Deep Sleep (Part 2)

I’ve told you before about my wife’s nightmares and the strange condition that caused her to fall in her dreams, passing through the bed and everything below it. I’ve told you about her disappearance and my frantic attempt to rescue her from the depths below our home. There’s more.

I went down to the basement upon hearing the sheriff’s yelling, and found him and the deputy getting ready to leave. Sheriff told me that they’d received a call from across town and needed to go check things out. I didn’t ask questions, I already had enough on my mind. Before he left, Sheriff Thompson turned back and gave me a long, piercing stare. I expected an accusation, maybe even a threat. Instead all he said was “Be careful.” Then the two of them left.

Liam and I continued our work, scraping shovel after shovel of dark, hard earth from the bottom of the hole. We didn’t talk. I was just glad my boy was there with me. It was in the early morning, around 4am, when Liam climbed up to get a drink of water. Ever since I had started digging in the basement, there had been strange, barely noticeable sounds from below. As the others and I started making progress the noises got louder and louder. It seemed to me that the sounds where coming from the ground itself, not something below it. I had hoped for a while that it was Karen calling out from down there in the ground, but I didn’t believe that anymore. It wasn’t human, and if it was, it was a sound that only a great big crowd of people could make. It was like a drone or chant, like dozens or even hundreds of people exhaling all at once or whispering the same low word without stopping to breathe. Now that I stood alone in the pit, surrounded on all sides by the metallic stone walls, it was louder and more persistent than ever.

I stopped digging for a moment to listen to it. The sound became like an echo, or many echoes, of many voices blended together in a long, undulating chant. The rocks vibrated with it, as though there was a pulse flowing through the stones all around me. The air in the pit throbbed, and I started getting dizzy.

Above me, standing on the edge of the pit, Liam was staring down. He looked worried. He opened his mouth and shouted something down at me but all I could hear was the deafening roar in my ears. Slowly, deliberately, I lifted my shovel and drove it hard into the earth at my feet.

The floor of the pit collapsed.

I fell, screaming, into the void below. There was a brief moment of darkness before I felt myself engulfed in cold water. When I opened my eyes I could see stones and debris sinking into shadows all around me.

As I swam to the surface I was shocked by the silence in the cavern. The bizarre chanting had stopped completely and I could hear Liam shouting to me from above. In my fall I had swallowed a mouthful of water in shock, and as I spat and choked on my way to a nearby ledge I realized that it was salty, like the ocean. The light from above made it clear that I floated in the center of what looked like a small subterranean lake. To either side of me I could see a ledge that ran around the perimeter of the pool, and I swam over and pulled myself out.

“Dad,” Liam shouted down, “are you okay!? Talk to me!”

I hollered back that I was alright, nothing broken, but I could still sense the panic in his voice as he scrambled to look for a way to get me out. I could hear him up there in the basement looking through shelves for rope. One of the ladders had fallen through with me and it was sunken somewhere beneath the black water of the pool. I thought about diving down and trying to retrieve it, but something in the back of my head shut that idea down immediately.

While I was in the middle of trying to figure out how big the cavern was and what direction it reached, I heard a hushed noise coming from above. The sound of clanging and shuffling had stopped.

“Liam,” I called out, is everything okay?”

Instantly I realized what an idiotic question I was asking of my son. In that same moment I understood what the hushed noises were and why Liam had gotten quiet.

“It’s okay, son.” I rubbed the salt and sweat from my eyes. “Don’t cry.”

I comforted him as best as I could. I tried to help him regain his confidence – that confidence that I had seen in him since he was a boy. That same confidence that allowed him to climb trees and race bicycles and dive from wharfs into the ocean with a smile on his happy young face.

But looking back now I know that I could have done more. I could have made him feel safer. The truth is, my tired mind was distracted – all I could think about was searching for Karen. If I had survived the fall, she must also be alive down there somewhere.

Once Liam was back to work, I asked him to do something for me. It would take time to prepare the rope in a way that would allow him to come down and for us both to climb back out, so I asked if he could get me a flashlight. If I was going to wait, I may as well take a look around the cavern. Liam dropped something down the hole and I swam out to retrieve it, taking care not to linger for too long in the middle of the pool – something made me not want to stay in the water for too long at a time. He had placed a flashlight in a plastic shopping bag and blown up the bag with air before tying it tight. When I got back to shore and pulled out the flashlight, it was a little wet but when I flicked the switch it flared to life and illuminated the cave around me.

It was even larger than I thought. The cave ceiling towered about 20 feet above my head, reaching a high point at the center where I had fallen through. The walls down there were even darker than where we had been digging above, almost perfectly black. When I ran my hand over the surface it felt as hard and smooth as glass. Careless, I nicked my thumb on a sharp edge of cavern wall. As I watched a thin line of red well up on my thumbprint, the sound of the chanting echoed for a moment across the waters of the cave. I felt the skin across the back of my shoulders tighten, and after a long moment I realized my vision was starting to go blurry.

Shaking my head, I snapped out of it and saw for the first time that on the opposite side of the pool the cave narrowed into a tunnel or hallway and wound off into the subterranean dark. I started to make my way around the ledge toward it, doing my best to keep my balance and ignoring the beginnings of the familiar hallucinations that came with sleep deprivation. Around me the walls of the cavern began to ripple like waves. Shadows loomed in the corner of my eye and for a moment I actually considered lying down to rest. I fought it off, and soon I had made my way around to the narrow tunnel and shone my light inside. I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet ahead, because after that the tunnel curved off the right and out of sight.

I was about to go back and check with Liam on how he was doing but at that moment the chanting sound came again. A lone, brief echo vibrated through the walls of the tunnel and then I knew for sure that that source of it was somewhere down that dark and narrow passageway.

I felt something then that I hadn’t noticed before – the sound had a kind of alluring quality to it. It frightened me, but at the same time it seemed to call to me. I admit, I found myself wanting to be closer to whatever it was that was making the sound. When I glanced back to the cavern pool, I saw with a shock that I was already at least fifty feet into the passageway. Had I been walking without realizing it, or was it the sound that had drawn me in?

I walked a little further in, just to see what was around that bend up ahead. I walked around the bend and onward down a wide, low-ceilinged part of the tunnel where low rumblings could be heard coming from the floor beneath my feet. From there, I stepped out into what I can only describe as a dome. Looking around, my eyes began to blur again. I could hardly believe what I was seeing.

Around the dome where at least a dozen other passages, maybe more, winding off out of sight throughout the underground. At the center was a deep, wide pit, rounded with an ancient stone stair that wound down into blackness. What was really strange, beyond anything else, was the wind moving around the cavern. It was so slight, so subtle, that it took the whole walk from the tunnel where I had come to the edge of the pit to notice it. Air was flowing, slowly and almost imperceptibly, out of the pit. After a few seconds, everything became still, and then that low and droning wind would flow back into the pit, followed by another brief pause of calm. The air pulsed, throbbed, around me. It felt like the breath of some enormous, sleeping thing.

I felt a droplet of water on my neck and looked up toward the ceiling of the dome. I realised, then, how far I’d walked. If my sense of direction was any good, I figured that the cavern where I stood was somewhere below the town harbour.

As I made my way back to the underground lake, I could hear Liam’s voice echoing down the tunnel. He wasn’t alone, and it sounded like the voices were coming towards me. As I reached the edge of the water, I could see Liam walking around with two other men, each of them holding flashlights. Through the glare, I could make out the faces of the Sheriff and Deputy flanking him on either side.

I told them what I’d found, and begged them to come with me back down the tunnel. Before I could go, though, Sheriff put a hand on my shoulder.

“The call we got,” he said. “The emergency.” The sheriff paused and glanced at Deputy Colby before continuing. “A boy’s missing. Disappeared. Mother checked on him after putting him to bed. He was just…”

“Gone,” Liam said, his voice shaking. “Just like Mom.”

I led them to the dome, all of them now believing that this was real. The four of us stood at the edge of the pit, staring into the darkness for a good long time. I looked at their faces, their eyes staring into the abyss. I could tell they could feel the breathing too. My hand was hurting, stinging with a sharp, cutting pain. When I looked down, I realized that I was still clutching Karen’s ring in my fist, so tight that it was pressed into the skin. I put it in my jeans pocket and started toward the grimy stone stair.

“Let’s go,” I said.

Down and down and down we walked, in circles around the pit that seemed to grow wider with every pass. The darkness around us was so absolute that it almost felt dense – solid. The beams from our flashlights were pathetic, illuminating only the winding steps directly in front of us with a pale, orange glow. The sounds of our footsteps on the stones made noises like the crunching of bones. Our breath trailed behind us in a mist.

After a few minutes of slow, careful walking, the stairs moved away from the wall and outward into the darkness. We walked out into that great big blackness, moving cautiously along the metre-wide walkway with unknowable depths on either side. We called out Karen’s name and the name of the lost boy as we walked, but there was no returning echo in that place. Our voices just died out without so much as a whisper, and I couldn’t help but feel like we weren’t underground anymore. I knew we were still in the cavern, somewhere deep below the harbour and the sleeping town, but looking around me it felt like we were walking through… nothingness. The darkness was endless. It was like we were somewhere in the cold and vast reaches of outer space – but there were no stars here. No lights except our own.

I could hear something out there. I could feel it. Something enormous. Moving. Breathing.

“There, ahead!” Sheriff Thompson shouted.

I shook myself out of the trance I’d fallen into and stared in front of us. My throat clamped shut and I wanted to scream out in relief but I was so overcome with emotion that all I could do was run to her. My Karen, my wife – there she was and she was alive! Alive! Before I could take in the scene or try to understand anything else I was there, wrapping my arms around her and sobbing. For that moment, those few seconds, nothing else in the world mattered. It was joy.

But it was all wrong.

Karen was alive – I could feel her breathing; her skin was warm to the touch – but what the hell was this thing she was sitting in? It was like a… a chair or… a throne? It was carved from what looked like solid bone but bones don’t get that big. It was all grey and dusty and covered in carvings that didn’t make sense to me. And why wasn’t she waking up? Why the hell were all these other people here – all resting in these bony chairs with their heads thrown back, silently sleeping? Who the hell were they all? And, Christ, some of them looked old. So old I couldn’t imagine them walking all the way down here. And why wasn’t she waking up?

Liam and I both shook Karen, shouted to try and get her to move but she wouldn’t open her eyes or respond. I tried to pull her up to her feet but it was like she was being held down by something. I couldn’t take her.

Sheriff Thompson and the deputy were both running around, shining their lights at the people seated around in that big circle trying to figure out who they were and if they were all okay. They found the boy – he was there too, nestled in the seat of his dusty throne. All told, there were eight. Men and women, the boy and another child – a young girl – all sitting, sleeping on this great stone platform in the middle of that impossible darkness down there under the ground. Across the circle from Karen, another seat waited. Empty.

As I fought to try and get Karen free, the hallucinations started again. The shadows around us swelled and bulged, and I saw the darkness as a vast, rippling curtain, holding back something that pressed on all sides around us. I squeezed my eyes shut, slapped my head to try and keep myself straight, but I was on the very edge of losing consciousness and I could hear the world growing quiet. I reached out a hand to Liam’s shoulder to try and steady myself but my hand just moved through the empty air. Liam was gone.

“Son,” I said as I turned around and saw him staring at the empty throne, “stay here with me.”

“Don’t you hear it?” he asked, not looking back. He took another step away from Karen and I. “It’s like it wants me.”

I didn’t know what to say, because the truth was, I could hear it. The sound from before, that echoed chanting, was back. Glancing over at the other two men and seeing their faces made it clear they were hearing it again, too.

“I know,” I said to Liam, walking towards him, “it’s been calling to me, too. Ever since I fell down here. Don’t listen to it.”

But he took another step toward the throne, and when he did the visions – the hallucinations from my sleep deprivation – got stronger. The air around me was boiling with movement. I made a move toward him and reached out, but my boy moved away from me.

“It’s where mom is,” he said. “I can talk to her there.”

“Your mom’s here!” I shouted, pointing back at the silent and sleeping Karen, “She’s right here! We just have to get her out of here and everything will be fine.”

“Listen to your dad, Liam” the Sheriff said, talking a step. “We don’t know what’s going on here but we all need to get ourselves and these people out – now.”

The chanting rose around us all, no longer distant but howling. My eyes widened in terror when I saw that the people around us, seated in the thrones, were now chanting along with it. Their eyes were shut – they were still asleep – but their mouths opened as they cried and moaned in unison with that sound, that otherworldly song that filled my mind with pain and longing. I saw the sheriff and deputy throw up their hands, trying to cover their ears and block it out. I stumbled ahead, trying to grab onto my son and hold him back, but I was too slow, too late.

Liam closed his eyes and walked calmly to his throne. He reached out a hand and grabbed hold of the bony structure, throwing himself into the seat. Then, all together, the nine in the circle whispered one short, sharp sound.

Then, silence.

Everything came apart. The world around us was shaking, rumbling. Screams and curses filled the air as the nine sleepers around us all woke and fell forward onto the ground. Liam whipped his head around, staring in shock at the throne he’d fallen from and clearly confused at what was happening. I ran to him, pulled him up. Together we ran back to Karen and she was moving, scrambling to her feet. She screamed our names and held onto us, her hands gripping like claws as the shadows in that deep place swirled and tore apart and rejoined again.
Deputy Colby scooped up the young boy in his arms and the Sheriff was trying to do the same with the little girl that was there but she kept fighting him, “No!” she kept yelling, “you don’t understand!” Finally, he was able to get a hold of her but she kept biting and thrashing in his arms.

“Okay,” Sheriff yelled above the rumbling noises, “We all need to-”

But he never had a chance to finish. Before he could so much as address the five adults that had gotten to their feet on the platform, they had run to the edge and thrown themselves off into the darkness.

“RUN!” I screamed, as dust, stones started to rain down from above. Liam and I both held one of Karen’s hands as we raced across the ledge and up the stairs of the cavern. The cops followed, hoisting the crying boy and the struggling, cursing girl over their shoulders. We ran as fast as our bodies could allow, our feet scratching and pawing at the stones as we climbed. At the stop of the circle stair we could see water rushing into the cavern from above – the ceiling was starting to cave in and all that water in the harbour was going to get down there in a hurry real soon.

We fled along the passageway back from where we’d come, back through the curving tunnel with the sounds of the collapsing earth all around. The smell of saltwater was strong in the air and wind was starting to rush out of the cave behind us.

Back at the underground lake we sent Deputy and Liam up the rope first so they could pull Karen and the boy up. Her hands were weak and she could hardly hold on but they got her out of there. Sheriff made me go next and he crawled right behind me grasping the still-struggling girl, the rope burning my hands because of how tightly I gripped it. We didn’t stop in the basement – we ran up the stairs and out onto the lawn with the crashing thunder noises following us.

The seven of us collapsed out onto the grass in the crisp dawn air and lay there listening to the rumbling sounds coming from below the ground. Everything was shaking. Then before our eyes, the house collapsed, exploding in a blast of sea water that rushed up through the cavern and pierced through the structure a good sixty feet into the air. The windows, walls, roof and all toppled and came tumbling down, drenched in the spray from that torrent of water. Everything we had, everything we owned was destroyed. Everything gone.

But we were alive.

Before long Sheriff had some other cops from the station come by and pick us up. They brought us all to the station where my family and I sat wrapped in blankets and holding on to one another, laughing, crying… not really knowing what to say or do. We held on, not letting go. Not for hours. The boy was okay – no injuries but clearly shaken and disturbed. His mother and father were there to get him in less than ten minutes, haphazardly dressed and clearly without having slept through the night. They asked Sheriff if this had anything to do with his nightmares, the awful nightmares he kept having and Sheriff shook his head but said nothing in reply only “He’s alright now. You’re alright.”

The girl, though… Nobody could figure out where the hell the girl had come from. She didn’t match the description of any missing persons case in the area, or even the province. Her clothes were strange – a ceremonial gown sewn by hand in a style that looked old-fashioned to put it lightly. She wouldn’t tell them her name and she fought so hard with them to try and get away that they had to lock her in a cell until she could be transferred to a facility. We could hear her muttering from down the hall of the station, whispering and talking to herself in a language that we couldn’t understand. The cops wouldn’t let us talk to her even though Karen insisted – she wanted to try and understand what had happened and she thought the girl might know something. She never did get the chance, though.

In the morning when the cops went to check on her in the cell, she was gone. No trace left behind, no means of escape. The security footage – according to Sheriff Thompson – revealed nothing.

The talk around the town was that during the earthquake the entire harbour damn near dried up, with water rushing in from the ocean and being swallowed in a great big crack as fast as it could go. All the boats were sitting lop-sided in the muck, fish flapping around on the seabed. It was the better part of an hour before things went back to normal and the damages to the boats and properties were catastrophic. It was on the news and everything, and there’s talk of geologists going in and surveying the area.

Some people said they saw something else, though, after the harbour had filled up with water again. Some sort of shape came moving out of the crack in the seabed, they say – a big thing that caused a swell of current behind it as it moved. Folks on a crabbing boat up the coast said they saw something too – some kind of big shadow moving under their vessel. Too big to be a whale, they said, more like a dozen whales or so all joined together, or something else entirely that caused a great big swell of waves and moved north along the coast faster than they could keep up with it.

We ended up getting out of town after all that went down. Karen took some time off to wait on a transfer and I gave up the work with the boys. My brother took us under his roof in the city. We’re closer to Liam now and get to see him more often. We still haven’t found work but that’s alright – we can live off the insurance money for a while and the two of us don’t need a big house anyways. Maybe we’ll look for a nice little apartment. We don’t need much – we’ve got each other, now.

Sometimes I’ll ask Karen about what happened but she doesn’t like to talk about it anymore. She did say one thing that bothered me. It still bothers me. She said that if Liam and I weren’t there when she’d woken up in the cave, and if we weren’t holding onto her as tightly as we were, she would’ve jumped too. She would have thrown herself off into the darkness to fall forever into whatever it was that waited below.

She hasn’t had the nightmares since, but I still can’t let it go. I can’t sleep while she’s dreaming. I lie awake watching her with a coffee, book or whatever I need in hand to keep the sleep away. There’s plenty of time to sleep when she’s awake – plenty of time to relax when I know she’s busy. Besides, I don’t like falling asleep that much anymore. My sleep used to be peaceful oblivion – no thoughts or dreams to disturb me. Nothing but pure rest. That’s how it used to be.

Sometimes when I’m alone now I’ll think about the darkness down there below the earth. My mind gets stuck on that empty nothingness and I imagine being one of those poor souls who threw themselves over the edge, or that strange little girl who disappeared from the station. I imagine falling forever, expecting to hit the bottom of some dark and terrible pit, but continuing to just fall. Down, down, down.

I’ve starting dreaming about it, too.

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The Forgotten (originally published on creepypasta.com)

While hiking alone during my twenty-fifth year in the southwestern barrens of the Newfoundland interior highlands, I found myself lost for three days. During this time, I encountered several phenomena which disturbed me in ways I thought not possible. In those seventy-two hours I wandered aimlessly but not without purpose into what I can only describe as some sort of grand hallucination or a waking fever dream, and the thought of my days in that lost wilderness brings me to tears now as I type these long-repressed words which have plagued me for a lifetime. Forgive my ramblings and my endlessly meandering thoughts and my words which run too long and too wildly and remember, please, that those same unending imageries plague me in a way that you could never begin to imagine. Perhaps now, upon reading this, you will begin to understand the reasons for my current condition. Forgive me, reader, as I try to describe the agony that I endured in those days and throughout the sleepless nights since those steps I took into a world best left undisturbed.

A long weekend on holiday from the teaching college seemed to me the perfect opportunity to rediscover places I had visited in my youth with an uncle – my mother’s brother – who had trapped foxes and beavers and mink and the elusive arctic hares which used to run like lightning through those lands. He had taken me on camping trips into the barrens many times where we walked and talked and fished for trout in cold little pools and sat around small fires brewing tea in apple juice cans. He would tell me stories of his people, the Mi’kmaq, and of how they used to hunt the herds of woodland caribou that ran thick as sheep through the unending country in the days before the white man and the moose and the coyote came. He would tell me of the Beothuk, who are now all dead and gone to the last, and whose paths his elders had shown to him as a boy. The same paths those ancient folk used to tread on their annual migrations from the country to the shores of the sea and beyond. And he told me, if my memory is worth trusting after all these years, of the people that had lived there even before the Beothuk, whose language and paths and territories and legends and gods were witnessed only by the dead ancestors of our dead ancestors, and of whom there was no living memory other than the rumor that they had once lived in that land. He shared with me the subtle and minimal clues of their heritage that he had gathered from his elders, but much of it was unknown to him even in those days because he had been forced into learning by missionaries under the name of the Catholic church at an early age and they had schooled him in English and forbade the uttering of his mother tongue.

What I was able to gather from him before he passed away in his forties is not enough to fully describe the culture of those people. None of their language and few of their customs were known to him, and of their origins he would simply state that they were of that place – not that they had originated there, but that they had always been there. They were referred to by my uncle’s elders as mythical beings, godlike in their stature and connection to the land. He did not know what had happened to them, and nor did anyone that he had ever spoken to. It seems to me now that the truest explanation of those people is that they once were there, but now they are not, and any pondering as to why this is the case is so far removed from the time of those folk that it becomes an irrelevant question. Of their territory he was very specific, and from this I gather that they were not a people of great number – possibly existing in one large community or tribe due to a reliance on a localized resource which was in great supply in the region, or perhaps it was the locale of their last stand against some greater outside threat that was beyond their understanding or comprehension and against which they resisted desperately until the speakers of legends forgot that they had ever occupied a place that was not this one. According to my uncle, it was within the barrens that they lived, and it is this area which remains in its state of undeveloped wilderness as I write this sentence. I would have written this off in my younger years – no doubt – as mere circumstance. I no longer believe that this is the case.

It was because of this mystery that I was drawn to the region as a child, and I would daydream endlessly about hiking across the expanse in search of some evidence of those people – perhaps discovering the remains of a settlement or burial site. I wanted desperately to know what had happened to them, who they were, and what their relationship with the land was. What could explain my forefathers’ reverence of those folk? What clues might remain that could help uncover their lost and forgotten history? To my constant dismay, my uncle would always follow the same few paths on our hikes into that country, and if I were ever to implore about some far off location beyond the regular areas explored he would sternly redirect my attention to the current path and express a sometimes extreme anger towards my tendency to stray. Despite his urging and constant arguments about the dangers of being lost in the barrens, my eyes and my thoughts always wandered toward the horizon and the turns not taken. They called to me.

Finally, this inherent curiosity led me to set foot again into that vast and lonesome place, taking with me a small pack of provisions and a tent to set up in case of rain. It was my plan to set course from the stretch of highway near the Middle Ridge Wilderness Reserve near Bay d’Espoir and trek due west – I would end my hike on the highway near the Annieopsquotch Mountains and hitch a ride to the nearest bus terminal. I set out on the eleventh of October at dawn with the sun at my back and the retreating night ahead of me and grinning to myself as each step brought me farther and farther away from the life I once knew.

That first day was difficult, as it took time for my body to adjust to the task at hand. Two years of studying at a desk were not the best preparation for my chosen route – which would take at least four days to traverse – but I forced myself onward, draining my water canteen every few hours. At last, I had reached the point of no return, where the last visible signs of human civilization would dip below the horizon. I could just barely glimpse the flashes of light from cars reflecting the sun in the distance. I stopped there and filled my canteen at a small stream, and looked around at the vast and deeply blue sky and felt for the first time in years a sense of just how small I was within this wide and ancient land. I turned for a last look toward the highway in the east, then continued to walk. In the middle of the afternoon I crossed through the remains of a forest that had burned long ago, where bleach-white bones of limbless tree husks stood in stark contrast against the rusty berry bushes that covered the high ground in that time of year. Later, I stumbled on the remains of a campsite – the occupants of which had left dozens of shattered beer bottles strewn across the ground in a wide arc around their fire. The crescent of broken glass glistened in the evening sun like a ring of stars, and knelt for a while to catch my breath and shake my head at the mess they had left behind. That night I slept beneath the moon in a dry hollow between dwarf fir trees and watched the stars flickering overhead in the inky blackness. I had never felt so alive.

The second day I woke with a start as the little stunted trees around me shook with a thundering of footsteps and I stood up to find my camp surrounded by a small herd of migrating caribou. There were about fifty, and they moved steadily eastward, chewing at the ground and puffing steam from their long muzzles and they had soon passed me by heading into the sunrise. That day I walked slowly with the muscles cramping in my legs, but in a few hours I had found my pace again and moved steadily westward into that place, opposite to the journey of the caribou. The land began to change as I carried on, with the springy semi-tundra hardening into a dry and unforgiving soil that resisted any pressure, and if I closed my eyes I could almost convince myself I was walking on asphalt. By noon I came to the edge of a wide valley, carved by glaciers and millennia of erosion into a sloping bowl that stretched nearly to the horizon on the other side. There was a river flowing through it, and I decided that I would rest there. It took until late afternoon for me to come to the river and when I did I was more tired than I could ever remember being. My feet were blistered, my shoulders aching from my pack, and the smell of sweat in my clothes was so strong that I stripped naked and wrung them out in the cold, clear water.

I began to think, then, that my trip was not as well planned as I had thought. I had only just enough food for three days – although I was sure I had packed more – and I hadn’t brought a change of clothes because I thought it would save space. My mood turned sour and I stared angrily at the valley wall before me and made the hasty choice to climb it before setting camp. It would be dark by seven, but I didn’t care – I was so fed up with myself that I just wanted to get the hike over with as fast as possible. I didn’t dare turn back, because if my friends at the college got word that I’d forfeited my great adventure they would never let me hear it out, and despite my bad temper and my sudden impatience, I still longed to see the expanse in it’s entirety. I marched up the hillside, faster than was wise, through the thinning trees and over rocks and under arm-like, scooping branches and around another, larger herd of caribou that flowed toward the river in a flood of fur and antlers. The hours flew by and still I climbed on in my stupidity and it was well after sunset when I stumbled blindly onto the crest of a small hill at the valleys edge and set camp for the night. I ate ravenously and laughed at my own stubbornness and lay in my sleeping roll watching the flames before quickly falling into and deep and exhausted sleep.

I woke in the night to my little fire dying into feeble smoldering coals and struggled out of my sleeping roll, fighting to keep from shuddering in the unbelievably cold air. The temperature had dropped unexpectedly and frost was gathering in the tips of the surrounding vegetation, glowing in the soft blue light cast down by the moon which was waning but as of yet bright enough to illuminate my campsite. My hands were numb, and after struggling to get the fire going again I gave up and fumbled in my pack for the tent. In the minutes it took to set it up, I found myself jumping at small sounds and turning quickly to look over my shoulder. The silence of that hill in the night was staggering, and each movement I made to adjust the tent straps or stamp down a peg or throw my belongings inside it brought an unbearable sensation down upon me, as though I would give myself away – but to whom? At last, I had erected the tiny shelter and pulled myself inside it, head first, and wrapped myself in my sleeping roll to settle once again into a peaceful sleep. It was at this point I realized I had forgotten to tie the tent flap shut. Being as tired as I was, I decided that a small draft would be tolerable, and I tucked myself in doubly against the cold with only my head protruding. I lay there for a while, listening to the sounds of the barrens outside, of the persistent fall breeze rustling against the canvas, of the last few coals sputtering out in the cold, of the movement of caribou in the valley below grunting in the dark.

And the night drew on and I lay there, breathing quietly and watching my breath turn into a moist fog that hung in the tent like the smoke of a doused candle. I listened with increasing intensity to the minute sounds of the world outside, which seemed to be growing more and more sparse as the moments passed. The winds became gentler and less chaotic and after a time they ceased completely and the air hung heavily over the world. In that stillness and absolute silence came the suspicion that there was something moving nearby, outside my little canvas tent. I did not see a shadow cast by the moon against the thin and tightly bound fabric, nor did I hear a noise that would give away the approach of an entity into my small camp. I felt – in that void of sound and light which surrounded me entirely – a change in the air of which I cannot accurately explain.

The very night itself seemed to be drawing in on me, pressing itself into my skin and brushing obscenely against the space near the back of my neck and shoulders, as if to suggest the presence of some invisible form that had wandered unwelcome into that place and passed through it without noticing my huddled form laying crumpled in fear across its path. I held myself still, reducing my breaths to shallow murmurs, and fought against the hollow pain raising in my stomach, and when the sound of my own low gasps for air became unbearably distracting, I took in a lungful and held it, waiting against hope as cold, stinging sweat oozed into my eyes. I used the last of my faltering willpower to resist the urge to blink, and focused the entirety of my attention on the narrow window left by the unfastened flap of canvas hanging above my feet. I waited.

In all of that vast and empty nothingness out there, I could plainly see some pale thing run past the open end of my tent.

I gasped for air, unable to stop my body from emitting a small shriek of fear, and I lurched forward, plunging my head out through the tent flap and into the night. I stared all around, scanning the hillside for as far as I could see, but there was nothing there. Slowly, quietly, I backed into the tent and tied the flap tightly shut, and buried myself in my sleeping roll, curling into a shaking ball with my knees at my chest and covered myself entirely. I was still laying in that position, still shivering, still drenched in a sticky, waxy sweat when I lifted my face from under the blanket to realize the sun was starting to rise. I exited the tent, slowly at first and then springing wildly around, darting left and right, hoping to confuse any intruder that may be watching and waiting for a chance for surprise attack, but there was only me alone on that hill. I stuffed my tent hastily into my bag and gathered my few possessions and noticed with a sideways glance that my fire coals were still smoking hot as I turned to leave camp, despite the fire having gone out hours ago.

With the morning sun warming my back I started to regain some of my nerve, and within an hour I was convincing myself that what I had seen could be nothing more than a lone animal passing by. Perhaps it was a straggler caribou from the herd in the valley, and perhaps my heightened senses during that moment were a symptom of my being alone for nearly three days. I told myself – out loud, as though to an audience – that there was nothing to be afraid of. Now, I figured, I ought to be at about the halfway point of my hike, but as I examined my small and tattered map, I realized that I must have walked slightly off course, either to the north or south. None of the landmarks that I had expected to see from the map were visible, and the wide valley that I had crossed the previous day didn’t seem to show up at all on paper. I was lost, but what kept me from panicking was that I knew if I kept walking westward I would eventually reach the highway, as long as I kept my head straight and didn’t start going in circles. It would have been possible for me to turn back the way I had come, but something kept me going onward, deeper into those barrens and away from the valley I had crossed.

Here, the landscape had undergone another transition, and where before there were long stretches of rolling hills, now the rises lay low against the earth, and I felt as though I could see an impossible distance in each direction. The graceful topography of the valley had given way to an endless stony plain scattered with enormous erratic boulders that rose as high as houses and rested uneasily on points that suggested they might topple given the slightest amount of pressure. Upon their surfaces were carved crude forms like the dashes of some lost runic language or perhaps the shapes of animals worn away beyond recognition. Upon closer inspection, I decided they must be the weathered markings of windblown sand, nothing more. It made the most sense. The vegetation was reduced to scattered wiry bushes the reddish brown of clotted blood and the lichen grew thick upon the ground. I walked on and shuddered at the bizarre echoing of my own footsteps off those stone giants and did not stop to rest until the moon overtook the sun in the evening sky.

I wasted no time with fires that night. Immediately I set my tent on a growth of green lichen and climbed inside, fastening myself and my few belongings securely within the confines of those canvas walls and wrapped myself tightly in my blanket. Reaching into my pack, I found my rations gone, lost through a rip in the fabric. Only my water canteen and a few curious stones remained. I shut my eyes and prayed for sleep, as I had only gotten a few hours since my first camp. I wanted desperately to feel the embrace of unconsciousness and for the aching in my muscles and stomach to subside. Even a nightmare would be better than this. But sleep did not come, and in the minutes that followed I fell again into that deep sense of dread that I had experienced the night before on the hilltop. A deathly quiet had formed around me, and the sounds of my own body seemed immeasurably loud. I struggled to keep my entire body hidden inside the sleeping roll – it was slightly too small, and my feet or the top of my head or my back kept protruding into the cold air of the tent and in those moments I shuddered and frantically worked to conceal myself again. I knew that nothing could see me inside the tent, but it didn’t matter. I started to wonder if I had left the flap open again, and – too frightened to check and see – I remained in my blanket cocoon, awaiting morning or some terrible end to the silence.

From outside the tent there came a faint rustling noise. I held my breath again, focussing entirely on remaining still and listening, but there was no need. The sound grew louder. It became clear to me that there was somebody or something nearby, and that they were not alone. The rustling grew louder still, and there was a shifting and a scraping of something soft against the stony floor of the night and then a grinding noise, like the crunching of dry gravel beneath a wheel. I grabbed my forearm and pinched hard, hoping to wake myself from the dream, digging in my fingernails and drawing blood, and I did not wake – I was not asleep. Slowly, with a movement I was sure wouldn’t make a sound, I pulled the blanket down from over my face and forced open my eyes.

Outside there was the unmistakeable flickering light of a fire, and it flashed and cast silhouettes of grotesque forms which licked and rippled across the canvas and I could not bring myself to look away. They were like naked shapes of men or women, with their unclothed bodies bared against the night and prancing fluidly by the movement of the flame and their own otherworldly dance. And their long, distorted forms wound themselves around me in my tiny cold bed and sucked the breath from my body as they lifted their arms to the night and sang in a tongue that seemed not to come from their mouths but from the very earth itself, and sounded to me nothing like speech at all. And they were not like men or women. From their bodies there came impossible shapes like antlers or tails or branches of trees or the billowing of clouds or the glistening forms of some rotting thing that had once been alive. They swayed with the fire and chanted and transformed and they heard the screams of terror bursting from my own shapeless mouth and approached the tent and then I knew that there was no hope and my eyes filled with sweat and tears and blinded me so I did not see their faces when they came and dragged me away into the horror that waited out there in that cruel and loathsome night.

I woke in the morning with frost in my hair. My tent and my pack were gone, and around me in a perfect circle lay the remains of burnt wood and coals and bones blackened from roasting. I rose and stared around me, my eyes darting from one boulder to the next, expecting to see one of my attackers out there watching me, but there was nothing. I walked in a circle, jumping and clapping hard in an attempt to bring life back to my numb feet and hands – my boots had been taken as well – and all the while staring around in the dim early light. On the ground there was a chunk of burned meat, and with a full day and night’s worth of hunger gnawing at me I picked it up and sunk my teeth into it, hardly chewing before swallowing and tearing off another bite. On the outside the meat was black and hard, but inside the crust it was still red-raw and warm blood dripped down my chin and soaked my clothes and it seemed to tense up when I sunk in my teeth as though the muscle were still alive. I couldn’t stop. I gorged on the strange flesh and when it was gone I licked off my hands and sat on the ground staring up at the orange and violet sky and broke into sobs of joy or relief or despair – I cannot say what it was, for sure.

And I started to walk again, with my back to the sun. After a time there came the sounds of claws or hooves on the ground but I did not turn back to look. I kept walking westward, even when the great stones on either side began to creak and groan as though they would fall and crush my body into nothingness. I did not stop when the chant began again in my wake, and the sky became choked with clouds and the air grew hot and moist like the cavity of a freshly-dead corpse. The smell of meat was in my throat, and I gagged and fell to my knees, but my retching brought up only ash and bile so I got to my feet again. The sounds of the dancing, chanting things followed me in my hysteria throughout that day and the night that followed, out of the hard plain and over fields of yellow grass and through the stinking bog where my bleeding soles turned the water red.

I dared not turn to face them until the next day after I had passed between two toppled mounds of stone that perhaps once had been placed by hand, and it was in that moment when I finally looked behind me and saw that there was nothing there. Sometimes I think that was worse than everything that had happened before.

By noon I had given up and toppled face down onto the ground and lay there waiting to die. I wanted to die. I did not shudder when I heard footsteps approaching or when the shouting started or when the hands closed tightly around my shoulders, turning me onto my back so all I could see was the blinding white light of the sun in my eyes. It was a hunter, staring down at me, shaking me with a look on his face that told me he had thought I was dead. He half-dragged, half-carried me to the roadside, just over a kilometre away, and helped me into the back of his truck where I lost myself in a fit of tears and screaming and insisted that it couldn’t be real. He drove me to the hospital, urging that I have the food and water he pushed in my face, and I thanked him even though I was too tired to eat.

I never told the doctors what I’d seen, because I know they would have surely had me locked away, and perhaps they would have been right to do so. Perhaps the medication they would have prescribed me might have helped with the nightmares and the hallucinations I’ve had since then, but I’ve always been too afraid to let them examine me. Maybe they’d make the horrors go away, and make me see the nonsense of my fears. Maybe they’d prove my memories to be false. Imaginings. But if they didn’t?

My uncle would wake from the dead if he could see the mess I’ve made of my life. How often he had warned me, how often he had held me back as I started to wander from the path. How I wish I could take it all back and heed his words, to honour his wishes and the laws of our elders, but I must pay the price for my curiosity. From the moment I open my eyes, throughout the long hours of the sun, until I creep anxiously to bed for a night of sleepless writhing, I am plagued by visions of the forgotten ones and the horrors they performed on me during that night of desolation in the barrens. At times I can feel the ground beneath me moving, the winds outside splashing against the walls, and in moments when I pray that peace has finally found me, I can hear them again – those ancient, terrible things. At night when I lie staring at the ceiling with the taste of ash in my mouth and the sweat rolling thickly from my brow, I can hear their hooves and claws and sliding forms moving all around me. The halls are filled with the sounds of chanting, and the scent of fire and smoke and burning flesh sets me howling till morning, and the nightmare starts anew.

I tell myself that these visions are figments of my fevered mind brought up by some long-past trauma in my own youth, and that whatever had occurred in those barrens years ago is lost in time. The dead are gone, and the past is past. But is that the truth? In those spaces, uninhabited for countless years, is there not something lingering of the place it once had been, or of the ones who lived there? Could there, perhaps, in some long-forgotten corner of those endless barrens, remain the memory of what had existed there before our time? Like the decay of a shout or cry or laughter that rings on and on but grows increasingly distant and distorted, could it be that a shadow remains hidden away of the life that once had been? Those voices that had spoken in tongues unknown may still be ringing, echoing faintly the response of the land to the human voice, or some other voice that had made a sound. Some wisp of thought may still linger in the roots of grasses or the hollows of ancient trees or the dusty, hard spaces between the ground and flattened stones which wait with inconceivable patience to be kicked aside by the toes of some restless intruder who knows not where he walks. And if he stops abruptly and listens – with a sudden vivid sense of his loneliness and the pulsing in his chest and the breath of hot wind against the back of his ragged scalp, and twists around in his sweaty clothes and holds his breath in his throat in a moment of painful and terrible anticipation – does he hear it?

I’d rather believe I’m insane.

The Keeping of the Light (a fantasy novel in progress)

tkotlcover

Since 2012, I’ve been writing a fantasy novel. It’s something I’ve dreamed about doing since I was a little kid reading the Hobbit or the Harry Potter series. I’ve recently been inspired a lot by series such as A Song of Ice and Fire (George R R Martin), and the Kingkiller Chronicle (Patrick Rothfuss) – both of which are incredibly well-written and set in worlds so vast and detailed that readers will likely never discover half of their mysteries. That being said, both series are – as of now – in a state of suspended animation, with years having passed since the last installment. My response to this long wait? Write my own story.

I will be sharing this novel here, with all of my other projects. As of this posting, the first 20 chapters have been published on a site called Booksie, but there is so much of the story left. Yes, I realize it’s not the best idea for an aspiring author to share their work online, but I’m not looking to make any money off this story. I simply want to share it, and hopefully it will give a few other impatient fantasy enthusiasts something to pick at and provide some entertainment, as I’ve had a lot of fun writing the story so far.

Lastly, a warning to readers – the novel is NOT complete. As it stands now, in manuscript form, single-spaced, the story covers 85 pages. Many character arcs are just beginning, and I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the mythology of the world. So, even though there’s a large chunk available now, it will take time to finish. This being said, I will post updates one chapter at a time, so at least you won’t have to wait until it’s 100% complete to read it. I’ll post the first chapter soon, but for now I’ll leave you with what I’ve been calling a prologue – a short poem that sets the stage for this world and reveals a little about it’s history. Cheers.

            The tides rise high and people flee
            and lightning burns and falls the trees
            and distant voices echo pleas
            but still the waters slowly freeze
            and mark the old worlds ending.
 
            Out in the further, fishers cry
            as winter clouds block out the sky
            as children watch and wonder why
            but still the ocean tides will rise
            and mark the old worlds ending.
 
            The lights go out and dark, the land
            and cities old fall into sand.
            The strong will live and lend a hand
            to those who fall from colds demand
            but still the old worlds ending.