Part I – Respite Unanswered.
Fingers on cold stone, damp. The scent of blood in the air. Eyes open but seeing nothing. Blackness, a terrible emptiness. It was the cruelest awakening. I gathered myself slowly, sliding my hands close together across slick stone. I painfully forced myself to my feet, pressed my hand to the gaping wound on my head. My hand came away damp with blood.
I stood immobile. The longer I stared into the darkness, the more I could make out faint outlines around me. I made my way towards what appeared to be a doorway, but a collision between something and my shoe halted my progress. I looked down; saw a vaguely cylindrical shape rolling away. I crouched, seized the cylinder. A quick examination revealed it to be a flashlight. I flicked the switch. The sudden flash sent a stinging pain through my eyes, and I shut them. When the pain had resided, I opened them, to see words emblazoned on the wall, almost charred into the stone brickwork.
Run from them.
Next to the words was a crude effigy of an almost featureless face. I walked close to the imprint, ran my finger along the outline. I drew back my hand, the fingertip coated in ash.
I turned away, but the rough visage was etched into the back of my eyes. Empty eye sockets, a crude rendering of a gaping maw for a mouth.
I shut off the flashlight, trying to dispel a panic that had begun to grow. The surroundings became shrouded to my eyes in the dark. I realized the situation I was in. Trapped. I was trapped in hideous darkness. The panic swept into my limbs, sent a dreadful shaking though my hands as I blindly stared at the moist stone wall before me. I couldn’t take it, couldn’t handle the creeping darkness that swirled and danced around me like a fell mist, full of horrors unimaginable.
I sat down, trying to calm my bewildered mind. Something was wrong, but I couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t think straight. I didn’t know what was going on; my mind was in a bewildered haze. I… couldn’t even remember my own name.
The flashlight fell from my trembling hands, rolled across the floor, clicking back on. It stopped with the beam pointing at a doorway. The faintest trace of a scream rose in my throat as I saw the illuminated latch begin to turn. The door started opening slowly, hesitantly almost, as if whoever was on the other side wanted permission to fling open the door. It stood ajar maybe two inches when it stopped. A ragged wheezing met my ears as I stared at the door. I saw something run past the door, a flash of white, and then nothing but more stone wall beyond.
I blinked. When my eyes were open again, I saw that… something was reaching though the gap in the door and its frame, something with pale, thin fingers. Whatever it was that hid in the beyond wrapped its fingers around the edge of the door. The wheezing grew louder, and the door began to swing further open, quiet on well oiled hinges.
With a brief shout, I stood, lunged at the door, and slammed it shut with my shoulder, wedging the fingers between the wood of the door and its frame. Out the corner of my eye, I saw the pasty fingers flailing madly in an attempt to free themselves. I turned so my back was firmly against the door, making sure that whatever horror was out there wouldn’t free itself.
I reached into a pocket of my jacket, pulled out a folding knife, and flicked it open. For a moment, I looked at the unfamiliar weapon. The blade was about four inches long, the lower half serrated. The entire knife was a lustrous gray, except for small spots of rust tainting the metal. I gripped the hilt tight in my hand, then turned to the hideous fingers, began raking the sharp blade over the moist skin. Over and over, I assaulted the trapped thing, splitting its flesh to bone, a clear fluid crying from each wound. Angry red lines marred the perfectly white flesh of the fingers.
Beneath the sounds of my own frenzied gasps as I attacked the monster’s hand, beneath the sound of the blade cutting through flesh and into bone, I could hear a faint groaning on the other side of the door And then, suddenly with a sickening pop and tearing noise, the thing pulled itself free, the trapped fingers falling to the ground on my side of the door as the palm they had been attached to was pulled free on the other side. The door, no longer obstructed, slammed shut, latched. As it did so, I was jarred into the door, having been throwing all my body weight upon it, and for a moment, the breath was knocked out of me.
As I leaned against the door, trying to catch my breath, I heard a return of the tattered breathing of the monster beyond. I turned my head, held whatever breath I had managed to gather, pressed and ear against the damp wood of the door and listened. For a moment, there was only the thing’s breathing, and then a deep, rattling breath, followed by words, a voice. It spoke to me in a hushed whisper, out of breath, gravelly.
“A retreat into shadows dark,
To reflect a void within.
This maelstrom is an eternity everlasting.
The torment goes on.
Endless the void has grown.”
It repeated the words and then all was silent. I started breathing again. I backed away from the door after turning to face it, knife still in hand. My shadow blocked out the flashlight’s beam and I saw my silhouette splayed out across the door, limbs trembling. As I continued to back up, my foot came into contact with the torch. I stepped behind it, crouched down to pick it up, keeping a watchful eye on the door. As soon as I had wrapped my fingers around it, there was the patter of many feet beyond the door, moving hurriedly past. The door bulged into the room for a moment, and then fell back, nudged by the gust of wind from the passers in what I assumed was a corridor beyond.
I slowly stood up, folded the knife against my leg and slipped it back into my pocket. Cautiously, I approached the door, step by step, my heart beating so loud it seemed to echo through the room. Once more, I pressed my ear against the door, listening. Upon hearing nothing, I twisted the handle and opened the door. I stepped back with it, opening it all the way so that the door touched the wall it was hinged to. I leaned my head out the arch, looked into a dank, musty smelling hall. I looked with the flashlight in both available directions, but both ways seemed to be identical to each other.
I went left, choosing randomly. My footsteps clapped down on the stone floor and echoed through the hall, no matter how quietly I tried to walk. The hall stretched on indefinitely, the flashlight illuminating no end. A fair distance away, I could see the outlines of offshoots or other halls and rooms. Should they be halls, I would never be able to escape, wouldn’t be able to choose. The offshoots grew closer.
When I was a scant few yards from the first side opening, I pressed the flashlight against my chest, stifling the light. I pressed myself against the wall, creeping in darkness, panic rising as the shadows settled in more and more. As my back slid on heavy stone, thoughts drifted though my mind. What was this place? Why was I here? What lurked hidden in darkness beyond any corner? I didn’t know, didn’t know anything. I didn’t know anything except that I needed to escape. I needed some respite from this darkness, from the monsters, from the memories. I paused. What memories did I need escape from? I couldn’t remember. The mere shadow of memory existed, taunting me with its elusiveness. Nothing was making any sense.
With an effort, I pushed those thoughts from my weary mind. They weren’t important now. What was important was escape, survival. Then, when free, I would be able to ponder these things, but now, I needed to move on. And that is what I did. I started creeping further along the wall and soon I came upon the archway, my hand curling around the edge. Fear ran though my veins as I stood at the threshold. With a scream building up inside me, I threw myself from the wall, uncovered the flashlight into the alcove.
The shout in my throat died away before it could be released. I tried to look away, but my eyes wouldn’t move. I couldn’t move, couldn’t turn and run away from the door within the open room. It seemed I was being forced to confront this door, this hideous gateway that whispered grim prophecies of what was beyond.
It was a simple door, wooden, composed of several planks bound tightly together with metal strips at the top and bottom. There appeared to be no opening mechanism. Its surface was marred by heavy scratches, dug deep into the wood, some lined red with what could only be thought of as blood. The door didn’t quite meet the floor, and in the gap, I saw something moving beyond, almost a mist or fog.
I came to realize that it wasn’t quite the door that had left me paralyzed, my heart beating so loud from fear, as much as it was the terrible, oppressive presence that lurked hidden in the room. There was something in the room, hidden in the light of the hand-torch. I could feel it, watching me.
I turned off the flashlight, plunging myself into darkness. The shadows gathered around me, my eyes playing tricks on me, almost convincing me of figures moving about me. I backed up, my trickster eyes looking in all directions, up and down the hall, into the room with the door. My back hit the wall behind and I pressed myself against it as much as I possibly could. The shadowy figures couldn’t be tricks, couldn’t be fake. They had to be real, crawling down walls, creeping ever closer. They came at me with dark hands outstretched. I turned on the flashlight, banishing the figments of my imagination. They weren’t real. I started breathing again, not quite realizing I had stopped. I approached the room before me again, bent my head into the arch and looked around the entire room. Nothing was in the stone-bricked room. Nothing but the door and the malign presence that stared at me still.
Gathering what little courage remained, I flipped the light off, determined to see what was in the room. I ignored the fluid movement of shadows in the dark, knowing that the terrible outlines I saw out the corners of my eyes were nothing but my imagination. One by one, the shadow figments disappeared. All were gone, except for one. It stood right before me, a dark outline of a man. I blinked a couple times, trying to make this thing disappear like the others. Then I realized it. This one was real. Almost as soon as I realized this, the figure cloaked in the dankest, blackest shadow began to step towards me. It came through the archway into the hall, bringing with it a deep sense of hatred, violence, the same presence I had felt in the room. I brought up the flashlight, fumbled with at it in a crazed search for the switch. I soon found it and turned it on, shined it at the figure. For a moment, I saw it, took in its features, and then, it was gone. Where it had been was just empty space. But… the vision of the figure’s mask was burned into my mind, lingering as if still present in the room. The horrible, mottled mask, a purple-brown, like a bruise, scarred by a hundred scratches. The left part of the mask was missing a large portion, down into where the eye should have been, but only shadow could be seen.
My breath was shaky as I stared at the door in the room. The presence within had swelled, worsened, invaded the hall. Carefully, quietly, I edged along the wall opposite the way I had come, away from the room and the door. As I crept along, I passed by many more archways, and I hurriedly darted by each one, not daring to look or linger near any. I kept the flashlight almost completely covered. I left only enough light so that I could make out the mortar gaps on a few bricks before me, and always completely covered it when passing archways.
I carried out that method for an indefinite period of time, passing countless open doorways, avoiding all of them, my fear building each time I had the ill luck to encounter a four way intersection. I stuck to the same hall, always going straight. Time dragged on, the hall seemed to have no end, it was as if I was never to leave this hall and was just stuck in an eternal repeat. The offshoots or rooms or whatever seemed to be at regular intervals and I soon began to predict when each would show up.
Then the hall ended in a right turn. I paused before the corner, not sure what to do now that my path was diluted by this turn. Uncovering the flashlight, I looked over my shoulder, down the path I had traveled. What I saw, I couldn’t understand. My flashlight played down the hall quite a far distance, but I could see no doorways, the corridor was just a solid hall, no openings, just smooth stone. I looked back before me, and rounded the corner.
I recoiled in terror at what was beyond the turn. I felt a scream growing inside, but all I could do was stare at the hideous being that I was confronted with. It had incredibly pale skin, stretched tight over its emaciated body. Its limbs were elongated disproportioned to the torso. It stood completely still, but I could tell that its muscles were tensed, ready to…what? Ready to attack? Ready to turn and flee, just as I was? I couldn’t tell; all I knew was it was ready. It stood completely straight, arms tight at its sides, offering no clues to its intent, and its face did nothing to aid in revealing its motives. Its face was what had me reeling in horror, tinged with disgust. Its face, like the rest of its body, was humanoid in shape, but totally wrong. In a flash, I recalled the crude scrawling in the room in which I had awoken. This….this monster was what I needed to run from. It had an incredibly simple face; it had no real features, aside from open eye sockets and a gaping pit of a mouth. The rest of its face was just skin stretching over its skull. A rancid gurgling sound was emitted from its lipless maw, the same sort of breathing I had heard before.
I turned, slowly, hardly moving, always keeping the monster in the corner of my eye. My hands began to shake uncontrollably; the hideous caricature of a face seeming to stare into my eyes, though it had no eyes with which to stare, just deep, dark pits. The flashlight fell from my hand. As it clattered on the floor, the thing twitched, the movement jerking through its entire body. It took a rattling breath, and then lunged at me.
With a short scream, I started out at a dead sprint back the way I had come, hearing its feet hitting the ground as it pursued me, a horrid fleshy pattering. My breath tore my throat ragged the farther I ran, stumbling in the dark. I heard the odd shriek from the hideous thing that was chasing me. A strange noise, almost a choked gasp.
After nearly falling, I pressed an arm up to the wall, sliding along it in an attempt to keep my balance in the blind run. My breathing grew louder, my shoes hit the ground harder, drowning out the sounds of my pursuer.
The wall I was leaning on ran out. Suddenly, an archway appeared, seemingly from nowhere. I lost my balance from the lack of the wall and fell. Panic rising, I struggled to my feet, feeling the monstrosity’s fingers brush my shoulder, pale fingers digging into my flesh. I tried to pry them off, tried to pull out of its grasp, but to no avail. In an act of desperation, I pulled my knife from my pocket, unfolded it and plunged it into the creature’s hand. We shared a scream as the knife cut through its hand into my flesh. I felt the blade lodge itself in my collarbone. My face twisted in a pained grimace, I tightened my grip on the hilt of the knife and felt the fingers of the monster loosen. In one quick movement, I pulled the knife out of my shoulder. I felt blood, mine and the monster’s, mix in my jacket and shirt. As the knife slid from the meat of its hand, it pulled away, howling.
Pain clenched my hand shut around the knife. I started running, a lopsided gait that sent shivers of pain through my shoulder, but I soon righted me as I continued to escape.
I continued down the offshoot I had fallen into, running blind once more, not even checking to see if the creature was after me once more. Escape, to keep moving, was my only care. I came upon a four-way intersection of halls and glanced down the side halls before I could I could stop myself. Down each way, I saw more of the monsters, many in each hall, running.
Panic blurred my vision, and I began to lag, slow down. I felt multiple hands grasp at my jacket, shrugged it off, and tried to ignore the pain in my shoulder. As the jacket slipped from my body, I felt the monster slow down, thrown off. I continued running, fatigue pulling at me, but I didn’t feel the grasping hands.
I came upon a door, hardly managing not to slam myself into it. I reached for the latch, and then dropped my arm, howling as it antagonized the injured shoulder. Hazarding a glance behind, as I felt for the latch with my other hand, I saw that the creatures had slowed their approach to a quiet walk, almost as if they were unaware of where I was. I felt the latch in my hand, pulled it free. I shoved the door open, still marking the shadowy progress of the monsters. The door swung open and as it did, an ear splitting screech broke the silence; the figures recoiled fearfully.
Before my eyes, the shadows seemed to gather into a darker shade, and I saw it…the masked figure, looking at me, waiting. I turned away after a moment and went through the doorway.
Original piece by Jak Branfield. First published on Palabras's official Website back in January 2014.