The Tides of Oblivion
Jordan is the author of ‘Where the Wind Carries the Dust’, a short story featured in AsylumInk Magazine. He writes mostly short horror but occasionally takes a stab at music reviews and other non-fiction odds and ends when he’s got the time. He hails from the pines of the Pacific Northwest, hates to travel, loves to read and write, and is sincere in his appreciation for the artwork of others as well as really good beer (which he considers to be an art form, in and of itself).
The murmurs of greasy, unwashed men hummed in the air of the muggy tavern. Fat red candles dripped wax from their pedestals on the walls to the old wood floor and there was a haze floating just under the ceiling from lit pipes and smoke from the fireplace. The low din was occasionally interrupted by a grunt or the fire’s crackling wood. The light from the flames danced off of the polished glass and bottles of spirits behind the bar, where dark oaken casks–with crude spigots dripping foam and black iron bands taut around the warped wood–were sat on the back counter behind the bellied barkeep. Thieves, cutthroats and sellswords sat on splintered chairs around ale-stained wooden tables, discussing murderous business in shallow tones with some occasionally giving subtle gestures to each other from across the room; unspoken messages between killers and rapists through the flicker of an eye or the twitch of a hand. Through the single diamond-paned window next to the door, the night was frostbitten, with fog that crept along the glass as the thick snow fell in the darkness.
The heavy oak door swung open, groaning on its ill-greased hinges and opening a portal into the night. The wood of rotting docks and moored ships groaned from beyond the freezing black like a chorus of old ghosts. A thin but chilling breeze skewered the damp heat of the criminal’s den, a gift from the nearby waters of the Black Sea.
Out of the darkness and soft snowfall, a figure manifested into the doorway, its face obscured in shadow under a thick hood. It stood average height, seemed of a thinner build, and was followed by a few rogue gusts of a breeze, sending snowflakes in to land and melt on the warm wooden floor. The big door groaned again as it closed and some of the murmuring quieted, eyes staring from the shadowed corners of the room.
The stranger was wearing a rough-spun robe that was horribly ragged and stained with unknown greases and fluids down the front of it. Around his neck, however, was an immaculate gold chain with an amulet dangling from it, resting on his chest. More conversations at the tables quieted as the stranger walked by them toward the bar, curious eyes fueled by an instinctual greed when gazing upon a gem that size.
There was a whistle of wind outside, just beyond the fogged window, and the fire cracked loudly.
The pudgy mountain of a man behind the bar stood at least a foot taller than the newcomer, and regarded with bagged eyes and a low brow that were indicative of a suspicion built over many hard years as the keeper of this place. Where the barkeep was round and trunk-like, the newcomer was thin under the robe. The unknown patron came to stand directly in front of the polished bar, pulling back the rough hood it wore and exposing its face.
His skin was pale, his face was gaunt, his dark eyes were bloodshot and his vulnerability was immediately visible, the trauma of some unknown experience burned into his features like a brand.
After a lengthy stare between the two, the newcomer slipped his hand out from a pocket and slid two fat gold coins onto the bar. The firelight licked at them as well as illuminated the black coiling vines tattooed onto the tops of the stranger’s hand and fingers.
The newcomer’s voice was coarse and it quavered on the verge of cracking. He was young… and scared.
The barkeep’s eyes flicked down to the young man’s hand, regarding the black markings with scrutiny, then returned his gaze to the newcomer’s eyes. His stare was different now, filled with a subtle anger rather than caution or curiosity.
“Do you know where you are… boy?”
The stranger stared back into the barkeep’s furious eyes with sadness and intensity.
The newcomer turned and moved toward the back corner of the bar, leaving the two coins on the bar in front of the mountain of a man without waiting for a response. Just beyond the grasp of the fire’s flickering light, the young man found a cracked wooden chair, and he sat in it with his back to the corner. The shadows kept his features hidden but the light from the lapping flames occasionally hit the amulet hanging from his neck. It had a gold encasing and a large red jewel in the center, reflecting the fire’s light, glinting prisms off of the young man’s soaked face and teary eyes as he stared down at it. His breathing was labored and anxious, and drops of water dripped from his long hair to the floor.
The thugs could smell the fear and distress on the young man like sharks smell blood in the water, and the glinting gold chain goaded their avarice. Three men stood from one of the front tables in a synchronous motion and moved like the shadows around them, smoothly and quietly. Each of the three brandished a small hooked dagger that glinted in the firelight, the old wood floor creaking under their soft steps as they closed in.
The assassins were almost within striking distance and, as the first raised his dagger in preparation for the execution, a booming shout came from behind the bar.
The murderers froze mid-stride and loomed over the young newcomer. One of them looked back at the barkeep with a razor sharp gaze. Their knives were sheathed, but they did not move. The rest of the patrons in the tavern went silent, two more men standing from their tables near the entrance, unable to satiate their curiosity from their seats.
The barkeep approached with heavy steps thudding slowly across the room. His angered eyes were narrowed when he arrived in front of the newcomer, drying an ale horn with a rag.
The young man looked up from his hands, and more tattooed vines were visible on his neck and throat. The four men stood just feet from him. Other carnivorous eyes were staring from the background, glinting in the orange light throughout the den.
”I know those marks on your hands,” the barkeep began, a tone of irritation sharpening his words. “And I’ve seen those fucking amulets before. You’re one of the hill tribe, aren’t you?”
The young man did not answer, but simply glanced once more to the eyes staring near the entrance, then returned his gaze below to the amulet that still dangled from his neck.
“A moon-drinker… In my bar, a fucking moon-drinker.”
At that the young man’s sorrowful eyes returned once more to the barkeep who had begun to slowly pace in front of him, back and forth, tapping his fat chin.
“The Sovereignty Decree… Fucking city’s never been the same since, with all these things walking amongst us.”
The large man stopped and spit onto the floor at the young man’s feet.
“The empire may have decreed your ilk a free people, but don’t you think for a second that means shit to anyone in here, especially me. I run this place and I know of the rituals your people perform up in those hills, the dark spells and enchantments your kin whisper to each other while you dance around black fires in infernal worship. I know of your people’s desires to manipulate and mutate away from the body the gods gave you… turning yourselves into abominations. Oh yes, I know all about you heretics of humanity.
“What’s more, tonight is the first full moon of this cycle and yet, here you are, brandishing a piece of jewelry only given to those whom have completed the ritual soul-branding. You’re clearly still human, therefore you’re clearly a thief. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least that you stole that amulet from one of your own kind, filthy fucking moon-drinker.”
The young stranger’s eyes were wide with intimidation. He stood from his seat, hands shaking as he contracted them into fists. “It’s mine,” he said in response. The fear was growing in his voice and it was apparent to more than just himself.
There was a long moment of silence. Nobody made a sound until the barkeep broke the quiet, speaking once more with a look of eureka:
“Your ceremony was tonight, wasn’t it? That must be it. You’ve not the spine for committing theft, weak and small like a virgin bitch, and that amulet looks freshly forged. You gave your soul to the black gods this very night, didn’t you?” The barkeep sniffed at the dank air. “I can still smell the pungent smoke of your ritual on you, and those stains on your tattered garb…” He shook his head disappointingly, then smiled gently and said “Tell me, what did you use?”
The young man sat confused for a moment. “Wh-what do you mean?” he stuttered.
“What animal did you use? A bear? A wolf? I’ll have your wolven head off before you can swipe one of your abominable paws at me, demon.” The barkeep moved closer, and the three assassins inched closer as well.
“I… I–” the young man responded, tears rolling into the stubble on his jaw. “Gods, forgive me.” A heavy sob came. The amulet jingled as he cried.
“The Gods have no watch over you anymore, filth! Your people don’t belong in the city. We leave you to your piney slopes in the northern hills so that you can stay away and out of the lives of the common man.” The barkeep, growing more aggressive with each word, reached out and pulled the sobbing newcomer to his feet, gripping the collar of his robe in a tight fist. “You see, things like you are bad for business. And, around here, anything that’s bad for business gets dealt with accordingly. Now, what did you use, you spineless little cunt?! What did you join with so that we know the easiest way to kill you?”
There was another long pause, and then the young man mumbled something under his breath.
The barkeep moved his snarling face closer. “What was that?”
The young man repeated something in a meager voice, barely above a whisper.
The barkeep’s eyes went wide, almost looking terrified, before melting into hackling as he laughed loudly. “A salmon?!”
And at that, it seemed as if the entire tavern erupted into laughter. Boots were stomping and horns were clanging while mouths hooted from all corners. Two of the assassins that stood next to the barkeep began walking back toward their table, chuckling along the way.
“Oh, bless the gods above and below for this day! I think I may laugh myself to death at that one,” the barkeep said with a beet-red face, laughing almost hysterically.
The barkeep still held the young man by the collar, chuckling and, when he’d caught his breath, pointed a fat finger toward a man sat alone in the corner opposite them, on the other side of the tavern. “See that one over there, stranger?” The table that the shadowed man sat in front of was empty, save for a crossbow, oiled rosewood with a black drawstring. “That one there’s one of the most ruthless bounty hunters in these lands. I’ve personally seen him dispatch three of your fucking kin after they’d turned. I’m sure he’s got their mangy rotting heads hanging somewhere.”
The man sitting alone at the table nodded once, a single eye glinting in the shadow under the brim of his hat. “I got one of ‘em mid-transition…” a rough southern drawl growled out of the dark. “Salmon, huh? If I believed you, I’d gut you and fry you myself.” He stood to his feet and unslung a pack from his back and unraveled it onto the table next to the crossbow. A row of weapons and trinkets were sat in front of him, pinned to the cloth by knots of leather-string; different types of knives, crucifixes, stakes and rough glass ampules filled with different colored liquids. “Either way, this kind of thing is… my specialty, you could say,” he said with a slick smile, revealing a row of dark iron teeth.
The young man let out a sob and his head lowered, wet hair dangling once more in front of his face. Desperation had brought him to this shithole on the outskirts of the city, only to be met by a pack of human wolves looking to strip him of his adornments and mortality. Electricity coursed through his veins as he began to lose hold of himself.
The barkeep still had the newcomer pinned up against the wall. His grip had loosened a bit whilst the hunter spoke and, as he glanced back toward the one he held by the collar, his sweaty face glistened and his eyes widened.
“What the fuck has happened to your face, moon-drinker?”
In the lapping firelight, the young man’s eyes were pushing at their lids, bulging out of their sockets, and his teeth had sunk into his swollen gums, appearing like tiny nubs as he cried out. The shock of such an alien sight sent chills down the spines of even a few men in a tavern such as this.
“Ohhh.” The barkeep said as he extended his free hand back behind him. Without the need to look, the remaining assassin slipped the handle of a curved dagger into the barkeep’s hand. “You’re gonna start changing now, are you? No matter. We’ll take care of this nice and quick. I know a few men who’d pay some coin for a head like yours and gem like that.”
The blade glinted in the fire’s light as it rose to the young man’s throat, the skin of which reflected the light off of the rainbow prism scales that were growing on his neck and jaw. The barkeep had a sadistic grin on his face as he leaned in close. The curved oiled blade rested onto the young man’s jugular, and the barkeep snarled. “I’m gonna take your head off, moon-drinker, and then I’m gonna let my friends fuck your thin little corpse. Gyah!” he shouted, ripping the blade at the young man’s neck–
Except the flesh did not give.
When the barkeep looked at the blade, it still rested on the skin of his victim. He pushed and tugged at the knife, small strikes at the flesh of the young man’s jugular, but it never gave. The blade wouldn’t cut through and, right in front of the struggling assailant’s eyes, the skin was hardening over with more multi-colored scales. The young man’s face was directed toward the low ceiling above them, but one eye was staring down toward the barkeep as it swelled in size.
His mouth began to slowly open and close, like he were drowning in a sea of air, just staring with a large glistening black eye.
Anger flashed across the barkeep’s face, still holding the young man up by the shirt. “Alright. You’re not gonna make this easy, are–”
A webbed humanoid hand rose up and smacked against the barkeep’s face, gripping with scaled fingers and veined membrane that stretched between each digit. The remnants of the tattooed vines were disappearing under the chitinous growth of scales now forming over the tops of his fingers and knuckles. The barkeep’s head shook for a brief moment before the hand collapsed it into a mush, the barkeep’s heavy body falling to the floor below, sputtering fluids onto the worn wooden planks.
Men stood from all tables. Some were shouting and others were unsheathing oiled steel from their ready scabbards.
Brains dripped from the webbed twitching hand as the thing gazed with bulbous eyes towards the other men standing around the tables. The corners of the newcomer’s mouth were already beginning to extend back on his face whilst the shape of his skull was starting to bevel and narrow.
A few men were retreating toward the entrance, but then the barkeep’s headless body was flying through the air, tossed by a quick move of moon-drinker’s arm toward the door, slamming into the wood. The massive corpse blocked the door from opening for only a brief few seconds as the retreating men tried to move it out of the way.
That was all the time the creature needed.
The thing began to move and was at the door in microseconds, swiping its webbed hands at the men in a blur of shining scales and a mist of blood. Within seconds, the retreating men were reduced to a mound of gore, the amulet still hanging from the creature’s neck, bloody and glazed in the fire’s light. Men were shouting from behind the thing as the slaughter continued.
“Ahhh!” a man called out from the right as he swung a twin-headed axe at the beast. The moon-drinker, seeming to anticipate the attack perfectly, sidestepped and retaliated with an upward thrust of its right hand, claws as fast as lightning, ripping the jaw off of the attacker and sending him to the floor in a panic of gurgling blood.
The creature screamed a shrill cry that sang of transformative agony and a heavy bloodlust. Men came at it from all sides with oiled swords, daggers and heavy objects like chairs and candelabras, only to be struck down in a quick, messy death. The fire’s light flared as the bed of entrails grew underneath their charging feet, the beast punching holes into rib cages and swiping limbs off at the joints.
There was a hissing sound as a black bolt zinged through the air and sunk into an area on the creature’s back that hadn’t grown scales yet. In the far corner of the tavern, the hunter was reloading a second bolt from the quiver on his hip, pulling the waxed cord back to the spring clip and sliding the slender projectile into the crossbow.
The chest of the creature was beveling outward and it cried out as it attempted to reach the bolt lodged into its back. When its initial strain couldn’t reach, there was a grinding, knuckled sound under the flesh of its shoulder as the joints separated and its webbed hand got a hold on the bolt. Just as it ripped from the blood-slicked flesh of the thing, there was another hiss as a second bolt pierced through the air.
In a flash, the beast sidestepped and dodged the bolt, its large unblinking eyes fixated into the corner with its mouth still moving open and shut, open and shut, suffocating in the air around them. A man with a large dagger rushed and the creature jabbed the first arrow through the attacker’s temple, then turned its attention back toward the far table.
The hunter was reloading yet another bolt from his quiver but, before the string could fully draw, the creature bounded across the tavern in a flash of rainbow scales. The hunter’s headless body crumpled to the floor a brief moment later and the beast stood holding his head.
The other attackers continued their aggression. The creature thrashed this way and that, claws ripping through meat and bone, Death glazing the eyes of corpse after corpse, blood spilling across steel and skin and scales alike. In moments, the throng had been reduced to a mess and the creature stood on its throne of gore.
A subtle whimpering was coming from behind one of the fallen tables near the fireplace. The beast could smell the fear in the air just as well as it could smell the shit and blood smeared across the floor around it. The miasma of horror and excrement was intoxicating to the thing.
From behind the overturned table, a man stood. He gasped as he saw the creature staring at him with those huge black eyes, and fell back into the shadowed corner against the wall. His cries were horrified and his body shook with terror.
The beast slowly stepped towards the man and, when it could smell his piss in the air, its webbed fingers contracted and extended in anticipation of its next kill. The young man from the hills was gone, his mind and body replaced with something inhuman and nightmarish, manipulated by the ecstasy of evisceration and slaughter.
“No, no, no! Please, no!” the man whimpered. “Please! Oh, Gods!”
Only feet from the crying man, the moon-drinker dropped suddenly, keeling over as if struck in the stomach by an invisible force. The thing’s neck was widening and sinking its head into its shoulders, the amulet’s chain snapping and losing the jewelry into the gore below. Its body had begun to elongate, with the legs rapidly shrinking into its torso now, a spined dorsal beginning to protrude from its back, and it cried out as it turned from the cowering man in the corner back toward the exit.
Guts and bodies squished under the thing’s webbed grasp as it crawled to the door, grabbing the crude handle with an outstretched hand and tearing it open, the bodies and entrails on the floor practically sliding on their own in the face of such inhuman strength.
The frightened man in the corner stared at the thing, locked in a terrorized stasis.
The transition had almost completed. The beast’s legs had fully retracted into its body, as with one of its arms, the other of which was still melting into its scales. With the biting night air once again piercing the muggy blood tinged haze in the tavern and individual snowflakes floating in from the cold dark outside, the creature wagged its membraned tail up and down, flopping out into the night toward the docks that groaned along the black shore.