PDA

View Full Version : The Amulet, Part 2 (horror/2726 words)



CyberWar
October 8th, 2014, 08:14 PM
Carcassonne, Kingdom of France, 1348 AD

---

Day by day, scores of people were flowing to the city from the south along the famed great walls of Carcassonne. Most walked by foot, some rode on horseback or in carts or wagons, but all had fear in their faces.

A terrible pestilence had stricken the Kingdom of France from southern lands, a plague unlike any mentioned in chronicles or remembered by the eldest of elders. Word was that it had arrived from the Orient in the Kingdom of Sicily a year ago, leaving barely a soul alive in the cities of Italy in it's wake. Plague had also been reported in Marseilles, where it's spread had thankfully been curbed by winter, but with the coming of spring, it had now returned with a vengeance and was about to reach the borders of Carcassonne.

As if the plague wasn't bad enough, scouts reported sightings of English warbands in the countryside around Carcassonne. Too few in number to besiege the city, the Englishmen had contended themselves with plundering and burning down a few villages in the neighboring counties. However, word was that they committed such cruel atrocities as to make the plague appear the lesser evil, putting elders and expectant women alike to the sword and inflicting such barbarous cruelties and torments upon the poor villagers that words could hardly describe.

For these reasons, many a folk hoped to find refuge behind the great walls of Carcassonne. So many, in fact, that the city was already running short of room to house them all. Lord of the city, noble duke Geoffroi de Montfort, was a clever man and, upon hearing first word of plague in his realm, commanded the city gates closed - after all, it had happened before that strangers brought foul pestilence with them in the city, and duke de Montfort had no intent of seeing that happen again. Henceforth, nobody was to be admitted in the city, and any comers were cruelly but wisely commanded to go where they came from. Some were not content with such an answer and tried to argue, but after several such spiteful folks had met an untimely end from a watchman's arbalest bolt to the chest, the rest understood there's nothing to be done here and left.

Meanwhile, the pestilence began to ravage the countryside around Carcassonne. It sneaked in the peasant huts at night like a thief, quietly and invisibly crawling upon them before pouncing to devour their flesh like a rabid wolf. Poor peasants were afflicted with foul buboes and terrible fever, most dying within three days. Many had to endure torments of hell before death relieved them of their misery, as their limbs, ears and noses blackened and started to rot while they were still alive. Others began to cough up blood until eventually it started to flow freely from their mouths, ears and noses, heralding imminent death. In any case, there were very few who caught the plague and recovered, and these few were too weak to bury the dead. So when no smoke could be seen rising from the chimneys of a village, only carrion birds circling in the sky above it, the desperate, ominous howling of the village's dogs heralded that there was no longer a soul alive there.

In the city of Carcassonne, life went on as usual. There was enough food in the granaries to last several years, and lord de Montfort was certain that the fabled walls of his city will halt the plague much like they would halt an enemy army.

---

On the day the city watch was ordered to seal the gate, among the last outsiders to arrive was a strange man who claimed to be a scholar. He refused to give anyone a name other than The Alchemist, since alchemy was his occupation. A few times, he had entertained the crowd in the marketplace, showing people various tricks. Although the townsfolk looked upon him with suspicion, they didn't seem to regard him a sorcerer - after all, such people had appeared in the town before. The Alchemist had rented a modest room in some burgher's house, paying generously in gold on the condition that nobody was to enter his room or disturb him. Although the said burgher felt a certain suspicion towards him, he was one of those people who didn't make a habit of asking questions if the price was right.

The Alchemist never revealed his face in public, hiding it beneath the hood of his cloak like a monk, but those who had seen him revealed said he's still a young and somewhat handsome man, perhaps an Italian judging by his accent and the make of his clothes. The Alchemist never seemed to lack gold, though nobody had seen or heard of him doing any business in the town. Rumors had that he had discovered the Philosophers' Stone and could turn lead into gold.

---

On that fateful day, duke de Montfort was throwing a feast in his castle, where his vassals and other guests of noble birth who had sought shelter in Carcassonne were invited to partake. For three days and nights, the kitchen staff had worked without pause to make sure every exquisite delicacy could be served to duke's guests. Jugglers, acrobats, minstrels and jesters had been called in from all over the city to entertain the noble guests. Usually, these people never stayed in one place for long, but now the plague had stranded them in the city with no way out. The duke was a man of merry disposition as far as feasts were concerned, so strictly forbade his servants to make any mention of the plague during the feast under pain of death.

Upon hearing of The Alchemist, duke de Montfort ordered to summon him for the feast and entertain the guests with his tricks as well.

And so, as the evening descended upon the castle, the feast would begin. Fine knights and fair ladies would pass their time in dance and pleasant conversation. Men were discussing the war against the English as they emptied their cups of ale and wine, while the ladies chatted about more womanly things, trading the latest gossip from their respective courts. The table was breaking under the weight of various dishes, over 30 in number, and wine would flow, for every knight and lady would have a young page to attend them, filling their cup whenever it ran dry.

The midnight was coming when duke de Montfort remembered of the Alchemist and commanded him summoned.

The Alchemist entered the hall shrouded in a long cloak, hiding his face behind a frightening horned mask made of a goat's skull. The ladies cried out in fear and squeezed closer to the gentlemen. The Alchemist said not a word, bowing towards the host in greeting, and immediately began to show his skills.

First, he asked for a cup of clear water, sprinkled some powder in it and turned it into wine, giving any disbeliever a taste so that he could attest it was indeed wine. He then made the cup disappear in a puff of smoke, frightening everyone, only to pull it out of some knight's sleeve, much to his surprise. With a different powder, he made wine change colour every time the cup was swiggled. He took a chandelier from the table and turned it into a dove that erupted from a puff of smoke, and showed many other miraculous things.

"Indeed, you are a mighty miracle-worker!" duke de Montfort said, "But tell me - is this sorcery or your own clever knowledge?"

"Milord, what appears as sorcery to many is still the creation of our Lord, only a keen mind is needed to understand it," the Alchemist explained.

"I have heard people say many things of you. They say you can turn lead into gold, which is why you never lack means for a living. Is it true?" the duke asked.

"I am surprised, milord, that you, being a man of such high birth, still believe in the gossip of unlearned peasant women," the Alchemist said, "But to tell you the truth, I do have my secrets in this matter."

"Pray, tell us!" the guests begin to shout over each other.

"Oh, noble lords, would you tell your war plans to every stranger, not certain he would not sell them out to the English next day?" the Alchemist said, offended.

"True indeed, every master has his own trade secrets. Still, I could use such a man as yourself in my service. Come, enter my service - I will see to it that you are generously rewarded!" duke de Montfort agreed and offered, failing to realize in his drunkenness how pointless his offer would sound to a man who knows how to make gold.

The Alchemist did realize that, however, and replied with offended pride.

"Oh, great duke, either your mind is not as sharp as a man of your standing should have, or it is the delicious wine of your land that is speaking with your mouth right now! Who would be such a simpleton to become a servant, being wealthy and free? There is no lord on this earth who could command me against my will, for I am a free man who comes and goes as he pleases - why would I trade it all for gold that I already have
or for luxuries that I can buy with this gold? I don't seek glory, because it befits noble knights, men of high birth such as yourself, who conquer it with sword in hand in tournaments and battlefield, not humble folks like myself. I know that those who have found glory once must continue to increase it, lest they be cast down and ridiculed, and that is no reward I would seek."

The duke didn't like such an answer, but he said nothing for now.

"If that is your will, so be it, it's a free man's right," he spoke, "But I do wish to see how you turn lead into gold - do that, and I will generously reward you!"

It seemed the Alchemist grinned underneath his scary mask.

"Alright, milord, but be warned - let nobody in this hall, neither you nor your noble guests, forget the Tenth Commandment as I do it, or a great woe will befall this house!"

The duke agreed to such terms and ordered the servants to bring a piece of lead. The Alchemist took it in one hand, and pulled a strange amulet out from beneath his cloak, holding it in the other. For a while he just stood there, quietly muttering something, and the guests gasped in shock and awe as they saw the dull gray lead gradually take on the pleasant shine of pure gold. The Alchemist then handed the piece to the guests so that everyone could see it was indeed gold. And everyone examined it carefully and attested that it is truly gold of the highest proof.

Such a spectacle left a big impression on the duke, who was seized by uncontrollable greed. An amulet with the power to turn lead into gold could make him the richest man in France and all of Europe, maybe even a king.

"Name your price! I will give anything you ask for it, just sell it to me and show me how to use it!" duke de Montfort cried out.

The Alchemist gazed at him furiously, speaking with hatred and disgust.

"Oh, duke, did I not warn you to remember the Tenth Commandment?! You whose grandfather drove out the Cathar heretics from this city a hundred years ago may be of high birth, but turns out your heart is no better than that of a Jewish usurer, concerned only with the shining gold! You insult me by offering your petty fortunes for the much greater one that I have! As punishment for your greed, you and your city will be struck by the plague like you deserve!"

Such defiant words and the forbidden mention of the plague threw duke de Montfort and his guests in great rage.

"You, dog and slave, how dare you! I will have your tongue cut out and see you judged as a sorcerer for this! Guards, seize this scoundrel and take his magic pendant - I will figure out how to use it myself!" Geoffroi de Montfort, lord of Carcassonne, bellowed furiously.

The Alchemist only laughed loudly when the halberd-wielding guards approached him.

"Oh, duke, you don't even see how pathetic your threats are! No matter how rich and powerful you are on this earth, you won't be able to take any of your treasures to the grave. Better go and look who rides in your castle's courtyard!" he said, pointing at the hall's windows. The duke and the guests walked there and froze in horror. A huge, black figure with a scythe in hands rode in the courtyard, it's undead steed gaunt and black, it's bones showing from festering sores and it's decaying flesh dangling down it's sides like rags. This was no doubt same fell spectre that was said to haunt the streets of the cities strangled by the plague. It raised a gaunt, bony finger and waved it towards the duke in warning before riding away.

When the horrified guests turned about, the Alchemist was nowhere to be seen.

---

Next morning, the servants found only the dead and the dying at the feast table, all afflicted by the unmistakable signs of pestilence. Duke de Montfort sat dead in his chair, his face horribly disfigured by the foul disease and contorted in agony, his hands greedily clutching the piece of gold made by the Alchemist even in death. But the plague, who had come quietly like a thief at night, did not contend itself with the city's greedy lord and his guests alone. It scoured every corner of the city, there being no rank or class that it's scythe would spare. The spectre of pestilence rode the streets of Carcassonne on it's undead steed every night, earth itself groaning agony under it's feet, and wherever it stopped, lives were extinguished like candles in a wind and people fell dead in scores like autumn leaves. Learned doctors tried in vain to explain the emergence of the dreadful pestilence, some tried to treat it's victims, arriving at their homes in their long waxed overcoats and frightening beaked masks with spices in the beaks, hoping such an outfit would protect them from contracting the disease. But the plague seized and killed them all the same. Soon, the only people in the streets were grave-diggers and undertakers sent to collect and bury the corpses, who left behind them a trail of houses marked with a red cross, their carts and their macabre contents reeking of death. Others who walked the streets in these dreadful times were the flagellants, pious people who sought to avert the plague with prayer and self-mortification, roaming the streets and the countryside in processions, chanting religious hymns and lashing themselves with whips - in vain like everything else, the plague taking them all the same. Other, less pious folk, indulged themselves in drink and debauchery, leaving no sin uncommitted and no depravity unexplored before the black horror reached them with it's scythe and extinguished their lives. In despair and anger, the people would seek scapegoats to blame for the pestilence, and soon, men and women hanged from the trees, and the streets of Carcassonne were shrouded in smoke rising from pyres, the moaning of the dying and chanting of the flagellants now being joined by the screams of people burning on them. Those were the Jews that screamed there, blamed for causing the plague as unbelievers by the Christian folk in their powerlesness and despair. Occasionally, a Christian woman or man burned alongside them, her or his only fault being a strange appearance or habits.

But the plague didn't care either way - everyone was equal and good enough for it. There even happened people in this cursed city of death who had lost their minds to the horror completely and now honoured the pestilence as the good and righteous father who doesn't sort people by birth or wealth.

At first, the townsfolk wanted to burn the Alchemist at the stake as well, but he was nowhere to be found.