09 Jun The Valley Collection
“The Valley Collection”Written by Heath Pfaff Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 16 minutes
I was twenty the first time I entered the Valley of Shadows. It is a place that ruins what it touches. Madness, desolation, violence, mayhem, they’re not words of description, but words of definition. These are not the things which describe the valley. They are the things which the valley has written onto reality.
While my friends had gone off to college, I’d kept my job at my father’s pawn shop. I wasn’t ambitious enough to move away from the simple life I had. My parents gave me a job and an apartment over their house. I thought life was fulfilling as it was.
Things would have stayed that way if not for the death of our town mayor, Phillip Scothern. Phill was the last of an old bloodline, a lineage of collectors that dated back over a thousand years, and it was rumored that the Scothern collection was passed to the family from an even older collection of antiquities. I didn’t know any of this at the time. I just thought he was a rich bastard who’d kicked the bucket, and he was making more work for me because my father had gone to the estate sale and bought as much as he could.
“I don’t even know what half this shit is, but I want it all cataloged. Google the stuff you don’t recognize. Anything that looks like it might be worth a good bit and won’t take up too much floor space goes right out into the display cases!” Father had spent close to a hundred grand on stuff from the estate sale, and our warehouse was just full of it. I didn’t mind having to work there for a while. It was quiet.
There was a ton of old furniture, and I knew that it was worth a small fortune, but only if we took the time to sell it online. Dad didn’t like doing the online stuff, so I’d end up getting that figured out on my own time. He wanted stuff for the floor, so I went to one of many, many boxes labeled “Curiosities” and opened it.
I poured through those boxes for days, organizing things as I went, but then I found a box labeled “Valley Collection.” It was the first of these crates not simply labeled “Curiosities.” Inside was one item, a chest. I had to open the crate fully to get the chest out, and when I did, I was surprised to find that it seemed to be of terracotta make. The ceramic was green with rust running from metal fittings giving it the look of aged copper.
Curious about what might be in the box, I attempted to open it, only to discover the lock was still in working order, or else the box was sealed shut by age. I pulled out the box manifest and read it over to see if it mentioned a key.
Old treasure chest found in a room that was otherwise empty. The words “Valley Collection” were on a placard near the door. Box is locked. Key is missing, but if found, it will be made available to the auction winner.
I was disappointed that there apparently was no way to open the box, but I gave it one last look over anyway. The hinges and lock were old and rusty, but they still seemed solid. I thought I might be able to break the terracotta, but that would destroy the value of the box on its own, and it looked very old. That usually meant valuable.
I finished logging it in the book and turned around to find the box open. The lock had been released, and the lid had opened. My feeling of confusion was tempered by curiosity. Perhaps while trying to free the lid, I’d set off some kind of hidden opening mechanism? It was easy enough to wave aside any strangeness in exchange for access to the box’s interior.
I approached it with none of the fear or respect I should have. Inside were things I didn’t understand at the time. They all sat on a bed of strange white rocks. I reached into the box and drew out the first item: a piece of glass-like rock about the size of my fist. It was strange to touch, cold and almost humming in my hand as though something inside it was vibrating at an incredible rate of speed. I didn’t like holding it, and I didn’t find it pleasant to look at. Later I would determine that it was most likely a piece of trinitite, though a piece that was far older than it could have possibly been.
The next item inside the box was a small vial of liquid that was so dark it seemed to absorb light that passed too near it. I pulled this item out as well, but like the rock, it was unpleasant to touch. The vial was just glass with a stopper in the top, but it made my skin crawl to touch the container. I put it down quickly and moved on to the next item.
This one was unlike the others. While the other had felt wrong, and had immediately made me not like them, this item I had trouble touching for other reasons. It looked like a slightly lopsided black cube, but I couldn’t seem to put my hand on it. I reached for it and tried to grip the contours of the box, but suddenly it wasn’t in my hand, yet I could feel it in my palm. Seeing it not in my hand, but feeling it there at the same time was startling. I shook my head, trying to clear the break between my two different sets of senses. My fingers brushed over the stones in the bottom of the box. They were lighter than they looked, like bone fragments instead of stone.
I staggered backward, and my head swam as though I’d been on the verge of blacking out. I blinked, trying to clear my eyes, and the warehouse splintered and crawled away from me, vanishing into an altogether different terrain.
I felt sick. My stomach twisted and my head spun as I attempted to make sense of this new madness that was surrounding me. My foot shifted and stuck in the ground at my feet, causing me to fall forward onto my knees. I hit hard, crunching down into the loose white stone that covered the ground as far as I could see.
White hills rose around me, towering over me on both sides and clawing at the sky above. The night was impossibly black but for clouds that were white-edged knots of churning anger that swam in the sea of infinite dark beyond them.
The sun hung overhead in one direction, but it wasn’t the sun I knew. It was a silver disk with a white corona that shone with dark light. It hurt me to look at it, but not my eyes. The pain was deep in my chest, and then it radiated up to my head, spiking out into my skull as though growing legs and running wild.
I fought back to my feet, finding it difficult to stand in the loose stone, or bone as it might have been. Already I was reeling from this place. It was too alien to comprehend. The shadows came to me next, wafting up from the stones like wisps of black smoke. There were three groups of them, surrounding me in a triangle. I counted ten in one of the groups, and all three looked the same size, but I could focus enough to count the others. I knew they meant harm for me the moment I saw them.
“What is this place?” I asked, and the words sounded close, as though they were being whispered in my ear.
I was so startled that I turned to my side, and standing just inches from me was one of the shadow things. I was no longer certain if I had spoken or if it had. The facial features of the thing were almost impossible to read until a light flickered to life from inside its skull, a scalding orange glow that lit up its eye sockets and exploded from the hole where its mouth should be. It had no other features.
At that moment I thought I was dead, that something full of such unbridled malice would surely kill me, but it didn’t. It reached forward a three-pronged hand and pressed it to my chest. The “fingers” cut into my chest as if my flesh offered no resistance. I tried to move away only to find that my feet were rooted in place.
Pain lanced through my body, and the air was filled with an awful, dry scraping that came in staccato rasps. Laughter. The shadows were laughing in pleasure at my suffering. I screamed until the dark valley echoed with my voice. Finally, I fell backward.
“We offer tribute.” A voice echoed around me, coming from everywhere at once.
The ground that met my back was harder than I expected it to be, and I realized I was staring up at the ceiling of the warehouse. My body ached from head to toe, a pain so bad that I could do nothing but lie upon the floor and weep. Time blurred into a haze of agony that seemed to go on for hours.
As the torment finally ebbed away, I pushed myself to a sitting position, reaching up to grab the place on my chest where the shadow thing had touched me. Three holes were torn through my shirt, and when I lifted it to look below, there were three purple and black bruises. Around them was a halo of dark skin that was riddled with small holes. Touching it caused me pain, and a feeling of deep revulsion turned my stomach.
I pulled my shirt back down and stood up, and it was only as I did so that I noticed the object on the ground next to me. It was a figurine carved of blue stone that depicted a creature of such bizarre configuration that I couldn’t understand the orientation of what I was seeing. It made no sense in accordance with any living thing I knew of, and yet I knew it represented an entity that lived in some space beyond our own.
I picked up the object as I got up on shaky legs and I threw it into the box, pushing the lid back down and closing the lock. My hands shook, and cold sweat poured from my brow and down my back. Worse, I kept seeing the valley, images of it filling my vision and occluding reality.
I knew immediately that I couldn’t leave the box there for someone else to find. I did what I had to. I remade the inventory sheet and removed all references to the Valley Collection box, and then I took it and dumped it into the trunk of my car. Hours had passed. It was night, and I had missed calls on my phone, but none of that mattered. I couldn’t think of anything but the valley.
I returned home and shoved the box into a spare room in my apartment. I was so afraid of the box that I took the lock off my front door and installed it into the bedroom just so I could lock the thing away. It was a half-measure, I knew. I needed time to figure out what I had to do next.
There was never a moment where I questioned what I’d seen, what had happened. I bore a physical mark as proof, and the taint of what I’d seen was inside of me, a disease that I would never be rid of.
The next day my father repeatedly called until I answered and told him I was sick and wouldn’t be in. He took me at my word as I rarely called into work. Those first few hours were spent pacing in front of the door of the room in which I’d locked the box. I knew that my reactions would be construed as strange, but I also understood that the box had to be kept away from others. At this point I thought it was merely an impulse to protect those around me, but I soon figured out that it was more than that.
I began to see the box as mine, a possession that I didn’t want to share with anyone. I frequently convinced myself that I was saving others from the valley, but the desire to make it mine was the stronger impulse. It might be difficult to understand why I needed the box.
Imagine going through your life in dour normality only to discover that magic was real. To me, it was as though reality had opened up and shown me that the fantastic could be true. I never lost sight of the fact that it was horrible, that this knowledge was a curse, but I allowed myself to believe that the horror was worth suffering through for the pursuit of the mystic.
Over time I resumed some illusion of normality, all the while probing the mysteries of the box. I opened it repeatedly and began a catalog of the items inside. I counted twenty-four distinct items that were in the box, but just because they were in the box, it didn’t mean that I could always see them within the box.
Opening the chest allowed me to see two or three items at a time, occasionally more or less. I took them out and wrote about them in a private journal I kept. They were all tainted, objects of the valley, and they ranged from mundane to unfathomable. It took me two years of study to determine exactly how many objects existed, since it was impossible to discern a pattern to how they came and went.
What I did learn quite quickly is that the black stone, the most powerful of the chest’s treasures, was also the least frequent to appear. Counting the first encounter I had with it in the warehouse, it appeared a total of two times in two years. The second time it appeared, I was far too frightened to try and touch it again.
The third time was different. By the third appearance of the black stone, I had become completely undone. It was five years after my first visit to the valley, and I was living in my family’s run-down cabin, having worn out my welcome in their apartment. I’d stopped working, and began to spend all of my time with the chest. The cabin was a place they never went anymore, on property they’d almost forgotten they owned. It was in a quiet place where I was less worried that someone might find me and what was mine.
With the stone’s third appearance, I returned to the valley, and it welcomed me back in a way that only it could. I was a changed man from my last visit, but familiarity did nothing to ease the pressure of that place. I expected to face the shadows of my first visit, but I was not in the same place when I arrived this time. This time, though I still stood within the valley, bones beneath my feet, I was at the shore of a lake which lapped thickly at the worn bone. The water was black like that in the vial that appeared in the chest.
The sense of dread and corruption I felt was as terrible as it had been the first time, and the scars on my chest, the points that had never faded in all the years since I’d gotten them, began to ache deep inside of me.
“I have questions!” I yelled, my voice traveling nowhere as though the air was too thick for it. “What is this place?” I’d prepared so much I wanted to know, and found myself suddenly afraid that I would get none of the answers I needed. I’d steeled myself to face the shadows again, but there was no sign of them.
I heard the crunching of something walking through the bleak white terrain of the valley, and turned to see what it was. The thing behind me wasn’t like the shadows from my first visit. This creature looked like a human skeleton with some of the flesh and muscle remaining, but all of it was suffused with a tar-like black substance that seemed to bind it together. The head had black horns rising from its crown, apparently made of the same material as the tar that bound the body together.
Its dark, empty eyes bore into me.
“What do you want from me?” I began to ask it but only made it about halfway before this undead monstrosity flashed forward at unbelievable speed. It was too fast and too strong for me to resist. It grabbed me by the neck and slammed me into the black water at my back. I hit so hard that the air was knocked from my lungs just as my face splashed beneath the surface of the water.
I gasped in, and I felt the foul liquid pull down my throat and into my lungs. Every part of my mind screamed panic, rejecting the liquid filling my lungs. I tried to choke as specks of black began to fill my vision, but whatever was in the lake was somehow sentient. It was trying to climb down my throat even as I attempted to cough it back up. My hands clawed at the grip on my throat, ripping into sticky filth that might as well have been coating steel bars for all that my hands did.
My struggling ended quickly. I felt myself die.
I woke, gasping for breath and coughing up black filth. I was in the back room of the cabin again, in front of the chest. I pounded a fist into the ground, not sure if I was going to drown or die from the pain in my chest. I pulled my shirt open to look at the wound on my chest and let out a small shriek as I saw that the blackened flesh around the three old bruises had spread even further. The holes were bigger in places, and the corruption was now out halfway onto my chest, covering my lower neck and out onto my shoulder. Worse, I could feel something moving inside of the holes.
I dragged myself into the bathroom, where I filled the tub from the rain catcher on the roof. The water was cold, but I didn’t care as I pulled myself over the side of the tub and into the filled basin. The shock of the cold was nothing compared to anything I’d just experienced.
I stayed in the water until the pain finally began to subside. When I did leave the bath I discovered that my corrupted flesh still felt vaguely as though something was moving from inside of the wounds. Trying to dig in and see what this was just caused me agony, so I ignored the nagging sensation as best I could manage.
I made my way back to the chest room. The chest was still open, and there was a black horn lying on the ground by the puddle I’d coughed up. I grabbed the new artifact and placed it into the box. The shifting black cube was gone from inside of the chest again. I was angry and confused. I felt manipulated, as though I had somehow served the collection, when I had been intending to have it serve me. Did I own the Valley Collection, or had it taken ahold of me?
That was the first time I considered that, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Over sixteen years, there were four more trips into the valley, each maiming me further and returning me with a fresh sense of horror and no more answers for the torment. I saw things that no eyes were meant to witness, and never did I get an answer, nor did I ever get further than the valley. I began to suspect the valley was eternal, and that even had I the time to try and walk up one of the hills, I would find that I never escaped from the base of the valley.
The infection in my flesh had spread with each visit. It was over my shoulders and up my neck, covering most of my torso and back. After the fourth trip my left eye went blind, becoming white and glassy. At times I thought I could see something moving within the orb in the mirror. I couldn’t visit a doctor. I had no way of explaining what was happening, and too many questions might lead people back to the chest, something that I couldn’t conceive of allowing.
This entire time I had been voraciously reading everything I could find that might have something to do with the Valley Collection. I investigated the Scothern family, tracking them back to their roots, looking for any mention of the Valley Collection, or references to the items I knew to be in the box. There were 29 items now, one new for each of my trips into the valley. All of my research was for nothing. There was nothing! Nothing.
Until, after my fifth visit to the valley, I looked in the place I should have gone first: my father’s warehouse. My parents had died years before, victims of a random act of violence in their own home. I’d inherited all of my father’s considerable assets, including the old warehouse.
Amongst all of the items I myself had cataloged was a nondescript book titled Consequence. I found it while crawling through the forgotten items that I’d considered useless for years. On this occasion I opened it and read randomly from the top of a page in the middle of the book.
“. . . larvae riddled flesh was impossible to treat, though binding spells slow the spread while in the valley.”
I knew in that one sentence that I had finally found what I’d been looking for since I’d discovered the chest. I read the entire book from cover to cover, and then immediately started it again, looking for more, hoping to find truths hidden within the words that might mean I had misunderstood what I read the first time.
The Valley Collection started with the black cube, and that cube had always been within the terracotta box for as long as anyone knew. There were rules for safely handling the box, but the list was one that I had managed to check off entirely. If there was a method of taking care, I had already thrown it aside.
The book couldn’t answer exactly what disregarding these rules meant, but it gave clues. The infection I had, a larval infection caused by the touch of the valley guardians, was incurable. At the first stage it could be cut away, but beyond that it was too deep to cleanse. Only my close proximity to the box was keeping me alive. If I were to move too far away, the larvae would chew their way out of my body. They’d already taken over vital parts of me. I only didn’t notice because they controlled pain reception in my head and kept me alive using that black tar from the valley.
Why did they keep me alive? That was simple. I was taking part in a ritual that I hadn’t even been aware of. It was a ritual started thousands of years before. Each of the thirty guardians of the valley was giving me a gift, one per trip. In my foolish desire to find answers, I’d contributed more items to the collection than any other recorded caretaker. Only one item remained, and then the ritual would be complete and…and that was still a mystery.
Whatever might happen, one needs only experience the valley a single time to understand that fulfilling the will of those who stood in rule over such a place would be a grave mistake. So I sat in a new type of horror, contemplating what I had done and what I might do next. There was a mad desire in me to look for the black cube again, to return to the valley one last time so I might see what awaited with the 30th gift.
No. I knew I had to stop. I had to become a proper caretaker of the Valley Collection. I had already done too much damage. I returned to the box, walking into the room to find that the chest was open.
“This game is over.” I talked to it as though it might hear me. “There will be no more trips to the valley. I am done.” I marched to the chest with the intent of closing and locking the box, but as I leaned over to do so, my eyes caught on the shifting shape of the black cube.
I reached forward and then stepped sharply back, grabbing my reaching hand with the other to draw it back. What had I almost done? What was wrong with me? Shakily I reached out to grab the top of the box and close it, but a prickling along my back made me turn around instead.
The room containing the box was already dark, but something darker still stood between me and the door.
“Finish it,” it spoke, and pointed at the chest.
“You can’t be here.” I tried to keep my voice full of conviction, but it sounded weak even to my ears.
It stepped towards me, and I turned to face the box again. I didn’t mean to, but my legs made the turn without my volition.
“No!” I cried out, but again I sounded desperate and pathetic. I felt a hand on my arm and looked down to see the shadow gripping my arm. “You can’t be here,” I whispered.
“We are always here.” It pulled my arm forward, dragging it down into the box. For just a moment, I thought I glimpsed squirming tendrils rising from my skin and forcing my arm into motion, but then the shadow was there again. I didn’t know which was real, but I had to guess it was the worms. I was further out of control than I had thought.
“Please!” I screamed as my fingers snapped out, crawling through the box like a spider to grip the black cube.
Laughter rose up around me, dry and brittle. It was a laughter I hadn’t heard in many years. In confusion, I realized that my hand was holding something, and when I opened my fingers, it was gone, but I was looking down upon ground covered in small round chunks of bone. The hills of the valley rose up around me.
A shadow added the thirtieth item to the valley collection.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available