“And there’s nothing else you can tell me, Detective Sweetman?”
“Afraid not, Mr. Cooper. Not with an ongoin’ investigation.”
I sigh, slumping in the chair across from the police detective, feeling a slow bead of sweat uncomfortably work its way down my neck to the small of my back. In the window a fan blows futilely, the thick Mississippi humidity unimpeded by the valiant effort of its spinning blades.
“But you do think all the victims are the work of the same individual?”
Sweetman nods slowly. I know he wants me gone, am in some ways surprised he’s humored me this long.
“That’s correct, sah. Bite patterns on the remains ah consistent in each instance.”
He leans towards me across the desk, his gaze hard.
“Now, I don’t want you goin’ an’ creatin’ any kinda…panic…with ya story in ya…papah. So called. The police force is on toppa things, ya get me?”
It seems the good detective’s accent thickens when he tries to be intimidating. I force a smile.
“Of course not, detective. Although I will be sure to relate how accommodating you’ve been in answering my questions. I’ll leave you to it. Appreciate your time.”
I exit the police station and walk into the solid brick wall of heat that constitutes summer weather in the states below the Mason Dixon line, even in the early evening hours. Christ, I hate the South.
As the sun starts its slow descent towards the horizon, I head back towards the roach trap passing for a motel where I’m staying, reflecting on the events that brought me here.
My employer, the National Arcane, is a yellow rag in the vein of the Star or Enquirer but with more of a supernatural tilt. I’ll admit I’d had a slight distaste when I first got the job a decade ago, but hey, a paycheck is a paycheck. I figured I could sacrifice a bit of journalistic integrity writing about Elvis clones and alien abductions if it meant keeping a roof over my head. But a couple years into the gig the damndest thing happened…I made the startling realization that just because every one of the stories I reported was unbelievable did not in fact mean they were untrue. Not all of them, anyway.
Over the years I’ve acquired a knack to determine pretty quickly whether an outlandish tale holds any thread of reality, and on this story my weirdo radar is pinging like a Geiger counter at Chernobyl.
My investigation began a three days ago when I received a slim envelope in the mail at the Arcane. The contents consisted of several newspaper clippings cut from the Starkville Daily News accompanied by a note.
I have under good authority that you are a man who gives consideration to strange stories. Something terrible has happened to my fiancé. Please look into the events surrounding the articles I’ve included. Contact me if you feel it will be worth your time. I pray you will listen to me…I’m afraid no one else will. Please hurry, I feel time is very much of the essence.
Dr. Jennifer Swanson
She’d included her phone and email information, identifying herself as a faculty member at Mississippi State.
The common tie between two of the articles was apparent enough, the first headline reading “Mississippi State Expedition Missing, Presumed Dead,” and the second “Miss. State Archeologist Found Alive.”
Eight months ago, an archeological expedition had embarked from the college to investigate a newly discovered series of Aztec ruins deep in the south Mexican desert. The team consisted of a pair of graduate students, Dr. Swanson, and the team leader; her fellow archaeologist and fiancée Dr. Richard Jackson. Mere days into the expedition, all communication with Dr. Jackson and his fellows had been unexpectedly cut off. By the time university representatives managed to convince local authorities to make their way to the site, all the searchers found amidst the dunes was a few scattered pieces of the team’s equipment. Mysteriously, there was no sign of the ruins, leading the Mexican police to assume some tectonic shift had caused them to fall back into the earth, trapping the expedition inside. Without the barest hint of where to begin digging in order to attempt a rescue, the team members were given up for lost. That was, until two weeks later when Dr. Swanson emerged from the desert, stumbling dazed into the small village of Xilocintla.
Upon her return to the States, Dr. Swanson was questioned by the authorities. She claimed she was unable to remember any of the events that had occurred from the time they’d first arrived at the dig site until she wandered into the town. The article hinted that the investigators were speculative of this assertion, but as the woman had clearly been through a mentally and emotionally trying ordeal were ultimately urged by medical professionals to let her reveal the details in her own time. She returned to her position at Mississippi State and over the subsequent months had been seeking to pick up the shattered pieces of her life.
The third and final article included in the envelope was not so readily connected to the others, the headline screaming, “Terror After Sundown as Southern Cannibal Strikes Again!”
For the past week, several strange murders have been plaguing Starkville and the surrounding county. There have been three victims thus far, each found restrained and butchered in the same fashion, their hearts and various other internal organs removed. The instrument of this extraction has not been found, though oddly the autopsy reports identify small chips of obsidian recovered within each of the victims’ wounds. Perhaps most disturbing is evidence that the victims were each partially devoured, the bite marks the same in each instance as recently corroborated by my good friend Detective Sweetman.
After reading the articles, my mind began to weave some tentative threads from the ancient Aztec traditions of human sacrifice and cannibalism to this unorthodox method of slaughter. With my curiosity sufficiently whetted, I contacted Dr. Swanson and scheduled a flight to Mississippi. And now, here I am, tracking down leads in the sweltering summer heat.
Reaching the motel I check my watch. Just enough time to get cleaned up before I’m due to sit down with Dr. Swanson.
Thirty minutes later I find myself approaching the local college diner called the Campus Corner where we’ve agreed to meet. As I first walk through the door I feel an involuntary spike of adrenaline shoot through me. I know the exact cause of that reaction. The last time I met a contact for a story in a diner the interview ended with the man snatching my fountain pen and fatally plunging it through his own eye and into his brain. That sort of thing sticks with a man, even more so when I consider that he wasn’t mentally disturbed, but rather being psychically puppeted by another unbelievable story that turned out to be all too real. Viidith…I shudder at the thought of his name.
I’m not waiting long for Dr. Swanson. Recognizing her from her faculty picture online I signal as she enters the diner, waving her over. She slides into the booth across from me with a tight smile.
“Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me, Mr. Cooper. From our phone conversation I imagine you have some questions for me?”
Her voice is refined and educated, but with the barest hint of a southern accent peeking from beneath its polished surface. I nod.
“I do, doctor. Specifically because I feel like I’m missing some of the pieces. Now, my supernatural spidey-sense is buzzing like a hornets' nest here, and I’ve gotten so I trust it pretty well, but I know I don’t have all the details. The information the papers had regarding your failed expedition was certainly strange, but there’s nothing blatantly otherworldly about it.
“Same thing with the murders. Sure, they’re certainly weird, what with the organ removal and apparent cannibalism, but nothing that would outwardly make me think it was even remotely similar to some of the more…paranormal, I suppose, stories I’ve tracked down. I went ahead and checked in with your local police station who assures me the case is well in hand although they did confirm it’s likely one individual perpetrating all of these crimes and not some kind of copycat.
“But on top of everything, there’s no apparent connection between the two. Now, those articles said that you didn’t have any memory of what happened to the rest of your team. Something tells me that’s not completely accurate.”
I lean back, crossing my arms.
“So how about it, doc. You care to fill me in with why the hairs on the back of my neck have been standing at attention since I got off the plane yesterday?”
Dr. Swanson smiles slightly.
“You’re very perceptive Mr. Cooper. Everything started when Richard received an envelope in the mail, in some ways I imagine similar to how you received my message…
Not like our initial correspondence, however, was that this note did not contain a message or even so much as a return address. In fact, the only items the envelope held were a photograph and a single sheet of paper upon which was written a series of numbers that we soon identified as GPS coordinates.
The subject of the photo was a large piece of ancient stonework, perhaps the side of a pyramid, covered in carvings. Now, normally this would have meant very little, except for the fact that the carvings closely resembled some that Richard had first discovered several years ago while on site in Egypt. When we plotted the coordinates we found them to be in southern Mexico, near the heart of the former Aztec empire.
When Richard first discovered those runes they were an anomaly, the like of which he’d not seen before or since. The prospect of having another set of carvings to compare them to was simply too much of a lure for him to throw away. Soon we were making preparations to head to Mexico.
The university was skeptical, of course, and due to the unorthodox nature of the proposed expedition only allowed us to take our two graduate students, Bill Crowder and Sarah Monahan along with us. The intent of this initial excursion was simply to serve as a scouting mission, confirm the viability of the site and assess the worthiness of preparing a more rigorous expedition.
We landed in Mexico City and had soon loaded the rented jeeps with our equipment and were making our way out into the untamed desert. It took us two days to reach the coordinates.
We were still several miles from our destination when we saw the structure rising ominously in the distance; an enormous Aztec pyramid, at least twice as large as any previously recorded. My own specialty is ancient Mesoamerican cultures, so I feel confident making this claim.
Upon arriving at the structure, Richard and I were exuberant. The carvings Richard had found in Egypt were contained on a broken piece of masonry, but here was a complete building, potentially overflowing with knowledge to impart. This is the kind of discovery that gets you lifelong funding; I tell you this only so that you will hopefully forgive what was, in hindsight, an unforgivable lack of caution.
The doorway to the pyramid was open, yawning black and wide like the jaws of some monstrous creature. This should have struck us as remarkable, but as I said, our excitement betrayed us. Abandoning the jeeps, we took flashlights and a few necessary pieces of gear and entered the pyramid.
If the outside of the pyramid was remarkable, the interior was breathtakingly astounding. Based on my own significant knowledge pool, I recognized the structure as a sacrificial temple to the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, but quickly realized that something was different from other such works I had examined. This was older, the carvings almost seeming to represent a sort of proto-mythology, one that exhibited a far greater familiarity with its subject than any I’d seen before. I first began to feel the barest pangs of concern.
It took us perhaps ten minutes walking through twisting and turning passages until we reached the center of the structure, an enormous chamber whose ceiling rose clear to the top of the pyramid where it was open to the blue of the sky high above us. Or rather, it should have been; rather than opening to the afternoon air, the sky appearing through the aperture was dark, but for the distant light of shining stars.
Playing our beams about the chamber we found the center dominated by a raised dais directly below the strangely lighted opening. Exploring my flashlight along the walls I was shocked to find them riddled with mounted shackles, their iron embrace still holding the bones of sacrificial prisoners, long since dead. About the chamber floor were littered dozens of ceremonial daggers, carved from obsidian and long suspected to be used in Aztec rites of human sacrifice. My dread grew.
As if in a daze, Richard approached the center dais, flanked by Bill and Sarah. As he ascended the steps, a series of runes carved into them illuminated with his passing, glowing with a strange alien light. I opened my mouth to call to them, but was too late.
Reaching the foot of the altar, torches mounted on the walls around the chamber suddenly burst into otherworldly light, their flames burning blood red. I felt my very sanity threaten to break as above my fiancé an enormous being began to coalesce from seemingly nothing, its form vaguely serpentine and comprised of a thick, smoky substance. From a very long way off, some part of my mind recognized the thing as strikingly reminiscent of depictions of the Aztec deity whose temple we were trespassing within, a feathered dragon whose crimson eyes duplicated the light of the torches, as if drawing from the same source.
With an inhuman roar, the being flung itself at Richard, its very essence pouring into him through his mouth and nose, his limbs twitching spastically. On either side of him, Bill and Sarah threw their heads back in a synchronized motion like puppets on a string and screamed as they were immolated, their bodies spontaneously disintegrating into so much empty air.
The last of the god’s essence entered Richard with a sickening slurping noise, and the air was still. He turned to me then, the man who I loved, who I planned to spend the rest of my life with, and in his blood red eyes, I knew that man was gone. He opened his mouth and roared as I turned to the passage and ran for my life.
I tore back towards the entrance as the temple began to shake around me, the floor and walls rippling as if they were comprised of liquid instead of stone. I threw myself from the temple as the desert opened beneath it, the desert swallowing the structure back to where it must have lain dormant for so many, many years.
My memory from there is a bit fuzzy. I wandered the desert in shock for what I now know was two weeks. When I was tired I slept. When I woke, I started to walk again. Eventually I managed to inadvertently reach Xinocintla, and was soon returned home to the university.
Dr. Swanson pauses and takes a sip of water from the glass sitting on the table between us.
“That’s…a remarkable tale, doctor. I can understand why you would rather tell the police you didn’t remember anything about your ordeal than try to convince them of what you say you saw.”
She smiles thinly.
“I am wondering though. What possible connection does your expedition, astounding as it was, have to do with these cannibal murders?”
“I understand your skepticism, Mr. Cooper, and I appreciate that you’ve listened to what I’ve said with as much open mindedness as you have. I ask you extend just a bit more.
Of course I might have suspected some connection if the only tie was the nature of the murders to the Aztec culture; cannibalism and rituals, the shards of obsidian recovered from the victims. But I’ve been having dreams.”
Dr. Swanson leans across the table towards me.
“I’ve been having these dreams, Mr. Cooper, ever since that fateful day in the pyramid. I see him. Richard I mean. In my dreams his blood red eyes bore into me, seemingly trying to dig into my very soul. I think that chamber changed me too, gave me some kind of connection to him. Not him, It, I suppose now. I don’t know how it managed to escape, but I did, and a being as ancient as it surely has more cunning than I. I’ve felt it as it has made its way up from the temple through Mexico, leaving a path of death in his wake. It’s coming for me, I think. I don’t believe the authorities have made the connection yet, but they’ll likely eventually realize there are a series of similar murder victims leading all the way up through Mexico City and through south Texas and Louisiana. I’ve felt when it takes them, absorbs their essence and soul into itself.”
“But…then why hasn’t it taken you yet, doctor? If what you say is true, it’s been near here in Starkville for at least, what, two weeks now?”
She smiles sadly.
“I think its Richard, Mr. Cooper. I think there’s a small part of him still inside of the thing that he’s become and he’s fighting to divert it to other victims, for as long as he can. But I know he won’t be able to forever. That’s why I reached out to you; when I’m gone I need to ensure at least someone knows the truth.”
“And what truth is that?”
“This world is not what it seems to be. There are other things, old, terrible things, that ruled it once and seek to rule it again. You’ve seen the signs.”
“Do you honestly think I can do anything to stop it? That anyone will listen to a tabloid newspaper raving about the coming end of the world?”
“No, Mr. Cooper. But I can hope.”
Written by Shadowswimmer77
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