With writing credits that include the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One and The Walking Dead: Season One video game, Gary Whitta may already be on your radar, and his fantasy horror novel Abomination looks to place him even more prominently on the must-read map. With Abomination due out later this month from Inkshares, we've been provided with an exclusive excerpt to share with Daily Dead readers.
Abomination synopsis: "He is England's greatest knight, the man who saved the life of Alfred the Great and an entire kingdom from a Viking invasion. But when he is called back into service to combat a plague of monstrous beasts known as abominations, he meets a fate worse than death and is condemned to a life of anguish, solitude, and remorse.
She is a fierce young warrior, raised among an elite order of knights. Driven by a dark secret from her past, she defies her controlling father and sets out on a dangerous quest to do what none before her ever have―hunt down and kill an abomination, alone.
When a chance encounter sets these two against one another, an incredible twist of fate will lead them toward a salvation they never thought possible―and prove that the power of love, mercy, and forgiveness can shine a hopeful light even in history’s darkest age."
Abomination will be released as an Inkshares Paperback Original later this month. To learn more visit:
Reprinted with permission of Inkshares, Inc. All rights reserved.
Unlike the many Norse fortresses and strongholds to which Wulfric and Edgard had laid siege in their time, Canterbury was not designed to withstand an attack. Aethelred had made an attempt to barricade the outer doors with whatever materials he could find, but they gave with little effort, and Wulfric led the charge inside, into the cathedral’s spacious outer cloister.
Once a place of tranquil reflection, the cloister now more closely resembled the many battlefields Wulfric had seen on campaign, or the sacked villages to which he had borne witness as a child. The ground was stained dark with dried blood and the lifeless bodies from which it had been spilled—the bloated, fly-blown carcasses of some of Aethelred’s contorted creatures that in their mindless savagery had taken to attacking and killing one another. Patches of ground were burned black from those beasts that belched fire. The whole place reeked of sulfur and bile and death, though there was little time to dwell on it. The many horrors that still lived within Canterbury’s walls were rising from their slumber and moving to intercept the throng of mounted men now surging into the courtyard behind Wulfric.
Wulfric spurred Dolly on, into the fray. The first beast they encountered was trampled beneath Dolly’s hooves, the second decapitated by a swing of Wulfric’s sword. The blade he wielded now was not his favorite—that one had been rendered useless by the scrying—but he was no less lethal with it. The third beast attacked from outside his field of view—an oily tentacle coiled around the wrist of his right gauntlet and yanked him out of his saddle. His left foot was caught in its stirrup as he fell, and he hit the ground headfirst, hanging upside down on Dolly’s side.
The tentacle released Wulfric’s wrist and retracted, leaving a corroded ring around his gauntlet. As Wulfric struggled to free himself, he glimpsed, upside down, the beast that had dismounted him closing in. Even as it came closer, it was difficult to make out what exactly it was from this upended perspective. Wulfric still had hold of his sword, and he swiped wildly at the beast to keep it at bay, giving himself enough time to finally wrest his foot free from the tangled stirrup and right himself. As he rose and stood before the snarling beast, it occurred to him that it was no more recognizable right side up than it had been upside down. Its scaly, armored body was sinuous and lithe, and it moved like a serpent, except that it had four vaguely canine legs, an elongated nose, and sharply pointed ears. Its jointed tail curved upward and around behind it, like that of a scorpion. But where the stinger would have been, the tail instead bloomed open like the petals of a leathery flower to reveal within it the tentacle that had dismounted Wulfric. That tentacle slavered and writhed like a grotesquely distended tongue.
What had this horror once been? thought Wulfric. He studied it for traces of the familiar, some visual clue to its prior anatomy before Aethelred had desecrated it. Some kind of dog? A wolf, perhaps? It was difficult to tell. Even for someone familiar with Cuthbert’s bestiary, there was always something new to chill the blood and shake one’s faith in God. What manner of God, after all, would suffer such a blasphemy upon his earth?
The tentacle rattled like a cobra’s tail and shot out at Wulfric once again, this time trying to snatch his sword from him. But Wulfric was faster; he sidestepped deftly and, with a downward stroke, sliced the tentacle clean in two. The serpentine beast shrieked as it retracted the bloody, flailing stump and, enraged, charged straight at Wulfric, jaws opening wide to expose rows of slobbering canine fangs. The beast’s body lay low, no more than two feet off the ground, so as it came at Wulfric he simply leapt atop it and, straddling it, plunged his sword down into its back, between the scales that ran along its spine. The beast shrieked ever louder and thrashed helplessly as Wulfric drove his sword deeper still, skewering it to the ground. Still, it refused to die until Wulfric twisted the blade in place to open the wound wider and spill out its blood in a radiating pool beneath its quivering body.
When the beast was finally still, Wulfric withdrew his sword and turned to survey the scene. The battle was now fully joined, his men spread out across the courtyard and engaging all manner of misshapen beasts at close quarters. Watching as they hacked and bludgeoned their way through the monstrous herd, Wulfric grew satisfied that the fight out here was well in hand. Though they were outnumbered, it was clear that his men would carry the day—these lower, animalistic forms that Aethelred had conjured in his desperation were still fearsome, but less so than the humanoid varieties his men had become well accustomed to killing.
Wulfric headed toward the cathedral itself, where he knew he would find the fount of all this misery and death, and where he would finally put an end to it.
The wooden door was barred but gave with two slams of Wulfric’s pauldron, and he entered into the cathedral’s central nave. Sunlight shafted through the narrow slits of its windows and over the rows of pews that extended into darkness at the far end, where the raised altar was masked in shadow. His sword still drawn and at the ready, Wulfric trod carefully down the central aisle, his footsteps echoing off the stone slabs beneath. As he proceeded farther inward, the sounds of the battle outside receded, and he was suddenly aware of how quiet and still it had become. A church was supposed to be peaceful, but not like this. This was . . . not peace, just . . . nothingness.
There was an enveloping, almost suffocating sense that whatever a man might carry inside him, to armor him against despair or to bring him solace or comfort, had somehow been left behind, abandoned, upon entering this hall. It was the most unsettling sensation Wulfric had ever felt, and in that moment he knew exactly what it was. The presence of true evil.
He moved carefully, aware that one of Aethelred’s dire wretches might be lurking between any of the rows of pews he passed. And as he drew closer to the chancel, where the cathedral’s altar stood, and his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness there, he slowed. Here he began to make out the shape of a cloaked figure, seated, unmoving.
“Aethelred,” he whispered to himself, so quietly that not even a soul seated in the pew closest to him could have heard, and yet the cloaked figure seated fifty feet away rose as though he had heard his name.
“You will address me as Archbishop or Your Grace,” said Aethelred. He spoke softly, and yet when his voice reached Wulfric it seemed to echo powerfully all around him, in a way that had nothing to do with how sound normally carried in a place like this. This, too, Wulfric knew, was something else, something wicked, at work.
Aethelred took a step closer, into a beam of sunlight, and Wulfric’s suspicions were confirmed. Whatever dark magick the archbishop had immersed himself in these past months had utterly consumed him. His face had become pale and drawn, his frame wizened to the point of skeletal frailty. And his eyes . . . his eyes were worst of all, deeply jaundiced and shot through with blood. He barely looked human. As Wulfric regarded him with revulsion and dismay, he contemplated the final, bitter truth of the power Aethelred had unlocked. Such was its malign influence that it radiated not only outward, to make warped and pitiable creatures of its intended victims, but also inward, to slowly, gradually, visit the same fate upon any man who employed it.
While others might have hesitated out of sympathy for what appeared to be little more than a pathetic, afflicted old man, Wulfric knew better; he knew how much more dangerous Aethelred was than he appeared. Cuthbert had placed a fresh blessing of protection on his armor before he rode into battle, but still he took no chances; he made haste to close the distance between Aethelred and himself, to strike the corrupted priest down before he could summon one of his infernal spells. But to his surprise, the archbishop made no effort to defend himself; he did not raise a hand or mutter a word as Wulfric bounded up the steps to where he stood—not even when Wulfric grabbed him by the throat and forced him backward over the altar, his sword at the old man’s throat.
This is too easy. Wulfric was briefly perturbed by the thought but set it aside to focus on his task. It was then that he hesitated, looking at the archbishop for the first time up close. Close enough to smell the sour stench of his breath, to see every line etched into his face. He realized it was not the yellowing, bloodshot appearance of Aethelred’s eyes that he found troubling; it was the way the priest looked at him. He stared up at Wulfric, eyes wild and unblinking, as if he had journeyed into some unthinkable, nightmarish beyond and never fully returned.
Wulfric saw in that moment that Aethelred’s magick had corrupted not only his body but his mind, had driven him to the depths of irrevocable madness. Killing him would be an act not only of justice, but of mercy.
And yet something stayed his hand. The edge of his sword was barely an inch from Aethelred’s pulsing throat; it would be the work of slicing an apple to open up his flesh and watch the life bleed out of him. But there was something about the crazed, otherworldly look in the man’s eyes. They bored into Wulfric, seeming almost to peer within him, into his very soul. He was the one holding this feeble and defenseless old man at swordpoint, so why did he feel so . . . vulnerable?
“So you are the one who led this war against me,” said Aethelred from the altar. “Murdered my children, rent my family asunder. Sir Wulfric the Wild.”
How does he know my name?
“Your children?” Wulfric responded with disgust. “Those innocent men and women you corrupted and enslaved?” But Aethelred seemed not to hear him, lost in his own demented reverie.
“No one understands vengeance better than God,” the archbishop said finally. A vulpine grin spread across his face, revealing a mouthful of crooked and rotting teeth. “That is why he smiles upon its cause. I have grown weak, but I made sure to retain what little of my power remains, in hopes that you would be the first to find me. To get close enough. And now, here you are. Delivered unto me.”
It was then that Wulfric noticed the parchment strewn across the altar next to Aethelred. Page upon page of handwritten scrawl in a language he could not comprehend, and did not at first recognize. And then he remembered where he had seen such writing before—in the transcriptions of Aethelred’s scrolls that Cuthbert had made from memory in his effort to perfect his protective counterspells. Wulfric knew that the papers on the altar could not be the original scrolls, as Alfred had assured him they had all been destroyed. So what, then, were they? He saw then that the ink on the topmost sheet was fresh, saw the quill resting nearby. Wulfric grabbed the parchment with his free hand and held it up before Aethelred.
“What is this?” he demanded angrily. “What is it?”
Aethelred sneered, but did not answer. He no longer met Wulfric’s eyes, but was looking at something lower, on his chest. The archbishop’s gaze was focused on the silver scarab pendant that hung from Wulfric’s neck.
“Perfect,” whispered Aethelred with a broadening grin. And then, with surprising speed, he thrust his right hand upward and slammed it hard against Wulfric’s breastplate, fingers splayed wide, palm covering the medallion and pressing it against Wulfric’s armor. Wulfric grabbed Aethelred’s wrist and tried to pry the hand free, but it would not budge; the seemingly decrepit old man was far stronger than he appeared.
Aethelred glared up at Wulfric with a withering, white-hot hatred. He pressed his hand harder against Wulfric’s chest and began to mutter something under his breath. It was foreign and unintelligible to Wulfric, but he knew it immediately to be a magickal incantation. He felt his chest growing uncomfortably warm, and looked down to see that his breastplate had begun to glow beneath Aethelred’s palm. To his horror, he realized that Aethelred was burning through his armor. The archbishop’s hand had become brighter and hotter than a blacksmith’s forge, and Wulfric’s breastplate was turning molten around it as Aethelred pressed more firmly, his hand sinking into the hammered metal.
Wulfric cried out when he felt the flesh beneath his armor begin to burn. He could think of nothing else but to plunge his sword down, into Aethelred’s throat. Blood bubbled up from the widening wound as the blade sank into it, but Aethelred still muttered in that infernal language, his voice now an empty hiss, spitting each word at Wulfric like it was venom and plunging his hand deeper, clean through Wulfric’s melting armor and directly onto the flesh beneath.
Wulfric’s cries echoed around the cathedral’s stone walls. The burning was agony. In desperation, he retracted his sword and brought the blade back down lengthways across Aethelred’s neck, pushing down, severing tendon and muscle until it cleaved clean through the archbishop’s flesh and his head came off and rolled away, over the altar’s edge and onto the stone floor.
Only then did the archbishop’s strength finally leave him, allowing Wulfric to at last pry loose the hand from his chest. Aethelred’s body fell away lifelessly and hit the floor in a crumpled heap. But although he had freed himself, Wulfric’s breastplate was still white-hot and burning his skin. Dropping his sword, he tried desperately to unbuckle the armor, just as Edgard burst through the door at the far end of the nave, a force of men at his back, Cuthbert among them. Edgard saw Wulfric writhing in apparent distress and rushed to his aid, helping to unfasten the straps that held the breastplate in place before pulling it free—the metal so hot it burned his hands as he did so—and tossing it to the ground, smoke still rising from the molten gash in the shape of a handprint that Aethelred had left.
Wulfric’s legs gave way beneath him and he slumped to the floor with the altar at his back, gasping. Edgard knelt before him and gave him water to drink as Cuthbert surveyed his wound. The tunic Wulfric wore beneath his breastplate had also been burned through, revealing a ghastly scar of blackened flesh in the center of his chest, as though he had been branded there with a hot iron. On closer inspection, Cuthbert noticed that the shape of the burn, like none that he had ever seen, uncannily resembled the shape of a scarab beetle.
“This burn is severe. It must be treated immediately,” he said.
“I’ll fetch someone,” said Edgard, and he stood urgently to leave.
“No,” replied Wulfric with as much strength as he still had. “It is but a burn. I’ll live. See to the other wounded first.”
Edgard nodded, then took a moment to survey the scene. The melted breastplate. The sheets of parchment strewn across the floor. Aethelred’s crumpled body and, several feet from it, his head.
“What in God’s name happened here?” he asked.
Wulfric just closed his eyes, exhausted. Even if he had possessed the strength to try to explain, he would have had no idea where to begin.
Wulfric stood in the cloister and watched Aethelred burn. His men had made a pyre of wood, hoisted the headless body atop it, and set it ablaze—soon there would be nothing left of the archbishop but ashes consigned to the wind. The head had already been burned, separately, its charred remains given to a rider to scatter a mile away. Wulfric was taking no chances with this man, even in death.
As he watched the flames lick Aethelred’s blackening body, his hand played across the dressing placed over the burn on his chest. The salve that had been applied did little to quiet the painful throbbing beneath. Worse, his scarab pendant, one of the few material things he valued, had been lost, melted into nothing; all that remained was the curiously shaped brand that Aethelred’s hand had seared into his flesh.
Cuthbert emerged from the nave door. He clutched a sheaf of the parchments gathered from the altar inside and was studying them as he approached Wulfric. Each page seemed to cause him more puzzlement than the last. He looked up in time to see Wulfric draw his hand self-consciously away from the wound on his breast.
“Are you quite sure that’s all right?” Cuthbert asked.
“It is nothing,” said Wulfric, his attention fixed firmly on the papers Cuthbert held. “What have you learned?”
“It’s curious,” said Cuthbert as he sifted through the pages. “This is the language of the scrolls, but what I see here did not appear in any of them. I would remember. The archbishop was not simply transcribing what he already knew—this is his own original work. I believe he was attempting to further his understanding and command of the magick he had learned, to develop it to a higher, more advanced level.”
“To what end?”
“That I cannot say, at least not without further study. Much of what he has written here is beyond my ability to comprehend. At best guess, I’d venture that after his defeat at Aylesbury, he began working on some way to improve the potency of his magick, in order to counteract my wards of protection or perhaps to create more powerful beasts. And he might have succeeded if we had not apprehended him when we did—this is advanced learning, far beyond anything that was set down in the original scrolls. After we return to Winchester, I will have more time to study this and perhaps learn what he—”
Wulfric took the parchments from Cuthbert’s hands and tossed them onto the fire. Cuthbert looked on in shock as the flames took hungrily to them, the pages flaring brightly as they were consumed.
“Aethelred is dead,” said Wulfric as he watched the blaze reduce the parchments to a flurry of blackened and glowing embers, to be carried away by the wind. “And the evil he brought forth dies with him.” He turned and walked away, leaving Cuthbert gazing into the fire.
Their work was almost done. The last of Aethelred’s abominations had been butchered and burned, and every inch of Canterbury Cathedral scoured for any that might still remain, lurking in the shadows. Of Aethelred himself, nothing was left but an unrecognizable heap of brittle and charred bone atop a mound of dying embers. All that remained was to see to the fallen, and in that they had been relatively fortunate. Of the seventy-six men who had stormed Canterbury, only five had been killed and another nine wounded.
Wulfric always insisted on seeing to the wounded personally; they were, after all, his responsibility. He had sought each of them out, recruited them, commanded them. Now it was his duty to tend to them.
He had done so already for all but one. He knelt before that one now, a man barely younger than Wulfric himself, who nevertheless seemed to Wulfric little more than a child. They all did; that was the commander’s curse. He knew this man’s face, recognized him as one of the many who had distinguished themselves at Aylesbury, following Wulfric into that hell-borne fray without fear or hesitation, fighting with courage, never yielding until the battle was won. As Wulfric looked upon the man now, he was ashamed to realize that he did not remember the soldier’s name and was forced to ask.
“Osric,” the man told him, though he was weak and found it difficult to speak. When Wulfric had first approached, Osric had tried to stand so he might salute his commander as befitting a soldier, but his wounded leg would not support him, and so he had to content himself with putting on the most valorous show he could while sitting on his arse, propped up against one of Canterbury’s stone walls.
“You fought bravely today, Osric,” said Wulfric, with a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I am sorry it had to end this way.”
“Not I,” replied Osric, his voice raspy and meek. “I am glad that I got to see it through, to finish the good Lord’s work . . . and to fight one more time by your side.” Osric looked up with swelling pride, which only served to make Wulfric uncomfortable. It always did. This man was dying; he had given up his life for this cause. Yet the praise and the glory was placed on Wulfric, and it felt ill-deserved.
“Is there someone to whom I can convey a message?” Wulfric asked.
Osric shook his head. “Never married. A few women that might be pleased to hear I’m dead, but why give them the satisfaction?” He laughed a little, as did the men assembled around him. Even Wulfric managed a smile.
“I have one request,” said Osric. “Bury me here, at Canterbury. I have no home to speak of. May as well be put to rest where I fell so that I might look down and remember the little good I did here, if nowhere else.”
Wulfric nodded grimly, understanding all too well. He looked again at Osric’s wound. Some kind of damned, hog-like thing, already mortally wounded, had lashed out at Osric with a barbed claw as it lay dying, slashing open his left thigh. The wound was jagged and ugly but not particularly deep. Ordinarily, it would not be considered life-threatening, nothing a competent physician could not treat, nothing that could not in time be healed. But this was no ordinary injury, as Wulfric and his men by now knew all too well. A wound inflicted by an abomination would never close, never heal, no matter how skillfully it was treated. Stitches would not take; no dressing could stanch the bleeding. A protracted and painful death was inevitable as blood loss slowly accumulated. It might take hours or days depending on the severity of the wound, but as Wulfric had come to learn, the outcome was always the same. It was no way for a soldier to die.
“Hold him,” he said, and the men standing at Osric’s side took him by the arms. Wulfric drew a dagger from his belt and with one swift and precise strike ended the man’s life, as quickly and humanely as he knew how. He wiped the dagger clean and was about to resheath it when he realized he no longer had need of it. The war was over. Osric was the last poor soul under Wulfric’s command that he would have to dispatch in such a manner. And he had no desire to carry around a souvenir of so grim a task. He tossed the dagger away, into the dirt, and looked to the two men still holding Osric’s body.
“See to the burial,” he said. “Find a suitable plot in the cemetery here and ensure that the grave is properly marked.” The men nodded and carried Osric away. Wulfric turned, looking for Dolly, who was idling nearby with the other horses. It was the first sight that had brought him happiness all morning, and as he pulled himself up into her saddle he found himself grateful for small mercies. He could not bring himself to imagine her killed, or worse still, wounded by one of Aethelred’s creatures such that he would have to finish her himself. But at least one small part of this grim tale would have a happy end; they would ride home together.
Edgard cantered over to Wulfric’s side on his own mount and the two watched the last of the twisted animal carcasses being put to the torch. “Not a bad morning, I’d say,” Edgard offered, with the look of a man who might have enjoyed the day’s slaughter a little too much.
“Nor a good one, either,” said Wulfric. “I am only glad that it is over.”
“Over? My friend, this will be over only after we have hunted down every one of Aethelred’s monstrosities that remain. You and I talked about this. We both knew our task would not end with the death of the archbishop. After we return to Winchester, I suggest we take a day to resupply and rest, and then begin—”
“I am not going to Winchester,” Wulfric interrupted. “I am going home. You are more than capable of commanding the Order without me.”
They had discussed this many a time in the weeks since routing Aethelred’s horde at Aylesbury—the need for a standing force of men to carry on the work that he and Edgard had begun. There remained the long and difficult task of hunting down each and every abomination that had fled from battle, hundreds of them now scattered throughout the land, a threat to every man, woman, and child in lower England. But Wulfric had never had any intention of commanding such a force. He had suggested founding the Order only so that someone else could complete the task in his stead, allowing him to go home to his family. And he knew that Edgard would relish such a duty, so he could delay going home to his.
Edgard looked at him, surprised. “You do not at least wish to deliver the news of our victory to the King yourself?”
“That honor I am happy to leave to you. I made a promise to my wife that I would not be gone a moment longer than necessary, and I intend to keep it. Give Alfred my regards, and ask him to please not call on me again. At least until my son is grown. He will understand.”
Wulfric turned Dolly toward the gate and spurred her forward. A part of him, the part ever consumed by a sense of loyalty and duty, griped. Edgard was right that dozens of Aethelred’s monsters still roamed free and would continue to pose a threat to innocent people throughout the kingdom until all were found and dealt with. But the greater part of him, the part that wanted nothing more than to be reunited with his beloved Cwen and to meet his newborn son for the first time, would not be argued with.
Aethelred is dead, the threat he posed vanquished, he told himself. You have done everything that Alfred asked of you. You owe him nothing more. Now go home and be with your family. No one can say you have not earned it.
The thought drove Wulfric to ride even faster. His home was little more than forty miles to the west. A new life awaited him there, a better life, and if he rode fast enough it could begin before sundown.