The Breath of Life

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Summary

James Wescott is a member of an ancient brotherhood of supernatural investigators living in early 19th century England. His travels have brought him through the Pennines, seeking a place to rest for the night. He sits on a hill overlooking the town of Ashton-under-Lyne, when the night is broken by a piercing scream. Riding in to investigate the cause of the sound he comes upon local law enforcement and helps them in their investigation. The unnatural clues found at the scene are just what he has been looking for.

Genre:
Fantasy / Mystery
Author:
Ed Corbett
Status:
Ongoing
Chapters:
3
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
18+

1. The Rider

His right hand began to tingle. This was never a good sign. It meant that something was about to happen. He sensed a presence. What kind of presence he could not tell. The pressure of the air had changed suddenly and a chill crept down his spine. It was a dark, starless night. The moon was veiled by the clouds, its light casting an eerie glow around their jagged edges. He sat upon the crest of a hill, overlooking the sleepy market town below.

He wore a long, worn leather duster; his straight brimmed hat, low on his brow, hiding his gloomy, steel-gray eyes. He had straight black hair, slightly graying at the temples, which he wore loosely to his shoulders. He had a lean yet muscular build; he stood six feet tall, which was taller than most men of the day and was a healthy one hundred and sixty pounds.

His mount, black as midnight was just as silent as he. Its steamy breath the only sign of life. He had been riding through the fells all day. He was tired and needed to find a place to rest.

For a long while the land was still, as silent as a crypt when suddenly a pained scream split the cold night like a pick through ice. The rider and his mount moved swiftly down the side of the hill toward the town. The horse moved as quickly as a cold winter’s breeze. Its hooves making nary a sound as she ran.

One by one the lanterns began to light and the whole town would soon be awake. Men and women began to clamor into the streets, each curious as to the origin of the fear filled shriek. It came again, echoing in every direction. The townsfolk covered their ears. What could have caused such a sound?

“All right, everyone back to their houses,” bellowed Gregory Albrecht; the portly mayor was dressed in his fine damask sleeping gown. “Constable, you and your men ride out to investigate.”

A final scream came, shorter than the two prior, this one ending in a choked final breath.

Silence.

The people returned to their homes as quickly as they had filled the streets, murmurs of fear and intrigue could be heard as they dispersed leaving only the constable and his two deputies. The Constable, Irwin Lancaster, was a tall, broad-shouldered man; he stood about six foot four. His auburn hair, stuck to his sweat laced forehead. His eyes green as the skin of a pear, glared into the darkness. A touch of fear welled inside him, though it did not show on the outside.

To his men he directed, “Get your horses and your gear and meet back here in ten minutes.” Without a word the men were gone to fetch the horses.

The deputies returned quickly with their horses. Pistols attached to the belts around their waists. Shotguns in holsters attached to their saddles. One held an oil-filled lantern to help light their way. The three men rode into the black night not knowing what they expected to find.

They had been riding to the east of the village for about half an hour, without finding anything that could have made that god-forsaken noise. They were just about to turn back, when the rider emerged from the Ash trees that lined the road.

“Who are you?” demanded the constable reaching for his pistol. “What are you doing out here?”

“My name is not of consequence at the moment,” replied the rider.

“The hell it’s not,” spat the constable, “I will have your name.”

“Very well, you may call me, James.”

“And what is your purpose for being on the road so late?”

“I have been riding through the hills all day and I was looking for a place to rest for the night. Like you I heard the screams and began to search for their source. I believe I have found it, but I caution you, it is not for the faint of heart.”

“Lead the way,” said the constable with a tone of cautiousness.

They followed the rider for a short while until they reached the base of a rocky foothill. James guided them to a small crevice around the south face of the hill, which lead to a pass.

“Through this pass just to the other side of the hill.” he said “But, I warn you what you are about to see is a gruesome spectacle indeed.”

As the group emerged at the other end of the pass, they could not believe their eyes. One of the deputies, Earl Thomas, bent over from his saddle and wretched from the smell that hung in the air like a thick blanket.

With wide unbelieving eyes they took in their surroundings, in front of them stood a cross, with the naked form of a woman nailed to it only at the wrists. Her feet were bound together with a fraying rope. Her torso was split from navel to sternum and all of her organs had been removed.

“My God.” gasped Irwin “Who would have done such a thing?”

“I do not believe we are looking for a person” replied the rider. “I would say it was more of a beast.”

“What on earth are you saying? What do you mean a beast? How could a beast have done this?”

James dismounted from his horse and walked toward the grotesque site.

“Look here, around at the base of the cross. These are not tracks that could have been made by a human. Also, note that there is no blood here, how curious.”

When the constable looked again he did notice that there were strange imprints in front of the cross where the dead woman hung. In fact the prints almost looked like hoof prints, but larger than that of any he had ever seen before. The tri-toed prints came to sharp points. The heels of the prints were rounded like that of a cow. Behind each print was a small spur like mark, like that left by the foot of a bird.

“Those are the strangest set of prints, that I have ever seen.” remarked Daniel Roberts, the other deputy, his voice semi-muffled, as he held his right hand over his mouth and nose in an attempt to breathe in some fresh air. The stench that emanated from the wound in the body was horrendous. “This must be what it smells like in the deepest pits of Hell.” he said as he spat to get the taste out of his mouth.

“Look here.” called the rider as he stepped away from the group. “It looks as if the body was dragged from here to the cross, but there are no tracks beyond this point.”

“What are you suggesting?” asked Irwin, “That this thing just appeared here with this woman?”

“I do not have that answer,” said the rider. “But I intend to find out.”

“And just how do you purpose to do that?” asked Earl as he slowly regained his composure.

“I do not have any thoughts yet, but there is nothing more that we can learn here tonight. Let us venture back to town where we can form a plan of action. There are many things that need to be considered, and I could use a place to rest for the night. We can return here in the morning to find more clues.”

“I wonder who she was.” Earl thought out loud, “She doesn’t look like anyone I have ever seen around here before.”

“Yet, another thing I plan to find out,” said the rider as he mounted again and turned back the way they had come.

In silence the group rode back to the town.

Upon arriving, the rider was pointed to the local inn to find accommodations for the night.

He thanked the young woman at the counter kindly for the room as she handed him the key. He laid two silver shillings in her hand enough to rent the room for the week and climbed up the stairs, until he arrived at his room.

He slid the key into the lock, turned it, and opened the door. The room was meager. A worn, two drawer dresser, with a small mirror mounted to it was against the wall to his left. A single window on the outside wall let in beams of moonlight that cast their silvery glow onto the knotted wood floor. A single bed, with a lumpy down mattress and aged wooden frame was against the far wall. Mounted on the wall above the bed was an oil lamp, with a yellow tinged hurricane glass chimney rimmed with a black smoke ring. Its brass arm and bowl slightly tarnished and its glass reflector cracked. A small round table with a single chair was in corner near the foot of the bed; upon it an ink well and quill.

The rider pulled the elbow length leather riding gloves from his hands and placed them atop the dresser. He removed his duster and slung it over the back of the chair. Sitting on the edge of the bed he kicked off his boots and then rising again walked to the table and sat down. From his pocket he removed a small leather bound book tied with a string and he began to write.

After riding through the mountains for two days, I have come upon one of the most interesting cases I have ever seen. On this eve, after hearing the most dreadful and mournful screams imaginable and tracking their origin, I came upon a most curious execution site.

The body of a woman no more than twenty four years of age was hung most heinously from a makeshift cross. It seemed that the first two of her shrieks came as the spikes were driven through her wrists to affix her to the cross. Her last wail, which was cut short, must have come as she was being eviscerated from navel to sternum. It was also odd that all of her organs had been removed from her torso. Stranger still that there was no blood to be found at the site, other than what had dripped from her wrists. What an awful way to go.

It should also be noted that a unique set of tracks were found. It was a bipedal creature of that I am certain. The prints reminded me of a cross between a moose with three toes and that of a large chicken as if there were a spur like appendage at the heel. There was a lingering odor that hung in the air that was rotten, sour, and smelled faintly of scorched earth though no signs of fire could be found.

I will return to the scene after the break of day to see what other clues can be found.

--James Wescott

February 6, 1813

He returned the quill to its stand after wiping off the tip and left the book open for the ink to dry. Stretching his arms over his head, he yawned and rose from the chair. Turning the key of the oil lamp to extinguish its flame, he climbed into the bed, pulling the brim of his hat over his face and drifted off to sleep.

Within moments the dream returned to him. He was back in the church of Saint Michael’s, Cornhill. His mother Margarett sat beside him in the pew, her head bowed in prayer. He was a boy of seven years, and had been raised in the church. His mother was a good woman who devoted herself to serving God. He never knew his father, and his mother never spoke of him.

After finishing his prayers he moved down the aisle to the base of the raised pulpit. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something move to his left. It was a brief glimpse of a shadowy specter that was gone in an instant.

He walked to where the apparition had appeared to him, but found nothing. Believing it to be a figment of his imagination he disregarded his senses and went back to his mother’s side and taking her by the hand, they walked down the aisle and out of the church. James did not realize that this one encounter would change his life forever.

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