AMYRRAN ASYLUM
by Simon Bleaken
 

-1897-

I RECALL THE shiver of trepidation as my carriage drew alongside the gates and high walls of Amyrran Asylum on that overcast summer morning. The place felt hostile, and I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake in going there.

That feeling only intensified upon my first glimpse of the house lurking behind those imposing bars of wrought iron, flanked by twin pillars of pale limestone. Far from being a sanctuary of healing, it seemed as though the asylum itself were shut away, as if it too were a thing gone mad and confined from the rest of the world.

I mentally shook myself, chasing away such wild thoughts with a stern reminder to not hold onto any of the gossip I had overheard on my way from the small train station in Sarigsdale.

But, it was difficult not to.

That brooding three-storey house, with its imposing central clock tower flanked by twin wings of stark stone and barred windows did little to instil any sense of hope. Likewise, the moors surrounding the asylum were bleak and fog-veiled and held an unusual chill even at this time of year. They carried a desperate sense of isolation, as if the rest of the world had ceased to exist, except for that gloomy expanse of heather and gorse, broken by sharp clefts and fissures of exposed rock, stretching on into apparent infinity.

I was met at the door by Nurse Acwellan, a stocky woman in her early fifties with a face set like granite.

‘Yes?’ she demanded.

‘I’m Kenelm Dugan...’

‘Our new junior doctor? You’re late.’

‘I was detained...’

‘This way,’ she waved me inside impatiently. ‘Dr Atelic will want to see you. Leave your bags in the hall. I’ll have one of the orderlies take them to your room.’

Inside, the asylum was significantly gloomier and more lightless than it had appeared from the gate. The hallways were curiously cold and draughty, and there didn’t appear to be much light coming in through the barred windows, even with the curtains and wooden shutters wide open.

I hurried after Acwellan who moved with astonishing speed, and was ushered into a large, book-lined room halfway down that main hallway. I immediately found myself drawn to several of the volumes, noting with delight that besides books on medicine there were a surprisingly large number of tomes relating to the history and culture of ancient Rome. I noted copies of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and On the Nature of the Universe by Lucretius.

I followed the shelf along to an ornate mantelpiece in the centre of the wall. Here, above a mounted ceremonial sword, a large portrait gazed down harshly. It was the stern countenance of an elderly gentleman with white hair, sharp features and grey eyes.

‘Dr Solomon Atelic,’ a soft voice spoke up. ‘My late father, and the founder of this institution.’

Startled, I turned to find a slender man in his early fifties sitting behind a desk near the window. His hands were steepled at his chin, and, in his thin face and eyes, beneath a greying widow’s peak, I could indeed see something of the face in the portrait. ‘Like me, he shared a love of the Classical ancient world.’

‘Forgive me. I thought I was alone.’

‘Have a seat,’ he gestured with a smile. ‘I’m Joseph Atelic.’

‘Thank you.’ I settled across from him. ‘Please accept my apologies, my train was held up.’

‘The important thing is that you are here now, Dr Dugan.’

‘Please, call me Kenelm.’

He nodded. ‘We are all keen for you to settle in and get started. This past month has been difficult, following the accident, that is. You understand that, as a private institution, we have only a small staff here.’

‘Really? How small?’ Given the size of the place, I had expected the opposite.

‘Ordinarily, three doctors, a nurse, five orderlies, a cook and housekeeper, and a groundsman who also drives our carriage. Under normal circumstances, that is quite sufficient to manage the patients under our care. But, as you know, these have not been normal circumstances.’

‘May I ask about the accident? I understand one of your doctors was attacked and had to leave due to his injuries?’

Atelic looked uncomfortable. ‘A terrible tragedy.’

‘What happened?’

‘Tell me, do you believe in evil?’

His question threw me, and I blinked. ‘Well, yes, of course.’

He sat forward, his eyes intense as they locked onto mine. ‘Then understand when I tell you that our patients are, for the most part, confused, and here for their protection and well-being. However, we do have some who are incarcerated for the safety of everybody else. In short, they are extremely dangerous and hopelessly insane. The greatest care must be taken around them. When precautions are not followed, or when distractions occur, that is when accidents happen. Does that answer your question?’

‘Surely, using the word evil is a little extreme?’

Atelic regarded me like a disappointed father gazing upon an uncomprehending child. Then, rising from his chair, he motioned for me to follow. ‘I think it will be easier to show you. We’ll begin on the third floor, and then visit the patients in the second-floor wings before we head to the basement.’

As agreed, we began our tour on the pleasantly appointed third floor, where the asylum staff members were quartered. Here, after being shown the surprisingly sizeable room that had been assigned to me, I was introduced to Dr Charles Dreogan, a few years older than myself, whose hazel eyes seemed haunted and watchful, and whose amiable nature came across as a little too forced. I also met two of the orderlies, Enos Broga and Albert Hyrde, both down-to-earth Yorkshire men who acknowledged me cheerily enough before returning to their duties.

The second-floor patient rooms in each of the wings were also surprisingly large and more generously outfitted than any of the institutions I had visited during my time in London. Atelic explained that his father had overseen the construction of Amyrran Asylum personally, funding it initially from his own family’s coffers, and later offsetting costs with donations from wealthy patrons whose unfortunate relatives now resided privately, and often secretly, under our care.

‘He believed in giving these unfortunates more space and room in which to heal and move,’ Atelic said proudly, ‘along with windows that can open a little to allow air inside. Of course, the bars prevent any attempts at egress, and patients are rarely allowed from their rooms. Freedom can only be taken so far.’

‘Surely these measures aren’t suitable for the more violent or deranged patients?’ I asked.

‘No, you’re quite right.’ He gestured for me to follow him back towards the stairs. ‘The more violent and aggressive patients are all secured in our basement cells,’ he explained as we made our way down. ‘Allow me to show you.’

He guided me to a thick iron door at the end of the main hall. It was secured by strong locks and heavy bolts. As soon as he opened it, howls and shrieks from the blackness below assailed our ears and a shiver ran through me.

‘These patients are all permanently restrained,’ Atelic explained as we started down the steep stone steps with the aid of a lamp. The air grew colder and a damp draught coiled about my legs. It was impossible not to imagine the walls closing in, like being entombed in some dank oubliette. ‘They are far too dangerous to be permitted any freedom.’

That was when I saw the pinprick of dancing light up ahead.

Deep in the heart of Amyrran’s labyrinthine basement, a single candle burned.

‘Why is it so dark?’ I whispered.

‘This is all the light that we permit here. It is a reminder of God’s beneficence, a beacon for the lost and broken souls. The only additional lights allowed are the lamps for the orderlies, and of course, for us during our inspections.’

The candle guttered as we passed it and the shadows shifted to the echo of dripping water and the far-off moans and wails of patients.

‘Have you had much success with this approach?’ I asked, a shudder of revulsion running through me. This was no place for people. This was the kingdom of the rat and the spider, a cold and hostile prison whose damp walls and icy floors offered no kindness or mercy.

‘The nature of these patients is extreme,’ Atelic explained as he led the way through the sepulchral blackness. ‘You must believe me when I say there is little hope of redeeming their souls. However, we must try.’

‘But, the darkness seems unnecessary, surely...’

‘Only in darkness can the light truly be appreciated,’ Atelic insisted.

‘But, the restraints...’

‘We had a nurse who felt as you do, this was several years ago now,’ Atelic sighed irritably. ‘She dismissed the orderly attending with her, and loosened the restraints of one of the men. I can only imagine she sought to ease his suffering. He broke loose and overpowered her. After strangling her to the point of unconsciousness, he proceeded to bite off her nose—which he ate—before fracturing her jaw and tearing out her tongue. It was only the excited shrieks from the other patients that alerted us. By the time we arrived on the scene, he had gone so far as to remove her eyes and shred her face to the bone with his fingernails. He was laughing the whole time.’

‘Dear God. What happened to her?’

‘She survived. It might have been a greater kindness had she not.’

‘And, the patient?’

‘He is in the next cell along. Number seven,’ he nodded ahead. ‘So you see, mercy offers no reward with these lunatics. If you forget that, the lesson will be a severe one.’

I was grateful when we ascended from the black pit of that terrible place thirty minutes later, though it took a lot longer before the lingering chill left my bones.

‘And this will be your office,’ Atelic guided me to a small but comfortably appointed room a few doors down from his own. ‘You’ll find a set of notes on your desk. I suggest you begin by familiarising yourself with the patients under our care.’

As I moved towards the chair a half-feral brown and white bruiser of a cat sprang up outside the window, fixing me with a murderous green gaze.

‘Ah, you’ll have to get used to Widdershins, I’m afraid,’ Atelic smiled, noting my surprise. ‘He’s the groundskeeper’s cat, and the absolute nightmare of any mice around here. He’s not permitted inside, but likes to keep an eye on us all through the windows.’

‘Thank you for the warning.’ I eased myself into the chair and angled it to avoid those green eyes at the window.

‘The senior staff and I will be taking lunch at one, in the private dining room. We can discuss any additional questions you might have then. For now, I’ll let you get settled.’

When he left, I turned my attention to the documents that had been prepared for me and tried not to notice the hostile emerald eyes still peering through the glass.

I read until lunch, and then joined my new colleagues for a repast that was even more awkward than I had expected. Atelic spent most of it reviewing notes and barely glanced up, while Dreogan stared out of the window having barely touched his food. Acwellan, meanwhile, watched me with an evaluating hostility that reminded me strongly of the cat I had been ignoring all morning.

I was grateful to get back to my office, but found the rest of the day went alarmingly quickly, and before long the afternoon was edging towards dusk. Beyond my window, now absent of any spying cat, the tall trees surrounding the walled garden were ablaze with the golden fire of the late afternoon sun.

I heard the soft creak of the floorboards outside, a sound that moved up and down several times at regular intervals. It was likely just the orderlies on their rounds, I mused, returning to my notes.

Atelic was keen for us to review and document everything, certain his new approach would revolutionise the treatment of mental ailments as currently practised. But, I read the reports with growing concern. They seemed to fly in the face of all modern reforms and advances in care.

It seemed his revolutionary new treatment for the hopelessly insane—aside from the darkness and restraints in those appalling subterranean cells—included regular bloodletting sessions, cranial pressure therapy, and bizarre experiments involving the use of the healing powers of ‘earth energies’ and the application of certain stones and mud, not to mention long sessions in which restrained patients were lowered into deep pits dug into the bedrock. It all read like something cobbled from a mediaeval medical treatise, full of the worst kind of superstition and pseudo-science. What was next, I mused sourly, trepanning?

I knew I would have to speak with him in the morning, though the prospect filled me with apprehension.

At that, I shut the notes and rubbed my eyes, deciding to call it a day and head up to my room to freshen before the evening meal.

There was a curious chill as I stepped out into the hallway, coupled with a strange heaviness in the air. The asylum itself was deathly silent save for the creaking of the upstairs floorboards or the occasional wail from the basement, muffled by the thick layers of wood and stone. Atelic refused to waste expensive sedatives on those patients when heavy restraints and thick walls would keep the sounds of their lunacy at bay.

I locked my door and was about to head for the stairs when I realised an inky mass of darkness had filled the hallway towards the back of the house.

It hung in the air like a dense black vapour, noxious and roiling, stretching from carpet to ceiling and carrying with it a foul stench like mildew and rotting wood. Startled, I fell back into the darkened alcove of the doorway, too shocked to make a sound.

This, I reasoned, was surely just a bizarre hallucination, brought on by fatigue and coupled with some kind of phantosmia. But the vision was so intense. I could feel a rush of freezing air, could sense the floor shaking as it shifted, and the earthy stench was becoming overwhelming.

I backed deeper into the shadows, pressing up against the locked door behind me. I didn’t dare reach for the keys in my pocket. Hallucination or not, I prayed it wouldn’t notice me, and squeezed my eyes shut. The irrational side of my brain was fully in control now, and I was sure that to treat this thing as anything other than absolute reality would be to invite death. I twisted my face to the side, the cold biting my cheek and my ears flooding with a desolate sound like the wind howling across an open grave.

I dug my nails into the wood of the door behind me.

Then... everything went still.

The sound abated with a shocking abruptness.

I opened my eyes to find the mist had entirely vanished, as had that foul odour. The hallway was still freezing, my breath visible in the air, but the warmth was rapidly returning. Startled, I peered down the length of the hallway to make sure everything was as it should be.

That was when the door next to mine opened and Charles Dreogan bustled out, a handful of notes tucked under one arm.

‘Oh, Kenelm,’ he acknowledged, locking his door without really looking at me. Given the look of shock on my face, I was grateful for that. ‘I didn’t realise you were out here.’

‘Uh, yes—yes,’ I answered a little unsteadily, forcing a smile onto a face that still felt numb. ‘I… was finishing for the day,’ I managed.

‘Good, good,’ he muttered, already moving off down the hallway. ‘See you at dinner.’

There was no point asking him if he’d seen or heard anything, I thought sourly. He barely took notice of anything.

From below came a muffled chorus of shrieks, rising and falling like waves on a shore, as if the foundations of the place were screaming in madness.

I hurried up the stairs, feeling more isolated and uncertain than I ever had before. I rushed into my room and locked the door behind me. I decided to send word that I would skip the evening meal. I couldn’t stand another awkward supper with those people. Not tonight, at least.

Give it time, I reminded myself, but the old guilt was rising up, a gnawing sense of my own failure. I was questioning my worth again, my right to practice—mingled now with looming dread of the difficult conversation that was to come with Atelic, and a lingering confusion about what I thought I had seen in the hallway. Rationally, I knew it had likely been nothing more than the result of fatigue, anxiety and my own unease about this new job.

And yet… if that’s all it had been, why couldn’t I stop thinking about it? Why did I keep struggling to find ways to rationalise it, as if all the answers I threw to dispel it didn’t quite fit.

The morning was a long time coming. I greeted it bleary-eyed after a bad night in an unfamiliar bed, dreading the day to come. Outside, the grey morning pressed close against the windows, sunless and damp, as if the joy had been sucked from the world. It more than matched my mood.

With a nervous flutter in my stomach, I went downstairs and approached Atelic’s door. It was early, an hour before the daily rounds were due, but I knew he’d be in there, sitting behind that desk like a greying deity proudly surveying his dominion.

I rapped my knuckles on the door before I could talk myself out it.

‘Come.’

As expected, Atelic was behind his desk. A smile flickered across his thin lips as he saw me and gestured at the empty chair opposite. ‘Ah, Kenelm, I trust you are settling in well?’

‘Well enough. Although,’ I hesitated, finding it hard to meet his gaze, ‘there are some... issues I wanted to discuss.’

The smile faded to soft concern. ‘Oh? Such as?’

‘Firstly, your work with the second floor patients is incredible—exemplary, even. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such high standards of care. But, well... it’s just...’ I faltered, my resolve dissolving under his gaze.

‘What is it? Please, speak your mind.’

‘Well, it’s the basement patients...’

‘Go on.’

‘Frankly, I find their treatment a little disturbing.’

‘Disturbing?’

‘It’s... well, almost like a return to the conditions reported a hundred years ago at St Luke’s Hospital and Bethlem.’

The concern had gone from Atelic’s face. His features had hardened. ‘I see.’

‘I don’t wish to question your expertise, but I hoped I could discuss the situation with you, perhaps to help me better understand the thinking behind it.’

‘Have you finished reading all the case notes I left for you?’

‘No, not yet.’

‘Then, I suggest you do so.’

‘With all due respect, you’re discussing case notes, but I’m discussing human beings,’ I protested. ‘These are people who are ill, and who are being treated like condemned prisoners, or caged freaks at some circus.’

‘Let me assure you that each and every person in those lower cells is dangerous, to themselves and to others. Left to their own devices, they would do untold harm. That is a fact.’

‘But must they be kept chained in the dark like that?’

‘For my treatments to be effective, yes. Absolutely.’

‘Then please, explain them to me, explain why. I’m sorry, but all I can see are monstrous betrayals of our oaths as doctors.’

‘May I ask you something?’ Atelic steepled his fingers at his chin. ‘Have you forgotten the reason for your dismissal from your last place of employment?’

I felt a stab of shame rush through me. ‘No, of course not.’

Atelic arched an eyebrow, his waspish face seemed to narrow further. ‘Then, would you remind me, please.’

‘I… I made a mistake.’

‘In short, nobody else would employ you, isn’t that right? Your career was in ruins, your reputation destroyed. Isn’t it also true that you were facing destitution?’

I swallowed. ‘Yes.’

‘Because you incorrectly administered a dosage that resulted in a child’s death, is that correct?’

‘Yes.’ I nodded again, humbled and shamed. A sickening hollow void had formed in my gut, and I wished the floor would swallow me up.

‘Indeed, you were fortunate not to have ended up in gaol,’ Atelic reminded me, ‘just as you were also fortunate that I was willing to give you a chance at redemption.’

‘But, what you are doing here, it’s…’

‘What I am doing here,’ Atelic barked, rising defiantly from his desk and matching my gaze with a look of steel, ‘is having a measurable effect on the condition of these unfortunates. You judge me by my methods. Perhaps you should look instead at my results.’ I think he saw the look of alarm on my face, because his tone noticeably softened then. ‘The same way I overlooked your unfortunate past history, and saw instead the brilliance of the young man behind it. A young man I felt sure would be a boon to the vital work we are doing here. Was I wrong? I very much hope not.’

‘I do appreciate the chance that you have given me. Please understand that I don’t wish to insult, only to understand what seems alien to my training.’

Atelic sighed and returned to his seat, nodding thoughtfully. ‘You must forgive my defensiveness,’ he said. ‘I, too, have faced my share of critics and detractors, as did my father before me. It is part of the reason why Amyrran was built out here, private and remote. It was wrong of me to not take the time to explain my methods thoroughly before involving you in case notes. Yes, to an outside eye, I can understand why they engendered concern. But I promise you, the results will open your eyes, and you will see the healing that is taking place. We have to be cruel to be kind, and wounds hurt most while they are repairing.’

‘I would very much like to see these results, if I may,’ I replied, all the surety and self-righteous strength gone from my voice.

‘And you shall.’ Atelic nodded, an almost paternal smile returning. ‘Our work here is just beginning. I just ask that you trust me.’

I emerged from that office feeling like a scolded child slinking from the headmaster’s chamber. My head was spinning, shame and guilt and confusion swirling within me like leaves in a storm. I no longer knew what to think, only that I had not yet been given any of the answers I had been promised, and my concerns still lingered like phantoms despite his assurances.

I stood alone in that hallway processing my maelstrom of emotions, and peered along its length towards the place where that imagined spectral shadow had been the night before, near to the heavy basement door.

My feet were moving towards it before my mind knew the decision had been made, and I unhooked the keys from my belt as I reached it.

I don’t know what made me go down there alone, morbid curiosity or some defiant streak of rebellion, I suppose. But I wanted to review the more extreme cases for myself, without Atelic or his orderlies watching over my shoulder. I opened the door, and then remembered the darkness down there. In my haste I’d neglected to bring a lamp. I took one of the spare candles from the shelf just inside the doorway, lit it, and made my way down the heavy stone steps.

The space below seemed both altered and unfamiliar from my first visit, larger and more intimidating. I moved cautiously, guided by my little patch of illumination towards the faintly dancing light ahead. Barred doorways loomed from the shadows as I passed, an occasional muted shriek or whimper from within reminding me I was far from alone here.

I realised I was making for the seventh cell.

I sucked in a sharp intake of breath as I approached it. The patient’s predatory eyes were watching through the slats of his cage, and I realised that he had somehow slipped his restraints. Thank God I had noticed before opening the cell door. He clutched the bars with his thick hands and grinned horribly at me.

‘Are you lost, leech?’ he whispered with a chuckle.

‘How did you get free?’

‘I ’ave my ways, leech. You come for my blood?’

‘Blood? What are you talking about?’

‘Can you ’ear it?’ he whispered. ‘’As it whispered to you too?’

‘Hear what?’ I took a step away from the doorway. His breath was foetid, like rotten meat, and his face was ghoulish, the eyes wide and bloodshot, the broken lips peeled back in demented excitement. I knew I shouldn’t engage with him, should turn and fetch the orderlies to get him properly restrained again, but… but there was something in his eyes beyond the madness I had expected to find.

‘We’re not alone ’ere.’

‘Of course not, there are thirteen other patients down...’

He shook his head, his lips curling back in a strange grimace. ‘It ain’t them.’

‘What else do you believe is down here?’

‘Believe? I don’t believe, I know. Listen. You’ll ’ear it too, I reckon.’

‘I don’t understand...’

‘It walks in the darkness, presses against the bars of our cells. I don’t think it can get in, but… well, who can say for sure? It’s not like us, you see.’

‘That’s enough of that.’ I knew I was only encouraging his delusions with these questions.

‘Blood and soil, leech,’ he grinned, flashing a row of broken brown teeth. ‘It comes from the earth.’

‘What do you...?’ I asked, only to realise that the room around me suddenly seemed even darker than before. A glance over my shoulder revealed that the other candle had gone out. The one I held now provided the sole illumination for the entire basement.

‘It’s down here,’ he chuckled, splintered nails scraping the bars as he clutched them. Spittle flew from his cracked lips, and his eyes bulged eagerly. ‘It rises from the earth, from the soil. It hides in the dark, in the shadows!’

My own candle flickered and guttered. I tried to shield it with my hand.

‘It whispers… promises…’

Despite my best efforts the flame was sputtering, struggling to stay lit.

‘It ’ungers!’

Maybe it was just suggestion, my mind being primed by his mad ranting and deranged words, but I was almost sure I could hear something moving through the darkness behind me like the rustling whisper of old leaves. I could smell it too, like decay and old earth, growing stronger all around me.

‘If you don’t calm yourself,’ I said without an ounce of authority in my voice, ‘I will call the orderlies.’

There was a scuffle-scrape from behind me in the darkness; closer than before.

The other patients began to howl and whimper in their cells.

‘It’s comin’—nearer, closer! It’s ’ere with us!’

At that, my candle went out.

Panic seized me, raw and primal. I tried to quell it with rational thought, but fear had a hold on me now. I gripped the candle as if somehow willing it to reignite. I had no matches on me. The closest ones were on the shelf at the top of the stairs, an eternity away across that threatening void of utter blackness.

‘It’s blood and soil, old, deep and dark,’ came his infernal rasping voice, rising even above the moans and cries and wailing from all around us. ‘Better ’ide, leech—lest it find you!’

Around us, the air grew heavier and colder. There was a low rumbling, like thunder—and the hairs on my neck and arms rose up.

‘I’m going to fetch the orderlies,’ I warned, but my voice was little more than a whisper.

‘Wouldn’t move, if I were you. It might see you.’

I could feel a wall of pressure building within the blackness behind me. There was an iciness that accompanied it, rising up as if emanating from the dirt and stones beneath my feet.

‘What—what is it?’ I gasped, tightening my grip on the useless candle until it snapped in two between my fingers.

He chuckled. ‘Now you feel it, eh?’

A shudder trembled through the ground followed by a sharp scratching-scrape across the walls. In my mind I imagined huge talons dragging along the bricks, and I had the overwhelming impression that something denser and darker than the gloom was looming up, spreading two colossal arms, or perhaps heavy wings, outwards.

Unable to stop myself, I let out a cry of alarm.

It was a cry that was answered by the sound of voices and a flicker of light from the top of the stairs behind me as two men carrying lamps started down.

The sense of presence receded and vanished, the chill fading from the air.

I let out a long, shaking breath.

‘Weren’t yer time yet,’ the man in the cell chuckled. ‘Soon, but not yet.’

I turned, almost reeling, to see an orderly relighting the candle and the stern face of Atelic approaching me, his eyes like shards of ice.

‘I expected more common sense from someone with your qualifications.’ His tone was calm, but I could sense the fury contained beneath it. ‘I thought I had made the dangers of being alone down here quite clear.’

‘I thought I heard...’

‘No matter what you thought, there are procedures to be followed. I told you only yesterday what happened to the last person who ignored protocol.’

‘I understand,’ I nodded, feeling again like a scolded child. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘If you wish to remain here, it had better not. Now that you are here, you and Albert can continue to do the morning rounds with these patients. I think it will help you get a clearer sense of what we have down here.’

Atelic turned on his heels and marched back towards the stairs.

The orderly, who I now recognised as Albert Hyrde, approached me with a look of slightly awkward sympathy on his face. Clearly he too was no stranger to Atelic’s wrath.

‘We’ll start at t’other end, if you don’t mind, sir,’ he said. ‘It’s easier if you do the cells in order, y’see.’

‘Lead the way.’

Albert Hyrde was a short, stocky man in his mid-thirties, clean-shaven, with the last vestiges of youthfulness fading from his face and thinning hair. Judging by his accent he was a local man, one of the only ones in Atelic’s employ.

‘Atelic can be a bit ’arsh at times, but ’e means well.’

‘Seems an accurate assessment,’ I agreed quietly.

‘But ’e’s right, you’d best take care, sir. T’ain’t safe down ’ere alone. Not just coz of them, neither,’ he nodded at the cells. ‘T’ain’t a good place to be.’

‘Wait, what do you mean?’ I stopped, studying him closely. ‘What’s not safe besides them?’

I saw him tense a little, a realisation that he’d said something he hadn’t intended. ‘Oh, don’t mind me, sir,’ he said quickly. ‘Just foolish talk really.’

‘What kind of talk?’

‘Oh, nowt worth worrying about. I shouldn’t have said anything.’

‘But, there’s something here?’

‘Oh, it’s just ghost stories, you know, old house and all.’ I could tell by his reactions and uncomfortable body language that it was far more than just that, but I decided not to push the matter just yet. ‘Shall we get started? Normally, we’d be doing this, us orderlies I mean, not you doctors. But, I’ll tell you what I can about each one as we go.’

I followed him towards the first cell.

‘Well, ’e looks snug enough,’ he said, peering carefully inside before handing me the lamp and reaching for his keys. ‘Always check before opening. Sometimes they get loose. Anyway, this ’un is a right sullen customer, we call ’im grumpy Guss...’

A low sound rumbled around the basement, echoing off the walls and shaking the floor. The patients all shrieked at once, thrashing against their restraints. Beneath that rumble was the same curious scratching sound I had heard before, like claws against stone. As we listened, it seemed to be grow fainter, as if moving away from us, back to whatever realm it had first come from.

I looked at Hyrde and saw alarm filling his brown eyes.

‘That was it, wasn’t it?’ I whispered.

‘I… I don’t know what you mean, sir.’

‘Oh, come on, man,’ I chided, ‘you heard that.’

‘We don’t talk about it, at least we oughtn’t.’

‘But you heard it? Didn’t you?’

I could see fear in his eyes now. I wondered if he was scared of saying mad-sounding things to a doctor who helped lock away mad people in dark basements.

‘It’s all right, you can tell me. There’s something odd here, isn’t there? Something, unusual?’

‘Aye, sir,’ he nodded. ‘That there is.’

‘I heard something like that just before you came down here. I didn’t want to admit I wasn’t imagining it at first. I also saw something in the hallway upstairs last night.’

He swallowed nervously. ‘You did?’

‘I thought I was tired, maybe hallucinating; now I’m not so sure. And what we just heard, well, it could be simply Folie à deux, but again... I don’t think so.’

‘I’ve seen it too, from time to time,’ he admitted.

‘Tell me about it.’

He glanced around, making sure nobody else was in earshot. ‘It’s like a great black shadow. It brings the cold with it. Feels like death, it does.’

‘Where have you seen it?’

His eyes widened. ‘Oh no, sir—I’ve said more than I should. That’s all I know, all I’ve seen, I swear it.’

‘Albert, please—talk to me. I need to understand what’s going on here. You’re the only person other than myself that I can be sure has seen anything.’

‘Not the only one, sir—just the only one still here.’

‘Who else knows about this?’

‘You’d best talk to old Pete down in’t village. ’E used to work ’ere, and knows more than anyone. But please, I need this job. Don’t say nowt to anyone about me.’

I placed a grateful hand on his shoulder. ‘I won’t, I promise. Thank you.’

‘We’d best get on,’ he said, anxious to leave this particular conversation behind, ‘ain’t good to talk about it too much.’

‘My lips are sealed.’

‘Aye, right then,’ he let out a heavy breath, composed himself, and then gestured at the far side of the basement. ‘We’ll start over ’ere. Sooner we’re done, sooner we can get upstairs again.’

When I emerged from that dingy basement two hours later, my head was buzzing. I no longer knew what to make of any of the strange events since my arrival, save for the fact that I was now certain there was more to all of this than merely imaginations running wild. I had felt a tangible... something... in that basement. And, while I wasn’t quite ready to believe in spirits of the dead, I was willing to acknowledge that something beyond our current understanding was at work here.

 

The next afternoon, just after lunch, I went into the village. It was another gloomy day, and the thick fog wreathing the asylum gates also clung damply to my clothes. I shivered as I climbed into the carriage and signalled to the groundskeeper to set off. I could see Atelic’s unsmiling face watching from his office window like some grey spectre.

Ostensibly, my excursion was to collect some letters from the tiny post office. Normally, this task fell to Annie, the housekeeper, but I had lied about needing to stop by the station to collect some mislaid luggage, and had been permitted to go instead.

Sarigsdale was a small settlement, little more than three streets and a huddle of houses that clustered furtively around the nearby pub and train station and the small general store and post office. It didn’t take me long to learn that old Pete was in the pub, and though I was careful not to mention I was from the Asylum, it seemed from the glares and scowls that it was already common knowledge.

The pub, The Ploughman’s Arms, was a low-ceiling place with heavy beams and thick windows. I spotted old Pete at once, as there were few patrons this time in the afternoon. He sat close to the darkened fireplace nursing a pint of ale. His clothes were frayed and work-worn, and a wool flat cap rested on his head. I introduced myself and—going slightly against my word—mentioned that Albert had told me to find him.

‘Albert? Aye, ’e’s a good lad,’ he nodded, taking a long swig. ‘Shouldn’t be in that place though, nobody should.’

‘Can I join you?’

‘If you like, my price is another of these; maybe two.’

I dutifully obliged and settled in across from him, placing the two full pints onto the small table in front of him.

‘So, I understand you used to work at the asylum?’

‘Aye,’ he nodded gruffly, his face was set hard as he regarded me, ‘used to tend grounds for them folk.’

‘When was this?’

‘Oh, must’ve been nigh on three year ago.’

‘What was it like working there?’

‘What were it like? I reckon you’ve an idea, if you’ve come looking for me.’

‘Well, I do want to ask you some questions about your time there, if that’s all right.’

‘No it ain’t all right,’ he glowered, draining his first pint. ‘I tried to warn ’em, but they wouldn’t listen. Told me my services were no longer required. Truth be told, by then I were glad to leave it.’

‘Why?’

He took two deep swings from his next pint before replying. ‘It’s no place for people, up there. We warned ’im, but he wouldn’t listen to folk like us. That land has always been ’ostile. It’s claimed a lot of lives before any house were built, and it’s taken more since.’

‘It’s actually killed?’

‘Aye, at least six patients in my time, and one of the staff too. There were even a nurse that were mutilated, nearly killed.’

‘Yes, I know—but that was done by one of the patients.’

‘But what guided ’is ’and?’

‘You think this thing made him do it?’

‘Aye, I do. Dreogan suspects too, I reckon.’

‘What does Dr Dreogan have to do with this?’

‘’E were courtin’ that nurse, was gonna marry her by all accounts. Word is, ’e saw summat odd the night she died and ain’t been right since. Distant, like. He won’t talk about it, though. I went up there and tried to reason with ’em after it ’appened. Like I said, that land ’as always been ’ostile.’

‘But it’s just land.’

‘Ain’t just land,’ he spat back. ‘It’s occupied. It were occupied long before that place were ever built. And what’s there, well, it don’t want people around.’

‘And what is there?’

‘Summat you people of science wouldn’t know nowt about. Summat best left alone, too.’

‘I’ve heard rumours it’s haunted.’

He gave a barking laugh. ‘It ain’t no ghost, least nothing that were ever ’uman. No, what ’aunts that place, it’s an energy, alive but not like us. I’ve seen it, walking them ’allways and lurking in’t shadows of the basement. Comes up from ground, it does. Always watching, stalking, like a predator waiting to strike.’

‘I don’t think I follow you. A living energy?’

‘You ever ’eard of an elemental?’

‘An elemental? Well, yes. I’m aware of the concept from folklore and mythology, and, of course, the Paracelsian notions of elementals.’

‘Never mind all them fancy words,’ he waved a hand. ‘Your learning does nowt but tell you what can’t be. Closes your mind to what is.’

‘You think such a being actually exists?’

‘So do you,’ he answered simply. ‘Or, you wouldn’t be ’ere.’

‘I’m just here to figure out what’s going on.’

‘Then, talk to Atelic.’

‘Why?’

‘Because, when I told ’im about it, ’e weren’t surprised. Not one bit.’

 

When I got back to Amyrran later that afternoon, I kept my own counsel on what I had heard. Although I wanted to march into Atelic’s office and demand answers, I knew that would only result in my dismissal and end any possibility of solving this mystery. As for Atelic, if he held any inkling of the true reason for my visit to Sarigsdale, he gave no sign of it.

Following my talk with Pete, I found myself viewing the long hallways of the asylum in a new light. Was this gloomy refuge of troubled minds really haunted by some supernatural force that walked largely unseen and unsuspected against the backdrop of daily life and the wails of the lunatics? I found I was becoming so obsessed by this notion of some unearthly presence that I held my breath each time I stepped through a doorway or into a corridor, lest there be some icy, menacing shadow looming before me.

But that afternoon, everything seemed quiet.

I should have realised this was merely the calm before the storm.

That night, once the senior staff had retired, and while the orderlies were beginning their series of nocturnal shifts on the second floor, I made my way down through the eerie, darkened hallways to the basement door, desperate to validate the suspicions that had taken root within me. This time I had brought a lamp with me, but decided I wouldn’t light it until I was actually in the basement for fear of drawing attention to myself. Fortunately, there was a full moon tonight, and the silver light shining through the windows aided my endeavours.

I knew, as I carefully drew back the thick bolts on that heavy door as quietly as possible, that this was surely its own form of lunacy. If I were caught, it would end not only my time here but my entire career altogether.

And yet, even as I started down those narrow steps, I knew something was wrong. There was far too much light from below for just a single candle to be burning. I didn’t even need to use the lamp I had brought, and I could hear voices drifting up.

As I reached the bottom step I understood the light was coming from around the L-shaped turn to my right. Setting down my lamp, I edged as silently as possible to the corner and peered around.

Two men were standing in front of Grumpy Guss’s cell. I recognised them immediately as Atelic and Dreogan. The cell door was open and they had sedated the patient. I inched closer, trying to see beyond their obscuring torsos as they worked.

When I realised what they were doing, I almost let out an involuntary gasp.

They were draining blood from the patient, not with needles or syringes, but with a thin blade, and letting it spatter directly onto the floor of the cell. I could see they had already made multiple cuts across his torso, and there were countless others long healed over, obviously from past bloodlettings.

‘Deeper!’ Atelic hissed. ‘We need more!’

Dreogan looked uncomfortable. ‘We’ve gone too deep already. We’ve never taken so much at once before.’

‘We have to! Don’t you understand what we risk if it’s not placated?’

‘You’d risk a man’s life?’

‘Him? He’s hardly a man. What’s the life of a single lunatic compared to all the souls here?’

‘You think it will come to that?’

‘Not if we act now.’

I shivered. The air was growing rapidly icy, my breath visible before my face and the hairs rising on my arms and neck. At the same time, I witnessed a black mist drifting quickly across the basement towards the open cell. It was curling and coalescing, just as I had seen it in the hallway on my first night. My nostrils flooded with the rich scent of moist earth, rot and mould.

‘It’s here!’ Dreogan warned.

‘So soon?’ Atelic looked startled. He backed away from the patient, motioning frantically for Dreogan to do the same. ‘Let it have what it wants. Pray it is enough!’

‘It will kill him!’

‘Let it, as long as it calms the thing down again! That’s all that matters!’

I didn’t stay to see what happened next. I wasn’t about to watch it slaughter an innocent life, but I was also powerless to stop it. It was clear that something shockingly monstrous was happening inside Amyrran Asylum, and had been for some time.

With Atelic and Dreogan occupied in the basement, I raced up to the third floor and hammered on the wooden door of Albert Hyrde’s small room. He answered, bleary-eyed and clad in his nightclothes.

‘What’s up? I’m not on shift for another four hours...’

‘Get dressed,’ I said quickly. ‘That thing is in the basement. They’re sacrificing patients to it.’

‘They’re... what?’ His brow furrowed.

‘I’ll explain on the way. Come on.’

‘You can’t mean to confront it, surely?’

‘No, that would be suicide.’

‘Then, what can we do?’

‘We need proof of Atelic’s involvement, everything he’s doing. That’s the only way to save these patients.’

‘And ’ow do you intend to get that?’

‘I have an idea, but I need your help.’

Less than two minutes later we were hurrying down the stairs towards the main hallway, our voices lowered to prevent us from drawing unwanted attention from those already awake.

‘You think Atelic will have evidence in ’is office?’

‘I’m betting on it.’

‘Not sure ’ow much ’elp I’ll be. I can’t read so good, see.’

‘I’m counting on you to keep an eye out in case the others come up from the basement.’

‘There’s someone else we’ll need, then.’ He tipped me a wink and led me over to the front door. ‘Wait ’ere, won’t be a moment.’

I waited restlessly as he unlocked it and darted out into the foggy night, wondering just how much time we had before Dreogan and Atelic finished their grisly work. Luckily, he didn’t keep me waiting long.

‘See, we have another ally,’ Hyrde announced. In his arms he clutched a brown and white ball of hair that glared at me with jade-green defiance.

‘The groundskeeper’s cat?’ I said in disbelief.

‘Down you go, lad,’ Hyrde smiled, letting Widdershins spring to the hall rug while he closed the front door again. ‘You mark my words, that cat sees more of what goes on here than most folk know. That’s why ’e’s always looking in the windows.’

‘That horrible thing?’

‘Oh, Widdershins ain’t so bad, not really. Not when you get to know ’im. ’E’s always been fond of me, though I reckon I’m one of the few people who feed ’im or show ’im any kindness. Even the groundskeeper lets ’im go ’ungry, says it makes ’im a better mouser. I call it cruel, I do.’

‘So what are you suggesting?’

‘You want to know when this thing’s coming? Watch the cat. When Widdershins runs, it’s a good idea to follow.’

‘And how do we get the cat to follow us?’

‘You’ll see,’ he smiled again, ‘Widdershins likes me. ’E generally goes where I do whenever I sneak ’im inside. Plus,’ he reached into his pocket and pulled out a napkin, ‘I saved ’im some chicken from earlier.’

‘Well, come on then,’ I urged, leading the way towards Atelic’s office with the orderly and the cat following behind. ‘We may not have long.’

Atelic’s office door was locked, but Hyrde unhooked a set of keys from his belt.

‘All us orderlies ’ave skeleton keys, in case of emergencies.’

We hurried inside, shutting the door behind us. While Hyrde lit the lamp, lowering the wick to reduce the light, I started exploring the desk, pulling open the drawers and checking their contents. I found several small journals, quickly flicking through the first of them.

Hyrde meanwhile positioned himself close to the entrance, listening to the hallway beyond. Widdershins, for his part, had jumped up into one of the chairs and seemed to be making himself comfortable.

By the light of our dimmed lamp, I flicked through the pages of the second journal, hoping that something would leap out at me, but saw nothing that seemed to relate to the mysterious shadow or the bloodlettings or deaths that had taken place here. There was a heavy crash as I knocked over a pile of books and a glass paperweight that made us both freeze—and then gradually exhale as it seemed it had gone unnoticed.

‘We can’t stay much longer. ’Ave you found anything?’ Hyrde asked.

‘Nothing,’ I hissed in frustration, grabbing the final two journals.

I was keenly aware that we were running out of time, but even I was caught off-guard when Hyrde raced to my side and whispered urgently: ‘Someone’s coming!’

I looked around for somewhere we might hide, but before we could move, the office door flew open and Nurse Acwellan stepped inside, lifting a lamp. She was dressed only in her nightgown, her hair streaming loose around her shoulders.

‘Whatever is going on in here?’ she said.

‘That is what I would like to know!’ Atelic demanded as he stormed past her into the room. His face was a mask of fury, his mouth drawn into a thin line and his eyes blazed indignantly. ‘What is the meaning of this?’ His gaze fell upon Widdershins. ‘And what is that creature doing in here?’

Widdershins arched his back, hissed loudly and darted past the outraged doctor and into the hallway beyond.

‘The cat!’ Hyrde flashed me a look of alarm.

‘You can drop the pretence, Atelic,’ I held up the two journals, playing a desperate bluff. ‘I’ve got all the evidence right here.’

‘Evidence?’

‘Joseph, what is he talking about?’ Acwellan looked startled.

‘It’s nothing, just the foolish ramblings of a man anxious to save his career.’

‘We know what you’ve been doing,’ I carried on, meeting his gaze directly, ‘and we know about the shadow, and the blood you’ve been giving it. You’re not going to be harming anyone else.’

His eyes flicked to the journals in my hand and then back to my face, and I saw for the first time real fear within them. There must have been something incriminating within those journals that I had missed. I silently thanked my lucky stars for my good fortune.

‘Now, Kenelm,’ he said, his tone softening, ‘there’s no need for that.’

‘No need? People are dying while you’re conducting experiments with occult forces.’

‘Aye, and I’ve seen it, and all,’ Hyrde added.

‘Occult forces?’ Acwellan frowned. ‘Joseph, what is all this about?’

‘Florence, please—this really is just a misunderstanding, that’s all.’

‘Will the police think so too?’ I ventured.

‘Listen to me,’ he pleaded. ‘In time, I would have told you everything—shown you the benefits of our processes, and let you see how the work we are doing here will revolutionise treatment.’

‘What I saw you doing tonight didn’t seem to be of benefit to the man in cell one.’

The colour drained from his face. ‘You saw that?’

‘I’m waiting for an explanation.’

‘What happened tonight was a small complication, one that I am working to resolve.’

‘You make it sound so trivial. Just what is that thing I saw—that shadow?’

‘It is life and death personified. It is the darkness where the seed germinates and grows, but it is also the decay which feeds the soil with renewed fertility.’

‘Never mind the poetry. What is it?’

From outside came a low rumble, like distant thunder.

‘It’s connected to this spot. The locals call it an earth elemental,’ Atelic admitted. ‘It’s ancient, part of the landscape. It moves like mist, but when it manifests… oh, you should see it.’

‘Is that why your father came here?’

‘Not initially, no. The locals begged my father not to build on this site. They claimed it was a place of power. My father, a man of science, laughed at that to begin with. And yet, in time, after he saw the shadow for himself, he came to believe it was an energy field, and that its influence—the deep, nurturing power of the earth—would ground the minds of the worst of the lunatics placed below. But, he failed to realise the elemental was more than that. It was a mistake I made too, at first. We didn’t conceive of it as a conscious living force.’

‘And, is that your complication?’

‘Yes,’ he nodded, shamefully. ‘It has tolerated us because we gave it offerings, but each year it demands more and more, and I fear we can no longer keep it sated.’

There was another low rumble, and a faint tremor shook the ground.

‘It craves blood, life energy given to the soil. But, it’s been growing restless, demanding more than I can give. We were on the verge of losing control tonight.’

‘What exactly do you mean by that?’ I asked.

‘I fear it’s getting ready to move against us, to take all the blood it desires.’

The mask had finally slipped, and I saw him for what he truly was. Atelic had become one with this place; a thing of madness, consumed by whatever infection had poisoned both this land and the building constructed upon it. Far from the intelligent and respected man I had met just days before, he now looked so small, so powerless, his authority stripped away.

‘How long do we ’ave?’ Hyrde asked.

‘I don’t know, precisely,’ Atelic sighed. ‘It’s always worse around the full moon. That’s when it demands the greatest sacrifices. We may have only days left. I have been trying to find other ways to mollify it, but...’

I ran to the window and threw open the curtains. ‘Tonight is the full moon!’

Atelic’s face twisted in horror. ‘So soon? But... No. I lost track. I thought we still had time! I thought...’

There was a low, deep growl from within the walls and floors of the asylum. It was followed by a violent shudder, running up through the building and shaking the tables, rattling the fixtures, and sending pictures and books tumbling to the floor. From far below we heard the sound of fracturing stone and the agonised, shrieking groan of rending metal. It sounded like bolts were being torn from walls.

‘We need to get everyone out.’ I turned to Hyrde. ‘Where are the rest of the orderlies?’

‘They should be upstairs. Some sleeping, the rest tending t’ patients.’

‘You can’t go out there!’ Atelic warned as a fresh barrage of crashes and thumps and breaking glass shook the ceiling. Fine dust sifted down. There was a muffled scream from somewhere above us.

I gave Atelic a pitying glance. ‘I’d say whatever control you thought you had is already gone.’

Another violent shudder rippled through the building. Walls cracked, roof tiles broke loose and clattered down the sides of the asylum, and from the direction of the kitchen came the thunderous sound of one of the big heavy cupboards toppling over, scattering fragments of cups and plates across the floor.

‘Come on!’ Hyrde urged, making for the doors.

‘No!’ Atelic screamed. ‘You mustn’t!’

We hurried into the hall, ignoring his cries, just as the house shook again, sending us lurching. Windows shattered and the walls groaned, cracks ran across the plaster of the ceiling. Something metallic clattered across the roof and plunged into the front lawn, spearing itself deep into the ground amid a shower of roof tiles. It took a moment before I realised it was a weather vane.

‘We have to get the patients out!’ Hyrde insisted.

‘Wait for me, I’ll help...’

A bloody hand seized my arm.

I turned to find Dreogan standing beside me, swaying on his feet like an old drunk. His battered face was cut and bruised almost beyond recognition, his clothes torn and his lower lip split and oozing.

‘They’re loose... the ones below,’ he gasped. ‘It tore their cages open...’

Atelic pushed past me, seizing Dreogan by the shoulders, seeming not to notice the man’s pained wince.

‘What are you saying?’

‘They almost killed me. I got away, but I couldn’t contain them. It’s infecting them... going inside their bodies.’

‘Then, we have to shut them in!’ Atelic hissed.

‘Too late...’ Dreogan shook his head. ‘They went up the back stairs... to the upper floors.’

‘Why would they do that?’ Acwellan asked.

Atelic lowered his eyes, unable to meet our gaze. ‘They’re the instruments of its attack.’

‘We can’t let that ’appen!’ Hyrde raced for the stairs, taking them two at a time.

‘Get out, all of you. Don’t wait for us!’ I called, hurrying after him.

Chaos reigned on the second floor. We could hear the destruction even as we stood in the central stairwell, poised in the space between the two sets of doors that separated each wing of the asylum. The darkness was alive with ghastly shrieks and moans, excited cries and demented cackles, and the heavy crash of toppling furniture and breaking glass, of things being forced open, thrown or kicked, and the brutal pounding of makeshift clubs.

‘Do you have any weapons?’ I whispered.

‘Weapons?’

‘For subduing them, if they get loose like this.’

‘Just some billy clubs, but they’re all secured in t’office on ground floor.’

‘Come on.’

We pushed through the door to the right and entered the sinister twilight of the T-shaped hallway of the east wing. In the weak moonlight, we saw that overturned trolleys and cabinets littered the hallways, their contents scattered and crushed underfoot. There was nobody else in sight, but we could hear people at the end of the hallway, breaking doors and smashing windows, hacking their way into locked cabinets, but they sounded far enough away to risk checking the first of the patient rooms. The nearest one lay open, unknown darkness lurking within.

‘Where did they get the keys?’ Hyrde wondered aloud. ‘This door were unlocked, not broken open.’

‘Maybe you should wait here.’

‘I’ll not leave you to face this alone.’

Even as we edged inside that room, we knew it was too still and silent to contain a living presence. There were no sounds of life and we saw only indistinct edges in the darkness. We shuffled forward, broken glass and other items crunching underfoot despite our attempts to move silently. Our breathing was shallow, but still the copper-tainted air hinted at horror.

‘I’ll open the drapes,’ I whispered. ‘Watch the door.’

The drapes were damp to the touch—no, tacky. As if something had been thrown over them, or sprayed. Even then, I knew it had to be blood. Some part of me was screaming not to open those curtains, to keep the blissful ignorance of not seeing what had happened in that room.

In a single move, I tugged them open and let the moonlight flood in.

We both gasped as a scene of gruesome slaughter was revealed around us.

The patient in whose room we stood was crumpled near the far wall, butchered almost beyond recognition. A gory spray of blood coated the walls and floor, running from the wainscoting in long dark streaks, and dripping entrails had been looped like repulsive festive streamers over the windows. There were indentations in the walls that could only have been made by a cranium slammed against them until it shattered.

‘Dear God...’ Hyrde turned to me with haunted eyes. He was shaking. ‘They were sedated. They didn’t stand a chance.’

‘We’re outnumbered here. We need help.’

‘Then, let’s find some,’ he gestured towards the third floor.

We crept quietly back into the hallway, hugging the deepest shadows and trying not to stumble over any of the debris as we returned to the stairs.

But, even as I followed him up to the next floor, an unwelcome fear was already forming. This murderous rampage had hardly been silent. Why hadn’t anyone from upstairs come down to investigate, and how had those lunatics got hold of keys to begin with?

We got our answer as we rounded the turn in the stairs.

The first thing we saw was blood, coating the steps like a black oil slick.

The next thing was the decapitated head, staring with a frozen look of terror, the glazed eyes silver in the moonlight.

It belonged to one of the orderlies, Enos Broga. His lower jaw had been torn away and his ears cut off. His forehead was slashed to the skull in a series of vicious cuts. We found his mutilated body further up on the landing, the limbs twisted. His blood-soaked clothes had been shredded, and the flesh around his arms and thighs had been gnawed on.

Hyrde clamped a hand across his mouth.

‘We have to keep going,’ I whispered, but even my strong stomach was churning at this. ‘There may still be others who need help.’

‘I... don’t think I can... I’m sorry,’ he shook his head, nauseated. ‘It’s too much.’

I put a hand on his shoulder. ‘You’d better head back down, keep out of sight.’

‘Be careful up there.’

I offered as much of a smile as the circumstances allowed, then slipped through the door and out onto the third floor hallway.

There was devastation here too and I could taste more death in the air.

I ducked sideways into an open doorway as two blood-drenched lunatics came charging down the hallway past me. They were cavorting amid the chaos, shrieking and howling like feral beasts, smashing anything they could get their hands on.

I held my breath until their wild laughter disappeared into the other wing, and I was about to step outside again when something dark and cold burst past the door like a roaring wind.

The elemental.

It was following the lunatics, drawn by the blood and carnage.

I pressed myself against the wall, closing my eyes and praying it would pass, hoping it wouldn’t notice me.

The air grew icy, burning my exposed skin.

It seemed to fill my head with a rustling whisper, like autumn leaves.

Don’t let it come in here, I prayed.

The cold was so intense it seemed to bite into my bones.

Don’t let it find me.

And then it had passed, disappearing swiftly through the central doors and into the other wing.

Relieved, I sagged against the wall like a puppet whose strings had gone slack.

I could hear the lunatics pounding on the walls and doors further down the hall, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I was discovered. I had done all I could, and had eased my conscience by trying to save lives. But, there was no way I could survive against a dozen or more armed lunatics at close quarters. What at first had seemed a vital rescue mission now seemed fatally foolhardy. Amid so much death and destruction, did I truly believe anyone might still be alive in this blood-drenched nightmare?

I knew I couldn’t go any further.

I had to get back, find Hyrde, and escape with the others.

But, as I turned towards the door something moved behind me and a pair of rough hands clamped around my throat. Before I could react, I was slammed up against the wall, my face driven sideways into the plaster as fingers crushed my throat and stinking breath flooded my nostrils.

‘’Ello, Leech!’ a familiar voice hissed. ‘My turn to have your blood!’

Panic lanced through me. I flailed and struggled as those thick fingers tightened their grip on my neck, and finally dug my nails into the heavy hands that were choking me, but it was like fighting against a figure chiselled from stone.

‘Gonna cut ya, Leech!’ he hissed with delight.

His strength was formidable, his grip like iron. By now my lungs were screaming, burning with the need for breath. He smashed my head into the wall again. A skull-jarring shock ran through me, white flashes erupting in my field of vision and a hollow ringing filled my ears.

‘Gonna slit your belly open. Spill you all across the floor,’ he said in an excited whisper. ‘Take yer tongue as well. You’ll bleed so much. So much...’

I collapsed to my knees, barely aware of the glass shards on the floor biting into my flesh.

‘Might even take them eyes,’ he laughed. ‘Somethin’ to chew on.’

He drove my head forward again, cracking my skull savagely against the wainscoting. I fought back, but whatever inhuman power now imbued that lunatic had transformed him into a titan, and as my struggles grew wilder they also grew weaker, until the world started to recede into a hazy darkness that seemed to be numbing my senses and engulfing my body in a cocoon of darkness. Even the panic was starting to ebb as darkness rose to embrace me.

I forced a final sound from my lips. It was a garbled, wordless intonation, and I knew it was likely the last sound I would ever make.

‘No, there’s no ’elp for you, little leech!’

And then he staggered sideways with a strange jerking lurch, his hands releasing my throat. I fell forward, gasping, trying to see through the white bursts still filling my vision. I sucked great gulps of air down into my wounded throat, easing the desperate agony of my starved lungs.

Then I started to crawl, half-blind, across the glass-strewn carpet in a futile bid to escape.

When hands closed over my shoulders I wailed like some wounded creature.

‘Sir, no sir… it’s only me.’

At first, those words failed to register in my pounding, dizzy skull. Only when those hands steadied me and helped me up did I realise it was Hyrde.

‘I ’it ’im, with a bit of wood I found,’ he confessed, gesturing at the prone body of the lunatic lying a few feet away. ‘Are you all right?’

Groggily, I braced myself against the wall, unsure of the answer to that question. Everything hurt and the world still felt disconnected and unreal. I wondered if I might have a concussion. I touched my forehead and my hands came away wet with blood. It took a moment more before my mind re-engaged with my body to a sufficient degree to respond. My senses numbly returned to life, bringing with them the sharp memory of pain from my injured head and throat. I tried to answer, but could make only a rasping wheeze, so I nodded instead.

‘We’d better get that cut seen to.’

‘I’ll... survive...’ Every word cut like shattered glass. I gestured around us, ‘but...’

‘There’s nobody left to save, is there?’

I shook my head. ‘Just… us.’

‘Can you walk?’

I nodded, and the world churned sickeningly. ‘I think so.’

‘Right you are,’ he nodded grimly as he put his arm around me, helping me towards the door. ‘Let’s get out while we can.’

We stepped into the hall. The shrieks and wails of the deadly rampage of the basement patients still echoed around us as they smashed windows, ripped doors loose, and further desecrated the slaughtered bodies within the rooms.

Hyrde guided me along, supporting me when I staggered. At one point we froze at the sight of a lunatic walking further ahead of us. In his hands he gripped a metal fire poker that he dragged along the wall, gouging a deep groove into the plaster. We waited until he disappeared into the next wing before picking our way down the staircase once more.

We heard gunshots as we reached the main hallway, and sounds of a violent scuffle from the direction of Atelic’s office.

‘Go!’ I urged, gesturing for Hyrde to head on without me. I was only slowing him down. ‘Help them!’

He gave me an uncertain glance. ‘Are you sure?’

I nodded, bracing myself against the wall as he released me.

He darted down the hallway, and I gritted my teeth and did my best to follow. The glass in my knees bit with every step, and my head still spun and pounded. I pawed weakly at the walls as I focused all my efforts on staying upright and on putting one foot in front of the other. It was getting easier, but I still staggered like a drunk at sea.

There was a shout from up ahead, Hyrde, I think—and another gunshot.

I forced myself onward, gritting my teeth as I coaxed as much speed from my battered body as I could.

I was almost there when I heard the sound of people running down the main staircase behind me, their cackles and howls leaving me in no doubt that the lunatics were coming for their final victims.

I staggered into the office and immediately started fumbling with the doors. ‘Help!’ I screamed hoarsely. ‘They’re coming!’

There was movement from behind me, and two people joined me, throwing their weight behind the doors and slamming them shut. One of them fumbled with a set of keys, and I realised it was Hyrde.

‘It’s locked, though can’t promise it’ll ’old.’

I sagged back against the door and noticed the three bodies on the floor. Two of them were lunatics and both had bullet holes in their skulls. The third body was Dreogan, a large meat cleaver embedded deep into his neck where it met the shoulder. He lay in a spreading pool of blood, his eyes glazing over, arms and legs twitching. Across from him, sitting on the desk and clutching a small pocket revolver was Atelic, his grey eyes wide with horror. There was a cut to his left arm, and he was trying to tie a makeshift bandage around it with shaking fingers that bore powder burns.

‘We didn’t hear them coming,’ Acwellan’s voice trembled as she helped me across the room. There was a fine spray of blood across her face, like tiny red freckles. ‘Charles was hit before... before we could react.’

‘Why didn’t you get out when you had the chance?’

‘That thing was outside, moving around beyond the main doors. We hid in here, and secured the room.’

‘So, how did they get in?’

‘We thought we heard you in the hallway outside. Dreogan went to check, only it wasn’t you.’

There was a loud thud from the hallway outside and the doors rattled. We could hear raucous voices, jeering and laughing. They began pounding against the wood which strained inwards under the weight, the hinges and the frame groaning.

‘I have four bullets left,’ Atelic said softly. ‘Not nearly enough.’

Another rumble ran through the building as if the ground were bellowing in anger. A loud splintering crack rent the air and dust fell upon our heads. The portrait of Solomon Atelic crashed to the floor, knocking the ceremonial sword loose as it fell. Books also toppled from the shelves, and a deep fissure snaked its way across the ceiling plaster. The lunatics outside howled in glee as they resumed their attack on the door, and a small piece of wood flew inside as a metal fire poker broke through.

‘Here.’ Atelic handed the revolver to Hyrde before gesturing to the window behind the desk. ‘Get out that way, all of you. Escape across the grounds, if you can.’

‘I don’t quite follow, sir?’ Hyrde frowned.

‘This is all about blood, about sating the power that dwells here.’ Atelic’s voice was emotionless, as if the horror had swamped any trace of the man I had met just a few days earlier. He walked across the office and lifted the sword from the floor. ‘Perhaps if I give them that, this madness can finally end.’

‘Joseph, no! You can’t!’ Acwellan pleaded.

The doctor gave her a sad, resigned look. ‘This is my mistake. I brought this fate down upon us all. Let me make reparations. Let me try.’

Another strike and the hole in the wood panelling grew wider. The bloodthirsty bays and cackles grew louder as the doors bowed ever more inwards.

‘Come on!’ Hyrde urged, running to the window.

I hurried after him, still reeling a little, though my old coordination was beginning to return. Between us we unlocked the window and pushed it open. The night air beyond felt wonderfully cool on my flushed face.

‘Go!’ Atelic barked at Acwellan, who stood frozen in shocked indecision. ‘I won’t let you die too.’

She reached out and touched the side of his face, eyes shining with unspent tears, and then she joined us at the window. We helped her out first, and then Hyrde followed. As I climbed out, I heard a shocked gasp from behind as Atelic fell upon the sword blade, a fate oddly befitting a man of learning with a love of ancient Rome.

But if he hoped his sacrifice would quell the fury, he was wrong.

I glanced back as I scrambled through the window.

Dark shadows were rising from the ground around the office, filtering in through the fissures in the walls and ceiling too, and they coalesced into a great swirling vortex, like gazing down into the black heart of some churning whirlpool. But, instead of water there were roots and rocks, flashes of crystal, filaments of fungal growth, soil and bones, things long buried, decaying and rotting—and yet also life, things that were sprouting and growing, wriggling and thriving. The feeling that accompanied it all was numinous, that awesome but unnerving wonder that you sometimes feel in very ancient forests. I smelled a scent like damp moss, rot and raw earth—but also the scent of wet leaves and flower blossom. There was a sense of great age and patience, but also a ravenous hunger too. This was life from death, a shifting and eternal dance of new growth arising from the breakdown of the old, bound in an eternal spiral. And, filling that moving, living, churning darkness were countless unblinking eyes, like shards of onyx. There were teeth too—I saw them in pale flashes like sharp plates of shale. And, behind it all, I sensed a cold and deep intelligence; inhuman and as unmoveable as stone.

I saw and felt all of that in a heartbeat, and then Hyrde tore me away from the window.

Disoriented, I stumbled and almost reeled. But his strong arms directed me towards the waiting carriage, where Acwellan was readying the nervous horses.

We saw the prone outline of the groundskeeper lying on the lawn a few feet away. He had been strangled by vines that had wormed up through the damp earth to wrap around his throat. It looked like he had been trying to stab them with a pitchfork. I almost rushed over to check for a pulse, still not quite in my right frame of mind, but Hyrde dragged me onwards.

‘Best not, sir,’ he warned. ‘Something’s still movin’ under that grass.’

He pushed me towards the carriage and handed the gun to Acwellan.

‘Watch the doors, in case they follow us out. I’ll get the gates.’

I climbed on board, collapsing into the seat opposite Acwellan who was staring back at the house, her face bloodlessly pale and her hands trembling as she held the revolver like some repulsive alien artefact.

‘It wasn’t enough, was it?’ she whispered, lifting her eyes to meet mine. ‘He died for nothing. But, so many have tonight.’

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to say.

There was a frantic mewing as Widdershins darted down the driveway towards us. Without thinking, and partly to avoid having to answer Acwellan, I threw the carriage door open and let the frightened feline jump inside with us.

That was when the doors to the asylum burst open as the lunatics poured out, armed with their makeshift weapons and screaming to the night. They ran towards us like some half-feral mob, eyes black in the moonlight and murderous intent etched on every twisted face.

‘What should I do?’ Acwellan panicked.

‘Shoot them!’ I shrieked.

She leaned out of the window and squeezed the trigger, crying in alarm at the recoil. Her first shot went wide, slamming into the wall of the asylum. Her second passed harmlessly between two of the approaching men. Her third struck one in the shoulder, and the madmen all slowed and hesitated.

‘So, they haven’t entirely lost all of their senses,’ I noted.

‘I’ve one bullet left.’

‘Don’t tell them that.’

I don’t believe the mob outside could have heard me or read my lips, and yet they charged at that moment, as if spurred on by some silent rallying call.

Acwellan fired her final bullet and hit one in the head, spraying his brains across the path. He dropped like a stone and was trampled by the others as they rushed towards us.

‘Time to go!’ Hyrde scrambled into the driver’s seat and spurred the horses onward.

From behind us came a violent rumbling crack as the clock tower subsided by a foot as the ground swallowed its foundations. Stone and mortar fractured as a fissure snaked its way up the whole building. Every window shattered. The lunatics jeered and howled. I held my breath, wondering if the entire structure would collapse upon itself, but the trembling diminished, and by the time we were racing along the track through the moors all was silent once more, and soon that place of death and madness, and the people in its thrall, were far behind us and out of sight.

I admit, I had fully expected them to come pouring out of the gates like a swarm of furious hornets, but they never left the grounds. I glanced back once as we bounced and rattled away, to see them clustered in the gateway, staring at us.

It was a sight that chilled me to the bone.

 

In the morning light, three police constables ventured out and investigated the asylum. They found only death in every room and on every floor; a building bathed in the blood and horror of a night of abject madness and frenzy.

It seemed that, after exhausting all the other victims, the lunatics had ultimately turned upon each other. Nothing mortal had been left alive in that building, making us the only survivors of that cursed place.

Following that terrible night, Florence Acwellan returned to Leeds and we never heard from her again. It was a silence that could only have been deliberate. I believe she left the medical profession though, and I heard somewhere that she eventually became a housekeeper for a well-to-do family in nearby Harrogate.

As for Albert Hyrde, we stayed in touch over the following years. I owed my life to that man in more ways than one, and am proud to count him among one of the finest friends I have ever known.

Before I forget, I should also note that Albert kept Widdershins too. He gave that tough old cat a far better home and more love than the half-feral bruiser had ever known. I believe that gruff old moggy actually reached the grand old age of sixteen before passing in his sleep. I know Albert misses him terribly.

Throughout all of our long friendship, we rarely spoke openly of the terrible final night at Amyrran. It was as if we had made an unspoken pact to embrace the good that had been born from those awful circumstances without ever acknowledging them. That night had affected us both deeply though, and I saw it in Albert’s face over the decades that followed: a look in his eyes that never quite faded, and that none of the subsequent joys—including the birth of his daughter, Edith, two years later—ever entirely dispelled.

It was a full ten years, in fact, before Albert finally mentioned Amyrran again. He waited until his wife and child had gone to bed, and it was just the two of us, sitting by the fire on one of my frequent visits.

‘There’s nowt much left of the place,’ he told me. ‘It’s just a ruined shell now, all abandoned and broken, reclaimed by the land that never wanted it there to begin with. It’s pretty much forgotten now too, well, ’cept by the locals in Sarigsdale.’

I didn’t ask him how he knew that, but I suspected he had returned to try and rid himself of some of the ghosts that still troubled his soul. I hope it had helped him to ease some of the burden he’d carried since that terrible night.

As for Amyrran, I am glad that place is dead and forgotten.

I pray to God that it remains so forevermore.

And, I pray that the shadow that dwells on that site is finally sated. 

 


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