Dennis stepped over another hassock and stopped, breathing hard. Ahead of him were endless miles of bleak Scottish moorland, and when he looked behind, Calum was still trudging, head turning in all directions, searching with a twelve-year-old’s tenacity. Dennis waited for him to catch up before he spoke.
“I’m not certain it still exists.”
Calum looked earnestly up at him. “The Book’s not been wrong yet. It’s just because there are no landmarks here. We’ll find it.”
Dennis scanned the land, which looked identical in every direction: bracken, gorse, and heather; purple, orange, and brown. Even the distant mountains blended grey into each other.
“It could have sunk into the bog by now. The Book’s so old.”
Calum rolled his eyes and walked on, head turning like a periscope. Dennis sighed and followed.
Dennis heard Calum yawn and looked up from his journal, pen poised. The boy was lying on his belly in his sleeping bag, reading. Dennis didn’t need to see the title on the ancient spine to know it said Haunted Places in Scotland. Dennis reached up and wound the lantern hanging from the tent roof. The tent brightened a little and Calum looked up and smiled. For a moment Dennis saw Marion in the boy’s shining brown eyes and easy smile, and something inside him sagged.
“You okay, Dad?”
Dennis smiled. “Yeah.” He reached out and stroked Calum’s slightly greasy hair. “You?”
“You know we can’t stay another night? If we don’t find it tomorrow we’ll have to just go home.”
“Yeah. We could both do with a shower.”
Dennis laughed. “Tell me about it–you’re rank.”
“You can talk, Mister Oxterguff!” They both laughed, though hearing one of Marion’s favourite words stung, just a little. He reached over again and put a hand on Calum’s hair again.
“We’ll give it a good go tomorrow. If there’s no joy by, say, two o’clock we’ll head back. We can be in Rannoch in time for a proper dinner.”
Calum yawned again and nodded. “Proper dinner sounds good.”
Dennis reached down and kissed his forehead. “Sleep now.”
“Yeah.” He put the book carefully in a pocket of his pack and punched what passed for a pillow in his sleeping bag. “Night,” he said.
“Night, Calum,” Dennis said and clicked off the lantern.
It was going well, Dennis thought. Neither of them had wept since this adventure started, and they were having conversations without shouting, though Dennis still felt like he was tip-toeing on glass. He was indulging Calum’s need to find proof, though it wasn’t clear what he wanted proof of. Maybe he thought if anything supernatural was real he’d be able to imagine his mother still being somewhere. Dennis didn’t know if he was doing the right thing, or if he was just being too cowardly to deal with it properly. He wriggled more deeply into his bag and decided just to enjoy the time with his son while he could.
By the time they packed up the tent and set off, it was almost nine, although Dennis had been awake since the translucent tent canvas had failed to keep out the sunrise several hours before. He could still taste foul instant coffee; even after filtering, the river water he’d used was sour, peaty, and gritty. Washing in it had seemed counter-productive as well.
He walked over and stood behind Calum, who was already looking about him as if the cottage might be right here and they’d somehow missed it.
“Same plan as yesterday?” Dennis said.
“Yeah. It has to be in this square mile.”
“Unless it’s sunk.”
“We’ll see.” Calum heaved the big pack onto his back and started walking again. Dennis watched and wanted to stop him, hug him and say It won’t bring your mum back, no matter what we find. He hesitated for a moment, then followed in silence.
They walked for an hour, scanning the repetitive scenery for signs, stopped for more bitter filtered water, and walked some more, criss-crossing the area where the hermitage should be. At a squeal from overhead, they both looked up and saw a large bird of prey circling. Dennis looked at Calum’s open-mouthed wonder and light fringe dancing in the breeze, and felt a stab of loss again. At moments like this he wanted to nudge Marion to share and appreciate their son together.
“It’s coming lower,” Calum said. “Can you see what it is?”
Dennis could only see a silhouette. “Buzzard, probably,” he said.
The bird circled lower, almost directly above them, then dropped from the sky like a winged missile. Twenty yards from them it vanished. Dennis frowned his confusion and Calum gasped aloud.
“That’s it!” Calum shouted, and ran towards the disappearing bird.
“What?” Dennis said, and suddenly Calum was standing in front a squat cottage. Dennis stared but even once he’d seen it, it was hard to keep it in focus. It was low, and so covered with moss and lichens it blended perfectly into its surroundings.
“This is the place, it must be,” Calum said.
Calum now had one hand on the wall, as if afraid it would vanish if he let go, and Dennis joined him. Even up close it was nearly invisible, like more moor only vertical. Dennis laid a hand on it and felt damp, yielding moss with the rigidity of stone underneath. Calum almost skipped round it and Dennis followed.
The cottage was small, ten feet by fifteen and not much taller than Dennis. There was one door, miraculously intact, and a rectangular hole where a window had been. The lightly pitched roof was bare wood, all trace of thatch long gone.
Calum tried the door, which was heavy wood coated with slimy lichen. “Can’t budge it,” he said. Dennis tried; there was no handle or latch and it felt as if someone had nailed it to the frame.
“Window, then,” he said.
He took a torch from his rucksack and shone it through the gap, Calum by his elbow. The interior was one empty room, bare stone walls, a stone fireplace, and a moss-covered floor.
“Can we go in?” asked Calum.
“Let me check it first.” He took off his heavy rucksack, heaved it through the window and bounced it off the floor several times. The floor was wood, by the sound, and felt solid enough. Dennis let the bag fall on its side and put an arm on Calum’s shoulder. “I’ll go first. If it’s safe, you can come in.” He clambered through the gap, slipped on the sill, and landed hard on the floor, which boomed in response.
“Shit,” he said, and there was a slight echo to his voice as if he was in a much bigger space. He shone the torch round again at bare walls, rafters, a few thin shafts of sunlight spearing the cracked roof.
“Is it okay?” Calum asked.
“Hold on.” He walked the whole floor area, tapping and stamping his feet, still confused by the echo–it sounded like a cathedral. “I think it’s safe,” he said, and Calum was beside him in a moment, looking as if he was in a cave of wonders.
“Doesn’t look very magical,” Dennis said.
“Sounds it though,” Calum said. Sure enough, every noise they made reverberated for too long.
“What does the book say?”
Calum didn’t have to look. “Talk in the hermit’s cottage and the devil will answer. Hope it’s not just a bit of echo.” In the moment of silence the cottage seemed to answer echochocococooooooo.
“It’s strange,” Dennis conceded.
“It must be under the floor,” Calum suggested. “Like a huge cellar or something, or a crypt, or a tunnel that goes all the way to Hell.”
“There can’t be a cellar; the water table’s about a foot below ground level. It would just be flooded all the time.”
Calum was already on his knees, knocking on floorboards. The noise was muffled by layers of algae and moss but it still echoed slightly. Sighing, Dennis joined him, starting at the other end of the room. They worked methodically, just as they had when searching the moor for the cottage.
“Gotcha!” Calum shouted from his spot near the centre of the room. “Come and hear this.” Dennis obeyed and when Calum knocked again there was a sound like a long roll of thunder. It made the hairs on Dennis’ neck stand up.
“That’s creepy,” he said.
Eepypypypeepeepeeeeeee said the floor.
They stood and scraped with their boots, revealing intact boards till there was a three-foot square cleared.
“A trap door would have been too much to ask,” Dennis said, thinking about films he’d seen with trap doors in them and wishing he hadn’t said it. Calum got back on his knees and tried to fit his fingers between the boards to prise them up, but they were too well-fitted.
Dennis’ stomach lurched. Calum was kneeling, trying to break through boards only an inch thick; beneath him Dennis pictured a huge chasm. He even imagined something ancient and hungry climbing towards them, drawn by Calum’s clumsy scratchings.
But all of this: the book, the trips to haunted places, the obsession with the supernatural, these were Calum’s way of dealing with the loss of his mother, and Dennis couldn’t bring himself to deny him. It wasn’t as if his own coping mechanisms had been any better.
He closed his eyes and imagined his fear as a big grey ball of fluff. He held it in both hands and squashed it till it was the size of an orange, then pushed it behind his back and reopened his eyes. He smiled.
“This is a job for…” Calum looked up. “The shit shovel.”
Calum’s eyes widened in delight and he smiled back. “Maybe give it a wipe first?”
“I’ll wipe it on you–you couldn’t smell any worse anyway.”
He detached it from his pack. It was small and light, but strong, with an aluminium handle and a triangular steel blade.
“Stand back,” Dennis said and began hacking at a bit of the floor. It was slow, sweaty work, and the noise it made kept reverberating in their ears. Dennis quashed the idea that someone else was underneath trying to break through to the upper world. Eventually he prised up a section of board and shone the torch down. If there was anything down there it didn’t reflect light, but there was an oily smell and a barely audible high pitched whine.
Calum cocked his head, listening. “That’s the echo of the torchlight. Can you hear it?” Ititititittttt.
He gave Dennis a look of such intensity that Dennis flinched.
“You’re mental,” he said. “We need at least two more boards up. Step back.” Backackackakakakkkkk.
Dennis attacked the boards again, the sounds from below much louder now. He stopped several times, convinced that the noise was the approach of something monstrous, but the echoes died away almost completely every time he paused. After a while he had a hole big enough to climb through, or fall through if he wasn’t careful. Dennis shone the torch down again but couldn’t see a thing.
“Well?” Calum said. Wellellellelellll
“Aye, maybe it’s a well.” Wellellellelellll. Calum punched him playfully on the arm and Dennis felt a lurch of panicked vertigo. He really felt as if he was above an abyss.
“Let’s try this,” Dennis said. Ississisisissss. He picked up one of the pieces of broken board and threw it down. It landed less than a second later with a dry thud that bounced around the cavern.
“Not flooded then,” said Calum. Thenenenenenennnnn.
“Whatever.” Ererererrr. Dennis threw down another board at a different angle, and another, each landing with the same solid sound. He shone the torch again and saw the broken wood on an invisible floor.
Calum said, “Seems all right.” Ightightytytytttt.
“Yeah. Safety first, though.” Oughohohohohooooo. Dennis stood up and took a length of climbing rope from his rucksack. He tied it to a rafter, swung on it to check its solidity, then tied it to a second rafter as well. They had stopped talking, but every little sound they made caused a commotion beneath them. He lowered himself slowly arm over arm into the hole. After about eight feet he landed on what felt like dry soil. He stamped it a few times before properly releasing the rope, then took the torch from his belt. Calum watched him from the floor above. Dennis flicked the torch on and gasped at what he saw and heard.
The room was a bit bigger than the cottage itself, but he couldn’t see the walls–all he saw were the bells. Hundreds of them, various colours, sizes, shapes. They gasped back at him and sang gently as the torchlight moved over them.
“Wow,” he breathed. Wowowowowowowww, replied the bells.
“What is it, Dad?” Calum whispered. Dadadadadadad, said the bells.
“Bells.” Ellsellsllllssss. Dennis smiled and thought he heard the echo of his smile, though that was surely as much in his imagination as the echo of torchlight.
“Dad?” Dadadadadadddd. “Can I come down?” Downownownownnnn.
Dennis nodded, realised Calum probably couldn’t see him and whispered “Yeah.” Yeheheheheh. Seconds later the sound of Calum’s boots hitting the dry earth made the bells sing and another torch scraped the room.
“Awesome,” Calum said. Sumsumsumumummmm.
Dennis was transfixed. The idea of bells creating an echo effect was prosaic compared to what his imagination had conjured, but somehow the atmosphere was magical. Even their breathing caused tiny, audible ripples from the bells around them. He was aware that Calum was moving behind him, and he jumped when the room suddenly filled with noise.
The sound was huge, filling the space and coming from every direction at once. He spun to see Calum holding the broken floorboard he’d just struck one of the smaller bells with. Dennis could tell which one because it was apparently glowing. Calum’s face was a picture of childish joy, reflecting Dennis’ inexplicable elation.
Calum closed a hand on the bell and the sound calmed, though the others continued to sing their harmonies, and the room noticeably dimmed. Dennis frowned.
“Calum, turn of your torch and hit the bell again,” he said. Againainainennnnn. Both torches clicked off. A moment later Calum swung his board and noise flooded the room again, accompanied by a definite bluish glow, not just from the bell but from the air in the middle of the room.
Dennis felt the same rush of joy, but this time tempered by fear. Calum shrieked with laughter.
Another bell sounded, just as loud as the first but deeper in pitch, and more light came with it, this time pinkish. In the middle of the room, Dennis saw two coloured shapes dancing in midair, spinning around each other and flickering as if buffeted by the noise. It was beautiful, but subtly sinister, and Dennis thought of Turkish delight made of snow, or gold that turned to sand in the morning.
He prised the ragged bit of wood from Calum.
“Stop!” he shouted. Calum’s smile never faltered.
“We’ve found it, haven’t we? It’s proof! Exactly what we were looking for!”
“We’ve found something,” Dennis said. The sound was fading now, and with it the strange illumination. He glanced behind him at the last flicker of the dancing shapes. “And it scares me.”
Calum waved a finger where the shapes had been. “No way was that natural. None of your physics shite there. That was magic. It’s proof!”
“That’s why I’m scared. I don’t understand it and I don’t like it.”
“We don’t have to understand, just know it’s real.” There was panic in the boy’s voice now, though Dennis could no longer see him. Dennis swallowed, and delivered the blow.
“Whatever it proves, or doesn’t prove, it won’t bring your mum back.” Ackackakakakkkk. The echoes faded, and Dennis flicked on his torch again. Calum squinted against the light, still smiling, despite the tears running down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Calum. Let’s leave now and tell the world about this.” Thisississississss. Calum’s smile sunk as slowly as a punctured tyre until his face was blank. He nodded. “Good man,” Dennis said. Oyoyoyoyoyoy.
They went back to the rope and Dennis helped Calum up before following himself. Even the dimness of the cottage hurt his eyes after the cellar. Calum leaned on the windowsill looking out while Dennis untied the rope from the rafters and stowed it away in his rucksack.
He put a hand on Calum’s shoulder. “Weren’t you frightened, too?”
Calum didn’t turn round. “You were being a responsible parent, I understand.”
Dennis smiled again. That was such a Marionism that it was like having her back, sarcasm and all. He pulled Calum into a hug and Calum reciprocated. When they separated Calum smiled again.
“We found it, didn’t we?”
“Yes we did. Now let’s go get that shower.” He lifted the rucksack and heaved it out the window and turned round in time to see Calum’s head vanish down the hole again.
“Calum!” Then the ringing began. Bell after bell rang out in a rising cacophony as Calum struck them.
“Shit,” Dennis said, running to the hole. The noise was already colossal, and there were coloured shapes dancing below him. He stopped himself from jumping straight in. It was only a few feet but a twisted ankle would make the five mile walk back to Rannoch all but impossible.
“Calum!” he shouted again but even he couldn’t hear it.
He had to get the rope again, for safety’s sake, for Calum, to make sure they both got home safely. But the lights were beautiful. He was a caring, responsible father who wouldn’t leave his son in some strange supernatural place. But the lights. He had to make sure they got home safely, or Marion would kill him. The lights, the wonderfully atonal singing of the bells. But Marion was dead, so that was all right.
The lights were coalescing now: a vague column of spinning, interweaving shapes and colours, some vibrantly prime, others more muted, some shining black. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and even the noise was resolving into something like music. It embraced and ensnared him–he laughed aloud and jumped into the maelstrom.
The noise was indescribable–louder than Hellfest, or Download, or anything he’d experienced. It was so loud he couldn’t even hear it–it vibrated through his bones and organs, while the lights tickled at his mind. A small dark shape passed him and he recognised it as Calum, swinging a board and hitting every bell, travelling anti-clockwise round the room. Dennis found another board and followed him, striking every one though it made no noticeable difference to the noise level. When he turned, he could see Calum through the colourful column in the centre of the room, swinging his stick and hopping madly, almost dancing himself. Dennis couldn’t see his face but knew it would have the same look of manic glee his own had, the grin and wide eyes threatening to split his face in two. He hit another bell, and laughed.
He had no idea for how long, or how many times he went round the room, but eventually he was forced to stop, barely able to breathe for the effort and the laughter. His whole body ached, shoulders and arms on fire, face stiff and sore. But still he laughed, even when his legs gave way beneath him and he collapsed to the cold earth.
He couldn’t see Calum any more, but the noise was still deafening and the hurricane of rainbows in the middle of the room still spun and wove through itself, knitting into new shapes. It was wonderful. His hand still held the plank, stuck there with drying blood. He lifted it once more and didn’t quite manage to reach a bell above him.
He tried to call Calum’s name but he didn’t have the breath for more than a hoarse whisper, inaudible in the fading but still terrible noise. He wanted to fall asleep where he lay, but couldn’t tear his eyes from the storm of colour, and he had to see Calum.
Nevertheless, his eyes closed themselves and when he opened them the noise was somewhat less and the shape had…changed. Rather than solidifying further it now gaped in the middle, a vaginal rip in the air through which coloured light shone.
It grew until it was a ragged doorway from floor to ceiling, and Dennis could see something of what was behind it: a landscape of strange colour and shape, with things that moved purposefully as if alive but without obvious limbs.
Dennis’ eyes closed again, the pain now unbearable. He felt like his head was being crushed and his whole body had been dipped in acid. He forced his eyes open again despite the stinging pain and saw that the things were converging on the doorway. He thought he ought to be scared but hadn’t the energy.
Calum, he heard somebody say. The voice was familiar, but deep and distant.
“Mum?” Calum said from beside Dennis. The boy struggled to his feet like an arthritic pensioner and limped toward the light.
Dennis tried to call, tried to move, but his breath caught in his throat and his eyes closed against the pain. He opened them enough to see Calum cross the threshold and hold out a hand toward something Dennis couldn’t see.
The light faded to nothing and Dennis finally gave up trying to breathe.
Stewart Horn is a professional musician based on the beautiful Ayrshire coast in Scotland, U.K. His fiction and poery have appeared in Horrorzine, print anthology Feast of Frights, Screaming Dreams’s ezine Estronomicon, Crowded magazine, the BFS Journal and elsewhere. He has been podcast by Tales to Terrify and Pseudopod. He is proud to be making a second appearance in the Lovecraft eZine.
He is a member and regular book reviewer for the British Fantasy Society and a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle. He blogs intermittently at stewartguitar.wordpress.com
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Story illustration by Jesse Campbell.