A surreal psychological horror/thriller short story based in a medieval fantasy setting about a woman exploring an abandoned cathedral of the dead, in search of an old enemy.
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Voices of the Dead
There were voices. Slurred murmurs, echoing from someplace ancient. They sounded in pain. Disoriented. Lost. Undeniably sinister.
Samantha Akiena Olakk stood unmoving in the darkness. The chambers of the dead were normally said to be silent. Tonight was different.
What troubled Samantha, was not that there were voices coming from any of the tombs or graves, but that they were coming from inside her head. There was a presence in her thoughts. Something slow moving. Filthy, and malevolent. Her heart felt haunted. Her soul unclean. The words were impossible to make out, as if they were meant to be felt and not completely heard. It was as if they were lurking somewhere in-between her many thoughts, running dirty fingers along the walls of her sanity, and scraping at the edges of what she believed to be reality.
The witch had told her that the dead would speak to her tonight. That was why she was here. It was why she had gone through the dark ceremony. Why she was now dressed in a ceremonial robe, and her face and arms painted in symbols made from the black ashes of strange smelling roots. She just didn't realize that the voices would be inside of her mind. That they would be a part of her. Possibly even making a home inside of her.
The sword she brought with her felt almost useless. She felt naive for insisting to keep it with her. Naive but unapologetic. She had come so far and lost so much, yet she still felt an unexplainable need to have sheathed and strapped to her back. The weapon was unusually large for such a small woman, but it was the only thing left that she had from what she called her "other life".
When she was younger she had found the weapon in a field, wrapped in rags, and set atop of what looked like an unmarked grave. That day she had wandered further outside of the village than she was supposed to go. She had never done this before. The elders would have punished her if they had survived what came after. She remembered that afternoon so clearly. The pale blue sky flecked with wisps of clouds, and seeming to go on forever. Her heart full and free. The smell of early spring. Her bare feet against the grass. The horror of when she saw the dark smoke rising from the direction she had come.
It was a turning point in her life really. Everything was different after that.
She felt her thoughts drift back into focus.
The large doors behind her were open wide. If she were to run, this would be her only chance. She stared outside for a moment. The large, muddy colored moon almost seemed to be calling to her. Begging her to reconsider. To leave the dead alone. To forget, and to move on.
But this is where she was meant to be, and tonight she would not run.
She would face these inner monsters.
She turned back towards the darkness, struck a match, and lit a lantern. Long shadows arched out from the light, as if trying to hide. She turned and closed the large doors behind her, the deep thud filling her heart with a strange sensation.
There were no bodies in the room she was in now, but it felt as if there were unseen things scuttling around her, crowding in to see why she was here. Besides the murmuring voices in her head, all else was completely silent. This place had been long abandoned. Surrounding her were peeling walls with faded paintings which had been made by the grave keepers so many years ago. The entrance hall was quite large, with stone pillars reaching up to a high ceiling. There was also what looked like broken furniture sprawled out chaotically across the tile floor.
She proceeded forwards, ignoring many of the wooden doors along the sides of this entrance chamber. Those would lead to the living quarters for the grave keepers. What she sought after was further in.
She found a stairway ahead leading downwards. The steps were broad, and very dirty. As she began to descend, she felt as if she were climbing into the belly of a sleeping monster. Something that if awoken would devour her, and keep her forever from daylight.
She reached the bottom of the long staircase, and the voices stopped.
Silence lingered uneasily.
What did this mean?
She proceeded to move forwards. The lantern was dim down here, and she couldn't see very far ahead. The walls and roof disappeared after the stairway, and there was no telling how large this current chamber was. There was a loneliness to where she was now. Not being able to see any walls made it feel as if she were wandering into another world. The emptiness around her seemed as if it went on forever.
Samantha questioned whether she would get lost. The question was unrealistic of course. It was impossible that the darkness around her went on forever. But still, that unsettled fear of never making it out lingered.
She reached an archway, finally. It was strangely reassuring, as if reality hadn't entirely slipped away from her. Through the archway was more darkness, but still she felt a little better now.
Something moved, just outside of the lantern's reach.
A creaking, and then a shuffling.
She quickened her pace, and within moments the light from her lantern revealed a man facing away from her, his hair a long scraggly grey, his clothes torn and stained. Atop his shoulders was what looked like disfigured armor.
He turned his head slightly as she neared him. His face was long, and an ugly scar ran along his jaw line.
Something else suddenly moved beside Samantha, and she heard an old woman's laughter. Samantha back stepped, stumbled, and almost fell. She turned the lantern towards the darkness where she thought the laughter had come, and then back towards the strange man.
Only he was gone.
There was more movement, coming from all around her now. More laugher.
"I have come for Kahsh! "Samantha yelled. "King of clan Tarosh!"
The laugher stopped, and an elderly woman crept into the light. Her hair was dark and matted, and she wore no clothes. A multitude of scars covered her skin–which was milk pale, but also riddled in dark blue veins. Her eyes were faded, and unnaturally round. She made Samantha uneasy. There was something putrid within the old woman's expression. Her was mouth open, and her teeth her black–but that didn't define the uneasiness Samantha felt. It was more so the feeling let off by that terrible gaze. An unseen sensation hiding inside those round blank eyes.
"I've come for Kahsh," Samantha repeated.
The old woman's expression didn't change, but she let out a dry laugh.
Samantha suddenly realized that the laughter was coming from inside her head. It made her thoughts spin, as if she were dizzy and falling. It made her feel as if she were losing her mind.
And then there was more movement.
Half a dozen more elderly women crept out from the shadows, crouching at the edge of where the light met the darkness. Their eyes were full of cruelty and anger, and drool hung from their mouths. Like the other woman, they were naked, and covered in scars.
Samantha set down the lantern, and began to unsheathe the oversized sword. The weight of the weapon filled her with a confidence. It felt right that she had it with her now.
The crouching woman with the round eyes lunged at her.
Samantha swung the heavy sword as hard as she could. She felt the blade slam deep into something soft, and a warm liquid splattered against her face.
Samantha opened her eyes, not realizing she had closed them.
The round eyed woman lay crumpled and unmoving, and the other's circled closer.
Another lunged, and Samantha swung again. Only this time she missed, and the weight of the sword put her off balance. She fell hard, and knocked the lantern over. The flame went out. Frantically, Samantha attempted to swing again into the darkness.
Hands were all over her now, pulling from all directions. Samantha began to scream. She tried swinging the sword again, but the hands were overpowering her, pulling her down, tearing at her hair and her clothing. She dropped the sword. Fear had flooded her thoughts. She flung her arms and legs as violently as she could. She screamed harder.
She was moving now.
She screamed some more, and a cold hand covered her mouth. The smell of it made her gag.
They dragged her a long ways through the blackness, until finally throwing her hard against a wall. It knocked the wind out of her, and she heaved awkwardly. The hands were upon her again, pulling her up to her feet, and pushing her against the wall. She was unable to move.
The laughter stopped, and she heard shuffling again.
A torch lit up nearby.
And then another.
The elderly women were lighting a multitude of torches down a long stone hallway. There appeared to be dozens of the woman now, crawling towards Samantha like diabolical insects.
The shuffling sound got louder.
There were bodies of dead men hanging on the hallway walls, their heads wrapped in what look like weaved baskets, their clothing and armor covered in blood.
"Kahsh, king of clan Tarosh!" Samantha shouted, her voice dry from the screaming. "I come from an unnamed village. I've come to claim the lives of my brothers and father, as well as all the other men and boys you took from us. I have come to curse you for burning our home. To condemn you for destroying my life!"
"Your life?" A deep voice emerged from inside Samantha's head. Strangely, it felt as if it has always been there, hibernating beneath the surface of her consciousness. Waiting to be summoned. The shuffling became louder still, and the man with the long face she saw moments ago, limped into the light.
"All of our lives" Samantha replied.
The long faced man laughed. "I am Kahsh, so called king of Tarosh, and I have burnt many villages. I have put to death many sons and fathers of apposing clans."
He moved close to Samantha, and looked directly into her eyes. He smelled like rotten leaves. His eyes were a cold gray with shades of tarnished green.
"But I don't remember you," he continued. "You've awoken us to condemn a man you've never met?
"I've come to ruin you."
"I'm already ruined."
"I've come to face you."
"And what has that done for you?" He sneered.
"You don't deserve to rest," Samantha said. "So much hurt and chaos you've left behind. I won't let you just fade away.
"What will you do then?" he asked.
"I've already done it. You're already cursed."
"Then why are you here?"
"I needed to face you."
There was a long silence before Khash replied: "And so you condemned all the other souls resting in this great cathedral?"
"I–" Samantha stopped. The slurred murmurs in her head came drifting back in.
"There are a lot of us down here." Khash said. "What will you do with all of us?"
The dead men on the walls all turned their heads towards Samantha. She could feel their hollow gazes beneath the baskets, and she felt as if they were judging her. As if they were condemning her. It made no sense, but it was happening. It was undeniable.
Further down the hall of torches she could see something else. Something large, and moving slowly from the shadows.
Something deformed. Slithering. Monstrous.
"Up there I was a king, and I was brave." Kahsh said, a strange amusement in his voice. "Down here, we are all slaves. All afraid."
"Of the monsters in out heads. Tell me girl, how many dwell within you now?"
The thing at the end of the hallway was moving closer. It was so far down the narrow hall that it was hard to make out. It was human-like, with many arms. A slithering sort of crawl.
One of the elderly women handed Kahsh Samantha's sword. He looked at it blankly for a long time.
"I've sacrificed everyone and everything I know to find you. I made a deal with a witch, just for this chance to be able to tell you myself that I bought you back from the dead to suffer." Samantha said. "Everything I knew is gone because of you and your greed. This is my vengeance!"
Kahsh began to laugh.
"And in doing so you've cursed yourself, and become a monster–just like me. I too had a lust for revenge. It ate at me like a sickness. Devoured everything decent inside of me."
The thing down the hall was closer. It had many faces. A multitude of dead men formed to make a demonic spider-like thing. It was dragging itself closer with 8 human arms, which were long and arched. A multitude of broken legs trailed behind it like a deformed tail.
"What else do you see in here?" Kahsh asked. What other ghosts haunt you besides those you've cursed in here?"
The spider thing was even closer. Samantha recognized the faces on it. They were the people she had betrayed to get where she was now. She had ruined so many lives to get here. It was the only thing that had really mattered to her anymore. The remorseless search for a dead king.
"I see the guilt in your eyes. And I see the darkness. What will you do now?"
The spider thing was just behind Kahsh now. It was larger than she thought. The eyes of the people she'd betrayed were twitching up and down and back and forth, looking like flies trying to escape. Their mouths were open, with long tongues hanging out limply.
The murmurs in her head were so loud now. Screaming at her.
We will not forgive you, they were screaming.
Samantha realized suddenly that there was only one way she would ever make it out of here. Only one hope of survival.
She would have to forgive the king of Tarosh, and she would have to forgive herself for being seduced by the lust for vengeance.
The spider thing was raising its front arms, revealing a large open mouth at its belly, a horrific void filled with maggots and jagged teeth. She could smell the rot and the sickness from within it. Kahsh seemed not to notice the giant thing behind him. He just stared blankly at Samantha. They all were. The dead men on the walls, the dozens of elderly women at the edges of the shadows, and the king of Tarosh, they were all just staring at Samantha.
"I forgive you, Kahsh king of Tarosh!" Samantha yelled out, after finally deciding. "In hunting for your grave, I have become the very thing I hated. I became you, a monster filled with ugliness–and I forgive myself for that too!"
Samantha collapsed suddenly.
She was alone, and breathing heavily.
Kahsh, the old women, the dead men, and the spider thing were all gone. The torches were still lighting the long hallway, and in her hands she held the oversized sword. At the very end of the hallway, where the spider thing has come from, there was a light.
She dropped the sword, and moved towards the light.
As she did, she felt the terrible weight of her hatred falling away from her. Shedding like a snakeskin. Making her feel as if there was still hope.
She reached the light.
She was back outside, and it looked like mid afternoon.
The possibilities of what she could do next filled her with a joy she hadn't felt for so long. It was very surreal. She had expected to die in the dark with the monsters and the dead. With the voices and the shadows. The reality of being right here right now felt so strange. She felt as if she traveled into a place that in her mind was never supposed to exist.
She smiled, and began to walk forwards. She did not look back.
Copyright 2017 Justin Gedak
Published by Justin Gedak
Written by Justin Gedak
Cover art by Justin Gedak