Emery let out an aching groan as she slowly ebbed back into consciousness. Squinting in the near-total darkness and coughing up dust, she scrambled to get some sense of where she was and what had happened. The sharp, uneven edges of shattered bricks and splintered wood poking into her backside made it clear that she was lying on a pile of debris instead of in a bed.
Then it started coming back to her.
She was on vacation in France and had been touring the Le Mont Saint Michel abbey off the coast of Normandy. The monastery was over a thousand years old, and she was unable to resist wandering off from the tour group to see what ancient secrets might be lying in wait for her to find.
As it turned out, there were valid reasons for guests not to leave designated areas. A decrepit section of flooring had given way underneath her, sending her crashing down into some subterranean crypt.
She began checking herself for any bleeding wounds or broken bones, but instead, her hand brushed up against the cold, chitinous carapace of some unknown insect. She instinctively swatted it off, which is when she felt the tingling sensation of hundreds of arthropod legs scurrying over every inch of her body, crawling over every orifice and under her clothes, pouring out of whatever nooks and crannies they had nestled themselves into.
She jumped to her feet in a mad panic, screeching and wildly swatting at herself, shaking out her hair and clothing, violently stomping on the ground to obliterate as many of the invading creatures as she could.
They skittered away rapidly, their chittering voices rapidly fading into the distance, but Emery still had no idea what kind of insects they had been. As her panic gave way to a visceral sense of primal revulsion, she gagged and dry heaved as she fought to return her quickened breathing to a normal pace. She felt herself for bug bites, but found that the insects had left her unscathed, even while fleeing for their lives.
Once she was convinced that she had not been seriously harmed by either the fall or the swarm, she reached for her phone. To her dismay, she found only half of it was in her hand, while the other half remained in her back pocket.
“Cheap piece of crap,” she cursed, tossing the useless broken half into the darkness. She reached now for her zippo lighter, and to her relief found it intact. She flicked it to life, but the light from the tiny flame did not extend far. She could see that the ground beneath her was stone, and smeared with the remains of the bugs she had trampled. She crinkled her face in disgust, and turned her head upwards to see where she had fallen from. High above there was the dimmest twinkling of light, and with it hope of rescue.
“Hey!” she screamed as loudly as she could. “Is anyone up there? My name is Emery Bailey, I fell through the floor! I’m still alive! Can anyone hear me? Hello!”
Her head snapped back down to face the darkness when her cries were answered by a distant, raspy moan.
“Hello?” she called out. “Is there someone else down here?”
The moan repeated in response, but closer this time, accompanied by a slight shuddering, as if in anticipation of some long-denied pleasure.
Emery’s heart and mind began to race now. What manner of creature was down here in the dark with her? In all likelihood, nothing worse than some decrepit old caretaker or monk, but it was difficult for a young woman to trust in mere statistics when she was to fend for herself, alone in the darkness.
“Identify yourself, now!” she demanded.
The moan repeated, this time with a slight chuckle, and had drawn close enough that she could make out shambling footfalls scraping against the rocky ground.
Her best chance of rescue was to stay where she was; she knew that. If she wandered off into the darkness she could get lost and never find her way back, and never be found either, or at least not soon enough to keep her from dying of dehydration. But what good would rescue be if whatever she shared the darkness with meant to kill her as callously as she had killed those bugs?
Not daring to fight an unknown assailant in the dark, Emery bolted in the opposite direction of the moaning, her path scarcely illuminated by her lighter. As she ran, she heard the moaning turn into a bemused chuckling, but it remained stationary and she could no longer hear its footsteps. Whatever it was, it wasn’t giving chase.
But maybe that was just because it knew she had nowhere to run.
Hours, or at least what felt like hours had passed, and Emery was still running.
How was that possible? she wondered. Le Mont Saint Michel was less than a square kilometer in size. She should’ve come to an exit or dead-end long ago.
Was it possible that she had fallen deeper than she realized? How could she have survived a fall all the way underground from the abbey? More likely, the path she was on wasn't as straight as she had thought. She couldn't see very far in front of her, and that was when she could see at all, as she been careful to conserve her lighter fuel as much as possible. A slight sideways bent and downwards slope could have easily gone unnoticed, especially in her panicked state. For all she knew the path spiralled for miles and miles, until coming to some unknown endpoint deep below the earth.
Her lungs were burning with the stale air that felt like it had been stagnating down there for centuries. She had pushed herself as hard as she could, telling herself that she was bound to find an exit, or at least something of use to her if she kept going. So far though, her flight had proven fruitless, with no signs of that changing any time soon.
Focusing on the positive, however, she had not heard any sign of her pursuer for hours either. As much as she wanted to keep going, to escape to freedom and safety and sunlight, her exhaustion finally overcame her resolve and she collapsed to the ground, resting her back against the tunnel wall.
As she struggled to catch her breath, she strained her hearing to make sure that whatever it was she encountered earlier wasn’t nearby. At first, she could hear nothing other than her breathing, but as her breaths became more shallow, a faint but distinct chittering sound could be made out.
More of those disgusting insects, she thought. How could they survive down here, with nothing to sustain them? They didn't sound close, at least. Hopefully, they would stay where there were.
Emery took several deep whiffs, hoping to catch any hint of fresh air that might signal she was near an exit. Instead, the air was tinged with the scent of decay.
She was then struck with the morbid realization that she was probably in some sort of catacomb and that she was surrounded by over a thousand years' worth of dead bodies. She shuddered at the thought, though at least that explained what was keeping the bugs alive. But if she was in a catacomb, then the only way out would be near the surface, back the way she came, with that thing waiting for her.
No wonder it hadn’t bothered to chase her.
She took out her lighter again and lit it, in the hopes it would reveal at least something she could use for defense.
The faint, flickering light revealed that the walls of the tunnel she was in had been hewn from colourless, irregularly shaped bricks. They were cracked and crumbling, and look like they might cave in on her at any moment. More disturbing though was the web-like pattern of a shiny, viscous substance that luminesced in the firelight, its dripping trails connecting a series of tiny boreholes, just large enough for a colony of insects to come and go as they pleased. Though she couldn’t be sure, when she had ignited the flame she had thought that she’d seen a number of insects scatter back into the darkness or into the walls.
Had they really been that close, or had those just been shadows? She moved in closer to the wall to examine the substance and observed that it had a sweet smell to it. Almost like chocolate.
It only reminded her of how hungry she was, and she hated herself for having her appetite aroused by some revolting bug slime. She placed her ear as close to the wall as she dared, and the faint chittering was definitely louder. When she gave the wall a quick knock, the chittering went dead silent. There was no doubt now that the bugs were in the walls, and reacting to her presence.
That was creepy, sure, but they were just bugs. They couldn’t hurt her. Unless they were poisonous. Or had stingers. Or pincers. Or mandibles. They were probably bound to have at least one of those. Most insects did. And she was an intruder in their territory. If they decided she was a threat to them and swarmed her, they could easily overwhelm her defenses.
And even if she didn’t threaten them, they might decide that they’d like to try some fresh meat for a change.
Emery groaned in exhausted exasperation, lightly tapping her forehead to the wall. As she did so, she carelessly brought her lighter into contact with the sap. In a matter of seconds, the flame spread across the entire crisscrossed network, igniting the wall for as far as she could see and vastly expanding her sphere of illumination.
Shrieking, she threw herself back against the opposite side of the tunnel, fearing that the burning wall would explode at any moment. While the sap may have been flammable, it was far from potent, and its fire remained tame and would likely die out in minutes.
When the tunnel failed to explode or collapse, Emery’s pulse and breathing began to return to normal. She realized then that this was actually quite fortunate. Her path was now lighted, and it was now obvious that the trails were thicker in one direction than the other. That presumably meant the bugs travelled that way more often than the other, which implied there was something useful to them down there, maybe even a way out.
Taking full advantage of the firelight, she ran forwards as quickly as she could. Before long she spied something fixed to the wall and gleaming in the dull orange flames.
It was an old, likely ancient, bronze torch. Poor Emery had been in such a state of despair that she deemed its discovery nearly miraculous in its serendipity, despite it being a logical enough thing to find in a tunnel built before the era of kerosene lamps, let alone electric lights. God knows how many of them she had blindly wandered past earlier.
She grasped it firmly in her hand and removed it from its sconce. It had some heft to it, and would do as a blunt weapon if nothing else. When she waved it from side to side, she could hear some liquid fuel sloshing around inside of it. Racing now to make use of her discovery before her fire burnt out, she fumbled with the antiquated light in the hopes she’d be able to ignite it.
It took a few tries, and the light from the wall had fallen to a dying ember, but she managed to get the torch burning. She cheered out in victory, her celebratory cry reverberating off the walls and echoing all down the tunnel. Now she could see, and was armed with both a club and a blaze.
Her only dilemma now was which way to go? It was a long way back towards where she had fallen in, likely longer than the torch would burn for, and she still didn’t want to risk a blind confrontation with whatever manner of creature had greeted her before. There was also no guarantee anyone would be able to extract her from there anyway.
What lay ahead of her was unknown, which, as always, held both promise and peril. It could be a way out, or a dead end, and she would have wasted her fuel.
She was just contemplating the odds of there being additional torches further down when her decision was made for her. Behind her, she heard the same soft moans, same uneven footfalls, and the same quiet, mocking chuckle as she had heard all those hours ago. Moving backwards meant fighting it, and forward meant running away.
Even more ominously, the insects began crawling out from the cracks between the bricks at the sound of its approach, no longer fearing the light. Emery was finally able to get a good look at them; they were beetles, maybe some type of scarab. They were round and fat and an oddly appealing colour of brown.
And they were advancing on her now, with that disproportional super speed that all insects have, covering many multiples of their own body length every second.
Rather than engage them or even risk a glance at her more human adversary, she fled further down into the tunnel, the thing once again letting her get away without so much as increasing its pace, while the insects merely slunk back into whatever crevasses they had spawned from.
A riling in her stomach let her know that that did not bode well.
As it turned out, there were more torches hung along the tunnel walls. Most of them still had a little fuel left in them, and Emery was able to top off her own torch, allowing her to ward off the all-consuming darkness as she continued her descent.
She had hoped that the light source would help her to find anything that could indicate how she might find a way out, but so far the tunnel was completely unremarkable, other than its seemingly infinite length.
With her bodily stores of energy and adrenaline nearly exhausted, Emery was trudging along at a snail’s pace, her breathing laboured and her skin clammy with cold sweat.
Fearing she would drop from exhaustion, she slumped herself against the wall and allowed herself another moment to rest before moving onwards. Through her arduous breaths, she once again detected the faintest whiff of chocolate.
Except this time, it wasn’t like chocolate; it was definitely chocolate. There was no sap anywhere near her, the scent instead seemed to be wafting in from further down the tunnel. It smelt fresh too, and rich, and intoxicatingly alluring.
It didn’t make any sense, but somewhere, miles and miles underground in a catacomb filled with corpses and bugs there was freshly made chocolate. Emery briefly considered the possibility that she was starting to hallucinate from a combination of fear, exhaustion, and maybe even exposure to whatever mold or fungus was surely growing down there.
She sniffed in and out, again and again, and each time the smell of cocoa was undeniable. She tentatively stepped closer to the smell, slowly at first, but then faster as the scent became stronger. If it was real, then that meant food and replenishing her weary body, and maybe even a way out.
Up ahead she saw an open door and the dancing of candlelight from within. Running at almost full speed now, she bounded forward and burst into the room, only to scream at what she discovered lurking there.
Seated at a long, refractory, candlelit table, were thirteen mummified corpses – six to each side and one at the far end. Though they looked like they had been there for centuries, the table was freshly set. Holding her hand over her mouth in both shock and horror, Emery cautiously approached to inspect the macabre scene.
She had never seen so many dead bodies, let alone such ancient ones. The skin covering their gaunt frames was like dried parchment, their remaining teeth were small and black, and their eyes bulged from underneath closed lids. The chairs that they sat upon, however, were recently varnished and upholstered, their table draped in an embroidered velvet cloth and set with silverware, the burning candles only recently lit.
"Who's here!" Emery demanded, tears of hot rage streaming down her cheeks. She wept bitterly, baffled why anyone would go to such lengths just to torment her. She searched the room desperately for any concealed exit, any way the dining ware could have been brought in or the being who had set it escaped, but she found nothing.
When she finally accepted that there was no way out, she sat on the floor and hugged her knees, crying over the cruel insanity of it all.
She would have to trek all the way back up to the beginning, but she couldn’t do that on an empty stomach. That’s when she finally let herself contemplate the cuisine that had been so carefully placed upon the table spread.
It was chocolate. Thousands upon thousands of chocolate truffles piled high upon the plates of the corpses and the large serving platters in between them.
Obviously, it wasn’t to be trusted. It was the embodiment of the aphorism ‘too good to be true’; the most delicious, salacious food laid out to tempt her when she needed it the most.
But that didn’t change the fact that she did need it, that she had no chance of making it back up to the abbey without food.
And there was already an extra seat at the table for her.
Wearily, she got up and walked over to the decadent banquet and its decedent guests. She hesitantly picked up a single truffle from the plate, eyeing it suspiciously, looking for any visible signs that it wasn’t what it appeared. She raised it under her nose and sniffed it, and as soon as its deliriously delightful aroma entered her nostrils she lost all self-control and shoved it into her mouth.
Biting down, her tongue was greeted with a gooey, crunchy taste of rich dark chocolate, the best she had ever tasted.
“Oh my god,” she shivered in near orgasmic joy, her legs literally giving out beneath her and forcing her to sit in the empty chair, the euphoria completely obliterating her terror and fatigue.
She began shovelling the candies into her mouth like Augustus Gloop, now oblivious to the dead body bodies mere feet away, the entirety of her focus dedicated to the impossibly sensuous feast.
She almost couldn’t stop, not until her stomach became bloated and nauseous.
Reluctantly, she slowed down, leaning back in her chair and taking more savoury bites as she felt a blissful food coma starting to set in.
Or at least, she thought it was a food coma until she heard the chuckling moans and footsteps of her stalker coming into the room and she was too lethargic to even turn around.
“You’re in my chair,” it spoke at last. But even then, Emery couldn’t be bothered to look. She was so tired, but she wanted more candy.
Why was moving her arm so hard? It felt like it weighed more than she did.
When she finally did manage to reach for another chocolate, her effort was wasted as it moved out of her grasp. All of the truffles starting moving now, skittering along the table on their six legs, their enormous multitude chittering like a horde of locust.
“The beetles?” Emery asked groggily, but the thought was replaced by a far more pressing concern when she saw that they were all climbing into the mouths of her deceased dining companions. “No, wait. I’m not full yet.”
“Never did meet a girl who could say no to chocolate,” the moaning, wheezing voice said from beside her, a shrivelled hand placing a scarab beetle into her mouth.
As she chewed, she lazily tilted her head to look up the thing that had been stalking her since she had fallen into the crypt. She saw that he was a mummified corpse like the others, only animate and with his jaundiced eyes fully opened.
Beneath his skin, she could see the bulging forms of the swarm squirming madly. She looked back to the rest of the table and saw that they were all awake now, all with beetles moving under their skin, all with hungry eyes looking straight at her.
Some increasingly distant part of her mind told her she should be afraid, but instead, she just looked back to the lich by her side and held out her hand for another candy.
“No, my dear,” he smiled, his darkened gums crawling with insects. “Now, it’s time for our treat.”
Written by The Vesper's Bell