“There was one further incident that fully broke the town of Terra Fosca. One last spectre that incited such horror in the populace that every man, woman, and child evacuated the place as fast as their feet could carry them into the darkness.”
Here the undertaker paused to observe those around him in the cemetery, particularly the unwashed children eager to hear a good story. He smirked to himself.
“As in New Babbage,” the undertaker said, “indeed as in most other towns, there were urchins in Terra Fosca.”
Jimmy Branagh muttered under his breath. “Uh-oh…”
Mr. Gedge continued.
“The town was a dusty place, without paved streets or running water. The urchins were able to keep themselves employed by fetching whatever it was that the adults in the town were unable, or unwilling, to fetch themselves.
“One boy was stronger than the rest. Perhaps twelve years old, no one knew him by any name other than “Scrapper.” He bragged that he would do anything necessary to keep the other urchins in line and make sure the town of Terra Fosca was running. He made good on that promise. He watched out for the other street children, fought like a mad dog when the situation demanded it, and had a reputation among the populace as a boy who could be depended on.
“On this particular afternoon, Scrapper happened to be tugging a rope that was looped over a pulley in a barn just outside of town, lifting a loosely-tied bale of hay. The local feed store owner, who had one lame foot, was guiding the bale over to a stack against the wall of the barn. The work wasn’t terribly difficult for a boy with a strong back, and Scrapper did it willingly. He knew the merchant would compensate him with handouts to the other children.
“During the time when the entire town began to go wild with fear over the disappearance of its food and livestock, Scrapper and the grain merchant remained oblivious. Unaware, that is, until the elder of the two suddenly found himself lying under a bale of hay. He shouted obscenities and yelled for Scrapper to help him, but there was no answer. He looked to where the boy had been standing and saw that he was no longer there. The man wrestled with the hay bale for a number of minutes before wriggling out from under it. He scratched his head in puzzlement before being overcome by an unspeakable stench.
“Almost immediately the man doubled over and vomited onto the floor of the barn. His eyes red and watering, he struggled to stand and pulled a dirty handkerchief from his pocket to hold over his face.”
Here the undertaker stopped briefly as a murmur of gasps and disconcerted comments passed through the assembled Babbagers. Noting that several audience members were leaning in more intently, Mr. Gedge continued.
“The grain merchant shuffled warily through the barn, leaning on a cane, his bad foot dragging along behind him. The afternoon sun had begun to fade into evening, and the man stopped to light a lantern. As the unholy odor became stronger, the man fought his instinct to run away and instead wandered slowly through the stalls and closets of the barn.
“Unable to find anything amiss within, but driven by a desire to identify the source of the foul odor, he stepped through a door into a back room used only to store items he rarely used.
“What he saw there horrified him to such a degree that he recoiled with his strong foot, launching himself a good five feet back. He scrambled and scraped at the ground, not bothering to reach for his cane, crawling and lurching with such ferocity that his hands began to bleed. He burst out the door of the barn and howled with guttural terror. He proceeded in this manner a mile up the road into the town proper, where a populace already in a furor stopped and took notice of his wild and terrifying manner.
“His eyes were beastly, and he grasped onto whatever person was closest to him, desperately trying to pull himself further away from the trauma he had witnessed in the barn. The grain merchant babbled incoherently as he heaved and staggered among the townspeople who surrounded him. In a few moments those who had assembled were overtaken by the stench that had clung to him, instinctively moving away.
“A couple of men, knowing where his barn was located, ran to investigate. They covered their faces with handkerchiefs as the merchant had, lit lantern wicks and entered the barn. Following the path in the straw the merchant had left on the floor in his graceless retreat, they made their way to the back room in a number of minutes. Only moments later they bolted out of the doors, sprinted back to town and screamed for everyone to leave, to get out as quickly as possible.”
Here, the undertaker paused for effect and gazed around the room at the expressions of distress he saw around him. Mrs. Melnik was biting her lip. Mrs. Berithos was wringing her hands. Some seemed to be holding their breath, while others were breathing deeply with wide eyes.
Knowing that he had them hooked, the undertaker went on.
“A rumor rose quickly that demons or spirits had been stealing all of the food in the town, and that they had eaten Scrapper too. And that the ungodly smell was the result of the back room in the barn being turned into a slaughterhouse and dumping ground for the carcasses of every animal in Terra Fosca. And worse yet, that the boy’s remains lay torn apart on top of the refuse. That every creature, including the boy Scrapper, had had the flesh stripped from the bones, leaving only skin, hair, sinew and blood.”
Ignoring the sounds of his disturbed audience, he rushed to continue.
“Like a fire consuming dry tinder, the entire town of Terra Fosca exploded into a chaos unlike anything ever seen. All were convinced that if they didn’t leave, they too would be devoured by whatever it was that had pillaged their shelves and stockyards. That whatever had slaughtered Scrapper and left a mound of hellish viscera was coming for them next.”
“And by all accounts,” the undertaker added nonchalantly, “they were probably right.”
“By midnight, as I have said, the entire town was deserted. It isn’t known whether everyone made it to safety, or if some were lost along the way. One thing that is certain, however, is that Terra Fosca has been abandoned ever since. The once-bustling way stop is now a windy shell, and the rail tracks leading up into the hills have grown over. New rail was laid from a town further west, and the miners, lumberjacks, and trappers now pass by Terra Fosca without stopping.”
(To be continued in Part 3)