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Second Saturday Stories Presents Gifted Chapter 4: Bloody Footprints

When the spark wheel caught the sight that I beheld caused my screams to join those of the damned around me.  Dozens of those creatures were massing the pulpit, screeching and clawing at one another trying to reach me. The smell emanating from them was one of sickness and flu, a yellow smell of ancient pestilence.  Out of instinct I fired my rifle.
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The flame of my lantern danced unsettled behind its glass imprisonment. The flame coursed and moved as if the blackness surrounding it was a physical force attempting to suck the life from it. There was a great pounding on the timber that made the door shudder in place. Had I not barred it with the iron locks, the wolves would have crashed through it and I fear I’d meet the same fate as poor Garmin. 

I was in a foyer. Two rows of stone gargoyles peered down at me from either side. They leered down at me, some with tongues hanging, some caught in grimaces that could have been euphoria or terror. To this day I’m not certain which. Directly before me a statue stood before more arched doors. The wolf stood as a man would, but it towered over me. Larger still than Garmin would have been. The carving and marble work was so precise that the fur seemed to shift and change as if caught in wind. I froze on the spot until I realized it was a trick of the light. The head was an oblong curled snout that rippled over teeth two inches long. The raw fury captured in the eyes caused me to thumb the safety off the Kar98k as I edged by. The silent snarl remained as I turned my back on the demonic wolf and its army of winged minions. 

I pushed through another wooden door that slid with ease across the polished stone floor. Ahead a great hall stretched out with pews on either side. The carving was ornate and intricate and each pew stood at least ten feet in length but all carved from one solid piece. I imagined the great redwood forest of California where I hunted a boar. The ancient furniture spoke of a wealth of resources that predated even the industrial revolution. 

The lantern threw a diameter of light only a few feet long. Though I tried to walk quietly, my bootfalls bounced off the walls adorned with torch sconces and more stone gargoyle. The echoes made it seem as if a garrison of men were storming the great hall. I found myself peering into the shadows searching for the owners before shaking off the absurdity of it all. Distantly I could still hear the wolves at the door; a dull thud that marked time better than my wristwatch which had stopped all together. 

Cracks and splits ran up the backs of the pews as if the air of the damned place was sucking the very life force from them, drying them to oblivion. Ahead of me an altar beckoned. I didn’t know why, but I felt compelled to ascend it, to view the place as the head of the congregation would. Perhaps it would shed some perspective on what was happening. I don’t know, my reasoning for it has been lost in time.  

Beyond the altar I could see an eerie green light that seemed to dim as I approached. The floor looked covered in something before the light winked out completely.  Beneath me I could hear wails and screams that defied explanation. My heart wrenched in my chest thinking that the last time I heard those sounds Garmin was breathing. I thought of the poor wretch laying in the snow and my knees near buckled with the heartbreak. 

My light illuminates a person sitting in a pew. When I saw the hollowed out eyes and gaping yawning mouth my knees did give out and I collapsed to the floor with a startled cry. I waited for a blow, sure it was the Shaman laying in wait for me, waiting to deliver the final slice with that damnable blade and send me to meet Garmin in the afterlife. 

Nothing happened. Nothing but the continued ear splitting wails and screams that seemed to come from the very walls around me. I fumbled for the lantern and brought the light in front of me. In the  glow I could make out two more  of the strange corpses sitting alone in the dark. Their bodies wrapped in yellowed dressing that had flaked to bits where they sat; covering everything in a fine dust. I didn’t recognize their garb, not then. Since that pit I have become very familiar with the Opfervolk Cult.  

Ahead of me the altar was an onyx stone rectangle that dominated the pulpit. I set my lantern down, rubbing my hands together and turning to survey the room. From what I could see, six of the bizarre figures sat silent witness to my progress. I heard a strange crumbling sound and wondered if rats would be present that deep underground. I took a step towards where the dry whispering had come from and the toe of my boot suddenly let out a screech as I stepped on something. The sound was a banshees wail in the stillness. 

I lifted my foot to find a uniform button glinting in the dim light. The black swastika on a field of white was like a cursed reminder of the men who had harassed both our family and Garmin’s. I bent down and examined it, suddenly aware of a constant dripping somewhere in the bowels of the great cathedral. Looking further, I saw grey threads littered the altar leading into the shadows. Among the threads I saw scraps of grey and black cloth saturated with yellow mould clinging to the soft fabric. I heard the soft shuffle again and snapped my head toward the congregation. I couldn’t be sure, but it looked as if some of them had moved. In a lapse of judgment that almost cost me my life I attributed it to my overtaxed senses. I followed the trail of fabric to a ghastly horror that had once been a man. 

He had been blonde, bits of hair still clung to his scalp in ragged clumps. If I had to hazard a guess  I would say his eyes were blue if they were still in his skull. Coal black sockets peered back at me, rough maroon lines criss-crossed each other from where the ravens had feasted. From the nose down was gore. His body obliterated by some kind of wicked injury. At first I thought him another victim of the Fate of the Voiceless that befell Garmin, but as I looked closer I saw the extent of the damage was much worse. His rib cage and chest cavity exploded outwards as if something had emerged from the poor man’s corpse. Adding to my horror was the dried droplets of maroon that covered the floor around him, maroon drops that formed into unsteady footprints a few feet away. Those had been the dark blotches seen from afar. I peered over my shoulder before following the prints into the darkness. 

I suddenly felt as if I was being watched. The skin around my cheeks was tight and my head pounded from stress and lack of water. My resolve slipped once more and I was suddenly sure that I was to die in that black chapel; swallowed in the earth never to be heard from again. I imagined Henderson in his Bristol flying over the summit for days before giving up as my bones were picked clean by the feral jaws and claws that lurked within the cavern. 

A great groaning startled me as I felt sure the ceiling was collapsing on me. 

Nine figures now sat in the beam of light as it shone out. The ones I had seen definitely closer than before. My ears were ringing and I realized that the screams and wails had stopped. The entire cathedral was silent as the grave. 

At that moment the lantern flame began to dim, as if all the oxygen was being sucked from it. When it went out completely the screams returned, rising to an almost deafening crescendo. I don’t know how  I was able to get my lighter from my woolen pants. Without gloves my fingers had numbed in the chill of the dark. 

When the spark wheel caught the sight that I beheld caused my screams to join those of the damned around me. 

Dozens of those creatures were massing the pulpit, screeching and clawing at one another trying to reach me. The smell emanating from them was one of sickness and flu, a yellow smell of ancient pestilence. 

Out of instinct I fired my rifle, but pulled the shot. It sent the being closest to me spinning into the darkness. I fled, following the bloody footprints up a small stairway carved into the rock. Relief kept the terror at bay as I crossed the threshold of another great wooden door, throwing it shut behind me and throwing the locking iron. As if by some divine intervention the wretches fell silent again and I was once more accosted by the feeling of loneliness that seemed to emanate from the building. A draft tickled the hairs on the back of my neck and I spun around to face whatever new horror awaited. 

Before me was a window set into the rock. Three holes not nearly big enough for me to crawl through looked out on the snow covered expanse. Across the divide I could see the dying orange light of the fire Garmin lit in our make-shift shelter. My neck moved as if against a great spring, I did not want to follow the red trail that led to Garmin’s corpse. The wolves were nowhere to be found, but the ravens continued to rip shreds from him. Aghast, I fired in their direction to scatter the creatures. I still had the deranged notion that somehow I would carry Garmin out of that pit. 

From where I stood  I could see the rest of the buildings carved into the rock wall beyond our encampment. A sudden flash of movement across a doorway caused me to train my scope on one of the taller domiciles. I thought better than to chalk it up to an overtaxed mind. I was very aware that if I continued to underestimate the pit that it would claim my life. 

I continued scanning as I would on any other hunt. A flash of white caught my eye and I settled the scope on the darkness of a small window. Immersed in shadows the stark white fur was a muted grey. A puff of air expelled from jaws lined with enough teeth to rip a man apart. I glassed the red pin pricks in the darkness. As if sensing  I had seen it, the wolf retreated further into the shadows. Taunting me, The creature seemed to know it had nothing but time. 

The wolf became an embodiment of the entire damned expedition. I saw the Shaman in it. I saw the haunted eyes of the villagers, I saw that damned child. I screamed at the darkness, gnashing my teeth and cursing the infernal thing. The ritual seemed to knit my resolve back together. 

The animal would be waiting for its meal, but I was determined to starve it out. I recognized the selfishness of it, and I’ve tried to reconcile over these many years, that it would be what Garmin would do if the roles were reversed. Animals take the path of least resistance, and I knew if the wolf became hungry enough, it would be Garmin it took, rather than me. I just had to wait it out. I tell you Lucian the idea makes me sick even now, but what was I to do? I will ask Saint Peter and all the angels when I am facing judgement. What was I to do?  

I would crawl out of that pit with my trophy in tow.  I would take the cursed thing and deposit it at the foot of the Shaman’s tent, bartering for some sort of pardon from my curse.  

The wolf was an efficient hunter, but so was I. I had enough supplies to last for days, and all I needed was one bullet. The black chapel would act as my blind. I checked the lock on the door before I began unpacking my kit. Half an hour later I held a steaming mug of coffee in the split flesh of my hands, a small fire warming the feeling back into them. With the body of the rifle resting on the stone of the window and the scope trained on Garmin’s corpse, I inhaled the frigid air, and set to waiting.