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  • Writer's pictureZary Fekete

Lidérc


The two holy men traveled by day, each of them on their own mule, riding slowly through the grass, until they came to the cabin in the valley. It was not marked on any maps. 

The older priest, Father Janos, had been given care of the small gathering of villages in the north mountains. He intended to stay among the villagers through the winter and tend to their needs. His younger protégé, Gabor, had only done church-work in the city and never been to the mountains. “You’ll never meet the people’s needs if you don’t travel the land,” Father Janos told him. “The people in the mountains are poor, but they have lives and burdens of their own. Sometimes a single visit can give them a taste of hope.”

Father Janos had invited Gabor to accompany him. Long days and nights of travel wear on the minds of the best of men. Conversation between the two friends over the campfires brought their minds closer together. Gabor watched the older man throughout the day as they rode. He saw the aches and pains that accompanied old age, but he also heard no complaints from the grey priest. Father Janos, in turn, took moments from time to time on the path to talk about his life of devotion. He wanted to give his younger friend a glimpse at lessons which couldn’t be learned in the bustling rush of the city. Plus, Father Janos expected he would be retiring in the next year or so and, when he did, he hoped Gabor might take over his parishes for him. This was the sure and certain way to broaden Gabor’s vision for the world.  

When they finally reached the cabin, the afternoon sun was low in the sky. Slanting rays caused splaying shadows to crawl across the grasses. The distant peaks of the mountains in the north turned purple in the twilight. The older priest was about to pronounce the time to make camp when his younger partner motioned with his finger at a curling of smoke from behind the next ridge. They crested the grassy dune and, through a strange wavering in the twilight air, the small cabin came into view. The yard around the cabin was muddy and squalid and a general air of neglect hung over the sodden scene. Father Janos felt an eerie nudge enter his mind, but he pushed the thought away. It was late and they were both tired and in need of rest.

He dismounted and handed the bridle to Gabor. The young man brought the mules to the water trough, and Father Janos walked toward the cabin. His suspicion sharpened. There was no sense of life in the place. There was no friendly scrambling of chickens or other farm animals. As he walked across the yard, an unsettled sense of darkness entered his mind. His eyes were on the ground when he heard the cabin’s door creak. He looked up.  A figure stood in the darkness of the cabin’s interior. Father Janos shielded his eyes from the slanting sunlight. Later he would say the deep scar on the man’s face seemed carved deep enough to touch his skull. The gash was crusted and partly healed by a scab of dark red blood. The rest of the man’s facial skin looked mottled, as though he were fighting off some kind of infection brewing below the surface. Father Janos wished they had not stopped.

“Who are you?” the scarred man said.

“Travelers, sir. Bound for the mountain villages. Could we stay the night?”


The man stood in the doorway without moving. A low whine came off of the darkening lowlands as a wind storm circled slowly on the horizon. Then the man stepped back and shoved the door open with his boot. Father Janos hesitated. The cabin’s interior was black. The hairs on his neck stood as he heard the wind whine through the slats in the walls. It was an ill sound and he wished to be gone from here. He was about to turn back toward the mules, when his young partner arrived from the water trough.

The scarred man disappeared into the gloom of the cabin. Father Janos followed after him slowly. As he stepped across the threshold of the hut the wind of the outside died and a dead stillness filled his ears. The atmosphere in the cabin was close and hot. The cabin had no windows, only four rough walls. Father Janos waited for his eyes to adjust, and then his heart skipped in his chest. There was another figure in the cabin. A young woman stood against the back wall where a stove puffed oily smoke against the low ceiling. The smell in the cabin was unrelenting, the acid tang of strong, wet manure. 

“Stand in from the door,” the scarred man said from a corner in the back where he stood.  Father Janos strained to see him, but the scarred man kept his face turned away from the light. The pocket of darkness in which he stood seemed to conceal him like black soil.

The priest was about to step in from the doorway, but as he did, the young woman slid between him and the dark corner where the scarred man was. She had a blank look of fear on her face. She chanced a quick glance in scarred man’s direction. His back was still turned. She threw back her head, exposing her white neck, and drew her fingers across her throat as though she was cutting it. Her eyes were white and seemed half-crazed. Then she turned and disappeared back to the corner of the hut.

Father Janos quickly shoved his hand backward to stop Gabor from coming in any further. He took a step back and he chanced a quick look back at his young companion. Gabor’s eyes widened in sudden understanding.

“Thank you anyway,” Father Janos said loudly. “We’ll try make the foothills by dawn.” Without waiting for a response, he stepped out into the now complete twilight of the scrabbled yard and stepped quickly toward the water trough, pushing his young partner before him. His skin crawled with gooseflesh. He felt at any moment he might feel the clap of the scarred man’s hand on his shoulder. He breathed a sigh of relief when they reached the trough. 

They untied the mules, who needed no prodding. They did not like this place. Their ears were flat against their heads and their eyes rolled back. No sooner had the men turned with their mules did they hear the crunch of the scarred man’s boot. Father Janos turned to face him. The scar was no longer visible in the darkness of the yard. Instead, there was a black void where his face should have been. Even through the wind the priests could smell him. It was the scent of a charnel house. Mold and dead meat. And below that something deeper and wet. Something imbedded within the thing’s skin, encasing whatever it was in the shell of a man. Father Janos knew now it was not human. The smell from it caused a voice to sound in the priest’s head. Come closer. Come in here with us. Father Janos actively fought against the voice in his head.


“Stay with us,” the voice coming from the black void of the scarred man’s face was low but it strangely carried in the stiff wind. It was as though there were two voices in it. One low and one high, like a whining child’s. The voice was difficult to resist. Father Janos took a deep breath and reached into his robe to pull out the cross from below his shirt. The metal on the cross caught the last vestiges of twilight; the light played across the ground and flints of brightness danced between them. The scarred thing stepped back from the dancing beams of light.

“No, we’ll continue on,” Father Janos said. A moment passed. He felt the nervous nuzzling of his mule’s nose against his hand. Then, without giving the being time to move, he swung onto his mule and turned out of the yard.

The two men rode their mules up to the crest of the hill before Father Janos looked back. By then the darkness in the sky had obliterated any shapes from the low valley and all he saw behind them was a bowl of darkness among the grasses.

They rode quickly across the first few hills and did not slow until several miles had been crossed and a cold rain was falling around them. Gabor was the first to speak.

“What was it?” Gabor said as he pulled up next to Father Janos. 

“A lidérc,” Father Janos said as he glanced back into the darkness. “Awful to leave the woman with it. It will be cruel to her for warning us.”

They rode through the night. Occasionally they thought they heard a sound behind them, but nothing disturbed them in the dark. The mules plodded forward nervously and needed no prodding to keep up their speed. All around them the dark prairie breathed out the smell of night. They finally arrived at the village. Though it was still a few hours before dawn, the innkeeper roused himself and found them a room. They both slept fitfully and repeatedly Father Janos stood to check the dark hallway of the inn. He sensed the thing. It was coming.


 

In the morning Father Janos awoke and saw Gabor was already up. The older priest dressed quickly and found his young ward in the kitchen of the inn preparing breakfast. It was at that moment a young boy from the village came into the kitchen with a hurried step. He told them a woman had been found bleeding on the outskirts of the village. The boy said she begged to see the holy men. Father Janos hastened into his cloak and came out.

The boy brought them down to the village church where a number of the townspeople had gathered. The young woman was sitting on the floor between the pews. Her hair was so plastered with mud Father Janos hardly recognized her as the one from the cabin who saved them last night. A woman from the village coaxed her to drink some tea. Once she had caught her breath she unfolded her story.

She was originally from a village in the south. Her father was a farmer and she worked with him in the fields. One day two years ago she was tending the rows when the lidérc came upon her in the field. She was unable to resist it. She followed it into the woods. She awoke later in the thing’s cabin. She was pregnant. It kept her tied to the bed through the weeks as her womb grew. The night she gave birth the creature hovered over her and quickly took the child.

Twice the cabin was visited by other travelers. Each time the lidérc coaxed them to stay the night and then murdered them as they slept. She didn’t know what it did with the bodies, but it always disappeared the next day for many hours and, upon returning, its clothes were dark with the travelers’ blood.

The thing had indeed treated her harshly after the priests left. It tied her to the cabin wall and whipped her. It was about to continue when the wind outside blew something against the cabin door and the lidérc went out to examine it. She was able to untie her hands and slip out the door before it returned. She fled toward the village on foot through the night, following the slow curves of the stream.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I may have led him here. I couldn’t conceal my steps.” Father Janos smiled and shook his head. “Thank God you are here,” he said. When she finished her story, he sent Gabor around the village to bring the townspeople into the church. There were not more than fifteen of them, three poor farming families. They huddled against one another between the pews as the sun drifted between the clouds and looming shadows deepened across the sanctuary.

“It will likely come after sundown,” Father Janos said to the people.

“What is it?” one of the men said.

Father Janos glanced at Gabor before answering. His young friend sat in the front pew with a barely concealed look of fear. “I’ve read about them, but never seen one before,” he said. “Priests across the border talked about them being found in the higher mountains to the south. It contains within it a pool of darkness from below the mountains. The skin of its man-shape is what allows it to move around.”

“What does it want?” a woman said. She pulled her children closer to her.

“It hears our blood,” Father Janos said.  “To the creature the blood is a drumbeat in our veins. They plant gardens of blood where they dwell below. And this one has a taste for it now.  It is coming.”

The townspeople’s eyes were wide in fear. A small girl hid behind her mother’s skirt.  

“We have a chance,” Father Janos said. “It can’t ingest something which is consecrated. This is why it never eats the children. It only feeds on those old enough to have felt the turn of the earth.” Father Janos stepped forward and looked at the small huddled group before him. “To defeat it we must all work. Will you help me?”

The men looked at one another. Silent nods passed among them. A stout man stood forward from the rest and looked Father Janos in the eyes. “What must we do?” he said.


 

The dark creature streamed through the night. It paused from time to time to sniff the ground. Each time it did, the bright smell of the woman was stronger. It was as though her scent was a beam of red, flowing through the plains, twisting from hill to hill, growing richer all the time. It had been awhile since the creature had last fed and there was a powerful hunger growing within it. It had taken great effort to keep the woman but not to consume her. Somewhere in the creature’s travels it had learned that if it maintained the shape of a man and had a woman living with it then travelers were more willing to stay for the night. This supplied the creature for many months with occasional visitors, but the priests had been the first travelers in a long while. As its hunger grew the skin it was wrapped in became thinner, threatening to allow the black pool within to spill out. Below the mountains the blackness could be contained by the layers of rock. Above ground it needed the human skin to remain strong if it wanted to breed and pass itself on.

By the time the creature saw the town ahead, its lower jaw hung open and black saliva flowed out. Now the woman’s scent mingled together with other shades of crimson. It sensed the other villagers. It smelled men and women. Different ages. Different lives. It felt a turn of hunger in its belly. The thing saw the lines of color all flowing together into the small church at the center of the village. It slowed its walk. The meeting with the priest in the cabin had made it cautious. The priest was different. He knew something of the earth and something of the soul the creature had not yet known.

It approached the door of the church. The beating of hearts inside the building was strong in its ears. The creature held out his hand and pushed the door open. Light from the sanctuary flowed out into the night. The thing stepped through the door.

The townspeople were all seated in the pews. Their backs were turned to the door. All eyes were on the front of the sanctuary where the older priest stood with his younger ward next to him. The two holy men were behind a low table, empty but for a single bowl.

The older priest held in his hands an open volume of scripture. He met the thing’s eyes and for a moment they stared at each other. Then the priest looked down at the assembled crowd. He said, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you,” the assembly murmured together.

The thing sensed a faint trembling in the air. For a moment it hesitated. Then the priest took a knife from under his cloak and laid the blade against the skin of his forearm. As he said the next words he slowly cut across his wrist. Blood flowed down his hand and began to drip into the bowl.

“Lift up your hearts,” the older man said.

“We lift them up,” the crowd responded.

The creature’s senses were inflamed by the scent and sight of the blood. The blazing light from the crimson drops completely absorbed its senses.

“Take this, all of you, and eat it,” the priest said. “This is my body which is given up for you.” The priest handed the knife to the younger priest. Then Father Janos began to remove his clothes. He folded each piece carefully and laid them to the right and left of the bloody bowl. As his skin was uncovered a howling hunger built up in the stomach of the creature.

“Take this, all of you, and drink from it,” the priest spoke, with a shiver in his voice as the night air touched his skin. “This is the cup of my blood.”

The priest removed his last item of clothing. He lifted his knee and carefully knelt onto the table. He fastened his eyes on the creature once more. The priest then took the knife into his hand again. “Do this in memory of me,” he said, and he cut his throat.

Blood sprayed into the air. The priest’s body fell to the side and the fountain of blood shot onto the back of the sanctuary and splattered the wooden crucifix. The sight and smell of the blood filled the eyes of the thing. With a single movement it crossed the space between itself and the priest’s body and fell upon the bloody table with open jaws. In the last moment before the creature sank its teeth into the throat of the priest, the older man’s eyes turned and he looked at his young ward and gave him a knowing nod. It was the last thing Father Janos did before the monster bit into and severed his head.


In the next moment a high-pitched shriek filled the church. The skin of the creature began to sizzle. A horrible smell of rot filled the air and was immediately replaced by the scent of burned hair. The people in the pews crouched down. The younger priest stepped back and picked up a bucket of holy water and threw the water across the jerking body of the creature. Streams of water mixed with blood poured off the table and flowed toward the pews. Outside of the church, forest creatures fled back into the woods as a burst of lightning from within the building flashed out through the stained-glass windows, turning the dark night outside into kaleidoscopes of color. 

The young priest stepped forward to the table where the creature was writhing on the dead body of the older man. Gabor took the book into his hands and droplets of blood from the mangled body of the older priest splattered his face as he read, “Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” With each word spoken the creature’s cries of pain rose until the piercing note seemed to shake the walls of the church.  Mingled in its voice was the crowded sound of many harmonies of other voices within its skin. The voices rose and fell in a ghastly chorus. The townspeople crossed themselves and frantically poured out of the entrance of the building. Gabor was the last one out. He motioned to the men. They stepped forward and nailed boards across the door. 

Inside, the anguished cries of the creature began to weaken. The townspeople knelt on the ground outside. As the shriek from within died away the young priest continued to read from the book. Soon everyone else joined in: “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…


 

Dawn rose over the village. It was a Sunday in spring. What happened in the church months ago had changed the ground under the wooden structure of the building. The earth and stones were black as though burned and scarred. The pool of darkness which had been contained by the lidérc’s skin had long ago seeped back into the earth, but its mark remained.

Slowly the people from the town rose from their beds. The men tended to the chores. Women prepared a morning meal. A few children ran through the streets. Then, as mid-morning drew near, the townspeople filed out of their homes and slowly congregated at the front door of the church.

Father Gabor opened the door and welcomed them. One by one the families entered the sanctuary. Friendly conversation flowed between the townspeople and the priest. After everyone was inside, the young man stood outside for a moment, soaking in the morning sun. Then he turned and looked up at the sign above the front entrance. The sign read, “The Church of Father Janos.” The young priest smiled, turned, and entered the church.


 


Zary Fekete…

…grew up in Hungary

…has a novelette (In the Beginning) out from ELJ Publications and a debut novella being published in early 2024 with DarkWinter Lit Press.

…enjoys books, podcasts, and many, many, many films. Twitter and Instagram: @ZaryFekete

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