Old is one thing, long-forgotten buildings abandoned and left to decay on unkempt plots, but ancient is another. Ancient conjures up images of civilizations and people long since gone, a time before memorable or conceivable time. However, there are things beyond ancient, things so blasphemously old that their continued existence mocks any importance we may arbitrarily assign to our own laughably short lives. Primeval things that still lurk in heart of the world, as well as the spaces without. These are the things that haunt the collective memories of people from all around the world. But, as I have come to realize, there is something older, deeper, and all around more terrifying than even these things from a time before time, something from beyond the genesis of reality itself.
It had been nearly a week since I had come to stay with my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Irvin. They owned a respectably large plot of land in southern Virginia at the base of the Appalachians. Their son Isaac, a boy close to my own age or slightly younger, I can never remember, had proven himself to be a faithful, if somewhat excitable, companion in the short time I had stayed with them. He was always willing to accompany me on my treks out into the wilderness bordering my family’s land.
“That’s the old church I was telling you about!” Isaac exclaimed as he clambered unsteadily over the moss-covered stones that rose like emeralds from the golden carpet of late autumn leaves, the afternoon sun casting its own broken streams of gold through the barren branches above us. The old church loomed ahead of us in the sea of shattered gold. The structure’s imposing size, the fallen stones around its base, and the precariously leaning steeple made me feel as if we had stumbled upon some crippled titan laying injured in the woods, that at any moment it might shake the years of accumulated woodland detritus from its back and limp off once again into the world of forgotten myth, gnashing its windows like mouths lined with ghastly teeth of shattered glass.
“Right where I told you it was!” Isaac announced triumphantly, “Though I’ve only been out here once. Nearly got bit by snake that time, but I figure with someone to watch my back it should be safe enough.” My aunt and uncle had frequently described this area as ‘God’s Country’ due to the number of churches that have cropped up over the years, so I wasn’t all surprised that there might have been a church nearby at one point. Alternatively, I had also once heard it referred to as ‘God’s Teeth’.
I murmured an affirmation as we made our way towards the glowering doorway of the derelict church. As we passed through the crumbling portal, Isaac practically bounding with excitement and I gazing around in rapt silence, the darkness inside blinded me temporarily. The dank, liquid ebony inside of the moldering facade was, in comparison to the glowing golden world outside, almost terrifying. The interior was remarkably bare. Rows upon rows of decomposing pews stretched before us, clearly illustrating the substantial size of the congregation that once found themselves called to worship here. I made my way down the center aisle which extended from the doorway behind me.
I ran my finger across the backs of the pews as I made my way past the rows, the ancient wood nearly crumbling under my light touch. In contrast, Isaac had already reached the front after rapidly winding his way between the aisles. I was shocked out of my contemplative meandering by the loud crack of broken wood. Isaac had carelessly, though not purposefully, destroyed the decrepit wooden pulpit, its crumbling death rattle destroying the eerie silence of the woods.
Either the shockwaves from the sound or the slight impact itself were apparently enough to dislodge some branches which had snagged loosely to the outside of the church. The sudden removal of the branches allowed light to shine through a miraculously intact stained glass window behind where the pulpit had once stood. The long, multi-colored spire of light ran down the center aisle, dividing the church in two with a wall of rainbow light. My attention now directed towards the ancient glasswork, I noted a peculiar symbol contained in a circle near the top of the pointed arch. I had, at first glance, assumed it was a cross, which would have made sense given the location, but upon closer inspection I realized that, while similar to a standard cross, it was actually a curiously branching symbol I had never seen before. It had too many lines to be a true cross, with each line connecting to the outer circle. It reminded me in some ways of the bare trees just outside.
“Hey! Hey! Look at this!” Isaac’s voice cut through the silence. Tearing my gaze away from the curious symbol I saw that he was standing at the mouth of a newly opened hatch in the floor which had only been revealed by the disintegration of the pulpit. By the time I reached him, Isaac was already half descended into the abyssal opening. I was surprised that the flimsy ladder seemed to be holding his weight just fine.
I followed suit and we both switched on our flashlights, which we had learned to carry with us after getting turned around in the woods at night on one of our earlier expeditions. We found ourselves in a cramped, unfurnished basement of sorts. The walls were comprised of the same primitive stonework as the rest of the church, albeit in somewhat better shape due to their protection from the elements and from time. The back wall, however, was apparently a solid sheet of stone. At the time I had assumed that whoever had built the church had run into the rock during their excavation and had merely carved it flat. It was of a much darker stone than the bricks used elsewhere being a deep, matte black that seemed to almost absorb the light of our flashlights.
As I ran my hand over the surface I noted a peculiar lack of tools marks, either invalidating my earlier assumption or indicating the hand of a master stonemason. My fingers eventually discovered a break in the ebon wall, a vertical crack leading from just above my head to nearly my navel. Only by having Isaac hold his light at an extreme angle could I just manage to make out a highlight on the edge of the fissure reassuring me of its size and existence.
“What do you suppose this room was for? It doesn’t even look like anyone ever kept anything down here.”
I had no answer for my cousin. It was too small to be a crypt and there were no signs of crates or their like having ever been stored down there. I thought that perhaps it could have been a small wine cellar. That would explain its location directly below the pulpit, so that the priest could easily access it in preparing for the Eucharist, a catholic church then, I assumed. As I pondered the small vault, Isaac once again broke the silence. This time it was with his screams.
Isaac had, like a fool, reached inside the crack in the wall. At first I thought his hand had merely become lodged in the crevice causing him to panic, but as his screaming intensified it was clear that something was terribly wrong. Fearing for my cousin I gripped his shoulders firmly and with a jerk I pulled him forcefully away from that blasted black stone. As we fell backwards, toppling together at the base of the crude ladder we had descended, Isaac’s screams did not cease. His flesh bubbled and blistered as if submerged in a strong acid. Mustering all of my strength, I hauled both my cousin and myself up the ladder and into the cool darkness of the church proper.
Now free of that wretched cellar I attempted to examine my cousin’s rapidly deteriorating hand. As I did so, he attempted to stifle his obvious pain with a whimper. The flesh of his arm, up to the length that he had plunged it into the stone wall, continued to blister and ooze nauseatingly. Before my eyes, and to my cousin’s obvious panic, the tissue began to blacken and crack as if being burned by some invisible flame.
I could only stare helplessly as my cousin writhed in agony on the cold stones of the abandoned church. I feared to leave him alone and in pain, but knew it was either that or attempt to cart him back to the house, not knowing how that might affect his quickly worsening condition. While desperately considering my options, Isaac’s screams abruptly stopped. His arm, up to just below the elbow, had literally broken off. It now lay just beside his prone form intact, but appearing to be little more than charcoal cruelly carved into the shape of a man’s arm. Relieved from the pain of the afflicted limb, but panicked by its sudden loss, Isaac scrambled backwards away from the charred remains of what was once his arm.
Luckily there was no blood, as I have no stomach for such things and would have surely fainted, and the wound itself appeared to have been almost cauterized. I now noted that Isaac had, mercifully, fainted from his terrifying ordeal. With some difficultly I maneuvered his unconscious form to the row of pews nearest to the door, hoping that the cool air wafting in from outside would do him some good. I went back to investigate my cousin’s charred forearm.
I nudged the burnt limb with the tip of my boot, knowing full well that there was no hope of reattachment. Then it moved. My cousin’s detached, charred, ruined arm moved. Backing away from the abhorrent thing, I watched in abject horror as it experimentally flexed its each of its fingers. The grotesque object began, subtly at first, to move with some determination, creeping towards me, moving under its own vile volition. Most mortifying of all, however, was its noticeable increase in size. Now a few feet closer to me, that thing that had previously been my cousin’s arm had more than doubled in size. Its proportions, too, had begun to change. The fingers and fingernails began to lengthen and stretch, becoming more like the claws of some demonic beast than human fingers. By the time it reached the halfway mark between us (I had remained firmly rooted out of fear and disbelief) the top of the stump, which the thing kept defiantly raised above it, reached nearly to the height of my shoulder. As it crossed the area illuminated by the stained glass, I could see every detail of the horrible, cracked, charcoal-like surface, a sight which is still seared into my mind quite clearly.
I finally managed to rouse myself from my fear-induced paralysis and began backing down the center aisle towards the door, not wanting to let the abomination out of my sight and hoping, at the very least, to escape the confines of this accursed church and, with any luck, grab Isaac as I made my escape. The thing was moving steadily towards me, as the multi-colored light filtering through the stained glass danced sickeningly across its dead skin. Our only chance of survival, I realized, must lay in the golden sanctuary of the surrounding woods. I had some forlorn hope that perhaps the atrocity might be unable to leave the tainted edifice or that we could possibly lose it in the vast forest beyond. But then it crossed under the shadow cast by the curious symbol I had noted earlier.
What happened next occurred in but a few moments, but to me it seemed to last an eternity. I watched, almost in slow motion, as the ancient stained glass shattered and a rainbow of glittering shards hung motionless in the air. Through the space once occupied by the symbol, a blinding beam burst through towards the unholy thing on the chapel floor, not so much striking it as seeming to utterly remove it from existence. Years seemed to pass as I watched, frozen by this new terror, but in that instant I knew what I had seen. I saw its fiery lance of light and rage and fury, more terrifying even than the awful thing which it had destroyed, as it descended from the window. I heard the flapping of a hundred wings. And I felt the awesome heat of its angry flames.
I’ll never know how I made my way back to the farm that afternoon and I know I’ll never be able to fully explain to my aunt and uncle how Isaac lost his arm out in the woods. Nor will I ever be able to explain to the baffled doctors how I lost my sight on that same outing despite their claims that my eyes are perfectly fine. I’ll never be able to explain because no one in their right mind would ever believe my explanation. What I saw I know to be the harbinger of a vengeful god. I know that that awful thing was not destroyed for my benefit, but out of rage. This was not the act of a loving and compassionate god, not a great creator or architect, but a force of destruction, a god of hateful, righteous vengeance. Several weeks after the ordeal, my uncle made a trip out to that old church, despite my protestations, hoping to find the true cause of his sons dismemberment. On his return he said that he noticed nothing out of the ordinary, save for a curious symbol that seemed to be burned into the old stone floor of the center aisle. Burned there, I knew, by the wrath of a terrible, avenging angel.