(Year of the Great Plague)
Of course he didn’t believe the rumours. No sensible person would.
Something terrible had happened in Zyltravania, they said. An explosion of some kind, or perhaps an eruption from the ground, they said. The explosion had spewed some kind of toxic fumes or disease, they said. All those who breathed in the fumes died an agonizing death, they said.
If they had stopped saying anything there, then maybe Timothy would have believed them, even if it was highly implausible that the ground decided all of a sudden to throw up poisonous gases or germs or whatever into the sky above it without reason. This was Faeritalum, even if it was the slightly odd bit in the centre; God’s favoured continent wasn’t the type to fall ill or fester.
But they didn’t stop saying things there, and went knee-deep into revelations and theories so trumped-up and fanciful that it was amazing how many people still believed them.
The people who died got up again, they said. Only they weren’t fully alive, but instead in some state of decay, they said, as though the body had got the message that they were dead and was reacting accordingly, but the soul was not answering any messages and so was blissfully ignorant of the morbid state of affairs it was in. And they were hungry in the same way wild animals were hungry, they said. And they moved erratically, they said, shuffling in a daze one moment and scampering along like a drunken hare the next. And they tried to eat other people, they said, and when they did…
Timothy snorted. He had only so much tolerance for flights of nonsense, and at this point of the rumours his automated gibberish-detection system kicked in and blocked off any other related words from reaching his preciously sensible, God-fearing mind.
Still, whenever he walked in and out of his home, or the blacksmithing shop in which he had decided to continue his post-military life, he couldn’t help but look at the sky every now and then, expecting a sick-looking cloud of evil to sneak across it at any moment.
“You heading out to lunch, then, Captain?” asked a familiar voice approaching him from the side.
Timothy turned around with a faint smile on his face.
“Where else would I be going at this hour, Joseph? Do join me if you have not eaten yet yourself.”
Joseph Dallyworth, probably Timothy’s only friend and certainly his oldest, wiped his neck with a dirty rag as the two of them walked out on their way to the tavern up the road. Timothy’s eyes flickered upwards at the sky.
“The rumours of the plague on your mind, Captain?” asked Joseph, whose eyes had barely budged from ground level.
“As I often remind you, I stopped being anyone’s captain, including yours, a long time ago, Joseph,” chuckled Timothy. His arm twinged almost as if in a show of unwanted support.
“I will stop calling you a captain when I do not see his spirit in your eyes any longer, old friend,” said Joseph, chuckling back, “Now, pray answer the question.”
“There have been enough reports to make me wonder as to whether there is a grain of truth within the stories,” said Timothy, and received a phlegmy huff in reply.
“I can count the number of credible reports on one hand,” scorned Joseph, “And even those are a great strain on my beliefs. Whatever may have happened in Zyltravania, it will not affect us here. Mark my words.”
“They have been marked, Joseph, they have been marked.”
The two of them entered the bustling tavern, grabbed their servings of stew from the harried-looking lady at the food area with a couple of lecherous winks in reply, and sat themselves down at their favourite table. Exactly why it was their favourite table was a mystery, possibly even to them. It had no unique markings, or furniture, or even a view of any kind. It had simply been in a place at a time, and involuntarily been declared a favourite. It hadn’t even been consulted on the matter.
“How fares the lovely wife, Captain?” asked Joseph after letting out an ugly belch.
“Tabitha fares just as ornery as she did the last time you asked,” said Timothy, munching on what he hoped was a lump of pork fat, “Some days, I wonder if your choice to remain a bachelor was the right one to make all along.”
“If you tire of her, I would gladly take her off your hands,” said Joseph with a wink, and Timothy chose that moment to unfortunately choke on the lump of hopefully-pork-fat.
“Joseph, you perverted old fool, you will be the death of me!” sputtered Timothy as Joseph laughed the donkey-like bray of a laugh that was uniquely Joseph’s.
“Better me than the plague cloud, Captain,” smirked Joseph as Timothy began the gradual return to normalcy in his throat.
“I thought you did not believe in its existence, Joseph,” asked Timothy suspiciously.
“And I continue to not believe, Captain,” said Joseph, taking in another spoonful of stew, “but that does not exempt me from making a jest on it.”
“It should,” muttered Timothy, and then plucked the first different topic that came into his mind, “I wonder if Gareth has set sail yet.”
Whether Joseph spat as a consequence of the remark or simply out of habit wasn’t very clear.
“Good riddance to that yellow-bellied taffer!” he continued, “He is as gullible as he is a ponce!”
On reflection, the topic wasn’t as much of a diversion as Timothy had hoped; Gareth, his family and the workers under his employ had carted themselves off because of the plague rumours.
“We both know full well that your ire is not directed at his gullibility,” consoled Timothy, “When will you ever accept that Gareth’s path in life was destined to turn away from ours, no matter what either of you did?”
Joseph’s reply was an angry crunching of vegetables inside his tersely lipped mouth.
“Considering all the people who left, however,” began Timothy, switching to another topic like an unsatisfied shopper at a bargain sale in a clothes shop, “You would expect Baskemont to be far quieter - ”
“A city becomes silent only when its soul has departed,” cut in Joseph, “and the people who rightfully belong here are not so stupid as to – “
Whatever it was that elevated the rightful people of Baskemont above the waters of stupidity never reached Timothy’s ears. What did barrel through into them instead was a bloodcurdling scream.
The source of the scream was the lunch lady, who was pointing a trembling finger at a figure who was convulsing on the ground. Timothy thought he might have been one of the carpenters from the shop next door to their smithy, if his clothes were anything to go by. But he only thought that thought for a very brief moment, because the sight of the man flopping on the ground like a fish on a hot plate took all of his attention immediately after.
And then, in an instant, the man stopped moving.
The people in the tavern rose out of their chairs as one and crowded around the man in a disorderly circle, their curiosity overwhelming their better judgement. One particularly curious individual poked the man with a spoon still having stew on it.
And then came the smell.
It was a smell the people weren’t completely unfamiliar with, but they tried to avoid it for good reason. It was a smell that broke down the door and announced itself in a booming voice that rung in the ears for longer than was comfortable. It was a smell that latched on to people like a lonely soul desperate for company, and it was just as difficult to shake off.
It was the smell of death.
The circle immediately broke up, with many of the people heading out the door. Timothy and Joseph, to whom death used to be a familiar sight during their military days, joined a few others and looked inside the tavern for a sheet with which to wrap the dead man and take him out.
“That man… he has the smell of one who has been dead for several days,” mused Timothy, “but we only just saw him die! How can this be?”
“Perhaps the rumours of the plague were indeed true,” said one of the others. He looked as though he was going to say more, but then realized that there was nothing he actually wanted to add to that succinct conclusion.
Timothy stole a glance at Joseph. His friend’s face had become uncharacteristically hard to read, but Timothy could sense an inner turmoil inside that thin face.
They found a tarp in the larder, and all returned to the spot where the dead man had been lying down – and found him getting back up again. If it even was still him that was doing the getting up.
Bits of his skin had already fallen off, flakes of decay serenading him on the floor. His clothes were somehow several sizes larger than they should have been – or perhaps his withered body had become several sizes too small. Whatever skin that hadn’t dropped off yet was a sickly greyish hue, and the bits of his innards that were exposed were every shade of green and brown and other colours that couldn’t be described without a strong urge to throw up. His face looked as though some invisible torch was slowly melting it away. His nose had joined the other bits of skin on the floor, leaving a cavity filled with what should have been flesh, but wasn’t. And his eyes, the colour drained from them in splotches, shouldn’t have been moving the way they were, scanning the surroundings with no sense of synchronization.
“My God…” trailed off one of the others.
They spread out, gripping the tarp like a net now, and approached the reanimated man – no, he wasn’t a man any longer, he couldn’t be, he was some… thing, eyeing it warily like a group of hunters about to trap an irritated bull in a net. The thing didn’t seem to have noticed them yet, its mad eyes still spinning around and it’s decayed form making slow, long-drawn out movements.
They were not yet close enough to quickly smother it in the tarp when it suddenly locked its unhealthy gaze on them. If its eyelids were functioning (and not partially fallen off), it may have narrowed them. The five of them stopped moving as one, and suddenly felt a very, very strong urge to not breathe.
The thing started to shamble slowly towards them, bits of skin and flesh and bodily fluids that Timothy did not know the name of trailing on the ground behind it. It groaned, an ugly sound like a stone rolling around inside a monster’s stomach. The five of them looked at each other, and probably all thought the same thing: this…thing is slow, so if we are quick enough, we should be able to wrap it up in the tarp before it can harm us, yes? Yes, let us do that. Carefully now, but quickly.
They turned around to the horrifying vision of it pouncing at them.
Joseph was the unfortunate target of its vicious attack. As he went down with a cry of alarm, the creature began to bite and claw at him, its snarls a higher, nastier pitch than its groans. The other three men, all younger and fitter than Timothy, began to try to kick the creature off of Joseph; one of them grabbed a chair and began whacking the thing with wild swings of the furniture.
Timothy, still gripping onto the tarp, looked on in open-jawed, trembling-lipped horror as the thing reacted to being hit by a chair by simply striking back at the wielder of said chair with even wilder swings. The strong, well-balanced kicks of the other two only seem to have annoyed it, at most. The decaying outer layer of the creature very deceptively hid what must have been a somehow toughened and resilient interior.
And Joseph… Timothy saw his oldest friend, and probably his only friend, convulsing on the ground just like the man that the thing once was had done only minutes ago. It had only been minutes ago.
He couldn’t take the screams and snarls anymore. He couldn’t stand the lingering, intense smell of death anymore. He didn’t want to see what Joseph would wake up as. In a move that his younger self would have severely disapproved of, Timothy ran out the door.
…and a different smell, faint yet unquestionably a different flavour of death, began to seep into his nose.
He looked up, expecting to see the poison cloud that some of the rumours had spoken of, and then realized with a growing sense of dread that a growing cloud of doom was probably the silliest way that a plague could spread. There was nothing to see in the air, but there was definitely something to sense in the wind.
More screams and yells were erupting around him; the city of Baskemont was the stage on which a choir of despair and anguish began to belt out the sound of lost hope. He saw people running like chickens without heads, and others either flopping or flat on the ground. It was the middle of the day, the sun’s bright gaze still blazing their town through the haze of death, and yet it felt like night was going to descend at any moment, even if it looked like anything but.
Timothy ran to the smithy. It was, by some miracle, empty. He grabbed as many sharp and hefty tools as he was capable of wielding at a time, and was about to run back out again when he heard a deathly growl. He only shifted his gaze enough to see another decayed form rising from the ground in the corner of his eye, and then he bolted out the door.
The choir of despair was louder, more pleading now. Inexplicably, a couple of houses were on fire, their plumes of smoke starting to wonder whether they had taken a wrong turn somewhere and found themselves in the wrong city on the brink of anarchy. They were supposed to be in a burning city, weren’t they? Sure, people were rioting and there was pandemonium in the streets, but this city was barely singed. No wonder the plumes of smoke looked a little disappointed as they dissolved into the sickly air.
Timothy’s mind was on only one person as he ran through the chaotic streets of the city. He hoped his dear Tabitha was still safe, like him. If he even was safe. He couldn’t help but heavily breathe the air, as much as he tried hard not to, which surely contained the plague.
A corpse-like thing jumped at him, slobbering and clawing like a feral beast. He swung at it, felt a connection with something squelchy, and didn’t stop to look. He definitely didn’t turn around to see if the thing was still chasing him; he just assumed it was.
With the lurching sprint of a man who was not too old, but old enough to feel the elastic bands of age resist his every move, he managed to make it back to the street that his house was in. The effects of the plague were starting to churn his insides, wringing them like wet laundry. Any moment now, he expected to drop onto the ground like the several people he had seen doing so already.
Spurred by the increasing number of growls surrounding him, he tried to sprint to his house, but his body wasn’t capable of carrying out the task. It was being swamped with several other complications and warning signs, like a technician in a power plant on the verge of a meltdown.
Summoning the last of the soldier he used to be, Timothy ran as hard as he could down the street, to the doorway of the place he had called home for so long now.
He stopped short when he first laid eyes on it. The door was open, and weirdly attached to its hinges. Pieces of window lay shattered on the ground in front of what were now shattered openings. A couple of decayed creatures shuffled near it. One of them could have been his Tabitha; he realized with dismay that he was too winded and sickly to tell clearly anymore.
At this point, Timothy wanted more than anything to run into that house, climb into the most secure enclosure that he could find, lock himself up inside it and live out this terrible nightmare, or at least die alone, on his own terms. But his body was spent, the disease tearing and crawling through it like a hyperactive, venomous vine.
He fell to his knees, wondering how he would die. Had God decided that he would die in agony from the clutches of the disease? Or had He decided that Timothy Mossridge would die a victim of a savage attack from the decayed creatures? Did He even care anymore?
Tears beginning to trickle from his eyes, Timothy began to look up to the heavens, to cry out as loudly as he could and ask why God had forsaken him like this, forsaken them all, His favoured people. But before the words could escape from his withering lips, a series of blows and slashes struck him all at once, and he collapsed to the ground.
He didn’t resist as the creatures gnawed at him, ripped him with their claws, bashed his skull in with their fists.
His last thought was that, if he was lucky, he wouldn’t come back to do the same to someone else.