Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and thirty-six.
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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 we find Thomas Blackhall, student of the occult and master frontiersman, standing over a devilishly-tongued man.
Flash Pulp 136 – Jabber, Part 1 of 2
Blackhall held the oil lamp high, letting the dim glow drag along the moist stone walls. It had been many months since he’d last seen the abandoned mine site, and the elements had worn heavily upon the timber works which kept the meager shaft from collapse.
Before him knelt a slight man, clothed in too-large pants and a motley sweater, who would have found himself hard pressed to bluff his age as above that of twenty-one. His forearms were bound at the small of his back with a long run of twine, and a wad of stocking had been forced into his mouth and held there in place by a wide strip of rag wound several times about his head.
Thomas scraped his nails over the stubble at his chin, and gazed down at the stooped form.
Until seconds previous, the figure had lain unconscious, and, now, the portion of Blackhall’s mind ruled by curiosity was tempted to observe what might follow.
The grubby muzzle began to moisten, and the captive’s jaw drew taut as he commenced gnawing at the interior of his facial bindings.
Blackhall filled his lungs and raised a boot to the man’s brow. With a grunt and a kick, the prisoner toppled backwards, plummeting from the stone precipice at which they’d lingered, and into the darkness of the vertical shaft behind him.
The silence of the fall was broken only by the occasional brush of cloth upon the rock face.
Thomas cast a wish into the hole that he might have a stick of dynamite to aid the conclusion of his deposit, then turned to make his way towards the exit.
* * *
Two weeks earlier, he’d been amongst the pines, three-days west of the small town of Sacrime, and preparing to bed down. The evening had been warm, so he’d let the fire gutter before moving a short distance from his camp to correct the complaints of his bladder.
His travels had him trailing at the banks of White River, which ran north and south, and, having finished marking a Spruce as his own, he crouched at the water’s edge to refresh his face and arms from the crisp flow.
That was when he noted the swing of the torch over the babble of the cascade.
Blackhall could not hear the dialogue of the naked, ancient, elder, who held aloft the beacon – the distance across the rush was too great – but it was obvious that the man was expounding at length as he conducted a parade of some fifty capering bodies through the unyielding forest shadows. The leader came to a brief halt as he stepped upon the bank, then he turned northward. As his chain of dancers came to the same location, they too turned, never breaking stride.
The shape and age of all involved varied wildly – some seemed but babes, barely old enough to walk, and others seemed too old to live amongst the wildwoods, much less to maintain the spastic cavorting which currently occupied them.
Thomas remained huddled low as he moved back into the treeline, then, with reckless speed, he collected the accoutrements of his encampment. Once he’d stuffed the last of his loose items into his bag, he slung his Baker rifile at his shoulder, and belted his sword.
Despite his absence, it was a simple matter to relocate the human column as the guide strayed little from the course of the waterway – it was more difficult, however, to intersect it.
It was a twelve-hour chase, during which Thomas was forced into increasingly inhospitable terrain in an attempt to remain hidden, even as the sun once again took the sky. The need for expediency in his rough passage left the frontiersman’s hands bleeding from the effort, and imparted two fresh gashes in his greatcoat which would require mending, but, finally, the old man broke his orientation, and started away from the shore.
As soon as the last of the succession had turned to follow, Thomas thrust into his mouth the stone he kept upon a rawhide loop about his neck, and dived beneath the cool torrent. The breathing trinket made his passage inevitable, but the strong current carried him well away from his intended landing point, and he was forced to recover ground to match the splintered tree he’d memorized as a landmark.
His mind and limbs ached with the fatigue of the pursuit.
Having to slow to mark the signs of his quarry’s passage, he rummaged about for something that might stopper his ears, but, in the end, he could manage only ripped ends from his tattered shirt with which to fashion shoddy plugs.
There was nothing he could do to assist the former residents of Sacrime when he came to the cave that had been the old man’s destination.
Within that lost hour, the Jabber had fed extensively – corpses littered the floor, and, in the furthest corner, a broad-chested man of forty took his last gurgling breath.
The beast, now a youth, leaned low over a woman, the last of the living, whose auburn hair fanned from her head to splay haphazardly across the stone, and whose eyes remained impassive over her chubby cheeks. The boy appeared to be telling a great tale while inspecting the quality of her teeth. Her lips were spread wide, and her neck tilted, as if a child demonstrating the healthy state of her tonsils.
As he neared, Blackhall had begun to hum to cover the sound of its rambling, but, as he stepped into the rocky shelter, with his sword drawn, he was brought up short by the flash of a bristling array of thorns projecting suddenly from the glutton’s still yammering maw – then the thing’s face lost its guise of humanity entirely, and it plunged its spines into the woman’s gaping cavity.
As it fed noisily upon her tongue, Thomas wretched.
He’d never encountered such a creature himself, but he’d heard of its methods while scouring the tomes of his father’s library. It was rejuvenated by its insatiable hunger for the knotted mouth-muscle, and had, as its primary tool of enticement, the ability to drive men to madness, or enslavement, with the nonsensical discourse it maintained.
He knew too that speech was its weakness – it was recounted that the only layman to have survived the approach of such a fiend had done so by providing an impassioned plea for his wife, over which he could not hear the beast’s ravings. After a crescendo of clashing utterance, the monster had fallen unconscious, and had been then submitted to fearful inspection at the hands of the church’s specialists. Every effort was made to end the abomination, but the might of horses tugged uselessly upon its limbs, and even blessed water seemed to have no means of starving its lungs. On the following rise of the full moon, it reawoke, and began to gnaw at the steel links that held it. It was only the voice of Monseigneur Lajoie, reciting script, verse, and even childhood poems, which finally brought the thing under control – and still at the cost of the five other attending brothers.
The Monseigneur had decided that it would be buried, and twenty days of well-manned digging were followed by ten days of filling – then the Jabber was forgotten by all but Lajoie, who recorded the incident and promptly retired from the clergy.
Blackhall was unsure if this was the same as that of the legend – it was impossible to know, given the longevity imparted by its grisly consumption.
He found his lungs.
It was dusk before the rant was complete, a tirade largely filled with memories of his Mairi – and before the horror once gain succumbed.
Thomas already had in mind his next destination, the abandoned shafts which lay to the east, and that it would be days of tough hauling, with a heavy load. He also knew, however, that he would not sleep that evening – at least, certainly, not in that cave of damned souls who’d drowned in their own blood.
He began to bind his foe.
In truth it was another three dawns – three long days of dragging – until he could summon the courage to once again slumber, and, when he did, he dreamt of the visage of the auburn-haired woman, as she was kissed so deeply by the kneeling form.
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