The Dark Key by Graeme Winton - HTML preview

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Chapter 1

 

“You’re a demon,” said a face with crimson eyes and a cruel grin.

“What… do you mean?” asked Matthew.

“Hell’s about to erupt into your life!”

It was a bright Sunday forenoon when Matthew Wilson opened his eyes. The sun light, which shone through his bedroom window, was alive with a million specks of dust. He gaped at the familiar debris of a morning after a night spent drinking. His clothes lay in crazy patterns on the floor near to the discarded foil containers of the take-away which had been half-eaten.

  He wrenched himself out of bed and made his way to the toilet while pledging to abstain from boozing—for a while at least. He stared at his reflection in the mirror and decided he had suffered too many Saturday nights pass by in an alcoholic haze. It was time to improve his health, so he decided, after breakfast, to take a long walk along Arbroath’s cliff top pathway.

 After showering and shaving Matthew headed downstairs into his neat but small kitchen and made coffee. He decided not to have somthing to eat as his stomach felt tender due to the eight pints of beer he had consumed the previous evening.

 He read Saturday’s newspaper and attempted to forget about his physical health. The columns were filled with depressing facts about conflict and famine,which didn’t improve his state of mental health. So he gave up reading and decided it was time for the walk.

 The day was perfect; the sun burned a golden path across the sea to the horizon. Autumn had turned the leaves on the trees and bushes into a burst of colour. The azure water lapped onto the rocks at the base of the ancient sandstone Cliffs.

He thought of his girlfriend, Jane, and the way they had argued the night before over a trivial matter. The entire thing ending up with her storming off in a taxi threatening never to lay eyes on him again. It was time for a break; he needed excitement in his life.

As Matthew walked round an inlet known as ‘Dickmont’s Den’, a wind got up which made him shiver and caused goose bumps to appear on his bare arms. He rolled down his shirt sleeves and buttoned the cuffs.

He strolled on as a flock of seagulls fleeing inland, their cries piercing the tranquillity of the spot, interrupted his thoughts. The wind became stronger, and the sea whipped up into a mass of manic, white stallions. Waves crashed off the rocks, and large strands of seaweed thrashed back and forth like lost souls struggling to escape a frothy hell.

Dark threatening cumuli, which appeared from nowhere, drifted past and released a light, but penetrating rain which soaked Matthew through to the skin. He had dressed for a sunny day now a distant memory.

The high winds caused him to battle along the path and, as he passed the rock formation known as the Pulpit, Matthew stopped in his tracks and stared in amazement. On a cliff stack in front of him, which threatened to break away from the mainland, six hooded figures chased another hooded figure. He realised they were monks. But what were monks doing here on the cliff tops?

The chasing monks wore black robes with golden cords around the waist while their prey bore a shabby grey habit. Rather than run they appeared to drift over the path which ran the length of the stack. The high winds had no effect on them. The closer he got, the more surreal the scene became. Meantime, the weather became worse, there was no way the monks could stay on the stack in that strength of wind.

Closer and closer the six got to the single Monk until it looked as if they would run out of path. Matthew crawled to the stack path, but wasn't sure what he was going to do.

As the six pounced on the grey monk he turned around and looked straight into Matthews’s eyes. His face ghostly pale with black sockets where the eyes should have been. Matthew felt tentacles of coldness reach down into his soul and wrench ancient memory from his subconscious.

There was a flash of lightning, and the water in front of the stack erupted deluging the surrounding rocks with seaweed. From the sea there arose a shimmering white column of light accompanied by a sinister growling noise.

Matthew watched agog as the flailing figure of the grey monk went rigid when surrounded by the other monks. Then they leaped into the column with another face turning to stare at him… a white face with blood red eyes.

After the monks disappeared down the column, the entire thing collapsed into the water, and the wind lessened, and the sea calmed down. The sun then flowed through the clouds illuminating the cliff top.

Matthew felt himself transfixed to the patch of grass on which he stood. Even though the air temperature had risen, he shuddered. He scanned the surrounds, but realised there was no one else about to witness what he’d seen. Everything had returned to normal that’s if there had been anything abnormal. Could it have been a daydream or illusion? He walked to the edge of the stack, peered down the cliff, nothing seemed out of the ordinary; the seagulls had returned and were breaking the settling peace with their cries. Time to head home and re-examine his decision to lay off drinking, he mused.

The walk back along the cliff path was uneventful, which was just as well because Matthew’s nerves were strained. He passed couples out exercising their dogs. “Where were you a few minutes ago?” he said, to himself.

In his house, Matthew turned on the central heating even though it was still sunny and warm. He went into the kitchen and opened the fridge door. He found two cans of beer which he rescued from the cold. In the living-room, he opened a tin then sat down on his newspaper strewn settee and took a long slug of ale.

In his mind he retraced the events of the day: adverse weather blowing up from nowhere, phantom monks at the cliffs; one of them looking at him, and giving him a strange feeling, and then the whole group disappearing down a tower of light. Who would believe him?

Matthew finished the can and felt better. Then he phoned Jane to patch matters up with her, but he was put through to her answering machine, so he left a message and hung up the receiver.

After supper and a shower he retired for the night as it was back to work the next morning. In bed, he found it difficult to sleep; he kept running over the events of the day and the dream from the previous night.

He fell asleep and dreamt of walking through a dark cave which seemed to wind on forever. Matthew thought for a moment he heard foot steps, but when he glanced back, there was only darkness. He pushed on, further and further into the cave which reeked of the sea.

A hand grabbed his shoulder, and he spun around with his heart racing. Behind him hovered the grey-robed monk with its gaunt eyeless face. Matthew woke up with a start, he was sweating and realised he was shaking. He leapt out of bed and glanced around the room—there was nothing only his limited amount of furniture.

He strode into the bathroom and drank water then told himself to calm down. He returned to bed and slept the rest of the night.

The following morning he woke up and looked out of the window. The day was overcast and cold looking. After showering and dressing he headed downstairs for breakfast. The kitchen was freezing; he had left the small hopper window open.

 His fridge was empty except for an old piece of pizza, so he skipped breakfast. He grabbed his jacket and made his way to the front door. Outside, he was about to lock the door when he had to go back in and check to see if he had switched off the bathroom light and ventilator. He headed upstairs cursing the obsessive-compulsive disorder that plagued his mind. Matthew was not only limited to checking if electrical items were off, but to doing things over and over again for fear that if he didn’t do them something would happen to either himself or his family.

With the bathroom ligh t out and the front door locked, Matthew headed off to work, and walked along streets slick with rain. The wind made him shiver as it blew about small bits of litter and leaves like confetti thrown at a wedding. He was glad to reach the warm confines of the library.

The day saw the usual stream of people borrowing and returning books. The draw of the internet on the library’s free computers brought in many students and others who required machines.

At lunchtime Matthew strolled into the reference department and unlocked a glass case full of local interest books. He selected one with press cuttings from 1950 to 1985.Flicking through the pages he happened upon a clipping entitled: ‘Ghostly Monk seen at Cliffs’. It was about a man, John Douglas, who was out walking his dog in 1964 near Dickmont’s Den when he saw the phantom of a monk in a grey habit rise from the cliff edge. The ghost moved along the top before disappearing. Another cutting a few pages on, read: ‘While picnicking at the popular Deil’s Heid area of Arbroath Cliffs, a family happened to see a ghostly monk appear. The apparition stared out to sea from the cliff top then disappeared’. Matthew had seen enough, he wasn’t going mad. Others had seen an apparition. But, for a shorter time than he had in the same location: the Deil’s Heid was the next prominent stack to where he saw the event.

After another boring afternoon at work, Matthew went home via the Abbey Inn. There weren’t many at the bar just a few old men nursing half pints. Two women from the library sat at a table in a corner. He bought a pint and headed over to join them.

“Hello there ladies.”

“I thought a good boy like you would go straight home,” said Sandra, a trim, blond-haired 20-year-old.

“Hey, not so much of the good,” he said as he sat and took a sip of his drink. “Mondays, what can you do with them?”

“Yeah, I know what I’d do with them,” said Mandy. She was a more senior assistant with long, black hair, streaked grey, and startling blue eyes.

“There’s something I want to ask you,” he said to them.

“Oh, go on then handsome,” said Mandy.

“Have you read anything about ghosts out at the cliffs?”

“You’d better not drink anymore of that,” said Sandra as she pointed toward his pint.

“There's an old story about a piper and his dog disappearing into a cave at Dickmont’s Den,” said Mandy. "The dog got out of the cave without a hair left on its body. They say on a windy day nearby you can hear the pipes.”

 Matthew looked at his pint glass as he turned it.“Anything else, say… about monks?”

“Monks! said Mandy. She put one finger on to her chin. “The only strange thing I remember on the point of monks was a story I heard a long time ago about some of them at the Abbey leaving the order and practicing black magic, whether it’s true or not is anybody’s guess.”

Matthew finished his drink and bought another one for his work colleagues, said his farewells and left the pub. Outside the sky had cleared, and a full moon lit his way. He passed by a chip shop which advertised the best suppers in town. He was hungry, so he decided  to buy fish and chips to take home.

Inside, the shop was warm, and the odour was heavenly. The fryer was a big man with a greying beard. “What would you like?” he asked.

“A fish supper.” 

“You look like you’ve had a hard day or a hard weekend.”

“Yeah… you wouldn’t believe it!”

At home he ate his supper in silence still going over the events of the previous day in his head.

The telephone rang.

“Hello,” he said into the receiver.

“It’s Jane,” was the reply, “I want to talk.”

“So do I!”

“I’ll come over after I’ve finished the shift.”

With that he replaced the receiver, sat down and looked at the clock above the fireplace and thought, ten past eight; she’ll be here at ten.

Matthew lay down on his threadbare settee and dozed. He awoke with the sound of rain on the window; strange, he thought, the sky had been cloudless when he entered. As he listened, the patter on the glass seemed to say his name. He shook his head. He must hear things. But the more he listened the more convinced he became he heard his name.

The letter box rattled making him jump. Just the wind, he thought. A musty damp stench entered the room. It reminded him of a cave. He went over to the curtains, pulled them open, and there in front of him was a dark, hooded figure with bright red eyes staring through the glass.

“Oh my God!” Matthew shouted as he tugged the drapes shut.

“Matthew,” hissed an unworldly voice, “you’re next.”

He ran into the hallway.

“Matthew,” hissed the voice through the letter box—which opened-millimetre by, spine chilling, millimetre. He tried to look away, but found his attention drawn back to the front door. Another pair of crimson eyes transfixed him through the open letter box.

“We will take you; you’re the last,” said the voice.

The house shook as if in the grip of an earthquake. The tremors built in intensity until Matthew felt sure the windows would break. He ran to the phone and picked up the receiver, but there was no dialling tone. Things in his living-room flew. A coffee mug narrowly missed him and crashed into the wall beside the moving television set.

The shaking seemed to last an eternity. Someone outside will see this, and telephone the police, he thought, trying to calm himself. Then it was over—the shaking eased.

Matthew thought rationally: these entities were trying to scare him; they couldn’t touch him. As he thought this, the musty smell evaporated—they had gone! But he didn’t have the courage to look out the window. He made his way into the hall and edged toward the front door. He crept closer and closer with his heart thumping. The door flew open.

“Aargh!” he shouted.

“What’s up with you?” Jane asked.