"s 2015 Horror Write-off:

" Architecture of Peril "

Submitted by Irene Vallone

“Come on!” said Tilok, gesturing towards the hilltop with his club.  His body blocked out the sun and cast him and his weapon in unified shadow.  His leafy headdress became a crest of fringed feathers.  The sky peeped hesitantly through holes in his club, now a spike-covered arm.

“I’m coming,” I said, halfway down the hill.  I looked up at him, one hand over my eyes.  It did nothing to change his strange new features.

“Hurry up,” said the spiny demon who was once my brother.

“It’s a tough climb,” I said.

As if on cue, the loose rocky soil slid out from under my left foot.  I took a knee in the gravel, hard, and cried out in pain.  “Damn it!”

“Hey.”  Tilok snapped his fingers.  “Hurry up.”

“Thanks for your compassion.”  I grunted, struggling to stand.

He carefully shuffled back down the hill, feet crunching in the gravel.  His head blocked out the sun.  I could see his face, no longer in silhouette.  His skin, normally pale brown, was obscured by facepaint - white all over the face, yellow from the bottom of his strong beaky nose down to his collarbone. 

He bent at the knees and extended a hand to me.

“These are harsh lands, Mahra,” he said in a mocking voice.  “I can’t stay and tend to the weak.  Get back up, or the vultures will peck your eyeballs out.”  He smiled, showing his perfectly straight teeth, of which he still had a full collection.

I laughed in spite of the pain as I took his hand.

“Life is a grand circle,” I said, pulling myself back to my feet.  We were quoting one of the favorite stories of a town elder we disliked. 

“Honestly, though, I’m sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t know you were hurt.  How does your knee feel?”

I looked down at my injured knee.  Small strips of scraped-raw pink skin stood out against the brown of my leg, much darker than my brother’s.  Blood oozed out in beads, emerging small but quickly swelling much larger, like ripening berries.

“Get the bandages out of my pack for me and I’ll be fine,” I said.

“Alright,” he said.  “I’ll get you some water while I’m in there.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I need it.  Did we have to walk all this way during midday?”

“Would you rather deal with wolves at night?”

He shuffled behind me, careful of his footing on the loose soil of the hill.  He unfastened the pack I had strapped to my back and pulled out a spool of bandaging cloth.  I took it and wrapped a portion of it around my skinned knee.

“Does it hurt?” Tilok asked.

“Not really,” I said.  “It stung at first, but it’s getting better.”

“Alright.”  He handed me a hollowed-out pale green gourd with a wooden plug in its top.  I removed the plug and held the hole up to my mouth, letting the water slosh over my lips and down my throat.

“Mm,” I said.  I handed Tilok the gourd and wiped the excess water from my chin and neck with the back of my hand as he took a drink of his own.  He drank carefully, taking small sips with a closed mouth.  In his other hand he held the map, a rolled-up piece of coyote skin, which he must have taken out along with the water gourd.

After he put the water gourd back into the pack, Tilok smiled and slapped me on the back of the neck.  He meant it to be friendly, but his hand came down too hard.


“Sorry.  Let’s go.  Hopefully we can get there and back before it gets too hot.”

He hiked back up the hill, using his club as a walking stick.  I struggled through the gravel after him.

“Get where?” I asked.  I slipped on the loose ground mid-word, and “whe-ere” came out in two very different tones.

“To wherever the bison are,” he called down.  “The herd should have come through yesterday.”

“How would you know?”

“I was talking to Elder Angma,” he said.  “They showed me the star rug last night.  We’re in the right stage of the cycle.”

Elder Angma was the oldest person in town, one of the most respected members of the Elder Circle, and something of a recluse.  They spent most of their time alone in their hut, tracking the stars and the patterns of clouds, keeping up to date on the activity of the spirits.  They almost never took off their elder’s hood, and I had only seen their face once.  It looked like a mask sculpted from cactus wood – sunken eyes like dark knotholes, a toothless mouth like a hole bored by a woodpecker.  Tilok talked to them regularly.  He took pride in being something like their apprentice – although nothing was yet official.

“Normally, the buffalo pass just to the west of town,” he said.  “But this year, they might have gotten their path mixed up.  See, look.”

He unrolled the map, spreading it open with both hands and holding it in front of his face.

“I think they came over here,” he said.  He struggled to point to a location while using both hands to hold it.  “Are you looking?”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“They came down on the wrong side of the ravine, I think,” he went on.  “So they ended up across the hills a few days early.”

“What if they’re just late?” I asked.  “Maybe they got held up by a flood or something.”

“Then they’ll show up in a couple of days, and we’ll still have gone on this nice walk together.”

“What if something happened, and they all died?”

“Then I hope you can develop a taste for coyote.”

“What if they went to the east?”

Tilok picked up a handful of dirt and threw it at me.  I held up an arm to block it.  The clod disintegrated on impact into fine grains that showered me, dusting my face and scalp.  I cried out in annoyance.

“Stop asking stupid questions,” Tilok said.  “Let’s go.”

“Ugh, I can’t believe you.  Some of it got in my mouth.”

By then, Tilok was already over the hill.  I spat out the remaining dirt as best I could and followed him.

“What will the elders think when they find out you left on your own?” I asked as I crested the hill and descended after him.

“I’m not on my own,” he said.  “I’m with you.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I told you to stop asking stupid questions.”

I knew not to push it further.  It wasn’t the first time Tilok had dragged me into the wasteland on some wild goose chase.  There was always something just over the hills that he needed to find for himself, dragging me along with him to carry the supplies and bear witness to his first moment of hunter’s glory.  Unfortunately, we always went back to town empty-handed, and Tilok would look only at the ground as we returned.

“Aren’t you hot under all those leaves?” I asked him.

He stopped walking and turned back to me.  His blue eyes - a rarity, for which he was well-known in the clan - pierced through the red, white, and brown of his painted face.  On a lower plane than I, out of the sun’s glare, he no longer looked demonic.  His soft face, doing its best to intimidate me with a ferocious scowl, looked like a boy playing dress-up in grown-up clothes.

“So what if I am?” he asked.

“Well, why are you wearing them?  What’s the point?”

“It’s important,” he said, wiping his brow, smearing the red and white facepaint up and down his arm.

“Important for what?”

“I’m dressed as the hunting aspect of Rain Bird,” he said, spreading his arms in a gesture towards his whole self.  “If I find the buffalo, we’ll be assured a plentiful harvest.”  He looked at his paint-smeared forearm.  “Oh, great.”

I hadn’t recognized Rain Bird at all.  I had never been as studious as my brother.  I could only remember the major spirits, the ones who appeared in the big stories – Ghost Mother, the Ditchdigger, a few more on a good day.  Tilok could name all of them, even the minor ones, and could distinguish all of their hunter’s aspects from their ceremonial and household forms, not to mention recite all the stories of creation by heart.  He was often selected to organize the festivity plays and to help the elders teach the children.  Sometimes the elders asked me to help, but I wasn’t interested.  I would rather be out in the hills, hunting coyotes, watching birds fly overhead – real birds, not spirits, not my friends wearing masks.

“If you say so,” I told him.

He let his arms flop back down.  “Let’s just go,” he said.

We climbed a few more hills in silence.  I began to feel the prickle of sweat welling up under my skin.

“I bet they’re right over this next hill,” I offered.  The next hill was the biggest one yet, looming into the path of the sun overhead.  We entered its shadow as we approached it.

“How would you know?” he said.  “No one’s been this far out west before.”

“Exactly,” I offered.  “You can’t say for sure they aren’t over there.”

He huffed at that, and offered no further comment.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “But you know I’m not the talker.”

“I know,” he said.

I decided to break through his reticence and get to the problem.  Tilok always got this way when he was upset.  It never ended until you strong-armed him into talking.

“Are you mad at me about something?” I asked, and stopped walking.

“I’m amazed you could pick up on it,” he said.  He kept climbing the hill.

“What’s the matter?”

“Don’t talk to me like that.”

“Like how?”

“Like you’re better than me.”  He stopped two-thirds of the way up the hill, looking down at me with a blank face.  The empty sky, which had grown steadily bluer over the course of our journey like a ripening fruit, loomed behind him, an intimidating mass.  The wild howled in the distance, and the crest of the hill shifted as the sand settled, as if it were uncomfortable watching our confrontation.  

I stood perfectly still.  “How do you want me to talk?  Like I’m worse than you?”

“Would you stop it?  Would you just let me tell you something?”  He gestured with his club angrily.

“When have I ever stopped you?  You’re always telling me things.”

“Shut up!”

He spread his arms wide.  I could tell he wanted this to be a big moment.

“You’re always second-guessing me, and I’m tired of it, alright?  I want you to stop telling me what to do.  I’m not a baby in a blanket anymore, Mahra!”

“I know that,” I said.

“Well, why don’t you stop treating me like one?”

“And do what, Tilok?  Let you run off into the hills alone and get torn up by wolves?”

“I can take care of myself!”  His voice cracked.

“Then why did you bring me with you in the first place?  Did you just want me to carry your stuff?”

“Stop it!”  He kicked once at the sand, scattering a small cloud of it.

“Stop what?”

He raised his club and pointed it at me, his face contorted into a peeled-back snarl.  After a few silent moments, I spread my hands in confusion – what did he want me to do?

“Go away,” he said, pointing with his club over my shoulder.  “Go home.”

“What?  No.”

“I don’t want you here anymore,” he said.  “I can do this myself.  If you’re just going to act like you’re so much smarter than me, you might as well leave.”

“I never said I was smarter than you,” I said.  “I’m trying to make sure you don’t do something stupid.”

“Just admit you don’t respect me enough to let me go alone.  You don’t respect anything!”

I threw my hands to my sides, thoroughly defeated.  “Alright, Tilok,” I said.  “I’ll go home.  I’ll curl up in front of a fire with a bowl of hot nettle juice.  It’ll be a great time.”

“Good!” he said.  “Have fun!”  He turned and began slogging up what remained of the hill, sliding back and forth on the loose sand.

“I’m taking the pack with me!” I called up to him.  “The water and all the bandages are in there!”

“Fine!” he yelled back.  “I don’t need any of it!”  His voice grew quieter and quieter as he walked upwards.

“You have the map, though, so you should be able to find your own way back!”

“Get out of here!”

“Try not to get sun-sick!”

He didn’t say anything back to that.  I realized immediately that it wasn’t funny.  Something really could happen to him out here.  We were in uncharted territory; it was unlikely that anyone else would ever find him.

“Are you still there?” I called out.

The only response was the wind howling past my ears.  I reflexively assumed the worst, but when he did answer, my relief was short.  His quavering call of “Mahra?  You need to come look at this!” plunged me back into terror.  The emotional back-and-forth felt like a physical pain in my gut.  I considered taking a knee and vomiting on the sand, but I couldn’t.  I needed to come look at something – something that plucked a twinge of fear in the voice of my prideful brother.

I bolted up the hill as best I could, weighed down by the pack and impaired by the soft sand.  Tilok stood motionless at the summit, his club poking handle-first out of the sand at an odd angle.  He must have dropped it in shock.

The hills abruptly ended with the one we stood atop, dipping down and stretching into a vast valley.  The place was completely barren, with no scrub, bushes, or cacti.  

In the valley’s center stood a huge field of spikes, massive and black, bursting forth from the ground in all directions, branching into thorns and broken flat-topped blocks.  Surrounding the spikes was a black wall that looked as if it had been carved from a solid piece of stone, forming a sort of bizarre village-like area.  Against the orange-tan soil and the blue sky, it were impossible to ignore.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Tilok said.

We looked down at the spikes in silence for a long time.  Occasionally we tried to look away, make eye contact, but something stopped us.  The spikes were so glaring, so forcibly present, that neither of us could look away.

As I traced and retraced the branching of the spikes with my eyes, I felt myself growing curious.  What was this place?  What had caused it to appear here?  And what did it look like up close?

“Hey, Tilok,” I said.


“We should take a closer look.”

Tilok turned and stared at me, lips open.  “Are you crazy?”

“Aren’t you curious?”

He shook his head.  “We shouldn’t be here, Mahra.  This is bad.”

“You came all this way and you just want to leave?”

“Of course I want to leave.  Are you seeing this?  This isn’t right, Mahra.  Something is really wrong here.”

I moved forward, sliding down the hill in a jagged path, knees bent.

“Mahra?  Mahra!”

I ignored Tilok’s frantic whisper-shouts from atop the hill.  I skidded to the bottom, waving away the kicked-up dust, and saw the spikes from a new angle.  I stood in their shadows, and they loomed above me like mountains.

The silence was overwhelming.  Even the wind had nothing to say.

The sudden loud shifting of the gravel behind me made me twitch.  When I looked over my shoulder, it was Tilok, following me, like I knew he would.

“Alright,” he said.  “Here we are.  You’ve looked closer.  Let’s get out of here, alright?”

I didn’t answer him.  I kept moving forward.  My feet crunching on the ground broke the silence—tiny noises in the emptiness of my surroundings, like water dripping in a cave.  I felt a faint sense of shame, as though I were interrupting something not meant for me.

“Mahra!” Tilok said.  “Come back!  Get away from there!”

He was whispering.  I wasn’t sure why, but it felt appropriate, so I responded in kind.

“What do you think this is?” I said.

“It’s something bad, Mahra,” he hissed.  “We need to get out of here right now!”

“Go ahead, then,” I said, as I kept moving forward.  “You can take care of yourself.”

Once I got closer to the walls, I saw that six large etchings were inlaid into the wall in groups of three, each about a hand-width apart, on either side of a large gap in the wall that allowed access to the inside, where the spikes grew.  From a distance, the etchings looked like wide squares filled with repeating patterns of lines.  Had someone been out here before Tilok and I?  No one from the village had gone this far southwest before.

The etchings, on closer inspection, were roughly square-shaped blocks of tiny symbols, smaller than my thumbnails.  Each block of etchings used a different set of symbols; one set appeared very orderly, with neatly carved lines and circles, while the one next to it was a chaotic mess of hastily-carved curves.

I ran my fingers lightly over the etched symbols.  The inlaid lines brushed gently against my fingertips, and the black wall radiated heat.

“What is this?” I said.

“It’s writing.”

I hadn’t realized Tilok was behind me, reading over my shoulder.  His arms were crossed.  His left hand’s fingers dug into the crook of his elbow, and his right hand shook as it gripped his club tightly, like a child holding his mother’s hand.

“What?” I said.

“See this symbol?” he asked, pointing to a half-circle with a curved line sweeping downward and right from its left corner.


“It repeats.”  He pointed to a few other places in the etching square – one, then another, then another – where the same symbol appeared.

“It’s writing,” he said.

I stepped back, looking at the whole block of text.  “What does it say?”

“How should I know?  If it was written by whoever put this here, I’m not sure I want to know.”

“Whoever put this here?  You think someone built this?”

“There’s a wall around it, Mahra.”

“No one could have built this, Tilok.  Look at this.”

“Come on, Mahra.  This isn’t natural.  It can’t be.  You’ve never seen anything like this, have you?  No one has.”

“Well, what do you think it is?”

“I think it’s spirits, Mahra.  Bad spirits.”

I turned and walked away from him, towards the opening in the wall.

“Mahra,” Tilok said, trying to conceal his panic with sternness.  “Don’t go in there.  Mahra?”

Directly inside the walled-off area, a short distance in front of the entrance, was a pair of flat-fronted black stones standing upright in the sand.  On the front of each was an etching depicting a human face.

“Mahra?  Mahra!”

The etchings were almost perfectly lifelike.  From where I stood, they almost appeared to pop out of the stone and take on solid forms, the grey of their inlaid lines standing out against the dark rock.  The face on the left was contorted into a grimace of pain, its forehead webbed with craggy wrinkles, its eyes clamped shut and its mouth turned downward at the corners.  The face on the right was screaming, its eyes wide and its mouth gaping open to reveal its individually etched-in teeth.


Tilok was shouting at me from outside the walls.

“I’m getting out of here,” he said.  “You can stay as long as you want, but I’m leaving right now.  I don’t trust this place.  This is a bad place, Mahra.”

He turned and ran, struggling up the hill.

I looked up at the sky, where the spikes loomed over my head.  The sun stood directly over me, and the spikes looked as if they were reaching for it, bursting forth from the ground to grab it and drag it back into the dark underground world they came from.

I hurried after Tilok.  He was halfway up the hill, but I caught up to him quickly.  We crested the hill and kept going, breathing hard but otherwise silent.

“Are there spirits that live underground?” I asked.

“I thought you didn’t like to talk about spirits.”

“It seems appropriate right now.”

He thought about it for a moment.  “There are,” he said.  “But I haven’t seen or heard anything about something like this.”

“Ask the elders when we get back.”

“Do you want to know what I think?”

“Tell me.”

“I think this is something old.  Older than Ghost Mother, or the River Man.  Something so old we weren’t meant to know about it.”

I had nothing to say to that.

As we kept walking, silent except for our breath, I suddenly felt very small.  Until then, my world had been the hills and valleys surrounding the village.  That was all I had known.  That was all Tilok had known, and all everyone I ever knew had known.  We were content with that.  Even I thought it was enough. Now, however, I had glimpsed the true size of the world, and what things lay just beyond our narrow field of vision.

“Do you think the buffalo came this way?” Tilok suddenly asked.

I imagined the buffalo, the massive herd stampeding across the plains, coming home for the winter, and the black thorns smashing up through the ground like broken bones through sandy skin, crushing and impaling the buffalo’s bodies like so many bits of meat between a coyote’s teeth. 

“I hope not,” I said.

We kept heading home.  The wind howled through the spikes behind us in the distance.