This story is by Julie Strøm and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The door to my lodge creaked open on rusty hinges. A gust of wind preceded footsteps, ghosting down the single dark corridor, rattling the few frames on the walls, whispering dark promises.
A young man stepped inside, weighed down by an overnight bag and a guitar case. His grey eyes trailed the length of the corridor, the small bed at the end.
‘Welcome to the Mara’s lodge, Mr. Allbright,’ Pete Mason called from the outside. I smirked. The pudgy teen knew better than to step over the threshold. No doubt his grandfather Jeffrey Mason had told him the story of what happened in the Mara’s cabin more than 50 years ago. He was the one who’d found me after all, hair white and face contorted in a scream of terror. Dead.
‘Mr. Allbright?’ Pete’s voice sounded shaky in the twilight air. ‘Are you sure about this? We have other lodges that-‘
‘This is perfect, Pete.’ Allbright’s voice was pleasantly amused.
‘But Mr. Allbright, the last four lodgers were all found dea-‘.
‘Good thing I paid in advance then.’ There was an edge to Allbright’s voice now. ‘Thank you Pete, you may go.’
The teen’s footsteps sped away through the fallen leaves before Allbright stepped fully into the lodge.
His grey eyes lit up as they scanned the rest of the lodge, briefly resting on me but not seeing. No one ever did.
I stared back. He looked so unruffled. They all did. Until they fell asleep.
Then my mistress would command my services and the Mara in me would ride his chest, drawing nightmare after nightmare from him until his hair turned white and his heart gave out in fright. This was the Mara’s lodge. My lodge. And I would be commanded to ride tonight.
It was midnight before Allbright stopped plucking chords on his guitar and started readying for bed and even later before I felt the purr of my mistress’s voice by my ear.
‘Ride him, my pet. Bring me the colour of his hair and the terror in his heart.’
Allbright barely moved as I slowly climbed atop his sleeping form and dug my claws into his chest, keeping him down as my body started moving like my mistress had taught me.
Allbright groaned, then whimpered, then screamed, his body writhing beneath mine as I rode the nightmares in his chest.
‘That’s it, my pet,’ my mistress purred, her lips ghosting over my ear. ‘Bring me his fear. Let me taste it.’
I felt the echo of her hunger in my own stomach and I knew it had been too long since she’d last fed. With her hiss of impatience in my ear I rode on, sensing her gleeful anticipation when Allbright’s black hair started to drain of colour at the root. But suddenly Allbright jerked awake. My mistress’s screech of frustration blurred my senses before I was able to comprehend what had happened. It wasn’t until she was gone, banished by Allbright’s consciousness that I heard it. Laughter. A pained chuckle, little more than a vibration of his ribcage beneath my hand.
‘Is that it, Mara?’. His voice was hoarse as crumbling rocks. ‘Is this your darkness, Tom Maravain?’
I had chosen the stage name ‘The Mara’ prior to my first album. One hit, and all the world ever knew me as was “the Mara”. It was a name I had once picked out of a children’s book of haunted stories my son had insisted I read to him.
‘Beware the ride of the Mara. It will sit on your chest as you sleep and give you nightmares. Fight it, or it will send you to hell.’
The name had stuck, gnawing at my mind, whispering to me, haunting me as I sat through my student’s endless music recitals, as I listened to my wife Tanya droll on and on about our son’s future. My son, Jake, a blue-eyed boy, too soft and innocent for the world of nightmares that lay ahead. I had to prepare him. The lullaby I had once written for him became increasingly ominous and dark the more I sang it. His innocent blue eyes widening with terror as the growl slithered into my voice, haunting our lullaby. It was for his own good. The Mara had to show him the darkness, something that Tom Maravain never could.
The Mara became an obsession, a calling; to prepare people for the darkness with my haunted melodies and they revelled in it.
Until the One True Mara found me in a writing slump in this very lodge. She enslaved me, a penalty for blaspheming against her and for the sin of preparing the world for her nightmares. As punishment, she bound me to collect souls for her, the souls of the people who came to my lodge, the Mara’s lodge.
‘Heed my command, pet, or spend eternity in hell,’ she’d said, twirling the blackened swirl of my soul around her fingers, squeezing tight. ‘My own riding days are over. I need someone to collect the souls for me.’ And so for more than 50 years I had collected every soul that came to the lodge.
And now I had to give her another.
Allbright’s voice gave out to exhaustion mid-chuckle and his eyes fell closed again. I sat as still in shock as the lodge around me. Not a stirring of wind, not a single creek of wood. It was dead still, save for Allbright’s even breaths. Once he was fully asleep again, my mistress reappeared, hunger more prominent now as she demanded: ‘ride him now, pet. I need to feast on his terrified soul.’
Bound to her will, I rode again.
This time, the entire bed shook with the force of my ride. Allbright screamed once, twice in terror, pulling at his whitening hair before he again jerked awake, panting and whimpering. I collapsed above him, energy depleted.
My mistress’s screech tore through me like the swipe of a knife, and before I could regather my strength, claws seized my shoulders and yanked me off the bed. I tumbled to the floor, gasping in shock.
In a flash, my mistress was above me, her eyes dark with hunger, burning into mine. I tasted the fires of hell on my tongue through those eyes, the promise they held.
‘Last chance pet.’ Her usual soft purr held an edge of desperation. ‘Bring me his soul or I shall devour yours and send you to hell.’ Her tongue darted out to lick my lips with a soft, hungry moan. ‘Last chance,’ she rasped and then she was gone, dust whirling up from the spot where she’d vanished.
Dread seized me. I had one last ride to prove I was still useful to her, that I could claim the soul of-.
The soul of someone who knew Tom Maravain.
‘Who are you?’ I rasped towards the bed. My voice was the ghosting of wind, the stretching of wood.
Allbright seemed able to interpret. He cleared his throat. ‘Someone who sees the darkness of the world.’
I tensed. A disciple? Someone who had taken my preachings to heart? It had been 50 years since I’d last sung. No, he was too young. Even younger than my-
‘My son?’ I asked, my voice a breath of dust, a creaking of rusty hinges.
‘Jake Maravain was my father,’ Allbright answered simply. ‘He wasn’t strong enough. The darkness claimed him years ago. Put a gun to his own head.’ His face hardened. ‘He was weak! I couldn’t keep his name after that.’
My chest ached for the son I had failed to teach, failed to prepare. But Allbright-
‘I needed to find you,’ Allbright rasped. ‘To try-.’ He closed his eyes. And then he started to sing. I recognised the song instantly. It was the lullaby I had written to Jake. But just that, not the dark warning nor the eerie omens of the blackness to come. Just a lullaby.
But I finally understood as I glanced toward the guitar leaning against the foot of the bed. Allbright had come to find me and learn to sing the darkness.
His eyes were falling shut again, hair nearly white as life slowly seeped out of him. My mistress would reappear soon. I had one small window of opportunity to continue my legacy. She would damn my soul to hell, but with all the souls I had already claimed for her I was bound for hell regardless.
‘It’s time.’ The purr of my mistress reached me. Allbright was a ride away from death, his hair now a ghostly white. I climbed atop him and sunk my claws in, deciding. Then I started to sing.
The fierce cry of my mistress was my music as I rode my legacy, my darkness, my voice into Allbright, teaching him my haunted lullaby. With every word his hair darkened until his voice finally joined mine, preparing me for the darkness of hell to come.