Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
If there’s anything I’ve learned from my experience with the Exsor, it’s that I’m not afraid of monsters.
Monsters that roar, ghosts that shriek, and demons that howl… none of that scares neither me nor anybody else. No, the true pedestal that all of these manifestations of chaos are built upon is the unknown. That true horror is the basis of all fear. It is that entity that lurks within the darkest regions of the night, that cold hand brushing down your back when nobody’s around, that blur out of the corner of your eye. It is that which you always imagine is behind you, ready to strike as soon as you become away of its presence.
The worst part is not knowing what it looks like, and that is what makes them unknown. We put faces on our fears because it makes them real; because it makes them less scary and brings them closer to our understanding, but that one thing that remains invisible and faceless… that terror comes from our imaginations.
That terror comes from us, but sometimes in the most hellish situations… that terror comes from something else.
I cannot even begin to describe the creature, nor do I want to. The very sight of the abomination made my mind begin to unravel, and I was forced to look away before it could claim my very sanity as it had claimed so many others before. In fact, I immediately vomited at first sight of the monster. I now believe the insanity that lurks in its presence is due to an aura of sorts because I can clearly remember being around it and feeling tense and terrified when I was in its presence. I can also remember what little of it I actually saw without feeling any effects, aside from the sickness I feel whenever I think back to that dreadful evening.
It was a fresh, cool October evening when I first got the call from Gavin. It was the first warm evening in quite a while, and I took advantage of the change from the frigid temperatures to spend my evening outside, reading a mystery novel in a chair on my back porch. As the sun began to set, the quiet serenity of dusk was shattered when a shrill ring erupted from inside my house. I immediately recognized it as the phone, and I hurried inside to see who it was. Delighted to see that it was from a close friend of mine, someone I hadn’t spoken to in a few weeks, I quickly swept up the phone and answered.
Professor Gavin Thomas, the man on the other end of the phone, was an archaeologist who had recently returned from an excavation. He had called me in a frantic hysteria before he left to travel to the dig site, claiming that it was the greatest opportunity of his life. The excavation, he told me, was of a town from the 1800’s that had been buried when an earthquake caused a chain reaction that sank the town and buried it beneath an avalanche. He said that a man representing a wealthy benefactor had approached him after work one evening and asked for him to join the excavation crew as the head archaeologist.
The benefactor had given Gavin all kinds of information about the dig site to get him excited, and Gavin accepted the offer to join the crew. Gavin said that such a find was unprecedented, and he couldn’t believe his luck that he would get to witness the excavation firsthand. I wished him well before his departure, and hadn’t expected to hear from him for over six months. An entire buried town would be quite the time-consuming project… or so I thought.
Now, almost three months after he had left, I was confused to see that he was calling me. I answered the phone and hesitantly greeted him.
“Devon!” Gavin sounded like he was bursting with excitement, but I detected an edge to his voice… was that nervousness…?
“Why are you back so soon? Did the excavation of that town end early?”
“You could say that,” Gavin replied. “Look, I need you to come over here, to my house.”
“The sun is setting. It’s almost night.”
“Devon, this is important,” Gavin assured me. “I wouldn’t ask unless it wasn’t. I… I found something in the town. I… I just need someone here.”
“You have it with you?”
“Yes,” Gavin slowly answered, his voice shaking. “I-It’s a huge discovery. Something impossible. Just… just get over here, alright? I can tell you everything when you get here. N-Not over the phone.”
“Gavin, are you-” I tried to ask before I heard the sound of the phone clicking as he hung up, “…okay?”
* * * * * *
Of course I thought Gavin’s behavior was odd, but he was still my friend. So, with only the slightest sense of foreboding about what terrors tonight would birth, I climbed into my car and drove to Gavin’s secluded forest home.
Gavin Thomas lived in a modest two-story home on the outskirts of the city of Marwind Heights, where we had grown up together and currently worked. He taught at the local college until his archaeology career had forced him to take a leave, but the house wasn’t very far from the college. I pulled into his driveway to see that he was waiting for me on the porch. Almost every light in his house was on, and the brightness shone through the windows, turning his house into a beacon in the dark forest. Large, towering trees sent menacing shadows over his unkempt lawn, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread for no particular reason. The sun was still setting, but the sky had been bright red and streaked with orange before I had driven into the woods. After entering the dense trees, it was as if I had traveled into a moonless night.
“Devon! Good to see you again!” Gavin greeted me warmly as I climbed out of my car and slammed the door shut. As I began to walk over to him, Gavin stood up from where he’d been sitting in a chair on the porch and extended his arms as I drew closer, and then we hugged when I got close enough. He was my best childhood friend… and still was.
“You seemed worried on the phone,” I said, peering at him with concern when we pulled away from each other. “What exactly did you find on that dig?”
“Hurry. Inside,” he motioned me toward the front door, and his worried eyes swept across the trees quickly, as though he were looking for something. I was growing increasingly unsettled by his behavior, but I went inside anyway and he quickly followed, locking the door behind us. I followed him across the house to his den, where we sat next to each other on the couch. In front of the couch was a coffee table with a worn-out leather satchel resting atop it.
“So… about the excavation,” I murmured, breaking the ice.
“Right, right,” Gavin took a deep breath. “As you know, we were digging up a buried city; the city of Nightshale. It was a very prominent city in the 19th century, but has faded to relative historical obscurity in recent years. It was found beneath tons of rock and dirt because, you see, it was buried during an earthquake.”
“Nightshale was built around the Mitis River, at the foot of a mountain,” Gavin continued. “One day, the ground began to shake, and a ravine opened up beneath the town as the earth itself split in two. What little of Nightshale that remained after that was buried or destroyed when an avalanche swept down from the mountain, burying the town and everyone in it.”
“That’s horrible,” I said in disbelief, “but it sounds like it was a pretty big job. It takes some people weeks to dig up a dinosaur fossil, yet your crew excavated an entire town in three months?”
“No, no,” Gavin waved his hand in dismissal, “we actually dug up a very small portion of the town, but we still made very good progress in those short months.”
“So why did the dig end so early? Why are you back so soon?”
“It, uh… it’s a long story, Devon,” Gavin grinned, but I could tell it was forced. If I’m being honest, he looked terrified, but I didn’t see it then. Maybe because I didn’t want to see it.
Gavin leaned forward with his arm outstretched as he grabbed the satchel. Taking it, he leaned back against the couch, and reached into the bag. As I watched, he pulled out a shiny red jewel that was small enough to fit in the palm of his hand.
“Ooh…” my eyes widened in awe. “How did you…?”
“This is the Nightshale Strange Gem,” Gavin explained, staring more at it than me as he talked. “I… I shouldn’t have it. I think I’m in danger because I do.”
“What do you mean? What kind of danger?”
Gavin gently placed the gem on the coffee table, where it appeared to glow radiantly. Next, he reached into the bag again and pulled out a leather notebook.
“These are my notes, my journal,” he told me. “Everything that happened during the dig is recorded right here. I-”
Gavin stopped, his face turning white and his eyes widening as he stared past me. I turned around in time to see something big duck out of view of the window. I jumped to my feet, and Gavin began trembling.
“He’s here…” Gavin whispered, his voice shaking.
“What?” I demanded, making a move to get out of the room, but then Gavin leapt off the couch and grabbed my shoulders.
“Devon, NO!” he shouted. “Just… just wait here, okay? I’ll go take care of it; I’ll be back in a minute.”
“What was that?! Is there someone outside the house?” I exclaimed. “Gavin, what’s going on?!”
“Everything’s fine!” Gavin managed to say before he raced out of the room. “Devon, don’t follow me! Just wait here! It’ll be fine, I promise!”
I heard Gavin running around the house as he searched for something, and then I turned back to the gem and the journal. I didn’t like it, but I knew there was something Gavin wasn’t telling me. Something that was in the journals.
I sat back down and listened to hear if Gavin was coming back. Once I was satisfied that he wasn’t, I picked up the leather notebook and began to read Gavin’s notes. I heard the front door open and Gavin hurry outside, but made no move to get up. It was time to learn what really happened during the excavation of Nightshale, even if Gavin wouldn’t tell me himself.
* * * * * *
From the journal of Professor Gavin Thomas:
August 19th, 1988
Today, I arrived on the excavation site. Unearthing this town is going to be difficult, and quite frankly, rather expensive. Fortunately, our benefactor has spared no expense. He claims that the old city of Nightshale was quite a sight to behold hundreds of years ago, and from what I’ve seen so far, I believe him.
Nightshale was a very pronounced city during the 19th century, built around the gentle Mitis River at the foot of a mountain. The earth had split and the mountain had all but collapsed unexpectedly one day when an earthquake hit, sending an avalanche careening down the mountain’s steep slopes and burying Nightshale and all of its citizens beneath hundreds of feet of mud, rock, and debris. The city had apparently been forgotten after that, so I’m not sure how our benefactor knows of it. Still, it should yield some incredible discoveries if the dig goes well. Today, a forest surrounds this sandy area, and I can’t help but wonder if those trees have been left over from the forest that was outside Nightshale before the catastrophic earthquake.
By the time I had arrived, the excavation had already begun. There is an abundance of collapsed buildings all around the area, but amazingly, some have remained standing despite being buried all those years ago. The others, an excavation team consisting mostly of diggers and excavators, but also of a few archeologists such as myself, were excited because they had discovered a particularly large structure, and they believe it to be the Honeycomb mansion.
The Honeycomb family was the heart and soul of Nightshale back in its prime, and their generosity with their wealth is what built it into the awe-inspiring city it once was. Tales of the heart they put into the city and its citizens brought settlers from far and wide to start families and businesses here. The fact that the mansion may still be intact is only an example of how strong they made this forgotten city.
Assuming nothing from the avalanche damaged the interior, it may be possible for us to enter the mansion in less than a week, though I have no doubt that a few sections of the mansion have caved in. As I said before, our benefactor’s money is plentiful, so this dig may very well last for months. Maybe even over a year. All that he asks is that we find something special. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll find what he’s looking for in the mansion, if it hasn’t been obliterated.
August 22nd, 1988
We’ve managed to dig up a bit more from the surrounding area, but we’ve mainly focused our efforts on the Honeycomb mansion.
Apparently, a body was found in the area that the old Mitis River once flowed through, but now the river is a dry trench in the sandy landscape. Nothing preserved, only a few brittle bones and torn clothing from someone who must have drowned in the river before the disaster. Nevertheless, they aren’t necessarily a bad find and I can feel high morale for the dig.
The mansion is an enormous, two-story structure, and I have no doubt of the valuables inside. I wonder if our benefactor was after money all along? We’re hoping to enter the mansion through an upstairs window tomorrow. It will no doubt be dangerous, but the reward will be tremendous. Lord only knows what’s buried in there…
I am going to bed earlier tonight. I keep getting a paranoid feeling, as though there were something watching us dig. Such irrational thoughts are no doubt the product of a disordered, hyperactive mind. There IS something ominious about the forest around us though, so I’ve decided to stay away from it and advised the others to do the same.
August 23rd, 1988
Finally! At long last, we’ve entered the Honeycomb mansion! I could hardly contain my excitement when we entered. The damage from the avalanche had broken a few windows, if not all of them, so we had to clear away all of the dirt that had spilled into the mansion, but surprisingly, there wasn’t very much. The windows must have held up a lot better than we thought, or all of the rocks from the avalanche stopped a lot of the dirt from entering. We started thinking that the wreckage wasn’t very bad at all, but then we found that a large portion of the mansion- presumably the portion that had absorbed the blunt of the destruction from the rocks- had caved in. So much for luck…
The interior of the mansion is the 18th century in all of its glory. Colorful, artistic paintings cover every wall. There are elegant rugs stretching from one side of the mansion to the other via a long hallway, and who knows how many rooms there are. It seems that as much as the Honeycombs built up Nightshale, they were also stylizing their mansion, though I am believe that most of the more gaudy decor comes from Bella Honeycomb.
Bella was a wretched woman who married her way into the Honeycomb family, and she became the sole heir of the family fortune when an illness swept through the city and claimed the lives of the other heirs, including her husband. She was greedy, and stopped using the money for what it always had been used for, Nightshale, and used it on herself instead. According to my research on the city, Bella had died under mysterious circumstances only months before the avalanche. I can’t help but wonder what they were.
We didn’t find anything today, and the feeling of being in a buried house without support beams up got to us before we could do a very thorough inspection, but we managed to see every room that was still intact. I still have goosebumps from exploring that place, and can’t wait to do it again tomorrow. There WERE some rooms that were destroyed by the avalanche, but we can dig them out when the support beams are in place, hopefully without ending up burying ourselves…
August 26th, 1988
Great. Just great.
We’ve been exploring the mansion for the past few days, and I am always shocked at how large it is. We’ve only cleaned three rooms so far. I personally inspected everything even suspected to be valuable, and nothing of significance has been found yet. Only a few intact 19th century vases and paintings, which aren’t BAD finds, but from the way our benefactor spoke, I can’t help but feel like we’re looking for something on a scale unlike any other. Something that could change the field of archaeology as we know it.
Today, a digger down by the river by the name of Henry scared everyone into a frenzy. He was digging when he suddenly started shouting about how he saw something in the forest, but nobody else saw it. Some of the more mature diggers went into the trees to look for a wild animal, but they came back and said there was no sign that anything had been there. Henry swears that he saw something, and asked me to move him somewhere away from the forest… which is going to be difficult, considering it surrounds most of the area. I suppose I could move him to the mansion, if he can handle it.
Now everyone is on edge, and some of them are concerned about if there ARE animals in the forest. I cannot allow myself to be distracted by such irrational fears. Everyone is just letting their imaginations get to them.
THERE IS NOTHING IN THE WOODS!
August 30th, 1988
Still nothing to report. The mansion seems to go on forever, and we’ve gotten nowhere despite clearing three more rooms. I DID find a neat amulet on a rotting wooden shelf, but that’s it. And I was so sure this dig would get somewhere quickly… but it looks like Nightshale isn’t as amazing as everyone thought it was. We’ve begun to dig out a large quarry around the mansion so we can see the full scope of the destruction, but it honestly does not appear to be very bad. Only a few rooms were destroyed when a part of the roof caved in, and a few more were buried, but it could have been much, much worse.
August 31st, 1988
Bad news; some of the workers were clearing dirt out of one of the rooms when suddenly it collapsed. Fortunately, there was a loud creaking overhead before it happened, so they quickly evacuated the area and most of them got out in one piece, but when the ceiling caved in, two diggers were struck by debris and another wasn’t fast enough and was buried from the waist down in rock. He was screaming in agony the entire time we were trying to dig him out, and then we had to call in the helicopter to airlift him out of here.
I got a telephone call from the benefactor today in response to the injury. He says that the injury “was an unfortunate mistake” and he hopes it doesn’t slow our progress. It’s as if all that man cares about is money or whatever he hopes to gain from what we find here.
Henry, the digger who swears he saw something in the forest, hasn’t caused any trouble in days, which is good. I think people around here are starting to relax, but I can’t be certain. I’m still having trouble sleeping, and I hate to admit it, but Henry’s story must have gotten to me as well. The paranoia has only gotten worse, and I am almost inclined to believe Henry DID see something in those woods… but not a wild animal…
I’m just being foolish. The accident today must have worked me up more than I thought.
September 3rd, 1988
Finally. We found something.
We reached what appears to be a bedroom that caved in under the rocks, and began digging. We weren’t even finished clearing it out when we found a body lying on the bed beneath the rocks and dirt. I didn’t have to be a forensic scientist to see that whoever it was died when a rock cracked their skull; their skin had long been gone and they were left with only dusty bones and ragged clothing when we found them. It looked like whoever it was somehow knew they were about to die, because clenched in their skeletal hands over their chest was a small, metal chest. I suspect that they wanted it to be found.
The chest is VERY small; small enough that I can hold it in one hand. We pried it from the skeleton’s lifeless, yet firm grasp and I opened it. Inside the chest was a carefully-folded piece of yellowed paper. The paper was thin, and felt like it was made of dust, so I made sure I was gentle as I removed it from the chest; it felt like the slightest rough treatment would cause the paper to fall apart.
I unfolded it, and written in faded ink was the following poem:
Flee my child, flee to the endless sanctuary anon
Lest ye linger, best escape this place ere it comes
For it shall arrive, snarling in the everlasting night
Ah, for those whom dare look upon shall deathly succumb
Before starting hither with a yearning to play
Hide within thine empty house, dare not go outside
For when the beast comes, it is best to pray
With eyne of darkness and mouth so sharp!
Fear the dread Exsor, my child!
Lest thee end as another victim!
Back to the wood forthwith it goes yon
Dare not give chase as it returns
For behind you now, its mouth stretches wide
To look at him, the temptation burns
Eyne of oblivion doth he possess
As madness claims, you begin to scream
Those eyne now glow, his mouth opens wide
Thy mind unravels at the seams
Fear the dread Exsor, my child!
Only leaving wanion and black insanity in its wake of paranoia
Flee my child, and yet there is no sanctuary from the dread Exsor.
I don’t know what relevance this poem had during the 1800’s, if any, but it wasn’t the only thing in that chest. Beneath the poem, there was an old, dull golden key. At this time, I am unsure of what it unlocks. Careful analyzation of the author’s words hasn’t yielded any clues, but I’m focused on the line “Back to the wood forthwith it goes yon”. The poem is saying that this “Exsor” thing comes from the forest, and I find my thoughts returning to what Henry said. I wonder, could it be possible…?
No. I’m being foolish again. A poem is all it is. Just a poem.
The author of the poem remains unknown, but I suspect it was neither the skeleton nor a Honeycomb. If that’s the case however, why was it sealed in a chest in their mansion?
I’m keeping the key in my pocket at all times now. I know that’s a tad unprofessional, but I suspect we’ll find out what it unlocks soon enough.
September 5th, 1988
I’ve read the poem so many times now, searching for anything I might have missed. I feel as though I could recite it from memory at this point. I don’t know why, but I feel as though it has some kind of deeper meaning. And the mystery of this key continues to baffle me…
There was another injury today. One of the diggers over by the Mitis River area suddenly fell into a panic about something he had seen. We suspect it was a hallucination of some kind, because he was the only one who saw anything, but this man screamed, dropped his shovel, and tried to run from the imaginary monsters. He kept looking over his shoulder, and didn’t see the edge of the quarry around the Honeycomb mansion until it was too late. He fell in headfirst, rolled down the slope and got a few awful cuts from the rocks before landing on his arm at the bottom, snapping the bone.
Again, we had to call in the helicopter. The other diggers are worried now, and I swear I heard one of them say Nightshale was “cursed”. Injuries are COMMON on a dig as massive as this, albeit not on a scale like this, but common nonetheless. No doubt that Henry is the source of these whispers. I’ve talked to him about it and made it very clear that he would be kicked off the dig if his behavior continues, and I think he’s starting to understand. Only time will tell!
I am still focused on finding whatever this damn key unlocks. It’s driving me mad. First the poem and now a key? I wonder if this mystery will lead us to whatever our benefactor is so keen on finding…
September 9th, 1988
Pointless. All of it is POINTLESS!
We’ve looked through almost every room in that mansion, and I still haven’t found what this key might unlock! On top of both that and all the injuries lately, Henry is still telling stories about that ridiculous forest, and I am seriously considering kicking him off this dig. The last thing we need is to get everyone all worked up over nothing.
I’m feeling very angsty as of late, no doubt due to sleep deprivation. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night and usually have no idea why. For example, last night I woke up, climbed out of my cot, left the tent, and was halfway to the Honeycomb mansion before I realized what I was doing.
I need to find what this key unlocks. Every day that goes by until then is another day spent struggling for answers.
September 13th, 1988
I inspected the room we found the poem and the key in again today. I looked everywhere: in the bookshelves, under the bed, and in the drawers. I even searched the skeleton to see if there might be anything else on him, but we had gotten everything already.
Another room caved in today, but fortunately there was nobody in it. I keep wondering if whatever this key unlocks was in that room, and have to force myself to think of things besides the key.
I don’t understand why the key was with that poem in the chest. The Exsor sounds like a fantasy monster, like something that isn’t real. Still, I’ve toyed with the idea that this key could unlock a cell or something where the monster, or more believably a serial killer with that name, is locked up, but that would be impossible. Nightshale has been underground for over a hundred years. If there was some monster or serial killer locked up somewhere, it would be nothing but bone by now.
No, I think this key leads to something else. Something bigger.
September 17th, 1988
I did it.
I did it I did it I did it I DID IT!
I finally found what the key unlocks, and it is the most remarkable discovery that I have ever made. This will be what makes my career. This will be the prized attraction of a very lucky museum. This will be the only good thing that comes out of the cursed city of Nightshale!
We were searching another room today, one that appears to be a trophy room full of vases and paintings, all of which we were removing from the mansion. One of the men pulled a painting off the wall to take it topside, and yelled that he had found something behind the painting. I rushed over, and sure enough there was something, a hidden compartment, behind the painting! It was a small alcove, with a small metal chest identical to the one we found the skeleton holding. I pulled the key out of my pocket and tried it on the chest, and it opened. The interior was made of velvet, and there was a gorgeous red gem sitting neatly at the bottom of the box. I immediately closed the chest and took it topside, back to camp for further inspection.
The gem is an odd shape. It’s round and smooth on one side, but sharp and jagged on the other, as though it were unceremoniously torn off a larger jewel. Through the glistening red color, the gem is transparent, but sparkles in the sunlight. When I held the gem and looked through it, I was amazed to see what appeared to be something moving INSIDE the gem! And then the gem fell from my hand as I dropped it, because I could swear, it PULSED.
Was that just my imagination, or is the gem… alive? Just the fact that I’m doubting myself should prove that I cannot accept the truth: the gem moved.
I’ve placed it and the Exsor poem in a small leather bag, and I’m keeping that satchel with me at all times.
There was also another cave-in today in the mansion. If anything, this should only prove to me that we should start focusing our efforts elsewhere. Nightshale had a fabulous museum in its past life. We should have started there when we began this excavation… it’s my own fault for letting my interest in the mansion guide our dig.
I called our benefactor today to tell him about the discovery, and he seemed thrilled about the gem, even though I only described what it looks like. I didn’t mention the movement or the pulsation, but I suspect he already knows the mysterious nature of the Nightshale Strange Gem, or so I’ve been calling it. Honeycomb Strange Gem probably would’ve been a better name.
He’s asked me to bring the gem when I meet with him at the end of the month to deliver a progress report. I’m keen to hear what he says about the Strange Gem…
September 19th, 1988
I don’t know why I can’t sleep. I notice myself being bitter toward everyone else because of sleep deprivation, but what’s really bizarre is that I’ve been noticing these same emotions in everyone else. It’s probably just the enormousness of the dig.
Henry went for a walk in the woods and hasn’t come back yet. I find it strange because he was so determined to spread his rumors about animals in the forest. It’s only been a few hours though, so I’ll probably go with a few other diggers before nightfall.
September 20th, 1988
Henry is dead.
I went with four other diggers when the sun was still just over the horizon, and we walked through the woods calling Henry’s name. I noticed a putrid odor coming from somewhere within the trees, and this was almost enough to get us to turn back. We pressed on though, and soon noticed a large mass of flies over in a certain direction. Out of curiosity, one of the diggers went to see what they were circling, and then he yelled for us.
It was Henry’s body. He was still wearing his work uniform, which had thick cuts down the front so we could see where the razor-sharp claws dug into his chest and stomach. His eyeballs appeared to have been torn open with the same claws, and his mouth was hanging open loosely. As I watched, a fly crawled out of his mouth on his tongue before flying away. His right arm was broken, and it was bending the wrong way so the white bone poked out of his skin.
This was too violent to be an animal, but I am forcing myself to believe it was a bear or some other large creature.
The excavation has ended. Everybody is packing their things, and this whole site should be clear in a day or so. Nobody is going to continue working when they’re tired, afraid, and now in danger. I can’t believe that this, the dig that was going to make my archaeological career, has ended on such a horrible note, but it’s really for the best.
May the cursed city of Nightshale forever remain undisturbed.
September 21st, 1988
I was up all night overseeing the helicopters and everyone leaving. I packed my gear in a trunk and climbed onto the last helicopter. I swear I could hear the echoes of a cave-in from within the mansion as I left the excavation site for the last time.
I still have my meeting with our benefactor on the 30th, and I expect he’ll require a full report of the Nightshale Incident, which is where these journal entries are going to come in handy.
I didn’t realize the Nightshale Strange Gem was in my trunk until the helicopter was already far from the excavation site.
September 30th, 1988
I met with the benefactor, who asked to be referred to as “Mr. S”, this evening.
I drove to his home where he greeted me at the front door and pulled me inside. It was storming, so I was grateful to be out of the rain. It was a large manor, but nowhere near as impressive as the Honeycomb mansion. I was mostly intrigued with the benefactor himself; we hadn’t met in-person up until this point. I was expecting an older gentleman, but the man who showed me into his home was fairly young, and he was wearing a black hoodie with the hood up, as though he were determined to hide his face from view. He wasn’t at all who I imagined he’d be. We sat in two chairs facing each other in his living room with a table between us.
“First thing’s first, Professor Thomas,” he said. “Let’s see the ‘Nightshale Strange Gem’, as you call it.”
I produced the satchel and placed it on the table. He swept it up, opened it, and shook it upside down so the gem and the folded-up piece of paper fell out onto the table. He grinned at both of them.
“This was a very difficult find, Mr. S,” I informed him as he gently took the gem in two fingers and brought it up to his eye for a closer look, “The Honeycombs kept it locked in a hidden chest.”
“I must congratulate you for finding it,” he praised halfheartedly before gesturing at the paper. “What’s this?”
“We found the key to the gem in a chest in another room,” I continued. “This paper was with the key. It’s a poem about something called the ‘Exsor’. Have you ever heard of anything like that?”
He sighed, “The Exsor was just a Nightshale urban legend back before the avalanche. I don’t remember the details, I just remember it being pretty standard monster stuff, like a werewolf or vampire, just a story about a monster. Looks like you’ve found some uninspired writer’s work.”
“And the Strange Gem?”
“Again, this was a spectacular find,” Mr. S said excitedly, still observing the gem. “Look closely into its shiny red exterior to its transparent inside… and they say you can see fire dancing.”
Fire! It must have been the movement I saw in the gem. I listened to Mr. S more intently as he stood up, pushing his chair aside as he did so, and turned away from me to walk over to a ceiling-to-floor window to stare out into the storm.
“You’ve put a lot of research into this, Mr. S,” I noted.
“Indeed I have, Professor Thomas,” he replied, still gazing out the window and watching the rain slowly slide down the glass. “Nightshale’s demise was an unfortunate historical event, but with this gem… this gem has powers.”
“Powers?” I asked, a fearful knot forming in my stomach. Surely he had noticed the extraordinary pulse of the gem… but had he been expecting that? Was the gem what he was after all along?
“The people of Nightshale were too weak to use the gem’s abilities,” Mr. S said through grit teeth, “but I… I can wield them. I can use them.”
“What kind of abilities?” I leaned forward in my seat, intrigued.
“I suppose I’ve already told you too much, Professor Thomas, and I do not wish to bore you with outlandish tales,” Mr. S shook his head as he stared out the window. “Your check is in the envelope labelled ‘GAVIN THOMAS’ on the counter. Leave the gem. Pick up the check on the way out.”
I slowly, unsurely, rose from my chair, and looked back at Mr. S, the benefactor to our insane excavation, who still refused to look at me. At this moment, I knew I had to make a choice… and I don’t think I’m comfortable with that choice.
I quietly took the gem and placed it back in my pocket. Mr. S didn’t turn around, and I left the envelope sitting on the counter as I hurried out of his manor. I stole the Nightshale Strange Gem from a man who definitely has more of a claim to it than I do. I found it, but he paid for everything. He found the city. He was the one who brought me onto the excavation in the first place.
So why did I take the gem? I can’t say; I was overwhelmed in the heat of the moment. I am certain that Mr. S is mad if he thinks he can use the gem for some nefarious purpose, so was it really the right choice to steal the gem?
He’s coming for me. I’m sure of it. Mr. S has money and influence, and I’m certain that he could make me “disappear” fairly easily. I need to find someone who can take these journal entries to a safe place. As for me… I need to do something with this gem.
I need to get rid of it.
* * * * * *
The last journal entry was dated a week before he called me.
I set the papers down in disbelief. No archaeologist that I knew of had ever had to deal with an excavation that was so dramatic. For a moment I thought Gavin’s story was too fantastic, too impossible, to be real. I almost believed that it was false too… until a loud gunshot rang out from the other side of the house.
“Come on! Come on!” Gavin was yelling outside. “No- ah! AAAHH!”
“Gavin!” I cried out as I dropped the journal onto the table beside the Strange Gem and leapt off the couch. I hurried out of the den and tore through the hallway to Gavin’s front door. A cool breeze drifted into the house from the doorway; Gavin had left the door wide open when he went outside onto his front porch. Nothing but the porch light illuminated this soulless night, and I stepped outside slowly and cautiously. I froze, listening for a sound, but I heard nothing except the unending roar of nature in the trees around the house. I took another step, this time off the porch, and felt my foot kick something, so I glanced down.
The grass was damp and slippery with dew, but it was also stained crimson red. The toe of my shoe had kicked what appeared to be the barrel of a shotgun. My gaze followed the gun to see a hand, rigid and limp, over the trigger. My eyes peered at the hand, and then at the arm, and then at the body, sprawled on its back in the grass.
Gavin’s lifeless eyes stared up into the night sky. His lips were slightly parted, and a thin trickle of blood dribbled out the side of his mouth. Already, it seemed as though his face, now locked in its last, terrified expression, was growing pale. I gasped and covered my mouth with my hand as my jaw fell and my eyes widened in sheer horror at the brutal display before me. My legs buckled, and I fell to my knees beside my deceased friend. The front of his shirt had been torn to pieces, and a long, bloody slash was visible. It was no longer oozing blood, but whatever knife had done this had cleanly carved through his skin.
The world seemed to stop. I couldn’t even scream. I couldn’t even react… until I heard a snarl from behind me.
I can’t explain exactly what it sounded like. It was a high-pitched wail, but it also resembled a dog or a bear, mixed with the sound a rattlesnake makes, all combined into a single, chilling growl. I pried my terrified gaze away from Gavin and looked over my shoulder to see a dark shape moving through the shadows on the edge of the house. There was a shuffling sound as it moved through the grass, and my blood turned to ice when I realized it was coming toward me.
Without thinking, I threw myself away from the body onto my hands and knees, and I frantically crawled onto my feet again as I desperately made a run for the front door. The creature in the shadows let out a bellowing roar, and out of the corner of my eye I could see it emerge from the shadows into the light of the porch, but I was too focused on escape. My feet barely touched the porch as I managed to get into the house. I quickly whirled around and tried to slam the front door, but I turned too fast and lost my balance, falling onto the door as it closed. Just before it could close all the way, something slammed into it so hard that I nearly went flying away from it.
Beyond the door came another howl, and I gasped for breath as I pressed my body against the door, fighting to close it. Whatever was on the other side banged on the door, causing it to shake, and I saw the dull-golden doorknob twisting as I grit my teeth, pulling away from the door for an instant before pushing myself into it with all my strength. The creature must have been caught off-balance, because the door finally clicked shut, and with a grunt I reached toward the knob and locked it before falling to the floor with my back against the door, breathing heavily as trickles of sweat traveled down the sides of my face. The thing on the other side of the door pounded on the door, enraged, but the door held and a few moments later I heard its heavy footsteps on the wooden porch leaving.
It was gone.
I took a deep breath, trying to steady my racing heart. My mind raced as I tried to comprehend what was happening, and I buried my face in my hands and took another deep breath. Whatever that was, I was sure that it wasn’t Gavin’s deranged benefactor, but the worst part was that I didn’t know WHAT it was. For a second, I had a crazy thought that it was just a wild animal, but animals couldn’t turn knobs or bang on the door like that.
But right now, it didn’t matter. Gavin had been worried about someone stealing the Nightshale Strange Gem, and I struggled to think if this creature was after it. It couldn’t have been a coincidence, Gavin stealing the Gem and then this thing showing up, but judging from the shotgun he had, Gavin had been prepared.
You went down fighting, buddy, I thought to myself, now realizing what I had to do. I had to escape with the Gem, and take it where nobody would find it, but shiver after shiver ran down my spine. Visions of my own body outside my house flashed through my mind; if I took the Gem, would this thing come after ME?
I couldn’t take any chances. Maybe I could still escape from Gavin’s house and somehow find the benefactor and give it to him. Anything just to get rid of it.
It was completely silent on the other side of the door, and I carefully got to my feet. The floorboards made little creaks as I tentatively made my way across the house, through the kitchen and into the hallway. Doors hung open, to a bathroom and to Gavin’s bedroom, but the den was at the very end of the hall. There was no door there.
The lights were on in the den, which I was thankful for; the whole room seemed bright, which was an enormous relief after the darkness outside, as though some black fog had covered this whole area. The Gem was still on the table next to the journals and the satchel, and the way it glistened under the lights seemed to mock me. I moved over to the table, picked up the satchel, and was about to put the gem and the journals back inside, but then I paused when I noticed a piece of yellowed paper stuffed in the bottom of the satchel.
I examined the paper suspiciously before reaching in with two fingers and gently pulling it out. The paper had been folded in half, and I unfolded it to see words written in a fading black ink. Immediately, I recognized it as the Exsor poem that Gavin had transcribed in his notes. “With eyne of darkness and mouth so sharp, fear the dread Exsor, my child…”
Hadn’t Gavin mentioned that Henry, the poor digger who had died during the excavation, had looked as though he were killed by a wild animal? Just like Gavin…?
I blinked a few times as something connected inside my mind. He had mentioned feeling strangely paranoid during the excavation, as though something in the forest were watching them. He had also been curious about the Exsor when the poem said it went into the forest. The key to the Gem had been found alongside THIS poem… that couldn’t have been a coincidence. Could… could the thing outside really have been…?
“The Exsor…” I whispered, my lips hardly parting as the words escaped me. It couldn’t have been. It was only an urban legend from a long-dead city, but at the same time it felt completely real to me. The monster that had plagued Nightshale over a hundred years ago… it was back. There was no way it could have been real, but there had been something impossible about the creature that had chased me. The mystery of it all was unbearable, and I wanted answers more than anything.
It was then that I realized it was too quiet, and felt the eyes on the back of my neck.
Slowly, my hands shaking as I did so, I turned my head toward the window. My eyes widened, and the room immediately began to spin around me as my vision blackened dizzyingly, making me sway as I stared at the twisted vision in the window. Out of the shadows of the night, two yellow orbs stared back at me while teeth like needles twitched across a wide gash in the monster’s face, where it looked as though its skin had been torn in half. All I could see were its eyes and teeth; nothing else was visible behind his spasming visage that shook and twisted as I looked for a few seconds, as long as I could bear it, and then I turned and puked yellow chunks onto the carpet. My skull felt like it was roaring as I endured a searing pain in my head, as though my cranium were being split in half and the jagged pieces of bone were poking into my brain. This feeling faded almost as soon as I looked away from the monster, but my head still ached and my hands shook even worse than before. My heart was racing fast, too fast, and I wondered if I might have a heart attack.
I wiped off my mouth as I struggled to catch my breath. Sweat flowed from my forehead and dripped to the floor, and I tried to stop shivering, but only the act of looking at the creature had swept me up in wave upon wave of nausea and terror. When my nerves had calmed a bit, I risked a look back at the window to see that the Exsor had gone, but on the glass were four long scratches that appeared to have been made by claws or a knife.
I exhaled without realizing I had been holding my breath. It was gone, for now at least, but to where?
There was no time to worry about that now. I took the satchel, put the poem, journals, and gem into it, and took it with me as I made my way out of the den and stalked down the hallway as quietly as I could. I was passing through the kitchen toward the front door when I saw the Exsor again, this time leering at me from the kitchen window. I dropped the satchel in shock, but couldn’t look away in time. Fortunately for me, all I saw were its orb-like eyes; it darted out of view as soon as I saw it.
Sighing a bit to calm myself, I bent down and retrieved the satchel from where it had fallen. Once it was in my hands, I thought about how I would get out of Gavin’s house. There was no way I could just open the door and run to my car, not without being caught by the Exsor. I wondered if there was a way to lure it behind the house while I ran toward the front. Gavin had secured his house, but I couldn’t stay in here forever. I noticed the telephone sitting on the counter, and a rush of adrenaline hit me. Could I CALL someone?
I picked up the phone, dialed 911, and held the receiver up to my ear, silently thanking the Lord for this miracle. There was a click, and a man’s voice said “Hello?”
“Yes, hello, you have to help me,” I breathed into the mouthpiece, trying not to sound like I was ranting. “I-I’m at Gavin Thomas’s house, in Marwind Heights, the address is 1915 Maple Avenue. There’s some kind of creature outside, i-it mauled him. You need to send somebody, please, it’s going to kill ME!”
There was silence on the other end of the line, and then the man’s voice spoke again.
“I’m sorry Devon, but I can’t do that.”
I stopped breathing. I didn’t move. My heart stopped.
“The Exsor is a wonderful creature, isn’t it?” the man on the other end of the line sighed fondly. “So vicious. So unpredictable.”
“You… oh my God,” I stammered. “Y-you’re the benefactor. You’re Mr. S!”
“I go by many names,” he replied, “but, look, here’s the gist of it: Gavin stole the gem, so the creature came after him. The Exsor wants that gem, Devon, and it WILL take it. Even if it has to rip you to shreds to do so. I’m sorry that you got involved in all this… unpleasantness, but that’s the way it has to be now. I’ve taken the liberty of sabotaging the phone lines, so you won’t be calling for help.”
“No…” I whimpered. “Please, I’ll give you the gem, just call off the monster-”
He laughed, “You think I control it? Ha! Nobody controls that thing. You’re dead. It’s going to kill you and then it’s going to take the gem. Anyway… it’s been nice talking with you Devon. I’ll send the police to your location tomorrow morning… after the Exsor is done. Don’t worry: I won’t be sending anyone else to Nightshale for a very long time. Oh, and one last thing… you’ve probably figured this out already, but DON’T look at the Exsor. It doesn’t like that.”
With that, the benefactor hung up, and the dial tone hummed in my ear as I stood, paralyzed with astonishment and complete horror. I gently hung up the phone, and stood, leaning against the counter, for what felt like hours, just staring at the wall. Was there NOTHING I could do now to avoid my fate?
No. There had to be something. There just had to be.
I was snapped out of my dread-filled trance by the sound of glass shattering, and then that familiar, yet haunting roar resonated from the den. Even as I broke away from the counter, satchel in hand as I ran toward the den where the sound had come from, I knew in my stomach that the Exsor had broken the window while the benefactor had distracted me.
It was inside.
I had barely gotten into the den when a blur slammed into me, knocking me to the ground as it snatched the leather satchel from my hands. I cried out as the wind was knocked out of me, and lie on the ground wheezing. The sound of papers tearing echoed through the room as the Exsor ripped the satchel open and tore the journal apart, sending the pages raining through the room. The poem fell to the ground in front of my face, and I looked up in time to see the Exsor holding the bright-red Strange Gem in one gnarled hand, or was it a claw, or tentacle? The pain in my head returned as I stared at the Exsor, unable to pull away my gaze, and I let out a scream as I felt my brain pulsing. For a moment, I swear that I could see a small, golden fire rise up from the gem. A face made of fire seemed to rise from the flames, accompanied by a hissing sound that resembled windy laughter.
The Exsor seemed to contemplate this gem for a moment, and then it crushed it.
My eyes rolled up into my head, and I blacked out, finally succumbing to the trauma the Exsor’s appearance had on my mentality. I fought to remain conscious, listening to the sounds of the Exsor pulverizing the gem into a powder. I opened my eyes a little, enough to see the remains of the gem, now dust, fall to the floor. Either I was hallucinating again, or a pink smoke rose from the gem. The Exsor stood over the gem and me, and I weakly tried crawling away from it. As soon as I looked away, my strength returned, albeit slowly. I managed to get to my feet again as the Exsor snarled, and then lunged at me like a wild dog, but I was already bolting. Behind me, I could hear the Exsor’s pounding footsteps echoing on the floor as it chased after me, determined not to leave any witnesses to its insane act.
I reached the front door, silently cursing myself for locking it, and desperately unlocked it and twisted the knob. I managed to pull the door open before the Exsor hit me at full speed, hurling me off my feet, over the porch, and into the grass beside Gavin’s corpse. The Exsor roared again, ready for its last kill, and my hands moved through the wet grass as I tried to push myself onto my hands and knees, but it was too late. The Exsor threw itself at me, a blur except for those snapping needle teeth ready to rip into my throat. At the same time, my hand brushed against Gavin’s gun in the grass. My fingers curled around the trigger, and I reacted without thinking. In one smooth motion, I rolled onto my back with the gun in my hands in time to see the blur of the Exsor barreling toward me. I squeezed the trigger, and in an explosion of light and pus, the Exsor was thrown backwards by the force of the hail of bullets fired by the shotgun.
It fell to the ground and tried stumbling away, like a wounded animal, but I pumped the slide and fired again as I climbed to my feet, marching after it. This time, the monster fell to the grass. Shadows obscured its details from my vision, so I surprisingly didn’t feel any pain from looking at it, so I fired one more onslaught of white-hot lead at the Exsor before the gun was empty. The Exsor lie in the grass and didn’t move. I lost my balance and toppled onto my knees as the gun fell out of my hands.
And that’s when I passed out.
* * * * * *
I awoke less than an hour later, and quickly got up to see that the shotgun was right where I had left it, as was Gavin’s body. I couldn’t see the Exsor’s body in the dark; the shadows had only gotten darker as the night grew deeper, and a looming gray cloud hid the moon from view.
I went back into the house, breathing in weak gasps. My head ached like someone was pressing a railroad spike into it. I limped into the kitchen, and grabbed the phone, dialing 911 again and expecting to hear the benefactor’s cruel, taunting voice once more. I looked out the window as the phone rang, and from beyond the window, I heard a muffled but familiar sound.
A low snarl.
Unable to believe what I had heard, I looked out the window, mesmerized, to see two yellow orbs staring back at me. Then, as I watched, the orbs slowly moved away from the window. Without looking away from me, they drew further and further away before finally disappearing into the night. I stood there, stunned, with the phone still up to my ear.
“Hello, 911, what’s your emergency?” a woman’s voice asked from the other end of the line, “…is anyone there? Are you hurt? Hello?”
I hung up the phone.
I don’t know if the Exsor is still out there or not because, looking back, I realize that I don’t actually know that much about it. Its motivations, what the gem was supposed to do, or why it spared me that night… all I know for sure is that I never want to hear the name “Nightshale” again.
Nightshale was a town that was truly haunted, and all the excavation had done was unleash the curse.
Credit: Alex Sorrow