A lonely castle holds a dark purpose, inspired by actual events. 2019 Quill Award Nominee!
The room fell silent when the weathered SS officer entered the tavern, the bitter Czechoslovakian winter whispering behind him. He hung his crisp hat and tailored wool coat next to the rickety door.
Taking a seat at the bar, he drew a cigarette from an ornate, silver-plated case marked with a swastika, and gestured to the bartender for a light. The locals were somber, they had the displeasure of watching another load of prisoners arrive that morning from Theresienstadt. No one dared make eye contact with the handsome monster perched casually at the bar, politely ordering a pint of lager.
“I hear your castle on the mountain has a colorful history,” said the nazi to the bartender, gesturing toward the door. “Well... our castle now, I suppose?” He added the caveat with a broad smile. “A lot of silly stories passed down through superstitious families, no?”
The bartender, haggard and gaunt, spoke over his shoulder as he poured the man’s pint. “You speak of Castle Houska, I assume, sir?” He set down the pint in front of the officer. “Yes, it has been said to contain many secrets,” he said, shrugging his bony shoulders. “But the castle has slept for a long time.”
The nazi laughed heartily. “What makes you say that? Have you heard it’s snores?”
“There have been no... visitors from the castle for at least a millennia."
“Aaaah yes, visitors from the hole in the ground within the chapel, you mean? I know of the hole, we call it 'Hölle Tür',” he said, taking another nonchalant drag from his cigarette. “Hell’s door.”
“A befitting name, sir. You’ve heard the legends of the unholy beasts who roam the village when the castle wakes?” The only other patron sitting at the bar contributed respectfully.
A smug smile crossed the nazi’s face. He swiveled on his stool to address the ancient, grey man.
“No, please, regale me.”
The bartender and the old man exchanged an anxious glance. “Well! Go ahead!” exclaimed the nazi, “Pour yourselves a lager on my tab! Tell me the stories of Houska!"
The old man at the bar explained that the stories were passed down through the generations for centuries.
Long before the castle’s construction, a seemingly bottomless hole was discovered on the mountain, beyond the forest bordering the village. Immediately, the villagers knew it harbored something evil. The dogs wouldn't go near it, and a curtain of dread descended over those present for its discovery. Some said it took every ounce of composure they possessed not to run away. An odor reminiscent of rotting flesh wafted from its opening, and black, rope-like vines snaked from the rocky ground into the abyss.
Sightings of bestial figures and winged creatures began shortly after the hole's discovery. They roamed the night, snarling, and sniffing around the villagers' houses. Some of the people were skeptical, but when children began to go missing, mobs of angry parents stormed to the hole with shovels and pickaxes, only to be repelled by choking smoke and blinding ash as the surrounding forest erupted spontaneously in flames.
As time passed, the horrors worsened. The locals began hearing the voices of their lost children and loved ones calling from the night. Seduced, they left the safety of their homes to come face to face with their darkest nightmares. Leering, humanoid-animal hybrids waited, still cooing in the voices of the lost as they feasted upon those who dared venture outside.
Finally heeding the villagers' desperate pleas, Ottokar II of Bohemia sent a cavalry to investigate. He built a castle fortress at the top of the mountain, the hole centered inside its chapel. With the horrors contained, the castle could sleep.
The officer was mesmerized, an odd expression of glee on his face. "Has anyone ever been down the hole?" He asked.
"Yes sir, a long time ago criminals were given an alternative to the gallows if they agreed to descend into the hole and report what they found..." The old man paused, throwing back a shot of vodka.
"Well?! What the hell did they see, man?" The nazi shouted like an eager child, pounding his fist on the bar. The bartender brought him another lager.
"Few have chosen the hole over death. Those who did, emerged from the hole muttering gibberish. They had aged, their hair turned white, and their eyes clouded. All were sent to the insane asylum in Prague, dying mysteriously within days."
The nazi looked into the man's face for a moment, slack-jawed, then erupted into uproarious laughter. "You people are so backward! It’s been entertaining, gentlemen, but I have work to do,” he slurred, dropping his cigarette case. As he dismounted the stool to retrieve it, he realized he was alone with the exception of the bartender.
"That's odd, I didn't hear anyone leave..." he thought. The pub's fireplace crackled against the silence, casting flickering shadows against the stone walls. It suddenly felt very, very hot in the bar, and the nazi felt surprisingly drunk. He was so engrossed in the old man's story, he hadn't realized just how many pints he'd had.
“I leave you now,” he called as he headed toward the door. “I’ll be back again tomorrow for you and your ignorant friends to get me drunk and entertain me!”
“We will see…” the barkeep replied. A tone of knowing permeated his response.
The nazi spun around, looking for an explanation, but confusion stopped him. The barkeep was shoveling ash from the fireplace onto a heap in the center of the room.
Swaying and speechless, he watched as the heap morphed into a shadowy figure. He blinked his eyes, thinking it a trick of the light, but it began to elongate and move toward him. He had seen such things in picture books used to scare children.
"Golam! Help!" He shrieked as the thing slithered shockingly fast, its distended arms ended in a spread of claws, outstretched to capture him. He stumbled backward and groped for the door. Bursting out into the snow, he squeezed his eyes shut, and waited for those claws to close around his throat. He opened his eyes to find nothing.
“Better close the door... keep the cold out,” the bartender called from the doorway. “Maybe we'll see you again…” The door creaked shut, and the officer was left out in the frigid night, without his hat and his coat.
Enraged, the nazi scrambled to his feet and assaulted the door. It wouldn’t budge. He shouted, banging on the windows. They were all a facade, bricked over from the inside.
"Sheisse!" He spat into the snow, he felt as if he might be sick. It was a long way to the castle, with no way to call for a truck to retrieve him.
The woods were thick between the village and the castle, obscuring his sight and slowing his progress as he trudged his way back to the mountain. He exhaled into his cupped hands, rubbing them together to get warm, but it was an exercise in futility.
Sounds of guttural growls and ripping flesh carried on the wind. They grew louder as he neared the source. Panic gripped him as he realized he had left his service revolver in his coat locked away in the tavern.
He took cover behind a thicket of thorn bushes. Unlike the woods behind him, the space before him was illuminated so brightly, he thought he was nearing the floodlights of the firing squads. It was the moon, lingering low against the castle's silhouette. Its size and beauty took his breath.
The illumination of the moon revealed the source of the savage noises. It was a pack of bony wolves, howling and fighting over scraps. Winter was hard for mountain predators, they'd take whatever carrion they could find.
It took a moment for the nazi to realize they were ravaging a pile of corpses, prisoners from the camps who had been worked to death and discarded. He watched for a moment, nauseated, but then a woman's face in the pile caught his attention. It looked just like his wife, mouth gaping and eyes rolled back into her skull.
"What on earth?" He whispered. He started to rush to her, then halted when he realized the wolves would tear him to shreds if he showed himself. His mind raced, looking for any possible reason she would be in this pile of bodies but could conceive of none. It had been weeks since he had seen her, could she could have been arrested for a crime punishable by death? Something he never knew about? Treason? Murder of another SS officer? That couldn't be... even in If she had been sentenced to death, she was the wife of a prominent Nazi official. She'd never be thrown away with Jewish vermin. He shook his head, chastising himself for even considering a scenario so ridiculous. He felt as if he was losing his mind. First the golem, and now this?
Looking again, he expected to see a different face, but it was still hers. Then her eyes rolled forward and she looked directly at him.
A fear-induced rush of adrenaline overwhelmed the hardened SS officer, rendering him immobile. A stifled cry stuck in his throat. He couldn’t look away from the hideous face of his once beautiful Elisa, her mouth opening and closing as if she were trying to tell him something. He recognized the dress she was wearing as she clawed at the earth, hissing and dragging herself toward him. The wolves ran from her unnatural movement.
He sobbed, tears and snot freezing to his cheeks. He called to her, "Elisa, it's me, your liebe!" But he knew she was coming to claim him for Hölle Tür. Surrendering, he collapsed in a miserable heap and waited for her. The exhausted, well-decorated, and distinguished SS officer just wanted it to be over. He just wanted his Elisa.
The next morning, the patrol brought the next truckload of prisoners to clear the roads. One of the younger officers noticed a trail of blood leading through the woods and stopped to investigate. When he came upon the gored body of an older officer, high in rank, he called frantically for backup.
His body was riddled with gashes, and the Gestapo judged by the amount of blood at the scene, the man bled out into the snow. He had most likely been drinking, lost his way in the woods, and was attacked by the starving wolves often heard by the soldiers on night duty.
On the other side of the forest, the tavern buzzed with rumors of what had become of the nazi. The barkeep dried his mugs and swept around the fireplace. He put away his broom and dustpan neatly in the closet, next to a dapper SS issued wool coat and hat.
"Looks like the castle has woken again." He said to the old man sitting at the bar, placing a shot of vodka in front of him.