Today we visit with Tristan Vick as he shares his tale, Little Red Gauntlet.
Little Red Gauntlet
The Cult of the Wolf
(a steampunk fairytale)
The Day Silence Fell
Silence fell over the sleepy village of Mikan province as gently as the falling snowflakes. Rusty tin-roofed factories replete with towering smokestacks created jigsaw-like silhouettes against the whitewashed horizon. The factory chimneys belched thick blurry smog that rose high into the hazy afternoon sky—and the dark smoke resembled terrible serpents slithering back toward the great abyss high beyond the firmament.
Black crows spackled the steely sky while thick veins of rusted piping, glazed with wintery rime, clung to the factory walls which brimmed with single-paned frosted windows. Meanwhile, down below in the heart of the quieted town, down along the white-blanketed streets veiled in virgin snow, were the obscure indentations of fresh footprints. The footprints were canine in nature, and made their way through the empty lanes and, as if set to purpose, wound their way down into the heart of the market place.
On any ordinary day the market would be bustling with the business of merchants, traders, and vendors, but today dark and sinister things lurked about in the shadows cast by the looming smoke stacks, and with the break of dawn, in that ritualistic crepuscular hour of the rising sun, there screeched a most horrible cry.
The scream of a young girl being abducted by things too terrible to mention called out, pleading for help, but was just as quickly silenced, and echoes of that small, horror-filled voice faded into the frigid air until not a sound remained, not a single indicator that the terrible kidnapping ever took place, and the snowy village returned to its cold indifference.
At this juncture it may be worth mentioning the point for which the streets were emptied, the shutters secured, and the doors bolted. You see, on this unhappy hour of a wretched week demarcating the start to an relentless and blistering winter, the villages had hid themselves away at the sound of the horns, the alarm which alerted man, woman, and child that the dark ones had returned. With this frightful knowledge bearing down on the minds of wearied people, every street was promptly abandoned, and not a soul stepped foot outside the safety of their walls for fear of meeting a horrible fate at the clawed hands of those hideous things that wreaked havoc on the vulnerable village and prowled for innocent souls to gobble up.
Most of Mikan village in the Mikan province consisted of the type of brick-and-block architecture one would expect of a well-worn factory town. Mikan village was most noteworthy for its coal and its steam. The coal was harvested to supply fuel for the furnaces which, in turn, supplied the steam which turned the giant paddles that provided the power to the province and beyond. Although no more than three thousand people lived in the quaint village, Mikan generated much of the electricity required for nearly three full provinces in the bamboo-varnished valleys of old Japan.
Mikan village rested snugly in the mountains of the northwestern area of Honshu, in the prefecture of Shimane, and was tucked away in the cradle of a narrow valley surrounded by black pines and ancient, snow-capped mountains. The houses all huddled around the mammoth industrial complexes, which ran right up to the mountain’s edge, in quaint clusters of inglenook-impregnated dwellings. They formed a tightly-woven community consisting of ceramic-tiled rooftop abodes set in calico, currently concealed under a thin coating of freshly fallen snow.
Beneath that blistering cold snow seeped the petrifying chill of fear, a fear born from the detested sounding of the horrible horns signifying that the Cult of the Wolf had returned. The red-eyed beasts had descended from the dark woods of the north, as swift and silent as shadows, and promptly penetrated the walls of the unvigilant village.
Adults torn to shreds and the young and innocent vanished—the legends of ancient evils were revealed to be real; the nightmares of the townsfolk, like better dreams, came dreadfully true. Also true was the fact that the seventh virgin had been taken in just as many weeks. As you might suspect, the violated village’s pulse barely beats, the hearts of its people practically stopped with fear, a forlorn wonderment as to what becomes their missing sons and daughters.
The first of the girls had vanished at the edge of the gloomy forest when she wandered off beyond the walls and safety of the village. A woodsman returning with lumber spied her edging dangerously close to the dim green of the tree line at the gloaming hour, but before he could call out to her it was already too late. The shadows had slithered and stretched their way out toward the girl and engulfed her, dragging her back into the woods—back into the mouth of darkness stretched wide between looming pines, wherein terrible things lurked—she shrieked an audible treble in terror-stoked trembling.
When the village council questioned the weary woodsman about what it was he saw, in his troubled testimony he recollected that the repulsive creatures were a demonic blend of wolf and man. In the details of his report he told of their fierce red eyes that glared menacingly in what little light glinted from the narrow treetop crevices where traces of sky could be discerned. After being dismissed from the proceedings, the woodsman sulked home and gathered his family tight in his arms; bowing heads in silence, they waited for the daily ritual to commence.
Like clockwork, the sounding of the first of three horns rang forth. The ominous omen signaled the approaching nightfall and the countdown till the great looming darkness swallowed up the last of the sun’s sanguine rays. As always, it was inescapably followed by a hushed silence that penetrated every part of that haunted hamlet. The second blast alerted all that it was time to secure the doors and to be ready for anything. The townsfolk prayed to their idols, their ancestors, and any who’d listen. Finally, amid the rising howling, the last blast from the watchtower’s horn rang out and then, as every window and door was securely bolted, the vaporous tendrils of shadow crept out of the dark forest and up to the village gates.
It was a great and terrible darkness too, a hollow void of nothingness where courage withered and love languished, and therein a lingered a menagerie of horrors too unfathomable to speak of. The darkness was uncommonly unsettling, as those brave vanguard watchmen reminded everyone in the town hall’s morning census. The census was the village’s wretched ritual of making a daily record to account for those fearsome souls who remained and those who had not lasted the languid hours of listless night, but were, in nightmarish reification, untimely plucked from this mortal coil.
Perched in their lookouts all along the watchtower, those noble men, absent any vainglory, swore it was as if an ethereal portal to an otherworldly realm of hellish nightmares had suddenly torn open. Out of the broad swath carved in the stilled air of night, like the calm before the storm, came forth all manner of terrors. Just as the last guard drew the shutters of the last window closed, in the briefest of moments, through the closing crack, as if catching something out of the corner of his eye, he spied a litany of ungodly forms spill out from that awful abyss. Glowing red eyes. Crooked claws. And teeth like razor blades.
Seven girls gone. All of them virgins. Each of them frightfully taken from their homes, torn from their beds and families. But what could anyone do?
Beset by evil, the village elders, little more than a council of cowards, in their awful acumen agreed to appease their relentless torturers’ appetites for virgin flesh. Thus was called forth a messenger, a poor unwanted orphan boy, and he was sent as emissary into the black, pine-laden forest to relay that disgraceful message. He never returned.
Thus, agreeing to meet the dreadful demands of the Cult of the Wolf and offer up their virgin sons and daughters as sacrifices, perchance to appease the adverse forces infesting the village, the townsfolk did the only thing they could do: they braced themselves for a long hard winter.
The Cult of the Wolf
Pulling my red cloak over my head for warmth, I made my way past the abandoned market place and down into the dark regions of the lower levels of the coal furnaces which supplied power to us all. The furnaces had been turned down low, allowing them to idle away until morning, when fresh barrels of black carbon would be brought in to replenish the dwindling power supply.
The lull in power caused tumult among the councils of the surrounding provinces, worried that the shogunate would grow displeased with the sudden diminished greatness of one unassuming part of the empire. In an unprecedented swiftness of political action, measures were taken to quickly rectify the regrettable situation.
Whereas traditional samurai were typically called in to police the lands when bandits and robbers terrorized the townsfolk, there was nothing much in the way of monster hunters. That is, apart from myself and a handful of rogue ronin ready to accept any request if the remuneration was right. The lucre of the law, as they called it, meant that the wealthiest lords dictated the laws of the land, and enforced these laws with the aid and services of hired scullions and servitors. Thus, might equaled right.
Unlike the ronin, however, I was not obsessed with duty, honor, and the pursuit of finding relief between the quivering thighs of licentious prostitutes. No, I was much simpler. Foreign born, the daughter of a Frenchman and a German woman, I did not come to Japan by choice, but was sent here as a way to distance myself from them and the vanity of their society that could not accept the parents of a cripple. So they traded me for retaining their lofty reputation, saying it was for my own good, and that someday I’d understand why they did what they did.
Twelve years have passed since I arrived in this country, and still my past haunts me. When I was but a girl my right arm was mangled during an awful accident. Luckily, however, just as I arrived to the mainland there was news of a new hybrid technology—part clock-work, part compressed steam—which gave rise to a wave of innovative mechanisms that nobody had seen the likes of before. Mechanisms that finally allowed me to regain what I had lost so long ago.
It’s no secret, I am a hunter. I've killed all manner of rogues and villains, and unspeakable things, things from the darkest corners of the land, things you only hear tell about in ancient myths and legend.
Upon receiving message from the daimyo himself, to rid Mikan village of the daunting darkness which encroached upon the township from all sides, and liberate its lamentable people from the hideous sufferings that lurked in night’s shade, I accepted. Well, I accepted on the same terms and conditions I always set before accepting any job—three months’ pay up front, a paid meal a day in my establishment of choice, and no questions asked. Simple rules don’t raise many questions, and so I was hired immediately.
I arrived in Mikan province two nights prior, and swiftly set about interviewing the solemn and suffering victims of the horrible evils that had befallen them.
And now … now I hunt.
Winding around a labyrinth of stone stairs and narrow alleyways laden with little bald Buddhist statues strewn about an assortment of shrines, I quickly passed the snowcapped memorials consisting of marble remembrances and small watchful gods. Passing through what seemed to be an echo of lives long past, I couldn't help but think that perhaps these tiny gods were privy to the appalling horrors that had befallen the panic-stricken people of Mikan village.
It began snowing in the hazy white of the afternoon sun, and the chill seeped through my cloak and into my bones as I followed the fading tracks of the latest victim down a narrow alleyway and around several more bends and spiraling stone staircases before finally coming into a clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a large pool of blood so thick that the deep burgundy looked like a blackish-purple lake frozen in time. This marked the place of the abhorrent abduction.
As I approached the burgundy blemish I saw an open gate to the drain tunnels that channeled the moisture from the steam vapor and condensations, as well as the excess rain during the wet months, out of the city. Prying open the barred maintenance gate, I slipped in and made my way down into the damp depths of the dreary drain until I found the mouth of an intersecting channel.
Before deciding which direction to set purpose to, I closed my eyes and listened. Echoing up the damp, dungeon-like walls, from the depths of the cistern’s stomach, was an ominous chanting. That was where they were gathering. But to what sinister purpose?
Reaching under my red cloak, I fetched a small gas-powered lantern and flicked it on. It had a built-in flint so all I had to do was twist the key and ignite the spark. I followed the sound of chanting until I felt I could no longer keep my lamp lit, and so I snuffed the flame and tucked it away, relying on only the faintest candle-lit luminosity to guide me toward the origin of the ominous invocations.
Sneaking along the safety of shadows which the portly piping provided, I found myself in the midst of two dozen black-robed cultists. Peering through the spaces between the pipes, I could see an alter plastered with an endless assortment of wax candles, enough to illuminate the central figure, the poor wretched girl abducted three days prior.
With no place to hide and unable to go back the way I came without arousing suspicion, I ducked under the partition of piping that shielded me from sight and stepped boldly into the light. Walking toward the alter where the young girl lay, tied down to a massive stone tablet, I could see the fear written in her big brown eyes which darted back and forth at the slightest movement or sound. She couldn't have been more than thirteen. Barely old enough to have stolen her first kiss from a boy.
Dark eyes blotted out by the shadow of their hoods followed me, a rubicund oddity, as I made my way up the steps to the alter and stopped just before the frightened girl. Her mouth gagged, she looked up at me with a blanched complexion downtrodden with despair; although I sensed she feared the consequences of calling for help, her eyes spoke volumes, and pleaded for me to free her from desolation.
“Don’t worry,” I said in a soothing tone of voice. “No one will harm you this day. I promise.”
“And just who are you to dole out promises that you cannot keep, not even in a thousand years?” intoned a feminine voice.
Manifesting from the opposite side of the alter was a striking woman with raven-black hair, but with a sartorial minimalism that didn’t do anything but highlight the naked curvature of her feminine form. Her porcelain skin glistened from the warm steam filling the room, all but for the pelt of a wolf draped over her shoulders, her only attire—more ceremonial in nature than practical.
“I’m Ruby Perrault. And whom do I have the honor of killing this day?” I asked, never breaking eye contact with the deranged woman for a single instant.
“Oh!” she chortled, finding my words amusing. “Aren’t you a spirited one? But I’m afraid the only one who will die this day will be you, my dear. As for this poor wretch of a child, she’ll be drained of her life force over a period of seven days and seven nights.”
Suddenly the black-cloaked figures surrounding us let their robes slip to the ground and revealed that my most awful suspicions were true: this assembly wasn’t made up of mortal men at all, but rather horrible hybrids—part men and part beast. I was in the den of werewolves!
Eyeing me up and down, the woman’s thin lips spread into a smile of sinister intent as she said, “Well, Ruby Perrault, I’m Volera, Queen of the Cult of the Wolf. Welcome to our den. Won’t you be staying for dinner?”
Looking back down at the poor virgin trembling uncontrollably upon the table, I asked somewhat sarcastically, “Must it be virgin blood?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Queen Volera answered with a widening grin, already pulling red lips across her unusually white teeth. “Only the pure blood of a virgin is potent enough to allow the spell to work.”
“What kind of spell?”
“My, aren’t you a curious little thing? Let’s just say it’s a spell to make me eternal, so that I may reign a thousand years as Queen of the Wolves.” Summoning me with her finger, she said, “Come closer, my dear.”
Pulling down my hood, I looked straight at the sorceress, self-proclaimed Queen of the Wolves, who before my very eyes began a terrible transformation. Her narrow nose grew into a slender snout and her jowls grew large canine teeth. Every pore on her silky smooth skin sprouted hair and soon she was covered from head to toe in fur—her image completely transformed—as she rose up on her hindquarters and snarled viciously.
The horrible howling of her loyal pack shook the pipes and carried its way up to the city streets. I can only imagine the level of dread it must have caused the townsfolk above, suffering such a nightmarish and dreadful din seeping into their homes from deep from below.
But amid all the noise, they didn’t hear the winding of gears and compressing of pistons occurring under my crimson cloak.
Extending her claws, Volera raised her inhuman hand high above her vulpine form and growled, “Now you die, girl!”
“Not today, bitch,” I sneered, throwing back my cloak to reveal the steam-powered mechanical-geared gauntlet that made up my right hand.
With startled eyes the bitch squealed, “What’s this abomination?”
“I have to admit, I was a little taken aback when you didn’t recognize my name.”
“Ruby Perrault. What of it?” the she-beast growled, her eyes narrowing viciously as she circled me.
“You may know me better by my nickname ... Daughter of the Wolf.”
“It can’t be!” the queen roared in mouth-frothing fury. “I thought you were dead.”
Releasing my steam gear gauntlet, the mechanical fist exploded forward with a menacing hiss, and so fierce was the pressure that it took off the bitch’s head with a single blow. Blood sprang forth from her open neck cavity as if it were the fountain in the village square, and her headless body teetered to and fro before finally collapsing at the foot of the alter.
Picking up Volera’s head, now transformed back into her human from, I held it out for all the pack to see just as the steam decompressed from my gauntlet, shooting out an exhaust of white mist behind me.
Tossing the head down the stairs, I clenched my oversized robotic fist and fearlessly addressed the pack. “You have two choices. Stay here and meet a similar fate, or tuck your tails between your legs and head back into the forest and never return to this village again.”
After a moment of silence, the wolf-men bared their teeth and worked themselves into a frenzy. It looked like it was about to turn into a blood bath, but before anything could happen there was a snarl that overcame all the rest. All the werewolves quickly parted, making a path which led straight up to the alter, and kneeling down they chanted Vánagandr. That was all, they just kept repeating that name, “Vánagandr, Vánagandr, Vánagandr …”
From the gaping black mouth of the tunnel came the noise of padded footsteps, and peering into the darkness I waited with bated breath as the chanting intensified. “Vánagandr! Vánagandr! Vánagandr!”
Then I saw it. The Alpha.
Daughter of the Wolf
Into the den stepped forth the largest direwolf I have ever laid eyes upon. His form was roughly the size of your average steed and his pelage was blacker than the blackest night, all except for the minuscule traces of silver peppered throughout his mane which marked his great age.
Stopping halfway, it waited as I tentatively approached it. I was amazed to see one, as it had long been held that creatures of this kind had all but disappeared, hunted to extinction or else forced to hide away in the depths of the rigid mountains and dark forests where humans were still too intimidated to venture.
Standing before the massive beast’s muzzle, I looked fearlessly into its obsidian eyes. I gazed into the darkness that ran for an eternity inside Vánagandr’s horrible gaze, and in them I saw all the chaos and suffering of the universe play out before me, and then I knew … they were the very same eyes that haunted me in my youth.
“Next time we meet,” I said, standing nose to nose with the wheezing beast, his vile breath flooding my nostrils, “I will take your head like I took Volera’s.”
*Not if I eat you first, girl.*
Startled, I took a step back and tried to shake the strange sense of being defiled. But it was no use; the menacing mental violation that had taken place was measurably real. The wolf’s voice spoke straight into my mind—as clear as day. The pious often claim to hear voice. Well, I heard one. Do not ask me how, but it did it, and pure unadulterated dread filled my chest as if I had just borne witness to the darkest kind of spell that could only be conjured through an unmentionable black magic.
Clenching my gauntlet, the gears began to turn and the pumps started to compress the hydraulic cylinders. “You can try,” I said through gritted teeth.
*Resist me all you want, girl. Someday when you let your guard down, I will spring forth from the shadows and make you my dinner.*
“And when you try, dog, I shall rip out your foul tongue and strangle you to death with it.”
With a snarl that seamlessly slid into a deep rattling growl, the direwolf bared his teeth and took a step toward me, letting me know his dominance.
*You carry a most honorable name, and for this reason I shall let you live this day, but I cannot forget your insults. The next time we meet, I shall not hesitate to kill you, Daughter of the Wolf.*
Standing my ground, our faces came so close we could feel each other’s hotness of breath. In that exact moment, the gears finished winding to capacity, and the gauntlet’s pistons locking into place signaled that I had one gauntlet-gear-punch reach to take the beast’s head off in a single blow. Noticing the sound, however, the direwolf cautiously stepped back.
After a brief pause, the contemptible creature turned and trotted back the way it had come. The werewolves all bowed their heads in reverence, avoiding eye contact as their Alpha whisked by. Pausing at the dark mouth of the tunnel, Vánagandr turned his head, ears perking up, and looked back at me one last time—as if he were making record of my face.
I stared back at him in defiance of the dread he sought to instill in me, and then watched as the loyal pack trailed after their unholy master.
Quickly, I slid out a small dagger I kept tucked in my boot, and began to sever the ropes which restrained the young beauty. I could no longer conceal the trembling in my hand, and struggled to hold the blade steady as the fear and adrenaline finally combined to overcome me. With a snap I managed to cut through the last of the ropes and the frightened girl scrambled up and embraced me firmly.
“Oh, thank the gods,” she sighed in relief. Looking down at the red mechanical gauntlet which comprised the whole of my right forearm, the young girl asked, “What happened to your arm?”
“It was taken from me … bitten off by a gray wolf when I was only a child.”
Recoiling in alarm, she chewed on her bottom lip and hesitantly said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Looking at her, I merely pulled my red hood back over my head, and turned to leave. My mind still fixating on the direwolf, I felt a dark intuition forming in the back of my mind. An ancient evil that had lain dormant for centuries had awakened with a ravenous appetite and the desire to consume the world. Vánagandr, Volera, and the Cult of the Wolf were all just a prelude to an unfathomable plague of evils yet to come.
****TRISTAN VICK GRADUATED FROM MONTANA State University with degrees in English Literature and Asian Cultural Studies. He speaks fluent Japanese and lives in Japan with his wife and daughter. When he’s not commuting on the train or teaching English, he spends his time reading, writing, blogging, and eating sara-udon. He is the author of the popular zombie series Bitten: A Resurrection Thriller, Bitten 2: Land of the Rising Dead, and the upcoming Bitten 3: Kingdom of the Living Dead. He is editor of the non-fiction collections Reason Against Blasphemy and Seasons of Freethought, which collects together the freethought works of G.W. Foote and Robert G. Ingersoll. You can learn more about the author or contact him at: www.tristanvick.com