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The Carpathian mountains cast a long shadow as the Sun set.
I was in this God-forsaken place for my brother. He had left three months ago, leaving a voicemail before vanishing. He said he was on to something, that it might take some time, but that when he returned, we would have no more worries. I’ve been worried every day since. You never really know how much you miss someone until they’re gone.
I had grown familiar with his journal the past week as I made my way here, traveling from my home in America to Uzhhorod in Ukraine. I boarded a train from there, destined for a small village off the maps. I opened the journal to the entry I had bookmarked:
‘June 13th –
Looks like I wasn’t lost: turns out there’s a town out of the way, East of Uzhhorod. Geez, I had to read over the train routes like thirteen times before I even saw it. It took me all day to get here, unfortunately. It’s super small, pretty old, but the worst thing is that it smells. Real bad. Like they’ve been cooking asparagus casserole in an oven and forgot to check it for two years.
I’m staying at a run-down inn, but at least they’ve got Internet. The people here are real weird, though. They’re- I don’t know, stiff? Not unfriendly on purpose, but just- it’s like I’m in a town full of autistic children. The innkeep barely said a word to me, just brushed his beard up on me and took my money and grunted and gave me a key. His eyes were super sunken in, and cataracted, so bad I don’t know how he could see, and his skin looked real weird, floppy, but I left too quick to get a good look, ’cause I didn’t want to spend any more time next to him, ’cause he smelled like asparagus, too.
Tomorrow I begin my trek into the woods. I’ve already packed my bag, checked and double-checked for food, water, survival gear, cigarretes(essential), a knife and holy water. I have no plan to engage the demon in the least, but best to be prepared. Anyhow, that’s it for today, so goodnight Journy (ha, get it? ’cause it’s like a pet nickname for ‘journal’ and I’m on a journey? that’s funny. I’m funny. god, I’m lonely. but this will all be worth it when I come home.)’
Ah, yes, the demon, referenced to as ‘The Carpathian Carver’ on the Internet. I collected an assortment of tales of folklore and anecdotal evidence on the creature. The earliest accounts attributed to the Carver date back to the mid sixteenth century, during a period called ‘The Ruin’, a period of war for control of Ukraine. One origin story describes a chance encounter between a tribe of druids and a brigade of Russian soldiers. Fearful of their blue-painted bodies and wild faces, and mistaking their sacred runes for black magic, the druids were slaughtered. The last one they killed died clutching an ugly book to his bleeding chest, a tome of esoteric incantations impossible to find anywhere else.
There are a multitude of other theories on the Internet: deviant mutants, supernatural two-bit lores, and then government-sanctioned genetic mutation gone wrong. And aliens. Someone always thinks it’s aliens. Regardless the cause, something IS happening in this forest.
I turned the page of the journal.
‘June 14th –
Today was a waste. I searched for hours, losing the trail and finding it and losing it again. I gave up a couple hours before sunset, insanely disappointed. I was wondering if this Mimic guy was just some Ukrainian asshole jokester.
There was an- interesting- development, however: the townsfolk fished a body out the river just before I got back, a woman. It was messed up real bad, I only caught a glimpse, but the throat was slashed so bad, it was just a gaping hole, nothing in it. Looked like a bear or something had taken the chick down, she had some claw marks along her face and her shirt was torn up. My Ukrainian hasn’t improved much, but I think I heard the villagers whisper ‘voice’ or something like that to each other, but what does that even mean? I don’t know. And they all have weird numbers.
The innkeep saw me looking, and I guess I looked real interested, ’cause he came up to me and started saying ‘don’t go’ (I think) and pointing upstream. He seemed pretty calm for having seen a dead person. He kept scratching himself. I think he had once had frostbite or something, ‘ cause a splotch of his neck looked real bad, I mean, like dead.
I’m somewhat hesitant to continue on, this Carver dude drinks blood like water. But if he exists, that means the Transmutation exists. I can’t stop now. I’ve got some weapons, I’ve seen a few Jackie Chan movies with all the cool kung fu moves, I’m good. One more day. Tomorrow I’ll go upstream, and the day after I’ll be on a plane home, turning all sorts of stuff into gold. A gold bed. A gold toilet. Yeah, a gold toilet will really help me pick up some chicks.’
Mimic. This was all his fault.
Mimic is a user on an Internet forum for paranormal discussion. He is, by far, the leading expert on the Carver, and he says he’s a historian. He’s got loads of evidence on the Carver. He describes the Carver vaguely, though he seems certain holy water is its weakness. Mimic focuses mostly on the Explanation of Transmutation, the book he says the druid died holding. He attributes all sorts of qualities to it, such as the ability to raise the dead, to grant immortality, to convert substances to gold, and myriad other fantastical things. He wrote so in-depth that I’m sure he’s convinced a lot of people to search for it.
Surely he’s making some of it up. He’s crafting a story, a prank to convince stupid foreigners to travel all the way out to Ukraine so he can have a laugh. That’s what I would’ve thought if I hadn’t received my brother’s journal in the mail. Shipped in a box that smelled of necrosis. The box that contained his severed head, his head missing the eyes. The number six thousand sixty-one carved on his forehead.
I turned to the last journal entry.
“I’m dead. So dead, how’d I even end up here? I’m locked in a closet, I’ve only got a lighter and I’m writing my last words. I walked up the stream. There was this old stone house. It’s the Carver’s. It’s also a mausoleum. Smells putrid. It’s full of the dead. I saw it and waited. I wasn’t just going to enter it, not right away. Night came. I wasn’t worried, I’d be able to find my way back, just follow the stream. And I saw him. The Carver. His flesh clings to his body, he’s so skinny, almost a skeleton if not for the pale blue skin wrapped tightly to his bones. He walked slowly. Surely. With a strange confidence.
I waited a while after I lost sight of him. Just to make sure. I would be in and out in a flash, I thought. Part of the wall had collapsed on one side. I jumped it. And I got hit by that smell, the smell that follows me, it’s sunk into my hair and my skin, I smell like a corpse and- Moonlight lit a bit of the room. Centuries old, this building. And it smelled. There were fragments of bones and trinkets, a stained rug, but no book. I went into a door. The smell got stronger, it was in my nostrils now, and I vomited, I wiped my mouth and pulled out my lighter, my hand shaking so bad I almost couldn’t get it lit, and the dead people were there.
They were PROPPED. Propped up like figures in a wax museum, dressed in fashions from eons ago, all different kinds, all skeletal or ripe green or dirt brown, and some were hanging from the ceiling like marionettes dancing, and others were sitting at a table, silverware in hand, and another was staring out the window, and another had a laptop in its hands, and another applying makeup while staring in a mirror, can you imagine that? A dead person staring at themselves in a mirror, staring with no eyes, just black sockets, and there was another propped up in a chair, reading a book.
The Explanation of Transmutation. I pulled the book out of its hands, knocking the corpse over, a thousand baby spiders exploding from the skull. I ran into the forest, waiting to see the Carver, but he wasn’t there.
I was elated, the world was mine! I stopped to catch a breath, and the book began calling my name. I took a quick look. The pages were blank. They were all blank. Page after page after page, I kept turning. Except the last one.
One sentence scrawled: ‘need new eyes’. And I heard footsteps behind me.
Then I woke up here. And I’m waiting to die. And I’m so alone. I hope someone reads this. Stay away. My brother’s address is 13 XYXYX XYXYXYXY, XYXYXY XYXYXYX, North Carolina, U.S.A. Send this to him. Tell him I miss him.’
Tears came no longer. I had read it too many times, imagined his death too many times. I put the journal away as the train began to slow.
I disembarked, the only passenger to do so. The air had a fetid odor, and grew stronger the closer to town I walked. It reminded me to prepare myself, so I stopped and unzipped my travel bag. I didn’t bring just a knife, like my brother. No, I came to slaughter: a MP5 and a fragmentation grenade, which I purchased through a friend of a friend of a contact in my brother’s journal; six nine millimeter clips and a gallon of holy water blessed by a reluctant priest; a machete, and a liter of gasoline and matches. I was going to torture the Carver to death.
With my weapons readied, I continued into town. Oil street lamps lit the cobble-stoned streets, and I began to see people, slow, milling about aimlessly. I continued down into the middle of the street, studying the town. It was aged, storied with a history I would never know. Was it built during The Ruin? The throngs of townsfolk began to thicken. They all looked sick, and had numbers written on their shirts, what did it mean? They were all in the six thousands, but not one higher than-
These were the Carver’s victims. And they had me surrounded. Dozens of them, all staring at me, the faint glow of the street lamps illuminating the sickly pallor of their dead flesh. I saw the innkeep amongst them, in the back. He was a stranger, to be sure, but there was something I recognized in his gaze. Contrarily, the villagers’ eyes were glazed, void of consciousness. They stepped toward me.
Gun in hand, I dropped the bag and began spraying bullets into the crowd. Black, bloodless holes filled their bodies, and they just kept coming, ignoring the rounds aside from a flinch from impact. Clip after clip was spent, I could smell the decay on their breath, could see the yellowed whites of their eyes, and then there was the click of the last magazine running dry. Only a few lay still. I began to worry.
I strapped the bag of munitions to my back and sprinted toward the closest building, kicking down the door and barricading it. As soon as I stepped away, the door rattled on its hinges, the villagers’ bloodlust made audible in clarion screams. It wasn’t going to hold very long. Shadows flit by the windows, I heard glass shatter somewhere. Got to go, gotta get out, where do I go?
I ran through the house, searching desperately, but only one thing came to mind: burn, baby, burn. I wouldn’t be able to escape, but I wouldn’t be the only one to die tonight. I began another lap through the house, unzipping the bag and pouring the gasoline in a trail, evading villagers that had breached the building. I struck a match and the trail lit, consuming the house in an instant. A few villagers in the way of the trail became walking torches, though they did not scream as the flames roasted their skin. In fact, they made no reaction, other than to continue to lumber toward me. It was useless.
I tried to run. They were around every corner, I couldn’t get out. I ascended a staircase, trying to dodge the flames quickly climbing it, and then I stopped as I heard a loud groan. The stairwell broke, and I fell.
I awoke with a start, my temple pulsing in agony. The smoke was caustic as I inhaled, and the light of flames flickered through cracks above, illuminating the tunnel I was in with eerie light. After my eyes adjusted, I crept down the dank passage, my heart thundering. I saw torchlight near the end, set beside an ancient, rotted door. It was heavy, and creaked loudly despite my caution. It opened up into a mammoth room, cobbled and mildewed, lit by lanterns in intervals. A foul odor crept into my lungs, and there was not a breath shallow enough to save me from it. Stone tables were staggered throughout, at least a hundred, each with something on them-
Embalming tables. They were all embalming tables, still occupied by bodies of mangled, pale flesh that hadn’t seen sunlight in decades. I walked silently toward one, careful not to wake them, lest they be animated like the villagers. The one I looked had a carving in its chest, the number one-thousand and twelve. He kept them, the Carver kept them as trophies.
This was disgusting, I was disgusted and I needed out, I needed out right now. The confines of the room began to close in, claustrophobia squeezed my lungs as I ran through the room, aimlessly searching for an exit, any way out, but it was filled with tables, tables and corpses and that terrible smell.
And in my carelessness, I knocked over a trap of tools rusted brown, and they clattered to the ground, the echo lasting several moments. And before I even looked up, I could feel eyes on me. And when I did, every corpse in the room was sitting up, staring at me. And then cold, fetid hands clasped my face from behind me, and the world faded to black.
I awoke to darkness, hanging by my arms. I stood up, the reek of death all around me. When my eyes adjusted, I realized I was in the room my brother had described, the one with all the corpses propped, except they were all staring into my eyes with green, withered faces. I remained motionless, for I could not tell if they were alive or not. They were perfectly still, but their eyes, their eyes were alive and glistening. I looked around, but there was no escape. I saw the bag with my supplies in it, five feet away, but impossible to reach, for my wrists were bound by chains.
My head dropped. This was it. I had failed. I would die in the same cursed place as my brother had. Oh, my poor brother, I was not strong enough to avenge you. I looked back up. Like a hallucination, two corpses lay on the floor, one freshly killed, one headless, and a ghastly figure kneeling beside them with a book in hand. It had a mask of human flesh on, the innkeep’s, he was wearing the innkeep.
The creature was frail, emaciated, his bones more prominent than his musculature. Varicose veins pulsated, splintering off from his heart like lightening. There was a patchwork of his victim’s flesh wrapped around him, interspersed by dried blood and pale blue. He began incanting an ancient language with the voice of a woman. And he looked at me, my brother’s eyes inside his darkened sockets. The demon put his finger inside the newly deceased’s head, rubbed the browned blood on a page inside the book, and then placed his hand on the headless body. It began twitching.
The Carver dropped the book, standing to look at me. He ripped the flesh mask off, the Moon lighting a sickening smile on his lipless face. The headless corpse stood up, wobbling, ‘six thousand sixty-one’ carved in its chest. A boast, a trophy. The Carver reached toward me, his fingers misshapen claws. The corpse flinched, bristled behind it, as if agitated.
“New- heartttt?” he hissed. He poked my chest and began pushing, slowly, maintaining eye contact the whole time, his head tilted, relishing my reaction. His finger squirmed, sliced tissue, prodded my lung. And suddenly, he fell to the floor. My brother’s body had attacked it. But as soon as the Carver lost sight of me, it flailed blindly, searching without eyes for the chains that bound me. It made contact, and with supernatural strength, tore it from the ceiling. I would’ve offered thanks, but it didn’t have ears with which to hear me.
The Carver was back up, and grabbed my brother’s body, throwing it outside, through the wall. As soon as he turned back to me, I whipped the broken chain at it, denting its skull. It fell back to the ground, stunned, and I went for my bag, rifling through it. I desperately threw the vials of holy water at demon, but they did not impede his recovery. No, no, I grasped, as the Carver pulled apart my chest, and through the pain I swung the machete down, tearing his torso wide open. He recoiled, falling to his knees at my feet, clutching his spilled innards. I reached back into the bag, grabbed the grenade, pulled the pin with my teeth and shoved it inside his wound.
This was it.
The explosion was deafening. I sailed through the air. Dead flesh rained from the sky. Everything was destroyed. Through the haze of my fading consciousness, I realized that I was missing most of my body. I lay still. This was the end. I gave it my best, and had won, even though it cost my life to succeed. It was worth it. I closed my eyes. Time passed, but I could not tell how much, nor did I care. And then something shook me awake, a cold breeze or a soft howl from far away. I blinked. The air was charged with some sort of energy. I looked over my shoulder and saw a blue glow as the Carver’s body began piecing itself back together, only tiny pieces, but it was forming quickly. Already a finger was reformed.
No! I won! I had won! I had beaten him, I would not allow my victory to be snatched away, I would NOT allow this. I began crawling with the last limb I had attached, at first to the Carver, but then to the book lying next to him. It was already open, turned to a page which I could not read. But something called to me from it, whispering in my mind, and I knew not what I did, I only acted. I picked a bit of the Carver’s gray matter off my face and placed it on the page, which set strange runes aglow in blue light. The book spoke to my mind, told me to trace the last rune, but I hesitated.
I knew what this meant. I would become the new Carver. I would become a monster, unredeemable, atrocious, forsaken and alone. But was I not already alone? The Carver’s head was mushy still, but his face was forming. And if I did this, how many brothers would I steal from the world? How many families would I destroy without regret or conscience? Was it worth vengeance? The Carver’s torso was fusing together, bone popping out of a hand that reached toward me. If I chose this, I would be immortal, undead, leading a hollow life of stealing from the living. Could I live with myself knowing what I was? The Carver pulled himself on top of me, his saliva dripping on my face.
Was this worth absolute victory? What would you think, my brother?
I think so. I traced the rune.
My body disintegrated.
The transformation was extraordinary. My mind was filled with knowledge, foreign memories made, consciousness transcended, senses redefined, beliefs and morals distorted and remade. Existence was understood from a whole different perspective. Life was an essence, something tangible, transferrable, if one used the right tools. My body was reformed, stronger, more powerful, restructured with a foreign genetic code. But it was malnourished. I reached out for one of the myriad limbs laying around me and used it, absorbed it. Ate it. The feeling, the taste was intoxicating. My greatest desire now was to use it, to experiment, to see how much flesh I could transmute.
The old Carver stared up at me in horror, broken and writhing. Yes, I knew what he was thinking. He had not known fear in centuries, and to stand here above him, to revel as he cowered, it was bliss.
“I’m going to torture you to death,” I whispered. And then I consumed him, in thin ribbons of flesh and rivulets of blood, dissecting him, peeling his flesh, taking inventory of his organs, collecting his nails, strangling the screams from his throat, for hours on end. And when I finished, when he was naught but a slimy paste, I sought the long-dead, and consumed them, too. I left the old building to find one more corpse, and found him.
Ah, but this one I would not eat. I hungered, yes, and I would sate that urge with a million souls, for I was the new Carver. I generated flesh on the body before me to erase the number placed on it, except I left the ‘one’. The first. You are the first, my brother. Let us share this victory together.