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 The Many Morbid Tales of Spookinite Valley

Wary Perceptions
Written by Benjamin Fouché

I.

In the dead and insufferable January of 1897, I was hired to work as a butler at an inn thirty miles outside the sleepy town of Hemlock, Vermont.  The Gothic manor rested in the vale of Spookinite: a place of which great darkness allegedly reveals itself to travelers.  And indeed, being the superstitious person that I have always been, I felt, at first, a sensation of reluctance; but knowing the importance of provided warmth and meals, I was rendered no other choice.  And henceforth, I had to remain grateful with an appreciative outlook.  On horseback, I began my day’s journey to the place which was going to become not only my place of work but also my promised home.  Through the barren, rural landscape, my horse trotted farther and farther towards the only hope that I was given.  There had been many tales of nightstalkers that I overheard in Hemlock.  They lingered deep within my spirit.  And I shall admit, it felt unnatural attempting to dismiss them as meager ghost stories and nothing more.  I could not ignore the tales for long; especially their ghoulish details.  The most horrid parts would ring in my mind.  So perhaps it was, indeed, natural to remember them while I ventured into a land which had been cursed for centuries.

Never had I feared ghosts or specters, but supernatural beings with malevolent intentions always seemed to have frightened me.  Was it thatperhapsI would come face-to-face with one?  It was too much to ponder upon and I knew these ideas needed not bother me.  Yet they continued oneven as the night drew nearer.  By then, we were approaching the pathway that entered the valley’s mouth.  A crooked covered bridge crossed a brook.  There was a sign that hung down from the top of the entryway of the bridge.  It dangled by its remaining ropethe sign would fall one day.  The brooding words engraved into the wood 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 keeping unwanted visitors away?  Unfortunately, there was no time to conjecture its meaning.  The nocturnal hours were already imminent.  With precaution, we crossed the gloomy bridge.  The planks below the hooves of my horse cried, as if each one were 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 ceasewith exception of the moonlight glowing over the gnarled branches.  We had now entered the dale and were to continue among the hillocks of shadows.  Wintry mists rose from the surface and wind gusts stirred the leaves.  The lonesomeness became vaster than anticipated while we moved into the swallowing blackness.  And although my surroundings were unsettling, there was a nightly beauty they offered.  A few light breezes whispered over the treetops and brushed the cedar saplings below.  Owls hooted from up in their roosts whilst the moonlight continued to gleam down from the heavens.  I could see what this valley was: a haven for those who resided in the night.

The coldness became harsh as I rode farther into the forest, when suddenly, there came a weak light.  The nearer I rode, the brighter it became; my thoughts of reason said that it was indeed 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 smiled, knowing this establishment was to become my abode.  I moved underneath the porte-cochére and dismounted my steed.  Hurrying over to the doors, I jolted one of the grand door knockers.  Upon the door opening, an extremely peculiar man with a hideous and somewhat corpse-like appearance greeted me.  He said, “Greetings, my dear sir.  My name is Mansfield, and I am the caretaker of this Inn.  We are very pleased that you have arrived safelyand 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 quarterswe have prepared a small meal for you.”

Walking into the parlor, I observed the furniture: oval tables with elegant, spindle-back 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 stairwell.  The interior of the Inn was charming, but in need of minor maintenance, for there were cobwebs and layers of dust on the furnishings.  Yet now that I was a butler for this place, I would certainly be obliged to help clear away the dust and forsaken spider-webbings.  After 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 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, “Before I forget, here is the key to your room, which may be found on the second storyit is number 218.  Goodnight.” After he said this, I was left alone in the empty dining hall.  The increasing wind outside resonated throughout the interior.

Despite the odd appearance of Mr. Mansfield and the deadness of the Inn, I was at ease, realizing that this place was not as dejected in comparison to my expectations.  Finishing supper, and knowing there could be a ghost or two, I 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 outthe light from behind vanished.  At first, I felt slight apprehension, but shortly thereafter, I began to reason that it was nothing more than Mansfield, or his assistant, Chester.  Continuing on, I moved through the parlor for a brief moment and then neared the stairwell.  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.  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, I entered into my sleeping quarters.  Quietly closing the door from behind, I then observed my surroundings.  A pillow and two small cushions rested against the head of the bedframe and a beautiful quilt was folded at the footboard.  A table, with a single candle, rested along the wall next to the bed.  There was also a small, oval mirror that was mildly tarnished.  Indeed, it was a comfortable room, and that is all that mattered to me.  As the gusts wailed 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 mefor I thought, surely, I was safe in a place that I could now call home.


II.

My slumber remained undisturbed for the entire night.  And it was the awareness of being sheltered.  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 home that he shared, I was to aid him with administrating the Inn.  The interior was certainly in need of houseworkstagnant dust and the unoccupied dwellings of spiders could be seen everywhere.  I approached Mr. Mansfield with my question and genuine concern.  I asked him, “May I undertake the task of tidying up the dust and vacant spider webbings?  It’s simply that I fear this may displease visitors.”

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 with some other—eh—important matters, and it appears some tasks have been neglected.  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.”

During that 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 office.  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 saying this, his face transfigured into a sorrowful frown, “And yet, during the present time, I am saddened to confess that guests are rather scarce—and have been for the past few years.”  He looked down glumly after saying this—but an anger abruptly swelled deep inside him and he began throwing books and papers off his desk.  After knocking over a cabinet, he shrieked, “But why do they usually leave?  Why?”

I was alarmed by his sudden fit of rage, but 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 surely come here.”

“Time will tell,” said Mr. Mansfield 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 when I arrived, he excused his cadaverousness. Appearing 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 Innthe only Inn in the valley, as a matter of fact.”  I was rather surprised by how quickly his disposition altered.

“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, uh, wait here in this fine and comforting room,” said Burlington, attempting to overlook Mansfield’s disturbing complexion.

While I was preparing the table, the wind howled over the hillsides.  Large flakes of snow tapped against the outside of the windowsthe whiteness was becoming heavy upon the brick ledges.  I knew that we were indeed in the midst of a winter tempestand the storm would give up to no end.

“It seems that the edge of the storm is upon us,” said Mr. Burlington, seating himself.

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

The snowfall intensified outside.

“Where is Chester?” I asked Mansfield. “I do believe that I haven’t made my acquaintance with him, since my arrival last night.”

Mansfield gazed out the window and said, 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 changing the subject, Burlington asked, “Now, Mr. Mansfield, are you the proprietor of this Inn?”

Seeming brighter in spirits, 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 communicate with him?” asked our guest.

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

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

Mr. Mansfield appeared emotionless, as if lost in thought and said, “Another one of his servants.” He then gazed at Burlington for a minute, grinning eccentrically.

After dinner, I returned to Mansfield’s office to enquire of my next task.  He said to me, “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, 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 unusualbut nevertheless, the thought was not too bothersome.  After extinguishing the flame, I crawled into bed and fell asleep with the noise of snow pattering on the windowpane.  However, unlike the night before, I was disturbed once, hours later.  The sound of a door shutting outside awakened me.

I climbed out of bed, 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 team of four, black horses.  While they stood in the descending snow, they were like phantoms.  Standing next to the steeds was a tall, thin manwearing ebony from head to toehis 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 beat heavily.  I hurried back to bed with my hand pressed against my chest.  Sitting erect, I tried to fall back asleep, but the disquietude persisted.  Moments later, I scurried back to the window to see that both the 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 driven to the Inn when snow shrouded the earth.  Was it the supposed servant who delivered Mansfield’s letters?  And if so, why would the wagon be a hearse?  Nothing was certain, and sluggishly, I resumed my slumber, hoping that all concerns would subside.


III.

My presumptions of what I witnessed during the night unnerved my soul all the way to daybreak.  And knowing deep within my spirit that something was wrong, I needed to decide whether or not I was going to question Mansfieldwhen the time would 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 an overcast.  After descending the stairs, I walked to Mr. Mansfield’s office to ask of my next chore. “If you would be so kind, as to set the table,” said Mansfield, as he wrote upon a sheet of paper.  After I did this, I sat down—but the meal was unusually noiseless, for Mansfield was still in his office, occupied with his writing. 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 interiorexcept for a room that I had not yet been inside.  There was a doora door that appeared singularly mysterious and haunting—a door which whisperedand gesturedfor me to come forth and enter.  I was indeed caught in a moment of such wonder and fear; for a while, all senses became extinct, and the only focus was upon the unfamiliar door.  But all at once, my trance was disrupted by Mr. Burlington as he asked, “Is everything all right with you?”

I turned around and replied, “Oh, yes.  I had merely gone astray in my very own thoughts.”

“I suppose we all have moments of profound recollection.  But please do listen.  I am going outside to see how high the snow isfor I must soon be on my way, back to my home,” explained Mr. Burlington. “I shall be surveying the main pathway on horseback, in search of potential areas that might be navigable for my wagon.  Should I not return before nightfall, I ask that you search for me.  And if perhaps it should indeed come to thatdo not tell Mansfield anything.” As Mr. Burlington said this to me, he seemed graver than usual.  Was it that he too was touched by the restlessness of the past evening?  Was it that he wished to tell merather than Mansfieldpurely because I was the only one he trusted?

“Yes, Mr. Burlingtonyou have my word,” said I.  Nodding after he enwrapped himself in his coat and cravat, he stepped into the antechamber.  The entrance doors shut, and he was gone.  As he left, my attention returned to the bewildering doorand once more, it beckoned me from beyond consciousness.  It was all involuntary as I walked forward.  I then placed my hand upon the knobbut as I turned it, it soon became apparent that the door was locked.  I hurried to forget the whole incident at once.  The day went on, and the weather became tempestuous once more.  Supper would be served soon, and Mr. Burlington had not yet returned.  I could not help but worryfor shortly, I would have to search for him in secret.  It was half an hour until nightfall when Mansfield approached me, seeming back to his joyful spirit.

“It appears 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 mightperchanceknow where he is?” When Mansfield spoke these words to me, I became paleit was not his enquiry that uneased me, but the manner 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.

“Forgive me for not telling you sooner, but” Before I could finish, out of nowhere came Mr. Burlington.

“Well, Mr. Mansfield, when will dinner be served?” Burlington asked, as if nothing were 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, thereafter facing me. “Be on your way to prepare supper.” While Mansfield prowled off, a knot developed in my throat.  I was certain that he was on the boundary of discerning my suspiciona suspicion for perceiving something that I did not actually know.  After the table was set, Mr. Burlington positioned himself in his chair and the three new guests of which Mr. Mansfield spoke entered the dining hall.  As I served them, they all conversed with Mansfield and seemed to have enjoyed themselvesalthough, from time to time, they made attempts to overlook Mr. Mansfield’s nearly-skeletal complexion.  Burlington appeared to be normal once again, yet I could see that he too had contracted an ill feeling regarding the Inn.  He did not make it perceptible, yet through his pretentious mannerisms, I could tell that he was concerned.  But I myself failed to conceal my true emotions, and so I silently sat at the table.  The odd figure and hearsethe peculiar doorwhat Burlington had confided in meit was all too much to endure.

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

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

“Go on,” spoke Mr. Mansfieldyet with a mysteriousness that reposed within his jade iris on the left and ruby iris on the right.

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

“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.  “I do not recollect conversing with a morticianalthough, I do see why one would unquestionably mistake me for a corpse!  But in all goodness, it must have been a mere nightmarethat, I can assure you.”

I began recalling the event of the past night, and the more I deliberated upon what Mansfield had explained to me, the more everything did appear to be a ‘mere nightmare’.  Feeling half-relieved, I thanked Mr. Mansfield and resumed taking the plates.

The unforgiving windstorm became crueler than ever while the night draped the land.  The blustery gusts of air groaned and wailed outside while thunder grumbled throughout the heavens.  I had snuffed out the last candle in the Inn before heading to my sleeping quarters.  With a candleholder in my grasp, I stepped through the unilluminated parlor.  The setting became rather perturbing while I made my way to the stairwell; the light of the wick’s flame would cast 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 table.  I then locked my door before climbing into bed.  Slowly, I fell asleep and remained that wayuntil there wailed an imploring cry for help.  So rapidly I awoke.  Who cried?  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 dream?  Why yes, of course it was!  What else could it have been?  The only distinct noise was the sound of the winter tempestand telling this to myself, I went back to bed.  Very, very slowlybut surelyI returned to my rest.  Upon daybreak, I went to Mr. Mansfield’s office to ask of my first task of the day.  I was assigned to make the preparations for breakfast.  Thus, the meal was carted from the kitchen and brought forth to the guests.  All were servedthat is, except for Mr. Burlington.  Not once had I seen him that morning, and with the accumulating concern, I imposed upon Mansfield my question while he wrote a letter. “Forgive my concerns, which are probably of no great matter, but I have not seen Mr. Burlington all morning” Yet I could not conclude my question, as Mansfield immediately explained the whereabouts of Mr. Burlington.

“Mr. Burlington made his departure early this morningand 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 a persistent fellowthat much I shall say about him,” explained Mr. Mansfield.

Seeming adrift in his writing, Mansfield began mumbling to himself.  When he realized I was still standing in his office, he yelled “Get out of my sight!”  I quickly stepped out and shut the door. 

Upon returning to the dining quarters, I cleared the table.  But an irredeemable idea was conceived: had Mr. Burlington truly left the Inn before daybreak?  Nothing was certain; why would he leave when the pathways were shrouded in snow?  As the night slithered over the day, the thought evoked wary perceptions.  Previous unanswered 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 gray and oppressive.  The Inn’s comforts were ceasing.  And my trust in Mansfield was devolving into distrust.  I rose from bed earlier than usual and warmly dressed myself.  Indeed, I wanted to 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 a lantern to make the grounds visible.  With every movement, I advanced down the stairwell, through the lobby, and into the antechamber.  After passing through both doors, I finally stood underneath the porte-cochére.  The candlelight illuminated nearly a yard all around before becoming a shadowy margin, and then, blackness.  The snow was almost above my knees and the trail of a wagon there was not.  Of course, this was by no means whatsoever evidence that something horrific had happened to Mr. Burlington—for the wind could have blown the snow over.   However, there was one final place to search: the stable.

While I hurried around to the wooden structure behind the Inn, my heartbeat increased.  But upon entering the stable, my heartbeat stopped: there were no horses to be seennor wagons.  Even my very own steed was gone.  The stable was vacant and it seemed to have been in its forsaken state for quite some time.  In order to gather my sanity, I withdrew from the discovery.  I rushed to the front of the Inn, but before opening one of the front doors, I was greeted by Mansfieldand indeed, he appeared maddened.

“And where was it, exactly, that you have been during this early hour of morning?” questioned he.

At first, there was nothing I could say.

“Oh,” said I, finding my excuse, “I was only inspecting the paths to see if they bestowed safety to our guestsso that they may continue their travel.”

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

The Mansfield that I had once known was no moreand this was because the Mansfield that I had once known was never.  Clearly, he seemed to have been in a state of great mental illnesswith his personality fluctuating and the constant, varying facial expressions he 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 that one 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 true, what were his intentions?  I had made up my mind that I would 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 and through the snow, as if he were a ghost.  I lingered in the antechamber for several moments before daring to follow him.

The trees hung their snow-accumulated branches above.  The stillness remained unbroken while my steps in the snow shadowed Mansfield’s.  I could only envision where they would lead meand as always, fear was the emotion I knew would shortly consume my curiosity.  However, I do believe that my curiosity was the consequence of fear.  The dreadful footprints of Mr. Mansfield went on, farther and farther.  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 following him, I saw that there came a fork in the road.  Mansfield’s tracks continued on to the left, and on the right, the path curved deeper into the woods.  To be certain that I did not become within close distance of Mansfield, I chose to investigate the path to the right.  With precaution, I surveyed the trail.  It stretched a good forty yards through the woodlands and ended at a singular area.  It was a large span of clearings—yet something was not right.  Strewed over the ground, in decay and ruin, were the axles, wheels, beds, tongues, and boards of destroyed wagons.  They protruded through the snow.  For a minute or two I could not move.  Indeed, all along I had been living in a place that roofed a dark secreta dark secret which would soon be revealed.  And because of my stubborn conscience, I could not abandon the guests that remainedI had to save them before I could save myself!

I pondered upon the horrific fates that past travelers must’ve met.  I wondered if Mr. Burlington really had departed, or if his Providence was sealed with a heinous demise.  Nothing was certain, 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; thus, the serious concern of myself and the guests being imprisoned in the Inn for an extended period of time had commenced.  I hurried onwards, for Mansfield’s footprints in the snow were waning due to the descending snow.  I finally reached the manor of the valley’s proprietor.  It stood tallthe 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 billowed from all five chimneystwo on both sides and the grander one at the rear of the home.  It was as if it were breathing in the thin, wintry air.  The four white columns stood on the porch, from which six steps descended.  The intimidating entrance also boasted two imposing knockers that bore the faces of gargoyles.  A gate sealed the lot of the home, with the words ‘Spookinite House’ on the archway.

I crept through the woods surrounding the unapproachable house so that I could come within proximity of the rear entrance.  And upon reaching the back yard, the fear I had hitherto assumed could not become greater than anticipated, did in fact, become greater than anticipated.  There were hundreds of burial places scattered beyond the 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, and before them were deep, rectangular cavities.  There was a remembrance of what I saw outside my window during the second evening at the Inn: the hearsethe dark figureall of my thoughts dismissed as nightmares or imagination were once again becoming reasonable speculations.  After I trespassed beyond the fence, I walked towards the nearest grave.  It was freshly buried, and there upon the stone was a name engraved: ‘Douglas Burlington’.  Collapsing to my knees, I felt my own way of comprehending everything cease like a snuffed flameThe Dark Sickness had nearly whelmed me.  The end was near for all who traveled in the downhearted Spookinite Valley.  The snowfall already whipped me as I made an attempt to pick myself up from the cold ground.  The gusts moaned over the treetops and stung my cheeks.  After collapsing a few more times, I was finally able to hasten back to the Inn.


V.

Upon entering the antechamber, I saw that the three guests whom I had left were sitting 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.

But during that moment, I chose to explain everything as it was. “You must heed what I am about to confide in you allfor your lives depend on it.” I paused briefly, and gazed towards all of them.  Their irrational impatience soon became rational understanding, as they recognized the fear in my voice.  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 wideand faceswhiter than the snow falling upon us.  For a while, 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 escapebut as of now, the 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 shriek.  Unfortunately, I dismissed it as a frightening dream.  Nevertheless, I am quite convinced that it was Mansfield capturing Burlington during a violent struggle.  Mr. Mansfield knows this Inn better than any of ushe has worked here for a long time.  Mr. Burlington’s bedroom door was, in all probability, locked the night it occurredI know this because one morning, when he spoke to me, he seemed rather off.  Burlington was already developing a foreseeing of the true Mansfield and the Inn’s purpose.  He would have undoubtedly kept his bedchamber door well locked that night.  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.

“We cannot,” replied I. “But we all must remain watchful.  And furthermore, we must not ignore feelings of impending danger.”

Mr. Greene nodded as he turned to face Mr. and Mrs. Windham.

I then said to the guests, “Now, since I have returned, I shall have to dust.  We would certainly not want a dissatisfied Mansfield.  Meanwhile, I need one of you to peer out the window and tell me immediately when you see him approaching.”

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

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

“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.  And somehow, I feel that Mansfield is more than simply a strange, fragile, old man—something more.”

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.  While I swept the floors, I heard Mrs. Windham unleash a harrowing cry from the floor above.  Upon arriving at the room in which she stoodroom 216I became filled with astonishment and uneasiness.  There before me was an opening in the wall: it was the entrance to a passageway.  I moved towards it, and Mrs. Windham took backward steps.  Seizing a candleholder, I then stared into the shadowed doorway.  There was nearly a foot drop in the tunnel.  The walls were quite narrow and the floor was poorly constructed.

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

Hastening into the room, Mr. Windham called out to his wife with earnest concern. “What happened?” But again, Mrs. Windham would not reply, and there was only a lifeless gaze about her.

“What is that?” asked he, observing the entrance to the secretive passageway.

“I don’t know,” said I. “I believe your wife accidentally found it.”

As we all peered into the darkness creeping out of the doorway, Mrs. Windham finally spoke. “There was a strange man in there.”


VI.

All was soundless as she finished uttering her words.  Mr. Windham and I both shared glances, and then returned our attention to Mrs. Windham, who prolonged her dead stare.  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 shut the unseen door to the 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 sorry that I had taken so longthe administrator is always particular with his plans for this Innhe must always explain them to me thoroughly.”

“That is quite all right,” said I.  “I was almost finished tidying up the parlor.”

“Ah, it seems you already know what my orders areperhaps I shall not have to directly give them to you anymore,” jested Mansfield.

“Yes,” said I.

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

Although Mr. Mansfield seemed quite content during the moment, I did not let his politeness deceive me.  The three guests and I were in a very portentous place, from which would be imperiling to escapeand without doubt, there were innumerable horrors lying in wait.  After Mansfield vanished from sight, I skulked away from my responsibilities and returned to the bedchamber in which Mrs. Windham saw the apparition and found the secret tunnel.  While I stood in the doorway of room 216, a sensation of mystery began enfolding itself around my soulyet, this sentiment was proceeded by the all-too-familiar feeling of fear.  The entrance to the passageway remained invisible to my sight, due to the secret door being shut.

I did not know if there were similar tunnels in the other various walls throughout the Inn.  I could only conceptualize the idea that Mansfield used the tunnels for means of intruding upon visitors and doing God-knew-what to them.  All that I could fathom was that many malign events befell past visitors, and as the days wore on, the same situations would lurk upon us.  Our time was similar to that of the moonit would waneand waneand waneuntil all that was granted to us was an inescapable darkness—a darkness that would imprison our deprived souls everlastingly.  While I pressed my hands against the hidden doorway, my heart beatand indeed, I feared someone would hear the soundbut it was all in my headresoundingbecoming more intense.  And finally, I pushed open the entrance.  It seemed darker than before; the shadows 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 drew my attention back towards the passageway.  An undesirable presence resided in the tunnels.

Silently shutting the wall back in place, I knew that the time was not right to investigate it.  I would need a source of light to illuminate my bearings if I later chose to walk into the tunnels.  Therefore, I decided that I would return later during the evening with a candle.   I thus hurried back to the dining quarters to 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. “Where have you been?”

“I returned to room 216 to further study the entrance to the passageways.  But listen carefully; I cannot explore the tunnels without a light.  For I am unable to see anything.  I shall revisit them tonight when I am ready.”

“I would suggest having someone accompany you; it seems rather dangerousespecially when we do not know who was standing in the doorway staring at my wife,” 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 quartersit would be very unfortunate if Mansfield were able to seize the advantage.”

We all nodded to one another, understanding the grim conditions that were forthcoming.  The dull day continued its course; I carried on my assigned tasks with a sickness developinga sickness of premonition.  At dinner, a silence settled over the table.  And alas, Mansfield appeared to have grown displeased by the fact that neither Greene, nor Mr. Windham, nor Mrs. Windham were speaking.  I made an attempt to converse, however, it seemed as if no one were willing to carry on the discussion.  The obstinacy of the three poor guests was quite understandable, yet I shall admit that their unwillingness to act content was irritating.  And unfortunately, in consequence of their unusual quietness, they roused suspicion in Mansfield.  At the stroke of eight p.m., they all excused themselves from the table.  The raging exasperation 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 graspbut whatever had been ignited within his mind was sole wickedness.  That much seemed evident.  He rose without uttering a single word, and deserted the table.  I could only wonder if he had perceived that we all knew somethingsomething about himself that he desperately longed to keep unrevealed.

The table was cleared, the dishes were carted back to the kitchen, and the dreaded time had come once again.  The blackness that rose over the vale seemed to rule the heavens for centurieseach night appeared rather unending.  And this particular night would not end.  Perhaps we would meet the figure that Mrs. Windham had claimed to see.  We waited in our sleeping quarters until nine o’ clock p.m.  Both Greene and I returned to room 216 with our candles.

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

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

We opened the hidden doorand a musty draft greeted us, swirling into our nostrils uninvited.  Indeed, this was a new realm.  One at a time, we both stepped on to the floor.  I shut the wall back in place, and thereafter, the darkness enveloped us both.


VII.

Our light could not reach the ceilingnor could it reach beyond a mere five feet.  Below us, the boards did not creak.  Our footfalls remained silentprecisely as the shadows around us did.  We stepped over large gaps between the uneven floorboards while we advanced farther in.  The soaring particles of dust were irradiated in the glow of our candles’ flames.  But the ear-impaling 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 noises discontinued, Greene whispered to me, “We need to leave now!  We must get out of here before something 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 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 too terrified to leave the shafts in the opposite direction, he hurried along, not too far behind.

“Could that have been Mansfield?” whispered Greene.

Quietly, I said, “I am not certain, so please stop speaking.” 

The distressing sounds started up once more, but this time, they seemed to come from one direction and one direction only.  They were resonating fromperhapsabout seven 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 comparable to a beating heart.  A nervous heart.  A heart comprehending that something horrid is drawing near.  Yet the noise did not belong to a heartit belonged to a pair of shoes stepping upon the floor.  The noises became slower and deliberate:

THUD-THUMP. THUD-THUMP. THUD-THUD. THUD-THUD. THUD-CLOMP.  CLOMP-CLOMP.  CLOMP.  CLOMP.  CLOMP.  CLOMP.  Greene’s eyes had widened, and his mouth quivered as if he were making an ineffective attempt to release a shriek.  The fear of that moment was indescribablethe dread was utmost appallingthe grimness of the imagination conjured forth images of a grotesque nature.  Who was coming?  What was coming?  And what would happen?  I led 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.

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

“Spirits cannot harmnor toucha 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 trepidation.

“What?” asked Greene.

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

The atmosphere grew heavier while we moved forth, soon turning upon a corner.  But without warning, the sound of heavy shoes once again resonated here and therefrom one direction to another.  And quite unexpectedly, the noises arose into a single sequence of footstepsthey came from behind us.  Turning, I felt my heart’s beating come to an end; both Mr. Greene and I were inert.  An undistinguishable figure stood tallnearly five feet from us.  It remained mute and lifelessfor the longest time, the being could only stare, and the silence rang.  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 could,

“Uh—hello!  And may I have the courtesy, as to introduce” 

When my candle’s light gleamed upon the figure, I saw the unearthly aspects of the apparition.  His abnormal head was elongatedhis skin was a dark emeraldhis eyes, a deep shade of crimsonhis hands and fingers were broad and thickhis clothing and cravat, blacker than the midnight heavens.  He leered upon me while my candle’s dying flame flickered upon his facethe light growing feeblerweakeningnow fadingand gone.  We were all standing in an enshrouding pitch-blackness.  And indeed, we knew the disturbing figure, Chester, could still see us.

Immediately, I made haste to get far from the 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 footsteps of Chester started.  His steady footfalls soon transfigured into a hurried trot—the fiend was nearing us!  I then heard Mr. Greene tumble and collapse.  He begged for mercy.  I called out to Greene, for I could not see where he was lying.  But alas! before I was even able to reach him, I noticed that his bellowing began to diminish.  And the last sound was Greene’s hands clawing at the floorboards in utter desperation.  I attempted to pursue him, however, my efforts proved to be in vain.  The farther I dashed, the fainter the pitying sounds became.  At length, when only silence lingered, I knew there was nothing more to be done.


VIII.

It felt as if I were a lone spiritlostand roaming the passageways of melancholy.  Whatever had occurred seemed to have ended as quickly as it had transpiredsimilar to how the flames of our candles suffocated in the 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 tunnels.  Yet while I crept forward, I was caught by an unseen force from behind.  I shoved the being, but the struggle went down in a violent fight.  Ultimately, I was gagged and boundrendered defenseless.

While I was dragged by the thing, I tried to cry out, but each yell was suppressed by the cloth that had been tightly knotted around my neck and over my mouth.  I wondered what was to happen in the proceeding momentwhat unmerited fate awaited me?  Why was this undeserved horror being infused within the final hours before my demise?  Yes, I know!  It was because of what happened to Mr. Greene.  Surely this was the reason!  And yet, my purpose for daring to walk in the tunnels was to search for the truthand the truth was all that I sought.  Perhaps I was not prudent enough to understand the perils that I would face on that night.  I shut my eyes and yearned for my reality to become nothing more than a nightmare.  But it was indeed the truth, and is that not, after all, what I had sought?  Yet it was no more that I sought the truth.  I had beheld quite enough.  I could see now how all past guests had fallen into the valley’s sneering mirthMorbus Tenebris was very real.

I was taken into a narrow hallway that led into one of the guestrooms.  The figure that had seized me was Mansfield, only he looked slightly different; his face was far more cadaverous, and his eyeballs sat in nearly empty sockets.  His hands were also significantly more skeletal.  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 long teeth.  Chester soon entered the room and peered upon mestill quiet.  “Place this one down in my quarters,” spoke Mansfield.  Chester nodded, and stepped nearer to where I lay.  I yelled, notwithstanding, the cloth smothered any noise that came from my mouth.  I made many unsuccessful attempts at resisting his clutch, writhing in the ropes that restrained me.  Mansfield became maddened by my actions and held me down with great strength. “I will not tolerate your nonsense,” said he to me, with a displeased expression upon his skull-like face.

After this, I could no longer fend off Chester’s grasp.  Casting me over his shoulder, he left the room and made his descent down the stairwelland every time one of his shoes pressed against a step, it croakedone by one, I countedbecoming closer to my impending fate.  We moved through the parlor, and then to a particular place of the Inn that had roused my curiosity: the door.  There it waswidely openbeckoning those who fancied its forbidden secrets.  And the glow of a candle shone from within the darkness that shrouded the doorway.  I was carried through it and into a place that was unlike the rest of the Inn’s interior.  The floorboards were dullerwith black, ink-like stains, long absorbed into the wood.  Human bones lay strewed over the whole floorsome crushed.  An antique, spindle-back chair stood against the center wall.  At the foot of the chair rested a brass, tarnished candleholder, with wax trickling down the socket and into the bobeche.  There was only one windowalas, it was too narrow for one such as myself to escape through.  Drawn on the walls in ink was the repeated phrase ‘What I Did Not Dare’.

I was placed against the wall, opposite to the chair, in a kneeling position.  An additional rope was tied around my chest and to a timber that rose from the floor to the ceiling.  Chester peered towards me and smiledhe appeared quite pleased with his actionsor perhaps he was pleased knowing what would happen to me.  He left the room and shut the door.  I wondered what would next occurstaring upon what I assumed were the remains of past travelers.  Hands, feet, ribs, skulls, jaws, shoulders, sternums, fingers, toes, arms, legsthese bones could construct more than forty or fifty skeletons.  And all of a sudden, I heard the muffled cry of another victim as Chester’s loud footfalls descended the stairwell.  The subdued shrieks belonged to a maneither Mr. Greene or Mr. Windham.  The antechamber doors thudded open, and then thudded shut.  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 screamit belonged to a woman: Mrs. Windham.

The longcase pendulum clock from in the parlor tolled eleven.  The door swung open, and Mansfield entered the room.  He shut the door and grinnedbut at first, he did not speak a word.  While he stepped towards the chair, his shoes cracked the remains below his feet.  As he seated himself in a rather pronounced manner, he looked upon me in such a way, and then laughed deliriously.  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 chose to listennot that I could have chosen to do otherwise!

“My name is indeed Mansfieldyou 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 dark and silentand yet, it was exceedingly comforting, for I followed the wondrous sound it made.   Every evening it lingered and whispered enthralling secrets into my ears.  Never had I pondered with such deepness.  And during that period, I found great pleasure in seeking my inheritance: the inheritance The Dark Sickness promised me.  My journey began on a cold and bitter nightthence, it was endless year after endless year, until I established this Inn.  It was a remarkable idea from the beginning: at the foot of a hillock is where it would repose.  The location had to be quite lonesome.  And I knew I would appreciate it very much.

“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 appear as if I were a living corpseand corpse-like is certainly a good word to describe my appearance.  To most, I am a mere, hideous creaturebut nevertheless, The Dark Sickness sees me as a gift.  And a gift I am!  But furthermore, I have always carried about with me a fascinationand indeed, I used to struggle to repress these 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 restand I would be so courteous as to offer them a warm place to stay.  I prolonged my 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 Midnight Wraith spoke remained a mystery.  And soon, I forgot about The Dark Sickness and what he revealed to me altogether.  What mattered most was that my guests were pleased.  But on the contrary, I was not, by any means, pleased; my own life was miserable—utterly miserable!  Visitors gazed upon me in such repulsion.  Some would even leave before bestowing upon me a second chance.  From time to time, visitors would point towards me and remark on my appearance with disgust.  I did not know what I was to do when this happened—”

While Mansfield continued his story of self-pity, a brilliant idea was conceived.  Many of the bones lying on the floor were splinteredI knew I could use them to unbound myself from the ropes.  Using my fingers to feel the bones behind me, I secretly hunted for a piece sharp enough to tear away at the ropes.  After a few moments, there was a shard of bone that pricked my fingerthis would have to do.

“A malice 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 stareand the staring 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 quite miraculous once I grasped its true significance.  And the Mansfield that I once was was no moreand this was because the Mansfield that I once was was never.  The following evening, a new traveler arrived.  As would normally occur, the guest was revolted by my appearance; he made it very apparent.  Before I could hand the key to the visitor, he rushed towards the doors.  As I followed him outside to his wagon under the porte-cochére, he shoved me, 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 were 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 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 office, I thereafter shut and locked the door.  Utter shock was upon his pathetic face.

“After years of suffering, I had finally felt a bliss thatperhapshad never willingly been comprehended by anyone before.  The man screamed, but my laughter was louder.  Limb by limb, finger by finger, I tore the futile mortal apart with passion using only my hands.  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 remains beneath a knotty maple.  Subsequently, I took his wagon and disposed of it in the woodlands.  With a hatchet, I chopped away at the carriage.  When it was finally unrecognizable, I threw rotted branches atop the pieces and parts.  Thence, I found great pleasure in practicing my dastardly waysit was no more that I had to constrain my inner-longings.  To ease my endeavors, I chose to construct passageways within the walls of 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 insanity was released upon visitors; I committed the most unspeakable actsguests were drawn from their beds and brought into the lightless shafts during all hours of the night.  I tore them apart—and they cried—how wonderful it was!  Thus, forever would my secrets and true nature be concealed.  There was shrieking, wailing, pleading, and other noises of madnesssuch 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 recently came a remarkable fellow who wascomparable to metouched 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 guidance that I received from him, I agreed to make some contributions.  Let me explain to you: 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 might understand that because he departed from what he once considered home, he began to experience a despair of acute nature.  I could not help but grieve for his forlorn soul.  Yet I knew that if there was a solution to my troubles, there would surely be one 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 home to see that the corpses had been brought inside.  And indeed, I could not help but smile, knowing that I had spread my glee.

“We would converse about our many activities and boast of our philosophical discoverieswhich, of course, most mortals would become horrified by.  But on one particular evening, around eleven o’ clock p.m.this very hour, as a matter of factwe made a pact: if there would ever come a night where a great number of guests were slumbering under this roof, I would spare half of them for his own amusement.  As we shook hands, the moon’s silvery radiance transmuted into a deep-hue, comparable to that of a jack o’ lantern resting in an unlit field during Hallowe’en.  And thus now, here we are.” Mansfield paused for a moment, and then finished, “I originally intended on you staying here a while longerbut alas, it appeared to me that you realized what had been occurring here.  And of course, I could not let you escape with all of the secrets that have been preserved at this Inn for the past sixty years.”

After saying this, he spoke no more.  Only a smile remained upon his abhorrent face while he gazed listlessly.  I could only imagine the many dreadful things he was contemplating.  Fortunately, I had cut my ropes so that when the time was appropriate, I could escape.  But the moment of fearing was prolongedMansfield stared, and did not blinknot once—well, not that he could have.  I knelt before him, awaiting the time whence I would make my escape.  There was silencemore silenceand 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.  I broke free of my ropes and sprang towards the door in a single, swift movement.  My heart thundered while I darted through the parlor.  As I shoved the front doors wide open, a hearse carrying two coffins made haste into the dusky landscape.  The coffins rattled.  There were shrieking and desperate implorations for clemency emanating from themfrom Mr. and Mrs. Windham.  Without making a sensible decision, I rushed after the hearse.  Even as the sight of it waned into the shadows ahead, I continued to follow its tracks in the snow.

The moon possessed a pumpkin-shaded luminosity that guided me through the darkness.  Indeed, it was the very same moon from the story Mansfield told.  It leered upon me while the unbroken winter gusts moaned.  But all of a sudden, I peered over my shoulder to see Mr. Mansfield holding a lantern near his face.  I had no choice but to move quicker through the night.  I charged headlong down the path which the hearse had traveled.  Advancing towards the towering manor that was by now partially in view, I was able to see the form of a hearse positioned in front of the main entrance.  It was then that I understood what would 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 poor couple.  And would the burial be premature?  I was certain.  But while hurrying towards the hearse, I felt reality come and seize me. That reality was Mansfield.

“It was an unwise decision to leave meand now you will wish that you had never decided to do so.” Mansfield clutched my arms.  His strength was otherworldly; every single time I tried to rid my arms of his grasp, the grip of his pallid, emaciated hands became tighter. “Using a sharp bone to cut your ropes was very cleverthat 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 demesneThe Dark Sickness HimselfThe Master!” After saying this, he dragged me with him, past the hearse, and inside the leaden hall.  The mansion’s interior was dull and in disrepairit 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 chamberpresumably 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 a tattered chaise longue. 

However, during that moment, I was unable to make a single movementand yet, this was not a result of utter shockit was a wraith-like paralysis.  He looked down at me, thereafter leaving me alone in the room.  My feeble eyes could only gaze towards a doorway that appeared to grimly glare back towards where I 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 Morbus Tenebris.  The malignant specter was shadowy, with an admixture of amethyst and sapphire within his shroud.  An unhallowed, grimacing face was carved upon his pumpkin head, which rested within a hood.  The phantom’s sharpened grin scarcely illuminated the room while one of his hands extended outwards from beyond his torn cloak.  His claw-like, slender fingers stretched towards my face.  My greatest desire then was to shut my eyesor fleebut none of this I could do.  There I was.  And as the entity’s cold, rough hand lay upon my face, such dismay encircled my spirit.


IX.

A numbness overcame my essence while I felt my very own heartbeat grow weakand weakerand weakest.  The toll of twelve became distortedeach time it rang, its deep sound was lengthenedfarther and farther beyond consciousness.  The moment was foreboded; spirits could indeed harm a mortal’s soulI was mistaken.  And these thoughts swelled in my mind while my very own life was drawn-out with the bell’s resounding tolls.  My hands grew old, until they were unnaturally grayand The Dark Sickness 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—but—the intolerable moment—it ceased!  I was confused.  The wraith disappeared into the shadows altogether.  I was alone.  For a while, I made vain attempts to comprehend what had just occurred.  But rising to my feet, I saw something exceptionally unusual in the tarnished, oval mirror: I was very oldperhaps fifty-seven or sixty years older than my true ageprobably ninety, or ninety-five years old!  My strength had decreased and my clothing appeared as if it had been lying under the earth for decades.  My boney hands trembled while I gazed around.

Taking a candle from its sconce, I could not help notice how much more it weighedyet, this was only a mere candlenothing more than wax and a cotton, interwoven wick.  My stride, too, was weaker; every movement was slow and painful.  It seemed too far from real.  Yet it was.  Heading through the foyer of the house, I neared the two oaken front doors.  Hurrying forth, I pressed my frail hands against them.  With every inch of strength and determination, I continued to push.  And soon, the doors moved 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 gloom in the heavens.  I thus approached the hearse.  Alas, I saw through the windows that the two coffins were no longer there; the mortician had taken them into the house’s interior: perhaps to prepare the bodies—and this I could only imagine.  Quickly, I staggered back into the neglected mansion.  The bleakness of the abode hung over each room, releasing its weight 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, tall doorway at the very end.  I forced myself forward, becoming within nearness of whatever lay ahead.  And finally, as I peered into the room, there before me was a sight I feared I might see: two coffins leaned against the walland within them rested an elderly Mr. and Mrs. Windhamthey appeared to be over one-hundredconceivably one-hundred-fifty years old each.  I watched as the mortician brushed a powder on their sunken, lifeless faces.  Immediately, I stepped away from the doorway.  Why were the dreadful events transpiring?  Alas, there purely was no reasonit was all madnessand what reason did madness have?  No reason at all.

The mortician solemnly stepped 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 spirit.  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 despair.  The mortician would return shortly, and so, I watched.  And my prediction was unerring: after ascending the stairwell, he and Mansfield walked down the hall and into the room of deathly arrangement.  First came Mr. Windham’s coffin, with both ghouls carrying it.  Then, down through the house and to the hearse of joyous sorrow, I followed them.  I watched from behind a bush as they trod back into the house to retrieve Mrs. Windham’s cadaver.  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 while waiting for Mansfield and the mortician to place Mrs. Windham’s body on to the funeral coach.  The lanterns’ burning flames were extinguished so that both fiends would not see me when they came out.  The snow soon fell upon us once more.  Then, both ghouls exited their home.  My heart struck against my ribs and sternum while I listened to the wood of Mrs. Windham’s coffin scrape against the top of the other.  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 shrieked from behindhis cries now dying away the farther we were from the manor.  Whilst we continued on, the decaying trees slouched against one another, here and there, forming monstrous figures under the light of the pumpkin-like moon.  The specter-horses trod onward.  The path was soon 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 our only hope of escaping.  And although The Dark Sickness was rather prevailing, his efforts did not overshadow our will 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.  They wailed, soaring to and frowith 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 upon the foothills.  Yet our wish for deliverance could not be brokenI could nearly hear the shadowy wraith’s wails of hatred.  But as I thought all was well, I heard the whining of horses.  They did not belong to any of minethey came from behind.  A second hearse was pursuing us, and in it rode Mansfield with a repugnant grin upon his face.  Mansfield chanted, “My Midnight Watcher Shall Come To All.  And All Shall Come To Know His Ways.”  His phantom horses charged with their obsidian hooves and fierce ruby eyes.  The smoke drifting from their nostrils 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 louderand deeperrealizing that his efforts to keep The Dark Sickness’s hold over us were fruitless.  Thunder reverberated and many trees were taken by the gale.  Yet nothing would stop our will to once again see the light of day and unshackle ourselves from the chains of despondency.  The bridge was near; soon this nightmare would come to an end once and for alland nevermore would we be fooled by such deceit!  Lightening irradiated the thunderclouds while Mansfield’s hearse drew nearand nearerand nearest.  His vicious voice exclaimed, “You shall not leave us!  You cannot!”  But after these words of frustration were yelled by Mansfield, the covered bridge appeared before us.  Through it, the horses trotted 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, causing its entirety to collapse into the sullen waters; and the stream consumed all of the wood.  Although many bellows of agony and rage arose over the other side of the brookit was finished.  I gazed upon the moon to see that its silver gleam returned once again.

As peace settled over, the horses were no longer phantoms; they became ordinary horses; I even came to recognize the very steed upon which I rode to the Inn those many long 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.  Alas, The Dark Sickness had claimed two souls we knewJeffrey Greene and Douglas Burlington.  It was discomforting to know that their spirits were wanderingor to know that hundreds of thousands of souls were trapped.  Even so, I was very grateful for having survived, as well as saving Mr. and Mrs. Windham.There was no doubt that The Dark Sickness or Morbus Tenebris still resided in Spookinite Valley 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 townsfolk of Hemlocknor convince them any of it was real.  But in our hearts, we would always know what dwelled within the Innor the whole valley, for that matter.  The bridge that crossed over into their world was destroyed.  I could only hope that never again would a traveler mistakenly fall under the deceptions of Mr. Mansfield.  Perhaps, in time, a new bridge would be constructedand then, much later, it too would fall.  Regardless of whether any of this would occur, the Inn now only remained as a haunting remembrance.  And forevermore would I heed my wary perceptions.

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