Lovecraft Idea #217Ancient (Roman? prehistoric?) stone bridge washed away by a (sudden and curious?) storm. Something liberated which had been sealed up in the masonry of years ago. Things happen.
The latest lashing of rain stopped sometime after midnight. Come morning, the earth was a sodden mire, the sky a grim sheen of gray. The coach made good time, though, until the road ended. Just outside the hamlet, the river nestled in a modest gorge. It was still flowing high from the deluge, and it appeared the previous day's rain had completed what the ancient stones had started. The railroad bridge was demolished, agape, impassable by coach or foot.
"What do we do now?"
"Head back to town," the driver said.
"Can't we cross? Maybe there's another bridge downstream."
"Not near here there isn't. Normally the river's barely a trickle. Can't ford this here, though, not for a few days. If we was to try, we're the fools it rains on."
So we turned back toward Rennes but weren't more than ten minutes down the road when we encountered a group of men trundling baskets and sacks of produce. The man in the lead waved his hat at us and called out,
"You folk looking to cross at White Chapel?"
"We are, sir! Do you have a means of getting us across?"
"We've got us a ferry on th'other side of old Boduus Bridge. Can't see it from the road - old Rousse thought of that. Otherwise government men'd want to use it and we'd be stuck with naught but mold and rats."
"You have our thanks!"
"Don't thank me, monsieur. It'll cost you a hundred francs. Only that because you seem decent for a city man."
The price was exorbitant, but he held the advantage and knew it. I could have haggled, but he'd just as like have raised the toll. Irene d'Auvergne had agreed to bankroll my expenses in any case, so it was no money out of my pocket.
"Very well." I handed him a handful of bills - essentially all the money I had. He counted the denominations dutifully and smiled.
Their ferry was a makeshift barge of cobbled-together oxcarts held afloat by barrels lashed to the side. The conglomeration was an unlikely rivercraft but seemed stable enough once we came aboard. A team of oxen on either bank stood about with abject apathy, harnessed to a knot of large ropes and moving only when prodded by a boatswain.
As we passed the remnants of the old bridge - the Boduus Bridge, the man called it - I could see the crumbled ruins of timeless stone. Boreholes were pocked deep within the ancient pylons and arches that had held the bridge aloft. In the waning afternoon light, the holes formed black pits of night even though the diffuse light trickling through the clouds produced no shadows otherwise. As we passed, it seemed they were watching us, scrutinizing pits like the alien bead-eyes of an arachnid.
"Why has the old bridge got holes?"
One of the men shrugged. "When it collapsed last week, we seen bones in there. Not like the ossuary, but whole skeletons like people been buried in there. There was a lot of them, maybe fifty or more, but them bones all washed into the river. That's what they used to do, you know, bury people in the rock to make the bridge stronger. Their spirits would keep it up."
"I don't believe the Romans did that," I said.
He chuckled. "Not Romans. Them that came before. They knew the old ways of power. That bridge stood more'n two thousand years."
"Why did it fall down after all that time if it was protected?"
"There comes a time."
"Time for what?" I asked.
The man only shrugged and looked out across the river. Soon, the barge ground its way into the muddy bank and we splashed ashore. Not long after, we were back on the road toward Saint-Brieuc where the d'Auvergnes had their country home. We passed mired fields and pastures and a hillside vineyard. By the time we reached the house, evening was waning and a light, misty rain was drifting down.
It took some knocking before anybody answered the door. A disheveled, paint-smeared man opened it enough to admit his torso through.
"What do you want?"
"I'm, ah, Duvall? We sent a telegram? Irene sent it three days ago. I'm here to find Victor."
"We didn't get any telegram. Sorry."
He shut the door again and bolted it. I pounded for another minute before the bolt unlocked. This time, a woman answered the door. She smiled uncertainly.
"You'll have to forgive my husband. He gets like this sometimes. He's been painting up a storm for going on a week. And what are you here for, sir?"
"I'm here to look for Victor - he's been missing for two weeks, you know - I believe he may have been headed here before he disappeared."
"Are you police?"
"Ah, no. I'm here out of professional interest, really. I'm currently on retainer by Irene d'Auvergne, though. Here, uh, wait a moment."
I rummaged through my things and proffered the compensation agreement that Irene and Renee Abernathy had agreed to, as well as the letter from Thierry d'Auvergne sent to Victor the week before. She perused them thoughtfully.
"How rude of me, Dr. Duvall, please come in. Does your coachman need somewhere to stay for the night?"
"I would have thought so, but he insists he'll stay with some friends nearby. I think he was a bit cross with me after we crossed the river. I can't say why, though."
The house was spacious and clean but smelled of paint, even from the foyer. Several paintings hung from the walls, wisps of color and shape with a sort of tentative, airy quality, as if the paintings themselves were fashioned from motion. Birds in flight. Trees in the wind. Roiling storm clouds over the coast.
"He's an artist?"
"Thierry's a wonderful painter, though his works never seem to sell. He paints the soul of the pictures, you know? I tell him to paint portraits just...well, that's none of your worry, monsieur. Let me show you to the guest room."
I sequestered myself for the night but could hear the couple arguing downstairs. I took the time to reexamine the book I'd found in Victor d'Auvergne's study amongst his obscure and occult volumes. Aside from its title - The Book of Many Doors - and a faded stamp indicating that it had once belonged to the archbishopric of Avignon, there was little enough about the book that was intelligible. But the strange symbols in the margin, those squiggled glyphs were identical to the ones Thierry d'Auvergne had scribbled over the back of his letter to Victor.
I came to the dawning realization that substantial time had passed - my notebook filled with intense annotated scribbles that I scarcely remembered taking, the Book dangling idly from my hand. The d'Auvergnes had reconciled hours ago.
I couldn't remember falling asleep, but I was suddenly awake, intensely aware of another presence in the room - something shuddering in the air, the murky movement of dark upon dark in the night. I arose from bed, still in my day clothes, and lit the oil lamp on my bed stand. Two tall and gangly shadows cast against the ruddy brown of the wall. At first, I thought it was a trick of the light, but they moved, insubstantial but energizing the air; the stuffy atmosphere of the room vibrated and they seemed to gain substance without leaving their realm of shadows.
"What are you?" I cried out and threw the nearest object I could find - The Book of Many Doors.
The shadows flew apart and reconstituted themselves like crows on carrion. One was larger now - obscenely tall and distended while the other was short like a child. I circled about, hoping I could get to the window for an escape route; their forms shifted as I moved, sliding across the wall. Their size remained constant with my perspective, their proportions yawing as I moved. Suddenly, the room's air began to pulse and their forms tilted forward. I shut my eyes and stumbled backward, hitting my head upon the windowsill.
I awoke some time later. The oil lamp was guttering and the back of my head had a sizable welt. The Book lay unopened at the foot of the bed. I went to inspect the it - surely it should have been in the doorway where I'd hurled it at the living shadows - when a faint taptaptaptap issued from the window, nearly sending me into another panic. I stood at the shades, the taptaptaptap piercing the silence, anticipating what horror awaited beyond that veil. When I drew the shade, I saw a snow-white crow gazing at me from the sill. He cocked his head and flew through the indigo night, perching upon the garden wall, a gauzy white blob twenty feet below.
Perhaps I wasn't thinking clearly - my intellect may have been understandably clouded - but I felt a certain kinship with that ghostly bird - the opposite of that otherworldly terror the shadows had instilled in me - and decided to follow it out into the night. I crept through the house, hoping to find the side exit leading out to the garden, cringing at each creak and crack of the floorboards as I plodded along. I inadvertently passed into Thierry's makeshift studio, a repurposed greenhouse, and found him comatose upon his divan, paintbrush in one hand and an empty bottle of brandy by his side. His latest effort gave me pause: dark figures hidden among the verdant foliage of the deep wood. Their faces were featureless, their limbs long and crooked, splayed across primeval trunks.
So I went out into the night garden, carefully closing the greenhouse door behind me. The white crow perched atop the gate, its gaze fixed upon me; and as I approached, it made a muted caw and fluttered out to the little side trail, looking back expectantly. I followed him for an hour or more as night became grainy pre-dawn, past an old stone wall and off trail, up into the rolling heath, my trousers soaking through in the tall, wet scrub. The crow flitted over the top of a hillock and I lost sight of him. I rounded the hill's crest and found myself inexplicably falling.
I slid through vines and rocks, my face abraded and smeared with loamy earth. Deep roots jostled me like elbows. I was deposited abruptly in the pitch black on a pile of loose, moist soil; I looked upward but saw no trace of sky.
My voice echoed back faintly. I followed the sound, pushing through the cramped passage, running my hand along rough-hewn stone walls, hunching down where the ceiling came low. My head scraped against a protruding rock, and I cried out at the bite of pain. I vaguely sensed something amiss, but the only sound was my ragged breathing in the darkness. But the atmosphere was thrumming, pulsating. I ran recklessly forward, bumping against the walls as the passage wavered, imagining the shadow beings slipping quietly through the black.
The passage opened into a cool stone cellar, and I shot out, bumping into a cask. I laughed in relief, trembling as my nerves calmed. Dim light cast down from the top of the stairs and I could see that it was a mid-sized wine cellar stocked with seven casks. I was not alone.
"We thought you might find it. How did you know, Duvall?" The croaking voice was Thierry d'Auvergne's, but no human ever made such sounds - strange scratching words forced from gutteral rumblings.
"What are you?"
"You don't know, you who possess the Book? It was the Book that freed us, Duvall. We still have several empty casks; which shall be yours?"
d'Auvergne shambled toward me, his left hand gripping a large cleaver. His eyes were black as pitch.
"Thierry!" his wife shrieked from the atop the stairs.
The possessed man snarled and glanced backward even as he advanced. I took the opportunity to wrench the cleaver free. Before he could turn back, I brought the blunt end down upon his head with a dull pop and d'Auvergne tumbled to the floor. In that instant, I saw shadows stretching across the room, growing, shrinking, bending about the walls at impossible angles.
His wife slowly descended the steps. "Oh, monsieur, what have you done now?" she said, but the voice was not her own.
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