By Sudipta Quabili
*due to the violence, horror, and occult themes to this story, we advise for mature readers only*
It’s strange how a single layer of mist could have such a profound effect on the forms we knew so well. But, then again, I had never seen a haze of this manner before. Anything more than a foot ahead was an unrecognizable blur. And so the buildings that we passed by routinely everyday became ominous shadows, only visible behind the thick cloud due to the persistence of the street lamps. The muted glow of these lamps served as guiding halos in the foreboding night, and by following their light, I made my way through the damp streets of the university.
Cara walked ahead of Oliver and me. An engrossing conversation about the merits of abandoning principles had slowed us down.
“Come on, it’s getting late,” Cara shouted back toward us. “It’s barely midnight,” Oliver countered.
“Besides, we’re here to walk you back,” I teased. “You should be grateful.”
“I’d be grateful, Sid, if we can get there before morning,”she replied with a scoff, and then, turning around, she sprinted forward. I rolled my eyes as I ran behind her, Oliver following in suit.
On a night where many mistakes were made, I now realize this was our first one. Fixed on catching up with her, I had not realized that the mist led us away from the main path.
Panting, we finally made our way to where Cara was waiting. She was urgently looking around her, trying to make sense out of the fog-filtered surroundings.
“Do you know where we are?” she asked us.
I surveyed the area as she had done and found to my dismay that the few landmarks that could be seen were unfamiliar.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “But I’m sure we are not that far away. We must still be inside the campus.”
Oliver retrieved his cell phone from his pocket and tried to figure out our location, but he found that there was a sudden lack of mobile reception. He instead decided to use the phone’s light to illuminate the path behind the mist, but such efforts proved unsuccessful.
“We should just keep waking,” he suggested. “We’ll find the dorms eventually.”
Though I feared this wasn’t the wisest thing to do, I had no better ideas. Continuing in the same direction, I soon noticed that we were the only ones around. This was a strange occurrence since the usual Friday night crowd hoarded these streets in their drunken masses.
The broad street that we believed would take us to Cara’s dormitory transformed into a narrow alleyway lined on either side by towering buildings of old red brick which was a disheartening sign since it was proof that we were nowhere near the modern concrete fixtures of the university campus.
Still, this didn’t seem to slow down Cara and Oliver who strolled on. The novelty of such a predicament had surely affected their judgment, I thought. We had made this late night journey quite a few times before, each time without incident. Oliver and I, comrades from our grade school days, had befriended Cara early on when the first weeks of college allowed us to shed timidity for eager amicability. In our earnest search for friendship, which we required to both combat loneliness and to prevent the labeling of ourselves as unsociable hermits, we had found Cara. She was bold in her introductions, confident with the slightest tendency to be overbearing, however, such qualities we soon saw as quirky charms rather than nuisances. Still, the loudness of her personality manifested itself in a set of emotional requirements that may have driven away the faint of heart. The cost of her companionship was an unparalleled devotion and a statement of love whenever such devotion was in question. Then again, Oliver and I never had any issue with such a contract, our love for her, platonic and steadfast, was readily declared.
Although my lack of interest in women had long ago extinguished any romantic involvement between us, I had often wondered about how Oliver and Cara’s relationship would evolve. It turned out, however, that any concern I had was grossly misplaced as Oliver and Cara grew closer in the way of brother and sister. But I cannot be blamed for seeming cautious as Oliver possessed a distinctive shallowness when it came to members of the female sex.
“What do you think is most important, you know, if you were dating someone?” I had asked him once, on a night not unlike this one.
“Honesty,” he said without hesitation.
“An admirable selection,” I said impressed. “So you wouldn’t care about looks or anything like that?”
“Well of course I would,” he responded, the superficiality of his desires surfacing as I suspected they would. “She would have to be a brunette of course, shorter than me, dimples are always a plus, oh, and a virgin.”
“Are you serious?” I demanded, thrown off by his archaic expectation. He shrugged his shoulders as he often did when he had no explanations to offer.
But such disagreements quickly dissipated into seeming forget and we did not care to bring them up often. And his usual felicitous demeanor made holding even the smallest of grudges impossible. Even in a testing situation like this, he remained fairly positive, humming an upbeat pop tune under his breath.
Our foolish plan to keep walking aimlessly and hope that we would arrive where we needed to was brought to an abrupt halt by a large stone wall which gated what appeared to be a community behind it.
“Well, looks like we can’t walk further,” I stated, pointing out the obvious. “Let’s turn back.”
Oliver instead walked along the edge of the gate. “Look here, Sid,” Oliver called to me. “There’s a door.”
“Where?” Cara asked as she followed the disruptions in the mist to where he was standing.
I went after her and saw the door that Oliver had been so excited about.
“It’s locked,” Oliver announced.
“For good reason probably,” I told him. But, as usual, he paid me no mind and he lodged his entire weight against the feeble metal barricade. His healthy frame banged against the iron lock which grew weaker with each impact.
“What are you doing?!” I cried out. “You’re going to get us in trouble.”
“Come on, help me,” he said. “There might be a phone inside one of the houses that we can use.”
“I doubt that anyone would let a group of strangers use their phone at one in the morning,” I reminded him.
“Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try,” Oliver persisted. This won Cara over and she added her weight against the door. I realized that they were not going to be convinced otherwise, so I joined them. I could not have known then that with each ram we were nearing certain disaster; locks are not meant to be broken, both to keep out the outside and also to conceal what is within. But, as soon as I pushed alongside them, the rusted bolt that held the frame in place snapped in two and the door swung open.
We breathed heavily and crossed the threshold past the gateway. An unexpected darkness took over and the protective flare of the streetlights was with us no more. I had thought that there would be a commune of homes behind the stone barricade, but I was surprised to see only one building standing in the center of a sparse clearing. Just like the dead night, this hidden sector seemed to show no noticeable signs of life. However, I spotted a soft green light being emitted from one of the windows of the house. Cara and Oliver had observed this as well and they began walking toward the light, like minnows caught prey by the glowing esca of an anglerfish. But I had not known then, I had no idea.
Nearing the house, which I now saw was more a manor, I became aware of its worn down state. Shingles hung down from the roof in disarray and the wood that formed the majority of the structure was splintered and swollen. The pathway to the main door was paved over in rocks that were haphazardly cut and weathered statues outlined the perimeter of the clearing, but they were so disfigured and aged that it was impossible to tell what they were supposed to represent. An old porch was elevated above the ground with cinderblocks, but the wooden base drooped down in a melancholy fashion. And all along the sides and front of the home grew vines of snake-like ivy, dark and reptilian in their forms.
As we stared in awe at the strangeness of the structure, the moisture that was suspended in an ambient fog concentrated into droplets and soon the sky let down a torrential downpour. Cara attempted to block the rain with her arms and Oliver pulled his shirt over his head, but soon we were veritably drenched.
“We have to get inside,” Oliver said.
“Here?” I asked, nervously considering who may reside in a place as menacing as this.
“We don’t have a choice,” Cara added. “It’ll just be until the storm clears up.”
I did not argue further, and, looking back, I wish I had.
Oliver rushed to the door and began knocking with thunderous bangs. But there was no answer. Cara and I tried as well, but to no avail. Just as we were about to abandon our efforts, I saw that the door was slightly ajar. I tried the doorknob and found that it was not locked.
“It’s open,” I announced.
“Well, let’s go in then,” Oliver said without hesitation.
“Wait, we can’t just barge in,” I asserted.
“Yeah,” Cara agreed. “Who knows who lives here?”
But Oliver took no heed. He opened the door wide and stood with one foot inside. “Look, we’ll just wait near the door until the storm ends, then we’ll leave, phone or no phone, okay?”
I remained wary, but as Cara went in, I had no wish to stay outside without company. We closed the door behind us and shook off the water from the unfortunate rainstorm.
The interior of the house was pitch black, the small hints of light that we had spied from outside were nowhere to be seen. We waited in awkward silence, afraid that any noise would alert some unseen threat that loomed in the nearby darkness. But our deliberate quiet was interrupted.
A soft chant echoed throughout the room. It bounced off the walls and swam through the air as if searching for our ears specifically. Even as the hollow sounds grew louder, the reverberation it experienced made it impossible to make it out completely.
“What the hell is that?” Cara wondered.
“I don’t know,” I said, straining my eyes to catch even a glimpse of anything in the room.
“Let’s investigate,” Oliver suggested, apparently oblivious to the danger we might have been in.
“We can’t even see anything,” I stated, but still, an ember of inquisitiveness flickered within me and I longed to find the source of the mysterious sounds.
Oliver took out his phone once more and the bright, white light from its screen cut through the dark like a blade. As my argument was made moot, I had no choice but to explore the manor.
We traversed down phone-lit hallways, the high archways now becoming visible. The arcs that lined the ceiling were pointed near the edges so they took on the appearance of fangs, as if we were walking into the belly of a beast by our own free will.
The chant continued on, simultaneously being both mellifluous and threatening. The words were in some language I did not know, though they were masked behind the clatter of the rain which was drumming against the weak planks that made up what was left of the walls. The soles of my shoes squished against puddles of roof leakage that had formed on the threadbare carpet. A strong odor of mildew assaulted my nostrils and I opted to breathe through my mouth. But even in this dilapidated state, the manor showed signs of past splendor; the doorways were lined on either side with columns and paintings of landscapes that were hung against the baroque architecture. Oliver pointed the phone upward and the light glinted off crystals that comprised a withering chandelier.
The tattered ornaments looked over us as we reached the source of the hollow hymn. The three of us stood in front of a minuscule staircase, barely wide enough for a single person to walk down without his shoulders grazing the sides. Such a small fixture seemed greatly out of place against the aging opulence of the rest of the mansion, but the sounds that had been so alluring to us were indeed emanating from whatever lay at the staircase’s end.
Cara led the way, with Oliver following and then me in the back. We squeezed down the stairs, taking care not to scratch our skin against the walls. As we descended, I found the darkness ease its grip on my eyes. Yes, a green light seemed to surround us, encapsulating us in an embrace that was both comforting and terrifying.
“What is this place?” Oliver whispered. His movements were far less confident than they had been. We continued down the hallway with the sinister green light becoming brighter with each step.
“Mens veniet et salvabit nos,
Et quod inde mentes colligimus,
Quae nobis praesto sint.
Mens enim et potestatem cras.”
The words of the recitation came in semi-intelligible Latin, but with my limited knowledge of the language, I could not decipher their meaning.
The corridor led us to an entrance that was guarded with two satin curtains. Surreptitiously parting the barrier, we spied what was inside. Eyes wide, our gaze fell upon a grand ballroom. All around the room were hooded figures wearing robes of charcoal black covered with prints of golden that were striped across their torsos. Beneath the hoods we could only see the mouths of the men that were moving mechanically as the chant was repeated over and over again. The entire room was lit with jade- tinted torches that were being powdered with some dust that would cause emerald flames to shoot up and gray smoke to rise into the air. The men were standing in rows of ten with a parting in the center that led to a podium at the beginning of the room where a leader of sorts seemed to be addressing the congregation. From my vantage point, I could barely make out his face with its wrinkled, suntanned skin and emaciated cheeks with the bones protruding out.
“Brothers, I thank you all for coming,” greeted the head to his followers. “My time has come as all ours must, and tonight you shall all revel in the beauty of my sacrifice. And soon, my brothers, our sacrifice shall come to an end and all that will remain will be to bask in the fruit of our terrible labors.”
The crowd erupted into applause, but suddenly an eerie hush fell upon the room. The cult members looked expectantly toward the leader, anticipating and waiting for something to occur.
The cult head took in a deep breath. “Let us commence.”
The lines moved to either sides of the room and made way for a procession of group members that emerged from some backroom. Cara squeaked the beginnings of a scream but quickly stifled it. On their backs, the procession carried a giant python, squirming and hissing violently. As the snake passed by them, the men hummed a low note as if showing their reverence.
The snake was taken to leader who looked at it admiringly. Then, to my horror, they python was lifted up and placed around the leader’s neck. Two of the men arduously wrapped the body of the reptile around the skull of the leader and watched as the snake coiled tighter and tighter around. I tried to look away but my stare was fixed as I watched the snake break the leader’s skull in two with a resounding crack. Bones and blood splattered over the podium and dripped down to the floor and the head of the leader was ripped from its neck and landed with a thud upon the ground. Oliver and Cara gagged beside me and I fought the urge to vomit. As soon as this process had finished, the man who had assisted in carrying the snake pulled out a long sword from beneath his robe and swiftly decapitated the python. The snake and the mangled body of the leader fell to the ground and the reptile wriggled and convulsed in a postmortem frenzy.
The snake and the corpse of the former leader were swept away by the figures that had stood by them. However, the unfortunate head that had been so cruelly separated from its body remained on stage. The opening where the strength of the snake had cracked the skull spilled a grayish-pink brain matter all over the floor beneath the podium. This was carefully collected by two cult members and the brain was gently stored away in a jar.
Entranced by this sadistic ritual, we three did not notice the cloaked man making his way down the hallway behind us.
“Hey!” a voice boomed out. With my heart leaping to my throat, I turned around to see the man looming over us. “How did you get in here?”
“I…S-sorry…” I stammered as I tried futilely to muster up some form of explanation that would not immediately incriminate us or, worse, leave us with the same fate as that of the cult leader.
“Come with me,” the man growled from beneath the shadow of his concealing hood. Before any of us could respond, he grabbed Oliver’s and my collars with one hand and Cara cried out as he pulled her along by a clump of her hair with the other.
We were dragged down corridor after corridor, getting farther and farther from the green light and stepping into a deep darkness. The man finally came to a halt and released his grip on us. Although we were no longer inhibited, there was too little visibility to even consider running away. I heard a key slip into a lock and the click of a door opening. The man pushed us into a room composed entirely of concrete bricks, which were only perceptible due to the sparse inklings of moonlight that trickled in through a small window.
“You will wait here until we have had council on what is to be done,” announced the man before walking away, slamming the door behind him.
The breath that had left me long ago slowly returned to my chest and I saw hints of moonlight glinting off of Cara’s wide eyes, her pupils darting back and forth in fear. Beside me, I could hear Oliver hyperventilating, mumbling under his breath and I wanted to say something to calm him down but I couldn’t even gather my own wits about me.
But soon I sensed another presence in the room with us. A low moan emerged from one of the corners of the dark room. I cautiously neared the area and saw the silhouette of a woman, bound in place with thick chains. Her head drooped groggily to the right side but she lifted it, with what seemed like considerable effort, to look at us.
“Who are you?” she croaked, her voice cracking and breaking as if she had not used it in a long while. She emitted a gurgling sound, which I guessed was her version of a laugh. “They caught you didn’t they? It’s been a while since they brought in outsiders.”
“We were exploring,” Oliver foolishly told her.
“Well then you’re all idiots in the first place,” she spat. Anger covered her words, as if she envied us and our opportunity to have averted our fate.
“Why are you here?” Cara asked in a whisper, her eyes tracing the links in the chain that bound our miserable cell companion. “Why are you here like this?”
The woman scoffed. “It’s been so long. I hardly remember myself.”
“Tell us what you can,” I urged, holding on to the strand of hope that something she said could help us plan an escape.
The woman sighed and looked up at us. Just the look of her face brought me to the verge of tears. The moonlight shone of her eyes that were gray and muddled. Her bony face was etched all over with scars and chipping blood. Her protruding bones roofed over the caverns that were her cheeks. She looked as though she had neither bathed nor eaten in years, evidenced by the layer of gray ash that covered her skin and the malnourished bones of her arms that were barely secured in the clamps. The clothes she wore were torn and ragged, the hole-ridden garments striped with dirt and blood stains.
“I figure that it would be best to start off with my name,” she began. “It’s the only thing that they haven’t taken away yet, but God knows they would if they could. My name is Anya, though it feels strange to hear it out loud again. I used to live not too far away from here, past the city limits. I used to teach at the university, but that was a long time ago, my mind is not what it used to be. And I guess I’m here because of the man I loved. Isn’t that just the way? I fell in love with Wren when I had just started my position as professor. Two years later we were married and expecting our first child. I was a far cry from the state you see me in. I was a happy spirit, content and constant in the way that I lived my life.
“Things started to turn toward the worst when the baby died. She was just an infant, not even a year old. She was standing right beside me while was watering the plants. Oh, God! She was just right next to me, but then she wasn’t there, she…”
Her voice trailed off, her words lost under a current of sobs. It took her a moment, but she managed to regain her composure. Inhaling a weak breath into her lungs, she continued, making no more mentions of how the child was lost. “My husband became a recluse after that day, no longer a member of the society of man. I just didn’t know at the time that it would mean that he would join the dominion of beasts and demons. He searched for the answers that he knew did not exist. And when his endeavors proved useless, strange thoughts began to fill his mind.
“At first, I paid his ways no mind, suffering greatly in my own grief. But his oddities became more and more pronounced. He would go on and on about the limitations of man, how we are weak and undeserving of life. I thought that this was just the doing of his heartache, but as time quelled my sorrow, it failed to relinquish his. He began to mention a project that he was working on. He called it ‘The Superiority Project’. He believed that he could better man, not through altering society, but by changing man himself. He wished to bring about a new race of humans; ones with superior intellect whose minds would be unparalleled even by current savants.
“In the beginning, I had given him the polite courtesy of nodding and smiling when he would go on in his ramblings. But as The Superiority Project became more and more real to him, the less I could feign the artifice of support. Finally, the word got out about what he was trying to achieve, drawing other moronic radicals into his plan. They formed a society of sorts and everything was amicable at first, coffee and politics on Sunday afternoons. I would serve them cookies and sit in the foyer and read as they whispered about heaven knows what in the study.
“I was happy for Wren. I didn’t care what he thought he was doing as long as he was being social again. But the meetings in our house came to an end and he would visit with the society in locations that were kept secret. Eventually, he spent more of his days with them than at home. I talked to him about it one night and he simply said that they were planning, making a schedule of what was to come. I decided not to press him further and had to be satiated with these illusive answers.
“It got to the point where we would not speak to each other for weeks. He would be entranced with his project and the society took on the shape of a cult. It was then that I truly began to fear for him. I reached out to family and friends but everyone told me that such behavior would pass. But it did not.”
She took a long pause, as if contemplating exactly how to describe what happened next. “In all honesty, I should have seen it coming. The few moments that we had spent together before that night were riddled with signs. He would look at me like the hunter does his prey, stalking, studying and waiting.
“I went to bed on that night, and he was gone as usual. He didn’t tell me where, he had no reason to anymore; we were long past that point. I heard the bedroom door open around three o’clock in the morning – I remember this because I heard the clock chime thrice when the door creaked – and he came in, breathing heavily as if he had ran a great distance. There was someone else with him, some minion that he had dragged along.
“I heard him whisper to the other one that he was sure I was asleep. I knew then that I was in great danger, but the window was locked and the bedroom door, which was the only exit, was blocked by their bodies. Contemplating what to do, I mimicked sleep as best I could and hoped that some means of escape would present itself to me. But before I could even construct a complete though, a rough hand draped with a moist handkerchief was clasped over my mouth. I let out a muffled scream, but the world blacked out so I could resist no further.
“After this point, I lost all sense of time. I woke up later, how much later exactly I could not be sure. I found myself in a room much smaller than this, chained and bound. At first I thought that I was being held hostage so that they could recruit me into their cult. But as the days dragged on, I realized that they had no such plans. Their desires grew more and more evident when I heard them whisper outside the door. They kept referring to me as ‘Mother’ and prepared for a night they called ‘Conception’.
“They pulled me out of my prison one evening. I was brought into a living room of sorts. It must have been in the home of one of the cult members. They chained me up in a corner and I watched them as they began their ceremony. Two of the men, one of them I recognized as a shadow of my husband, were brought to the front of the room. Two hooded figures took metal bats – the kind that children would use to play ball – and slammed it against the back of the skull of my husband and the other man. They fell, dead instantly, and blood poured out of the wound. I screamed and shouted, but no one paid me any mind. I wished they had continued ignoring me, but once the murders had been completed, their attention again returned to me.
“The men dissected the corpses and removed the brain matter from the open skulls. Once the brains were harvested, they approached me. They said nothing, but they motioned to me and then to the removed brain. One large man came up to me and squeezed my mouth open and forced the brain matter down my throat. I tried to spit it out, but they stabbed me and hammered my knees until I obeyed and consumed it all. Sick to my stomach, I was brought back to my cell and locked up again, confused, horrified and wishing earnestly for death.
“Eventually such horrific procedures made a demented sense. From whisperings outside my door as new men were initiated – most likely to replace the ones that were killed – I gathered that they wanted to feed me the minds of others so that I could bear a child of a superior kind, the breed of human The Superiority Project had been striving for.
“And after weeks more of force-feedings, the night of Conception arrived. I was again brought into the living room. But no murders took place on that night; indeed, I was told that it was quite the opposite that would occur.
“I was placed in the center of the room, my hands and feet cuffed to the ground. My clothes were ripped off of me and all eyes were fixated on my naked body from beneath the shadow of the hoods.
“The crowd receded backward and one man came forward. He lifted his cloak and raped me, unceremoniously and without pleasure. I furiously tried to push my attacker away, I screamed, I spat in his face, I tried to squeeze out of my cuffs, but to no avail. With a grunt, he let me go, finishing what he intended to do. I was locked away again, with not a single ear to hear my wails of agony.
“Months later, I bore the child of my assailant. They took him away only seconds after the birth, I could only get a glance at the face. They kept the child for a month or two, letting me watch as they performed cruel tests on him. They made him crawl through mazes of spikes and punished him for every wrong turn that he made. They decided that he was not the superhuman that they were looking for, so they disposed of him. I saw them do it, like he was nothing more than a lump of meat, thrown away because he wasn’t good enough. They made him the second child that I lost, but not the last.
“This continued on for years and years. I was fed, no matter how much I tried to protest. They would torture me until my body could take no more. And once I was beaten black and blue and my skin raw and bleeding from the cuts, they would force themselves on me once a year. It was different man each time – though I am reluctant to consider them humans at all. Some would find pleasure in it, subtle glimpses of smiles glinting from beneath the hoods as they took their time with me. Others would get it over with and make the pain short.
“I bear a child every year, and every year it is always the same. They take the children away, they test them like some animals or playthings and then they dispose of them because they never pass.”
I was at an utter loss for words. Nothing I could say would even be close to enough to console the wisps of a woman who stood before me. My mind was dizzying array of gruesome thoughts, trying to piece together a picture of what this poor creature had endured, but failing to do so once the picture proved too terrifying. Cara was crouched down on the ground, holding her knees close to her chest, breathing shakily. Oliver was staring toward a patch of cracks on the wall, as if he was trying to distract himself from the words that had just been spoken.
Anya tried to lean back as much as the chains would allow. She looked like she was on the verge of passing out, relating the story to us having drained all of the little energy she had.
“It sounds unbelievable, I know,” she added, but I wished she would stop. I didn’t want to hear anymore. “But it doesn’t shock me anymore. I’ve really stopped feeling altogether. The pain, the agony, I don’t feel it anymore.”
She sighed wistfully. A sense of peace seemed to calm her features. “I don’t think of myself as a living thing anymore. I am only a mesh of meat and bone, my soul is elsewhere. They can do with me as they wish. They cannot hurt me further. I am only an object and thing. Those are not my children that have been deprived of their lives. An object cannot beget living creatures. No, they were only things. Playthings.”
A silence enrobed all of us in an uncomfortable cloak of truth. Now that we knew what was occurring, the fear that we had from the beginning grew to unbearable levels.
“What are they going to do to us?” Cara said in a barely audible whisper.
“What they’ve always done with intruders. You’ll be harvested,” Anya answered bluntly with no sorrow.
“What can we do? What can we do?” Oliver earnestly demanded over and over again in some state of madness.
“You can try and leave,” Anya replied. “Though there is little chance you will succeed.”
All of a sudden, she rattled her chains in anger. “God! I wish you could end them. I wish you could burn them to the ground. I don’t care what happens to me, I have suffered as much as anyone possibly could. I just don’t want another to take my place. I am dying. I’ll be gone soon and then they’ll have to find another to replace me. That is all that frightens me now.”
She managed a certain passion that had been absent before and it made her seem almost human. Her fury was fiery and only the menial chains kept her from tearing out the hearts of her captors.
“Why do they do it, don’t they understand that it’s ridiculous,” Oliver chimed in.
“These are not people,” Anya said. “They are drones. All they know is what they hope to achieve. They do not know why they seek their goal; they only know that they seek it. And they will do anything in their power to make sure that they are successful, even success itself is meaningless. It’s what we all do isn’t it? We do whatever we can to get where we want to go, enduring the worst and bearing the most painful trials. But once we arrive, all we can ask is: why? Was it worth it? What now?”
We contemplated our situation for as long as we could endure. The more we thought about it, the more hopeless it seemed.
“We don’t even have anything to fight them with,” I announced, thinking that even the most rudimentary of weapons would give us some leverage.
“I can’t help you with that,” Anya confessed. “If I had anything that could overpower them, I wouldn’t still be here in this miserable place.”
However, she seemed to remember something. “I do have a small little thing though. Over there in the corner – not there, next to the door – but it’s not much. Perhaps you can cut an eye out before you’re through.”
Oliver retrieved the object she was referring to and held a sharp shard of broken glass covered in an old handkerchief in his hand.
“I made it from the bathroom mirror in the old house before they moved me here,” she explained. “I couldn’t bear to look at my reflection anymore, so I cracked the mirror again and again until the pieces fell apart, and only then did I even consider their sharpness.”
“Have you tried using it?” Oliver asked.
Anya scoffed. “Ha! Even if I could graze one, or, if we’re being optimistic, kill one of them, what would I do about the rest of them? There are at least fifty out there, I can’t get an accurate count anymore though because they keep killing and initiating more and more men.”
“Still, it’s something,” I stated.
“But what else? A broken piece of mirror can only help us so much,” Cara said, the frustration building up in her throat.
“We have to catch them off guard,” Oliver offered. “Pretend like we’re being obedient and then retaliate right when they least expect it.”
“And there are three of you,” Anya added. “You can put up some kind of fight, even if it is a hopeless one.”
“Three of us?” Cara asked her. “Won’t you help us?”
Anya laughed, but the amusement was weak and sad. “I’ve been dead for a long time now. I’d be no help to you even if I wanted to be.”
I was about to protest and say that we would surely not leave her here, but my heart sank as I realized that she was in no shape to escape and would only slow us down. I looked away from her, sickened by such a crass weighing of human lives.
“Just promise me one thing,” she urged. “Swear that you’ll end them if you ever get the chance, if you ever get out. Promise that you’ll at least try.”
I opened my mouth to give her my word when the door handle creaked. The door opened and the man that had brought us into this prison entered the room.
“Hello, Hal. Dinnertime already?” Anya said to the man, robotically and without interest.
Hal grunted the affirmative and I notice four large syringes in hands, each one about the size of a small spyglass. He walked coolly over to where Anya was bound and then launched a hand against her throat. She gasped for breath as Hal’s hand clamped down tighter and tighter, but her quest for air was useless. Hal stuck a syringe in her mouth and pushed it back until only the tip of the plunger was still visible. Then, with an unconcealed delight, he squeezed the contents of the syringe down her throat. Anya, swallowing desperately, chocked and gargled as a reddish liquid dribbled down her chin. The syringe, once empty, was removed from her mouth and Anya sucked in air frantically, but, in an instant, the second syringe took the place of the first. This was repeated until all four had been emptied down her throat. And once the horrific procedure was finished, Hal released his grip and left the room, giving us a sinister glare as he closed the door behind him.
Tears streamed down Cara’s face and the sadness I felt weighed me down like there were cinderblocks against my chest.
“It’s not that bad,” Anya attempted to say, but she only managed a hoarse whisper. “Besides, it’s the only way I would ever swallow it.”
The gravity of the situation slammed against me like a sledgehammer. We had to get out of there.
“You don’t have much time,” Anya warned. “Feedings occur once a week, but more often in special situations. So, they’ll harvest you before the night is over.”
Oliver and Cara huddled over with Anya and I as we mumbled the formations of what could eventually be considered a plan. Anya told us all she could: what they had done to outsiders before, how they had done it, where they were vulnerable and what our chances were. She answered the last one as not very promising. Once we could accurately assess the nature of the predicament itself, it was easier to find possible openings for escape.
We were still mumbling and settling on what needed to be done when the door creaked again. A different man stood at the entrance this time.
“Talking with the rats?” he asked Anya.
Anya turned away, not even being able to face him. He then turned his attention to us, we being the “rats” that he spoke of.
“Stand,” he ordered. We did so without protest, knowing that he would make us obey otherwise.
He retrieved a length of rope and bound our hands tightly together. Then, he linked the three of us in a chain, like a line being led to their execution. Oliver was in the front, trying his best to appear defiant in the face of the man, but failing to do so as he stood with wobbly knees. Cara was tied behind him, trying anxiously to get a look of reassurance from either one of us. I made up the back, so, in accordance to our plan, I would be the most vulnerable if anyone were to suspect what we were up to.
We were all led out of the room single file and we each individually gave Anya a silent farewell. She looked on at us with eyes that conveyed both support and pity.
Walking down the hallways back to the grand ballroom we had first seen, I began to get to work. I took great care to make sure that the man that led us was not paying attention to me.
Once I was sure, I used the little mobility I had of my bound hands to retrieve the shard of mirror that Anya had given us. It was secured in the waistline of my trousers and was cutting painfully into my abdomen resulting in a small stain of blood. I sliced my fingers as well when grabbing it and hoped that no one would notice. Using the sharpest edge of the makeshift knife, I surreptitiously cut through the rope that was tied to my wrist. It was a slow process, especially when any tearing sounds had to be muffled, but eventually, I could feel the tension of my bonds release and my hands were free.
I slowly tapped Cara on the shoulder and passed her the knife. She began doing the same as I had. As she began her task, I loosely coiled the rope around my hands to give the appearance that I was still tied up. Cara redid her ties in a similar fashion and then passed the shard to Oliver so that he could do the same.
As we entered the ballroom, I felt hollow within my chest knowing that so many murders had taken place here. The cult members were positioned again on either side of the room. However, there was no podium this time, only a stage at the center of the room.
The three of us were walked to the platform as unfeeling eyes watched on from beneath their hoods. Three men surrounded us, lighting the dark room with the green light from the torches that they held in their hands. I sucked in a deep breath and held it, savoring the feeling of air in my lungs, knowing that it may very well be one of my last.
“You have been granted a great privilege,” one of the hooded figures said to us. “You now have an opportunity to better your fellow man. The future shall be forever indebted to you.”
“We don’t care about helping mankind,” Oliver blurted and I wish he hadn’t.
His outburst was met with a flaming torch smacked against his cheek.
“Thankfully, the decision is not left up to you,” the speaker replied calmly. “It is up to us: those who know the possibility of what mankind can become. We are those who see that Superiority is tangible and achievable. But such revolutions require sacrifice. We gather that sacrifice and we deliver it to the fates that dictate human evolution.”
“This won’t work! It won’t do what you think it will!” Cara argued.
She received a blow from the torch as well.
“I know what we search for can be found,” the speaker told her, his words sterner and more agitated than they had been before.
This quieted us and we watched as they brought for gleaming metal bats, encrusted with blood from the previous heads that they had been smashed against. Cara squirmed, so much so that the men who were lined behind the stage came up to us and grabbed us so that we would stand still.
I knew time was running out, if we didn’t act soon, we would be nothing more than the fodder for a manmade cannibal. But I also knew that I couldn’t be too hasty. The basis of our flimsy escape route was that the cult members would have to believe that we had truly surrendered for their “greater good”. I gave silent signals to Oliver and Cara, indicating that they should calm down if we had any desire to be successful.
As the holders of the bats neared the stage, our captors held us tighter. Instead of appearing defiant, I took on a passive demeanor, my face becoming tranquil and peaceful and my muscles relaxing. The man who was restraining me seemed to realize this and he eased his grip, thinking that I would show no further resistance.
I noticed that Oliver and Cara, to their best ability, were doing the same. The bat holders were climbing onto the stage and I knew that there was no time left, it had to be done now if it was to be done at all.
“Go!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. And, all at once, everything seemed to occur, like time had split apart just to allow for everything to happen. As soon as I had crowed our battle cry, the three of us kicked the men holding us back, aiming directly for their groins, and threw off the false rope-ties. The men stumbled off of the stage, too dazed in their pain to even understand what had happened. . We dashed off into the crowd, making a mad dash toward the door and hopefully an escape from this nightmare come alive.
We underestimated the power of the crowd however. The mass of men blocked our way, trying to grasp us again, but, as Anya had predicted, the fact that there were three of us indeed proved a virtue. Cara clawed at hood-cloaked eyes and delivered incapacitating blows that never missed the mark. Oliver took on the look of a rabid dog, screaming and barking, perhaps to dilute his own fear, biting any limbs that dared to come near him to the point where blood stained the corners of his mouth. I, having not even a fraction of their combat ability, utilized the small makeshift knife to slice our attackers. I couldn’t even see how much damage I was inflicting, my vision being impaired by the sprays of blood brought on by each maneuver.
Even with our combined force, we knew that we would soon be no match for the crowd that had hardly dwindled at all. We had to do something fast.
“The torches!” I yelled. Cara and Oliver nodded and we ran apart in separate directions, dividing the crowd in their pursuit. We each ran to opposite sides of the room and grabbed the green colored torches that were tirelessly lighting the room from the walls. Working as fast as possible before the mob could come any closer, I took the torch to the drapes that we had hid behind hours ago when this terror had only begun. I brought the flame near the cloth and instantly the entire curtain lit up in a green and orange blaze.
The men who were grabbing for me gave screams of fear and leapt back toward the center of the room. This did not prove any better for them, however, as Cara had used her torch to set the wooden stage on fire and it too now burned with that same green tint. Oliver had more maverick methods of arson, using the flame to set ablaze any combustible material he could find, including the robes of any men that he could reach.
With the whole ballroom now glowing in a blazing inferno, we three gathered near a small window that I had spied earlier. As we began our efforts for breaking the glass, we heard wails and shrill cries of agony as the men behind us burned to their deaths. I realized that we too would meet such a fate if escape was not soon achieved. Just when Oliver had managed a crack in the glass by pounding it with the sole of his shoe, Cara screamed out.
“Look out!” she warned, pointing to the ceiling. I lifted my gaze to see one of the burning wooden rafters breaking off and plummeting toward the ground. Before I had the opportunity to move, the end of the rafter slammed against my lower leg. I cried out in pain and tried to remove myself from the crushing weight.
Oliver and Cara pushed the plank away only to reveal my foot which had been broken at a hideous angle. As unbearable as the pain was, I knew I had no time to dwell on it, I could feel my skin burning from the heat of the nearby flames.
Oliver managed to form a big enough crack in the window for us to pass through. He and Cara crawled out and then pulled me after them. We coughed the smoke out of our lungs and relished the feeling of the cool night air against our smarting burns. But we had to keep moving, the house was barley standing when we got there and would soon succumb to the fire. I supported myself on the shoulders of my friends and hopped away toward the gate.
Once we were a substantial distance away, we turned back to look at the destruction that we had caused. Before our eyes, the blazing manor collapsed piece after piece to the ground, entrapping the burning souls within. We stood side by side, watching without feeling, as dozens of lives perished by our own hands. Then I felt the weight of our acts trickle into my mind.
We were killers, justified or not, we were now killers. But I felt no remorse for the men who had inflicted so much pain on others, I was glad that they met their fates. But in delivering justice to them, an innocent had perished as well.
Along with those men, Anya was dying in her cell, held captive with no way of escaping. I knew she told me that she had no wish to leave, but I couldn’t fully believe her. As hopeless as she believed her outlook to be, the very consequence of existing is an innate desire to want to exist. She wanted to live, whether she knew it or not. Given a glimpse at happiness, she would want to live.
I didn’t notice the tears that were streaming down my cheeks. Cara grabbed me by the shoulder.
“She’s free,” she whispered. And I hoped that it was true. I took in a deep breath of the air that smelled of death and ash and truly hoped that it was true.
Soon, the house was nothing more than embers, glowing sporadically under the light of the dawn peeking over the horizon. Taking in the gloomy picture once more, we exited the gates and made our way back to the winding streets that had led us to this cursed night.
I think back now and wonder what we could have done differently. I wonder if there was anything we could have done to avoid that place. I wonder if there was anything we could have done to never have known that place existed. The comfort of ignorance seems like a fantastical dream.
We don’t speak of it anymore, we never told anyone about it either. The house was found that morning, burned without a trace of who started the fire, the bodies inside turned to nothing more than soot.
We have done our best to go on with life, even with the knowledge that evil can manifest itself so deeply within humans, that it may even become embedded within us. But I have to constantly remember that we were the prisoners, we killed because we needed to, killing for no reason other than to live. We were not like those monsters.
And if nothing else, we had killed to free. The blood on our palms was worth it for that fact alone. No longer was there a body without a soul trapped beneath the power of that cult. She was free now. She was free, because of us.
Born in Bangladesh and moving to the United States at the age of four, Sudipta Quabili has always had a fascination with language. Determined to learn the tongue of his new homeland, he quickly understood the power of the written word. This inspired him to delve into writing, and he has since worked on a number of screenplays, short stories, academic pieces, and novels. He now studies at the University of Virginia, where he is working toward a degree in computer science.