The Phantom Man

He woke with a startled gasp, sitting bolt upright, then immediately regretting it as a sharp pain stabbed at his skull. He groaned and his hand went to his temple. He winced as his fingers pressed against a wound, still seeping blood, that felt warm and sticky. Slowly, he attempted to his bearings, but the man felt groggy, disorientated, and as he tried to stand, his world span around him far too quickly. Instead, he took stock, sitting still whilst he gathered his senses.

The first thing to strike him was that he was outside. Above him the stars were hanging like little diamonds in the night sky, with only one or two wispy clouds interfering with their light. A cool breeze rustled the stalks of the wheat that surrounded him. What am I doing in a wheat field? He was actually sitting on some of the kernels (which felt uncomfortable), and several of the plants had been bent over or even snapped, in a chaotic fashion, all around him. Scanning the area around him, the man came to notice something else – or rather, someone else. A pair of boots, attached to a figure obscured by some of the crop.

“Hello?” He said cautiously. The other figure didn’t stir.

Easing himself into a crouch and moving gingerly, he approached the other person, pushing aside strands of wheat as he went. The person lying on the floor was a man, somewhat thin by appearances, with a dull-brown long-sleeved shirt riddled with torn holes. The trousers weren’t much better, but what drew the eye was the man’s neck. It had been ripped out, with blood and bits of shredded flesh everywhere. He had died in pain – the contorted appearance of the man’s face, the lingering look of fear in his now-dull eyes, spoke volumes.

The man staggered backwards a little, but wasn’t as perturbed by the sight as he’d expected to be. Another problem was swiftly presenting itself.

Why don’t I remember how I got here? Why don’t I remember him? As a point of note, why didn’t he remember anything?

Worse than the appearance of a corpse was the realisation that he had no memory. With that, panic threatened to surge through him, instinct compelling him to flee. Holding his nerve, the man instead searched the body for any clues, or anything that would help him. He felt morbid, even guilty, to be rummaging through the clothing and belongings of the recently deceased, but he needed to find out what had happened.

A gold pendant was hanging around the dead man’s neck and it was now speckled with blood. Opening it revealed a small key, topped with a Cross. The brass key was quite weighty, but the Cross (which made him feel extremely uncomfortable) was golden and quite ornate. Little rubies would have added sparkle were it held up to the light. Some deep warning inside his bones told him not to hold the key by the Cross, but it was definitely important, so he gripped by the end and looked for some means of storing it. On his own person (and he noted he was wearing similar clothes to the other man, a baggy light-brown shirt and light-brown trousers) was a small leather pouch. The key went inside, where the man realised a mini horde of coins already waited.

Next was a find of great interest. The seemingly innocuous-looking man had been armed – a short sword that appeared well-polished was half hanging out of its holster. The ribbed handle and gem-encrusted hilt were at clear odds with the man’s poor appearance – this was a blade that had been forged by a talented blacksmith, and the expensive stones spoke of tremendous wealth. It did not seem fitting to rob the dead, but the dead man had no further use for the holster or the blade, so he took both. Interestingly, the holster was a dull black leather – another curious contradiction.

Not wanting to draw attention to the sword, he pulled his shirt over his trousers, letting it hang over the holster. The dead man also had a few coins in his pockets, which joined the key and the rest of the money in the pouch. There appeared to be nothing else of value.

Next came the task of finding out exactly where he was. He stood upright, still feeling a little shaky, though he was getting stronger by the moment. Turning completely around he spotted a small stone wall that ran down the length of the field and beyond, heading down a small hill. Following the wall with his eyes, the man spied a windmill in the distance. Where there was a windmill, there was surely a village? Where there was a village there would be people, who might know him and help him.

He pushed his way through the field, ignoring the scratchy sensation of the kernels. His head wound was no longer bleeding and his headache was starting to fade as he got moving. Before long he was upon a cobbled path and walked briskly over the uneven surface. His boots were quiet upon the sloping bath, that carried him toward the windmill. A small stream ran by the quaint white-stone building, slowly turning the huge four-spired wooden wheel, and faint puffs of white smoke were still squirting from the chimney despite the lateness of the hour. Behind the windmill he saw what he had hoped to see – a small village of little grey and white-stone cottages and shops with thatched roofs. No memory was triggered by what he saw, which was a little disappointing. The cobbled path gave way to a slightly smoother surface of larger stones as the homes and shops opened up into the main town square, dominated by a statue of a woman with a cowl over her face, holding a small baby in her arms and gazing lovingly upon her offspring. Behind the statue was a sight that for some curious reason made him feel uneasy – the town church, easily the largest building and with spires and steeples that stretched for the stars themselves. The large triangular construct was unmistakable.

His stomach churned with fear, so he stepped back from the church and instead sought whatever passed for a tavern. There had to be one somewhere. Setting off down one of the streets (and ignoring the rising smell of poorly-kept drains and discarded, rotting fruit and vegetables) he noticed the board swinging from one building. Grey stone and slabs had been joined by black timber, giving the tavern a nice, rustic and welcoming appearance. The Pannier would do for now.

Already he could hear the sounds of laughter and raucous conversation from inside. This was a noisy establishment. With just the briefest of hesitation, he opened the door.

A few eyes turned to him as he stood in the doorway; strangely he felt unable to step inside. The scent of warm foods, aged beer and the musk and sweat of the local farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths all conveyed a friendly atmosphere, yet he couldn’t move.

One man, puffing away on a tobacco pipe whilst leaning against a wooden pillar and scratching at his greyed, fraying beard, nodded at him. “Come on in then man, you’ll let the heat out!” He turned his attention back to his tankard of whatever beverage was sloshing around in it.

It was like a weight was lifted. He sighed and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. He caught one or two people staring at him and with a weak smile tapped the injury on his temple – only to discover it was gone.

What is going on here? He didn’t want to draw too much attention to himself, so he made his way quietly and quickly through the crowd to the small bar. “I’ll have your best ale.” He said. The barman – a somewhat overweight and gruff figure – grunted and starting pulling the pint. A few coins passed from pouch to bar, and he sipped the amber liquid.

As the alcohol passed into his blood he allowed himself to consider his position in more detail. No one in the tavern had appeared to recognise him, and no memories were triggered by any of the faces or the surroundings. His head wound was now gone and he had a distinct sense of dread regarding the church and the Cross. What had happened and who was he?

The ale was good, and as soon as he’d finished the first he was getting another. The other patrons of the tavern continued to ignore him. Until one of them happened to look at his general direction.

“Devil spawn!” The young-looking man in the simple jacket sporting short black hair had leapt from his chair and was jabbing a finger angrily at him. “Satan’s servant!”

“I… excuse me?” He asked, struggling to process what was happening.

“What have you done with Brother Gaspard?” The man hissed. The other patrons were moving aside, stunned into silence at the outburst and watching the mounting confrontation.

“Friend, I don’t even know my own name, let alone a Brother Gaspard.” He smiled. “Apologies, but I think you have confused me with someone else.”

“I do not think so, monster! You killed him, but you will kill no one else.” With that, the man pulled a short sword – identical to the one he had found – and pointed it squarely at his chest. “I will cleave your head from your shoulders.”

“What is going on here?” The barkeep exclaimed, eyes wide with shock and anger. “What are you doing threatening my customers?!”

“This is no customer sir, this is a demon, a monster, a ravenous beast that would drain us all in our sleep!” The man lunged, the business end of the gleaming blade aiming for his opponent’s neck.

Part 2

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