Estimated reading time — 5 minutes
It only took her a moment to figure out that this wasn’t where she wanted to be. The paint chipped and wallpaper peeled down as if bowing its head in resignation to the dilapidated state of the facility. She walked gingerly up the hall, dodging the debris that lay scattered across the yellowed laminate floor. An old, rusted wheelchair sat propped against a side door that led to nothing but darkness, as far as she could tell as she passed it. A pair of crutches leaned against the jamb of another door to her right, this one wide open to a room much more visible in the diminishing daylight. She made her way cautiously toward that door, nearly tripping over a loose section of flooring. When she got to the doorway, she peered in and felt her stomach churn with revulsion.
There was a solitary window letting in the sickly, pale yellow sunlight through its dusty pane. The shadows from a tree outside played across the dirty floor and broke up the lazy dance of dust motes in the stale air of the room. Along the far wall was a single, iron bed frame. Long ago, it had been painted a clean, clinical, crisp white; now the bars rusted and chipped, the white long since turned to dusty gray covering the dingy metal. The mattress sitting on it was sagging in the middle, striped and so dirty she couldn’t tell what colors it was originally intended to be. There were rumpled sheets that clearly never fit the thing at all, with a blanket and pillow tossed into the corner of the bed. Under it was the barest shadow of an old suitcase, its leather straps long ago sacrificed to the rot of this humid climate and the neglect of years passed.
In front of the bed, on the floor, was a pair of dusty shoes from a bygone era. They sat cockeyed, as if just slipped off by a young girl or boy whose feet turned inward from some shyness or infirmity. The toes of the shoes nearly touched and the dust made the old leather look soft, between the cracks. She had the impression that if she were to walk over and touch the shoes, they would crumble before her eyes. They certainly added to the smell in the air, of dust and old. She found herself wondering for the first time about the most recent inhabitants of this facility, the rats and spiders and other such creatures. Were they still here? Would they come out to meet her when the light dimmed enough for them to feel safe? She shuddered at the thought.
As if bidden by her thoughts, an emaciated rat scurried across the floor in the room. Where it had come from, she couldn’t say, but it seemed quite familiar with the surroundings as it dodged trash and equipment around the room to reach its destination— a small hole in the corner of the wall nearest her, next to the open closet. She willed herself to not scream, or jump, and watched the rat’s experienced maneuverings with a strange, morbid curiosity. When it dove into its hole, she found herself perversely drawn to crawl over to it and peer in, perhaps to see a family of rats sitting down to supper. She fancied the rat she saw was just going home after a long day at the mill (wherever that equivalent was in this place), and would soon put its feet up on a bit of fluff it had taken months back, ready to relax for the evening.
It was at this point that she realized her mind was going to places she would rather it didn’t, needing to keep her wits about her in this place. They had warned her that it would play tricks on her, that her mind would try to trap her here somehow. She silently cursed her imagination and went back to searching the room with her eyes. She refused to enter that space unless absolutely necessary, and unless what she sought was in the room, she wouldn’t enter it at all. She craned her neck around to see into the dark closet, where the door to the little cubbyhole was blocking the sunlight and turning it into a gaping maw of darkness.
“Damn.” She whispered when she realized she wasn’t going to get a good view unless she entered the room.
Keeping her eyes down and watching the floor for debris, she picked her way across this floor the same way she had in the hall. Something caught her eye for an instant and her toe tapped the corner of a tin can, sending it rattling a few feet away. She held her breath, hoping the noise wasn’t enough to elicit a response from the facility, and waited. 10…20…30. When there was no reaction, she let out her breath and turned her full attention back to the floor between her and the open closet door. She took a step closer, and felt the floor rumble slightly. Her heart fell as she realized the sound had indeed woken it up, deep in the bowels of the building, and it was coming.
The sound was faint at first, like rolling thunder. Except instead of coming from outside the dingy window, it was coming from further inside the building. As it drew near, the sound grew and changed. It sounded like rusty pipes breaking, or children screaming. Then it sounded like the whole place was groaning, straining to contain the thing.
She leapt to the other side of the room, far away from the door, and reached inside her coat for something. She wasn’t worried about making noise anymore; it already knew where she was. She cursed aloud as she fumbled with a trinket that caught the sunlight and gleamed softly for just an instant. She could hear it coming up the hall now, bashing carelessly against the walls as it filled the space.
It reached the doorway to the room she was in and hesitated for only a moment, the last fading sunlight repelling it. As the sun sank, her heart sank with it, knowing her best defense was gone. It turned then, facing her fully, and she almost shrieked in mind-numbing terror.
It was surrounded by a black miasma, like smoke. Its head was impossibly high, easily 8-10 feet, and there was too little of it for what should have been this thing’s head. That’s when it hit her; the face was that of a child. That’s why the head was too small, it was that of a small child atop this monstrosity! There were arms in the miasma that reached out for her, each of them capped by a hand with a face, a face that screamed in horror and pain.
The top head leered at her and the whole thing lunged through the door. In the last possible instant, her hand went up instinctively to ward it off, to protect her face, she had no idea. It just went up, still with the trinket clutched in it. But though the sun had left, the trinket still gleamed and glowed! The creature shrieked and hissed, backing away but filling too much of the door; it was stuck. It crawled backward, up the wall and away from her. She looked in her hand at the trinket, saw the glow, and thrust it out at the creature.
It hissed and spat, its venomous saliva bubbling on the floor before the door. Slowly, it managed to back away out the door, with the paladin following, still holding out the amulet of Amon-Ra to push it back. At the doorway, she stepped in the bubbling venom without a notice, her entire focus on the creature and pushing it back out of the room. The bubbling venom fizzled and was still, crystal clear as water on the floor.
The creature pulled farther back down the hall, through another doorway, and then disappeared. She could hear it moving, feel the floor still shaking with its many handed steps. Eventually they faded to nothing and she breathed a sigh of relief, replacing the amulet in her interior pocket. She had hoped to not have to show her hand so soon, but if that was the guardian here, things might be worse than they had thought at the priory. She would need to consult with the monks back at the monastery before venturing any further in, much as she detested the delay.
She made her way back up the hall to the front doors, pulling the pitted and rusty handle gently to open the large portal. As she gained the dusk outside, she heard a whimpering whine from deep in the facility, and knew that for the moment, the creature would hide and lick its wounds, rather than chase.
Credit: J. Svogar