Short Story – Overture

Edward was drenched. It was dark and raining in Versantum. Water ran across the street, streaming through the cobbles, funnelling between fissures whilst droplets pattered in noisy rhythm on the mismatched stones.

The water didn’t look clean. It snatched hair and grime from crevices to feed its flow of bacterial hazards, bringing life to long-spilt blood in the process.

A horse trotted by silently on the cobbled street, the clacking of its hooves lost in the noise of the rain. Edward watched on with no sympathy for the horse’s isolation, nor for its skinny appearance. With sullen steps, a dejected look and thin rain-soaked hide, the horse looked unfazed by the dangers of the night and apathetic to death’s waiting embrace. The horse was disowned long ago, Edward guessed, as it continued on its course to nowhere.

He waited in the merciless rain, watching it come down hard and endless. The trees shivered from the weather; their gnarled limbs dancing in violent ecstasy. He removed leather gloves to reach into his jacket pocket, pulling out a smoke and lighter. Edward placed it between his lips, lighting it as his wide-brimmed hat shielded the small flame; his weathered face tolerated the chilly air, while wet hands braved exposure.

Edward sucked in deep and exhaled as the smoke drifted away and was shredded by the downpour. Observing from the mouth of a dank alley, the lone hunter leant against a crooked two-story house, thoughts pondering the past. The nearby gas lamp filtered its light pointlessly into the surroundings, abseiling down mould and damaged brick. Rats scurried in gutters, dreading a foodless night, scrounging for crumbs, and bickering in pairs.

The night was burdened with peril, but quiet aside the rain; a relief amidst dire circumstances of flood, famine and murder.

Edward spied a small fragile woman, hunched over, wandering aimlessly up the street, and moving in the opposite direction to the horse, yet looking just as soaked and hopeless. She stumbled along, using a stony wall for balance as she staggered erratically, moaning all the while. ‘They left me,’ she whimpered to no one. ‘They left me. They left me.’

Edward heard her repeated sobs until she fell out of earshot. No. They left all of you, he mused. ‘As did I,’ he added under his breath, reluctantly acknowledging his uncredited part in prior events: in recent Versantum history.

Dusk onwards gave way to these moments: tragic images of lives falling apart. Edward was familiar with such dispiriting sights. There had never been peace for the inhabitants of Versantum, but their banal lives were sewn in discord and disarray now more than ever. Things used to be different. The night atmosphere was depleted of the daily monotony that used to aggravate and bore: whores were hidden indoors, dealers were absent from their street corners, and the night watchmen were missing.

Every night birthed a sordid experience; vacant, hollow, transgressive. A remittent fever of undisclosed symptoms until dawn reared. It never used to be like this. People had wanted to be freed from the mundane routine, to search for greener pastures and less rudimentary living. But now they’d happily return to it. Now they were blindly praying for it; futile gestures unheard as darkness pervaded and triumphed.

Edward felt nothing but the rain.

He shifted impatiently, unable to get comfortable against the disused house whose only purpose now was a leaning post; a waste of space that contained nothing of value. Its occupants either long deceased or fled to a similarly grim establishment and poor living conditions. Unlucky victims of an ever-decaying present.

The district was infected by fear, and that fear had spread. Edward could feel it in the stormy winds, sense it in the shadowed corners the lanterns glows couldn’t reach, and see it hung outside windows tethered to rope. The victims of fear dangling for all to see.

And the fear continued to spread.

People didn’t wander this late unless they had lost their minds. The aimless few, ignorant of the dangers, were dead inside already. Arrogance brought nothing but graves and few commiserations.

Everyone would be sleeping now – or trying to – escaping the fear in dreams or encountering stronger versions of it in nightmares until dawn came to spell another night survived.

Even though Edward felt it, his actions weren’t controlled by fear. There was purpose for waiting during a dangerous night in the pouring rain – wrongs to make right. Though nothing could alter the past, Edward was going to enact justice this very night, undeterred.

He dug out a Monogoggle from inside his pocket and surveyed the neighbouring alley across the street, searching. His hand was surprisingly steady. Experience overcoming the guilt that was trying to possess him for an oversight he could never undo. It was like an unwanted passenger lying dormant in his psyche that desperately tried to take the reins when it sensed a chance.

He couldn’t waver now.

The singular zooming agent was an intricate instrument and part of the default gear bestowed to a Regulator-class citizen. For everything Edward had lost due to recent events, he’d held onto his prized Monogoggle, and gratefully held it now. The infinitesimal inner workings obeyed their purpose: magnifying distant objects when activated via the small lever located quarter way round its brass-lined circumference; serving their users as they were dispensed to do on professional quests. Edward squinted through the hard rain into the shrouded cover in the opposite alley.

Nothing. He lowered the Monogoggle.

How could he stop the inflation of murder? Will balance ever be restored? Could evil be defeated? Exterminating one rogue monstrosity wouldn’t change the bigger picture; more would only take its place. He needed to go straight to the top of the hellish hierarchy. That was all that really mattered.

Edward knew he had come unprepared. The adrenaline in the moment – the impulse to act, the spark of determination – had cost him dearly. Standing in the dark, in the cold, he could see that now. He cursed his flawed judgment. He felt naked without his sword and minus his pistol. His weapons had been taken, potentially destroyed or locked away. He’d have to rely on other abilities tonight. His jacket flapped too freely without his customary arsenal by his sides.

A figure moved through the downpour and into the alley across from Edward. From a distance, to the undiscerning viewer, it had a human appearance. Edward knew this thing was not human, and its motiveless atrocities served to underpin its true form. The differences would have eluded an untrained citizen’s eye, but its jerky movements would not fool an experienced regulator. It approached the mouth of the alley and paused, but abnormal mannerisms betrayed its attempt at an ordinary, stationary pose.

He’d known what he hunted would return here. The signature corpses hanging outside windows indicated it would come back, to salivate over its kills and add more. It was a weakness in all killers, even inhuman ones.

Edward swiftly raised his Monogoggle, studying the specimen across from him. A torn cloak concealed most of its exterior, but not its naked, skeletal legs: white, fleshless, disturbing limbs unperturbed by the sludge and garbage on the street. An old, rotted hat adorned its head, held to it with crude bandaging.

It scurried into the blackness of the alley, forcing Edward to follow.

Navigating through an unremarkable, putrid snicket, Edward closed the gap between prey and predator. The grace and precision from the monster’s movement belied its dense frame and fragile-looking limbs. It vaulted over toppled bins and discarded furniture effortlessly, and Edward copied. It weaved further into the alley that divided the buildings down the middle; a messy, narrow corridor of fencing and overgrown shrubbery, untended by remaining occupants and watered by stray animals. The smell was lessened by rainwater, and the clutter decelerated both runners. It slowed up alongside a tall, abandoned factory, where the exterior pipes protruded like exposed veins. Despite everything, Versantum had a faint heartbeat. It was still alive.

The monster disappeared into a side entrance. Edward followed, each footstep precious and carefully planted to remain in stealth and in anticipation of a trap.

The inside was cluttered and loud from steam excess, but the chanting was noisier; chillingly so. It was unnatural, guttural, disturbing – a choir of evil.

Crouched and intrigued, Edward peered through disarranged crates, giving him a clear view of a factory floor, bordered by dark figures in black overalls, faces hidden. Their whispered words were ancient, scratchy and nasty. Each utterance carried menace.

After several minutes of dark spell-casting, a crunch echoed as a rift in the centre violently opened, spawning something awful.

It hovered on interdimensional energy and primordial magic, dangling precariously but assuredly in front of its summoners. Its oily black body glimmered with otherworldly essence. Eight terrifying thin legs protruded outwards, stabbing into its earthly environment, suspending it like a museum specimen, rare and alive; but uncaged and untethered.

Edward’s stomach freighted with bile and tightened from terror. He closed his eyes, and tried to summon the courage he needed.

The hooded figures voiced their approval and gently applauded. Edward restrained the urge to run, and acted. He punched repeatedly at the nearest pipe until the rusted metal broke. He ignored the confusion and hostile screeches from the cultists, and gripped the pipe like a weapon, aiming it at the arachnid. Steam billowed forth, spewing heat and infernal liquid onto man and spider. They all screamed in rage and pain, including Edward, releasing his pent-up emotions through vocals and action into the face of horror. He swung the pipe left and right until nothing moved or screamed.

Edward eventually released his makeshift weapon. It clunked to the ground, contents exhausted. He basked in the sounds of cooked enemies, and smiled at a long-denied victory.

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