Totara Hill Horror – Part 1
Written by N Jones
Edited by Edwin McRae and Rachel Rees
She’s singing to me. Her voice echoing through the cavern. A steady beat of dripping water against cold rock accompanies her song. This is the last memory floating around my brain that has my mother’s voice in it. Not even her face. Her face eludes me, but her voice is still there, reverberating off the damp, rocky walls.
“Stay calm, stay calm, my son.” She sings in the dark. Her song is being sucked down a hole. I’m thirteen and I’m lying there, my stomach scraping against the sharp pebbles that cover the cave floor. My feet are hooked around an old, shrivelled plant growing up from the dirt, my arms, extended out and bloodied, holding onto her hands, trying to pull her out of the pit.
Something, some kind of creature, is reaching out of a sinkhole and pulling my mother down inside. It has surfaced in this silent place. It has no form. Her blouse has torn open in the commotion, her breasts exposed; the nipples are fiery and stiff. I can feel my cheeks gone red with stress and embarrassment. My newly discovered adolescence brings me guilt as even in the midst of all this, a strange arousal exhausts me.
Somewhere down in that pit, her guts have probably been spilled out against a dark stone floor. All the fight has left her; she’s just singing those words over and over.
“Stay calm, stay calm, my son.”
Sweat has pooled at the base of my back. Oxygen rapidly fills my lungs and I gasp in air; the coarse fibre of cheap blankets irritates my skin. I’m lying on my stomach, nude and sobbing into my pillow as the memory of my mother’s voice fades into the oblivion of dreamscape.
And I am left alone.
Don’t need to be anywhere for a few hours, but the birds are beginning to sing outside the hotel window and I can see the warmth of the morning sun beginning to line the black clouds that hover atop the city. Its rays breach the cracks in the curtains, casting a glow across my gear which sits at the side of the bed. My hunting tools lie sprawled out due to my late arrival in Totara Hill yesterday and my lack of desire to unpack properly. Beneath a hastily folded coat, I can see the large rusted tin of Paris Green Insecticide peeking out.
I have no need to stay in bed any longer. The nightmares have scared sleep from my shoulders. I will get no more rest for the meantime.
I dress and prepare for the day ahead. A tired dress shirt, more yellow than white nowadays, black pants, and suspenders to hold them up. I shave with my straight razor, letting the blade glide smoothly against my stubble, cutting through the coarse hair, collecting up the sweet sandalwood foam. The razor, a custom-made steel blade, plated with gold, was my father’s once. I never met the bastard, but he left this heirloom in a wooden box for my mother to pass down to me when I was ready. Of course, she never got the chance to; instead I collected it from our house once the courts deemed her dead, and fled my home, leaving the threat of an orphanage behind.
I made my living as a thief on the streets. Not particularly noble work, but it funded my quest to track down whatever killed my mother. She was a clairvoyant, prone to all sorts of peculiar flights of fancy. When I was a child we barely stayed put in one place for very long. My mother would tell me that she had been born with the ability to speak to the spirits of the dead, those long forgotten voices, that hid themselves in the quiet places of the earth.
Quiet places like the cave that one day would take her life.
Visiting those places – forgotten beaches, cemeteries, forest groves, mountain caves – I would have to sit in absolute silence while Mother channelled the native spirits, and spoke to creatures both dark and old. What she was asking them, I have no idea. Perhaps, in the untimeliness of her death, she got her answer.
It was from visiting those dark corners, those still silent cracks in our world that I found The Falconers, or rather they had found me amidst my hunt for some crazed beast-man I was convinced would tell me the truth about what happened that night in the cave. I had him tied to an ancient tree stump overlooking a cliff, all wild and incensed with rage. It was as if a wolf had taken up residence in the marrow of his bones. He was ferrel, saliva dripping from his jaws.
The Falconers, they found me slicing the creature’s face with my father’s razor (it was the only thing that seemed to do him any harm ), attempting to force it to talk in a language that I would understand. It never did. And when they dragged me away, shouting and struggling, from its mangled corpse and the blood-stained grass, I found a new life within the order and a new purpose, one that gave me some semblance of an answer about the state of the world.
They called them Cullers.
Creatures that came up from the earth to destroy mankind. Some of them could look like people, the ones you loved, or those you passed on the streets every day of your life. Others, The Falconers told me, were like bugs, responsible for the plagues that wiped out our species on a massive scale.
Nobody knew exactly why they hated us so much. Speculations of alien lifeforms or planetary defence systems had been thrown around and discussed by the Order’s academics for centuries. The Falconers themselves were an ancient bunch. A sect of monster slayers from around the world, dedicated to the protection of humanity against the insect-like beings that rallied against us.
Gold was the Cullers’ only weakness; I had been told when they found me hacking at the face of a Thrall – a man controlled and changed by the venom of a Culler. Their leader, a man who would one day become my Handler, stepped forward and put a yellow bullet through my captive’s head, before looking up and saying:
“You better follow me.”
The air is crisp and cold as I walk down the streets of Totara Hill. The buildings are little more than wooden shacks in which colonials shiver in their beds inside. I came to Totara Hill half a day ago, commissioned by the Order to track down and eliminate a Culler threat. In the last year, the place has become New Zealand’s murder capital. Violence has surged through the streets, women and children have been raped and beaten to death. The local authorities are at a loss.
I head towards the ocean front. My pistol strapped to my waist, loaded with gold nuggets. There’s a distillery at the waterfront I want to investigate before the sun rises fully and the building becomes active with the day’s work. My Handler would say I’m letting my past cloud my judgment, and perhaps she’s right. But the fact that this distillery is both at the epicenter of the violence in this town AND built over top an ancient well, one that my mother often visited when I was a child to speak to the dead, is too much of a coincidence for me to let go of.
Truth be told, I don’t really give a rat’s arse about the violence in Totara Hill, whether it’s connected to the ancient well or not. My end goal remains the same, as it has always been – to find out what happened to my mother and avenge her, no matter the cost.
The distillery. A huge, red brick structure that towers over the waterfront, pumping out the ‘devil’s drink’ in a great, intoxicating torrent. It’s 1863 and that god-awful temperance movement is in full swing, trying to shut down places like this. Somehow it’s still alive. Just another suspicious aspect in a long line of suspicious aspects. Even now, as the day warms up, I can see the beginnings of a small crowd of protesters rallying out front.
Crowners’ Distillery is painted in big black letters on the wooden sign out front. Crowner. Why does that name sound so familiar? Someone in New Zealand aristocracy. Come over from England with pockets of coin, no doubt. Perhaps that’s how they’re still open for business. Wealthy, connected financing.
I sneak around back, find a hole in the fencing and squeeze my way through. The Police, when I asked them about this place, didn’t want to speak about it. Something about it scared them. They had no interest in meddling and advised I should lose mine unless I wanted to spend a week in the cells. I look around and find a crumbled brick. I pick it up and approach a dusty window. The glass shatters loudly and I hope nobody is nearby to hear it. I pull myself inside.
A reek of damp mustiness assaults my nostrils as my feet touch base on the wooden floorboards. They creak as they welcome me. I recognize this smell. A Culler has been here – that putrid stench of a thousand centipedes squirming and clattering together beneath a rock in the woods. It’s almost so overpowering that the stink of the distilling alcohol is nearly lost amidst it.
I see ghosts of my childhood as I walk through the dark, open space of the building, darting in and out of the huge distilling tanks. A flickering image of kid me, playing hide and go seek behind phantom trees and rocks. Scenery which used to exist on this spot, before civilization took its due. Up ahead, my mother, all silvery and transparent, walks with a purpose in mind. I know that she is just a figment of my imagination, the tail of the dragon I chased before sleep last night, perhaps. But something in me still stirs at the ghostly image of her marching towards that ancient well.
I follow my mother’s memory through the building until she begins to sink into the floor – the ground used to slope here, down towards the ruined well. When I was five or six, we’d come here, my mother sent on behalf of a client to commune with a dead loved one and return to them with news from the other side. I’d dance and play, always in quiet, around the old Maori well, and Mother would sit on the edge of its crumbling stone border, her feet dangling into the darkness below. She’d close her eyes and slip off into a trance in which communion would be made with beings far too abstract for me to understand as a child.
I spot an old wooden door, bolted and chained up tight. The plans I snuck a glance at in the town hall a day ago come fresh to my mind. The basement. Exactly what I’m after.
I work quickly, taking a pin from my shirt pocket and using it to pick the lock on the chain. It goes to clank to the ground, but I catch it before it crashes, and rest it softly on the panelled floor.
Behind the door, the basement sinks into the earthen mire. A new kind of darkness surrounds me. This is not the darkness of an empty building, closed for service. This darkness feels like liquid. Thick and viscous. I feel hundreds of beady eyes resting upon my shoulders as I descend the wooden steps into the rotten depths.
The well is still there, albeit even more ancient than when I last saw it. The sides have mostly crumbled in, only a few shattered stones remain of its foundation. But it isn’t the well that draws my attention as my eyes adapt to the gloom. A machine, modern and twisted arches over the ruined pit. All glass tubes and steel joints, it appears to be a stinger, sunk deep into the flesh of the ground, dirty water from the bottom of the well is being guzzled up into it and deposited into a cylindrical tank implanted into the building’s walls, leading up into the warehouse above, most likely the source of the strange pipe system connecting all the distilleries.
I consider this setup for moment. Some of the murky water drips from a leak in the machine’s tubing. I touch my finger to the wetness and then put it to my tongue. It tastes like nothing but a strange anger rises in me for several seconds, and for a while I feel as if I am about the scream and punch the walls. But it passes and I’m left again with nothing but the steady dripping noise of water.
I look down into the well and can see a faint glow somewhere deep down there. The Falconer in me considers climbing down, investigating the source of the water, but I suppress that suggestion. Tight spaces still hold horror for me.
As I’m leaning over the edge, facing the abyss, a voice invades the room.
“Beautiful isn’t it?” A man’s words, soft, effeminate, cultured. I turn to look and see a pistol pointed in my direction.
“Uh uh uh!” he scolds me, “Don’t turn around. You’ll only ruin it.”
“Ruin what?” I ask, “Who are you?”
“Ruin the fall of course! I thought you Falconers liked to face your death head-on. My name is Crowner.”
“You own this place.”
“Well, the real Crowner once did.”
I ignore his warning and turn to face him. He is dressed in the clothes of a rich man, his hair is shoulder length and silver-white, his face gaunt with the infested look of a Seeder masquerading inside a people suit.
“I have to tell you,” I say, “I’ve never met a Seeder as refined as you sound.”
Crowner laughs. “My mark was some foolish aristocrat, come to this land with daddy’s money in his pockets. He was too easy to assimilate.”
I don’t respond to the absurdity of his words.
“We aren’t all brute beasts like you Falconers think. Some of us like to take on a certain elegance in our masks.”
“Elegance, ha!” I look back at the well, “What’s down the well?”
“Would you like to find out?” Crowner raises his pistol again, and before I can even register what is happening, he fires. A white light explodes through the basement, blinding me, and then my shoulder explodes in pain. I shout and feel my back collide with the crumbling exterior of the well. I manage to steady my balance enough that I don’t just tumble in, but I am still sprawled around the hole.
“There there, Mr Parson, pace yourself. It’s about to get much worse.” The creature dressed as a man steps towards me. I see him through the blinding pain, but am helpless to react. Like it is nothing to him, like I am nothing to him, he steps on me – his beautifully tailored dress shoe rests on my ribs – then with a swift hard push of his toe, he rolls me and I feel weightless, falling down, down, down into the pit.