Copyright 2020 Jack Sutter
The jungle was alive with the plaintive song of insects and the cries of the night creatures, while in the distance the roar of the howler monkeys signalled the approach of dawn.
Rosa groped her way through the darkness. To either side of her, the dense rows of coffee plants reached out of the darkness to touch her, like the fingertips of countless ghosts. Ahead of her, she could barely make out the form of Romana, eight years her senior, while behind her crept five other women who worked on the plantation. Far in the east, a thin, blood red line along the horizon was just visible above the treetops, illuminating the rambling Hacienda which lay atop the crest of a steep, terraced mound overgrown with brambles. As Rosa gazed at the silhouette of the darkened mansion, she felt her breath quicken with fear, even as her heart hardened with hate. In a flash, the sight of the mansion became overlaid in her mind with the image of her husband being dragged up the narrow stairway leading up the hillside; the last time she’d ever seen him. Soon enough, the women themselves had reached the base of the hill. Rosa had never been this close to that accursed place before, and she quaked in terror as she stared up at the house above her. But Romana, now standing beside her, remained unmoved, her dark eyes fixed upon the house with an almost wild determination. Of the seven women, she alone had served in the Hacienda for a time as a child, and she alone knew its ways and secrets.
Softly, the seven women now ascended the rickety stairway. The steps ran along a straight path directly up the side of the hill, terminating at the ramshackle veranda of the great house. There the women gathered silently in the shadows before a heavy wooden door carved all over with the monstrous visages of gods and kings staring balefully outward amidst a sea of blocky glyphs.
Inside the house, the Estrella family was likely still asleep. At least, Rosa was praying fervently that they were. Shaking from head to foot, Rosa pulled the slide of her pistol back ever so slightly, checking for the faint glimmer of brass in the chamber, while beside her Romana and the other women drew their machetes. Then softly, Romana produced a key, purloined at terrible cost, and slipping it into the lock she opened the door and led the way into the house.
Inside, the house was as dark as a tomb. But Romana knew exactly where she was going. Without a word, the women followed her through dim rooms and twisting passages, until they came to an enclosed room near the center of the house. The only illumination came from a skylight, through which the light of dawn filled the room with faint reddish glow, revealing archaic looking murals on the walls depicting scenes of worship, war, and death, beneath which there lay the room’s occupants: Eight men, asleep in two rows of cots along either wall. The beds were arranged in twin rows which ran the length of the room, leading to another door on the far end, and lying beside the bed of each man was a heavy, paddle-like club fitted with razor blades on both edges.
Silently, the intruders spread out through the room, one woman at each bed. As Rosa took her own position, she felt sick as she gazed down at the face of the sleeping man beneath her, a regal face of the purest native ancestry, though warped with centuries of intermarriage. The face of kings. Praying desperately that she wouldn’t vomit, Rosa drew a knife, and waited for the command. Then, from across the room, there came a soft hiss.
With a series of sickening chops, the women buried their machetes into the necks of the sleeping men. Rosa froze. Time seemed to stand still as she stared at the face of the helpless man beneath her. She realized that she couldn’t do it.
Suddenly, the man’s eyes flew open as one of the other men gasped his dying breath. With a stifled cry, Rosa plunged her knife into his throat. And then, from behind her there came a scream.
Rosa spun around. Sitting bolt upright in the eighth bed was a young boy, hardly more than fourteen years old. With another scream, the boy hurled himself out of his bed and ran towards the door on the far side of the room. “Stop him!”, Romana cried as Rosa raised up her pistol and fired two shots. The boy dropped to the floor in a lifeless heap. But the damage had been done.
The rest of the house was now surely awake.
There was no time to lose. Without a word, Romana pushed her way past Rosa and stepping over the body of the boy she opened the door. Then, a moment later she ducked aside as a flurry of darts shot past, striking one of the women behind her, who collapsed with a cry. Rosa raised her pistol again and fired several shots through the doorway, as Romana and the other women charged through screaming and brandishing their machetes. A second woman collapsed with a pair of darts in her throat. Inside the room, the women of the Estrella family were screaming, while at the far end of the room the Señora Estrella, the matriarch of the family, was bustling several children through a stone arched doorway at the back of the room. The Señora was tall and strapping, youthful in visage even as her black hair was streaked with grey, and her eyes flashed with hate and fury as she raised her right hand and as if from thin air she hurled another flurry of darts at the intruders. A third woman collapsed with a scream as the Señora disappeared through the doorway. Meanwhile, the remainder of the plantation women set themselves upon the Estrella women. For a moment there was nothing but screaming and hacking. And then, all was quiet.
Rosa knelt in the corner of the room, retching and hiding her eyes from the sight of the sickening carnage all around her. Picking her way over the mangled corpses, Romana then came softly to Rosa’s side, and slapped her.
“Pull yourself together, Rosa!”, she hissed. “It’s not over yet! Señora Estrella must die now, or else we all will.”
Weeping, Rosa stumbled to her feet, clutching her pistol. The slide was locked back on an empty magazine, but in the horror of the melee she couldn’t remember having fired it. Vacantly she replaced the magazine with a fresh one, while on the far side of the room Romana had begun probling the door through which the Señora had escaped. The frame was made of stacked stones elaborately carved with ancient glyphs, while the door itself boor neither lock nor handle of any kind. Romana cursed to herself over and over as she ran her fingers over the wood, seeking some kind of latch or trigger. Finally, in desperation she hurled her shoulder into the door, to no avail. All the women then shoved together, still without effect. They then searched the house until they found a heavy wooden bench, which then then battered against the door in lieu of a ram. With each swing of the bench the door creaked and splintered, and it was an even contest which would fail first, the door or the bench. Finally, with a crash the door gave way just as the bench itself was nearly spent.
Behind the door there was a small room, which was empty save for a primitive looking ladder which descended through an opening in the floor, through which there was flicker of candlelight. Painted on the wall opposite the door was another mass of glyphs, along with the snarling face of an animal god which overlooked the ladder. One by one, the women descended the ladder. Rosa was the last to descend. And when her feet touched the bottom, she looked about herself with horror.
She and the other women were gathered in a large basement, if basement were the right word for it. For in truth, they were not in the cellar of the Estrella’s fortress, but rather its summit. Beneath their feet was an ancient stone pavement, the topmost level of a great pyramid buried beneath centuries of jungle growth. Stacks of mud brick formed the walls of the cellar and formed the foundation of the Hacienda which had been built atop the hidden pyramid. Here were collected a myriad of ancient infernal idols. Towering above them all was a lanky mannequin. Draped over it’s form was a mantle of black cloth, which lent a faint resemblance to the Christian Virgin, but beneath it there was the leering face of a blackened human skull fitted with golden teeth, while the idol’s body was wrapped in many layers of flayed human skin covered with cracked blue paint. The walls of the entire cellar with draped with human skin in a similar state, while gathered at the feet of the idol was a great mass of blackened human skulls. In her left hand the idol carried an obsidian edged club, while her right hand was extended outward, ready to receive the sacrifice which was due to her.
Rosa was very nearly sick at the sight of it all. How many of her friends, relatives and ancestors were represented here in this mass of mutilated remains? Was her own husband among them? And worst of all, the plantation women were not the only persons in the room.
Gathered silently along the walls were several children. Splashes of blue paint had been hastily applied to their skin, and they spoke not a word as they gazed silently at the intruders. In the center of the room was a large, convex stone, gathered about which were the freshly killed bodies of several other children, their hearts removed and placed in the outstretched palm of the idol. And lying prone on the stone, was the dead body of the Señora Estrella. Her skin was painted with blue paint, like that of the children, and her breast thrust outward by the shape of the altar, ready to give up the heart, through which a stone dagger was now protruding. The Estrella Family had claimed its final victim.
The Señora had presumably been unable to sacrifice all the children before the plantation women had broken into the temple. Rosa gazed at the glazed, pliant eyes of the surviving children. They gazed back at her, uttering not a word. They expected no mercy, and nor would there be any forthcoming. No one in that accursed house could be allowed to live. For their power was too great. This had been agreed upon at the start. Yet, as she looked at the faces of the children, Rosa couldn’t bear the thought of any more killing.
And then, one of the children stepped forward, a girl of about eleven. Without speaking, the girl raised her left hand, and made a sign.
With a scream, Rosa turned around and clamored back up the ladder. As soon as she reached the upper level, she began to run. She ran back through the blighted house, through the rooms full of the mutilated dead, through twisted passages and dark rooms, until at last she came to the front door. And there she froze.
Standing in the front door was Romana. How she’d got there ahead of her, Rosa couldn’t guess. But as she gazed in horror, Romana suddenly appeared to grow taller, and the skin of her face darkened and shriveled, until there was nothing left by a leering black skull, with teeth of gold. Rosa screemed, and turning around she fled back into the house, back through the twisting passages, until she halted again.
There, blocking her way, was a towering figure in a black mantle, beneath which a pair of glowing red eyes stared out from within the shadowy sockets of a blackened skull. As Rosa screamed, the phantom began to glide across the floor towards her. As she backed away, Rosa abruptly stumbled, and fell on something hard. She found herself lying upon a curved stone altar, with her breast thrust outward. She tried to move, but her arms and limbs remained pinned to her side. She tried to scream again, but her voice was drowned out amidst a chorus of whispering voices. And still the phantom drew closer and closer. Then, with a herculean effort, Rosa managed to raise one arm, and discharged her pistol at the phantom, which collapsed into a pile of rags before her. But then, a moment later, the creature was coming at her again! With every ounce of her strength, Rosa managed to pull herself to her feet, and drawing her knife she slashed at the creature’s neck, nearly cutting its head off. But even as it collapsed, it reappeared again from behind it’s own crumpling form, advancingin inexorably. Rosa now seized a hammer, and smashed the skull to pieces, but to no avail. Over and over again she tried to kill it, until at last she could move no longer, and remained parylized on the altar as the phantom bent low over her the blackened skull nearly touching her face as the glowing red eyes bored into her soul and the black mantel fell around Rosa’s face, suffocating her.
With a stifled shriek, Rosa sat up.
She was sitting in her own bed, her heart still racing. Outside, the light of sunrise was pouring through the window, while out in the jungle the howler monkeys carried on their daily serenade of the dawn. Rosa looked down into the bed beside her, a lock of greying hair fell down from her shoulder as she did so. Lying in the bed beside her was her little granddaughter, still sleeping peacefully.
Rosa climbed out of bed, and walked over to the window, still shaking a little bit. Outside, the sun was rising over the top of the great mound, now flat and stripped long ago of the terrible house which had once stood there. There too, the sunlight fell among the rows of coffee plants, and the little graveyard full of crosses which stood adjacent to the plantation. It was there, many years ago, that the victims of the Estrella Hacienda had at last been laid to rest. And there too, were buried the bodies of six of the seven women who had put the accursed family to death. Three had died that night at the hands of the Señora, and the others had died one by one in the years thereafter. Last of all was Romana, who with the others had slain the last surviving children of the house with her own hand and piled them upon their own altar. But by then the curse of the witch family had already been laid upon them. First had come the nightmares, and then the waking apparitions, until one by one the six women succumbed gradually to madness and perished, until now only Rosa remained. Of the seven, she alone could not bring herself to harm the witch children, even in the knowledge of the ancient, infernal powers they held. And now, only she remained alive and sane.
But the nightmares. The nightmares still remained.