Idol of Thy Open Altar

When the ominous box arrived on my doorstep, I didn’t even notice. I was in the middle of a sale. A very well-dressed woman took a liking to the antique grandfather clock in the window. I just signed for the box absently while running her credit card. I didn’t even look at it until almost an hour later when I’d finished arranging the shipping. It was small, made of strong, pale wood and stamped a half-dozen times.

My antique shop in the heart of Providence was struggling. My uncle left it to me three years ago, and I’ve kept the shop afloat, just barely.

I pulled off the lid to find the grotesque statue nestled in straw. I snapped on my rubber gloves, then lifted it out for a closer look. It was heavy, very old, and made of some kind of obsidian. The thing was hideous with its sloped forehead, intricate, long tendrils at the mouth. It was hunched, and in place of legs the thing seemed to have a slug-like bottom covered with tiny, stick-like appendages, and what looked like strange eyes running all over its squat body. It didn’t even have any arms to speak of, just strange, spindly things that could have been legs, but wouldn’t support the girth of the thing on this world or any other.

The invoice said it was from an archaeology professor named Danforth, for my late Uncle. They’d dug it up in the Ural Mountains in Kazakhstan. I remembered seeing that name, Danforth, on other paperwork when I took over the shop.

I looked to the note.

Arthur,
I’m sorry, old friend. I must call on you one last time. You know what to do. Make the preparations and meet me, with the Idol, at the usual place. I hope this will be the last one. And look out for Sharpe. I think he’s on to us.
Sincerely,
Professor Raymond Danforth

    

Professor Danforth’s number was on a receipt from a previous sale, so I called and left a message at what I had assumed to be his home number. Then I took the curiosity with me after I closed up shop. I didn’t know why then, but now I fear its hold on me had already begun.
The statue unsettled me. When I looked at it, I found myself strangely drawn to its hideous features. A couple of times I swore I could hear whispering, a strange, muttering nonsense. I turned off all the devices, TV, phone, and sat in silence for a while. Every time I thought I was alone in the quiet dark, something would tickle my neck hair, or I would hear the faint hiss of gibberish from behind me.

I thought I’d just been working too hard. I spent almost every waking moment trying to turn a profit at this damned little shop. I decided to just turn in, get some much-needed rest.

Sleep brought neither rest nor comfort. In my mind, I stood under an alien sky while around me things moved in awful darkness, making sickening, slithering noises. I tried to focus on the source, but it was like trying to stare through thick, warped glass. When I looked to the sky again, I saw a wide, glowing circle of loose iridescent clouds that seemed to almost spark with static striations.

The whispered, garbled words from the slithering things filled my mind. Somehow I knew this was some kind of gateway.

The shrill chirping of my phone brought me, mercifully, out of the hideous fog of dream.

“Hello,” I mumbled, happy to leave the nightmare behind.

“This is Gregory Danforth,” said the voice, very dry, very stuffy with a hint of an Oxford accent. “I believe you left a message for me.”

“Yes!” I said, “I received a package from you. You’d sent it to my Uncle Arthur, I guess, but, well… I’m afraid he passed on years ago.”

“Oh,” he said. A dark silence fell over him then. “I’m sorry to hear that. Arthur was a good man. I’m afraid, then, that this task falls to you. I need you to bring that box to me, and for the love of Heaven, don’t open it!”

“Um…” I said.

“Tell me you didn’t open it!” he burst into rage, his voice resonating with my budding migraine, which again, I attributed to a lack of sleep.

“I’m sorry!” I said, “But I was very careful. I even wore gloves when I handled it. It’s not my first day, you know!”

There was a long, clearly controlled exhalation of air. “All right,” he said, “I have to make some preparations. Put the idol back into the box. Bring it to my office first thing in the morning. Don’t let anyone else see it or touch it! Oh… if you meet a man named Clancy Sharpe… just run away, as fast as you can.”
He hung up, and I spent the rest of the twilight hours oddly shaken. Every time my eyelids closed I heard whispering, and my half-dreams would show me hideous, impossible creeping things in sick landscapes. My head began to throb with pain as the seed of a migraine began to sprout.

My sleepless night faded to gray morning. I put the crate in my car and headed for Brown University, my head throbbing the entire time, as if warning me not to go.

Normally the area around the University is a bright, vibrant community. Today seemed surreal, gray, unnaturally quiet.

I fumbled the crate out of the trunk, fighting through the dull ache in my skull when I saw a man across the street watching me. He seemed odd somehow. Looking at his face hurt my eyes, but I got the impression of dark hair, big, watchful eyes, strange wide lips, and his crisp, white suit and jacket was an odd contrast to the dull gray mist around me.

No one answered when I knocked at the thick oak door in the old, historic building. Every minute I waited, the migraine pulsed harder against my skull. An odd, rusty scent was in the air.

Finally, I just turned the knob. It was unlocked.

The door slowly swung inward, creaking on old hinges. Inside was the crumpled form of a man in his late fifties, his pale, swollen flesh devoid of blood, which splattered over all the furniture and chairs in a sticky crimson and pooled on the floor.

I wanted to scream, but bile exploded my throat instead. I retched onto floor, pain searing my skull. I staggered back to the far wall on my hands and knees. I’d dropped the box and that bizarre, hideous little idol rolled out to stare back at me, its inhuman eyes taunting me with alien hatred.

Somehow they were all around me, then. That man with the black hair stooped down and retrieved the idol. He smiled at me, then turned to his flock, a mix of students, professors, everyday people, all different ages, nationalities, all with strange, hideous, glossed-over, gelatinous eyes. He held the idol up with a triumphant grin.

“We have the key,” he said, “The gateway shall be opened.”

He turned to me, and the crowd turned to stare at me, all at once, as if they were of one mind.

“Reverend Sharpe has the key!” They said in unison, “Praise Thy Open Altar! The Gateway and the Key!”

I was frozen, looking down, seeing that on the soles of the Reverend’s shoes was sticky crimson. He then turned his attention to me, and those bizarre, wrong-looking eyes bore into my soul.

“Listen. Believe.” His voice was a truth that I accepted before I even understood the words. My migraine sent white pain into my skull, but as the strange words nestled in my mind, the pain vanished, as did the strange congregation.

I sat on the floor for… I don’t know how long. I guess that’s how the police found me. I barely remember them taking me from the scene, asking me questions, but I was in a fog. I couldn’t think, couldn’t feel. They told me I was mumbling over and over again, whispering nonsense.

It took me weeks to come back to my senses, and even longer before I could force myself to tell the story, especially with these constant hideous voices and nightmares. I’m never without them. If I’m on the right meds, I can almost understand what they’re saying.

I’ve been in the hospital, Butler I think, and remain a key suspect in the Danforth murder.

No one can find a man named Reverend Sharpe. But there is a Church of Thy Open Altar in the South, and it’s accumulating followers by the hundreds every day. They have the key. They will open the gate. I’m trying to warn everyone! The nightmare things are coming, but no one listens. They walk happily into destruction while I quietly go insane.

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