THE OLD MAN COULD TALK FOR HOURS. Granted, his stories were highly amusing whether one took them to be true or not. Had he ever committed them to paper, I have no doubt he would have been received as one of the pre-eminent storytellers of our age. This made the investment of considerable time somewhat more bearable.
Of his stories, those of a mundane nature showed him to be a man both worldly and wise, ergo, I took great caution in my approach. I gained much respect for the prowess which carried him on many adventures, for the intellect which guided him through the mysteries he had solved, and for the grandness of his heart which was no stranger to romance.
However, I discovered that his weakness was a common one, a love of spirits and an inability to hold them. Thus, whenever I wished, I could, with brandy or cognac, steer his focus to the tales of the preternatural sort. I was myself a materialist and gave no credence to the spiritual and mystic dross. Yet I indulged him, for among such fantasies was buried the key to a great treasure.
I would sit for hours listening until dusk was upon us and, feigning a chill, I would ask if I might pour us a drink. This he never declined. As appropriate to the somber setting of the later hours, I would be treated to the ghostly and macabre narrations of the darker thing uncovered in his many years abroad.
I will concede that I found them unnerving and disconcerting, not merely for the sake of his sanity, but for the sincerity and thoroughness with which he discussed such things as ghosts, vampires, shape-shifters, and a variety of curses and magical practices. A shudder often clung to me as I digested them before my sleep, a rest not achieved without effort.
No clue was given, my motives were as hidden as such things may be, and it was just a matter of time before he offered the object of my desires to me.
“All labors of men,” he began, “leave upon the world an unseen mark. In his artifice, his soul still breathes. The men of old were cut from different cloth, and their greatness endures from antiquity. Knowing what I have told you of those outer forces which foolish men have called gods, you may surmise that there are objects consecrated to beings of which no antiquarian has any knowledge.
“There is a world,” he went on, “which is to modern man considered ancient, but to these ancient men there was a world of even vaster remoteness. They knew both of the degenerate beast-men who were their great forefathers, and of those things which were not men but like men who had long since quit our earthly realm to leave almost nothing save dust.
“I say almost nothing,” he continued, but now his eyes were distant as though they looked back through time. “But there still lingers relics which were shaped by no human hand. In the desert that once cradled civilization, beneath the sand is a tomb reserved for the accursed, the condemned, the damned. At rest within this tomb was a fragment of that eldritch time. Sacred to gods no man has known or can name was a simple vase.”
It was this! This was why I had endured his company. It was this I meant to have.
“When we pried the ancient stone from the door, the very air that met us brought death and sickness. It was days later, and only by forcing in servants at gunpoint, that we found it safe to venture inside. We expected to find the remains of countless bodies, but there was not a bone in sight. It was a large but nearly vacant chamber, at the center of which was a pedestal and the vase.
“Three of us entered, but I alone emerged and the vase was mine. With it my fortune was secured and by it my misery assured. It has been a burden far greater than the boon I sought. From its possession I have been blessed with every treasure a man could want, but it has cost me things that no treasure could buy.
“You wish to see it…” he said, and I could only nod. “…Of course, follow me.”
We walked in silence through the manor, a sliver of the moon falling through the towering windows was our only light. I could scarcely contain my eagerness, following my elder’s pace. I licked my lips and checked my pockets, impatient to enact the final portion of my plot.
At the end of this structure’s wing, stairs descended into a circular vault. With the throwing of a single switch, I saw treasures in such numbers that my mind could not hope to recall them all. Most of these were placed along or hanging from the walls. But at the center of the room was a pedestal and upon it was the vase.
“You will not need that pistol,” he informed me, which only prompted me to produce it. And training it upon him, I met his smile.
“You will disable the alarm.” I commanded.
“There is none,” he replied.
“I don’t believe you. A man of your intellect, would just leave it to be seized by anyone who happens along?”
“You would do me a great service to take it, but I must plead with you to forget it. Take anything else. What you could carry from here would leave you wealthy beyond your dreams. Take the rest of these treasures, if you would rob me. But I would ask only two things, that you leave an old man with his last few years of life and that you would spare yourself the burden of the vase.”
At this I sneered and retorted, “That is a generous offer, but my client has hired me for no other purpose than to obtain it.”
“That is but the least of its curses. That it will be ever sought by villains. That none who know of it may ever be trusted as a friend.”
“Enough of this!” I thundered as I strode toward my goal. “Your tale is patently fiction. The vase is ancient, it is true, but… fashioned by nonhuman hands? Pray tell, why does it not differ from other examples of its kind?”
“Has it occurred to you that the others are but the imitation of an ancient art? Do events not convince you that its curse is playing out, even now? All this time, I knew you sought it. I tried to prepare you to understand that there is more to this world than can be known to eyes or hand. For the love of your own life! I will forgive you, my friend, but you must not…”
“Nonsense.” I interrupted, reaching out with my free hand, but as my fingers closed around it I heard him say… “The true secret is inside.”
It was beautiful, creamy white with countless subtle streaks of color that delicately slithered up and down its sides. But it was cold, icy to the touch, and it seemed that my fingers had frozen solid to it. I could not release my clutching hand.
Nor could I lift it, it was as though the weight of the world held it down. Too late did I notice the golden tray beneath it and understand.
An unseen fire blazed up my arm, my blood a hellish venom in my veins. Within me, the bones cracked and shattered like glass. I heard a shrieking wail of torment and recognized it as my own. The sound was distant, reaching me from a world that vanished into a creamy, white haze.
From that world.
I was lost forever…
Lost within the vase.
story by Joe Stanley