Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
Auster sat at the aged wooden desk, pulling out his weathered journal. He placed it down then reached back into his satchel and retrieved his oaken fountain pen. The pages fluttered like wings between his fingers as he flipped to his next entry. He dated the first line. The pen flowed effortlessly from one number to the next; an extension of himself. Underneath the date he signed his name. His thoughts began to cascade and he struck the blank slate with black ink.
England, November 4th, 1856
Dr. Auster Crowley
This lodging is horrid. My room is cramped and each corner infested with webs and dead spiders. Not to mention the stench that still lingers – A mixture of adultery and feces. I’m the only one sleeping here tonight, the other rooms vacant of furniture and customers. The fat lady downstairs however, the one who let me the room seems nice enough, yet she’s… off – like the rest of the inhabitants of Bodfred. Although I’m looking forward to my findings, I’m unsure where to start.
He lifted the pen. For once, his thoughts fought back. The woman below still stirred in the looming night. She wheezed and whispered to herself underneath the splintered floorboards. Her speech wasn’t English and it sounded like a jumble of sounds, forcefully mashed together. Every now and then, she would stop, however the silence never lasted.
He noted the woman in the margin, deeming to add her to his story.
He didn’t sleep. He couldn’t sleep. An unnerving combination of not finishing his entry and the estranged woman. Obviously, the two were linked; one could not have happened without the other.
Most of the night he spent at the desk, chain smoking to calm his nerves, too afraid to lay in the festering bed. Nobody had heard of this place – this town – until recently. A few missing persons and suddenly its in all of the headlines of prominent newspapers.
‘Three brothers missing after stealing horses’, ‘Horse thieves still missing after eleven days’
He wrote the latter. And in doing so, his company sent him to figure out what happened to the trio.
A witness found the horse remains a few days ago, scattered throughout town at different landmarks; The church, lodge and various other houses. They were torn apart. Limbs violently ripped from their bodies. The head and mane of one lay mangled and melted into the cobblestone outside the church, while the hind legs of another accompanied it. Police were brought in from a neighbouring town, as Bodfred had no enforcement of its own. The man who alerted authorities was not a local either. A passerby noticed the rotting fleshy smell and hastily fled from town.
Auster spent the morning tiredly asking what few locals there were about the incident. There were more abandoned houses than there were people. Those he managed to find all answered in the same abrasive tone. They even looked similar. Pale faces. Long matted hair… wet. Though they knew nothing, they still avoided the questions and changed the subject.
In the report the police had written, the man who found the horses hadn’t seen anyone outside. An entire town, indoors wouldn’t turn a profit. Yet when Auster asked, they said they were tending the docks and sowing their gardens. He didn’t recall seeing a garden.
Auster returned to the lodge before noon to document his findings. He took a final pull from his dart before dropping it to the street. He opened the heavy door and the woman awkwardly greeted him. His eyes fixated on the flickering candle on the counter in front of her, dancing in the dark, but quickly returned his gaze. She smiled at him through clenched teeth with strange energy – energy he didn’t have. How could she have the fortitude to neglect sleep and still be lively?
“Did you find what you’re looking for?” she asked.
“Unfortunately not,” Auster said. “Do you mind if I ask yo –”
She cut him off, “Have a nice sleep, dear,” then stood and waddled away to the backroom.
Odd. He made a mental note of it.
The steps groaned under his feet as he ascended the dingy stairwell. Along the upstairs walls hung deteriorating oil paintings, which he hadn’t seen in the dark of his arrival the night prior. Images of cracking ships, sinking into the depths below, outlined by chipped frames. In between the paintings were portraits of older men hanging at different levels. Auster moved closer to the older company. A ghostly white face with fading black eyes. Upon closer inspection, he noticed the portrait bore a word: Apostate, scrawled in red ink. The others had the word as well.
Underneath him something jostled, followed by the sound of shattering. The movement sounded too quick for a woman of her size. He rushed to the stairs, skipping down two at time. He turned the corner at the bottom. The woman had disappeared. The candle waved to him.
“Hello?” he called out.
He spotted a broken dish on the floor behind the counter. He called again, his voice hanging in the dim candle-lit room. Only silence. His inner detective peaked its interest. Surely, she would return; the people here seemed to loiter indoors. Perhaps she went out to clean the sheets.
No. The sheets had never been cleaned.
He sighed and placed his satchel on the counter, then walked around. He stepped onto a rectangular carpet which wetly squished under his leather shoes. As he stood, the carpet stink flooded the room, stinging his nostrils with a rotten, sour smell. He shuddered, moving his hand to cover his nose. That would explain the lack of chamber pots and smell of urine and feces, he thought. he edged forwards toward the broken dish, and bent down to investigate
The china shattered into fragments, jutting out in equal distances around the center, forming an almost perfect circle. He picked up one of the larger and thicker shards, feeling it. Smooth to the touch and cold. In fact, freezing. His mind raced. The dish wasn’t knocked off, it was dropped. For it to have shattered in a circular pattern, it had to have fallen vertically. Not to mention it lay shattered in the middle of the carpet, away from the counter or shelves.
He rose, looking around for something else to test. He spotted an identical stack of dishes, disorderly stacked on a shelf. He reached for one and proceeded to drop it from head height. It hit the swampy carpet which broke its fall, bouncing as it hit. It cracked slightly but did not break. Perhaps, the broken dish was chilled to force it into shattering, causing the noise. The dish was broken on purpose, meant to be found.
He thought of the story he’d write and publicity he’d gain. Auster rummaged through the backroom for signs of where she’d gone. He studied the crowded book shelves with inquisitive hands. Tomes turned brittle and scrolls crumbled from his touch. He wished to study them, however they clearly wouldn’t make the journey. Why would something so ancient be hiding here? He discarded the thought, and kept searching, wandering back to the urine-drowned carpet. It felt like mud under his feet as he stepped back on, causing a spongy sound to bubble in his ears. He paced. Each squish rooting deeper and deeper into his mind. The warm smell burrowed far into his nose.
He was about to step back onto the floorboards, but the mushy carpet lost its buoyancy. Auster padded his feet on the rug, quickly losing its marshland façade. He grabbed the candle tray from the counter to closer inspect the tapestry. He knocked on the dryness with his free hand, chafing his knuckles on the fibers. It sounded hollow. Auster grabbed the corner and flipped it up, revealing a trapdoor. The dark wooden hatch differed in color and hadn’t been an initial part of the construction. The floor around it had been hacked away to make room for the addition.
He grasped the metal rung, chilling his hand as he began to pull. It croaked open. A stream of wind blasted from the hole. The hatch snapped open, knocking him back onto the wet carpet. He put his hands out for support, dropping the candle. The room went black. Only wisps of light from the closed curtains lived to cut through the dusty dark.
He froze. Whispers born from the stagnant shadows, slithered into his ears. The words hissed chaotic and agitated phrases; the same jumbled speech the woman spoke. He caught him self breathing heavily. For once he feared writing a story, as the sinister whispers invoked hallucinations. Inky demonic bodies clambered from the hole to heave him into twilight. Blackness dripped from their twisted and malformed appendages, tinting the floor ebony. He furiously swatted at the air, dispelling the false phantoms. Briefly, his sanity returned and the noises retreated to slumber.
Auster lay still in pure silence, broken only by his pounding heart. Hidden from the rest of the world, his mind hammered on the prison door of his thoughts. His own purgatory. He wasn’t superstitious or believed in the paranormal.
But whatever happened. Wasn’t natural.
His sense of duty lured him closer. Inch by inch he crawled towards oblivion, his shaky arms barely holding him up. His eyes adapted to the shrouded room and he could make out a ladder which lead down; the route to Hell. He peered down the shaft and the voices returned, though no longer wicked. They called for help… asking to be released. His frightened mind surrendered to them. The voices chewed and gnawed until they finally devoured his sense of reasoning. He found the candle then reached for his matches in his pants pocket. The fire erupted with life, as he struck the match on the craggy side of the box. He held it to the candle, re-illuminating the room. Auster clutched the feint star, holding it over the hole in the sea of black. He knelt beside the hatch and placed his foot on the first rung.
The light guided him as he started his descent.
Soil turned to stone and thoughts turned to memories.
The voices grew louder.
Whispers turned to screams and visions turned to reality.
His feet touched the stony ground. He stood there, holding the candle at the bottom of the ladder, illuminating a chiseled passageway. The voices pulled him. He understood their alien language.
Can you hear them?
Come Auster Crowley,
Bathe with us.
The crooked words gnarled through his head. He mindlessly followed. The voice soothed him, leading him forward. His lungs found breathing through the heavy, lifeless air easy as he traveled down the endless passage. He trekked into an ankle-deep watery cavern, lit by torches fastened on stalagmites. He froze in the frigid water.
Deeper, it called again.
He obeyed, wading further into the fathomless dark. The water rose to his knees. Then his waist. Icy spikes stabbed at his lower body, before fading to nothing in the numbness of his legs. He dropped the candle and it splashed into the murky pool, sending ripples.
There were… things. Floating beneath the surface. Bodies – blue and bloated – the same men from the portraits. He spotted the lodge woman, standing at the far side of the pool with closed eyes.
Three bloodied boys knelt before her. Worshiping their uncanny god.
She spoke to him, forcing him deeper. Her word was his will. His head submerged and wintry water filled his lungs. He saw the woman, up through the filmy pool. He choked for air. His mind returned, yet his body still commanded. He tried to resist but his feet advanced. He couldn’t move his body. The woman forced him to watch.
Auster flailed his arms. He reached upwards to the surface, grabbing at the floating bodies as life-preservers. His hands slipped from their dangling waxy arms. His chest tightened and his vision blurred. The woman darted her head to look at him, her eyes opened. Though he couldn’t see, he felt her gaze. A voice invaded his mind.
Your world shall be washed away, and you shall compose her final story.
Credit: Declan Murphy-Boyle