Leaving the brothel through the alley exit in the middle of the night, Daniel took his wedding ring from his pants pocket and slid it on. In the chill and damp of heavy fog, he tucked in his shirt, zipped up his windbreaker, and lit a cigarette. He looked both ways down the long narrow brick lined alley. What little light there was coming from two lampposts at opposite ends of the alley were no more than small orbs of white light, like embers in a dying fire, surrounded by the thick hazy mist. Taking two puffs of the cigarette he turned toward the faint sound of traffic and began walking. His footsteps echoed along the walls like muted claps of thunder.
Passing by a dumpster reeking of rotting vegetables, he stopped, alarmed by a large gray rat that crossed his path and disappeared in the fog. He inhaled smoke from the cigarette and exhaled, blowing rings that dissipated, then continued on, picking up his pace. Sensing he was coming to the end of the alley, but not able to clearly see the street ahead, he tried to visualize his location, and realized he had no idea whether to turn left or right once he reached the street. He threw the half-finished cigarette on the pavement. Ahead of him a figure clothed in attire like a nun’s habit appeared, then another, and then another.
Stopping, he tried to make out their faces, and wondered if it was the poor visibility of the night that made their head pieces to the long tunics that touched the ground look dark gray.
“Ladies,” he said, with a hint of questioning.
In the next instant a burlap bag was pulled down over his head and whatever hit him knocked him out cold.
When he awoke, water sloshed around his feet and the scent of decayed earth and sewage filled his nostrils. As he shifted, chains around his wrists and ankles that held him against a slimy earthen wall rattled. The back of his head where he had been hit throbbed with pain. A flame from a single torch fixed to a wall in an otherwise dark corridor provided the only light. A row of bars separated the room he was in and the corridor. Dripping water echoed in the cold stillness.
“Help,!” he cried out.
“That will do you no good,” a man’s raspy voice said to him from the darkness on the other side of the room.
Daniel strained to see. Another man, shrouded in shadow, was against a far wall. “Where am I?” Daniel asked.
“I don’t know for certain ,” the man said. “Somewhere beneath the city.”
“How long have you been here?” Daniel squinted hard, trying to bring the sight of the man hidden in the dark into better focus.
“I have no idea,” the man said. “You’ll find as I have that time becomes meaningless very quickly here.”
“What do they want from us?” Daniel asked.
“You don’t want to know,” the man said.
“What’s your name?” Daniel asked.
“That too has lost any meaning,” the man said.
“Mine is Daniel,” he whispered.
“Wake up,” Daniel heard, quickly opening his eyes and trying to separate the nightmare he was having from the one he was in. From further down the corridor came the sound of rattling keys, the clicking of a lock mechanism, and the opening of a cell’s metal door on rusty hinges.
“Please God, no more,” a man’s voice shrieked in the darkness.
“What is it?” Daniel asked in a hushed tone.
“You were asleep,” the man in his cell said. “I heard you snoring. Never let them catch you asleep.”
As the screams of the man down the corridor faded, and the cell door closed with a resounding bang, Daniel felt something tugging on the hem of his pants. Looking down, a large, white rat was beginning to crawl up his leg. Even in the very faint light he could see its bright pink eyes. He shook his leg hard trying to shake it loose. The rat jumped from his leg, making a splash as it landed in the fetid water that covered the cell floor and swam into the darkness.
“What is it?” the other man asked.
“A rat. An albino rat, I think,” Daniel said. “These women who are holding us – are they part of some cult?”
“They’re not women,” the man said.
The corridor brightened with the light from more torches.
“What . . . ?” Daniel started.
“Quiet, you fool,” the other man said.
Outside the cell three of the habit-clad figures appeared, each carrying a torch. It was then that Daniel noticed the hems of their garments were not touching the water. They floated slightly above it, standing upright in the air, solid but weightless. The bright light of the torch flame shone on their faces. Daniel almost giggled, thinking he was looking at Halloween masks. Never before had he seen a living person with skin so disfigured by sores oozing with pus and blood. Their eyes sunk back in their skeletal faces.
One of the figures took a ring of keys from a rope around its waist and put the key into the lock. As they opened the door and came in, their stench of rot and decay filled the space. Bypassing Daniel they went to the other man. Then Daniel’s saw the other man’s face. His eyelids had been cut away and his lower lip was gone.
“No, no, it wasn’t me,” the man screamed as they unlocked his chains. “It was him who was talking. Take him.”
They reached beneath the man’s arms, lifted him up and carried him out as he weakly kicked at the water and tried to struggle free of their grasp.
“It was him,” the man shrieked over and over as they closed the cell door and disappeared down the corridor.
Back in the light of the single torch in the corridor, Daniel felt warm urine running down his leg.
Resisting the need to sleep, Daniel began recounting the fairy tales and fables he had heard or read when he was a child, but each one had an element of evil, like a witch or an ogre, so he gave it up and tried to concentrate on his wife; her looks, the smell of her hair, the lilt in her voice. This only left him feeling more despondent. That he was happily married made his going to the brothel even more reprehensible. It had been his only marital indiscretion in ten years of marriage, but he blamed it for him being in the situation he found himself.
“Other men had done far worse things, so why me?” he wondered as his eyes began to close.
Awaking to the sound of heavy breathing, Daniel quickly realized it was his own that had awakened him. Raising his head and seeing several torches on the walls around him he also realized he was no longer in the cell but in another larger room that smelled of sulfur and rotten meat. He attempted to sit up, but was held down on a wood table by straps around his legs, chest and arms. Brackish water dripped from small rust colored, spiral stalactites that hung from the ceiling. Drops splashed onto his bare chest and stomach.
“So, you’ve awoken.”
Daniel turned his eyes toward the direction of the voice. Where nothing had been only a moment before now stood one of the habit-clad beings, its face hidden in the shadows of its head piece.
“Why are you doing this?” Daniel asked, aware of how parched his throat was.
“Why indeed?” it said, the pitch of its voice alternating from feminine to masculine. “You were marked.”
It remained perfectly still for a moment as if it were thinking what to say next, then disappeared.
Daniel blinked his eyes, hard, disbelieving what he had just seen. “Marked?” he said aloud.
Then a metal door covered in green and blue mildew opened and four of the beings entered. They surrounded the table and tossed back their head pieces, uncovering their ghostly white faces dripping with infection. They bent down and placed their blood smeared lips on his chest and abdomen and began sucking the blood from Daniel’s body through his skin.
He screamed until he passed out.
When he awoke he was back in the cell and shackled against the wall. His right eye hurt even more than the sores left on his torso. He turned his head toward the torch in the corridor. Unable to blink his right eye, he knew what had been done to it. The clotted blood around the eye socket tugged at the surrounding skin. He closed his left eye as what little light there was in the cell seared both eyes. His right eye throbbed with pain and tears ran down his cheeks. Then the door to the cell opened. He watched as the beings carried in another man, pulled a burlap sack from his head, and stood him against the far wall and chained him there.
Daniel looked away as they turned their faces toward him as they exited.
“Speak quietly,” Daniel said. “My name is Daniel. What’s yours?”
“Robert,” the man whispered. “What is this place?”
“Catacombs of some kind,” Daniel said. “Were you snatched from the street?”
“I was at home watching television,” Robert said. “My wife and children were asleep. I didn’t hear those things come into my house.”
The sound of a cell door opening reverberated through the corridor, and then the screams of a man pleading to be left alone. The door closed and the man’s screams faded as he was carried away.
Robert whispered prayers.
“That won’t help you,” Daniel said.
As the four beings carried Daniel toward the room with the metal door he began to struggle much harder than he had previously. As they tightened their grips he fought even harder, finding that their lack of footing on solid floor gave them little leverage as he knocked them from side to side. It occurred to him even as he threw wild punches that seldom landed that others must have fought also, but it didn’t deter him. Just before reaching the door, Daniel was dropped into the slimy water. He hopped to his feet and ran down the length of the corridor, peripherally seeing all the other cells and figures hidden inside among the shadows against the walls. At the end of the corridor he rammed his shoulder against the bars causing them to break free from the decaying earth. He stumbled out into a pitch dark passageway, slipping in foul smelling water, then blindly ran through a long tunnel until he reached an opening to a sewage pipe. Sliding down it, he landed feet first in a canal alongside a garbage dump. Climbing over mounds of trash he came out on a dirt road leading into the city. He looked up at the night sky and thanked God.
Six months later Daniel sat in a pew at the back of the church and adjusted the patch over his eye. He crossed himself then got up and went out. He pulled the collar of his coat up as a he was buffeted by a cold wind. Twilight lengthened the shadows cast by trees along the cobblestone street. He quickened his pace and reached the front door of his home just as the church bells rang. The burlap bag was slipped over his head and he was knocked unconscious before he had time to react.
After the doctor delivered the newborn baby he handed him to the nurse. She turned, and as the others in the delivery room were busy, she surreptitiously lifted the infant’s left heel. She put it to her lips, sucking a small amount of blood from it, leaving a very small mark in the shape of a pentagram.
Steve Carr, from Richmond, Virginia, has had over 500 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals, reviews and anthologies since June, 2016. His paranormal/horror novel Redbird was released in November, 2019. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize twice. His website is https://www.stevecarr960.com/
“Catacombs of the Doomed” was previously published by Night to Dawn Magazine in 2018.