By: C.W. Lochland
A grave is where you go to end a story. And the more stories that end, the more headstones you find. I suppose if you build a house atop the headstones, it becomes a place that welcomes those that are already dead. And if you listen closely to the walls, you can hear the cold pulse that still runs through them. And all the stories they carry. I lived in a house like that for 204 years. The Headstone House, I called her. And I know all her stories. This is but one.
I was reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger when Max came into my life.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
I felt my entire world go still.
Was it another inquiry with the police? Had they finally noticed that the same man was acting as a landlord to this house for 127 years?
If that was the case, I had everything prepared. No matter who was coming to visit me. My phylactery was waiting on the side table, and my handgun was just beside it.
And when the smoke had cleared from the conflict, I had a suitcase hidden in my bedroom, packed to the brim with money to fund my escape.
My heart beat faster as I contemplated who would be waiting for me just outside the door. A vengeful Watchman? A nightwalker from the Old World?
I could hear no footsteps, heavy breathing, or the gentle clicking of a handgun being prepared for firing.
This was someone who was prepared for what was waiting on this side of the door. And that meant I had to take every precaution.
I crept toward the front door, and made no sound as I crossed over the floorboards. When I landed at the threshold, I prepared my handgun. It had been engineered to make no sound, right up until the moment I pulled the trigger. And even then, the sound was kept very faint.
For good measure, I recounted all the incantations that I could whisper to the phylactery and gain the upper hand against any supernatural enemies.
I was ready for whatever was waiting on the other side.
I was sure of it.
“Tenere adhuc,” I whispered.
There was an ethereal hushing sound that engulfed everything just outside of the front door, and I threw the door open.
My gun was raised, and I saw nothing stretching into the distant reaches of the night.
Just the same wilderness that had always been there when I opened the door these last 127 years.
My eyes lowered to the doorstep, and I found a peculiar object waiting for me.
A small, bloodstained crate.
There was no movement, no sound, and no smell coming from it. And no postage, markers, or packaging to suggest where the box came from.
I was sure that as I approached the crate, I would be able to discern the source of the blood. Would it be the hot blood of an animal? The sweet blood of a human? Or the sickening smell of a nightwalker?
To my surprise, the blood was so old and came from so many sources, I could not place it.
It was a weathered crate that had clearly been through years of abuse and travel. Parts of it had been broken off and gouged out. And anything that remained seemed to form wooden fangs and claws to keep you out.
The lintering splinters were so sharp, just touching the box would have left several splinters that reached deep under your skin.
I thought it best to gather my work gloves.
They were just inside the door, and I would keep the create in my sight.
I was sure that it would be safe to interact with it. The spell from my phylactery would have kept any malicious power or monster inside it at bay. At least, until I figured out how to handle it.
If we were lucky, perhaps there would be a place for it inside the Headstone House.
I just had to find out if it belonged as a resident, or if it belonged as an prisoner.
I reached down, and cautiously raised the create in my hands.
The sound of the wood casting splinters into my gloves was a chilling one, but it stopped before it could delve deeper past the fabric, and into my hands.
I could feel my hands shaking, and I lifted the crate upwards. It was surprisingly light. Perhaps only a few grams in weight, total.
I quickly moved it into the foyer and I placed it in front of the hearth.
Most supernatural beings had changed their tune when they were in the presence of the hearth.
I tried to let go of the box, but my fingers couldn’t move from where they were. The fabric was starting to be pulled into the sides.
“Dammit,” I cursed.
I pulled my hands free of my gloves, and I watched as the splinters started to absorb my work gloves into them.
I had to act fast.
I held up my phylactery, and issued another command.
“Mitte per focum lumen tuum, et subice hanc creaturam,” I whispered.
The hearth’s flame had turned blue, and cast a darker shadow over the crate.
The gloves had shed off the sides, and whatever was at work inside the box had stopped.
It was clearly affected by the shadow of the house. But I had to take action and find out what phantasm was waiting inside the crate. It clearly was clever enough to stay hidden, but opportunistic enough to take advantage of every moment it remained a mystery to me.
I reached for the fire poker, and I prepared myself to pry the top of the box open. Whatever was waiting was under the influence of the phylactery and the hearth. Surely it couldn’t move, unless I wanted it to.
I thrust the fire poker into the lid of the crate, and I forced it open.
A plume of dust shot out from the lid, and the smell of rot followed.
As soon as the filth and odor had infected the house, the lid fell back to its original place. With the faintest glimpse into what lay inside.
There was only darkness.
“You’re a strange one, aren’t you?” I asked.
It was clever enough to stay hidden. Even after everything that happened.
The box had the slightest glimmer appear in the deep recesses of the shadow it held. And I thought I saw the shine of silver.
But that was impossible. There was no rattling of coins when I picked up the box before, and it was too light to hold even one coin.
But this would have been a good trick to get humans to reach inside the box. That must have been what this monster wanted.
“Nice try,” I attempted.
Darkness dominated the inside of the box once again.
I pondered the mystery of that box and my mind went back to those nights when I was still learning what it meant to be a nightwalker. When I was taken to the gravediggers, priests, and prisoners that littered Warsaw and learned the names of every monster that traveled freely across the mortal coil.
It was possible that the glimmer of silver was not coins, but an artful shrouding of its silver light in crushing darkness. But that would have been too easy an answer. And there was the way the box could cling to whatever touched it.
I had heard rumors of nightwalkers that were so attuned to nature that they had both plant and animal in them. And when they felt threatened, they could jump inside of trees and morph the wood to take on whatever form they had wanted.
Perhaps there was a way to confirm this theory.
I crossed over to the kitchen, and I produced a slab of meat from the icebox.
It was a prime cut that was dripping with blood. I rested my fangs on it, and drained the blood until the meat was entirely white in color.
Had this creature been a nightwalker, it would have had a telling reaction to being offered drained meat.
I returned to my seat, and I I held the meat in the air.
The box remained calm.
The lid opened slowly, and I could still find nothing inside but darkness.
In response, I threw the meat inside the box, and the lid closed fast behind it.
For a moment, there was nothing.
Not even the sound of the meat hitting the bottom of the crate.
The sound was almost enough to make me jump, but I sat back down and realized that that noise could only be my guest eating his fill. There were the unmistakable sounds of flesh ripping, and then nothing at all.
I pondered what this creature could be, but the more I tried to piece the information together, the further apart it seemed.
Had it been a soul, it surely would have done something more to try and get my attention. And after I had fed it meat, it surely would have given me something more to work with.
Except I couldn’t see it. And it made no effort to make its presence known.
I continued pondering the mystery of the box. Who was inside it, why it was here, and what it would require of me the longer it stayed here. But as the candles in the room continued to melt, I realized that no answers would appear tonight.
I picked myself up, pocketed my phylactery, and prepared myself for sleep.
The fire would continue to hold the crate, at least until the night was over. I would be safe to sleep. And even if I wasn’t, the souls bound to the house would intervene.
Even with these assurances I whispered to myself, I had trouble sleeping.
I closed my eyes, but I could hear every sound in the house. The wind coming through my open window. The birds that flew around the house, but refused to land on the roof. And the cold hissing of cinders in the hearth. They all could be found, and I could detect where all of them had moved.
It was a skill that had always been a necessity for nightwalkers, and was treated much more like a game and less like security the longer you practiced it. And now, I could hear nothing. The only sound to emerge from the reading room was the hearth itself. The cinders hissing and the logs weakening with the receding crackles.
Then another sound manifested at the foot of my bed.
It was unlike any sound I had heard in the Headstone House before. The faint lapping of a dog brushing its tongue across a slab of flesh. But I was overcome with so much more than just that sound. My eyes shot open and stared at the ceiling as I realized my feet were warm and wet. The smell of gangrenous rot had overpowered the entire bedroom. And my tongue went dry at the onslaught of so many unexpected sensations, all at once.
Nothing had ever been able to sneak up on me.
What was here?
I shot upwards, and looked at my feet to see a towering and slender figure, standing at eight feet tall. It was looming over the foot of my bed and slathering my toes with its snakelike tongue. The coiling of its rotten flesh on my own was incessant, like a thirsty canine brought to water. The creature’s sunken, yellow eyes looked up at me with bemused and morbid curiosity.
A host of flies and bones clung to its body, from lack of washing. And it's terrible face lay at the center. It had ghastly plumage all across its body, forming a lion’s mane made of dead peacock feathers. Its broken beak held rows smiling piranha teeth. And a host of flies were coming from inside its belly, and circling the trail of stench it left in its wake. And its rodent nose twitched at my terror.
Truly hideous in its form, and gleefully anticipating a fresh kill.
It was a monster I had never seen before.
I threw myself back into the wall, and the monster rushed out of the room with unnatural speed. Even with my heightened senses, I lost sight of it instantly. It made no sound and could have been anywhere in the house.
I sat on top of my bed, and tried to gauge where it might have gone.