While we await October 7th, when we will launch publishing weekly stories from selected authors, our very own Rinoa Cameron provides us with another fiendish tale to stuff our faces with.
Eyes Up There
Owen crunched his knees to his chest and shuffled his butt further into the corner. A trickle of moonlight slipped through the wooden slats above his head – not much, but enough to illuminate the snail-like ooze on the walls and the corpse not a metre away. He didn’t know how long that poor soul had been stuck there, but the fact the body was stone cold didn’t bode well. It made him question his own unhappy fate. He sure as hell hoped this dank pit wasn’t just a glorified grave.
He wrapped his arms around his legs and dipped his head. Scuffles came from up top at staggered intervals as occasional shadows swept past, momentarily blocking the tiny available light.
He thought of Debs, he didn’t like to, but couldn’t help it. The last time he saw her, she looked frightened. No. Not frightened, petrified. She screamed so hard, he found it a miracle she hadn’t spewed her guts up. Still, the question remained – what happened to her?
He prayed she’d escaped. Perhaps she made it to safety? Maybe she’d managed to summon help. For all he knew, a team of cops could be headed out here right now, although he supposed such a prospect was farfetched. Reason argued she’d suffered just like him, no matter how much he wished otherwise.
He blamed himself for being so stupid. He should have taken Debs to the pub, restaurant, or hell, even that damn art gallery she seemed so keen on. Fair enough, he would have made an arse of himself and scoffed at the most genius piece. No doubt she’d have scolded him, but he didn’t appreciate art much; give him a cold pint with decorative beer mat any day. Debs on the other hand was the quiet, educated type. He suspected his boisterous mates would have scared her off, either that, or hit on her. That’s what made him think of the garden—the one he’d often admired through the rails. A haven of quaint, little ornate lamps, a huge canopy of trees, and lush grass. The perfect spot for dinner by moonlight, even if it was trespassing.
Great idea, Owen. Climb the rails to charm the girl and end up dumped in a filth-ridden pit with a creepy dead dude for company.
Not the ideal way to end a first date.
Scratching from behind broke his thoughts.
“Owen.” Her voice arose. “Owen, are you there?”
“Debs? Is that you?” He turned and clawed at the slime-coated wall. “Debs?”
Chunks of mud fell away, torn by his fingernails. He scraped his way into the squelch until something solid met his fingers—a metal grate.
“Is that you, Owen?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” He worked at the cold, wet dirt, managing to make three thumb-sized holes in the grid.
Two bright blue, terrified eyes stared back. “Owen, where are we? Are you okay?”
He poked his fingers through two of the tiny gaps, anything to touch something other than the coldness. “I don’t know, Debs. Are you alright, are you hurt?”
She gripped his fingers. Her hands felt icy, but very good—life beyond the walls of this pit, animation other than the eerie shadows above. “I’m okay, not hurt. But how did we get down here?”
Owen swallowed, though could gather no saliva. Best not tell her about the dead guy, then. “I don’t know, but I don’t wanna know. We gotta get outta here, Debs.”
“But how? We’re stuck down here.”
He tilted his head and listened. The shadows had stopped moving above him. “I’m gonna try and get up top. Wait there, Debs, I’m coming to get you.”
“No, wait, they’ll catch you. Please, don’t leave me.”
“It’s okay, I think they’re gone. Hang on, Debs.”
She made an attempt to hang onto his fingers, but he pulled away, knowing they’d never make it out if he didn’t. She whined after him, poking her fingers into his side of the pit. “Careful, Owen.”
He nodded and stood up, although the low roof forced him to hunch. He stepped over the body beside him, trying to ignore the frozen expression of pain on the dead man’s face, and examined the wooden slats over his head.
Debs screamed. “Oh God, is that, oh God, what is that, Owen?”
“It’s alright,” he said, realising she’d spotted the dead dude. “Don’t worry, don’t worry … we’re getting outta here.”
She whimpered as he pressed his palms on the wood above him. It felt damp. Maybe he could lift it? He steadied his position, pushed his shoulders against it, and shoved. Dust and dirt rained on him, a lot of creaking, but no cigar.
He tried harder to no avail; the wooden barrier weighed a tonne.
Damn it! Damn it!
He glanced back at the slight hole where Debs peered in at him. He could only just see her, but the light in her eyes was horrendous. “Don’t worry,” he said with fresh resolve. “Hang on a sec.”
He ran his hands along the wood, searching for anything of use. He could feel the slight seams between the slats, but otherwise it was a solid block. Think, Owen, think. There has to be a way out of this mess. He punched the beams in frustration. The painful blow grazed his knuckles, but the wood splintered like a wafer biscuit.
Owen screwed his nose up at a nasty, musty smell. Rotten. The whole thing was rotten – nothing but a hard thin, crispy shell, beyond which lay wasted pulp like mashed watermelon.
Some luck at last!
“Hold on, Debs,” he yelled, unable to suppress a smile.
He rained his fists on the wood, clawing at its sponge-like innards. The skin on his hands split. Dagger shards drove into his flesh and wedged beneath his fingernails, but he didn’t give in. To surrender would be to wind up like the poor dead bastard at his feet and there was no way he wanted that. Fear saw him through the pain. He beat the half-decomposed prison through desperation, and slowly the weak, wormy structure shattered blow by blow. His bleeding hands throbbed when they struck the outer coating, but the cool sensation of outside air blessed him. He ripped his way through until his fingers wiggled into freedom.
Yes! Just a little more.
He glanced back at Debs. “It’s okay, kid, I’m coming.”
He forced the break bigger and bigger and could soon see the dark sky twinkling through a space wide enough to clamber through. Using his cut, shredded hands, he hoisted his exhausted body up, out into the night where he collapsed in the mud.
For a moment he just lay there, letting his lungs heave great gulps of air. He didn’t mind the dirt that squished against his cheek. It felt wonderful, like a drop of water on a parched, cracked tongue. It was good on his hands too. He plunged the hot fire of his bloodied fists into the delectable chill of the wet earth. Incredible.
“Owen!” Debs’ voice cried from below him. “Owen, where are you?”
He turned over to look at the wooden gate to the neighbouring pit, where Deb’s pitiful screams wailed, and knew he had to get her out. The wood was smeared with mud, and though most likely as rotten as the other cage door, he didn’t fancy battering his fists any further. Instead, he turned his attention to the large stake driven through a metal loop, deep into the ground.
“Hang on a sec,” he called, dragging himself to his knees.
“Where are you, Owen?”
“Up top, hold on. I’ll get you out.”
He crawled to the bolts, gripped as best his damaged fingers would allow, put his back into it, and heaved.
It was hard to hang onto the slippery thing, but he got Debs into this, and there was no way he could live with himself if he didn’t get her out. He hitched his knees into a frog like position, adjusted his hold, gritted his teeth, and gave his all.
The huge nail twisted a little, budged a bit more, then popped out sending Owen on a short flight before sprawling to the ground—splat into the mud, stake held high like a trophy.
He scrambled up, grabbed the large metal handle, and yanked with all his strength. It was heavy, very, very heavy, but edged up inch by inch. He levelled it onto his shoulders and reached down into the pit.
“Come on, Debs, get my hand.”
He leaned in, hand outstretched, although the weight of the wood threatened to buckle him. Debs knelt in the bowel of the pit. Her sand coloured hair strewn in grubby waves about her shoulders, the dirt streaked where tears coursed her cheeks.
“It’s alright, com’on, let’s get outta here.”
She locked her hand in his and Owen struggled to keep his balance. Debs held his hand, using her other to scale the mud wall and clamber onto the pit lip. She crawled out with small grunts of exertion, and he was glad when she cleared the trapdoor so he could drop the heavy slats.
They crashed down with a clatter and he did likewise, curling into an exhausted ball on the floor. He felt like he’d run a bloody marathon—all he’d wanted was some quiet time with Debs, bottle of wine, some rich food, and perhaps a taste of her other assets. But now he just wanted to go home, back to his little one bedroom flat, and oh for the luxury of a shower. A nice warm shower, soft bath towel, and the sheets of his bed—a place safe from this madness.
Debs’ hands touched his shoulders. She rubbed his arms and turned him onto his back. “Owen, are you okay?”
He gazed at her as she knelt beside him. By God she looked pretty in the moonlight, even with her long hair tangled and smears of mud on her cheeks.
“I’m okay,” he said, hoisting himself up on an elbow. “But where the hell are we?” He turned to examine their surroundings, finding himself in a sink. The two pits sat side by side in a dirty basin surrounded by a net of thorn bushes.
“The garden,” Debs whispered. “I think we’re still in the garden.”
Owen nodded, able to see the top of the tree canopy beyond the mass of thorns. “I think you’re right.”
Debs looked afraid. “But?” She huddled closer to him. “The one’s who did this?” Her eyes darted about in obvious wariness.
Owen glanced about, finding it quiet—too quiet. He grabbed Debs’ hand and rose to his feet, despite the cry of exhaustion from his bones. “Com’on, kid, let’s get going?”
He led her toward the top, seeing it as the only way forward. The path was difficult to say the least. The ground slippery. Thorns knitted far too close for comfort. He walked through a world of needles—nature’s razorblades.
Debs clung close to his side, helping him pick his was through the darkness. He couldn’t help but wonder if this forest of dense claws would last forever. It slit his arms, cut his legs, and poked his face, but eventually parted into the outskirts of the garden. No more thorns—ornate lampposts, pruned rosebushes, neat flowers, trimmed trees.
He sighed in relief. “Almost there, Debs.” He took her arm and pulled her into the welcome glow of small lamp—a twisted black candlestick, decorated with gargoyles. “Not far now, we just gotta reach the rails.”
Laughter broke the silence.
Debs screamed. She wrapped her arms around Owen’s waist. He could feel her shaking by his side.
“Who’s there?” he shouted over her shoulder, surprised he could muster the strength to do so.
More laughter and growling.
His guts rattled. He didn’t know what to expect. The last time he encountered this, they were ambushed so fast he didn’t see the attackers. But the growling scared the shit out of him.
“Who’s there?” he shouted again.
Another bout of laughter followed, growling ringing all around. Close. Close. Ever so close.
“Owen, what …?”
He hugged Debs tightly. Pulled her back a step, gazing in every direction. Yet the sounds were everywhere. In front. Behind. To the side.
“What do you want?” he begged, aware fear spiked his voice.
The trees moved; eyes lingered in the darkness. White eyes. Hundreds of them nestled in the branches.
“Please,” Owen pleaded. “I’m sorry we trespassed. We didn’t mean any harm. Please, let us go?”
No reply, just a low indistinguishable rumble.
Debs shivered and pressed herself hard against him. “It’s okay,” he whispered in her ear. “Don’t worry.” Yet he felt helpless. A mere lamb surrounded by a pack of wolves.
“Please?” he said, desperate now. “What do you want?” He pulled his wallet from his pocket and waved it in the air. “There’s twenty quid and credit cards here, please, we’ve nothing else of value.”
A sharp snigger pierced the night.
Owen threw his wallet down, not knowing what else to do. “WHAT THE HELL DO YOU WANT‽”
The growls and rumbles rose, echoed by a bout of laughter. The white eyes in the trees swayed as the branches rocked. More eyes appeared amongst the whites; red eyes, orange eyes, green eyes.
Debs yelled and buried her face into Owen’s shoulder. He wrapped his arms around her, but his knees threatened to give.
“Please, what do you want?” he screamed one last bid.
A man jumped down from one of the trees, but stayed in the shadows. “We don’t want your money,” he said.
Owen stumbled backward, holding Debs. “Then, what do you want? Who are you?”
The man straightened his posture. “Andrel, to you intruders. Don’t you know the penalty?”
Owen shook his head. “What penalty?”
“Err … I’m sorry, mister, but …”
“You should know better than to enter their domain.”
“Those in the trees.”
Owen glanced up. Red, green, and orange eyes winked against the velvet night.
Andrel edged forward. “You’ve broken their rules.”
“Look, we didn’t mean to …”
The dark stranger shuffled into the light, revealing his gaunt, chiselled face. “They will choose,” he said, his voice just above a whisper.
Owen reeled backward. This man was spouting shit. Absolute fucking nonsense. “I’ve heard enough,” he snapped, hoping his harsh tone would obliterate this charade. “I’m sorry we disturbed you, I really am, but you’ve had your fun, and we’re leaving. Com’on, Debs.” He grabbed her hand and led her forward.
She held back. “But, Owen, what about … them?” She pointed to the eyes clustered in the trees.
Owen shrugged. “It’s just a bunch of smart arses with fancy lights.”
Shadows swooped across the sky. Huge leather wings spread. Bird like screeches cried. Eyes flashed as they streaked past and huge dragon-like beasts launched into flight—claws snapping, tails lashing.
“It’s a trick, just a trick.”
A monster skimmed his head with a great gust of wind. He saw the scales on its body glimmer. The gleaming ripple of its underbelly swept all thought of deception from his mind.
“Run!” he cried. “For God’s sake run!” He held Debs hand and dragged her forward, having a job to keep her on her feet.
Debs ran, but her hand slipped from Owen’s grip. He spun to see her sprawled behind him, ensnared before he could get her. The things dived, curled their claws around her, and plucked her into the air, where she twisted and turned, gagging bulleted yells.
“Debs!” Owen leapt after her. His fingers closed on her shoe, but it ripped off as they heaved her higher, leaving him collapsed in the dirt, footless shoe in his hand.
More screeching devils closed in on Debs. They flew around her in circles, bellowing with wisps of smoke curling from their nostrils, beating their wings in rapid flight.
“Help me!” Debs wailed. “Owen!”
He crouched on the ground, helpless. His hands stretched up in vain.
A shadow spilt over him. He looked at Andrel, who said, “They’ve chosen her.”
Owen turned back to see the frenzy in the sky. The monsters ripped into Debs. They chomped her in their jaws. Chewed up her arms and legs. Stripped away her flesh. Munched her into a gooey glob of mashed gore, and then dropped the mangled, bloodied remains. She hit the ground, where she burst open like a water bomb. Her head half eaten. Body mauled. Right arm severed.
Owen recoiled from a rain of blood, finding her a puddle of squashed mulch. He stared in disbelief, set to sob his heart out, when the corpse wriggled. A tiny black, orange-eyed creature squiggled from Debs’ split belly and crawled onto the grass making small, youthful squeaks. It thrashed the blood from a long thorny tail and shook a crown of entrails from its horns.
One of them.
Owen’s breath whistled through his lips. He could have sworn the newborn thing had sorrow in its eyes—a lingering essence of the woman whose body it emerged from.
Andrel kicked Deb’s ruined wreckage away and scooped the little monster into his arms. “Shush, shush,” he said, hugging the mewing thing. “I’ll take care of you. You’re mine, now.”
Owen sat on the floor, spattered by Debs’ blood, flabbergasted. “But what about, Debs?”
Andrel gave a dismissive look. “Oh, don’t worry about her. She’s fine, she’s right here.” He held up the tiny, blood-coated creature. “Pretty, isn’t she?”
Owen shuddered and glanced up at the sky. The monstrous dragons now hung above him in a silent hover, their eyes fixed on him. He swallowed. “And me?”
Andrel cradled his new pet. “I only need one,” he said, tickling the creature’s chin. He petted the small, scaled bundle, and then locked eyes with Owen. “You’re surplus to requirement.”
Realisation struck like lightning.
He leapt to his feet in a desperate dash for freedom. He’d seen things, impossible things, things that couldn’t be—Debs didn’t just smash like a squashed berry. She didn’t just turn into a terrible beast. He was hallucinating, had to be. Any second he’d wake up in his bed.
Andrel laughed after him, his voice bounding through the night.
Owen lowered his head and pelted for the cover of the trees, but claws grabbed his arms. His feet ran midair as they hauled him into the sky. He yelled and cried, but was helpless.
They dropped him back into a Godforsaken pit, where he hit the earth with a painful thud, landing in a muddy grave, two meters by two meters.
“Let me out,” he bellowed, his hand stretched up to freedom. “Please, don’t do this.”
Wooden slats crashed down, swallowing him in darkness. Deep in a cage below the ground, he heard stakes drive through metal loops; heard the victory cry of the demons; heard his last hope crack as they flew away.
“NO!” he cried, pounding his fists on the wood.
Surely he could break out again, just like last time, but it wasn’t rotten. Not this time. Rock hard, it felt like concrete. He beat it until warm blood burst from his skin. Clawed the mud, dug the dirt, flung his body at the walls.
“Let me out, for God’s sake, let me out!”
He screamed until his throat ran dry. Trapped. Trapped. Trapped. Imprisoned with no escape. He slipped to the ground and buried his face in his knees, sobbing alone, until cold, clammy fingers settled on the back of his neck.
Owen yelped and shrank away, his eyes straining through the dark.
A face he recognised stared back. Pallid and dirty, it gazed through hideous, sunken, half-eaten eyes.
Owen shook his head. “No! It can’t be. You, you’re …”
The animated corpse of the man he’d seen in the original pit grinned back. “You too, huh?”
Owen’s mouth hung open, his finger pointed in horrified disbelief. “You’re not real,” he uttered. “You’re dead.”
The man folded his hands behind his head, leaned back against walls, and laughed. “Oh, if only it were that simple.” He kicked out his legs and sighed as maggots crawled through the ruptured folds of his lips. “Best make yourself comfortable, pal. You’re gonna be down here awhile.”