My house – a small, two-story place a half hour’s drive south of York – came with a painting. I didn’t ask for it, and I didn’t particularly like it, but it was there, nonetheless, fastened to the wall just above the fireplace mantle in the living room. It’s not of anything in particular. It can be quite adequately described as a painting of nothing – strange squiggles, light splotches, and wisps of oddly mixed neural colors. At least, that’s what it looks like during the day.
On Halloween night, it became something else entirely. I first noticed it the evening I’d moved in, about an hour after I finished unpacking. It was 9 PM, and I was watching the match with a beer when I looked over at it and realized I could, for the first time, make out something recognizable within the frame. It looked like a person. A king, to be exact – the contours of the crown and goblet traced boldly in metallic ink. I paused the game and stood up to get a closer look. It only made complete visual sense if I stood back a few feet, but the picture was undeniably there. I studied it for a bit and then went off to bed, utterly unsure how I’d only just now been able to see the figure.
As I laid in bed, I thought about the painting and listened to all the strange sounds of my new house settling in with me. There were all the typical creaks and groans and the occasional bump in the night, and even a faint scuffling coming from the attic. But it was all easy enough to ignore, and soon I’d fallen fast asleep.
When I woke up the next day, the house was again blissfully quiet, and the figure in the painting had vanished; the canvas having returned to its usual, tacky self. I furrowed my brow but eventually just shrugged, reasoned it was all likely a series of mental tricks played on a tired mind, and headed off to work. I didn’t think about any of it for the rest of the day.
That night, I got home and instantly became aware of a foul stench coming up from the basement. I went downstairs to investigate but found nothing – although the smell was undeniably more pungent – but I had no energy to search for mold spores. So I went upstairs and sat down in the old recliner like usual, pleasantly surprised at how effectively the smell of Chinese takeout now masked whatever it was coming up from below. So I turned on the TV and started the ritual of channel flipping with one hand while trying to navigate chopsticks in the other. And then I caught sight of the painting.
The king was back again, I saw, and no longer was it merely a hazy image drawn by a restless mind in search of a pattern. The eyes were more defined, and the crown and the goblet stood out sharply against the background. I could even see a bit of the nose, and the wrinkles of a brown cloak draped across where the shoulders would be. I revisited the theories from the night before. Mental trickery, maybe? I took out my phone and snapped a photo. No luck – the image was just as pronounced on the touchscreen as it was on the canvas. Lighting? This does seem to only happen at night. I turned the lights on and off, but it did little to alter the image. I went to bed that night, confused, fascinated, and unnerved all at once.
That night I again lay awake and listened to a backdrop of strange sounds. Rustling in the living room. Footsteps in the basement. More movement from the attic that no longer sounded much like birds or vermin. With the thought of the King in the painting fresh in my mind, these strange things took on a macabre quality, and when I finally slept, I had the first of many nightmares.
I woke up in bed. It was dark both outside and in, and the power was out. I didn’t know what time it might’ve been, but I had an unshakable feeling that I wasn’t alone in the house. I pulled a flashlight from my nightside table and eased the door open, and crept out into the hallway. “Hello?” I asked. There was no answer. I slowly checked each room in the story. The bathroom. The pantry. The spare bedroom. All empty. I didn’t dare go in the attic, so I crept downstairs as softly as I could. I shined the flashlight in the living room. It too was empty, although the painting swirled silently with living darkness. Just as I reached it, I saw a point of firelight in the backyard and walked into the kitchen to get a closer look. There was a bonfire there, surrounded by men in robes and animal masks, dancing wickedly and singing a song in a strange and ancient language. I moved to go into the yard to investigate, but just as my hand reached the knob, I was grabbed and pulled deep into the darkness behind me.
I awoke in a sweat with a pounding heart. But when I finally managed to get downstairs, the painting was back to its normal self yet again, and the backyard was as empty as ever. I thought I was going insane – I did everything I could to find the crown and goblet on the canvas. I brushed my fingers across where I knew they’d been. I stood back a few feet to see if even a faded version of what I’d seen was there. But it wasn’t. I then looked at the picture on my phone and was shocked to see nothing but a nighttime photo of the ugly, tacky painting.
I’m losing my mind. Actually, genuinely, losing my mind.
But I wasn’t. The king showed up that night, as usual, at around 9 PM. And in keeping with the pattern of becoming clearer each time, I could now easily make out the portrait’s entirety. He was an elderly man, sixty or so years old, with silver hair, a brown cloak richly lined with fur, a goblet of pure gold, a sapphire ring, and a crown with scarlet jewels adorned along the front of it.
But that wasn’t all. The picture wasn’t exactly the regal, elegant portrait I’d been expecting, like the ones you’d see in palaces or museums. It was menacing. The king’s brows were turned down, his mouth was twisted into a ferocious scowl, and the classic illusion of his wide eyes following me around the room was almost too convincing. His goblet overflowed with what I hoped was red wine – although deep down, I knew better – and I was again unable to shake the feeling of being watched by some kind of malicious entity. Suddenly I wanted very much to be anywhere on earth other than right where I was, so I turned off the TV and called it a night.
But once again, I didn’t get much rest. From the moment I got into bed, I not only heard the typical and increasingly loud noises in the basement and attic, but I could also hear a steady splat… splat… splat… splat coming up from the living room. It was incessant, bizarre, and probably the last thing on earth you’d ever want to hear while lying in bed alone in the dead of night. I did everything I could to ignore the sound. I turned the fan on. I put the pillow over my head. I tried listening to soft music. But nothing worked. I didn’t manage to drift off to sleep until around 2 AM. And when I did, I had another nightmare.
Splat… splat… splat… splat. The rain came slowly at first, but then faster and faster until the downpour was so great it was difficult to see even an arm’s length ahead. Nevertheless, I walked through it through the dark forest with the towering trees hit by moonlight and out into a clearing with a hill at the center of it. I looked up and saw at the top of that hill an enormous, twisted palace that spanned the length of the plateau. It was impossibly large and adorned with towers and spires and surrounded by strong palisades. At the top of the tallest tower, in which the only illuminated window in the whole estate sat, was a crowned silhouette that, even from the great distance between us, I could feel was watching me hungrily. As soon as I saw him, a gathering of nearby children sang their song:
Oh Black Molguin, a phantom specter he;
As sunlight falls and twilight looms, he shall appear to thee;
A withered claw, a jagged crown, a wicked malice stare;
The Baron King of Demon ilk shall catch you in his snare.
Accursed, wretched Molguin, woe to those pursued!
Sleepless, restless, tireless until his prey subdued.
Never shall you dream again, always shall you weep;
For your soul until the end of time, the Demon King shall keep.
I woke up for the second consecutive morning in a puddle of sweat. I was exhausted, but instantly, I remembered the previous night’s events, threw off my covers, and ran downstairs. The painting was, again, back to its normal self. But on a spot of carpet that I instantly recognized as being directly below the King’s goblet was a puddle of thick, nearly black liquid that looked like blood. I knelt and smelled it – blood, indeed – and saw it had soaked straight through the carpet to the wood paneling beneath. Enough was enough. I decided to call for help.
“David Burns’ office.”
“Hi, Dr. Burns? My name is Elliot McDonald. I’ve got a problem I was hoping you could help with. You are a ghost hunter, yes?”
“I’m a paranormal investigator. And I’ll start by saying that while these things are quite commonly reported, they’re infrequently more serious than a set of leaking pipes. How old is the house?”
“Built in ‘74 or ‘75, I believe. I closed on it a month back and moved in on Monday.”
“And what indications are there of paranormal happenings? Scratching in the walls at night? Dark figures at your bedside? A sense of being watched?”
“The third one, definitely. But it’s more than that. There’s a, uhm – a painting.”
“Yes. It came with the house, fastened to the wall above the parlor fireplace. And it changes at night.”
“It’s probably just a light-based work, then. No cause for alarm.”
“No, there is, though. It turns from a modern art piece, like something from Pollock – into a bizarre portrait of an evil king. He has a crown, and a ring, and a goblet. Last night, blood – actual blood – poured from the goblet in the painting out onto my carpet and stained it.”
“Wait, wait. When did this happen?”
“A few nights ago.”
“Uh, yeah. How’d you guess that?”
“I also had a dream. I was running through the forest at night, and then I came up to a clearing with a huge palace, or castle, at the top of a hill. There was a crowned figure watching me from one of the towers, and then I heard a group of children singing about a ‘Demon King’ named-.”
“-Molguin,” he said.
“Yes! Yes, Molguin. So you’ve heard the name?”
“Listen to me very carefully. If what you tell me is true, then you’re in grave danger. Are you with the painting now?”
“Y-yes. Yes, I’m here with it now. It’s in its daytime form, though. At least for now.”
“Good. Once the Lich becomes fully manifested, it cannot be so easily stopped, so we haven’t got much time. What’s your address?”
“7 Waldeck Road. And wait, what’s a Lich?”
“A half-man, half-demon with significant sorcerous power and Satanic immortality. This particular Lich, Molguin, is among the oldest and most venomous creatures I’m aware of. At first, he was an English nobleman, though – a brutal slave master at his estate here in York called Duskwatch. Probably the place you saw in your dreams. Anyway, someone he’d crossed, and researchers aren’t sure who – maybe a servant or a former lover – stabbed him in his sleep. He woke up and subdued them, but the damage was done, and he knew his death was a short way off. But he’d lived wickedly, and so feared hell that he summoned a demon called Alamath and bargained his soul in exchange for immortality.”
“So Alamath obliged and merged part of its soul with that of what is now Molguin, thus forming the Lich King you see in that painting.”
“What happened next?”
“Molguin created the Satanic cult known as the Old Dawn, which he led from Duskwatch. Its members would use sorcery and hexes to curse items into becoming gateways through which they could ritually summon the Lich. They could use anything – statues, books, and tomes, rings and jewels, paintings like yours, or various other household items that were easy enough to smuggle. Then they would place the items strategically and perform small ceremonies so as to allow the Lich access to the homes of his victims.”
“So, the painting is a gateway, then?”
“I believe so, yes. And once fully manifested, the Lich pursues one of two options for its victim: either it murders them outright, or, if he believes them to be of a certain spiritual quality, he might do something far worse.”
“Sometimes – although it’s rare – he might choose to enthrall them and turn them into a mindless servant of the Old Dawn. Their soul is kept for unnatural torment in the dungeons of Duskwatch, and their body is controlled directly by the Lich. Anyway – let’s not focus on that right now. Do you happen to know who owned the house before you?”
“Jesus. Uh, no. No, I don’t; I just bought it at a foreclosure auction after the guy died. Low price and all that. Do you think they were one of those Old Dawn Thralls?”
“More than likely, they were merely an occultist who sought to summon the Lich. But now we know how they died. And it would also explain the presence of that gateway. Does the house have a basement?”
“Yeah, it’s got one. Why?”
“Go down there, now.”
I obeyed and pulled the dangling light string at the bottom of the stairs. The smell from earlier was overpowering.
“Okay. In the basement now. What am I looking for?.”
“A symbol of an eye and a crescent moon. You’ll know it when you see it.”
I looked around the walls and ran my fingers on the bricks.
“I’m not seeing anything like th- wait.”
“What do you see?”
“I see it. What the hell? I see it. An open eye near a crescent moon, right?”
“That’s it. Press on that part of the wall and tell me what you find.”
I did, and the wall began to move – first backward into itself, and then to the left, revealing a hidden crawlspace behind it that stunk of death.
“God, the smell is unbearable. It’s a room. How the hell wasn’t I aware of this?”
“Nevermind that. What’s inside it?”
I stepped inside and nearly gagged.
“Oh, fuck. Its dead things. Animals, like rats. I can’t stay in here anym-”
“Don’t leave! Not yet. Hold your breath if you have to, but there has to be something else there.”
“Yeah, there’s a book here.” I picked it up. Black. Leatherbound. Old and torn and filled with wicked looking images of demons and dead people and symbols I couldn’t decipher. “There’s that symbol on the front. Same one that was on the wall.”
“Just what I thought. How old are those rat corpses?”
“I- I don’t know. There’s still meat on the bones, and there are more than enough maggots flying around.”
“Fresh kills, then. Someone’s been going into your house and performing a nightly summoning ritual to bring forth the Lich.”
“The hell? Someone’s been breaking into my house? How? When?!”
“I don’t know. I suspect that your house is a known hotspot for Old Dawn activity and that members of the cult are still using it to bring forth the Lich even though the previous owner no longer lives there. They’re only a night or two off from the sound of things, so we’ve got to move fast. That book needs to be burned.”
“It’s one of three conduits that keeps the gateway open.”
“Do I need to destroy them all?”
“To fully protect the house, yes. Destroying one or two will only slow the Lich down, but it won’t stop it. Take care of this one, and then we’ll deal with the others.”
I doused the book with a small amount of petrol and lit a match.
“Okay, it’s burning now.”
“Good. Make sure its torched cover to cover.”
I waited a few minutes for it to be sufficiently ruined. It was 8:37 PM.
“Alright, it looks good, I think. Can’t even tell it was a book at all.”
“Good. Now, do you have an attic?”
“An attic? Yeah. Haven’t been up there, though, except to toss up some moving boxes.”
“That’s most likely where the second conduit is.”
“Could be. You’ll know it when you see it. Hurry, though – sun is setting. You’ve only bought yourself some time, and the Old Dawn could very well be aware you’ve destroyed a conduit.”
“What will happen if they figure out I’m on to them?”
“Well, they won’t do anything. But the Lich will if they manage to summon it fully.”
I stamped out the flames and ran back up the stairs. The painting was beginning to transition, I saw. The crown and goblet were, as always, the first to appear, but it was happening quicker than usual.
“I thought you said this thing would slow down?!”
“If it’s not, that means they’re doubling their efforts. Hurry, get upstairs now.”
I sprinted up to the second-floor hallway and pulled down the attic stairs with a metallic clang.
“Alright, heading up now.”
“Do you see anything?”
I moved the boxes aside and looked over at the attic’s far end, near the window.
“Uh, yeah, yeah, I see something. Looks like that same bloody symbol etched into the wall, and a bunch of shit on the ground.”
“Take a look.”
I pulled myself up and started heading over and stopped when I reached the site—dead candles. More ritually sacrificed mice, midsections swelled with maggots—a small figurine of a snarling, three-headed beast. I described the scene.
“Conduit’s the figurine, obviously. Stomp it, smash it, grind it with your heel. Do whatever you have to do. Just crush the damned thing and make it quick. Still have to find that third piece.”
I brought my foot down hard on the figurine, and it broke instantly. I then proceeded to smash it into smaller and smaller pieces and tossed the fragments out the attic window. Then I stopped.
“What is it?”
“There are people outside. Red robes. Animal masks. I recognize them from my dream – and they’re surrounding the house. What do I do?”
“Shit. You’re out of time. Find a place to hide immediately.”
“Who the hell are these guys?”
“Who do you think they are? They know you’re onto them. Get someplace shsafeadgh.”
“Get to someplace sSHASasdfahgelhasdssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… “ beep beep beep.
I looked at my phone. Call dropped. 8:49 PM. Then all the lights in the house snapped out, and a cold presence filled the air.
No no no no no no. Not now.
I got up and ran over to the attic stairs and pulled them up as softly as I could, although they still locked up with a decent clash. I winced and then ran over to the window again and peeked over it. There were dozens of figures. Flowing robes tied at the waist with rope. Torches in hand. And animal heads. And not just masks. They were dead things – hollowed out and rotting and putrefying on the outside. Deer. Bears. Pigs. Horses. There was even a Mastiff dog among the ranks – covered in mange and rot and ropes of dried spit and half-rotted to the bone. It was a horrifying sight to behold. I slowly backed away from the window and cowered in the darkest corner of the attic.
I listened, trembling, as the men outside joined together in a chant that I recognized instantly as the one from my first nightmare. In fact, everything about what was happening smacked of that dream—but hearing the chant while awake produced a different sensation altogether. Something about the words drew me in. They were simultaneously guttural and rhythmic; rough and sensual; wicked and otherworldly and ancient. I began to meditate on them.
Dieros varnum, carnust nhull; Dieros varnum, rhadisch set. Dieros varnum, kyernast meus; Dieros varnum, nhullust sul.
The music washed over me like a river and set me into a cold, swimming trance. I listened to its course through my bones, and I didn’t move. I didn’t speak. I didn’t even think. All my troubles and worries and joys and fears melted away. I was neither sad nor happy, neither restless nor content. I simply was.
And once the men outside had me there, in that place, Molguin spoke.
He whispered into my thoughts: Why hast thou come to this place?
I whirled around, and there he was. The Demon King, in my attic, floating in a black mist. He was long dead, clothes and flesh rotting from his skeleton. But he spoke again, nonetheless.
Thou wast drawn here by the Whisper, wast thou not?
I could feel him pulling at the strings of my mind, bending my spirit to his will, contorting me. Enthralling me. And I tried to resist, but ultimately I allowed it. Because I felt no need not to, he spoke slowly as he did it. And deeply. And deliciously.
And what dost thou seek here? Dost thou desire to taste of… mightiness? For I can pour thee a goblet of mightiness, if thou wouldst drink it.
I felt my eyes roll back into my head until I could see nothing but the darkness behind them. I could feel memories, long lost, and covered in mental dust, being opened. Then came visions.
I saw the Lich’s goblet poured out, and in the spilling drink, I saw enemies, old and new, and even grievances long forgotten, unearthed by something twisted that crept through my mind. Schoolyard bullies. Crushes who’d rejected me. Ladder climbing, backstabbing coworkers who didn’t deserve that raise half as much as I did, and all the greedy, bastard bosses who’d given it to them. Anyone who had ever crossed me in any way flashed before my mind’s eye, and in the court of my angry heart, their sins were amplified tenfold, and the renewed anger I felt was every inch just as skewed.
And then I saw them all dead. Crushed. Their skulls piled high at the threshold of my throne. I felt a euphoric rush of sheer power and vindication, the likes of which I’d never experienced nor dared imagined.
Wouldst thou drink from this chalice? said Molguin.
And the vision ended.
Dost thou seek to taste of flesh? For I can pour thee a goblet of flesh, if thou wouldst drink it.
Again, my eyes rolled back into darkness. And there I saw women, young and beautiful and naked. And I recognized them all. Every woman I’d ever slept with, every woman I’d ever dreamt of sleeping with – be it an acquaintance or a porn star or an actress on TV, every woman I’d ever even slightly crushed on, and even ones I’d simply looked at lustfully as they walked by. God, there were hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe. And I wanted every last one. Carol. Anna. Melissa. Tracey, too – that gorgeous drunk chick from the frat party two decades back. I reached out to caress her.
Wouldst thou drink from this chalice?
And the vision ended.
Dost thou seek to taste of knowledge? he asked. For I can pour thee a goblet of knowledge, if thou wouldst drink it.
Visions came – those of loved ones. Enemies. Friends. Lovers. And I knew in my bones that all their deepest, darkest secrets were now open to my unquenchable spirit. How they truly felt about me, deep down in the darkest pits of their hearts. All the rumors they’d spread, all the horrible, wicked things ever whispered behind my back. There were other things, too – things they’d guarded, jealously and preciously, that they wouldn’t tell even to their closest ally. Betrayals. Theft. Perversions. Lies. Things I could use against them. Things I could use to dominate them. And I was ravenously hungry for it all.
Wouldst thou drink from this chalice?
Wouldst thou dine at my table?
Come then. And be not afraid.
“There you are! You okay? Elliot!”
I woke up. Morning. Late morning, judging by the angle of the shadows. The attic stairs were open, and I was lying on my back. Dr. Burns stood over me.
“Elliot!” He waved his hand in front of my face. “You awake? I thought I’d lost you.”
“MmmmMphyeah. Yeah, I’m okay.” I wasn’t, though—wicked headache. I let him pull me to my feet. “W-w-when’d you get here?”
“A few minutes ago. Car’s still running in your driveway.” He looked around. “I saw footprints outside. I’m guessing it was the cult, yeah?”
“I guess so.” I didn’t like the way he said that, for some reason. Cult.
“I’m amazed you’re okay, though. It looks like the Old Dawn’s been gone for hours. I checked out that painting on the way in, too. Kind of a swirling, dark vortex. Looks like Molguin broke out after all, but I’m guessing he never found you up here.”
“Anyway. Found that third conduit in your shed and smashed it for good measure. You know, just in case.”
Fuck him for doing that. Whatever that conduit was, it was mine. Mine. He had no right to do that. No right.
“You okay? You look awful.”
“Relax, mate. I mean, you look tired is all. Did something happen to you last night?”
“Okay. Well, uh – let’s get you downstairs, then, yeah? Get you some water?”
He put his hand on my shoulder, but I threw it off violently.
“Whoa, hey! I’m not trying to hurt you! Relax, okay?”
“Okay. That’s fine, mate. That’s alright. No need to get angry.”
“Don’t touch me.”
“I’m not gonna touch you again, okay? Jesus.”
Something leapt in my stomach when he said that name, and I stumbled back.
He made me stumble. He hurt me. Deliberately. Fuck him. Fuck him for coming here. I didn’t ask him here. He wasn’t invited.
“You weren’t invited,” I said. I got on all fours and stalked around him, snarling. I had to get back at him for coming here. For hurting me.
Doctor Burns took out a crucifix.
“Alright, whatever’s in there, get out of him now! You hear me?! You’ve no right to be here.”
“He gave me entrance,” I said, in a weirdly deep voice. Or, at least, it came from my mouth. But I don’t know if it was me.
I stood up and rammed him with my chest. I didn’t mean to do it, but it was such a deliberate move that it couldn’t possibly have been accidental. I just leapt up and chest bumped him aggressively as if to display my dominance. Then I did it again, and again, and again, backing him up towards the attic stairs.
“Christ rebuke you! Christ rebuke you!” His words had no effect. I grabbed him by the throat and lifted him high, strangling him.
“I know Him. But He walks not with you.” Then I dragged my tongue along his cheek and threw him down the stairs with impossible strength. I heard his neck snap as he hit the ground, and only then did the gravity of what I’d done dawn on me.
I’m writing this now as a last testament of sorts, so at least you’ll know what’s happened to me when I’m gone. And as I write this, there is another voice in my head – the voice of the Lich from last night. And it’s just saying one word over and over and over again: Mine.
What the hell have I done?