☩ Spookinite Valley ☩ ☩ Main Gothic Stories ☩ ☩ Short Stories ☩ ☩ Rites, Poetry, and Prophecies ☩ ☩ Our Gothic Instrumental Music ☩ ☩ Shadows On The Wall ☩

 The Many Morbid Tales of Spookinite Valley

Wary Perceptions
Written by Benjamin Fouché

"Midway Memories" by Morbus Tenebris

 
I.

In the dead and insufferable winter of 1873, I was hired to work as a butler at a melancholy and silent inn, thirty miles outside the sleepy, bleak town of Hemlock, Vermont.  The quiet, Gothic-Revival manor rested in the forlorn vale of Spookinite.  A place of which great darkness allegedly reveals itself to unwary travelers.  And indeed, being the superstitious person that I have always been, I felt, at first, a sensation of immense reluctance; but knowing the importance of provided warmth and meals, I was rendered no other choice.  And henceforth, I had to remain grateful with a positive and appreciative outlook.  On horseback, I began my day’s journey to the place which was, by all accounts, going to become not only my place of work, but also my promised home.  Through the barren and lull rural landscape, my horse trotted farther and farther towards the only hope that I was given.  There had been many tales of grim entities and nightstalkers that I had overheard in Hemlock.  They lingered unrelentingly, deep within my uneasy spirit.  And I shall admit, it felt exceedingly unnatural attempting to dismiss them as meager ghost stories and nothing more––but I could not purposely forget the tales for long; especially their ghoulish and lurid details.  The most horrid parts would ring in my mind.  So perhaps it was, indeed, only natural to remember them; especially since I was venturing into a land which had been evidently cursed for centuries.

Never had I feared ghosts or specters, but supernatural beings with malevolent intentions always seemed to frighten me.  Was it that––perhaps––I would come face-to-face with one while dwelling in the solitary valley of morbid peculiarity?  It was too much to ponder upon and I knew these ideas needed not bother me.  Yet they continued on––even as the night drew nearer.  By then, we were approaching the pathway that entered the valley’s mouth.  A shabby and crooked covered bridge crossed a narrow brook.  There was a well-faded sign that loosely hung down from the top of the ominous entryway of the bridge.  It hung by its remaining rope which was remarkably frayed––the sign would fall one day.  The brooding words engraved into the sign read ‘Morbus Tenebris’ which translates from Latin to ‘Dark Sickness.  From what I could fathom, it had hung over the bridge’s archway for quite some time.  Was it a sincere warning to passing travelers?  Or was it all for the sake of merely keeping unwanted visitors away?  Unfortunately, there was no time to conjecture its meaning.  The nocturnal hours were already imminent, and I had to make haste to the place where I was expected.  Steadily and with such precaution, we crossed the gloomy bridge.  The planks below the sturd
y hooves of my horse cried, as if each one that pressure was placed upon was dying.  The abandoned web-work of spiders hung in the bridge’s loft.  Dust, dirt and hollow egg-sacks had accumulated within them over the course of time.

When exiting from the other side of the bridge, we saw all light cease––with exception of the frail moonlight glowing over the gnarled branches that weepily hung above me.  We had now entered the darkened dale and were to continue among the hillocks of shadows.  Wintry mists rose from the surface and occasional wind gusts stirred the desiccated leaves.  The lonesomeness became more vast than anticipated while we moved quickly into the swallowing blackness.  And although my surroundings were undoubtedly unsettling, there was a nightly beauty of which it offered.  A few light breezes whispered over the treetops and lightly brushed the cedar saplings below.  Discontinuous owls hooted from up in their roosts, spread throughout the cold woodlands, whilst the gentle moonlight gleamed from the heavens.  I could see what this valley was––a haven for those who reside in the night.

The coldness became harsh as we rode farther into the dense forest, when suddenly, there came a weak light, shining over a ridge of knolls.  The nearer we rode, the brighter it became; my thoughts of reason said that conspicuously, it was certainly the Inn.  Becoming closer, I could see that it was, in all probability, fifty yards away.  Upon reaching the Inn, I marveled at its Gothic beauty.  The light was glowing from the turret above, and I slightly smiled, knowing this mansion was to become my abode.  Quickly, I moved underneath the porte-cochére and dismounted my steed.  Hurrying over to the sturdy doors, I jolted one of the grand door-knockers.  Upon someone opening the door, I was unexpectedly greeted by an extremely peculiar man with a hideous and somewhat corpselike appearance.  He said to me, “Greetings, my dear sir.  My name is Mansfield, and I am the caretaker of this Inn.  We are very pleased that you have arrived safely––and do excuse my odd appearance; I have an aberrant condition, so I hope you are not afraid.  But I do insist that you come inside.  I fear we might have a heavy snowfall tonight.” Thanking Mr. Mansfield, I stepped into the antechamber and took off my hat and coat.  He then said to me, “My friend, Chester, will lead your horse to the stable near the Inn’s rear. But please follow me into the dining quarters––we have prepared a small meal precisely for you.”

Walking warily into the parlor, I observed the exquisiteness of the furniture; oval tables with elegant, spindled chairs rested in the nooks and corners.  Maroon velvet chairs sat against the towering walls on the opposite sides.  And a comforting, crimson, tufted sofa sat in front of the wall facing the curving stairwell.  The interior of the Inn was exceptionally charming, but was in need of minor maintenance, for there were cobwebs and thin layers of dust on the furnishings.  Yet now that I was a butler for the establishment, I would certainly be obliged to help clear away the dust and forsaken spider-webbing.  As we turned down a short hallway, I was led past the doors to different guestrooms.  Each with a silver numbering above the doorway.  Upon entering the marvelous dining room, I looked upon the dish of hot porridge awaiting me at the end of the table.  Although it was simply a humble meal and not a boastful feast, I did not care.  It was a warm plate on a frigid night.  And for this I was especially pleased.  Mansfield began to walk out of the dining room, but then turned around slowly and approached me, saying, “Oh, and before I forget, here is the key to your room, which may be found on the second story––it is number 218. Goodnight.” And so, I was left alone in the empty dining hall, with the increasing wind outside, resonating throughout the lofty interior.

Despite the odd appearance of Mr. Mansfield and the deadness of the Inn, I was quite at ease, realizing that this place was not as dejected in comparison to my expectations.  Finishing supper, and realizing that there could be a ghost or two, I formally excused myself from the table and withdrew to my bedchamber.  As I walked down the hallway, I noticed that the candles in the dining quarters were suddenly snuffed out––the luminosity from behind abruptly vanished.  At first, I felt slight apprehension, but shortly thereafter, I began to realize that it was nothing more than Mansfield, or his other assistant, Chester.  Continuing on, I moved through the parlor for a brief moment and then neared the stairwell.  Gazing upon the winding case of steps, I admired the beauty of its white spindles, gradually curving aloft.  Afterwards, I began my ascent.

Passing over each step, I soon reached the doorway to the hall on the second story.  Entering, I then moved down the hallway to room 218––my room.  While inserting the key into the lock, I heard the door make a clicking noise, as if it had not been unlocked in decades.  Turning the doorknob steadily, I entered into what was now my sleeping quarters.  Quietly closing the door from behind, I then thoroughly observed my surroundings.  A pillow and two small cushions rested against the head of the bedframe and a thickly quilted comforter was tidily folded at the footboard.  A nightstand, with a single candle, rested along the wall next to the bed.  There was also a wardrobe in the corner of my bedchamber, next to a small, oval mirror that was mildly tarnished.  Two curtains hung like ghostly spectacles over the window, and below it was a small, secretary writing desk.  It was a comfortable room, and that is all that mattered to me.  As the brisk gusts wailed menacingly from the outside, I became all the more grateful.  I thus climbed into bed and blew out the candle.  I forgot to lock my door, but it was of no concern to me––for I thought, surely, I was safe and sound in a place which I could now gladly call home.

II.

My slumber remained undisturbed for the rest of the entire night.  And it was merely the awareness of being sheltered and sound in such a convivial environment.  Mr. Mansfield was indeed an abnormal man, but behind his bizarre appearance was a courteous gentleman who had much to bestow upon me.  And in return for the lovely home that they considerately shared with me, I was to aid them with administrating the Inn.  The interior was certainly in dire need of housework––stagnant dust and the unoccupied dwellings of spiders could be seen hither and yon.  It was the following morning when I approached Mr. Mansfield with my question and genuine concern.  I asked him, “If I may be so bold, as to say so myself, I would suggest tidying up the dust and vacant webbings.  May I undertake the task of doing so?”

Mr. Mansfield gazed at me for a moment and then observed the room in which we stood, saying, “Yes.  I do see your concern,” Pausing for a few moments, he paced along the wall, back and forth, then resumed speaking, “Unfortunately, Chester and I have been exceedingly busy taking care of each visitor and their needs.  However, with you here as my assistant, I now possess an extra hand.  By all means, please do dust this Inn’s interior.  It would be most appreciated.”

“I shall commence my work here, right this very second,” said I devotedly, eager to begin.

“Very good,” said Mr. Mansfield quietly.

During the whole overcast day, I brushed the moldings along the floor, the shelves upon the walls, the furnishings, the stairwell and staircase, the corners of every room, and the front desk in the parlor.  It was around nightfall when I finished my tasks and headed to Mr. Mansfield’s workplace.  I knocked two times, and he invited me inside. 

“You have done very well today,” said he, “I am confident that we will have a guest or two, later this evening.” Stopping for a moment, he peered outside his window. “There is already a steady snowfall outside, and any traveler passing through this vale will have no choice but to stay here until the break of dawn.” Mr. Mansfield grinned, as if reveling in a distant memory, and said, “It is always so nice to have a visitor.” But shortly after, his face abruptly transfigured into a sorrowful frown, “And yet, during the present time, I am saddened to confess that guests are rather scarce.”

I said to him, “Do not fear, Mr. Mansfield.  If the snowfall shall worsen, and there does indeed happen to be a traveler or two, they will undoubtedly come here.”

“Time will tell,” Mr. Mansfield said grimly, “it always has.” All of a sudden, the clock tolled seven, and instantly, there was a rapping at the main door.  Both I and Mr. Mansfield rushed to greet our new visitor.  Upon opening the door, we saw that the traveler appeared nervous while staring at Mr. Mansfield.  But as Mansfield did the preceding night when I arrived, he excused his acute cadaverousness.  Appearing seemingly more comfortable, the new visitor proceeded inside and took off his hat and coat.

Leading the guest out of the antechamber and into the parlor, Mr. Mansfield signed him in, saying, “We are extremely grateful that you have decided to stay at this Inn––the only Inn in the valley, as a matter of fact.”

“Well sir, let me tell you that I am glad to have stumbled upon the only Inn in this gloomy dale,” said the guest.

“And your name is?” asked Mansfield.

“Douglas Burlington,” the guest said, shaking Mr. Mansfield’s gaunt hand.

“It is my pleasure meeting you, Mr. Burlington.   Now, please wait here in the parlor until dinner has been fully prepared.  Meanwhile, my other servant, Chester, is leading your steed to the stable around the back.”

“Very good, then.  I shall wait patiently here, in this fine and comforting room,” said Burlington.

Mr. Mansfield ordered me to set the table in the dining quarters, and then afterwards, serve the guest.  Straightaway, I began my chore and made haste to the kitchen.  Seizing the glasses, plates, knives, forks and spoons, I carted them over into the dining hall and set the table.  While I was doing so, the wind became restless and howled relentlessly over the gray, timbered hillsides.  Large flakes of snow vigorously tapped against the outside of the thin window; the whiteness was becoming heavy upon the brick ledge.  I knew that we were indeed in the midst of a winter tempest––and the storm would give up to no end.

“It seems that we are only amidst the edge of the storm,” said Mr. Burlington, seating himself.

Mansfield slightly grinned, and said slowly, “Yes.”

The snowfall intensified outside and the moans of the gusts became slightly disquieting.

“Where is Chester?” I asked Mansfield. “I do believe that I have not yet made my acquaintance with him, since my arrival last night.”

Mansfield gazed out the window and said quietly, as if troubled, “Chester is a reclusive individual.  He prefers to dine alone in his own quarters.” 

None of us questioned Mr. Mansfield any further.  But hurriedly changing the subject matter, Burlington asked, “Now, Mr. Mansfield, are you the proprietor of this Inn?”

Seeming brighter in spirit, once again, Mansfield replied, “While I am indeed the head caretaker of this Inn, I am by no means the proprietor.  The landlord of this demesne is the true administrator.  But he too, similar to Chester, is a withdrawn soul who fancies vast isolation.  Rarely do I ever meet with him, and when I do, he usually comes here when no other living being is present.”

“Then how do you usually communicate with him?” asked our guest curiously.

“I write letters, which are sent to his manor,” Mansfield explained.

“And who delivers them?” questioned our guest further.

Mr. Mansfield slightly smiled, as if lost in thought and simply said, “Another one of his servants.”

Dinner continued and we conversed about a variety of many things.  When we finished, Mansfield gave Mr. Burlington the key to his room.  Afterwards, he told me to show our guest the way.  Guiding him through the hallway, up the stairwell, and to the door of his room, I wished Burlington a pleasant evening.  Upon returning to the dining quarters, I cleared the table and carted the dishes back to the kitchen.  When I returned to Mansfield’s office to enquire of my next task, he quietly said, “I fear we will have no further visitors this evening.  All of the pathways are buried in thick blankets of snow.  You may retire for the evening.” Nodding happily, I walked off to my bedchamber.  I recall pondering upon what Mansfield revealed about Chester and the true owner of the Inn.  It was, without doubt, quite unusual––but nevertheless, the thought was not too bothersome.  Extinguishing the flame wavering on its wick, I crawled into bed and fell asleep with the noise of snow roughly pattering on the thin glass of the windowpane.  However, unlike the night before, I was disturbed once, hours later.  The sound of a door slamming outside awakened me.

Climbing out of my bed, I crept over to the window and peered below at a discomforting sight.  Parked a few yards from the porte-cochére, in the dim light, gleaming from the parlor’s windows, was what appeared to be a hearse and a team of four, black horses.  While they stood in the rapidly descending snow, they were like phantoms.  Standing next to the steeds was a tall, thin man––wearing ebony from head to toe––his face was ashen, but the features were not discernible.  He stood before Mansfield, and both seemed to be communicating.  As I watched for a few more moments, I suddenly saw the darkly dressed stranger look up towards my window.  During that precise second, I shut the curtains.  My heart was beginning to beat heavily as a great terror flowed through my spirit.  I hurried back to bed with my hand tightly pressed against my chest.  Sitting erect in the pitch-blackness, I tried to fall back asleep, but the disquietude persisted.  Moments later, I scurried back to the window to see that both the cryptic specter and Mansfield had disappeared altogether.  Prowling over to the bedside and crawling under the comforter, I wondered who the strange figure might have been, as well as how he could have possibly managed to drive to the Inn when snow was heavily shrouding the earth.  Was it the supposed servant who delivered Mansfield’s letters?  And if so, why would the wagon be a hearse?––If that is what it was?  Nothing was certain, and sluggishly, I resumed my slumber, hoping that all frightening concerns would subside.

III.

My presumptions of the oddity that I had witnessed during the night unnerved my soul all the way to the proceeding daybreak.  I desired nothing more than to retain the fondness which I initially held for the Inn.  But knowing deep within that something seemed to have been greatly wrong with what I saw outside my window the past evening, I had to decide whether or not I was going to politely question Mansfield––when the appropriate time was to come, of course.  As I rose from bed, I glanced outside the window to see that the snowstorm had ended its wrath, but the skies were still masked by such a disheartening overcast.  Upon descending the stairs, I immediately headed to Mr. Mansfield’s workplace to query of my next chore. “If you would be so kind, as to set the table,” said Mansfield, as he carefully wrote upon a sheet of paper.  Moving to the kitchen, I carted the dining utensils and plates to the table.  The meal was unusually noiseless, for Mansfield was still in his office, occupied by his writing––and Mr. Burlington appeared somewhat uneasy, and thus did not speak much.

As I had done the day before, I brushed and dusted the furnishings and interior––the chairs, sofas, moldings, shelves, bedrooms, hallways, and corners––all had been cleaned––except for a room that I had not yet been inside.  There was a door––a door that suddenly appeared singularly mysterious and haunting––a door which preternaturally whispered––and gestured––for me to come forth and enter.  I was indeed caught in a moment of such acute wonder and fear; for a while, all senses became extinct, and the only curious focus was upon the unfamiliar door.  But all at once, the shadowy attention was disrupted by Mr. Burlington as he asked, “Is everything all right with you?”

I turned around and vaguely replied, “Oh, yes.  All is well for me; I had merely gone astray in my very own thoughts.”

“I suppose we all have moments of profound reminiscing.  But please do listen.  I am going outside to see how severe the snow is––for I must soon be on my way, back to my home in New Hampshire,” explained Mr. Burlington. “I shall be scrutinizing along the main pathway on horseback, in search of potential areas that might be passible for my wagon.  Should I not return before nightfall, I ask that you search for me.  And if perhaps it does indeed come to that––do not tell Mansfield anything.” As Mr. Burlington said this to me, he seemed more grave-mannered than usual.  Was it that he too was touched by the restlessness of the past evening?  Was it that he only wished to tell me––rather than Mansfield––purely because I was the only one whom he trusted?

“Yes, Mr. Burlington––you have my word,” said I.  Nodding after he enwrapped himself in his heavy coat and cravat, I watched him step into the antechamber.  The entrance doors shut and he was gone.  As he left, my attention immediately returned to the bewildering door––and once more, it beckoned me from beyond consciousness.  It was all involuntary as I walked forward to the abnormal door.  I then placed my hand upon the knob––but as I turned it, it soon became apparent to me that the door was locked.  Backing away, I hurried out of the room to disremember the whole incident at once.  The day went on, and the weather became notably tempestuous with an unceasing squall.  Supper would be served soon, and Mr. Burlington had not yet returned.  I could not help but begin to worry––shortly, I would have to search for him in secret.  It was around four o’ clock when I was concluding my daily tasks––thirty minutes until nightfall. 
But without prior notice, Mansfield approached me, seeming back to his joyful spirit, once again. 

“It seems as if the gale will extend our guests’ stay,” said he. “And fortunately, a few more travelers have arrived.  I checked them in moments ago, but I have not seen Mr. Burlington all day.  He is nowhere to be found, and I was supposing that you might––perchance––know where he is?” When Mansfield spoke these words to me, I became rather pale––it was not his simple enquiry that uneased me, but the mannerism in which he questioned.

Knowing that Mr. Burlington had not yet come back, and not having a reasonable excuse, I began to choke on my words, saying,  “Forgive me for not telling you sooner, but––” But before I could finish, out of nowhere came Mr. Burlington.

“Well, Mr. Mansfield, when do you suppose dinner will be served?” Burlington asked, as if nothing was amiss.

Mansfield stared at me with a perplexed expression upon his face, and then glanced over to Burlington. “Dinner shall be served at seven,” said he oddly, thereafter facing me. “Be on your way to prepare supper.” While Mansfield prowled off, a knot began to develop in my throat.  I was certain that he was on the boundary of discerning my suspicion––a suspicion for perceiving something that I did not actually know.  After the table was formally set, Mr. Burlington positioned himself comfortably in his chair, and the three new guests that Mr. Mansfield spoke of entered the dining hall.  As I served them, they all conversed with Mansfield and seemed to have enjoyed themselves––although from time to time they made attempts to overlook Mr. Mansfield’s emaciated complexion.  And although Burlington appeared to be normal once again, I could see that he too––similar to me––had contracted a Dark Sickness.  He did not make it perceptible, yet through his pretentious mannerisms, I could tell that he was vastly concerned.  I myself failed to conceal my true emotions, and so I silently sat at the table.  The odd figure and hearse––the peculiar door––what Burlington had confided in me––it was all too much to endure.

When dinner was over, Mr. Burlington and the three new travelers retreated to their chambers.  Mr. Mansfield and I were the only ones left at the table. “You have seemed quite lull this evening.  Is anything troubling you?” queried Mr. Mansfield.  The time was right, and so I thus lifted my insufferable burden,

“Last night, I-I saw something––something outside my window,” said I in a rather anxious manner.

“Go on,” spoke Mr. Mansfield patiently––yet with a mysteriousness that reposed within his oddly jade and ruby irises.

“There was a fearsome figure outside my window––you were there too.  Both you and the specter were conversing with each other.   And-and, his wagon––it,”

“It what?” interrupted Mansfield.

“The wagon bore a resemblance with that of a hearse,” I explained.

Mansfield looked serious for a brief moment and then chuckled gently.  “I do not recollect conversing with a mortician––although, I do see why one would unquestionably mistake me for a corpse!” said he, making light of the subject.  “But in all goodness, it must have been a mere nightmare––that, I can assure you,” finished Mansfield.

I began recalling the event of the past night, and the more I deliberated upon what Mansfield had explained to me, the more everything that happened did appear as a mere nightmare.  Feeling half-relieved, I thanked Mr. Mansfield and resumed clearing the table.  Nonetheless, the apprehensiveness of Burlington continued to remain uncertain.  The unforgiving windstorm became crueler than ever while the night draped upon us.  The blustery gusts of winter air groaned and wailed remorselessly outside, while thunder grumbled fiercely throughout the blackened heavens.  I had snuffed out the last candle in the Inn before heading to my sleeping quarters. With a candleholder tightly in my grasp, I stepped through the unilluminated parlor.  The setting became inverted and rather perturbing while I made my way to the stairwell; the weak light of the wick’s flame would cast foreboding shadows upon the walls, floors, and even in the doorways.  It was only instinctive to hurry through the entire, darkened Inn and to my bedchamber.

After opening my door, I placed the candleholder down on the nightstand.  I then thoroughly locked my door before climbing into bed.  Slowly, I fell asleep and remained that way––until there wailed an imploring and disturbing cry for help.  So rapidly I awoke, and many gruesome visions rushed before my eyes.  What was it?––Who was it?––And where did it come from?  I stood in the center of my room.  Thunder bellowed, but all else remained dead.  Could it have only been a horrendous dream?  Why yes, of course it was!  What else could it have been?  The only distinct noise was the violent sound of the winter tempest––and telling this to myself, I went back to bed.  And very, very slowly––but surely––I returned to my nightly rest.  Upon daybreak, I hastily went about to Mr. Mansfield’s office to query of my first task.  I was assigned to make the preparations for breakfast.  As I had done before, I set the table with the plates, platters, and silverware.  The meal was carted from the kitchen and brought forth to the guests.  All were served––that is, except for Mr. Burlington.  Not once had I seen him that morning, and with the accumulating concern, I courteously imposed upon Mansfield my question while he was immersed in writing a letter. “Forgive my concerns, which are probably of no great matter, but I have not seen Mr. Burlington all morning––”, but I could not conclude my enquiry, as Mansfield immediately explained the whereabouts of Mr. Burlington,

“Mr. Burlington made his departure early this morning––and indeed, it was a rather foolish decision, because of the pathways’ perilous conditions.  I was not fond of his choice to leave, but I could not hold him back.  He is an exceedingly persistent fellow––that much I shall say about him,” explained Mr. Mansfield with an ill-rhythm in his voice.

“We can only hope for the best,” I replied.

Seeming adrift in his composition, I stepped out of Mansfield’s office and shut the door.  Upon returning to the dining quarters, I served all remaining guests.  Afterwards, while I began clearing the table, an irredeemable idea was conceived; had Burlington actually left the Inn before daybreak?  Nothing seemed sensible; especially putting into consideration that the pathways were comprehensively precarious because of the snow––and as the night slithered over the day, the thought evoked wary perceptions.  Previous unrequited mysteries of vagueness and curiosity reemerged in the dawn of my mind, heart, and soul.  Who was Mr. Mansfield precisely?  And what secrets were he obscuring?

IV.

The proceeding morning was unendurably gray and oppressive.  The Inn’s contentment was ceasing.  And my trust in Mansfield was slowly devolving into distrust.  Fear had indeed held dominion over all other sentiments––and a vein of bleakness was sprouting through my soul.  I rose from bed earlier than usual and warmly dressed myself so that I could investigate the pathways and see if it really was feasible for travelers to venture through the valley.  The darkness of night had not yet drawn from the heavens, and therefore, I had to use my candleholder to make the grounds visible.  With every delicate movement, I advanced down the stairwell, through the lobby, and into the antechamber.  Silently passing through both doors, I finally was underneath the porte-cochére of the Inn.  The candlelight illuminated nearly a yard all around before becoming a shadowy margin, and then, impenetrable blackness.  The snow was partially knee-high and an impression of a wagon there was not.  But of course, this was––by no means whatsoever––solid evidence that something horrific had happened to Mr. Burlington.  There was one final place to search; the stable.

While I hurried around to the rear of the Inn through the coating of snow, the expectancy of the unknown became quite vast.  As I approached the mere wooden structure, my heartbeat increased profoundly.  Upon entering the stable, I felt a foreboding sensation of utmost terror overwhelm my sanity––there were no horses to be seen––nor carriages––nor wagons.  Even my very own steed was gone.  The stable was vacant and it had seemed to have been in its forsaken state for quite some time.  In order to gather and designate my thoughts of reason, I withdrew from the baffling discovery that I had so abruptly made.  I hurriedly moved to the front of the Inn, but before opening one of the front doors, I was greeted by Mansfield––and indeed, he was slightly maddened.  He questioned, “And where was it, exactly, that you have been during this early hour of morning?” At first, there was purely nothing I could say––not even a single word to articulate––when suddenly, I found my meager excuse,

“Oh––I was only inspecting the paths to see if they bestowed safety to our guests––so that they may continue their travel.”

Inspecting the paths?” He chuckled scornfully and then continued, “Please begin your daily tasks straightaway, as I shall be quite busy visiting the landlord.” He began dressing into his coat, seeming rather irritated by my very existence.

The Mansfield that I had once known was no more––and this was simply because the Mansfield that I had once known was never.  Clearly, he seemed to have been in a state of acute mental illness––with his personality altering significantly and the abrupt, varying facial expressions he usually made.  And yet, it was also evident that he feared I might have known something that he wished me not to know.  But the question of highest importance was this; where was Mr. Burlington?  Did the imploration for help, which I had heard the other night, belong to him?  And what about the missing horses and wagons?  Was it rational to suppose that Mr. Mansfield’s whole intention was for the travelers to never leave the valley?  And if this were true, what were his intentions?  I had made up my mind that I would clandestinely follow him while he strode to the domain of the landlord.   The dark questions were all too much to bear, and thus, I had to see where Mansfield was actually heading.  To fool him, I stated that while he was gone, I would carry on all of my responsibilities.  Without bidding me a goodbye, Mr. Mansfield vanished beyond the surrounding thickets, through the snow, as if he were a ghost.  I lingered in the antechamber for several moments before daring to follow the imprinted footmarks of Mansfield.

The dull trees that were spread over the foothills hung their snow-accumulated, dark gray and withered branches hauntingly––afar and yonder.  The incessant stillness remained unbroken while my steps in the snow shadowed Mansfield’s.  I could only envision where they would lead me––and as always, fear was the emotion of which I knew would shortly consume my curiosity.  However, I do believe that my curiosity was actually the consequence of fear.  The dreadful footprints of Mr. Mansfield went on, farther and farther.  However, and at length, I was indeed aware that he was not too far ahead. Nonetheless, my presence could not become apparent to Mansfield under any circumstance.  After a few more moments of trailing him, I realized that there came a fork in the road––Mansfield’s tracks continued on to the left, and on the right, the path curved onward, deeper into the timberlands.  To be certain that I did not become too close within distance of Mansfield, I wisely chose to investigate the path to the right, for escape purposes––if such a thing would ever be necessary. 

With inordinate precaution, I surveyed the trail.  Curving hither and thither, it stretched a good forty yards through the woodlands and ended at a singular and curious area that immediately seized my attention.  It was a span of clearings, no more than sixty or seventy feet around.  Strewed over the ground, in decay and ruin, was a dismaying scene which led me further into believing my very own forbidding suspicions; the axles, wheels, beds, tongues, and boards of purposely destroyed wagons were piled atop each other, protruding through the shifted snow.  Many perturbing thoughts followed my finding––I knew something of a rather wicked and malevolent nature had been transpiring in this valley for quite some time.  And alas, there I was––ingested by my own confusion and shock.  For five evenings I had been living in a bleak place that roofed a dark secret––a dark secret which would soon hopefully come to light.  And with the moral conscience that I possessed, I could not merely abandon the guests that remained––I had to save them before I could save myself.

I pondered upon the horrific fates which past travelers could have conceivably met.  I wondered if Mr. Burlington really had departed, or if his providence was sealed with a heinous demise.  Nothing could be wholly assured, and so, I was determined to examine the Inn and Mr. Mansfield’s history further.  After returning to the fork, I felt the delicate snowfall resume, and thus the serious concern of myself and the guests being imprisoned in the Inn for an extended period of time had insidiously commenced.  I hurried onwards, for Mansfield’s impressions in the snow were going to wane shortly due to the descending snow.  After a while of prowling below the lengthy tree limbs above, I finally reached the commodious manor of the proprietor of the Inn and demesne.  It stood tall and ominously––the windows gazed upon a field with their uneven shutters like brows glaring at any mortal who dared step foot into its shadowed interior.  Blackened smoke sinisterly billowed from all five chimneys––two on both sides and the grander one at the rear of the home.  It was as if it were breathing profusely in the thin, wintry air.  The four white columns stood pridefully on the large porch from which six steps inclined.  The intimidating entrance boasted two imposing knockers that bore the faces of fearless gargoyles.

I indiscernibly crept through the towering woods which surrounded the unapproachable house so that I could come within proximity of the rear entrance.  And upon reaching the back yard, I realized that the fear of which I had assumed could not become greater than anticipated, did in fact, become greater than anticipated.  There were hundreds of gravesites scattered within the sharpened, wrought-iron fence.  But what infused the most fright within my spirit were the graves awaiting their requiem; several recent tombstones had been embedded into the earth, conversely having deep, rectangular cavities in front of them.  There was instantly a daunting remembrance of what I saw outside my window during the second evening at the Inn; the hearse––the dark figure––all of my thoughts previously dismissed as nightmares or illusions of the imagination were once again becoming unerringly reasonable.  After I encroached beyond the fence, I drew towards the nearest grave––and my heart beat so vehemently that I feared it would splinter my ribcage and break through my chest.  The grave was freshly buried, and there upon the stone was a name boldly engraved––‘Douglas Burlington’.  Collapsing to my knees in such immense despair and sorrow, I realized my own way of comprehending awareness itself ceased like a snuffed flame––The Dark Sickness had whelmed me with such fury and abruptness.  The end was near for all who traveled in the downhearted Spookinite Valley.  Remorselessness was the only bound the God-Forsaken dale knew.  The snowfall was already whipping violently with the wind as I made an attempt to pick myself up from the cold ground.  It bitterly stung my cheeks as the gusts moaned threateningly over the treetops.  After collapsing a few more times, I was finally able to hasten through the merciless weather and back to the Inn.

V.

Upon entering the antechamber, I saw that the three guests, whom I had left while I dared to follow Mansfield, were sitting around in the parlor.  And indeed, they seemed rather displeased. “We have been awaiting our breakfast for many hours and it is nearly noon.  Where have you been?” questioned one of them irritably.

But during that moment, I chose to explain everything precisely as it was. “You must very prudently heed what I am about to confide in you all––for it is of utmost direness.” I paused briefly, and gazed towards all of them with an expression of woe upon my face.  Their irrational impatience soon became rational understanding, as they too realized that the subject of which I was about to speak was of an earnest matter.  I thus explained my suspicions and eventual grim discoveries.  When I finished, the only emotion in the guests that I invoked was fear.  Their eyes were all wide––and faces––whiter than the snow that was falling upon us.  Within a long interval, nobody spoke, until I broke the quietness by asking them their names.

“My name is Jeffrey Greene,” spoke one of them, “and those two are my dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Windham.”

“Very good.” said I. “Now, we all must stay together if we are to eventually escape––but alas, and as of now, the relentless snowfall will not permit us to leave.  We must stay very close while we are dwelling under the domain of Mansfield; for the evening before the morning of which Burlington disappeared, there was a tormenting shriek in the middle of the night.  Unfortunately, I foolishly overlooked it as a frightening dream.  Nevertheless, I am quite convinced that it was Mansfield capturing Burlington with a violent struggle.  Mr. Mansfield knows this Inn better than any of us––he has worked here for a long time.  Mr. Burlington’s bedroom door was, in all probability, locked the night it occurred––I know this because one morning, when he spoke to me about inspecting the roads, he seemed rather off.  I am indeed positive that he was already developing a baleful foreseeing of the true Mansfield and the Inn’s purpose.  If this is true, he would have undoubtedly kept his bedchamber door well locked.  Thus, this means that Mansfield possesses a master key for each and every room in this Inn.”
 
“How would we prevent him from intruding upon us in the dead of night?” enquired Mrs. Windham uneasily.

“We cannot,” I replied. “But we all must not let our guard down.  And furthermore, we must not ignore instinctive feelings of impending danger.”

Mr. Greene nodded as he turned to face Mr. and Mrs. Windham.
 
“Now, since I have returned, I shall have to dust––we would not want a dissatisfied Mansfield.  Meanwhile, I need one of you to peer out the window and tell me straightaway when you see Mr. Mansfield approaching.” I ordered.

“I shall take charge of that,” spoke Greene.

“Mr. and Mrs. Windham,” said I accordingly, “search for places of hiding––for such a thing could indeed become essential for us all.”

“But could we not suppress Mr. Mansfield?  After all, he is only a fragile, old man.” questioned Mr. Windham.

“The only flaw with your proposal is that I am certain there are others lying in wait.”

Nodding to me, they went about their ways to do as I had informed them.  For about half an hour, I spent my time clearing the dust, so Mansfield would believe that I had done what I promised.  The snowfall seemed to cease, but this I was not completely sure; the skies had been a dismal overcast since the day I traveled to the Inn.  There merely was no possible way to assure myself that the snow was finished oppressing us.  While I began to sweep the floors, I heard Mrs. Windham unleash a harrowing cry from the floor above.  Upon arriving at the room in which she was––room 216––I stood in the doorway filled with astonishment and uneasiness.  There before me was an opening in the wall that led into opaque obscurity; it was the entrance to a veiled passageway.  While I moved nearer towards it, Mrs. Windham took backwards strides.  Seizing a candleholder, I stared intensely into the shadowed doorway that so impressively bewildered me.  There was approximately a seven inch drop as I cautiously stepped foot into the tunnels.  The walls were quite narrow and the floor was poorly constructed of ill-assorted floorboards.

“What was it that made you scream so loudly?” I asked.  But Mrs. Windham would not reply. She could only look upon me with such eyes as if she had witnessed something quite formidable. “Mrs. Windham?”

Hastening into the room, Mr. Windham called out to his wife with earnest concern. “Are you all right dear?” Mrs. Windham would not reply, and there was only a lifeless gaze about her.

“What in heavens is that?” he asked, observing the entrance to the secretive halls.

“I do not know,” said I. “Your wife came across it.”

As we all watchfully peered into the leaching darkness that appeared to be creeping out of the cryptic doorway, Mrs. Windham finally spoke, “There was a strange man in there.”

VI.

All was soundless as she had finished uttering her words.  Mr. Windham and I both shared glances, and then returned our attention to Mrs. Windham, who prolonged her dead gape.  But before we could question her further, Mr. Greene hollered from below to notify us that Mansfield was in sight.  As his voice penetrated our ears, we swiftly shut the unseen door to the outlandish passageway.  Leaving the room, I hurried down the stairwell and into the parlor.  Upon entering through the two doors, Mansfield had a delighted grin upon his face.

“I am terribly sorry that I had taken so long––the administrator is always particular with his plans for this Inn––he must always thoroughly explain them to me thoroughly.”

“That is quite all right,” said I.  “I was almost finished sweeping the floors.”

“It seems you already know what my orders are––perhaps I shall not have to directly give them to you anymore,” jested Mansfield.

“Yes,” said I in reply, while the unyielding nervousness began to ingest me.

“Well then, you may carry on with that task,” spoke Mansfield as he walked off to his workplace.

Although Mr. Mansfield seemed quite content, I would not let his displayed happiness deceive me––for he was indeed a malicious being with devious objectives.  The three guests and I were in a very portentous place from which would be exceptionally imperiling to escape––and without doubt, there were innumerable horrors that were lying in wait for us.  After he vanished from sight, I cunningly skulked away from my responsibilities and returned to the bedchamber in which Mrs. Windham saw the apparition and found the secreted tunnel within the walls.  While I stood in the doorway of room 216, a sensation of mystery and intrigue had begun enfolding itself around my soul––yet, this sentiment was proceeded by the all-too-familiar feeling of fear, which had always seemed to have haunted me.  The entrance to the passageway remained entirely invisible to my sight, due to the seamless door being shut.  Nevertheless, I knew the odd place was there behind the walls.

I did not know if there were similar tunnels in the other various walls throughout the Inn––and of course, I could only conceptualize that Mansfield used the tunnels for means of intruding upon visitors and doing who-knows-what to them.  All that I could fathom was that many malign events befell past visitors, and as the days wore on, the same unbearable situations would lurk upon us during the most unforeseen hour.  Our time was similar to that of the moon––it would wane––and wane––and wane––until all that was granted to us was an inescapable darkness that would imprison our deprived souls everlastingly.  While I pressed my hands against the hidden doorway, my heart began to piercingly beat––and indeed, I began to fear someone would hear the sound––but it was all in my head––resounding––becoming more intense.  And finally, to break the anticipation, I pushed open the entrance.  It seemed darker than before; the shadows hurriedly lunged forth and clutched me.  I writhed in their grasp until they all vanished from my sight.  Shaking away what must have been a phantasmagoric illusion, I focused my attention back towards the opened passageway which stared coldly upon my fearful heart.  A negative presence resided in the forbidden tunnels. 

Silently shutting the wall back in place, I knew that the time was not right to investigate the shafts within the walls.  It was only instinctive to dare not enter a place so unfamiliar and unusual to the mind.  The vertigo that constricted me was too much for one to bare.  I would need a source of light to illuminate my bearings if I were to indeed venture into the whelming blackness that reigned so oppressively in the tunnels.  Therefore, I decided that I would return later during the evening with a lit candle.   I thus hurried back to the dining quarters to promptly explain my plans to Mr. Greene and Mr. and Mrs. Windham.

“I have already told Mr. Greene about my wife’s discovery,” spoke Mr. Windham softly. “Where have you been?”

“I returned to room 216 to further study the curious entrance to the passageways within the walls.  And indeed, a feeling of vast discomfort pervaded my senses.  I cannot explore the tunnels without a light.  For I am unable to see anything through the impassable duskiness that sentinels every inch.  Thus, I shall revisit them tonight.”

“I would suggest having someone accompany you; it seems rather dangerous––especially when we do not know who it was that my wife saw standing in the doorway to the shafts,” whispered Mr. Windham.
 
“He is right.  It would be much wiser to have one of us go with you,” spoke Mr. Greene.

“Yes, I see now.  Very well then.  Greene, you will accompany me.  As for Mr. and Mrs. Windham, I need you both to stay wary at all times.  Search for other passageway entrances along the walls in your quarters––it would be very unfortunate if Mansfield was able to seize the advantage.”

We all nodded to one another, understanding the grim conditions that were possibly forthcoming.  The dull day continued its course; I carried on my assigned tasks with a persistent sickness developing––a sickness of premonition––a sickness of knowing the terror that would very shortly be inflicted upon us.  At dinner, an undesired silence settled over the table.  And alas, Mansfield appeared to have grown increasingly displeased by the fact that neither Greene, nor Mr. Windham, nor Mrs. Windham, were speaking.  I made a feeble attempt to converse, however, it seemed as if no one was willing to carry on with the subjects that I so vainly struggled to convey.  The obstinacy of the three poor guests was quite understandable, yet I shall admit that their unwillingness was irritating.  And unfortunately, in consequence of their unusual quietness, they roused suspicion in Mansfield.  At the stroke of eight, they all hurriedly excused themselves from the table.  The raging exasperation which I possessed was not made manifest, but in the eyes of Mansfield, I could see anger, confusion, and something else that I could not quite grasp––but whatever had been ignited within his mind was sole wickedness.  That much seemed evident.  He rose without uttering a single word, and hurriedly deserted the table.  I could only wonder if his earnestness was because he had perceived that we all knew something––something about him that he desperately longed to keep unrevealed.

The table was cleared and the dishes were carted back to the kitchen; the greatly dreaded time had come once again.  The thickened blackness that rose over the vale seemed to rule the heavens for centuries––each night appeared rather unending.  And this particular night would not end, for one of the guests and I would be venturing into a place that awakened our curiosity.  Perhaps we would meet the lurid figure that Mrs. Windham had claimed to see.  We waited in our sleeping quarters until nine o’ clock.  Both Greene and I returned to room 216 with our candleholders.

“Are you certain about this?” enquired Mr. Greene apprehensively.

“Nothing is certain here at this Inn,” said I in reply.

We opened the hidden door––and a musty draft promptly greeted us, swirling into our nostrils uninvited.  Indeed, this was a new realm which we were entering.  One at a time, we both stepped in the recessed floor that was structured poorly.  I slowly shut the wall back in place, and thereafter, the darkness enveloped us both.

VII.

Our light could not reach the ceiling––nor could it reach beyond a mere five feet in our proximity.  Below us, the boards did not creak as expected.  Our footfalls remained rather silent––precisely as the shadows around us did.  We stepped over large gaps between the uneven floorboards while we advanced farther in.  The small and soaring particles of dust were irradiated in the glow of our candles’ flames.  They appeared to originate from the disorienting, opaque, endless, and unworldly darkness that hung above us.  But quite suddenly, the ear-penetrating silence was consumed by a thudding sound.  Both I and Mr. Greene stood without the slightest movement.  There was a thud from behind us.  Then a thud in front of us.  A thud afar.  A thud near.  A thud above us.  And a thud below us.  When the abysmal noises discontinued, Greene whispered to me hysterically, “We need to leave now!  We must get out of here before God-knows-what happens to us!”

As he was beginning to leave without me, I remained motionless.  Standing in place, without uttering a single word, I heard Greene’s quiet footfalls cease.

“I know you are not going to leave on your own,” said I.  “You are too afraid.”

“I beg your pardon?” asked Mr. Greene, with much contempt.
 
“If you are truly going to leave, then you may do so.  However, I am not abandoning the reason for why I came here.  And therefore, I am continuing on.”

“Are you mad?” exclaimed Mr. Greene.

I only hastened onwards, farther into the darkness.  And because Mr. Greene was simply too terrified to leave the shafts in the opposite direction, he hurried along, not too far behind.

“Could that have been Mansfield?” whispered Greene.

Whispering, I said, “I am not certain, so please be quiet.” The distressing sounds started up once more, only this time, they seemed to come from one direction and one direction only. They were resonating softly; from––perhaps––about thirteen yards ahead.  Both I and Greene were equally as unmoving as a stiff buried underneath the earth. THUD-THUMP––THUD-THUMP––THUD-THUMP––THUD-THUMP––THUD-THUMP––THUD-THUMP. The sound was quite reminiscent of a beating heart––a nervous heart––a heart comprehending that something horrid is drawing near.  Yet the noise did not belong to a heart––it belonged to a pair of shoes––stepping heavily upon the sturdy, wooden beams upon which we stood.  The noises become much slower and more deliberate; THUD-THUMP––THUD-THUMP––THUD-THUD––THUD-THUD––THUD-CLOMP––CLOMP-CLOMP––CLOMP––CLOMP––CLOMP––CLOMP––Greene’s eyes had widened profoundly, and his mouth quivered as if he were making an ineffective attempt to release a shriek.  The acute fear of that moment was indescribable––the dread was utmost appalling––the grimness of the imagination swiftly conjured forth images of grotesque nature––who was coming?  What was coming?  And what would happen?  I lead on, and there lingered nothing but unsettled dust. 

“What do you think could have caused those sounds?” questioned Mr. Greene.

“I do not know, but we shall find out soon enough,” said I in mere reply.

Mr. Greene held out his candleholder and hurriedly glanced over his shoulders. “We must make haste and leave,” he whispered––his hands trembling incessantly and the flame on his candle wavering, as if equally distraught. “What if it is the apparition that Mrs. Windham saw?” questioned Greene further, as if believing he would receive a satisfying answer.

“Spirits cannot harm––nor touch––a mortal’s soul,” said I, “but another mortal can.  And so, if the noises just so happened to be originating from a lonesome, wandering wraith, there is nothing to fear.  However, if it does indeed happen to be Mansfield––” I paused, and came to realize that my words were only increasing Mr. Greene’s immense trepidation.

“What?” queried Greene persistently.

“If it does happen to be Mansfield,” I continued, “the outcome of our current situation may not be pleasant.”

The leaden-atmosphere only became opaquer while we moved forth, soon turning upon a corner.  But without warning, the sound of heavy shoes once again began to resonate here and there––from one direction to another.  And quite unexpectedly, the noises arose into a single sequence of footsteps––they came from behind us.  Turning sharply, I felt my heart’s beating come to an end; both Mr. Greene and I were inert.  An undistinguishable figure stood tall––nearly five feet from us.  It remained mute and lifeless––for the longest time, the inexplicable being could only stare, and the silence rang irredeemably without sparing intervals.  I moved forward, inhaled the courage that had not yet abandoned my soul, and spoke directly to the being, attempting to remain as approachable as I possibly could, “And may I have the courtesy, as to introduce––” Precisely when my candle’s light gleamed upon the figure, I instantaneously saw the unearthly aspects of the apparition.  His abnormal head protruded upwards––his skin was a dark emerald––his eyes, a deep shade of crimson––his hands and fingers were broad and thick––his clothing and cravat, blacker than the midnight heavens.  He menacingly leered upon me, while my candle’s dying flame flickered upon his face––growing feebler––weakening––now fading––and gone.  We were all standing in an enshrouding pitch-blackness.  And indeed, we knew the disturbing figure––Chester––could still see us.

Straightaway, I made haste to get far from the dismaying being.  Mr. Greene had already commenced his earsplitting shrieks.  I could hear him scurrying over the crooked floorboards, struggling to gain his bearings through the darkness.  The quick, yet weighty gait of Chester imposed an inexpressible fear upon us––a fear which feasted contently upon our endless misery.  The steady footfalls soon transfigured into a hurried trot––Chester was nearing us.  Suddenly, I heard Mr. Greene tumble and collapse.  He was begging Chester to bestow upon him an inch of mercy.  I began calling out to Greene, for I could not see where he was lying.  But alas!  Before I was even able to reach him, I realized that his bellowing was beginning to diminish––I could hear Mr. Greene’s hands clawing at the floorboards in utter desperation.  I began to pursue after them, however, it was apparent that all of my efforts proved to be in vain.  The farther I dashed, the fainter the pitying sounds became.  The helplessness of the situation was both insufferable and horrifying.  I did all that I could to defend Mr. Greene.  But as his cries ceased, I knew there was nothing more to be done.

VIII.

It felt as if I was a lone spirit––lost––and roaming the passageways of hopelessness and melancholy.  Whatever had occurred seemed to have ended as quickly as it had transpired––similar to how the flames of our candles suffocated in the malicious presence of Chester.  I should have listened to Mr. Greene––why had I not listened to him?  Oh, but it was much too late to take back what I had done.  And indeed, it was not the time for regret and sorrow; I had to find the way out of the shafts, for my candleholder had been left behind, and there were no matches.  While I crept forward, I was so suddenly caught by an unseen force from behind.  I shoved aggressively and the struggle went down in a violent quarrel.  But ultimately, I was gagged and bound––rendered defenseless.
 
While I was dragged by the shadowy entity, I tried to cry out in anguish, but each yell was suppressed by the cloth that had been tightly knotted around my head and over my mouth.  I wondered what was to happen in the proceeding moment––what unmerited fate conceivably awaited me?  Why was such undeserved horror being infused within the final hours before my demise?  Yes, I know!––It was merely because of what happened to Mr. Greene.  Surely this was the reason!  And yet, my purpose for daring to walk among the shadows in the tunnels was to search for the truth––and the truth was all that I sought.  The gruesome incident was unforeseen.  But perhaps it could have been foreseen?  Mayhap, I was not prudent enough to truly understand the perils that I would face on that remorseless night.  I shut my eyes intensely and desired for this agonizing reality to become nothing more than a nightmare.  But it was indeed the truth, and is that not, after all, what I had sought?

But it was no more that I sought the truth.  I had beheld quite enough.  And only wickedness resided joyfully in the vale of abundant gloom.  I could see now how all past guests had fallen in the valley’s sneering mirth––Morbus Tenebris was very real.  And now, those who were infected with The Dark Sickness were to impose their unredeemed morbidity upon me.  I was promptly taken into a narrow hallway that led into one of the guestrooms.  The figure that had seized me was Mansfield.  He gazed upon me, and grinned in a manner that he had never grinned before. 
“You will know the very essence of the matter soon enough,” said he, with a deplorable smile full of his skeletal teeth.  Chester soon entered the room, and peered upon me––still exceedingly quiet.  “Place this one down in my quarters,” spoke Mansfield demandingly.  Chester nodded, and stepped nearer to where I weakly lay.  I began to yell, notwithstanding, the cloth smothered any noise that came from my mouth.  I made many unsuccessful attempts at resisting his clutch, writhing vigorously in the ropes that restrained me.  Mansfield became slightly maddened by my actions and held me down with inordinate strength. “I will not tolerate your nonsense,” said he to me, with a displeased expression upon his skeletal face. 

After this, I could no longer fend off Chester’s sadistic grasp; casting me over his shoulders, he left the room and made his descent down the stairwell––and every time one of his shoes pressed against a step, it croaked rather noisily––one by one, I counted––becoming closer to my impending fate.  We moved through the dimly lit parlor, and then to a particular place of the Inn that had always piqued my inquisitiveness; the door––there it was––opened widely––beckoning those who fancied its forbidden secrets.  And the glow of a candle shone delicately from within the darkness that shrouded the doorway.  I was carried through the doorway and into a place that was manifestly unlike the rest of the Inn’s interior.  The floorboards were noticeably duller––with black, ink-like stains, long absorbed into the wood.  Bones lay strewed over the whole floor––some partially crushed.  An antique, spindled chair stood against the center wall of the dusky room.  At the foot of the chair rested a tarnished brass candleholder, with wax trickling down the socket and into the bobeche.  There was only one window––but alas, it was too narrow for one such as myself to escape through.

I was placed against the wall, opposite of the chair, in a kneeling position.  An additional rope was tied around my chest and to a dense timber that rose from the floor to the ceiling.  Chester peered towards me and faintly smiled––he appeared quite pleased with his actions––or perhaps he was pleased by knowing what would happen to me.  He left the room and shut the door.  I began to wonder what would subsequently occur––staring upon what I logically assumed were the remains of past travelers who unknowingly chose to rest at the Inn for an evening.  Hands, feet, ribs, skulls, jaws, shoulders, sternums, fingers, toes, arms, legs––these bones could construct more than forty or fifty skeletons.  And all of a sudden, I heard the muffled cry of another unfortunate victim, as Chester’s loud footfalls descended the stairwell.  The subdued shrieks belonged to a man––either Mr. Greene or Mr. Windham.  The antechamber doors thudded open, and then thudded close.  Afterwards, they thumped open once more.  I then heard Chester’s heavy footsteps ascend the stairs.  And shortly thereafter, he was moving down each step once again.  There was another stifled scream––it belonged to a woman––Mrs. Windham.

All that I could do during this moment was deliberate upon the reason why this unjust circumstance was befalling us––and there was no reason––yet there I was––breathing, full of awareness, and fearing for my very own life.  The grandfather clock from in the parlor tolled eleven.  The door swung open, and coming forth was Mansfield.  He shut the door, and grinned malignantly––he did not speak a word.  While he stepped towards the chair, his shoes cracked the scattered bones below his feet––comparable to one crushing eggshells.  As he seated himself in a rather pronounced manner, he looked upon me in such a way, and then began to laugh deliriously; woe had indeed despondently soared over my soul.  After a few moments of quietness, Mansfield spoke to me, saying, “If you do not mind, I would like to tell you a story.”

I remained still, and wisely chose to listen; not that I could have chosen to do otherwise!

“My name is indeed Mansfield––you already know that.  But for many years now, I have listened over the stillness and solitude of my soul, heart and mind.  What I heard was, without any doubt, of a supernatural force.  It was rather dark and silent––and yet, it was exceedingly comforting; for I followed the wondrous sound that it made.   Every evening it lingered irredeemably––it whispered enthralling secrets into my ears.  Never had I pondered so deeply.  And during that period, I had found great pleasure in seeking my inheritance––the inheritance that The Darkness promised me.  My journey began on a cold and bitter night––from thence, it was endless year after endless year, until I established this Inn.  It was a lovely idea from the beginning––at the foot of a hillock is where it would soundly repose.  The location had to be quite lonesome––in a gloomy and forlorn horizon, there would stand countless layers of mountainous ridge.  Melancholy billows would haunt the heavens; and I knew I would appreciate it very much.

“And, there was a reason for this greatly-yearned desolation.  You see, from the moment of my existence, I appeared rather peculiar.  My whole body had an unusual condition which made my skin decay, as if I were a living corpse––and corpselike is certainly a good word to describe my appearance.  To most, I am a mere, hideous creature––but nevertheless, The Dark Sickness sees me as a gift.  And a gift I am!  But furthermore, I have always carried about with me a morbid fascination––and indeed, I used to struggle so intensely to repress my deplorable sentiments.  However, during the evening whence I molded the silver key, The Dark Sickness spoke to me through my spirit and said, ‘Forevermore, you will abide here, and gain the wisdom that you foolishly forbid.’ I became open to his words’ meaning, and thus began this very place; The Inn.

“During the late hours of night, travelers would come here for means of rest––and I would be so courteous as to bequeath them a warm place to stay.  I prolonged my ceaseless toil, making certain that all was well for them.  During the morning and evening, meals were served.  Yet, something seemed rather unfulfilled; the words of which The Darkness spoke remained an absent-minded mystery.  And soon, I forgot about The Dark Sickness and what He had revealed to me altogether.  What mattered most to me was that my guests were pleased.  But on the contrary, I was not, by any means, pleased; my own life was extraordinarily miserable.  Visitors would gaze upon me in such disgust and repulsion.  Some would even hurriedly leave before bestowing upon me a second chance.  From time to time, visitors would point towards me and remark on my appearance disdainfully.  I did not know what I was to do when this happened.  The months continued, and my destitute of acceptance would endure ever so insufferably.”

While Mansfield continued his story, a brilliant idea was conceived.  Many of the bones lying on the floor were splintered––I knew I could use them to unbound myself from the ropes.  Using my fingers as an instrument to feel the bones behind where I knelt, I began to secretly hunt for a piece sharp enough to tear away at the thick ropes that inhibited me from moving.  After a few moments, there was a shard of bone that pricked my finger––this would have to do.

“A malice full of bitterness began to flourish within my heart; each day I feared to appear before those who came to this Inn.  And sometimes, my fears were unerring; for when I did face a new guest, they would stare––and the starring drew me mad.  Quite frequently, I would turn towards the shadows of the wilderness to weep.  However, one nightfall, The Dark Sickness finally returned.  I heard his words, and envisioned their meaning once again. ‘Forevermore, you will abide here, and gain the wisdom that you foolishly forbid.’ The statement was miraculous once I grasped its true significance.  And the Mansfield that I once was, was no more––and this was simply because the Mansfield that I once was, was never.  The following evening, a new traveler arrived.  As would normally ensue, the guest was revolted by my appearance; he made it very apparent.  Before I could hand the key to the visitor, he began to hastily rush towards the exit.  As I followed him outside to his wagon under the porte-cochére, he shoved me belligerently, saying, ‘Stay back, you reprehensible being!’ I pleaded with him to stay, but immediately, he exclaimed, ‘Do not move nearer, or so help me, you will wish your miserable presence was decaying far below the soil!’ While I lay on the ground humiliated, I once more recalled what The Dark Sickness had said.  In an instant, I rose from my weak position and seized the man with such anger and violence.  He shrieked, and I only grinned.  The Dark Sickness had possessed me, and it was then that I was to carry forth the purpose for founding the Inn.  Dragging the helpless man from his wagon and into my workplace, I thereafter shut and locked the door.  Utter shock was upon his pathetic face.

“After years of suffering immeasurably, I had finally felt a bliss that––perhaps––had never willingly been comprehended by anyone before.  The man screamed deafeningly, but my laughter was louder.  Limb by limb, finger by finger, I tore the futile mortal apart with prodigious passion.  It was quite a mess, but nonetheless, it was all the consequence of my delight. When my amusement had ended for the night, I hurried outside to bury his disfigured and torn corpse beneath a knotty maple. Subsequently, I took his wagon and disposed of it in the woodlands.  With a hatchet, I chopped away at the dray.  When it was finally unrecognizable, I threw rotted branches that had long fallen from the surrounding trees atop the dismembered wagon.  From thence, I found great pleasure in practicing my dastardly ways––it was no more that I had to constrain my inner-longings.  To ease my endeavors, I chose to construct passageways within the Inn.  With the assistance of Chester, a fellow servant of The Dark Sickness, the task of doing so became quite effortless.  In mid-October, the tunnels were completed.  During the proceeding week, such vicious insanity was released upon visitors; I committed the most unspeakable acts––guests were drawn from their beds and brought into the lightless shafts during all hours of the night.  Forever would my secrets and true nature be concealed.  There was shrieking, wailing, pleading, and other noises of madness––such rhythmic melodies to my ears.  Never before had I felt such contentment.  What was left of their remains was buried behind the stable. 


“Many decades passed and there came a remarkable fellow who was––comparable to me––touched by The Dark Sickness.  He wisely proposed to me an idea; why not excavate the guests’ remains and put them to good use?  And thus, their bones became excellent adornments for my reserved quarters.  And indeed, in return for the wonderful guidance that I received from him, I agreed to make some contributions.  Let me explain to you distinctly; his former occupation was serving as Hemlock’s mortician.  But over the course of time, he was ordained to dwell here in this vale.  And perhaps, you will understand that because he departed from what he once considered home, he began to experience withdrawals of acute nature.  I could not help but grieve for his forlorn soul.  Thankfully, I was able to acknowledge that if there was a solution to my troubles, there would surely be a resolution for his.  I would deliver the visitors’ cadavers to his doorsteps with a note, stating, ‘A donation to my dear friend’.  The following evenings, I would stroll by his domain to see that the corpses had been brought inside.  And indeed, I could not help but smile, knowing that I had spread my unfathomable glee with a concurring individual.


“We would converse about our many activities and boast of our philosophical discoveries––which, of course, most mortals would become horrified by.  But on one particularly unusual evening, around eleven o’ clock––this very hour, as a matter of fact––we made a pact; if there would ever come to be a night where a great number of guests were slumbering ever so peacefully under this roof, I would spare one-half of them for his own amusement.  Precisely as we firmly shook hands, the moon’s silvery radiance transmuted into a deep-hue, comparable to that of a jack o’ lantern resting solitarily in an unlit field during Halloween.  And thus now, here we are.” Mansfield paused for a brief moment, and then finished, “I originally intended on you staying here a while longer––but alas, it unfortunately appeared to me that you came to realize what had been occurring here.  And of course, I could not merely let you escape with all of the secrets that have been preserved here for the past forty years.”

After saying this, he spoke no more.  Only a demented smile remained upon his abhorrent face while he gazed listlessly with his protruding eyes inside their skeletal sockets.  I could only imagine the many dreadful plots that he was contemplating.  Fortunately for me, I had cut my ropes so that when the time was appropriate, I could therefore readily liberate myself from their domineering embrace.  The interval of fearing was prolonged––Mansfield stared, and did not blink––not once.  I knelt before him, awaiting the moment whence I would make my escape.  There was silence––more silence––and absolute silence; the most obstinate of silence.  There he sat in his chair like a corpse, with impeccable patience and deliberation.  But before I knew it, Mansfield leapt forward with such belligerence.  I broke free of my ropes and sprang towards the door in a single, swift movement.  My heart thundered while I hurriedly darted through the darkened parlor.  As I forcefully shoved the two front doors wide open, a hearse conveying two coffins made haste into the dusky landscape.  The coffins rattled.  There were shrieking and desperate implorations for clemency, emanating from the ill-fated souls confined within them––Mr. and Mrs. Windham.  Without making a sensible decision, I rushed after the hearse.  Even as it waned into the insidious shadows all around, I continued to follow its tracks in the snow.

The moon possessed a pumpkin-shaded luminosity that guided me through the unavoidable darkness.  Indeed, it was the very same moon from the story of which Mansfield told me.  It leered upon me wickedly, while the unbroken winter gusts whipped with unremitting malevolence.  But all of a sudden, I peered over my shoulder to see Mr. Mansfield holding a lit candlestick near his cadaverous face.  A sickening sensation overcame me while I watched him skulk closer.  I had no choice but to move quicker through the obscured night.  I charged headlong through the path which the hearse had traveled.  Advancing towards the towering manor that was by now partially in sight, I was able to see the form of a hearse positioned in front of the house’s main entrance.  It was then that I understood what was going to happen to Mr. and Mrs. Windham; I recalled encountering Mr. Burlington’s fresh grave earlier that morning––he was buried in the churchyard at the rear of the home.  I was certain that this was where the spectral mortician was intending on burying the two poor beings.  And would the burial be premature?  I could only conjure up the idea that it would be an overall vastly unpleasant experience for my friends.  While hurrying towards the hearse, I felt reality suddenly come and abruptly seize me; that reality was indeed Mansfield.

“It was a remarkably unwise decision to leave me––and now you will wish that you had never decided to do so.” Mansfield had clutched my arms harshly.  His strength was otherworldly; every single time I tried to rid my arms of his grasp, the grip of his pallid, skeletal hands became tighter. “Using a sharpened bone to clandestinely cut your bindings was very clever––that much I shall admit,” said he. “Now, while my dear fellow, whom many call, ‘The Coffin Keeper, carries on with his toil, you will have the privilege to meet the true proprietor of the Inn; The Lord of this demesne––The Dark Sickness Himself .” After saying this, he promptly dragged me along with him, past the hearse, and inside the leaden hall.  The mansion’s interior was extremely dull––it made the Inn seem all the more comforting and approachable.  The floorboards were time-faded and the walls were in a deprived condition.  The sconces’ candles’ wax had long-trickled down the walls and hardened.  Their flickering flames were sluggishly dying.  I was brought forth into a lofty chamber––presumably what was once the drawing room.

“Please, do recline here.  I can assure you that you will feel quite content,” spoke Mansfield as he threw me down into an antique and tattered chaise longue.  However, during that instant, I began to comprehend something truly appalling––I was unable to make a single movement––and yet, this was not a result of utter shock––it was a wraithlike paralysis.  He looked down at me and smiled repulsively, thereafter leaving me alone in the room.  My feeble eyes could only gape towards a shadowed doorway that appeared to grimly glare back towards where I vulnerably lay.  The candles around faded even dimmer as an imposing presence entered the room.  The heaviness drew my every breath while there before me appeared The Dark Sickness or Morbus Tenebris.  The malignant specter was impenetrably shadowy, with an admixture of amethyst and sapphire within his nightly shroud.  An unhallowed, grimacing face was carved upon his coarse pumpkin head, which rested within a daunting hood.  The phantom’s sharpened grin scarcely illuminated the murky environment while one of his hands extended outwards from beyond his torn, draping cloak.  His claw-like, slender fingers stretched towards my face unnervingly.  My greatest desire then was to shut my eyes––or flee––but none of this I could do.  There I was in an unjustifiable circumstance.  And as the entity’s cold, rough hand lay upon my face, such dismay encircled my distraught spirit.

IX.

A numbness overcame my essence while I felt my very own heartbeat grow weak––and weaker––and weakest.  The toll of twelve became distorted––each time it rang, its deep sound was elongated––farther and farther beyond consciousness.  The moment was foreboded; spirits could indeed harm a mortal’s soul––I was unbearably mistaken.  And repeatedly, these thoughts clustered my mind while my very own life was drawn-out with the bell’s resounding tolls.  My hands grew old, until they were of an unnatural proportion––and The Dark Sickness simply leered with uttermost joy.  Even my clothing aged significantly.  As all of the remaining light diminished, I accepted what was to come; my demise.  But abruptly, the whole of the intolerable moment had ceased.  The shadowy wraith had withdrawn his wrath and disappeared into the ethereal shadows altogether.  I was alone.  For a while, I made vain attempts to digest what had just occurred, but gradually rising to my feet, I saw something exceptionally unusual in the tarnished, oval mirror; I was very old––fifty-seven or sixty years older––probably ninety, or ninety-five.  My strength had noticeably decreased and my clothing appeared as if it had been lying under the earth for decades.  My boney hands trembled incessantly while I tried to repossess my awareness.

Taking a candle from its sconce, I could not help but begin to notice how much more it weighed––yet, this was only a mere candle––nothing more than wax and a cotton, interwoven wick.  My stride, too, was conspicuously weaker; every movement was slower paced.  It seemed too far from real––an unrelieved fear began coursing through my veins.  Heading through the foyer of the house, I neared the two oaken front doors.  Hurrying forth, I pressed my frail hands against their lofty wood.  With every inch of strength and determination, I continued to push.  And soon, I felt the doors slightly move until the opening was wide enough to where I could venture outside of the loathsome manor.  The hearse was barely visible, for the pumpkin-stained moon would submerge and reemerge through the condensed gloom in the heavens.  I thus approached the blackened hearse.  Alas, I saw through the windows that the two coffins were no longer present; the mortician had taken them into the house’s interior––perhaps to prepare the bodies.  Straightaway, I staggered back into the neglected mansion.  The bleakness of the abode hung over each room, releasing its weightiness upon me as I searched for Mr. and Mrs. Windham.

While my hunt continued, I came upon a stairwell that winded aloft.  While ascending each step, I could feel the silence piercing my fragile ears.  The surrounding darkness enclosed upon me as I reached the landing above.  Once again, I was at the beginning of another drafty hall.  Pushing forward, through the murkiness, I saw a wide doorway standing tall at the very end.  I forced myself frontward, becoming within nearness of whatever lay ahead.  And finally, as I peered into the room, there before me was an anguishing sight; two coffins sturdily leaned against the wall––and within them rested an elderly Mr. and Mrs. Windham––they appeared to be over one-hundred––conceivably one-hundred-fifty years old each.  The sentiment that was invoked was tormenting.  I watched as the mortician brushed the funeral maquillage upon their sunken, lifeless, gloomy faces.  I quietly stepped away from the doorway so that I could comprehend the reasoning for all of the dreadful events that had transpired––but there purely was no reason––it was all madness––and what reason did madness have?

The mortician began solemnly stepping away from his work.  When he was gone, I moved into the neighboring room.  The sight of Mr. and Mrs. Windham’s corpses left a mournful impression upon my grieving spirit––their fervent love and devotion could effortlessly be distinguished by observing their cadavers’ positions––they unquestionably perished within one another’s arms.  And was I to leave their bodies in this wretched place?  Of course not––I would have to bring them with me, out of the vale of hopelessness and despair.  The mortician would certainly return shortly, and so, I made haste into the adjoining chamber.  And my prediction was unerring; after ascending the stairwell, he and Mansfield walked down the hall and into his room of deathly arrangement––having an opinionated approval of themselves.  First came Mr. Windham’s coffin, with both ghouls carrying it.  Then, down through the house of morose obscurity and to the hearse of joyous sorrow, I surreptitiously followed them.  From behind a timeworn chair, I watched as they trod up the stairwell once more to retrieve Mrs. Windham’s stiff.  And thus came my opportunity; I dashed as quickly as my old body possibly could and mounted myself atop the seat of the hearse.

I held the riding crop firmly while waiting for Mansfield and the mortician to board Mrs. Windham’s body onto the funeral coach.  The lanterns’ burning flames were extinguished so that they would not see me when they came out.  The hardhearted snow soon commenced its vehemence upon us once more.  Then, the two contemptible fiends exited their lugubrious home.  My heart struck against my ribcage and sternum while I listened to the wood of Mrs. Windham’s coffin scrape against the hearse’s floor.  When I was confident that her corpse was aboard, I cracked the whip without further delay.  The ebony, phantasmal horses galloped into the night, whickering as they did.  Mansfield franticly shrieked from behind––now dying away the farther we were from the lamenting manor.  Whilst we continued on, the well-worn, decaying trees slouched against one another, here and there, forming blackened figures under the altering light of the pumpkin-like moon.  The specter-horses trod onward.  The path was suddenly quite recognizable, and I knew that the covered bridge would be a few miles away in the distance.  The long-abandoned spirits cried over the foothills while we advanced closer and closer towards a radiance that was shining with hope and perseverance.  And although The Dark Sickness was rather prevailing, his efforts did not overshadow to live!

By then, the wraith of insanity was toiling with all of his might to prevent us from escaping his domain of everlasting purgatory.  The ghosts of unfortunate travelers, as well as colonial settlers before their time, swarmed towards us in one unnatural profusion.  They wailed resentfully, soaring to and fro––with their rotted faces and widened mouths.  Nevertheless, The Dark Sickness’s manipulation of them did not stop nor slow us down.  The weather became violent and the trees shuddered wrathfully upon the foothills.  Yet our wish for deliverance could not be broken––I could nearly hear the shadowy wraith’s cries of antagonism.  But as I thought all was well, I heard the whining of horses.  They did not belong to any of mine––they came from behind.  A second hearse was pursuing us, and in it rode Mansfield with a repugnant grin upon his face.  Mansfield chanted passionately, “My Midnight Shepherd Shall Come To All.  And All Shall Come To Know His Ways.” His phantom horses charged with their ebon hooves and fierce ruby eyes, breathing heavily with smoke drifting from their nostrils that contrasted with the whitening snowfall.  While Mansfield continued to leer balefully, the wraith of the night became more restless; and the spirits he held dominion over howled while they whirled around the coffins of Mr. and Mrs. Windham.

Mansfield recited his unhallowed hymn louder––and deeper––realizing that his efforts to uplift The Dark Sickness’s hold over us were fruitless.  Thunder reverberated and many trees were uplifted by the gale of lonesomeness and skaith.  Nothing would inhibit our will to once again see the light of day and unshackle ourselves from the chains of perpetual despondency.  The bridge was near, and soon this outlandish nightmare would come to an end once and for all––nevermore would we be cursed with such uncanny deceit!  Lightening irradiated the ominously billowing thunderclouds while Mansfield’s hearse drew near––and nearer––and nearest.  His vicious voice exclaimed, “You shall not leave us!  You cannot!” But after these words of frustration were spoken by him, the covered bridge appeared before us.  Through the bridge, the horses clucked their sturdy hooves upon the old planks.  The oppressiveness that had dwelt within us was banished, and after crossing the bridge, we heard Mansfield unleash an earsplitting yell which caused the entirety of the bridge to collapse into the black, sullen waters; and the stream instantaneously consumed all of the wood.  And although many bellows of agony and rage arose from the other side of the brook––it was finished.  I gazed upon the moon to see that its silver gleam had returned once again.

As the peace settled over, the horses were no longer phantoms; they morphed into ordinary horses––I even came to recognize the very steed upon which I rode to the Inn, those long, five nights ago.  And stirring within their coffins were Mr. and Mrs. Windham.  Their lives and original age had been restored, as well as my own.  But alas, The Dark Sickness had claimed two souls we knew––Jeffrey Greene and Douglas Burlington.  It was indeed woeful to know that their spirits were wandering ever so weepily––or to know that hundreds of thousands of souls were trapped.  Nonetheless, I was grateful and content with having survived, as well as saving Mr. and Mrs. Windham, who were now my exceedingly dear friends.  Undoubtedly, Morbus Tenebris was still residing in the darkened dale with Mansfield and all of his other ghouls.  He would continue to harvest souls, like Mansfield’s, and transfigure them into instruments of fear and madness.  Of course, we would never hold the talent to explain the whole story to the townsfolks of Hemlock––nor convince them any of it was real.  But in our hearts, we would always know what dwelled within the Inn––or the whole valley, for that matter.  The bridge that crossed over into their world was devastated.  And hopefully, never again would there be a traveler who would mistakenly fall asleep under the deceptions of Mr. Mansfield.  But perhaps, in time, a new bridge would be constructed––and then, much later, it too would fall.  Regardless of whether any of this would occur over time again, I was unconditionally grateful that the horrifying reality had ceased.  All that it would become now was a haunting remembrance.  And evermore would I prudently heed my wary perceptions
.

Return to Spookinite Valley

Return to Main Gothic Stories

© Spookinite.com - All text, music and photographs by Benjamin A. Fouché