By Chris Wright
Ryda had seen healthier looking mares dragged from the Dalsta River after the drunken celebrations of Horseman’s Day. They had the look of two butcher’s sacks – all bones with only the merest missed bits of meat and gristle. Patchwork fur of brown and grey stuck like weeds from the discoloured skin of the nearest, while its mate seemed to have been shaved entirely, or else grown bald through age or lack of effort. Ryda expressed these views frankly to the sheriff, who responded with a look and a thrown saddle to the gut.
“You think you had it rough on the sail over from Velda Durj? Try doing it with blinkers and a horse’s mind.”
“These are Sallundian horses?” said Ryda. “Do they not have such beasts in Amota?”
“Native horses? Sure they do. Why don’t you go on over and catch us a couple of strong young colts, Mr. Ryda?” Tadoro motioned vaguely towards the open land of the Amotan plains. “Make sure they’re tame ones too. I’m not a young man anymore, I can’t do with bucking.”
The sheriff’s flippancy earned a sidelong smile where others would have earned a punch.
“You make your point well, sheriff. Now tell me, will the horse stand my weight or am I as likely to be carrying it come the journey home?”
“I’m sure Tela here would appreciate the sentiment, but she’s a fine old mare. She’ll see you right. Now strap up and get on, we ain’t got all day.”
The moment he set his steed on course, the Forested Mountains loomed large on Ryda’s horizon. The darkness around it was far greater than the shadow it cast. Evil has a way of whispering its presence to the animal mind. While his eyes took in a familiar wood, untamed mangroves with shrivelled leaves, the hairs on his neck raised like a dog’s, bracing for the fight. Even the horse seemed to sense it. She staggered sideways and not through weight, turning her head until she looked at the sea, until Ryda reluctantly dragged her back to the forest. He glanced across at the set-gazed sheriff and saw his free hand hovering unknowingly above his gun. Ryda, too, ached for the comfort of steel. They marched on.
Sweat pooled at his hairline and dripped steadily down the side of his face, half of it to do with the heat of the day. He dragged a sleeve across his forehead and adjusted his position on his bouncing saddle. It had been a long time since he had ridden and he’d quite forgotten how sore it could be. She had always mocked him for it, made a jest of his complaint and his comparative lack of skill. Well, she’d had him at an advantage there. His lips tugged into something of a smile but he wiped it away with the next sheen of sweat and set his focus again to the day. It did not do to dwell.
A quaint little farmhouse, rickety and old despite its new build, had been steadily growing in the distance. Where once it had been a silhouette, black on brightest gold, now he could see the curling white paint, the wooden sun and moon nailed on the door and something of the frantic movement inside.
“Gate on your right,” Sheriff Tadoro said, gesturing with his pipe as he trotted beside him.
Ryda nodded and steered inside, pulling up by the house and dismounting his steed with an awkward jump and two relieved boots on soil. Tadoro landed beside him with surprising lightness and led the way unhesitatingly to the door. He rapped upon it in a stark fashion, quite unbecoming of the solemnity of their call. They were not kept long before the door opened to a young priest, bedecked in crisp new robes, the whites not yet turned to grey and the sureness youth and of the gods’ sweet favour still fresh about his person.
“Ah, sheriff,” he said softly. “Mrs. Surrano shall be pleased for your presence. It will be of comfort to her.”
“Blessings on you, father,” Tadoro said appropriately, chomping his pipe between his teeth so he could clasp his hands together.
Ryda mimicked the gesture and they were led inside. They were in a hall, a grand thing in these parts, decorated with carvings of the sun, moon and stars and with a wilting wildflower in a crockery vase on the windowsill. Sunlight streamed in through the half-shuttered glass and lit their way through to the sitting room. A woman was inside, lying outstretched on a sprinkling of straw that had been scattered on the floor by the window. Above her, danced a man, who muttered incoherently and waved a gnarled old cane as if fending off an attack from an invisible spirit.
He was dressed in flowing robes – not like the priest’s but garish and multi-coloured, striped down the sides with symbols and signs woven across the chest. And on his head was perched a sculpted hat of cloth and leather, adding inches to his height and giving the impression of an upturned bull with curling horns and a bulbous head. He stopped when he heard the others enter the room. If the healers of Amota had come as something of a surprise, its resident bonder had conformed strictly to type. His eyes flicked in turn to Ryda and the sheriff and Ryda saw in them the familiar intelligence, but in his clothes and his dance and his straight-postured stride, he recognised, too, a bonder’s joy of pomp and ceremony.
He greeted the sheriff with an imperious nod and then turned again to Ryda. His blue eyes bored into Ryda’s with intensity and his lips twitched, his brow furrowing knowingly. Ryda held his gaze with studied ease. It was an old charmer’s trick. Look into someone’s eyes with half a smile and the average man will think you know his secrets, will think his mind has been opened to you. But this man knew nothing. Had he known half of Ryda’s secrets, he would have run screaming for the door or else fallen to his knees and begged. The smirk turned to a frown and then he looked away.
“You have come about the disappearance,” he said. “Of Joda and young Gasto. There is little you can do, you know this, but still you have come. For comfort and duty.”
He was a man of middling years but his voice had not truly earned the rasp that he affected. Clearly he had not surrendered the act of the knowing old sage.
“I see nothing gets past you, Master Bonder,” Ryda replied.
“Now, now, Mr. Ryda,” said Tadoro. “Let us not be discourteous. Am I correct to presume, Bonder Roti, that you are here to restore Mrs. Surrano’s erstwhile bonds?”
“You are quite correct, Sheriff, that there is one to be restored. But there are more to be strengthened and preserved. Hope has not yet fled before the demons’ terror.”
It was always Gods damned riddles with these people. The ungilded leather of his bonder’s cap marked him as unpowered – a Low Bonder, far beneath the prestige of the favoured High Bondsman. With only low magic beneath their fingers, mystique was important to men of his kind.
“Speak plainly, Bonder,” said Ryda. “We cannot all be so wise in such ways.”
Bonder Roti missed the sarcasm or else chose to ignore it and indulged the two of them with a fatherly smile.
“It is true, I fear, that the location bond I once placed on young Gasto has been extinguished, whether by distance or demon fire cannot be known, but my powers have yet to fail within the confines of this land.”
Mrs. Surrano, who Ryda had taken as asleep on the floor, let out a pained moan at these words, hiccoughing thick tears down her cheeks and shaking her head in denial. So the boy was dead. He considered offering comfort to the poor woman but thought better of it fast and turned back to the bonder.
“Gasto’s bonds are broken, but Joda’s ain’t?” Tadoro asked.
“Quite so,” said the bonder. “Joda has no location bond of his own, he is not a child, but the property bonds of home and goods still cling to him. As does his marriage bond and Soa’s location bond.”
“Soa?” Ryda asked.
It was a little voice but not a squeak. It spoke without the natural caution of a child in a room full of adults, with just a hint of defiance. Soa poked her head around the door and walked inside. She was a tiny thing – probably eight but looking closer to five. Well-kept clothes of worn-in homespun draped a frame of skin and bones. Her hair was lank and matted with dust but neatly combed and pulled into place. The tough life of a farmer’s daughter told in the dirt and the leanness of her body, but there was an unsaid pride in what little she had and she kept them well and walked upright.
The sight of her daughter chased what remnants of composure were left to her mother and she burst into sobs, reaching for the girl. Soa crossed the distance on barefeet and allowed her mother to smother her in a hug, crying into her hair. Ryda shifted uncomfortably. He had never been one for crying women. Or crying men, for that matter. She had never cried, never weakened before the many storms that struck her. Not even….No.
“My husband lives,” Mrs. Surrano said. “Sheriff, my husband lives. Find him, please. He is a good man. He went only for our son, but now my boy is gone. But he lives, Sheriff. Please, find him.”
“I will do what I can, my dear lady. But, if he has truly gone into the Forested Mountains…”
“He is in the hands of the Gods, Kata,” the priest broke in. “Trust him to them. He is alive. That is all that is known to us, but that alone is a miracle. He has been blessed.”
“The Gods bestow miracles on men, but allow boys, girls and babes to be taken,” Ryda muttered.
The priest looked scandalised, the only one but the sheriff to catch the remark, but one look at Ryda warned him off any riposte. Instead, he bustled off to the kitchen, mumbling prayers and self-righteous sacraments. Ryda, meanwhile, settled into a proffered chair and a cup of ale brought by Soa, knowing that it was going to be a long night.
There really was little they could do. They asked what the Surranos had seen, which was nothing, and searched the house for signs of a break in. But it was more for want of something to do than in hope of finding any evidence. There was never any evidence. Be it man or demon or ghost or other, whatever was taking the young and the weak of Amota left no sign of their presence in their wake. And so they simply sent out the word for the town to stay vigil, gave what comfort they could and waited for the bonds on Joda Surrano to fade. Ryda hoped they would hurry up.
He bore the man no ill will, but no one survived in the Forested Mountains for long and the faint sliver of hope of the not quite knowing was a drain on the soul. He had never had to deal with that hell, at least, though he had seen it often enough. Soldiers in war disappearing on the field, the fates of their bodies known only to the Gods as their families sat and waited, and prayed for their deliverance from such purgatory.
It was hours before news came, long after the bonder had grown bored and left, and, when it did, it was not how Ryda had expected it. The screaming of the horses bolted him up in his chair, where he had fallen into a doze. He looked to share a glance with Tadoro, but the sheriff was already sprinting from the room, towards the sound of hooves and frantic whinnying. Ryda followed fast, pointing a palm at Soa to keep her by the side of her mother and priest. He was out the door in an instant but abruptly pulled himself still. Tadoro had stopped in the middle of the hall and it was all Ryda could do to prevent himself barrelling the man over at full tilt.
No response and that wasn’t like Tadoro. In his short time on Amota, Ryda had quickly learned that his friend was not one to be spooked. Usually it took a demon with a spiked paw to get the sheriff unnerved and so Ryda edged him out the way with some trepidation.
“It seems, we have an odd turn of events, don’t you think, Mr. Ryda?”
Ryda didn’t respond or even show he’d heard, for his eyes too were now glued to the window and the scene beyond it. Stumbling up the path, beaten and torn, faltering of step and vacant in the eyes, was Joda Surrano. But it wasn’t the man’s reappearance alone that stilled Ryda; he liked to think that he was not so easily shocked. It was the horses. Those half-dead beasts, flea-ridden and gaunt and lacking of vigour, had suddenly come to life. They were screaming in a way he had never heard before, at least not from a horse. It was the scream of a man sure he was about to die, of something gripped in true terror. They strained at their tethers, pulling and tugging to be free and away from him, while Surrano continued forward, unseeing or uncaring, shambling for the door.
Though they should have expected it, both Ryda and Tadoro jumped a little at the thump of the door. Ryda recovered first and crept forward with Tadoro on his heels. He opened the door and clasped eyes on the man. Surrano was looking down as he leaned on the frame, his chest rising shallowly beneath ragged clothes, caked with blood and dirt. At the click of the latch, his head startled up and empty eyes looked unfocusedly towards Ryda and the sheriff.
“Mr. Surrano?” Tadoro said.
He seemed to recognise his name and staggered forward at its utterance, but his stocking foot caught on the step and he stumbled into the house. Ryda caught him and Tadoro moved forward to share his weight.
“Mr. Surrano, can you hear me?”
He didn’t reply, at least not with words. He carried on forwards as if he hadn’t noticed the support, dragging one foot before the other as before. But now his mouth had started to open and shut like a fish and a strange noise, high pitched and disturbing, was coming from the back of his throat.
“Get him to a bed,” Ryda said. “He needs a healer.”
Ryda jumped at the sound. Surrano had looked up and light had come to his eyes for the merest flicker of a second. His scream had ripped from his throat and echoed through the house where it met with a shriek from his wife. Mrs. Surrano pelted into the hall and Ryda had to move to block her path as she looked to tackle her husband into an embrace. Soa had been on her heels and the two of them danced impatiently at Ryda’s shielding body.
“Dear ladies, please bear with us, now. Your husband is here, Mrs. Surrano, but I fear he ain’t well. Father, fetch Healer Binto, if you would be so kind. Mr. Surrano is in need of his assistance. Mr. Ryda, would you please lead us into the bedroom?”
Ryda nodded and headed for the door. Out the corner of his eye, he saw the priest huff a little at being directed, but the sheriff’s words, though gently put, gave no room for wiggle. He departed at once as Ryda and Tadoro set the man on his bed, his wife and daughter buzzing around them. He was muttering now, through little that could be comprehended. Little shrieks and murmurs and occasional, dark words that pulled free of his lips seemingly without his consent or knowledge.
“Shadows…. Shadows here…. The monsters…. The teeth.”
Ryda looked to the girl and the growing redness of her gaping eyes. Tadoro had seen her too.
“Your father will be hungry, Miss Surrano. Could you rustle him up some soup to chase this fever away?”
Soa nodded, eyes never leaving her father, and slowly backed from the room and to the kitchen. Her mother was just as upset but not as easily gotten rid of. She threw herself on her husband, crying her relief and her fright, and Ryda had to pull her away to push a cup of water to the uncomprehending man’s lips. He swallowed from instinct and his muttering started to fade. His vacant eyes dropped and then closed and he grew silent but for his breathing as he slipped away into sleep.
Tadoro tapped Ryda on the shoulder and nodded to the door. Ryda understood; they should leave the husband and wife in peace.
“Have you ever heard of such a thing? A man returning from the mountains?” he asked the sheriff.
They stood outside, the sheriff smoking his pipe and Ryda chasing away warm shivers with a double whiskey. Their horses had finally calmed, after much soothing from the sheriff and much of nothing from Ryda. He had never gotten along with the beasts.
“A couple of the old timers, some of the first colonists on the place, told me some stories a time back. Ya ever heard of a man by the name of Farso Kanta?”
Ryda shook his head.
“It musta been thirty years ago. The first colony to ever stay on the place. They’d hear all the stories, same as everyone, but they stayed anyhow. A guy named Farso Kanta was with ‘em and he was an exploring type. He ran off one day into the mountains, just like the first explorers did, only he came back. Well, part of him did. He was all there in the body but his mind, it couldn’t take whatever it saw. They say he came back muttering and screaming, talking of monsters and darkness. Young Mr. Kanta was Favoured so he was well looked after, empowered doctors, high master bonders and everything, but he didn’t survive the night. Two more times it’s happened since, they say. Both times just the same. You don’t make it back from the mountains, even when you do.”
Ryda was saved from responding by a shadow in the distance. He pointed it out to Tadoro and the sheriff nodded, clamping his little black pipe between his teeth and starting to walk out to meet the healer. Binto was off his horse before the mare had even stopped and jogged his way inside after a quick word from the sheriff. The priest had returned with him and followed with Tadoro at a more dignified pace. Ryda was content to remain behind and tie up the horses.
He walked back inside when he could delay no longer and found the healer still with his patient. The priest was with him, muttering prayers, and mother and daughter were stood in the doorway with Tadoro. They clung to each other tightly by the arm as their eyes continually drifted to Joda and then away once more when they could look at him no longer. The sheriff was muttering platitudes to Mrs. Surrano but Soa’s wandering gaze fell upon Ryda and held. There was something in them, like she was asking something of him, no, begging. But he had nothing to offer. He wished he could do something or say something, but it was not within him and all he could give was a hard-dragged up smile.
Healer Binto emerged from the room and had a hushed conversation with the Surranos before allowing them to rush inside to Joda’s bed. The priest stayed with the family but the Healer looked to Tadoro, studiously ignoring Ryda. Clearly he knew how to hold a grudge. Ryda liked that in a man.
“I am afraid Mr. Surrano will not make it through the night. There is little I can do but offer him comfort. It is highly unlikely that he will wake again.”
“It’s a damn shame, ain’t it? Woulda been better for everyone if he’d never made it back. Thank you anyway, Healer Binto. We’ll stay until the end, offer what comfort we can.”
The healer nodded and returned to the bedroom and Ryda and Tadoro followed him inside. Over the next few hours, people started to arrive. In dribs and drabs at first and then a flock of them, the town come to offer their support. Or to gawk at the poor, demons-cursed bastard. Ryda tried to rise above such thoughts, but he’d seen enough of the world to know what people were like. He just tried to stay out of the way, keeping to the bedroom with Soa and Mrs. Surrano while most of the others mingled in the lounge, contenting themselves with an occasional peak around the door, sympathetic face carefully worn.
Night fell thick and strong as it always did on Amota. The darkness chased off Father Sun with absolute speed and ferocity, cloaking the world in blackness, but for the flickering torches of the Surrano home. But out here it was different. So close to the Forested Mountains, Ryda felt like he could feel its plague, its evil, seeping across the land. The darkness seemed to emanate from it and whenever the flames stuttered, Ryda couldn’t help his eyes from flicking to the window. And then he heard it.
It was a shriek. A wail of such horror that he had never heard before. It came from afar but rang in his ears, high and piercing, slicing into his skin and curdling his blood. He bolted upright in his chair and reached for his gun on instinct. That noise. He could still feel it as he walked to the window, eyes unblinking, fingers brushing wood and steel. It felt like it was in him, like a parasite, sucking him dry. It was a thing of evil. He felt it in his bones.
“It won’t hurt you,” Soa said.
Ryda turned to look at her, the only other occupant but Joda still in the room. He thought she’d fallen asleep, curled up in her chair, but he saw now that she was wide awake, sadness keeping exhaustion at bay.
“It feels horrible, but it’s only a noise.”
“What was it?”
“Dad said it was the demons’ cry. I don’t know what demon though. There are lots of them, you know. But dad won’t tell me about them.”
Ryda averted his eyes and stiffened his jaw to stop it from quivering. Gods-damned present tense. She doesn’t know. Or she won’t accept it.
Her father had been almost perfectly still since they had laid him on the bed, only the gentle rise and fall of the blanket to tell him apart from the corpse he would soon become. But the demons’ cry had changed something. There was a tightness in his face and, looking down, Ryda saw his hand twitch just slightly. And then it came again. The cry cut through the air and into every one of them, making Ryda shiver despite the fire in the hearth, and forcing him to swallow down the rising bile in his throat. But he was not the only one affected. Joda Surrano had started to toss and fight, as if in the grip of a horrific nightmare. His eyes remained shut, but he twisted and writhed in his covers, groaning against the sound.
“Stand back, girl,” Ryda said and Soa was quick to comply, running from the room, presumably for help.
And that was when his eyes opened. Surrano pounced from his bed like a lioness defending her cubs. His eyes were alive now, not vacant but wild. They held fire and ice in them and they locked onto Ryda with all their savagery. Ryda had no time at all to draw his weapon before the man was upon him, barrelling him over and reaching for his throat. Surrano squeezed with unnatural strength, staring into Ryda, full of animal rage. Ryda fought back, he pushed and he kicked. But Surrano seemed not to feel the blows at all and Ryda’s throat was starting to burn. Where is the Gods-damned help? Where is Soa? He tried to cry out but the air would not come and the effort drained him of energy. His hands fell to his side and black spots started to dance around the edges of his vision. No, not like this, he thought as the breath was squeezed out of him. I will not be killed by a dead man.
He summoned what was left of his waning strength and pointed his palm at Surrano. He delved inside himself, to his magic reserves, and, with all his might, he called it to his fingers. He called on every inch of the power he could reach and he forced it from his hand with a great grunt of effort. Surrano flew off him like a tossed ragdoll. His clenched fingers tugged Ryda’s neck forward but opened almost at once to the force of the power. He shot across the room and slammed into the wall opposite, knocking off frames and chips of paint before collapsing limply to the floor.
Ryda remained in his position on the ground, sat up where the demon-plagued Surrano had pulled him in his flight across the room. Blood was starting to seep from an unseen gash on Surrano’s head and on to the rug, and the perfect stillness of him told Ryda all he needed to know. Dead. But the room itself was not still. Ryda’s ears fought past the noise of his panting, and caught the subtle sounds of a crowded quiet. His breath hitched in his chest and he almost laid back on the ground. But he forced himself to turn and look to the doorway. He forced himself to look into the faces of the townspeople who had gathered there and had seen him use his power to kill one of their own.
By Chris Wright.
Thank you for reading chapter 5 of The Demons’ Cry. Leave a comment to tell us what you think and, if you liked it, why not communicate that fact by the ‘like; button? Keep up to date with our stories and articles by following us through WordPress or Email
Our other serialised novel ‘The Bleak Streets of Carrada‘ mixes fantasy with the noir, mafia genre.