Marcus waved his torch in front of him as he crept through the low passage within the cave. The air was close and smelled of moss. The walls of the cave seemed to be slowly digesting Marcus as his mail scraped against the damp stone. He couldn’t lose the sense of unease that had followed him into the cave. The blind man’s smile was still clear in his mind and the feeling crept up his spine like a finger of ice.
His steps echoed through the pitch darkness and his stomach clenched tight. Something wasn’t right about this cave but he felt a strange compulsion to press forward. A king must never show fear, he could almost see his father’s gaunt and stoic face. Marcus took a small measure of comfort in the memory and crouched down even lower to proceed.
He bumped and clambered through the caverns, repeatedly hitting his head on the ceiling or cutting his hand on a jagged stone until the cold and hard texture of rock was replaced with the wet, sticky feel of a spider’s web. Marcus almost dropped his torch, he was so surprised. A massive spider’s web formed a shroud that blocked his way.
He tried to swallow the lump in his throat and pulled at web. As he did, a small army of spiders the size of his fist scurried across the cave floor up the walls. Marcus shook, his childhood fear bubbling up inside him. He felt the furry leg of one of the beasts against his hand and he waved his torch back and forth in panic. More nightmares crawled out of their burrows and holes in the ground and scurried away from the flame. Marcus crushed one under his boot and kept the torch in front of him. As they passed him, the insects emitted a skin-crawling noise. Marcus pushed himself through the web, desperate to escape the creatures crawling around him.
On the other side, Marcus found himself in an open space within the cave, illuminated by a distant and thin shaft of light. He stepped forward as if the light were a sign from the heavens. Though as he walked forward, he suddenly felt a wave of cold air wrap around him. It was an unearthly cold that seemed to cut right through his cloak and latched onto his heart.
Marcus felt a bolt of terror tear from his throat down to his balls. He gripped the torch as tight as he could. “Who’s there?!” he cried out into the din.
“You know who it is.” The voice replied. Marcus’s stomach tied itself in knots and he wanted to throw up. This couldn’t be real. Surely he was ill and this was a fever dream. Or perhaps his mind was playing tricks on him in the dark.
“You look frightened” the voice said, awash in predatory malice and arrogance. Marcus unsheathed his sword and held it forward along with his torch. “Show yourself!” he challenged, trying desperately to keep his voice steady.
“I’m right here.” The voice said behind him close enough that he could feel the words pouring into his ear. Marcus turned and to his horror saw a tall man standing before him. The man was pale and gaunt with a gash that ran the width of his belly. Bright red innards hung by his feet. The stains of blood streaked out of his mouth. Marcus dropped his sword.
“This isn’t real.” Marcus said aloud, his hands trembling.
“Isn’t it? It certainly seems real enough to me.” The man said, his face still contorted in a malevolent smile. “You’re not here. This is all just a dream.” Marcus declared, trying to assure himself as much as he was trying to dispel the specter in front of him.
The ghost laughed, “Ahh Marcus. You haven’t changed at all. Clinging to dreams when reality proves too daunting.” Marcus didn’t know how to respond. He was afraid to move or else he’d have dove headfirst into a sea of insects to escape.
“What are you?” Marcus finally forced himself to say. “Such a thing to say. Don’t tell me you don’t recognize me. Has it really been so long since we last met?” the ghost replied, circling Marcus.
“It can’t be…you can’t be here!” Marcus said, his breath quickly escaping his body. The realization slowly poured over him like pitch.
“But I am here.” The ghost retorted, “Tell me Marcus: how well does that crown fit?”
Marcus had to turn his face away from the ghost’s jet-black eyes. His armor suddenly felt impossibly heavy, anchoring him in place as the ghost continued.
“Does it fit you snug or do you find it heavy and oversized?”
“What does it matter to you?” Marcus said, still averting his eyes. Suddenly, he felt the ghost’s dead hands grab him by the throat and lift him into the air.
“It..was…MINE!” the ghost roared into his face. Marcus had tried to forget that temper but here it was, more terrifying than anything he had seen in his childhood.
“Mine! And you stole it from me. Can you tell me why?” The ghost released him and Marcus felt shame now mixing with his fear. It was a shame he’d buried for years. As it surfaced, it choked him and left him speechless.
“You can’t can you?” the ghost looked down on him, disgust etched across every feature, “You can’t even admit to it after all this time?”
Marcus tried to speak but nothing came.
“You’re pathetic. Still the same simple whelp unfit to bear our father’s name, much less his crown.” The ghost looked up, too repulsed to stare down anymore.
The words were clawing at the inside of Marcus’s skull and he felt tears burning behind his eyes.
“I am the king.” He forced himself to say, practically gagging as he did. The phantom turned, his gaze now one of cold hatred.
“You’re a coward. Did mother have to comfort you when father laid my body upon the pyre? Did you look away when they set me on fire?” Marcus remembered the funeral and how he refused to hold mother’s hand for fear she’d notice the trembling.
“And now you hide your cowardice with bluster and arrogance. All your good nature and all your regal bearing. But I know the truth.” The ghost said, slowly crouching down, causing more of its intestines to spill out of his wound.
“Stop it!” Marcus cried out, covering his face with his arms, desperate to silence the voice.
“Do you know that the truth is?” the ghost taunted him. Marcus crawled away, reaching for his torch. The ghost snuffed out the flame and continued to lean closer to Marcus’s face.
“All your victories, all your titles and all your splendor can neither hide what you are nor erase what you’ve done.”
Marcus felt tears streaming down his cheeks and he begged for the ghost to stop. He threw his cloak over himself and pressed his hands firmly against his ears, no longer trying to escape.
“You’ll never be rid of me, kinslayer.” The ghost said. Marcus screamed out into the darkness as the voice echoed off the cave walls and inside his head.
The pale shaft of light vanished, leaving Marcus huddled on ground, his brother’s laugh ringing in his ears.