Saturday, 4 May 2013

The Beast of Sarsmouth

I. Prologue
I was sure I had heard a footstep. I stood still, facing the direction the noise had come from. The darkness was blinding, impenetrable, and no man could ever get used to it without jeopardising his sanity. The hair on my body stood up, and a chilling sensation percolated slowly into my bones, as I strained my senses for the faintest hint of bearing. Even after all these years, I could not believe what it was that fate had in store for me.

II. Hindsight
It had been the month of June of the ninth year, and the village folk had begun to sing of the great legend that I had been raised to be a part of. I was the eldest son, with my first uncle's son Jared just a month younger to me. One could hear the cheers of the villagers wherever I went, and I had grown to ignore this irritable routine after the first three days.

I remember the rush of primal energy that gave me enough strength to practice my swordsmanship for as much as twenty hours a day. The looks on the faces of the men around me were reason enough. Ever since the day I was born, I had been looked upon as a Messiah, a tool to rid the village of its misery. I had grown up listening to the story of my forefathers, and had shone in their glory, awaiting my turn.

It had been a dark winter night, the night that I turned five, that Frida had first told me of the family legacy. She had been standing by the large window when the long, deep moan had excited the dry cold air, and had made even the strongest of men shiver. The deep growl was heard even two miles away, and had been heard every year on the anniversary of my birth. "That is the Beast of the Cave", Frida had said, pulling the curtains over the windows, "and one day, you will kill it." "Me?" I had asked, a wave of excitement spreading over my body, for fear did not have a place in the hearts that pumped the blood of my family, and Frida then told me the story that I can clearly recall even to this day.

A little longer than a century ago, the body of a child from the village of Sarsmouth had been found near the mouth of the large cave that opened near the Sardis river, by the southern edge of the forest. His head had been pulled apart from the rest of the body with such force, that a part of his spine had come off with it. Three more skeletons of human children were found scattered around the place, and all three of them had met the same horrible fate. The villagers had been terrified, and had come to their Liege and Master, my great ancestor Graham, for help. The elders had soon realized that all four children had mysteriously disappeared at somewhat regular intervals of about ten twelvemonths each.

Being the noble and honourable man he was, my ancestor had decided that he would go into the cave, and slay the horrible beast that had so terrorized the village. "If I do not return," he had dictated, "I will the eldest man with my blood in his veins to follow my lead after ten full years. For if I do not return, whatever obscenity dwells in that cave shall rest with its blood-lust satiated for that interval. I forbid other men to venture into the earthen recesses of the cave, and I will that I or a man of my blood either slay the monster, or fall prey to it, and let no other man suffer." Thus, after a year of preparation, he had ventured into the cave, proud and alone, on the sixteenth day of July.

Thirteen generations had passed since, with the eldest man in the extended family going into the cave, never to return, while the monstrosity still occupied the huge cave by the river, though it lay dormant, feeding only on the men of my blood. The last one, I have been told, had been my father. And he too like the twelve before him had never returned, making me an heir to this horrible destiny.

Here, I believe I owe you a small but important piece of information, else you might judge my great ancestor's unfortunate decisions too harshly. It was he who had first found Sarsmouth at the young age of eighteen. He had also discovered a way to make the soil potent and the water potable. The men who had followed him here had held him in such high esteem that would have made even the mighty gods burn with envy. I can say with much pride and equal regret, that this was true even to the present day. Nothing in the village happened without our approval, and much care was taken to not to cause us even the slightest discomfort. I had vowed, and now know, that I could do anything to protect the honour and pride that the name of my family had given to me in heritage. Anything at all.

Twelve months had passed since my preparations first began, and it was now the June of the tenth year. The carnival was in full flow, as everyone waited for the ritual that took place once a decade in the village of Sarsmouth; the ritual which would either earn me more fear and respect than the great Ulthar, or devoid my family of yet another man. I had not even been married, for I was too young. Jared would have to continue the lineage after me. I pondered on these thoughts, like many others, and seldom talked to anyone but my cousin. Jared was the only one person who knew how I felt, for he had always lived in fear of my untimely death. He was always with me, and had always stood by me, if only for his own good. We lived on, brothers more by fear than by blood, though we strived to hide this fact from the others.

The flames on the villagers' torches danced around in the cold wind. The moonless night reflected the void inside me. With one last glance at Jared who gave a slight nod, I started walking slowly up the Sardis, for it was the sixteenth day of July of the tenth year. I was clad in iron from head to toe, and held a longsword in my hands. My grasp on the ruby-studded hilt grew tighter as the insatiable mouth of the legendary cave grew in the distance. I struggled not to look back, for that would only remind me how lonely I was. I imagined an army walking behind me, and led the silent shadows of these imaginary men into war.

I lit my torch from the splinters I had with me, when the mouth of the cave was but five feet away. With one long, deep breath, I stepped into the sprawling abyss. The cave was so high, that the roof was not visible, even in the flame of the torch. I took small steps forward, my eyes finding even a lone spider to be a murderous ghoul. My feet slipped on the excretra of bats, and other horrible creatures that live in the dark. After what seemed to me an hour, which could have been anything from a quarter-hour to a half-day, I found myself to be helplessly lost. I could devise not the direction I had come from, and this made me more uncomfortable than what lay beyond. Walking cautiously along the path that seemed to me the most feasible, that was the first time I really felt any fear of my surroundings, for in front of me, by the near wall of the cave, lay a human skeleton. I flinched at the sight, more in fear than in disgust; for it surely belonged to someone I shared my blood with.

As my eyes grew accustomed to the sight before me, I noticed, for the first time, many more human bones lying around on the ground. They had probably been fed off. My senses grew in accuracy, and I was now aware of every small change in the darkness around me. It was at that moment that I first heard the noise. It was unmistakably the drum of one bone against another. Something near me was alive, and it had killed my father. I dropped the torch to the ground, grabbing the sword again with both my hands. I moved slowly towards the direction the sound had come from, the darkness engulfing me slowly as I moved on.

Just then, something leapt at me from the nothingness. It was leathery and covered with hair, and was surely larger than I was. I swung my sword around, but missed it completely, slicing only the damp shadows. Darkness stared at me from all directions, and I cannot forget the fear that shook me to the very core of my being. In that moment, I was overcome by such madness, mostly due to my horror, and partly for my hatred against this being that had killed so many of mine blood, that I started to yell. I yelled unintelligibly, swinging my sword from side to side, and in all directions I could. I moved around in circles, swinging furiously, with all the might I had. In my rage, I found out later, I had come very close to one of the many dead-ends of the cave where pieces of metal lay about on the floor. My sword, without my intending to, hit living flesh with a sickening thud. The moment brought to me not the relief or feeling of triumph that I had expected, but rather a feeling of horror and confusion, the likes of which not many men have savored and lived, for I was sure I had heard a sob. I had no doubt in my mind that I had hit a man.

Leaving the sword buried in the man's flesh, I turned in the opposite direction, and started running with all the energy I had left. I ran blindly for some time, until I saw a faint glow of light coming from the distance. Assuming it to be the mouth of the accursed cave, my portal to the outside world, I ran towards it with all my might. A feeling of utter disappointment came over me when I realised that the glow of light I had thought to be coming from the mouth of the cave actually belonged to the torch I had dropped sometime back. Still, I hurried towards it, getting enormous comfort from the warmth and light it provided.

After picking up the torch, I felt a strange urge to go back and take a look at the monster I had killed. That it had been a man, my mind could still not believe. I tried retracing my steps the best I could, and passed many smaller tunnels from whence I could see many small eyes of the horrendous bats glaring at me. When I finally found my feet striking rusting metal, I knew I had reached the correct place. The sight before me was so gruesome, that I have strived to get it out of the depths of my memory ever since. There lay, by the far end of the small inside cave, a man with a sword buried deep below his left lung. I now saw that luck had played a large part in his death. He had been cornered against the low wall, his feet stuck in the pile of metal that lay on the earthen floor. He had long hair, both on his head and on his face, and his skin was deathly pale. Clearly, it had been a very long time since he had last seen the light of day. Even more unsettling was the sight of carefully positioned cuts on his arms and legs.

But I was still confused. Was this strange man responsible for the death of my ancestors? Why hadn't someone killed him before me, when I was surely not the best swordsman that had taken birth in my family? I moved closer to study the face of the man more carefully. The hairs on his cheek were wet, and I remembered the sob I had heard just before my sword hit him. A strange feeling told me that he had not intended to harm me at all; that it had been more than luck that had enabled me to kill him. It was then that I first saw the engravings on the wall of the cave, a little more than five feet away from the place the man lay dead.

By now, my fear had been totally overcome by a strong urge of curiosity, and I could not wait to see what I now know was my undoing. There, on the low wall of the cave, was engraved a strange story told through pictures; the story of how a man had found the perfect place for his people to live, but soon discovered that the water had too much acid, and had ruined the soil. In his quest to find a way out, he had come to a huge cave, where he had meditated for four long nights. Troubled and hassled by the knowledge that his men would disown him if he didn't find a solution soon, he was slowly slipping into madness. It was then that he saw... he saw something so horrible that I dare not put it down in words. It was probably just a hallucination brought on by his decaying mind, but it rattled him to the very core. He started performing blood rituals and sacrificed humans, and worshipped Gods that should not be spoken of, but it all seemed justified, for the villagers soon found a lake some thousand feet away. Canals were dug, and Sarsmouth prospered.

But it was before long that the villagers noticed how four of their children had disappeared mysteriously over four decades. They had begun to suspect and fear the ancient cave, and were anxious to find and kill whatever had harmed their blood. It was then that the man, now ageing, devised a plan to save his name and that of his family. From that point onward, I knew the story well, and I wanted to burn all that my eyes saw, but I could not take it much longer. My head had started to spin, and my sight faded slowly as I fell to the ground.

III. Epilogue
I was sure I had heard a footstep. I stood still, facing the direction the noise had come from. The darkness was blinding, impenetrable, and no man could ever get used to it without jeopardising his sanity. The hair on my body stood up, and a chilling sensation percolated slowly into my bones, as I strained my senses for the faintest hint of bearing. Even after all these years, I could not believe what it was that fate had in store for me.

Ten years had passed since I had first entered the damned cave, and I had stayed true to my ancestors' footsteps. I had spent my years worshipping the Old Ones with mine own blood and feeding on the creatures that wandered the earthen void, while the rest of my family lived on in dignity and respect. But today... today I would be rewarded for what I had endured for so long. Today, I would be freed of my responsibility towards my blood, and pass it on to my cousin, if he still lived, or to his son; much like I had done for my own father. Today, I would take my last breath as the wretched Beast of Sarsmouth.

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