England. 1923. A violent earthquake has mysteriously transformed the village of Dennington Cross into a hellish realm of eternal darkness, overtaken by murderous beasts roaming the cobbled streets.
English university lecturer Alexander Drenn attempts to flee the village but narrowly escapes plunging into the abyss that completely surrounds it. Upon returning home to live out his final days, Drenn finds a mysterious invitation to the home of Lord Hargraven, a man whose obsession with the occult has paved the way for a dark entity to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world.
But Drenn realizes he’s not the only one invited to the partythere are others who received the same invitation. Now they must discover why Hargraven chose to lead them straight into the belly of the beast and solve a riddle that will bring Dennington Cross back into the light.
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By Simon West-Bulford
Medallion Press, Inc.Copyright © 2016 Simon West-Bulford
All rights reserved.
I am an educated man, though unremarkable in achievement; my legacy will be appreciated only by those who make acquaintance with my students. And should any of them speak kindly of their tutor, Dr. Alexander Drenn, then this is satisfaction enough for me. It is the year of our Lord 1923, and I begin my tale on an otherwise uneventful night in the town of Dennington Cross in which I have resided peacefully these last seventeen years.
It was two hours past midnight when I awoke with a start. With my wife Sophie and our two daughters — Elsie and Louise — visiting relatives in France, it was my temporary vice to while away the hours amongst the new publications of Neils Bohr and to retire late. On this night, however, fatigued from study, I did not retire at all and was blissfully ignorant of the fact that I would never again know the comfort of my own bed. Alas! I will never enjoy the embrace of my family this side of the veil. But I will not dwell upon my misfortune. It is important that I relay the facts to you without employing your sympathies; otherwise, the strain of the telling may be too much for me to bear.
It was not merely a noise that assaulted my senses and broke my slumber, but a sonorous shuddering of the room. Books and ornaments tumbled from their places, and still in my position of repose, I gripped the side of my desk and felt the vibrations tremble through my cheek as I pressed my face against the oak. Terrified that another Great War was upon us, and that the enemy had this time reached our shores, I cried out. It took several minutes enduring the tumult before I realized that this was not the shock of mortar shells in the village but a tremor in the earth. I made for the door, fearful that my home might collapse, but was struck upon the head by something heavy and sharp. I was knocked senseless.
When I regained consciousness I was greeted by darkness; the lights were out. My head ebbed with pain exacerbated by a fit of coughing as I inhaled the dust of fallen masonry, and several minutes passed before my wits were sharpened by strange and disturbing things. A faint odor of sulfur stirred me first. Then came a wail that sent a thrill of terror through me: a distant, mournful cry, like the warning howl of a threatened cat, but deeper in tone, sinister. An inner compulsion stopped me from calling out. In some shrouded part of my mind, perhaps remembering fragments of a forgotten dream, I knew that this same howl had been accompanied by the screams of terrified victims whilst I lay unconscious. Whatever catastrophe had befallen the town, it was not natural, and my emotions waged a private battle with my reason to identify the cause.
It was some time before I summoned the courage to move, but it was chiefly thirst and hunger that motivated me. I longed for daylight, but the darkness was so profound that I determined dawn to be several hours away. Even so, my eyes had grown accustomed to what little light availed, and I was able to discern the familiar shapes of my study: the cluttered desk, the bookcases, the grandfather clock — all were still in place, but the tallest cabinet by the window had been upset by the collapse of brickwork from the eastern wall. It was likely one of those bricks that hit me.
Presently I rose and, gingerly testing my limbs for injury, went to the window. I drew the curtains with all the caution of a convict eluding detection, but all I could see as I peered into the night was darkness and a motionless fog that seemed to carry its own faint luminosity — like the sparkling of iron filings in rusty moonlight. Evidently the entire district had been deprived of electricity, and I wondered how many others had been affected by this calamity. I thought of my friends, my students and colleagues, of the sick or infirm who might have been in danger, and set my resolve to help.
As if to challenge my decision, another haunting cry reached out from the dark — louder this time — and I considered waiting for the safety of daylight. But this would not do at all, and I chose to set aside all trepidation.
After trying the light switch, knowing full well there would be no response, I felt my way to the pantry to retrieve an oil lamp, first-aid kit, and something I could use as a weapon. A kitchen knife was all I could find, and I shuddered at the thought of having to use it. I lit the lamp, sated my hunger and thirst with some bread, cheese, and warm water, placed everything I needed into a satchel, and with a steely breath, opened the porch door to step into the night.
I stood for several minutes outside my house in a state of dread, not wanting to proceed into the mist, not wanting to go back inside, and again I questioned my rationality: a learned man, ruminating on the phantoms one might expect from the imaginations of a child. But it was that inhuman cry that had stirred this foolishness. Believing it to be closer now, I expected the slightest noise from my shoe on the pavement might alert whatever it was to my presence, and that some hideous apparition would rush at me from the dark. I did not consider at all that the light cast by my lamp was beacon enough to draw something evil toward me, nor did I consider that — aside from that abominable howl — I had not discerned one living thing since I awoke. In fact, the stillness was the most disturbing. There was not even the slightest breeze, as if the very air itself had withdrawn for fear of whatever malevolence lurked in the fog.
In an attempt to distract myself from such macabre thoughts, I squinted in the dim light at my pocket watch and noted that the time was half past three. This added to my confusion, because it seemed that I had been awake for many hours, and it should be at least five or six by now. Surely dawn was close. I held the watch to my ear. It was still working.
My first inclination — once I had gathered my mettle — was to head for the police station to see if I could be of service, or to at least find out what was happening. Making firm my decision, I walked south along Chester Street, holding the lamp out before me, clutching the knife to my chest. My palm was slippery, my hand shook, and I began to doubt my ability to protect myself or anyone else I found, should something attack.
"Mister!" came a harsh whisper. "What the 'ell you doin'? You'll get yaself killed."
I turned with a start, almost dropping the knife. The voice and shuffling of feet came from a tight alley to my right, and in the gloom, I could make out a small cluster of faces. A woman with straggly gray hair, rubbing her hands down a torn apron, crept forward in a crouch and beckoned me urgently. "Quickly!" I noticed her palms as she waved. They were covered in something wet and dark that made me think of blood.
Two children cowered in the alley behind her and beside a large hound which, I recall with incredulity, was wagging its tail, ears flattened in delight at seeing me.
"Who's there?" came another hissing voice, from the left this time, above us. "Get off the streets!"
From the first floor above the local patisserie Mr. Carlisle leaned out with a shotgun. I looked from side to side, about to form a question, when I heard something akin to a threatened rattlesnake, or a long drawn-out breath from tar-filled lungs, but louder, deeper. It was close. There was vague movement in the mist, the suggestion of long limbs, pale and wet — nothing more — and on the cold air, an acrid odor like smelting copper. I was stunned into terrified inaction, able only to peer into the fog to see what manner of creature was approaching.
My breathing was panicked, spasmodic, and I fell backward, landing hard in a seated position. The woman screamed at her children to run, and from the window a gunshot blasted into the fog. I cried out too, believing my end was near, and I instinctively closed my eyes and lashed out in frenzied fashion with my knife as I shuffled backward on the cobblestone. Ahead, the crashing and splintering of wood competed with strangled screams and barking. Another gunshot caused me to open my eyes in shock as my back made connection with the wall. The screaming and barking had ceased, replaced by sounds far more terrible: the soft, wet noises of consumption and inhuman sighing groans of satisfaction. Then came the jarring clatter of the shotgun hitting the street, signaling the demise of Mr. Carlisle.
Cold with fear and fighting back the urge to vomit or swoon, I sat mindlessly in the street, eyes shut tight as I moaned, scarcely acknowledging that my own activities would surely alert this beast to my presence.
I thought myself a coward. I had missed the Great War due to chronic spinal injury and often contemplated whether — if it became necessary — I would have the courage to risk my life for another. Now I had my answer. I could not. It was a curious and most unwelcome revelation that, when it came time to act with heroism, the choice was robbed from me: my body and mind failed me and I was bereft of action. A coward at the very core of my nature.
I wept bitterly at this revelation as the sound of feeding continued, thinking not only that my inaction had brought about the demise of innocents but that it was I who had drawn them out to warn me. The thought angered me, and a valiant but rash sentiment incited me to stand, ready to shout for the creature to devour me there and then in the street, but as I fingered the tears from my eyes, I remembered Sophie, my wife. I remembered Elsie and Louise, my two daughters. Would it be yet more cowardly to invite destruction from this creature and leave my family alone? Would it not be proof of my transgression to make the relief of my guilt a priority over their grief? Perhaps I was merely looking for further excuse to cower.
I opened my eyes, but this time I was determined not to allow terror to take hold; this time it was an exercise in restraint. I tried to calm myself, chastising my introspection, and stood staring into the fog, but still I could not move. I could not summon the will.
And then I realized that by some miracle, the creature had gone. Aside from the diminishing chink-chink-chink of my oil lamp rolling from side to side against the cobbles, the street was silent again, and several long minutes passed as I indulged indecision. All I could do was conjure lurid images of clothes and brickwork splattered with blood in the alley. The lamp still flickered with light, but barely, and the contents of my satchel were scattered around it, but intact. Why the beast had no interest in me or my possessions I could not say at the time, but had I known the answer then, I would have been thrown into new depths of despair.
Eventually I found the will to press on, resolved to overcome my dread and secure help. I dared not dwell on the alley as I stooped to collect my belongings; a brief glimpse told me all I needed to know — there were no bodies, only torn remains, and I had to put the image from my mind. To allow it place would be to lose my fragile grip on composure. One unusual aspect did stand out, however: a yellowish, gelatinous residue covered the scraps that remained and shone like metal in my lamplight.
I wondered what sort of beast could have done this. Although I was unable to see what it was that lurked in the mist, I was vaguely aware of its build, and I knew of no wild animals indigenous to the British Isles that came close to its size or ferocity. Perhaps there had been a visiting attraction showcasing exotic beasts. Indeed, a traveling theatre company boasting the presentation of the famous actress Elizabeth Fortroy was currently visiting, and sometimes all manner of hopeful entertainers would follow in the wake of such fame, but it was doubtful a town like Dennington Cross would allow such tasteless exploits to take place within its boundaries.
A breeding experiment, then? I had heard cruel tales of dark Mendelian research in which dogs or apes had been bred to preposterous size and savagery, but I had always dismissed these as political fabrications meant to scare the public into rejecting the idea of hereditary experimentation. Even so, it seemed a weak explanation for this unknown creature. The spectral mist suggested unworldly origins to me, but I was not ready to abandon myself to superstition and the occult so soon.
With my lamp once again held out before me, I resolved to continue on to the police station. I chose to take a less exposed route to the station via Plessy Crescent. It traced a mile-long curved arc toward the town square and I was surprised to see that not one of the houses had so much as a glimmer of light illuminating their windows, suggesting that the tenants were either hiding or had abandoned their homes. The leaning houses along that route loomed much higher than those in Chester Street, and its path was much narrower. A stranger might find it to be an intimidating walk at night, with its overhanging rafters and tight alleys winding uphill — especially with the creeping fog and thick darkness — but for me, any eeriness was displaced by nostalgia, for halfway along, Dennington Cross Theatre lifted the atmosphere with its illustrious entrance and bright posters. Pushing and shoving on a Saturday evening was not a frustrated affair here; it was a jovial mêlée of excited clientele, and it was a regular haunt for my family.
I stopped outside its doors to take strength from its bold indifference to the emptiness of the street, but also to listen for hints that the creature might be stalking me. Seeing the theatre raised my spirits. Even so soon after the violence in Chester Street, a part of me challenged the reality of the attack, as if the face of the building before me — with all its lines and curves of gold and red so familiar, so representative of weekly routine and normality and cheer — could chase the monster away, or at least soften the horror of what it had done.
It was too dark inside to see the lobby. Only the reflection of my lamp in the glass was clearly visible, but I knew the layout well enough to picture happy scenes. It was less than two weeks since my last visit, the chance to see one more performance before Sophie traveled to France with the girls. It happened to be the final night of William K. Cambara, the traveling magician, and we were thrilled. Indeed, it was one of the few times when Elsie — my youngest — was silent. She sat on my knee, spellbound by Cambara's exuberant hand gestures and singsong voice as he produced doves and rabbits from impossible places. When the magician called my other daughter, Louise, to come on stage and help him keep some saucers spinning on rods, Elsie clapped her hands so hard and smiled so widely I could not help but laugh. I was no longer watching the magician. I was watching her. And the moment was completed by Sophie's hand slipping into mine and squeezing it just enough for me to understand that she was sharing the same delight in our daughters.
When Louise came off the stage she asked me, in awe, how Cambara was able to perform such tricks. Although she was the more curious of the two — not content until she had pulled something mechanical apart to discern its works — she was not expecting me to explain the tricks; she wanted me to tell her that they weren't tricks at all and that magic was real. So I refrained from pointing out that most of Cambara's illusions were accompanied by a bang and a huge puff of smoke and that necessity for distraction was clear evidence of deception. Instead, I simply smiled and tapped the side of my nose, and she was content with that.
As my daydreaming faded, my eyes settled on the swirling fog gathering like cold fingers around my ankles. I wished that this mist, too, was clear evidence of deception, that the creature it hid was fake or at least a fabrication of my mind weakened by injury, but my eye caught sight of a movement in the lobby. I froze.
Excerpted from Dark Seed by Simon West-Bulford. Copyright © 2016 Simon West-Bulford. Excerpted by permission of Medallion Press, Inc..
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