It was at the most exclusive of auctions that I was first confronted with the ominous object of my desire. Upon first sight of the artifact, I knew that I just had to have it. Every other patron in the room who witnessed the same artifact shared my sentiments and, therefore, forced me to increase my bids all the more just to ensure it would be mine. I do admit that I have made a name for myself among the community of antique collectors for being demonstrably boisterous and inarguably exuberant. It was claimed that the artifact, an ostentatious egg which was alleged to be over a thousand years old, contained the heart of an immortal being known from Russian folklore as Koschei the Deathless and granted its owner the unique power of immortality. Though I had yearned for the capability to live forever, I was more concerned with keeping up my grandiose image which drove me to purchase the item at any cost. Quite a squabble it created when a bidding war commenced between myself and the pompous Mr. Maxwell Whigam – a dated rivalry well-known among the community. After a rigorous challenge, I won the item, but not without having to pay a pretty penny.
Upon closer observation of my new prized possession, I noticed the intricacies that went into producing the artifact. The artifact was a simple oversized egg, yet flamboyantly decorated and etched with intricate detail. Without breaking the shell, the outer extremity of the egg was carved and painted with complex knotwork and bordering which exemplified the exhaustive work that went into designing it. The egg sat in a bed of velvet pillows inside a small wooden chest meticulously fashioned with the same level of detail in its manufacturing as the egg. The very essence of the artifact was undeniably captivating. Whether or not this item truly held mystical powers, it certainly seemed to emit an energy that could almost be felt. It was surely to be the most prized trophy in my collection.
After the evening festivities concluded, I returned to my high-rise apartment to bask in the splendor of my own private quarters. My position within the tall building was a petty reflection of my self-aggrandizing, egotistical nature; albeit one I still conformed to at my own volition. I was blessed with a life of luxury without the consequence of expending any effort for it. I looked down on the world below me from my place in the sky. On the street level, the city writhed and thrashed under the weight of a broken society. The lights of the city were flush with the red and blue hue of police cars fighting back the tide of crime overrunning the streets. But here above the chaos, all remained tranquil in the confines of my dwelling.
The clickety-clack of heeled shoes echoed through the apartment announcing the entry of my girlfriend, Katerina, into my office. She was a tall, slender, elegant vision of a woman of Ukrainian origin. Katerina was the type of girl that silenced a room when she entered and enjoyed every second of it; a target for all envious eyes. Her looks were her weapon and she wielded them with deadly force. She was dressed for an evening on the town in a gold, silk-laced gown wrapped in a fur shawl carrying a large suede purse dressed to the nines.
“You are home,” she acknowledged without looking at me. “I trust you’ve spent a small fortune on another hideous piece of art for your collection.”
“Not quite as much as you spend on makeup. And it’s not art, they’re historical artifacts.”
“At least others can benefit from my makeup. You spend all your money on these antiques that nobody but you care to see. I think you care about these objects more than you care about me.”
“I don’t remember you wanting for anything since you’ve been with me. So long as you get to pamper yourself in all the extravagance you desire, I’ll spend my money on any piece of junk I please. Speaking of pampering, where are you off to dressed so debonair?”
“There are other such social events outside of your precious auctions that require my presence. I have a dinner gathering at The Deluxe, then I am to make an appearance at the City Gala. If you hurry and get ready, you can tag along.”
“Oh, I don’t ‘tag along’ anywhere with anybody. People tag along with me. I don’t have to align myself with others to feel socially relevant. You go have a good time. But be sure to come home later, I want you to myself tonight.”
Katerina glanced at the egg still sitting in the chest on the desk between us. She took an interest in the object.
“So, is this your new priceless artifact?”
“It is,” I confirmed. “From your neck of the woods, actually. The auctioneer claims it’s over a thousand years old and has the power to grant immortality to its owner. I had to outbid ole Max Whigam just to get it, but it was worth it to see the look on his face.”
Katerina took the egg in her hands. She studied it intently, running her hands over it several times. She seemed shaken by the mere presence of the egg.
“Eternity must be a hefty price to pay,” she commented softly.
“You can’t even imagine.”
She quickly closed the chest, adjusted her shawl then resumed her departure. Before she exited, she turned back.
“May the Deathless be merciful on you.”
I didn’t understand her comment nor further concerned myself with it. I stepped out into the living room, sat in my chair and reclined comfortably, admiring my collection of artifacts that decorated the room. All of the artifacts in my collection, however expensive, I saw as pieces of history – history that I now owned and controlled. I saw myself as being in possession of these moments in history which were still alive within the pieces itself. As the world outside slowly collapsed, I recreated a history of my own within these walls through gathering all these pieces. However, none equated to the pristine condition in which the egg remained after an alleged thousand years. I had surely considered the possibility that I had been deceived and sold a fake. But everything provided by the auctioneers on it insisted it was authentic.
I contemplated the idea of immortality. What if the egg truly held the gift of immortality? What would I do with it? I could live to see the end of the world, live beyond the lives of any other man. If immortality is the essence of a god, then I would be a living god to all others.
Just then, I heard the front door to the apartment open and shut. Katerina must have forgotten something. However, to my surprise, it was not Katerina but an old, withered man. He shambled into the living room from the darkness utilizing a cane and stood before me. He was wearing an antiquated suit with long, white balding hair and a thin, boney stature. His face was gaunt and stubbly and his eyes were jaundiced. His blemished skin draped over his skeleton as if he lacked any musculature to fill out the rest of his body. He wore a large gold ring with an opal gem on his left hand. He gave a crooked, but harmless smile showing his yellow-stained teeth.
“Who the hell are you?” I barked. “What are you doing in here?”
“I apologize for the intrusion. I understand that you must be Mr. Samuel Sheffield.”
“I am the purveyor of the artifact that you purchased earlier this evening. My name is Mr. Bessmertniy.”
I shifted my stance, embarrassed that I had been startled by such a frail old man.
“I see,” I responded. “Forgive my rudeness, but how did you get past security?”
“Oh, they let me right in.”
I was inclined to call down to security and demand that they review their entry policy, but seeing as the old man was of no threat, I decided against it.
“I see. What can I do for you, Mr. Bessmertniy?”
“I wanted to meet the man who purchased my beloved egg,” the old man answered.
“Not to argue semantics, but wouldn’t it technically be my egg now?”
“But of course. And to that I say thank you, for now I am all the richer because of it.”
“My pleasure,” I assured him. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting any company tonight.”
“Oh, I will not take up too much of your time. If you would but humor an old man for only a few moments, I will be on my way.”
“I suppose that’s acceptable. Would you like a drink?”
“Water, please. I find myself quite parched at the moment.”
I opened a bottle of water from the bar cart and poured the old man a glass while pouring a brandy for myself. As I handed him the glass, the old man put it directly to his lips and guzzled it down as if he had not drunk water in days. We sat down around the table.
“So, I understand that this artifact is rumored to hold mystical powers,” I mentioned. “Something about immortality and eternal youth I believe.”
“Judging by my current condition, that would prove to be true. Though I would hardly call my state eternal youth.”
I laughed even though he didn’t. He seemed funny, if not unsettling.
“What can you tell me about the artifact?”
“I first came to this country with it a long time ago when America was just in its infancy,” he began.
“You mean when you were in your infancy?”
He continued without correcting himself.
“I was born in Eastern Ukraine during a time of war and of great struggle. When I was growing up, we were told tales of similar times when heroes faced insurmountable odds, ancient evils that haunted the living and sorcerers of dark magic. This egg comes from that dark period of Ukrainian lore, those tales of myth and legend. As you may imagine, Ukraine has a history of grim folklore upon which its culture is built.”
“I can’t say I’m familiar with any of it,” I admitted. The old man’s posture seemed to improve as he began the story.
“In the particular myth of this egg, there lives a hero from humble origins. The hero is an honorable man, the youngest of three to a peasant father. The hero falls in love with a beautiful woman who is captured by an evil sorcerer. The sorcerer then whisks her away and the hero, driven by love, must defeat the sorcerer to rescue his beauty. The sorcerer is said to be imbued with immortality by the devil and the only way he can be killed is to destroy his soul, the source of his immortality, which is hidden within a needle inside an egg inside a duck inside a hare and lives on a magical island. And to defeat the sorcerer, the egg must be destroyed. But whoever possesses the egg would have full control over the sorcerer and his powers.”
“That’s a bit overkill, even for me,” I commented. As Mr. Bessmertniy told his tale, his frail condition appeared to be gradually improving. His skin seemingly grew healthier and his suit was not as baggy. The thin white hair on his head looked fuller and began to develop streaks of black.
“May I trouble you for another glass of water?” he asked. I poured him another glass which he immediately drank.
“So, I’m to presume that the egg you speak of is the very egg I bought today?”
“Indeed, that is what the myth would have us believe.”
“If the egg still exists, then I guess the hero never succeeded in defeating the sorcerer.”
“Very observant,” he noted. “Of course, these myths are simply that. Myths; stories that are fictitious and ingenuine. Over time, these stories are inflated, becoming larger than life to the point that they can no longer be believed. However, the objects and powers these stories possess are, in fact, real. We create fictions to come to terms with the things in our world that remain unexplainable: immortality, long life, magic for lack of a better word. Through the years, many have gone in search of such objects and powers for their own gain, dragooned by nothing more than these fairy tales and fantasies that they were once told; embolden with the chance to become the hero as in these stories and leave their mark on history.”
By now, it was obvious that the old man’s appearance was now shifting, growing ever younger by the minute. His eyes – the yellow color fading – showed an invigoration of life more previously pronounced than before. His frail and amiable presence soon became hardened and foreboding. His once white hair was now thick and jet black. Yet, the process of de-aging did not remove the man’s innate hideousness. I was disturbed by his mutation, but didn’t have the courage to say something.
“Might I ask, how did you come to possess this artifact?”
“Men are fickle beasts and nothing more than beasts at that. We want to believe that everything on this earth belongs to us one way or another. To men, everything has a price tag. But I ask you, Mr. Sheffield, can you put a price on life itself?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean,” I spoke hoarsely.
“I mean it is not the egg which you sought but its prize of what could possibly be immortality. Whatever your beliefs in such an idea, you can’t help but be attracted by the allure of it no matter how fantastical. I see that you’ve collected these priceless pieces of history which you hold as trophies. But the stories behind these pieces go much deeper than the surface, stories which include objects containing supernatural elements. With these objects and the egg in your possession, you live a fairy tale where you place yourself above all manner of men.”
“I’m sorry, what egg?” I asked, confused. My mind had become a blank, struggling to remember what we’d been discussing as he continued to speak. Mr. Bessmertniy then stood up without the assistance of his cane and paced back and forth.
“Yes, what egg?” he responded. “You asked me how I came by this egg. I will tell you the truth that it has always been in my possession. As well as its purveyor, I am also its creator. You see, I am the sorcerer they went in search of a millennia ago. They came with their weapons to claim my powers for themselves. But none were deserving of such great power. I knew that they would gladly kill me to gain whatever power I possessed. So, I hid my soul within a needle and placed it inside the egg to ensure no man could ever take my power.”
“Sorcerer?” I muttered, trying to catch my breath.
“Yes,” he smiled widely. “That’s me. I have walked this earth for over a thousand years and while the world changed, humanity did not. I’ve been able to sustain my youth through draining the life out of others. For too long I remained dormant and found myself once again in need of youth to be reinvigorated. That is why I had the egg put up for auction. Luckily, I was able to acquire a small fortune from you in doing so. As I promised, I will not be taking up any more of your time. However, by the time I’ve finished, you will be dead.”
“The egg…” I tried to stand and make my way to the office, but to my utter surprise, my body was stiff and aching. My effort to stand sent me crashing to the ground in pain.
I first caught sight of it while I struggled to climb to my feet. I saw the back of my hands as I pressed them against the floor; boney, wrinkled and peppered with skin blemishes. Standing up, I found myself unable to hold my own weight and was in need of Mr. Bessmertniy’s cane. Then, my sight caught a glimpse of my reflection through the window. I nearly fell once more in horror, for standing against the backdrop of a dying city was not the young, dapper, sophisticated individual I always saw, but a wrinkled, faded old man with balding white hair. My skin turned gray and clenched against my bones. Over a hundred years of age bore down upon me in just mere moments. My heart beat heavily against my chest cavity struggling to keep me alive and moving. If any of what Mr. Bessmertniy said was true and there was any chance of surviving this, I needed to get to the egg and destroy it. Exhausting all effort, I crawled to my office where the chest holding the egg sat on my desk. Mr. Bessmertniy gleefully followed me, twirling his cane as he found enjoyment in watching my suffering. Alas, I reached the chest and threw open the lid. I lifted my fist above my head ready to smash it when I realized the egg was gone. The artifact was nowhere to be found. But, where could it be? Wrestling with my memory, I fell to the floor in defeat.
“I’m afraid you’ve been deceived, Mr. Sheffield, and not by me,” Bessmertniy stated. By this point, Mr. Bessmertniy had been fully regenerated to his younger self. “You see, my visit here is not on my behalf, but on behalf of someone else.”
Realizing who stole the egg, I let out a heavy sigh.
She must’ve slipped it into her purse when she was admiring it. I always knew her to be an opportunist without principles. Yet, I had never imagined she would be bold enough to ever cross me.
“It seems she has swindled you,” he nodded. “It is unfortunate, nearly tragic. In all my years on this earth, humanity has yet to change; always trying to claim things that are not theirs, taking advantage of others. But if I can provide you with any comfort in your last moments, I assure you the young lady will suffer much the same as you. While I may be under her control, her greed will keep her from ever destroying the egg. She, like all others, desires the gift of immortality, so she will keep the egg to ensure the power remains hers. That is all the opportunity I need to reclaim the egg and my soul. Before I go, allow me to provide you with some ‘fatherly’ advice for what little good it will do in your brief time: Greed is nothing more than an instrument of our own destruction.”
Bessmertniy closed the chest and tucked it under his arm as he headed toward the front door. With the last gasps of life in my lungs, I called to him once more.
“You can call me Koschei.”
Zach Ellenberger is a writer based in Chicago where he lives with his wife and kids. He grew up in Pittsburgh, PA where he spent his childhood writing comic strips and short stories. After spending his formative years as a musician recording albums and performing with various bands, he returned to his love of creative writing where he works in various genres including historical fiction, horror and sci-fi to name a few. Zach has published several short stories as well as his debut novel, Potato Kingdom, and continues to develop new projects in every medium from novels to screenplays and everything in between.