They Come From Below
Originally published in Ethereal Tales, Issue 1.
"Ha ha ha,” came the sinister laugh, ringing out along the empty corridors like an irritating sound-effect on a ghost train.
Bob Stokes slammed down his book and cocked his head to the side. This was the second time he'd heard the noise. He'd thought he was imagining things at first, but now he was sure there was someone there. “I’ll bet it’s one of those bloody tramps again,” he said to himself angrily.
The single light bulb suspended from the ceiling above cast a cold light around the small room, making the darkness in the surrounding passageways seem all the more complete. Bob tried to ignore his growing sense of isolation, but it wasn’t easy. When he'd applied for a job as a security guard, he'd never imagined he would end up being assigned to this forgotten network of underground rooms and hallways beneath the city. Hell, he hadn’t even known such places existed, but they did. Even now, he was only just starting to get his head around the sheer size of it all. One thing he knew from bitter experience was that it was more than large enough to get lost in. It didn’t help that there were hardly any lights, but as the owners pointed out, what was the point in paying to illuminate empty rooms? He'd often wondered why nobody had found a use for the huge area - after all, the prices of the property above didn’t bear thinking about - but as there was no natural light or ventilation, there was little that could have been done with the place without extensive work.
When he'd first arrived, he'd assumed the job of guarding the subterranean world would be relatively easy, but he had quickly found there were serious downsides. For one thing, he spent his shift completely devoid of human companionship. Then there were the tramps, who occasionally found their way inside and who he was required to eject, often in the face of strenuous objection. He'd always felt vulnerable dealing with such matters on his own, though his sheer size – all sixteen stone of it - was enough to intimidate most people into submission.
Suddenly the mad laugh sounded again. Bob looked around him, trying to pinpoint where it was coming from. It really was odd. Normally, intruders did their best to avoid detection, but this one seemed intent on drawing attention to himself.
By now, he was fairly confident he had figured out an approximate point of origin. Grimacing to think what he might find, he switched on his flashlight and headed off down one of the corridors. The blackness seemed to press in on him as he walked, scorning the slender beam of light, but he was used to this and it caused him no undue alarm. What he felt instead was irritation at having been disturbed at a particularly interesting part of his book.
After a few minutes, he reached the room he'd assumed the laughter was coming from, but it was deserted. He was just deciding where to go next, when the noise began again. He listened intently as its eerie strains echoed around him, shining his flashlight through the various doorways.
Finally, he was satisfied he had worked where it was coming from out and set off along another passageway. The air seemed particularly musty down here, but Bob was so eager to catch whoever was causing the disturbance that he hardly noticed. He kept his eyes fixed firmly forward, and was so intent on following the sound of the laugh he failed to notice a shimmering mist rising around him. It wrapped its clammy tendrils around his legs, creeping slowly upwards. Only when it began to dampen the beam of his flashlight did he become aware of its presence.
He had no idea where the mist was coming from, but assuming it to be a localised phenomenon, he pressed on down the corridor, expecting to leave it behind at any moment. Instead, it seemed to grow denser with each step he took, until it was so thick he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face. Panic rose within him. There was no way he could continue walking in these conditions. The passage was so uneven he would end up tripping over and breaking his leg.
He stood very still, looking frantically around. He had the strangest feeling he was not alone. Was it just his imagination or could he see shadowy figures moving through the fog around him? He shone his torch this way and that, but the feeble beam was powerless against the oppressive gloom.
Bob was a sensible man and not easily ruffled. He told himself he was letting his imagination get the better of him, but just when he was starting to regain his composure, the laughter began again. Only this time, it was practically on top of him. His heart thumped within his chest as he listened to it. There was a distinct air of menace which he hadn‘t noticed before.
What happened next, he couldn’t explain. One minute he was standing in a billowing cloud of mist, the next he was bound to a pipe by a rope that ran round and round his body. A spotlight shone down on him from above, illuminating the area immediately around him, but leaving the rest of the room in darkness. This was a place he didn’t recognise, and that in itself was strange, as he thought he'd been pretty much everywhere in this manmade warren. He struggled desperately against his bonds, but couldn’t break free.
Suddenly, there was a sound in the darkness. His eyes flickered from side to side, struggling to see what had caused it. It was then he noticed a shadowy figure reclining in a battered armchair a short distance away. The figure watched him intently with unblinking eyes that seemed to gleam with a golden light all of their own.
For a long time, neither Bob nor the stranger spoke. In Bob’s case this was not from a lack of inclination. There was nothing he wanted more than to scream for help, but for some reason, he was unable to formulate a single articulate sound. He peered into the darkness, striving to get a better look at the figure, but it was useless.
“I can see you’ve got something on your mind,” the stranger said flatly. “Oh very well, what is it?” He gestured with his hand and Bob found he was able to speak again.
He stared coldly at the mysterious figure. “I’m only going to say this once - let me go!”
The reply was tinged with amusement - “Why on earth would I do that? It took me ages to get you all trussed up like that.”
“Look, I don’t know who you are...” Bob began.
“Then allow me to enlighten you,” the stranger interrupted. “My name is Robin and I’ll be your guide.”
“My guide to what?” Bob demanded.
“The dark side of your imagination,” Robin replied, flinging his arms out to either side of him dramatically.
Bob went back to fighing with the rope, grimacing as it dug into his flesh. “You know what I think? I think you’re crazy.”
Robin grinned. “You’re not the first to say that, but enough of these pleasantries. It’s time we had a little fun. I live for fun, you know. Hill or vale, forest or dale. It’s all the same when fun’s your game. Where shall we start?” He rose to his feet and leered at Bob from the shadows. Something about the way he was standing made him seem not quite human, though Bob couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was.
Robin came towards him with strides that were surprisingly delicate. Then, he darted behind the pipe and leaned over to whisper in Bob's ear. “Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be crawling with insects? Don’t bother to answer. I already know it’s something you positively dread. Well, now’s your chance to experience it.” He ran his fingers down Bob’s back and Bob felt five long nails pressing against his skin through his flimsy shirt.
Then he became aware of a creeping sensation all over his body. He looked down and found to his horror that he was covered in insects. They crawled over his flesh in their teeming masses. There were giant flies with bulbous eyes, beetles of a dozen different kinds and a veritable army of ants. Higher and higher they slithered, drawing steadily closer to his sweating face.
He began to scream. He flung himself savagely from side to side, trying desperately to escape or at least to shake the creatures off, but it was useless. His screams grew wilder and wilder, until finally, he felt the insects start to crawl into his mouth and was forced to clamp it shut.
In the midst of his squirming, he was vaguely aware of Robin laughing at him. Ordinarily, this would have left him incensed, but such was his fear that even anger couldn’t penetrate it. Just when he thought he could stand it no longer, he heard Robin say in an infuriatingly chirpy voice, “You look a little distressed, my friend. Let me give you a hand. I have just the thing for insects. I give you fire!”
Bob watched fearfully as the bastard moved back in front of him and danced a little jig. Then, for no apparent reason, he felt himself burst into flames. The fire raged relentlessly, sending pain blasting through his whole body. He could hear the crackle of his bubbling flesh and smell himself slowly cooking, but there was nothing he could do about it. He screamed uncontrollably, until he felt his lungs would burst, but there was nobody to help.
Closing his eyes, he waited for the blessed relief of death, which he was sure could not be far off, but it didn’t come. Instead, Robin clapped his hands and the flames blinked out as abruptly as they had appeared. To his amazement, Bob found he was completely unharmed. “My God,” he stammered. “Why are you doing this?”
Robin stared at him for a moment, his amber eyes blazing like portals to hell. He was nearer now and Bob could discern a little more about him. He was short and slight, but with well-defined muscles that were clearly visible through his skintight leather outfit. His head seemed to be too big for his body, whilst his hair was long and unkempt. He spat on the floor. “I despise you! Your kind think you’re so special, when really you’re pathetic. You are fragile creatures that I could crush in a heartbeat if I wanted to, but oh no! I have had to stand back and watch you destroy my home, tearing down the forests where once I ran free.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, you goddamn maniac!” Bob cried out.
“Well, let me spell it out for you, moron,” Robin replied, his voice quivering with rage. “We are woodland folk – folk who live in the woods. Except that there are no safe woods left. Which is why we’re down here. Your kind have driven us here with your destructive souls and fearsome machines."
“What do you mean my kind?” Bob demanded. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Au contraire, I know everything about you,” Robin replied. “You are what you are because of your past and I have the power to look into its most hidden depths! I kid you not. Impressive, wouldn’t you say, and it gets better. The miracle that is me can actually replay the contents of your memory in the cinema of your mind. Isn’t that a great way to describe it? I came up with it all on my own. Please, no applause. When you’re hot, you’re hot, and I’m positively on fire. We both know what that feels like, don’t we? So, are you ready for your trip, your drug-free high? Just think of it! The chance to relive your greatest triumphs and bitterest defeats.” He stared fiercely into Bob’s eyes as though he could see into his very soul. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Believe you?” Bob repeated in a broken voice. “You’re out of your goddamn mind.”
“Oh really? Then how do you explain this?” Robin demanded, clapping his hands. The room reverberated with an impossibly loud echo.
The next thing he knew, Bob was no longer tied up in the dingy labyrinth, but wrapped in a pocket of warm flesh filled with viscous liquid. There was darkness all around, but it was a soothing darkness, quite unlike the eternal night of his place of work, which had seemed so charged with hostile intent.
In spite of his recent experiences, he felt no inclination to move or speak. He simply lay in silence, relishing the gentle movement of the liquid against his skin.
The serenity of the experience was such that he could happily have stayed there forever, but this was not to be. In the next instant, the tranquil haven was awash with tumultuous activity. First, the liquid around him started to gush away into a tunnel below. Then, the walls themselves heaved together in a mighty contraction, forcing him headfirst along the same route. It was an incredibly tight fit and the moist walls pressed painfully against his temples, yet he knew that no matter how difficult the journey might be, there was no going back. As if to confirm this, he felt a second great contraction heaving him onwards. The passage was so narrow he was amazed he could go anywhere at all, but by some miracle the sides seemed to expand just enough to accommodate him. He winced as he felt the pressure of a third convulsion pushing against him.
He couldn’t say how long this went on for. All he knew was his progress along the passage was painfully slow and each tiny movement required a further push from the walls above. It was like nothing he had ever felt before. A journey so difficult it made him want to scream, yet so inexorable he wasted no energy trying to fight it.
Suddenly, a booming voice sliced through his jumbled thoughts. He couldn’t explain it, but it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. “How does it feel to be born again, Robert?” He knew at once it was Robin who was speaking, though he couldn’t say how, as the man’s voice had completely changed. "Shall we try something else?"
There was an abrupt flash of light and he found himself in a capacious bed, lying on top of a girl who he recognised instantly - Julia Harper! The only woman he'd ever truly loved. They were both naked and were making love. He let out an involuntary groan as he thrust into her tight body. He'd forgotten how great it felt. They rocked together in frantic harmony as he drove into her harder and faster, spurred on by the delicious feeling of her quivering thighs tightening around him. She tossed her head from side to side and cried out in wild ecstasy. He was mad with passion and knew he was just moments away from the inevitable explosion.
“That’s quite enough of that!” came the voice of Robin in a tone of mad delight.
The light exploded around him once more and he found himself seated on the floor in the hallway of his house, staring down at a short handwritten note from the very woman he had just been making love to. It stated with uncompromising brutality that although they had once shared something special, their time together had come to an end. It was not the first time he had seen this letter, but its contents still stung. His mind raced with desperate ideas about what he could have done to make things last and he felt himself on the brink of tears. It was as though all the pain in the world were being filtered directly into his heart. He leant his head back against the wall and cried out.
He was brought back to himself by yet another flash of blinding light. He looked around and found that he was once again tied to the pipe in the labyrinth. Robin’s eyes watched him from the darkness, seeming to pulsate with malevolent energy. Bob was dizzy with the speed with which things were happening. He shook his head to try and clear his befuddled thoughts, but it was little use.
Robin gave a chilling laugh. “Now, don’t try and tell me that wasn’t fun.”
“How did you do that?” Bob asked in a dazed voice.
“Easily,” Robin replied. “I’m charged with power; it flows through every vein in my body like electricity. What you have seen is child’s play compared with what I can do if I really put my mind to it, but don‘t fret, there are plenty more fun and games to come.”
“You mean you’re going to show me more of my memories?” Bob asked slowly.
“Of course,” Robin replied. “Human memories are what keep me going. It’s no life down here, you know, away from the boundless expanse of the night sky. Plus, I’m forever at the beck and call of a bossy son of a serpent, who I could happily badmouth from here to eternity. Do you know what that’s like? Of course you don’t! Robin do this, Robin do that. Like I don’t have my own stuff to do. And when I do try to do my own stuff - a bit of harmless torture or a vicious practical joke - he shoots me down. I tell you he really pisses me off. Anyway, enough about me and my problems. Let’s talk about you and your problems. I’ve shown you your past. Why don’t we have a look at your future? Look into my eyes and despair.”
Bob felt his eyes being drawn to Robin’s, which shone with a spectral incandescence that was both fascinating and monstrous. As he continued to stare at them, he found himself switching off completely from the room around him. There was only himself and the eyes, existing together outside of space and time. Then, they started to change. At first it was merely an alteration in colour with the gold becoming a velvety black, but this was quickly followed by an increase in size. Bigger and bigger they grew, until the inner corners were touching each other, and even then, they didn’t stop, but continued to expand, merging together into a vast shimmering oval.
It was then Bob realised he was no longer looking into Robin’s eyes, but into a portal to some other time or place. It was a world of eternal darkness, where the sun never shone and the beauty of colour was but a distant memory. Looking at it filled him with an indescribable fear. He could see nothing at all and yet he knew there was a teeming mass of things to see. He didn’t remember the last time he’d had a nightmare, but he was sure it hadn’t been as bad as this.
“Enough!” came a thundering voice. Whatever vision Bob had fallen into, the sound was enough to bring him out of it. He blinked and saw again the mundane surroundings of the underground room, but something had changed - there was another person present. A man by the looks of it, tall and powerfully built with long silver hair falling in ringlets down his back and turquoise eyes that shone every bit as brightly, if not brighter, than Robin’s. This person, whoever he was, wore authority like a cape.
Bob watched with wide eyes as the newcomer seized Robin by the scruff of the neck and lifted him bodily into the air. It was so effortless it seemed unreal. Robin thrashed about as he found himself raised up to the level of the man’s eyes. The stranger frowned disapprovingly and asked in a voice that was clearly used to issuing commands, “What exactly do you think you’re doing?”
Robin gestured towards Bob excitedly. “Fun and games, games and fun, my lord. I found a mortal to play with. He's quite the little screamer when he gets started. Would you care to have a go?”
“You tread on thin ice, Puck!” the stranger exclaimed.
“Yes mighty Oberon,” said Robin. “I just thought...”
“Don’t think,” Oberon interrupted. “It only gets you into trouble. Now, set him free. Immediately!” He set Robin down on the floor and pointed imperiously in Bob’s direction.
Robin walked grudgingly towards Bob. “I don’t understand how you can be so forgiving,” he grumbled. “His kind have destroyed our homes. We’re fairies! We belong in the forests, but instead we’re forced to reside in dark places, where no one else dares to go. Death is too good for humans.”
“Don’t make me tell you again,” Oberon warned.
Robin started to untie Bob's hands. “Fine, I’ll let him go. I’d finished with him, anyway. What’s done cannot be undone. He’ll walk out of here a changed man.”
Bob was so stunned by what had happened he couldn’t say a word. Finally, he felt the ropes around him start to fall away. He pulled fiercely against them, and fled the room as soon as he was free. His heart pounded and his lungs heaved with laboured breath as he dashed along the inky corridors, neither knowing nor caring where he was going. Without the help of his torch he could see nothing at all and it was only his familiarity with the general layout of the tunnels that kept him from tripping over or running into a wall.
Eventually, he could run no further and slowed to a walk. It was then he came to a long stone staircase, which he was convinced would take him back up to street level. At the top of the steps there was a hefty door. To his relief it was unlocked. With a trembling hand, he turned the handle and stepped through.
A cry of dismay escaped his lips. He had not entered a world of light as he had expected, but was still surrounded by darkness. Yet, he could hear the sounds of the city all around him - people chattering amongst themselves, cars passing slowly by.
All of a sudden, he realised what had happened. That monstrous little devil had stolen his sight. So when he had looked through the portal into his future, it hadn’t been some other world he was seeing, but blindness.
He listened in wordless dismay to the hustle and bustle of the world around him. Never had he felt so utterly alone. Even as this last thought occurred to him, the voice of Robin Goodfellow, the Puck, rang out somewhere inside his head, “You are never alone now, my friend. You dwell in eternal darkness and wherever there is darkness you will find us!”
The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this story has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.