Prior Obligations

Submitted by Ian Gonzales to Contest #22 in response to: Write a short story about someone with unconventional New Year's traditions.... view prompt

      “I just wish I knew what this was about,” Maddy said, her arms folded tight across her chest, like she was trying to hold onto something. “I just wish you could explain it to me.”

           Joseph glanced up at his wife, saw the worry on her face, and looked away quickly. “I’m sorry, love,” he said, turning back to the mirror and continuing to button his dress shirt. “It can’t be helped. There’s something I have to do.”

           Madeleine sighed, shaking her head. “And no one else can do it for you?”

           He looked up and caught her eye in the reflection, forced a smile. “Hey, you remember.” There really was no one else who could do what he had to do. Not since his father had died eight months earlier, taken so unexpectedly in that car crash. Now it was up to him to do what had to be done, whether he was ready or not.

           Whatever his wife was going to say next was interrupted when the door to their bedroom flew open. Rapid footfalls thundered against the polished floors, and Joseph’s son Tyler, all of six years old, raced into the room and careened into his mother, hard enough to make her stagger.

           “Mommy, they just brought up the ice statue,” Tyler said, his eyes wide with wonder. “It’s huge!”

           “Careful there, Ty,” Joseph said, snapping the last button and turning to face his family. “If you knock Mommy down, she won’t let you stay up to watch the ball drop.” He reached out to ruffle his son’s hair. “And you don’t want that, now do you?”

           Tyler looked from his mother to his father and back again. “Sorry, Mommy.”

           Joseph gazed on his son a moment longer, struggling to keep his smile on his face. He couldn’t help but think about the future, where the best possible outcome was that his son would one day face the situation his father now faced. That was a thought that brought a special kind of dread with it.

           Stepping close, Joseph gave his wife a quick kiss. “I’m sorry too, Maddy. But you know this is important.” Even if she didn’t know exactly how important. He wanted to explain it to her, had wanted to ever since they’d met. But secrets had a terrible power, some more so than others. The one he hid was in a class all by itself. “Go on now, greet our guests. Make the usual excuses for me. I’ll see you later.”

           With a last sigh and another small shake of her head, Maddy turned away, taking Tyler’s hand and leaving the room.

           Joseph let out a long, slow breath. He would see them later. Or there wouldn’t be a later.

           Shrugging on his suit jacket, Joseph left the room. In the hallway outside, he paused, seeing the glow from the main room, where his family and friends were gathering, come together to celebrate and welcome the new year. Resolutely, he turned away and made his way to the back stairs, descending to the business level of the building.

           His family had owned this place for a very long time. Houghton Antiquities had been in business here since before the first World War, but that was just the tip of the iceberg. America was only the most recent home for the family business, after all. Despite the wealth and affluence they now enjoyed, Joseph’s family had dealt in very old things since before there was any money to made in the business. Some things, after all, weren’t priceless just because you couldn’t assign a dollar value to them.

           Joseph hurried through a series of galleries and private showing rooms, past displays of Renaissance paintings and Ming Dynasty stonework, to his office in the dim recesses of the building. Here he carefully locked the door behind him, before crossing to the back wall behind his expansive desk. Pressing on a disguised panel caused a section of the wall to spring loose and swivel open, revealing another staircase, this one narrow and dusty, leading down into darkness.

           Joseph followed the winding stairs downward, one hand trailing along the rough stone wall, watching where he set his feet. The stairs were old and worn, tread by countless feet over the many years since they had first been carved, and it would a senseless tragedy if he fell and broke his neck, on this night of all nights.

           At the bottom, the stairway opened into a small chamber, no more than twenty feet on a side, dimly lit by a single, naked bulb hanging from a cord overhead. The room was unfinished and unfurnished, its bare rock walls and floor holding nothing but a single large safe of black iron, massive and solid where it sat against the far wall.

           Joseph approached the safe, his breath coming fast in a way that had nothing to do with the long climb down to this secret chamber. With a trembling hand, he spun the dial; when a loud metallic clank sounded, he grasped the handle and pulled the safe open.

           Inside lay only three objects: a long robe of dark wool, well made and sturdy, strange designs woven along the edges of the hood, cuffs, and hem; an old knife with a hilt of bronze, tarnished green and so heavily worn that the etchings in the metal were only vague suggestions of strange shapes; and a large book, a tome of thick leather binding and heavy vellum pages yellowed by time, enclosed in a sealed case of thick plastic with the bluish sheen indicative of impact-resistant material.

           Joseph ran a hand over the encasing plastic, remembering the first time he’d seen that book, the day his father had brought him down here for the first time. He remembered opening that case, drawing out the tome, the feel of its cover, the leather softened by so much handling. And when he’d started reading it, learning the secret it held, well… that was something he would never forget.

           With a shudder, Joseph took his hand off the sealed book. He didn’t need the tome itself for what was to come: he’d long since committed the words it held to memory. Instead, he drew out the robe, shook it out, and slipped it on. The fabric was musty and coarse, scratchy where it rested against his skin, with a faint smell clinging to it that he couldn’t describe.

           Last of all, Joseph took out the knife, the athame. He knew it wasn’t necessary to the ceremony he was about to perform, that he could have traced the symbols with his finger and that would have been enough. All he really needed was the words, and the intent. But this was part of the tradition, and it somehow helped to hold the cold hilt in his sweat-dampened palm, as if he could draw strength from the solidity and age of the metal.

           Turning away from the safe, he walked to the center of the room, and took a deep, steadying breath. Then he bent to the smooth stone floor and began to scratch out a design with the dulled blade of the knife, following over the deep grooves of tracings left by so many others before him. All the while, he murmured the words, in a soft, sing-song cadence. He knew them by heart, even though this was the first time he’d spoken them, knew what they meant, even though they were in a language that had been dead before the Romans started speaking Latin.

           The string of symbols took definite shape, forming an elaborate circle, even as the chant neared its climax. Finally, Joseph stepped into the center of the design, stood straight, and closed his eyes. He uttered the final words in a whispered exhalation, mentally offering up a prayer to a God he only believed in because he knew, knew, that there was an opposite to whatever almighty benevolence might exist.

           There was a sensation of movement without motion, a shift in the world around him, and a moment of absolute darkness.

           When he opened his eyes, Joseph wasn’t standing in the hidden basement of his Uptown gallery/condo. He was somewhere else, somewhere far from anything familiar, far from anything ordinary, and far from anything safe.

           He was in a chamber of natural stone, an uneven floor broken into a tangled maze by towering stalagmites the size of skyscrapers, jutting up to meeting the massive, fanglike shapes of stalactites hanging from the unseen roof of the cavern high overhead. A fitful, sullen glimmer of fiery red lit the space, fading away into a luminous mist. Despite the lambent glow, the air was breathtakingly cold, with a strong scent of damp rock and the reek of mold. The stone underfoot was slick and slimy, dotted here and there with pools of foul ooze that reflected reddish flickers.

Joseph swallowed against the dryness in his throat, nerving himself for what was to come, wanting nothing more than to get this over with as swiftly as possible, while knowing that so much more than his own life depended on doing it right.

           A sound echoed out of the murk, a loud grinding and scraping of stones, the movement of something large and sinuous somewhere in the shrouding fog. Joseph felt his heartbeat accelerate, hammering against his ribs. Then he saw a hint of motion, a darkness passing through the hellish mist, a flash of a form impossibly large, drawing closer. He stood his ground, wiping damp palms on the robe he wore.

           Then the enormous shape loomed over him, seeming to fill the entire vast chamber, an indescribable mass of writhing, serpentine coils, flexing and tensing, covered in thick scales overlapping one another like the plates of a suit of armor. An immense, clawed hand appeared, fingers wrapping around a stalagmite larger than the Chrysler Building, talons longer than redwood trees scraping against the lichen-covered rock.

           Joseph stared at the horrible sight for a long moment, then he let his gaze rise, into the murky air above, where a pair of titanic eyes glowed like fire behind a veil of mist.

           “Who comes before me?” The voice was like the clashing of stones, impossibly loud and deep, like the very bones of the Earth grinding together. It spoke in the language of the ritual that had brought Joseph to its lair, a language that he had striven to master for a long time, knowing that his life depended on it.

           It took Joseph a moment to reply, working enough moisture into his mouth to unglue his tongue. This was not the first time he had been here, or seen this horrifying sight, but he had never had to reply. Before, his father had always been there to do the talking; now, however, he had to do this alone, had to wend a minefield of words, pass a test and somehow win a battle of wills against something indescribably ancient and evil.

“A descendant of he who called you forth,” Joseph said at last, his voice breaking. “A scion of the first summoner, a bearer of his truth, a champion of his faith.”

           The eyes shifted, as if the head that held them tilted to one side, to better examine Joseph. “I know your blood,” the voice rumbled. “Why was I called forth?”

           “To unmake that which was made,” Joseph replied. Even in the bitter chill of the cavern, he felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. “To end all that had a beginning.”

           “By what name was I called?” The grumbling roar of its words was starting to make the bones of Joseph’s head ache.

           “You are Nothing. You are the Absence of All.” He swallowed. “You are Unnamable.”

           The immense form before him paused, then drew itself higher, the scales of its immense form rasping against the rocks around it. “Is the time come at last?” There was an eagerness in the voice now, a sense of desire, of longing.

           Joseph’s mouth worked in silence for a moment, his thoughts racing. This was the most important, and most dangerous, part. One mistake, one poorly chosen word, and he would not even know it, the end would come so fast. “No, the time is not yet come.”

           Now those terrible eyes came closer, the massive head lowering almost to the level of Joseph’s own gaze. Through the mist he could see a hint of its monstrous appearance, the gleam of its huge fangs, the fiery glow reflecting from the sharp ridges of the bony plates that made up its face. “What is yet needed?”

           Joseph drew a shaky breath, staring into the slit pupil of an eye ten times his height. “The faithful have not been gathered.” It was a lie, a deception; no one that Joseph knew of had ever tried to gather the faithful, or even tried to find any of them.

           That glowing, fiery gaze bored into him, as if it could penetrate to his very heart, and read the truth—or untruth—of his words. For a moment, Joseph was overcome with the enormity of what he was trying to do. Thousands of years ago, an ancestor, one so distantly removed that only a trace of his blood remained in their family, had summoned this… thing… into the world, giving it one purpose, to destroy everything, and deliver him and his followers a world swept clean of all they deemed unworthy of existence. Where that ancient summoner had gained the power and knowledge to do this was anyone’s guess, but he had done it. The only reason the world still existed was that his own son had a change of heart, and on the eve of its release, the creature was halted, delayed, until the faithful could be brought together to witness its triumph. Ever since, his descendants had performed this tradition on the eve of a new year, holding back the destruction, because they did not know any other way to protect the world. So far, it had been enough.

           Finally, the immense form drew back, rearing up to loom terrifyingly overhead. “Then I wait,” it rumbled. “I wait for one more turning of the year.”

           With that, it retreated, fading back into the fiery glow and deep mist, leaving behind the rasp of scales on stone.

           Joseph sagged, nearly collapsing to the cavern floor, flooded with relief. It was done; he had been successful. The world would keep turning, its people keep living. For one more year at least.

           With the creature’s departure, the ritual complete, Joseph’s surroundings wavered in his sight. Once again, darkness washed over him, and he felt himself move in a way he couldn’t describe. When he could see again, he stood in the small chamber beneath his home.

           Trembling again, though for a different reason than before, he took off the old robe, replaced it and the knife within the safe, and closed it. A sigh escaped his lips as the lock clanged.

           Then he hurried back up the staircase, out of his office, and back up to his apartment. He ducked quickly into the bathroom, running water over his hands and splashing it in his face, washing away the last trace of where he had been and what he had done. As he turned off the faucet, he looked up and met his gaze in the mirror, reminding himself of who he was and where he was, letting himself accept that the ordeal was over, at least for now.

           Leaving the bathroom, he straightened his tie and jacket, walking down the hall toward the lights and sounds of a gathering he was happy to join. Voices rose around him as he entered, old friends and loved ones greeting him, asking after his health, wondering what had kept him.

           He passed through it all with smiles and nods, wishing his guests well and deflecting questions until at last he could join his wife, standing near the tall windows that looked out over the city. On a chair nearby, his son lay curled into a ball, fast asleep, unable to keep himself awake any longer. Joseph paused to bend low and kiss the sleeping child’s tousled hair.

           Then he caught his wife up in a tight embrace, which she returned, before pulling back to stare into his eyes.

“All finished with your prior obligations?” she asked, gazing into his eyes, as if searching for something that she feared to find.

           “Yes,” he replied, meeting her gaze. “I am.”

           “And is everything okay?” she asked.

           “Better than okay,” he said with a grin.

           A smile crossed her own lips, as she gestured out the window to the lights of Times Square in the near distance, where crowds had gathered to celebrate more than they could know. “You missed the countdown to the New Year.”

           Joseph shrugged. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, tilting her head to rest it on his shoulder, while he gazed out the window at a world that continued to spin. “They’ll be another one next year.”       

       

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3 likes 1 comment

01:50 Jan 10, 2020

What imagery and descriptions! I don't believe Joseph when he says "he felt himself move in a way he couldn’t describe." The story is in the details and he is using an understatement to describe what what happened to him. Great story and a fun read. I don't know what language Joseph uses to speak to the creature, but I'm glad you wrote the story in English.

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