Aphelion Issue 236, Volume 23
February 2019
 
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Whispers From The North

by Matthew Acheson



Sabryna watched as the old traveler reclined comfortably in an oak rocking chair by the fireplace and took one final draw from his clay pipe before setting it down on the table beside him. After a dramatic pause he leaned forward, and with a wry smile and a youthful gleam in his eyes, he put the finishing stroke on the latest of his many tales.

"In the desert kingdoms they say to keep your friends close and your purse full. I don't recall the last time I was blessed with a heavy purse, but for the price of eight gold sovereigns I improved my lot from being a foreigner under arrest for trespassing in sacred ruins, to an honored guest who rode with a guide and military escort." The old man raised his copper mug and laughed. "That, my friends, is the south."

The air around Sabryna resounded with the clinking of mugs and the calls of friends and well-wishers as they bought another round and toasted to the health of the mysterious old bard.

The atmosphere in John Earthy's tavern on that warm summer night was charged with excitement and anticipation, and this, Sabryna knew, was due entirely to the presence of the nameless storyteller. It was not unusual for traveling bards or peddlers to overnight in Arlesbury, but she had never met one so refined and worldly, yet seemingly carefree and full of life as he. There was a charm about him that excited the imagination and captivated the spirit.

The storyteller's face was weather worn and mottled with the marks of age, yet his features were finely chiseled and she thought he must have been very handsome in his younger days. His wavy hair was silver with dark streaks, as was his well kept beard, but it was his eyes that stole her breath away. Buried within their depths was an inner flame of youth and vitality that was quite out of place with the rest of him.

In between his tales the wanderer played a flute, while the folk filled their pipes and their mugs, and busied themselves with dancing, talking and merrymaking. Amidst all the revelry and excitement Sabryna's heart began to race. She looked across the table at her lover William and the magic of that moment carried her away.

With uncharacteristic fervor she called aloud to the old storyteller. "Sir, you have fascinated us with your accounts of exotic peoples, and wondered us with your tales of far away places, now I beg you to tell us a story about love."

Silence reigned in the common room, and all eyes turned to the old wanderer by the fireplace. His face had transformed into a visage of grimness and brooding, and his eyes, which before had shined almost unnaturally with life, were now dull and turned inwards. He retreated back into the depths of his chair by the fireplace, and sat there in silence until the tavern had emptied of all but a handful of patrons.

It was evident to Sabryna from his dejected countenance and the tremors in his hands that he was reliving painful memories, and she felt wracked with guilt for bringing about his distress. When her friends finally rose to leave she took a deep breath and found the courage to approach him.

"If I caused you any pain, I am terribly sorry." she said.

"That's very kind of you to say my dear, but please think nothing of it." The wayfarer toyed with a worn silver ring on his left hand. "As it happens, I do have a story to tell you, although I must warn you that it's probably not the sort of love story you were hoping to hear."

Sabryna felt the dull thudding of blood in her ears and a chill of excitement ran through her. "If it isn't too much trouble, then I would love to hear it."

"Not at all my dear, in fact I believe it would do me some good," he said. "It's something I haven't spoken of in a very long time."

Sabryna and her friends sat on the nearest padded bench they could find, and after what seemed like an eternity of thoughtful silence the old man began his tale.

"I was born in a cozy little wooded village far to the north called Mills Creek, and it was there that I spent the first decades of my life. Riddled with streams and ponds, forests, fields and rolling hills, it is not unlike your own Arlesbury except perhaps a bit smaller and more remote. My family had lived there for generations. My father, like his father before him, was a prominent businessman and his influence extended a hundred miles in any direction.

"When I came of age I was put in charge of his largest store and over the years he made it clear to me in his own fashion, without having to speak the words aloud, that he expected me to take up the mantle of the family business when he retired. Naturally he was displeased when at the age of twenty six I moved to the coastal city of Dunthorpe to attend the university. His assistance extended to tuition and the most minimal of housing expenses only, so my years at school were spent in near poverty. But they were the happiest days of my life.

"I met Nikkara in my third year as a medical student. I will never forget the first day I laid eyes upon her; the memory of it is branded into my mind as if by iron and flame. Her father owned and operated a small tobacco shop out of a pavilion a few blocks down the street from my boarding house. I had gone there with the intention of buying a new clay pipe, as the stem of my own had broken beyond repair, but as soon as I saw her I was completely dumbstruck. When she approached and inquired if I needed assistance, I was unable to utter a single word. Truth be told, her presence had so befuddled my mind that I completely lost all sense of purpose as to why I had entered the shop in the first place! After several long, awkward moments I managed to produce some excuse or other and stumbled out of the shop red faced and in a state of semi consciousness. Such was the measure of her beauty.

"Her frame was delicate, yet whispered of a strength of spirit that even the most gifted sculptor could not hope to capture. Her face was as smooth and flawless as polished marble and her hair fell upon it in golden rays of sunshine. Her lips were like autumn fire, and her eyes of the purest and deepest blue. It was the kindness and sincerity of those eyes, and the music of her voice that instantly enthralled me.

"As I'm sure you can imagine, I made many more visits to that little tobacco shop in the following weeks, and what I learned of her character during those early moments of our courtship forever sealed my heart to all other women in this world. She was the funniest, kindest, most giving and sincere person that I had ever met. What she saw in me was a mystery that I frequently pondered, but it is sufficient to say that by the end of my third year at school we had fallen hopelessly in love.

"We took frequent walks together amidst the pine forests and stone promenades that litter Dunthorpe's coast. Some days we would sit out upon the rocks, watching the tide ebb and flow as we fantasized about the details of our future lives together. After graduation I would setup my own practice in Mills Creek where we would be married, have children, and live out our days together in happiness.

"The only obstacle to our bliss was the decay of her father's financial situation. By the time summer break came around at the end of my third year it was clear that the collapse of his business was eminent and that the betrothal gift for Nikkara's marriage was the only thing that could stave off ruin. Being the beautiful and charming young woman that she was, she had received numerous marriage proposals from wealthy suitors all throughout the region. Her father was a kindhearted widower, and he did not wish to see his only child live out her days with a man she did not love. But knowing Nikkara's character as I did, I knew that if she had to marry a wealthy man to keep her father from becoming a beggar on the street then she would do so without hesitation. Before going away that summer her father and I agreed upon a betrothal gift that was just large enough to right his business affairs, and I took my leave with the promise that I would return within a month with the entire sum.

"My own father was a hard man, but I had every expectation that once he understood the full depths of my caring he would support the engagement and provide for the entire betrothal gift as is customary amongst my people. But my decision to abandon the family business in favor of a career as a practitioner of the medical arts had embittered him and he refused to support the union. Ever the haughty aristocrat concerned with the reputation of his family, he insisted that I marry a woman of my own station and not 'some common wench begotten of a pauper.' I got down on my knees and begged him to change his mind or at the very least to loan me the sum, which I would repay once my practice was off the ground, but he would not be swayed. As far as my father was concerned there would be no marriage.

"For days I laid about my room in a dreadful state of torment, unable to eat or sleep. Donnelly, the head servant of my father's estate grew concerned and made repeated inquiries as to the cause of my distress. I call him Donnelly, but that was not his real name, for it is our custom in the north to give domestic names to servants that hail from foreign lands. His true name was Khalide Dhras, and he was born in the great desert kingdom of Selucaih. Like so many other foreign servants, he had been a free man in his own land but was captured and enslaved during some war or another and brought north to be sold on the slave market. After ten years of loyal service my father had granted him his freedom, a small salary, and allowed him to marry.

"From the day of my birth to the day I left for the university, he had been my guardian and mentor. The bond between us extended far beyond the master-servant relationship, and even well beyond that of mere friendship. When I told him of my plight he immediately offered his entire life savings to put towards the betrothal price, but even that would not have been nearly enough.

"While Khalide was my shoulder to cry on, my old childhood friend Aidan MacNeil was the type of man who could get things done. He was a great red-giant of a man, with a naturally positive outlook on things and a genuine lust for life. When I approached him with my problem he swore that he would find some means to a solution. Working as the foreman of his father's sawmill, he was a man of some moderate means, but most of his earnings over the years had been squandered on wine and women. Although once an infamous womanizer, he had recently become engaged to a fire-haired barmaid named Effie whom he had impregnated in the spring.

"'She's got the body of a succubus and a mind twice as dirty,' he had told me over a cup of mead. But there were subtle hints in his mannerisms that told me that his feelings for her ran far deeper than he was comfortable letting on. His chief concern was to save up enough to move out of his father's house and buy his own so that he could start a proper life with her after the child was born. When he finally came to me with a solution to my problem, I was not surprised to learn that it was one of mutual benefit to us both.

"At first I thought it strange when he insisted that we discuss the matter at Keller's, the pub where his fiancé worked, and even stranger when he motioned for her to join us at the table just when the discussion turned to my present situation. Then I learned that the proposed solution was not Aidan's at all, but Effie's. She explained to me that she had grown up in a small village to the northwest called Coventry where there was a certain upper class family of ill repute whose roots in that community extended back several centuries.

"The surname of the family was Abernathy, and their ancestral home was an ancient stone manor of enormous size, perched atop a densely forested hill several miles outside of town. According to Effie it had not been occupied for generations. Located at the base of the hill was the entrance to the family crypt where it was said that every member of the Abernathy clan from the very founding of that household all the way up to the present day was interred. According to local rumor the tomb was so vast that it ran like a honeycomb throughout the underbelly of the great hill. When I inquired as to how the layout of a sealed crypt had become generally known among the peasantry she merely waved my question off as casually as one would decline a second helping of potatoes.

"It was in nigh but a whisper that she related the remainder of the story to us. 'My grandfather had worked as groundskeeper for the last of the Abernathy line to live in that accursed mansion before it was abandoned,' she had hissed across the table. 'And he told my brothers and me that they was of a foreign stock with peculiar beliefs, and that they always buried their dead in a grand and wealthy fashion. Rumors of their foreign witchcraft and mastery over demons were 'nough to keep the local boys away. But I figure if anyone ever got up the courage to sack the place, they'd pull a king's ransom worth of heirlooms and such out of that hole.'

"'It may not be the honest thing to do, but then I've never known a rich man who got there by bein' honest all the time,' Aidan added, with his arms crossed and a smile that bespoke of adventure. He went on to say a great many other things that were clearly meant to sway me away from any moral reservations I might have had about the venture. What he did not realize was that this road, no matter how dangerous or criminal, would pave the way to a life with Nikkara, and there was nothing in the world that could have stopped me from walking it.

"So it was decided then and there that the adventure would commence, and we toasted to our success with several mugs of Keller's dark ale, and a fine meal of roasted red potatoes and fried trout. I daresay that Effie was so energetic about the whole affair that she would have insisted upon taking an active part in the burglary herself if she had not been with child. We spent the remainder of the evening laying out the details of the plan: transportation, provisions, what tools would be needed, and where we would sell the goods once they were acquired. In the latter, Effie promised to provide the name of a local fence in Coventry who could assist with that most delicate part of the operation.

"When I returned to my father's estate that evening I was a new man, completely reformed and invigorated with new life and a sense of hope. Khalide noticed the change immediately and with much coaxing on his part I let him in on all the details. Being a man of deep religious belief and moral integrity, he of course tried to dissuade me from lowering myself to petty theft.

"'Mr. Gillian, you are a man of character, I beg you to reconsider,' he had said. But his efforts were akin to asking a starving man to refuse food, and his objections were doomed before they began. In the end he decided that if he could not talk me out of going, then he would come along to provide 'spiritual guidance', as he put it.

"We packed what sundries and provisions were thought to be necessary for a two day trip by horse and cart. In his usual manner, Khalide packed an overabundance of foodstuffs. The cover story that Aidan concocted for his father's benefit was clever enough for me to suspect Effie's involvement in its creation. My own story was not nearly as original, although it mattered not as my father did not show the least interest in hearing it.

"The sky was entirely clear and the air was crisp and cool on the morning of our departure, and we decided to ride with the cover off the wagon and the sun on our faces. I must confess to a certain degree of excitement at the idea of facing the open road with dangerous business ahead and trusted friends by my side. It is a feeling that only the young can truly experience and appreciate, as age and wisdom tend to dull those impetuous instincts of youth.

"Once we had crossed over the Ayerwyne Bridge and turned north we headed into a region wholly unfamiliar to me. We did not encounter a single person during that final thirty mile stretch of our journey. The transition from the sparse oak, maple and birch forests and rolling green fields of my own village, to the dense and ancient growths of firs and pines in this region was stark, and to be truthful I think we all found the change a little discomforting. It has always seemed to me that people have an instinctive fear of the deep forests of the world, especially those that have remained untouched by the hand of man.

"As the afternoon wore on the sky darkened with storm clouds on the horizon. When thunder began to peal in the distance, Khalide insisted that it was a bad omen and he got down on his knees and prayed to his god for our safekeeping.

"'Turn the cart around and abandon this folly,' he urged us over and over again. Being educated in the natural sciences I quickly dismissed his pleas as the fear induced ramblings of an overly superstitious man, and chided him playfully about his outbursts. But as time wore on and we drove deeper and deeper into that country I noticed Aidan became increasingly quiet and his expression uncharacteristically somber.

"A few hours before dusk we reached a fork in the road just outside of Coventry, and whereas going west would have brought us directly into the village, we followed the road east, which took us into even darker and more heavily forested terrain. After a few miles we reached a spot where the forest opened up into a small clearing of tall grass. We stopped and watered the horses in a brook that snaked its way across the glade. The road continued on to the northeast, but we had no need to follow it any further as we had nearly reached our destination.

"According to Effie there was an old trail that led from the far end of the clearing all the way up to the Abernathy mansion. Her grandfather told her it had once been a magnificent cobblestone road, but it had fallen into disrepair long before his tenure as the groundskeeper for the estate. After a brief search of the glade we located the road, but a century of rainfall, overgrowth and neglect had left it little more than a moss covered cow-path. Realizing that we could bring the wagon no further we decided to setup camp right there in glade.

"We pitched the tents and dug the fire-hole behind a natural decline in the slope of the terrain about twenty feet from the tree line to shield our camp both from the wind and from any would be passersby. Likewise we pushed the wagon just far enough into the woods that it could not be seen from the road, and tied the horse up with enough slack in the rope to allow it to graze and drink from the stream. While Khalide busied himself with the preparations for dinner, Aidan and I hiked down the path to reconnoiter the mansion and locate the entrance to the crypt.

"From afar the mansion had an unwholesome look to it, but up close the atmosphere it seemed to generate was positively unsettling. It squatted atop the small but steeply banked hill, like some vast, hideous creature that had been stained dark by the ages. The stone manor had stood for centuries, and it looked as though it could stand for many more. The very sight of its angry walls and leering windows gave me an eerie feeling that brought chills to my bones and pinpricks to my skin, but there was much yet to be done and little time to contemplate such oddities.

"We discovered the entrance to the crypt behind the mansion, excavated into the northern face of the hill. The entryway did not at all resemble what either of us had anticipated based on Effie's description of the Abernathy family's wealth, for the stonework was of very plain, roughly hewn granite. The portal itself was a heavily rusted set of iron double doors which was secured shut with an equally rusted iron crossbar and padlock. There were no statues, carvings, inscriptions or decorations of any kind. I remember raising the possibility that the stories Effie's grandfather had told her where exaggerated, and that we very well might have gone through all this trouble to procure a handful of funerary beads and other worthless trinkets. But Aidan's faith in her judgment was unwavering, and he assured me that we would find all that we sought after and more in those depths.

"As we started back to the camp we came upon a small copse of hideously twisted oaks not more than a hundred feet from the crypt. I recall taking special notice of it because it was such an unusual formation of nature. The trees and underbrush surrounding it were so thick as to restrict entry into the grove from all directions save that which faced the crypt. The inner sanctum was carpeted with wild grass, and near the center of the copse was a mossy pool of water and a large outcropping of dark grey rock. Had it been high noon on a sunlit day I might have thought the place beautiful, but as the shadows of trees played tricks with my eyes in the gathering dusk my only thought was that the place unsettled me somehow.

"By the time we returned to camp darkness possessed the forest and it had begun to drizzle. The three of us sat huddled around the fire and supped on venison rubbed with fresh sage and bits of garlic, a vegetable broth, fresh baked bread that Khalide's wife had made only the night before and a small amount of honey wine. Khalide was a talented chef and it was a meal fit for princes on the hunt. After devouring our food, for the three of us had not eaten since breakfast, we all filled our pipes and passed the time in conversation about the task at hand.

"During the course of our discussions Khalide made it clear that the thought of entering the tomb at abhorrent to him. 'In my religion,' he had said, 'we do not bury our dead, we burn them. That is because to bury a body is to invite the spirit to linger in the earthly realm, and that is wholly...unnatural.'

"I attempted to allay his fears by returning the discussion to practical affairs, but to no avail. In a hushed tone and with the odd glance over his shoulder into the darkness of the woods, he related to us various supernatural tales from his religion to illustrate his point 'that men were not meant to tread in the places of the dead, lest they be damned themselves.'

"I wish I could say that I was unaffected by his superstitious ramblings -- but absolute darkness and the total silence of the forest around us added an ominous degree of realism to his stories. No matter how far fetched a yarn might seem in the light of day, in the darkness of night and the seclusion of deep forests far away from the touch of civilized man, even the most rationalistic mind is willing to entertain any possibility.

"The sharp crackling of thunder roused us from our thoughts, and within minutes a hard rain began coming down. Using embers from the campfire to light our lanterns we gathered what tools we needed and made our way up the pathway. The going was slow and difficult as our light extended barely twenty feet in front of our faces. One thing I recall vividly was how the rows of trees stood on either side of us like grim sentinels, and seemed to create great walls of darkness that our lamplight could not penetrate. Periodically throughout the hike, one of us would stop and raise his hand for silence, and the others would follow his lead and turn their ears to the forest around them. In that remote setting, with our imaginations working on the knife's edge, every falling branch and flash of lightning seemed to reveal the presence of something sinister and deadly. But finally, after frequent stumbles and many curses we arrived back at the entrance to the crypt of the Abernathys.

"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, 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 echoed strangely off the walls as we descended.

"Upon entering the sepulcher 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 my own thoughts aloud. '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.'

"We stood there for a long time, 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 become confused and lost in that evil place. The fear overtook me; 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 was 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. My heart skipped 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 twenty by fifteen foot chamber constructed with great precision using perfectly dressed stone blocks. The next four passages and chambers were identical and similarly empty.

"It was not until we entered the rightmost chamber of the third set of corridors that we found what we sought. There was a large stone sarcophagus in the center of the chamber, with smaller caskets lining the walls. 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.

"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, 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 both of us to slide the stone lid off the central coffin, and we were careful to set it upon the floor gently. We knew that the sound of a coffin lid crashing to the ground would have pierced 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. We removed them from the body with care and stuffed them into a sack. Many of the other coffins contained similar riches, which we pilfered as well. That was how it went for a long time; we systemically moved 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 discernable. 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 discerned a series of bas-reliefs that were 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. I will only say 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.

"'This place troubles me -- let us leave now and be done with this business,' Aidan whispered. After a brief discussion and a great exertion of will on my part, Aidan finally agreed that since we had come this far, we might as well pick the place clean.

"The bulkhead door was very heavy and it took the both of us to heave it open. The hinges creaked 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 smelled 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 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 felt as if we were sneaking through a den of unseen predators, and that our only chance of survival was to avoid their becoming aware of our presence. All notions of descending down into that black nightmare melted away, and we closed the bulkhead doors with an urgency that I do not care to recall.

"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 looked 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. 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 on the summer wind, gradually rose to a terrible crescendo of dread that pierced my soul like a cold knife.

"Then a bonfire rose up in the center of the glade, and the images of what we saw there are forever burned into my mind. There were dozens of black robed figures kneeling around the base of the pool. A tall, dark haired woman stood naked in the water, and 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. As the beast's lifeblood poured 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. I watched in a strange combination of fascination and horror, while 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 bickered with one another 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 stirred 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, dozens of 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 echoed 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 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 us and the exit.

"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 to 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. I swear he was able to sense my fear, indeed that he even fed off it, for before turning to join the others our eyes locked for a moment and the little fiend grinned. 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 for a long time behind those columns, all the while expecting the black forms of the cultists to come creeping back around the corner and 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, it was 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. 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 deathly silent.

"I crept down the cold stone passageway in absolute darkness, deeper into the bowels of that evil place. I made my way slowly down the corridor by feeling my way along the rough stonework, all the while expecting to hear some sign of my companions. 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 cannot describe. 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 flashed 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 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 my calls?

"Curiosity alone was enough to work my muscles back into action and 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. 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 you. As it turned out the danger came from underfoot, and I collapsed to the cold stone floor.

"As I lay in a heap on 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, 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 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. Finally, after a lengthy game of cat and mouse 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, I heard a rustling sound to my right, and before I could react 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? 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 as a sizeable lump, I reasoned 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 reenter the vaulted chamber the musty air around us reverberated with a great metallic boom. 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. 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, and the owner of the Abernathy estate. The man was not an Abernathy by blood but rather had taken possession of the estate by marrying the last surviving heiress. He was unremarkable, but his wife's presence seemed to chill the room and suck the air from my very lungs. For she was none other than the high priestess we had known from our encounter in the crypt! She watched us with rapacious eyes and a keen gaze throughout the entirety of the proceedings. I remember feeling as though at any moment she might leap across the table and slash out our eyes or tear into our throats with her bare hands.

"As to the disposition of our case, it was of course not surprising that our fathers argued in favor of our release. It was however, rather shocking to learn that the offended party agreed to drop the charges, so long as the matter of the burglary was kept under the strictest silence. So the matter was concluded with haste and we were released into the custody of our fathers. Before returning to Mill Creek I asked the magistrates if it were possible to retrieve Khalide's body that it might be burned in accordance with his religious beliefs, but they informed me that the corpse had been badly mutilated by scavenging animals and had been laid to rest in a grave not far from the Abernathy crypt.

"With a sense of relief we returned home only to face another even greater trial -- that of Aidan's failing mental health. In the days and weeks that followed, Aidan's physical and emotional state deteriorated rapidly. Some days he shivered feverishly in his bed, not saying a word, while others he paced about and ranted like a madman for hours at a time. Effie reported that every night he awoke in hysterical fits of screaming. Although he refused to speak of it, I know in my bones that his dreams were plagued by whatever it was that he and Khalide had experienced in the crypt during my brief absence.

I sat by his bedside every day, reading him stories and trying various treatments, including cassia bark tea to reduce his anxiety. When none of the standard treatments worked, I changed approaches entirely, focusing on strict dietary changes and an exercise regime that included brisk afternoon walks and the like. Effie, remarkable woman that she was, assisted me in all of my efforts and cared for her fiancé with great tenderness. She sang to him in the evenings to help ease him into sleep, but in the end all of our efforts were for naught.

"I will never forget the final words he whispered to me the night before he ended his own life. 'Parents always tell their children that monsters don't really exist. Why do you suppose they do that?' He had spoken so calmly and lucidly that I had taken it as a sign that his mental condition was stabilizing, but the next morning we discovered the body. Aidan had slashed his own wrists and bled to death in his bed.

"Mills Creek is a small village, and Khalide's mysterious disappearance had been the subject of some talk amongst the locals, but when the news got out about Aidan's suicide the wheels of small town gossip turned until the entire situation erupted into a full blown scandal. Ever the quintessential aristocrat, my father's greatest concern centered around preserving the integrity of our family name. When speculation and rumors as to the events behind Aidan's suicide began to circulate, he decided to mitigate the scandal by evicting Khalide's widow from our estate.

"As I was fully responsible for the death of Khalide, I could not in good conscience allow his wife and child to become homeless. I came to the decision that I would escort them to the city of Dunthorpe, where I would find them work in the household of my professor and advisor Dr. Kilcairney. When I told my father of my decision to leave, and my intention to never return, he performed the one and only truly magnanimous act of his entire life. He gave me the full sum of the betrothal gift for my marriage to Nikkara, and begrudgingly wished me happiness in our life together. I kissed my sobbing mother goodbye and set off on a journey that I have yet to finish -- a lifetime of wandering.

"On route to Dunthorpe we came across a gorgeous little village on the coast, riddled with green forests and fresh salt air. I spent a portion of my money towards the procurement of a small house near the top of a magnificent cliff overlooking the sea; this I gave as a gift to Khalide's widow, along with the entire balance of the sum my father had given me. Before leaving, I promised her that I would find Khalide's grave and dispose of his body according to the customs of their religion.

"True to my word I made one final journey back to the ruined Abernathy mansion. Somehow, in looking upon that place for the last time I came to realize why I feared it so. It was a place without sympathy or remorse, a place where lives and hopes were shattered, a place where no sane human being was fit to tread. It was in a word, evil.

After a brief search, I found Khalide's grave a few hundred paces from the mad face of the crypt, and with great discomfort and frequent glances over my shoulder in the direction of those iron double doors, I exhumed the body of my old friend. Then I built a pyre of deadwood and burned his mortal remains to dust. These I collected and later scattered into a stream of cold, running water that flowed towards the south. I sent my friend home."

As the old storyteller finished his tale he blew one last puff of smoke and rose, knees cracking, to empty the ashes from the bowl of his pipe into the fireplace. Sabryna thought he seemed reduced, somehow less than the carefree man he had been only a few hours before. It was as if the mere telling of the story had aged him somehow. He was now a weary, shell of a man drained to the very ends of his soul.

Without so much as a nod or a polite word the old man turned towards the staircase and began the short climb up to the guest rooms. But the tale was not finished - Sabryna had to know how the story ended.

"Gillian please...tell me what happened with Nikkara."

The old man stopped his ascent and turned to face her again, with a look of infinite sadness in his eyes. "I never had the heart to tell her. How could I? I didn't want her to see what I had become. The man she knew and loved was dead. All that remained was a dried husk -- a homeless wanderer, a petty thief, a murderer of his friends."

"Then you never saw her again?"

"Many years after the tragedy in the tomb I passed through Dunthorpe, ostensibly to peddle my exotic wares, but in truth I went because I needed closure. I needed to find out what had happened to her. From the locals I learned that after my disappearance she had married the eldest of her suitors and her father's business was saved. But her husband was a cruel, jealous man, and her life must have been very miserable. One day she went to one of the parks that we used to frequent together and threw herself from the cliff face unto the ocean waves. She died, and what remained of my heart died with her."

With that the old man turned and shuffled up the stairs to his room. Beneath the creaking of the boards, Sabryna thought she heard weeping.

THE END


© 2011 Matthew Acheson

Bio: Matthew Acheson lives in Orono, Maine. He earned his Bachelor’s in Computer Science and Ancient History from the University of Southern Maine, and works as an engineer in the telecommunications industry. His stories have appeared in the Willows, Spinetingler, Digital Dragon, Allegory, Orion’s Child, Bewildering Stories, Morpheus Tales, Aphelion and Pulp Metal. He enjoys hiking, canoeing, boxing, Texas Hold 'Em, traveling, and reading. On some cold winter nights you’ll find him by the fireplace, entertaining his fourteen nieces and nephews with strange tales of supernatural horror and the fantastic. This is Matthew's third appearance in Aphelion; most recently, his story The Priest was featured in the May, 2011 edition.

Website: Cryptic House

E-mail: Matthew Acheson

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