Whispers From the North
by Matthew T. Acheson
An old traveler regales his company with tales of adventure, but when he is asked for a love story his air turns very somber indeed.
“Much to our surprise, the rusted padlock on the gate was defeated easily enough. A few strokes from hammer to chisel and the rusted mechanism gave way. The double doorway screeched open with the squeal of iron hinges, revealing a set of damp stone steps that led down into the earth.
“‘Mr. Gillian, I beg you, don’t do this,” Khalide pleaded. ‘There is evil here, can’t you feel it?’
“Part of me did sense that something wasn’t right, but sometimes love speaks louder than caution, or wisdom, or even self-preservation, and down into the earth we went. We left Khalide behind with a lantern to stand watch at the entrance, his low hoarse calls of warning and disaster echoing strangely off the walls as we descended.
“Upon entering the sepulchre I was immediately overcome by a musty foetid smell — the damp and decay of ages. After a short descent of perhaps fifteen or twenty steps we reached a stone landing which transformed into a wide corridor that continued on as far as our lantern light allowed us to see. The darkness ahead felt wrong somehow; it was black as ink and it seemed to have a fog-like consistency which played strange tricks on the imagination.
“We stood there, perfectly still, listening and watching as our flickering lights licked at the darkness. A series of cold chills coursed spasmodically throughout my body, and for the first time in my life I knew what it was to feel genuine terror. The sense that we were trespassing in a den where mere men were not welcome was overwhelming. There was something incalculably dark and loathsome about that place.
“Aidan spoke the thoughts that I had been grappling with but had been unable to formulate into words. ‘If it is true, as Khalide says, that there are places in this world where men were not meant to tread, then this tomb is certainly among them.’
“For a long time we stood there, neither of us willing or able to move forward into the black. Had I been alone at that moment I believe I would have fled screaming from that place and never looked back — my love for Nikkara be damned. But there is a certain strength of mind that comes from knowing that you are not alone, and our bond of friendship provided courage where otherwise there would have been none. When we did finally advance it was shoulder to shoulder; the notion of a front and rear guard was briefly discussed in whispers, but immediately discarded.
“We moved slowly down the passageway, all sense of time and distance completely lost to us. When the staircase finally passed out of our vision and was enveloped by the darkness, it was like a hammer blow to my psyche. Darkness before, darkness behind and only cold stone beneath — it was positively maddening.
“I remember being struck at that moment by a fierce sense of panic that we might forget which way was which, and when the catastrophe that we both felt building on the fringes finally struck we should become confused and lost in that evil place. The fear bubbled forth out of my mind and formulated into action; I drew the saber from my belt and pointed it straight into the heart of darkness before us. In a strange way this simple action bolstered my faltering nerves and for the first time since entering the crypt I began to feel a sense of control. The sword was no longer a weapon in the physical sense; it became a placebo that helped to shield me from the atmosphere of that dark vault.
“We advanced further and eventually came upon a spot where the passageway broke off into smaller corridors to the left and right. Aidan lit one of the makeshift torches we had fashioned earlier that afternoon and tossed it down the corridor. The torch struck the stone floor about thirty feet ahead of us with a sharp crack that echoed weirdly throughout the crypt.
“For a moment my heart seemed to skip a beat and I was seized with the strange notion that such a noise was dangerous, because it might awaken whatever malevolent forces haunted the place and alert them to our presence. After a few moments the flame of the torch recovered and lit the hallway before us.
“The main passageway continued on its straight course into the bedrock of the hill for as far as we could see. At least a dozen smaller side passages broke off at regular intervals all along the corridor. Closer inspection revealed that above each passage hung a finely wrought bronze placard with a man’s name inscribed upon it. Exploration of the nearest passage revealed an empty ten- by fifteen-foot chamber constructed with extreme precision using perfectly dressed stone blocks. The next four passages and chambers were identical and similarly empty.
“It was not until we reached the rightmost chamber of the third set of corridors that we struck gold — figuratively and literally. In the center of that chamber was a large stone sarcophagus, with smaller caskets lining the walls on either side of it. An examination of the inscriptions revealed that the central coffin was that of the family patriarch of this particular generation of Abernathys, with his wife and children along with his siblings and their families entombed in the smaller coffins along the walls.
“We set one of the lanterns down at the entrance to the chamber so that we would be able to see if anyone or anything approached. I’m sure it must seem like a silly precaution to have taken — but there was something dreadful about the atmosphere in that place that seemed to cloud the borderlands in my mind between superstition and reality.
“It took the strength of both of us to slide the stone lid off the central coffin, and we took great care to set it upon the floor gently. We both knew fully well that the sound of a coffin lid crashing to the ground would have been enough to pierce the thin veil of courage we had formed around ourselves, and neither of us was eager to face the total chaos that would undoubtedly ensue if our nerves were finally to break.
“Inside was the desiccated corpse of a man adorned with many articles of wealth. Gem-studded rings, a gold and diamond necklace, and a silver dagger with an emerald studded hilt; these we removed from the body with care and stuffed them into a sack we had brought for just that purpose.
“Many of the other coffins contained similar riches which we pilfered as well. This is how it went for a long time — systemically moving from chamber to chamber, filling our sacks with valuables and carefully replacing the lids to the coffins once they had been emptied.
“Shortly after the seventh set of corridors the main passageway opened up into a great chamber whose length and width was not immediately discernible. Slowly, with our lanterns held aloft we made a cautious tour of the place, revealing a square shape with walls of roughly fifty feet per side. Great stone columns rose up fifteen feet or more to the vaulted ceiling, which seemed to come alive with the flickering of our lanterns.
“In the center of the room was a great raised platform with ornate steps leading up to it on three sides. Atop this dais stood a large marble altar flanked on two sides by iron censers that hung down from chains bolted to the ceiling.
“As we approached the platform I was able to discern a series of bas-reliefs carved into the rock. The images contained therein alternated between the immodest and the absolutely fiendish, and I will not inflict upon you the descriptions of what I saw. What I will say is that those carvings proved to me beyond the shadow of doubt that the Abernathys were of a wholly sinister and depraved lineage.
“Set into the wall directly before the altar was a stone bulkhead with a sloped set of iron doors. Wishing to increase our distance from the disturbing imagery on that unholy shrine we approached the bulkhead, and for a reason unknown to me, even today, I pressed my ear against the cold metal of the door and listened. What I was expecting to hear in that abandoned place in the middle of the night I cannot rightly say, but for a long time I listened.
“‘This place troubles me. Let us leave now and be done with this business,’ Aidan whispered, breaking the silence. After a brief discussion and a great exertion of will on my part, Aidan finally nodded in approbation and agreed that since we had come this far, we might as well pick the place clean.
“The bulkhead door was very heavy but with a strong heave it swung up and open; the hinges creaking with an unearthly cry that sent shudders up my spine. We were immediately assaulted by a blast of stale air that fumed up from the pit; it smelt dank and evil.
“Aidan held his lantern forth, revealing a series of stairs roughly hewn into the bedrock that extended down into total darkness. The steps were very narrow and uneven, and were stained with black patches of gangrenous decay. We stared down into the hole for some time, and always, at the edge of our light, shadows danced in the gloom. A sense of ill foreboding seemed to emanate up from that pit, and it struck the breath from our bodies like a wall of ice.
“We briefly contemplated throwing a torch down to give a view of the landing below, but even that simple act was anathema to our fragile minds. As absurd as it may sound, we were genuinely terrified of making any sounds above that of a whisper. It was as if we were tip-toeing through a den of unseen predators, and our only chance of survival was to avoid their becoming aware of our presence in their domain. All notions of descending down into that black nightmare melted away, and with an urgency that I do not care to recall, we closed the bulkhead doors.
“At that moment there was a scuffling sound behind us and we both turned with lightning speed and vicious intent, nearly eviscerating Khalide with our blades in the process. He was clearly perturbed and out of breath, and his words came out in short gasps.
“’Mr. Gillian... outside... something horrible... you must come... quickly,’ he panted desperately, his sun-kissed face looking pale in the lantern light.
“When we arrived at the entrance to the crypt, Khalide motioned with a trembling hand towards the ancient copse of oaks we had noted earlier. At first I saw only darkness, but after a time my eyes adjusted to the black and I was able to discern pinpricks of light through the underbrush. It was not long before I came to the terrifying realization that shadowy figures were moving about within the grove.
“For what seemed like hours, but in reality could not have been longer than minutes, we huddled there at the entrance, watching in horror as the figures performed a ritual of some sort. Their chanting, which began as soft whispers carried upon a summer wind, gradually rose to a terrible crescendo of dread that pierced my soul like a dagger of ice.
“Then a great fire rose up in the center of the glade, and the images of what we saw there are forever burned into my mind. Kneeling around the base of the pool were a dozen or more figures, all wearing black robes. Standing naked in the water was a tall, dark-haired woman; her lithe, muscular form glittered in the firelight.
“She paced slowly around the great stone in the center of the pool, holding a long curved dagger in one hand and a small live animal by the scruff of its neck in the other. She placed the terrified creature upon the stone with ceremonial precision and then with a great slashing motion, ended its poor life. And as the beast lie there with its lifeblood pouring out upon the rock the chanting rose to an entirely new level of devilry.
“The ritual continued on in much the same way for a long time, and several more helpless creatures lost their lives upon that rock. While I watched in a strange combination of fascination and horror, Khalide wept openly and Aidan busied himself with soaking the hinges of the rusty double doors with oil from our lanterns. Whether it was a premonition or he had simply marshaled all of the facts and deduced the cult’s next course of action I do not know.
“Whatever the inspiration, his actions proved immediately useful because once the ritual was over the cultists began to make their way in our direction! With speed and great purpose we closed the doors to the crypt — thanks to the powers that be for the silence of those hinges — and fled back down into the tomb of the Abernathys.
“As we fled down the main corridor we conducted a brief conversation in harsh whispers as to the best hiding place. Urgency proved to be the deciding factor however, as the sounds of booted feet making their way down the stairs into the vault threw us into action. We fled into the vast altar chamber and each of us took a place behind one of the great stone columns and extinguished our lanterns.
“Many moments later the procession of cultists arrived. Slowly and solemnly a dozen figures draped in black hooded robes and carrying candles spread out evenly throughout the chamber in a circular pattern around the central dais; their eerie chanting echoing weirdly throughout the chamber.
“In the flickering candlelight I caught a glimpse of Aidan clenching a dagger between his teeth and hefting a small hatchet in his right hand. I could see in his eyes the expression of a desperate man who was crudely calculating our chances of surviving the melee that would undoubtedly ensue were our presence discovered. There was a certain wild passion in his eyes that I had never seen before, and I knew that if it came to violence, he would cut his way savagely into any wall of flesh that stood between him and the exit.”
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew T. Acheson