Gehenna Rises

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“Run or shoot?”

AM: A garbled voice, barely audible over static, called, ‘Zebedee Alarm! Contact at the Pit! Contact at the Pit!’

It could only have been Horace yelling a warning to us over comms. Reviewing the timeline of events since, a few minutes before, watchers up at the castle summit had already spotted him re-starting the long-doused fire over at the plague pit. Since Jen and I’d left him, Horace must have taken us at our word, piling planks, branches, rubbish, anything combustible onto the mound, dousing it all with whatever petrol he had at his workshop, then tossing a burning torch onto the lot. The watchers were raising the alarm the moment they realised what he was doing, but by then of course it was too late to stop him.

Trouble is, what he’d done wasn’t enough. No way was it enough.

You know that phrase, “Let sleeping dogs lie…?”

JB: You think all Horace did was kick the dog?

AM: It’s pure speculation – informed speculation at best – but, by that stage, I think yes, he did. Why did he go ahead and light up? Perhaps simple eagerness on his part was the trigger. Maybe Horace knew in his gut waiting to get the green light from Henry and the Council would have been in vain. Maybe he knew we were already out of time. Perhaps he even saw it; another Reviver – or five – twitching to life as he worked and, realising he had no choice but to act, sparking his lighter there and then. Or perhaps that… thing was already beginning to emerge. ’Course, it’s all academic now. We’ll never know. But he tried, poor bastard. And once he set to with the fire, it was too late to stop it.

I hadn’t been kidding when I said we’d need lots of petrol. From the scant few gallons in the cans I saw at his workshop, I guess Horace could only have managed, oh… barely a sprinkling of fuel around that mound. At best a smattering resembling little more than a fine down of dew you’d see shrouding a pasture at dawn. Of course he should have waited for us to bring more fuel, ten times more, fifty times, I don’t know however much would’ve been needed. Had it been down to me, I’d have hosed a whole fuel tanker’s worth all over the Pit. Not that Jen – despite all the evidence we’d compiled – had gained any swing for such a need from the Council.

While I’d run myself ragged about the Haven until I met Johnny, she’d returned to the morgue to retrieve the footage of Jeff’s revival ready to show Henry and the others, only to find Jeff’s corpse already showing signs of reanimation. Reviewing the footage from the camera we’d left to watch him, Jen found it was not much more than twenty minutes between us putting him back together again and his fingers twitching.

JB: In her account, Dr Edwards said it almost paralysed her.

AM: [nods] That was one of her nightmares ever after; standing there in the morgue, the footage playing and re-playing on the camera in her hands, the horrifying truth about the direction La Plaga was taking freezing her blood with terror and indecision, while from outside she hears the screams of Beeston’s fall – at least until Jeff breaks free of his bonds and, this time, manages to grab her.

And she did feel it then too at that moment; terror and indecision, but apathy as well. A crushing desire to just given in to the weight of it all. But of course, this is Jen we’re talking about; she never told me that until years later. Till then, as far as I knew, she’d immediately rushed to the castle with both sets of footage and played them to the Council. But even that failed to sway the majority of them.

‘We still don’t need to waste fuel on this,’ Henry insisted. Sure, it was a worrying development, he argued. But if decapitation was still a viable method for neutering the undead, the solution – as he saw it – was simply to dispose of the bodies in one location and the heads in another. Disaster averted. Job done.

I swear, that man… No wonder he got so far. A real politician. He could argue black is white. Hell, I wish now we’d just decided to hang the consequences, bypassed the Council and raided the fuel dump. We could have apologised after – not that it would have been needed.

Anyway, the watchers up at the Ward battlements reported the fire sputter to life, appearing to them little more than fingernail-high, the smidgeon of fuel Horace had cast about creating not so much an inferno as an encircling ring of feeble flames, achieving little more than fencing off the mound. Perhaps Horace just wanted to be sure it took hold, as he stayed to watch his handiwork when really he should have bolted as fast as he could. But then he wasn’t to know. None of us were.

Turns out the fire, pitiful an agent of destruction as it was, also made a woeful protective barrier. Lacklustre as it was, the conflagration was probably less than a wasp sting to the gestating monster, but it was still enough of a prompt, of a wake-up – or birthing – call.

Sometimes, I’ve suspected Horace never got all the Revivers out of that mound.

JB: Oh? Why?

AM: I’m not talking about the obvious ones Horace had spotted and pulled out now; those we saw in his workshop. This isn’t a criticism of him. I think those he extracted were what I call Independent Revivers; freshly neutered as we thought, but with that rapidly adapting goop able to power them up again before they were buried under more bodies. No… I’ve wondered – many times – if that thing growing in the Pit had its own watchers too. “Slaved Revivers”, I’ve called them. Think about it; with that ubiquitous goop drenching the Pit top to bottom, I imagine it would’ve been easy for that monster to search the myriad neuro-pathways the goop created, leading to those that tapped the eyes of the immobile, mangled corpses still exposed to air at the surface of that human mountain, enabling it to quietly, discreetly keep an eye on its surroundings while it took the human components available, and built itself up underneath, secure in its warming cocoon of decay.

Those flames then, the visual cues of Horace’s frantic movements about the Pit, whatever remaining senses to which the monster had access to warn of danger, must have given it the primal message, “It’s now or never!” that it needed. And it acted.

JB: Oh! How it acted!

AM: That’s the point Horace’s warning came over the radio. Standing there at Ground Zero, of course he would have spotted the first disturbance. He’d used the Haven’s designated all-points channel. I can still hear his digitized voice trembling out the guards’ radio speakers; loud, urgent, hopeless. And then…

JB: “The Beeaitch Rises”.

AM: Yeah. The First Emergence.

When they were filming the fire down at the Pit, messing with the zoom lenses on their Canon SLRs to capture the best view, the guards up at the castle walls must have just assumed all they were doing was gathering evidence of the Village Idiot losing it, ready to present against him at his trial… and possible expulsion. Hearing his voice over comms, maybe they even thought, “There he goes, complaining again about zebs we didn’t put down properly. Is that why he’s started the fire…?”

They had no idea what was coming. None of us did. But when it came…

JB: When you saw… it – the Emergence – you had clear sight of the thing?

AM: [Nods] Oh yeah. Not front row seats, thank God. Not like Horace. But definitely in the stalls, so to speak.

It was while we were being led out of the digs – still at gunpoint despite Brendan’s change of mood. That’s when Johnny and I had the dubious fortune to catch sight of it. We’d already caught a whiff of the fire wafting from the attic, and by the time we hit the street, a smudgy plume of smoke was snaking its way above us, bisecting the Haven’s airspace. Naturally, my eyes instinctively traced the dirty contrail back to its source, my heart sinking, knowing all the while where it led.

Some attempt had been made to shield the site of the Pit from the village. Early in the winter there’d been a petition from all us Haven residents crowded into the buildings making up the improvised digs there; if we couldn’t escape the permanent taint in the air coming from the place, we’d argued, some effort should be made to at least conceal the sight of the growing pile of bodies from us. Henry had finally agreed plastic sheeting be attached to the chain-link fence surrounding the dumping ground. Winter storms had however shredded entire sections of it away, and no replacement sheeting had yet been put up. So there, beyond the village in the near distance, maybe a few hundred metres distant, Johnny and I could see the mound through that fence, the flames licking ineffectually at its edges.

Horace’s urgent warnings were still squawking over comms, and then he appeared from round the other side of the mound, sprinting round it in a loose orbit, breaking free and making for the fence, his walkie-talkie held up to his mouth. Still calling. He gave up only as he approached the gate to tackle the padlock. Having seen the Revivers at his workshop, I was expecting any second to catch sight of one or more of the things lumbering after him in pursuit, or cresting the mound’s summit. In my mind’s eye I was conjuring something like the conjoined nightmares we’d fought in Horace’s barn. Instead…

JB: Could you describe what you saw for me, please?

AM: As Horace reached the fence, the Pit mound appeared to swell again, just as Jen and I had seen it do earlier that afternoon. This time however the mountain of bodies kept growing, and growing. Plumes of flame erupted from the mound here and there as more pockets of trapped methane escaped from beneath the loosening cadavers and were ignited by the bonfire, the short barks of each mini-explosion reaching our ears seconds later. That, and a curious rustling and snapping under the low crackle of the pyre. It took a moment for me to understand what it was, but once I saw the mound rise still further, then I made the connection. It was the shifting of the bodies, their lifeless forms tumbling to the ground, beating against each other on the way down, bone-breaking impacts increasing in frequency to a point where, at its height, it was a fizzing hiss louder than the fire the falling bodies were now smothering. I say lifeless bodies, but a few weren’t. Maybe it was that goopy network I mentioned, but I’m sure some of the things appeared to thrash against their second demise as they fell.

Suddenly, the mound lost its swelling breast form. By now it was probably getting up to… I dunno, eight… ten metres higher than its original size? The tent of putrefying flesh abruptly sagged, collapsed in on itself. For a moment – one blissful, irrational moment – I thought that was it. That we were just witnessing an enormous death fart and could laugh about it. That all my burgeoning fears, that cresting wave of doom-filled paranoia that had been rising toward me, was instead about to crash against a welcome rock of anti-climax.

No such luck.

Of course, the tent of corpses was only collapsing, wasn’t it, shredding to reveal at last the thing that had been pushing the mound up in the first place.

You referred to the footage, what it’s called now? “The Beeaitch Rises”. You must have seen that too?

JB: [Nods] Who hasn’t? I can’t imagine how it felt being there though.

AM: I’ll tell you how it felt. Everything I’d experienced up to that moment had been mere tasters in fear, the hors d’oeuvres before a whole dinner of dread, so to speak. Clocking the Amalgam Homunculus the first time…? That was the bowel-venting, exit-stage-left-sanity main course. No other way to describe it. For myself, I think that for a few seconds, I did genuinely lose my marbles. Like Ray Stanz when he sees Mr Stay Puft in Ghostbusters? And I wasn’t kidding about the moment being bowel-venting. The sewer reek which washed over us, straight up my nostrils and bringing me back to myself, that let us know someone in our group had shit themselves with fright.

So there we stood in the village street; the eight of us, transfixed by awe and terror at the sight of that monster.

The guards up at the castle’s upper and lower ward battlements, any Haven resident seeing it, likely did the same. I’ve wondered whether the people of Pompeii stood like that, maybe. Staring up at erupting Vesuvius, the volcano looming fatally over them as that killing blast wave – that… pyroclastic flow is it called? – raced to consume them? Maybe some of them expressed their feelings about it as Johnny C did just then:

‘Fucking titty hell…’ That’s what he said, staring at the giant which had just risen. Jen’s own words came back to me; about our being fucked not even beginning to cover it. I knew she was right then. We were doomed. No two ways about it.

JB: What was your immediate impression of the beast?

AM: Impression?! “That’s… big”, followed closely by; “Bloody big!”

[Gathers himself] Well… I can’t recall who coined the more scientific term for the Phenomena, but I did semi-consciously clock just what their title describes. This massive brute which emerged from its cocoon was just that; an amalgam of physically viable human corpses still capable of movement and load bearing, which had been gathered, twisted together, shaped and squeezed into a crude, grossly distorted human form. At the time I registered some vague remembrance of the Sensory Homunculus I learnt about at some point in the past; that’s a cartoonish human male model used in Neurology to reflect the relative sensory space our body parts occupy on the brain’s cerebral cortex; y’know… the senses of touch, taste etc.? The result is that ridiculous human shape with vastly enlarged hands, lips, tongue and such?

JB: Yeah, it’s clarified in the reference books-

AM: Sure, sorry. Of course. A similar homunculus is also used to describe areas in the brain’s motor cortex controlling voluntary movement too. Did you know, it’s well known in that field as “the little man inside the brain”?

It all made a kind of twisted sense, what we were seeing manifested before our eyes. If the goop could reanimate dead flesh… if, with its adapting it could lately heal severed neuro-connections to separated parts of not just one host, but many, as we’d just seen… then why could it not also know the brain’s own map of the human body that it controlled? How the host body was physically constructed; it’s shape, number of limbs etc? Why shouldn’t the goop then naturally follow that blueprint – wet-wired in – to which it had access at the genetic level?

[Chuckles bleakly] “The little man inside the brain…”

JB: What…?

AM: Strikes me now it’s unerringly spot-on, defining the Beeston Phenomena that way. Whoever coined the official terminology – “Amalgam Homunculus” – likely had a sense of humour. “Homunculus” also refers to “false human beings” that alchemists like Paracelsus claimed to have raised to be their servants, like golems. Only those homunculi were meant to have been tiny, maybe thirty centimetres tall at most. This monster, once it stood erect, was… Lord… fifteen, twenty metres tall?

JB: Haven’t experts gauged since that the Beeston AH was two to three times the scale of the one that attacked the Brethren’s Fortress?

AM: Four-point-five.

JB: Bloody hell.

AM: Thing is though, any neurologist would tell you that this creature didn’t have quite that classic distorted shape recognised in their field. Yes, there were distortions – massive, grotesque distortions from the norm – but more for load bearing reasons and due to the rotting nature (however retarded that was) of the cadaverous components the goop was exploiting. The trunk of each leg alone must have been at least two metres in diameter at its thinnest, made up of an inner core of bodies acting as the “bone”, their trunks and limbs knotted through and round each other to create entwined ropes of limb and muscles, hooked together by hands locked tight. Around that core was fixed more layers of bodies, arranged in such a way they flexed together, so making up the sinews and muscles that would lift the monster’s legs. As a result, seeing as there was no comparative scale solid skeletal structure holding the monster up, the entire thing, when it moved, did so in a fluid, almost serpentine-like way.

Entwining arrangements of the Pit’s corpses just like that made up the giant’s entire structure, displaying intricate twisting variations as each section of body required. A barrel-chested trunk, ribbed using whole corpses, dominated the body. Occupying at least the space of a Luton Van, that vast cavern rippled from waist up to the neck, as if still exercising the primal need to breathe. Such movement seemed an absurdly unnecessary detail. Upon a squat neck made up entirely of tightly interlocking arms roving in unison the way a sea anemone’s tentacles would flow with a current, sat the skull construct. If the homunculus as a whole was a grotesque parody of the human form, its skull was the crowning achievement. Again its structure was comprised of sculpted bodies. But the set-up was so slap-dash, so messy, the globe was grossly malformed. Have you ever seen pictures of John Merrick, The Elephant Man?

As for its eyes… Each orbit containing them were three bodies forming a circle, out from which peered a tightly packed, clustered concave of disembodied heads, insectivorous in pattern, just like the eyes of a house fly. All those skulls’ eyes staring out, peering independently, everywhere at once…

And you know how in the right light you can see the regular beat of a pulse in someone else’s neck? The entire monster was doing that. Involuntary flexings would travel along the path of legs, torsos, arms, passed to another leg, or a head and so on. Across, up and down the length of the entire giant, never ceasing, only serving to increase the sense of the wet, bloated, bulbous putrefaction standing before us – which of course it was. Fronds of sticky goop drenched the giant, trailing down and throughout the amalgam like oily veins. Dribbles and drops of it fell freely to spatter and contaminate the ground at its feet.

I don’t think the human form could have been so horribly mocked as in the sight I saw that day. You asked my impression of the thing? Taken as a whole, the closest I can compare it to would be if that artist H.R. Giger, your man who designed the Alien, had been given free access to a mass grave upon which he could work whilst in the midst of a fever dream. That’d be your homunculus.

Seeing the thing emerge, it all slotted into place that moment; all the questions the strange evidence at the Fortress had thrown up for Sergeant Rule and I the past two days, were answered by that hulking, pulsing monster. Of course, I remembering thinking, Jeff and the others hadn’t been firing up at the trees, but at the giant emerging from between them.

As for our monster, it was still in a semi-crouch, its massive human-body-part paws giving it balance until, certain it was solid, it gave a tremendous shudder and, just as a dog shakes itself free of water, shed from itself the last remaining corpses; dead and Independent Revived – the Slaved Revivers it kept clinging to its surface, it had a use for those we would soon learn – and carefully brought itself to full height, holding out its “arms” to keep itself steady. Its anemone neck waved, turning its bulbous head to look round… and instantly it clocked Horace.

He was frantically working the padlock at the Pit fence gate, terror of the behemoth he’d seen rising and now standing behind him making his fingers all but useless. He’d been drowned out over comms – replaced instead by a chorus of alarms, exclamations and curses over the airwaves, ordered to silence by Sergeant Rule’ urgent authority. By this time the alarm had drawn him and the rest of the Council out from their meeting. I vaguely recall his voice immediately following with commands to the militia, but for the life of me I don’t remember any detail, nor Horace’s faint whimpering reaching us from where he stood imprisoned. Johnny said later he could hear it plainly, though I have no memory. Like the rest of Beeston Haven I’m sure, I was transfixed, rooted to the spot by the knowledge I was – all of us were – about to witness Horace’s end.

The undead giant allowed itself a languorous few moments to study the lone, petrified human frantically working the padlock at the fence. Then, the bodies making up the orbits of its eyes squinted them into a knowing leer of recognition. Every mouth set anywhere upon that thing that could free itself abruptly opened up, and a hoarse, shrill chorus of hunger and anticipation was let loose, before the Homunculus reached out one of its huge arms.

Horace’s screams I do remember.

The monster scooped him up before he had a chance to do anything. I saw him briefly, dwarfed by the massive, twisted contortion of torsos that made up its “palm”, the legs and arms which made up the seven – yes, I swear – seven “fingers”. Horace was lifted bodily into the air, and I expected the poor man was about to be torn to shreds in the massive jaws which hung open. Instead, still screaming in fear and horror, Horace was held up before the centre of the creature’s chest, which unfurled to create a new, vertical mouth. Within the dark of it, which I saw only briefly, I got the sense that multiple things squirmed eagerly, before Horace was tossed – still screaming – inside the gaping maw.

The mouth closed, almost silencing Horace’s screams. Almost, but not entirely. The limbs of its chest lips didn’t re-seal completely, remaining slightly apart. Clearly it was anticipating more food. From within, Horace’s screams still broke out; desperate but muffled, then weakened, faltered and were lost as the entire torso and misshapen head atop it turned away from us to search for more prey.

I seem to recall now that head, the whole thing, turned from us to an impossible degree. But was it any surprise? The undead feel no pain to speak of, and stressing their bodies beyond tolerance would be irrelevant for them.

It was looking away from us, peering down then out across the Cheshire plain. So far it was unaware a colony of three hundred living souls lay directly behind it.

That was the moment our fight or flight response – switched emphatically to flight this time – kicked in. Brendan used the open palm of his right hand to wave the retreat, hissing an extra, unnecessary, ‘Go! Go!’ As if we needed telling.

The Homunculus halted its turn as if – and it’s pure anthropomorphising I’m doing here, very unscientific I know – it suddenly realised it had missed something. I certainly don’t believe some wild claims made over the years that the collective hearing of hundreds of undead ear drums the thing possessed enhanced its listening capacity and it heard our retreat. I’m more willing to accept the networking of all those undead brains enhanced to a degree the capability of its higher, reasoning, problem-solving or hunting capacity. Of course it would look all around it to get its bearings and seek prey. In doing so, rather than complete the turn, it just happened to turn back… our way. And see us.

We froze again of course, mid-stride. Maybe it was instinct; some primal hunter-gatherer race-memory of how to respond when stalked by a large predator. Y’know… look non-threatening, not worth the energy and effort. Think non-prey thoughts. Whatever…

This time the creature was taking us in; dumbly standing there in the lane outside that string of houses, of Johnny’s and my escort, only Brendan having thought to shoulder his assault rifle; aiming it back at and across the distance between us and the Homunculus. Fat lot of good it would do us if he let loose, I thought.

JB: But someone did, didn’t they?

AM: Oh yeah. Not immediately though. The moment hung before that, frozen. Nature itself even seemed to take pause, as if having sensed this latest monstrous evolution in the world’s newest predator. The only noise I could hear came from comms – Sergeant Rule again; with calm authority ordering all non-combatants up the hill and into the castle’s inner Ward, double-quick. A time-honoured defensive measure of course, used by towns and village populations across the Old World since fortress walls had first been built, and – making the call – Rule was demonstrating exactly why Henry had been wise to choose Beeston Castle as his safe haven. Staring at the Homunculus though, recalling the devastation over at the Brethrener Fortress, the truth suddenly dawned on me that even that gap between that hilltop bailey and the rest of the castle compound – wide and deep as it was – this time even that may not be enough to keep the defenders safe.

‘Run or shoot?’ came the question. It was Carol, standing beside me. I could see her arms holding her rifle trembling with indecision; terrified bringing her weapon to bear might set the monster off. ‘Run or shoot?’ she asked again. She was aiming her question at Brendan, I guess as a way of getting absolution for any resulting mistake she might make. The only answer she got from him was a single muttered curse. I suppose he felt the same way.

And still that giant bastard spawn stared at us from the Pit.

Turns out Carol needn’t have worried. As you said, some silly bugger couldn’t resist choosing that moment to take pot-shots at the thing could they? And the moment they did, anyone else in the Haven with a rifle and clear sight lines joined in. We only saw the military-grade tracer fire of course, reaching out from the castle compound among the other, invisible, rounds and punching into the thing. Tiny plumes of aerosolised blood, goop and dead matter puffed and vanished all down the side of the beast that faced the castle, top to toe. As you’d imagine, the damage being inflicted on the thing was about as much as mosquito bites would be on us. If anything, added to the rattle of gunfire, they only served to point the monster to the source of the irritant… and its next meal.

If only they’d waited. I can’t blame them for firing, but… God if they’d just held off a little longer. The Homunculus would’ve charged us eventually, I know that. Its reaction to Horace proved it. Maybe it’d only have been a second later, maybe another twenty. But that extra time, those precious seconds, would’ve meant there’d have been fewer people still crowded at the bottleneck already forming at the Bridge Gate leading to the summit Ward…

Naturally, once the Haveners on the battlements opened up, Brendan and his team did too. And that – we, being closer to it as we were – only served to draw the monster’s attention back to us; a red rag to a bull.

Those hundreds of mouths opened and then came that cry again. That… ghastly cry, drowning out the crackling guns. No one in the Haven would’ve escaped hearing that demonic sound. I don’t think a hundred banshees having screamed themselves hoarse could match that dry, fractured larynx, yet perversely, triumphantly piercing sound.

The monster flattened the Pit fence with its first footfall, and advanced on us.

We ran. We ran as fast as we could.

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