Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
Despite Clare’s advancing years, he walked with smooth confidence up the narrow, infinite steps, which should have given trouble to one as ancient as he. He was notable, if for no other reason than his youthful figure: the locals had told me that he must be at least seventy or eighty at this point, but to see his powerful body, to hear his loud commanding voice, one would never guess his age. Indeed, his mansion matched his own vibrancy: the ancient thing would look brand new if it weren’t for the painfully outdated furnishings. As he gestured and flowed widely through the rooms of the house, it was clear he took a great pride in it, and had some deep love or connection to the place unfamiliar to a travelling investigator like myself.
Clare looked back at me, finishing his description of another dull oddity. His blue eyes were piercing, and I was jolted out of my internal monologue.
“Does it really interest you, Mr. Stanley? I must admit I don’t get many visitors. The place is quite out of the way, you know.” He spoke with an almost clichéd regal British accent, but his words boomed out with a deep bass, effortlessly projecting across the room. I nodded with feigned enthusiasm.
“Certainly, Mr. Clare, the house has a quality that is rarely seen these days. Your decorations” I said, gesturing to one particularly bland pastoral, “are most interesting.”
“Ah yes. Well, I wouldn’t say that particular piece is of my own taste. My wife did many of these.”
I resisted the urge to nervously grab at my tie, and broke eye contact with Clare. “Oh, I, uh—“
“She’s no longer with us.”
His words had a tone which was bizarre, and what I assumed to be remorse. Looking back up, I said “I’m sorry, Mr. Clare.”
He waved it off, dismissive. “Come. We’re about done the tour.”
After what seemed like another hour of walking through dreary, maze-like passageways, we finally arrived at the so-called den. Clare sat in a massive, gaudy chair—presumably his usual one. He gestured for me to sit across from him, and poured me some tea, left by an unseen servant. Looking up at him, I had to stifle a laugh.
The man sat, with almost mirrored similarity, in front of a life-sized portrait of himself. Apart from a few clothing differences, he looked exactly the same as the portrait—same age, and same sitting position, which is what made the image so comical. With how closely he resembled the portrait, it must have been painted very recently. I guessed the man had some modicum of self-love for him to have such a thing done when none would see it—no visitors, or even family.
Clare didn’t notice my temporary seizure of laughter, seemingly lost in unending descriptions of his manor. In a moment he broke, and we finally came to business.
“And you, sir, would like to stay in the place?” He looked suspicious, one eyebrow firmly up.
“Rent a room for a few days, sir. If you wouldn’t mind. I have such an interest in the…pieces you’ve collected…a-art pieces I mean…and I don’t feel the tour you’ve given me is enough—thorough though it was—to give me an…ehm…appreciation, you see.”
I felt my throat tightening, and my brow beginning to drip: Clare was so obviously not convinced. He didn’t mince words. “Are you sure that’s it, Stanley? Are you sure there isn’t something more?”
“Well I, uhm, don’t see what you, uh, could mean, s-sir…”
“I know Stanley. I can see. And I don’t blame you boy. Truly I don’t.”
“Of course not!” He said in a sudden yell, leaping up from his chair to gesticulate wildly. “This house has me too! It has me! I’m enchanted. Of course you can’t appreciate such rich atmosphere with such a brief tour. You have to exist here. Yes, of course!”
I didn’t know whether I should say something, or merely run away in the instant, and avoid the house for the rest of my life. The man had such a gleam in his eyes, and his sudden passion scared me deeply—you may laugh to read it, but at the time it was a real, affecting fear. But, instead of running, I remained motionless, and stared up at the raving man.
“I wouldn’t keep such an experience from anyone, dear boy! No, no! Stay here? Why of course, of course, I’ll give you a room for free!”
I just stared dumbly up at the old man for a moment. Then, not wanting to excite him any further, I quietly said “Thank you, si—”
“Don’t mention it! Just one thing.” I nodded, and clenched nervously. “Do not explore my basement. It is, uh…under construction at the moment.” The sudden fire in his eyes told me of his earnestness. I wordlessly agreed.
And so I gained unguarded access to the Clare mansion.
The basement door had a locking mechanism that would have been hard to penetrate some fifty or a hundred years ago. As it stood, my toolkit and lock-picking skills were enough to easily dislodge the door, and it swung back with a quiet smoothness.
Locating the basement had proved difficult enough thanks to the confusing, arbitrary layout of the mansion. Pile on that Clare’s insistence on accompanying me throughout the day, and talking endlessly about God only know what, and I had little opportunity to explore on my own. I was however sure that the basement was the lead I should seek, thanks to Clare’s overemphasis on it. So, after dark, when the master had gone to bed, I snuck out and spent a few hours wandering the halls, aided only by my small flashlight.
The stairs down were thin and ancient, clashing with the well-maintained central body of the house. They were also partially concealed in a blind spot between a door and a cupboard, making them almost impossible to find in the dark. The smooth cement walls produced a chill unfamiliar with the otherwise antiquated warmth of the place, and the door was thick and plain.
Inside it was dark, and I had to calm my thrashing heart with deep breathing. That adrenaline, that excitement, was all the inducement I needed to do the things I did. In frantic anticipation, I crept into the enveloping darkness.
My tiny light did little to illuminate the room. After taking a quick survey, I discovered a small sconce with a partially used torch still in it. I shined my light around the room, not wanting to reveal my presence by tampering with anything. As I directed the light upward, it seemed to reach farther and farther, like the room had no top. When it had reached the ceiling it glanced across something which to my utter horror, looked like a face. An angry, vicious, massive face.
I gasped and scrambled to the torch, hoping to illuminate the fiend. I deftly lit a match, and the torch surged with light. To my surprise, a series of further torches burst to light in sequence after the first. I made the vague assumption that this was done by some unseen mechanism, which I wasn’t particularly concerned with at the moment. I stared up at the place where the face had been, and had to laugh—not only at discovering my fears to be unnecessary, but also at the pure surreality of the scene before me.
The face I had seen belonged to a statue, and was not nearly so malevolent when fully illuminated. It was plain, with a vaguely masculine facial structure, which was the only clue to the statue’s gender thanks to its otherwise sexless form. It was monolithic, stretching to the top of the unbelievably tall ceiling of the chamber. The room itself was a large, mostly circular hall, which aside from the statue was empty. The walls were all rough stone, as though the door had simply led to a conveniently located cavern—in fact, it was like a different place entirely, and I wondered if I had somehow missed a step in the transition. The ceiling was so high above that it seemed impossible that a house lay just overtop, and the stairs I had descended didn’t seem like they should account for the height.
The statue was inexplicable, even for a noted art collector like Clare. It was placed at the far end of the room, facing the entrance like a guard. It smacked of those stereotypical Egyptian sculptures, the types one might find in the deep tomb of some Pharaoh. If it had ever held some sort of staff, it didn’t now—the left hand was missing, presumably fallen off at some point long ago. Behind where the arm should have been was a door, which looked to be made of sandstone.
Wanting to get a move on, I slinked past the statue, never taking my eyes off of it. As I went under it, I looked up at the unmoving giant, whispering “Huh, some guard.” Then I opened the sandstone door, which slid up surprisingly easily, and entered the next room.
The light from the previous chamber only illuminated a small circle, which I crept into cautiously. As soon as I passed the doorway, the sandstone slab slammed down behind me, and the room lit automatically. It was squatter but longer than the first chamber, like a grand hall. The room had walls of the same sandstone as the door, smooth and constant. Like the previous chamber it was almost entirely empty aside from a small, plain, out-of-place looking oak table and chair. On the chair sat Clare.
The moment I saw him, his eyes lit up with uncontrollable mirth. “Mister Stanley. You are simply so easy.”
I was caught with an uncomprehending confusion, mixed with a vague dread and guilt at being caught. His jovial reaction didn’t much calm me, and when he called me over, I bolted towards the closed door behind me. Unfortunately, it seemed like it couldn’t be opened from this side. As I scrabbled and dragged my hands across the smooth surface, Clare continued to laugh.
“Your efforts are really quite useless. Come, dear boy, come. Don’t be afraid. I expected such a thing, you see. Why would you think I’d mention my basement so artlessly? Did you really think I was so stupid, that I really wanted you to stay out of here? Come here, boy, I’ll explain it all to you.”
I finally moved forward, slowly and wordlessly. Clare sat casually in his night-robe, with his hair still askew from bed. I realized that his previous raving behaviour must have been an act of some sort, that he had been manipulating me the whole day.
“I know your type, Stanley. Yes, yes, sit down there. Your type, you see: curious. I get them sometimes, people that think the place is haunted.” He laughed at the notion. Laughed too hard. “Well, I know my tastes can be a bit unusual, but please.”
“There certainly are rumours, Mr. Clare.”
“Well, yes, fine. So I show those people. That it isn’t haunted, or anything of the sort, see? Look for yourself! Does it look haunted?”
I shook my head, obviously lying. “But, Mr. Clare. What about those other rumours? Rumours a…about your family?”
“Of course it doesn’t,” he said, ignoring me, “This is part of the experience, this vault of mine. To get to experience this mansion, and let it affect you, you must be here. Here is the place!” He laughed again, jumping up. “Here, here! You’ll love it here. Lots of room! See the walls here. Imported, you know. The be—”
Not an act, after all. Luckily, I was always prepared with my trusted adventurer’s backpack. I reached back, thinking I’d got the machete, but I was mistaken. Towards Clare’s turned head came my hammer, making a satisfying crunch on impact. I realized I must have mixed up the two items accidentally. I made a mental note to reorganize the pack later.
Clare quickly fell to the ground, face-first in a growing pool of blood. I looked at the hammer in dismay, seeing that it dented slightly on Clare’s thick skull. It wasn’t meant for violence, but it did the trick in any case. I wasn’t sure if Clare was alive or not, and I wasn’t particularly keen to check. Ignoring the body, I doubled back to the closed door he had trapped me with. Indeed, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t jar the thing with hands alone. I drew out a thin crowbar, intended for just such a purpose, and pried at the door’s bottom crack. After a considerable effort, I was able to lift the door fully open. Then I wedged it with a nearby rock, in case it decided to lock itself again.
I was determined, you see. I certainly wasn’t ready to give up on my “exploration,” and without hesitation I moved down the long hall towards the next sandstone slab. This, identical to the first, was just as easy to open, and I used the same method of jamming to ensure my escape route.
Thus ensued a long series of rooms and hallways, similar in style to the first but all varying in shape and composition. Each had the same lighting system which made it easy to navigate through them, and at the end of each was the same sandstone slab. The immensity of the whole construction clashed with its apparent uselessness, as no room had much of anything noteworthy within it—though some did have bizarre items on the walls, like thick shafts zigzagging everywhere, and occasional holes that looked like massive spouts. As I moved through hall after arbitrary hall, I felt my excitement grow more and more, dreading and anticipating whatever could possibly be at the end.
I travelled for what felt like a half hour, after which I came on a chamber larger than all the others, and starkly different. The entire room seemed devoted to a large construction facing the entrance. It was placed on, or perhaps composed the opposite wall, and was not made of sandstone. The backing seemed to be some sort of fabric, which was a ruddy red or plum in colour depending on how the fire-light decided to cast it. On it were thick black tendrils, what I would describe as over-sized threads though they looked more like vines of pitch. The threads all lead to a centre clump, and though they were arranged in a symmetrical, and what I might even describe as a fascinating or alluring presentation, they didn’t seem to form any picture or outline. The closest impression I got was that of some large, black flower, though this was a vague notion at best. The mass of tendrils sat above something that appeared to be an altar, with twinned free-standing torches placed by its sides. These torches, like the rest in this underground vault, burst to life in succession after I lit the first in the room.
I approached the central altar, which was placed on top of a raised platform. Climbing the few steps, I saw yet another door placed off to the side, and relished in the anticipation of even more exploration. On top of the steps I gave a brief glance at the altar itself, which was smooth and plain. Then I moved towards to mass of threads, and felt a stab of horror when I saw the thing more clearly.
The first and most disturbing image was that the tendrils moved. It was subtle, almost unnoticeable, but it was clear as I came closer. The mass shifted slightly at irregular intervals and in arbitrary directions, giving it the resemblance of some blind, stupid lifeform.
However, I was an adventurer extraordinaire, and I certainly wasn’t going to let a little fear halt my investigation. The mass seemed harmless enough, so I moved up to it, close enough to touch it.
I realized that the tendrils which seemed thick as vines actually were made of tiny threads. These threads clumped together in a way that made them seem like one mass, when they were really quite small. I reached out to touch a section of thread, but the very moment my fingers touched he substance, the whole mass made a brief shudder, and I heard a small gasp.
I froze, paralyzed with fear and confusion. Then, like an avalanche the epiphany came to me. Unthinking, I hurriedly started separating out great swathes of thread, unburying the surface I now felt underneath.
What I found was, of course, a human face, though much too pale. The bright eyes looked up at me, signalling an obvious intense, quiet fear. It was a child, though I couldn’t guess at an exact age: at any moment the face looked ten or fifteen. I could only see a brief section of clothing by the child’s neckline before it became covered in hair. There seemed to be a sort of white robe or gown, and indeed when I looked down to the child’s feet, I could see a trail of white fabric.
I assumed by the way the soft voice had sounded that the child was a boy, and looking at his face, one could see it as masculine, if one were to stretch every definition and understanding of “male.” The poor boy had, somehow, been restrained here and his hair—though more hair than a human should be able to produce in a lifetime—had been threaded into the wall behind him. Despite the monstrosity of the act, I must admit that the job was done with a careful, artful—what I might even call gentle—hand, threading the hair in a thoughtful, thorough manner. It was clear how disturbing it was to the boy though. You could see the fear in his eyes.
I reached down to pat his head, and though he recoiled I persisted, saying in the softest, gentlest tone I could, “Here now, don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you. I’m going to help you,” followed by the biggest smile I could muster. The boy still looked afraid, but calmed somewhat. “So,” I said, trying to fathom how I could possibly free the lad, “what’s your name?”
He just stared up at me, either unable to talk or unfamiliar with my language. Either way, it wasn’t much use talking. I knew the only way I could free him.
I softly said “Don’t worry, I can get you out of here.” Then I grabbed the hair behind him, prodigious though it was, into a condensed handful close to his back. He gasped in surprise, but I calmed him down with pleasant sounds and words. Then I reached back, and located my machete (successfully this time). With a big wind-up, I sliced through the hair.
I didn’t think to warn the boy for some reason. I had expected the hair to take a number of chops to get through anyway, but to my surprise it all cut apart in a single stroke, and I almost fell over from all the excess forward momentum. The stuff didn’t feel like how I’d expected. It cut more like butter, or…I don’t know, something similar. As I looked down, I felt my heart drop. There was blood spilling everywhere.
The boy screamed out, a sharp, piercing, all-encompassing sound. I looked around, feeling my whole body shake violently as I stared at the river of blood pooling on the floor. The boy had slumped over, and lay in a heap. I realized that I must have cut him accidentally, very badly. In a panic, I rushed over to apply what little first aid I knew. But, on moving the still-considerable length of hair off his back, I could not locate a single wound, though his back was covered with blood.
It was then that I realized: it was his hair. His hair was bleeding.
Indeed, looking at the wall, I saw thick fountains of blood falling from the leftover mass of hair. The stuff twitched—twitched like severed body parts, and curled up like dried tentacles. Staring, uncomprehending, I looked down at the boy. He muttered and gasped, and cried horribly. I did what I could, tearing a piece of thick fabric off my clothing and using it to tie the ends of the hair up, which stopped the blood-flow somewhat.
There was another violent shake, and I realized it wasn’t just me but the whole room that vibrated. This, as I now properly sensed, was accompanied by the most horrific, brain-stabbing, blood-curdling scream I have ever heard. It was like the mix of a growl and a shriek, piercing and guttural rasping combined to an impossibly loud degree.
I didn’t hesitate for a moment. I picked the boy up, and held him in both my arms, so his head rested on my forearm and his legs dangled over the other side. He was light, surprisingly so—in fact, he was almost weightless. I had some base, instinctual urge to protect him—I couldn’t describe it, but I knew, just knew that I had to get him out of that place.
Before I could start moving, a sound from below stopped me. What I feared was the rasping of the unknown thing was just the door behind, opening by itself. I almost didn’t want to see what was through it, and I didn’t have to look: when it had opened a crack, dark liquid, thick like tar, flowed into the room, covering the floor with a sticky black covering. The smell was foul like rot, and I hesitated moving any farther as I descended the stairs. But the boy still shivered and cried in my arms, so I lost all my fear, and plunged in.
It was even thicker than I had expected, and clung to the bottom of my feet aggressively. I could still hear that horrid roaring at frequent intervals, each time seemingly closer, and the liquid made it difficult to move. I started into a run, which only amounted to a stumbling walk, and finally made it past the first door.
The tar was much thinner here, and I crushed the rock that had been holding the doorway open, thereby slamming it down. The mechanism to open the door seemed to be thereby broken somehow, and the ooze couldn’t pass through. Relieved, I rushed through this next room, after which (if I remembered correctly) there was another eight. As I ran, I heard a splashing sound behind me, and in outraged confusion I looked back to see the tar cascading out of the spouts in the wall. Out of hundreds of spouts.
It couldn’t reach me before I slammed the door on it, but I knew that it could enter any of the rooms through those spouts. I only ran faster, trying to outpace the liquid death, but after every room I passed, it gained on me bit by bit. By the time I had reached the room just before the hall where I’d met Clare, I only barely managed to close the door before the ooze overtook me. It was already falling when I turned to run.
This room was a thin hallway, long as the others but with a low, cramped ceiling. It was filling faster than the previous rooms, and before I was halfway through, the tar came up to my waist. It was almost impossible to move, and I had to hold the boy up high over my head, though he still got splattered by the falling streams. The walls, once bright yellow, were now covered in the black muck, and matched its colour. The torches were long put out, and the only light was the faint torchlight from the next room, which seemed to stretch farther and farther away.
The liquid was up to my neck, and I clambered wildly for the door. I didn’t want to attempt to swim through the dense sludge, and I could feel my body being pulled down where I had thought there was floor. I could feel my limbs burning and dying. I just about gave up.
With a sudden surge, the sludge burst out into the next room, carrying me with it. The larger volume of the hall gave plenty of space for the liquid to wash out, and I managed to regain my balance. I still held the boy in my arms, in an iron grip. He occasionally gasped and moaned, but seemed otherwise insensible. I rushed to the exit of the basement, sure I could make it out before the sludge got me.
I felt the vague sense of something missing as I entered the last chamber, or rather, the entrance chamber. I thought nothing of it and rushed into the room, headlong for the exit. That’s when I heard the growl, the scream again. It was so loud I was sure my eardrums would burst, and I kneeled to the ground, unable to cover my ears due to their current luggage. Then I looked up, tears streaming down my face.
The statue, that damned statue, was looking back down. As I stared its mouth opened, gapingly wide, and the scream it made was the grinding of stone-on-stone amplified from deep inside it. I stared up, and met its eyes, which were wide, deep, and black like the tar. In a slow, grinding movement, it brought up its feet to trample us.
I hurled my body in whatever direction I could, careful to land on my back and not crush the boy. The foot came down with a crash, causing a large splash of muck. I scrambled, and pushed myself up using my elbows. The colossus was readying for another attack, raising its massive leg out of the tar with a schlick, and I ran back as quickly as I could. Unfortunately I had jumped towards a side wall away from the exit, and the sludge was again building. As the powerful leg came down I became trapped between it and the stone wall, with only a few feet of space. I trembled violently in desperation and exhaustion, and held the boy close up to my chest.
The colossus shuddered, and I prepared for the extreme killing pressure. I waited, and held the boy tight, and it never came. I shook in extreme fear, and looked up. The giant was posed in its killing posture, and its eyes stared directly at mine. But it didn’t move.
I looked around, uncomprehending. The sludge was still rising, and I knew I had to move, but some deep instinct made me stay still. Then I finally noticed it: the boy’s leg lay against the stone of the statue.
I couldn’t understand it, but I took advantage all the same. I crept under the stone trunks of the monster, holding the boy out against its leg at all times. The boy’s body lolled and flopped with unconscious weight, and I made sure to hold him firmly to the stone against all my desires to flee. Once I had crossed under the giant’s legs and reached the child’s body out as far as I could, I grasped him back to my chest and ran.
As soon as the boy lost contact with the monster, the beast started grinding again, following through with his previous attack. I hurtled towards the door, focusing my sight directly on that exit. As I made it past the threshold the boy shuddered, and I felt a massive impact through the door behind me, blocking the opening with a tumble of rocks. I didn’t look back again and quickly made my way through the house, somehow finding the exit without paying much attention, and being jolted to my senses as I burst forth into fresh air.
I brought the boy some distance and laid him on the soft grass. The house burst into a geyser of filth, and sheets of sludge fell all down its sides, covering it in fountaining muck. But I didn’t pay this more than a glance, and instead looked down at the boy.
His eyes were bright and dazed. He was looking all around at the outside, which I figured he had probably never seen before. The sky was overcast, a soft bluish gray, and a cool wind blew gently. He took in all that was around him, seeming to forget the drying muck and blood on him, the torturous injury.
I grasped him by the shoulders, and he looked directly into my eyes, and his gaze was like piercing, like it went into my body and soul, and he just stared at me like that, and in the most unforgettable look he gave a soft smile.
Then, he shuddered again, and fell to dust in my arms.