Chapter 21 – Sample

The enclosed space of the hallway opened dramatically into a black void spanned by a narrow walkway. Glass lamps had been worked into the thin strip of stone, stretching like an ivory needle into nothingness. Matheau’s claustrophobia was immediately replaced by dizzying vertigo. As he stepped onto the bridge he felt as if the darkness was drawing him down, sucking at his feet, which he struggled to keep firmly in the centre of the path. The followed it without hesitation, all sight of the service hall soon disappearing behind them, leaving them suspended on a tightrope stretched between nothingness.


“There it is,” Cloy said, pointing to a small island of light that winked from the distance. Lit from beneath by the lamps the old man had become a spectre, a being half of shadow, half of pale mist. His beard was a tangle of iron wire, his eyes holes bored through his stony head. Matheau followed his finger, to see their destination. He had to squint, for all he saw was a shadow amidst a soft white glow. A few steps later and the shadow became clearer. He faltered, taking a step back in shock, nearly walking straight off the edge of the walkway.


“Careful!” cried Bentham, grabbing at Matheau. For one sickening moment they wobbled together, Matheau’s head spinning long after he was righted. He turned to the young priest thankfully, but what stared back was little more than a skull in the poor light.


“There’s someone over there,” he said, reaching for his rifle. “Standing there, watching us.”


“That’ll be Old Bart,” said Cloy. “Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”


As they stepped onto the wide platform, and Matheau saw it to be true. The figure had been a statue, but an incredibly life like one. A bald, thin man looked down on them, naked save for a cloak draped over his shoulders and pulled across his front for modesty. His brow was furrowed, and his stone eyes held such sadness that Matheau would not be surprised if a tear dribbled down the hollow cheek. In it’s left hand, the statue held a book, casually resting against the muscular leg. There was something strange about it, the way surface was lumpen and striated, the obvious veins painstakingly highlighted by the sculptor, the tendons in the hands and the feet, and the cloak itself – the way it fell irregularly down the figure’s back.


Matheau stared for minutes before the sick realisation occurred to him. This was a statue of a flayed man. The muscle was on display, and the cloak – it was the man’s skin pulled off in one complete sheet. On closer inspection he could see the glove like hands hanging from empty arms and as he moved behind he saw the statue’s true face, a flaccid mask complete with curly hair and beard. It was revolting and beautiful simultaneously. The macabre attention to detail both inspiring him with fascination and nausea.


“How old is this?” he asked.


“Centuries,” Bentham guessed as he knelt before the statue.


“Older,” said Cloy. “This was made before we came to Ark.”


Such age was almost unthinkable. If true, this stone was made from a fragment of Eden. It would have felt the kiss of the unfiltered sun as it was quarried raw from the earth, with an infinite sky above it. Despite his scepticism, Matheau felt something inherently spiritual about it, almost magical, as if the ancient stone might start breathing at any moment.


“The shrine is that way,” Cloy indicated to an ornate door cut into the bare wall that rose up from the platform. “It is a desecrated place, so I’ll leave you to your own devices. I need to commune with my deity.” He took a swig from the flask and took a seat next to the meditating Bentham, gazing up a his beloved saint.


Matheau walked towards the metal door and tested the latch. Rust has eaten away at the lock, and the mechanism crumbled as he pushed, the door squealing open. An awful stench assaulted him, the smell of burnt steel and scorched stone. The room beyond was blackened, a hollowed out shell filled with the carcasses of benches and a shattered altar. Above, a light flickered and spasmed, sending shadows dancing across the ruination. He unslung his rifle, taking its entire weight with his right arm, interlocking his fingers with the trigger. There was a door behind the altar, burnt against the blistering paint. He nudged it open with his foot and scanned the hallway beyond with the muzzle of his weapon. Nothing moved, and the only sound was the constant thumping of the nearby reactors.


This place was burned too, but it seemed newer than the shrine itself, the walls roughly hewn from the stone, the ground irregular. An addition, it seemed, added some centuries after the shrine had been constructed to venerate the statue. He entered the hall and pushed open a side door. Beyond, though destroyed by fire, was what was unmistakably once an operating room; a metal bed and trays for instruments deformed by heat, but still recognisable. Opposite this, he found something similar, and indeed as he worked his way through the corridor he found many such rooms. It was all eerily reminiscent of his time trapped beneath the fountain. Though in this case the rooms had been stripped of anything incriminating. There were no samples, no chemicals and no records, just the burnt remains of the equipment that was too heavy to flee with. Further down he found a bank of prison cells, and further still, bedrooms that must have been occupied by the staff. It was here, it seemed, the fire had started, the beds little more than twisted nets of metal, the bookcases and desks burned away to just the iron fittings.


On the last door in the hall, a small brass plate made brown with ash teased Matheau with the words ‘Geist Project, Main Office’. His hopes were raised, but as he pushed the door open they rapidly fell. He was greeted by more devastation, the cabinets thrown open and a microfilm reader shattered upon a warped desk. Someone had purged this place, but he had no idea when. A week? A month? A year? He had come all the way down here for answers, to find out what the Geist project was all about, but someone had beaten him. Whoever had left this place had anticipated that it would be one day found, but the question remained, why did they leave?


Still there might be something left – something they missed. After several minutes of sifting through ash, he was rewarded. Behind one of the cabinets he saw something glint – a piece of broken glass. He lent his rifle against the wall and reached down, sweeping away the soot. There were more shards, as he followed the trail it let to a metal frame that must have slipped down off the wall and behind a cabinet. He pulled it out, sending a cascade of ash tumbling from its surface. It was a framed photograph; beneath a banner bearing the Tunguska trefoil, a group of well dressed people stood beneath the statue of Bartholomew. Some wore white coats, while others tailored suits. Beneath was a list of names, and Matheau recognised them immediately. The victims of the killer, here, with their skin on and their lively eyes staring up at him. A brief tally of the names placed them all there, all part of the same organisation – this Geist Project. He squinted at the grainy image. The picture must have been decades old, Dr Ellis hardly looked like he had escaped his mid twenties. Whatever this place was, it had history, and to keep it secret so long required serious investment. But what was the objective, what were they doing? Human testing – that stunk of the amoral science of the Tunguksa, but also the Junketsu. They both had ties to the asylum, and no doubt the insane made for convenient test subjects, answers to whatever questions they were posing down here in the dark. That purpose was still unclear.


But something more pressing bothered him, something that didn’t make sense. The Potentate was not in the picture, for one. Nor was he named, not even as Theophilus Tenumbra. He was missing. Otherwise, this picture was a perfect schematic of the murderer’s actions.


There was more. One name stuck out, one that he did not recognise. For a moment his stomach jumped, realising that there might be a chance that there was one survivor left, someone he could question. But then a dark thought slid across his brain. If there was one left, perhaps that could be the killer? That made sense. Quickly he scanned the faces, matching up the names, trying to find the mysterious figure. He found them front and centre, but immediately despaired. The photograph had been damaged, someone had obscured the face, scrubbed it away until only a white circle remained above a smartly tailored suit. That was suspicious enough to prove it for Matheau. Though the fact that the photograph had been missed implied that the killer’s face had been obscured long before the place had been fed to the torch. It was puzzling. He slid the photograph from the frame, folded it and placing it into his jacket pocket, content with the name alone. He knew who the killer was.


And his name was E. Needleman.


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