Beyond the undulating pavement of the paved hill before her, Amalia saw the rise of a metal spire pulling free from the earth. It was the first sign of civilization she’d seen for some twenty miles along the two-lane highway apart from the scattered country houses situated between the vast rows of still-growing corn stalks. As her jeep made its way up and over the shallow hills, she watched, with strained eyes, for the descending numbers stamped onto tiny green signs indicating each tiny country road that flashed past her peripheral vision. Between roads seven hundred and six, an even smaller pathway supposedly existed, unpaved and unused.
A five-minute phone call brought Amalia down this road, a man’s voice soft and stumbling but direct. How he found her she did not know, but he was a client not only willing to pay for her services but able to wire an advance within the hour.
“What’s the job?” She had asked, dazed with the heavy hold of sleep, slanted gray-blue light filling her apartment with long-thrown shadows.
“A hunt,” the man on the other end spoke haltingly, “a demon hunt, to be precise. I was told that you specialized in such matters..”
“Who told you?”
There was no answer.
“Was it a man named Randolph Barnes?”
“Your father spoke very highly of your abilities, Amalia…”
Passing the seven hundred road, a break in the steel roadside guardrails suddenly appeared, opening into the mouth of a thin dirt road leading seemingly nowhere. Amalia turned blindly down the avenue, hoping that she had correctly interpreted the ordered collection of landmarks dictated to her as directions. In the distance, a row of tightly huddled trees stood at road’s end, wavering towers in an otherwise featureless plain of green pasture. She killed the jeep’s engine, having driven as far as she could. Through a dust-coated windshield she saw, just past where the road died, hidden behind the line of planted oaks, the looming shape of an old farmhouse.
As soon as her boots hit the rocky soil, Amalia began to feel a familiar upheaval swell from her bowels up into her throat. The closer she came to the house, the more intense the dizzying nausea grew. Still, she pushed forward, steadying a spinning head with a heavy-callused resistance to the effects of the energy left behind by the long-since dead. Making her way up the porch steps, towards the indistinct figure waiting above, Amalia blinked heavily to bring the scene into focus, pushing downward with great force her body’s remaining urging to dispel digesting liquid.
“It’s good to finally meet you, Miss Barnes.” The man waiting for her upon the porch greeted her with a smile and an offered hand. “I’m Pastor Jeffrey Krusen, we spoke on the phone, I’ve worked with your father in the past on-”
“Thought you said this was a hunt, not a haunting.” Amalia heard the voice of a much older woman come from inside of her, flat and weighted. She realized, standing atop the three-step porch, that she had become winded during the short climb. Before her, the young-seeming pastor stood – in truth he was more than a decade her senior – with arm outstretched, smile fading and red-faced in the cool whipping wind of the spring morning.
“It’s nothing of the sort, Miss Barnes.” Pastor Jeffery was forced to take a step back as the young women forced her way across the porch, pressing herself against the closed front door.
“No, of course not. He would’ve come himself if he thought it was.”
“Please don’t call me by my father’s name.”
Amalia proceeded inside the house, instantly hit with a fresh wave of internal upheaval. She hid outward reaction within long, ponderous strides across the rotting wood plank floor. Whoever the woman was, she had died inside the house, very near to where Amalia stood. The raw energy of the violence emanated from beneath her feet, rising into the air and throughout the house as if through a steam vent.
“It’s as I told you.” The pastor followed Amalia into the darkened foyer.
“A demon, you said.” She forced air loudly through her nose and pursed lips.
“A creature, it was only the description of the witnesses that labeled the thing demon.”
“Bunch of drunken country teenagers, correct?” Amalia kicked at a crushed beer can in her path. A half dozen of crumpled aluminum containers littered the floor, strewn into an unordered spread radiating outward from a circular arrangement of white wax candles at the room’s center.
The small foyer of the farmhouse closed in as the two moved further away from daylight. Its walls were without ornamentation, each identical to the others save for the straight-cut doorways appearing as narrow black slits along the wall furthest from the door. Along the north end of the room, a long and gradually-rising staircase crept upward to a thin, banistered hallway overlooking the lower story.
“Miss…Amalia, regardless of what they called it, I do believe something…’not of this earth’, for lack of a better phrase, was indeed seen within these walls less than a week ago.”
“Where, exactly?” Amalia ignited the bright white beams of a hand-held flashlight.
“Down below, in the cellar.”
The entrance to the cellar stood just beyond the foyer, down a short hall. As they descended the creaking steps into the closed, dust-filled air, Amalia could feel the terror of the murdered woman plastered upon the stone walls. Between stuttered moments of consciousness, Amalia began to experience the cold plunging of steel into her abdomen, the suffocating taste of black dirt filling her mouth and airways. Near the bottom of the long cellar stairway, she stumbled, missing a step. She yelled at the pastor when he spun around to steady her, taking hold of her arm.
Amalia pushed past the pastor, jumping down onto the hard-packed earth of the cellar floor. She cast the bright white light in slow crossing passes, exposing several more discarded metal-glinting beer cans, along with a few cloth-covered bureaus and dining chairs pushed against the walls. Amalia stopped at the center of the underground room, her breathing coming and going in heavy loud heaves.
“She’s buried here.”
“Who?” The pastor asked from the darkness behind Amalia.
“Girl -- can’t say what she looks like but she was stabbed a bunch, put in the earth
and left for dead. She suffocated before she could bleed out.”
Standing beside Amalia, staring at the otherwise unremarkable patch of sandy-brown ground before them, Pastor Jeffery was unable to say anything for a time. Amalia’s heaving gradually decreased, softened, her eyes closed tightly as if in concentration, until eventually she was silent.
“How long ago?” The question broke the unmoving quiet.
“Years, a lot of them, I don’t know. I ain’t an expert.”
“No, but you are indeed a medium.”
“Not by choice.” Amalia walked toward the far end of the cellar. Her light began to pick up the scattered bits of upturned earth that eventually formed the base of a four-foot high dirt hill pushed up against the stone wall. Beside the hill lay a deep slanting hole, the light unable to find a bottom in the blackness. Crouching down, she grabbed up a small amount of the sand-filled soil, inhaling deeply as she held the sample to her nose.
It smelled distinctly of animal blood to her...goat blood to be exact. Beneath this rested the distant scent of human remains, moldy and long since decayed. The hole itself was reminiscent of those built by the long claws of moles, assuming that the mole in question was man-sized. Shining her light down the burrow, Amalia could see that the passage extended quite a ways out of sight. For a quick moment, she had to resist the urge to jump down into the hole to explore its many avenues.
“Are you suggesting that the being responsible for this attack was this...buried woman?” The pastor asked, still staring at the spot of disturbed ground.
“Never said that, just a thing that also happened here.”
“So you’re certain that the two events are unrelated?”
Amalia stood, turning to shine light toward the pastor. Her face held an expression that contained something that almost appeared to be a small smile.
“Whoever this woman was, whatever remains of her, aside from bones, is only an echo, electricity in the air undetectable by most. From what you’ve described and from the size, shape, and smell of this hole, this is most likely something very terrestrial, blood and bone.”
“Really now? You’re sure?” Jeffery bent down, feeling the sticky soft earth. “It’s cold.”
“If you were expecting the ground to be warm with traces of hell fire, I’m sorry to disappoint you. This very terrestrial creature most likely hasn’t been back since that night, probably won’t be back. If the creature is what I think it is, there’s a good chance that it was caught off guard by finding its burrow chambers invaded, scared even.”
“So you know what we’re dealing with?” The pastor rubbed his palms, clearing it of dirt. His posture sank as he rose, exhaling deeply.
“I have an idea. There aren't a lot of animals able to burrow like this. If you wanted to, you could easily fall into this hole.”
“What is it?”
“It’s strange, something very out of place in this part of the country. I’d have to talk to the witnesses, have to be sure.”
“That will be no easy feat.” The man stiffened as he moved away from the burrow entrance. “Most of them have denied even being here, at this house, on that night…”
“Most but not all?”
“One was injured, Willem Laninga, son of the property owner. He received long gouges along the length of his left forearm. Five distinct blood-red lines, from what I’ve seen. He will be the most forthcoming, I believe, but only out of the earshot of his father. It was at his insistence that I began investigating his story. And it was on his account and this...hole...that led me to seek your assistance.”
“Those cuts will tell me more than he can.” Amalia made for the cellar stairway, long strides bouncing the white light all across the room, casting pointed, rising shadow figures as she moved.
“Amalia,” the pastor spoke loudly in the closed air, the woman turning at the sound of his voice with darkness in her look, “if you can, please keep this business of the buried woman to yourself. There are many important forces within the town that would not take well to the outbreak of such talk.”