Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ninety-eight.
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, must face an insidious airborne threat, as well as disappointment.
Flash Pulp 198 – Support: a Blackhall Tale, Part 6 of 6
As the roar of the insects approached, Blackhall hoped his traveling companion, Sour Thistle, was sufficiently sheltered, and lofted high the silver chain which dangled from his moist palm. The denizens of the fen also understood the imminent threat, and their sudden hush only amplified the approaching drone.
Tossing his hat to the muck, Thomas set his boot upon its wide brim, and clenched his teeth.
He was unaccustomed to the extra load Archer’s pound of flesh had added to the hook, but, even as he began to wheel the length of shining links over his head, he could feel the vigour the dead man’s weight brought to the talisman in the air about him.
Inky tendrils crept through the tall trunks of trees too exotic for Blackhall’s identification, and he knew his time was short.
Somewhere beyond the fetid heat of the swamp, the sound of thunder rolled across the forest.
“Tis for you, Mari,” said Thomas, only to himself.
He redoubled the speed with which he twisted his charm.
A new cacophony took hold then, rising from beneath the black cloud – it sounded as if the howl of a dying wolf entwined with the screams of a bairn come too early, all projected from the heavens above. To the north of the marsh, the sky seemed to ripple, then rend, and even the unchanging thunderhead which shaded the jungle mass transformed at the pressure.
It began to rain.
The winged parasites were well within sight of Blackhall by then, but the building gale had temporarily set them astray, and the dark coils moved in unsure billows, which looked, to Thomas’ eye, as if an imitation of the writhing obsidian bodies of the leeches themselves.
While the fetish felt to have taken on impossible heft, the skyward void grew broad at Blackhall’s efforts, and the wind ratcheted from a whisper to a wail.
The corpses The Eremite had anchored in the canopy, began to rock with the gusts, their dangling arms shaking in the rush. The temperature dropped rapidly, the vacuum sucking the heat away with a greedy chill.
Under the whip and pull of the rising storm, the swarm was broken apart as if tossed on a raging sea. While their wings struggled furiously to keep their relative position, the blow became too much for many – some fell to the earth, their flight organs snapped beneath the strain, but most blasted between the trunks, their wet bodies bursting as they slapped against the swaying timber.
Undisturbed by the maelstrom, the spirits of the dead men overhead pulled themselves from their rotting shells, and came tumbling to the mud.
As they gathered, about him, Blackhall maintained his labours, unwilling to cease until he was sure he’d done in the aberrant flock. Finally, however, with his coat slick with impacts, and the trees greasy with death, he allowed his arm rest.
He inspected the troop of phantasms which he’d raised as a byproduct of his exertion.
“It’ll be a hearth and a proper burial you’ll all want, but perhaps I could offer a taste of vengeance as well? I seek the old man.”
Many babbled nonsense driven by fear, and others started upon questions unanswerable in the moment, forcing Thomas to add gravity to his tone.
“I’ve a friend at the bog’s edge which requires immediate attention, a ritual that will take hours in itself, if her fever does not kill her. I’ve no interest, though, in being struck down as a I flee, so I must deal immediately with this hermit. You will indicate his location, or by all you hold holy, I’ll be sure you hang about in this damp hell for time beyond ken.”
A boy of eighteen caught his eye, not with a flapping tongue, instead with flapping hands. The lad, who Thomas suspected to be of one of the parties sent by Fitzhugh, pointed past his right shoulder.
“I’ve not beheld such a display since abandoning my exile to Eboracum,” said The Eremite, standing not ten yards away. “Who has sent you? Are you a minion of the spider god? Or perhaps he who now claims the name of Caesar? No, unlikely after so long – another sage then? Maltrusis? Acanthus?”
“You appear more alert than when at our previous crossing,” replied Blackhall.
The thaumaturge winced.
“I grow old. I fear sometimes I wake in places I have not meant to travel to. It seems less and less that I am myself.”
Blackhall moved his hand away from the silver sabre at his hip, and instead retrieved the small waxed pouch which contained his final letter from Mairi, as well as the implements of his sole vice. A few amongst the specters licked their blue lips at the sight, but none were willing to close the distance to the speakers.
It took focus to keep his fingers steady as he prepared his cigarette, but Thomas’ voice was strong.
“Few survive from your age – there are certainly none in the old world. I have met beings of ancient origin, but no man such as yourself.”
“None still live across the sea?”
“Perhaps you’ve held out secret hope that a companion of old would stumble into your hermitage, but in truth you are likely the last. Surely you must know of the dying? While the arcane runs deeply through these lands, it is not so back home. I believe I’ve encountered much for my age, but I have seen naught as taken by the measure of what I have thus far encountered in this colonial hinterland.”
Realizing he had no flame with which to ignite his construction, Blackhall tucked away the preparation for later use.
The magus nodded, adjusting his robe as he considered. He then straightened as far as his bowed spine would allow.
“I appreciate the news, but now I believe our conversation is at an end,” he said.
“You’ve driven beast and forest spirit from their territory,” Thomas continued, “if you do not submit, you will be done in by those far more powerful than I.”
“I was lucky to have surprised the regent at my doorstep, I do admit,” replied The Eremite, “but even with my lovelies smeared about the grove, I’ve ways of holding back those who overstep their reach.”
“Is that how you turned back the witch?”
“A woman, old, though not near so as yourself, with a column of the dead behind her, cavorting in mockery of the living?” He was careful to make no mention that the parade of corpses contained his own beloved wife.
Slipping an ornate dagger, shimmering with arcane brilliance, from the interior of his sleeve, The Eremite did not reply. Instead his too-long vestments swept silently over the bog’s muck, sliding as if a snake upon its belly.
With the violent weather dissipating, the spirits at Blackhall’s back rapidly began to lose density, but stood firm enough to cuss their murderer loudly. Their shouts were drawn short, however, by a rapidly descending snarl.
The force of collision was enough to startle Thomas into retreating a pace. The brown assemblage, which had dropped onto the timeworn hermit from the thick matte of vegetation above, became a sphere of thrashing teeth and claws.
Once her opponent seemed thoroughly broken, Sour Thistle stepped aside to admire her handiwork.
“I summoned assistance,” she said, “but I could not hold back given the climate’s turmoil. In truth, I believed you eaten by a fiend.”
She then collapsed.
The heat of her infection was notable as he approached, and it was uncomfortable to lay his hand on her blazing fur.
Wasting no time in contemplation, Blackhall turned on his heel and moved to The Eremite.
The old man was alive, but badly twisted. His robes made it difficult to tell if his left arm had been entirely severed, or only torn far from its stump, but there was no doubt about the gaping condition of his belly.
“I was in a town to the south, and there was a boy there who’d eaten of a poisoned apple. This does not sound as if your design, it must be the hag – have you seen her?” demanded Blackhall.
“Given your hand in my dispatching, why should I reply?” asked The Eremite.
“I will give you an option – tell me, or, in spite of your reclusive desires, I will stand about here making boorish conversation until you’ve died. Then, I shall raise you up, and continue to do the same.” Thomas let slip the silver chain as he spoke. “Should my friend perish before you answer, the consequences will be considerably less polite.”
“Yes, I saw the hag. I repelled her assault easily.”
“Did you now? When do you recall beginning to suspect your senility?”
The Eremite spat blood into the air. “I am not senile.”
“Mayhaps your leeches drift across the land of their own will? Perhaps you wander your hermitage ranting as a matter of normal course? You have outlasted many – accept your end with dignity. Which way did she depart?” asked Thomas.
“I suspect west, but we did not sit about discussing our plans for the future.”
“I need better than suspicions,” replied the frontiersman, but the old man was too dead to hear it.
After a moment’s frustrated consideration, Blackhall returned his occult trinket to its place of keeping.
He knew he had a long job still ahead.
The fierce swelter had done Sour Thistle’s fever little good, and it was only with much strain that Thomas managed to relocate her unconscious form to the cooler airs of the outer forest.
It was then that he received his first surprise. In his absence the boundary had become populated by a broad array of woodland inhabitants, all peering anxiously into the murk of the tainted mire. Unsure of his welcome, given the reposing state of the lady the beasts had come to serve, Blackhall approached a pair of knobby kneed moose, and laid down the wolverine.
He considered it a tricky thing to utilize enough vigour to shake her awake, without raising the ire of his audience, but with a hardy wrist he managed to bring Sour Thistle about.
“I can help,” were his opening words.
“I shiver at the cold,” she replied.
“You’ll need a greater chill if I’m to carry out my ritual.”
He struck upon a plan then.
With a squad of able-fingered raccoons to assist his efforts, he quickly had the rotting men of the trees brought down, and cut free of their bindings. At Sour Thistle’s fading instruction, they made short work of affixing the lines to the entangled cart Thomas had spotted on his arrival at the mucky terrain.
The forest spirit was again in stupor when he lifted her into the wagon, but she’d left clear guidance to her adherents.
As Blackhall knotted the last of the cord, in hopes of greater stability for his standing position in the flat bed of his conveyance, he noted the beasts had already begun to scour the track.
Then commenced one of the strangest rides of Thomas’ long memory.
Some of the lashings had been frayed, so that a single strand might be held in the clenched mouths of a team of half-a-dozen scampering minks. At times a bull moose would lead, with an array of lesser creatures flanking his sides, at others Blackhall marked a pack of wolves managing the load alone.
At the head of the column strode the shimmering visages of the dead men, their ghostly light guiding the way through the whipping branches. A blanket of wild things moved at their feet, tearing clear protruding stones and sealing ragged holes before leaping aside to let the thundering wheels pass.
It was not for their illumination, however, that Blackhall had again taken up the Crook of Ortez. Thomas could feel the intensity of his companion’s malady, and all he could provide as succor was the cold, and rain, drawn on by pulling near the netherworld.
Standing astride the bucking platform, he maintained his sterling hook aloft, and summoned the wrath of the tempest.
An hour into their desperate run, their right fore-wheel splintered at a bad landing, but without upset to his regent, an adolescent black bear stepped to the axle, and took its bulk onto his shoulder. A brother was soon beneath the far side, lifting the orphaned hoop from the ground, and progress continued until the rear also gave way, leaving the raft moving entirely upon the rolling spines of an ever-swapping procession of carriers.
The journey which had taken Blackhall days was managed by the bestial train within hours – but, even then, Thomas was not sure their expedience would be enough.
When they finally arrived at the somber opening of the ice cave, Blackhall’s arm ached with exertion. Still, he was quick to leap from his transport and lift up the blazing weight of Sour Thistle.
Although it felt as if she baked the skin of his head and neck as he toted her, the unnatural conflagration was no match for the eager cold of the frozen grotto, and, his hands thus freed, Blackhall turned his attentions to curing, rather than maintaining.
It was a dusk, and a dawn, and a dusk, before he stumbled from the den, the fool’s smile of success on his lips.
Those who’d assisted in his victory had disappeared to their own grounds, but, as if in their wake, sat the boy, Layton, who’d first shown Thomas the frigid shelter.
“Came up for Ma, and I heard, uh, singing. I thought it was you, so I figured I’d wait in case you required assistance. Didn’t want to bust in on you though,” said the lad, offering up the glow of his lamp against the darkness.
“It’s good to see you again – I thought you’d be off by now?” replied Blackhall, taking a seat on a flat stone cropping.
“Another week, they say. I feel the noose drawing tight.”
Thomas nodded at the response, retrieving the cigarette he’d produced ages earlier.
“I’ve thought further on your problems. I’ve just discovered the bodies of a number of Britishers who’ll require decent burial, and who better to send than the freshly minted lieutenant who woos your girl? I believe I’m certainly owed favours enough, at this point, to have a say in appointing the expedition. Better yet, I’ve also recently recalled a woman of considerable patience, and the heart of a caretaker, who might do well with lodging upon your land so that she might set up house with her fellow, and tend your mother. Her drowsy man would be well suited to learn discipline under your father’s farmyard tutelage as well.”
From the spark of the lantern, he lit his vice, and pondered his Mairi’s place under the burgeoning tract of stars.
From within the cavern, the echos of a racking snore became audible.
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