Winner of the 2012 ‘Stories Space’ Short story competition, Celebration of the Damned is based in the same world as the Harmatia Cycle, in the land of ‘Isnydea’ in ‘Kathra’. To find out more about the world check out the Harmatia Cycle website at www.harmatiacycle.com.
It was the dancing which eventually drove him to the lonely corner of the square, black eyes glinting in the fire-light, teeth set hard into his lip. The late spring snow had smothered the whole mountain but in the village it had been cleared, the icy touch held at bay by all the movement, the life and excitement.
A wedding. The idea of love in such a society, where criminals ruled and the people lived in fear, was a strange one at best. And yet they were only human – the bride and groom’s young merriment rekindling a hopeful flame in withered, disparaging villagers, like a light on the horizon of a great depression. Of course, Valbour had seen it before. It was the very reason he had shackled himself in the confines of shadows, his muscles twitching under the strain of his spiking heartbeat. He felt both hot and cold in an instant, his blood thick and boiling like a pounding river. It did not help that Cyryl had left him.
The celebration was reaching its peak – voices were colliding through the air, brash, drunk and merry so that Valbour had to cover his ears, his head thundering. He pressed his palms so hard against his skull he could almost hear it cracking. His muscles, as they always did, ached and strained against the movement – it often happened on cold days like this. The mutation throughout his body made him inhumanly strong, made his eyes sharper, and above all made him capable of hearing everything.
The beat of the drum, each screeching strum of the strings and worse; the heartbeats, pulsing like millions of droplets of rain, thundering over him until his shoulders shook and, despite the pain, he pressed harder. Every instinct in his body screamed that he knew what to do, what he had been trained to do. But he could see Cyryl’s face in his mind, that patient, disappointed expression – Valbour had agreed to control himself, had agreed to learn. He had agreed because, finally, there had been no drink, no drug, no action he could take to soothe the maddening burning in his veins anymore.
The bride was beautiful; young, fresh-faced, and long haired, with lashes that stroked her cheeks when she blinked, and full lips, cherry red; the only sign on her innocent face that beneath it she was sensuous, desirable to the touch, ready for it.
In contrast he was tall with gangly legs, but he had strong shoulders, a full head of straw coloured hair and eyes like a summer sky, pure as heaven. As they danced, Valbour saw the careful touches they shared between them, the prelude to their wedding night. They played one another, tested with each stroke, each lingering hand, each stray glance and smile. The music grew to a feverish frenzy, hazy and riotous as they danced, she in her mother’s wedding dress, and he in the villagers’ finest. Theirs was the world for the taking. They were happy. Valbour dropped his hands from his ears.
The ferocious spray of blood spattered across his face as he threw the body around with one final, easy blow, listening to the satisfactory splintering of the bone. Cries of fright echoed through the village and they set his every step, drove him to his reaper-like dance. He could hear his companions laughing behind him, could hear their encouragement; never too loud though, because no man wished to distract Marek from his work. From his art.
Screams. Oh, it was beautiful. Not because he liked it, it reverberated through his ears and set his head reeling, but because he understood it. He understood the sticky, warm blanket that coated his hands. He could feel his victims lungs expanding as he crushed the ribs with his bare fingers – so fragile. The bride was crying, shrieking even as her father held her back.
– That’s right old man, keep her away, because I’ll show her what a real man can do if you don’t, I’ll give her her wedding night.
The groom spluttered; his was a slow death. That’s what the Masters wanted, and Marek did as he was told. Yes, kill him slowly; after all there was an example to be set
– You see what happens when you don’t pay your dues? What? Did you think we wouldn’t notice? Did you think we would let such a thing go? No, we waited, we waited until you had grown complacent. Now you will remember. You will remember to whom you owe your life. You will remember who your Masters are.
And Marek was laughing now, laughing so hard he could feel it cracking through his skull as the groom’s bones surrendered to the gentle pressure and caved in. Oh. It was glorious.
When Marek threw the body into the sea for the sharks to enjoy, he looked at the boy for the first time, purged now of the violent frenzy. The groom was his age and weedy, he had probably been banished to this icy hell for stealing bread, or less. Marek threw the body as was ordered, and watched, bemused and fascinated as the bride followed willingly, leaping after her damned lover. And Marek wondered, for the first time, that dangerous, terrible thought… – why did they have to die?
His eyes focused as he spotted his prey in an instant, skulking unnoticed through the crowd, it’s long, gangly arms clawed and thin like the withered branches of a dying tree. It reared its ugly head, teeth bared, and sprang all at once into the watching crowd. But it did not reach the bride’s throat. Valbour’s hands might crush a man’s ribs, but his legs could carry him great a distances, silent and swift. He dragged the struggling Striga out from the square and deep into the forest until they were far from prying eyes. And then, with his blood burning white hot and stomach reeling with that trained sick excitement, he ripped its shrieking corpse to pieces.
That’s right. Once he had been Marek – the trained hound of the Masters, bred to do their bidding, his imposed strength and senses a constant agony that could only be relieved by death. Yes. Once he had been Marek.
Now he was Valbour, a monster hunter, and Cyryl had promised that eventually the pain would ease, and he would grow used to his strength. Eventually he would come to understand his new freedom, after a lifetime of slavery.
But for now Valbour stayed with the Striga carcass and waited for Cyryl to find him. Because as long as he still hungered for blood, there was no place for him amongst the celebrations of the damned.