The Armageddon Key

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 05, 2019

Reads: 76

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Submitted: June 05, 2019

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Prologue

Near Oban, Scotland

September, 17th 1998

The foul stench of death surprised him. He knew all those bodies had died a slow, torturous death in that collapsed tunnel over two-hundred years ago, but the odor should have been long-withered with the decomposition of the dead. The breakthrough was at the apex of a six-and-a-half-foot mound of fallen earth, and Father Ian MacFadden stared into the opening for only a moment, peering into the impenetrable blackness. He then turned his head to catch a whiff of cleaner air.

At first, anguish over an uncertain future had brought him to that labyrinth of tunnels under the monastery. It was a lonely, melancholy place best suited for the type of introspection he had needed to undertake. But even if doubt had brought him there, the pumping adrenaline of anticipation kept him there and now fueled his desire to proceed. It was an anticipation and desire for things holy that he hadn’t felt in a long time. Too long. At least in the four months he’d been at the monastery and probably a year before that. He was cautiously excited.

The corridor in which he was about to enter had been absent of viable human occupation for centuries, but its slumber would soon be disturbed. There were things needing to be reclaimed beyond the obstruction of compacted dirt and granite in front of him, and the priest would unearth them, regardless of how challenging it was to breathe the foul stench seeping through the hole. 

He gazed hard into the cavity once more, hoping to tear back some of the gloom and catch a glimpse of something, anything, that would dispel the haunting notion that he was peering into the emptiness of a vast pit, a never-ending shaft that seemed to go on for eternity. That desire was granted as he squinted into the hole. The priest unexpectedly felt a preternatural sense that something beyond the opening, something in the blackness where his eyes could not reach, was staring back at him . . . waiting. A snake of ice slithered along his spine and nipped at his neck. He knew dead bodies, long-rotted in this lightless tomb were no doubt scattered among the relics he was searching out. Maybe that was what he perceived—their eyeless sockets staring at him forlornly through the gloom, proclaiming in their silence how belated the release from their subterranean prison had been.

 On one level, he felt pained for those unfortunates who had been trapped and left to die so many ages ago. But on another level, they were not the objects of his quest. He couldn’t dwell on how horrible a demise they must have suffered. Better things were to be discovered or more aptly put, rediscovered. Dealing with the co-existence of bad and good, evil and holy . . . death and life. Those were the premises of a priest’s calling, so misgivings were naturally amalgamated with his enthusiasm. Nonetheless, he persisted as all good priests do. To him, that was an encouraging sign. Not all of what a priest should be had left him.

The debris at the base of his feet began to give way, so Ian halted his scrutiny of the universe of black just beyond the barricade, descended the rocky mound, and filled a rusted, metal wheelbarrow behind him with the loose rubble.

A lantern sat on an outcropping of stone just behind the cart, like a cloistered lighthouse on a lonely crag. Its sour-yellow light gave the area its only luminescence, and it cast a warped, serpentine shadow of the priest along the spade-etched concavity of the tunnel walls.

When he finished filling the corroded barrow, he pitched his shovel into the heap of rock and soil.  “Murray!” he yelled off behind him in a thick Scottish brogue, plumes of vaporized air issuing from his mouth like a fire-breathing dragon in the chilled air. “Come here, lad. I’ve another load for you.” His voice seemed decibels louder than it actually was in the diminutive confines, and it lingered down the re-excavated tunnel in a series of hollow echoes.

Ian mused at the praying mantis-like shadow Murray Kilborn cast on the tunnel wall with his head bent awkwardly and his shoulders slouched to keep from scraping the top of the tunnel. A few seconds later, carrying a lantern of his own, Murray emerged, pushing back dirty locks of wiry, black hair from his freckled forehead. He was taller than Ian but was no more than two-thirds his weight.  Though this twenty-year-old’s lean stature was built more for basketball—in terms of height, not agility—than tunnel digging, his enthusiasm to help with such an undertaking made the choice an easy one for Ian, and that more than made up for any physical limitations.

As the young man put his lantern on top of the heap and squatted down to pick up the barrow, he noticed the hole in the earthen wall in front of him and gave the priest a querying glance. Well, Ian could only assume that the look was of an inquisitive nature; Murray’s eyes always seemed to be curtained in a dingy gray cast as muted as a bank of fog rolling in from the Irish Sea. They were cradled in hollow sockets, making him look perpetually sallow and hung over, though he saw Murray drink only rarely.

Acting on his assumption, Ian pre-empted, “I’ve poked my shovel through a small openin’ up top there, and I think we’ve come onto another un-caved stretch of tunnel.”

“I’ll dump this load,” Murray replied with significantly more eagerness in his voice than his gaze would betray, “and be right back t’help get the opening a bit bigger t’crawl through.”

Hunched over like a palm tree in a hurricane, trying awkwardly to manage both the barrow and lantern, Murray shuffled back towards the main tunnel vein. 

As he waited for the young man to return, Father Ian sat on the dank tunnel floor and grabbed his coat, which was folded beside the lantern, and draped it across his legs. From an inside pocket, he pulled out a dozen or so time-worn, yellowed pieces of parchment, each a bit smaller than a normal sheet of paper. They were documents retrieved from the rubble in a long-forgotten room just down the tunnel they had just previously inspected a few days prior. And they were written in Gaelic, the ancient Celtic language still used by some of the Scots on the Western Isles and coastal fishing villages. His interpretations were crude, for he knew only a limited vocabulary of Gaelic taught to him by his highland grandfather. But luckily that was enough to understand the general idea of what was written down. 

He went directly to the third page, which was where he had previously left off, and began doing his best to decipher more of the worn documents, but two hundred years had not been kind to them. Pages were ripped in places, smeared or faded in others, and altogether missing in yet others.  From what he had interpreted thus far, he was about to happen upon something astonishing.  Somewhere under the kilt of Scotland were ancient relics that archeologists could only dream of uncovering. They were things as old as Christianity itself—probably older if his extrapolations were correct, and a wonder pill for his ailing faith. They were icons he found sacrilegious to have been somehow forgotten or ignored. He sensed that the objects he was looking for were just beyond that wall of dirt. Had to be. He felt them. They seemed to beckon him.

And he, them. He needed something of substance to rekindle the embers of his dying faith. The sense of supernatural mystery and spiritual veneration that had once been the foundation of faith had been replaced by overwork from a dwindling priest population, an unsympathetic hierarchy, and the stifling burden of strict adherence to its ancient traditions, refusing to bring the Church and her people into the modern era. To him, the Church sometimes seemed no more holy an institution than was Microsoft or General Motors. But if the papers were to be believed—provided he’d deciphered them properly—that would all change. He was again absorbed with a singular enthusiasm that had once coursed his veins but had long been arrested, as the weeks of digging and sweating and burrowing and little sleep were finally paying off. 

Yet, if outwardly he was enthusiastic of the progress they were making, inside, for reasons yet unknown to him, he was also beginning to become increasingly apprehensive. Ian felt as though he had just cracked open a door to a realm he knew little about. What would be revealed when that door was swung wide open?

He heard Murray shuffling up the tunnel, so he folded the papers back up and put them back into their secret place.

But as he repositioned the coat on the dirt floor, something fell from another pocket: a picture.  It bore the reason why he was there, why he had begun to question his faith. He didn’t want Murray to see it.  No one but the Bishop knew what the particulars were of his being at the monastery, but the picture would tell the whole story. Quickly, he picked it up and put it in his back trouser pocket.

Murray, carrying a shovel himself this time, was breathing hard from the hurried trip up to the main tunnel and back. He stopped and smiled excitedly at Ian, tapping his boot on the floor and leaning on the butt of his spade. He seemed as anxious as Ian to see what was on the other side of the barricade of earth.

So, the two pitched their shovels into the dirt and deposited their loads onto either side of the tunnel to be picked up later.

After ten minutes of shoveling, the opening was big enough that, with a little effort, they each could squeeze through to the other side.  The aperture was about five feet in thickness and, lying on his stomach with half his body in the opening and the other half dangling, Ian peered deep into that coal-black void. “Hand me a lantern,” he finally said.

Murray handed Ian the lantern he was holding then bent down and picked up the other from its rocky perch.

Struggling, Ian managed to squeeze the lantern between him and the wall of the cavity. He placed it in front of him and off to the side to afford himself an unobstructed view of the dark spaces beyond. The lantern was like a tsunami of harsh light that burst through the hole and drowned two hundred years of darkness, as the tide of lamplight swept shadows back into the farthest reaches of the tunnel. They had broken through to thirty feet or so of open tunnel. At the far end, mounds of earth and rock blocked passage through to the last twenty feet or so of that particular stretch of the catacombs.

“I’m goin’ in,” Ian said. He belly-crawled through the tight opening, inching the lantern ahead of him as he went. Occasionally, fine particles of earth broke free from the top of the opening and lodged themselves in his eyes and mouth. The priest spent more time extricating the muck from his orifices than the time it took to actually maneuver through the crawl space, but he finally broke through to the other side, birthed into a dead, dark world that still held the promise of life somewhere within its confines. Ian was doggedly bound to find it . . . again. 

Once out of the opening, he struggled to his feet, and the foulness of the dead air hit him with full force, twisting his stomach into knots.  It had to be originating from decayed flesh and organs.  They had surely long turned to dust, but the stagnant air was taken with the aroma of a miserable and slow death. It was a nauseous odor trapped with nowhere to go that would not be released from its captivity until now. He visualized robed skeletons sprawled on the earthen floor, bony fingers clasping rosaries for one last dying prayer for help that was never answered. 

Pulling a hanky out of his back pocket and covering his nose, he called in a heavy whisper back through the crawl space, “Get your lamp and crawl through. And you better have a hanky ready.  The smell in here is somethin’ fierce. Hurry now!”

After considerable agony trying to twist and shimmy his tree-like frame through the hole, Murray, with Ian’s help, was now on the other side, handkerchief to nose.

With the combined power of both lanterns now to give life to the darkness, Ian inspected his surroundings. To his immediate left was a wooden door layered with a thick skin of greenish-brown grime and muck.  The metal doorknob was rusted and mottled green in the acidic air. The intricacies of fine craftsmanship were still discernible, however, on the doorknob plate and door hinges: crucifixes surrounded by trumpeting angels carved into the metalwork below the keyhole and along the hinge-plates.  No ordinary room would have such fine images emblazoned on them. It denoted importance, a holy room of some sort. The same etchings were found on the door to the previous room they had investigated, and he’d been rewarded with the stash of ancient papers he now guarded.

A smile creased his stubbled and weary face.

Ian tried the knob. Flakes of centuries-old rust and muck tainted his hand in his hard grip, but the door would not budge. He pushed on it, being careful not to cause too much tension because the tunnel could collapse from too harsh a disturbance, and they would share the same miserable fate as those friars whose desiccated skeletons they were bound to stumble across shortly.

“Take a lamp and see what you find down the hall, while I see if I can get this open,” he said quietly to Murray without taking his anxious eyes off the door.

“Right.” Murray picked up his lantern and slowly investigated the remaining portion of the tunnel.

Ian scratched his head, perplexed. The door to the other room had not been as corroded as this.  It had a blanket of dust on it, and was oxidized and arduous to open, but not to the extent of this door and not with this green-brown-red encrustation. It looked as though it had been left to rot in untold years of acid rain and something altogether different. He grabbed the knob again with both hands and began to twist harder without jarring it too badly, trying to break the mechanisms free of their binding. He twisted and contorted his body to try and get the best possible leverage using all of his weight.  Slowly, it began to twist in his stubborn grip. He turned it the other way, then the other, then the other again. Finally, hands aching and bruised and scraped from his clenching grip, the knob turned just enough to clear the bolt from the latch. With his help, the door swung open, filling the tunnel with a loud, scraping creak.

Shortly afterward, Murray yelled to Ian, “Uh, Father . . . Ya better come ‘ere an’ take a look at this.”  His voice held a note of apprehension. He was standing at another door at the very end of the tunnel, brows wrinkled as he inspected it. 

Too caught up with the possibilities beyond the now open door, Ian gave no credence to the uneasiness in Murray’s voice and said in a loud hush, “Go inside. What do you think I brought you down here for? And if you find anythin’, for God’s sake don’t yell, just come fetch me, unless you want t’be stuck down here yourself for another couple-hundred years.”

Holding up the lantern, Ian went inside the room. It was partially caved in. Vacant spider webs like a silky veil hung down from the un-caved portion of ceiling and undulated in a flow of disturbed air like a bed of kelp in a cool ocean current. There was no stench in this room, but it followed him in from the hall, giving him only a momentary respite from its noxious presence. 

In the middle of the floor in front of him, underneath a mound of debris was what looked like the exposed portion of an altar of some sort, again strikingly similar to one he had found in the same room as the ancient papers. Though mostly concealed under earth and rock, he knew its features. It was in the form a circle, about five feet in diameter, although only half of the circle was visible here.  Around the circle—the portion he could still see—were long, tapered candles that at one time were fastened to the floor with their melted wax, one placed at each hour of the day. He imagined that they had once shone brilliantly, their flickering flames worship-dancing around an altar that had served some mysterious purpose. But now, they lay broken and clothed in dirt and filth.

He briefly inspected the rest of the confines. Unlike the sparse room where he came upon the old papers, this room had racks of snuffed votive candles, a crudely-made kneeler for prayer at the circle-altar, and the walls not buried under the heavy weight of Scotland above them had twisted and tattered paintings of Mary and Jesus and Saint Andrew on them. They peered out from thick layers of dirt in protestation of their neglect.

After taking in the small room and its contents, he knelt down for a closer inspection of the candle-girded, cryptic ring on the floor. As he carefully discarded some rubble for a closer examination, his lantern washed shadows from an object that protruded from beneath the heap. Ian’s heart began to pound between the bars of his rib cage. Sweat seeped through the pores in his hands like a saturated sponge. It was what he was searching for, of that much he was certain. 

He carefully picked up a bowling ball-size stone the object was pinned under and placed it carefully beside him. Ian then wiped a sheath of grime and dirt off the top of a now-exposed small, wooden box. Slowly, he opened it. Inside was a dry-rotted, leather pouch. His heart sank momentarily.  There was supposed to be two. The papers said there were two. Where was the other one? It was around here somewhere. He’d find it. He had to find it. At least he’d found one.

His hands trembled so fiercely he couldn’t risk picking up the satchel just yet and shaking its ancient contents into a thousand pieces. He took some deep breaths and tried to work the nervousness out of his fingers by alternately stretching and fisting them. Then, with a careful confidence, he picked up the pouch and placed it in his coat pocket. He decided to leave the box where it lay and take only the satchel for fear that removing the box as well might make the pile of stones settle in its place and cause another cave in.

On his hands and knees, Ian peered into all the dark crevasses and under all the loose rocks looking for the other satchel. But it wasn’t there. It was gone.

Just then, Ian thought he heard something—an acute and quick snap. Though he could not necessarily distinguish it from his anxious respirations and the crunching of dirt and pebbles underfoot, something about it caused a prickle across his neck and shoulders.

It was then that Father Ian remembered just how uncertain Murray had sounded when he called to him only moments ago. Murray wanted to show him something. What? The other satchel?

He listened for a moment. Nothing. The silence chilled him more than the air. There were no sounds echoing through the tunnel, no footsteps, no shuffling, no ‘Hey Father’, only his own hanky-muffled breaths.

He took the cloth from his nose and yelled in a harsh whisper. “Murray. Murray, find anythin’?”

The only response was from the undulating ranks of cobwebs above him as his movements stirred the air and set them in motion.

Still cautious but louder this time, “Murray!”

Still no response.

Something was wrong.  He got to his feet, picked up the lantern and went back out into the tunnel.

Where Murray had once stood was another door, which was open. In the doorway was placed a small vessel of some sort, about the size of a large soup bowl. He was too far away to make out exactly what it was.  Had he noticed it before, he might have given more faith to Murray’s uneasiness and went to him and inspected it when he called. But it was so hard to give something that he struggled himself to keep.

As he started down to the other door, a brief thought had crossed his mind: he hadn’t yet come across any skeletal remains. Surely the stench was caused by a score of dead monks, though none were found, yet. Maybe Murray had found them.

The silence now seemed more absolute. Footsteps and breaths no longer caromed across the tunnel walls but instead seemed to be sifted into another dimension. The space seemed to be so devoid of life for so long that it swallowed sound like a hungry beast, belching back only muted static. 

That growing uneasiness he had begun to experience earlier deep within himself was now slowly making its way to the surface. Something felt wrong, all wrong, and he damned himself for not knowing why he felt that way, damned himself for not knowing how to correct it.

At the postern, he stopped and stared in unbounded astonishment at a doorway lathered in crucifixes, both crudely made wooden crosses and finely crafted brass-like cruciforms. There had to be at least twenty nailed to the doorway, and to the door itself, another thirty or forty. More inexplicable than that, the coffer on the floor in the middle of the entrance held what looked to be water, still full, as pristine as if it had just been poured.

Ian put his lantern down and picked up the vessel. How could that be? Two hundred years without evaporating? Impossible.

Something moved. The darkness within the room seemed to be alive. An adumbration, like molten tar, even darker than the inky spaces it occupied, rustled from within the room.

“Murray?” Ian called out. He picked up the lantern and held it out to the open doorway. A sliver of sour light touched the shadowy back wall of the room. More crucifixes, hundreds nailed across the wall, everywhere. And skeletons. Piles of skeletons, a carpeting of skeletons.

Suddenly, something appeared from the purple-black recesses not touched by lamplight, hurdled at him lightning quick—oh God!—and it landed on top of him sending him reeling back against the far tunnel wall. The lantern and vessel of liquid flew from his grasp. Ian was dazed only momentarily before fear seized him, and he threw the thing off of him and staggered back to the doorway. The priest looked down in utter horror. It was the mutilated carcass of Murray. His twisted neck stared grotesquely down his backside from the heap of flesh piled on the floor. It was obvious that all his bones had been crushed. His remains lie on the tunnel floor like a pile of soiled laundry. 

Ian tried to scream but terror had rendered him mute, in shock.

Then, something within the room growled, low, wet, insidious. Bones, like dry leaves, crunched under its movement.

With every step taken Ian felt a prick of fear on his spine, as though he was the one being walked upon.

Without warning, it burst through the entranceway lightning quick, knocking Ian back even harder than the dead Murray had, sending a jolt of pain through his head and back as he slammed against the far wall, once again. The thing let out an ear-piercing, agonizing shriek as it passed the army of Jesus’ on the portal as if by somehow coming into close proximity to anything holy gave it unimaginable anguish.

Currents of pure evil oozed into the tunnel from the darkened room in the wake of the thing that had just been released. A macabre energy seemed to hover around the semiconscious Ian, whispering gleefully in his ears of the torture he would endure in the Hell that awaited him. But the presence stayed only momentarily. Then, as if sensing a goodness in him that could not be overcome—at least not yet—the tunnel fell silent once more.

Ian moaned and gently rubbed the knot on his head as he groggily pulled himself off the floor of the tunnel. Only seconds had passed, but he felt as though he’d been knocked silly for hours.

Squinting through throbbing, dizzy eyes, he searched for the lantern. Finding it on its side but still lit, he picked it up. Murray, agglomerated silently beside him, was now all that was there. A rivulet of blood dripped from the corner of his clenched mouth onto the back of his shirt. He looked like a contortionist killed in the midst of the performance of a lifetime.

The opening into the tunnel was now three times the size they had made it. Whatever it was, it dug out pretty damned fast. Ian reached into his pocket and pulled out the little leather pouch and studied it, then looked at Murray, then looked at the reamed opening.

Finally, words came to him in a fearful whisper. “What unspeakable act have I just done?”


© Copyright 2019 William Todd. All rights reserved.

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