Fiction: In the Depths of Man
By LiL Sputnik
Whoever is hearing this, I do not know how, and in all honesty, I do not wish to know, but please heed my warning and listen to these words. I say this not to frighten you, but if I do, then be very afraid. I beg of you not to dismiss what I say as the words of a madman whose voice is reaching you from a place yet unknown to your mind, but as a revelation from a friend you never knew you had.
My name is Jonatan Stanford, although that may mean nothing to you for you will find my name in no history book or record. I was a truly ordinary man. There was nothing noteworthy about me or my life. I will not reveal my place of birth, or death for that matter, for I fear your curiosity may lead you down a dangerous path. I lived most of my life as a soldier, coming from a family that lived a hard life, joining the military was the most profitable way for a man with no education or talents to earn a living for my family. I was what you would call a good soldier, obeying orders and doing my best to act and work in a way that pleases the standards of my superior. Colonel Mathias was a strict man, made of old cloth, and demanded obedience and discipline. He was a man of principle who above all else hated men who abandon their duty. As befitting of a man raised in a well-standing family with a long history of serving the expected only the best of those who served under him.
Working under a man who sought out fame and recognition wasn’t easy, and war and conflict were an often sight to behold for me and my fellow army men. Seeing so much cruelty and death gives a man a new view and appreciation of life, but it teaches you things you can never learn in school or by plowing fields and just living. Man, no matter how kind and gentle and honest, hides deep within himself a desire to do others harm. To bestow upon others such pain and grief that words can hardly describe, nor should they be able to.
Although I believe in God, and pray for the well-being of those close to me, I was never a very religious man, until I experienced a waking Hell. It happened during a cold morning of a bitter winter day as we marched for the next field on which our general Mathias would seek glory and renown. We walked on the muddy ground, the snow slowly picking up on the sides of the path and covering the branches of trees that stood, and silently gazed at our travel. It would have been a beautiful sight to behold were it not for the thoughts of our destination shattering any rest of mind I could muster.
“Hey, you okay Jon"? I turned my head to take a look to my side and saw Gregory. I meet him during my first week of service, a tall man with broad shoulders, carrying a lot more bags and equipment than any regular fellow could. His long, dirty ginger hair slowly moved across his forehead from the breeze, covering scars earned in drunken brawls, brawls that would inevitably cost him every penny he had. A lonely man with no family of his own and a life that didn't give him much, I wasn't surprised he joined the army after we first met, and he mellowed enough to speak about himself. "You like shit boy. I told you not to think about it, it won't do you any good”. He was rough with words, but his intent was always one of kindness. “I know I know. I just can't help it, every time we go to march I feel…”, I didn’t get to finish my sentence before Gregory cut in, “Like a piece of you doesn’t come along? I know that feeling. I have been a soldier for a very long time lad, and I know others here among us share the same feeling. It is hard to describe, but the best I can do to put it to words is as if every time you go to war and come back alive, a part of you dies out there “.
I understood what he wanted to say and wanted to keep the conversation going if only so that I am not left alone with my thoughts, and then I heard running. It is not us, we are a day's walk away but the General would never make us run there in these conditions. I looked around and I saw that i was surrounded by confusion that matched my own. My mind wondered if it was perhaps a small group of fellow soldiers who walked slower and are now catching up to us, or perhaps some of us trying to warm up. But they wouldn't do that, no one would voluntarily break the marching rhythm and anger Mathias. My line of questioning was ended once I heard the General shouting to get into positions, but all doubts about what was happening were removed when I heard someone behind me making gurgling sounds. I turned only slightly to see a man holding onto another, an arrow pierced deep into his neck. We got caught in an ambush.
They charged at us from the woods, swords and axes in hand, their wooden shields painted with pagan symbols. Like a wave of violence, they crashed into us from both sides, metal clashing and voices roaring as we had to spring to action immediately. Even though they caught us off guard, we still had numbers on our side and with most of the soldiers being already experienced with such tactics, the battle would be bloody and brutal. It was as you can imagine, a battle where one man wants only to kill the other one and doesn't leave much to wonder about. But during all of the chaos, I saw it.
These people didn't fight like soldiers, not like men who fear death or pain. In their eyes I saw nothing, even I stabbed one of them, he showed no emotion but anger. Just…overwhelming, mind-numbing anger. It was as if we were fighting beasts or monsters from the tales of old. My brothers-in-arms fought well, but they too seemingly started losing themselves in this murderous moment, and what could have been described as a battle quickly turned into a slaughter. By the time it was all over there were only a few of us left, surrounded by butchered bodies of men we knew well, and men we knew only for the briefest of moments it took for a sword to pierce through their gut. It lasted for hours, but to me, it was like a blink of an eye. I stood there, my hands bloody, my legs trembling, and I started to weep. I wanted to drop to my knees and just weep but I felt a firm hand tightly grip my shoulder. "You are alive boy, thank the Lord in Heaven you are alive", I turned and once again gazed upon Gregory, his ginger head now covered in blood. He was happy I was alive, and I too was relieved to see he survived. “ I can't do this anymore old man…I can't do this anymore!" I shouted at him. He tried to calm me but he too was shaken, I know he was, he saw it too. The looming, towering dread soaked the air and made men into monsters. We both felt it, we both survived it.
We never came back to the place we came from, we left that path in the woods and never turned back. It didn’t matter where we were headed or how we would make it, all that was important is that we leave. Luck would aid us on our journey, as we would stumble upon a small village where we would get some rest and put some food in our stomachs. But as is the nature of rumors and stories, eventually the news of the carnage that took place reached us here. To the common folk, the story was nothing more than another telling of how brutal and savage these pagans are but if they only knew the truth. We left the village as soon as we could. If any soldier or face of authority could place us at the sight, they would surely dub us and the others who left as deserters. Of course, it is easy to judge when your mind is clear and your dreams aren’t haunted. After what a soldier sees and lives through during service, being able to compare these acts of ignorant cruelty with all the violence he witnessed is horrifying. We continue our travel in silence, for we could rarely find the strength to speak. Our journey would end in a small town, not a week of walking away from the village.
Gregory would find a job working as a blacksmith, while I joined the church. We would spend the rest of our days here, in a small place where every day is alike and life is humble. In time my friend would even find love and get married, and eventually, God gifted him a healthy son. I would remain in the church, helping others find peace and aiding their spiritual troubles. Gregory and I remained good friends, how could we not, after traveling together and having a life-changing tragedy bind us? But alas, I wish my story would end here but as I have already said, this my friend, is no fairy tale.
Winter came to our little corner of this Earth, and I would always be the last one to turn off the lights. Sleep came to me in short intervals of memories that are hard to let go of, even after all these years of living among good, hard-working folks. During winter I would always stay awake late into the night, so I would often leave the church and take a short walk down the street to see if all is well. Call it paranoia but I felt uneasy if I didn't check on the homes nearby. On one particular night, as the wind carried an unnatural chill in the air, and the sky was devoid of stars, a scream woke me from my tortured dreams. I jumped out of bed, memories once held back by the weakest of dams now flooded my mind as the scream sent them rushing through. I am a man of faith, I do not approve or indulge in violence of any kind, but my body instinctively fell back into habits formed long ago. I put on my old and weathered boots and crouched to pick up a bundled blanket under the bed. I pulled it out and held it in before me. Minutes passed by as I questioned myself if what I am doing is right. If I found someone in trouble, would I have the courage to act?
I swallowed hard and unfurled the blanket, revealing the sword I used while in service, dirty and covered in old blood and rust. I lifted it in my hand and took my lantern in the other as I set out outside. It was dark, even the lantern made little difference. It was unnatural. I gazed up at the sky and realized there were no lights, no stars or moon to shine down on our cobblestone streets. I lifted my lantern high above me but I can only see so much. I would be wrong if I said the sky was dark because dark implies there is still some light to be found. No, it wasn't dark, it was…black. Like some great, towering evil hid away the stars from my sight. I was scared and confused. I tried to pray in an attempt to stave off the fear, but my focus was broken and my voice silenced as I heard a blood-curdling cry echo across our little town.
As if given strength and resolve by a greater purpose, I ran down the street as fast as my legs would carry me, trying to find where these cries are coming from. As I run I can feel this sudden burst of courage leaving me only to be replaced by paranoia. Every sound I hear while running, a rat squeak, or a pebble bouncing off the cobblestone, sends shivers down my spine and I can feel my grip on the sword loosening. I stop for a moment to take a breath, it is deathly cold outside and in a hurry to see what is happening I left underdressed for such a night. As soon as silence fell upon the town another scream echoed out. Straining my ears I start moving again in hopes of locating the source of it and this time I am able to reach it. A lonely light came from one of the houses, joined only by the flickering flame of an old lantern. The doors are open and I can hear a woman's voice coming from inside, sorrowful sobbing meeting cries of pain. I rush towards the house, but a realization as heavy as prison chains binds my feat not to move a step closer. I recognize this home only now that I stand before it unmoving…it's the home of my dear friend. It's the home of our silent but good-hearted blacksmith, Gregory.
I can see him standing on the edge of the opened door, holding in his hands something I can not recognize yet for the light shines dimly. “Gregory what is wrong? I heard the cries and screams, my friend…tell me that no one has been hurt". I looked at him hoping that he will give me an answer to calm me, to chase away the fear and paranoia like he has done so many times before while we traveled together. “ I can not lie to you old friend. I need you to hear me, to listen closely". At this point, I must have gone pale, for the fear and biting winter wind has all but drained any energy I had left in me. I took another step towards him, still wanting to believe that this is all a nightmare, wanting to say something I open my mouth but he interrupts me." Forgive me father…forgive me Jon. For I have sinned. I could not stave away the thoughts that have invaded my mind and soul after that day…”. His voice started to brake, I could hear that he was holding back tears. He walked out into the dim light and pointed the object he was holding at me. It was a blacksmith's hammer, ruby blood still dripping from it, his hands covered in it and bruises." I tried to break things in my workshop hoping it would make it more bearable, but it didn't. then I heard my son crying inside". After he said that my heart sank, every prayer I could utter, every song made in the name of God almighty I repeated in my head, wishing he would not confirm what I think happened. "I took my hammer Jon…I beat my only son like a blade on an anvil just to make him stop crying…I couldn't help it. It wants me to do it, it says it will be easier if I do". At that moment I understood, I felt that ominous presence like on the day we deserted the army. On that day…we saw Hell crash upon us. He started moving towards me, his limbs like rusted iron, barely managing to direct them. His bones snapped after every step. I lift my sword towards him, I don’t know why but At that moment he isn't my friend, he is someone…something, that wants to hurt me. He walks closer and I can see now a grin on his old and weathered face stretching from ear to ear. In his once kind and gentle eyes now there is only a pit of pure malice, a desire to do harm and inflict suffering. But even in this parody of who this good-hearted man was, there is still a piece of him left, left in a single tear that now runs down his face.
I lift my sword to bring it down upon him, and all my courage, all my righteous wrath for what has been done to him, drops into my heels when I hear another sound of bones breaking. He stops, as if choking and struggling for air, he bends backward looking up towards the sky, and then I spot them. Boney, clawed fingers reaching out of his throat, slowly finding their grip on the sides of his cheeks. He tries to scream but can't, as he slowly chokes on his blood. Then a sound of skin ripping like cloth, bit by bit. Long decrepit hands pulling their way up, he struggles to move, to yell but nothing can be done. The hands start opening his mouth even wider, his jaw cracking and making way for whatever is trapped inside Gregory. I want to do something but I can't, terror has paralyzed me, and I'm too much of a coward to even try and move toward him. I can feel my stomach about to empty itself. Then…a large, beast-like snout makes its way out of him, and I can't help it anymore. I fall to my knees and vomit, my eyes tearing. That feeling of complete dread burrows into me. I can't look up, I'm far too afraid to see what just crawled its way out of my friend and left his split, mangled body on the ground, like a dirty shirt. It walks closer to me on two cloven legs, like the legs of a bull. Its putrid breath rolled down my neck and my back. The beast roars, waking the town to announce its presence. A deep, rough voice bellows out "look at me Jon. Why won't you look at me…friend”. “ Please…leave us. We have done nothing wrong leave us alone”. The beast laughed in a low tone, and then the screaming began.
Every light in every home was now burning bright, cries and roars rushing out the windows, and blood spraying on the walls. I started to weep as I now finally, truly understood. We never escaped that day, we never outran whatever evil found us on that wood-surrounding path. It was foolish to think we could escape from something that was hiding deep within our hearts and souls. Man is as cruel as he is kind, capable of an act of such benevolence and love, and yet those pale in comparison with the pain and sorrow we can inflict upon one another.
Now I know we weren't made cruel by a hard and unforgiving world, it was evil in us that made the words this way. My only regret is that I can do nothing to try and save at least one person from this waking nightmare, and I know I cant because what left my stomach and made a puddle before me is as black as the sky above…and now I can feel scratching in my throat.