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Today, a trip through the Specul8 archives takes us to Italy:
By Stephen Burns
Surrounded on all sides by the immense and uneven mossy hills of Basilicata and nestled beneath the low hanging stratus clouds, was the rural village of Tagliato.
It was a gloomy place, covered in a constant ashy haze which stung the nose and eyes. Sunlight rarely pierced the low hanging clouds, making the inhabitants gaunt and pallid people. They were well adapted to the ashy haze, and didn’t seem to mind visitors who found their looks odd.
The oaks surrounding the village more closely resembled willows. Misty rains were common, and the trees in Tagliato were always rotted and gnarled. All had trunks bent over severely, as if the branches were trying to dig their way towards the roots.
The architecture of the place was a queer thing. The structures and homes of the few villagers were asymmetrical and jagged; the product of newer building practices augmenting the long standing ruins of a bygone time. The stones of the buildings were a putrid, charcoal grey, and the older structures were rotted.
The sole beautiful thing in this loathsome place was the waterfall on the village’s southern border. Crystal clear water gushed from it, and trickled down into a pristine pond near the old church. An arrangement of large stepping stones led through the pond and up to a path leading to a cave behind the water.
Though if you asked a local about the town, they would not mention the waterfall. No one went there. The villagers were well resigned to the toils of the repugnant village beneath.
Only one person in Tagliato ever went to the south of the village to visit the waterfall. The church’s sole minister. On the third month as the gibbous moon waxed before becoming full, Severo De Negris hopped the perfect stepping stones and climbed the mossy path.
Severo was not a pleasant man. While the people of the village were less than attractive and had a tendency to be secretive, they were average people. Severo was an outsider among his own.
A devout man of faith, but unpleasant to be around. He was confrontational, and clicked his tongue at the villagers in the market as he shopped. His eyes were deep set into his pasty skin, and his teeth were shades of brown and yellow. His head was clean shaven, and corpselike veins bulged from his head. He was rarely seen, and only left the church to hobble without aim, leant on a withered walking stick.
The villagers whispered things about him. They congregated after his sermons, and gossiped about his strange mannerisms. Severo sometimes trailed off during a passage, whistled a drawling, melancholic tune, and then continued the scripture as if he never stopped. Sometimes he would close the bible, and recite scripture from memory. Knowing passages by heart was nothing unusual for a preacher, but on occasion these readings devolved into incoherent and nihilistic mumbling.
After his sermons, Severo retired to his quarters. He never mingled with the assembled townspeople. He thought of them as mentally deficient. In his mind, they were beneath him, but he was not disgusted by them, rather he pitied them. As if they were nothing more than specks in the whites of his eye. The best he could do was pretend they weren’t there. He did not understand the way they thought. They made him feel discomfort.
Years ago, when Severo was a more sociable man, he had taken some of the older children on a hike to the southern hills of Tagliato. He had brought his guitar and a book of hymns to sing with his juvenile congregation at the top of the mossy hill.
Joseph, one of the youngest, suggested an expedition into the cave behind the waterfall. Severo, being a more adventurous man in his youth, was eager to explore also. Perhaps a more responsible man would have perhaps waited for the permission of the children’s parents, but Severo was no such man.
He took his group of kids to the edge of the perfectly clear pond. Joseph insisted Severo stop for a few minutes as he took rough sketches of the glimmering silver fish in it. He waited happily, and the rest of the children marvelled at the unusual clarity of the water.
When they reached the top of the mossy path beyond the pond, the air of the group was different. The children weren’t playing or chattering now, and Joseph seemed apprehensive about going past the watery curtain before the cave. Severo insisted they press onwards.
The cave was quite small. The children pressed closer to Severo as they ventured deeper.
As the walls got tighter and tighter, their footsteps disappeared into the blackness without ever echoing back. The cold, damp air slowly became humid and dank.
Severo whistled a tune to the beat of his steady footsteps.
As the group neared the furthest end of the cave, Severo first heard the rumbling. Not a low rumbling, like shaking earth, but a high pitched keening like metal grinding together at high speeds.
The scared children could hear it too, and were unwilling to go further, but a perverse drive instructed the minister to keep moving his feet.
He clasped young Joseph’s hand in his own, and pulled him gently forward.
Joseph’s nose flared when the cavern’s smell hit him.
“Father, I’m scared,” The frightened boy whispered.
Severo turned slowly to meet the boy’s eyes. A wicked grin spread across his face.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Joseph tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry.
“Deuteronomy. Chapter thirty-one, verse six.”
Even before reaching the final cavern, the group could feel the warm, wet air on their skin.
In the dim light of the cave, Severo’s eyes widened when he first saw the grub. The sight of the enormous thing immediately awakened an instinctual fear in the minister. Severo wanted to fall to his knees, pray, and scream out all at once.
The hateful, wriggling, alien grub was almost ten metres tall, and was deeply imposing, even while coiled up. Its skin was translucent in places, and aberrant organs pulsed behind it. At both ends of the grub was a toothy maw and a thick ring of thin, stark white fangs. Three diamond shaped, deep purple eyes adorned its mid-section, surrounded by hundreds of prehensile, gossamer tendrils, which superficially resembled jellyfish tentacles. They quivered as if the thing was underwater.
The children all reacted in a flurry of activity. Some fainted. A few retched and gagged. Mostly though, they screamed, and ran.
Severo did not move. He stood stiller than he had ever before.
Though the thing was as bulky as an old oak, it moved blindingly fast, and struck with unerring precision. It lunged and struck a cluster of the retreating children, splattering deep crimson on the limestone ceiling and walls.
The grub whirred and groaned again, before rapidly uncoiling, and drew more of the children towards the smaller, toothy opening at its end.
Severo stood unflinching as the carnage unfolded around him. His mind was shattered, though a wicked grin spread across his face again.
The foul grub had left him unharmed. Around Severo… naught of his congregation was left alive.
The grub stared at him with its three vacant eyes. It stared at Severo for an eternity. The grub was completely inscrutable. Was it wickedly intelligent, and trying to communicate? Or was it not even sentient, and acting on capricious instinct alone?
The pale grub thrummed and vibrated, shaking loose stone from the ceiling. Almost as quickly as it arrived, the thing coiled, and retreated into a small crawlspace.
Severo stayed in the recesses of the cave until the next evening. He intentionally ripped his clothing, discarded his bloodied shoes, and scattered the pages of his bible through the caverns.
Before leaving, he sat with his legs outstretched with a plate of rock above his head, and dropped it on his right patella, snapping the bones like driftwood.
Moaning the whole time, he then dragged himself from the cave behind the waterfall, and half tumbled down the mossy path towards Tagliato.
He told the townspeople of a cave in. He tearfully recounted how the ceiling gave way, closed off the passages, and crushed the children. He sobbed and wailed, ‘If only I was a more spry man, I could have saved them!’
Mrs Leary, the baker’s wife, was severely in denial and would not believe it. She screamed and wailed, before curling up on the cold mud at his feet. To assure the grieving widow, Severo presented a barely recognizable body belonging to the late Joseph Leary.
Although in a bout of inspired madness, Severo had left behind parts of the child where the teeth marks showed prominently, to ensure his lie would hold.
Severo de Negris remained the minister after that incident, although he was a different man. When he read scripture, his voice was hollow. He sounded like a hostage forced to read at gun point. He could not convince himself to believe the words he was reading.
Severo had few lucid memories from that period of his life. He remembered little in the way of the children’s fate, or what he had seen behind the waterfall.
He still heard the rumbling though. That terrible grinding which haunted his nightmares as the moon grew fuller. As he slept, he saw images of the wriggling grub, its pulsing organs, and its razor sharp mouths. He shuddered as he dreamt of its supernatural quickness.
Often he awoke with a disgusting, eldritch name on his lips. ‘Monorloshat,’ he would croak, in the early hours of the morning.
Every third month, when the rumbling grew too intense to ignore and the nightmares became unbearable, he would leave the church in the dead of night, and steal a goat from the farmer’s pen.
As the gibbous moon waxed before the full moon, Severo De Negris hopped the perfect stepping stones and hobbled up the mossy path, leading the goat behind him.
Every evening he ventured to the cave, he left the animal tied up just beyond the waterfall’s threshold, and returned the following dawn to find it missing.
Stephen Burns is a writer, dreamer, a realist, a gentleman, philosopher, poet, a baller, shot caller, with twenty inch blades on the impala. He moonlights as a private detective and owns a castle to the north of here, built on ancient catacombs and forged of mystic opal.