Friday, November 08, 2013

Night of the Cauldron: Part VIII, The Tree of Death

Night of the Cauldron
The Tree of Death

The pumpkin faced reaper leveled its baleful gaze upon Traci.  It moved to her and lifted her face in it's skeletal hand, examining her with the same detachment it had viewed her uncle's body.  She tried to pull away, but it held her fast.  The creature stunk of earth.

"Tt tt,"  The reaper released her face and walked about as if it were smelling the air or listening to some silent melody.  As it turned its back to her, Traci reached over and wrapped her hand around the length of the shovel. 

"Remember this night,"  The reaper gestured to the green air, "Though surely it is not likely that you can forget it."  It chuckled and touched the tip of the scythe blade into the green column of flame.  It stood silently for a long moment, watching the flames dance around the scythe's tip, much like a child burning ants with a magnifying glass.  Small sparks flew upward, dancing into the green fog.  Through it, a firetruck's siren clearly blared.

Traci jumped to her feet and rushed the reaper.  She brought the shovel down squarely on the flaming Jack O Lantern head.  The shovel lodged deep in the pumpkin flesh and knocked a large chunk free.  Embers exploded from the wound.

The reaper laughed.  The bat wing nearest the shovel extended, hitting the shovel and flinging it out into the yard.  As it flew away, the blade took another portion of the Jack O Lantern's face with it and some of the skin from Traci's hand.  She winced and backed away as the reaper turned on her.  It grabbed her wounded arm and lifted her off the ground.  Traci groaned with the pain.  It carried her across the deck and returned to her to where she sat previously. 

"Now."  It dusted itself off, causing more embers to fly free through the missing half of its face.  "You really have no idea do you?"  The broken Jack O Lantern face observed her with glee.  The reaper chuckled as it reached down and picked up her uncle Rick's head, grabbing it in a skeletal claw.  It drew the head around in a circle so that it passed close to Traci then brought it to rest inside the green flames.  Traci tried to close her eyes, but found that she could not.  It held her uncles head in the green flame for a long while.  The fire sparked and smoked. 

Soon the reaper removed its hand and Rick's head had been reduced to a smouldering skull.  The Reaper gestured like a game show model revealing a prize, grinning with its half face.  Traci felt her jaw tightening with rage.  It moved over to her uncle's body and placed the skull firmly in his left hand.  It twisted the skull back and forth as if it were screwing in a light bulb.  Rick's body suddenly jerked and spasmed as if hit by cartoon electricity.  Slowly, her uncle's body stood up.

Traci felt as if she were falling, but she could not move her, could not look away.  The neck of the scarecrow costume her uncle wore was slick with blood.  Where his head had been was a jagged hole, yet he was moving, holding his own burning skull up like a serving tray.  The reaper pushed the headless scarecrow that had been her uncle away like a mother scooting a young child.  It stumbled about.  It bumped into a display of her father's Halloween props and grabbed one of the antique lanterns that burned there.  The scarecrow wandered away.

"See?"  The reaper shrugged its shoulders in a matter of fact gesture.  More embers fluttered away from the broken half of its face.  It leaned in close to her, smiling.  Traci gathered what saliva she could and spit in the reaper's face.

It wiped the saliva and tasted it fingers, "MMmmmm.  Just right.  Now let's get this sho- Ohhhh."  The reaper looked away as if someone had called its name.  "It seems milady, that you have a paladin on the way!"  The reaper danced a little as it moved about.  It puffed it cheeks as if to whistle, but with half its mouth missing, no sound occurred.

"Best make pretty before he gets here,"  In one swift motion, the reaper brought the blunt end of its scythe across Traci's face, knocking her down and opening a gash across her cheek.  It moved it's face into the fire and as Traci watched with dismay, regrew the missing half.

Once its face had regrown, the reaper swirled around and drew its scythe.  It extended its bat wings wide and turned as if it were practicing a pose for a photo.  It adjusted its position several times, always facing Traci with a mock menacing glare.  Traci lay on her side facing the deck entrance.  She was more tired than she'd ever been in her young life.  She wanted to scream, to crawl away, to run, anything, but she did not have the strength.  She watched as the reaper continued to pose.  In the distance she heard the angry cawing of the skull birds.  She closed her eyes.


Traci opened her eyes again at the sound of footsteps.  A grim faced man dressed in a fireman's coat and pants moved cautiously up the stairs.  "Great costume," Traci thought vacantly.  He carried a bloody sledgehammer in one hand and a short axe in the other.  The reaper stood over her, its scythe just inches from her face.  Its foot rested in the small of her back, holding her in place.  It faced the fireman and mocked surprise.

"Ahhhh, You're just in time!  Cuppa tea?"  The reaper raised the scythe high.  Ready to lose her head completely, Traci closed her eyes and let go.

She heard what sounded like an animal growl and then the reaper's foot was gone from her back.  Something heavy fell behind her and the entire deck shook.  There was a loud metallic clang.  Traci rolled over and away from the cauldron.  She pushed herself to a kneeling position.  The fireman and the reaper grappled at the far end of the deck.  The reaper's scythe lay near the cauldron.

The fireman bellowed and lodged the axe in the reaper's face.  The reaper hit the fireman in the chest with one of its wings, sending the fireman flying through the air to the far end of the deck.  He landed hard on his back and lay there for long moments unmoving.  Traci silently begged him to live.  Slowly, his hand moved across the shaft of his hammer and he used its support to stand up.

The reaper twisted around like a cat, pulling the axe free from its face and tossing it aside.  It moved so quickly, it became a blurry shadow moving from one spot to the next.  Soon it was close to her, retrieving its scythe.  It winked at Traci through the ugly gash the axe had created.  She shuddered and withdrew as the creature rushed at the fireman.  As Traci scooted back towards the cabinet, her hand brushed one of the tines of the pitchfork that lay nearby.

At the far end of the deck, the fireman had just risen to his feet when the reaper brought its scythe down at him.  The fireman raised his hammer up just in time to stop the crescent blade from embedding in his chest.  The two remained locked for long moments.  The reaper cackled, its grin growing wider.  The fireman was covered in sweat.  They were framed by a large oak that grew just beyond that end of the deck.  In the pulsing green light the leafless tree looked like a huge spider reaching down to consume both combatants.

The reaper managed to twist the scythe and pull the hammer out of the fireman's hands.  It arced the scythe and flung the hammer away.  The fireman bounded past the reaper just as it brought the scythe down.  The blade caught the back of the fireman's coat and cut a clean slit down the back.  The fireman rolled and landed beside his hammer.  He seized the weapon and brought it up in a wide swing as he stood up.  The reaper was on him almost instantly.  Scythe and hammer locked again.  They were just beside the cauldron.  Their silhouettes moved across its light like shattered glass.

While Traci watched, she managed to stand using the pitchfork for support.  The reaper twisted and pulled the hammer with its scythe, driving the fireman's hammer and hand into the flames.  The fireman screamed, dropping the hammer and retreating.  He curled his burning hand into his coat, attempting to extinguish the flames.  He stumbled backwards and fell.  The reaper closed the gap between them, its wings unfurling and closing in anticipation.  Using the last of her strength to raise up the pitchfork, Traci ran at the beast.

The reaper looked up just as Traci plunged the pitchfork into its chest.  She let out a rattling ragged scream.  Traci pushed with a force that surprised both herself and the reaper.  She forced the creature to the back end of the deck.  It dropped its scythe as she pushed it hard against the back railing.  The railing cracked under the pressure and the reaper fell backward, pinned against the oak tree.  Traci nearly fell over the edge of the deck and into the yard, but managed to use her weight to hold the reaper in place.

"Veeery good," the reaper laughed at her.  She felt her strength failing and knew that soon the damned thing would break loose.  Just then there was movement behind her.  The fireman added his weight to her own and together they pushed the pitchfork into the tree.  The reaper flailed its wings about, trying to free itself.

The fireman retrieved his hammer from the cauldron.  It smouldered and glowed orange with heat.  With his good hand, the fireman brought the hammer up again and again, smashing the reaper's head.  Pumpkin bits scattered.  The flame from its head shot up the side of the tree and quickly dissipated.  The wings and cloak went limp and began melting.  They became streams of black tar that bubbled and oozed through the tines of the pitchfork and slid down the face of the tree.

Both Traci and the fireman held their breath.  They backed away from the tree.  Traci collapsed on the deck and the fireman went down on one knee, using his good hand and the hammer to balance himself.  The other hand was curled and melted.  He held it against his chest like cradling a child.  The looked at each other with exhaustion and understanding.  The cauldron still burned.

The cackle of the reaper rang out.  Traci and the fireman both stood up.  The cackle came again, followed by a deep rumble.  They both stumbled.  Traci looked up at the tree.  The pitchfork went slack and fell as a ripple went through the bark.  A huge bulbous shape was forming in the trunk.  The bark shifted as giant skeletal face emerged from the body of the tree.

"You didn't think it was going to be that easy?"  The colossal skull smiled at them as it opened its blood red eyes.  There was a muted rumble and further out in the yard a large section of ground split open.  The tree shifted again and the skull grew in size.  Beneath it, a series of horizontal indentions appeared.  A spinal column was forming.  The deck shook.  Traci and the fireman backed away from the growing monstrosity.

The giant skull tilted and the split in the ground exploded.  A giant skeletal hand dug itself free from the soil and raised up.  It continued to rise until the revealed arm was as tall as the skeleton tree.  The arm came down on the closest end of the deck.  It smashed the railing and sent planks of wood flying.  Traci narrowly avoided being thrown into the yard.  The entirety of the deck tilted slightly and the cauldron tumbled toward the tree.  Green flame and sparks coruscated across the deck.

The cauldron rolled and flipped up onto its side.  It was lodged between the remains of the railing.  The green flame bathed the tree.  The giant skull smiled at Traci. It braced its free hand against the ground and pushed, pulling more of its body up. 
She could see the clavicles of the skeleton protruding from the ground.

"Nooo!  The fire heals him!"  Traci screamed.  Ribs pulled free of the soil.  The deck shook.  The fireman stood up and brought his hammer down solidly on the cauldron. The structure rang with the impact.  The green flame sputtered.  He hit it again and again until the cauldron cracked open and began to flatten out.  Green flame danced up the side of the tree as the skeleton tree roared.  The giant arm faltered and fell flat in the yard.  The ringing of the cauldron quickly became a dull flat crunch.  The skull raged among the dying flames.

"Do what thou wilt, but know that forever I am returning and returning and returning.  You may shutter the ingress and bar this one passage, but I am sibling to the moon and tides!  My approach is inevitable.  This is merely the portal I move through in this moment.  Your world is full of holes!  I will see you again before the end of your daayyyssss."  The skull hissed and screamed and faded.

There was a great rushing of air and a bright green flash.  The tree had returned to its previous shape and split in the yard was gone.  A thick smoke hung in the darkness.  Small bits of green flame floated up into the night sky, disappearing one by one.

Traci moved beside the fireman and they leaned against each other.  The cauldron was flattened and broken in pieces.  The fireman poked at it with his hammer and sifted through the smoking bits.

In the distance, sirens blared, moving closer.

~ Fin ~

{8x5.33,  Created in Adobe Photoshop}

Enjoy all the stories from Night of the Cauldron


Eddie said...

Great ending! I felt like I was right there with Henry and Traci, exhausted, battered and relieved!

The fully formed reaper was truly great! I loved the childish psychotic personality combined with style and evil charisma (much like a republican, am I right? LOL) Seriously though, every good story needs a great bad guy and you nailed it.

And Traci was just as great. Good judgement, quick thinking, resourceful, defiant, strong, courageous and moral. The quintessential "final girl" but even better in my opinion.

Henry delivered as promised too. Can't get much more powerful symbolism than bellowing, one-handed sledgehammer wielding! Henry and Traci's teamwork on the pinned reaper was also very exciting and dramatic.

Other good moments:

The reaper pushed the headless scarecrow that had been her uncle away like a mother scooting a young child. It stumbled about.

Traci closed her eyes and let go.

Also, loved the reaper posing for Traci as it awaited Henry's approach. Such a completely flipped-out psychopath!

Good climax, very cinematic. You have definitely done your horror movie homework mi amigo. The artwork also completely captured the moment when the tree skull opened its eyes!

Last of all, I admire the way you handled Traci touching the cauldron to awaken the demon within. It was well done and without any "helmet moments" as I call them. A lesser writer would've hammered that point home, having the reaper say something like "You have summoned me!" or "Your touch brought me back!"

Okay okay okay! I'll shut the hell up now and just say, Thank You for a great story (and check your PayPal. Dinner's on me!).

Jesse Campbell said...

Wow. It took me awhile to process all this. Let me just start off by saying - Thank You! Your investment of time, interest, and money flatters and honors me sir! :-)

Battered exhaustion - a lot of that is real. I was pretty tapped by the time I got to the end of the story. Lift up and type again 'til the damned thing is dead! LOL.

The Reaper - I had such a difficult time pinning him / it down because all the mayhem in the story so far had been this ambiguous malicious force corrupting / animating everything, but in the end it made sense with the whimsical elements present in Halloween that there would be that aspect to "big bad". His presentation was what I worried about most. I had to calculate his every word / action very carefully to keep him from becoming vaudeville. I also wanted to keep him as mythical as possible. I'm very glad you enjoyed his villainy. :-)

Traci - I didn't have a definite plan for Traci at the beginning and ran into a bit of trouble when her entire family got involved in Scythe of the Reaper. That was also the most moving parts in a confined space I had within the entire story, but I also feel that is where things turn for Traci...where she becomes.

Henry - I have to admit that Henry the fireman was not part of my original plan. However, once he showed up, he did nothing but help move things along. For that I am very grateful! :-)

Moments - I have to be more careful with my editing in the future. Both those moments almost ended up on the "cutting room floor" as it were.

I almost clipped the enter sequence of the reaper creating the scarecrow man. It was Traci spitting in the reaper's face that saved that scene. I needed to give her a reason to keep fighting. Also I needed to give the reaper a more direct connection to the night's mayhem and to Traci.

I didn't want Traci to appear as giving up completely, which is why I almost cut her "letting go". Her strength failing was a great spot to bring Henry in though, so it remained as a counterpoint. Also looking at it now, it was an active choice on her part so she was never really giving up. Glad I kept that one too. :-)

I had to reel in the reaper during the scene with the posing and give him very specific actions to keep him grounded. I had to rewrite that scene several times to get it right.

Glad you enjoyed the climax. The Tree is what tripled the size of the final scenes. It is a much better ending than what I had planned originally though. Thanks for the horror movie accolades! All my work here at Zombie Bites is merely love letters to all the horror movies I've watched and stories I've read over the years.

Thanks for the high praise on the reaper's origin! :-) I toyed with an origin speech in the first draft, but I felt much like you that so much was evident in the story that it would be redundant. There were a number of things in the story that helped to "bring the reaper". Traci was an essential activator. I'm also not a big fan of those horror movies that waste a lot of time with those kinds of explanations. The reaper's "Daughter of the flame" greeting solved most of those problems for me.

Horror is always about the feared and the unknown. That's one of things that is most horrific about Night of the Living Dead for me. Although they postulate theories, they never really explain why the dead are returning to life. I tried to keep that element of the unknown with the reaper and the cauldron as much as I could.

Thank you for reading and commenting - and dinner! :-) Honestly Sir, You've made my week!

Eddie said...

Glad to hear it and you're quite welcome! I got way more than a dinners-worth of enjoyment from your story. It was the very least I could do :)

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