I was aware from an early age that the man I called “Father” was not in fact my dad. Although I never knew who this man really was, I always had suspicions that he may have been a great uncle or grandfather. What was clear was that Father was related to me by blood, but beyond that I could never be sure. His reclusive nature and his insistence on avoiding the subject meant that I never would truly know. The man was a cold and impersonal guardian, but despite this, he was the most powerful figure in my life.

     And despite what many believed, he was a moral man.

     When the sky fell in 2010, I watched the few friends my father had go from riches to rags overnight. Father had his own reserve of cash stored away, but his friends refused to even ask him for aid–not that he would have lent it to them. For me, I had always seen his greed as his only vice, although he insisted he had other reasons for his miserly behavior. It wasn’t until several years later that I understood how serious these reasons were, and that Father was neither greedy nor miserly, but that his refusal to even spend that money on the most basic of necessities was in fact the kindest thing he could have done.

     I had no TV, no computer, no books and no games growing up. We didn’t go to see movies or listen to music. Our house was lit by candlelight–candles made from the fat of butchered animals–and our stove was fueled by the wood we cut in the forest behind our old house. We ate meals of meat and wild herbs, and we suffered from scurvy and undernourishment. It was a miserable existence, especially when I knew we could afford much better.

     Then, on my twenty-third birthday, two weeks before the first anniversary of the great disaster, Father became very ill. He spent most of the day in his study, refusing to let me enter, and spent another hour talking to our priest, confessing sins he would not let me hear. Finally, as he crawled away from the wretched old room, he beckoned me to follow him, and follow him I did, up the old stair to that dusty room I would soon wish I had never seen.

     It was the first time I had ever been in the attic. By the entrance, an enormous bronze statue loomed over me. The thing was hideous–like a fat newt with a broad chevron-shaped head, bearing stubby, claw-less limbs tipped with numerous vermiculate toes. Its body was short and curled upon itself, and set flat on its belly with its arms sprawled. Two large, narrow eyes were perched on top of its wide head, and from its short face and broad mouth protruded an equally broad and fat tongue. All of its ribs protruded from its sides, forming paired rows of thick spines that ran the length of its torso. The toadly idol was sickening to look at, and it made the already dusty and uninviting room seem vulgar and reprehensible.

     Holding onto the wooden beams for support, Father again asked me to follow him, this time toward a large chest at the end of the room. The chest was clean, having been disturbed repeatedly, and opened very recently. It wasn’t even locked; I asked Father why, and he responded that he didn’t care if the money was stolen or lost.

     “Money?” I asked.

     “Yes, this is where I keep our money.”

     I stopped myself from asking about why he preferred a chest to a bank. Father had always been eccentric, and truthfully this wasn’t out of the norm for him. But as he flipped open the lid, the reason why he kept it hidden became clear to me: the money was very old, very similar to bills I’d seen in pictures from the fifties. It was dusty, grimy, and stacked high, and as far as I could tell, they were all sequential fifties and hundreds.

     He stopped to look at me. “My son,” he said, his emotionless voice now raspy and weak, “This is the money I obtained in my youth. I don’t wish to say how I came across it; that is between me and my God. All I can say is that, when I die, the money will be yours. However, you can only spend it on blood, fire, and stone. This money… it is blood money. This money is cursed.”

     Having said that, I watched him fall to one knee. His hand clutched his chest, his fingers digging into the skin. When he recovered, I quickly asked him, why would he give into superstition? “It’s unlike you,” I said. “You and I both know that the world isn’t the same as it was. Even the wealthy are starving. Now look at this chest–there has to be at least twenty million in there. We can use it. We can file to become Sponsors, and we can help the others bring this world back from the sorry state it’s in.”

     “No,” he growled. Then, he continued in a voice that was nearly a whisper, “We can’t do that. They don’t forgive that easily.”

     “Who doesn’t?” I asked.

     “That’s not important,” Father said. He turned to me and smiled. He began, “But I do suppose….” but before he could finish his sentence, he collapsed. During his final moments, I saw a great deal of terror in his eyes, before the light left them and I was alone with my thoughts.

     What had father wanted to say? I couldn’t be sure. But I knew he wouldn’t want to be found in the attic. Against my better judgment, I carried his lifeless body down the stairs and laid him on the couch before alerting the authorities to his death.

     The funeral was a solemn affair. I found myself alone in the pews, with no one else there but our pastor and the body of my Father in a closed casket. Not even his friends attended, although they did offer me their regards in the days before. I suppose it was what my Father would have wanted, but in the days following the funeral I still confronted them. That was when I learned that my Father’s claim about the money being made with blood was in fact very true.

     In the mid-50’s a small religious group had been active in the outskirts of town. The authorities had been watching them–they were said to have been stockpiling weapons for war, to bring about their god’s wrath on Earth. My Father had been working as a private investigator, and he had been hired by an old friend to infiltrate the group in order to locate a member and “rescue” him before the raid. My Father managed to get inside the compound undetected, but by the time he had done so, he was too late.

     The priest was all that was left of the cult’s congregation. Father found him standing over the remains of his followers in what could only be described as an ocean of blood. He confronted the priest, demanding that he explain what had led the old man to slaughter the others, but the priest denied killing anyone and said that it had been their own god. He told my Father that they had offered a sacrifice to the deity, but the god had rejected it and assaulted them instead. He showed Father a large chest and told him to take it and free him of the burden of his actions.

     After some questioning, the police confiscated the money for investigation. Once it was determined that the money was clean, the probate court took its share and followed the outline in the priest’s will. It was at this point that I was told that my real father had been a part of the congregation, and that the money had primarily consisted of his life savings. My real father had left it to the man who adopted me, on the condition that I receive it when my adopted Father died.

     Father didn’t feel comfortable with this. He had decided that the families of the congregation deserved the money more, as an amends to the bloodbath that had stained it. However, after years of attempting to track down these families, he began to realize that his efforts were bearing no fruit, and eventually he resolved to spend the money on me, and to withdraw from the world as a whole.

     When I pressed why, his friends simply said they didn’t know. Perhaps my Father simply had lost hope in the world, or maybe he had become depressed or filled with shame. While it was clear that his friends knew something they weren’t telling me, I could tell that they considered the secret worth keeping. While this raised my suspicions, a search through the town’s records confirmed their story, and I was left with no reason to push the issue further.

     As soon as the money was cleared and the taxes were paid, I placed the money in the bank. I attempted to live better than I had under my Father, but I was too used to the old lifestyle to spend the money on luxuries. The old man’s warnings aside, I felt his original plan was the best option, and I searched the town records for the surviving family members of the cult’s followers.

     Things were different in the digital age, even after the disasters. I located the remaining families after only a few days of searching, and tracked them down across the country in a few weeks more. I contacted each of them, one at a time, but they all refused the money. When I asked why, I was met with hostility from a few, and simple hang-ups from the rest.

     I knew now why Father hadn’t followed through with his plans, but I was still left with a large sum of money that did nothing but sit in a bank and accrue interest–money that I had no idea how to spend. Once again the idea of becoming a Sponsor became the most appealing option, and by the end of the week I had filed the paperwork, sent in my financial statements and paid the paltry sum for the background check.

     I was denied. They didn’t bother to give me a reason why, but that didn’t surprise me; in all likelihood, the nature of the money was a moral roadblock. I was then left with few options, but I was still determined to make a difference. Eventually I decided my last recourse was to donate the money to a local charity.

     The following night was filled with strange dreams. I was taken on a mental journey to terrifying places–impossible cities of glass and marble, navigated by a network of mind-bending streets that smelled of sulfur and blood. There were massive walls–far higher than the Great Wall in China–constructed out of solid granite, with burning pyres on top of each watchtower. I was dragged down the streets by an army of shadows, being so monstrous that I dread recalling them, until I reached the inner chamber of a large temple and met with the very bronze statue that rested in my attic. The statue, now bloated and covered in blood, seemed to take on a life of its own, and as it stared down at me I felt myself shiver in pure terror at that thought that this monster–this vile beast–had just fed, and wanted more.

     I woke with an unsettling feeling of dread. This feeling didn’t fade, and neither did the horrifying imagery from that nightmare. Instead, it intensified as the day went on, up until the point where I could no longer bear trying to ignore it. To ease my mind, I went to the charity to inquire how the money was being used, but after ringing the bell, I was left without an answer on the doorway for some time. Eventually, I gave up, and went home.

     Weeks went by. Letters I had been told would be sent by the foundation’s board never arrived. I filed a report with the police, but there was no follow-up–there were too many charities going rogue those days, and the police were overwhelmed with more pressing cases. Frustrated, I decided to pay another visit to the charity, and after once again not getting an answer at the door I tried the knob on a hunch.

     It was unlocked.

     I cautiously stepped inside, keeping an eye out for anyone who might be lingering. Walking into the wrong building uninvited was a good way to wind up dead, and on occasion even public buildings were no exception. However, I found the place deserted and without power, seemingly otherwise left in stasis from the day I had been there; paperwork still sat in piles on the receptionist’s counter, doors that had been left open that day were still unmoved, and a janitorial cart was in the same spot as the time I had left.

     There was no sound. It was almost if the outside world had ceased to exist. Windows seemed unnaturally dark and cloudy, almost as if they were covered in a thin layer of soot. The smell of sulfur and ash filled the air, stained by the sharp scent of copper. It felt dreadful, that empty building, and each second I was inside the urge to run screaming out of the door grew stronger and harder to resist.

     As I explored, the dim light began to play tricks on my mind. A decorative fireplace seemed to have faintly glowing embers inside, and if I moved my head quickly the walls seemed to be charred and flaking. My legs felt heavy, as if I was mired in a thick liquid, and the smell of smoke that filled the building was strong enough on occasion to make me choke.

     As I moved toward the stairs, I could hear the faint crackle of a fire burning. The coppery scent seemed to grow stronger with each step up, mixed with the sulfuric fumes in ways that felt impossible. At the top, the air felt clogged with ash, which combined with a new stench made me cough and retch. Even the door to the Director’s office seemed affected, feeling abnormally gritty and almost hot to the touch.

     After a moment of gathering my nerve, I opened the door. Immediately the metallic smell and smoke filled my mouth and lungs, and the hot glow of the roaring fire seemed to singe my skin. The back wall seemed to be ablaze, but it took no more than half a second to tell that it wasn’t; whatever the burning, glowing light was, it wasn’t flames. The source of the coppery stench itself became clear as my eyes scanned the room–the other walls appeared to be soaked in blood, with bits of flesh and viscera spattered across them. Even the polished wood floor was painted a bright arterial red.

     I quickly turned from the room and vomited before running for my life. Whatever had happened there was gruesome enough even to sicken the most hardened killer. Within minutes I was far away, pounding on an unfamiliar door and screaming for help. I didn’t know what to expect when it arrived.

     The police didn’t have any questions for me. If they knew anything, they didn’t share it, and the incident didn’t even make the news. Within days it seemed like the charity had simply fallen off the map. One officer said I had simply hallucinated, and suggested I contact a doctor, but the experience was so strong in my mind that I knew I couldn’t have imagined it. For the first time in my life, I began to consider the supernatural–what I had witnessed just could not be the product of man.

     In the weeks that followed, my home was slowly permeated with the scent of copper and mold. As the odor grew stronger and more unbearable, I went on a hunt for the source. Eventually I made my way up to the attic, where the dusty rafters were now dark and dank, and the metallic stench could not be any more nauseating. I spent days wearing a mask, trying to pinpoint the exact location of the smell, and over time it began to diminish, giving way to the same dusty and stale odor of an unused room.

     One day, I caught a glimpse of the statue out of the corner of my eye. A spot that I hadn’t noticed before intrigued me. As I peered at it, it soon became clear that the spot was a fleck of dried tissue, with a faint splash of clotted blood dribbled across the statue’s lips. At that moment, I realized I could feel strange heat flowing from its throat, and I recoiled in horror as the statue seemed to move from its position. As I turned to flee, I happened to gaze down at the floor, where something even more horrifying caught my eye.

     Peeking out from beneath one of the statue’s feet were the tips of a few old bills, stained with dried blood.

The Pride     The Wolves of Dunham