Estimated reading time — 31 minutes
Please visit The Duxbury Chronicles series tag to read prior installments.
THE STUDENTS PHASE 1 (Contin)
September 24th, 2017, A very dark time, in a very dark place.
The ceiling had been gone for days…
The basement having grown into a colossal Pit. The vast expanse of cold stone still occasionally undulated and moaned. From their current vantage point It was impossible to tell whether or not the Pit was still expanding. For it was only the Northern wall that could still be seen from their little hiding place. Though every time Caleb glanced in a Northerly direction it’s dim, gargantuan outline seemed to have receded slightly further into the gloom.
The Red Priest chanted on and on ceaselessly. His black, booming words echoing out across the darkness. Holding his massive dripping tome aloft, he strode thunderously across the murky land. His gaze turned ever upward as he addressed the looming darkness.
The spell that had kept Caleb rooted to the ground when the Pit had first opened up had broken as the Red Priest had come striding toward him. He’d spun on his heel, making a beeline for the stairs where the others were already gathered. Caleb made it to the base of the staircase just as they had come undone. The wood apparently stretched too far beyond it’s corporeal limits, crumbled.
Rylan, who had been pounding on the door to the kitchen had come crashing to the ground amidst a shower of wood. The clatter of pre-finished gunstock red oak momentarily adding to the horrific cacophony of chanting, and the moaning of expanding stone and steel.
They’d all stood there in shocked silence. Watching the locked door that led to the kitchen inch up higher and higher. Everyone except Rylan that is. He’d twisted his ankle pretty bad and had been rolling around on the ground.
Their hopeless vigil was interrupted by the stentorian voice of the Red Priest as he strode toward them. A terrible assortment of Arthropods falling out from beneath his robes with each earth shaking step the Giant took. A lobster or crab clattered to the ground here. A couple of earwigs landing on the cold stone with soft “ticks” there. It was as if an assorted host of creepy crawlies were clinging to the massive body behind the scarlet folds.
In that instant before the group exploded into motion, Caleb found his eyes drawn to the massive Red Tome the Giant bore aloft. Bound in what looked like worn leather dyed the same scarlet as the robes the Priest wore. It was clearly not made for human hands. Being far too large for any mere homo-sapien to bear, it nevertheless fit perfectly into one of the Red Priest’s palms.
The Tome was opened to a yellowed page somewhere near the middle. Raising it slightly above his head. The way someone might hold a paperback while making a quick trip from living room to kitchen. He’d shuddered at the thought of what could be written on such pages.
They’d once again taken off running. Scattering in all directions like a group of scared rabbits. Caleb had made it nearly ten yards into the growing gloom before Rylan’s hysterical screams brought him to a skidding halt. He’d turned, only to see the hippie’s bulky form trying desperately to rise as the chanting Giant strode toward him. He scrabbled frantically across the ground, unable to put weight on his ankle.
Without thinking Caleb bolted toward him. Just before he reached him, Amy’s form appeared out of the darkness to his right. Between the peyote haze, and the rising tide of overall madness he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to Caleb that Amy moved at an impossible speed. Before he knew it they each had one of Rylan’s arms draped over them and were hobbling away as fast as they could.
None of the trio dared to look back as they moved. There had been no escape plan. The only goal being to put as much distance between themselves and the Red Priest as possible. It was a frantic, heart pounding flight. Only once the Scarlet Preacher was out of sight, and his ceaseless chanting began to recede into the hazy distance behind them did they allow their pace to slacken. And their burning muscles a brief respite.
They moved slowly for awhile after that. It was impossible to tell for how long. The sickening groaning, and grinding cacophony occasionally punctuated by a loud “Pop” of wooden beams splitting apart. Every once in awhile a warped piece of wood would plummet from the rising ceiling and come clattering to the ground.
Each privately wondering where David, and Sarah were. But none of them daring to call out their names into the darkness. It was Rylan who chanced to look upward. And it was his sobbing that alerted them to a new horror.
“It’s going to be gone soon.” Rylan whined. The childlike timbre out of place on his large features.
“Oh Jesus.” Caleb had whispered under his breath, as his gaze followed Rylan’s.
The dim outlines of the copper and PVC piping that ran across the frame of the ceiling were barely visible. In that moment Caleb had wondered if it was really the ground that was sinking, or the ceiling that was rising. As they watched it vanish into the darkness above a feeling of woeful despair fell upon him, and he decided that it didn’t matter.
They’d wandered aimlessly for awhile after that. Hastily moving in the opposite direction of the Red Priest’s booming voice whenever it drew near. The air grew progressively colder until they shivered, and their breath came out in big white puffs. All of them having left their coats, and hats on the couch near the bar before the “festivities” had begun.
Rylan’s ankle recovered enough so that he could hobble on his own. That or he was too waisted to feel it. Either way suited Caleb just fine. It had been hard going bearing the hippie’s weight. Amy for her part had hardly seemed winded.
It was the faint hum of the running furnace that initially drew them to the North. At first it had been nearly indiscernible from the terrible pandemonium of the pit. Amy had been the first to hear the near imperceptible sound.
Soon the dark rectangular outline of the ancient furnace appeared on the horizon. And much to their relief Sarah, and David were already their. Having been similarly drawn to the sound, and relative warmth. It’s large form like a buoy in a nightmare storm.
The ductwork had long ago warped, and stretched, and fallen to the ground. And yet somehow the furnace itself had remained running. Warming the air around it. No small miracle considering how frigid the pit had grown.
They stayed there for a long time. The furnace seeming to be as safe a place as any. Plus it was the only solid object in the visible area. Though everyone knew that they could not remain there indefinitely.
To Caleb’s surprise it was David who had first suggested the pilgrimage to the couches. For before the world had ended there had been blankets upon it. Not to mention their coats.
“And somewhere beyond that is the storage closet.” David whispered. His eyes darting about the grinding landscape. “There’s ski gear there. Enough for all of us to wear.”
“And food.” Rylan said. Stroking his beard furiously.
“Yes, yes!” David hissed. “Food near the bar. If we can find the bar.”
Communication between the group had been difficult. Every word having to worm it’s way through a hazy wall of peyote, and primal fear.
“I don’t know you guys.” Sarah said. Her words green with apprehension. “It’s a long way.”
“We have to make a move or we’ll freeze to death.” David said. His teeth chattering as if to drive home the point.
The group stared off to the south for a few moments. Each of them contemplating just how far the couches might be. There really was no way of telling.
“The red priest’s down that way.” Sarah said. “I can hear him.”
“We can all hear him.” David answered back.
It was a strange thing. Having given the terrible giant with his dripping book, and robes that bled arthropods such a title. In fact Caleb couldn’t remember who had first started calling him the Red Priest.
But that’s what they all called him now. It just made sense. He clearly was, and always had been the “Red Priest”.
Amy remained quiet. A contemplative look on her face. She hadn’t said a word since they’d regrouped. Which by Caleb’s reckoning had been a very long time.
Before Caleb knew it they were all on the move. Walking quickly, and quietly across the cold groaning land. He couldn’t recall them having settled on this course of action. Then again it was hard to recall much of anything with any kind of clarity since they’d dosed up.
The Red Priest’s black words echoed on, and on across the dim landscape. Candles flickered like distant light houses across a dark sea. There seemed to be more of the tiny flames now then there had originally been.
As they journeyed south the stone floor became increasingly uneven. The group coming upon many depressions and rises in the concrete. Then unexpectedly they came upon a great hill of concrete that stretched from East to West as far as the eye could see.
The group hesitated at it’s base. It was an unnatural thing. An anomaly amongst anomalies. The hill rising up to dizzying heights. The Red Priest’s chants emanating from somewhere far beyond were muffled by the mountainous rise.
At its base lay the ruined forms of the washer and dryer. Their frames barley recognizable. They’d been flattened and stretched like pancakes. But the white paint had remained unblemished, and smooth. Recognizable only by the dials that had somehow remained unchanged.
The warping of materials was so unnatural that Caleb found them difficult to look at. Plus they were breathing. Though the line between where the peyote effects ended, and the living nightmare began was blurry at best. He forced his eyes from the sight of them.
Wordlessly they began to ascend. It was easy at first. But as the group climbed higher and higher up the concrete slope they began to breathe heavy. As they continued on Sarah started to get the increasingly uncomfortable sensation that they were being watched. The truly unsettling thing was the direction from whence the sensation came.
Slowly she looked up toward the yawning black abyss. For a few moments she saw nothing but darkness. Then suddenly her heart jumped up into her throat as she caught a faint glimpse of some monolithic shape shift ever so slightly. Some tremendously vast, terrible thing that hung suspended in the cold void above.
She snapped her gaze back down. Simultaneously throwing a hand over her mouth to stifle some sound or another of distress. She’d run through the entire gamut and really couldn’t be sure what was going to issue forth from her mouth. Shrieking, screaming, crying, retching , whimpering. The whole shebang.
In fact at this point it really didn’t make any sense at all to stifle any sort of sound of despair. But she did it anyway. Maybe she just didn’t want to put any more unnecessary stress on the group. And besides, she wasn’t really sure if she’d seen anything.
“Do you hear that?” Amy asked. Breaking her silence at last.
Everyone paused. Cocking their ears. From everyone’s expression it was clear that no one heard whatever she was talking about. Amy gave a smile that Caleb inexplicably found deeply unsettling.
“We’re going in the right direction.” She said with an eerie confidence. “Let’s keep moving. You’ll hear it soon enough.”
Caleb couldn’t help but wonder what she meant by “the right direction”.
It was just as they were finally nearing the crest of the concrete hill that Rylan finally spoke up.
“I hear it!” Rylan said through heavy breaths. His eyes wide. “Running water!”
“Running water?” David asked. Cocking his head to the side like a dog. He looked pale from the strain of the ascent.
Soon they all began to hear the faint noise of rushing water. It sounded like there was a river on the other side of the hill. As they continued on the sound grew in volume. Beginning to compete for dominance with the distant chanting of the Red Priest.
Just before they made the summit Caleb turned to look back, and the sight he beheld took his breath away. Far below the shadowy landscape they’d crossed stretched out behind them. The view being akin to standing upon a mountaintop. Cold uneven concrete stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see before disappearing into the dark haze that dominated the horizon.
There were candles burning way out there. Their tiny flames offering up a disturbing sense of scope. It was a humbling sight.
He took note of the soft mist that hung above the concrete land at this altitude. It was almost as if they were outside. But they weren’t. Whatever this basement had become, they were still in it. Still below the house. Of that Caleb was sure.
Finally they crested the hill. An icy gale blowing in from the South greeted them. The group staggered against it’s frigid fury for a moment. The land to the South was significantly less vast than the Northern regions they’d left behind. At least from North to South it was.
For one, the Southern wall was clearly visible. It’s gargantuan structure stood in the distance roughly a mile away. A few candles burned softly at it’s base. The land between was mostly shrouded in shadow. Caleb felt somewhat relieved to just behold another edge of this nightmare landscape. Even if it’s upper reaches did disappear into darkness of the vast gulf above.
The source of the rushing water had also come into view as they’d gained the summit. A large, winding river far below near the Southern base. The icy black waters flowed from East to West like a stampeding herd of elephants. They guessed that it was from broken pipes having been stretched far beyond their corporeal limits.
“Look!” David said excitedly. Pointing down into the gloom. “I can see the couches!”
Sure enough the distant outlines of the furniture could be seen near the Southern wall. To the right of the couches was what looked like the bar counter.
“Do you think our coats are still in one piece?” Sarah asked. Her arms wrapped tightly around her body as she convulsed from the cold.
“We’ll find out soon enough.” David answered through chattering teeth. “But we have to hurry, cause I’m gonna freeze to death if we don’t.”
“Where is the Red Priest?” Rylan asked. His eyes wide and scanning for the source of the chanting.
That’s when they collectively noticed how distant the voice now sounded. Where was the Giant and his massive dripping tome?
“He must be down there.” Amy said. Pointing to an area not far from the couches.
It was difficult to see. But to the east was a massive hole at the base of the southern wall. Spanning about forty feet in circumference. A soft scarlet glow emanated from it’s depths.
“That’s where the symbol was.” She said.
“How do you know that?” Caleb asked. Shivering as he did.
She shrugged nonchalantly.
“I just do.”
“If we’re quick, and quiet we can grab out gear and get out before he spots us.” Rylan said.
As one they began to descend. It was slow going. The slope was steeper on the Southern side and they had to tread carefully, lest they loose their footing and go tumbling. Strong winds buffeted them with frigid fury as they journeyed down.
After a treacherous descent they found themselves standing before the riverbank. Staring out at the raging black waters. The strength of the rushing torrent which had seemed prodigious from atop the concrete peaks, was now revealed to be far more treacherous than had been originally guessed. Indeed being in such close proximity to the cacophony of the river effectively drowned out the already distant chants of the Red Priest.
“It’s t-to w-wide to cross here.” Sarah said through chattering teeth.
“What about that over there?” David answered back.
Pointing East along the winding riverbank. Off in the distance could be seen the faint but distinct outline of some large, twisted object.
“We might be able to use that to get across. And besides the river looks more narrow up that way.”
“Let’s check it out.” The big hippy’s words coming out in great white puffs that floated gracefully on the frigid air, with a seeming life of their own.
As they drew near it became clear that the malformed shape was in fact the pool table. It had grown taller. The table having grown in a lopsided fashion to about five feet on one side. And seven, or eight on the other. The wooden frame had also been bent both inward, and outward into a rough “U” shape. Stretched to about eleven feet in length, and four feet at it’s widest.
The twisted frame was wet, and tipped on it’s side. As if it had been caught in the path of the sudden deluge, and spit back out along the bank. At the sight of it Caleb felt his stomach heave and threaten to once again erupt. Though he doubted there was anything left inside him to puke up. He averted his eyes to the rushing waters.
He knew it wasn’t just the peyote. And it wasn’t just the fear that made his stomach turn. It was the way the laws of physics had been so utterly defied. Covalent bonds so fundamentally raped and pillaged. The sight of the violated pool table was akin to that of a decaying corpse.
There was even a smell to it. A pungent, noxious odor that the primal side in him instinctively shied away from. It was the scent of wounded physics. And for a moment he found himself contemplating a queer question that instilled in him a terrible sense of foreboding. Could atoms bleed?
“Holy shit! Everybody down!” David’s hissing voice cut through Caleb’s disquieting thoughts. “Everybody down down down!”
Before he had time to figure out what was going on Amy grabbed one of his hands and began pulling him toward the ruined pool table. He saw that everyone else was making a mad dash for it as well. Instinctively he ran along with her. But oh God did he want to resist. He would have given his right arm to be away from that twisted abomination.
Everyone ducked low to hide behind the upturned frame. Just as he and Amy reached the others he chanced to look out across the raging waters, and felt his heart drop into the pit of his stomach.
A great seething horde of chitin was moving west along the southern shore. An undulating mass of assorted arthropods that had no doubt fallen from the Red Priest’s robes, and regrouped somewhere along the river bank. They “clicked”, and “snapped”, and “skittered”, and “chirped” in an awful primal symphony not meant for the ears of any earthly being.
“Wait til’ they pass.” Amy whispered. Her voice unnervingly calm.
No one needed any encouragement. They all crouched lower in the shadows of the ruined pool table. Caleb tried to keep his eyes on the black river. Both the sight of the skittering horde, and the twisted ruin of the pool table being too much to bear.
He closed his eyes. Attempting to regain control over his rapid breathing. But he found that it brought him no solace. For the red star he’d first seen behind his eyes while during the ceremony was waiting for him. Burning in all it’s scarlet glory in his mind’s eye.
Eventually he settled for staring at the cold stone they knelt upon. He stared at the ground and listened to the sounds of madness all around him. The grinding, and moaning of the land. The whimpers of his companions. It took him awhile to realize that he was crying.
Finally, after an eternity the horde passed. Disappearing into the haze along the riverbank. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief and rose.
“We can use this to cross.” Rylan said with confidence. Gesturing to the pool table.
There wasn’t much debating over the matter. The table being the only visible object in the vicinity. And the spot they were currently standing seemed as good as any to attempt a crossing.
It was difficult to coordinate, but eventually they figured out how to work together on moving the mangled object. It was heavy as hell, but between the five of them they were able to push it out into the flowing water. Almost immediately the current ripped it from their grasp. They watched helplessly as it began floating down the river.
Rylan took off after it. Everyone instinctively followed, though no one had any idea what he was planning. The hippy caught up to it, then made a move that blew his companions collective minds. In an unprecedented display of athleticism Rylan wound up, and leapt out for the bobbing table!
To everyone’s astonishment he made it. Landing near the center. The table listed dangerously but he kept moving, not losing his momentum. Making another leap he cleared the rest of the river. Landing on the other side.
The others “whooped!” And cheered.
“Hurry!” Rylan said. Jogging to keep pace with the table and the others.
They didn’t wait for any more prompting. One by one they leapt for the table, and then the other side. It was surprisingly easy. All save David made it without getting wet. He landed about a foot from dry land on the second jump. Soaking his jeans from the knees down.
“That was fuck-ing incredible!” Caleb laughed. Slapping Rylan on the back!
Everyone shared a laugh. A brief respite from the madness. But all too quickly their mind’s turned back to the shadows, and the denizens of this dark place.
They resumed their journey south. Moving roughly in the direction of the bar and the couches. The view from the ground was not nearly as clear as from atop the concrete mountain. As they moved away from the black river, the Red Priest’s chanting was once again audible. But remained faint, and distant.
Soon after that they began encountering the frayed emerald green edges of the entertainment room carpet. Relief flooded through the group. For though no one had said it each had feared that they had been heading in the wrong direction, and were now hopelessly lost.
The first strands they encountered were just that. Single strands uniformity parallel. The rug having been pulled and stretched all the way down to it’s individual threads.
As they continued forward the remnants of the carpet began to thicken. The strings grew in number, interweaving until eventually entire patches of emerald green could be seen. Soon they found themselves walking across solid carpet, and the dark outline of the bar and couches appeared in the distance.
At the sight of the remnants of the entertainment room the group broke into an excited run. All of them eager to be reunited with their coats. David was the first to reach the couches. Which surprisingly appeared relatively untouched by the “Great Stretching”. They looked like they hadn’t moved at all.
He bent over the side and came up with his jacket.
“They’re here! Oh thank fucking Jesus!” He cried in relief.
Everyone crowded around excitedly. Donning their cold weather gear with great gusto. After a bit more searching the cooler was found resting about twenty feet away. Water bottles were eagerly retrieved.
All sense of urgency was momentarily forgotten as the group preoccupied themselves with the need for hydration. Wordlessly they sat down on the couches. Their coats and hats having grown as cold as the air around them. They shook, and rubbed their arms in an effort to warm their gear.
It took everyone a moment to notice that David was crying. Everyone just stared for a moment. Compassion having long ago taken a back seat to survival. And it was only now that they had been given an opportunity to think about anything else.
“Hey man.” Caleb finally broke the awkward silence.
He slid over on the couch and put an arm around his friend.
“Hey dude it’s okay. We’ll get out of this somehow.” Caleb knew he didn’t mean what he said. But he hoped his voice had sounded convincing.
David let out another sob.
“My parents are going to be so pissed!”
Caleb looked at his friend dumbfounded. That was the last thing he’d expected to hear. Before he could think of any kind of response stifled snickering cut into his thoughts. All eyes turned to Amy.
She was biting her lower lip in an attempt to stem the flow of laughter. But little titters escaped from her clamped jaw.
“Holy shit Dave.” She said giggling. “You’re worried that your folks are gonna be mad that we made a mess with our little house party?”
Everyone exchanged baffled looks. Then David started to snicker too. The others quickly caught on. Realizing how stupid of a concern it was. Soon everyone was trying to stifle uncontrollable laughter.
It was a welcome respite from the horror of the situation. After a few moments everyone regained control of themselves. The moment of levity had done them all a bit of good.
“Anybody want a beer?” David grimly joked. Wiping a coat sleeve across his nose.
Rylan chuckled. “Nope. But I sure could use some food. We should find some grub and bug out before the Preacher shows back up.”
Everyone seemed to agree with that. They rose from the couches. A cursory look around revealed that the pizzas, and other munchies they’d brought down were nowhere to be seen.
“Did the god damned Priest eat all our shit?” Rylan asked in a sardonic tone.
“All the food was closer to the symbol.” Amy said. Gesturing to the massive scarlet hole in the hazy distance.
“Wait!” David said. “There’s food in the closet! Survival stuff my dad has. And more warm gear!”
“Where the Hell’s the closet?” Amy asked.
“It’s near the bathroom.”
“And where the Hell is the bathroom?” Agitation creeping into her voice.
“The doors are still somewhere along the southern wall I’d guess. Somewhere between here and the pit where the symbol used to be.”
“Is the Priest still down in the pit?” Sarah asked. Looking with apprehension at the glowing hole.
Everyone listened to the distant chanting. It was hard to tell where it was coming from. But wherever the Scarlet Preacher was giving his sermon was not nearby. After a brief deliberation they decided to make a cautious eastward exploration. ;
They moved cautiously, in single file along the cold stone wall. Keeping low. The emerald green carpet muffling their footfalls. Eyeing the glowing pit with trepidation as they approached.
The size of the southern wall was humbling. They hadn’t been this close to one since the Red Priest had risen up from the pit. Caleb imagined the sight was akin to what the Great Wall of China would look like if one stood at it’s base. Except that this wall stretched up until disappearing into an infinite darkness.
Luck seemed to be on their side at the moment. For after only about fifteen yards they encountered the door to the storage closet. David opened the door and the group began rifling through the contents as quietly as possible.
There was really only room for a couple people to be in there at once. Sarah who had been hanging back noticed that the door to the bathroom was still to the right of the closet.
Sarah who had been standing in the rear of the group decided to do a little scouting. The bathroom door was only four feet from the closet. If anything she just wanted to use a real bathroom. With the distant chants of the Priest echoing in her ears, she turned the knob and opened the door.
It was dark in the room, save for two candles that burned near the sink. Upon stepping inside the first thing that hit her was the unexpected wall of heat. It was like a sauna in there! Moving across the tile she made it to the center of the room and cast her gaze around.
She couldn’t be sure, but the bathroom seemed different somehow. It was a large room. Nothing compared to the groaning land at her back. It just seemed… Like it belonged in another house.
She moved toward the center of the room. Gazing around. Shadows cast by the soft flames danced across the walls. It was calm in there. Serene. If she were to close the door she could almost convince herself that the madness outside was not happening.
But then her eyes fell upon the shower, and it’s drawn curtains. Instantly she felt a feeling of apprehension. She just stood there in silence for awhile. Staring at the closed curtains.
God she had to use the bathroom! If she didn’t make a move now there was no telling the next time she’d have the luxury of a toilet. Mustering her courage she began walking slowly toward the shower.
If she could just pull the curtains, and see for herself that there was no one in there. Then she could release her bowels in relative peace. She’d crossed half the remaining distance when she heard a soft, but distinct “thud” behind the curtains.
She froze. Her breath caught in her throat. No other sound came from within. She stood there for a long moment just listening. In the background could be heard the muffled sounds of her friends still rifling around.
Was she even sure she’d heard anything? She was after all tripping her face off. Another moment passed with no movement from within. Finally she decided she was being paranoid and began walking forward again.
No sooner had she taken her second step when the shower exploded into a flurry of motion. The curtain began to shake violently. As if a hundred hands were slapping the polyester with open palms. Then the frame itself began to shudder.
Stifling a scream Sarah bolted for the door. Slamming it shut behind her she pressed her back to it. Leaning her full weight against it, and bracing herself for the heavy impact she knew would inevitably come.
But none happened. After a moment she allowed herself to relax. Noticing her companion’s quizzical stares.
“What’s wrong?” David asked. Handing her a heavy parka.
Sarah shook her head.
“N-nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
Any further inquiries were cut short by the booming voice of the Red Priest. As one the group turned. The Giant was practically on top of them! Striding out of the gloom from the north.
The friends let out a collective shriek before instinctively piling in through the open door of the closet. There was a slight bit more room now that some of the random objects had been cleared out as they’d sought out the extra winter gear. Though nothing would have stopped them in that adrenaline filled moment from piling in.
The door was slammed shut. And the friends found themselves in pitch blackness. Packed like sardines in a can. Listening to the Scarlet Preacher stride about thunderously just beyond the door.
“Oh fuck! Oh fuck!” David hissed in the darkness.
Caleb felt like he couldn’t breathe. The peyote accentuating the sound of their five rapidly beating hearts. Multiple drumbeats pounding out a rhythm in the cramped closet. Someone was crying.
“There’s no way he didn’t see us come in here.” Rylan’s shuddered.
“He’s going to come in here!” David hissed once again. “He’s going to come in here, and he’s going to get us!”
“How did he sneak up on us like that?” Sarah whispered. “He’s ten God damned feet tall!”
“Everybody just shut up for a sec.” Amy’s voice cut in.
She’d been pretty quiet ever since this madness had begun. So quiet that every time she did deign to say something the group found themselves really listening. Everyone obeyed. Hearts hammering they turned their ears toward the chanting.
Ever so slowly, the door was opened. Just a crack. The Preacher was stomping up and down the concrete land between the closet and the scarlet pit. He either miraculously hadn’t seen them, or didn’t care. Either way it was terrifying being so close to It.
They crowded over each other to get a view. After a few moments it was clear that the Giant had chosen this immediate area to continue his sermon. Millipedes, and earwigs crawled about his feet. Some crushed into oblivion by the Preacher’s heedless footfalls.
“We can…” Caleb started in a shaky voice. “We can make a run for it when the Priest turns his back to us.”
“We’ll have to be quick.” Rylan whispered.
“Fuck that.” Amy said suddenly.
The others looked in confusion at her dark outline near the door.
“I’m tired of running.”
“Then what the Hell do you suggest?!” David hissed.
“I’m going to go meet him. I’m going to meet the Red Priest.”
Stunned silence now. Coupled with incomprehension.
“You… Can’t be serious?” Caleb finally said.
Amy didn’t answer. Instead she rose from her crouching position. Pushing the door all the way open, she stepped out. The Red Priest had his back to her. Heading in the direction of the yawning pit.
“Amy!” Caleb shrieked as quietly as possible.
But she paid him no mind as she made her way with determined steps toward the Giant. After crossing nearly half the distance the Red Priest suddenly ceased his chanting. The abrupt cessation of noise was a palpable change in the atmosphere.
Slowly, the Giant turned to face her. As if sensing her approach.
“Amy!” Caleb shrieked full volume this time. His heart fluttering about within the confines of his skinny chest like a panicked bird in a cage.
The Scarlet Preacher stood stoically as her small figure drew near. It was the first time the monstrosity had actually acknowledged any of their presence. Amy reached the Giant and stared up at him in silence. The Red Priest glared down at her. As if sizing her up.
Then he knelt. Bringing himself to eye level with the girl that stood before him. For a long moment the two just stared at one another. At least Caleb assumed Amy was meeting the Giant’s gaze. For her back was to him.
Lobsters, spiders, and crayfish fell out from beneath the folds in his robe and milled about their feet. But Amy seemed oblivious to them. Then the Giant brought the Dripping Book down low so that Amy might look upon it’s yellowed pages.
Without taking his gaze off her he gestured for Amy to look. In order to do so she half turned, so that the others could see her face. Upon beholding the contents of the massive tome she froze up like a deer in headlights. Her eyes went wide, and her jaw dropped.
The Red Priest’s face remained stoic as he watched Amy’s reaction. Gently with his free hand he reached, and turned the page. Amy’s eyes bulged even further. Looking like they might pop out of her head.
She shuddered. The way a person might shiver when witnessing someone jump from the top of a building and explode upon the concrete at their feet. Her breathing became visibly ragged. Like she was on the verge of hyperventilating.
Expression still stoic the Scarlet Preacher brought his face down close and spoke something into her ear. After a moment Amy’s face relaxed. Her breathing slowly evened out. She gave a solemn nod as if in comprehension. Slowly she turned her gaze from the book to the expressionless Giant.
They shared another long moment of tense silence. Then the Red Priest reached inside the folds of his great robe and pulled out what looked like a rusty compass on a chain. He reverently handed it to Amy. After taking it she slowly nodded again, which the Preacher returned in kind.
Then the two turned, and began walking off in different directions. Parting ways like old friends having said their “goodbye for now’s”. Without acknowledging her companions she started walking West. The Red Priest once again raised the Scarlet Tome up and resumed his sermon to the darkness. Moving toward the yawning scarlet pit.
The others watched the scene play out in stunned silence. Unable to comprehend what had just happened. Even Caleb seemed to have momentarily lost the will to pointlessly shriek people’s names.
The scene playing out was almost too intense for Caleb to notice Rylan. Almost. He had that jittery look someone gets when they’re about to do something stupid.
“Rylan…” Caleb started.
In that same moment Rylan sprang into motion. Leaving the flimsy safety of the closet, he began walking at a brisk, determined pace toward the Priest. He had clearly reached his breaking point.
“Rylan!” Caleb shrieked his name, much like he had Amy’s.
He half turned.
“If you don’t step forward, you’re always in the same place.” Rylan said. Shrugging, and then continuing on.
“What?!” Caleb asked. “Are you trying to be fucking profound right now?!”
“Wait! Don’t!” David shouted in a shrill voice.
He payed neither of them any mind as he continued toward the chanting figure.
“God he’s such a tool.” Somehow through the peyote haze and mounting horror, that thought resonated clearly through Caleb’s mind.
The Priest was nearly at the lip of the Pit when Rylan reached him. The Giant once again ceased chanting, and turned to face him. He hesitated for a moment, as the Giant’s eyes met his. This time the Priest did not bend down to get eye to eye. He stood in ominous silence as Rylan crossed the remaining distance between them.
The two stared at one another for long, silent moment. The big hippie’s frame was dwarfed by the massive figure of the Red Preacher. Even from this distance it was plain to see that Rylan was shaking with fear.
“Rylan!” Caleb repeated his name impotently. His breaths were coming in and out so fast he was on the verge of hyperventilating.
Rylan gestured toward the dripping book. At this the Priest slowly shook his head. With one great swing of his arm he gestured to the pit before them. Then he offered up one of his massive hands.
After a moment’s hesitation Rylan took it. As he did so a handful of centipedes, and crayfish fell out from beneath the sleeve of the giant’s robes. Bouncing off the cold concrete at their feet. Rylan looked up into the behemoth’s eyes.
Slowly the giant nodded. Then together they turned, and began walking hand and hand down into the pit. Rylan looking almost like a toddler holding an adult’s hand.
“Rylan!” Caleb screamed again. Feeling his mind slightly unhinge.
But the big hippie payed him no mind. The last the others saw of him was the back of his big afro outlined in the scarlet glow, bobbing up and down as he descended out of sight.
The others stood in shocked silence for a moment. The moaning, and popping of the landscape far more pronounced now that there was no chanting. Slowly. Cautiously, they approached yawning hole.
At this point the large scale of anything should not have surprised him, but when they beheld the pit below Caleb’s heart skipped a beat nonetheless. The incline was steep. Descending about fifty feet before leveling out. The source of the deep scarlet light could not be seen. The floor down there looked like it was made not of cold concrete, but of polished marble.
From their vantage point they couldn’t see very far into the pit. But it was obvious that the landscape below stretched far passed the northern wall of the basement. Way off at the very limits of what could be seen, was what looked like a massive ivory fountain flowing with steaming water.
Rylan and the Priest were already gone. Having disappeared into the cavernous recesses of the scarlet land. Caleb turned to look at his companions. It was obvious that no one had any intention of going in after him.
“Do you guys smell that?” Sarah broke the silence.
“What?” Caleb asked shakily. Sniffing the air.
“Smoke.” Sarah answered.
The trio glanced around. Not seeing any smoke.
“I don’t smell any-.”
“Oh fuck.” David’s voice cut Caleb off.
“Look!” He shouted. Pointing upward.
The abyss above was no longer an endless expanse of darkness. It had grown red, and angry. Great roiling clouds impossibly high over their heads dominated the skyline. The sight reminded Caleb of how the sky over Mount Doom looked in Return of the King. Even as they stood there the maelstrom drew closer to the ground.
“Shit! What the fuck is that?!” Caleb screeched.
“Where’s Amy?!” Sarah cried.
They glanced around the moaning land. She’d vanished. The fiery sky was drawing closer by the second. Like a planet falling into the sun.
“We have to get out of here! We have to get out of here!” Caleb cried. Panic having once again taken over his faculties.
“But where?!” Shouted David.
“The pit. We could go down into the pit.” Sarah said. Shifting his gaze from the approaching inferno to the scarlet chasm at their feet.
“I’m not fucking going down there!” Caleb pulled at his hair.
“The bathroom then!” Sarah said suddenly.
David and Caleb turned.
“The bathroom?” Caleb asked. Genuinely perplexed.
“The bathroom by the bar! There was something in the shower. But I swear I remember seeing a window!” She answered.
“A window?!” Caleb shrieked. “You saw a window?!”
“I don’t fucking know Caleb!” Sarah screamed back in his face. Her panic mirroring his own. “I’m tripping my god damned balls off!”
Without waiting for a response she took off running. Moving west along the northern wall. Caleb, and David quickly followed. Unable to think of any other course of action.
As they ran on the inferno over their heads continued to descend toward them.
Smoke began drifting across the land, as it was slowly illuminated by the fiery maelstrom. Way off in the distance flaming debris could be seen raining down from the inferno. It took them longer to run back to the bar than it had taken them to walk to the pit. But after a terrifying flight they found themselves before the door to the bathroom.
Without hesitation Sarah flung it open. A flaming plank of wood came clattering to the ground to their right. She practically dove in. Not allowing herself to dwell on what she’d seen the first time she’d been in the room. Caleb and David were hot on her heels.
The shower was empty. The curtain having been pulled off the rungs now lay on the floor. Sure enough on the far end of the room was a window. After they entered David slammed the door shut, and locked it. Separating them from the madness outside.
“This… Isn’t my bathroom.” David said. Looking around with a perplexed expression.
“Who gives a shit?!” Caleb said. Making a beeline for the portal to the outside world.
He stepped up on his tip toes and looked out. A gasp escaped his lips. He could see outside! He could see the grass! And the moon, and stars! It didn’t matter “how” this was possible. All that mattered was that they got through this god damned window!
It was one of those sliding ones. Too small to fit through with the frame intact, but Caleb didn’t let that deter him for a single second. Sprinting over to the toilet, he ripped the tank cover off. Then he charged the window with the porcelain lid raised high over his head like Conan the Barbarian.
In a stunning display of athletic aptitude he leapt up and swung the cover at the center of the frame with all his terror fueled strength. The porcelain collided with the white vinyl frame. It was either his prodigious fear or a lucky shot, but in that single deafening strike the window was utterly undone. Glass shattered, and the frame broke in several places.
Heedless of the jagged edges of glass he grabbed the center part of the vinyl frame and yanked backward with all his might. Shards of glass bit deep into his hands, drawing blood as nearly the entirety of the window frame was violently ripped off. A near deafening explosion from beyond the bathroom rocked the door. Black smoke was beginning to seep from beneath the frame.
“Hurry!” David whined.
Caleb needed no encouragement. It was going to be a high jump. But at that moment the copious amount of adrenaline pumping through his veins made him feel like a terror stricken superman.
He backed up about six feet. Steeled himself. And made a mad dash for the window…
“Meanwhile back in Duxbury”
Okay see?! This is the kind of shit I’m talking about right here!” Sheriff Jeremiah Bucknell shouted at the empty interior of his cruiser.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock yet and already his department was being hit with a barrage of phone calls. Apparently last night had been a wild one for Duxbury. He’d received the first one from the office whilst sipping coffee on his front porch. Enjoying the feel of the brisk morning air.
It had been concerning what was an apparent trail of body parts in Knapp Town Forest. Though if he had to put money on it, he’d wager that the supposed “body parts” were nothing more than the remains of some animal.
The second was a call from none other than Michael Bartlett himself. The man claiming that some time yesterday after closing up shop, someone had broken in and stolen a considerable amount of construction equipment from him. Jeremiah hadn’t spoken to him directly yet. But he’d been told that the man was quite livid.
Which didn’t surprise the Sheriff one bit. Rich white men (in his experience) were uniformly all assholes, that couldn’t maintain their composure when faced with the slightest bit of adversity. Jeremiah didn’t know the in’s and out’s of insurance. But he was pretty sure after all was said and done with Bartlett’s insurance company, he’d be turning a profit off this theft.
And the third was about some house fire down off King Phillip’s Path. Supposedly some kid’s had thrown a party and things had gotten out of hand. From what he’d gathered the fire was still going. Having somehow struck a gas line below the street or something.
The entire neighborhood had to be evacuated. And thus far no one had been recovered from the inferno. Jeremiah cringed inwardly at the idea of what he guessed would be the inevitable gruesome discovery of charred corpses.
And now this. Fucking road construction blocking off his route to the Station. And it was a project by none other than Bartlett Consolidated Inc! The sign blocking the Pilgrim read “Construction for the next 2 miles. Detour ahead.”
“Well obviously you’re not completely out of equipment Mike!” He shouted in frustration.
At the very least this little “detour” would cost him an extra ten minutes of travel time. And where the Hell were the warning signs coming up the Pilgrim?! The Sheriff hadn’t recalled seeing anything saying “Caution. Detour ahead”.
“Bunch of bullshit.” He grumbled, and flicked on his turn signal.
He turned off on the East Street Exit. Fighting a losing battle against the urge not to floor it down the off ramp. He was about to put the pedal to the medal when he caught sight of the roiling black plume of smoke on the horizon to the North.
“How could this morning possibly get any worse?” He asked the open air, as he turned onto East Street…
“Well fuuuuck me.” Detective Travis Stiles said in an exasperated tone.
It was official. They’d been following a constant trail of body parts for more than five minutes now. A full quarter mile of torn, and shredded appendages cut a clear path through the woods. It was as if late last night someone had come out to the forest, made a massive conga line of animals, and then stuck lit sticks of dynamite up their asses.
Detective Stiles was the kind of cop who liked things nice and peaceful. It’s why he’d taken a job all the way out here in Duxbury in the first place. It was only 9:32 in the morning, and already he knew that today would be neither of those things.
A one Timothy Berger was to thank for this morning’s gruesome discovery. One of those health fanatic types (Stiles would never understand those kind of people) who’d elected to go for a brisk morning run through Knapp Town Forest. The guy was pretty shaken up.
Stiles could hardly blame him. A veritable trail of gore led from the southern edge of the Knapp, disappearing into the gloom of the forest. The Detective wasn’t sure how far Berger gone in before electing to double back and call the cops. But following this bloody trail even half as far as he and his fellow officers already had would be enough to unnerve anyone.
Even Cops. The three officers that were with him had drawn their guns the second they’d entered the tree line. Stiles had initially resisted the urge to do the same. Trying to set an example for his colleagues.
His mind clinging to the notion that this really was just an animal attack. Though he knew that didn’t quite add up. For one the “trail” as it were didn’t simply consist of body parts.
It was as if someone had driven a large truck straight through the forest. Leaving nought but flattened and broken foliage in it’s wake. And there was the occasional piece of random trash as well.
That part was really weird. Sure you might see some piece of garbage whilst hiking. After all humans were on the whole a bunch of inconsiderate, littering fucks. But the stuff he was seeing was out of place.
Scraps of newspaper, and crushed soda cans. A rusted bicycle frame. At one point they’d even crossed paths with the shattered remnants of a foosball table. Before he realized it he’d unconsciously drawn his own weapon as well.
Even with the sun rising, and the birds chirping. The scene was still spooky as a motherfucker. At first glance Stiles thought he was looking at human remains. But all of the pieces that were relatively intact were furry.
“Thank God for that.” He said to himself.
“What’s that?” Deputy Myron Jackson asked.
The tall, ebony skinned retired marine cut an imposing figure. But he was visibly shaken. He knew it was written on his face, and he didn’t like it. Not that he could do a damn thing about it. He was sweating profusely despite the chill that hung in the air.
“Nothing.” Stiles shook his head. Offering up a smile “Just talking to myself.”
Myron surveyed the landscape ahead. Jesus, it looked like a war zone out here. He compulsively checked his pistol once again. Wishing for the umpteenth time that he had his M4 Carbine on him instead of this peashooter.
He was breathing hard. Harder than he should be at the pace they were moving.
“Okay…” He whispered to himself. “Okay. Just take it easy.”
He was on the verge of having a flashback. He could feel it looming on the horizon like an approaching storm. It was the blood and gore that was to blame. So many body parts. All that blood…
“Deep breaths… Deep breaths…” He said to himself.
“Hey I’ve got something!” Deputy Patrick Hilt’s voice came from up ahead.
Deputy Hilt had scouted farther ahead then he should have. Stiles had instructed his colleagues to remain within sight of one another. The Group broke into a jog.
“Oh Jesus!” Hilt said in a voice that belied revulsion. As if to punctuate this, the statement was quickly followed up by the sound of retching .
Stiles broke out in a cold sweat. He truly did not want to see whatever the Deputy was puking next to. In that moment he found himself second guessing his choice in career.
“Maybe it’s not too late to become a Chef.” He thought cynically.
They crested a small hill and the edge of the forest came into view. The Pilgrim marking the end of the woods. Stiles could see Hilt bent over, and spewing out his breakfast next to some kind of mound in the middle of the road.
The other officers reached the highway. Stiles took a deep breath. Steeling himself before stepping out onto the asphalt. It didn’t do him any good. For the second he beheld the mound of ruined flesh he too was regurgitating his breakfast.
It was only recognizable as human because of the tattered cargo pants laying in the center of the gore. All Stiles could think of through bouts of gagging was that his utterly ridiculous initial prognosis had been right. Someone had indeed lined up a bunch of woodland critters and stuck lit sticks of dynamite up their bums.
And he’d saved the last stick for himself. There was a literal blast radius of gore. Extending out more than eight feet in some places. The mound of ruined flesh was thickest at the center.
“Hilt.” Stiles said as he finally got his gagging under control.
Pale, and looking very gaunt, the Officer looked his way.
“Get on the horn.” Stiles said. “Tell dispatch we need a forensics team out here stat…”
END OF PHASE 1
Credit: Chris Secor