Hot wind blew the stifling haze over the mire entrenched woods, an array of scents being carried on the stiff current. The scent of flowers blooming in the hot sun, their lilting lingering aroma that tickled at your nose mixed with the overly sweet scent of rot that wafted from the fallen logs sinking slowly into the fetid water clogged with murky weeds and blind, bony catfish. Deep within this swamp, far deeper than anyone sane would dare venture, laid the entrance to a forbidden place, a place forgotten by time and the people of the South, save for the occasional sweat-soaked nightmare that the vision of the land induced in those who, inexplicably, were drawn to this place.
One of those people, she mused, that were too obsessed with the ever-decaying place, unhallowed ground that held some of the most twisted, darkest souls forever bound in earthen wombs, protecting the rest of the world from the horror they could unleash upon us all should they get the chance. Stephanie adjusted the strap of her halter top, walking up the hill that was marked on the map drawn by the half-blind Creole that would show the Necropolis in all its profane glory. Cresting the hill, next to a moss covered Weeping Willow bent crooked with age, she stopped to stare down at what could only be what she had been searching for these past five years.
It sprawled out until you could only see bare branched trees splitting the earth, a crumbling wall stretching out from a tall statue of a bound angel, its wrists held together with loops of rusted chain around the stone hands. The statue, some fifteen feet tall, bore a broken face, cracked and scorched by a stray bolt of lightning from one of the hurricanes that ravaged the area annually. Looking over the wall, an easy task considering she was some thirty feet above it, she watched a dense fog crawl along the graveyards ground, creeping along like a spider approaching an unwary fly. A small house sat outside the gates of the Necropolis, equally rotten from the yearly sieges brought on by the hurricanes; the Creole had said he would be there, waiting for her.
He was always waiting, the milky-eyed old man had said around a cigar. “He’s not of this world or the next, but somewhere in between; lost in the fog of the Necropolis.”
“Why doesn’t he just leave?” Stephanie had asked, holding out a tape recorder for the older man. He’d merely puffed twice before pointing at her with two thick fingers.
“You do a fool thing like visit that cursed place, you’ll know. I only told ya cause you paid for the drink.”
“That’s fine, I understand you don’t want anything to happen to me…” Stephanie said before the old man had snorted.
“It’s not that I’m worried something will happen to you… it’s that I’m worried something bad will come back from what you are now!” The Creole drained his glass, setting the mason jar upside down, which had marked the end of the conversation.
Stephanie closed her eyes, taking a moment to listen to her heart. It was beating quickly, and not from the steep climb. Five years ago, Stephanie had dreamed of this very spot. She’d had a nightmare nearly for a week straight that she was running between vine-choked headstones, through fog banks and over collapsed statues, away from something foul. Foul enough to earn a defining mark in her mind, along with a new passion: discovering where this place was. It had consumed her for three years, costing her a loving fiancé, a steady job and any semblance of a social life.
When she’d stumbled across an article written nearly thirty years ago about the haunted graveyards of the South, she knew this was where she was destined to be, destined to go. Reaching up to the Willow, she rubbed the smooth bark as she felt a full body chill race over her, the sweat trickling down her back turning cold as she stared into the abyss, and finally, almost thankfully, felt it gazing back.
“I found you,” she whispered to the muggy wind. “Now I’m going to find out your secrets, and finally, break the hold you have on me.”
From somewhere deep within the Necropolis, she heard a shrill call from something not quite animal nor wholly man, almost as if the desecrated grounds were answering her declaration, urging her to come closer so that she could see the dark secrets held within.
Skidding down the muddy slope of the hill, Stephanie stopped to analyze the stone of the Necropolis from a closer perspective. Made originally from a smoothed stone, the grasp of vines and the erosion from countless storms left it a dull green-grey, revealing veins of impurity beneath the surface, almost as if the walls themselves were alive. The thick lines of brown and red over the sickly colored stone were reminiscent of a fresh cadaver or blood drying on the pavement after an auto accident; wrong and sad in every way. Bringing a hand up to the stone, she was surprised at how cool it was to the touch. Slightly damp and smooth, the stone wall was cracked in innumerable places, some of which seeped mist from within the graveyard in slow but steady streams, trickling out like vaporous blood. It was haunting to look at, but fascinating at the same time.
Trailing along the wall, she found sections that had succumbed to the rot and ruin of the swamp, crumbling away to reveal the iron beneath the stone, riddled with rust and grime that would take years to remove, should someone ever get the inclination. It allowed her to peek within the Necropolis, which was on the slightly raised ground. Mausoleums stood tall, entangled in roots and vines from close by trees. Headstones, worn from the constant rains, rose from the fog like markers for a road, their chiseled names and dates faded and lost to history.
“You lost?” Croaked a voice, startling Stephanie. Looking over from where she’d been peeking, an older man stood with a rake, his eyes and skin showing his advanced age that his frame refused to follow. Tall and stalwart, the wrinkled man moved with languid grace as he stepped over a patch of slippery cobblestones and up to Stephanie, causing her to take a few steps back.
“No! No, I’m… I’m not lost.” Stephanie said, clearing her throat so that she could address the strange man with a strong voice.
The man smiled, revealing yellowed teeth and blackened gums. “Everyone is lost when they first arrive here. They come searching… for what, it depends on the person. Follow me, Ms. Stock, I’ll lend you the shade of my home and a bowl of chilled onion soup. I think I may have a chilled bottle or two of ale that you could enjoy as well, should you stay honest with me while we speak.”
“Why would I lie?” Stephanie asked, moving to follow the tall man as he turned. He paused to look at her, his piercing dark eyes boring into hers.
“Why indeed?” he said as they walked along the wall, one hand reaching up to run his thin fingers along the stone, dark, dirty nails sliding along the stone, hopping over the cracks. His garb, a long sleeved black over shirt smudged with mud over a white undershirt above wrinkled black slacks. His shoes caked with dry dirt over cracked black leather. He was dirty with wiry hair and stubble stained white and gray, he looked like he was a man that lived under a bridge.
They walked in silence, the occasional far cry of a bird echoing throughout the hills. Just as they approached the cottage, a dilapidated two-story building that seemed to lean into itself as if it were going to crash in on itself at any given moment. Stephanie paused at the entrance, her feet unable to step up into the darkened home. The man turned, placing both hands upon a board on his porch, his face cracking into an ugly smile.
“Come on in girl, you know as well as I do you that you were warned about me.” The man crooned, smiling. “You want in the Necropolis? You have to speak with me first.”
Stephanie swallowed a lump in her throat that had developed as they’d walked close to the entrance of the massive graveyard. The entryway, some thirty feet away, was posted between two weathered statues of hooded figures bearing heavy torches, one-half covered in vines while the other merely seemed chipped and cracked in places too high to reach. Between them sat the very gates to the Necropolis, bound with a heavy chain and locked by a padlock nearly a century old if not a day over.
“Stephanie, I know the answers you seek. Come inside and I will share some with you.” The man said, pushing off the board and turning to his door, opening it slowly with a long and ominous creak.
Stephanie followed him into the dim front room wordlessly, noting the round table with three chairs and the fireplace, blackened logs ashen and cracked within the iron grate. A shelf next to the fireplace bore numerous books of leather and tanned hide, held together with twine and string. A human skull rested on the mantle, along with several relics from bygone eras that Stephanie knew had been fished from the Necropolis. An ornate dagger in a yellowed bone hilt, decorated with hints of turquoise and polished stone appeared to be of Native American make though the miniature skulls dangling from the leather grip made for a great excuse not to pick up the item, if only because the skulls appeared to be human children.
“You have quite a collection here Mr…?” Stephanie began, hoping he would introduce himself.
“I go be many names… the one I go by these days is stolen from an ancestor of mine, a former slave in Virginia. He was a brave man, but foolish. Johamba. Call me Johamba.”
“Alright… Johamba. What secrets could you tell me about this place that would be of any use to me? How do you know I’m not out on a nature hike? I could just be someone passing through, you know?”
Johamba smiled before turning and pulling a bottle from a wire rack above a wooden smoker. “I know because I cast the bones this morning as I do every morning, and they told of your arrival. They’ve kept you away for a few years, you know. The spirits of this place, that is.”
“Spirits? I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.” Stephanie said, reaching into her pocket to pull out her tape recorder.
“The ghosts that dwell here call people from all over the world, one at a time, to test them. You know that I assume? That to enter the Necropolis you will be tested, time and time again?” Johamba said, pulling the cork from the bottle before reaching up for two dusty glasses. Setting them down on the creaky wooden table, Johamba pulled out a seat for him and sat down, heaving a sigh. “Come, sit.”
Stephanie hit the record button on her recorder, setting it down on the table before taking a seat across from the great man. The chair was rough and big, her feet barely touching the floorboards as she slipped into the high-backed seat. Johamba poured half a glass of wine for each of them before setting the bottle down. Raising his, he took a long swig from his glass before smacking his lips.
Looking at the fireplace, he continued to speak. “I find it easier to speak of this place with each passing visitor, so long as I have a glass of wine to help loosen my lips.”
Stephanie just looked at her glass, smudged with dirt from the very air around them. Her wine was polluted by dark granules of mud, and who knew what else. Johamba had the same kind of glass and didn’t seem to mind as he drained it dry before pouring himself a second helping. Stephanie reached out and took her glass, sniffing the wine experimentally. It smelled sweet; she took a sip and coughed, amazed at how sweet it actually was.
“Yes, it can be tough to swallow the first go around, but trust me when I say it’ll get you through a stormy night.” Johamba smiled, setting his glass down. “Now, as to why you have come. I can only imagine you want me to unlock those gates and let you in so you can explore, am I right?”
Stephanie tried to hide her look of surprise from how candid the old man was. “Yeah, I mean yes. Yes, sir.”
“Well, I don’t let just anyone into the Necropolis as I’m sure you’ve been told. That leaves you with sitting here and listening to my tales trying to ward you away from entering the dark sanctum of horrors, or you can try and sneak in when I’m not looking. I suggest listening to my stories as they may very well convince you of your fool’s errand and get you to turn around.”
“I don’t have time to listen to stories about the place, I need to go in there and find out what has been…” Stephanie stopped herself, her excitement growing as fast as her pulse.
Johamba looked at her with clear eyes. “What has been calling you, yes. I get many like you every year, coming from the world over. The very entryway of the Necropolis is so fraught with peril that I must tell you of the tales that took place there before I will even hint at where the keys are to the gate.”
“Then tell the story already! I’ve come this far, I have to finish this!” Stephanie cried, slapping the table. Johamba just smirked.
“You listen to my tales and still want to go in there, I’ll guide you myself. But first you have to hear what has happened to those before you, to those that have made this land as cursed as it is.”
Stephanie leaned back in her chair, crossing her arms as she sat and listened to the old man begin his stories, her mind traveling to the darker places and times that this land had seen.