A Lovecraftian short story inspired by Arkham Horror.
Out of the four of us, it was Eric who possessed the most romantic sensibilities. I was also prone to flights of imagination, having devoured Le Morte d' Arthur, along with other fantasy standards, at an early age, but Eric always yearned for something greater. Not content with the literary knights and pirates of his fellow adolescents, my friend was determined to discover real magic, and if none could be found, he would will it into existence himself.
Therefore, it was no surprise to any of us that he purchased a house in Appalachia for the sole reason that it came with a considerable amount of land which included the entrance to an unfrequented cave system. Being birds of a feather, our inner circle shared his sentiments to some degree and were attracted to his enthusiasms. So it was also no surprise that in due time we would all travel some distance to attend a belated house-warming party.
Though my train was somewhat delayed by inclement weather, Eric was grinning as I disembarked. It was as if he hadn't been waiting extra hours for my arrival. He shrugged off my attempt at an apology.
“Nonsense,” he stated. “It's a lovely day, I've had my books to keep me company, and I'm sure Tom, Elizabeth, and Gertie are capable of entertaining themselves.”
“So I'm the last to arrive?”
“Afraid so. But it's hardly a race, and I've been looking forward to your arrival the most.”
Clapping me on the upper arm, he exclaimed, “Now let's get your bags and be on our way. We have a busy day ahead of us.”
We headed away from the station in Eric's Model T. Apparently, even my idiosyncratic friend couldn't escape the ubiquity of the vehicle. During the ride to his house, I tried to speak of practical matters: how would he manage his house and how would he make a living so far from our roots?
“I suppose I shall catch on at Western Kentucky. Then I'll use those funds for the upkeep of the house.”
I had my doubts that institutes of higher learning handed out jobs for the asking, but I found I could not keep his mind fixed to matters of the practical or mundane, and he quickly changed the subject.
“I know that you, like me, are familiar with the works of Charles Fort.”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Are you familiar with the phenomenon of earthquake lights?”
“Somewhat. Though I admit that that subsection of damned data never held any fascination for me.”
“Fair enough. Let me refresh you on it. For some reason lights may appear in the sky before, during, or after an earthquake. Sometimes they resemble lightning. Sometimes they resemble rainbows. They are too infrequent to be studied, but occur enough to be documented at different times and different places.
“What if these strange lights are some kind of signals from the earth? Perhaps there are some creatures of spirit that reside in a realm underground, but it is very difficult for them to reach us. Perhaps a quake opens up the barrier between us and them and these lights are their attempt at communicating with us. Or perhaps the quake emits an energy that they can utilize, like a poltergeist does with a troubled youth?”
“I know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in current philosophy, but I find that highly unlikely. It sounds more like a poor plot that one would find in one of the pulps.”
“Hopefully I can show you something that might sway you. You've brought suitable clothes for the outdoors?”
I nodded, wondering what he had in mind. Some reckless spelunking, I'd guess.
It turns out that his recent purchase was located in a wooded area, which was reached by driving up a bumpy roadway. This put a temporary halt to our conversation, for he was concentrating on avoiding the ruts, whilst I was concentrating on continuously adjusting my person, to cope with the bumps that he didn't or couldn't avoid.
A fork in the road ended up becoming his driveway, and soon enough his house came into view. It was partially obscured by trees, but even so I could tell that it was well-worn. I mentally berated him for the small supply of firewood I saw stacked against the side of the house. It was already September, and I doubted that he had enough to last for a week or more of winter temperatures.
Helping me again with by bags, he warned me, “Rural electrification hasn't even been thought about in this area, so I'm afraid everything will be done by lantern or candlelight.”
“Sounds appropriately atmospheric.”
“I thought so as well, but Elizabeth seems to be less than thrilled with the arrangements.”
I chuckled, “I'm not surprised.”
Eric continued, “What made Thomas marry her, out of all of his possible choices?”
“She was his pillar, during the war and after it.”
“That was such a terrible business. Whatever made him enlist?”
“The same reason we have all done what we've done: romanticism. We've all felt a need for adventure. He chose to take a different path than the rest of us. That's all.”
Opening the front door, we were greeted with a roaring fire and an abundance of flickering candle flames. I quickly picked out Thomas, Elizabeth, and Gertrude, all seated in a sparse living room. Eyes widened in mutual affection as they rose to greet us.
“Gertie!” Eric exclaimed. “I assume all this was your doing?”
“Of course. Did you expect me to sit here and simper while you picked up our friend at the station? I also took the liberty of starting the dinner you had planned. I don't think you appreciate how tricky it is to get a wood-burning oven to a consistent temperature. And for God's sake, get some more dried wood in this house, or you're going to starve. I feel like I should have stuck to the traditional when it comes to house-warming parties.”
“You've always been the best, most sensible out of all of us,” said Eric, smiling. “Don't worry about the wood! Let's get this reunion properly started while I work on finishing dinner.”
I did my best to catch up, and Eric made the rounds, alternating between filling our wine glasses and finishing his meal preparation. Apparently the Volstead Act wasn't being thought about in this area either.
Thomas captured our host's attention during one of his rounds and handed him a small box.
“A gift. It's suitably odd, so I thought you would appreciate it.”
“He's been hanging on to it forever,” Beth interjected. “Ever since he came back from England.”
Opening the box, Eric removed a tiny stick that had a wad of paper at one of its ends . Quizzically, he turned the box around to show us that is was filled with these items.
“They're Promethean matches,” Thomas offered up. “Before friction matches came along, matches were a mixture of chemicals in a glass capsule. You would break the capsule inside the wadding to cause an ignition. There's some bloke in London that still makes them, and he sells them in a chemist shop there.”
“Can I use one now?”
“Of course. But you'll need to get a tool to break the glass. Most people used pliers, but there was some daredevil over there that would break them with his teeth. Mind that you be a little more careful than that though.”
Excitedly, our host laid one out on his coffee table and brought the bottom of an empty wine bottle crashing down upon it. There was a noticeable cracking sound, a mild burst of light, then a small flame ignited among the paper wadding. Picking it up by its handle, Eric exclaimed, “This is marvelous.
Thank you so much for sharing this with us.”
“Let's move to the dining room. Our meal should be out shortly.”
The roast was a little burnt on one side, but the consistent wine was filling us all with good cheer. It was during our dinner that Eric was finally able to take center stage. He stood up from the table and began his speech.
“My friends. I'm sure that you suspect that the only reason I've acquired this new house is due to its proximity to its own little subterranean access. I also suspect that you are going to poke fun at me about it. Which is expected, and will tell you that I am not the slightest bit offended, for I have found something remarkable within.”
“This opening leads to a minor cave system. It has been neglected because its only noticeable feature is an unnavigable chasm, and because most researchers head further west to Mammoth, which has so much more to offer.
“Plus, it has quite an unsavory reputation.”
“What kind of unsavory reputation?” Elizabeth asked.
“Nothing that can be pinned down. The Indians avoided it, and they in turn told the white men that would listen to them about dark spirits, like the Raven Mocker, that would make it their home. As most folklore does, the warnings have been passed down and modified to the point that they become a chimerical mess.”
“Now I've been spending quite a bit of time within this cave, and I believe that I've discovered something I can't wait to share with you.”
At this my friend moved us back into the living room, where he produced a rucksack, and began filling it with assorted items.
“What? Tonight?” Thomas looked around at us, searching for support.
“Yes. I'm afraid we have to. The phenomenon that I'm so eager to show you only lasts for a few days at a time before going dormant. And it's been occurring since the start of the week. That's why I insisted that you not dress for dinner and remain in your comfortable clothing. You may want to change into your boots and jackets though.”
Along with some water, Eric had gathered up a journal, two curious looking lanterns with colored lenses, and with a subtle smile, his new box of chemical matches. He graciously equipped us all with oil lanterns and ushered us into the night.
“Follow me and stay on the trail.”
The advice was rather obvious, but we dutifully followed our leader, lights bobbing behind him like a string of will-o-the-wisps. He had thoughtfully laid out wooden planks over the muddier areas and the trail was well-cleared, so it wasn't very long before we were at the cave entrance.
“I know it looks large from out here, but it gets deceptively narrower in a few spots, so mind your steps.”
Our route within was straightforward enough. There was only one significant branching, and our guide had indicated the proper route with a large candle that he lit as we walked past. At one point our passage became more constricted. Though it remained wide enough at shoulder level, the side walls narrowed sharply at our ankles. We had to watch our steps, and despite our care, our pants were getting muddy, and we were suffering the occasional scrape. I could hear Beth behind me, getting exasperated and not so quietly complaining to her new husband. Tom seemed to reciprocate. The goodwill brought about by the reunion and intoxication had all but disappeared, replaced by the chill and damp of the underground journey. It was obvious that a throbbing sobriety was beginning to create some misgivings among us.
“I say, Eric! There had damn well better be a cask of Amontillado waiting for us at our destination!”
There was a burst of laughter at my unexpected outburst, which thankfully included Beth.
Eric turned and grinned at me, obviously grateful for my effort at altering the surrounding atmosphere.
“Not too much farther! Our route widens shortly, then there is only a few more yards to the chasm.”
At this proclamation, there was a coincidental rumble, and we could feel the slight vibration through the soles of our feet. My friend's grin widened further.
“Hurry. We mustn't lose our opportunity!”
He hastened ahead of us, making us quickly match his pace; his enthusiasm feeding us and giving us new vigor.
True to his word, we soon came upon a large open cavern. Our host was already kneeling, perhaps twenty paces from the opening, and hastily emptying his bag. Yawning in front of him was the absolute blackness of the chasm. We appeared to be on a ledge. I could not find the opposite end with my lantern, and the gulf appeared to extend to either side for a considerable distance, but I couldn't be sure because the view was obstructed by the walls of our chamber. Standing next to such an impenetrable void gave me the jitters.
“Give me a hand and light my other two lanterns and set them behind me.”
Chuckling, he instructed me, “Use a punk stick, not the Prometheans, please. I only need a simple fire. And turn the flames up to their highest levels.”
In a bout of mischief, I pretended to light his chemical matches, but with some embarrasment, I realized that Eric was too preoccupied to notice my nonsense. Attempting to save some dignity, I took a moment to inspect the two odd lanterns before lighting them. They were the typical four-paned sort, but each pane was dyed to the point of almost opaqueness. The hinged door of the one I held was colored white, along with the pane on the opposite side. The two coterminous ones were green and yellow. The second lantern had no matching panes and was rose, orange, and white and yellow again. I did as instructed, noticing that the others had gathered behind us, but were keeping a sensibile distance away from the ledge. We were now all bathed in colored beams of lights that spread out over our precipice.
Our friend had opened up his journal next to him, securing an open page with some nearby stones. Carefully he took one of the lanterns and began aiming its facets into the depths before him, holding a colored beam in place for a moment, then rapidly rotating the lantern in his hands. One color quickly followed another for four or five flashes, then he would block its light by placing it behind him for a time, and then begin again. I began to follow along with the pattern, for a predetermined pattern it definitely was. White. Green. White. Yellow. White.
During one of his breaks, he turned to address us.
“Many people have reported lights in the sky during and after earthquakes. Presumedly the massive amounts of kinetic energy of the earth is converted to a form of energy that can be carried through and can illuminate the ether. But what if these materialist theories are incorrect? Perhaps these quakes are rending a temporary opening to another world, and these lights are an attempt from its denizens to communicate with us? I can't help but think of the lights of fairies and magical fairylands that are only encountered occasionally and briefly. The infrequent and temporary nature of these events makes it hard for their participants to regularly interact with or even explain the incident. Now consider if I found one of these openings that recurred? Wouldn't that be a discovery for the ages?”
“No one knows what the fey really are,” Gertrude stated. “They are viewed as demons or outcast angels. Godlings or spirits of the dead. No matter what they may actually be, they are always considered potentially troublesome and not to be trifled with.”
“I only use the fey as an example, Gertie.
“I don't know what's down there – but I know that it's sentient. Just wait.”
During this back and forth, I took the liberty to surreptitiously examine Eric's journal.
GREETING: white, green, (quickly now) white-yellow-white
There was quite a bit of obliterated writing then:
QUERY: rose (slow rotation) orange, yellow, white
YES/ACKNOWLEGEMENT/GOOD?: white, green, rose
NEGATIVE/REMOVAL?: rose, green, white
THEM/ITS NAME?: yellow, orange
NOT THEM: (rapid) rose-rose, green-green, white-yellow
And on the next page:
CREATOR/GOD/UNION: (fast) yellow-yellow-orange-orange-rose-rose-green-green-white-yellow
I began to feel uneasy.
“Eric, how did you learn all of this?”
He noticed that I was skimming his book.
“My first attempt was nothing more than repetition of what I thought I was seeing. I would see flashes of lights coming from the darkness, and I would respond by flashing my own back. After I seemed to get a response, it began coming to me as I slept. I began keeping my journal at my bedside because it was too easy to forget things if I didn't write them down right after I awoke.”
We sat in silence for a bit, and I was considering if my friend was a little mad. All this is based on half-asleep writings of a dream journal?
Wait. Was it wishful thinking or was I seeing the dim flashes of reciprocating colors from down below? Eric noticed it too and grabbed a lantern in each hand. He began now flashing white, green, and rose.
The lights from the abyss were now more noticeable and was that a faint droning noise that we heard? Instinctively, our group, minus Eric, began backing away from the ledge.
The response inspired him to even more frantic efforts. He was now picking up, putting down, and rotating his lanterns like a skilled street performer. Embodying a lighthouse crossed with a telegraph, his rapid messaging was now beyond anything I had seen in his journal. I felt in my bones that it was inevitable that we were going to meet Eric's fairies.
None of our psyches would ever have been prepared for what came next. Heralded by brilliant, flashing lights, the dwellers of the chasm rose to Eric's eye-level and hovered before him. These were not gentle fairies from Cottingly, however, but instead a pair of insectile monstrosities. They were as large as us, but many-limbed and segmented like a wasp, and their outer exoskeleton was covered with moss-like vegetable matter. The now painful droning was due to their constantly beating wings, invisible in their rapidity.
Fascinatingly enough, the abyssal lights were part of these creatures physical form. In place of a head, there was a collection of thick, white, maggot-like filaments that were clustered into a mass.
These filaments produced an iridescent light, and they would sway in unison, like cattails in a strong wind. Each undulation lead to a new color. We were bathed in bright red, fluorescent green, bright white, and then sickly yellow.
The creatures advanced on my friend, and I was afraid. Their topmost sets of limbs resembled the claws of a crab, but they looked like sharpened steel. I perceived that the one furthest from me was holding a knobby, metallic jar in its lowest set of limbs.
It was probably only seconds that we all stood transfixed, but it felt like we were locked in an endless stasis. The tableau was shattered when the closest one lunged forward and embraced Eric with its collection of lower limbs. With a sickening crunch one of its pinchers broke off the top of poor Eric's skull. The second abomination was quickly there, inserting a forelimb into my friend's skull, rapidly rotating it around and popping out the brain. With a shockingly efficient set of movements, the brain was placed into the container, and the remaining limbs inserted a cluster of wires into it before resealing the lid. Eric's body teetered there for a moment, as if it was trying to catch up to its violation, then pitched forward into the darkness.
The unexpected death of a loved one is a terrible injury. One moment a friend is alive, and the next he and everything you've come to associate with him has been ripped away. His passion for learning, his generosity, his accumulated knowledge of the esoteric – all gone forever. The force of it rushed through me like a cyclone, leaving me stupefied in my own despair.
Thomas, who had surely repressed this same thing many times before, was in the same pitiful state.
Distantly I heard screaming. Elizabeth? The noise seemed to echo through my mind forever.
I felt movement to my left. Gertrude had rushed forward and brought her lantern crashing down upon the open box of Prometheans. There was a loud bang and a bright flash of light which shocked everyone in attendance. Turning back to me, she roughly gripped me with her long nails.
“We have to leave! Now!”
I will always love her for saving my life.
Shocked back to reality, I continued the chain reaction by roughly shaking Thomas. In a remarkable feat of strength, he hefted Bethany's entire person over his shoulder and we ran.
We were in a sorry state upon making it out. Our legs were badly abraded from our reckless flight and poor Bethany was battered and sobbing from her rough treatment. Terror would not permit us to rest and lick our wounds, however, and we continued our flight to our deceased friend's house and into his vehicle.
Thomas probably ruined Eric's vehicle by speeding us down the roads into town. A frantic search of the town's main street eventually found us the sheriff's office. Banging on the door got the attention of a sleepy-looking deputy. He was overwhelmed by our apparent madness and began making phone calls. A steady trickle of newcomers gradually filled the office and our claims were told and retold until we were collapsing from exhaustion. We were informed that no one was going to be able to investigate our wild claims until morning. However, since our trauma was so evident, they took pity on us, and we were permitted to restlessly sleep in the jail cells until morning.
The next morning a rough posse was gathered, and I was the one who accompanied law enforcement up to Eric's cave. Thomas refused to leave his wife's side and in a case of apparent chivalry, Gertie's presence was forbidden. It was a waste of time. There was no evidence of what had occured, not even a bloodstain or a scorch-mark. I was told in no uncertain terms that these caves tend to be filled with toxic fumes and that we must have been overcome. Eric, being closest to the edge was affected the worst and fell to his death. They didn't even bother to suspect us of foul play. Our various injuries were dutifully treated by the local doctor and we were eventually given copies of the local train schedule. Quite the obvious hint.
It was not that simple to be rid of us, however. Eric had named Gertrude the executor of his will, and his three childhood friends were his primary beneficiaries . That November we had to return to sell his estate and to do one more thing.
A wobbly ride in a misaligned Model T led us to a construction company. Tom, with his experience in the artillery, knew what to ask for, and our overpayment expedited the transaction. As the man was handing us the sawdust-packed crate, I swear that I noticed a barely perceptible nod of approval.
My dear friend, I am saddened to report that we have failed you. We lost our nerve and could not venture back to the abyss to which you were taken. We feared to reawaken those creatures, so in place of a direct blow, we stacked the dynamite up in the narrow section of the caverns. We brought that end of the cave down forever. I doubt that we did anything to hurt those horrible things, but at least we have prevented them from claiming new victims.
I know that you're still alive down there. I once believed that it was cold-blooded murder, but I came to realize that those alien beings found you as interesting as we always did. They wanted to keep that different mind of yours, so they preserved it in a cylinder and took it with them. I wonder how long you'll be confined in there, but I fear that things that can so skillfully separate and preserve a mind can keep you around as long as they desire.
At night I lie awake, imagining that our great explosion sent rocks tumbling down onto your jar, destroying it and freeing you from your prison. I don't sleep well, and by the time the cold light of morning comes, those hopes have been dashed away. I desperately hope that you might be enamored with the novelty of your new situation and are enjoying the prospect of a new adventure.
But I have my doubts.