The Tavern on the Borderlands

October 6, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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This pasta was the third place winner of our Ghost Stories Creepypasta Writing Challenge. Congratulations!

The second and first place winners will be posted across the next two days. Look forward to it!

Cage didn’t know if Richie was serious, but then again he thought it didn’t matter. They’d been running down this thin country road for nearly one and a half hour, pushing sixty ever since the state line was out of sight. With a speed like that there wouldn’t even be jelly left if they crashed, but Cage didn’t really think that mattered either. He almost welcomed the thought. Just get me out of this nightmare, he thought, just get me the fuck out of this hell.

“Fuck are you thinking about, Cage?” Richie asked him, throwing him a scant smile and a naked look of contempt. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, bopping up and down with the irregularities of the road. The stink of tobacco and tar was almost unbearable, but none of the others seemed to mind.
“Just shut the fuck up and keep your eyes on the road.” Cage said. His head felt as if it was splitting in half. The side where that cop had socked him was sticky with dried blood. He was in a bad mood. In his lap he had a bottle of whiskey concealed in a brown paper bag, old school bum style. He took a gulp and felt the carousel in his head slow down a bit. He then passed it to Richie, the driver, who took a large swig himself before passing it to the backseat. Jimmy Cats, at least that’s what everybody called him, took his arm off one of the girls he was groping to grab the paper bag. He took a swill and coughed before he passed it to Anne, the redhead to his left. They were all high on something, but Cage didn’t know what. Jenna looked like she was seconds away from passing out, or as if she already had. Her head rested on Jimmy’s shoulder and her lips were parted in a rather unattractive way. It was how retards looked just before they started drooling.

“Where the fuck are we even going?” Cage exclaimed, making no attempt to conceal his frustration. Jimmy cackled and passed him the bottle, the women grinning at him from whatever drug haze they currently inhabited.
“Who the fuck cares, man?” He said, and Cage could see his pupils were as large as industrial plates.
“Yeah!” Jenna agreed as she flung her arms around Jimmy’s neck. “Who the fuck cares, right?” Cage gave her a short look of disgust before he peered back out the window. The woods flung by as the car sped forth. Its headlights illuminated the trees briefly before giving way to the dark, and the effect created a soothing optical illusion. Cage felt his eyes lull shut, and as his mind started to drift onto the oceans of sleep, he remembered the cop.

He remembered her stopping them just a few miles from the Texas state line. She’d seen the booze, ordered Richie to step out of the car. They had all followed, even the girls, and before anyone even knew what was happening, they’d been beating her half to death. Cage had been socked once with a black heavy duty flashlight, the kind cops wore when they wanted to feel important. No one else had been hurt, and after Cage took his revenge with a crowbar, they got back in the truck and raced off, leaving the hillbilly hick state behind with a trooper dying in the dirt. Cage thought of her face, how it had somehow caved in as he beat down on it with the iron. He’d been in a lot of fights. They all had, but he most of all. The first man he’d fought was his father, who’d been rather keen on fighting as well, but only five to ten year old boys. When Cage turned fifteen he’d broken the old fucker’s arms in three places and had him running out of the house like a squealing pig.

After that the fighting just sort of came naturally. He beat people up for everything. He didn’t get the right amount of change at the local diner; a sock on the jaw. A stranger bumped him on the street; a kick in the ass, one in the face too if he was stupid enough to protest. He fought anyone for everything, didn’t matter how big or tough they were, you just didn’t fuck with Cage Reynolds. Despite this however, he’d never killed anyone before. Sure, the cop was breathing when they left, but with a head injury like that, not for long. She was dead alright. The thought formed a thick lump of dread in his chest. Dread that he was responsible for the death of… someone, anyone. Most likely she was just a deadbeat bitch with two fatherless kids and too much of a taste for the booze, but so what? She was just doing her job. A bribe could have done the trick, maybe, unless she was one of the naïve the-law-is-everything whores.
Well, it was too late to be sorry anyway. It had happened and – a sudden sound, like an explosion, and the car span out of control. The wheels shrieked as Richie stood on the breaks, the car turning sideways across the road and coming to halt just moments before it would have turned over. Cage hit his sore head and the pain was immeasurable. It no longer felt as if it was splitting in two, but as if it already had. He felt as if in the next second he would be sitting with the two halves of his brain resting in his lap.

“Holy shit!” Richie exclaimed, and Cage was furious to hear a giggle just underneath his words. What the fuck did that stupid prick have to laugh about?
“What the fuck happened?” He asked, and the pain was so bad he couldn’t even bring himself to shout.
“Flat tire,” Richie said. “We hit a nail or something, I don’t know.” He opened the door and got out. Cage followed on trembling legs, feeling as if he’d stepped out of the car and into the sea. Nausea set in as soon as his maiden steps were over, and the wretched stink of burnt rubber didn’t precisely liven up the day. He struggled to reach the ditch, but it was already too late. He bent over and left the steaming remains of his lunch on the worn road, adding another glorious smell to bless the area.
“What the fuck, man!?” Richie yelled, and as in cue, there was another retching of sick bowels from behind them. Jenna was on her knees on the other side of the car, pale like bleak moonlight and in the process of spewing scrambled eggs and coffee on the road.
“Jesus fucking Christ….” Richie said, and the tired exasperation in his voice was thick enough to win awards.
“Guys… I don’t feel too good…” Jenna moaned, falling on her side next to her mess and curling up into a shivering ball. Cage didn’t have time for them. As soon as his legs stopped trembling he went around to the back of the car. He flung the trunk open, removed the hatch to the spare wheel compartment and blinked at what he saw. There was a white plastic bag splotched with blood. The crowbar was inside; the chosen murder weapon used to escape a charge of drunk driving. There was nothing else however.

He slammed the trunk shut and turned his ever rising fury on Richie.
“How the fuck can you drive around without a spare?! Now we’re stuck here in the ass end of nowhere, you piece of shit!” His face had flushed with a bright red and spittle was flying from his lips as he yelled. He wanted to take it all out on Richie, blame him for the cop and for this entire fucking nightmare. Yet he knew he couldn’t, it really wasn’t Richie’s fault. Even the spare tire wasn’t his fault. How could he have known they were going to get a flat out here? His reasoning didn’t catch up to him just yet however. He was half a second away from using his fists to relieve himself of all that shit clogging up his brain pipes when Jimmy said;

“Shut up a moment.” He’d gotten out of the car and was still holding Anne. “You guys hear that?” Cage was just about to tell him off, but then he too heard it. There was something moving around in the woods. Leaves were scuffled by heavy feet, branches snapped and bushes were rattled. It sounded like a very large man who didn’t mind announcing himself was tumbling around in the underbrush.
“Who goes there?!” Richie yelled, and even the rebounding echo carried his trembling anxiety back with it. The darkness was too thick to reveal anything, and if it wasn’t for the glaring headlights of the car, they would have been engulfed by the unsettling blackness.
“It’s just a fucking animal or something.” Cage said, the explanation more for his own sake than theirs. The relief in his voice was palpable, but then Richie shot off the newest, lovely idea.
“What if it’s a bear or something?” He asked, and if Cage didn’t know better, he’d bet the guy was close to tears.

He was just about to open his mouth and tell him to get his fucking act together when a shrill shriek echoed between the trees. It sounded like the voice of a young woman, screaming to the point where her throat was just about to burst. Cage felt his heart grow tired of its original place and move somewhere up his throat. The blood drained from his face and he actually thought he’d pissed himself a bit.
“Get in the fucking car!” Jimmy screamed, abandoning Anne to force himself into the back seat. The others came after, Cage throwing himself in the passenger seat and Richie putting the pedal to the metal. The car screeched as it turned, leaning heavily on the flat tire and making a thunderous rumbling sound as it went. No one cared. Richie stood on the gas, barely having the time to switch gears which sent the engine into a roar of disapproval.

After a while, maybe after five minutes of rushing down the narrow road, Richie calmed down. He brought the car down to a slow roll and eventually stopped entirely. They just sat there, in silence, and eventually Cage started laughing. Richie stared at him as if struck by thunder. Then he first smiled, and was soon laughing as well. A moment later they were all cackling like loons. They didn’t stop until their eyes were teary red, their chests numb and hysteria leaked dry.
“That fucking animal scared the shit out of me.” Cage said, still smiling, and Richie answered it.
“You’re preaching to the coir, son.” He said and leaned back in his seat, panting. That’s when Cage spotted the sign on the left side of the road. The text was faded and tested by hard weather, but still possible to make out.
“Crawford Home; Bed & Breakfast,” Cage read out loud, his eyes squinting to make out the text. There was nothing odd about the sign, but as he read it they all shared a brief chill of superstitious dread.
“They may have a spare tire to sell, or give away. If anything, they’ll have a phone.” Richie said, trying to sound nonchalant without fooling anybody. His voice quaked with unsettled nerves. Neglecting the opportunity of civilization was a stupid decision, but Cage had no wish to go there, as a matter of fact his entire being told him to get out of the car and run for his god damn life. Inhaling, shakily and not knowing why, he said;
“Yeah. Let’s go.” Richie nodded and put his foot on the gas. The car moved unevenly and seemed to rock rather than roll, but they made progress. During all of this, no one saw the six shadowy shapes staring at them from the woods.

The house itself was a convincing sight. It was a cozy deep wood version of a Cape Cod, complete with an outdoor garage and a country style porch. A white wooden fence surrounded the building and a faint, oily light shone inside its tall windows. There were no other cars on the gravel driveway, and Cage figured the Crawfords must keep their own car in the garage. The alien feeling of wrongness had subsided, but it still lingered in the background. Cage brought it down to nothing but the rather fast paced events of the last few hours. His memory flashed to the cop dying in the road, her pale grey eyes staring up at him with a sort of accusing bewilderment. What happened, did you just strike me? If so, why would you do that?

He shook the thought and opened the passenger side door. He was immediately struck by the rather misplaced smell of newly cut grass. It was a grotesque mix of childhood harmony invading on his sinister sense of danger, making him almost lightheaded. Behind him he heard the other doors open, then the crusty protest of feet on the gravel. Jimmy came up to him and put an arm around his shoulders, smiling at him scantly with that pompadour greaseball haircut ruffled by the cool breeze. Something about that wind unsettled Cage further. It was like a breath of something large, cruel and dead.
“Fuck are you smiling about?” He said and shrugged him off. “I’m not one of your whores.” Jimmy rolled his eyes and shot back;
“You’re on your period or something, prick?” Cage ignored him and started walking towards the house, the others following closely behind. He wondered who’d build a place like this, surrounded by forest on both sides and situated deep in the middle of nowhere. Even the road, which was likely the closest thing this place ever got to a highway, was likely to go on forever into the uncharted wilds of nowhere land. He was glad to have found the place though, already forgetting about his earlier sense of foreboding. He strode up to the door and knocked like a fool before he noticed the doorbell. He rang it, and the chime from inside was also somehow strange. It rang with the metallic whine of something which was old and had stood unused for decades, like striking the key on an old piano.

There was no answer, and after some time Cage rang it again. The sleepy chime returned, wrapping them in a thick atmosphere of cold unease.
“I don’t like this…” Anne said and no one missed the fear in her voice.
“There is nothing to be fucking afraid of.” Cage said, speaking more to himself than to anyone else. After a while he beat the door in frustration, not very hard, but it swung open on whining hinges. Cage took a cautious step inside even though his heart pounded in his chest.
It was a narrow hallway with a staircase on the left. What looked like a century old lamp stood on a dresser just inside the door, emitting the oily light they’d seen from outside.
“Hello?” Cage said, taking another step inside. The floorboards creaked underneath his feet and Jimmy said;
“Well done, Gage. They didn’t hear the doorbell, but they’ll most likely hear your whispers.”
“Shut the fuck up, and don’t call me Gage, you know I hate it!” Cage roared at him, his cheeks flushed with anger. Jimmy threw up his hands in a I-give-up gesture and didn’t say anything more. Cage took another step inside and looked around, haunted now by a fresh bout of misgiving anxiety.
“Hello?!” He yelled, and this time there was no doubt that if no one heard, the place was either empty or all the residents were dead. There was no answer. Cage forced the chills away and said determinedly;
“Alright. The place is dead, let’s spend the night. Tomorrow we can look through the garage for something to use.” No one spoke up but Jenna, who held Anne’s hand tightly in hers and seemed to sway on her feet somewhat.
“Can’t we… Just go?” Her eyes pleaded to the group, but Cage knew the decision was up to him. Whether he or anyone else liked it didn’t matter; he was the leader. It was one of those things that just sort of happened. He was a take-charge-and-run personality, which made others just fall in line.

He ignored Jenna and stepped deeper into the narrow hallway. There was a musty smell about it, something which reminisced of old timber and dusty attics. Still, the place looked fresh. The floorboards were of a dark oak, elegantly veined and looking pleasantly antique. Them and the vintage appearance of the furniture made him sure this was the home of an elderly couple. Made sense he supposed. Old people living out here in the bushes must lack for company, so why not find it in strangers and get paid while you’re at it? While Cage, Jimmy and Richie went upstairs, Anne took Jenna by the hand and led her to a door on the far end of the hallway. It opened upon a medium sized living room, complete with a fireplace and old leather couches.
A gramophone stood on a desk in the left corner along with a neat collection of old photos. Jenna stepped inside first, looking like a girl in a dream. She moved slowly, as if sleepwalking, her fingers coming up to trail along the pictures on the walls, humming softly to herself. Anne wondered just how much X she’d been doing, for the moment neglecting to remember she’d been pretty shitfaced herself.
She strode cautiously across the room, reaching the fireplace and taking up one of the photos placed on the mantelpiece.
“Mom and Benny,” the picture said, and it showed a black and white photograph of a young woman in her thirties petting a large, black dog. The picture looked as if it had been taken sometimes in the late forties or the early fifties, and to Anne’s surprise, she noticed there was a rather thick sheen of dust covering the display.

“Jen, I don’t think anyone’s been here for some time…” She said thoughtfully, but when she spun around she was alone in the room. Opposite to the hallway and next to the desk with the gramophone, a door stood ajar. She couldn’t make out what was inside, the darkness was just too thick, but the sight of that wall of blackness made her more than just uneasy. It lit a panicked flame of cold dread somewhere inside her chest, and she felt a longing for the bleak light in the hallway. She swallowed, tried to gather her courage by thinking she might just be a little too old to be afraid of the dark. Then again, this didn’t feel like something that simple. It was not like being haunted by that anxious notion that someone, or something, may be waiting beyond the borders of what you could see. This was the heart curdling terror you felt when you were walking around the woods and saw a bear approaching in the distance. It was the sheer and simple instinct of preservation telling her to put her fucking legs on her back and get the fuck away, just away, wherever and never come back.
Of course, like in most such instances, two natural forces collided, fought and one prevailed. In this case it was human curiosity, mixed with the simple pattern of the taught knowledge that the darkness couldn’t hurt you. Anne proceeded forward. The open door loomed in front of her, silent and ominous like the gaping mouth of a hungry beast. As she came closer to the door, she became aware of a rank smell. It was not unbearable, but it was not very pleasant either. It reminded her of when she’d been a child, those golden days in her home town, where she and the other kids on the block used to catch bugs and place them in little jars. Like all kids, as soon as the game was over, they dropped the jar somewhere and forget about it. One time she’d found one of those jars, almost covered in dirt and concealed behind the shed in the backyard.
At the bottom of the jar, magnitudes of dead insects had gathered in some sort goo; a yellow liquid of some stuff she didn’t want to think about, not even then when she was six or seven years old. Then too her curiosity had prevailed, and she had opened the jar. The stink which had come out was exactly like that which emanated from the inside of that ominous door. Still, it was faded and not at all as strong. Her throat was too dry to let her make any sounds, but even if she could she didn’t think she would’ve. She stepped through the door, and she immediately became aware of a cool chill creeping up her back. It was like stepping into a cellar, but the room was so dark she couldn’t make out anything inside.

Her eyes did adjust however, and she could suddenly make out something in the distance. It was the human shape of someone standing against the far wall. She couldn’t make out any features, but then again she didn’t think she’d need to. She knew who it was. As she approached it, the smell became heavier. It seemed to surround her now, thick like a blanket of dead things, and she put a hand in front of her mouth and clamped down on her nose. She eventually reached what had been standing against the wall, but she never found Jenna.
The building had six bedrooms. This was something Cage, Jimmy and Richie had investigated thoroughly on the second floor. Each room was just what you would expect, situated on rows of threes on each side of a narrow hallway. It was neat, cozy and old. Everything was old. The three talked about it later, and all agreed that not a single piece of furniture could have been younger than the forties, some around the early fifties, but it was all vintage and worn in a loving way.
Cage got into one of the rooms and closed the door. He felt his day of exploration was over; all he really wanted to do was take something for his head and sleep. His muscles ached, or rather everything ached. The room was small, just large enough to fit a bed and a dresser, upon which an old mirror was situated. He trailed his hand over the wall on the side of the door, searching for the light switch, but there was none. So far they’d used their phones to navigate the area, but he wondered about the lack of electric lights. He spotted a candle on a nightstand next to bed and walked over to light it. Sure, a brilliant flash of modern ceiling lights would have been preferable, but you took what you could get. Small as the room was the candle managed it fine. Just when he’d lit it however, his peripheral vision caught a glance of something which shoved his heart right down his stomach before filling it with ice.

There was a shape on the bed, or at least he thought so. The shape of someone or something sitting on the other side, their back turned towards him and gaze staring endlessly into the wall. Cage spun around, a mask of fear contorting his face and a scream being born in his throat. There was nothing there, the room was empty and he exhaled deeply. His heart was still racing in his chest but he paid it no mind. Just a trick of the shadows, just his imagination, that was all. He sighed and fell backwards, feeling his muscles melt away as they relaxed. He groaned and allowed himself to close his eyes for a moment. It was heaven, absolutely heaven, and before his mind had even had the time to slow down, he was sleeping.
Jimmy didn’t hear what Richie said, but he honestly didn’t care. He found the old place neat, actually kind of awesome. It reminded him of his grandparents’ place back in New York, it even smelled the same. Old geezers such as they always saved all their stuff, never threw shit away and as such their place was always littered with vintage stuff. Like the others, he used the flashlight in his phone to navigate the dark rooms, opened drawers and even pocketed something nice here and there. What did it matter? The owners seemed to have gone awol anyway, they might not even be back in the morning, or even this week. He smiled his scant smile as he went from room to room, pocketed a nice looking porcelain figure here, a silver spoon there or something else which caught his eye. He stopped once to check his face in one of the mirrors and ran a hand through his jet black hair. He winked at his reflection. What a good looking guy he was, honestly. He was going to bring both Jenna and Anne up here together and let them tell him that as he fucked them. He hoped Cage would hear them moan, he always got pissed. Well, in truth he got jealous, but he got pissed because he knew it.
When Jimmy was about to leave for the first floor again, he noticed something odd. The wall panel was slightly ajar, and a cold breeze came through it. He put his finger in the crack and opened it, realized it was not the wall panel at all, but a door. A dusty staircase dwelt behind it, and he realized it was the way to the attic.

“Neat!” He exclaimed, smiling the way he always did and traversed the stairs. He didn’t hear the door close behind him. On top of the stairs was another door, or well, rather like a thin board of wood attached to a pair of hinges. He pushed it open with one hand and it whined quite forlornly, the rusty hinges almost screeching.
The walls were thin here, and he could hear the wind whining outside. It was an eerie tune, as if the world had gained a spooky voice. Jimmy didn’t mind though, he liked spooky, liked feeling a bit creeped out.
As he shone his light around the room, he wasn’t disappointed. It was full of old toys, and not just toys which had been put in neat boxes or scattered around the area. No, the room was set up as if someone was ready to play, but a silky sheet of cobweb covered them. It was a child sized table with four small chairs around it. In each chair a doll had been put, presumably to serve as guests, and the scene sure did a number on Jimmy. The thought that they had all been sitting here for twenty or even thirty years, left exactly the way some kid abandoned them decades ago, was a thought which sent chills down his spine.

“Just a fucking kid getup, Jimmy…” He said, trying to swallow his unsettled dread. He strode past the toys to explore deeper in the attic. As he passed the little table, a sense of real terror seeped into his heart. It was impossible to explain just how he felt it, but he got the notion as if he’d been invited to look at something, but he had disobeyed the rules. He’d walked right onto enemy territory. He tried to smile and shake the feeling, telling himself he was a tough son of a bitch and he sure as hell wasn’t afraid of nothing.
As if in defiance to the creeps, he put his phone down on the floor and started going through an old box. He uncovered an old diary which immediately caught his attention. He was just about to look through it when the light vanished. His heart stopped in his chest, and he sat there in the pitch blackness, unable to see even his hand in front of his face. He took a deep breath and reached for the phone. His fingers trailed over the floor, but they found nothing but dust.

“What the fuck…” He said, feeling tears welling up in his throat. He’d never been so scared in his whole life. That’s when the sound came. It was something from the deepest pit of his nightmares, born from the hell of his subconscious and manifested in the physical world. It was the sound of something very heavy being dragged across the floor, or in this case, up the stairs. It slammed against each step, creating a heart curdling “Thump” every time. It came closer, approached the attic, and soon he heard the thin wooden door creak open. It did so slowly, as if whatever was on the other side was in no particular rush. Jimmy felt a warm wetness within his pants and he realized he’d soiled himself. He was shaking, each breath strained and escaping him in short gasps.

The heavy dragging began again, this time inside the attic. There was a heavy, pounding step, and then came the sound of something slipping across the floor. Jimmy couldn’t make out what it was, just that it was heavy.
“Richie….?” He whispered, but his throat was so clogged up he only managed a thin wheeze. The dragging came closer, and the pounding step had vanished. Now there was only the drag and the slip. Drag – slip. Drag – slip. Drag – slip. Soon he could feel the vibrations from whatever was approaching in the floor, that’s how close it was. This is where his mind gave in however, where it decided to have mercy on his straining sanity. He managed to make out the faintest shape of something moving in the pitch black darkness, and then he fainted.

Cage awoke to the rumble of thunder. He had no idea how long he’d been asleep, not even where he was. He took a deep breath, and the air felt stale and wrong on his tongue. He sat up, the bedsprings creaking lightly, and suddenly he was aware that something was very off. When lightning cracked, he saw what. The room which lit up was not the same he’d fallen asleep in. Or rather, it was not the same version. Thick cobwebs hung in the corners, uncomfortably heavy with black spiders. The window looked as if it had first been bashed to pieces and then rotted apart. It was cracked inwards, the glass broken and scattered over the bedroom floor. A heavy blanket of dust covered it, dust which seemed to have been undisturbed for at least five decades. Confused and out of his mind with bewildered fear, he made the mistake of looking to his right. The lightning cracked again, and the pale, leering face of an old woman stared into his. Her eyes were wide and round, insane and hollow. Her wrinkled skin seemed as if it was just about to snap, stretched to its limit as the smile seemed to make up at least half of her face. She was there for a very brief moment before the lighting left him in the dark.

Somewhere, as the seconds passed by in a slow, tumbling motion, he became aware that he was screaming. He couldn’t even hear it at first, couldn’t even hear the window crack as he backed into it, the rotten wood give way and the air rushing past his ears as he fell. He was aware of the chill, but all other sensations had been lost on his way to hell. He crashed onto the muddy gravel, hard, a numbing pain shooting through his entire body. He was aware something had snapped, but only far away in the back of his mind. He stared at the house, and that was then the final strings let go and his sanity plummeted into the void.

The neat little Cape Cod, which indeed might have been just that once, was a miserable wreck. The paint had peeled off almost completely, leaving tiny flakes behind on the ground. The front door had been boarded up completely, so long ago that even the boards were rotting. Part of the roof had caved in and every window was either smashed or on its way to fall apart. The sign which had been saying “Crawford Home; Bed & Breakfast,” now said;

“BUILDING HAS BEEN CONDEMNED. STRUCTURE IS DEEMED UNSAFE.”

Weeping and laughing at the same time, he realized he couldn’t feel his toes. He couldn’t feel his legs either for that matter. He could still move them though, which was the weird part. If he’d snapped his spine, he should have been basically just a head on a stick, not much more. He realized his arms were numbing off as well, but before they did, he managed to feel his way down his body. He grabbed at the sharp piece of fence which had impaled him, not feeling any pain at all until that precise moment. Even then however, it was just an aching throb somewhere far away.

“Oh…” He managed, weeping a little more now, even sobbing. Something about this was just so fucked up. It couldn’t be real, it just couldn’t, it was one fucking tripped out ride of X alright. Thinking this, he saw pieces of his guts on the bloody fencepost, coating it like sausages filled with jelly. Something about this struck him as funny, and he died smiling.
A couple of days later, there was an article in the newspapers about a Jenna Caulfield, who were found wandering aimlessly on a corn field. Her feet were bleeding, clothes torn and face riddled with a magnitude of tiny scars. Nothing she said was intelligible, at least not then, and she was taken first to the hospital and then to the mental ward. She didn’t speak for nearly a month after she’d been found, but once she did, police officers investigated her testimony. The house, deteriorated, old and condemned, was found, but no bodies.

Richie Stewarts, Gage C Reynolds, Jim L Bridger and Anne Mores were all listed as missing.

Credit To: Catcid

Shadows of Shallowbrooke – Renewal of the Circle

September 21, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Please check out the Shadows of Shallowbrooke series tag for prior installments!

If we have to begin anywhere, I’d say we should start with Peter Hemphill. I need to remind you however, that although this story may start with him, the shadows that linger in Shallowbrooke did not. They resided there when Peter’s great grandfather, who were reputed to be the oldest man in town and perhaps the entire region, was nothing but an afterthought in the dim candlelight of a wedding bed. They existed even before that, long before the natives were driven to exile from their home, and strange settlers reworked and rebuilt the land. One of the villages they raised was Shallowbrooke, and even then the shadows waited patiently in the surrounding swamps, woodlands and lakes. What we speak of I cannot reveal to you, because it’s a door which remains shut, even to me. I dare not open it, because even if it’s closed, whatever’s on the other side gazes through the keyhole. Shallowbrooke was just unfortunate enough to be built in its shadow.

Let us instead focus our gaze on little Peter, who were indeed small compared to the revolving mysteries of the shadow. Peter was not a man of the world, actually barely a man at all. This was a fact he tried to deny by telling himself otherwise, yet in his heart he knew the truth. He was not in any way unique or different from all the other boys who balanced on the threshold between manhood and childhood, yet in the larger sense I suppose he was. He was the only child who hadn’t been born in Shallowbrooke, but moved there from Mournstead a couple of miles up the road.

He’d spent his adolescence trotting the summers and the winters on the village’ spooky grounds, and he was the only one who’d ever dared to ask about its twisted and obscure past. He’d only been thirteen after all, and rumors of Shallowbrooke were plenty outside its foreboding boundaries. Outsiders tended to avoid the village, a place around which travelers had a tendency to disappear, and as people always do when they’re afraid, they talked about it. Dark whispers and strange rumors, some true and some not, seemed to bloom everywhere except for within Shallowbrooke itself. This chilled young Peter, because his questions were met not only with silence, but with a sinister sense of superstitious dread. Everyone fell quiet for a while, as if in reverence to some God to which worship had been banished, and then resumed their conversation of the harvest, or the weather, or nothing at all. After some time, Peter had quit making his inquiries. Instead he had moved forward with the world, and taken up the habit of not asking when the people who volunteered for night watch disappeared or no one entered the mines because there was singing in the dark. In his mind he labeled it only as “the strangeness”, and went on to ignore it as everyone else

“What’s that, Pete?” Brian Hook asked him, one eye closed against the midday sun and the other peering at him through one swollen, sleep deprived hatch of a socket.
“Nothing,” Peter replied offhandedly and tugged his cigarette back to the left corner of his mouth. He did this with some care, as if it was a chore worth a certain amount of consideration. They’d been up since the break of dawn, thinking they were to help their fathers tend the western fields and maybe clean out the barns, but it had turned out being so much more than that. With aching backs and sore muscles, they’d come to the agreement to meet down by the brook after work, smoke a cigarette away from their benefactor’s prying eyes and maybe catch a peek of the lovely Marietta Bradle doing the laundry. She’d inherited her good looks from her mother alright, but the intelligence shining in Lucile’s eyes must have skipped a generation. Lately Marietta always put the laundry down too deep and soaked a little more than was called for, coming back up with her blonde braid dripping and the front of her shirt stuck to her breasts.

It had become something of a ritual for the boys, and even one or two men I might add, to sit on the other side of the brook and spy on the girl. Her occasional breast dipping gave room for aroused giggles and hushed laughter from the onlookers, as well as a few low whistles and sexual endearments. The possibility that she might have been aware of her witnesses all along and dipped her breasts on purpose was a thought which never crossed their minds. This afternoon however, they’d been unlucky.
“Think she’ll come down later?” Brian asked hopefully, one eye still shut against the bright golden light.
“Nah, I think Mrs. Bradle must have done it earlier.” Peter replied with the tone of a man who’s thoughts are in the far away and long gone.
“Wouldn’t mind seeing her dipping her breasts either.” Brian mouthed and plucked a tall straw from the ground which he shoved into his mouth.

“Hey, what’s that?” Brian called out and gestured to something floating in the water. Peter pushed his hat back on his head and gazed out over the brook, a patch of scruffy blonde hair falling down to cover his brow.
“What?” Peter asked as he was ripped from his thoughts, but it was a just a reflex. A large sheet of white cloth floated slowly along the stream, expanding as it went like a torn sail.
“Looks like someone dropped something.” Brian added with a shrug. “Was probably big-tits-and-no-brains.” He continued with a distasteful smirk. Peter lost patience with him. He balled his hand into a fist, extended the joints of his fingers and struck Brian hard on the right shoulder.
“Hey, what?!”
“You don’t need to be an ass.” Peter said, scowling at him with a judging glint of retribution in his dark eyes. Brian shrugged again.
“We ought to fish it out and return it to Mrs. Bradle.” Peter said, and Brian nodded at him, sore after being scolded.

Peter grabbed a tall twig from the underbrush and fished the cloth out of the water. He held it out in front of him before dropping it in the dirt with a sudden shriek.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Brian asked, annoyed, something which might have had something to do with his earlier scolding. Peter didn’t answer, just stared down at the cloth with his mouth open in an O and his eyes wide and staring.
“What’s wrong, Pete?” Brian asked and took a step closer, worried now as well as curious. There was no need to ask anymore, he saw it, and his own lips parted in surprised horror. Half the sheet had bloomed with blood, the crimson now faded from the extensive time under water, but it was still almost black in the center. ‘That’s where the victim bled’, Peter thought, his thoughts slow and clumsy as if dragged through mud.
“Maybe…” Brian began tentatively. “Maybe Mrs. Rathburn had her child?” He finished hopefully.
“She’s not due for another five months. If she’d had a miscarriage we’d have heard about it.” Peter said slowly, a part of him wanting to believe very badly Mary Rathburn had a miscarriage. He actually found himself wishing it so bad he was afraid he might cause it if she hadn’t. What was the alternative after all, murder? It was an insane thought, one he tucked away deep in his mind and locked away. No one would murder anyone in Shallowbrooke. They’d all been neighbors, friends and family since the beginning of time. No, it couldn’t have been murder. He would bring this cloth up to his father and ask, he would know what to do. His father always knew what to do.

Peter was essentially a kind boy, but as we’ve established he was not a man of the world. There had in fact been plenty of murders in Shallowbrooke. The village was built upon them like a memorial to death and anguish. Its bloody history reached back through thousands of years, reached through civil wars and witch hunts, through human sacrifice and cannibalism. It touched upon the ancient men’s first taste for bloodshed, continued onwards through insanity and despair, splashing the pages of its past with rivers of corpses and insane acts. The tiny speck of blood found on Lucile Bradle’s sheet was just a drop in the ocean, or in this case the brook.

None the less, something had begun to go very wrong in Shallowbrooke. Even in a town accustomed to wrongness, there was a time when everything peaked. Now that time had come again. Oh lords and ladies, bring out the scythes, because it’s harvest time. Something was preparing to bring in the crop alright, and it all began with sweet Marietta Bradle. She was not sixteen, as her mother had been when she wandered off into the forest and came upon the shadow, but two pristine years older. For us, time might have stood still, but for poor Lucile it has not. Twenty years have passed since we saw her last, and they have treated her well. She married and had Marietta barely two years after her return from the woods. Her scarred mind has mercifully clouded most of her memories, even those of the woman in the hut and the horse she left behind. Now she’s no longer sure if she walked or rode on that path, and she can just barely remember how something could have gone so horribly wrong. In the starless dungeons of the night however, she dreams about the meadow. She dreams of the dead eyes of the sheep staring endlessly upon a dark sky, their fleshy ruins infecting the air with death and stink. Most of all it is the singing of the crows she remembers. It follows her as she wakes sweaty and panting in the dim dawning hours, cawing with evil glee at the horrors of the world.
“I liked it!” She’d wake and cry with her mind still trapped within her twisted and muddled memories.
In the feverish gleam of her subconscious, the complexities of the human mind wiped away the lens, removed the illusion and showed her what it had known but not been allowed to tell. She saw the bowl with the corpse eaters, yellow and squirming, born from the carcasses of dead children. She knew then, knew in the half second she was allowed to have this uncovered knowledge, that something was inside the hut with her, something unspeakable that said;
“Did you like the mushroom stew?” And its voice was dead, toneless and hideous, but worst of all; it wasn’t entirely lacking humor. Somewhere underneath the black sewers of cruel lies and sinister tunes, a giggle lay buried.
She’d stay that way, sitting up in bed with the tears streaming down her cheeks, no longer any idea what she’d dreamed or why she was crying. Her husband would stir beside her. Sometimes he woke up to comfort her, but more often than not she was alone with her terror. If we move forward a bit, because as much as I’d like to tell you differently, there really is nothing we can do for Lucile. She’s alone, and we have to let her move on with the world. Instead we look upon her daughter, Marietta, who is not her mother’s spitting image but close enough for government work. She has inherited the often flushed round cheeks her father brought to the mix, and while her eyes are brilliant blue like Lucile’s, her hair is curly and tarnished gold instead of bright blonde. She has a slow walk, as if she’s always careful where to put her feet, and she regards the world with an inquisitive shyness. Despite what Brian Hook might believe Marietta is in no way stupid. Her intelligence is a quick greased lightning, honed by her curiosity and completed by her passion for school work. If any of the boys and men who enjoyed watching her from the other side of the brook had done a little thinking of their own, they would have seen there was something terribly wrong with the girl. It was not an old thing either, for she had begun to change just in the past month.

It didn’t begin with the voices. If anything, I’d say it began with the dreams. Business such as this always begins in dreams, and the ones Marietta had during those chilly autumn nights were truly something extraordinary. They were as a matter of fact not really dreams at all, but more like messages. I won’t tell you from where, I don’t dare to go down that path, but I can tell you what they said. She dreamt of a large oak, centered in a clearing littered with human bones. Mossy vines danced in the wind, and the wood creaked solemnly in the gusts of cold air. She was not alone either. There was a girl there, young and beautiful, at the peak of her physical perfection and blooming with vitality. Her hair was bright blonde, straight and beautiful as it flickered in the wind. Lucile spoke in her older voice, the one of the mother rather than the girl, and she said;
“You should have gotten my face, love. The younger should always surpass the beauty of the older, don’t you think? You should have been prettier than I am.” In her sleep Marietta nodded slowly. Her lips parted and a gust of sleepy words escaped between them.
“Yes, mother… I should have inherited your face.”

The dream came back, not only once a week or every now and then, but every night. She thought about it during the days, thought about how right her mother was, how she should have inherited that face. Eventually she began to make plans. Maybe her mother’s face could still belong to her? The voices that came with the dream told her so.
It was a beautiful voice, but in the beginning it had frightened her. It was melodic and kind, but there was darkness underneath it, something terrible she didn’t want to think about. It was the voice that told her to drench her breasts and give the boys a good look. It told her it was all she was worth after all, that she was just a whore like her mother. Lucile thought she had gotten away, the voice said, but no one ever gets away. It also told her that Marietta deserved her mother’s face, and as she drenched the front of her shirt in the slowly trailing brook, she really couldn’t agree more. So on her way home, her basket of laundry cradled in her arms, she passed Leslie Doogle, the blacksmith, and ordered a pair of shears. She was going to cut something which was tough but very delicate, she told Leslie. She was going to cut something which needed a great deal of care and precision. So Leslie, grinning at the lovely young girl whose mother he’d once been in love with, made her the sharpest shears ever made in his shop. Two days later he had it delivered to her home. Had he known she was going to use it to cut off her mother’s face, he might have been somewhat reluctant to fulfill his work.

Marietta’s father was dead. Not in just any way either, but had ironically enough disappeared in the mines just like her grandfather. As such, there was no one to stop her the night she decided to inherit her mother’s face. She crept up to Lucile’s bed and placed a hand on her cheek. Her lips curved upwards from the love and tenderness woken by her mother’s resting form, and as the woman on the bed opened her eyes, Marietta slit her throat. She struggled to sit up, a horrifying gurgle of blood rising like bile in her massacred airways, but her daughter held her down. Still smiling Marietta whispered;
“Hush now, mother. It’s alright; it’s all going to be alright.” Her hand caressed Lucile’s cheek, now lined where it used to be smooth, but still possessed by a curious youthful beauty. Her life gushed from her throat in heart curdling gasps for breath and soaked the white sheet Peter and Brian would later scoop out of the brook.
“You know I deserve your face, mother.” Marietta whispered, her smile growing wider. “You’ll see its all for the best. I love you.” She then kissed her forehead, and Lucile wept as the world first grew dark, and then vanished all together.

Marietta hummed softly as she got to work. She would possess what always should have been hers, and she was sure her mother truly approved. If she’d wept for anything, it must have been joy. The shears were indeed sharp, fitting perfectly in her right hand, and it cut through the skin like wet tissue paper. However, even though Marietta was a proficient tailor, she was not a surgeon. Getting the face off a human being is not something you can accomplish very well with a pair of shears. It didn’t matter to her however, who had fallen so deep into insanity that her mind marveled at the twisted, distorted piece of flesh she eventually pried from her mother’s corpse. She walked over to Lucile’s bedroom mirror and sat down with the face mask in her lap. She got needle and thread from the top drawer and sewed a thin strap of leather to each side of the shredded skin. She then slid the mask over her face, not even noticing the thin trails of blood running from the freshly cut tissue and across her chin.

She yelped in surprised joy as she gazed upon her reflection in the mirror. The result was a twisted, distorted and horrifyingly malformed piece of skin which slightly resembled a face, but wasn’t anywhere close to Lucile’s likeness. It mostly looked like a bloody piece of leather which had been stretched too wide and was about to give in. Marietta loved it however, and the ugly yet beautiful voice in her mind approved greatly.
“There!” It said, and the malicious darkness behind its words had grown stronger, more dominant. “Now you’re truly beautiful!” Marietta couldn’t agree more, and she couldn’t remember a time in her life when she’d been happier.

Two days later, when Peter had shown the blood stained sheet to his father, and he in turn had taken it to the village priest, most of the town stood gathered in front of the Blue Badger in. It was a tavern which had once been somewhat prosperous, but had decayed and lost most of its clientele over the last fifteen or twenty years. The nature of Shallowbrooke being what it was, most merchants chose the longer route along the coast instead of the more direct road through the woods of “that place” as it was called by outsiders. Travels to the capital were never easy, but not many dared put the strange rumors of Shallowbrooke to the test. Despite this, some did, and many of these “some” disappeared as a result. Fifteen years ago many had still been brave enough to try, but one and a half decade was a long time of disappearances, and eventually traffic had ceased completely.

John Edgecombe, a devout and dutiful priest of Aeren’s church, held the cloth up for all the people to see. The red flower of blood which had bloomed at its center had faded even more in the passing days, but no one mistook it for something other than what it was. Low gasps and murmurs floated upon the air and fell silent as the priest began to speak. He was not a man used to be interrupted or even contradicted, and when he spoke people always listened. He was the closest thing to a leader the village had ever known. So how could anyone ever have suspected that he, the purest and the spiritually strongest man in the township, had begun to go insane?

“Who knows of this!?” He chanted like the village crier rather than the priest he was. “Something has run afoul in our village! Someone has been murdered!” He yelled, his voice rising with each syllable as if to pose a question. Peter, who stood next to the old priest, peered somewhat unsettled in his direction. Sure, there was a lot of blood, but was murder really the first assumption to make? Well, it was the first thought he’d had himself after all, and if there was that special someone who always knew best, it was Priest Edgecombe.
“Scathe! That ancient serpent, the timeless enemy of our beloved lord Aeren, is loose in this village! She slithers among you like a snake made of stone, spitting her blasphemies and whispers in your ears!” He was very loud now, his wide eyes sparkling with some intense feverish light, and Peter wondered for the first time if there wasn’t something wrong with him. He swallowed the thought. If anyone was protected by the higher powers, it was certainly priest Edgecombe. If he wasn’t safe, someone so close to the one true God, then whoever else would be?

It was raining. The sky had abandoned its brilliant blue skin and covered itself in a coat of filthy grey clouds. It opened its sorrow and wept upon the world with large, bloated tears. The rain splattered upon the roofs of the wooden buildings, the sheepskin farmer’s hats and the rawhide working trousers of those gathered. No one heard the tiny footsteps approaching from the rear, but as they saw her they parted like the sea before a religious legend from another world. Their faces twisted into horrified masks of terror, and their mouths parted in awe of the horror they witnessed.

Marietta strode silently through the crowd, the remains of her mother’s decaying face strapped to her own, smeared with drying blood and surrounded by the unmistakable stink of rotting flesh. Without a body’s natural remoistening capabilities, the once beautiful skin of Lucile Bradle had wrinkled and dried to an ugly husk. It was a sight I cannot properly relay to you. Just believe me when I say it was horrible beyond belief, and it struck the sad fate of Shallowbrooke’s inhabitants with a fresh bout of nightly terrors.

Priest Edgecombe silenced at once. With an expression of reproach as someone stole his momentum, and the more understandable reaction of shocked terror, he seized Peter’s arm in a painful grip with one gnarly hand. Peter who was still holding the blood soaked sheet didn’t notice. He was too busy staring at the new star of the evening.
“Am I not beautiful?” Marietta exclaimed, her eyes now lit by the lunatic which had come to dwell within her. She cackled wildly as she made a pirouette upon the wet soil, the heels of her boots digging into the mud.
“I inherited my mother’s face!” She chanted wildly as she spun around in front of the crowd. “I inherited my mother’s face! I inherited my mother’s face!” On and on she went for what seemed like several hours. No one else said anything at all, simply watched the lunatic girl as she spun around, cackling wildly at the sky with the face of her mother rotting upon her own.

“Take her away…” Priest Edgecombe exclaimed silently, his voice strained and hoarse from fright as well as dried up from his previous shouting. “Take her way and lock her up… She’ll be hanged by the morrow. No sermon.” He then turned and strode off down the high road as the guard grasped Marietta’s arms and legs, ignoring her confused cries of outrage. Only Leslie the blacksmith wept. He wept silently, without sobs or bouts of hysteria. His tears ran down his cheeks in trailing rivers of sorrow, knowing now why she’d bought the shears.

The days after Marietta’s grotesque performance, dawned vital and undisturbed. Each day’s sky slipped onto the black heavens in a brilliant birth of bright gold and feverish crimson. It then shed it for the deep blue of peace and good dreams. The lakes and swamps around the outskirts swept the village and the woodlands in a thin webbing of woven mist. It hovered above the ground in the way the elderly called “fairy dance”, embraced the township and its inhabitants in a false sense of peace and calm comfort. Everything seemed to have been undone by the world, as if it had forced hell to open its mouth and reclaim what it had set loose. Yet the corpse of a young girl swayed lightly in the wind from the branch of a willow outside of town. Her eyes had resigned to a milky white, now staring endlessly at the calm sky like two useless marbles. Her skin had grown pale, her lips a bruised and filthy blue reminiscent of winter and harsh upbringings. A slug slid across the landscape of her smooth face, and the tip of her tongue had fallen out between her lips in a blistered black contrast to the grey of her cheeks. The rope creaked in mellow agony as the corpse swung from side to side. Soon the crows would gather upon the rotting flesh and fill their bellies, singing the tune which had hounded Lucile as she was ripped from her nightmare by the cruel points of newly sharpened shears.

Something had gone horribly wrong in Shallowbrooke. Deep beneath the coiling, dark shadows of this world and the twisted slither of the next, something ancient had opened an eye. Within the tall grass of the western fields all life had fallen still. The birds of the woods had departed for brighter lands, and the wolves sat covering in the blackness of the night. The door had opened, if only very slightly, and harvest time had come again.

Credit To: Catcid

Shadows of Shallowbrooke – The Singing of Crows

November 25, 2015 at 12:00 AM
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There is nothing quite as unsettling as being lost. It’s an oppressive feeling where the world seems to stare down from the sky, maliciously following your sad progress like a kid with a magnifying glass.

For Lucile Bradle it was her first encounter with hell on earth. She was sixteen years old, bright and pretty in a way which kept her harassed by the somewhat younger boys. She was the sweet one who knew all about being polite, worked hard and occasionally brought home a wounded animal she’d found on the road. In other words, she was the girl everyone loved just slightly more than the other brats around the village.

Each year of the harvest, which was around mid-summer in Cardenholme, the village of Shallowbrooke organized a small feast. It was especially looked forward to by the young ones, as it wasn’t the kind where the adults ended up drinking themselves senseless; falling asleep in their food while the maid and the farmhand snuck off in the forest. It was a pleasant evening where the children could stay up for as long as they wished; join in on barn dancing, games and play until dawn slowly drenched the world in light.

The day after the harvest however, a hunt was put together for good sport. Not many in the village had access to either pistols or rifles as Shallowbrooke was remote and depended on other sources of income than game. But there were a few, and those who owned them were madly proud of them too. Lucile of course had never been one for hunting. But in the dying hours of the day, as the sun drenched the thick crowns of the trees in its feverish red light, the thought of riding through the woods with the warm summer breeze in her hair and the smell of nature in her nose just couldn’t be resisted.

Shallowbrooke has its secrets, however. It is a homey township with few outsiders, secluded and ever unchanging in its silent slumber. It flows fresh green in the summer, buzzes with life and children’s laughter as the farmers toil on the generous fields. In fall it’s bright gold, the leaves casting their dying radiance across the woodlands, and the brooke snakes its way through the underbrush, casting prisms of reflected light as it sparkles in the sun.

The people here live, love and work together. Everyone knows their neighbor and gossip in good humor about the new baby or the blacksmith’s pretty daughter. It’s an idyllic life of isolation which timelessly rolls by in sweat, smiles and love.

But no one gossip about the caravan which never arrived or the hunters who traveled into the woods and never returned. As darkness rolls over the land, strange cries can be heard from the depths of the surrounding forest, cries which probably don’t belong to wolves or owls. No one comments, no one asks. In unspoken consent the villagers fearfully and, to outsiders, oddly ignores all these sinister predicaments. But why wouldn’t they? After all, everyone ignores the grass they walk upon as well, and no one comments why the clouds in the sky are as white or grey as they are. It’s the way the world works, and there is no reason to interfere in what you cannot change.

But when Lucile wanted to go hunting, parental concern overruled the silent consent. Her mother, who was a brilliant beauty even in her mid forties, stomped angrily into the earth and almost shrieked;

“By absolutely no conditions!” Her eyes glared wildly with a desperation which frightened her daughter slightly. It was the look of a mad woman who preaches about the end of the world. “You are not going into the woods, young lady, and that’s final!” She pointed a finger at Lucile’s chest, the desperation on her face transforming to an anxious terror. Now, what we must understand is that Bertha truly loved her daughter. But as aware as she was of the horrors of the woods, she was not very proficient in reversed psychology. If she had been, she’d most likely never forgive herself for this moment in her life.

The rivalry between women is much greater than that of men. Males constantly test their mettle against each other by show of force which usually puts an end to any disagreement. Female rivalry can proceed for many years, and none is quite as strong as that between mother and daughter. In other words, lovely Bertha did everything but pack Lucile’s bag on that beautiful evening.

She only stared at her mother. Her lips were pressed into a thin white line on her face and the deep blue eyes she inherited from her deceased father sparkled with anger and annoyance. There was something radiant about her, and one day she’d most likely grow up to put her mother’s beauty to shame.

“I’m going!” She said, determined to defy her mother’s anger which unconsciously she accepted as a challenge.

“No you are not!” Bertha shrieked and reached forward to grasp her daughter’s arm, but it was too late. Lucile darted out of the way and turned, moved with the speed of youth and escaped the homestead. With her hands clutching her skirts, she ran with the evening sun in her eyes and the summer breeze in her hair, up the slope and into the stables. She heard her mother coming after her, crying now as well as screaming.

“No, Lucy! Please!” There was a terrible desperation in her voice which broke Lucile’s heart, but she was her father’s daughter as well, stubborn on the verge of pig headed. She jumped up on her horse with the agility of someone who’d spent most of their life in the presence of livestock. With her skirts hanging over the saddle, she rode out of the building and onto the small path by the edge of the meadow. Somewhere behind her she still heard the sobbing of her mother and almost gave in and turned, knowing she was punishing her too harshly. But we must remember that Lucile was only sixteen years old and still possessed by the arrogant stupidity commonly found in the very young. She chose to continue her course and disappeared into the bowels of the woods.

Lucile knew the path, and she knew how to reach the main road. The band of hunters would follow it for a short while before swerving off to the east, taking a small path towards the brook and proceeding north from there. Lucile knew she could catch them just before they turned, and proceeded in a slow gallop towards her goal.

The guilty emotions of hurting her mother slowly faded as the brilliance of the setting sun painted the world crimson. It was as if the land was bleeding, the trees and the moss seeming to glow with faint reddish light. She slowed the horse down and proceeded to trot along the path while humming an old tune, yet there was an odd feeling haunting her. It was ominous and wrong somehow, as if she was closing in on something she was forbidden to see. But the world around her was peaceful and inviting, buzzing with the life of summer and youth. She shook her head and attempted to quell the feeling. She didn’t succeed and proceeded to simply ignore it.

When she reached the end of the path, without the main road anywhere in sight, she knew something was terribly wrong. She tugged on the reins and her horse came to a stop, snorting in good humor and began to sniff the ground for something edible. Lucile pulled up her skirts and hopped from the saddle, the first seeds of panic already planted in her heart.

The path ended suddenly and naturally, simply thinning into the underbrush. But it couldn’t be; this path had always lead straight to the main road, without any turns or confusing byways. But as she gazed ahead there was only forest. Thick lines of oak and pine stretched out in random patterns endlessly towards the beyond.

Lucile had never been lost in her life, and her father had shown her these woods. She should know exactly where she was, recognize every stone and branch on the ground. But she hadn’t the faintest idea. She turned on her heels, gazing back the way she came as her panic was beginning to grow full and violent in her chest. To her horror, the path she had been following wasn’t a path at all, but a small trail that faded into nothing just a few paces ahead. The hill she had descended just a few minutes ago looked entirely different from how it should. It was rocky and steep, dead trees protruding from its side like grasping fingers.

She must have wandered off the path without noticing and ended up in a part of the woods she’d never seen before. But how was it possible? She couldn’t even remember taking any turns. Her mind whirled; reaching for any point of logic it could cling to. There was none, no explanation to be had. She shoved her hands into the thick mane of blonde hair on top of her head, her face contorting into a forlorn mask of anxious bewilderment.

What was she to do next? Well her choices were obvious really. She could either keep on forward and find the edge of the forest, or turn back from whence she came and attempt to find the path she must have wandered off. She breathed heavily and stroked the mare, reminding herself that she was not alone. It helped, if only slightly. It was only a horse after all, and if anyone was going to do any thinking it was going to be her. She got back up on it, took a deep breath and turned her around. It obeyed instantly and casually started trotting towards the steep hill.

But as she came closer another devastating realization struck her hard in the gut. The fabrics of reality seemed to sway and unfurl around her as she realized something beyond her logical ability to comprehend. The hill was far too step for her horse to manage, and would absolutely have refused even attempting to descend it. It was not a flat wall of gravel and stone, but it was not far from it. But she had ridden down that hill, without a doubt, the memory was fresh in her mind and fifteen minutes old at most. What was going on?

She felt her lips begin to quiver as her panic, fully grown and ravaging her innards like a beast, overwhelmed her. She leaned forward and stroked her mare with shaking hands, her throat almost clenching together as she began to speak;

“You… You know the way home, don’t you, love? Go home, Felicia. You hear me? Go home to mom.” The mare flicked her ears and stomped restlessly on the spot, but didn’t make any indication to move. In a calm and casual demeanor, the horse began to prod the ground for something tasty to scoop into its mouth.

Meanwhile Lucile had begun to cry; heavy crystalline tears rolling down her pale cheeks. Without much thought except for the wild guidance of panic, she turned the horse around and galloped in the direction she was headed before. The horse kept an even speed as it darted between the trees, jumped over fallen logs and mossy boulders like a spirit of the woods.

It had grown dark, and with the tears still in her throat, Lucile had no choice but to reign in the horse. It stopped self consciously in a small clearing by a huge oak. It was lined with beeches which drowned the area in a thick blanket of shadow; inviting a sinister sensation of isolation.

Lucile slid from the back of the horse, weary from the ride and the panic. With the tears still drying on her cheeks, she looked up at the endlessness of the sky, trying to find comfort in the beautiful pictures painted there by the god Aeren.

She remembered her father saying the stars were Aeren’s diamonds, each larger than the entire world and more brilliant than anything humans could imagine or comprehend. She conjured an image of her father’s face in her mind, scruffy with beard and unkempt hair. Yet he had been handsome in the weather beaten way women seemed to like. Lucile remembered his eyes the most vividly, deep blue and shining with a curious intelligence. He had enjoyed the forest and been fascinated by the unknown, but his family had been his one true passion.

When he disappeared in the mines underneath the village, Lucile and her mother had never fully recovered.

“I miss you father.” Lucile whispered to the sky, fresh tears trailing down her face. Less than a second after lying down in the high grass in the middle of the grove, still gazing at the brilliance of the sky, she passed out from exhaustion.

She awoke less than three hours later from the horse neighing anxiously. It flicked its ears and strode around the glade, turning and stomping in the ground with its hoofs. Lucile quickly got to her feet, cursing herself for forgetting the horse before she passed out. It was a wonder it hadn’t wandered off on its own.

She approached the mare carefully and placed her hands on the silky skin around the muzzle, stroking it carefully while whispering soft words of comfort. The horse calmed down after just a few moments and scoffed against Lucile’s hands, the warm breath reminding her of the cold and prickled her skin with goosebumps.

As she stood there, almost forgetting about the seriousness of her situation, it came back to her in a flash as something cried from the surrounding forest. It was faint and ghastly in its distant moaning, bleeding in the air upon the threshold of hearing before slowly fading. With a sense of rising horror, her feet frozen in place and her breath instinctively slowed, she recognized the sound.

She’d heard it plenty in the village after all, especially around the break of summer when many mothers seemed to be due. It was the balling of a baby, an infant child lost somewhere in the depths of the forest. Yet the cries were different in a way she couldn’t quite define. While the screaming of the newly born in the village was the sound health and life, this had a sinister cling to it. It was the cries of abandonment; an infant freezing to death in the dark, embraced only by the cold fingers of shadow and despair. But then why, she wondered, was she so terrified?

The horse grew restless once more as the ghostly cries eventually faded out to nothing, leaving the night still and forsaken. But the silence was deafening, and somehow worse than the strangely evil cries of the lost child. Adrenalin pumped through Lucile’s veins, and her heart banged in her chest, seeming almost to pummel her ribs in panic. She was suddenly convinced she was not alone. The forest seemed unnaturally dark, the large oak casting the glade in shadow suddenly foreboding and sinister. She noticed something then, a revelation which caused her heart to freeze and soul to cry out in fearful agony.

The oak hadn’t bloomed. No leaves adorned its crown, only a patchwork of skeletal branches reaching towards the sky and the surrounding forest like deprecated tendrils. Decayed ropes hung from its grasping fingers, rotten and moldy from decades of exposure. As the clouds of the sky rolled on, the full moon pierced the woods to illuminate the blackened hellhole poor Lucile had chosen as her refuge. What she saw sent shivers running through her spine.

The forest floor was littered with skeletal remains. Human skulls, arms and torsos shone pale in the bleak moonlight, decayed faces leering at her with shadowed eye sockets. She had mistaken the ropes for vines in the dark, and the glade had been in too much shadow to reveal its skeletal inhabitants.

As she stared at the tree, seeing it as a graveyard rising towards the sky, the mark on the trunk became visible to her. It stood out in her mind, and as she regarded the nightmarish symbol something surfaced from her subconscious. It was a word, one she had never heard or read before in her life, and yet it rose in her consciousness like some malicious idol; Atuteran.

Her courage snapped and she ran.

At some point she passed out, or maybe she fell and hit her head. She only remembered running through the dark woods as fast as her legs could carry her, completely forgetting about the child, her horse and any perils which might linger in the depths of the dark.

As she ran the trees seemed to bleed, evil in their cold and frozen places, hoping to trip her with their tangling roots. She felt tears running down her cheeks as panic were replaced by dread and hopelessness. Even the mossy ground seemed to rumble and churn as she sped across it, opening and closing to invite her into its moldy hell.

Her legs eventually gave in as the taste of blood dominated her tongue and her lungs felt filled with lead. The world spun and twisted around her, and then all was silent and devoured by darkness for a few merciful hours.

She woke from the sun pressing against her eyelids and the sound of birdsong filling the air with its lovely chorus. She opened her eyes only to stare at a brilliant sky, ocean blue and devoid of clouds. Tall grass surrounded her vision, and she sat up slowly to get her bearings.

She was in a beautiful clearing surrounded by the deep woods, now inviting and peaceful in the illumination of the sun. The clearing was actually more of a small meadow, well tended and cared for as a garden. Confused, she inspected the area closer, and was met by the welcoming sight of a small cottage in the middle of the glade.

A gnarled but handsome apple-tree grew a few yards away from it, large green apples sprouting upon its branches. Thin tendrils of smoke rose from the chimney of the hut, filling Lucile with a throbbing yearning for home, but also hope. She looked down upon herself and saw the torn and muddy fabric of her dress, once rose red and now mostly black.

She felt her hair and grimaced at the cakes of dirt and moss sticking to the strands. A bath would have been a blessing, even in a cold spring.

It was amazing how a quick look of resembled civilization could bring back all the insignificant cares of a mundane life. Are my clothes fresh? Is my hair alright? Do I say aye and ye, or do I make a more city-girl accent? Trivialities which all fell away in the face of what truly mattered, the question which comfort hid when it fabricated the meaningless cares of a modern existence. Desperation and exposure had brought it back to her, or even revealed it to her as she had always dwelt in a protected township; how do I survive?

She got to her feet and remained so for a brief moment, scouring the meadow and the inviting cottage at the center. A mild breeze caressed the land from the east, bringing smells of summer blossoms and climaxing life, yet something was strangely off. Lucile could not define just how or why, but the homestead up yonder made her feel just as uneasy as it did hopeful.

Maybe just due to its isolation, she rationalized, and started making her way towards the front door. As she neared, she heard the familiar sounds of goats from the other side of the building, and a fenced in triangle beside the door held a small flock of hens. Lucile knocked twice, the sound reminding her of a fist on a coffin. She shivered.

There was a pleasant smell of something cooking from inside, but something hid underneath it; the stench of something which had been left to rot in the sun. Footsteps approached the door from the other side and Lucile took a hasty step backwards, suddenly filled with a senseless wish to flee. Just what in the blazes was wrong with her?

The door flung open, the smell of sweet cooking intensifying to drown the reek underneath. Lucile stared into the beautiful face of a middle-aged woman. Her eyes were cold blue, like winter frost on a blade, and long curls of raven hair framed her features. She was tall and slender, full lips and high cheekbones. She might just have been the loveliest woman Lucile had ever seen in her life.

“Oh?” The woman said and smiled cautiously, her cold eyes seemingly boring into Lucile’s soul. “What is a lovely young girl like you doing out here? The forest can be dangerous you know.” Her smile grew wider as her face softened.

“I am sorry.” Lucile stammered, her lips going numb. “I went lost yesterday and I’ve been in the woods all night. Could you please help me?” Her eyes pleaded to the woman, the desperation unspoken yet unmistakably relayed. The woman’s eyes widened into a oh-you-poor-thing look and her hand stretched out towards Lucile, almost motherly.

“Of course I can, sweetheart. Are you hungry? Of course you are.” Lucile reached out and gently took the woman’s hand. Her skin was smooth and invitingly warm, like silk by the fire. She ushered Lucile in and sat her down by a charming little table next to an ornate window.

The indoors were deliciously homey; cozy in a fairytale manner. The floor was oak, elegantly veined and naturally colored. The walls were high enough to cause a brief sensation of vertigo, sturdy and well fitted to keep out the cold. In the corner of the one room the oak gave place to a rectangle of smooth stone.

A pot brewed there upon thin spidery legs of iron, and a burning furnace with a steaming kettle resting upon it. The window overlooked a small garden were roses, sunflowers and other colorful plants painted the world. It was an extremely comfortable homestead, smelling exquisitely of spices and flowery perfumes. Lucile immediately felt at ease.

“My name is Celeste Lily, by the way.” Said the raven haired woman lightly, now shuffling around the stove area for plates and spoons.

“Oh, I’m Lucile Bradle, miss. But everyone calls me Lucy.” Lucile said somewhat awkwardly, her head spinning with contradicting emotions. She felt like she needed to escape, yet she had no idea why. She also felt like staying forever, like asking the stranger if she could move in and forget about Shallowbrooke.

“Call me Lily, please. It’s my last name but it’s what I’ve always been called anyway.” The woman turned and smiled, her eyes lit with warmth.

“Lily, sorry.” Lucile said hastily. “How far is it to Shallowbrooke from here?” Lily seemed to consider the question for a few moments before she smiled and said;

“About an hour walk straight through the woods I believe. If you go around my hut and continue straight on, you’ll see a small path in the underbrush. Follow it until you reach the main road and then travel west along that until you reach Shallowbrooke.” She smiled brilliantly, and Lucile thought again of how she must be the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen.

“Thank you!” She said and tried to rise, anxious to be off. Lily put a hand on her shoulder and said;

“Nope! You’re not going anywhere until you’ve gotten something to eat.” Lucile sat back down, half glad and half annoyed with the strange woman’s care. When Lily put a plate with steaming soup in front of her face though, there was no hesitation. She was ravaged, threw herself at the food and stuffed it into her mouth. Lily smiled at her, amused, and gently sipped from her own bowl as she regarded the charming scene.

The soup wasn’t the best meal Lucile had ever had in her life. Her mother’s pies held a private place in that regard, as well as the chocolate cake Mrs. Thompson made each year for her birthday. But after almost two days since just oatmeal and some eggs for a shallow breakfast, the soup was definitely exquisite. To be fair, it was more of a watery stew. It was filled with spices, tender pieces of sheep meat, cucumber, carrots and some sort of mushroom Lucile couldn’t place. She helped herself twice out of the steaming iron pot, and washed it all down with cold water.

When she’d finished, she leaned back in her chair and clasped her hands in her lap. She regarded Lily cautiously, waiting for her rescuer to speak first. She eventually did.

“Was the mushroom stew to your satisfaction, child?” She tilted her head to the side and smiled warmly, her crystalline eyes glimmering in the light of the furnace. Lucile felt a pang of unease, as if something was horribly wrong, but she couldn’t see why. Everything was perfectly ordinary, neat and tidy.

The floor was swabbed and clean, the books on the shelves ordered alphabetically; the ingredients on the stove neatly stacked or put in named jars. Lucile gazed back at Lily, who still smiled brilliantly at her.

“Thank you so much, Miss Lily, you truly might just have saved my life. But I am very anxious to get home.” She gave the woman a pleading look, not wanting to be rude or rush out even if her instincts told her to run until her bones snapped.

She tried to hide her distress, and must have succeeded as the strange woman didn’t seem to be faced by it. She rose from her chair and took Lucile’s plate, walked over to the stove and put it in a basin of water. Lucile half expected her to cover the doorway, pull a knife and laugh manically as she transformed into a hideous crone, just like the ghost stories told would happen if you came upon Scathe in the forest.

But Lily merely sighed pleasantly and turned her head to gaze at Lucile, her eyes displaying a mixture of forlorn complacency and genuine sadness.

“Yes, I understand, dear. But it just gets so lonely out here sometimes.”

She hummed a tune, appearing to contemplate something, and then opened a small box on the counter next to the stove. She produced two pieces of delicate meat, kept in salt and still exquisitely fresh. She wrapped them in a thin piece of cloth and brought it over to Lucile, smiling as if the girl was her own child.

“Take this.” She said and held the package out to her. “You’ll need it more than I do, and you could always spare me a thought when you ask your mother to cook it.” Not daring to refuse, Lucile took the package gratefully.

She thanked the woman many times before stalking over to the door, placed her hand on the doorknob and walked outside. Lily didn’t stop her, just smiled faintly from where she stood by the stove, her eyes glinting as if she had a secret Lucile just missed. Well out in the open with the smell of summer blossoms surrounding her, she felt free and safe once again.

With the package of meat in hand, Lucile strode around the corner to the back of the hut. She paused a moment to greet the sheep held in a pen just behind the cottage. Yet, something about them made her feel uneasy, just as the woman had before, and she quickly sped up her pace towards the edge of the woods on the other side of the meadow.

As she reached the tree-line, she spied into the underbrush and quickly found the path Lily had spoken of. With a wide smile of relief on her lips, Lucile was just about to leave the meadow behind when a gust of cold wind had her shivering. It was odd, as the wind had been warm and comfortable earlier, a caressing stroke rather than a cold breath. The world had grown dark as well, something which unsettled her further as the sky had been cloudless. But it was the bickering of crows which forced her to turn, and what she saw froze her heart and chilled her blood for years to come.

The sky was dark, covered in a misty cloak of black clouds, rippling and unfurling sinisterly in the cold breath of the world. The mischievous wind whistled through the crowns of the oaks and beeches surrounding the meadow, tugging at their branches, forcing them to squeal.

The charming cottage in the center of the field had been reduced to a moldering ruin, rotten timber littering the ground along with burnt pieces of wood and stone. The part of the building which was still standing peered at the world with one black window, the glass smashed to pieces and reduced to a hollow socket of cobwebs and death. The sheep lay dead in their pens, their flesh black with rot and eyes staring milky white into the darkened sky above. Flies and other insects made their homes in the deteriorated carcasses, buzzing and working hellishly in the nightmarish husks.

Something creaked slowly from above her and Lucile turned her horrified glance to the branch above her head. A corpse hung there, swaying slowly in the wind, the old rope creaking with each gust.

It was decayed and at least a decade old, long hair clinging to the balding scalp, moldy and covered in thick cakes of moss. The face was hideous and deformed, a disgusting mix of rotten flesh and bone coming together to form an evil leer with gouged out hollows for eyes. Crows gathered by the corpse, cawing their foreboding songs and pecked at what pieces of flesh remained. Lucile saw it had been a woman, its dress tattered and rotten but unmistakably there. A sign was hung around her bony neck upon which someone had written;

WITCH WHORE!

With her hands shaking and lips parted to release tiny puffs of breath, the smell of spoiled meat struck her like a slap to the face. She looked down upon the package in her hands and almost spilled the insides of her bowels. The cloth was gone and so were the delicate pieces of meat within. What she held was the rotten worm-ridden leg of a goat, crawling with maggots and blackened just like the corpses of the sheep up yonder. She dropped it and stumbled backwards, a deep whine escaping her lips.

Her sanity desperately clung to what little memories she had of reality, struggling with all its power to remain intact. Just as she thought she was incapable of sustaining anything more, she gazed into the hollow eye of the ruined building, and saw something shift in the darkness within. Something had moved there.

Lucile turned and ran for her life.

She ran for almost half an hour. The woods had by then had its oaks and beeches replaced by pines and thick moss. The path lead where it was suppose to, all the way to the main road, upon which a frightened, cold and near insane Lucile came straggling an hour later. Her golden hair was a rat’s nest of dirt, leaves and branches. Her lovely Sunday dress was tattered, her young beautiful face smeared with mud and filth. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her body, just underneath her bosom, and when a rider came and swept her up on his horse, she passed out for a few merciful hours.

Lucile was taken back to Shallowbrooke. There she was greeted by her mother’s warm embrace and tears of happiness. The village welcomed her home in their own neighborly sense. The baker gave her bread, the blacksmith a few new horse shoes and the seamstress made her a new dress to wear on Sundays. All free of charge. She was greeted by her friends in embraced longings, a few tears, and even admiration for her defiance. But Lucile never forgot the nightmare or the questions which never ceased to stir within her mind.

What had awaited her inside the cottage, and what had she really eaten?

Shallowbrooke is a peaceful township. It’s a place where the adults work slowly in good cheer; everyone knows everyone and the children often grow up as siblings. It’s a small community without cruelty, mean gossip or deranged individuals.

But it is also a place where men and women sometimes go missing; where strange cries come from the woods at night, caravans don’t arrive and some trees never bloom. There is a shadow preying on the lands of Shallowbrooke. A shadow which engulf, devours and rolls around every window, threshold, path and stump. It’s its own kingdom of nightmare and despair, a place from which some never return.

And whatever walks there, walks alone.

Credit: Catcid

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