Read the entire short-story ‘The Marsh Curse’!
On the night of June 12th across a cobblestoned walkway that plummeted into absolute blackness, damp from a full day of rain and emanating petrichor, I stumbled. A slight drizzle still remained, casting a showery mist along the road, coating like veneer the rumbling stone. This part of town was a place I rarely ventured through, especially on nights in which the moon was the only spring of light to shepherd the wayward. There were, to my astonishment, dismal lights lining the street, but hindered by the rain their radiance barely illumined the decaying edges of a single cobblestone block. It was through this abhorrently begrimed darkness I travelled.
It was in this area of town, where more windows were boarded than not, where the pavements collected shrouding shadows, where the fraying edges of slanted roofs hung menacingly low, I had been summoned in attendance. I flitted quickly through the street, never glancing back at the lingering shadows.
Halting in front of a decrepit building that leaned precariously forward from its foundations, I peeked through a bay window and into a decent looking bar. Its warm and tempting light was a far cry from the shadowed shroud presently laying claim to the town.
Inside, I was heated by a small, rustic fireplace on my left that was slipped deftly beside the bar counter, and intrigued by the building’s humble contents. A timber deck had been raised and slotted into the far-most left corner; large enough to hold four wooden tables each with four chairs as company but small enough to uphold the overall bucolic atmosphere. On my right, a wall of various paintings I didn’t recognise invited inspection. Most were of far-away country-sides and inflated perceptions of idyllic life; no doubt to inculcate in the patrons a sense of wonderment and comfortability. The place wasn’t completely devoid of malignancy, I discovered, as a quick look around confirmed many sets of eyes focused raptly on me. I gave a faint nod to dismiss their stares and then took a seat at the counter.
A well-meaning, well-groomed brunette took note of my attendance.
“What will it be?”
Her eyes narrowed. It was unlikely that she had come across a customer willing to forego the undeniable allure of intoxication, and was surely forming all manner of ill ideas as to my person, but she produced a glass of water all the same.
This part of town transmitted a deleterious reputation for its often rowdy populace. They were more likely to plunge into your thorax a rusty knife than give directions. It wasn’t their fault, I had been told more than once, as this was the dominion of forgotten and lost hope; a haven for the neglected and the astray. In this place, hopes and dreams were paltry distractions from fermented reprieve, and I had been informed that this took precedence over any other variable presented to them.
The faces of the patrons painted the picture all too clearly; pale, malnourished, and carrying in their eyes all the signs of hopes formerly dashed and thrown carelessly aside. Each of them clung to their glasses desperately, staring into the liquid held within, lost in shallow thoughts of pseudo-contention.
My curiosity was enticed by their sadness but I kept my tongue still. Though empathy, or something akin to it, I openly exuded, their vacant expressions worried me. Perhaps it was the stories I had been told, or maybe just the aura of dread I experienced upon entering this part of town, but their horrid appearance sinisterly warned me away from conversation.
“I’ve never seen you before,” said the bartender. “And your clothes… they look a little too nice to be from around here. What brings you here?”
“What kind of information?”
“Does it matter?”
Suddenly, the air tensed and choked. The bartender, with blue watery eyes, remitted to me a furious glare. I returned it, attempting to match the ferocity, but at the horridly squeaky sound of wooden chairs moving on a wooden floor, my firmness withered. Somewhere beside me, though I didn’t look, the bar’s unkempt patrons were amassing at my furtiveness.
Even in my youth I had never been in a fight and never before had I stifled a silent longing to employ myself in one; now faced with one in which I was sure I’d lose to a concealed blade I debated fleeing from the scene.
“I’ll ask again,” said the irate bartender leaning on the counter, “what brings you here?”
I shuddered as a cold hand pressed on my shoulder. I dared not to glance at its owner, deciding to endure the bartender’s fearless stare.
“He’s a Marsh,” came a voice behind me.
At once, the bartender’s eyes faltered and the cold hand was removed, and with them, the atmosphere relieved. I turned around, ignoring the huddled semicircle around me, and witnessed a shabby, grey, bearded old man strangely dressed in a grey trench coat and adorned in a beige trilby hat. The lines on his face sang melodies of veteran inclination, though I knew he wasn’t as old as his ragged demure suggested. As a former family friend, who had often patronized family gatherings, the old man in strange attire was not unknown to me, though the anonymous summons I received was. I wondered why, as a man surely known to me, former professor Howard Thorn had retained anonymity in contacting me.
The formerly renowned professor waded through the men and took a seat. A gin-soaked assault rendered my nostrils barren. He waved at the bartender, who had backed away from the counter, and almost instantaneously procured a large glass of what I presumed to be gin.
The sudden subdual of rage at the mere mention of my surname came as no surprise. My forename would have had zero influence on the outcome of the situation, as I was yet to write anything of note on the script of the world. My forefathers, however, had impressed upon the townspeople for little over a century, in wide part due to their aging mystery, the name ‘Marsh’.
This impression was enough to silence most as the mystery of my family tree was often whispered in hushed tones in the corners of the dark; the far flung conjectures of which sometimes reached my family’s ears. These curious whispers spoke primarily of devilish deals made in the early years of my forefather’s arrival in the country; that in the recesses of our souls clung bizarre, demonic entities. Thusly, the numerous and wild theories stated, our immortal spirits were forfeit and forever barred entry to any truth death; which explained why, at exactly the age of fifty, the elders of the Marsh family would die suddenly and unexpectedly- as the time had come for the Devil to claim their soul- even though by all accounts they had been completely healthy at their time of death. This unexplainable phenomenon was known locally as the ‘Marsh Curse’.
It was a strange predicament that ailed our family, as no amount of science or scrutiny could reveal the cause of death, or why otherwise healthy people would be suddenly struck down. My grandfather, Obadiah, had pressed silence on the subject, claiming that due to the elongated branches of the family tree, as I had a massive family, any whispers of our own creation would likely leak to rumour-mills and besmirch our reputation. Not that it mattered. As time marched onwards so did the tales of our supposed curse. Over the years many offered theories on why such a thing should occur- ignoring the thrown cries of occultist madness from the misinformed- but no established division of science could provide any answers. Professor Howard Thorn, as a close friend of the family, more than once offered his own expertise in this area, but was kindly refuted under my grandfather’s orders.
Presently, it seemed, Howard was belaying that order.
He shifted his coat open and from an inside pocket withdrew a small, sealed envelope. On its front, in deep black ink, was printed the intricately designed, circular seal of Ulhorn College. Howard had educated me on the crest’s creation; it had been calculated to replicate the inside of a clock, each tiny dial and cog meshing to convey the sense of otherworldly fabrication. It achieved this sense of awe with transparent ease.
He presented it for my consideration.
“This,” he said in a voice as low as it was terrifying, “should help explain a few things.”
I took the envelope and hurriedly tucked it into my pocket.
“What is it? And why are you being so mysterious?”
“Read it, do as instructed, and you’ll understand.”
“Howard, why can’t you tell me right now?”
The old man took a swig of his gin. His pale skin suggested to me that ghostly pallor was a steady, communal affliction here.
“There are too many ears here,” he explained. “Too many people.”
“Read what’s inside the envelope. And son,” he put his hand on my shoulder, “good luck.”
He gulped the remainder of his drink, chucked down a wad of money, then headed out the door. As he left he tipped his hat to me in sullen respect, and then into the rain-hazed black of the ghoulish night, he vanished.
As he disappeared, so did the pleasant, welcoming atmosphere of the pub. The previously unruffled and cosy cordiality returned to the apex of a violent outburst. Around me, stools were being pushed back, sleeves shoved upwards, and- to my horror- hidden blades unsheathed. Without my escort I was no longer a protected man; I was a vulnerable Marsh, a stray dog haphazardly strolling into a place I was not welcome. The whim of entropy formed desperation, in terrifying, languid bounds, had to me appeared in dangerous volumes. In this newly sordid place, of contemptible scarcity, my personal safety was dissected and destructed.
Before any blade could be plunged, I whipped out the door and into the taciturn, drizzly blackness. In swathes, the rain poured and brutally thrashed the road, booms of thunder lashed wrathfully at the air, and cracks of iridescent lightning flashed in the distance. The night was awake.
A quick survey showed no signs of Howard, which, with the violent weather, I had expected. I was the only one foolish enough to walk the streets in such a place while even the heavens forbade my footing. The night howled and wailed as though in the throes of death. The horrid clashes roared, urging me to return home. I obliged with its advice, agreeing that the pallid walkways with boarded windows and squalid, weather-withered houses and abandoned dwellings was no place for someone of my kin.
Homebound I raced, letting my mind meander to thoughts of Howard’s behaviour. For a man I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade, he seemed displeased to see me. Then there was the burning issue of his summons; which he had failed or refused to sign and label as his own. No fact to me appeared more worrisome than the envelope he had placed in my care. Clearly, this curious artefact was of considerable value, and its contents were sure to be of the most atypical constitution.
Howard was the closest thing Obadiah Marsh had to a friend. Even after his early dismissal from the field of science, my grandfather held him in the highest regard; more so than most of his family, my father told me. In fact, the only thing I was aware of the two disagreeing over was the Marsh Curse. The professor departed from his passion, in which he had gained from decades of study an esteemed reputation, twenty years before, as a result of ridicule in his study of genealogy. Apparently, his suggestions had been less than well received and as a result, his peers disowned him, disregarding his work as explorations of juvenile persuasion and thusly not worth dedicating a moment of thought to.
He had fallen into delirium; as anyone would when their sole purpose in life has been cut from them like a parasite, and wasted away for a few years before finally, during a dreadful, melancholic winter, to sanity and logic he returned. Obadiah, though growing older and inevitably closer to the season of the Marsh Curse, took great pity on his friend and extended a welcome prevalently eternal.
After my grandfather’s passing a little over ten years before- when Obadiah was only 51 and I myself was only 9- his visits lessened until eventually his presence in my family’s company was extinct. We all worried about him over length, discussing the prospect of finding the old professor and bringing him into our care in case he ever fell again under the malodorous spell of mania, but no plan was enacted. We trusted the old man could take care of himself and for the most part, this seemed to ring true; albeit, with the exception of his poor taste in fashion and deathly palette.
I recalled him telling me once, when I was very young and the world outside shone brighter, and the lethargic brush of boredom had yet to colour me, that tracing a family tree was the most important thing you could do; as to know one’s history is to know one’s self. At the time I scarcely understood the meaning of his words but as I matured, in his message I could see a potent principle. During the last few years of my life I had come to ponder my family’s past, though I dared not act on any inkling. The Marsh family was protective of our many secrets, and its past was shrouded from inquisitors eager to uncover its truth. I knew very little of any member of the family to come before Obadiah.
My family was of a wealthy influence; in both money and benefaction. The Marsh family pockets were deep but the roots of our vast family tree ran deeper- into nearly every established institution we reached, at least, until the age of 50. But where one Marsh fell another took their place.
Throughout my life I wanted for little; as everything I could ever wish for was provided in abundance. A positive education secured me prematurely a coveted position at Ulhorn College as Deputy Manager of the college’s reaching campus. I had only to wait until my 21st birthday and the job was mine. It was by no coincidence that members of my family held authorative powers at the institution.
As I walked through the torrential downpour, between the gaps in booming thunder drifted a discordant symphony of overriding intemperance. The inharmonious tune spoke objectively of drunken gaiety, unheeded chivalry, and carousing unbecoming of a higher intelligence. My nights were spent usually scanning the pages of dusty books and quaint volumes of historic prevalence, but the darker portion of my generation’s proclivities I was well aware of. In their hallowed, forgotten nights held debauchery and lacklustre affection. No desire to participate ever tempted me. They were determined to regress to an evolutionary vestige already long abandoned by the forbearers of civilized culture and this degeneration proffered no progressive reward. If it was up to me, alcoholic reliance would be outlawed and those unwilling or unable to cope would be similarly banished. A sharp mind is always valued higher than whatever prize can be extracted from the bottom of a frothy glass.
I walked the streets until I reached the outskirts of town, where passed the golf course and stretches of untarnished green, behind a piquing roll of hills, lay my home. Under my mother’s altruistic insistence we had moved from the family’s stately manor, even further out of town, so that we could enjoy the margins of a smaller, more modest, abode. I had lived here for a little over 11 years and fond memories of me and my siblings- my sister and brother- haunted its halls like nostalgic apparitions. They had both married and moved away, as was the nature of a Marsh. We married and bred young. Nobody was ever sure why our family felt compelled to extend the already massive boundaries of our lineage but it was within our blood all the same, as though through a hive-mind an order of betrothal was barked. My siblings both married at 16 and within the same year birthed their first children. This did nothing to relieve the pressure placed on me. I was the oldest Marsh in several years to not have taken a spouse and the worry was, though this concerned me little, that I would break the tradition set in our past. My father warned me that old Obadiah would’ve had me married by now, to my liking or not, and that I should respect his decision not to force me; adding however, that the rest of the family wouldn’t be as reverential.
Now in my room, I removed the envelope and enshrouded it in my desk. Its contents would have to wait until the morning light was ready to receive them. Exhaustion crept up, beckoning retirement from the day. With no energy left to fight off the hunger for sleep I slipped into bed and drifted off.
I awoke in the early hours of the morning, refreshed and dried. Beams of sunlight, latticed by the window panes, glanced into my room.
Groggily, into the arms of a leather chair I sank. My usual morning coffee I pushed to a later time- a more pressing matter was at hand. Carefully I opened the Howard’s envelope and pulled from it a flimsy, cream coloured note. On it, in Howard’s handwriting, was written thusly:
Do not show this to anyone, not your parents, not your brother or sister. Do not mention what I write here to anyone, for reasons beyond being deemed insane. It is no easy task communicating to you the details of what I have discovered and for a long time now I have deliberated the pros and cons of revealing this to you, but I realised that I have no choice in the matter. This is a story that you must be told and I must be the one to do it. Our paths in life are dictated by things outside of our control.
You will know from the tales of Obadiah Marsh that I have always been fascinated by the apparent curse placed on your family and you will also know from these tales that he advised no one to pursue unravelling the secret. While the old man was alive I kept to his bidding, as he had shown me great kindness over the years, but shortly after his demise I took it upon myself to investigate.
Through your family tree, which by itself was no small feat to collect, I discovered several anomalies in your lineage.
In case this note falls into the wrong hands, I will not write all the facts here. You must trust me. Go to the library at Ulhorn College, right at the back, amidst the anthologies of history that few look at, there is a book by the name of ‘The Passage At Vermont’ by R.S Markson. I suggest looking it over, from cover to cover.
That is all I will write here. I’m sorry to do this to you but for the sake of my own sanity, your future, and the future of the Marsh family, you must continue this line of enquiry. You will understand one day.
The note stopped there.
“What is this?” I gasped.
Howard’s enigmatic writings extinguished none of my questions. But I trusted in him. His words carried with them an unspoken honour reserved for the most dignified of people. If he wished for me to reveal the results of his research then I was silently bound to comply. There was something urgent in his scrawl as if written hastily and without choice. For whatever reason, I had to follow his footsteps and track the remainder of his investigation.
I collected my jacket and personal affects then descended the stairs. As was usual with our house’s early mornings, yet to rise, my parents would be enjoying their morning coffees provided by our singular manservant in the comfort of their bedroom. I considered informing them of where I was going but Obadiah’s warnings still haunted my family and I had no wish to lie to them. I swiftly exited and caught the first bus to Ulhorn College.
As the bus turned the final corner, on its right hand side ascended a gigantic mass of white-washed, square buildings in the centre of three cultivated acres of lush green land. Its governmental feel, decidedly bulky heart and imperious power commanded stolidity incongruous to its determinately Victorian surroundings. Ulhorn College was a concocted labyrinth of confusing walkways, narrow halls and modernised classrooms but was also the home of one of the nation’s greatest and largest libraries. Though most had turned their back on books, finding instead the glamour of small screens too tempting to deny, the college and its board of executives had gone to painstaking lengths to accumulate for its students the most books they could lay their hands on.
Hitherto on the solid marble floors of the gargantuan library I had not walked. But as I did, and as I looked round the sprawling city of literature; where the streets bustled with electric potential and the hubbub of unread stories rose like smoke from a fire, in my heart I felt a sense of unparalleled belonging. Throughout my life I had lived in two houses but until the familiar aromas of unopened books, with all the unknown yarns waiting to be unravelled, overwhelmed me, ‘home’ was a foreign concept.
The library was split into two levels; the top dedicated to fiction, the lower dedicated to non-fiction. At the height of three men the bookcases towered over me but I felt no fear from their wooden stares, for kept within their varnished amore were tales of illustrious kings, daring heroes, and human bravery inspiring to everyone who took the time to learn of them.
I managed to retain my composure long enough to remember why I was there and drifted to the back of the library, where the larger texts of historic significance were kept. Along the cluttered but organised shelves of each bookcase my eyes scanned, focusing on anything to do with Vermont. Eventually my gaze screeched to a halt on ‘The Passage at Vermont’. Hastily I wrenched it from its slumber and found a quiet seat on which to uncover more of Howard’s concern.
The index page gave little indication as to what the book was about but in large, bold letters beside the chapter named ‘The 1712 Massacre’, was written ‘H.T’. Knowing the old man had left me clues to guide me, I flipped the book to the designated page.
The story related to me was terrifying. Every word of it screeched at me to place it down, slot it on the shelf and forget I ever witnessed it. But the tale was too intriguing, despite all the horror, and by no means could I renounce it.
The 1712 massacre was, as the title proposed, a drastic tragedy responsible for the deaths of 112 people and the serious injury of 49 more. On one particularly chilly morning, the story stated, Amelia Warren woke from a fever dream screaming and shouting of a demonic, shadow-formed creature that offered to her a deal for her immortal soul. Her mad ravings were recorded by her mother, who silenced her with a dose of laudanum before consulting the local preacher. The holy man had little to offer on the subject, as it was stated, he was a man ahead of his time and not given to the idea of the thrusting of one world into the next. He motioned for Amelia’s mother to talk with the small village’s doctor but she declared the village against her and shut the teenage Amelia away from sight.
Two weeks later, after the frost retreated and across the farmlands coated a sticky mist, a wild inferno blazed at the house of Amelia and her mother. The terrific blaze spread through the village. As it was in the early hours of the morning, most of the deaths occurred during unconsciousness, although I was morbidly sure none of the dead slept through their incineration.
The cause of the fire was never established, though locally, primarily through the handful of survivors, propagated the accusation of Amelia Warren. In line with the societal standards of the time she was posthumously branded a witch. R.S Markson, the author, stated in a footnote that it was likely Amelia suffered from a sudden burst of psychopathy or that hidden somewhere in her mind and ignored was an underlying mental illness.
The story didn’t end there. Her older brother, who lived elsewhere in his own abode somewhere in the village and thus was spared the flames, was accused of murdering his own daughter and wife during the night of the great fire. He claimed they both disappeared during the chaos of that fateful night but the mounting allegations and host of discrepancies in his official story impelled him to flee from the village and then from the state.
R.S Markson went on to finish the chapter, claiming that Burt Warren vanished shortly thereafter, believed by many to have perished in the wilderness within the next few weeks.
Marked powerfully in loud capital letters were the words: “Reprehendo legenda operta mundi.” Its script was that of an aging professor’s. Literally, although much of Latin’s meanings have been lost on the modern world, it meant: “Check/find Legend of the Cryptid/Cryptic World.”
Tracing the breadcrumbs, I came across the book in question a few shelves left. From the shelf I plucked the broad book, which was bound in leather and on its cover was presented an arty rendition of a chimera, and then took to my seat. Again, Howard had marked the significant passage; a chapter named ‘The Men Beasts’.
Each page was illustrated to accommodate the unusual descriptions of other-worldly creatures, both terrestrial and otherwise. Fantastical beasts in various eccentric conformations occupied the pages. I skipped ahead, landing on ‘The Men Beasts’. I expected to find there a consortium of were-creatures, however, I discovered that no story of any folklore could’ve prepared me for the parade of monstrous creatures that ominously marched beside the writing.
I ignored the description and information, as the pictures were clear enough by themselves. The things were humanoid, and had clear simian origins. The paws were large and clumsy, disproportionate to the rest of its body. The head boasted some human features but melted downwards, dragging its insipid skin downwards and horribly cushioning the protruding jaw. Noses were absent in all pictures, replaced by two flat nostrils. Every eye seemed to be set too deeply in the skin as though at some point they had retreated to the safety of the skull. All were hunched and looked in constant pain. Its arms however, suggested more aquatic pedigree; as its gangly arms were more reminiscent of rubbery tentacles and its deformed legs reminded me of seaweed. Displaced patches of dark fur extended from its immense, lurching shoulders. Despite all evidence of alien roots, retained within each image was an elusive semblance of humanity.
Within me, the pictures stirred an abysmal revulsion. Each twisted creature was a sickening depiction, a vomit-inducing derision pulled from the wasteland of the human mind. Though disgusted, I turned the page. From within the gutter of the book fell a folded note, which I, adjourning from the vile book, hastily opened and read. It was another note from the former professor.
If you’ve come this far, I trust you are confused and wondering why I’ve sent you here. The truth is: Your family name is not Marsh, and it is not your Mother’s maiden either. Your family name is Warren. I have proof that not only did Burt Warren survive, he crossed by ship to our country and changed his name to Marsh. There is much to discuss. I don’t know where I last saw you, where I decided to firstly send you on your way, but by the time you read this I will be in Manchester, Vermont. Please come at once. Do not tell your family you are aware of the past; as I suspect several of them know of their true lineage and will not react kindly to me, or you, knowing this secret. Please come at once and I will explain in full why the mystery is not yet over; and why the curse placed on your family may indeed be real.
Numbly, I placed the letter in my pocket and slammed shut the book. As if in a dream, I got up and out of the library I walked. The startling revelation, true or not, coloured me a shade of stunned. I could barely think. Howard was without contest the most frighteningly gifted and resourceful man I knew and if he believed my family hailed from the green-brushed state of Vermont to escape an appalling disaster befitting of the most egregious history tomes, then an argument to the contrary I lacked.
But it wasn’t true, it couldn’t be. I could entertain the idea only for a few seconds at a time before, as if on protective savvy, it was shunned. From the scarce details handed down to me I knew the Marsh family did call home a sequestered village somewhere on the American isle but the exact location or state was never intimated. Howard had never been wrong before, I reminded myself gravely, but the old man was reaching an ancient tenure and was prone to bouts of madness. Perhaps he had been overtaken by one and these notes were his transcribed frenetic ramblings.
Regardless of truth, I was duty-bound to ensure the professor’s safety and so I rushed to the airport, bought a ticket on the first flight to Burlington International Airport, and flew to the state of sumptuous timberlands and heartrending history.
From Burlington I made my way to the Manchester area, where immediately upon leaving the cab, I was greeted by a familiar face. This time the old man was smiling.
“You made it,” he exclaimed happily.
“I made it. Howard, what’s going on?”
“Later, I’ll tell you later. But now, let’s eat.”
He led me to the nearest diner; a cosy café replicating the diners of the 60’s. Robust, red couches sat across from one another, each coupling separated by a silver table. A snaking counter barred the kitchen from the rest of the diner. The staff, much to their chagrin I assumed, were dressed in the lurid style of the flamboyant era. There seemed to be a copiousness of them given that we were the only two customers present.
“You said this was urgent,” I said after we placed our order with a blue-wigged hippy.
“It is. But first we eat.”
“I want to know what’s going on. You made a bold claim in that note.”
“It’s not a claim, it’s the truth.”
“And what about the book itself; it was monstrous!”
The old man ruffled his beard nervously. Through the coarse, thick hair his fingers twitched.
“You’re a clever young man, you always have been. That’s why I didn’t tell anyone else in your family. You’re the only one with a mind open enough to accept what’s going on. I’m going to tell you everything I know and I want you to be completely quiet while I talk. Keep your questions to the end. Please trust me that everything I’m about to tell you is true- I’ll show you the proof after our meal.
“As I told you in my note your family name isn’t Marsh, it’s Warren. Your many-times great grandfather was Burt Warren, the man who killed his own wife and daughter. And yes, by all accounts, he did kill them. After he was accused, and his sister Amelia was branded a witch, he fled from Vermont and travelled to Britain to escape his past, changing his name in the process. He cut all ties with his life here and rightfully so. He made a new start and began a new family and eventually died at the age of 50, two days after his birthday and was buried in your family’s interment plot.
“You know that I’ve always held a determined interest in your family history, in the Marsh curse. I’ve… I’ve done damnable things to uncover the truth. I beg your forgiveness but it was all in the interest of science.”
Tremors rocked me. From his eyes screamed an unbearable moroseness, an anguished cry of inevitable and divine judgement. He had no look about him of mania; he was of a clear mind but a broken heart.
“I exhumed Burt Warren’s coffin.”
“You did what?”
“No… Howard, that’s insane!”
“I had to know,” insisted the old man. “I had to be sure. Burt Warren’s sister spoke of a deal made with a devil. This usually pertains to the matters of the immortal soul.”
“Howard, what have you-”
“Both coffins were empty.”
Into the bolstering arms of the red sofa I willingly sank. On the southern grounds of the family home, situated neatly in the midst of rickety trees and under a coat of leaves, permanently sheathed, was the Marsh family burial ground. Never had I gazed on its consecrated borders. For some reason, despite my family often walking through the sacred grounds and dotingly ruminating, I could never bring myself to peruse the tombstones of my ancestors. The internment grounds were huge, since the ever-expanding list of Marsh family members grew exponentially each year, as did the list of our dead. Of course, a vast portion of the list would be buried elsewhere; as not all of the family stayed close by. Regardless, the burial ground was an enormous, gloomy plot of land.
No reasonable explanation could present itself to me as to why a corpse would go missing. Initially I considered grave robbers.
“Somebody robbed the graves,” I offered.
With a gesture he registered me silent.
“The coffins were empty but not as they had been interred. I thought as you did, that somebody under the dark of night stole away with some of your family members but there was something amiss with the coffins. The wood on both caskets was ripped and torn by brute force and had no markings consistent with axes or shovels or any other tool I know. Do you know of any man who could break solid wood with his bare hands?”
“Burt’s coffin would’ve been weaker, softer.”
“Not soft enough for a man to tear apart.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“The pattern of the frayed wood suggests that no attempt was made from the outside to discover the contents of the coffin. Something escaped from inside it.”
Into my hands my head fell. The old man, whose age had finally caught up with him, was speaking of delirious collusions outside the lines of the norm.
“You’re saying… my 50 year old many-times-great grandfather and my 50 year old grandfather both broke out from their coffins many years after they’d died?”
Howard leaned forward. Within his gaze hid no sorrow, within the growing lines on his face crept no fear.
“I’m saying Burt Warren made a deal and that deal is still being honoured years after his death. Whatever entity your ancestor made a deal with remains active. In 30 years you’re going to ascertain that for yourself.”
Furiously his eyes blazed. The truth was irrelevant; the old man believed his story, there was no doubt about that. He believed in it fully and nothing could swing that skewed, and I had a suspicion it would be perilous to try.
“Okay, Howard, I can’t say I believe you but I’m willing to let you try and convince me. Where’s your proof?”
“A few clicks north of here. I’ll get a cab.”
“You brought proof with you on the plane?” I asked anxiously.
“All the evidence is here. A few clicks north is where Burt killed his wife and daughter, where Amelia Warren eviscerated an entire village, and where you’re going to realise I’m not insane.”
The cab dropped us off at the base of a mountain range surrounded by forestry. It was true what they said of Vermont in the many books I had read; the entire area was an arboreous marvel, where the landscape was lavish green forestry largely untarnished by human hands, the sprawling hills and fields pushed out against the burnished horizon, and munificent pockets of vibrant flowers blossomed radiantly under the unbreakable focus of the sun. It was through this lively miracle we traversed.
We climbed to the summit of the closest hill, which tucked away part of its magnificence behind its clingy sibling, and then I followed Howard as he made his way to a chasm of sorts. The cragged edges of the towering, nearby mountains loomed threateningly above. We hiked through the ravine, eventually meeting a strange and unnatural looking maw on one of the smaller mountains.
Howard remained silent throughout the trip; from his lips uttered no indication of where we were headed or why it was important. For a man of his age he moved with feline ease, leaping and climbing as a man a quarter of his age. His sickly paleness then, I decided, must’ve been nothing concerning.
I turned my thoughts to my family, who I neglected to think about through this madness. They had no idea where I was, what I was doing. They wouldn’t have approved of trudging through a mountain-scape to uncover an apparent secret, or a hidden illness, and would never have entertained the notion of hellish deals made in the past by mysterious ancestors. In fact, should Howard ever return to Britain and be accommodated by my family, I was certain their proximity to him in commemoration of Obadiah’s wishes would be viciously recanted. His only hope then would be to claim the sweep of madness had taken him forthwith and in this madness had inadvertently towed me along.
We approached the darkened maw. Howard pointed inside.
“That’s where we’re going.”
“In there? I’m not sure about this. It looks pitch black and we don’t have so much as a match.”
“We don’t need one.”
Without a second thought the old man plunged into the blackness. I stared speechless at the open portal. Its shadows were abnormal, always shifting and seemed to me as a mass of writhing feelers. I could see not an inch beyond the opening. I took a step forward and into the shadows I offered my hand. I expected something to grab me from beyond, or for the shadows to suddenly clamp down and cut from me my extended appendage, but these were the ravings of a frightened mind. The unnatural shadows were simply shadows. I made one quick glance behind me, breathing in the summer air of the superlative expanse, and then followed the former professor into the dark.
Immediately, into my chest a hand slammed.
“Don’t take another step.”
Howard held me at the entrance, where two feet in front of me the ground dropped into oblivion. Looking up, I beheld a gigantic cavern, which in shape resembled a dome, etched into the mountain with strokes of finesse. The walls spoke of no marring, no chiselling, and seemed masterfully produced by the hand of nature. To the left and right of the dome, two parallel marble walkways embellished with jewelled accents reached to and from adjacent stone platforms. In the low centre of the dome a resplendent, granite marquee sat unwearyingly- and from its highest point protruded a cylindrical, slender, extravagant ruby beam that soared without support, finishing a few feet from the ceiling. I hadn’t expected such an opulent, stupefying sight to strike me when I walked through the shrouded entrance, but now I saw that nature had concealed this splendour behind a veil of shadows for a reason.
“This way,” said Howard, leading me to the left.
We shimmied our way along a thin ledge, evidently not built for human passage, and landed with a warily calculated jump on the left-most walkway. The air seemed colder here, as though from the well-cut marble exhaled a freezing breath. We made our way along the path. With every step the shadows appeared to creep closer, as though the imposing walls of the cavern intended to slam shut, or the lofty ceiling thought us enticing.
I swore more than once in that draft-ridden cave I could hear the anomalous and piercing sounds of unknown creatures crawling along the walls. Squawks or barks, claws or knives; there was something in the darkness with us, tracking our every step and tracing our every move. At one point, in the corner of my eye and leaping from the pathway to the marquee, I saw a lurching creature of indeterminate character obscured by unstable shadows. I dismissed it as the mind’s eye supplanting vacancy with presence but I couldn’t deny the reprehensible atmosphere as being less than assuaging towards my panicked brain. Howard said nothing. He gave no sign that he also heard the undefinable echoes.
Considering the mind’s vulnerability to darkness as the existent adversary, I closed my eyes and followed Howard’s footsteps. With no sight, rampantly my mind ran from one rebarbative possibility to another and summoned all manner of phantasmal beings into existence. On the playground of my mind these ethereal, impious entities frolicked like toddlers, vaulting from one coveted bauble to the next. I could see them not inches from my faces, a cubit away from touch. In primitive, savage rejoicing, they danced in the cavities of darkness. It was an assembly of the devil’s children; creatures with mangled frames, black eyes, barbed claws and tapered bodies were in attendance, with me as the sole audience. Around me, like rats in the walls, the pitter-patter of their feet reverberated and like a tsunami swept over the cavern. They were everywhere, tauntingly rollicking in their inviolable jubilance. Suddenly, the gnarled creatures underwent a gruesome metamorphosis; their arms thinned, taking on a rubbery consistency, and tapered to a point from which painfully bloomed knurled, clawed paws, their legs crippled and wavered and seemed inexplicably excruciated as though the mere fact of having them caused indescribable anguish, their eyes withdrew to the backs of their skulls and from the silhouetted sockets discharged torrents of blood like crimson waterfalls, their torsos expanded upwards, elongating the creatures to a lanky elevation of six feet, and from their hunched shoulders sprouted blotches of straw-like fur.
As a huddled horde of many they reached their petrifying claws towards me, mobilising as a unit of terror. Their haunting, guttural croaks were unlike anything I’d heard before. With every step they took my heart beat faster, with every drop of blood that sprayed outwardly from their smelted faces a second of my life was stolen. The teratoid creatures, which I recognised from the book of cryptids as ‘the men beasts’, surrounded me, and towards my assailable form, yearningly lunged.
I gasped. Placed on my shoulder, an icy hand convoked me back to reality, back to the echoic cavern and impossible shadows. In front of me, a stone door- not slotted into the wall but as the wall- waited to be opened. Along its surface, ornate carvings in grandiose movements tumbled from top to bottom and interwove with serpentine affluence. Whoever had imprinted this extrinsic fresco into the wall had done so with intensely accurate skill and taken extensive time to complete their magnum opus. Missing from the strange door, if it was indeed a door, was a handle or grip, anything with which to open it.
Along the stone carving Howard’s hand glided. He observed the masterpiece proudly before, from the inside pocket of his jacket, he pulled a golden, ornate knife. The handle was bulky, as Howard could barely fit his palm around it, and engraved in the spangled gold were dexterously depicted illustrations, of which I couldn’t make heads or tails of. From the head of the handle extended a serrated blade that glistened in the vapid, wraithlike light.
“Howard, what is that?”
“I found this last time I was here. I believe I know what the markings mean.”
He motioned for me to approach.
“What I’m about to ask of you is a strange request.”
“What is it?”
“Please present your arm. A sacrifice of blood must be made.”
I leapt back. Throughout the course of human history there have always been alleged secrets of blood sacrifices performed in the dark but I always considered them to be the fantasies of disturbed imaginations.
“Not all of it,” the old man assured me. “A few drops will do.”
“Why not yours?”
“I’m an old, sickly man. I’m afraid even the smallest cut on my skin could prove fatal. It’ll only sting for a second and then I’ll show to you what I promised.”
Apprehensively, but intrigued, I presented my bare arm, which Howard took into his free hand. I winced as the tip of the knife dug into the flesh. From the newly formed gash oozed trickles of blood. With the point of the knife he collected a horrid, picayune pool and then disturbingly plastered it over the door. I backed away from the scene, wanting desperately to abscond but too enticed to run.
The cavernous wall rumbled, the sound of which filled and ricocheted throughout the stone dome, and then from top to bottom, a split forcefully drove its way to the ground. There was the click-clack of a turning gear and a piercing screech from somewhere in the mountain’s deepest depths, but finally the two newly divorced boulders seceded from view.
I could barely see through to the other side but from what little came into vision- a depraved wall of what seemed to be blood red vines- no part of me wanted to step through the fresh gateway. Howard was less concerned, pushing me compellingly forward.
Immediately, we tumbled over a short, unseen drop, and landed on marble stone flooring. I recovered swiftly, worrying about the frail professor. But the old man had been quicker, cleverer, and madder than me, and so when I raised my head and turned to locate him, I discovered instead the refined point of a golden knife located directly between my eyes.
“Howard, what are you doing?”
“Look around,” he said forebodingly. “I want you to look around.”
A centimetre away from piercing my skin, the knife hung distressingly between us. Sensing no other choice, I observed my surroundings.
On the far wall, as I had previously seen, a tangled web of red vines stretched from wall to wall like a barricade, the only exception to its seemingly impenetrable solidity was a rectangular pedestal, above which, until the very top of the black void, no vines reached across. The ceiling was tiled in bordered squares, each with its own unique pictograph; the walls kept to the same pattern. Each illustration appeared to portray portentous spectacles of times aeons old, and from which I could discern no viable explanations. A quilt of dust coated the marble floor. There was no discernible source of light- no torch, no flame, no lamp, no encrusted, refulgent jewels- yet the roomy hall was well illuminated. The place teemed with primordial disposition as though for unimaginable epochs it had dozed in perpetual amity.
“I’ve looked around. What did you want me to see?”
“This is your proof,” he answered.
“This is an empty hall, Howard. Are you seeing something I’m not?”
“I’m not crazy.”
“I didn’t say you were. But there’s nothing here. There are vines, some confusing architecture, old designs, but other than that it’s nothing but dust.”
The old man stepped forward, pushing into my skin the serrated blade. He broke only enough of the skin to beckon a lonely bead of blood.
“I want you to be quiet now, boy.”
He retreated solemnly, then turned to the arcing, entangled vines and lifted the knife threateningly.
“I brought the Marsh boy!” he roared triumphantly. “Through his veins runs the blood of Burt Warren. I wish to make a deal!”
The hall harboured an expectant silence; the kind that only arises when something seeks to break it. I felt the air change puzzlingly, as though an unfamiliar presence, unbeknownst to me, had arrived.
The vines twitched.
I stumbled backwards, stopped only by the stone wall. I stared up at the mass of antenna-like vines as they swayed and along its unfurled fleshy frame it crinkled as if a wave. Strangely and suddenly, the vines meshed tighter together, forming a curtain of blemished, undulating skin. Within the inky canal in the middle of the skin wall, above the pedestal, a vague form began to materialise. Shadows swarmed from the infernal opening, coalescing into an elementary, but definitive, figure of squirming smoky serpents. Its three-horned head appeared first, even these projected a strange intangibility, then formed snowy boulder-like shoulders and equally as silvery kneecaps and elbows. Its eyes were sickeningly yellow lakes crammed grotesquely into the assemblage of darkness. All at once the thing seemed ceaselessly fluctuating but never moving, aeons old but freshly inserted into existence, intolerably chaotic but perversely composed. In its entire form only its horns, eyes, and bony ribcage, which cut short from meeting in the middle and each bone had been filed to a sharpened point, appeared as palpable features. Its height blotted out the inky void that once separated the vine-wall; rasping the roof with its hideous horns.
While I remained stuck to the stone wall in unimaginable dread, Howard stepped forth untroubled.
“I wish to make a deal, as you did with Burt Warren,” he said.
The creature remained silent.
“Do you… do you understand me?”
Abruptly the air burst alight with concentrated, encompassing buzzing. Though no mouth was present on the shifting face of the creature, a raspy voice could be heard speaking. After a few seconds of the experience, which felt like the back of my head being hollowed out, I realised no voice was talking; the creature was speaking in a manner of its own accord. Its communication was not called from the vocal chords but through the mind. It was difficult to understand, as of a slurring drunk, but the more the bleating voice spoke the more I could comprehend.
“And what is it you offer?”
“The Marsh boy,” Howard said. Though in his speech he strived to convey confidence, his voice wavered and whined.
“This boy has Warren blood. He is known to me already.”
“But I have delivered him to you.”
A platoon of shadow tendrils erupted from the creature’s back, separated from the mother horde and then in a flurry, wrapped around its back and hung in the air beneath its arms. The creature took a seat on the wispy, dark throne.
“The boy is mine. As are all of the Warren blood.”
The blanket of skin rocked gently at first, then frantically shook with a hurricane force. From its corpulent hold broke several beings which limped forward into the light. I let out a gasp, for in the frilled pale light, covered in viscous mucus, stood the tentacle-armed, ape-like creatures that had only minutes ago haunted my every thought.
“What are they?!” I cried, silently begging the wall to swallow me.
“Those of Warren blood. They are your ancestors. They are mine.”
Even though there was no mouth visible with which to do it, I could sense the thing smugly grinning.
“Burt Warren made a deal,” Howard explained. “In return for the death of his wife and daughter he would be granted eternal life, for himself and those in his lineage.”
“This isn’t life…” I whimpered, staring at the motionless abominations.
If this was true, and these demonic reimaginings were indeed my many forefathers, then the curse and everything came with it lived within me. At some point I was going to fall prey to an otherworldly spectre and be claimed by the stygian realm.
“This is the eternal life I promised. Old one, why do you bring me an offering I already own?”
Howard breathed in painfully.
“I’m dying. I’ve not got long on this world and I seek to extend it.”
“Howard… you tricked me. You lied to me!”
“I said nothing of a lie,” he answered. “I didn’t tell you the whole truth, is all. This is the proof you sought, these are the answers you wished to find. I confirmed for you the reality of your supposed curse. And now I get to reunite you with your estranged family.”
“Again, old one, why have you brought to me an object I already own?”
“Er… I br-brought him because you wanted him! He’s a member of the Warren family!”
“And thusly already mine. You have brought nothing to offer me.”
“What!” roared Howard. “I bring you the boy to honour a deal!”
“A deal you did not make- a deal that ensures the boy belongs to me. You have brought nothing.”
Howard stuttered confusedly, in his mind, he ran through all the things he hadn’t considered in his vain attempt, I was sure of it. He panicked.
“I did all this research, I found this place, I captured members of the boy’s family to find out the truth and after all that you won’t make me a deal?!”
“A deal requires two parties agreeing on the value of both offerings. I have something to offer you but you have nothing to offer in return. A deal cannot be made.”
To the entrance of the awful hall Howard stumbled. As he passed me, I saw the flashes of determinate terror cross his eyes. He was a foolish old man tumbling in the dark, fumbling with distorted supremacies the human mind couldn’t comprehend, let alone challenge.
He grasped at the ledge and, despite his manipulation, I prayed his frail greying body would pull together enough strength to flee from the stalking wisp floating in the air behind him. It was over within a few seconds; Howard’s body, seized by the smoky appendage, fluttered rearward through the air and clattered to the stone with an inimitable impact that would’ve broken diamonds.
Then, I was alone.
Then, the darkness spoke.
“You have come a long way to discover the truth of your family,” it said.
Rousing what little strength or sense I had left, I addressed the shadows.
“You took my family… and made them into these monsters. Why? Why did you agree to a deal?”
“Every army needs soldiers.”
“You’re clearly more powerful than anything on this planet. Why do you need soldiers? Why make a deal in the first place?”
Down the puffed delineations of my cheek bowled a strangled brook of tears. Whether it was from family pride or an impending sense of death, inside me awakened a terrible rage. This entity had taken from me my family and like a lump of clay sculpted them into chilling apparitions.
“The young boy is frightened. Relieve him.”
At once, the creatures- my progenitors- started toward me, gawky arms outstretched. My panicked mind took over, and without feeling or remorse I dived to Howard’s body and from his clenched hand pulled the golden knife free. Flourishing it defensively, I backed to the ledge. The creatures indicated no threat and continued their foreboding march.
I looked around, desperate for anything or anyone to come to my aid, for some cave-diver to stumble upon this scene and find me brandishing a twig instead of an ancient, ethereal knife, and instead of demented creatures find misshapen or deformed stalagmites or boulders, and then calmly tell me I had gone completely insane; Howard wasn’t dead, and I had simply eaten undercooked fish and this was all a figment of a fragmented mind trying to piece itself back together.
But lie my eyes did not; before me heaved the monstrously contorted bodies of my ancestors, commanded singularly by a three horned shadow demon which loomed in the heart of a barrier of skin.
I gawked at the demon. This being had made a sickening contract with my family; and despite its sole party having already provided its pledge, it continued to enforce the preposterous arrangement. I couldn’t allow this tragedy to endure, I couldn’t let this fiend take from me my parents, my siblings, and even though most of my family tree’s branches remained nameless to me, for them I had to take a stand.
With what little strength I had left, I reeled back my arm and then slung it forward, letting the knife loose. In the pasty light, the knife glinted as it sliced through the air, and as it tumbled the ape beasts watched it whiz above them, and then all stood in, what I designated to be, shock, when the toothed blade submerged into the core of the three horned demon and vanished.
The wall of skin flinched, then uncontrollably flapped. Around its body, the demons shadowy uniformity flickered. There was an undefined boom, which could’ve come from the demon or from somewhere in the depths of the Earth, the floor shook and crumpled, and from it jutted severely contoured rocks, and the air whipped itself into a wailing tempest. I clung to an open rock-face for life, as around me battered the furious storm. The beasts were less concerned about the squall assault, oddly abject in their dearth of distress.
The shadow demon sent out frantic wisps that twisted and coddled in the hellish windstorm. The wall of skin, caught without chance of freedom and under duress, flailed helplessly, then before my eyes it underwent an inverse transformation; it began to split into protracted cylindrical blocks lengthwise, then thinned as though famished, and in place of its gummous viscosity it took on a more Earthly pliability, roping and threading until eventually from the ceiling dangled an assortment of willowy vines. The demon itself began to tremble, as though for a moment its form became tangible and with it came the feelings of a physical vessel being shattered. The shadows whipped and danced in the maelstrom. It threw its hands out to the vines and tried to grip for stability but its legs gave way and it collapsed. The yellow fiery eyes that had so scorched me with a solitary gawp now sputtered, and like the surrounding spectral mass they looked to extinguish. With a thundering bellow that must have surely been heard from miles away, the trailing shadows suddenly recoiled into the larger assemblage, then burst forth explosively, knocking me off my feet and quaking the great hall mercilessly.
Upon opening my eyes, hazily and vigilantly, I found no pronounced demon in the inky void, no wall of skin, and no tumultuous gusts. There wasn’t a trace of barbarous intentions; that was, until my gaze fell upon the moving bodies of the ape beasts. Generally unperturbed by their missing superior, to my prone and helpless body they deplorably advanced. I screamed and shouted, I hollered and cursed, but it seemed that whatever sense of identity they had left was incapable of understanding or engaging speech. I would find no sympathy.
Then I considered this; from the meagre beginnings of my quest, in which I had encountered a similar foreboding battle, I had run and hid, followed and obeyed, until ultimately I confronted an inconceivable demonic being which was now nowhere to be seen, since under the threat of death I had shirked its very existence. I wasn’t the same man as I was in that decrepit bar, nor was I the same as the man who blindly trailed Howard Thorn into a hellish nightmare; I was enriched, a subtile conundrum that in the face of death elegantly rose to the occasion.
I slowly got to my feet. I breathed in. Into the tubular hollows of each ape beast I stared, into each of their eyes I glowered wrathfully. If I was to die, I was to do so standing. Their outstretched arms crept ever closer to me yet I remained unyielding.
They were only a few feet from me, only about five seconds behind cleaving and shredding me to pieces, when a hissing screech from the entrance broke my durable focus. I looked up, and from the empty entrance to the great hall I watched a surge of blue flames erupt forth like a flood; at its furthest reaches forked tongues struck out and spat embers, all travelling towards the ape beasts. It was unlike any fire I had seen before as through its immense bulk voyaged white vein-like tributaries that seemed equally as organic to the flames as they were abnormal. The flames spread outwards, and upon touching the ape beasts, enveloped the re-animated bodies as though they were doused in gasoline. Even a singular lambent spark was enough to inflame them. To my surprise they uttered no screams, no extension of pain; simply allowing the unearthly inferno to overtake them. They burned into a mess of cinders quickly, though as the ashes sat they too morphed. All at once, into themselves the grains of white rescinded, creating several puddles of pale sludge. Then, when I thought this strange morphing over, each puddle solidified into transparent, diamond-esque crystals that glinted irregularly.
Bewildered and awe-struck, I watched two figures leap down in front of me from the elevated entrance. The first one, dressed in what could only be described as a greenish military style jacket, glanced around curiously at the hall. When his eyes fell upon mine I gasped and almost shrieked. His features were mostly normal, shoulder-length black hair and a slightly long nose, and I would be unkind to say he was ugly, but the most striking feature he revealed was the absence of a pupil or iris in either eye. They were like porcelain marbles driven into his sockets. He had the look of death about him.
The second man was considerably less terrifying; sporting a blue plaid shirt, over which he had placed a heavy strap that contained several peculiar vials and knives, short brown hair that neatly framed his face, and black, clunky military boots. I saw nothing strange in him until I caught sight of his hands; both of which shone a faint blue radiance that slowly drained until they were back to a more standard tone.
The white-eyed man nudged his companion and nodded at me. Both pairs of eyes glared confusedly at the young man staring back at them.
Then, the white-eyed man spoke. It was as though he had many voices, both male and female, but none competed or contended for sole audibility, fortuitously creating a many-tiered harmony.
“We’re very sorry to inform you that something has gone horribly amiss with your world. Please do not hesitate to go completely insane.”
“Would you please shut up?” requested his companion exhaustively. “I thought you of all people would be a bit more comforting.”
“The correct term is peoples.”
“No,” argued the man. “You’re a single people made up of lots of p… oh no, wait…”
“Who are you people?” I screamed.
Faintly but distinctly I heard many voices whisper insistently, “peoples.”
With a roll of his eyes, the normal man approached me.
“We’re here to help,” he said. “Kind of, anyway. It’s not really important. What’s important right now is who you are.”
“My name is Jared.”
“What are you doing here, Jared?”
I opened my mouth but no words came to my rescue. No ordinary explanation could suffice in elucidating my current predicament, and as I looked around the infernal hall I could find no logic with which to clarify.
“I’m a Marsh,” I said dejectedly.
The man squinted, raised an eyebrow, then shrugged.
“What did he say?” asked many voices.
“He said he’s a marsh.”
“Like a soggy field?”
“Maybe he means people hide things in him.”
“Well,” said many voices whimsically, “a lot of us were buried and hidden in marshes.”
The man shot him a shocked, disbelieving look.
“What? It’s true!” claimed the white-eyed man. “Life isn’t a bucket of roses, y’know.”
“I guess not. I bet death isn’t either.”
“No. We have an extreme shortage of buckets. And we kicked the ones we had.”
“What do you mean you kicked the buck- oh.”
“My name is Marsh,” I announced to the confusing couple.
Both of them exchanged vacant expressions. On my shoulder, the normal man placed a comforting hand.
“We’re not from around here,” he said sympathetically. “You’re gonna have to give us more than that.”
At the crystalized puddles I intently stared, hoping one of the pair would gleam the necessary implication. The normal man traced my gaze, then bobbed knowingly.
“Your family made a deal. Ygssrettfurr mentioned the possibility but I didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to actually do it.”
My head sank. These seemingly worldly men were insulting my family and I had no pride left with which to defend it. It was stupid, exceedingly so, and I lamented the selfish nature of man. Not once in my life did eternal life ever intrigue me. To live forever, to watch the passage of time as an outside observer, to witness everything degrade to dust and bones, to outlive the nebulous stars and the globular planetoids, is to betray the order of nature and I wished never to be treacherous.
“What happened to the… uh… what do you call it here?” asked the man, gesturing to the pedestal.
“I think it’s a demon,” I said.
“Ah. What happened to the demon?”
“I threw a knife at it.”
Both men smiled, apparently impressed.
“Really? A knife? A normal knife?”
“It was this… gold thing Howard found…”
I trailed off, somewhere in my mind returning to the realm of sanity. I had forgotten about Howard. I ran to his lifeless body and in my arms cradled it. He was lighter than any man should be, as if every visceral element was removed.
“An old friend?” asked many voices.
“A former friend,” I responded feebly.
I didn’t care that he’d taken me to this place; in doing so, he inadvertently delivered me to a solemn exculpation.
“A gold knife,” hummed the man. “Opinion? Or… opinions? Wait, which one is right?”
“Opinion will do,” said many voices. “As far as we know, the- hmph– demon will no longer honour its deal.”
“The knife’s the thing Ygssrettfurr mentioned, isn’t it?”
“By utilising it, it would seem Jared has released his family. It can’t return to…”
“I don’t know what the right word would be,” said the man, shrugging. “Here?”
“We believe Ygssrettfurr would say ‘here-here’.”
“Urgh,” groaned the man, tiredly rubbing his eyes.
As they spoke, I wept as silently as I could. Howard, at the end of a long and arduous life, had wrongfully beseeched a perilous entity too advanced to understand. I couldn’t blame him for his choice. Although eternal life remained to me a fruitless labour, the good fortune of youth prejudiced my opinion. When the lines on my face extended downwards, and life was in deluging rushes, perhaps then I could comment. Presently, there were no words to justify his death as anything other than avaricious. I laid him down, closed his eyes- opened in torment- and said a mute farewell. Both men put reassuring hands on my shoulders.
“We have something we have to discuss,” said many voices by my ear.
“We as in me and you, or you and him, or you and you?” asked the man wryly.
“All three of us.”
“In regards to what?”
“We don’t know if the deal made is inherent in their DNA.”
“We’re not gonna kill an entire family,” said the man angrily.
“We didn’t suggest that. It’s unlikely the… demon will return but it isn’t completely impossible. In the event that it does return, it will be seeking vengeance. If there is a latent gene responsible for the transformation it could be evoked.”
“In my entire family?” I gasped, turning on my heels.
“We don’t know. But it might.”
“Then what do I do?”
The normal man, on either side of my jaw, placed his hands warily. Now that he was standing directly in front of me, I could see in the dim light a mien of weary in his eyes; the kind I’d expect from a new or expectant father.
“I’m going to give you a choice,” he said coldly. “You run the risk of turning into those… what do you call them here?”
“I called them ape beasts.”
“Good choice. You run the risk of turning into one of those ape beasts. We’re pretty sure you scared it off and it won’t come back but there’s still a chance. Even if it leaves the rest of your family alone it might come back just for you because you were the one who beat it. Your choice… is to live or die. I can end this right now and you’ll never come back as one of those things. Or you can wait and hope.”
The word ‘hope’ stirred no revelation in me. Perhaps if life had been unkind to me, that in place of riches and an influential family I had been given rags and orphaned, I’d feel the brutal weight of the world smiting me in twain; but from birth I was blessed, granted any boon or subsidy I sought and thusly forfeited my right to complain or dwell on the folly of man- since it mired me little. But in the darkened hall of a great cavern, having faced demons and death and the twisted rejuvenated bodies of my former family, no choice was offered but to decry and denounce the contemptuous and conceited agenda that once again jettisoned good men from the path of virtue.
I was not defined by my blood. I was defined by my choice. I was indeed terrified, and since walking through the veiled maw my heart had not stopped incessantly thumping, but against the will of a being far beyond my measure I had stood unmalleable and uncompromising, and again with the ape beasts I had chosen to face my death as a man and not as a frightened dog.
Then there was, as always, the matter of my family. To never again see my parents, my brother and sister and my nieces and nephews, even the distant cousins and temperamental aunts and uncles, was an obscenity I’d carry through death.
The unknown is a terrifying, unrivalled horror; an infinite expanse devoid of any logic or reason… and it is undoubtedly the single most precious thing we have during our short tenure on this world.
As a man no longer a boy, I boldly faced the curious pair.
“I want to live,” I said. “I need to live for my family. “
“You’re a braver man than me,” said the normal man, looking surprised.
“What do we do now?”
“We leave,” said many voices, gesturing towards the exit.
“Just like that?”
“Like nothing ever happened.”
Lifting one another over the ledge and onto the marble walkway, we crawled our way out of the hellish pit. Neither man would give me his name- the normal man on the basis that ‘it’s best to stay anonymous’ and the white-eyed man on the basis that ‘we don’t have enough time’. The more the two conversed, the more I was convinced of their extra-terrestrial origins. The white-eyed man seemed to always refer to himself as plural though I couldn’t ascertain why.
“I’ve always wondered where the phrase ‘kicked the bucket’ comes from,” asked the normal man as we traipsed across the pathway.
“You don’t want to know,” asserted many voices soberly.
“Oh, so you know? Tell me.”
“You really, really don’t want to know.”
“All you’re doing is making me want to know more. Tell me!”
“Fine. You have a noose-”
“I withdraw the question,” grumbled the man.
“You said you wanted to know.”
“I changed my mind.”
“Good. Hopefully this one’s sharper.”
The rock-face myself and Howard had earlier leapt down seemed to have risen with a steeper ascent, one I was sure would require all manners of equipment to conquer. As I thought of Howard, the old friend who had been at many family gatherings and always provided a compassionate ear to howl at, for leaving him behind I felt a sting of remorse and guilt. Should I have gone back for his body? Should I have at least provided him a crude memorial? These questions will haunt me until my last day.
As I stared up at the indomitable climb, the white-eyed man grabbed my shoulder. Because of the dark, I jumped, almost throwing around a fist to release me, but upon turning I froze. A blue smoke, around all of us, had suddenly materialised and was now beginning to evaporate, but most concerning was the inexplicable change of location. I wasn’t staring up at the insurmountable rock-face, I was staring down at it, only meters away from the cave entrance.
“What just happened?”
“You don’t want to know,” said many voices.
Opening to argue, my mouth shut closed, recalling the last time the white-eyed man said that and decided he was probably correct.
Out of the writhing maw of shadows, which had alleviated in solidity, the three of us exited. The sun brightly welcomed me, warmly embracing my shaking body. The fresh air brought with it the smell of grass, flowers, and along it drifted vague recollections of sanity and normality. It was impossible to me that such placidity existed on the doorstep to hell. I thought at least there would be an ominous warning; a black blanket of spiteful clouds, claps of roaring thunder, torrents of rain and pugnacious winds, malformed stalagmites protruding from the nearby hills and mountainsides, but in their malevolent stead was a region of beauty and cultivation; a cultured and pastoral countryside too far out of the way for mankind to taint.
The white-eyed man addressed me.
“You did well in there,” he said. “We’re impressed. As we said before, there is a chance you’ll fall to your curse, if that thing comes back. If that happens we must refer you to our previous suggestion: ‘please do not hesitate to go completely insane.’”
“I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”
We shook hands. I was barely able to hold his, as its freezing cold temperate threatened an icy waxing should I linger too long. He bumbled a few feet away, murmuring something about the collective nuisance of itself. The normal man approached me.
“Do you live close-by?” he asked.
“Not really. But it’s a fairly short flight.”
“Planes, I presume?”
He waved the question asunder.
“What you did in there was brave,” he declared. “Extremely brave. You saw a part of creation that very few people ever have- and ever will. You didn’t hide away from it, you didn’t run, you stood your ground and you fought. And- I don’t mean to be rude- surprisingly you won.”
“I would’ve died if it wasn’t for you.”
“I think you’d have been fine without us. You seem very resourceful, very astute.”
In the back of my mind percolated a question.
“What are the chances I’ll turn… into…”
“We think- think– it’s not that high. But I really don’t know.”
“I’m afraid,” I admitted.
I expected him to chide me, to pronounce me a child, but his eyes bled empathy and agreement.
“I would be too,” he said gruffly. “But think about it, you’re young. You have your whole life ahead of you, it’s not like you know right now exactly where you’re going to be in twenty, thirty years time anyway. What I’m saying… is that the future can surprise you. If you want to live in fear that you might turn into one of those creatures, a mindless drone, then you can do that. Or you can live a life worth having, a life that defines you by what you choose to do rather than what you might become.”
His demure became abruptly very serious and the glaze over his eyes suggested he was lost deep in thought.
“Fear’s an undervalued emotion. People think of it as a sign of weakness, that to feel it is to somehow be lesser, but that’s not what it is. There can’t be bravery without fear. Sometimes you have to take the leap, you have to prove fear wrong. You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of with the choice you made today. You took the leap, you chose to live, in the face of an uncertain future you still jumped. I’d say that takes more bravery than most people would admit.”
His words relayed maturity and an age far beyond his appearance would insinuate, and each one emotionally resonated with me. Never have I considered myself a supercilious person but for some reason his talk of bravery I readily accepted, as though I desired such confirmation.
“Thank you, whoever you are.”
Clearly to his disdain, I clasped him with a hug. Awkwardly, he returned it.
“It’s all right. I’m just as surprised as you are.”
He let go, joined the white-eyed man, and they both bid farewell. As they walked away I heard them discuss something perplexing, which I had come to recognise as a recurring conversational trait.
“Are you going to…?” quizzed many voices.
“No, I wasn’t. Do you think I should?”
“Maybe. We can’t decide.”
“How can you not decide?” exclaimed the man.
“There are a lot of voices in here. And most of them are arguing about buckets.”
“You’re the most confusing person I’ve ever met.”
“It’s like you want me to hate you.”
And then beyond the ravine and into the profuse stretch of greenery, they were gone. I can safely say that I never encountered either of them again, nor did I establish the intricacies of their grandiloquent discussions.
I chose to follow in the man’s words, to revere fear not as what it was, but as the hurdle of bravery I had to bounce over. My future was uncertain, and my family’s worried me, but as I left the ravine and the grass swooned at my feet, and the wind coddled and cooed, and the long boughs of the forest danced in the streaming light, I carried with me an indisputable, salubrious lodestar of idealism and utopian hope.
By the time I returned home, during the early hours of the morning when the moon is relinquishing its throne but the sun has yet to reclaim it, my parents were asleep but I discovered my siblings and all their children staying in the spare bedrooms. I had been gone only a day, which was enough time for my family to spin frantically into a full-blown panic that swept most of the town in its wake. They happily greeted my return, and for that day, that day I was forever grateful to have lived, my family stayed with me and rejoiced. I spoke nothing of my expedition with Howard, or of the demon and the curse, or of the utterly demented pair of strange men, brushing my disappearance off as a particularly wild, alcohol fuelled night that took me from my dusty books and into dusty, secluded bars. I believe my mother reserved suspicions but she never spoke of them- to me, at least.
That night, I crept into bed a happy man; finally content that my family was safe.
As I closed my eyes and invited the sandman, a deep-seated stirring in the back of my mind aroused contemplation. Though I was happy with the conclusion of events, that the deal had been revoked, the demon subjugated, and the remainders of my forefathers uniquely laid to rest, a miniscule, overlooked detail commanded my instant attention.
Roused from the allure of sleep, I wandered to the grated window and peered out. Branches split the moonlight, casting spindly legs on the hills and across the garden. I stared and stared. The detail percolated. I was always at the apex, but away the moment slipped. It was painful to be within arm’s distance of it, only to watch it scurry away.
Then, as I looked out at the grass and remembered the stately manor I once called home; on which lay the now-desecrated grounds of the Marsh family burial plot, the shadows all at once deepened and congealed. My heart leapt to my throat. Sweat poured off my brow. Vomit requested a mass exodus.
As calmly and quietly as I could, I went to the front door and made sure it was locked, then did the same with all the windows and doors. I went to the kitchen and drew a selection of bulky knives to defend myself. I seriously considered awaking the house but in the event I was wrong a lot of questions would have to be answered; and I wasn’t sure I had any truthful ones to give.
On the bottom step of the main staircase, looking directly at the front door and never wavering, I sat with one knife drawn.
Not a sound broke the tranquillity, not even my heart. The house was eerily quiet.
There was silence.
Not a sound.
Then there was a ghastly shattering.
In one fluid motion I reeled from the step and raced to the source; which was one of the kitchen windows. I broke into the room, knife prepared and mentally primed.
Through one of the windows, that was presently broken into pieces, invaded a gangly, tentacle-like arm topped with a grotesque talon. Immediately I leaped towards it, furiously hammering down the knife into its rubbery skin. Where I expected a guttural roar or fiendish screech, I heard a soft, almost human, peep of pain.
With my free hand I held the arm down and continually and brutally stabbed it. Again and again the blade sunk into the skin, again and again, as though overtaken by a sanguine fury, I pitilessly assailed the arm. After ten seconds of ruthless assault, the thing recoiled. At that point, there was another shattering, this time from the main room.
On my way there, panting and praying my family wouldn’t awake at the sounds, I considered every angle of success I had- of which there were few.
The blatant detail that hadn’t occurred to me as a problem was that of the empty coffins. The dead were revived and remade. Thus far, none of the creatures exhibited any precocious abilities I would deem necessary to make it as far as Vermont. In the great hall there was only a handful of the ape beasts; certainly not as many as should be given the extensive reaches of the family. No, these things wouldn’t have crossed the sea by any means. So they would be trapped in whatever place they awoke- say, the Marsh family’s burial ground.
As a king losing control of the outer circles of his kingdom would send to them a convoy of foot-soldiers to reassert dominance, these creatures were the expendable force sent by the demonic entity to reclaim what it could from the family. And since a grand wealth of them was close by, they would be here in throngs. I hadn’t won. I had pissed off the King.
The main room too was under invasion. Into the fight I threw myself, ignoring the claws tearing gashes all over, flinging punches and kicks and elbows wherever and whenever I could, employing the knife in wide arcs and inelegant slices. But as expected from the undead, each one cut down would rise again moments later and re-join the fight.
The clattering, I suspected, would momentarily arouse the family- if they weren’t already getting dressed to see what the fuss was about. I whirled back to the wall and watched defencelessly as another horde of ape beasts piled into the room. My arms were sliced disastrously, my back ached and was covered in bite marks, my shoulders could barely hold themselves together, and I would be surprised if ever I extirpated all the blood before my skin permanently pigmented red.
It was a hopeless battle and for every second that passed I knew my family took a step closer to death. I couldn’t allow it to occur but nothing offered itself in the way of a saviour.
Around the room I desperately hunted for an aid- anything at all that might sway the fight in my favour. There were ornaments; possible missiles, tables and chairs; potential barricades, but nothing substantial that would ward off the monstrous intruders. Then my eyes fell on the sizeable fireplace. It was one of the main reasons my mother bought the place; its esoteric ambience always thrilled the room to life. Recalled was the memory of the ape beasts in the great hall, specifically their innate combustibility. Grabbing a nearby glass desk and lifting it over my head, I flung it in the hope of stalling the approaching platoon.
As always, the tinderbox- since my mother vowed archaic means whenever she could- lay on the mantelpiece, and freshly cut logs and discarded paper effortlessly dozed in the alcove. Calmly, I forced a fire to light and deeming the resultant burns extraneous, plucked two flaming logs free and turned on my heels. To my minor surprise, on the distorted faces of each beast a passing of fear rushed by. They halted.
My hands began to burn impetuously and nomadic embers spat forth from the fire found me irresistible, but I maintained my grip. Slowly, I started toward the closest beast, which cowered straightaway and snarled. Stretching out my arm, I let the fiery end blaze away their appalling objective, waving both logs in random patterns. Like lesser animals, they shrank and fled from the flames. No intention of burning any of them in the house crossed my mind; as the resulting firestorm would be enough to raze the house. They retreated further and further, until eventually they were forced outside.
In the garden I stood, surrounded by what must’ve been a hundred or so of the ape beasts. I glared at the things. They were once my family, and many of them I must have surely known, and now here they stood, truculent and breaching the safety of their own kin.
I had no words to say to them. They were not to blame for their current state; that was Burt Warren’s fault, but I couldn’t help but see them in the moonlight as violent beasts come to claim my soul and the lives of my family. I waved the fiery logs once more to keep them at bay. They inched closer whenever I looked elsewhere, so a guarded stance I took.
I could feel them closing in, the circle contracting forever smaller, and there was no doubt they’d ultimately get their quarry. But it didn’t matter. I was out in the open now.
I let down one log in front of me, protecting myself with the other. It was burning brightly and I was sure I suffered from substantial scalds down the length of my arm but again, this mattered lightly. These things were here for me and me alone; to extract vengeance, and willing was I to deliver this. If it kept my family safe then that’s all that mattered. It wasn’t a heroic sacrifice, it was a necessary one. I looked up to the waning night sky, as inexplicit streams of orange flew through it, and waited.
I was facing my end. All I wanted was a sunrise.
Nature granted me a gift; from the horizon spurred luminous trails that danced across a blue canvas, brushed into quixotic shapes wavy clouds peppered the sky, and over the tops of marvellous trees, and through their linking arms, I spotted the coruscating sun claiming the day. Sunlight flooded bountifully onto the garden, chasing away the cloak of night, and pampered the house with a resplendent kiss. The golden rays lapped over me, graciously advising me to drop the last fire and to let the inevitable happen. I dropped the last burning log, spread out my arms, and invited the finale.
Then there was nothing.
Then there was more nothing.
Then there was considerably more nothing.
I peeked out the corner of my eye. Glinting on the grass were hundreds of crystalline formations, sporadically spread across the garden. The ape beasts were nowhere to be seen. As the shimmering light reflected off each illustrious crystal, another detail previously overlooked became apparent. The creatures in Vermont hid in the dark; and their apparent domicile contained a lack of natural light, and I knew them to be volatile. The entrance to the cave wasn’t simply a maw of bizarre and morbid shadows; it was a dense shield to protect them from the streaming light that could significantly impair them. In the sunlight, the creatures had exposed their distinct flaw and with nowhere to run, were all claimed by it. For a perspicuous reason the things favoured the darkness and in their sole resolve forgot why. Via a type of fortune hitherto unbeknownst to me, I somehow survived.
Returning to the house in a state of disbelief and severe bewilderment, I wiped clean as much evidence as I could; including the trail of ashen wood spurned from the burnings logs, but concluded there was no explanation for the crystals in the garden. When my father awoke, I ushered him alone into the study. I spared no detail in the story, regaling every second of my adventure to him. When I finished an hour later, when the dawn of noon provoked hunger, he sat across from me, sipping a cup of coffee. During the tale he spoke only twice; once to request coffee and secondly to ask for further description of the white-eyed man and his companion. Otherwise, he was reticent.
As I spoke the last word, he carefully rose from his seat and moved to the window. Deep in thought, he gazed out ponderously into the sun. My father was an adamantly unmoved man, even by the worst of calamities. When Obadiah Marsh died I never saw a single stray tear liberated from a tiny prison. On the day of my grandmother’s funeral, he experienced a rare moment of weakness but concealed it behind a reflexive iron façade. But at this point, having heard the horrid tale, I could see cracks in the iron wall beginning to form.
He turned back to me and began unravelling a yarn of familial bonds. Certain members of the family were more inquisitive than I presumed, it seemed, as several of the more informed took it upon themselves to investigate the curse and discovered as Howard did the awful truth at the heart of our history. As much as outsiders whispered of probable dark deeds and demonic deals, the Marsh family spoke in as equally mysterious manners and in equally profuse measures. According to my father, Obadiah’s urgings for silence on the matter were born out of rabid concern for his family, and wished not for an exploration that might beget trepid adventurers harm and that one of the primary reasons for his close friendship with Howard Thorn was to stop the old professor prying too acutely and exposing himself to mortal jeopardy. My father did seem impressed, however, that in the face of the pursuing demon I but stood and fought.
At the end, he thanked me, decreeing me a ‘hero’ for the choices I made. Assuring him I was no hero reaped no benefit, since he already made his mind clear. For protecting the family he granted me a solitary gift; anything of my choosing. It didn’t take me any more than a second to decide on what I wanted. Since the lives of our family, despite the occurrence of the insane curse, were of an abundantly prosperous sort, we required no more wealth and could afford to have the crystalized remains valued and sold, with the resultant proceeds donated to various charities around the country. He was shocked, and somewhat disgusted, but agreed it was our best course of action for all possible avenues. And thusly, the crystals were cut and sold and provided to local hospitals, schools and facilities a novel influx of much-needed funds.
Before I left the room to tend to my habitual, droll affairs, he served one last piece of paternal advice.
“Do not tell your mother.”
The months passed by quickly. Shortly after Halloween my father received a call from a distant uncle of mine, claiming that a week earlier he had reached the age of fifty. This uncle, I was told, was one of those aware the curse existed and was succinctly relieved to discover he hadn’t fallen to it. Then a few more months passed and no deaths, then six, then an entire year ran by and not a Marsh was stricken dead.
It was June once more; and the beaming sun melted away the affixed memories of the chilling winter, the creaking trees once more returned to ebullient splendour, and I once more walked through the grass of green Vermont, breathing in the luscious fresh air; irrevocably exultant I had found my place.