The catacomb swallowed him like the throat of a great beast. With kerosene lantern in hand, he crept down long spiral staircases which led deep into the subterranean bowels beneath Hillside Cemetery. Cobwebs clung to his neck and tangled in his hair. He swiped at them with his free hand and shuddered when his fingers brushed against a hairy body. Tiny legs scrambled to escape but it couldn’t move fast enough; he flung the arachnid against the wall. At the bottom of the stairwell, uncovered remnants of the once living slept eternal in their wall crypts. He eyed them as he walked by and wondered how old they might be.
Vastly ancient, he thought. Beyond compare…
A set of piercing eyes appeared in the dark. The lantern revealed a large rat, its fur soaked in filth. It squeaked as it fled his presence and crawled into a crack in the wall.
This place must be crawling with them. I’m probably surrounded. An involuntary shiver shook his body.
The hall led straight as far as the lantern allowed him sight, both walls lined with those laid to rest innumerous centuries ago. He followed its dark stretch with haste, wanting desperately to find the ossuary he’d obsessed over for so long.
He remembered the last thing Horace said before he left. I’m telling you, don’t go down there. That place was forgotten for a reason.
Booker disregarded the warning; it only made his fevered passion burn brighter.
A cold breath of air blew by, ruffling his shirt and swinging his lantern on its handle. He spun on his heels and scanned the dark, heart rattling against his ribs. He took labored breaths and put his hand to his chest.
“Holy shit.” His voice came out weak, stifled, toned down in the ancient stone chamber.
He turned and quickened his steps. The gust of air made him uneasy; he couldn’t fathom where it might have originated and how it reached the depths of isolation he traveled. But he had to continue. So close after years of research, nothing could dissuade him.
He wondered how long it had been since a living being last tread the ground he paced. Difficult to imagine a pre-historic civilization, uncharted and known only to a select few who had extreme enthusiasm about such things. Surprising how they remained absent from art and literature, unclaimed by the scholars of history. But he, Booker Thorn, walked the sacred ground of their forgotten corpses.
An arch stood at the end of the tunnel, behind it, the ossuary he hoped to find.
“I finally found it. It’s real. And here it is right in front of me.”
He made hesitant steps when he heard the scrape of metal against the floor. With no foreknowledge of what the chamber contained, the possibilities both allured and terrified his curious mind. He certainly hadn’t expected movement. But the inconsistent sound of metal dragged against stone told not of treasure and artifacts, but of something possibly much more interesting and rare. Movement indicated life, as impossible as it seemed in the house of death.
He stretched his arm to extend the light by which he could see. It revealed a chain on the floor, but not what it connected to. His eyes followed the links into the ebony shadow that filled the room. The chain moved again, pulled further into the void by an unknown force. The lantern rattled in his hand and he steadied it with effort.
Breath heaved in and out through a raspy throat. Booker listened intently, silencing himself to hear.
Whatever’s in there is alive. But how could that be? How could something live down here for millennia? Did someone beat me to this place?
The breathing quieted and Booker sat still. He waited for the unknown to make a move; he didn’t want to go first.
The chain flew across the chamber with force, scraping the stone blocks on which it rested. The sudden movement sent Booker reeling back. He dropped the lantern and the glass shattered. The light flickered and went out.
Breathing intensified as darkness consumed him. He retrieved a book of matches from his pocket, tore one from the pack and struck it; fire exploded into existence at the tip, lending poor light to the situation. He swallowed hard and crawled along the floor, bringing the flame closer to the coveted chamber.
The chain moved, ran its cold metal over his fingers. He barred his teeth and stifled a cry.
Hot breath descended on his neck, followed by a snort which shot a foul cloud of decay around his head. The contents of his stomach spilled with brutal force.
A strong hand gripped his thigh and lifted him from the floor. He dropped the match, allowing darkness its return. He dangled in the air, trachea closed, unable to scream. No intelligible thought could formulate in his mind—terror decimated reason and ripped primal fear from deep within the psyche.
The unseen hand that held him tightened fingers until bone snapped. Shock spread like fire as he gasped for air involuntarily.
A flare of agony came with a stabbing sensation and ended with the flesh of his leg torn open. Liquid caressed his side, dripped from his head to the floor. The cut ran deep, sliced through fat and muscle, and scraped the broken bone inside.
He heard a crack when the femur was wrenched from his thigh, followed by the wet slap of boneless skin falling against his torso. Eyes opened wide and waves of visceral imagery crashed against his screaming brain.
His twitching body dropped to the floor. He sensed his arm pop from its socket, the flesh torn away, but it felt distant, the pain only a dull throb. His chest hitched in feeble attempts to get air as his ribs snapped one after another.
A sliver of light appeared above, shining down from an opening at the peak of the vaulted chamber.
Light… There’s light…
Skeletal frame extracted, his body sagged into a muddle of human pulp. All thought coalesced. A crunch echoed, crisp and clear. Eyes lolled toward the sound and a glimpse of what occupied the room burned into his final memory.
Long teeth chewed blood soaked bone, shoved into its mouth with thin, curved fingers. Its leathery brown skin pulsed with thick veins and creased in endless folds and wrinkles. Two black discs stared from a misshapen head.
The light dimmed and went out as the opening in the ceiling closed, the underworld of forgotten things again consigned to oblivion.
∼Lee A. Forman
© Copyright 2016 Lee A. Forman. All Rights Reserved.