I’m serious. It’s in a place called the Black Castle. I have a brochure I can send you. Tom, you have to come see this. It’s important. …Yes. …I’ll wait.”
When she finally hung up, wheels were in motion and plans had been made. Marcia Barton went back to the castle’s gallery and stared at the painting. That horrible green face stared back at her. She was sure the Creature’s eyes followed her as she paced the length of the Turkish rug on the floor.
Eventually, she fled from the Black Castle and headed straight toward the nearest bottle of white rum she could find.