There was a boom, from the bell in the clocktower, and then a mechanical buzzing. X-one-nine-five, the loudspeaker crackled, please report to the Chapel.
There was sobbing, cries of fear, voices pleading far off down the hallway. Tom just curled up in his bunk. He hadn’t known Christian well, but even if he had, there was nothing he could do for him.
The voices continued, and then there was a scream of pain. Footsteps running, a door slamming. Tom closed his eyes. He didn’t want to think about it.
His phone buzzed.
Don’t worry, the text said. You will be all right.
You don’t know that, he typed back. It could well be my number they call next.
Shh. Have no fear. I will protect you. Simply continue to communicate with me, and no one will harm you.
But how do I know?
Hush now. Time for sleep. Pay no attention to the sounds you hear. AWEGBEUBWE
Tom sighed, put the phone down. No arguing with Him. He knew best, after all. So he curled up and slept, and ignored the screams of agony that filtered through halls and vents up from the dark vastness of the Chapel.
Tom was one of those who had been there the longest. Well, time didn’t mean much, in the Dark House. The harsh electric lights never stopped their flickering, and very few of them remembered concepts like windows or the outdoors. Time was measured, primarily, in comings and goings. Comings were frequent – one child, maybe two, maybe even three at a time, generally between five and ten years old. There was a quarantine period in the closed-off portion of the Infirmary, and then they would be assigned a number and a phone and one of the little cells that somehow always seemed to be available. Goings were rarer, but they did still happen. The loudspeakers would call your number if you misbehaved, or if they wanted you for something. But if they summoned you to the Chapel, alone…That was it. No one knew what they did to you. All anyone knew was that there were a few extra bloodstains on the altar the next time a service was called.
Tom had stopped keeping track of the comings and goings by this point, as had many of the others. They had all just sort of stopped caring. When the loudspeakers announced a meal, you went and ate. When they announced a service, you went and prayed. When they announced a lesson, you went and recited the same things you recited every time. The rest of the time, you just slept, or wandered the halls, or sat in one of the little common rooms and talked to Him.
He was the one thing they all had in common. None of them remembered their lives before the Dark House, although some of them had nightmares. But they knew that there was something beyond it. There must be. And He was proof of that. He was a tether, binding them to the idea that there was something more.
The bell tolled, the loudspeaker buzzed. All to the Dining Hall, it crackled, and Tom joined the growing river of children that flowed through the mad, labyrinthine tunnels. Up and down pointless staircases. Around door-lined roundabouts. Over narrow bridges across stone-walled chasms, with more people moving down there beneath. And then the Dining Hall – an unknowably mammoth chamber, its arched ceiling more than lost in the blackness, pale blue lights hanging from unguessable amounts of cable over the endless tables, the thousands of children still leaving the place looking desolate and empty.
He made his way to a table, picked at grey porridge. Clarissa was there, and Sean, and they made small talk as they ate. Apparently there had been a new arrival, before Christian had gone to the Chapel. A pair of twins, the rumor said. None of them really cared, but none of them wanted to talk about Christian, either, and that was the only other thing that had happened recently. Eventually they just ate in silence, listening to the subdued murmur of the rest of the hall, and trying to ignore the constant feeling that there were cameras up there in the darkness, watching them.
Someone was always watching them. You never saw them, except as an occasional shadowy figure watching from a corner. But they were there. You could feel them, eyes both flesh and glass, always staring. Privacy was a joke, secrets a myth. You might be able to hide something from another child, but you couldn’t hide anything from the watchers. Anything at all.
Tom was sitting on his bunk when his phone buzzed again. He was half-tempted to ignore it. He was tired, and he didn’t really feel like talking to Him right now. But of course, he read it anyway.
There has been a new arrival.
I heard something about that, yeah. Twins, right?
Do not speak to them.
That was a bit odd. Um…okay.
This is very important, Tom. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to communicate with the new arrivals. Do not interact with them unless absolutely necessary. Do you understand?
Because I said so. You trust me, don’t you, Tom?
Then trust me about this as well. PIOQWUAERH
Of course he trusted Him. Why wouldn’t he trust Him? Tom had known Him for as long as he could remember, and he had never even spoken to these twins. It was confusing, but He knew best. He always did.
Everyone else seemed to have received similar messages, and gradually, the twins became a sort of forbidden subject. Everyone was interested in them, but no one wanted to talk about them. Certainly no one was going to talk to them, when they came out of quarantine. But everyone wanted to know about them, and why He refused to discuss them. Then the service was called.
The Chapel was smaller than the Dining Hall, but not by much. Countless rows of pews stretched from the door down, down to the altar at the far end, in a single smooth trench that contrasted with the weird misshapenness of the rest of the room. Behind the altar, a flat, pale wall stretched upwards, acres in size and so tall that even when you entered the high end of the room, you still had to look up to see the top. The rest of the space was a deformed cavern, lumps of greenish stone looming like ghostly hills into the flickering light of the thousand candles that stood before the altar, and vast black hollows yawning like inky lakes somehow suspended up there in the distance.
They always knew whether or not everyone was there. Sometimes you would have to wait for hours for the last few people to trickle in. This time, though, everyone was so on edge that it only took a few minutes for the doors to grind shut. And as always, when they boomed closed, the Projector began to whirr.
The Projector made full use of that vast, empty wall. A slide show began, dead silent, black-and-white images and text stuttering and flickering. Ordinarily, it would simply be a call to prayer, encouraging the viewers to worship Him and fear the One Below. And it was still that, in a sense. But it was different, somehow. More intense. His word is law, it said, and flickered images that went by too fast to see. His wish is His children’s command. When He speaks, His children listen, and they obey. This is the way of the true believers. The One Below waits to swallow those who do not believe, and its servants are everywhere. They are as the small crack in the wall, the small tear in the cloth. They may appear harmless, but they wait to steal the unwary from His caring arms and bring them to their master’s ravening jaws.
The twins were almost mythical when they finally emerged. Most people seemed to expect them to have horns, or bat wings to swoop grinning down upon the nonbelievers. In reality, they were ordinary children, a boy and a girl, who kept to themselves and didn’t speak to anyone except each other. Even so, people avoided them. They trusted the services, and they trusted Him.
It was some time later that Tom woke up to the buzzing of his phone.
He picked it up, yawning, wondering what He could want. Usually He knew whether they were asleep or not. It took him a moment to comprehend the message on the screen.
What’s going on?
Why are you listing names? Am I missing something?
Fran. Jeremiah. Noah. Sam.
What are you doing?
Katarina. Leo. Simon. Charlotte. Hugh. Eileen. Arthur. Dorothy. Hannah.
I don’t understand.
Then he got it. Wait – these are all ones that got…taken.
You’re next on the list, Tom. Come to the Chapel. Now, before they call you there.
He made his sleepy way to the Chapel, racking his brain for what His plan was. Did he do this for everyone who was taken? And what happened when you got there? Surely He wouldn’t be there in person…would He?
He wasn’t. There were two figures standing there in the half-light.
The twins stood before the Chapel doors, watching him as he approached. “Hello, Tom,” the boy said. “We’re so glad you could make it.”
Tom stopped, started backing away. “I’m not supposed to talk to you. He said so.”
“Did He? I’m not surprised.” The boy smiled. “Well, we would certainly like to talk to you, Tom. You see, several of your friends have already been here tonight.”
“No. I’m sorry, I’m not talking to you.” He was still moving backwards, trying to get away, wondering why the watchers hadn’t spotted this already and intervened.
“Let me ask you a different question. What do you know about the Dark House?”
“Why do you care?”
“Because I want to know.”
“Fine. It’s a place where all of His followers are safe from the horrors outside.”
“I see. And who is He?”
“He is our shepherd, the one who keeps us safe. He communicates with us His children through the phones...It was Him who called me here, right?”
The boy’s smile widened. “I think you know the answer to that.”
“How did you...That’s not possible. Only He can do that…”
“Evidently not. But we can do a lot more than that. You see, Tom, there is one simple thing that we have that you don’t. Knowledge.”
“I know everything I need to. I know that He guides me and guards me –”
“Where to, Tom? To where is he guiding you? To a life spent in here, every day the same monotony, to mature into a Servitor if they don’t sacrifice you to him first. Because you do not have knowledge. We can give you that knowledge.”
“I don’t need your knowledge. You are servants of the One Below, and you are –”
“Have you ever been Below, Tom?”
“No, of course not.”
“I didn’t think so.” The boy stepped back, nodded to his sister, who took out her phone. “Three days from now, M-925 will be called to the Chapel. When that happens, meet us here. We will show you what lies below.”
“And why should I do anything you tell me?”
“Because you are human. They haven’t taken that away from you, yet. And since you’re human, you’re curious. You’ve wondered all the time you’ve been here what happens in the Rituals. We can show you that, too. They aren’t as crafty as they think they are.”
His sister tapped his shoulder, and he nodded. “The cameras will reactivate any moment now. You must leave, quickly. And above all, you must not tell anyone about this. Especially not Him.”
“Go, now!” And almost as one, the twins stepped back into the shadows, and were gone.
For whatever reason, he never did tell Him. He knew he should have, of course. But there was a difference between knowing it and doing it. Besides, he told himself, the twins were insane. They were servants of the One Below. Surely he didn’t need His help not fall for their lies?
He was still telling himself that as he crept along behind Poppy as she walked sobbing to the Chapel.
He stayed far enough behind her that he didn’t attract her attention. So did the others – other children, following behind, not acknowledging each other, but understanding that they shared a purpose. Some he knew, others he didn’t. But when the doors to the Chapel boomed closed, they all moved together into the corridor, and found the twins waiting for them.
None of them spoke. They all knew why they were here. And sure enough, as one, their phones buzzed, and on them they watched the Ritual.
None of them could have spoken, afterwards. None of them could have done anything but stare at the now-blank screens, when the screams had stopped and the procession of black-robed figures had left the Chapel. They were too busy wondering. Wondering what was under those black robes, and whether it had anything to do with the humanoid form they adopted. Wondering what those images that the Projector had flashed had meant – images of things they had never seen, images of things they didn’t want to think about, thrown in hazy monochrome against the wall. Wondering what that thing they had torn from Poppy’s back was, and whether it was a part of the anatomy of an ordinary human being.
Finally, one of the girls spoke. “So…what now?”
“Now? Now…we will show you what they did…with the ashes, and with the offal.”
The boy pushed open the door to the church, led them down the long, long aisles to the platform with the altar at the far end. He jumped across the gap between the two, and his sister followed, and motioned for them to do the same. And they showed them the chutes, invisible from any other angle, that led Below.
Mile upon mile of slime and stench, leading ever downward until the chutes opened out in a cavernous room filled with slime and bones. There were doors in the sides of the room, and more rooms beyond, each dwarfing even the titanic chambers they had eaten and learned and prayed in their whole lives, each with rotting slime on its floor and strange symbols on its walls. They recognized some of those symbols, for they had been in the eerie slide show that had played as the black, robed figures had cut out Poppy’s organs and thrown them away.
There were other things on those walls. Ribbed mounds, like hoses made from the material itself running from room to room. Flickering lights, of colors and scale that implied unpleasant things about the creatures that had built them. Great wheels, turning and turning behind massive grates. Other, less describable things, clearly technology and equally clearly of no purpose for human beings.
And then, the final chamber.
It was a room that dwarfed all other rooms. It was a room that you could fit a small city inside. It was a room that physics would have scoffed at, that would give an architect nightmares. The passage opened from partway up a wall, and they were thankful that they would not have to disturb whatever it was that coated the floor. And in the center…was Him.
They all knew it was Him. Their phones hadn’t buzzed for the days they had been trudging through slime and honeycomb rooms, and the twins had told them that they had been deactivated. Now, they did, all at once, and all with the same message: It is too late.
He was a titanic thing, like a heart the size and shape of a mountain. Tendrils hung limply from His flanks, organs of unthinkable function stared like eyes, pulsing veins carried something which was not blood across His gargantuan form. And all across Him, the technology that they had been seeing merged and joined, like the hub of a spiderweb the size of a small continent. Pipes and hoses ran with strange fluids, things that should have been cables but weren’t crackled with electricity. It wasn’t just attached to Him, it was Him. And through the phones, it spoke.
You should never have come here. I tried, so many times, to warn you. But you did not heed my warnings. You ignored them, and followed agents of the One Below down into the dark.
The girl glanced at Tom, tapped her brother on the shoulder. He nodded. “It is time for us to go.”
“Wait…” one of the other boys said. “Why did you bring us down here, then? Do you really think we can just go back to our normal lives, after this?”
“Of course I don’t. And that is why we must go. And you…must stay.”
I am very sorry, my children. I had hoped that it would never come to this. But I am afraid…it is time.
The thing buzzed again, but Tom didn’t look at it immediately. That was what saved him, and a few of the others. That was why he didn’t fall dead to the ground, begin the long, agonizing slide down that foul slope. Because most of them looked, and did just that.
“I’m very sorry, you know,” the boy said.
“You’re sorry? You bring us down here, destroy everything we’ve ever known, leave us to die, and the best you can say is that you’re sorry?”
He shrugged. “I’m afraid so.”
Tom sank to his knees. “…Why?”
The boy smiled. “Because you’re not the only one who serves a god, Tom. We do, too. But we owe him something, Kath and I. He made us.”
Tom said nothing, just buried his face in his hands.
“Freaks, they call our kind. We’re mutated, though you can’t see it from the outside. That’s why Kath doesn’t speak, it’s cut off her vocal cords. And we can hear him in our heads.”
“The Kallith Entity. The Voice. The Freakmaker. Doesn’t matter what you call him. All that matters is that he sent us here. He gave us what we needed, to ensure that we got in. There’ll be more coming down soon, Tom. Because down here, you can’t do what you can up there. You can’t talk to him. And he can’t talk to you.
“You don’t remember what happened, during quarantine in the infirmary. Kath and I do. They put things in you. Parasites. It’s them he speaks to, when he communicates with you. It’s them that matures into the Servitors…
“I really am sorry. But the Voice has spoken. And we do not disobey.”
They tried to go after them, as they walked back. And they succeeded, for a while. But none of them could make the climb, back up to where the chutes opened out in the walls. They just stood there and watched as the twins scuttled up like spiders, and stood there long after as the empty openings yawned like laughing mouths.
When the twins came back down, more children in tow, none of them were left to witness it. They had all given up. One by one, they had picked their way back to His chamber. And once there, they had read His final message.
Written by StalkerShrike