He stopped. The wind was heavy on the right side of his face. Which meant, he was either moving in the right direction or the wind had changed. Which was possible here in this valley. The wind here was almost more chaotic than the world outside this place. Giant mountains, topped in snow and ice, stood in the darkness, showing their support to the world – nothing less. The trees moved heavier and faster at the same time. The wind was increasing. Soon it would rain. And rain was the good thing in this situation. The bad thing was worse than everything.
He moved forward. His arms bent backwards, held by something immovable. And yet, the non-moving part of his order moved. The order was simple. And he knew it, because it was not the first time, he had done it. And he would do it again and again for the rest of his life.
The woman was struggling. Her hands were bound in front of her. Her eyes were blindfolded, a black scarf erased half of her face. He did not know her. She was a tourist. As usual. She had not been alone, but time and luck had not worked in her favor and her husband or friend or whoever had shared the room in the tourist cabin with her had disappeared. Well, adventures in the mountains were usually not a woman’s domain.
So he smiled and pulled her closer. She smelled like fear. It was good. Soon she would stop struggling.
The trees moved closer. Soon he was able to feel the twigs scratching his arms and his face, a bloodletting ritual. Those scratches would disappear. Soon enough. And he would sit in his house and care about other stuff. Like taxes. Or his dead wife. Or his living son, who he had not seen in at least 5 years. Or were it 10? He knew, he had lost parts of the reality for months now. The doctor had something to say about the brain. A weird illness. Known more from tribes in the jungle or islands. An illness which ate his mind. And yet, he still was able to follow the correct steps. And they were needed. The trees moves closer again. And the scars in his face burned.
The rain was there before he knew it. Giant drops of mountain-rain were crashing down on him and his sacrifice. The woman struggled, bent backwards, when it started, as if she thought, the rope would become slippery in mere seconds. But he had been prepared for that. A sharp pull had brought her to her knees. She moaned in pain, when her knees met the rough and hidden path, they had been walking on. The path was older than the trees and – as he thought – older than the mountains itself. The path had been here since the dawn of mankind, since the last dinosaurs had died. He remembered his sons excitement about some plastic dinosaurs, when the boy had become 12 years. Since then, his love for these creatures had never failed. And they were the reason, Stephen was not here, but on some field project. His son wrote letters. Used big words. Did not visit his father. Did not do his part in the equation, in the ritual. But the ritual was not his sons problem.
The sky flashed. Thunder followed immediately. Both expressions of an angry ski carved a picture in his mind. The trees were gone, were shadows behind him. In front of him he saw a plain, at last 100 steps in every direction. A plain, which looked exactly like always. And in the middle of it, the hole. 10 steps in diameter. Black as hell. Empty as the night. Usually empty as the night. But tonight it was feeding time.
He moved closer to the hole. Pulled the woman hard. The woman struggled less than before. The drugs should loose their power in a short time. Soon she would wake up. And she would wish, she would still be sleeping.
On the right side of the hole the only element, which was visible was a beam and connected to it another smaller beam and on this smaller one was a rope with a hook. And on this hook he would connect the noose of the rope to his prisoner, to the sacrificial lamb. And then he would turn around.
He was right, most of the part at least. He pulled the woman to the hole. He used the correct words, growls, high pitched screams, an old familiar sentence, he had learned from his father, who had learned it from his own and so on and so on. But this was not important. Important was the struggling woman on the hook. The woman was struggling to much now. The lighting and the thunder around him became worse. He could already feel the ozone, which mixed with the rotten sweet smell drifting from the darkness beneath him, a smell made of flesh and shit and sweat and piss and death. The woman struggled more. The beams seemed to move, but in the wrong direction. It was not right. There was a gap in the beam. Smaller than his hand, but large enough to catch his eye. He went on his knees. His hand felt the old wood, now wet with rain. Something met this feeling, a sharp bite. Another lighting left a mark in his vision. There was something. Something metallic, connected to something orange. Plastic. Metal. It was as large as his forearm. An axe. But not a usual axe but … more like one of these ice axes with a sharp front like the peck of a giant bird. And it was connected to what? A hand? A rope? He cursed that he had not brought a lamp with him. But he knew the way and the hole and the words, were those things not enough? He looked down the hole. Something hit him in the chest. And he fell. And the last thing he saw was a face, as beautiful as hellfire and her eyes reminded him of his dead wife, catlike and bright.
He opened the door of the wagon. Cold air from the mountains around him met his face. His skin froze, just for a moment. A few seconds later the steam from the old train reached him, covered him and the other passengers. The black train huffed and puffed like the old wolf from the fairy tales.
Maybe a dozen people stood on the platform, waiting to get in, as soon as possible. It was maybe 10 in the morning, but the air was freezing and the sun was just hitting the higher points of the town, the small town he called home.
Thomas stepped on the platform. His backpack was his only baggage, like most of the time. Even in his little apartment, he mostly lived from his usual clothes, his laptop and some food, he ordered. Most of the time, he was not even there. His job, profession, whatever others called it, had put him in places and under people, who had even less. Sometimes, they owned way more, but they often didn’t care about it. Because they had a hobby, expensive enough.
He left the platform and entered the train station. The building was old, maybe 500 years or 600. Numbers didn’t impress Thomas. He had seen stuff, which was older than a million years. And older stuff. But he did not talk about it.
It was here, that he met her. She was as old as time. She had been his nurse, his nanny, almost his mother. It took her longer than usual to recognize him. But when she did, a big smile appeared. A few single tears appeared behind her pair of glasses.
»Thomas,« she said. »You are home now.«
He hugged her. She felt frail, but behind this frailty, her usual strength remained. In her childhood, she had fought wolves and bears and other creatures and her arms held those memories in form of scars. Her face had also a large scar, starting from her left cheekbone down to her chin. Her hair was still black, but she obviously colored it. She had been practically gray at the age of 20 and this was her way to feel better.
»Yes. I am … home.« He lied at this moment and she knew it. But she did not care.
They left the station and went to the car. Karl sat on the front seat, as usual. Still a giant, there would never be a car, he would truly fit in. Maybe a Hummer would give him some space. But he never cared. He also barely spoke. Even less than father. Karl turned around, nodded, his face as stony as the town itself.
The town had developed. Maybe ten-thousand people lived here. They had 3 supermarkets. A cinema. Postal service. 4 churches. 2 cemeteries. But most of the building were as they had been 20 years ago, when he had left, the moment, someone had invited him to an adventure. And his father had not struggled with letting him go. He had looked almost happy to stay alone for eternity. With his servants. The money of the family had helped Thomas, but he was not happy to use it. He was old enough to survive on his own. And after his studies in anthropology and paleontology, as smart as he was, he had found projects to support his need.
He did not know, why he was so interested in this stuff. He hadn’t seen many dinosaur movies. His favorite movie had always been »The Time Machine,« the old version. The new version felt bloated and boring and overly pretentious. But the old movie, the endless future and the disconnected …
»Lets drive. Not overthink, boy!,« Karl yelled. His head bent out of the window like a whole tree.
»Karl is right. We will have time to ponder, later,« she said.
A dozen of women arrived from the hotel over the street, a hotel with ivory-colored walls, the »Hotel Müller,« as old as the town itself.
»Tourists,« sneered Karl. »Climbers. Hikers.« He shook his head.
»You still hate climbing?«
»If god would wanted me to climb, I would have been born as a goat.«
The women stopped, before they turned a corner to the left. One of them turned her head. Her red hair reminded Thomas of the copper domes of Nylagra. She smiled at him, touched another woman by the shoulder. The other woman turned around. Her face froze, just for a moment. Then the group disappeared. They obviously wanted to go to eat something. They had looked hungry for food – and adventure.
»Wasn’t this Katja?,« Karl asked.
»Maybe,« she answered. »Maybe that’s my daughter.«
They left town on the large road. The large road turned through the mountains like a black snake. Large trees barely allowed the sunlight to reach the ground, so the bushes were rare, mostly rotten. Only in summer, between April and September, the woods would be lighter, safer.
He remembered of his old games in the woods, this hunting for creatures, his hiding from his friends. Well, only a few friends. Mostly one or none. Katja again. She had been older than him, maybe half a year. They shared much. Nurse. Nanny. Almost school, the same classes, but she had been smarter than him and had gone to the extended secondary school. And so she had disappeared from his life like a dream. And now she was back. He hadn’t thought of her in years. Barely. When he had left his father and his town, he had been 18 – and he had never looked back. Until now. Because father was dead.
»He had an accident,« Maria had written in her tiny letters, as fragile as a twig. But she had never been fragile herself. She had survived bad stuff. Even the bear, which had taken his mother and had hurt Maria badly had not broken her. Mother had been only 20 years old. Thomas could not remember her. Now she repeated the words. Syllable by syllable. With a lot of time in the gaps. As if it were not important enough, if she would have said it faster. Father was dead. That was the outcome of the sentence. Like a prison sentence. And now Thomas felt, that he was back in the prison. Those large trees looked like metal rods, as high as eternity. And the punishment for his escape was already written.
They left the road 3 kilometers after the last house of the town had disappeared. This newer and smaller road was pebbled. It had been cut in the soft wood floor, maybe a meter deep. Thomas could see parts of the roots of the old trees, dangling in the air like nerves from teeth, full of pain and despair. The small road called »shepherds walk« had never been used for shepherds or sheep, but mostly for priests who wanted to wander the silence of the woods. Or so the people said. It was just a road for woodcutters, father and grandfather had hired to get rid of parts of the old woods to make money. And it was a ton of money, more or less.
Soon Thomas was able to see the old house, as expensive as it had been maybe 100 years ago, now it was probably more worth. It was his house now. He did not want it. He did not even want to live here. He had called the lawyer of his family. Siegmar Lorenz was not old enough, but he had connections and like his fathers and forefathers, he liked the money and could not stand the small town, so he had moved 2 hours away into the next larger town. Thankfully, he had been available for the time. He also had warned Thomas, that the mobile probably would not work in the old house, so he should make sure, the landline was working. The rest was more or less okay. Siegmar had also said something about the need to check the surroundings of the house. He said, that he had found information about the house. And the locations. The special locations. Thomas was not sure, what Siegmar meant with that, but Siegmar would visit him the very next day. Which would be tomorrow.
The old house grinned at him like an angry elephant, as gray as its age. The sun barely reached the top, but it would become better during spring and then summer. Sadly, in early September, the shadows would be winning again. And darkness would grip the house in October.
The windows still stared down the road, as if it were expecting anyone. The large door was open. As usual. No normal person would enter the premise without suicidal thoughts. No weird person would enter the house itself. It looked evil. One of the reasons, Thomas had left his father were the nightmares. Almost constantly he had woken up and looked through his window to the dark night, the endless sky, the blinking eyes of stars – or monsters. Monsters were everywhere. White like the moon, with eyes like black marbles, and teeth, by god, the teeth. Thomas had seen those teeth later, when he had first watched »Aliens,« those long needle-thick slimy-gleaming teeth and he had almost lost his control. He knew, he had a trauma. And surely, he would have those nightmares again.
At least, until he was able to sell the house and the land. There was no reason to keep them. He would never live here. His heart felt a little sick for Maria and Klaus, but in the end, they had to live with his decisions and he was sure, more than sure, they only lived in a cabin near the house, because they felt obliged to do so. The cabin had water and electrical power, but that was it. None of them was religiously in a way, that they would pray often or talk about god or the devil. They did their works and maybe …
»We are here.« Karl stopped the car. He went out the car, opened the door for Thomas. He did not open the door for Maria. If Maria was hurt by that, she did not show any anger, just smiled her knowing smile. The scar shadowed a little bit, but then she left the car too.
»Not much baggage,« Karl added.
»Yes. I have not really much. Most of the stuff is not worth my money or time.«
»Minimalist, yes. Like father.«
When they entered the house, memories flooded Thomas’ mind. The corridor was long and dark. The doors to several rooms on this level of the house were closed. A few beams crossed the dust ridden air, lost their power and just disappeared.
This floor of the house had barely been used for years now, obviously.
»Your father was more on the second floor. More light, you know.« Maria lifted her head. »So lets go to his rooms.«
They took the stairs and stopped in front of an open door. The air grew musky and sweaty.
»We have opened all the windows and doors for days now, but the smell …« Karl shrugged. »Its the house. Maybe a dead cat or rat or some larger animal died here.«
»It smells more like some animals live here,« Thomas answered. »This smell is survivable. I have spent a few months in the Moth-people-area in Northern America. Its part of their ritual, I mean the smell. Its an older sect from the early 16th century. Survivors of the Roanoke-event. Well. Some of them use living moths as clothes for rituals and to get these insects, they rub their bodies wi…«
»Stop, please,« Maria closed her eyes. »That’s nothing for us to know. To many things leave a bitter taste in the heart.«
»Yes, I am sorry, Maria. Its okay here. So lets enter my fathers rooms.«
The rooms looked cluttered, but not dirty. Thomas was sure, Maria and Klaus were the reason, why. They had taken care of everything.
The first room – Thomas remembered it vividly – had been fathers main room to eat, sleep, accounting, the usual stuff. The back room was the old rooms, where father and mother had lived, before she had died. Here was the library, a little treasure room. But this room now looked differently. Gaps between books created the image of hollow mouths, ready to bite everyone.
»Whats with the books?«
»He did not like them anymore,« Karl said. He stayed in the background, when Thomas entered the former holy of the holiest. The smell here was worse, like rotten meat, as if something terrible had crawled between the walls and had died, but this was impossible, the walls were old and massive. The house was almost older than the town.
»A bat has died here. And the smell,« Maria tried to explain.
»The smell is bad. I know. I smell it myself.«
Thomas continued to walk. The old chair on the older fireplace looked unused, full of dust. Thomas went to his knees and looked at the fireplace, tried to see the sky, but was unable to.
»Maybe the rotten thing sits inside the chimney.«
Maria shrugged invisibly. »We were not allowed to be here. Your father was quite strict.«
The next rooms were more or less empty. A few bags of clothes, maybe 10 years old, stood in a corner, waiting to be unwrapped.
Thomas suddenly felt the loneliness of the place. Father, Maria and Karl had lived here almost alone for so many years. Tears crawled from his eyes, but he did not allow them to appear. No. Father had known, that his son would go away. They never had been friends in the sense, but father and son. Nothing more.
The attic was closed off. Like the rooms in the lower floor, it hadn’t been used for quite some time. The garden, or what one would call garden, was well tended. Maria as working hard to get the weeds at bay. The garage looked and smelled the same since Thomas’ last visit.
And then there was his old room. His old holy place. His place of night terrors and dreamlike summer-days, when he had been reading books which he had »stolen« from fathers library. When he had not been in the attic, which had smelled like adventure and woods. Other families had lived nearer back then. And Katja had lived here, with her mother. And Katja had been special, with a mind, sharper than a samurai-sword. Her hair had been as red as ember. And then she was gone, at the time, he had entered the madness of puberty. He had dreamed about her, at least sometimes. And now he had seen her face in a group of women. Just for a moment, but this moment was strong enough to kick him in his heart.
They had dinner in the old leisure room in the lower floor, the family rooms. The windows were open, the air was slightly warmer now. The food was good, father had always liked good food and so the freezer was filled and the storage in the cellar looked like ready for World War III.
»I will of course pay you an apartment in the town. Or any town,« Thomas said. »But this house is cursed. And I will sell it.«
Maria nodded slightly. »We were sure, that you would do so. It is sad. You were destined for something great. You could have started a family, went back home, entered your fathers business …«
»Business? My father sold land or woods. The rest of the money came from his forefathers. The mines? Dead as a door-nail. Dangerous. What do you believe?«
»He had shares in several companies. Shares which will yours. They make money.«
Thomas shrugged. »I like money like everyone else, but I don’t want that house. And you both are too old to keep it running. Electricity and water are not for free in this world. Gasoline too. Food. You don’t have mobile connection. When you want to call for help, if something happens, who will listen to you? No one will hear you.« Thomas looked down. »What about fathers accident?«
The silence became almost tangible, as if the woods had stopped breathing at the same time. Even the very few birds which lived here during the year, kept silent.
»We don’t know. We looked for him and found him on the opening of the old shaft. Maybe he was attacked by a bear or had fallen down for some time and crushed his head on a stone …«
»Karl. This is not true. His father was near the old well in the woods.«
»Also near the opening of the old shaft. You can’t remember one thing, old woman.« Karl’s voice was angry and repressed. His eyes gleamed in a sudden rage.
Maria stared at him, her eyes unblinking, as if the cold of the mountains were able create such an outcome. There was something in her look, which made her deadly.
Then it was over. »Dessert?«
Thomas decided against sleeping in his old room. He was barely able to walk to the upper floor. The schnapps still worked and father had bottled gallons of this stuff. In the old times, the backyard had been filled with lots of fruits, most of them berries which were able to survive the harsh climate and the darkness.
So they decided, that he slept in the leisure room on the old sofa, which was large enough to entertain half a dozen guests. An old TV stared down on him, obviously not used for years now.
Darkness crept in the room. The windows groaned and whispered. Thomas shuddered. Shadows danced in front of him. They looked not real enough to wake him up. And yet, when the dreams appeared, he remembered, but was unable to move. Like in his childhood, the creature was staring down on him, snarling. Its teeth were long and sharp, needles covered in slime. And behind the pale skin, black eyes waited for him to wake up.
The morning was cold. Thomas shivered slightly, but it was not as bad as a few years ago trying to meet the queen of the Tibet-mountains near the lost cohorts of Alexander the Great. But back then he had better clothes. He had also been younger.
The water from the faucet tasted like copper and cut his tiredness away like a knife. He tried not to yell at the water, but he felt bad. Maria and Karl would never give up their small home and move to the town. He understood it. The town lived and grew, became faster and faster like the world outside, but here, the world took a long break.
Eggs, bacon and coffee. And bread. The usual food. Maybe a few older tomatoes, dried and ›en olio‹. A few olives. Also in oil. As Thomas had seen the last day, there was enough food to survive weeks here.
He used the early day to walk around the property, taking notes. The fences looked good. But the garage was old and on the point of breaking down. Thankfully, the car was in the open. He would give the car to Maria and Karl. He did not need one.
The walls of the house looked good. Trying tot take peaks at the roof, he found the old tree with the old shed leaning on it, where forgotten relatives had stores their tools. He climbed slowly on the side on top of the shed, moving even slower now, because the roof was older than the house. Or so it had seemed back in his youth. The roof crunched a little, but held. The roof of the house looked okay, but he would have to enter the attic to check it too.
He knew the voice. He was unable to un-hear it. So he turned fast to the left, too fast for the roof. His foot broke through the old rotten wood. His other foot held, his arms moved, his left hand was able to get the grip on a thick branch, which thankfully held too.
»Katja?,« he yelled in the shadow of the woods on the left.
»Again on the roof of the shed, even after all these years?«
»Its not my failure!« He pulled himself up. The branch groaned, or maybe it was the shed itself.
Moments later he landed on the soft grass, cleaned his left leg and shoe, watched Katja appearing from the woods. She was not alone. The women, Thomas had seen in the town, accompanied her. They looked tired and happy at the same time. Two of them held a third, which hobbled.
»Problem in the woods?«
Katja nodded and smiled. »Good to know someone here. Is your father here?«
»He is not here. He is dead.«
She paled. »Oh, I am sorry, how?«
He shrugged. »I don’t know. An accident. The well or the old mine. A few days ago. I arrived here yesterday.«
»The well. The old mine. Bad places, my boy.«
»You sound like your mother.«
»I have heard better.« She nodded, as her mother came out of the door.
Thomas could feel the cold between those women. But at least they would stay polite, more or less.
»Your friend is hurt?«
»Fell over a stone. Most likely a sprain.«
»Where are you hiking to?«
»We wanted to visit … well, the well. Or the old mine.«
»We are a group of climbers. Met a few years ago. Spent our free time with climbing up and down mountains, caves and so on. And this year, we wanted to go somewhere special.«
»Lets get you some food and we talk about it.«
They ate like a swarm of locusts. They also talked as loud as a swarm. Thomas was almost unable to differentiate between them. He had heard their names but they were already lost in the back of his mind.
There was Katja. Beautiful. Strong. Had a certain sadness on her voice, but just a tiny bit of it. Her hair was still read, but enhanced by hair colors. Her face looked like the brownish version of pale. She had freckles. Cute freckles.
There was Mona, the hurt one. She was slightly older than Katja. Her locks and hair color were artificial. She was already on the way to give up the climbing, but as Thomas listened to the conversations, she was in divorce and she was angry enough to do something about it. »Having fun by suffering,« as she often proclaimed, looking at Thomas in a more or less inappropriate manor.
There were Melanie and Roberta, twins. They were younger, maybe in their late 20s. They had muscles where others had none. They were loud and happy, because Mona did not hang in their arms anymore. They even tried to arm-wrestle Thomas, but he declined under the laugh of the others.
And there was Sabrina. She looked slightly fearful. Her hair was black as the night, her bun tight, her face even tighter. She was new in this group. She obviously forced herself to this trip. It was not her life, Thomas was sure. She was a librarian, but she nodded only, when asked, if she liked climbing. »Alone«, she said. Well, she almost said that. She sometimes looked like a puppy out of the window in the main room.
It was not the largest group in the world and Thomas liked it more. He always tried to keep the teams he worked in, on a small number. Small teams don’t create so much attention and if everyone knows, what to do, the number of dangerous behavior is lower.
The food was faster finished than it was presented. Maria sent looks from the kitchen in the living room, looks of utter stress, almost fear. Her hands held the door, as if she were able to break the woods.
»You can make your base camp here. At least, until I sell the property.»
Katja looked at him. »Sell? Wow, I am … surprised.»
»I thought, you are part of, well, of that thought process.»
»What?», Thomas asked again. »You obviously don’t know me anymore.« He tried not to grin. The next 20 minutes he tried to explain his life to her, his moments, triumphs and bitter defeats.
She looked more or less unimpressed. »The Kansai-massacre? You were there?«
»No. I left that place two weeks before the fights started. The emerald idol were in the hands of the rightful ruler again. I was naive, trying to create a kind of peace between those villages. One of the main rules of science is, not to intervene.«
She nodded. »I wish, I had been there. I mean, without the fighting. I live mostly in academia. And now I force myself to be more body positive and learn better ways to un-frustrate myself. The girls«, she looked at the group, »are a big help. Most of the time, we just climb up and down and burn the frustration out of our bodies. But now and then we help each other with other problems.«
»And now you are here and you want to enter the well. Find your way through the darkness. With which end?«
»Hopefully the door of the old mine. I would say, this is a nice climb and good training for us, when we enter the Cest-labyrinth in a few months.«
»Cest. Cest. I heard that before.«
»Very old. Goes as deep as two thousand feet.« And the next minutes it was her part to tell him about cave-climbing.
»I wish, I were good at this stuff«, Thomas said. »I can’t stand so much darkness.«
»Like in the days of your childhood. Your night terrors were loud.«
»Thankfully, I barely remember. But yes, this house awakes something in my dreams. Monsters scratching at my window.«
»Maybe the main reason, you don’t the house?«
»And the money. Its good money and I want to visit a few more hidden places of the world.«
»But no cave …«
»No cave«, Thomas laughed.
The morning feast was soon over and the women decided to do some stretching before going to the well. Maria stared out of the window, visible for everyone. The scar on her face almost gleamed in the background darkness of the house. Thomas went for a walk. His mind was working hard and he was unable to grab a single thought. He left the house, turned upwards, towards the well. The path was almost unable to see. Bushes grew in every direction, hid the pebbles of the older, larger way. Thomas could almost smell the snow, as if there was still some hidden in the dark beneath the giant trees. Obviously, there had not been many clearings. The woods looked untouched, old, almost primordial. The sun was just a fleck in the blue sky. A few sun rays touched the ground. Rotten falling twigs and needles from the conifers like spruces and first left crunchy sounds when he walked over them. And a few moments later he saw the well.
The well was as old as time and no one ever used it to get water. Maybe, a few centuries ago, it had been a well, but getting ground water from the higher ground felt stupid, impossible mostly. So the round hole in the earth was dry and dark and endless, like a night.
Thomas stopped. There was something. Hidden. Moving.
His heart hammered like a motor. His blood crashed through his body, his eyes felt thick and ready to burst. The sweat of his hands tried to melt with the bark of the old tree, he was leaning on.
And then it was Karl. Just Karl. Standing on the front of the well, staring down, moving his mouths, as if he prayed. Did he ever pray? Karl? Pray? Never. So he just stood there. Moving his hands like a preacher, mumbling words in the depths.
Then he turned around, went to his knees, moved his hands through the grass like a painter, got up, looked down the endless trees, and started to walk back towards the house.
A part of Thomas wanted to greet him and talk to him, but instead, he waited as silent as possible. »Like a little boy«, he thought by himself. »I am feeling like a little boy scared of the caretaker, who is also a werewolf and a night-shadow.« And yet, he stood there and waited, until the steps of Karl disappeared.
The woods had been quiet, but the large clearing felt even emptier of any life and sound. The grass looked gray and partly rotten. Silver streaks glittered in the sun, as if winter had never left.
The stones around the well were just a meter high. The old wooden »gallows«, as father had called it, was gone, it had cracked. But the crack was fresh. Yes, Thomas could see the core. It was way younger than the outside. When had the gallows cracked? Was this the reason, father had died? Had he fallen in the well, trying to hold on the old rope, had he hurt himself so much, that he had died, but had been able to crawl towards the entry of the old mine? It felt impossible. And yet, that was the opinion of Maria – and Karl. Thomas had the feeling, they had been lying. Had the police been involved?
He had to talk to the police. After he had talked to Siegmar. Siegmar! Time was almost over. Siegmar would arrive here quite a short time. So Thomas turned around. He went down, took a pebble from the ground, looked at it and threw it into the well. He listened the clicking sound of stone meeting stone.
Silence. Just silence. Not one single sound.
»Weird«, Thomas thought. »At least, I should hear some echo.« But he left the place disappointed and thankful.
In the end, the sound arrived the upper part of the well. And it was not an echo, but a snarl, followed by a dozen and more snarls, angry and hungry, until a terrible voice answered and the well again fell in silence.
They left, when he arrived home. They were fully equipped now. The bags – Thomas had not been aware, that they had them with them – were empty now. And the mountaineering equipment looked like they were going to war. In a colorful manor.
Katja was explaining stuff, her words were low, her hands moved here and there. The other women nodded. Mona was not with them. Her hair appeared in one of the windows, as she had been listening like an outsider.
»Thomas«, Katja said. »Back from the woods.«
»Went to the well. You have to use anchorages for the ropes. The old wooden gallows is gone.«
»Thankfully, I was aware of that. Karl told me. And also I would never lay my life in the hands of some old wood.«
Some of the women giggled silently.
Thomas felt a slight embarrassment crawling up his cheeks. »So, how long will you be there, I mean, in the dark?«
»The lights hold a few hours. Maybe 12 hours, maybe 24. We don’t know. We plan to stay in such a system between 24 and 48 hours. Its a long time window, I know, but we prepare for Cest and there we will be maybe a week in the dark. We will find our way into the sunlight again.«
Thomas left the group, entered the house. Stood there. Let the dusty darkness enter his vision. Still on the first floor, he started trying to open the doors. They were closed shut. He pressed an ear on the wooden panels. Closed his eyes. Heard nothing outside of the talking women in the garden, hidden behind the thick walls.
Closed doors meant someone had closed them. And to close doors, one would need keys. It was a good thought, but now Thomas had to find the keys. He went to the second floor again. Opened the door. Entered the first room. Checked everything. Found nothing. The next room also. He opened the bags of clothes. They were interesting, weird almost. He could not recall, that his father would wear such stuff. Tourist stuff. Colorful windbreakers, khaki, shoes in different sizes. Maybe he had found them. Thomas shrugged. He had not spoken to his father in years. People become mad, when they become old alone.
He went to the old library, a room, he had not visited last night. The floor creaked when he entered. The smell of wood and dust and old books overwhelmed his senses. He was unable to see the books. His eyes teared up. And with the tears the feelings finally arrived. He was able to stumble on the old sofa in the corner. He let himself fall on the old cushions. More dust exploded in the dim light. He cried. Every other feeling was non-existent at the moment. All the bottled up emotions appeared as suddenly as the shadow in the door frame, a shadow, he was not able to see for a long time. He sobbed. His throat felt like raw meat, burning flesh from the hidden fires of the Kansai-nation deep in the underworlds of Tibet. Now he was there again, scared by the shadows, created by the 8-limbed ritualistic movement of the shaman wizards, mad for blood and revenge. But this was just a glimpse. The longer pictures broke the curse of the short-lived trauma, he had survived only months ago. Now he saw pictures of himself and his father, a stern man, stern to a degree, that others would called it abuse. But his father had only wanted to save him from the fate of his late mother. She had been killed. She had gone to the well. Alone. In the darkness. And there had been a bear or a wolf. Maria had not been able to recall it. Maria had been the best friend … the sister of his mother. And she had survived. But mother had been killed, almost along with her only child, Thomas. His father had been protective of his son, more than only protective. Father had been a secretive man, had known things. He was not able to let Thomas go, because the world was a dangerous place full of traps and blood. So school was almost a no-go, but Maria had talked to father, day after day, until father had accepted that his son had leave the location and go to school. But he had never been okay with it. They had had arguments and often, father would yell and punish the walls of the house with his fists, scared beyond belief. And now he was dead. It had almost been too easy to leave the house at the age of 18. Father had looked relieved, yet sad.
Sad, yes. Hopeful and sad. He wanted to give Thomas a book for the long travel, but Thomas had not waited to get it, but he was gone. Maybe he had thought, that he would have time to visit his father now and then, but that had been a lie. And their last call had not ended well. Father had been disappointed and nervous to the brink of madness. He had seen shadows everywhere, heard voices in the dark, like always, since Thomas’ childhood, but now, he was getting old and weak and begged Thomas to visit him, just for a few days. But Thomas, who had been young and angry at old people, had lied to him and had never visited him. »Think of Alice in Wonderland«, father had said. »Its a long way from wonderland back to earth.«
And now, father was dead. And the shadow on the door frame was Katja, who looked like a dark princess in a forbidden fairy tale. She stared at him as she was to confess something like love or lust or despair, but Thomas was unable to move or to say anything. His muscles burned, as if they were rotting away. And then Katja was gone and Thomas was alone and thankful for his solitude. Really thankful.
When he was awake again, he went up and checked the rows of the books. They were everything. Novel, Satire, Science Fiction, Fantasy-classics, the usual stuff, which he had not read in decades. There were serious books from writers, he had known names only. There were large tomes, which were bigger than his forearm, bound in leather, which looked older than a century. He pulled one of these tomes out. It was heavy, so his arm hurt, his right arm, which had problems since the massacre. He heard himself grunt, pulled the book up and put it on the large table in the middle of the room. He opened it. Stared at it. The words were tiny, the characters felt fragile, almost too fragile being read by a normal person. He turned left, switched the light on. It worked, strangely. Usually in these times, no lights work.
The words were old, the script almost unreadable, but Thomas was able to recognize some words. It should have been the basic stuff from a century ago, but it was a diary. No normal person would use a tome for a diary, but as Thomas knew, his forefathers had owned land and money. And now he was the owner. For some time. Until Siegmar arrived.
Siegmar. Where was he? Thomas looked at his watch. It was way after 12, lunch time was already over, but Thomas had no hunger. But Siegmar should have arrived here at least 2 hours ago. Thomas closed the book, left it on the table, turned the light out and left the room. He went down the stairs, left the house. He looked around. Nothing. Closed his eyes. Listened. Nothing. The world was silent. The woods did not even whisper. The town was too far away for its own sound.
»What is it?«, Maria asked.
Thomas opened his eyes again. »I am expecting Siegmar.«
»Oh«, she said. »He called, when you were outside. He has problems with his car. He may not arrive today. I am sorry. You must be disappointed.«
There was this tiny feeling of positive surprise in Thomas’ heart, but it waned fast. Anger grew. »I am not fond of this.«
She nodded. »I understand. I knew, I felt, that you would not like to live here. All alone. With us.«
»You don’t understand me, Maria. I don’t believe, you know my feelings over this place. I don’t consider my childhood good to embrace the memories, the house gives me. This area scares me in a way, not even war or death scares me.«
»Your father said the same, many times. But yet, he stayed here.«
»Alone. With you and Karl.«
»No«, she said, shook her head. Her scar flickered. »Sometimes he had visitors. You see, Katja and her friends are not the only ones interested in caves and hiking. The area is large and beautiful. The woods are dark and haunting and fascinating. Not like those new woods, where you can see everything from one end to the other. No, I am talking about the mystery.« She stopped, as if she had said too much already. »I am sorry. As I said: Siegmar will not arrive today.«
»Do you fear anything, Maria?«
»I don’t understand the question.«
»You survived the attack of a bear which killed my mother. You raised me and Katja here in the dark, while father was more or less absent. I feel, something here is wrong. And you know it. And you don’t fear it.«
Maria was silent for a moment. Then she turned around and went to her cabin. »There will be lunch in 30 minutes.«
»Katja and her friends are already gone. They are at the well. And then they are in the caves. In the darkness.«
He did not eat alone. Mona had joined him. Her foot was still hurting and the others had left her. Mona understood. And yet, she was angry about it. She talked about her problems, the whole nine yard of it. Bad relationship, bad marriage, had left him, because he had been always angry. She wanted kids, he did not. Or the other way around, Thomas was not really following her tirade. She seemed to be a good person with a lot of problems and her foot was killing her. And she loved cave climbing. »When you look in the dark, everything is possible. We went to a cave in northern England a few months ago. Went down at least 50 meters, then turned right and the crack in the wall was not larger than half a meter. Terrible and interesting feeling, getting all the pressure from the rocks around you in your body. He had to loose the bags, pulled them in ropes behind us. The gap became even thinner, scratched the face. We were unable to turn our heads. And then the sounds. As if the world had disappeared. There was only our heart and our breath and the pain and the fear. And the ground was weird, soft, as if animals had died, but it were only plants, old rotten plants … and rats. A few of them. And I did not scream.« She smiled triumphantly. »It was harsh there. Gnarly. Some of us had cuts on the hands, when we left this area. A few larger caves followed, and then again, gaps in the rock. Imagine this: You are in a cave under the earth and you don’t know, if you are ever able to see light again. Rock is everywhere and what, if you can’t go back the way? You have to go forward, constantly, because if now, you die and the rats eat you.« She grinned. »At the end, there was a really large cave and we did not need the lights of our helmets anymore. There were holes in the top of the cave and light was there and it felt good. It was an old mine, hidden from time and people and thankfully, there were ladders from iron or so, rusty.«
Thomas sat outside the house. The goulash, Maria had cooked, was still hot in his mouth. She loved to use pepper and other hot stuff to make it and even father who had usually been unimpressed by eating meat, had eaten it and had liked it. The sun was slowly setting behind the wall of trees. The time was late for an afternoon nowadays in march. Yes, was it march? Thomas felt unable to remember. His full stomach created visions of abundance in his body, outside of his memories about the massacre a few months ago. Or had it been years ago?
He got up, took a mouthful of air in his lungs, watched the tiny steam clouds disappear in the shadows of the house, which stood here like a memory from forgotten times. Siegmar was not there and trying to call him had been unsuccessful. The woman from the hotel had told him, that a man with this description and name had left the building 5 hours ago, so it had been 11 in the morning. He would even arrived when he would have walked, but as the woman had said, a car had waited for him, but she had not seen the driver or the model. It had been a dark car. Normal model.
He should have done it earlier. Having called Sigmund, done the deal, left this place. He could now be at home, in his apartment in the guts of Berlin, a small apartment, but his own. Not the memories of a father who was not willing to support his son, not even emotionally, a man of money, but without heart. He had lost both of his parents. And now he was losing his future.
»Everything okay?«, Maria asked.
Thomas had not seen her arrive. Her face was as pale as usual, especially in the dark background of the growing dawn.
»Yes«, he answered. What should he have said otherwise? No? And what would she had done? Trying to calm him? »How about Katja and her friends?«
She shrugged. »No answer at the moment, but her tours are often long. She sometimes writes me letters and describes her ways through the darkness. I believe, she feels the old ways, the ways of the cave-people. You know, like in the old books. You and the darkness. The rock ripping your skin off while you try to squeeze through tighter and tighter spaces.« She smiled. »As if she were reborn, over and over again. Well, I am happy for her.« She turned around. »I hope, your lawyer friend arrives. We have to talk.«
He did not arrive. And it became evening and there were food and they ate alone and in silence. Mona was still pissed about not being able to go down the well and having to leave without the excitement of terror. She was trying to flirt with Thomas, more out of boredom than interest, but he felt not interested in her. He tried to remember when he had been on a date for the last time. It had been a week before he had left for the Forgotten Hills and she had been kind and nice looking, but in the end, she had disappeared leaving a message about his screams during a nightmare and he was happy about not sharing his suffering. The dreams were always worse before an adventure but never while he was in terror about something able ending his life. As if his body needed the adrenaline and his mind needed the constant fear. Maybe he was addicted to bad feelings.
During the evening he spent his time in his fathers library. He had opened the windows to allow air to get the dust and the moldy smell out of the room and the books. He still was not sure why the rooms of his father smelled as badly as they did. It was not logical to spend the time in that way, but what was the alternative? Hiking to the town in the dark? Walking along the road trying not to get killed? Instead he looked at the books. And there was something. Not suddenly, but it took him just a few moments to realize it. There were folders between the books, almost as brown as the leather, but when you looked directly you saw them. He pulled the books out and two folders fell over. He took them and put them on the old wooden table. The folders looked like made in the GDR, the kind of cheap thin fake-thick covers. There were no words written on the front or back. And when he opened the first one, the first three pages were empty. The fourth was not. There were names and next to the names were dates and next to them were pictures. The first pictures were painted, more cartoonish than realistic, picture of the size of a palm. As Thomas turned the pages, the more and more he found photos next to the names and pictures. The photos went from black and white to color. And they were only pictures of faces, no surroundings, no other people. He realized, that they were passport-photos, dozens of them. He felt his hands shaking but continued to check the pictures. One page, one picture, one date. Descriptions were added later, during the 80s. Thomas recognized now his fathers writing. So who had written it before? His grandfather? The father of his grandfather? What was the reason to do so? Didn’t the women miss their pictures? Or – and Thomas stopped breathing – did they disappear, here? He felt cold sweat appearing on his forehead and the back of his neck and there is was again, the feeling of getting watched. He looked up but he only saw his own mirror image in the dark background behind the window. He checked his watch, it was almost 10. The house was silent. He closed the folder, took both of them, turned to the door, turned the light of. There was a shadow behind him, but he did not see it.
It was late at night, the darkness had overwhelmed every single kind of light. The window was closed, the lids were sunken to the flesh of the cheek, but Thomas was not able to sleep. He wanted to go out of the room, the house, wanted to go to Maria and Karl and ask them about the folders. He was unable to do so. He felt, that he would betray them in a way. They were probably without knowledge about the pictures and the folders.
There was a sound on the window, a small scratching sound on the class, like fingernails or talons. He wanted to open his eyes, but he could not. It felt like ages ago. He felt like ages ago. Like in his childhood. The white monster looking through the window, directly at him. A white face, needle sharp teeth, black eyes. Two long arms, pale flesh on strong bones, which partly protruded through the skin like weapons for melee fights. A long upper body with a weird chest, as if it was a female cat, but that was hidden in the shadow. And there were legs which stabilized the body in the window frame, as if it were a cave and the frame were rock.
And then he had stared back at the creature and the creature had stared at him, until he had been so tired, that he had gone back to sleep, thankful and scared at the same time.
Tonight, he was unable to open his eyes. He was awake, wide awake, but his muscles could not move. His chest felt heavy, as if his lungs worked just enough to keep him alive, like in a sleep. His body slept. His mind was as bright and scared as a deer in the middle of a road, staring in the headlight of a car. Something scratched at the window and the window opened. Slowly the window opened. Thomas could hear the night behind the growing gap. He could her the trees and the wind and somewhere, far beyond his imagination, were the town, as secure as possible. He wanted to be in the middle of the battle between the tribes and the soldiers in Kinsai. He wanted to be there, because even this place felt safer than now lying in his old bed from his formative years, being scared. He tried to imagine being in a safer place, a nice place, like the first months during his studies. He knew, that he was hundreds of kilometers away from his home, but even the high buildings of Berlin and the constant bubble of words and sounds, cars and trains and walking and talking people were not able to disconnect him from home, because in the subway of Berlin he felt eyes on him and talons scratching the windows of the trains. People had not stared at him, it was more or less normal having outbursts in public transport – and he had been thankful for it. And slowly the fear had left him, had retreated in the background. But now it was back.
The soft sounds of »Thump thump thumb» – soles meeting the floor -, and the following clicking of talons on the old wood felt like the promise of death to him. With all his power he tried to open his eyes. He could feel his body, every muscle, atrophied by time and fear. He felt everything, but it was not enough.
Blinding light crashed in his eyes. Someone screamed. A woman screamed. Mona. She was in the house with him, yes. She was alone in the house with him and the creature. The shock raced through Thomas’ brain and muscles and he opened his eyes. He saw the creature above him. The ugly face was turned to the door, its muscles were shaking in terror and rage. It snarled. Mona screamed again. A shadow appeared behind her, grabbed her, pulled her away. The creature turned its face, stared down to Thomas, went nearer and nearer to his face, until his and its eyes were almost on the same position. Then it backed up, turned around and jumped out of the window. The sound, it made, felt almost as his name. »Tomssssssss«.
His heart pounded in his chest, as if it wanted to run away. The blood in his veins felt like water and fire at the same time. He could feel his neck muscles burning. He forced himself up and stomped to the window, stared in the night. There was only silence and darkness.
No. Not silence. He could hear muffled sounds, as if someone was unable to scream, but was forced to be silent. Mona!
He turned around, put on his clothes and shoes in a hurry, left the room, raced down the stairs and left the house. The night was cold and now darker than ever. The light in the floor burned in his eyes, so he turned the corner and stopped. He could see Maria’s and Karl’s small home. A candle burned in the window, but it also felt hurtful bright. He could see shadows on the trail. The trail? The well!
He followed the shadows. They were two or three, he could not see it correctly. The bushed and the twigs and leaves of the trees hurt his face and arms with mean brushes. He almost ran into a tree for a few times, but other than this, he knew the path. He had to know it, because Mona was in danger. And probably she was not the only one. He felt the pebbles under his way to thin shoe soles, now in the night they felt like dull nails. Again he almost hit a tree, but this time it was good. Somewhere was near him. He could feel it. He looked around, but there was no pale creature, but someone else.
He went down on his knees and looked through the bushes. He could see darker shadows fighting in front of a star laden night. One of them was Karl. This was sure.
Mona struggled. She fought. Yelled. Screamed even. Her voice was higher than any voice Thomas had heard before. And she was able to break the spell.
Thomas raced from the woods to the plain. The moon, which appeared over the trees, swallowed his appearance and spit it out again. He was just a few steps away, when Karl overcame his shock and started to pull her again to the well. He even was able to pull her up, so her feet left earth.
»Karl!«, Thomas yelled.
Karl did no listen. And yet, for a second, he seemed to realize, that he had been caught. But it was too late. The woman was lifted off the ground and thrown down the menacing void.
Thomas was able and forced to listen to her screaming, her body crashing on the walls, getting ripped by the raw rock. He did not hear any »thump«, her arrival at the bottom of the well. Not even a splash from the water. Nothing.
»You can’t … can’t help her.« Karl panted, his chest grew and shrunk constantly. »Can’t help her. Us. Can’t help.«
»What did you do?« Thomas was unable to keep his emotions down. His neck felt the rage rising from the back of his spine. His fists cracked.
»He can’t«, another familiar voice appeared behind the two men. »Its a curse.«
»Curse?«, Thomas yelled. »You are in it too?«
»A curse of generations and a blessing of more.« She smiled and the scar on her face looked as if there was second, vertical smile in her skin. »It is complicated.«
»You killed a woman!«
»We did, what was necessary. The curse is upon us and has to be calmed down.« Maria walked up the hill, while she was showing her hands. »Everything is needed to be done. She was here and thankfully, she was not able to run away.«
»Like the others?«
»Others. You know.«
»No. I found folders. What is this?«
Karl panted. »We follow the wishes of you father. Not only this, we follow …«
»Don’t speak, Karl. We go home and then we will sleep.«
»What is this?«
»Nothing to care about.« She was now in reach. Her hands raced across her face, touched it. »Nothing to care about.«
He woke up. The sun was shining. The night was over. He went up, opened the window. The sky was clear and blue. It was summer. The rain from last night had freshen up the woods and the grass. He turned around, as his father opened the door. »You are late.« Father smiled.
»I know, mothers birthday.«
Father nodded. »Lets eat something and then we visit her place.«
The oatmeal was coarse, but sugared and mixed with cacao, it tasted great, like most of the days.
They left home, went up the path between the large trees. The bushes ran around them like black sheep. The pebbles danced under his soles. The day became nicer and nicer. The clouds looked down and waved at him and he waved back.
They arrived at the plain. There was an old wooden block like gallows. This was the symbol, the important symbol.
They went to the well and Thomas looked down in the darkness. He looked up to his father and back to the well. He did not want to see Fathers tears.
»Take the flowers.«
Thomas took them, pressed his little fists in the soft green flesh of their thin stems until he could feel the water and then he throw them down. And like every time, he heard the flowers fly and a silent snarl from the darkness and then he looked up and Father smiled.
»It was a nice birthday gift, yes?«
»The best«, Father answered.
He woke up. Looked up. He was not a child. He was not a man. He was older. But he was still a child. Maybe. He went up and opened the window. It was winter. It was cold in the room and cold on the outside. He could feel his breath freeze in his cheeks.
Father was inside his room. His room looked weird, as if it were not real. Next to him sat Maria. She was younger. Her scar was red. She looked at him. She looked at his father, back at him. »Tell him«, she said.
Father did not answer, nor did he look at his son.
»Tell him. Or he will find out, when …«
»Later«, the old man said. The old man was now older than father and his face was full of wrinkles and behind those wrinkles lay flesh, bare flesh, red and bloodless. »Later.«
»There is no later. There is a curse. Help him. Or you curse him.«
»Its a family thing.«
»Everything is family. We are one family.«
»Not him«, the old man said. »Not him.«
»And you? Aren’t you the same?«
»I don’t care anymore«, the old man answered. He got up and somehow, his skin stuck on the chair and got ripped off and under his skin was his flesh, his muscles, red and cold.
»It is cold«, Thomas said. »It is winter.«
»It is always winter in the dark«, Maria said. »It is always winter, when you are cursed.«
He woke up. But he remembered. Remembered last night. It was still dark and the sun still hours away. He went up and looked at his watch. It was almost 3 in the morning. He was fully clothed. His shoes were on the ground. He got them on his feet and left the room. The house was dark. It was silent. He looked out of the window. The small house on the other side of the place was dark. He went to his fathers room and looked around. The smell still was brutal. Worse than before. Fresh. Bloody. He could smell fear and agony, pain and tears. He closed his eyes, stood in the room, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. His sense of smell grew constantly until he was able to find smaller details in the smell, like clumps of smell, red like blood. And they created a kind of trail.
There was something in the closet. It was not alive, but it had been alive. And it had been killed. It was clear. There was blood. Coppery blood. In flakes. It was big. Maybe a bag. Or was it a body? Thomas was not able to recognize it at first, but the smell was fresh. And it was a male. He did not know, why he knew it. It smelled differently than, yeah, than what? He knew, it was impossible to smell a gender, but he did. It smelled metallic and sour and kind of bitter. When he turned around, the smell did not leave his nostrils, but there was another smell added, again blood. He went to the corner, where his fathers bed was. The smell was different, older, full of dust, and it was female. Again, he just acknowledged, what he thought, it was not a science, but it was real.
And again, when smelled around, he felt, that this was the reason, the room smelled so badly, there were several locations, where older blood had been spread. And yet, he didn’t ask why. He knew why. And he knew why Siegmar had not appeared. It was him in the closet and he was dead.
When he entered the small house of Maria and Karl, he did not knock. He just opened the door and went inside. The middle of the larger room, where both lived and ate, was empty. In the back of the house was the kitchen. Thomas knew the kitchen. He and Katja had often eaten here in their youths, when father had been absent doing business. The kitchen was neat, a table next to a window, two chairs on opposite sides. Behind on the chairs was the refrigerator. And here was also a kind of smell, which reminded Thomas of the room of his father. It was fresh and bloody again. He did not open the refrigerator. He went to the next floor.
The sleeping room was not empty. Karl was lying on the bed while Maria was touching his forehead with a rag, which she dipped in cold water from a bowl. She did not answer, when Thomas addressed her. Karl answered weakly. His words were not strong enough to reach Thomas’ ears, so suddenly Maria talked.
»It is, what it is. You can’t keep them from eating. Its a gift to be alive.«
Short silent words.
»Your father knew, what was necessary. And he did his work and so he died. They did not eat him. They brought him to the door of the mine, laid him down on the grass at night. They are not monsters. They are just like us, only older and not ready to come to the light.«
»What … what are they?« Thomas felt jitters in his voice, he felt weak. His legs trembled.
»They are another part of humanity. They are the forgotten ones, maybe they are part of an old civilization which went into the darkness and never came back.«
»Katja. Yes. She did not know. She did not believe, when we told her, that it was dangerous. She should have known better. And now she is in the darkness with the others.«
»We have to help her!«
»Help. Her.« Maria opened her mouth, but she could not talk anymore. Karl was talking louder now.
»If you want to help her, go to the well. Or better, to the mine. Go in the mine. Don’t take light with you. You will find them. Or they will find you. Maybe they won’t kill you.«
»I know them«, Thomas said. »Since my childhood. But I believed, they were nightmares.«
»They are, what they are. Gods forgotten children«, said Maria.
He left the house, went up the path, but before he could reach the plain, he turned right. It was still dark, but the darkness had a special atmosphere. He could smell more than ever, the trees with their barks, the bushes with their leaves. He could smell every tiny explosion under his feet, where mosses and grass fought over territories, where bugs worked hard following their instincts of survival. He could smell the deer several dozen steps away, could feel their looks on his body, as if they were part of a larger community of life forms, trying to find out, who and what he was. He was not sure, why the creatures had chosen his family to work for them. Or it was just a ritual, nothing more. One dead body could not feed a tribe of creatures. By god, how many of those women had his father killed – and his forefathers too? And no one ever had tried to find them? Had tried to get the police to do their works? Or was it all a conspiracy of this location, this region of woods and rock and loneliness? Were the people so afraid of the creatures, that they had done everything to keep them silent and hidden? It was possible. More than possible. His father had been weaker for years now but he had followed the protocol, the ritual. Like a priest of a forgotten and unholy cult, he had done his work. Until he was dead. Was this the meaning of his return now? Did people expect, that he would do the same, keep the truce between the pale monsters and humanity?
The door to the old mine was closed, there was a chain in a hole connected to a supporting beam which ran vertically between the ground and the top of the hole. He touched the chain, felt its rust. It had not been renewed for decades, so how could the creatures put his father to this place? He grabbed the chain, pulled it. It moved slowly for a few moments and then it was blocked. He put his fingers on the door, tried to find a gap, but there was none. He closed his eyes again, tried to get back in to the state of blindness and there it was again, the smell of blood and something else, rotten meat. He went down at the door, felt the wood, turned to the beam. The beam was old. And behind the beam was darkness. There was a gap, invisible from eyes, but he would fit. Maybe.
He fit. He was in the cave, in the Stollen, the old name for that kind of passage from older times in yet older countries, unknown to everyone else, forbidden by the gods and demons. But that was not important now. He was able to stand up, but he knew, that soon he would have to crouch and then to crawl, back in the days, people were smaller and as he had heard, that dwarves in fairy tales often had been children in reality, he was too old for this way down. But he had to. He lost more and more the trust of his sight. Here in the absolute dark, almost no photon existed and yet, he could smell and feel more than he thought. Also, his ears were better. Like in Kinsai, he was able to move without seeing.
The rock around him felt alive, slow but alive, as if it were looking inside and seeing the caves in their innermost parts. Did rocks scream, when they were hollowed by mankind? Or were those caves like forgotten clumps of cells, cancer made of iron, gold, tin, silver? When Thomas laid his hands on the rock, he could feel them, their eternal struggle for breath, unable to move by their own feet, being part of a planet, who did not care.
He moved slowly, his head sliding below the rough rock. He could feel the old beams of wood rotten over him, half dried, half wet, rotting away but there was nothing, what could be done, it was the destiny of the wood now and he was in the grip of his own destiny. The bottom slowly descended, mixed blanks with rock with old dirt. Here and there he could see lights from mushrooms, slightly blueish or green. For him they felt like fire and disconnected him from his smelling and hearing, therefore he closed his eyes. Moments later he would feel the wetness of said mushrooms, as if they were trying to get his skin. The echoes of his own feet were thrown back by sudden turns here and there, there were also smaller passages to the left and right, but he could feel that they would end after a few steps when the precious ore had disappeared and only the main passage had been able to provide resources and a way down.
He did not know, how long he had gone. It could have been minutes or days. The air was cold and yet his clothes stuck on his skin, glued to his flesh with cold thick sweat. His movements became slower. Arrived at a crossing. To the left and right rails appeared and disappeared again, small rails for small people with tons of rocks to move. He could feel the suffering of this place, but it was less real than the strong smell of decay, coming from all directions. It smelled feral and rotten, musky and sweet. Again, he could see the smell in his mind, those clumps and there was a certain direction, he had to walk to get to his destination. And yet, he struggled. He felt fear. But in the end, he was already moving. He had turned right and down the passage.
He knew, that he was right. The passage ended suddenly and opened up to a larger cave, a cave which was not empty. He could smell everything, every motion of every creature. And he knew, what creatures he would have seen with light. They were pale and smaller than him, but not much. He could hear their snarls, their brutality, when they punched or kicked each other, short whines were stopped immediately. They ate, ravaged flesh from bones, younger flesh. They ate their own. He could hear blood pumping through open holes in chests, painful agonies and cries for help, but no one would help them. But this was not the main stock. This was the early stage version of the older creature, a mad kindergarten for these entities.
And then they were gone and he was gone, because something had gripped him from behind, had used his own scent to find him. And he had not smelled the creature because of the overwhelming smell of the smaller creatures but this did not matter anymore. He tried to turn around, but the creature which had grabbed him was stronger than him. And yet, he fought, moved and danced like an eel. Without success. He moved his arms, tried to grab something on the walls and the bottom of the passage. Nothing. Only rotten blanks from centuries ago. And yet, there was something, for one moment, he was able to hold on something … old. Rotten. Hard. Metal. Maybe a nail. And it was now in his hands. And he used it. He punched the creatures arms with the nail and the creature screamed but held fast. The nail penetrated again the skin of the creature, again and again and again and again. Thomas was getting into a frenzy, he fought, his muscles screamed at him even louder than his attacker. He could smell the blood and black rotten ichor streaming from the wounds and then the attacker was letting him go. Just for a moment.
Thomas turned around, the nail in his fist between his fingers like an additional finger old and deadly. He could smell the creature, could almost see it. It was slightly smaller than him, full of muscles, its mouth rotten, old teeth rotting away in black gum. Sweat and blood was everywhere. It was naked. And it was a woman.
»Go!«, he yelled, »Run away!«
The creature turned its head and screamed and his scream filled the empty passage and the caves and echoes appeared from this scream, dozens of voices, a choir of terror. Then the creature turned around and left. Just left.
»What the hell«, Thomas asked himself and his voice sounded tiny, getting swallowed in the darkness.
Then he followed the creature.
He could smell her, she was just a couple of steps away. She knew, that she was followed. She was obviously not walking by her own decision, because she would have rather killed and eaten him than leaving him.
The cave was filled with light, invisible to human eyes, but when Tomas opened his, he could see everything. It felt like all the blood from his body has gone to his face, burning in a red, that even his mind was unable to realize it. The cave looked like filled with blood, a burning red, mixed with pink and white. In the background, the walls disappeared in a fine mist, like fog in spring, wavering around like the sea. And in the middle of the cave was a large rock and on that rock was a throne. And on the throne was a woman.
Creatures left his path, crouched back, snarling at him, but the echoes of their snarls were low, as if they did not know what to say. The path was old and rotten. Giant drip stones hung from the top of the cave like chandeliers made out of silver. Thomas knew, he was in the darkness and the light was not real, but it did not matter, because the main part of his brain had adapted and he did not care anymore.
He walked down to the bottom of the cave before him and stepped up the rock to the throne. He looked around. He was surrounded by hundreds or thousands those creatures. The person on the throne was not a creature and yet, it was a creature. She was pale, small, her eyes were black but he could see some blue-grayish dots where her pupils had been. She had been blonde, but the blood on her head had pressed her hair down and now it was a mess, flat, almost ironed to her skull. Her eyes had the forms of crescents and she was beautiful.
»Thomas«, she said. Her voice felt wrong, like a puppets voice, created from outside her body. He knew this voice.
»Who are you?«
»I am your mother«, she said.
»You are not. She is dead.«
»I am dead. Can’t you feel it?«
She stared in the blackness behind him, where shadows from unmade entities appeared.
Thomas did not have to turn around. His spine froze in terror. He was unable to blink, even his breath stopped for a moment. The creature, which from behind his back was smaller, its arms were wounded by the nail.
»What is this?«
»Family«, the woman on the throne said. »She is your sister.«
»This can’t be.« Thomas tried to find meaning in these words, but he felt unable to do so.
»You don’t have to believe it. She is protecting your for years.«
»Do you believe, this massacre you survived, was just luck? Being in the middle of a tribal war with a British commando-unit because of the last promises of some forgotten queen? Am I not a queen?« The puppet moved its body, opened its arms. »Come. Child. You are home.«
The creature, which was his sister, snarled angry. »Not. Home.«
The crescent eyed woman looked up. »We have discussed this.«
»But Kinsai was thousands of kilometers away!« Thomas had found his voice. »Who are you?«
But both women did not care about his words. They stared at each other, arms and backs shaking on rage.
Claws stroke, hitting air.
They stopped, looked at Thomas. He stood there, his fists raised, as if he wanted to throw the sky down, the sky, barely any of the creatures had seen. His eyes felt like fire and even though he had not that magical power, there were now lights on the left, deeply hidden in the dark, like flickering from a gap in the stone. The women!
»Run!«, he yelled, hoping, that they would listen to him, but they did not move. »Run, dammit!«
The darkness flew again, as he closed his eyes.
»What do you want?«, he asked.
»Nothing. Nothing more than your father did and his forefathers. And so on.«
»A new queen of these damned creatures, thrown out of the paradise by god itself, sealed away in darkness.«
»What?« Thomas felt forced to ask again.
»I am that entity you call Lilith or maybe Tissaia DeVries, but we are not in that universe yet, I am the crescent moon of the world and when I arrive, the foundations of the world will crumble down and the terror will eat its own. You asked, how your sister was able to help you in Kinsai? We are millions and the lords of the world know about us. They pay us. In lives.«
»But my father?«
»And my husband. Yes. The heritage of your family is linked to the dawn of time. It was Cain, who found us and who loved us for our rage. And now look at our children. But for every child, which is born human, another child is born, for every brother a sister. And she knows you from your childhood on. You went to Berlin, right? You felt her eyes in the darkness of the subways. Yes. You are connected. But there are others involved. You know their names. And their places. Your house is a temple. You will not sell it.«
»I know, that he is dead.«
»Worse. He is part of you. You are like us. You don’t really remember the massacre in Kinsai. You were the strongest of the pack, the survivor of madness. In the end, you woke up and everyone was dead. Your sister was impressed.«
»But«, Thomas tumbled back.
»Not but. There is only the clan, and you will now follow our path, your path. Your father sacrificed to me and you will do it and your children will do it.«
»I don’t have children.« Thomas smiled.
»You will. You will.«
In the background the lights flickered again. And then the screaming started, the echoes of ripping of flesh, the maiming of extremities, the agonies of fear and pain, the terror in the darkness, lights went red and created bloody shadows on the walls of the cave. The creatures howled with one voice, as if the pack shared the same emotions, an ecstasy of destruction.
»Let me go!«, a woman yelled.
»Katja!« Thomas felt the urge to call her again and again, so that she could find him. »Let her go!«
»Let her go?«, crescent-eyed Lilith said. »But she is here be her own free will. Following the orders of her family. Her own pack. Don’t you see? You are surrounded by friends and by family. You can stop running away. There is no way … no way.«
Katja appeared. She held a light next to her face. Her face was white and there was a scar on her cheek. She tried to smile, but the light turned the smile into a mask of pain. »Thomas.«
»What are you doing here?«
»Didn’t she say?« Her words felt like acid.
»You are working with them?«
»For you, Thomas. For you. Not because I wanted. My mother was always open to me. She shared our ‘holy duty’ many years ago. And now, that your father is dead, I was forced to bring people with me. Which are now dead. Friends. Well, most of them.« She went silent.
»It is your duty. You are a child of Eve.«
»I know, blah.« Katja looked at Thomas. »She hates Eve. You know, Adams other wife? Made by some god from some rib.«
»Not some … god«, Lilith snarled. She went up. Her hands waived like a puppet on strings. »You don’t understand. Its Eternity for us here. And you have the rest. The universe even. When God left, he left us with nothing. Only flesh and terror and darkness. And this is the reason for the sacrifices. You sacrifice to us, because we are your god and we come from the darkness and we will pull you back with us in the darkness. You don’t want to see, what the deeper parts of this world have to offer. You would pray for hell to exist, but its worse. So you will give us sacrificial lambs and we will stay here. And this will be the eternal curse for all of you.«
Katja was fast and the ice axe even faster. Lilith was not able to stop it. Well, only just. Her grip found the fist of Katja and stopped the axe in its movement. Then she smiled. »Girl. You were chosen. You were chosen to be his mate.«
»I don’t need a chosen one.« Thomas’ arm crashed down on the grip of the axe and pushed it. For one moment, Lilith struggled, then a flat smile appeared in her face. The tip of the axe punctured her skill, penetrated her chest, shoved two rips aside and entered her heart. The crescent eyes in her face opened up, went wide for the pain and then broke. One last breath left her body.
The creatures screamed, raised their claws, wanted to attack, there was an urge in the air, the need for blood and revenge. But one louder scream made them silent. The bloodied arms of the creature, which was Thomas sister, was raised too and she jumped on the throne, roaring, screaming again. She turned around and looked at Thomas and Katja. A look which could have been good or mean, penetrated her eyes. »Go.«
They ran. The caves on the left and right felt darker than before, smaller, tighter. The rails from the old mining looked older or newer. It did not matter. They expected a rush of snarling creatures in their backs, but it was silent.
When they left the mine, it was still night, but a speck of dawn was already appearing on the horizon. They followed the path down to the house. Maria was standing at the door. She was nodding. »Its over, right?«
Katja smiled and answered. »Its done, mother. The queen is dead.«
»She was my sister«, Maria said. »I lost her and now I got her back, even though she is dead. But she is free.«
»Are we free?«, Thomas asked.
»Maybe. Lets go in the house. I am tired.«
»You are hurt.«
»Family tradition. Facial scars are hip nowadays.«
»Its time to sleep.« Thomas yawned. »Then we will make plans.«
When he went to bed, dawn had already reached the horizon. The sky was as blue as lead, gray and cloudless. He stared out of the window. Someone knocked on the door. Opened it. It was Katja. She was beautiful. Her hair looked like copper, her skin was pale as the moon.
»Its never over, right?«, she asked.
»Only when we want it.«
»That’s not how it works.«
He closed his eyes and said: »We are free. We were always free.«
She came closer and kissed him.
He looked up to her.
And crescent eyes looked down on him and smiled and her smile were full of needles.