One really doesn’t know what to do with one’s self during the winter in a small southern town. Most of the trees are still green, the seasons are all but nonexistent except for the lingering humid airs of summer, which can be akin to a twenty four hour sauna, and it can be brutal — deadly, in fact, if one is not careful. Snow is an occasional gift every three to four years, but is never around longer than a day.
An occasional flower may try to get an early start in the New Year, but more times than not it will only get batted down by the short two-week span of Jack Frost’s chilling breath that billows across the land, leaving them dead or wilting in the cool air of January.
The typical winter months here in the south are cold; however, it’s a different kind of cold to the standard fare. The high humid air mixes with the low cool air, making an outside stroll during the daylight hours almost unbearable. The humidity seeps into the bones, causing them to ache like rotting teeth, and the inhabitants who suffer from severe arthritis often find themselves thinking of suicide to ease the pain from their screaming, inflamed joints. But life moves on as it always does. Time stops for no one.
The town, streets, and parks are like those of a ghost town during this time. If one stares long enough, one might even see ghosts walking down the streets, reminding the town’s inhabitants of more pleasant days. Even the animals are scarce, all warm and secure in their elusive hiding places, waiting for the first mild, renewing winds of spring.
But there is something special about a small southern town that can’t be explained. It may let you leave, but its unseen and cancerous pull once you are away is strong; so strong that many who leave find their way back after ten or fifteen years, finishing their lives where they began. It is magical in a way, and many fall doomed under its spell.
It was during this time in the quaint town of Brayton that two old friends, Lane McKenzie and Mark Stillwater, drove across the only bridge in town, having succumbed to the small town’s spell. They joked and commented on the weather, which was a bleak overcast gray devoid of sunlight. Lane’s sputtering slapstick of a car was having trouble climbing the steep incline of the bridge. He looked over his shoulder through the dirty glass and saw the tower.
“I wonder what’s up there,” Lane said, and pushed the accelerator pedal to the max.
Mark moved in his seat, drank a little from his Coke can and eased forward to get a better view of the monument. “I have always wanted to check that place out. I think it’s been here since the town was founded, or that’s what my grandpa told me. I asked him about it a couple times when I was still in grade school.”
That was all that was needed to break the monotony of a cold bleak winter’s day in Brayton. Lane’s eyes widened slightly at the news from Mark. “Really, what did he say?”
Mark sat back in his seat, lit a cigarette and said nothing for a few moments as he thought back to the conversations between him and his grandfather. Lane stopped the car at the top of the bridge; its idling sounded like a metal trash can being shaken with small stones inside. Mark didn’t notice. Lane thought they were safe. It was past five o’clock and the day was coming to a close. The businesses rolled up the carpets, the streets and roads were deserted. It was a ghost town; a small southern town in the grips of winter. The world would succumb to darkness soon, marking the end of another day.
“I think,” Mark hesitated, “…yeah, I think we were beside a fire the first time grandpa told me about the tower. I remember his face. It was dark that night, but the flames from the fire lit his face up like a pumpkin on Halloween.”
“What did he say?” Lane eased the car forward, going slow so he could hear Mark’s reply.
“What he said bothered me. It was the way his voice sounded when he told me about it. It was whiskey-laden, but an odd comfort was in his voice. Now that I remember back on it, there might have been a tinge of fear, too.”
Lane looked over at Mark. His eyes were deep in thought; like a child lost in wonderment. Lane waited patiently for the rest.
“He said bad things happened there one year. Things he wouldn’t mention. Things the whole town tried to forget about. Grandpa said he tried to erase it from his memory, but it wouldn’t go away. It was stuck in his mind and held there by some odd sense of gloom. He said Frankie Guuznelle died there in the fall of ’33. I remember him saying others died there too, but he couldn’t remember their names. ‘They were lost to me and forgotten,’ he said.” Mark went silent. Lane looked on, even more intrigued by the story.
Mark went on: “’I remember now’, he said, ‘it happened at night; a cold winter’s night when no one in their right mind would have been out and about. I was working when I heard the news that Frankie had died, and then had to take a break when I found out where he was. Most say it was just bad luck and a slight mis-step, but I think we all knew better. If we did, we didn’t say anything about it to each other. The whole town – including myself – hushed it up and swept it under the rug, like most small towns do. But we knew it was always there, always in our memories in the dark empty spaces of our minds; haunting us, giving us nightmares. We could see it in our eyes when we passed each other during the day. We made no mention of it. It was unspoken and just understood.’
“Grandpa wouldn’t say anything else about that night or about Frankie and what actually happened to him. He just sat there, staring at the fire mumbling unheard words as the fire and stars danced across his thinking eyes.”
“So you never found out?” Lane asked as they reached the bottom of the bridge.
“I tried to,” Mark said, deep in thought, “but I came up with nothing. Grandpa was right. No one I asked would tell me anything about it.” Mark shrugged, then looked out the window to the empty road before them. “I guess word got around that I was asking things I shouldn’t be asking. Most stopped me before I even began the question and hurried me off telling me to think of brighter things and not to dwell on the past.
“The only other time I got any sort of information out of Grandpa was about three years later, when a ride like this one sparked the interest in me again. When I went to see him he was half asleep in his chair, caught in the tugs and onset of an afternoon nap. I asked him again, hoping to catch him off-guard about the tower and he replied with heavy breaths and half closed eyes, ‘was the Billingsteins’ fault, all of it,’ he said, ‘bunch of back-wood heathens who started the rumors. They were the ones who built the tower and cursed it; cursed it with something terrible; something unseen and not of this world. Most called them witches, but I always thought they were something darker, more evil – an inbred lot that could only get up to no good business at all. Went out on their property one time with some locals, and didn’t like what I saw. Strange-shaped rocks dotted their dead waste fields and the woods, if one could call half-dead trees woods. It gave me nightmares and ill thoughts when I was alone in the dark waiting for sleep to come – for over a year after visiting the place.’ Then he fell silent for a moment before continuing. ‘It all started because of money, don’t it always, though?’ He snorted, coming fully awake, and I could see fear etched in his face and his eyes went wide with alarm realizing he was telling me things he had never intended for me to hear.
“That was all I got out of him, and from that day on he would shush me whenever I talked or questioned him about it. I begged him to tell me more that day, the way only a young boy can; I promised him anything and everything, but he wouldn’t budge. He shooed me away after that, telling me it was his nap time and to not bother him about it again. I did as I was told and went outside to play. The tower was forgotten in short time. At that age a young boy’s attention span lasts about as long as two steps outside the door to the world beyond. As time wore on I eventually forgot about the tower – completely, until today, when you mentioned it.” Mark threw his cigarette out the cracked window, noticing the car had stopped.
“Well, we are going to find out if anything is in that tower,” Lane said, and turned off the engine.
Mark looked out his window to see where they were, and realized that during his story Lane had turned left off the bridge and driven towards the subject of their conversation. He looked through the windshield and there it stood before them: the brown tower. They had arrived.
Mark’s door creaked when he shut it. He walked to the front of the car, where Lane was leaning against the hood. Mark joined him and followed his gaze.
The tower greeted them both with unpleasant feelings. It was tall, about two hundred feet in height. It reached high into the sky, daring and defying anything to harm it. Two lone windows were at the top and set on opposite sides. The square openings were small and didn’t appear to let any light enter. The roof was made of dark gray slate, cracked in several places. The tower itself appeared to have been made out of old hand-mixed concrete. Even at this distance the rough sides could be seen. Years of rain water stained the tower, giving it its brown color. Darker stains ran down the length of the structure at odd places and looked like old blood. Mark shuddered at the sight. No vines or creeping sumac climbed its rough uneven surface. They weren’t allowed.
At the bottom were small dead trees and thorny shrubs, acting like barriers and guardians. Their limbs and decayed, exposed roots seemed like gnarled and twisted fingers that stretched out to them from the ground and air, wanting to grab them and steal their life. Even the ground was bare and devoid of any lightening thought.
Lane looked over to Mark. “Uhhhhh…maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.” The feeling of uneasiness crept through his body as the last bit of light slowly disappeared in the sky. Night claimed the world.
“No, you brought us here; we are going to see it once and for all.” Mark’s eyes were glued to the tower.
“Man, I don’t even know if I got a flashlight in the car,” said Lane. The thought of going inside that tower without a light sent chills up his spine and to the top of his head. “How are we gonna see inside that thing?”
Mark reached in his pocket, pulled out his lighter and flicked it on. “With this.”
Lane pushed himself off the hood. “You’re crazy! That little thing?”
“You’ve got yours, too, don’t you?” asked Mark.
“Well yeah, but…”
Lane didn’t want to admit it, but he was scared. The story Mark just told him, the tower looming over them like some ill omen, and worst of all: it was nightfall, and the darkness seemed thick and poised to engulf them. Nothing good ever happens in the dark. Only bad and terrible things happen in that lightless time, Lane thought, scaring himself even further, while trying to hide it from Mark. “I dunno.” His voice carried the timber of fright. “What if we get hurt or fall? You aren’t planning on going to the top, are you?”
Mark’s lighter was still burning, and his face looked hideous in the shadows cast by its flame. “We are going on the whole tour, top to bottom.”
“Shit,” Lane said. “Man, you’re nuts.”
“You brought it up,” Mark said, and walked toward the tower. He turned back to Lane. “You coming?”
“Yeah, I guess so.” Lane followed only after searching his car for all the lighters he could find. He only found one – the one in his pocket. There was no flashlight.
Mark was standing at the doorway when Lane eased behind him. The wooden door was not very big, barely large enough for them to get through. It hung on rusty hinges and was slightly ajar. Strong odors wafted from the tower’s interior; horrid stenches of decay, mildew, and old age. Lane choked as a light breeze issued from the darkness before them, filling their noses with a putrid smell.
Lane lit his lighter and peered over Mark’s shoulder. He could see nothing inside. Mark turned around and noticed that Lane’s lighter was shaking. He saw the fear on his face.
“You don’t have to come inside if you don’t want to, Lane.”
Lane looked at him. The shadows cast by Mark’s own lighter made Lane think he was a mad carnival man inviting him inside to see the spectacle of madness within. Lane almost spoke up to say he didn’t want to go, but the fear of his own humiliation stalled his words. “Nah, I wanna see, too; it’s just a lot different now that we are here standing in front of it.” He looked around quickly. “This place gives me the creeps.”
“Its rather unsettling, isn’t it?” Mark said, but gave no indication of opting out of their exploration of the tower. Before Lane could answer, Mark plunged inside, and the darkness took him.
Lane tried to call out to him, but his voice was stolen; stifled by his own fear. Lane sat down for a few seconds, which felt like hours. The odor from the darkness was overpowering and sent waves of nausea through his body. He was afraid to take that first step inside and across the dark threshold. He was a child again in that instant, afraid of the Boogey Man, the thing in the closet, the monster under his bed, and many other childhood fears. His mind was playing him like a concert pianist would, touching just the right keys that made him cringe and shrink with fear, each note closer to total chaos; total breakdown. Insanity. Fear of the dark.
What could be up there? Would they find anything or would it all be old floors and dust? A thought came to him; one that made him hesitate before stepping inside to the unknown and the mysterious darkness that would overwhelm him and made him feel small like a frightened child. Helpless.
What if there is something in the tower and its waiting for us to come in? What if Mark’s grandpa was right and was telling the truth in his outlandish tale? Even worse, what if they found a dead body; a skeleton lying on the floor for years, collecting time in its black skull? The fears and questions mounted and Lane did his best to keep calm. But it was hard, too hard to do standing in front of this rectangular shape of blackness; a blackness that he knew nothing about, but feared for what may lie within it. Lane followed, his lighter still shaking – only now his whole body was shaking, too. He took a deep breath and stepped inside.
Mark was waiting for him a few steps in. The odor tripled in strength as Lane entered and he almost retched right there in front of Mark. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the stench-filled dark.
Lane said, through choking gasps of air, “What…was…this…tower for?”
Mark answered, not bothered by the odor. “It was a feed storage tower for the farms just outside of town. The railroad cars brought it in. There is a service track behind the building. I know you must have seen it. That’s what the bridge is for, the railroad. It’s what made this whole town and put it on the map.”
Lane turned to his right to get a little more room when hundreds of strands of sticky webbing clung to his arms, head, neck, and face. He danced wildly in the dark, hollering, arms flailing like a marionette controlled by a madman.
Lane told himself he would be okay, it was just spider webs, but then a heavy weight hit the nape of his neck. He froze. Legs danced across his skin, a thousand it seemed to him; he fumbled and jerked in the dark. The legs holding the unseen weight cantered down his shoulder onto his arm then to his wrist. Lane yanked his hand, hoping to fling whatever was crawling across his arm into the air like a bullet, into the wall. But it didn’t happen that way. Lane brought his arm around in a whipping motion and felt the weight start to come free, but before it was launched into the darkness he felt two tiny stings between his thumb and index finger.
“Something just bit me.”
Mark, in a steady voice, said, “We’ll take care of it when we leave. Probably just a spider bite. C’mon.”
“Just a spider bite,” Lane said. His voice was tinged with disbelief.
Why he obeyed Mark he didn’t know, but nevertheless he followed him to the stairs. He looked around the big square room and noticed his vision had improved. Before joining Mark at the stairs he moved over to the walls and touched them out of curiosity. His hand felt the cold, pebble-filled concrete. He moved his hand across its surface and felt raised portions of the wall. Lane backed up a step and held the lighter out in front of him.
The raised portions of the wall cast long shadows. Lane could see they were reliefs of some kind, made when the tower’s walls were formed. He ran his fingers over them and could almost swear he felt tiny vibrations within them.
“Hey, look at this.”
Mark moved over and Lane showed him the reliefs. Mark stood for a few minutes staring at them. They were everywhere, in no discernible pattern.
“Odd, huh?” Lane said. “Wonder what they’re for.”
Mark nodded, then shrugged and moved on. Lane followed him.
They made it to steps of concrete, stained a dark and sickening color. Mark went first, slowly judging the steps’ stability. Illumination from their lighters began to grow in the darkness. Lane looked at the walls as they climbed the tower’s steps. They ascended in silence. The floor had an inch of soot or dust that had layered over the years, making their footsteps hushed whispers.
Even with the poor light, Lane and Mark could see the reliefs that were scattered across the walls; they looked molded or drawn on by a child. They said nothing to each other about the second set of disturbing raised images on the walls, but their uneasiness came back like a flood. They reached a landing and stopped.
Mark searched the room, his lighter dancing and flickering as he walked. Lane stood still and rubbed his swelling hand. It was darker up here and Lane shifted uneasily on his feet. He saw Mark, off in a corner bent over. He looked like some old crone bending down to cast a spell.
He looked to the left and saw another flight of stairs that were the color of night. He almost missed them, but their edges glistened like an oil slick in the light. Lane turned back and saw other reliefs – and now writings – on the wall. Symbols and what he thought had to be words sprawled across the tower’s insides. They went high, too, higher than any human could have drawn. His imagination told him a giant had written them. He looked back to Mark, banishing the irrational thought from his mind.
Mark came over and held out his hand. “I found these in the corner.” Lane looked and saw a bundle of age-old triangle-shaped pages in Mark’s hand.
“What are they?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Mark said, and held out a page for Lane to see.
Lane looked down at the triangular piece of paper. The ink was all but faded, but the images and symbols were still there, defying the passing of time. Lane held it close. The images began to swirl in front of his eyes. The letters – if they were indeed letters – seemed to emit a soft, sickly glow of their own. He heard the ruffling of old paper as Mark pilfered through the remaining ones he held. Lane shoved the paper he held back at Mark, wanting nothing to do with it.
“Here, I found something I can read on one of them,” Mark said. His voice rose with surprise and astonishment.
“There is something written at the top. I can’t pronounce it, but it’s in English characters. It’s something like ‘Lexur..iga.serr..roth….’ then under it, it says ‘He Who Devours All in the Dark’.”
Lane sat there and realized he was shaking. The words burned into his mind and terrified him. His right hand was throbbing. He looked down and saw that it had doubled in size.
“Man, we need to get out of here; you should see my fucking hand. It’s swelling. That’s not good, Mark.”
Mark replied in a tone as calm as a puddle of undisturbed water, “It’ll be okay. We don’t have much more to see.”
Lane had seen all he wanted to see. He knew nightmares would haunt him for days, maybe even years, after this little experiment. He wanted to leave and never come back to this nightmare; this tower of darkness. Maybe Mark’s Grandpa’s story was true. He cursed himself for even thinking such a thing while he stood there in the low-lit landing; in the tower.
Stillness settled over the room. They both felt it as the light breeze died. Lane’s heart pounded in his ears like a celebration parade’s drum line. Lane almost burst back down the stairs. His flesh prickled and his hairs felt like they would jump out of his skin.
Mark’s voice held him still. It was full with the excitement of discovery. “Come on, let’s go to the top and see what else we can find.” Mark raced up the obsidian colored stairs. Lane’s fear was consuming him; he didn’t want to be left alone in the dark. Reluctantly, he followed.
The stairs went on forever to Lane. Each step was a labor. He figured the bite’s poison was finally taking its toll and coursing through his bloodstream, doing untold amounts of damage to his flesh and, more horridly, his organs. He was sweating now. Tiny beads rose on his temples and ran like streams down his face and into his eyes and mouth. The salty liquid mixed with the fetid odor made him gag as he climbed.
Then they were at the top – or what they hoped was the top. Each bent over in labored breathing, both gagging from the odor which had doubled from down below and become overwhelming.
Mark, still coughing and gagging, searched the room. His tiny light seemed far away as it bounced to and fro, darting one way then another. Mark was only a shadowy silhouette from the flame to him now.
Had the room gotten bigger? Lane looked up and saw no ceiling, only a gulf of blackness without end. He heard Mark mumbling and he tried to find his friend. His light seemed even further away now. It was only a speck in the blackness, but his voice was still somewhat near. Where are the windows? We are surely at the top, Lane thought. But he could see no windows, only darkness. It had to be the poison, working its deadly spell on him. He looked down at his hand and saw it had turned a sickish purple color and grown in size again; he figured a visit to the emergency room was soon to follow. If only we would leave this accursed tower, he thought. But none of that would happen. The end was all too near.
A roar booming with hate, malice, and everything evil filled the tower above them. Lane dropped his lighter at the suddenness of it and yelled, “Damn it!”
He shook uncontrollably as he looked for Mark. What could make that sound? Lane’s mind began deducing the possibilities. He found Mark quickly running towards him, but his friend seemed far away. His tiny light bobbed back and forth and Lane thought he was safe. Mark would be near him and together they could face whatever thing was roaring. He was going to be okay. Safe.
Then Mark’s light went out, and Lane’s hope vanished with it. They were alone now and the darkness bathed them in its nothingness. He heard Mark’s voice.
“Damn, I dropped my lighter.” Lane could hear Mark fumbling around on the floor, searching for it. There was no dust here on the landing. The floor was immaculate. Lane did the same, but his wild, panicked hand found no purchase on the cold damp floor.
The beating sound of huge leathery wings filled their ears. A monstrosity was with them in the dark. The thing screamed this time, and Lane thought he would go mad. The darkness was all around them and the odor intensified again. The rippling of air that passed over huge misshapen wings filled their ears. Lane looked up and saw nothing. Mark’s voice was like the sound of hope as it came to Lane’s ears. Together they might have a chance.
“I found it, I found it!”
A spark lit the darkness; another spark and then one more. Mark was having trouble with his lighter and Lane cursed aloud, telling him that it better have fuel inside it.
Finally there was light as the spark hit. Lighter fluid combusted, and gave them just a ray of hope, but only for a second.
That was all that it took to send Lane into the uncharted regions of insanity. He looked over to Mark and caught only a glimpse of the thing, but that was enough.
Lane saw hovering in front of Mark a thousand eyes on a misshapen scaly head and a maw with the cruelest of shapes. The rest of its body was lost in the shadows. Its jaws were spread wide and dwarfed Mark in the gloom. Then there was blackness and a hard sounding thud followed by Mark’s scream as he fell into a sea of black.
Lane screamed. It was the only thing his mind would allow him to do; the only thing he could think of to do. The thing screamed back at him, its voice inhuman and monstrous. He could feel those thousand eyes upon him eyeing him and mocking him. Lane thought his ears would explode. He backed up until he was on the tip of the landing. Warm liquid filled his ears, then ran down his neck. He would die from falling if he went over, down into the blackness to a cruel and painful death. Lane crouched then; his swollen hand hit the floor and shot nerve-ripping pain up his arm and through his shoulder. The sound of huge wings beating in the dark blocked out all else as the thing hovered before him and made him swim with nausea from the odor it emitted.
He stood and turned to run, but he was too late. A misshapen claw or appendage hit him square in his chest and sent him flying off the ground, then over the landing down to the distant floor below.
The talons were covered with slime and the gelatinous residue they left on him burned his skin as he fell. He could hear the air ripping over its huge wings as it fell with him. It was chasing him to the bottom. Lane thought it would catch him before he hit dirt and devour him.
The thud and snapping of bone rang in Lane’s ears, followed by a short burst of high-pitched ringing. He knew he had hit bottom, his body broken on impact. He would die here in the dark; in the brown tower. He could not feel or see anything for a few moments, but his hearing was crystal clear. Darkness engulfed him. He heard the heavy dragging of the thing’s weight on the floor as it landed and moved its misshapen girth in the dark. A wet sound came to Lane’s ears and then the snapping of its maw as it crunched bone and flesh
Mark was no more.
One of its wings rubbed across Lane’s face and he wondered how it could fit in such a tiny place. Lane could smell the slime that was eating away at his face. Then the winged creature moved, turning to face him; turning to eat him. His vision returned, but it wasn’t as clear as his hearing.
Stretched-thin clouds moved in the wind outside and tiny rays of moonlight shone through the doorway the two friends had entered. Lane could see the floor and his broken body before him. He was bent at an odd angle. His back broken and his body twisted. The realization was dizzying. He looked up and saw those thousand eyes atop that misshapen head and wanted to scream, but no sound would come. Insanity clawed at the edges of his mind.
Lane felt it then: a cold, wet, and strong rope-like thing which could only have been the creature’s tongue ran up his body and wrapped around his broken form. It dragged him across the floor to its gaping, cruel maw.
Lane McKenzie screamed then in the darkness. Blood from ruptured organs erupted via his lips. All his fears of the dark became real. ‘He Who Devours All in the Darkness’ ate him whole in the cold January winter night.
John Prescott lives in the deep southern woods of Mississippi with his wife Edie, son Grafton Caine, and their three cats. He loves to spend time with his son, take long walks, and draw, and he is, of course, an avid reader. He somehow finds time to umpire baseball and softball and be an art director. He also has a website dedicated to his writing at www.john-prescott.com, where he has a healthy growing forum and encourages anyone to sign up. John started taking his writing seriously two years ago and is about to publish his first book of short stories. He is currently at work on his first novel, Pray. Click here to purchase John’s horror collection, Before Sunrise.
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