events beyond Heart of the Night
Once more I found myself stymied by the Creatures of Darkness. Though the destruction of its progeny and the safeguarding of the living, granted me some measure of success. The evasion of the beast had left me unsatisfied. For how long might such a being slumber inert? Might not it endure until the living has forgotten the reasons for their precautions, until the tale dismissed as mere myth?
The danger, then, was not at an end but simply delayed, to be a burden for some distant generation.
I returned, alone, to the catacomb that had filled me with an inexplicable dread. Still a shudder seized me as I drew near it and I felt as though nature hung suspended. The darkness of the shadows seemed too deep; the chill touch of benighted air was colder than the ice of winter. Even in the very silence was the nearly palpable presence of death and horror from beyond the grave.
It took no small exercise of courage to stay that strange, instinctive fear and walk again among the corpses there interred. I found my way by lantern light to the great chamber from which a coffin had vanished. Perhaps I sought some neglected clue, which might suggest where such a creature might have fled. There I stood, examining the vacant spot, pondering what Ghouls or Witches as may have served or assisted in this diabolical escape.
It was then that the vague impressions of the crypt swelled and magnified into a force I could no longer deny. Though freshly filled, the lantern I held dimmed and the tomb grew colder, as drawing breath from the netherworld itself. Vertigo stirred the wretched, flickering visions around me, and drew out my strength until I swooned. Sinking, I barely placed my lantern down before falling to my knees. A vile foetor choked me as I slipped into oblivion.
I know not how long I languished on the frigid stones of the floor. Did I sleep and dream, or was the vision some sending that replaced my own sight? I knew what madness must follow the awakening of living man tucked away in a casket, but what is such madness to awaken so, and know that one is dead? To feel naught but waxy flesh, the stillness of one’s heart, and driven by a devilish thirst for blood and murder… What terror awaits to know that save but for destruction that this will be thy lot for all eternity.
Then, to my ears came a sound to break me from the spell. It was the groaning of wood, an echo drawing all around. With a struggle, I regained a sitting posture, now barely able to lift the lantern high. First, I saw nothing in the feeble rays, but turning to the sound, which came stronger and anew, I found its source.
The lid of a coffin rose, tilting high to one side. A dark and withered limb lifting that door to doom followed by a second leathery paw that clasped the edge. Then it lifted its torso and head into view. How unearthly was this motion of a lifeless thing, as a marionette moved by unseen strings. It seemed to pour itself across the rim and disappeared from sight with sickening plop to the floor.
I can only surmise that our efforts to deny it food had interrupted the building of its diabolical strength. Now deprived of its sustenance, it rose in desperation for the blood it craved, my blood. Its bony talons reached out from the darkness to scrabble and claw the floor as it dragged its bulk into sight. It had not yet laid eyes on me, but here it turned its head. Horrid is the hungry gaze of the dead.
Despite my terror, my strength was not yet returned and so my movements clumsy. I fumbled for the pistol I carried loaded with silver shot, but my limbs felt heavy as lead. But still it came on, opening its mouth to flash its fangs and to groan as foul humors oozed from the orifice. Its speed was greater now, and I knew it would reach me before I could even draw the pistol, let alone aim and fire it.
My skin crawled in revolting waves, my heart pounded so that I feared it would cease. My mind had never known such fear and wanted nothing more than to regain the blackness unconsciousness. Why I did not yield, I cannot truly say, but I believe I held on for the sake of those who would be at the mercy of this fiend, for I have not the will I showed for my own sake.
And truly, it was more in defiance than by design that I hurled from high the lantern and filled its hideous face with fire. It ceased its crawling, batting and scraping at the blaze, and with one terrible swipe at the blistering leather visage, it tore its own face away. Now it gurgled, an inhuman noise of pain redoubling its efforts to reach me. Closer and closer it came and I at last surrendered to oblivion for a second time.
I woke in a soft, warm bed. Somehow, I still lived. Soon a physician was ministering to me and within a few days I had recovered. Those who found me reaffirmed the nightmare I already knew. They found the hiding place, as judged by the crushed and scattered bones in the casket. They traced the grimy trail from it towards me. It was for them to shed the light of truth on a final shuddering horror.
The crawling corpse, its hand outstretched, had come within inches of me. There, it fell still and burning until all that remained were bony fragments and ashes. It was from this experience, how dreadfully close I had been to death and worse, that I adopted the maxim of never hunting alone, unless there was no choice.
Sadly, this simple principal would prove itself to me time and again.
story by Joe Stanley