The Thing In the Tunnels

It had been some weeks since my arrival in Berian, and thus far the majority of my time for this quarter was spent in my classes, quietly contemplating the various possibilities of sneaking out and exploring the wondrous city beyond the walls of the university.

Despite my family’s relative affluence, we apparently had not been wealthy for a sufficient number of generations for the general aristocracy to converse with me. I was shunned by the majority of the students for my decidedly rural upbringing. As a result my closest companions were also from the, by comparison, lower stations of society, conveniently we somehow managed to end up sharing the same dormitory.

Harmon was a tall, strong backed fellow from the northern reach. His father’s rather successful mining venture afforded his tuition and acceptance by the deans of the esteemed foundation which we attended. He was not the sharpest of wits but he was kind enough and had a generous sense of humor. His imposing stature rescued me from more than one assault on my person during our friendship.

Our other roommate, Lethan was the son of a foreign sea trader; who I had been assured, on several occasions, was a completely legitimate businessman. Handsome, slim, and possessing an accent that had the charming and remarkable ability to grow more pronounced around members of the opposite sex. He was always sent the most wonderful packages from home, smelling of exotic spices and containing delightfully strong intoxicants in deceptively labeled bottles.

It was after sampling one such package when a rumor that a long forgotten tunnel had been unearthed by work men clearing debris of a building that collapsed in a recent fire in the southern quarter of the city.  My compatriots and I, armed with lanterns, rope and a misplaced sense of adventure, made the decision to venture out to explore this portal.

***

One by one we lowered ourselves into the hole. Harmon went first and myself taking the rear. As I slid the last few inches down the rope my feet came to rest on finished stone, We found ourselves in a curving hall built of large stone blocks.. We followed that passage, listening to eerie silence, broken only by the sound of our feet shuffling across the dusty floor. We walked, single file, down that abandoned in mild fear until it opened into a rough square chamber. Harmon stumbled across the threshold, his fall extinguishing one of our lanterns. The clatter of the light hitting the ground broke the silence and the tension of  the moment. We let out a short burst of laughter and help the tall man back to his feet. He set about relighting the lantern, while Lethan walked the perimeter of the room. As he walked he waved his own lantern  making a ghostly sounds. Harmon’s match finally struck despite his hands trembling in an attempt to control his giggling. With both lanterns lit we took stock of our surroundings.

The room was of plain finished stone, with and arched passage leading out from the center of each of the walls. I looked down and tracked our footsteps  across the dust ridden floor. The long skid left by Harmon as he tripped. The trail of oil drops left as the lantern tumbled away from him. The long loping stride of Lethan as he acted out his taunting pantomime of a lost spirit. My own steps mingled in with theirs.

Then, there in the interwoven impressions in the dust, I was certain I could see a fourth set.  They were mostly covered over by our tracks, but I was certain they were there.

Short, shambling, barefoot steps.

I cleared my throat to bring my discovery to my companions attention. That was when I heard a long and piercing scream erupt from Lethan’s throat. I quickly raised my head and saw my friend staring gape mouthed, lantern raised high, his eyes wide and distant as if he was staring at something mile away.

I followed his gaze across the room and there in on of the arched portals, it stood.

Hunched, head forward. Grey mottled skin, hanging loose. Large eyes,circular bulbous. Twisted hands, nails overgrown. Distended jaw, teeth like razors.

My horrified friend stood paralyzed by the monstrous visage. It opened its maw as if to scream but only a low hiss emanated from it as it lurched forward towards Lethan. I began to shout, but Harmon was already moving. He threw himself towards the beast.

The thing grabbed the large man as if he was just a child , snapping his arm like a twig and tossed him aside. It turned its head and followed his arc as he landed in the corner near me, screaming in pain. Returning its reptilian eyes back towards Lethan and stalked onward.

I stared in terror, watching helpless as it drew closer towards its prey. Toward my fiend. I barely heard Harmon as he said my name in a hoarse croak.

Something inside of me stirred and I looked down to see Harmon’s lantern, still lit, laying at my feet. As in a dream, I found myself reaching for it. The thing shuffled forward, Lethan stood still frozen under its dread stare. I hoisted the lamp up and back. The thing began to stretch its arm towards my friend. My arm swung forward, and the light sailed forward through the air.

The lantern struck the alien thing and its pallid flesh caught fire in an instant. The thing crumpled to the floor. The jagged mouth opened and shut in silent screams as the monstrous thing’s body rendered in a pillar of fetid smoke, and quickly turned to ash.

The minutes that followed seem so insignificant. After seeing that thing destroyed Lethan recovered from the petrifying fear he suffered when he first met its stare. Through the shock of the encounter we managed to help our injured friend back to his feet and somehow managed to find our way back to where we began our explorations. We used our ropes to pull our companion back up to the street. We returned to the university and placed our friend in the care of the infirmary.

In the weeks that he spent healing we related our story to the authorities. We were told, by the faculty of our school and several representatives of the civil powers, that this was not a tale to be loosely told in taverns and public houses of the city. We were assured that it would be look d into. It was inferred that keeping the existence of such a beast a secret was for the public good. We were reminded that we were also members of the public.

The burned out ruin of the house was cleared and the tunnel was filled in. We were left with the memory of what we saw.

The City of Berian

It was just before dusk as the sky ship swam lazily through the oppressive summer air towards our destination. The amber glow of the setting sun highlighted the needle like spires of the docks that rose even higher than the grand dome of the ancient cathedral, or the highest towers of the palace of Prince Ethaniel. This was the first time I had visited Berian, the capital of our grand province, and though I considered my self to be fairly cosmopolitan I must confess I was awed by its size and majesty. Taggart, my family’s trusted servant who had been charged to ensure my safe arrival at the university, pointed how many of the buildings boasted new construction to raise them up closer to the activity of the sky docks. There were even ladders and walkways built to span the gaps between structures, roadways and avenues were being made among the rooftops of the city. If one were to look closely you could see tents and stalls of merchants littered a midst the gargoyles and crenelations of the newly found elevations of the city.

Once our vessel was securely hooked to a spire we disembarked and took the long basket ride down to the more traditional streets of the metropolis. As we descended I became familiar with the various layers of smells that blanketed the capital. The heavy damp summer air of the afternoon mingled with the odor of coal and wood smoke from the chimneys of the residences and workhouses. Travelling lower down the floral perfumes of the higher classed bordellos and hotels of leisure were added. Finally, once on the ground, the ripe pedestrian smells of food, alcohol and sweat from the taverns and inns that surrounded the sky dock completed the bouquet of the city. I began to marvel at the naivety of my beloved parents for thinking that this wondrous and sinful locale might somehow provide distraction from my own natural curiosity and  reckless behaviors. After all, attending university would hardly be akin to being sequestered in a monastery.

Taggart and his cohort fell in around in an effort to shield me from the dangerous and immoral activities of fruit vendors, street tumblers, jugglers, and tavern goers, as well as the occasional prostitute and potential sneak thief as we traveled through the cobbled streets and alleyways towards the more desirable, wealthier, and better smelling areas of the city. We traveled uptown past the provincial palace it’s wonderfully clean stone facade, behind its stone walls and black iron gates, complimented by the nearby lush gardens of red and yellow flowers, the same hues that occupied the crest of the royal family. Farther away on another hill we could spy the gilt and stained glass dome of the Cathedral of the Patrons that we had seen from the distance as we flew over the city; one of the many marvels of the empire, not just of our humble province.

Just a little further on and we passed through the gates of the University of Berian, its white marble edifice shone in the last of the days dying light. The fabled Ivory Tower of education in the province. Here less than hundred years ago Leumas Nerals created his magnificent device, that gave to the empire the power of flight. Here in the dormitories of this fine institution I would reside for the foreseeable future, far from my family’s home. After being received by the Deans, and explaining the lateness of our arrival, I said my goodbyes to Taggart and the other men that had accompanied me here. I was escorted by one of the schools porters to my room. It was a small space that I was informed I would be sharing with two other young men, who I was quite anxious to meet. As I unpacked my things and tried to settle in I found myself staring out of the singular window of my new bedroom, past the rolling green lawns of the campus below and out into the city that would be my new home.  My mind wandered back to the events at Persley Station some days ago, and the horror, and carnage I found at that old barrow. Though I was still haunted by the images of that night, my mind held an odd fascination of the experience. I began to wonder,perhaps with a touch of hope, if that would just be the first of such adventures for me.

This narrative inspired  by a Weekly Challenge.

The Forgotten Barrow

When the summer came to a close on my sixteenth year it was decided that I was to leave the pastoral splendor of my family’s plantations to travel to the capital to attend the university there. It would seem that I had, unbeknownst to myself, exhausted the knowledge of what erudite citizenry could be found locally; and my beloved parents had begun to fear that, if  left idle  too long I might be tempted to become a wanderer and a wastrel. Such was the fate had befallen my great grand father, who I am named for.

I have often marveled at the frequency and convenience of which the fact that it was elder Penumbra Finefellow, the great scoundrel, who bore the greater responsibility for our families good current fortunes. It was no great secret to my beloved parents that I was filled a great desire to follow in his footsteps and experience life on more or less reckless, and carefree terms so, bearing my best interests to heart, they made every attempt to distance me from his legacy.

It was a several day journey from my family’s home to Persley Station, a town of moderate size that would be little more that a hamlet full of pig farmers were it not on the main artery of the sky ship lanes headed to the capital from the southern reach.  It is quite frankly, a dung heap but some of the amenities near the sky dock are quite nice, if a bit on the rustic side. When our party had arrived we attempted to secure lodgings for the night at an establishment that was of some good repute. When we entered the common room it was full of men with dour faces, talking of dark events.

For some time they had been occurrences where small numbers of the livestock had seemed to have wander off, or disappeared from their stables and pens at night.  This at first was credited bolder actions of local poachers and rustlers. That was until they began to find the corpses, butchered, dismembered, and left to rot in the countryside. Soon after that the first of the citizenry vanished.

It was the son of one of the assembled men, ten years of age. Over the following days others came to be missed as well.  The wife of one, the brother of another, and a handful more. Upon the previous nights, fires and hooded men were seen to congregate around the old barrow on the outskirts of the town, it was here that they were convinced that their kin or those who had captured them. They had sent for help but the authorities were too slow in arriving, and so it was here in the saloon, armed with farm implements, hunting bows and whatever crude weapons they could muster,  they gathered to go and do something about it.

 Now, my family are respected members of the community at large and so, despite the objections of my fathers employees, that were my companions, I felt it was our civic duty to assist in this endeavor. Taggart, our coachman and a man of great spirit and compassion , took charge of the rabble. He agreed to allow me to accompany them provided I stayed towards the rear and away from the fray; this suited my plans as physical combat was not something I excelled at, yet would give me the opportunity to witness this heroic act.

This band of unwashed men could by no stretch be called an army, yet they walked silently and with grim purpose through the fields and forest to that ancient burial place. As we traveled I could see in the eyes of each man the hope held on to that they might see their loved ones safe, and also the fear of what horrors they might find at the end of this nights march. When we drew closer to our destination Taggart slowed us on our progress. Creeping slowly up to the barrow we spied only two of the hooded figures standing about near the entrance. Through the portal they were guarding emanated an orange glow. The smell of smoke told us this was the light of a fire, yet one could not but imagine that it was the passage to a deep and final hell as we looked upon it.

A long moment of quiet hesitation fell upon the group of us, with the exception of my coachman I had doubts that any of our number had ever bore arms against their fellow-man; and now, here, their courage was to be tested. Taggart raised his hand and all drew in their breath in anticipation.When his hand fell, they expelled a roar and ran forward.  The dark figures at the entrance tried to run inside to raise the alarm but the first wave us closed the gap before they could make it inside.

As we pressed through the opening into the old tomb, I was tripped by one of my fellows and was sent sprawling to the ground, knocking the wind out of me; it was only by luck, and my position towards the back of our troop, that i was not trampled in the ensuing melee. By the time I was able to regain my feet the fight was done and my compatriots had won the day. Few of our band had fallen as they had the advantage of both surprise and numbers. Taggart and a few held at bay the survivors of the dark brotherhood we had sought out, including one wearing a headdress adorned with the horns of a ram, we presumed him to be the leader of their foul cult. Others tended to our few who were wounded, still more stood agape or weeping as we took in the gruesome horror of that old chamber.

Their loved ones, children, wives, and parents, hung from the ceiling like animals in a slaughter-house or were splayed on altars as fresh corpses posed in unnatural positions, screams of agony frozen on their faces and entrails filling bronze bowls.Those face haunted me as we marched our prisoners out into the grey light of that dawn. Those faces looked out from behind the eyes of the townsfolk as they strung those villains by their necks one by one when we came to the treeline, and it was those faces that must have spoken to the honorable and just heart of Taggart as he let it be done.

It is those contorted faces of pain that have been constant companions in my slumbers since that day.