On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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The stranger had arrived at some point earlier that day, and by sunset the entire village knew. That was just how things worked.
As far north as it was, the village had barely changed in the last couple of hundred years. They had basic broadband now, at least when it wasn’t broken, and the single road in and out had been resurfaced less than a decade earlier. But still, visitors were uncommon — particularly in the coldest months.
The pub was small, and as big as it needed to be. On a crowded night, perhaps if there was something to celebrate, there might be as many as twenty people inside. But there was nothing to celebrate tonight, and besides the stranger and the man behind the bar, there were only three additional souls warming the old stone of The Wrath’s End. They were all male, and in accordance with the pub’s function, they were all at least halfway drunk.
One of the three patrons was an elderly man called Angus who used to own a fishing boat. He had sold it to his first mate not so many winters ago, and he now lived quietly with his wife here, where the outside world would never again bother him. He glanced at the stranger from time to time, wondering why someone would come to a place like this, and not move on before nightfall. It was too late now. No way to reach the next town until dawn.
The stranger had dark hair and dark eyes. His clothes were forgettable; navy blue jeans that were neither new nor old, brown boots that had seen many miles, and a black roll-neck sweater that scratched audibly against the stubble that covered his cheeks, jaw, and neck. Then there was his stormcoat, also black but shiny with the waterproofing so it looked almost grey. It was lined with something, and it looked heavy. It was sitting on the adjacent stool.
Angus watched as the man picked up his glass and took another swallow of single malt. It was his third drink of the evening, and he’d been there for a little over forty minutes.
At that pace, he’ll be good for nothing but sleeping on the floor by closing time, Angus thought. But at least he’ll be safe.
The stranger wore a wedding ring, but on his third finger, not his fourth; as if he’d lost weight as well as a wife. It was an old ring, scuffed and dull, thick and yellow. On his right wrist there was some kind of chunky silver bracelet, and there was something engraved upon it, but Angus couldn’t make it out even though he was only two stools away along the bar.
Angus coughed, more for something to do than from any necessity, and then he glanced uneasily at the boarded-up window. He knew the barman kept a rifle within reach, and also took a nip of whisky himself every two hours like clockwork. Pacing himself, based on how quickly his liver could process the stuff. Angus had no such need to keep a clear head, and so he motioned for another half pint of beer. It was important to keep the tank topped up.
Movement caught Angus’ attention, and he saw that the stranger had taken out a notebook, clad in leather and secured with an elastic strap. It was bowed, and had clearly been kept against his body for long periods. He opened it and flipped through a few recent pages, which were filled with dense scrawl and what looked like the occasional hand-drawn diagram.
Angus wondered if the man was a journalist of some kind — the thought of it filled him with fear, freezing his blood in his veins for a moment — but then he told himself not to be so daft. He had met journalists from time to time during his life, and almost always in rooms like this, but they didn’t look like the stranger at all.
It didn’t bear thinking about. If the outside world knew the truth of their village, then others would come. The military, for one, and news cameras, and scientists, and gawkers and fools. And most of them would be changed.
Angus was startled by the clink of a glass being set down in front of him, and he glanced up to nod his thanks to the barman who only looked at his shaking hands with sad empathy. He wasn’t embarrassed. Fear was sensible. He downed a third of the glass in a single draught.
The stranger’s voice from further along the bar almost startled Angus again.
“One for the road,” the stranger said. His tone was polite, but his voice held an authority that Angus for some reason found oddly inspiring. The barman duly poured another measure of whisky into the stranger’s empty glass, with perhaps a little extra on top. The stranger lifted the glass and drained it without so much as a frown, then placed a banknote on the scarred wooden surface of the bar. Angus hadn’t seen him even put his hand in his pocket. The notebook was gone now too.
The stranger stood and pulled on his coat, and then reached within it. The crossbow he drew out was of pure silver, and so was the cruel-looking bolt he proceeded to nock upon it. He held it up to the light, lost in thought for a moment, before turning his attention to the silent pairs of wide eyes regarding him.
So he knows, Angus thought. He knows about what’s out there. That’s why he’s drinking, like the rest of us. He knows they don’t like alcohol in the blood they crave.
“To your health, gentlemen,” the stranger said. “And mine, god willing.”
He turned and walked to the door, pulled it open, and stepped out into the night. Angus thought he could hear the sound of the things that had once been his friends and neighbours, hidden away by day but prowling abroad under the stars. And at last, someone had come to do away with them.
The stranger’s bracelet had hung clearly within view when he held his silver weapon aloft, and Angus had read the engraving without trouble this time. He mouthed the words to himself, taking care to remember them, come what may.
Do Not Resuscitate.
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