01 Feb Within The Catacombs
Most people know, but often forget that the City of Light lies atop a realm of shadows. Beneath the great streets of such history are tunnels, a seemingly endless expanse of bones stacked to the ceiling, lining almost every wall, and continuously shrouded in such darkness. Piles of femurs are stacked in stone pockets the size of industrial chimneys. Skulls are lined in such wondrous sights of necrotic grandeur that most often forget that they are staring into the faces of the dead. I can never forget such sights though, for I never venture there anymore, for more lurks beneath the city than just the long-forgotten dead.
One night in late June, I was on patrol with an old friend of mine, Enzo. The two of us served together during the war and when all was said and done, after the many deaths we’d seen, we donned blue once more and became police officers. I enjoyed Enzo’s company, and he enjoyed mine. We’d seen so much together that a bond was formed, for we were lucky to survive such horrors.
Enzo and I were assigned a rather unfortunate part of town. Near the old train station many vandals and vagabonds would cause all sorts of trouble. There’d been a string of murders, break-ins, and all sorts of other violent crimes rising within the area. On top of that, the minor offenders would take the opportunity to graffiti or vandalize whatever they felt like. The streetlamps in the area were few and far between, and the lamplighter was too afraid after nightfall to complete his rounds. Most of the streets laid under a dark veil of shadow while Enzo and myself patrolled. We had seen many things before our time as officers, so we did not fear the dark most nights. Yet, that night in June was something different. A cold chill filled the air and a sense of dread seeped upward from the very streets themselves. We could feel it, though the two of us never spoke on it.
It was near midnight when we heard the screams. They sounded distant, echoing across the chilled summer air. The two of us, walking near the train station, peered over the bridge where we stood, down onto the tracks below. Old trains used to be parked there, but during the war their metal was needed and cut down they were. It was nothing but an empty yard with old rusted tracks covered in a light fog that rolled across. The screams came again, and Enzo and myself knew that they came from beneath. I feared that a murder had taken place or some other horrid crime. We could not tell what gender the cries of pain and fear belonged to, for they were fleeting and drowned by the heaviness of the starlit night.
We made our way down to the tracks. Our lanterns were not as bright as I hoped. As we moved across the abandoned tracks, the darkness did not fade with the glowing flames of our lights. They stayed thick, heavy, almost suffocating. The only color I could see was that of the pale fog that collected around our ankles, rolling across the empty field off into the darkness of the night. We pressed on though, waiting to find a body or a victim, for we could no longer hear the screams. The train station loomed overhead, sitting atop a bridge. Beneath it sat a long tunnel where the trains used to be stored. All that it possessed after the war though was a wall of darkness, ever devouring, ever calling to us in the night. Haunting it was, for the windows of the train station glistened under the moonlight as if they were eyes to some great beast, and beneath it the tunnel was its gaping maw, toothless but carnivorous.
Upon entry into the tunnel, Enzo and I stayed silent. We were uncertain if the assailant still skulked in the darkness. We kept our lanterns held outward, but they honestly did no good. All we could see were the arms of our navy-blue uniforms, but they too blended with shadows. It wasn’t until we came to a strange hole in the right end of the tunnel that we saw another source of light. The two of us moved to it, feeling a hot breath radiate from the opening. Inside, a single torch laid on the old dusty ground, illuminating a passage that led deep beneath the city. The walls were stacked with ancient stones. Carved into the surface of a flat rock read a single word, “cimetière.”
Enzo knelt in opening, still staying outside of it. He basked in the low light of the torch left in the doorway. I could see the flames dance across his nervous eyes as he thought of something. I could see he was anxious, for I was too. Neither of us would want to enter beneath the city, for we knew where it led. We lived through death’s wake many a times and to behold such horrors again could be the undoing of our sanity.
The cold chill of the night dug into my back as the screams came again. They echoed from deep within the tunnels, deep within the catacombs, carried out to disintegrate among the cool summer air. Enzo stood, moving away from the tunnel entrance. He ran his index finger across his thin mustache. His gaunt sunken cheeks twitched with nerves and his eyes danced around the darkness, thinking of what to do. He looked to me, cocking his head, “Who goes first this time?”
I hated that question. He knew it. Many a times during the war we had to choose who would enter a hostile environment first. We flipped a coin to decide. Enzo and myself were the last two living who ever played such a game. I knew where his question was leading, for he dug into his pocket and removed a single coin. He held his lantern out over it and said, “I don’t want to go in, you don’t want to go in. We should flip.”
“I don’t want to.” I said. “I hated that game.”
“It’s all luck,” he said.
“I have no luck.” I replied.
He smirked, flipping the coin in the air. He called his side, “Olive branch.”
The small silver coin tumbled in the air. The hellish light of our lanterns glistened upon it as it sent out a radiant tinging sound that cut through the night. I watched intently, waiting to see if I still possessed any luck. Enzo reached out to grab it but could not gage the distance in such a dark environment. The coin missed his hand, falling into the dirt between the tracks. He lowered himself, holding his lantern outward to present the coin to the two of us. The olive branches basked in the orange glow of the flame, sending a wave of dread into my heart.
Enzo looked up to me, his face lifted with a slight smirk, “You first.”
I didn’t want to go. I feared tight spaces. I feared being trapped within the tunnels. I heard many stories of many people losing their way and never returning. To be isolated in such a dreadful place, in the city of the dead, I could only imagine the insanity before I too joined. When the scream came again, I mustered the courage to enter the opening. I said nothing to Enzo as I did so. I held my lantern out ahead of me and felt the hot breath of the tunnel smack me in the face. I felt the radiant dread that seeped from the ancient stonework. I felt that I had entered another realm, one that I hope to return from.
The two of us marched through the tunnels. The stonework was something that I found amazing. Upon entry, the screams stopped. All noise faded. Not the howling sounds of a draft or even the scurries of a mouse could be heard. We were the only bringers of noise, for each step sent a haunting echo forward into the dark. Our lanterns flickered among the shadow, sending troubled visions of the past into my mind. I saw old flares, artillery shells bursting, the scattered dead and wounded. Then, I heard a splash at my feet. I looked downward, seeing a large pool of water that extended as far as I could see in the tunnel. Off to my left, an opening leading downward there was. As I held the light to the flood opening, I could see skulls stacked beneath the water. In them, I could see faces of perished friends and acquaintances. I could not break my gaze from their empty sockets, their decayed teeth, their cracked crowns. It was only when Enzo rested his hand on my shoulder that I came back to our hellish reality. He nudged me forward, saying, “Come now, you don’t know them.”
“Try not to step on anything,” I said. “There are bones in the water.”
He nodded, “I still respect the dead.”
“I just hope whoever is down here believes the same.”
The screams would come and go. They led us deeper into the tunnels. The flooding had stopped a few meters back and when Enzo and I came to a crossroads, we chose left, for it sounded like the screams came from that way. The stonework faded at some point, and instead of brick and mortar, marrow and ossein replaced them. Femurs, ribs, skulls, and other assortment of bones laid stacked to the sides of the walls. A grim sight it was, for miles on it went, never ending.
The two of us called out into the dark, stating that we were police. I could hear the nervousness in our voices. I could hear the troubled souls. Nothing responded in words, only screams, and I feared what dark torture lurked deeper in the catacombs. We pressed on though, we had to. I could not let an innocent perish in such a dark place. I could not fathom the guilt that could come with it.
I wasn’t sure how far we walked, but I tried my best to keep track of each turn we made. Ancient street signs were placed between the bones at each bend, trying to help those who could become lost. I read one and could not understand how deep we’d gone, for it appeared that we had walked miles beneath the city following screams that could not physically be cared so far. We were being lured, but only in hindsight do I see such a thing.
We came to a dead end, a great room it was, tall and mighty. Three men could stand atop each other before reaching the ceiling. Shallow it was though, for it was two arms’ length in width and depth. A coldness radiated from the room, and a fog, one that glowed with a paleness of the moon, collected at its dirt floor. The walls of the room were entirely made of skulls, stacked one atop the other, all facing outward. Even on the ceiling, the looked down onto us, the eyeless dead peering into our troubled souls. I became lost in the necrotic structure of the room, staring into each of the empty sockets that swelled and swirled with the shadows of the catacombs. Our lanterns only gave off such a dim glow, and the horrors that laid before us sat within their own veil of shadow and mystery.
Enzo moved past me, making his way to the edge of the room. He was unphased by the walls of death around us. He was stronger than I, more attuned to what life and death were. I struggled with it, something he knew but dared not speak of. It was in the corner that he held his lantern, illuminating a small opening within the walls. The fog flowed from it as if it were denser than the air, thick it was, and radiant in glow. Enzo stuck his head into the tunnel and as he did, a scream bellowed from deep within, causing him to fall backwards onto the dirt floor. He stood quickly, dusting himself off. He looked to me, “I’ll go first.”
I found a sense of courage as I glanced back at him, breaking my stares into the eyes of the dead, “We should flip for it.”
“You entered this place first,” he told me. “We don’t need to.”
“I’m fine.” I told him, “Just flip the coin. I call Liberty.”
Enzo dug into his pocket, removing the small silver coin yet again. He asked me, “You sure? You’re not very lucky.”
My friend placed the coin onto his thumb and ejected the coin into the air. We both watched as it tumbled downward into the dirt, splashing into the fog and sending ripples across the pale in its wake. Enzo went to kneel to get it, but I beat him to it, holding my lantern out atop the silver. The olive branches stared up at me, colored with the moonlit glow of the fog. I shook my head and said, “I’ll go.”
“You sure?” He asked.
I nodded, “Enzo, I’m alright. I’ll lead.”
“I’ll be right behind you, corporal.” He said with a smirk.
I stood, moving towards the opening in the wall. I held my lantern out in front of me but realized that the space was so tight that I could not bring it with me. I set it down in the dirt and looked back to Enzo, “Stay here with the lights, and when I get through try and pass them to me.”
The tunnel was tighter than I expected, darker too. The shadows before me swirled and swelled as if they were a thick water that hung in the air. The dense fog that filled the tunnel carried with it a strange aroma, one of incense and death. I put that all out of my mind though as I crawled. I felt the stone cut at my elbows and at my knees. It felt like old times with barbed wire and splintered steel. I pushed that out of my mind though, pressing onward towards the end of the tunnel. The deeper I went, the darker the shadows became. Soon though, I could see a light near the end, and I shouted forward that I was coming to help. Yet, the only response I received was a cold haunting scream, one that I realized belonged to no human. Deep it was, bellowing, and the sound alone made my ears want to bleed. I froze, terrified. I had nowhere else to go, for the tunnel was too narrow to crawl backwards. I tried, but my long boney legs could not move me fast enough. I mustered the courage and pressed forward into the dim light at the end of the enclosure.
Upon entry into the chamber, I noticed the piles of bones scattered across the small room. They were old and dusty, undisturbed by time. The walls were lined with skulls like the former, but this time, they faced upward, and their crowns were all that I could see. Five candles laid on the dirt floor, lit around a brazier. They flickered upon my entry, and my vision became blurred by their red aura. The fog that seeped from the room did not linger on the floor, no. Instead, it collected on the ceiling of the chamber, inching down the skull capped walls towards the entryway. A strange darkness lurked about too, and I felt myself in the presence of something strange, for as I examined the brazier closely, I could see that atop it sat the head of a mighty-horned goat. Its fur was black and bloodied, for whoever decapitated it did a poor job. They were no butcher. Bits of flesh dangled from the edge of the brazier, the pinkness accented by the light of the candle. The horns of the goat were long, dark too, extending off into the darkness. Its eyes were black, unnatural, and the pale fog seeped from the edges of them upward towards the ceiling.
Who enters my domain? A voice called from the darkness that lingered behind the dead animal. Scratchy it was, haunting, and with each syllable came a dread so soul shattering that I could not bear it.
“I am a police officer. There were cries for help.” I exclaimed. I moved over towards the tunnel entry, ready to vacate the strange location. I called out to Enzo, “Give me the lights, come now!”
He cannot hear you, corporal. The voice came again.
I stayed near the tunnel entrance. I called for Enzo once more.
Do you dare ignore me? The voice asked.
I took one step forward, yelling into the darkness on the far side of the room, “Show yourself!”
I have. The voice echoed across the room, vibrating off the crowns of so many dead men and women. It pierced my heart as I soon realized that the voice did not come from the darkness, but from the goat. I stared into its black eyes, watching as the pale fog seeped from its long dead irises. Its mouth stayed stagnate, for it was truly dead and I felt myself insane. That doubt faded as the goat spoke once more, Are you the one among those who summoned me in such a dead place?
“No,” I said, backing away towards the tunnel.
Dare not leave while I speak to you, corporal. Long have I waited for someone of worth to call upon. Your heart is filled with dread. I can taste it…how delightful it is…
“What are you?”
I hold no titles, for they are empty. I am no king. I hold no false court. I am a gatekeeper, one and the same. False worshipers call to me, but I am nothing but a pawn.
“A keeper of what?” I asked the goat.
The goat’s mouth moved ever so slightly. I was unsure if it was a trick of the dim light or if it was all in my mind. Yet, doubt receded as a horrid scream echoed from its mouth. Deafening it was, and I fell to my knees trying to cover my ears. It did no good. The screaming stopped soon though, and the beast said, What lurks above us is not what you’ve known. Into my realm you’ve entered, above us a great city awaits. Do you dare to see it? Do you dare to look upon its majesty?
“I’ve seen it,” I told him. “I’ve lived there all my life.”
Nay, the goat said. That is what my summoners said…and now they see the truth…do you dare to see it? How brave of you to follow my beckoning, corporal. You have seen death…unlike the false followers who summoned me…
“I have…” I told the goat.
How delightful it is…is it not?
I didn’t respond, for I knew I would offend the beast.
Only those who know it, understand it, can bask in my presence before their time…
“Is it my time?” I asked, curious as to what it was getting at.
The goat screamed again. The jaw of the beast lowered for sure this time, and a small stream of blood flowed from its open mouth, collecting in the brazier. The beasts tongue dangled from its maw, black it was too, corrupted by the language of the dead, for the goat spoke again, That depends, corporal…do you want to see the Great Beyond? Do you want to see what awaits you…
I shook my head, “I value my life…”
But what about your death? Do you hold no value to that? What about the deaths of your comrades, the death of your friends?
“I choose not to think of it…”
Until you are surrounded by it, until you are near it. That is only when you think of such a wonder…life can end quickly, as quickly as a flip of a coin…
I didn’t respond. My heart raced with such fear as I stared at the beast. I could not break my gaze from its seeping eyes, from its eternal darkness.
All life visits me or one of the other gatekeepers of the Spires…
“I want to live…” I muttered, “I don’t want to see these wonders of which you speak! I fear them! I do not want to witness them!”
“What?” I stammered.
You cheated death many times by the call of a coin, how fitting that it comes to it now…
“I don’t want to…” I said.
“Liberty…” I stammered.
The goat sat in silence, the darkness at the tips of its horns swirled and swayed. The fog above grew denser, but then slowly began to part. The scream echoed, not from the mouth, but from the pale itself. It forced me down as I stared upward into the swirling mist, watching as great visions appeared before me, watching as I could see what lurked above. Four great spires stood in the distance made of faded ivory and bone. The fifth of the towers is where I stood, at its base, looking upward towards a great storm cloud on the horizon. Around the tips of the spires I could see a swirling darkness and the dead floating amongst it, as if they were trapped in the River Styx. I closed my eyes, choosing to not look upon such horrors.
Look upon it… The goat demanded.
I opened my eyes slighty, feeling a wild gust of wind overtake the small room. I dared not look upward though, for I feared the sights before me. I peered at the goat, and behind it in the darkness I could see a strange creature lurking just beyond the outer dark. I could see its strange appendages that writhed like decapitated serpents. I could see its glowing blue eyes. I could see its open maw spewing the thick, unbreakable shadows. Just as I looked to it, the vision of the creature faded, and I could see the brazier fade from sight, leaving only the goat’s head atop a thin gaunt body that glistened with the color of the pale. I screamed in horror, screamed at such a sight. I closed my eyes again, feeling the darkness cloud my mind.
When I awoke, I laid on the dirt floor in the room that Enzo and I had discovered before the tunnel. My lantern glowed next to my face, its flame bouncing wildly within its glass prison. I grabbed ahold of it, standing, looking towards the tunnel. It was gone, vanished, as if it were not there. I called out, “Enzo!”
I noted his lantern toppled over in the dirt. Its flame was extinguished. Its glass housing laid shattered. I knelt next to it, seeing a small shimmer that caught my attention. I used my hand to part a bit of the coarse dust, revealing a small silver Franc. I held my lantern to it, watching as the hellish glow of the flame danced across its surface. The Liberty side stared up at me, her back turned, her hair flowing in the wind, her face worn over time. I let out a scream, for I feared the worst for Enzo. I feared of what could’ve happened. I feared that he was taken in my stead, for luck was truly on my side.
I let out a scream of terror. As I did, the flame of my lantern went out and I stood alone in darkness and death…