We stood together, arrayed in a circle—much like the standing stones around us—and in the center of our circle was the dead horse, its head still bleeding from the gaping bullet hole that cratered the center of its long forehead. Its tongue hung slack and pale between its twisted teeth.
“Ready the blade, Matthew,” the master said.
I did as I was bidden, sharpening the ax on the whetstone and discerning the fine gleam of the blade by moonlight as the strokes spit sparks. The sibilance of stone on steel unnerved me, but I knew better than to disobey the master, especially now, when the lich moon was rising toward its zenith and hour of the Worm wheeled Cerberus above the standing stones.
“Make ready the saddle!” the master commanded.
Two servants hurried to lay the saddle upon the dead beast’s back. The master upended his bottle of brandy, meanwhile, downing the rest of its burning amber courage to help him see the ritual to completion. The bottle dry, he sighed angrily, breathlessly, and hurled it against a standing stone, shattering the glass as his chest heaved with mad resolve and contrary fear; desperate rage and mortal terror. He turned to me like a man invoking his daimon.
“Enough!” he said. He staggered toward me, falling on his knees, his brow profuse with sweat. “It will cleave true with keenness of blade or keenness of damnation, one or the other.”
The master extended his hand upon the stone altar, his fist closed except for the ringfinger, the latter apart from the others and still encircled with the silver token of his marriage. He had not taken it off for two years, nor ever would. Whether widower or bridegroom yet again, he would not doff the silver wedding ring that bound him to his beloved wife, Filianore, now lost in the shades of the realm beyond.
“Strike quickly!” he commanded. “Strike true!”
I put aside the whetstone and readied the ax in my hand with a tight grip, a careful aim, and a long hesitation.
“Damn you, Matthew!” the master shouted. “Be done with it!”
I brought the crescent blade down upon the master’s ringfinger. The blade made a rather satisfactory butcher’s sound, as should be heard in a shop when a butcher dresses a pig. The finger split from the hand, parting a hair’s width from the silver ring itself. Master cried out, but it seemed more a cry of exultation than pain or regret. He then took up the bleeding ringfinger, and the ring, and hurried to the dead horse. Kneeling down, the master spoke a few words which I did not understand. It was a different language. He spoke softly, urgently, then pressed the severed finger into the horse’s mouth, as one would a bit for a bridle. At first, nought seemed to happen. The servants and I watched with abated breath, horror as wild in each face as hope was in the master’s. Quite suddenly the beast’s slack mouth tightened its teeth, clamping blindly upon the finger and the ring. The lax tongue lolled to life, spiraling like a searching slug until it had found the bloody end of the dismembered finger. It proceeded to lap at the bloody digit. The horse shuddered, then whinnied, and rose most unnaturally from its puddle of blood and filth, standing at attention on its four hooves. We backed away as one; all except the master who exulted.
“By Judas’s coin, it worked!” he shouted triumphantly. Then, in a lower voice, he said, “Strap the saddle tightly upon the beast’s flanks.”
No one moved forth to do as bidden. We exchanged glances as war-time compatriots might when one unwittingly spoke the name of a savage battle none were meant to speak of again.
“Secure the saddle!” the master shouted.
We would not.
“Craven and callow, the lot of you!” he shouted, then secured the straps himself, his four-fingered hand fumbling with leather and blood in slippery disunity.
The horse meanwhile stood silently, tonguing the master’s severed finger, but otherwise it did nothing. The hole in its forehead revealed the cooled mush of its oozing brains. To look upon it was to look upon the frailties and treacheries of flesh, and to marvel at the abominations rendered unto it by the despair of the soul.
The saddle secure now, the master pulled himself up onto the undead beast’s back. There were no reins, nor was there need for them.
“To Filianore, you diabolical creature!” the master cried. “Bring me to my beloved on the Plutonian shore!”
The horse hobbled at first, its limbs trembling with reawakened life, then hastened into an unnatural gallop, the motion of its legs graceless and mechanical, like a puppet worked by inept hands and slackened strings. But by strides, and by infernal powers not meant for the scope of Man, the pale horse rose from the earth and treaded the nocturnal air, rising and rising into that blasphemous sky with its lich moon and baleful stars, rising into the air like a wandering wraith and carrying the master to lands unknown to all but the most damned of men.
We waited for hours. It was yet not dawn and we sat in the ring of standing stones, not knowing whether we wished the master to return or not. The sun’s warmth remained as a sullen orange glow beyond the trees. The chill of night lingered, alongside the dew, and a fog tumbled groggily with the nightmare phantoms of what had been dreamt that night before.
We saw the silhouettes through that ghostly fog; gray shadows half-glimpsed by eyes and half-dismissed by reason. The horse emerged first, its head yet cratered with the fury of the shell. Then the figure emerged beside the horse, stumbling as if a drunkard fresh from the tavern. It was the master, though now his dark hair was whiter than the fog itself; his face gaunt and wrinkled too much for a man even of three decades henceforth. Yet, the gleam of mad triumph illuminated his sunken eyes.
And then there was Filianore. She swayed with the lethargic amble of the horse, tilting slowly left and then right, left and then right, near enough to falling off on either side, yet she did not fall. She yet wore the white dress in which she had been buried, only now the veil was sallow, the dress stained with filth and rot and the ruin of the grave. But it was her eyes that transfixed all upon whom they gazed. For there were no eyes in her head: only empty black sockets in which worms writhed in cloyed stupefaction.
And upon a pale horse she came. Upon a pale horse she came for us all.