The Mystery, Dave Jones | Source
The welcome sign at the town’s entrance was true to something. The place was a shithole.
Not that he was going to complain about it, though. As long as he found fuel for his bike, he would pay his respects and move on with his life accordingly.
However, Utopia was not a planet for the meek. Of all people in that speck of mud, he knew it best.
After parking in front of the saloon’s rails, he dismounted his bike and chained its front axle to the hardest bar he could find. Not that anyone could rob him – it was impossible to start the bike’s engine without his particular skill set – but a man ought to be careful in lands he is not acquainted with. Especially when forces he cannot comprehend are chasing him.
He felt something odd when he stepped on the sand in front of the stairs. Either the darkness coming out of the saloon’s revolving doors, or the way nobody had come to look for him. He double-checked his bike to see if everything was in order, adjusting the belts of the bags at each side of the rear wheel. Putting his grimoire’s heavy chain, which was hanging from one side of the left bag, unto it.
Not that the oddness disappeared because of it. He felt he was being watched.
Gathering the rest of his spirits, and making sure that his coat covered his belt and his guns well, he entered through the saloon’s doors. The place was as deserted and desolate as the outside, but at least there was a barman. He walked to the bar, sitting on a stool and knocking on the counter with his knuckles.
The noise startled the owner of the place as if he was not aware of his new patron’s entrance.
Something in his face did not seem entirely honest, though.
‘What can I serve you?’ the barman asked.
‘What are the options?’
‘Whisky or beer. It’s all that’s left at this hour of the day.’
‘I’ll have the beer. A pint, if you mind.’
As the barman complied, he noticed the man’s startling had not vanished at all. In fact, his hands shook clumsily as he tried to appear relaxed, washing the glass jars and using the bar’s siphon to serve him a cold, sparkling pint of beer. This was not going to be relaxing at all, he thought.
After the barman put the filled jar in front of him, he had a fine sip of its contents. The beer was fine as hell, at least. Nevertheless, the barman continued to fake kindness in a way that was having quite the opposite result.
‘So… Can you tell me where I can find fuel in this place?’
‘Fuel for what, sir?’
‘For my bike. I ran out of gas while on my way to Saint Mary.’
A necessary lie. He was not going to Saint Mary at all. He was actually escaping from it.
‘We… don’t have enough fuel these parts, sir. As you may have seen, Calamity Road is a small town, in need of desperate aid.’
No way, he thought.
However, the barman’s forehead was full of sweat as he said that. He was visibly nervous.
‘Oh, come on. Money’s not an issue, sir…’
The barman put his hand on top of his, pressing it tightly against the ledge. He lowered his voice.
‘I’m not talking about money. I can get you the fuel, but I need… we need you to do something for us.’
‘Meet me at the back of the saloon in fifteen minutes. I’ll explain to you properly. Just try to behave, sir. We are being watched.’
No way, he thought. Again.
The heat of Calamity Road was starting to test his patience.
Even while the alley behind the saloon was facing the other side of Utopia’s ruthless double sun, and it had multiple awnings and projections coming out of the building’s rooftops, the humidity of a place was kind of a bitch.
Nevertheless, the saloon’s owner was a man of his word. He walked out of the establishment’s back door, wiping his forehead with a towel as he walked to him. The nervousness of the first encounter had given place to honesty, at last.
‘So… What’s going on?’
‘Are… Are you actually aware of where you are, sir?’
‘On a shithole of a town. Respectfully speaking, of course.’
The barman sighed.
‘This is not the moment to be jerking around, sir… I thought you would understand better. Given the kind of man you are, of course.’
He lifted one of his eyebrows at the sound of the bartender’s assertion.
‘And… what kind of man do you think I am… sir?’
The man got closer to him again. The secrecy behind all of this was starting to get uncomfortable.
‘Look… I saw when you came into town, OK? I saw when you parked your bike. And I saw that book you’re carrying.’
I knew I was being watched, he thought.
‘So what?!’ the barman laughed. ‘You’re one of those… hunters, right? You’re a warlock!’
Oh, dear. This is going to be fun after all, he thought.
‘Sir, I think that you’re watching a lot of old movies. Now, if you excuse me, just show me the way to your, I don’t know, local gas station and I will not bother…’
The bartender held both of his arms, desperate. His eyes were filled with tears of dread.
But he had seen his fair share of fake scares. People trying to take advantage of his status to have a picture or a souvenir they could remember afterward.
‘Sir… You… you have to believe me. There is a monster in this town.’
A monster called indolence, of course.
‘Hell if I know. Must be a trick for tourists.’
He tried to free himself from the bartender’s grip, but the man knelt in front of him, crossing his fingers in prayer.
‘Please, sir… You have to believe me.’
Sighing heavily, he ducked as well, putting his right knee on the ground and lifting the flap of his hat. The bartender seemed to lose his breath, and for good reason.
Being able to have a good look at his eyes, which irises were red as blood – the unmistakable brand of a warlock – and piercing as the gaze of a bird of prey, drew a smile of relief in the bartender’s face.
‘Blessed be the Highfather… I knew you were a…’
He grasped the barman’s arm.
‘Could you please shut the fuck up and tell me what’s going around here?’
‘Well… Look. A month ago, some guys at the farm heard sobs inside the barn of the Van Cleefs’ farm. They went to the barn to see if, who knows, a poor lady had given birth to his baby, or someone had left his son abandoned. The guys came back the following day, but they were… changed, you know? Their eyes were empty as if their souls were taken from them.
In the following weeks, they started to talk about how the Van Cleefs’ farm was a beautiful place, gathering the townsfolk and saying that the place was looking nice. Sayin’ that a miracle had taken place there.’
This was going nowhere, he thought.
‘Nothing out of the ordinary. The Van Cleefs must be really good at farming.’
‘Sir… The Van Cleefs’ farm has been abandoned since years ago. Their household fell in ruin when the Maelstrom happened. And everyone in town agreed to leave the place empty, as a sign of respect.’
Now, this was getting interesting.
‘The poor lads stepped into the wrong lands and infringed your agreement, then. But if they found something good there, why haven’t you gone with them to check it out?’
‘That’s the thing, sir. Slowly, some of our people believed in their words and started to leave for the Van Cleefs’ farm. They came back as changed as the first ones did. Now, the entire Calamity Road is… mesmerized by whatever’s hiding back there.’
‘What do you mean exactly by mesmerized?’
‘Let’s… Let’s just say that people are not living their normal lives, sir. They’re working the fields, doing their stuff and taking every food and drink they have to the barn… And they’re not even eating or drinking anything of it! Why do you think you found my saloon empty in the first place?’
The bartender had a point, after all.
‘Do you know anyone in the town who hasn’t been… enthralled right now?’
‘Just a few, sir. Jonesy at the grocery store, Garland and two or three more.’
‘Can you rent me a room?’
His question startled the saloon owner again. But he nodded.
‘Good. Take those men to my room at nightfall. And bring whatever weapons you can find.’
As the sun went down, he waited patiently inside his room, sitting on a desk that the saloon owner had set aside for him. Knowing that his bike was hidden in the alley behind the establishment, he took all his luggage upstairs. His heavy grimoire laid wide open on the table, sharing its surface with a town map that his host had in his personal belongings.
Setting aside his coat and his hat, he started checking his supplies accordingly. Simply put, he hadn’t enough bullets for everyone in town, and he knew that his aim wasn’t exactly legendary. Either those men the bartender told him were well equipped, or Calamity Road would become a bloodbath at the first sign of offense… that would not fare well for them.
He heard someone knocking on the door. Putting his left hand on his holster, he sighed as he prepared himself for the worst.
‘Come on in.’
It was the saloon owner, who signaled the men to go up the stairs and to enter the room. Soon, a little posse had gathered inside the place, with three men and a woman sitting around his desk. They seemed equally surprised and uncomfortable with his presence, but the look in their eyes showed some degree of respect.
And he would do his best with what he had.
The saloon owner introduced every single of the last, free-thinking people on Calamity Road to him. The kid sitting in front of him was Jonesy, a helper working at the town’s grocery store. The woman, Ms. May, was a teacher in the town’s school. Garland and Tao were the only remaining men who worked in the old quarry at the hills, as the entire mining process had been automated years ago. Nevertheless, they saved themselves of being enthralled because of the distance between the mine and the town.
Sadly – and just as he had expected – they weren’t exactly well armed. Garland had brought a shotgun from the quarry, as well as two semi-automatic pistols which looked quite sturdy but had not been fired since ages ago. Jonesy brought a rusty pitchfork from the store, stolen from its warehouse. Ms. May had only brought a blackjack that she had for security reasons, but the way she handled it made it look like she was actually proficient with the weapon.
Fortunately, Garland had brought enough bullets from the quarry. They were the same caliber as his revolver.
After a brief silence that nevertheless felt eternal, the saloon owner broke the ice.
‘So… What’s the plan, sir?’
‘The plan?!’ Ms. May interrupted him. ‘I would very much like to know what the hell we are facing, first. What is going on with this town?’
‘This is the work of the Enemy, Ms. May.’ Jonesy replied, showing his somewhat fervorous beliefs. ‘Can’t you see it? This town has been forsaken by the Highfather.’
Garland and Tao laughed at the kid’s statement.
‘Bullshit, Jonesy.’ Garland said. ‘Who knows if your holy church’s priests are actually the culprits behind all of this?’
‘How can you say such an atrocity, Mr. Garland?!’
Nice, he thought. These people can’t even keep their shit together.
‘Shut up, Jonesy!’ the saloon owner replied. ‘Let him talk!’
While everyone did their best to calm down, he sighed, passing page after page of his grimoire. As the spirits lifted, he started to talk.
‘According to what he is saying, we’re probably facing a tianac, Ms. May.’
‘A what?’ Garland asked.
‘A tianac, Mr. Garland. A creature that imitates the shape of a child in order to attract its victims. Usually, they just feed off their prey, but rare cases have been witnessed in which the tianac slowly forms something akin to a family or a social structure with his thralls.’
‘Oh, hell. That means the Church of the Highfather’s priests must be all tianacs, then.’ Garland and Tao laughed again, their contempt at such religious group not hidden at all.
‘Not exactly, Mr. Garland. According to certain beliefs, the tianacs are born from abandoned children who were left by their parents, dying because of hunger or the elements. As the last thought on their minds before dying is related to their family, they develop a strong attachment to the idea of forming a family of their own.’
Ms. May tried to hide her astonishment at the idea. Obviously, she failed.
‘Do… do you mean that, that monster made the entire Calamity Road his family?’
‘Indeed. That would explain the town’s behavior during the last month. As well as the apparent starvation of your citizens. They’re well fed, it’s just they’re being well fed by him, and only if he feels that they’re behaving well and tributing him properly.’
‘Fuck me.’ Garland said. ‘Those priests must truly be beasts of darkness.’
He looked directly at Garland’s eyes, pushing his knuckles against the desk.
‘Thing is, Mr. Garland, if we’re dealing with a tianac, there’s not an easy way out of this. We have to kill him before he grows in power and size enough to thrall us… or to feed on us, as well. If a tianac isn’t killed before he reaches puberty, he will become an aswang. And if that happens… May your Highfather help this town, Mr. Jonesy.’
‘What do you mean by that, sir?’ the saloon owner asked.
‘Simply put, an aswang would be the death of your entire town. He will feed off your blood, your food, and even your thoughts. Whatever freedom you had will be quickly turned to dust, and you will remain his thralls forever. And, judging by the size of your town, he will have a nicely-sized army to expand his territory… to whatever towns and cities are around these parts.’
Silence took over the room again, as the dusk quickly turned into night. The saloon owner closed all the curtains in the room, just lighting a halogen lamp he had hanged near the room’s door and putting it on the desk. The rest of the townsfolk looked each other for a while, frozen in fear of what would become of them if he was right after all.
‘But… what we are going to do, then?’ the saloon owner said.
‘We will have to kill the tianac. And burn his corpse. Either a torch or a gas-fueled fire will work.’
‘And what of our neighbors, sir? What of our townspeople?’ Ms. May asked.
‘Depends on the state and length of their enthrallment, Ms. May. Some of them could be saved. But the ones who have been possessed for a long time will die with the tianac as well. It’s best if we spare them the suffering first-hand.’
‘But… but how will we know who are the ones we already lost, sir?’ Jonesy replied.
‘I don’t know, kid. I’m not from these parts. But you are, so…’
All of the remaining townsfolk gulped heavily, realizing what his words meant.
But you are, so you will have to kill them first.
It was midnight.
The little posse he had gathered, with the help of the saloon owner, walked through the plains outside Calamity Road to reach the Van Cleefs’ farm undetected. Garland decided to arm Jonesy and Ms. May with the pistols, giving Tao the shotgun and taking the pitchfork for himself as he had the best constitution of all four. The saloon owner brought a weapon of his own, an old broomhandle pistol a customer had gifted him years ago.
Garland and the warlock walked on the frontline, with the middle-aged miner holding his pitchfork tightly and making them a way through the blades of grass in the field. Tao and Ms. May walked behind them, protecting Jonesy and the saloon owner from the flanks as they were the least-experienced shooters of the bunch.
From the distance, the ramshackled barn looked like a thing of the past, its monstrous shape protruding out of the wheatfields like an ominous reminder of the things to come. The light of Utopia’s only moon filtered itself through the holes on the barn’s roof, bathing the building’s outskirts with an unholy sense of tranquility. The Van Cleefs’ farmlands were anything but the promised land the enthralled workers had said, true to the tianac’s pestering influence.
As they reached the barn’s outer fence, the posse met a horrendous revelation.
Most of the townsfolk were gathered in front of the barn’s wrecked doors, in a way reminiscent of an army’s formation: grouped tightly against each other, carefully ordered by malevolence itself. However, that’s where the similarities ended. Their faces were truly devoid of life, with their jaws hanging off their necks. Some of them were even starting to rot, their skin pale and pustular by the effects of the approaching death.
He knew, by the sight of the undead citizens, that the tianac had fed recently. And that, probably, they were the only living people left at Calamity Road.
His partners, though, had conflicting ideas about it.
‘Are you… are you sure that when we kill the tianac we will recover our town, sir?’ Jonesy asked.
‘You can judge that by yourself, kid.’
‘We arrived too late.’ Ms. May said. At least she was being honest with herself.
‘No… No, this cannot be!’ Jonesy said, refusing to accept the truth.
‘You better believe it, nutjob.’ Garland said. ‘The sooner you do it, the best you will do your job.’
Tao remained silent. It was only at that point that the warlock realized his mistake.
‘Mr. Garland… Is your friend a mute?’
‘Nah, he’s not a mute, sir. He’s just… Wait a minute. Why do you ask that?’
‘Because he hasn’t done anything but laugh all night long.’
‘And?’ Garland replied.
‘Was he alone outside the quarry recently?’
‘Um… Yes, he went to the water well to pick…’ Garland suddenly fell silent, realizing the same thing as his mysterious companion. ‘Oh, no.’
The warlock put his hand on his revolver, carefully unholstering it. Just as he thought, Tao started laughing in the same way he laughed at Garland’s jokes in the saloon.
‘The first sign of enthrallment by a tianac, Mr. Garland, at least in the first two or three days after the deed has been done… is the loss of speech.’
The warlock quickly turned, pointing his gun at Tao. His eyes were bleeding red, and his mouth contorted and screamed as he shot the saloon owner twice. His screams were met with a heartrending screech coming out of the entire undead townsfolk, piercing the living’s ears as they ran towards the posse in an attempt to swarm them.
He ended Tao’s life with a well-placed shot to the forehead before he could shoot one of the others. Ms. May, caught by the horror of it, shot Tao twice with her shotgun, blowing his torso apart and making a mess of Jonesy’s white shirt. Two wasted shots, he thought.
As the undead came towards them, he urged them to form a firing line.
‘Jonesy, take care of him!’ the warlock said to the kid, who was able to throw his gun to Garland at the very least before attending the wounded saloon owner. For all his self-righteousness, Jonesy was actually good at keeping his shit together.
‘What are we going to do, sir?!’ Ms. May shouted to the warlock.
‘The same thing you did with Tao, Ms. May.’
Hell unleashed in the Van Cleefs’ farmlands. As the creatures approached, their screeches getting louder and louder, Ms. May and Garland fired every single round they had towards them as the warlock helped Jonesy carry the wounded saloon owner to a safer position. Garland’s choice had proven worthful, as Ms. May was getting increasingly good with her shotgun; nevertheless, there were too many thralls… and they started running out of bullets.
Ensuring himself that Jonesy could tend the saloon owner near the fence, the warlock started shooting the incoming horde with his revolver as well. Aware that he was only culling the meek, and that his true test would come soon enough.
When the shooting ended, all of Calamity Road laid dead on the Van Cleefs’ wheatfields. Garland had been injured by the claws of one of the creatures, but he would live. Ms. May was shocked, constantly pulling the trigger of her shotgun even while she had no buckshot left. Apart of the trigger’s click and their breaths, there was no other sound in the entire farm.
‘Sir…’ Jonesy said to the warlock. ‘What we have done?’
‘What we had to do, kid.’ Garland replied, breathing heavily.
‘But… but what of the creature?’ Ms. May said, slowly recovering from her shock.
As the warlock opened his mouth to answer her, circumstances were quicker than him. For a high-pitched screech, even more piercing than the ones made by the undead, was heard from inside the barn. A powerful force knocked down the doors of the eroded building, filling the air with rubble and dread. When the dust settled down, true horror took place.
A misshapen beast, hulking above the barnyard’s wreckage, rampaged towards the posse. Its humanoid shape became difficult to understand amongst its mane, composed of spiked silvery hair. A pair of vestigial wings ran over his arms and chest, still too infant to support his weight on the air. His head lacked any eyes, a bulbous and hideous protuberance taking their place in its head and dropping a mucous-like substance over its enormous jaw, filled with crystal-like teeth that were freshly bathed in blood.
Punching the ground with its fists, the creature stared at the remains of its forsaken family, growling in anger.
‘Is that…?’ Garland asked.
‘Yes, Mr. Garland. That is a tianac.’ the warlock answered Garland as he stepped in front of the posse, holstering his revolver on his belt’s left side and removing his coat.
‘We don’t have enough bullets to take down that beast!’, Ms. May shouted.
The warlock knew best. Unholstering his true weapon, which he held on the right side of his belt, he removed his hat as well, his white mane shining because of the moonlight.
The gun was unlike any other weapon Garland, Jonesy or Ms. May had seen. It looked like a one-shot pistol, quite similar to flintlock guns and weapons of old. As he opened the gun’s chamber, he removed the glove in his left hand with his teeth, baring its burnt, badly wounded fingers and pointing them right at the chamber. Then, the unspeakable happened.
From his skin, a hot, strange substance similar to magma started to flow through his fingers, filling the gun’s chamber with its hellish load. As the weapon was filled, its cannon started to glow, revealing an elaborate damascene engraving covering the entire surface of the gun.
‘What… what in the Highfather’s name…’ Jonesy whispered, overwhelmed with wonder.
‘That, kid…’ the saloon’s owner said...