[Author’s note: This was an entry in the UCA Ghost Story Challenge. Deamhaich is pronounced Deem-Hake.]
Growing up in the town of Deamhaich, Cornwall, there always were stories told. The one that frightened me the most as a kid was that of the Devil’s Laughter.
The United Kingdom is a honeycomb of mines, and nowhere is this warren of tunnels denser than under the Cornish peninsula. Occasionally, this makes local or national news when a tunnel implodes and sucks down cars, houses, or entire streets.
The story went that the mines of Deamhaich were abandoned quickly, a little before the end of the 19th century. I still remember my grandfather telling me about the miners. He said that they dug too deep, compelled onwards by greed and a few ancient rumours that, beneath the tin there was something rarer, older. This quest ended in horror, though. The miners dug through the earth to the gates of Hell itself, causing them to flee the tunnels at once and never return.
It’s said that, still, you can hear the screaming laughter of the Devil at the gates. He howls after the souls of the townsfolk and the miners who disturbed his lair.
Jumping forwards a few years, I was in a dangerous position. Intoxicated by a mix of teenage arrogance and the desire for a girl, I agreed to go into the mines, alone. Her name was Suzanne. She was a couple of years older than me, out of my league and at the forefront of Deamhaich’s burgeoning emo community. She’d dared me to descend into the mine and go to the edge of hell, and to bring back a pick-axe with me to prove it.
I didn’t believe the legends any more. There were other dangers though.
These excavations were old, and I was on my own. I genuinely, foolishly thought I’d prepared well before going down there. I’d packed a bag with two torches, a bottle of water, three chocolate bars. One of my friends, a Greek mythology fan, suggested that I take some twine down and leave one end at the surface. The plan was that I’d spool it out behind me to find my way back. If I got into trouble, I would tug on the twine three times to signal to Suzanne, who would be on the other end, that I needed help.
The entrance was barred with wooden panels, emblazoned with warning signs against exactly my kind of idiotic, hormone-infused bravado. A friend of a friend had a mechanics shop in town, and through them I had been able to find the crowbar that I used to pry the boards away.
As the wood sloughed off, a gust of stale, dead air flowed out of the now gaping tunnel entrance. There were marks in the wood that looked similar to the ones I was making. Whereas the scratches I left were fresh, these had clearly been there for a while. Someone else had gone down there, but whoever they were they’d done it many years ago.
I was only a little way into the tunnel before everything went wrong. I should have stepped back as soon as I noticed that the first few yards of the tunnel had a wooden floor, not stone. I didn’t, though, and I strode onwards, careless, and put my whole weight on some rotten floorboards.
I fell through two layers of wood before finally coming down hard on the gravelly floor of the mine. I swore once, loud, and lay there for a second trying to take stock of my situation as I got my breath back. Careful about harming myself further, I sat up.
I’m lucky that the fall deposited me on my chest. If it had been my legs, I would have been crippled, and a fall on my back or neck might have even killed me. Still, I was in a bad way. Prodding my chest, I winced as I encountered tender, shattered rib. I’d later find out that I’d been fortunate too that none of the shards had penetrated my lungs or heart. My limbs were functional, asides from a blazing pain in my left ankle. I tried to put weight on it, but it hurt too bad and I had to collapse back down. Later, I’d learn that the fall had snapped two tendons.
It only then occurred to me that I was in complete darkness. The torch was shattered, and I thanked my lucky stars that I’d brought another. At least until I tried to turn it on. The batteries weren’t quite dead, but the dim light was flickering, so I decided to save it in case I needed it.
I was in trouble so I pulled on the string, which I’d somehow managed to keep a hold of. When the other end came falling through the hole above me, though, I couldn’t help but let out a sob of fear. It repeated, then, and grew into full screams of fear.
I couldn’t help but think about how alone I was. The only person who’d known about my expedition had abandoned me. I could only assume that she thought the collapse had killed me, and that I had no way to get back to the surface. I was far from the entrance, now, and there were no maps of the tunnels. If there even was a rescue operation, there was no guarantee they’d find me. I knew it was illogical, that no one would hear me and that I was only wasting the precious few breaths I had left. I just couldn’t stop screaming.
I eventually did when I realised that there was another scream alongside mine.
A shiver of fear ran over me as I recognised that laughter, distorted and screaming. The tunnel walls and the demented energy with which the noise was produced warped it. Disregarding my inflamed ankle, I leapt up and, steadying myself against the wall, picked up my backpack.
I don’t know how far I’d limped when I heard it again. To my surprise, the noise was clearer. A high, keening wail now, it sounded less like laughter and more like screaming. I cursed the labyrinthine nature of the mine, reasoning that either it was following me or I’d been all turned around and walked closer to the source. Tears flowing down my face, I turned around, and walked faster.
I tripped on something, ruining my ankle more, and the screams began again, louder, as if I were in the same room with them. I was too scared to flee now, and I crawled to a corner and into a foetal position. It just kept going, not laughter now, not screams, but something worse- the crying of a baby. I pulled out the chocolate bars I’d brought with me, and accepted it as my last meal. I turned on the torch and laid it down, pointing it at the granite wall of the tunnel, simply to give me something to look at. After an hour or so, it blinked out.
After seventy-two hours in the dark, the fire brigade found me. They had been drawn by the crying. Suzanne had, of course, called them immediately. In the tunnel with me was what I’d tripped over- the tiny, shrivelled skeleton of a child, wrapped in a silk shroud. Pinned to the fabric was a handwritten note, yellowed and ancient.
My darling Emily, I’m so sorry. You were brought into this world too early, and remind me of forbidden love. May you find peace here, buried deep within the earth. Always love from your mother, LW.”
After some forensic analysis, the child’s body was buried in the local churchyard. People still claim to hear the Devil’s Laughter even now, but I believe that’s an urban legend. I think Emily has finally found peace.
The story of the “Nazi Gold Train” is an enduring one. According to the legend, a German train loaded with gold confiscated from Polish civilians and Jewish prisoners was buried in the woods near the Polish city of Walbrzych, formerly the German city of Waldenburg. Some sources quote the train as containing up to three hundred tonnes of gold, as well as jewels and several lost masterpieces.
The most recent attempt at finding the treasure was undertaken by two Polish men, Piotr Koper and Andreas Richter, in 2015-16. Though they initially claimed to have been told by the death bed confession of a concentration camp guard, they caused a media storm when they changed their story to claim that a government official had leaked the information. Although a minister from the Polish government claimed that ground penetrating radar had shown the presence of a 100-meter long train buried under the surface, this evidence was later shown to be false, the data instead suggesting the presence of a collapsed tunnel. After a seven-day dig, no train was found.
This excavation, though, was preceded by another attempt in the early 1990s that received less attention from the worldwide media. The exploration, attempted by another Polish national, was bankrolled by two Swiss bankers. Having studied as many documents possible relating to the Russian advancement through the area, the team placed the train’s location roughly ten kilometres north of the city, underneath an embankment near a long disused section of railway.
The exploration lasted two weeks, beginning on the 3rd of August, 1991. For the first five days, the area was swept for unexploded munitions and booby traps. When this initial exploration turned up a couple of dozen German land-mines that were mostly defused by the rust and time, the archaeologists and treasure-hunters assembled began to become confident of success. For the next two days, the clearing in the forest around the railway tracks was scanned with radar and, when the presence of a seventy-metre long mass was discovered, the go ahead was given to start digging.
It was as the excavators started to bore down that the issues started. Electrical equipment present started going wrong, usually nothing major. A large setback occurred when the discs containing the radar data were wiped, as if with a magnet, and the scanning had to take place again to confirm where the supposed train was located. Rumours started spreading around the hired workers that something was trying to disrupt the expedition, that something was trying to stop them from reaching the train.
The most major mishap happened on the night of the 15th. The workers had been living in a large tent in the forest. When one of the men fell asleep smoking, a large fire broke out and a dozen workers were hospitalised for smoke inhalation, and a few more with serious burns. Some of those present claimed to see figures in the smoke, gaunt men all in some sort of uniform, with a badge on their chests. The rumours of these “ghosts” spread quickly through word of mouth and local media. Many of those who weren’t injured quit, believing that the ghosts of German soldiers were jealously guarding their riches.
Still, the dig went on, with the few archaeologists ventured deeper. While some were still a little scared of what was dubbed the “curse”, they were lured onwards by the call of treasure and imminent renown for finding the storied vehicle. The JCBs worked through the night of the sixteenth, and as dawn broke on August 17th the expedition finally struck the metal hull of the train.
It was only when they opened up the crates inside and found ashes, charred bones, a few small children’s teeth, that they realised that the ghosts weren’t those of the soldiers.
It’s finally here!
Winter Sun, my debut novel, is now available for preorder on Amazon as a Kindle eBook. It will be released this Saturday, the 24th of June.
Additionally, in the next couple of days, the paperback edition of the novel will also become available. Stay tuned!
The scratching of graphite on paper. The short, whispered phrases. The gentle, distant ticking of a muffled old grand-father clock. These are my recollections of my time talking to Thomas Berkley in January, 1980.
I was called in to see Mr Berkley at short notice. My time in Boston was brief, but just two days before I was supposed to leave, I was contacted by a colleague of mine employed at the Enfield Sanatorium with the details of a rather peculiar case which, he suspected, would pique my curiosity. It did.
Mr Berkley had not talked in 18 years by that point. Before his internment at the facility, he had been an electrician of some success, running his own business out of a small, modest rental unit down on the East bank of the river. At 32 he married a woman named Harriet Jameson and, a year later and just two months before he was taken in by my colleague, they were given a baby girl, who they named after Thomas’s mother, Nancy.
One afternoon in August, when the mercury peaked at 93 degrees, Thomas Berkley disappeared. He had been walking through Boston Common where he stopped at a café, presumably to visit the restroom. Witnesses reported seeing him enter, marked out in their memories by his red hair and pencil moustache, but not seeing him exit.
The alarm was first raised when Berkley did not arrive for his 4:15 appointment at the doctor’s (he was usually fastidiously punctual), at which point the family doctor called Harriet. For the next few weeks, she searched everywhere she could for Thomas, all the while desperately trying to look after their baby daughter. She got the police involved on the second day and, while they did their best, searching as much of the local area as possible and interviewing witnesses, every lead they followed turned up cold. After a week, police involvement was severely stepped down. After three weeks, the search was called off.
That evening, a dejected Harriet Berkley walked home, heartbroken at what (she assumed) was her husband running out on her and leaving her alone with Nancy. Slowly and sullenly, cradling a child who cried whenever the wind picked up a little and brought a chill reminder of imminent autumn to her cheek, she walked down Dartmouth Street towards the river and came to a stop outside the door to their small apartment.
There was a man curled up on the step. He was naked save for a thin piece of dirty cardboard that he fiercely clung to himself. Nowhere on his body could a single hair be seen growing, and his skin was ugly and burned, blistering painfully in places where the dull red flesh flared up into yellow, pustulent time bombs. Gently, she laid a single tender hand on his shoulder and the man bucked and reared, back arching in pain as he swerved around. With a sharp cry of horror, Nancy saw that this man, under his melted flesh and scarred face, was her husband and, worse, that there was fear in his eyes.
The doctors did their best to help him. Over the course of the next few months, he stayed at the Massachusetts General Hospital at Cambridge Street, where he was treated for his burns and given an in depth medical examination. Aside from the superficial burns and scars, though, Thomas Berkley seemed uninjured and, once he had recovered from the external damage, they had no choice but to release him.
According to Harriet, he had seemed alright in the car on the way home, if a little jumpy at times and, when not terrified and paranoid, at the very least pensive. In all the time that he had been kept in the burns ward, he had not said a word, other than certain terrified screams at the sight of needles (he had no such fear before). She seemed to think that he simply needed to recover from whatever shock he was dealing with and he’d eventually open up to her.
When they got home, she left him alone for a couple of minutes in order to tend to Nancy. While she changed the baby’s diaper, she heard a thud from the other room.
She walked in to see Thomas collapsed on the floor, knife slipping from his bloodied hand. He’d grabbed the blade as soon as possible and, it was obvious, hacked viciously at his wrist, as if trying to extract something from the flesh. Through her tears, Harriet dragged him back out and into the car and drove as fast as he could to the hospital.
This time, Mr Berkley would not be released. After a brief stay at the hospital, Thomas was transferred to the nearest mental hospital, the Enfield Sanatorium. Eighteen years later, he was still being treated there. In all that time, he hadn’t uttered a word and the truth of his disappearance, nearly two decades ago by that time, remained a mystery.
I finally met Berkley on the eighth of January. The man who I saw sitting in the comfortable leather chair of my colleague’s office barely resembled the photographs I had seen from the case files. Whereas he had once been a sombre, handsome man, dignified and smart in his dress sense, this person looked as if he barely remembered how to put on his own shoes which, due to the still strong suicide risk, were slip-ons. His once characteristic red hair was gone save for a few thin clumps that still poked out of the gnarled, damaged flesh of his scalp. His once neat moustache too was gone, replaced with a scraggly layer of unshaven fluff. Berkley had not been allowed near a razor for nearly twenty years.
“I shouldn’t let you in there by yourself”, my colleague said to me as I prepared my equipment, separated from the patient by a single door. “He’s still a risk”.
He nodded. “The poor man is paranoid beyond all belief. Screams wordlessly at any warder that tries to touch him. We had a nurse a couple of years back, tried to clean up some food he dropped on himself. You should have heard the howls at her touch, and her terror as he tried to bite her. My word, and when we brought out a sedative in a syringe for him, his animal fear…”
“Good god,” I muttered. Tales of violence were not uncommon in our field, but to see someone be affected so greatly by mental illness was always terrifying and, moreover, sad. Quietly, so as not to startle Mr Berkley, I entered the room and laid my equipment on the desk.
It was at this point that I switched on the audio recorder. What follows is a transcript of that recording:
00:17- Myself: Good afternoon, Mr Berkley. My name is Arthur Maslow. I am a psychiatrist and hypnotist, and I have been invited here by Dr Simons to try and treat you. Is that ok with you?
00:30- Berkley: [Murmurs assent weakly while nodding]
00:57- Myself: Thank you. Now, it is my hope that through the science of hypnosis, I shall be able to restore you to your previous faculties and, moreover, learn what happened to you in August 1962. If you would please look into this light for me, sir, we may get underway.
[At the time, I used two small, portable strobe lights, set at one second intervals half a second apart from each other, so that there were two flashes of light a second, to hypnotise my patients. Two minutes passed as I waited for the hypnosis to have its desired effect. By the end of this time, Berkley seemed nearly asleep.]
03:04- Berkley: [mutters] Harriet…
03:07- Myself: Excuse me, sir, did you speak?
03:10- Berkley: Nancy…
03:13- Myself: Mr Berkley, do you know where you are?
03:17- Berkley: No! No, there’s… it’s so cold! And the walls are alive and, oh god, the smell.
03:23- Myself: Sir, you are in the Enfield Sanatorium on Quincy Avenue. You are in Boston.
03:31- Berkley: Don’t lie to me? Where are you taking me? You bast-
03:36- Myself: Mr Berkley, are you ok?
03:40- Berkley: Shh, there’s something walking past… oh god, its face.
03:44- Myself: Sir, I need you to describe this thing to me. What does it look like?
03:51- Berkley: I cannot describe it to you. I cannot.
03:54- Myself: Thomas, I need you to tell me.
03:59- Berkley: No! No, I cannot! There are not words for what I am seeing right now!
[A short while passes in silence. All the while, Berkley is sitting still, but a look of pained terror is on his face.]
04:07- Berkley: Thank god, he’s gone. I don’t think he saw me.
04:11- Myself: Berkley, can you tell me at all what it looked like.
04:15- Berkley: I’m sorry, no. There was no… Paper! Pencil and paper!
04:21- Myself: Mr Berkley, I’m afraid I am not permitted to give you a pencil. If you give me a couple of minutes, I may be able to get my colleague to give you a felt tip.
04:38- Berkley: No! There is no time! Please, I need to show you what it looks like now, or I will forget. Please!
[It should be noted that through the window in the door, I could see Dr Simons shaking his head at me regarding Mr Berkley’s requests. Regardless, I chose to take advantage of the headway we were making and took a pencil out of my pocket to give to the patient. I also procured a piece of drawing paper from my briefcase and gave it to him.]
04:46- Berkley: Oh god! Oh god! They’re taking me somewhere! We’re moving!
04:50- Myself: You’re moving?
04:53- Berkley: This place, it’s… my god, it’s some sort of ship. We’re going somewhere. I have to get out I have to get out I have to get back home please I have to get out!
05:06- Myself: Sir, please describe what’s going on?
05:10- Berkley: I’m hiding behind one of the walls… they’re kind of sticky.
[There is a brief pause. The only sounds are Berkley drawing and myself making notes]
05:47- Berkley: Oh god no please!
05:51- Myself: What’s going on?
05:53- Berkley: One of them is coming towards me. He’s got a needle… I don’t want to die please god I don’t want to die!
06:02- Myself: Sir? Mr Berkley?
[The patient is catatonic for the next eight minutes. Several times, Dr Simons can be heard knocking at the door, obviously requesting entry. I dismiss him, though, as I worry about inadvertently waking the patient from hypnosis and potentially further damaging his mind.]
14:11- Berkley: AHH!
14:13- Myself: Mr Berkley? Are you ok? If you would like me to, I can bring you back now, and that will be the end of our session.
14:26- Berkley: No! No, please no! I need to know, I need to see… why have they brought me here?
14:32- Myself: And where are you?
14:35- Berkley: I’m… I’m no longer on the ship. I can see it above me. It’s huge and round and unclear and… it’s moving… oh god they’re leaving us behind. No please don’t leave us.
14:47- Myself: Can you describe your surroundings? Who are you with?
14:53- Berkley: There are eight of us, eight humans, and a dozen or so of those… those creatures. They aren’t quite like the ones on the ship though, these ones are wearing some sort of… gown? It’s heavy and black, and they have ceremonial knives with them. Oh god, one’s coming forwards, and he’s lifting his knife and… oh god!
[Mr Berkley screams for ten seconds.]
15:23- Myself: Berkley! What is going on?
15:26- Berkley: He used the knife and he cut into me, cut into my wrist. He had some sort of metal thing and he inserted it into… into the bone. Oh god, I can feel it crawling around I have to get it out.
15:41- Myself: Focus, Mr Berkley. Tell me more about the people there, the humans.
15:48- Berkley: There are eight of them. Oh god they’re all screaming. They’re all naked, like me, and I think they’re all from different languages. One of them is black, three people are Asian, two middle eastern. I see two white people besides me, one woman. Think she’s French. She tried talking to me but I couldn’t understand her oh god. They’ve put those things in everyone now. Oh god, one of the Asian people, she’s just a child, she’s just a child but they cut her open.
16:17- Myself: Mr Berkley, tell me about your surroundings.
16:21- Berkley: The ground underfoot is soft, soft and wet. I can’t see any vegetation, and it’s black, pitch black. It kind of feels like… old tree roots? They almost seem to be coming apart under my feet, like I’m in a swamp and being pulled down. It’s day time, but there’s fog around us and there are stars in the sky, such stars.
16:42- Myself: Stars?
16:43- Berkley: Stars, beautiful, terrible stars. They are so bright and so vivid and so… alive. I can see a moon as well above us, but it doesn’t look like Earth’s it’s too bright, and the clouds! By god, the clouds! They move so fast and their colours are shifting and… God save us.
17:01- Myself: Mr Berkley?
17:03- Berkley: I… I know why they brought us here, I… I can see their god, their god is here and he is real and there is no point in praying because this is it, this is the end, oh god, oh god. It’s… it is huge!
17:18- Myself: Mr Berkley, can you please describe to me what you are seeing?
17:24- Berkley: It’s some sort of cube, miles tall. The hill rises up above the fog around us and on to of it there’s this huge mass. It’s grey and, my god, the ground isn’t roots, it’s… this isn’t their god, the planet is! The ground is moving and oh god they’re tentacles, and and they’re wrapping around the cube. My god, those tentacles, they must be miles long! They’re filthy, their black blood is smearing across the surface and oh god they’re starting to wrap around us. Bring me back, please! Please god save me!
17:57- Myself: Thomas, come back to me now, wake up, come back. You’re safe.
18:34- Berkley: No! No it’s too late! It’s too late! The cube is brightening up and it’s white now and now it’s even brighter and god it burns! The light burns! The stars are outshone and my flesh is searing! Oh god! The girl, the little girl, she’s melting, her hair is igniting and her meat is falling off her bones! Her skull is so white! Oh god oh god oh god-
18:59- Myself: Berkley! Berkley, stay calm!
19:04- Berkley: No! No no no no it’s taking me the light is taking me oh god this is the true light the true god why me?
[By this point, Dr Simons has entered the room and is attempting to help me restrain Mr Berkley, who is undergoing violent seizures. Too late, we realise what he is about to do. Taking the pencil which I gave him, he has begun to dig into the flesh of his left wrist, as if trying to find an object. I watch helplessly as he strikes the vein and blood begins to come out of him in dark gouts.]
19:16- Berkley: There’s something wrong. The ground, it’s devoured the girl and the rest but… they don’t want me. Why not me? The light is getting brighter and brighter and brighter and oh god, Harriet, they’re taking me home to Harriet, what can I say to her? How can I possibly let her see me like this? Oh no, I’d rather die, I’d rather die but here I am I’m naked and alone and on the curb at Dartmouth street. I’d rather die, I’d rather die…
19:57- Simons: God damn it, Maslow, this is on you. You broke the rules!
20:02- Myself: You can’t wake him now! At the very least, we’ll lose the progress we’ve made. This man is speaking for the first time in eighteen years, Simons! We can’t just throw that away!
20:16- Simons: And if we let you continue, he will die. ‘Do no harm’, Arthur. Get out and call an ambulance, for god’s sakes man!
[By now, Berkley has stopped fighting back and is simply sitting there catatonic. On the tape, my quick departure is audible, as is the sound of the approaching ambulance siren and the paramedics who came to rescue Berkley. After five minutes, there is no one left in the room, and the only sound present is the distant, muffled grandfather clock. The tape continues to run for ten more minutes before it finishes.]
Nearly forty years on, and I still haven’t experienced anything quite as intense as my interview that day with Thomas Berkley. He survived his self-mutilation on that day in January, and at the General Hospital, the doctors had to remove a small metallic object from his left forearm of unknown origin. If there were records of what happened to this object, they have long since been destroyed. After this surgery, he made a remarkable recovery and, within a month, was released from the Enfield Sanatorium with a clean bill of health. For the rest of his life, he never once mentioned the trauma of August 1962, blaming his scars on a fictional house-fire that, according to him, happened to him as a child.
He died in 2013 at the age of 84 of a stroke, preceded two years earlier by his wife, Harriet. He was survived by his daughter Nancy, and her own children. As his closest surviving kin, I asked her for her permission to publish this story, complete with names. She consented graciously and even offered to help me accurately determine the dates on which certain events occurred.
I still keep those drawings that he scrawled in January 1980. As of today, there is still no conclusive evidence to support or deny what Thomas claims to have happened in 1962, when he was walking through Boston Common.
Hey guys, just a quick update to let you know what’s going on.
Firstly, I just wanna apologise for my lack of activity here over the past month or so. In my last update, I promised so much and, yeah, that’s just not happening yet.
Firstly, the novel is coming. I promise you this. I finally sat down and did some major rewrites of some massively flawed elements of the book. These took a lil bit of time, and I’m still waiting for a couple of proofreads to be complete in order to advance (huge huge thanks to my good friend Jemima for her help in this!).
Secondly, I’m still sort of working on Letters, but it is going to take time. The process of making the individual pieces is rather time consuming and, what with school and upcoming exams, I simply haven’t had time recently to work on it. Additionally, I think I need to be committed to the piece as I do not want to force it.
Really, though, and this isn’t an excuse, I just haven’t had much motivation recently. I’ve been dealing with quite a lot of stuff right now, and while I absolutely love writing of course, and know that it does make me feel good, I simply haven’t been able to concentrate on it and I really don’t want to just crap out a story that I’m not proud of. I hope you understand.
But hey, that aside, there have been a couple of things that have happened recently that I am happy with. The Last Baron came out last month, a story I had huge huge fun writing and am extremely proud of. If you haven’t read it yet, it would mean a lot to me if you checked it out, and, hey, I think it’s legitimately some of my most entertaining work yet.
Additionally, as you may have gathered from my Facebook and Twitter, I was recently given an award in the Undercooked Analysis Lovepasta Challenge. This was a massive honour for me, both to have my story read by the lovely people there and also to be recognised with the Couple’s Choice Award (especially considering I really wasn’t that confident with Elmwood.
Well, that’s all from me now. I will try and make some more content sooner rather than later but please be understanding if I’m a little quiet on this front. Otherwise, I’m just gonna sign off and leave you with a soothing sketch of a moth that I did earlier.
The carriage stopped suddenly as we saw his castle. Beyond us, beyond the impetuous horses and the terrified, leathery coachman, a small singular hill rose from the forested valley floor, a steep path zigzagging up its pine-encrusted sides until it reached the high stone walls and shadowy towers where our journey’s end lay.
Stammering, a man more used to the company of mares than men, the coachman apologised profusely for the ill temper of his charcoal-black steeds. My sister, not one to suffer fools, turned her aquiline nose up at his explanations and, shooting him a scathing look from her hazel eyes, told him to go find porters and transport in the village that would get us to lodgings by nightfall. Doffing his cap, he turned and walked briskly off through the forest, following the gravel road until the thick pines obscured him.
I was about to start a conversation with my sister, but it was too late. Her eyes had settled, unwavering, on that hill fort. Not for the first time that month, I saw that she was wondering what could be awaiting her behind those grey granite walls.
Much had changed since we opened the letter back in our small cottage on the crossroads, telling us that our father’s once good friend, the Baron of Mansuria, lay on his deathbed requesting the company of my sister. Gone was almost all the finery that our once great house had owned. Gone were the paintings and sculptures, so much canvas and marble sold as fast as possible. Gone were my guns and my clothes, leaving me a pauper travelling with a rich man’s purse. My sister even traded away the jewelry, heirlooms that she had once treasured so much for the money necessary to cover this last trip.
My sister, with her head for figures and gold, did not stop even once to consider whether the trip was worth the expenditure. In careful, measured, conservative tones she reassured me that she felt certain that the Baron wished to make a gift to us in his will. The very next day, she took our old rosewood jewelry box, engraved with the family crest, down to the pawn brokers, leaving us only with what she wore now.
The light of the sun, only now beginning to redden as it dipped towards the hazy green peaks of the valley’s walls, glinted off of the perfect bloody rubies at her neck. The delicate ancient choker, it was said, had been smithed by some great great grand-aunt in East Europe for her debutante’s ball, and it had stayed in the family ever since. Around her finger, she wore a wide silver ring, engraved with our family name and a skeleton frozen in the danse macabre. It had been a gift at our father’s funeral, a dark day before I was born that my sister barely remembered. It was a memento mori of an almost forgotten truth.
As the coachman returned, a whole convoy of peasants with them, my sister broke from her reverie. There was no use wondering what was inside that place, the castle on the hill. We were going to find out soon enough.
To the east, a wide and gibbous moon finally inched its way above the crests of the hills. Somewhere in the woods, the plaintive, lyrical howl of a wolf could be heard, the approaching threat unseen.
There were stories of the Baron, we knew. Half-real rumours and outright lies gossiped about in all the high societies of Europe, stories that in some way or other filtered down to us in the years after our father’s death.
It was said, by some, that he ruled with an iron fist. Isolated as he was by the hundreds of miles of thick, tangled woods that surrounded his castle, it was alleged that he had a team of ruthless and sadistic guards loyal only to his wealth and their own desires, raping and murdering those they felt deserved their attention and punishing with great enthusiasm those who the baron saw as opposing him.
Others said that he meted out the punishment himself. The most common stories had him behead those that angered him himself, using a wickedly curved ancestral sword in the town square, his guards holding the families of the guilty still so that they were forced to see the blood gout out in thick sprays as the blade, blunt with age, bit again and again into the screaming man’s neck. Other supposed punishments of his included unthinkably cruel tortures. I remember hearing from a noble uncle of mine once that he would boil the children of adulterers until the flesh sloughed off, then force the men who aided in the women’s crimes to drink the soupy mixture. Some criminals, the tales explained, were thrown off the battlements below, while still others were hanged by the ankles into a wolf pack’s den. The condemned screams, people would explain, were the sweetest lullaby to him.
Upon arriving in the village, we of course found these tales to be untrue. There were no hoards of lusty guards, sweeping the streets, no chopping blocks in the town square, no gallows built over the wolf pits. In fact, no one could remember an execution since they caught the man who murdered the Kaifeck family, and he’d been hanged in the castle courtyard, an event only watched by the Baron himself and the murderer’s young wife, alongside, of course, the executioner.
There was, nonetheless, a certain fear of the Baron amongst the townspeople. In several buildings of the small village my sister and I saw portraits of him, woodcuts and sketches for the most part. But there was one example that stood out among the rest.
The night we arrived in the village, my sister and I stayed at the local inn. The Tattered Banner was a low, squat building, its black timbers and white walls bowed and groaning with the strain of centuries of history. Under its thatched roof, the acrid overbearing smell of wood-smoke was our sole companion while we waited for service.
On the wall, our mysterious benefactor glared vacantly forth. The oil portrait, though only two feet tall, seemed perfectly to capture the broad, tall posture of the Baron. His dark moustache curled under a hooked, eagle-like nose, and his thin black eyebrows were set in an emotion of stubborn, victorious anger. The painting was done in an old style, reminiscent of Anthony van Dycke’s works from more than a century earlier. Behind his gleaming steel armour, a horse reared, terrified at the sight of the leaping flames that scorched the forest around him.
Below the painting hung a curious artefact, a long, scorched length of fabric emblazoned with a noble family’s crimson arms and ancestral name. While I examined this, pinching and rolling the rough cloth between my thumb and forefinger, the barkeep entered the room.
“You like the painting?”, he said, his voice thick with a provincial, ancient accent.
“It shows the Baron, I assume? My sister and I are to meet him tomorrow. What is he like?”
The barkeep shook his head, crossing himself. He began to walk out of the room, but my sister moved faster and blocked the exit.
“Tell us about him. The people fear him, don’t they? Why? We deserve to know before we see him.”
“I cannot tell you,” he stuttered. I saw the ugly anger in the portrait flare in the ink-black pupils of my sister.
“If he is dangerous, tell us now. You send us to our doom if you do not.”
“I cannot tell you because I have not seen him for more than twenty years!”, the man cried, breaking free of the cold grip of my sister’s hand on his shoulder. “That painting is of the last time he was seen in public!”
“What do you mean you haven’t seen him? The Baron must meet his subjects, from time to time.”
The man crossed himself again, casting a sign against the evil eye at the Baron’s likeness. I saw now that the man wore a turquoise bead around his neck on a worn piece of leather, and sighed. I knew that he couldn’t give us much more than overheard superstition already had.
“I will tell you the story of the painting, and the banner beneath it. Then, you must ask nothing more of me. It is unlucky to talk of the Baron’s past. I will let you stay free of charge, but you must be gone by the time I open tomorrow.”
The malicious dying light of the fire glinted off of the rubies at my sister’s neck and the twinkling pools of her eyes. I swallowed, throat dry, aware of the oppressive heat in the room.
“Tell us,” she whispered finally. The barkeep started to speak.
The inn had not always been called The Tattered Banner. Going back twenty-five years, so recent that many of the older patrons still used the old name, it had simply been called The Forest Arms. That was changed only days after the battle, though.
Tensions had been rising for quite some time. Local nobility were jealous of the rich woodland and hunting grounds that the Baron controlled. Those of a moralist disposition were made uncomfortable at the complete control he exerted over his ancestral home. Even the King, rumoured to have once been a close friend of the Baron before his seclusion in the forests, had sent messengers to request that his practises be opened up for closer inspection. Each time, of course, the messengers were sent away without any cooperation from the Baron.
Finally, something was done. A militia, armed and horsed by the King, was sent to the town with orders to keep the road to his Barony open ahead of a formal inspection lead by the ruler himself.
The Baron, somehow, seemed to have some foreknowledge of this. Even as the troops were being readied in the castle of Hinterstein, a day’s march away, he was riding around the village on his white stallion, calling to arms all the forces he could muster. Even as he summoned them, though, he knew that he was doomed. The King was sending trained men, wrapped in thick armour of hide and metal and armed with muskets and blades the likes of which had never come this far into the forest before. And so, even as he rallied his forces and set up defences along the gravelled road, he schemed. He finally came up with a plan that, he knew, would keep the outside world away for a long, long time.
He and his seven children hid in the castle at the top of the hill. While his six sons looked after their newborn infant sister, he sat in a cupola at the top of the highest of his narrow stone towers. He read books, old books that detailed the prayers that he needed, and sometimes scanned the horizon, absentminded, waiting for the inevitable sharp, rippling crack of musket fire, half muffled by the trees, that would signal that it was time to do what he dreaded so much.
No one is quite sure exactly what he did. What those who were there report, though, is that as the fighting began a high, keening wail in a language no man could speak was heard coming from the chapel of the castle.
Minutes later, he bolted forth from the castle on his horse, spit frothing its halter, coming to aid as the last of his men were losing to the onrush of their own mortality. Without caution, he plunged onwards deep into the forest and, as he approached the fighting, pulled something out of his saddle bag. Holding it by the greasy, bloodstained hair, he began to chant in that same inhuman language as the trees around him burst aflame. He didn’t even break a sweat as the forest fire consumed vast swathes of life.
Minutes later all of the King’s men were dead, boiled alive inside their metal suits, skin scorched and fused with their armour. The object he had been holding was the dark-haired head of his firstborn son, eyeless. Strange, carved words were etched into both of his cheeks with the tip of a dagger. It is said that the Baron’s curved ancestral sword was still bloody in its sheath.
The only things to return from the battlefield were the Baron and the crimson, charred pendant that now lay under the portrait modelled after that cursed day. None of his children were ever seen again.
Had it not been for my sister, I should have left at once. I knew that the story was likely nonsense, superstition passed down the ages and warped, but was the pendant of the King not there hanging on the wall? Was the portrait alone not evidence enough of the violence this man was capable of? And was it not true that, the previous morning, we had breakfasted in a clearing like what one would see sometime after a forest fire, the only marker of human habitation a pit of disturbed ground topped with a single whitewashed wooden cross?
My sister was adamant, though. She thought that nothing bad could await us in the castle, now that the Baron lay there breathing his last. My god! I wish that I could have persuaded her to stay away from that fateful destination. Perhaps I would still have her here as I write this, here in my lonely, quiet cottage that was always too small for two people but now is too big for one.
I digress. I have promised that I will write about this in as accurate a manner as I can, so that all will know and understand what happened.
As the first edge of the sun rose above the forested hilltops, a ghostly pale disc, my sister and I set out for the Baron’s castle. A thick mist hid most of the town, disappearing out into the trees, the castle above it all like Mont Saint-Michel at high tide. The village was quiet. In a few silent houses candles flickered against dust-brown windows, tallow spitting against the glass. Outside the butchers, a fresh-slaughtered pig hung by its ankles, warm blood still trickling steadily out of the two-inch deep slash that had wrenched open its neck. The white porcelain bowl beneath was close to overflowing with the spattered, sticky maroon.
We climbed the stone steps out of the gloom. From the slope, we could see along the entire length of the valley, even to the distant towers of Hinterstein, that storied castle where the last visitors to the Baron had prepared for their final journey. The path turned in on itself, and the view was finally hidden. Ahead of us was nothing but the impassive, massive oblong of the studded oak door.
My sister gave it a gentle push, and ahead of us the door swung open on silent, oiled hinges. A short, dark tunnel faced us, and then we were in the overgrown weeds and patchy turf of the ancient, untended courtyard. The walls around us seemed to lean inwards as if to make us claustrophobic. Dull grey roof slates sloughed off and into shattered piles of masonry on the path around the edge of the grass. At the centre was a long stopped bronze fountain, green rust corroding Cupid’s face from neat Italian sculpture to something natural and unrecognisable.
There were no signs that anyone had been here for a very long time. Most of the walls around us were punctured only by the cramped eyelids of arrow slits, and what arrows there were, crisscrossed with lead, were either blind with dirt or had become shattered, jagged teeth around a rotten, vacuous mouth.
My sister pressed her face up to an empty diamond of window, inviting me over. Inside, we saw a long, broad corridor. Baroque decorations of gilded oak ran up the walls towards opulent ceiling paintings of rich classical scenes. The dense, red carpet had become dark pink with the decade’s worth of dust piled into its velvet smoothness.
A painting was hung opposite us, illuminated in crosshatch through the milky gloom of the windows. The subject was, we assumed, some ancestor of the Baron’s. The woman was tall and imperial, her corset-thin waist perched precariously above the broad hips of her whalebone dress. Above a wide, lacey ruff her face smirked with raptorial intelligence, her dark eyes set apart, divided by her characteristically aquiline nose. Dark, curled hair was held in place by a silver tiara encrusted in the fine blood-clot points of rubies.
A dark cloud passed across the sky, driven by a cold wind that carried with it the implicit threat of rain. It was with a shiver that the both of us fixed eyes on the sole accessible door in the courtyard, set within the still immaculate walls of the castle’s chapel. Even before we decided to enter, we both knew that, on the other side, the Baron was waiting for us.
The room was lit in dull amber. Yellowing, oily-scented candles burnt with long tapering flames that stretched towards the high ceilings. The smoky columns passed the idols of saints and cool blue stained glass windows. Each depicted a different martyr in their final rictus of pain. On the far wall, placed above the low wooden exit, hung a life-sized crucifix, conspicuously missing its occupant.
Below the cross, just ahead of us, where the altar should have been, was the Baron. His bed was white and pure, but crumpled around the diminutive figure who was its only occupant. His dark hair was gone now, the scalp wrinkled over his thin, eggshell skull. The slender dark eyebrows were now white with age. Either side of the eagle-hook nose, his dark eyes lay half-open, their pupils looking vacantly across the room, past us, at some saint or other. The neck moved with each painful swallow and weak breath. Finally, the eyes opened fully and focused on my sister’s face.
“My daughter. Come, please. Daughter…” he whispered, slowly. My sister approached.
“My lord, I am not your daughter. I am the child of Duke-”
“No!”, he yelled with surprising force, starting forwards. His dark hazel eyes fixed a moment on mine, and I saw the fire that lay within, the anger that was so perfectly captured in the portrait in The Tattered Banner. Then, sitting up on his ancient bones, he fixed his gaze on my sister.
“The Duke… he was my friend, yes, and he took you in, my child, but… you are my daughter.”
“Your daughter?” my sister said, tears of confusion threatening to break from the corners of her eyes, “But… you killed your children!”
“No… not you, my love. You were too young… I could not hurt you. They didn’t… they didn’t want the girl.”
“Yes, the gods. The gods. The gods, they wanted my sons. They wanted… they made me kill them myself, with my sword… my old sword…”
“My brothers. You murdered my brothers? You killed them and abandoned me. You bastard! How could you?”
I went to console her, to hug this sister who was not my sister, but she threw me off. The same fire which had burned in the Baron’s eyes now burned in hers. A single precious tear now rolled down the creased cheek of the Baron and onto the white goose-feather pillow.
“I needed the power. They… they were coming to me. Please, I needed to hand down the line, to keep this place for my children.”
“Your children? You slaughtered your children like pigs, you monster!”
“Not all of them. You must take my position. Keep the family alive. You are our family now.”
“You are no family of mine!” she shrieked, lunging forwards and ripping of her ermine gloves. Straddling his pathetic form, she gripped tight onto the tendons of his throat, pushing hard into the bony flesh and gristle. I watched, too astounded to do anything, as the white skin of her hands deformed around the spine of her father, the Last Baron. We were silent as his last whistling breaths flowed out and into nothing.
Panting, crying, she collapsed beside the now expired man. The Last Baron was dead, and now the castle had a Baroness, one who had earned the violent right to the title.
The door out of the church opened up into a small graveyard set onto the side of the hill. Behind the leaning trees and drooping boughs, the pine forests far below us stretched and smothered the terrain in a smooth, oceanic flatness. The chill wind had passed, and now a warming afternoon sun bathed us in its late-spring glow.
There was cow parsley in between the stones. Dozens of lanky, skeletal stalks burst from the ground and branched up and out into the snowflake flowers that gently bobbed in the cool breeze, dancing in a rhythm repeated atop that hill since time immemorial. Tall grass swayed with the passing gusts, heavy heads bowing low with the burden of thick, ripe seeds. Around everything was the droning murmur of crickets, and two white butterflies skittered around each other, circling the Baroness and I.
Six gravestones, hewn from the same slate-grey rock as the castle, poked their blunt male heads above the flowers in the graveyard. There were others there too, but these identical six were fresh and new. If one wanted to, one could still make out their names and ages below the just-begun growths of lichen. The youngest was six. Behind each trailed my sister’s new surname, like a banner behind a charging horseman.
I let her cry for a little while. Really, there was nothing I could do but wait. As time passed, though I knew that there was going to be no return to England for her, that just like the ghosts of her father’s past she would never truly leave this castle behind.
As the sun began to fall back towards its nightly rest, I turned to leave. The Baroness reached out her hand, though, and I took it. The warm feel of used metal came into my hand as she disengaged, and there in my fingers was the skeleton ring, the little figure gallivanting cheerily in the danse macabre. She shrugged at me, and I met those brown eyes, so much like her father’s.
“The ring is yours. It was your father that we buried, not mine.”
“Sister,” I replied, stumbling over the word that seemed not to fit in my mouth anymore. Shameful, she gazed back at the headstone that had so caught her attention, the grave of her oldest sibling. She nodded in wordless reply.
“Don’t bury him here. This place is too nice, don’t let him pollute it.”
She nodded and stood. She embraced me once, kissed me, and then that was it. I left her in that high stone castle, and have never returned. She gave a hearty donation to restore my family name, and I have been working hard to pay off the debts of my father.
I wear that memento mori even now, as I write this. Not to remind me of death, but to remind me of her, of the Last Baron and the First Duchess.
Hullo there guys, just thought I should probably let you all know what’s going on here at HTW.
March has been an insanely busy month with me, both with some personal stuff and with a production I am taking part in that opens tomorrow(!). That said, though, I have not been idle, and I think it would be rude of me not to tell you all about some of my upcoming projects.
For starters, my (long awaited) novel should finally be out early next month! I don’t know how many of you know about this, but I took part in the NaNoWriMo challenge last November, and since then have been working to revise and edit my story until it is finally ready for you all to read. It’s finally getting there, and now that I have some fantastic cover art (painted by the wonderfully talented Sophie Rowan) ready for it, you can all expect it to be out on Amazon Kindle in the first week of April.
That is not the only project going on right now though. I am working on a fun lil multi-modal piece that will be spread across this blog, YouTube and, probably, another blog. Tentatively titled “Letters”, I will be producing a trailer for it next week and the full content of the story will be delivered across April.
Finally, I just thought you should know that normal writing hasn’t taken a back seat for me. Two of my already released stories, Die Teufelsbrücke and The Mummers were recently re-released on creepypasta.com, so if you haven’t read them you can give them a rating and a comment over there (or, if you’ve already enjoyed them, why not leave a rating anyway). Additionally, I have a new story coming, called The Last Baron. Not gonna spoil anything at this point other than to say that this very aesthetic picture is something to do with it.
I think that’s just about all I’ve got to say at the moment. If you hadn’t realised already, the best ways to keep up with what’s going on here on the blog is through social media, whether that’s my Facebook or my Twitter.
I knew that it was gonna be hard to find a good place to spend Valentine’s in the South.
I’d prepared for the homophobia when I moved to Mississippi to be with my long-term boyfriend, but I was surprised at how often I’d go somewhere with him and, at best, feel immediately unwanted and, at worst, be shouted at and told to leave. When it got to Valentine’s though we decided that enough was enough and we decided to go somewhere where we felt safe, accepted, and had that crucial romantic mid-February feel. So, we drove up the I-55 and hopped over the border into Tennessee, where we hit up The Pumping Station, which proudly proclaimed itself Memphis’s #1 Gay Bar.
The food was alright, standard bar fare of greasy fries and charred-to-perfection steak. The drinks were very cheap and very alcoholic, and by the time we staggered out at closing time both of us were drunk.
It was colder than I’d anticipated, and I shivered a little as we paced slowly and comfortably down the empty roads, passing between pools of sodium-orange light. Ever the gentleman, Theo (my boyfriend) offered me his jacket, which I gratefully accepted.
I think we intended to get lost that night. I knew where the car was (although neither of us could even consider driving in that state), and I had the local taxi company’s number ready to go. In that moment, though, such concerns were far from my mind. I was simply happy to walk side by side with him, quiet and in love and hidden from the world. The few others we did see were, like us, in silent adoration with a partner – even if it was technically the early hours of February 15th, the ghost of St. Valentine was very much with the people of Memphis.
We walked for a little while, sharing a comfortable silence, communicating with our eyes only, until we got to the edge of a dark, lonely park. The wrought iron gate in the low stone wall hung open, a gaping mouth that tempted us in. Theo suggested we go in there and do what two guys do in parks at night, and I suppose the four martinis I’d drunk swayed my judgement. Hand in hand, we stepped onto the gravel path that wound through trees and shrubs and, finding a bush to conceal us, he dropped to his knees and got to work on me.
A couple of minutes in I began to smell this smell, kinda like the sea. I tried to dismiss it, but it was pretty rank and I began to gag for reasons other than that I’d expected. It went away soon enough
We began getting into the swing of things again, but it struck again soon after bad enough that I lost any arousal I had. Theo stopped and stood up, and I physically recoiled from the smell. I staggered backwards a little, and my hand came to rest on some masonry, covered with rough, dry lichen. I suddenly realised that it wasn’t a smell of the sea- this was rot, rushing water, dead things drying on the bank- the smell of river.
I saw something, and shrieked. Theo jumped so hard that, if he’d still been doing what we were doing, I have no doubt that he’d have orally castrated me. Stumbling across a street-lit gravel path was a figure, female judging by the long, dirty hair and grotesque breasts. It was a shambling perversion of a human that dragged its amorphous, flabby body off into the shadow. I freaked out at that point and used my phone’s light to try and find my clothes and get the hell out of there. My torch picked up text on the stone: Mary-Anne Louden. February 14th 1839 – April 27th 1865. Lost aboard the steamboat Sultana.
I don’t know what that thing was that we saw that night, whether it was related to Mary-Anne anyone else. There is one fact that I learned that night though.
There are no parks near The Pumping Station. Theo and I were in the Elmwood Cemetery.
People always get the wrong end of the stick when I tell them that my grandad was a Nazi. I mean, of course he was in the Leipzig branch of the Hitler Youth as a teen, joined the party when old enough and, in December of 1943, was drafted into the army to fight in the dying years of the war. That said though, he was never really committed to all the anti-Semitic, fascist ideology. In fact, just three years after the war, he married my grandmother Rokhl, a Polish Jew, in the same church hall that years earlier had hosted the Hitler Youth meetings, before crossing the border into British Germany and, then, across the sea to a new life in London. That said, he did have some great stories from what I grew up thinking of as “the other side”.
He fought on the Eastern Front mainly. Though never sent to the worst conflicts of the region, battles like those at Stalingrad, Kursk, and Kharkov, he met many soldiers both in the standard army and the Waffen-SS who had fought there, who told him their stories. Years later, he would tell these stories to an impressionable young child on his knee who would listen, enrapt in the story, sitting on the floor of the little apartment that smelled of wood smoke and cigarettes.
Grandad passed away early last year, surrounded by his closest family. I’ll always miss him. In memory, I’m going to pass on a story he himself passed on from a wounded soldier, who himself heard it from a Waffen-SS friend of him. The story of Die Teufelsbrücke.
The camp lay quiet as the snows fell that night. The canvas of the tent bulged inwards, pregnant, as four men talked angrily over a table smothered in sepia brown maps and charts, pins marking the path they should have taken days ago. The only heat and light in the room came from a spitting naphtha lamp in the corner that cast long, dark shadows over everything. One of the men was talking with ice in his voice.
“Look! I don’t care about the fucking mission right now! If we don’t move on tomorrow, we are all going to die. We need help!”
The officer was young, too young perhaps to have been promoted to Scharführer. Exasperated, he ripped off his hat and ran a hand through his blonde hair. The older men noticed this lapse in discipline.
“We have our orders,” one of them replied, his voice a flat monotone. “We are to hold the bridge until further orders are given. We cannot give in to the Bolsheviks!” As he spoke the pasty skin of his jowls quivered. One lock of the greying hair stuck out from under the brim of his cap.
“What bridge?” the Scharführer cried, ignoring the man’s higher rank of Standartenjunker. “Look at it!”
He strode across the tent and threw the flap open. A blast of horrifyingly cold air forced its way into the room, but the officers did not react. The snow had paused for the moment, and through the thinning clouds a half moon shone fiercely. The undisturbed snow reflected the light into a pale blue sheen across the land.
Just beyond the perimeter of the camp, the once lazy river was now frozen, a thin crust of ice and snow separating the air from the rushing waters beneath. Jutting up from the bright expanse were shattered pieces of masonry, charred and humbled.
“For three hundred years that bridge stood tall, but all it took was one Petlyakov to flatten it and kill half our god-damn section as well! Look, we can’t cross here, but there’s another bridge just a day’s travel south of here, day and a night tops in this weather.”
“When they know of our situation, they will send engineers to rebuild the bridge,” another man said, his skin pale white from the days of cold, and the oncoming illness that would be his death. He was also higher rank than the youth.
“And just when will they know of our situation, Sturmführer? We haven’t had radio contact in days, have we? We are on our own here! It is time to take action!”
“Steurmannsmatt, how long will our provisions last?” the pasty-skinned Standartenjunker asked, ignoring the Scharführer. The timid, diminutive quartermaster looked up from the corner where he had been sitting quietly. He spoke with a mild, stuttering shiver.
“We have food for four days, six if we start seriously rationing. Ammunition is fine, we haven’t fired a single shot in weeks. The petrol is frozen solid in the trucks, though, and as for the naphtha,” he gestured at the spitting flame, “the tanks ran dry this evening. What is currently in the furnaces is all we have.”
“What about water?” the pale Sturmführer asked.
The Steurmannsmatt shrugged, his unornamented lapels lifting and dropping with a futile little rustle of fabric. “I couldn’t say. Until now we’ve been melting snow with the naphtha, but I guess we’ll have to start drawing dirty water from the river. We have no chance of digging a well in these conditions.”
The Scharführer quietly looked out of the flap at the heap on the camp’s edge. Wells weren’t the only thing that they were having difficulty with digging into the frozen, hard ground, and the pile of preserved, ice-white bodies had been steadily growing over the past few weeks. Unable to rot in the cold, their gleaming pale skin was naked where people had harvested their clothes in an attempt to stay warm. As the steadily increasing mortality rates showed, it was a tactic that seldom worked.
“We have enough to survive for at least a week then. Make sure we do, Steurmannsmatt. Oh, and Scharführer?” the Standartenjunker called. The Scharführer turned to face him.
“You’re dismissed. Be sure to close the tent on your way out, won’t you?” he said mockingly, tossing the cap to the youth. Glaring at the older man, he firmly forced it onto his head and stamped out into the snow, purposefully leaving the door open.
With each step, his leather boots crunched knee-deep into the icy crust. The clouds had gone now, blown away by the same fierce wind that now rattled the tent poles and sucked at the canvas, bringing a thousand diamonds of ice stinging into his cheek with each raging gust.
“Scharführer, the officers are arschlochs, no?”
The youth stopped walking, glancing up from the snow-bound path ahead of him, searching for the source of the voice. He didn’t recognise it. Most of his men were from bigger cities, harsh in voice and temperament. The voice he had heard, though, was sophisticated, cultured. Carefully, the officer readied his pistol.
“Behind you, Scharführer.”
He turned and saw a dark form standing in the shadow of a tent. Slowly, he walked towards the figure.
“Identify yourself, soldier.
The man stepped forwards into the light of the moon and, for a second, the young officer was unable to believe his eyes. With shaking, numb fingers he struck a match and, by the wavering, long yellow flame, looked upon the face of a dead man.
“Rottenführer Pfeiffer? I saw the bombs fall! I saw them drag you out of the water, lungs full of water and a belly full of shrapnel! You’re dead! You can’t be here!”
“A temporary setback,” the man drawled in his aristocratic tongue. “Touch me, Scharführer, and you will see that I am here.”
The dead man held out one hand and, tentatively, the officer took it.
The corpse was warm. Not just warm, really, but hot, near painfully so. His skin felt like as if fires were raging beneath the surface, only just held at bay by the Scaphian Bull of the man’s skin. Terrified, the youth tore his hand away from the cadaver’s grip, and noticed that the ground around the two of them was steaming, snow melting and leaving the floor a shiny quagmire of new, saturated mud.
“You… you’re not real!” the officer exclaimed.
“And yet I am,” the dead man replied. His eyes still looked glassy and blind, on the edge of rotting.
The Scharführer looked over to the towering pyramid of unburied bodies. Was it his imagination? Or did it look like a couple were missing? The glassy, dead eyes followed his gaze.
“I am flesh, like you, Scharführer. If you look at the heap, you will not find me there.”
“What… what are you?” he gasped out, terror clutching about his heart like the icy, asphyxiating mantle of snow that enveloped the heap of dead men, men his leadership had killed. The corpse shrugged.
“We are Legion, Scharführer.”
“Dear Christ, are you the devil?”
The man laughed, a dry, croaking sort of laugh that sounded airless and gasped out of his mouth. On the breath, the faintest odour of dry rot was carried. The officer wrapped his hand around the well-worn grip of the automatic pistol in the holster at his hip.
“We may not be the Devil, Scharführer, but we’re closely related enough to Him that that peashooter you’re clutching will do nothing but anger us, and we are not a group you want to anger. Now, we have a proposal for you, one that will not cost the lives of a single man in your service.”
“Make your offer, demon,” the Scharführer said. Normally, he would have wanted to talk inside, but the snow that had started to fall again now melted into a thin mist of drizzle as it approached the two of them. The officer didn’t take his hand off of his pistol.
“Let’s take this inside, shall we? We don’t feel the cold, so much,” he said, reaching out of the circle of warmth and plunging his bare hand down into the deep snow up to his elbow, the ground frozen from days before, at his side. He never broke eye contact. “But you do,” he continued.
The two men entered the tent.
“So, you will build me a bridge?”
The dead man nodded. “We will. You have dozens of ready hosts out there that we can use. It can be done by morning.”
“Where will the materials come from?”
The cadaver shrugged. “It won’t be a problem.”
“And what payment do you require? My grandfather always said that when you deal with the devil, you have to pay the price.”
“A wise man. We require a soul.”
The man shivered at the way the corpse uttered the word. What business do you have with souls, when you yourself lack one? he thought. As the man was warming up, the smell of rot was becoming far, far stronger than previously, to the point where the Scharführer began to feel a gag coming on.
“Any will do. We will harvest the soul of the first man to cross the bridge.”
“But you said that this did not require the deaths of a single man in my service!”
“And that is true. I believe there are three officers at this camp?”
The two sat in silence for a couple of minutes. The Scharführer wondered whether the smell of Pfeiffer’s reanimated body would linger in the tent after he was gone.
“Do I have your agreement, Scharführer?”
The man nodded. The officer wondered whether it was just a clever trick or true, evil magic that the corpse used to produce a pre-written contract and a quill pen, tipped with a single ruby drop of fresh blood.
The officer did not sleep that night, the sounds of the dead labouring away at the edge of the river keeping him away from what would have been, he had no doubt, uneasy dreams. Eventually, a rosy finger of dawn light broke through the seam of his tent and, not bothering to clothe himself, he walked out and into the snow.
More snow had fallen, and the deep whiteness reached up to his thighs, soaking his thin pyjamas through. The heap was gone, a little rough rectangle of bare ground with footsteps leading away. The man faltered and tripped, plunging whole body into the snow.
It sure was a fine bridge ahead of him.
Three long, Roman arches crossed the water. A few broken spires from the previous structure still poked out of the ice, though the red bricks of the new construction seemed entirely unrelated from the older, late-medieval structure. Strangely, the ice seemed entirely smooth, unbroken and treacherously clear. Underneath the frosty glass the Scharführer could see the supports, where algae seemed already to have been growing for years, despite the youth of the bridge.
The officer had been dreading seeing the dead on this final walk but, mercifully, they weren’t there. He reached the perimeter gate and saw that the guards were still asleep. Just as well. He didn’t want there to be any witnesses to what happened next.
The smooth paving of the bridge had just the barest dusting of snow, the newly laid tarmac modern and high-quality. The man whispered one final prayer and, eyes closed, stepped onto the bridge.
When his eyes opened, he was looking into the eyes of the dead- not just the eyes of Pfeiffer, but the eyes of all the dead at the camp, their flesh now sloughing off as the skin discoloured and their faces drooping heavy with death. The thing controlling Pfeiffer’s form smiled and, plunging a hand into the soft flesh of the Scharführer’s stomach, shrieked with all the ancient anger of the thousand demons that made up Legion.
The dead fell upon the officer, fingers grasping and claws tearing.
Officially, the Scharführer died of suicide by hanging. What the officers left out of the report was that the young officer had been hanged from the bridge by his own intestines, his belly torn open with savage force and his scalp ripped off. His face was left intact, save for his lower jaw which, by the account of the camp medic, had been bitten clean in half by human teeth. The upper mandible was missing all its teeth, and it looked as if they’d been pulled out while the officer was still alive and, worse, conscious.
As it happened, his self-sacrifice was in vain. Just two days after, as the men trudged to what they were told was safety, two Petlyakov dive-bombers attacked the soldiers, one of which was flown by the same pilot who had bombed the bridge days earlier, killing all but two men- the pasty-skinned Standartenjunker, and a junior soldier. The Standartenjunker ended up killing the man to survive in the cold, planning to cannibalise him, when he was captured, tortured, and executed by Soviet forces.
To this day, the Teufelsbrücke still stands, reaching between the banks of the Taseyeva River.