The damned horses had nearly got him. Stupid animals. Who did they think would feed them if they killed him? Serve them right if they starved. It was just a thought, but it blossomed in his quaking mind like an exotic flower - or a blood stain. A new idea. Obvious. Why had he not thought of it before?
He knew they could get into his mind now. That was how they almost had him - again. The first time it was a simple mechanical ploy. He was sitting on a platform at the top of their special enclosure. One had walked nonchalantly over and stood gazing through the bars of the fence in an uncharacteristic show of placid, horse-like behaviour. His suspicions were aroused by this and the fact that the others appeared to be holding their breaths and surreptitiously watching. The horse below turned slowly, as if to walk away, then suddenly kicked the fence with its hind hoofs. It almost jarred him into the enclosure. Almost. Not quite. If he'd been less alert and ready for their tricks, they would have had him that time.
It was alarming. They seemed to be laughing at him. He could swear they were mocking him. That time he wondered if he was getting paranoid. They were only horses. He had to get a grip.
This time was different. They had got into his head and were exercising some sort of power over him. First they wanted to be fed. They wanted real food - not oats or some miserable substitute for their proper diet. The message was very clear. They knew that he knew what they needed. The problem was that he couldn't just get that sort of thing on demand. So they were willing him, with extraordinary force, to enter their enclosure. He'd felt this power of command growing steadily for months. Unbelievably. He'd refused to believe it at first, when it was just like a small itch in the back of his mind. But now it was a mighty force, that could almost dominate him when he got close to them. Waking from a daze, he'd found himself drawing back the heavy bolts on the gate to the enclosure. It was so close. His bowels turned to water at the thought. And he could feel that power even now, inside the house. It was still growing.
He could feel them reacting to his idea of allowing them to starve. An excruciating bolt of pain and dread seared his brain. He gasped and grabbed the front of his head. It felt as if his eyes would explode. Staggering, he clutched the back of a chair. Bastards! They were just bloody horses! Mares. They couldn't do this! There were tears streaming down his face. Breathing heavily, he looked up and was shocked to catch his reflection in the window. He looked small and old and frightened - like someone else. Baxter was a big bloke (in his own mind at least) - 5 feet 8 inches and stocky, with thick, wavy brown hair. And he looked like a hard bastard because that's what he was! Not any more. The startled face looking back at him from the window belonged to a frightened little grey mouse. He was shaking now.
Those fiends were jeering at him in his mind. They'd starve! He groaned as an unbearable pressure squeezed his heart. All right! All right! I'll feed you! Just stop killing me. You don't understand, do you? If you kill me, there's nobody else here to feed you and you can't get out of the enclosure. The thought-forms that flowed back to him did not acknowledge this truth that, these horses - these unnatural beasts, these diabolically intelligent, bloody minded mares - must surely understand. Deep within the fog of black terror that he could no longer hide from himself, a small note of puzzlement quivered. Who did they think was coming to feed them? They clearly did believe someone was coming ....
Reasons to be terrified ... . His mind was inundated all at once, by a wave of malicious anticipation. They were looking forward, hungrily, to meeting him at close quarters. It just wasn't possible at this moment, to think straight. Baxter, who feared no-one and nothing, was conscious, at last, that he'd never been more afraid in his life. He was more afraid than he'd imagined a human being could be. Terror was one of the tools of his trade, but when he'd used it, he'd never imagined inflicting this level of terror on a victim. It was quite an experience, but he was too terrified to appreciate it just now.
How bitterly he regretted 'acquiring' these awful mares! Right now, he lamented the loss of his good sense in coveting his neighbour's evil, demon horses. Well, not his neighbour exactly. He didn't know who they really belonged to. When one of his criminal low-life associates had taken him out on a yacht and shown them to him through a pair of binoculars, gracefully galloping across a Greek island, and then offered to appropriate them on his behalf, he couldn't say no. They were the most perfect things he'd ever seen.
It didn't seem to matter too much that they were really so unique and recognisable that he'd never be able to do much with them other than enjoy training and riding them himself. But then it soon became clear that they couldn't be trained or ridden. They were utterly savage. He'd hired a trainer for them who had an extraordinary reputation for working successfully with difficult horses. That was when he learned about their very singular dietary requirements. Up to that point he'd been feeding them the normal equine diet - or offering it to them at least. They weren't interested in the usual nose-bag though. They'd got wretchedly thin and wraith-like. Nobody had got into the enclosure with them since they had been delivered to the estate. The trainer was the first.
Observing from his platform, Baxter felt unaccountably tense. The four stood together watching as their new trainer, all unsuspecting, closed the distance between them. One trotted away and circled round behind him. He glanced at it over his shoulder, unconcerned, then continued to walk towards the other three. The fourth walked casually over to him, not trying to disguise its approach, looking almost friendly. Baxter leaned forward and gripped the rail. An alarm was clanging in his head but something stopped him shouting the warning. The fourth horse suddenly reared up as Baxter released his untimely bellow and brought a hammer blow of its hoof down upon the man's head, shattering his skull. The attack was so quick and lethal, he didn't have a chance even to cry out. The four moved in to feed, ripping ragged lumps of bloody flesh from his face and arms before tearing at his obstructing garments. In almost no time the man was reduced to a mass of pulp and gore and the faces of the mares were hideous, bloody masks.
Baxter watched. He couldn't tear his eyes away. A horrible fascination held him in thrall. There was nothing he could do and he didn't know what to think, so he just watched, aghast.
For a while after their grisly meal, they seemed calmer - almost like normal horses.
That was also the time he first felt the itch in his mind, that he only later recognised as the will of these terrible demon horses. Even at that early stage they'd established a measure of control over him, though he was unaware of it. They had to be fed. He offered them a variety of fresh meat. Steak that he would have been happy to eat himself was treated with disdain. They had to feed. An old associate called in to see him - just passing through, thought he'd stop by. Baxter had a long-term grudge against the man. He introduced him to the mares. The mares were delighted to meet him and greeted him in their own inimitable fashion. It was perfect. The pressure was off, the horses were satisfied and Baxter's list of enemies was shorter by a count of one.
After that, he arranged irregular meetings with this or that member of his mental hit-list and found some pretext to bring them back to the estate. He was careful not to arouse suspicion. Even so, suspicion inevitably did get aroused. As he worked his way through the list, it didn't go unremarked that the men who went missing were all fellows with whom Baxter had a bone to pick. It had to stop. And that was when the problems really started. The girls had quietly, stealthily, burrowed into his mind without his realising. They still had to be fed and now they had a line of communication, hot wired straight in through the cortex. Baxter thought he knew how to apply pressure, but his methods didn't compare with these Nightmares'.
There were layers of control in place - mostly subtle and undetectable. The brutal, overt, top level, he fought with all his might because he was horribly aware of it. He felt their mocking contempt stoking up his rage. They laughed at his rage - daring him, provoking him. Inside, he buzzed angrily like a blue-bottle in a web, unaware of all the threads that secured him, dissipating his energy, battling against just the one thread he could see.
Brooding on his hellish situation - one from which he could, apparently, easily have escaped, had it occurred to him sooner - he started wondering what furnace could have produced these fiendish creatures and how they had been kept before his former associate had 'liberated' them on his behalf. His discreet investigations had produced mystifying results. Ancient myths, in fact. Nothing that made any sense. But then sense was no longer in bountiful supply. And the deeper he was sucked into the rank ooze of this hideous mire, the more sense did the insane notions of old gods and mythical beasts seem to make.
Superstitious nonsense perhaps, but Baxter recognised these horses as the ones Hercules stole from Diomedes. Everything about them ... . But no. It was too ridiculous. Still not a believer, still desperate to know - an idea, possibly one of his own, struck him. It was his final undoing.
He attempted to take a photograph of the horses, meaning to upload it onto a couple of well-known websites where it would stimulate curiosity and debate. Every photograph he took came out shadowed, blurred, out of focus and barely recognisable as a horse. Instead he hired an artist to paint the beasts. The man was sworn to secrecy and then he carried out his commission, producing a very life-like representation of two of them. The man was a genius. He might have captured the very soul of these savage creatures on his canvas. Baxter was startled at the furious power and malice starkly depicted in every brush-stroke. It was breath-taking.
Unlike the living animals, this could be photographed, reduced, scanned and uploaded. The digitised version lost none of the original's power to disturb. It soon stirred up a lively conversation online. He was able to sit back and read the posts without making himself known; waiting for a clue from anyone with knowledge of the real owner - perhaps the owner himself.
Meanwhile, the talented artist, despite his fear of Baxter, had whispered his secret. He could hold it in no longer. Haunted by hideous nightmares and ominous day-dreams, he began to fear for his sanity. Grim apparitions of the frightful horses seemed to stalk him, waking or sleeping. His long, detailed observation of their form, movement, spirit - their essence - had made such a profound and sinister impression upon him, that he felt his mind would never be free of their malignant influence again.
At the point when he uttered the secret that was weighing so heavily on his tormented mind, the fear of Baxter was massively outweighed by the growing sense of terror and oppression engendered by the spectres that haunted and pursued him. He remained unaware of their sly manipulation even as the mares transmitted ghastly images of the leak and its consequences to Baxter.
Baxter's hot rage had long since burned itself out. He'd found a new equilibrium, a short distance from the edge of the dark abyss - just where they wanted him. He'd become accustomed to receiving his messages from them in the form of brutal mental blows: threats, commands, derision. When the first image was transmitted, via one of the threads that had remained dormant until that moment, his jaw dropped and his eyes bulged. He looked like a cartoon. Their barbarous mirth fizzed like tinnitus in his head. Paralysed with terror, he felt the edge draw closer - as if compensating for his inability to move.
Shivering with cold and .... that unspeakable other feeling, in his over-heated house, Baxter was made aware that something was approaching. Cruel, triumphant derision and contempt echoed through his bewildered and shrinking mind. They were going to eat him. Soon. It was true. He had no doubt now. Vaguely he knew that he should flee - but he couldn't. The horses he had tried so hard to control now had complete control over him. The only thing now preventing his immediate submission to their will, was the withdrawal of their command for him to come to their enclosure. Their victory celebration could wait for the arrival of their beloved master.
By the time the vehicles arrived, hours of agonising mental torture had driven Baxter's personality deep into a dark recess of his mind. There it crouched cowering behind a curtain of flimsy fabric: the mouldering warp of denial and the fraying weft of insanity. As the men stepped from the Landrovers, the now outwardly catatonic ruin, who had once been a rich, powerful and feared criminal, stumbled from the house, supported by the will of the mares who directed his movements like a radio-controlled toy.
Three darkly handsome men approached like hunting lions - graceful, rippling, deliberate. Baxter clenched his mind as he became aware once more of the hooks and tweezers of the mares teasing him out of his fragile shelter. Inch by inch, they dragged him from his hiding place and into the light of day. Blinking in the surprisingly bright sun-light, he tried to focus his eyes on the new arrivals but found neither his eyes nor his mind were capable. He whimpered, feeling the amusement of his tormenters. His mental processes shuddered lethargically back to life. They wanted him fully awake and aware - to experience every excruciating moment that remained of his life. The threads of the web that ensnared his mind were no longer hidden from him. His sluggish thoughts laboured to construct meaning out of this appalling reality.
Revenge and punishment. Rewards and retribution. The meaning was the same as it had ever been. The rewards had always seemed irresistibly desirable - right up until he possessed them. Then they just added to the pointless clutter of his life - possessions that had to be worried about and guarded. Ultimately, they'd always been easily outweighed by those other things. As far back as he could remember, the punishment and retribution side of the equation had invariably dominated. He'd learned from the heavy fist of his father and had maintained and increased the imbalance himself since killing the old sadist. Full circle. Longing for oblivion, he felt his senses sharpening, his horror rising - once more.
The first Greek, a giant of a man, strode straight past him and greeted the excited horses. The other two flanked Baxter, hardly even glancing at him in their contempt. They neither touched nor spoke to him. As the giant reached the enclosure, Baxter slumped to the ground. The hateful mind control and physical support had been curtailed as greetings between old friends were exchanged. Baxter panted, his perceptions expanding as the icy tendrils of terror slackened. Then, without further delay the big man unfastened the gate of the enclosure and invited the ladies out. The other two gentlemen stepped aside to avoid being inadvertently massacred while the mares got their man, got their revenge, got their dinner.
They could have finished him off with one swift, merciful kick to the head. They'd already had hours of fun tormenting him, compelling his mind into the chasm of blank horror, only to drag him back for further tribulation - this time physical torture. They usually killed their prey quickly and cleanly. But not Baxter. Baxter had kidnapped them, starved them, defied them, demeaned them and now they were going to eat him. Starting with his feet.
He struggled weakly as hard, blunt, equine teeth clamped onto his arm. The pain was tremendous, causing the note of their taunting - a constant echo vibrating through his mind - to fade into insignificance. Another slammed a hoof down on his foot. His shoe burst open. The flesh burst open. His ears were protected from the sound of shattering bones by the thundering hiss of his blood surging through them. No other sensation was withheld from his shocked and traumatised senses. The air exploded from his lungs as he collapsed, generating a shriek that he didn't recognise as being within the range of sounds he could possibly produce. So high pitched and shrill that it didn't even sound human, it mingled with the throb and hiss of his blood and the contented nickering of the mares. Unhurriedly, they arranged him for their convenience and his discomfort. He felt stretched and distorted. His foot was a conflagration of agony that seemed to be intensifying - until the next hammer-hoof demolished his other shoe. The detonation of agony surpassed belief. He should have passed out. They were keeping him awake, aware, alert. As his mind attempted to recede, the hooks of their will drew him back, to complete their entertainment. One horse stood either side, each with iron-hard, heavy hoofs pinning his hands. He gazed up at them, not seeing clearly, then realised with horror that he could see himself, lying spread-eagled, broken and bleeding - through their eyes. He screamed again as his broken hands were crushed into the unyielding turf. He screamed as the jaws clamped down on his naked foot. He went on screaming, observing himself being devoured, tasting his own flesh and blood as the hot, sticky lumps were swallowed, until he passed out through loss of blood. The last thing he was aware of as he faded to blessed oblivion, was the relief felt by the Greek gentlemen as he finally stopped screaming.
Strangely, his last thought was simple gratitude for their sympathy.