Damp Rooms in Empty Houses
“So that’s it. Finally.”
Maxwell nodded. He was smiling but he looked nervous.
“Yes, this is it. The skull of Andrei Rubikov.”
I paused in the doorway. “It looks…fake.”
“Everybody says that. I think it’s the size, the shape. They make it seem like a film prop. Please, do have a closer look.”
I walked over to the open display case to inspect its contents. The skull was huge; twice the size of a normal human head and sitting on a bed of yellow silk. The eye sockets were elongated, the jawbone distorted.
“They say it was the visions he had. The knowledge he crammed into his brain. Such dark secrets…they transformed his cranium, gave it outlandish proportions.”
I glanced at Maxwell. He was old, out of shape. Far from the formidable presence he’d once been. “And you believe that?”
He smiled. “I’m not sure. I’ve seen a lot of strange things in my life, and I try to keep an open mind. This thing, though. I’m really not sure. I do, however believe in hell, and I think everyone sees their own personal version of it.”
“I’m assuming you’ve had this tested.”
“Yes. It’s definitely a human skull.”
“All as one might expect. For all intents and purposes, this is the real thing. I have no reason to doubt its authenticity.”
I walked slowly around the skull, unable to keep my eyes from it for more than a few seconds. Its surface was rough, blackened as if by fire. There were cracks and fissures in the bone, and everywhere upon it there were carved symbols. Some of them might have been ancient occult runes, others were nothing more than crude graffiti – Anarchy signs and peace symbols; the childish likenesses of cocks and tits and gurning faces.
“The rest of the skeleton is long gone, I’m afraid. There’s always been a strong trade in saintly relics…especially the darker saints, if you’ll excuse the phrasing. By that, of course, I mean the saints of the occult rather than those of the Christian faith.”
I didn’t respond to his chatter. I was fascinated by the skull.
“You have the money, I hope.”
Pulling my gaze from the display case, I lifted the briefcase to chest level. “My client has instructed me to pay you if I’m happy with the item.”
“And are you? Are you happy?”
I looked at him again, his greedy face and hungry eyes. “Never. But I’ll take it.”
The transaction didn’t take long. I was out of there within fifteen minutes, carrying this fabled 16th Century artefact, the skull of Adrei Rubikov, in an oversized sports bag. It was unexpectedly heavy; felt like I was carrying a sack full of bowling balls. My arms ached; my back complained.
Deep down, I think I knew what I was going to do even before the idea came to me, as if it had been placed inside my head by an external source.
Try it on, said a voice deep inside me. What harm could it do? Try it and see if it does what it’s meant to.
I put the bag on the passenger seat and drove a few blocks, turned down an alley, and parked up outside an abandoned warehouse. It was dark. The stars were weak and the moon seemed to be hiding.
I reached over and opened the bag, taking out the skull. It felt cold. Iced bone. The tips of my fingers traced the lines of the carvings.
I’d heard all the stories, read the books. I knew what to do. Gently, I lifted the skull and placed it over my own head, like a helmet. It slid on easily, as if it belonged there. That’s what all the accounts said: if you put it on, it feels like it’s always been yours, as if it was designed to fit only you.
I stared out through the eye sockets and I waited.
Nothing seemed to be happening.
Inside the skull, it smelled of damp rooms in empty houses: the aroma of lonely despair.
I’d heard that for some people things changed immediately, but others had to wait a while. It all depended upon how susceptible you were. Perhaps I’d seen so much strangeness over the years that I’d become hardened to such sights.
It was said that during his time in the Russian wilderness, the adventurer Adrei Rubikov had opened a portal to hell. That he’d journeyed between the realms many times. The things he saw, the horrors he was party to, transformed him into a being that belonged neither here nor there, but could slip between worlds whenever he wanted.
I stared into the darkness, watching as it began to boil.
Rubikov was, at various times, a holy man, an artist, a scholar, a master of arts so dark that they tattooed his skin black. In certain regions, people had called him The Shadow That Walks. Others had called him simply пепел, which translates as Ash.
The darkness beyond the windscreen fractured, nothing more than a slight judder in my eyeline.
Nothing changed. Everything stayed the same.
It took a little time before I saw the first one darting out of the shadows, but once I’d seen it, the rest of them came into view. And they were dancing.
Their exact shapes were tricky to pin down. It was like watching oil on water. Shadow on shadow. No form; all substance.
I kept as still as I could. Tried not to breathe too loudly. This was a dangerous game, a deadly dance.
The real trick was, I knew, to make sure I took off the skull before they noticed me, and do it quickly enough that they couldn’t make up the ground between us.
A minute more. Just a minute…
There was a sound behind me. The subtle shifting of weight on the back seat as something moved its position.
I closed my eyes but I could still see them dancing.
Something soft and heavy gripped my shoulder with far too many fingers. Once again, I caught the waft of empty rooms in abandoned houses, but this time because I was there. I knew I would remain there forever, a prisoner of my own stupidity.
The soft hand and bloated fingers drifted to my neck, tenderly stroking the jugular.
Within the skull, I didn’t want open my eyes. I’ve kept them shut ever since.
© Gary McMahon, 2022