Mt. Spire shone brilliant and white above the bristly pines. In the noontime sun, one could see the snow weep and the summer trails reveal themselves. It was a wonderful sight for any climber. However, Anna would consider it even more wonderful if she did not have to hike ten miles to actually get there.
“Why didn’t we just drive to the mountain?” she asked. Will and Carl chuckled. Their identical smirks mocked her for her laziness.
“If you can’t handle a leisurely stroll,” Will said.
“How can you climb the mountain?” his twin finished. They were perfect reflections of each other. Not an inch too tall. Not a freckle out of place. And they both behaved like sarcastic assholes. Luckily, Carl always wore red, and Will always wore blue. That way Anna could tell them apart.
Despite the twins’ attitude, the trail was rough and rocky, even for them. Their broad chests heaved. Their faces flushed red. Their thick, curly beards dripped with sweat.
And if the twins dripped with sweat, Rachel poured with it. She was a portly girl, and that was putting it lightly. However, she was Carl’s wife and Anna’s best friend. They couldn’t exactly exclude her from the trip. Besides, what she lacked in physique, she made up for in spirit. Even as she gasped for breath, Rachel managed a smile.
“Don’t worry, Anna,” she said. “We’ll make it.”
“That’s not my concern,” Anna said. She glared at the raging sun and then at the wrinkled map in her hands. The path they were on wrapped around the rugged countryside, tilting up and down, over and around. Sure, they’d get to Mt. Spire eventually. But at what time?
“So, what’s the problem, princess?” Will said. She hated that nickname. In fact, she hated most things Will had to say. It was a shame. Will was handsome, and Anna was lonely. Once she wondered what it felt like to be in his embrace. Now even his voice repelled her.
“Don’t call me that,” Anna said. She smacked him across the back of the head and shoved the map into his hands. “Look. This is the most winding and convoluted path to the mountain. There’s no way we’ll get there before nightfall.”
Will pushed the map back into her hands. “You look. There’s no other path,” he said. “If we don’t make it, we stop and make camp. No big deal.”
“One day to the mountain. One day up the mountain. One day down. One day back. That was the plan,” Anna said.
The twins shrugged. “What’s one more day?” Carl said.
Rachel cleared her throat. “In Anna’s defense,” she said, wiping the sweat from her eyes, “Some of us need to go back to work.”
“So what? Take an extra day. You need a breather from that boring state job,” Will said. He punched Anna’s shoulder. She punched him back harder.
“Believe it or not, I like my boring state job.” She did. Loved it, in fact. The job provided Anna with two of her favorite things, two things Will knew nothing about: order and routine. Did Will even have a job? Still, Anna wished her job offered time for more in life, like a relationship or a pet. Anna once wanted a relationship with Will, but not anymore. Rachel told her he had a cat with tiger stripes and golden eyes. But she couldn’t date Will.
Anna stopped and stared at the glittering peak of Mt. Spire. Several miles of dense pines and gnarled oak separated them from their destination. But it was several miles fewer than the crooked path before them. “Why don’t we just cut through the forest?” she asked.
The twins stopped with a groan. Rachel bent over and took a well-needed break. She opened her canteen and guzzled down a mouthful of water. “I’m game for anything,” she said, though she looked ready to pass out.
“I’m not bushwhacking through that,” Carl said, pointing into the woods. A cool breeze snaked through the trees. It smelled of moss and moist earth. As the group peered into the forest, the shadows shifted and the trees groaned. Their branches shook, and their leaves fell, one by one.
Anna snorted. “I thought you two were all for adventure.”
Brow knit, Carl extended his hand. “Give me the map,” he said. As he studied the map, wrinkles stretched across his face. “Like it or not, Will, she might be onto something. It’s only a couple miles through the forest. No rivers. Incline is fairly steady.”
“How bad could it be?” Rachel said. She had finally caught her breath, but sweat still glistened on her face. And she was not the only one. The sun bore down on them with relentless heat. If anything, they could use relief from the heat.
“So what’s the plan then? Just make our own path?” Will said. He looked around at the others. They said nothing. Instead, they answered with content smiles and subtle nods. So, shaking his head and muttering to himself, Will stepped into the forest.
At once, his mood improved. In fact, everyone’s mood improved. The ground cushioned their steps, the shade cooled their skin, and the air was soft and fragrant. The hike was so pleasant it didn’t matter that they had to weave their way through the trees. It didn’t matter that the sun was descending quick. It didn’t matter that Mt. Spire was no closer than when they started. No one noticed.
When the forest finally broke onto a wide, grassy field, evening was nearly upon them. Still, it didn’t seem to bother anyone.
“Not much we can do now,” Carl said.
“What’s another day?” said his wife.
“I guess we’ll just make camp here in the field,” Will said.
But Anna pushed forward. In the center of the field, in the shadow of Mt. Spire, was a rickety, old house. The last thing Anna expected was for someone to live here, in the middle of nowhere, with no path to civilization. “Maybe there are people inside,” she said. “Maybe they will let us stay the night.”
“That’s a little presumptuous,” Carl said.
“Quite,” his brother added.
No lights shone in the battered home. No cars stood out front. And as they approached the house’s slanted porch, they heard nothing. By all accounts, the structure was still and dead.
“Hello?” Anna called. She knocked on the door. “Hello?” There was no answer.
Will shook his head. “The place is abandoned,” he said.
“Doesn’t mean we can’t stay the night,” Anna said. She tried the door. It was unlocked. Overcome with curiosity, she stepped into the home. The floorboards creaked underfoot. Dust rose like smoke from fire.
Behind her, the others followed along, not knowing why. They poked their heads around this corner and that, and craned their necks to investigate every corner of the building. Truth be told, there wasn’t much to look at. Ashes lay black in a fireplace covered in cobwebs. Books stood upright on a shelf, untouched for decades. Photos rested on the mantle with faces coated in a dense film.
While the others investigated the rest of the house, Anna took one of the photos and wiped it on her shirt. She saw a wedding party. The bride and groom smiled with unmatched joy. They held each other close and looked only at each other. Their love was palpable. Anna wondered if she’d ever know love like that. She looked for Will. He was gone.
As Anna placed the photo back on the mantle, she heard a scream from the next room. She rushed over and found her friends standing in a living room with two red arm chairs. Seated in the chairs were two corpses. The man’s flesh was pale and rotten. Bone shone pallid white where maggots had taken their fill. The woman looked marginally better. A rosy hue even clung to her cheeks. Otherwise, she was a mess of leathery skin and moth-bitten clothes. Flies crawled over her face and buzzed with delight.
One look was enough. Anna turned away and covered her mouth. But the stubborn stench of death forced its way through her fingers. She could feel its putrid scent coat her tongue and choke her throat. Before she vomited on her shoes, Anna rushed outside and breathed in the fresh air. Rachel was not far behind.
“This was a mistake,” Anna said.
“Oh, that was dreadful,” Rachel said. Carl stood beside her with his arm around her shoulder. He kissed the top of her head, but she was numb to his touch. “Those poor people. What happened to them?”
“Isn’t it obvious? They died,” Will said as a matter of fact. Although he carried the same, smug smirk, an emptiness had taken hold of his eyes. His irises were dull and black and devoid of light. Clearly, the bodies had shaken him too. Maybe Will was capable of being serious, even if only for a second.
“In their chairs? At the same time?” Anna said.
Rachel sighed from deep within her chest. “Dreadful,” she repeated.
“It doesn’t matter,” Carl said. “We’re not staying in that house tonight. It’s not right.” Everyone nodded, even Will. They were all in agreement. Trying hard to erase the image of the dead from their minds, they pressed on.
Daylight was thinning as it dropped below the trees. Soon it would be dark, and they had yet to set up their tents or start a fire. “We won’t make it far. Night is coming,” Will said. He pointed down a dirt road patched with short tufts of grass. “Here. Just a little farther.”
Just as she started down the path, Anna stopped again. Goosebumps prickled along the back of her neck, and a chill sank into her bones. Despite the lingering summer heat, Anna began to shiver. She turned and looked back at the abandoned house. Still, the place was quiet and dead.
A full minute passed before Anna moved. Though she could not say why, her eyes were transfixed on the house. Before long, Rachel was beside her. “Hey, are you alright?” she asked. “There’s a clearing just down the path. We’re setting up camp.”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Anna said. She shook off her daze and followed Rachel down the path. All around them the forest thickened. In the deepening twilight, the trees appeared as silhouettes with reaching, black limbs. They trembled and sighed in the cool wind. And still, Anna shivered.
At the end of the dirt road was a clearing just as Rachel had said. It was a perfect circle of petrified earth. Not a single weed nor blade of grass touched the clearing. Even the trees bent away in fear. No living thing dared enter the circle, except for Anna and her friends.
While Carl set up tents, Will arranged a pile of firewood into a teepee. But none seemed to notice the stone pedestal at the center of the clearing. “What’s that?” Anna asked. She walked towards the pedestal. Resting on top was a triangular lattice of woven thorns and crimson leaves. Without thinking, she reached out and grabbed it. One of the thorns pricked her finger and drew blood. “Ow,” she said, and dropped the latticework.
“Careful, princess,” Will said. He plucked the latticework from the ground and gave it a quick look. The prism of thorns didn’t interest him in the slightest. “Hm,” he said. “Looks like kindling to me.” He chucked the latticework into the pile of firewood without care or thought.
“Hey,” Anna said, “Someone took the time to make that.”
Carl snorted. “And what? You’re going to bring it up Mt. Spire with you?”
Anna scowled. “No. But clearly it was on that pedestal for a reason.”
“What reason?” Will said. He took out a lighter and lit the latticework. In an instant, the thorns and leaves caught fire. It snapped and hissed with dense, black smoke. Anna reached out to stop him, but it was too late. “What’s the matter? Everyone here is dead. No one is going to get mad.”
Rachel rubbed her back. “Don’t worry. Look,” she said. In Rachel’s hand was a bottle of whiskey. By the goofy grin on her face, it was clear she had already had a swig. Anna looked at her friend and then at the bottle. A similar smile appeared on her face. She always knew how to lighten the mood.
In time, Anna forgot about the latticework and the pedestal. She forgot about the corpses in their decrepit home. She forgot most everything in fact. All that mattered was the company of friends and the pleasant tingle of alcohol seeping into her veins.
They talked and laughed and danced around the crackling fire until the cratered moon hung high in the sky. Their heads spun, and their voices carried loud and far. It was the type of night they had planned for. Anna would not trade it for anything. Though perhaps she would have if she knew what was coming.
Sometime before midnight, the joyful buzz of whiskey gave way to a deep lethargy. One by one they disappeared into their tents. First went Rachel, and Carl soon after. Then Will, and finally Anna.
But sleep didn’t come easily. As Anna lay down in her tent, her heartbeat pounded through her temples. It thrummed from ear to ear like drums rolling in the deep. Anna cursed herself for drinking too much and sat up with a groan. Yet, as soon as she did, the sound vanished. Confused, she lay down again. The heartbeat reappeared. She pushed her pillow aside and set her head against the ground. Now the noise grew clearer. It sounded of blood whooshing and ventricles throbbing, faster and faster.
Outside, the dirt stirred, and a shadow slunk. Anna watched the figure creep up and down the line of tents. It hung low to the ground like an injured animal. But it did not growl or groan or whimper. The only sound was the rustle of its body scraping against the earth.
For several minutes Anna listened, certain that at any second the creature would burst into her tent. She waited anxiously as the ground still thrummed beneath her. All the while, her eyes darted around the tent in search for something to defend herself with. But there was nothing.
After what seemed like an hour, the rustling stopped and the figure disappeared. Cautiously, Anna unzipped her tent and poked her head outside. She saw nothing but the stone pedestal standing pale in the moonlight. She stepped outside and scanned the area. Still she saw only the barren clearing.
But, before she could return to her tent, something caught Anna by the ankle. She shrieked in surprise, and then again when she saw what had grabbed her. Five inky fingers wrapped around her leg. The skin was cold and tattered, but the flesh was pure shadow. Attached to the hand was a skeletal man black as shade. His face was smooth except for two pits where eyes should have been.
Screaming to the bottom of her lungs, Anna kicked the ghoulish creature. It released her at once. But as it did, a vertical slit divided its face and peeled back, revealing a bottomless maw. A chilling moan echoed from its throat, and the ground rumbled.
Awakened by the sound, Rachel bolted out of her tent. She saw the ghoul lying on the ground and immediately burst into a horrifying scream. As if called by her fear, a second creature emerged from the earth. It leapt onto Rachel and knocked her down with ease. Carl ran out of the tent. But he was too late. The ghoul drove its dusky fingers into Rachel’s sternum and split her chest in two. Blood sprayed like black jewels glistening beneath the stars.
While Carl stood helpless, Rachel moaned in agony. The ghoul grabbed a hold of her twitching heart and burrowed into her gaping cavity. As soon as it did, the monster vanished, and a second shadowy figure emerged from Rachel’s mouth. Although it resembled the ghoul, this figure was thin as smoke and screamed in a shrill, scared voice. Rachel’s voice.
Just then a hole opened in the earth. Though she dug her fingers into the ground, Rachel was drawn into the hole. Carl reached out to grab her, but a black hand caught him and pulled him back. As her feet slipped into the hole, more ghouls surfaced. They clambered over her, pushing her down and suffocating her. In an instant, Rachel was gone.
While two creatures wrestled Carl to the ground, Rachel’s body repaired itself. Its ribs snapped back into place, and its skin sealed shut. Hollow-eyed and without expression, the body stood and walked into the forest.
“What the hell is going on?!” Will said. Immediately he saw his brother struggling beneath two faceless creatures. “Carl!” He sprinted to help his brother while Anna backed away from the campsite with horror and disbelief.
“No! No!” Carl screamed. One creature held him down while the other latched onto his teeth and wrenched apart his mouth. Thrashing on the ground, Carl wailed. His jaw hung limp and blood poured down his throat, choking him. Will grabbed one of the ghouls and pulled it off his brother. But the other forced its way down Carl’s throat. And just as it disappeared into his body, another spirit shot outward. Once more the ground opened and swallowed the ghostly figure.
“We have to get out of here,” Anna said to Will. More ghouls emerged from below. One after the other, they crawled into the night, their eyeless faces searching for prey. Before long, there were too many to count and too many to fight. They had to run. “Will!”
But Will stared in shock as his brother’s body stood and walked into the distance, unconcerned for the creatures around them. Will could not hear and could not move. Fear paralyzed him.
But Anna wouldn’t let it paralyze her. She turned and ran. Her breath throbbed in her chest. This could not be happening. A dream. A dream. Please. Let it be a dream. But no dream is so vivid and violent.
Anna made it only a few paces from the tent before she fell over a large, dark object. It was one of the ghouls. Immediately it crawled on top of her. Anna kicked and squirmed, but the creature kept hold of her with its icy, black hands. It yanked her by the leg and pulled itself on top of her. Unable to move, Ann stared helplessly as the creature’s face split down the middle and its hands hung menacingly over her chest.
Before the creature could plunge its hands into her flesh, Will grabbed the ghoul by the neck and tore it off her. “Go! Get out of here,” he screamed. “Run!” As he wrestled the creature to the ground, it turned on him. Blood dripped from Will’s throat as the ghoul drove its crooked nails into his throat. He suffered the pain with gritted teeth, and struggled desperately to free himself. Anna stepped forward to help, but Will shook his head. “Go!” he said and managed a smile. It was a charming smile, one she wished to see more often and one, she knew, she would never see again.
Just then a second ghoul leapt onto Will’s back. Then a third. And then a fourth. They ripped through his flesh and severed his spine. Screaming, Will felt his muscles give out and his body go numb. The ghouls pushed each other away, fighting over Will’s limp body.
Anna didn’t see which creature won control of his body. But she couldn’t watch any longer. Whatever they were, they were coming for her. Hundreds of them. They poured over the clearing like a throbbing mass of rats hungering for the taste of blood.
Uncertain where to go or what to do, Anna retreated back to the house. She shut the door and locked it behind her. Her lungs throbbed. Her heart was in her ears. Or was it in the earth? The stubborn beating resounded through her feet, building, echoing, louder and louder until it roared between her ears.
Groaning, Anna stumbled into the living room, where the two corpses sat in their armchairs. Except…there was only one corpse. The man, half-eaten by time, sat slumped in his chair. His wife was nowhere to be seen.
The floorboards creaked as Anna approached the armchairs. In the corpse’s lap was a pistol, and in his head a bullet hole. Between the two armchairs was a coffee table with a note on it. The wrinkled paper was stained with black, clotted blood. Glancing around, Anna took the note and read it in a soft, trembling murmur.
“Forgive me. We have dabbled in arts we do not understand. We have delved too deep and found something we could not bury. They have escaped already. They walk among us. I could only seal the door. Do not touch the artifact. Forsake these lands, and leave me to rot. My wife comes for me. Forgive me, dear. I know now what hell you have fallen to, but surely I will see you there.”
The artifact. He must have meant the lattice, but they burned it. They released the ghouls, and now there was no putting them back.
Anna heard the floorboards groan behind her. She whirled around and stood face-to-face with the wife. The woman’s eyes were flat and apathetic. Without a word or even a grunt, she punched Anna in the face. The blow knocked her out cold.
When Anna awoke, her arms were bound in rope and she was being dragged across the ground. Above her the stars twinkled sadly like a thousand eyes welling with tears. Anna struggled to see where she was being taken, but she already knew. She was back in the clearing.
“No. No. Please,” Anna begged, though she knew it was hopeless. The woman dragging her did not care. There was no humanity inside her, no feelings to appeal to. Anna’s fate was sealed, but she pleaded regardless because there was nothing else should could do. “Please. Somebody!”
When they had reached the pedestal at the center of the clearing, the woman dropped her. All around them the ground shook. Anna heard the horrid call of the ghouls and the incessant beating of a heart. Holes appeared in the dirt as the ghouls clawed their way to the surface. “No!” Anna screamed. But her captor turned and disappeared into the forest without so much as a backward glance.
The first ghoul seized Anna by the hair. It pulled back her head and dug its claws into her eyes. Anna shrieked as the world went black. A second ghoul grabbed her leg and wrenched it from its socket. Muscle and sinew ripped. Blood gushed outward. A third ghoul stabbed through her chest, piercing her lungs. Pain filled her chest like an unrelenting fire, and her breath caught in her throat, clogged with gore.
As the creatures tore through her body, time slowed from seconds to hours. And she was aware, painfully aware, of every agonizing moment. Soon, she begged not for help but for the sweet relief of death. But what she got was not death, not as she imagined it.
When at last one of the ghouls gripped her heart, Anna felt her consciousness shift out of her body. And for a moment, her vision returned to her. She saw her body splayed open before her, ribs shattered, skin shredded. Nonetheless, the body stood. Its flesh mended, and its wounds healed quick. Before long, Anna’s body was whole again. The only thing it was missing was Anna herself.
With spectral fingers, Anna reached out for her body. But, something pulled her back, an invisible force she could not resist. She dug her nails into the ground, but her limbs were weak and thin as gossamer. She cried and spit, but the ghouls scrambled over. They pushed her into the dirt until the cold soil rose above her waist.
Hope had already vanished. Anna saw her body fade into the twisted oaks and bristly pines of the forest beyond. Whatever awaited her below, there was no escaping it now. Anna breathed deep and succumbed to her fate. As the earth swallowed her neck, she took one last look at the world above. Just two yards off, she saw the remains of their fire. Somewhere buried in the black coals, the artifact still smoldered with a pitiful, white light.
Anna had only a moment to feel regret. Then, the earth consumed her. She saw only darkness. She felt only pain. She suffocated amid an undulating horde with a thousand voices crying out. Each man and every woman clawed and fought, struggling to reach the top of an ocean with no surface. And all around was the deafening boom of a tortured heart.