Mandrake followed the path through the snow to the screaming stones. He found them arranged on an altar at the foot of the mountain where the trees ended. Some were big stones, carved with intricate representations of people in fine clothes. Others were small, the figures simply done. Each one contained a soul.
“Wait, don’t touch them.”
Mandrake looked around. Huddled in the shadow of a tree was a young boy.
“The beast,” the boy hissed. He pointed at the altar.
Mandrake looked at the stones again. Something large lay coiled around the base of the altar. Its head rested on its folded arms on one side of the wall and a massive pair of leathery feet protruded from the other side.
“What is this place?” Mandrake asked, sauntering over to the boy.
“This is where we leave the souls of our dead to feed the beast to keep it from attacking us,” the boy said.
Mandrake raised an eyebrow. “Why are you spying on the monster?”
“My sister, Gretchen, died three days ago. Father bottled her spirit and left her for the beast.” The boy flushed. “It’s not right. She deserves to be buried with her body so that her spirit can journey back into the earth. I hate to think of that smelly thing feasting on her soul. I thought I would sneak up and take her while it was sleeping.”
“It’s not as easy to do as you thought, huh?” Mandrake smiled. “I’ll get your sister’s spirit back for you.”
“And what do you want from me in return?” the boy asked.
Mandrake stroked his chin. “Well, let me have the rest of the spirit stones and we’ll call it quits.”
The boy nodded. He took off his mitten and held out his hand. “Okay.”
“We have a deal,” Mandrake said.
Mandrake stepped out of the cover of the tree line. He could feel the beast watching him, but he pretended not to notice it. He approached the altar and started brushing the snow away from the stones. The screaming was much more intense now that he was so close to the frightened souls. It wasn’t loud in a way that hurt his ears, but it thrummed in his breast bone until the vibration caused an unpleasant ache.
He reached out and touched one of the stones. It was small, hardly larger than Mandrake’s palm. The figure of a child curled in repose was chipped onto the surface. Merely by coming in contact with the stone, Mandrake had a good idea of the spirit that lay within. Young and potent, it throbbed with vitality that had never leaked away through the passage of years.
As soon as his fingers touched the spirit vessel, the beast uncoiled from around the altar and got to its feet. It towered above Mandrake, dwarfing him as a fully grown oak dwarfs a sapling.
Mandrake let go of the vessel and backed away from the altar. The beast was a lot bigger than he had anticipated. It was well over twice his size, each of its arms thicker than his torso. As a necromancer, he had many powders and potions for dealing with the dead, but he was less well equipped to deal with the living and this beast – judging by its smell – was definitely alive.
The beast roared and stamped its feet, sending snow tumbling off the branches of the nearby trees.
Mandrake held his ground. The creature lunged forward, clapped its huge hands on either side of Mandrake’s head and squeezed.
The boy screamed.
Mandrake thought his eyes were going to explode out of their sockets with the force of the pressure. He kicked his legs, but found only air beneath him. He grabbed the beast’s arms, yanking out handfuls of hair, but it didn’t stop the hands from pressing together.
The beast wrapped its lips around Mandrake’s head and sucked. It pried open the spirit door on the crown of his head and stuck its tongue inside, rooting out Mandrake’s soul and breaking its cords with his body.
Like a ball of flame, Mandrake’s spirit burst free. He rose above the beast in a dark cloud, knocking the monster back and wresting his body from its hands. Freed from the confines of the flesh, he was in his element. His dark soul rumbled with arcane thunder and sparked with occult lightning.
The beast squealed and rolled its dead eyes.
Mandrake gathered his essence around the beast’s head. It was easy for him to expose its spirit opening and scoop out the mushy substance that passed for the monster’s essence. Of more value were the remnants of the souls it had consumed. Mandrake dug out these treasures, casting the rest aside.
With a loud sigh, the beast expired, shaking the ground as it toppled onto the snow.
Mandrake gathered his soul into a ball and squeezed back into his still warm body. The pain was intense as he reattached his spirit to his flesh. He blacked out when he was done.
The boy stood over him when he woke up. He sat up and rubbed his pounding head.
“I thought you were dead,” the boy said.
Mandrake stood up and brushed the snow from his clothes. He felt very weak. It would take a while to return to his full strength. He walked slowly to the altar and picked up a slab of slate that was crudely scratched with a stick figure child.
“Here is your Gretchen,” Mandrake said.
The boy took the slate and hugged it to his chest. He smiled. “Thank you.”
“Go, return her to her body so she can be free,” Mandrake said.
The boy nodded. He ran away, stumbling in the heavy snow.
Mandrake turned back to the altar and surveyed the remaining soul vessels. Now they belonged to him. They had stopped screaming. They knew to keep silent in the presence of a real monster.
Read about Mandrake as a boy in this prequel story, A Simple Errand.
The Screaming Stones was originally posted on 9th May 2019.