Welcome to the 8th annual #SpookyShowcase! The Spooky Showcase celebrates the dark minds of creatives around the world through short stories and artistic creations that are dark in nature, macabre, or horror themed.
This year’s theme is Twisted Fairy Tales. Expect twisted legends, creepy creations, and dark fairy tales that will keep you up at night. Visit each day in the month of October for a scare. The master schedule is here.
By C.L. McCollum
The mountain of mattresses loomed, blocking out most of the light from the torches the guards held as they stood upon the stairs leading up and up around the walls of the tower. Its stones were pitted by time, cobwebs patterned like lace around the empty sconces down here at the floor level.
She felt caged, held prisoner by the queen and prince who stood beside her, hands lightly on her arms. The prince’s fingers seemed to have a mind of their own, stroking along the inside of her arm, sometimes likely stretching to brush against the side of her breast. She’d shuddered away once already, only to be rewarded by the nails of the queen’s hands biting viciously into the tender flesh of her skin, forcing her back into stillness. Her skin crawled beneath their touch, and not for the first time, the princess wished, oh she wished, she had allowed the forest and the storm and the darkness to take her.
A death in the woods would have been clean, would have been a mercy compared to this castle of shadows and the faintest smell of blood and the royal family with their knife blade smiles.
She had felt relief at first when the lights along the castle wall glinted out through the trees. After the bandits and the blood and the screams behind her as her lady in waiting told her to “Run – run!” and the branches and brambles tearing at her skirts and her sleeves and the mud swallowing her slippers one after the other. After the thunder and lightning and the torrents of rain that threatened to drown her as she ran. She’d only been able to hope the rain would hide her passing, that the bandits couldn’t follow her flight, couldn’t do to her what she’d heard them doing to those who had given their lives – their bodies – to protect her.
There were times she hated what she’d been born to be, when her bloodline meant other lives were worth so much less than her own.
The princess had realized with a dawning sense of dread over dinner, served in guttering candle light in a dining hall scented with mold and without a single woman amongst the staff or guards – guards that bore a twig in the braid of their uniforms here and a spot of blood on their cuffs there and mud caking their boots that supposedly had not left the confines of the castle all day, that the safety she had sought, the warmth she had hoped for as she stood shivering in her ruined finery at the gate to the keep… Well…
There was no safety at all here. The princess wondered if she searched the castle she might find the bodies of her entourage tossed in a pile like so much trash, if the surviving horses now stood in the stables. She didn’t know how the royals here – leaders of a tiny kingdom little more than a speck on the map in the opinions of kings like her father or even dukes like the man she’d been journeying to marry – had known of her passage, how they’d had time to plan what in retrospect was so clearly an ambush meant just for her. But they had. The tower of mattresses that the queen so lovingly presented to her guest would have taken hours to prepare with men and even pulleys to lift them all into place in the round tower that felt more and more like a prison with every moment that passed.
“There now,” the queen said, her sticky sweet words still sharp and grating in the princess’s ears, “a proper bed for a princess. One knows true princesses have such… sensitive skin, after all. It wouldn’t do for you to rest uncomfortably, now would it?”
The princess couldn’t guess at the meaning to the edge beneath the queen’s words, any more than she wanted to guess that the meaning beneath her son’s almost petulant response. “Come now, mother, you saw her dress. Surely she couldn’t be an imposter, now could she?”
“Of course not, my dear,” the queen replied icily, her eyes seeming to dare the princess to argue. Both hands dug fingers even harder into her arms, and she knew she bruised beneath the sleeves of her still shredded dress. They’d left her in it, offering no replacements, even though they themselves had changed for supper, their finery making even more of a mockery of her appearance. “Captain, help her up to her place, will you?”
The nameless captain who seemed so terrifyingly familiar bowed, his expression never changing as he replaced the prince’s hard grasp with his own and all but dragged her up the stairs winding their way up the sides of the tower. Up and up they climbed while the royals watched and the prince called out mocking encouragement. Her bare feet ached against the cold of the stone, and she stubbed her toes more than once as she stumbled up the stairs in the captain’s wake. He didn’t slow, didn’t even seem to notice when she fell. He just kept climbing.
The top of mattresses didn’t quite reach to the top of the tower. With no more than the briefest glances through arrow slit windows into the dark, the princess couldn’t say for sure, but she thought they had climbed at least two flights worth if not three or even four. The absurdity of one castle containing so many mattresses only to stack them away in a tower only added to her confusion, just as the climb added to her exhaustion. The captain pulled her across the small landing at the top of the stairs where two of his men waited and then casually tossed her off the stone and onto the pile. It swayed dangerously, and she swallowed a shriek and leaned toward the stairs as hard as she could until the swaying stopped. She swallowed the sobs that wanted to escape as well.
The princess refused to scream or cry for the prince’s amusement, just as she’d refused to speak again after they’d repeatedly mocked her tale of her flight to the castle, along with her claim to her own name and title. She’d refused to acknowledge theirs either in response, not that she believed they’d cared or even noticed with her silence. They enjoyed the sound of their own vicious voices did the queen and prince. She only wished she was not forced to hear them.
“Is she settled, Captain?” The prince called up, wicked amusement clear in his tone. At the captain’s call of assent, he went on. “Well then, come down, men. Let us leave her highness to her slumber at great height, shall we?”
This time she nearly did scream with despair, as the torchlight went with the guards, sinking down lower and lower along the stairs until only the faintest gleam from below reached her where she lay.
“Good night, dear,” the queen echoed up to her, and then with the painful creaking and a slam of the heavy wooden door all at once, the light vanished, and the princess was alone in the dark.
She shivered, the tower nothing so much as cold and damp, as well as pitch black all around her. Had the storm left no clouds behind in its passing, she might have had the meager light of the stars or moon to trickle in through the arrow slits. Instead, she lay upon a lumpy mattress in unrelenting darkness.
There was a weight to the dark, she realized as the hours or seconds passed. It pressed upon her, pushing her down flat against her towering bed, and she dared not move in case she set the pile shaking again as it had when the captain deposited her upon it.
The princess wanted sleep, needed rest so desperately her eyes itched with it and her head ached. She’d tried to tug one of the threadbare blankets from underneath her in hopes of combating the dropping temperatures, only to halt again at the tremoring beneath her. Worse yet, there was some kind of awful lump exactly beneath her, round and hard and near to the size of her fist or larger, digging painfully into the dip of her lower back.
She bit her lip and tried not to cry, hating the weakness her captors had forced upon her. She whimpered despite herself, and whispered “Why? Why would they do this?”
Her eyes opened, straining against the suffocating darkness as if searching for an answer in the blackness, but she was not prepared for the one that came.
The words whispered at first, so faintly she thought she imagined them, multiple voices from all around her above to the towers roof and down in the echoes near the door. The princess eased up on her elbows as carefully as she could, straining to hear as the whispers grew louder.
“Princess… a proper princess… a real princess…” The words hissed, sounding serpentine in the dark, and she began to shake with fear.
“Who – who’s there?” she tried to call out, but the words refused to make a sound as they passed her lips. She licked her lips, mouth suddenly so dry, and tried again. “Who’s there? What do you want?”
“What do you want?” came the answer, and this time the words were right against her ear, cold like the speaker lay right beside her.
This time, the princess could not contain her scream and she lunged from the mattress, scrambling for the stone of the stairs and sobbing as she scrabbled to hold on as the tiny mattress slid backward and plummeted from the pile to the ground far below. Arms aching, she dragged herself forward, feet trying for purchase against the stones, nails tearing off with tiny spikes of pain until with a last burst of strength, she pulled her dangling legs up and onto the meager safety of the landing at the top of the long staircase.
The princess crawled to huddle against the wall, too afraid to look over her shoulder at what had spoken, but also too terrified to leave it unseen at her back. Her gasping, panicked breaths loud in her ears, she turned slowly to put her back against the stone, peering out to stare at the mountain of mattresses.
It took a moment before she realized what was wrong about what she saw.
Or more, the fact that she could see at all.
She glanced across to the arrow slit on the far wall of the tower, but it was still as dark and starless as it had been when the torches left her in the black. So where was the light coming from? It was an eerie glow, greener and sickly, nothing at all like the bright warm glow of a candle flame, and it seemed to emanate from the very walls themselves, radiating outward toward her. As she watched in fascinated horror, the glow seemed to condense into vague shapes, then forms, then figures hovering in the air like lanterns hung on nothing.
Then, one of those figures appeared on the stone in front of her, pale light clarifying into a woman.
She was not real, the princess thought wildly, could not be real. And yet there she was, crouched before her, a ragged dress about her form swaying in some unseen wind as she stared unblinking at the princess before her. “Who – how?” the princess managed, shrinking back even closer to the wall. “What are you?”
“Princess…” the words came though the ghost – for what else could she be or so the princess thought wildly – did not appear to speak. As if the sound was a signal, other whispers began, the sounds scattered like the glowing indistinct forms around the tower. “A proper princess is lovely and meek… a gentle woman doesn’t argue with her betters… a serving girl should know her place…”
On and on, the words came to her ears, bitter and biting at her like the vicious flies of summer, all speaking of women and the ways they were meant to behave. She thought of the snide remarks the queen and her son had made, over and over, mocking her claim to be a princess, telling her what a princess should be, as if her failure to appear as perfectly such meant her nothing more than a liar, a pretender.
As if that thought was a trigger, the other vague forms of light began to solidify as well, revealing flickering faces of women of all walks of life, all of them wounded beyond repair in one way or another. Before her, the one who’d come closest cocked her head up, baring the gaping wound that slit her throat from ear to ear. The princess shuddered violently, wondering if that would be her fate, too.
The ghost nodded gravely. “You must stop them, princess… or join us.”
With that, she turned and nodded to the pile of mattresses, and despite her fear, the princess felt herself crawling forward to see. There, nestled atop the next mattress on the pile right where she had felt the hard unforgiving lump as she lay there, and all but glowing in the faint light, was a human skull. The princess felt herself begin to shake again and she pressed her hands to her mouth to keep from dissolving into screams. She forced herself to meet the ghost’s gaze, and the dead woman nodded again. “That was you,” she managed and was rewarded with another single nod. The princess took a deep breath, forcing herself to steady as resolve settled in her spine. “How do I stop them?”
The ghost rose and beckoned, and on trembling feet, the princess followed her step by step down the stairs. Beside them, the mattresses silently toppled one by one, each revealing the bleached white bones of the women who’d died in this place. The women she still might join. As she reached the bottom of the tower, treading carefully across the scattered mattresses filling the floor, she noticed one last mattress still in place upon the bedframe only now revealed. Upon it lay another skeleton, this one almost whole save for a missing skull she guessed had been the first she’d glimpsed.
And standing upright within the ribcage was a sharp vicious dagger.
The princess glanced around her at the sickly glowing spirits, each staring back at her with something like hunger. Then she stepped forward and reached for the dagger with both hands. Behind her the massive wooden door unlocked itself with a faint click, then soundlessly swung open.
The princess turned and followed to ghosts into the dark and toward whosever death awaited her.
About the Author
C.L. McCollum is a card carrying disaster bi of a SFF author who can never make up her mind between YA and adult. While her debut novel is on the road to publication, C. L. has contributed to multiple anthologies and also co-edits a charity anthology series known as “Clichés for a Cause.” She thinks “What is your favorite book?” is a trick question and impossible to answer, but if you have an hour to kill, she can talk about the hundreds she loves. Currently, C.L. is keeping it weird in Austin, TX with the love of her life and their various furry roommates.