Sunday, March 27, 2016

Those from the Shadows

Beneath the feeble glow of a waning moon and a flickering streetlight, Gareth Tuthill stood on the front stoop of Jarvis Speake’s quaint but cosy abode and knocked on the door. As the schoolteacher waited for his old college chum to answer, he wondered why Jarvis had begged to see him at so late an hour. He also wondered why Jarvis had sounded so urgent over the telephone. The desperate tone of Jarvis’s summons had prompted Gareth to dress in haste and rush across town in case something serious ailed his long-time friend.
The door opened. A pale and haggard Jarvis Speake greeted his visitor with a thin smile. Streaks of white that had not been there a fortnight before shot through Jarvis’s ginger mop. Jagged lines cut across his forehead. Dark circles ringed his ice-blue eyes.
Taken aback by his friend’s dreadful appearance, Gareth gasped.
“You look terrible, Jarvis,” he muttered. “Are you ill?”
“Always honest to a fault, aren’t you?” Jarvis grinned. “Don’t just stand there agape, come in.”
“Is all well with you?” Gareth asked.
“All’s fine, now that you’re here,” Jarvis replied as he led Gareth inside. A maleficent gleam shone briefly in his eyes, but soon faded. “Please, step into the back room, and I will lay all your doubts and fears to rest.”
Jarvis guided Gareth around tables piled high with manuscript leaves and scrolls bearing cabalistic figures and arcane formulae, past shelves loaded with leather-bound tomes and brass-plated gadgets, down a hall hung with weird paintings and peculiar tapestries, and into a darkly panelled chamber. Heavy drapes blocked out lamplight and moonlight, adding to the gloom.
“It’s awfully dark in here,” Gareth commented. He never liked the dark, although he felt that it was childish for an adult to suffer from nyctophobia.
“I’ve grown accustomed to the dark as of late,” Jarvis said. “Certain of my experiments are best carried out in darkness. However, it may be best if we talk with a light on.”
As Jarvis pushed the button to switch on the unshaded electric lamp that dangled from the ceiling, Gareth thought he caught the briefest glimpse of fleet silhouettes scurrying away from the light. However, the strangely shifting shadows disturbed him less than what he saw sitting in the centre of the room.
Within a white conjurer’s circle chalked on the hardwood floor stood a high-backed oaken chair. All around this chair, along the periphery of the circle, papers inscribed with sigils and other mystical markings were tacked to the floorboards. Opposite the throne-like seat, incantations scrawled in a carmine material that looked suspiciously like dried blood covered the wall.
“What the blazes?” Gareth exclaimed. The late hour and uncanny sights had gotten the better of his composure. He adjusted his horn-rimmed glasses, something he often did when flustered. “Good God, man. You don’t expect me to sit there, do you?”
“No,” Jarvis stated. “I reserve that honour for myself. The conjuration I intend to perform requires a certain mindset which, my dear Gareth, you woefully lack. However, before I begin, I must ask you a question.”
“If it pleases you, ask away,” Gareth said in the kindliest tone he could muster, one that he frequently used with his particularly troublesome students. Sure that Jarvis’s eccentric studies had driven him dangerously close to falling over the edge of sanity, Gareth wished to humour his friend the best he could.
“Might you be willing to set aside your inherent scepticism and consider the possibility that things from elsewhere slip through the shadows to enter our plane of existence?”
“Wh…wh…what?” Gareth stammered. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
Even though Gareth had always enjoyed those odd evenings spent with Jarvis sipping sherry and smoking cigars while deciphering cryptic ciphers or translating bits of Old Latin, he considered himself to be an affirmed agnostic when it came to matters supernatural. He never understood Jarvis’s obsession with the occult.
“What you call supernatural may merely be a part of the natural universe not fully understood by modern man.” Jarvis retorted. “Are you able to open your mind and accept the notion that residents of twilight visit our dimension and interact with humanity? Normally spied out of the corner of one’s eye, but able to manifest themselves in full view when they wish, these beings have been seen by peoples of every culture and every era. Shades and devils are names ignorant folk give to those who normally exist on a separate plane, one that overlaps our own on the verge of shadow.”
Gareth laughed nervously. He felt that his friend, through some mental disease, had slipped entirely into the realm of fantasy. It seemed as if Jarvis’s eagerness to believe in things beyond reality had caused him to become unhinged.
“Laugh, will you?” Jarvis shot his sceptical friend an angry leer. “Laugh if you must, but I know they exist; I have seen them!”
“What you think you’ve seen are nothing more than hallucinations, products of your endless study of occult nonsense!” Gareth averred, though some of what his friend said unnerved him. Also, he could not get the sight of swift silhouettes fleeing the light out of his head.
“Not nonsense, fact!” Jarvis asserted. “I will prove it to you.”
The occultist retrieved a kerosene lantern and small nightstand from the adjacent room. He removed a pair of scissors and a box of matches from the stand’s single drawer.
“The dimmer glow of a hurricane lamp set low disturbs them less than the stark illumination of an electric light,” Jarvis explained as he trimmed the wick. He then struck a match and lit the lantern.
“I can summon them in total darkness, but I want you to see what I have seen,” Jarvis expounded while he adjusted the flame to his liking. “I want you to witness the end result of my work.”
Satisfied that the lantern light was just right, Jarvis switched off the overhead lamp. Stepping over the plethora of papers tacked to the floor, he took his place upon the wooden chair. With hands clenched firmly to the armrests and chest thrust proudly forward, Jarvis looked like a king seated upon his throne. A fey spark flashed in his eyes.
“My theories regarding the nature of certain paranormal phenomena led me to experiment with various invocations,” Jarvis elaborated. “I pored over a multitude of esoteric works, copied dozens of magical seals, recited numerous spells, and finally drew those that live on the other side of shadow into our world.
“Then I experienced the ultimate breakthrough. I became able to call those from elsewhere with thought alone. My mind, a mind clearer now than it has ever been before, allows me to consort with unearthly entities. It permits me to commune with the unknown.”
“Please, Jarvis, stop this now!” Gareth pleaded. “This latest project of yours is taking too great a toll.”
“A great toll, yes,” Jarvis mumbled. For a moment, the fire in his ice-blue eyes grew faint. “It requires mental energy of a certain frequency to bring them here with any sort of regularity. That’s why I said you lack the right mindset; belief is a factor. Summoning them can be taxing, but that’s not the worst of it. To maintain themselves on our material plane, they demand an earthly sustenance, nourishment of a particularly sanguine nature.”
“Jarvis, why have you called me here tonight?” Gareth asked in a sombre tone. He began to worry about his own safety.
“For years, I’ve tolerated your inflexible scepticism, your disbelief of anything outside the accepted norm,” Jarvis sneered. His countenance grew savage. In the wavering lantern light, his pallid flesh shone with an eerie luminosity.
“A part of me held onto the hope that you would realize the error of your philosophy. I considered sparing you, if you had opened your mind but a crack. Now I see there is no hope in this. You remain blind to the broader truth. I’ve reached the end of my tolerance for your continued blindness.
“I brought you here, my dear Gareth, because my new friends need to feed, and I dare not give them any more of my own blood.”
Jarvis’s wild gaze intensified. The atmosphere in the room throbbed with eldritch energy. Splinters of darkness detached from the Cimmerian gloom lodged in the corners of the room, slithered across the floor, and cloaked Jarvis in an ebon shroud. These fragments of shadow heaved and quaked as they took on a variety of grotesque forms. Beings barely humanoid in form crawled over Jarvis in a squirming, gibbering mass, and danced a manic reel around his enshrouded body.
Gareth stood transfixed. His disquieted brain refused to comprehend what his unblinking eyes saw. The sight made his skin crawl and his short-cropped hair stand on end.
The entities began to chant in unison, repeating the same incomprehensible words over, and over, and over again. Their arms beat in tune, rising and falling faster and faster as their rhythm and tone grew more and more insistent. Seeming to understand what they wanted, Jarvis responded from beneath the chanting heap.
“You will feed!” Jarvis cried. “You will have blood! I offer you the blood of the unbeliever! Make him pay for his lack of faith!”
The sound of Jarvis offering him up as a sacrifice, and the sight of a hundred dusky heads turned his way, spurred Gareth into action. He grabbed up the still-burning hurricane lamp and lobbed it toward the bevy of shades. The lantern smashed against the paper covered floor, showering Jarvis and those from the shadows in broken glass and flaming kerosene. Fed by the tacked-down papers, the flames soon spread to the heavy drapes hung over the window.
Recoiling from the growing blaze, the dark creatures closed about their summoner in a screeching pile. Smothered by that wretched throng, Jarvis gagged and gasped for air.
Ever the concerned soul, Gareth tried to reach for Jarvis to pull him out of the burning chamber, but he dared not touch any part of that hideous horde. The quivering mass clung tightly to Jarvis and enveloped his whole frame. Repulsed by things that challenged his view of the universe, terrified to make physical contact with beings from beyond his version of reality, Gareth found it impossible to rescue his one-time friend. Soon the spreading flames and rolling smoke drove him from the room.
Gareth tottered down the hall and across the outer room, knocking over piles of books and stacks of scrolls as he stumbled. He felt his way through the thickening haze and reached the front door. Wheezing and coughing, he staggered out the door and tripped down the front steps.
For a moment, Gareth lay in a dazed heap upon the gravel walk just outside that house of horror. Then the enormity of what he had just witnessed sunk in. With adrenaline pumping and heart pounding, he dragged himself up and bolted for home. Sirens wailed in the distance as smoke billowed in the starry sky, but he never looked back. He ran as fast as his legs could carry him and did not stop running until he arrived at his own front door.
Shaky hands fumbled with jingling keys, but Gareth managed to find the right one and let himself in. He tried to pour himself a brandy to calm his frayed nerves, but he spilled most of it on the carpet in the process. He then collapsed into his favourite armchair and gazed into nothingness. His staring eyes eventually closed as weariness overcame fright. Gareth began to fall into an uneasy sleep.
Gareth’s slumbering mind envisioned a host of new terrors. It carried him back to that dreadful room in Jarvis’s house. It kept him there while a hellish firestorm engulfed Jarvis’s body. It forced him to observe the grisly scene left in the inferno’s wake.
In his mind’s eye, Gareth saw Jarvis’s blackened figure bathed in a corpse-light shimmer and surrounded by a multitude of writhing grotesqueries. Untouched by the conflagration that had burned his flesh, Jarvis’s icy eyes looked upon the scene with a rabid glare. Then his charred lips pulled back in a ghastly smirk and he let out a diabolical laugh. He continued to laugh as the gruesome mob poured out of the shouldering ruins and into the night.
The sound of several small feet tromping on the flagstone path just outside his window roused Gareth from those fitful dreams. He heard an unintelligible muttering at his front door, as if a throng of strange savages stood on the steps. Tiny fists pounded the door’s oaken panels, louder and louder, harder and harder. The sturdy wood groaned under the strain and then started to buckle.
Gareth realized those beings from the shadows had neither perished in the blaze nor departed this world. They had come for him. They had tracked their marked prey through mystical means or senses unknown to humanity. They still hungered for his blood.
Gareth screamed as the door gave way.

Copyright © 2014 Richard H. Fay

Story originally published in Bête Noire, Issue #14, February 2014.

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