There are things in this world no mortal eye has ever seen, things no mortal eye should ever see. Such was my fate in Dante’s Gallows. That night, unlike the many that had preceded it, was bright with stars; the first night in many nights the rain had checked its unbridled rage.
Absent of all other thought, I stared hard at the blank page on my penpad, lost in the three words that glowed from the screen: ‘Myths and Legends of the Hinterlands.’ This was an article I was working on for my hard-as-nails boss. Try as I may, nothing came to mind. An annoying insect, attracted to the white light of the screen, disturbed the stillness of the night with its noisy buzz.
I had travelled five towns in three days, seeking the embers of once legendary tales, but my fluid pen landed upon stolid pasts till upon Dante’s Gallows I stumbled. The name of the small inn had caught my attention first thing, and here, in the aged town of Damba, instinct told me, was a goldmine of history. Though hesitant at first, I had quickly discovered that I had no choice in the matter as Dante’s Gallows was the only inn in Damba.
Unlike most of the other towns I had passed through, Damba still kept vestiges of the old days, clinging tenaciously to the past in its every modern aberration. Cowries still decorated the feet of their maidens despite the silk gowns that covered their once naked waists. The men still found it a bit difficult to cover their dark broad chests with the long flowing kaftans, for the size of a man’s chest was the basic criteria for attracting the opposite sex. So they made a slit down the front of their new clothes, a way of preserving their revered culture. I noticed a strange thing though, maybe it was nothing, and maybe it was just my imaginative mind running wild. The Dambians, or the few of them I came across never seemed to smile, instead they wore this frightened look, and walked in humble, subservient strides like there was some higher power whose presence they feared. Maybe they weren’t taken to strangers, I decided.
A wizened innkeeper took me in, welcoming the stranger from the South with a low bow; anyone crazy enough to venture this far must definitely have come from the South or so I had learned from my wanderings. His skin was darker than most of the others I had seen, his face was thin and sallow and he had a manner about him that reminded me of the priests in the Temple of Avia. While he ransacked through a pile of books strewn across his desk, I looked around, spotting the dust and cobwebs that hung all over the place. The reception area was bare save the innkeepers towering table and chair, and mounds of dirt which littered the floor. The walls were musty, illuminated with the soft glow of a paraffin lamp. They were stained with something I couldn’t immediately decipher. I had been in worse inns, I mused, happy that at last I’d be able to go home from here, my article completed from its prehistoric wealth. I needed a guide, and I planned on getting one by first light.
A cloud of dust hung in the air as the last of the innkeeper’s books landed with a thud on the uneven floor. He pushed a dog-eared, weather-beaten register that must have been signed by men long dead at my face.
“Sign it,” he croaked, the mere effort of speaking caused his breath to quicken. Eager to begin, I scribbled my initials, O.W, below the last entry. Out of curiosity, my eyes lingered on the page, tracing the date the last entry was made. Apprehension prickled my skin, but I hid my surprise well, a sudden excitement welling up within my being. I had a sudden urge to pick up my bag and flee, but I quelled my fright with intellectual reason.
I hoisted my duffel bag and made my way up the rickety stairs. Shadows welcomed me as I made my way through the partial darkness to room 108. It baffled me that the entire floor had just two rooms. I guessed the bottom floor housed only the reception and maybe a kitchen, I wasn’t certain. So why room 108? I wondered, but quickly discarded the though as I unlocked the door and stepped inside.
A paraffin lamp similar to the one on the innkeepers desk, hung from the wall, illuminating the small room in its pale yellow light. The bed was small and laid with red bedding, the floor was made of wood and it creaked ominously with every step I took. The walls were clean, the windows were bordered by flowing red drapes. Dropping my bag, I drew back the curtains and looked out into the deserted streets. Darkness hung over the town and only in a few homes could I discern the glow of a lamp. It felt surreal, my presence in this backwater, like I had stepped out of a modern classic into one of Rene’s masterpiece of prehistoric times.
I set my workstation on the bedside table and proceeded to the bathroom, a small affair with a broken shower and a bucket of ice cold water, to freshen up. Out, I dressed for the cold and lay down to rest a while. The date on the last entry posed a million questions to me, and as I lay there, staring up at the wooden ceiling, I could not help but notice the same stains I had seen earlier all over the walls of the reception area splotched here and there on the ceiling boards. Then I remembered the wizened innkeeper; he had hurried out the front door as I made my way upstairs, a frightened look on his bony face like he had seen a ghost.
“Dante’s Gallows,” I murmured, trying to figure out the oddity.
I stood up, withdrew my colt from my bag, the cold feel of its butt steeling my nerves. I tucked it under the pillow, where my hands could easily reach it should the need arise. Then I proceeded to the table where I sat a long time, staring at the lighted screen of my penpad, my pen dangling between my fingers, hovering before the screen. I felt tired and had an urgent need for sleep. So shutting down my computer, I turned in.
I woke up with a dire sense of foreboding. The wind was howling, screaming almost like a human child might. The night was cold. Scary cold. The windows shut themselves with a loud bang, shutting out the moon. Shutting out Damba and her inhabitants. Almost immediately, my penpad came alive, its pen scribbling furiously on the screen as if it had a mind of its own. As if that wasn’t enough, the howling wind somehow managed to stay trapped within the enclosed space of my room. The red drapes flew about like a mass of blood, my bed rattled on its four legs, the grating sound piercing my ears.
Something dropped on my forehead, and wiping it with my hands, I saw blood. I looked up, the ceiling had become an ocean of blood, bubbling like angry waves. Pistol drawn, I jumped out of bed, training the gun at everything. The pen continued its manic scribble, unaffected by the gale.
Then I heard the distinct chatter of savage laughter. I looked everywhere but saw no one. Again it came, a shrill cry juxtaposed against the battering wind. The wind had become so intense; I had to hold on to a metal ring buried into the wall to keep me from being tossed about like a rag doll, my gun, it flung from my grasp like light breeze would an aged leaf.
“Run!” the scream was sudden, unexpected and it jolted me to my very foundation.
“Are you a stranger in Damba?!” The voice asked, its anger, a black tide. His face swarm out of thin air and loomed before me. He was a young man; he couldn’t have been older than I was, maybe early forties at best. He was clothed in rags, his hands and feet were chained to huge round balls I was sure no earthly man could have lifted. But he seemed to lift them with ease, moving about the room, a pained expression on his transparent face.
He turned his back to me and I heard him sob; a cold, lifeless snivel. With amazing speed, he turned. Facing me, his eyes red with rage, coagulated blood stained his nostrils and mouth.
“Ohmston, you fool!” He yelled. I froze at the mention of my name.
In all of my wanderings, I had heard of spirits, hunted houses, but I had never actually been in one myself, neither had I seen a ghost. The few tales I had heard about ghosts lent a hand to the fear that now squeezed at my heart. I made a mad rush for the door, turning the lock a thousand times. It didn’t budge.
The transparent wraith laughed, choking as he did. Then he broke into sobs.
“He’s near, can’t you see . . . there is no escape, not anymore.” His voice was low, barely above a whisper. The wind lessened as his pitch dropped, becoming rather mournful than violent.
“Did no one tell you of Dante’s travails? Did no one tell you how our local hero became a butcher’s puppet? Did no one tell you he lies this minute hanging in the gallows, his flesh long putrefied and turned to dust, his bones still hanging till this day in the other room?!” he paused, and looked sadly at his hands and the burden he bore. “Did no one tell you?” His rage returned, and with it came fierce wind.
“No! No one told me,” I found my voice, screaming so he could hear me, my heart hammering against my rib cage. Just then, the pen dropped with a clatter, and the computer went blank.
“What . . . who-who is he, the butcher?”
“I do not know his name.” He said, the pained look creeping back into his glassy eyes. “If I did, I never would have allowed the one hundred and six deaths. It would have all ended with me. Instead I cower before his presence, scared of the torment he could mete out to me, were I to be found wanting. I have watched him grow from strength to strength, his four eyes becoming magnets of death. Some call him the priest of death, others, the living wraith. I call him the four-eyed monk.”
“The four-eyed monk?”
“I even somehow managed to change the name of the inn to scare away fools like you, but still you come, like pigs to the slaughter.”
I stared at him, too dumb to speak. The wind had died again and all was calm save the uneasy feel in the pit of my stomach at his nervy presence. I walked the length of the room, shaking my head to clear my imagination of this dream. But there he stood, gallantly, a king without a throne. A ghost.
Wearily, he sat on the bed, his heavy chains coming to rest beside him. “But there must be something you can do,” he said, more to himself than to me. Yes!” he came alive, jumping to his feet, floating right through me in his euphoria. “The Register!”
A loud thud shook the room, pushing us to the ground. Another thud resounded, and so did another and yet another.
“He’s here,” said the wraith, standing defiantly on his feet. “Get up. Go get the Register, the old notebook you signed upon arrival. His name is there, it’s the very first name on that Register. Go. Run!”
The door flung open and without thinking, I raced across the stairs. The thuds had gotten louder, accompanied by an eerie silence. I got to the reception and all around me was an ocean of blood. The walls seemed to breathe, pulsating with a thousand heartbeats. Several hands stretched out from within the blood, reaching for my garment. But I steered clear of them all, reaching the innkeepers desk in one piece. Then I began the frantic search for the dog-eared notebook.
Several thunder claps raced across the room, amid portentous sounds that came from the distance, bearing down on me. The thuds became unbearably loud, and all around me were several cries for help coming from wraiths I could neither see nor feel.
The Register was nowhere to be found!
Swiftly, the friendly wraith was beside me, breathing down my neck.
“Have you found it?” his voice was strained, harried.
“I can’t find it,” I replied, desperation creeping all over my voice, all over my being. I shot a quick glance at where the front door should have stood. It was gone, replaced by the pulsating ocean of blood.
“No! No! Search for it. Find it you must!”
I picked up book after book, quickly examined it before throwing it aside for another. Then I found it, the weather-beaten Register, dropped carelessly by the innkeeper between the pages of a leather-bound manuscript of some sort.
I heard my friend, the wraith, scream before he shrivelled and became dust at my feet. I staggered back, clutching the Register to my chest.
And he walked in.
A naked boy, ten years old if he was a day, his skin, fair and white.
But I wasn’t fooled by the innocence in his eyes, neither was I fooled by the turban wrapped around his head. I opened the Register and there on the first page was his name.
And as I spoke the words that were to buy my life back from an unimaginable death, I saw things; things I should never have seen. Things that were to keep me awake at nights for a long time to come. Then it dawned on me, that there are things in this world no mortal eye has ever seen, things no mortal eye should ever see.