Whispers From the North
by Matthew T. Acheson
“Amidst my mental wanderings the tall dark-haired woman, who I assume was the high priestess of the cult, ascended to the top of the dais and knelt before the altar. She was no longer naked, but wore a black habit with silver trim that gleamed brightly in the candlelight.
“A small boy, dressed like the others, set the braziers ablaze and the room began to fill with the pungent aroma of incense. Then a pair of cultists approached the bulkhead and with screeching hinges the metal doors were thrown open.
“I watched in absolute terror as the priestess placed the animal sacrifices upon the altar and called out in a high-pitched voice to powers of which I knew nothing. The tongue she spoke was entirely alien to me, and many of the words were hissed with such malevolence and hatred that they stung me to the very core of my being.
“Lightheaded and unsteady I clutched the stone column, terrified that the slightest motion or noise on my part would set that gruesome pack of demons upon us. Her voice rose again and again, at times so loud that I thought the roof of the place would come crashing down.
“The ritual ended as abruptly as it had begun, and slowly the cultists filed out into the main corridor. I was overcome with a sense of elation at the renewed prospect of our escape until I noticed the figure of the boy approach to within a few paces of the column I was hiding behind.
‘The light from the candle clutched between his hands revealed an abnormally long face, with a thin nose, square chin and a set of unusually large eyes. I cannot tell you exactly what, but something about the child’s visage unsettled me greatly, for it occurred to me at that moment that he was not a mere boy but something else entirely; something vile and unspeakably evil.
“His presence sent my heart into arrhythmia and my whole body flushed with the hot and then cold of genuine terror. Whoever or whatever he was, I swear that he was able to sense my fear, indeed that he even fed off it, for before I turned to join the others our eyes locked for a brief moment and I swear the little fiend grinned at me. Such intelligence and malice in so young a face, what a terror to behold!
“After a time their footfalls in the corridor faded and we heard the iron double doors at the entry to the tomb slam shut. We cowered a long time behind those columns, all the while expecting the black forms of the cultists to come creeping back around the corner to put a gruesome end to our lives.
“Eventually we mustered the courage to light our lanterns once again and I peered around the wall and into the emptiness of the great hallway. Afraid that the silence was an insidious plot by the cultists to lure the three of us into a trap, he decided that Aidan and Khalide would remain in the altar room while I crept forward without a light source to verify the exit was indeed clear.
“With trembling hands I pushed the double doors open slightly; the storm had passed and the light of the waning moon fell down upon the forest in clear white beams. The way was apparently clear — there was no sign of the hideous cult.
“As I made my way back to tell the others, the vault shook with a series of noises that sent the blood racing through my veins. A soul-rending, inhuman shriek pierced the stale air, followed by what sounded like pottery shattering. Finally there was a metallic crash, which I immediately understood to be sound of the iron bulkhead slamming shut, and then all was silent. Deathly silent.
“In absolute darkness I crept down the cold stone passageway, deeper into the bowels of that evil place. Feeling my way along the rough stonework I made my way slowly down the corridor, all the while expecting to hear some sign of my companions, but there was none.
“After spending what seemed like an eternity in silence, my concern for my friends overcame my judgment and I called out to them. The oddly angled ceiling and many sub-corridors within the vault twisted and distorted my voice in ways that I do not care to understand. What returned to me was not an echo, but some horrid mockery of life that chilled the very blood.
“Their refusal or perhaps inability to respond set the fires of my imagination burning, and I daresay that whatever the reality of their situation might have been it paled in comparison to some of the nightmare fantasies that were flashing through my mind. Some terrible force was at work in that vault, of that I have no doubt. Every instinct in my body compelled me to flee from that place, and I would be lying if I said I did not seriously consider it.
“I spent a great deal of time steeling my nerves for action, but my legs would not move and my tongue refused to utter a word. Could the shattering sound I had heard have been that of the lanterns breaking? What possible scenario could account for the destruction of all three of our lanterns — for I distinctly heard three crashes. And why was the bulkhead shut so carelessly? Surely they realized that such a noise could bring the cultists back to investigate? But above all, why did they not answer to my calls?
“Curiosity alone was enough to work my muscles back into action, and with shuffling feet I continued to feel my way down the main hall. After many more minutes of creeping through the dank blackness of the tomb I reached a spot where the wall gave way to open space, and I realized that I was back in the great altar chamber.
“‘Khalide, Aidan — where are you?’ I called out to them softly, but there was no reply.
“I tried to picture the layout of the room in my mind as I made my way forward with my arms waving out into the emptiness. It is a terrifying feeling indeed to make your way through a place in total darkness; there is an ever-present fear that at any moment, some great object will come crashing into your face. But for me the danger did not come from overhead but rather from underfoot and down to the cold stone floor I went.
“As I lay in a heap upon the ground I groped about to determine what had tripped me. Nearby I discovered a large warm mass — a body! From the size of the belly I could tell that it was Khalide, and furthermore that he was not breathing.
“As my hands worked their way frantically up towards his mouth to check his airway for an obstruction, they became immersed in a warm, sticky substance of which I was eminently familiar. I felt around his face and head to determine the exact location and nature of the wound and when I came upon it I knew with certainty that my friend was dead. In the darkness he must have panicked and run headlong into one of the columns — for the front of his skull was mutilated beyond all hopes of survival.
“I buried my face in the chest of my dead friend and for a long time I wept. The sobs came long and hard, and I made no effort to stifle them. Let the evil shadows of this place hear me and strike me down too, for it mattered not, Khalide my mentor and lifelong friend was gone.
“At first I thought the strange noises around me were simply the sounds of my grief echoing off the walls. But as I began to regain my composure I realized that the noises persisted even when my own cries had ceased. So I cupped a hand to my ear and listened. By the gods, it was laughter, and whispers!
“I drew my saber from its scabbard and moved about the chamber methodically, slowly and silently stalking the source of those insidious whispers. Either my prey was numerous, or it was a single entity on the move because my search brought me all throughout the room, and eventually back into the great hallway.
“So calm and calculated were my footfalls that they were as the padded feet of a cat on the hunt. Finally, after a lengthy game of hide-and-seek I tracked the whispers to one of the sub-chambers that we had ransacked earlier. As I entered with my saber pointed into the blackness, there was a rustling sound to my right and before I could react there was a great swoosh of motion and I was knocked sprawling to the ground by an unseen assailant.
“My sword clattered to the stone somewhere beside me, and before I could reclaim it my attacker crashed down with its entire fury upon my chest — knocking the wind out of me and igniting great sparks in my vision. I had not yet even begun to recover when cold, strong hands wrapped around my throat viciously and began to wring the very life from me.
“I tried to dislodge the icy grip without avail, and my hands flailed about in a desperate attempt to find something, anything that could be used as a weapon. Finally, just as the starbursts in my eyes were climaxing in brilliant explosions of light, my fingers wrapped around the leather grip of a saber and I lashed out, striking my assailant in the temple with the steel hilt of my sword.
“After many moments of wheezing for breath I rolled over onto my attacker and prepared to deliver the killing blow. But as luck would have it my left hand brushed the braided locks of a bearded face and I realized at once my folly. Aidan had been the source of those terrible whispers and that insane laughter all along. Why had he not responded to my calls, and what was the reason for his attack? But as the shock of the incident began to wear off another revelation occurred: my friend was not moving!
“I groped around frantically in the dark, and when my fingers finally reached his carotid artery my own heart leapt with joy; his pulse was strong and steady. After inspecting the wound I had inflicted on his head, which had manifested itself as a sizeable lump, I reasoned that he was merely unconscious and that the injury was not life threatening. His body was oddly cold however, and I covered him with my own cloak and did my best to rub warmth back into his limbs.
“After several long, nearly breathless moments Aidan awoke, and although he refused to utter a single word, I was greatly relieved that he appeared to be none the worse for wear. In the process of aiding him to his feet I discovered the large sack of valuables we had pilfered. These we took up, along with my saber and went back out into the corridor with the intention of returning to the great gallery to collect Khalide’s body.
“Before we could re-enter the vaulted chamber, the musty air around us reverberated with a great metallic boom. But we did not linger in that evil tomb long enough to find out who or perhaps what had thrown open the bulkhead.
“Overcome by a wave of panic that can only be explained as being preternatural, we fled that place with the speed and terror of those pursued. How we managed to navigate the darkness of the corridor without falling over one another or crashing headlong into a wall I will never know.
“After our flight from the crypt we rode into Coventry to make contact with the fence that Aidan had arranged with Effie’s help, and unload the treasures we had stolen. But Aidan was so severely afflicted from his experiences in the crypt that he could do naught more than mutter to himself incoherently.
“Not knowing the identity of the fence myself I made a fateful decision, borne of desperation, which ended in folly; for the man to whom I tried to sell the goods turned out to be an undercover watch agent.
“Several days after our arrest, we were taken in shackles to a meeting between our fathers, the local authorities, the owner of the Abernathy estate and his wife. The man was not an Abernathy by blood but rather had taken possession of the estate by marrying the last surviving heiress.”
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew T. Acheson