Chapter One: Darwin Flynn, the Scarlet Saint returns in "The World Will Die Screaming"
Phil Bledsoe - Winner of the Pulp Ark Award for "Best Short Story"
Chapter One: Couch Potatoes of the Carpathians
THE WORLD WILL DIE SCREAMING
Starring Darwin Flynn, the Scarlet Saint
by Phil Bledsoe
Chapter One: Couch Potatoes of the Carpathians
A lone man on horseback, holding the reins of a second horse, waits at a remote airfield in the Carpathian Mountains. His breath is visible in the cold air. A small plane skims over the treetops to land on the long disused field, bouncing over the rocky ground.
Once the plane halts, a man steps down from the cockpit. He is dressed in black, hooded and cloaked, his face adorned with a black domino mask bearing a red fleur-de-lis. His name is Darwin Flynn, but he is more widely known as the Scarlet Saint. In his veins flows the blood of generations of jinxes, charlatans, hoaxers, heretics, and mystics while inside his skull sits lodged a madman's silver bullet, grounding the spirits of his ancestors into his brain like Heaven's own lightning rod.
The masked man pats one of the horses affectionately on the neck before mounting the saddle. Without so much as a word between them, the two men ride through the hills towards the taller peaks beyond. Stopping after several hours to camp for the night, Flynn turns to his companion.
“How bad has it been, Razvan? How many dead?” he asks. Razvan pulls the scarf down that has covered most of his face during the ride.
“Very bad, my friend,” the Romanian replies with the light accent of a traveled, educated man. “At least eight are dead so far, and many children missing, and that is just from the Beast itself.”
“Let me guess: the locals have a scapegoat, and they've tried to retaliate.” Razvan nodded sadly and Flynn tapped his own forehead where the silver bullet lay buried, irremovable. “I've encountered that problem before.”
“The people lay these crimes at the feet of the Gypsies, but no living man or woman could commit the brutality of these murders. The villagers have attacked the Gypsies, the Gypsies have fought back. There has been gunfire in the night several times.” Flynn nodded sagely and then pressed his fingers to his temples. His eyes clenched shut as though in great pain.
“The Beast of Gevaudan,” Flynn said. Razvan looked at him quizzically. “An unidentified creature that ravaged south-central France in the 1760s. It was described as a wolf, but much larger and with varying features that suggested some breed of hyena. Cryptozoologists love it. The story has some similarities to this one.”
“Surely you don't think the same monster...” Razvan began. Flynn held up a hand.
“No. I was just drawing a parallel. Whether it was a wild animal or a cryptid or demon from Hell, the deaths were real and so was the hysteria they caused at the time. People were accused of witchcraft, of having summoned the beast, and others of lycanthropy, of being the beast. One of my ancestors was a retired whaler with a good arm for throwing a harpoon; he joined the hunt to try to win the bounty placed on the monster by the king.”
“He was unsuccessful?”
“Everyone was unsuccessful,” Flynn said with a smirk. “The beast was never killed or captured, but my ancestor was accused of lycanthropy by a rival hunter and shot with a silver bullet under suspicious circumstances. Apparently it runs in the family.”
“You were thought a werewolf?” Razvan chuckled. “I thought you only talked to ghosts.”
“No. After I started hearing voices, I dropped out of seminary and settled in a small town to try to medicate myself back to normal. Unfortunately, the family luck had followed me and a serial killer settled in the area about the same time that I did. Strange guy. He had trained two English Mastiffs as attack dogs, then pumped them full of anabolic steroids and sharpened their teeth with a file. Unfortunately, I was the town weirdo in a town with under-equipped cops and an overzealous clergy. Mix in one born-again Christian big game hunter with a penchant for casting his own bullets from precious metals, and there you have it.” He tapped his forehead again. “The doctors said removing it would lobotomize me, and my ancestors were happy for the improved reception.”
“I've always said you were escaped from the circus, with your card tricks and catching bullets and such,” Razvan said. “That joke no longer seems as funny as it once did. Perhaps we should get some sleep for the hunt tomorrow.”
“I'm not sure this is a hunt, old friend. I was on another case in this region of the mountains not that long ago: an old vampire lord who infected my great-great-great-grandfather and got him run through with a wooden stake. While I was scaling the tower to kill the guards, I spotted another castle in the distance, not far from here.”
“A castle in the Carpathians? How is this significant?”
“It wasn't just a ruin. There were lights in the windows, signs of activity. Even at such a distance, I could feel waves of intense evil flowing off the place. That's another gift of my ancestors and the silver bullet radio network: I've become a dowsing rod for sinister thought processes, eldritch energies, and metals. It usually doesn't work beyond a few feet, maybe several yards in an extreme case; just enough to keep me alert to possible harm, or tell me when there's a bullet headed my way. Whoever's in that castle is cranking up something... unreal, something apocalyptic. These beast attacks are just one small part of it, but I can't help thinking that they are somehow connected.”
“You lead an odd my life, my friend,” Razvan muttered, starting the campfire. “I'm never sure when you're joking with me.”
“Just assume everything I say is a joke,” Flynn replied. “Your life will be simpler.” The two men passed the rest of the evening in silence. They slept until morning, then hobbled the horses and fit them with feed bags. Razvan led the way a short distance over the rocks, and then pointed out the strange tracks. Flynn examined them, running his fingers along the ground for a long time before standing up and nodding at his guide to continue.
After following the tracks for a couple of hours, they came to another set that intersected the first. A little further, there was yet another set. Soon the ground was covered with crisscrossing footprints, all belonging to the same creature. The mouth of a cave yawned at them from the rocks ahead.
“I was afraid we would find this,” Razvan said, unslinging the rifle from his back. “It is an old escape tunnel. The cave itself is shallow, but men dug and blasted it out until it ran all the way under the mountains to the other side. Freedom fighters used it to evade the Nazis. Apparently the creature has taken shelter here, which means he could reappear anywhere on either side of the mountains, and the tunnel covers nearly ten miles.”
“It also runs right under the range of peaks where I saw that castle all lit up last time I was here,” Flynn added.
“This is as far as I go,” Razvan said. “I promised I would help you track it, find its lair, but I have a family...”
“I understand. I have family, too. They're just dead and prompting me to go ahead and explore that cave. Yours are alive and hoping you'll be home for supper. Go on, Razvan. You've done all you could.”
“Have you all your cave-climbing equipment?”
“I think so,” said Flynn, checking the harness under his cloak. “Pitons, crampons, rope, lantern, flashlights, provisions. Looks like I've got it all.”
“You should take this,” Razvan said, offering the rifle. Flynn shrugged and shook his head.
“It wouldn't work well in a cave. Besides, I've always done fine with these,” he said, touching the pistols on his belt with one hand, the whip and pouch of tarot cards with the other, then tapping his iron wrist-bands together.
“You and your circus tricks,” Razvan chuckled. “What could you kill with a deck of cards anyway?”
“Nineteen men and three women so far,” Flynn said softly.
“If you will not accept the rifle, at least take this.” Razvan laid his dark red walking stick at Flynn's booted feet. “The stick is ironwood, nearly unbreakable.” Lifting the stick and swinging it experimentally, Flynn nodded his approval.
“This should come in handy,” he admitted. “I'm in your debt.”
“Never so long as I live shall my own debt to you ever be repaid so easily,” Razvan said sharply, then smiled and shook his hand warmly. “You are a strange man. I will miss you. Good luck.”
“Luck doesn't run in the family, but thanks for the thought, and the gift,” Flynn said as the young Romanian turned and headed back towards the campsite. Flynn grasped the haft of the walking stick firmly in his gloved hand. The staff was fitted with a leather strap that ran down the length of it like a rifle sling and served much the same purpose. With a family history of duelists, Crusaders, and brawlers he couldn't help but feel at home with this at his side.
Darwin Flynn, the Scarlet Saint took a deep breath and stepped inside the cave. He could tell immediately that there was no living thing close by. Whatever mysterious beast had sheltered here was not at home, so he ventured further looking for traces of it. He continued past the natural, rough floor of the original cave until he came to the smoother surface of a man-made tunnel. It was narrower with a lower ceiling. As the light from the mouth of the cave began to fade into the distance behind him, he turned on one of his flashlights. The tunnel descended gradually, curved this way and that, always heading inexorably towards the far side of the mountain range.
After what must have been a mile of careful progress, the Saint came to a crack in the wall large enough for him to fit inside. Shining his light through it, he could see it continued until it joined another section of cave lower than this one. His instincts told him that passing straight through the mountains would not bring him to where he needed to be. He lowered himself carefully until he was standing in a long, curving section of cave with a low ceiling. He followed this until his pocket watch agreed with the pain in his back and knees, forcing him to stop for the day. Finding an alcove in the cave wall, he sat down and allowed himself a small amount of water and a few bites of dried meat before wrapping his cloak over himself and sleeping.
After a few hours' fitful rest, he awakened and stretched. One of his ancestors, a Swiss mountaineer, suffered terrible claustrophobia and had been whimpering at him in French throughout the night. Darwin checked to make sure his mask was still in place, even in the darkness of the cave. He removed a small lantern from his belt, lit it, and set it on the cave floor. Breaking his fast with some dry bread and an apple, he poured a small measure of water into the lid of his canteen and used it to dissolve a pinch of freeze-dried coffee. The bitter taste helped clear the wool from his mind. He checked all of his equipment again and then listened for the voices in his head, but they remained silent. He probed at the area around him, but there was no one close enough for their thoughts to intrude on his solitude and these mountains were poor in metal deposits.
A scuffing sound further ahead alerted him to movement and he quickly snuffed the lantern. One hand grabbed a flashlight off of his belt while the other brandished the walking stick in front of him. It was the perfect weapon for this situation: sturdy and practical, yet lethal when necessary. He heard the scuffing again, closer this time, and reached out once more with his thoughts. He could sense the cold, dead lump of silver in his frontal lobe. Whatever was coming closer in the dark either held no ill will towards the world (since he could only detect thoughts of evil), or it had no mind at all. It sounded too large to be a natural creature native to the tunnels, leading the Scarlet Saint to the inevitable conclusion that what approached him now was not of the natural world.
As the sound came within a few feet of where he stood, he clicked on the flashlight in the hope of blinding anything or anyone dangerous. He was shocked to see an emaciated human form lumbering towards him, swaddled in rags like a mummified Bedouin. It bore a huge sack on its back, even larger than its own reedy form. The Saint felt confident in recognizing the walking dead, in whatever form, and he strode up to it and struck it firmly on the head with his walking stick. The dense timber dented the skull and split the papery skin with its sparse patches of hair. The strips of cloth that wrapped the thing's head tore away under the impact, exposing a noseless face with hollow eye sockets and a lipless mouth full of broken teeth. Nonetheless, the creature continued its relentless march through the tunnel with its mysterious burden. Flynn was obliged to stand aside as it walked on, oblivious to his presence.
Following it, Flynn raised his stick and bashed at the head again, almost dislodging the hollow appendage from its perch. Seeing that he could arouse no reaction from the thing, nor apparently injure it by blows to the head, he became intrigued by its purpose. Drawing out one of his pistols, he pressed his thumb to the gold skull medallion set into one of the ivory stocks. A short, triangular blade sprang from the butt of the gun and he used it to slice the sack lengthwise, spilling out hundreds of pounds of sand and dust. The creature simply shambled on unawares, its flaccid sack flapping against the backs of its skeletal legs.
Seeing that he could get no satisfaction from harassing this walking corpse, he turned his attention to its point of origin and started retracing its steps back along the length of the tunnel. Again he went on for what must have been more than a mile before he saw any change in his surroundings. The tunnel widened and deepened, leading up to a pile of boulders that appeared purposely stacked to prevent anyone easily moving beyond the larger chamber of the tunnel. Climbing the boulders, he found an opening large enough for the creature to have made it through and looked into the next, even larger chamber.
Everywhere he shone his light, there were more of the walking dead. Whether they were truly mummies, or zombies, or something else he could not say. They moved about a cave large enough to house a small city. Some moved huge boulders, rolling them with no effort at all. Others broke the boulders down the hammers and picks. Still more broke the pieces of the boulders down with smaller hammers, and lastly another group gathered up the fragments and the dust in large sacks to carry away. Judging by the way that the one had ignored him, even when he assaulted it, he decided to climb over top of the pile and slide down the other side for a closer look.
With the walking stick held out in front of him with one hand, the Scarlet Saint ran his fingers along the equipment on his gunbelt. He found a military-style crookneck flashlight and moved it around to the front of the belt where he turned it on to light his way without tying up his hands. He lit his pocket lantern and set it down at the base of the rock pile he had just climbed in the hopes that it would help him find his way out in dire straits. He drew a small flare pistol and fired it upwards in the general direction of what he assumed was the center of the underground chamber. It climbed without striking the ceiling and then drifted down slowly on its parachute, casting harsh white light over the scene while he slung his staff behind one shoulder and loaded another flare. The dead things that labored around him took no notice of the light or the darkness.
Towards the middle of the immense room, there was a circle of natural monoliths sprouting up from the cave floor. They were jagged and irregular, reminding him of broken teeth on a cyclopean scale. Again brandishing the staff against any threat that might materialize he fired another white flare, this one directly overhead. He watched it strike the ceiling of the cavern high above, but the parachute opened and it drifted lazily down to light the path behind him should he need to escape. Nearing the monoliths, the Saint could make out shapes in the midst of the stone circle. There was another, lesser source of light barely visible among them. His first flare was still several yards above him when he reached the edge of the ring and put away the flare pistol. His empty hand went instinctively to the tooled leather of his holster and the faded, indiscernible scrimshaw designs on his Mauser's ivory stocks. He peered around the side of one giant stone pillar, using it for cover. The rough leather of his fencing gauntlet rasped over the careworn butt of the old automatic, and his fingers clutched it tight when he thought he heard voices. The icy droplet of the silver .308-caliber slug in his forehead whispered to him. It whispered, it hummed, and he squeezed his eyes shut and willed it to be silent. It quieted, but continued.
Giving in to the inevitable, the Scarlet Saint called upon the spirit of his great-great-aunt, once removed, Madame Jupiter. A semi-successful palmist and fortune-teller at Coney Island in the 1910s, Madame Jupiter (born Theresa O'Toole) was also the target of a number of charges of fraud that could never be proven, at least not before she disappeared. Regardless of the accusations, her psychic abilities were quite real and Darwin often relied on her to help block unwanted mental intrusion.
“I am here, dahling,” echoed in the crevasses of his ancestral consciousness. A wave of alien thought washed over him and Theresa's shields stood like windowpanes before an avalanche; they held for a second, then collapsed. There were others in the bloodline who could be called upon at times like this: psychics, clairvoyants, exorcists, even a couple of old alchemists and hedge witches, but they were too far back and took too long to contact under pressure. The thought-forms that battered Darwin's brain were not human; this was familiar enough to him. They were not exactly evil per se, but were definitely of a self-serving bent for him to detect them: selfishness and self-preservation to the exclusion of all other priorities and regardless of the consequences to anyone or anything else.
Pushing himself forward and sliding the pistol from his hip before the flares got any lower, the Scarlet Saint surveyed the scene in the midst of the standing stones. Four slabs of rock were arranged in the middle around a pile of bones and debris. Resting on each slab was a glistening, pulsating shape like a giant garden slug. Each one was easily the size of a small car. They writhed and squirmed, apparently unable to crawl off of the low perches on which their bodies rested. Steel gallon buckets rested at one end of each slab, and from the tip of their tails there dripped into the buckets a viscous clear fluid. Walking corpses were collecting the buckets and replacing them with empty ones as he watched. Unafraid of the zombies, if such they were, and unlikely to be threatened by the immobile slug creatures, the Saint moved forward on cat's feet. His flare landed on the other side of the ring of slugs, casting them in silhouette except for where the flashlight on his belt shone against their bodies. He walked around the nearest one, away from the disgusting display of its oozing, squirting tail.
“Eennnhh,” it croaked as he reach its head. A face looked up at him, twisted and deformed. It lacked the range of expression of a true human face, but its scrunched grimace of pain and the fear obvious in its bulging eyes told him all. A single tuft of yellow hair sprouted up from its mottled scalp and its cheeks bulged with burst arteries and hematomas. “Anghaghagk,” it gagged frantically. Limbless, it cast its upper body about as if in memory of having once had arms with which to reach. Scraps of rotten meat and vegetables lay in pools of saliva on the edge of the slab and the ground around it. Was this some strange abomination of science, grown in a lab for some misbegotten purpose, or something once a man now cursed by dark magic?
Darwin watched the “zombies” collect the buckets and take them to an area a short distance away, a large dip in the floor. Another walking dead would then dig through the pile of bones and drag out what looked like a freshly dead human body, dragging it to the same place. A funnel was inserted into the corpse's mouth and the viscous fluid produced by the slugs would be poured into it slowly while the body was wrapped with strips of rotting cloth also dragged from the bone pile. As the Saint watched all of this in mingled disgust and amazement, two things happened simultaneously: the corpse that was being “fed” the slug discharge stood up unsteadily to join its brethren, and a fresh body with a bundle of rotten food fell at great speed from the ceiling to smash onto the pile of bones. Shining his light upwards, he could see nothing; shouldering his staff, he fired a flare towards the source of the falling cadaver and saw the ball of white fire disappear into a void, a monstrous cavity in the ceiling leading to who-knows-where.
As the flare fell back towards the ground from a great height, it did so alongside a length of rope. The rope was being lowered from somewhere above, high up the hollow shaft through the heart of this mountain. A zombie picked up a full bucket from behind one of the slugs and carried it to the rope, where it placed the bucket on a hook and watched it ascend back into the darkness overhead. Another zombie ripped open the canvas bundle and spread handfuls of rotten, maggot-ridden meat, fruit pulp, and leaves on the slabs where the slugs' mouths could reach it. The slugs let out a cry, in unison, that made the Saint's spine quiver coldly. They howled in agony and desperation, and then resigned themselves and started eating. Darwin Flynn had seen enough.
He didn't know what this bizarre tableau represented, but their was foulness behind it, clearly. Flipping off the safety of his silver-plated pistol, he walked around the circle and shot each slug twice through the head. Their faces immediately went slack, their bodies partially deflated with a sound like escaping flatulence, and their tails voided so much of the mysterious “zombie juice” that the buckets overflowed, tipped over, and spilled across the floor. Zombies arriving to retrieve the buckets stopped in their tracks and stood motionless. Darwin then loaded and fired his flare pistol once, in turn, at each slug's bulbous carcass. The flares drilled into the blubbery, wet bodies and continued to burn. In seconds, the surface of the dead bodies was smoking as the fire spread inside them.
The Scarlet Saint looked around for his lantern's light. There it was, just a pinpoint at the edge of the cavern, but still burning. As an experiment, while he walked towards it, he shot zombies through the head until his Mauser broomhandle was empty. None of them reacted, except for the clouds of bone dust that exploded out of their skulls. They kept walking, although he noticed that the whole operation was beginning to jam up as workers inside the stone circle found themselves without a purpose. The rock-breakers clearing space in the cavern could probably go on indefinitely, but he wasn't waiting to see. He also wasn't waiting for the off-chance that the rope would be lowered from the overhead tunnel again. He knew where it led, at any rate. He could easily estimate the distance. He was directly under the castle he had spotted in the distance the night he'd slain the vampire lord. His suspicions were confirmed, but he could see no logic to what he had witnessed. Someone was building an army of the undead, that was certain, but there was obviously more behind this plan.
He retraced his steps through the caves and climbed back up to the man-made tunnel under the mountains. Removing his mask for a moment, he wiped cold sweat from his face. Then the mask was returned to its rightful place, for even in this isolated environment he valued the protective qualities of this old family heirloom.
If the beast that was terrorizing the countryside had come from these tunnels, it was not one of the walking corpses; they were too benign to be dangerous. It couldn't be one of the slugs either. He marveled at the fact that someone had left such an elaborate operation running by itself, unprotected. Perhaps whatever he was hunting when he entered the tunnel had been placed there to protect the secret of the caves? Had it escaped, abandoned its post? And if so, why? He took the time to stop and clean his pistol before reloading it and returning it to his holster. It was several more miles to the other side and he was more prepared than ever for the fact that he might meet something completely outside his previous experience, as outrageous as that experience had been.
The Scarlet Saint strode on alone, in the darkness. His walking staff clicked against the stone floor as he began to whistle an old Irish drinking song.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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