Jobst stood before the massive southern gates of the city; his eyes moved up continuously, looking for the top of the seemingly endless doors. Constructed of thick, heavy oak and reinforced with iron bars, its surface was alive with expertly carved scenes of every day life; some of it rotted away after many years of neglect, but what remained gave an impression of its former glory. From the top hung the remnants of great banners displaying a coat of arms that was now entirely impossible to identify.
It had been several years since he had last been to the city. Back then it had been full of people, full of voices. It had been full of life. Back then, it hadn’t yet withered. It hadn’t yet died. Several years he had been away, fighting battles for nobles he had never met, and all those years he had thought of her, of how he had left her here, alone, and now finally his guilt and longing had brought him home.
One of the gate doors was slightly open, enough for him to get through and as he entered the city, he was overcome by the silence and emptiness surrounding him. Not even the wind could be felt and no creaking from the old wooden houses could be heard, and as he walked, the rattling and grinding of the metal plates of his armour seemed uncomfortably loud.
The street leading from the gate was broad, paved with rough stones, between which long pieces of grass had grown, pale and withered. It was lined with trees that had been allowed to grow wild and their roots free to carve paths between the stones. Once in a while, a finely carved stone statue took the place of a tree, depicting one of the many trades practised in the city: carpenters, bakers and teachers, but they were no longer as he remembered them. Where once they had been proud depictions of workers and scholars, their forms had now become twisted into agonising and unnatural shapes, as if the stone itself had come alive for a second of chaotic agony, only to return to its cold, inanimate form. Every house he passed seemed crooked and bent, giant corpses of wood and stone looming over him as he passed them, and most of them had every window boarded up from the outside, doors nailed shut and with warnings scribbled on paper covering them. And although he couldn’t read, he knew well what they said: quarantine. Confirming a horrible rumour he had tried to ignore: the Great Madness had rooted itself here as well. As it had everywhere else.
Memories came flooding back, of he and his brethren riding down the street, its sides lined with people cheering, throwing flowers in front of their horses. Colourful pennants moving in the wind, polished armour reflecting the sun, the trees in full bloom, covered in purple flowers. It seemed as if the entire city had shown up to see them off. It had been a beautiful day, those many years ago. Too many years.
A low sobbing broke his happy remembrance. It should have been too low to notice, but in the oppressive silence of the empty city, it was nearly ear-shattering. It came from one of the houses, boarded up like the rest, but the door had come off its hinges and lay on the ground. As he came closer, he noticed numerous marks on what would have been the inside. Scratch marks.
The inside of the house was a mess, chairs and table thrown about, and broken glass and plates, mixed with drops of dried blood, cracked under his feet as he walked across the floor, to a door opposite the entrance, from which the sobbing was coming.
He carefully pushed it open, revealing a small bedroom as much in disarray as the rest of the house.
On the bed sat a slumped figure, a man, wearing nothing but his hemp drawers, his face buried in his hands. The sobbing stopped at the sound of the creaking door and the man looked up at Jobst, his eyes red from tears.
“Have you come to kill me?” he asked with a quivering voice.
“No, of course not, I-”
“Why not?” there was almost a hint of disappointment in the mans voice.
He got up from the bed and Jobst took a few steps back and only then noticed a long, thick scar running from just below the mans throat down past his navel.
“I’m sorry if I have disturbed you, I heard you from the street, it sounded-”
“It hurts. It hurts so bad,” the man whimpered. “Please. I couldn’t help it, it wasn’t my fault!” Tears welled up in his eyes once more.
Barely had the first tear left his cheek before he jerked back at the hip, spine cracking and his torso split open all along the ragged scar, a blooming flower of flesh revealed his insides, pink and lined with teeth. His arms went limp, dangling behind him and he gave a pain filled wail as tears streamed.
An impossibly long, pink tongue darted forward, several canines sprouting from its tip and seized Jobst left arm, instinctively raised in defence.
The grip was tight, the steel plate on his lower arm buckling under the pressure as the blistered, thick tongue pulled him towards the gaping maw at its base.
He swung his sword down from his shoulder, nearly severing the tongue and the man howled.
He swung again, now cutting all the way through.
He gripped halfway up the blade, stepped forward and thrust the tip into the exposed fleshy insides and toppled the man to the ground as black liquid seeped from the wound and the severed tongue.
Jobst left his sword in the man as he lay on the floor, the monstrous mouth slowly closing around the blade as it gurgled black blood. Pulling out a knife, he sawed at the flesh still clinging tightly to his arm until it finally came free.
Pulling his sword out of the man, that now looked just like any ordinary man might, blood coming from his mouth, coughing. He looked up at him, eyes filled with tears.
“Please,” he coughed “help me.
Jobst stood for a moment, quietly, staring into the mans green eyes. The eyes of an ordinary man. The sound of a tolling bell broke the silence and he turned his head towards the sound, and for a moment he had forgotten all about the man bleeding on the floor.
“Please.” The mans trembling voice brought his attention back. “Please!”
Jobst turned to the man again and placed the tip of his blade on his throat.