He wore not a scrap of clothing as he lay on the grimy dirt within the coffin, so I could see that his entire body bore a ghastly green pallor. His toes and fingers were abnormally long and thin, and the toes even seemed to taper to points as the nails had grown back deformed. His ears too were long and tapered. The serene and contented smile on his face struck me as obscene.
She was watching from afar. She insisted on watching. And though her brother was with her, giving her comfort, and though she had paid twice my wage for the privilege of being present, a wave of doubt troubled my gut. This was no time for doubt, with my hand gripping the wooden stake that I was soon to drive into her husband’s heart.
This was no place for doubt. This damp lair with but a single door leading to the world of the light and the living. Young William had struggled to uncover the coffin, even with all the might of his considerable muscle. But uncover it, he had. And there was no turning back now.
We had filled the entire crypt with water, enough water to reach our knees. If our quarry woke before we could finish, it would be worth the trouble and the expense to have the water’s protection. He would be strong enough to dispatch all of us, even William. Strong enough to bear a silver bullet or two, even if it reached his heart. But if he was weakened by the water, we might have a chance. That water had been fairly clear when we released it into the chamber, barrel by barrel.
When we descended the stairs into the crypt, I saw that that the water had turned a deep red. It was all the more so in the light of O’Brien’s single torch. Extra pay or no, I almost made the young woman and her brother turn back then. But she insisted, despite the danger. It is not my business or my place to ask her reasons. She understands that she must not interfere.
If he woke, we were doomed. Even now we might be doomed. Even through his deathly stupor, he might smell our presence. Through his pale translucent eyelids, he might even see traces of it with his preternatural gaze. A wonder the lady had not been mesmerized by that gaze. A wonder he hadn’t just killed her when she first discovered him.
She understands that the condition is too far advanced. She believes it is but a condition, one that affects both body and mind. One that her hapless husband picked up on a trip he would not have taken if not for family obligation. A condition beyond the skill of doctors to heal or harness.
But she does not believe what I believe.
Two days prior, when I first laid eyes on the coffin’s lid, I was confirmed in my suspicions. The whole coffin is made of stone and its lid is decorated with an ornate relief of a daunting helmet entwined with serpents. The rim of the lid was painted gold. The flat surfaces were covered with a smooth layer of black onyx.
It had found him at last. Our great enemy. He once enslaved an entire race of earthly creatures to do his evil bidding.
There are myths of how the snakes were once bright and noble. How they stood erect, like man, and walked upon a pair of legs and bore a pair of arms and hands. The other animals of the earth tried to break the spell upon the snakes. They succeeded in freeing one of each kind. One cobra. One rattlesnake. One viper, python, asp. And so on. These came together and combined their strengths, their powers, their rage, and their despair. They managed to defeat their enemy, but while his vessel was earthly, he was not. He struck out with all his remaining powers, and he tore from the serpents all their limbs. Not just the ones who attacked him, but all the snakes in all the world. And all the snakes who would ever be from that moment onward. The race of serpents considered it a rightful penance. And they grew vigilant from then on, watching during the night, learning to be quiet as they slithered upon the ground, so as to escape his notice whenever he would return.
For though they defeated him then, they knew he would return.
Better than any the serpents knew him, for he had entered their minds, their very souls, corrupting and ruining. It is a wonder that they managed to cast him out.
In the myth, that was before man existed.
But in the early days of man, he knew how to speak with the animals, and the serpents told him their story. They gave him their warning.
For they feared they had met in man another race that would draw the attention of the one who had once chosen them and cursed them forever with the stain of evil repute.
Man remembered the story. He remembered it well enough to believe the being had indeed returned various times through human history. And the last time, it returned as the knight of snakes. The knight died in battle and was buried in the very coffin that I stumbled upon while searching for a lost husband.
“It is no ordinary illness,” I told her. “No earthly condition. Your husband was chosen to be the vessel of a being, a very old being, older than our race, for certain. Older perhaps than our world.”
This being, this hideous fiend, had created many progeny in our world. Many terrible progeny. And it hides itself. Because while it is powerful, that power has its limits. There are things in our world—our natural world—that can weaken it. And there are things in our world that can kill it. And some of these things are simple. We take them for granted, because for us, they are always there, and have always been there. But the world was not always full of sunlight and trees. And before men learned to refine it and shape it, the world was not always full of silver.
Some legends claim that if the being dies, so dies all the progeny. We would be rid of all of them.
They are not ill. They are not invalid. They begin as victims, it is true. Human men and women who are chosen, who are taken, who are then ruined and despoiled.
The young woman who hired me had started noticing that her new husband was acting strangely, and his appearance was changing. She thought it must be customary for such a thing to happen after marriage. But then he began to have an odor. Not the natural unpleasant odors a person might emit, upon exercise, days without bathing, or overconsumption of beans. The lady had grown up with a brother, who by her accounts, often subjected her to such odors when they were coming up. But what her husband was emitting was something else, something she hesitantly described as “defiling.”
This all started a few months after he returned from a trip overseas for business, a trip he was loathe to take but did for the sake of some uncle to whom his father owed a favor…family obligation, in other words. Less than a year had passed since they’d been married. No one believed the young woman. No one seemed to see or perceive what she saw or perceived. No one save one person. Her brother, with whom she exchanged many letters after moving to her husband’s manor. He didn’t like the man his sister was to wed, but begrudgingly accepted him. So at first, he only believed because he was already inclined to think ill of the fellow, and to be glad that his sister was finally suspicious of someone he thought “smelled funny” from the beginning.
But soon, others began to notice too, that the man of manor seemed to be growing pale and sickly. At his wife’s insistence, he handed off his duties to subordinates while he tried to rest at home. His wife fed him garlic soup to help his constitution, an old recipe from her mother’s side of the family. And it seemed to help for a while, but then he worsened. His teeth began to fall out. Then his toenails and fingernails. His eyes grew rheumy, and he seemed to have difficulty hearing from ears that were changing shape, growing thin and shriveled.
Then her brother came to stay with them on holiday. And he too fell ill. He too began to grow pale and weak. Yet, as her brother began to wane, her new husband began to grow hale. He was still pale, but his eyes grew brighter, almost unbearably so, sharp and alert. His posture improved so well that he almost seemed taller. The odor of death that seemed to cling to him vanished. He began to smell like dirt and soil. He told his wife that it was because of his work, though he would give no further details, even when she pressed him.
One day, she woke in the middle of the night to find her husband gone. She went back to bed, and asked him the next day where he’d gone. He said he couldn’t sleep and had gone down to the kitchen for a bite to eat or something warm to drink. She accepted this answer, but when it happened again, she went down to the kitchen in the hopes of making something for her new husband to help him sleep. But she did not find him there.
She went to his study, but did not find him there. She went to the living room, where a small fire burned through the night. She found the servant who tended that fire, and asked if he had seen his master. He had not, and seemed distraught to have his routine troubled by the lady of the house. She searched the whole manor, and at last found herself knocking on her brother’s door in the guest quarters. He did not answer, and feeling herself foolish for trying to wake her brother in the middle of night, she returned to bed, certain that her husband might be on the grounds somewhere. The lone servant she had found didn’t seem particularly attentive.
In the morning, she found her husband lying by her side. This time, she said nothing, and asked nothing. She waited for him to say something to her, about being restless in the night again, or about having to race away to business. When he did not, she again told him directly that she had discovered him gone and could not find him. To this he responded by teasing her that she sounded jealous, and assuring her that he would not indulge in any dalliances, at least that early in their marriage. His jest was so like his old self, the one he had been before they were married, that she again accepted the answer.
But the next time she woke to find him gone in the middle of the night, she went searching again, and determined not to let him evade her questions.
This time she wasn’t surprised to not find her husband anywhere in the house. Nor was she surprised that the same servant, the one who watched over the house while everyone else slept, had not seen his master. This time, she decided to wake her brother, so he could help her search the grounds.
When he did not answer, she called out to her brother gently. Then for a heartbeat, she wondered if her husband and her brother were both off somewhere. She remembered her husband’s jest and imagined the two laughingly going to the town to some brothel. But it was a foolish thought. Her brother was devoted to his studies, and to a young lady in the town, whom he had not even begun to court and yet felt he must be faithful to. And if her husband were to indulge in vice, it would be to gamble, not to whore. So she wondered if he had gone to gamble and had dragged her brother with him in the hopes of gaining his approval.
She opened the door to the guest room that her brother had been occupying. She expected to find him sleeping or to find it empty. She did not expect to find him sitting up in bed, staring ahead as if in a daze. She did not expect to find him offering his arm to the thing that hovered beside his bed, beside him. The thing that was biting into her brother’s arm as if it were a leg of lamb. No blood dripped or even oozed from the arm.
In the darkness of the room, the thing looked to be glowing slightly, glowing with a sickly green pallor. It had no clothes on, so she could see that it was a man. It looked at her.
She screamed because she gazed into the face—the uncanny eyes—of a fiend.
She screamed because she gazed into the face of her husband.
She screamed because they were one and the same.
Her screams tore through the awful silence and startled the fiend. A crash was heard in another part of the house as a servant woke. Then another. The lady’s screams were drawing the attention of the living. And so, the unliving fled. The thing that bore the mask of her husband’s face released its fanged grip on her brother’s arm. It flung open the nearby window and leapt through it.
The young woman felt her frozen limbs thaw and she stumbled forth to reach her brother, who had collapsed into a droop as soon as he was released. His arm bled freely from two neat punctures, each looking as if it were given by a needle with a monstrous gauge.
She held her brother in her arms, but kept her gaze poised between the open door of the bedchamber and the single window through which the fiend had escaped.
Servants came to her and her brother’s aid. She did not mention her husband’s name, but simply said that something had attacked her brother and leapt through the window, two stories up. The butler woke the groundskeeper, and they took rifles and torches. They searched the house and the grounds. The cook and the housekeeper tended to their lady’s wounded brother, and lit fires to guard against what might be hiding in the darkness of night.
It was noted even then that the master of the house was missing.
They learned quickly how to guard themselves. But he never returned to the house again. Then they found me. A fortnight later, I found him.
I would have dispatched the fiend anyway, even if there were no patron, no client. But to learn that I had found the very origin of horror upon the natural world, a horror that abided before my race ever opened its innocent and gullible eyes to life… at first that made me all the more cautious, and all the more determined not to celebrate any victories if we were to succeed. For there would be no true and permanent success. Eternal vigilance was my race’s inheritance from the serpents.
But now that I am so close, it seems possible to do the impossible.
And now, I will rid them of him. I will rid all of us of him.
The light of O’Brien’s torch flickered upon the corrupted waters. I positioned the stake, careful not to let the wood touch the fiend’s flesh until I was certain it was above his rotted heart. I steadied my hand. I raised the mallet.
The fiend opened his eyes as my mallet bore down. His glistening eyes seemed to pulse as he turned his gaze to me. His serene face contorted into wrath. In one smooth movement, his left hand flicked the stake away from his chest as his right hand caught the mallet. I felt no resistance. The mallet stopped as if it had hit stone.
I let go and stepped back, calling for O’Brien to fire. If the fiend noted the water, if he was strong enough to leap up and hang from the crossbeams above us, then we were lost.
The fiend glared at me, baring glowing white teeth, and decaying gums stained with blood. O’Brien shot and the bullet burst through the fiend’s throat. It did not bleed. In an instant—my eyes could not see the movement at all—he was upon O’Brien. I had seen where the stake had fallen in the coffin, and I had held on to the mallet.
O’Brien dropped the torch, and the chamber went dark. We were deep into the crypt and the light from the entrance was a far haven that did not reach us. I lost sight of the coffin, but managed to grip its lip just as I fell forward onto my knees. I pulled myself up, struggling against the weight of my wet coat. I heard young William calling for O’Brien and for me. I heard O’Brien spitting curses at the thing that was attacking him and would surely drain him of his last drop of life as it would do to the rest of us.
I could just sense panic at the edge of my thoughts, trying to force its ways to the front of my thoughts. Urgent. Insistent. It told me the dire truth of my predicament. But I silenced it with further truths.
O’Brien should already be dead. The fiend should have overpowered him as easily as a man might overpower a mouse, could have tossed him across the chamber as easily as a child would toss a rag doll. That they struggled meant that the water and the bullet were working. They had weakened the fiend.
In the filthy dirt of the coffin, my hand found what it sought and closed around the wooden stake, just as another, startling sound filled the chamber.
A woman’s voice.
Her voice. I had forgotten she was there. I was a fool to have let her come. Panic surged within me again. She was calling his name. He would either recognize it and give pause. Or he would hear the sound of a ready victim. One who was young and vital and helpless. A far more enticing prey than the cursing, struggling man. The trick would not work. The fiend had seen O’Brien and me, and it had surely sensed young William and the young woman’s brother. It knew there were threats to tackle before it could succumb to this new temptation.
And tempt it she did. For the sound of the splashing struggle ceased.
“Come to me,” she said, and it was meant to sound comforting. But I heard a reckless fear dripping from each word. “Come to me!” she cried in fury and anguish.
I turned slowly and saw nothing in the pitch dark but a gaseous green glow in the form of a man, floating slowly away from me.
A sudden tiny spark. Then a fire flared up and I saw again. Young William held a torch out against the fiend. He had managed to reach the woman and her brother in the dark. He stood before them now. The fiend was almost upon them. William took a step forward and stabbed the fiend with the lit torch.
The thing gave a gurgling cry. Its voice had been torn from it by O’Brien’s silver bullet. A strange sickly green fire seared the left side of the creature. O’Brien and I splashed toward it as it fell into the water.
The fire was quenched, but the fiend thrashed and made a gruesome screeching noise through its shredded throat as O’Brien and I dragged it back to its coffin. William bid the others to stay back as he followed with the torch’s light, ready to strike. O’Brien held the butt of his gun to the creature’s side. For a moment, I considered drowning the fiend. But even weakened, it was still so strong. Drowning would take too long.
We tossed the fiend into the coffin, and it cast one final gaze at me before I pressed the stake to its chest and brought the mallet down with all my strength. The stake split as it entered the fiend’s burned and broken body.
It stopped its struggling, and his preternaturally bright eyes dimmed. He gave a final sigh before dying, as if he were tired of lingering between life and death. A sudden putrid stench burned my nose and my eyes. The profane force that animated the fiend had departed. All that remained was the rotted corpse of the inhuman thing that had once been a man. A man undeserving of such debasement and ruin.
In that last gaze, I had seen the truth of what he was. This was not the one I have been hunting. Though he lay in that notorious coffin. This was just one of its progeny. My hunt must resume. So be it. But for the young woman, her brother, and her family, I hoped this was the end.
Holding on to her brother’s arm, she continued to watch as O’Brien, William, and I checked the remains to assure the fiend would not rise again. There would be no burial. Only fire and ash. As she watched us, I watched her.
I had thought she held a hand to her stomach because she was sickened by what had transpired, but her hand was not on her stomach. It was lower. And I realized what it must mean.
Why would she have come in such a condition? I could see that she understood her husband was too far gone. He would not be coming back to her. Only the fiend would come back. For her husband did not die from a silver bullet to the throat and a stake to the heart. He died many months ago, when first he encountered something that should not abide in the natural world.
So why would she risk both herself and the life she carried?
I see that her brother does not know, else he would not have let her come. Perhaps she had to see it done, so she could say that she witnessed justice for her husband.
I must assure her later, even if she already knows, that the fiend could not procreate in the way that men and women did. That if she did indeed carry a life in her belly, that life belonged to her and her true husband. They surely made it before he left for that fateful trip. And I must tell her later that I was wrong. That the one who corrupted and killed her husband was not the one I thought. That the danger has not passed. That she will need to be fierce to protect her child. A part of her will need to be more brutal than I am. And a part of her must remain gentle and good. Her burden will be far greater than my own.
But I will go on hunting. I am just a mortal man. But I will find this most ancient of evils. And I will rid her of it. I will rid all of us of it.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “The Hunter and the Crypt” by Sanjay Patel.