Well of Bones

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Chapter 8

“Each man contains his own darkness. It is his duty to struggle against it.”

Father Prudence

A Map to Betterment, 3172

The midday sun hung high in the clear sky, warming the island breeze. Locals opened their windows to let fresh air into their homes as Count Varro and Master Salvo walked through the streets of Adeline.

“When the sun is up and the breeze is mild,” Varro said, taking a deep breath. “This place is rather pleasant.”

“The breeze is a must, to carry away the dank smell of filth.”

“One will get that smell in any city, Master Salvo.”

“Yes,” Salvo retorted. “But the intensity of the reek here is that of a city twice its size.”

Varro shrugged. “I would not argue with you. I do not wish to build a summer home here. I’m only saying that it is rather pleasant at the moment.”

Salvo agreed as they rounded a cobblestone street corner and stood in front of Alana Fritz’s house. It stood taller than most, likely a perk of being a member of the city council. Each of the six members’ houses was this size, spread out over the city. The windows were dark, not uncommon at this time of day, but they were also closed. Most islanders took any opportunity of fine weather to air out the interior of their home.

The two walked up the front steps, and Varro gave three sharp raps with the brass knocker. The sounds echoed inside, giving a strange sensation of the interior being empty, a husk. Several quiet seconds passed before Varro tried again. This time calling out afterward.

“Mrs. Fritz.” There was no answer. Varro grasped the doorknob and it clicked over easily as if it were only half-closed in the first place. “Mrs. Fritz, we are coming in.”

The door opened with a dry squeak and both men were assaulted by the same pungent odor. Their noses wrinkled as the horrendous aroma burned their nose hairs. Inside, the house stood shadowy and dank. Flies buzzed quickly to-and-fro. The men entered, covering their noses with handkerchiefs.

“Mrs. Fritz,” Varro called, more demanding this time. They walked through the narrow entryway into a larger room with a high ceiling. A stairway began on their right and curved up and to the left. Stepping into the space, Varro noticed a strong wooden banister bordering the upper level all the way around the room.

A double doorway into a study with tall bookshelves opened to the right and another into a dining area to the left. The shelves have been ransacked, leaving only lose papers and jumbled piles of books. The long table was bare clear of everything, including a tablecloth. The cabinets sat open, most likely where the Widow Fritz kept the china and silverware. Varro scanned the upper-level banister. Not a single light shone into the space from above other than the small, circular, un-curtained window at the front of the house.

Motes of dust floated in the pillar of light stirred by more flies’ wings. His eyes followed the light to the railing right above their heads. Something was tied there. A thick rope had been knotted around the railing. Varro followed it down to the corner of the room.

“Gods,” he exclaimed in a hushed tone.

Salvo turned to where Varro was looking. A woman hung by her neck in the corner of the dark room. He gasped and involuntarily took a step back. The woman’s bloated body was surrounded by a cloud of buzzing insects. Her ankles were swollen and purple from blood collecting there. Pale hands grasped her dress tightly, frozen there from the time of her death. This let Varro know she did not die from a broken neck, but from strangulation. She clutched her dress to keep herself from pulling on the rope out of instinct. Her purple tongue protruded out of her mouth and had swelled to fill it. Dead eyes stared into the distance, milky and open.

“The innkeeper had told me she fired her staff several days ago,” Salvo said, “they must have returned when they stopped seeing light from the windows in the evening and looted the place.”

Elana had pinned a note on the hem of her dress. Varro ripped the paper from the cloth and read: I have failed in my position on the council and so have the other council members. We have condemned an innocent young girl to die. Alas, I have come to the conclusion of her innocence after her death and I have not the power to make amends. During her interrogation, Hannah spoke of a cave in the hills above her house and a spirit within it. She claimed she did not know of the thing’s intentions. We did not believe her. I thought she had, without a doubt, been corrupted by devils and so, my vote was for her execution. Since the order had been carried out, however, I became plagued with dark dreams. The little Hannah came to me in sleep and swore she was innocent and that the council and I have condemned her to damnation for only loving her father and exercising naivete. The dreams have persisted for weeks. I can only take so much of this and so, it is only fitting, that I share Hannah’s fate. I will take my own life and perhaps atone for the evil I have done. May the gods accept my penance and show me mercy.


The dusty and dimly lit blockhouse creaked in the wind. Jake imagined the building would be very drafty during the winter. The local guards did not care for it well. Poorly constructed tables and chairs sat scattered about the dirt floor. A pitifully small stove had been stuffed into a corner of the room as an afterthought. Its crooked tin chimney zagged upward and through the wall just below the upper-level floor. Straw and clay crumbled from the slats in the plank walls.

All the knights stood or sat in rickety chairs in a semi-circle around Count Varro and Master Salvo. On a table in front of them laid a well-drawn map of the isle beside two waning candlesticks with long drops of solidified wax on all sides. Duncan and Roy had just entered the front room, almost smacking their foreheads on the low doorway.

“Ah,” Salvo said, waving them in. “Now we may start the briefing.”

Varro stood tall and straightened his gray jacket. He cleared his throat then spoke in a low but clear tone. “We have a strong lead, gentlemen. The woman we’ve interviewed, the one that had been branded by her rancher husband, spoke of some strange things her husband kept saying when he was beating her. He ranted about all the riches in the world and never having to worry about money ever again. The part I found most interesting is that the rancher spoke of a spirit in a cave who promised him everything, for a price. This would all sound like gibberish, but we have learned similar accounts from two separate sources.

“Mister Grute and Mister Zimmar have heard another account regarding a cave. The boy Andrew Crane of the Yan’tiok tribe claims to have heard a spirit telling him to go to a cave during the attack on his people by the traitor Fogwater.

“And the latest we have heard of this cave was in Alana Fritze’s suicide note.”

The knights murmured to one another. Jake didn’t know the widow killed herself and by the sound of it, the other knights didn’t either.

Varro produced the letter and read, “During her interrogation, Hannah spoke of a cave in the hills above her house and a spirit within it.”

Varro folded the note and placed it in his breast pocket. He leaned on the table in front of him and scanned the map, pointing to the first location. “Here is where the family lived. The hills above are here. If we take her meaning truly as hills and not cliff faces, we should have little search area to cover.

“It is my thought that if we comb the area and find the cave, we may begin to piece this mystery together and go home. What say you?”

A loud roar of exultation shot from each knight’s mighty lungs. All save Brom’s. Jake knew why.


Jake watched Margaret’s roughly braided hair wag as she scanned left to right, head on a swivel. She scanned the area for any sign of a cave entrance or even a divot in the earth. Varro had split the knights into groups of two so that if the cave was found, there would be at least two knights to settle a conflict, should one arise. There was no telling who or what they might have found there.

For some reason, Varro had paired Jake with Margaret. This confused him. It had always been Jake and Brom. Jake felt they worked best together. Perhaps the Count had no reason other than feeling the need for change.

The sun dropped toward the horizon, casting the mountains’ shadows far across the island. The air cooled as it did every late afternoon, however, there was no ocean breeze like usual. The air stood still, and few birds sang. Only the distant sounds of gulls made it all the way up to where the knights searched.

To Jake’s left, down the hill, Duncan and Roy made their way up a gorge speckled with trees and tall grass. Jake suspected it to be a stream bed. To his right, Dogwa and Brom skirted the mountain above them.

Jake’s attention snapped ahead as he heard a faint call. Some black birds fluttered from a distant treetop in a wood line that intersected with the gorge. There wouldn’t have been anyone from the other party up that far yet. Jake sprung forward into long strides.

“Come on,” he called to Margaret over his shoulder in a commanding tone.

They burst into the trees simultaneously, knuckles white around their firearms. Both heads turned rapidly, taking in the shadowy landscape. The call sounded again, this time seeming urgent, like a child in pain. The pair dove into the deep brush still scanning as they moved swiftly through the thick woods.

Margaret paused to call to the other knights. There was no answer. She paused, trying to raise a response while Jake pushed forward. “Wait for the others, Jake.”

Jake heeded her and stopped. He listened intently to the trees around him. Quiet, not even a rustle of leaves. He heard the call again and could not help but push further in, despite Margaret’s objections. Pressing deeper and deeper, Jake’s footfalls sounded thunderous in the otherwise silent woods. Twigs snapping, leaves crunching, rocks sliding. He heard the sound louder than ever coming from a cluster of bushes to his right. He swept the branches aside but there was nothing. He heard it again, this time to his left, across the stream. Bounding over the babbling water he searched the far bank, again finding nothing.

Then, all at once, the voice was all around him as if the trees were calling out to him. Jake cocked his rifle’s frizzen and stepped backward, his eyes jumping from tree to tree. The forest was deafening. Movement all around him as the bushes and branches bent and waved. The forest was breathing, panicking and he was caught in the middle of it.

Jake lost his footing on the edge of the gorge, falling backward into the muddy water. His spine and ribs splashed down hard. The wind pressed from his lungs in an instant. He rolled over and gasped. After several struggling moments he drew his sword and was back on guard but the forest stood still and silent again. No birds chirping, squirrels scampering or even a breeze in the trees. Other than a shower of leaves, the forest was utterly silent. Jake picked up his rifle and checked the pan. Still dry.

The gorge he had fallen in was a branch of the larger one Duncan and Roy ascended. He followed it, not waiting for Margaret or the others. The walls grew higher and steeper until finally, it ended at the mouth of a cave. The opening in the mud and rock seemed to breathe like the open mouth of a sleeping giant. Jake heard the distant calls of his fellow knights.

“I’m here,” he shouted, his voice echoing in the cave, “I have found it.”


Count Varro stood in the pillar of light that dropped through the ceiling of the cavern. Salvo inspected the well on the stone shelf with Sergeant Amir. Jake and Brom stood off to the side.

“You alright?” Brom asked in a hushed tone.

“Yeah,” Jake whispered. “I’m fine. Just a little shaken.”

“Shaken,” Brom scoffed. “From finding a cave.”

“Shaken from how I found the cave.”

Jake fell silent and watched the Count and Master Salvo for a moment. Brom glared at Jake with an impatient look.


“Well what?” Jake asked.

“How did you find the bloody thing?”

“I heard a call,” Jake said. “Like a child. Couldn’t find it. Then there was a sudden tempest that shook the whole forest and the call was all around me.”

“I didn’t feel any wind. Hadn’t been any all day.”

“Nevermind,” Jake exhaled.

Brom shrugged and Jake was glad he would leave it at that. He didn’t want the others to think him mad. The remaining knights were ordered to wait outside once they had cleared the cavern of any immediate danger but Jake felt as though their whispers echoed loudly.

Master Salvo had Amir taking notes on a bit of rough paper. They would need every detail when it came time to report back to the headmaster.

“Dogwa, Margaret, Duncan and Roy,” Varro called toward the entrance of the cave. Those knights named rushed in and stood at attention before the Count. “The light is fading fast,” he said, motioning to the pillar of light quickly making its way across the floor. “I need to station two knights at the mouth of the cave at all times to assure that no one may enter. Margaret and Dogwa have first watch. They will be relieved at midnight by Duncan and Roy who will, in turn, be relieved by Jake and Brom in the morning. First watch, stay. The rest of you are dismissed. Get some rest. No drinking tonight, understood?”

The knights acknowledged. Those who went were happy just to be leaving that place, if only for a few short hours.


Dogwa sat silent with his back to a small fire, while Margaret sharpened her dagger with her whetstone. They had set up camp on the bank of the gorge with the creek within earshot. The cave entrance was barely a gaping black hole in the dark but they did not wish to be any closer. Margaret had been disturbed by the amount of human bones in the cave. She had told him as much. Dogwa was shaken on a spiritual level. This place was evil and he could feel it like a cold wet blanket.

His tight fist wrapped around his tomahawk handle, and his dark eyes pierced through the night. He sat with his back to the flame so his night vision would not be disrupted by the intense light. His ears picked up a faint rustling in the nearby bushes. He sprung to his feet, bearing his white teeth against his black tattoo. His tomahawk at the ready. Margaret produced two pistols and aimed them to the sound.

“Relax,” Roy said, emerging from the dark with Duncan. “It’s midnight. Go get some sleep. It seems like you two need it.”

Dogwa was glad to go as they gathered their belongings. Before they disappeared into the darkness, however, Dogwa turned and locked eyes with the replacements.

“Do not be complacent,” Dogwa warned. “We do not yet know the capabilities of such an evil place.”

“We’ll keep our eyes open,” Roy said with a chuckle. “We won’t let the bones come and get you in your bed.”

Dogwa shook his head to reaffirm he did not joke.

“You fixed us a nice fire,” Duncan said, holding his hands out to the flames.

“Don’t let me catch you falling asleep on me,” Roy said with a stern face.

“Are you going to draw something obscene on my face?” Duncan asked with a chuckle.

“If I gotta be up, you gotta be up,” Roy replied.

“Both of you stay awake,” Dogwa said.

Margaret called to her partner from a short distance down the hill and Dogwa trotted to catch up with her.


Several hours passed and sure enough, Duncan had fallen asleep. Roy had not noticed until Duncan began snoring. Annoyed, Roy stood up and went to his partner. He brought his foot back to kick the sleeping man, but something stopped him. He could not bring his foot forward. His supporting leg shook, and he lost balance, falling to the dirt by the fire. Roy tried to call out to Duncan, but his voice would not work. He made hissing sounds as he strained himself to yell. Veins popped from the sides of his neck and his face turned red.

Then he heard a voice as if someone had rested their head on his shoulder to speak to him.

“Let him sleep.”

The voice belonged to Roy but he did not speak. He pressed his hands on his ears but that didn’t help. Frightened, Roy swung around, looking for the source of this madness. He rustled and kicked up dust and yet Duncan slept.

“Come,” the shivering whisper said. “Come into the cave.”

He didn’t listen. He tried to ignore it. Then, the voices were many, repeating those same words. Again, he covered his ears but the voices invaded them as if his hands were not there. They persisted.

“Roy, darling.” A woman’s voice seemed to ride on a very light breeze, flickering the orange flame. In an instant, Roy felt calm wash over him.

“Mother,” Roy whispered. He was able to speak out loud again but felt no need to wake Duncan anymore.

“Yes, darling, it’s me.” The voice he heard did belong to his sweet mother. The mother Roy loved dearly, who had recently and suddenly died. Roy received a letter from his brother several months prior informing him of her passing. He hid her death from the other knights. He felt no need to tell anyone. She was gone and buried by the time the letter reached him.

“Where are you, mother?” Roy asked, looking around. A light breeze swept the flame again.

“I’m in the cave, Roy.” His face grew childish as if he had just been out playing with his brothers. An alien expression on Roy. He stood up, left his weapons by the fire and bounded into the cave, almost skipping.


Duncan’s eyes snapped open. Something restricted his breathing; something around his neck. He tried to raise his hand to feel what it was but his arms had been tied down at his sides. Roy stood over him in the dim fire light. He was naked and had a deep gash in the flesh on his left breast. His skin bore runes painted in blood all over his body. A terrifying wildness burned in his eyes. Duncan thought he looked almost expectant as if he were waiting for Duncan to say something, so he did.

“What’s this, brother?” Duncan forced a friendly chuckle as if he just understood the punchline of a very unfunny joke.

Roy had tied Duncan up and slipped a noose around his neck while he slept. This was not a joke. Duncan let out a loud laugh and clapped loudly only once. The naked knight began dancing around the fire like a madman chanting, “Let it swing. Let it swing.” He tossed the loose end of the rope over a branch above Duncan. Panic replaced Duncan’s confusion. He struggled to sit up.

“Roy,” Duncan begged. “You can’t do this. We are brothers in arms. We have—”

Roy lunged forward striking Duncan with the back of his hand. Duncan fell to his side. Roy grabbed Duncan’s jaw with his thumb in his open mouth and yanked him back upright.

“Let it swing,” Roy spoke very slowly, clearly, their noses almost touching. “It will swing.”

“Help,” Duncan called into the night.

“Help!” Roy mimicked with a grin, as he stepped to the edge of the gorge with the loose end of the rope in his hand. Duncan called again but it was useless. No one was coming. Roy jumped off the edge holding tight to the rope. His bare feet slammed into the streambed as Duncan lifted into the treetops by his neck, squirming violently.

His feet kicked. His fingers grasped at the side of his trousers. He hacked and gurgled. Black encroached on the fringes of his vision. His breath stopped. Then the tight rope was motionless in Roy’s hands. The madman laughed, louder and louder until the guffaw turned into a sob. Roy wailed loudly into the night. Then, there was nothing.

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