The Eight Apostates
by Scott Hale
(Book Four in the series)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any relevance to any person, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
This book is protected under the copyright law of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of the material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2018 Scott Hale
**UNEDITED and FULL OF SPOILERS**
The taste of blood was quickly becoming one of Vrana’s most favorite tastes, and the inside of her mouth ached for it. Things hadn’t always been this way for her, but Pain would do to that to a person. It wasn’t necessarily hunger, but necessity. She needed those fear-soaked, human-shaped sacks of meat the same way her lungs needed oxygen to breathe. There was no substitute. Without it, she would starve, and she would die, and though she often thought of starving and dying, she was too afraid to do either. Flesh and blood were her sadistic sustenance; elemental substances to stoke the flames of her debased, primal fire. But if she went, then so, too, would the man who depended upon her. She was Aeson’s flesh and blood, his oxygen; he consumed her company in copious quantities, not because he wanted to, but because she made him. Without her, he would starve, and he would die. And Vrana couldn’t have that. She’d lost enough as it was to this world and to the Void. She dared not lose anymore. There were worse things she could be than the beast she’d become.
Vrana rolled her Abyss-black eyes and drove her knee into the stomach of the Corrupted she’d pinned. He wheezed, tore out handfuls of feathers from her torso. Vrana shuddered, thinking that not long ago, she would’ve been ecstatic to be rid of some feathers. A Night Terror who wore a mask stripped of feathers or scales or flesh through accomplishment was one to be reckoned with. Now, she couldn’t be happier to have them. This winter was a cold winter, and she kept Aeson warm when blankets wouldn’t. That, and she knew what her body looked like beneath the feathers. She remembered that day with the Witch well. The sight, even the memory of it, made her sicker than any of these weekly hunts.
“P-P-Please,” the Corrupted puttered.
Vrana’s gaze lingered on his suffering face. It was sad that slaughter could become so routine. She kept her kills alive longer these days, for no reason other than to give the Corrupted a chance to fight back or escape. It wasn’t that she intended to torture them; it was that she hoped there was more beyond the tears and the whimpering, and the pitiful pleas and gasping prayers. Pain had taken her there, beyond that threshold. Perhaps if she took one of the Corrupted there, they’d become something else, too.
The Corrupted bucked his body. Vrana lost her balance. He squirmed out from underneath her. The thrill of the hunt pricked her gut like pins. And then she noticed Aeson’s moonlit shape behind the trees, gathering snow on his shoulders, and sighed.
Before the Corrupted got to his feet, Vrana leapt towards him. She wrapped her wings around him, pulled him against her breast. He screamed—a mistake—and with his mouth opened wide, she opened it wider.
She raked his face. His flesh fell apart like wet sand. He pressed his hands to his hand, into the soupy pulp of exposed muscle and raw, raging nerves. Webs of sticky blood formed between his fingers. Crying out, the Corrupted stop fighting the inevitable and, instead, turned towards it.
Vrana swallowed her hunger and drove her beak through the man’s skull, into his brain. Lobotomized, the Corrupted’s eyes went separate ways, and his words turned to spit upon his lips; and when he should’ve crossed that threshold and become something more, he died, instead.
Vrana nodded violently. Her beak passed like a razor through the center of the man’s face, obliterating his remaining features. Like a fish gawping for scraps, she snapped at the gory remains falling like the snow fell through the air.
“I’m g-going to g-go b-back,” Aeson said.
With the snow up to his knees, he had to brute force his way through it. He stopped a few inches short of Vrana and the Corrupted she now held in her covetous gluttony.
“Wait.” She tore the Corrupted’s spinal cord from his body and picked it clean. “I’ll go back with you.”
Aeson didn’t cringe at the sight of this. He might’ve, before Kistvaen’s eruption, before the flesh fiend had raped him in the Dismal Sticks, but a lot of things might’ve been different had those days never happened. He wouldn’t be traumatized. She wouldn’t be here.
“It’s fine,” he said.
Vrana’s stomach tightened. A hard ball of gore congealed like a bezoar in her gut. She wasn’t as hungry as she had led him on to be, but she had to feed. When Kistvaen erupted, the Corrupted stopped fearing the Night Terrors and turned against them. King Edgar bolstered their confidence by putting a continent-wide bounty on the head of every living Night Terror. The Great Hunt, as it was called, was a religiously sanctioned holocaust whose rewards included a hefty amount of coin and guaranteed admittance into heaven.
Without his mask and some red body paint, Aeson could pass for a decent Corrupted. Because of this, he could go where Vrana could not, and lead men and women back to these woods for her to feed on. But the Great Hunt was closing in. And they were beginning to build a reputation.
“Just, hold on,” she said, scarfing down skin, spilling steaming blood into the sparking snowpack.
They were in the wild woodlands between somewhere and nowhere—a remote town by the name of Communion. Though they’d only been there for two weeks, the Corrupted living there had caught onto the murders and labeled them the work of a serial killer. Naturally, Aeson, having just arrived and living in the woods out Communion, was their number one suspect.
“Vrana,” Aeson said, irritated. “I’m fine.”
Vrana shoveled meat into her mouth, swallowed without chewing. She choked on organs, hocked them back up, then downed them again. Aeson wasn’t fine. She wasn’t fine. Like safety risks, neither of them could be left alone for long. The were a danger to themselves, and the world a danger to them. They were one another’s padded cells.
“Hurry up. It’s cold,” he said, relenting.
But it wasn’t the Great Hunt that had Vrana calling out to Aeson to wait for her.
Nor was it the terrified townspeople of Communion who were, at this moment, most likely throwing together a lynch mob.
It was the first thing they saw in the morning, and the last thing they saw at night. It was the first sound they heard when they woke, and the only sound of which they dreamed. It was the shadow in their shadows, the Kistvaen of their fears. It was promise. It was punishment.
It was the Vermillion God.
No matter where they went, It was there, watching them, all of them. The Vermillion God sat upon Kistvaen, hunched and breathing heavily. A halo of roiling smoke crowned Its enormous head, and storms could be seen raging in those vile vapors. Its eight arms, four to each side, were constantly splayed outwards, and like nets, they caught celestial lights, causing massive shadows to be cast at all times across the continent. But it was Its eyes that penetrated the People, like an invisible spear of pure paranoia. Its eyes, those reflective, spiderous orbs, were always open, always watching; and like a doll’s eyes, they were always fixed upon the watcher, as if It were intensely watching everyone in the world all at once.
Vrana didn’t know the extent of Its powers, but It had shot out of the Ossuary on an intercontinental span of vermillion veins and put to rest Kistvaen’s Night Terror-induced eruption. She doubted any Worm she’d met could’ve done that, or even the witches’ themselves. The Vermillion God’s power was in Its mystery, in Its steady stream of low rumbles that assaulted each day; melancholic disharmonies not unlike the Choirs’ songs. Vrana, Aeson, nor anyone else save King Edgar, and even then, maybe not, knew what the Vermillion God was capable of. But there It was, and there It stayed, like the killer’s knife raised over their victim. Vrana knew It would kill them all one day, but until then, It would enjoy the suffering from their wonderings of when.
And if It was truly watching each of them individually…
Vrana split the Corrupted’s stomach and ripped out his intestines.
…Then It might know her and Aeson’s plan.
She shoveled more red food into her mouth. She tried to chew, but this frantic feast had exhausted her. She opened her mouth, and the gore slid down her beak and burned its way into a hole in the snow. Coming to her feet, she glanced at Aeson.
“I’m finished,” she said.
He laughed. “You sure?” He pointed in her direction. “Looks like you missed a spot.”
Any snow that landed on Vrana melted immediately to her heat. But her feathers were drenched in sweat, hers and the Corrupted’s, and blood, gore, and bits of bone. It seemed a shame to let it all go to waste, but that was Pain talking, not her, and she had to, no, needed to remember that.
“I’ll rinse off,” Vrana said.
Aeson nodded, and he turned away.
There is no greater flayer than winter; it takes from the world its noises and leaves it with the rawness of silence. When it snows, especially as it had been in these parts, things are rendered in much simpler tones. Gone are the vast details and countless considerations. Gone are the Corrupted, the things they kill, and the things that aim to kill them. In relentless winters, the world becomes a graveyard, and they the ghosts that haunt it.
This is heaven, Vrana thought to herself, thinking of those things, as she and Aeson trudged through the snow through the woodlands. At the corner of her eye, the Vermillion God clung. Except for You, she corrects herself, thinking of It. Just give me this and him—she smiles at Aeson—and… Mom.
By the time they reached the hut, most of the blood and gore on Vrana’s feathers had frozen.
Aeson, in his furs, kicked his boots against the door, and then said, as he opened it, “You want to go in first? Make sure there’s no monster under the bed for me?”
It was getting harder and harder to tell these days when Aeson was being sarcastic, or just being sad. The same could be said for Vrana, so Vrana said, “You’re a big boy. I’m sure you can handle it,” and went around the hut, as Aeson went in.
Ten feet from the hut, which was formerly owned by Communion’s favorite hermit and ornithologist, the late Fowl Bob (how appropriate Vrana should stay there), was a small, six or seven feet deep pond. It was in that pond that Vrana cleaned off after each feeding. Aeson had to endure a lot staying with her, and she wasn’t about to make him endure her natural odor—Death.
Vrana went to the edge of the pond, braced herself. She broke the top layer of ice and quickly dropped into the waters. Hot, freezing pain enveloped her body. She convulsed. Holding her breath, she submerged her head. The below negative temperatures seeped into her skull, and she imagined the needles of Rime Rot jutting from her gray matter.
Like eating Corrupted, this was routine. Not a day went by that she didn’t have to do something awful to herself or someone else. If she wasn’t killing people or washing their remains from her feathers, then she was dealing with the persistent pain from the feathers that’d been stabbed into rather than grown from her body. If it wasn’t that, then it was the memories of time spent with Pain and Joy, or the terrible fact she could still taste, and sometimes want, the coppery softness of children in her beak. And if it wasn’t that or anything else, then it was the way she sometimes caught Aeson looking at her, the same way he’d been looking at her moments ago—distant, disappointed; lost, most likely, in memories of his own, before they were flesh fiends, before there were witches and Worms; when all they had was Caldera, and those hormone-charged moments between them; when hands would touch, or heads would be in laps; when they were together because they loved each other, and nothing else.
And if it wasn’t about Aeson or any of those other things, then it was about her… Mom… Adelyn.
Vrana reared up out of the water. The drops slung like crystal into the night. She palmed the sides of the pond and pushed herself out of it. The freezing water ran off her slowly, like a cloak.
Mom, she thought, standing. Mommy.
When she thought of Adelyn, she thought of the pool of magma she’d melted in, so she thought of something else. Eventually, the memories of her mother and her mother’s death would be teased from another, like a splinter from a finger. But not tonight. And not likely anytime soon.
Vrana shook her entire body. Her feathers ruffled. A nova of water and blood exploded from her, lashing the snow around the pond in starburst designs. A few seconds later, she was more or less dry. It was one of the few things she appreciated about having been turned into a giant fucking bird.
Vrana knocked out their code on the hut’s door. Three short, three long, three short. It had been Aeson’s idea to use Morse code. He tried to relate a lot of his Old World knowledge to issues when the opportunity presented itself. It was about the only thing he could trust anymore, he told her once, since he couldn’t even trust his own genes.
He didn’t answer immediately. Vrana’s heart picked up the pace. When you’ve been through the worst, you assume the worst. She was about barrel through the door when she heard his feet shuffling across the floorboards, and muffled yawn.
Aeson opened the door within a cocoon of blankets. His eyes were red, but there were no signs of tears.
“Did you get behind your ears?” he asked.
Vrana muscled her way into the hut. “Don’t fall asleep,” she said. “She’s going to be here soon.”
Aeson said, “Yeah,” and shut the door behind her.
The hut was a hut, no if, ands, or buts. One room, one bed, and one window, with an alcove at the back for a crude fireplace. With the two of them inside, they couldn’t move without bumping into one another. Some would say it would be the perfect place for a couple to put to the test their relationship, but given everything Vrana and Aeson had been through, the hut, in comparison, was nothing short of paradise.
She made her way to the fireplace, where a small fire burned, beneath the snow showering through the chimney. She sat, and seconds later, Aeson was sitting beside her, and then against her.
“You don’t have to do this,” Vrana croaked.
She often forgot how different her voice sounded until they were alone like this. Pain had left nothing out. The transformation had been complete in every way. Aeson, in one of his lighter moods, had asked her once if she could lay eggs. She had told him he’d have to step up to the plate to find out. He didn’t. She wished he had. She missed that.
“It’s a good idea, though,” Aeson said. “There’s no point to being a Night Terror anymore.”
“Not sure there ever was.”
“The more I can lie to myself about what we are…”
“There’s nothing wrong with you. Or me. Well, you know. We’re not what we were supposed to be.”
Aeson outstretched his legs, heels to the fire. “I know. You’re right, I know. But it would make me feel better—”
The Vermillion God let out a low rumble that rattled the woods.
“—and it’ll help us. If she’s that good, maybe she’ll know how…”
Vrana shook her head. “Only thing that’s going to change me back is Joy, and I don’t know even know if she can do it.”
“I’d rather not ask,” Aeson said.
Aeson sighed and took her hand, sliding his fingers between her talons. “How many Night Terrors you think are left?”
Vrana shrugged. “I just hope R’lyeh’s okay.”
“She’s a tough one. I’m sure the Marrow Cabal’s taking care of her. Or she’s taking care of them.”
Vrana laughed. “I guess.”
“We could… do this forever.”
“Sit around? Scrap? Hide?” Vrana shook her head; her beak grazed Aeson’s cheek. “Have you ever known me to? I know you’re dying to find out what’s going on in the world. I know that’s why you want to have this tattoo done.”
“It’s messed up that I think I’d feel safer with Corrupted than our kind.”
“It’s messed up that anyone’s safer anywhere than with our own kind.”
Aeson swallowed hard, furrowed his brow. “Did you hear that noise last night?”
Vrana pretended not to hear him. Aeson often dreamed of flesh fiends, and often swore he heard or saw flashes of them in the woodland.
“Maybe when the storm breaks, you could do a flyby. Not just for… them… but to make sure no one else is out there trying to—”
The front door rattled. One heavy knock after the other threatened to knock it off its old hinges.
Aeson lost his color, and his face went clammy.
“That’s her,” Vrana said, getting up.
She went to the door.
Aeson lagged behind.
She held out her hand, as if he were a child.
He rolled his eyes, approached, and took it, begrudgingly.
“Password!” Vrana screeched.
From behind the door: “It’s fucking cold, yeah? Quit dicking around.”
Vrana whispered to Aeson, “That the password?”
“Close enough,” he said, smiling.
Vrana opened the door, and behind it stood a young woman in a heavy coat, a hood thrown over her head, and a small, black bag in her gloved hand. New, vibrant tattoos ran up and down the sides of her face. One was the tentacles of an octopus; the other, bones.
She looked familiar.
“Elizabeth?” Vrana asked.