We were only twelve years old when we lost Christopher to the wilds. We were brought up in Brackton, a small town of only one hundred and twenty-two residents. I don’t expect that you’ve heard of it. We were young and reckless, and, as is wont of young boys, eager to prove ourselves.
Brackton found itself nestled between fields of corn and acres woodland, the latter of which led onwards to the snow-peaked mountains which dominated the skyline. As with every small town which wanted to keep its youth in check, the woodlands were home to many legends and stories. Most involved the supposed warlocks and witches of the mountain, who came down to snatch children who strayed too far into the woods for their own vile ends. Of course, looking back I can see why they wanted to keep children out. The woods were a myriad of disused mining pits and forgotten bear-traps, no parent in their right mind would want their children wandering through there alone. I also now know the truth behind those wild stories.
Naturally, being twelve years old, we wanted to prove ourselves to each other. Myself, James Bann and Christopher Helster took it upon ourselves to camp out within the forest on Halloween. Cliche, I know, but when you are young these kind of things are what scare you. We ventured as far into the woods as we dared, leaving behind the view of Brackton through the trees. We set up camp and awaited nightfall.
We spent the night huddled in our tent, scared witless, but each of us steadfastly refusing to leave. It was a quiet and cold night, with only the occasional howl of the wolves near the mountains to be heard. Daylight came eventually. We emerged from the tent grinning, knowing that we could go back to town and tell the other kids about our night in the woods, with additional embellishments of course. James and I eagerly packed our bags, more than ready to head back to our own beds, but Christopher lingered. He told us not to worry about the tent, that he would pack it up and bring it home in a bit. This didn’t strike us as odd, Christopher lived with his abusive mother and was prone to delay going home. We gave him this moment and traipsed back to town.
Later that evening there was a frenzied knocking at the door. It was Christopher’s mother, swaggering with the day’s booze. She shouted and screamed, cursing my name for leading him astray. My own parents sent me to bed and placated her. The police arrived in town and searched the woods as far as they could. The tent was the only sign that we had been in the woods that night, and it was emptied of its contents. There were no tracks and the tracker dogs could pick up no scent. After a week of searching, there was no sign of Christopher. They never found him.
Speculation about his disappearance slowly turned into an accepted fact. Brackton accepted that Christopher had run away to escape his mothers drunken, and often violent, outbursts. James and I dwelled on it for a long time, but even that faded after we both grew up and moved away. Still, every now and then I could feel Christopher skitter through my mind, not dredging up his full memory but maybe a quiet echo of his infectious laughter.
One night I was disturbed by a nightmare, waking me in cold sweat. It was of Christopher, and his laughter had turned to screams. From that day on my memory of his laughter refused to be pulled from the depths of my mind, instead being replaced by that hideous sleep-shattering scream. I can only assume that James felt it too. I was in my mid-twenties when I received an email out of the blue. I was working in the city and kept a busy schedule of meetings, but made an effort to meet with him. We exchanged the usual pleasantries as one does when meeting an old friend, but an odd air hung between us. Deep down we both knew why we had met. James confessed to me that Christopher had been playing on his mind. Recently he had dreamt about him, about the day he went missing. His eyes brimmed as he spoke of the screams. I confessed the same. We discussed his disappearance at length and decided that for our own sanity we needed to put our own ghosts to bed for good.
We both booked time out from our respective workplaces and headed back home to Brackton. Living in the city had spoilt us both, and the simple town seemed a far cry from the home we once remembered. Brackton was mostly empty, its youth grown up and left, leaving only the old to remain and wither. The population had dwindled to a meagre thirty-three. Both of James’ parents had died and mine had long since moved into a retirement home in California. The old houses still stood, although their dormancy had allowed an element of rot to settle into them. James and I moved into his parents’ old house for our stay.
The town was no longer the carefree place we enjoyed as children. The friendly neighbours now kept to themselves, only uttering a greeting if forced, and the woods themselves had lost their vibrancy and life. The trees now stood as stark skeletons of their former shapes, their leaves shed from their limbs and carpeting the ground below. James and I confided in each other about the changes which Brackton had brought, and immediately a dim light was cast on our trip.
We rested for the first couple of days, planning out our actions. Our first thought was to go to the site of where we had made camp all those years ago, and then out into the wider woods towards the foot of the mountain. We poured over maps of the local area, planning each day effectively. We came to the decision that if we had found no trace of Christopher by the end of the week, then we would settle for the story that he had run away.
Torrential rain greeted us on our first day of exploration. I kept my coat wrapped tight around me as we trudged through the graveyard of trees. The bleak skies blackened our moods. There was little talk as we trekked across the barren woodland. My heart was heavy as memories of the day came flooding back. I had to force each foot forward, not sure if I wanted to find what was left of Christopher or nothing at all. I’m not sure if either was the answer I wanted.
The old campsite was unrecognisable bar the two outcrops of rocks which we had pitched the tent between. The great old oaks had rotted and fallen, countless bugs feasting upon their corpses. We lifted what we could, checking under every rock and branch in an attempt to find some clue that was missed that day. We found nothing. James and I looked at each other as the rain continued to batter us, a defeated grin spreading over our faces. What was this madness that we suddenly decided to do? Did we really think we were going to find Christopher out here in the woods?
Wolves howled in the distance. James shifted nervously and I joked about him becoming too much of a city boy. He held a hand up to silence me. Amongst the wolf howls was another cry, something weaker and more emotive. We both hesitated. Our minds travelled back to the tales of our youth, of the witches and warlocks of the mountain. Our search of the old site had given us nothing of use, then the noise sounded again, this time louder. It was a mournful cry, not like anything we had ever heard, and something about it drew out attention. The noise of the wolves died away. We steadied our resolve and set out towards it.
The trek was long and arduous. As children, we had never ventured beyond where we had camped that fateful night, and I knew of no adults that ever spoke of going any further if they did. The terrain became rougher, undulating with increasing frequency. My feet rubbed within my boots and the wet caused my trousers to chafe against my thighs. Through this pain I marched on, the cry becoming ever clearer, ever more haunting.
The mountains now loomed above us. We spoke of turning back as there was a point where the sound seemed to never come any closer. We decided to give it another two kilometres then head back. The sun was relatively low in the sky and we had not prepared for a night expedition. Within the next ten minutes, we had arrived at the call of the sound.
A large bog stretched out before us, making its way to the base of the mountain. The stench of stagnant water assaulted us, the water thick and black with sediment. The noise had stopped, leaving us with the sound of rain lashing down onto dead leaves. I have never forgotten what we witnessed next.
Something moved in the water. At first, it was just a ripple, something that could be mistaken for a trick of the eye. Then the body came out. A mournful cry rang out from the floundering body, splashing around with its weakened and frail limbs. I recognised Christopher straight away. I stood with James, slack-jawed, and watched this image of the past writhe around in the bog. He had not grown, still the same person as he was at twelve years old, but his muscle had wasted away, leaving an emaciated form to struggle amongst the muck. Although his eyes were now hollow, he turned his head towards us and gave a blind gaze that tore my soul. He cried out, possibly recognising us, possibly just seeing potential rescue. Perhaps it was just a cry of eternal torment.
James was the first to trudge into the filthy water. I followed after him, both of us wading out towards Christopher. His body painted a pathetic picture, crying out in a sorrowful howl while frantically grasping for something to hold on to. We reached out to him. The sorrow and pain that he had held for so long flowed through me, causing me to recoil. James kept his grip firmer. It was no use. Christopher, or whatever it was, crumbled to ash, leaving the dusting of his body to float for a second before becoming subsumed within the vile bog again.
I looked at James, neither of us believing what we just saw. More howls of anguish and pain rose around us. Christopher was not the only resident of the bog. Other children burst through the surface, begging for someone to help them. Some of the younger ones, only toddlers who had not yet learnt to swim, thrashed face down, the silt-thick water muting their screams.
James and I retreated from the bog, the couple of bodies that did grasp us turning to ash as they felt their salvation. The anguished cries chased us back to Brackton. When James and I stepped through the door and into his home, I cannot describe the emotions that rocked us. We held each other and wept. Shaken from what had happened, we took the rest of the day to think about our next course of action. When we decided, we knew it was what we had to do.
I quit my job in the city, and James did the same. We both knew what we saw that day in the bog, and we both adamantly refused to allow that infernal place to keep our friend. We moved into James’ parents’ house permanently and quickly settled back into life in Brackton. It was a bleak existence in comparison to my life in the city but I knew it was a necessity. There was no doubt that if I carried on my life as if I had never seen what I had witnessed, then that scene of Christopher crying out in the bog would haunt me for the rest of my life.
Over the course of several months, we discovered that the abhorrent bog was not a place to be found unwillingly. Several times we set out into the woods, armed with maps and GPS devices, and each time we could not pinpoint the location of the bog. It quickly became apparent that the bog would only be revealed when we could hear the distant cries of those trapped, and only by following the sound could you find it. It was a thing of vile and incalculably dark magic. There seemed to be little pattern to it, and many late night trips were made through the woodland. Although we frequently visited the bog, it became no less harrowing a sight, becoming more and more drained each time. There was more than one time that I feared for my mental state. The remaining people of the town soon learned to leave us to our own devices, and wisely so.
We hoarded knowledge of curses, witchcraft and the occult, slowly filling the house with books and trinkets. The house gradually built up a hum of grim energy, conflicting gods and beliefs tousling with each other. We conducted rituals, invoked rites and summoned those we dared in an attempt to break the curse on the swamp. We awoke gods so long slumbering that even they themselves believed they were dead, names that I fear to even think about let alone put to paper. Each time we heard the cries from the bog we would set out once more into the woods to attempt our latest discoveries in the hope that they would work.
We both knew that the dark magic was taking a terrible toll on us, but it did not become truly apparent to me until the summer of 2001. While visiting my parents, all three of us were involved in a car crash. I lived, although my parents did not. I have not forgiven myself for that, as I have little doubt that some of that terrible aura we had invoked in Brackton had attached itself to me. I was wheelchair-bound for eight months. I begged James not to venture out to the bog without me; half of this was guilt, the other genuine concern for him. As the months passed I took my position as a researcher and conjurer, while James was the one to carry out our work at the site. Each time the cries were heard I would watch him head out into the night, and each time he would return with a little less of himself. Over time I watched him wither away in front of me, and it was then that I realised the terrible toll that our work caused. Still, we marched on, although now our concern had spread from Christopher to the whole population of the bog itself. It sprawled out of control and threatened to consume us along with them.
One day, James returned more tired than usual. I discovered that he had travelled beyond the bog and onto the base of the mountain in an attempt to locate the curse-givers. He found their remains scattered in the soil, the ruins of a dilapidated hut surrounding them. Among their possession were books and trinkets, although they frustrated with their illegibility. Whatever purpose the swamp had was lost to those bones forever. Perhaps they ended up within those cursed waters themselves. The witches and warlocks of the mountain had died long ago, leaving behind a forgotten but active hell. Whether they meant to or not, we would never find out.
James died not long after my recovery. His solo expeditions had sapped him of strength, and I held a quiet and brief ceremony for him. It is unfortunate that he died knowing that Christopher was still trapped within the bog and that our best efforts could not help him. It is a fate I am hoping not to duplicate.
In the days leading up to his death, I noticed that his shadow had lessened, as mine has now. I can only assume that strips of our souls were taken in our dark rituals. No light source could cast one, no matter how hard we tried. Then came the other shadows. Two days after James died, I witnessed shadows venturing towards the house at night. At first, I thought they only came from the woods, but I watched them arrive from the fields as well. I do not know what they want, all I know is that they still continue to gather, filling the house with their forms. When the sun goes down I now find them stood shoulder to shoulder in every room. I have come to the conclusion that the sheer number of rituals and rites have created a kind of gravity-well of power. Sometimes I dread to think of what we have done.
I now sit here alone, with these shadows gathered around me, writing this account with my time-gnarled hands in the hope that someone can learn from it. Believe me when I say we have tried. James and I have dedicated our lives to freeing the prisoners in the bog, and I am afraid that we will both succumb to death before they can be freed. Even now I feel my life-force wane. Each morning I am slower to wake, and the trips to the bog tire me terribly. I am the only resident of Brackton now, all others have moved or passed away. There will be no-one to miss me when I am gone. I have gathered another set of tomes and scrolls in one last hope to break the curse of the bog, and I intend to leave the next time they call. I do not expect to be coming back.
I have secured the house, shuttering the windows permanently and will lock the door firmly when I leave. The creatures and spirits that have been invoked inside this house are trapped within the walls, held in place by powerful and terrible spells. I can only hope that my rune-locks will hold. My greatest fear is for my own soul when I pass. I have entered pacts with countless deities, creatures of nightmares, and each time they have flayed another piece of my soul for the taking. I have little doubt that darkness is what waits for me on the other side.
If you ever stumble across the ghost-town of Brackton, I would advise you to drive on. I am not a stupid man, and I assume that some of you out there will indeed come here, looking for adventure or to see if such terrible old magic is true. I write this warning as if it will save my soul somehow to turn at least some of you back. I know I am powerless to stop such strong wills, but all I can hope is that, if you decide to come, the bog is inaccessible in its silence. Listen to this silence, and know that our lives have not been in vain.