Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
Turn back now, before your past is dug up like old bones and your soul is consumed in fire.
I blinked once, watching the faded trees, like twisted, gnarled fingers reaching up to caress the sky, roll by the carriage window. I rubbed my forehead; the thought must have come from sleep deprivation. In earnestness for the trip, and what I could find at the manor, I was nearly robbed of sleep last night. No matter, for I was almost there. The thudding of the horse’s hooves, and the irate commands from the driver started to abate as we neared closer.
I snatched another glance out of the window, noting the barren, almost lifeless ground, and the withering forest surrounding it. A thin, dirt path wound up a hilly slope stapled with the macabre trees on either side… but the only destination seemed to be the moon, which sat at the zenith of the hill like the top ornament on a Christmas tree. I pulled my head back in and ruminated on the good fortune I was coming into. I rubbed my hands gleefully, understanding only one thought that encircled my heart and soul right now:
Treasure. Lots of treasure.
Suddenly, I heard a horse whinny and snort, then pound its hooves on the ground. I heard a shower of pebbles cascade loosely down the path.
I leaned out the window and saw a wide, tall gate, shining like black silver spikes underneath the silvery moonlight. The two horses, only dark shapes in front of me, stood still and rigid now. The driver was shouting for me to leave; he would go no further, not into this “accursed land.”
It’s because he’s a local, I thought with a smirk. In the mountains of Germany, the village folk thought every blasted place away from the town was haunted, or contained what they called Poltergeists.
And that was some hog shit.
The suitcase dangled by my waist as I entered the pitch-black void making up the swirling land of trees and decaying weeds dotted to either side of me. The driver lowered his arm as I came by, opening his palm and flashing a patent smile.
I dropped a few coins into his hand and watched as he brought it to his face. He snatched a lamp next to him and counted them meticulously, whispering as he did so. He nodded to me soon after, then shouted a command to his horses. The carriage turned around.
And with that, I was alone in the darkness, and the sheering cries emanating from the forest. My ears pricked—they sounded like my brother’s voice. Could it be … no, it couldn’t. I dismissed the thought like one would bat away a fly. I walked to the gate, ignoring my surroundings. If you were a treasure hunter, you forged an iron wall between yourself and the outside world; and you honed in on only one thing, and that was treasure. Money. Gold. The damn Spanish Doubloons if you found them.
And all those days of walking tirelessly, paying carriages and captains, rooting through dank cellars smelling of death and decay—in the end, it was worth it. It was worth it because the money was so good. The women were so good. And the taverns, the alcohol.
A thought invaded my head again: It wasn’t so good for your brother, now was it?
A word formed on my lips, but I dare not say it. That word was a name. Ren. I trembled for a second, shaking like a cowered kitten from a lightning storm. Why remember that now? Here?
The gate swung open as I touched it, revealing a cobbled path snaking its way up to a cloud of darkness. Blightheart manor stood up there, somewhere.
The driver had laughed when I asked him where it was. We were standing in the streets Munich, underneath a tall lamp post standing guard above us like a sentinel. The bright, yellow-orange light illuminated me as if in a spotlight.
“At the top of the hill,” the driver said as he coughed, “is all darkness. Follow the path, and you’ll see it.” He laughed hoarsely, and grinned terribly. “If you make it there, that is.”
“That need not concern you,” I answered.” You’ll take me at once.”
“You’ll pay extra, as promised? This is not a faint-hearted trip, stranger.”
The topic of his resignation intrigued me. “What concerns you so about said manor?”
“Evil, stranger, and deplorable screams as if muttered from the witch of hell herself.” He shook his head and coughed again. “Missing men. No one has ever been known to come back.”
“Very well,” I said, with no hint of trepidation. ”Some ill-fit men and childish screams won’t chase me away like a kicked hound.”
That was some time ago, I thought. Hours ago. It seemed like a century. Laboriously, my feet carried up the path, eating away at the pebbles which skirted down behind me as my boot kicked into the congregated piles of loose rock.
A streak of lightning flashed above, a blue ribbon which illuminated a lone house at the pinnacle of the hill. It was brief, but I felt like I could see all I had wanted to see. Blightheart manor was as big as they said, but not nearly as big as my imagination had led me to believe. It covered the top of the hill completely, its wide shape stretching awkwardly out to form an irregular rectangle at the bottom. But it didn’t extend far vertically; it ended with the confluence of both sides of the roof combining to form a V.
A thought struck me suddenly. The air was dry and damp, and no hint of rain showed in the dark skyline above, yet the lightning had flashed. Why?
I found myself standing just outside the manor, with the question unanswered. The entire house was made out of rotting wood. In turn, wooden poles jutted down from the roof of the house to the porch floor, and the door was destroyed, lying in broken splinters on the ground in front of me. The house loomed above like a baleful signal of death.
This is nothing, I told myself, nothing. I eyed the heap of splintered wood, and the darkness beyond it. Nothing. Just old stories, handmaid tales and yarns to scare children.
With a little more confidence, I stepped over the heap and into the doorway. The thought of treasure alone propelled me into the dark confines of the house. Slowly and steadily, I carried myself into the realm of empty space. My feet seemed to crash on the boards in front of me, and they creaked under my weight, groaning like old, battered soldiers. A breeze tickled my ears and swept its way inside. A faint scuttling emanated from the upper floors of the manor. Besides that, empty silence.
Realizing I needed a light, I struck a match and lit a small lantern I kept in my suitcase. The light filled only a small circle in front of me, like a barrier from the malevolent forces inhabiting Blightheart manor. The rest of the darkness spanned around me like a cloak, obscuring everything until my circle of light touched it.
The feeling of death and emptiness was palpable, but I scoffed at the sheer thought of it. I had been in places worse than this. Prisons. Abandoned castles. Deep in the darkest corners of the ocean.
I carried on, kneeling to inspect the map I carried in my shirt pocket every now and then. A man had shown me how to read it, back when I was touring America.
He had been an odd, Native American fellow, with a swoop of long-black hair tied in a ponytail. He hadn’t said much, besides make an additional mark on the map as to where it could be. Then he had walked out swiftly and been on his way. He never explained how he could read it, or how he had known where the treasure would be.
The foolish man hadn’t even asked for his share.
Ren would have questioned it, I mused as time draped on in the darkness. He was always the smart one. Always prudent; always looking ahead for the both of us. Because it had always been the both of us. Us two, brothers in arms. There had been no one else.
A faint scratching noise sounded from behind me, like nails sliding roughly down wood. I jumped and looked back. Nothing was there. I kept going, meandering through what I assumed was the kitchen. My light fell on heaps of wood bundled together, rotting and dry now. A half-broken table stood almost upright, slanting on two legs. A counter raced around the edge of the room, filled with gaping holes, but still standing upright, holding up against the passage of time. A square window looked out into the realm of stars sprinkled on the horizon.
I edged closer to the window, dropping the lantern to my waist. As I did, a movement echoed behind me, as if someone was trying to sneak up behind me. I whirled around, and flashed the dagger I kept inside my cloak.
I held it close but looked back at nothing; I had been sure something was behind me. The soft steel glinted dangerously, and I shook my head and lowered it. I set the lantern on the small table and sighed. I kept the dagger in my hand, and knelt down.
“Under the slanted table in the kitchen,” the Native American had said, “is where you’ll find a trapdoor. Open it; the bolt may be rusty, but hit it a few times. Go in there, and you’ll see a narrow hallway. Follow that, and you’ll find the treasure.”
It was indeed rusty, so I hit it until it popped the latch off. The steel on metal met with a few sparks and a loud, gonging noise I wished hadn’t accompanied it. With a groan, I finally lifted the trapdoor, which swirled up trails of dust mixed with a repugnant smell. It smelled like burning flesh.
Ren would not have come, I thought. I know he wouldn’t, not after this. He would have told me to go back, wait until the morning. Except I wasn’t the smart one. I wanted my money, and I needed it now. That was the extent of my intelligence.
I looked down, seeing a ladder collapsing down into a cellar of more darkness. It had rusty rungs, but it looked like they would hold. I tapped one with my foot for good measure, and smiled in satisfaction. It would hold, alright.
As I prepared for my descent, I heard a whisper drift toward me.
Baron, where have you been?
The first thought I had was Ren. The second was that whatever it was, it was on top of me. I whirled around and lunged with my knife.
It sunk into rotting flesh.
Appalled, I scooted on my back and knees, attempting to free the knife from the corpse standing in front of me. But as I looked up, I met the face of my dead brother.
He smiled at me, but it was not his smile. He looked at me with his eyes, but they were not his eyes. His teeth flashed, but they were not his teeth.
It was Ren’s corpse, as it was the day he had died. It was wearing a tattered white shirt, ripped open at the belly to reveal a gouged hole in his stomach, crawling with flies and dripping blood. Its intestines hung out like a platter of meat, and an axe was lodged into the exposed hole. Ren’s hands gripped the haft of the axe, those too smeared with dry blood. Its skin was peeling off in layers, exposing white, gleaming bone and motes of decayed flesh. Its face had no color, no texture—it was a pallid hue, with black holes where eyes should be. His hair was matted with blood.
“You miss me, brother?” the corpse asked. Its voice sounded like a bewitched child, and almost like an old man on his death bed. He flashed a toothless smile, and maggots crawled out of his mouth and slugged down his belly. Flies buzzed around him, and the smell alone almost rendered me unconscious.
“What—what are you d—doing, Ren?” I said, shaking with fright. The knife, impaled in the corpse’s chest, would not budge. I dropped my hands and let it sit there, another weapon lodged in the ghastly creature.
“Getting my dues, brother,” the corpse hissed. “You killed me. You killed me!” it shrieked the last few words, resonating a deathly sound that made me clap my ears.
As it did, I flicked my eye toward the trapdoor. If I could escape down there and shut it before it came and escape. But something other than terror gripped me where I stood before the entity.
“You’re not my brother,” I whispered. Then, with renewed vigor: “You’re not my brother.” I tried to shout, but it still came out as a hoarse whisper. The thing turned its eyes on me, boring into me with those black holes where eyes should be. A slimy maggot crawled out of the hole and traced its way down the corpse’s rotting skin.
It moved closer, and I could hear every step it took, pounding on the rough-hewn boards before me. It cackled maliciously. It was taunting me.
I was shaking in fright. “Lord rid me of—“ I started, then stopped as the corpse suddenly lunged forward and gripped my head in his hands. Up close, I could see the tearing and rotting flesh, the jutting bones, the red meat clinging to it and the maggots swallowing and eating it whole.
The smell of decay completely engulfed my senses. I closed my eyes, crying and shouting loudly for the lord to save me, to no avail.
“The lord will not save those he deems evil,” the thing hissed once again. “You killed me, brother.”
He held my head up to his eyes and then all I could see was blackness.
His chest heaved up and down spasmodically, almost like his heart was threatening to pump out of his ribcage and splatter its remains across the bare white bones. I watched with a silent grin on my face.
Betrayer. Snake. Worm.
His face was turned up to the ceiling, and his breath strummed steadily. My toes grabbed at a soft bit of wood on the cabin floor as I eagerly eyed him. I inched forward, and now I dragged the small farmer’s axe up to level with my head.
Tucked underneath his arm was the map. It almost seemed to light like a beacon for me, almost seemed to say: come get me.
And I deserved it, didn’t I? I deserved that map, because I had remained loyal despite his traitorous urges. I had remained the good brother. I had remained—
The map glowed—it became all I could see— and I howled in fury. How could he hide it from me? The greatest treasure of all? And he dare call me his brother? We were not blood.
We were enemies.
I raised the axe up, and with no pity, no remorse, it fell. And fell. And fell.
Blood sprayed everywhere in a jet-like stream, and he cried out at first, but then was silenced as the blows slammed into his stomach, the curved edge of the axe burrowing into his flesh like a mite.
My eyes snapped open, only to find more darkness. I stood up, my knees wobbling as if skating on thin ice. My hand traced along the wall to the side of me; it felt cold, rough and jagged. I realized it was rock. A small hole opened at the top, and I could see the stars reflected through a window, and a ladder raced to the top. I was in the trapdoor, but when had I fallen down here?
I must have fallen down and had a nightmare, I told myself. Just a nightmare. It felt better now; to believe that none of this happened, and had only been the pure imagination and figment of my roving mind.
Suddenly the door swung shut with a snap, rendering me in total, obsolete darkness. Wind?
Nothing left anymore but to go, I thought grimly. And still, despite everything, despite the nightmares, whether true or not, the treasure was here; the treasure lay here, waiting for me to find it. My tongue flicked out, as if it could taste the texture of a golden chalice already. No ghosts of my dead brother or horrid dreams were going to stop me. I had done all for this treasure. This was my life’s dreams, and nothing was going to stop it.
I plodded down the cavernous hallway. My boots sunk through puddles of water, and sometimes I heard the faint splish splash of water echoing, but nothing else moved. My eyes adjusted to the dark, and the sense of treasure lay somewhere ahead, I could almost feel it. I had imagined the whole thing, that was all. Figments of imagination.
“I’ll find the treasure, and I’ll get out of here,” I muttered to myself.
You’ll find nothing but death. The voice sounded like it was inside my own head. But it was alien, inhospitable and leaking of a macabre quality.
“Who is that!” I shouted, ringing my voice through the hallway. Nothing stirred, but I stood still for a second. Suddenly everything seemed alive, and I could envision my brother, his dead, pallid face grinning, blood dripping down his stomach, running down the hallway and laughing like a madman.
I picked up my pace, fully understanding the situation I was in now. A bat fluttered by me, almost knocking me off balance. I batted it away and continued to run. I could almost feel its hand on my skin now, turning me over to stare at those lifeless eyes again.
My legs ate the ground, meteorically flying over the ground. My breath was stertorous, lagging in and out as I flew across the rough, cavernous floor. My foot slipped and I went skidding down a puddle of water, landing face-first on the rocky ground. Blood trickled down from a cut somewhere on my forehead. Groaning, I turned up, flinging my hands out to reach something in the darkness that could lever me back up.
My hands touched something slimy, something alive, and something crawling with maggots.
I shrieked, retracting the hand at the same time I started to crawl backward. My brother was back— it was pitch black, and I could only hear the thing’s raspy breath as it slowly plodded toward me—but I knew that horrendous face was jeering at me, the maggots were still crawling in and out of the bones on its skin and blood and meat glistened like gems underneath the sunlight.
“Lord save me, lord save me,” I whispered, over and over and over.
The lord has abandoned you.
How could it be in my head? What was it?
My back hit a wall and sent a jolt of shock through my head, sending out waves of unrelenting pain. I hobbled to my feet, noticing the thing’s breath had disappeared. For the first time, I was thinking of denouncing the treasure.
I fumbled for my pocket, looking for a match. If I could find that, I could make my way out of here, even if I was lost. I could backtrack, trace my path.
Fingers rubbed across something wooden and small, and I grasped it. I hauled the box out as well, flicking the match across it until I was rewarded with a spark, and then a gust of flame.
The light penetrated the darkness, revealing a snarling face grinning at me, only inches from my own. I screamed, but my cries were lost in the tenebrous cavern miles underneath the ground, where no one would ever find me.
It wasn’t my brother’s corpse this time. It was a gangly creature, with brown, fleshy skin, poked with scabbarded, black slime and red pores. Its limbs narrowed to the point where white bones peeked out from the gangrene flesh, but searing, sharp claws extended at the top of the toes and monstrous hands. It was twice my height, but I could still see its head—shaped like a canine’s as it jutted forward, but with yellow eyes, peeling layers of brown skin and not a trace of hair anywhere. It snarled again, revealing glistening white teeth that were hard not to distinguish in the piercing darkness.
I slid down, defeated in the presence of such aghast horror.
“W—what I—is it,” I whispered to myself, unable to take my eyes from the ghastly creature.
I am the Oojkata. I am death if you choose it, but I am fire if you light it. The voice still resounded in my head, clear as a bell.
I clutched my head and wailed. “Please, please no,” I said, hoping it would just go away. I closed my eyes in silent prayer.
I sat there, staring at his dead corpse for what seemed like millennial. The hours ticked by, but I continued to watch, fascinated, as he lay there, still and silent like a stone. I should feel pity, remorse, but I didn’t. He hid something from me, and he paid. Was that not God’s retribution? Punish the sinners. Punish them until they flee into hell, the lost and tormented souls flocking like sheep into the fiery depths.
My fingers, blood-stained and soaked, held the map tight to my chest. Yes, nothing left but to get the treasure. Hide his body or leave him for the wolves. It didn’t matter what happened to the damned. The only thing that mattered, was treasure.
As I left, I knew one thing for sure: if he hadn’t died, we would have had to split the treasure.
I opened my eyes again and looked at the thing standing there, watching me like a stone gargoyle.
“No,” I commanded. “He deserved to die. You have no right to…”
Its claws gripped my shirt and hoisted me until I was level with its eyes. I looked into the layers hidden beneath those eyes, but all I could see was my brother’s death. Flashed over and over, until I could make out exactly what he had said when he died.
Brother I love you please stop please don’t oh god.
And then it was running, towing me behind like a discarded piece of rope. The creature dragged me on the ground, ignoring the ceaseless bumps as my head cracked against the rocks of the ground, splintering my head and releasing torrents of blood.
Eventually, it stopped, and I felt the thing drop me on the ground.
When I opened my eyes again, I was in a cavern, lit by an army of stalagmites glowing at the top of the cavern ceiling. I stood up, shakily. The ground seemed to wobble and shake incessantly at my feet. I corrected myself and leaned against the wall.
My eyes scanned the place until I saw the chest. It was sitting atop a litter of bones piled high in a stack, like mounds of rubble in a bombarded town. Forgetting all that had happened, I leaped and bounded for joy, rushing to the treasure. The creature had given up; for some reason or another, it didn’t want to eat me.
And that meant the treasure was mine.
I licked my lips again, imagining myself on a beachfront cabin, swinging lazily on a hammock as servants tended to me with golden chalices, and surely the same ones I would find in that chest. I thought of nothing, but the thought of letting those gold coins slip through my fingers; the thought of staring at golden lockets and losing my eyes in a sparkling gem or ruby.
I clambered up the pile of bones, ignoring the incessant bones slipping and falling underneath me. I fought my way to the top and looked in wonder at the chest. That alone would grant me a fortune. Eagerly, I grasped the lid and hoisted it up, unlocking whatever lay hidden inside.
What stood before me was not treasure, but my brother. This time, however, it was his ghost; a rippling, almost fading, dream-like aura of him. The figure shimmered back and forth, a white hue glowing from his body—but no traces of wounds or death marked upon his body, or showed he had died at my hands.
My brother held out its hand. “Come here, brother,” he said. “Come to me.”
In a paralyzed stupor, I went to him, wrapping my arms around his ghostly body. I only noticed the cold, however, the immense, freezing cold like I had dipped my body in the arctic ocean. I shivered, but I felt at home.
I had already slipped away by the time the ghost faded, and the creature held me in its arms.
Credit: Bradley Edward Dress