When I woke, the blue sky was gone. Evening was on me and the stars had just begun to appear. However, they peeked down through a haze in the chilly air. A fog was forming and in moments the world was little more than myself and the grave. I rose to my feet and looked down one last time on his name. I had no parting words, nothing had changed.
As I turned to leave my ear caught a faint sound. Somewhere the grass rustled and by degrees it grew louder. This, I told myself, must be the wretched scavenger come back for another attempted excavation. Accordingly, I stood fast ready to pounce on it and leave its carcass for the others of its kind.
While I waited the nagging thought of the lonely flower returned to me. After all, a flower on a grave is not so out of place as this one seemed. And though the bloom was strange, it was one I had seen countless times. Only then did I ask myself where I had seen it before and realize that no hand had plucked it anywhere on these shores. No, this blossom only grew on the other side of this world…
And from the fog the source of the sound emerged, but it was no mere rat as I had imagined. In shock and fear, I staggered slowly back as a stinking rotten corpse shambled forward. It glared at me with empty sockets, baring the wicked fangs its teeth had become. Then it threw itself on the grave and began to dig with frightening alacrity with nails that were thick, hooked barbs.
I watched this thing as it shoveled away great fists full of earth, unsure if I still slept and dreamed or if I had lost my mind. But, although its terrible form filled me with fear, I was moved to halt the desecration of my father’s final resting place. Seizing it from behind, I wrestled it from the trench it had burrowed and threw it back into the mist.
It circled warily, crouching at the limit of my sight. It was silent but for the occasional drawing of a ragged breath which was followed by a wet, choking growl. Drawing the saber which I wore as part of my uniform, I made ready to meet any charge. As its raspy noise grew louder, I knew I would not wait long.
It surged forth from the night, raking with its terrible talons. I ran it through to no effect but trap my own weapon. Once again we grappled as I tried to free the blade while I battered its head. Its putrid claws ripped my clothes and snagged in my flesh as it tried to do likewise with its fangs. We stumbled across the pit and it was this more than anything else that tore us apart.
Again it circled me in the growing darkness. Our exchange had left me with burning cuts and gouges. And though I feared another charge, I was ready now and would not waste my blade on another thrust.
As it came I targeted its claws taking them off at the wrist first one then the other. And with all my strength, a back swing met its mark and took the head cleanly off. And yet the damned thing didn’t fall but stumbled back and out of sight.
And then a hateful laughter filled the night. I wheeled, stunned by the sight of a second walking corpse. But this one I recognized.
“Well done,” it taunted.
“Kalu!” was my reply. My service had carried me to places most people of the civilized world have never heard of, let alone seen. I knew what it was to fear death, to see it claim good men and friends, and I knew what it was to kill. This was why I was sent to quash a bloody regime which seized control in one of the empire’s holdings.
It was a long and desperate struggle, but one which I saw carried to victory. I returned from sweltering jungles with the villains responsible for untold suffering. Justice would be done and before the eyes of a people long terrorized.
The trials had been swift owing to the freely given confessions. The rebels, with no small amount of pride, spat their contempt in vile curses for the crown, for those who served it, and for the God we praised. It was this as much as it was the long and costly campaign to put down their uprising that gave us satisfaction in seeing justice be done.
Although they fought as rabble, they were zealots. A fanatical fury committed them to fight with inhuman savagery, and we might have admired their fearlessness and ferocity, even in the face of certain defeat, but for their crimes and atrocities which they perpetrated not only against us but among their own countrymen.
For when they failed to best us on the field of honor, they turned their wrath upon women, children, and the elderly. Many a village was razed for being traitors to their cause. Their soldiers became cowardly assassins and murderers hiding among the population at large. At times, it was impossible to tell foe from ally, but a few brave souls, sick of mystic tyranny, helped us uncover the core of the cult which we pursued until we had them all.
I personally oversaw the execution of these. Like the trials, the sentences were carried out swiftly. Owing to the horrors they unleashed in the name of their barbaric beliefs, we turned their superstitions back upon them and gave them deaths they considered to be unclean. To hear these monsters of men wail and plead gave us, as I have said, a great satisfaction.
The supreme leader, Kalu, was marched out to a public demise no different from the others. Granted the right of final words, he took the opportunity to condemn and damn his countrymen who trembled at his pronouncement. This was brief and delivered in the native tongue, which I did not know or care to understand. But to me he condescended to speak in my own language.
“You,” he snarled defiantly, “will be granted a special misery. Doubt me not, for this very day you will know that my curses are not idle threats. And when this is clear, understand that it will be as nothing to what awaits you.”
Despite the legendary powers he was believed to wield, he died no differently than the others.
But when our work was done, though the people cheered and celebrated their newfound liberty, I was confronted by word of my father’s demise. Truly, I gave no thought to the curse placed upon me. Nor did I notice in my departure the strange flowers the people threw into the air.
These flowers, according to their traditions, symbolized rebirth and the gift of a new world. This was the flower I found on my father’s grave, a flower placed there by a fiend.
“Yes,” hissed the fiend, “You see now that your God is not the only God. Tell me, when has your God ever shown you as much as me?”
I felt myself tensing, ready to spring and slay this beast a second time, or see him in pieces for the rest of eternity, if he would not die. But even as I started forward, the monster’s leathery face smiled and he chuckled softly. From behind me, another ghoul lumbered from the darkness and renewed the assault on the grave.
With a curse, I unleashed a flurry of vengeful slashes and drove it back into the mist. From its empty orbits shone baleful points of light, and by these I tracked it in its circuit around me. The chuckles of the monster Kalu ceased and he called out.
“I tell you now, you cannot win.”
“I bested you once, devil, and I will do it again!”
“Before, we were merely men, no different from you. But then you defiled us! You robbed us of our afterlife, of a room in the palace of our Shining Lord! You have damned us to wander the Earth for all time! And you call me a devil?”
“Yes,” I growled, “You are a devil, but you were never a man like me! You have always been a monster. And your new form suits you well, putrid and vile…”
“A righteous vengeance shall be ours.” he vowed and with a gesture he called the revenant back from the dark. But the beast seemed wary and kept itself just beyond the reach of my blade, but this, I knew, was but a ruse to draw me from the grave.
“The night has just begun.” called my nemesis, “A great warrior you may be, but there are many hours left before the sun will rise. How long can you last? Your heart pounds, your breaths come fast, and when you fall we shall devour you. Even as we shall feast upon your father!”
Defiantly, I lunged toward his charnel servant, determined to vanquish at least one more of his abominations. But he was right, my chest heaved and my arms and legs were heavy and slow. Though the thing felt away, mutilated like the first, the cold dread of doom hung heavy on my heart as I regained the grave.
“We never tire, and we feel neither fear nor pain. But there is more you do not know. Our claws have tasted of your flesh and put poison and sickness in your blood!”
Even as it spoke the words, I knew it was so. I could feel the fever in my flesh, an aching in my bones. While from behind me another wretch slammed into me like the horns of bull. My saber was knocked from my hand as we rolled and wrestled on the ground. And still another came forth to continue the upheaval of the earth.
“You must lose. You must die. And you and your father will pay for your crimes!”
I fought to hold the snapping jaws away from my throat with one hand while I, too, clawed at the earth with the other. The grass was slick and my fingers slipped with tryimg. My hand seized the foot stone and I began to pull us to the grave, but the stone came loose.
“I can read your mind.” whispered the demon, “I can gaze into your soul. I feel your growing despair.”
With a screech I hammered the stone into the monstrosity’s skull until pieces dropped away and it with them. Crawling back, I regained my feet. The burrower quit its place and I hurled the stone after it, satisfied to hear the hollow thump and cracking of its bones. Staggering, I reclaimed my blade.
“How many of us did you condemn?” it asked while I gasped for breath, “Just look around you.”
Through the mist, I saw their eyes. There were dozens, stretching out beyond my sight.
Story by Joe Stanley