The tavern was dark, lit only by a few rushlights, and the shadows they cast just barely concealed the darkest corners of the spacious room. The tavernkeeper stared wearily at a small metallic object, a piece of memorabilia from days long gone, his head filled with thoughts of absolutely nothing.
He snapped back to reality as the door opened. He looked up from his beer, squinting his good eye in the dim light as a figure stepped in, concealed by the shadows. From what little he could see of the person, they were relatively slender. A woman, maybe? He couldn't exactly tell. He looked on as the figure approached, either unaware or totally ignorant of his drunken state. As they came closer, he noticed that it was a young girl, not exactly a woman, but not exactly a kid either. She looked a little worse for wear. Great, he thought to himself, wearily jumping to conclusions.
“Can I help you?” he said, his speech slurring a little.
The girl cocked her head to the side in an almost quizzical way. Was she deaf? Dumb? Insane? He couldn't exactly tell, but something about the look in her eye was unmistakably ... off. Finally, she spoke, a faint smile appearing on her face.
“Do you, uh, have any rooms available?” The girl's voice was a little off somehow, like her voice was subtly breaking with every other word.
“I ...” he started, “the rooms are full right now, but there should … there should be some available later today if you stick around.” It was a bare-faced lie—he had a couple of rooms going—but he didn’t like the looks of her, and something about her just seemed like bad news.
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I can come back.” She continued to circle the bar, inspecting the room, yet for some reason facing him the entire time. He could see her eyes were darting around everywhere, and she seemed to be doing everything but leaving.
“I’ll need a name,” he said, looking around in confusion as the girl continued her impromptu inspection. “Just in case someone who looks like you shows up. Who are you?”
“Me?” she giggled, “What makes you think I'm not just another customer?”
“Come on,” she chirped, leaning across the counter, and stopping abruptly just two feet from his face. “Does my name really matter all that much?”
Now that the tavernkeeper was more awake, the mannerisms the girl displayed made him nervous. He’d been around long enough to know a lunatic when he saw one, and she was most definitely a lunatic.
“I ... uh ...” he started, but the girl cut him off.
“I’d best be off,” she said, reversing towards the door in a way that both confused and disturbed the tavernkeeper. “I’ll be back in a few hours. Please, don’t forget to leave a room free for me!” She waved and disappeared into the darkness, chuckling to herself. There was a loud thud as the door slammed shut behind her.
The tavernkeeper just stared after her, a look of incredulity on his face. She was obviously no more than a madwoman, but something about her just seemed off to him. He buried his head in his hands as he realized something, which he’d somehow overlooked before.
She was coming back later.
“Damn and blast,” he muttered to himself as he stared into the darkness. But then, a thought occurred to him. It was unlikely, but the idea kept niggling him until he began to seriously consider it. What if the girl had never left?
He reached under the counter, groping around until he found a solitary candle. He grabbed it, set it down next to his beer, and lit it as he reached down to grab something else. Lifting the object up, he regarded the shining metal of the small blade he’d been looking at earlier. If that girl was still in here, and if she did have malicious intent, he’d be ready.
The tavernkeeper stepped forward as quietly as he could, but the wooden floor creaked too loudly for his comfort. The candle illuminated the nearest part of the room as he advanced.
Waving the candle in front of him, he gasped as the light illuminated a limp figure on the ground—the girl. Her eyes were wide, staring blankly at the ceiling. The subtle rise and fall of her chest told the him that she was still alive, but barely. The tavernkeeper couldn’t comprehend what had just happened. She was obviously deranged, yes, but he didn’t exactly want her to die. He nudged her with his foot, trying to elicit a reaction, but as the girl fell forwards, he nearly screamed.
There were bite marks along the lower right portion of the girl’s back. The marks at the front almost seemed to have been by a single object, or by two which were practically unified. The others were more like shallow cuts. As he looked at the wounds, which had since stopped bleeding, he started to realize that maybe the girl wasn’t insane—just delirious.
He was about to take a closer look when the girl suddenly stirred. She let out a pained groan as her eyes fixed on the man. The same look, which the tavernkeeper had once mistaken for insanity, was in her gaze. It wasn’t insanity.
It was fear.
“Hey, hey, calm down,” the tavernkeeper said in a hushed voice. “It’s going to be all right. I’ll … I’ll call for help.”
He looked around frantically, trying to see if anyone else was still in the tavern. There was—another man, sitting at the table nearby. The guy had a strange shirt with indistinct symbols on the back. The tavernkeeper rushed over and got the guy’s attention, explaining the situation as best he could.
“Hmm,” the man said, having heard about what had taken place. “Sounds like croakers,” he said.
The tavernkeeper gave the guy a funny look, thinking he might have lost the plot or something. That wouldn’t exactly be surprising any more. At least he could speak English, which was honestly more than he was expecting. The tavernkeeper sighed. “Croakers?” he asked.
This time, it was the man who gave him a funny look. “Yeah. Croakers. A few of the things have taken up residence in the nearby mountains. Does the girl have bite marks?”
Bewildered, the tavernkeeper began nodding.
The man walked to the girl and looked her over, frowning as he saw the large bite marks at the front and muttering to himself. “The shape of the incisors matches up ... the depth of the wound indicates ...”
“Can you stop prodding around the wounds on my back?” the girl muttered, cringing in pain. “It’s not exactly the most pleasant experience.”
“Yep,” the man said, ignoring her and turning to the tavernkeeper. “The wounds are only shallow—I think it must have been too brief for it to inject much of its venom. She should live.”
“Venom?” the tavernkeeper said in disbelief. “What even are these creatures?”
The man thought about this for a moment before he spoke. “Imagine a shrew,” he said, “but the height of a man, the bite of a mastiff, and it’s constantly making that croaking noise frogs make. As soon as the wolves died out over here, the croakers moved in.”
“And the venom?” the tavernkeeper asked.
The man took a piece of bread and began chewing on it. “That venom comes from this organ in the roof of their mouth. When they nick you with their lower incisors, their saliva gets injected right into your bloodstream. In a matter of minutes, you’re going to be too sleepy to move. In most cases, you go completely stiff. That’s when they stash you away in their burrows, and … you can figure out the rest.
He paused for breath. “It looks like the thing got her with its upper incisors. There was some venom injected, but not enough to paralyze her.”
The girl, though not as shocked as the tavernkeeper, was still horrified at the prospect of almost being paralyzed, stashed away, and eaten. She looked around at the others. “There aren’t any of these things out there, are there?” she asked.
“Of course there are,” he said. “This is an entire species, not just a few oddballs. And I tell you what, those aren’t the only ones we’re gonna see. If they know there’s an available food source, they’re going to exploit it. They have to be exterminated.”
The girl sat up straighter, wincing from the pain. “How do you know all this?” she asked.
The man hesitated before he replied. Something about the question seemed to make him uncomfortable. “I’ve … I’ve been places,” he answered at last, apparently trying his best to be vague.
Both the tavernkeeper and the girl picked up on this, and they exchanged awkward looks. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on the former. “I’m afraid we’re going to need a bit more than that,” he said. “How do we know whether to trust you if you can’t tell us how you know about these things? You haven’t even given us a name.”
“My name’s Sebastian,” the man said, gesturing at the two of them. “Now, I’ve given my name. What are yours?”
“I’m … I’m Ada,” said the girl.
“The name’s Finian,” the tavernkeeper said. He still had no clue what was happening, but he was certain that Sebastian was a problematic man. Ada quite clearly felt the same. “So, what are you doing here anyway?”
Sebastian smirked. “I’m a traveller,” he said, standing up straight. “I’ve been to places you can’t even comprehend.”
Finian didn’t like the sound of this. Maybe this time he was dealing with someone who was genuinely insane, rather than just a delirious victim of some animal attack.
In the end, it was Ada who broke the silence. “I’m sorry to say this,” she groaned, “but I don’t believe this one.”
“If you don’t believe me,” Sebastian muttered, “I can prove it to you. I’d have thought that you of all people would remember.”
“Please do,” Ada sneered. “And while you’re at it, I’d like you to explain exactly what kinda sick, twisted nonsense is going on in that head of yours. Have you found an ichneumon? A cockatrice? A bloody phoenix?”
Finian couldn’t have been more amused. He found himself hoping that Ada would continue her tirade, but she didn’t.
Sebastian suddenly stood up and started walking towards the door. “Well?” he said. “Are you two coming?”
“In case you’ve forgotten,” Ada said, “I don’t think I’m in the best condition to go on a long journey.”
Hearing this, Sebastian simply smiled. “Then we’ll go by horse.”
The journey was a long one, and arduous. There was something about this whole thing that Finian didn’t understand. He’d heard of carriages transporting supplies, yes, but never people. Ada sat next to him, fidgeting uncomfortably in the chair and grimacing. Her wounds had been patched up with some sort of fabric—the whole affair was very odd, Finian knew that much. Sebastian sat in the front, occasionally turning to ask how Ada was. Most of the time, he couldn’t see into the back of the carriage, and the only times he could be heard over the clattering of hooves were when he yelled.
“You know,” Ada whispered to Finian, “I don’t trust this Sebastian guy. He seems a little weird to me.”
“Agreed,” Finian whispered back. “Where’d he get all this stuff from?”
“We’re here,” Sebastian yelled from the front, “and I heard everything you two just said. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Ada and Finian exchanged glances as they started climbing out of the carriage. It was just as awkward to get out as it had been to get in, and it took a few moments, but Finian was relieved when his feet finally touched the ground.
“So,” Sebastian began, gesturing to the left, “what do you think?”
As Finian looked, his gaze drifted to a large cave system. He glanced back to Ada, whose face had suddenly gone rather pale. “You mean we’re going in there?” she asked.
“That’s right,” Sebastian said. “Or, at least, I am. You can stay behind if you want.” He gestured towards Ada. “I highly advise you to hang back, at the very least. You’ve got open wounds, and the smell might attract their attention.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Ada said smugly, climbing back into the carriage.
Sebastian turned to Finian, glancing towards the carriage briefly. “Are you doing this, or am I going to have to confront a giant, highly-aggressive eulipotyphlan alone?”
Finian didn’t exactly know what to say, he didn’t even know what a … eu-lippo-whatever was, but he just nodded without saying a word.
Sebastian nodded and began rummaging around in some sort of strange bag he was carrying with him, and pulled out an equally strange object. It was long and rectangular, with a large handle at the base. It looked vaguely like one of the matchlock guns he’d seen, but it seemed to be made from some sort of metal. A set of numerals was inscribed on the side: M-M-L.
“Don’t point it directly at anything,” Sebastian warned, “unless you mean to kill. You fire it by pushing that lever at the base. Got it?”
Finian nodded, no closer to figuring out exactly where the other man was getting all of this stuff from. With that, they began the trek towards the cave.
In two words, the interior of the cave was dark and damp. The light from the small lantern Finian held with one hand was little help, but at least it was something. There was a fetid stench of rot coming from further in the cave, which only intensified as they walked closer and closer. Now, Finian was getting anxious.
“If you hear croaking,” Sebastian whispered, “tell me.”
Unnerved by this vague statement, Finian nodded and tried to remain calm as they continued. He could hear his own heart beating loud and fast. That wasn’t much consolation to him. He wasn’t cut out for this—he hadn’t been ever since the start of the war between his country and France about twenty years ago. To think that things were so simple until Ada walked in, he said to himself.
There was suddenly a loud noise from deeper in the cave, like a low-pitched belch interspersed with a series of high-pitch clicks. Finian raised his gun as Sebastian took the lantern, holding it in front of him in the hope of piercing the impenetrable darkness.
“That’s them,” he whispered. “Keep your gun handy.”
Finian wanted absolutely nothing to do with this. He was trembling from head to toe now, wanting nothing more than to be back in his tavern, blissfully inaware that any of this was happening.
There was another croak, and then, footsteps. They were heavy yet quick, and Finian got the impression that whatever was there, it must have been running—in their direction. A fear unlike anything he had ever felt, that horrid fear of the unknown, overtook him at that moment. The heavy footfalls came ever closer, and then Finian could make out a low snuffling noise, like a pig rooting through the leaf litter.
He froze as the bright light from the lantern illuminated the form of a creature.
Sebastian had been right the entire time—it looked like some hellish shrew, with thin fur covering its body. Its legs were robust, supporting a hefty body, and were equipped with a set of large claws. The head was long yet robust, with a long nose which drooped to cover an array of teeth. Finian was alarmed to see a complete lack of eyes, replaced by a pair of well-developed ears.
Finian’s mind buzzed with thoughts, some of escape, some of killing the things, and others of what would happen if it caught him. He remembered what Sebastian said about their venom. In a matter of minutes, you’re going to be too sleepy to move … that’s when they stash you away in their burrows …
He sure as hell wasn’t about to let that happen.
Raising the gun with a loud clatter, he aimed at the thing. The croaker’s head snapped up, and it emitted another croak. Its ears sprang up and it tilted its head to the side, realizing something was most definitely out of the ordinary.
That was when Finian pulled the trigger.
Between the sudden bang and the clank of the bullet impacting the wall, the croaker didn’t know where to look. It let out an aggravated screech and backed into the cave, but it didn’t run away.
Confident that the croaker was too afraid to advance, Sebastian whispered to Finian. “Believe me now?” he asked.
“Do I have a choice?” Finian replied.
The croaker let out a peculiar clicking call as Finian raised the gun again. A series of croaking noises sounded in reply.
“Shit,” Sebastian said. “We need to get out. It’s calling backup.”
They began backing away, Finian moving just a little faster, but what happened next couldn’t have been more different from what he expected. Sebastian reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, plum-shaped object with a metallic top split into two compartments. Sebastian unclipped one compartment and threw it into the cave, causing the croaker to stumble back and flee.
Finian began backing away faster as Sebastian shouted for him to run, just as there was a huge explosion. Dust filled the air and pieces of rock and rubble fell from the ceiling as they began making their way out of the cave.
After a few moments Finian was out, coughing and choking on the debris filling the air. He was alive. He was alive, but somehow, he couldn’t believe it.
“What took you so long?” a woman asked from nearby. Looking towards the carriage, Finian saw Ada peering out at him.
“I ... I ...” Finian didn’t know exactly what to say.
“Big shrews,” Sebastian said, stumbling out of the cave. “Very big shrews.”
Finian turned to look at the cave. Dust still filled the air, obscuring the entrance to the cave, and rocks continued to fall from the ceiling. There were no signs of life.
There was an ungodly screech from inside the cave, and as they looked back, they saw a croaker clambering out of the cave, croaking and gurgling. Then came another, and another. Despite the things’ obvious blindness, Finian got the unmistakable feeling that he was being watched. The fur of the croakers was dirty, covered in dust and debris. Their faces were damp and covered in a crimson liquid, which soaked into their fur.
“Sebastian, come on!” Finian said dragging him towards the carriage. “We have to get out of here.”
Sebastian just kept staring at the croakers, a strange look in his eye now. Finian recognized it as something unexpected. Hatred. Sebastian pulled out a gun and raised it towards the croakers, ready to shoot. As he pulled the trigger, he uttered a simple phrase.
“This is for Zara.”
Sebastian pulled the trigger, sending bullets flying towards the nearest croaker. The thing squealed in pain and reared up, shrieking. The other croakers turned their heads in Sebastian’s direction, screeching and beginning to advance towards him. Finian hauled himself into the carriage, helped up by Ada, but as he looked outside, one of the croakers lunged at Sebastian, sending a spray of blood into the air as its huge teeth penetrated his thorax.
“Jesus Christ!” Finian exclaimed, ducking down as much as he could alongside Ada.
The horses went berserk, turning and racing down the bumpy road they’d come from, making the carriage bounce up and down with every lurch of their bodies. The horrific croak of a croaker sounded from back towards the cave, and the sounds of the horses’ hooves were joined by the heavy footfalls of the beast. The horses were too fast for the croaker, though, and after a few moments it slowed down, until the only noises Finian would hear were the sound of hooves and the sound of his heart almost bursting out of his chest.
“Finian,” Ada said, “I know you probably don’t trust me. I know you think I’m insane—hell, I think I’m insane—but you need to listen to me for this one. We need to tell the village.”
“They won’t believe us,” Finian muttered. “They’re not gonna believe a drunkard of a tavernkeeper and some girl who’s never been there before.”
“Finian,” Ada said, her voice soft and pleading, “there’s something out there. Something that wants to kill us and wants to eat us. If we don’t tell the village what’s going on, they’re gonna be dead, and we’re gonna be dead.”
He thought about this for a moment. If the croakers made their way down to the village, there would inevitably be deaths. London was only two hours’ walk away, and surely there’d be enough places to accommodate them. “You’re right,” he said at last. “I don’t know how we’re gonna convince them, but we’ll have to try.”
Finian lay awake in front of the campfire, trying to think of the best and most convincing way to tell everyone back at the village what had happened. Ada was awake too, staring blankly off into the darkness. Neither of them had spoken for quite some time, and the only noises that could be heard were those of nightjars, tawny owls, and the crackling fire.
After a few minutes like this, sleep began to take hold. Ada and Finian were both soon drifting in and out of a fitful half sleep. This went on for some time, until at last, Finian felt himself drifting off into a much deeper sleep. His dreams were filled with the monstrous visages of the croakers, with their imperceptibly small eyes, large ears and blade-like teeth, now encrusted with blood.
He awoke with a jolt to find Ada shaking him bodily. “What are you doing?” he managed to mutter.
“Croakers,” she said with a hushed voice. “They’re close.”
Finian’s eyes darted open and he saw the dim light of sunrise filtering in through the forest. Ada was up on her feet and had moved behind Finian. He got up, the dull ache in his muscles finally making him aware of how long he had been asleep. There was nothing but dread now. An eerie croaking noise emanated from the forest nearby. Ada was right.
The croakers were close.
They both reached into their pockets, and when Finian withdrew the gun Sebastian had given him, while Ada pulled out an unusually large blade. Then the two were up on their feet and headed deeper into the forest, walking quickly but quietly, their breathing matching each other’s pace. Finian kept his gun trained low, Ada followed suit, keeping a watchful eye on the woods in front of them, on the left, the right and at the sides.
“If anything happens, we run to the east,” Ada said. “There’s a village nearby.”
All was quiet now, save for the sound of their footsteps and the trees rustling in the wind. The croakers had fallen totally silent. They were just ahead. Finian drew a breath, he could feel it.
And then, he could sense that they were no longer alone.
The sound of a branch snapping caused Finian to whirl around, only to see a big croaker standing there, mouth agape, emitting a low croaking noise. “Shit,” he said.
Ada turned around and pulled out her knife. She gestured for him not to move as the big croaker let out another croak, its jaws opening so wide that the jaw muscles at the back of its mouth bulged. Finian lifted his gun and aimed at the thing’s head. It emitted another noise, this one like a whistle, and that’s when he fired.
The shot was loud and deafening, startling the croaker enough to send it reeling back, and that was when Finian and Ada made a break for it, sprinting towards the forest as fast as their legs could carry them. Finian’s lungs burned, his heart pounding and his body soaked with sweat, as he finally came to a stop. Turning around, he saw nothing but Ada and the trees.
Sighing with relief, he ran his hands through his hair and sighed with relief. He could tell that Ada was just as relieved as he was, even if she didn’t really show it. “You all right?” he asked her.
Nodding vigorously, Ada replied. “Yeah,” she said. “I think so.”
The two of them just stood there for a few moments, glancing in the direction from which they’d just come. “Let’s go,” Finian said at last.
Ada looked through the trees and her expression changed to one of relief. “The village,” she said. “It’s over there.”
With a final glance at one another, they began the trek to the village.
Finian sat alone in the tavern, deep in thought just as he had been at the beginning of this whole mess. His head was buzzing with clear thoughts for once, and as he stared blankly ahead, he kept trying to decide what to say, and how.
The door suddenly opened, making him jump and turn his head. He sighed in relief as he realized it was just Ada.
“How are you doing?” she asked tentatively.
“Good, good,” Finian said. “You?”
Ada nodded as she walked in, closing the door behind her and leaning against the wall. She grimaced as she accidentally put pressure on the wounds on her back.
“So, is there any reason for this … unexpected visit?”
Ada gave a slight smile of self-satisfaction. “That name on Sebastian’s back,” she said, looking at Finian. “I think I know what it means. My dad taught me how to read the Latin alphabet when I was younger.”
“Oh?” said Finian, intrigued. “What is it?”
“It’s the Latin name of a god from Greek myth—Saturn.”
“And the god’s other name?
Ada smiled as the realization seemed to sink into Finian’s mind. “Cronus.”
Written by Palaeontologica