Narrated by Bob Eccles
Deep in the forest, a fire was burning. Little more than a flickering tongue of flame, it licked the underside of nearby trees with heat and light. Usually a thing to be feared in the wilderness, the fire was welcome now. Winter had come and frost was deep in the ground. Any amount of warmth in these bleak times was a treasure.
Though it was only a small fire, built in a hollow protected from the wind, it could be seen from far away. Snow, thick upon the forest floor, carried the light of the fire much farther than it could have traveled on its own. The light of the fire stepped over fallen branches and old stumps, odd stones and the holes animals dug to make their homes, and landed upon the cave of something wicked.
Within the stony halls of its daylight refuge, Nightmare Bird awoke. She was often the first to come out at night. She was far cleverer than the others, and knew that only through hard work could the best of life’s riches be had.
This night of all nights she arose even earlier than usual, knowing her duty, the thing that must be done before the night was through. Catching the scent in her sleep, thinking it a dream, she crawled to the mouth of her cave and saw the light of the fire in the distance.
This is too easy, she thought. This just ain’t right.
But she emerged into the world anyway. Coming out of her hole, she stood, cruel talons digging into the frozen earth, eager for something soft to tear into. Nothing attacked. No warning of danger pricked her mind.
Watching the fire flicker in the distance, Nightmare Bird preened her black feathers, making sure that each was in its place, that wings as broad as sails would carry her away at need. One feather was loose in its socket, so she snatched it up in her hooked beak and pulled it out. The pain brought her senses alive.
“Now I’m ready,” she said aloud. “Let’s see what’s what.”
Deciding to stay on the ground, to do the unexpected, Nightmare Bird made her way toward the fire. Snow had fallen since the last time she had left her den. It was deep upon the ground, making everything quiet, ready to betray her least misstep. She pointed her vulture’s head toward the fire and sniffed, but again the snow played her false. Nothing was there to smell beyond smoke and ash. Even so, she was all the more careful as she approached.
From the shadows, hidden from sight by the power granted to her, Nightmare Bird looked into the hollow. Months ago, the trees had shed their summer plumage and slipped into something that was not quite sleep. Through this dreamy haze, the winter’s bite was felt in the deepest of their roots. The trees nearest the fire seemed to be bending over to warm their frigid bones, if only trees could be thought of to do such things. But maybe it was just another trick of light and shadow the night plays.
Beyond the trees, sitting on a log in front of the fire, was a human child of nine or ten years, a girl. She had pale skin and golden hair that hung down past her shoulders. Her eyes, once perhaps a striking shade of blue, were now a clouded, milky white.
With needle and thread the girl was mending a tattered blanket. In went the needle on one side of a tear, careful not to pierce her delicate skin, then out again the other side, all done by the knowledge and awareness of her fingers.
“Why, hello,” the girl said brightly. She looked up from her work, but into nothingness. “How are you?”
Testing, allowing herself to become visible, Nightmare Bird swayed her head back and forth, the way a serpent might to lure the lesser prey. The girl did not react, so Nightmare Bird said, “Greetings, young lady. May I share your fire?”
“Of course. It’s a cold night to be sure, and I could use the company.”
Still uncertain, Nightmare Bird walked into the light. She used no art to hide what she really was, cast no spell to cloud the girl’s senses. With a single flap of her great wings she could escape into the night. But there was no need.
The girl smiled at nothing and went back to her work. “Come on, sit. Don’t be shy. My name is Elizabeth, but everyone calls me Lizzie.”
“All right. Thank you, Lizzie. I’m Missus Smith.”
Everything seemed perfectly normal, besides the fact that the girl was in no way frightened of her. There was a log on the opposite side of the fire. Nightmare Bird sat down and tried to figure out what was going on, but her brain must not have been working right. The fire smelled sweet, it’s smoke intoxicating. She felt so warm and comfortable that she would have rather gone back to sleep.
Beginning to hum while doing her work, Lizzie stopped short. “Oh, hello there. I guess we’re not the only ones out tonight, Missus Smith. Come sit by the fire.”
To Nightmare Bird’s surprise, out of the forest appeared three figures. The first was Harold Beast, known by all in the forest by his unfortunately appropriate moniker. He was twice as tall as a man, with a great horn that stuck out of his head at an odd angle. He was, as can be somewhat expected by his name, very hairy. His hair was long and brown and was as matted and unkempt as a stray dog’s.
Nightmare Bird hadn’t noticed him as he squatted at the lip of the hollow, looking more like some grotesque shrubbery than a proper monster. Now he hopped down from the ledge and approached the fire, sitting down as nice as could be, right next to Nightmare Bird, dreadful smell and all.
The other two were goblins. Nightmare Bird knew them well. Thudrott and Puttygut were small for their kind, only as tall as the girl but thick as barrels. They had very little in the way of magic about them. They were thieves and egg-eaters and generally despicable.
It was a wonder these two had survived in the forest as long as they had. More than once Nightmare Bird had thought to make a meal of them. In the end, they were always able to make themselves scarce when she was hungry enough for their bad meat.
“Look now, haven’t we the nicest little party,” Lizzie said with delight, her voice high and sweet in the way of little girls.
“Yes, isn’t this just dandy,” Nightmare Bird said, eyeing the others with contempt. Harry Beast was oblivious, but Thudrott and Puttygut knew enough to keep their distance.
“It’s wonderful. And how may I name our new guests?”
“Edward,” said Thudrott in a high, singsong voice, “and this is my friend Broomhilde.”
Laughing, Lizzie said, “Really? What an odd name for a boy. They must tease you mercilessly in school.”
“Bobby,” Harry Beast interrupted excitedly, rocking back and forth.
“My, my, what a rough voice. You must be coming down with something.” Lizzie fished inside the pocket of her cloak. “Here, I think I have just the thing, a nice lozenge for your throat.”
Unwrapping a piece of waxed paper, Lizzie handed something large and round to Harry Beast. It was an eyeball. Not believing his luck, Harry Beast put it in his mouth and chewed it up.
“There, there, how’s that?”
“Good,” Harry Beast said.
“Wonderful. Now, how about some dinner? My father is out cutting wood in the forest. He was supposed to be back, but that was hours ago. Is anyone else hungry?”
They all nodded. Nightmare Bird was about to answer for them when Lizzie replied, “Good. I think I have enough for everyone. These are tough times and those that have a little something extra are bound to share.”
Finding a basket behind her, Lizzie pulled out several linked sausages. One by one, she began passing them to the others.
“Dark Night,” Thudrott said, using the monster word for the Winter Solstice, speaking in a language that humans hear as only as the settling of houses on their foundations or the swaying of branches in the wind. “We must make the sacrifice.”
“Yes,” Nightmare Bird replied, handing him a sausage. “We must have our victim. It is Dark Night. We must preserve our powers.”
“Share?” asked Thudrott, giving the sausage to his companion.
“It is permitted.”
“But will you?”
“On this night of all nights,” Nightmare Bird allowed. “Yes, I will share.”
Thudrott smiled and nodded his head. “Much better than the apple pie we gave last year. Thank you, we are in your debt.”
By then, all the sausages had been passed out. They were going to start eating when Lizzie held up a stick and said, “Sorry, I only have the one. Father cut it for me before he left.”
Harry Beast was on his feet in a flash. “I get them, I get them,” he said.
Lizzie laughed. “Wonderful, oh thank you, Bobby.”
With a great amount of noise, Harry Beast tromped to the edge of the hollow. Reaching up into the trees, he seized a thick branch and pulled. The whole tree swayed under his weight. With a loud crack, the branch gave way, falling to the ground with Harry Beast under it.
It was so large a branch that Nightmare Bird and the goblins scattered to avoid being struck, and only did so just in time. Indeed, it looked as though the girl was going to be squashed into mush, but miraculously the branches landed on either side of her.
“Wonderful!” the girl exclaimed, clapping her hands. “Thank you, Bobby.”
Bobby beamed with delight.
Recovering their senses, Nightmare Bird and the Goblins went back to their seats, breaking off spits as they went. Harry Beast skewered his sausage with the branch, a bird’s nest still lodged in its leaves, and stuck it into the fire. Soon a delicious smell filled the hollow. The meat was rich, and the fat cracked and sizzled as it cooked over the fire.
Unable to wait, with the ends of the branch and the bird’s nest burning, Harry beast pulled his sausage from the fire and gobbled it up. “More?”
“My, you are a hungry one,” replied Lizzie. “Of course there’s more. I can’t let you go hungry, not tonight of all nights.”
From the basket, the girl pulled out a massive haunch of meat. It looked to be the thigh of a cow or some equally large animal. A white bone poked out of the end and it was marbled with fat. Drooling, Harry Beast took the haunch and bit in.
So pleased were they by their meals that none asked about the basket’s seemingly limitless bounty. Nightmare Bird alone thought something was wrong. But her mind was in a fog. It was all she could do to cook the sausage properly and not let it burn, though she had no real desire for the sausage and had not wanted it in the first place. She watched Harry Beast, unusually tame, eating away at what would have fed a human family for weeks, and she knew something just didn’t add up.
Remembering something, Puttygut reached into his trousers, searching desperately for what he only knew. After a moment he found whatever it was, down there in front, his hands clamping onto his prize. Out came a fistful of worms, wriggling in his grasp.
“Good, oh good idea, some nasty flavoring,” laughed Thudrott, pulling his sausage from the flames. He looked over at their host and corrected himself, “I mean, splendid idea, old chap.”
With practiced elegance, Thudrott stuck his finger into his nose. The nostril stretched as he prodded inside. A sharp jerk of his finger caught something. It fought back and he pulled, clamping the end between thumb and finger. Another good tug and the thing, long and gooey, snapped out. Wiping it on the sausage, he began to eat.
“What’s that?” said Nightmare Bird, coming to her feet, her great wings spread wide, ready to catch the air and be away.
“Fink,” Harry Beast said between mouthfuls, disinterested.
Into the hollow swept bats, first only a few, and then many, many bats. They flew as if with one mind, like a flock of birds at the fall migration, each following some common voice, telling them to turn this way or that, to always stay together.
The goblins cowered upon the ground, finding unlikely places to hide for creatures of their size. Nightmare Bird was not afraid. Now she recognized who had come.
“Cornelius,” she said under her breath.
The bats swirled together and before them stood the figure of a man. He was elegantly dressed in a finely made suit, a high collar and cape that were slightly out of fashion. Between the pallor of his skin and the set of his eyes there could be no doubt to anyone, even before noting his dental peculiarities, that this was a vampire.
“Good evening,” Cornelius said with the expected accent.
He surveyed the guests seated around the fire, first with distaste at the goblins, then with something like fear when discovering Harry Beast. He stepped away from that side of the fire, smiling and bowing to Nightmare Bird with great respect.
“And who is this?” Lizzie said, by all appearances having missed the spectacle.
“Uh, my husband,” said Nightmare Bird, glad to have a worthy, though somewhat eccentric, conspirator. “I didn’t expect him back ‘til morning. I see he’s given up the hunt, then? Not a bit of luck either, I’d expect?”
Cornelius glanced over at the girl and knew to play along. He answered with a grand flourish, “Yes, I am afraid it is thus, my good wife.”
Nightmare Bird rolled her black eyes.
“Well, Mister Smith, you are in luck. I have one more sausage, and you’re welcomed to it.”
“What about your poor father, dear?” Nightmare Bird said in her best approximation of concern.
“Ah yes, my father, that’s right,” Lizzie answered slowly. “But he wouldn’t want anyone to go hungry.”
“Had a bit of fresh meat already,” Cornelius said, wiping his fangs. Nightmare Bird gave him a look to tell him to tone it down, but he was oblivious. He went right on, saying, “No, uh, luck hunting, that is, but I had a biscuit, that’s it, a biscuit or two in my wallet. That is good enough fare when one is used to living by his wits. Your father is sure to be hungry when he returns from his, uh, expedition into the uncharted wilds of these regions—”
“He’s fine, thank you.” Nightmare Bird cut him off.
“Not him, not to share the sacrifice,” said Thudrott, using the speech of monsters. “He killed our mamma!”
“Yeah, he’s a pig swindler and a murderer,” Puttygut added from his hiding place. “He’s got no cause to share.”
“Not now,” hissed Nightmare Bird. “We’ll sort it out later.”
Lizzie said, “Silly me, I just had a look in my basket and found another sausage. Wouldn’t you care for a bite, after all?”
“Yes, my dear, a bite is exactly what I would like the most. How generous of you to make such a kind and munificent offer,” Cornelius said.
“Not him, we won’t share nothing with him,” Thudrott insisted, appearing from the shadows, a rusted dagger in his hand.
Nightmare Bird said, “We can all share.”
“No! Not share,” said Puttygut. He had a crossbow, a bolt to the string, and was now lost in the darkness.
Harry Beast stood, looming large and shaggy above them, the firelight lending him an ominous countenance. The branch was in his hand, the ends burning. His voice like thunder, not bothering to disguise his language, he said, “Mamma killer. Not him.”
“Why not me?” Cornelius replied, taking shelter behind Nightmare Bird like a boy behind the skirts of his mother. “I have as much right as the rest of you. It’s not fair, I say, not fair at all.”
“What’s wrong? Is everything okay?” the girl said in her small voice.
“Be quiet, all of you,” said Nightmare Bird. “We cannot refuse him this request of solidarity, not tonight of all nights.”
“Not him!” said Thudrott. “Not the sacrifice.”
“Not sacrifice,” Harry Beast agreed.
“Sacrifice?” Lizzie said, blind eyes looking into emptiness, her face contorting with an uneasy smile. “Share what sacrifice?”
All was hushed as the monsters looked upon their victim, not knowing what to do next. The fire burned, the wood snapping and cracking, a rising tongue of flame that licked the underside of the trees with heat and light. There seemed no need of fuel to stoke the blaze as it grew higher and higher into the air.
Seizing the distraction as an opportunity to improve his chances, Cornelius pushed Nightmare Bird aside and pounced on Harry Beast. Clinging to the big monster’s back, Cornelius sunk his fangs deep into his neck. Bellowing in pain, Harry Beast reached over his shoulder and grabbed the vampire by the head. Blood gushed from the wound as Harry Beast pulled Cornelius from his neck and flung him away.
The vampire caught himself in midflight and flew back at Harry Beast. He put both hands around Harry Beast’s throat, a grip like iron, squeezing off his air supply. Harry Beast did not go down. He choked out a growl and was about to thrash the vampire, but rage turned to surprise as the villain disintegrated into ash in his hands. Puttygut had shot him in the chest, returning him to the dust from which he was created.
Before he could wrap his slow mind around the disappearance of the vampire, Harry Beast had his legs swept out from under him. He fell heavily on Thudrott, landing on top of him before the goblin could get away. Come to rescue his brother, Puttygut was on Harry Beast in a moment, beating him with the butt of his crossbow. Flailing his arms, Harry Beast rolled away, squashing Thudrott under him as he went.
“No, wait, stop. Stop this. Wait a minute,” Nightmare said, trying to get their attention. “Something just ain’t right.”
Only beginning to suspect their true peril, her mind befuddled, Nightmare Bird watched the girl sitting serenely by the fire. She must have heard the ruckus and guessed something of what was going on, but she did not react in the slightest. The others seemed completely oblivious to the strangeness of the situation, but Nightmare Bird’s suspicions got the better of her.
Nightmare Bird began to walk toward the girl for a better look, but the tumult had finally caught her up. Thudrott struck her in the leg. It was an accident. He was wriggling in pain, trying to get free himself from the weight that pressed him to the ground. The next moment, Harry Beast crashed into her, knocking her to the edge of the fire.
The flames awakened her addled mind. Nightmare Bird sprang into the air. She looked down and saw the goblins clinging to Harry Beast. In desperation, he rolled into the fire. A pungent tang clung to the air. His fur smoked and then kindled. Flames covering his back, he was at last able to throw off the goblins and stand. Still burning, he howled like mad and ran off into the forest.
The goblins were not done.
A bolt from the crossbow sailed toward Nightmare Bird’s chest. She smoothly caught it in a talon. With a quick flip of her claws, she conjured a thread of lightning and invested the charge into the missile. She hurled it back to its sender, and the bolt struck Puttygut in the chest, sending him to the ground, his chest smoking.
In the distraction, Thudrott had sneaked up behind her. While she was dealing with Puttygut, he had taken out a net and thrown it. The net landed over her head and wing, pulling her out of the sky.
Stone knife in his hand, he jumped upon her. Little daunted by the net, Nightmare Bird grabbed hold of the goblin and chucked him into the fire. The blaze rose as he screamed out his last breath.
Panting, Nightmare Bird looked up at the little girl. She still sat peacefully by the fire, unmoved from where she had been when the fighting began.
“Well done,” Lizzie said, nodding in deference. “You will be the most satisfying sacrifice of all.”
AUTHOR BIO:Mike Phillips is the author of Reign of the Nightmare Prince and the soon to be released The World Below: Chronicles of the Goblin King Book One. His short stories have appeared in ParABnormal Digest, Cemetery Moon, Sinister Tales, The Big Book of New Short Horror, World of Myth, Dark Horizons, Mystic Signals and many others. Online, his work has appeared in Darker, Lorelei Signal, Midnight Times, and Fringe. He is best known for his Crow Witch and Patrick Donegal series.
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com