The second village is where they burned my hands.
We arrived to find the road strewn with cats and kittens—black, white and orange. They followed us like a herd through the single intersection. There was no sign to name this village. Only five families resided along its beaten path. The chapel they had constructed decades ago was bent by the wind. Its spire tilted toward the ground. Heath said nothing. A lone well stood at the centre of the intersection. Old trees and tangled roots groped at the stunted buildings around us. They were made of thatch and manure and stone. The water in the well below was clear. Heath only nodded at us before climbing down from his horse. There were no birds in the trees.
“Cats killed everything,” Mitchell said. “They’ll probably start feeding on each other.”
Heath strutted toward the well. His gloved hands were full of malformed kittens. Bent ears and ruptured eyes. Skin grew over some of their blank sockets. They licked and pawed at each other in his hands. He raised them up above his head before dropping them down inside the well. The splashes took a while to register. More followed. Blind and ruptured kittens tumbled down into the wet and the cold. They could not see the darkness. They could not see us above them.
“This is what happens in isolation—when things are left to run their course. I want you and Mitchell to go through the houses. See if anyone is home. Someone’s been feeding these things.”
Most of the shanties appeared empty. Mitchell and I kicked through mattresses made from hay and straw. We upended stoves and tore through walls. Dead coals and dirty clothes were all we found. It was in the third house that we found the cellar door, locked tightly from within. Mitchel blew the lock open with his pistol. I left mine holstered at my waist. There was a moan from down below—a chorus speaking in one voice, hiding from the judgment of the sun. I clutched my broken cross against my chest, and warned myself about Cain’s children.
Without a torch, we were spared from seeing these people as they were. Bent and twisted, some slid across the floor toward us. Mitchel flattened a hand beneath his boot. He said it came apart like dough. The shadows covered rotting faces, but the smell embedded itself in our clothes and rooted its way deep inside our noses. It burrowed into our faces and filled our mouths with heavy pus. I coughed and swiped away cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. They were all leaking puss from eyes and mouths, whispering to each other. One small child lay on the floor—its tiny teeth penetrated its lips. It was biting back some larger pain. The leaking folk around us gestured toward the child. Mitchell fired his pistol again into the air to silence them. They began their moaning once again when the echo dissipated. Those that moved toward the light began to shrivel, their skin receding from red and spotted flesh. Mitchell turned to climb back up.
“Some disease spreading from the cats—something has worked its way into their blood. They worshipped at the wrong altar. We’ve seen this before on the Isle of Man and in Malta. Lepers have lasted longer. Heath will want it to burn. Let’s go. There is nothing to save.”
I could see Mitchell’s tail pulse against his jacket as he climbed the ladder. It moved separately from his body, following its own path down the bottom of his spine. It beckoned toward me like a hand. I turned away. The child on the floor continued to bite through its lips. I moved forward to end its unholy pain. Its flesh was blackened around the edges, cracked and fissured along the joints. Slits in the skin wept some yellow oil. I grabbed it with my hands to carry it up into the light and felt the fluid burn my palms. Snaking lines of acid coursed down my forearms and I dropped the festering creature. Its skull split open like some old fruit, but no fluid poured forth. The brain was blackened by its own cooked juices. The moans did not change.
I followed Mitchell up into house and tried to hide my hands. Blisters began to form along my thumbs. When I popped them, some thick yellow pus lingered on my palms. I wiped it on the thatched walls and tried to forget the twisted forms below. Mitchell only shook his head.
“Gloves, Dennis. Always gloves.”
Outside, Heath had encircled this fallen house with a heavy ring of salt. He only glanced at my rupturing hands. His own gray scales remained concealed beneath his gloves. A few healthy cats remained; their eyes were clear and open. Heath had removed all their feeble children.
“Now there is no one left to feed them.”
He did not bother to diagnose me; the ointment he rubbed into the wounds stank much like the living corpses in that basement. It pushed its way beneath my skin and I could feel its cold touch seep into my bones. Mitchell’s boot was still covered in doughy flesh. It refused to separate from the leather. We waited until it was dark before lighting the flame. No sounds came from the house, but the rising cloud of smoke was tinged with some deeper green. It hung above us without the wind. The remaining cats had vanished—we saw no winking eyes.
That night Mitchell claimed he could hear something shrieking from the newly poisoned well. I clutched my broken cross and dreamed of nothing but water and the blessing of an undertow. When I awoke sweating, I heard Mitchell’s tail rustling as he slept beside me.
The green cloud remained above us all until the sun arrived.
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