Mark Howard Jones
For Eddy C. Bertin
From two or three miles down the railway track the town looked grey and old. It almost looks dead, he thought, as the train drew closer.
The classical architecture of the station reminded him of an ancient mausoleum instead of a mundane transit point. It felt hot and claustrophobic inside the vast structure.
His twisted childhood—stolen by the coldness and cruelty of his uncle—had brought him back here, despite all the promises he had made himself.
He wanted to gaze on that hated face just one more time, mainly because he wanted to assure himself that the old bastard truly was dead. But, as his only living relative, there might also be something in it for him, even if it was simply a delayed legacy from his poor, dead father.
He left the bulk of the station behind him and passed the tall, narrow houses that lined the wide road.
The sunlight drew hard shadows under the bridge over the grey, sluggish canal.
His uncle’s house was further from the station than he remembered. The intervening span of years had obviously warped his memories. Or maybe it was just the stifling summer heat that made the journey seem longer.
For the last 30 years, the old man had led the life of an anchorite. Most presumed his allegiance to be to the martyr of the cross, but Jan knew the truth was very different. He’d never understood his uncle’s occult predilections, despite being forced to participate in them, but he knew he wanted nothing to do with them.
The tall grey house at 27 Schemeringstraat stood in contrast to those around it. Those on either side were freshly painted and looked well cared for. While his uncle’s house appeared unkempt, like an unwashed old man. ‘How appropriate’, thought Jan.
He pulled up the old brass knocker and let it fall. The metal felt pleasantly cool but oddly greasy. It made the dull sound of a sledgehammer hitting a coffin lid.
He was about to knock again when the door opened and a small elderly man peered up at him.
He took a second or two to focus on the visitor. “Yes?”
“You have come for the funeral?” The dusty-skinned man gazed straight at his mouth, awaiting a reply. Evidently he was deaf, thought Jan.
“Why else would I return to this place? To fall down dead myself and allow the worms to gorge themselves on my bitter memories?” Jan made sure he enunciated every word carefully.
The old man kept staring at his mouth, not moving an inch. “Out of the way please,” said Jan, losing patience.
It was barely any cooler indoors that it had been in the street. Once inside the bare hallway, he left his holdall near the door. Draping his overcoat across it, he entered the open door on his right.
Nearly two dozen pairs of eyes turned to him as he entered the large room. Except for the door, nearly every inch of wall space besides a large ugly sideboard was taken up with a chair. Each was occupied by a withered, black-clad figure.
Jan took in the room quickly before stepping across to the antique catafalque in the centre of the space. The coffin containing his uncle’s body lay on top.
He had been a tall man but the huge black coffin lent him a dignity he had lacked in life. His enormous vulturine nose stood proud above his withered cheeks. The corpse reminded Jan of a plundered statue of a pharaoh that had been taken from its enormous pedestal and laid on its back ready to be dragged away.
He was tempted to lunge forward suddenly and sink a pin into the waxy flesh, to test whether the life had truly left his body. He had always suspected dishonesty from Bernardus.
Jan wiped the grim smile from his face as he noticed a man at his elbow. Turning, he was met by a short, smartly dressed man who he guessed was in the legal profession. He extended his hand. “Mr.…?”
The man spoke in a low voice that was intended to be confidential, though his voice could be heard easily by all the occupants of the still, hot room. “I am Julian Walton, your uncle’s solicitor. There are certain matters to be taken care of over the next few days, Meneer de Vries.”
The man’s heavy voice exactly matched the pronounced bags under his eyes.
Jan nodded. “Yes, yes… of course. Your note caught up with me in Edinburgh. I do understand…” He gestured towards the coffin. “What did he die of?” he inquired, only half interested.
“His heart gave out,” the solicitor informed him.
“Impossible – he didn’t have one!” snorted Jan. Hatchet-like faces turned towards him with disdain. He stared them all down.
Jan looked around the room at the disappointed, decrepit faces. Every visage looked as if it was made of melting wax, with two marbles glistening above their pendulous noses, as if pressed unwillingly into the grimy material.
He noted sourly that all those in attendance, who he assumed to be all his uncle’s acquaintances (for he certainly had no friends), were all ready for the grave themselves. He was the youngest one there and even he was fast approaching middle age. Anything filled with the vitality of youth had wisely steered clear of the old man.
He remembered from his childhood that a kitten he had brought into the house once lasted a mere four days before it died. He’d been heartbroken. By way of consolation, his uncle had given him a book about the occult with black covers and grubby pages. It was presumably meant either to explain why the kitten perished or to toughen Jan up to the point where he no longer cared about ‘lower’ beings. It failed to do either.
The sun was now no longer shining through the window. Outside, the grey sky flowed overhead. It did little to alleviate the heat.
Jan loosened his collar. Trust the old bastard to die in the middle of a stifling summer, he thought.
On the huge, dark wood sideboard stood a heavy picture frame. The photograph showed him with his father. A dark figure stood at his father’s shoulder, as if waiting to pounce on them both.
Uncle Bernardus always had the air of a bird of prey. He’d been tall – taller than his brother – but always shabby in appearance. This added to the impression that he was a half-starved vulture.
Jan looked away from the image. He was surprised Bernardus had kept the photograph. It reminded Jan of the most terrifying moment of his childhood.
It was the evening that his uncle had come into his room and announced, with an awful attempt at a smile covering the lower half of his face, that Jan’s father had died. “I am your father now,” he had added.
Jan shrank inside and begged with God to kill him. But, as usual, the deity ignored him.
Walton and his even more elderly assistant produced a bottle and glasses from a large wooden piece of furniture. Everyone was furnished with a glass, which were then filled to the halfway point with a tawny liquid.
After what seemed like an hour, Walton turned and spoke. “To the memory of our benefactor, Bernardus de Vries.” The old man raised the glass of pale brownish liquid and made another toast. “To all those born with blood.”
“…and bone,” muttered the ancient fool next to Jan, touching his withered lips to the glass without drinking a drop. Jan noticed him lower the glass and tip its contents onto the carpet.
Jan was puzzled by the toast and by the reference to Bernardus as a benefactor but, after a cautious sniff, he downed the liquid in one gulp. It tasted rich and grapey but he wasn’t able to place it. For a second, he hoped he hadn’t unwittingly bought into some sort of occult suicide pact with his vile, dead uncle and his hangers-on.
After a few uncomfortable minutes, Jan decided he would survive. “I need some air,” he announced to Walton before taking his leave.
In the hallway, he gazed down ruefully at the hideous tiled floor. It depicted an all-seeing eye, gazing up at all who passed. It sat in the midst of a stylised serpentine design that nodded towards some early 20th-century art movements.
Jan had always hated it, and noted with pleasure that even more of the tiles were criss-crossed with dirt-encrusted cracks than he remembered. As he swung the heavy front door open, he wished it had been ground into pieces by the passing years.
* * *
At a small bar nearby, Jan ordered a jenever and a beer. After a few mouthfuls of the near tasteless beer, he took the opportunity to phone Saskia. He’d insisted his wife stay away from this poisonous place.
When she asked how long it would be before he could return, he answered “Not too long. A few days at most.”
He hung the phone up’ proceeding to enjoy the cooler air rising from the canal as the day crept to a close.
He had some more questions for his uncle’s English solicitor, but he wanted to ask them without a room full of vultures eavesdropping.
* * *
The following morning Jan found himself in Walton’s office, hoping to clear up the small matter of whether or not he was going to inherit anything from his uncle. He supposed that he was.
Walton looked even dustier than he had the day before. Jan supposed that the light was better here.
“Your uncle left very specific instructions as to his funeral and eventual interment in a private cemetery just outside the city.” Walton placed a thin brown folder of papers in front of Jan, who flipped it open at once. He hoped some revelation of hidden wealth that was coming his way would leap out at him. The papers remained stubbornly confusing at first glance.
Walton’s treacly voice began to warp itself around Jan once more. “The will is to be read immediately before the funeral service which, if you care to glance at the chart enclosed, will be in two weeks’ time.”
Startled by Jan’s outburst, Walton’s raised his gaze. “Yes. As I said, the chart left by your uncle indicates the most propitious date for his burial will be the 23rd of this month.”
Jan stared at the calendar-like chart that Walton had indicated. It contained an odd graph to one side and unfamiliar markings crawling across the dates on the calendar.
“Yes, I see.” Jan sighed. There was no way he was staying in that old mausoleum of a house for another fortnight. He would phone Saskia later; they would just have to make other plans.
“Can you tell me, Mr Walton, if I can expect to benefit from my uncle’s will in any way?”
The old solicitor shook his head. “It would be highly unethical of me to discuss the contents of the will with anyone prior to its reading, Meneer de Vries. I’m sure you understand.”
Jan didn’t understand… or didn’t care, at least.
“However, I believe that Vrouw Kantner is safeguarding a small legacy for you. One that is completely outside the terms of the will and therefore unaffected by it.”
Jan nodded slowly. “I see.” Vrouw Kantner had been his uncle’s housekeeper… and much more, he’d always assumed. He hadn’t seen her at the gathering around the coffin earlier. He’d imagined that she’d moved on years ago, or died.
As if he could read Jan’s mind, Walton added: “She still lives in the house.”
Jan scooped up the folder from the desk and shook the old man’s hand.
Confused, the solicitor began “Oh… but there are other matters that we must… as your uncle’s only living relative… umm…”
Jan nodded. “Perhaps tomorrow. After all, I’ll be around for the next two weeks,” he said, knowing full well that he wouldn’t be.
* * *
This bleak town was where he had grown up—if one could truly use that phrase about his childhood. It was more accurate to say that he reached a kind of premature maturity, at which time he realised that escape was the only real option.
The grey sky lowered overhead as he walked back briskly to the house. The house from which escape had once seemed impossible.
His young life had been an endless round of harsh discipline, deprivation and fake devotion to his uncle’s obscure occult obsessions.
He remembered the insane, endless incantations. And how he had been forced to kneel in ‘prayer’ hour after hour by Bernardus. Sometimes he even imagined that his fingers still ached from the odd hand gestures he had been forced to adopt, his fingers twisted at unnatural angles.
Jan had understood none of it and had viewed it simply as his uncle’s peculiar brand of cruelty. He also remembered being struck hard if he stumbled over the gibberish he was forced to repeat.
And every night that maddening music; a violin that sounded like a dentist’s drill. When he asked about it in the morning, he received only a cold stare in response. He’d supposed it had come from Bernardus’ own room but he had no proof. His uncle had once even claimed it was his own ‘over-imaginative young mind.’
As Jan approached the door of the house that he imagined he now owned, he noticed a bent old man hurrying to intercept him. Jan slowed for a moment in astonishment at the sight. The man looked like an odd black bird that had grown in size and now insisted on pretending it was human.
Then it spoke. “Meneer de Vries, if you please. Will you now be taking over your uncle’s role?”
Jan didn’t remember seeing the man at the house earlier. Taken aback, all he could mumble was: “What?”
“Are you an adept at the sacred geometrics, too? We need someone to lead us, you see. We all need a benefactor.”
Jan shook his head. “No. I’m sorry. I don’t know what you mean.” It occurred to him that Bernardus had gathered a group of followers since the last time he was here, despite Walton’s claim that he had been a recluse. A coven of some sort, no doubt, thought Jan.
“But… but… We need someone, Meneer de Vries.” The man had placed his unpleasant, nicotine-stained fingers on Jan’s sleeve. Despite his previous resemblance to a bird, the man now looked more toad-like.
All Jan wanted to do was get away from him. “Look. I don’t really know what…”
The man’s grip grew stronger. “When our lives could be snuffed out at any time by the accidental footfall of a behemoth from a hidden realm, existing beyond the reach of our poor senses… we need help.” The man had used particular emphasis saying the final word.
“Old man, make some sense, will you?” Jan had lost patience and began to pull his arm away.
The old man staggered back a step or two. The rebuff seemed to run through him like a small electric shock. He stood muttering to himself. “Not the one. Not the one. Not the…”
Jan stared at him for a second before putting the key in the lock. He left the man standing in the street with a look of stunned finality on his face. When the heavy door clunked shut behind him, Jan let out a delayed breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding.
* * *
Once inside the house, he went from room to room looking for his uncle’s former housekeeper. She was nowhere to be found on the ground floor, and every bedroom except his was nearly bare of furnishings. There wasn’t even any indication as to where his hated uncle used to sleep.
Giving up in frustration, Jan went to the room that Walton had furnished for his stay. He still hadn’t recovered from the rigours of his previous day’s travel. He lay down on the large bed and napped on and off until early evening.
At just before seven there was a knock on the door of Jan’s bedroom. Rising form the bed, he opened it to be confronted by Vrouw Kantner. Despite his fruitless search earlier, here she was. Jan was slightly shocked to see that she was now wheelchair-bound.
The Vrouw had always been a woman of few words but her silence as she sat in front of him was unnerving.
Suddenly, she took one clawed hand from the rim of the right wheel and picked up a parcel that lay in her lap. She looked at it for a moment before thrusting it towards him.
“Your father wanted you to have this.” Her voice was almost a whisper. “Now that you are old enough—and your uncle is no longer with us—I can fulfil the promise I made.”
Jan took the parcel from her. It was wrapped in a thick brown paper that was discoloured like it’d been sitting, waiting for years.
“Well… uh, thank you.” The woman had never helped Bernardus to abuse him but then she’d never tried to stop him either. Jan still felt uncomfortable in her presence.
“So, how have you been, Vrouw Kantner?” he asked, awkwardly.
The woman raised both arthritic hands from their grip on the wheelchair and spread them in front of her. “As you see, Master Jan.”
He pursed his lips in sympathy. Before he could utter any uncomfortable platitudes, Vrouw Kantner had spun her wheelchair around and headed back into the darkness that swallowed the end of the corridor.
He closed the door and laid the parcel on a small side table then carefully unwrapped the crisped, old paper. It was obviously a book and Jan was already fearful of what its pages might contain. The volumes he’d been allowed to read in this house had been a far cry from those that most children were accustomed to.
He looked at it for a few seconds before daring to open the front cover. He recognised at once the small, crabbed letters of his father’s handwriting. Each page was dated at the top. He’d had no idea his father had kept a diary. Though he supposed it was something most fathers would be unlikely to share with a seven-year-old boy.
The diary pages cracked and tore as he turned them, drinking in the entries, struggling to understand.
The book spoke insanely of star-born things, fallen to earth and now entombed in their chthonic lairs. It mentioned depraved ancient cults devoted to their worship as near-deities… and to their protection.
The words seem to burn into his mind. At last, he was able to decipher the code. The words he’d heard issuing from Bernardus’ twisted mouth during his bleak childhood were all here. All the phrases he’d been forced to repeat, while kneeling on the hard floor before his brutal uncle, now made some sort of sense.
The word ‘Cyaegha’ was part of almost every sentence spoken during those rituals. Jan now discovered the awful truth behind the word, that it was a creature of dreadful power, worshipped as a god by some and capable of bringing eternal darkness to humanity.
Some of the images Bernardus surrounded himself with were of the foul entity under the hill, he now realised.
At first, Jan’s rationalist outlook fought against the truth contained in the words. But an older, perhaps wiser, part of him could not deny the dreadful certainty revealed by the shapes made of discoloured ink.
He wept for his father’s fear and courage. He could only imagine what a struggle it had been to battle Bernardus secretly while also keeping his small son safe and untainted.
His father could only speculate on exactly what Bernardus intended with his ceremonies. Maybe he had wanted to harness the power of the slumbering deity somehow… or, worse, to release it from its captivity.
But one thing was certain from his father’s words. He had done everything in his power to thwart his brother and prevent him from attaining his goals.
One section of the diary made it clear that his father had been given custodianship of a sixth Vaeyen, one known to very few and protected diligently down the years by men like Willem. He referred to it as ‘The Keeper of Light and Fire,’ and there was a vague suggestion that it was somewhere within the house.
Jan read that these powerful guardians, demonic servants embodied in carved statue, both protected and imprisoned the dreaded star-born thing beneath the hill. It was always supposed that there were only five Vaeyen. But now he knew the truth and it was imperative that he seek out the sixth.
The diary ended the day before his father’s death. The final entry mentioned Willem’s fears that his brother was growing stronger.
Jan lay on the bed for an hour as the sunlight faded. It was difficult to believe all that his father’s diary said. If it had been written by anyone except his father, he would have dismissed it as a lurid fantasy.
Had his father, in truth, been the caretaker of a lost Vaeyen? It appalled him to imagine that this dark, cloistered place, filled with misery, could be the front line in a battle that must be won—and quickly—if the world was to survive.
His suspicions that Willem may have been killed by his own brother were underlined by his father’s avowed role in trying to halt the sorcerer’s deviant plans.
He picked up the book and re-opened it many times, refreshing his memory and trying to glean even more from his father’s words. The phrases ‘under Bernardus’ very feet’ and ‘beneath the eye of Cyclops’ stuck in his mind.
Had his father hidden the precious Vaeyen from his brother? If so, those who worshipped the god may be glad to have it back. It was bound to be very valuable to them.
It soon dawned on Jan that the clues could only lead to one place in this hellish dwelling. Jan headed downstairs to Bernardus’ study. He was convinced that his father had secreted the object in a location where it would have the maximum effect on his vile brother.
The dark wooden door faced him defiantly but Jan resolved to invade his uncle’s former sanctum boldly. Gripping the handle, he turned it and pushed hard.
The door almost flew open, revealing a room crowded with furniture and books. On the wall hung prints and fabrics bearing arcane symbols and images, which Jan glanced at with renewed repugnance.
Jan took two steps inside, fighting back memories of his past, and let his gaze drop to the floor. He pulled the heavy carpet aside with some difficulty. There, etched into the floorboards using God only knows what magical means, was the curious circular symbol that his uncle had spent so much of his time sitting within. At its very centre, was a huge eye, returning his gaze.
On several occasions, Jan had been forced to help his uncle in his rituals. They had lasted hours, with the stench of foul incense and the man’s rancid sweat filling the air.
There was still a faint whiff of the incense latched to the furnishings.
Jan ran his fingers along the floorboards. They were solid but old, and he needed some tool in order to force them up. A sturdy metal poker that had been left by the fireplace would do, he decided.
The wood splintered with an alarming crack. Jan was sure the rest of the house must have heard it. Then he remembered that the cook didn’t live in the house. Besides her, there was only Vrouw Kantner, hidden away in her bolthole somewhere.
He swung the poker high and hard. Again the floorboards cracked and split, complaining loudly as they flew apart. Sweat dripped from his forehead, making small pools on the dusty boards.
He dug his fingers under the last board and tugged with all his might. Inch by inch, it came free and he pushed it to one side.
When Jan gazed down into the space between the floor joists, he sucked in a great heaving breath.
There, lying on his side, was his father’s corpse. He recognised the remnants of dark hair and the badge sewn on to his favourite jacket. There wasn’t even the decency of a shroud or other funeral wrapping.
His father’s head bore a terrible wound that had undoubtedly killed him. Bernardus’ story of a heart attack had obviously been lies.
The desiccated fingers clutched at a two-foot-long carving of a bird-like creature. It had to be the sixth Guardian mentioned in his father’s diary. All these years it had lain beneath his uncle’s feet – no wonder the old fool’s magicks had never worked.
Jan chuckled in delight. His father had defeated his uncle even after his death. He presumed that the evil occultist had no idea his brother’s corpse and the mechanism that had frustrated his life’s work lay beneath his very feet.
Even after all these years under the floorboards, the sculpted figure was an almost fierce white. It seemed to repel dust and decay.
Jan reached down to touch it, wondering who had snatched his father away from the fire of cremation to bury him here? He had his own supporters, no doubt,those who were opposed to his uncle’s foul dealings. Maybe Vrouw Kantner was a secret ally after all. Maybe she had arranged to have him buried here, to guard the Vaeyen even after death.
As his fingers closed around the neck of the sculpture, it sagged. His nails dug into the dried material and he watched, appalled, as it crumbled away before his eyes.
As the dust of the false Vaeyen began to rise, the mirage of his father’s corpse faded like mist in sunlight. He had been tricked.
Jan cursed his own stupidity. How could he have allowed himself to be trapped like this?
Bernardus’ sorcery was reaching out to control him even now. Even in death, he had won. Jan imagined the evil old man’s corpse grinning in its long, black coffin.
A deep cold began to invade the room, stealing the sticky warmth of the summer and squeezing the air from his heaving lungs. Beads of sweat began to freeze uncomfortably on his skin.
Ice crept impossibly across the inside of the the windowpane.
His frozen fingers refused to move any longer as he fumbled with the door. He slumped down onto the floor as he felt the cold grip him tighter. A darkness invaded the room, dissolving its details like an acid as it came.
In his confusion, he thought he saw Saskia’s soft brown eyes looking down at him. He blinked and her gentle gaze was replaced by the terrifying stare of an enormous orb, looking into him, replacing his memories with confusion and pain.
Cold fingers stabbed towards him out of the darkness. No, not fingers … something much worse.
The god under the hill. That dreaded thing. It had failed to seduce him when he was younger but now here it was. Even from his coffin, Bernardus had summoned it.
As the cold stabbed further into him, he gasped, expelling his last breath. Cold filled him. Darkness and cold.
So deep. So cold… under the hill.