Arthur Gaunt had spent his whole life as a slave to curiosity. Above all else, he yearned for truth and an answer to those questions he had never thought to ask. No matter where or when, a nameless force pulled him towards an unnamable place, some origin point, where the most fundamental knowledge lay waiting for his discovery. But despite his efforts, the truth always eluded him.
It should come as no surprise that Arthur pursued a career in criminal investigation. While specializing in missing persons, he closed 98% of his cases. By his colleagues’ standards, Arthur was very good at his job. But that pesky 2% bothered him to no end. Despite numerous orders from his supervisors, Arthur refused to let any case go cold. His supervisors could look past his obsessive behavior, but not his disobedience. So Arthur was fired.
The case of Mary Whitman was the final nail in the coffin. According to one neighbor, a group of men in a white van abducted Mary outside of her suburban home. She called the police, but they arrived too late. Other neighbors confirmed to have seen this white van. However, surveillance footage from nearby homes showed no sign of Mary or any vehicle at the time.
By all reports, Mary was a kind, cheerful adolescent. She had no enemies, no jealous exes, and no trouble at home or elsewhere. And until that night, no one had seen any reason to worry for Mary’s safety. Arthur secretly copied the case files to take home before his departure from the police force. But after weeks of private investigation, he still had no motive, no leads, and no clue.
That is until he received a strange letter from a man named Thomas Hoslow. The contents of the letter were as follows:
Dear Mr. Gaunt,
They told me they were criminals. All of them. Whatever horrors were necessitated by our righteous path, it is only what they deserved. But Mary is just a girl. What might she have done to deserve such torment? Have we grown so desperate as to snatch children from the streets? How many others might have come before, smuggled under my nose, guilty of naught but a knack for misfortune? I can abide no longer.
All my life, and long it has been, I dedicated myself to the careful protection of one greater truth. I have warded it from all others save our own to prevent a most abrupt and unwelcome end. Yet, if a system demands cruelty to persist, perhaps it should not persist at all.
Mr. Gaunt, I know you as a respected detective, and I believe you haven’t yet dropped your inquiries into the case of Miss Mary Whitman. You will find her, in some shape or another, among those I might have called my brothers. You may enter unseen at the ruins of 4 Deadwood Drive in Underton.
Consider this my resignation from the Cult of Ungola. I have had my awakening, and soon so will we all.
This was Arthur’s first true lead, and he would follow it to its natural end, but not without doing his research. First, he looked for any information he could find on the Cult of Ungola. But his search yielded nothing. Either the cult was the creation of a deluded mad man, or someone had taken great measures to scrub any trace of the cryptic group.
As for Thomas Hoslow, Arthur could find only a few mentions of his name in public records. But according to those documents, Hoslow had died half a century ago. Provided with those records was a photo of the man prior to his death. He was a willowy figure with sharp cheekbones and a coarse, white beard. Although there was a lively glint in his eye, there was no way such an elderly man could have survived another fifty years.
Regardless, Arthur made the trip to 4 Deadwood Drive. It was his only clue to the whereabouts of Mary Whitman. But just as the letter suggested, the address led to a ruin. Although a building might have been there at some point, now all that remained was a wreckage of rusted metal and shattered glass. Graffiti covered the monstrous pile, painting it in vibrant shades of red and black.
As Arthur stepped into the ruin, he could see no hint of an entrance or sign of activity. Even so, there was some organization to the cluttered chaos. The debris spiraled around a central point, where the ruin reached its peak. There Arthur noticed what looked like an archaic network of gutters and pipes. It was a rainwater collection system. And as Arthur approached, he could hear a soft patter of water below.
While his eyes followed the pipes, Arthur noticed a black sigil painted onto a sheet of metal. The symbol depicted an ambiguous shadow of coiled tendrils, and at once, Arthur felt an unnerved tremble in his breast. Upon closer inspection, the metal sheet had a hinge on one side. It was a hatch.
Opening the hatch, Arthur found a ladder that descended far below, presumably into the bowels of the cultist base. Spurred on by equal parts duty and curiosity, Arthur climbed down the ladder. And before long, he found himself in an old cistern supported by stone columns.
Just as his feet touched the tiled floor, a dim, red light flashed from somewhere above. The murky light danced along the inky surface of the cistern water. While the flashing continued, a shrill cry echoed from far off. Then came the patter of steps against cold stone.
Arthur ran along the narrow path that led from the ladder to a rusted door. Before anyone could find him in the cistern, he exited onto a shadowy corridor. At once, a horrid stench stung his nose, making him want to vomit. That gut-twisting sensation only worsened as he entered a chamber cloaked in darkness.
It took his eyes a moment to adjust. But when they did, Arthur bit his tongue to stifle a scream. At the center of the room was a pile of rotting corpses, their limbs gnawed to bone by rats and their flesh crawling with maggots. The ceiling above extended far beyond sight.
Despite himself, Arthur approached the fetid mound. He recognized one of the faces, pale and bloodied as it was. Maggots swam through the man’s once lively eyes, but it was unmistakably Thomas Hoslow. He looked the same as his fifty-year-old photograph. But how could that be?
Regardless, what concerned Arthur more than anything else was the manner of Hoslow’s death. His limbs were torn, and his body was shredded into fleshy ribbons. Lacerations carved deep paths all over his skin as though someone had wrapped him in a circle of blades. Arthur had seen plenty of cruelty in prior investigations but nothing so violent.
Like any sane individual, Arthur decided to get out as soon as he could. But the sound of footsteps was approaching quick. There was no time to flee. He scanned the room briefly, but there was only one place to hide.
Having buried himself among the heap of gore, Arthur waited and listened. Two men marched past the room and into the cistern. After a few minutes, they strode back into the hall. “You think the intruder is in there?” one of them asked.
“What? With Tom and the others? I doubt it,” another man said. “I’m not even sure there is an intruder. Could’ve been a rat that set off the alarm.”
The first man sighed. “Are we just going to leave Tom in there? He was one of our own.”
“He was a traitor. Let the rats have him.” With that, both men disappeared down the hall.
As their footsteps faded, Arthur slid out of his hiding spot. Dark, coagulated blood stained his clothes, and maggots wriggled in his hair. He wanted to wretch and scream. But he had to get out. He ran for the cistern, but the door was locked. He looked at his phone, but there was no service. If Arthur wanted to leave, he would have to progress deeper into the cultist base. No one could help him now.
At the opposite end of the hall was a spiral staircase. Before Arthur could take a step upward, he heard a trembling cry and a drawn-out moan. He stopped to listen closer. He heard another horrid wail and another. It was not one person in distress but several, all crying out in pain. And beneath all the agonizing tones came a sound lower and more sinister. Arthur did not hear it so much as he felt it penetrating his skull, setting all his hairs on end.
Once he found the courage to ascend the stairs, Arthur came upon a long hall drenched in dreary, white light. Without doors or windows, the entire length of the hall was lined with narrow cells. In each of them was a prisoner, scrawny and pale. Their skin was riddled with sores and bruises, and in their eyes, he saw a look of unyielding terror.
Arthur tried to ask them questions, but the prisoners flinched as he approached and shrank into the shadows. “Please. Tell me what is going on here. What is this place?” Arthur asked them. Most merely shivered and cried. Others were utterly silent and despondent.
The sheer number of prisoners astounded Arthur. There must have been hundreds. Yet, Mary Whitman was the only missing person he knew of. How could so many have ended up here without notice? And more importantly, what were the cultists doing with them?
“Hey, over here,” one of the prisoners said in a surprisingly lucid tone. He stuck his hand through the bars and waved Arthur over. The man could not have been more than thirty-five. But his skin was striped with deep wrinkles, and his hair was falling out in patches. “Are you one of us? Have you escaped? Can you set me free?” the man asked.
“No, I came to look for someone. But what is this place? How did you get here?”
“What does it look like? This is a prison. But not like any other I have been to,” the man said. He licked his lips. They were cracked and half-coated in coagulated blood. “They moved me to this place from the Cooperstown Penitentiary. They told my family I was killed in some prison fire. But there was no fire. It never happened.” His voice trailed off. “No one is looking for me. But I’m not dead. I’m not,” he said, as if to himself.
“Do you know Thomas Hoslow? Is that name familiar to you?” Arthur asked.
The prisoner grumbled. “One of them.”
“One of them? You mean the Cult of Ungola?”
Arthur glanced up and down the corridor. There were footsteps, but they were still far off. He leaned closer to the cell and asked in a hush, “What is the Cult of Ungola? Who is Ungola?” The prisoner closed his eyes and scrunched his face into a painful knot. He shook his head. “Please. You must tell me.”
“Not who. It’s not human.”
“What do you mean it’s not human?” The prisoner shook his head and slunk back into the shadows of his cell. Arthur could see his shoulders shake. The man was crying. “What are they doing to you?”
“No,” the prisoner said. “No. I don’t want to.”
“Please. I can help you.”
“No … I can’t.”
“Just tell me.” The prisoner started to moan and whimper. “I just want to help. I can’t help if I don’t know what’s going on here.”
The prisoner jumped towards the bars. “It’s torture!” he screamed. “They cut and they break and they wound until blood streams across the floors. They slice the flesh from our bones and smile through our screams. They say their words and they shatter our bones. Anything for the pain. So much pain.”
“Why are they torturing you?” Arthur said.
Smashing his head against the bars, the prisoner groaned and cried. “Don’t listen to them. It just wants to feed. They say it’s to keep him asleep. But Ungola wants pain. Ungola wants blood … and control. Everything. It controls … everything … in this nightmare,” he said through gritted teeth. Arthur didn’t understand. He asked the prisoner to help him make sense of it. But the troubled man couldn’t hear him. His sanity was unraveling fast.
“Do you know Mary Whitman?” Arthur said. “Can you tell me about her?”
“Nailed to a cross. Blood boiling. Nerves splitting. Darkness spinning. It’s not real. It’s not real! Wake up! Wake up!” Arthur tried to calm the prisoner, but he screamed more and more. The corridor boomed with his shouts. “Wake up! Wake up!”
A pair of cultists appeared at the other end of the hall, dressed in ceremonial black robes. They pointed and chased after Arthur. He ran down a side hall and then down another and another. It didn’t take long before Arthur was hopelessly lost. But he could not stop. The cultists were still behind him.
Arthur found a staircase and followed it up another floor. The air smelled of bloodied steel and hot disease. As he climbed the steps, the defeated wails of the prison faded. In their place grew a choir of soul-wrenching screams. The tormented tones struck a fear so deep and so primal. It was there Arthur found the torture chambers.
The rooms were as numerous as they were vile. Through slits in the doors, Arthur saw men splayed on racks, seated in barbed chairs, and hung from ropes. Their naked bodies were contorted and dislocated. Their skin ran with rivers of blood until the drains on the floor clogged and overflowed. Behind each of these contraptions was a cloaked figure, whose careful supervision ensured the pain never dulled and never relented.
No matter how repulsive the images he encountered, Arthur could not look away. In fact, he investigated every room he could as if addicted to the horror. But for once, Arthur was rewarded for his curiosity. Near the end of the hall, he found Mary Whitman nailed to an x-shaped cross. Her hands and feet trickled red while her face was utterly drained and pale. She was alone. Although he called her name, Mary could barely open her eyes let alone lift her head. He tried the door, but it was locked.
Arthur stood and stared into her chamber. He could not think what to do. It was Mary he had come for, and it felt wrong to leave without her. But he had no way to free her. Besides, it might be more practical to flee and find help. Yes, he needed to run before it was too late.
But before he could turn away, Arthur saw something shift in the dark corners of Mary’s room. It moved with the shadows, and it was the shadows. The amorphous, black mass gathered and unfurled. Tentacles writhed with gaping mouths that bristled with honed teeth. And at the peak of the twisted chaos was a vaguely human head without feature or expression. Its smile was vertical, tattered, and filled with a cluster of lidless eyes.
As if sensing the malevolent presence, Mary jolted awake. Inky tendrils crawled up her limbs with hungry mouths that gorged on her flesh. She strained against the cross and screamed until blood vessels burst in her eyes. Arthur could not help but join in her shouts. At once, the creature turned with eyes swollen and mouths spread. The mere sight of it sent Arthur into a maddened frenzy. He backed away from the door, straight into the arms of two cultists.
Minutes passed before madness released his brain. Even when Arthur calmed himself, his sanity was still in shambles and his nerves were on edge. But for good reason. The cultists were dragging him towards his own torture chamber. The door at the end of the hall was already open for him. He saw a stone slab, and a tray glittering with sharpened tools. He tried his best to resist, but his legs were as good as jelly.
“Why are you torturing people?” Arthur asked. “What was that thing in there?”
The cultists snickered. “You must have seen our god, Ungola,” said one.
“Consider it an honor,” said the other.
The cultists threw him on the stone slab and shut the door behind them. “What do you want?” Arthur asked as they bound his arms and legs. This time they did not answer. Instead the cultists selected blades from the tray and plunged them into Arthur’s flesh. Pain erupted across his body like a roiling fire. But he did not beg them to stop or ask for reprieve. He only asked, “Why?”
The cultists paused with their blades still lodged in his body. “To keep the god asleep,” they said.
“Which god? Ungola?”
They smirked. “You have no idea what you stumbled into.” With that, they continued the torture. The blades twisted and dug into his flesh. Blood ran through his fingers and pattered on the floor. All the while, Arthur screamed for answers. More than anything else, even an end to his suffering, he wanted to understand.
Suddenly, the door opened, and a gentleman in a black suit strode forward. At once, the cultists stopped the torture and returned their blades to the tray. “Lord Unger,” they said with a bow. Arthur glanced up from the slab, and the lord stared down at him. There was something unsettling about his features: eyes too big, mouth too wide, figure too fluid. He appeared like a poor copy of a person rather than a genuine human himself. And yet, there was something incredibly common about the man’s appearance. His expression was one Arthur had seen a thousand times before.
“Leave us,” Unger said in a chilling tone. The cultists obeyed without hesitation. Once they had gone, Unger crossed his arms and smiled. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Arthur Gaunt.”
“How do you know my name?”
Lord Unger circled around the stone slab, never once taking his eyes off Arthur. “I know many things,” he said with a lopsided smile.
“And who are you?” Arthur asked.
“Lord Warren Unger.” A fleeting ray of light reflected off his gaze. His eyes were flat and iron gray. “I am Ungola’s chosen emissary. I alone communicate with our deity.”
A shiver ran through Arthur’s spine. “I’ve seen your deity and the horrors it demands. I cannot understand why you would worship such a being.”
Lord Unger’s crooked smile turned into a sneer. But if Arthur’s comments insulted him, he did not say so. Instead he crouched beside Arthur and ran a finger through his streaming blood. He rubbed it between his fingers and tested its bouquet with a deep sniff.
“Though you may not realize it, there is power in blood. The power to prolong, for example.” Lord Unger rose to his full height and glared down at Arthur. “You have no idea how old we are. By Ungola’s power, we are virtually immortal.”
“Is that why you do it?” Arthur said.
“No. Ours is a higher purpose.”
“What is it? Your followers said it was to keep a god asleep. What did they mean?”
Unger’s lips spread into a wormy smile. With careful fingers, he unbound Arthur’s arms and legs. Then he stepped back from the slab and exited through the door. Just as he crossed the threshold, he instructed Arthur to follow.
Arthur struggled to his feet and joined Unger in the hall. “Do I have a choice?” he said.
“There is always a choice. Run if you’d like. My men will leave you be if I ask it of them.” Lord Unger spoke with his back to Arthur. Not once did he turn or even glance in his direction. He already knew what Arthur would do.
Together they walked down the dusky corridor, where the prisoners still wailed in agony. Unger was utterly deaf to the sounds. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back and his head held high. Nonetheless, he saved his monologue for after they spiraled deeper into the base, where the screams of the tortured would not interrupt his speech.
Having climbed three flights of stairs, they came upon yet another dingy, windowless hall. Lord Unger cleared his throat and began. “You asked me about a sleeping god. I am afraid we do not speak his name, and by our design it will be lost to history. Yet, there is one fundamental truth I will impart on you.” He straightened his suit jacket and fixed one, flat eye on Arthur. “The universe in its entirety, including you, me, and the nebulous void beyond, is but the dream of a god that exists beyond our own realm of time and space. For eons this being has rested in a sleep so long and deep that it is almost akin to death.”
Arthur laughed an empty laugh. “You cannot possibly know that,” he said. Even so, the lord’s knowledge settled in his mind with such ease and satisfaction. It was as though it had always belonged there. The truth was impossible to deny.
“In the dusty haze of genesis, there emerged another god, he who rules from the shadows, our lord, Ungola. Perceiving the reality of existence, Ungola has ever endeavored to keep the god asleep; for if this god were to wake, all of us would cease to be.” Lord Unger raised his hands and gestured to their surroundings. “That is why we do what we do. Ungola uses the power in blood to keep his sleep eternal.”
“Interesting,” Arthur said with a pant. His aching wounds made it hard to walk, but he pushed forward nonetheless. “A prisoner told me the last part is a lie. Ungola just wants pain and blood.”
Lord Unger stopped. “Which prisoner told you that?”
Arthur shrugged. “He never gave me his name.” Unger forced a smile and continued on his way.
They turned down another corridor. Its features were as bland and depressing as the rest of the building. But something felt different, familiar even. A stubborn throbbing started in Arthur’s heart, and his palms began to sweat.
“If Ungola is so powerful,” Arthur said, as he studied the corridor with suspicion, “Then why does he need a cult? Can’t he do everything himself?”
“Think of my worshippers more as guard dogs,” Unger answered.
Ignoring the question, Lord Unger entered a room that must have been his office. Moody, fluorescent lights illuminated a mahogany desk, where Unger’s papers rested in neat stacks. Opposite the desk was a spotless couch of burgundy velvet. Above it hung an abstract painting with provocative splashes of red and black. Layered one atop another, the splotches of color formed an ominous mass that appeared to reach outside the canvas.
Arthur looked at Unger’s office with a panicked disbelief. As soon as he set foot in the room, he was struck with an overwhelming sensation of déjà vu. Everything from the grain of the floorboards to the thickness of the air tickled a memory from long ago. He had been there before.
“Why does this all feel familiar?” Arthur asked, both to himself and to Unger. “Why do I know this place?”
But Unger ignored his questions. He delighted in Arthur’s confusion and the sound of his own voice. “The god is asleep, and so he shall remain for eternity. Yet, he yearns to awake. His subconscious is searching for the truth even if it doesn’t understand why.”
“Searching how?” Arthur asked. He could barely hear his own words over the pounding of his heart. But he had heard enough from Unger to wonder what he was getting at.
“As with anyone else, a dream ceases when the dreamer sees it for what it is and recognizes it as his own.”
Arthur knew there was more Unger wasn’t telling him. The cult leader enjoyed speaking in a roundabout manner. But their discussion was circling around the truth. Sooner or later it would all unravel.
Lord Unger approached an ebony door with a tarnished silver knob. He invited Arthur to open it. Although he could not say what lurked behind the door, Arthur was certain he should fear it. Some forgotten horror lay in wait, and he could feel the terror sinking into his bones.
“Why are you stopping? I have more to share with you,” Unger said. Arthur looked back the way they had come. It was not too late to turn around. Unger guessed his thoughts and smiled. “Would you like to return home? Would you drop your investigation and forget everything you have seen and learned? Could you? Or shall we pull more on that fateful thread and indulge your most fundamental curiosities?”
As Unger had said, there is always a choice. But in truth, there was only ever one choice Arthur could make. Compelled by that nameless force, he had arrived at this unnamable place. Any sense of volition was merely an illusion.
Arthur shuffled through the ebony door and found himself in a room of utter blackness. Not even the light of Unger’s office penetrated the dim interior. “It’s so dark,” Arthur said. He was scared to venture any farther into the unknown.
“There is a light if you wish,” Unger said. He shut and locked the door, sealing them inside the abysmal chamber. Then came the click of a light switch and the flicker of a lamp hanging overhead.
Although shadow still clung to the walls of the room, the center was fully illuminated. There Arthur saw a pit roughly ten feet in diameter. He poked his head over the edge and saw a pile of bodies several stories below. It was the same pile Arthur had seen when he entered the base. This is where Thomas Hoslow had died.
“Why … why did you bring me here?” Arthur stuttered.
“Oh, Mr. Gaunt,” Unger said, “I do enjoy our talks. But you did not think I would let you live?”
“Why? You could’ve just killed me on the slab or let your men torture me.”
“That is but a simple pleasure. But your appearance is a special occasion.” He stepped back into the shadow so only his twisted smile was visible. “Have you not always hungered for the truth? Hm? Like a moth to a flame, you would see yourself burned just to grasp that final riddle. So what then could be more painful than this? Here you are on the precipice of true epiphany. But I will not let you pass. Instead you will die with the pain of wanting and confusion. It is as you said. Ungola craves pain.”
As Arthur watched the lord’s crooked mouth speak, a lost memory fell into place. “Wait. I … I know you. I know this room.” He backed away from the pit and from Lord Unger. Terror and dread flooded his body. He receded into his arms, guarding wounds he had not yet suffered.
“Ah, so it is coming back,” Unger said. “Then perhaps you will remember what comes next.”
A curtain of shadow enveloped Lord Unger, mingling with and contorting his flesh into grotesque forms. Mouthed tendrils slithered and snapped; black gore frothed and bubbled; and a mass of engorged eyes emerged from the distended blackness.
Arthur cowered in his hands as the monstrosity’s dusky body scraped against the floor. “Why? Why do I know this?” he said. “I don’t understand.”
Ungola stroked Arthur’s head with a fleshy limb. The appendage traced the curve of his cheek as another wrapped around his leg. The creature loomed over Arthur. Although he could not see in the gathering darkness, Arthur felt its cold breath on his face.
“Every dream has its nightmare,” Ungola said. Savoring every second, the god of living shadow tore into Arthur’s flesh. Sinew ripped, and bone splintered. Throbbing organs spilled onto the floor, and severed veins gushed.
Yet, through every agonizing moment, Arthur screamed the same thing over and over. “I don’t understand. Please. I don’t understand!” But he would not get his answers. He died with the pain of wanting and confusion just as Unger had promised.
When Arthur had breathed his last, Ungola sighed with content. “Maybe next time,” he said. He tossed Arthur into the pit and watched with a lidless gaze. The butchered corpse tumbled and fell in pieces, joining the pile of all those who came before.
Credit: Andrew Layden
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