He watched from the tree boughs as the group drew nearer. Their leader, a man on a black horse wearing fur and with tattoos of canines covering the flesh exposed to the cold. The cursing of the entire group and crunching of the snow beneath their boots could be heard on the howling wind. The one watching moved further up the trail. He had decorations to set up.
Cerberus cursed at the wind, the snow it brought reducing the visibility to only a couple of feet. His men followed behind him, but only the two highest ranking men rode horses, the rest walked. There were at least a dozen and a half of them, a large enough force to take a village through intimidation alone, but able to destroy one if need be. Though they always showed up heavily armed, killing was a last resort. It is better to have people to rule than simply empty land to control.
“Hey, rookie, I heard some of the people from your village saying that there was a monster in these woods. Are you scared that that’s what happened to the scouts?” a particularly filthy and ugly guy who was more muscle than brains asked the young, fresh faced teenager next to him.
“I don’t know, there were rumors for the last few years that there was something in the woods near the town up ahead, something that ate people. Nobody ever saw it, and the rumors came from the half eaten bodies dragged out of the woods to be buried,” the kid said. He had been recruited from the village a couple of miles behind the group. His home had been taken over and converted into a pseudo military base. He joined up to prove to his friends that he was tougher than he looked. His parents, both hunters, had died earlier that year from a bear attack.
“It was probably just wild dogs or bears,” another man who had been listening in said. “The worst thing you might come across is a cannibal, but they usually go crazy from all that brain eating. Ironic, that eating brains destroys your brains,” he finished, a dark smile on his face.
“That’s not what ironic means you moron,” the first man said. He was about to say more, but he ran into the man in front of him who had stopped suddenly. It didn’t take long to figure out why the group collectively halted. The two scouts that had been sent ahead because of the snowstorm were dangling from the tree branches by their entrails, which had been wrapped around their necks, a look of fear literally frozen on their faces. Snow caked their clothing and hair, but the still warm blood dripped off their bodies, creating a dream-like red and white contrast.
“What the hell did this? Not your monster, was it rookie?” the dirty man said. When he turned to the rookie, however, there was nothing but empty space where the kid had stood. He was about to ask if the kid had ran off before his answer flew out of the steadily shrieking storm, striking him in the face. Recoiling, he caught the object after it bounced off his face before it hit the ground, and screamed when he saw what it was: the severed head of the teenager, the face frozen in fear.
“Quit your screaming, you coward, this isn’t the first dead kid you’ve seen,” one of the men said, smacking the screaming man upside the head. Nodding, he built up a thin façade of toughness that did little to mask his fear. He might have seen dead teenagers before, but he somehow felt that he wasn’t going to leave these woods alive.
While everyone else’s eyes were on the ugly raider who screamed, a lieutenant was torn off his horse with enough force to rip the saddle. Even though he didn’t get a chance to scream, the movement and the sound of the ripping leather was enough to attract the attention of the leader and the other lieutenant.
In response the other lieutenant chased after his comrade into the snow beyond sight, screaming “Get back you co…” before he was interrupted with the sound of his horse shrieking and gurgling. “There’s a barricade… made of icicles, my horse…” he tried to shout, before he was cut off with a wet croak.
The loss of the lieutenants caused panic among the rest of the men, who had pulled out their weapons, prepared to shoot at anything that showed itself. For what felt like an hour, nothing happened, and the men fell into a tense silence, the howling wind being the only noise. What broke the tension was a creaking noise from the treetops above the men before the body of one of the lieutenants, covered in a shell of ice and razor-sharp icicles fell into the center of the group, killing the two men it landed on top of.
Three of the men left lost their composure and ran off into the snowstorm screaming. One of them returned, though not of his own will. He flew back into the group from the impact of what appeared to be a spear several inches thick, the force and velocity impaling a second man. From the woods, the screaming of the other two men echoed through the trees before being cut off simultaneously. As the echoes were swallowed by the wind of the steadily increasing storm, the men huddled together, unsure of where to look, nerves taught, and triggers ounces away from misfires.
One of the men caught sight of a vaguely humanoid shape in the snow and shot it out of fear and surprise. His shots were followed with a rain of lead from behind him, the noise from his rifle triggering the reflexes of all of his comrades. When Cerberus shouted them to stop, a cheer rose up, the remaining men, confident that the monster that had stalked them was dead and bullet riddled by now. The man who fired the first shot walked over to the body, paranoid, feeling that the kill was simply too easy. Reaching the body, he rolled it over to see its face.
“It’s not the monster! We killed the wrong man!” he shouted after recognizing the face of one of the men who ran out, his mouth filled with ice. Those were his last words as, while facing his comrades, a pure white blade attached to the underside of a gun barrel pierced through his chest before pulling him off his feet back into the snow.
While the remaining men stared, unable to react, one man began firing into the space formerly occupied by his friend. Before the gunfire could break the men out of their stupor, the sound of bullets ricocheting rang through the wind and three men, including the one firing, were struck between the eyes.
“Form up into a circle men, we can’t let this thing surprise us anymore!” Cerberus shouted. As the men shuffled into position, one man was grabbed by the leg, and dragged screaming into the woods. Gunfire followed him, but the continued screaming informed them that not a single shot struck its target. As the scream faded into the distance, the remaining men began to relax, thinking that the threat was over with.
As the formation began to disintegrate, the man fell from the branches above, hanging upside down by his entrails, mouth covered with ice, and panic in his eyes.
“He’s still alive! Get him down, and get the ice out of his mouth!” a man shouted.
“He’s already dead,” Cerberus said, shooting the hung man in the head.
“We’re going to die out here, we can’t survive this…” one man in the crowd said softly, fear covering his face. He suddenly froze, the abruptness of his silence catching everybody’s attention. After a moment, he leaned forward, falling onto his face, revealing a tear in his back where his spine was torn out.
As everybody looked about, one man halted, noticing something odd. “What happened to the guy who was hanging?” he asked. The response came swinging in from the snow. The body, now impaled with several sharpened tree branches and swinging from the entrails still attached to the branches above, swept into the group, killing two men. Before it could reach a return trip, the branch it was connected to gave out, falling on top of a third man, crushing him.
All that was left now was Cerberus and one single man, surrounded by snow and gore.
“What should I do?” the man asked Cerberus, keeping his back to his leader.
“We’ll have to make a run for it. The town we came from is too far, and this other village, Old Forge, is only a mile away,” Cerberus replied. When he turned to look at his remaining companion, he was greeted with the sight of the man’s neck, now ending in a stump.
Before he could react, he felt something colder than he ever knew encompass his arm, and sight revealed to him a stump coated in ice where his arm used to be. Using his remaining arm, he swung his fist around, hoping for a lucky shot, only to have his other arm receive the same fate as the first. He then felt the same icy feeling stab him in the center of his spine, and his legs gave out, paralyzed. Falling with his face to the sky, he could only stare at the bare branches above, snow coating his face.
“I’ll kill you Wendigo, you monster of the forest. Even if I have to come back as a hound of fire,” he cursed before his head was sliced down the middle.
Back at Old Forge, a young woman with fiery red hair and bright yellow eyes named Alexia shivered as she prepared for sleep, noticing that the faint wind almost sounded like it was screaming.
The next morning, Alexia was working tanning leather on a rack while watching the children playing. As the children played, Jack entered from the woods, dragging a deer along on a sled. The children, used to seeing such sights, started following Jack so that they could watch the town butcher separate the flesh from the meat. Alexia looked forward to it because Jack would inevitably choose to be the one to carry the skin over to her so that she could prepare the fur and the leather for clothing, bedding, or for trade. She blushed a bit as her thoughts strayed, her hands working by themselves. She broke out of her daydreaming when somebody placed a thick, oversized leather coat over her shoulders.
“Your face was as red as your hair. I thought it might be from the cold,” Jack told her when she looked around, startled. She was so deep into her thoughts that she hadn’t heard him approach.
The moment was interrupted when a trader and his guards entered town. They were riding on top of an old truck pulled by two horses, one of them with a mutated second head hanging lifelessly from the neck. The villagers assumed the man was a trader from the various products in the bed of the truck, but the man and the two guards riding it, were pale as the snow.
As soon as the truck made its way near the center of town, the guards, a man and a woman wearing leather and bits of steel, walked into the inn wordlessly. The trader got off the hood of the truck, stumbled, and fell to his hands and knees, vomiting. After a moment, he looked up, saw the butcher at work, and then began vomiting uncontrollably again.
Jack and Alexia stared as one of the men who acted as town guard ,wearing thick leather and carrying a sword and a revolver, walked over to the vomiting trader. Alexia couldn’t hear what either of them said, but knew that it must be something bad if even the traders guards were visibly shaken. After the town guard finished talking to the man, who by now had progressed to the occasional dry retching after clearing his mouth with snow, he helped the trader into the inn.
Shortly after the town guard exited the inn, Jack walked up to find out what had happened.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” the guard replied. “he kept going on about some sort of massacre out in the woods along the trail towards Inlet, which he said was seized by some sort of group of marauders or some such thing. Whatever it is, I’m sending a few men to check it out. In the mean time, I suggest you stay out of that side of the woods, and let me know if you see anything odd, ok?”
Jack agreed, and watched as the guard sought out others to search the woods.
An hour later, the two guardsman who were sent out to the woods to investigate the scene returned, the older, grizzled man looking pale as snow, the younger one, a newer guardsman of about twenty, was pale and green. When their commander asked them what they saw, the young man simply began vomiting, just like the trader did. The older guard managed to maintain his composure well enough to answer.
“What we saw out there was no less than a massacre. There had to be at least a dozen men out there, all of them torn up, and some of them partially eaten. There was at least one particularly large body that looked like it was dragged away, we assume by wolves. I have heard stories about deaths like this from traders coming from Inlet, but from what the trader said, I don’t think we can gather any information from there. What I did notice though is that the men who got killed out there were all heavily armed, and there were bullet holes in the trees, so they fought back, but I don’t see any evidence that they killed what attacked them. Whatever got them was doing us a favor though. I think they were coming this way to take us over like they did Inlet. I’m thankful for that, but I still don’t think I would shake the hand of whatever did that,” he reported. The commander then dismissed them, the younger one now standing, but still looking queasy.
Meanwhile, in a cluster of old, abandoned factories, a man known as Blitzkrieg slept on a bed made from a cot and piles of fur in what was once the overseer’s office, which was fitting, considering Blitzkriegs status among the men. He awoke with a start, pulling a large, .45 caliber revolver from under his pillow, at the sound of a knock at the door. He never slept deeply, incapable of relaxing and letting his guard down.
“What is it?” he growled with calm irritation. Timidly, a young man opened the door.
“I’m here with the progress report, sir. Cerberus and thirty of his men have acquired the village of Inlet, with minimal casualties, all on the village side,” the young man said, carefully omitting the reports of unnecessary cruelty the men, former raiders, inflicted upon the residents of the village.
“Good. The town will have plenty of people to aid our growing army. Eventually, after we take enough of these small towns, we’ll have a large enough force to go after bigger targets, like the New York ruins. We can then spread across the land, uniting everybody under a common banner. Only then can progress return, and war can be prevented. Anything else?” Blitzkrieg asked, regaining full alertness from iterating his desire to the young messenger.
“Yes sir. It seems that after acquiring Inlet, Cerberus left with about eighteen men to take over a village called Old Forge. However, it seems he never made it back. The only indications on what happened are reports of an exceptionally gruesome attack. The bodies of the men torn apart and eaten, Cerberus missing,” the young man said, cringing in anticipation for Blitzkriegs likely violent reaction.
Blitzkrieg stared at the young man coldly, thinking. Finally, he said “A group of some of my best men, my brother leading them, are now dead, or missing. And they have been eaten. I need to know what happened, and Vlad will want to know as well. Has he been informed yet?”
“Not yet sir,” the young man said, omitting the reason why he truly dreaded telling Blitzkriegs brother, Vladamire. Both terrified him, but from what he heard of Vlad, he would rather deal with Blitzkrieg, because at least then he would die quickly.
“Let him know. Also, find out if it was an animal or a man that ate my men. If it was a man, Vlad would be the best to send to deal with it. He knows how the cannibals think. Also, make sure they know to thoroughly investigate Old Forge. I’m quite sure we’ll find some answers there,” Blitzkrieg said calmly, dismissing the messenger. Though the young man was relieved to have survived Blitzkrieg, he worried that Vladamire would fail to be as calm.
Vladamire was sitting at the head of a long rectangular table drinking from a metallic goblet in a room that was once used to store products the factory made. The few windows that were there were covered with thick curtains made from deer hide, and the only light came from a number of candles of various colors. The centerpiece of the table consisted of a corpse whose gender, let alone its identity, were unrecognizable due to the loss of a majority of the flesh. The thoroughly cooked muscle glistened, and the body was garnished with needles and branches of pine trees, one of the few plants that grew well in the frozen lands outside.
A tall, pale, gaunt faced man wearing fur and leather dyed black drifted into the light given off by the candles. “A messenger comes with unfortunate news about your brother, sir,” he said quietly, but clearly. Vladamire gave an almost imperceptible nod in return, and moments later, the sound of a door opening echoed through the room.
The messenger was the same young man that woke Blitzkrieg, and fear plastered his face as he stepped into the candle light. “What news do you bring about my brother?” Vlad asked calmly, his demeanor unchanging.
“Y-Y-Yes sir. The group that Cerberus led, a-a-after taking over the town of I-I-Inlet was making their way to Old Forge when they were a-a-a-a-attacked. A-All we know is that there are no apparent s-s-survivors, and the remains indicate that they were partially e-e-eaten,” the young man stammered out, fearing that Vladamire would punish him for delivering ill news. However, Vladamire’s expression remained placid as he remained silent for a moment. Finally, he said: “Thank you for bringing me this news. I shall use what we know to work towards avenging my brother. And please, relax. I understand my reputation, but I do not kill messengers. Such an action derives from one’s inability to control their emotions. I would offer you a warm meal to help you to relax, but I fear our tastes may differ. In the meantime, my steward will show you out. And please, give my remaining brother this message: I will find the one that did this, and I will make them, and anybody protecting them, regret their actions.”
The messenger thanked Vladamire, expressing visible relief, before following the man wearing black through the darkness to the exit. The moment he was out the door, a new thought had begun entering his head. He began to wonder if he should have taken Vlad up on his offer of a warm meal, curious if he might have that in common with the soldiers known as Vladamire’s Knights.
That night, one of the trader’s guards, the female, woke in the darkness next to her companion and lover, gripped by a strange sense of dread for the coming day.
“What is it, love, you feel it too?” her lover asked. He was sitting up in bed, cross legged and appeared to have gotten very little sleep. She simply nodded in return, not feeling a reason to put the sensation into words. The two got dressed and crept into their employer’s room, shaking him awake from the nightmare he was visibly suffering.
“We have to leave tonight,” the girl whispered to the bleary eyed trader, not wanting to wake the others who slept in the inn. He looked as though he might refuse, but the expression on the faces of his guards made him agree. He quickly gathered his things and made his way to his truck while the guards prepared the horses. The silence of the night must have infected the horses as well, as they made no noise, nor needed any verbal commands when guided out of town. The only witness to this small exodus was a single guard on night watch who did nothing to stop them. Instead, a feeling in his gut made him want to jump onto the truck and ride away with them, duty being the only thing that made him stay.
The next morning was chaos. Shortly before noon a tank had burst through the trees into Old Forge, followed by roaring motorcycles ridden by a combination of screaming lunatics and stoic soldiers wielding makeshift swords, axes and maces, along with scavenged firearms. The first couple of guards, the bravest, most dedicated ones, were cut down quickly, the momentum from the motorcycles providing extra force rendering the armor the guards wore useless. The tank moved near the center of town next to the inn before shooting its cannon into the building, destroying it.
Amidst the chaos, Alexia ran, avoiding the motorcycles out of luck more than skill, hoping to make it to the woods. When she got to the edge of town, she noticed Jacks home, a small cottage nestled against a large boulder that always seemed a bit odd, though not in any way identifiable. As Alexia opened the door to tell Jack about the attack on the town, she realized that the house was empty, and not just of people. It didn’t have a bed, just some furs tossed on the floor next to one wall, and a wooden table that looked like it was never used. Alexia knew that some people had Spartan furnishings, not wanting to go through the work of scavenging furniture and dragging it home, but this was beyond that. Alexia began walking the one room building, her curiosity about Jack surfacing, her concerns on safety slipping to the back of her mind, the chaos of the attack focusing on the center and entrance of the town.
As she wandered the room, she noticed the floorboards sounded a bit different near the pile of furs, as if there was a hole beneath them. Throwing back the furs revealed a subtle barely visible trap door. It took Alexia a moment to discover the latch, which was hidden by a square piece of wood. Twisting the latch caused the trap door to fall downward, revealing a simple wooden ladder built into the earth.
As she reached the bottom, she turned around and screamed, seeing Jack right behind her, holding in his right hand a strange weapon. The expression on his face looked strange to her, with an unusual degree of seriousness and a slightly feral look in his eyes. It almost looked like he was a completely different person.
“I know about the attack. I’m leaving now to take care of it. However, I need you to stay down here. I’m going to show you to a room, and I don’t want you to leave it, or touch anything inside of it, as it is all very dangerous. I will come back to let you out afterwards, understood?” Jack said, his voice cementing the feeling that he was almost a different person. Alexia only nodded, unsure of how to react. Jack then led her through a mazelike series of hallways and paths. A few of them overlooked a central chamber, an underground cavern filled with strange vehicles and items Alexia had never before seen in her life. She tried at first to keep track of the path they took, but soon lost track, giving up and simply allowing herself to be led. Finally, they reached a small room with a workbench and what looked like a cradle for the weapon Jack held. Alexia had gotten a good look at the weapon, finding it more and more unusual. It was like a pale white sword, except the handle was shaped like the stock of a rifle made from some sort of solid, pale grey wood. The blunt side of the blade appeared to be the barrel of a rifle, though the tip was a sharpened point with a circular hole, giving it the appearance of an oversized needle.
As he left the room, Alexia heard the click of the door locking behind him. As she worried about what would happen to him, she began to wander the small room, examining the strange devices on the walls, not knowing what to make of most of them. As she did so, her thoughts quickly transitioned into wonder on who Jack really was, and why he surrounded himself with forbidden technology.
Meanwhile, above ground, Vladamire and his men had forced the people who failed to flee into the center of the town with the surviving guards tied up, two of them impaled on steel poles through the rectum and out the chest. The villagers stared and cried, with the parents trying to cover the eyes of the children while the two impaled men groaned and screamed, still living, for the steel failed to pierce any vital organs, but guaranteed a slow and painful death that could last for days.
“Now then, how shall I address you?” Vladamire asked the next guard, who was trembling in fear and sympathetic pain. “My name is Johnny, please don’t hurt me!” the guard begged. He, and the other captured guards, were not among the courageous guards, who all perished in fighting the attack. Instead, they had joined up because they wanted to appear brave, thinking that if they were with enough other guards, they would never have to worry about an actual fight. Johnny, and the others beside him, were regretting their choice, thinking that they should have been woodworkers, or tanners instead of trying to avoid actual work.
“Well then, Johnny. I am going to ask you what I asked the other two. If you choose not to answer, or if you choose to lie, you will meet the same fate as your other two comrades. If you answer me truthfully, however, I will not only let you live, but free these two from their misery. I will ask again, who, or what, is responsible for the death of my brother, in blood and in arms. I know he and his men were eaten. Therefore, I want you to tell me if anyone in this town was once a cannibal, maybe a stranger that waltzed in alone and decided to stay. Perhaps they now hunt, or butcher your food for you. Or maybe they simply bring your meat in from an unknown source. I would greatly appreciate it if you gave me some information. Otherwise, I will have to kill everyone in town, just to make sure. You don’t want that, and I don’t want that. Once this is all over, and I make the one who killed my sibling pay, your home will belong to me and my remaining brother Blitzkrieg. Your home will be cared for, and our only request will be that you help us maintain the towns we’ve already taken, and that you help us spread our influence with either soldiers, food, or technological development,” Vladamire said calmly, ensuring the others remaining heard him.
“H-h-h-how do you know it was a c-c-cannibal? All we know is that a trader came through telling us that there were a bunch of dead bodies in the woods,” Johnny said, fearful, but straining to make sure that he would give the best information that would help him avoid torture.
“I know it was a cannibal because there was still meat on the bones and the bodies were simply left there. An animal eats as much as it can, often leaving survivors that it wouldn’t eat, and it drags its food away somewhere safe. A cannibal doesn’t want to be known, so he kills the survivors, eats what he can and leaves the rest for the beasts. Now, I’m not sure how intelligent you are, so perhaps I should repeat my main questions again. Who in this town kills animals, or gives everyone their meat? Were they born here, or did they just show up one day out of nowhere and move in? I would rather kill just a few people instead of an entire village, but if you fail to answer well, there is going to be a new ghost town for tales to be woven about” Vlad replied with growing irritation.
Before the young guard was able to respond, or even finish forming the image that had begun to form in his mind, a loud scream was heard over the wind that had picked up so slowly and subtly during the conversation that it was unnoticeable until now, and that Vlad and the guard were speaking louder unconsciously in response. Turning to the east in the direction of the inn, Vlad noticed that the shotgun toting soldier he had placed there was missing. The only clue of what happened was the scream and that the snow in his place was stained a bright red.
Vlad and the other townsfolk started looking around, but visibility had dropped with the same slow pace as the wind had, and the spectacle in the front of the inn had drawn everyone’s attention away from the storm that had apparently begun to close in on them. While searching for the cause of the scream, everyone saw that not only did the wind suddenly pick up and suddenly start howling, and that snow had begun to fall with a heavy fierceness of a terrible blizzard, but the storm had also been circling them, as if they were in the center of a tornado, though the wind wasn’t strong enough to destroy the homes around them.
Within seconds of the storm intensifying, another scream was heard from the west beyond the wall of snow before it gurgled to an end. Vladamire then saw a strange shape fly through the snow before becoming visible and landing at his feet between him and the guard. It was the head of one of his men, with the spine and ribcage still attached, organs still nestled between the sternum and vertebrae. The young guard looked as if he was about to scream, but seemed to change his mind after a second and vomited instead. Vladamire responded differently, unsheathing a large caliber revolver out of its holster and firing two shots blindly into the wind, not truly expecting to hit his target. He was wrong.
A moment later, one of his men stumbled out of the shrieking wall of snow and wind, ice covering his mouth and two bullet holes in his chest. He clawed feebly at his face, trying to remove the ice before falling forward dead, blood staining the snow a dark crimson. As another scream sounded, Vlad shouted out to the tank commander, telling him to fire at the next sound heard beyond the wind.