Estimated reading time — 23 minutes
“So how much farther until we find this ‘really awesome place’ that I just ‘had to see’?” Patricia asked impatiently, her voice dripping with sarcasm. She pushed aside a low-hanging limb and walked past it, ducking low, her eyes cast upwards in an ongoing search for spider webs.
“It isn’t too much farther,” Zack answered her. “Why do you sound so irritated? Trust me; you’ll love this.”
Patricia slapped absent-mindedly at insects crawling on her neck, searching for a suitable place to feast. She missed her intended target, her neck stinging from the blow, sending the bugs to flight once more, where they circled about her, waiting for the opportune moment to land and drink.
“I’m irritated,” she began, “because I’m walking through the woods; I’m hot; I’m sweaty; I’m being eaten alive by insects; I got spider webs in my hair and now feel like they’re crawling on me; and I’m tired.” She exhaled loudly. “All this to see something that you insist that I’ll love, but you refuse to explain.”
A loud clap of thunder shook the earth beneath their feet. Large black and purple clouds rolled overhead, blotting out the sun, casting the world around them in ominous shadow, like a foretelling of tragedy to come. The trees began to shake and sway wildly, rhythmically, as a forceful gale blew through the tree tops, stirring up the still, humid air.
Patricia smiled cynically and shook her head, her sweat-drenched auburn hair swinging to and fro through the air. “Perfect. Just perfect.”
“You aren’t going to melt,” Zack said, clearly becoming annoying at Patricia’s disdain for the situation.
“We’re going to get soaked; I don’t want to get sick.”
“You won’t get soaked, and you aren’t going to get sick.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Because we’re here.” Zack smiled widely.
Patricia shrugged, looked around, and held out her hands, palms up in a questioning gesture. “Wow. This is so amazing. I can barely contain my excitement.” Her voice was brimming with sarcasm. She pointed to her face. “You see this? This is my excited face.”
“Do you really have that little faith in me? How long have we been dating?”
“Since freshmen year.” It wasn’t lost on him that she chose to ignore the first question.
“So, three years. Have I let you down even once in all that time?”
She exhaled loudly. “No.” She was sulking; her voice showed it, although her body tried to hide it.
“Thank you. So what makes you think that I did this time?”
She looked around, an over-exaggerated gesture purely for his benefit. “Well, I certainly don’t see anything that makes this trip worthwhile.”
Zack shook his head despondently, annoyed and hurt by Patricia’s lack of confidence in him. He turned around without speaking and faced the wall of foliage that grew behind him, obscuring any view of what lay beyond. He raised his arms and wedged his fingers into the thickly woven vines and limbs. With a small grunt of effort, he parted the wall of plants like a theater curtain. The vines, limbs, and leaves crunched loudly as they were torn free of their chosen resting place. Small leaves fluttered to the ground softly.
He stepped through the newly-created opening. Once on the other side, he turned and held the limbs aside for Patricia to walk through. He dropped the limbs and wiped his hands on his jeans, feeling the tacky, sticky feeling of sap on his fingers cling to the denim. He looked over at Patricia and smiled, quite content with himself.
Patricia stared in awe, her eyes wide with amazement. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She had to give it to him; Zack knew what he was talking about. This was the most spectacular thing that she had ever been privileged enough to witness in all of her seventeen years. The view that her eyes beheld was, without a doubt, worth the inconveniences that she had to endure to get here. She felt a twinge of guilt at the attitude that she had so readily handed to Zack on the trip there.
They stood at the edge of a small clearing, completely edged by the thick curtain of foliage. Despite the lack of trees in the clearing, branches hung thickly overhead, stretching out over the clearing, casting it in dark shades of grey. The limbs swayed in the wind, causing the shadows to shift and dance on the ground beneath them. A large cluster of boulders sat to their left, covered in moss. Patches of mushrooms grew sporadically throughout the clearing, mixed among the overgrown, vibrant green grass. An eerie silence filled the clearing, the sounds of birds, insects, even the wind rustling the limbs, completely absent. The air had a stale quality; it felt as if it had been locked in a container for ages, something from another time.
A structure stood in the center of the clearing, a cottage. It was an old building, dating back well over one hundred years by her estimation. The walls were made of large pieces of stone. The roof was constructed of straw and hay. A stone chimney rose from the far side of the building, protruding from within the straw. Two windows were set into the wall that faced them. Even from the distance that they were from the cottage, perhaps twenty-five yards, she could clearly see the small ripple in the corners of the windows, a by-product of the glass blowing process used in that long-ago time. A small front porch, wooden, held what appeared to be a homemade swing and rocking chair. A door, also wooden, was ajar, leading inside. The airspace directly above the cottage was clear, the limbs that wove themselves above their heads seeming to grow away from the cottage, almost as if they refused to go near the building. Even the clouds that had rolled in and blacked out the sky seemed to steer clear of the cottage. A thin beam of sunlight shone down on the structure, like a spotlight, highlighting it in the surrounding gloom.
“How did you ever find this place?” Patricia asked, her voice teeming with amazement.
“Mom and I got into it, so I just started walking, trying to cool off and think. I was just wandering.”
“And you just happened to stumble upon it?” Her voice hinted at disbelief.
“I did. It’s amazing; I’ve explored these woods all my life, and this was just over a mile from my house and I never saw it before two days ago.”
A cacophony of thunder broke the otherwise silent surroundings. Bolts of white lightning tore through the sky, illuminating the black clouds with hues of purple and grey. The first drops of rain, frigid in the warm air, began to fall at their feet.
“Let’s go in,” Zack said. “We can wait out the storm while we look around.”
Patricia took Zack’s hand in her own, lacing her fingers between his, and began to walk towards the cottage. All was forgiven, Zack noted. He had come through, as he knew he would.
“Have you gone inside?”
“No. When I found it, I immediately thought of you. I know you love all of this ancient architecture and artifacts stuff. I wanted to wait until you were with me.”
She felt another twinge of guilt for her earlier behavior. She looked at him, eyes watery, and smiled sweetly. “Awww, babe. That’s so sweet and considerate of you.”
Zack smiled back at her, returning her open display of affection. He squeezed her hand gently. “It can be our own little adventure together.”
The wooden boards that comprised the small porch bowed slightly under their weight as they took the small step up from the ground. Several of the boards groaned and squealed in protest. When was the last time that someone had stood upon the threshold of this structure? Months? Years? Decades?
Their footsteps thudded hollowly, the sound rising up to them softly. Their steps, the sounds they produced rather, seemed hollow to their ears, muted somehow, dead. As did the creaks and groans of the aged planks beneath them. In fact, the only sound that seemed full, genuine, were the peals of thunder from above.
Zack stared at the rocking chair with interest. Made by hand, he found it to be an intriguing artifact from a long-ago time. The frame had been formed from thick tree limbs, bent and molded to the desired shape. Smaller, more pliable limbs formed the back and seat. Long grasses and straw, brown, dead, were woven in and out of the supportive limbs, a tapestry of nature. Spider webs filled each available crevice, but, Zack noticed, the webs appeared old, unused, with no trace of the creatures that constructed these magnificent feats or architecture in sight. He gave the chair a soft push; it rocked backwards, moving as smoothly as the day it had been constructed.
Patricia examined the swing with the same interest that Zack had shown the chair. Wood framing, smaller lattice work, grass and straw support: it seemed to be constructed in much the same manner as the chair had been. The swing hung from the rafters by means of an ancient rope, worn and frayed, yellowed with age. The rope was partially obscured by a bright green growth of moss and lichens. As tempted as she may have been, she rebuked the urge to sit in the swing, not trusting the weather-beaten strands to support her weight after the test of time.
Above them, they could hear the wind whipping through the trees as the storm continued to worsen, muted, muffled, as was every other sound. On the ground, the air was as still, as stale and old, as it had been upon first entering the clearing. The only sign of the squall was the growing rapidity of rain drops splattering silently on the ground just beyond the reach of the porch’s overhanging roof.
Zack pushed the front door open slowly; it glided smoothly on its aged hinges, free from the expected rust. A dim rectangle of light stretched out across the room, his silhouette clearly outlined on the floor. He leaned forward, his head crossing the threshold of the doorway, and craned his head around, peering from side to side.
“See anything?” Patricia asked nervously.
Zack didn’t, couldn’t, speak for several moments, so taken aback was he by what he was beholding. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, there was no way that he would believe the tale. Even as the one to behold the sight, his mind tried to refuse, to tell him that this was not possibly what he perceived.
“Zack?” Her voice was growing more nervous. Within that nervousness, Zack thought he heard her impatience mounting; the rash, impetuous girl that he had dated for three years was falling back to her basest urges, the need to know, and the need to know Right Now.
She prodded him lightly, causing him to start. She couldn’t suppress the small chuckle that fought to free itself from her throat at this. In fact, she didn’t even try.
“Huh?” Zack asked, almost as if he were rousing from a deep sleep. Her question finally hit home, so he answered. “Actually, yes, I do.”
“Well then go in. I want to see too.” Impatient. Eager.
Zack didn’t say anything in response. There was no point; Patricia usually got what she wanted. He had been dating her long enough to know that little fact by heart. He knew he was partially to blame for that. He did always fold under her demands after all. And what of that? He liked to please her; her happiness made him content. He wouldn’t go so far as to say that he loved her; he was much too young for that, being only seventeen; but he knew he cared deeply for her.
The young couple walked into the cottage. A small gasp escaped both of them; Zack was especially impressed with his own gasp, being that he had just seen this view from outside just seconds ago. He couldn’t help it, though; even if he saw this many times, he would feel the same sense of shock each and every time. It was just that amazing.
Stepping into the cottage was something akin to stepping into a different era. The sight brought to mind scores of movies that he had seen, movies in which the scene took place in a small house, a house very much like this one. But there was something odd about it, something off kilter, just not quite right. He knew that it was something blatant, an in-your-face discrepancy that he should see, but couldn’t. What was it? He dismissed the feeling, figuring that it would come to him in time; all he had to do was step away for a time, not focus on it.
Patricia walked up and stood beside him. She was speechless, which went against her usual chatty nature. And who could blame her? What words were there to adequately summarize viewing a sight such as this?
The cottage appeared to have been divided into two rooms, judging by the view of the outside. A wall on the far side of the room held a door, presumably to the bedroom. This room, which encompassed a large portion of the cottage, was a combination of a receiving room and the kitchen. A large stone fireplace sat in the corner of the room, cold, long unused, perhaps centuries long. Two large battle axes sat atop bolts that dug into the mortar of the fireplace, crossing handles in the typical display fashion. A grouping of chairs, made in the same manner as both the rocking chair and the swing outside, sat before the fireplace; the five of them facing each other, spaced equidistance from each other. The floor and walls were covered in carvings, some ancient, dead language that the pair was unable to decipher. Randomly scattered amidst the words, various images had been carved: pentagrams, crescent moons, hexagrams, and ankhs. The words and pictures all spiraled out from the center of the room, which held, displayed prominently, a large beast carved into the floor.
Although it was nothing more than a rough sketching, this carving, the beast so prominently displayed was beyond fearsome. If the picture was to be believed, it seemed as though it stood twice as tall as a man. It was a massive, hulking beast with six arms, standing atop four legs. A large tail protruded from its rear, with the head of a snake as its tip. In each of its six hands, the creature held a portion of what appeared to be a human body: both arms, both legs, head, and torso. Its mouth was open revealing a large maw filled with large, sharp teeth. A cluster of eyes, much like spiders’ eyes, sat above its mouth. Two large, curving horns, similar to those of a ram, protruded from its forehead.
Patricia inhaled sharply and drew closer to Zack, looping her arms around his right arm. “I don’t like this place,” she said, refusing to relinquish her hold on him.
“Scared?” Zack teased. “There’s no reason for it. This is all just ancient superstition.”
“I don’t care. This place gives me a bad feeling. Can we just go?” Her voice was trembling.
Zack looked down at Patricia, their eyes locking. In that moment, he could see the terror in her eyes. His heart reached out to her, empathizing with her. He smiled down at her, his eyes lighting up. He began nodding his head gently.
“Of course we can.” He took her by the hand and turned back to the door.
As he pulled the door open, it was blown back forcibly by a large gust of wind, knocking them both to the floor. Heavy mists of rain were blown in in waves, frigid, icy. The pair clambered to their feet and walked to the door, stunned.
Outside, the light drizzle had worsened, turning into a torrential downpour of hurricane proportions. Thick sheets of rain fell from the sky, hindering any view beyond the porch. Strong gales whipped through the clearing, pushing the torrents of precipitation chaotically. The sky had darkened considerably, intermittently set alight by bursts of lightning. Thunder rumbled overhead, now muffled as was every other sound in this strange clearing.
“We have to wait,” Zack said. “Do you feel how cold this rain is? We could freeze to death before we ever reached my house.”
Patricia looked out the doorway despondently. “OK,” she replied. She spoke with calmness and assurance, but her expression gave truth to the turmoil of feelings that raged within her. She was terrified, and desperate to be rid of this house, this strange clearing.
Zack backpedaled into the dismal cottage, pulling Patricia along gently. Once back inside, he closed the door, pushing roughly against the battling of the intruding wind. He turned from the door and put his arms around his girlfriend. My God, she was shivering. Did that picture scare her that much? No way. She was probably just cold; they were both fairly damp from the rain that had forced itself into the cottage.
He pulled her in tightly and began rubbing her arms and back. “It’s ok,” he said, trying to be reassuring. “As soon as the weather is better, we can both get out of here.”
“I’m ok,” she replied. “I’m not sure why that picture got to me the way it did.” She pushed him away gently. “I’m fine now. Seriously,” she added after seeing the doubtful look on Zack’s face as he stared down at her solemnly, his eyes searching her face methodically.
She walked to the circle of chairs and took a seat. She stared into the vacant fireplace. “I’m cold,” she said, more to herself than to Zack.
Zack walked into the kitchen area of the room. “May as well finish looking around since we’re stuck here anyway.”
He walked over to the iron wood-burning stove and flipped open the hatch. Within were the ancient remnants of a fire, mostly burnt logs and piles of ash. Finding nothing of interest, he swung the door shut once more. It clanged with the now-familiar and expected muffled quality.
He turned and his eye landed upon a small wooden cabinet. Kneeling down, he pried the door, stuck after years of sitting, open, expecting to find nothing more than chopped firewood or ancient cutlery, old and rotted, perhaps swarming with termites or some other insect. What he found was nothing of the sort; in fact, it was far worse, far more disturbing.
The cabinet was composed of three shelves. The top shelf was lined with books, ancient, leather-bound. He gingerly pulled one from the shelf to examine. The leather was like no other he had ever felt or seen. It was soft and his fingers left small indentations momentarily after he moved them. The material was pulled tautly and fastened on the inside with twine that ran through eyelets cut into it. He opened the book. The pages were brittle and yellowed with age, thick, like parchment, as opposed to the thinly produced sheets so common today. The pages were filled with the same ancient words that were so prevalent on the floor and the walls. The ink was of a strange nature; rather than black or blue, it had dried to a dark reddish color, maroon or burgundy. The margins of the pages were filled with symbols, some being those that had been carved into the floor, but there were others, many others. He slid the book back onto the shelf, returning it to its rightful position; suddenly he didn’t want to be touching it anymore. It seemed unclean, unfit to touch with bare hands. He wiped his hands on his jeans absent-mindedly and continued his search.
Vials and bottles filled the second shelf. Liquids and powders of various thicknesses and colors. Leaves and flower petals, roots, pieces of vines and different types of grasses: the shelf held a plethora of items used for what he could only assume, when taken in conjunction with the carvings and books, were used in some sort of alchemy or potion-making processes.
He moved on to the bottom shelf, which was, by far, the most unsettling. Several cages held the skeletons of some long-dead animals. He was able to identify the remains of a few of the animals: rats, snakes, and bats; but there were others that, even upon closer inspection, he couldn’t identify. There were things with more legs than he had ever seen outside of the insect or cephalopod kingdoms, things that appeared to have wings that clearly shouldn’t have. He shuddered, feeling the spasm trickle through his body. A basket sat in the far corner of the shelf, larger than the cages. He pulled it out, and jumped backwards, startled and just a bit frightened by the sight. In the basket, the skeletal remains of an infant lay. The baby appeared to have been deformed, its skull misshapen, and was clearly missing some limbs.
Zack shoved the basket back into the cabinet and slammed the door, disgusted. He stood and peered through the window, trying to erase what he had just seen from his memory. Outside, the storm not only continued to rage, but appeared to have worsened. Waves of water beat against the window silently. The thought occurred to him to share what he found with Patricia, but to what end? It would serve no other purpose than to further frighten her. No, he would leave it be, and hopefully forget it; although he doubted that he would ever lose that image. Even when the haze of senility began to corrupt his mind in the twilight of his life, he knew, that image would always remain crisp.
He turned from the window and faced Patricia. She was still seated in the chair, staring into the empty fireplace, a vacant look in her eyes. She was still shivering, rubbing her arms furiously. She would remain just so until they were finally able to leave. He knew her well enough to know that her exploring had reached its conclusion.
So be it. He didn’t want to just sit around, and had no intentions of doing so. Granted, the cottage was creepier than he had expected, creepier by far, but it was just a cottage; nothing more. Empty. Vacant. Abandoned. The previous tenants long dead. There was no reason to be scared.
Zack walked to the door that led to what he assumed was the bedroom. He placed his hand on the door, ready to push it open, and froze. He suddenly had an urge to not open the door. From what he had seen thus far, who knew what unspoken horrors could possibly lie in wait.
Zack shrugged it off; it was an irrational fear, that’s it. Whatever was in the room was inconsequential. The fact still remained; the house was empty. He took a deep breath, and pushed the door open. He fought to stifle a small yelp that tried to escape his throat. His jaw hung low; it refused to close. The contents of the room were just unbelievable; he really didn’t believe that he was seeing what his eyes were telling him he was.
The room was small, barely larger than a normal sized bathroom. It was almost completely empty. Almost. To say that the room was sparse was an understatement. It was completely devoid of all furniture. In the corner of the room, a small pile of straw sat idly, no doubt having once served as an attempt at a bed. A small wooden bucket sat beside the straw; he hated to think what that had been used for, considering that there were no bathrooms. Chains hung from the wall above the straw, shackles at the end of each chain. They were the only ornamentation on the walls. More chains hung from the ceiling, large, barbed hooks attached to the end of each.
A door was set into the wall on the left side of the room. Zack pulled it open tentatively. It was a closet-sized room on the other side. A small table stood just to the right of the door, covered with a tattered, threadbare cloth. He reached out and plucked away the cloth. His eyes widened as they focused on the contents of the tabletop. Various blades of differing length and width sat atop the table. The dark blades were stained with blood, dried and crusted.
A small trapdoor was cut into the floor beside the table, filling the remaining floor area of the closet. An iron ring was bolted to it, intended to lift the door. Without thinking of what he was doing, Zack reached down and grabbed the ring, lifting it out of the wooden recess in which it had lain for so very long. It was quite heavy in his hands.
He froze, dropping the ring, without lifting the door even an inch. The ring fell back into place with a dull thud. And did he feel an air of disappointment in the room? It was almost as if an excited tension had been building within the room as he drew closer to finding the trapdoor; the air felt charged with it. Now that he had relinquished his hold, moved further from opening that door, that tension, that expectation that seemed to fill the area, that anticipation, seemed to dissipate.
He dismissed the feeling and stood, turning out of the closet. A thought had occurred to him, something that had been gnawing at him since stepping through that front door. He had suspected that it would come to him if he had just left it alone; he had been correct. He walked out of the room, careful to mind the chains, those chains with their deadly hooks, hanging from the ceiling.
“Have you noticed,” he said, walking back into the receiving room, “that this place is so clean? No dust anywhere. No cobwebs. And all this straw, wood, and hay: how is this stuff not rotted?” He was looking down at his feet in concentration as he spoke. “There’s no sign of age in here at all.”
His words were greeted with silence. He looked up. Patricia was gone. He could call out to her, but there would be no point. The cottage only consisted of two rooms; this one was vacant, and he had just exited from the other room. Maybe she was on the porch.
He pulled the door open, bracing himself against the expected pressure of the wind outside. He stepped onto the porch. The wind whipped around him, blowing swirls of rain around his body. The small drops stung as they struck his face, icy needles pricking his skin, numbing it. The rocking chair rocked wildly, blown around by the storm. The swing jerked and spasmed at the end of its ropes.
But no sign of Patricia.
Zack walked back into the cottage, forcing the door closed behind himself. Water dripped from his body, forming puddles on the floor beneath him. He shivered uncontrollably. He felt a mixture of worry and irritation building up within him. How could she just leave him there? And without even mentioning her departure to him? The rain was far too cold, and she didn’t know her way around the woods; how could she expect to get back to his house without freezing to death? Did she really expect him to follow after her in this weather? Well, to Hell with that.
He pulled off his shirt and wrung it out, water dripped onto the floor, fueling the small puddle at his feet. Stepping over the puddle, he walked to the chairs and sat down in the same chair that Patricia had been seated in. He could still feel the warmth from her accumulated body heat; it felt nice on his chilly skin, soothing.
His mind was slowly drawn back to the trap door. What was hidden down there? Why was the door hidden within the closet? Did he really even want to know what was down there, after seeing everything that was in plain sight? It gnawed at him, called to him, beckoning, taunting.
He tried to push the thoughts from his mind, banishing them from his consciousness. But it kept coming back, that door. It was like an addiction, like someone who kicks the cigarette habit, only to have the craving constantly calling to them from the back of their waking mind.
So, like most people when their urge is stronger than their reasoning, he began rationalizing to himself, making the decision to descend below seem reasonable. I’m pretty cold, he thought. I suppose getting up and moving around would warm me up.
But it’s a cellar, the clear, rational part of his mind argued. It would only be cooler down there than it is up here.
Zack sniffed. There was a scent in the air, one that hadn’t been present just moments ago. It smelled as if something were burning. His eyes focused on the fireplace, the most natural place for one to expect a fire. Small tendrils of smoke had begun to rise from the ancient cinders. They slowly began to glow a deep orange. Suddenly, a small flame flickered into life. The flames spread quickly, engulfing the aged log remnants in flame. Smoke billowed upwards, rising out of the chimney.
Zack jumped up, knocking the chair over. His eyes widened and he felt his heart racing within his chest; it beat relentlessly against his sternum. He heard a faint scream from below, muffled through the wooden floorboards. Zack cocked his head to the side, disbelieving, straining his ears to listen should it repeat itself.
Another scream. This time it was unmistakable. That voice belonged to Patricia. But how had she gotten downstairs?
He wasted no time pondering the subject. He turned and jumped over the fallen chair, running into what he know thought of as the torture room. Reaching the door, he stopped short, his momentum almost toppling him over. He coughed and retched, finally turning his head and relieving himself of the food that he had eaten that day. The sight was horrific.
The once-vacant room was now far from so. The chains that hung from the ceiling, with the large hooks attached to each end, had been empty upon his leaving just a short time ago. This was no longer the case. Human bodies hung from the hooks, swinging freely in the air. Five of them hung there, impaled by the hooks through different portions of their bodies: one through the back of the head; another through the soft flesh under the chin, hanging by the jawbone; through the shoulder blade, supported by the collarbone; through the sternum; and the last through her back. The bodies were stripped naked. The surface area was covered in hundreds of lacerations and burns, crossing each other, some so deep as to expose the white of bone beneath. They were grey with decay, their bodies putrefying. Their stomachs were distended with gaseous buildup. Their eyes, those that still retained their eyes, bulged from their sockets. Their tongues hung from their mouths, swollen, like limp scraps of flesh. Pools of congealed blood, tacky, almost black in the persistent gloom of the cottage, sat beneath each body. Maggots crawled within the holes and cuts, writhing and squirming, some falling to the floor, becoming stuck in the pools of blood. The stench was overpowering, filling the room with the noxious odor of decay.
Another scream snapped him from his horrified trance. He pushed past the suspended bodies, edging along the wall, careful not to come into contact with the sickening cadavers that swung so gently through the air. He reached the closet and took a firm grip on the iron ring set in the trapdoor. With a mighty heave (it was far heavier than he expected), he pulled open the door, grunting from the exertion.
A cool, damp air rose up to meet him. The air was old, stale from an unknown amount of time trapped beneath the disturbing cottage. The door opened to a set of stairs that descended down into a complete and utter darkness. He could hear whimpering below, rising up to meet him, calling to him with their sadness, begging him to relieve her of her pain and worry, the soft, tortured sobs of his girlfriend. With no further thought, he began his descent, losing himself in the abysmal blackness.
Behind him, in the cottage’s largest room, Zack didn’t see the flames begin to crackle and billow. He didn’t see an orange ember fly from the fireplace with a huge pop. He didn’t notice that it landed in the center of the room, right in the middle of the carving’s many eyes. And he certainly never knew that that ember came alight, the flame tracing along the floors and up the walls, all the etchings, words and pictures, glowing a fierce orange and red.
If he had, maybe he would have reconsidered his actions.
The air thickened as he descended the stairs; it grew colder, almost frigid, and damp. His breath came out in smoky plumes with each exhalation. The moisture seemed to seep into his clothes, his skin. With one hand on the earthen wall to guide himself, he quickly, but carefully, went down the stairs, his feet clopping softly of the wooden steps. The darkness closed in further around him, enveloping him within, like a baby within the womb. It pressed in tightly, threatening to choke him, like a sentient being, a mind of its own. The stairs seemed to never end, as though he were descending into the pit of Hell itself. Finally, his foot landed upon the soft dirt of the cellar’s floor.
Zack waited for his eyes to adjust, but it was to no avail. The wan light from the doorway, now nothing more than a small grey rectangle high above, was unable to penetrate the darkness. He rummaged through his pockets, finding his cellular phone, and pulled it out. As he fumbled with it in the darkness, his cold, numb fingers clumsy, trying to find the button on the side, he prayed that the rain hadn’t shorted it out. Finding the button, the fear proved to be unfounded.
The tiny screen illuminated, emitting a low, pale blue light. He shined it around, using it to help him find his way. The light didn’t shine far, as if the darkness fought against it, trying to reclaim the space that had been its dominion for so very long.
Small puddles of muddy water had begun to build up on the floor, rain water that seeped through the walls, collecting in the open area. He could hear faint splashes in the distance, and chose to believe that rats were the cause, but fearing that that was just a misconception, the wishful thinking of his scared mind.
He felt his way along the walls, fearing the consequences should he venture into the center of the cellar. Thick rills of water ran down the walls, bringing with it pieces of mud and rock. The light glinted from the water, like flowing rivers of filthy diamonds in this subterranean enclosure, like the fabled rivers of King Solomon’s kingdom. He continued to walk forward, stepping lightly, straining his ears for the sounds of distress that had called him down.
Judging by the distance that he walked, the cellar ventured out farther than the walls of the cottage. The further he walked, the larger his dread seemed to grow. He felt an overwhelming presence looming over him, menacing, malicious, just beyond the scope of his phone’s light. He had an image flash in his mind, one from a myth that he had learned in school. The minotaur: did it not dwell within the shadows of the subterranean labyrinth, lurking in the shadows, waiting for unsuspecting trespassers? The thought was ludicrous, of course, but the feeling of impending doom persisted.
He felt himself as if in a vast maze of underground tunnels and caverns. Were there such things in this part of the nation? Maybe, maybe not. He had no way to know, so he pushed on, ever mindful to keep his right hand on the slick wall beside him.
From his left he heard the scared whimpers. He took off in that direction, taking note of which direction he headed, having no intention of becoming lost below the surface of the planet. The sounds became louder as he closed in on them. A form began to swim out of the darkness, slowly taking shape out of the shadows. Small, hunched over, sitting in the mud and dirt: it was Patricia.
He knelt down beside her, his knee resting in an icy puddle of water. “We need to get out of here,” he told her, trying to get her to her feet. “Patricia?”
She didn’t respond. She resisted his pull, merely sitting stationary, sobbing. Tears streamed down her face.
“Seriously,” he tried again. “This is a bad place. We need to go.”
“We can’t,” she replied. Her voice was barely more than a choked whisper, raspy from her screams and crying.
“What do you mean? Of course we can,” he urged. His voice was almost pleading. “You just have to get up. How did you get down here anyway?”
She finally stood, reluctantly. “I don’t know. I was sitting in the chair, just waiting to leave. I felt some sense of dizziness, like moving way too fast. Everything seemed to slide and shift; it all bled together. Then I was here.”
Zack began walking back in the direction that he had come. He tugged at her hand gently, but her movements were slow. It was as if she had no determination, nothing more than a shell of who she had been.
“The stairs are just up here a ways,” he said once he had found the wall.
Patricia jerked her hand free from his and stood her ground defiantly. “You aren’t listening,” she said angrily, almost spitting the words. Her face was twisted in anger and despair, frightening in the dim, blue light. “It won’t let us.”
Zack was confused. “What won’t?”
“It,” she said with finality. “That picture on the floor. It’s down here. They conjured it up, and it killed them. But they managed to trap it down here. Now it intends to feed.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked, his voice quavering. “How could you possibly know that?”
She shrugged. “I just do. It makes sense. Why else would it be down here, instead of roaming the woods, terrorizing hikers and anything else that happens across it?”
Despite the overwhelming darkness, Zack looked around. “There’s nothing down here,” he said, more sharply than he intended. Her ravings were beginning to frighten him.
“How do you think I got down here? Why do you think I didn’t find my way back up on my own?” She spoke with anger, like a mother talking to her petulant child. “It. Won’t. Let. Me.”
Splashes of water to their side, lost in the darkness. Heavy thudding, rumbling the ground, growing closer.
“It kept me alive to get you down here. Can’t you see that?”
Before Zack could respond, she was suddenly jerked backwards, quickly, violently, beyond the perimeter of the light. He heard a terrified scream, the sounds of crunching and snapping bone, the sounds of wet, chewing. Finally, silence.
“Patricia?” he called out weakly. His voice was only a shell, lost in fear, nothing more than a whisper.
Growls, low and guttural, echoed from the walls. Footsteps closed in, shaking the ground beneath his feet due to the sheer enormity of the beast.
Unmindful of direction, lost in his terror, Zack ran. Any direction, it didn’t matter, as long as it was away from that awful, hidden beast. His footsteps echoed lightly as he ran. Water splashed up, soaking his pants’ legs, as he sped through the puddles.
Which way was the door? Where were the stairs? He had no idea. In his terror, he had lost his bearings. He continued to make his way, running blindly into the void, praying that he came upon an exit, but fearing that he was only delving further into the catacombs. He finally stopped, out of breath, panting, wheezing. His lungs ached, burning like swallowed fire. He thought he may have lost it.
From over his shoulder, just behind him, he began to hear the steady hiss of a snake. A rather large snake. One that possibly served as the tail for a monstrous terror. There was no escape; he knew that now. Patricia had tried to tell him, but he refused to listen. He closed his eyes, accepting his fate.
Credit: William Davis