Classics Translated

A Warning to the Curious

M.R. James, first published in 1925; translated to modern English, otherwise exactly the same.

The story you are about to hear take’s place in the east coast town of Seaburgh. It has not changed much since my childhood. There were marshlands to the south, and the flat fields in the north merged with acres of heath trees and fir woods further inland. Between the long sea-front and street was a spacious, flint church with a large western tower and six bells. I remember how they sounded on a hot Sunday in August as our group walked up the steep, dusty hill towards the church. They rang with a flat, clacking sound when it was hot, but when the air was cooler they were softer.

The railway ran to a small terminal farther along the same road. Identical bright, white windmills could be found all over town; one was right before the station, another was near the beach, and the rest were on higher ground to the north. There were red, brick cottages with slate roofs— but why do I bother you with these boring details? Honestly, I can’t seem to help myself when it comes to writing about Seaburgh; I like to ensure the right words make it onto the paper, and I have not quite finished painting the scene yet.

If you walked past the station – away from the town and the sea – and take a right turn, you would reach a sandy road parallel to the railway. It stretches uphill with heath trees to the west, and a thicket of wind-beaten fir trees at the top – facing the sea. There is also a line of these fir trees running towards the sea atop my little hill; they crown the well-shaped mound surrounded by flat, grassy fields. It’s a fine place to sit on a hot, spring day and look at the blue sea, the white windmills, the red cottages, the green grass, and the distant martello tower to the south.

I said I knew Seaburgh from my childhood, but it has been many years since then. I am still quite fond of the town, and I enjoy any news of it I might hear. One story came to me by accident in a place very far from Seaburgh; I helped the man who shared it with me, and I have recorded it below.


I used to golf in Seaburgh pretty regularly in the spring. I usually stayed at the Bear Hotel with my friend, Henry Long… You might have known him… We used to enjoy talking together in the lounge, but – since he died – I haven’t wanted to go back, and I don’t think I will after what happened last time.

We were there on April 19th, and there were not many guests in the hotel. The public areas were practically empty, and, after dinner, we were surprised when a young man – Paxton was his name – stuck his head into our room. He was pale and rabbit-faced with light hair and eyes, but he wasn’t ugly. “Is this a private room?” He asked.

“No; please, join us.” We invited him in, and he seemed relieved. It was obvious he wanted company, and since he wasn’t the sort to dump his whole family history on you – we urged him to make himself at home. “You would find the other rooms rather dull, anyway.” I added.

“Thank you; yes, I already did.” He confirmed, and – once the pleasantries were finished – he began reading a book while Long played cards, and I worked on my writing. Within a few minutes, it became obvious that our visitor was quite nervous, so I put away my work and began a conversation.

After the initial remarks, he became oddly secretive and said we would think him crazy if he shared his concerns. I recommended a drink for courage, and we all had one; though, when the waiter entered, Paxton seemed very jumpy.

He didn’t know anyone in the hotel, but we shared a common acquaintance in town, and he was hoping for some advice. Of course, we agreed, and Long put his cards away as we settled down to hear the young man’s story.

“It started over a week ago when I biked the 5-6 miles to Froston…” He began. “Just to see the church; I’m fascinated by architecture, and it’s got one of those pretty porches with beams and gables. I took a picture of it, and an old man who was cleaning the churchyard asked if I wanted to look inside… So, I said yes, and he pulled out a key to let me in. There wasn’t much in there, but the caretaker liked to keep it clean, and I pointed to the porch, saying it was my favorite part.”

“Ah, it is a nice porch, but do you know what that coat-of-arms means?” The caretaker asked, indicating the one with three crowns.

While Paxton was no expert, he thought it belonged to East Anglia. “That’s right, sir, and do you know the meaning of those three crowns?” The caretaker pressed, but the young man did not know.

“Well, then, I can tell the scholar something he doesn’t know! They’re the three holy crowns that were buried near the coast to keep the Germans from landing… I can see you don’t believe that, but if it hadn’t been those crowns – the German ships would of landed here over and over, and they would have killed men, women, and children! That’s the truth, and if you don’t believe me, you can ask the cleric— Here he comes, you go ahead and ask.”

A nice-looking, older man was coming up the path, and before Paxton could assure the excited caretaker that he did believe him – the cleric spoke first. “What’s going on, John? And good day, sir. Have you been looking at our little church?”‘

John calmed down during the conversation that followed, and the cleric tried asking him once more what was wrong. “Oh, nothing… I was only telling this gentleman he should ask you about the holy crowns.”

‘”Ah, yes, of course,” the cleric said. “That’s an intriguing matter, isn’t it? But I don’t know if the gentleman is interested in our old stories, eh?”

“Oh, he’ll be interested fast enough, and he’ll believe what you tell him, sir! You knew William Ager personally – the father and son!” John said.

“I would like to hear about it.” Paxton said, and the cleric led him down the village street to the rectory – occasionally stopping to speak with a parishioner.

Then, they went into his study where he was happy to share the legend. “The locals have always believed in the three holy crowns. The old people say they were buried in different places near the coast to keep the foreigners away; one was removed a long time ago, another has disappeared beneath the rising sea, and the last is still keeping invaders at bay. If you have read our history, you may remember that in 1687, the crown of Redwald – King of the East Angles – was dug up in Rendlesham and tragically melted down before it could be properly described or drawn; it had been buried farther inland. The second crown was buried to the south where a Saxon royal palace used to be, but it’s at the bottom of the sea now. Finally, the third crown lies beyond those two.”

“Do they know where it is?” Paxton asked, unable to believe such a story had not been made into a book.

“Yes, but they won’t tell.” The cleric answered, and his manner discouraged the young man from asking why.

Instead, he waited a moment before asking, “what did the old man mean when he said you knew William Ager like it had something to do with the crowns?”

“That’s another strange story.” The cleric began. “Ager is a very old name in these parts, but I can’t find proof they were ever high-class people, or that their ancestors were the last crown’s guardians. Nathaniel Ager was the first one I knew; I was born and raised nearby, and he was camping there for the duration of the Franco-Prussian War. His son, William, did the same during the South African War, and his recently deceased grandson, young William, lived in the cottage closest to the place it’s buried. He was deathly ill, and the last of his line; I have no doubt that knowledge quickened his death. He was devastated to know there would be no one else to keep watch, but he couldn’t do anything about it; his relatives were all far away, in the colonies. I wrote letters to them on his behalf – begging them to come for a visit and discuss important family matters – but there hasn’t been a reply. If the last of the holy crowns is really there – it has no guardian now.”

“I found the cleric’s story fascinating. When I left, the only thing I could think about was finding that crown, but I wish I’d left it alone.” Paxton began. “The whole thing seemed like fate; as I biked back past the churchyard wall, my eye caught a fairly new gravestone bearing the name William Ager. I had to stop for a closer look, and it said he died in Seaburgh at age 28. With that information, I thought I could at least ask about cottages in the area, but I wasn’t sure where to start. Then, fate struck again; it took me to a curio-shop, and I found some old books – one of which was a fancy prayer-book from 1740– Wait one moment while I get it from my room.”

He left us somewhat speechless, but we hardly had time to exchange any remarks before he was back. Panting, he handed us the book opened to someone’s scraggly hand-writing; it said:

Nathaniel Ager is my name, and England is my nation; Seaburgh is my home, and Christ is my salvation. When I am in my grave, and all my bones are rotten – I hope the Lord will think of me when I am quite forgotten.

The poem was dated 1754, and there were many more entries of Agers, Nathaniel, Frederick, and so on, until eventually ending with William.

“You see,” he said, “anybody would think it was luck. I did at first, but not anymore. I asked the shop clerk about William Ager, and he remembered the man died in a cottage on the North Field. This told me exactly which one it must be: there’s only one big enough to live in. The next thing was to make friends with the locals, and a dog helped me get started; he came at me so fiercely, people had to come out and run him off. When they apologized, I only had to mention Ager’s name and pretend I knew something about him. Then, a woman saddened by his untimely demise said it happened because he slept outside during the winter. I asked if he went out to sea at night, but she said he stayed on the hill with all the trees – so that’s where I went.

“I know how to dig into those mounds; I’ve opened plenty of them in the country, but that was with owner’s permission and during the day with men helping. I had to think very carefully before I began; I couldn’t dig across the mound, and I knew those old firs trees would have awkward roots in the way. The soil was light and sandy, and I turned a rabbit hole into the start of a tunnel. Coming and going to the hotel at odd hours was going to be the hard part. When I decided how to dig, I told everyone I was called away for the night and spent it out there. I made my tunnel, but I won’t bore you with how I supported it and filled it in afterwards; the important thing is that I got the crown.” Paxton finished.

Naturally, we were both shocked and full of interest. I had already known someone found the crown at Rendlesham and often grieved over its fate. No one had ever seen the Anglo-Saxon crown – at least, not until he dug it up…

The young man’s gaze was filled with sorrow. “The worst part is – I don’t know how to put it back.”

“Put it back?” We cried out. “But you’ve made one of the most exciting finds ever heard of in this country. It should go to the Jewel House at the Tower. What’s troubling you? If you’re worried about the land owner, we can certainly help you. Nobody’s going to make a fuss about technicalities in a case like this.”

We probably said more, but he only dropped his face into his hands, muttering, “I don’t know how to put it back.”

Finally, Long said, “I hope you’ll forgive me if I sound rude, but… Are you sure you’ve found it?”

I had wanted to ask the same question; the story did sound like a madman’s fantasy, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to hurt the poor man’s feelings. However, he took it rather calmly.

“Oh, yes, there’s no doubt; it’s in my room – locked in my bag. You can come look if you like, but I won’t offer to bring it here.” He said, sitting up.

We couldn’t miss such a chance; obviously, we went with him. His room was only a few doors over, and he was shaking more than ever as we hurried inside. He turned on the light, carefully shut the door, unlocked his bag, and produced something wrapped in a handkerchief. He opened it on the bed, and I can now say I have seen an actual Anglo-Saxon crown. It was silver – like the one from Rendlesham – and it was decorated with antique gems, but it was also plain and roughly made. It was like the crowns you see on coins and in manuscripts; I saw no reason to think it was later than the ninth century.

I was extremely interested, and I wanted to hold it in my hands, but Paxton wouldn’t let me. “Don’t touch it; I’ll do that.” He said with a dreadful sigh as he lifted and turned it to show us every side. “Seen enough?” He finally asked. We nodded as he returned it to his bag and stared dumbly at us.

“Come back to our room, and tell us what the problem is.” Long said.

“Thank you… But, could you check to see if— if the coast is clear?” His response was confusing since our actions hadn’t been particularly suspicious, and the hotel was practically empty… but we were beginning to feel… Well, we’re not sure what we felt, but nerves are infectious so we did check first.

We peeked out as we opened the door, and we both thought a silent shadow – or maybe more than a shadow – passed by as we entered the hall. “It’s clear,” we whispered and returned to our room. I was ecstatic to discuss what we had seen, but when I looked at Paxton – I saw my excitement would be terribly out of place, and I let him speak first.

“What can we do?” He said.

Long thought it best to be vague. “Why not find out who the owner of the land is, and tell him—”

“Oh, no! Absolutely not!” Paxton interrupted impatiently, “I’m sorry: you’ve been very kind, but you don’t understand; it must go back. I dare not go at night, and it’s impossible to go during the day… I haven’t been alone since touching it.”

I started to make some random comment but stopped when Long caught my eye and said, “I think I do see, but wouldn’t you feel better if you explained a little more?”

Then, he told us everything… Paxton looked over his shoulder and motioned for us to come closer. He spoke in a low voice, and we listened intently – knowing we would compare notes afterwards. I wrote down our recollections, so I am confident I have his story almost word for word.

“It began when I was first prospecting, and it happened again and again. A man was always standing by one of the fir trees, and this was in broad daylight. He was never in front of me; I only saw him from the corners of my eye, and he was always gone when I turned to get a better look. I would lie down for long periods of time and watch carefully to make sure no one was there… But when I returned to prospecting – there he was. Then, he started giving me hints; no matter where I left that prayer-book – when I came back – it would be on my table, opened to the list of names with one of my razors on top to hold it in place. In the end, I had to start locking it up. He must not be able to open my bag, or something more would have happened. He’s small and weak, but I dare not face him. It was even worse when I was making the tunnel, and if I hadn’t been so determined, I would have dropped everything and ran. It felt like someone was scratching at my back the whole time; at first, I thought it was only dirt falling on me, but as I got closer to the crown… It was unmistakable.

“When I actually pulled it out, there was some kind of horrible, desolate cry behind me; I can’t express how threatening it felt. It instantly ruined all of the excitement over my discovery, and if I weren’t such a wretched fool – I would have put it back right then… But I didn’t, and the rest of the adventure was just as awful; I had to wait hours before returning to the hotel. First, I filled the tunnel and covered my tracks, but the man was trying to thwart me the whole time. Sometimes, you see him – sometimes you don’t, and I think that’s what he intends. He’s always there, but he has power over what you see. It was almost sunrise when I left, and I still had to catch the train back to Seaburgh. There were hedges and fences along the road, and I was not easily seen. Then, when I began meeting people headed to work, they would stare behind me with strange expressions; it’s possible they were surprised to see someone so early, but I don’t think that’s the reason. They didn’t look at me directly, and neither did the train’s porter or guard. The guard even held open the door after I entered the carriage – like there was somebody else coming… You can be certain it’s not my imagination.” He gave a dull laugh before finishing. “Even if I do put it back, he won’t forgive me; I can tell… I was so happy two weeks ago.” He dropped into a chair and began to cry.

We didn’t know what to say, but we wanted to do something… So, we said if he was determined to put the crown back, we would help him, and he welcomed our offer. After hearing his story, it seemed like the right thing to do. If these horrible events happened to this poor man, couldn’t there be some truth to the legends? Could the crown have some curious power to guard the coast? At least, that was how I felt at the time, and I think Long felt that way, too.


It was almost 10:30; we looked out of the window to see a brilliant, full moon. We were regulars at the hotel, and the servants considered us to be good tippers; they arranged for a cab to take us to the beach and wait to watch over us, but we left before realizing how far away we would be going.

Paxton had the crown hidden in a large coat placed over his arm. “The shortest route is up the hill and through the churchyard,” he said as we stood in front of the hotel, looking each way; there was nobody around. Seaburgh is a quiet place in the off season. “We can’t follow the ditch by the cottage because of the dog.” He added when I pointed to the shorter way across two fields. It was a good enough reason.

We went up the road, and turned at the churchyard gate. I worried someone who knew of our intentions might be waiting there, but if they were – we saw no sign of them. Even so, we felt like we were being watched – especially when we entered a narrow path with high hedges. We hurried through and out into the open fields. Then, we traveled along the hedges, over a gate or two, turned left, climbed the ridge, and we were on the mound.

As we got closer, Long and I felt like there was some kind of dim presence waiting for us, and a much more real one already with us. I cannot adequately describe Paxton’s disposition; he was breathing like a hunted animal, and we could not bear to look at his face. We hadn’t bothered to think of how he would manage once we arrived; he seemed so sure it would be easy… which it was. I never saw anything like it; he flung himself at the side of the mound, and began digging furiously. In only a few minutes, most of his body was already out of sight. I admit, we were terrified as we stood by holding the bundle and looking all around us.

There was nothing to be seen. A line of dark fir trees stood behind us and trailed for half a mile to our right – ending by the church tower. To the left were cottages and a distant windmill, and in front was a calm sea beneath the full moon. Only a dog by a gleaming creek stood between us and it. Yet, in the silence, there was an intensely sharp awareness of something hostile very close by – like a hound on a leash that might be let go at any moment.

Paxton pulled himself out of the hole and reached a hand back. “Unwrap it, and give it to me,” he whispered. The moonlight illuminated the crown for a brief second before he snatched it away.

We didn’t touch it ourselves, and I think we are fortunate for that. Paxton was soon out of the hole again, and he immediately began shoveling the dirt back in with hands that were already bleeding. He wouldn’t let us help, and making the ground appear undisturbed was the longest part of the job. I don’t know how, but he managed it wonderfully. When he was finally satisfied, we turned back.

We were roughly two-hundred yards from the hill when Long suddenly looked back and said, “you’ve left your coat there. That won’t do.” He was right, but Paxton never slowed; he only shook his head and held up the coat on his arm.

When we re-joined him, he explained, “that wasn’t my coat.” We looked back again, and the dark thing was gone.

We made it onto the road, and hurried back. It was well before midnight when we got in, and we tried to play it off in front of the door-man by saying it was a lovely night for a walk. He gave another look around before locking the front door, and said, “you didn’t meet many people out there, did you, sir?”

“No, not a soul.” I said, and Paxton looked at me rather strangely.

“I thought I saw someone turn onto the station road after you gentlemen, but since you three were together, I don’t suppose he meant any mischief.” The door-man said. I didn’t know what to say; Long merely said goodnight, and we went upstairs – promising to turn out the lights before going to bed.

Back in our room, we tried to cheer up Paxton. “The crown is back safe, and though it’s likely you’d have done better by not touching it – no real harm was done, and we’ll never tell anyone else of its location.” We said.

“I don’t mind admitting that I also felt like we were being followed on the way there, but coming back wasn’t like that at all, was it?” I said, but it was no use.

“You have nothing to worry about, but I haven’t been forgiven. I still have to pay for that miserable sacrilege. I know what you are going to say, and yes, the Church might help, but it’s the body that must suffer. It’s true… he’s waiting outside for me just now, but—” Paxton stopped suddenly and began thanking us.

We delayed him as long as we could; we encouraged him to spend the night in our room and said we would be happy to take him golfing with us the next day, but he didn’t think it would matter. Then, we recommended he stay anyway and remain inside while we played. He was very submissive – he would have done just about anything we suggested – but he knew he couldn’t avoid what was coming. You probably wonder why we didn’t escort him home – or to the safety of some brother’s care… The fact was, he didn’t have any.

He used to have an apartment in town, but he decided to move to Sweden; his possessions had been shipped off weeks before. Anyway, we couldn’t think of anything better to do than sleep on it… Or – in my case – not sleep.


Long and I felt very different the next morning. It was a beautiful April day, and Paxton also looked very different when we saw him at breakfast. “That was the best night’s sleep I ever had.” He said, and he decided to stay in our room as we had suggested. Long and I met some others for golf and had an early lunch so we could return sooner… But death still claimed its prize. I don’t know if it could have been prevented… I think he would have died no matter what we did, but – either way – this is what happened.

We went straight to our room, where Paxton was reading quietly. “Will you be ready to come out with us in half an hour?” Long asked.

He agreed, and I said we would need to clean ourselves up first. I bathed and napped for ten minutes; then, Long and I met in the sitting-room, but only Paxton’s book remained; he wasn’t in his room or downstairs, so we shouted for him. A servant appeared and said, “The other gentleman and I thought you left already. He heard you calling from the path over there, and he hurried out. I looked out of the coffee-room window, but I didn’t see you. Anyway, he went down towards the beach.”

Without a word we ran that way, too – in the opposite direction of last night’s expedition. It was almost 4:00, and the weather was fair. There was really no reason to worry; with so many people around, surely a man couldn’t come to much harm… The looks on our faces must have frightened the servant; she came out onto the steps, pointed, and said, “yes, that’s the way he went!”

We ran to the top of the bank and stopped. We could either go past the houses on the sea-front, along the sand at the bottom of the beach, or we could stay in the middle and have a view of both. We chose the sand because it was the most secluded, and someone could get hurt without being seen.

The idea of Paxton running off was dreadful; we feared the thing he was following might suddenly stop and turn on him… I wondered what face it would show – half-seen in the thickening mist – and I continued to run, wondering how the poor wretch could have mistaken that thing for us. I remembered him saying it had some kind of power over your eyes, and I wondered what the end would be like for him; I had lost all hope of saving him, and— Well, there is no need to voice the horrible thoughts that raced through my mind as we ran into the mist.

The sun was still bright in the sky, yet we could see nothing. We only knew we were past the houses – somewhere in the gap between them and the old martello tower. Past the tower, there is nothing but rocky seashore for a long way – not a house or human – only a bit of land with the river on your right and the sea on your left.

Just before that, right by the martello tower, there were old blocks of concrete by the sea, leftover from some ruin – but, now, only a few are left… The rest were washed away. When we got there, we climbed to the top of this wall as quickly as we could, and we looked out over the shore hoping to somehow see through the mist, but we also needed a moment’s rest after running at least a mile. Nothing was visible, and we began turning back when we heard what I can only call a laugh… It was a breathless, lungless laugh; it came from below and was lost in the mist. We leaned back over the wall, and Paxton was suddenly at the bottom.

You don’t need to be told he was dead. His tracks ran alongside the wall and made a sharp turn around the corner; There is little doubt he must have run straight into the open arms of someone lying in wait. His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his jaw and teeth were broken to bits… I only glanced at his face once.

Then, as we were scrambling down to the body, we heard someone shout and saw a man running towards us from the martello tower. It was the caretaker, and his keen, old eyes managed to see something was wrong even through the mist. He saw Paxton fall and saw us appear a moment after. This was fortunate, because surely, people would have suspected us of being involved – given the circumstances. We asked if he saw anybody attack our friend, but he could not be sure.

He went for help, and we stayed with Paxton until he could be carried away. That is when we back-tracked the way he came along the narrow strip of sand under the wall. It was impossible to determine where the assailant went.

What were we to say at the hearing? We felt it was our duty to keep the crown a secret. I don’t know how much you would have revealed, but we decided to say we only met Paxton the day before, and he was anxious about a man called William Ager. We also mentioned there were other tracks besides Paxton’s when we followed him along the beach. Of course, by that time, everything was washed away.

Long said he saw Paxton far ahead – running and waving his stick, as if signaling to people ahead of him. I couldn’t be sure because of the mist, but someone was there; we also saw tracks from someone running in shoes and someone barefoot. Of course, I only have my word as proof. Long is dead, now, and we had no way to make sketches or take casts before the tide erased them. All we could do was notice them as we hurried on, but they were everywhere, and we knew what we saw was made by a bare foot – one that showed more bones than flesh.

No one had any knowledge of William Ager living in the area. The man at the martello tower freed us from all suspicion, and authorities reached a verdict of wilful murder by some unknown person or persons. Paxton was so totally without connections that all inquiries ended without much fanfare, and I have never been to Seaburgh or even near it, since.

Horror Fiction

The Backroad’s Maintenance Tunnels (Pt. 2)

Part 2 of The Backroads. 

Part 1

Hey again…

Since that last post actually went through, I should probably let everyone know what happened. Consider it a public service; if you find yourselves getting lost on any backroads – just stop and GPS your way home before it’s too late. You get nothing from that place… except PTSD.

Fuck’s sake where do I even start? Well, with the Station, I suppose. You know you’re a lost cause when you start thinking of a shitty convenience store as home… Though, to be fair, getting drunk everyday was a big help… I freely admit I was half belligerent writing that last post, and I understand that what I’m about to tell you sounds crazy – but this is what happened.

I don’t think I mentioned it before – I didn’t mention a lot of things – but that last store constantly played some weird radio station over the speakers, and I couldn’t figure out how to shut it off. The music was unsettling… there was never any singing, just instrumentals… The tunes were slow – almost soothing in the mornings, and then, they would become more upbeat in the afternoons, but at night, they would play dark, bone-chilling symphonies… Those were far beyond simple elevator music… Those sounded like Satan’s personal orchestra.

I was usually relieved when the woman came on to talk – she was the same one from the gas pumps. A monitor hanging in the back corner would turn on to show her reports, but I couldn’t change the channel or get it to turn on any other time. She usually doesn’t appear after the evening news, but I guess it makes sense there would be a final call… Though, the haunting rendition of Breakfast at Tiffany’s was almost more than my fragile heart could bear until it was interrupted by an Emergency Broadcast; then, Olivia O’Neal was back with another special announcement.

Greetings Grass Grovers; thank you for choosing Last Stop Station. The store will be closing in ten minutes. Please gather your final purchases and calmly proceed to the exit in single-file. There is no need to shove or shout. The Cleaners will not arrive until 12:01 AM. Sirus be with you.

It was hard to focus on what she said; I was too busy looking at her eyes. I could have been hallucinating, but it looked like they had turned black. I don’t know what color they used to be, but they were definitely normal eyes all the other times I saw her— not pitch-black orbs.

I was hoping it would end quickly – like a shot to the head – there one second and gone the next… Hell, the only time I tried to eat a bullet, I couldn’t pull the trigger; I kept talking myself out of it and ended up stashing the gun under the counter. I couldn’t get rid of it, but I didn’t want to look at it anymore, either…

At 11:59, I was racing the clock to drink myself unconscious and thought I had succeeded when everything suddenly went dark, but it only lasted for a second. Just as quickly, a silent, red siren descended from the ceiling, and the strobing light made me so dizzy, I puked all over my shoes.

I glanced at the clock in time to watch the last five seconds tick down, and – at the stroke of midnight – the siren receded into the ceiling. The lights came back brighter than ever, and while spots were still dancing in my vision – the automatic doors slid open; I almost puked again as several white, blurry blobs entered the Station and split off in every direction.

Seeing them file in was a sobering moment, but I was too far gone to articulate sensible speech while panicking. I tried to ask who they were – what they wanted – but there’s no telling what I actually said, and they were never going to talk, regardless.

They advanced, and I retreated; when I backed into the counter, I went over and continued crawling for as much distance as possible. My vision was finally clearing, and I felt a slight relief upon realizing the intruders were only humans wearing some kind of hazmat suits and not Stranded. I’m not sure why, but I’ve named the one who came at me, Al.

He was the only one to acknowledge my existence; none of the others even glanced my way. Some were restocking shelves while others were cleaning, and that’s when I remembered the thing about “Cleaners” arriving at 12:01.

Have you ever seen a movie where they check for radiation with little machines that click and beep. Well, these guys had some that looked like they were from the 50’s. I thought they were little radios at first; they had handles sticking out of the top with a few dials on either side, and there was a detachment that looked like a microphone without the mouthpiece.

I couldn’t help but let out a slight yelp when Al finally had me cornered. I begged him not to hurt me, and it took several seconds to realize – he wasn’t; he was scanning me. After his machine failed to detect whatever it was looking for, he put it away and reached towards me. Not in a fast or threatening manner – but casual – and placed both hands on my hips…

When I felt his fingers close… I just… I thought— Ugh, it’s not important what I thought, but I screamed for real that time. Every head in the Station turned to stare; they didn’t seem angry – only creepy. All the machines were turned off by this point, so there was complete silence when Al replaced his hands on my hips, and – in one, smooth motion – pulled my shirt over my head. I’m not sure why I lifted my arms… I guess it was a reflex…

After dropping my shirt onto the ground, Al tried to unbutton my pants. I was outnumbered more than 10 to 1, and there was no question those people meant to have their way. I salvaged what little dignity remained by throwing my own pants to the ground; it was my only choice.

I think I would have been ok if it had ended there, but I found new depths of unexplored terror when my pants were added to the pile yet Al was still coming back for more. More?! All I had left were socks, shoes, and boxers! Even my gun and bag were being added to the pile.

I threw my socks and shoes at their feet in a desperate attempt to keep my boxers and began walking towards the exit, but I barely made it three steps before being detained. Two men took hold of my arms while a third stripped away my last shred of humanity…

I was scanned and cleared once more before being pushed outside. It hadn’t felt like I went anywhere, but the Station was suddenly in a warehouse with enough lighting to imitate the sun. The surrounding metal walls were a perfect fit – as if they were built after the Station was placed there. It felt like being on the set of a movie studio.

My car was still parked next to the pump, and a team of Cleaners were busy going through it. I was considering a way to get one of them alone – finding clothes was my top priority even if it was one of those weird suits. That’s when I noticed what was beyond the parking lot – a wide, concrete path… I could follow it to the right or to the left. There were no doors, just trimmed openings in the walls, and – when standing on the path – I could see for miles in either direction with no end in sight.


I didn’t know what to do, but thankfully I didn’t have to wonder for too long. As I looked to the left once more – what I thought to be a solid wall opened up into a doorway. It scared me at first, and I was prepared to run in the other direction when a man suddenly stepped out and waved me over. It was comforting to see he wasn’t dressed like a Cleaner, but that’s not what made me trust him; I trusted him because he wore the same look of terror I imagined wearing myself.

His eyes searched the tunnels like something could appear any second, and I wasn’t ready to learn what put that terror on his face. When I was close enough, he pulled me through the door and slammed it shut.

I found myself in what I can only describe as an Amazon warehouse; it was like the mother of all Sam’s Clubs, and we were surrounded by shelves of trash bags and paper towels. I didn’t know what to say, so I opted for standing silently with my hands awkwardly covering my junk.

“Here, man. Use this for now, and I’ll take you to grab some clothes before we split. I’m Doug, by the way.” He ripped open a box of industrial-sized trash bags and tossed one over.

I wrapped it around my waist and introduced myself as he led us through endless aisles of random supplies. Occasionally, he paused to put something into his bag, but we never stopped for more than a few seconds. He was thin and a few inches taller than me with long hair pulled back into a man-bun, and he wore an orange shirt with white and blue flower-print board-shorts; I’d think he were my age, but his deep voice made him sound older. His pack was the kind campers take on week-long excursions, and it looked like it couldn’t fit one more item without bursting a seam.

I had countless questions but no clue where— or how – to begin. Finally, I settled for, “where are we?”

“That’s a pretty loaded question, my friend. If you’re here, you must have stayed in a Station past the midnight countdown – which means the Cleaners came and took your clothes away. That was the worst part for me, but it doesn’t look like you fought back – smart man. Check this out.” He lifted his shirt to reveal a nasty, circular, burn scar slightly larger than a quarter.

When a Cleaner reached for his pants, Doug punched him in the head; this resulted in a second Cleaner producing what appeared to be a police baton – but it was actually something closer to a cattle-prod. Doug described the sensation as being electrocuted with a branding iron, and it instantly rendered him unconscious. When he woke, he was lying in a concrete pathway just beyond the Station’s parking lot, and his entire body felt like it was on fire; knowing he couldn’t stay there – he began crawling through the tunnel.

“Exactly how long have you been here?” The realization he had been trapped there long enough for that wound to heal added a new layer of fear to the situation.

“No telling; it’s too easy to lose track of time around here. You’ll try to count the Sundays for a while, but it’s impossible. There’s no windows to know if it’s day or night, and if you get a new watch or phone – you’ll find they’re useless in most places. Watches don’t work at all, and phones seem to change at random pending your location.”

It was difficult to appreciate the magnitude of his words; a sea of clothes racks were just ahead, and walking through a store naked can be terribly distracting. “Are we alone here? Are there more Cleaners? What about the Stranded?! Please tell me those other things—”

“We’re alone for now.” He cut me off before I could talk about the real monsters. “All the Cleaners are out prepping the Stations for another week of service, and we’ll be long gone before the first groups return. I only come here once a week to restock supplies, and – sometimes – I pick up bits of information along the way. On this occasion, I heard there was another Quitter in the Tunnels and decided to see if I could catch your eye. I wouldn’t have come out or shouted to you, though; nothing personal – I just can’t take those kinds of risks… Anyway, put on some clothes, and don’t leave this spot; I’ll be back in sixty seconds.”

“Wait, no—.” I didn’t have a clue what he was doing; I thought he was leaving me, but I had to get dressed before chasing after him. There was no telling when – or if – I would have another opportunity. I grabbed the first of everything I saw in my size and dressed as quickly as possible. In the end, I had an electric blue version of Doug’s Station shirt, a gray and red version of his shorts, and black flip-flops. I still can’t believe there wasn’t a single pair of jeans. It all looked typical of what you expect to find in the gas stations off busy interstates that sell unusual souvenirs to travelers.

I was debating on what to do about Doug when I saw him headed back with an extra bag slung over his shoulder. “Here – pack some extra clothes.” He tossed me the pack before continuing. “Sundays are the only day it’s safe to enter the Hub; essentially, this is where the Cleaners live, and if you’re caught in their home – they’ll put you on the shelves, too. I promise, you don’t want that…” He cringed just thinking about it, and I didn’t press the issue.

“But how do we get out? I’ve been away from home for too long; my family must think I’m dead!”

“Sorry, man; you may want to say goodbye to your old life. It’s easier that way; some people even choose a new name, but we all grieve differently. Just do what feels right for you.”

“But what is this place?! It doesn’t make any sense? Where are we?!” I didn’t care if my voice was cracking – I needed real answers.

Doug checked his watch for the hundredth time and let out a long, deep sigh. “I’ll tell you what I’ve heard, but it’s up to you whether or not to believe it… Plus, we’re almost out of time, so keep moving or get left behind.”

That was fine; after everything I had experienced – I thought I was ready to believe anything

“Have you ever heard any of the Game legends? The ones where you do something incredibly dangerous for a chance to win something from the devil? It’s usually a wish or some kind of fortune, but there’s a ton of them; the Infinity Game and Midnight Game are fairly popular, for example.”

“Like Bloody Mary or Candyman?” I did not like where this was going.

“Well, sort of… you’re on the right track, but those are fake and only for a scare. The ones I’m talking about are all too real. The first thing you need to accept is that demons exist; they come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s a group of elite that are uncontested in power – almost god-like. Souls are the currency, nourishment, and fuel that sustain their powers, but collecting them can get a little tricky. A demon can’t simply take a soul by force – it must be freely given, and even the humans who don’t believe in souls tend to get protective when asked point-blank to part with one. So, what do they do? They create a situation that makes you want to give it away. You follow me?”

“Uh, sort of… you mean it’s like the Devil’s Crossroads or the thing with the golden fiddle?”

He considered that for a moment. “Closer… but they haven’t done things that way for decades. Business was slow – people weren’t buying into it anymore. You know what they say about things too good to be true… But if you add an element of challenge – something to balance the effort with the reward – then, people believe it.”

“So, somewhere in this maze of madness – you’re saying there’s a demon who will send me home in exchange for my soul?!” It was a shitty deal, but one I was prepared to take; that’s how badly I missed my family.

“Pft, hell no, man. This game isn’t active; it’s just a relic of the past no one bothered to shut down. There was no rhyme or reason to getting here – it was practically based on chance; the asshole running it made himself a new game where suckers alternate turning left and right in order to play. I don’t know what happens after that, but it’s clearly more lucrative than this place. Now, we’re just stuck here while everything essentially runs on auto-pilot.”

It took me a few minutes to respond… It’s not that I didn’t believe him; no other explanation fit the scenario. I was just shocked. “…Does that mean the Cleaners are the only danger down here?”

I knew it was too good to be true when I said it, but… I don’t know – what else do you say at a time like that? He could have simply said no; he didn’t have to laugh…

“Ha, I wish! This place wouldn’t be half bad if—” He stopped suddenly and reversed, pulling me with him; the sound of footsteps could be heard in the distance, and they were getting louder. The aisle we were on contained packs of bottled water lined beneath the bottom shelf, and Doug rushed to clear a space among them. I helped as soon as I understood his intent, but I never thought we would actually fit; thank goodness I was wrong.

There was a four-foot space behind the stack, and it ran the full length of the aisles we were sandwiched between. Once we crawled under the shelf, we pulled the water back in to cover our entrance and waited in silence as the Cleaners continued to draw closer. That’s when we realized there was another sound mixed in with the footsteps – one we couldn’t quite identify until it was only a few yards away… It was the sound of something wet and sticky being dragged across the floor, but nothing was distinguishable between the small cracks of our hiding place.

Doug already knew what it was; I could tell by the look on his face – but he only shook his head at my curious stare. We waited until they were well out of our vicinity before crawling out, and the thick blood streaks confirmed the fear I wouldn’t acknowledge.

“Why didn’t they just kill me right away if this is the endgame?” I didn’t expect to get an answer, but there actually was one.

“Because they weren’t programmed to kill humans collected from Stations – they’re meant to strip us for conversion. When the game was still active, it was crawling with low-level demons who would take the humans away once they were naked; nobody knows exactly what was done to them, but when they came back – they were Cleaners. They don’t speak; they just do as they’re programmed – no exceptions.”

“Then why did they kill whoever this was?! There’s no way someone survived that much blood loss…”

“That person must have been in here – getting supplies like we are… every Tunnel connects to this place; it’s the Supply Hub. In here, Cleaners are only programmed to re-stock loose items, and, as far as they can tell – humans are basically livestock, so they’re taken to meat processing…”

With each shocking revelation, I became slightly more numb to the panic. I had already reached that very point less than 24 hours before, but when I survived the countdown – it restored a sliver of hope. Then, I saw people in hazmat suits like some kind of officials, and – for the briefest moment – I thought they were there to help.

I wanted to crush that sliver of hope when my clothes were taken, but Doug appeared, and the damn thing grew; it took a minute for everything he said to really sink in and snuff the hope out at its roots. Part of me just wanted to assess the easiest way to die and get it over with. “How big is this place? What else is out there?”

“It’s endless; don’t you get it? We aren’t on earth – we aren’t even in the same universe! We’re basically in limbo; you can look behind every door, but you’re never going to find a way out. No matter what kind of room you stumble across, you’re still in the Tunnels – never forget that.” He showed a little emotion with the last sentence, and I realized he had probably been an entirely different man before that place.

We turned down an aisle of garden supplies, and there was an EXIT sign above a rusty door on the back wall. Doug took one last look around and handed me a pair of shears before removing a large hunting knife that had been concealed beneath his shirt. “Sorry we didn’t have time for a real weapon, but this is better than nothing.”

“Are guns the only thing they don’t stock in this place? Or are you just really good with that thing?” I nodded towards his knife while trying to find a comfortable way to wield my shears.

“Oh, there’s plenty of guns and ammo… But you don’t want to use it. Some of the low-level demons stayed behind to play Alpha. If they hear a gunshot, they call for backup, and everyone comes running… We’ve lost a lot of good people that way, and now, we avoid firearms completely. Never forget – they don’t have the power to grant big wishes, but that won’t stop them from saying they do—.”

“Wait – ‘we’? So, you’re with a group? How many? We could probably take down the Cleaners without guns! If we can take over the Hub—”

“Don’t talk that way – it’s suicide; you think it hasn’t been tried? You think you’re the first person desperate to get home? There were seven people in the group that found us, but today – there’s five – and not one of them are the same! Within the first year, each of the original seven died – along with quite a few others – and most of it can’t even be blamed on demons!” He was whispering, and I could barely make out his words over the creaking door, but there was no mistaking that tone.

We crept out, and we were in an identical tunnel as before – endless in each direction. “I’m sorry about your friends…” I didn’t know what else to say.

“Listen, I’m going to tell you the most important rule to survival; never let them see you. They won’t tolerate humans running loose in their deranged kingdom. Once they know you exist – the entire pack won’t rest until they’ve hunted you down, and – Jesse – they don’t need to sleep…”

That struck some life back into my terror. “So what else is down here?! Where are we supposed to hide when we can’t be in the Hub?”

“The other rooms; I’m going to show you how to find them. Look at where we just came from – do you see the door’s outline? Your eyes will get used to spotting the straight lines faster than you think. You’ll want to pick something close to a Hub entrance, but never stay in one place too long… And if you ever see a thick, black, slimy residue or smell rotten meat – leave the area as quickly and quietly as possible; that means a demon is nearby.”

That time, his choice of words was unmistakable; I wasn’t being invited to join the group. I’m not a particularly sensitive or petty man, but the prospect of being alone in those tunnels… I couldn’t process it. “Oh, I get it… I guess I didn’t make the cut for your exclusive club, huh?”

The face he made in return was raw and powerful; I almost wanted to apologize, but it was hard to feel sympathetic under the circumstances. Then, his words cut me to the bone. “No disrespect – you seem like a nice guy, but I don’t trust strangers anymore. All I have left is my wife, and no other man is ever going near her again. Ok? Whether you understand it yet or not – you’re fucking lucky to be alone!”

It didn’t take a detective to put those pieces together, and it was an impossible point to argue; I wouldn’t have trusted him, either. There was only one thing left to say… “Got any more tips?”

“Play the odds; the Tunnels are endless. We don’t know how many demons are out there, but as long as you keep moving, you probably won’t run into one. If you bunker down in one place – something will eventually stumble across you. When we change locations, we walk six hours before looking for the next Hub entrance; then, we check the doors closest to it for a place to rest until the next Station Clean. And be very careful about who you trust. New people show up every week, and even good people can do horrible things when they’re desperate.” His words brought back memories of Rob, but I pushed them down deep where they belong.

“Wait… But how do I keep track of the days… And when we first met… you said you heard there was a new Quitter… What did that mean? Who did you hear it from?” We were walking side by side with our heads close together – whispering in hushed tones, but I had to restrain myself from shouting at the end. I was being expected to process too much too quickly, and the threat of a full-blown panic attack was looming ever closer.

“Every room plays the same radio channel you heard in the Station; I’m not sure why it doesn’t work in the Hub, but I guess the Cleaners don’t need it… And we are Quitters; we stayed in the Station because we wanted to quit playing without making it through the final level. It’s practically a Game Over screen… As for who told me about you… Well, there are a few people who want to put the Cleaners out of their misery, and they don’t care if they die in the process; they tend to take extreme risks like stealing Cleaner uniforms and infiltrating their ranks… If one ever approaches you with both hands palms up – that’s the signal. Try to help them if you can; they’re doing good work. I know I would want to be put down if it were me.”

I was trying to commit each word to memory, but I could only think of walking those dim Tunnels alone; so much so that I nearly missed the fine, door-shaped cracks next to where Doug had stopped. “I guess this is where we go our separate ways… Thanks for everything, really. I’d already be dead without you. Do you mind demonstrating how these things open before I go?” My voice came out less steady than I hoped.

“Just push.” The wall opened like a swinging door with the slightest effort, and he gave me one last warning. “Don’t forget about the sludge; if you need to escape – run through the closest door and immediately find a different exit. Then, find another door and another exit. Do it at least 4-5 times. All the Tunnels are straight; the only way to change direction is by cutting through a room… And good luck.”

We shook hands before he disappeared into what looked like a 90’s hotel lobby, and I caught a glimpse of his wife as the door closed. She had a jagged scar across her throat, and that’s when I knew Doug had been right; I was lucky to be alone.


I wandered the endless Tunnel for hours hoping I’d have the willpower to resist running away when I finally crossed paths with a demon. I wasn’t interested in living out the rest of my life in a monster’s playground, but I was still terrified of dying. Since I wouldn’t be able to hang or shoot myself, I hoped a demon could take the matter out of my hands…

Never underestimate your survival instincts, folks. I continued walking under the dim, blinking lights, and the first time they went completely dark – I thought something was coming; all my big talk vanished as I began throwing myself into the wall, searching for a door. In that moment, there was no remembering ‘but this is what I wanted.’ I was in a full panic – running off pure instinct and fighting to survive with everything I had.

Then, the lights suddenly flickered back to life, and there was nothing in sight. As it turns out – this was a fairly common occurrence in the Tunnels. I wasn’t too worried about failing my first test though – after all, what chance did I stand out there alone? I didn’t expect to make it another day – let alone weeks! Though, it seemed like a lot longer… It was Thursday, June 16th, when I got lost on the Backroads, and I came home yesterday, August 11th. That’s just under a month, but it felt like years.

Those rooms really could be anything, and they were completely random. The first night, I stayed in a rundown bowling alley, but they had things from the past and present – fantasy and reality – nothing was off limits. I’ve slept in the Millennium Falcon, and I’ve slept on benches in bus stations; when you have no one to share the good things with – stuff like that loses all meaning fast.

I was leaving the White House yesterday when I noticed clumps of black sludge staining the walls ahead and dripping from the ceiling. The first spots were only twenty to thirty feet away, and they extended at least that much further. The lights near it were going out, and the ones still lit were dimming by the second, but at the very edge of the darkness, I could just make out a tall, humanoid shape…

I threw myself into the closest room – which happened to be an old rubber factory – wound my way through broken machinery, and found the other exit. The new Tunnel was clean, but I went through a bank, airport, and carnival, too; when I entered the third clean Tunnel – I walked ahead a few yards and chose one more door… I had no clue if the shape I saw really was a demon or if it saw me, but the fresh terror I felt at the prospect erased any lingering notions of running into one on purpose.

Though, with the way things turned out, I should probably be thanking the damn thing; that last door led outside! It wasn’t like the Station or airport where the small, outdoor areas were still under a roof – there was an actual sky, and it looked exactly like the Paved Streets of the Backroads! The fresh air was absolutely delicious, and I took my time searching for the exit; in fact, I was still searching two hours later. At one point, I even let myself believe I was actually out of the Tunnels, but that hope was squashed when I reached the crossroads.

Dark clouds rolled across the sky, and it grew darker by the second as I advanced; I knew it was different from the Backroads then, and I knew I should turn back, but I couldn’t. The door was gone and there was nothing but miles of deserted highway behind me.

A bright flash of lightning revealed a dark figure in the center of the crossroads. There was something about the way it stood – facing me – that made it seem like it was waiting to speak. The one in the Tunnel had been hunched over like a rabid beast – waiting to strike out for its next meal… Or maybe that’s what the new one wanted me to think… Either way, I walked right up to him because I was fairly certain he only wanted to talk… because of how he was standing… Damn, that sounds really bad when I hear it out loud…

… Sorry, I’m getting pretty tired; I’ve been at this a while, now… It’s hard to describe, but I drew a picture… It was like looking into a human-shaped black-hole. Where its face should be was only a vortex of even blacker swirls, and looking at it was like falling into a bottomless pit. Yet, somehow, it kinda sounded like Samuel L. Jackson when it spoke…

It said it was the original game owner and still preferred to operate in the old ways when possible. It wanted to know if I’d be interested in trading my soul for being with my family again, and boy – was I interested! All it took was a simple prick of the finger, a few drops of blood on a dotted line, and we were good to go!

With a wave of its hand the sky cleared, and a new door suddenly appeared behind us. It opened onto my front yard, and I ran through it without another glance at the demon. Everything looked and smelled exactly how it should, and my wife’s car was in the driveway. She knew there was more to my story than getting lost, but she gave me time with the kids before making me explain, and I appreciated that. I also appreciate the fact she doesn’t know about my Reddit account…

I did my best to tell her what happened, but now, she wants me to see a psychologist. She’s been on the phone all day trying to schedule one around the police visit; an officer was supposed to stop by to speak with us so we can officially close the missing person’s report, but I guess he’s running late. I’m not complaining, though, I never want to leave this house again. Call it PTSD or whatever you want – I just have this overwhelming sense of dread that something awful will happen the second we try to go somewhere…

This whole thing really messed up my dad, too; he didn’t sound like himself, and even my mother-in-law seems shaken by the ordeal. I feel horrible for the trouble I caused everyone, but— Shit, I gotta go; there’s another problem. My wife called the police station and they’re saying the cop already came by, but nobody answered the door! Can you believe this crap? Then, the call dropped in the middle of their conversation, and now the lines are busy! What a joke!

Classics Translated

In the Penal Colony

Franz Kafka, first published in 1919; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same. 

“It’s a peculiar machine.” The Officer said to the Traveler, admiring the device he was thoroughly familiar with. The Traveler only answered the Commandant’s invitation to be polite; the execution was for a soldier who insulted his superior, but interest was low even in the penal colony itself. It took place in a deep, sandy valley closed in by barren slopes. Apart from the Officer and Traveler, the only people present were the dispirited Condemned Man and the Soldier holding the chain to his shackles. The prisoner’s feet, wrists, and neck were bound, and he looked completely defeated.

The Traveler had little interest in the device; he paced indifferently behind the Condemned Man while the Officer completed the final preparations. Sometimes, he crawled into the pit to look under the machine, and sometimes he climbed a ladder to inspect the higher parts. These were things a mechanic could do, but the Officer performed them enthusiastically; maybe because he was particularly fond of this machine, or maybe he simply could not trust anyone else to do it.

“It’s ready, now!” He cried, climbing down the ladder. He was breathing through his mouth, tired, and there were two lady’s handkerchiefs pushed under his collar.

“Those uniforms are too heavy for the tropics,” the Traveler said.

“That’s true, but they represent our homes, and we don’t want to forget our homeland.” the Officer replied, washing his oily hands in a nearby bucket. “Here, have a look at this device. I used to do some of this work, but now, the machine does it all.”

The Traveler nodded and followed the Officer as he continued, “of course, malfunctions happen. I hope none occur today, but we’ll be prepared for it. The device is supposed to run for twelve hours without stopping, but if any breakdowns do occur, they’ll be minor, and we’ll fix them right away. Do you want to sit down?” The Traveler gratefully accepted his offer while he sat on the edge of the pit and cast a fleeting glance inside; it was not very deep. On one side, the dirt was piled into a wall, and the machine was on the other.

“I don’t know if the Commandant has already explained the device to you…” The Officer began, and the Traveler indicated he had not. “This device,” he grabbed a connecting rod and leaned against it, “is our previous Commandant’s invention. I assisted him with it from the first test to its completion, but the credit belongs to him alone. Have you heard of our Old Commandant? No? Well, it’s not a stretch to say he’s responsible for starting the penal colony. When he died, his friends knew it would take several years for a successor to change anything even if they wanted to. So far, this prediction has held true, and the New Commandant recognizes that. It’s a shame you didn’t know the old one!

“Anyway, I’m babbling, and his device stands here before us. It consists of three parts. The bottom piece is called the Bed, the top part is the Inscriber, and the moving part in the middle is the Harrow.”

“The Harrow?” The Traveler asked; he had not been fully paying attention. The sun was extremely strong in the shadowless valley, and he could hardly collect his thoughts. It made the Officer’s eager explanation even more admirable while adjusting screws in his parade-ready, tight tunic covered with shoulder pieces and braids.

The Soldier’s wrists were wrapped around the prisoner’s chain, his head was hung back, and he was using his weapon to support himself. He appeared to be in the same mood as the Traveler which was not surprising. The Officer spoke French, but it was clear the Soldier and Condemned Man did not. That the prisoner still tried to follow the Officer’s explanation was surprising. His eyes followed each direction the Officer pointed, and he looked at the Traveler when he interrupted.

“Yes, the Harrow; the name fits. The needles are arranged the same way as a harrow, and the whole thing runs like one; although, it stays in one place and is much more artistic.” The Officer continued. “You’ll understand in a moment. First, I’ll describe it, and then I’ll show you; that way, you’ll be able to follow it better. Also, one of the sprockets is excessively worn and squeaky. When it’s in motion, you can hardly hear yourself speak. Unfortunately, replacement parts are difficult to come by. The Bed is completely covered with a layer of cotton-wool, and the condemned is laid on top – face down and naked. These straps secure the hands, feet, and throat. At the head of the Bed, this small protruding lump of felt can easily be adjusted to press into the man’s mouth; it’s there to stop him from screaming and biting his tongue to pieces. If he doesn’t let it into his mouth – the straps around his throat would break his neck.”

“That’s cotton-wool?” the Traveler asked, bending down.

“Yes; feel for yourself.” The Officer smiled.

He guided the Traveler’s hand. “It’s specially prepared; that’s why it looks so different.”

The device was already winning over the Traveler. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he looked at the top of the machine. It was massive; the Bed and the Inscriber were the same size and looked like two dark chests. The Inscriber was two meters above the Bed, and they were connected at the corners by four brass rods while the Harrow hung on a band of steel between the chests.

The Officer hardly noticed the Traveler’s earlier indifference, but now, he noticed the man was genuinely interested; he paused the explanation to give the Traveler time to study the device properly. The Condemned Man studied it as well, but he did not have a free hand to shield his eyes.

“So, now, the man is lying down…” The Traveler leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.

“Yes,” the Officer said, pushing back his cap and running his hand over his hot face. “Both the Bed and the Inscriber have their own batteries. The Bed needs them for itself, and the Inscriber holds them for the Harrow. When the man is strapped in, the Bed is set into motion. It simultaneously moves up, down, and sideways at a rapid speed. There are similar devices in mental hospitals – except our Bed’s movements are precisely calibrated to be synchronized with the Harrow – which is what actually carries out the sentence.”

“What’s the sentence?” the Traveler asked.

“You don’t even know that?” the Officer asked in astonishment, biting his lip. “Forgive me if my explanations are confusing; I am sorry. The Commandant used to provide this information, but the new one has delegated the responsibility. The fact he did not even inform such an important visitor of our method is something which…” He stopped himself from cursing and continued, “I was not aware of; it’s not my fault. Anyway, I am certainly the best person to explain our way of sentencing,” he patted his breast pocket; “I have the Old Commandant’s hand-drawn diagrams.”

“Made by the Commandant himself?” The Traveler asked. “It sounds like he was a combination of everything – soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and artist.”

“He was indeed,” the Officer said, nodding his head with a thoughtful expression. His hands were not clean enough to handle the diagrams, so he washed them again. Then, he pulled out a small leather folder and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. Whichever law a condemned man has broken is carved into his body with the Harrow. For example, this Condemned Man will have ‘honor your superiors’ carved into him.”

The Traveler stole a quick glance at the prisoner. When the Officer pointed at him, the man put his head down; he appeared to still be listening, but his thick, pouting lips showed he did not understand. The Traveler had various questions, but after looking at the Condemned Man, he only asked, “does he know?”

“No.” The Officer said.

He wished to continue his explanation, but the Traveler interrupted him. “He doesn’t know his own sentence?”

“No.” The Officer repeated. “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences it firsthand.”

The Traveler wanted to keep quiet, but he felt the prisoner’s gaze asking whether he approved of the process, so instead, he asked, “does he have some general idea that he’s been sentenced to die?”

“Not that either,” the Officer said, smiling as if expecting an explanation for the odd question.

“No?” the Traveler said, wiping his forehead. “He doesn’t know he was found guilty?”

“He had no opportunity to defend himself.” The Officer looked away, as if not wanting to embarrass the Traveler with such an obvious answer.

“But there must have been a trial!” The Traveler rose from his chair.

Realizing his explanation was being postponed, the Officer took the Traveler’s arm and pointed to the Condemned Man. “Here in the penal colony, I have been appointed judge despite my youth. I worked with our Old Commandant in overseeing punishments, and I also know the most about the device. My basic principle for making decisions is, ‘guilt must be beyond a doubt.’ Other courts have many judges and even higher courts, but that’s not the case here… At least, it wasn’t with the Old Commandant, but the New Commandant has shown a desire to get involved… Though, so far, I’ve managed to fend him off.

“If you want to know about this case, it’s simple; this morning, a captain charged this man with sleeping on duty. His job is to stand and salute in front of captain’s door at the top of every hour. That’s certainly not difficult, and it’s necessary. He is supposed to remain fresh for guard duty, but last night, the captain found him asleep at 2:00! He was hit across the face with a horse whip, and instead of begging for forgiveness – he grabbed his master’s legs and threatened him! The captain came to me an hour ago; I recorded his statement and the sentence, then I had the prisoner chained. If I had summoned the man and interrogated him first – it would have caused confusion; he would have lied, and if I had proven he lied – he would have told new lies, but now, I have him. Does that make sense? Time is wasting; we should be starting the execution, and I haven’t finished explaining the device yet.”

He urged the Traveler to sit down, walked back to the machine, and continued. “The shape of the Harrow corresponds to the shape of a man. This piece is for the upper body, and here are the ones for the legs. This small cut-out is for the head. Do you understand?” He leaned forward in a friendly way – ready to elaborate if necessary.

The Traveler looked at the Harrow with a wrinkled frown. The information about the procedure had not satisfied him, but in a penal colony, special rules were necessary; military regulations must be followed down to the finest detail. However, he did have hope in the New Commandant; the man was obviously trying to introduce a new procedure which this Officer of limited intelligence could not handle. With this thought, the Traveler asked, “will the Commandant be at the execution?”

“That’s uncertain,” the Officer said with a grimace, seeming embarrassed by the question. “That’s why we need to hurry. I regret I’ll have to make my explanation even shorter. I’ll tell you the most important things now, and tomorrow – after the device is cleaned – I can explain the rest. When the man is lying on the Bed and it starts shaking, the Harrow automatically adjusts the needles to touch the body lightly, and when it’s in position – this steel cable tightens into a rod. Then, the show begins! As the Harrow shakes, the needles penetrate the body – which is also vibrating – and since it’s made of glass, the process can be supervised. That caused technical difficulties with fastening the needles, but after several attempts we were successful. Don’t you want to see the needles for yourself?”

The Traveler stood slowly and approached the Harrow. “There are two sorts of needles in this arrangement.” The Officer said. “Each long needle has a short one next to it. The long one penetrates, and the short one squirts water to wash away the blood. The dirty water is channeled into small grooves which flow into these main gutters, and the outlet pipes take it to the pit.” The Officer pointed to the path.

As he approached the outlet pipe to demonstrate, the Traveler was horrified to see the Condemned Man had also accepted the invitation to inspect the Harrow. He pulled the sleeping Soldier with him and bent over the glass, confused. He tried to discern what the two men had just observed, but lacked enough information. His eyes ran over the glass, and the Traveler wanted to push him back, worried he would receive another punishment.

The Officer held the Traveler firmly with one hand, and with the other, he threw a lump of dirt at the Soldier. The man opened his eyes, startled to see what the Condemned Man had done, and he pulled the prisoner back hard enough to make him collapse.

“Stand him up!” The Officer cried, noticing the Condemned Man was distracting the Traveler. “Handle him carefully!” He yelled, helping the Soldier with the prisoner.

“Now, I know all about it,” the Traveler said.

“Except the most important thing,” the Officer returned his attention to the Traveler, grabbing his arm and pointing upwards. “A mechanism in the Inscriber controls the Harrow’s movement, and the diagram shows how to arrange it based on the sentence.” He pulled some pages out of the leather folder. “Unfortunately, you can’t hold them; they are my most cherished possessions. Sit down, and I’ll show them to you.” He held up the first sheet.

The Traveler would have been happy to say something complimentary, but all he saw was a maze of lines crossing in every direction. They covered the paper to the point hardly any white space remained. “Read it,” the Officer said.

“I can’t,” the Traveler replied.

“But it’s clear,” the Officer said.

“It’s very elaborate, but I can’t decipher it.” The Traveler said evasively.

“Yes,” the Officer smiled and put the folder away. “It takes a long time to understand, but you will eventually; obviously, we can’t use simple text that just anyone could read. It’s not supposed to kill right away but over a period of twelve hours, and the turning point is set for the sixth. There must also be several embellishments surrounding the words. The part engraving the text only moves around the body in a narrow belt; the rest is reserved for decoration. Do you appreciate the device? Just look at it!” He jumped up the ladder, turned a wheel, and called down, “Watch out! Get back!”

Everything started moving. If not for the squeaky wheel, it would have been marvelous. The Officer shook his fist at the disturbance and spread his arms in apology before hurrying down to observe the operation from below.

Something was still not working properly. He climbed back up, reached inside the Inscriber, then slid back down one of the poles, straining his voice to be heard. “Do you understand? The Harrow is starting to write, and when it’s finished with the man’s back – the layer of wool slowly turns his body onto its side. Meanwhile, the cuts are covered by the specially treated cotton which immediately stops the bleeding in preparation for round two. As he continues to rotate, prongs on the Harrow’s edge remove the wool from his wounds and throw it into the pit; this way, the inscription continues to deepen.

“After two hours, the felt is removed; by then, the man has no more energy for screaming, so warm rice pudding is placed at the head of the Bed. If he wants it, the prisoner is welcome to what he can reach; I don’t know of any who refused it – and I’ve had lots of experience – but they usually lose their appetite around the sixth hour. I often watched; the men rarely swallow the last bite. They turn it around in their mouths and spit it into the pit; I have to lean aside to avoid getting hit in the face… But then, they become so quiet! Even the dumbest begin to understand. It starts showing in their eyes, and their looks could tempt one to lie down under the Harrow, but nothing happens. They simply begin to decipher the inscription. It’s not easy to figure out with your eyes, but these men decipher it with their wounds. True, it requires six more hours to complete, but then, the Harrow spits them into the pit, and the judgment is over.”

The Traveler leaned towards the Officer and watched the machine work. The Condemned Man was also watching, but he did not understand. He bent forward, following the needles as the Soldier cut off his clothes. He wanted to grab the garments as they fell, but the Soldier shook the last rags from his body.

The Officer stopped the machine, and the Condemned Man was laid under the Harrow in silence. The chains were removed and the straps fastened in place. At first, he seemed almost relieved until the Harrow sunk lower; then he shuddered as the needles touched him. While the Soldier was busy securing his right hand, the prisoner reached out with his left, and it was pointing at the Traveler.

The wrist-strap was ripped off – probably from the Soldier pulling too hard. He showed the torn piece to his superior, hoping for help, but the Officer only turned to the Traveler and said, “The machine is very complicated; sometimes, pieces tear or break, but don’t let that influence your overall opinion. I’ll use a chain even though it will affect the right arm’s movement.”

He continued to speak while attaching the chain, “Our maintenance resources are very limited at the moment. Under the Old Commandant, I had a cash box set aside. There was a store room where replacement parts were kept. I admit, I was a little extravagant as the New Commandant claims. With him, everything is fight against the old ways. He keeps the cash box under his own control, and if I ask him for a new strap – he demands the torn one as evidence. The new one doesn’t arrive for ten days, and it’s a worthless, inferior brand. How is the machine supposed to work in the meantime? But no one’s concerned about that.”

The Traveler thought it was a gamble to speak up in unfamiliar situations. He was not a citizen of the penal colony or the state. If he condemned the execution, people might tell a foreigner to keep quiet. He would have no response for that; the purpose of this visit was only to observe – not to alter – but it was becoming very tempting. The injustice and inhumanity of the entire process was beyond doubt. No one could think he was acting out of self-interest; the Condemned Man was a stranger – not a countryman. The Traveler had letters of reference from high officials and was warmly welcomed here. The fact he was invited to this execution seemed to indicate people were asking for his opinion. This was even more likely since the Commandant was clearly no supporter of it, either, and he maintained an almost hostile relationship with the Officer.

Then, the Officer suddenly cried out in rage. He had finally managed to shove the felt into the Condemned Man’s mouth when the prisoner shut his eyes and threw up.

The Officer quickly yanked him off the stump and tried to turn his head toward the pit, but it was too late. The vomit was already spewing onto the machine. “This is all the Commandant’s fault!” He cried, mindlessly rattling the brass rods. “My machine is filthy!” With trembling hands he showed the Traveler. “I’ve spent hours trying to make the Commandant understand there should be no food served the day before the execution, but the new administration has a different opinion. Before the man is led away, the women cram sugary things down his throat. His whole life he’s eaten stinking fish, and now he has to eat sweets! That would be fine if they would get a new felt like I’ve been asking for the last three months. How can anyone take this into his mouth without feeling disgusted? Hundreds of men sucked on it while they were dying!”

The Condemned Man laid his head down and seemed peaceful while the Soldier cleaned the machine with his torn shirt. The Officer approached the Traveler, who tried to take a step backwards but was pulled aside. “I want to speak a few words in private, is that alright?” He asked.

“Of course.” The Traveler said, eyes lowered.

“This process doesn’t have any more open supporters in our colony. I am the only one still defending it… just as I am the lone advocate for the Old Commandant. I can no longer think about improving the process; it takes all of my energy simply to maintain what’s left. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full of supporters. I have a bit of his persuasiveness but none of his power, so the supporters have gone into hiding.

“There are lots of them, but no one admits to it. If you go into the tea house today and listen carefully, you may hear nothing but ambiguous remarks. They’re all supporters, but under the present Commandant, they’re totally useless to me. I ask you, should a man’s entire life’s work be undone because of this New Commandant and the women influencing him? Should people let that happen? Even if one is a foreigner and only here for a couple of days?

“There’s no time to lose. People are already preparing something against these proceedings. I am never invited to their meetings in the Commandant’s headquarters; even your visit seems to have something to do with it. People are cowards, so they send you out here. You should have seen the executions in the old days! The entire valley would be overflowing with people a whole day before the event – just so they could watch. The Commandant would arrive early with his women, and the music would wake the entire campsite. When everything was ready, we all gathered around the machine.

“This pile of cane chairs is a sorry fossil from that time. The machine glowed from its cleaning, and I had new replacement parts after almost every use. Hundreds of spectators stood on tip-toe as far back as the hills, and the Commandant laid the prisoner beneath the Harrow himself. The part now done by a common soldier used to be my job as the senior judge, and it was an honor; then, the execution began, and there were no squeaky wheels. At this point, most people were laying in the sand with their eyes closed. They knew justice was being carried out, and the prisoner’s muffled groan was the only sound to break the silence. Back then, the needles dripped a caustic liquid which we aren’t allowed to use any more. Then came the sixth hour; it was impossible to allow everyone to watch from up close, so the Commandant arranged for the children to see it first. Naturally, I was always allowed to stand close by because of my position. I often crouched there with two small children in my arms, and we would all take in the martyred man’s expression! Ah, what times we had!”

The Officer had obviously forgotten who was standing in front of him; he put his arm around the Traveler and laid his head on his shoulder. The Traveler – extremely embarrassed – looked away impatiently. The Soldier was finished cleaning and poured rice pudding into a bowl. The Condemned Man – who now seemed fully recovered – immediately began licking at the treat, but the Soldier kept pushing him away. It was probably meant to be eaten later, but it was rude of the Soldier to take the food with his dirty hands and eat it in front of the starving prisoner.

The Officer quickly collected himself. “I didn’t want to upset you; I know it’s impossible to make someone understand those days now. Anyway, the machine can operate when it’s left alone. At the end, the body still falls into the pit even if no one is there to see it. We had to erect a strong rail around the pit, but it was removed.”

The Traveler turned away, but the Officer thought he was looking at the valley’s wasteland and turned him back around. “Do you see the shame of it?” He asked, but the Traveler said nothing.

The Officer left him alone and stood looking at the ground with his legs apart and hands on his hips – smiling cheerfully. “Yesterday, I was nearby when the Commandant invited you, and I immediately understood his intention. Although he has enough power to come after me, he doesn’t yet dare to do so. I believe he is exposing me to your judgment; he is very calculating. This is only your second day on the island; you didn’t know the Old Commandant and have a European perspective. Perhaps you are opposed to the death penalty in general and to this machine in particular.

“You see the execution as a sad procedure performed with a damaged machine without any public participation. When considered in that light, it’s obvious you would think poorly of my procedure and speak against it. You’ve seen many peculiar things among many cultures and learned to respect them. You probably won’t speak out with your full power in a foreign land, but the Commandant doesn’t need that. A casual word or careless remark is enough. It doesn’t need to match your beliefs as long as it’s in line with his wishes. I’m certain he will use all of his shrewdness to interrogate you, and his women will listen.

“You will say the accused are questioned before the verdict in your trials, or that torture hasn’t been used since the Middle Ages. For you, these observations seem obvious, and they do not challenge my procedure, but what will the Commandant think? I see the way he pushes his stool aside and hurries out to the balcony; I see how his women stream after him, and I hear his thunderous voice. He’ll say a great Western explorer tasked with inspecting every country’s legal procedures found ours to be inhumane, and that will make it impossible for me to continue this work.

“It’s true, you didn’t call my procedure inhumane. In fact, you consider it to be most humane – and you admire this machinery – but it’s too late; my and the Old Commandant’s work are lost.”

The Traveler suppressed a smile; the work he had considered so difficult was easy. “You’re exaggerating my influence. The Commandant has read my letters of recommendation. He knows I’m not an expert in legal matters; if I were to express an opinion – it would only be as a civilian and far less significant than the Commandant’s. I understand he has extensive power in this penal colony; if he is as against this method as you say he is, then I’m afraid it’s time for this procedure to end regardless of my humble opinion.” He said evasively.

The Officer still did not understand. He shook his head vigorously, briefly looking back at the Condemned Man and Soldier who both flinched and stopped eating. He got closer to the Traveler – gazing at parts of his jacket – and spoke gently. “You don’t know the Commandant; believe me – your influence cannot be overestimated. I was actually happy when I heard you were coming to the execution alone. Without being distracted by false remarks and ugly looks, you have listened to my explanation, seen the machine, and are now about to view the procedure. You’re decision is already made, but if any small doubts remain – witnessing the execution will remove them. Now – I’m asking you – help me with the Commandant!”

The Traveler did not let him continue. “How can I?” He cried. “It’s impossible; I can’t help you!”

“You could do it,” the Officer said, clenching his fists. “I have a plan that must succeed. I know your influence will be enough, but even if you’re right – isn’t saving this procedure worth the effort? Listen to my plan; for today, you must stay quiet. Unless someone asks you a direct question, you should not say anything. People should feel that it’s difficult for you to speak— that if you were to speak, you’d be cursing furiously.

“I’m not asking you to lie – not at all – but when you do speak, your answers should be brief, simple statements like, ‘yes, I’ve seen the execution’ or ‘yes, I’ve heard the explanation.’— nothing more. That will be enough for people to notice your bitterness even if the Commandant doesn’t. He will misunderstand, and my plan is based on that. Tomorrow, he will hold a meeting at headquarters with all of the higher administrative officials, and he understands how to turn such an event into a spectacle; the new gallery is always full of people.

“I’m compelled to take part in the discussions even though they fill me with disgust. Regardless, you will certainly be invited to the meeting. If you follow my plan today – the invitation will become an emphatic request, but if you are somehow not invited – you must request an invitation. You’ll be sitting with the women in the Commandant’s box where he can assure himself you are there with frequent glances. After a trivial agenda designed to entertain the spectators, the legal system will come up for discussion. If the topic isn’t raised soon enough, I’ll give a brief report on today’s execution. Such an announcement isn’t really customary, but I’ll do it anyway. The Commandant will thank me with a friendly smile and say something like, ‘the great explorer attended this execution; his visit is an extraordinary honor for our colony. Should we ask his opinion of our old customs?’ And everyone will applaud – myself loudest of all.

“Then, the Commandant will bow and formally ask the question. You should step up to the railing, and place your hands where everyone can see them or else the ladies will play with your fingers. I don’t know how I’ll bear the tension until then, but you must not hold back; lean over the rail and shout it out— yes, roar your unshakable opinion at the Commandant! But you may not want to do that… It doesn’t suit your character…

“Perhaps your people behave differently in these situations. That’s perfectly fine. Don’t stand up at all; just say a couple of words. It’s enough to whisper them for the officials to hear. You don’t need to mention the low attendance, squeaky wheel, torn strap, or disgusting felt – I’ll take care of those details. If my speech doesn’t chase him out of the room, it will knock him to his knees! That’s my plan; do you want to help me? Of course you do— you must!”

The Officer gripped the Traveler by both arms and looked at him, breathing heavily into his face. He had yelled the last sentences so loudly that even the Soldier and Condemned Man were paying attention. Although they couldn’t understand, they stopped eating to watch.

The Traveler was already sure of his answer, but with the Soldier and the Condemned Man watching – he hesitated before saying, “no.” The Officer blinked several times, but never broke eye contact.

“Would you like an explanation?” The Traveler asked, and he Officer nodded dumbly. “I was against this device even before you told me your plan, but I will never tell anyone what we spoke of. Your conviction is genuinely moving – but my decision was already made. I had been debating whether I have any right to speak against this procedure and if there was any chance of success. If there was, I knew I would need to see the Commandant first.

The Officer remained quiet, turned toward the machine, grabbed one of the brass rods, and looked up at the Inscriber as if inspecting it. The Soldier and Condemned Man seemed to have become friends. The prisoner was whispering something into the Soldier’s ear as he nodded.

The Traveler moved closer the Officer before continuing. “Yes, I will tell the Commandant my opinion; not publicly, but in private. Additionally, I won’t be here long enough to get called into any meetings; my ship leaves tomorrow morning.”

The Officer did not appear to be listening. “So, you were not convinced…” He said, smiling to himself – the way an old man smiles over a sleeping child. “Well then, it’s time.” He finally said, looking at the Traveler with bright, demanding eyes in a silent plea for help.

“Time for what?” The Traveler asked uneasily, but did not receive an answer.


“You are free,” the Officer told the Condemned Man in his own language. At first, the man did not believe him, so the Officer repeated himself, and the prisoner’s face came to life – asking many questions in a single expression. Was it true? Had the Traveler brought him a pardon? What was it? Whatever the case might be, he did not need to wonder for long. In a rush to be free, he began to struggle against the Harrow.

“You’re tearing my straps! Be still! We’ll undo them.” The Officer cried, signaling for the Soldier’s help. The Condemned Man remained silent, slightly smiling to himself; he turned to the Officer, then to the Soldier and back again.

“Pull him out,” the Officer ordered. This required a certain amount of care because of the Harrow. The prisoner already had a few small wounds on his back due to his own impatience.

From this point on, however, the Officer hardly noticed him anymore. Instead, he returned to the Traveler, pulled out the small leather folder once more, and flipped through it until finding a specific sheet. “Read that,” he said.

“I can’t; I’ve told you, I can’t read these pages.” The Traveler replied.

“Take a closer look.” The Officer said. When that didn’t help, he raised his little finger high over the paper in hopes of making it easier.

The Traveler made an effort, but it was impossible. Then, the Officer began spelling the inscription and read out the letters. “It says, ‘be just!’ Now, you can read it, too.”

The Traveler bent over the paper, and the Officer moved it away – frightened it might be touched. The Traveler said nothing more, but it was clear he could not read it. “Be just!” The Officer repeated.

“Yes, I do believe that’s written there.” The Traveler said without looking away. His neck grew stiff, and the sunlight was blinding.

The Soldier pulled the Condemned Man’s shirt and trousers out of the hole with the tip of his bayonet. The prisoner washed his filthy shirt in the bucket of water and laughed as he circled around the Soldier in his ripped-up clothes. The Soldier crouched over laughing and slapping his knees, but they restrained themselves out of consideration for the two gentlemen.

When the Officer was finally finished with the machine, he looked over all its parts once more with a smile and closed the Inscriber’s cover. He climbed down, looked into the hole, and was satisfied to see the Condemned Man had retrieved his clothes. Then, he washed his hands in the bucket and became upset with the realization it was already disgusting. Instead, he cleaned them in the sand; this option was not satisfying, but he did what he could.

Finally, as he stood to unbutton his coat, the two lady’s handkerchiefs fell into his hands. “Here, take your gifts.” He said, throwing them to the Condemned Man. “Presents from the ladies,” he explained to the Traveler.

“Good,” the Officer said, at least partially satisfied. Still holding the paper, he climbed the ladder, and, with great care, set it into the Inscriber. Turning the gear was tiring work; the wheels are extremely small. Sometimes, he inspected them so closely, his entire head disappeared into the machine.

Despite the speed he undressed, he handled each article of clothing carefully – running his fingers over the tunic’s silver braids or shifting a tassel into place, but – when finished – he flung them into the pit. The last item was his short sword; he removed it from the scabbard, broke it into pieces, and threw them into the pit where they could be heard rattling the whole way down. Now, he stood there naked. The Traveler bit his lip and said nothing; he knew what was happening, but he had no right to interfere. The Officer truly believed in this process, and the Traveler would have done the same in his place.

The Soldier and the Condemned Man did not understand at first; they did not even see what was happening. The prisoner was extremely happy to get the handkerchiefs back, but he did not enjoy them for very long. The Soldier unexpectedly snatched them away and tucked them into his belt. The Condemned Man tried to take them back, but the Soldier was too wary. Their fighting was only for play, but when they saw the naked Officer – they started paying attention.

The Condemned Man seemed especially struck by this transformation; what happened to him was now happening to the Officer, and this time, the procedure would not be stopped. He believed the Traveler probably gave the order. Though he had not suffered to the end of it himself, he would be completely avenged; a wide, silent laugh appeared on his face and remained there.

The Officer turned towards the machine, and handled it in a way that showed his mastery of the mechanics. He only had to bring his hand near the Harrow for it to rise and sink several times while making room for him. He only had to grasp the edges of the Bed, and it began to quiver. The stump of felt moved up to his mouth; it was obvious he did not want to accept it, but he only hesitated a moment before submitting.

Everything was ready, except for the straps; they hung down on the sides, but they were clearly unnecessary. When the Condemned Man saw this, he thought the execution would be incomplete without them and waved to the Soldier for help. The Officer had been preparing to kick the crank designed to start the process, but when he saw the two men coming – he let himself be strapped in. Neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man could find the crank, and the Traveler was determined not to touch it, but they were not needed. The straps were hardly attached when the machine started. The Bed quivered, the needles danced on the Officer’s skin, and the Harrow swung. The Traveler had been staring for some time before he remembered one of the Inscriber’s wheels was supposed to squeak, yet all was quiet.

Because of its silence, the machine did not attract much attention. The Traveler looked at the Soldier and the Condemned Man – who seemed interested by everything. Occasionally, he bent down or stretched up – pointing at something to show the Soldier, but the Traveler was embarrassed. He was determined to stay until the end, but he could no longer endure the two men’s presence.

“Go home,” he said. The Soldier might have been ready to obey, but the Condemned Man took the order as a punishment. He folded his hands, begging to stay, and even went to his knees when the Traveler still refused.

The Traveler wanted to chase them away. Then, he heard a noise from the Inscriber and looked up, wondering if a wheel was out of alignment, but no, it was something else. The Inscriber’s lid was lifting up slowly, then it fell completely open. A cog-wheel’s teeth were exposed, and soon, the entire wheel appeared. It was as if some huge force were squishing the Inscriber. The wheel rolled all the way to the edge and fell into the sand with several more close behind.

Just when you thought the machine must be empty – a new cluster of parts would fall into the sand. With all this going on, the Condemned Man forgot the Traveler’s order; the gears utterly delighted him. He wanted to grab one and was urging the Soldier to help, but he kept pulling his hand back when a new gear startled him.

The Traveler, however, was very upset. Obviously, the machine was breaking. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt responsible for the Officer now that he could not look after himself, but while the falling gears held his attention, he failed to notice the rest of the device. Once the last gear fell, he bent over the machine and received an even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing – only stabbing – and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering into the needles. The Traveler wanted to stop the whole thing. This was not the torture the Officer wanted; it was murder – pure and simple. He stretched out his hands, but the Harrow was already moving up and to the side with the skewered body, which it should only do in the twelfth hour.

Blood flowed out in hundreds of streams, but not mixed with water; the water tubes had also failed to work. Then, one last thing went wrong; the body would not come loose from the needles. Blood streamed out, but the corpse hung over the pit without falling. The Harrow wanted to move back to its original position, but, unable to free itself of its load, it remained over the hole.

“Help,” the Traveler yelled. He wanted to push against the feet and have the others grab the head so the body could be taken off slowly, but the two men were hesitant. The Condemned Man turned away, and the Traveler had to drag him over by force. Almost against his will, he looked at the corpse’s face. It was still the same; there was no sign of the promised transformation. What all those before had found in the machine, the Officer had not. His lips were pressed together firmly, his eyes were open, and his gaze was calm. The tip of a large, iron needle had gone through his forehead.


As the Traveler, Soldier, and Condemned Man came to the first houses in the colony, the Soldier pointed to one and said, “That’s the tea house.”

On the ground floor was a deep, cave-like room with smoke-covered walls. The side facing the street was open along its full width, but there was little difference between the tea house and the rest of the houses. Except for the Commandant’s palace, they were all very old and worn. The Traveler was surprised by its historical appearance. He went closer – still followed by his companions – walking between the empty tables in front of the tea house, and he took a breath of the cool, stuffy air coming from inside.

“The old man is buried here; the chaplain denied him a place in the cemetery. For a long time, people couldn’t decide where to bury him. Of course, the Officer explained none of that to you; he was the most ashamed of it. A few times, he even tried to dig the old man up, but he was always chased off.” The Soldier said.

“Where is the grave?” The Traveler asked, disbelieving.

Instantly, the Soldier and the Condemned Man ran in front of him and pointed to the grave. They led him to the back wall where guests were sitting at a few tables. They were probably dock workers – strong men with short, shiny, black beards; none of them wore coats, and their shirts were torn. They were poor, oppressed people. A few got up to lean against the wall, watching the Traveler as he came closer, and a whisper went around the room. “It’s a foreigner. He wants to look at the grave.”

They pushed one of the tables aside, and beneath it was a real grave marker. It was a simple stone placed low enough for it to remain hidden under a table. It bore an inscription with very small letters; the Traveler had to kneel to see it clearly. It read, “Here rests the Old Commandant. His followers, who are now not permitted to have a name, buried him in this grave and erected this stone. There is a prophecy that says the Commandant will one day rise and lead his followers to reclaim the colony. Have faith and wait!

When the Traveler read it and stood, he saw the men around him were smiling as if they had read along, found it ridiculous, and wanted him to share their opinion. The Traveler acted as if he did not notice, gave them a few coins, and waited for the table to be pushed back into place before leaving for the harbor.

In the tea house, the Soldier and the Condemned Man became preoccupied with friends but hurried away. The Traveler found himself in the middle of the long staircase leading to the boats when he saw them coming, and he knew they wanted to go with him. While he haggled with a sailor at the bottom of the stairs, the two men were racing down the steps in silence – not daring to cry out. The boat was already casting off when they reached the bottom. They could have jumped in, but the Traveler picked up a heavy, knotted rope and threatened them with it.

Horror Fiction

The Backroads

The Dark Somnium has done another amazing job on this narration - please check it out for a phenomenal experience! 

Do you want to hear it in narrated in a female voice? Got you covered there, too. Lady Spookaria did a wonderful narration!


The CreepyPasta

Thursday

Today is Thursday, June 16, 2022, and I don’t know where I am. I’m parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and I’m not even sure this is still Louisiana. I haven’t had a bar of service all day, I’ve been driving for nine hours, and the only thing I want to do is sleep, but I’m afraid to close my eyes. Staring at this screen is only making it worse, but I need the distraction; none of this makes sense.

My house is a thirty minute drive to town if you take the highway, but in any other direction – you can ride the backroads for hours; most aren’t even on the map. When I was younger, Mom would take me riding on summer evenings, and we always found new routes to explore. That’s also how I learned to drive, and after getting my license, I started going more often. Sometimes, I would bring friends, but for the most part it’s something I enjoy doing alone – especially after Mom died; she was killed by a drunk driver six years ago.

I’ve never seen a house or more than a handful of other vehicles out here; it’s perfect for camping. I’ve stayed overnight more times than I can count and always felt perfectly safe; it’s almost like being the only person in the world. The only difference with this trip was that damn tunnel.

Life has been hard lately, and only having one job on the books doesn’t help. There was nothing on this wedding’s menu that could be cooked the day before, so, instead of doing anything productive – I convinced myself to go for a drive… which was clearly a mistake.

There’s a beautiful, crystal-clear pond that became my go-to place for quick trips or days I brought someone along. It’s not very far, and I know every road in between… or thought I did…

Leaving the pond, there should only be two ways to go – back home or further into nowhere – but then I saw a third option! While turning the truck around, I found myself staring at a paved road hidden behind the tree-line. While it’s understandable to miss when driving past – I’ve been to that pond a thousand times and always turn around in the same place; this shouldn’t have been my first time seeing it, but I was too excited to think more of it.

A closer look revealed only shrubs and weeds blocking the way, so I decided to drive straight through. A new path so close to home was too big of a deal to pass up; of course, that feels incredibly ignorant to say now

I got through the brush easily, and after a mile it cleared up again, but six miles after that – I knew it was time to turn back. That’s when I finally saw the end of the road. Ahead was an overpass with what looked like old train tracks, and what I thought was a dead-end was actually a tunnel running beneath it.

At first, it looked too small to drive through. I only wanted to get my headlights close enough to see inside, but then the road did keep going; I could see daylight at the other end. The tunnel itself was damp, and the air smelled musty, but it was completely empty. When I came out of the other side, the road stretched ahead for miles with occasional turns-off’s on both sides.

It should have been impossible to get lost by going straight; I should have been able to turn around at any point and drive directly back to the pond. I still don’t understand why that isn’t the case…

I had hoped to find a landmark to use on the next visit, but after an hour of nothing but random cut-offs – I realized how late it was and finally turned back. Everything looked exactly the same as far as I could tell; I have no clue where I went wrong, but an hour and a half later I was still cruising with no sign of that tunnel. If anything, I was driving even faster than before; it doesn’t make any damn sense! I drove for another thirty minutes before stopping completely. I had to pee and needed time to think without wondering if I was headed even further away from home.

If I had made even a single turn – I could believe being lost, but the idea of turning back after driving in a straight line felt… unnatural. It would mean hours of retracing my steps only to turn around again when that didn’t work. How many hours would be wasted covering the same ground? But then, there’s no choice because something is obviously wrong! It’s maddening!

I’m still stuck in that hellish thought-loop, but I couldn’t just stay on the side of the road. In the end, I turned around once again – this time going much, much slower. The only way I could imagine getting lost was if the road had split somewhere when I wasn’t paying attention.

I came to a rolling stop at every turn-off and even got out a few times, but there was absolutely no chance I merged off any of them. By the time I made it back to my original stopping point – the sun was starting to set, and my brain fed me whatever I needed to hear to avoid turning back a third time. I figured Mom and I had only been able to spend so much time on the backroads because we took the small, curvy trails that never really led anywhere; now, I was traveling in a straight line – it had to lead somewhere.

All I needed to do was make it to the next town – or maybe not even that far if I could find a spot with cell service – but now it’s almost midnight, and I stopped because the road suddenly ended… or, at least the pavement did. There’s nothing but a long, dusty trail left, and there’s no chance of finding a signal that way; I need to wait for morning and check out some of the cut-offs. Nothing about this—


Friday

I wonder if I’ve been reported as missing… I’m sure I have; how could I not be? Surely, the backroads are the first place they’ll look, right? I’m sure it is… Sweet fire-shits, I thought I was going to die last night.

I was lying across the backseat, writing, when I heard something moving around in the forest. I assumed it was an animal until it broke through the tree-line, and the unmistakable sound of a shoes scraping against concrete made me drop the phone.

There was a half-second of euphoric relief as I imagined myself being rescued by a kindly, old farmer before my body went numb with dread. People volunteering with search parties didn’t wander through the woods alone at night – without flashlights! This person hadn’t driven there, either; I would have heard an engine.

I didn’t know what the hell to do; my first instinct was to jump in the driver’s seat and run for it, but then I imagined bullets flying through the windows… It seemed reasonable to think a person skulking through a dark forest would be armed. I wanted my pistol from the glove compartment more than anything, but my arms refused to obey. The footsteps were moving slowly like someone was checking out my truck, and when they turned to walk along the passenger side – my body finally moved.

Without the phone’s light it was too dark to see anything, but as I slowly inched forward – the footsteps paused next to the front, passenger door, and my heart stopped along with them. I hesitated with my hand on the glove compartment’s handle wondering if the light would come on when I realized something that shot chills down my spine. I hadn’t locked the doors after using the bathroom…

Instead of fumbling for the controls, I felt for the knob and gently pushed it down. At the same instant, the dull thud of a locked handle being pulled broke the night’s silence like a gunshot, and there was no further caution in my movements. I ripped open the glove compartment, grabbed my gun and racked one into the chamber as the sound of several footsteps fled back into the forest.

There had been nothing to indicate multiple people were outside, but there was no mistaking it, now; feet were skidding across the pavement as others were already tearing through the thick brush, and I threw myself into the driver’s seat. The headlights came on just in time to reveal the last two figures vanished into the darkness.

I was in tears with relief over the fact I had turned around before parking, and it wasn’t because of forethought but fear; just looking at that long, dirt road made my stomach clench. As for the group of crazies… I don’t know, it might be time to entertain the possibility that I’m the one who’s crazy…

I only caught a quick glimpse as I sped away, but those people resembled terminal cancer patients with animalistic movements. They were sickly thin and hunched over like gorillas but moved with deceptive speed. Thanks to the adrenaline, I was wide-awake and traveling faster than I should have been, but I wanted as much distance between myself and those… people… as possible.

After driving a few miles, my brain slowly began formulating coherent thoughts again. I think it’s safe to say my new friends don’t have motorized transportation, but I drove for almost an hour before stopping. If I didn’t close my eyes, I was going to fall asleep at the wheel, and – if I wreck – I’m dead. There were three hours before dawn, so I set an alarm, passed out, and was somehow still alive when it sounded.

I woke to a foggy morning, and the long road ahead served as a bleak reminder of my situation. Mother Nature called, and I was starving, but luckily there were a few basic supplies in the truck. After eating two power bars, I somehow managed to stick with water instead of downing the bottle of whiskey – and thank goodness, or I wouldn’t have it now!

The shit I’ve seen today is enough to make that gun look mighty appetizing. All goddamn day I kept on driving straight down that same road – the way I should have been going in the first place. I didn’t care if it took twelve hours to find the next town – I wasn’t going to start turning down a bunch of random roads that could take me in circles.

By 9:00, I had seen nothing but trees and grassy clearings. My stomach was growling louder than my music, and I was barely containing my anger when a familiar beeping sent me soaring over the edge. When I finally regained a modicum of control – my throat was raw and my face looked as red as it felt; the gaslight was on, and the possibility of dying out here became very real, very fast.

When I came around the next curve, I thought I was hallucinating. A small gas station suddenly appeared in the distance, but there was no way I had driven farther than yesterday, and I definitely hadn’t passed it without noticing. As I came closer, my heart sank when I realized it was abandoned. There were no other cars, lights, or signs – just old pumps and a dark store.

I parked anyway – just to think for a minute – and continued to be surprised. The building looked like it hadn’t been touched in twenty years, yet the pumps looked as if they were installed last week. I got out to stretch my legs, and the one next to me turned on – including its tv!

It shouldn’t have been possible, but that hardly matters in this place. Whether I was hallucinating or not, I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. Even more astonishing than the fact it worked was the woman on tv. She was giving a local news and weather report like what you would see at a normal gas station.

“It’s a beautiful, sunny day on the Paved Backroads! The last of the morning’s fog will be clearing up shortly, and we’ll have a high of 98 this afternoon. Those transitioning to Dirt Roads should show due caution as we’ve had significant rise in Stranded sightings. Thank you for choosing Last Stop Station; until next time – safe travels!”

I didn’t understand half of what she said, and there was plenty more I can’t remember. If I find another one, I’m going to have my phone ready to record; thank goodness I have a car charger or I wouldn’t even have that by now.

After refueling I decided to take a look at the store; I was completely out of food and on my last bottle of water. I would have taken anything that wasn’t poisonous, but I was shocked to find water, soups, and canned fruit – simply there for the taking. While those were fully stocked – there were no snack foods, soft drinks, or random accessories. If the can’s sell-by dates weren’t so recent, I would think that stuff had sat there for years.

There was nowhere to cook the soup, no phone and no cash register, either. Everything about that store was just… off, but as strange as it was – I didn’t want to leave; it was nice to finally stretch my legs and to be out of the truck longer than a bathroom break. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to waste time hanging out in an abandoned gas station. In the end, I compromised by staying long enough to eat. I tried not to pin my hopes on someone else stopping by, but I found myself watching the road more than I care to admit.

My original idea was to find a makeshift pot and build a fire, but then I remembered some of my camping gear was still in the truck! With my hot-plate – the only hard part was opening the cans with a dull pocket knife.

As expected, no one came, but I couldn’t waste any more time there. At that point, I expected to spend the rest of the day on the road and convinced myself to take some supplies; before I knew it, I’d robbed the place blind, and I hope the police come looking! They won’t, but I can dream.

I felt better with a full meal on my stomach and a truck full of free supplies, but it’s hard to keep a cool head when you’re coming up on your second night of being lost in the middle of nowhere. I eventually drove straight into the sunset until once again being forced into a sudden stop when the pavement ended. The way forward was yet another long, dusty trail, and this one inspired the same cold dread as the last.

Logic told me the weird, pale people couldn’t be way out there, too, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I turned back and drove for another hour before stopping for the night. After eating a can of peaches, I started writing, and now, I can’t stop thinking about that lady on that little tv. She was talking about these roads like they were their own town or something, and I want to hear that part about being stranded again; maybe I’m not the only one who’s had this happen.

Either way, I’ve had enough for one day; I need more than a few hours of sleep. Staying on this road isn’t an option anymore; tomorrow, I’ll need to choose one of the cut-offs.


Saturday

There’s no question – I’m not in Louisiana anymore; I’m not even in the real world. I met someone this afternoon. I don’t think he’s real; he’s either a hallucination or a demon – I’m just not sure which. I had essentially chosen a cut-off at random when I couldn’t find the gas station again, and twenty miles later there was a man walking along the shoulder.

I was almost too afraid to stop, but he got on his knees in the middle of the road – begging. In the end, I needed someone to talk to more than I cared about the possibility of being murdered. He claims to know a little about what’s going on here, and though his story is completely unbelievable – I can’t come up with an alternative.

He doesn’t know how or why things are the way they are, but he got here by driving through a tunnel just like I did, except he was in Pennsylvania. If he hadn’t told his story first, I wouldn’t have believed him; it sounds too much like my own. The only difference is what happened after he ran out of gas. Since he started a quarter tank – he had no idea anything was wrong yet.

A service station appeared around the next curve – exactly as it had for me – and based on his description it sounds like the same one. The pump’s tv came on, and after a brief weather report, there was another confusing public service announcement.

“…And don’t forget to stock up for tomorrow. As usual, our Stations will be closed for Sunday – no exceptions. Please ensure all persons are cleared from the premises by no later than 11:59PM, and thank you for choosing Last Stop Station; until next time – safe travels!”

After filling his tank, he went inside to find a nearly empty store and only then realized there were no other cars or people in sight. Since the pump worked, he reasoned the store must be open, and worried something may have happened to the clerk. Rob went outside to search for a signal, and when he was unsuccessful – he noticed the store was at the bottom of a steep rise.

There was no trail, but he was able to make it up fairly easily; unfortunately, he still couldn’t get reception. Determined to drive back to town, he made his way down the slope only to find the store and his car gone! He swears he walked in a straight line and found the road easily, but it was empty. If it weren’t for my own experiences these last few days – I couldn’t have believed it, but now I definitely do… Assuming Rob is actually real, of course.

He had no choice but to start walking, and he headed in the direction he believed would take him to town. Several hours later, he still hadn’t seen another car or store, and the sun was beginning to set. That’s when he ran into Bonnie and Clyde… at least, that’s what they called themselves. They were stopped at their own gas station, and Rob ran straight inside to tell his story, but the couple didn’t want to hear it.

Clyde held Rob at gunpoint while Bonnie loaded their van; the couple wouldn’t give him a ride, but the man was willing to answer a few questions while he waited. Based on what this guy told Rob, there are three stages to the Backroads – each more dangerous than the last. The Paved Streets are the outskirts and make up Stage 1. The Dirt Roads are Stage 2 and lead deeper into the maze – while Stage 3 is tire tracks in the grass, and the heart of the maze. The entrance can be found almost anywhere in the world if you venture deep enough into nowhere, but the exit can only be found in Stage 3.

Gas Stations only appear when a vehicle is low on fuel, and they disappear the moment you leave. Had Rob climbed the hill before filling his tank – he would still have a car. Thank goodness I have the camping gear, or I would have made the same mistake when trying to heat my soup.

The only exception to this rule is Sunday; if you run out of fuel while the store is closed – you’ll have to sit there until it reopens. Anything that was inside when it disappeared will still be there except for people. We don’t know what happens to them, but Clyde said there used to be four people in their group. The other two decided to see where the place went when it disappeared, but when it came back – only their bags and clothes were left behind.

The stores supposedly have beer and junk food in Stage 2, and that alone has me interested. I finished my whisky last night, and I don’t think I can handle this place sober. I would already be on my way now if it wasn’t past midnight.

Compared to the last two stages, the Paved Streets are fairly safe until the transition to dirt; that’s where the Stranded like to lurk and what Rob was on his way to becoming before I found him. The ones who lose their vehicles can’t make gas stations appear and eventually turn to the forest for shelter; they hide deep in the dark woods during the day, and only come out at night. The lucky are able to join an existing group or form their own. They need enough members to ambush travelers, but not too many to feed. Those who are rejected get eaten, and those who try to survive alone – starve. Eventually, they begin to look like the ones I saw, and had I been asleep with my doors unlocked – I would have become their dinner.

As for Stage 2 itself, Rob only knows that something hunts the roads at night, and when he asked Clyde about the final Stage, the man went white as a sheet and refused to answer any more questions. As the couple got back into their vehicle, they apologized for their drastic behavior stating they simply couldn’t risk taking on a stranger. Rob is bitter about it, but I don’t blame them. If I hadn’t been alone and desperate, I would never have stopped.

From what it sounds like, people try to find the exit in Stage 3 and the ones who survive the failure resolve to a life on the Paved Streets. I’ve been thinking about it all evening, and I would rather die than live the rest of my life out here. The fact I don’t want to spend six days a week inside a gas station upset Rob pretty bad. We argued for three solid hours until I pretended to agree with him. He repeated his same argument with slightly different wording like I was simply too stupid to understand; I was sick of it, but more importantly, I was starting to suspect Rob would crack me over the head and steal the truck if he didn’t get his way.

Since the Stations will be closed tomorrow, I made sure to run out of gas this evening. I told Rob three times to let me get my phone ready before he got out, but the bastard didn’t listen. Before I could put the truck into park, he jumped out and rushed into the store. I heard the tv start the second his door was open, but he was completely oblivious. I panicked and missed whatever it was saying while fumbling with my phone. The only part I got recorded was the, “…until next time, safe travels” bullshit.

I’m grateful for the information Rob has shared, but I’ve decided to go ahead alone. I wish I would have thought to leave him at the Station this evening, but I can’t waste another day waiting for them to reopen; I don’t feel safe sleeping while he’s around. Tomorrow morning, when he uses the bathroom, I’ll just… drive away… I don’t know what else to do.

For now, he’s either asleep in the backseat or really good at fake snoring. My instincts are screaming for me to stay awake, but I feel like someone poured salt into my eyes, and staring at this screen is only making them worse. I need to find another way to keep myself up.


Sunday

Rob is dead; I was right about that bastard. Have you ever noticed how crazy ideas sound less crazy in the dark? I kept imagining Rob in the backseat – awake and waiting for me to fall asleep; then, he would sit up, put his belt around my neck, and pull. It bothered me so much, I decided to retrieve my gun. I kept it beneath my leg until dawn and tucked it into my waistband when it was finally time for breakfast.

Rob snored the entire night; as I entered the forest to relieve myself, I was feeling fairly foolish. ‘No shit the man is afraid of going deeper into this hellhole! If I’m this terrified – how must he feel after what he’s been through? I’m the monster – walking around with a gun and planning to leave a man for dead just because he disagreed with me!’

I was fully convinced to abandon my cruel plan until I returned to see Rob in the driver’s seat. The passenger window was down so I had a perfect view of him from the tree-line; he was frantically searching for the keys which were tucked securely into my pocket. I didn’t know what he might do if confronted, so I made plenty of noise coming through the last of the brush.

When I made it to the truck, he was opening a can of fruit like he hadn’t just been trying to leave me behind. I made soup, but avoided taking anything vital out of the truck. I planned to leave him some food and water, but I was ready to take off as soon as he stepped away… Only, he didn’t go; we were both waiting for the other to let down their guard, but Rob lost patience.

He revealed the crowbar he’d stashed nearby and calmly explained I would be staying behind since, “I’m determined to kill myself anyway.” My mind went blank; it’s one thing to imagine it, but it’s nothing like reality. I was calm and steady as I told him to take the truck; I even threw the keys to him. There was no thought behind it – only instinct. When he turned to walk away, I drew my weapon and fired without warning. The first shot went into the center of his back, and he made a horrible sound as he fell.

I hurried closer but hesitated before making the final shot. Part of me wanted him to fully understand what happened. When he began coughing out blood, I ended his suffering with one more to the head. At least he won’t become one of the Stranded now…

I thought it would feel different – like it would change me – but this place had already done that. I don’t care that Rob is dead; I only did what was necessary to survive. The funny thing is – he was right. We should have stayed on the nice, Paved Streets where it was safe; there’s much worse things out here than death.

After leaving Rob’s corpse behind, it took five hours to find the next Dirt Road. It was a long, miserable day, but – just to be safe – I turned back to waste some gas. My heart was set on getting into a Station with beer at midnight.

I didn’t know what kind of trouble I was going into, and honestly, I didn’t care. At 12:03, I drove onto the Dirt Road, and my high beams revealed a horde of Stranded behind the tree-line; I didn’t slow down, and they didn’t come out. They only want easy targets. Unfortunately, I miscalculated how quickly the gas light would turn on.

Less than twenty minutes later, I was still going when a loud roar rattled my windows followed by the shrill cry of captured prey. Reality began to set in as I realized how foolish my plan had been. Moments later, a low rumble of thunder sounded, and only when it was joined by the violent cracks of breaking limbs did I understand it wasn’t thunder after all. Whatever hunts these roads at night found me.

I heard it break through the tree-line but couldn’t force myself to look in the mirror; I knew it would be game over if I did. The roads are much smaller in Stage 2, meaning I had to drive slower. My full focus was on navigating the curvy roads as quickly as possible without losing control; I didn’t even hear the low fuel light, but when that bright, beautiful gas station appeared around the next bend – I almost crashed into the pump.

Parking as close to the door as possible, I threw myself from the truck without even turning off the engine. I was inside and under the counter for a solid ten minutes before realizing everything had gone quiet. Very carefully, I crawled to a window and peered outside. It looked like several Stranded had been fused together to form this thing. Only its head was visible in the Station lights; the rest was thankfully concealed in a sea of darkness. Its shape was far smaller than expected after hearing the sounds it made, but its face was the most grotesque thing I’ve ever seen; its mouth was lost beneath masses of pasty, white skin that looked like pure scar tissue, and I can’t get the look of its single, glassy eye out of my mind. There was only a gaping, black hole left where the other used to be. Apparently the Stations work as safe zones; I knew it saw me, but it didn’t come any closer.

After vomiting, I worked up the courage to test my theory and stepped outside to turn off the truck; the figure still didn’t move. That made me feel safe enough to finally look around the store. I helped myself to a six-pack of Coors and Cheetos and tore through the junk food like a death-row inmate; I’m not ashamed to admit I’m fairly drunk.

I wonder if it’s possible to fill up with just enough gas to be on empty before nightfall… That may be my only chance to make it to Stage 3; there’s no way I could have outran that thing all night. Hell, that’s a brilliant idea! If it works – I could use that strategy the whole way home; it would give me an entire week to search before the store is closed again! Holy shit! I finally see a light at the end of this miserable tunnel; I’m going to get a very good night’s sleep and hit the road at first light!


Next Saturday

I guess I dropped the ball on keeping a record of my time in the Backroads, but… too bad. No one will ever see this anyway, and this has been the worst week of my life. The things I’ve had to do to survive are unspeakable; I only opened this to say I’m quitting. If someone finds this one day, great; if not, I don’t really care.

My plan to only fill half the tank worked great, but it took three days to find a grass trail; once I did – I never dreamed I would survive long enough to find another store, but now that I have – I’m not leaving; the creatures in this stage don’t give a damn if it’s night or day – they’re hungry. I would rather face the devil himself than walk out that door again; there are things out here that make the one-eyed monster look like a kitten – I’m done!

Today is Saturday, and it’s almost midnight; I’m going to hit upload even though I know it won’t work, but – just in case – my name is was Jesse Palmer. Fuck the Backroads.


Part 2

Classics Translated

The Body-Snatcher

Robert Louis Stephenson, first published 1884; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same. 

Every night, the undertaker, the landlord, Fettes, and myself went to the George Tavern in Debenham. Sometimes, more came, but – rain or snow – the four of us would be in our usual arm-chairs. Fettes was an old Scotsman; he was educated and owned a fair amount of property since he did not spend money on many things. He came to Debenham years ago when he was still young and was eventually accepted as a local. He developed a reputation for being an alcoholic and was well-known for spending his time at the George instead of church. Every evening, he would drink five glasses of rum and loudly rant vague, radical opinions while slapping the table for emphasis. The greatest portion of his visits were spent drunk and depressed with a glass in his right hand. We called him the Doctor because he was supposed to have some medical knowledge and had been known to set a fracture or reduce a dislocation in a pinch, but beyond these minor details, we did not know anything about his character or background.

On this dark, winter night it was past 9:00 when the landlord arrived. There was a sick man in the tavern – a respected business owner suddenly collapsed from a stroke on his way to Parliament, and the man’s even more respected London doctor came as soon as he received the telegraph. It was the first time such a thing happened in Debenham; the new railway had only just opened, and we were all moved by the event.

“He’s here.” the landlord said after filling and lighting his pipe.

“He who?” I asked. “It’s not the doctor, is it?”

“It is.” Our host replied.

“What’s his name?”

“Doctor Macfarlane.” The landlord said.

Fettes was far past his third drink and fairly intoxicated. He was staring around dumbly and nodding off until hearing Macfarlane’s name. He repeated it to himself softly, and then said it aloud with much more emotion.

“Yes, that’s his name – Doctor Wolfe Macfarlane.” The landlord said.

Fettes instantly sobered and became very serious. His eyes widened, and his words were loud and clear. We were all stunned by the sudden change; it was like seeing a man rise from the grave.

“My apologies,” he said. “I’m afraid I have not been paying attention to your conversation. Who is Wolfe Macfarlane?”

Then, after the landlord answered him, he said, “it cannot be – it can’t… but I would like to see him face-to-face.”

The undertaker gasped. “Do you know him?”

“I hope not!” Fettes replied. “But he has a strange name; it’s too fancy. Tell me, landlord, is he old?”

“Well, he’s not a young man, that’s for sure; his hair is white, but he looks younger than you.” Our host answered.

“He is actually three years older, but,” Fettes slapped the table, “rum and sin are what aged my face. Perhaps Macfarlane has an easy-going conscience and good digestion. Conscience! Listen to me – talking like I’m a good, decent Christian! But no, I’m not; I never spoke poorly of him, though Voltaire might have if he’d been in my shoes.”

“I assume you do not share the landlord’s good opinion of the doctor.” I remarked after a somewhat awful pause.

Fettes paid no attention to me.

“Yes,” he said, suddenly, “I must see him face-to-face.”

After another pause, a door on the first floor was slammed and footsteps could be heard coming up the stairs. “That’s the doctor; you can catch him if you hurry!” The landlord exclaimed.

The door to the old George Inn was only two steps away from the tavern. The wide, oak staircase almost ended in the street; there was room for a Turkish rug between the threshold and last step but nothing more. This small space was lit up brilliantly by the light on the stairway, the porch-lamp, and the warm radiance of the bar-room window; the George advertised itself brightly to passers-by in the cold street. We trailed slightly behind and watched Fettes meet Macfarlane face-to-face. The doctor was alert and vigorous; his white hair set off his pale features, and he was richly dressed in fine fabrics. He wore a gold, jewel-covered pocket-watch and a broad, lilac-speckled tie but carried his fur coat over his arm. His appearance left no doubt of his social status, and it was surprising to see our bald, dirty, pimpled bar-fly confront him at the bottom of the stairs.

“Macfarlane!” He said somewhat loudly.

The great doctor stopped short of the fourth step; he seemed surprised – if not slightly insulted – to be addressed in such a way.

“Toddy Macfarlane!” Fettes repeated.

The London doctor almost staggered. He stared at the dirty man for a brief second – shot a frightened glance behind him – and then whispered, “Fettes! It’s You!”

“Aye, it’s me! Did you think I was dead, too? It’s not so easy to forget our history.” Fettes said.

“Hush, hush!” The doctor exclaimed. “This is so unexpected; you look terrible – I hardly recognized you at first! I am overjoyed to see you, but we must say goodbye for now; my carriage is waiting, and I cannot be late for the train. Give me your address, and I will get in touch soon; we must do something for you, Fettes. I fear you are in a bad way, but we’ll figure it out like the good old days.

“Money!” Fettes cried. “Money from you?! The money I got from you is lying in the rain where I left it!”

Dr. Macfarlane had felt superior and confident, but this adamant refusal confused him all over again. A horrible, ugly look flashed across his face. “My dear man,” he said, “do as you please; it was not my intention to offend you. I will leave you my address, however—”

“I don’t want it – I don’t want to know where you live.” Fettes interrupted. “I heard your name and feared it might be you; I wanted to know if there was a God after all, and now, I’m sure there isn’t. Begone!” He remained standing between the stairs and doorway – forcing the doctor to walk around him.

Macfarlane hesitated at the thought of being humiliated, but there was a dangerous glimmer in his eyes. He noticed the carriage driver was watching the unusual scene from the street, and then he caught a glimpse of our little group huddled by the bar. The presence of so many witnesses convinced him to flee; he tried to squeeze by Fettes – brushing against the wall as he darted towards the door like a snake – but the Scotsman grabbed his arm. “Have you seen it again?” Even though he whispered, his words were painfully clear.

The rich, London doctor cried out sharply as he pulled away and ran out with his hands covering his head. Before any of us thought to make a move – the carriage was already rattling toward the station. The episode was over like a dream, but it had left proof of its existence. Later, a servant found Wolfe’s fine, gold glasses broken on the doorstep, and that very night – we all stood by the window with a sober Fettes looking pale and determined.

“God save us, Mr. Fettes! What in the world is going on? You have been saying strange things.” The landlord was the first to regain his senses.

Fettes turned to look us each in the face. “See if you can hold your tongues. Macfarlane is not a safe man to cross; those who did have already come to regret it.” Then he said goodnight and left into the black night without even finishing his third drink.

The three of us returned to our usual places by the big, red fire and four, clear candles. As we discussed what happened, our initial shock soon changed into curiosity. We stayed in the old George later than ever, and before leaving, each man had his own theory he was determined to prove. Suddenly, our worlds revolved around digging through our condemned friend’s past in order to discover his secret. It is nothing to brag about, but my theory was better than the others; I am probably the only man alive who could tell you this unnatural chain of events.


In his younger days, Fettes studied medicine in Edinburgh and was a quick learner. He was always polite and courteous in the presence of his teachers, and they quickly recognized him as an intelligent student who listened closely. As strange as it sounded when first hearing it – he was quite popular and pleased with his appearance in those days. At that time, there was an anatomy professor whom I will refer to by the letter K since his name is well known. He skulked through Edinburgh’s streets in disguise while the mob from that serial killer’s execution screamed for his partner’s blood; he was partly known for his own professional career, and partly because of a rival college professor. The students used his name as a swear, and many believed Fettes was on the road to success when he became one of the man’s favorites. Mr. K enjoyed a social lifestyle as an accomplished teacher; he liked a sly illusion as much as careful preparation, and Fettes deserved recognition in both regards – by his second year, he was a semi-regular teacher’s assistant.

Being in charge of the theater and lecture-hall were his main duties; he was responsible for making sure they were clean, keeping the other students in line, and handling the corpses they received. This last part was a very delicate ordeal. Mr. K housed him in the same building as the dissecting-rooms; after a night of turbulent pleasures – while his hands still shook and his sight was still blurry – he would crawl out of bed in the black hours before dawn to deal with the dirty, desperate thugs who supplied the bodies. He would open the door for the men who are now infamous throughout the land and help them with their tragic burdens; he paid their sordid prices, and stayed with the dead after they were gone. Then, he would sleep for another couple of hours to refresh himself for the next day.

The young man was completely unaware of those outside his small world. He was incapable of caring about another’s fate or misfortune, and he constantly fell victim to his own low ambitions. Though he was often cold and selfish – he had just enough self-control to stop himself from becoming a drunk or getting into legal trouble. Most of that motivation stemmed from how highly he valued the opinion of his professor and classmates; he had no desire to fail and enjoyed success with his studies. Everyday, he performed magnificently for Mr. K and rewarded himself with nights of loud parties.

The shortage of bodies was as troubling to him as it was to his teacher. The large class kept running out, and it was necessary to replace them no matter how unpleasant or dangerous the consequences were. Mr. K’s policy was to never ask questions; he told his assistants it was for the sake of their consciences. He used to say, “they bring the bodies, and we pay the price.” The professor did not allow himself to understand they were murder victims; he would have been horrified if those actual words were ever spoken aloud, but the casual way he discussed such a dark matter was offensive in itself.

Fettes often noticed the bodies were unusually fresh, and the thugs delivering them always wore ugly, threatening looks. He began putting things together in his mind but did not want to believe it. He only had three duties – taking what was brought, paying the price, and averting his eyes from any crime evidence.

One November morning, his silence was put to the test. He had been up all night with a throbbing toothache – pacing his room like a caged animal or throwing fits on his bed. Not long after he finally fell into an uneasy slumber, he was forced to receive a new delivery. The moon was bright, the wind was bitter cold, and the town still slept, but the day would soon begin. The thugs arrived later than usual, and they seemed more eager to leave than ever. Fettes led them upstairs, and their grumbling, Irish voices sounded like a dream; he leaned against the wall, dozing, as they removed the body from its sack. He had to shake himself awake to find the men’s money, and that was when he saw the dead face. With a slight gasp, he took two steps closer and raised his candle.

“God Almighty! That’s Jane Galbraith!” He cried.

The men said nothing, but they moved closer to the door.

I’m telling you, I know her,” he continued. “She was alive and healthy yesterday. It’s impossible for her to be dead; you should have gotten this body fairly.”

“Sir, you’re completely mistaken.” One of the men said – but the other glared at Fettes menacingly, and demanded the money immediately.

It was impossible to misunderstand the threat or exaggerate the danger. The young man’s heart failed him; he stuttered some excuses, counted out their pay, and watched his hateful visitors leave. As soon as they were gone, he hurried back to confirm his doubts, and there were a dozen unmistakable features he could use to identify the girl; they had been joking together only the day before, and now she had wounds that were clear signs of violence. He panicked and ran to his room where he seriously considered the weight of Mr. K’s instructions and the danger to himself; in the end, he was still sorely confused and decided to wait for advice from the older class assistant.

This was a young doctor, Wolfe Macfarlane; he was clever and dishonest – all of the reckless students favored him. He had traveled to study abroad, and his manners were agreeable but a little forward. He was a master on the stage and equally skilled with ice-skates or golf-clubs; his fine clothes were bold, and he rode a strong trotting-horse to complete his glorious appearance. The positions he and Fettes held required them to work closely together, and they became friends as a result. When bodies were scarce, they would drive Macfarlane’s wagon to a country cemetery where they could desecrate some lonely graves and deliver their prize to the dissecting-room before dawn.

On that particular morning, Macfarlane arrived earlier than usual; Fettes met him on the stairs, told him the story, and showed him the previous night’s delivery.

Macfarlane examined the marks on her body. “Yes,” he said with a nod; “it looks fishy.”

“Well, what should I do?” Fettes asked.

“Do? Do you want to do anything? I would think the less that’s said, the better.”

“Someone else might recognize her,” Fettes objected. “Everyone knows who she is.”

“Let’s hope not,” Macfarlane said. “If anybody does – you’ll simply say you didn’t, and that will be the end of it. This has been going on too long. If you say something now, you’ll get K into horrible trouble, and the two of us will be in the same boat. How would any of us look? What would we say for ourselves? We know one thing for certain – that all of these bodies have been murdered.”

“Macfarlane!” Fettes cried.

“Come on! You’ve surely suspected it yourself!” Macfarlane sneered.

“Suspecting is one thing—”

“—And proof is another. Yes, I know; and I’m as sorry as you are about this,” Macfarlane said, tapping the body with his cane. “The best thing for me is not to recognize it, and I don’t.” He added coolly. “You can, if you want; I won’t tell you not to. I think most well-traveled men would make the same decision, and I believe that is what K would expect from us. Why do you think he chose us for his assistants? It’s because he didn’t want old wives.”

His tone was effective, and Fettes agreed to do as Macfarlane said. The unfortunate girl’s body was promptly dissected, and no one seemed to recognize her.


One afternoon after work, Fettes went to a popular tavern and saw Macfarlane sitting with a stranger. He was small, dark, and very pale with coal-black eyes. Though he looked like a refined, intelligent man – he proved to be vulgar and stupid. While his control over Macfarlane was remarkable; he barked orders like a Colonel, became enraged over minor inconveniences, and insulted the people serving him. This very offensive person was named Gray, and he took an immediate liking to Fettes; he bought him drinks and praised him with unusual compliments. If a tenth of what he claimed was true – he was a loathsome scoundrel, but the young Scotsman’s pride was tickled by the experienced man’s attention.

“I’m a pretty bad fellow myself, but Macfarlane is, too; I call him Toddy.” Gray remarked, “Toddy, order your friend another glass and shut the door. Toddy hates me. Oh yes, Toddy, you do!”

“Don’t call me that ridiculous name.” Macfarlane growled.

“Listen to him! Did you ever see boys play the knife game? He would like to do that over my entire body.” Gray said.

“We doctors have a better way than that,” Fettes said. “When we dislike a dead friend, we dissect him.”

Macfarlane looked up sharply, unimpressed with the joke.

The afternoon passed, and Gray invited Fettes to join them for dinner. He ordered a feast so delicious that the whole tavern took notice, and afterwards, he forced Wolfe to pay the bill. It was late when they left; Gray was very drunk, Macfarlane was sobered by his anger, and Fettes went home with his worries temporarily replaced by the various liquors singing in his head.

The next day Macfarlane did not come to class, and Fettes smiled – imagining that he was still suffering in Gray’s company. As soon as class ended, Fettes went searching for his companions but returned to his room and went to bed early when he could not find them.

At 4:00AM he woke to the well-known signal indicating a body delivery. At the door, he was shocked to find Macfarlane with one of those long, ghastly packages he knew so well. “What? Have you been out alone? How did you manage?” He cried.

Macfarlane roughly silenced him – insisting they get to work. When they got the body onto the table upstairs, Macfarlane started to leave but hesitated. “You better look at the face,” he said in a strained tone. “You just better…” He repeated as Fettes only stared at him in wonder.

“But where did you get it… and how?” Fettes cried.

“Look at the face,” was his only answer.

Fettes was filled with many strange doubts. He looked from the young doctor to the body, and back again until – at last – he did as he was told. He had almost expected to see this, yet the shock was cruel. To see the lively man he left at a warm tavern the night before now lying naked and rigid on that table bothered even his conscience. A Latin phrase meaning ‘it’s my turn to die today – yours is tomorrow’, echoed in his mind; two people he knew had ended up on those icy tables, but they were only secondary concerns. Wolfe was his priority; he was completely unprepared for such a thing and could not face his friend. He was absolutely speechless and dared not look into his eyes.

Macfarlane was the one to speak first. He quietly approached from behind and laid his hand gently but firmly on Fettes’ shoulder. “Richardson can have the head.” He said.

Richardson was a student who had been anxious for a head to dissect. When there was no answer, the murderer continued. “Speaking of business, you must pay me; the books must be balanced.”

Fettes found the ghost of his own voice. “Pay you!” He cried. “Pay you for that?!”

“Yes, of course – you must. You dare not take it for nothing; it would put us both at risk. This is another situation like Jane Galbraith’s. The more things that are wrong – the more lies we must tell to hide them. Where does old K keep his money?” Macfarlane replied.

“There.” Fettes answered hoarsely, pointing to a cupboard in the corner.

“Then give me the key.” Macfarlane said calmly, holding out his hand.

There was a moment’s hesitation, and then it was done. Macfarlane could not suppress a nervous twitch of immense relief as he felt the key between his fingers. He opened the cupboard and retrieved the pen, ink, and paper-book to pay himself.

“Look here,” he said, “there is the payment – proof of your good faith, and the first step to your security. Now, you only have to keep it. Enter the payment in your book, and then your part is done.”

The next few seconds were agony for Fettes, but in weighing his fears it was the easiest to endure. Anything seemed preferable to an argument with Macfarlane at that moment. After setting down his candle, he entered the date, description, and transaction amount with a steady hand.

“And now, it’s only fair that you should keep the money. I’ve had my share already. By the way, I’m ashamed to speak of it, but there’s a rule of conduct in this case. When a man has a few extra coins in his pocket – there should be no splurging, no buying expensive text-books, and no paying off old debts; borrow – don’t lend.” Wolfe said.

“Macfarlane,” Fettes began hoarsely, “I have put my neck in a noose to help you.”

“To help me?” Wolfe cried. “Oh, come on! As far as I can see, you did what you had to in self-defense. Suppose I got into trouble – where would you be? This matter of Mr. Gray is clearly related to the case of Miss Galbraith. You can’t start something like that and then stop; you must keep going, and that’s the truth. No rest for the wicked.”

The unhappy student’s soul sank into a horrible pit of despair at fate’s treachery. “My God! What have I done? When did I start? I only wanted to be made a class assistant – where’s the harm in that? There were others who wanted the position; would they be where I am now?” He cried.

“My dear man,” Macfarlane said, “you are such a child! What harm has come to you? What harm can come as long as you stay quiet? Do you know what this life is? There are two kinds of people – the lions and the lambs. If you’re a lamb, you’ll eventually be lying on one of these tables like Gray or Jane Galbraith; if you’re a lion, you’ll live and drive a horse like K and myself – and like every man with any wit or courage. It’s hard at first, but look at K! You’re clever, you have spunk; K and I like you. You were born to lead the hunt, and three days from now you’ll be laughing at all this anxiety.”

With that, Wolfe left to get home before daylight, and Fettes was left alone with his regrets. He understood the miserable danger of his situation, and he was dismayed to find there was no limit to his weakness; each concession had pushed him closer to becoming Macfarlane’s helpless accomplice. He would have given the world to be a little braver, but he did not realize there was still time to be brave; Jane Galbraith’s name in the record-book kept him quiet.

Hours passed; the class began to arrive, and pieces of Gray were handed out to students without remark. Richardson was happy with the head, and before class ended, Fettes trembled with relief to see how close they were to safety.

For two days he watched the evidence disappear with increasing joy. On the third day, Macfarlane appeared. He said he had been sick, but he was filled with energy when he instructed the students. He gave particularly detailed advice to Richardson who was very encouraged by the praise.

Before the week’s end, Macfarlane’s prophecy had been fulfilled – Fettes got over his fears. He arranged a story in his mind that built his courage and allowed him to look back on the events with an unhealthy pride. He saw little of his accomplice; they met in class and received their orders from Mr. K together. Sometimes, they spoke a few words in private, and Wolfe was always very kind and jolly – but it was obvious he avoided any reference of their shared secret. Even when Fettes whispered that he had become a lion and left the lambs, Macfarlane only smiled and signaled for him to hold his tongue.

Eventually, Mr. K ran low on bodies yet again, and the pair were forced to work together. They were getting anxious; this teacher expected to always be well supplied. That is when they heard of a burial in the Glencorse graveyard. The place has not changed much over the years; it is located on a crossroad – far from the residential areas and buried deep in the foliage of cedar trees. The only sounds that disturbed the silence around the rural church were the neighboring sheep, two small streams on either side, wind blowing through huge, flowering chestnuts, and a bell that rang every Sunday.

Grave Robbers could not be deterred by the sanctities of church; it was their job to desecrate the old tombs. They preferred country neighborhoods – where love is more tenacious, and entire parishes are related – for their ease and safety. It takes time to dig up a grave with only a haunting lamp-light to see by. The coffin must be forced open, the outer wrappings torn off, the clothing removed, and then comes the hours of rattling around in a wagon on moonless backroads.

Fettes and Macfarlane were planning to go after the grave in that quiet, green resting-place like two vultures swooping down on a dying lamb. At midnight, a farmer’s sixty-year-old wife – who had only been known for good butter and great conversation – would be carried to the city; her place in the family plot would be empty forever, and the most intimate parts of her body would be exposed to every curious student.

Late one afternoon, the pair set out on their mission; they wrapped themselves up in cloaks and took along a large bottle of liquor. The cold, dense, lashing rain was non-stop, and sometimes, the wind would blow, but the sheets of falling water blocked most of it. Even with the bottle it was a sad and silent drive to Penicuik where they planned to spend the evening. They stopped to hide their tools in a bush near the churchyard, and again at the Fisher’s Tryst to sit by the fire and balance their nips of whisky with a glass of ale. When they were finished, the wagon was put away, the horse was fed, and the two young doctors sat in a private room having the best dinner and wine the house offered. The bright lights, the warm fire, and the rain beating on the window made the meal even more enjoyable. With every drink, the men grew friendlier to one another, and soon, Macfarlane handed a little pile of gold to his partner.

“A thank you; having a friend along will make our time here pass quickly.” He said.

Fettes pocketed the money and applauded the sentiment. “You are a philosopher,” he cried. “I was an ass until I met you. Between you and K – by the Lord Harry – you’ll make a man of me yet!”

“Of course we will,” Macfarlane happily agreed. “I tell you, it took a man to back me up the other morning. There are some big, brawling, forty-year-old cowards who would have turned sick, but you kept your head – I watched you.”

“Well, why not? It didn’t concern me. There was nothing to gain on the one side but, on the other I could count on your gratitude, you see?” Fettes boasted, slapping his pocket so the gold pieces rang.

Macfarlane felt a touch of alarm at these unpleasant words. He may have regretted teaching his young friend so well, but he had no time to interrupt as Fettes continued his rant.

“The great thing is not being afraid. Between you and me – I don’t want to hang – that’s only practical. Hell, God, Devil, right, wrong, sin, crime – these are all curiosities that may frighten boys, but men – like you and me – despise them. Here’s to the memory of Gray!”

By now, it was growing late. As requested, the wagon was brought around with both lamps shining brightly, and the young men paid their bill before setting off. They announced they were heading for Peebles and drove in that direction until they were past the last houses; then, they extinguished the lamps before turning down a backroad toward Glencorse. The only sound was that of their own passage and the relentless, pouring rain. It was pitch-black; occasionally, a white gate or stone would guide them for a short distance, but mostly they advanced one, slow step at a time as they stumbled to their isolated destination. In the sunken woods that traverse the graveyard – the last glimmer of light failed them, and it became necessary to re-light one of the wagon’s lanterns. Under the dripping trees and surrounded by huge, moving shadows – they arrived at the scene of their unholy labors.

They were both experienced at their job and proficient with the shovel; they were hardly at it for twenty minutes when they were rewarded by a dull rattle on the coffin lid. At the same moment, Macfarlane hurt his hand on a stone, and carelessly threw it over his head. The grave they stood in was close to the edge of a steep bank above a stream, and the lamp had been propped against a nearby tree to help brighten the area. Purely by chance, the stone’s aim proved true; there was a crash of broken glass, and everything went dark as the lantern bounced loudly down the bank – occasionally colliding with trees. A few stones were hit along the way and rattled behind it until they were all stopped by the stream. Then, all was silent once again. They listened for any hint of sound, but there was only rain to be heard; it was now fully at the wind’s mercy and falling steadily over miles of open country.

They were so close to the end of their miserable task, they decided it was best to finish in the dark. The coffin was broken open, and the body was placed in the sack and carried to the wagon; one man also got in with it to hold it in place, and the other led the horse by groping along walls and bushes until they reached the wider road by Fisher’s Tryst. They rejoiced over the faint glow there like it was daylight, and after getting the horse to a good pace – they merrily continued towards town.

They were both soaked to the skin, and as the wagon jumped among the deep ruts, the body that sat propped between them fell onto the men. Each time the horrid thing made contact with one – he instinctively pushed it away, and the process began to anger both parties. Macfarlane made a rude joke about the farmer’s wife, but it came out hollow and was dropped in silence. Still their unnatural passenger bumped from side-to-side, and the head would lay on their shoulders while the drenched sack flapped coldly on their faces. A creeping chill began to possess Fettes’ soul. He stared at the bundle, and it somehow seemed larger. All over the country-side, the farm dogs greeted them with tragic howls, and his mind was filled with a paranoia that some kind of unnatural miracle had occurred – that the dead body had undergone some kind of change.

“For God’s sake,” he said, making a great effort to speak. “For God’s sake, we need a light!”

Macfarlane seemed equally affected; though he did not reply, he stopped the horse, got down, and proceeded to light the remaining lamp. They had gone no farther than the crossroad to Auchenclinny. The rain still poured, and it was difficult to make a light in dark, wet conditions. When the flickering blue flame was finally transferred to the wick, a wide circle of misty brightness surrounded the wagon, and the two young men could see the thing they brought along with them. The rain conformed the rough sack to the body’s outline underneath; the head and shoulders were distinct, yet something almost spectral caught their eyes.

For some time, Macfarlane stood motionless, holding up the lamp. The body looked like it was wrapped in a wet sheet, and Fettes’ face went white with an impossible fear flooding his brain. Another minute passed, but his partner spoke first.

“That is not a woman.” Macfarlane said in a hushed voice.

“It was a woman when we put her in.” Fettes whispered.

“Hold that lamp, I must see her face.” Macfarlane said.

As Fettes took the lamp, Wolfe untied the sack and pulled it down. The light fell onto the dark features and smooth-shaven cheeks of a very familiar face – one often seen in both of these young men’s dreams. A wild yell rang into the night as each leapt into the road. The lamp fell to the ground with a crash, and the horse bounded off toward Edinburgh at a gallop – terrified by the commotion. The wagon’s sole occupant was the long dead and dissected Mr. Gray.

Classics Translated

Chickamauga

Ambrose Bierce, first published in 1891; translated to modern English, otherwise left exactly the same.




Hi there readers! This one is really dark. A young boy is lost in the forest during the aftermath of a Civil War battle. I simply want to give fair warning to any who may wish to avoid gore and child endangerment. If either of these topics bother you, please Google a quick description this story before proceeding. Otherwise, thanks for being here, and I hope you know how amazing you are!

One sunny, autumn afternoon, a child strayed away from its home and entered the forest unnoticed. The boy came from a long line of adventurers and conquerors; he was happy for the chance to explore. From their earliest generations, his ancestors made their way over two continents, across the great sea, and into a third; war was their heritage.

The child was six-years-old and the son of a poor farmer. His father had been a soldier when he was a younger man; he fought against naked savages and followed his country’s flag south into civilized cities. He loved military books and still possessed a warrior’s spirit. The boy understood enough to make himself a wooden sword that he carried proudly – even if it was hardly identifiable to others. He often practiced with it in a sunny clearing while defeating invisible enemies, and this day, he found himself on the edge of a wide, shallow stream. The rapid waters blocked his advance against a foe that somehow flew across with ease, but the inspiring warrior would not be defeated. Instead, he found a place where the boulders were grouped close enough to jump across; then, he was finally able to defeat the enemy. With the battle won, protocol demanded returning to base, but like many great conquerors, he could not deny his lust for war.

Continuing from the creek, he suddenly found himself facing an even stronger enemy. A rabbit appeared on the path; it sat upright with its ears at attention, causing the child to scream and flee in an unknown direction. He yelled for his mother – crying and stumbling as his tender skin was torn by the cruel foliage. His little heart raced in terror; he was breathless, blind with tears, and lost in the forest! For more than an hour, he wandered through the tangled undergrowth until he was too tired to continue. A few yards from the stream, he laid down in a narrow space between two rocks and sobbed himself to sleep while still grasping his toy sword; it was no longer a weapon, but a companion. The birds sang merrily above his head, the squirrels ran from tree to tree, and somewhere far away was the sound of strange, muffled thunder. Back at the little plantation, men were hastily searching the fields, and a mother’s heart was breaking for her missing child.


Hours later, the boy woke at dusk and rose to his feet. He felt the evening chill in his bones, and he was frightened but no longer cried. After struggling through the undergrowth, he came to a more open area; on his right was the creek, and on his left was a gentle slope decorated with sporadic trees. A thin, ghostly mist spread along the water, and it scared him away. Instead of crossing back over the stream, he ran toward the dark, gloomy forest.

Suddenly, he saw a strange object moving ahead of him and mistook it for a large animal; he was not sure what kind, but thought it might be a bear. He had only seen pictures of them, and – being unaware of how dangerous they are – he vaguely wished to meet one. Then, something in the object’s shape or the way it moved told him it was not a bear after all, and his curiosity turned into fear. The boy remained still as it slowly came closer, and he grew braver when he saw the thing did not have long, menacing, rabbit ears. It is possible his mind was half-conscious of something familiar in the way it struggled along awkwardly, but before it was close enough to positively identify – he saw that others were following it.

There were many more approaching from both sides; the whole area was covered with them – all heading toward the stream. They were men, and they were crawling; some only used their hands as they dragged their legs along, and some only used their knees as their arms hung limply at their sides. Some tried to stand but fell back down; they did nothing the normal way, and the only thing they did have in common was the direction they traveled.

Some were alone while others were in pairs or small groups; they came through the gloom – occasionally pausing while others crept past. They came by the hundreds from as far as he could see, and the infinite forest was black behind them; the very ground seemed to be moving toward the creek. Occasionally, some men that paused would die, and some made strange hand gestures, grabbed their heads, or raised their palms to the sky like men do in church.

The child did not notice all of this, but it is what an adult would have observed; the boy only saw men crawling like babies. He was not frightened of them, but they were dressed in strange clothes. He walked among them freely, going from one to another and looking into their faces with childish curiosity. Each one was remarkably white, and many were streaked with red. Their color – and perhaps their disturbing behavior – reminded him of a clown he saw at the circus last summer, and he laughed as he watched them. These maimed and bleeding men crept along as ignorant of him as he was to their ghastly situation. To the boy, it was a merry spectacle. He had seen his father’s slaves do similar things while pretending to be horses for his amusement. Next, he approached one of the crawling men from behind, and jumped on his back.

The man fell flat to the ground, struggled to rise, and violently threw the small child to the ground. Then, he turned to show the boy his missing lower jaw; there was a great, red gap fringed with hanging shreds of flesh and splintered bone between his upper teeth and throat. His unnaturally shaped nose, absent chin, and fierce eyes made this man resemble a vulture covered in the blood of its food. He rose to his knees and shook his fist at the boy; terrified at last, the child ran to a nearby tree, climbed up, and looked at the situation more seriously. As he watched, the mass continued forward like a swarm of black beetles – dragging themselves slowly and painfully down the slope in absolute silence.

The haunted landscape began to brighten. Beyond the stream, a strange red light was shining, but the trees blocked out the view of its source. The eerie glow gave the creeping men monstrous shadows that imitated their movements on the grass, made the metal in their clothing sparkle, and tinted their faces with a red hue that highlighted their horrible injuries. The child instinctively turned toward the growing spectacle and moved down the slope with his mangled companions. He easily passed them in just a few moments, and – wooden sword still in hand – positioned himself in the lead where he solemnly directed the march; slowing to match their pace, he occasionally turned to ensure his soldiers did not fall behind. Surely, such a leader has never before had such followers.


As they marched closer to the water, they began to see various items scattered on the ground, but the boy did not think they were important. There were tightly rolled blankets bound with string, heavy knapsacks, broken rifles, and other things retreating troops often leave behind. The lowlands near the creek were trampled into mud by men and horses, and an older, more observant person would have noticed these footprints pointed in both directions; the ground had been passed over twice.

A few hours before – thousands of these desperate, wounded men and their more fortunate comrades had charged into the forest. They divided into battalions and swarmed past the sleeping child on every side; some had almost ran him over, but their loud noises did not wake him. They fought a battle very close to where he lay, yet he never heard the roar of their muskets or the captain shouting commands. He slept through it all, holding his little, wooden sword tight, but he was completely ignorant of the great struggle happening around him as countless sacrificed themselves for victory.

The fire beyond the tree-line on the other side of the creek was spreading, and the ground beneath its canopy of smoke glowed eerily. It turned the thin line of mist over the stream into golden vapors while the boulders gleamed with streaks of blood; those with less serious injuries had stained them when previously crossing, and the child crossed them eagerly as he continued toward the fire.

Standing on the opposite bank, he turned around to look at his marching companions. The stronger ones were already swimming across – pushing themselves to the limit with their faces plunged into the water. Three or four lay motionless and appeared to be headless; the boy’s eyes widened in wonder – even his naive ignorance could not accept such a situation. In reality, they had drowned; after drinking their fill – the men did not have enough strength to lift their heads out of the stream. Behind those, the open areas of the forest showed the child as many figures in his grim army as he started with, but not nearly as many were moving. He waved his cap for encouragement, and smiling, he pointed his weapon at a pillar of fire’s guiding light.

Confident of his forces, the boy entered the tree-line, easily passed through the red light, climbed a fence, and ran across a field – occasionally turning back to check his soldiers’ progress as he approached the burning ruins of a house. Everything was destroyed! Not one living thing could be seen, but he did not care about that. He enjoyed the spectacle and happily danced along with the wavering flames. He ran around collecting fuel, but every object was too heavy for him to throw, and the heat prevented him from getting closer. Frustrated, he flung his sword into the fire as an act of surrender to nature’s superior forces; his military career was finished.

When he turned away, he saw some buildings that looked oddly familiar – as if he had seen them in a dream. He was staring at them in wonder when the entire plantation and surrounding forest seemed to pivot. His little world spun, and he recognized the burning building as his own home!

For a moment, he stood frozen in shock at the realization, then he ran stumbling halfway around the ruin. There, easily seen by the light of the fire, was a dead woman; her white face was turned upward, her hands were clutching fistfuls of grass, her clothes were torn, and her long, dark hair was tangled with clotted blood. Most of her forehead was torn away, and her gray brain was protruding from a jagged hole in her temple that overflowed with frothy, crimson bubbles; it was the work of a shell.

The child moved his little hands in wild, uncertain gestures. He uttered a series of gibberish and indescribable cries that sounded like a cross between a chattering ape and a gobbling turkey; it was a startling, unholy sound. The boy, who was a deaf mute, stood motionless – his lips quivering as he looked down at the wreckage.

Classics Translated

Dagon

H.P. Lovecraft, first published in the November 1919 edition of The Vagrant; translated into modern English, otherwise exactly the same.

This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Listen to Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!

Considering I will die tonight – I am writing this under significant distress. I am broke and at the end of my drug supply; it is the only thing that makes life bearable. I cannot stand this torture any longer; I will jump out of this attic window and into the dirty street below. Do not think I am weak or a degenerate just because of my addiction to morphine. When you have read these hastily scrawled words, you might begin to see why my only options are to forget or to die, but you will never be able to fully understand.

Our cargo ship was attacked by a German sea-raider on one of the most secluded parts of the Pacific. It was at the beginning of the Great War, and the Hun’s naval forces were still at full strength. Our ship was a noteworthy prize, and the crew were treated with fairness and consideration as war prisoners. Our captors soon grew too comfortable, and five days later, I managed to escape in a small boat with enough food and water to last a good a while.

When I was finally free, I had no idea where I was; I have never been a good navigator. Based on the sun and stars, I guessed that I was somewhat south of the equator, but I did not know the longitude, and there was no island or coast in sight. The weather was fair, and I drifted aimlessly under the scorching sun for countless days while waiting to see land or a ship, but neither appeared. I became depressed as I floated alone across the endless, blue sea.

The change happened while I slept, but I will never know how; though my sleep was filled with troubled dreams, it was uninterrupted. When I finally woke, it was to find myself half-sucked into a slimy swampland of hellish, black sludge that extended as far as I could see, and my boat was grounded in the distance.

Though one might expect my first reaction to be shock at the extremely surprising change of scenery, I was actually more terrified than anything; there was a sinister quality in the air and putrid soil that chilled me to the very core. The ground was littered with rotting fish and indescribable things that stuck out from the nasty mud. Mere words cannot express the unspeakable horrors found in the absolute silence of vast, empty spaces. There was nothing to see or hear except for an endless sea of black slime, yet the landscape’s monotony and total stillness filled me with a nauseating fear.

The sun was blazing, and the cruel, cloudless sky was almost black – as if it were reflecting the inky ground. As I crawled into my stranded boat, I realized there was only one theory that could explain my situation. Through some kind of volcanic eruption, a portion of the ocean floor must have been thrown to the surface – exposing areas that had remained hidden for millions of years. The new land was so large that I could not hear the surging ocean no matter how hard I listened. There were no birds eating the dead things, either.

I sat in the boat thinking and sulking for several hours; now that it was laid on its side, the boat offered some shade from the sun. As the day progressed, the ground became less sticky and seemed like it would dry enough to travel for a short time. I slept little that night, and the next day, I packed my food and water in preparation for a journey; I planned to set out on foot in search of the missing sea and possible rescue.

On the third morning, the soil was dry enough to walk easily. The stench of the fish was maddening, but I had much bigger concerns and boldly continued my adventure. All day, I marched west using the highest mound on the rolling landscape as my guide. That night, I made camp, and the following day, I continued walking toward the mound; it hardly seemed any closer than on day one. By the fourth evening, I made it to the bottom and realized the mound was much taller than it appeared from a distance. Too exhausted to climb up – I slept in the hill’s shadow.

I do not know why my dreams were so wild that night, but I woke in a cold sweat when the half-full moon was high above the eastern plain. I decided to stay awake; the things I saw were too horrible to relive, and in the moon’s glow, I realized how unwise it had been to travel by day. Without the parching sun’s glare, my journey would have cost less energy; now, I felt quite able to make the climb that discouraged me at sunset. Retrieving my pack, I started up the mound.

I have said the unbroken monotony of the rolling plain was horrifying, but I was even more frightened when I reached the summit. Down the other side, I saw an immeasurable pit, but the moon was not yet high enough to light up its black crevices. It felt like I was on the edge of the world – looking over the rim and into an infinite chaos of eternal night. Mixed in with my terror were odd memories of Paradise Lost and Satan’s hideous climb through the realms of darkness.

As the moon rose higher, I began to see the valley’s slopes were not quite as perpendicular as I imagined. Ledges and rock protrusions provided fairly easy foot-holds for climbing down, and after a few hundred feet, the drop lessened gradually. Urged on by an impulse I cannot explain, I scrambled down the rocks and stood on the gentler slope beneath – gazing into the black depths where the light had yet to reach.

Suddenly, I noticed a huge object on the steep slope opposite of my position, and it gleamed white in the moon’s rays. I assured myself it was only a gigantic piece of stone, but I was aware that its shape and location were not Nature’s doing. A closer inspection filled me with sensations I cannot express. Despite its enormous size and the fact it sat at the bottom of the sea since the world was young – I knew without a doubt it was a statue; living and thinking creatures had worked on – and perhaps even worshiped – the massive object.

Though dazed and frightened, I still felt a certain thrill of scientific delight as I examined my surroundings more closely. The moon – now near its highest point – shined weirdly and vividly above the towering peaks surrounding the valley; it revealed a body of water flowing at the bottom – winding out of sight in both directions and almost lapping my feet on the slope. Across the chasm, the waves washed the base of the ancient statue, and I could see traces of inscriptions and crude sculptures. The hieroglyphics were unknown to me, and unlike anything I had ever seen in books; they mostly consisted of conventional aquatic symbols such as fish, eels, octopi, crustaceans, mollusks, and whales. Several characters obviously represented marine-life unknown to the modern world, but I witnessed many of their decomposing bodies along my journey.

Thanks to their enormous size, a group of statues were plainly visible on the other side of the valley. I think these things were meant to resemble men; the creatures appeared to be worshiping some kind of monolithic shrine that was also beneath the waves. I dare not speak of their features in detail; the mere thought of it makes me feel faint. They were more grotesque than even Poe could imagine; their general shapes were unquestionably human despite having webbed hands and feet, wide, flabby lips, bulging eyes, and other unpleasant features. They were also carved out of proportion with their background; one of the creatures was in the process of killing a whale that was only a little larger than himself.

After a moment’s thought, I decided they must be the imaginary gods of some primitive tribe – one whose last descendant died ages before the first Neanderthal was born. This unexpected glimpse into the past was far beyond what any anthropologist could dare to imagine. I stood there contemplating this while the moon cast strange reflections on the silent waters before me.

Then, I suddenly saw something giant and repulsive emerge from the dark waters. Only a slight ripple indicated its rise to the surface. The nightmarish monster darted to the monolith and flung its enormous, scaly arms around it while bowing its hideous head and crying; I think I went mad.

I do not remember much of my frantic climb up the slope or delirious journey back to the boat. I believe I sang a lot and laughed when I was unable to sing. I have partial memories of a big storm happening at some point after reaching the boat; I know I heard thunder and the other sounds seemed to also be from bad weather.

The next time I woke, I was in a San Francisco hospital; I had been brought there by the captain of an American ship that found my boat in the middle of the ocean. I said many things in my delirious state, but no one paid any attention to my words. The people who rescued me knew nothing about the landmass in the Pacific, and I decided not to bother them with it. Eventually, I asked a respected professor who specialized in ancient societies a few questions about the Philistine legend of Dagon, the Fish-God – but I gave up soon after his conservative beliefs became obvious.

At night, especially when the moon is half-full, I still see that thing. I tried morphine, but it only provides temporary relief, and it has turned me into a hopeless slave. Now that I have written a full account to inform or amuse my fellow man, I will end it all. I often ask myself if it could have been pure fantasy – a heat-stroke induced hallucination as I laid raving in the boat after my escape – but I always see the same hideously vivid vision in reply. I cannot think of the deep sea without shivering at the nameless things that may be crawling on its slimy bottom – worshiping their ancient stone idols and carving their own disgusting images on giant slabs of submerged granite. I dream of a day when they might rise above the waters to drag the puny remnants of mankind down in their horrible talons— of a day when the land will sink, and the dark ocean floor will rise among universal chaos.

The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as if some giant, slippery body is moving against it. It will not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!

Horror Fiction

The Current Settlers (Pt. 8)

Part 8 of the Settlement Series!

The CreepyPasta

[upset] I knew it! I knew you’d come today of all days. Damnit, we gotta get you out of this forest!

… … One day a year – one! And it’s the day you show up! I knew it, I tell ya! Ugh, it’s too late… we’d never make it to the bridge; hurry up – come inside. [door slams/locks]

… … … What do you mean you have no clue how you got here?! You have your pack and everything!

… … … I’m not sure I understand how you could be compelled to pick it up, but we don’t have time to chat. There’s a horde of evil outside, and more are on the way. We don’t even know what half of those things are anymore. Based on what we do know – ignorance is probably a blessing, but we can speculate later.

[Trish] We need to open the floor, it’s our only chance.

… You’re right; there’ll be nowhere left to hide once it begins. We could make a hole under the bed… Once our friend is behind the barrier, it’ll be like every other year.

… … [walking to bedroom] We’ll have to explain later, but I’m sure you remember my telling you about converting the basement, yes?

… Good. Long story short – there’s also a few magical protections around it. We couldn’t have survived without them.

… … [defensive] I’ve been brutally honest about how dangerous this place is, I’m not sure why you look surprised.

… … It’s amazing yet frightening how many questions you have in the face of certain death. Stand back, please. Come on, Ethan, help me move this thing.

… … [bed slides across floor] You’re gonna be just fine, friend, we’ll get through this together. I’m surprised they haven’t smelled you, but maybe they’re too preoccupied… or lulling us into a false sense of security…

… … [wood creaking] I’m only planning for every possibility, but those guys aren’t exactly known for their patience. If they knew you were here – we wouldn’t be considered much of a threat. It’s more likely they’re too busy to notice. These rituals have been happening for centuries; they probably can’t remember the last time one was interrupted—

[wood cracking] Whoa, hold on, boy! Just because the bed will be covering it doesn’t mean we can rip the boards in half! It would be nice to lay them back in place afterwards. Once our pal is safely hidden, we’ll make it look like this room hasn’t been touched since those kids with the tie-dye van.

[Ethan] The ones who thought we were all acid hallucinations?

… Yep, but this time – we stay quiet and lay low; there shouldn’t be any problems. I bet we can even manage a few stories to help pass the time; how’s that sound?

… … Hah, I thought that part would be well received. [board set aside] Alright, it’s time.

… … Don’t worry, friend, Ethan will lower you nice and slow; he’s stronger than he looks. You’ll be on the ground and taking the grand tour before you know it.

… … … … [shout/echo] See? No problem at all. You two go ahead; we’ll get this mess cleaned up and be with you in a few.

… … [distant/fading voice] See, Trish? I told you it was best to keep the height a surprise.


Great news, family! We’re officially bunkered down, and the ritual has begun. Only something fairly extreme could stop them now, and we aren’t giving them anything but distance; tonight, we don’t exist!

… … Thank you, friend, I’m glad you like it! This is my real library; the original journals, every book, and all our downloaded entertainment are right here. I often worry they aren’t safe enough, but I fear no amount of precautions would make me feel differently.

… … … Oh my! I was so worried about the ritual I’ve been a terrible host! I’m ashamed of myself, truly I am. You haven’t had a chance to say more than two words since you got here; hell, I didn’t even ask how you’ve been since your last visit!

… … …Well, “gracious host” is probably a stretch, but it’s kind of you to say so – I do try – but no more about me; what’s the big news? You’re grinning ear-to-ear, and the curiosity is killing me.

… … You… I mean… I know you said you were going to email Mr. Somnium, but… Are you trying to tell me he actually responded? As in he read it?

… … … He wants to narrate it? For his actual channel? When?!

… … It’s already done?! Are you screwing with me, friend? Because this is a cruel joke to play on an old man no matter how long ago his heart stopped—

… … … [whisper] Sweet cricket… okay… don’t sugarcoat it; what did people think?

… … … Shut up! I’m not crying! You’re crying! Holy, sweet mother of all crickets… You even took pictures of the comments? You, my friend, hold the special power of restoring one’s faith in humanity.

… … … Shush, everyone; of course I want to hear it, but we need to be quiet – no unnecessary risks, remember?… But don’t worry, friend – you’ll be across that bridge before you know it!

… … Hell yea, I’m positive! And – once you’re home – would you have time to pass along a message to our Dark Family? It should be heart-felt, yet stoic – humble but not desperate; maybe I should draft a few key points. First impressions are every—

[Trish] You’re doing it again, dear.

… Oops… umm, enough of all that; we’re in for a long night. What would you like to hear about next? The Mountain Settlement, maybe? How about the Civil War or the Revolution?

… … … [disappointed] Really? Firsthand accounts of America’s entire history are at your disposal, but you want to know how Trish and I got here? You’re one strange cookie, my friend, but that’s the main reason we like you so much. Alrighty then, I aim to please! Hang tight while I find the right journal; we’ll need to go back to a couple weeks before we died.

… … … [shuffling books] Oh, yea, those are the Weapons; Those have been down here since the ordeal with the outlaws. It’s kinda nice not having anyone else to meddle in what we do with our own family heirlooms.

Ah, here we are, [wipes off dust] I only hope you aren’t too disappointed. When you get bored we’ll switch to a different journal; until then – sit back, relax, and try to ignore any strange noises. Now that the Ritual has begun, they can’t leave the circle… Well, they could, but they’d be forced to start over which would be extremely inconvenient.


April 5, 1696

It has been a hard day – the kind that makes me long for the years I could work without pain in my back. If not for the grandchildren, my fields would be empty this season. It seems like only yesterday I was teaching their fathers how to plant and plow, yet now, I ramble incessantly like the old men we mocked in our youth. Even when there is actual news to speak of, I somehow default to writing the same, dull drivel as always.

Bill Sanderson returned from a business trip two days ago, and today, his entire family is ill. The doctors were only notified when his children failed to attend class for a second morning; Ms. Harvard sent one of the students to the Sanderson home, and the lad went for help upon finding the family confined to their beds.

No one dares speak the words we all know to be true, but— [woman’s scream]


… … [exasperated] Damn, that one was loud.

… … [hesitant] Well, um… it sounds like they’ve brought out a sacrifice…

… … … I can understand why you might be upset, but we didn’t see a reason to worry you when there’s nothing we can do to help that poor soul.

… … I know it’s hard to hear; in the beginning, we wanted to help, too, but you gotta trust us. Our first time hearing it, we rushed into the middle of them like fools; they had some poor girl – must have been between 17-20 – and she—

[Trish] Maybe skip that part, dear.

… Right. The point is – they almost ate us, and if you go running out there, I’m not sure we could save you at all, but we’d try. The one thing I am certain of is that we would be consumed either way. [whining] Please don’t get us eaten before I can hear Mr. Somnium read Pappy Grant’s journal! Please!

… … Yes, exactly! The demon himself is smack in the middle of it all and growing more powerful as we speak! He’s surrounded by every evil thing this place has to offer; We can’t help them in the same way you can’t walk on the ceiling.

… … … [whining] Aw, why aren’t you understanding this, friend? Yes – killing the demon would mean an end to the sacrifices, and this place would finally stop attracting new monsters, but—

… … … [sigh] Yes; it would make it possible to deal with other creepies and crawlies as well, but—

… … … Because we can’t! Even if the demon wasn’t surrounded by his minions – we wouldn’t stand a chance!

… … … Tell me you did not just point to the Weapons. [louder] No, better yet – tell me what we did to make you hate us? Why are you trying to re-kill us?

[Trish] Volume, dear.

… … [softer] It’s a moot point, anyway. The girl is dead by now, let’s not dwell on what we can’t change. I’m sorry, but if y’all don’t mind, I’d like to continue read— [man screams]

… … [annoyed] Oh, Jiminy-friggin-Cricket! Yes, I heard it! [throws down journal]

… … [exasperated] Yes, I know it was a man that time.

… … I don’t know how many more.

… … I swear, I don’t know; they don’t hunt for a specific type or number of sacrifices, but if an opportunity presents itself in the months leading up to the ritual…

… … Yea, I’m afraid so; they’ll use as many as they find. There’s no maximum limit, and the more lives they take – the more powerful the ritual becomes.

… No, please! Don’t touch the Weapons!

[Ethan] Actually, I have an idea.

… An idea on how to calm our friend down?

[Ethan] Sort of!

… Nope; sit down and zip it.

[Ethan] but—

… Sit! [clap] Zip! [clap] We are survivors! Do you understand what that means? It means we survive! We keep going; we record the story! Just now – finally – that story is making it to the outside world. We can’t let it end here. If we can get the rest of it out there, real help will come! People who know what they’re doing – hell, maybe someone with a YouTube channel—

[Trish] Dear…

… Right. The point is – someone who isn’t us! We have two choices. We can go out there – become dinner – and let the world forget about that one random story, or we can be strategic; we can forfeit the battle to win the war and enjoy victory together – as a family. Then, when it’s time to deal with the other unfriendly inhabitants, maybe some of those Paranormal Investigators will visit! I don’t think I’d be comfortable with Ghost Hunters; I know you said it’s not the same kind of hunter but—

[Trish] Dear…

… Right, sorry. Can we please just go back to reading? If they had another— [man screams]

Well, that was obviously the same one as before— Wait a second, friend! You do realize those Weapons are useless in our hands, right? They wouldn’t work even if we could land a hit; that means you would have one shot with only a dagger to fall back on!

[Ethan] Seriously, I have a plan.

… Please, boy, I’m serious, too.

[Trish] It’s a good plan, dear.

… [heartbroken] Aw… you too? But… how do you already know what it is? Why are none of you concerned with—

[Trish] Dear…

Fine, fine, fine; go ahead, Ethan. Take your time and explain in as much detail as possible.

[Ethan] Since the entire horde of bad guys are confined to the ritual circle – no one is guarding the Demon’s Path. Those egg sacs have been incubating for ages; tonight will probably be enough to put a few more monsters into the world. Unless something happens to them…

… Ok, since we’re completely ignoring my strategic plan for victory – let’s hear it. How do you propose we bypass the fact they’ll smell our flesh-and-blood pal the moment we stick our heads out of the hole? You know – the one we hid under the bed that happens to be the only exit for someone incapable of passing through solid objects?

[Ethan] Um, actually only two of us need to go. Technically, they could burst the sacs with a regular crossbow. The only reason I never have before is because the demon would know it was one of us, and we never had a way to fight back until now. Don’t you see? This is why our friend was brought here! It’s fate! We could make a real difference! The demon will feel what happened and rush over in a blind rage; he’ll pass straight by the lake! Someone on the roof could probably get a clear shot…

… … Oh, and our friend is suddenly an archer now, eh? Hell, let’s pretend that part is true – you realize the demon won’t simply be strolling by, don’t you? Even our eyes can barely keep track! That’s a vital detail since a miss would mean we all suffer fates worse than second deaths! Dying the first time was bad enough, thank you very much!

[Ethan] I could do the aiming, and I remember the demon’s name well. You know I can make that shot; let me have revenge… Imagine if Jamestown could really expand; how long do you think it would be before they brought in some electric poles? Surely WiFi wouldn’t be far behind…

… Damn you, boy. Taunt me with sweet dreams all you want, but none of those things would matter if we weren’t around to enjoy them.

[Trish] We can destroy the eggs much faster than the demon can break their circle; we could be back before they need to shoot. If the worst happens – one of us will get our friend to bridge while the others stay behind… We can pack the journals now as well – then, our story will live on, and your plan will still work. What do you think?

… I think it’s horrible! It doesn’t change a thing about how it will end. Besides, have you noticed how long it’s been since— [woman screams] Oh, come on!

[Ethan] Please, we don’t have much time; you know full well they’ve barely gotten started. This has gone too far! Once the demon is dead, we’ll be the last thing on anyone’s mind. Most of them will run scared back to their dens, and some will move on to darker pastures entirely. While that’s happening, Trish can get our friend back to safety, and we’ll go after the hostages!

… I don’t like it.

[Trish] That’s a shame dear… Based on what mother saw, I could have used your help. Oh well, sit tight – we’ll return as quickly as possible; try not to worry.

… [grumble] You can be a cruel woman sometimes… Ethan, listen to me very carefully; don’t extend a single hair beyond the protection barrier until we’re finished, you got that? Then it’s straight into position; do not overestimate the amount of time it will take him to break the ritual’s circle! We’ll clear the path for you on the way out.

[Ethan] You got it, uncle!

… Alright, let’s get it over with. If it’s the last thing I do – I’ll fit in some “told you so’s” before going loudly into that dark, eternal night.


[Trish] We’ll stay underground as long as we can and come up by the path’s entrance.

… Are you going to explain what happened with Gale? I didn’t want to worry our friend anymore than you two already have, but she clearly saw something that shook you up.

[Trish] Last week, she was having a good day and said this year wasn’t like the others. The demon was angrier after the French settlement than we realized. In our grief over lost friends and enchanted arrows, we failed to realize that several of the sacs were destroyed as well. Rather than replacing them – he poured everything into what was left—

… We should be close, let’s go up… And they’re supposed to hatch tonight? Is that what you were saying?

[Trish] You’re right; we’re here… But no – those eggs hatched ages ago. However, the results were so promising – he tried something new. This time he divided everything equally between two sacs. They’re already massive, and when the 24 sacrifices are dead – there will be two more extremely dangerous monsters loose in our forest.

Twenty-four? How? It’s never been more than a dozen!.. And wow, this place really has gotten dismal. I remember when it was impossible to see more than a few yards into the tree-line, but now there’s hardly any green left in the forest!

[Trish] The bulk of the sacrifices are boy scouts; they weren’t camping here – their bus broke down. The repairs were going to take a few hours, so their troop leader suggested bringing the restless kids for a hike. The worst part is – they never told anyone what happened; no one knows they came here. When the repairs were complete, those who stayed with the bus drove down to retrieve the others; they had no clue what they were driving into… Of course, there are probably a few other sacrifices mixed in; surely they aren’t all with the scouts.

… [pouty] I just wanna go home and listen to my story… Geez, the ground is so hard and black it feels like concrete…

[Trish] If we can end the reign of terror, you’ll have eternity to enjoy all the stories you want, dear. Now, move your ass; my baby is practically alone back there. Is your crossbow ready? I think I see the first one ahead – look up and to the right. Mother said these were bright yellow instead of orange – that has to be one of them.

… Yea, that’s it; the other is on the ground to the left, do you see it? We should stand back; that gunk inside could still hurt us… Or we could turn around and go home now – no harm done.

[Trish] Wow, they really are massive!.. Wait – did you mean ‘no harm doneaside from tonight’s 24 sacrifices?

… [sigh] Are you ready? We shoot on three… One… I love you… Two… Three! [both shoot, sacs burst with liquid explosion]

… [ground shakes and rumbles with guttural roar] Go!


… [panicked] Can you feel that? The air is heavier; it’s like walking through deep water.

[Trish] Yes, and we need to go faster.

… No, darling; just me.

[Trish] What’s in that vial? Did you try brewing potions again?

… It’s just something I’ve been saving for an emergency. Don’t worry, if the worst happens, the enchantment will weaken overnight; you’ll be able to free yourself by morning. [cork pops]

[Trish] Alex, no; we don’t have time to argue; you don’t— [Trish sucked in/Alex corks bottle]

… It’s ok to be mad; I can handle that, but not losing you. I’m sure you’re frustrated that I can’t hear what you’re saying, but if it’s any consolation – I can feel your displeasure loud and clear. Hopefully, I’ll be back for you— [frightened] Oh no; the air is getting even heavier… [sweeps leaves aside] Ok, ok… Ok, hun, you’ll be safe here, and I’ll be right back… [covers bottle with the leaves]

[speeds away, muttering to self] Alright, ole boy, – she’s safe – totally, completely safe, yessir. Now, you’re gonna bottle up that loud-mouthed nephew and hope to hell the demon is satisfied with only one savory morsel… And that our friend skews towards flight rather than fight…

[gasp] There they are – thank Jiminy! They’re on the roof; all I need to do is drag— [earth shakes and rumbles with a roar like thunder] No, please no, not when I’m this close!


[Ethan] This is it! Remember – just like we practiced; don’t panic… keep your eyes closed… body relaxed… mind clear… and—

[confused] Hey, why is uncle— Shit! [shoots arrow] No!

[everyone screams, demon screeches, arrow thuds into tree]


… … [panicked] I’m not gonna make it… Oh, no! No, no, no! It only scratched the bastard!… Holy mother, he’s looking right at them! The arrow! It’s so close; I have get to it… [pulls arrow from trunk]

… [screaming] Oi! Hey, look at me, asshole! Yoo-hoo! [whistles]

Crap, he’s really coming! Even uglier than I remember… Looks like a tall Quasimodo caught leprosy and went into the final stages of liver failure… Oof! My throat… Jiminy, he’s a big mother… lucky I don’t need to… breathe… just need… arm… free… legs are already gone…

[strained] Boy! Catch! [arrow whizzes through air, thuds into roof]

[mutters to self] Thank goodness, it got through… Wow, everything is going all wonky… sorry, fam


[Ethan] Bastard! He’s absorbing Alex! We have to shoot before there’s nothing left! [pulls arrow free, Alex groans in the distance] Hold on, we’re coming! [bow-string tightens]

[Ethan whispers] Are you ready?… Now! [fires arrow] Say it!

[demon screeches in agony, drowning out all other voices]

[Ethan, yelling over the demon’s wails] Alex! Uncle!… Why isn’t he reforming?! Stay here, I need to get down there!


… … [voice confused, disembodied] Is it over?… Is this where the dead go when they die?… Or is this a black void unique to the demon’s victims? Maybe I’m being stored away until needed… At least Trish is safe, and I thinkyes! Before everything went dark, that bastard took an arrow in the neck! I remember hearing the start of his name before the sound was cut off by screaming. It’s too late for me, but surely my boy got our friend away from this place. The demon is still dangerous even in this condition. [Ethan calling in the distance]

… … … [voice slightly more focused] Was that Ethan calling for me? No, it was too close; maybe I’m hallucinating after all… [woosh]


[Ethan yelling over demon’s continued screams] Uncle, if you can hear me – I found your dirty bottle trick lying next to what was left of you. Hopefully, I got all of you, but… umm… it looks like I’m stuck… Alex, I can’t move my legs… [whimper] He’s… g-ot me… I g-guess this guy r-really doesn’t want to die… I’m gonna throw you while I can still move my arms— [shocked gasp, dagger stabs into demon’s foot]

[demon roars in guttural agony as the ground rumbles with the force of an earthquake]

[Ethan] Holy shit! You stabbed him! No; don’t pull it out! We need to go; get on my back! [leaves rustle in the wind as the group flees] Alex, where’s Trish— Oh, right, he can’t answer…

… … … [angry and frustrated] I can answer; you just can’t hear me! What the hell is happening out there?! I can’t see or sense anything! We better be headed away from the demon with our friend in tow, or I swear before the sweet cricket I will find a way to tan your hide! [bangs loudly on the bottle walls] Ugh, you best find a way to hear me, boy! Hello?!

[Ethan continues speaking] —Yes, I’m positive Alex is in this bottle; here, you can hang onto it. Oh, wait! [hears light tapping on glass] Do you hear that? This is fantastic; I must have gotten all of him! Hey, Uncle – tap once for yes and twice for no; do you understand? [single tap] Is Trish safe? [single tap] Whew, thank goodness. Uncle! You won’t believe it! Our friend came out of nowhere and stabbed that bastard in the foot, haha! I think this is really it! He was falling apart as we fled! I’m trying to get us to the bridge – then we can find a way to get you out of that bottle.

… … … What do you mean ‘find a way’? Open it!— Wait, what are you two saying out there? No, no, no! [frantically bangs on glass] No way, friend! You are not staying one second longer! We can check on the sacrifice hostages after you’re safe! Ethan, don’t you dare listen to that nonsense! Get your ass to the bridge! And open the damn bottle! [continues banging on glass]

[Ethan] Sorry, friend, but I can’t take you to the ritual circle; Alex would kill me. Just listen to him in there – he’s going nuts!… Whoa, what are you doing?! Sit still or we’re gonna— [everyone falls to the ground, glass bottle breaks]

… … … Holy Cricket, that’s better! Now – we were all human once – let’s talk about this like reasonable folk.

[ground shakes with loudest roar yet]

… …. [disbelief] It really happened… He’s gone… Even after everything… I just didn’t believe it… But, damn, can you feel it, too? The air is normal again! The looming sense of dread is— actually… it’s stronger than ever… Let’s get Trish before we do anything else…


… … [hysteric] How?! How is it empty?! It shouldn’t have weakened that fast! How is she gone?! [sobs/smashes bottle]

[Ethan] Wait… Calm down and focus for a second… Do you feel that? There’s another fight happening, and she’s definitely part of it… [demanding] I’m going now! Are you coming, friend? Or do you want to stay here and argue with Alex?… Great, let’s go!

… No, umm… [defeated] ugh, wait up. Damnit, Trish! Why’d she have to go over there alone!

… … I know, friend, you don’t need to remind me. I’m clearly surrounded with ‘kind souls’ but, you see, we are a family of survivors, and avoiding danger is the key to being a survivor. This expedition is in direct conflict with our mission statement; she’s breaking the prime directive – that’s not ok!

[Ethan, patronizing] There, there, uncle; we can have a court martial after we help her. For now, we need to hurry! We should find a vantage point before showing ourselves. If it looks too dangerous, one of us will rush our friend to the bridge while the other helps Trish. Fair enough?

… … It’s not like I have any choice in the matter! You three have been forcing my hand all night anyway, so come on! Let’s go before it’s too late!


… … [shock] Are… are you two seeing this? It’s absolute chaos down there… [children shouting war cries] and it looks like… is Trish leading a platoon of boy scouts?

[Ethan] Hell yea, she is! Look! Everyone must have fled; only the Walker is left! Geez, where did they get all those weapons? It’s been ages since I’ve seen a mob like that – some of them are actually carrying pitchforks!

… … Don’t stand there gawking, boy! That Walker isn’t going to wait by idly while they fill it with holes! Why would she do this?!

… … Friend, if we survive this ordeal – remind me to explain the definition of a rhetorical question.

[Ethan] It won’t fight outnumbered either; I think it’s waiting for— [hostages screaming in the distance]

… … … Yep, you saw it right, friend. It waited for one to come within reach and fled with him. It’s safe for you to come down with us now; [leaves crunch beneath feet] we need to get everyone back to the cabin and calmed down so we can discuss what story you’ll tell the police.

… … Well, of course I mean you; who else is gonna take them? Their last chaperone was just carried off by the Walker and none of us can cross the bridge. We can’t send a group of traumatized kids off on their own.

… … I have no clue what you’re supposed to tell them – we haven’t discussed it yet!

[Ethan, yells over chaos of frightened boy scouts] Trish! Over here!

[Trish] You’re all here! I’m so relieved! When I was able to free myself, you three were fleeing towards the bridge – so I came straight here.

… … [muttering] How considerate of you…

[Trish] What was that, husband? Did you say something?

… … [perky] I love you, and I’m delighted you’re safe…

[Trish] You’re such a dear. [whispers] Don’t let the children know we’re ghosts; I don’t think their fragile minds could handle it.

… … Fair enough; I suppose we’ll take the long way home, then.

[Trish] Actually, I’ve had a rather long night, and so has our friend. I think it’s best if we go ahead while you and Ethan bring the boys along behind us. We’ll make sure your path is clear, of course.

… … [monotone] Of course… Come on, Ethan, you heard the lady. Round ‘em up…


[Trish] —I can’t believe the demon was finally defeated! So, you went right up to the monster and stabbed him in the foot?!… You really are amazing, my friend, and I know you’ll understand why we had to make this little detour… We need to get any demon goop left behind into this jar. [unscrews lid] We’ll burn it in the fireplace, and then you can take the ashes with you… [closes lid] There, that’s all of it; we better get moving.

[Trish, nonchalant] Oh, you don’t remember what my brother-in-law learned from the Mountain Settlement? The ashes must be spread over salt water – never fresh. Do you see any salt water in our territory? Alex doesn’t want to think about it yet, but you and I know better than to wait, don’t we?… I knew I could count on you! I can never repay you for saving my boys, [cabin door creaks open] but you’ll always have a home with us. Although, I’m sure you’ll be hearing those words in abundance over the coming months. Those children are probably assumed dead; the news crews will be rolling in before lunch – I guarantee it! [distant chatter] Oh, shh, they’re almost here! I’ll put this in the fire and get the ashes into your bag discreetly. Once you’re safely across the bridge – I’ll let the boys know we have everything under control.

… … … [several pairs of footsteps file across the wood floor] That’s right, this way fella’s; y’all are safe now. You’ll be home with your families in no time. We’re just gonna have a little chat to make sure everyone is on the same page while we wait for the sun to rise; then, our friend is going to take you all to see some nice policemen! How does that sound?

… … [exasperated] Come on, guys. We’ve been at this for over an hour; I don’t think you understand what’s waiting for you on the other side of that bridge. Do you know what it means to be national news?

… … I didn’t think so; it means you can say goodbye to your privacy for a long time, my little friends. You boys have had multiple agencies searching for you across multiple states; you’re already national news, but with our story – people will leave you alone when the next tragedy strikes. With the truth – your names will be synonymous with this event for the rest of your lives. The story for this place is older and darker than you can fathom, and I promise – you boys don’t want this shadow looming over you forever… So, what’s it gonna be, kids? Were you lost and found? Or kidnapped and rescued?

… … That’s a great choice, guys! I knew you looked like a reasonable bunch; I got a sixth sense about these things. Now – how many people found you?

… … That’s right! Only our friend! You boys are gonna be just fine – chins up, now! Remember – you’re all traumatized children; don’t be afraid to cry if they ask uncomfortable questions. As for your chaperones – you got separated; how should you know what happened? They’ll come down here to poke around and look for the bodies, but it won’t trouble us any. There’s nothing left to find, and we’ll be settled in with our new stories!

… … [sarcastic] Haha; yuck it up. Yes, I only want to listen to my story; is that so much to ask?! I’m sure they’re desperate to go home, too!

[Ethan] He’s right guys, and look – there’s a hint of sunlight out there! How about it? Are you ready to finally get out of here?

… … See! I told you they were reasonable chaps. My friend, I eagerly await your next visit when we’ll have time to thank you properly. Until then, we wish you the safest travels, and don’t forget – you deserve every reward they give you!

[Ethan opens creaking door] Hey, everyone, come take a look at this… What the hell is that?!

… … [door softly clicks shut] Umm… ok, on second thought – let’s go ahead and wait for the sun to fully rise… Anyone up for a quick game of charades?

Classics Translated

Bluebeard

Charles Perrault, originally published 1697; translated to Modern English, otherwise exactly the same. 


This story was adapted specially for Classics in the Rain with the wonderful Danie Dreadful. Enjoy Bluebeard in its full glory with this fantastic narration!

There was once a man who had fine houses, a great treasure, embroidered furniture, and gold-plated coaches, but this man was unlucky enough to have a blue beard; it made him so frightfully ugly that all the women ran away from him.

One of his neighbors – a highborn lady – had two daughters who were perfect beauties. He wanted to marry one of them and let her choose which it would be. Neither of the women would have him; they sent him back and forth from one to the other, unable to bear the thought of marrying a man with a blue beard. Adding to their aversion was the fact that he had already been married to several wives, and nobody knew what happened to them.

To win their affection, Bluebeard took them, their mother, and a few friends from the neighborhood to one of his country houses where they stayed for a whole week.

The time was filled with parties, hunting, fishing, dancing, and feasting. Nobody went to bed; they all spent the night celebrating and joking with each other. Everything went according to plan, and the youngest daughter began to think the man’s beard was not so blue after all, and that he was a very nice gentleman.

They were married as soon as they returned home. About a month later, Bluebeard needed to travel to the country for at least six weeks due to very important business matters. Not wanting his wife to be lonely, he suggested she take some friends to the country house and enjoy herself.

Original art I found

“Here are the keys to the two big rooms where my best furniture is stored. These keys are to the good silver, which are not for everyday use, and this one opens the safe containing my gold; these are for the jewelry cases, and this is the master key to all the apartments… Now – as for this little one here – it is the key to the ground floor closet at the end of the great hall. Open them all; go into each and every one of them – except for that closet. I forbid it. If you do open it – I will be greatly angered and resentful.” He said.

She promised to obey his exact wishes. Then, he hugged her, got into his coach, and left on his journey.

Her friends and neighbors did not wait to be invited; they were impatient to see the rich furniture, but they were too frightened of her husband’s blue beard to visit while he was there. They ran through all the rooms, and each was finer than the last.

Finally, they visited the two great rooms with the most expensive furniture. They could not sufficiently admire all the beautiful paintings, beds, couches, cabinets, tables, and full-length mirrors; some were framed with glass, others with silver, and they were the most magnificent they had ever seen.

In the meantime, the wife did not waste her time looking at all these fine things because she was impatient to open the closet on the ground floor. Her curiosity was so strong, she descended the black staircase with no thought to how rude it was to leave her guests, and – in her hurry – she nearly fell and broke her neck.

She paused at the closet door, thinking about her husband’s command and considering what the consequences might be if she disobeyed, but the temptation was too strong to resist. Trembling, she opened it with the little key, but it was too dark to see anything clearly. After a few minutes, her eyes began to adjust; the bodies of several dead women were laid against the walls, and the floor was covered with dried blood. These were all the previous wives of Bluebeard; he married and murdered them one after another. She thought she would die of fright, and the key fell from her hand.

She retrieved the key, locked the door, and went upstairs to recover in her room, but she was simply too frightened. Noticing the key was stained with blood, she tried to wipe it off, but it would not come out; she even tried to wash it with soap and sand, but that did not work either. The blood remained because it was a magical key, and she could never get it clean; when the blood was gone from one side, it reappeared on the other.

Bluebeard returned from his journey that same evening; he received letters on the road stating the business matters had ended well. His wife did all she could to convince him she was happy about his speedy return.

The next morning, he asked for the keys; her hand trembled so badly that he easily guessed what happened.

“Why is the key to my closet missing?” He asked.

“I must have left it on the table upstairs.” She said.

“Bring it to me at once.” Bluebeard demanded.

After several back and forths between them, she was forced to bring him the key. Bluebeard carefully examined it before asking, “Why is there blood on it?”

“I do not know!” The poor woman cried, paler than death.

“You do not know!” Exclaimed Bluebeard. “I know exactly what happened! You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you will go back and take your place among the ladies you saw there.”

At this, she threw herself at her husband’s feet and sincerely begged his forgiveness – vowing to never disobey again. She was so beautiful she could have melted a rock, but Bluebeard’s heart was harder than any rock!

“You must die at once, madam,” he said.

“If I must die, give me time to say my prayers.” She answered, her eyes bathed in tears.

“I will give you seven minutes, but not one second more.” Bluebeard replied.

When she was alone, she called to her sister, “Sister Anne, I beg you, go to the top of the tower, and see if my brothers are coming. They promised they would be here today; if you see them, give them a sign to hurry.”

Anne went to the top of the tower, and the poor wife cried out from time to time, “Anne, do you see anyone coming?”

“I see nothing but a cloud of dust, the sun, and the green grass.” Her sister replied.

Meanwhile Bluebeard held a great sword in his hand and called to his wife as loudly as he could, “Come down now, or I will come get you.”

“One moment longer, please,” his wife said; then, very softly, she cried out, “Sister Anne, do you see anybody coming?”

“I see nothing but a cloud of dust, the sun, and the green grass.” Anne answered.

“Come down quickly, or I will come get you.” Bluebeard cried.

“I am coming,” his wife answered; then she cried, “Sister Anne, you do not see anyone coming?”

“I see a great cloud of dust approaching.” Anne replied.

“Are they my brothers?”

“No, my dear sister, it is a flock of sheep.”

“Are you coming down?” Shouted Bluebeard.

“One moment longer,” his wife said; then she cried, “Sister Anne, do you see anyone coming?”

“I see two horsemen, but they are still far away.” She said.

“Thank God,” the poor wife replied joyfully. “It is my brothers; I will give them a sign to hurry.”

Then, Bluebeard yelled so loud, it shook the whole house. The frightened wife came down in tears, her hair in disarray, and threw herself at his feet.

“This means nothing; you must die!” Bluebeard said. Taking hold of her hair with one hand and lifting the sword in the other, he prepared to remove her head. The poor lady turned to him, and – with pleading eyes – asked for one final minute to compose herself.

“No, explain yourself to God,” he said, ready to strike.

At that moment, there was such a loud knocking at the gate that Bluebeard stopped suddenly. The gate was opened, and two horsemen entered. Drawing their swords, they ran directly to Bluebeard, and he knew they were his wife’s brothers; one was a soldier, and the other was a musketeer. He immediately ran to save himself, but the brothers captured him before he was off the porch. They ran their swords through his body and left him on the ground. The poor wife was almost as dead as her husband; she didn’t even have enough strength to stand and welcome her saviors.

Bluebeard had no heirs so his wife inherited everything. She used part of it to marry Anne to a young gentleman who loved her, and another part was used to buy captaincy commissions for her brothers. The rest she used to marry a very worthy gentleman who made her forget the bad time she had with Bluebeard.

Classics Translated

The Empty House

Algernon Blackwood, first published 1906; translated to Modern English, otherwise left exactly the same. 

This story has been added to our Classics in the Rain collection! Hear Danie Dreadful’s magnificent narration here for the full experience!

Certain houses – like certain people – somehow manage to instantly announce themselves as evil. No single feature is to blame; someone might be charming and attractive, but after getting to know each other, you see something is drastically wrong with them. They reveal secret and wicked thoughts that make others avoid them like a plague.

Perhaps it is the same with houses, and the evil deeds committed under a single roof are what give us chills and raise our hair. Maybe some of the evil person’s hatred and their victim’s horror are left behind; it could affect the new occupant – making them feel nervous or frightened for no apparent reason.

Nothing about this particular house hinted at the horror that happened inside. It was neither lonely nor dirty. It stood on a crowded corner of the square and looked identical to the houses on either side. They all had the same number of windows, a balcony over the garden, and white steps leading up to a heavy, black front door. Even the number of chimneys, the angle of the eaves, and the height of the railings were the same. In the back was a narrow strip of green with brick borders running up the wall to separate it from the adjoining houses.

Yet, despite seeming so similar to its fifty ugly neighbors, this house was horribly different.

It is impossible to say exactly where this invisible difference is. It cannot be entirely the imagination because too many people have stayed there without knowing its history; even they claimed that certain rooms were so awful, they would rather die than return. The house’s very atmosphere created a feeling of genuine terror, and the innocent people who tried to live there were forced to leave with hardly any notice. The town practically considered it a scandal.

When Shorty arrived to pay a visit to his Aunt Julia at her little house by the sea, he found her bursting with excitement. He received a telegram from her that morning and expected the visit to be boring, but the moment he kissed her wrinkled cheek – he felt her energy like an electrical wave. The sensation grew when he learned there would be no other visitors; he was summoned for a very special reason.

Something was in the wind, and it would certainly prove useful. This spinster aunt had a passion for psychic research, brains, and willpower; she was known to accomplish her goal by any means necessary. The secret was revealed after tea, and Julia stood close to him as they slowly paced along the beach at dusk.

“I’ve got the keys,” she announced in a delighted, yet disbelieving way. “Got them till Monday!”

“The keys to the changing room, or—?” he asked innocently, looking from the sea to town. Nothing brought her to the point quicker than feigning stupidity.

“Neither,” she whispered. “I’ve got the keys to the haunted house in the square, and I’m going there tonight.”

Shorty felt a slight chill down his back and stopped joking. Something in her voice and behavior stunned him; she was serious. “But you can’t go alone—” he began.

“That’s why I sent for you,” she said confidently.

He turned and saw that her old, ugly, mysterious face was filled with happiness. There was a glow of genuine enthusiasm around it like a halo, and her eyes were shining brightly. He felt another wave of her excitement, and a second, stronger chill came with it.

“Thanks, Aunt Julia,” he said politely; “thanks so much…”

“I wouldn’t dare to go alone,” she raised her voice; “but I’ll enjoy it very much with you – you’re not afraid of anything.”

“Thanks so much,” he repeated. “Er – is it likely that anything will happen?”

“A great deal has already happened, though it’s been covered up very well. Three occupants have come and gone in the last few months, and it’s said the house will stay empty from now on.” She whispered.

In spite of himself, Shorty became interested. His aunt was deathly serious.

“The house is very old indeed,” she continued, “and the unpleasant story dates a long way back. It involves a murder committed by a jealous stableman who had an affair with a house servant. One night, he managed to sneak into the cellar; when everyone was asleep, he crept upstairs to the servants’ quarters, chased the girl down to the next landing, and – before anyone could help – threw her over the rail, into the hall below.”

“And the stableman—?”

“He was caught and hanged for murder, but it happened a century ago; I haven’t been able to get any more details.”

Shorty’s interest was now thoroughly peaked; while he was not particularly worried for himself, he was a little concerned for his aunt. “On one condition,” he said.

“Nothing will stop me from going,” she said firmly; “but I might as well hear your condition.”

“You must guarantee that you’ll be able to control yourself if anything really happens – that you’re sure you won’t get too frightened.”

“Jim, I’m not young and neither are my nerves, but with you – there’s nothing in the world for me to fear!” She said.

This, of course, settled it. Shorty had no hope of ever being more than an ordinary young man; any praise implying otherwise was irresistible. He agreed to go.

By sub-consciously preparing himself, he remained in control of his fear for the whole evening; he imagined packing up his emotions and locking them away. The process is difficult to describe, but wonderfully effective; all men who have lived through severe hardship will understand. Later, it served his reputation well.

It was 10:30 when they left the comfortably lit hallway of his aunt’s home, and Shorty had to hold back his fear for the first time. When the door was closed, he saw the silent, empty street bathed in white moonlight and realized that the real test would be dealing with two fears. He would need to carry his aunt’s as well as his own. Glancing down at her expression – which was difficult to interpret – he realized it would not become any easier in a rush of real terror; he could only be confident of one thing – his ability to stand firm against any shock that might come.

Slowly, they walked along the town’s empty streets; a bright, autumn moon painted the roofs silver and cast deep shadows all around. There was no wind, and the trees lining the beach watched in silence as they passed. Shorty did not reply to his aunt’s occasional remarks; he understood that she was mentally preparing – distracting herself from thinking unnatural thoughts. Few windows were lit, and smoke rose from even fewer chimneys. Shorty was already noticing these small details when they stopped at the corner to read the name on the house; without speaking, they turned into the square and walked to the side that lay in shadow.

“The house number is thirteen,” a voice whispered. Neither of them said more about the obvious reference; instead, they continued walking in silence.

Halfway across the square, Shorty felt an arm slip quietly but purposefully into his own, and he knew their adventure had truly begun. His aunt was already succumbing to the house’s influence; she needed support.

A few minutes later, they stopped in front of a narrow, ugly-shaped house that rose tall into the night and was painted a dingy white. The windows – which were missing their shutters and blinds – stared down on them, shining in the moonlight. There were weather streaks in the walls, cracks in the paint, and the balcony bulged out from the first floor unnaturally, but the pitiful appearance did nothing to warn of such an evil character.

Checking over their shoulders to ensure they were not followed, they ascended the steps with confidence and stood against the huge, foreboding black door. They were hit with a wave of nervousness, and Shorty fumbled with the key for a long time before getting it into the lock. For a moment, they both hoped it would not open; they felt various unpleasant emotions as they stood on the threshold of their ghostly adventure. Shorty – struggling with the key and hindered by the weight on his arm – felt the importance of the moment. It was as if the whole world were watching through his eyes and listening to that grating noise. A stray puff of wind wandered down the empty street and rustled the trees behind them – otherwise the rattling key was the only sound. Finally, it turned in the lock, and the heavy door swung open to reveal a large gulf of darkness.


With a last glance at the moonlit square, they quickly went inside, and the door slammed with a roar that echoed through the empty halls. Another sound was heard, and Aunt Julia suddenly leaned on her nephew hard enough to knock him off balance; he had to take a step back to avoid falling down.

A man had coughed right next to them in the darkness. Thinking it could be a prank, Shorty quickly swung his heavy stick toward the sound, but nothing was there. His aunt gave a little gasp. “There’s someone here, I heard him.” She whispered.

“Be quiet! It was only the front door.” He said sternly.

“Oh! Quick, get a light!” she added as he fumbled with a box of matches and opened it upside-down; they all fell to the stone floor with a rattle.

The sound was not repeated, and there was no evidence of retreating footsteps. Soon, they had a lit candle and the end of a cigar case as a holder; he held up the makeshift lamp and studied their surroundings. Everything about it was dreary; there is nothing more desolate than a dark, forsaken, empty house, yet it was also filled with memories of violence and evil.

They were standing in a wide hallway; on their left was the open door of a spacious dining-room and straight ahead, the hall narrowed into a long, dark passage that led to the top of the kitchen stairs. The staircase rose before them, draped in shadows – except for a spot halfway up where the moon shone through the window. Its light was surrounded by a faint glow, giving the objects it touched a misty outline that created a haunted atmosphere better than total darkness. As Shorty continued staring, he thought of the countless empty rooms upstairs, and he longed for the safety of the moonlit square or his aunt’s cozy home. Then, realizing those thoughts were dangerous, he locked them away again and focused all his concentration on the present.

“Aunt Julia, we must search the whole house thoroughly.” He said forcefully.

The echoes of his voice slowly died away, and in the intense silence that followed, he turned to look at her. In the candlelight, he saw that her face was ghastly pale, but she dropped his arm, stepped in close, and whispered. “I agree. First, we must be sure there’s no one hiding in here.” It took her some effort to speak, and he looked at her with admiration.

“Are you sure? It’s not too late—”

“I think so,” she whispered, her eyes shifting nervously to the shadows behind them. “Quite sure; there’s only one thing—”

“What’s that?”

“You must never leave me alone, not for an instant.”

“As long as you understand that anything we see or hear must be investigated immediately; hesitating would be the same as admitting we’re frightened, and that could be deadly.”

“Agreed,” she said shakily. “I’ll try.”

Arm in arm, Shorty held the dripping candle while Julia carried his cloak over her shoulders; they would have made a funny sight to anyone else as they began their search.

They entered the big dining-room first – walking on tip-toes and shielding the candle to avoid being seen through the windows. There was no furniture – only bare walls, ugly mantel-pieces and empty fireplaces. They felt like everything resented their intrusion and was watching them with hidden eyes. Whispers followed them; shadows darted around silently, and it always seemed as if something were standing right behind them – waiting for an opportunity to hurt them. There was a sense that whatever normally occurred in the empty room had been paused until they were out of the way again. The entire building’s dark interior seemed to become a malignant Presence; it rose up, warning them to mind their own business, and the strain on their nerves increased every moment.

From the gloomy dining-room, they passed through large, folding doors into a sort of library or smoking-room; it was equally as silent, dark, and dusty. From there they returned to the hall near the top of the back stairs.

Here, a pitch black tunnel opened into the lower regions, and they only hesitated for a minute. With the worst of the night still to come, it was essential to search every area. Aunt Julia stumbled on the top step; their descent was poorly lit by the flickering candle, and even Shorty almost tripped.

“Come on!” He demanded, voice echoing off into the dark, empty spaces below.

“I’m coming,” she faltered, grabbing his arm rougher than necessary.

They descended the stone steps unsteadily; the air was cold, damp, and smelly. The stairs led along a narrow passage and into a large kitchen with high ceilings. It had several doors – some belonged to closets with empty jars on the shelves, and others led to horrible, creepy offices – each colder and less inviting than the last. Black beetles scurried around, and when Shorty bumped against a table in the corner, something the size of a cat jumped down – scampering across the stone floor and into the darkness. There was a gloomy sadness everywhere, and a sense that someone had just been there.

Leaving the kitchen, they went towards the scullery (where the dishes and cleaning were once done). The door was slightly open, and as they pushed it wider, Aunt Julia screamed; she instantly tried to stifle it with a hand over her mouth. For a second, Shorty stood completely still, catching his breath. His spine felt as if it were hollowed out and filled with ice.

Standing directly across from the doorway – facing them – stood the figure of a woman. She had messy hair, wild, staring eyes, and her terrified face was white as death.

She stood motionless for a single second. Then the candle flickered, and she was gone; in the door was nothing but empty darkness.

“It was only the beastly candlelight jumping,” he said quickly, in a half-controlled voice that sounded like someone else’s. “Come on; there’s nothing there.”

He dragged her forward, and they tried to seem brave as they continued, but Shorty’s skin crawled as if covered in ants. He knew by the weight on his arm that he was supplying the strength for both of them. The scullery room was cold, bare, and empty; more like a large prison cell than anything else. They walked around it – trying the windows and the door to the yard – but they were all locked. His aunt moved like someone in a dream. Her eyes were squeezed shut, and she seemed to merely follow his arm; her courage amazed him. At the same time, he noticed an odd change had come over her face – a change which he could not quite define.

“There’s nothing here, aunty,” he quickly repeated. “Let’s go upstairs and see the rest of the house. Then we’ll choose a room to wait in.”

She followed him obediently – staying close as they locked the kitchen door behind them. It was a relief to go up again. The moon had traveled further downstairs, making the hall brighter than before. Carefully, they entered the dark vault of the upper floors with the boards creaking under their weight.

They found two large living-rooms, but a search of them revealed nothing. Again, there was no furniture or signs of recent occupation – nothing but dust, neglect, and shadows. They opened the big folding doors between the two rooms and came out onto the landing before continuing upstairs.

They had not gone more than a dozen steps when they both stopped to listen, looking anxiously at each other across the flickering candle. From the room they had just left came the sound of quietly closing doors. There was absolutely no question; they heard the booming noise the heavy doors made when shutting and the sharp sound of the latch catching.

“We must go back and see,” Shorty said in a low tone, turning to go. Somehow, she managed to drag after him, her feet catching in her dress and her face livid.

When they entered the front living-room, it was obvious the folding doors had been closed. Without hesitation, Shorty re-opened them. He almost expected to see someone facing him in the back room, but he was only met with darkness and cold air. They went through both rooms and found nothing unusual. They tried everything they could think of to make the doors close by themselves, but there was not even enough wind to disturb the candle flame. The doors would not move without a strong force, and it was undeniable that the rooms were empty, and the house was completely still.

“It’s beginning,” Shorty hardly recognized his aunt’s voice as she whispered at his elbow.

He nodded in agreement, checking his watch to note the time. It was fifteen minutes before midnight; he wrote exactly what happened in his notebook, setting the candle on the floor in order to do so; it only took a moment to balance it against the wall.

Aunt Julia always said she was not actually watching him at that moment; she had turned towards the inner room where she heard something moving, but both agreed they heard running footsteps – very fast and heavy. Then, the candle went out!

Only Shorty saw more than this, and he has always been grateful for that. As he rose from his stooping position of balancing the candle – but before it was actually extinguished – a face rushed forward so close to his own that he could have kissed it. The man’s face was filled with passion, had thick, dark features, and angry, savage eyes. It belonged to a common man, but it was bursting with intense, aggressive emotions; it wore a malignant and terrible expression.

The air was completely still – there was no movement aside from the muffled sound of running feet, the apparition’s face, and the extinguishing of the candle.

Shorty let out a cry, nearly losing his balance as his aunt clung to him with her full weight in a moment of terror. Fortunately, she had not seen the face and was able to regain control almost immediately; after he was able to get free, he struck a match.

The glare chased away the shadows on all sides as his aunt knelt to retrieve the cigar case with the precious candle. Then, they discovered that the candle had not been blown out at all – it had been crushed out. The wick was pressed down into the wax – which was flattened by something smooth and heavy.

How his companion overcame her terror so quickly, Shorty never properly understood, but his admiration for her increased tenfold and inspired his own courage; for that, he was undeniably grateful. The evidence of physical force they had just witnessed was equally unexplainable. He immediately suppressed memories of hearing about “physical mediums” and their dangerous phenomena; if those were true, and either himself or his aunt was unknowingly a medium – it meant they were helping to focus the forces of a haunted house already at full-charge. It was like carrying an open flame among uncovered supplies of gun-powder.

So, with almost no thought, he simply relit the candle and proceeded to the next floor. The arm in his trembled, and his own steps were uncertain, but they continued being thorough; after the search revealed nothing, they climbed the last flight of stairs to the top floor.

Here, they found a cluster of small servants’ rooms with broken furniture, dirty chairs, cracked mirrors, and decrepit bedsteads. The rooms had low, sloped ceilings, cobwebs, small windows, and badly painted walls; it was a depressing and dismal area they were glad to leave behind.

They entered a small room on the third floor at the stroke of midnight and prepared to make themselves comfortable for the night. It was totally empty and once used as a closet. It was said to be where the infuriated groom had caught his victim. Outside, across the narrow landing, began the stairs leading to the servants’ quarters where they had just searched.

Despite the cold outside, there was something in the air that cried for an open window, but there was more. Shorty could only describe it by saying that he felt less in control of himself here than in any other part of the house. There was something that preyed directly on the nerves, wearing down one’s resolve and weakening his will. It took less than five minutes in the room to realize this, and it was during that time he lost all of his energy, which – for him – was the worst scare of the whole experience.

They put the candle on the floor, leaving the door open a few inches so there was no glare to confuse their eyes and no shadows to dart around. Then, they spread a cloak on the floor and sat down to wait with their backs against the wall.

Shorty was within two feet of the door; he had a good view of the main staircase leading down into darkness and the start of the servants’ stairs going to the floor above. His heavy stick laid nearby within easy reach.

The moon was high above the house. Through the window, they could see the comforting stars like friendly eyes watching from the sky. One by one, the clocks in town struck midnight, and when the sounds died away, the deep silence of a windless night fell over everything. Only the far away boom of the sea was heard as hollow murmurs.

Inside, the silence was awful; any minute, it could be broken by terrifying sounds; the strain of waiting was harder on the nerves. They whispered when they talked – their voices sounding odd and unnatural. The chill in the room was not completely due to the night air, and it made them cold. Whatever was influencing them slowly stole their confidence and ability to make decisions; their self-control was declining, and the possibility of real fear took on a new and terrible meaning. Shorty trembled with worry for the elderly woman by his side; her stubbornness could only protect her against so much.

He heard the blood pumping in his veins. Sometimes, it was so loud, he thought it was preventing him from hearing other sounds coming from deeper within the house. Every time he focused his attention on these noises, they stopped instantly and never came any closer. He could not shake the idea that something was moving in the lower parts of the house. The living-room floor – where the doors were strangely closed – was too close; the sounds were further away than that. He thought of the kitchen, with its scurrying black beetles – and of the dismal scullery, – but they did not seem to come from there either. Surely they were not outside of the house!

Suddenly, he understood the truth, and – for an entire minute – he felt as if his blood had turned to ice. The sounds were not downstairs at all; they were upstairs – somewhere among those horrid, gloomy servants’ rooms with their broken furniture, low ceilings, and cramped windows – where the victim was first awakened and chased to her death!

The moment he realized where the sounds were coming from, he began to hear them more clearly. It was the sound of stealthy feet, walking along the passage overhead, through the rooms and around the furniture.

He turned quickly to peek at the motionless figure beside him to see if she had realized the same thing. The faint candlelight shining through the crack in the closet door illuminated her expressive face against the white wall, but it was something else that stole his breath and caused him to stare. She wore an extraordinary expression – it spread over her features like a mask and smoothed out the wrinkles; with the exception of her old eyes, she appeared quite young again.

He stared, speechless and amazed – an amazement that was dangerously close to horror. It was indeed his aunt’s face but from forty years ago; it was the blank, innocent face of a girl. He knew stories about the strange effect terror could have on someone – it consumes them, dominating all other emotions; Shorty never realized that it could be literal, or that it could mean anything as horrible as what he saw now. The dreadful signs of total fear were written all over her face, and when she felt his intense gaze – she turned to him, but he instinctively closed his eyes to avoid the sight.

When he regained control of his emotions and turned a minute later, he was relieved to see a different expression; his aunt was smiling, and though her face was deathly white – the awful veil was gone, and her normal look was returning.

“Anything wrong?” It was the only thing he could think to say, and the answer was persuasive.

“I feel cold and a little frightened,” she whispered.

He offered to close the window, but she grabbed him and begged him not to leave her side even for an instant.

“It’s upstairs, I know,” she whispered, with an odd laugh; “but I can’t possibly go up.”

Shorty thought otherwise; he knew taking action was their best hope of maintaining self-control. He poured a glass of brandy from his flask – it was strong enough to help anybody through anything, and she swallowed it with a shiver. Now, his only plan was to get out of the house before her inevitable collapse, but they could not safely run away. Doing nothing was no longer an option; he was losing more composure every minute, and it became necessary to use desperate, aggressive measures without further delay. It was unavoidable, and they would need to show great confidence when facing the enemy. He could do it now, but in ten minutes he might not have the strength left!

Upstairs, the sounds were growing louder and closer, accompanied by the occasional creaking floorboards. Someone was sneaking around and bumping into the furniture.

Waiting for the numerous spirits to finish their work, Shorty stood quietly and said in a determined voice, “Now, Aunt Julia, we’ll go upstairs and find out what’s making all this noise. You must come too; it’s what we agreed.”

He picked up his stick and fetched the candle. A limp figure rose shakily beside him – breathing hard and very faint, she said, “ready.” The woman’s courage amazed him; it was much greater than his own. They moved forward with the dripping candle, and this trembling, white-faced, old woman was the true source of his courage. It held something that both shamed him and supported him; without it – he would have failed long before.

They crossed the dark landing, averting their eyes from the deep, black space over the handrails. Then, they ascended the narrow staircase to locate the sounds which were still growing louder and nearer. Halfway up the stairs, Aunt Julia stumbled, and Shorty caught her by the arm. At that moment, there was a loud crash in the servants’ corridor above. It was immediately followed by a shrill, agonized scream that sounded like a cry of terror and a plea for help mixed together.

Before they could move aside or go down a single step, someone came rushing towards them from above, taking the stairs three at a time. The steps were light and uncertain, but close behind them was the sound of a heavier person walking, and it shook the whole staircase.

Shorty and his companion had just enough time to flatten themselves against the wall when the jumble of flying feet reached their location, and two people dashed through the tiny gap between them at full speed. It was a midnight whirlwind of sounds crashing through the empty building.

The two runners kept going and were already racing across the creaking boards below, but Shorty and his aunt saw absolutely nothing – not a hand, arm, face, or even a shred of clothing.

There was a pause before the one being chased ran into the room which Shorty and his aunt had just left. The heavier one followed, and there was a scuffling sound with smothered screaming; then came the step of a single, heavy person on the landing.

A dead silence followed for half of a minute before they heard the sound of rushing air. It was followed by a dull, crashing thud on the lower floors of the house.

It was total silence after; nothing moved. The candle’s flame was steady, and the air was undisturbed. Filled with terror, Aunt Julia began fumbling her way downstairs without waiting for her nephew; she was crying softly to herself, and when Shorty put his arm around her – he could feel her shaking like a leaf. He retrieved the cloak from the little room’s floor, and they marched down the three flights of steps very slowly, without speaking or turning.

They saw nothing in the hall, but the whole way down, they were aware that someone was following them; when they went faster, it was left behind, and when they went slower, it caught up. Never once did they look back; at each turn on the staircase, they lowered their eyes to avoid the horror they might see above.

With trembling hands, Shorty opened the front door; they walked out into the moonlight and breathed in the cool, night air blowing in from the sea.