Josh Ventrell wasn’t sure what was happening, he squinted through down at the speedometer which told him – he thought – that he was pushing one hundred kilometres and hour. He raised his head, ignoring the wave of nausea that washed over him. There were three roads stretching out before him, each one a clone of its neighbour. He had decided to stick to the middle one, but another deep gulp from the whiskey bottle he held between his knees saw him swerve to the left.
Before he had time to react, his vision suddenly cleared, the road disappeared, replaced instead by a large tree. Josh swerved to his right, back towards the road, but the car didn’t respond in time, its rear side colliding with the tree as he skidded on the wet grass. The car was sent off balance, tumbling over itself several times, crossing the winding single carriage road on its roof, before somersaulting through the ditch that ran along the other side, coming to rest in an overgrown, abandoned field.
The noise was cacophonic; the high-pitched monotone sound of the horn was a constant undertone. Steam hissed from the engine, while mist crawled over the ground as night gave way to the encroaching dawn of a new day.
The smell of petrol filled the air, and the muddy ground was wet from the previous days rain, the moon overhead was nearing full, hidden behind thick fast moving clouds.
When Josh finally came to, he simply lay on the ground, feeling the cold water soak through his shirt and run against his skin. He jolted, but it meant he was still alive. He smiled. The memory was gone, he couldn’t remember anything, but slowly it came back to him.
Finally he tried to move, to sit up. He got as far as raising himself onto his elbows, but saw that any further progress was going to be unlikely. He had been thrown from the car, the drivers door had been ripped away. He saw it later lying deeper in the field, imbedded into the ground like a fat javelin. He was trapped, the car crushing his lower body from the waist down. He could see his legs through the sunroof, they didn’t move when he tried, and seemed to be at rather strange angles to be each other and also with relation to the position his upper body was in.
The jeans were dark in the night air, but he could feel the blood flowing, the accelerated, strong pulse of his heart, emptying his veins into the passenger seat of his Ford Challenger.
He tried to move, knowing it was pointless. His leg twitched, several seconds after he had stopped straining. The only relief was that the horn stopped with it, allowing the silence of the night to envelope him. The crickets and other insects buzzing with life, their normal nocturnal routine disturbed by the accident, there was an owl somewhere hooting as he watched proceedings from high in the surrounding trees.
The car engine ticked slowly, and the fan continued to whirl, cooling the engine, which was remarkably still in its normal position.
“Help” Josh tried to call, but it came out a whisper. He lay back down. He began to shake, a long slow moving shiver ran the length of his spine, disappearing under car, he was sweating heavily.
Josh swallowed hard, the strong copper taste of fresh blood filled his mouth. He took a deep breath, as deep as he could given the circumstances and the intense pain that shook him as a result.
“HELP” The voice cam out strong, the pain and fear, coming to a head in a sound that would surely carry a great distance. He called again, and again, and again.
Josh continued calling, switching between please for help and generic screams of agony until his throat was red and sore, and his lungs ached from the constant gulps of air.
No help came. Although in the distance he was sure he could hear the wailing cry of an approaching police car. A sound he knew well, but that knowledge also told him that he was just hearing things. His head squelched in the puddle of him, cooling his scalp, matting his hair. He felt as though he was on fire.
“Please, someone Help me.” Josh spoke, as if appealing to the elements themselves for rescue. The crickets answered with their night time song, and simple serenaded him into unconsciousness. The wind rustled in the tall grasses and roadside shrubbery. Carrying the tantalising aroma of flesh and spilled blood downwind, alerting all animals in the surrounding area. Their ears pricked to attention, noses raised to the sky, savouring the smell like a connoisseur does a glass of fine wine.
Josh felt himself falling, he was surrounded by darkness. He was still sitting, strapped to the driving seat of his car, and was plummeting into the darkness that extended beneath him, and in all other directions. At one point he thought he saw light, but he fell past it, whatever it was. As he fell he was aware of the temperature around him increasing, he found it harder and harder to breath, the forces pressing against his body restricting is normal functions. His organs slowly being squashed together as he approached terminal velocity. He strained himself, trying desperately to undo the seatbelt which fastened him into the chair, but he couldn’t find the lock. His hands traced the entire belt but there was nothing. When he looked, Josh noticed to his horror that the belt was actually made of the same cream leather as the seat, As he looked, the strap began to tighten, squeezing against his chest and around his waist.
He woke with a jolt. The wind made him shiver again. He looked around nervously, scared.
He no longer remembered the drinking he had been doing, the alcoholic cloud that had fogged his vision and his brain long since blown away, meaning he also gave no thought to the blood thinning properties of the alcohol that he had ingested.
He reached out with his hands, looking for something. Maybe a fallen tree branch or discarded scarecrows pole, anything. He had read about people gaining near superhuman strength when the need arose.
Maybe I could prise this thing off me he thought to himself. He tried to move his neck but it would give. Jolts of lightening pain streaked through him, when he tried to turn. He stopped, his hands continuing to grope blindly.
The clouds moved, the moon was exposed again, casting an eerie yet welcome light onto the show. With a concerted effort Josh forced his neck to turn, and with a loud cracking sound his neck obliged. He closed his eyes and grunted through the pain. When he opened them he was looking to his left. Beyond the field he lay in was a dense copse of trees, no sign of life or approaching lights on the road made his heart drop.
Turning his head the other way, tears flowing freely down his cheeks, his breaths short, shallow and rapid, Josh saw the contents of his car spread down the road. The car had actually moved forwards as well as sideways after the impact. Closest to him, he saw his golf bag, it was empty, but resting beneath it, glinting darkly in the moon was a club.
Come on. You can get it. He winced the through.
Josh walked his fingers over the ground as though he were making a spider shadow puppet. He could almost reach it, the tip of his middle finger gently brushed against the shaft as he closed his hand.
The initial shock and confusion was beginning to wear off, and a dull throbbing ache worked its way under the car and through Josh’s body. He knew his legs were broken.
He stretched a little more, his finger slipped under the clubs shaft, and curled around it. He pulled, and the bag which was resting on the rest of the club rolled away.
Now, what. You have a nine iron. Josh questioned himself. Now he had spent his energy on retrieving the club he realised that it served little purpose at that moment in time.
“God damn it.”
“Somebody, Help” He cried, each call taxing him even more than the last. He was exhausted, he felt light headed. The moon began to disappear behind another thick cloud and as the light faded, a shadow passed over Josh’s stricken torso.
“Who’s there?” He called to the darkness, trying to fight off the encroaching period of unconsciousness.
The other thing that answered him was low hissing laugh. He squinted, ignoring the pain in his neck he scanned everything within his field of motion. He saw nothing, only shadows.
Footsteps again, rustling in the long grass. Heavy rasping breaths, like those of an obese chain smoker.
Josh called out again, but his voice was taken from him. The wave of fear stole it away, and washed it out of his reach. He raised himself up again, pain exploded in his legs. He could see now the blood that covered them. One of his shoes had also come off, or maybe he had never had it on, he couldn’t remember. His foot looked more like a piece of meat. The flesh striped away in places. Three toes had been neatly severed and blood slowly tickled from the wounds.
His head pounded. There was also an ache beginning in his arm, just above his wrist.
“You belong to us now.” A growl bit through the darkness, travelling on an icy breath that actually frosted the air.
“Who said that.” Josh called out, terrified. His breathing increased, his chest was squeaking like a chronic asthmatic in a dust storm.
The footsteps resumed, and in the glow of the moonlight the body of death himself appeared, standing tall behind the overturned car.
Josh stared, frozen in panic as he gazed into its glowing eyes, which seemed to flicker like the very fires of hell. Beneath the eyes, where there should have been a nose instead were two holes in a maggot ridden face. The flesh was dead and stuck wetly to the bones, sinews of muscle snapped as the expressions changed. The lower jaw was void of flesh, the bone yellowed with age; dead leaves clung to the edges of flesh nearby as though the beast had crawled its way from the depths of earth. An assortment of bugs scurried over the skull, disappearing into the mouth, and re-emerging through the nose holes. Earthworms wound their way through the clotted mat of hair that covered the cranium.
The car shifted under the weight of the demon, whose body was as black as the night, tick and muscular, the flesh on it also decayed, yet held in place. Thick veins covered the surface as if the body had been turned inside out. The pulsed in no particular pattern, with a varying speed.
Josh wanted to scream, to pull himself free from the wreckage and run away. But he couldn’t, he struggled with all of his might, cramp ripped through his shoulders. He had no idea how long he had been stuck there. He heard a tearing sound which was followed by intense pain that radiated through his body.
The rotting face was peering at him now, the way a man looks at items on display in a shop window. The red eyes stared down at him. The car shifted again, the metal cutting further through Josh’s flesh, a bone snapped, and Josh could feel his bowels empty. He was helpless to stop it.
“Who. . .. . Who are you?” He asked hoarsely, the words forced past chattering teeth. He was so cold, and couldn’t stop shaking. The sweating had stopped now, the layer of liquid that covered him began to freeze, wrapping him in a frozen blanket of fear.
“I am here for you.” The gravelled voice spoke. It jumped, the powerful legs pushing it from the car. Josh winced, the pain was suddenly less, the sensation was leaving his body. Even the tips of his fingers were numb and moved with the grace of a rusty hinge.
Josh closed his eyes, he saw the creatures face, it was burned onto into his soul. The red eyes floating across the inside of his eye lids like the laser sights of a snipers rifle.
He heard the beast land on the ground near him. The smell of burnt flesh and death came in a rush of hot stale air. He opened his eyes. He saw nothing at first. Whatever it was, was standing behind him, deeper in the field.
“Please, let . . let me g. .g .. go.” Josh pleaded, something he didn’t take kindly too. He was looking around. Not for the creature but for anything he could use as a weapon. His police uniform had been in the back of the car, along with his belt, but it was nowhere to be seen now. His hands sunk into the rapidly softening mud as he tried once more to free his body. Josh thought he moved a little bit, stretching his body as far as it would allow.
There was a loud sucking sound, a knife being pulled from the earth.
The car door Josh suddenly realised. He threw his head back, the field, suddenly upside down was dead. The long untended weeds that had been ruling the ground were now dried and shrivelled.
“I am afraid that’s not possible. I have been sent to collect and I cannot return empty handed.” The voice spoke from the dark.
“Please….” Croaked Josh, the alcohol purged from his system by fear, replaced by a hangover amplified by the undoubted loss of blood.
The creature was standing beside him again now, looking down at Josh, lying on the wet earth, cowering. The creature threw back its head and began to laugh. It sounded like the hiss of escaping gas at first, but soon built until the ground and car were shaking.
“Listen, come on. Why me, just let me go and take someone else.” Josh continued his pleading. Normally quick witted and sharp on his feet when it came to conversation, he found himself unable to think. His brain was lost, giving him nothing but darkness.
“That’s not how it works. Fool.” The beast stopped laughing to speak, a change that happened suddenly, like turning off a tap, stopping the free flowing water instantly. Easily.
A black hand, dripping with rotting liquid reached forward, towards Josh, the fingers opened with a sticky sound, the flesh sticking together tore like a damp scab revealing red raw meat below the surface. Pus oozed from the wounds, and the hand wrapped itself around Josh’s wrist.
The hand was hot, and Josh heard his flesh sizzle like meat on a barbeque as the grip tightened.
With no effort at all the beast lifted the car with his other and threw Josh out from under it, his body slid over the ground deeper into the field. The ground was hard and dry where the demonic bounty hunter had been standing.
Josh felt his body roll to a stop, the golf club still gripped in his hand; frozen there by fear rather than rational choice. He prayed that he would remain conscious, his head bouncing on the dried earth. He felt the skin split on the stones and litter that covered the field. He came to a stop, but before he could move, the beast was on him again, grabbing him by the back of his shirt. Josh was lifted easily from the ground, his legs, burning fire, dragged uselessly on the floor behind him. He felt nothing but the pain as the exposed meat and nerve endings scrapped along.
“Please.” He called out once more, his brain had all but shut down now. The last message it sent took all of his effort to realise.
“You are a fragile race, but you are strong. Many others would have died by now, given up.” The demon seemed to be making small talk as he marched aimlessly into the field, heading towards the woods.
In the midst of the exploding fireworks of pain going off in his head, Josh still managed to hear the Owls, casting their view over proceedings.
With one swing, using up all of his energy reserves, Josh swung the golf club, blindly hoping that it would connect with something. The club hit, digging into the flesh with a sickening slap, the club face acting as a barb and lodging itself in the side of the demons neck. Pus began to spurt from the wound and the creature roared in pain. Its sound enough to crack the earth open, vents of steam came shooting into the air.
The grip on Josh’s shirt lessened and he fell to the floor, his nose breaking on impact, but the pain didn’t even register. He tried to stand, for a split second forgetting about his condition. His legs didn’t work, he looked down and saw they were both pointing in different directions to each other. One of his feet was almost severed through and a large shard of metal, possibly the gear stick of his car jutted from his right thigh.
Beside him the demon reached for the golf club, pulling it out with another groan. A black coagulated mass began to dribble from the wound, it was the consistency of sour milk, it was blood that hadn’t actually flowed for hundreds of years.
Realising that this was his only change, Josh began to claw his way through the field, his wrist was bleeding, the blisters that had erupted from the beasts burning touch burst and were soon covered with dirty. His eyes stung, and his fingers, which were all but void of sensation sheared thick layers of flesh away with each heaving movement.
“Come back here Mortal. You will pay for that. I don’t care what condition you are in when you make it to the judging room.” It roared like the king of the jungle, ruler of the meadow.
The ground began to shake once more the beast began to sweep the ground with its mammoth arms, scooping deep gouges from the earth.
Josh hadn’t moved very far, but a thick layer of cloud had moved over and the air was beginning to get heavy with the impending threat of thunder.
Using his shoulders, Josh managed to roll himself over sideways, his dead legs following him once his torso had completed the turn.
“Where are you?” Boomed the voice, in the darkness Josh thought that it sounded as though the creature was as tall as large as a house. Another crack opened up in the ground now far from where Josh lay.
Just keep quiet Josh ordered himself, He held his breath, certain that the his heart would give him away. It was beating so hard he was sure it was about to break out of his ribcage and run away.
In the distance he heard the first clap of thunder and a few moments later lightening lit of the horizon. He saw the shadow of the demon. It had sunk to its knees, clots of blood still falling from the gaping wound, the dead flesh splitting further with each growl. The gash now stretched round to the creature’s throat and the head was hanging backwards, pulled by the weight of the skull which Josh saw in the silhouette cast by the storm was elongated in the rear.
Pushing himself up onto his arms, Josh half crab walked half dragged his broken body towards the woods. With the hope that the dense trees would provide him some cover, and hopefully he could hole up until dawn. If he lived that long.
He found the meagre amount he could see was now loosing focus, and he couldn’t feel his hands the floor. His legs were still losing blood and he couldn’t stop shivering. He knew that he was bordering on shock, the minute he stopped moving, or found a space to hide away in he would pass out.
“You’re mine.” The demon sprang from the darkness, it too was crawling now, its head pushed forward keeping the wound closed.
Josh screamed, the shock of it served to wake him, the demon clawed his way on top of Josh, its full body pressing him into the ground which seemed to open up and swallow him. Several heavy clots of blood fell into Josh’s face. The demon leaned closed, its bony jaw opening, snapping out of its socket revealing multiple rows of sharp teeth. The tongue came forward, hard and rigid, its end forked. The stench of death was ripe on its breath as its head lowered towards Josh’s face.
“Just a taste.” The creature hissed.
Josh’s mind raced, he couldn’t breathe from the weight of the monster that was leaning on him like a lover that has gently lowered his companion into bed for the first time. His legs were useless; his arms heavy and pinned down by his side. His neck ached and his head was spinning from the blood he had already lost.
He tried to wriggle and felt nothing but the ripping of his own flesh, the wound from the car and now spread, circling round behind him like a belt. Fresh blood began to flow.
The teeth pierced the flesh of Josh’s neck, coming together creating a pinching sensation, the pain was more hot than anything, and the tearing of his flesh that followed felt no different than ripping a plaster from your skin. The beast threw its head back and howled into the sky. Lightening crackled overhead, not daring to venture any closer to the ground, while the thunder rattled in the distance, scared to come any closer. Drops of rain began to fall; fat heavy droplets that hurt like hail stones as they hit Josh’s skin.
Josh realised, just before the moment had passed that his arms were free, the creature’s attention was diverted in its moment of triumph. Without thinking Josh balled his right fist, - his left was useless, the flesh burnt away, the skin rotting as he watched now noting more then a frail leather glove that could be slipped off when the time came – and swung.
He didn’t know what he was aiming for, but his hand found the same spot the golf club had. Before the demon could react, Josh opened his hand, which was buried in the creature’s throat. It was warm and wet. His entire arm was beginning to sting as if he were grabbing a jellyfish. Spreading his fingers as wide as possible, Josh pulled his hand back towards him, the dead skin that served as the demon’s throat stretched thin, Josh’s hand visible through it before it finally ripped.
The demon had stopped howling, and was now chocking, coughing like a dog that had swallowed a chicken bone.
With a final tug, Josh pulled his hand free, plastering his face with rotting skin and blood that hadn’t flowed through living veins for centuries. The demon’s head rolled backwards, the skin tearing further and further, before it simple fell all the way to the floor.
The body convulsed, and fell, thankfully falling to the side and not directly forwards, crushing Josh as it tumbled.
The head rolled a few times before coming to a stop, the red eyes continued to glow, maggots crawling from the nose holes.
Slumping back to the ground, Josh lay there, the world around him was faint, and he was taking in squeaking gasps of air. His arm burned from its adventure inside the demon, and when he looked at it the skin was bright red and blistered as if it had been dipped in acid.
He began to cry. The rain was starting to come down harder now, and the numbness that began in his legs had now spread to mid way up his chest. Craning his neck, he could make out the trees, thick and dense, so close at hand yet they may as well have been on a different continent.
Behind the trees, off to their right, Josh could see a hazy light, flickering, and the source not yet in view, but approaching. He knew it wasn’t the storm, which had suddenly abated; yet the air was still heavy with its power.
His world went black. It felt as though he blinked, the passage of time – which must have been significant given his new position, suspended from a number of trees – had been instant. He felt neither groggy nor refreshed.
The lights of the rescue team had disappeared, yet Josh had the distinct feeling that he was buried so deep in the woods, their vehicle lights were simply blocked out.
Josh tried to move, the bonds that held him at each wrist and each ankle were taught, to the point that if they snapped they would quite possibly cut a man in half. He was suspended possibly three feet from the floor, in a star position. He could feel numerous eyes watching him, gazing from the darkness. He could hear their breathing, hot rancid breaths that caressed his cheek like a lover.
“You showed courage.” A voice came from the black, Josh jumped, his left shoulder popped slightly as he did.
“Who’s there?” He asked meekly. His voice deserted him. Only then did he realise that the pain was gone. His legs ached, but the burning pain was gone, the blood no longer spurting from his wounds like water through a sieve. The only thing that remained was the burns on his arm and opposite wrist.
“The person that saved you,” The voice came again, as the owner of it emerged from the shadows.
It was another ghastly looking man. Its face was burnt, badly, the skin still red and weeping. The left eyeball was clouded ever, possibly burst and now filled with abscess. Whatever it was wore a long brown cloak that reached the floor. Its feet seemed to glide over the ground, the twigs and leaves that it passed over didn’t so much as crunch under his weight.
It hovered closer to Josh, who being completely immobilised felt utterly helpless.
“I think you are a perfect replacement. Are you willing to accept the challenge?” The creature held out its arm, the hand protruding from the long sleeve was dead, almost skeletal. The hand was pushed towards Josh’s face.
He gazed at it for several seconds, and unable to flee he closed his eyes and kissed the knuckles as they were offered to him.
“Excellent. I am sure you will do me proud.” The creature withdrew, merging into the group that had suddenly appeared. They had encircled Josh. Large tree like beasts, short, stout creatures with long claws and eyes that shone electric blue in the darkness, their faces sallow from lack of sunlight. There were beasts standing like men, but their arms writhed like snakes, the creature’s heads where hands should be, venomous teeth in place of nails. Behind him, stood several werewolves, or so Josh guessed, and an assortment of stereotypical demonic creatures, large tusk like horns from their heads, some stood with a single rhinoceros horn jutting from the forehead, while others had two curled horns above their eyes, while some faces remained shrouded in darkness or hidden beneath hoods.
“Behold! The new huntsman.” The burnt man called, his voice reverberating from the trees whose leaves rustled as if in agreement.
“What? Wait a fucking minute,” Josh began, but an arm slipped around his throat. He was immediately silent.
“You killed the Hunter of Prengac. The beast that had lived through 4 different millennia, so now the mantle must pass to you, keeping the balance between the worlds is now your task, if you fail, he will rise again.” The beast spoke calmly. His voice was strangely eloquent.
“Who are you?” Josh asked. The arm or whatever it was around his throat had loosened. So too had the ropes that held him
“We are the Peacekeepers, those who guard over the land of the living and the land of souls.” A large demon spoke, its face was purple, the colour of a fresh bruise, it had two thick horns growing from either side of its head, which curled around on themselves several times. He had long claws from each of his fingers, which looked like knife blades.
He stepped forwards, his arms sweeping in a large circle pointing out the group. “Each of us has a task, a purpose in this game. Yours is now to keep the balance and collect those who try to escape their destiny. You must collect the souls.” He was speaking, but Josh cut him off.
“You mean I’m death. I’ve gotta be the fucking grim reaper?” He didn’t believe it. He was still unconscious; the loss of blood had sent him into a coma. That was all.
It was an oddly comforting thought given his circumstances.
“You are not death. He does not belong to the Peacekeepers. The idea of Death is a human invention, but if you insist on using it, then we are all death. As a group we are the man wearing a black cloak, holding the scythe.
“Your role is not to collect the dead, but to guide the souls in the right direction; some must be sent back, their time not yet reached, while others you must take. Those who hold on past their chosen time must be forced out and sent on their way. Balance must be kept otherwise one of the worlds will over balance the counterpart, which would be the end for both of them.” The burnt demon was talking again. “Do you accept your responsibilities?” He asked.
Josh thought it through, but there was only one answer to give. He knew it, he could feel it. The calling spoke to him in the burning pulsing wound on his wrist where the creature had grabbed him.
“Yes” His single word answered severed the shackles that held him, and he fell to the floor.
He looked down at his legs, the mangled mess of meat and flesh had begun to heal. Although not in the way he had expected. There was no new skin growing over the wounds, the bones were not being set back in place, they simply seemed to be whole. The flesh on his badly damaged foot was still exposed, wet with fluid, but there was no pain, and the injury didn’t worse.
Josh was standing in the centre, the other demons and creatures staring at him, smiling, their eyes glowing various colours, they began to applaud him. The salute washed over him in a wave of emotion and he threw his hands aloft, the broken bones fused bulkily together, giving his shoulders an unnaturally thick look.
So it remained for almost a thousand years, the Peacekeepers reigned over the two worlds, with Josh leading the group, collecting souls in a ruthless imaginative fashion, his favourites being murder and suicide, they gave him the most creative artistic freedom. Although he changed it enough to stop people from ever suspecting that it was anything other than just life.
Finally, one day, he met his successor, the man who was born simply to die and continue to tradition. He put up no fight when his time came, happy to move on, to be given his own direction to take.