The expedition of Vladimir Von Kaufer had been planned for months. It was widely known in Vladimir’s Hungarian hometown– a place notorious for spreading small news in big ways. The little village, as it was more apt to call it, consisted of about thirty homes. Each of them was situated in two circles of fifteen that expanded outward from the town-square in its center. The square, in turn, was a circle of a dozen buildings of varying sizes and uses.
The aforementioned represented the entirety of the village. It had a most peculiar name that, though known to residents, rolled so harshly off the tongue they merely called it “The Village” or “Home.” When abroad, and asked where the residents came from, most merely answered “Hungary.” Others parroted “the country,” as if their rural dwelling were the only in existence. For many of them, it might well have been.
The Village was such a melding of old-time living with new-world ways that on first glance, one would be forgiven for thinking it a town of Luddites. Anyone venturing in to visit its shops, or pass by at night would quickly recognize their error. Though the people kept the quaint, homely appearance for their own pleasure, it was as much civilized as any other place. Indeed, in some ways, more-so.
Thus, Von Kaufer’s expedition was bound to attract some measure of renown as soon as it escaped his lips. He made preparations for days, planning the best route to and through the cavern he would traverse. He hired on neighbors and friends to follow him in, promised a share of credit and loot if found.
Legend had it that long ago a gypsy caravan had run off with an entire estate after its owners had disappeared. Before the estate of the wealthy couple could be auctioned off, or passed to kin, the gypsies had raided it. So the legend went that all they left behind were the brick-walls and cobwebs. The caravan fled authorities, fearing discovery, and hid their boon for later recovery in the cavern.
It was said however, that the gypsy caravan had never been able to return. Over a decade, all manner of ills befell them until only one family-member remained. The old man, even more ancient than he’d been when liberating the possessions, could find no-one to follow him. He was said to have died a vagrant’s death steps from the mouth of the cavern where his boon lay hidden. The unmarked grave in The Village’s churchyard lent credence to at least some of these facts.
It was with this in mind that Vladimir Von Kaufer set about his planning. The cave had claimed many through its treacherous obstacles. No matter how far similar expeditions had made it inside, the cavern’s end seemed ever beyond reach. Some expeditions, ill-provisioned for the trek, had even returned unharmed and utterly dismayed. Most of their leaders lived in despair of their failure afterward. With their places as laughing-stock in folk-lore, they could never again convince others to follow them to that grisly place.
Von Kaufer however, had the upstanding confidence of all the Village’s people. As soon as the utterance came from his lips, men and women lined up to follow. It was as if his very reputation guaranteed he not return empty-handed. His own determination ensured it.
A week before the expedition was set to begin however, Vladimir fell ill. He was deathly pale, his hands cold and clammy, and his eyes sunken. He looked as though he had lost all the blood from his body. Indeed, his doctors concluded an anemic attack of unknown cause had thinned his blood to dangerous levels. That whole week passed with him in varying states of decay.
Then, for two whole days, Vladimir teetered on the brink of death. With him, the Village held their breath in hopes of his recovery so that he might complete his expedition. It would undoubtedly be the ultimate triumph, especially after so deathly an illness.
He rose from his bed on the second night, once more strong and colorful. Though the coldness of his skin had yet to abate, he assured everyone he would continue the expedition at once. Having already been past schedule by two days, he rounded up his team from their nearby homes, and set forth at-once for the cavern.
He rallied them at the mouth of the cavern before dawn, and plunged for its depths. Aided by head lamps, climbing ropes, harnesses and other miscellanea, they descended with their own weight in rations and water. Vladimir was certain they could not turn back lest they fail and never return. Each person in their own right agreed and loaded themselves amply.
For the first day, there was nothing ominous. They crossed chasms and scaled precipices in single file. When it came time to rest, it was past noon on the surface. The mile of rock between them and the sun cast them in darkness all the same.
The group collectively set down to eat and sleep, doing both with vigor. They awoke hours later with to find their number one less than they’d been before. Vladimir was disappointed. The man must have left, gone in the night so as to not be deterred by his leader or companions. The leader himself seemed to pity him, but rallied the group again and set forth.
Again, more climbing of plateaus, reverse-scaling of precipices and crossing of chasms all with a downward attitude. They neared the furthest point ever traversed, the cavern’s sometimes jagged, claustrophobic passages confirmed the fact. After one, particularly harrowing passage, the cavern opened up, and they took rest for the night.
Nine became seven. Two more had left. A man and a woman. They had previously been enamored with one another, smitten to the point that they must have convinced one another to flee. Nonetheless, the expedition would continue, the shares more robustly divided.
Vladimir led them forward at once, passed scattered skeletons from a lost expedition. The dusty bones and tattered rags of clothing from a past age infected the air with a lingering dread. It lasted until they bedded down again several hours later.
Again they awoke to fewer numbers. Seven became four. Vladimir seemed to halfheartedly dismiss the attitudes of the departed compatriots. All the same, they searched about, finding but one small trace of blood. A drip, only partially dried to brown, was muddled by the dust and dirt-laced floor.
A shudder went among the remaining expedition. Vladimir himself seemed unaffected. Perhaps it was by his cunning or confidence that he inspected the area. He felt around with his finger-less-gloved hands on the walls. Near the drip on a wall he found yet another fleck, evidently at hand height. It seemed someone had leaned against the rather sharp bit of rock too hard before fleeing.
No matter, Vladimir told the others, it was as rational an explanation as any. The other three, remaining comrades felt that so-present dread. Still they packed their sleeping equipment, and ventured forth, led as always by Von Kaufer’s vigor and tenacity.
It was during one of their short breaks that another comrade seemed to make off for nowhere. She had left her pack near the others and gone off to relieve herself. Much like Von Kaufer, she’d isolated herself for a moment, but unlike him, she never returned.
Vladimir spirits finally felt the blow. He had but two comrades left; one male and one female, whom both seemed as determined as he to go forward. Again they started forth, that awful dread afflicting even Vladimir’s seemingly unassailable vitality. When at last they bedded down for the night, Vladimir sank into a kind of depression. Even if by some means the treasure existed, he’d never offset the cost of the expedition by retrieving only one-fifth of the share. That was to say nothing of the lost hope of becoming wealthier off it.
He lie down to rest only to awake and find the last man gone. He, alone with the woman, would continue forward. There was equally as much dread between them now. Some phantom force, it felt, had cursed their expedition and would forever hound them. Still they climbed, descended, leapt and crawled. They knew not when the end of the cavern might come, but forewent sleep to ensure they see it as soon as possible.
It was nearly forty-eight hours after that last man had left Vladimir and the woman alone that they descended into a pit. From the wall they’d started down, they trudged forward. Their limbs and eyes were heavy, but their eyes wide, alert, peeled for anything signaling their boon.
Their headlamps swept the ceiling and walls for ways out of the pit. They found none. It was then that their lights flitted along the floors. Gold sparkles froze them. Their minds were stuck, stunned by what lay before them.
The far-wall was piled with gold and silver. Rubies and Sapphires gleamed in golden cups. Emeralds shined from inlaid fittings in silver cutlery and other tableware. Mounds of coins of gold, silver, even bronze, were scattered in a marvelous painting of riches. Priceless artworks in dusty, wooden frames seemed untouched by the ages. With them were equally earthen-hued trunks and cases which later revealed infinitely more jewelry.
Von Kaufer and the woman, Anika, embraced in excitement and triumph. They even kissed deeply, as though possessed by animal carnation at their success. It was then that Vladimir parted from Anika and stepped back a few paces.
“I must confess,” he said formally. “Five of those eight whom fled are not in the Village.”
Anika’s brow furrowed. She looked about to question him. His face flashed. All of his features became squared and pointed, including his carnivorous teeth. His eyes glowed yellow with fearsome slits and his back became arched as if poised to pounce. He expected Anika to recoil in terror.
Instead, she laughed heartily, “Three of those eight too, are neither home nor yet live.”
Her face took on a similar disposition. Anika’s blue eyes turned ice-cold white. Her back arched too, and her arms and legs became sinuous, her teeth long.
Vladimir laughed too. Their faces reverted, he stepped over and placed a hand in the small of her back, directing her to stand beside him as if his bride. They stared at the pile of riches together, chuckling for a long while.
There and then, Vladimir looked into Anika’s eyes and smiled, “We shall return to the village with as much as we can carry, then come back for the rest, no matter how many trips it takes.”
Anika flashed a deranged, predatory smile, “Then we will take the whole village, and add it to the pile in our home.”
Together they laughed with malice. They parted to begin stuffing their pockets. Vladimir had to admit it wasn’t what he’d expected, but it certainly wasn’t for the worse. His homecoming would only be but an extension of his good fortune. Together, he and Anika would reign, King and Queen, over the Village, as it drowned in blood.
She caught his eye over a mound of gold she sifted, “It will be a fabulous honeymoon.”