This is a short horror story I wrote for a Writing Roots episode in 2019. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday and, despite being a rather frightened child, I’ve grown to love stories of the macabre. This story takes a lot of influence from the works of HP Lovecraft. Rather than the horror most are familiar with in modern movies, this focuses more on the unknown and ancient that, at least to me, is more frightening than any slasher flick.
Read, enjoy, and embrace the Halloween season. I know I am.
Ruins of a castle loomed tall and forgotten before us on the mountaintop, the symbol of a long-dead kingdom succumbing to the same fate. Beyond and to the north, I could see the water of the lake reflecting the dying landscape as a mirror in the bright daylight.
As I stepped into the clearing, I was too enamored by the sight that I took no notice of all that was distorted. My mind was focused only on the accolades that would certainly come once I returned with tangible evidence, and not the eerie stillness that surrounded the crumbling stone.
I dropped my pack to the brown grass below, glad to be rid of the extra weight, and pulled a sketchpad from inside. The remainder of the exploration party skirted around the ruins to begin setting up camp. Ignoring the glances and glares, I began to draw the picturesque scene before it was marred by the flurry of humans desperate for a meal.
The discovery was one long-anticipated. It was the first tangible evidence of an undiscovered civilization of which I had only found mere mentions in my research. Any reference I could find considered it a myth, if it was there at all.
What struck me while I sketched the details was the condition of the ruins. My hopes sank with each stroke of my pencil.
It was all too preserved for a kingdom as ancient as had been suggested in my research. Full rooms still seemed to be intact, and only a few exterior walls had crumbled. As wonderful as the discovery would be – a new castle previously unknown in a mountain range of Austria – it would not be the one I had dreamed.
Too disheartened to continue the drawing, I set aside the pad before even finishing the castle. My only remaining desire would be a discovery inside the ruins that might provide more substantial evidence of what I sought.
Oh, how I wish I had continued to draw the rest of the scene that day. Then I might have noticed.
I went to find the expedition leader, Janos Taaffe. As expected, he was directing the assembly of the main tent at the eastern edge of the clearing. The man was as burly as he was rough, though still accustomed to civilized living. He had been the only mountaineer willing to lead a crew up to that particular peak.
“There’s still daylight left,” I said as I approached Janos. “Why not explore now?” Despite my disappointment in the apparent age of the castle, I was still eager to learn what the ruins had hidden within the crumbling walls.
“That’s how we end up dead,” he said, expression remaining stoic. “Caution is the first law of mountaineering. We wait. We observe. Then we investigate.”
I stepped back, surprised by his adamance.
He was stern, almost angry. “You hired me to lead, so let me lead. We wait.”
Unwilling to argue with the man – though I would outwit him, he vastly outweighed me – I returned to my pack to begin pitching my own tent, on the southern edge of camp. It was becoming an easier process after a week of trekking, but it still took me far longer than the others. Sketching had not helped in that regard.
After it was finally ready, I stood and wiped the sweat from my brow.
My hand froze as something on the water caught my eye. It had first seemed to be a rather large fish rippling near the surface, but as I looked for whatever it was, I could not find it. The water remained as motionless as glass.
Believing it to be a vision of my exhausted mind, I retired to the tent. It was separated from the main body of the camp. I wanted my view of the ruins unobscured if I chose to wake and sketch by moonlight.
My body was growing more accustomed to the hard ground and did not protest as much anymore as I drifted into sleep.
It was not long before I was woken by a disturbance. It was fully dark outside, with only a faint light shining through the dense canvas from the moon and a campfire.
I listened more closely to what was happening, and realized several of the men were arguing. They had grown more irritable each day into the expedition, so I ignored the spat and attempted to sleep again.
Their voices, however, only grew in volume and intensity.
“It’s just water.”
“To hell with you all. I’m going to get a drink.”
Curiosity compelling me, I went to the entrance of the tent to watch the dispute.
A short man – one of those who cared for our pack animals – was walking away from the circle of tents and toward the lake. More than one person attempted to call him back, but he just waved and kept walking.
He was knee-deep before he finally stopped. The water rippled gently outward with a peculiar serenity. It almost appeared as if the water was calm, despite having someone disturbing its surface.
With a glance back, as if to reaffirm his belief it was safe, he bent and placed his hands into the water. Cupped hands full, he raised it to his lips and took a long drink. The man turned back to the camp with a grin, and waved for more to join.
A single ripple began to return from the center of the lake. It was moving faster than physics would allow.
My stomach clenched and I felt the blood drain from my face. I could not move. I could not speak. I could not breathe.
I could not warn the man to run.
I could only watch.
All was still for a moment as the ripple reached the man. He didn’t appear to notice.
Without so much as a cry of surprise, the man disappeared beneath the surface.
The camp reacted immediately. Men ran in every direction – some toward the lake, some for rope. Janos began to shout orders, commanding the crewmembers who seemed lost.
I remained frozen, staring. The man did not resurface. He didn’t even appear to struggle.
Before anyone could reach the bank, the water had returned to its glassy state.
For the next hour, everyone in camp attempted to find and rescue their friend. Each passing minute, hopes grew dimmer and knowledge the man was dead grew stronger.
I attempted to offer my assistance, but was shunted out of the way. Knowing I would not be able to return to sleep while the crew tried to rescue their friend, I busied myself with caring for the remainder of the evening meal.
My eyes kept drifting toward the lake as I scrubbed the dishes. Something unearthly drew my attention, and turned my stomach. I continued to watch the ripples as the men worked in the water. Even with so much motion, the center of the lake remained undisturbed.
The man was never recovered.
When Janos finally called off the rescue attempts, the crew retired to their tents nearly immediately. Amid the somber silence, I caught the occasional muttering against me and my foolish expedition, as they called it.
I returned to my tent as well, though my sleep was not nearly as deep as it had been earlier that evening. My mind kept returning to the lake. An eerie weight pressed down upon my soul, and I began to believe the mutterings.
What little sleep I did get was haunted by dreams of unspeakable horrors rising from the depths of that lake. When I woke just before dawn, an uneasiness filled my stomach. Nausea overwhelmed me as soon as I stood, and I barely made it through the entrance of the tent before I wretched the contents of my stomach onto the ground.
No one else appeared to have slept well that night. The few that were awake at that early hour did not speak, nor did they even look at the others. It was a small comfort as I realized they would not look at me either. Being ignored was far preferred to being the target of accusing glaces and murmurs.
As the sun rose, casting a soft orange light across the clearing, my anxiety began to flee. Hope returned once again as I looked over the ruins. I soon forgot the twisted horrors of my dreams in favor of fantasizing about the knowledge that waited within the walls of the castle.
I held myself back, though, from urging Janos to expedite the scouting process. It would not be proper in light of the evening’s events. Instead, I resolved to wait for Janos to gather the scouts and begin the exploration himself.
The mood of the camp seemed to be improving, at least. Men who lived to explore the wilderness were well-acquainted with tragedy and loss. Though the crew wasn’t rambunctious, they did not let their mourning inhibit their work. They prepared quickly, and soon a crew of five scouts, plus Janos, had gathered at the edge of the camp. I joined them, unwilling to wait any longer.
By keeping myself busy that morning, I had allowed my mind to dismiss the unnatural events of the evening. I attributed the man’s fall to an unsteady footing on slippery rocks, and thought the strange wave to be simply an illusion of an exhausted state and moonlight.
I approached Janos just as he finished instructing the scouts. “I’m joining you. I need to see what’s inside.”
“You’ll wait until we’re done making sure the place is sound enough to not come down on your precious little head.” Janos examined me critically, eyes lingering purposefully on my satchel which he knew was full only of pencils, journals, and sketchbooks. None would be useful if I found myself trapped in a collapsing room.
“I’ll not wait any longer for this discovery.” I looked back at the man, mustering as much confidence and authority in my voice as well as my posture. “I won’t go off on my own, and I won’t enter any rooms until your team deems it safe. But I will go into that castle.”
Janos shrugged, and turned back to his crew. “On your head, then.”
It was on our trek southward again, toward the castle, that I first saw what was wrong. As I wrote in my journal about the apparent state of the area, movement at the lake caught my attention. A palace was reflected in the still surface of the lake, not the castle which stood before me – a slowly crumbling ruin. The reflection seemed almost a burned memory – a photograph of what once stood in that place. A stately structure – grand, yet dark. The walls were the blackest stones, windows blood red, and worse – so horrifying that my stomach turns to this day simply to remember the sight – were the creatures. There were things that passed by the windows – their silhouettes revealing shapes that seemed a sinister mockery of mankind.
The vision – for that’s what I forced myself to believe it was – was gone in the next moment. I said nothing to my companions, convincing myself it was only my exhausted mind creating illusions reminiscent of my dreams of that night.
I focused once again on my notes to rid myself of the lingering images, though I could not be rid of the weight left in my stomach. I nearly wretched its contents any time the memory of the creatures entered my mind again.
When we came close enough to examine the ruins, I knew the illusion could not have been real. The stones were a white granite, dimmed with age. The design seemed to fit 12th century architecture for the region – square towers with steep roofs – built as a fortification, rather than a house of luxury.
The scouts encountered few problems as they inspected each room. My heart quickened the farther I went into the castle. I did not wish to touch too much yet – not with my hands so unsteady from excitement – but I saw there was much to be learned. The ruins and its contents were remarkably whole for what I estimated to be at least eight centuries old.
Dust lay in thick blankets across tables set with plates and goblets – as if its inhabitants had been getting ready for a meal. Books sat undisturbed on shelves. Wood did not appear to have succumbed to the rot of age.
We soon discovered a library, of sorts. It was small and lined with bookshelves, still mostly full of various tomes and scrolls. There was a large table in the middle with what appeared to be ancient maps. I could not help but smile as I looked on the discovery. Oh what wonders that room held. I wish to this day I had been able to recover just a portion of the knowledge within those pages.
Yet some things are better left unread.
Still reluctant to touch anything, I began to inspect what I could on the open pages and maps. One set – a scroll pinned open next to several pieces of parchment – appeared to have been an abandoned translation project. The scroll, which seemed ages older than the parchment, contained runes the likes of which I had only seen once before. Some of the strange symbols matched what I’d discovered in my research. Nowhere else had I found evidence of those runes being a previously known written language.
I had some trouble deciphering the translation. It appeared to be an old form of High German, which I had not studied extensively. Some of the words caught my attention. It seemed to be a religious text, describing an ancient pantheon of gods associated somehow with water. I had thought the translation probably faulty, as it was rare for a landlocked civilization to worship water deities so highly as was implied.
My fingers shook from the joy, despite the possible errors. It was what I had been searching for all this time. There, in front of me, was evidence of an unknown civilization. One advanced enough to have a written language system. I found not only proof, but an entire room bursting with scholarly treasures.
The joy was soon replaced once again with a dreadful weight in my stomach as I realized there was a lack of anything living. There were no webs to indicate the skittering creatures presence. No rats could be heard or seen scurrying through the castle, nor any trace of their droppings. We did not encounter bats perched in the upper reaches of the ceiling beams. There seemed to be no life at all within the castle walls, except those from the expedition.
It seemed the castle and its contents had been abandoned by everything – even time.
“Sir, you’ll want to see this.” My attention was pulled away from the careful examination of a shelf’s contents by a scout peering around the door from the hallway.
They’d explored most of the upper portions of the castle, and found the staircases to be strong enough to hold at least one person at a time. But the scout did not lead me upwards. I followed him through what appeared to be a small chapel, to a door hidden behind a tapestry.
A stairway descended into blackness, but the fearless scout holding a flickering torch stepped down into the depths without hesitation. It seemed to have no end, but only to be a stairway descending into hell itself. The graying white granite slowly darkened into a deep black stone, smooth and unnaturally cold to the touch. My heart began to race again – not from excitement, but dread.
The stairway opened into a cavernous room with black walls. The single torch was not enough to allow me to see to the other side of the room, though the flames did bring to my attention numerous etchings in the obsidian-like stone. Calling the scout to bring the torch closer, I inspected the wall closest to the stairway entrance. The runes matched those found in the partially translated scroll. I knew this room must be from long before the castle.
My breathing became shallow as images flashed in my mind from what I’d seen in the lake. A black palace. Blood red windows.
Creatures of indescribable horror.
I stepped backward from the wall, stumbling into the scout. He dropped the torch in an attempt to help steady me. It rolled away, highlighting portions of what seemed to be several large concentric circles or arcs, lined with more ancient runes, descending toward one point in the room.
“Are you alright, sir?”
“I- N- Yes. I’m- I’m fine. I’ll be fine, at least.”
Once I had regained my balance, the scout retreated farther into the room to recover the torch. As he lifted the flames, I finally caught sight of the center circle and the thing it contained.
The scout must have seen it, too, as he raised the torch high in an attempt to light the figure – a statue at least forty feet tall.
An almost electric charge raced through my veins. My heart was pounding in my ears. Breathing became a labor which in that moment felt more difficult than any trial of Hercules. Every instinct for self-preservation I possessed was ready to run, to flee that place and that mountain and never look back. Yet I found myself frozen – fixated on the monstrosity before me.
Its shape was humanoid, while at the same time a travesty of the human form. Arms too long and skeletal drooped down from narrow shoulders. A cyclopean head looked down upon us, wide mouth gaping in a sinister grin. Two deep red stones – the disproportionately large eyes of the statue – shone in the flickering firelight.
Eyes as red as the windows in the lake.
I felt in that moment the statue was alive and peering into the deepest, darkest parts of my soul, ready to devour it with a single breath.
Once my mind regained a semblance of balance, I was able to convince myself the statue was only that – a statue like those of ancient Rome and Greece, depicting a long-forgotten god.
With a deep, shuddering breath, I stepped forward. Curiosity and scholarly ambitions compelled me toward the base of the massive statue. The strange, ancient runes were carved into the round platform which comprised the center of the concentric rings. I walked around it, examining the writing, but could not find any place where the runes would begin. It was as if there was no beginning or end – whatever it said seemed an eternal loop.
Resting at the front of the statue was a piece of parchment – similar to those which held the old germanic translations. If only I had left that place then, and not read what I found on that page.
I read aloud, roughly translating the text into my own tongue. “Eternal slumber holds not that which cannot die. Wait beneath the surface for the heralded return. No mortal shall stand who treads the ground when the dark god awakes. A choice to fall or forever remain, for eternal slumber holds not that which cannot die.”
Waves of tremors radiated from the base of the statue. I fell to the floor, unable to keep balanced in the violent shaking. A large crack rent the air, followed by a sound that doused my very soul in ice. It was deep, hollow, and monstrous. The unearthly howl reverberated through the chamber, growing ever louder. It seemed as though it would never cease, and in that moment I believed I would die, consumed whole by the sound alone. My body racked with terror at the mere thought of seeing the creature from which the cry emanated.
When the tremors and howl finally faded, I pushed myself up from the floor. All had gone dark. The torch had been extinguished. I could hear the scout’s mutterings, desperate whispers for death. The man had gone mad.
I turned toward the sound, knowing the scout had been between myself and the stairway, and began to walk. My feet tested the ground before each step, for I did not know if the tremors had broken open the ground beneath. I stretched my arms forward, grasping desperately for the walls, which may lead me to my salvation.
A new sound entered the room after only a few steps. A bubbling sound came from somewhere behind me, and soon each footfall was accompanied by a splash. The room was slowly flooding.
I quickened my pace, desperate to avoid a sinking death in such a dark, ominous cavern. Just as the water reached the tops of my boots, an icy shock seizing my legs as the water finally touched my skin, I found the staircase and ascended as quickly as my feet would carry me.
The sight that I met above as I looked through the remnant hole of a window made me desperately long for that watery death below, along with the mad scout in the cavernous shrine.
What I had attributed as only a vision had awakened. A black palace sprawled out on the surface of the lake. It was not a reflection – for the angle should not have shown me the castle – but appeared as a portal to a twisted dimension. The creatures streamed toward the surface in droves.
The water surged upward as the first thing reached the edge. The tension held like a bubble around the distorted form for several moments as the thing pushed outward, until the water finally burst and freed the creature from its damp prison. Hundreds of the creatures followed, each with pale skin and dark red eyes. The water that dripped from their skin was viscous, falling in streams rather than drops. Their mouths – like that of the statue – were gaping maws, too wide for any natural being.
Screams of terror carried across the mountain top from the expedition’s camp. I watched as the army of monsters fell upon the men, tearing the ones they caught as easily as a man tears paper, then devouring the pieces. A few of the brave among them tried to fight back. Loud cracks from their rifles and pistols punctuated the screams. Their efforts did nothing.
I wretched, though my stomach contained little more than acid.
Janos found me then, cowering beneath the window with ears covered and eyes clenched shut. His touch evoked a cry of primal terror, as I had assumed all but myself had been killed and the monsters must have finally found me to exact their punishment.
“It’s just me,” Janos said, holding my hands firmly to keep me from fighting. “We must leave. Now.”
The words did not expel the fear, but did instill in me some hope. I was not the only one. I looked up to Janos, fear apparent in his usually stolid face, and to the two men with him.
Cracking stone and a tremor through the castle interrupted my thoughts. Janos lifted me to my feet, and pulled me along as he and his men began to run. I would not be alive had it not been for those men’s courage and ability to act when faced with things more terrifying than even the most twisted mind could conceive.
I could hear feet, too large to be human, slapping the stone behind us with a sickly wet sound. The echo made it impossible to tell how far the creature was from us, but the sound compelled us forward more quickly. Sheer terror was the only force that kept me moving, for my body, so used to scholarly endeavors, would never have lasted so long at the pace we ran.
Janos had found another way to leave the castle, opposite the camp and mass of monsters. The scouts – used to running with light feet and going unnoticed – led the way, navigating our small band, the only who remained of our entire crew, safely away from that cursed mountain lake.
If only I had not looked back, I might have been able to forget the things I’d seen.
That part of me, still focused on the scholarly accolades, longed for the knowledge still hidden in those books. As we left the clearing, taking refuge in the cover of trees, I looked back at the castle and the lake.
Rising from its depths was a god. The god I had seen depicted in stone below the castle. Its skin was black as night that seemed to devour the light around it. Monstrous red eyes peered across the clearing in our direction, and it grinned.
Terror surged through me, and I fell beneath the weight of that stare. Janos grabbed my arm, lifting me again, and forced me to continue my flight.
The god roared, a monstrous sound that I could never forget. I sometimes think I hear it still, echoing across time to haunt my waking hours.
I do not know what happened on the mountain top once we escaped. My nightmares would have me believe the creatures are still there, amassing an army to conquer the world once again. I hope, though, they returned to their watery graves, left alone in that other plane for eternity.
Maybe the next man whose hubris drives them to that mountain in Austria will not be as foolish as I, and leave be what should never be awakened.
If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy the murder-mystery that is releasing in November 2020. Learn more about Toxic and how to order it today.