The road disappeared behind me as I drove up the narrow, rugged gravel driveway to my family’s ancestral home. As I rounded a treacherous bend, the old house came into view. I was glad that I had thought to rent a 4x4 pickup for the trip. Years of abandonment and neglect had led to that bend being partially washed out. That washout was the first thing that I would have to fix if I decided to renovate and repair the old house.
I parked in the open space in front of the porch and got out of the truck. The house loomed over me, dark and kind of ominous. A couple windows were shattered and the front door hung open. It was hard to believe that three generations of my family had once occupied the place simultaneously. It did not seem big enough for that now.
Taking a deep breath, I climbed the steps to the porch carefully, noting that the top one appeared to be on its last legs. The porch itself did not appear to be in bad shape, though I did not examine it closely. I figured that I should probably rebuild it anyhow just to be safe.
Even before entering the house, I could tell that the renovations needed to make the place habitable would take a season or two. I wondered if the wisest move might be to tear the whole thing down and rebuild.
Inside, odours of decay and age assailed my senses. There was probably mould somewhere. With the broken windows and doors, who knows how much moisture got in every time the summer storms that wracked the region came through.
Mixed in with that odour was a fouler stench, almost like rotting flesh. Had some animal died in the house? I would not be surprised. The smell would be another good reason to just tear down and start over.
Floorboards creaked with each step as I wandered through the first floor. The old kitchen was empty save for a rusty cast iron stove. The living and dining rooms were equally empty, though each still sported its fireplace. Those and the stove had been the only heat in the place even in my childhood.
That thought brought me up short. Until now, this place had seemed like something remote, a relic of my family’s distant past. But I had actually lived here until I was six. My parents and grandparents had shared the old house in those days.
My mother never disclosed the full story of why we left or why she divorced Dad. Even on her deathbed, she had simply exhorted me to stay away from the Palmers and their horrible old house. By that point, the house had already been emptied for almost two decades. I am unsure when Dad moved out, but his parents had apparently both died not long after Mom and I left.
I did stay away for another couple decades after Mom’s passing. Then word reached me that Dad was dying. While I had not seen him for forty years at that point, I went. I was, after all, his only living relative.
“The house. Go to the house. The One Below is waiting. The One must be fed,” the old man raved in the hospital bed where I found him.
In the middle of the following night, Dad let loose a shriek that left the nurses shaking. When they went to see what was happening, he was gone. His eyes bulged, staring into the dark of his room. A look of sheer terror was on the old man’s face.
I wandered up the stairs to the three small bedrooms. Visions of those stairs or the upstairs floor collapsing under me danced in my head. However, everything remained intact. In fact, the second floor and stairs seemed in better shape than the main floor. Even the windows were mostly unbroken or just cracked.
The first bedroom at the top of the stairs had been my parents’ room. I shared it with them for a time. Now, it seemed too small for anything but a single person. I am not sure how my family of three managed. Later, I shared the bedroom furthest from the stairs with a cousin named Robert who lived with us for a while.
Robert had been a bit strange. I never really knew why he ended up with us. He was a second cousin, descended from my grandfather’s brother. Later in life, I heard rumours of abuse and even murder on that side of the family, but I have never confirmed them. I never met his parents, nor had I heard anything of him or them since Mom took me away from that house.
At night, Robert would often moan and scream in his sleep. He talked about things coming up from the cellar to hurt him. Most nights, he wet the bed, leaving the room with a lingering stench of urine.
Satisfied that I had seen enough of the upper floor, I headed back downstairs and outside. The entrance to the cellar was an old wooden bulkhead door on the West side of the house. When I opened it, the stench of rot and death emerged in a foul cloud. I slammed the door shut and stumbled away, barely keeping my lunch down.
After recovering, I went to the truck and dug through my possessions. I still had some N95 masks left over from the pandemic of 2020 and brought them in case I needed them for dusty work or something like this. After putting one on and getting a big electric lamp, I headed back to the cellar and descended. The mask helped, though it could not completely shield me from the foulness below.
The cellar did not even have a proper floor, just packed earth. Some shelving units of rough-hewn lumber lined one wall with a few books on one shelf. In the centre of the cellar floor was something that appeared to be a well. At least, it was a huge round opening in the floor with a wooden covering on it. It took up maybe a third to a half of the space.
I decided to start with the shelves. The books were ratty looking but, oddly, they were not very dusty as one would expect of old books. Perhaps there was not much dust in the cellar.
The first book I picked up to examine had no title on the cover. It was a leather-bound book with no markings anywhere on the outside. I opened it and there was no title page, either. Just leaves of a heavy vellum covered in strange writing, perhaps runes or cuneiform.
Halfway in, I found a note. The handwriting looked like my grandfather’s.
“Here begins the rite of Aglaroth and the means of sustaining The One Below,” the cryptic scribble seemed to read.
I knew that my grandfather and father had spent a lot of time in the cellar. Mom and I had been forbidden to go down there so we had no idea what the men had been up to. My mother, though, seemed to believe it was something terrible. Now I found myself wondering if the men of the family were part of a cult or practised some kind of witchcraft. I flipped through a few more pages and noted some other cryptic scribbles.
“The words to chant when offering the sacrifice,” read one.
There followed some weird syllables, perhaps an attempt to render the neighbouring symbols into the Latin alphabet.
“Ag an si ka lak sha now ada li ta si ka la,” I read, then shook my head.
After glancing through some more pages, I put the book on the shelf and grabbed another. This one had a handwritten title page that read, “The Book of Sacrifices.” The rest of the book contained handwritten scribbles in a simple chart format. There would be a date, and then a note along the lines of, “an adulterer” or “he took the life of his brother.”
To my surprise, there were recent dates. The latest was from just a couple months before. That was well after Dad died so who was coming and making the notes? The dates from my grandfather’s death to a year or so before my father was hospitalized were definitely Dad’s handwriting. But I did not recognize the handwriting of the subsequent notes.
I returned that book to the shelf and gazed at the well. Something told me I might find the answers down there. After putting my lamp on a shelf to provide illumination, I walked over to the well.
The cover was wood and looked quite thick and heavy. It was weighted down with several good-sized stones. Strange symbols, similar to those in the first book that I looked at, were scratched into its surface in places. A rope and pulley system secured to the ceiling provided a way to lift the cover once the stones were removed.
I studied the rig for a bit. Then, fairly sure I understood how things worked, I removed the stones. I pulled the rope until the cover was lifted high enough for me to look under. There was a big metal ring in the floor to tie off the rope and hold the lid up, so I secured it there.
The well went very deep and was very dark. I retrieved the lamp and shone the light down the shaft. Immediately, I jumped back with my heart pounding. Then I returned for another look, swallowing hard as I took in the scene.
Instead of water, a heap of bones lay at the bottom. Visible skulls showed that they were human. A body that was still not fully decayed lay on one side of the heap. That must be the source of the smell.
“Sacrifices,” echoed through my mind.
Had my grandfather, father, and whoever succeeded my father been murdering people as some kind of sacrifice? What kind of deity had they been sacrificing to? Was it this thing the notes and my father called The One Below?
I shuddered and stepped back, staring at the hole. Then I quickly dropped the cover back into place and put the stones back.
Finished, I paused as another thought ripped through my brain. What were these stones for? It was like they were trying to keep the cover from being lifted from below. I wondered if the sacrifices were being thrown in alive and the stones kept them from escaping. Though the depth of the well and weight of the lid should have been enough to stop anyone from doing so.
I figured it was best to just leave this for the police. Clearly, I was related to a line of serial killers. Perhaps Mom had known or suspected something, leading to our departure. Maybe I had dodged a bullet by growing up away from these horrors.
When I emerged from the cellar, I found myself face to face with a tall, slender man of about my age. He held a knife in one hand. There was a wild gleam in his eyes.
“Hello,” I said, nervously eyeing the knife, “Um, do you want something?”
“You don’t recognize me, eh? It’s Robert, your cousin. Your former bunk-mate.”
“Oh shit, no. That was so long ago. You’ve changed a lot.”
“I have grown up. And service to The One Below changes you. Something you would never know.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You left. You ran away from your place in The One’s service.”
“Sorry, I am not getting what you are saying.”
“Our family serves and worships The One Below. We make the sacrifices and raise the prayers. You avoided that service and nearly left the world vulnerable to The One’s hunger. Fortunately, your father passed the torch to me.”
My cousin’s eyes were getting wild, even starting to blaze. I nervously glanced at his blade, noting that his knife hand was twitching.
“Go back down,” he said, “Go back downstairs and I shall teach you your lesson. By shirking your duty, you have earned the right to become the next sacrifice.”
“Robert, my mother took me away. No one told me about any of this. Dad was almost dead by the time I reconnected. It is all nonsense and madness anyhow, isn’t it? You, Dad, Granddad are all just using some kind of religion to justify murder. How many fucking bodies are down there?”
“Go back down. You’ll soon be able to count them yourself,” Robert said, moving towards me with the knife ready for use.
As I went back down the narrow steps, my brain was working out how to deal with this. I had no intention of becoming my cousin’s next victim. I still did not buy into the whole sacrifice thing, either. It was clear that my family had gotten entangled in some kind of murderous cult going back several generations. Maybe stopping my cousin was a chance to put an end to that.
Robert had me put my lamp on a shelf to provide us some illumination. He took down the Book of Sacrifices. Pulling a pen from his pocket, My cousin scribbled something in it.
“What are you writing?” I asked.
“Recording the sacrifice. We make a note to remember,” my cousin explained.
“And it is always about something they did to deserve death?”
“Not always. But if there is something, we record that. We do not want people to think we just kill for pleasure.”
Even though that’s exactly what you are doing, I thought to myself. The note just gives you an excuse.
“Raise the lid,” he ordered.
I removed the stones, debating if I could use them as a weapon. They were really a bit too heavy for me to throw effectively, though. Once they were removed, I grabbed the rope and began hauling up on it. The heavy lid slowly rose. Robert moved closer to the well. A thought crossed my mind.
After I tied it off, Robert slowly circled the well, looking down it. There would not really be any light for him to see, I thought. As my cousin gazed into the dark shaft, I also moved closer to the well, careful to keep on the opposite side from him.
When we were directly opposite each other, I put my hands on the edge of the lid. With a loud “fuck you”, I pushed hard. As I hoped, it swung on the end of the rope like a pendulum and crashed into Robert’s head. I heard the clatter of the knife hitting the floor and raced over.
After kicking the knife out of reach, I pounced on Robert. Rage kicking in, I grabbed him by the throat and bashed his head on the ground a couple of times. Then I closed my fingers around his windpipe and squeezed. He must have been dazed or unconscious from the blows because there was no resistance. His chest was not moving when I finally removed my hands from his throat.
I stood and stared at the corpse for a moment. Then I summoned all my strength to lift Robert on to the edge of the well. After a few breaths and stretches, I lifted him again, flipping his body over the edge. From below came the sound of his weight landing on the heap of bones.
Heart pounding, I staggered over to the shelf and grabbed the lamp. Then I shone the light down the well.
Robert lay atop the heap of bones. The partly intact body I had observed earlier was now buried under him. The death of my cousin the serial killer filled me with elation, but also a kind of dread. Was I now any better than him?
Then I saw motion down below. There was something down there with him, something moving. An oily darkness oozed out from the pile of bones, but also in from the edges of the well. It glistened a little in the light. This was like no living thing I had ever observed before, moving like viscous oil rather than like something alive. And yet, it was moving under its own power as far as I could see, which suggested life.
“The One Below,” I gasped.
The dark ooze from below the bones began to embrace Robert’s corpse. Blackness poured from his gaping mouth. How had it entered the body? I shuddered at the possible answers. Parts of the blackness rose like long necks or tentacles. The ends opened as gaping, dripping mouths. Then they plunged into Robert’s eyes.
That was enough. I was unable to watch any longer. Quickly, I untied the rope, letting the lid drop into place with a loud crash. Body shaking, I put the stones back in place. Then I retreated to the surface where I sat and stared in mute terror at the entrance to the cellar. I was unsure what horrified me more; my act of violence or the thing that had devoured Robert.
The next day, after staying at an inn in town for the night, I returned. After a long spell just staring at the cellar door, I marshalled the courage to go down. From the bookshelf, I retrieved the Book of Sacrifices. Next to the previous day’s date, Robert had scribbled, “the apostate who must answer to The One Below.”
Grinning, I scratched out his entry and entered, “The one who killed willingly.”
Did the thing hold Robert to account for something as well? Was he somehow “apostate”? At no time did I consider opening the well. I had no desire to see what remained of my cousin or risk another vision of the thing that had taken him.
I moved the books to my truck. Then I closed up the cellar and drove off. In town, I asked to have the house inspected, knowing it would probably be condemned. I had a plan, though I was not sure if it would work.
A couple months later, I watched as a truck poured concrete into the cellar. The house had already been demolished, leaving the cellar as a square pit in the ground with the sealed well in the middle. I had removed the shelving along with the rope before the house was taken down. There would be no need for any of that apparatus once the place was a solid block of concrete.
Once the concrete was poured, I carefully scratched the same symbols that had adorned the lid of the well into its surface. I had learned their meaning through careful study of the old books and my family’s notes.
While some of those notes were clearly written by my grandfather and father, some were in unfamiliar hands and appeared even older. I realized that an earlier ancestor, perhaps my great-grandfather, had been part of it. After learning what I needed, I burned the books, hoping that would be another break with my family’s history.
With the well buried under concrete and the symbols that held The One Below at bay in place, I left. I had no intention of returning or of ever building on that slab, though I had filed plans for doing so. How could anyone stay sane living above that horror? The planning was just done to keep up the ruse.
Still, even with the cellar and well sealed up, they haunt me. I often awaken from nightmares of the abyss below the concrete. The voices of my father, grandfather, even Robert call on me to return to the family home. An oily shadow lurks behind them. The One Below wants sacrifice.
Last night, I picked up a woman in a bar. After we had sex and she dozed off, I caught myself plotting how to get her to the old house and shuddered in terror. How long can I resist the call to give lives to The One Below?