“Ugh, this is so creepy.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it.”
“Well, you don’t have much of a choice. You want to prepare yourself a little, after all this isn’t even the worst part.”
“I know, I know, but still. Look at them all.”
“I try not to.”
“Wait. Did that one just move?”
“No. It’s your mind playing tricks. Trust me.”
Jacob studied the corpse, its skin was tight against its skull, the flesh a dark colour that reminded him of leather. “How do they keep them sitting like this?”
“Straps or something. I’ve never seen it done but I’ve seen a few of them afterwards. After a year or two they remove the straps and the bodies don’t fall over, they just stay like that.”
“What about the crowns?”
“What about them?”
“Are they not too heavy to tip the heads over?”
The crowns were bands of a light coloured wood covered in symbols and markings. Each corpse was wearing white clothing, though most of them had faded to a dull yellow, more than a few were covered in stains. It didn’t smell nearly as bad down here as Jacob had expected, he thought the stench of rotting flesh would drive him mad, then follow him for the rest of the day. Instead, it was a dry kind of smell, with a faint sweetness to it, almost like cinnamon.
“Is it much further?”
“A little bit. The doors are locked and heavy, so that always slows me down. Hold your lamp up a little higher, it’s hard to see down here.”
“Why didn’t you use the lamp then?”
“Because you refused to go first and I don’t trust you with the food yet.”
“You’re liable to drop it if you take a fright. I don’t want to have to clean it up, nor do you for that matter, nor do I want to explain what happened when I go to get more.”
Jacob fell silent, Tony was right after all. The silence fell over them, heavy and oppressive. Jacob didn’t like it, it made him feel as though something was watching him, waiting and at any moment it would attack. He took a deep breath, that wasn’t going to happen. They were perfectly safe in the halls. The dangerous bit would come later.
Tony but down the bucket and unlocked the door, once they were through he relocked it. “Always lock the doors behind you.”
“I thought you said the people out there were all dead.”
“They are, it’s not to stop them coming after us, it’s to stop what’s inside getting out. There are several locked doors between us and it, you never leave any door unlocked, no matter how much easier it might make things.”
They continued through the tunnels.
“How many bodies are down here?”
“I don’t know. Lots. I’ve never counted them or anything.”
“Someone must know.”
“I’m sure they do. I never cared enough to ask.”
Silence fell again. Jacob knew why the corpses were there, it was believed that they’d act as an early detection system if it ever got out, that they’d start screaming. Now it was just done because of tradition. Jacob didn’t know how he felt, knowing that one day he’d be strapped down to one of these chairs and then he’d die and join their ranks. It was still a long way off, forty or so years. He’d seen a few of them before they came down here, they were happy, relieved. Most were emaciated, their hair thin and falling out in clumps. None of them were bound, none ran, none struggled. Maybe it was nice for them, a quiet afterlife, where it was calm. People like him weren’t going to get into heaven or hell, they were stuck on earth. A nice resting place on earth was the most he could ask for after death. Perhaps he’d bring some flowers or something interesting like that down sometime. Try to give them something interesting to look at for once. He wasn’t allowed talk about anything that was happening in the outside world. When someone died their memories became crystal clear and they were to tell them to the other spirits, they might get angry if he said anything.
They stopped outside the final door. Tony stuck the key in the lock, “Prepare yourself. It might be fine, it might not. It might try to trick you. Don’t say anything, don’t respond to anything, don’t follow any voices you know. Got it?”
“Good. If you go after it, you’re on your own. I’m not going after you. The same goes for me, if someone goes, leave them.”
Tony unlocked the door. It swung open easily, despite it’s size and thickness. The room they entered was circular with an arch on the far side. The room was dull, but not dark. They stepped through and Tony placed the bucket in the centre of the room and picked up an empty one, then he started moving towards the door. “Hello? Is someone there?” Jacob almost gasped, it was the sound of his mother, but his mother was dead.
“Sweetie? Is that you?”
“Jake? Why don’t you come play with me? It’s so boring here!”
That was his sister, she was dead too.
“Oh honey, I’ve missed you so much, come give your mother a hug.”
Together he and Tony left the room, neither turning their back on the arch. Just before the door closed Jacob caught a glimpse of something in the darkness, hard, staring eyes. Tony locked the door and together they made their way back through the tunnels.
“Who did you hear?”
“My mother and my sister.”
“I heard my uncle.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, he works a few towns over. He used to visit me, but he stopped. Said I was too much like my dad.”
“What happens to people who go in?”
“Don’t know. No one does. They never come back.”
He knew the thing had a large labyrinthine system of caves to explore down below, but he didn’t know how it got there, no one seemed to know. They kept it fed and that seemed to keep it calm. It hadn’t tried to escape in a long time, but that didn’t mean they could let their guard down. What ever it was it was evil, Jacob knew that much just by listening to it. The more he thought about it the more he realised the voices were slightly off. There was a hard edge to them, a coldness. Like it knew the words but not the emotions to put behind them. They stood at the last door, Tony knocked twice and said the password. After a second he heard the lock on the door turn and it opened, letting them out.
“We go back down at the same time tomorrow. Now go off to your lessons.”
Jacob turned and walked down the hall, trying to forget what he had heard. Their voices tugged at him, despite him knowing it wasn’t them he felt the need to return, to go to the voices to see, to be sure. He was told that might happen, that it was supposed to fade, but what if it didn’t? Jacob shook his head. The further he walked the less the voices pulled at him until eventually he could barely remember what they sounded like. He tried to pay attention to his lessons but it was difficult, all he could think about was having going back down there again tomorrow.