Authors: Bryant Delafosse
Stepping out of the locker, I snatched up the flashlight and shined the beam one way then the other. Instantly, I recognized the empty freshman hallway of Haven High, our school. All the overhead fixtures were dark, though I could tell it was still very early from the weak light coming through the doors at the end of the hallway.
The clock on the wall above the door to Mr. Ernstead’s lab read just after eight o’clock, but when I looked down at my watch, I saw that the hands were running backwards from approximately seven am.
I turned and looked back at the single open door of a bank of identical grey lockers. Inside, I could see a dim light reflecting off two tiny wide eyes in the darkness.
Putting the flashlight aside, I set my feet on both sides of the locker frame for leverage. Reaching through the dark opening, I felt her grip my hands.
“I think so.”
I pulled her through. She fell into my arms with a gasp, causing me to stagger back a few yards and nearly collide with the lockers behind me. She gave me a look of amazement. “That was bad ass!”
“Yeah, we’re thinking of selling the concept to Six Flags.”
Wrinkling her nose, she took a step away from me and looked around. “Wait? Is this..?”
“I doubt it,” I responded, snatching up the flashlight and shining its beam up the corridor.
Suddenly, the period bell clanged high up on the wall directly above us, causing both of us to jump, then lapse into a tension-releasing bout of laughter.
“I’m going to assume the exit is still this way.”
She grabbed my hand and together we started toward the building’s rear exit. We turned the corner and skidded to a stop, narrowly missing the bullet-riddled body of Rob “Starship” Willis lying on the floor, his lifeless eyes wide with shock and surprise.
Claudia threw her hands over her mouth and staggered back.
I shined my light across the floor. The bodies of people we had both known littered the hallway before us. Martin Fischer lay against his locker, apparently shot in the back as he was collecting his books. Greta Ventnor lay huddled in a corner next to the open door of the Chemistry lab with Donald St. Thomas, who looked, even in death, like he was still trying to protect her. Finally, there was Trudy Simmons, the perennial student counsel and cheerleading captain, ending her reign with a slack-jawed expression, on her knees as if she had been in the process of begging for mercy.
A piercing scream rang from somewhere inside one of the many rooms and a single gunshot followed, so deafening in the empty building that it sounded like a civil war cannon.
Claudia started to turn back the way we’d come, but I tugged her forward. “C’mon,” I told her, as I started around the body of Martin. “It’s trying to keep us from going this way.”
“Remember the interactive spook house we talked about on that trip to Eerie’s?” I asked her, trying to keep my voice as conversational as possible. “That’s
this is. It’s smoke and mirrors. Virtual reality.”
Around the next corner, there were more bodies. Directly in the center of the hall was the formerly imposing figure of Principal Smalls, covered with so many bullet wounds, even the crime scene photography veteran Claudia averted her eyes.
We reached the door to detention, “D-Hall” as it was known to the student body, and it was these two words that had been written in dribbling red letters on the door, only the letter A had been replaced with an E. Two figures scurried from inside, nearly colliding with us. It was Greg and Sonny. One arm of Sonny’s shirt was splattered with red.
“You got to get out of here. Before they find you,” Greg shrieked, rushing past us and slamming the door behind him. They promptly disappeared around the corner.
“There it is,” I hissed, pulling her toward the double door at the end of the hall. “The exit out of this place.”
Claudia turned to face the door to detention. “She’s in here!” she stated emphatically into my ear. “In D-Hall.”
“Whoever’s been calling to me.”
A silhouette appeared in the frosted glass of the doorway of D-Hall. It was a large, broad-shouldered figure holding what could only be a rifle in his hands. He stopped and turned his head toward the doorway as if to listen.
I grabbed Claudia’s arm and pulled her silently toward the exit immediately in front of us. We rushed the bars of the door simultaneously and exploded through into the foggy mist of early morning, tripping and falling into the dewy grass that should never have been there.
Slowly, I rose to one knee and took in the fog-restricted view.
We were lying just outside the foundation of the House just as I remembered it. The sun was a grey shadow high on the horizon. The air around us was thick with vapor.
“Where..?” Claudia started to ask, but cut herself short with a gasp of surprise. Beside us lying a few yards away were one of those big apple crates turned on its side. I could see a large stone-lined opening in the ground—yet another entrance to the cavern—and realized that this had been the opening we had just come through. A set of stone steps leading down into the earth was clearly visible, though there was no evidence that anyone else had made it out yet.
“Dad must have gone back in for us,” I deduced, going to my knees and shining the flashlight into the darkness. Its beam bounced off something and reflected the light back at me. “Dad,” I yelled down the hole, but my voice sounded muffled, as if I were facing a wall.
“Wait!” Claudia grabbed my arm firmly and fixed me with a look of fear. “Something’s wrong here, Paul. Can you feel it?”
I glanced back to the stone steps. Before my eyes, black ooze had begun to bubble from its depths, slowly filling the passage, and obscuring the steps one by one. “What the hell is this?”
Claudia sighed with exasperation and looked back over her shoulder. I felt her clamp down on my arm and she began to quiver.
I followed her eyes to the mock cemetery in the distance. I could see the fabricated tombstones and the main crypt where I had first entered the cavern. My beach towel remained just where I’d hung it on the Roman column above the door.
In the low-lying fog the first dim ray of sunlight broke through, and I could see shapes for the first time. Row upon row of figures—a greater number than I could estimate-- stood before us though trying as I might, I couldn’t focus on the faces, as each one was cast in shadow. The first ray of dawn struck their faces strangely, almost as if light itself refused to touch them.
Are these real people?
I asked myself. Not one fit the traditional definition. They were all humanoid. All held of the semblance of humanity, yet something was off-center about every one of them. Most obviously was their height. All six or seven feet tall. All masculine in appearance. All muscular to the point of freakishness. Their physical perfection beyond the capability of any advanced muscle-enhancing pharmaceuticals.
If not for their appearance, one other aspect gave away their unearthly origins. Any large group of people gathered together would create ambient noise, even with their mouths shut. Yet these creatures were completely silent.
No shuffling of feet. No clearing of throats. No coughing. Not even the hitching of air through lungs. Nothing but eerie silence.
Then a thought occurred to me. Uncle Hank and Tracy had talked about the two hundred who had fallen at the beginning of time. Heavenly creatures. Cast out because of their betrayal of the Creator.
In that moment, I felt a fear that penetrated straight through to the marrow of my bones. I knew then what it felt like to be a small animal caught in an open space in the presence of predators.
Claudia clutched my arm in both of hers like a vise, her body quivering uncontrollably. I could feel her hot fearful breath in my ear. “What are they?”
They were the Unforgiven. The wretched. Rejected by even the Sun above them.
My hand instinctively reached into the pocket of my jacket and found my uncle’s Bible where I had safely stowed it. Something occurred to me. “This is wrong. They shouldn’t be here outside. That could only mean…”
I turned back to the hole, the dark substance pooling around it, and lowered my foot inside, steeling myself against the cold, clammy sensation that enveloped me.
Claudia seized my arms, trying to restrain me. “What are you doing?”
“Claudia, we’re not outside. It’s another illusion. We’re still inside the cavern,” I told her, pulling firmly out of her hand. “Trust me. I’ll be back for you.” Before she could protest, I took a deep breath and plunged fully into the foul-smelling murk.
I held my breath, not having enough faith in my theory to risk drowning. Instead, I listened. For a moment, all I heard was the beating of my heart in my ears, then slowly I detected something beyond that. It was the hallow drone of wind through a long chamber, something I had grown so used to since I’d been down in the cavern that I had simply tuned it out.
My confidence growing, I opened my eyes. The darkness was so complete that for a moment I was confused as to my orientation.
Was I descending steps or climbing up, I wondered?
Lips pressed tightly together, I hummed and immediately heard the sound echo around me. “Hello!” I called into the darkness. A sense of déjà vu swept over me as I recalled the dream I’d had of calling for Claudia inside the House. The echo of my own voice returned to me. Then I heard a second sound, muffled, as if from a great distance, coming from below me.
Carefully, I bent my knees and stretched my arms out to their full length, feeling the stone steps below me.
Or were they above me?
I eased forward and suddenly, the steps abruptly ended and I felt another hand grasp mine. So unexpected was the feeling of another warm hand in the cold passage, that I instinctively pulled back in surprise.
“Paul,” a wavering masculine voice called to me as if sent through a pipe half filled with sludge, and suddenly, I saw a circle of distorted blue light--like viewing the sky from the bottom of a swimming pool—and the dark silhouette of a head and shoulders that I knew belonged to my father. The figure reached down and a strong hand searched for a handhold around my wrist.
Then I remembered Claudia and I pulled away again.
“Wait for Claudia!” I screamed with all energy I could muster and then behind me, as if she were standing only a few feet away, I heard Claudia’s voice again, call clearly to me: “Paul!”
I reached out and found her hand awaiting mine in the darkness and for a moment, flashed back to our bike trip to the cemetery. In the emptiness of the void, we connected again and she pulled me up and out.
I emerged from the hole completely disoriented. The sky above me was crimson and the heat of flames scorched my skin. Two female figures huddled together protectively beside the hole, Claudia and a young girl I’d never seen before.
All around us, huge winged creatures--clearly not birds--tore through the air, completely obscuring the sky. The high grass and the foundation of the House were completely engulfed in flames, thick black smoke curled up into the sky where a blood red moon hung.
The End of the World.
Wordlessly, I took Claudia by the hand and firmly pulled her down beside me into the ooze. She pulled away and pointed at the girl clutched at her side, a girl who looked to be about fourteen or fifteen years old. Together we began to help her down. But the moment, she set foot into the black tar-like substance, the winged creatures flocking around us were driven into a mad frenzy, flying in tighter and tighter circles, creating in their wake a vortex of heat and black smoke in the sky above us.
The girl began to scream, though the sounds were completely drowned out by the low-pitched growls of the creatures crowding the air around us.
Claudia pushed the hysterical girl forcefully down into the muck and turned to me. She gave me one last fleeting kiss and plunged into the pit.
Turning my back to the wall of flames, I bowed forward to follow her. I watched in confusion as clouds of red bloomed within the ooze. The muck slowly changed to a deep crimson, smelling strongly of copper.
Something seized me from behind, and plucked me from the pit like I was weightless. I fell face down into the withered brown grass and slowly lifted my head.
A single gargantuan figure stood above me. From its back, a pair of bat wings unfurled, ten feet wide and covered with a purplish membrane of something approximating skin. The flying forms drew so close around me that they seemed to suck the very air from my lungs. I could see the hole in the sky widening, and within was a pulsing channel lined with veins, glowing with a dark energy.
The throat, my mind screamed. It wants to swallow my soul.
It was then that I felt something in the pocket of my jacket pressing against my ribs and remembered then what Uncle Hank had asked me to do. I could hear his voice coaxing me: “Remember it, if you get into trouble.”
Rising to my knees and drawing the holy text from my pocket like an unsheathed weapon, I lifted my head to the heavens and cried at the top of my lungs, “Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle.”