Malcolm Woods was not used to working cases out in the field these days. He was a couple of birthdays past his sixtieth, and he knew very well that he was better suited to providing and modifying equipment for Venatores closer to their prime than he was. The problem, in this case, was that there was simply no one else available to take it on.
The life of a Venator had never been one that favored longevity, but the past year had been brutal even by typical standards. So much so, that Malcolm had begun to wonder if the current generation had simply been under-trained by his own due to a lack of Venatores living long enough to effectively prepare replacements.
If Malcolm was ill-suited for fighting monsters, then his partner on this case was essentially little more than bait on a stick.
Twenty years ago, Lawrence Kalvert was a wunderkind who cracked the best way to falsify records and supply Venatores with a nearly unlimited inventory of phony credit cards and identification credentials. While Malcolm had been out on the hunt for half his life, Lawrence had never personally encountered a supernatural entity in all of his forty-seven years.
Lawrence could barely fire a gun, and his blade skills were even worse. In some ways, Malcolm felt that he’d have been better off on this mission alone. But he understood the problematic mathematics of his current limitations: Slowed reflexes plus arthritic joints equaled a lousy combination for survival.
“This is nuts,” Lawrence exclaimed, as they loaded up on weapons from the trunk of the car. “Until tonight, the most dangerous thing I’ve done is hacking into bank systems. Now I’m out here in the freezing fricking cold looking to hack away at some monster that we don’t even have a clue about the nature of.”
“You and I may be a has-been and a never-was, but we’re all these folks have got,” Malcolm replied as he pulled on his wool cap and brushed some snowflakes out of his salt and pepper goatee (which was mostly salt these days).
“Listen, I know what the job description is,” Lawrence said as he pulled on his gloves, pushed his glasses back up the narrow bridge of his nose, loaded up his shotgun and slammed the trunk. “But no one’s gotten hurt here. So maybe this can wait until someone better suited becomes available.”
“We can’t just wait for bodies to start dropping,” answered Malcolm, as he placed a crucifix and a small copy of The Rites of Exorcism into the pockets of his wool coat. “And besides, from what it sounds like, this is about the safest case you’ll ever go on.”
“Safe is a relative term in this life,” Lawrence stated, as he pulled on his own heavy knit cap.
“You’ll get no argument from me about that,” Malcolm agreed, as he started trudging through the snow toward the barn.
“How safe can it really be when we don’t even know what we’re hunting?” asked Lawrence, as he stumbled along in the footprints that his partner left behind him.
“The folks who live here reported strange lights and banging noises from the barn, which suggests a poltergeist,” Malcolm started. “Mrs. Hardeston also said that she saw her deceased husband wandering through the woods over there,” he pointed to the forested area two hundred yards from the barn.
“Which suggests zombies, I get it,” Lawrence jumped in. “But what about the scratching from under the floorboards at the house? And don’t tell me that’s the zombie, because Gene Hardeston was buried at the cemetery five miles west of here. No way he burrowed his way from there to here like Bugs Bunny heading toward Albuquerque.”
“The scratching could still just be the poltergeist. So could the presumed zombie for that matter. Spirits sometimes take the form of what’s weighing heavily on a witness’s mind.” Malcolm swung open the barn door to the moldy smell of damp hay that had been sitting out for too long. “And Bugs Bunny was never heading to Albuquerque, he just also took a wrong turn there on the way to…somewhere else.”
Some moonlight permeated from between the boards of the barn, but not nearly enough to get a read on the space. Malcolm and Lawrence took out their flashlights, and made a sweep. The bales of hay were mostly stacked on the second level, while the thresher – along with other machines and tools – was on the ground floor.
Confident that they were alone in the barn, Malcolm knelt on the ground and laid out a large red candle surrounded by a number of smaller white candles. He lit each candle in turn, and took his small book out of his pocket.
“Where the hell was Bugs Bunny heading to anyway?” Lawrence asked, needing to vent his shaking nerves through chit-chat.
“Damned if I know,” Malcolm replied, and began reading aloud from his book, “Restless spirits. We of the living world command you to reveal yourselves in the name of God.”
As he read on, the candles began to flicker.
“In the name of God, we command thee!”
When his voice grew louder, the walls began to rattle. Lightly at first, but soon more violently, filling the air with dust and debris.
Lawrence had loaded his shotgun with rock salt shells to deflect any attacks from a manifested spirit. He walked in circles around Malcolm and the ring of burning candles searching for a target.
“Sounds like someone’s awake,” Lawrence muttered to himself through chattering teeth.
“In the name of God, we command thee to reveal thyself!” Malcolm ordered.
Loose particles of the hay now rained down on the pair of Venatores, but there was no sign of the haunting spirit.
“Reveal…” Malcolm yelled, but stopped when he heard a loud moan come from behind him.
He turned and saw the undead corpse of Gene Hardeston snarling as he entered the barn flanked by four others. They were all dressed in dirt-caked formal wear, and appeared to be in advanced states of decay, with deteriorating flesh on their faces and milky white eyes.
Lawrence panicked and fired a rock-salt round at Hardeston’s face. It did not pop the skull as it would have with typical rounds, but blasted off the loose flesh around his right eye and cheek. The right eye itself burst and began leaking thick fluid. The zombie faltered slightly but, setting his now skull-faced gaze on the Venatores, regained his footing as he continued toward them.
“None of them are freshly turned,” Malcolm stated, as he rose and snapped his custom-made, pearl handled hatchet loose from his belt. “They’re already falling apart. Should be easy ones.”
Malcolm had to get close to use his hatchet, close enough to see the bottomless hunger in Hardeston’s dead-but-seeing left eye. A single swing of the weapon took off a sizable piece of the creature’s skull and brain, causing it to fall limply to the ground.
The other four converged on Malcolm, clawing and growling at him. The seasoned Venator kicked another zombie in the knee, causing its rotted leg to snap in-half. Once it was on the ground, one good stomp was enough to splatter its brains across the dirt floor of the barn.
In his rush to help, Lawrence laid his shotgun on the ground, drew out his pistol and fired at the ghouls.
The first bullet missed wide, ironically hitting the broad side of the barn, and the second was fired when he was a mere two feet away from Malcolm.
The re-animated corpse who took the bullet to the temple hit the ground, but Malcolm grasped at his left ear, which was ringing from the gunshot.
“Shit, I’m sorry man!” Lawrence shouted.
“Don’t apologize,” Malcolm shouted as he chopped a decaying hand off at the wrist that grabbed at his shirt. “Just get that last one.”
“But there’s two…” Lawrence began, just as Malcolm slammed his hatchet into the top of the now one-handed zombie.
“Right,” Lawrence said, and fired another round point blank into the temple of the last of the undead.
Lawrence holstered his weapon, and went to check on his partner. “Are you alright?”
“Ringing will stop in a couple hours,” Malcolm looked at the palm that was pressed against his ear with relief as he saw no blood, and knew that he hadn’t ruptured his eardrum.
“Guess it was zombies after all,” Lawrence remarked.
“Zombies don’t make walls rattle,” Malcolm replied, just in time for a pitchfork to fly across the barn and pierce through the back of his thigh.
Malcolm dropped to the floor with a cry of pain.
“Shit!” Lawrence shouted. He spotted his shotgun halfway across the barn.
He ran for it, but a rubber mallet came spinning through the air and hammered him between the shoulder blades. He rolled forward as he hit the cold, hard ground. Seeing that the shotgun was within reach, he started crawling toward it when he heard the thresher turn on.
The vehicle with the spinning blades pulled away from the wall, and headed directly toward Malcolm. He yanked the pitchfork out of his leg, but couldn’t hear the thresher through the ringing in his head. When he saw Lawrence gesturing wildly toward the area behind him, Malcolm rolled onto his back and saw that the death machine was nearly upon him.
He pulled his legs away just in time to avoid having them sliced off at the ankles. In the same movement, he pulled a pistol loose from the back of his belt and fired several rounds into the engine of the thresher, stopping it dead with a plume of smoke that rose from it like a departing soul.
Relieved, Lawrence made another lunge toward his shotgun, but found himself hovering off the ground. The shotgun was inches from his fingertips, but soon those inches were filled with black smoke that took on the appearance of a demonic visage with burning red eyes and a vicious smile.
“No!” Lawrence screamed, as the black smoke wrapped around his body and twisted him like a man ringing out a wet towel.
As the wraith snapped the remnants of Lawrence’s spinal column with a horrific spiral motion, Malcolm got back to his feet, made a dive under the smoky entity, and got hold of the shotgun. He fired two rounds of rock-salt into the black cloud, causing it to disperse with a deep howl.
It only took one look at Lawrence’s face for Malcolm to know that he was dead. As the boards began rattling loose from the walls, Malcolm pulled out his exorcism book again and continued reading the expulsion spell.
“By the command of all that is holy, I command thee to leave this realm!”
As he started to read the next passage, three pairs of clawed hands with hard black skin burst out from the ground around him. The stench of mud and rot choked him, and he knew before he even saw the eyeless, nose-less faces, or the two rows of fanged teeth, that he was in the grasp of mordeos.
He fired his last few rounds into the ravenous fiends, but the one that he killed was replaced by two more. Malcolm Woods was still swinging at them with his hatchet when they began to rip his organs from his body and devour them.
Once he was dragged to his fate, with soil filling his mouth and muting his screams, the walls stopped rattling, and all was silent on this winter’s night.
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