I will be reading this story at the 2nd annual St Valentine’s Horrorcon in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
A man sits on a stool before a blank canvas stretched taught on a wooden frame and propped on a well-used easel. He faces the canvas in the shadowy room, frowning, his face hidden beneath the hood of his black robe. The dancing light of the candles casts deeper shadows and makes the tattered strips of the dark shrouded figure’s ancient robes seem almost to move of their own, though they stay motionless. He might have been mistaken for a monk if not for the rotting nature of his robe. The room itself is a stone walled chamber within an old castle.
He dips a finger into the blood pooled in a small wooden bowl. It is a casual gesture, dabbing at it like paint in a paint cup. Careful not to drip the crimson wetness from his fingertip, he brings it to the canvas. Gently and with great care, he spreads the blood across the canvas, rubbing it to blend it into a thousand shades like an artist working with charcoal. He dips his finger again and again, each time carefully smearing the blood across the canvas, creating a brightly splashed roughed in picture. The blood turns to shades of sepia and dull red as it dries into the canvas.
The odor of the blood fills his nostrils. It is a little sharp, kind of salty. If he tasted it, he knows it would taste salty, red, and a little bit like smelted iron. It smells good, fresh. It has to be fresh or the magic would have faded away.
The bowl sits on a small carved wooden table before him and close to the easel. It is the kind of bowl that looks like it had been carved by a deliberate hand, the inside sanded smooth until it has a warm sheen. The outside is carved with an intricate pattern that covers the entire surface. The blood in the bowl was taken from a vein, the de-oxygenation giving it a staler red-brown look.
It shares the table with two similar bowls, one holding brighter red blood taken from an artery, the oxygenation making the blood look fresher. The third bowl holds blood with a darker ashier look, mixed with other mediums, and has an odor that resembles brimstone and ashes. Next to the bowls lays an assortment of artists’ tools; soft and stiff bristled brushes of various sizes and hair types, as well as pallet knives and other items.
Wiping his finger on an age-yellowed cloth, he picks up a paintbrush, dips it in the ashy bowl, and starts painting in more details.
As he works, the picture is drawn forth from the canvas, the image growing more defined. He changes blood paints and brushes as he works, bringing the scene to surreal life.
He does not know who’s blood it is, nor even if it is human, animal, or something else. Where the blood comes from does not matter. It is the magic, the life that once throbbed through the veins of something living, that trace which remains of the soul that filled the body; that is what matters. He is certain the donor had to be alive when it was taken.
The canvas he paints always changes. The picture could be anyone, anywhere, anytime. People, plants, and animals are all the subjects of his portraits, everything that lives. Sometimes he paints a large canvas, an entire field of battle. Sometimes it is smaller, a group of marauders falling upon a caravan, or an attack in the dark dirty recesses of a city’s worst neighborhood. Sometimes it is tiny, the sweet breath of an infant drifting through tiny pouty lips.
The canvas he works today with such care is the rocky crags of a mountain. Beneath his brushes, the peak rises up to a snow covered cap that seems impossibly distant. The rough crags of the mountain appear impassible. A well used trail that feels more treacherous than it looks winds across the lower rounded bottom of the nearest mountain. Rocks jut out like grotesque growths and twisted trees cling where they can, their roots embedded in the rock and soil. Wildflowers flutter in the breeze, seeming as if you could actually see the movement if you look hard enough. Rough dry mountain grass and thorny weeds claim a partial victory to the rough ground among the boulders.
He works methodically, adding the little details, deepening shadows, and building on the intensity of the scene.
As he paints, the scene changes beneath his fluid brush strokes and the canvas vibrates with a dull rumble as of a thousand distant hooves stampeding. This is no stampede, however; at least not one of living creatures rushing across the ground in a frenzy of fear.
A few pebbles clatter across the rocky terrain, kicking up tiny puffs of dust as they go.
The group travelling low on the side of the mountain pauses. They look around with startled eyes. Their clothes speak of an age when most people live in scattered villages and farms, their clothes a mix of woven cloth and animal hides. It is a time before modern conveniences, where homes are made of rough wood planks hacked out of trees with axes and mud, with mud and grass roofs. Tools are often carved from wood and metal crudely hammered by hand into shape with an iron smith’s hammer.
They feel the faint vibration of the ground, their ears barely picking up the distant rumble. A child stares curiously at a small rock that rolls and clatters past.
With a deliberate and practiced hand, he paints the mountainside, coloring bright red trails down the rock face.
The rumbling grows louder, the ground shaking with increasing fury. The pebbles and rocks already lightly clattering down the mountainside are chased by larger rocks, and then followed by boulders and clouds of billowing un-breathable dust.
The group is made of related families forced to relocate from their village by the corrupt lord of the land. They begin to scramble in a frightened panic as the very ground they stand on seems intent on throwing them off. They clutch at children, dropping their meager belongings, things they kept which were only those that are essential for survival. It was all they could carry.
They begin to run, growing confused with fear, running for their lives as the rumbling intensifies and the mountain throws more large rocks at them.
One woman trips and falls, her infant clutched protectively in her arms, scraping her arm and leg on the sharp rocks when she lands. A little stunned, she lays there breathing hard, staring at her husband who had stopped and is hurriedly picking through their paltry belongings, discarding anything they cannot eat. He needs to lighten his heavy load so that he can move faster off the mountain.
With a delicate gesture, the man at the easel gently dabs a spot of red upon the head of the man.
Looking almost bewildered, the man stares at his fallen wife, pleading with his eyes for her to hurry to her feet and run.
A boulder flies by them as if hurled from the mountain by a giant invisible hand, flying past between the two with unstoppable momentum. After it passes by, the man’s headless body stands there, wavering slightly, his head now a small red smear being painted down the mountain by the rolling boulder which had taken it, his heart still beating with the echo of the signal that came from the brain just a few heartbeats ago.
So intent are the terrified people on fleeing the rockslide, that most of them do not even notice the dark and terrible winged creature that swoops down silently from the sky, its tattered cloak flapping like the rotting sheet wrapped about a corpse. The creature seems somehow indistinct, as though only a shadow of it touches this world.
The man’s wife watches in horror, a scream tearing from her throat as the monster swoops down and grabs her husband’s headless shoulder with the long fingers of one taloned hand.
She can see through it like looking through a deep shadow. Tattered robes hang from it as if they are forever rotting from its long thin frame. Wings as rotten as the shredded remains of its cloak hang in the air behind it.
Her eyes move to the long fingered bony hand clutching her husband’s shoulder. A sick feeling fills her. She is trapped staring at the long talons meant to render flesh from bone in a single slash.
It turns its faceless head towards her as it reaches down with the other hand into the new orifice that used to be his neck. She feels blood red eyes that are not there searing into her as if staring into her very soul. A chill washes through her. It tears away the shadowy shade of her husband writhing and fighting to remain sheltered inside the dying body. The creature’s invisible blood red eyes remain motionless and locked on her as it steals her husband’s soul.
With incredible speed it lifts off, swooping away into the sky with its still struggling cargo. The shade of her husband tries to scream as he fights the powerful monster spiriting him away, but cannot. He is but a shadow, without form or body.
On the ground below, his body still stands there, wavering slightly, then slumps slowly to the ground, its heartbeat stuttering to a stop. Seconds have passed.
The man at the easel continues to paint his canvas of rock and lives. Very few will survive this landslide.
The mountain shakes violently. Those who missed being crushed by the falling rocks find themselves gasping and choking on air that has been replaced by thick cloying dust that blocks out the weakening sun, unable to breathe, suffocating.
More of the shadowy creatures swoop down from the sky again and again, stealing souls from the broken bodies as their life ebbs away. Always, they move swiftly and silently, with deadly precision.
When the violent shaking of the ground stops at last, the rumbling fading away into the past and the dust beginning to clear on the soft breath of the breeze, the aftermath becomes apparent.
An ugly gash scrapes down the mountainside, a trail of broken debris showing the path the rockslide had taken. Among the violently broken trees and raw wound of the mountainside, red smears of blood mar the scene, a gruesome testimony to the death and destruction, matching exactly the red smears of blood he lovingly painted on his canvas.
A child wails.
A woman’s hand pokes feebly from the ground, waving weakly, smeared with blood and dust. Then it stills.
The man at the easel lets his hand fall away from the canvas to rest at his side, the brush held weakly in his fingers.
He had a name once. It has been so long since he has heard the name uttered that he can no longer remember it. Most call him by another name. Death.
His dark cloaked shoulders shake, the rotting fabric shreds moving as though its tattered remains are made of delicate gauze. He weeps for the newly collected souls.