It wasn't until after they got settled in that someone found the hatch set into the stone floor of the cabin; a wooden door with a black metal ring in the center that was cold to the touch.
“I was thinkin' it might be a wine cellar or something,” Randy said.
Edward shook his head, “We're just bedding down for the night. Don't go screwing around.”
Of course it had been Randy snooping around. While they had been unpacking and unrolling their sleeping bags, he had been going through the books stacked in one corner of the room; while they were struggling with the fireplace, he had found the weird graffiti scrawled on the inside of the kitchen cabinet doors. Now he was obsessing over the hatch, “Maybe there’s bodies down there or something,” he said with a morbid grin, “Maybe the people that own this place make snuff films or worship the Devil...”
The air in the cabin was rank and musty but the four young men couldn't complain. Better this than
another hour of trudging around in the snow and arguing. “Some Spring Break this is turning out to be,” Dave grumbled. The fire had died again and he was trying to restart it with some green wood, a lighter and an issue of MAXIM magazine, “Hike the Appalachian Trail my ass. I could be doing tequila body shots off some sorority girl right now.”
Futterman laughed as he peered over Dave's shoulder, “Dream on pal.” Futterman's first name was Tom but to the students and staff of Loch Sheldrake Community College he was simply Futterman.
“Who knew it would snow?” Edward helped Randy unpack his sleeping bag, “Snow at this time of year? It's crazy.”
“It's just my luck that's what it is,” Dave watched the fire eradicate the airbrushed features of a scantily clad cover girl. The flames licked at his fingertips, “Ow!”
“Careful idiot!” Futterman growled, “Let me.”
“You know maybe we should just get some rest,” Edward said, “I'm sure in the morning we can find the trail again.”
Dave sucked his scorched fingers, “Assuming it's not buried by snow.”
“No way is this sticking.” Edward said, “The Weather Channel would have said something.”
Randy asked, “What about the trap door?”
“Considering we don't know who lives here, let's just leave it alone,” Edward felt a little guilty about breaking and entering but it was either this or possible hypothermia. The little cabin was a squat brick and stone structure. It had been dark and empty, its single window beginning to film over with ice.
“And hey... check this out,” Randy went back to the books, “The Fisherman’s Bible, Little Women, The Anarchist's Cookbook and then this.”
Futterman was the only one that bothered to look up, “What is that? Greek?”
“It’s not English that’s for sure, but look at the pictures. What’s wrong with these people? Hey Eddie, your parents are from Greece. Can you read this? It's like about circus freaks.”
“Circus freaks...” Edward took the book from him and put it back in the pile, “No thank you, besides these aren't ours.”
Randy shrugged, “This place doesn't look like it's been used in years. Finders keepers and all that.”
Edward frowned “It’s that kind of attitude that got you banned from the college bookstore.”
“We've got... oh wait hang on. There! We've got a real firenow!” Futterman applauded himself.
“Is wood supposed to smell like that?” Dave covered his nose.
Flashlights off, they settled in for the night, taking a few moments to snack on some dry rations and swap stories. There was the story of the night Randy almost got his tongue pierced; naturally alcohol and his ex-girlfriend were involved. Futterman followed up with his tale of working late in the school photo lab and catching a freshman girl making out with a professor at almost three times her age. Dave told them about his last hunting trip with his father, his Dad had waited until the ride home to tell his son that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Edward told them he didn’t have any stories to share, that he was from Albany and nothing ever happened there.
The other three guys threw power bar wrappers at him in disgust.
Then one by one they dropped off to sleep.
The next few hours passed fitfully for Edward; he tossed and turned in his sleeping bag. Despite the fire, despite the layers of clothing, the hard rock floor of the cabin seemed to leech the warmth from his skin. He heard his friends talking but couldn't make out what they were saying.
When he finally awoke it was dark, the fire had gone out and nothing could be seen from the cabin's single ice-encrusted window. Edward sat up, feverish and groaning. He reached for the flashlight and clicked it on; the beam of illumination seemed muted. The other three sleeping bags were empty.
“Guys?” Edward hissed. All he needed was to be sick while those three were getting into mischief. The flashlight beam found the hatch wide open. “Randy...” He spoke his friend's name like a curse.
Edward peered through the open hatchway, “Guys?”
So much for leaving the place as we found it. he thought.
In reality the hatchway was nothing more than a hole dug deep into the dirt and rock. He shone his flashlight down the shaft and saw no sign of a wine cellar, a snuff film movie set or his friends.
But something glittered.
Edward leaned in closer, what was down there? Diamonds? Geodes? The air wafting from the hatch was at least ten degrees below than the air in the cabin and it tasted strange.
“Randy?” He called down. What had possessed
them to go spelunking at this hour?
Nothing. He didn't even hear an echo. “Fine,” he said, "Stay down there."
He got back into his sleeping bag, curled into a tight ball and tried to will himself to feel better. For a few moments he debated rekindling the fire but
that seemed like too much work for too little warmth and too much stench.
“Just rest,” he told himself, “It will be morning before you know it.”
But he couldn’t sleep, he couldn’t stop thinking abut the hatch. What could be down there that his friends found so interesting?
It didn't matter to him what they had found down there. What mattered was that his friends always seemed ready to ditch him at the drop of a hat. Edward had found himself on his own at frat parties and sporting events on a regular basis. Once they'd even left him at the movies while they tried to score with the girls working at the snack counter.
Am I really such a load that they'd rather play in a hole in the ground than camp out with me?
And how the Hell did they get down there?
There didn’t appear to be any steps or ladder of any kind, and it looked to be a straight drop of twelve feet or more.
Edward got out of his sleeping bag and called down the hatchway again, “Guys! Guys?”
All he heard in reply was a dull echo. Unsure of what to do next Edward brought the flashlight over to the stack of books hoping to find a Tom Clancy novel or something to pass the time until the guys came back. He found himself looking at the book Randy had showed him. Edward realized it wasn’t Greek at all but Latin. Frowning he flipped through the pages, the pictures were pretty freaky all right. Edward had taken a little Latin in preparation for his pharmacology degree; he wondered what he could piece together.
The title was simple enough, Barathrum, that meant Hell or the afterlife or something like that. The rest of the text was hard to make sense of, either the person that wrote it was lousy at the language or patently insane.
“Unwitting pilgrims find them in the places between, where the borders grow uncertain. They wait there hungry with promises."
Edward wondered at that phrase, it was being used as the caption for a detailed picture of a butterfly with anthropomorphic breasts.
“Every mortal choice they make leads them. Many hear, so few understand.”
It read like a religious text, but most of the religious texts Edward had encountered always made sure to mention their deity in question at least once a page. This book read as though even the author wasn’t certain what he was talking about.
“Many hear but few can listen. To know them is to know transformation.”
A fresh wave of shivers and nausea washed over him. He retreated back to his sleeping bag, his gut and his head both felt like they were being twisted in knots
Edward didn’t even realize he’d passed out until he felt himself begin to dream. In his dream he was somehow outside from himself, watching his slumbering form with a kind of aching greed. The details were hard to focus on because in the dream his vision was splintering ever outwards like a mirror shattering in slow motion.
It was still dark when he stirred, it felt like he had been sleeping for hours and there was still no sign of his three friends. Disoriented he looked at his watch and saw it was a Thursday. Edward knew the digital readout had to be wrong- how could he have been asleep for three days? Before he could wonder any further he felt his gorge start to rise. He managed to make his way to the fireplace before he spilled the contents of his stomach over the half-burned wood.
When it was over he felt raw and exhausted.
He crawled back to the hatch. The flashlight’s illumination was refracted back at him as though the hatchway had been made from polished mirrors.
"Guys?" His voice was too weak, he was too weak. What was wrong with him?
The glare of the reflection filled his mind with strange images; visions of barren vistas crawling with bloated, malignant shapes, of desires that clawed their way through the void between worlds and of songs no human voice could ever intone or hear.
With one sweep of the flashlight beam the bottom of the shaft was empty.
With the next Futterman was there staring up at him. Edward choked at the sight.
"What are you doing down there?" Edward tried to summon as much anger to his voice as he could.
Futterman flashed an empty approximation of a human smile
Then he skittered, insect-like up the sheer wall.
Edward's scream was feeble. He dropped the flashlight. It tumbled end over end down the shaft. The flickering light made Futterman's movements an impossible series of staccato leaps. Edward ran out the door charging barefoot through the knee deep snow.
The forest was silent; it was as though the entire world had been emptied of life. The only sound was Futterman’s voice calling out to him, his tone reasonable and his promises extravagant.
The snow seemed to grasp greedily at Edward's feet. He couldn't catch his breath- the air had become too thin, too corrupt.
Everywhere the trees were dead, not just bare for winter but dead. The folds of their bark had grown soft and misshapen- wizened organic silhouettes that seemed to claw at the air. Some of the bark had fallen away to reveal clusters of gray, moist shapes. There was no sign of the trail that had brought them here.
And the sky! The sky is wrong! The sight of it drove Edward to his knees. The night above him was sectioned and fragmented; the stars out of place, their light crowded chaos. Futterman's voice was getting closer. Edward had to bite his tongue to goad himself into moving again. He had to lean against one of the distorted trees to steady himself, its touch was clammy and damp.
There was a deadfall blocking the way ahead, for a moment Edward considered doubling back but he lacked the courage. Better to climb, better to try and hide. Slivers of dead wood speared the flesh of his feet and palms of his hands as he climbed. The rotten timber swayed with his every movement.
Things moved inside the wood, brushing against his fingertips.
From the top of the deadfall Edward could see the cabin, crouched in the snow with the front door hanging open. Futterman sat crouched atop the roof, his head darting this way and that. The sight set Edward trying to scramble down the other side of the deadfall but his grip failed him and he went tumbling.
Impact with the snow was jarring, pain jolted though him. Then the rotten timber of the deadfall collapsed. Edward tried to scramble free but he was too slow.
"They were invited," Futterman said.
Edward's broken legs dangled bonelessly as he was carried back to the cabin. The dark scuttling shapes that had made their home in the deadfall had burrowed into his flesh like ticks. The itch of them was more maddening then the agony of his broken legs.
"They found the Interface," the snow was unmarked by Futterman's passing, "Where we wait hungry with promises."
Edward cursed and begged, trying to pull free of his captor. It was better to crawl like a dying animal through the snow than return to that cabin. He punched and tore at Futterman's skin, the flesh beneath was gray and moist...
"You heard but didn't want to understand, your mind and body rebelled. The others... one tore out his own throat in terror, the other plunged himself headlong into the very Pit itself. Only this one stayed. He was eager."
As they crossed the threshold to the cabin Edward grabbed hold of the doorframe and held tight. “Let me go,” he hissed, “Let. Me. Go.”
This is just a dream. Edward prayed for the first time since Junior High, I'm sick and delirious and this is all just in my mind. If I can just hold on a
little but longer I'll wake up. Please let me wake up.
In his struggles Edward happened to glance upwards. Slowly, he became aware of a pattern in the way the night sky had been divided and subdivided; a pattern as geometric as it was consistent.
That final realization reduced Edward's muscles and sanity to jelly. Somehow the sky he had known all his life had been torn away and all he saw now was the world reflected in a single, impossible, segmented eye.
Futterman pulled him free of the doorway and carried him reverently to the hatchway. Edward was beyond struggling he could only stare.
Before he skittered back into the darkness with his prize Futterman spoke, his tone almost kindly, "To know us is to know transformation."
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