Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ninety-seven.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by Pendragon Variety.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, master frontiersman and student of the occult, Thomas Blackhall, comes upon a discomforting bog of unnatural origin.
Flash Pulp 197 – Support: a Blackhall Tale, Part 5 of 6
The fever blur of the swamp’s heat made the approaching bent figure of the old man seem spectral, but, as he neared the cusp that marked the edge of his bog, Blackhall was able to scrutinize his wizened frame. The newcomer’s face was lined like a spider’s web, his wrinkles having formed a connecting network that continued down his neck and below the maroon robe he wore. The garb had once been of handsome craftsmanship, but his shrunken stature had long left the hem trailing in the muck. About his collar was a string of beads, which held a pendant composed of an array of intricate golden loops. At the center of the coils rested an emerald of unlikely bulk.
To Thomas’ inspection, the elder’s skin appeared as if paper stretched thin over a bamboo frame.
Opening wide his hooded eyes, the intruder began ranting.
“He says, that his name is The Eremite,” translated Blackhall.
“Yes,” replied Sour Thistle, her teeth barred and her claws on full display, ”I speak Latin.”
“I apologize,” said Thomas, clearing his throat.
The Eremite did not let the interruption break his delivery.
After five minutes with barely a pause for breath, Blackhall took up a side dialogue with his traveling companion.
“All this talk of blood from our bowels and tears from our fingernails is certainly passionate, but I’ve the impression that he isn’t entirely aware he’s addressing an audience,” he said.
“Transients rarely make sense to me. You men die too quickly to ever have learned anything,” she replied.
His gusto spent, the orator took on a morose tone, but continued.
“He’s talking madness,” concluded Sour Thistle. “Something about his mother burning the eggs on the fire, and his brother stealing his portion?”
“What? Who’s that?” said The Eremite in muddled English, his eyes suddenly focusing on the murk around him.
Unwilling to wait for an answer, he turned. His form warped, then broke, tumbling into a cascade of woolly spiders, the large furry body of each appearing to convey an aspect of the warlock; Thomas first noted a red splash that seemed once cloth, then a single fat arachnid baring a golden pattern inset with brilliant green.
All skittered out of sight; some ascending towards the canopy, some disappearing within the undergrowth.
“This does not bode well for us,” said Sour Thistle, her hackles raised.
Then she was bitten.
Thomas’ boot found the jade-spined insect only seconds after its venom was laid, but his effort met with unexpected resistance. Instead of dashing the beast to pieces as he’d intended, the blow brought on a heavy crunch, which sent the thing speeding towards the fen.
“Hold still,” Blackhall told his ally, while eying the rapidly swelling infection just above her right fore-paw.
An angry red hive had taken hold at the site, and seemed to grow even under his examination.
“This will be painful, I apologize,” he said, giving no opportunity for complaint as he unsheathed his skinning knife, and dug it into her flesh.
It was a crude operation, and she keened her displeasure at his rough surgery, but it was swiftly completed. Although the ease with which his edge pierced the area of infection – given the occult nature of his subject – unsettled him, he held his tongue. A strong hand was all that was required to remove the core of the wound, but he knew that he had not been in time to entirely excise the contamination.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, as he cleaned his blade.
He examined the red which had splattered about the area, and the wolverine’s drawn snout, then raised an eyebrow. “No, I do not believe you will. This is no simple poison.”
Ignoring his words, she took a tentative step, and staggered.
“Perhaps after I rest a few moments,” she replied.
“No. You’ll wait here,” said Blackhall. “I’ve a conversation to hold with an old acquaintance anyhow.”
As he spoke, he reached deep within the folds of his great coat and retrieved a silver chain, upon the end of which rested a hook of remarkable craftsmanship.
“You possess The Crook of Ortez?” asked the lady of the forest. To Thomas’ ear, her voice had taken on no small wonder.
“It was given to me by the last of the line,” he replied. “Well, given may not be quite the right word. I shall return. Rest.”
With a final examination of his patient’s comfort, Blackhall righted himself. Taking in a deep breath of the cooler air, he stepped across the boundary, and into the marsh.
Shimmying the tall trunk of an unfamiliar breed of tree, to achieve access to the corpse of Archer, was a moist task of some exertion, but Thomas felt no sympathy for the cadaver as he cut its bonds and let it drop to the soggy earth below.
Rosy Red’s face had been largely eaten away by carrion feeders, and his gummy maw exposed by the steady gnawing of insects. Blackhall exhaled, then stooped to begin his discourse.
Dragging the chain’s barb along Archer’s putrid flesh, Thomas felt a tug, as if a hefty catch had taken hold of an angling line, and the frontiersman heaved upon the chain.
Before him stood the spectral shadow of a man he’d once known.
“Bloody Blackhall!? What brings you to this god forsaken witch tit of a hole?” asked the dead solider.
“The same thing that brought you here – Fitzhugh, and his damnable scheming,” Thomas replied.
“Ahh, I’m just having you about, I know well enough why you’re here. I’ve waited since that old bastard slit my throat, and let his flock consume my mules, for someone to come pull my stink from the treetops, although, I must admit, I wasn’t expecting him to send in a witch doctor.”
“He’s still a pushy bugger,” said Blackhall.
The apparition chuckled.
“Listen,” Thomas continued, “I’ve need of your help.”
“How so?” asked Rosy Red.
“This trinket can do more than just temporarily pull loudmouths from their graves, but it requires many hours to achieve a strength suitable to my requirements – and, given the likely approach of the swarm of life-suckers, time is not something I have. There is an alternative, however. Unfortunately, it’s an unpleasant one.”
Archer raised a shimmering hand to tap at his nose, and Blackhall briefly wondered if it seemed a luxury in light of his missing original.
“Remember that long haired Spaniard? The pygmy with the rapiers?” asked the phantom.
Thomas could hardly forget – after parrying a cluster of bayonets, the fellow had done in three of his platoon-mates. Archer had managed to disarm the man by using the butt of his rifle as a club, but at the cost of an opened leg-artery. If the daredevil hadn’t paused to gloat over his fallen opponent, Blackhall would never have had the opportunity to strangle him with his own locks.
“I find it difficult to disremember most of the things I did during our effort to stop the tiny emperor,” he replied.
“Dead or not, I recognize a debt when it’s owed,” said Rosy Red. “What are the terms?”
By way of answer, Thomas once again retrieved his blade. Bending low beside the corpse, he began to saw forcefully at the cadaver’s thigh. Removing a crudely-rounded patty of rotting skin and muscle, he laced it onto the hook’s intricate barb.
As it worked its way on, it became apparent that a force was wearing at the shade.
Blackhall completed his counsel.
“You’ll be bound where you died, and unable to move without great effort, at least until I remove your beef from the fetish – and there will be pain. The more I must use it, the greater the affliction. In fairness, you should know I mean to unfasten the heavens.”
“I’ve given enough, I suppose I can take a little,” replied Archer.
The memory of a doe-eyed senorita, lying wide-mouthed as her toddler uselessly grasped at her uncoupled arm, came suddenly to Thomas’ mind. He could not dismiss the smirk Rosy had delivered to him as the butcher strode from the scene.
“Indeed,” he said. “Now, where might I find -”
His ears had not ceased to strain since his last near-fatal encounter, and even his unpleasant labours had not driven away the warning that had been provided by the faltering stag he’d seen consumed – as such, he was not entirely taken by surprise when the telltale hum again filled the air.
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