There are worlds beyond the ones that we consciously and physically inhabit. I’m not talking about different planets or anything like that; these worlds are very much here, on this earth, in front of our faces. We may not be able to see them, but we can absolutely feel them. Dreams are the closest we get to these hidden realms while we’re still alive, and I would have been happy never even knowing they existed. But then I found the diaries, and everything changed.
“Asshole,” I whispered, gently shoving Karl off of my foot.
“Sorry,” he replied. He took a few steps back.
We were standing just inside of the doorway to the basement, staring into the black maw of the stairwell. The house, abandoned for well over 20 years, had seen its fair share of rot; it smelled like Death itself had taken up residence, laying claim to the keep. If its tenancy was here, it had fled. The entire building was bereft of life. In the hour that we’d been creeping around its wasted confines, we hadn’t seen a single sign of it; not even a fly.
A shiver wracked my frame and I unconsciously brought a hand up to rub my arm, finding the skin disturbed with waves of gooseflesh. It was a warm night, but I felt like I’d been dipped in ice water.
“Well? Are we gonna do this or not?”
I looked at Karl and sighed. This had been his idea, not mine, but for some reason I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to crawl around rusted nails and broken floorboards in the middle of the night.
Stepping down into the darkness, a small flashlight illuminating my way, I tried to not let my hand shake, but the pale yellow beam betrayed me. I’d seen my fair share of abandoned buildings, so-called haunted houses, and traipsed through plenty of acres of creepy woods, but something about a dilapidated house in the middle of an otherwise completely inhabited street made me feel incredibly uneasy.
We reached the bottom step and looked around, flashlights sweeping across the shadowy walls in huge arcs. Stacks and stacks of boxes. Large forms of different sizes covered by ratty old sheets. A latticework of pipes that probably hadn’t been used in decades. Typical basement. Walking forward, I absentmindedly grabbed the corner of one of the sheets and dragged it with me, revealing a beautiful antique dresser. From the other side of the room, Karl was turning a brass clock over in his hands.
Alongside the lack of insect life, I noticed something new; there was no sound coming from the house whatsoever. No creaking floorboards, no dripping water, nothing. In a house this old, even long-abandoned, you’d think that there would be something.
Rolling the hard edge of the sheet between my fingers, I glanced at Karl. “Do you hear anything?”
He tore his eyes away from the clock and looked at me, a puzzled expression painted across his face. He listened hard for a moment, cocking his head to the silence, and then shook it.
“No?” The question was obvious in his voice.
“Well, I mean, shouldn’t we?”
“I don’t think I’m following.”
“It’s been completely silent since we walked in here. I can’t hear anything from the house, or anything from outside.”
He checked his watch. “It’s late.”
“It’s only 11. There were still cars driving down the street and people walking outside. It’s not that late. And I don’t hear a single thing.”
He shrugged and returned the clock to its shelf. I wasn’t sure why it bothered me so much, but it did. I glanced around the room, shining my light on the far wall, and felt my heart leap into my throat. I stumbled backwards and dropped the flashlight, sending it bouncing into the bottom of the stairs. There was a person standing against the wall, facing it.
“What the fuck was that?” Karl hoarsely whispered.
“There’s someone down here. Over there.” It was all I could do to not scream. I pointed a shaking hand at the wall and he followed with his light; it landed on a tall, gaunt figure. Even with our attention now on it, it didn’t move. I got up, brushing the dirt off of my jeans, and mustered up the courage to speak.
No response. We both stepped forward and I repeated the request.
“Hello? Are you alright?”
Nothing. I was about to just bolt back up the stairs when Karl laughed. The sound cut through the air like a judgemental blade. He closed the gap between him and the figure, grabbed it by the back of the neck, and pulled forward. It was an old robe draped over a coat rack. He grinned at me and shook the robe in a faux-menacing style.
“Shut up, you were scared too,” I huffed, snatching my flashlight off of the ground. Embarrassment burned in my cheeks. “Let’s get out of here, this place is obviously a bust.”
We hadn’t come here with a plan, and i was starting to get tired, not to mention thoroughly freaked out. Most urban exploring outings were just a series of self-perpetuated jumpscares and dirtied clothes. I started up the stairs and was halfway up when he called back out to me.
“Mara, wait. There’s something behind the rack.”
I turned to find him crouching close to the floor, fiddling with something on the wall. Through a swirl of dust clinging to the still air of the basement, I could see something glinting dully in his hands, illuminated by the flashlight. Padding back down the stairs and across the room to join him, I could see that it was a long, serrated knife.
Hunched over, Karl had his back to me. I could see it moving up and down with his short, quick breaths. A low whistling noise seemed to be coming from somewhere deep in his chest, and he began to shake.
“Karl?…” I whispered.
His breathing quickened, and the whistling got louder, turning into a soft moan. I took a step back.
“Karl, what the h––”
He jumped up, spinning around; his eyes wild and wide as he lunged for me. I shrieked and fell into a row of boxes, knocking them over. A shower of random objects rained down on me. I picked an old athletic jockstrap off of my face and flung. Then, the monster was gone, and typical jackass Karl was back, giggling like a schoolboy.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I was shaking, both with fear and anger, and slapped away the hand he offered.
“Sorry, couldn’t resist.”
“You’re such a major asshole.”
He held up his hands, palms towards me “I know, I know, it’s my specialty.”
“Well, let’s get the hell out of here.”
“Actually, there really is something behind the rack.”
“I don’t care.”
“Mar, there’s a bunch of books back there.”
My ears perked up. Books? I loved books, and anything down here would have to be pretty old if the rest of the decor and environment had anything to say about it. I walked over, punched him in the arm, and knelt down next to where he’d been. He was right; tucked away in a hole in the wall, hiding behind broken shards of brick and plaster, was a pile of neatly-stacked books. I reached in, careful to not touch any of the shattered wall, and plucked them out. Covered in a thin layer of leather, they were cool and smooth. They looked handmade and bound. A familiar tickle crept up my back from the base of my spine to the top of my skull, and I shivered with delight; this was a special find.
Slumping back into the wall, I placed all but the top book on the ground next to me and opened it to the first page. The stitching crackled with newfound life, but the page was blank. Bringing it closer to my face, I inhaled deeply. The scent of paper stricken with age treated me with a heady spin. Karl raised an eyebrow and shook his head. Rolling my eyes, I flipped through a few more pages. They were all blank. Disappointed, I let them fan through my fingers until the sight of ink caught my eye; a few straight horizontal lines were drawn in the middle of the page, and underneath them were the words “fire light my way” scrawled in a flowery, looping script. The next page was full of the same handwriting. Curious, I flipped to the back of the book, and found what appeared to be the beginning of a journal. Odd. It seemed as though the entire thing was written backwards.
I cleared my throat and started to read.
“Diary of E.S.C., 1962”
My eyes flicked up to meet Karl’s. The expression on his face was one of muted interest, but I could tell he was as intrigued as I was. I went on.
“June 12th. There is a deep scent that permeates all. I smell it, I taste it, I can almost see it. It cloaks me like a fine perfume, and I am reborn each night through a womb of ash. This is the burning world, that which is taken from me every time I lay down and close my eyes. The clouds sing deep and harmonious in congress with the earth as they spit flames down upon it, and The Father of Strands comes to greet me with open arms, grasping me close to his slick, wet body. I see within him, and as he closes his many limbs around me, I am touched by the spirit of all of his children. The Father worries, and I worry along with him. He knows, and tells me so, that the Garden of Ash is not yet ready, that the soil has not yet been properly tilled, and thus the seeds will not come to flower under the First Red Moon. Ever since I was a child, The Father has been preparing me for this bounty, prepping me in every way possible to take on my role as the Gardener. So, I must burn. I must burn more, and raze the earth, spreading the fields as far and deep as I may, Then, and only then, will the Garden be prepared for the Sacred Unity.”
I stopped reading and blinked, hard. It sounded like some half-cocked instruction manual introduction for the world’s end. Who could possibly have written this? Karl’s mouth was hanging half open, his eyes fixated on the pages. Passing over a small sketch of a circle surrounding three vertically-placed dots, I pored over the rest of the words in that day’s entry. More talk of fires, of “Gardens of Ash” and the “Kiln of Absolution”, of this “Father” and his children. I flipped through three more pages of ramblings, skimming, and found the next entry. This one was dated June 23rd.
“The crops are finally prepared. The grounds have been blessed by the Sacrament of Fresh Blood, and the Father is pleased with my work. He says that any day now, we will be ready for the Planting. Watering is so much easier with live vessels, but the can works just as well, I suppose. The orchard is finally coming to a head; such a blessing to have trees bearing our own fruit. Oranges, apples, plums, all delicious and ripening. The days are getting longer still; it feels as though this Summer is eternal. There have been some mishaps lately. The Young Ones are so very difficult to wrangle; they have such strength, such will! Just the other day, against the birth of the morning sky, I had a calf escape her tether. She ran and ran, hollering her lungs out, but fortunately for myself and the Father, she was not a very smart one. Coming upon one of the Barriers, she tripped and fell into the trenches. A barb spiked her, piercing clean through her abdomen, and blessed the exit of her skin with a holy kiss. How she screamed! I made quick work of silencing her, but it was too late; she was already on her way into the Other Realm. Unfortunate to lose a Young One so very quickly, but these things happen. I brought her back to the Kiln of Absolution and fed her to it, uttering the Prayer of Blackening with as much reverence as I could muster. I sang, loud and bright,––
I stopped, stuttering over the next words – they were in a language I couldn’t recognize. I managed to sound them out.
––Ve’ken’ye asbili sente, sente furilium, sente masilius tre’ivigna, tra’ivignoi, venne illsa, venne illsa.” The foreign chant felt cold and dead on my tongue.
“The Father joined me, taking my hand, and we watched as her supple pink flesh bubbled and burst in the warm belly of the Kiln. She screamed her vocal cords raw, retching her stomach out, and I saw the fear pool and boil in her eyes, and smelled death come for her soul before the pain became too much to bear. As the Doorstep was lain upon, the Other Realm opened, and for the first time I laid my eyes upon the Future of Sorrows. It was bleak but welcoming, and I knew my place in this world was righteous. The Mother of Echoes will hear us and find her and guide her accordingly, and all shall be forgiven.”
I heard a soft choking noise, and glanced up, shaken from the trance of the words on the yellowing pages. Karl had a hand clamped over his mouth, and I could see the confusion and fear pricking at his eyes.
“Did she… did whoever wrote this just describe burning someone to death?”
“I’m… not sure. I think so.”
I swallowed hard, trying to clear the lump from my mouth, and attempted to parrot his fear, but I couldn’t help but subconsciously coddle the excitement growing in my chest. We had obviously stumbled across something intangible and wrong, but also incredible.
“I think I’ve heard enough. Let’s just go, and ditch crazy’s fire fantasies.”
I looked at the pile of four other books sat between us and nodded. There was no way I was going to leave them here. Getting to my feet, I quickly slipped the books under my jacket. That’s when I noticed the burning smell. Alarmed, my head snapped around looking for the scent’s origin, but I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then, I realized that the air in the room was hazy, as though I was seeing through a wisp of smoke.
I laughed and shook my head, waving away the thought. I was just imagining things, spooked by the basement and the story. Then, Karl looked at me, his face screwed up, and said “do you smell that? Is that… is that smoke?”
My heartbeat sped up a little, and I could feel heat radiating from the books hidden under my jacket. As I opened my mouth to reply, a wash of red and blue lights spilled into the basement through the small window at the top of the wall. A wave of terror rolled over me as Karl and I ducked behind a large stack of boxes, accidentally sending a metal cannister clamoring to the floor. Cutting through the still night air, we heard the sound of a car’s engine being killed, two doors slamming, and footsteps crunching on gravel. Karl stared at me, his eyes brimming with fear, and my heart pounded a thick, arrhythmic tattoo in my ears.
The smell of smoke grew all around us, encasing our heads in a virile cloud, and the front door of the house opened somewhere above us; the echo of voices over a radio channel sounded a million miles away, like angels through a fog.