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Second Saurday Stories Presents Gifted Chapter 3: The Black Chapel

The centre wolf had a white patch of fur dyed red and matted with gore and ice. Its grinning lips wore the same shade of crimson. The footfalls sounded like a horse's gallop as they gave chase, andI had no choice but to retreat towards the beckoning shadows of the black chapel.  I would spend the next 2 days encamped within its hellish madness. 
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The snowflakes flew around our heads like angry mosquitoes. Blinking became a chore, my eyes sticking shut as snowflakes danced amongst my lashes. My nostrils stuck at one point as if the whole area were trying to suffocate me. My shoulder burned where the rifle sling dug in and the crunch of snow under our boots began to sound like the drums of a death march. The distance before us was a white blur of dizzying movement. I watched Garmin ahead of me stutter step more than once and was relieved that it wasn’t only me who was finding his equilibrium tested. 

Dampness crawled from my knees to my thighs as the snow we traversed became deeper and deeper. The wind whipped, threatening to snatch anything not tightened down. Had I been a more superstitious man I would have succumbed to the mounting fear I felt, but I was spiteful Lucian. Our family would be bullied no more, I vowed that as the heavens tried to bully me off their mountain. 

Garmin stopped and I could tell he was trying to focus on something. I stood shoulder to shoulder with him, both of us panting like exhausted sled dogs. He shouted to me, but his words were lost in the tempest. After two failed attempts he simply pointed ahead. A dark mass dwarfed us as if appearing by some trick of the light. We approached and spires materialized from the blizzard reaching toward the heavens. The wind-worn stone was blown smooth by eons of the elements. Ancient gargoyles mocked us from their perches. They flanked decorative stone ivy which wound around the twisted spirals set into the earth. All of it arched above our heads in a solid homage to craftsmen long turned to dust. A break in the wind finally allowed Garmin to be heard. 

“A gate,” he screamed. I didn’t bother to meet his gaze. I had never seen anything so intricate. I kept my head craned until my neck cramped. We moved beyond the gate and into the mountain itself. Garmin lit a lantern and we navigated a passageway by its light. 

Once we were beyond the gate, the light and sound stopped. Icicles clung to my whiskers as my breath hitched in my chest. A rolling expanse spread out in front of us. The pop from Garmin's flare gun sounded like a small explosion. I squinted against the glaring red as it arced the full span of the cave. I must admit my resolve broke for a moment when I saw what was below. I was reminded of Dante's gate, and the hope he abandoned. 

The ground sloped before us, descending into a chasm illuminated both by flare light and the grey daylight streaming through a natural break in the ceiling. The walls moved and twisted into the same spire and statue architecture we had observed at the gate. Dwellings punched into the rock told of ancient people, descendants perhaps if the village we landed in. Dominating the wall furthest from us was a great black chapel. It's ornate carvings twisting and turning into the darkness. Lines multiplying and doubling back on themselves until one was dizzy from the grandeur. 

Garmin launched two more flares furthering my panic that we would have nothing left to signal Henderson with. 

“By god man how much do you need to see if this god forsaken place?” I snapped. In truth Garmin had angered me by plodding ahead to the helicopter. At the time I blamed him for my injury from the Shaman, which had dulled to an ache and then to no pain at all. I assumed the flesh was just frozen from the trek, that it would begin to sting once more when it thawed. I should have realized nothing could thaw down there. 

“It said the wolf would be in here, master Bradley.” Garmin's words were flat with anger. One I mistook as directed at me. “I don't want you to get injured any more than you already have. Rest assured I've rationed enough to signal our exit when we leave.” His attempts to put my mind at ease worked. You must understand Lucian; I trusted Garmin with my life. With the both of us down there. I didn’t want to be at odds. 

After an hour or more of picking our footing carefully and descending into the chasm we finally set down at the bottom as the last of the flare light burned away. Garmin lit a lantern and we made for the closest dwelling, nothing more than a crevice carved out from the rock. Stone pottery crunched beneath our boots as we set our belongings amongst the ancient scorch marks of a cook fire. Shelves carved into the walls were bare save for dried preserves that crumbled at our touch, and a makeshift timber cauldron holder too dry to hold anything. Beyond the circular window the hulking black chapel stood. In the stillness I swear I heard a low humming punctured by distant screams. Garmin stopped mid set up as a shrill bark of laughter echoed off the rocks around us. He caught my eye and I shook it off. 

“Coyotes,” I muttered as the otherworldly cackling died off. 

As he made camp Garmin became uncharacteristically silent. His movements short and jerky, his patience breaking as his flint repeatedly threw dead sparks against the tinder pile he collected. He cast the entire works into the darkness, erupting a curse that boomed off the walls around us silencing all other noise before begrudgingly retrieving it.  

Eventually the fire blazed, and I had a glimpse into what made him so morose. 

“I have failed you.” Garmin muttered to the flames. “I shouldn’t have run ahead. It was selfish. I just didn't believe that- that- THING when it told me what was to happen.” 

I edged closer to him, my limbs on pins and needles as the fire brought the feeling back to them. “What did it say?” I asked. 

Across the fire his eyes were rimmed in black. Wrinkles of exhaustion tugged at their corners. He answered my question with a question after a brief silence. “You are no longer injured sir, are you?” 

Beyond the light of the fire I examined the wound only to find him correct, though telling him as much had the same effect as saying the wound had festered. 

“I suspected as much.” he whispered. That thing said this would happen. It foretold the village turning on Henderson also. I tell you it makes no sense Master Bradley. It knew you would come, said it saw a vision fortelling your arrival in a rotored machine.” Garmin was at the fire in body alone. His blank stare told me he was reliving our escape from the Shaman’s tent. Flames from the fire threw dancing shadow devils across the stone walls surrounding us. 

“The child.” Garmin continued “was brought to the village by a woman from a neighbouring town. She couldn’t live with the shame of what had been done to her, and asked the Shaman to take the child from her, to relieve her of the cursed blood that coursed through it. The Shaman used all of its power to keep the child alive because it knew soon someone would come from the clouds. A greedy man. The child was to be a test. If the man could overcome his lust for power to take the child and offer it a better life beyond the mountain, then The Shaman would bless the man for the help.” 

“And I am to believe that I am the man it saw?” I asked. 

Garmin nodded, his face suddenly pinched in a grimace. “But I’ve damned you from the moment we landed I’m afraid.” He stared into the fire, his face orange, his eyes black coals within it. I had never seen so much pain wash through a man. His shoulders slumped with the weight of his burden as he drew his knees to his chest, his boots steaming. “I seem to have inflamed the villagers' jealousy when I traded the knife for the whereabouts of the Shaman’s tent. The elders of the village were incensed that one young and inexperienced was given such a prestigious tool, and they took it out on poor Henderson’s helicopter. It became a mad scramble. The metal acts as both building material and status symbol. I upset the power balance with my ignorance. The Shaman chastised me, but said they had become half mad and starved as it was. All of them offered their life force to the Shaman to keep the child alive, you see. So it had the power to call them off had the child been accepted.” The volume had begun leaking from Garmin’s voice as he continued, less a story now and more of a confession. I could only sit in hushed silence as he continued erring himself of the burden. 

“That was no child.” I said, shaking from the rage at being a pawn in a game I had no idea I was involved in. 

“It said because you chose the wolf over the child, greed over compassion, you must now live as the mountain lives: Existing beneath a frozen world, never to be touched by the warmth. Everything around you will wither just as it does under these harsh conditions. ‘You will live unhurt’ that’s what it said, and from what I gather that’s what will remain your fate until ‘you succumb to the same cursed blood of the child you damned.’ that’s all it said before cautioning me against telling any of this to you. I face the ‘Fate of the Voiceless’ if I break the silence, but I can’t go on without you knowing.   

“Why break the silence then, old friend?” I asked, my voice barely a whisper over the fire’s crackle. 

Only then did Garmin’s face regain some of his steadfast optimism. 

“In the hopes the madness will be avoided, Master Bradley. If what the Shaman said is true, you would face a lunacy that I cannot let stand. For what you did during the raids, my son may live because you and your father opened your home to us. I cannot forget that, and I will raise Henry not to either. We live in servitude until the debt is repaid or we are dismissed. That means more to me than upholding the word of an abomination living in the wreckage of war.” He threw more timber onto the fire before rising. “It's been a long day sir. If there are coyotes here it stands to reason that Shaman wasn’t lying, that the wolves may well be here with the coming dawn. Get your rest. I will forage for more fuel before starting my watch.”  

I argued, but Garmin was a determined man. I could still remember the panicked raps at the door to our home. Garmin and his wife hardly had the words out before my father ushered them inside and beneath the floorboards. The Nazis were on their heels but gave up after searching our small home. I mused on this as I crawled into my sleeping bag. The sides of my tent shook from an unseen wind and once again I could hear the phantom moaning emanating from the black chapel. I thought sleep might evade me but I slipped into slumber listening to Garmin stoke the fire. 

I never heard Garmin leave his tent. I only found him the next morning. His tent lay in ribbons not ten feet from mine and yet I heard nothing in the night of what forced him from it. I called out to him but heard nothing but my own echo yelling back in a twisted imitation. I caught movement from outside our shelter as a raven lifted off, a ribbon of carrion hanging from its beak, and flew through the hole in the rock ceiling.  Garmin lay in a heap of dawn’s orange glow. His red long johns were stiff and dark at the neck where his throat and mouth had been incised.  

I am not ashamed to say I wept for him, Lucan. I wept for the wife and child he left back here. I screamed at the chapel as it stood silent witness to the gruesome scene. I cursed the Shaman for whatever black luck it had plagued me with. Because I’ll tell you this, It was that moment, looking into Garmin’s glazed blue eyes, that I started to truly believe I’d been cursed. But what could I do? I was too far gone to turn back. Spite caused me to redouble my resolve. The mountain seemed intent on taking everything from me, but it would not claim my life among those it had already. I wanted to get Garmin away from the elements. I wanted him to at least be covered, but he was already frozen solid. I pried, I pulled, I did everything in my power to move him, but he was frozen to the spot. I have always lamented my fate since that day. My long life has been filled with nothing but sorrow and pain, but as I’ve grown old I realize it’s a fate well deserved. Garmin didn’t deserve his fate, and his was much, much worse. 

It was as I was trying to move him that an ear piercing howl seemed to shake the very walls around me. My footprints led back to where Garmin and I spent the night, but as they reached the stone dwelling they were obscured by three beasts I’ve yet to see matched in size and ferocity. 

The wolves were as grey as the rocks surrounding them. Silent, they seemed to materialize from the air. The centre wolf had a white patch of fur dyed red and matted with gore and ice. Its grinning lips wore the same shade of crimson. The footfalls sounded like a horse's gallop as they gave chase, andI had no choice but to retreat towards the beckoning shadows of the black chapel. 

I would spend the next 2 days encamped within its hellish madness.