Story: “Dante’s Ascent”

It has been a while since I’ve shared any new writing with you here, so I think it’s time to rectify that. This is a story that runs in a different vein that what I usually do, a mix of horror and allegory. I say it’s horror, and it certainly has those elements, but my wife (who is not a horror fan) could read it so if that genre isn’t your cup of tea you can probably read this, too.

In “Dante’s Ascent”, a honeymooning couple spends a night at a cabin where all is not as it seems. Will the strange horrors that creep about while they’re sleeping corrupt their young marriage?

Dante’s Ascent
Story by J.R. Underdown

Rural Indiana, specifically the southeast corner, holds many hidden treasures in its vast woodland. Covered bridges, dirt trails, old town halls, and other vestiges of long gone times that will never be seen again, yet remain relatively unscathed by the world outside the wood. One of these treasures was a cabin that sat on a hill overlooking the Sharon River, a tributary to the wide Ohio River a few miles away. This cabin stemmed from colonial times but had since been refurbished with more modern accessories. Its front door faced a man-made lake with a gravel drive wrapping around it.

On a particular evening, with the sun setting and twilight coming fast, an off road vehicle meandered down the path with a white sedan following behind. The two vehicles pulled up into a circle beside the cabin and stopped. Out of the lead buggy stepped Mrs. Linda Macy, frizzy blond hair, a kind face, and dressed casually. Emerging from the car were the Taylors, Dan and Felicity, newly married and hailing from St. Louis.

“Here she is,” Linda Macy announced, “‘Dante’s Ascent’.”

“Odd name for a honeymoon cabin,” Dan noted, stretching his arms out.

Mrs. Macy swatted at the air, “It was my husband’s idea. He grew up Catholic and liked that Divine Comedy or something. He tried reading it to me once…I didn’t find it very funny.”

“That’s because ‘comedy’ meant something different back then,” Felicity added, coming around the car. “It signifies a happy ending, as opposed to a tragedy.”

Mrs. Macy gave her a confused look, wondering why anyone would know such information.

Mrs. Taylor, sensing the meaning of the look, quickly added, “I’m an English teacher, we read Dante in one of my classes.”

“Oh, I see. Well, this way! I admit, this cabin looks prettier in the morning than at sunset.”

“Looks pretty enough to me.”

“Wait ‘til morning to see what you think. Now the outhouse is right over there.” She pointed behind them to a small building. “We call it an outhouse, though it has heat and AC. You probably won’t need the heat with this nice spring we’re having, but maybe in the morning it’d be nice.”

They followed Mrs. Macy up the short path to the deck, with two wooden rockers, a small table, and a bear statue holding a welcome sign. The landlady pulled out a key ring and unlocked the door.

Inside they found a homey room with a living area before them bearing a couch and rocking chair facing a great stone fire place. An old TV sat on a stand in the corner and all around little trinkets and pictures lined walls and shelves. Behind the couch was a small kitchen table, with the kitchenette around the corner. On the opposite side were stairs leading up to the loft, where the bed resided. A host of windows faced the front and back and hanging baskets bookended the stone chimney rising up. A faint smell of gas graced their noses and a warm light emanated from a lamp on an end table.

The newlyweds soaked in the atmosphere and Mrs. Macy, a veteran of her work, wisely gave them a moment. Soon she dove into particulars.

“Well, the cabin’s all yours! This is a gas fireplace; the controls are on the side of the hearth there. The kitchenette has every pot and pan imaginable, and the fridge has some iced glasses in case you drink or want a root beer float or something. Out back you can see the Sharon. We do have a dock down there with some canoes, but call us first if you want to get one out. Check out is at 11 AM. You all are staying the week, right? Your honeymoon, right? Did you all get married today?”

“Yesterday,” answered Felicity. “Drove all day today.”

Mrs. Macy nodded and asked them if they had any questions. Felicity asked about wild animals, to which the owner assured her that animals typically didn’t bother people in those parts. Dan wanted to make the payment and Macy gladly acquiesced.

With an exchange of the keys, Linda Macy began her exit but paused at the door.

“Oh, by the way, if you need anything, call us…anytime, even in the middle of the night.”

The warmth gradually left her face as she said this and a curious look replaced it. This gave Felicity concern and filled Dan with mystery. However, they didn’t retain her and let her slip away into the growing twilight.

“What do you think she meant by that?” Felicity wondered.

Dan remained silent for a moment and finally shrugged. “Who knows? At least we know they’re available.”

They turned their attention to each other now. Dan was of average height and stocky, with short brown hair, wide faced, wide-eyed, and wide mouthed, but a dainty nose. Felicity matched him in height but was slender, wore glasses over hazel eyes, had a petite mouth but a bigger nose. Ironically, they bonded over the shared jesting they endured for their snouts. Her hair was long and light brown and she danced around the cabin now in a giddy fashion, forgetting the landlady’s odd last words.

Dan grinned stupidly at her and gave chase, finally grasping her in his arms and yanking her off her feet. When grounded once more, she spun around and they embraced. However, she now became aware of all the windows and abruptly pulled away, flitting to each window and drawing the curtains.

“So many windows make me nervous!” she exclaimed.

Dan, who was a little disappointed at a lost romantic encounter, placed his hands on his hips. “We’re in the country, babe, who’s going to be peeping in our windows?”

His wife turned and smiled, “The mountain men, of course!”

Dan shook his head, “Well, I guess I’ll bring in our luggage.”

The remainder of the evening passed uneventfully. They settled in, enjoyed the gas fire, had a small meal, visited the bathroom, and played a game of Blackjack. But Dan noticed his bride growing increasingly anxious as the night wore on, he knew the signs well enough for they were fresh in his memory; she behaved this way the night before their wedding. Eventually they readied for bed and retired to the loft. Cozy and warm, there was a king-sized bed with a night stand on either side while an old love seat sat against the opposite wall beside a white dresser and a comfy chair. Antique dolls and other such toys lined the walls. A sturdy oak railing kept one from tumbling over the side and onto the couch below.

As they sunk into bed, Felicity seemed close to a nervous breakdown. Dan drew her close and offered words of comfort, desperately searching for anything to soothe his new wife. Finally he offered to read the Bible to her. She agreed to this and he reached for his Bible that he placed beside the bed. He read several Psalms and from the gospel of John. They spent some time in prayer and at the end of this, Felicity’s nerves were more composed, but a trace of worry remained in her moist eyes.

“Why don’t we try those sleeping pills Pastor Gerd gave us?” Dan suggested at last, longing for sleep if nothing else.

Felicity swallowed hard. “Do you think they’ll work? Are they safe?”

Dan smiled slightly, “Gerd swears by them; takes them himself. Look, we’ll both take them and we’ll both sleep soundly.”

Felicity gave a wry smile. “And if they harm us, we’ll go like Romeo and Juliet!”

“Yes…but I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Dan retrieved a glass of water and they shared it in turn as they took the pills. Soon no light shone in Dante’s Ascent and its occupants were asleep.

After some time passed and the moon crept higher into the sky, the gas fire place inexplicably flickered to life. As unsettling as this would have been to the young couple had they been awake to witness it, they would have called the owner in a frenzy after seeing a tall, slender figure sitting on the couch opposite the flames, hunched over seemingly contemplating a matter. One could say a hood covered its head, or perhaps it was a long shock of jet black hair. Its clothing, if one could call it that, was black, so much so that it could easily have been mistaken for a shadow, though the source would be invisible.

How long this spectral visitor remained on the couch is incalculable. But presently it stood up, glanced toward the loft, and with long strides exited through the back door, taking the flame light with it.

Immediately, new forms filled the vacant sitting area. Pillars, they were, tall gray pillars with stony faces etched on the sides. They were in constant movement, tottering back and forth, causing a slow rumble to roll along the floor and up the walls until the cabin shook violently. At last, they all became unbalanced, hung in limbo for a moment, and then fell upon the floor with a great crash, crumbling to pieces. Surely the Taylors would awake for such noise! But miraculously they did not. They merely shifted around beneath the covers and slept. The remains of the great pillars evaporated, leaving behind a steamy air with a putrid smell. The ceiling fan the Taylors left on slowly dissipated the cloud and the night resumed its calm watch.

Soon, however, a new occurrence happened. Streaming through the windows of the loft were bright white beams from the moon. It gave a soft, natural, yet eerie light to the wooden space. If you focused on the beams long enough, you would have sworn that they were vibrating, even moving. And moving they were, like an animal caught in a net. Suddenly, a form sprang forth from the light and stood indistinguishable in the middle of the room.

A faint luminescence emanated from it as it floated to Dan’s side of the bed. It cast a pale gleam upon his face, causing him to stir, but he did not awake, nor did he turn away. The rogue moon beam began convulsing again, trying to take a shape. Eventually it managed the form of a lusty, beautiful woman, ghostly yet glowing. It bent closer to Dan’s face. At first he smiled in his sleep, but then he grimaced. He seemed to wrestle with something in his dreams—or nightmares—that he wanted to forsake. With a few drops of sweat forming on his brow, he tossed violently around, turning his back on the pale harpy.

Something of a frown took shape upon the beam’s features. But it cast its eyes upon Felicity now and temporarily losing form, it made a great leap over the bed, forming a momentary arch, and alighted before the young wife. After another moment of gestation, it became like a strong, handsome man and bent down before Felicity’s face. She frowned slightly in her slumber, as if undecided about something. Her nose crinkled and her eyebrows came together, showing unease in her mind. Finally, in a huffy manner, she turned over, facing her new husband. Both seemed content and happier now.

Again, the phantom frowned. Its shape melted into the singular beam and leapt back into the light coming through the window.

A new noise erupted now, this time from the refrigerator. It rattled back and forth, banging into the walls of its small enclosure. Suddenly the door to the fridge flew open. A yellowish brown slimy mass filled the appliance. It wriggled around like a worm, trying to release itself from its prison. Eventually it plopped out upon the ground and unfurled itself: it was a hideous, beastly slug. The creature grew as it moved out of the kitchenette, past the table, and around to the front of the couch. Its four tentacles waved about and a trail of goo followed in its wake.

Slowly it mounted the couch, raising its head aloft with its round mouth opened wide. It stretched itself to full length and grasped onto the edge of the loft. Then it sunk its teeth into the wood and began eating the floor. As it ate more, it grew fatter and heavier. Finally, with a wrenching jerk, the loft broke loose on the slug’s end and tilted down at a 45 degree angle. For all this movement, none of the furniture moved in its place, nor did the two young people sleeping. The slug chewed away at the floor, inching nearer the bed. Dan rolled uneasily in his slumber, lying on his back. His hands shot to his stomach as if a sharp abdominal pain festered there or a gnawing hunger. Eventually he tore his hands away and turned back to his wife.

The top tentacles on the slug drew up erect and the horrid gluttonous creature receded over the edge of the loft, all the while disintegrating, as if salt had been laden in the wood. The slug flopped in agony off the couch and on the dinner table, breaking it beneath the straining weight. The upper room slowly righted itself, with the floor appearing whole again. For awhile, there was peace as the slug melted away and the table regained its legs.

A ticking clock, the rattle of the ceiling fan, and a twig occasionally scratching a window were the only noises to be heard. But soon a new sound joined in. It came from a small item, Dan’s wallet that sat on his nightstand, and it jumped about like a fish pulled from the water. Finally, it succeeded in landing in an upright position, at which point it burst open and unleashed a swarm of moths.

Swiftly this gray and silver cloud spread and descended on anything of value in the cabin. Silverware in the kitchen turned to dust, the television melted away, and the couch disintegrated at an unbelievable rate. In the midst of this bizarre feast, two moths separated themselves and came upon the Taylors.

They alighted on the couple’s wedding bands and nibbled away at the gold. Their presence tickled Felicity’s hand and caused Dan an unbearable itch. The rings were nearly severed when at last Dan flicked his hand, causing the moth to flit off, and placing it on Felicity’s, crushing that insect beneath his grasp.

At this casualty, the greedy swarm reformed and dove back into Mr. Taylor’s wallet. The eaten items resumed their place as if nothing had disturbed them and silence reigned in the cabin.

But outside was a different matter.

Far away a faint rumbling could be heard. If you stood on the porch of Dante’s Ascent you would think it was machinery in the distance causing the commotion. The noise drew nearer and increased in intensity until it sounded like a roar.

Flying down the gravel path toward the cabin came 20 or so bikers riding their black and silver steeds. They kicked up a hailstorm of stones as they slid through corners and added to the raucous by firing pistols and shotguns toward the sky.

With such violence they bunched up before the cabin and the Taylor’s car. Several men, without warning, produced crowbars and bats and mercilessly pummeled the vehicle. Half the group stomped up the front path, still firing their guns, and came to the front door. The leader of this rowdy crew, a grizzled man with a grey goatee and pitch black sunglasses, took his rifle butt and smashed out a window pane. Reaching in, he found the lock and soon they stormed inside.

The inside of the little building lit up with the flash of guns and was filled with noise like the howls of banshees. The tinkling of broken pottery and glass mixed in to sound like a looter’s audible dream. The group split in half again with the leader charging up the steps. They found the Taylors sleeping soundly in spite of all the raucous.

The leader gave a toothy grin and silenced his boys. A tense minute followed, finally put to death by the report of his rifle firing into the ceiling. The couple stirred slightly but didn’t awake. The head biker frowned and leveled his rifle at an old picture resting above the headboard. Another shot smashed the frame and drew more movement from the Taylors. Felicity seemed scared, as if a violent nightmare haunted her dreams. She rolled nearer to Dan and clasped his arm.

The intruders seemed perturbed and one of the underlings jabbered at his master in an unknown tongue, apparently arguing over the effectiveness of his work. The leader replied without warning, cracking the rifle butt across the misfit’s face with all the wrath he could muster. The other attendants didn’t like to see their fellow treated so and gang-tackled the attacker. Shots were fired, apparently hitting nothing. But the writhing, tumultuous mass eventually staggered backwards and over the edge of the railing. They fell on the couch with a resounding crash and still they fought. The five who stayed below joined the fray, not knowing who to punch or stab. Soon they spilled out onto the front lawn where the remainder of the gang also jumped in.

How long this melee continued cannot be told, but that it eventually simmered down to a group of men lying helpless and heaving before the cabin is known. The leader stood up and wearily waved his men to their bikes. The night was again disturbed by the roar of motorcycle engines and they departed as noisily as they arrived.

Inside, the cabin, like a living entity, pieced itself together. A hushed wind blew through it like a sigh of relief and broken pottery and glass returned to their place. Outside the car also resumed its whole appearance.

Upstairs the moon shone through the windows brightly again, this time falling full on the little loveseat across from the bed. At first it was only light, but then the twitching ripple inside its beams returned. Suddenly there were two distinct shapes upon the couch, both male and locked in passionate embrace. Dan moved uncomfortably in his sleep and reached his left hand across his stomach to grasp the arm of his wife.

The moon forms continued their embrace but morphed into women. Now Felicity cringed in her sleep and reached her right hand over on top of Dan’s left. In an explosion of light the heretical images were gone and peace returned to the loft.

But outside the silent night was disturbed by a rustling and then a low growling. Coming from the Indiana woods or from the river’s edge, a great pack of wolves surrounded the cabin. At first they milled about its perimeter aimlessly. However, a coal black wolf attacked a silvery grey companion without warning. Much like the bikers, the effect spread violence like a plague among the wolves. The beasts blurred together in a furry, mangled mess tearing, clawing, and biting each other.

As the violence died down, several of the surviving wolves began maiming themselves without reason, eventually resulting in their deaths. The black wolf that started the fight, raised his snout to the stars and let out a piercing, haunting howl. His fellow survivors followed suit until the surrounding woods and river valley resounded with their mournful cry.

Then, as one, they charged toward the cabin, tearing at the beautiful wood, marring its picturesque face. They barked, growled, and howled as they went about their work with fury. When they finished, the lower level of Dante’s Ascent looked like a mangled façade of what it once was.

But as the wolves melted away into the woods, so did the effects of their claws and teeth. However, passing above them came two small birds that flitted toward the cabin and dove through a hole in the wall before it reformed.

They were grey in color, had short, stout black beaks, and marked by a black line across their tail and wing feathers. Gliding with purpose, they swooped up to the loft and alighted between the sleeping couple. They bent their heads low to chirp into the Taylor’s ears.

What fraud and flattery they whispered is lost to the dreams of the sleeping ones. Dan smiled and seemed to take pride with the song he heard. Felicity looked shocked and bewildered. Eventually, though, Dan frowned and tightened his hold on his wife’s hand. Felicity, for her part, also frowned but returned the soft squeeze.

The birds ceased their twitter and looked up to glance at each other. As one they flew into the air and rushed through the nearby window as though they were ghosts.

Once more the cabin and its property appeared at ease. But its night of strange happenings was not yet done, though the moon sunk lower in the sky.

A rumbling from the distance made its way in sound and vibration to Dante’s Ascent. The noise and racket grew to include the sound of trees being torn from their roots and crackling as they were trod underfoot. Across the tributary, four giants came, bearing large clubs upon their shoulders. They crossed the waters easily, sending waves sliding into the shorelines.

As they crossed, the rearmost giant swung his club upon his brother. The blow glanced off the second giant’s head and onto his shoulder. In retaliation, the wounded party turned and laid an answering salvo full upon the attacker’s face. This one fell backwards upon the shore and, before he could rise, was struck down to stand no more.

The forward two took in this fight with only a fleeting interest. But they watched the victorious brute closely. He seemed to be thinking, considering something. Suddenly he turned and followed the Sharon to the Ohio. He didn’t advance far before the other two were upon him, beating him to a pulp in the waters.

Their work done, they turned and continued to the cabin. Upon reaching their destination, the leader dropped his club with a resounding thud and grasped the eaves. He then wrenched the roof free with a tremendous effort. There, lying exposed to the stars, the wind, and the giant, were the Taylors.

The great hand of the brute scooped the bed up like a toy and brought it toward his gaping mouth. The sudden chill stirred the newlyweds into rolling closer together for warmth. The giant paused and observed them. His partner, who stood by like a guard, eyed his remaining companion. Soon the colossus holding the bed slowly, reluctantly returned the bed to its place, followed by the roof.

As the roof resettled on the walls, the giant was struck from behind by his fellow. He sunk to the ground limply without putting up a fight. The lone, treacherous monster stood over his handiwork and, with a snort, moved away toward the river. Halfway through the waters it halted with an eye to the stars, as if those twinkling wonders spoke to him. A scowl marred his hideous features and he raised a gnarled fist to heaven followed by a defiant roar. Scarcely had his cry exhausted his breath when the waters of the Sharon sprang like a fountain around the giant and dragged him to its depths. A series of bubbles told of where the mammoth brute lay, but soon these died away, and with it the three corpses of his fallen comrades.

The moon fell some more in peace without any nightmare to haunt Dante’s Ascent. But as it sank below the trees, allowing darkness full rein save the stars looking on overhead, a shadow crept along the ground on all sides. It seeped underneath the cabin as a liquid is soaked up by a sponge.

Inside, the darkness bubbled forth and washed the walls in black. The poor, unsuspecting Taylors slumbered still and did not see the form rise before them, the same form that sat before the firelight when the night began. Great bat-like wings sprouted from its side and red eyes gleamed from its head. All was pitch black around the couple, save for their white bed sheets. The red eyes narrowed, the wings flapped wildly, and the head tilted back grotesquely.

Suddenly the form snapped forward, releasing a scream so hideous and frightening, the trees outside bent away from the house and every creature, whether animal or insect, scurried from that place. The Taylors stirred but did not awake. Dan reached for his bride and, finding her, drew her into his arms. Felicity gladly accepted her husband’s embrace and returned the gesture with an arm encircling his abdomen and squeezing to be as close to him as she could be.

The shrill scream stopped abruptly, terribly. The red eyes grew wide and then bent with rage. With another terrifying scream, the form soared through the air, crashing into everything.

But the darkness was receding and the shriek grew fainter until the shadow plummeted over the railing and smashed into the floor before the fireplace. It lay there quietly now as the blackness left the cabin. Slowly it stood and looked up to the loft, the red eyes cooled and dark. Finally it bowed its head and exited through the front door.

Twilight soon crept over the land as the sun calmly rose over the Ohio. As its first rays of light ushered in the morning, the Taylors awoke from their sleep. Felicity sat up in bed and stretched her arms. She sat and surveyed the cabin in all its beauty and serenity. She turned her gaze out the window and upon a couple trees moving softly in a morning breeze. Then she looked upon her husband, who lay with his hands supporting his head and a tender smile on his face.

“Sleep well?” he asked.

“Like a petrified log!” she replied with a giggle. “Though I feel like I had some sort of dream…”

Dan frowned slightly. “Me too. But for the life of me I can’t remember it.”

“Dreams are funny things,” Felicity replied, and stared off without elaborating.

Dan shrugged and sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Well, I guess the bigger question is: are you feeling better?”

Felicity sat and thought for a moment. “You know, I don’t feel quite as anxious now. I don’t know what came over me last night.”

Dan stood, stretched, and turned to his wife with a smirk. “You realized you married me and it scared the living daylights out of you!”

His wife merely replied by tossing a pillow at him.

They rose, dressed, gathered some toiletries, and made a brisk walk down to the outhouse. As they returned up the small pathway, Felicity stopped and considered Dante’s Ascent. It seemed to shine in the morning light and appeared more delightful to her.

“I think Mrs. Macy was right,” she remarked, “the cabin is prettier at sunrise.”

 

*Copyright J.R. Underdown. 2016. All rights reserved.

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