Gunter’s wrathful howls briefly filled up the ambit of the creaking, frost-laden wood where the bodies of the dead lay like flowers from some other world of mescaline dream, swiftly swallowed by a snowstorms ceaseless churning as the survivors of the wael made for the cave, found it and huddled about in the middling-dark, scratching about for a fire. Villavic proved most proficient in the construction of a blaze and was consequently looked upon as a momentary savior as a light blossomed beneath his deft and dirtied hands, stiff-moving against the chill. The waif hunched beside him like a lost dog, her wide, coffee-grass eyes fixed upon the flames and her hands upon her knees. Even Gunter was momentarily bewitched by Villavic’s sorcerous generation and ceased his cursing and watched a while until Villavic asked Derrick to free the pugilist from his shackles. Derrick did so and Gunter thanked Villavic and asked why such solemnity afixed all faces and where to the rest of the party had gotten. Villavic suspected the boxer already knew but set himself down beside his small, smoldering fire and explained.
“All but those here.”
“Had you been successful in routing the women from the cave, they’d have died,” Villavic gestured to the waif, “She would have died. Do you understand, Mr. Gunter?”
“Aye. I think I might have gone a little mad.”
Villavic stifled a laugh, “Only a little?”
“Aye. I’m sorry.”
For a while, all were silent and contemplative as the wind ranged between the branches of the trees like the tortured souls of all those that had died there’neath. The barkeep, who sat opposite Villavic, finally broke the silence, his voice low and hushed and filled with the uneven trembling of fear.
“I can’t stop thinkin’ bout that skull. Out there. In the marsh.”
“What do ya think coulda done something like that?” Derrick asked to no one in particular, his eyes fastened to the fire. The barkeep shrugged. The crone spoke up then, emerging from the shadows at the far edge of the dancing light, “This place is cursed.”
“Ah, hell, woman, stop saying that.” The barkeep ejected with frustration. Villavic noticed a rising tension in the group, now but thirty in number, a paralyzing sense of uncertainty and terror. The old woman’s arcane pronouncements would only act as a stimulant. He thought it was prudent to intervene. No survival without general purpose and no general purpose without general knowledge.
“Alright, settle down, now. We’ve a bad enough spot of it without working ourselves up any further.”
The young woman, Ericka, turned towards Villavic where he sat in the middle of the cavern, beside the fire on an odd-shaped rock liken to a throne and there was venom in her eyes and tongue alike.
“My husband is dead.”
“He is. Losing your focus and letting your emotions overtake you will only increase the likelihood that you will join him. I have known many a couple and, given this knowledge, I can induce that he would, were he still with us, want you to survive. Don’t you?”
The woman feel into silent weeping as Villavic rose, stretched and took stock of the back of the cave, opposite the entrance, where the flour had been stashed. Then he removed from a hidden inner pocket in his jacket a small, leather-bound journal and a mechanical pen and set himself backdown upon his rock.
“Tell me your names.”
“Why?” Inquired the barkeep.
“Because, if we all die, it would be helpful for whoever finds us to know, all the better to circumvent a unmarked grave.”