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Saturday 6 February 2021

An Oath Unbroken

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
     With every step, the moonlight shrinks away behind me, and the dark of the tunnel closes in. It's a different dark from the night, a different dark from an unlit home; there's nothing familiar or reasonable about it, and the only thing that shatters its smothering grip is the echo of my own footsteps clattering across the walls, ricocheting from one side to the other and crashing back upon me like a shadow-born beast. But despite the race of my heart, I keep going. I have a question that needs to be answered.
     The musty air thickens the deeper into the crypt I go. The wind hasn't touched it in decades. Only one evening, the same evening every year for the past fifty, does anything stir the dust that drifts here like rain in the afterlife.
      Suddenly, I swear my own footsteps are chasing me.
     Now the tunnel descends, stone steps with edges so crisp they could've been cut just yesterday. But it's been a century, at least. A century...and yet I can hear something in the distance...
      Only one evening, the same evening every year...
     A meagre glow breaks the darkness up ahead, a smudge of green in the black. And I can smell something burning on the air.
     My footsteps slow; the noise ahead grows louder. I can hear it now, a dull thrumming, rough-throated voices, and a soft, rhythmic banging...
     My heart is in my throat, and I stop just shy of the end of the tunnel. The crypt opens out beyond, and the flickering light, shining across ancient glass, casts a green hue through the chamber. Green; a symbol of nature, yet it seems more sickly here. Almost putrid.
     Then a shadow moves.
     My breath catches, and I shrink back into the dark. Suddenly, I come to my senses. I shouldn't be here. I don't want to know the truth of these old tales. I don't want to know if the dead truly rise here at the call of ancient arts. What good will it ever do me to know?
     But even as the lump rises higher in my throat, my hands shake and the itch at the back of my mind tells me to turn and flee from this wretched place, the tremor in my knees keeps me in place. And sheer lunacy compels me to take another step.
     But that one step was too much. The leak of the acrid smoke beyond burns my eyes and lungs. Yet two figures kneel before the small white flames at the centre of the chamber, shrouded in cloaks, tainted by the stain of the glass, hidden as spectres in the light's poor reach, towered over by the four stone statues of Fate Weavers.
     But these two figures live. As does the third, standing on the far side of the crypt, just as shadowed and facing my way.
     I panic and shrink back again, but none of them make any motion towards me. As poor as the light is, it's still enough to blind them, and they're too focused on their guttural chants and deep-bellied murmurings to notice my stifled choking.
     Two others stand to one side, their wrinkles obvious even in the weak glow, plain-clothed and anxious as they look on. But these, the three know are present. And they seem to be welcome. Somehow, that only tightens my nerves even more.
     The two kneeling figures rise and throw something else into the flames. They sputter and flare for a moment, belching another hot, acrid haze into the ancient space. I find myself in another battle to keep from choking.
     It's only in my struggle that I finally spot the source of the constant, rhythmic banging: a staff or something in one of the cowled's hands. It's too difficult to make out, but its vibrations are shaking through the chamber with power. Unnatural power.
     Just as my eyes begin to work it out, the rough words grow louder; words I can't catch, or spoken in a tongue too foreign, bleak and charnel to follow. I find myself torn between straining to decipher them and trying desperately to render myself deaf. Neither effort works.
     And now my heart is hammering in time with the staff. Dust falls with its pulse, trails of crumbling stone trickling with every bassy hum. Then the rhythm changes. What was steady has become a heated, rapid clatter - bang, bang-bang-bang. Bang, bang-bang-bang. Bang-bang. Bang-bang. Bang, bang-bang-bang.
     I can feel it taking over my blood. I want to flee, I desperately want to flee!
     And yet, damn it all, I remain, my breath catching in my throat, if I'd even been breathing at all, and I will myself to become part of the tunnel's shadows instead.
     The air all around has changed, expanded, almost, as though a door somewhere has been opened, and yet it's become denser at the same time, as if another crypt is occupying exactly the same space and time...
     Then, from nowhere, I can hear something else - almost. A sound I feel inside my skull, on the back of my neck, rather than truly hear; something greater than the three voices, greater than the frantic clattering of the staff. Something dragged from the darkness of the Underworld itself.
     But the chanters, and the two by-standers, don't seem to feel it.
     Another sheaf of something is thrown onto the flames, and the smoke thickens. It's moving into coils now, drifting around the chanters with more consciousness than smoke ever should, as if searching for something, or being led. Influenced, whatever the case...
     And the sound is getting louder; rapidly sharpening from a tremor inside my skull to a howling against my ears, still distant yet surging closer, louder, deafening. My hands clamp over my ears, fingernails dig into my skin, and I grit my teeth hard enough to crack my jaw. But it penetrates every effort.
     My heart races. My bones shudder. The chanting rises in pitch and fervour, the smoke thickens and gathers, the staff thunders. The coils tighten.
     A hand reaches out from the murk.
     Then another, clawing desperately out towards the first.
     I feel my blood freeze solid in my veins as two arms emerge, and two hazy bodies follow.
     Then, silence. A dull, deafening, boiling silence. The staff stills. The voices cease. The smoke curls, spins and scatters.
     The three chanters step back, the two observers smile, and as the two lovelorn spirits embrace, all living turn with neither look nor word to the others and make straight towards the stairs. None of them seem to notice me as they walk by. And as I watch the spirits of Monsieur and Madame Alleaume begin a slow waltz, I'm too stunned to follow.

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Copyright © 2021 Kim Wedlock