Of the fall, and resulting concussion, it is no surprise that I remember very little, aught save the clatter of snapping branches, and the sudden, terrifying sensation of no longer having solid ground under my feet. What I have managed to retain came in the moments following our plunge into the subterranean grotto and has since occupied my thoughts with etched vividness.
My eyes opened to an unknown land, only possible in fevered dreams, peering out over a wispy, gracile sea to where pallets of pastel clouds rose from world’s end upon the shoulders of a homunculi horde and, supported on its sylph banks, wherein a lavender-clad populous bespoke the liberation from ancient books and beasts and mountains, was an interminable horizon replete with the mega-structures of the gods.
Those that walked its bejeweled shores spoke somniloquies that filled my third-eye with hieroglyphic communications of a nurturing, magnificent cosmos whose architecture spawns creatures of god along its lines of intense geometry and, at its intersections of a thousand-trillion light-years in breadth, the oracle of knowledge infused itself into the fibers of every being. It would be irrelevant to guess at how long my eyes bore witness to that dreamy creation, with its billowing coastlines and sacred ramparts of stone, for that world needed not such a quantity to justify existence. I succumbed to an elation so confounding that it defies any conventional method of description.
A vile cackling, dispossessed of both stability and restraint, extracted me from that awed place, pulling me backwards through the twisting, streaking, translucent tunnels that separate our world from the next, until I found myself, once again, in the dank fetor of the forest. While I was certain that my brain was going to shatter as a result of the dire shrieking, I was relieved that there was still something for my ears to focus on in that land of anesthetizing darkness, yet likewise could not be said about my vision.
“Werner, is that you?” I asked with an exhausted breath that upset the dust under my face, forcing me to choke as it followed the air into my lungs.
The grotesque cackling stopped, but not to reply. For only brief moments was it separated by an even more heinous and unsettling, hissing chant. “Ride si sapis, in extremis; ab initio, in extremis. Scio. Scio de mortuis, scio Deus! De mortuis, ego vidi vero nihil verius. Mons. Mons mortis tenet liber, custodit et bestia! Nos autem capti! Ride si sapis.”
Those painful moments, the way Werner’s voice pendulated between squealing and growling, laughing and crying, and the damnable way the whispers seem to amplify his words, seemed to commemorate some ghastly triumph or feast of which I was the centerpiece.
No amount of alcohol, or pills, or any variety of meditation has hitherto been able to erase away a single syllable of the noxious phrases that fill my nightmares and it wasn’t until many years later did I find the comfort of sharing this cerebral infection with my wife, who, off my obvious torment over the matter, translated them for me. She labeled the broken sentences as “a vagrant’s Italian”, but what they conveyed was not to be misunderstood: “Laugh if you know, in the moment of death; at the start and at the moment of death. I know. I know about death and I know God. Of death, I have seen that nothing is truer. The mountain. The mountain of death holds the book and keeps the beast. It has trapped us. Laugh if you know.”
I rolled onto my back, hands secured over my ears and praying for it all to stop. They did little to silence Werner, but had been successful at dulling my headache and blocking out the horrific whispers. Frantically, my eyes searched the area now above me for any sign of location, but saw only the ringed entrance to the cave and how it appeared a shade darker than the night sky it encircled. At my best guess, Eric and I were some twenty-five feet underground and the cave beyond us could have been of any size – the darkness making an initial guess at that useless – but it certainly did feel like the beast-of-many-names had led us right into it. My brain was still reeling from the maddening dream, but for a satisfying moment, the cave fell silent and I was able to send my thoughts to something more productive: survival and escape.
There was a disturbing lack of echo in the cave and despite having very little geological education to draw from, I knew that the phenomena was the result of one of two things. Either the underground tunnel we were in was an open-ended system, providing unobstructed passage for sound, or it had been entirely formed out of an ancient, iron-rich lava flow, turned to sound-absorbing basalt countless millennia prior. If the former was the case, then, theoretically, we could simply walk out the other side. If, in the unfortunate event that the latter was the case, then we had better learn to climb. Calling out to my partner again, hoping to use his voice as a guide, I stretched out my arm to decipher my surroundings.
An unexpected and sudden, icy chill struck my fingertips, forcing me to jerk back as if I was being electrocuted. After a deep breath, I was more prepared for my next inspection, where I discovered the wall to my left was not scarred and treacherous like its topside counterpart. I glided my entire hand over tumultuous veins of ropey, solidified lava and was transported to every churning, destructive event in the land’s history as it happened, simply by interacting with it all. The forest and the cave were all too beautiful to have such awful reputations and I was overwhelmed by sadness.
“Hiba-shi-monsuta” Werner said. His voice was deep and dry from the previous hysterics, and came from right over my shoulder, causing me to scurry off the ground with a start. “That’s what they call him here.”
“Eric!” I shouted, half-expecting an echo that would never arrive. “Thank god, you’re all right. You scared me.”
The old man didn’t respond, nor did it seem that he moved or even took in a breath. The engulfing silence suffocated me and my hand stretched out, of its own will, wanting the reassurance of but a simple touch. That the swallowing darkness and my mind were discernible from one another, in that stinking hole, I was having trouble reconciling as it all blended together in a wild, mental tempest. I clutched at my pockets, but could not find the flashlight. Whether or not a gruesome, slobbering fang, or a mass of blood-soaked talons were to be the last thing my hand detected, I could not tell, but still it reached forward. I screamed his name in my head, but what escaped was a pitiful whisper. “Werner?”
A light erupted – his flashlight – and I cried out, my vision painfully blinded by the effulgence, instead of the accustomed dark. From his shroud, behind the lighted veil, he let out a rising “Shhh…”
I massaged sight back into my throbbing eyes. “We’ve failed, professor. We have got to get out of here–”
“–Can you walk?” His voice like the many whispers that haunted our travel.
“Get that out of my face” I said, making a weak attempt to bat the light away. “I’m fine and if we can make it out by dawn, we’ll still have time to meet Juri to—“
“—Can you walk?!” he demanded in a sudden, growling tone void of humanity and his breath, a biting miasma of heat and rot, waylaid my already irritated senses.
“Yes, I can fucking walk!” I shouted.
He let out a deep, satisfied chuckle. “Then you better run.”
Time evaporated and I watched his grip release the light and as it twisted and turned, in free-fall, I only caught a glimpse of his face, wherein the dreadful sight corrupted my beliefs on reality and sent me fleeing into the depths of the cave, to an unknown end that I was certain could not be any worse that abomination.
The skin of his face was no longer that of a studied man, rugose from years of having it planted in books or in the dirt. Instead, it was an opaque, fleshy pall under which his features flinched and writhed like an infant, days before birth, moving within its mother’s stomach. A rhythmic pulsating area of this new skin rose and dropped as his mouth released a litany of dinning laughter and vile anathemas. His tureen of hair was absent and, in its place, were countless rows of those parallel, bony spikes, each one raw and pink with nerved freshness. In that instant, I knew that place to be hell and I screamed an endless cortege of prayers, pleading with the gods to raze it to oblivion, with me inside so that I never had to suffer another waking recollection of that wickedness.
My mind raced as my feet did, down the slick but often disrupted surface of the dark tunnel, mixing with the deprecating thoughts of my foolishness, my greed, my lack of heeding the lore about what nightmares such an expedition could conjure; but most of all, I thought about my wife. I felt that I couldn’t apologize to her enough, both mentally and verbally, as I ran deeper into the cave and toward what could only be my inescapable doom. My screaming apologies were all that was keeping Werner’s – or that Thing’s – horrific laughter at bay.
I ran. I ran until I no longer was suffering the racket of that ghastly, faceless, cackling deformation of my partner, and then I ran some more.
The sulphur of the match stung my nose, but its orange flame provided a modicum of comfort I had not felt since entering that accursed forest. With care not to extinguish the flame, I raised it overhead, but it only displayed a few feet in every direction, but I collected no more bearings on my location than I had while running blind. The flame flickered, ever so slightly, and I deduced that a source of flowing air was nearby, yet if that source was large enough to provide escape, I was uncertain. My panicked flee had brought me into large chamber with no exit other than the way I had just come and I knew that it would only be a matter of time before Werner, or what had become of him, caught up to me, inevitably handing down some manner of judgment I cared not imagine. Regardless, whether I wanted to ever see him again or not, I needed the old man. Sticking to the walls, I edged around the chamber, praying to stumble upon a suitable exit. I did my best to block out the tapestry of vague whispers that filled the earthen bowels, sat against the wall opposite the entrance, lit another match, and then withdrew Clementine’s note from my pocket.
The words swam inside me, from no other voice but hers, and I envisioned the way her hands must have teased the pen as she wrote it.
“Be your hands not the first to lay upon it
The second fears not the beasts that dwells
Let this be your eyes in the dark; warm blood in the cold.
Be your hands not the first, but be they the last
And let them be your voyage home”
With one hand, I laid the opened letter on the ground while I gathered a fist of dirt with the other. Determined not to suffer anymore interruptions, I showered the paper and as the first few particles of earth landed on its face, the sheet began to vibrate. Its edges curled and the length of the paper undulated, collecting the dirt into a pile at its center. I struck another match and marveled at how the dirt formed into a single line, with a pointed tip at one end, as if by invisible hands. A pulse of electricity radiated from the page, returning to coalesce around the edge of the dirt-arrow that was presently pointing in the direction of the entrance to the chamber with a slight arc in the line, to the left. The last thing I wanted to do was return course back toward Werner, before it was time, but I had faith in Mercy’s directions.
An array of protesting whispers attempted to dissuade my progress as I followed the magical compass to the entrance of another corridor that was understandably missed in during my terrified escape. Upon turning the corner, the disembodied chorus ceased and was replaced with a nearby dripping sound. After a dozen careful steps, I found myself standing in the center of another void, not dissimilar to the last, but with one marked difference: the far ground stopped about ten feet short of the wall, ending at a cliff of indeterminable heights. Water collected itself on the ceiling, high above the trench, bulging into plump drops before falling, for many seconds, into a body of water below. A rough estimation of their descent put the water’s surface around one-hundred-fifty feet below. I looked back to my navigation only to see the lit dirt-needle scatter from the page and I was plunged into darkness.
Rendered sightless, yet again, my heightened sense of smell detected the faintest waft of fresh air, doubtless coming from the flowing water at the bottom of the cliff. I silently begged Mercy’s letter to reveal more information to me, but like many prayers, they went unanswered. That I was dissolving into a pit of metal decrepitude, vulnerable and exposed, leagues beneath the great Man’s footprint, my crushing anxiety was assuring me. Countless tons of earth and rock and unstoppable cycles of degeneracy bore down on me. Again, I prayed, pleaded, and begged for guidance from any intelligence in the heavens, or, at least, this side of hell; yet it was the latter that replied.
“Where’s… the book… Mr. Hurston?” Werner hissed from the nihility at my back, but what glaciated my soul was the piercing screech of his machete against the stone walls. I turned to the direction of his voice.
“Turn your light on” I answered. “I can’t see anything.”
“You don’t want that” he cackled. His feet dragged along the ground toward me and I stayed silent as I tried to move out of his apparent direction. “Now, Mr. Hurston – the book.”
“I don’t have it.”
“No. No. Of course not, but you have me, don’t you? And that’s all you need” he said. I winced at the image my mind conjured of his grotesquely fetal face. “You have me” he repeated.
“What are you talking about, Eric?” I asked, sidestepping my way near the edge of the cliff.
“Be your hands not the first to lay upon it” he recited. “The second fears not the beasts that dwells.”
Instinctively, I clutched at the note and I could hear his pace quickening. “Eric, I don’t understand—“
“–You’ve got to be more careful what you do with intimate correspondences when you’re drunk, Edward. The promise you made to your wife told me just enough of your intentions to put me on guard. You didn’t even stir when I pulled her letter from your pocket, nor did you when I returned it. You knew that I wouldn’t be able to resist the book. You knew that I would be the first to touch it and that’s what you wanted. I was never a hero to you. I was a passioned fool who would need little convincing and you knew that. I was to be your sacrifice, isn’t that right? But to whom, I wonder, or to what? That beast, the ghosts, the mountain? Hardly.”
I had to move faster to keep a constant distance between us. “Listen, Eric. It’s not like that. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can get out of here—“
He bellowed an aggressive war-cry, but was stunted by the deafening CLACK-CLACK-CLACK of those familiar, stumpy teeth.
Werner’s flashlight burst forth a column of white to reveal the beast – the Hiba-Shi-Monsuta – hunched over at the entrance to the chamber. Its lizard eyes now matched its slick, wet teeth in color and their pupils contracted to a vertical slit when exposed to the light. Territorial fury spewed from its nostrils in heaving snorts. With each snot-filled grunt, the beast punched the ground in a clear display of aggression and each one felt like a heart attack. I sunk deeper into the unbreached darkness.
The machete fell from Werner’s hand with a tinny clang and he took one step toward the thing. His voice, still gruff and dehydrated, waivered in apparent reverence and I’m certain that if he had not been behind the light, I would have seen tears streaming down whichever face he was wearing. “The… the book” he whispered.
My eyes followed the focused beam of light to the beast’s folded arm wherein the Jade Hymnal was secured. Streaks of milky-green intertwined with pale blues throughout weighty covers that held hundreds, if not thousands of pages between them. There was no aura of light surrounding the book, nor did it exude any variety of magic from within; nonetheless, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and my eyes welled with tears at the mere sight of it. It was a humble tome, and the way it sat in stark opposition to the demonic, otherworldly monstrosity in its charge, made it almost amusing. Werner continued to approach the beast.
“No. Stop!” I ordered in a jolting whisper. “Eric. Stop!”
Monsuta followed Eric’s apparent gaze to the book, then clacked his teeth two more times. It didn’t back away, nor change its posture at all, as the old man made his way to him. From the shadows, behind the light, Eric reached his crooked, pale hand toward the book. His trembling fingertips mere inches from the manifest of lore and legend and his desire. The beast looked again from the man to the book and released a soft grunt.
I slid into a crawling position and made a direct route to the machete and although I couldn’t see Eric’s humble, devoted grin, I heard it in his words.
“Magnificent” he spoke in a cracking mutter. The beast grunted again, steadfast against the puny man’s intrusion, but almost welcoming. I heard a sapped moan, too overwhelmed by emotion to be more than a simple shudder, as Werner’s fingertips glided over an exposed corner of hymnal.
Monsuta’s closed fist plunged precipitously into Eric’s face, launching the man backwards, tumbling and rolling toward the cliff’s edge. The flashlight flew from his hand, smacked against the wall and came to rest just a few strides from me. The bolted attack caused me to shriek something unintelligible and I dove for the flashlight at the same the moment that the beast galloped past me, toward Eric. I swung the light on them.
Gripping the edge of bluff, Eric’s fingers and hands were pure white as his muscles strained for a reasonable hold. Monsuta skidded to a stop in front of him, then in a few side-to-side motions, he seemed to be inspecting the man’s precarious situation. Following this was a succession of quieter clacks.
“Edward, help me!” Werner forced out as he managed to pull himself up just far enough to see back into the chamber. His face had reverted to the gentler, more familiar countenance I had known for decades. “Please, Edward. Help me.”
A throaty rumble grew inside Monsuta as he raised the hymnal high over his head and with great menace, it clacked those horrendous teeth together over and over. My eyes darted from Eric to the beast, then from the beast to Eric’s exposed skull. Never before had I witnessed the damning affect fear has on a man and I was awash with sadness and pity for him. The hymnal, at the apex of its route, was ready; Monsuta was prepared to strike. My head rang with a grotesque whirlpool of pleas and clacks and my own voice screaming “No!”
I leapt, swinging the machete wildly through the air toward bestial predator, but absent of a specific target. At first, the weathered blade struck the beast’s wrist with bluntness, then, driven by my fear and true desire to save my partner, the hand was severed. The machete stopped only when it became lodged in Monsuta’s other wrist. My senses were so flushed with adrenaline that what I registered next was not any sort of pained cry from the beast, but the hymnal dropping from its detached hand and falling into the chasm below Eric’s dangling feet. I did not think and my actions did not feel solely my own; it was of otherworldly employ that I dove after it.
For the lifespan of galaxies, I fell through the darkness, the book desperately beyond the reach of my fingertips. There was no end to our rapid decent, soaring and tumbling around each other in an airless, stygian void that belonged to no realm. The jade covers flapped as it fell and the ancient pages shuffled from within their bonds. I withdrew Mercy’s letter from my pocket and made another diving lunge for the thing.
“They’re saying it might rain today” Clementine remarked from over the rim of her shallow coffee mug. Flipping from one page of the Ironton Daily Caller to the next, she added, “Maybe tomorrow, too.”
I chuckled at the effulgence of the mid-morning sun as it lit up the entire first floor of our home in argument to that prediction. After topping off my own coffee, I drew a chair up next to her.
“Is that what they’re saying?” I asked, then combed a pale, orange lock of hair behind her ear, followed by a soft kiss on her temple. When Mercy and I first met, her long ringlets were an enticing field of strawberry, but, as is wont to happen throughout the years, the color faded, leaving few remnants of her youth behind.
“I hope so” she replied, leaning into my kiss. Hers eyes moved out the window, to the large produce field behind our home; a field of fruits and vegetables she had spent years cultivating. “The garden needs it.”
“I swear, you love that garden more than you love me” I joked.
“Oh, Edward” she said with feigned seriousness, trying to contain a giggle. “Don’t make me choose.”
I went in for a decisive kiss when there came a sharp knock on the front door. Mercy’s smile vanished and her eyes looked deep into mine before returning to the paper.
“Ennis” I said, greeting the sheriff on my front stoop. “Is everything okay?”
The balding, veteran officer folded his hands over his large belly as if to stop the buttons from flying off. “Mornin’, Ed” he replied, then looked into house. “Mornin’, Clem.”
Ennis Grady and I had been close friends ever since our teen years and I never knew him to buy into melodrama, but it was nonetheless concerning for him to show up unannounced. His reticent, stony gaze showed no sign of rest. He cleared his throat before speaking again and motioned his head toward my front yard. “A word, Ed?”
I gave a quick glance to my wife, but she remained silent. “Yeah. Yeah. Sure, Ennis.” I pulled the door closed behind us and followed him down the long walkway to where his cruiser was parked.
“What brings you out here this early?” I asked.
He scanned our surroundings, making mental deductions of the dense forest that bordered our property and Mercy’s bountiful, two-acre garden. “What do you know of the wildlife out here, Ed?”
I was taken aback by his innocuous question. “Well, what’s there to know? Squirrels. Rabbits. Some deer. They love the garden, ya know?”
“You haven’t seen anything… strange, have ya?” he asked, almost embarrassed by the notion.
“Strange?” I repeated. “Strange how? Ennis, what’s going on?”
He removed his hat and returned his stare to the forest. “Charlie’s gone missin’, Ed.”
A heat formed in my gut and the trunk of cruiser provided support for my buckling legs. “Whitman? Charlie Whitman?” Ennis’ double-chin shook when he nodded.
“Don’t know yet.”
“Well, why does that bring you up here, Sheriff?” I asked, trying hard to mask my agitated nerves.
“He was out last Sunday, huntin’, not far from here” he replied, then pointed in a few, vague directions. “His tree stand ain’t but half-mile out.”
“Last time I saw Charlie” I started, trying to divert Ennis’ train of thought, “he was face-down in his own vomit, outside Rider’s.”
“Hell, Ed, that was… that was over a year ago” he said. “Viola left him after that and he’s been sober ever since. Besides, just the other day, Jack Dillon told me he saw some ‘weird bear-thing’ around here.”
I forced a laugh. “Hickey Jack? Oh, man. He’s not bent on that Ozark Howler stuff again, is he?”
“Not this time” Ennis replied and I watched his skin drop many shades of pale. “He said this one was bigger, meaner. Said it came after him, like it was… protectin’ something.”
“Come on, Ennis. You can’t seriously tell me that you believe—“
“—Just keep an eye out, all right, for Charlie and… otherwise and let me know if you see anything?” Ennis left an empty moment for me to respond, but I only stared at my old friend, trying to decipher the mind behind those tired eyes. I just watched him for a long time until he replaced his hat, then waddled to the driver’s side of the cruiser.
A thousand-million thoughts threatened to crack my skull. Spectral harbingers, shadowed whispers, caves of endless dark, the mountain of death and lore all diseased my mind and as the clacking of those hideous teeth reverberated between my ears, a more foreboding presence stung at my back. I tried to maintain civility as Sheriff Grady’s cruiser disappeared down the hill in a cloud of dust, but I could feel Mercy’s eyes bearing down on me and I turned back to the house to see her standing in the front window. She had been watching our entire conversation. I hoped that she was far too far away to hear anything, but by then, I was unaware exactly how widespread her abilities had become.
Her unblinking, disappointed eyes held mine for such a length of time that I knew whatever I had said to Sheriff Grady might have been too much for her liking. She took another sip from her coffee, closed the curtains, and then disappeared into the house.