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Daniel Warrington leapt to his feet. The fire roared and crackled in the hearth and the wind gusted outside and for a second he doubted whether he had really heard it – a second, heavier crash, like a great clap of thunder swiftly relieved him of such foolish notions. He rushed across the drawing room, his plush burgundy smoking jacket billowing out behind him, shoving aside an armchair in his haste, and emerged into the entrance hall to see the stout oak doors rattling in their frame. He snatched the Sharps model-1874 from its stand above the fireplace and dashed across the brilliant marble floor, feeding a new cartridge from the stash in the pocket of his smoking jacket into the chamber. Too late, he flung open the doors only to catch the briefest glimpse of an immense bulk retreating into the circle of trees.
He returned his attention to the doors – deep gouges in the wood, the lower panels splintered and dented. He slammed his fist against the doorframe in frustration, ignoring the hot lance of pain that pierced his hand.
Daniel Warrington had had enough.
This was the third incident of its kind to occur since his taking up residence in Nighthill Manor two months previous. Pausing only to pull on a pair of worn-leather boots and a demur brown scarf, he considered rousing his manservant, Dunwald Marsten, to accompany him, but decided against the idea. The old man was probably tucked up in bed by now – there was no reason to disturb him. Whatever it was that walked the woods of Beaumont Chase and menaced the Manor, Daniel Warrington would deal with it himself. After all, hadn’t he faced down enormous black bears during his months on the Continent; looked death in the sharp yellow eyes deep within Peruvian rainforests; slain a great white lion, King of the African plains, with nothing but a blade and his bare hands?
Determined and resolute, Daniel Warrington strode out to meet the night. The air was frozen and the skies empty. Before him at the clearing’s edge loomed the woods: a vast black wall of frostbitten limbs and flaking bark. The wind – at least, it was probably the wind – howled between the slender trunks and seethed in the clusters of tall dark pines. Pale icicles, thin and crooked like skeletal fingers, scintillated as Christmas baubles hung from a tree – a black, dead tree.
As he crossed the clearing, his hand fell to the LeMat belted at his hip. Deemed far too superfluous and unreliable for field use by the US Army, he had managed to procure one of the few remaining prototypes from a customs officer up in Birmingham. In addition to the revolver and the Sharps, he carried a long, thick knife with an elaborate deer-bone handle sheathed at his waist, a gift from an elderly knifemaker by the name of James Black several years previous – the blade had since tasted the blood of almost every animal that walked, crawled or swam upon the face of the earth.
Regretting not taking the time to change out of his smoking jacket, Daniel Warrington gritted his teeth and trudged on through the biting cold. Tracking the mysterious beast was proving to be exceedingly difficult. Having neglected in his haste to bring a lantern, it was all he could do to discern the sporadic trail of odd, hoof-like prints. Their distinctive cleft, although somewhat more pronounced, reminded him of the tracks of the curious black-and-white striped deer that ran freely across the African plains, with but a single difference; these were sunk far too deeply in the snow, incongruous with the weight of such an animal. Whatever the beast was, it was of a most prodigious size.
For minutes that dragged like hours he plodded onwards by the sickly light of the moon, the only sound that of fresh snow crunching beneath his boots. The wind nipped cruelly at his exposed face and hands, bringing with it a faint mist that flowed around him in shreds and tatters, snatching at his clothing with ghostly, insubstantial fingers. His every breath fogged the air with an ephemeral white cloud and seemed to draw the seeping chill ever deeper into his body.
Something moved in the outer darkness of his periphery; by the time he had levelled the Sharps it was gone – if it had ever been there at all. The darkness was enfolding now, a great all-encompassing blackness held at bay only by thin shafts of moonlight. A branch snapped to his right, and he whirled in time to see a dislodged clump of snow thud to the ground. Taking a deep breath, he once again levelled the Sharps. His mind was calm and still, a vast frozen lake in midwinter’s grasp. The weight of the stock in the hollow of his shoulder felt good. It felt right.
It had been far too long since he’d seen the spark of life fade from the eyes of a dying animal.
Slowly, cautiously now, he picked his way between peeling silver birches and over the fallen trunks of once magnificent oaks. Alert to even the smallest motion, he hunted in silence, pressing onwards into the woods, deeper than ever before.
Eventually the tracks halted at a great twisted snarl of brambles stretching taller than a man. There was no sign of his quarry passing through, and truly the tracks continued in no other direction. Fighting back disquiet at the idea of an animal so large capable of clearing such a barrier with a single leap, Daniel Warrington slung the Sharps over his back and unsheathed his knife.
He would need to act swiftly now.
Stumbling forth from a narrow tunnel of thorn and tangle, Daniel Warrington emerged into a misted clearing. Damp from the moisture in the air, lank locks of hair clung to his forehead. His face and hands were sliced in several places, and his smoking jacket was all but ruined. Dunwald Marsten would not be amused.
He straightened and unslung the Sharps, taking stock of his surroundings. The wall of brambles encircled the entire clearing, and it appeared he had forced his way through at one of the lowest points; in places the brambles grew around the overhanging branches of nearby trees, crawling along their drooping limbs like sinister barbed snakes. All across the clearing spires of rock jutted upwards from the mists, their twisted points scraping the caliginous skies. Small, trembling gouts of white had begun to spiral down, but Daniel Warrington barely noticed. His attention was elsewhere.
It was not often that Daniel Warrington found himself at a loss for words – now, he could barely remember to breathe.
Dominating the centre of the clearing and towering over its surroundings was a dark Cyclopean monolith of impossibly immense proportions. Plainly visible upon its surface were an array of nightmarish bas-reliefs, upon which the gibbous moon shone sickeningly. Thin tendrils of mist curled up and around the hideous obelisk, crashing against its sides like churning ethereal waves.
Mother Nature took a deep brief, and the night itself fell still.
Deep within the mists, something moved.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
He could feel it now – the beast’s eyes were upon him. The fine, downy hairs on the back of his neck stood erect, and his skin rippled with gooseflesh.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
The sound echoed hollowly across the clearing. He sighted down the barrel of the Sharps and willed his trembling hands to still. Shifting anxiously beneath the gaze of that loathsome monolith, he watched and waited.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
The stag shambled forth from the swirling mists. A blackened crown of jagged antlers twisting in all directions adorned its head; as the beast sauntered past the monolith, the tips of those dreadful antlers screeched across the black stone. The Sharps dropped from Daniel Warrington’s shaking hands, clattering away across the ground. The stag’s jaw lolled wide, revealing a maw bulging with pointed yellow teeth, akin to those of the sleek tiger-striped sharks of the west Pacific. Only now did he understand the truly monstrous proportions of the beast; its head stood fully twice the height of a man, above which loomed the terrible antlers. The monster’s snout glistened wetly in the waxing moonlight, and its tattered fur seemed to crawl and shift as though it were a living carpet of chitinous beetles. Patches of yellowing bone shone through its coat; fur and skin clung to its forelegs in patches, like moss to the trunk of a rotten tree. Dark rivulets of blood trickled from the hollows of the beast’s eyes; a pair of vast, empty holes in which green flames guttered and billowed.
The stag snorted, stamping its foot with a sharp crack like a gunshot, causing a murder of sleek black crows to take erupt in flight from a nearby tree. Coils of mist drifted lazily around the beast, never quite coming close enough to touch its slick black fur. Its hooves were bloodied bone, heavy enough to crush a man’s skull to dust beneath their tread. And then it spoke; a guttural, rasping sound abhorrent to the minds of men.
At this, some hidden string, pulled taunt in fear, finally snapped, and the LeMat leapt into Daniel Warrington’s hand as if it had been there all along. He flipped the lever on the end of the hammer up, causing the striker to fall upon the primer set directly below it. The stag let out a monstrous bellow, lowered its head and charged. Daniel Warrington took careful aim, drawing a bead atop the beast’s skull.
The stag roared; as did the LeMat. The blast of buckshot from the revolver’s secondary barrel disintegrated the top of the stag’s head. Something coiled and dark pulsated amidst the ruin of its skull, shifting and oozing against the splintered bone.
The beast hardly faltered.
Daniel Warrington could only stare, horrified, as the wound immediately began to heal, bone reforming before his very eyes – the skin, however, remained absent, and he at once understood the significance of the many bald patches speckling the creature’s hide. How many before him had tried and failed to slay this dark, majestic horror?
Razor-sharp antlers gored his stomach, and then he was tumbling across the frosted earth towards the monolith. He pressed a hand to his stomach, and felt what seemed to be a handful of snakes squirming against his palm. Blood seeped between his fingers.
Clack. Clack. Clack.
The stag towered over him now, whispering blasphemous insanities of the Old Gods which dwelt beneath the earth and deep down in the seas and in the dark, forgotten places of the world where the stars had never shone. Dreadful images began to form in his mind, of nameless monstrosities uncoiling beneath the earth and Polyphemus-like creatures emerging from the oceans.
The insignificance of man crashed down upon him – followed momentarily by the stag’s hoof, which fell with a sickening crunch, the splitting of a ripe melon.
Daniel Warrington thought no more.
Dunwald Marsten sat in the darkened library, reading by the guttering flame of a candle burnt nearly down to the stump – a leather-bound tome of substantial thickness, The Midwinter World. But the book was Midwinter World in name only – the cover concealed a far more sinister tome, one which had previously resided for many years under lock and key in a sub-basement of the British Museum – hidden by fools who possessed neither the strength of mind nor the courage to conquer the horrors bound within the book’s wafer thin pages.
From the walls of the room, glassy eyes reflected the candlelight, inch-long yellowing fangs frozen in snarls of anger and roars of defiance. It sundered Dunwald’s heart to see such beautiful, magnificent creatures murdered for the cruel sport of a single man. His gaze wandered to the umbrella stand in the far corner, fashioned from the foot of a majestic white rhino, and he felt the familiar fires of hatred flare up in his chest. That Warrington had the nerve, the gall to slaughter even a single one of Du’zu’s precious children grated on Dunwald’s very sense of being.
Well, it would not happen again. Yshmael would see to that.
Thin, wavering shafts of moonlight filtered through the picture window, picking out every scar and crag on Dunwald’s tanned, calloused hands – the hands of one who has spent a lifetime in the wilderness, wandering the secret untamed places of the earth.
The book at his fingertips remained dim and dark, the light itself refusing to touch such blasphemous pages. This suited Dunwald perfectly – some things were born only to dwell in darkness.
Dunwald drew the flickering candle closer, leant forward and continued to read.
…from the earth where groweth dark wood, into any time when the Rites are spoken, can the holder of the Knowledge summon The Walker, child of Great Du’zu, He who dwelleth in the vast Wilderness between the worlds and eateth the soul and flesh of Man, He that roams when the moon wanes yellow and is called Yshmael. Only in supplication to The Walker of the Worlds Between can one escape the Wrath of Du’zu…
Credit To – Tom Farr