“Rain & Iron”

“Rain & Iron”

Originally published in True Dark anthology (Red Skies Press, 2013).


Zlygost woke to the touch of cold rain and the sound of creaking iron.

He opened his eyes slowly.

The cage was suspended by a chain some six or seven feet off the ground. It was only an arm’s length wide and just high enough for a tall man to stand upright. The iron bars were caked with rust. Jammed into a crouching position at the bottom of the cage, Zlygost found it difficult to move. After fending off an initial surge of panic, he managed to pull his aching body to its feet. The cage swung back and forth as he worked his limbs free and the iron chain above him groaned with every movement.

He glanced around to find himself in the center of a village square. Most of the old buildings were fashioned from crudely hewn blocks, their crumbling foundations set in thick, soggy mud. Wooden shutters covered some of the windows, but they were scarred with weathered cracks and rotting away at the corners. The rain-swollen clouds hanging overhead blotted out the sun and the gloom seemed to suck the color out of everything, leaving behind only a gray, lifeless haze. Aside from the pattering of the rain and the creaking chain above the cage, the village was silent.

There were a few bodies lying in the muddy streets. Zlygost pressed his face against the bars of the cage to get a better look at the closest one, a man dressed in simple, woolen clothing. His body was covered with black sores, some of which were as big as a man’s fist.

Plague, he thought. It had been spreading fast as the refugees from the fighting in Livonia poured into western Muscovy. Along with the famine, it was a fitting consequence of Tsar Ivan’s pointlessly vain war.

Zlygost pulled back from the bars and looked over the rest of the bodies he could see. All of them bore similar marks. It seemed likely that disease had claimed the entire village.

“Who are you?”

The voice came from behind him and startled him so badly that he lurched forward to slam his face into the rusty bars. He managed to regain his balance as the cage swayed back and forth, and he turned around to find two children, a boy and a girl, standing there. The boy looked to be about ten or eleven years old, the girl somewhere closer to fifteen. Their hair was long, tangled, and black. They were dressed in ragged clothing and wore no shoes. Although it was difficult to make out through the rain and the dim light, their eyes appeared to be black.

“Who are you?” the boy asked.

The children stood completely still as they stared at him.

His first attempt to respond left him coughing up bits of grayish phlegm. After taking a moment to clear his throat, he managed to croak out an answer.


“Why are you in there?” the boy asked.

Zlygost had no answer. The last thing he remembered was leaving the city of Novgorod, but he could not say how long ago that had been or how it had led to his present situation.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

The boy giggled and leaned over to the girl.

“He’s not sure!”

The girl did not laugh.

“He’s been touched,” she said. “The nechist stink is all over him.”

The word chilled him. Zlygost’s grandmother used to terrify him with stories of the nechistaya sila, the unclean force that had lurked in the shadows of old Russia long before God’s church arrived there.

“Is he going to die soon?” the boy asked.

“Not yet,” the girl said.

“What do we do with him, then?”

The girl stepped closer to the cage, but stopped just short of where Zlygost’s reach likely ended.

“Leave him. We can come back for him later.”

The boy smiled.


Without another word, the children walked past the cage and approached the nearest body. They knelt beside it and carefully peeled away the clothing.

Once the corpse was naked, the children ate it.

Their mouths opened wide enough to swallow a large man’s fist, revealing row upon row of serrated teeth that shredded through the dead man’s flesh with minimal effort. They tore away chunks of muscle and fat to be gulped down with a single swallow.

Zlygost tried to look away, but he could not pull his gaze away from the loathsome spectacle. His empty stomach heaved painfully and he fell back against the iron bars as he tried to keep his throat clear. The sound of tiny, gnashing teeth grinding against the corpse’s bones carried above the splattering rainfall and Zlygost’s skin prickled as the children scoured every bit of flesh away from the body.

There seemed to be no limit to their appetite. They moved on to the next body when they had finished the first, and then on to another after that. Trapped in his iron prison, Zlygost could do nothing but watch their abominable feast with a growing, bitter sense of dread. Within a few minutes, they had consumed every body in the village square, leaving only scattered piles of bones behind.

When they finished their grisly work, the children returned to the cage. Their long black tongues lapped up the red grime that had collected around their lips as they approached. Once their faces were clean, they sucked away the bits of flesh caught under their fingernails and pulled larger chunks of gristle out of their wet, matted hair.

“I’m still hungry,” the boy said.

Panic coursed through Zlygost’s suddenly energetic limbs as he pressed his back against the wet, rusty iron. He imagined them pulling one of his legs through the narrow bars of the cage and gnawing at his toes, imagined hearing the crunch of bone as they tore through his cold, numb flesh.

The girl sighed.

“There are more houses on the other side of the village,” she said. “We’ll try there first.”

The boy smiled.

“And then we can come back for this one?”

“Yes,” she said.

“What if he’s not ready?” the boy asked.

The girl glanced up to meet Zlygost’s unblinking stare. Her eyes were empty and black.

She smiled.

“Then we wait.”

Zlygost could not bring himself to move until the children had passed out of sight. Once they were gone, he fell forward and nearly struck his forehead against the bars of the cage. Once he caught his breath, he started struggling desperately with the cage’s lock. It was old and corroded, but still more than functional. He needed some kind of tool if he hoped to open it. There was nothing in the cage itself that he could use to pick the lock.

Frustrated, he slumped down in the cage and the chain that held it aloft groaned with the shifting weight. Zlygost looked up to see that the chain was affixed to a wooden beam protruding from an old, stone column. The chain was as rusty as the cage, and the beam looked like it was beginning to rot.

Zlygost stood up and began to rock the cage back and forth. The chain seemed to hold firmly, but the wooden beam creaked under the strain. He kept the cage swinging until he heard a faint snap, which was quickly followed by a much louder crack.

The beam gave way suddenly and the cage crashed down into the mud. Most of the corroded, iron bars snapped upon impact and Zlygost tumbled out of the cage. His leg, however, was caught between the bars and he felt it crack when he hit the ground. Intense pain lashed through his body and his vision faded into darkness.

When Zlygost regained consciousness, he lay still in the mud for a few moments before he remembered the sight of those monstrous children scouring the flesh from the bones of the dead villagers. Fear brought him strength once again and he managed to pry his broken leg free of the twisted, iron bars. To his great relief, he found that the bone had not punctured the skin. The discovery did not diminish the pain, however, and it was clear that he would not be able to walk any time soon.

Anxious that the children might return at any moment, Zlygost crawled through the mud towards the nearest building. When he finally reached it, he unlatched the door, hauled himself out of the rain, and shut the door behind him.

The interior of the building reeked of rotting food and excrement; Zlygost had to clamp his hand over his mouth to keep from throwing up. Every breath made him want to gag and it took several minutes for his stomach to settle and his nostrils to adjust to the fetid air. Once they had, he tried to get a sense of his surroundings.

Bits of decayed food were scattered across the dirt floor and a few roughly fashioned pieces of furniture were overturned. At the far end of the single-room dwelling, there were two beds pressed against the wall. Zlygost crawled over to them and found the first one occupied by a corpse covered with the familiar sores that he had seen on the ones outside. The body was slightly bloated and insects were already gathering around the oozing blisters.

“Who’s there?”

Zlygost’s heart jumped at the unexpected sound and he would have cried out had his voice not been so hoarse. When managed to still his quivering stomach, he glanced over to the other bed to see something moving beneath the heavy blankets. A young woman’s face peered out at him. Her eyes were swollen shut and tiny droplets of blood seeped out of her skin’s pores. The fever had moved into its final stages; she probably had a day or two left at most.

“Quiet,” Zlygost said, struggling to contain his disgust at the sight. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

The woman’s head slumped back down to the bed.

“So dark…”

“Wait,” he said, his curiosity overcoming his sense of caution. “The man outside in the cage. How did he get there?”

The woman shuddered and her breathing hastened. A thick, gargling sound welled up from her chest as her body began to convulse.

Zlygost looked back to the door, fearful that the sound would carry out into the square.

“Quiet! They’ll hear you!”

Blackish-red bile spilled over the woman’s lips and her back arched as it went into spasm. The swollen pustules covering her body tore open as she thrashed about in a fit of coughing and vomiting. Her piteous, hacking cries grew louder and Zlygost envisioned the eager, hungry children drawing closer to the house. The sound of crunching bone echoed inside his ears and a shudder ran through his limbs.

He scrambled over to the woman and yanked her off of the bed. She continued to flail wildly when she hit the floor. Her eyes had rolled back to expose only the bloodshot whites, and her throat had cleared enough viscous liquid for her to let out a pained scream.

Frantic, Zlygost grabbed her blanket and pressed it against her face.

“Be quiet!”

The woman struggled, but Zlygost slammed her head against the floor and forced the rough fabric into her mouth. He groped around for her nose under the blanket and clamped it shut.


She tried to push his hands away as she gagged, but the fever had left her too weak to put up much resistance. After only a few moments, her limbs slowly dropped to her side and her body grew still. Zlygost fell back onto the ground, his heart racing.

The woman had stopped breathing.

He didn’t bother removing the blanket.

The feeling of her face squirming beneath his fingers clung stubbornly to his skin and Zlygost frantically shook his hands. He wiped them off on his wet pant legs and then rubbed them in the dirt until his palms were cracked and bleeding. The resulting pain pushed the horror of what he had just done aside, and his thoughts returned to the children that were roaming somewhere in the village.

When they came back to the square, they would be looking for him.

He looked around the room for anything that he might be able to use to fashion a splint for his injured leg. The search produced nothing suitable to brace it, but he did find a shovel leaning in one of the room’s darker corners. It would make for a crude crutch, but it was better than crawling through the mud. He hauled himself up on his good leg and reached out to take it.

When his hand passed into the shadow-draped corner, he saw something moving on it. He yanked it back and shook it out again, thinking that perhaps an insect had perched upon his skin. Seeing nothing, he decided that it had been a trick of his weary eyes and he reached for the shovel again.

This time, he watched his hand closely. As it entered the shadow, he saw tiny, black tendrils sprout from his skin’s pores. They writhed slowly like blind worms emerging from the soil, brushing against one another and intertwining as they spread across his exposed flesh. The shadow itself felt warm and dry, far more comforting that the cold, sodden air that hung inside the dwelling.

His eyes widened and the frantic terror seized him once more.

Nechistaya sila.

He grasped the shovel and withdrew his hand from the shadow. The black strands vanished immediately as the dim light touched his skin again. He studied his hand intently for several seconds, but could find no indication that there was anything wrong with it beyond his self-inflicted injury.

Leaning on the shovel, he put a hand to his forehead. Despite the cold temperature, he felt hot. His gaze drifted to the plague-ridden corpses at the far end of the room.

Is the fever setting in?

A firm knock on the door pulled his attention away from the mystery.


It was the boy’s voice. He sounded happy.

“Are you still in there, Zlygost?”

Panicked, Zlygost backed away from the door and hobbled over to the beds. His eyes darted all around the house looking in vain for some other avenue of escape.

A tremendous blow ripped the wooden door from its hinges and sent it flying against the opposite wall. Two pale faces peered inside as Zlygost cowered between the beds, trembling.

The boy smiled.

“Found you!”

The girl did not appear to share his amusement. Her face remained somber as they slowly moved inside. She glanced down at his leg and then at the shovel.

“Won’t get far with that,” she said.

The boy pointed to the corpse of the woman lying near Zlygost.

“That one’s fresh,” he said.

Every muscle in Zlygost’s tightened as the girl approached. He considered lifting the shovel to strike at her, but once again she stopped just beyond his reach. She knelt down by the woman’s corpse and pulled the blanket away from her face and out of her mouth.

She looked up at Zlygost and smiled.

“Very fresh.”

Her lips drew back to reveal the rows of teeth that lined her distended jaw as she began to tear the clothing away from the woman’s body. The boy was already gnawing upon the corpse’s arm before she’d finished.

Zlygost considered staving the girl’s head in with the shovel, but he feared what would happen if he missed or failed to kill her. Instead, he lurched towards the door, using the shovel to all but vault his way out of the charnel house. The boy and the girl both ignored him as he passed by, though he thought he heard the boy giggling.

Emerging from the doorway, he started hobbling across the village square, but the mud made his progress difficult. He slipped and slid and very nearly fell a few times as he navigated a maze of overturned wagon carts, splintered barrels, and scattered piles of bones. But the town’s muddy streets and buildings remained unfamiliar to him. He had no idea where he should run to or what he would do when he got there.

The rain was falling harder now and it was getting late in the day.

Zlygost picked what appeared to be the widest road and followed it. He went some distance before reaching what appeared to be the outskirts of the village. There was more space between the buildings there and a pair of wooden posts just taller than a man stood on either side of the road a short distance ahead of him. He stopped when he reached them and turned to see the lettering that was carved into their sides.


He had visited almost every settlement within a dozen miles of Novgorod and was familiar with those he had not. This place, however, was unknown to him.

His eyes turned back to the road that led into the village. He could almost see the square from where he stood.

The boy and the girl were there, watching him.

Zlygost cursed and started down the road again.

The muddy road ran relatively straight. Wide, rolling hills spread out on each side of it. The landscape was barren, only occasionally broken up by a rock formation, a bog, or a patch of bent, stunted trees. Every few dozen yards, Zlygost looked over his shoulder. The heavy rain made it difficult to see anything, but there was no mistaking the two pale, black-headed figures keeping pace with him. They did not seem to be gaining on him, but they were also in no danger of falling behind.

Despite the rain and the fading light, Zlygost found that his body felt warmer as he went on. At first, he wondered if he had contracted the plague, but the sensation seemed too familiar and pleasant. His skin tingled and his stomach felt more fluttery than sick. On a few occasions, he glanced down at his hands and thought he saw the black tendrils sprouting from his skin again. There was no time to examine them closely, however; he needed both hands to wield his makeshift crutch effectively and maintain his meager speed.

It was nearly dark when Zlygost spotted light some distance ahead of him. There was a cottage nestled alongside an immense, moss covered boulder that sat just off the road. It was larger than any of the buildings he’d seen in the village and was constructed from a mixture of stone and wood. There was a stone chimney rising from the center of the roof and a thin trail of smoke puffed out from under the sheet of metal that shielded the fire inside from the rain.

Zlygost limped towards the cottage and banged on the door.

“Open up! Help me!”

There was no answer.

He looked behind him, but it was too dark to see if his pursuers were still on his trail.

“Help me! Please!”

Still no answer.

Zlygost reached down and tried the door latch. It lifted without difficulty and he pulled the door open.

The interior of the cottage was quite bright. There was a stone fireplace set along the far wall, which was at least partially formed by the side of the boulder. Various pots and pans were stacked near the fire and the main room was filled with wooden furniture covered with furs. A large, round table sat in the center of the room.

There was no sign of the cottage’s occupants.

Zlygost turned to look out the door.

The children stood in the middle of the road.

They were watching him.

He shut the door, threw the metal bolt into place, and then slumped over to one of the stools set around the table. The pain in his leg was getting worse and he felt exhausted. If the children came to the door, he feared that he didn’t have the strength to keep running from them.

The sound of something moving in the cottage caught his attention. To the right of the fireplace, there was a heavy curtain hanging over what seemed to be a doorway. The curtain was suddenly drawn back to reveal a tall, thin man dressed from head to toe in black clothing. A silver clasp shaped like a dog’s head held his cloak in place and a small, narrow broom hung from his belt. Long, brown hair framed his hawkish features and partially concealed his eyes. In the flickering, uneven firelight, Zlygost thought he caught tinges of crimson in the stranger’s fearsome gaze.

Oprichnik, he thought. A loyal dog of the tsar. Cold, cruel, merciless.

Zyglost held his breath to keep his weary body from shaking. They stared at each other for a moment before the man spoke.

“Didn’t think to find you here.”

Zlygost exhaled slowly as he shook his head.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I knocked at the door, but no one…”

Oprichnik waved his hand.

“Forget it. It’s not my house, either.”

He stepped over to the fireplace and picked up a leather sack lying next it.

“Are you hungry?”

Zlygost’s stomach had been turning inside out since he’d stepped into the cottage. The fireplace should have provided plenty of heat, but the place somehow felt colder and damper to him than the outside air.


The man shrugged and tossed the sack onto the table. He then took up the iron poker sitting next to the fireplace and stabbed at the logs burning inside. The surge of light hurt Zlygost’s eyes and he recoiled as sparks flew from the fire. When the oprichnik was finished, he left the tip of the poker imbedded in the red-hot coals.

There was a knock at the door.

Zlygost nearly leapt from the stool as he turned towards the sound.

“That will be for you, I take it?”

He looked back at the strange man, who was now standing next to the fire with his arms crossed.

“Wretched things. Plague always draws Baba Yaga’s brood out from under their rocks.”

“For God’s sake,” Zlygost said, “you have to help me!”

The man looked down at him.

“I’m afraid you’re already beyond God’s reach, Zlygost.”

There was another knock at the door.

Zlygost tried to ignore the sound this time.

“How do you know who I am?”

The oprichnik smiled.

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

Zlygost shook his head.

The man sighed.

“What’s the last thing you remember before today?”

Zlygost thought for a moment before answering. He was finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.

“I was leaving Novgorod,” he said.

“And after that?”

Zlygost tried to recall anything else, but there was nothing but darkness.

He shook his head.

“I woke up in that cage,” he said. “Everyone in the village was already dead.”

His hands trembled as he finished.

Almost everyone, he thought.

The man nodded.

“Well, I wouldn’t expect you to recall much of anything. It had a firm grip on you when I found you before.”

The firelight seemed to have grown much brighter. It was making Zlygost’s head hurt and he found it difficult to force his next question out.

“What had a grip on me?”

The man’s eyes narrowed.

“It’s recovering fast,” he said. “You don’t have much time left.”

Before Zlygost could ask what the oprichnik meant, pain wracked every nerve in his body and he fell out of his seat. He braced himself against the floor and saw hundreds of black tentacles slithering through the pores on the backs of his hands and his forearms. Beneath his clothing, his skin writhed as if it was covered with a tangled mass of serpents.

The oprichnik stood there watching him and seemed entirely unmoved by his pain.

Even as terror overwhelmed his reason, Zlygost tried to ask what was happening to him. He opened his mouth to voice the question, but the squirming tendrils had already sprouted from his tongue and the inside of his cheeks. They were slithering down his throat and spreading into his lungs.

But just as he felt as if he was about to suffocate, the pain receded and Zlygost felt warmth returning to his body. The darkness filled his gut and flowed through the veins of his shadowy flesh. He felt strength pouring back into his muscles and his senses became sharper than the finest of blades. A black cloud swept over his mind and pushed aside the senseless details that drove the petty ambitions of weaker, mortal beings.

Morality. Weakness.

Fear. Pointless.

Love. Meaningless.

The nichnytsia crushed Zlygost’s soul and buried it in the darkest depths of its malefic heart. Born of the nechistaya sila, the black one had no need for the feeble essence of humanity, only a living body to serve as a vessel for the dark substance of its true being. Restored to control of Zlygost’s body, it would again rule over the night that so terrified his mortal kin.

As the nichnytsia rose to its feet, the oprichnik calmly pulled the iron poker out of the fireplace and plunged its red-hot tip into the dark creature’s chest.

The intense heat of the glowing iron sent a rippling shockwave through the substance of the shadow and it lost hold of the sorcerous moorings that fused it to Zlygost’s physical body. The darkness retreated before it could be burned to lifeless ash, slinking back into its refuge deep within the host’s soul to nestle amidst the blackest parts of its nature.

Zlygost became aware of himself once again, felt his consciousness return to the body that had been torn away from him.

He also became aware of the iron poker that had been driven into his heart.

The oprichnik stepped back as he fell to the ground clutching at his wound. Zlygost tried to speak, but his mouth filled with blood.

A loud knocking sound echoed through the room.

“I’m sorry, Zlygost, but I can’t leave anything to chance this time.”

The oprichnik grabbed Zlygost by the arm, opened the door, and dragged his body outside. The rain sizzled when it struck the hot iron protruding from his chest.

Zlygost struggled to open his eyes.

The boy and the girl loomed over his dying body.

He heard his killer’s voice somewhere behind him.

“He’s all yours. Leave the iron where it is; it’ll hold off the nichnytsia until you’ve finished.”

The children knelt down beside him and began to pull at his clothing.

“Almost ready now,” the girl said.

His body was going numb. There was just enough sensation left in his limbs to feel something soft running over his leg.

A wet, crunching sound echoed faintly inside his head.

The rain came down harder as Zlygost’s vision faded.