On A Hill -Part 2
He awoke to the silence of the earth. Wisps of broken grass touched his cheek as the wind carried them away to an unknown destination. The sky was black, while no truly living thing stirred. John did not know how long he had been unconscious, but the blanket of stars above left him in no doubt that it had been for at least several hours. The sickness remained, though not as potent, but the wound in his side still wept blood. Rising to his feet it became clear that his body was still under the effects of whatever was on that hill. In the intoxication of it, the world still possessed a fluid, watery form, but on closing his eyes for a moment he felt that he had somehow become accustomed to it, at least to the point where he could gain his bearing and find a route to escape.
Luck was on his side as the moon was present above, albeit only as a partial, waning crescent. This provided him with enough illumination to gauge the strange world and its shapes which surrounded him. He was unsure if he remained where he had fallen as the ancient standing stones, which he remembered vividly and with no little sense of dread, were nowhere to be seen. But as he stood there with his hand vainly attempting to stem the blood from his side, a frightening realization[sic] crept towards him. John found it difficult to convey to me in simple words what that was, but he described it as ‘the rules of nature upturned’. Nothing seemed to make sense, for a moment he did not know who he was, why he was there, and what abominable source was causing such illness in him. He seemed to retain the knowledge of the hill and a memory of the church, but his thoughts were turbulent and disconnected. Fleeting moments of identity would quickly be surpassed and replaced by utter confusion. But regardless of the affliction, one constant remained; his instincts pleaded with him to leave that place immediately. But in this fragile state of mind, he could not tell which way would lead him down to the land below, and which route would send him upward, to whoever or whatever sat on the summit. The sensory intoxication was an experience unlike any other – the world unraveled.
A smell of sickness tinged the air. Whether it was his own vomit or the illness playing tricks, he did not know, but within that stench there was something else. A smell of dampness mixed with the unsettling scent of burnt hair. It became so strong that it began to sting John’s eyes, which only furthered his disorientation. Though his eyes were clouded by tears and the world seemed wrong, he now sensed what he could only describe as a presence. The musty smell increased in potency and as it did, John let out a cough. The response to the noise was distinct, and though he believed that it was impossible to know the mind of someone – something approached and it did so with malice and hatred as its companions.
Terror now turned to fleeting purpose as he quietly wandered passed shadowed trees and amongst the wild grass hoping to find his way out. Staggering as he fumbled his way through the darkness, the pain in his side grew and thoughts of dying out there on the hill, never to be found by his loved ones, became apparent. For a moment he thought that he would collapse once more, but while the sickness intensified, it was now accompanied by the sound of dead grass and wilted flora being thrust aside, as something trudged through the undergrowth nearby. John’s vision was now so poor that he could not tell which way was forward and which back, and in fleeting moments of clarity he felt repulsed by the idea of ending up back at the church or the stones, or graves – unsure of what they had been. He was utterly lost, and something which called that hideous hillside home now approached.
But silence, nor darkness could shield him. No realm of oblivion could provide obscurity, for a wickedness as old as the earth now stalked a man who once laughed in the face of superstition and myth. The air grew denser and what little light the sliver of moon above provided, diminished as though it were being sucked deep into the ground with no escape. Then, nothing. The noise of branches and grass being broken and pushed aside ceased, and in its place a void of sound, almost unbearable. At the end of his nerves, John could feel any remaining vestige of hope or escape abandon him. It was close, its breath could be felt upon the air; foul, rancid, as of something which long ago lived and yet had not relinquished the desire to cause hurt and pain. Then movement. Dead leaves cracked under its weight, the long grass which had seemed so impenetrable, so dominant now torn and broken with each shuffling stride. The only thought in John’s mind now was to hide. Slowly, his breath stuttered and quietly gasping, he sank into the long grass, and there he lay; silent, terrified.
The presence was closer still, and in the darkness he thought that at times he could see the vague shape of a figure wandering just out of reach. It circled slowly, coming closer then retreating as if searching the ground meticulously. Then finally, the sound of its cumbersome footsteps grew distant, and then ceased. John breathed a sigh of relief.
Then a hand touched his face.
Survival now took him and with a yell of utter terror he rolled onto his side. Searing pain ran through his body, as his own weight and motion thrust an uneven piece of ground deep into his wound. A low grown escaped from whatever monstrosity stood before him and then, without knowing which way to proceed, John became motivated by a new impetus, jumping to his feet and bolting in a random direction, hoping beyond hope that it would lead out of that madness. That nightmare.
Trees and grass flew by in the pitch black of night. A thick miasma of sickness and burnt hair encircled everything, eliciting convulsive retching as he ran. At last he knew where he was, he had his bearing and it was one which he hoped he would never possess again. The church loomed tall and twisted before him. Something hurtled through the trees behind and in a moment it would be upon him. At least he knew which direction to go, running as he did to the side, towards the path which he had ascended earlier in the day, a worn track which would lead him to safety. But the land appeared unfamiliar and unnatural. The very shape and construction of his environment seemed to have bent to an unknown and malevolent mind. He had to continue on, to get away from what pursued him. The path must have been in that direction!
Then, finally he broke through a line of bushes and trees into a clearing. His heart sank to depths he did not know. There stood the church once more, but it appeared different somehow. By night the building seemed to possess a more sinister and bizarrely altered form from its daytime persona. For a moment John imagined its steeple to be not of rock, stone, or concrete, but of vine and earth and wood, spiraling towards a heaven which had long since spat it out at the world.
The rustle of trodden leaves approached once more as he stumbled and gasped for air. The pain from his wound was now almost unbearable, each step forward accompanied by an internal, blinding, tearing sensation. Forced to flee across the face of the church by his stalker, John moved as best he could, staggering and limping, weak and exhausted, entering a thick network of brambles and thorns. His clothes caught as the barbed appendages of the plants scratched at his face and arms. It was no use, he could not outrun what was coming. Looking over his shoulder, someone was clearly ripping through the branches only a few feet behind.
Fear coursed through John’s veins as his stalker now bore down on him. Letting out a cry of pain and anguish, the thing amongst the branches seemed to stop for a moment, observing him struggle, his hands cut and grazed by thorns. John pulled and grabbed at the thicket in front trying to escape, and then to chill his bones once, the figure behind stared, letting out a harrowing groan – somewhere between a laugh and a sigh of satisfaction. It began moving at great speed, breaking through the entangled cage of thorns and branches with ease, closing in quickly.
With a scream of pain and disbelief, John finally broke free of the thorns’ embrace, but despair haunted him. There the church stood once more, almost mocking, twisted and warped in ways that no human architect could conceive of. Staggering with little fight left, he moved passed the church once more as his assailant broke through the tree line, rushing towards him. John increased his pace as best he could, but by now he could muster little speed. The heavens now opened, and swathes of liquid poured over the church, flowing to the ground beneath which quickly became sodden and water-logged.
John’s strength diminished as he fell to his knees, admitting defeat as a hunted animal relents at the end. Then, salvation. From far away shone a light. One which beamed and broke through the almost impenetrable surrounding thickets. Something to hold on to. To hope. An anchor to follow, a light from outside that terrible hill. As the sound of his pursuer neared, scrambling across the grass in darkness, one last surge of energy awoke John from his terrible fate. The sight of light and life reignited what small vestige of hope remained. He screamed in agony as he lifted himself to his feet, the rain now lashing down upon him, drenched to the bone, pouring into the hole in his side. But it did not matter. All that mattered was that light, and the safety which it promised. Limping as quickly as he could in its direction, he thrust himself into the vines and branches of the entangled woodland, fear overriding any pain brought about as thorns scratched and cut at his skin.
Yet, he was making progress, and the light began to loom larger and larger; vibrant and sustaining. It was clear now that he was heading downhill and as the momentum of his trajectory caused stumble and fall after fall. It also increased his speed markedly. Flashes of memories not his own once again invaded his mind, thoughts of anger and hatred filled his vision; images of the church never empty yet absent of the living – as the priest reared his hands, so bowed the congregation’s heads.
Confusion was beginning to seep into him again, and the smell of burnt hair once more filled the world around. Though cumbersome, his stalker could be heard increasing pace, yet it seemed more agitated than it had before. Angered, perhaps even frustrated. John felt sick with panic, the blood now pouring from the wound in his side, unimpeded. Just as the light seemed closest; the promise of redemption, safety, and escape loomed near, he flew down a steep incline of grass, slipping in the wet mud and tumbled at speed to the ground. Pain, exhaustion, and hopelessness ruled supreme as his body, already battered and bruised, came to rest on top of a large fallen tree trunk.
The clambering footsteps drew near, and as they did so John thought to himself that he and that which he laid upon had both been victims of a cruel and hidden evil which called that hillside home.
‘Come on, son. Get up! Get up!’ a voice yelled in the darkness, almost drowned out by the now fervent breaking of ground and grass behind.
The world seemed warped, but as consciousness now prepared to wither once more from his mind, clarity returned and John realized where he was. His body was slumped not against a fallen tree, but against the wooden gate which marked the boundary of that terrible place.
Something was close. That thing which had been hounding him in the dark only a few feet away.
‘Move, it’s nearly upon you!’ cried the now familiar voice of Dale.
With one last movement, with the final piece of life left in him, John R—— opened the gate, falling face down into a puddle by the roadside.
I sat transfixed, the words flowing from John in stuttering fashion, yet with a conviction and reality which I found difficult to ignore, regardless of my skepticism. This man believed with every fiber of his being that what he had told me was the truth. Dale had apparently went after him, against the wishes of the other villagers, he had long ago lost a son and did not wish for anyone else to succumb to the apparent malevolence of the hillside. The landlord, being an old friend of the farmer’s, eventually gave in and both men travelled to the foot of the hill in the hopes that John would find their light in the darkness; follow it, and be the first to escape from there in living memory. No matter how much they wished to help though, they would not dare touch that gate, nor cross the hill’s threshold. John had to do that on his own, and he did so just as his pursuer leaned over him.
I remember letting out a sigh of relief as he finished the last of the wine in front of the fire. There was a moment of silence between us, and I realized that the entire bar was bathed in an anxious reticence. One which was almost tangible, as if those present wanted to speak, but dared not.
Finally I spoke, attempting to be as reassuring as possible: ‘That is an amazing story, John, but it is just a story. I’m sure there is a rational explanation for it all.’
He bowed his head gravely, staring at the floor.
‘If it’s just a story, then why can’t I leave?’ he said, looking up at me with an expression half caught in fear, half trapped in desperation.
‘What do you mean you can’t leave?’
‘I’ve been here for three months!’ he shouted. ‘I sometimes wish Dale had just left me there.’
‘John,’ I said, leaning over and resting my hand on his shoulder reassuringly,‘You can leave whenever you want.’
But I could see from his expression that he did not believe me. He had been consumed by whatever myths and superstitions the locals had fed him. I concluded that his psyche had been poisoned. Of course I felt that the land lord and others meant well, but I was sure that a conventional explanation would hopefully cure him of his afflicted mind.
‘I’m going to Glasgow tomorrow,’ I said cheerfully. ‘Why not join me? The bus will be here in the afternoon and we can travel back together. But… Of course, I’m forgetting, you have your car with you. Please don’t think I was fishing for a lift.’
I laughed, but John just stared at me grimly, then answered: ‘ My car is sitting out back, wrecked.’
‘Really? I hope it’s not too bad. What happened?’
‘It took me several days to recover after my experience on the hill,’ he said mournfully before continuing, ‘but when I felt up to it I packed my bags, thanked Dale and the landlord, then drove out of the village. A couple of miles into my journey the rain came down in sheets. Visibility was terrible, but I just wanted to leave. I lost control of the car and went straight into a tree. I was survived, but the car is a write-off.’
‘Well, accidents happen. As long as you were OK. How about another drink?’ I said standing up. As I did so, John grabbed my arm forcefully.
‘It was no accident. There was something else on that road. I saw him standing there. A man… I think. At least, it appeared like a man. I swerved to avoid him.’
‘And a good thing too. The last thing you would want around here would be to accidentally kill a local.’ My jokes once more did not appease his frustrations.
I sat back down as he conveyed to me his predicament. After the incident with the car, which was towed back to the inn by Dale, John tried everything he could to leave. Each time he attempted to use the local bus there would be a problem. It would breakdown, or there would be a landslide stopping it from entering the village – he even claimed that was why I had been stranded over night, because he had intended to take the bus again that day.
The man was adamant. For three months he had been a guest at ‘The Laird of Dungorth’, and yet no matter how he tried, he could not leave the outskirts of the village. Several times he had even tried to hike to the nearest town, but on each occasion he was beaten back by bitter and perilous weather which appeared without warning. He had even tried to phone for help, but his mobile phone seemed to have no signal, while using a land-line resulted in a continuous static. The same applied for anyone who tried to make a call on his behalf.
While I could not explain everything that had happened, I was certain that a series of rational and conventional events could account for each. It seemed madness that someone so obviously intelligent and articulate be made to believe such nonsense. I genuinely felt sympathy for the man.
‘You are the victim of a self fulfilling prophecy,’ I said confidently.
‘What do you mean?’ John replied.
‘I’ve worked in many villages like this. You come to an old part of the country with a haunting landscape. It seems like another world compared to the modern life of London. Then you are provided with paranoia fuel. A myth that the locals believe about a cursed part of the land. Taking all that in, you have some terrible luck hitting a tree with your car, and before you know it, you believe the whole thing. Perhaps you even imagined the figure on the road. Maybe even the whole encounter.’
‘What about the hill?’ he asked, obviously intrigued by any possibility that escape could be achieved.
‘Probably a placebo effect from all the stories you’ve heard. That or, who knows, maybe you had food poisoning or a virus of some kind and hallucinated the entire thing. Maybe there’s even some nut up there living in that church.’
It was obvious that he remained unconvinced, but I felt that it was my duty to take this poor soul out of that village, back to Glasgow where he could hopefully make arrangements to get home. I had seen the damage that unfounded beliefs could cause amongst people and communities before, and I was genuinely appalled by it. I just wanted to help.
‘Tomorrow, we’ll get the bus together and I’ll buy you a pint in Glasgow.’
He never said much in return, other than nodding his head reluctantly in agreement.
The next day I rose early with a singular purpose. While I had to get home to work on my assignment, the bus was not due until the early evening, which gave me just enough time to persuade John to come with me in the most dramatic of fashions: To go to the hill myself. I knew that if I returned without any of these strange experiences that perhaps he would forget about the superstitious nonsense which the villagers had afflicted him with, and leave on the bus with me. I must also confess that I was utterly intrigued by the idea of the place, and while I had absolutely no doubt that John’s experiences were mistaken, I actually felt that there might be an article, or even a story in the whole ordeal. As a writer, such opportunities rarely present themselves.
Before I left I spoke with him and made my intentions clear. He pleaded with me not to go, that his fate need not be mine, but after much protestation he accepted that I would not be dissuaded, and reluctantly agreed that should I return without paranormal, supernatural, or otherworldly incidence, that he would leave for Glasgow with me.
After providing me with directions – ones which I was sure would not be forthcoming from the villagers – I made my way out to the supposedly tainted hillside. I must admit that when I saw it at first it did appear… odd to me. Misplaced somehow. But again, I counted this as the subconscious effect of John’s tale. The environment appeared to be just as he had described. At least that much was accurate. The road was blocked with rubble and rubbish, and I too found the wooden gate lying at the foot of the hillside. There was even a stain of blood upon it, certainly making the conclusion of his story more believable. The thought of some maniac up there did give me pause, but even if someone had chased John through the undergrowth, they had probably moved on after being confronted by Dale and the land lord. In any case, a badly wounded John had been able to escape, so I felt confident I would be fine.
I did not feel anything out of the ordinary as I crossed the threshold, and while the tangled weave of trees and dead grass did provoke feelings of decay, I was surprised by just how innocuous and commonplace the environment felt. After climbing the steep path which clearly had been used numerous times in recent years, I reached a spot which was reminiscent of John’s descriptions.
And there it was. Obscured from the world by a wall of leaves, rotting wood, and grass: The church. I was significantly surprised as I had thought such a building would surely have been part of John’s hallucinations and I concede that I began to feel slightly unnerved by its existence, and hesitated for a moment before proceeding. I’m embarrassed to say that had the area not been illuminated by the morning light, I may even have considered retreating. But I did not.
The church was fascinating, and I, at the very least, wished to see if it was as John had said, with an altar undisturbed inside. It was not difficult to gaze inward, though I shuddered slightly remembering the description of the door being partially blocked by debris, yet it lay wide open unimpeded, and this discrepancy did give me pause once more. Yet, there I stood, at the threshold peering inside. It was exactly as he had described; the floor strewn with rubble from a failing roof, the altar raised up ahead, an inscription – which by now I had no doubt did indeed read as John had stated – and the doorway leading downstairs to an unknown destination.
You must understand that at no point did I genuinely think that something supernatural resided there, the very idea seemed laughable; but I did began to question my safety. Thoughts of a hermit or mentally deranged recluse living under a remote church did not fill me with confidence.
‘Hello? Is anyone there?’ I shouted, my voice echoing up towards the rafters above.
With no reply, I castigated myself for being so paranoid and stepped inside. Carefully I negotiated the rubble, noticing droplets of blood on a broken piece of wood which I assumed were John’s. Thoughts of blood poisoning now entered my mind: Perhaps the wound in his side caused the hallucinations, at least the ones which occurred afterwards? That could have explained his disorientation.
The altar stood as he had stated. Realizing that I may need to prove that I had been there to reassure the man, I took out my phone and started taking pictures of the church interior. With each flash the hall lit up, and as it did so my mind crept back to John’s descriptions of a zealous priest and a fearful congregation huddled under the protection of the church – but protected from what?
Turning to the darkened doorway which led underneath the building, I felt my heart begin to race at the prospect of descending the stone staircase, but I was compelled to, although not for entirely altruistic intentions. Yes, I did want to show John that there was nothing down there, and that the beliefs which seemed to hold him paralyzed within the boundaries of the village were unsubstantiated; but I also wanted to know what lay beneath, myself. Why did this church have a subterranean level? Was there a crypt? My curiosity piqued and my mouth watered at the possibility of a published article describing my discovery, of an unknown archaeological find with perhaps an important and valuable relic or two within.
As I approached the door, I could feel the cold air breathing from below. Using the light from my phone, I calmed my nerves which had begun to grate on me and looked cautiously inside. A steep and narrow flight of stairs dripped down into the ground beneath. The walls were darkened grey and seemed to have been carved or formed with far less care than the rest of the church. I shouted down there once more, but again no one replied and I therefore assumed the place to be abandoned. As I descended, I was surprised by just how long the staircase actually was, and by the time I reached its conclusion estimated that I was at least fifty feet beneath the old church. It appeared peculiar to me that a level would be so far beneath the ground and questioned to myself the purpose of it – why had the architects, builders, or followers of the church dug so deep.
At the last step I composed myself, and turned to face a darkened doorway at the conclusion of the staircase. The blue light from my phone illuminated everything around. What I saw deeply disturbed me; a large room, the floor littered with rags, stone, and human bones. I could not tell how many bodies had been left to rot there, for they were too numerous. The chill in the air was pronounced, and I felt frozen to the core not just by the cold of the stone which surrounded me, but by the sorrowful feeling I felt inside. It was almost as if I could imagine people huddled down there, spending their last moments hidden from the sun. The very impression I had, was that they had died there, yet I did not know why I was so convinced of this.
Taking a few pictures, I then entered what I can only describe as… a mass grave. I was careful to not disturb the bones, but I am ashamed to say that I felt the crunch of a few under foot. To the right lay a doorway leading into another chamber, and while I did not wish to disturb the tomb any more than I already had, I felt compelled to know the entire story. That is, what else was down there.
Above the doorway sat a stone cherub, carved with a degree of artistic flair, putting it at odds with the room full of bones, but the childlike face wore a strange grin upon it. Not of joy or playfulness, but of taunting and sadomasochistic indulgence. The very sight of it left me with a feeling of revulsion, and so I quickly entered the other chamber to be removed from its gaze.
Inside was a large room, much grander than the one before. I could tell immediately that something of importance to those who had built the church had once been housed there. The walls were adorned with beautifully carved symbols, some Christian, but many of a nature I could not identify. In the centre of the room lay a block of solid stone three feet across. A large hole lay to its side. On the rock was the following inscription:
Here lies the father. Loved by some, hated by many.
As I pondered the epitaph I peered into the hole. The grave was vacant, but I was glad that I had seen it before walking around the room, as it was deep and wide enough to have given me a nasty fall. Being stranded down there with a broken leg was not something that I wished to consider. The dirt inside the grave was stained black by what looked like a deposit of charcoal throughout, and the fringe of the hole was surrounded by a circular pile of dirt. I assumed that grave robbers, or perhaps those who had ‘hated’ the man, had removed his body long ago.
The air of the place was beginning to affect me intensely. Each breathe inward was jagged and cold, and the discomfort was such that I decided I had seen enough. While taking a few pictures to document the tomb before leaving, the flash from my phone brought something on the floor into sharp focus. Covered in earth and dirt lay a book which poked out slightly from the ground. Gently blowing the dust from it, I carefully lifted it up, resting the book on top of the makeshift gravestone.
The binding was ancient, peeling slightly as I ran my hand over it. The dark red cover, which I could not identify the material out of which it had been made, spoke of time gone by and of stories lost yet important. Deep down I knew that such an item should be removed carefully and studied by scholars, but as a writer, my passion for a story compelled me to see what it contained. Opening it, I was amazed. This was a chronicle. A hand written account of the history of the church, its congregation and the hillside. A snapshot of a people long since forgotten.
It was written in a linguistically confused tone, as the wording seemed to be a mix of Old Scots English and phrases in a language unfamiliar to me, one which I assumed to be Celtic or Gaelic in origin, however, the passages in Old Scots I could read to a degree. What follows is a loose recollection of what had been inscribed there.
In the 15th century a group of refugees came to that area in search of a place they could call home. The valleys – or glens as they are known in Scotland – were uninhabited at that time, as too was a strange hill which dominated the landscape. The people were from a place called Dungorth, and they had escaped from the laird there who had ruled that region at the time; fleeing his persecution as he was a brutal and merciless ruler who punished all who did not follow his beliefs.
In all they numbered only in the hundreds, and while their elders wished to settle in the glens, a prominent priest amongst them claimed that to bless the lands, and to ensure that no ills would befall their community, the hill must be settled first – a beacon of holiness casting a shadow of protection on all below. While some were suspicious of the man’s fascination with the place, he was known for his kindness and as one whose judgement could be trusted. Disheartened, the elders began to follow his example, as it was typical of the time for people to be God fearing. There, on that isolated and baleful hillside, they built a small settlement, but almost immediately a few of the settlers began to fall ill. A sickness which could not be explained and which often resulted in a feverish madness.
The priest blamed a number of standing stones which were peppered throughout the hillside, remnants of – to him at least – an old and heretical religion. It was decided under his supervision that the people should build a church. With the presence of consecrated ground, it was thought that the effects of whatever resided on the hill previously, would be eradicated.
They were wrong.
Despite their efforts the sickness only grew worse, and many began to suspect that the priest himself was in league with the abhorrent forces at play. Some of the elders rose up against him, but under his orders, members from the church congregation executed those who rebelled. Fearing for their lives, many of the settlers who were outraged by the priest and his followers, fled in the night, escorting the remaining elders to the lands below. Most made it off of the hill, but some returned wailing and frightened, believing themselves to have been stalked by uncertain and unearthly figures in the woods, unable to escape. To save their lives, they pledged undying fellowship to the priest and his church.
Claiming to be receiving visions from the almighty himself, the holy man assured the villagers that if they carried out his explicit instructions that they would all be saved. Each night they gathered in the church as the priest spewed forth his visions and damning, seething hatred for those who had left. It became clear to some that he had gone mad, but by then the man had formed a strict and brutally loyal conclave of followers who hung on every word and prophecy, making any rebellion sure to be a violent, bloody, and uncertain one.
Many spoke of dreams without form, blinded by darkness, and several families were found in their homes, suffocated in the night. The priest blamed those who had escaped and told stories of how they were the source of the darkness which had persecuted his people, cursing them to a desperate end. Bitterness and anger swept through the community and several villagers were selected to descend the hill and bring back the elders who were to be judged and sacrificed if need be. But no one could leave. No matter how hard they tried, the church loomed large, no matter which way they walked, down or up, they would appear where they had begun, confused and disorientated.
The sickness spread, and the village watchmen one by one were found choked and mutilated in the streets, with witnesses claiming to have seen strange entities prowling around at night. In the panic, those left had no option but to cling to their religion for salvation, in the hope that the church would protect them. They huddled together underneath its roof, in abject terror for what approached from the shadows outside.
Here, the writing changed markedly, becoming jagged, fervent, and more pronounced. The priest himself had taken over from the town chronicler who he had deemed to be unsatisfactory. Several pages followed, pockets of English entangled with what looked like Latin, and a number of unusual and indecipherable languages. Each page was filled with pain and scorn for those who had left, and then, the words just stopped.
Standing there in that Stygian and foreboding place, I ran my fingers across the spine of the book and could see clearly that the last page had been torn out. What it could have contained, I did not know.
I felt overwhelmed by the account which I had just read as a very real and palpable fear surged throughout my body. The thought occurred to me, that the accounts of the sickness which had plagued the exiles of Dungorth seemed remarkably similar to John’s experiences. I could not avoid the coincidence and I began to suspect that something had in fact affected him after all; something tangible. Perhaps a contaminant in the ground. A poison maybe? I had read about pockets of methane gas escaping through the earth and at sea which had killed many, but it was not out of the question that something similar, perhaps in a smaller dose could in fact have caused mass hallucinations, sickness, and even madness. It was the most feasible explanation I could come up with. Yet, why had I not been effected? Perhaps, as the chronicle had stated, some people were more immune to the contaminant than others.
My attention now turned once more to the grave, or at least what was left of it. I wondered what the people did with the body of that loved but hated priest, assuming that was who ‘the father’ referred to. Did they re-bury it in another location? Perhaps his followers were worried that his grave would be vandalised. The answer became clear to me almost immediately: They had burned him in his grave, under the very church he had built; the hole where his body once lay, now marked eternally by the blackened stains of smoke and ember. I shuddered at the thought that he may have been thrown down there and set alight while still alive.
The air now grew noticeably colder, but this was not what marked the beginning of my ordeal. I leaned over, looking closely at what I saw on the rim of the grave. I could not bring my self to believe it. There on the brim of the hole was a callous signature left by the church’s former attendant. In the darkness I must have missed it, but now it was unmistakable. There on the edge of the grave was a hand print, blackened and burned, as of someone clawing their way out of their eternal and forsaken pit.
My breath spiraled slowly out of my mouth, congealing in the icy surrounds while my heart raced at the mere possibility of what had risen from that hole in the ground. As the air grew colder still, I stood up and made my way to the foot of the stairs – I had to get out of there, into the sunlight, into the open. It was then that I heard it. At first it was merely the impression of a sound. Then more definite, rising in intensity and clarity. Something stirred above.
People. Many of them, groaning and lamenting, crying for their lives in unison. Chants in the darkness, both Christian and of something older, a fetid religion that had best been left in the ground. As the wails of misery ascended, a single voice rose up out of the cacophony. Deafening and terrible, it spoke of the end of days, of betrayal, and of unimpeded sin. The voice yelled and screamed, renouncing all who did not listen, a vengeful sermon from that stone altar above.
I cannot put the fear I felt into words. Alone in the cold darkness of a defiled crypt, with no way out other than up and into that church hall where something hideous now relived forgotten and terrible times. The screams grew louder as the banging and scuffing of feet rushed towards the staircase, towards where I stood. Such pain in those voices, I ran in terror as they flew down the ancient staircase towards me.
Without thinking, I jumped down into the empty grave switching the light from my phone off and found myself cowering, shaken to my very core by the agonizing voices which cried out against the world, and one another, in the next room – hate and utter despair at evil both outside and in. The roar of agony increased, men, women, children weeping and cursing a God they believed had forsaken them. Accusations, persecution, and the tearing of flesh. Then, silence. I clung to the bottom of that charred grave with my fingernails etched into the soil. Any skepticism I had for unseen and hidden forces had receded. Shaking violently in the cold bleakness, I waited for several minutes before switching the light of my phone back on.
Peering over the brim of the grave, I pulled myself silently onto the floor. The rooms were empty, all but for the broken bones and skulls of countless lives ruined by whatever evil lay in that hillside. I finally plucked up the courage and with nerves shredded and beliefs shattered, I climbed the stairs slowly, scared rigid at the thought of what might be waiting for me at the top, but it was my only way out, and I would be damned if I was going to end my days the way those poor people had, cowering deep below.
The hall was empty. As quietly as possible, I crossed the room negotiating debris and rubble quickly but quietly, cutting through an oppressive silence, finally exiting through the doorway to the open air. Once out of the church I fell to my knees, quivering with anxiety as I tried to process the entire experience. My mind then flew back to what had been in that grave, and more importantly, where it was now. Then I knew. Running as fast as I could through bushes and thickets, I reached the path quickly, unimpeded by whatever evil had blocked the settler’s escape, but I did not stop, half filled with terror at what might have been in pursuit, and half pleading for my instincts to be wrong.
The air burned in my lungs as I rushed down the path, within minutes the wooden gate was in sight and I was off of that wretched hill, a place I would never tread again. Not for money, not for a story, not for anything. I would have breathed a sigh of relief at this thought, but that was not in my mind. I had to get back to the inn as quickly as possible. Continuing to run as fast as I could, I fought exhaustion and the limits of my own body, and after a time across field and hedgerow, finally the Laird of Dungorth inn came into view.
Staggering towards the old building, it was then that I heard it. Screams, of agony, of terror, and for mercy. I knew instantly where and by whom. A new found jolt of stamina found me as I broke into a sprint once more, bursting through the doors into the bar. There, the room lay in silence. Villagers sat staring at their drinks while the landlord himself stood motionless, his eyes pointed to the ground. The screams continued from the rooms above. I begged and pleaded for someone to help me, but none would listen. Realizing I was alone to confront it, I broke for the stairs, but the landlord forcefully intervened, dragging me back, his arms wrapped tightly around my shoulders.
‘Leave him son, you can’t help!’ he yelled as two other men attempted to restrain me.
I thrust my elbow into the stomach of the landlord behind and then barged passed the two men, knocking one to the floor. Tearing up the stairs I followed the awful cries straight to John’s room. The door was locked. Thrusting my shoulder against the door, again and again, it cracked and splintered against my efforts. With each strike I heard the garbled gasp of something unearthly inside in response. Finally, the door gave way and in I went.
For a moment I glimpsed something which looked like a man, at least something which once was alive. Blackened and burned, it turned its head as if to stare at me – I cannot say whether it truly saw me as it had no eyes to speak of. In its grip was the crumpled and lifeless body of John R———.
Then, it turned, wriggling through an open window, carting the poor man’s body behind. They were both gone.
The room then took on a volatile and fluid appearance. I do not know if it was the exertion of my efforts or just being in proximity to that grotesque miscreation, but a sickness overcame me, seeping through my stomach, and as I lost consciousness I cried out in helplessness.
That was several days ago. It seems I banged my head against the floor when I collapsed and somehow injured my leg in the process. The village doctor who examined me prescribed some antibiotics for what he believed to be a stomach infection, and a sedative which helped ease my anxiety. With little else to occupy me, I have committed everything I can remember about this entire horrid ordeal to paper. After all, a writer writes.
Yesterday I visited John’s Room for the first time since he was taken. It was silent, and it felt empty in a way I have never truly known before. An absence of life is the best I can describe it. The place lay ransacked, his belongings still strewn across the floor. I assumed that no one had been in there, the land lord was probably too frightened, but I do not blame him. As I turned to leave the now vacant room, I noticed one item which looked out of place – it did not belong. On John’s bed lay a withered and stained piece of paper. I knew where it had come from without even needing to read it, the last page of the chronicle, the account of those who had settled on the hill. A maze of repeated phrases in arcane and forgotten languages spread out across the crumpled and fragile paper, but one in English stood out. It simply said ‘No One Leaves’.
I do not know what to make of anything any more. I feel exhausted, yet my mind still picks over the last few days piece by piece. I am wracked with guilt, somehow I feel my very presence on that hill brought whatever that was back down here to take John. Otherwise, why did it wait so long?
My last thought on the matter is that perhaps I’ve just been lucky, that I visited the hill when that thing wasn’t on it probably saved my life. In any case, regardless of how the villagers wish to explain this I will be reporting John’s disappearance when I arrive in Glasgow, and asking the police to take a look at the number of residents who have went missing in the area over the years. I think they will be surprised by the number.
Home seems a million miles away, but I know that I will be there shortly, to my own bed, another world far away from the events of the past few days; perhaps there I will be able to put this madness into context. I have never been so homesick. Hopefully I will be there in a matter of hours, although, the bus out of the village is running a little late.
Credit To – Michael Whitehouse