The Bet

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July 21, 1798 somewhere in Africa.

I would have never thought that this science expedition could come to an end here, in this region forgotten by God. Yes….now I am sure that neither I, Tenant Harry Letellier of the French Imperial Army nor any of the other unfortunates still alive here will see the breaking of dawn. I can see them, we can all see them thanks to the full moon…it would have been better if it had not been there at all. At least we would not have to see the horrible things that were about to happen to us. There are so many of them, wearing different kinds of worn uniforms and old suits of armor, moving silently, rhythmically and getting closer and closer. We are waiting…nobody, neither the scientists nor us soldiers has the courage to say a word. Many are praying holding their heads in their hands and others are preparing themselves for the battle hoping for a rapid death but everyone, including myself has a spare bullet ready. Even if I am rather scared, I must admit that I find what is happening intriguing even if impossible to imagine for anyone who is not insane, but the moon is here and it can see because it is a silent witness to all this… but who would ever interrogate the moon? So I will trace the coordinates of our position, maybe one day…” “ At this point gentlemen, the diary ends.” said Peter Faversham closing the little volume with the worn cover that he had just found at the bottom of a chest. “I must say, it is quite bizarre, but I must admit I would have loved to know the ending.” said Doctor Wilson from behind the smoke coming from his pipe. “Gentlemen, are you really going to believe the ravings of a Frenchman who lived one hundred years ago? Maybe he was even drunk or ill! Come on… and who had they been attacked by? A silent army wearing old worn uniforms? I will tell you what happened. The French were drunk and they were attacked by a group of predators wearing old uniforms found who knows where.” said Mr. Talley. Faversham did not agree or he preferred to believe that there was some truth in the words of the French soldier even because he had already heard about the lost city of Kalash that nobody had ever found and for some reason from the moment he had begun to read the diary he could not get it out of his mind. Kalash was one of the many stories that had belonged to the people of the desert for years maybe centuries. Was it a true story or just a legend? The only thing sure was that to find it would be the coronation of any archeologist’s dreams. This thought was set straight in Faversham’s mind and he knew he had the advantage that the other researchers before him had not had: the coordinates found in the Frenchman’s diary. This time he felt that fate was offering him the possibility to be a the protagonist of something real and not just the dreamer that the other members of the Club of Archeologists knew him as. “Gentlemen you may say what you like, but I am determined to find that city. In fact I am going to organize an expedition. Who would like to accompany me?” said Faversham. “What? In Africa? Are you joking? said a grumpy Dr. Wilson. “I am very serious.” Peter answered gravely. “Come on Peter do you not realize that you are following a fantasy? And from where will you begin your research once in Egypt?” Mr. Talley asked ironically. “I have the coordinates that the French soldier traced. They should be more than enough and then…I would never have believed that British spirit of adventure was dead in you.” Peter said trying to provoke them. “Now you are exaggerating!” exclaimed Dr. Wilson. “The spirit for adventure does not mean having to run behind the words of a mad Frenchman.” Mr. Talley answered back. “I have had enough! I am just a dreamer for you! You have always made quick decisions especially about what you do not believe in. More than an Association of Academics this is where ignorance reigns!” Peters’ words sounded as a challenge. The situation was getting very animated when Mr. Harris, one of the most respectable of the associates said using a tone that was both mocking but at the same time meant to calm the waters, ”Please gentlemen, calm yourselves. Faversham is right, we should give him a chance.” Those who were present looked at one another and the room was immediately filled with the sound of voices that were both incredulous and disappointed for what they had heard. “What are you saying Harris?” said Dr. Wilson and the others repeated in chorus the same question. “Simply to make a bet that we all might find both interesting and fun to make.” answered Mr. Harris looking at Dr. Wilson and the others knowingly. “What do you say Faversham. Would you like to bet? If you bring us proof that this city exists, we will no longer consider you a dreamer and you shall be nominated Head of the Egyptian Department at the National Museum. But, if you should lose you will have to pay.” said Mr. Harris with a grin. “I accept. May I know how much I would have to pay should I lose?” asked Peter. “No, no money, we are all friends here. If you should be defeated you will have to walk from your home to the Club dressed in a Napoleonic uniform for a week.” said Mr. Harris as the others broke out in laughter. Peter did not say a word as he seriously looked at Mr. Harris and the others who were making fun of him without having the right to. “Just a minute, if you should be right Faversham we cannot just believe you on your word you must bring us some proof.” said Mr. Talley. “Yes, true, why not bring us evidence of that “silent army” or perhaps something that belonged to that French man and if he should still be there, do say hello to him on our behalf!” said Mr. Harris scornfully. Peter nodded with a cunning smile as he said good bye and said looking at Mr. Harris, “I will bring you that evidence.”. As soon as he was at home Peter through himself onto the sofa in front of the fireplace and while he gazed at the fire, many thoughts began to fill his head. The words of the Frenchman kept ringing in his ears, “They are many, wearing different kinds of worn uniforms and old suits of armor, moving silently…My God help!”. The power of suggestion transformed the dancing flames he had been observing into an army composed of soldiers belonging to various eras. At a certain point it was as if he was marching among them in a ghostly desert populated by the resurfacing of human remains. A pale sun timidly illuminated a scene that seemed more a nightmare while a noisy whirlwind brought up a wall of sand that surrounded the entire hideous stage. Wanting to know where he was Peter patted on the shoulder of the soldier next to him, but when the soldier turned towards him, Peter was terrified by what he saw. A being whose flesh of had been torn away and what remained was a skull that was staring at him with two red eyes like a brazier on fire and while Peter’s heart galloped, the being launched itself towards Peter who could clearly see two sharp canines. Peter yelled terrorized and then he found himself once again in front of his fireplace soaking sweat for what he had “dreamed”. If the members of the Club had had an idea of what had just happened they would have certainly laughed behind his back, but for Peter it had not been just a dream but a clue to follow, in fact the next day he was already on the deck of a vessel that was taking him from Dover to Calais on the French coast. Then he would continue on land to Marseilles and from there once again by sea towards Alexandria in Egypt. Not long after a shivering Peter Faversham paced up and down on the deck of a ship that had arrived to its destination and was beginning the maneuvers to dock and as the passengers gathered to leave, he quickly joined them. He was finally in Alexandria! Peter immediately found a place to stay and without undoing his luggage he began to look for the material necessary for his expedition and for a guide, but every time he pronounced the name of the city of Kalash everyone would just unexplainably walk away regardless of the handsome sum of money offered. “You will not find anyone willing to accompany you there.” said a tall man in his fifties with a grey moustache that gave him a somewhat authoritative and distinctive air. He wore a white European suit with a red fez that stood out for its colour and elegance. “May I know who I have the honour to speak with?” said Peter with a curious tone. “My name is Rashid but this is of no importance. The only thing you should know is that many before you have tried to find that place in the past.” he said. “And did anybody find it?” Peter asked. “Many have left in search of it but no one has ever come back to testify.” was Rashid’s answer. At that point Peter showed him the Frenchman’s diary and explained to him the reason of his journey; he talked to him about the bet and why he had to win it at any cost. “Can you understand, my reputation is at stake!” Peter exclaimed. “So go but are you really sure that this is the only reason?” Rashid asked him. Peter was at a loss and as he was about to reply his mysterious interlocutor had vanished into nowhere. Peter waited for night to fall to avoid the heat so once it was dark he left for his journey across the desert. It was marvelous: he was completely alone in a sea of sand and he followed the directions given in the diary and the “star of the desert” placed in front of the camels saddle. Many thoughts crossed his mind while the moon, bigger than usual illuminated the way. “Even that night the moon was there to keep the French company, maybe it will guide me to where I want to go.” he thought but he was too tired to continue so he decided to camp for the night in a cave with the idea of leaving early the next day. In fact he was ready to leave at dawn when he was caught in the middle of a strange sandstorm just outside the cave that made him fall disastrously from his camel. In his painful condition Peter noticed something familiar in that whirlwind of sand that was surrounding him. It was the same as the one he had “dreamt” of and from that cloud of dust, as if a spell had been cast, soldiers appeared with what remained of their bodies and uniforms. There were many of them and they were all different like the armies from the different time periods they belonged to. They marched together united and in silence and it was the absence of any sound what so ever that frightened Peter the most; this was the last thing he remembered before fainting. When he reopened his eyes he saw columns so high that they seemed to touch the sky and once he was on his feet he realized that he was standing among the ruins of what once had been a city now forgotten by time and by man. Where Peter had woken up must have been a temple or a royal palace because of where it was situated. Walls, buildings, roads…everything had been swallowed by the desert as if to hide those ruins like a keeper of a tremendous secret. “Where am I and how did I get here?” Peter thought to himself as he took a look around. “It must have been the tempest! Of course it must of made these ruins reemerge. Peter’s confusion grew as he continued his exploration when all at once, he stumbled on an object; a tri corn military hat with a rosette on the left side and even if its colours had faded away after so many years under the sun, its nationality was as clear as day. “Yes, its French! It belongs to the Napoleonic period! Of course the French science expedition! So this must be… no this surely is the lost city of Kalash and I have finally found it!” Peter was euphoric for what he had discovered and he continued to search for evidence. He found other personal belongings that had belonged to the soldiers or to the scientists but he was not able to find any human remains. “And this? It is a saber. It most have belonged to one of the Officials!”. The moment Peter held the saber in his hand everything around him began twisting and turning and his sight became cloudy. Once it all came to an end Peter found himself in exactly the same spot, but the whole situation had changed and his anguish grew. “Yes I was there waiting as those shadows with red eyes slowly advanced in silence and then. The battle against those demons; the crackling of the rifles that exploded uselessly against that invulnerable enemy, the horror, the panic and that damn scientific expedition that we were supposed to protect.” Then the body to body contact; the soldiers were able to keep the monsters away temporarily by continuously sinking their bayonets into their enemies, but every one of them that fell, another ten appeared. It was if they were vomited from hell! Peter was there in the middle of it all when a French soldier asked him in his mother tongue: ”Mon Lieutenant que faisons nous? Il n’y a pas moyen a sortir!” And Peter understood perfectly as if it was something normal. Even that terrible confusion was not knew to him and without even realizing what he was doing, he ordered his men to form a square around the scientists; the men followed his orders and they formed a wall of bayonets that for a while was able to attack and destroy some elements of the strange army, but not for too long. This entire situation was happening elsewhere, in another time and another place probably at the end of nowhere…. As soon as a group of soldiers forming the square were defeated an infinite number of fleshless creatures rushed into the middle…it was the end. Peter instinctively began to rattle his saber cutting off heads and arms, then he felt a terrible pain in his stomach and a dark veil fell over his eyes. Now he was lost in an infinite darkness overlaid by the silence of death when a voice began to call and guide him: “Come on Peter wake up!”, Peter followed just as a ship follows the distant light of a lighthouse during a storm. When he came to, he was lying face down on the ground with the saber grounded deep into the sand right in front of him. “Come on Faversham, you have finally returned.” said Peter’s rescuer. “Rashid? But… I left you in Alexandria three days ago! How can you be here?” Peter asked amazed. “Time and space are of no importance to me.” was the elegant Egyptian’s reply. “What happened to me? It all seemed so real.” said Peter still unable to believe what he had gone through. “You still do not understand? You have come back!” Rashid told him with a smile. “Back? What are you talking about? I find it difficult to understand what you trying to tell me!” Peter answered grumpily. The Egyptian began to tell an incredible tale but Peter’s interest began to grow and he was always more convinced that what he was listening to was the truth even if he continued to have many doubts. “Peter try to remember what you saw.” Rashid insisted. “I remember finding myself in the middle of a battle; I remember the screams, the fear and…those monsters!” said Peter with watery eyes. “Is that all?” asked Rashid. “Yes, a French soldier spoke to me in his own language calling me Lieutenant and I could understood him perfectly. I also remember having taken part in the battle and a terrible pain in the stomach and then…and then that is all.” said Peter. “What you have seen is a part of your life. You are Lieutenant Harry Letellier, Commander of the French archeological expedition sent here in 1798 and I know that it is you because you did not die that night when my army attacked you…I was the one that gave you a second chance, another life, that of an undead.” said Rashid. “My memories slowly began to come to mind clearly and I easily remembered everything even the fact that I had refused my new condition as a vampire. I did not and I did not want to accept it, so I fell into a long period of oblivion. Then my rest was interrupted by an English archeologist called Peter Faversham.” Peter thought to himself. “I remember waking up one evening and killing a man to feed myself, then I decided to take his identity and that is how I became Professor Peter Faversham. It was easy for me because Peter had never been to London so nobody knew him there.” said Harry satisfied. “As time went by I could feel that you longed to be Harry Letellier once again so I pushed you into reading your diary making you find it casually before going to the Club where you went every evening. So how shall I call you now, Professor or… Lieutenant?” said Rashid smiling. “I am wearing my uniform once again am I not so do you still have any doubts Master Rashid? I am wearing it because I have to go to London to clear one last issue.” said Harry as a strange light lit his eyes. Rashid did not answer, he just made Harry understand that he had his approval. “Why is he taking so long to get here? We cannot begin the game without a fourth player.” said Mr. Harris leaning on the big fireplace at the Club. “Maybe he had to visit a patient.” Mr. Talley suggested. “Well whoever is the cause of his delay, I find him very impolite for not letting such a good player as Mr. Wilson arrive on time this evening.” Mr. Harris said disdainfully. The delay was soon interrupted as Mr. Wilson entered the room greeting everyone and excusing himself for having arrived so late. “Oh, some people get ill just when they should not. I find it very improper of them!” said Dr. Wilson very annoyed. “Fine gentlemen, now that we are all here let us take our places and begin our game!” said Mr. Harris satisfied. They began to play discussing more or less various things when a slow beating on the door began. “Who can it be?” asked Mr. Harris. “Is someone expecting guests?” asked Dr. Wilson looking at his friends at the table. Nobody was expecting guests but the slow beating on the door continued and the sound seemed to echo everywhere in the room. “Now, let me see who has the courage to interrupt our game this evening!” said Mr. Harris as he dashed from his chair and flung open the door but nobody was there all he could see was the flimsy light coming from the streetlamps in the fog. Mr. Harris closed the door and went nervously back to his friends. “So, who was it?” Mr. Talley asked curiously. “Probably someone who feels like fooling around.” Mr. Harris nervously replied. Like an echo to his words the beating on the door began once again and the four friends jumped from their chairs at the sound. “I have had enough!” Mr. Harris sprang from his seat and went towards the door like a fury and throwing it wide open suddenly yelled: “If you do not have the courage to show yourselves at least stop bothering us gentlemen! Do us the favour of taking it out on your pairs and go to hell!” “That is exactly where I am coming from.” said a voice more than familiar to him. “Who is there?” Mr. Harris asked startled. “You have already forgotten me? I have certainly not forgotten you!” And Peter Faversham magically appeared at the door to everyone’s surprise. It was as if the fog had given birth to the figure of a person they did not expect to see. “Faversham! Where have you been? When did you arrive?” asked Mr. Harris surprised while Mr. Talley, Dr. Wilson and the banker Grady got closer as their curiosity had been aroused. “Good Lord!… what are you wearing Peter?” asked Mr. Talley laughing while the others also began laughing. “It is a uniform belonging to an Official of the Napoleonic Army.” Peter responded looking at them seriously. “Yes of course… our bet. I had momentarily forgotten about it. So have you realized that you were just following a bunch of stupidities, dreams and that naturally you have lost. Tell me how long have you been wearing that…thing?” Mr. Harris asked as he looked at him up and down as if were a poor devil gone crazy. “From the moment I found it in Africa I have never taken it off.” replied Peter as his eyes began to shine of a strange light. “My God Peter the penance did not include all that road! Is there some other reason for why you have been wearing it since you found it?” asked Dr. Wilson smiling. Peter remained in silence, for a moment he stood there with everyone sneering at him. “Come on Peter do not make us beg!” said the Banker almost singing. Peter told them everything that had happened to him without leaving out a thing and Mr. Harris and the others enjoyed listening as if hypnotized by his words. “So now you know the whole story.” Peter concluded.” “Now this changes everything. After having listened to all the details of your tale, even if I have to say at times a bit imaginative, I declare that you have won the bet!” said Mr. Harris turning towards his fellow companions exchanging smiles and glances of understanding. “Just a moment Peter you promised to bring us evidence to prove your story. So, where is it?” asked Dr. Wilson faking his seriousness. “One is the uniform I am wearing.” responded Peter calmly. “Yes, but how can you prove that it is the same uniform that the Frenchman wore? And where is the proof of that phantom army we asked you to bring us?” Mr. Harris asked smiling. Peter responded by making a sign and the door immediately opened and a fit fog filled the room. “How did you do that Peter? I cannot see from here to there.” said Mr. Harris. “Soon you will be able to see and you will understand.” Peter told them. The fog slowly went away and in the room an army of creatures with the flesh torn from their faces and skeleton arms appeared. They stood in silence with their torn uniforms and rusty suits of armour as if they were waiting for an order while the group of men were astonished and frightened. A strange silence filled the room that a few minutes earlier had rung with the sound of happy voices. Fear grew among the members of the club and they were no longer laughing; the sound of that silence weighed on them like a tomb stone. “You asked me for proof and here you are. Who better than the army itself!” said Peter smiling. “Look at them, my God , they are dead! Some of them are actually soldiers belonging to the Napoleonic period!” yelled Mr. Talley. “How is this all possible? No it cannot be!” said the banker Grady scared as he passed a handkerchief to clear the sweat from his forehead. “The dead do not go around dressed in old uniforms!” exclaimed Mr. Harris. “You are right my dear friend the dead do not … but the undead do!” said Peter continuing to smile. Horror and fright was spreading in the room erasing the smiles on the faces of the members of the Club that had become unnatural masks. “It is absurd! This is all so absurd! I…” began Mr. Talley with his eyes wide open. “You what? Let me see, you do not believe in what is happening but It does not matter what you believe. Soon you will become part of my army and there is another thing you should know, I am not Peter. I never have been. I am Lieutenant Harry Letellier of the Napoleonic Army, Commander of the French archeologic expedition and author of that diary you made so much fun of with your “British humour” and now that we are finally here let us put an end to this story. “So now Englishmen does this all seem still so absurd?” said Letellier looking at Mr. Harris and the others with revenge . “Enough Peter! This joke has lasted even too much!” yelled Mr. Harris trying to hide his fear. “You still insist with your presumptuous behavior, wonderful who knows what perfect soldiers you will be for me!” said Letellier satisfied. He then gave the signal and a group of what were once French soldiers slowly began to move towards Mr. Harris and the others that totally in panic desperately tried to find a way out. The more courageous tried to defend themselves using the cutting weapons found on the panoply placed above the fireplace and forming a “desperate” trench with the tables and chairs. “I have already seen this scene and I know that it will not be of any use at all.” said Letellier sarcastically. Mr. Harris stood with his back against the wall with the saber shivering in his hand, his mouth was open and his eyes were open wide. He stood there unable to say a word or move a muscle totally overlaid by fear while his companions fought against a terrible fate. “Do not kill them. They must become part of my army!” ordered Letellier. “But why? Why?” asked desperately Mr. Harris. “Oh my dear Mr. Harris, I am happy to see that you can now speak again. I must have lost the miracle! Why you ask. You are so full of yourself that you are not capable of believing what is happening in front of your own eyes. Come on Mr. Harris why are you no longer laughing? Have you lost your humour? Oh my! Let us hope that the word does not get around, as for me I will be as silent as a tomb!” Letellier said laughing. Mr. Harris overwhelmed tried to get away walking backwards but he stumbled on a chair that had been used by the others to protect themselves and fell face down on the floor that was dirty with his friends blood. Grady lay close to him with his head nearly detached from his body while Dr. Wilson’s body had been pierced by more than one bayonet. Once again he tried to escape but when he saw the undead looking at him in silence with their flesh torn faces and red hollowed eyes, the white sharp canines and the darkness that was beginning to surround the room, he understood that it was all over. He turned towards Letellier and with a broken voice said: “ I would never have imagined…”, he did not have the chance to finish as Letellier stabbed him from part to part with his saber. “Are you happy now Mr. Harris? You finally have the proof you wanted so much.” Mr. Harris was only able to emanate throaty sounds as his mouth was filled with blood while his hands gripped the saber that he seemed to want to extract from his abdomen but as soon as he did a large quantity of blood gushed out of the wound. “You must be courageous Mr. Harris, you are not dead yet. This is precisely the right moment for what I want to do with you. Please do not look at me like that, what do you think I am? Look at my army, the so-called drunk Frenchmen, do you remember? There are not only Frenchmen in this army and… you will get along well with the others. Do you recognize them? They are your friends from the club.” Letellier spoke to him with his back turned towards him and Mr. Harris tried to strike him with the saber that he had taken out of his stomach, but quicker than lightening Letellier grabbed his throat and the arm holding the weapon and said to him: “So you refuse to understand that you will become one of them. You have lost the bet and now the time has come for you to pay your debt!” As he sank his teeth into Mr. Harris’s throat Letellier felt even more than satisfied , he felt almost omnipotent in knowing that he had condemned his victim to something worse than death itself.

CONDIVIDI
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Francesco Grazioli è nato il 19 novembre 1964. Geometra, dopo le scuole fa alcune esperienze di viaggio prevalentemente negli Stati UNiti: a New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia e Los Angeles. La città di Saint Louis in Missouri lo conquista definitivamente (è la città natale dell'attore Vincent L. Price, interprete di molti film di Roger Corman, ispirati ai racconti di E. A. Poe). E' appassionato di Archeologia, Esoterismo, Filmologia e letteratura Horror Gotica. E' inoltre esperto di Uniformologia d'epoca.