By Lucas Zhou
Fresh from the military academy, Colonel Bauer was a quiet young man whose bright, seafoam- green eyes captured the hearts of the high society ladies of Vienna. In normal times he spoke with a soft voice. When a flustered young servant ran into the parlor waving a telegram from Linz in his hands, everything changed. After reading it he jumped up with a sort of excitement which startled his love, the daughter of a steel baron. They had been enjoying a tea together.
“What,” she asked, putting down her book, “is the fuss about?”
“A coach was robbed near Manteau Wood. Driver took a shortcut instead of taking the main roads!” He said. “Among the contents was a serpent that was cast in the silver melted down from an urn that once belonged to Napoleon who had stolen it from Egypt. They say it casts bad omens wherever it is moved, and to that I say good riddance. Once it fell into the hands of a Sicilian fisherman whose town got ruined by a tidal wave. They pried the thing out of his dead hands!”
“Surely you don’t believe in such things? These are only stories, after all, Colonel Bauer,” she said, cocking an eyebrow. “There is nobody who has witnessed the evidence of curses firsthand. I would suggest taking it back.”
“You may be right, Frau Hausner…. but wouldn’t you let things run their natural course?”
“I am a skeptic. A doubter, if you will. And one thing I can tell you for certain, is that luck isn’t truly a miracle. It’s a cascade of events leading to the next, the next, so forth, until we find something, all I have to say is that your soldierly duties are calling.”
“I am impressed by your thoughts.” Colonel Bauer ran a hand through his ruffled brown hair, unsure of what to think about what she had just said. “What an interesting proposition that was, Frau Hausner……I should go now.” He picked up his coat from the chaise lounge, curtly put his arms through the sleeves and fastened the buttons. Holding his cap near his heart, he turned to his love.
“I suppose I would be gone for two days at the most.” He said, “There’s no need to worry.”
“I’m not too worried about you not coming back, I’m worried about you running off to do other things.” She offered her hand.
“This time I will come back. I had promised to meet Joseph for a good lunch on Friday.” He replied, quickly kissing her hand, and putting his cap upon his head, “I will be back.”
An hour later, he was marching in unison on the shoulder of the road at the head of the regiment he had been called to lead.
The afternoon rays of sunlight streamed down through the trees, falling on the ruined carriage with personal effects and papers strewn across the dirt road. The horses that had pulled it lay still in their harnesses. The driver and footman sprawled under the splintered timber and twisted brass.
A private bent down, placing two fingers on the driver’s limp wrist, and then on the footman’s jugular.
“I don’t feel any pulse. They are dead,” he said.
“Poor souls. The work of the curse, if I say so myself. We’ll send for another party to recover the bodies. We are here to apprehend whoever took the serpent,” Colonel Bauer said to the men. “I was told earlier that they had fled deep into the southern part of the wood where it is easy for one to hole up for the spring and summer seasons. Let’s spread out to cover more area. Rifles should be at the ready. When dusk falls, use your compass to find your way back to the road. We shall meet there.”
He watched the men, one by one, disappear into the woods, the vibrant dark blue uniforms melting into the muted brown and gray.
White smoke curled skywards from the lone cabin’s smokestack. The building was the only one for perhaps miles around. Two horses had been hitched up to the post near the door.
Quite a few of Colonel Bauer’s party had spotted the rising smoke too. They sat down at the southeastern edge of the clearing to rest in the last rays of the afternoon sunlight, rifles across their laps.
“Do you think this is their hideaway?” Colonel Bauer asked, “I’d hate to be intruding on a woodsman resting after a day’s work.”
“It’s the only one for miles around, and I tracked horse-tracks leading from the road to this clearing,” one of the soldiers said as he took a drink from his canteen. “I’m sure the thieves are there. You really think there’s some curse attached to it, do you?”
“Who knows where that urn had been before it was melted down into the serpent? I suppose it was all over the place…” Colonel Bauer drew the revolver from his holster, raising it to his ear to hear all six clicks of the cylinder. “God knows what havoc that serpent had sown in times before, and the urn before that. In addition to completing our duties for the state, we are retrieving it before the thieves use it for their own gains. I see no qualms in paying a social call.”
The others got up with their rifles. It was the sound of readiness-rounds being inserted and bolts closing.
“My rifle is loaded. At your orders, sir,” one of them said.
“I’m ready as well, Colonel Bauer,” another added.
“So am I.” Colonel Bauer cocked the revolver’s hammer, holding it in one hand, “We are at the southeast of the clearing. You two, sneak around the side and kick down the side door. That will take them by surprise.” He motioned to his lead men. “The rest with me, stop their escape from the front door. Let’s hope we can get this back without shots being fired.” As much as he would have loved to let things be the way they were and let the supposed curse run along with someone else…they had to get it back. Then, he repeated the thought aloud.
“We have to get it back, men, cursed or not! It is property of the state.” he said, “We get in there and the serpent and it’s wooden case decorated with the Habsburg coat-of-arms-”
“What are you doing here?!” someone shouted, causing him to turn around. Five men had emerged from the cabin, carbines and double-barrels in hand. Before Colonel Bauer could raise his revolver, he heard the unmistakable boom of a shotgun. He felt a searing pain in his leg and it buckled and gave way.
“Colonel Bauer!” he could hear one of his men cry and start to rush over. The blur of the soldier’s uniform danced across Bauer’s rapidly deteriorating vision. The revolver slipped from his grasp as the firefight started. He could feel himself falling backwards before the back of his head slammed into something solid and everything was thrown into black.
The strange visions began their performance not too long after he blacked out. There were lush forests and fields, green and dotted with flowers and trees. Then came his own soldiers, in their uniforms, marching across the world, full of life. A banner with the coat-of-arms of the Royal House slowly lilted in the breeze. Leading the procession was a field marshal on a chestnut horse trotting at a leisurely pace, the marshal’s sword and medals gleaming in the sun.
As they went on, the party’s pace slowed, the energetic marching slowly reduced to a formal pace, then a walk until they stopped. Shovels were handed out. Men were ordered to dig in. Under the banner and the watch of the marshal, the sod and flowers were uprooted and tossed aside. Dirt piled high. The holes grew wider until they were joined, becoming trenches that snaked their way across the landscape. They began firing at some unnamed enemy.
The skies changed from a fair blue to dark gray, and the first raindrops came down to earth, prompting the marshal to order the men to put on rain gear. The breeze picked up, causing the banner to flap.
The rain grew stronger, drops splashing down to earth, pooling up at the bottom of the fortifications that they had made. Men slogged through the mud, their boots splashing through the pools.
A shrill whistle pierced the air. The soldiers surged forward, letting out ancient cries, like their grandfathers had against Napoleon. The same old adversaries, the same old grand powers. They collapsed into the mud and were left there where they lay. The others pushed forward but to no avail.
Waves of fresh faces replaced the fallen to be sent forward in short time. They advanced but never returned. Still the marshal remained stoic. Still the banner fluttered with full grandeur.
Then he began to feel….something in the air. The men had sensed it too and began to pull out strange masks from their satchels, slipping them on over their heads. They now had small circular, dark windows for eyes and a canister where a mouth would be.
The dark yellow cloud wafted towards them. Those who had struggled to put the mask on in time dropped to the ground, gasping for breath. One of the men, struggling for air and desperately trying to attach his mask, stumbled backwards into the banner, which fluttered, lurched, then fell into the mud. Dark, earthen stains crept across the cloth. The whistle blew. The masked men picked up their rifles and surged forward again.
The cloud had enveloped him now. Having no mask of his own, he struggled for a breath. There was no more fresh air. Every time he inhaled he was inhaling more of the terrible toxin. He could feel his throat lock up, and he fell to his knees, the mud opening to him. The field marshal remained on his horse, still staring ahead at the enemy. The old man’s mustache and aged features were replaced by a mask, and he slowly turned his head to stare at Colonel Bauer. He radiated indifference to the death and struggle for the last shreds of life around him.
His eyes flicked open. It was no longer late afternoon. The light was gone, replaced by the cool night. Treetops ringed the picture, and he lay there on his back for a moment, basking in the beauty of the heavens. The stars which he pondered and laughed at as a child were the same, and would be still when he finally would take his love out to see them.
In spite of the pain in his legs and his head, which had come roaring back, stronger than before, he smiled. Moments of wonder, joy, magic and love were only flickering respites from the world’s pain and his own body’s torment.
He struggled to his feet, swaying uneasily, the thought of the silver serpents and omens striking across his mind. He took a look around. There was nobody there. The thieves lay on the ground, dead, but his own men were gone. Perhaps they had run off to get help, or realized they were outnumbered once their officer fell? He didn’t know anymore.
His eyes shifted to the dark outline of the cabin, and took a step, then another. He could feel his knees shake and gritted his teeth, trying to shut out the pain, but it was too much. He fell to his knees with a cry, his hand brushing against something thick and rough. It was a coat that had belonged to one of his men. Under it was an abandoned rifle.
He forced himself to keep going. There was no more doubt that something corrupt was present. Every time he closed his eyes there was the vision of the field marshal in the mask. Dirt was forced under his fingernails as he crawled for the open front door of the cabin. When he reached it, he gripped the doorframe and pulled himself to his feet.
Inside, the silver serpent lay forgotten on a table, the case open beside it. The embedded emerald eyes gleamed in the darkness, and Bauer felt an unease well up in his chest. He could see the curse had already befallen the thieves as if they were victims of the venom that had run its course through them. So again the curse uncoiled itself and was beginning to turn its fangs towards the master.
He felt a powerful urge to take the serpent and run to the nearby river, to hurl it in and watch it sink to the bottom, the flow of the cleansing water sweeping the curse away. But then his mind considered what his superiors would have to say….but they are for themselves, chasing far off grandeur, aren’t they? How had he been so naive?
“They say that it was a serpent that tricked man to bring ruin onto a beautiful world,” he whispered to himself.
He gripped the table edge to prevent himself from swaying further. His mouth felt unusually dry. The serpent glared at him, its mouth curled up in a sneer of contempt, daring him to make a move.
At last he made one. In one swift movement, he placed a hand on the serpent and lifted it. It felt as if he was holding an ingot of uncast lead, heavy and unpleasantly smooth. He placed it into the wooden case and hastily arranged the velvet in a neat pattern, then snapped it shut. Gripping the leather handle in one hand, he stumbled out of the cabin and into the forest, heading back in the direction he believed that he had traveled.
She smelled of rosemary soap, and freshly laundered dresses as he embraced her.
“I thought you were dead,” He heard her say. “I heard word from Joseph, who never saw you, that you and several others never made it out of the woods.”
“No, my dear Frau Hausner…forgive me, I mean….Fabienne,” he quickly whispered, kissing her on the neck, “I spent two nights in the military hospital recuperating and getting my leg tended to, that’s why I missed the luncheon with Joseph, among other little things.”
He felt her tense a little bit, and pulled away, sensing something that she wanted to add.
“You seem very different, like you aren’t the same Colonel Bauer that excitedly ran out of the doors days ago.”
“Fabienne, the men that were with me when we came upon the cabin where the thieves were hiding never made it back. Every single man who was not present in the clearing when the battle started were accounted for, but not them.” He swallowed and continued. “Six mothers lost their sons that night. I couldn’t bear to hear their cries when all they were presented were their parade coats and caps to remember them by.”
“What about the thieves? And the serpent?”
“The thieves are dead, but they didn’t look like a bullet had taken them. Their expressions were twisted in anger, hands still clenched tight around their guns. It was as if a match had been abruptly snuffed out from within.” He could feel tears coming on and tried to fight them back, but lost.
“How could I ever live with the feeling that something……inhuman took those men?” he quietly said, “And to see the audacity of my superiors reporting that they all were casualties of the battle! The serpent was all that mattered to them.”
“Another thing….” He stammered, looking up, “When did I leave? I blacked out when I got shot, and saw things…. things that I shouldn’t have seen. I saw men die in agony while the ones further up were apathetic. Maybe it was that silver serpent that caused it all, that curse that I should have left well alone or tossed into the river when I had a chance….but I didn’t and now it haunts me, this feeling. The physician that saw me told me the visions I had seen were caused by delirium, and maybe he was right, but I… we should go out to see the stars sometime.”
Her eyes widened in agreement at his rather abrupt addition, but she quickly recomposed herself.
“Here, now. Don’t be too hard on yourself.” She held out her silk handkerchief, to which Colonel Bauer accepted, “You left on the 25th of June, nineteen-fourteen. Today’s the 28th, I’ve been worried sick for most of the time you’ve been gone. What is it?”
“They took the serpent from my hands and put it on the next train bound for Sarajevo, to display at the city hall for when an important member of royalty comes to visit,” he replied, wiping the tears off his cheek, feeling numb. “I think the planners just wanted something to impress him by, but I can’t shake the sense that something would go terribly wrong. Perhaps I’m overthinking it…my imagination running away with me…… or maybe it’s something else entirely.”
“You may well be right.” She said, “It’s something else entirely, I don’t believe there is a curse attached to it all and nothing terrible is going to happen-”
“You’ve got to hear this, Frau Hausner!” the same young servant burst in, waving a newspaper, “It’s all the talk on the street!”
She took the paper from his hands, skimming the headline emblazoned across the front, and turned pale.
“What happened?” Colonel Bauer asked, feeling a sense of panic and a sickening feeling rise in his chest of the premonition long before she read it aloud.
“Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess of Hohenberg murdered in Sarajevo by Serbian nationalist.”
Lucas Zhou is a high school student from Sacramento, California who has been writing fiction for eight years now. His interests are in history, particularly world history, railroads, and of course, creative writing.