The Long Night
by Derek Paterson
Copyright © 1996
The rotting, stinking corpse shuffled slowly down the winding road that led from the cemetery into the village. Its gait was inhuman, almost mechanical, as one leg wobbled in front of the other, as its outstretched arms windmilled in order to maintain its precarious balance. Its eyes were long gone, the sockets were empty and yet somehow it could see where it was going, as if guided by senses other than sight. Its mouth hung open to display yellowed and broken teeth, and it drooled a foul, green liquid which splashed onto the road, leaving a trail. The stuff bubbled and hissed as it touched the ground, yet the corpse was oblivious to this. It seemed unaware of anything except what lay ahead, its destination. Early morning sunlight touched the dead flesh, and the corpse hesitated for a moment, before it continued on its course.
Villagers stopped in the narrow streets, stared wide-eyed at the approaching thing. Cries went up, people fled into their houses and doors were barred, windows quickly shuttered. Women scooped up their young children and ran, shouting warnings to those who had yet to behold the sight of the creature who had risen from the graveyard. The corpse ignored them all, walking on, its head now questing left and right, what remained of its rotted nose apparently sniffing the air, like some wild animal seeking its prey.
In the village inn, a young man stirred from slumber and thought about going downstairs for breakfast. His name was Otto von Schist, he was the youngest son of Graf Wilhelm von Schist, and he was here in the village on his father's behalf to inspect and perhaps purchase the annual village harvest, which was of medium quality. Otto had plenty of time before the meeting with the village association at ten o'clock. He yawned and sat up in bed, just as the sounds of some disturbance reached his ears. He got up and went to the window, walked out onto the balcony which overlooked the main street, and afforded an excellent view of most of the village.
Otto saw villagers hurrying down the street, disappearing into doorways. He was about to call down to ask what on earth was happening, when his eyes fixed on the figure at the end of the street, standing swaying in the light morning breeze, its tattered clothing revealing dark flesh and grey bones. Otto's breath caught in his throat, he could hardly believe his eyes. The creature seemed to stare back at him, and the cold snake that was fear uncoiled in Otto's stomach.
It was impossible, he told himself, simply impossible...
He recalled the words of his father, of the crazy stories which involved supernatural creatures. Otto, as a little boy, had been frightened by these tales, but as he'd grown towards manhood the fear had receded, became something to laugh about. Now, his father's words returned, and he realized that the Graf had not simply been entertaining his children, but had been imparting a warning. A warning that such creatures could and did exist.
From the large house near the end of the street, a tall man wearing a black coat emerged. Otto recognized him as being one Franz Ruttgart, a principal member of the villagers' association and a personal friend of his father's. Ruttgart stepped into the street, not twenty paces from the swaying corpse, and Otto noticed that he carried a heavy riding whip, coiled in his hand. Even if Otto had shouted a warning, it was doubtful whether the older man would have heard him at this distance. Ruttgart came forward, boldly approaching the hideous, rotting creature, his arm raised, the whip uncoiling. With what seemed to be mild curiosity, the corpse's head swiveled to follow Ruttgart's advance. Then the whip blurred, and the corpse's arm shot out, so that the leather whip went around the arm; the corpse pulled with inhuman strength, jerking Ruttgart off his feet. As Otto watched, the dead jaws opened, further than they should have been able to, closing around Ruttgart's neck. Crimson blood fountained, Ruttgart writhed in agony, tried in vain to pull himself away from death, but he was caught in the trap, his throat torn open, gushing his life's-blood onto the cobbles, where it drained and vanished among the old stones.
Otto turned and went inside his room, strode with purpose towards the old chest that lay in a corner. The von Schist family crest was emblazoned upon the lid. He opened the latches, pushed up the lid and withdrew the weapon that lay inside. It was a sword of great age, handed down through generations of von Schists, the scabbard rich, inlaid with silver and gold and many precious jewels. Otto gripped this firmly and pulled the sword free. The engraved blade glinted, the strange characters that ran its entire length speaking to him in an ancient language beyond his knowledge. It held him spellbound for a few moments, before he shook his head, regaining his senses, remembering that which had murdered Franz Ruttgart.
Now Otto returned to the balcony, saw that Ruttgart was lying on the ground, motionless, a dark stain spreading from beneath his body. The creature who had killed him had not moved from its former position; its rotting remains and clothing were now wet with fresh blood, and it appeared to be shaking, as if struck by some strange illness. But Otto knew what was really happening: the corpse was absorbing Ruttgart's blood, drawing strength from the warm liquid, regenerating its dead flesh and increasing in strength and size. Such was the power of the dead who walked the earth: it was their goal to restore themselves entirely and return to the world of mortal men, evil monsters in human guise, to prey upon the innocent, like vampires, seeking a constant supply of blood to maintain their appearance, lest they revert to that which had risen from the grave.
Otto vaulted the balcony rail and landed in the street below like a cat. Some straggler villagers pushed past him, wondering at the sanity of this stranger who dared face the horror who had already killed one of their kind. Ignoring them, Otto advanced to where the corpse stood waiting, ghastly in the sunlight, its face now half-formed, eyes alive in the sunken sockets. These turned to regard Otto with undisguised amusement. Otto halted, shocked as he felt evil power radiating from the corpse.
To his astonishment, the corpse's mouth opened and it spoke to him in a cold, growling voice from beyond the grave, the very sound sending shivers down his spine.
"Son of the House of von Schist, I am commanded to find you and dispense retribution for your ancestor's crimes against my Master. You must die, so that your family will know their time is marked and my Master will destroy your House forever."
"Bold words, for a corpse," said Otto.
The creature turned its head to look at Otto out of the corner of its eye, a curiously human gesture.
"Not just any corpse," it said.
Otto now became aware that there was something vaguely familiar about the creature, now that its face was beginning to re-form. Otto tried to remember: someone he had known, had perhaps met during a previous visit to this area when he was younger, traveling with his father. He also became aware that, in addition to the tattered rags it wore, the thing also wore a belt around its waist, and from that belt hung an old scabbard, containing an old, rusted sword. His sixth sense for danger caused him to step away from the corpse, and just in time: the bony hand closed about the ancient sword and drew it from its scabbard in a blur, the tip cutting the air where Otto's head had been only an instant before.
"Oops," said the corpse, stepping over Franz Ruttgart, its eyes burning now with a cold light. Its sword flashed again and Otto parried, feeling the corpse's inhuman strength through his arm, shocking his muscles, his nerves. It lunged, striking at his heart with the speed of a cobra. Only years of training with the sword, under the harsh eye of his father's servants, several of whom were tough ex-mercenaries from the armies of Europe and further abroad, saved his life; he countered and side-stepped, slashed at the corpse's chest. Its flesh gave way, parting with a nauseous sound, and the corpse seemed to jerk with shock, before attacking again. They circled each other in the middle of the blood-soaked street, the sound of their swordplay echoing off the high walls, while the eyes of frightened villagers watched them from a safe distance.
The memory struck Otto like a physical blow: he remembered that in his childhood, a visitor had came to Castle von Schist, a famous sea-captain who had came to conclude some business with Otto's father, the Graf. The man had been tall, handsome in a rugged way, his long hair red and tied at the neck, his clothes strange and unfamiliar, unlike anything Otto had seen before. The boy, sent to bed early, had heard their voices, raised in argument, well into the night. Then there was some sort of disturbance, followed by an unnatural silence. Otto had been awakened just before dawn by the sounds of horse and cart leaving the castle; he'd wondered at this but when he'd asked, the servants had told him that the sea-captain had left during the night, hurrying back to the coast to rejoin his ship, and that the cart had been going down into the town to fetch supplies, nothing more. What had truly happened that night? Seeing the face of the sea-captain in the corpse that stood before him, Otto could take an educated guess: whatever had brought the man to Castle von Schist that dark night had resulted in the captain's untimely death, either by the Graf's hand or at the hand of one of his father's servants. The horse and cart had taken the body out of the castle, far away—to this sleepy village's graveyard. Had the local priest been paid to bury the sea-captain in an unmarked grave? This was indeed possible, Otto had known for some time that the Graf had interests in certain areas which fell outside the law or were at the very least on the fringe of good taste. That the sea-captain had been a smuggler was very likely; that he had attempted to bribe or blackmail the Graf into giving him more than his just share of reward for services rendered, seemed equally likely. The Graf was not known for his reluctance to part with wealth, if those who entered into partnership with him kept their word and earned their fee, therefore Otto did not doubt that the sea-captain's own greed or stupidity had earned him his fate. Come to think of it, the Graf had limped for some days after the sea-captain's departure, and had seemed somewhat gruff when speaking to servants; a sword-wound or some other injury inflicted during a physical struggle might very well have explained this odd behavior.
"You will die, son of the House of von Schist," said the sea-captain, "and when my service to my Master is finished, I will sleep the sleep of eternity."
Otto ducked under a cut that would have taken his head off had he remained still, darted in and lopped off the corpse's left leg, at the point where it joined the hip. The creature swayed on its remaining leg, looking down at its own appendage lying on the cobbled street. Otto's eyes might have been playing tricks on him but it seemed that tiny flames licked at the top of the twitching leg, where his sword-blade had touched the dead flesh.
Before the corpse could do anything else, Otto spun around and brought his sword in at a precise height, taking the skull from the shoulders. The head bounced on the cobbles, its body collapsed like a deflating balloon, the rusty sword falling from dead fingers. Tiny flames began to lick at its outline.
"I don't think I'm going to die today," Otto told his enemy, leaning on his sword, relaxing now, confident that the menace was over.
The head had come to rest so that the half-repaired face was turned to regard Otto. The lips worked, as if trying to form words. The eyes were full of hatred and malice but the light in them was fading, going out like the flames of twin candles, and Otto had to lean forward to hear the sea-captain's final curse.
"Death to your House, to all who bear your name," it said, and Otto, who'd had quite enough by now, kicked the head into a gutter, where it rolled among horse-filth before coming to an eventual stop on the edge of a sewage-hole; it seemed to hang there for a long moment, before toppling into the hole, to be lost forever in the muck beneath the village streets.
Something made Otto spin, his sword raised: Franz Ruttgart was standing behind him, his throat a ghastly open wound, his eyes showing white in their sockets. Otto licked suddenly-dry lips as he realized that Ruttgart's corpse had been animated by the same evil that had sent the sea-captain into the village to cause mayhem and murder Otto von Schist. Ruttgart's whip hissed and Otto felt its sting across his shoulder, ducked and rolled, came to his feet with his sword already in motion, decapitating the corpse cleanly. Ruttgart's head bounced, rolled to a stop, and began to burn, while his body fell to its knees, pitched forward to lie motionless in the street. Flames also began to consume this, and Otto stepped back, foul-smelling smoke filling his nostrils.
Only then did the villagers emerge from hiding, to examine the burning remains, to consider the horrible fate of their friend Franz Ruttgart, and to thank Otto von Schist for his timely action, for ridding the village of this terrible evil. Otto said nothing, suspecting—rightly—that this was not an isolated or random incident, that it was only a beginning.
Otto's return to Castle von Schist was uneventful, and two days later he was outside the gates, at the top of the winding road that led up the steep cliffside to the great fortress, which overlooked the town of Dorfund, a medium-sized collection of houses and stables and barns, where a thousand families lived in prosperity.
The door was opened and he bade hello to the servant who had answered his pull of the bell-rope. Otto dismounted and another servant led his horse into the stable. He turned to regard Varnard, he who had opened the door, for the servant's expression was dark, a mixture of concern and anger.
In response to Otto's questioning look, Varnard gave the explanation for his appearance.
"The Graf is missing," said the servant. "He set off yesterday morning for his daily ride, with Harth and Keller accompanying him, as usual. Their bodies were found just after mid-day by a goat-herder. There was no sign of the Graf."
"How did they die?" demanded Otto, for Harth and Keller were excellent swordsmen of championship quality, who had had a hand in Otto's training with the blade.
"Their bodies were cut to pieces. It was if many swords had attacked them from all sides, with no finesse, hacking until the men were dead."
"I saw riders in the distance as I approached the castle," said Otto.
"Search parties," nodded Varnard. "They have quartered the entire area time and time again, looking for the Graf or those who killed Harth and Keller, but with no success. We fear for your father."
"As do I," said Otto. "Where is my brother?"
"Gerdt is in the Main Hall, directing the search. He will be pleased to see you have returned safely."
Otto made his way through the castle, to the Main Hall where a log fire burned in the grate, warming the chamber. His elder brother Gerdt was bent over a table, studying maps and charts of the surrounding lands. He looked up as Otto descended the steps that led down to floor level.
"It is grim news," said Otto, after they embraced.
Gerdt could only nod agreement. He indicated a piece of paper lying at the far end of the table, and Otto lifted this, read the words it contained. Something on the table caught his eye and he examined the small gold locket and chain. The locket bore the letter "M" and when he opened it, the picture of a very beautiful dark-haired woman stared out at him.
"Who is this?" he asked.
"Presumably she who wrote that letter, which was brought to the castle yesterday along with other mail," replied Gerdt. "It was found in Father's room. I believe it must be what caused him to deviate from the route he usually rides with Harth and Keller. The clearing where their bodies were found is a quiet spot, two leagues from here, out of sight of the castle and well away from Dorfund, on an old road which is infrequently used. He went there expecting to meet this woman, who signed the letter with her single initial. I surmise that she was an old friend of Father's, well-known to him. So well-known, in fact, that the letter in conjunction with the picture in that locket urged him to meet with her privately. I can only imagine this was all part of a clever ambush strategy, that Father has been kidnapped by ruthless men, who will contact us soon claiming ransom. It is the only explanation."
"I would agree," said Otto, "if not for that which happened to me recently." And he told his brother of the animated corpse that had attacked him in the village; whose mission seemed to concern Otto von Schist directly. Gerdt digested this new information and looked at his brother in horror.
"You think the same power that brought the corpse to life and directed it to attack you, is responsible for what has happened to our father?"
"I do," said Otto.
Varnard entered the Main Hall at that moment, bowed to the two brothers and approached.
"News from the town," the servant addressed Gerdt. "There has been a murder. A body was discovered in one of the lesser- used stables on the north side, near to the river. It is most definitely not the Graf's. But, lacking any sort of official direction, the townspeople have asked for your guidance in the matter."
"We have more than enough to occupy us," protested Gerdt.
"But this may have some connection with Father," said Otto, "or with this mysterious woman," he added, holding up the locket by its chain. "I think I should go down into Dorfund and at the very least examine the body to determine whether it is all part of the same ghastly business."
Gerdt nodded, seeing the sense in Otto's suggestion.
"Be as quick as you can," he directed. "I propose that you take Varnard and a couple of armed men to protect you. Yes, I know Dorfund is near to this castle, and you are useful with a blade, but with all that has happened, we cannot afford to take any risks. Eyes will watch your progress from the walls, and we will send immediate aid should anything unexpected occur."
They rode down into the town, as morning became afternoon and the skies turned grey with the promise of rain or storm. The four riders stayed close together, a suspicious knot, and even when they reached the stable where the murder was alleged to have taken place, only Varnard dismounted with Otto, leaving the other two servants mounted outside, keeping a watch on the street, their hands always near to their swords.
Inside, they found a dozen townspeople, responsible citizens who had taken to do with the business of the murder. They bade Otto a respectful hello, parted to allow him to reach the part of the stable where the body lay. His nose wrinkled in distaste as he examined the body. It was on its back, arms spread wide, eyes open and staring up at the high wooden ceiling. Blood that was now dried and black stained its garments, a loose-fitting woolen jacket and trousers. Otto could not imagine that so much blood could possible have been the result of an ordinary sword- or knife-wound and he was correct: when he bent and opened the jacket he saw that the man's chest had been cut open, brutally. His heart had been removed from its cavity. One of the nearby townspeople saw this and quickly ran to the door, retching.
"Who could have done such a foul deed?" asked someone.
Otto had no answer. Certainly the unfortunate victim's heart was nowhere to be found in the stable. A summary search of surrounding alleyways was carried out, but the heart remained missing, nor were there any signs of weapons or footprints that might have provided clues.
It became dark outside, distant thunder rumbled and Otto was surprised at such an abrupt change in the weather. One of the horses outside gave a cry of panic, was quickly quietened by its rider. Varnard frowned, took a step towards the stable door, froze in his tracks as two of the townspeople moved to block his way.
Otto said, "What's going on?" as the other townspeople now moved to form a barrier between the two men and the stable entrance. Varnard's hand was on the pommel of his sword but without Otto's direct order he did not draw the weapon.
Before Otto could cry a warning, someone dropped from the storage level above, bringing down an avalanche of straw and hay, landing on Varnard with stunning force. Varnard gave a cry and fell, lay unmoving. Otto's sword cleared its scabbard and he took a step back as the townspeople he had known all his life advanced as one body, directed by one mind. Only now did he notice the paleness of their flesh, the dark lines around their eyes. Only now did he notice their shambling gait, as if their limbs no longer obeyed living minds, but instead were directed by minds now dead, like puppets dancing on invisible strings. The man who had feigned sickness now slammed the stable doors shut and bolted them from inside. Otto realized there was no other way out, that he had walked into a cunning trap. To his horror the corpse he had examined now sat up, climbed unsteadily to its feet. Despite the fact its heart was missing, it was still functioning, its eyes possessing the same mad light that had shone in the eyes of the sea-captain Otto had bested in the village. Otto knew why the man had been killed and mutilated: to supply the dead townspeople with blood to maintain their human form.
"Son of the House of von Schist," said the leader of the corpses, its voice making Otto shudder, "our Master bids us to bring you to him."
And then the hands were upon him, disarming him, bearing him to the floor despite his struggles, striking him until black unconsciousness, a welcome friend, came at last.
He awoke in a damp cellar with rough stone walls, tied to a heavy wooden table, wrists and ankles bound with thick rope which he could not hope to fray or break. Only the sharpest knife could possibly have freed him, and his knife was in his left boot, where he could not reach it. Light came from an oil lamp in a corner of the cellar.
A door opened at the top of roughly-made wooden stairs, and someone looked down at him. The shadows beyond the door were such that Otto could make out no detail, the figure's general shape remained indistinct and he was certain it wore a hooded robe, with the deliberate intention of concealing its identity. Was it possible that Otto knew this person? Conjecture at this stage seemed pointless but Otto could not help but think these thoughts. The door slammed shut and he was alone again.
His head, neck and shoulders ached from the beating he had received in the stable. The undead creatures who had lured him to the stable must have borne him here. Was Varnard alive, and the other men who'd waited outside the stable? If so then it was possible that his brother would be looking for him at that moment, leading groups of men through the town, searching every house, every building. But Dorfund was large, even if such a search were under way, it might be days before this place was discovered. It was even possible that he was now somewhere outside the town, in an old mill, or a mountainside dwelling, there were dozens, perhaps hundreds of depressing possibilities. The only certainty was that Otto was in the hands of the enemy and was certain to die, most likely in a hideous fashion. He resolved to die like a man, giving nothing away, denying the unknown enemy the pleasure of hearing his screams. Otto would first bite his own tongue off.
The door at the top of the stairs opened again and Otto heard voices. Then there was a shuffling, as of undead corpses walking, then the hooded figure he'd glimpsed earlier entered the cellar, descended, carrying a second lamp whose light did not penetrate the hood. Strain as he might, Otto could not see the face of the tall man who came to stand beside the table to study Otto.
"Am I to assume," the son of Graf von Schist said, "that you are he who is responsible for this nonsense?"
His question was greeted by a hoarse cackling noise which Otto interpreted as laughter. The hooded figure set the lamp down on the end of the table and returned to the stairs, sat down on the lower steps, making himself comfortable.
"Where is my father, the Graf?" asked Otto.
"Your father is here," it said, its voice rough but human, unlike those Otto had heard previously. This was not one of the undead corpses, but a living, breathing man. Or so Otto thought as he watched and waited for more information, possibly vital clues.
"Is he alive?" asked Otto.
"He will remain alive until it pleases me to kill him."
"May I ask the reason for your murderous intent?"
"You may ask, but I will not tell you. Suffice to say that your father and I have known each other for quite some time. Relations between us were not always as they are now, but that's a story best left for the historians among us. I can sense your curiosity from here. In answer to your first question, yes, I am he who is responsible for the events which have led you to this cellar. It is my hand which guides those creatures from the grave, to whom I have given life. Ancient secrets are mine, young man, secrets which other men had forgotten." Again the cackling laughter. "You were fortunate to escape Captain O'Keefe's attack, he was an expert swordsman who should have killed you."
"He had not attained full strength when he met. Had time been on his side, he might have regenerated fully, in which case things might have turned out differently."
"Quite so," the hooded head nodded. "You know of such things, then? I assume your father passed on the knowledge of the Ancient Ones to you and your brother?"
"My father educated us concerning the supernatural powers which may exist in this world. He also told us that the usage of such power invites darkest evil to inhabit the soul of he who would manipulate the dead. In the end, he who seeks to use that power, becomes its slave. You have my sympathy, old man, for you are as doomed as I."
"My death, if it comes, will occur in some remote future, if at all," laughed the hooded figure, rising from the stairs, and Otto's boot twisted behind the lamp on the table, flicking it into the air. It was more luck than anything else, yet the lamp struck its intended target: burst on the floor before the figure, the burning oil spraying the robe, igniting the garment instantly. Otto received an impression of an ancient and quite surprised face within the hood, toothless mouth open, eyes dark as the grave itself, before the figure turned and, burning from head to foot, ran up the stairs and burst through the door, its screams drifting down to reach Otto's ears.
He raised his head, looked down. The wooden floorboards were alight, as was one leg of the table. Otto sucked in a deep breath and wondered how he was going to get out of this mess. He twisted against his bonds, to no avail. The flames licking up the table-leg began to burn the rope holding his right ankle but even if they parted before the entire room became a raging inferno, he would still be unable to free himself.
One of the townspeople from the stable—a walking corpse animated by the ancient figure Otto had set alight—appeared at the top of the stairs and looked down at the helpless form on the table. In one hand it held an unsheathed knife, which was dark with blood. Despite the flames, it began to descend into the cellar, its intention clear: the creature had been ordered to murder Otto. Into and through the flames it walked, and its dead, decaying flesh ignited at once, transforming the thing into a blazing torch. It reeled, confused and blind, its eyes melting in their sockets, striking out in the general direction of the table: the rope holding Otto's right ankle snapped, now consumed by the flames, and he kicked savagely, doubling the corpse over, grasping its outstretched wrist, holding it while the creature was consumed by the cleansing fire. The entire lower arm came free and Otto, holding down his distaste, used the knife it held as a saw, cutting the rope binding his right wrist. It parted after what seemed like an eternity, the table growing hot beneath him, the room filling with choking smoke. Transferring the knife to his free hand, he cut himself loose, rose so he was standing on the table, leaped for his life over the burning floor, reached the stairway. The lower steps, already burning, gave way under his weight but Otto scrambled up, through the door, sprawling headlong, gasping for breath. He looked up as another dead citizen of Dorfund loomed over him, sword raised to strike.
Otto rolled and kicked the corpse's legs out from under it, the creature fell heavily and the point of the sword, instead of striking Otto's head, buried itself in the floor. Otto plunged the knife he held into the thing's neck. To his horror the corpse was completely unaffected, its bony hand smashed him in the face and he gasped with the pain. The corpse got to its feet and took a grip on the sword, made to pull the weapon free, but Otto came at it from behind, kicked it off-balance, sending it through the open doorway, down into the burning cellar. Its final cry of rage and surprise was lost in the whoosh of flames which consumed it.
Otto took the sword—his sword!—and hacked as more of the corpses came from an adjoining room, lunging towards him, most unarmed, but intent on tearing him limb from limb. He backed away, saw another door, kicked it open, ducked through into what had evidently been living quarters for whoever had inhabited this building, some years previously. There was a small window, overlooking a shallow river that wound past the building. He was in a mill after all: the water turned a wheel, which rotated mechanisms within the building. Otto threw himself headlong through the window as corpses crowded into the room. There was a sensation of falling which went on longer than it should, which meant he'd misjudged the height of the window: it was much higher than he'd thought. He hit the water painfully and went under, struck the soft bottom and then came spluttering to the surface, chilled to the bone but still clutching the sword his father had given him.
Looking up at the window, he saw one of the undead corpses trying to squeeze through the opening to follow him down into the river; but the corpse got stuck and despite the efforts of others to push it through, it remained jammed in the window, its head and one arm visible. Otto climbed out of the river, walked around the mill, seeing flames licking from other doors and windows. Black smoke poured from the roof. The corpses appeared to be trapped inside, burning, never more to menace the living. Otto's actions had set the entire mill alight, and while he took satisfaction from knowing the hooded man was also trapped, he recalled the ancient sorcerer's words: Otto's father was inside the mill, held in another room awaiting the hooded man's evil pleasure. Otto found steps leading to the mill's entrance, but flames were already eating the door, the heat and smoke were so fierce he could not reach the top of the steps, was driven back, choking. He could only retreat to a safe distance and watch, with a rising sense of horror, as the mill became an inferno, a pillar of fire whose smoke plume must surely be seen for leagues in every direction.
Nor was he wrong, for within an hour riders approached, and he recognized them as men from Castle von Schist. Questioning them, he learned that Varnard and the other men who'd rode with him into Dorfund had been unmolested by the corpses who'd taken Otto from the stable; by the time the two outside had smashed open the stable doors, finding Varnard still unconscious, Otto was long gone. They'd taken Varnard back to the castle. Otto's brother had immediately ordered Dorfund searched, but to no avail, there was no sign of where the corpses had taken Otto. Gerdt suspected there were other groups of corpses in Dorfund, helping to conceal Otto's trail. He proposed to hunt them all down, cleansing them with fire. They could be identified easily enough: the corpses, when confronted with the Holy Book borrowed from Dorfund's Church, became witless and confused; when forced to touch the Book, they collapsed and did not rise again.
The riders escorted Otto back to Castle von Schist. Columns of thick black smoke rose from certain parts of Dorfund and Otto guessed that the bands of corpses—or undead to give them their true name—were being destroyed by Gerdt's troops. Heavily-armed men rode everywhere, Gerdt had clearly called in manpower from surrounding towns and villages who owed service to the House of von Schist. Otto wondered how long the hooded man had been planning and scheming, killing and murdering the poor townspeople of Dorfund, robbing the graveyards to swell his army of evil. Certainly this was not something that had occurred overnight, weeks or perhaps months had passed while Dorfund and perhaps other places had fallen under the hooded man's spell. Otto's thoughts were dark as he sought out his brother in the Main Hall of the castle.
Gerdt was relieved to see Otto. He listened, grim-faced, as Otto told his tale of what had happened after the cunning ambush in the stable. At the suggestion their father might have died in the conflagration that had consumed the old mill, Gerdt was visibly distressed. By the time Otto had finished, darkness had fallen outside, and servants had lit the lamps throughout the great castle.
"So you think this robed ancient was behind it all," asked Gerdt, as they ate supper together.
"I do, and he admitted his own guilt," nodded Otto. "There was no way he could have escaped from the mill. He died along with his undead slaves, in flames."
Gerdt pondered this likelihood, stroking his jaw as he paced up and down the Main Hall. Otto waited patiently for his elder brother to speak again, knowing somehow that there was more to the matter than he knew.
At last Gerdt said, "The nameless power which your hooded man exercised over the dead is of such a nature that it should have perished when he was destroyed in the mill."
It took some moments for the meaning of Gerdt's words to sink in fully.
"You think he is still alive, then?" asked Otto, frowning.
"His creatures continue to exist, they are fighting with our men in the town, and recent dispatches from patrols scouring the surrounding countryside indicate that large numbers of animated corpses have been found. We have enough men to conquer them, I think, but the very fact they still function would indicate that their Master still lives."
"If he escaped from the mill then I did not see him."
"Perhaps he had a secret route. It is unimportant how he escaped, we must deal with the fact he is very probably still alive and our sworn enemy. No man enters Castle von Schist without first placing his hand upon our family's Holy Book. No one enters or leaves Dorfund until we are certain we have identified and destroyed every foul creature of evil. Even if we cannot locate the hooded man, whoever he is, we can wipe out his slaves, without whom he is helpless."
"But he may create others," said Otto.
"We'll deal with them also, and when they make themselves known it will be easier for us to track him down, this ancient sorcerer of yours." He looked at Otto. "You've escaped death twice now, thanks to your sword and your wits. How he must hate you, for what you have done to him."
"As I hate him, for what he has done."
"I share your emotion. If the mill was totally consumed then it's doubtful whether we'll find any conclusive evidence in its remains, once the fire dies out. But come the dawn I'll send men to search the ruins."
Otto nodded and, sighing, rubbed his eyes, feeling the day's strain catching up with him. Gerdt immediately ordered him to bed, summoning a servant to escort him. Otto did not argue, and soon he fell into bed, exhausted; he was asleep almost instantly and his dreams were dark ones.
He was awakened by the flapping of huge wings outside the open bedroom window. Otto frowned: something was wrong here, the window had been shut when he'd fallen asleep; now it was open, and Otto rose from his bed, reaching for the silver-runed sword. The wooden shutters were banging loudly, the heavy drapes fluttering. Pale moonlight fell upon something outside the window and Otto was chilled by the sight of the creature, which was unlike anything he'd ever seen or imagined.
Vaguely human, it was a winged creature, whose hands and feet were huge claws. It circled the tower slowly, its wings beating in thunderclap rhythm, and its hot, burning eyes fixed upon Otto as he stood in his room, looking out. He saw the crimson gore staining its claws and could not help but come to the window and peer down at the castle battlements below. The bodies of guards on duty there littered the walls, their necks and chests torn open by the winged monster that now turned its attention to Otto.
He threw himself back from the window as the creature flew at the opening and crashed into the heavy stone. It tore the frame down, ripped shutters and drapes away, climbed into the bedroom and snarled at Otto, who stood in a corner, sword held before him. The creature didn't like the silver blade, the sight of the weapon caused it to bare its yellowed, dripping fangs.
The door flew open and Gerdt's eyes widened at the sight of the monstrous predator. Behind him were Varnard and a handful of armed servants.
"Remain where you are," warned Otto. "I suspect that only my sword will have any effect upon the hide of this beast. It seems allergic to silver."
Gerdt licked his lips, stayed where he was. He spoke over his shoulder at Varnard, who hurried away. The creature cast a forbidding glance in Gerdt's direction, as if assuring itself that he would not interfere, then returned its full attention to Otto.
"Son of the House of von Schist," it began, but Otto held up a hand, interrupting.
"Yes, I know, I must die, our House must be destroyed. I've heard the usual curses and am bored with the whole business, can we please dispense with the formalities and get on with it?"
The creature snarled again and launched itself at him, its huge wings propelling it across the bedroom. Otto ducked, threw a heavy water jug at its face, the container smashed, fragments temporarily blinding the winged fury. Otto slashed at a thigh, cutting deep: small flames danced along the length of the wound and the creature bellowed deafeningly, swung a clawed arm at his head. Otto ducked again, the claw struck the stone wall behind him, showering Otto with sharp slivers. He cut at the arm, then lunged as the creature retreated, the point of his blade scoring a line of fire across its chest.
Otto took a step forward, saw the creature's eyes narrowing, looked down, and saw his boot was on the edge of a heavy rug. The creature's clawed foot gripped the other end of the rug, pulled. Otto was jerked off his feet, fell heavily. The creature loomed over him, claws extended to strike. Otto stabbed upwards with his sword and the thing screamed, flew around the bedroom, the wound deep, droplets of molten fire splashing the bed, igniting it. There was a commotion at the door, Varnard had returned carrying crossbows. He gave one to Gerdt, who took aim and fired, his shot true: the bolt struck the creature in the back, between its wings. It gave a screech and tried to claw the bolt free, but its own wings fouled it, and it turned in rage to the doorway. Varnard fired his bolt then, taking the creature low in the chest. He and Gerdt bent to reload their weapons while the creature, in mortal agony, fell to the floor and thrashed slowly towards them, determined to reach them. Its trail was blazing fire and Otto leaped this to land on its back; stood astride the beast with his sword raised. Its head turned to look up at him, unmistakable horror in its inhuman eyes, and he brought the edge of the blade down upon its skull, spattering its brains abroad. The cleaved skull burst into flames and he jumped towards the door, was caught by Gerdt and Varnard, who pulled him clear and slammed the door, trapping the fire in Otto's bedroom.
Otto coughed smoke from his lungs and Gerdt slapped his younger brother's back, relieved that they had escaped the winged assassin without injury. Already men were hurrying to the landing with buckets of water, he estimated they should be able to contain the fire before it spread throughout the tower. They moved away to let the men get on with it.
"A hell of a night," said Otto, needlessly.
"Indeed it has been," agreed Gerdt. "We found men dead on the castle walls, heard the commotion up here and came as fast as we could. Faithful Varnard suggested we employ bolts with silver tips and they certainly seem to have worked! Otto, what was that thing?"
"A supernatural creature, created by sorcery," said Otto, shuddering. "Sent here by the same hooded enemy who will not rest until we are all dead."
Gerdt's face was a furious mask, his fists clenched in rage.
"But why? Why is the ancient sorcerer you encountered in the mill bent on destroying us? Who is he? What is the source of his power?"
"I do not know the answer to any of these questions," said Otto, shaking his head. "But I do know that it will do us no good to sit around waiting for him to strike again, not knowing what form death may take. We must find him, and quickly."
"But how?" demanded Gerdt. "He could be anywhere—hiding in the town below, or in the open countryside, or many leagues from here, laughing at us while he dispatches his dead slaves and his conjured horrors to destroy us."
"There is a way," Otto told him. "It is a dark way and as you may well imagine, it is fraught with danger. I speak of a sorcery of my own, a forbidden thing whose origins are lost in the mists of time, but which has been passed down through the long centuries. Sometimes I wonder what our ancestors actually were, Gerdt, for the knowledge that has came to us via our most treasured father is of a strange and sinister nature."
Gerdt sighed. "Your thoughts mirror my own. I too have often asked these same questions."
"There is one vital ingredient I will require, if the sorcery is to be successful. I need a undead. One of these foul creatures must be captured, intact."
"I will order one brought here at once."
It took four strong men to hold the insane, foaming creature in place, the heavy ropes that bound it groaned and strained as the undead thing sought to break free. Otto had decided to carry out the sorcery in the Main Hall of Castle von Schist, despite Gerdt's silent misgivings.
He sent everyone out of the Hall, including Gerdt, but only after making them swear a solemn oath that regardless of what they heard, or thought they heard, they would not unbolt and open the doors; that only Gerdt would allow Otto to leave the Main Hall when he rapped a certain code upon the door, a code which they had used as boys playing in the castle, and which the captive undead could not possibly know and so imitate, should it somehow manage to overpower Otto.
"All will be well," Otto assured his brother, and then he was sealed in the Main Hall, alone with the undead thing, which lay on the floor and continued to try to free itself, grunting and snuffling like some mad animal.
Otto took a burning brand from the fire and held it close to the undead's face. The creature did not recoil in fear, did not seem to be aware of the danger fire represented to its dry flesh and bloodless veins. It snapped broken teeth together when Otto drew near, trying to bite him. Otto extinguished the brand and used its blackened tip to describe a circle on the flagstones, around the undead. He threw the brand back into the fire, drew a dagger from his belt and cut his own wrist. He walked around the undead, a trail of blood dripping inside the black circle he had drawn. Its eyes followed him hungrily. Otto smiled, used a handkerchief to stop the bleeding, thinking back to childhood days, trying to remember all his father had told him. The words he recalled were meaningless to him, bizarre sounds, yet they carried a certain power in their speaking, and it was this that Otto needed now, as he attempted to gain control of the undead, to reach its dead, inhuman mind which still contained primitive thoughts, a pattern of electrical energy Otto sought to reach, and manipulate.
Had anyone tried to tell him, a short time previously, that on this night he would be standing in the Main Hall of Castle von Schist attempting to cast a spell, he would have laughed at them, thinking them drunk or mad. Concentrating, babbling the ancient words of power, his hands drew lines in the air, and a cold wind came from nowhere to blow through the Main Hall, a wind that chilled him to the bone. It seemed that the lamps positioned around the chamber dimmed, their light cloaked by shadows. Otto dared not look, dared not take his eyes from the undead, which was twitching and writhing like a worm, trapped within its thick rope bindings, its eyes rolling in their dark sockets. A foul-smelling liquid burst from its nostrils and mouth, and it lay still on the floor, truly like a corpse now, its smell filling the Main Hall, disgusting, sickening.
Otto said, "Sit up."
Obediently, the undead did so, struggling to push itself up off the flagstones. Its dead eyes turned to regard Otto, who fought the blinding headache that was a result of the casting, focused on the rotting face of the grave-creature.
"I am your master now. You will obey my every command and will ignore the commands of others, whoever and wherever they may be. Indicate your understanding by nodding."
The head nodded once, twice.
"Who are you?" asked Otto.
The voice was broken, ragged, and Otto had to strain to hear the words.
"I am Hans Bergman of Dorfund."
"When and how did you die?"
"A year ago or more; I drowned when two barges collided at night on the river."
"How unfortunate. Do you remember the Summoning?"
The undead's eyes closed briefly, opened again.
"I do. The eternal sleep was interrupted. A voice called to me and I clawed my way out of the ground. There were others who answered that same call."
"How many others?"
"All who were not beyond hearing the call."
Gerdt had told Otto that fifty graves had been opened in the town's cemetery. Otto assumed that those who had not risen from the grave were too old and decayed to respond to the sorcerer's incredibly powerful spell.
"Where did you go after you were awakened?"
"There was a mill outside of Dorfund..."
"Yes, I know of it. Was the old man there, he who invoked the Summoning?"
"He was there."
"Where is he now?"
A momentary silence, then: "He is nearby."
"Do you know exactly where?"
"I feel his presence still. He is in Dorfund, even now his eyes look up at this castle. He feels your spell and wonders at its purpose."
"Let him wonder." Otto walked around the circle, never taking his eyes from the undead. "Tell me, are you linked to the old man in some way? Does he share this link, does he know I have taken control of you?"
"I can see him, but he cannot see me; your sorcery denies this. He senses that something is wrong... He begins to guess what might have happened, but cannot be certain."
"Can you tell me precisely where he is?"
"In an old house. The windows are shuttered. There are others in the house, watching the street outside. Many riders passed by recently, but did not approach the house. He fears they may return to search the buildings in this street. He is pained by injuries. He curses your name, for it was you who caused him such pain."
"Do you know what the street is called?"
"Could you take us there?"
Otto sucked in a deep breath, made the decision.
"Very well. I will free you of your bonds. You will take us to the house where the old man is hiding. If he attempts to leave before we reach the house, you will tell me at once."
Again a nod, and Otto went to the door, knocked on the wood and heard bolts sliding back. The door opened, Gerdt examined him carefully, and looked past him to ensure the undead posed no threat.
"It is my slave now," Otto told him. "It knows where the old man is, and will take us to him. Assemble your men, we leave at once for Dorfund."
Minutes later, there were thirty riders in the castle's main courtyard, Gerdt leading them. Otto led the undead outside. At the sight of the creature, many of the riders made warding signs in the air, but it quickly became obvious that the undead was under some compulsion to obey Otto, who climbed onto his horse and directed the undead to lead the way out of the castle, down the road towards Dorfund.
The creature set off, the riders following in silence. The town was spread before them, shafts of moonlight penetrating the dark cloud above to illuminate parts of the town. There were still fires burning below, and they could see groups of riders carrying lamps and torches moving through the streets, searching for undead to destroy. Gerdt sent men ahead to contact these groups, collecting them to form a large force. By the time they entered the town they were eighty strong, following the captive undead who walked before Otto's horse.
Otto spoke with the creature as they advanced; he signaled to Gerdt, who commanded that his men dismount and leave their horses behind. The sound of their hooves on the cobblestones would have warned the hooded sorcerer and his slaves of their coming. The streets were empty, the citizens of Dorfund were all in their homes, with doors and windows locked, aware that evil stalked the night. The lone undead walked on, while Otto and his brother and their men spread out and hid themselves in gardens and side-streets, following the undead creature from a distance, their swords ready.
At last they entered a street which lay in darkness, and it became apparent that the undead was approaching a certain house which seemed no different from the others. But Otto knew that within its walls was the sorcerer who'd sworn to destroy them and had almost succeeded; an ancient foe whose motives remained unknown but whose sincerity and malevolence were unquestionable. The undead stopped before the house, its eyes looking up at the shuttered windows, and Otto leaped from hiding, together with eighty armed men. They raced forward, reached the entrance, smashed down the door and went inside. They were met by a wave of corpses as well-armed as they were, and bloody fighting raged throughout the ground floor of the house.
Otto found himself engaging a tall undead armed with an axe, which whistled towards Otto's head. He side-stepped, so that the deadly weapon crashed into the floorboards, stabbed with his silver sword, cut downwards so the undead was split in half. It fell, its two halves burning. Otto leaped over the remains and reached a stairway. Several undead stood waiting at the top. Knowing he could not give the ancient sorcerer any time to escape, Otto did not wait for reinforcements, he went up the stairs quickly, attacked the first creature of darkness, parrying its clumsy sword-thrust, slashing at its face. It gave a blood-curdling scream and Otto smashed it aside, the thing went over the edge of the stairs and fell, its head burning, to the floor below. Men from Castle von Schist hacked it to pieces.
Otto climbed to meet the next undead, cut off its arms, decapitated the monster, pushed it after the first and then he was on the landing at the top of the stairs, with three of the creatures pressing forward to reach him with rusted swords. Beyond them, through a wide doorway, he saw movement, the swirling of robes. A hate-filled face, scarred with recent burns, glared at him briefly before vanishing. Otto cursed and fought the undead, all of whom had been expert swordsmen before they had died, and their corpses still remembered their former skills. Otto found himself being pressed back towards the stairs, gasped as the point of a sword pierced his left shoulder, another slashing at his thigh in the same instant.
Varnard, half-way up the stairs, fired a crossbow with some accuracy, placing a silver-tipped bolt in the head of one of the undead. It fell with a screech, crashing through the wooden rail at the top of the landing, plunging down to the ground floor amid a sea of fighting men and undead creatures. Otto used the moment to leap forward and cut the head off another undead, which collapsed in a heap. That left only one dead foeman to deal with, and the creature could only delay him briefly, before Otto's silver blade caused dead flesh to burn. He cut the thing down and jumped over its blazing form, through the doorway where he'd glimpsed the old man: the room was empty. Another door lay open, a second stairway leading down to an exit at the back of the house. Otto hesitated, sensing a trap, but he had little choice in the matter now, he went through the door, spun as an undead lunged at him, sword seeking his heart. The point entered his left arm instead. Otto snarled with the pain, the edge of his own sword hacked at the undead's neck and its flesh burned, its head went bouncing down the stairs.
Otto followed it down, saw a flutter of robes somewhere near the bottom, heard the old man's muttering voice. He was only seconds behind the sorcerer. He jumped the last ten steps, landed like a cat, sword held ready to face any other threat the old man might have conjured. But he was not prepared for what awaited him at the end of the corridor where the sorcerer stood laughing, mocking him.
The Graf Wilhelm von Schist raised his sword and advanced towards Otto, his face pale, eyes dead in their sockets. Otto gasped in horror, took a step backwards and tripped over the bottom step, sprawled on the stairs as his father made ready to murder him.
It was reflex rather than conscious thought that brought Otto's sword up to parry the Graf's overhead strike. Otto scrambled up the stairs, got to his feet in time to meet the second wild attack. The Graf's sword cut deep into the wooden rail, its edge missing Otto's head by a fraction; Otto leaped the rail, dashed past his father's corpse as the Graf struggled to pull his blade free.
The hooded sorcerer was half-way through a narrow door which gave access to the gardens behind the house. Otto saw a waiting coach and horses, the driver an undead; the coach was already pointing towards open gates at the far end of the garden. Otto dived and struck the old man's legs, sent him tumbling outside, onto the trimmed grass lawn. A boot smashed into Otto's face and he groaned, stunned, saw the old man get to his feet and run towards the coach. A shadow passed over him and he rolled as the Graf's sword stabbed downward, into the lawn instead of into Otto's heart. Otto kicked his father's feet out from under him, rose as the Graf fell, off-balance.
The old man was climbing into the coach, looking back over his shoulder. His hand disappeared into his robes, withdrew holding a dagger, which he reversed and threw in a fluid motion. Otto ducked, heard and felt the deadly weapon whoosh past his ear. His teeth drawn back to expose teeth, his eyes glinting with rage and blood-lust, he closed on the coach, saw the old man's face register defeat, frustration, fear of his own death. Clearly he had not expected matters to get so out of hand, had not expected Otto to become the aggressor, launching an attack from Castle von Schist so quickly. Now he raised a thin arm, uselessly, in an attempt to ward off Otto's sword-cut, which came down with savage force, cutting the arm in two before slashing into the sorcerer's neck. The old man gave a hideous cry and fell from the coach, whose horses panicked and bolted, taking the coach down the path towards the gate; its undead driver toppled from its seat, crashed to the ground and lay still, death finally overtaking it.
Otto stood panting over the body of the ancient sorcerer, heard footsteps sounding behind him. Gerdt and Varnard and two other men from the castle came from the house as fast as they could. Gerdt stopped when he found the Graf's body, and he knelt to examine his father, who lay still upon the lawn.
"They all fell," explained Varnard, breathlessly. "One moment they were fighting, the next, they collapsed as if their strings had been cut."
"That is precisely what happened," said Otto. "When their master died, they died with him. His power was no more."
Varnard looked to where Gerdt knelt over his father.
"And the Graf, your father?"
"Murdered by this evil old man, who died by my sword. My father was one of them, Varnard, one of the sorcerer's slaves." He shook his head sadly. "Our enemy must have thought it a huge jest, ordering my own father to kill me. Instead, it galvanized me to take action I might otherwise have not taken. I knew that the only way to stop my father, to free him from slavery and give him final rest, was to kill the hooded man."
Varnard said, "Who is he? I would see his face."
And with this, Varnard bent and pulled away the hood which concealed the dead sorcerer's face.
They were reminded of one of the most ancient paintings that hung in the halls of Castle von Schist, of a remote ancestor, Otto had always thought, although now he was not so certain. He frowned, trying to remember what his father might have said about the subject of that portrait, the scowling knight in black armor whose cruel expression had filled a small child with fear and foreboding, but he could not recall anything specific. What had happened in the remote past, between this man and the House of von Schist? A falling-out among friends? Or something more sinister, involving the spilling of blood and vows of revenge that had spanned generations? Otto did not know and would never be able to ask the sorcerer. Indeed, the old man had forced Otto's hand to dispense death, swiftly and surely, his evil plan resulting in his own downfall.
It was Gerdt who supplied the sorcerer's name.
"The Count Villiers," he said. "An ally of our House for many years before there was an argument over a woman, or so the story goes."
"And that woman was—?"
"I would guess it is her picture in the locket our father received, which lured him from Castle von Schist to a secret meeting, which turned out to be an ambush. The Count must have known that Father would respond to the picture, to the letter which seemed to have been written by her own hand."
With this, Gerdt and Varnard attended to the Graf's body, lifting it gently and carrying it into the house, leaving Otto outside, to contemplate his own thoughts.
Rain began to fall, lightly at first, then it became heavy, drumming off the ground. It seemed to Otto that nature itself was outraged by the events of this night, was attempting to wash away the evil that had sprung from the earth. Otto turned his face to the skies and welcomed its cleansing freshness.
The long, hellish night was over.
The Long Night
by Derek Paterson
Copyright © 1996
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