Chapter Ten

"You poor dear," the farm wife says, as they support Gospherus and help him up. "Let’s get you into the house."

"Th. Thank you," he says. Surely he must see how dangerous they are. He knows why we came here. I want to stop him. I'm paralyzed by something whining in the back of my head, bad static suddenly rising in pitch to unfathomable pain.

"I got sick. I am so sorry."

"It's okay, son," says the farmer.

But they're not a man and a woman. Gospherus doesn't see that.

I grab my head. Through the pain I see as the door opens. He must see in full what I catch as a snapshot, and yet he moves on, thankful that this fond elderly couple helps me.

It's the sort of place one sees in quaint films about the olden days. Yet I see other things, misplaced in every corner. Dental instruments. Rope. Knives. Nineteenth century tools. Antique medical equipment. The smell of roasted Christmas bird and bile.

I open my mouth but he pain overwhelms me. Someone lives beneath this farmhouse, in a state of the most perfect misery imaginable.

The door closes.

I am aware of lesser suffering, miserable, muted against that wall of despair so pure I cannot read it as anything specific. They surround me.

I feel them before I see them. At first I think I'm hallucinating, but I know they're real. I've seen them before, in my nightmares. The animal-things move awkwardly around me. I look a the closest one: a twisted naked shivering thing that once wore human shape. Its body has been broken and transformed, deformed. Its eyes water. They all have such sad and angry eyes, and I know they will stop me from heading back down the road if I try, back towards whatever might be left of reality.

When I move, they move. They keep me fenced in. I can approach the house, though. I fear the house, but I must save Gospherus.

I wake up freezing and in pain on the snow-dusted ground, the creatures still around me. My head throbs but I look on my watch. An hour has passed.

Then I hear the first scream. An inhuman wail comes from within the farmhouse. I recognize Gospherus's voice.

I can see his pain, and the creatures around me, but I'm disabled by the thing beneath the floorboards.

But I cannot move forwards. Perhaps I could face the four or five things that snuffle and limp around me. How will it help us if we both died?

"Your friend won't help you," I hear the old woman say or, rather, I hear Gospherus hear it. He screams again. He hears the old man chuckle. I can see what they're doing to him, but I cannot imagine why they would do it. Scalpels and kitchen knives find places sensitive to touch.

I move forward. I have to move forward. I have to stop them.

They have left the door unlocked. I kick out through the pain in my head and I am inside. Fluids stain the floor. They have Gospherus on the dining room table. I cannot read their thoughts, not exactly, but then, they seem happy, almost high. The room as he must have seen it when he entered has been cast into chaos.

Nearby, I see a turkey dinner.

"He also wants to enjoy your pain," says the old woman. She turns to me and nods affectionately. "Thank you for turning him over to us."

How can Gospherus believe this? Yet he does. I can read his feeling of betrayal, even in the madness that screams from below. "I trusted you," he says, before they begin again. He falls into infantile whining as the folksy woman continues administering torture with small, primitive tools.

The man has moved to a nearby closet. He brings out a wooden, wheel device. I've seen engravings in old books. I think it's what they used in Europe to drag out the entrails when someone was drawn and quartered.

Then I hear that word again, see it floating before me. Vannderjhee.

And then the couple stop. They begin to look about. Their facial expressions have barely changed, but their eyes seems confused. And I hear a woman's voice in my head. "The fire," she says. "It's real."

The couple leave Gospherus tied to their table and they look about.

I see the trap door. It leads beneath the house. Her voice directs me to the fireplace, burning against the winter cold.

A light flashes and flickers, like a lamp with inconsistent electricity.

The folksy killers look confused, and then angry, and then ravenous. The human forms fall aside. I do not know if they have been a costume or an illusion. I cannot fully comprehend what I see before me: imagine a pair of creatures, naked mole rats and centipedes at once, each about six or seven feet long, swaying upright like cobras.

"We killed you," one of them says.

She shivers, clearly, but she faces them nonetheless. She looks to be about thirty-five. She has an archaic-looking winter cape around her shoulders. In one hand she holds a silver device, ornately carved, bearing two jewels in its head. She turns to me a moment and I hear her, perhaps talking in my head, perhaps tapping in code against my eardrums.

Make yourself useful.

The abominable creatures writhe, their legs carrying them slightly forwards and back. She waves the silver object in her hand. The centipede-things writhe and spasm on the floorboards.

"It won't last!" she says. "Burn the vannderjhee!" Her eyes, I see, have lived a very long time.

I kick open the trap door. It pulses in the pit, a thing of roots and tentacles, its skin diseased. Vannderjhee. I don't know what the word means, but that's what this is, and the centipede-things have been fueling it, for over a hundred years.

A traveler found his way here two years ago, and they've been keeping him alive. The others have died. This one will die soon. His suffering goes beyond despair.

They will put Gospherus there when they have finished playing with him. He will be kept alive, to suffer, slowly, for as long as his body holds together, entombed in its foul parody of a womb.

And they will grow stronger.

Its tendrils reach out. They touch eggs, larval forms, incubating in putrid flesh.

I know all these things. I just don't understand them. My head continues to throb with the worst head pain I have ever felt. But I realize that since the woman entered, the shuffling, snuffling monstrosities outside have been silenced. They no longer form part of the chorus of suffering.

"Hurry," she says. The creatures continue to move like caterpillars exposed to pesticide.

I want to save Gospherus but I know that I must do something else first.

I reach into the fireplace. My hands burn. It's no illusion. These are ordinary logs, in flames.

I drag and push them down into the pit. A moment later the thing that had appeared to be an old man breaks from whatever power has been holding it and it lunges at me. Its eyes look terrible, and its rodent mouth gapes open.

And then the world fades away. I fade with it, and so does the woman. The last thing I see are the abominations in the farmhouse, screaming and tearing at the air we occupied. Gospherus remains behind, pinned specimen-like to the table, sobbing.

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