This story is by Tom Norman and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Every generation until the sun sets in the East and is carried to the West.
There is a monstrous presence in this town and I would see us free from it, for our sakes as well as theirs; The Men Who Come. Every twenty years they arrive in our remote valley town of Eastoning, always looking for their fathers. Another one is due to arrive any day now. He will be looking for his father too, just as his father came looking for his twenty years ago. And he found him, in a manner of speaking.
I was only a little girl when the last one came but I remember it so clearly still. He rode into town looking every bit the normal twenty year-old man wearing a surcoat with a red sun emblem emblazoned upon it. He was welcomed first by the Watchers, then by the Elders; welcomed warmly as if they meant him no harm. The first thing he said was that he was looking for his father, which of course, they already knew. He was shown to the Kuluthana to seek answers; a cave system in the side of the hills at the western edge of town.
There were hundreds of Eastoning folk stories about the ritual of the Kuluthol. There was the story of how 800 years ago The Man Who Came had stayed inside the Kuluthana for two days and nights before emerging. The townsfolk had panicked, thinking that something had gone wrong with the transformation. Then there was the time that he had emerged after only ten minutes and the townsfolk weren’t ready. They didn’t have the trail of bones properly laid out and only a few had brought their spears and the Kuluthol nearly escaped the town alive.
While we were waiting for The Man Who Had Come to emerge from the Kuluthana I had the first of my dreams; a dream that would plague my sleep for twenty years, although I don’t remember falling unconscious. A blazing red sun with terrifying eyes was staring down at me. It swelled closer and closer until I was sure the heat would melt the flesh from my bones. Suddenly there was a sword in my hand and I thrust it up into the ball of fire. Hot blood sprayed from the wound and ran down my arms. It screamed so loudly I thought my head would burst. I woke to my mother’s face and half a dozen others looking down at me. Mother tried to take me home after that but I had insisted on staying until The Man came out of the Kuluthana.
He emerged in the twilight transformed. His skin had turned a deep red and his eyes glowed bright with yellow and orange. We were all ready for him. The trail of his forefathers’ bones led from the mouth of the cave all the way to the town square and the people of Eastoning were crowded either side of the terrible path. Their hands were full with rocks, darts, and spears to throw, swords and axes to swing. He almost made it to the town square before his battered and broken bones joined those of his ancestors.
That was twenty years ago now. I felt so bad for The Man, he seemed innocent to me. I once asked mother why they come and she told me that they are from a cursed bloodline, drawn here by their dreams. I have dreams too, but mine don’t draw me anywhere. They used to frighten me but now I think I’m beginning to understand them. I’m beginning to understand what I must do.
I stand outside the Kuluthana, willing it to give me a sign, something to help me see my path. This is where my dreams come from I’m sure of it, some piece of my destiny lies here. But when I come here seeking answers it gives me nothing. For all my exploring over the last twenty years, I’ve only found it empty.
Ancient imagery and text covers the stony entrance to the Kuluthana. Written in an ancient language, the stone-hewn words read: Every generation until the sun sets in the East and is carried to the West. Carved images of suns line almost the entire cave mouth, until they stop abruptly on one side about a foot from the ground, a sword thrust through the final sun in the arch. Mother always said the sun represents the cycle of the Kuluthol. It is round, as is a cycle, and the sun is eternal just as that line of poor, cursed men shall go on into eternity, just as the sun shall never set in the east. The last sun, with the sword through it, represents the brave townsfolk killing the Kuluthol when it emerges transformed. To me, that explanation reeks of people just seeing what they want to see and not what’s actually there. The sun with a sword through it…my dreams…heaven help me, I hope I’m right.
The day has come, he is here. The Watchers are bringing him into the town square through the throng of gathered townsfolk. I push to the front.
“This is the town I’ve seen in my dreams,” I can hear him saying to the Watchers. “This must be where he is. I’m looking for my father, you see. Is there a cave in this town? In my dreams there’s always a cave.”
I approach the young man, his eyes so full of hope and excitement. “You have a young son?” I ask, knowing the answer.
“Aye,” he says, wide eyes narrowing with suspicion.
“Then please believe me when I say that I do this for him.” I quickly draw my concealed dagger from my belt and plunge it deep into his chest, right through the sun emblem on his surcoat.
The Watchers grab me and wrestle me to the ground.
“Get him into the Kuluthana, now!” They carry him away bleeding and dying.
Someone grasps me roughly by each arm and drags me along with the crowd to wait outside the Kuluthana. The Watcher who carried the body dumps it unceremoniously at the mouth of the cave.
“Well go on, take him inside!” the Elders urge.
“I’m not going in there,” replies the Watcher. “Not today, not with him. Make her take him in, she bloody stabbed him.”
Whoever has my arms releases them so that the Watchers can burden them with the heavy body of the man I have killed. I carry him into the cave, my mind racing. Will he still transform? What will I do if he does? Heaven help me, what have I done? I can feel his hot blood running down my arms.
As I take him deeper into the Kuluthana a faint red glow comes into view. I round a corner and suddenly the red light is so bright I can barely look at it. A terrible voice speaks inside my head and I drop The Man on the ground.
“He’s dead,” the fell voice says. “His soul is free…what have you done?” I feel an intense fury emanating from the light like waves of heat from a terrible fire. It comes towards me and engulfs me, pulling my very essence from my body. My vision turns from red to black, my senses fade until gradually I find myself back there; the familiar, terrifying dream.
The demon-eyed sun is blazing hotter than ever and charging toward me. Instinctively I reach for the sword to stab it but the sword is not there. The sun consumes me in a heat so violent it must be charring my very bones.
Suddenly I’m back in the Kuluthana and my senses return like the first breath after emerging from water. The red light is everywhere and there is a terrible scream coming from…somewhere. I realise I’ve fallen to the floor when I feel the ground begin to tremble. I stand up and stumble backwards turning my face from the source of the light. The ground shakes violently beneath my feet, flash-blind from the light, deaf from the scream. My eyes recover and I see the passage I came through. I run towards it. Lances of red light and terrifying demonic screams chase me out of the Kuluthana as its walls crumble around me.
When I emerge, there is nothing but a collapsed cave mouth behind me, and the dreaded path of bones lies before me. Who have I saved? Was that a demon and did my soul kill it? Is the curse ended?
The townsfolk are ready, weapons in hand. Some are looking at the collapsed Kuluthana with horrified expressions; some are looking to the Elders for guidance. I think I hear a woman sobbing. I wonder if it’s mother. A hush falls on the crowd. One of the Elders steps forward.
And so I do. I will walk their path of bones, but hopefully I shall be the last.