's 2018 Horror Write-off:

The Worshiper's Statement

Submitted by Duncan Skjaret (email)

You will forgive me for being brief with details. There may well be certain people still innocent in this affair. You must also forgive me for forgoing much background detail, as it is upsetting and mostly inconsequential. Suffice to say, some years ago, shortly after the death of my parents, I joined a cult dedicated to the resurrection of a dead god.

There were about thirty of us living in an abandoned farmhouse, in a part of the country you haven't heard of. Rather, the majority of us unfortunates lived in tents in the yard. I was afforded a room, as my familiarity with historical research made me most useful to our leader, who I shall call Jonas.

He was a tall and lanky man, with green eyes and a black beard that made him look older than he was. He attracted us with his sympathies and assurances, and proclaimed that the stars were not shaped as we had been taught. There were entities, he said, suspended within "occulted quantum states," hidden by the limitations of the human mind. He said they appeared, nevertheless, in human history, taking the form of gods, monsters, mythical beings of all kinds.

He said he knew how to find them. He said he had dreams.

Faith is a funny thing. We all labored and suffered immensely for Jonas, yet I don't think any of us truly believed him. Not at first. But in the laborious analysis of old texts, and the enacting of bizarre, half-understood rituals, we acolytes were able to bargain with our own, much more personal fears. It was, I imagine, not unlike the attraction that some people have to horror stories.

I remember the day I made our great discovery. The sun was setting hot and hazy over the fallow fields which surrounded our home, and by its dirty light I poured over our greatest treasure. It was a pile of half-burned pages, said to have once been an obscure translation of the Book of Eibon. It formed the foundation of our understanding of our own god, who we called Tchernoboch.

Tchernoboch, it was written, exists in and of the darkness of the earth, of caves and rich soil. Jonas said he held the lever which spun the world, and that he was Amun, Pan, and Lucifer. The book said Tchernoboch has many halls, and that the halls were in and of the earth, and that the halls were his body. It said that there was something which would lead the questioner to him, though that something was burned from the page. I explained this to Jonas and he seemed pleased.

He called for us to gather. The worm-wracked porch of the old plantation shook as he paced it, looking down as he did upon his acolytes, standing in the weeds. He told us of the state of humanity, and of his dreams. He told us of our purpose, finally discovered. He told us things we could not understand over the heat and the droning of locusts. He told us we would not go hungry for much longer.

He took us to the root cellar, which had been cleared out, and he told us to dig, so we dug, first with our hands, then with the tools he brought.

It was nice to have something to do.

I don't remember when we first hit bedrock, though I think it took longer than it should have. The great stones beneath us were knitted together, bulbous and odd-looking. They were marked here and there with discolorations that I thought may once have been writing. Jonas addressed us from outside the pit, atop the ramshackle staircase we had constructed as we dug. He told us he had dreamed of this strange mass of stone, had bought the house because he had suspected it must be here.

This, he said, was the very gullet of Tchernoboch. He said that gods such as ours were not the aetherial beings of less enlightened worshipers, that they were physical creatures which existed in our own reality. Like all other physical beings, they have weight, and dimension, and metabolism. Hunger. We were nearing a new epoch, he said, where humankind would be enlightened by the true way, and that to light that way, we must demonstrate the truest, most physical act of worship, which our species has so unwisely shunned.

He descended the stairs and drew a knife from his sleeve, a bright and curved blade of the sort used by surgeons. He gestured to one of our number, a thin, elderly acolyte whose name I do not remember. This man had come to us months ago with a handkerchief to his face, to shield others from the blood he coughed. He knew his end was coming, and wanted so desperately to use his remaining time well. I believe, I truly believe, that he would have gone willingly, had we given him the time to consider.

The procedure finished, we let the effluvium spill onto the clenched rocks beneath our feet. It funneled and pooled through the crevasses, tracing over those strange symbols with older letters of glistening black-red. We stood vigil, chanting as Jonas had instructed. When morning came, there was an earthquake. I realize, now, how strange it was to see those great boulders grinding and shifting, opening like a mouth, but somehow at the time it did not surprise me at all.

We made torches out of table legs, our old clothes, and turpentine. Five of us, including Jonas and myself, then descended into the hole, the flow of solid pyroclastic stone providing us with a path as navigable as any staircase. Though the countryside above was quiet, the caverns we walked were unnaturally silent, even stealing the hissing of our torches and the murmur of our breaths. As the lurid yellow light traced its way over the ancient stone, I found myself resenting that glare, how out of place it was. I resented the cloying pine scent each torch emitted, and wished they could be extinguished, so I could breathe nothing but the cold and damp. I kept thinking Jonas would say something, but he never did, and after what seemed like hours, when the daylight had completely faded, we stopped.

Before us was an iris. I can not describe it as anything else. A great disc of stone which blocked the passage, yet it was shaped like bundles of fiber radiating from the tiny hole in the center, as if painstakingly carved. I knew it was not carved. This was in the book. When I put my ear to the hole, I heard the sound of moving flesh and stone. I thought, suddenly, of the odd stain on the plywood above my bunk, the one I would stare at while thinking about what my life was like once. I thought about how far away the sun was, so deep in the earth. I wondered why I was there.

Jonas finally spoke. This, he said, must be a deeper feature of the anatomy of our god, the anatomy of the deepest parts of the world. It was hungry, like the surface was hungry. I begged him for the knife, begged him to let me go as the old man had, so that I might fulfill my service to him, but truly, so that I could escape that place faster than my legs could take me. He denied me. We would not wish to lose any more of our brethren, he said, not when we were so close to the greatest revelation in all of human history.

Days later, a man came to the farm, asking if we had any chores he might do, or any food we were willing to give. We had no food but many chores, as Jonas ordered us to maintain constant vigil over the sacred Gullet in our cellar, and I feared the house would soon collapse to neglect. Jonas, however, had another plan for the man, and kindly ushered him into his quarters. Later, I saw some of the others carrying a tightly wrapped bolt of linen into the cellar, and I knew soon we would be traveling further.

Again we followed Jonas' torch, deep into the earth. The iris was open wide, its edges stained. Within we found a gaping cavern, the ceiling held aloft by great pillars of flowstone. Stalactites loomed from above, their tips just visible in the light of our torches, and I was suddenly, horribly aware of just how much earth hung above us.

There were rooms carved into the walls of the cavern, crude cells with beds and alcoves full of dust. As we spread out and slowly searched, we found row after row of them, each carved with a strange symbol like those in our root cellar. There must, I realized, have once been hundreds, thousands of people living down here, in the very heart of the god we must have shared. I passed by room after room, seeing in the ancient dwellings my own Spartan quarters above, separated by earth and by eons. I wondered if this is what holiness is meant to feel like.

In the center of this ancient city we found an altar. It was a simple stone block with a depression in the middle, and was coated with what looked like rust. As Jonas placed his hands on it, declaring that we had at last found the true heart of Tchernoboch, our torchlight snaked out into the blackness of the cavern, revealing rows upon rows of rags in neatly folded piles, all radiating from the altar. This place had one last secret to tell, I realized. We would find it. We knew how to part stone.

Jonas lived down there, in that place, with a few trusted assistants, leaving me in charge of the farmhouse. I tried my best to maintain it, but our home suddenly felt so wrong, and without Jonas the cold and hunger and exhaustion and sickness seemed much closer. The rot in the floorboards grew. A ritual needed to take place, to awaken and consecrate our great discovery, but no visitors came, so we went out hunting. By night we went, with ropes and shotguns through the cover of more fertile fields, towards the heretic houses whose windows sparked with more life than ours.

It was nice to have something to do.

Again and again the call came, however, no matter how many tributes we sent down. Tchernoboch was hungry, it was said, and great tribute needed to be made. So again and again we went hunting, and when I caught one of our acolytes creeping out the door at night I hunted him, and when the police were seen combing the fields and access roads they too were hunted, and by day we nailed planks over our windows and set bear traps amid the bushes.

Tchernoboch was pleased, Jonas said. With his blessing we were to quit the daylit world, and enter deep into his body, and revive his holiest city. We no longer sent food or tributes down, but instead one by one us acolytes were chosen to descend. Into the pit they went, delighting in the knowledge that they would never again see daylight. This bolstered our determination, and even when we awoke one night to spotlights stabbing through our decaying walls we felt no fear, for we knew soon we would be beyond the reach of mankind. The healthiest among us took up knives and shotguns and stood vigil over our home while the others retreated into the maw of our god, and when the door was kicked down we greeted the invaders righteously. The terror and anger that our dogma had kept repressed was finally able to break free, and we screamed the name of our god as we struck back at cruel and unworthy humanity.

I remember little. An officer silhouetted in the back doorway as I struggled to reload, his revolver gleaming. A numbing pain, and the call of the earth, the feel of my palm slick with blood scraping over the stones. I was in the tunnel again, retreating with my brethren into the body of our god. I limped, clutching my side, so they went ahead. I remember grinning, laughing, the pain and fear pulling forth things my endless study and ritual had locked away. The laughter echoed off of Tchernoboch's throat, and I imagined he was laughing with me.

Deep in the heart of my god, before that ancient altar, I found Jonas, arms outstretched, robes stained in blood, chanting the prayer I had discovered for him, the adoration of our dark and loving god which we had repeated countless times. My brethren were around him, prostrated in worship, each clutching a dagger, each with a red wound over their throat. The cavern around us warped and shifted, revealing its true and wondrous life. Digesting.

Jonas bid me come forth, and I did. He pressed the knife into my hand. He asked me if I understood, and I did. The bullet in my side throbbed. As I looked into his eyes, feeling the presence of my god around me, I understood more than he ever could. Through all his revelations, he had never come close to the truth. He had wished to be a leader, to understand and supplicate himself before a being which was not Tchernoboch, which would never have its name spoken by a human, which knew and cared only about its hunger. He believed that with my tribute, he would granted some petty insight from something that would not hear him. He had not worked. He had not fought. As a human, he was worthless.

But his blood was still suitable.

The police found me dragging my way out of the darkness of the gullet. I do not know if any of the others were apprehended. I do not know what the authorities made of the horrible tunnel we had discovered. I was quickly deemed insane, and so have spent years in a lofty cell, far from newspapers and the darkness of the earth. It does not matter. I have said my piece now, and am content.