There is another theory...
Charles stepped off the bus, the hardback that he had placed at the back of his rucksack digging corners and edges vengefully into his back. Although he knew it was stupid, he couldn’t help thinking that the book was intentionally punishing him for cheating and catching a bus to carry him the last three, perhaps four miles.
“Oh, be fair,” he muttered to the book as it prodded him on every other step, “it’s dark. It would have been dangerous to walk along the road – or, worse yet, the cliff path, which I suspect is what you wanted – especially with all this fog.”
And then, as if to validate his claim, a salty breath of air blew past him, the chill miasma in front of Charles swirled, and-
-for one brief moment, seemed to him to be an outstretched hand, reaching foul black claws towards him, and he must turn and run now, before it could reach him, before-
-he was actually turning to run when he caught himself, and for a considerable amount of time he stood there, paralysed, adrenaline warring with sense in his panicked brain.
A sea bird shrieked once, darkly. Charles began once more to walk down the cobbled road.
Charles was on a walking tour of the Great and Majestic Coast of the British Isles. He was celebrating...something, he wasn’t sure what. His recent promotion, perhaps, or his more recent purchase of his first house. In any case, it was something that required just enough walking to be thought a Noble Endeavour, and more than enough drinks and good meals to compensate. Not to mention, of course, what he was doing tonight in the foggy village of Shuminton – staying at the large coastal houses of wealthy friends and family.
He paused, his jittery turncoat of a mind not quite certain of the address it sought.
“Look at me,” he said to no one as he scraped around in his pocket, “One fright and I’ve gone completely to pieces. It’s not like I didn’t check the address a thousand and three times on the bus…”
He finally got a grip on the grubby shred of paper he sought. He pulled it out, unfolded it, and-
It was too dark to read it. Mentally smacking his forehead, he briefly considered getting out his pocket torch. No use – it was small and heavy, and would no doubt by now be nestled into the most inaccessible corner of his bag.
“If only,” he spoke to himself, “it was actually small enough to fit into my pocket. Ah well.”
He gathered together his memory of the place – number twenty-three, at the far end of the village, tucked back almost into the northern cliffs.
It was horribly quiet in the village. The only sounds were the small nighttime waves washing against the shingle, and the occasional rustlings of plants in the breeze that was starting to feel cold. It had gone very quickly from twilight to full darkness, and Charles found himself wondering why the streetlights had not come on. He had seen a lamppost only a short way back, and look, here was another, unlit, visible only as a darker shade of black.
He turned right, onto the seafront road. The echo of feet he’d become accustomed to stopped, and-
-Charles spun around, someone had been following him, they’d stopped, there, that human-shaped shadow that-
-Swayed gently in the wind, resolving into a bush or tree of some kind, hard to say in the dark, still, no need to worry about it.
Suitably chagrined at his repeated foolishness, Charles turned back around, and set off once more.
Charles walked on. The wind was picking up now, waves louder and longer and nearer to him. The cold of it was becoming quite uncomfortable, but it still wasn’t enough to lift the fog. If anything, it has seemingly grown denser and heavier. Vision had become almost impossible by the time Charles reached the house he sought.
No lights were on inside. He thought that Julian - the friend with whom he would be staying – might be at the pub, but then, Julian had never been a sociable fellow, nor very fond of beer.
Charles climbed the steps, and lifted the strangely-shaped knocker. It fell with a heavy thump. He waited several seconds; nothing. He lifted it again, and again it thumped against the door. Several more seconds passed.
Charles considered this. He must be out, he thought to himself. I’d best go looking for him.
One step down, two, three, he had one foot on the pavement and-
-He heard the door swing open behind him, thumping as it met the wall inside. At that instant, the world turned red as blood around him, the fog was made of it. Charles turned around, horrified, and the whitewashed house had become a leering skull, its windows dark eyes, its open door a gaping black maw, the dark marble steps a groping tongue that would entangle him and-
-“Hello?” Julian’s measured voice came from the door. “Is that you, Charles? Where are you going?” A hint of a teasing laugh, and then “I thought you were staying here, but if you’ve decided that you’d rather kip but a wall away from the matron of The Red Herring...” He left the sentence unfinished.
“Uh, no, not at all,” Charles explained, “I thought you’d gone there yourself, in fact, as the lights were off, and you didn’t answer the door...” He, too, trailed off.
“Ah, of course. Well, the power’s been down. As you can see from the streetlights, it’s back up now. Come in.”
Julian’s house was big, and its long corridors echoed to the clunk of Charles’ walking boots. They were removed, along with his coat and bag, and hung on appropriate pegs in the entrance hall. Then Julian set a kettle on a stove, and sat down with Charles in the adjacent living room. Charles took in very little of the surroundings; he’d stayed here before, just after Julian had inherited the place, along with enough money to never have to work again, and the paraphernalia that only a lifetime of eccentricity can properly accrue. As it happened, a life of no work and many little hobbies suited Julian just fine, and he had moved in at once. Charles didn’t envy the recluse’s life one jot – he knew that such a living would bore him to tears within a week. The only thing that was new was the ‘feature’ on the large slate table. Julian, it appeared, was into old books with thick paper and scratchy writing now.
A voice cut through Charles’ reverie.
“I see you took the bus for some of your walk today, Charles.” He said it with quiet authority, and his tone was neutral.
“Err...yes,” Charles said, feeling chastised nonetheless, “It was getting dark, and the fog was coming in...” Once again, he stopped, not sure what to say.
“True,” Julian replied. “It would have been nigh-on suicidal to chance the cliffs on a night like this. I commend you foresight.”
“Umm...thanks. Err…if you don’t mind me asking, how did you know I got the bus?”
Julian answered easily. “The unfortunate lack of transport in Shuminton requires that I know the bus times very well.”
A perfectly good reply, thought Charles, and he nodded his head in acknowledgement.
“I’m afraid the 54” is useless to us. The same storm that had the power out is playing merry hell with the reception.”
“Uh, that’s no problem. I’m sure we can find better stuff to do than watch TV and drink tea all evening.”
“Very well,” said Julian, “How about we look through that book I’m studying?” He indicated the table, and the tome lying open on top of it. “I’m translating it, albeit it slowly,” Julian explained, “It’s in some kind of ancient language, not one that’s ever been studied before. It’s...intriguing.”
Julian stood up, mimed pouring, and walked into the kitchen. While Julian was pouring tea, Charles relocated himself to the main table. He pored over the left-hand page.
“Uh..straight line with two left-right-angles above it, sort of sand-timer, squiggle with a smaller squiggle on…” He spoke with a grin in his voice, laughing at the silliness of this language.
“נבҗئ" pronounced Julian from the kitchen.
“Bwuh?” Charles said.
“You heard me. Don’t worry; the pronunciation is pretty arbitrary. There’s no modern equivalent or comparable.”
Julian came through, carrying two mugs of tea. He set one in front of Charles, the other he set before himself as he sat down. He’d put on a pair of reading glasses, and was looking at the book.
Charles sipped his tea; it was still too hot to drink.
“Where’d you get this, Julian? And what is it? Who wrote it, what’s it about?”
“From the tone of your voice, Charles, I’d say you’re almost genuinely interested.” Julian’s voice laughed a little.
“Well, it’s very mysterious. I suppose you could say I am interested, which is against the norm for your ‘hobbies,’ Julian.”
“Absolutely. Well, this is another part of Percival’s old hoard. It came with no note of explanation, so I don’t honestly know where it’s from or what it is, precisely. From what I’ve translated, it seems to be a record of a religious cult of some kind. Ancient, of course, the cult isn’t around any more.”
“I see. What, err, sort of cult was it?” Charles was mostly making pleasant conversation now.
“An unpleasant one.” Julian replied. “Very, very unpleasant indeed. This particular section" – he lifted a few of the left-hand pages – "deals with their rituals for human sacrifice, for instance. Or this, here" – the first three pages were briefly revealed – "describes their monster-god, by the name of ظחעґة. Mostly about how ‘He will return, eat your souls, devour your flesh, obliterate the world’ et cetera.”
“Oh” said Charles. He was almost sorry he’d asked.
“Percival mentioned, in his itinerary, that he had an artefact belonging to these people. One of their sacrificial knives. But I haven’t been able to find it. A pity. The book and the knife would make a good set.”
“Oh” said Charles again.
Charles finished his tea slowly, then yawned exaggeratedly and announced that he would go to bed. Julian gave him directions to his room, but elected to remain downstairs himself, and read a little longer.
Charles plodded upstairs. The sound of footsteps was briefly replaced by bedsprings, and then silence claimed the house.
Julian drummed his fingers against a thick, leathery page. A minute ticked by. Another followed suit. Julian’s fingers drummed twice, then fell still. Another minute passed in silence. Julian drummed his fingers slowly, three times.
Outside, the wind had stopped. The sea had fallen silent and still as a millpond in Shuminton Bay. The fog was vanishing now, seemingly being sucked away into hidden crevices in cliffs, cracks in rocks, holes between grains of sand. The moon shone balefully over the village.
Julian climbed the stairs silently. A few minutes later, he descended more slowly, but no less silently, despite the weight of what he carried. Then he descended into the basement. He emerged once, to collect the book.