Hold Back The Night
A chill wind howled through the trees. Raindrops dripped down the nape of Cavendish’s neck, even if he could not quite see them splashing off the brim of his hat in front of his eye line. He scratched his beard and narrowed his dark eyes, searching for some kind of landmark in the gloom to mark where they were.
Something spooked the horses. The men, too — the most redoubtable bunch that the town could offer — were nervous. Any light was non-existent, but Cavendish could feel their uneasiness. The feeling had transmitted itself from the men to their steeds. He worried the jittery horses would bolt at any moment.
“OK, men,” he shouted above the hissing rainfall and howling wind. “Light up.”
His men lit torches, which illuminated the gloom in the uncertain, flickering light.
“No-one knows what lies beyond these woods. I must be honest. I cannot promise we will live through this trial,” said Cavendish.
Hardly inspiring words, but Cavendish was no wordsmith. He never thought he was the man to lead the group. But someone had to. They had picked the stoutest men from the town, of course — but some were barely men. Mere boys. And in the flickering torchlight, he could see the pale, scared faces that they were desperately trying to hide from each other.
No-one spoke. Cavendish nodded, and the group moved their whinnying charges through the path in the forest.
Cavendish had heard the swirling stories around town. Everyone in the group had. Even the most stoic and flint-hearted among them had reason to be fearful as their horses trod carefully on the uneven, rain-soaked forest floor. Though they may not have believed the more far-fetched rumours, everyone knew something was happening in the town. After all, children don’t just disappear.
As the trees grew sparser, Cavendish and company could make out the dim outline of the cabin in a clearing ahead. As they approached it, the front door opened. From inside came a surprisingly warm orange glow. Cavendish could glimpse the outline of a hooded figure, tall and lean as a knife, but once the door closed the cabin’s porch was washed in the same dim darkness as everything else. The horses spotted the figure, too, and pulled at their reigns to try desperately to turn back.
“Hold the steeds!” shouted Cavendish, as the wind whipped up again, taking his words far off into the dense forest.
I have been waiting.
Everyone froze in place. The voice had come from the figure on the cabin porch, clearly, and carried above the wind and rain, but it wasn’t the loud, booming voice Cavendish had to use. It was thin, reedy, almost a whisper. Yet each man heard it clear as a bell. Almost as if the speaker had dropped the words directly into their skulls.
I know that you know not what you do. But I cannot prevent it.
The posse drew closer. Cavendish dismounted from his horse and approached the figure on the porch. Five other men dismounted and stood behind him, fingering their guns. The others stayed mounted, holding their torches. For the first time, Cavendish got a good look at the man — or as good as he could in this light. He was tall, taller than even Cavendish, but wiry and thin. His skin was so white as to be nearly translucent, his blue veins visible beneath. The man smiled, and for a moment his teeth appeared…sharp. Cavendish thought he must have imagined it.
“You know why we are here,” said Cavendish evenly. It was not a question.
The question is: do you?
“The townsfolk have accused you of-” he glanced back at Stone Johnson, one of the men in his troop. Stone’s daughter, just three years old, was one of the missing children, “-crimes which I shall not mention here. But you are to come with us to face justice.”
The figure glowered from under his hood. Even in the poor light, Cavendish could judge that his face was skeletal. His eyes, though, gleamed almost from a kind of inner light.
Justice? I AM justice. I am as old as the soil. Your ‘town’ and I have a symbiosis. You have forgotten the pact.
Something about the…man got to Cavendish at a deep-down level. Before he knew what was happening, he had drawn back his fist and struck his adversary square in the jaw. The tall man staggered backward and fell slowly like a collapsing tent.
Cavendish strode forward, past the prone man, who was groaning and pawing at his face. At the cabin door, he turned.
“Come,” he motioned to no-one in particular. A young man named Layton followed, glancing nervously at the figure. Two other men grabbed the pale man as he rose. “Tie him up,” growled Cavendish to the men. “We will find evidence.”
Inside, the cabin was as plain as could be. Two gas lamps provided light, but there was little to illuminate. In the corner was a small wooden table, an old chair next to it. On the floor was a large rug. Layton scuffed his boot at an edge and pointed at what the upturned material revealed.
Cavendish went down, torch lighting the way. He told Layton to stay upstairs and look around. The steps led down into darkness, and the stench hit him before any sight did. It was like a punch in the face.
With much trepidation he continued on, and the first swinging body almost knocked him to the floor, and as he staggered back upright he saw another, and another, until he realised that hanging from the ceiling of the basement were bodies bodies bodies and that stench was of death; rotting flesh and emptied bowels and that stickiness on the floor was blood and so were the stains on the walls and all he could do was retch and then vomit until it felt like his throat was on fire and he had no insides left.
Scrambling back up the steps, still retching, he stumbled and fell onto the cabin’s wooden floor. Layton, peering half-heartedly around the small square of nothing that was the cabin, was taken aback. After seeing Cavendish’s face he thought better of asking what his superior had seen.
“Burn it,” said Cavendish, his voice a hoarse whisper. “Burn it down.”
“…A — And him?” asked Layton, jerking a thumb at the still-hooded figure now tied and bound in the corner of the cabin.
“He burns too,” Cavendish replied without so much as a glance of either of them as he walked unsteadily back out into the rain.
The townspeople could see the smoke from the burning cabin in for almost two days. Cavendish stayed silent on what he had seen there and encouraged the others in his party to do the same.
A few days later the town sheriff questioned him about what happened. He denied going to the cabin — in fact, he denied any knowledge of the cabin at all. The sheriff didn’t believe him, but proving anything would be difficult. No one in town seemed to know anything about the events at the cabin.
“Do you know what you’ve done?” asked the elderly sheriff before he left. Initially, Cavendish said nothing, the faraway look in his eyes giving nothing away.
“Whoever lived in that cabin,” he asked eventually, feigning ignorance, “must have done something bad if a mob went after him.”
“Doesn’t take much,” the sheriff shrugged. “Life ain’t always as black and white as people think.”
“Bad is bad, if you ask me. Now, you know I had nothin’ to do with whatever happened at the cabin,” he smiled, “but if someone bad got what was coming to them, then I can’t say I’m sad about it.”
“There’s plenty you don’t understand. About the cabin and the town. Everyone has to make…sacrifices…to keep the town safe. You idiots think fire’ll do it? Like we ain’t tried that? You can’t kill what ain’t alive. The pact was the only way.”
Cavendish said nothing and waved the sheriff away. He’d heard talk, of course, that the entity in the cabin couldn’t be killed. But he was not a superstitious man. All that talk was nonsense, he knew. The man in the cabin was just that — a man.
Justice had been done.
His home had been in a forest, once. How long ago didn’t matter — one hundred years, a month, ten minutes, it was all the same.
He had built his new home in the same spot as the old, after a long enough period had passed that people forgot how, and why, someone had turned the old cabin to ash.
The forest had mostly gone, though, a mix of accidental fires and the deliberate march of progress meant that the “new” cabin — though set back a bit from the other houses — had been absorbed into a town.
Sek didn’t mind. After several lifetimes’ worth of being alone, he was grateful for the company, when he so desired it.
Old habits die hard, though, and he spent many nights walking the streets alone under the moonlight.
On this night, a blood-red moon hung fat in the sky. The night air was mild, befitting the sweltering summer — the highest on record for the third year in a row — although Sek, comfortably attired in jeans and a black shirt, did not sweat. The hot weather meant the town’s streets were busier than normal, as revellers who had been soaking up the sun in the local park, or pubs, were unsteadily making their way home. Sek looked at everyone with a quiet hunger in his eyes but never broke his stride.
He was looking for the right person.
Time was, he had agreements with the local settlements. They would supply him with the sustenance he required, and he would provide protection — he liked to say he would “hold back the night”.
But long-standing agreements, if they sustain long enough, fall into disrepair and are forgotten. Sek’s agreement came to a fiery end. He still had to survive, of course, and unable to rely on the town for help, he made his own way in the world. Forget holding back the night. He was the night.
He found the right person at midnight. In the darkened backstreets at the edge of town, the neglected streets overgrown with the remnants of a once-mighty forest, Sek heard sobbing.
A few hundred yards ahead, weaving an unsteady path, was a woman. She cried into the night air.
She wore a red dress and had long black hair. Catching up to her, Sek saw her pale, makeup-streaked face.
“What’s the matter, my child?” hissed Sek.
“Fuck off,” she said matter-of-factly, between sobs.
Sek grinned. He had not expected a fight. “I want to help,” he insisted.
“I don’t want help,” said the woman. She had composed herself and now ice slid off every syllable. “I just want to go home, and sleep, and…well, let’s just say if I don’t wake up I won’t feel fucking sad about it.”
“You want to die?” Sek spied an opening.
“I don’t want to live,” said the woman after a pause. “Is there a difference?”
“Oh yes. A much bigger difference than you’d think.”
The woman stopped and turned to face Sek for the first time.
“Fuck, I thought I was pale!” She exclaimed.
Sek, oddly self-conscious, ran his hand through his long grey hair but said nothing.
“How do you intend to help me then, creepy stranger?” A wry smile played about her red wine lips. “Are you going to fuck me or kill me?”
Now it was Sek’s turn to smile, the moonlight glinting off his incisors.
“You don’t want life and you don’t want death. I propose…another way.”
The woman rolled her eyes theatrically. “Lemme guess, you want to recruit me to some bullshit cause, right? Target the vulnerable, classic stuff. What are you, then? Scientology? Some sorta cult? The military?”
“I am a myth,” replied Sek. “A truth, forgotten. I am — ”
“Pretentious,” she cut him off. Save me your high school poetry. If you’re here to kill me then do it. Don’t justify it.”
“It will not be death, exactly.”
Sek pounced, upon the woman in a flash. His bony, long-nailed hands jerked back her head as his teeth sunk into her neck.
The woman had no time to scream. Blood dripped from her neck and pooled on to the floor. She collapsed but Sek held her. He gently laid her on the floor and kneeled beside her. The woman fell in and out of consciousness.
“You don’t want life or death. I give you this alternative. Remain with me, outside of time. We will stalk. We will feast. I will show you how. Forget your earthly pain. Become the night.”
The woman tried to nod, weakly. To her surprise, she was not dying. Sek helped her to her feet.
“I have a cabin close by,” he said. “We will go there and rest. Tomorrow, your new life begins.”
The cabin was anachronistic, a genuine old wooden shack in a town with solar panels on every roof and auto-driving cars filling the streets.
It looked abandoned, ivy and moss covering almost every surface and clawing through every crack. It had an owner, though, who claimed his family had lived there for generations. Mayor Cavendish had wanted the eyesore torn down for years and could find no official record of the family who claimed to own the cabin and the surrounding land.
Strangely, every single person who went to the cabin to negotiate the sale came out believing that not only should the cabin stay, but that it was, in fact, a local historical landmark and should be preserved, untouched, exactly as it was.
So it remained, out of place and out of time. It was true, though, that it had become a landmark and mini tourist destination. The cabin featured heavily in the ghost stories the local children told each other, and speculation ran wild in certain online subcultures as to who — or what — lived there.
Mayor Cavendish had never set foot inside the cabin or met the alleged owner — though he had seen him around, the man was tall, thin and pale, with long grey hair that was often scraped into a ponytail. But this day would be different. He wanted to make a deal.
The door opened even before he had set foot on the porch. The owner stood in the doorway, looking just as Cavendish had expected. Aside from the complexion, as pale as bone, he looked like every other man in the town, dressed for summer in cargo shorts and an old grey t-shirt. His lank silver hair was flowing loosely over his shoulders. He smiled, and his teeth looked impossibly white.
“Mr. Mayor,” he said brightly, “come on in.”
“D-Did you know I was coming?” asked Cavendish, eyes darting around. “Did my office call ahead?” He was sure he had told them not to, as he hoped to catch his would-be host off guard.
“Yes,” came the reply after a slightly-too-long pause. “That’s how I know.” Another smile.
Cavendish stepped up the porch and followed the man into the cabin.
“I’m sorry,” he blustered, “I’m not sure what to call you, mister…?”
“Sek,” came the reply. “S-E-K.”
“That’s an…unusual name.”
“I suppose,” shrugged Sek. “Old family name. Plus, sometimes it’s nice to stand out from the crowd.”
The inside of the cabin was more plan than Cavendish had expected. A battered wooden table that had seen better days and a single chair. Two unlit gas lamps. A large rug on the floor. No sign of any modern conveniences.
“No electricity, Mr. Sek?”
“I have no need,” he smiled, “I live simply.”
“You live alone?”
“Yes,” Sek nodded. “I had a…female companion, for a time but she decided to, uh, take flight, so to speak, some time ago.”
“Ah well,” said Cavendish jovially, “sometimes life is easier without women, eh?” His laugh died in his throat as he saw Sek’s stony expression.
“If you say so. Please, sit,” he offered the Mayor his only chair. “I regret the lack of hospitality, I rarely entertain guests.”
“That’s quite alright, I understand,” Cavendish sat.
Sek perched on the edge of the table, his bony frame putting Cavendish in mind of a vulture. “I assume the Mayor doesn’t make many social calls — may I ask why you’re here?”
“Of course,” Cavendish gulped, realising suddenly the recklessness of this endeavour. “I wish to…” he fumbled for the words, “restart the pact.”
Sek’s eyes lit up at those words, but he was cautious. “What do you know of the pact?”
“Only what I’ve been told. Official records don’t seem to exist. I understand that we give you…certain things and in return the senior townspeople are safe. Started hundreds of years ago. Until…the fire.”
Sek’s eyes lit up. He knew the Mayor looked familiar. He had looked at a version of that face hundreds of years ago, as he burned.
“I’ll keep you safe?” he said mockingly. He feigned ignorance, toying with his prey. “Safe from what?” He grinned, and Cavendish swore his teeth were sharp.
“I need not tell you how many people have gone missing in this month alone. Never mind all the years before. Important people. Pillars of the community. I can’t allow this to continue. Allow us to bring you what you need. And leave us in peace.”
Sek was silent for a small eternity. Then he nodded.
“I think we can come to an agreement. But first I want to check what you will provide for me. Bring me the first offering by midnight tonight. If it is acceptable, you have a deal.”
“And…if not?” Stammered Cavendish.
“You’ll find out,” he grinned wickedly.
The front door flung open all by itself, despite the lack of a breeze.
“See you at midnight, Mr. Mayor,” leered Sek as he led his guest out. The door slammed as soon as Cavendish set foot back onto the porch.
Cavendish dabbed his sopping wet forehead with his handkerchief. Sweat plastered his shirt to his back.
Now all he had to do was find the right person and bring them back at midnight. In an ideal world, he told himself, he wouldn’t do this. But it’s for the good of the town.
Sacrifices must be made.