Recently, I was pleased to be invited to contribute to The Crimson Pact, a horror anthology edited by Paul Genesse.
Here’s an excerpt from the opening story in that book. Watch for a piece of my own contribution (“Brother’s Keeper”) in the next few days.
The Crimson Pact
The Crimson Pact vowed to destroy the demons of the Rusted Vale…but the demons had their own secret plan and escaped, invading dozens of worlds.…
Read 26 stories set in those many different worlds about the men and women who have refused to let the demons win.
The Failed Cru?sade
by Patrick M. Tra?cy and Paul Genesse
Part One: The Rust?ed Vale
News of our victory came not in the happy shouts of the freed multitudes, but in the groaning voices of the animate dead. Ours was a victory that none would confuse with triumph. The best half of us lay broken within the Rusted Vale, the rear guard left to puzzle out the events that had been no more than far-off echoes within the smoke and crashing iron. We knew only that we had finally won, that the Crimson Pact was redeemed, that we could all go home. Tired as we were, no man lifted a fist to celebrate. No Blessed Woman smiled. No church Catechist recounted the litany of our good fortunes. The cost had been too high, the wager of battle too awful. In that moment, winning didn’t seem to matter. It would not be long before we found that even the brief illusion of victory would tear away like fog before the wind.
We had to reanimate the dead to learn the terrible truth. When we could find corpses whole enough to take the enchantment, that is. Most of them lay in torn, unrecognizable chunks no bigger than a man’s finger. Our front-line troops had been destroyed to a man. No living soldier remained to tell the tale. How had our enemies, at the moment of their apparent defeat, disappeared into a rolling, living explosion of acrid fire? What twisted plot had allowed them to lure us in, only to annihilate us and make good their escape? Only the dead knew.
The landscape, a blasted waste of flaming corrosion, would never again support life. Nothing wholesome remained. Trees were charred skeletons; grass had turned to ash; even the rocks were glazed with black, tarry soot that wouldn’t wash away. The comrades we brought back had known torment no human mind could bear. Wrenching them back into their broken bodies was a crime we will spend our lives trying to forget. They screamed until we were forced to pulp their heads with the burial spades, providing us with nothing but fodder for night sweats and drinking binges.
You begin clean. You begin with fine intentions and a cause. The ending is always burnt black, broken promises strewn about with the dead and all you had hoped to do slipping through your hands like the steam of your breath in midwinter.
Some of us were learning these truths for the first time, most of us merely being reminded. The Spirit Coaxers, with their black candles and their guttural chants, summoned the ghosts back into the broken vessels of our fallen friends. For those who had the power over death’s threshold, there was never so ill-favored a day. As bad as The Day of Burning was for all of us, it was worse for the Spirit Coaxers.
Nothing could be done. We needed to know what they’d seen at the front, what had happened, how things had gone so utterly wrong. A few of them had seen the last awful moments. From beyond death’s veil, they remembered. Curse the gods, but they remembered it all.
It fell to me, General Cruek Ostor, to hear the gasped words of the dead. I carry every word verbatim, an entire army of nightmares within me, loose-ranked and mutinous, hollow-eyed as my own reflection after these many sleepless nights. Fragments of all the dead live inside me.
Often, but little could be understood amongst their anguished cries. “It burns! It burns!” they would scream. Or it would be the name of their mothers, perhaps their sweethearts they would never see again. Nothing useful. Sometimes, though, there would be a soldier who seemed to know. A soldier that, as we grew to understand the depth of our own futility, would prove to be a collaborator with the demon horde.
The most enlightening account came from a Catechist who had once been a scholar, historian, and poet. I have collected all of his written works, but none more important than this. His insistence on being with the front-line soldiers to record the events of what was to be our final victory led to his doom. It was a doom he chose for himself, I believe. He knew what was coming, and welcomed his own destruction. Continued…